Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Middle of Nowhere

We started at a beginning. We're not exactly sure where our particular beginning was, but it was definitely a beginning. There were questions, apprehensions, and the all too familiar sense that we needed to get somewhere. Where should we go?

Once we started walking, we didn't much care where we got to—so long as we got somewhere. We were sure to do that if we only walked long enough.

After more walking, we forgot that we were trying to get somewhere. We forgot where somewhere was. We forgot what it was or why anyone would want to get there. We just walked.

We had nowhere to be. Nowhere was where we were and nowhere was where we liked it. When you're nowhere, you don't have to try and get somewhere. When you're nowhere, you can be anywhere. When you're nowhere, you can be right here.

Nowhere is just the place to write a song. We had enough songs about passing through somewhere. We wanted songs about actually being there. Songs about that bear over there or that cabin high up there. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere with space to think about where we were. Not that place way down low at the base of the mountain where we started. Not that place way up high where the wind blows and clouds get in your way. Just here. Right here in the middle of the mountain—the middle of nowhere.

The End 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Keep On Keepin' On!

Sparky & Rhonda

We jumped off the trail for a day to go hang out with folk musicians, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. Sparky has been a performing musician for 50 years and his wife, Rhonda, was a doctor before she decided to trade in her stethoscope for a harmonica and join him. They have been recording and performing together for quite some time and had a lot to teach us about the folk music tradition.

It turns out that much of the music from this area comes from a unique blend of cultures. The songs from the Irish and Scottish immigrants got combined with the rhythms and instruments of the Africans (turns out the banjo is from Africa). The songs often have what Sparky and Rhonda called “blue notes”. These are special expressive notes that kinda bend and were used in many African work songs. They were usually sad sounding notes but can sometimes show up in songs that are happy. This gives them more of a periwinkle color in our opinion.

After playing together, Sparky and Rhonda put away their instruments to tell us the importance of mountain songs that don’t use any instruments. Most times, folks didn’t have anything to play on so they just used their voices. Wished we would’ve known that before we carried our guitar and banjo up and down the Appalachian hills for 15 days. They taught us an old a capella tune about camping in the wilderness. What a great theme song!

McAfee Knob

Outside the town of Roanoke, Virginia is a place considered to be the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail. A quick Google image search will show you just how photographed it is. McAfee knob is a little spot of rock that juts out over the Catawba Valley offering magnificent views of the landscape below as well as a natural little stage to pose for a picture.

We got to the knob around lunchtime hoping to observe the panoramic viewpoint, however, things looked a little strange to us. The green trees looked strangely white. The rolling hills were also very white. The blue sky was white. The houses, roads, and rivers in the valley all looked very white.

We were reminded of a story we heard of a man named Bill Irwin. He was a blind hiker who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with his Seeing-Eye dog. He probably didn’t hike for the view at McAfee Knob. What drove him to be outdoors was likely something very different. Often times we think the view from the top is the true motivation for climbing a mountain. However, once the view is blocked by the inside of a passing cloud, it becomes clear that adventure is more about being humbled while facing something much bigger than us.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mountain Music


In the town of Floyd, Virginia, there sits a place called the Floyd Country Store. Every Friday evening they host a dance called the Jamboree. They do a special type of dancing called clogging (some call it flat-footing as well as other names). Clogging in the Appalachian Mountains is a type of social dancing. Joe took a few lessons on how to clog before we left for the trip and he even packed along his cloggin’ shoes!

The band began to play and we worked harder on that dance floor than we did carrying our packs on the trail. The people ‘round here must really be in shape because they weren’t sweating as much as we were. Or maybe we were just having more fun. Hard to say. One thing’s for sure; we learned a thing or two about square dancing.


We met a remarkable musician named Elizabeth LaPrelle during our continued exploration of Appalachian music. We got to sit down with her at her home in Rural Retreat, Virginia. She played some songs with us as well as told us about her interest in old-time Appalachian music. She particularly likes old ballads. Ballads are songs that tell a story (like the story of when old Justin spilled pipin’ hot beans on his foot at dinner time).

Now, Elizabeth—we call her Elizabeth for short—has really taken to the old time music tradition despite being quite young. She told us that one of the reasons she likes the old mountain music is because it helps her connect to the folks who lived a long time ago. It can be hard to understand what life was like before there were microphones, video cameras, and Denny’s. However, Elizabeth finds the old songs of the Appalachian area to be a very helpful tool. She says that the songs she sings have been passed from person to person through the years. Kinda like a gigantic, multi-generational game of telephone.


The rainclouds finally cleared and we hiked through 4 days of sun. We climbed up rocks, walked through a cave, slept in the wind, and met a lot of cool people hiking the trail. We began to notice that nearly every single person out hiking the Appalachian Trail had a story. Their reasons for hiking were all very different, but all wanted the same thing; adventure.

Adventure becomes easy to find when all the distractions of your normal life begin dissolving away. The things we normally worry about such as, “how cool is my phone and does it have internet and how fast is that internet and how much money does it cost and how am I going to get that money?” all become very heavy to carry on your back. What becomes important is the simple stuff. What am I going to eat? Where am I going to sleep? How far can I walk today? That’s when we start looking for things to leave behind in order to lighten the load. I don’t need that MP3 player—I’ll sing my own songs. I don’t want to carry my video games—the screen looks too dull anyhow. I don’t need that e-reader—I’ll make my own story.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The Raining Waterfall

We’ve been out for a full 7 days and it has rained for 6.  At first, we were just happy it wasn’t snow. Then the rain started to dampen our spirits a little bit. After 6 days, we were just plain sick and tired of all the wet.

We had heard about a waterfall in an area called, The Grayson Highlands. You might not believe us, but it was the perfect place to be on a rainy day. We pretended the raindrops were simply coming from the spray of the waterfall and we forgot all about the actual rain for a while (even though we were still standing in it). After climbing to the top and looking out over the loud stream of water, the rain began to come down somethin’ fierce.  We decided we better find some shelter.

Wild Ponies

That same day, the rain turned off for a spell while we hiked a hilly section of the Grayson Highlands. As we came to the top of a rise, we were met by a herd of wild ponies. Now, I don’t know if you knew this, but ponies are not baby horses. Newborn horses are called foals (colts for males/fillies for females), young horses are called yearlings, and a pony is a miniature horse (we done learnt all this in an upper-division college course: My Little Ponies 301).

Since these ponies were considered wild, they don’t get haircuts like most other horses you may have seen. Their manes were long and covered their eyes. Their bodies were uncombed and kinda shaggy. They didn’t even have jobs! They just roamed the hills all day eating and writing existential pony poetry. Here’s one we heard:

Do I like to eat thistles?
Do I like to eat sticks and dead leaves?
Do I like to eat granola?

Justin really liked naming the ponies. There was Biter (he liked to bite), Sleepyface (he liked to sleep), and Nibbles (I reckon I don’t recall what Nibbles did). Then there was also Rainbow Dash, Snuzzle, Firefly, and Sundance. Don’t ask me where he came up with those…

The Wright Kids

The other day we met up with a family of kid musicians. Sage was the eldest and she played fiddle and mandolin. Baruch played guitar and banjo. Levi played bass (and could also eat his body weight in banana pudding). Selah was the singer for the group. Well, they all sang. They all sang REALLY well--and you wouldn’t believe how incredibly they played.  We couldn’t even keep up!

They were really young (compared to us) and when we asked them how they got to be so good at their age, they said, “Practice.” I guess we’d better go get our lesson books out again and keep practicing. Maybe one day we’ll be half as good as they are. Here’s a picture of them:

From left to right it goes: Justin, Sage, Selah, Levi, Baruch, and Joe

 Well, we gotta run. Joe left his tent open and it's starting to rain again. Catch ya later!

Monday, May 6, 2013

And...we're off!

We’ve packed our toothbrushes and water bottles. We’re leaving behind the microwave and massage chair. We’ve traded in our canoe paddles for trekking poles and we’re heading to the Appalachian Mountains. We’ll hike part of the Appalachian Trail, learn about old-time mountain music, and spend a month living in one pair of underpants (maybe a few more than that).

If we can, we’ll keep you up-to-date as we go along. Not sure how many internet trees they have in Appalachia, but all we know is that it’s going to be great to get away from all that Minnesota snow.

Mountain Music Minstrel

Down in Ashville, NC lives a fella named David Holt. He is an authority when it comes to Appalachian-style music. In fact, Justin learned how to play the banjo from one of David’s instructional videos back in high school. David grew up in Texas and became fascinated with the old-time music of the Appalachian Mountains.

He showed us instruments like the mountain banjo (which is a lot different than the one Justin plays), steel guitar (which is a lot different than the one Joe plays), and the mouth bow. He also taught us about some cool percussion instruments like the washboard, spoons, and bones (rib bones from a cow).

Finding Our Trail Legs

We did our first Appalachian Trail (AT) hike on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. We loaded up our packs and walked 10 miles. This section of the trail was heavily wooded and went up 2000ft of elevation (whew!). We met a lot of folks along the way including a guy who was hiking in his bare feet. Made us feel spoiled in our fancy hiking boots.

Everyone we met on the trail had a trail name. A trail name is like a nickname used specifically while you're hiking. These names are given to you by fellow hikers (no naming your own self) and kind of describe something unique about the person. We met folks named, Nugget, Taskmaster, Pack Rat, Kombucha, U-Turn, Lotus, Chainsaw, Gypsy Dave, Tumbleweed, and Zach Galifinakis.

It turns out that hiking downhill is more difficult than uphill—who knew? We arrived to our campsite sore and tired from the 10-mile trek. Since this was our first hike, we didn’t get special nicknames of our own. Hopefully we’ll find them further up the trail.

Hiking The Clouds

The other day we climbed up to a special place on the trail called Max Patch (Google that one). We were told it’s the best view this side of the Mississippi. Rolling hills, fluffy clouds, and gentle breezes on a patch of field 4600 feet above sea level. However, we picked the wrong day.

At the summit we were met with 50 mph winds, rain, hail, and nothin’ to see ‘cept for nothin’.  It’s pretty hard to roll cameras in conditions like that, but we went the extra mile to show you what hiking through a cloud is like.