Tuesday, July 13, 2010

So Far Away: Swan 2010

A view from atop one of the fields near Swan Cabin. Looking east.

For many years now the Cumberland Island Armadillos scurry as far north as they usually dare to tread together and experience high summer at Swan Cabin. The annual affair (there is no other word for it) takes place usually around July Fourth (see July 4, 2009 post) thanks to precision ‘Dillo planning and superior coordination just after new year’s day.

The 2010 version was, for me, a four-day, three-night experience. Three hours drive away. Close to a mile high. Traditionally, ‘Dillos day hike to Bob Bald to get a vista view of one of the last high ridges in the great Appalachian Mountain chain reaching to the east and south. But, all of the rest of the time is spent on the Swan Cabin grounds enjoying many acres of beautiful open mountain meadows alive with wildflowers and cool, summer breezes.

We pitch tents under a 500 year old oak. One of two that used to grow there, twin elders. For five centuries they great together until one summer 5-6 years ago one fell, apparently in a storm. The ‘Dillos pitched their tents all around the fallen giant that year.

My daughter and her friend climbed and played all over the still leaf-filled tree. When it fell it had opened up the sky and made what we call Swan Beach possible. The perfect global warming getaway. A 120 year-old mountain cabin with no water or electricity nestled in a small grassy commons in the sun, etched in by an old-style wooden fence situated in the tree line.

So, I feel special about this place, personally. I was there just after the first great tree fell. I hear a “trilly” bird in the woods way up there. I’ve never heard that bird anywhere else. We get into semi-intellectual discussions over what the difference is between rhododendron and mountain laurel. Both are beautiful.

Jennifer and I were in a funk. We thought about not even going Thursday and didn’t bother to pack anything Wednesday night. We just had a couple of beers and kicked back. After coffee on Thursday it was obvious we had to go and we packed rather expertly in just a few hours. We went up there leaving domestic instructions for our daughter left behind to save her from boredom.

The heat index was well over 100 degrees on the day of our drive up. But, we made good time on the late workday morning. It was 94 when we stopped in Tellico Plains. Most other ‘Dillos come through Robbinsville. By the time we climbed the Cherohala Skyway to the turn-off near the very top there was almost a 3000 foot rise in altitude and an 18 degree difference in temperature.

Clint had already been at the cabin alone when we got there. It was a sunny, clean and bright summer day at the cabin. We decided not to unload the SUV. We only brought down our tent and general belongings. The coolers, most of Jennifer’s and all of my clothes were left in the car. We decided to use it as a storage area. But, we did help a few later arriving ‘Dillos bring stuff down to the cabin.

After the tent was setup Clint played some great music on his battery powered boom box and we enjoyed some good beer on the porch of the cabin as the afternoon went by, sunny and cool. Clint always has great micro-brews in his ice box and this time he pulled out one called Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre. Any beer named that deserves a good, long gulp to experience. One of the ingredients right there on the label plain as day is “a sense of purpose.” Give me some of that.

The taste, largely due, I think, to the use of green raisins is distinctive. I’m not going to say it’s the best new beer I’ve tried in recent years but it is unique and very nice for a summer day. Jennifer thought it was too heavy and bitter.

Mark and Eileen arrived. We listened to Ripple a second time in honor of Mark, Clint having previously played it for Jennifer and me. There was a lot of Grateful Dead played this year throughout the affair. Some nice King Crimson was mixed in there with other stuff. Some great Jonn Serrie at one point.

Mark focused on unpacking and putting their tent up. He took a break (while popping open his second beer) to talk about the Braves with me for awhile. He mentioned good seats were still available for Bobby Cox’s last regular season game as a manager (hopefully with some post-season action to follow). Eileen and Jennifer both wanted to go so we made sketchy plans for a distant Sunday afternoon in early October.

Dogs were in abundance. Clint brought Lilly, we brought Charlie (his first camping trip), Mark and Eileen brought the rat dogs, Pitsy, Ginger, and young Rusty. Charlie enjoyed playing with the other dogs though some of them did not enjoy Charlie so much.

The grass in the open meadow at the cabin where we make our tents had not been cut in at least a month. So it was tall. If you walked through it in sandals then bits of grass seed and stems would stick between your toes.

We enjoyed a quiet sunset, then the planets and first stars as the camp fire flamed again after we had cooked directly on it with Clint’s grill. The meal was great, the beer was cold, the stars were bright, the music was nice. The dogs bedded down and so did Jennifer and me maybe an hour after dark. Charlie laid on top of my sleeping bag at my feet. My mind listened to the nothing of the woods. No katydids and other creatures like at our house. There were even no fireflies this year. Sleep came through the quiet.

The next day after a late breakfast everyone but Eileen and Pitsy went to a four mile round-trip hike to Bob Bald. In the last four or so years I have passed on the hike but this year I decided to go at the last minute. The hike was rougher than I remembered.

Near the top we had to basically bushwhack our way through grass and briars that stood as tall as me. You had to watch closely to stay on the trail. The thickness of the vegetation was ridiculous and I laughed. Not the best terrain for hiking in shorts as the bug bites and glancing scratches indicated on my legs afterwards. (See pic at right of Mark with Ginger and Rusty at his feet in the midst of all that jungle-like growth near the top of the bald.)

The trail changes elevation rather dramatically over a span of about half a mile and then follows the ridgeline to the bald spot at the top of the ridge. We had lunch there and enjoyed being in the open space over a mile high. It got cloudy, obscuring the sun. It was very comfortable in the breeze.

Jennifer and Charlie hike an easy stretch of trail along Bob Bald.

On the hike back down it started thundering. Jennifer and Charlie just made it back to the SUV just as a light rain started. We drove 10 minutes back to camp in varying degrees of light rain. Luckily, it waited until we got back to the cabin and double checked everything before the bottom fell out. We waited it out on the cabin porch with heavy hors d'oeuvre. Extra tarps kept the tents all dry.

Jeffery arrived on the scene about five minutes after we left for our hike. He came up towing a small trailer loaded with extra firewood and his smoker. He was relaxing and eating hard shell peanuts when we greeted each other. He waited on the porch with us as we watched the steady rain. The temperature became cooler, but it wasn’t an angry, blowing rain. The thunder stayed far away.

Then it magically stopped and we cooked our meal over an open fire again. There were no stars that night, however. The sky was thick with clouds, rain dripped from the trees. After Clint got yet another fire going in spite of all the rain, we stared a bit before I slept soundly. I did awaken one time during the night long enough to hear the sound of rain falling strong against the tarp covering our tent.

That rain must have come after midnight because Brian and Diane came up about that time from Atlanta. I was asleep. They slept in the cabin for the night with their two dogs, Star and Hope. I didn’t hear them come in. The next day Diane brought me the welcome news that the Braves beat the Mets 4-2 in New York.

Brian gets up early and cooks these magnificent breakfasts. The camp wakes up around him, having coffee, talking, working the New York Times crossword as a group, there are some bloody Marys usually floating around. Brian has two or three cook stoves going. Once all the girls are up the conversation becomes much livelier.

It took most of the next morning for the clouds to go away and for us to get enough sun to dry out the dampness from the long night’s restful rain. But, by the time we finished brunch the sun had burst through and the humidity had broken in the high mountain breeze.

Saturday, my third afternoon there, some of us went for a hike through the wildflower meadows near the cabin. There are about 30 acres of tall grass and flowers that come with the cabin, just as remote and isolated as it is. Except for a few people coming down the road now and then to see the cabin we had the whole place to ourselves. That is part of the wonder of it.

This year they didn’t mow any path through the fields and the grass was almost as tall as me in several places. Still, the open space, the quiet breezes, the bright sun and comparatively low humidity made for a wonderful walk. Charlie did great on both the field hike and the hike to Bob Bald. He showed promise the whole trip of being a great hiking and camping companion.

More food and drinks awaited our return to Swan Beach proper. Diane was the life of the party with her vibrant personality (and a little vodka). The other ‘Dillos were playing Scrabble on the picnic table in the sun. Jeffery and I fought each other to a draw in a game of chess. The first time either of us had played since last year’s trip to the cabin.

Then Jeffery fired up his smoker. More music and drinks and conversation, jokes and silliness. Diane and Clint got into a fairly heavy conversation about meditation and Buddhism. Eileen practiced her violin, which made several of the dogs howl to begin with. It was nothing personal.

Jennifer and others took “showers” using the various solar showers we brought (‘Dillos love camping gadgets) warmed by the sun. I preferred to bathe in the creek that flows through the woods nearby. The icy cold water combined with Dr. Bronner’s all-purpose cleaning liquid invigorated me.

Eventually, there was another feeding frenzy before dusk followed by a quick clean-up, another camp fire build up, the forming of a circle of chairs with some of us briefly routed from time to time by the smoke from the fire. Clint made s'mores for those who wanted them. Fig bars were passed around. The conversation rambled from work-related topics to remembrances of past trips up to the cabin to assorted random topics of all kinds.

We picked out Mars, Saturn, and Venus in the night sky. Jeffery and I talked about his new telescope. It was a bright, clear night and you could already tell our last morning would be the coolest, though we had seen much cooler weather up there in years past. Several satellites passed overhead.

On Sunday Jennifer and I experienced the opposite inertia of the prior Wednesday. This time we didn’t want to pack to leave. But, it is usually that way after an extended stay up there. We took our time, had another outstanding late brunch. Diane, having partied a bit hardier than most of us the night before, was the last to arise.

We sat around and enjoyed the last of the coffee or Mountain Dew or whatever the morning jolt of choice might be. The conversation was lite. By this time, most of us were just staring at the leaves in the trees, lost in thought or thoughtlessness, depending on the private mood.

The drive back was uneventful. It usually takes Jennifer and I several days to get all our stuff fully unpacked and washed or aired out and stowed away again. But, we are not in any hurry really, though the house looks messy. We ignore it, more or less, in our residual Swan Cabin Mind. It makes getting back to work kind of a drag though.

Jennifer says it was the best trip ever. I don’t know about that but it definitely was one to remember and cherish, along with all the others from past years, in that special place where ‘Dillos venture in the heat of summer. You have to go at least that far to really get “away”.

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