Wednesday, December 4, 2019


I wrote this personal account in 2017. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Altamont on December 6, 2019 I wanted to re-publish the story. I haven't changed it, but did add a section at the end about my good friend Alfred.

Everybody knows about Woodstock. Three days of Peace, Love, and Music that was the joyous climax to the 'sixties. Not as many know about the Altamont Free Festival in California, Woodstock's evil twin, that came to represent the death of the 'sixties. You can guess which one I went to, this is my story.

Disclaimer: the photos are unattributed shots I found online. I didn't have a camera.
I couldn't figure out how it all turned out so bad. This was supposed to be Woodstock West! It was supposed to be a bit of Heaven here on Earth, and it turned into Hell. And stayed that way for an uncomfortably long time.

It all sounded so good when I first heard about it. The time was about the first of December,1969. I was living on the streets in San Francisco, and the word went out through Haight Ashbury and all the hippie community that there was going to be a free concert that would rival Woodstock, which had happened 3 ½ months earlier. Put on in Golden Gate Park by The Rolling Stones and featuring The Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. That sounded like the place to be!

But before I tell the story I need to tell how I came to be there and what my situation was. I ran away from home in Asheville, NC on Labor Day weekend of '69, when I was 17 years old. Long story. I was a geeky, awkward, bullied teenager. Didn't fit in anywhere. But I had discovered flower children and the hippies from TV and magazines and record albums, and realized that I was supposed to be one. But believe it or not the '60s didn't happen in Asheville until the'70s. Since I couldn't find any hippies to join I decided I'd have to go out to California where the flower children were. So instead of starting my senior year of high school I loaded up my old Corvair and headed for the West Coast.

After abandoning the car in the Mojave Desert I began a six month career of hitchhiking and riding freight trains up and down the Coast. I was broke most of the time except for the month I spent picking apples in Washington State. When I wasn't on the road I lived on the streets of various cities, especially San Francisco. It was a wild time! Although the hippie movement hadn't even started back home in Asheville, on the West Coast it was getting kind of burned out and ragged. Haight Ashbury, the home of the flower children, was being taken over by junkies and speed freaks. It had become a dangerous area, especially after dark. Some of the old timers were left, but many had fled to small villages along the coast away from the city.

So it wasn't the Utopia I had imagined, and I had some growing up to do. (I remember overhearing someone say about me: “He ain't ready for this world yet!”) But by the time I heard about the concert I had survived for 3 months, and although I had just turned 18 I felt like I had aged at least 3 years.

The idea for a free concert originated with The Grateful Dead, who had been doing concerts in the Park for years. They suggested the idea to The Rolling Stones, who eventually took over the planning and direction of the event. The preparations, and the eventual concert, turned into total chaos. Of course I didn't know all the details at the time, just rumors on the street and confusing announcements on the radio. The concert was supposed to be in Golden Gate Park, a beautiful location. But the permits were refused, so it couldn't happen there. Then we heard it was going to be at the Sears Point Raceway north of town. The stage and facilities were all being set up. Then that fell through. It was two days before the event and they didn't have a location. There was gloom and despair, nobody thought it could be pulled back together that quickly.

But the next day when I was in a Volkswagen with some hippies who had given me a ride it was announced on the radio that the concert was being moved to the Altamont Speedway and was still going to happen the next day. Alrighty then! It was on, and I was excited!

I wanted to get on the road right away, so I headed over to Alfred's to pick up my backpack. Alfred was one of the most unique characters I ever met, and will require a story of his own. For now I'll just say that he had an art gallery / apartment where he sometimes let homeless hippies crash for a few days. He had become a trusted friend, which was rare as gold for me at that time. I got my stuff and told Alfred about the concert. He just shook his head and said to be careful. I glanced at a map long enough to figure out what highway went in the right direction and got going.

I walked 2 or 3 miles to the nearest freeway ramp. When I arrived in the mid-afternoon there were already about 20 people lined up trying to catch a ride. The law in California was kind of crazy. It was illegal to walk on the freeway itself, you had to stay at the bottom of the ramp. Hitchhiking was illegal. If you stuck out your thumb you'd get arrested. But if you stood there with your hands at your side and looked hopeful the cops would (usually) leave you alone. So I stood there smiling at the cars as they went by. Some people were getting rides but more were coming to take their place. After about 3 hours I was getting discouraged, but a VW van stopped, the side door opened, I hopped in, and we took off. On my way!

The first thing I saw was an old hippie sitting cross-legged in the floor rolling a joint. He looked up and said: “This is some Vietnamese Black, I think you'll like it.” I had only smoked a couple of times but had acquired a taste for it. After this one was passed around the van a few times I was on my way indeed! The 3 or 4 people in the van were friendly. The were going to Altamont to work in the medical tent during the concert. So all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the 50 mile ride!

It was well after dark when we got to the gate at the Altamont Speedway. The crowd wasn't supposed to get in until the next morning, but since the guys had come to work they were let through. I just kept my mouth shut and rode in with them. After they got parked they wished me well and I was on my own again.

I started out just wandering around the site. It was pretty desolate. The concert wasn't going to be in the Speedway itself but in a huge bowl-shaped area next to it. Short, withered grass, and no trees. There were a few other people who had gotten in early but I mostly had the place to myself. The only lights were where a crew was working to set up the stage. They had taken it down that morning at the previous location, hauled it over to the new site, and were working through the night trying to put everything together. Stage, sound system, scaffolding towers for speakers and lights. Situated at the bottom of the bowl, the stage was only 39 inches high. I guess that's all they had time to throw together, but it would cause huge problems the next day. But it looked good enough at the time. I walked down to watch the crew for awhile. I remember leaning with my elbows on the stage thinking: “All I have to do is stay right here and this will be my spot for the concert!” But a still, small voice in my head said: “It my get a little hectic down here. Maybe I should get back a little farther.” For once I listened to that voice, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made! I picked a spot near one of the light towers that seemed a safe distance away and rolled out my sleeping bag. Alfred, who didn't usually feed his hippie guests, had given me a pack of precooked hot dogs. I ate a couple of those, which tasted wonderful, and lay down to try and get some sleep. I was thankful for my sleeping bag, it got down into the upper 30s that night! I woke up a couple of times, watched the stage crew, munched on a hot dog, and slept some more.

The next morning the flood gates opened and a stream of people started coming down the hill into the bowl. The stream became a river, and the bowl began to fill. I never saw so many people! The peace rally I marched in the month before had about 100,000, but it wasn't like this! By the time it was done the crowd at Altamont was estimated to be 300,000. I couldn't count, but there seemed to be plenty! 

 They would find a spot, spread out a blanket to sit on, and get out their picnic supplies. Food, wine, drugs... For those who didn't have enough drugs there were dealers wandering through the crowd hawking their wares like peanut vendors: “Pot! LSD! Speed!” Some carried signs with what they were selling. Not a cop in sight. I didn't need to buy anything. There were plenty of joints and jugs of wine being passed around. I watched one guy sitting near me with a bag of pot and a pack of papers. He'd roll a joint, light it & take a big hit, then hand it off to a neighbor. Then do another one! So I got as high as I'd ever been just from taking a puff or a drink of what was passed to me. I was too naive to realize it at the time, but I was lucky I didn't get dosed. A lot of the wine, or orange juice, or whatever being passed around was spiked with LSD. That was bad enough, but some of the acid being sold and used was bad quality, or mixed with methamphetamine, which is a bad combination. Even veteran acid-heads were having bad trips, and the medical tents were getting busy.

I realize that all the drug use, including mine, is a controversial subject. But this was the hippie culture during the 'sixties, and it was just part of the way things were. Some people took LSD and became enlightened. Some took heroin and became addicted. Too many died. So I'm not trying to glorify what was going on, or my part in it. Just honest history.

Around noon the first band came on. I got distracted somehow and didn't catch their name. They started out a little ragged, and I wasn't paying much attention. But they got better and I started listening. I didn't recognize them so I asked a guy next to me. “Oh, that's Santana.” It was the first time I had heard the name, but I didn't forget! So far I, and the crowd around me, were having a good time. But that was about to change.

About a half hour into Santana's set they had to stop the music because of a fight in front of the stage. It was to be the first of many. I couldn't see clearly from my location, but some of the poor event planning was having it's effect. For stage security the Stones had hired the Hell's Angels. For $500 worth of beer! What could possibly go wrong? Fueled by bad drugs and alcohol some of the crowd were getting out of control. Pushing to the front & creating a disturbance or getting on the stage. The Angels responded as you would expect, punching, beating people with pool cues, and their trademark move – throwing people to the ground and stomping them. I first realized what was going on when I heard a thunderous roar. There was a solid line of Hell's Angels riding their Harleys down through the tight packed crowd to the front of the stage. People had to scramble out of the way or get run down. I was really glad I hadn't kept my spot at the stage, but the mood of the concert was ruined. This whole thing was supposed to be about peace, love, and harmony, but instead was becoming about anger, violence, and fear.

The Jefferson Airplane came on, but the fights were getting worse. The stage announcer tried to calm things down, Grace Slick of the Airplane kept trying to sooth the crowd, but things were out of control. Especially the Hell's Angels. One of them punched Marty Balin, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, in the face and knocked him out. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young tried to play, but their hearts weren't in it. It was like playing background music for a riot! When The Grateful Dead arrived for their set and saw how bad things were they got back in their helicopter and left. I don't blame them! I would have left too if I'd had a way. The concert location was in the middle of nowhere, and the highway was closed for miles, choked with abandoned cars. I was there for the duration, and had to ride it out the best I could.

One thing I couldn't ride out was the need to visit a porta john. The only ones I saw were on the top of the hill on the far side of the crowd. It was a major ordeal to get through that many people. I finally got there, but the ordeal had just begun. Because of the poor planning and last minute site change all facilities were either in short supply or missing altogether. There were only a couple of medical tents and a handful of personnel. Between the bad drugs and the beatings they were overwhelmed. (I feel sorry for those guys that had brought me there who came to work in a medical tent!) There was no food and no water. And there were only 100 porta johns for 300,000 people. That works out to 3000 people per john! The lines were longer than I could wait. When I got to the front it was frantic with people pushing and crowding, including me! The john I made it into already had 2 or 3 guys inside, and no room to close the door. I won't describe how it looked or smelled. It didn't matter, I did what I had to do and got the heck out of there! Back across the sea of people, and somehow found my place, with my pack and sleeping bag still there. Whew!

The Rolling Stones didn't come on stage until after dark. I think it was supposed to look more dramatic on the film that was being made. (Later released as the movie Gimme Shelter)

 During the day I had been far enough back in the crowd to be reasonably safe. I could see the crowd swirling around in front of the stage when fights broke out, but it didn't reach back to where I was. So I was unprepared for what happened next. When the Stones came on everybody stood up and crowded towards the stage. I had no choice then, it was either move with the crowd or be trampled where I sat. It didn't stop until everyone was pressed so tightly together there was no more room. Bodies were pushed against me on all sides, and it wasn't a friendly feeling! It was too dark to see, but I could tell the fights were still going on. Those swirls in the crowd I had seen earlier were somehow being transmitted through the tightly packed mass of bodies. We would get shoved back or pulled to the side, and all I could do was move with it and try to keep on my feet. It felt like falling in that surging mass could be fatal!

I was scared. The day had long since stopped being fun, now it was terrifying! It felt evil. I don't know how much of that was my imagination, but part of the image and songs of the Rolling Stones was summoning and glorifying the dark spirits. The “bad boys” of rock doing things for shock value, like the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. Except this time the evil came when summoned and they had no idea how to make it go away. There are scenes in Gimme Shelter where Mick Jagger looks as scared as I was!.

While they were playing a young black man named Meridith Hunter, the same age as me, got involved in the fighting. He pulled out a gun. Instantly a Hell's Angel pulled a knife and stabbed him 5 times. Then he got stomped. He died soon after. It was all caught on film and is in the movie. Of course I didn't know it at the time, but learned about it later. Like the guy that had drowned that afternoon. I just knew bad things were happening, and I wanted it all to stop. It went on and on, but finally it was over. The Stones made a mad dash for their helicopter and got the Hell out of there. The crowd started to spread apart, and I could move again. I felt like I had survived a battle, exhausted and glad to be alive!

I don't remember if I was able to grab my stuff and hang onto it during the crush (unlikely), or if I went back and found it in the dark (also unlikely!). But somehow I ended up having it. Next I had to decide what to do. As much as I wanted to leave, I knew better than to get into a mob of messed up people in a miles long traffic jam. So I just wandered around through the garbage waiting for things to calm down and the crowd to leave. Finally I found a spot that was fairly clear and quiet, and spread out my sleeping bag. I lay down, ate the last of my hot dogs, and fell into a fitful sleep. A lot of people had the same idea, there were bodies scattered all around. Once again I was luckier than I knew. During the night a drug crazed man stole a car and went speeding through the fields. He hit a group sitting by a campfire, killing two and injuring two more. He faded into the crowd and was never identified. So altogether four people died, and many injured. I feel that I was protected, and am thankful for it!

The next morning it had calmed down.

 The other overnighters were finding their way out, and as I mingled in with them I had no trouble finding a ride back to San Francisco. The trip was pretty subdued, I think everyone was out of the partying mood. When they dropped me of I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood. A commercial area with concrete buildings and warehouses, deserted on a Sunday morning. It was a long walk back into downtown, and I felt very spaced out and alone. It was a lot like the lyrics to the Kris Kristofferson song:

Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'
And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday
On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin' Lord, that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
And there's nothin' short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin' city side walks, Sunday mornin' comin' down

So that's my story and my experience. I know it had a big effect on me, and I think it did on the culture as well. The death of innocence, and a hard dose of reality. But we seem to be on this earth to experience good and evil, and I had a role to play as a witness. It was almost 50 years ago, and I've seen a lot since then, both good and bad. But I haven't forgotten.

There is plenty of information about Altamont for anyone interested. To start with watch the 15 minute video at this link:
 It contains video from the movie Gimme Shelter, and the story told in captions is fairly accurate. 
I was surprised to discover a book about Altamont that just came out last year.  Altamont:  The Rolling Stones, the Hell's Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.
(Of course I bought a copy!)  Very well researched and written, it is the definitive work on the event.  It brought back memories and I learned much that I hadn't known for all these years. 

As I am sharing this story again I want to add a new section about my friend Alfred.



I was living on the streets of San Francisco. Wandering through Haight-Ashbury one afternoon I met a man walking a beautiful German Shepherd dog. I stopped to pet the dog and ended up talking to the man, whose name was Alfred. We had a good conversation, he was one of the more interesting people I ever met. And he seemed trustworthy enough that I accepted his invitation to go and see his art gallery, the kind of thing experience had taught me to be wary of! But he never gave me reason to regret my trust.

The art gallery was a storefront shop filled with an odd mixture of stuff. Artwork, some in process. A few antiques, and a selection of dusty thrift store treasures. Quirky, but I'm sure there was a reason for all of it. Alfred was also writing a book, but the only detail he would give was that it was about God and sex.

Behind the gallery was an apartment where Alfred and his dog lived. The living room had a couple of couches and a cot or two that he said were for homeless hippies to have a place to sleep for a few days. (Only a few days because he was always meeting new kids who needed help.) A black man in his mid thirties, Alfred was no hippie. But he seemed fascinated by them, enjoyed their company, and liked helping them out. I never did see any ulterior motive, after staying a few days 2 or3 different times and stopping by for visits all I ever saw was a very interesting and decent man.

After I first posted the Altamont story I managed to find him online and sent him the link to my account that featured him. These are two gracious, but not surprising, responses.

“Steve, your story is a heart-felt odyssey of truth: mankind always has and will forever do so, struggle between two forces on Earth, one highly visible, the other not so much. We search for a nearness to frame, wealth and lust on the one hand and on the other we search for pure, true, unselfish love, not of this world. You have grown wiser in your old age. Thank you for mentioning my name in life's narrow pathway to Goodness. Pray for me, as I will for you. Your God-given brother, Alfred.”

“Stephen, keep writing. I'll be 85 in November (2017). So far I've never been sick and never had a headache in my life. I still don't partake of whiskey, smoke, or go near drugs. I guess I'll just explode one day and will be gone. A nice way to go! Hang on to your faith in God. If not search it out and find it. Alfred”

He has some paintings on eBay. I love the title of this one:

And he did write his book:

“My novel, The Shroud of Turin, a Novel - signed by me as A.J. V. Hurston - received 5 stars on eBay, when they used the star-rating system. It s now also on Amazon, under my full name, Alfred John Vincent Hurston.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Building a house

I spent over 30 years of my life as a carpenter.  Or maybe I should say I worked in residential construction, because carpenters do a lot more than saw wood and hammer nails.  
I didn't have any formal training, I just started out as a helper and learned on the job.  I did my first work helping my Father, who was a master carpenter among many other trades. He instilled in me the importance of doing a good job, which I did my best to live up to.  Getting started I worked on several jobs, learning a little from each one, and starting to collect a few tools.  Then about 1980 I got a job with a contractor named J.R. Sorrells, and stayed with him for 18 years.  He's a good builder, and I learned a lot from him.  We built houses and additions, did remodeling and repair, just whatever came along. 

As the years went by I got better at my job.  I got interested in figuring out the puzzles you sometimes run into doing construction.  Tricky rafter cutting, staircase design, trying to make sense of the crazy things you find in blueprints or odd requests from a homeowner.  Sometimes I'd be found in a quiet corner with a pocket calculator and a puzzled look on my face.  Junior, the other full-time member of our crew, gave me the nickname Quagmire!  But I was surprised one day in 1990 when J.R. handed me a set of blueprints.  He said: "Steve, this is the next house we have to build.  Would you take these prints home and take a look at them?  The roof system is complicated, but nothing I can't figure out.  Except there's a section of the main roof that doesn't have anything holding it up on the front side!  The rafters come down just above a two story high entryway, and the plans don't show any kind of support."

That night I spread out the blueprints and started studying.  About an hour later I had a headache and put them away.  This was the fanciest house and most complicated roof I'd ever worked on.  I was having trouble visualizing how all those sections of roof would be framed up and tied together.  I liked puzzles, but this was crazy!  By the end of the second night I had a general idea of how the parts fit, and where the problem area was.  I think it was after the 4th night that I had a vague idea of hidden beams and posts that might hold it all up.  I showed my idea to J.R., who responded with our unofficial company motto: "Damifino!"  "I think we'll just have to start framing and hope we can work out the details when we get there.  And we'll run that idea past the building inspector to make sure he'll approve it."  So we started building the house like we knew what we were doing.  And we eventually did make it work, but it wasn't easy.

The crew
J.R. Sorrells (facing camera) talking to Billy (yes he really is that tall).  Eddie in red shirt.  Junior is sitting off to the side studying the blueprints.  There was a lot of that going on!  The corner of my old Dodge work van.  This was bigger than our usual crew.  On a lot of more "normal" jobs it was just J.R., Junior, and me.  We made a good team.
The next series of pictures are "before and after" shots taken from different angles.  They show a little of what we were dealing with, this was not a simple job!
I apologize for photo quality.  They are scanned from old 4x6 prints that are faded and kind of splotchy looking.  But they give you a general idea.


For those of you who have done carpentry here's a riddle:
Billy and I were doing rafter layout and cutting.  Complicated enough on this house!  But this one section was a special challenge. 

 Where two sections of roof intersect they form what's called a hip.  There were several on this house.  You have to put in a section of ridge at an angle from the outside corner of the walls up to the main ridge at the top of the roof.  Then the hip rafters are fit up to that, each one a different length.  The top end of the rafter is cut at an angle to match the pitch (steepness) of the roof.  That angle cut has to be made with a bevel to fit the ridge board, so it's a compound angle.  If both roofs are the same pitch then the bevel is 45 degrees.  Not easy, but standard stuff.  But at this one spot the roofs were different pitches, so the bevel cuts were different.  One side needed to be 35 degrees, so you set your skill-saw to 35 degrees and cut the proper angle.  But the rafters on the other side needed to be a 55 degree bevel, which is a problem because a skill-saw doesn't tilt past 45 degrees.  None of us had ever had to do that before.  This is the point where a lot of crews would rig something up that looked like crap and try to cover it up before anybody saw it.  But we didn't work that way.  A real Quagmire moment!  It took some ciphering, but I did find a method to cut a greater-than-45 degree bevel on an angle across a 2x10.  No attachments or jig required.  Non standard saw usage and not OSHA approved but it works!  If anybody knows this or has an idea give me a message or a Facebook comment on the link to this post.

We did a bigger than normal percentage of the work on this house ourselves rather than sub it out.  We did the layout, dug and poured the footings.  Did the framing and roofing (Not an easy house to put shingles on!).  Hung and finished the drywall.  Installed doors and windows, and all interior and exterior trim.  Did all interior and exterior painting.  I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting.  And J.R., besides working every day, had to keep everything organized, figure and order materials, supervise us and coordinate with subcontractors, do the payroll, work with the home owners, and more.  Becoming a carpenter involves learning how to do a lot of different things, but I liked working that way.

Here are some pictures of the interior.  The owners hired an interior decorator, so we're not responsible for colors or decor! 

Living Room

Living Room
I noticed the bottom of the curtains being piled up on the floor, but when I mentioned to the wife that they were a little long she said: "Oh no, those are puddles!"

Dining Room

Breakfast nook


I did the stair framing, Billy did the trim work, and Junior did most of the painting.  I painted enough of the pickets to see how much fun it was painting right up to that stained wood without touching it.

 Master bedroom ceiling
Yes those layers were fun to frame, hang & finish drywall, and paint.  J.R. was the chief drywall finisher, he spent a lot of time on his stilts!

Master Bath

This last picture was taken from the roof, but was the basic view from the decks and windows on the back of the house.  That highest peak on the right is Mt Pisgah.  And yes that is the top of our Porta Jon in the center foreground.
I guess that's about it.  Just looking back at what I used to do, and what a good team can accomplish working together.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016


View from the top of Little Pisgah Mountain, looking at Chimney Rock cliffs at far left.
Photo by Spencer Clary

I spent many days hiking on Little Pisgah Mountain, and had some great experiences, but one particular day has stayed in my memory for 40 years as an especially amazing time.  It was a beautiful clear summer day in about 1975.   I was with my good friend and hiking buddy Michael.  (I recently got in touch with him to fact-check this story, and of all the adventures we shared it still stands out to him too!)

We parked on the lower part of the mountain and spent most of the day exploring and just soaking in the beauty.  We rambled the pastures, visited my favorite cliff overlooking the Garren Creek valley, and explored some new areas and routes where we hadn't been before.  Found a tree or two that needed climbing.  Just enjoying the time!  By early afternoon we made our way to the top of the mountain.

At that time it was still unspoiled.  If you go now there are houses scattered around, a road to the top, and an ugly steel tower right on top of the mountain.  It makes me sick.  But this was before all that, and it was just a grass bald on top of a mountain 4450 feet tall.  Beautiful views of Shumont Mountain and Hickory Nut Gorge.  I loved that place!

 The top of Little Pisgah Mountain.
Photo by Spencer Clary

While we were enjoying the view we heard a jeep grinding its way up the mountain.  It pulled up to where we were and a couple of rednecks climbed out.  One of them said: "Look what we killed on the way up here!"  He reached into the back of the jeep and pulled out the longest rattlesnake I ever saw.  He was holding the head about even with the top of his head, and the tail touched the ground.  Close to six feet long!  Michael says he remembers looking at the tail and seeing 10 or 11 buttons.  The guys were obviously impressed with what they'd done, while Michael and I were just wishing they had let it live.  But we didn't say anything.  They were after all rednecks, and armed, and maybe a little drunk.  They didn't stay long, and we were glad to see them go.

That kind of messed with our peaceful mood, so we walked a little way back down the mountain and found a few more trees to climb.  That was fun!  There was this one tree...  We climbed up 25 or 30 feet and found a couple of comfortable branches to sit on.  After 10 minutes we were ready to climb down.  But when we looked the next branch below us was a loooong way down, and neither of us could remember how we got up the spot where we were!  We kept being polite and saying: "Go ahead, you first".  Finally one of us got up the nerve to try a sketchy move, and we both made it down.

It was getting later in the afternoon, but we decided to go back up to the top for a while before we left.  I'm glad we did because we got to see something amazing. There was a thunderstorm coming up the Gorge at Chimney Rock.  (At the far left end of the top photo.)  What made it unique was that the whole storm was trapped down inside the gorge.  The top of the thunderheads were even with the top of the cliffs.  Above and all around was sunshine and clear blue sky.  But down in that gorge was a monster!  It was jet black, and lightning was zapping through it from one side to the other.  The most concentrated storm I ever saw.  We could hear thunder echoing off the cliffs, and we knew the people in that gorge were getting bombed!

We sat there watching, and we had a ringside seat.  We were in sunshine with a perfect view.  There was a breeze coming off the storm with a fine mist in it, just right to be refreshing.  But there was one nagging worry.  That monster was moving up the gorge towards us.  And we were on the very top of a bald mountain, with our heads the highest point east of Asheville.  I remember some discussion like: "How close are we going to let that thing get, and how fast can you run?"  I admit I was getting edgy.  We knew it was crazy to be where we were, but this was a once in a lifetime experience, and we didn't want to miss it.  I just didn't want it to be a last in a lifetime experience!  We were lucky though, just when I was ready to bolt (Like lightning!) the storm got to where highway 64 splits off and heads up towards Edneyville. It turned away, and went up that valley.  (You can see the valley angling from left to right in the center of the top photo.) 

It faded out of sight and the show was over.  But what a show it had been!  In our recent discussion Michael and I agreed it was one of the most spectacular things we ever experienced.  Exhilarated and exhausted we made our way back down the mountain.  It was a good day to be alive!   


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cold front

One beautiful afternoon back in the mid '70s a good friend and I went hiking on Shumont Mountain.  It was winter, but the temperature was in the low 50s, and the sunshine felt warm to us in our lightweight jackets.  We made our first stop at Eagle Rock (You have to!) but then continued up the mountain.  Going up the old jeep road we took the right hand fork that goes around the Northwest side of the mountain to the Western end.  There is a little rabbit trail there that goes down to the top of a big sloping cliff.  (It's the one you can catch a glimpse of as you're driving up Shumont Rd.)

 That is a beautiful spot!  You have views of Little Pisgah & Bearwallow Mountains and all the upper Hickory Nut Gorge.  It was always quiet and peaceful, I don't think I ever met another hiker there.  
We spent a long time just hanging out, and of course exploring a little bit.  Then in the late afternoon it was time to head back down.  The sun was getting low and it was starting to feel colder.

When we got back to the Eagle Rock area the sun was setting, so we had to go back up on the rock to watch, even though it was getting cold really fast and we were dressed for warmer temperatures.  Eagle Rock faces the wrong way for a great sunset view, but we could see it through the trees, and the sky was lit up beautifully.  But as the sun went down so did the temperature.  Probably the fastest drop I ever experienced!  A major cold front was moving in, and wasn't wasting any time.  From where it had been around 50 degrees it went down through the 40s, the 30s, and on down into the 20s.  And of course the wind started blowing across that exposed rock.  Some other hikers came up to watch the sunset, and they were wearing parkas with the hoods up, gloves, the whole bit, and they looked cold!  They were looking at us like we were crazy for being there dressed the way we were, and we were trying to pretend we weren't freezing.  Of course we were, but we were in the midst of a spectacular event and couldn't leave.

I wish I'd had a thermometer with me, I guarantee you could have seen it dropping.  But what we did see was even more amazing.  There were potholes in the rock that had water in them from the last rain.  And that water started to freeze.  I've never seen anything like it!  You could see the white ice crystals form around the outside rim of the water and then start creeping in towards the center.  We could actually see it moving as we watched in amazement.  "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"  It looked like time-lapse photography.  

Finally as the sunset was fading we surrendered to the cold and did a fast hike back down to my van.  It sure felt good when it warmed up enough for the heater to kick in!  When we got back down the mountain and to my parents house in Fairview, a thousand feet lower, the thermometer was on 15 degrees.  That was one serious cold front!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Little Snowball Mountain - an unintended adventure

I don't remember the date of this hike, but I think it was back in the late '70s before I got very smart about being prepared for hiking, and before I learned some of my limitations.  

I didn't have a camera for the trip, but two blogger friends have graciously allowed me to use their photos.  Jeff Clark of Meanderthals and Dana Koogler the Cumberland Gal Thank you!  Plus I've used a couple of my pics taken at other times.

I had been exploring the Craggy Gardens area for some time, and had found the trail that starts on the road to the Craggy Picnic Area (Now also an access point for the MST), climbs across Snowball Mountain, and goes on to Hawkbill Rock. I could see on my topo map that the trail continued to Little Snowball Mountain, where a fire tower was located, so I was interested in that.

  Trail to Little Snowball

I had been to Hawkbill Rock a couple of times, and that's all I had in mind for this particular day.  It was already mid afternoon on a cold winter day, and I didn't have much time.  But Hawkbill is a beautiful spot with a fine view, and was worth the trip.  The trail is moderately steep as it goes over Snowball, down the back side, and up the ridge to Hawkbill.  It's a clear trail, but lots of roots & rocks, so you have to watch your step.  
There's a good description of the whole trail on Meanderthals Hiking Blog here: 
Snowball Trail at Craggy Gardens

 View from Hawkbill Rock.  Photo by Jeff Clark

 Another view from Hawkbill Rock.  Photo by Jeff Clark

 But this particular day I wasn't satisfied.  I wanted to explore more of the trail beyond Hawkbill "just to see what it's like".  I wouldn't go far, it was too late in the day.  But once I got started I couldn't stop!  "Just a little farther to see what's over the next hill"  "I've got time, that next part looks interesting."  The whole trail out to the fire tower is 4 miles, and Hawkbill Rock, where I meant to turn around, was less than half the way there.  But I somehow reached a point where "just a little farther" turned into "it would be a shame to come this far and not go on to the tower".  Never mind that the sun was going down and it was getting colder.  Never mind that I wasn't carrying any gear at all besides the canteen on my belt.  "I must be nearly there, get moving and I'll get there soon."  Except it was farther than I thought, and there were more hills to go over.  The trail turned into a four wheel drive road with confusing intersections.  I kept telling myself how stupid I was being but I only walked faster.  Sometimes I just won't listen to common sense!  Finally I made it up to the tower.

The fire tower that used to be on Little Snowball Mountain,
now refurbished and situated at the Big Ivy Historical Park.
Photo by Dana Koogler

When I got there the sun was already down.  I climbed the tower, and since it was unlocked I went in.  The view was great, and the sky was covered by a gorgeous sunset.

The kind of sunset I saw from the fire tower

I spent about 5 minutes catching my breath, looking around inside the tower, and admiring the sunset.  But my enjoyment was marred by the growing feeling that I could be in some real trouble here.  I was 4 strenuous miles from my van, and I had maybe 20 minutes of twilight to get there.  The math just wasn't working, and I decided it was time to get moving!  I went back down the steps and hit the trail at my best speed.  I had gotten myself into some fine messes before, but this one was serious!  I was hiking alone, and no one knew where I was.   Of course this was years before the days of cell phones or GPS.  I wasn't carrying a pack, and had no flashlight, headlamp, food, extra clothing, fire starting materials, or any of the whole list of things I was starting to wish I had.  I was wearing jeans & a flannel shirt with cotton long johns.  My coat was pretty warm but had a nylon shell which was not breathable.  I had on a knit "toboggan" hat and had a pair of gloves in my back pocket.  I had a half full quart canteen on my belt, and that was the extent of my resources.  The temperature, which had been around 40 degrees, started dropping through the 30s and the wind came up.  I won't say I was worried, but was getting concerned, and definitely motivated to get out of there!

One thing I should emphasize is that the trail is never flat, but goes up and down hill relentlessly.  Meanderthals calls it a roller coaster, and that's a good description.  He cites the total elevation gain for the round trip as 2300 feet, so I had my work cut out for me. 

I was pushing myself as hard as I could go, but daylight was fading faster than the miles.  When I finally got back to Hawkbill Rock it was pretty dark to be scrambling down those rocks, but I had no choice, so I did.  It was encouraging to be back in familiar territory, but I knew how far there was ahead of me, and didn't know how I was going to make it.

 Looking from Hawkbill Rock at the ridge going up the backside of Snowball Mountain.
The trail follows the ridge-top and turns left across the top of Snowball. 
Photo by Jeff Clark

 As I was climbing the ridge up Snowball Mountain I was getting tired from how hard I'd been pushing.  I tried stopping to rest for a minute, but realized I couldn't.  In spite of the decreasing temperature and increasing wind I was sweating from exertion.  If I stopped moving that cold wind cut me like a knife, and I had to keep moving to keep from freezing.  There is a reason they call cotton "dead men's clothes"!  Finally near the top of Snowball I found a spot to rest.  There was a big log lying next to the trail.  I lay on the ground behind it so that it sheltered me from the wind.  I knew I couldn't spare the time, but was I exhausted, and it felt so good to be out of that wind.  After about 5 minutes I remember feeling like "this isn't so bad, I could stay here and..."  That gave me a cold chill that had nothing to do with the weather.  I recognized that as the kind of thoughts a person has just before the final mistake that leads to their death in the mountains.  That got me back on my feet and stumbling up the trail!

Stumbling was the operative word.  It was almost completely dark, and it was hard to follow the trail.  By the time I started down Snowball I couldn't see all those roots & rocks, and was having trouble walking.  In spite of my desire to hurry I had to slow down and feel my way along.  I was very aware that at this point a broken ankle could prove fatal!  About that time I reached for the gloves in my back pocket, and they were gone.  Probably fell out when I was lying behind that log.   Of course by then I was cussing myself out for ever getting in such a situation. It felt like it would never end.  "I hope you enjoyed that sunset, it may be the last one you ever see!"   

But as you may have guessed I did survive.  I came staggering out of the woods to where my van was parked in pitch black darkness.  I was so glad to get in it out of the wind, and when the heater kicked in it felt like heaven!

As a postscript to this story, the next morning when I was driving to work I came to a place where I could see that whole range of mountains where I had been.  They all were covered with ice!

 Rime ice on the Craggys

And it wasn't fluffy rime ice like in this picture.  The sun was shining, and that ice had a cold hard glitter.  There had been a real ice storm up there during the night.  There is no question in my mind that if I hadn't made it off those mountains I would have died.

I think that marked a turning point in my style of hiking.  I can't say I never did anything stupid again, but I was more careful.  I started carrying a pack with emergency supplies.  I recognized my mortality, and let it guide my decisions a little better.  Altogether it was an experience I'm glad I had, and very thankful to never have had again!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Little Pisgah - Part 3: Peak Experience

This is part 3 in my series of stories about rambling on Little Pisgah Mountain.
Part 1 is at:
Part 2 is at: 

 Rime ice on the lower slope of Little Pisgah.  You can see the top of the mountain, with its hated tower, peeking out from behind the ridge.

I think it was 1975.  My parents had driven their camper to Mexico for the Winter, and I was staying in their house on Garren Creek.  I had a a second dog named Pearl to keep Fonzie company, and we had spent many days together exploring and enjoying Little Pisgah.  It still hadn't been developed much, and there was no tower on top.  It was a hiker's Paradise!

On this Saturday morning it was cold and damp, with clouds hanging down over the mountain, and I was staying inside.  Later in the day I went outside and realized that things had changed!  The wind had come up, the sky was bright blue, and the top of the ridge was covered in rime ice.  It took me about two seconds to get motivated.  I had to get up on the mountain to see that rime ice, and I knew that as bright as the sun was shining it would melt soon.  Time to get moving!  I ran inside and threw on my cold weather hiking clothes & boots.

When I came back out the dogs were excited and frisking around, they knew we were going somewhere.  We were soon down the driveway and hit that ridge hard.  I took every shortcut I knew, (not the near disastrous ones from my last story!) and made the best speed I could.  I wasn't going to miss this chance if I could help it!  When I topped the 1000 foot ridge the ice I had seen from the house was already gone.  Now I really had to pour it on.  I had one more good shortcut left, a steep ridge-line that cut off a big loop of the logging road.  It was too overgrown to use in Summer but was clear enough in Winter.  Where it came out into the open I could look across at Craggy and Mitchel, and they had ice on them.  That encouraged me, and I made a push for the top.  To my relief as I got closer I came into the rime ice - I was going to make it in time!  When I got to the top I glanced at my watch.  I had made the 1800 foot climb in exactly one hour, a personal record.  Later when I told my Mother this story she believed it all except the time.  She had hiked that mountain, and didn't think I could do it that fast!

I didn't waste much time looking at my watch, there was too much else to see.  There was several inches of snow on the ground.  Every twig of every tree and shrub was thickly coated in rime ice, which to me is one of the most beautiful things in the world.  The sky was deep cobalt blue and the intense sunlight made all the snow and ice sparkle like diamonds,  It looked magical!

And then there was the wind...  Coming up the mountain I had been sheltered from it, but no more.  It was blowing out of the Southeast, which is unusual to start with.  And this was the strongest steady wind I have experienced to this day.  A monster cold front must have been coming through, and the wind was roaring!.  I was standing on the highest point around and was exposed to the full blast.  I couldn't stand straight up, but had to lean forward and brace myself to keep from being knocked over!  I was being shaken and buffeted, and looking around in amazement at the sparkling wonderland and the gorgeous view.

Then I took a good look at the horizon.  Always, even on the clearest days, when you look towards the horizon the view fades into the haze at some point, however far away.  Not this time!  The wind had blown all the haze away, and the line of the horizon was razor sharp.  For the only time in my life I was looking at the true horizon, and I could clearly see the curve.  I can testify - the earth is round, and I saw it!

I stood there entranced for a long time, but the wind was cutting through my clothes, and it was cold!  I had to get back into the relative shelter of the North side of the mountain.  I was too pumped up to go home yet, and ended up exploring over to Blue Rock Knob, where I hadn't been before.  I had to slip past a couple of houses once I got there, but found a rock outcrop with a view back down the Garren Creek valley from its head.  I could see where it cut between Little Pisgah and Garren Mountain, and it looked more like a canyon than a valley.  One more beautiful vista to cap the day!  From there I went back over to Little Pisgah and down to the house.  I think I was floating all the way home!

For your sake I wish I'd had a camera to capture images of what I saw, I know my words can't do it justice.  But I don't think pictures could even come close to capturing the experience.  As for myself, I treasure the memory of the most memorable day I ever spent in the mountains.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Little Pisgah - Part 2: Shortcuts

This is the second part of my stories about rambling on Little Pisgah Mountain.  If you haven't read the first part it is at:
(Disclaimer:  these memories, and some of the photos, are over 40 years old and may be a little fuzzy.  I've done my best to be accurate with locations and measurements, but I may not be reliable.)

The lower 1000 feet or so of Little Pisgah seen from Sugar Hollow Rd.

I started out my exploring by driving to Little Pisgah Road on Hickory Nut Gap and going up from there.  But I couldn't escape the fact that I lived at the base of the mountain.  Every time I looked out the living room window or from the front deck there it was!  Or at least I was looking at the first 1000 feet of it, and knew there was 800 feet more behind that.  It was beautiful ridge, so steep it looked like a wall.  I loved watching it in the Spring when the green would climb a little higher each day, and in the Fall when the colors would descend.

Our house and the Wall

 From the yard and the deck

 Panorama stitched from the above pics.

It was taunting me to climb it, and it had to be done.  So one Saturday my trusty trail dog Fonzie and I walked down the driveway and across the road.  On the other side we went up a driveway past a couple of houses, stopping to introduce myself and get permission.  Soon after the second house we came across an old logging road, just what I'd been hoping to find. It zig-zagged around  to where the terrain wasn't so severe and then started winding up the mountain, probably following the same route used now by some of the roads that have been built from the Fairview Point housing development.  It was a pretty path, and wasn't as hard as I'd feared.
I finally topped out that first ridge, and came out on a small level area.  I was exploring around it and discovered a rock outcrop that had a gorgeous view looking down the Garren Creek Valley and out to the mountains beyond Asheville to the North-west.  It was beautiful and secluded, and I claimed it for my own.  I'll call it my sittin' spot, and I never passed by without stopping to enjoy the view and peace.  (There's a house sitting there now, which makes me want to cry and curse.)

From there the logging road ran fairly level around the side of the mountain through a beautiful grove of hemlocks and came out into the pastures I was already familiar with.  I went farther up, and noticed a logging road heading back down the mountain.  Being in full explorer mode I followed it down to see where it came out.  I ended up coming back down to Garren Creek Road again, about a half mile up from my house.  I could have gone home then, but I wasn't ready to quit so I turned around and went back up the mountain, explored some more, and finally came back down the way I'd gone up to start with.  A long day, with a combined elevation gain of over 2500 feet.  I was so tired when I got home I just collapsed, but was very satisfied with what I'd accomplished.

After that I hiked up that ridge often exploring the mountain all the way to the top.  I was always on the lookout for shortcuts, and found a few places I could bushwhack, usually following ridge-lines.  But I wasn't satisfied, I wanted a more direct route from the house to my sittin' spot that bypassed the long and winding logging road.

The maze of ravines and ridges going up Little Pisgah.
My parent's property outlined in red with a red dot where the house was.
A little blue X at my sittin' spot.

So one day as I was headed home I thought I'd give it a try.  Near my spot was a large ravine that headed down the mountain in the right direction.  I figured I couldn't get lost, all I had to do was follow it.  Easier said than done!  It wasn't too bad at first, but got really steep and rugged.  I should have turned around then, but never claimed to have good sense.  I hated to back away from a challenge!

That sucker was steep!  Scaling it out on the map it looks like an 800 foot descent in about 0.3 mile.  That's quick!  The sides were nearly vertical, too steep to climb out, so I had to stay in the bottom, which was covered with rocks.  All kinds of rocks that had fallen down the sides and collected there.  All shapes and sizes, and loosely piled so that when you stepped on one it would roll or slide or a combination of both.  And just to keep it interesting the rocks were covered with a foot of dry leaves, so I couldn't see where I was putting my feet!  Every step was an ordeal.  Stick my foot down in the leaves, trying not to think about snakes.  Put my weight down on the rocks and try to stay balanced as they rolled and shifted.  Try not to break an ankle, and try not to think what would happen if I did. Then repeat.  And again.  This was the least fun and most dangerous place I'd ever got myself into, and I was making the usual promises: "God, if you'll get me out of here I'll never try this again, and I'll be more careful, and..."  I don't know how long I was in Hell's ravine, but I finally stumbled out the bottom and could walk back home, exhausted and my nerves shattered. 

I spent more time studying the ridge from our deck, especially one ridge that looked like the most direct route.  (No more shortcut ravines for me!)  It was narrow and steep, but looked doable.

 Red arrows pointing to the ridge,
Purple arrows pointing down towards the ravine.

I studied where the bottom of the ridge would intersect my logging road, and the next Saturday morning Fonzie and I set out.   It was pretty easy to find, and we headed up.  It started out steep and overgrown, and it got worse.   Underbrush and briars gave way to laurel thickets and briars. Soon the only way to continue was to get down and crawl.  Those who have spent any time in a laurel hell will know what I mean!  This was becoming less fun than I'd hoped, but I was too stubborn to turn around.  Before too long the monotony was broken by a 10 foot rock-face blocking the way.  It wasn't too hard to scramble up, and I was back on my hands and knees crawling again.  Then I came to a 15 foot rock.  It was a little harder to climb, and I didn't think I'd like to try going back down it.  So I continued my crawl until I met a 20 foot cliff.  I was beginning to see a pattern here!  I managed to climb it - barely.  The footholds were small and far between, and I was trying to steady myself holding onto laurel branches the size of my little finger.  I knew there was no way I was going back down this one, I was committed to going ahead.  

The ridge was a true knife-edge.  Very narrow on top, and the sides too steep to climb down.  Not that I wanted to; on my left was the ravine from Hell, I wasn't going back in there!  When I looked off on the right there was a ravine that looked even worse, with jagged boulders that looked like teeth.  My path was set, so I crawled on up to see what was next.  I didn't have to go far.  A 35 foot cliff that looked unclimbable!  I wasn't happy about it, but knew I had to try.  I should probably explain my situation a little clearer.  I was hiking from my parents house, but they were out of town for the Winter.  No one knew I was hiking, or where.  This was years before the first cellphone, and I carried no gear besides a canteen.  I was on a rugged and remote part of the mountain where no sane person would ever go.  If I got hurt and couldn't get out I could die there, and the body never be found.  I was very aware of all that as I looked at that cliff!

I finally picked a spot at the left hand end and started climbing.  The farther up I went the harder it got.  I wasn't sure about this at all.  With my head just coming up to the top I got stuck.  I was teetering on the verge of falling and couldn't find the next step.  I couldn't get down, and was afraid to move up.  The tiny laurel branch I was hanging on to was about to pull out of the two inches of dirt it was growing in.  Meanwhile Fonzie, who of course had run to the top like a mountain goat, came over and started sniffing the top of my head and trying to lick my face!  I told him that wasn't helpful, but maybe it was so ridiculous it gave me one last bit of strength to grab another handhold and pull myself over the top.  That was too close, and I knew that if I came to a worse spot I'd be trapped.

But in the meantime I stood on top of the cliff to catch my breath.  It was high enough to see out from, and the view was breathtaking!  I wish I'd had a camera, I can't find words to describe it.  And the next thing I saw was almost beyond believing.  In the center of the cliff, right at the edge, was an old-growth Hemlock tree, about 40 inch diameter.  I don't know what freak accident had shaped it, but from the edge of the cliff it stuck out horizontally for about 4 feet, then turned and grew straight up for maybe 60 feet.  It was a perfectly shaped tree, one of the most beautiful I ever saw, and was suspended in mid air.  I didn't care how much trouble I was in, I had to investigate this!  I could easily step out on the horizontal section of the trunk and get hold of the vertical part.  I looked up and saw that the limbs were sturdy and evenly spaced - perfect for climbing.  Did I mention how much I enjoyed climbing trees?  I know how crazy it was, but I had to.  I knew I'd never be back there again, and couldn't pass up the chance.  It was easy to climb, just like going up a ladder.  I could have gone to the top, but about 25 feet up I made the mistake of looking down and realized I was 60 feet above the jagged rocks at the bottom of the cliff.  My stupidity does have some limits, and I regretfully climbed down.

I hated to leave that spot, one of the most awesome I've ever seen, but I didn't know what I might face next and needed to get on with it.  So it was back to crawling again.  All the way up that ridge (about 800 feet elevation gain) was either crawling through laurel or rock climbing!  The rest of the way was steep and rugged, but there were no more major obstacles.  Finally it started rounding off and opening up, and I could walk upright again.  I came out into the open next to my sittin' spot, right where I meant to.  I was tired, scratched and dirty, but still buzzing from the adrenaline I'd been burning.

40 years later I have to say that was the most difficult, dangerous, and rewarding hike I ever took.  I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience, but never had any desire to try it again!