“Do you have it?” Aunt Debbie sounds hopeful and looks to Mom with a soft smile.
“I do,” my mom whispers stoically, reaching her hand into her purse.
Aunt Stephanie curiously watches as an old handkerchief, a memento of their Grandma Shorty, is carefully lifted for the three sisters to admire,
“I remember that!” exclaims Aunt Stephanie as she admires the worn handkerchief’s white background with stitched little flowers.
At the exact moment my aunt declares her happiness, as if on cue, church bells from Highland Avenue sound in tintinnabulation on the first day of summer.
“Hi Grandma,” Mom whispers nostalgically.
She spends a moment with her sisters and the memory of Grandma Shorty before entering James Agee Park just outside the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Summer flowers are abloom in blue, purple, and yellow. They sprout fragrantly under an easy sky of cotton clouds. The cumulus puffs, white against a royal blue, seem to hang still as the sun frames their edges in heaven’s afterglow. Across the park, a fresh summer green is everywhere – especially in the bright tree leaves that dance, rustle, and shimmer alive in a pleasing breeze that offers relief from the noontime humidity.
On this Tuesday back in June 2011, in the small, disheveled, perfectly scruffy Agee Park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, Katie and I tied the knot at noon. We wanted to marry on the first day of summer. I proposed to my bride during the spring equinox on the banks of Big South Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. We found a fitting date for our small wedding would naturally fall on the day summer solstice occurs. Pagans. Plus, our anniversary will be much easier to remember in future years – always the first day of summer, damn the date.
The solstice is an astronomical event and one this nature lover enjoys thinking about. We’re all just social animals, moving around and living our lives on a suspended rock in the bleak desolation of interstellar space. On the solstice, our Earth’s tilt and motion strike an orbit for the Northern Hemisphere to receive the sun’s light and accompanying warmth most directly. At noon on the solstice, the sun hangs far north over the Earth, gifting this June day the longest hours of planetary sunlight of the year. The sun’s energy falls at a steeper angle as the hot months of summer, the lazy dog days, begin. This planetary event is fitting for a lifelong union of two human animals.
Katie looked beautiful on our wedding day, dressed in an off-white dress with a soft linen throw across her shoulders. I remember she wore cerulean mayflowers in her hair. I wore my beard much closer to my face those days and had more hair on my head. In a big orange bowtie with the Tennessee tri-stars polka-dotted throughout, white dress shirt with charcoal slacks held by grey suspenders, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. As true then, and even more so now, I am lucky to have this woman standing with me. The wedding was officiated by my best friend, Steve McQueen, and attended by a small, close circle of family and friends. After the ceremony, we made our way a couple of blocks to the old Sunspot on Cumberland Avenue for a luncheon. Katie and I met in that old bar, in fact I met almost all the important people of my twenty something years in that building. Since part of our identity will always be tied to the place – and because we were still employed there at the time – we, of course, had to celebrate at our second home.
Of course, “Sunspot” is not just a place where tie-dyes and neckties unite; the word is also used to describe a cosmic phenomenon. The star of life, our sun, holds a diameter of 864, 000 miles (1,392,000 km), making the burning ball 109 times wider than our own planet. Our star is so large it has an incredibly powerful magnetic field. Sometimes, if atmospheric pressure decreases in the space surrounding the sun, the star’s magnetic field will increase. If conditions are right, this can cause a “sunspot” – an area where the magnetic field is vastly higher than anywhere else on the sun. With some intense physics that, honestly, I don’t at all understand the mathematics behind, this increase in pressure can lower the temperature over parts of the sun’s surface relative to the surrounding environment. The powerful magnetic field then disrupts the flow of hot interior gas to the burning surface. This disruption tends to occur in pairs that have magnetic fields repelling in opposite directions. Where this happens, we see sunspots, roughly the size of planet Earth, as a dark shadow, or spot, on the star’s surface. In summertime, as I sit back and unwind, vacation, apply sunscreen, hunt for swimming holes, enjoy popsicles, cola flavored Icees, pickles, and ice-cold beer, I’m inclined to remember the sun’s violence – I just don’t let the knowledge ruin my fun.
So, I look forward to ringing in the solstice with my wife every year. We kick off the good season of summer by taking in all the lilac, jasmine, and lucid blossoms. We enjoy the refreshing wind and steady rains of the summer season, and find great comfort in long, rolling, soft booms of thunder from deep dark clouds. Our summers are full of glowing embers and fireflies that illuminate and shine alive in the night. We prepare for humid days full of sweat, and find relief in the tempered night and cool, dew-soaked mornings.
After all these years together, I know we’ve changed a lot, but, somehow, hardly at all. We ain’t the kids we once were but we’re also not the adults we never wanted to be – thank goodness. We have built a life together, a damn good one. We’re raising a beautiful boy, and the three of us together are figuring this life thing out. Those Sunspot years in that old bar often play like a film in our minds. Life sure does unfold fast, even when time seems to drag by.
Here in June of 2020, time sure does seem to drag along. “Seem” is the operative word here, though. Pandemic life is weird. The days feel long, but time keeps on ticking away faster than I care to acknowledge. Katie and I have spent our anniversary month working from home and have been since mid-March. Like many Americans, like many people across the globe, we are busy at home with a child kindergarten age. We are at home with a child who is out of school, has no prospects of summer-camp or any real social entertainment, save for an hour or two at our martial arts gym. Even here, though, classes are physically distanced and no “hanging out” happens afterward. Our boy lives in a life filled with some fun times, but far too much daily boredom.
Katie and I are both teaching online courses, balancing our workdays so at least one of us can be with Eli. Some days this works, many days our boy is lonely as we attend virtual meetings and plug away at our keyboards. Our house, especially the kitchen and laundry, is a constant mess. We are all out of our rhythm. Eli has big ups, big downs, yet maintains a healthy attitude. Still, small family squabbles are easy. Larger fights happen from time to time, but we resolve them as a family, soon after trading barbs, knowing we’re all under stress from the pandemic. There is no “work to leave at the office” anymore, now that our home is the office, so, we are living for the weekend. On weekends all the work goes away, and we spend time as a family, often with our carefully chosen community circle. All in all, our days blend together. They are long, steady, and dull.
Today, though, is the first day of summer. We are excited to celebrate with our friends, Casey and Ben, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiking a trail none of us have ever been on before. Eli is also excited because he’ll be liberated from his parents while he stays with his grandparents for some much-needed time together.
To celebrate our anniversary and time with our friends, I’ve done a fair amount of research and settled on the long, but (supposedly) easy rolling Old Settlers Trail. We have no idea what’s in store for us, but, from our background research and discussions with folks who’ve previously covered the trail, the pathway is a bit overgrown in places, yet less rocky than most passages in the park. Plus, the trail is full of historical landmarks and an impressive amount of biodiversity.
This supposedly sixteen-mile adventure is not a loop, but a long one-way adventure. So we wouldn’t have to hike the trail twice, we parked our car earlier in the morning in the Little Greenbrier area of the park, where we met up with Ben and Casey. We then hitched a ride with our friends to the starting trailhead off Maddron Bald in the Cosby section of the park – when the adventure ends we will drive our companions back to their car to return the favor.
Gravel crunches under Ben’s wheels along Laurel Springs Road as we reach the starting point. The air feels comfortable beneath a thick green canopy, further cooled from soft breezes off a gurgling creek. We can’t help but marvel at quaint cabins and cottages on this tiny backroad that borders the park. What a life to live out here in the woods with all the plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. I have a bit of envy for these folks living out their years deep in the country. Perhaps Katie and I will be one of them some day in the future if we can ever give up South Knoxville – only time will tell. A gated gravel pull-off appears in the thickets to our left as Ben parks the car. Time for our adventure to begin.
“Oh man, I’m a little nervous.” I express some concern to my companions as I organize my gear. “This is going to be the most I’ve moved since being sick.”
I was the most ill I have ever been the latter part of May on into the first week of June. So sick, in fact, I was laid up for sixteen days. That’s sixteen days with almost no movement at all, no physical activity, just exhaustion, sickness, and, to be honest, a good deal of frustration and sadness. I came down with an incredibly rare campylobacteriosis infection. I likely picked up the bacterium from undercooked poultry and soon ran a temperature, along with chills and muscle aches. I became so dehydrated that uric acid built up in my systems and I caught a nasty case of gout in my left foot and right toe. This was my first experience with gout, and, hopefully, my last. I’ve never felt that much discomfort before. I couldn’t stand, or even place a sheet on my feet, without explosions of pain. Today, less than two weeks past symptoms, I’m embarking on a long journey.
“I’ve not moved much either,” Ben assures. “Been doing workouts around the house and stuff but not going out much. Sixteen is going to feel like a lot.”
“We can always turn around if the going gets too rough, I reckon,” I say, taking some pulls from a water canister and enjoying the cold liquid on this pleasant but humid summer’s day. “But I doubt we’ll turn around before the halfway point because we’re gluttons for punishment.”
With some chit-chat around we begin the hike up the Albright Grove trail next to Maddron Bald. Our journey begins easy enough, but soon we have a slight, though prolonged, elevation gain that gets the heart pumping a right smart good. Casey and I are able to chat back and forth as we ascend, and, when our trail levels out again, I have confidence in my feet.
“So, what do you think is going to happen in November?” Casey floats the question. In response we all sigh and laugh uncomfortably.
Katie is upbeat but grim with her prediction,
“Either way, the nation will burn and we’ll all just have to carry on.”
For what it’s worth, I agree with my wife. For, as exciting as our times are, they are also scary, violent, divided, and most importantly, and unfortunately, necessary. Pandemic life has called a lot about the status-quo operations of daily political and economic life into question – what makes a law good or just, what to do if what is legal is unjust, what we truly need in our lives, what we can eliminate when things get “back to normal,” and what we should, as a body politic, fight for or against. The four of us loudly opine on the state of current affairs – the pandemic, politics, civil rights, and climate change – for a mile or so when we come to the old Baxter cabin in the woods.
“Lots of historical features on the trail, I presume this is feature number one,” Casey says excitedly as she leads us toward the cabin for some exploration.
A familiar musky scent wafts through the cabin, evoking an aged, historic era. The scents of wood, rock, and dirt float a homey fragrance through the air. A soft, welcoming breeze moves through the small living quarters and, as I look at the hearth for just a few moments, I feel as if I’ve traveled through space to a simpler, harder, time. A shimmer reflecting off a copper frame above the fireplace catches my attention. I scratch my beard and curiously approach an old shelf with a dusty photo of the people who used to live here.
The man and woman in the picture sit and stare stoically, without a smile, toward the camera. The fellow in the black and white photo appears tall, is dressed in long sleeves, pants, and work boots. He also wears a wide country hat I assume protects him from the sun. The woman sits next to him, in a long, dark dress with some kind of floral pattern, but I can’t really tell in the poorly lit cabin amid all the dust. She also wears a bonnet. The cabin looks largely the same in the photo and I wonder out loud, “What was life like back in these days?”
After five or so minutes, our journey continues. We soon find the trailhead for the Old Settlers trail – I reckon our sixteen miles officially starts now. Shade from an impressive canopy keeps us cool, even as humidity thickens in the air. Our hike descends into a beautiful valley, full of dancing ferns and bright yellow summer flowers. Characteristic stone walls guide us along, and the remains of a longstanding chimney stands as the survivor of an old homestead. We navigate gurgling, splashing branches and creeks with ease and talk the morning away.
As we cross a fallen tree bridge, a gentle wind moves through the green. Feels good to be moving again, to use my human body, out in the woods. All our Tennessee State Parks have been closed for a while, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has, only in the past month or so, opened borders to wanderers. Today, our world feels a little larger. Our hike continues on in humid air with welcome breezes when, all of a sudden, I sense someone running behind me before hearing a terrified scream.
“Ah!” Katie yelps. “Oh my God, Casey! Help!”
*Find out what happens to Katie on Tuesday’s post!
**Featured Image: Katie Morris and Grant Mincy wedding – courtesy of Grant Mincy
Grant, as always, I appreciate your descriptive, poetic mix of the personal, nature and science. You have a knack for bringing the reader along with you on your adventures. You certainly got my attention with the teaser at the end, and I’m an eager to read what happens next.
I always appreciate your comments. Glad to know folks like to read what I like. I hope you enjoy Part II tomorrow as you’ll figure out how we make it out of the hike.