Cloud Peak Wilderness Trek – July 2018

It is now late March 2019.  I have been planning to write out the details of this BSA Troop 325 High Adventure since we finished in July 2018, but my map was misplaced and I need it for details.  Actually, my brother John Lee had it, buried in a box of stuff left from the trip and finally found it last week.  So that is my impetus to start.

Our destination was the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area of the Bighorn Mountains in north central Wyoming.  The trip ran from July 13 through July 22, including two days of travel in each direction.  The nearest town is Buffalo WY, and it is fair sized.  The contingent was divided into three Crews of 6 persons – 4 Scouts and 2 adults.  My Crew members were John Lee (adult), Ian Kurdelak (15), Peter Loughran (15) and brothers Henry (15) and Liam Lee (13).  Our Crew leader was Henry Lee.  The other two Crews were:

  • John Loughran (adult), Brian Peterson (adult), Liam Peterson (13), Michael Loughran (13), Josh Rose (13) and Nick Kottkamp, Crew Leader (14)
  • Dave Niswonger (adult), Pete Sgroi (adult), Andrew Berzai (15), Eddie Sgroi (14), Peter Rossi, Crew Leader (16) and Owen Linczer (16)

We traveled by van from South Bend IN to Buffalo WY via I-90 over two days.  Our stop en route outbound and on the return was at Lake Vermilion State Recreation Area near Mitchell SD.  We tent camped from the vans here in good weather, thankfully, and made good use of their showers and running water.  Driving came close to two 13 hour days.  The Lees came directly from their trip to Oregon and met us at the trailhead.  Outbound our timing was perfect for getting to church in Buffalo WY at St. John the Baptist CC on our way to the trailhead.

Day 1 – Friday, July 13 – Driving, Driving

Sgroi Van Occupants (L-R) – Berzai, Linczer, Sgroi; not shown Kurdelak, Rossi & Linczer

We divided into our two vehicles – the Sgroi and Peterson vans – and off we went onto I-80/90 westward.  Dave, Pete and me with 6 of the guys and the rest of the troops with Peterson.  I arranged for and brought four 3′ subs from Wal-Mart for lunch, which turned out to be even too much for 12 teenage Scouts, but we made do at a rest area on I-90 somewhere in

Subs on the run

Wisconsin.   We drove upwards to 13 hours to Lake Vermilion SRA just before the Mitchell SD exit, my pheasant hunting Mecca.  This turned out to be a bit buggy but comfortable, including a shower house and running water.  It was classic tent camping.  Peter Rossi’s Crew brought the in-transit food for dinner and breakfast and the Scouts whipped it up into something edible in reasonable time.  Just have to let them handle it, which is best done with all the adults distracting themselves with something else, keeping an ear open for grease fires and such.  The group had grilled hamburgers with the usual sides.  For my Crew since the Lee’s were coming from Oregon, and bringing the Loughran boys with them, it was just Ian and I for meals on the way out.  So things were simple – I just had Ian eat with the other Crews and I had my freeze dried trail food.  Tonight it was Italian pepper steak and sub leftovers from lunch.  Weather was clear and balmy with a heavy dew in the morning.  All the campsite arrangements worked their ways out well on this first night.

Lake Vermilion SRA, South Dakota

Day 2 –  Saturday, July 14 – More Driving, Driving and Presto Church

We made a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, bagels and such with minor cleanup and hit the road again.  I had my breakfast skillet freeze dried eggs with sausage.  We had a stop at the Mitchell SD Wal-Mart for a second round of sub sandwiches, only three 3′-ers this round, and kept heading west.

More Wal-Mart Subs on Day 2

This is one big country we live in, really.  The miracle today was that we pulled into Buffalo WY in perfect time for the 5pm church service at St. John the Baptist CC.  Everyone was Roman Catholic except the Petersons, but Brian was delighted to be there.  I sat next to Rev. Brian and he was singing his heart out.  The priest was a native of Long Island judging by his accent but his theme for the sermon about how the Apostles were just all common “schmucks” like us when they started out, without the Holy Spirit, still inspires me today.

St. John Baptist CC, Buffalo WY

After church we had a bit of a drive, maybe an hour, but I wasn’t driving so I don’t remember, to the Hunter trailhead camping area at the edge of the wilderness area off of US Route 16 and USFS 19.  This was primarily a horse camp and it was already pretty full of trailers and horses.  But the tent area was separate and attractive, along French Creek.  The only problem was that it was 1/4 mile away and seriously uphill. The water was back downhill where we parked of course.

a confab amongst the adults at Hunter trailhead

My main concern was finding two trees 12′ apart for the hammock, which were easy to find.  We camped in a pine forest that was fairly new growth.  The Lee’s with the Loughran boys were there to meet us and had established our campsites up the hill.  We had plenty of time before dark to get the tents (hammock) set up and cook dinner.  The Lee’s were in charge of our in transit dinners but I had my own menus as you can tell throughout.  I had a chicken fajita bowl (freeze dried).  There were no subs leftover today.  We had a brief shakedown talk from John Loughran and hit the sack.


my setup for the night
pre-flight briefing before bed

Day 3 – Sunday, July 15 – Finally on the Trail

John Lee in Soldier Park

It was an instant oatmeal morning for everyone but me – I had the second half of my Breakfast Skillet FD meal.  We picked our routes for the assault on the Seven Brothers Lakes. We had two choices:  along the Ditch Trail through Soldier Park on USFS 394, into the wilderness area on USFS Trail 024 then up into the Seven Brothers Lakes plateau on USFS Trail 044 from the northeast (5.7 mi); or west on USFS 395 through Buffalo Park to USFS Trail 045 and up to the lakes from the east (6.7 mi).  It didn’t take very long to realize that these were all horse trails, and that Wilderness Area should be read Horseback Area.  Soldier Park was named for the two Civil War era soldiers graves on the trail side outside of the Wilderness Area.  And out this way valleys or coves are called parks.


John and Henry check our bearings; not my job 🙂

The USFS roads were four-wheeler gravel quality that were fine for hiking.  The trails were horse paths, however, with all the attendant rutting and loose stones and rocks, steeper than a good footpath should be.  Hiking these was a real chore.  And since horses don’t need them there were also no bridges or even foot logs over the streams.  Our route required two boots-off crossings, one at French Creek Ditch and the other through North Clear Creek.  The other route had one for the less nimble through North Clear Creek near its junction with Seven Brothers Creek further south.  The other two Crews chose this route.  You skipped a creek crossing and had a more gradual but longer climb up to the seven lakes plateau.  So going was slow.  The weather was partly cloudy and on the cool side.  But with a starting elevation of 8,000′ the sun was intense. 

Boots off for North Clear Creek

The final climb up to the Brothers Lakes was 500′ up to a plateau, but once up it was beautiful.  Our campsite elevation at the northernmost lake was about 9,700′, a gain of 1,770′ in about 6 miles.  Campfires were prohibited above 9,200′.  Later in the trip we concluded we could use a stick-fired cooking stove that we had along for a respectable and technically legal fire, however.

We generally retired at dusk, except that a rather spirited poker game broke out in the tent next to my hammock.  Obviously we didn’t run them hard enough today.  But the day ended well.

Day 4 – Monday, July 16 – Rest and Regroup Day

Morning Sunshine. In the hammock.  Morning glory!

Yesterday the three Crews arrived in sequence.  We (Lee Crew) were first in and took a site up a couple hundred yards from the first lake.  The Kottkamp Crew was next and camped a little further along the trail next to us and finally the Rossi Crew took a site a bit further up the trail.  We were in a line with a path between us that paralleled the main trail that ran down past all the lakes.  The main trail dead ended into the beach at the last of the Brother lakes.  There were plenty of trees for the hammock and nice clearings for the common areas.  We were basically out of site from each other.  The weather was about as perfect as you could have.  It was obviously a dry climate and the wet season was the winter judging by the snow that was still at the higher elevations.

John Lee and our dog Suka

Our Crew was distinctive in that we had Suka, the Siberian Husky, with us.  She kind of eliminated the need for a bear bag, ya know, at least for early warning.  A great dog – never barked, carried her own food, wasn’t wont to chase every critter she caught scent of.  She managed to catch and eat a bird that made the fatal mistake of landing in the bush to which she was tied.  I was apprehensive of taking a dog at first and John Lee at first decided against it, but then showed up on Day 1 with her.  As it turned out it was perfect.


It also became clear early on that yours truly had not thought seriously about the number of calories hiking at 9’000 to 13,000′ required, especially for teenage boys.  God bless Dave Niswonger and Peter Rossi, whose Crew brought enough food to feed us all once over with leftovers.  His cooks attracted a lot of attention and finally our Crew’s allegiance away from our humble offerings.  Everyone knew where the seconds were.  With my no wheat and low sugar choices I was, in hindsight, under fed for most of the trip.  More on this later.

So Day 4 was spent exploring the chain of lakes and trying our hands at fishing.  The lake chain involved about a mile of trail, so John L,  I and some of the others hiked it to the end just exploring.  We found a lone guy with his hammock camped at the end of the trail at the last lake.  I learned some things about hammocks from him.  He slept in a hammock even at home, which I found interesting.  His was also slung very close to the ground.  As I surmised from our conversation Hennessey hammocks like mine don’t hold up too well when you weigh about 250# and when they fail you fall.  Not one of my problems.  The Rossi Crew discovered that the far end of Lake #7 had a sand/gravel beach.  As any good Scout would they tried a very brisk wading.   The fishing was fair to poor.  As I expected only the Master Angler John Loughran had enough success to eat, but it was meager.  His biggest catch was while we were away at Mistymoon Lake and Cloud Peak.  All of our fishermen’s expectations were much higher.  

Overnight a storm rolled down Soldier Park from the west, with wind, thunder and lightning.  As I normally do I was timing the delay between flashes and thunder, tracking the storm’s progress.  Sound travels at 1100 feet per second, so a mile takes roughly 5 seconds.  It was clearly coming our way.  This is why one battens the hatches regardless of what the sky looks like on retiring for the night.  My stuff and our food were well stowed.  So on it came – 25 seconds – 5 miles, 20 seconds – 4 miles,  15 seconds – 3 miles 2 miles, 1 mile, flash-bang and then off it went to the east.  I gauged it out to about 5 miles the other way before falling asleep.  And amazingly not one drop of rain hit our assembled campsites.  I’d never experienced that before.  God’s creation is so fascinating.

our campsite at Brothers Lakes
Brothers Lake #1 near our Campsite

Day 5 – Tuesday, July 17 – Off to Mistymoon Lake

Now for some real hiking.  Starting at 9,700′ we first descended into Soldier Park at 9,200′, crossed North Clear Creek (again) and headed west – northwest up towards Florence Pass (my Mom’s middle name).  The weather was gorgeous.  North Clear Creek was a bit deeper than the day before yesterday due to the rainstorm upstream.

Not everyone came on this excursion.  The Kottkamp Crew plus the two Loughran boys decided to stay at the Brothers Lakes and try some serious fishing.  So this left our Crew (Lee Crew) minus Peter Loughran and the Rossi Crew with Dave Niswonger and Pete Sgroi.  So we were eleven – John Lee, myself, Ian Kurdelak, Liam Lee, Henry Lee, Dave and Pete, Andrew Berzai, Peter Rossi, Owen Linczer and Eddie Sgroi. 

This horse trail came complete with horse-sized switchbacks and their attendant boulders and ruts.  On the AT at 4,500′ or so these are not so much of a problem.  At 9,500′ a bit more of a challenge.  I weathered it well, but John Lee and I with Suka were the tail end of the column from the get-go.  The three creek crossings kept us bunched up a bit, which was good.  The first one was boots-off but the

North Clear Creek again
….and again






second to my surprise, had a double log foot bridge of sorts that we all managed to navigate without incident.  Suka had a bit of a problem and John just retrieved her with the leash and harness.

This was an amazing hike for the sheer beauty of the bare naked peaks on both sides with their snow cover and rivulets cascading down.  To top it off there was still snow across the trail in two spots.  This was a bit testy because the trail was bouldery and one couldn’t be sure of the footing hidden under the snow, plus we were on narrow switchbacks and the trail sloped outwards down the slope.  Good to have the ol’ hiking poles along.  The snow tended to be packed down and on the icy side.  We were just extra cautious and we had no mishaps.  The crown jewel of the scenery was Medicine Park with its carpet of lavender from one end to the other.  My, oh my, this was breathtaking.  And green grass around the edges, a

from the grassy field overlooking the gap between Medicine Cabin and Medicine parks
Medicine Park and its sea of lavender







Florence Lake and Bomber Mountain

couple red paintbrushes and a dash of bright yellow to set it off.  Made me forget about the  difficulty of the trail.  Then out of Medicine Park into Florence Canyon (too narrow and rocky to be classified as a park I guess) and up to Florence Lake and the pass.  We took a well deserved fishing and lunch break at the lake below the pass.  By now we had hit 10,860′.  Fishing was so so.

a break at Florence Lake
by the way, did I mention snow across the trail in the pass?

It was partly cloudy and cool, but comfy in the sun.  There was a constant breeze since after all we were in a pass.  The trick was to lay on the ground on the leeward side of some rocks and the wind went right over you.  After a considerable rest we trekked off uphill  through Florence Pass (10,930′) and then down down down to Mistymoon Lake at the base of Cloud Peak ( a mere 10,200′).  All-in-all a 9.1 mile mostly uphill trip today.  Mistymoon Lake is only about 2 miles down beyond the pass.

part of the Cloud Peak Ascent Crew in Medicine Cabin Park
view down from Florence Pass toward Mistymoon Lake (not yet visible)






We set up camp at the first flat ground we could find on the south edge of the lake about 300 yards from the shoreline.  I was rewarded with a tussock of spruce trees well suited for my hammock on a ridge overlooking the rest of the campsite.    Its downside was that it looked to be where the horses were frequently tied.  The barnyard apples were all dried up but it did have a bit of a barnyard aroma about it still.   Part of the contingent was below me and the rest of them went downhill to a grassy field further south – a kind of split encampment.  

my spot in the upper camp

The common eating area was in the upper site just below my hammock area.  And here is where the Rossi Crew shone the brightest.  By the time my Crew got their much needed extra carbs for the day from the Rossi leftovers there was nothing left.  At about this time I began to wonder if I had misjudged the calories in my own meal plan.  I was eating my own stuff, which for the AT was fine from my experience.

Common area of upper campsite

Fishing apparently was not on the agenda after our hike.  Like clockwork a storm came up at sunset and blew right over us with just a sprinkle.  Overnight things were dry and cool.  There is a chain of lakes downhill to the south along the Ten Sleeps trail from the head of the valley where we were.  Another spectacular view.  The Ten Sleeps trailhead to Mistymoon is a much

lower campsite and the chain of lakes leading downward toward Ten Sleeps trailhead

shorter and gentler route into Mistymoon.  The two trails together make a “C” shaped loop with US Route 16 tying the two trailheads together.  It is something like 50 miles on the road between them, however.

Day 6 – Wednesday, July 18 – Assault on Cloud Peak

I will remember this day and hike for a long, long time, because on it I met my match.  While at Seven Brothers, Dave Niswonger had run into a Ranger

the column begins its assault

making his rounds, having hiked down from Florence Pass.  From him he was able to ascertain approximately where the trail up Cloud Peak came off of the Solitude Lake Loop trail, maybe 1.5 miles west of Mistymoon.  This really helped get us started.  The hike to the jump-off point was easy enough and I managed to get some really good marmot pictures as they eyed our passing – the male on a rock nearer to us and the rest of the family closer to the lakeside peering from behind another rock.  These guys are hard to find above ground, but the spring is the best time.

Father Marmot keeps a wary eye
Mama and the kids look on as well

So from the beginning of the trail we went down maybe 200′ and across a park to the Paint Rock Creek crossing, with no footbridge of course.  There was a waterfall with a leap over point below it.  I didn’t trust myself for the leap, so I scouted downstream to where the horse trail crossed.  My first screw up was slipping off a rock midstream and dunking a boot.  Rats, but no harm done except to my pride.

Paint Rock Creek coming down – just wet enough to fill your boots
the trail had some definition in the beginning

I then retraced back to the base of the falls and scaled up the rock face like the rest to hit the horse path.  I was logging the waypoints with my phone at this point and after the adventure saw that I had more than 1/2 of the route marked.  But my battery crapped out at this halfway point and that was that.

beauty hiding in every nook and cranny

In hindsight the lower half of the trail was not difficult save for the elevation.  We were at 11,000′ and climbing.  It was still a horse path and easily seen most of the way, going through a low rocky ridge and into another grassy park.  But things changed at the uphill edge of this park as Paint Rock Creek petered out and the terrain turned into large, flat boulders and ridges.  The Crew split (first mistake) with most of the Scouts taking a flatter path closer to the stream.  John Lee and I and a couple others wasted a lot of energy navigating over and around a hillock.  Also at this point the trail dissolved into fingers of grassy gravel alternating with fingers of jumbled boulders.  As John and I fell further behind the Scouts spied a high point that they figured was the peak (wrong guess) and were soon sitting on the ridge looking down at us.  When they took note that we were continuing up this fingered swale they noted that their ridge line intersected up a ways with our general trajectory and so started moving to meet up with us.  At this point I think John was distracted with Suka pulling him ever onward and upward and stopped checking on me.  We lost sight of each other, and my real adventure began.

adding to the cairn mania; of course ours was correctly placed; later we were tearing them down to lessen confusion

I should at this point mention the cairns, more specifically the multiplicity of cairns.  There were little piles of rocks everywhere.  They tended to go up and down the swale but obviously there were many more than one route to the top.  As our trail improvement, a traditional Scout endeavor for the hiking MB, we disassembled some of them as a service to future hikers.


Back to my adventure.  I caught site of Pete Sgroi up on the aforementioned ridge and we made eye contact, so I took a bearing on where the rest of the Crew was stopped and set course for it.  Two things were in my way – a snow

there’s a trail here somewhere
not the snow field I got stuck in – I was too busy surviving to take a picture of that one

field and the fingers of boulders.  And the two of them were coincident across my intended path.


So I made a move to skirt the snow/ice uphill in a realized that I would have to cross it.  My legs were a bit wobbly by now and my balance was suffering from low carbs for sure.  On my second step into the ice field my right leg went through to my crotch (I always lead with my left, an old military habit).  I had pause for thought – “I could die out here, really”.  I extricated my leg, no worse for the wear and devised a method across the snow using my hiking poles to probe each step in the snowfield.  OK, got that behind me.  Now just up this steep ridge of compact car sized boulders.  That’s when I missed my mark and managed to wedge my right boot into a V-shaped

one of the less fortunate – not human, only an elk, but it got my attention

crevasse.  Not going to get it out vertically or to the front.  I was by now getting a bit tense and much more prayerful.  My conversation with Jesus was that I didn’t think He had gotten me all this way to have me die here.  I remembered the pile of Elk bones I had passed a bit earlier.  So I tried kicking to the rear and it popped free.  Did I mention that both of my shins were bloodied by now.  My balance at this elevation and with this much exertion was not good.  Finally, finally I crested the ridge to find Pete and Eddie Sgroi and Peter Rossi in a little hollow among the rocks.  I sat down, relieved.

as far as I went; Suka has returned from the peak and we really tired her out

The approximate elevation where I was sitting was about 12,400′.  I am happy to say that I had enough sense at this point to realize that I was not going to get to the peak at 13, 170′.  Pete and Eddie headed out.  Peter stayed with me.  I’m not sure of his motive, but he told me he had no desire to get to the peak.  I had to believe him.  Everyone returned about an hour and a half later.  Dave N still had food, bless him, and gave me a tub of peanut butter and some crackers, as I remember.  I had not run out of water thankfully.

… but the view was still outstanding

After a quick rest we began our descent.  My bloodied shins and the tale of my ascent had caught the attention of the Scouts and I assume the adults.  I was not privy to whatever conversations were being held about my general well-being but Peter Rossi and Owen Linczer, the two ranking Scouts, approached me and offered to sandwich me front and rear on the way down.  That was a noble gesture and I was smart enough to accept it gladly.  They also helped pick my route.  I was definitely not steady on my legs.

Dave and Andrew going the last 1/2 mile; the actual peak was not visible from where I was

I was attempting to hop from boulder to boulder like the others but it wasn’t going to work unless the gap was small and the landing level.  I just couldn’t catch myself on landing.  Almost as soon as we started I made a hop, lost my balance and in catching myself got my right hiking pole wedged between two boulders and snapped it right in half.  I also managed to do


on top of Cloud Peak
Andrew and Grandpa (not so old) Dave on top of Cloud Peak






and back down we go with me fronted by Peter and backed up by Owen

at least one face plant but somehow got my left hand in front of my face to pad the blow without any injury.  My shins, however, were taking a beating at every turn.  This is about when I decided, and informed Peter Rossi in front of me, that I wanted to walk around the various boulders, not hop between them, even if it meant climbing up and down.  This worked much better.  We were out of the boulder fields soon enough and after we went down a couple of 10′ rock faces we were at the creek bed.  From there it was not a big problem after negotiating the muddy headwaters area.  At one spot further down I lost my footing on some gravel and was starting to fall backward.  Owen caught me, he was that close.  This singular act of extreme kindness by Peter and Owen has meant more and more to me as time has passed.  It was done without fanfare, pretense or condescension.  These are two future Eagle Scouts for sure.

Adding embarrassment to injury, now that I had only one functioning pole, I did more than dunk a boot in Paint Rock Creek on the recrossing.  It was both boots and part of my left side.  By God’s grace my cell phone in my left pants pocket did not go for a swim.  You would think I would have learned by now to get help, but no, not yet.  Two miles later I dunked my right boot crossing the creek at the outlet of Mistymoon as we approached camp.  All in all the assault took us 12 hours for the 10 mile round trip.  It was surely tough sledding.

my shins tell the story, ‘
and my face shows just how intense the sun is at 13,000′







Arriving back at camp we had just enough time to enjoy dinner before dusk faded into darkness. There were no leftovers from dinner, and the pots were licked clean.  I patched up my shins with a couple of band-aids.

Day 7 – Thursday, July 19 – Return to Brothers Lakes

It was another crisp and breezy day at Mistymoon.  We were up at first light and busy breaking camp.  We were visited by two mounted Rangers with their two dogs.  We exchanged our information and had a nice talk about the Cloud Peak adventure.  Neither dog barked once and both were content to just wait the signal to go.  When we parted they headed up the trail toward Florence Pass, our intended route, and we never saw them again.

We made it back up to Florence Pass with no difficulty at all.  My legs were back under me after a good night’s rest.  We broke for fishing and a breather at Florence Lake.  The boys had some success fishing, too, but not enough to pack them (actually it – one fish) out.  Of this group, Ian Kurdelak is the most dedicated, just like his Uncle Jim Barrett, one of our Eagle Scouts who is Will’s age.

As you may remember I was now down one trekking pole.  I generated alot of laughs as I spent an hour in camp the evening before using Dave’s stash of Gorilla tape (he had everything with him) attempting to repair the shattered carbon fiber pole, which in the end, of course, couldn’t hold any weight at all.  So my first test in mono-pole mode was crossing North Clear Creek at its origin coming out of Florence Lake.  Not too deep, but very wide here for sure.  Bless Dave Niswonger, he negotiated across then passed one of his poles back to me via some more surefooted Scouts.  My pride was definitely an obstacle to the cause and it was at this moment that the whole ascent/descent of Cloud Peak, the Scouts sandwiching me front and back and the need for a second pole came into focus.  This is part of what Scouting is about for me.

back down through Florence Canyon

Then back down over the snow field crossing the trail, Florence Valley and a stop for lunch at the quarter acre shelf of a field at the eastern end of Medicine Park overlooking Medicine Cabin park (see the reference to it in the earlier picture).  Somehow, I was short on water and took some from one of the Crew, only to have most of it leak out the bottom of my pack.  I have since verified that the bladder is fine.  I have only recently realized that I likely squeezed it out of the bite valve while using the pack as a backrest during lunch.

the patchy snow on the trail is still ahead on these switchbacks

At the time this was another worry among several for the day.  The hike was downhill from here until the last half mile, with two boots-off crossings and the one ramshackle foot log bridge we negotiated on the way up.  Having learned my lesson by now I used one of Dave’s poles for the foot log and the first boots-off crossing.  By then we were back into the forest, and one loving Scout scrounged me a walking stick from among the fallen limbs. It was serviceable enough for a ways but then I replaced it with one more to my liking with smaller diameter, lighter and straighter.  I am happy to report that I didn’t dunk a boot on the return trip due to these great kindnesses, and that my provisional extra pole now occupies an honored place in my man cave to preserve this memory.

The second boots-off crossing was through North Clear Creek at the base of the ascent up to the Brothers Lakes plateau.  After 8.6 miles of travel we all were more than a little tired but excited to share our adventure with the rest.  In the last 200 yards I caught a rock with my right toe and caught myself with the replacement pole but not before I put the handle up into my left cheek just below the cheekbone.  It drew some blood and I was mad that I hadn’t whittled down the broken end to a smoother surface, which would have lessened the injury.  It is still tender there when I poke on it near the top of the roots of my teeth after all these months.

Back in camp we shared the tale of our three day adventure and I showed everyone my scabby shins.  The others regaled us with their fishing saga, which met with only moderate success.  It was hard fishing from shore and the water was still very cold.  That evening was the time when John Loughran came up with the campfire arrangement using his wood fired backpacking stove.  That was very pleasant.  And our Crew had dessert with the Rossi/Niswonger Crew, for which I was glad.

Day 8 – Friday, July 20 – To the Hunter Trailhead and Beyond

sunrise on the last day on the trail

It was another dry and starlit night and day broke crisply.  As has been the modus operandi for this whole trek the Lee Crew was up and at it and on the trail first.  There is an advantage to very simple, albeit insufficient at times, food.  At the trail junction we decided for some change of pace, and largely to avoid the North Clear Creek and French Creek ditch crossings yet again, to take the alternate route back to Hunter on USFS Trail 045 and USFS 395.  This way we had only one crossing and had heard that it was fordable for the nimble footed with boots on.

a final backpacker breakfast

So down the eastern horse path we went with the expected loose boulders and steep slopes.  The trail at the wilderness area boundary opened into an enormous pasture, Buffalo Park, where the other Crews had encountered a herd of cattle on their way in.  Today they were not to be seen.  It was coolish but the sun was still piercing.  The Crew held together pretty well.  We

on through Buffalo Park
and then the long USFS 395 gravel road

had a couple fence breaks to go through and a bit of up and down.

We had lunch in a grove of trees at the far side of the North Clear Creek crossing.  I made the tricky crossing without taking on any water.  My legs were in much better condition by now.

I remembered to recover my unneeded fuel canister that I had stashed at our original campsite on Sunday as we passed.

Brian and Liam Peterson bringing up the rear arrive

Once everyone was back at the vehicles and since it was still just after lunchtime we had a pow-wow about our evening campsite.  The decision was made to drive towards our planned destination of Devil’s Tower National Monument and find a campsite at Custer State Park SD near Mt. Rushmore, our planned stop the next day.  Now a bit of background.  Only those with Verizon phone coverage had any reception on the trip west from Mitchell and at Hunter.  It was so irritating then that John Loughran, when he finally did get a connection, negotiated a rebate on his monthly bill from whoever he was with.  So now with the chips on the table it fell to me to find and reserve a campsite for the evening from the backseat of the Sgroi van.  By a minor miracle and the grace of Almighty God I got to the central reservation desk for the South Dakota parks.  No room at Custer State Park.  What about this place Keyhole State Park?  There is, great, let’s book it.  Done in about 30 minutes of map reading and travel time ciphering.  Once the last of the Kotttkamp/Loughran crew hiked in we were pretty much ready to roll.

Now for lunch plans.  The Lees announced that they were headed for the Twin Cities after lunch, so we would be down 3 after that.  Since I wasn’t driving I was on Google searchingrestaurants  as we drove for a final celebration meal  and also with something for my wheat-free diet.  Found a steakhouse near Gillette WY on our route and everyone followed us there.  John had realized that the place was closed but his text didn’t get to me in time.  We pulled into the parking lot and he rolled down his window and filled me in.  “You have any ideas”, I asked.  There’s this barbeque place down at the next exit.  Say no more.  We found our way to Pokey’s BBQ.  It was an unassuming storefront in a strip mall.  John disembarked to check it out since we had two vans full of minors and it had the outward appearance of a bar.  When he emerged he brought news that he had negotiated a flat price per person, all we could eat with sides.

closest thing to Heaven so far on this trip
and everyone knew it, too. The highlight of highlights for me







Whoa!  In we went, leaving Suka tied up on the porch.  What ensued from this point is bringing tears to my eyes even now.  We were all seated at one long table with a bench seat on one side.  The waitresses were classy, the food was outstanding, and the price was very, very fair.  A question for which all adult eyes turned to me was, beer?  My proclamation – no, ’cause we are on Scout time now .  There were no arguments.  But what really did it for me was the picture of Willie Nelson with an autographed apron on hanging on the wall behind me.  Then I noted some platters on the wall autographed by ZZTop, John Conlee and others of Country music fame.  I was moved enough to sign and present my scarf to our head waitress to put up there with these.  Only other place that I’ve ever done that is at Philmont.

After this very fine lunch we said goodbye to the Lees and Suka, then set course for Keyhole State Park near Moorcroft WY, about 45 miles.  We got a lakefront site with lots of room.  Everyone took a swim.  The downside was that there were no showers to be had.  The lake worked with our biodegradable soap.  Set up my hammock and had a great night’s sleep thinking about BBQ.  Big day of sightseeing planned for tomorrow.

Keyhole State Recreation Area, WY lakefront campsite
bath time in Keyhole Lake

Day 9 – Saturday, July 21 – Bear’s Tipi and Mount Rushmore

at Bear Lodge after the Visitor Center tour

Up at daybreak and packed myself up.  Roused the Troops and we broke camp after breakfast.  Warm and rainless.  Our first stop today was what European Americans call Devil’s Tower, but the plains Indian tribes prefer Bear’s Tipi or Bear Lodge.  The nearby mountain range is in fact named the Bear Lodge mountains.  The devil so the story goes came from a mistranslation by Col Richard Dodge’s assistant from the legend surrounding this amazing pinnacle of lava.  There are three theories on its formation, but all three involve molten magna cooling underground and eventually exposed by massive

Bear Lodge

erosion.  It may be simply an underground bulge, or a laccolithic intrusion or the plug of a former volcano.  This latter idea seems least likely since there is no evidence of volcanic lava flow or ash anywhere in the area.  This is the first of the national monuments .  It was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 using his power of Presidential Executive Order during the national parks conservation era, much to the chagrin of his opponents.  The legends of the native  northern plains tribes are similar in that they all involve a huge bear with evil intent that claws the sides of the tower, but the details vary a bit, either trying to get at Indian braves (an adult moral) or in the case of the Arapahoe a selfish sister turned into a bear trying to steal a ball belonging to her sister (child moral).  The evil bear common to these legends would explain the entry of

there is a climber just above left center

devil” into the incorrect translation and naming.  One of the stories includes the Great Bear constellation that is visible seasonally during the year over the tower, which is an interesting link to Greek mythology.  So for the native Americans this is known as Bear’s Tipi or Lodge, and the inclusion of reference to the devil is not appreciated.  It is their most sacred site in the plains.  Tribes from as far east as Oklahoma revere and visit the site regularly.  It was normal for migration to Bear’s Tipi annually in former times.  The rock is certainly impressive.

Then on to Custer SD for lunch before touring Mount Rushmore about 130 miles to the southeast.  We split for lunch between a Subway and the next door pizzeria.  There was a Frontier Days festival in full swing and the place was packed.  We must have taken the longest route to the monument. It seemed to take forever, but once there we took it all in.  From when the family was there back on our trip to Yellowstone in 1990 they have built a mall with shops and moved the museum to its lower level.  What I wanted to revisit was the original model to confirm the additional faces that were omitted from the final work due to a fault in the rock face.  There is no info on the internet confirming this, however, so maybe I remember incorrectly.  They were all supposed to be sculpted down to their waists, but this was never finished.

everyone but the photographer
and here he is

We didn’t have too much time to spend here, but we had enough.  Then back into the vans and through Rapid City to I-90 and eastward to Lake Vermilion SRA at Mitchell.  We arrived with enough time to make dinner and set up camp before dark.  We had the same campsite as on the way out.  Still no rain.

late evening dinner back at Lake Vermilion SRA

Day 10 – Sunday, July 22 – Homeward Bound

Up at daybreak, showered, packed up, ate breakfast and took up my spot behind Pete Sgroi in his van for the return trip.  Not much to report today except that nothing catastrophic happened, like a crash or car trouble.  For lunch we ended up at a Burger King in LaCroix WI.  I gathered up my food at

breaking camp one last time

the adjacent gas station quick mart – jerky and an iced tea – which I added to the remains of my travel meals.  We ate on the move.  Traffic around Rockford and into Chicago was normal, without backups but plenty of construction slowdowns.  We arrived back at the PoP Center in time for dinner.  It was a great trip.

back to civilized living

Smokies Trip – February 2019

Day 1 – Tuesday, February 5

Morning farewell in Avon

We left for our 48th honeymoon trip after Larry’s cardiologist appointment at 9:30 this morning.  It was a regularly scheduled annual checkup but he has been having some issues with lightheadedness.   He is scheduled for a carotid ultrasound on our return to check things out.  So we pressed onward for our overnight in Avon at Anna’s.  The trip was overcast but balmy, in the 40’s.  A good stirfry and a game of Mouse Trap before bed with Sarah and Thomas.  Jon was working overtime on a project at Lilly, so we didn’t even see him – came in after we were in bed and was gone again before we got up.

Day 2 – Wednesday, February 6

As expected we awoke to rain.  There was some serious lightning and thunder overnight.  Ate breakfast, gave Sarah and Thomas hugs and were on the road at 8:05.  Then we turned around to retrieve Mary Ann’s water bottle after Anna called and were back on the road at 8:20.  Rain all day, all the way except for the last 30 miles.  Lunch at a Jimmy Johns in Lexington KY.  We took the I-65/I-64 route.  The upside of the rain was two-fold – first, it wasn’t snow and second, the temperatures were in the 60’s.  On arrival at the Pigeon Forge Kroger it was 73ºF.  We’ll take it.  Got to the Tennessee Rose around 4:30 after collecting a few groceries and set up house.   It was a very pleasant ride, albeit wet.  We listened to Bob Dylan’s Christian albums and Larry’s latest, plus some Allison Kraus and banjo tunes to get into a “mountain” mood.  Passed our hosts, the Voisins, on the road in doing litter patrol.  We’ll be having dinner with them Friday evening.  

the final answer after eleven years of wondering

This picture answers one of our continuing questions, “What do you call this place?  Wear Cove, Wear Valley or what?”  So it is Wears (as in what are you wearing today?) Valley.  Finally an answer after ten years.

the Tennessee Rose; our 3rd visit

Before dinner we sat out on the deck.  You could hear the tree frogs in the distance.  Larry took a few minutes to rent the car from Enterprise that we’ll use to spot at the end of the trail each day so we can hike point-to-point.  Dinner tonight was chili and chips.  Then after dinner we went back out on the deck with our dessert – a blueberry crumble that Mary Ann whipped up after we got settled in.  Very tasty indeed.  This weather is easy to get accustomed to.

very balmy for FebruaryAfter dessert we planned tomorrow’s hike and then played a round of our new “Trekking the National Parks” game from Christmas.  Mary Ann won again.

Caught up on the blog and hit the sack.

Day 3 – Thursday, February 7

the white Nissan Versa rental

Time to get up and go get the rental car at Enterprise.  Our showers were taken care of yesterday, so it was prayer, breakfast, pack the lunch and out the door.  It really helped that it was already 68° and mostly sunny when we were leaving.  After getting the car in Sevierville (2019 Nisssan Versa) we dropped the Jetta back at the cabin and headed for Elkmont.  Today’s hike was from the Little River Trailhead up through Daisy Town on  the back way to the Jake’s Creek Trail, then to the Meigs Mountain Trail and a short jaunt to the Cucumber Gap Trailhead.  We’ve been down here alot and know all kinds of trail connections.  The Cucmber Gap Trail ends back at the Little River Trail

ready to hike from Daisy Town

2.4 miles upstream from its trailhead where we started.  A total of about 5.8 miles.  And we’ve lived to tell about it.  It has one medium difficulty stream crossing over Huskey Creek, but when the air temperature is in the low 70’s what’s to worry about.  At lunch at the crossing and since it was so warm we just had sandwiches and tea/water.  Hiking in t-shirts in early February was fun.

we need to walk along the Little Rover at least once a year for refreshment



one of the Daisy Town buildings being restored

After the hike we took a drive on the newly completed section of the Foothills Parkway from Townsend over to Wears Cove.  It features a series of  “flying” curved bridges with a marvelous panorama of the Appalachian Ridge to its south.  We took pictures, backtracking to two overlooks to get them.  We have been driving under the overpass built for this at least 10 years ago, if not longer, and to find it finally finished was super.  So the Foothills Parkway runs from the west side of the park around to about the north center at Wears Cove, and then picks up again at the northeast corner and runs over to I-40 on the east side.  No right-of-way available through that good-as-gold real estate at the park entrance.  We still have to drive on the state routes from Wears Cove through Pigeon Forge to get to the northeast part of the park.  We go in the back way to get to the heart of the park and bypass Gatlinburg.

one of the “flying” sections of the new Foothills Parkway section and a panorama of the Appalachian ridge
Tennessee in February – gotta love it!

Back home we have the windows open and are grilling buttermilk chicken on the deck after cocktail (beer with nuts and water) hour. 

And it’s a hockey night as the Pens take on the Florida Panthers.  The Pens lose in OT 3-2.  This is getting routine.  The team hype isn’t clicking with the reality, although they are still in the playoff picture.  Larry picked up hockey as a diversion from the Cincinnati Reds being so poor.  To be entertaining a sports team needs to be winning.  Oh, well.

Tomorrow another day, another hike.

Day 4 – Friday, February 8

Another beautiful, sunny day, but not quite as warm – like 45° chilly.  But sunshine makes a big difference.

the traditional picture at the junction of the Schoolhouse Gap and Turkeypen Ridge trails

We decided on a point-to-point hike from Schoolhouse Gap uphill on the Turkeypen Ridge trail to Lead Cove.  Last time we did this was last April and we went the other way, more or less downhill.  Really we couldn’t tell much difference in exertion level and that was good.  Our lunch spot has become “the Rock”, a rock overhang with a small creek running beneath it.  For snowy or rainy weather this is rather ideal, but on a

the Rock – our usual lunch shelter spot on the Turkeypen Ridge trail

sunny 45° day it kept things a bit brisker than sitting in the sun.  Tradition, however, won out over comfort.  The 4.7 miles took us 4 hours including the lunch stop.  We took our time.  And this time we managed to keep from leaving all the keys for the car at trail’s end in the car at the  beginning of the trail.  On the way back to the cabin Mary Ann took the direct route while Larry wanted to drive the new Foothills Parkway again.  It took him an extra 20 minutes and the vistas were worth it.

us with the Voisins – Christine and Kent – for dinner

Our treat for this evening is having dinner with Kent and Christine Voisin next door, owners of this rental and fast becoming good friends.  They do the music for the 5pm Saturday Mass at Holy Cross church in Pigeon Forge, which is where we met them two years ago.  As we suspected we share so much in common we were instantly bonded.  We talked about our music ministries over wine, which carried into a wonderful dinner of shrimp and gumbo.  And not just any gumbo.  Since they are both from Houma, LA, it was about as authentic of a gumbo as you can get.  My was it good.  And the shrimp were from Christine’s side of the family, who are shrimpers.  They built a fishing camp recently in Dulac LA, which is south of Houma, which is south of New Orleans, and might as well be in the Gulf.  We talked about Mary Ann’s kidney cancer and Christine’s kidney donation to a complete stranger.  We found out they had been part of a country-western band for 12 years and Larry regaled them with tales from his Oblates of Blues days.  Kent is very handy and built the rental we are in, their house up the hill and another rental cabin below ours.  They have been making a living managing their rental properties, but are really ready to fully retire now.  We are all committed Catholic Christians and music is a big part of our lives.  The ancestral and cultural backgrounds are completely different – Cajun French versus German immigrant.  We arrived at 5pm and left to walk back down to the cabin at 11pm.  It only seemed like a couple of hours.  We hope this relationship continues to grow.  We’ll see them playing at Mass tomorrow


Day 5 – Saturday, February 9

Today was a repeat of yesterday weatherwise – sunny and brisk.  We did a point-to-point hike up Bote Mountain and then down the West Prong (of Laurel Creek) back to Tremont Institute.  The total hike was 3.9 miles, a shorty today.  This route starts from the same parking area as yesterday’s trek.  There

negotiating one of several blowdowns on the trail

were some interesting blowdowns to negotiate through.  This was our experience of the US government shutdown in January.  The trrail maintainers were not working apparently.  We had a leisurely lunch at Campsite 18 and then a somewhat challenging stream crossing shortly after getting back on the trail.

lunch at Campsite 18 with Chef Lawrence

This was to be church day and we got back to the cabin with plenty of time for Mary Ann to get her shower in and to get ourselves in to Holy Cross church in Pigeon Forge for Mass.  The Voisins were doing the music and did their usual great job.  Next day they were leaving to go back home to their fishing camp in Louisiana.  We gave them a copy of Larry’s latest CD recording, Songs From the Heart – Volume 3, to see what they thought about it. We’ll wait and see.  Franciscan Father David Mary gave a rousing sermon on the Eucharist that moved us.  Larry realized afterward that he had heard him preach at one of the Rekindle the Fire conferences in South Bend several years ago.

the Voisins after Mass in Pigeon Forge

We celebrated our 48th anniversary with dinner at Calhoun’s after Mass.  Conveniently the church is about 2 blocks from the restaurant.  Then we made a quick stop at Kroger for a couple items before returning to the cabin.  After that not much happened, except that the Pens lost again, before bed.  Rain is coming in tomorrow and probably for the duration of our stay, so we’ll see how it goes.

Day 6 – Sunday, February 10

As predicted the day dawned gray and wet.  It was trying hard to rain but was mostly spitting at us.  We decided to take a major hike today.  Actually no one had a better argument or hike to trump Larry’s idea, so we were stuck with it.  We dropped a car at the Sugarland Mountain trailhead and then started from

the Rock #2, our shelter on the Huskey Gap trail

the Little River trailhead at Elkmont.  The circuit ran 7.9 miles up Little River, across the Husky Gap trail and then down the Sugarland Mountain trail to the car.  The rain never did come in full force and we were blessed by a rocky shelter fro lunch, which we will call “the Rock #2”, on the Huskey Gap trail.

lunchtime at the Rock #2

The rain was on and off all day.  We did the 7.9 mile hike in 5 hours 15 minutes including lunch.  Not bad for a couple oldsters.  The compromise with Mary Ann was that we would not hike tomorrow but do the scrapbook.

Back home we grilled burgers for dinner and nursed our sore legs.


Day 6 – Monday, February 11

hard at the scrapbooking this morning

The weather prediction for today was correct – warmer but rainy.  Our plan was at least to start into the a scrapbook work and then see how the weather panned out after lunch.  So Larry had eggs & bacon and Mary Ann had oatmeal and sausage links for breakfast, and then we tore into our memorabilia accordian file for 2018.  This cabin only has one table, so it encourages one to clean up before moving to the next event.  That meant cleaning up after breakfast.  Then we bunched the coffee table and extra dinning chair around to set stuff on.  We didn’t seem to have as much as in earlier times or maybe we are just more efficient, and perhaps more ruthless about what to pitch, but we worked up everything through October before lunch.  At that point the weather looked to be clearing in the afternoon so we picked a short hike for after lunch and packed a snack.

Mary Ann contemplates how to cross, that is if we wanted to

We headed off to the Sinks and did the first 1.5 miles of the Meigs Creek Trail.  That is over the ridge and down to the first crossing.  As we expected with the wet season there was no easy way to cross the creek there, so we were content to brew our tea and have our snack on the near bank.  The sun even came out and the temperature was a balmy 52°.  Very pleasant.  It was 45 minutes out and a bit less back to

gluing up a page

the car since there was more downhill than uphill on the return.

Back at the cabin we had about an hour before having to fix dinner so we started gluing up the scrapbook pages on the billiard table.  We are sure glad all these cabins have billiard tables.  Where else could we spread out the newspaper and use the spray glue?  These cabins all have hot tubs, too, but these are way less useful.  We always laugh about the billiard tables and hot tubs.  What wastes of space ad energy to us.  We are who we are.

It’s another Hockey Night in Pittsburgh.  Larry was ready to chuck it all and start watching baseball spring training games after Saturday’s loss, but son-in-law Zach sent an insightful email that softened his heart enough to tune in tonight.  And, hey, the Pens won.  Twenty-six more regular season games left now before the playoffs.

Into bed at 2330 (11:30 pm).

Day 7 – Tuesday, February 12

gutter overflowing during this afternoon’s rain

And the rain came.  And plenty of it starting about noon.  By then we had already finished up what remained on the scrapbook and were sitting down for lunch.  It was almost warm enough to eat out on the deck under the eave but a mite too windy.

Before that Larry had time to practice his banjo pickin’.  You can only practice so long before there is no further improvement for the day.  Then it’s time to put the instrument down, go on to something else (i.e. this Blog) and let your muscle memory do its thing.  A little bit of repetition every day

finishing up the scrapbook gluing

does the trick.  He has a song that he has been working ever since finishing building the banjo.  It is sounding good (enough) and close to recording quality.  He also has an invite from the Voisins to put a banjo track onto one of their songs to use at church.

Now it’s time to run some errands and return the rental car, preparing for departure tomorrow morning.  We need some eggs.

Day 8 – Wednesday, February 13

Cincinnati skyline

Travel day.  All good things come to an end it seems in this life.  Sigh.  The alarm went off at 6:00am.  Dad gives Mom at least 30 minutes headstart 🙂 So around 6:30 Larry is up and around.  We had gathered stuff pretty much together last night and so were loaded and on the road at 7:45 under a cloudless sky.  The route today is through Cincinnnati for our annual goetta and leona sausage run.  We made good time and decided to eat lunch at the West Harrison Skyline before going to Kroger to stock up on goetta and leona for Anna, Emma and ourselves.  At lunch Larry called his brother Bob,  who

the other Skyline

lives just up the road, and as they were talking he recommended Langen’s Meats just down the road past Kroger for these items.  So we got most all the goetta at Kroger plus a pound of the leona (all they had) and then had a nice visit with the guys at Langen’s who have their own goetta and leona sausage.  We got the other half of our leona there and the rest of the goetta for Anna and ourselves to try.  Then we were off to Avon,

Arrived in Avon just after the school bus at around 4:10 and unloaded what we needed.  Dinner was pulled pork and cole slaw.  After dinner Larry went with Jon to Thomas’ Cub Scout meeting.  It was about recycling and first aid.  OK but too lame for kindergarteners, who need to be running around.  Or maybe wrapping each other up in gauze.  Larry has been doing that kind of crazy stuff for a long time.

Jon was home and while Larry was watching hockey (Pens won again over Edmonton) he demonstrated his new vinyl cutter/plotter making an OSU logo for his RC toolbox.  Nifty.  

Then off to bed.

Day 9 – Thursday, February 14

Thomas and Anna in a pre-school bus board game

Happy St. Valentine’s day!  Up pretty early again today.  Cooked and ate our breakfast, loaded up and were on our way around 8:30.  Another rain-free, but overcast day with temperatures in the high 30’s – low 40’s most of the way.  Drove straight thru and were home by 11:00.  There were around 4″ of slushy snow on the drive to welcome us.  Unloaded and

taking the chill off on our arrival at home.

ate lunch.  Larry fired up the woodstove.   And so it ends for another year.  We may be down that way again in May if Larry’s plan to hike his last section of the AT in Tennessee materializes.

WinterWarm 2100 Re-Build

The finished product, just in time for our all-time record low of -24°F in the Bend

Background Story

As the 2018 heating season began it became painfully obvious that our 30 year old Vermont Castings WinterWarm 2100 was having problems with the damper.  Now looking back it was having damper problems several years before this.  The damper was not seating across its length.  I tried using fatter gasketing, but the gap on its left was still too wide.  Besides that it was binding when opening and closing.  My solution as always was a little more force. 🙂 Needless to say this lasted until we couldn’t get the damper opened or closed.

Over the past month I’ve learned a ton about the workings of this unit and didn’t find anything directly applicable on YouTube, so this blog may be helpful to some poor soul freezing it out somewhere.

My early experience includes disassembling the throats, lower fireback and the ash grate to replace the catalytic converter and refractory assembly (very pricey, indeed!)  I managed to break the upper sides of the refractory box working to install it without taking out the upper fireback first (much more on the upper fireback below).  Some gasket cement fixed this problem mostly since the back panel was still intact.

Anyway, after I let the unit cool down I crawled inside to see how to get at the damper arm.  Actually I first thought I could pull the whole shebang out a bit and access the damper arm linkage, which I figured might be the problem.  Of course that wouldn’t work unless one disconnects the chimney adapter, which is above the damper, which in turn is above the upper fireback.


So after removing the ash fettle, ash grate, ash bin,  the refractory box, both throats and the lower fireback (there is one nut to remove from the throat clamp that holds all of this together) then laying on my back I peered into things.  The base problem was that the upper fireback, into which the damper closes, was severely warped on its left.  I wasn’t sure about the damper itself, but the upper fireback needed to be replaced.  This piece, which includes the damper door and is thus VERY heavy is held in by 2 – 7/16″ head bolts with flat square nuts that fit into slots in the stove frame on each side.  With a bit of PB Blaster and waiting overnight these came out easily enough.  But my discovery was that the door air manifold that sits in front of the upper fireback needed to come out first.  This is held with one bolt on its left and a gasketed slot on its right.  It is also heavy.  OK, so the disassembly was complete.

the old upper upper fireback with damper removed.  As we say around here, “Just a little bit warped”.

The next thing I wanted to look at was the damper control arm.  It was puzzling that it was slipping on the vertical shaft that went back to the front damper control on the unit.  I tightened the 7/16″ head bolt in the bottom to snug it up but with no effect.  So off it came and as I had guessed at about the same time it had a pin through the shaft, or rather, it used to have a pin that had sheared off sometime ago and in fact was completely missing.  I had probably vacuumed up its remains during my annual cleaning in a previous year.  So there you go.  These findings pretty much answered the damper operation question.  And I was painfully aware that I had been running it with the damper effectively cracked open for maybe 5 years, with the resulting poor efficiency.  Arrgh.

Parts is Parts

I ordered the upper fireback, a new refractory box and bought a new damper (just in case it was also warped) that they had in stock .  I kept my self calm reminding me of all the money I had saved over 30 years (minus the last 5 to a lesser degree).    I also got a new left throat to replace this warped one.  It turned out that the damper door itself was in mint condition, which saved me $41.  Altogether these set me back $380.   Add in a broken lower fireback (explained later) an it comes to $454.  Cast iron is not too pricey.  Calcium silicate refractory board is very pricey.  The refractory box was $281 of the $454.

Everything out of the way – that’s the damper arm coming in from the right


There is a whole bunch of stuff no one told me about how this unit goes together, but taking it apart really helps.  There is an order to it.

Damper Arm

First the damper arm.  The dealer wanted $6 for the 1″ x  3/16″ diameter damper arm pin.  I got a 3/16″ SS bolt at Menard’s for $1.65.  Come on, dudes!  I trimmed off the bolt to fit and used thread lock on the nut on its threaded end just in case.  This pin actually fits in a slot on the top of the arm.  So it was easy enough to set the pin thru the shaft and work the arm up to it, then tighten the bottom bolt.  I used some Never Seize on the vertical shaft thinking of possible future issues.  How it gets engaged with the  bracket on the back of the damper is another story later on.

damper arm with its new SS pin – note the bolthead on the left for later
Damper Door and Upper Fireback

Next it was time to assemble the damper on to the upper fireback.  I kept the bolts, washers and tiny hinge plates from the old one (they didn’t come with the new piece – probably do with the damper door itself).  Well actually, I twisted off one of the original bolts, managed to extract its remains and replaced it.  I mostly straightened the hinge plates and on reassembly flipped them over so that they had a slight downward bend that corresponded to the damper hinges.

Next was refurbishing the damper, the damper arm bracket and its adjusting bolt.  I disassembled the entire bracket setup.   I had guessed that I would need to replace the damper, but when I finally got the new upper fireback I assured myself that the damper door was not warped.   Happily the hex head bolt holding the bracket on the damper door came out without issue.  The adjustment bolt took some  PB Blaster and patience but eventually came out.  This bolt I discovered allows one to adjust the damper closure so that the front control lever locks it into place and adjusts for the gasket compression.  Cool.  But the old one was in bad shape having been immersed in the flames for 30 years.  Even PB Blaster did nothing to loosen its locking nut.  So into my parts bin I went for a 5/16″ Phillips head bolt and nut.  The old bolt had a shallow point on the end that engages the damper bracket, so I ground one into this new one.  I had to re-tap the threaded hole for the threads of this new bolt.  I put the damper into the new upper fireback, complete with the bracket on the chimney side and the adjuster protruding from the stove side.

the damper arm bracket reinstalled
the newly fabricated damper adjustment bolt/screw; needed to re-tap the threaded hole for it

I then happily installed the 3/16″ gasket for the damper into the fireback.  It is way easier doing it with gravity on your side removed from its angled position in the stove.  After that I forgot to install the 3/16″ gasket into the slot down both edges of the fireback (more later).

damper door gasketed and installed in the new upper fireback; note the residual PB Blaster on the door from disassembly
Refractory Box and Catalytic Converter

The refractory box and I were not on friendly terms after my earlier incident.  No one told me however, that you just can’t get this thing into the stove without first removing the upper fireback.  In the present case, again, the bottom of this piece wouldn’t fit through the opening provided.  I took a rasp to it and carefully skimmed off an 1/8″ on each side up far enough to match the high of the short rear wall that retains the lower fireback.  OK, didn’t break anything (also don’t mess with calcium silicate, an emphysema causing particulate; I used a high efficiency shop vac to keep thing clean).  I decided once the cost of this fix passed $200 that I was going to reuse the converter.  It was in pretty good shape.  I just flipped it over since it was losing some of the honeycomb from the bottom.  Jumping ahead a bit I also ended up using the old refractory front piece for the converter opening because of issues fitting in the new lower fireback.  So I was now EPA compliant (they really don’t know much about woodstove density in northern Indiana and its non-impact, but hey, the stove runs slightly more efficient with it installed and I made a living helping companies comply with far more esoteric EPA regulations).

refractory box fitted in place
refractory box with catalytic converter installed

Heavily Lifting – Wrangling the Upper Fireback & Door Air Manifold

As I said above the upper fireback with the damper installed in it is hefty – probably 30#.  The event is to lay on your back inside the firebox, lift the fireback overhead to mate with an inclined frame and simultaneously get the one bolt on either side engaged with its slot on the frame.  After a few tries and then recovering from arm fatigue while eating lunch my prayer for inspiration was answered with two 2×4 blocks.  Snugging these into the bottom of the piece while holding it up with the other hand they held it hands-free in place so I could manipulate the bolts into the slots and tighten them up.  Glory!  Then I realized that I had forgotten to install the gaskets along the edges.  I figured there had to be away to get these in above the fireback without removing it, and miraculously I could just slip them in with the bolts loosened.  Great.

the trick for getting the upper fireback in place – blocking it up with 2×4’s while bolting; converter was put in after the fireback but I forgot to take the blocking picture

The door air manifold that sits it front of the upper fireback is an engineering marvel to me.  It is held in place with a gasketed slot on its right and one bolt on its left.  I installed the gasketing first this time and with a bit of fist banging due to the new gasket on the right got it up into place and bolted it up.  Things are looking pretty good here, now.

Now I had to figure out how one gets the damper arm to engage with the damper bracket, both of which are out of sight behind the upper fireback and damper.  Hmmmm.  Finally, working with the damper open (the only way to access the arm and its shaft), I unbolted the damper arm from the vertical shaft, pulled it down and off, then wiggled it around behind the damper until I could feel that it was resting between the ears of the bracket.  Then I worked it back up the shaft and re-bolted it.  Great, I thought.  But now the damper was binding on the head of the SS bolt I used for the shaft pin.  Remember that?  Inspiration struck in the form of my Dremel tool and a hacksaw blade.  I just cut it off, more or less.  I was in some sort of yoga position for quite a while.  The last step was to run the adjusting bolt into the damper door enough to tighten the damper arm bracket so that when closed and locked the damper was tight against the gasket.  In the end it worked “like butter”.  

Lower Fireback – Other Issues Arrive

The next steps were all routine, or so I thought.  I do them every year for maintenance.  First up is the lower fireback.  I replaced the old edge gaskets.  I had left gasket hang down from each side of the upper fireback but realized that it should be trimmed off and glued into the lower FB grooves.  OK, no big deal.  Then you just lean the lower FB up in front of the refractory box, drop the ash grate down in front of it – this baby is the heaviest part –  and then tap the throats into place.  In putting in the throats, this forces the lower FB into the refractory box to hold everything nice and snug.  In the present case this was too snug.  First I had trouble getting the lower FB to fit back past the side tabs for the throats.  Figured this out but then the old lower FB just didn’t fit back flush with the newly installed upper FB.  Gave it some wacks with the heal of my hand that helped.  Then I grabbed the rubber mallet.  That was a bad idea.  See picture.

the problem with cast iron – don’t wack it with a rubber mallet – add $74 for s new lower fireback to the price

I called the stove shop.  They had one in stock.  Off I went into the -17°F snowy wonderland and was back in maybe 30 minutes.  The new one fit past the throat side tabs easily but the top was still not mating with the bottom of the new upper FB.  Wait a minute, maybe the upper FB is a tad too low.  Those T-bolts had some play in them.  So back in went the wood blocks and I loosened the bolts.  I then tapped in the blocks nice and tight and rebolted the upper FB.  Presto, magically everything fit.  That’s why the old lower FB broke – I was trying to jam it past the bottom of the upper FB.

With the lower fireback in place then next things are, in order:  install the ash pan and its frame, then  install the ash grate; this holds the lower FB in place for installing the throats.

And now on to a newly learned trick for installing the throat pieces.  For 30 years I have been holding the loose interior ends of the two throats while at the same time threading the center retaining bracket onto the stud bolt coming out below the damper and screwing the nut onto the stud, and all this by feel only due to the killer angle on my back.  Hey here’s a novel idea.  Put the retainer bracket on the stud with the nut loosely and then swing the throats one at a time in behind the retainer and then tighten the nut.  Simple enough but someone else had to write down for me on YouTube.  The other complication, which I already knew, is that the head of the stud no longer keeps it from spinning while I try to tighten the nut on the retainer, so I have to jam a small slotted screwdriver in by the head of the stud to hold it from turning.  I plan to glue that in with gasket cement next time.  But in the end I got it together.

And last of all drop in the ash fettle out front.

new lower FB in place

So now it is an hour later and I am just finishing up getting the front of the stove and the whole firebox insert part of it back into alignment.  Trying to pull the firebox out to work on it was a very bad idea.  I noticed this first when the front door wouldn’t close because the handle was too tight.  While

then come the left and right throats with their retainer

adjusting this I noticed there was a 1/2″ gap between the front left side column (pilaster?) and the front of the firebox to which the door seals.  This involved loosening the bolts holding the front pilaster to the firebox and shoving this back into the firebox.  Believe me the firebox was not moving in or out.  In the end once this latch side of the

ash pan and ash grate are next

front frame and firebox were mated back together, I had to adjust the door latch back to its original position.

and lastly the ash fettle; when new the top rib of this was as flat as the others; remember my comment on cast iron creeping – look at that arch in the middle

So things are back to toasty goodness after hauling three wheelbarrow loads of wood up to the back porch.  I had to dig a path to the woodpile.  It was under a tarp, but that was buried under about 9″ of snow.  Let’s hope this arrangement lasts until we sell the house and move to a condo.

AT Hike – Spivey Gap NC to Allen Gap NC – October 2018

The photos from this trek can be found at

Day 1 – Tuesday, October 9

Drove to Uncle Johnny’s (Shores) Nolichucky River Hostel in Erwin.  Met Charlotte, his recent widow, and she gave us a cabin for the price of the bunkhouse as things were a bit slow mid-week.  Ate dinner at the Checkerboard Cafe (not too great) and stopped at the grocery for some non-wheat tortillas to replace the ones I left at Anna’s in Avon.  Retired for the night after extricating one of the cats from the top bunk in the cabin.  The weather today was overcast and a bit sticky.  Weather expected to be rainy the next couple of days as we are on the northern edge of Hurricane Michael.  Lucky to make it this far in one piece with a near rear-ender on US-25E at Corbin.  God’s grace was sufficient as advertised.

Day 2 – Wednesday, October 10

Showered this morning at 0700.  As predicted awoke to a drizzly, gray morning.  Drove to the Maple Grove Diner in Unicoi for breakfast and this place was special.  Neither Mary Ann or I slept very well last night although it was comfortable enough with the A/C on.  Drove up I-26 and  US-19W to Spivey Gap and located the trail crossing without too much trouble.  It didn’t look anything like i remembered from 2002.  Bid farewell in a light rain at 0900 and headed west and upward on Bald Mountain.  Met a foursome from Vermont (2 and 2) at High Rocks as I ascended.  No vistas, just drizzle and gray.  Trail at High Rocks a bit treacherous with the wetness but negotiated it well enough.  Big Bald on Bald Mountain is the highest point on this segment at 5,516′.  The uphill right out of the car was taxing and getting sprayed the whole time didn’t help.  The Vermont foursome was a bit spread out and i had some words with the three in the lead – turned out they were experienced, with one through hiker in the group.  I advised them on the recent the woman’s death in the Smokies from separation and exposure at Forney Ridge – she was experienced, too.  I did report how far back the last gal was so that helped them.

Made it to the Bald Mountain shelter for lunch and cover from the rain.  A through hiker with his trail name taken from the Song of Hiawatha – Mudjekeewis, the West-Wind, Hiawatha’s father – was there. The reunited Vermont 3 arrived a bit later (the trailing gal pulled by herself shortly thereafter) .   The Vermont 4 had had enough for the day but I departed soon after Mudjekeewis with new legs back into the mist. Never saw anyone of them again.  Hit the Big Stamp and crested the mountain at Big Bald.   Found bird watching stations and live traps set up on Big Stamp.  Visibility was low since I was walking in the clouds.  Took a picture on Big Stamp and missed my pocket with the phone; I discovered it about 1/4 mile further on at Big Bald when I fortunately stopped for another picture.  Retreated and found it right where I expected, face-down in the drizzle unscathed, and I turned around and pressed on.  Got to the USGS monument and headed downhill.  There was a parking lot and gravel road at this point (had crossed the two-track trace earlier) used by the local ski resort.  As the trail guide had warned there was more than one route out.  The correct one was marked by weathered posts that were a bit hard to see.  Got the right one and headed downward.  Trail down from Big Bald was very poor, rocky, sparsely blazed and hard to follow.  Kept on route however.  Never did find either end of the blue-blazed bad weather trail around Big Bald, unless it was the two-track road) and I also must have missed two blue blazed water sidetrails.  Finally had to take water from a seep down from the trail at Low Gap.  Found some flow and hollowed out a depression enough to get the Sawyer Squeeze bottle into it.  This took awhile.  On filtering it had a white foam on top.  At the time i thought it might be a residual from my filter disinfecting at home, so I used all of this  boiled only.  It was in the end a little tannic acid leached from the leaves acting as a surfactant.  Made it to my destination at Street Gap by 1800.  the drizzle had stopped some time before I had stopped for the water and held off all the while I made camp, set up the hammock, cooked, ate and hung the food bag.  This was a big blessing.  Made 10.3 miles but had only planned on 7 or so.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Day 3 – Thursday, October 11

And a big AT welcome to Hurricane Michael!  Awoke to 30 mph winds from the northwest driving the drizzle sideways.  Fortunately I had inadvertently set the hammock up perpendicular to it, so the fly was catching both the wind and the rain, thus keeping me dry and toasty.  I had my prayer time in the dark in the hammock.  I then waited til daybreak at 0700, took a deep breath and hopped out, donning my rainsuit under the rain fly.  Man this is the worst way to start the day.  Anticipating this trouble I had stuffed all my dry clothes into ziplocks last night, so I had a dry change of clothes if needed.  After retrieving the food bag from the sappling across the trail the next challenge was to find a spot shielded from the wind for the stove so I could make the coffee.  It was a warm granola morning, also planned for its speediness.  Granola was also the heaviest breakfast among those I have, so it was a double win situation.  The sitting logs at the campsite were facing just right, with the lee on the opposite side from where I cooked last night, and I managed breakfast with no real incident except the rain.  Taking the tent down in the 30 mph cross-wind was an experience – it was blown basically perpendicular to the ground once I had the sleeping bag stuffed and out.  Crazy, crazy stuff.  I called Mary Ann from the hammock before getting up and advised her to be on call.  My alternate plan was to cover the 2.3 miles to I-26 at Sam’s Gap, hole up under the expressway bridge and wait to be retrieved for an overnight respite.  Well as it turned out I got my waterlogged ass off over the next ridge and did indeed make it to the expressway underpass where I witnessed the clouds blowing through like a wind tunnel.  Took time to call my brother Bob and wish him a happy birthday (Oct 10) but didn’t have the heart to tell him where I was.  For all he knew I was at home in the Lazy Boy.  Saw a bird just blown like a leaf through the underpass.  He righted himself upon exiting.  Checked the weather forecast on my phone and with Mary Ann.  Her WeatherBug reported the weather clearing by mid-afternoon but my NWS slowed it clearing later.  It was a moment of truth – I decided to press on.  I heard from Emma through Mary Ann later that she knew i would be very disappointed in myself had I gotten off the trail, even for the night.  She was right.

I got some unexpected encouragement soon after re-entering the woods from a granite monolith marking the donation of the property through which the AT ran here by the Moye Family.  It included multiple scripture texts and references for their decision and expressed their sentiment that the trail would be used by God, our Father, for refreshing the souls of those on it.  Thanks much, Moye Family.  So upward I pressed toward another High Rock and the Hogback Ridge shelter.  I blew into the shelter from the ridge with a wicked crosswind howling around me and rain from my right side .  My left shoulder was dry – really.  I kept my eyes and ears open for potentially falling trees.  Once at the shelter I was ready for some lunch and needed some water.  Miraculously the rain let up and being down off the ridge a bit so did the wind.  The spring was about 1/4 mile away and there was no rain the entire round trip.  By now it was 1300 and the weather was supposed to be breaking soon.  I was heartened.  I even used the privy without rain.  But as I packed up at 1400 to break  shelter here it came again.  The ridge was very exposed for a ways through Rice Gap.  My boots were a mite wet , but not squishy, and I was warm enough with the exertion, my new breathable raincoat and my wool beanie.  By the time I hit the second Frozen Knob crest at 1530 the rain had stopped but visibility was maybe 100′.  As I steadily descended toward Devils Fork Gap the wind subsided and I finally got below the clouds at Sugerloaf Gap (1605).  As I arrived at the Gap I checked in with ground support and asked about hostels in the vicinity.  She saw none so I decided to skip that idea.  By 1645 the sun was breaking through and conditions were steadily improving.  As I crossed Rector-Laurel Road I saw ads for the Laurel Hostel just down the road, but my mind was already made up to camp.  I arrived at a trailside campsite a 1/2 mile up the switchbacks on the far side of TN-353, my evening stop, at 1745.  Just enough daylight to get the hammock up and dried out and get dinner ready before dark.  After the hammock I went to work hanging damp clothing from various broken off limbs and branches, giving the campsite the appearance of a giant yard sale.  It was pretty much everything.  Put on my dry stuff, including my long johns, for the night.  The sleeping bag was miraculously nearly all dry.  With the clear sky the temperature overnight was  going to drop like a rock in water.  I had my Italian pepper steak and hot tea set out and eaten by sunset at 1900.  Then as twilight dwindled, with much difficulty, I got a fire going.  That was comforting.  No matter that I forgot about the nearby low lying barbed wire fence and went sprawling over it in the dark hunting for wood.  That did in one knee of my old non-breathable rainpants.  Crap.  Needed new breathable ones anyway.  No serious cuts what with the long johns under them, just an L-shaped tear.  Used my storm matches and fire starters to good advantage on the standing squaw wood I broke off of a nearby pine.  Burned the trash of course.  Crawled into the sleeping bag at around 2100 wearing every stitch of dry clothing I had.  Left the damp stuff hanging since no rain was forecast.  The sunset was beautiful.  10.8 miles today in bad weather.

Day 4 – Friday, October 12

The pack thermometer read 52° at 0630.  Had the food bag down, breakfast cooked and eaten in the dark.  Breakfast was the Scrambler in tortillas – yummy.   Hit the trail at 0810 under crisp, sunny skies (can skies be “crisp” – a bad metaphor).  My thumbs were numb but already this was a better day.  Picked up water at the Flint Mountain shelter, happily it was running across the trail  and the shelter was trailside.  Then  over and up it went through Flint Gap with a steep exit climb for two miles.  Climbed up to Big Butt (Butte?) almost before I knew it.  Met an Aussie near the top and we congratulated each other for being out in the previous two day’s weather.  The first challenge of the day broke upon me here.  It had a challenging approach with steep rock steps and boulders, as did the backside.  I slid down part of the backside on my butt (maybe that’s where it gets its name ).  I was not happy.  But it was short, and then down to Jerry’s Cabin shelter for lunch.  On the way I passed the Shelton gravesite and took my first fall of the trip by the huge rock at trailside (it’s noted in the AT guidebook).  Lesson learned – don’t attempt to adjust your pack belt while walking.  I dried out the pack and other stuff in the sun while eating.  Saw exactly no one else besides the Aussie all morning.   Leaving this shelter I got off track as there were two paths to water, plus the AT.  Took on more water and got on track.  Getting through to Lick Log Gap over Bald mountain was a breeze, hiking through a wide, long pasture with great vistas.

But the biggest challenge of the trek was now upon me – Big Firescald Knob.  If Big Butt was challenging, this was downright scary.  Add the steep rock steps to an open ridge with cliffs close at hand to the left side.  Since the weather was good I took the fair weather trail to this side instead of the woodland bypass.  They didn’t tell me it was on rock steps along a cliff face.  It was up and down for what seemed like miles.  It was Cloud Peak Wilderness Wyoming all over again (another story).  Thankfully the architect of the trail, a woman I found out later, was an expert.  So up and down and up and down it went on beautifully crafted stone steps.  A couple of downs I did on my butt.  There were great vistas if you didn’t fall to your death.  It was tense.  One 10′ vertical on the path was hand-over-hand.  I kept thinking, “Think behind yourself, take your time, measure each step and check the trek  pole placement”.  It was both tedious and satisfying at the same time, but it added an hour to the hike easy.

Once out of there the map and trail guide seemed to be out of sync, revolving around the location of Jones Meadow, my proposed camping spot.  A blue blaze trail to the Meadow came in before I was supposed to pass it, before White Rock Cliffs.  I wavered back and forth on pursuing a campsite on this side trail or pressing on, and hiked maybe an extra 1/2 mile back and forth, ending up back where I started.  I discovered that I gave a couple of day hiker girls some bad directions when I decided to press on and came upon the White Rock Cliffs side trail.  The map didn’t show much of a downhill but a series of switchbacks presented themselves in front of me and down I went.  And bingo I ended up in a nice flat campsite at close to 1700 hours.  I did 14 miles today not counting the backtrack for the phone and the meandering around looking for Jones Meadow.  I raced sundown and got all set up and done eating with some daylight left.  The moon was rising as a crescent and I could see stars.  Elevation 4,340′.  Gonna be cold tonight again.  Took another two tries to get the fire going.  The key this time was the birch bark I had collected earlier in the day before Jerry’s Cabin shelter and a birch tree next to my campsite.  The firestarters just weren’t enough with all the soaked down wood .  I got all the trash burnt and it was still flaming as I drifted off to sleep. around 2200.  Last night on the trail and all downhill tomorrow – well it’s never ALL downhill out here, but the ending point will be lower than the starting point.

Day 5 – Saturday, October 13

Jake Blues: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank’a gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses

Elwood Blues: Hit it!”

 I have 7.5 miles to get to Mary Ann today, so no big rush.  Woke up to another drizzle.  You gotta be kidding me!  But no wind.  My NWS showed no rain in the area.  What Gives.  Then it dawned on me – at 4,300′ I’m in a rain cloud that’s not raining.  Finished my prayer time in the hammock, considered my options and got out with the first light at 0700 to just dripping from the trees.  Got into my hiking duds.  Had the second half of the Breakfast Scrambler eggs, some coffee and was moving in the cloud down the trail at about 0850. Crossed paths with a group of four guys headed north at the campsite near Jones Meadow, where I learned about the woman who built the Big Firescald Bald trail.  Only after passing these guys who were breaking camp did I come to the Jones Meadow sidetrail sign.  It also ran to the Camp Creek firetower shown on my map.  Now everything about the trail, the map and where I was finally became crystal clear.  I started passing and being passed by other hikers.  Got to the Little Laurel shelter at 1030 and decided for Mary Ann’s sake that it was bath day.  No one was around.  Hiked the 2/10ths sidetrail to the spring and commenced into my bandana bath.  Everything was fine.  After I had completed my private areas, was dressed and putting my socks and boots back on  next to the spring pipe down the trail came a cute little gal (trail name Sonic I found out) for water.  I thought, “good timing, dude.”  Back at the shelter I had some lunch and learned their story, starting at Katahdin on June 8.  Her hiking mate was Puddles.  I picked their brains about the famous “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine and learned it was not so tough as I had heard.  They left before I, and after phoning in my ETA to Mary Ann I was off at 1135 with enough water for the final 5 miles.  No use carrying any extra, you know?  Met one more northbound through hiker (Giv) before the end.  I had gotten below the clouds coming into Little Laurel shelter and now at 1230 the sun broke through.  Made it to Log Cabin Road at 1300 and what I thought was the end of my trek.  But on closer inspection I had another half mile of ridge to go over and arrived at Allen Gap on TN-70 at 1338 just in time to see Mary Ann drive past in the wrong direction back toward Greeneville trying to find where the trail came out.  She had gone to the little parking area where Anna and I had started in September but then had doubts about where she should meet me.  She came back.  End of story, for now.  We stayed an extra day to hike together over in the Smokies with very pleasant weather.

AT Hike – Allen Gap NC to Davenport Gap TN – September 2018

Pictures from this expedition are at the Grauvogel Family website,

DAY 1 – Saturday, September 1:

Drove from Comfort Inn in Newport TN to the Allen Gap Trailhead on US-321 to Greenville TN and TN-70/NC-208.  Got on the trail by 1010.  The intention was to get to the first shelter and spring at 3.7 miles and then see how much time was left.  Got to Spring Mountain shelter at 1230 and met 4 gals from Florida.  Very personable, friendly and going our way.  They left before us and we watered up and ate our first trail lunch.  Found out that I can out-hike Anna, which was surprising.  So we let her lead.  No spider webs because of the foursome in front of us.  So with the earlier start we had plenty of time to cut distance off to Hot Springs.  The uphill to Spring Mountain shelter took a lot out of us but we had enough to make it down to Hurricane Gap, across USFS 3514 and most of the way up Rich Mountain to a campsite on trail’s edge.  A perfect spot.  It was above the USFS road, which had traffic up and down from the old FS tower at the peak.  Some young men on foot going up and sometime later coming back down were a bit of a concern but we were too high up above and mostly back off the slope to be seen.  They went their way.

We were in camp by about 1530 so we had plenty of time to set up and for Anna to learn the ropes.  We chose the Italian Pepper Steak with green beans for dinner.  Ate a bit early and then got a fire going for ambiance and to burn the trash.  Soon after dinner the thunder to the northwest started and the wind came up, but we had partly cloudy skies and no rain.  So that passed and a bit later the thunder started to the southwest and some clouds started rolling in.  We got spit on a bit but again no rain. The storm split around Rich Mountain apparently.  Pretty amazing.  As the thunder was coming on a threesome of guys was coming down Rich Mountain.  They asked how far to the next shelter and we told them 2.2 miles.  After discussing the situation they turned around to camp up on Rich Mountain.  Another hiker came by near sunset on his way to the tower at the summit for the sunset.  He said hiking in the evening was his favorite time.  We saw 15 people today counting all these folks.

We had an owl in the area overnight – an Eastern Screech Owl that moved around from south to north as the night progressed.  A bit unnerving since it was loud.  Both of us had difficulty sleeping anyway.  Turns out Anna’s thermarest was leaky (an oversight by me).  Will try to take a look at it and get a repair kit in Hot Springs tomorrow.  Hung the coon bag on the first try.

5.7 miles today, 2 more than planned.  9.3 for tomorrow.

DAY 2 – Sunday, September 2:

Up a little after daybreak started breaking camp.  Worked steadily and were on the trail by 0810.  Kinda slow but early enough.  Picked up water from the spring 2/10ths up the trail and headed for the Rich Mountain crest.  Hit the intersection with the side trail to the summit and decided not to take the time.  The campfire across from the intersection was still smoking a bit – not good camping.  Headed down toward US-25 and Tanyard Gap.  The 3 amigos passed us along the way.  Word from the 4 gals was that the water from US-25 into Hot Springs was sparse, so we took a full load from the spring above camp before that to make sure we had enough to make it down the obvious steep approach into town.  Temps were in the mid-60’s overnight and up in the mid-80’s by day with plenty of humidity.  Crossed US-25 at Tanyard Gap on concrete bridge and ascended log steps to Mill Ridge.  Descended through field and past pond.  Passed the 3 amigos eating their lunch under a big tree at one of the turns as we entered the Mill Ridge field.  Trail was well blazed through here.  Ate lunch in trailside campsite at a sharp turn at Pump Gap, about 5.7 miles.  The 3 amigos passed us once again.  Didn’t take another water stop knowing we would be at the hostel tonight.  It was pretty hot.

The last section into town ended with a pretty grueling downhill.  Switchbacks cut into the rock face, some more traditional switchbacks and then a stroll for a mile or so along the French Broad River to the bridge.  Saw rafters on the river, which had broad rapids all the way across.  A big KOA campground on the opposite bank.  Walking into town was cool but sunny, humid and hot.  Passed all the restaurants.  Stopped in Chamber of Commerce for my first passport stamp and got advice on the restaurants.  Continued on through town and after some confusion and directions from a local teen found our way to the Laughing Heart Hostel.  Met Jeff and paid up.  Got settled in – we were the first ones there so took the twin beds.  Passed the 3 amigos headed to town on our way.  The 4 sisters arrived after stopping to eat on their way in.  One big happy family we are.

Showered, changed clothes and got the laundry going and into the dryer before heading to dinner.  I forgot to take in a towel with me so had to pull on my shorts to get one from the hall shelf and of course the cooks preparing dinner for the other guests were there.  Oh well.  Were intending to go to the Iron Horse Station but the hour wait to be seated was not good so wandered into the Spring Creek Tavern.  Everything was packed it being Sunday evening before Labor Day.  We decided to stake out an unbussed table on the deck overlooking the creek.  When we finally got the attention of a waitress we were well attended to.  Had her stamp and sign my passport – Phoenix.  Beer was cheap (Yuengling at $2.75) and the burgers were good, especially the fries.  It was a 45 minute wait for the food anyway but we had nothing else to do.  It was very pleasant once the sun dropped below the ridge.  Walked back to the Laughing Heart.  Settled in for the night.  Met through hiker “Edison”.  He was doing the second half from Shenandoah to Springer GA.

9.3 miles today, 15 total.  Passed 15 people.


DAY 3 – Monday, September 3 (Labor Day):

Since the Smoky Mountain Diner didn’t open til 0800 we planned around that.  Took a second shower.  Waited for the diner to open and talked with Edison for a while.  Food was as advertised.  We both had bacon stuffed omelets and a pint of orange juice.  Anna had a fresh cinnamon roll.  I had coffee with refills.  There was a lot of the local history on display on the walls and the locals outnumbered the visitors.  We were fueled up and packed up and on the trail by about 0900.  Today is the big ascent day, over Bluff Mountain.

The trail was very crowded today, it being the end of the 3-day holiday.  The first hiker we met said there were maybe 50 people up at Deer Park Shelter last night.  We counted 23 coming down before we passed it and a total of 28 for the day.

We climbed on up to Deer Park Mountain Shelter and watered up again.   Took it from a small trickle at the base of the hill up to the shelter.  On exit noticed that the water was back up at the trail on the opposite side of the trail.  Darn.  Also met “Bandit”, who told us that he had dropped a bandana a ½ mile up the trail and it was ours to have.  Of course we found it.   Ate lunch at Garenflo Gap after passing a trail maintainer loping of low limbs.  Watered up for the ascent at a spring at trailside about 2 miles from Garenflo.  While there a couple came down headed for Hot Springs and the Iron Horse Station for her birthday.  Learned that their Sawyer Squeeze water filter was clogged and they had no backflusher.  But we did.  Fixing them up was very satisfying.  Now for the highest point – Bluff Mountain.  The climb was strenuous and we were soaked with sweat by the summit.  We misread some of the trail guide and thought we were further along than we were a couple of times.  This is typical for a long stenuous uphill, wishful thinking.  Bypassed the Big Rock Spring on the side trail.  And there were switchbacks near the top.  Anna ran out of mental energy and gas at one point and I pressed on.  She stopped for a snack and water break.  The telltale boulder outcrop at the summit was maybe 2/10ths from where she stopped.  But that was a relief.  There were two stream crossings just below the summit, so we hadn’t taken any extra water to save weight.  We hit the first crossing and I ended up 30’ down a ravine filling bottles.  No problem.  But the second crossing had a perfect water spout right next to the trail.  Rats.  Elated finally with the downhill we pressed on to Kale Gap, past Catpen Gap.  We found ourselves in a campsite in a white oak stand with a bit of poison ivy and nettles just for fun.  But there was seating and a fire ring.  Burning the trash became a real challenge since everything we had was wet with sweat or humidity.  After using a bunch of matches I finally got some squaw wood from the pines, shaved them down and got it going.  We then had a pleasant time around the fire.  We had gotten into camp at about 1815 with sunset at 2000, but we did an efficient job and were done setting up and eating the chicken and rice before sunset.  Another night, another owl, another Screech Owl but not as close or persistent.  Another night of difficult sleep.  Maybe it’s the evening coffee.

12 miles today, 27 total.  Passed 28 people.


DAY 4 – Tuesday, September 4:

I noticed as morning approached that the cicada and other night bugs shutdown at nearly the same exact time.  Strange.  Up at 0630 for an earlier start.  This was scrambled eggs day and they were yummy.  On the trail at 0825.  Passed Walnut Mountain Shelter at 0850 and off to Max Patch at a steady slow climb.  Watered up at a stream crossing right before Lemon Gap and pushed on.  Stopped at Roaring Fork Shelter to water up bagain but couldn’t find it so continued on and came to the stream crossing 2/10ths up the trail and stopped for water.  Came to a split in the trail, either up over Max Patch or bypass on Buckeye Ridge trail.  Of course went up and over and the slope was not too bad.  What beautiful vistas.  Took panorama and 360° videos.  After a nice break we descended to Cherry Creek and replenished water for the climb up Harmon Den.  Down, down and then down to Brown Gap.  Man what a poorly laid trail.  Finally got to the bottom all pooped out from the downhill.  Then back up another half mile to the Hawks Roost side trail on Harmon Den Mountain.   Intended to camp at Hawks Roost but trail guide had the unmarked trail going off to the west instead of east so I told Anna to keep going.  Reached the crest in another tenth mile and then mistook the Rube Rock trail as the Hawks Roost trail.  Tracked this until it disappeared in the nettles at an overgrown although very elaborate fire ring.  Ended up setting up camp back at the trail’s edge campsite.  Set up our own sitting logs and added some stones to the fire ring.  After getting situated I explored ahead ½ mile and saw nothing, then finally figured out that Hawks Roost was indeed at the end of that east side trail back down the trail and confirmed it with a short hike after dinner.

Had trouble starting the fire again until I fell upon the oxygen absorber packets from the freeze dried meals – the best tinder of all our stuff and with that really got it going.  Burned all the trash and settled down for the night.  No owl tonight.  Still not sleeping the best.  Got up partway into the night to put my very smelly socks in the pack and take some ibuprofen.  Had an emergency bowel movement and in the process the button from my pants fell off, ran down my leg and into the detritus.  Left it for morning.

11.5 miles today, 38.5 total.  Passed 12 people today, so a few are on the trail beyond the holiday weekend.


DAY 5 – Wednesday, September 5:

Up in the dark at 0600.  Got my morning prayer done.  Anna got the coon bag and we got the tent and hammock down.  Today was oatmeal day, so we boiled up the water and chowed down.  Just before we broke camp went to look for my lost pants button.  Said a prayer and asked Jesus for some help.  Bingo – found it.  Another small miracle.

Broke camp by 0745.  Snowbird Mountain day.  Down to Deep Gap (not nearly as deep as Brown Gap) and then a steep climb up Snowbird.  Watered up for the climb at Groundhog Creek Shelter at a very nice little cascade.  2/10ths down and 2/10ths back to the trail.

As compared to other days I actually took us to be not as far up the trail as we were and when we hit the clearing on the western peak of Snowbird and saw the FAA tower I was really relieved.  The last uphill was behind us.  After a few pictures we were down toward Davenport Gap at a quick pace.  Stopped for lunch at 1130 at a trailside campsite above Painter Creek, where Edison caught up to us.  He had done the same distance from Hot Springs in 2 days.  Whew.  Passed the turn at Spanish Oak Gap and ever downward.  Hit the Green Corner Road and made the mistake of following the trail right on the road, then across the road and stream, then back down parrallel to the road, then around the next ridge on a very poor section of trail to the steps and final descended to Green Corner Road, under I-40 and across the bridge at the Pigeon River to where Mom was waiting.  Should have turned left and just followed Green Corner Road around the ridge.  But did get to climb down the final rock stairway after 6 years of dreaming about it.  Edison must have gone to the hostel 300 yards up the road or else left on the road to I-40 because the spider webs were thick on that last portion.

Anna and I had a bet on arrival times.  I said 1330, she 1400.  We gave each other a 10 minute window.  An alcoholic drink was at stake.  The stinking last trail section did me in.  We got to Mom precisely at 1400.  Tried to find a Ranger to stamp my passport at Big Creek but were too late.

After getting showered and a bit of rest at the Newport Comfort Inn we headed to Hot Springs for dinner and to get my passport stamped.  Got the stamp at the Laughing Heart no sweat, then had a very, very good meal at the Iron Horse Station.  Checked out the gift shop and neighboring Bluff Mountain Outfitters but they had already closed.  Back at the motel afterward we fell fast asleep with a bit more ibuprofen.

10.5 miles today, 49 total.  Passed only 5 people today,  probably because we were beyond Max Patch.

My next section will be to close the gap between Spivey Gap, near Erwin TN, and Allen Gap.  Spivey Gap north was my very first AT experience, with Dave Niswonger, Will, Johnny, Peter Zwerneman and young Bob Winding back  in 2002.  The gap is 43.2 miles.  When that will be is yet to be determined.

Longer range I would like to complete all of the AT in North Carolina.  So Fontana Dam south to the border is in my mind.

Smokies April 2018

Day 1 – Monday, April 23, 2018

Just can’t keep us away from our favorite place in North America.  We were like, “O, what the heck, we have time and money.”  After a sputtering start with a return trip to the house for Dad’s pills (and a couple bandanas) we were off by 8am.  Last trip in January we had snow and a bad left front wheel bearing.  No such problems this trip.  We decided to go the I-65 way through Louisville and we got as far as Scottsburg for lunch at the Cracker Barrel.  The trip was overall delightfully uneventful but we had forgotten how long the straight thru drive was.  We ended up at an Applebee’s in Pigeon Forge for dinner, (gift card) and then on to Kroger and the Tennessee Rose, getting in by about 7:30pm.  There was a slow, steady rain all day today along the entire route.

Just like newlyweds – at Applebee;s in Pigeon Forge

It was a hockey playoffs night.  We watched the Jackets and Caps duke it out to see who the Pens get to play next  round.  It turned out to be the Caps, who beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in 6 games.  So with that all decided we went to bed.  It was still raining.  We have this blacked-out hockey thing down to an art form now.  Our cable subscription doesn’t include NBC Sports Network anymore.  No problem when you have a server showing your IP address as Frankfurt, Germany.  And the commercials are all German, interestingly entertaining – Kia automobiles, Legos Technic, Paradontax toothpaste, Schwangere und Mutter vitamins, high speed internet (“Habe schnell!”).

Day 2 – Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Awoke to more rain, just a slight drizzle.  Our reason to get up was to go pick up the rental car at Enterprise by 9am.  We were 15 minutes late, but 30 minutes later we had a silver 2018 Camry and were on the way to the trails.  Having packed lunch and all the gear we went straight to today’s trailhead – Turkeypen Ridge down to Schoolhouse Gap.  Dad was lobbying to take the side trail into White Oak Sinks for the wildflowers, but the GSNP had a  notice posted at the trailhead that the area was closed to reduce human impact on the  bats there.  White Oak Sinks has some caves and lots and lots of wildflowers since its fields are not yet reforested from the pre-park days.  No worries.  We picked this trail because there is a rock overhang about half way in where we could eat lunch if it was raining.  The drizzle was steady but as it is with us it let up just as we stopped at the overhang for lunch and didn’t restart until we were hiking again.

The Rock Overhang on Turkey Pen Ridge – retouched with Photoshop

Our first challenge for the trip is that the camera is not working – the pictures are over-exposing.  Dad ascertained that there must be dirt in the lens that is impeding the aperture from adjusting properly as the picture is taken.  Cooler heads prevailed – we just continued to take pictures and “photoshopped” them on the laptop when we got back.  Pretty smart.  Hoping the dirt clears for tomorrow.  It works fine for lower light indoors because the aperture doesn’t need to close down as far.  Weird.

under the Overhang
lunch on the rocks – retouched with Photoshop

And another installment of (an over-the-top dramatic voice with reverb) “Adventures With Dad”.  So we rented the Camry, right?  They gave us two keys.  First problem – the two keys are bound together with a braided steel wire ring permanently clinched.  Dad drives the car to the ending point for the hike, grabs the keys and we drive the Jetta to the trailhead.  No problem.  Mom takes the extra Jetta key, but the two Toyota keys are too bulky for Dad to want to carry for 5 miles.  Hmm, what do we do now?  So off down the trail we go and have the pleasant hike already detailed.  We arrive at the Camry.  Where did I put the Camry key?  Hey, do you have them?  Are they in the pack?  O, crap they’re in the Jetta.  Fortunately another retired couple had finished the trail just ahead of us.  With some quicker thinking than he had displayed when faced with the clinched keys dilemma Dad flagged them down as they were pulling out of the lot, and they were happy to give him a lift back up the road 5 miles to the Jetta.  They were from Minnesota, but the wife had been raised in Knoxville.  We didn’t even exchange names.  Back at the ranch it took 5 seconds to cut the wire braid with the cutter from the toolbox.  Enterprise will receive two keys on a similar braided wire keyring that can be separated.

Day 3 – Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Another rainy day in paradise.  We are really concentrating on getting the proper keys for the proper cars into the proper pockets.  Camera is still bunged up.  After our morning ritual we headed to drop off the Camry at the  Huskey Gap Trail starting point on Newfound Gap Road and then doubled back to the Laurel Falls/Rich Mountain Trail parking to get started.  Spotted a couple of turkeys on the way – one in the neighborhood and one near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Today it’s 5.1 miles with 0.8 miles uphill to Mid’s Gap, another 0.6 uphill and a 1.7 mile kinda flat run and then 2 miles downhill to the car.  It was really not too bad with Dad counting the paces and announcing the progress on the uphill at each tenth mile (100 paces @5′ = 1/10th mile, with some adjustment for short paces).  We found a flat spot for lunch on the trailside while the drizzle conveniently stopped for an hour.  The temperature was about 55°, so just right for a little trail exercise.

We started from the Laurel Falls end because there was a Wildflower Pilgrimage event at the other end from 8-11 am.  We hit the trail at about 10:30 from the other end and everyone was gone by the time we hiked out.  We saw wildflowers galore on the upper parts of the trail coming down for sure – white, pink, red and yellow trillium, crested iris (Mom’s favorite), which we had seen before, and also mountain bellwort (a yellow hanging flower) and squawroot (a mushroom-looking flower) that we hadn’t.  So all together a great hike.  Learned that “wort” is just an old English word that means simply “plant”.  And even better was that we had the Camry key when we got back to it.

another trail lunch
sweet as ever







It’s a hockey night as we watch to see if Toronto can dispatch the Bruins in 7 games.  It is also  keto pot roast night.  Last night was burgers on the grill.

It’s supposed to dry out around here Friday and our last weekend should be sunny and mild.

good’ol squawroot
mountain bellwort still having trouble with the camera






A fun evening sitting on the couch working on the blog, watching hockey and working on the photos.

Day 4 – Thursday, April 26, 2018

Car key paranoia continues into today.  Now that the Camry keys are separated Dad has made sure that one Jetta and one Camry key is clipped into the backpack just in case.  Dad got to the hardware store today and got a replica of the Enterprise Rental steel braid key chain that will work just fine.  So that’s behind us, and we are certainly not going to point it out to them.  Since Cherokee Orchard and Roaring Fork are closed when we are here in the winter we decided to do our hiking over there today.  We were looking for a little less than the 5.1 miles we tackled yesterday.  We settled on the Old Sugarlands trail, but starting at the top from Cherokee Orchard and hiking back down to the Visitor Center.  The climb in the opposite direction is pretty arduous.  It is still raining and the camera is still on the fritz.

Cherokee Orchard took the worst of the November 2016 fire that started at the Chimney Tops picnic area and you could still see it.  Most noticeable are the rhododendron that are all still burned to a crisp.  The new growth is coming up from their bases.  The wildflowers have recovered nicely and followed us down the trail.  We had no shelter at lunch time and the rain was persistent.  But our raingear is good.  Just a bit more water in the soup and hot tea.

Yea, it’s still raining

The rest of the walk was uneventful.  The Little Pigeon River was almost out of its banks with all the rain, and it was fun to hear and see roiling down toward Gatlinburg.  Then stopped at the Visitor Center to get a new trail guide book.  We were using the 2003 edition.  The new one is 2016, but we think we have a 2012 one at home by accident.  So now we are set.  After that we went back for the Jetta and Mom headed to Kroger in Pigeon Forge while Dad went to the ACE Hardware in Gatlinburg for the replacement braided wire key chain, but took the scenic route around the Roaring Fork loop.  We both drove back to the cabin via Pigeon Forge and got there nearly at the same time.

a rainy lunch in the Old Sugarland settlement area

Pork chops on the grill for dinner, which were done perfectly.  And then Game 1 of Round 2 – Pens versus Caps – for dessert.  And it’s still raining.

Day 5 – Friday, April 27, 2018

And the sun is shining today, finally.  With the car key problem solved for the moment we returned to Cherokee Orchard/Roaring Fork to do a hike we’ve always wanted to do – the Baskins Creek trail from one end to the other, previously unrealistic with only one car.  It is a 2.7 mile trek with the very nice Baskins Falls in the middle, an extra 4 tenths mile roundtrip.  But since we are on the 6-mile plan we dropped the first car off at the edge of Cherokee Orchard, actually in Gatlinburg and started the hike from the far end of the Baskins Creek trail getting us up to 6.5 miles as it turned out, mostly, mostly he said, downhill.  There was the problem of climbing back uphill from the falls for 1.4 miles.  The pain will heal.

The anxiety for today was figuring out where to park the car at the end of the trail.  We ended up in the Gatlinburg city park.  Then since the trailhead at the other end is on the one-way Roaring Fork Loop road and not too well marked we certainly didn’t want to drive past it, which Dad had resigned himself to the fact that we had just before we found it.  Right off on the trail we saw a hen turkey and then a couple of does.  The sunshine made the day.

Baskins Falls from the near side

We ate lunch at the falls.  While at the falls Dad HAD to cross the creek to the other side to get a picture from that angle, so he slid along a fallen tree.  He has made this crossing in the winter at least once but with a riskier, rock hopping route.  It ended well.  Sometime  earlier we abandoned the camera since it was so bright with the sun for Mom’s cell phone.  It did a great job.  The complication was getting the pictures to the laptop.  Dad used email.  There is probably an easier way, but this worked.  We went through the worst forest fire area at the top of the Baskins Creek trail, and after that crest it was downhill for 3.2 miles.  That got long believe it or not.  Part of this was on the road.

getting a better picture angle

The treat today was finding the lady slipper wildflowers just down the trail from the Bud Ogle homestead.  Apparently it is the only easily accessible area where you can find them.  They are a native member of the orchid family, meaning they are symbiotic.  These need to have a particular fungus in the soil that breaks open their seeds when they drop and allows the seed to germinate.  In turn the fungus receives its nourishment from the seed hulls.  So that would explain why their growth range is limited to this area.  We got pictures of both pink and yellow ones.  But Mom still likes the dwarf crested iris the best.  Dad thought they should re

a pink lady slipper
a yellow lady slipper






name them “frog throats”, since they look more like the bulbous throat of a croaking bullfrog.   So check that off on the wildflower list.

For the day Dad received to minor penalties – one for tripping and one for high sticking.  On the slope down to the falls he was caught executing a perfect takedown of Mom from the rear when his right heal lost its grip and they went down in a heap.  A little later he turned suddenly with one of his poles at head level and Mom had to be quick not to get clipped good.  Hey, it’s playoff hockey time around here.

Day 6 – Saturday, April 28

As we gradually work up our stamina and strength we, yes we both agreed, decided it was a good day for Clingmans.  There was not a cloud in the sky and the air temperature at the cabin was 56°.  We hit the road at about 8:15 as it is a long drive up the mountain.  We dropped the rental at the Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome road and were slowly trekking up the 1/2 mile paved trail to the observation tower by about 10am.  We did get a parking place in the lot; folks after us were not so lucky.

at Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
at the top looking west







What a clear day!  These don’t happen here very often.  We were fortunate.  We talked to a few folks while resting on the ascent and at the tower Dad talked to two, three-man groups of through hikers.  Yes, he is a hiking fanatic.  The Maine-or-Bust group had started on April 4 at the trail’s beginning on Springer Mountain in Georgia and were making good progress.  The others were doing the trans-Smokies hike and were headed south.  After going up the tower, looking around and taking pictures we jumped on the AT and headed down to the northeast toward Newfound Gap.  The word “downward” doesn’t quite capture the eroded, boulder and detritus strewn trail in this section.  Slow going for sure.  And take it from Dad the AT in the other direction is just as bad.

a new-to-us wildflower, a trout lilly

But what an exciting beginning.  As we were driving up toward Fighting Creek Gap between the Elkmont turn-off and Laurel Creek Falls parking, with Dad in front, from the left side of the road came a black bear cub.  Mom said it appeared to her like it was stopping to let me pass.  Taking no chances I went for the brakes since he was even with the front of the car.  And just that fast it was gone and things were back to normal.  By comparison the doe tearing across the road in front of him as Dad made a blind turn coming down the Park entrance road was not nearly as exciting.

Interesting temperature profile for this mornings hike.  The change of seasons.:

  • upon awaking at the cabin – 53°
  • down the mountain in Wears Valley – 58°
  • just entering the park on Lyon Springs Road – 59°
  • just over the rim of the park boundary on Lyon Springs Road (100′ from the above) – 48°
  • at the Visitor Center – 73°
  • dropping the first car on Clingmans Dome Road – 47°
  • in the parking lot at Clingmans Dome – 43° (brrrrr)
  • back at the first car after the hike – 58°
too long on the trail – Mom goes all glamorous

On our descent we passed Dad’s camping spot on the top of Mount Collins from his Trans-Smokies hike in July 2013.  We ate lunch beside the trail and talked to a lot of people – the aforementioned through-hiker trio (Walk-It-Off, Easy Street and Ditz), a single gal through-hiker (July), a single guy through-hiker (Atomic) and an older couple from from Maryland that we had passed on their way up after we just started.  They hiked the roundtrip up and back.  Must have been way younger than us.  He said he had done the AT through Georgia and that they were working on Pennsylvania lately.

We started out early today because we were planning to go to Mass that   evening at Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge at 5pm.  We had found out that our friends the Voisins, who own this cabin, were away and were not going to be doing the music.  However, the substitute did a very good job , and we were happy to learn that the music at this parish was better generally.  The 40 minute sermon at Mass was another matter.  And it was not a happy sermon.  Whew.  Rather it was a rant about the problem with Christians today that drifted generally to the Protestants, but bashed Catholics equally.  So in that regard it was at least ecumenical.  Not going to save the world and fill the pews with that kind of thing.

Then it was dinner out at Calhoun’s on a Saturday evening and apparently also Prom week.  Getting seated took 20 minutes, which was not bad, but it took another hour for the food to appear.  Thankfully the food was excellent.  Best prime rib Dad had had in forever and Mom’s salmon was equally good.  We had a lot of time to discuss the sermon.  We got back to the ranch at around 9pm and messed around with stuff until bedtime.

Day 7 – Sunday, April 29

We decided to take a day off from serious hiking.  We need to recover after the worst of the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome down to the east.  Actually, the descent to the west is just as bad.

There has been a slowly developing situation  since Monday.  On Monday Dad started having some pain at the upper end of his butt crack (yea, I know this is too much information).  Since then the area has swollen and reddened a little each day it seems.  He’s had this before a long while ago and it was just an external infection in the little cavity at the bottom of the spine.  Well sitting has become a problem now and this morning early he texted our doctor Tom Seasly explaining the situation.  Do you have your family doctors cell phone number?  The pharmacy in Pigeon Forge opened at 10am.  We made the trip in by about noon and got the antibiotic, immediately taking one pill.

on the banks of the Little River

It’s Sunday and folks are everywhere enjoying our national park.  The majority are stuck in traffic in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville :).  We took a back street or two to get to the pharmacy and then back on SR-73/US-321 through Wears Valley to the Metcal

another daredevil stunt on the quiet walkway

f Bottoms picnic area for lunch on the banks of the Little River.  With the promise of a healing buttocks it was very pleasant there (hey not a bad pun being at Metcalf “Bottoms”).  Then we went up toward Fighting Creek Gap for a 1/2 mile Quiet Walkway along Laurel Creek that turned out to be a tree blowdown study area.  Still there were wildflowers and the stream.

Hey, Lady, I’m trying to take a picture here.


dinner on the West Veranda








It was a hockey day in Pittsburgh so we came back to the base for the 3pm start.  The Pens did not fair as well as on Thursday, when they won 3-2, but lost to the Caps 4-1 to even the series at 1-1.

We had dinner on the deck in the  setting sun that was very nice. Dad’s butt has taken a noticeable change for the better with the first antibiotic dose.  Glory to Jesus.

Day 8 – Monday, April 30, 2018

a cold beginning
warm and tired ending

Our last day in paradise for this trip.  We saved our most ambitious hike for last, an 8-mile amble from Elkmont back to Metcalf Bottoms on the Jake’s Creek/Meigs Mountain and Curry Mountain trails.  The weather started out a bit brisk – 37° when we started at 8:45 – then up to 73° by the time we finished at 2:30.  We went through 3 layers of clothes.  We ate lunch at the junction of the Meigs and Curry Mountain trails like we did several years ago.  From there it was almost all downhill.  The prettiest day of our week.

All three colors of violets – violet
white, and…..

Straight from driving back to pick up the Jetta we headed to Enterprise in Sevierville to turn in the rentla.  This was not without some excitment when Dad left the Elkmont parking lot going the wrong way down the one way entrance road.  He was about 200 yards down when he realized his goof – he was trying to figure out why the signs at the lot entrance were all in the wrong places.  You know those rear backup cameras on the new cars are very helpful for backing longer distances.  We can laugh about it because the first car coming up the road appeared just as Dad got even with the lot entrance.  The one way exit road was pretty obvious, and this is not the first time we’ve been to this parking lot.  Turning the car in was a snap.  Dad didn’t mention anything about cutting the clinched wire braid on the keys and replacing it; the Enterprise guy didn’t notice.

Arriving back at the cabin at about 4:30 it was all we could do to just collapse on the bed.  Boy, that felt good.  Dad’s butt crack while getting better was still giving him pain so the solution was 2 ibuprofen, a glass of wine and a 40 minute nap.  It was a miracle.  Dad grilled the buttermilk chicken and we at on the West Veranda again – 75°, sun slowly setting, no bugs and a very slight breeze, with various song birds calling.  The serenity was broken for awhile by a pileated woodpecker, which has the loudest and most raucous call around.

So now its time to pack up and work hard at not forgetting anything.  We are looking forward to dinner with Dad’s brothers and wives tomorrow evening in Cincinnati.

Day 9 – Tuesday, May 1

Took our time getting out of Dodge and decided to take the familiar back way via Russi Gap to Tennessee 66; this is the same way we go to Enterprise Rental.  Don’t think we forgot anything, either.  Another great trip even with four days of rain.

We booked a Comfort Inn on Winton Road and went straight there.  But we stopped for lunch at Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park in London KY.  That was nice.  Dad’s butt was still painful but under control.

Met the brothers and wives at Cheddar’s on Springdale Road at I-275.  It was a good time.  But Dad observes that they are all so different.  Maybe they always have been.  Bob is working at Miami Whitewater Golf Course a few times a week.  Kathy is working on the yard.  Bill & Hali are working on moving to Florida’s Gulf side, probably sooner than later.  Bob and Kathy just finished having a foundation leak fixed and then re-landscaping all around the outside.  Alot of their life revolves around helping with Jamie’s pottery business.  Hali’s drream is to open her own pet rescue center on a large parcel of land in Florida.  Tired of suburbia they are.  we forgot to use our

So after dinner it was back to the motel to watch the Pens play the Caps.  Caps scored with 1:14 left in the 3rd to win.  On the play Pens Defenseman Olli Matta was tripped leading to a 2-on-1.  Earlier in the game Zach Aston-Reese left with a broken jaw courtesy of Tom Wilson. (found out the next day he got a 3-game suspension; that reduces some of the anger at the poor sportsmanship.

Day 10 – Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Left Cincinnati at about 9am and our first stop was the Harrison Krogers for our Glier’s Goetta stop.  We bought 12# – 6 for us a 6 for Anna.  And of course that ment that we could deliver it and have lunch with her, which is what we did.  All very pleasant.  On loading back in the Jetta to leave Dad noticed that the passenger rear mudflap was loose.  It was missing two screws.  So he took it off and figures Joe Tirotta, the body repair guy missed putting them in after the repair.  Luckily, there was one screw that held to save losing the mudflap altogether.

Arriving home things were fine until Dad’s butt really started hurting.  He called Tom Seasly and took the suggested option of going to the South Bend Clinic ICC and getting it look at.  Dr. Rob Reilly diagnosed it as a hematoma, lanced and drained it.  Ahhhh, what a relief.  We’ll see what happens next.  Could have been a puss-filled infection or a cyst, but wasn’t either, thankfully.

Now back to the normal grind.

Smokies Trip 2018

Days 1 & 2 – Saturday/Sunday, January 27-28, 2018

Sleeping Queens with Sarah at Jon & Anna’s

This year we sneaked out of town early to celebrate Larry’s 70th birthday with Anna and family and Will & Kasey in Avon.  We got to Avon/Indy in time for lunch.  We just hung around and played Sleeping Queens with Sarah and Tommy.  Larry opened his presents and then off to City BBQ for dinner and back home.  Not a lot to report here.

Sunday was our 47th anniversary.  We got an invite to breakfast from Will & Kasey at Cracker Barrel in Whitestown, and Jon & Anna and the gang came too.  We went to 7:30am Mass at St. Malachy in Brownsburg and then to breakfast.  We had some great conversation, plus a checker game on the porch in the cold on the way out that was called in Sarah’s favor due to everyone freezing.  Back at the homestead Larry opened his other birthday present – a BBQ apron made to order by Mary Ann embroidered with “St. Lawrence – Patron of BBQ”, in honor of the martyr who was grilled to death by Roman Emperor Valerian.  Larry then ran errands to get s

the new, sportier look for the Jetta

ome new brown shoes, his birthday gift from Menard’s and a car wash, forgetting to get the anniversary card he owed Mary Ann.  Not a good move.  Anna made burgers for dinner and they went out for ice cream while we oldsters enjoyed some quiet time back home (with ice cream).


Day 3 – Monday, January 29, 2018

Well we are here at the Tennessee Rose, but not without drama and adventure.  Weather was not the issue this year, thank goodness.

First off the car sounds like it has something loose and rubbing metal on metal that will fall off at any moment – then magically it disappears until it is stationary for 10 minutes and then it’s back.  We’re driving it till something breaks or we get home, whichever happens first.


with Eric Sullivan, Mr. Banjo himself

Second the visit with Eric Sullivan, Banjo Man, was totally outstanding.  He was so excited to see  my work and said, and I quote, “This is really good.  I don’t have time to get this artistic (referring to the maple/walnut stained bullseye back)”.  Yesterday Dad noticed that the bindings in the back and around the resonator were raised up very slightly above the wood – Dad figured they were coming loose and he would have to re-glue them and start over.  Eric said. “O, this just happens – the wood and plastic expand and contract with moisture and temperature differently, and in fact if you are looking at an old banjo and they are not raised, then something fishy is going on.”  What a relief.  Then I picked his brain on how he built his buffing wheel and other tricks of the trade.

a flat with a full trunk – no fun at all

Then the real adventure began.  Pulling out of Eric’s parking lot at 11am we scraped bottom on the drive, which was at a bit of an angle so no worries, but then 200’ down the road there was something wrong.  Yep, the left rear tire was flat.  Unloaded the whole trunk, got out the spare, which is full sized, and the spare was flat.  Crap.  But a gas station with compressed air was right across the street (50₵) so over Larry went and back.  Got the car jacked up and the tire off.  A good ‘ol boy stopped and was a big help.  Thanked him, reloaded the trunk, googled a Discount Tire (the spare is a bit worn) 15 minutes away and were there.  We walked in and all the guys were just standing around – we have never been in a Discount Tire without anyone else there (it was about noon).  Bingo, the car went into the stall.  Then Larry had the sickening realization – he had left the lug bolt key on the bolt after he finished installing the spare tire and hastily drove off to Discount.  Crap, crap.

at Discount Tire with the anti-theft lug bolt replaced

Need a lug bolt key.  Where is the nearest VW dealer? – 1.5 miles down the same street, same side of the road.  Left Mom and all the baggage as collateral and was at Huffman Automotive Group in 5 minutes.  Explained his problem to the service guy and in under 10 minutes they had removed the locking bolt and put the regular one he gave them in its place (he doesn’t remember how he got 5 extra lug bolts, but they are in the car).  Back at Discount they had the tire already mounted on the rim, ready to go.  The old tire had a 1” gash right in the center of the tread, and miraculously Larry had bought the road hazard guarantee.  So we got a new tire for free.  This was very welcome news.  It took Larry longer to repack the trunk than it did to get the wheel installed, and we were off.  By now we had spent about 90 minutes and were hungry so we headed, you guessed it, to the Cracker Barrel that we had been to last year

Tennessee Rose – just what we expected
1st Floor living area






right at our expressway entrance.  The worst result of this whole affair was that we had to find the Tennessee Rose rental house in the dark.  As is typical down here, the driveway sort off disappears from view over the edge of the hill until you work up enough nerve to go over the edge the first time.  Dad had to get out of the car to check it out before he could do it.

All’s well that ends well.

By the way, Eric Sullivan’s wife Marsha was a veteran waitress at Cracker Barrel.  She was  wearing her 4-Star burgundy apron (the burgundy color is recognition beyond the 4-Star level) when she came out of the office to take our picture.  We just can’t get away from that place.

Day 4 – Tuesday, January 30, 2018

All situated in this wonderful house owned by our friends Kent and Christine Voisin, who we met at Holy  Cross Catholic Church last fall.  Check out the pictures at the other half of the site.  One cool feature – a first floor heated garage.  Another good aspect – this is about the closest to a no problem location for snowy weather we’ve found.  Leeland Ridge was the best.

the Nissan Versa

We picked up the rental car this morning at Enterprise, a red Nissan Versa, for our spotting car so we can again hike point-to-point and cover more trail.  Then we went to Rick’s Auto to see if they could ID the mystery noise.  And no, since they are so good and people flock to them, the earliest they could get to it would be Friday.  It wasn’t making very much noise, so we decided to drive it till something fell off.  Larry’s current theory is that it is a dragging or loose brake pad.  These two errands shot the morning, but after lunch and answering some emails we sere off on our first hike, from Little Greenbrier trailhead down to Metcalf Bottoms with a snack and tea at the Walker Sisters cabin.  It was sunny and brisk, around 40°.  Larry found out how much he was out of walking shape.  Man.  No problems with either car.  Then back to the ranch for a pot roast with broccoli dinner.

enjoying the sunshine at the Walker Sisters
tea time at the Walker Sisters

And it was a hockey night in Pittsburgh – the Pens beat the San Jose Sharks 5 – 2 for their 5th straight win as they continue to climb up in the standings.  During the intermissions Larry took apart the upstairs shower faucet to see why the water wouldn’t get hot this morning.  He found the problem but couldn’t get to the water shutoff for the house to disassemble/reassemble the faucet for the fix.  Thankfully the first floor tub shower works fine.

We learned that Newfound Gap Road through the park and Laurel Creek Road were both closed by snow and ice today.  Tomorrow we have picked a higher and lower elevation hike, and will pick the one we can get to.

Day 5 – Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It was a lower elevation day as the Newfound Gap road was closed again.  Ity opened later however, so tomorrow looks like a higher elevation hike.  The weather today was perfect – it got to 53 degrees and was sunny.  We got our usual later-than-desired start and were at the Finley-Cane trailhead at 10:45am.  It was a great. predominantly downhill trek to the Versa at the end of the Bote Mountain trail.  Lunch today was Cincinnati chili.  At first we were had the trail to ourselves but after lunch a local hiking club caught us from behind – about 15 folks.  We let them pass, no problem.

It was bound to happen sometime – at lunch Larry bumped the tea water boiling on the “pocket rocket” stove and we both had a bit less to drink.

The interesting sight today was the discovery of wild hog rooting along a

hoar frost on the trail
wild hog rooting along the trail






goodly section of the trail.  There are wild hogs in the park, escaped from the farms years ago, and on the loose they do a lot of damage.  The rooting was to deep to be squirrels or deer and then Larry .located definite cloven pig footprints at one site.  The Park Service could issue hunting permits and solve this problem.

about at her limit but thankfully near trail’s end

We stopped at the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend on the return trip and bought some very nice paintings and a DVD on the .Elkmont area, the first of 5 installments.  So a little history lesson to take on the rec room big screen.  We were back at the ranch by around 3:30pm and had grilled buttermilk chicken for dinner.

Day 6 – Thursday, February 1, 2018 – Adventures with Mom Episode 1

a snowy, uphill trail to start out – this is the Appalachian Trail, Woohoo.
selfie on a very steep trail – Dad is not on tiptoe






This was day 17,700 of our marriage.  One to remember as we’ll elaborate on below.  We got up earlier because we had a long drive to the trailhead this morning.  This episode is brought to you by Mom because the Newfound Gap – Road Prong Trail hike for today was her idea.  We dropped the Versa at the Chimney Tops trailhead and continued with the Jetta up to Newfound Gap.  The weather was cloudy with , 50° at the cabin and 38° at the Gap.  This was a 5 mile hike with the first 1.7 on the AT from Newfound Gap up to Indian Gap and the rest more or less downhill to Chimney Tops and the other car.  We had almost given up on the way to Indian Gap like the earlier group in front of us who we were tracking.  When “Appalachian Trail up to Indian Gap” is the phrase one needs to read “steep”.  From their tracks in the 4″ snow the earlier group got to the base of one of the uphills, stopped, had a snack and turned around.  On we went though.  We were encouraged knowing we were going to Indian Gap, which implies that eventually one goes downhill to the Gap.  And that was what happened just about when we started to despair.  To say the rest of the trail was downhill is a gross understatement.  It was painfully downhill.  But that wasn’t the real challenge.  And to gain an “Adventure with Mom” status it has to be much more than just painfully downhill.  Did we mention that Road Prong refers to the Road Prong of the Little Pigeon River?  Yep.  The trail guide describes it as “wet, rocky, steep and beautiful”, and it was painfully accurate especially on the first tree counts.  The worse part was we had been on it several years ago from the bottom end and could attest to the wet and rocky part.  Did we mention there was 4″ of snow? Another important fact is that water is slipperiest at 39°, a fact the VW engineers continually remind Larry of when the Jetta display bings its warning at this temperature.   This will become important shortly.

So down, down we went.  Heck it was only 3.3 miles and downhill at that.  No worries, that is until we came to the first creek (prong) crossing.  It was 20′ across with plenty of water and ice, and the trail basically disappeared on the other bank under two gigantic blown down tulip poplars.  Dad went first to “test the waters”, which literally (this is for Anna and Jon) he did as his first choice of hopping rocks was poor and he ended up in rather than across the 39° water.  No so bad, just one boot full of water and the rest of him dry.  Then it was Mom’s turn.  Not hearing Dad’s caution warning she chose the same hopping rock and was not as fortunate – both boots in the drink and wet up to

Mary Ann wrings out her sock

her buns on her right leg.  Sorry no picture or if Larry had taken one we probably wouldn’t be married anymore.  Hypothermia became an immediate concern.  Miraculously her outer coat shed all the water and her hat, which Dad fished from the opposite bank with his hiking pole was wet in only one small spot.  We broke out her rainsuit and put it on her as an outer layer.  Rainsuits are good as windbreakers and holding the body heat in.  This left her feet to deal with.  She rang out her right sock, the worst of the two and we pressed on.

Well actually we had to figure out where the trail went so we could press on.  After a quick prayer for inspiration Dad determined that it was down the prong, rock by rock to start with.  A little downstream exploring from a small island located the next trail shard.  We repeated that a second time and the trail reappeared, of course, on the other side.  Man what an adventure.  So there we were with wet feet and a couple miles to hike.  Not long afterward we came into the part of the trail we had been on for our last visit here and things were getting better, aside from the steep. rocky path.  Now we were discussing when to stop and eat lunch.  Maybe we could use the “pocket rocket” to dry our soaks before we heated up the soup.  We were reticent to stop for very long for fear of freezing off our feet.  So down, down we went.

Now the crown jewel.  It became obvious that we were going to be crossing the now very big prong one last time before intersecting with the lower third of the Chimney Tops trail.  Wasn’t there a foot bridge there?  The trail guide said yes, but reality said no.  Are you kidding.  Must have washed away.  See

look closely to see our footprints on the rear set of rocks – this shows about 1/2 of the crossing – a couple rocks and the log is off of the picture to the left somewhere; best shot available without recrossing to get it

the picture.  A pretty mountain stream shot.  But look closer.  See the footprints on the rocks in the distance leading out into and across the stream.  That’s where we crossed.  At both ends we had to crawl and break our way through the rhododendrons.  That was the most creative stream crossing of our lives (so far).  And we didn’t dip into the water at all.  Dad crawled the rocks.  Mom hopped.  Fortunately the snow on the rocks was so wet it added traction, but one had to avoid the ice covered ones.  At the end was the snowy log and grabbing the hanging rhododendron limbs trusting they would hold.  Don’t wanna do that again ever.  Whew.

into the thicket on one side
out of the thicket on the other side






drying socks at lunchtime
yep we survived and are still married







The fact that we are writing this means that we survived.  We retrieved the Jetta up at Newfound Gap and got home.  The freezing rain and snow started after dinner.

It was burgers and beer for dinner.  Tomorrow appears to be building into a snow day.

Day 7 – Friday, February 2, 2018

More about the Road Prong trail:  So all along we were thinking that Road Prong referred to the present Newfound Gap Road (US 441).  But on closer reading of the trail guide we discovered that the Road Prong trail itself was the road in the 1800’s.  It ran over the pass from Pigeon Forge to Cherokee NC.  This explains why the trail was so rutted and eroded.  Cattle, pigs, horses and wagons traveled this original roadway.  Now if they can only replace the bridge at the bottom.

Before lunch Larry went into Sevierville to the post office to try and get something arranged for delivery of the lug bolt key we lost earlier. Back on Tuesday he found one on eBay and ordered it but in a brain cramp move had it shipped home instead of here.  He was able to contact the seller and give him the address here before he shipped it.  Only problem was that on Wednesday he discovered that the Tennessee Rose has no mailbox down at the main road and the mail can’t be delivered.  The key is coming first class USPS.  The fella at rhe Post Office was helpful but the probability of it being caught by the postal carrier and held for us is slim.  Then after getting back from town Larry checked to see if the envelope had a tracking number, and it did, so great.  The only problem was that it is at the Granger PO already despite the address change.  So we can kiss that delivery goodbye for now.  It was marked as mis-delivered in Granger, which means it will come to Sevierville, be undeliverable and get sent back to the seller.  Larry will have to pay another $4 to get it resent when we get home we guess.

the foot log was still there – what a relief considering yesterday

Today was a bonus day on the trail.  With yesterday evening’s forecast for today indicating that all the park roads would be closed at least early wee woke up resigned to a scrapbook day.  But this mornng we found that the road down from the house to the valley was clear of snow and ice, and then we checked and Laurel Creek Road had opened.  So after lunch we saddled up and headed back to Bote Mountain for a trip in the opposite direction and back down the West Prong trail to Tremont.  A very nice hike with a powdering of snow and blue skies.  Best part was that the foot bridge over the West Prong was still there.  Given our luck yesterday we had to see it to believe it.  Had a snack at Campsite 18 then strolled back to the Versa spotted at Tremont.

Back at the ranch it was stroganoff over boiled cabbage for dinner followed by hockey with the Pens beating the Caps 7-4.

Just a couple more days.  The Versa gets turned in tomorrow afternoon since Enterprise is closed on Sunday.

Day 8 – Saturday, February 3, 2018

topping out at the Bote Mountain-Anthony Creek trail junction

The challenge for today was to do a long hike and finish in time to return the rental car before 4pm and get to church by 5pm.  The Newfound Gap road was closed again today so we went to Cades Cove to hike the Antony Creek-Bote Mountain-Lead Cove trails loop.  This is a 6.5 mile circuit with the first 3.5 uphill and the last 3.0 miles downhill.  The trudge uphill got a bit tedious, especially when Larry/Dad’s pace counting came up 4/10th’s short of the top.  He needs to recalibrate for steep uphills behind Mary Ann/Mom’s pace.

All of the Anthony Creek crossings of serious depth were nicely provided with foot logs, which was nice for keeping our anxiety level down.  The temperature at the start around 9:20am was 31° and by 2:00pm at the end was 34°.  This gave us plenty of time to go directly to Enterprise and turn in the car before going back to the cabin to change for church.

Bote Mountain trailside lunch
mouse tracks along the trail







Holy Cross church is conveniently located in Pigeon Forge   close to Calhoun’s restaurant where we like to eat and next to the Kroger where we do our grocery shopping.  Yes there is a Cracker Barrel about a mile up the street, too.  The owners of Tennessee Rose do the music at he 5pm Mass, so we got up to the balcony to talk with them beforehand and then had a long conversation with them after church.  We have several things in common:

+ they built the house themselves from a kit, so Larry and Kent have all those house construction skills in common

+ Kent shares same mechanical skills that Larry has; he retired after he sold his hardware store in Louisiana

+ Christine and Mary Ann both have only one kidney – Christine donated hers to a woman she heard about on the local news

+ we all love and play acoustical church music ; Christine sings and plays guitar and cello, Kent plays violin

Then it was off to dinner at the nearby Calhoun’s, sponsored  by our wonderful children and their gift certificate to Larry for his 70th birthday.  We managed to burn even last cent of it.  Mom had salmon and Dad had marinated steak.  Mom’s spinach Maria was too spicy for her so Dad bartered some of his green beans and broccoli for it – it is what he secretly wanted to order in the first place but was afraid of the wheat that might be in it.  Screw the wheat this once.  Mom had wine and Dad had beer, then hot tea and coffee.  All this to get the bill with tip up to the gift certificate total.  In the end we had to leave an extra $1.25 cash to make the tip for Tonya appropriate.  What a sweetheart she was.  And this time of year one gets the real professional waitstaff instead of the seasonals that are hired in for the peak summer traffic.  After dinner a quick stop at Kroger and home for hockey with no complains from the Jetta.  The Pens lost to New Jersey 3-1.  Rats.

Another word about the Jetta – it is becoming clear that the noise is a wheel bearing, and Larry is not really sure which one.  It is still intermittent.  The plan for Monday is to prayerfully limp it home (at 75 mph of course), hoping that the cold weather as we get further north will help hold things together.

One more day in paradise.  Waiting at home – a broken washing machine (new drive belt), truck front end repairs, Jetta bearing repair and trying to track down are mis-delivered lug bolt key.

Day 9 – Sunday, February 4, 2018 – Adventure with Dad Episode 17,800

Today we have been married 17,806 days.  Of those 6 have been classied as “Adventure with Mom” days (the recent Road Prong Trail incident plus the births of each of the 5 children), the rest have been a daily “Adventure with Dad”


organizing the keepsakes
pool tables are perfect for applying spray glue

Today started uneventfully enough – we knew was going to be rainy so we planned on a full day of scrapbooking for last years momentos.  We got through January – June before lunch, then after lunch realized that the rain had left the area and the temperature was in the 40’s.  We quickly consulted on a short trail to cap off the week and Larry prevailed, never a good idea, for the Sugarland Mountain trail up as far Larry decided to not carry any wateras Mid’s Gap – 1.2 miles with an initial 0.8 but mile uphill.  To make it challenging  to instead take the water filter and get some at the Gap from the nearby stream shown on the map.  2# that didn’t need to be carried all that way uphill.  So the stage was set for adventure.

at Mid’s Gap for tea
lounging after tea

The trek to the Gap was maybe more than we both wanted with the uphill, but the last 4/10’s were very pleasant.  Once at the gap it was obvious that the stream was not immediately adjacent, nor could one actually hear it nearby, but we knew from the map that it was to the west.  Larry noticed something that looked rather trail-like and said, “Wait here and I’ll go scout this out”.  After about 50 yds he could definitely hear, but not see, the stream.  He backtracked to retrieve Mary Ann and convinced her to follow on down the trail.  At about 2/10’s he left her at a log across the trail, took the filter and went down in pursuit of the creek.  Mary Ann was not thrilled about being left on the trail with no guarantee that the creek was even accessible.  However, Larry, although not completely convinced himself, pressed on and the sound of the creek grew closer.  Another 200 yds and there it was, about 5′ wide with a perfect little cascade to put the bottle under.  He returned triumphantly and proceeded to prepare the tea.  He was so pleased with himself that he forgot to filter the water – oopsie.  So before drinking a drop we put it back in the pot to let it boil some more to be sure to get all the Giardia cysts.  We’ll know for sure in 4 days.

The other issue was time till sunset.  We finished our snack at 4:10 with dusk at 6:30 and a 1.2 mile return trip.  It took us about 90 minutes to get in and another 30 minutes for snacktime including the water adventure.  As it turned out we were back at the car at 5:30 with plenty of daylight.  But we did have a flashlight just in case.

Back at the ranch it was time to pack it up.  We did watch another portion of our history of Cades Cove video after dinner with another snack in the theater room, and Larry did another 3 months of the scrapbook.  But we were running out of time.  Tomorrow comes with a new challenge – limping the Jetta back home.

Day 10 – Monday, February 5, 2018

We got off to a good start at 8am and the Jetta was cooperating.  The weather was cool and clear.  The road perfect for driving.  No problems really except something is slowly going bad with the CV joints in the front axle.  We are grinding when we turn left and right, and when we start up after a stop.

Connect 4 with Sarah and Tommy

Ate lunch in Dry Fork KY at the Cracker Barrel, using the remainder of our gift card.  Without that we were likely going to go to Jimmy John’s.  We are going home on I-75 to make our annual Goetta Run through Cincinnati.  We got to the Harrison OH Kroger at about 3pm and bought enough for Anna and ourselves.  We were planning on swinging by Avon to drop off the

Anna at work

Goetta to Anna.  But as we drove on we looked seriously at the weather forecast for snow up north and decided to invite ourselves to Jon & Anna’s for the night.  We don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow.  So we came for dinner and some games with the grandkids, and here we are.

Day 11 – Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Got up to see the kids off to school and Jon off to work.  There was about an inch of snow and the temperature was 19°.  We got off at 8:45 or so.  The drive was uneventful – the same car noise seeming to come from ther front axle, but nothing falling apart.  As it turn out there was no snow on the pavement all the way home.  On the way into town we swung by to pick up some Troop T-shirts and to the Granger post office to attempt to straighten out the lug bolt key shipment.  It has been bouncing around between Sevierville and Granger.  Yesterday it was in Granger.  This morning it was in Knoxville and this evening it was in Indianapolis on its way back to Granger.  So hopefully the instructions Larry left with the counter attendant for Sanders Elliot, our mailman, will do the trick.

welcome home – sure

Welcome home meant shoveling 6″ of snow from the drive and relighting the woodstove.  Forethought had the log holder full on the deck, so no trapsing through the snow to the woodpile.  Also took time go get some more page protectors to finish up this year’s scrapbook and some birdseed to refill the birdfeeders and help out our little buddies.

if we don’t unpack are we still on vacation?

It occurred to us that until we totally unpack we are technically still on vacation.   Larry’s next thought was that being retired is actually like a continuous vacation, but the environs are too familiar.

And so this year’s trip comes to an end.  already making plans for next time.


Martin D-35 Binding Repair

January 14, 2018 – Finished!

So after church today I wiped off the dried glaze of the Meguiars 21 sealer/glaze and the end result was passable, but not perfect.  Buffed up the fretboard and then  re-installed the tuner machines.  So after 4 months and a week here it is:





take special note of the binding at the top facing the camera – this is the one I repaired, the whole reason for the project


I strung it up and played a bit.  The obvious tune to play was “Helicopters”, my first composition and my only instrumental.  Sounds good.  The bindings are perfect and the finish overall is much better than when I started.

Then I disassembled and stored the spray booth for next time.  Adding the two projects end to end I’ve been involved with luthier stuff  for two weeks shy of the past year.  Sure have learned a lot and I am better for it.

January 13, 2018

After a morning Boy Scout meeting and frittering away a couple of hour on a graphic design for my BBQ apron embroidery, I finally got to the polishing phase intermittently while watching the Pens hockey game.  The entire guitar needed rubbing out and polishing.  I started on the back then the neck, the front and finally the sides.  Encouraged by the appearance of the neck I decided to do the back and front of the tuner head, which came as a dull finish originally.

Things progressed slowly but surely.  It is heartening to see the mirror finish emerge from under the glaze.  I a m getting my upper body exercise and hope my rotator cuffs can take the abuse.  Man could I use a buffing wheel.  By bedtime I had it as good as it was gong to get until I check with Eric.  The back and neck are especially spiffy.

rubbing it out – tedious but satisfying in the end

So then I cleaned up the fretboard with a little 1000 grit paper and scraping the top edges of the neck bindings to remove masking tape goo, overspray and traces of the stain I used to touch up the back of the neck.  Then I pit on a coat of boiled linseed oil to seal it, wiping off the excess after a few minutes for it to soak in.


January 10, 2018

Began rubbing out the finish on the lower side and neck.  Here is my lineup of sandpaper and polishing compounds:  i had very good success using the 1/2″

sandpaper blocks – 400, 600, 1000, 1500 & 2000 grit – papers stuck to other side
polishes -Meguiars # 17, 10, 2 and 21 (glaze)







foam that my banjo parts order came packed with for sanding blocks with two-sided tape to hold the paper.  Just enough flex to keep from digging into the finish of=n the leading edge of the paper.  I cut several sized blocks for use in different spaces.  The Meguiars products do the trick of getting close to a mirror finish but I am still a step below Eric Sullivan’s results.  I should be seeing him here in about two weeks to show him the banjo and that will be one of my questions.

By the end of today I had the sanding out to 2000 completed without going through any of the finish, particularly the binding joint and the colorized places on the neck.  Perfect.  I started with the 600 grit.  As it turns out the final 1:1 coat on the neck is my best effort yet on an initially smooth sprayed surface.  I needed to do much less sanding than I did on the side.

January 9, 2018

It’s been awhile off on other things, like car repairs, Thanksgiving in Pflugerville TX, deer hunting, Christmas in Avon IN, shoveling snow and the like but squeezed in here and there were a number of trials and tribulations related to the final spray finishing.

Just when I thought that I had the drop fills on the back and sides mastered the finish crinkled up around three of them when I sprayed on the 1:1 dilution, what I was expecting to be THE final coat before polishing.  Did some research and found info on too high solvent content dissolving the thin edges of the underlying coat, which likely was the situation on the back.  The drop filled areas were also perceptively lower, like saucers, in the rest of the surface.  So I went back at it with 320/400/600 grit and two more full strength coats to the back and top.  No more crinkling.

The next challenge was that while sanding down the bottom shoulder trying to level out a very small depression where the new edge binding met the original I sanded all the way through the lacquer to the wood.  Crappo.  By this point I know what that means – refinishing the entire bottom side.  I resigned myself to doing that and at that moment decided to do a better job on the neck.

When the neck bindings came off early on they took some of the finish with them, which revealed that the Martin lacquer was colored and this revealed the lighter colored mahogany wood underneath.  After fooling around with this to blend it into the rest of the neck color I developed a technique similar to Eric Sullivan’s water-based staining.  I blended some very thick settled pigment from my old cans of oil-based cherry and dark walnut stains into a color that matched the rest of the neck and let the mix dry in a small old butter tub.  I trimmed a model painting brush to a fine point and found that if I just wet it with mineral spirits I could get a thick dried stain pigment paste onto it that was opaque enough to cover the lighter spots on the neck.  Then when you put a coat of lacquer on it the coloration binds right into the layer and the repair vanishes.  This was a real victory moment for me.

micro stain color touch-up
touching it up







Armed with this newfound confidence I prepared to  respray these effected areas.  I did a fairly contorted masking-off job to leave only the back of the neck and the bottom side from the rear strap peg around to the neck exposed.  I settled on a 25%  (3:1) dilution for the lacquer – enough to level it out well but not enough to crinkle anything – and then did some thinking about just how I could spray it in a booth that was really not big enough for a guitar (made it for the banjo and it needed to fit on a 4′ wide table).  The solution was to add a view window and a set of arms/gloves on the opposite side so I could spray from both sides.  This was especially important for the neck – to get it from both sides equally, since I wasn’t rotating the guitar to paint the top and bottom or both sides.  I had managed to spray from just the one side earlier but it was less than ideal, which had bugged me.

two-sided spray option

The results were excellent, which is usually the case when you put in the sweat equity with preparation.  Here are pictures of the modified spray booth and the end product before the final coat.  By the way that low spot in the binding joint is gone also with the re-coating.

September 15, 2017

First round of scraping and sanding down drop fills, then repeating the fill to bring it up flush.  It normally takes two fills to get enough thickness to get the low spots flush.  I also decided to do two very small dings on the top.

fixing a tiny ding on the top
when dry it’s just above the surface and can be scraped and sanded

September 14 – Drop  Fills Again

If you have read the Banjo Project blog you already know about drop fills.  You use some kind of eye dropper to place drop of lacquer in a small low spot, nick or imperfection, and then scrape/sand it down when dry.    I use a syringe, which is very precise.

my syringe drop-fill technique

The top back shoulder of the body sustained a major nick somewhere along the line that chipped the finish off down to the spruce.  The primer and 5 coats later there was still a small depression in this area, so I drop filled it this morning.  When that dries I have a couple locations along the new bottom back

binding to do the same thing with, only these are low spots where the purfling didn’t quite match the height of the edge binding.  When these locations are filled in, then it will be final finish time.


September 9,  2017

Finally got onto the sanding and prep for spraying.  Standard practice is to apply one coat of primer then lay down 4 – 5 coats, and use 320 grit to scuff between coats.  Thinning helps the flatness of he surface but is not super-critical until the final topcoat, which is applied in a 1:1 dilution.  I found that with the Behlen lacquer I am using thinning 20% for the build-up coats is preferable.

So I had to come up with some way to hold the guitar in the booth for spraying while still allowing it to be rotated so that I can do the entire body and neck at the same time.  Here is what I came up with:

the guitar rack for spraying – the tail end has a dowel rod that fits into the pickup phono jack and allows the guitar to be rotated
and here it is in the booth for illustration – flipped to the front
fast forward to the 4th coat applied and setting up nicely – flipped to the back

What is cool about this is the painting order – front side, rotate to opposite side, rotate to top then rotate to the back.  I can get the neck from this last position.  In other words you can spray the entire body and neck in one operation.  Also the effect of rotating to each position lessens the change of runs or sags considerably.  I’ve had none so far (knock on wood!).  I modified the rack from the above picture by cutting down the extensions on both vertical supports to get clearer access to the tail end and neck for spraying at their support points.

I learned from my earlier banjo project (that blog is also here at this site) that the best setup for my HVLP sprayer (Harbor Freight) is full open with a flat pattern at 25psi.  I am careful to have 25psi while actually spraying, not when deadheaded in the line when not spraying.  The gauge reads 30psi deadheaded.  This setup and 20% thinning gives a reasonably smooth surface for these buildup coats.  I also have learned that with this pressure the lacquer flow is slow and I need to do 6 passes to get the thickness that will level out smooth.  I can do 6 passes without runs or sags, too.

So with 5 coats on its wait around time, a minimum of 48 hours to allow the finish to cure and harden before the final topcoat.  Lacquer may set up to the touch very fast (5 minutes or so) but it takes a long time to fully cure and harden.  In this case it needs to be cured well enough for the wet sanding using 400-grit and mineral spirits before the topcoat.

September &, 2017 – Paint Booth Blower Upgrade

To this point the spray booth has been exhausted by a radial blade window exhaust fan.  It is basically a 9″ square fan box taped onto the outside of the booth and connected to the exhaust vent with a cardboard cone.  It was time to upgrade the the fan to a centrifugal blade type for a better exhaust rate and  better performance against higher back pressure.  I found a  0.45 amp, 115V Dayton blower that delivered 68 CFM against 0.2″ water pressure that was perfect. After refitting the former square opening from the booth to a 3″ hole I found a PVC pipe adapter to transition the 2″ outlet to the 4″ flex duct the setup looks like this now:

upgraded spray booth exhaust fan

The plastic sheeted sides of the booth are definitely bowed inward now with this increased exhaust volume.

September 6. 2017 – Near Catastrophe  Avoided

Today was masking off and primer day.  Things were going along simply enough.  I decided to mask of the edge bindings of the neck along with the bridge and pickup jack in the tailpiece.  After I put the first strip of masking tape on the bottom side of the neck I decided to move it slightly.  Working to peel of the tape to move it, oh no, it pulled off the whole binding.  It was apparently not well attached.  Fortunately I noticed it right away before I cracked it at the bottom end.  I was able to put it back down and then peel the tape from the other end and at a right angle to its length.  That was close.  So it was repeat the gluing, stretch tape clamping and squeeze out trimming.  In the end only a bit of the finish was lost from the neck and with a little staining and the primer I had it repaired.  So now refinishing the neck was a necessity not an option.

masked off
re-glued and ready to scrape



no one will ever notice this repair

 September 1,  2017

A trip to visit Nate in Colorado Springs and hike in Rocky Mountain NP, some other more pressing home projects and here we are another month down the road.  Time for sanding, more scraping, more sanding and then spraying.

As I launched into scraping the repaired edging I made a decision to refinish the entire guitar.  There were two serious chips in the finish down to the wood in the upper shoulder of the top and various scrapes, dings and scratches distributed on all surfaces.  A corollary decision then was to scrape all of the edging to match the new repair.

One problem in instrument finish repair is that part of the beauty and value of an old instrument comes from the yellowing of the lacquer with age.  Some master luthiers have ways to darken new lacquer prior to spraying it, but not this novice.  This is not too much of a problem with the wood since I am not stripping it down completely and the rosewood is so dark anyway, but it is on the pearly white edging.  My decision was to scrape ALL the old edging down to match the new white ones.  Besides not having the skill to color the lacquer there were two other reasons: 1) the existing lacquer on the old bindings was seriously chipped, one reason being that the finish from an earlier factory repair was too thick and poorly done (as already discussed), and 2) in this previous repair the top edgings were already very white compared to the back  and neck.  So it was a 50/50 situation.  Let me say that it takes a long time to scrape down the old yellowed lacquer on all the edgings all the while being careful not to break through to the wood on the adjacent edge, also while chamfering the old finish down into the line of the edging.

August 2, 2017

Scraping is in a word tedious but the end result is satisfying.  Impatience is not good because you can’t put it back on after you’ve taken it off.  The scraping also involves the adjacent lacquer finish because what you are after is a perfect match in the lines before sanding and refinishing.

scraping is exactly what the name implies using a single sided razor blade like a micro plane
what the scraping does to the existing finish

July 29, 2017

Not a lot happened on this project in June or July with Boy Scout Camp, making ash canoe thwarts for my friend Mark and granddaughter Sarah’s birthday and all, but here I am back at it

two styles of purfling, binding and razor blade for cleaning the groove
existing purfling/binding cut back; readv to glue up the new

So the first step is to decide where to cut the loose purfling/binding back to and where to put the joints.  as it turns out the plastic material is not acetone soluble, so the joints will have a hairline in them.  I decided to cut them back to the shoulders and stagger the joints to help hide them.  The other extreme option would be to remove them all the way back to the neck in front and tailpiece i back to have no joints.  However, since the reason the edges came loose in the first place is because they shrank and pulled away I decided that a joint at each end would allow them to shrink without pulling away in the future.  Also when I got to checking closely I saw the previous factory repairs had done just that.

I decided to use Bind-All adhesive from, the stuff made specifically for this job.  I also took their recommendation on using their orange stretch tape for clamping the bindings while they set.  Cutting thre but joint carefully did the trick.  I had a bit more squeeze out than I wanted, but no serious damage that couldn’t be cleaned off.  Better stuck good than sorry.  Getting all three pieces in place with the glue one at a time was a bit nerve racking because squeeze out in the grooves would be a problem.  I glued and clamped each one down in sequence and then scraped out the remaining groove for each one when the glue had set.  So here we are glued and clamped then dry and ready to scrape them down to match the existing bindings.

glued and clamped
dried and ready to scrape down

 June 8, 2017 – A Starting Point

The picture shows the guitar at present.  I’ve manged to cut out the damaged binding/purfling and clean the grooves of old adhesive.

purfling and binding grooves cleaned out and ready

Bindings and Purfling

The edge binding and purfling I am using are both made of styrene plastic I believe, soluble in acetone.  The binding is a simple white, but much thicker and sturdier to hold everything together and protect the edges of the wood pieces on the outside.  Purfling goes inside the binding to add style and color.  I think historically purfling was made from wood.  There are two types of standard Martin plastic purfling –  a black/white/black/white and a thinner white/black/white.  The standard D-35 design uses both.  So the repair will actually be a three-piece affair.

A Poor Paint Job

area with loose binding and purfling removed; peeling finish in the process of being sanded off on the side above

You can see that I have been working on the old finish.  This became a bit of positive encouragement from a discouraging discovery – the guitars final finish is not adhered to the undercoat.  I remembered once into this that several years ago this same separated edging problem occurred and I returned the guitar to Martin for repair under warranty.  You see, when I bought the guitar in 1972 it came with a lifetime original owner warranty for workmanship.  So what I am diving into I could be having done for me for nothing, except that #1) I’ve already messed with it, #2) I love the challenge, and #3) whoever refinished the guitar the first time didn’t get the finish to adhere to the underlying coat and it is peeling off as I sand it.  So maybe I’m not such a novice after all – I can do better than that.  I have not found the full extent of the peeling yet but that will come.  I don’t think it will add any extra finishing area to the project .

June 7, 2017 – A Luthier Urge Rising

The satisfaction I had from building the banjo, and the knowledge I gained,  encouraged me to tackle the repair of the bottom back edge binding and purfling of my 1972 model Martin D-35 6-string.  The plastic binding can shrink with time and pull away from the body of the guitar, which it has on the bottom edge and did once before.  Unfortunately, I launched into trying to simply clamp and re-glue this section early on in the banjo project with poor results.  I sanded through the finish in one spot and basically ruined the binding and purfling in the  area.  After that I did more online research and got the straight story on how to do it at

I was able to run down the binding and purfling at C.F. Matrin’s 1833 Shop and received that a couple weeks ago.  After some study I decided to use a binding tape for clamping and binding adhesive (Bind-All) from for installing the new sections.  Fortunately the spray booth I built for the banjo work is big enough for the guitar.  I am going to upgrade the booth’s exhaust fan to a real centrifugal fan before I start this refinishing.

Smokies Trip 2013

Day 1 – Monday (4/15)

For various reasons we decided to leave Monday morning instead of after the Sunday POP meeting, and then drive through.  Left at 0720 and arrived at 1800 at the Pigeon Forge Krogers.  There was some roadwork in southern Kentucky that held us up a bit longer than we expected.  Also Larry almost merged into someone coming off the on ramp from I-74 to I-275.  Otherwise no problems.  Left under overcast skies and 60°, arrived under blue skies and 83°.  Already this is shaping up to be a different visit and throwing us off on how to dress for our hikes and what kind of lunch to pack.  No need for something hot to drink and eat.  Wildflowers we are hoping will be the main attraction during the hikes and this is how we plan to pick our trails.

Spent the evening enjoying the warmness, surfing on the iPad, watching the Reds beat the Phillies (thanks Jon – the Reds are blacked out in Knoxville believe it or not) and getting mentally adjusted watching a couple episodes from Red Green – the Infantile Years.  The 1991 episodes have his poetry readings and singing at the campfire with Harold – nearly too funny to laugh with.  Having no further ambition we went to bed at 2300.

Day 2 – Tuesday (4/16)

Fire Pink – Chestnut Ridge

Slept with a bedroom window open last night and awoke to the birds singing in the trees.  As usual set the alarm for 0700 and got up at 0730 – hey it’s a vacation.  Made the coffee, checked the weather, had morning prayer and had breakfast.  It is going to be sunny and around 80° today.  We picked the Chestnut Gap trail out of the Townsend Y today because it is supposed to be a prime wildflower trail, especially in the first ½ mile (which is a nice uphill climb).  We have done this trail before – last time it was so cold and windy we could hardy get the water the hot tea to boil up on one of the saddles.  today we broke a seat, and we really had to concentrate on not wearing too many clothes.  As it was Larry hiked in his t-shirt and zip-offs and Mary Ann in a polo shirt and long pants.  We still took the stove – couldn’t bear to part with it, and didn’t need it.  We made 3 miles up to the crest and a bit down the other side to Bryant’s Gap before eating lunch.  There were indeed copious wildflowers on the first uphill and this took extra time for pictures (I’ll have an album at the photo site soon).  At 65 the hardest part about wildflowers is getting down to their level for the photo and then back up again.  Hiking poles are very useful for this.  Met two other couples on the hike – one from Washington State who had a business in Alaska but was raised in Knoxville and the other from Wisconsin.  More folks here as winter turns to spring.  On the return trip to the cabin stopped for some sunscreen and then just sat on the bank of the Little River for awhile to recharge batteries – you know, Psalm 23.


Dinner was grilled venison steaks, Caesar salad and microwaved potatoes (what did we used to do when it took 45 minutes to “bake” a potato?).  This evening will be more of the same as yesterday.  Have to go through the wildflower photos from today and maybe post them to the website.


Day 3 – Wednesday (4/17)

Tail of the Dragon
“Tree of Shame”

We left the house under cloudy, rain-looking skies that were clearing in the west at about 0915.  It rained lightly early this morning.  Today we drove the Foothills Parkway around the west side of the park and stopped at Look Rock, hiked at Abrams Creek Campground and saw the Fontana Dam.  Look Rock is an old Cherokee landmark that now has an EPA weather station and an observation deck on it.  The observation deck has a web cam you can access online if you want – Mary Ann has been checking the weather from it getting ready for the trip.  It was a nice short uphill walk, sunny and with a nice breeze.  Took some pictures then attempted to drive the “short-cut” to Abrams Creek Campground.  First we went north instead of south, then drove way past the turn-off road because there was no sign for the Campground and because the roadsign (“Abrams Creek Road”) was not at the corner and not visible when traveling south through Happy Valley J.  This took up about 30 – 45 extra minutes.  Once at the Campground the hike was very nice.  Temperatures are still in the low 80’s.  Most of the walk was along Abrams Creek, but the extreme western end downstream of the falls that we have hiked to many times from Cades Cove.

We also learned the answer to the old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around, does it make a noise?”  Yes and it scares the bejeezus out of you.  It was across the creek but none the less there were images of rampaging bears running through our minds.

After lunch by the creek and the return hike we continued south around the park to Fontana Dam via US 129.  This route was something new to us – a motorcycle Mecca because of its twists and turns – 318 curves in 11 miles; it is one continuous S-curve with ups and downs as well.  They call it the “Tail of the Dragon” or just “The Dragon”; some of the sharpest curves have names of their own.  Since this 11 mile stretch is also the southwest boundary of the park there is no development at all and thus no danger of anyone pulling out from a drive or side road, and hence no reason to, you got it, slow down.  It is an international destination for cyclists and sports car drivers,  We saw several companies staked out at curves taking pictures of those flying by for later resale.  The Jetta held its own as Mary Ann held on to her door handle.  We made the 11-mile return trip in 30 minutes.  The S-curves are banked, guard rails are absent; they warn you about the hairpin turns (10 mph posted) but after a while the S-curves weren’t even labeled.

Fontana Dam was the real destination for Larry, though.  This is where the Appalachian Trail enters the park from the south.  It crosses the Little Tennessee River on the dam.  The dam was impressive – 450’ tall, 2300’ long, with 2 giant tunnel overflow spillways.  Vertigo-City looking down into the spillways and over the top railing on the back of the dam to the river 450’ below.  Larry traced out the trail across the dam and partway up the park road on the north side.  So now we’ve been to both ends of it for the park.  We finally got home at 1915 and never were rained on.  Ate in tonight, watched baseball and worked on this Blog.

Day 4 – Thursday (4/18)

Mr. Snake crawls to safety after nearly being stepped on by Mary Ann

Today was a beautiful day – sunny, warm, breezy.  We went to Porter’s Creek in

Greenbrier – another wildflower extravaganza.  Forget that the trail was a constant uphill.  Seems that the locals are getting a jump on next weeks Pilgrimage – there was a busload at the Fern Branch Falls.  Larry started spouting off flower names and was gently corrected by a nice gal.  Larry thought we were on a different trail in his mind the whole time until we reached Campsite 31, the end of the trail, for lunch.  He was expecting a longer stretch.  This trail has the long, creepy foot log over Porter’s Creek.  Met a retired Air Force couple who decided to put roots down in Gatlinburg.  We had some things in common.  On the return trip Mary Ann nearly stepped on a 4’ black snake while looking at the cascading creek – Larry got a picture after it finished rearing its head.

We made a trip to the grocery and then to Lowe’s.  The Lowe’s trip was necessitated by Larry breaking off the shower plunger – it was sticking because of water scale and we couldn’t turn on the shower.  Fortunately, Lowe’s had an exact replacement that Larry installed in about 30 minutes.  There is an upstairs shower, but that was just not convenient, and once the plunger was busted it was too late to just report it and admit he broke it.  The trip to Lowe’s required driving all the way across Pigeon Forge at the height of its “Rod Run” hotrod swap meet; expected to attract 75,000 people into town.  The cavalcade of cars parked up one side and down the other of the main drag was really impressive – every muscle car and restored classic imaginable – but we’ll be steering clear of this for the rest of the weekend.  It will change our choices on where to eat out tomorrow.

Day 5 – Friday (4/19)

Rain day.  We’ve known this is coming for the past week, so we are right on plan to do the scrapbook today.  The rain began at maybe 0830 and we started the scrapbook at 030 or so.  The rain front has also brought with it more seasonably cooler temperatures, but they still feel good to us.  We just finished the scrapbook and it is quarter to 4.  And the rain has stopped and the sky is clearing in the west – good timing.

Tonight is eat-out-for-our-anniversary night.  We plan to go to Gatlinburg to avoid the Rod Run crowd in Pigeon Forge.  Going to Gatlinburg to avoid the crowd is in itself completely wacko, but these be strange times.

Today Larry fixed the gas log fireplace.  Mary Ann had been smelling gas very slightly.  He knew from prior experience here that the pilot light was probably blown out, which it was.  He decided to turn the whole thing off for the summer.  In the process he discovered that whoever had messed with it previously had not reinstalled the glass or lower vent properly, mainly because one of the posts holding the lower vent was missing and the other was loose.  The missing post as he suspected wasn’t missing just laying loose in a gap at the bottom of the fireplace.  So with it and the other properly tightened the gas fireplace is all the way it should be.  He also changed a burnt out light bulb in one of the dining area spotlights.  They should pay us to rent this place, really.

Part of our rain day was to celebrate our anniversary dinner out.  Since the Rod Run car show was in Pigeon Forge we opted to go to Gatlinburg and the Calhoun’s rib place there.  We go in through the Park the back way since Calhoun’s is on the Park end of town.  It was good, but only one kind of BBQ sauce.  Caught up on the capture of the second Boston Marathon bomber.  Then back into the Park, over Fighting Creek Gap, past the Laurel Falls parking, past Elkmont down to Metcalf Bottoms, across the Little River on the wooden bridge, up over the Greenbrier Ridge and out of the park on Lyon Springs Road and back home.

Until bedtime watched baseball, planned for tomorrow’s hike and snacked.  At some point we watched Abbott and Costello videos, including “Who’s on First?”.

Day 6 – Saturday (4/20)

The rain brought the cold front with it.  So we’ve gone from mid-80’s to mid-40’s.  There was an overnight frost in some places but we don’t think right here.  But the sky is clear and sunny. This morning’s hike was back to winter mode as we dressed down in long johns and layers, gloves and wool hats.  Larry had no gloves, but his wool ski cap and extra wool sweater took care of him.  Lunch was back to hot soup using the stove.  Since we mistakenly bought a Jake’s Creek patch last time without hiking it we figured we should hike it this year.  This is in the old Elkmont logging town area and follows one of the old railroad grades for the first 2 miles but after the creek crossing there it reverts to a typical uphill Smokies trail.  There were plentiful wildflowers – we shot Fraser sedge and Bishop’s hat.  This Fraser guy got around – Fraser fir, Fraser magnolia, Fraser sedge.  Trillium were everywhere.  What a joy.  They have moved the trailhead 0.4 miles back down the hill since last time we headed this way, so Campsite 27, our destination, was at 3 miles now, but we made it for lunch.  Larry marked the paces and kept our spirits up as we trudged steadily upward.  In hindsight we could have made the ridge and Jake’s Gap after lunch then returned but we wanted to get to Mass on time at 1600.  The day warmed up perfectly as we walked, so we were carrying clothes in the pack on the return trip.  We returned to the cabin after the hike.  Larry took a long nap and Mary Ann hit the iPad.  After Mass we had dinner in.  Larry grilled the raspberry chicken.  Then we caught up on the Red’s game that went 13 innings but was already done by then.  With MLB.TV we can watch the video of the whole game.  The rest of the evening was frittered away doing laundry, watching Red Green and then making our reservations in Cincinnati for the Reds-Cubs game on Monday (AAA ½ price day) and our motel room (using our points).

You’ll see a self portrait picture of us from the hike today at lunch using a nearby twin trunked tree.  Well after the picture the camera fell.  It worked fine until after the picture of Mary Ann doing the laundry and then it jammed up.  Now it won’t focus.  So tomorrow’s pictures will be by flip phone.  If we had gotten our smart phones before we left on the trip things would be better.  Larry is hoping that the camera is still under warranty.  We’ll see.

Day 7 – Sunday (4/21)

Tried to get an earlier start today to beat the crowds to Cades Cove, so the alarm was set for 0630.  We rolled out at 0645.  Another outstandingly beautiful day.  Our destination today is the Gregory Ridge Trail that starts from the Parson’s Branch Road near the Mill in Cades Cove.  There was no problem getting to the trailhead.  We were hiking by 0930 and already we could tell that the day was warmer than Saturday.  What a magnificent hike.  We made Campsite 12 at Mile 2 by 1030, which was way too early for lunch, so we just pushed on uphill and finally hit the top of the ridge at 3.2 miles by noon.  You had a choice – a chilly breeze in the sun, or no breeze and gnats in the sun.  We took the latter.  Not too bad, really.  It was another soup day.  The hike included a primitive foot log over Forge Creek –actually two sections of a large pine that had been cut coincidentally over the creek.  They were like 4’ in diameter but rounded on top.  We took a picture.  Mary Ann, ever nimble, just walked them.  Larry crawled one but walked the other.

Used the water filter to great advantage by filling up on water for the last mile of the upward hike at a side stream instead of carrying it all the way from the car.

Part of the hike was through some uncut forest – really, really large tulip poplar, white pine and oak.  The loggers never made it in this far.

From the trailhead after the hike we drove the Parson Branch Road.  The sign read “Travel At Your Own Risk”.  This road is closed in winter but it opened just before we got here (April 11).  The F250 would have been a better choice than the Jetta, but since I am writing this you can guess that we made it.  It was gravel with a minimum of chuck holes.  We drug bottom only once slightly, but there were a few tense moments waiting for a protruding rock to scrape the engine pan that never happened.  The high point of the 8-mile, one-way forest road was 17, yes 17, creek crossings.  And we are not talking on bridges, there were 3 of those as well.  These were paved (thankfully) spill ways – low water crossings as it were.  At first they were novel, then it dawned on Larry that we were following the stream downhill and the crossings were getting deeper because the stream was growing bigger.  By the last one the water was as deep as the Jetta’s ground clearance and it was moving fast.  This is in light of Mary Ann just having read about the unfortunate fella in Kokomo earlier in the week who drowned when his car was swept off the road trying to cross a flooded road.  We were glad to find that the last three crossings were on bridges because Parson Branch Creek by then was roaring.

So then out of the woods at the end of the Parson Branch Road and into…….the middle of the Dragon’s Tail.  Woohoo.  Our third run of the Dragon.  We were greeted by two racing cycles making the hairpin turn where the forest road enters, one behind the other laying into that curve with their inside knees nearly scraping the road surface.  Larry did his best to fit in, and we of course had our picture taken by Killboy’s – they shoot every vehicle and then will sell you the photo from their website.  You just have to remember the day you passed by.  Here we are on the 17th – all 6 photos:  Pretty cool!  Click on them to enlarge.

Meanwhile back at the cabin it’s pack up for tomorrow.  We stay in Cincy overnight for the ballgame.  We haven’t played any of the board games we brought.  You can blame it on Larry’s subscription to the televised games and to Mary Ann’s iPad.

Day 8 – Monday (4/22)

We didn’t have to get up and leave super early because the only commitment we had was getting to the Red’s game at 1910 (7:10), and we couldn’t really check in to the motel until after 1500 (3:00).  We were still on the road at about 0845.  At lunch time we were somewhere near the Renfro Valley exit looking for a picnic spot.  We got off to go to the James Whitley historic site, but without our AAA tour guide handy we got off at New London and started following the signs.  It turned out to be further than just off the road, so we ended up going on the local roads down to the next exit which was for Renfro Valley and eating at a picnic table outside the Renfro Valley Barn Dance music hall there.  It was a gorgeous day.  After that we sped on to the Comfort Inn on I-275 near the airport and got settled in.  With time on his hands Larry decided to look quickly for an iPad app for keeping score and sure enough found one and downloaded it to Mary Ann’s iPad.

We left in plenty of time for dinner at Skyline and the game, but spent a good 30 minutes driving around basically the same block trying to find the parking garage that we use when we go with Nate.  That was rather fruitless so we ended up in the Chiquita Building garage for $5 (5th and Main) only one block up and over from Skyline.  We had researched if they had the chili without spaghetti before we left the motel and learned that Skyline has ”Chili Bowls” – 3, 4 or 5-Ways without spaghetti – learn somethin’ new every day.  Could have eaten two apiece (well maybe Larry could have).  We got to the game for part of batting practice and our seats were down at field level just beyond 3rd base (Section 111).  And what a game it was.  The Reds won in 13 innings scoring 3 runs after the Cubs had scored 2 in the top of the inning.  Of the 18,000 in attendance we were part of the about 3,000 who stayed with the Cub fans to the bitter end.  We got back to the car at 2430 (30 minutes after midnight).  We were both wearing our long johns and had hats and plenty of layers, but the temp stayed just around 60° the whole time.  Note for future reference – don’t sit at field level where your line of sight is across an aisleway because you won’t be able to see half the game for the people constantly going back and forth from their seats.  One wonders why they buy tickets.  The scoring app worked great except Larry didn’t have time to learn how to substitute players later in the game.  So with that long of a game there were a bunch of pitchers and subs.  He will work on that soon and should be able to edit the score card to have a correct and complete record.  No foul balls, except for a screamer in section 110 next to us.  Some middle-aged guy reached up and caught it with his glove like he was in the game.  Got some souvenirs after the game – they were still open.

Day 9 – Monday (4/23)

Back to work day – have to be in SBend for Larry’s dentist appointment at 1330 (changed the time enroute).  Good weather, no traffic, no problem.  Home by 1230 and it was overcast and rainy.  We are already planning for next time – maybe in the fall.  Probably should have bought the place.


Banjo Building Project

August 1, 2017 – The Finishing Touch

I transferred the pickup from my old Gibson to the Sullivan a couple days ago.  And after hours and days of practice and replaying this tune I wrote back in February as I started the project I got it to a good enough point to make it public.

I’ve listened to enough bluegrass to know the template and pattern of these songs by heart – simple and direct, not theoretical, while re-teaching the bible stories.  The “rock” metaphor occurs frequently in the Old and New Testaments as well as the psalms.  So I had lots of material.

Hope you enjoy hearing it as much as I do playing it.

Stand on That Rock – ©Larry Grauvogel, August 2017

June 2, 2017 – Really, Really Done

May 31, 2017

After playing it for about a week and thinking some more (no real rush here) I decided to go ahead and put in a new 5th-string nut, primarily to fill in the existing hole. It took me some time to locate a 1/8″ diameter plastic rod.  I was able to drill out the wrongly set nut without damaging the fretboard (whew!).  The only rod I could find instead of buying an already-made nut for $3 plus $7 shipping was white PTFE.  I found it at Grainger Supply in South Bend for $1.60.  I needed 3/4″ of the 12″ piece.  I did cut a string groove in it so it actually helps hold the string horizontally and vertically.  It fit snuggly into the existing hole so I didn’t glue it.  Overall the 5th string now tunes up and stays in perfect pitch when hooked around the HO spikes at 7 or 9.  That made me very happy.

the PTFE 5th-string nut in place

May 20, 2017 – 5th-String Tuner and Pegs

To put in the dot at the 5th fret, which i wasn’t planning at first, I had to pull out the 5th string tuner.  Since it did come out without too much effort I decided to drill in the dot.  And I found that just pushing it back in wasn’t good enough because hammering in the HO spikes (explained below) just knocked it back out.  So on-line i picked up this little press fit with a clamp trick.

pressing in the 5th string tuner

Gorilla glue was my choice, being careful to wipe off any squeeze out – it wipes easily until it starts to set up.  It ain’t comin’ out now!

I mentioned tuning the 5th string to the key of the song.  Here is the trick – HO model railroad track spikes, yep.  They have a square cross-section 1/32″ on each side, so a 1/32″ drill makes a slightly undersized hole for tapping them in. Again the hole only has to be about 5/16″ deep.  I found that there were several ways to locate them so I went with what had worked for me before – right behind the fret and 1mm to either side of the string so as not to hit the vibrating string when not being used.  One goes at the 7th fret and one at the 9th.

spike at the 9th fret on the outside ; it is on the inside at the 7th facing in

So one has to know that 95% of bluegrass banjo songs are in the key of C with the 5th string an octave G, the 5th note in the scale.  To play one in D you just hook the 5th string at the 7th fret (octave A, 5th note in the scale) and for E at the 9th (octave B, 5th note in the scale). If someone is wild enough to play in F you can tune the string up one fret to an octave C from the 9th fret without breaking it.

This left the question of the 5th string nut to answer.  Eric put the nut hole about 1/4″behind the 5th fret, with the string grounded on the fret.  The other way to do it is to put the nut right behind the fret but elevate the string even with the other 4 strings and not use the fret at all.  My problem was that when I put in the nut I tapped it in too deep.  After weighing the pros and cons I decided to put an HO spike behind the 5th fret as my nut, which I did.

May 19, 2017 – Side Fret Dots

So the office is moved across the hall and my confidence is high so I decided that the time was right for drilling in the fret dots.  I used my digital micrometer to center the dots in the frets, marking them with a 0.7mm drafting pencil, and eyeballed their vertical position.  I set the drill depth at 1/4″.  The only problem I had was with the vertical positions.  In hindsight I could have mic’d the vertical positions as well – they are not precisely in line down the side of the neck, but only to the trained eye (mine).  I marked frets 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 (the octave), 15, 17, 19 and 22, copying from my existing Gibson.  There are different fret marking conventions but for bluegrass banjo this is the standard.  By comparison my Martin guitars are marked at fret 9, not 10 and 21, not 22.  For a banjo the G chord is played open. The 5th string is a drone, the idea taken from the dulcimer, and adjusted for the key that the song is written in.  The dots are really only relative and used to keep track of where you are.  The periodic 3-fret spacing is because there are no B#/Cb or E#/Fb in the chromatic scale.  This means that there is only  one fret between E-F and B-C, not the usual two frets for each key change

  The octave 12th fret is marked with a double dot.  The pictures show the sequence – drill, apply glue with toothpick (Gorilla glue) and wipe excess off, insert rod, snip it off.  After that I scraped the rod to within 1/1000th using a single edged razor blade with cellophane tape guarding all but the 1/16″ of the dot – cellophane tape is 1/1000th inch thick.  Then as you can see I used a small foam sanding block with P1000 followed by P2000 sandpaper and polished it out just like the lacquer.  It was so good I didn’t have to put lacquer on the ends of the dots.

snipping therod
inserting the glue
inserting the rod
the finished product – I am happy with it







I had been planning to use foam sanding blocks behind the wet/dry sandpaper all along but only finally did it at this point.  A StewMac video convinced me. I used the closed-cell foam that was part of the packing that the resonator came with 10 years ago plus some two-sided tape. It turns out that if you use your fingers alone or wrap the sandpaper around a block it always sands deeper at the edges.  So I cut out and made a few different sizes of foam blocks for each grit.  The one in the picture is 1″ by 2″, the smallest.

May 10 – New Packages on the Porch

Got my StewMAC package today with the fret side dot rods.  Also I bought a fret dressing file and some finer sandpaper grades up to 2000-grit.  And another quart of lacquer from Behlen came, for use on the guitar repair – another blog probably.

So I am working up to doing the work, but am distracted by moving my office across the hall as Matt Richard takes the final pieces of furniture.  I will be repairing the drywall and painting the old office.

May 3 – And……Done – Well, almost

The treble D-string fill didn’t work the first time and the second time I realized that the binder plastic was not sticking to  the nut material (it’s a different plastic altogether), so I just stuck the loose piece back into the slot and it worked well enough.  It will be super glue in a bit.

filling in the 1st string slot on the second try with softened binder; what finally worked was super glue using the same setup as shown

So I’ve started playing again, and that’s when I noticed that I hadn’t put the fret dots in the top binding of the neck.  This is how you keep track of where you are playing – there is a dot (black on a white binding) at frets 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 double dot, 15, 17 ,19 and 22 double dot, these correspond to the intervals between the notes on the scale.  So back to Google to see how this is done, and to for the 1/16″ diameter plastic rod that is used.  Measure the center of the appropriate fret with a micrometer, mark with a center punch on the top neck binding and carefully drill a 1/4″deep 1/16″ hole, put in a bit of glue, jam in the rod, clip it  off, sand it down and drop fill it over.  Normally this is done before the lacquering but I forgot, so I’ll be filling it over as part of the sanding and polishing.

The 4th fret appears to be a bit high compared to the 3rd and 5th so it may need some filing down.  Then I learned on-line that one of the neck finishing steps is leveling the frets with a filing block.  That I can do, but I’ll need a fret dressing file.

And in the bright light I had trained on the instrument during this exploration I noticed a couple more flaws in the resonator that will need attention.  I think the drop fills are not sticking in the grooves along the binding because of my not cleaning off the Meguires polishing compounds.  So I will be using some mineral spirits and scuffing down in the small grooves before I drop fill again.  I am finding this fascinating as much as it is challenging.

May 2 – The Home Stretch

Yesterday I sanded,  polished and buffed out the wood rim area that is visible below the tone ring, the area that I had resprayed a couple days ago.  It is shiny but not perfect since some of the stain I used to color the area got sanded down and there was some residual graininess, but with the J-hooks and arm rest in the way not much shows anyway.  As I am learning in my latter years perfection is relative.  And so with that I was able to re-assemble the pot, this time for real as I tightened down the head and attached the modified tailpiece and arm rest.  And since the neck was done I attached the neck to the rim.  Here it is at that point:

looks like a banjo by golly

Meanwhile back on the resonator I was finding a second group of more minor flaws along the lower binding on the sides.  It has taken me another three cycles of “drop-fill with the syringe-allow to dry overnight-sand and polish” to get it where I want it.  And fortunately the finish is thick enough that I haven’t sanded through, knock on wood!  So this is the remaining piece of the puzzle.

As you may have noticed in the picture there are strings on the neck – oh, yeah.  Last night I cut in the string grooves.  They are spaced 7.5 mm apart with 4 mm on each edge, as measured from my existing Gibson.  The string spacing at the bridge is 11 mm on the J.D. Crowe bridge from Sullivan’s.  And with these measurements the 5th string is 7.5 mm from the bass D (4th) string, just as it should be.  So careful measurement, and re-measurement paid off.   I used an assortment of my fine saws to cut the slots to as close to the string diameters as I could – a 42 tpi (0.017″) and 48 tpi (0.014″) hobby saw and my Bear saw (0.023″).  So things were rolling right along until I got carried away with the treble (1st) D-string and cut it too deep so that it was resting on the first fret. Dang, but I had anticipated just such a problem and my research indicated that I could soften a piece of binding into a paste by soaking it in acetone to use as a filler, which is what I did and am currently waiting on to harden.  It will take a few hours.  Here I am putting in the filler:  I put my halogen lamp on it to speed up the process, protecting the surrounding areas with thick towels.

But in the meantime I tuned up the other strings and actually played a few licks.  That was an exciting moment.  It actually works.

When the last drop fill sets up on the resonator here in a bit I should have it sanded, polished and buffed soon thereafter, with only this string slot to touch up before it’s finished and ready to play.

Drop-Fill Upgrade

Now back to the resonator. The drop filling of the binding groove has been tedious.  I needed three fills with overnight to dry between each to be sure.  During the process I did improve my drop-fill technique – I upgraded from a toothpick to a syringe, which proved to be way more precise and with less risk of a stray drip in the wrong place.  But just as I reached the end some lacquer leaked under a piece of masking I was using just to mark the general location on the rim (the last area needing the fill was actually hard to find except in certain light) and the tape pulled of a small spot of finish.  So back at it.  But the resonator is now only a touch-up away from done.  The wood rim sits by curing, waiting for its final polishing.  So it is coming together.

Next challenge – cutting the string slots in the nut and setting the string height (aka “the string action”).

April 27 – Finishing the Neck – One down, Two to go

With the headpiece cured for 3 days I was back on it and this time the results were as near to perfect as I can get.  I learned that as the scratches are taken out reducing the hand pressure is key to getting the last minor swirls out with each successively finer abrasive.  It’s all in the wrist so to speak.

With the polishing done I had to ream out the tuner holes to remove the lacquer build-up so that the tuners would fit again.   I had the presence of mind to start from the back of the headpiece.  I used the same Tinker Toy rod and 80-grit sandpaper successfully, but with some minor chipping that will be covered up by the tuner.  In this process I put some scratches in the front, so once the tuners were fitted I removed them, re-polished the front and very carefully re-installed them.  Then I drove the 5th string tuner into its hole down the neck.

reaming out the lacquer from the tuner holes
the neck ready to install

And here it is, ready to put on the strings after I cut in the string slots.  The finished headpiece says it all.


the finished headpiece

April 24 – Q-Tips and Toothpicks

Re-sanded and polished out the neck using Eric Sullivan’s technique with very good rersults.  Closer to Eric’s finish but not all the way there.  So I moved on to the front of the headpiece and things were looking good until I broke through the finish in one small spot.  So I scuffed it up and put on 5 more coats today.  It has leveled out nicely so I assume that on Wednesday or Thursday I’ll be able to finish polishing out the entire neck.

I took the flange and the brackets off of the wood rim and lit into it with the new polishing protocol.  The only area that shows outside the instrument is the 1/2″ band between the flange and the head, and it had some residual pitting.  I went through the finish in one small spot with this as well, taking some of the walnut stain with it,  but the fix is different – a Q-Tip and a toothpick.  I went ahead and finished polishing out the rest of the rim with excellent results.

I did a drop fill with the lacquer for the first coat on the sanded through area, sanded it down after an hour and then applied some stain with the Q-Tip.  When that had dried I put a second drop fill of lacquer over the stain.  Tomorrow I’ll sand and polish it out and that should complete the wood rim.

And then on to the resonator, which was polished out pretty well already, but had a basic graininess in the background that just wouldn’t make the quality control review.  So I started by taking off the grainy-look with 1000-grit wet/dry paper and mineral spirits. In the process I discovered that some of the imperfections along the seam of the top binding on the side were actually a gap between the binding and its groove from when I first glued in the binding.  I was able to sand out all the other glitches.  So then it was back to the toothpick to drop fill the gap.  It looks like I will need only two coats.  But the great news was that the back of the resonator polished up better than it was when I started on it today and I will not need to re-spray it.

April 21 – Taking a Step Back

I talked to Eric Sullivan about the tail piece and his final finishing techniques.

For the Presto tailpiece he said he just leaves it unfastened to the tension ring and the strings themselves hold it in place.  It comes with a small screw that is used to rest against the tone ring to adjust the tailpiece angle, but he said he takes that off and it is unnecessary.  As a player, however, it is enough aggravation changing the strings (they have looped ends that need to be hooked over the prongs of the tailpiece) without having it falling off or moving around, so I came up with a bracket to fasten the tailpiece to the J-hooks just like the armrest using the small screw.  Yea, its carbon steel and not chrome plated and sprayed satin black, but it is mostly hidden under the tailpiece and below the tension ring, so its effect is similar to the resonator brackets that I painted the same color.  Here’s a picture of it.  At least it is engineeringly very functional if not real pretty.

Presto tailpiece rear view
Presto tailpiece front – taped a 8-32 hole into the barstock & replaced the stock chromed screw with a hex socket one; hole is off-center to fit








My step back is on the final finishing.  I learned three things from Eric – use a flexible sanding block behind the very fine sandpaper and polishing compounds to level the underlying finish, use 1000-grit paper to level initially, and follow this with Meguiars 21 and Meguiars 2.  He doesn’t do the 1:1 dilution final coat, just builds up a good thick layer of lacquer as smooth as he can get it to start from.  He lays down 3-4 coats, scuffing with 320-grit between each, then sands it down and repeats another 3-4 coats for his base.

So since I am on the neck currently and had sanded through in a couple small spots, I stepped back and put on another 3 coats. That was 3 days ago.  I will see how the 1000-grit followed with Meguiars 21 and 2 works, and if it does I’ve decided to start back on the resonator, which I can see will not be as good as Eric’s the way it sits right now, with the 1000-grit.  If I sand through then it will be step back again and add more layers.

To get my mind off of this endless painting, I took some time while the neck finish was hardening to install a dedicated 4″ exhaust duct for the paint booth.  That was challenging but as of last night it is in and functional.  So there is no longer a need to disconnect then reconnect the booth when Mary Ann uses the dryer.  After building the Lodge last summer I am very good at removing and re-installing vinyl siding to cut in vents and their covers.

new exhaust vent for paint booth

April 16 – 17:  Easter Weekend

So in the midst of the Easter celebration I managed to finish the following:

  • final painting of resonator interior- CHECK
  • decide how to finish the adjusted resonator brackets and finish them – CHECK
  • glue in the resonator lugs – CHECK – Gorilla Superglue
  • polish out the resonator exterior – CHECK
  • install the control rods – CHECK
  • assemble the wood rim and flange with rersonator brackets – CHECK
  • assemble the rest of the  pot – tone ring, head, head ring and tailpiece – CHECK

So what’s left to do now?

  • touch-up the neck & finish polishing it – in process
  • improve polishing of resonator and neck
  • install the arm rest
  • attach the neck to rods – rods in; neck in process
  • install the string machines (tuners)
  • install the tailpiece – got a problem here, it doesn’t fit so need a different one
  • cut the string grooves into the fretboard nut
  • install the strings and bridge; adjust the neck angle, bridge position and string action
  • tune’er up and play

The next big challenge will be to finish the repainting of the neck and then bring the polishing and buffing up another notch.  After that it is all downhill once I get a different tailpiece that fits.  These will require another call to the expert.

April 13 – Here We Go with Assembly

chiseling very carefully; cut in the edges with a utility knife progressively as I chiseled down
high anxiety – drilling the blind anchor holes for resonator lugs; note the drill depth guide on the bit







so far so good – three more to go
screwing in a lug;  the maple rim is hard enough to take a machine screw thread






and there we go; I was very glad to get this over with successfully
“adjusting” the resonator brackets
before and after; then painted black satin to hide them under the flange






installing the resonator brackets – another blind hole but a much smaller screw



Putting Together the Pot Assembly

In the background of these assembly steps I was working on touching up the interior of the resonator. I had to remove the lugs after checking their fit with the flange and rim.  They were perfect.  The notches got stained ebony and the upper rim after sanding got a color coat of walnut stain prior to a lacquer overcoat.  I also sanded out the inside bottom to make it look more finished prior to the final overcoat.  Then I polished it out a bit to even it up.

Here is a series of pictures illustrating the assembling of the pot

wood rim plus flange and control rods
add the tone ring


then the J-hooks to tension the head
then the drum head and tension ring










then the “adjusted” resonator brackets painted satin black to hide under the flange
and lastly the resonator

I was wondering where some deeper scratches were coming from as I worked down to the lesser grit polishes.  And I guessed it was the foam applicator pads, so I switched to using one of our remaining 100% cotton diapers – and bingo the polishing jumped up to a new level.  Yowza!  So I ordered some new cotton diapers on Amazon for future use.

But then a setback just as I was winding up on the neck – I polished right through a small spot in  the finish along the fretboard binding.  Crap!  I had two choices – the old “drop-fill” trick or respray the entire back of the neck.  A pretty easy first choice, and the drop-fill worked.  A bit of sanding and blending to do but less work than a full respray.  It took three coats to fill it in thick enough.

April 11 – Coming Up for Air

Jump ahead to Tuesday and here is a shot of the stained, primed and  lacquered resonator interior taken in the afternoon when fully dried overnight.  It looks good but a little more glossy than I was expecting.

inside of resonator ready to go to assembly – looks pretty black, but it has a bit of gloss and grain showing in real life

But the resonator is now done except for polishing and buffing.  I was very happy that there was no bleeding of the stain and resonator interior lacquer on to the upper rim where I had masked it off.

A tense moment occurred when I started peeling off the masking tape from the resonator and realized it was really stuck to the finish.  I could just see it lifting off my near perfect finish like with the headpiece.  I took my time and the finish was unaffected.  I used some mineral spirits to clean off the adhesive residue from the tape.  So looks like I bonded the multiple coats of lacquer together and the primer is performing as advertised.

In between painting the interior of the resonator I laid into polishing the wood rim.  Of the three wood parts this has the worst final coat because it was always the first test of my spraying ability.  It’s not bad, just not as good as the front of the headpiece, which by the way is even better than the outside of the resonator.  So the polishing is three steps with increasingly less abrasive liquid polishes.  The first is a Luthiers Mercantile special blend, the second is a Meguiars Plastic Cleaner and the third is a Meguiars Plastic Polish (I guess I could have bought these last two at Auto Zone had I known – these are a very common brand of car care products).   It was going well enough, but the finish was pretty “sandy” to start with. I had the thought – what if I start with 800-grit sandpaper, maybe that will speed things up.  Well, not only did it speed it up but the final surface reflects my project light bulb like glass.  Whoa, this is working, and on the worst of the three pieces.  Now I am getting excited to see the end product.

While watching the paint dry till tomorrow I have an opening to install the lugs and brackets on the inside of the resonator and on the wood rim for attaching them together.  Nothing to do till tomorrow but watch the paint dry.  After that comes polishing the resonator.

Starting the Assembly

The most tense assembly task I think is drilling the holes from the inside of the resonator for its brackets to half its thickness.  So why not start with that.  I’ve done this once about 10 years ago for my Gibson but don’t remember how I kept from drilling all the way through.  The screws are small so maybe I just need a shallow starter hole.  I normally use a piece of tape on the drill bit to mark the depth, but a mistake here would be catastrophic.  The available drill depth guides go down to 1/4″.  The drill will be 5/32″ so this guide should work. The resonator side is about 1/2″ thick and the anchor screw is 1/4″ long, not a lot of room for error.

Another problem that Eric Sullivan made me aware of is that the resonator brackets that attach to the rim are too long for the wood rim and resonator combination.  They are 1-1/4″ long for a 1″ space.  Eric cuts off the ends.  Larry G chisels out a shallow 1/16″ slot in each of the four locations so that the flange sits down on the edge of the resonator rim.

So I have a plan.  I have the depth guides.  Now to get to work.

April 10 – Maybe Getting the Hang of It Finally

Last night I  stained the inside of the resonator ebony.  It is black but the grain shows through.  I’m not sure but i think the wood is regular maple, instead of the curly maple on the outside.  Used the spray can to put down the primer and when that dried I added some more stain around the edges to blend in the color .

I let the neck sit overnight after its last thin coat that didn’t lay down as smooth as I  expected.  I think that was because I only let the previous  coat dry an hour or so, then sanded and resprayed.  Each successive layer softens the ones under it, which must in turn affect how it dries.  That theory was just proved out when I resprayed the front of the headpiece and it is laying down like glass, just like the resonator.  Cool.

April 9 – 3rd, ah 4th, ah 5th Time’s the Charm – Yes!

I am going crackers over the final finishing, but that’s nothing new.  Even with prayer I can’t bring myself to stop spraying before the finish runs.  So it’s wait an hour, sand out the  sag, re-spray, wait an hour, sand out the sag and repeat.  Finally this afternoon I found the forbearance to stop the spray in time and got a near perfect resonator, ready for final polishing and buffing – whew!

Thought I had the neck done last night until I took off the masking in the rod nut and pulled some finish off.  Well that took another three  thin coats to blend in.  The final coat is good but not as glassy as the resonator, so I’ll let it dry over night and try another in the morning.

There is a two day wait between the final coat and polishing/buffing.  The rim will be ready on Tuesday April 11, the resonator on Wednesday and the neck on Thursday.  I’m getting there.

While waiting I’ll be finishing the inside of the resonator ebony black tonight.  Mask it off, stain, let it dry overnight to be sure and spray a primer and one topcoat.  Simple enough.

April 6 – Drop Fill Magic and Color Fills

The drop filling on the resonator and back of the headpiece took two treatments but worked as advertised. The nick in the veneer on the front of the headstock was a bit more challenging.  I tried making my own wood filler with some walnut sanding dust stained ebony black and mixed with some lacquer, but it didn’t work as I expected.  However, two drop fills along the seam with the fretboard nut did the trick.

This spot sanding produced some lighter spots that I thought I should touch-up.  It seems that the lacquer dissolves the stain up from the wood and then sanding it thinner makes it lighter.  So I finally found my Q-tips and got the lines and thickness of the stain the way I wanted it.  Need to allow the stain to dry before overcoating.  It is not really soaking into the underlying lacquer but with the next coat, which softens the underlying layers, it will be incorporated into the finish.

Time for the 5th & 6th & 7th(?) Coats

Received the second quart of Behlen lacquer, their thinner and my 3-step buffing/polishing liquids yesterday, so things are in place to push to the finish.  Almost a banjo!  I have some concerns on the thickness of the lacquer at the start since I am using the remainder of the 1st quart that will need some thinning.  But if I thin it and spray some scrap, I will not have that much left for real use. Hmmm.  Best choice is to thin what’s left and add in some new,then spray the scrap to check.

Well, I actually put the last 6 oz of the first quart into the cup, then got cold feet and added 2 tsp of thinner and  then topped it with the fresh stuff.  Didn’t do a scrap piece but went right at the wood rim and it laid down beautifully.  I got all excited and forgot to filter the lacquer into the cup, but apparently there were no globs in it and the gun worked without a hitch.   I then figured that I had been wet sanding between each coat, more than scuffing, and so a 6th full coat was in order before the 1:1 final.  With the 6th coat on the resonator I can almost use it to shave by, before buffing and polishing.  Pinch me, is this really happening?  It’s all in the preparation.

The wood rim is ready for its final 1:1 coat. The neck, especially the front of the headpiece needs a thicker finish.  I sanded it down pretty far at the nut while filling the chip there.  So I’ll wait overnight and put another full coat on it.

after the 6th full coat – looking finished

Inside of the Resonator

The resonator Eric Sullivan made for my Gibson banjo is finished with a flat black interior., except for the top lip.  You don’t see this area unless you look through the cutouts in the flange, so any dark, flat color will work.  My resonator lip matches the dark walnut side.

Time to check back with the expert for how he does this.  As friendly as ever, we talked for 15-20 minutes.  In the end what I learned was that he uses a couple coats of lacquer over a dark mahogany water-based stain.  So it’s not a flat black sprayed enamel like I thought.  So I plan to use my ebony black stain with the lacquer primer and a topcoat.

my version of Eric Sullivan’s workshop

Hurry Up and Wait

a simple paint spray gun stand

Now it’s time to watch the paint dry for awhile.  While I was waiting here is an improvement I made – a stand to hold the spray gun while filling.  Just a hunk of 2×4 with a couple angled holes to match the bottom of the gun. Definitely helpful already.

I put a 6th coat on the neck after sanding down with 400-grit and on drying it is much improved.  I am going to sand down the drop fill at the chip at the nut and the rest of the neck and then shot on the final 1:1 coat tomorrow.

I shot the final 1:1 coat on the rim this afternoon and it is ready buff and polish, but gotta wait 48 hours.  Shot the final 1:1 coat on the resonator after sanding it out and rats – got several sags.  I got carried away.  The lacquer dries slower when thinned and I assumed it dried faster – ooopsie.  How bad the sags are will be obvious in the morning as drying continues.  They have been shrinking slowly all evening so maybe not too bad.  I’ll have to back up, sand them out when good and dry and then shot another 1:1 coat, thinner this time, on it.  But where there is no sag the finish is really incredibly glossy.  And I thought it was glossy before.  Man.  So I am impatiently hopeful waiting to correct the sags.

April 5 – Time for Flaw Control

With scuffing and painting the same surfaces multiple times you find all the imperfections and the skill is in dealing with them.  And the imperfections are not all of my doing.

In particular the ebony veneer on the headpiece has a small chip in its edge right along the nut (the top of the fretboard where the string grooves are).  After 4 coats there is still a depression, so I plan to “drop fill” it with lacquer – put a drop on it from the end of a toothpick, let it dry, sand and repeat until level.  This chip came from Eric Sullivan – small but obvious to me now.  A second flaw, well not really a flaw, is the obvious differences in grain lines on either edge of the back of the headpiece from the glue-up of the original wood.  I did my best to match the stain color and hand paint in a different grain, and while doing this I sanded a shallow depression above the top tuning machine on each side.  The glue lines are much less noticeable now that the finish is thickening up but these depressions are more obvious.  I am planning the same “drop-fill” with these.  The third flaw is a small area on the back of the headpiece where I sanded some of the stain out – I am going to try to put some stain in between the remaining coats of lacquer  And lastly in my messing with trying to hide the joints of the resonator purfling I created two very small depressions that are visible in the mirror-like gloss, and so again a drop-fill will likely work.

This will give me something to do while waiting for my re-supply of lacquer and thinner.

April 4 -Back At It with 3rd & 4th Coats

April 3 was do income taxes day.  That ended very well and so my ego was rebuilt enough to challenge the lacquer once again.

Today I started by Googling “proper air pressure for an HVLP spray gun” and ended up at the Eastwood Company site and a YouTube video.  Perfect.  Turns out the recommendations are to run the pressure at 25-30 psi (hence the “low pressure” in the name) and have the pattern in a full fan shape with the paint valve all the way open.  Shoot, I didn’t even know I could adjust the paint feed until I looked more closely at my gun to see how the trigger adjusted.  So these corrections took maybe 2 minutes max.

Trusting little to luck I dropped back to my scrap wood and laid another coat on it, primarily to check out the effect of the 10% thinning but also the new spray gun settings.  Perfect.  So then back to the wood rim.  Laid a nice wet coat on it after scuffing and aside from putting my fat finger right on the exposed ring when still wet it was a big improvement.   A thicker coat that didn’t sag and really leveled out to a high gloss.  Then the neck, and again a great result.  Then the resonator with the same non-sag, very high gloss endpoint.  What a relief.  I am considering that this is the 3rd coat on the resonator allowing for sanding out the orange peel, so two more to go.  I can see that with the 3-step polishing ang buffing I am going to get to that mirror finish I want.  Now I just need to wait for another quart of lacquer to arrive from Amazon to complete the 5 coats plus top thin finish coat.  My research indicates that CF Martin Guitars aims for a 6 mil finish.  Any thicker and it tends to chip at the edges too easily and is more likely to crack.  So 6 coats but not too thick in total.

April 2 – Learning Curve

Well it was bound to happen.  I am not a very experienced lacquer sprayer. Heck this is my first time!  So what happened was that after I got down to the last 1/3 of the quart of lacquer I had just put the third coat on the neck and rim and decided to catch the resonator up to the third also.  I was spraying at 40 psi as before but I could tell the fresh surface wasn’t leveling out like it should.  I finished the coat and after 30 minutes it was clear that I had a case of “orange peel” – when dry the surface is still rough like an orange.  The primary cause from consulting my problems website was not enough solvent, so that the solvent evaporates too quickly to allow the leveling before the lacquer reacts and begins to set up.  Secondly, too much air pressure, and I realized I never really researched how to set up an HVLP gun.  So this cost me a bunch of 400-grit sanding time to get the orange peel into manageable shape for the next coat and some gyrations for thinning what finish was left in the can.   The troubleshooter recommended thinning the lacquer not more than 25%; I decided on 10-15%.  The quart can had 1-1/4″ left in it and full was about 4-1/4″; this ratio times 32 ounces in a quart gave me the remaining finish amount (about 10 ounces) and 10% is of course 1 oz and every good cook knows that there are 16 Tbs in an 8 oz cup, 4 cups in a quart and 3 tsp per Tbs.  So a tsp is 1/6 oz.  For the record a 2 tsp polyethylene cough syrup dosing cup is insoluble in acetone (the primary lacquer thinner component) and works perfectly for adding 6 tsp of thinner. By this time I was pretty torqued up with anxiety and so decided to let it sit for awhile.

March 31 – First Two Coats

As I said above I decided to start with a piece of scrap wood to work out the details of the spraying.  The primer is in a spray (“rattle”) can.  This went without incident and so I went on to the finish spraying.  I settled on 45psi and a rounded vertical pattern with the undiluted lacquer.  I got a  bit carried away with the second test coat and had a sag but this leveled out nicely went dried.

So collecting my thoughts and taking a deep breath I launched into the wood rim, the least visible of the three finished parts.  The primer was easy so I went ahead and put two coats on each of the three parts with scuffing using 320-grit paper in between.  Now for the first coat of finish.  The wood rim developed two small runs on the outside that were easily sanded out between coats.  The neck turned out to be easiest because all it took was a 180° rotation to get at all the facets.  I got carried away with the resonator, mostly because it was hard to see how much liquid had been supplied and how it will level.  Two sags developed toward the outer rim but there were no runs down the sides.  Exercising great restraint I allowed the lacquer to dry longer and as I hoped these leveled out with only minor unevenness.  I will be able to sand these out between coats after allowing extra drying time.

So here they are after two coats, drying for the next coat. The full effect is of course hard to see in the pictures.  Lacquer is a new experience.  The drying times are nearly instantaneous compared to enamel and urethane.  They are dry to the touch in 5-10 minutes and only an hour is needed before sanding between coats.  This eliminates nearly all of the dirt and dust in the surface, especially with the filtered spray booth air.

looking good after two coats
you can see the masking tape flaps along each edge
after one, albeit thick, coat – a couple sags that are repairable

So I am excited.  It is apparent that with some precision care the mirror finish is definitely within my reach.  Looking ahead the lacquering will go something like this:

  • remove imperfections out of 2nd coat and scuff with 400-grit
  • apply 3rd coat, wait 1 hour
  • remove imperfections (hopefully none by now) and scuff with 400-grit
  • repeat for 4th and 5th coats
  • wait 2 days, then scuff with 400-grit
  • apply 1:1 dilution final coat; wait 3 more days
  • proceed to buffing and polishing

I have found that wetting the wet/dry sandpaper with mineral spirits works really well and without water-on-wood risks, so I plan to do the scuffing wet throughout this process.  I have 600 and 800-grit paper and am wondering why I can’t use them instead of 400-grit.  Behlen only calls for 360-grit.

March 30- Let the Spraying Begin

The lead-in to the beginning of the lacquer spraying has been very tense because it may become obvious very early on that I will not be able to attain the mirror finish on the rim, neck and resonator, and if so then the project will be a bust.    I’ve done everything I can think of to prepare – the  mini paint booth with filtered inlet air, an HVLP spray gun, filtered and dried compressed air, the best lacquer matched with its special vinyl primer and a bunch of web research and reading on how it’s done.  Got some very good information from and (Luthiers Mercantile International Inc.).

The best info on finishing came from the Behlen Lacquer can.  Five coats with scuffing in between each with 360 to 400-grit paper.  The last coat will be a 1:1 lacquer dilution after sanding out with 400-grit paper wetted with mineral spirits, followed by buffing and polishing.  I  learned that sandpaper comes in grits down to 12,000 for final polishing.  Wow, and I thought 600-grit was fine.  But I decided to go with a 3-step liquid buffing and  polishing finish instead of using the really fine grit sandpaper.  Eric Sullivan told me to use the back of a piece of closed cell foam floor pad, like from my Craftsman mats around the worktable.  Instead I found buffing and polishing foam pads at Harbor Freight used for auto finishes.  These will be a backup to the liquid system, or maybe what I use to apply them.

Masking Off – Ugh!

Next was the tedium of masking off the pieces.  However, good masking is crucial to the end product.  I’ve been using Frog tape since if you believe their advertising the finish is less likely to bleed under it.  You’ve probably noticed the green Frog tape on the portion of the wood rim that is to remain unpainted.  The inside of the resonator below where the flange will sit will get a flat back sealing coat since it is not visible when assembled, and because that is the way Eric Sullivan does it.  But the top edge and rim above the flange will be lacquered.  So my choice was to do the lacquer first and the flat black last.  I masked along the inside edge of the flange lip and used a round of kraft paper to protect the rest of the inside.

The fretboard and top of its binding also do not get lacquered.  I double checked the top of the binding on my guitars to make sure of the latter.  This masking was a bit trickier because the frets are in the way of a good edge seal and because the ends of the frets also do not get lacquered.  So I carefully used a putty knife toi seal the tape against each side of each fret.  Then I put a length of the Frog tape on the exposed sticky side of this to make a sort of flap.  Then I covered the remaining gap over the fretboard.  If you are wondering, the fretboard gets a hand wiped finish of boiled linseed oil eventually to keep it from drying out and cracking.

March 20 – Cutting in the Neck Slot

Before I can paint the resonator I need to cut in the slot to accept the neck.  This is precise work for which I’ll use my fine toothed Bear saw.   I have a pattern for the heel of the neck that passes through the resonator as a guide and my other banjo for a reference.  Once it is rough cut I’ll shape it with a sanding block and then dress it out.  After the painting the edge of the opening gets lined with felt – I am undecided whether it will be red, green or black.  The inside of the resonator will get sprayed flat black to produce a shadow box effect behind the flange when all is assembled.  I’ll mask off the back of the neck slot to kept the clear lacquer out of the inside as much as I can.

So after a second to collect my wits  I made the measurements for its depth very carefully by assembling the neck with the wood rim and flange – 30mm – and drew it on to the resonator and the centered the heel pattern on the binding lap joint, which will be cut out, and used a square to draw the vertical sides.  As it turns out the heel is slightly trapezoidal, wider at the top than at the bottom, but this will be part of the dressing out to get the fit precise.  After rechecking the measurements and guide lines, and a short prayer, I put the Bear saw to the top binding and pulled back and was into it.  As shown by the pictures it went well and actually fits together.  I decided to go with the green felt because the inside of the case is green.  It turned out  very well.

a nervous moment – the Bear saw
followed with the coping saw
not too shabby
and, hey, it fits! green felt temporarily in place to show the effect and check the fit

So now onto the spray painting.  First step disassemble, clean and re-assemble the new HVLP spray gun.  This was simple enough.

Next step is  to practice using the spray booth with the spray can of Belden lacquer primer I bought – they highly recommended using it as did the best review I read – on some scrap wood.  This seems straight forward enough.  Next sand the bindings clean with 600 grit sandpaper on both pieces.  Now wipe each down with a tack rag, fire up the glovebox and apply the primer.

Next, mess around with the air pressure settings and dilution of the lacquer on some scrap wood to get the gun to lay down a nice glass-like coating.

March 19 – Getting Ready to Spray Lacquer

I picked up a combination pressure regulator and water/dirt/oil filter at Harbor Freight.  I needed to do some re-plumbing of my compressed airline in the shop to install it.  Turned out that I had all the fittings and 1/2″ pipe that I needed.  This took most of a morning but PVC solvent welded piping is something I have done a bunch of so it went without a hitch.  Here it is:

new regulator/filter/water & oil trap

Next, since this is lacquer the solvent is much more potent than for a urethane or enamel, so the paint booth needs to be exhausted outside.  Scrounging around I decided to put a tee connection in the dryer exhaust duct that runs directly over the worktable in the shop and a check valve in the duct ahead of it to keep the fumes from blowing back into the house.  Also the dryer will not be available while I am painting since the duct will be blocked to it.  So here are the tee and check valve (a winter/summer dryer diverter box installed backwards) in the line.  This part of the work was a pain for about another half a day.

tee connection and check valve in dryer duct

The third piece took an entire Saturday – the mini spray booth.  Actually it is a glove box.  The finished size is a bit smaller than my initial thought at 36″x48″x 34″ tall with a furnace filter on the intake, a lesser quality furnace filter in front of the exhaust fan to protect it from overspray and a flex duct connection to the dryer exhaust tee.  The cardboard transition cone from the 9-1/2″ fan to the 4″ flex duct called into action all my sheet metal drafting experience and a bit of geometry.  I turned on the fan and it actually works, although radial fans

exhaust end of glovebox

cannot handle much back pressure, do the airflow is lower than I would like.  But it is pulling air through the glovebox and exhausting it to the outside.  Here it is.  I still need to put the arms with attached gloves in  and install the window glass so I can see clearly through the heavy visqueen.

I bought Belden nitro-cellulose lacquer with its recommended primer through  Amazon prime.  After reading the ratings this was the best stuff around,as long as you know how to set up the spray gun and have your air dried and filtered.

intake end of glovebox

I bought a gravity feed air-assisted (HVLP) spray gun at Harbor Freight.  I also found a website that discussed spray finish quality problems and how to correct them that is very helpful.  Another piece of good news was that I was able to return my purchases connected with the no longer needed hide gluing and use the money for the paint spraying equipment.  Here is the final glovebox arrangement with the arms, HVLP spray gun and lazy susan ready to paint, shot from the opposite side where the pieces will be put in and then sealed closed.  Since it’s only temporary I decided to skip doors and just tape and un-tape the inlet filter to put the pieces in and take them out.  The Gorilla tape makes a great hinge along the top.

ready to start spraying – with resonator sitting on the lazy susan – air intake on right & exhaust on left

March 14 – Need a Paint Spray Booth

It occurred to me now that what I have remaining on the project is wood finishing.  So to keep the dirt and dust out of the finish I’ll need a mini paint spray booth.   I have built a temporary spray booth before when I refinished 10-Speed bikes for the girls, so I have a mental picture of what I am after here, but this will need to be cleaner.  I saw what Elon Martin used, the Amish tablemaker who did our round oak kitchen table) – basically a large closet with fiberglass filters in the double door opening and an exhaust fan in the opposite wall.  Mine will be 4’x4’x3′ high with plywood ends, 6 mil visqueen (heavy polyethylene sheeting) on the sides and top, plus a glass window (old picture frame glass) for seeing the work.  Inlet air will be filtered through a very high efficiency furnace filter that I salvaged from the new furnace because it didn’t work well for it, and the booth will be exhausted with one of our box fans after passing through a standard furnace filer to protect it from overspray.  I have a lazy susan turntable for placing the parts on for rotating (the resonator is after all round).  I am planning to make this a glovebox arrangement using the arms from a leftover Tyvek asbestos protective coverall (I am retired now) and a pair of kitchen gloves so that I can keep the space isolated from the rest of the shop..  And of course copious amounts of duct tape.

In the back of my mind – where to get the lacquer, how much to thin it and what pressure setting on the ‘ol spray gun to use?  Here we go!

March 13 – A Course Correction

After re-sanding and re-staining the center circle of the resonator, and still not being satisfied I worked up the humility to call the expert Eric Sullivan.  I have his cell phone number and caught him at his workbench.  After he turned off some equipment so he could hear me we had a long conversation on how to handle woodgrain and finishing problems.  His quote for the day, delivered with that Southern drawl that I love to imitate, “Don’t trust what you see under any clear finish”.  He then talked to me about adding color between coats to even out staining and even painting in grain lines by hand.  I asked him what finish he uses and he replied nitro-cellulose lacquer.  I was planning to use gloss urethane, which has more color than lacquer.  Hmmm.  But I was inspired by the conversation and went back at it – re-sanded a third time and worked out the aforementioned tear-outs, then blended the staining back in.  I also cut out the misaligned piece of binding and patched in the another piece.  This time both were near perfect and much improved.  Ready for finishing.  Well, I want to try another trick on hiding the binding seams and then need to clean smidgens of stain off of the bindings.

ready to finish,again – well almost

I then mentioned that I was getting ready to glue the tone ring to the wood rim.  He said, “Oh my, don’t do that!  It really messes up the tone.  You want a tight slip fit (which is what he machined into the wood rim for me), and don’t put any finish under the ring ’cause it’ll be too tight.”  So whoa, that saved a BIG mistake, saved me some work and answered my question about finishing the wood rim.  Now if I can return my hide glue pot and accessories for credit that will be a big plus.

March 10 – Setbacks

I have a problem sometimes with getting too meticulous and not considering bad outcomes to some attempts to make things “perfect”.  Two things happened with the resonator:

  • as you can see above the staining job was near perfect; however I noticed some “tear-outs” in the grain of the center circle; I set out to sand these out then realized that this end grain was what it was going to be no matter what I do; now I am faced with different depths of stain that will necessitate sanding out the entire circle and re-staining to blend it in.  I need to come up with a way to fill these tear-outs so that they take the stain to match the surrounding grain, too.
  • there was a 1/16″ gap in the inside circle’s binding that I attempted to fill with a small piece of binding; this went well except that the black rib in the middle of  small insert piece is at an angle to the rest of the binding; the jog in the alignment is too noticeable. So now after I’ve already welded this 1/16″ piece in with acetone, I will need to cut it out and do it again (the way you glue on bindings is by injecting a tad of acetone with a syringe between the binding and the wood and then pressing it against the wood until the acetone dries).

March 9 – The Desired Effect

The resonator was another major challenge to “color inside the lines” with the contrasting stains.  This is why I went to kindergarten and maybe 1st grade, to get good at staying inside the lines.  Again I used the small brushes.

staining the bullseye
the desired effect and no mess ups – the dark spot is some dirt inside the camera lens

The neck is made of the same curly maple as the resonator, but is a glued-up solid piece and not a veneer.  By its nature the neck has end grain exposed at the heel and tuner headpiece.  In the first staining this end grain took the stain much darker than the rest and I didn’t like the overall look.  So I took to it with sandpaper and steel wool to work back down to the bare wood and re-stain it.  This worked better than I expected, and with a thinner coat of the dark walnut stain applied with a rag and not a brush I got the blending I was looking for, as you can see.  The “curly maple” gives it the cross stripes visible in the picture.  The wood grain actually runs in the long dimension.  The maple’s “curliness” is very visible in the picture of the resonator above, in the lighter center circle.

the retouched neck ready to go

The glue pot arrived yesterday so I am preparing for gluing the tone ring to the wood rim.  The question is whether I should glue the ring on and then varnish the rim with the ring masked off or varnish the rim and then do the gluing.  The two considerations are 1) whether it’s OK to leave the wood rim under the perforated tone ring unfinished where there is no hide glue, or 2) better to finish the rim but leave the masking on only where the hide glue will be.  My present Gibson does not have the same kind of tone ring – it is set on top of the wood rim and not glued on,  so I can’t copy from that.  Hmm, sounds like a call to Eric Sullivan.

And I realize that after answering the tone ring question I am left primarily with the wood finishing tasks and the challenge of getting that mirror finish from the urethane on the neck and resonator.  I have had some prior experience doing this with my Mom’s Hope Chest and a dresser top.  I am anticipating needing to build a small paint spray booth.  We will see.

March 7 – Picking a Color and Staining

So what’s next?  I am waiting on my hide glue and my hide glue pot (more on this later on) so the next thing is to start some of the finishing.  Staining is first.  I am looking for a dark but natural finish to show off the curly maple in the neck and resonator.  Also the resonator back is a bullseye with 3 rings.  I decided to stain the rings in alternating and contrasting light and dark, with the edge of the resonator that is mostly what folks see as the 4th dark ring.  So for the dark I decided on Minwax dark walnut and for the light a Vaspar honey maple, a bit of yellowish red.  The neck will be the dark walnut.

The guts of a banjo are the wood rim and the flange, to which the neck, head and resonator all attach.  The wood rim is topped with the brass tone ring, the part that makes the banjo so heavy but what gives it that sharp ringing sound.  A 3/4″ edge of the wood rim shows to the outside like a highlight on the banjo body and I decided it would be the walnut color.  The whole rim gets finished except for the top edge where the tone ring gets glued on with the hide glue.

So for the staining I had to mask off the fretboard bindings and the top edges of the wood rim.  I put the stain on with a small horsehair brush carefully on the rim and neck.  This of course after some final sanding with 220 grit paper and wiping with a tack rag.  This was a pretty mundane task, and to my great delight any stain that wicked up onto the neck bindings came off easily with a little mineral spirits.

masked off wood rim ready to stain
stained wood rim with tone ring in the background and resonator to the right – lighting makes it look lighter than it is
a nice dark walnut neck – it will need some touch-up; wood rim is the same color

 February 28 – On to the Fretboard

To fabricate a cradle to hold the neck when pressing in the fret wire (or frets) out comes the plunge router.  I used my pin gauge to transfer the cross-sections of the neck at both ends to a length of 2×4 and then traced the outline of the neck onto the top of the board.  I used a 1/2″ square channel bit to cut in the rough outline.  Knowing that I would be lining the cavity with a couple thicknesses of leather padding I didn’t have to be too careful hitting the outline.  After some trial and error I got a cavity with the neck resting against the bottom at both ends.  Then an hour or so of rasping out the rounded contour of the neck ensued.  Being the frugal sort (mostly) I had saved my old red suede guitar strap I made back in the 70’s.  I glued this double thickness, conveniently sewn together, into the cradle after first fitting the neck to the cradle with the leather in place.  You’ll see in the picture that the butt end of the neck hangs out of the cradle because it has a flat bottom.  I added a 2×6 to the bottom of the cradle to extend it for this.  I had to round down the cradle at both ends to accommodate the curve of the neck.  So the picture shows the neck in its cradle ready to go.

routing out the neck cradle
neck in the finished cradle

You can just see the red suede sticking up along the edge of the neck.

Now to install the frets.  First off  you  have  noticed that the neck has its plastic binding installed along the edges of the fretboard.  So the ends of each fret have to be notched so as to fit inside the bindings and not cut through.  So the operation was cut the fret wire roughly to length, use a nipper to cut a notch in each end then hand file the notch flat with the underside of the wire so it would press in flat.  Unfortunately for the 20th fret I got distracted and forgot to notch the ends, so the tee shows through the binding, but it is neat enough that it looks like it was planned that way.  My existing Gibson banjo has all these tees showing because it has no edge bindings, so no worries.

cutting to length

a saw groove to hold the fret wire for filing

notched and ready to press in
per Eric Sullivan – super glue the frets
getting the fret started into the groove – the hardest part
pressing the fret into the fretboard

The mention of super glue begs the question “How do you clean-up the glue that squeezes out onto the fretboard?”  Another Sullivan trick – coat the fretboard with Johnson’s paste wax.  Worked like butter – it just flaked right off. So here is the fretted neck.

frets in – ready to be filed even

Now to dress the ends of the frets.  I took some time to inspect the angle of the frets on my existing Gibson banjo and measured the angle at 45°, which made sense.  Now another Eric Sullivan trick – make a filing block to hold the file at the proper angle and hold it against the side of the neck.  Presto, all the fret ends get dressed exactly the same.  I made two blocks from an old piece of bathroom vanity countertop backsplash (never throw anything away) – one 7″ long for the long runs and one 3″ long for the short part on the 5th string side of the neck.  I also made the longer block to hold my thicker faster cutting diamond file on one side and my thinner finer file on the other – I got impatient using the latter on the really long ends sticking out and wanted to speed things up.  I cut the file grooves on the table saw and cut the blocks to length on my miter box chop saw.  Here are the blocks.

double-sided 7″ block
single-sided 3″ block
7″ block in action with finer file

Here is the dressed neck.  Had a bit of trouble nicking the edge bindings but sanded these out carefully.

dressed frets

February 22, 2017

The first thing I did was to ream out the tuner holes to the proper diameter for the tuners purchased in 2007.  Eric Sullivan pointed this out to me.  It was a simple fix – a strip of 80 grit sandpaper wrapped around an old Tinker Toy dowel.  It took all of 15 minutes

The first major task will be making and installing the frets.  The steps will be roughly:

  • Cut to length
  • notch the ends into a “T” shape
  • clean out the excess binding glue from the fret grooves
  • install the frets with an arbor press and superglue
  • clean off excess glue
  • dress the fret ends with a filing block

I will need to find an arbor press and make a filing jig.

I have been collecting the necessary equipment and getting ready to fabricate the cradle needed to install the frets into the neck. I bought a 1-ton arbor press at Harbor Freight last week.   I found a YouTube video on installing guitar frets with the arbor press and saw that I would need to fabricate a flat end the width of the neck for the press.  With that in mind I borrowed an electric hand grinder with cutoff blades from buddy Pete Shaw.  I salvaged a piece of T-rail from the garage door opener I recently replaced.  Here is a picture of the hand grinder clamped down to the table saw while cutting the slot in the arbor ram to accept the T-rail.  The sparks were pretty.  Note ear protection and safety glasses.  The 1″ deep slot took about 90 minutes all told to cut including dressing it with a hand file, primarily because with the width of the cut off blade I had to make two passes.  I centered it by flipping the ram over for the second pass, adjusting the height of the ram relative to the blade

to get the proper width.  Then I drilled and tapped a 5/16″
bolt hole through the ram at the slot to fasten the T-rail piece.  The finished product came out very  good, although the T-rail is 1/16″ off center on the ram end-to-end.  The arbor press before and after modification is shown in the pictures.  The next step is to rout out a cradle for the neck to protect it during the fret pressing.

Arbor Press with Mods
Arbor Press before Mod



February 5, 2017

Here are all the parts ready to start.  Now if I can just get’em together.

Parts Layout left
Parts Layout right

January 27, 2017

with Eric Sullivan in Louisville

In  the summer of 2007 I found First Quality Music, home of the Sullivan banjo, when looking for a new resonator for my existing Gibson banjo.  I was referred to them by Gibson, who had their banjo factory in Louisville, which has since closed.  The First Quality catalog had a complete line of banjo parts.  I had cracked my existing resonator  backing the car into it (while in its case) sometime in the late 1980’s – early 90’s.  Eric Sullivan made me a new one, and it was so inexpensive I started looking at additional options.  I noticed that they made custom banjo necks.  The prices were so reasonable I hatched the idea of using the pot assembly from my existing Gibson and adding a custom Sullivan neck and resonator.  I ordered a neck with an inlaid fingerboard and “Grauvogel” inlaid in the headstock along with a “bullseye” resonator.  I had the neck and resonator for several months before I started working on them, the detail of the finishing being rather intimidating.  I got the neck sanded into shape and its edge bindings attached and sanded.  I got the edge bindings and bullseye purfling installed on the resonator and sanded out.  Then from the winter of ’07 until the winter of ’17 the neck and resonator sat in their boxes in the basement.

With our annual anniversary trip coming up I made contact with Eric Sullivan and explained my situation and my planned project.  He invited me to stop in on our way to Gatlinburg and he would help me get all the remaining pieces together.  My visit with him turned out to be much more detailed as he shared many tips on how to put things together – how to cut the fret wire, install the fret wire, dress the ends of the frets, sand and stain the wood, clean the stain from the bindings and assemble the pot.  He took my order for the wood rim and machined it to fit the resonator I had and the rim I was buying.  He also drilled and installed the lag bolts into the neck for attaching it to the wood rim.  We picked everything up on our return on February 4.


For my birthday this year I arranged to buy all the remaining parts for my new banjo from Sullivan Banjo in Louisville.  This project has been a long time coming but the time is now, with my retirement pretty much in full swing .  The main spark that rekindled the fire to do this project was listening to old banjo tracks I recorded with the People of Praise Music Ministry between 1981-1986.  These recently became available digitally on CD, together with all Mary Ann’s and my songs from that era, through Dave Szumski, our drummer, who got them transferred from the original cassettes.  In the process of compiling these songs I found out that going from a boom box cassette player directly into the computer using my USB-to-phono direct recording cable gave just as good a quality conversion as what Dave had given me.  So I remastered all of our People of Praise music, transferred my other songs from cassettes and added my new songs to compile a 2-CD collection for the family, “Songs from the Heart”.