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         94 to 62. Thirty-two Degrees! If you want a reason to visit Grandfather Mountain that is as good of one as any. We watched the temperature drop as we climbed from the scorched earth of the flat lands to an at times quite chilly 5000 ft of elevation. There is no better time to visit the mountains than in mid summer, coincidentally a time that coincides perfectly with the annual Highland Games festival on top of Grandfather its-self. A festival that we were lucky enough to get press access to.

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DAY 1- We hit the road at 8Am; 2-day old ribs in one hand, XXL Sheetz French Roast in the other; one knee firmly on the wheel; safety first after all. The trip from Raleigh to Linville is only a scant 3 and a half hours. Along the way we picked up a half bushel of peaches and with no clear plan for the day aside from setting up camp in the Julian campground before dark, we picked up some food for the cooler and we headed up the mountain around 2pm.

The first day we spent most of our time on top of the mountain, we knew that around 7:45pm the competitors from "The Bear" ( a footrace up the mountain, Yes the whole mountain) would be finishing; that gave us roughly 4 hours to explore. So we crossed the Mile High Bridge, which is an experience all its own; secured with springs and cables to rock faces the bridge swings and "sings" as it is blown by strong gusts of wing passing through the mountains.

By 6pm most of the sightseers had descended the mountain, it was just us and the support groups for the runners. Friends, Family, Photographers, Staff, Plus Ben and Ralph. Bus after bus climbed the mountain to unload ever increasing numbers of spectators. The mountaintop rapidly started to fill with bustling people. The first runner made it up the mountain in just under 30 minutes. Out of 800 competitors that would end up taking nearly 2 hours to complete the climb this runner had done it under a quarter of that time!

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The next few runners began to trickle in, and eventually the trickle became a sea of runners, joggers, walkers and a couple wheezers. From all different walks of life these people had come together to compete against themselves and the mountain. This 5 mile race is grueling, the sweat literally was pouring off of their faces even in the 50+ degree evening air. That said more than a couple of the runners made it up the mountain while simultaneously texting.

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Remember how we were going to set up camp before dark? Well we couldn't leave the mountain until the entire event had ended, which was at nightfall. So after our 30 minute ride to the Julian campground it was pretty much only by the light of my Subaru that we were able to set up the tent. We needed to be up by 7am to get the tent packed and be at the games the next morning. no big deal...

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     It was probably the heaviest rain ever; from about 2am-10am we weathered it out (literally) in our little tent. Knowing that we were late, but not willing to brave the buckets of rain that were falling down all around us we eventually decided to temporarily abandon the tent and seek shelter and wifi in a local coffee shop while we waited it out.

After a less than stellar cup of joe (i can do better), we headed back to camp hoping our tent had not washed away. As we passed an overlook on the Blue ridge parkway we saw a truly breathtaking sight; the rain clouds lifting off the mountains were stunning. Luckily (or so it seemed at the time) the tent was still there. we made a delicious rain soaked breakfast (having resolved ourselves that the rain wouldn't stop) a incredibly burnt cup of coffee (I guess I can't do better) and packed up. The rain stopped 10 minutes later.

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Once we made it to the mountain we found out that the games had continued in spite of the rain; dammit, some photo journalists we are...  Not wanting to lose any more time, we got right to it. Bright and early, about Noon... The first events we found were the female heavy athletics competitions.

This was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen, the Cabers (giant logs) were HUGE. These women were throwing these some 60ft, and flipping them end over end in the process.

We wandered around the event between the competition and eventually stumbled upon a Scottish food vendor, with...Haggis.

When you have as richly varied a palate as me you don't let something like that go by untested, so I handed over my money and gave it my all. And you know what?

It was pretty darned good if I'm honest, I would go out of my way to order it in the future. Ralph on the other hand...

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We had roughly 3 hours of heavy athletics competitions before a short lull in the events, we decided to use that time to set up camp in the Highland Games Campsite. Evidently we are the first press photographers to elect to camp with the competitors.

Hoping to catch some "after hours action" (Boy was that a understatement); we selected the 1am curfew campsite as opposed to the 11pm site across the street. Much to our dismay, our pre-reserved site didn't exist. They don't actually have sites, you find a space large enough for your tent and just set up.

Unfortunately we found most people arrive a week early to claim a good "space" (ie: their own small villages as well as rope off unused space to test out their whip skills...) that left us with a spot on the highest peak of "Eaten by a Bear" mountain, or a nice 45 degree inclined space between 3 other tents and a trashcan...

Somehow I knew this was going to be interesting. We took this opportunity to cook some lunch...dinner...linner? Either way it was burgers cooked on my trusty little camp stove. By the way, I forgot to mention that the entire town is in on this event, even the police officers and their drug dogs have kilts!

After setting up "camp" we headed back across the street to catch the rest of the days events. There was a fantastic Scottish band playing, with traditional bagpipes and modern keyboards and drums.

After the events we signed our lives away and headed once again to the mountains peak, this time unsupervised as the park was technically closed.

We had secured permission to photograph the mountain at sunset. This is a rare and valuable opportunity and something I had wanted to do for a very long time. The peak was entirely different from how we had seen it before, the parking area was empty, the paths were empty, the stairs and the bridge were empty, but the entire mountain was bathed in the most beautiful warm light I had ever seen.

The sunset was a rich tapestry of color, warm tones contrasting the bitter chill in the air. the temperatures were no more than 50, which is quite cold when just days before it had been double that. I felt amazingly small, insignificant looking out at a vast mountain range before me, shadows longer than the eye could see being cast from a sun burning deep crimson on the horizon. It was a lot to take in, epic does it no justice, it was a profoundly beautiful sunset, and one of the best of my life.

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Those are our shadows, cast by the sun from us standing on the mile high bridge. Its amazing to think about, it may not come through in text, but trust me it was there. We planned to wait out the sunset so as to photograph the stars over the mountain, that however was before the storm (and before the eyes...)  

The storm started as a few thunderheads at sunset, creeping along the sky they slowly grew larger and denser as evening turned into night. Just as it became dark enough to photograph the stars, FLASH! a bolt of lightning lit up the Mile High Bridge. Then another, the clouds were enveloping the bridge, initially disappointed that we would not have our crystal clear sky, we quickly realized how rare an opportunity this was.

To be on top of the mountain at night, and then to have a lightning storm silhouetting the bridge was a great turn of events. I quickly stopped down the lens and ran out my shutter speed hoping to catch a lightning bolt behind the bridge. As luck would have it that's just what I got.

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A few frames later, Ralph asked if I saw those lights.

Lights? I thought, I haven't seen any lights.

"It's a pair of them over in the bushes. They just moved..."

What? They moved? I'm getting in the car.

"hang on, a second where are you going" Ralph asked me.

Those are eyes, lights don't move on their own, and I'm not waiting to find out what they are attached to.

A few minutes later we were at the bottom of the mountain quite impressed with our lack of bravery. Onward to camp and Scottish Midnight.

Scottish Midnight- By Ralph

Let me start this by saying I'm not a skinny/fit man by any means, so walking up and down "Mount Everest" wore me the hell out. By the time we got back to camp I felt like death. EVERY part of my being was nothing short of ecstatic to finally make it back to our camp site and hit the hay.

As we got our sleeping bags ready we quickly realized the 45 degree incline we set our tent on causes us to slide down into the lowest corner of the tent. After trying multiple methods of sliding prevention, we eventually gave up and came to the conclusion that the floor of the tent must be coated in non-stick teflon.

11:30pm, just as we were starting to nod off we noticed a sound filling the air.

"Jesus Christ are those bagpipes?" I said

"I think so" Ben replied

It was at that moment we realized why they originally asked us if we wanted a 11pm or 1am curfew...

That's because it appears the Scottish have no concept of bedtime. Until the fires and whiskey run out we were confident the bagpipes wouldn't either.

So those bagpipes, drums, and lungs went on for what seemed like hours, but after a good deal of grumbling, and angry muttering between ourselves, thankfully at exactly 1AM, they stopped. Leaving us feeling like we were less than justified in our grimacing.

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Day 3 brought the mens heavy athletics competition;  the feats of strength involved in these evens were stunning.  

The mens Caber is a full 19ft and 6 inches and weighs in at 175lbs! These guys were playing for keeps, there's no way I would want to cross one of these guys...

The mens shot put is 22lbs and the heavy weight toss uses a 4 stone (56lb) weight on a steel ring.

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The third days events were by far the most exciting up to this point, everywhere you looked there was something interesting. Lots of great food and culture to soak up. Everyone was so nice and inviting.

We spent a short portion of the day in the Clan tents talking to the various family's. I know my family left Great Britain for the New World in the early 1600's, but we are unsure where we came from prior to that point. We consider ourselves Scotch/Irish and I am happy leaving it at that. I would hate to find out that I can't claim both cultures as my own. I was however able to find that if indeed I am descended of Scotland, the Gregors are likely my Clan.

You see, Ralph and I have a way of stumbling from one blunder to the next, but this was shaping up to be one of the most enjoyable trips of my life. I love the mountains, and I loved the people. I had even begun to fall in love with our slanted campsite, and that was before the "Marshmellow War"

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You see every year on the last night of the highland games, after the giant fire burns down, the McFamily (10pm curfew) campsite "attacks" the McRowdy (1am curfew) campsite. The weapon of choice? Marshmellows.

Some of these families even set up giant slingshots to fire full bags of marshmellows. This is no small event, everyone is in on it, the competitors from the games, family, friends, even the local law enforcement were spotted throwing marshmellows.

The war ends when everyone runs out of "ammo" however as they are marshmellows, they just pick some up off the ground and continue the battle. Effectively the war ends when everyone is too tired to continue. It was great fun and defiantly the highlight of our camping experience. 

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The fourth day brought the Parade of Tartans, and with it unfortunately, the end of our time on Grandfather Mountain. The parade was a great spectacle to watch with all the present Clans marching with their respective Tartans.

The Games had been a great experience and more fun than I could have hoped for. This is without question a fantastic experience that you must visit for your self. I know I will be back, and likely every year if possible.

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We had made some good friends, enjoyed some great food, and taken a deep breath of Scottish culture. If ever a man was trying to find Scotland in his roots, It was me.

There is something magical about this gathering, the location, the people, the culture; perhaps it's all of them taken together. 

This is a family event through and through, bring friends and loved ones, it is worth the trip and worth the time. I will be back, and if possible will camp in the same place, the friendships I made during these 4 days were invaluable. I hope very much to find familiar faces again next year.


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