Hot on the Trail

Tuesday, August 02, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee — After introducing our nephew Steven to letterboxing earlier this summer, it seemed only fair to sweep him away for one last letterboxing adventure before he had to return to school.  Our first destination was the nearby town of Murfreesboro, a hotbed of middle Tennessee letterboxing, and home to an extraordinarily talented carver known as mstrwndl ("Mister Wendell").  Even his signature stamp is a very realistic self-portrait.  Images of some of his hand-carved masterpieces can be seen on his blog.

Murfreesboro's Downtown Plaza
After locating a box near the beautiful fountain in Murfreesboro's downtown plaza, we went to snag a couple of hidden treasures at the Stones River National Battlefield, the site of significant conflict during the Civil War.  Before we left the downtown area, we almost lost Steven as he camouflaged himself in local statuary.

Bronze or Real?
The following day we letterboxed our way south toward Fort Payne, Alabama.  In Manchester, Steven proved that he still has an attraction for hitchhikers when he magically pulled one out of a letterbox we found in a local cemetery.

Another hitchhiker!
To top that feat, he located a letterbox in Monteagle that was 20 yards from its hiding place.  Not realizing that someone had returned it to the wrong spot, Ken and I were in the process of concluding that the box had been "muggled" (removed) when Steven exclaimed, "I found it!"

I found it!
But the real object of our mission was hiding out in Little River Canyon near Fort Payne, Alabama.  When he became interested in letterboxing last month, Steven had asked us, "What's the coolest letterbox you ever found?"  With very little deliberation, our obvious choice was a letterbox called, "Spy vs. Spy" in Little River Canyon.  The clue reads in part:

"Canyon-side, you should see a small break in the trees. A few feet away from the road, there is a tree at the top of a crevice with a rope attached to it. Use the rope to descend until you are between two boulders. There is a small path in front of the western boulder. Take it and begin walking to the west carefully. To your left should be the cliff face and to your right is the canyon. You will eventually come to a deep overhang (or a shallow cave) with some tiki torches and a few small waterfalls. In front of one of the waterfalls is a group of rocks that hides the spies."

Little River Canyon is a national preserve operated by the National Park Service. Sometimes called the nation's longest mountaintop river, Little River flows for most of its length down the middle of Lookout Mountain.  Over many eons, the river has carved out one of the deepest canyons in the Southeast.

Little River Falls
A scenic highway winds around the rim of the canyon, offering numerous scenic overlooks and trailheads for hiking and horseback riding.  And while we enjoyed those views, our real objective was to capture the infamous Little River Canyon spies.  Ken and I had visited them in the fall of 2008, shortly after they selected their cavernous hideaway.  We were optimistic about a second encounter— until we reached the tree where the very necessary rope had been attached.

The crevice leading to the canyon wall path
The terrain is much more vertical than this photo shows, so the rope (uphill from this photo) was critical in climbing down to the path, but the rope was missing.  Another rope had been tied to a tree near the bottom of the crevice, but it was too far down to be of much use.  In addition, rain had been falling in the canyon off and on throughout the day, so the rocks were still wet and very slippery, which would have made the trip down inadvisable even with the rope.  It was clear that we could not complete our mission on this trip to the canyon.

We had to wonder if those dastardly spies had removed the rope themselves.  Lest they think they have foiled us, we have not given up. We have only postponed our capture of these sneaky spies until another trip when we will come prepared with backup and with all the equipment needed for their capture. 
With more letterboxes in our sights, we headed back north the following morning toward Chattanooga, where we found boxes at the Hunter Museum of American Art and Lookout Mountain before settling down for the night in a suburb called Ooltewah (oo-doo-wah).  The name is believed to derive from a Native American word for owl's nest, and appropriately the mascot for the local high school is the owl.  (How could it not be?)  Ooltewah is also the home to McKee Foods Corporation, the family-owned company that began making dessert snacks in a small bakery in the 1960s and named them after their four-year-old granddaughter, Debbie.  In case you wonder what Debbie looked like, well that's no model on the logo.  Today the company started by Little Debbie's grandparents sells more than $1 billion worth of cakes and cookies annually.

Another very interesting Ooltewah landmark is Habitat International, whose location we visited in search of a nearby letterbox.  Located at the end of an industrial street, the area in front of the main gate is a veritable menagerie of iron and stainless steel sculptures. 

Habitat International sculptures
In addition to the animals, there were sculptures of trees, fanciful staircases that led nowhere, and people.  Dozens of people.  Some communicating in pairs and some in a perpetual parade.  The sign at the gate read "Habitat International:  a company of positive distractions."  A very apt way to classify the sculptures, we thought.  Only later did we find out we were very wrong.

Since we were limiting our visit to the area outside their gate to look for the letterbox, we never actually went into the business or talked to anyone there, but a sign near the sculptures caught our eye.  "Able!" it proclaimed, and informed that one could find the Habitat story in bookstores.  Intrigued, we had to learn more.  What we discovered reminded us on multiple levels of the wisdom of those who advise that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  First, the company is not in the sculpture business.  Rather, Habitat International is a leading supplier of artificial grass and indoor-outdoor carpet to such companies as Home Depot and Lowe's. The sculptures are merely decorative.  The other surprising discovery was that 80 percent of the company's employees have a physical or mental disability, or both. According the the aforementioned book, "At Habitat, people with schizophrenia drive forklifts next to those with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. Hearing-impaired employees cut floor mats alongside co-workers who have endured strokes, severe head injuries, or loss of an arm. For the past two decades, the company’s owner has been hiring people with disabilities, urging other entrepreneurs to do the same thing, and defying the naysayers who said it couldn’t be done."  The "positive distractions" in the company's description are the owner's way of describing what the rest of us refer to as disabilities.  It's a very inspiring story.  Check out their web site to read more about Habitat International, including a link to a feature story on NBC Nightly News.

As hard as it is to believe, our greatest discovery of this trip was yet to come.  Since our three-month sojourn to Europe had cut into our annual letterboxing statistics and our letterboxing anniversary date was looming on August 30, we were frankly interested in finding lots of letterboxes to pump up our personal statistics.  And Steven wanted to get to 50 finds.  So we decided to try a series in  Red Clay State Historic Park near the Tennessee-Georgia border.  A Native American symbol series promised 43 letterboxes on a two-mile loop trail.
HOT on the trail
OK.  For accuracy's sake, we're not talking about 43 actual letterboxes... more like 22 little ziploc bags with double-sided stamps.  But they were very clever and well-done, so we were game.   But we also need to establish that the temperature was 97°, and the humidity at least 248%.  When we say we were HOT on the trail, we are not exaggerating.  Actually most of the trip had been like this.

This was a very woodsy and poison-ivy-ish trail, so you have to be wondering about ticks.  After all, I am the queen of tick magnets.  In fact, last weekend, when I was letterboxing on the beach (ON THE BEACH!!) with our friend Cathy, I ended up with two (or more) ticks and numerous bites from said ticks.

In the meantime, however, we made an incredible, awesome, wonderful, fantastic discovery.  It is called Permethrin and is a synthetic chemical based on a naturally occurring insecticide in chrysanthemum plants.  This magic potion is said to be effective against mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, mites, no-see-ums, and more than 50 other kinds of insects.  We purchased the spray, which is for clothing only (not to be put on one's skin), as well as some clothing pretreated with our nice new friend Permethrin.  All of these we found on Amazon.com.

When we went on this very woodsy, very ticky trail, we wore our pretreated clothing and our hiking boots which had been sprayed.  We had also sprayed Steven's shoes, socks, and pants.  On the trail, we had NO problems with insects except for gnats, which were buzzing around Steven's and Ken's heads.  They were not bothering me because I was wearing a Permethrin-treated hat... until I gave the hat to Steven.  Then he had no buzzing and I did.

So, yes, this was our biggest discovery on this wonderful trip with our letterboxing buddy... a way to protect all of us from the wicked ticks that carry those nasty diseases.  Hooray, Permethrin!!  And we found 38 letterboxes, enjoyed each other's company, and finished the trip with a wonderful dinner with Steven's parents and sister at Franklin's P. F. Chang's... priceless!
Woodie & Rachel at P.F. Chang's