Higher Ground Hikers: Sky Top Orchard Trip
On November 1, 2018, a few of our Upstate Warrior Solution (UWS) team had the honor of joining one of our Family Support Programs, Higher Ground Hikers (HGH), on their November trip to Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock, NC.
The group met in their usual spot, the parking lot of Walmart in Travelers Rest, the one opposite the new Chick-Fil-A. Because all of the members of HGH were early and out of their respective cars, eager to greet the others, the spot was easy to find.
When Lori Wallach, the leader of the group, arrived, the group extended a circle around her for the welcome and opening remarks. Lori told us to say our names, introduced the new attendees, giving them each a hand-picked, welcome present, and passed out the laminated UWS HGH name tags on a lanyard. Next, Lori talked about how the group decided to take the ‘Plastic Pledge‘, meaning they try to use as little plastic as possible. Because of this pledge, Lori told everyone she brought reusable plates and utensils. She then passed out a green day backpack for us with the essentials for the outing, including a water bottle, tissues, chapstick, and a couple protein bars. Lori reminded us about the water-bottle refilling station in the back of her SUV. This was reminescent of the big, orange Gatorade containers at sporting events, brought for the athletes. Then, she told us about the previous event, where they made a campfire and did not burn down the forest, and everyone laughed right on cue. She reminded us of the next outing, next month, the annual boutique, where they go to an old, stone, cottage in Travelers Rest and enjoy a buffet and receive gifts. Last, Lori reminded us who was driving, pointing out each car as she did.
Once Lori gave the go ahead to get in the cars, everyone disappeared inside each one, eager to eat the apple cider doughnuts Sky Top Orchard bakes daily. Because everyone was busy catching up, no one noticed the minutes ticking by in the car, until Lori stopped once at a rest stop, worried because she did not see one of the drivers behind her. When the driver drove past Lori’s car, she continued onward to Sky Top, and everyone returned to their respective conversations.
“Other than the insurance [conversations], we generally don’t talk about that stuff because that’s what’s going on right now,” Lori said.
In the car, we spoke with Melinda, who is a military spouse. Her husband served two years of active duty in the Marine Corps after high school then did Marine Corps Reserves. After he finished his time in the Marine Corps, he did a stint in the National Guard, as well as the Army Reserves. He served forty years in the military before he retired.
The crew arrived within a few minutes of each other. While we waited on the last driver, who was a few minutes away, Lori asked everyone else if they wanted coffee and proceeded to order two dozen hot, apple cider doughnuts. Because it was a cold, windy, and foggy autumn day, most everyone ordered Sky Top Orchard’s signature hot apple cider, although a couple people wanted hot chocolate and coffee. Once everyone received their beverage of choice from the Sky Top Orchard Barista, they followed Lori to find a place to sit and chow down on doughnuts.
Finding outside too chilly, Lori decided to come back into the main building and stand around a table. Realizing the breaze could be felt there too, someone else moved further back, where the hairs on everyone’s arms did not stand on end and goosebumps did not make an appearance on our arms. When Lori set the doughnuts down, everyone grabbed one.
Soon, the area was filled with laughter and ladies’ voices when the last group joined us a few moments later. When they reached for their first doughnut, the ladies who already ate reached for their second or asked the person next to them to split one. Meanwhile, we turned to listen to Lisa, who has been in the group for two years, and heard her talk about her husband, who is a retired tanker in the Army.
Once everyone was warm and their stomachs happy, we braced ourselves to go out into the wind, to see the orchard and animals behind the building. We walked a few hundred feet to the baby and adult goats and sheep, taking pictures every step of the way, then walked a little more down a trail to the peacocks, chickens, and bunnies. Once at the chicken coop, we stopped for a bit to talk about who won the recent Mega Millions lottery, laughing at what each of us would do if we won, and what Lori brought for lunch.
It was during the short walk back to the main building when we met Vera, a military spouse and self-proclaimed book junkie who met Lori at an event when she pitched a tent next to hers, learned of the group, and has not missed an outing since then. As she ruminated on the past trips, she said, “Just for the day, you don’t have to think about anything you have to do.”
Back up at the main building, we met Teresa, a retired military recruiter and spouse. And, together, the group decided it was time to eat the soup Lori brought for lunch. No one could stop thinking about it since it was brought up back at the chicken coop.
We went down to the picnic area, next to the parking lot, where we each found a spot we thought had the most wind resistance. Lori asked if anyone wanted to help her bring the food and utensils to the picnic area, and over half the crew went to help. There was a flurry of people, going back and forth from the parking lot and cars. Lori asked if we wanted her special apple cider sorbet, and everyone agreed. Each of us received this mason jar with a transparent red lid and a striped straw, containing the frozen drink.
While the food was being prepared, we met Wanda, one of the newer members. Her husband spent 20 years in the Air Force. Then, he had trouble after service, once in retirement. He went to a counselor near our Greenvillelocation. However, Wanda heard about and connected with Upstate Warrior Solution through her son’s friend, who is also in the military. She connected with our Social Work Lead Jenna Grotler because of her husband’s time, adjusting after service.
Wanda said Jenna talked to her for almost an hour and spoke with her about Higher Ground Hikers. “Jenna is great.” Wanda continued, “She’s so easy to talk to.”
After we talked to Wanda, the food was ready. We formed an orderly line, opposite the soup, and gave ourselves a helping of salad with homemade dressing, fancy bread, and utensils. Lori told everyone to be sure and grab the utensils, wrapped in a plaid, cloth napkin, colored with magenta and orange, and fit together with a wooden ring placed around it to hold it in place. While everyone helped themselves, Lori stood at the soup pot, asking who wanted the some and poured a bowl for everyone. Once everyone who wanted soup was served, Lori dipped herself some and sat down to eat.
For a brief moment, you could hear the wind, hitting the building next to the picnic area, as everyone enjoyed the food. Conversations picked up when everyone finished and wanted seconds, especially for the apple cider sorbet.
Lori said it was time for dessert and set her homemade pumpkin custard and pumpkin pie on the picnic table. At that time, the new members learned Lori made all of the food herself, excluding the bread, which she got at Ingles. Lori said if there’s interest, she puts the recipes on the Higher Ground Hikers Facebook page.
UWS Spartanburg AmeriCorps VISTA Kaitlan Morehouse, who has always loved pumpkin pie, did not think it would be anything special, so she asked for a tiny slice so she would have room for the pumpkin custard. After she bit into it, she wished she asked for a bigger slice because it was one of the best pumpkin pie slices she has ever tasted. It was spiced better than any store bought pie. She tried the pumpkin custard next and inhaled it in the next second.
Lori explained how she made the pumpkin custard by putting a whole pumpkin in the oven, and we chatted about our experiences baking whole vegetables.
Before we cleaned up, Lori asked if we wanted to hike some more or go to the Carl Sandburg Home or head back. No one felt like hiking after the big lunch or going home. So it was unanimous. We would go to the Carl Sandburg Home.
Lori explained that even though the name infers they are hikers, it doesn’t mean they have to hike. “Hiking is only a part of it,” Lori said.
Years ago, it was an Upstate Warrior Solution Intern who came up with the name Higher Ground Hikers, and it stuck, like a branding. The group is more like a group of friends, comprised of veterans, active duty military, military spouses and caregivers, or all of the above, who come together each month to hang out and forget about life stressors for a few hours.
Although Lori is not a military spouse or caregiver, she believes in this cause, deeply. From a young age, her dad taught her, instilled in her, a sense of patriotism. Her dad served and was injured in training four months into the Army, but his brothers served throughout World War II.
Despite her civilian life, Lori gets as much out of the Higher Ground Hiker trips, as the crew does. “They’ve become my friends.” Lori continued, “I wouldn’t trade this group for the world. It’s become a mental health day.”
When the food and utensils were cleaned up and the picnic area was better than we found it, we went back into the main building. Lori gave us each a plastic bag to pick apples from the sorted bins. After we picked our apples, everyone made last-minute, individual purchases.
Once everyone was satisfied with their purchases, Lori wanted to take a group picture. She found a couple a bystanders to take the picture so she could be in it as well, and the group stood in front of the building and took normal and funny pictures.
After our pictures, Anna, a veteran, military spouse, and caregiver, had to leave. As she and Lori were discussing how she connected with Higher Ground Hikers, she told Lori, “Once you fed me, I was hooked,” and they both laughed together.
Lori said, “The growth is with female vets.” There are five female vets in the group right now. That’s almost half of the group.
Then, everyone got back in their respective cars, and we headed a little way down the road to the Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, NC. According to Lori, she visited the historic landmark with her husband a few years back and knew she had to take her friends in Higher Ground Hikers there.
When we got to the Carl Sandburg Home, all of the leaves were brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. As we walked the short walk from the parking lot to the house, we passed a lake on the left with a short description of Carl Sandburg in front of it, as well as a building with more information about Sandburg, restrooms, and water fountains. A few of us stopped to admire and identify the trees along the path and split from the rest of the group. We walked past the goat barn when the rest of the group called from the house. We scurried a hundred feet to the house and walked into the gift shop in time to see the short clip, which is mandatory for the tour of the house. After the short clip finished, we walked around the gift shop and shopped for a few minutes then headed back outside, up the stairs, to the front of the house, to start the tour.
The tour guide introduced herself and told us to do the same. She warned us not to touch anything and said they just finished an update for the house. Laughing, she said that it could have been modeled after a time when the Sandburgs had just moved, as boxes were scattered amongst every room with books, ready to be put back in their rightful place. We walked in the living room, which had painted pictures of Sandburg by his cousin. After the tour guide told us about the room, we walked into Sandburg’s study and marveled at the old radio he listened to.
From there, we went to his wife’s study, the kitchen, the dining room, and one of Sandburg’s daughter’s bedroom and bathroom. After the tour guide told us about the large windows without curtains in front of the dining table, she turned us around and told us to go upstairs. As we walked to the wooden, creaky stairs, we noticed the magazines piled in front of the wall, below the staircase.
Upstairs, we looked into where Sandburg wrote most of his works and where he slept. We saw his daughter’s bedroom, which had a television in it, her bathroom, and a bookcase with music records. We looked in on the hallway to the room with a view of the front of the yard, where the goat pasture was. This room was supposed to be Sandburg’s wife’s.
As we walked back downstairs to Sandburg’s wife’s actual bedroom, we passed an antiquated fire extinguisher.
His wife had the only master bedroom and bathroom in the house. When we stepped in the doorway, we shivered and hugged ourselves. The room had the most windows of any bedroom. Due to the small walkway, we could not all fit in the walkway to see the room.
When everyone had seen the wife’s bedroom, the tour guide led the way downstairs, where Mrs. Sandburg kept her baby goats in the second kitchen and where Mr. Sandburg kept more books in a room that seemed more like a library, as it was filled with bookshelves.
When no one had any more questions, we followed the tour guide outside through a door in the second kitchen. Once outside, Vera, the self-proclaimed book junkie, hugged Lori and told her how grateful she was for this opportunity. Lori hugged back, saying how much she wanted to do this because she knew how much Vera would love it.
We walked back, identifying trees, thinking about the Sandburgs, and talking amongst ourselves. We stopped at the restrooms and sat for a bit, talking and laughing.
When everyone was ready to go, we went back to the cars we came in. Before we got in the cars and drove off, everyone went to Lori’s car. The members began singing the “Happy Birthday” song, as they surprised Lori with it and birthday card they all signed in secret. After that, we got in our respective cars and headed back to the Walmart in Travelers Rest.
The drive seemed shorter than before and bittersweet with the arrival of departure growing closer with each passing minute.
When we got back, everyone hugged goodbye and handed their name tags to someone, who straightened them out for Lori, put their backpacks in the box they came in, and put their water bottles in the back of Lori’s SUV.
Once everyone put Lori’s belongings back, Lori made a few closing remarks, reminding everyone who had not yet given back their name tags, backpacks, and water bottles to do so and mentioning the next trip one last time. Then, everyone hugged some more and said their goodbyes, anxious for the next hike at the stone cottage in January 2019.