Book Review – Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks

Hike Smart
Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden

4 stars.  Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden draws from the authors’ extensive backpacking experience to present a readable, instructive guide that benefits novices and experienced hikers alike. Topics range from safety to comfort to gear selection to navigational skills.

What I appreciated most about this guide is its conversational tone. Most hiking guides read like a textbook, alternating checklists with dry instructional material. The authors here do an excellent job relating information on a personal level, as if they are discussing what works for them, and most importantly why it works for them. In addition to their own experiences, they relate many anecdotes from other hikers. These anecdotes blend well with the text, either illustrating the rationale of the authors or providing an experience that they analyze and use to teach.

I also am a fan of the authors’ middle ground stance on ultralight gear. Many ultralight advocates are far more willing than I to trade ounces on their backs for substantial reductions in comfort and safety and/or more investment of time in camp and on the trail (and, to their credit, they have mastered the skills and attitude necessary for that). Brown and Breeden favor an approach of understanding and evaluating the trade-offs presented by ultralight gear–shedding weight where it makes sense, yet not being shy to pack something heavier that elevates one’s hiking experience.

Brown and Breeden’s self-deprecating wit adds to the warmth of Hike Smart. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and little asides like “If you’re a worry-wort like Terra, carry both” are a refreshing break from the “ZOMG You’re Doing It WRONG!!!” attitude that’s unfortunately found in many online hiker communities.

The only real shortcoming of this book is that some topics seem biased towards the experience of backpacking either solo or duo. For example, the section on stoves can be summarized with “use a Jetboil/MSR Reactor integrated canister stove.” While that is a good solution for the solo hiker, it’s not nearly as good when cooking for 4 or more.

I’d also say that this book is very western US-centric. This would be a complaint if the gorgeous pictures of all their Sierra Nevada hikes hadn’t managed to take all my breath away! But I did notice that while topics such as how to secure a tent when tent stakes cannot be driven are covered, whereas there is no real discussion of the use of a hammock as bed and shelter, as is popular in eastern US backpacking.

Rather than the traditional hiking guide which focuses on instruction in a particular method, Hike Smart relies on teaching sound decision-making skills for hikers. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of this book. In many cases, the authors have put into words what I have discovered through experience or by accident. I checked this out from the library expecting to skim it, and found myself reading, enjoying, and learning from it.

Favorite Middle Tennessee Day Hikes, Part 1

Favorite Middle Tennessee Day Hikes, Part 1

Introduction

Middle Tennessee is a lush, rolling landscape of hills, farmland, woods, and rivers. Bordered by the Tennessee River to the west, the ground rises through the karst topography of the Nashville Basin and the bluffs of the Highland Rim to the breathtaking Cumberland Plateau gorges and gulfs that form the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The limestone bedrock creates a fascinating combination of caves and prairie-like cedar glades that are home to several unique species of plants.

The human history of Middle Tennessee is as rich as its fertile soil. Several Native American tribes lived, hunted, and roamed the area, primarily the Cherokee and Chickasaws. Early European visitors found the land wild and daunting.  Legendary frontiersmen such as David Crockett and Daniel Boone cemented their place in American history with their roles in settling the state. The Civil War turned much of the state into a pivotal battlefield as the territory changed hands repeatedly.

Tennesseans value our outdoor resources highly, with a huge number of parks, trails, and greenways available throughout the state. We’re fortunate to have the fantastic Tennessee State Parks to preserve our lovely landscape and cultural heritage. The 56 parks in the system all offer hiking, as well as many other activities such as fishing, boating, and camping. The park staff and volunteers universally embody another bountiful Tennessee resource–Southern hospitality and friendliness. And one more wonderful thing about our state parks… admission is FREE for all!

With so much to offer, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to Tennessee trails. I’ve been hiking in Tennessee all my life, and I still have a long list of trails I haven’t done! Over the next several articles, I’m presenting my favorites within an easy day trip distance of Nashville that showcase the beauty and history of our state. Happy hiking, and hope to see you on the trail soon!

20. Dunbar Cave
19. Jones Mill Trail
18. Cheeks Bend Bluff
17. Hidden Lake
16. Bledsoe Creek
Part 2, 11-15 (coming soon!)
Part 3, 6-10 (coming soon!)
Part 4, 1-5 (coming soon!)

20. Dunbar Cave

Dunbar Cave #5
Entrance to Dunbar Cave

Dunbar Cave State Park (website), Clarksville, Tennessee
1.9 mile loop via Recovery Trail and Lake Trail with shorter option available
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: N36.55095°, W87.30621°
Highlights: Striking cave entrance, lake shore, historical interest

Dunbar Cave has a rich history, most notably as a venue owned by Roy Acuff for live music, dancing, and radio broadcasts. This attractive loop trail passes through a forest of cedars and hardwoods, along the shore of spring-fed Swan Lake, and next to the cave entrance that forms a natural bandshell. Tours of the cave require reservations for one of their ranger-led programs. Over 8 miles of cave passages have been explored, and it is noteworthy for its large, sheltered entrance.

This is a very popular area and can become crowded. While the suburban setting never quite escapes the hustle and bustle of Clarksville, it’s a peaceful respite nonetheless, and a haven for waterfowl and wildlife.

Hike this loop clockwise, saving the best parts of the trail for last. Start at the marked trailhead by the upper parking lot and follow the Recovery Trail. You’ll quickly pass a trail leading to the cave that goes off to the right; keep going on the Recovery Trail. Go left at the next junction to stay on the Recovery Trail (you can take the Short Loop Trail if you’d like a 1.1 mile total route).  The path winds through mainly wooded areas, up a hill and along bottomland, before reaching the other end of the Short Loop Trail and the shore of Swan Lake.  Some stairs will take you to the mouth of the cave.  From there, it’s a short walk back to the parking area.

19. Jones Mill Trail

Jones Mill Trail #6
Gravel glade with a dramatic storm sky

Long Hunter State Park (website), Hermitage, Tennessee
4 mile double loop with shorter options available
Difficulty: Easy first loop, moderate second loop due to hill climb
Trailhead: N36.07455°, W86.50989°
Highlights: Wildflowers, cedar glades, lake views

One of the newer trails in the Nashville area, the Jones Mill Trail was designed for mountain bikes, but makes for a fine hiking experience too.  This double loop winds its way through forests and meadows, ranging from the shore of J. Percy Priest Lake to the top of Bald Knob.

A noteworthy feature of this trail is that it passes through several cedar glades.  This unique habitat occurs only in Tennessee and Kentucky.  Limestone bedrock is either exposed or covered only by a thin layer of soil, leading to plant life typically found in desert environments.  The Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) is one of the interesting species you might see along this trail.  This beautiful light-purple member of the sunflower family is found in less than ten locations, all within Davidson, Rutherford, and Wilson Counties.  Thought to be extinct in the 1960s, successful habitat preservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy and Tennessee State Parks have led to its removal from the endangered species list.

Bikers have the right-of-way on this trail: listen for them and be prepared to step aside and let them pass.  Note that there is wide variance of reported trail distances.  The park website lists it as 4.5 miles, and it’s commonly listed as 3.6 in hiking guides.  My GPS recorded 4 miles for the two loops as well as the shortcut connector in both directions.

Just past the trailhead, note the “Direction of Travel” arrow and follow it to do the first loop clockwise.  The trail will ascend gently through scrub brush and cedar glades, and there will almost always be wildflowers here during the warmer months.  At about 3/4 mile in, a shortcut trail leading to the right allows for a quick return to the trailhead.  The first loop completes in bottomland.  A short there-and-back segment crossing an old stone fence leads to the second loop.  Follow this loop clockwise as well, climbing the steep trail to the top of Bald Knob.  You’ll parallel the lake shore for the rest of the hike, completing the Bald Knob loop, then staying left when you reach the first loop.  The lake shore is easily accessible from this portion of the trail.

18. Cheeks Bend Bluff View Trail

Cheeks Bend Bluff View Trail #5
The Duck River seen from the top of the bluff

Duck River Complex State Natural Area (website), Columbia, Tennessee
1.8 mile balloon
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: N35.56813°, W86.88489°
Highlights: River view, cave

The Duck River is the most biologically diverse river in North America, home to over 500 species of plants, 150 of fish, and 50 of mussels.  It drains much of the southern portion of the Highland Rim, flowing into the Tennessee River southwest of Waverly.  The Cheeks Bend tract of the Duck River Complex protects an overlook of the river.

This is a trail that is simply fun to do.  My favorite part is a small cave leading from the top of the bluff to a riverside view below.  Note that the cave may be closed at times to protect bats from the spread of white-nose syndrome; please respect the closure if the signs are present.  The cave slopes downward steeply; watch your head! You’ll be able to see the light from one of its entrances throughout the passage.

From the trailhead, follow a there-and-back portion of the trail for about 3/4 mile to the loop junction.  Keep left, coming quickly to the riverside bluff.  After enjoying the view, look for the eye-catching blue and red blazes that denote the cave entrance, which is several steps behind you if you’re standing on the bluff facing the river.  As you complete the loop portion, the porous limestone geography that lends itself to caves is obvious in the sinkholes and exposed rock.

17. Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake Trail #6
Overlooking Hidden Lake from the ridge

Harpeth River State Park (website), Kingston Springs, Tennessee
1.9 mile double loop with shorter options available
Difficulty: Moderate due to bluff-top trail around lake
Trailhead: N36.08790°, W87.02458°
Highlights: River views, stone bluffs, beautiful lake, historical interest, wildlife

The Hidden Lake tract was recently added to Harpeth River State Park, which protects several segments of this 115-mile tributary of the Cumberland and provides nine access points for canoe and kayak launches.  This tract is easily accessed from McCrory Lane off I-40, and its appeal to both hikers and paddlers can lead to busy weekends.

This hike has a little something to offer to everyone.  Abundant wildlife and birds will please any naturalist.  Hidden Lake is formed by an abandoned quarry, and its deep blue waters make for picturesque views.  The trail is interesting, climbing the rim of the quarry to circle the lake.  The ruins of a resort from the 1940s add a little bit of long-ago pizazz to the hike.

The Blue Bird Loop Trail departs from the informational kiosk through a mowed path in a field, skirting the treeline at the banks of the Harpeth.  A feeder stream marks the edge of the meadow.  Follow the Hidden Lake Trail through heavier woods to a trail junction.  Stay left on the Hidden Lake Trail.  The steep bank to your right leads to one part of the quarry–scramble up it on the social trail if you like.  Soon you’ll near the Harpeth again, and just around the corner is the first view of Hidden Lake.  Climb the steep path around the edge of the quarry, enjoying several viewpoints over the waters.  Stay wary of the steep edge!  After skirting the lake, you’ll come to a junction with the Ridge Loop Trail.  Choose whichever path you like–they wind up in the same place.  A shortcut trail leads between the two halves of the loop.  As the two halves meet again, you’ll find the ruins of the resort at the side of the trail.  Turn left on the Hidden Lake Trail just as you complete your descent of the bluff and follow it back to the Blue Bird Loop Trail.  Take the half you didn’t follow before back to the trailhead.

16. Bledsoe Creek

Bledsoe Creek State Park #3
View over the Bledsoe Creek embayment of Old Hickory Lake

Bledsoe Creek State Park (website), Gallatin, Tennessee
3.1 mile loop with shorter options available
Difficulty: Moderate due to one steep climb
Trailhead: N36.37843°, W86.36026°
Highlights: Wildlife, lake views, peaceful forest and pastureland

I’m quite fond of Bledsoe Creek State Park, as I grew up near Gallatin and visited it many times.  Its lakeshore location makes for great wildlife viewing.  Hawks, herons, egrets, turtles, ducks, and geese are common sights along the shore.  The park is bordered to the north by open pastures, and the transitional zone between forest and meadow is prime habitat for whitetail deer.

The park also provides a special opportunity for natural encounters with the paved, ADA-compliant Mayo Wix and Birdsong Nature Trails.  A long boardwalk and a boat dock are good viewpoints for wildlife watching as well.

Start at the Mayo Wix Trailhead, following the paved path to the Shoreline Trail.  At the first junction, turn left for the quickest route, stay straight for a slightly longer one, or go right for the long way.  After checking out the wildlife viewing area, follow the Shoreline Trail along the Bledsoe Creek embayment.  You’ll pass near camping sites and cross a park road.  The trail goes through a wider bottomland to the junction with the High Ridge Trail.  Get ready, because the High Ridge Trail starts with a bang as it ascends a steep hill to (you guessed it!) the top of a ridge.  The trail meanders along the ridge, with forest to the left and pasture to the right.  You’ll pass junctions with the Owl Ridge Trail and a shortcut as the trail descends back to bottomland.  After crossing the road by the park entrance, use the Mayo Wix Trail to return to the starting point.

Safe Hiking

Hiking is a fun activity, but a bit of preparation will pay off in comfort, enjoyment, and safety. Adventure Alan’s excellent article 13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker will help you be prepared with gear and skills to stay safe on the trail.

Leave No Trace

As we are fortunate to have such wonderful natural treasures to enjoy, so are we obligated to protect and preserve them. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a wonderful resource to learn about using these beautiful places in a manner that will leave them for future generations. Their 7 Principles should guide you in all your outdoor activities.

Geek Stuff

I recorded all tracks with either a Garmin GPSMap 60CSx or a Garmin GPSMap 64s. I cleaned the tracks to remove spurious points and split into separate trails (to allow each trail to be individually labelled) in Garmin’s BaseCamp software. I imported the tracks into CalTopo to generate the topographic map, then edited the resulting image in Adobe PhotoShop to add captions and icons.

All photographs were taken by me using either a Canon EOS 10D or a Canon 5D Mark II (with maybe the odd iPhone shot thrown in for good measure). I usually hike with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens, which is a good combination of versatility, image quality, and weight. I occasionally use a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS, or a Canon EF 17-40 f/4L.

Disclaimer

It unfortunately bears saying, in our litigious culture, that you are responsible for your own safety while hiking. This includes evaluation of your own abilities and limitations, bringing proper equipment, evaluating the current conditions of a trail, learning appropriate outdoor skills such as navigation and safety around wildlife, and much more. I assume no liability for any consequence arising from your use of the information provided here, from any omission, or from any out-of-date or obsolete information.

Book Review – The Solace of Open Spaces

1669903 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.

Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.

The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.

The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.

Book Review – Some Kind of Courage

255784084 stars. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is equal parts adventurous, thrilling, and touching. All that young Joseph Johnson has left of his family is his pony Sarah, and now she’s been sold to a no-count horse trader against his will. He sets off to get her back, encountering bandits, whitewater, a grizzly, and other dangers, as well as unexpected friendship and sense of belonging.

Gemeinhart’s talent is that he writes both action and emotion very well. Told in Joseph’s folksy first-person narration, the book is readable both for the theme and the plot. I tore through it fairly quickly, starting it in the evening and finishing it on lunch break the next day, excited to read both the bittersweet and the valedictory moments of Joseph’s adventure.

The only real flaw of the book is that there are some moments that feel a little “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-esque, slightly overwrought with morality and message. Neither bad nor emotionally manipulative, mind you, just a little sweetly maudlin.

I continue to be impressed with Dan Gemeinhart’s writing; he’s talented with words, characters, and story. Some Kind of Courage is one of those books that is instantly appealing. Recommended for adventure and animal lovers of all ages.

Book Review – Code Name Verity

134817485 stars. Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity is the story of two friends in World War II. Maddie is a working-class girl who is good with engines and fascinated by airplanes. She befriends Julie, a quick-witted woman from Scottish gentry. As war tears through Britain, Maddie becomes a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and people to aid the war effort. Julie becomes an agent for the Special Operations Executive. Their lives intersect over and over, until the fateful mission that has Maddie flying her best friend to France. They are shot down, with Julie captured by the Gestapo and Maddie hiding with the French Resistance.

The gripping account is told first through Julie’s written confession for the Gestapo and then Maddie’s anguished narration as she tries to both keep hidden and rescue her best friend. Either perspective is a pageturner on its own. The combination of the two is even more powerful. Wein gives connections between the two stories that add depth, explanation, and resonance to what has already been revealed. I suspect that I’ll need a rereading to pick up on some of the more subtle threads that bind the two women together.

Chief among the literary tools that make Code Name Verity such a thriller is effective use of the unreliable narrator. I’m not sure how much truth there is in Julie’s confession–nor do I want her to be truthful! It’s refreshing to read a book where this device is relevant to the story rather than just being used for its own sake.

Extensive research by the author is obvious in the realistic feeling of the era. War jargon, events, atmosphere, and details contribute to the verisimilitude of the book. The attitudes of the times, especially towards women and the service they provided, reflect in the characters. Maddie’s desire to fly, and willingness to do so in whatever capacity she can, is central to her character; I understand and empathize with her.

Code Name Verity packs quite an emotional punch as well. There are plenty of moments of triumph, heartbreak, terror, and suspense. The relationship between Julie and Maddie is central to the story, and the connection between them was well crafted. Their worry for each other heightens the anguish of their separation and drove the tension of the story.

Code Name Verity is a fantastic book that I’ll read again for sure. Elizabeth Wein has created a well-written, compulsively readable story that thrills and moves.

Book Review – Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

93419094 stars. Philip Connors details one year of his eight spent as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico in Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, penning a literate and enjoyable volume on nature, life, history, and philosophy that could only come from someone with a love for solitude and lots of time for reflection. Hiking 8 miles each way to his tower, Connors was stationed from April to August to watch for puffs of smoke. Once smoke was spotted, he coordinated with other lookouts and fire response crews as the fire was suppressed, contained, or allowed to burn.

The main focus of the book is solitude–its effect on him and how he dealt with it. His pleasure at simply enjoying his environment and the companionship of his dog Alice is obvious. His descriptions of the sights that he sees–trees, rivers, mountain ranges, animals–are all evocative without being overly flowery. If you get the idea that there’s not a lot of action in this book, you’re right; read it for the author’s eye and command of phrasing rather than expecting a thrill-a-minute pageturner.

Central to Connors’ writing is an exploration of man’s relationship to land. He gives a good account of how our understanding of nature has evolved from a policy of total suppression of fire to realization that fire is part of the natural course of renewal.

The weakest parts of the book for me were several long passages discussing other writers who have been fire lookouts such as Norman Maclean and Edward Abbey. There’s a lot of hero worship for Jack Kerouac that I found a bit tedious. I wanted to hear Connors’ voice, not the lengthy quotes from other authors!

I particularly enjoyed his recounting of the history of the area, especially that of Apache chief Victorio and his 1879-80 campaign to keep freedom for his people. That story is equal parts noble and heartbreaking.

It’s rare that I enjoy a book about not much happening as much as I did with Philip Connors’ Fire Season. A thoughtful, enjoyable read that I recommend for lovers of mountains and nature.

Book Review – The Girl Who Drank the Moon

281108522017 Newbery Medal recipient.

5 stars. Kelly Barnhill hits all the perfect notes for a satisfying middle grade fantasy in The Girl Who Drank the Moon. The story combines fantasy and fairy tale elements with dear characters, told with a sense of wonder and whimsy.

The Protectorate keeps its citizens safe from the surrounding forest and the witch who rules it by an annual sacrifice of the youngest baby in the community. The witch, Xan, is a kindhearted soul who rescues the babies, living in harmony with the world-wise yet sweet swamp monster Glerk and the hilariously hyper, undersized dragon Fyrian. Xan accidentally gifts one of the babies with magic. As Luna grows into her gifts, a madwoman in a tower and a young man in the Protectorate both seek to confront the witch.

After the initial scene where Luna is left in the woods, the plot is slow and meandering at first–interesting and pastoral, but not driven by events. The author takes the time to let the story unfold, and about halfway through I found myself reading it breathlessly to see how the threads would come together.

Barnhill’s world is creative; she builds it well through the eyes and ears of her characters. Her system of magic is interesting. The hints of the world beyond the scope of this story make it feel large; I’d love to hear some of the stories that are only mentioned in passing here.

What makes this book so darn likeable is the characters. Dialog is rich, and each character has a distinct personality and behaves in accordance with that personality. And the heart of the book is the bonds between Luna, Xan, Glerk, and Fyrian; they act out of love for one another. Even the bad characters can be understood (an improvement over the usual fairy tale tropes).

Themes are weighty: deception, safety vs. freedom, coming of age, the cost of our decisions. They are thoughtfully presented, and not dumbed down at all. I also appreciate that Barnhill respects the maturity of her audience enough to allow the dark moments to come through in her story. And there are certainly some moments that have intense impact; bad things definitely happen and there are characters who are truly evil.

Prose is warm, presented with a unique voice: a little rambling, a little whimsical, and always a pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed the dialog. The interplay between Glerk and Fyrian is wonderful. Check out this little gem of warmth and humor:

[Glerk:] “We are going on a journey.”
“A real journey?” Fyrian said. “You mean, away from here?”
“That is the only kind of journey, young fellow.”

Everything about this exciting, wise, kind, and well-written gem of a story worked for me. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is well-deserving of its many accolades, and it just might become a classic of children’s literature.