Signing books at a soiree

Streetcar replica in Tampa
Streetcar replica in Tampa

There’s fascinating stuff to see and discover every place. I’m in Tampa, Florida with my good hiking friend, Beth R. She invited me to come and speak to her friends on the national parks of the South. Yep, I’m there.

But first, she took me on an excursion through Ybor City, the historic cigar making area of Tampa. Like many ethnic neighborhoods, Ybor City started with a strong businessman, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard who first emigrated to Cuba. He set up cigar factories in the 1880s and encouraged Cubans, the Spanish and Italians to work for him. Thousands of (mostly) men rolled cigars for years, until WWII.

Columbia restaurant
Columbia restaurant

Like most of these neighborhoods, the children and grandchildren of immigrants moved out to the suburbs and better opportunities.

Again, like many urban areas, Ybor City declined but it was never bulldozed. Now it’s on the upswing again, with restaurants, nightclubs and a museum which explains the area.

But the Columbia Restaurant hung on through all the ups and down. It is the ultimate, old-fashioned white tablecloth where men wear jackets, even if it isn’t required. No, I didn’t eat there, but I’m thinking, maybe, the next time.

The Soiree
At 5 pm or so, the first of Beth’s guests rang the doorbell. She had invited about 50 people and several brought friends and spouses. I can only describe this as a “soiree”, defined as:
     an evening party or gathering, typically in a private house, for conversation or music.

The catered finger food was awesome. Beth’s husband pored the wine. I mingled, shaking hands and signing my book, Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My Journey through the National Parks of the South. We had set up my laptop and projector to project on a blank wall. At 6 pm, I talked about the “nature parks”, showed some slides and answered questions.

Beth and me at the soiree
Beth and me at her soiree

Then back to shaking hands.

By now, more people had come. Some who had come early had to leave, clutching their book.

At 7 pm, I gave another 15-minute talk, this time about the “cultural” parks. Which national park units is the closest to Tampa, I asked?  We decided that it was De Soto National Monument in Brandenton.

More food, more signing and the last guest left at 8 pm. Everyone needed to be back at work the next morning. This was a new experience for me. I’ve spoken at bookstores, outdoor stores, hiking clubs and civic organizations but this was my first private function.

If you’re curious, I have many other book events scheduled. See the list and come on out.

Stumphouse Tunnel in Walhalla

In the tunnel
In the tunnel

One of the pleasures of visiting in the Southeast is going to places I have heard so much about. Yesterday I went on a hike with the Oconee Hiking Club to the Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel.

I drove to the Seneca/Walhalla, South Carolina area and met several hikers led by Martha Roberts, a dynamo hiker and great leader. She was also my host. The Stumphouse Tunnel is on land owned by the city of Walhalla.

When the land was threatened by commercial development, the city and conservation organizations stepped in to protect the area.

The tunnel dates back from before the Civil War. It was meant to be part of a shorter railroad route from Charleston, SC to the Ohio River Valley. Before that, you could only “get out” by bypassing the mountains. So construction went well, until the route hit the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several tunnels through the mountains were proposed.

In 1856, Irish workers were brought into the area to do the hard, rock splitting work. They lived on top of Stumphouse Mountain in a town called Tunnel Hill. I understand that nothing remains of these dwellings. They excavated about a third of the tunnel distance, ran out of money, and ran into the Civil War. A couple of other tunnels were started. We visited them all on a five-mile hike, or so.

You can get to the main tunnel by walking a few hundred yards. You then walk in the tunnel in the dark until you hit a wall. This is not like the “road to nowhere” – there is no way out. We saw the other tunnels on the hike but they’ve sunk in.

20160502Walahllatunnell 002ASome people may know of the tunnels because Clemson University close by ripened their blue cheese in the tunnels until the 1970s. But the area isn’t well visited except for locals.

The other highlight in the same park is Isaqueena Falls, a bridal veil-type falls. The overlook is a few feet from the parking lot but we scrambled down to the bottom on a makeshift trail. You couldn’t get this picture from the overlook.

Then a completely different area where we walked to the Chauga Narrows. Walking along the chute was scary. It was wet and slippery and one wrong move…

20160502Walahllatunnell 035AIn the evening, I put on my NPS Centennial shirt and talked about national parks with a very involved audience.

Thank you to Martha and the Oconee Hiking Club for inviting me.

Tabling for Friends of the MST

20160501FMSTtabling 003AToday I literally changed hats.

I took off my National Park Service Centennial hat and shirt and put on Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail clothing to table at the Diamond Brand Paddling Day.

Now what was a hiking trail doing at a Paddle demonstration? The quick answer is that FMST was invited.

I went down to Lake Julian in South Asheville, a Buncombe County park and set up my booth with pictures, pamphlets and a donation jar. Lake Julian, the cooling lake for the Carolina Power and Light  (now Progress Energy) steam generating plant, was a hot bed of activities. People were fishing, picnicking, boating, birding and playing in the playground. They had found their park.

The ones who came to the Paddling Day were anxious to try out paddling in a safe calm environment. And did I mention that all the boat rentals were free? They signed their liability release, got their PDF and paddle, and walked to the lake completely ignoring my table. Most were Generation X  parents with children in town – and dogs. There are even PFD for dogs in several sizes. Plenty of baby boomers and older as well.

Check from Astral
Check from Astral

What was I doing here?

I talked to all the staff and boating vendors that Diamond Brand invited. I took a walk around the parking area, just to break up the monotony. When I came back to my booth, I found a large check facsimile for a contribution to Friends of the MST from Astral.

OK, now I know what I’m doing here.

I did talk to several folks about the trail. Their first question is always

Is the trail finished?

Lake Julian
Lake Julian

Yes, it’s finished. It’s just not all on footpath and will probably never will be.

It’s more like a European Camino de Santiago and not the Appalachian Trail. It’s much more of a cultural trail, once you get out of the mountains. Very interesting.

Think of going through small towns, past farms and walking the beach.

I think they understood. The A.T. should not be the standard by which all other trails are judged.

Back to talking about national parks, starting tomorrow when I head to South Carolina.