Keeping the Trains on Time at Tweetsie Railroad

 

Locomotive No. 12 is the only surviving engine from the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which operated from 1882-1950. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

BLOWING ROCK, N.C. – Scott McLeod has had a dozen or more jobs at Tweetsie Railroad, including cowboy actor, pyrotechnician and haunted house designer, but he’s hanging on to the one he has now.

He supervises the train shop that keeps Tweetsie’s two locomotives rolling through the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Blowing Rock and Boone, N.C.

This is a big year for McLeod because it’s the both 60th anniversary year of the western-themed park and the 100th birthday of the park’s biggest attraction, locomotive No. 12. No. 12 the only surviving locomotive from the real-life East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad that stopped chugging through the mountains in 1950.

Scott McLeod and his team keep the trains running at Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

Describing No. 12 as the park’s biggest attraction is literal. It may be a narrow-gauge locomotive, but it’s still hefty and powerful. It rolled out of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1917 measuring 54 feet long and weighing 60 tons.

No. 12 and the younger No. 190, also built at Baldwin in 1943, carry passengers in open-air coaches on a three-mile loop multiple times a day. You can ride as many times as you like, watching the scenery go by and laughing along with a very campy show featuring cowboys, train robbers, Indians and frontier soldiers.

How campy is campy? It’s fun enough for the kids on the train to shout out warnings to the good guys when the train robbers are sneaking up on them and tongue-in-cheek enough for the adults to snicker good naturedly, such as when the train robbers introduce themselves as Texas Pete, Tabasco, Picante and Cayenne – the Hot Sauce Gang.

Cowboys in North Carolina? Why, sure, since they are characters in the comedic train robbery skit at Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

In addition to train rides, the 200-acre park offers 14 very child-friendly rides and six shows. One of the shows features high-kicking mountain clogging and pays tribute to nearby Tennessee by featuring “Rocky Top” as the closing dance number.

There are a classic carousel and an open-air chairlift, both ideal of family photos of children, parents and grandparents. At the highest point in the park is a place for the children to feed goats, deer and other animals.

McLeod says he never had to perform in the clogging show or herd goats, but he’s dedicated enough that he’d try if called upon. Instead, he’d rather work on No. 12 or No. 190 or offer help to owners of steam locomotives across the U.S.

Tweetsie Railroad’s train shop is respected nationally for providing or repairing what McLeod calls “pieces and parts” to trains at Disney World, Cedar Point, Busch Gardens, Carowinds, Knott’s Berry Farm, Dorney Park, Six Flags St. Louis and many other places spread across the country.

“They send wheel assemblies, air compressors, brake components, drive wheels, road and more to us to work on,” McLeod said, adding that the Tweetsie shop has done full restoration jobs on locomotives, although those are less common.

When the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which once connected Johnson City, Tenn., with Boone, N.C., went out of business in 1950, locomotive No. 12 was bought by railroad enthusiasts in Harrisonburg, Va. Their idea for a tourist attractions got derailed, and Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins Jr. brought it back home in 1956 and opened the Tweetsie Railroad attraction in 1957. That grew into North Carolina’s first theme park.

Locomotive No. 12 pulls open-air coaches on a three-mile loop through the wooded hills of Tweetsie Railroad. (Photo © Tom Adkinson)

“Every day I’ve been around No. 12, I’ve wished it could talk and tell me stories about the people who have been on it over the past century. With proper care, No. 12 will run indefinitely,” McLeod said.

Tweetsie Railroad is open weekends in spring and autumn and daily in summer, and it will have its first Tweetsie Christmas season this year on Friday and Saturday evenings from Nov. 24-Dec. 30. Tweetsie Railroad is a member of Southern Highlands Attractions, a collection of 20 classic tourist attractions, including See Rock City, Luray Caverns and the Barter Theatre.

Six Attractions Along the QLine in Detroit

Detroit’s QLine is is getting visitors and locals moving on Woodward Avenue. (Photo by Bill Bowen)

DETROIT, Mich. – The most popular wheels in Detroit today aren’t made of rubber and aren’t attached to shiny automobiles rolling off assembly lines at Motor City plants. They are the steel wheels underneath the carriages of the QLine, the city’s new foray into mass transit.

In one sense, the QLine is simple. It’s only on one street, and it’s only 3.3 miles long, but the impact it is having for visitors and locals alike is substantial. Along its route are sport facilities, theaters, restaurants, a medical center, a major university, retail location (including one that’s making Detroit shine) and restaurants.

What’s impressive – besides quick trips in sleek-looking cars – is that the QLine is a major transportation project led and funded by private businesses and philanthropies in partnership with local, state and federal governments.

It opened in May 2017, and fares are modest ($1.50 for three hours of hopping on and off, or $3 for a 24-hour pass).

The route is up and down Woodward Avenue, a main thoroughfare through the middle of the city. Just past one end are the Detroit Riverwalk and its views to Windsor, Ontario, and at the other end is West Grand Boulevard.

Here are six attractions along the way.

This Tiger roars at Comercia Park along Detroit’s QLine. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Sports Galore – Regardless of the corporate sponsor, Comercia Bank, it’s difficult not to think of Comercia Park as Tiger Stadium, home of baseball’s Detroit Tigers. It’s smack-dab downtown, and immediately behind it is Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The almost-finished Little Caesars Arena will be the home of the NHL Detroit Red Wings and the NBA Detroit Pistons. Can you say sports mania?

Fox Theatre – This 5,000-seat palace was among the five spectacular Fox Theatres built in the 1920s (others in Atlanta, Brooklyn, St. Louis and San Francisco). It was fully and grandly restored in 1988 and is a National Historic Landmark. On the fall calendar are Paramore, Sturgill Simpson, a touring production of “Kinky Boots” and a holiday run of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.”

Save your nickels and dimes for a Detroit-made Shinola watch. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Shinola – Surely you know this is a brand of American-made luxury goods, not a shoe polish. There’s a great story at the Shinola store just a block off Woodward Avenue, even if you’re not in the market for a handmade watch, a sleek bicycle or plush leather goods. It’s simply nice to see top-quality goods from a company that’s been on a mission since 2011.

That’s no ordinary corn dog at Grey Ghost. It’s really octopus. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Grey Ghost – Great food in a reviving location is the attraction at Grey Ghost, an instantly successful restaurant that opened in 2016 between the Brush Park and Midtown neighborhoods. The beer and whiskey selections are hefty, and the chefs sometimes are quite sly – that corndog on the appetizer menu doesn’t have a frankfurter in the middle; it’s really octopus.

Diego Rivera’s murals are among Detroit’s true treasures. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Detroit Institute of Art – Go to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see its amazing Diego Rivera murals that tell the stories of Detroit’s industrial past and stay to roam through gallery after gallery of 65,000 works of art from the earliest civilizations to the present day. It is an encyclopedic collection that never could be consumed in one visit.

Michigan Science Center – The QLine can take you to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) experience, too, at the Michigan Science Center. Geek out at its planetarium, IMAX theater, 250 hands-on exhibits and even live stage shows. Science is far from boring here.

Visitor information about all aspects of Detroit is at VisitDetroit.com.

The Sound of Music, Kansas-Style

IN THE FLINT HILLS OF KANSAS – Outside the isolation chamber that is my automobile, I’m not one for sing-alongs – but I changed my tune as a full orchestra pushed the melody of “Home on the Range” across the Kansas prairie and 7,000 people began to sing.

The giant Kansas sky crowns the site of the Symphony in the Flint Hills (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The occasion was the Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual concert/picnic/party that draws an appreciative crowd into wide-open spaces for stirring music, a celebrity guest performer, a panoramic sunset and that “Home on the Range” sing-along.

It is no small accomplishment to set up a stage, import the Kansas City Symphony, erect pavilions, arrange catering and address all of the other needs of a crowd of thousands, but it happens every summer for a good cause.

That cause is heightening the public’s appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, a region of the state that seems big but is only a tiny portion of the prairie that once covered the middle of North America. Of the 170 million acres of prairie that existed before settlement, only about 4 percent remain.

Event organizers think good thoughts all year for a dramatic sunset on the night of the symphony. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A not-so-simple birthday party was the origin of the prairie concert.  In 1994, a rancher named Jane Koger celebrated her birthday by inviting the public to her Homestead Ranch for what she called the “Symphony on the Prairie.” More than 3,000 people came, demonstrating how a magical union between symphonic music and the prairie landscape can be created.

Ten years later, a grassroots organization (pun intended) formed to increase awareness of the prairie, and it presented the first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006. People now come from around the world to experience the magic that began with that long-ago birthday party.

The 2017 Symphony in the Flint Hills is June 10 on the Deer Horn Ranch between Abilene and Manhattan and a few miles south of Junction City. It’s a long way from the Kansas City Symphony’s fancy home, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The guest artist is Michael Martin Murphey (singer of “Wildfire,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “What’s Forever For” and a real-life rancher).

Pre-concert entertainment includes jostling rides on covered wagons. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A special aspect of the 2017 concert is a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, the cattle-drive route from Texas to Kansas in the decades after the Civil War. The lush grasslands of the Flint Hills were the cattle’s destination for some fattening up before becoming protein for a hungry nation.

Of course, there are ways to learn about the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie beyond a one-day concert.

·      *   Start at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Cottonwood Falls, a speck of a town with a beautiful courthouse, a surprisingly nice hotel and restaurant (the Grand Central Hotel, built in 1884), art galleries and the offices of the Symphony in the Flint Hills. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which encompasses 11,000 acres of rolling hills where buffalo really did roam, is a unit of the National Park Service.

·     *     Visit the Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery in Cottonwood Falls for art exhibits, special programs and community events.

·    *     To do more than observe, spend a few days at the Flying W Ranch near Cedar Point, where you can ride horses, drive cattle, hike, marvel at dramatic sunsets and gaze at the stars. Josh, Gwen and Josie Hoy will make sure you understand the importance of the prairie, and they will feed you well, too.

·      *    If your time is short, invest it in the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. Through permanent and temporary exhibits, videos and demonstrations, the center explains the geology, ecology and cultural history of the 22-county Flint Hills region.

My idea of the ultimate experience is a stay at the Flying W, a personal exploration of the region using Cottonwood Falls as home base and the rousing finale at the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

I learned that “Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, but if I get back, I’m going to request an extra sing-along of “Don’t Fence Me In,” another fitting song for the location:

                       “Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above/

                       Don’t fence me in./

                       Let me ride through that wide open country that I love/

                      Don’t fence me in.”

It’s a full concert experience at the Symphony in the Flint Hills every summer. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

 

Expert advice: See a bear, make some noise

This bear wandered off before I had a chance to say, “Boo!” I promise. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wants me to do something that goes against every outdoor-loving fiber of my body. If I’m lucky enough to see a black bear, the symbol of America’s most visited national park, he’d appreciate it if I would make a ruckus, startle the bear and make it run away into the woods.

“Can’t I take a picture first?” I implored.

He smiled, didn’t answer directly and repeated what he said earlier about making a big noise.

Stiver, of course, was being theatrical – I think – but his point was clear. He doesn’t want bears to associate humans with anything good, even benign neglect. He wants bears to go the other way when they see a human.

The problem isn’t the bears. It’s the humans who aren’t smart enough, or respectful enough, to keep their distance from bears and understand that they are guests in the bears’ home, not that the bears are there for their amusement, photographic or otherwise.

Stiver explained that the absolute worst thing a human can do is try to feed bears or to leave human food or trash where bears can get to it. That’s especially important in campgrounds and at backcountry campsites in the park and at the vacation cabins that are near the park’s boundary.

“The saying is true that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’,” Stiver said, explaining that bears that associate humans with food are a danger and that he has successfully lured a nuisance bear into a trap using a single M&M as the bait. Stiver and other wildlife professionals will trap and relocate nuisance bears, but if they continue to return to where they interact with humans, euthanizing them can be the result.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to about 1,500 bears spread throughout its 522,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina. Even under normal circumstances, your odds of seeing one are slim, and you won’t have much opportunity to be a noisy visitor or to take a photo anyway.

Signs for Life in a Chinese Canyon

Three of 12 waterfalls. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Three of 12 waterfalls on a hike in China’s Tongling Mountain National Forest Park. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

WENCHENG COUNTY, China – The forest resembled Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the waterfalls could have been in Yosemite, but the signs along the trail were pure China.

They told us a bit about where we were, and despite mangled syntax and odd spellings, they made it perfectly clear that if we fell off a cliff, it was our own fault. We’d been warned.

We were about three hours’ drive inland from the coastal metropolis of Wenzhou and in a range of rugged mountains blanketed with deciduous trees and accented by a crashing river we heard long before we could see it.

We were eager to explore Tongling Mountain National Forest Park and begin a promised hike. We had a hint of what lay ahead because of the winding and steep ascent to the trailhead in a tour bus, but that didn’t quite prepare us for our walk down a canyon wall, rock-hopping river crossings and a protracted hike back up a gorge.

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The hike began inauspiciously on a solid stone staircase that would have made the Civilian Conservation Corps proud. A sign portended a change. It read:

“It is not my fault to reflect magic

and dangerous with steep and narrow,

it is your fault that forget your safety

while enjoy the sight.”

The translation was clear:

“If you’re so absentminded

 that you fall off the edge,

you’ve only yourself to blame.”

The trail actually wasn’t bad at all, and it was a marvel of backcountry construction. In places, it was a catwalk suspended over open space.

The wide stone steps morphed into circular timbers, then planks of wood and then into steel mesh resting on steel rods driven into the rock walls of the gorge. Handrails were common – and welcomed. The amount of human labor (almost none of this could have been done with machinery) was impressive.

Why did the Chinese go to such lengths? The answer was in the signs – the trail builders appreciated nature’s glory. One sign with three messages offered these thoughts:

“Here, the nature’s uncanny workmanship has created the mountains, rivers, forest and valley.”

“Here, let us make appoint far away with the mortal life!”

“Here, people will be intoxicated by the harmony of the voice of wind, water and birds.”

Again, the translation was clear:

“Drink in the beauty of these mountains. Enjoy a respite from your daily life.”

7-three-part-signWhat surrounded us soon shifted from merely impressive to outright spectacular. The cascading river far across the canyon had blasted out one beautiful plunge pool after another.

It was a thing of pure beauty – a narrow white waterfall crashed into a blue-green pool, which led to another waterfall and another pool, over and over again – 12 times in all.

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

We finally reached the bottom of the canyon, took the obligatory group photo (our Chinese hosts insisted on group photos absolutely everywhere we went), crossed the river on a bridge made of circular stone steps resembling pier pilings and began the climb back up.

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

This time, however, the trail was immediately beside the waterfalls and plunge pools. Signs provided the names of each pool, which the Chinese called ponds. We climbed along Gourd Pond, Belle Pond and Dragon Princess Pond. A favorite was Connect Heart Pond, so named because its outline resembles a heart.

At the top of the climb – after walking across a small dam and admiring a reservoir where golden koi flashed in the still water – was a manmade surprise, a teahouse in the middle of nowhere.

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks were our reward – along with time to contemplate two signs we had passed:

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters, and harmony coexists with landscapes.”

“Protrcting the environmenr is a responsibility.

“Caring for the environment is a virtue.”

Spelling be damned, the day’s message was clear.

"Civilization lives with mountains and waters."

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters.”

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Super Hiking above Wenzhou

trailhead

Daluo Mountain’s trail start at this lakeside village. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

WENZHOU, China – Most Americans who have even heard of this city of 9 million know it as a manufacturing and export city, but it is trying to enhance its leisure visitor credentials and has one attraction of major proportions.

Towering above Wenzhou, a coastal city between Shanghai and Hong Kong, is Daluo Mountain, a trail-laced retreat from a bustling metropolis where the best job may be leasing construction cranes. The number of high-rise buildings under construction is almost indescribable, but those manmade towers can’t rival Daluo Mountain.

My group of American and Canadian convention attendees kept looking out the windows as our bus charged up a two-lane road hugging the side of the mountain as the city grew smaller and smaller.

Daluo Mountain is in a region of ridges and valleys. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Daluo Mountain is in a region of ridges and valleys. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The bus dropped us at a little village tucked into a divot in the mountain just 12 miles from city center. Vendors had lively businesses selling snacks, water and a few souvenirs. Westerners, of course, are unusual here. The trails’ primary users are locals. Especially evident when we visited were college students, presumably from a sprawling campus at the base of the mountains.

East met West on the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

East met West on the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Some local hikers had colorful accessories. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Some local hikers had colorful accessories. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

An hour-long, calf-challenging ascent was primarily on a concrete walkway through bamboo corridors and along ridges of deciduous trees that should have been showing autumn colors but that hadn’t started turning.

As we neared the crest of our chosen trail, views opened to several vistas that showed Daluo Mountain was part of a sizable ridge and canyon region.

Most of the trail was staircases concrete. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Most of the trail was staircases of concrete. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Instead of doing an about-face for the expected out-and-back hike, guides told us to press on. We noticed that almost all of the local hikers who had been with us earlier had returned the way they came.

Our continuation was on a more traditional natural-surface trail, and our reward was a placid mountaintop lake, which popped into sight when we emerged from a stand of trees.

We didn't expect a placid lake on the mountaintop. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

We didn’t expect a placid lake on the mountaintop. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The descent from the lake put us back on concrete staircases similar to those at the start of the hike, testing a different set of leg muscles. A stream that flowed from the lake provided a soundtrack for part of the downhill walk.

Our hike became almost a full loop. Our motorcoach met us a few hundred yards up the road from the trailhead in the village we had left about three hours earlier.

Urban planners have a grand scheme for cable cars, trams and visitor facilities, but what’s available now works quite nicely.

"Enjoy the excellent journey," indeed. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

“Enjoy the excellent journey,” indeed. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

#

Dancing in the Daylight

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

ZHANGYE, China — If you’d told me a month ago that I’d wake up one morning in the middle of China and shoot photos of a plump, matronly woman wearing a white mask, red shoes, red gloves, and a red jacket while wielding a gleaming silver sword as she danced before a smiling golden Buddha draped in what appeared to be a Go Big Orange beach towel, I’d have said, “Nah, never happen.”

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

(Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Ducking Donald and Hillary

Tai chi in Wenzhou. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Tai chi in Wenzhou. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The People’s Republic of China shielded me from 95 percent of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign’s final three weeks. For that, I am grateful to the Chinese.

A business trip took me to Wenzhou, a city you’ve probably never heard of, but its 9 million residents have a hefty impact on world commerce. A journey out the ancient Silk Road followed.

CNN and the BBC were on most hotel TV menus, and only occasionally was access blocked to the Washington Post and New York Times websites, but why bother with the acrimony and drama of Donald and Hillary when diversions were so abundant?

For instance:

  • Hiking Daluo Mountain above Wenzhou
  • Admiring the waterfalls of Tongling Mountain National Forest Park near Wencheng
  • Encountering Buddha inside a mountain at the Guanyin Temple
  • Inspecting a street vendor’s produce in Zhangye
  • Laughing at the young couples shakily trying to navigate the city wall of Xian on bicycles built for two
  • Being captivated by the graceful moves of a tai-chi master teacher
  • Riding a camel across the desert dunes
  • Pondering why a cell tower was “disguised” in an evergreen tree in the Gobi Desert

Part of the 5 percent intrusion of American politics came from a 20-something tour guide in Shanghai, who surprised my traveling group crammed into a too-small minivan when she declared, “I tell you joke. You tell me if funny.”

The setup: “Donald Trump and Hillary both fall off a ship in the middle of the ocean. Who survives?”

The punchline (after a perfectly timed pause): “America.”

The minivan erupted in laughter.

Along the Daluo Mountain Trail above Wenzhou (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Along the Daluo Mountain Trail above Wenzhou (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Many Buddhas in Guanyin Temple (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Many Buddhas in Guanyin Temple (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A waterfall selfie at Tongling National Forest (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A waterfall selfie at Tongling Mountain National Forest Park (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Bicyclists along the ancient city wall in Xian (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Bicyclists along the ancient city wall in Xian (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Street vendor in Dunhaung (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Street vendor in Zhangye (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Camels along the Silk Road (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Camels along the Silk Road (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Gobi Desert "hidden" cell tower (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Gobi Desert “hidden” cell tower (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Not One Darn Fish! (But I Had a Great Time)

Hot Creek's setting is a picture-perfect mix of meadow and mountain. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Hot Creek’s setting is a picture-perfect mix of meadow and mountain. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

MAMMOTH LAKES, California (July 2016) – Labeling a totally unproductive fishing trip a good experience conjures up memories of Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty, who said, “A tie is like kissing your sister.”

It’s totally counterintuitive, but that’s still my assessment of three days on Hot Creek and the upper stretches of the Owens River just outside the resort village of Mammoth Lakes, California, the community that’s the capital of a massive, multi-sport outdoor recreational area in the Eastern Sierra.

This is mountain, canyon, meadow, stream, and lake territory. People come to ski, ride mountain bikes, photograph birds and wildflowers, hike, snowshoe, and fish.

The scenery alone was enough to stop me in my tracks, but I wanted to meet a trout.

And no wading, either, in Hot Creek. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

And no wading, either, in Hot Creek. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

There was promise at the start standing beside Hot Creek. Good stream flow, an excellent trout guide, blue sky. I was with two others. One of them – a total novice – hooked a hefty brown trout while our guide was giving her the most basic fly rod instruction. Of course, she didn’t know how to play the fish and didn’t land it, but that episode was within minutes of arrival.

“This is going to be great,” I declared out loud, but that was not to be.

Three days and hundreds, maybe thousands, of casts later, the scorecard showed a big, fat zero, and I had no images of a 20-inch rainbow or brown trout to show off back home in Tennessee. Zero, zilch, nada, nothing, strikeout, goose egg.

It’s usually a sad situation when all you can say is that you got a couple of half-hearted strikes.

This, however, was far from sad. The setting in the Eastern Sierra was so stunning, and so absolutely alien to me, that I wasn’t totally bummed out by not catching any trout. It was easy to paraphrase Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” by saying, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Tennessee anymore.”

Hot Creek and the Owens River are modestly sized streams that in places flow through sprawling meadows that collide with snow-capped mountains. In one direction are the Glass Mountains, and in another other are the Eastern Sierra.

Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra tops out at 11,053 feet, and the streams are at about 7,000 feet. It’s almost a challenge to pay attention to the water when the landscape is so beautiful.

Hot Creek adds some extra visuals by sliding into a narrow canyon. It’s a serious downhill hike to get to the supposedly trout-laden water.

When Hot Creek drops into a canyon, it's a steep walk to the water. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

When Hot Creek drops into a canyon, it’s a steep walk to the water. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

I really don’t doubt trout guide Scott Flint, who said stream surveys indicate 7,200 fish per mile of Hot Creek. Flint leads the guide service at the Troutfitter in Mammoth Lakes and has been fishing Hot Creek, the Owens River and other area streams and alpine lakes since 1990, so he knows his stuff.

Trout guide Scott Flint coaches a fisherman on the upper Owens River. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Trout guide Scott Flint coaches a fisherman on the upper Owens River. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

He kept my expectations low from the start, although he was confident my friends and I would catch fish.

“Realize this,” he said. “This the most sophisticated fishing in the world. These fish are wary. The saying here is that the fish have PhDs.”

I recited another fisherman’s saying to him as we parted:  “That’s why they call it ‘fishing,’ not ‘catching.’”

#

Information about all the calorie-burning activities in the area is available from VisitMammoth.com. Mammoth Lakes is south of Yosemite National Park and about three hours from Reno, Nevada, and five hours from Los Angeles.

 

Where Mucking Is a Competitive Sport

Muckers

The sign that makes you look twice upon entering Tonopah, Nevada. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

TONOPAH, Nevada – A chance conversation led to my meeting a mucking champion, and that’s no typo. It happened in the desert town of Tonopah, Nevada, which is in the middle of nowhere between Las Vegas and Reno.

Me: “I saw a sign up the street that says ‘Tonopah, Home of the Muckers.’ Is that the nickname of the high school sports teams?”

She: “Absolutely. Want to know what a mucker is? I can tell you because I held the state record for female mucking for 22 years.”

Who could say “No” to a question like that?

My local lingo teacher was Donna Otteson, manager of the Mizpah Hotel and owner with her husband of Otteson’s World Famous Turquoise, a tourist-oriented mining business.

Donna Otteson: 22-year Nevada female mucking champion. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Donna Otteson: 22-year Nevada female mucking champion. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Donna was behind the hotel front desk, and the only possible improvement on our conversation would have been if I had met Donna at the hotel bar. She had a two-beer story.

Tonopah was – and is to a certain extent even today – big mining country. Settler Jim Butler got people stirred up in 1900 with a silver ore discovery, and by 1901, there were enough mines in the area to produce $750,000 worth of gold and silver, according Tonopah’s online history.

Muckers, she explained, were the guys in the old days of underground mines who loaded ore (muck) into ore cars so it could be rolled to the surface and processed.

Muck is a mix of silver (very little by volume), rock and dirt. Shoveling loads of muck was backbreaking, uninspiring work.

Backbreaking and uninspiring though it may be, mucking can get exciting if you introduce competition to the shoveling, and that’s what happens every Memorial Day week during Jim Butler Days. Donna described the festival competition this way:

“See that pile of muck? Shovel it into the ore car as fast as you can. That’s it,” she said rather matter-of-factly.

Men shovel one ton; women shovel half a ton. There also are team mucking events and events for youngsters. The first age category is 3-6. The kids in Tonopah must be tough little critters.

In 1992, Donna flew through her half-ton of muck in a time of 2:04. That’s two minutes and four seconds, not two hours and four minutes. It was a record that stood for 22 years when someone shaved three second off her time.

“I come from a very competitive family,” she deadpanned, offering only that to explain her success. She acknowledged that leg strength is more important than back strength, but the very thought of shoveling a half-ton of anything in two minutes makes me hurt all over.

Did she have a magic shovel, or even a special one?

“Nope. I used a regular rounded shovel, not a square one. You sometimes hit rock, and the round edge is better when that happens,” she explained.

So there you have it. My mucking curiosity led to a great conversation and an encounter with a champion. Discovering silver out in the desert would have been a bigger thrill, but meeting a champion was still a treat.

Tonopah information is at TonopahNevada.com, and Jim Butler Days information is at JimButlerDays.TonopahNevada.com. Because Tonopah is so far from big-city lights, it is considered one of the best places in America for stargazing.

Tonopah is known for mucking . . . and dark night skies. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Tonopah is known for mucking . . . and dark night skies. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)