Prospector’s Trail, Breaks Interstate Park

 

Breaks Interstate Park, shared between the states of Virginia and Kentucky, is a five-mile gorge, which plunges up to 1,650 feet from its rim. The park has a number of overlooks that provide a variety of views of the gorge including the Russell Fork River and the rock formations of the Towers and the Chimney. However, for a different view of gorge consider taking the 1.5-mile-long Prospector’s Trail, which runs along the base of cliffs that line the top of the gorge.

The Prospector’s Trail is a moderately challenging trail that you can access from the Towers Tunnel Overlook trail. The trail will take you under several overhangs and through a small cave before ending at the Notches rock formation where you can take the Laurel Creek and Cold Spring Trails back to your car.

Large trees often press right up against the rock faces, giving a sense of scale and interesting juxtapositions between the rock and vegetation. The rocks were formed from sediments deposited in an inland sea millions of years ago, which were later carved into their current shape by the Russell Fork River.

—Mark Caskie

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The Agrarian Ideal Revisited: Gary Snyder’s “Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Thomas Jefferson”

Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory and fascination with the potential of the western expansion of the United States  were closely tied to his vision of a democracy rooted in agriculture. He thought such a society would have a strong egalitarian basis, and he was wary of the effects of urbanization and industrialization.

In his poem “Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Thomas Jefferson,” Gary Snyder—prompted by having recently read a biography on Jefferson—takes stock of the current state of that vision and the blind spot in Jefferson’s own world view. The poem appears in Snyder’s 2015 collection, This Present Moment.

The Agrarian Dream Persists
According to the most recent U.S. census more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and the number of farmers continues to decline. In the most basic terms, Jefferson’s agrarian democracy failed to materialize as he envisioned. Nevertheless, the Jefferson ideal continues as an important thread in American thought that has periodically resulted in back-to-the-land movements, such as after WWII and the 1960s and 1970s.

Snyder is himself a modern-day example of someone who has gone back to the land. At the beginning of “Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Thomas Jefferson,” he describes himself as “Turning this cloddish soil still damp and cold / with a heavy curved crofters spade.”

The word “turn” takes on special resonance in this poem. In addition to turning over the garden soil, Snyder is also turning over his thoughts about Jefferson—and he is also having his turn at shaping the agrarian ideal that was initiated by Jefferson but which continues to evolve through the generations.

Two Visions of Democracy
In spelling out his agrarian ideas, Jefferson’s concept is that “true democracy is to help everyone do for themselves” but also “we must think with the help of the whole neighborhood.” In a democracy, individuals must temper their personal ambitions and wants with the needs of the community as a whole. “Give and take” is woven into the very fabric of society.

By contrast, Snyder’s version of the agrarian ideal has a decidedly  Buddhist turn. Living close to the land has spiritual as well as political benefits. It can lead to spiritual growth as well as political parity. “Everyone free to decide to join in on the work / and the play / empowered to be free of ‘me’ in a world which both has and has not hierarchy.”

Unfortunately, “hierarchy” is precisely what Jefferson benefits from with his “hundreds of workers / on the farm and fixing the house while he / mostly wrote letters letters and thinking. …” Jefferson’s ownership of slaves is clearly at odds with his egalitarian notions of democracy. Snyder is troubled by Jefferson’s hypocrisy of owning slaves while espousing democratic ideals.

Nevertheless, Snyder clearly feels an affinity with Jefferson, saying “here we are about the same age / —eighty—except I’m living along with my dog / and spading a tiny garden.” This sense of connections makes it all the harder for Snyder to resolve his contradictory feelings about the founding father.

Jefferson and his Slaves
Is it fair to judge historical figures based on modern ideals? Should Jefferson have been capable of doing better, or should we view him as a progressive figure for his time period and place? That’s the question Snyder addresses in the last couple of stanzas. Snyder writes “But he had slaves / and never thought that through. / & Tom had friends like Madison and Adams / to honestly argue him down and explain / the cracks in his dreams.” That is, even in Jefferson’s own time, the idea of emancipation was current. Jefferson should have known and done better than he did.

While in many ways, Snyder admires Jefferson, he also sees him as flawed and perhaps guilty of too much “selfish stubborn.” After all, it’s because of his slaves’ labor  that he is free to read and think so widely. Snyder would rather Jefferson “pick up a hoe” and he would encourage him to “let your people go,” if he could speak directly to him.

Ideals in Practice
In “Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Thomas Jefferson,” Snyder ultimately expands on the notion of freedom, adding a spiritual dimension to Jefferson’s original agrarian ideal. Snyder finds finds fault with Jefferson—who is in so many other ways admirable—for refusing to free his slaves. The poem also embraces the value of manual labor and living close to the land.

This reassessment of Jefferson and his dream of an agrarian democracy is both thought-provoking and accessible. The Present Moment provides many other illuminating moments that combine sharp sensory details, a desire for integrity of thought and action, and insights gained from Snyder’s long life and his deep sense of time.

—Mark Caskie

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Thoughts from the Finish Line

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When I arrived at the staging area for my first half-marathon early last month, I was immediately struck by the throngs of people and the pounding rock music. It was a familiar enough scene from other shorter races I’ve been in, except for the gargantuan size of the crowd. Once the race started, I found myself swept up in the energy and festival-like atmosphere of the event. With the near-perfect weather, the costumes and funny hats, and the ringing cowbells and high-fives at intersections along the way, the race had the vibe of a moving party, and I found myself buoyed by the current of the runners.

That said, I’d like to put in a good word for the training. After all, without it, I would never have been able to enjoy the race as much as I did. And let’s face it, you spend a lot more of your time training than racing. My suggestion is to make something special of your training runs so that it has as much importance as the race itself. Perhaps, it’s as simple as having good conversations with a training partner or re-listening to the entire discography of a favorite band you haven’t listened to in years. In my case, I decided to devote this blog to running for a few months and keep a journal of the sights and sounds of the natural world that I encountered during my training.

If you’ve followed my running blog entries these past few months, thank you! If you have just come across one of the entries for the first time and would like to read more of them, please see below. You might especially find them of interest if you are about to run a first half-marathon  and/or are an older recreational runner.—Mark Caskie

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

A Tip for Running-Life Balance

The Rhythm of the Run

Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Age-Grading for Older Runners

 

 

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Age Grading for Older Runners

Blue herons are a common sight at Salem Lake.

Blue herons are a common sight at Salem Lake.

The Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in America, is legendary for its stairs and steep trails. Within a few blocks of the starting line in Mill Valley, California, runners confront three  flights of stairs that rise as tall as a 50-story building, and, by the time, they arrive at the finish line in Stinson Beach, they have run 7.4 miles for a total elevation gain and loss or 2,200 feet.

Given the challenges of the course, you might be surprised to learn that the 2015 winner was a 58-year-old by the name of Brian Pilcher.

How did a middle-age man beat his younger competitors in such a grueling race?

Besides Pilcher’s stellar performance,  the race’s format also had a role. The Dipsea Race is one of the few races that uses a handicapping system—in the form of a head start based on age and gender—that levels the playing field for older and very young runners. As a result, winners have included adults as old as 72 and children as young as eight.

A more common way of handicapping races is age-grading. It also levels the playing field for older runners.

Take Ed Whitlock, for instance, the first person over the age of 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours with a time of 2:59:10. That’s a strong  performance at any age, but with age grading it translates to a near world record time of 2:03:57. (Whitlock recently set a new master’s world record for 85-year-olds in the half-marathon with a time of 1:50:47, which translates to 1:00.23 as an age-graded time.)

How does it work? The explanation on the Runner’s World age-grade calculator says that it is a two-step process. First, the calculator derives your age-graded score by determining the ratio of the approximate world-record time for your age and gender and dividing it by your actual race time. The calculator then takes that score and converts it into a finish time for a runner in the open-division category by using a factor for age and gender. Whitlock, for instance, would have had to run a time of 1:47:06 to match the current world record in the half-marathon of 58:23.

While age-grading is not widely used to determine overall winners (nor should it), a few races do award age-graded winners in a separate category. More to the point, age-grading is a great motivator as it compensates for the diminishing abilities that come with age and allows older runners to compete with their younger selves.

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. Then I plugged in my times and ages for two 5Ks runs that I ran more than 20 years apart. Much to my surprise, I found that my performances—once age grading took my different ages into account—were nearly identical. Relative to age-group records, I was at exactly the same percentile in both cases. Both times looked even better once they had been converted using the age-grading scale that showed what these times would have hypothetically been in my youth. When a few months later, I ran an even faster race, I found that I had jumped three percentile points in my age-group, and using the age-grading formula, I found that I had just run the best 5K of my life, which accorded well with my subjective experience of the race.

Running my best 5K at the age of 56—even if it was only an extrapolation—was very satisfying and it carried me through months of training.

If you’re an older running and  haven’t tried age-grading, I encourage you to give it a test run. You can find several age-grade calculators online, including Runner’s World and Heartbreak Hill Striders Boston. —Mark Caskie

Training Update:

Best Long Run 1: Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway (northern section)/Battleground Park/Country Park, 13.1 miles. Bright blue sky  etched with chalky contrails, four pines fallen in a clump across trail, had to climb over; mallard couple in pond; lily pads covering most of small pond; view of glistening Country Park lake from high on hill through trees;  30 small children’s tombstones in a row with just a few gaps in cemetery near Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, each with a carved lamb on top, left me wondering about the local mortality rate of children in earlier times.

Best Long Run 2: Salem Lake, 13.25 miles. Saw two blue herons, one flying out of a cove  with its neck curved back, and the other right beside the trail, fully visible at about 10 feet, standing on a branch, stock-still; numerous butterflies including eastern tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, some seemed to fly along with me for short distances as if they were drafting off on my pace; a small (3 inches or less), brownish lizard on the trail, lots of turtle sunning themselves on fallen trunks with one more than a foot above the water on a flat part of a branch; ferns on the bank in dappled sunlight; wave ripples passing through reed beds and heavy shade beneath trees creating striations of light and dark; and  a long train crossing the railroad bridge that is situated on  one of the arms of the lake with its graffiti from distant cities. Air moist and cool, more than once I could smell the water. Heard a woodpecker hammering away at a tree in the forest.

Race: Next week!

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

A Tip for Running-Life Balance

The Rhythm of the Run

Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Thoughts from the Finish Line

 

 

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Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Hill on Bicentennial Greenway, Greensboro, N.C.

Hill on Bicentennial Greenway, Greensboro, N.C.

In light of some of the elevation changes of ultra-marathons, it’s fair to consider my anxiety over ordinary hills a bit misplaced. For example, the Western States 100 has a cumulative elevation gain of about 19,000 feet. The Badwater 135, which is known for its grueling passage through blazing hot Death Valley, also goes over two mountain ranges and ends at Whitney Portal in the Sierra Mountains of California for a total elevation gain of 13,000 feet. Next to these monumental heights, I doubt my hills would even form a line on a topographic map.

But even for very good runners hills can present serious challenges. Consider the famous Heartbreak Hill from the Boston Marathon. While the hill is a mere 90 feet in elevation gain over a half-mile, the incline has led many a runner to throw in the towel or at least give up on his or her time goal for the race. That hills just happens to come at a particularly difficult part of the course, at the 20.5 mile mark, just when many runners are hitting the wall, so that accounts for part of its legendary status for difficulty.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, where I live, we have a lot of hills, and I have developed a mental strategy that helps me when I’m running up the worst of them. I have from time to time gotten very discouraged by some of these hills. A few years ago, I even developed a mental block to one of the local behemoths, which goes at a fairly steady grade for at least three-quarters of a mile. I just couldn’t convince myself that I could make it up that hill, even though I had tackled similar hills on other routes. Perhaps, it was because the hill came so late in my run and at the end of a series of other difficult hills.

That’s when I developed the concept of micro-terrains. From its base, a huge hill can look positively monolithic, one unrelenting grade from top to bottom. But the reality is that under foot, when I pay close attention, I find that is almost never the case. Instead, the grade may slack a degree or two, flatten out for a few strides or even provide the occasional dip. At least, that is how the hills in North Carolina’s Piedmont tend to play out.

Micro-terrains  are a similar concept to the one the narrator in Erich Maria Remarque’s  All Quiet on the Western Front expresses. As a soldier on the battlefield, he becomes acutely aware of every dip and bowl in the ground because he knows that one of them might just save his life by keeping him below the line of fire. Similarly, I have saved many a run by noticing minute variations in the grade.

On difficult hills, I make a point of savoring each and every variation, especially those unexpected dips and flat sections. Since I began looking at hills as a series of micr0-terrains, I no longer have a problem with my old nemesis of a hill, or most other hills for that matter, provided I am careful about my pace.

Micro-terrains are, in short, a mental way to approach hill running that makes the experience more enjoyable. Through the focus on the subtle changes in the terrain, I find I can eliminate the sense of drudgery that a large hill can sometimes produce.
—Mark Caskie

Training Update:

Best Long Run 1: Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway (northern section)/Battleground Park, 11.1 miles. Overcast, misty day with cool temperatures. Saw mist-dimmed reflection of flowering dogwoods and still-bare trees in pond, dense bamboo thicket screening off major road, still puddles along empty loop at Battleground Park. Goose honking menacingly at me on trail.

Best Long Run 2: Salem Lake, 11.3 miles. Forest greening up, first sighting of turtles this year, dark shells glinting in the sun while they sunned on fallen trees, saw almost 20 of them including 10 turtles of all sizes on one fallen tree. Noticed three rocks on the lake that would make excellent picnic spots. Lake calm.

Shorter run highlight: Hamilton Lakes/neighborhood, 7.2 miles. Got extended look at a red-tailed hawk and the consort of crows surrounding him at the end of the run. Hawk perched in a small sapling at eye level, had broad rust-colored chest. Walked within 5 feet of him before he flew away.

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

A Tip for Running-Life Balance

The Rhythm of the Run

Age-Grading for Older Runners

Thoughts from the Finish Line

 

 

 

 

 

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The Rhythm of the Run

Trail at Hamilton Lakes Park, Greensboro, N.C.

Trail at Hamilton Lakes Park, Greensboro, N.C.

I’ve always found a certain comfort in running familiar routes. After all, you always have a sense of what lies ahead, which means you can mentally prepare for things like dangerous intersections and challenging hills. But at the same time, overly familiar terrain can leave me living inside my head rather than really noticing my environment. It’s always a bit disappointing to get to the end of a long run and realize that I’ve been thinking about my problems the entire time. On the other hand, new runs, especially long ones, can often create a sense of anxiety, which often leaves me wondering if I’m running at the right pace or worrying about roots that might be hidden under the leaves on the trail. I have developed a solution to this conundrum that combines the best of the familiar and the new in the same run.

Over the years, I have built up a list of favorite long runs in my area. I currently have about six routes, which gives me a lot of variety to choose from. I end up running each route two or three times every season. Because I’ve run these routes before they are familiar, but enough time has elapsed so that I still see the terrain with fresh eyes, especially with the progression of the seasons.

The experience is a bit like seeing a younger family member, such as a niece or nephew, intermittently. More than their parents who experience their growing up years much more gradually, I’m always surprised to see how they’ve grown or matured in different ways between visits. Similarly, I’m always happy to see my familiar routes again, and I’m also aware of the  many changes brought on by the progression of the seasons, weather and chance.

For those readers from the Greensboro, North Carolina, area, you may well be familiar with some of my local long runs. They include Battleground Park and Country Park, sections of the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, sections of the  Bicentennial Greenway, Hamilton Lakes Park and Winston-Salem’s Salem Lake. As I’ve been increasing my mileage in preparation for the half-marathon, I’ve found these routes continue to serve me well, because I can easily add more mileage to them without having to retrace my steps over the same terrain.The result is again a combination of the familiar and new.

What all of these routes share in common is hills (hard to run in Greensboro without having to tackle a few of these), water (in the form of lakes, ponds and creeks), and miles and miles of off-road running, primarily through the woods.

People sometimes ask me what I think about on my runs. It’s a question that I usually have a hard time answering. I suppose most of the time I ruminate on the same things I focus on when I’m not running. Not by in large inspiring stuff, but rather thoughts cut from the fabric of daily life. But if that were all, I don’t think I would like to run nearly as much as I do. Instead, I sometimes find that for mile or two, if I’ve run well, that I’ve thought about almost nothing at all, because I was so immersed in the rhythm of the run and taking in the natural world.—Mark Caskie

Training Update
Best long run 1: Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway (northern section), 7.5 miles. Highlights include sound of falling rain in the woods, frogs croaking wildly in the swampy areas and mist over the lake layered over the reflection of the shoreline after the rain lifted.

Best long run 2: Hamilton Lakes/Neighborhoods/Lindley Park, 8.8 miles. Highlights include ideal temperature with bracing breeze, abundant sunshine, extended view of creek glittering in the sunlight at Lindley Park.

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

A Tip for Running-Life Balance

Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Age-Grading for Older Runners

Thoughts from the Finish Line

 

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A Tip for Running-Life Balance

Running calendar

After running for more than 30 years, I’ve found a few basic strategies that have helped me keep on track with my training. While I’ve always been impressed by runners who have the willpower to set a schedule and stick with it, I’ve found in my own life that other responsibilities and competing interests often get in the way. To translate the Scottish poet Robert Burns from the Scots Gaelic, “the best laid plan of mice and men/often go astray.”

My solution is to have a goal for the number of runs I’d like to run during a given week, but I don’t decide what days I will run them ahead of time. I do try to get off to a good start at the beginning of the week, however. For example, suppose my goal is to run four times during the week and by the second day of the week I’ve already run two of them. That leaves me five days to complete the other two runs, which means I have some flexibility about when I complete my exercise goal. You might wonder if my runs get clumped up at the beginning of the week, but life being what it is, it rarely works out that way. With this approach, I find I’m usually able to get my runs in and still have time for my life outside of running.

—Mark Caskie

Race/Training Update:

Registered for Race 13.1 Greensboro on May 15.

Training Highlight: Long run (7.5 miles total) at Salem Lake on spring-like day. Clear skies and brisk wind made the lake sparkle. Bridge across cove with view of the railroad bridge in the distance, earth embankment between lake and marshy backwater, and small waterfall with picturesque rocks were favorite sections. Hill behind marina: BRUTAL.

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

The Rhythm of the Run

Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Age-Grading for Older Runners

Thoughts from the Finish Line

 

Posted in original nonfiction, running, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Midpack, Midlife

old running shoes

I throw my old running shoes in the bottom of my closet, so that I will have them for especially wet or muddy days. But in practice, I often head to the gym and run on a treadmill when the weather gets dicey. There are exceptions, of course. Some of my most memorable runs have been in less-that-ideal conditions, including snow and ice, stinging rain and blustery winds.

If it’s true that people tend to like what they are good at, then my love of running is a puzzle or at least the exception to the rule. I’ve been a middle of the pack runner for three decades—and now I’m middle-aged to boot.

Despite all of that, I find running is its own reward. And no matter how hard the run, I almost always experience a physical and  emotional lift afterward. Then there are those rare moments where everything comes together in the middle of a run, and I feel as light as a 10-year-old, moving as a part of the landscape rather than apart from it.

One downside to running for as long as I have is that you inevitably see your own decline. While perceived effort is the same, your pace gets slower and slower as the years mount. Ironically, running over a lifetime, despite its health benefits, can also put you in touch with your mortality.

Life in a very real sense is a race against time, a recognition that becomes clearer and clearer as you age. You want to get the most out of it while you can. This year, one of my goals is to run my first half-marathon. Not fast, but hopefully well.

I know this is a fairly modest goal. One of my neighbors, for instance, has run 20 marathons in 10 years, and the mind-boggling accomplishments of ultra-marathoners make a half-marathon look like a cake walk. However, it’s a big step for me, which will only be accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other—again and again.

Those old running shoes in my closet are a reminder of the many miles I have already logged. After so many years, even at my low mileage, I suspect I have traveled a distance that would take me across the country and a good ways back toward home. My shoes are like old friends who remind me of past accomplishments and shared hardships.

As I begin a new training cycle for a new longer distance, I hope that you will join me for the experience by reading some of my future blog posts. My plan is to run a late spring half-marathon with a couple of steppingstone races along the way. Perhaps, you have a similar plan for the coming year? If so, feel free to share in the comment section. I wish you the best of luck and success in your running endeavors.

—Mark Caskie

Other Running Blog Entries:

Midpack, Midlife

A Tip for Running-Life Balance

The Rhythm of the Run

Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable

Age-Grading for Older Runners

Thoughts from the Finish Line

Posted in original nonfiction, running | Tagged , , , , , ,

Reflections on Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction

Cover of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction

Science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction explores the emergence of extinction as a scientific concept and the current mass extinction that is taking place all around us, unfortunately due to human activity.

Kolbert uses historic examples, such as the disappearance of megafauna in the Americas and the decimation of the great auk during the 19th century, to shows the historic advance of humans around the globe and the destruction that has followed in its wake.

So great has the transformation of the planet been as a result of human activity that scientists are currently debating christening a new geologic era known as the Anthropocene. Its defining characteristic is the utter transformation of the Earth by the human species.

Kolbert explores the many key forces driving the sixth extinction such as global warming, ocean acidification, fragmentation and habitat loss, and invasive species. Because she visits scientists working in the field and on other fronts to stem the extinction tide, readers gain a visceral understanding of what might otherwise seem abstract concepts. Along the way, we meet many species that are either extinct or well on their way to disappearing. Panamanian golden frogs, coral reefs, the little brown bat, and the Sumatran rhino are some of the fascinating creatures Kolbert introduces us to. Sadly, we no sooner say “hello” than we find that we have to say “goodbye” to many of the animals in the book.

Ultimately, Kolbert doesn’t sugarcoat her observations. At the end of the book, she avoids the standard trope of nature documentaries by ending on a note of hope. (Although, the many scientists working to save various species in the book are inspirational, there is never the sense that they are equal to the task of averting the extinction event.)

So where does that leave us? Kolbert poses the question about whether we may someday become victims of the forces we have inadvertently set in motion and seem incapable of dealing with. Perhaps, enlightened self-interest in our own preservation can drive us to finally take action?

I’m not really sure if humans are capable of the collective action that would take. Of course, we have to try.

To my mind, Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, with its accessible, clear explanation of the forces currently let loose in the world should have the same sort of impact as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. That book helped to launch the environmental movement more than five decades ago. It remains to be seen whether Kolbert’s voice can cut through all the clutter and misinformation surrounding environmental issues, but I encourage everyone to read this book.

——Mark Caskie

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Indian Fort Mountain, Near Berea, Kentucky

While Indian Fort Mountain, near Berea, Kentucky, isn’t a large mountain, it does offer a lot of views, cliffs and caves. The trail has a couple of intense inclines but in both cases these uphills connect with relatively level paths. The network of trails leads to five overlooks. I was most intrigued by the sandstone rock formations, and I was especially taken with a cave known as the Devil’s Kitchen. Shortly, after reaching the trail that runs along the top of the mountain, I could glimpse Devil’s Kitchen from above and soon discovered that the trail went directly over it. A short side trail led to the cave itself and gave me a chance to look closely at some of the mountain’s rock faces.

Devil's Kitchen

View of the Devil’s Kitchen from the trail above

Devil's Kitchen Entrance

Devil’s Kitchen Entrance

View from Devil's Kitchen of grate on trail above

View from Devil’s Kitchen of grate on trail above

Sandstone with possible signs of long-ago puddles

Sandstone with possible signs of long-ago puddles

View from Indian Fort Overlook

View from Indian Fort Overlook

—Mark Caskie

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