#33: Our Month on the Sun

Our month in Tennessee was challenging.  The long, hot days were relentless and there was little refuge from the heat.  Parked in a vast concrete subdivision with scarcely a tree in sight and the sun beating down on the camper, our little a/c unit struggled to keep the camper temperature below 85 degrees in the scorching afternoons. After a few days I broke down and began taping double bubble insulated foil over the windows and stuffing pillows into the roof vents to try and better insulate poor patsy. We even spent $50 on a roll of reflective “heat control” windows film. It made a significant difference on the heat from the sunlight coming through the windows, but didn’t make much difference to the overall temperature of the camper. Even with every fan running, a dehumidifier, and the a/c, it was still miserably hot during the day.

Determined to make the best of our time in Tennessee, I had planned to take full advantage of the incredibly flat terrain by taking up running and biking again.  Ordinarily living in a place where everywhere is uphill, taking up these activities after a long hiatus requires a level of motivation, determination, and energy of which I thoroughly lack.

So on our first morning in Tennessee I rose early and dressed for a run.  I figured that the morning would be cool and would make for better running conditions.  I was wrong.

As I stepped out of the camper the low morning sun was both blinding and burning.  The humidity was ruthless and the sunlight stung my skin.  Devon has been my running partner since he was a pup and has always shown enthusiasm for our adventures into his older, greyer years.  As a pup I would run 10 miles every other day with him and upon our return home, when my legs were jello and my body aching, he would still be bouncing around for more.  But even the Tennessee heat got to him and by the end of our first week I had to physically drag 50lbs of dog out of the camper by his collar as he spread his legs, digging his claws into the floor in an outright refusal to go outside.

After my morning run I would return and load Junior up into the bike trailer – another glorious gift from my wonderful mother.  Junior loved our little morning rides – and why wouldn’t he?  The lazy little bugger could sit back and relax while benefiting from the gentle warm breeze in his face without exerting any energy to achieve it.  Meanwhile in front, I was drenched in sweat, my chest heaving for another gulp of hot air and my legs ablaze with blood pounding through my feeble muscles to try and pedal myself and an extra 40lbs of weight.  

Being back in a neighborhood revived many sights and smells I’d all but forgotten after almost a year of living in a camper.  Most mornings one neighbor or another would be out mowing the grass and the sweet smell of the fresh grass cuttings would fill my nose as I ran or rode past.  Dogs would bark and yap as I passed by and, on my rides with Junior, he would giggle and exclaim “PUPPY!” every time.  Children playing in nearby yards, pools and sprinklers would shriek and roar with laughter.  The occasional wrath of a mother at wit’s end after weeks of being shut in with her children could be heard as she scolded her unruly heathens.  People enjoying the shelter from the mid-morning sun on their front porches would wave hello and smile at Junior in his little blue bike helmet.

I took full advantage of the cooler evenings too, when the sun would dip down low enough that the streets would be shaded.  Sunset walks were my favorite.  The upside to no surrounding trees was that there was an almost uninterrupted view of the sky and the magnificent cloud formations.  The nearby Mississippi River, a mere 20 minute drive away down flat country roads, created some spectacular weather patterns.  While most days we endured the unrelenting heat from the cloudless sky, sometimes we could see nearby storms passing with ferocious black and grey clouds, swelling to burst and producing magnificent thunder and lightning that lit up the sky.  In the evenings the clouds would glow with the pinks, reds, oranges and purples from the setting sun.

We were fortunate to be able to catch a few sunsets over the river too.  Once we’d gotten Junior down to sleep we would hand Chris’ parents the baby monitor and head down to the bottoms.

The bottoms are a strangely beautiful place.  It’s the low land near the Mississippi River that consists of mostly farm land and dilapidated trailers and small huts.  The ride to the bottoms cuts through the miles of farm land.  The cotton, bean, and corn fields stretch on for miles and miles around into the horizon, dancing on the gentle breeze as we drive past.  

Sunset over the cotton fields on the bottoms.
The Mississippi River to the left and the cotton fields of the flood-prone bottoms to the right.

In the evenings, the people and the bugs come out to congregate at the rocky dykes at the river.  It’s an interesting crowd that gathers – from both species.  The horse flies are more like small birds with a bite that feels like a small knife stabbing into you.  The people, slightly less terrifying than the bugs, come mainly to drink, smoke and avoid the police.  Most seem to know each other, and gather at the river banks to hang out on their tailgates.  

The dykes on the banks of the Mississippi.

We would usually show up just in time for sunset, though we often missed the peak viewing time, and I’d happily snap away as the barges slowly drifted up river.  It was peaceful, drunken background banter aside, and we were grateful for our short little getaways just the two of us.  

Rays of light beaming across the sky over the Mississippi River.
Sunset over the Mississippi River looking at Arkansas.
The sun paints the clouds bright red as it disappears into the horizon of Arkansas.

We did try for a couple of date nights toward the end of the month – but the universe seemed to be thoroughly against the idea.  On our first attempt we got a little dressed up and headed out for dinner, but Chris (old Magoo over here) ran over a big hunk of metal on the highway and we got a flat tire.  Chris spent the next 30 minutes sweating profusely in the muggy evening heat on the side of the highway changing the tire.  I walked back to retrieve the culprit from the road to prevent a similar fate from befalling anyone else and found that the offending object was in fact a foot peg that had broken off of a motorcycle.  To me, the message could not have been clearer: Chris and motorcycles are a bad mix.  We laughed about it, because to react any other way would have been a waste of energy, and we eventually made it to date night for some margaritas and more laughs.

The next night we attempted another date night.  This time we made it to the restaurant without incident.  But our waitress was a little odd and talkative.  She spent a solid 20 minutes talking to me about how much she loved England before she even took our orders.  After over an hour of waiting on our food, mine came out cold and Chris’ was the wrong order.  We decided instead to call it a night and headed back to the camper for some drinks and cards with our friends, Nick and Leanne.  We had a much better night like this anyway.  

We also arrived just in time for the 4th of July celebrations. It was another benefit to being in a neighborhood for a short while; without spending a dime on fireworks we got a pretty spectacular show. Our niece and nephew came over for the night too so we got to witness the sheer bliss and thrill on their excited little faces as the fireworks erupted all around us. Of course we did get some sparklers for them to run around with as well. Neighbors were setting off fireworks right outside the house, from little screamers to great big boomers, and Junior slept through the entire thing. Devon, on the other hand, was scared out of his mind so I checked on him periodically and found him shivering, seeking refuge as he quivered under the toilet in our tiny bathroom. I left the radio and all the TVs on for him to try and drown out the noise, but it didn’t seem to do much to relieve his fear.

Fireworks and a full moon.

Chris spent most days working on the many projects he had lined up at his parents’ house.  Though he was working the whole time we were there, it was nice for him to have Junior run in and out now and then and give him a big hug.  Sometimes Junior would walk in when Chris was remodeling the bathroom and stand at the newly tiled shower and say “wow, Papa!”  They were adorable and heart-warming moments.  Junior’s biggest love, however, was the very bouncy king-sized bed in Chris’ parents’ room next to the en suite that Chris was remodeling.  He spent hours and hours bouncing on the bed – by himself or with his cousins – falling face-first or jumping onto his butt.  Sometimes Chris would come in and start a pillow fight with him and he’d struggle to catch his breath from laughing so hard.

We also got to enjoy some time with friends.  It’s an aspect of living in Tennessee that I know Chris has missed the most.  The value of good friends cannot be overstated, and it was so nice to hang out and play cards, or drink a beer and cook out while catching up and laughing about old times.

Chris’ good friend, Ron, took us fishing in Arkansas one morning. We got up at the crack of dawn and drove to Memphis to cross the bridge into Arkansas to Horseshoe Lake. We had a couple of setbacks so didn’t get on the lake until a little later than we’d hoped and the wind was much stronger than we anticipated. This meant that that fishing conditions were poor, but at least we weren’t melting in the sun. Plus I still caught the biggest fish, so the day was still a success.

We also got to visit with some family that we hadn’t seen in a while, including Mammaw.  She is Junior’s Great Grandmother, and they certainly don’t come any greater.  She was tickled to see Junior running around and playing and giggling, and he had fun visiting with her.  

Junior got to meet some of our friends’ kids too, many of whom were the same age as Junior.  He took a particular liking to Elizabeth, who was just a few months older than Junior.  Unfortunately at the time of their meeting both children had failed to nap that day, so tempers were short and emotions were high.  Junior couldn’t figure out how to express his undying love for Elizabeth so spent most of the evening either biting her face or trying to kiss and hug her against her will.  When she refused, he’d rear back and swing for her as we lunged to intervene.  Nonetheless, I did manage to get a few adorable shots of their “first date”; a ride in the toy jeep, sweetly pulled along by Elizabeth’s big brother, Sawyer.

Junior also got to play with our friend’s boys, Lawson, Lincoln and Slayte.  They have a back yard that is every kid’s dream; a small pool, a trampoline, a swing set, a rope swing, a hammock, a sandbox, a tree house, and lots of big toy 4x4s.  Junior’s driving skills certainly leave something to be desired, but he tried his best and has his father’s scowl when he is concentrating.  This gave us a good laugh.

We also got to spend some time with our nieces and nephew.  Alexis, Maliyah, and Rudy are such great, fun kids.  They love to learn and get involved with whatever we are doing – no matter how boring it may seem to us, but they make it fun.  They had a blast helping me wash the camper one day, and loved staying up late to help Uncle Chris pack up all his tools.  They came on walks with me in the mornings, going 2-3 miles around the neighborhood in that dreaded heat.  I chuckled as they chattered amongst themselves:

“It’s really hot.  I wish I had some water.  I should have brought my water.”

“Aunt Rachael, is it much further than the next house?”

“How many miles have we walked now, it feels like 10.”

“Is it over 100 degrees?  What about 200?”

“How many minutes have we been walking? It feels like we’ve been walking for 100 minutes.”

“It’s so hot my face is red.  Aunt Rachael, is my face red?”

As we walked I thought, these kids won’t want to ever walk anywhere again.  But as we returned home, Maliyah asked me, “can we go again tomorrow and do a longer walk?”  Rudy and Alexis asked the same and it was like music to my ears to hear those kids excited to get outside and exercise with me.  I don’t mind the complaints of the heat, the aching legs, the long distance; I believe that it’s important for kids to voice these things and learn to articulate how they’re feeling.  It makes them become more aware of their own feelings which is the first step in learning to deal with your own emotions.  It’s also an important part of self care for kids to check how their body feels and how their mind feels and be able to express it accurately.  What may seem like an expression of misery, is actually just them learning to cope with feeling this way.  To me, it’s wonderful to hear, especially when it’s followed by a request to go again.

The kids also had a blast playing with Junior.  They chased around the house, up and down the stairs, pulling faces and cackling with joy as Junior ran around with them.  Junior took a particular liking to Rudy.  When Rudy stayed in the camper with us, Junior would wake in the morning and sit on the edge of his bunk staring at Rudy and smiling.  When Rudy would arrive to stay for the weekend Junior’s face would light up and he’d run and give him a big hug.  He also loved goofing off with Maliyah, who had the most energy and silliness to match Junior’s.  The two of them would chase after each other laugh wildly which gave me a welcome break and tired Junior out nicely.

We also got to take Junior and Rudy to the Safari park to feed some animals. They had a blast feeding and looking at the zebras, giraffes, camels, ostriches, bison and alpacas. Though it was blisteringly hot, it was a fun experience.

By the end of the month, though, we were more than ready to be heading back to our mountains.  We had sorely missed the majestic peaks, the chirp of the woodland birds, and the cool, peaceful mountain breeze.  I had missed my late nights staying up and talking by the fire with Chris about anything and everything.  We missed our hideaway from society.  We missed our home.

On our last day we got packed up and pulled out of the driveway around midday.  It was a little later and hotter than we’d planned, but we had managed to get everything packed away safely so we could hit the road once again. We were so excited to leave the heat behind and get to our next stop in Alabama.  We both looked at each other and said “you know it’s bad when you’re looking forward to Alabama.”

#20: Fantastic Fire

Rain.  So much rain.  Endless rain.  The last few weeks have been filled with virtually non-stop rain and frigid temperatures.  Even on the days where there is no rain, it is so cold that nothing dries out before the next bout of rain comes in.

I can’t remember how long the rain has been sticking around now.  Maybe 2-3 weeks, maybe 5 or 6.  It feels like an eternity.

During rainy days I still manage to get outside with Junior, if only for 20-30 minutes or so at a time.  We both need the fresh air and to escape the confines of the camper each day to avoid going insane.  There is high value in quality rain gear when living in a camper for this very reason.

But the rain still presents insurmountable obstacles when it comes to evening activities.  Even when it isn’t actively raining, it is still more hassle than it is worth to try and get, and keep, a fire going in such conditions.  This coupled with the fact that we have nowhere that is truly dry to store our camping chairs, means that we are camper-bound until conditions improve.

This is doable for a few days at a time.  We usually rent a film or two and, after dinner, cuddle up in bed to watch it.  But after a couple of weeks of this it becomes monotonous and we long for the cozy fireside chats that I, for one, have come to depend on for my sanity.

Over time I have come to realize that conversation is an essential component to the success of our marriage.  This has taken various forms as our marriage and living situations have changed but has, nonetheless, remained reasonably constant.  

As mentioned in previous posts, Chris and I had a rather rocky start to our marriage.  The honeymoon period wore off quickly and we soon realized we had some fairly significant communication issues: we couldn’t.  Every time we tried to talk to each other it ended in knock-down, drag-out fights and this seriously took a toll on our marriage.

Around 3 or 4 months in, in attempt to better acclimate our dogs to each other, we began taking them on daily walks in the evening.  We lived on a dirt road that was always quiet, so we’d walk the 1.5 miles up to the stop sign at the paved road and back every day.  It wasn’t intentional, but this became one of the few things that saved our marriage from a tragically early death.  These walks began as a means of encouraging the dogs to feel like they were a part of the same pack, but it ended up having this effect on us too.

These walks became our time to check in with each other.  We talked about our days, things that were on our minds, issues with each other, hopes and dreams; whatever we wanted.  It became a chance for us to connect, and reconnect, every day.  It brought us infinitely closer.

When we moved to Lawrenceville, walking wasn’t much of an option in the evenings because Chris’ commute was so long that we didn’t have time before Junior went to bed.  Instead we would spend most evenings in our chairs in the carport chatting into the night.

The last few months, however, we have come to regard the fire pit as our sacred space.  Camp fires have always served as a hub for community, and ours is no different.  It’s a place that we have been fortunate enough to not just enjoy with each other, but also with new friends, old friends, and family.  It has become an essential part of our lives, and one that we have missed sorely in the last few dreary weeks.

The campfire is such a fantastic tool, one that I believe should have a place in every family.  Though many never consider a fire pit in their home or regular camping trips, I would strongly recommend that you do.  I believe in the power of a good campfire so strongly for many reasons.

There are many components to a successful fire.  The basic necessities for a fire are fuel, oxygen, and heat.  But a good fire requires so much more.  Much like a marriage or a friendship, it requires regular attention.  A fire must be carefully fed; too much and you’ll extinguish the heat and oxygen, not enough and it will die.  

To me, half the fun of the fire is the challenge of it.  Anyone can start a fire with kiln-dried wood and lighter fluid.  But the act of collecting kindling from the forest, splitting the logs with an axe, and carefully constructing a fire to burn optimally are all steps that shouldn’t be skipped over.  Building a fire in this way is the embodiment of one’s hard work paying off.  The more work you put in on the front end, the better the fire will be and the easier it will be to tend to.  

This is reflected in the relationships that are forged around a fire, and the poetry of it is something I ponder often.  When shortcuts are taken in building a fire it often is less-valued or enjoyed.  The feeling of working hard to get a fire going in wet conditions and then sitting back and enjoying the warmth of the roaring flames is spectacular.  The same is true for nurturing a relationship through the hard times and then feeling the strength of it in the easier times.

In a relationship like mine and Chris’, credit for every successful fire is lovingly and ruthlessly fought over.  The conversation often goes like this:

Me: “The fire is rolling.”

Chris: “You’re welcome.”

Me: “For what?? I built it and tended it.”

Chris: “But I collected the fat lighter.”

Me: “…Per my instructions. That’s just the lackey work. Besides, I’m the one that so expertly placed it within the fire for optimal burning.”

Chris: “But you wouldn’t have a fire without the fat lighter.”

Me: “I would, it just wouldn’t have gotten going as quickly.”

Chris: “Whatever dude.”

Me: “Whatever dude.”

Conversely, the blame for a poor fire is often placed on each other, despite the fact that it is usually just due to wet conditions.  This is a running joke that will likely go on for as long as we’re physically able to build a fire.  It’s funny because almost every fire we have is a team effort in which we each play an important role.  But we rarely miss a chance to criticize each other’s fire-tending skills.  It’s this competitiveness that I enjoy in our relationship so much because it pushes each of us to greater levels within ourselves through a desire to outdo the other.  It spills into almost every corner of our marriage and the campfire is no stranger to it.

We’ve had our share of calamities around the campfire too.  One evening Chris and I were having a typical dispute over the lighter.  No matter how many lighters we own, we always seem able to find only one and then good-natured bickering ensues over whose lighter it is and who stole it.  On this particular evening Chris had taken over with the fire-tending duties.  He stood up to poke at the fire for a minute before deciding that it need needed more wood.  He turned to walk to the wood pile and I turned my face away to listen to something that faintly resembled a crying baby.  In that second there was a small but mighty explosion in the fire.  Chris just about ‘hit the deck’ as if taking heavy fire, and my heart took a few seconds to restart.  Shrapnel flew from the fire and whizzed past my ear as I was sat a mere 3 feet from the explosion.  

Upon inspection we realized that Chris must have had the lighter in his lap as he stood up, knocking the lighter into the fire pit without him noticing.  After a few seconds of it heating up it exploded.  We were fortunate that neither of us sustained any injury from this, but Chris is no longer allowed flammable materials other than wood around the fire pit until his suspension is lifted.

I am also not allowed accelerants around a fire, but this is a self-imposed rule following a very close call some years ago.

At that time I spent much of my time at a friend’s house in Athens.  She had 6 acres on the river and I would spend much of my free time helping her clear the land burning the brush and trees that we cleared.  We would have proper country bonfires 10-20 feet in diameter with entire trees thrown on there, which would burn for days.

One such fire had been burning for several days until a heavy rainstorm moved through late one spring.  I got off work early after rain had cleared and, though my friend was out of town for the day, I went over to continue the burn as I often did.  Upon arrival I saw no smoke and felt no heat.  The burn pile was soaked, so I figured it was a safe assumption that the fire was truly out and would take some strong efforts to get it going again.  I grabbed the ancient metal 5 gallon gas can and doused the fire in gasoline.  As I did so, it became apparent that there were in fact embers still burning at the bottom of the pile and the stream of gasoline I was pouring ignited.  I quickly whipped my hand back and, unbeknownst to me in that moment, splashed gasoline all over my leg.  I looked down to find that some gasoline had splashed on the lip of the circular gas can that I was holding and was now on fire.

Shit.

I then had the dumbest knee-jerk reaction and launched the gas can in the air away from me.  Thankfully – and I still don’t know how – the gas can landed right way up.  When my heart began beating again I ran toward the house for the water hose.  As I turned it on I looked down to finally realize that I was on fire.  The gas I had splashed on my leg had ignited my athletic shorts and they were now melting to my leg.  I jumped about frantically beating at the flames with my hand making noises like a choking turkey and 100% forgetting all I had learned about “stop, drop, and roll”.

So with shorts melted to my leg, I jumped back into action with the water hose and ran furiously toward the burning gas can.  But alas, about 20 feet from the fire the water hose reached its end and pinged me backwards like a cartoon.  With too great a distance between the water hose and the burning gas can, I had no choice but to stand back and watch the gas can to see if it would explode.  Thankfully the flames slowly died and I escaped that day with only minor scarring, one less pair of athletic shorts, and a new understanding of what my Dad meant when he had told me as a child that “gasoline and fire don’t mix with Walshes.”

We have also enjoyed teaching others to collect wood and build fires.  I also like to people-watch and find it very telling to watch someone else tend to a fire when I can manage to relinquish control, that is).  A person’s approach to fire-building can reveal things about their own character, approaches to life, and their upbringing.

Then there’s the others who join us around the campfire.  Devon is terrified of the slightest loud noise or bang, and the pop and crackle of the fire spooks him into retreating back to the camper nightly.  But we have often enjoyed our fire with other critters.  I have looked up to find a majestic barred owl sitting but a few feet from our campsite watching us as we enjoy the fire.  We have been interrupted in conversation many times by the whooping and howling of coyotes in the night.  We have abandoned the fire entirely at times in search of whatever creature made some twigs snap in the woods behind us.  Chris has even hand fed a curious squirrel near the fire pit one afternoon.

Fire fulfills 3 basic necessities for man; warmth, light, and community.  It’s no new discovery, but even in the modern world full of social media and lightning-fast internet speeds I still believe that it will continue to serve an irreplaceable purpose.  Sure, one could obtain each of these three components from other more readily available and easily attainable means nowadays, but there’s still something undefinably unique about a campfire experience.  No one has fond memories of sitting around a radiator in their house enjoying good text conversation via social media.  Those types of memories are reserved for the magic of a campfire and the connection and sense of community that it brings.

In living this life we have gained a valuable insight into what really matters to us.  As it turns out, these long conversations by the fire are irreplaceable.  It is therefore imperative that we preserve and protect them.  Thus, when we buy our land in the mountains in the next couple of years, our first expense will be erecting a shelter under which to park the camper and place a chiminea. This way we will forever have a dry place to sit around the fire and talk until the conversation dries up and the last embers burn out.