#35: Happy at Home

Refreshed from our mini-vacation, we packed up one last time and hit the road eastbound for Georgia.  After a long month we were ready to be back to normal.  But the thought of trying to ascend the steep, narrow mountain road towing our 8,000lbs home and then navigating the narrow campground to get into our site left my stomach in knots.  

We tried to forget our worries by playing what we had come to call “the alphabet game”.  The idea is that we each have to find the letters of the alphabet starting with A going through Z but you can only use a sign or license plate for one letter – once it has been used for one letter by one player, it cannot be used again by any player.  This was fun, but quickly grew competitive (particularly when Chris started losing consistently) which led to Chris cheating and soon descended into cussing each other out.  

It took Chris a minute but he finally grew up and realized I’m just better at games than him.  Junior was happily watching The Jungle Book in the back seat and was blissfully unaware of what a cheater his father was, fortunately for him.  

As we drew into Georgia, though, the fun and games wore off and the nerves began to set in.  Once we conquered the Atlanta traffic, we were just an hour or so from the park.  We had gotten lucky with the weather so far and as we drove into Clayton, about 15 miles from the park, we saw the peak of Black Rock ahead.  The sun was catching the window of the visitor’s center near the summit signaling that it was crunch time.  We decided to pull in at the gas station in Clayton.  We stepped out for a cigarette one last time before the ascent.

“Alright, this is it.  This is the moment of truth.  Think she can make it?”  Chris said smirking.

I exhaled deeply and glanced up at the mountain.  Not 5 minutes before it was a beautiful, clear day and I could see the peak of the mountain.  Now clear skies had been swallowed by a large storm cloud looming over the summit.  I chuckled flatly and gestured upwards rolling my eyes.  Chris lifted his head to see and quickly dropped it again shaking his head gently.  

“Of course.”

“Well let’s do this then.  Come on.”  I said, dreading what lay ahead.

Surprisingly, despite the ominous weather, we made it up the mountain to the campground with no trouble.  The rain started just as we were getting set up, but I was just thankful to be home and ready to get settled.

Chris took the week off se we could finish getting settled.  We spent the next couple of days walking around and taking in the new surroundings.  Though we were at Black Rock before we left for Tennessee, we were at the maintenance compound halfway down the mountain.  Now we were a few hundred feet higher up the mountain and far from the privacy of that site.

Our new site sits on the corner of where the road through the campground splits and the doors of the camper face the road instead of the thickly wooded mountain slope behind us.  It was a little bit of a downer those first few nights.  Schools hadn’t gone back yet so the campground was still very full.  Late into the evening people were walking past our fire chatting as they walked.  It’s not a big deal, but as people that enjoy our privacy, it’s definitely the worst aspect of living in a campground.  One of the things we liked about Vogel was how private our site was compared to the rest of the sites, here it’s definitely the opposite case.

But the high temperatures were around 72 (22 Celsius) and the evening lows were around 60 (15 Celsius) every night with low humidity and a steady cooling breeze.  It was a wonderful feeling that weekend to sit by the fire with long pants on and enjoy it.  We both remarked at how positively lovely it was to be home again.  

Being at the summit was different in other ways too.  With no light pollution from the street lights of the suburbs or the glaring lights of the maintenance shop, there was no light to be had.  The thin tree canopy further extinguishes most light from the moon and the stars, so the darkness was thick.  Sitting by the fire and looking around is like staring into the abyss.  Furthermore, at night time, the crickets, cicadas, and frogs all come alive and the noise is near deafening.  It drowns out the fireside conversations of nearby sites and people moving around.  

The blindness from the darkness and the deafness from the night critters creates a disorienting effect that is strange and hard to define.  You become more aware that there are people and beasts beyond the darkness, but your ability to know where they lurk is significantly diminished.  To enjoy it, you just have to accept it.  Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why people like camping; it’s vulnerability but in an exhilarating way.

Crickets and cicadas at black rock.

Most mornings here are spent in a cloud.  It’s grey and foggy everywhere you look. In drier mornings the campfire smoke and the fog hang silently in the air and blanket the summit.  I can barely see the campsite across the road from us some mornings.  But usually by around 9 or 10am the sun begins to penetrate the fog, the cloud lifts, and the views are spectacular.  The little birds are chirping, people are friendly and happy to be on vacation, the wildflowers are in bloom, and it’s warm but not hot.  

The morning light through the leaves, fog, and campfire smoke.

Junior has also had a blast exploring with us.  He’s taken to mushroom hunting with me.  We’ll walk around the campground and look for cool new fungus on the forest floor and the base of rotten trees.  When he finds one, he’ll squat down and say, “Whassat.  Mushooooooo.”  It’s adorable and I applaud his keen eye for finding them even when I can’t.  We’ve already collected a fine portfolio of cool and unusual fungus and I look forward to reading about and teaching him mycology one day.  His undying love for the outdoors is heartwarming. He often wakes in the mornings or from his naps with a hearty plea for adventure as he frowns, points to the door and says, “ow-siiiii”.

“Mushoooooo.”

We love exploring and discovering all the different kinds of life here at the park. On one mushroom hunt, Junior discovered a furry little caterpillar and laid down in the road to make friends with him.  Last week we rescued a tree frog that had found his way into the bathroom. He makes friends with every single living creature in the park.  He pets every dog that comes walking past (and there are a lot), he wins the hearts of every adult, and he has a few pet rocks that he totes around the campsite with him on our walks.  He even made friends with an older couple’s pet love bird that they brought camping with them.

We also made some human friends.  After a couple of days we were sitting outside the camper enjoying Junior’s nap.  I looked up from my book to see that a camper was arriving at the site across and to the right of us.  The couple, clearly new at maneuvering a camper, were having some trouble backing into hill-side site on the corner.  She was behind the camper trying to guide him in, while he was driving trying to see over the hood of the car.  From my vantage point I could see that he was about to steer himself right into the storm drain in front of him and to the right, so I ushered Chris to go and give them a hand.

It’s still fresh in my memory the first time we back our camper into a site.  Though I wasn’t driving, the pressure of being Chris’ eyes behind the camper, and therefore the responsible party should he collide with anything, made my hands shake and my heart race.  It’s a nerve-wracking event in which help is greatly appreciated.  

So Chris ran up to give them a hand and, within a minute or so, they had successfully backed into their site and Chris joined me again at the camper.  A few minutes later, after the couple had gotten their camper leveled, the man came down to say thank you for Chris’ help.

He was of average height and stocky stature.  His bald head, long grey goatee, and tattoos gave him a slightly intimidating appearance, but his thick German accent meant he had a good sense of humor.  His name was Volker, and this was their maiden voyage with their new camper.  His wife’s name was Bren, and she was American.  She had short, blonde hair and tattooed arms.  It turned out that they had met because of the motorcycle club they were both members of and this seemed pretty fitting for their appearance.

We became old friends fast and quickly discovered that we had so much in common.  That evening we invited them to our site for some drinks and we shared stories and laughs into the evening.  Bren was easy to talk to.  She had a wicked sense of humor and an intellectual outlook to match it.  We talked about everything from silly stories, to world travels, to being a mother, to the very core of life itself.  We shared similar beliefs about many things and looked at the world in the same way.  This made her good company.

Volker’s sense of humor is killer and we spent much of our conversations with him splitting at the ribs.  Though he spoke with an unmistakable German accent, his command of English made it easy to talk to and understand him.  He’s lived a rich life having joined the German army in 1982, traveled the world as an engineer, and has never said no to an opportunity for a good time.  He has both wisdom and the appreciation for laughter which made him good company also.

His accent and inherent German-ness made punchlines out of fringe details of his stories.  One night he was telling us about the difference in temperatures between Canada and Germany.  He said:

“The only things the same about the Fahrenheit and the celsius, jah, is that -40 Fahrenheit is -40 celsius, right?  What’s the difference??  Dude, it’s fucking cold, jah??”

He had genuine anger and confusion in his voice that sent us nearly falling out of our chairs as we cried with laughter.  

On another occasion he told us a story where he and Bren were on a road trip and she turns to him and says “how do you want to spend your retirement?”

For him this was a big question, one that is akin to “do you want kids?” Or “do you want to get married?”

He thought for a second before answering: “on a golf course”.

Bren was quiet for a moment, then suddenly began sobbing.

“‘What’s wrong with you??’ I asked her, because she is crying… like what the fuck?  So I immediately am confused and I ask her this.  She says, ‘I don’t think I want to spend my retirement on a golf course, I don’t even like golf!’  I start laughing so hard and she starts to get mad like, ‘WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING??” I was laughing because I said, ‘not a golf course – THE GULF COAST!’”

We were howling. They were guests at the park for 4 nights, and we spent every evening with them laughing, drinking, and swapping stories.  They told us that they had been discussing the possibility of going full time in the RV and we spent a lot of time talking about why we did it and why they’d love it, as well as the downsides of the lifestyle.  We talked about plans to visit them in Acworth (about 2 hours away just outside of Atlanta) and I truly hope we make it happen.  We were sad to see them go and hoped to be neighbors with them again soon.

“One for the haters” – Volker, Bren, Chris and me.

On the flip side, we’ve had some rather unwanted visitors.  The creepy crawlies in the area are big and poisonous.  There have been 2 dogs bitten by copperheads (snakes) in the last month.  One dog was laying under his camper when he was bitten.  A rattlesnake was also spotted at the visitors center just last week on the same day the a copperhead was found behind one of the bath houses.  

Then there’s the people.  Most are wonderful and at very least friendly.  But now and then some odd balls can wander in.  We had our first experience with one such character last week.

“Craig” was in his late 30s and had grown out his mullet in favor of an undercut on one side of his head.  He donned a worn striped t shirt that reminded me of a train conductor, and suspenders on his shorts with one side unclipped.  He was a little overweight and walked awkwardly.

The guy seemed nice enough when he approached and was talking to Chris because he couldn’t find his site.  I came outside to him standing in our campsite talking to Chris and joined them for the conversation.

He was cheery, but very talkative and would go off on tangents, like inner monologues with no break, and sometimes begin giggling uncontrollably at odd times.  He told us that he was a disabled veteran and showed us the huge scars running up the length of one shin and over his knee.  Then he told us that he was bipolar and was no longer taking his medication and I realized that this guy was manic.  I had been trying to figure out what it was about him that seemed familiar, and it was the mania.  I’ve worked with clients and have friends and family who are bipolar so I’ve seen my share of mania.

This fact made me uneasy.  Not because he was mentally ill, but because I didn’t know him at all and he was sitting there telling me he was not taking his medication.  He went on to tell us that his friends had him committed in May and that made me more nervous.  Then he told us about the land he owns in Mississippi and that he and his friends live there just playing music and living life they want to.  

He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but my 2 year old was asleep a few feet away and my gut was telling me it probably wasn’t the best situation.  We told him it was time to turn in for the night and he thanked us for a nice evening and went back to his site without incident.  The next day he came and knocked at the door and gave us a tea pot that his friend, a master potter, had made.  He told us he was headed out to ramble on to the next place and we wished him well.  Though he was a nice guy, he definitely gave me an uncomfortable feeling and I felt relieved when he left.

Other than our strange meeting with “Craig”, we’ve had an easy breezy stay at Black Rock so far.  We’re glad to be back with our friends, Jessica and Kevin, and we love getting to call such a beautiful place our home. Even the lack of privacy, which was a curse to begin with, has grown on us and now we rather enjoy the fact that it invites conversation with so many new and (mostly) awesome people.  We look forward to the adventures that lay ahead of us here for the rest of the year at our peaceful natural haven.

#31: A Stranger in the Night

It’s official: this is the craziest year in all of my 30 years.  The world has erupted in chaos in the last few weeks and the heartbreaking scenes on the TV have driven me further into the safety of my own bubble, desperate to limit my exposure to the horrific scenes and curb the ensuing anxiety.

Though I find myself sometimes transfixed by the media reports, unable to distance myself from the news for the sake of my own mental health, I try my best to throw myself into nature and my immediate surroundings. This welcome distraction helps me to center myself and not focus so hard on all the things I can’t control. The more I watch the news, the more I lay awake at night unable to turn my mind off and stop the thoughts of death and violence creeping back into my every thought. These swirling thoughts and worries for the world my son will grow up in boil up from my stomach and stick in my throat as my chest tightens and tears well up in my eyes. It’s apparent that grounding myself in nature is more important now than ever.

Lately we have reinstated our evening walks.  It was a ritual that began before I was pregnant and we were living in Clarkesville as a way to acclimate our dogs to each other – both of whom were used to one-dog households and needed a careful approach to their integration.  But retrospectively it was a therapy tool that Chris and I needed after a turbulent start to our marriage, and through it we became better acclimated to married life.

The pups on one of our daily walks of yore.

One of the many challenges of living this lifestyle is maintaining a routine through all the changes.  Each new park brings different commute times, new work routines, and new surroundings.  So the more we can retain these small rituals the more grounded we feel, especially when the world around us is so turbulent right now.

Just like old times, we take an evening walk down the dirt road – except now we have the pitter patter of excited little feet to keep up with too. I think this ritual is good for Junior – to experience a daily dose of family time with fresh air, no screens, and a little bit of exercise. I hope that it’ll teach him a healthy coping mechanism for life.

It’s usually a short walk on account of Junior’s little legs and Chris’ motorcycle accident in February which has left him struggling with walking/hiking at times still.  Some days we’ll go 2.5km, others just 1km.  But distance isn’t the goal, it’s the enjoyment, relaxation, and family time that matters.  I always return home feeling like a small weight has lifted and it caps the day off nicely before Junior’s bedtime routine. Junior seems to really enjoy the walks too.

One of my most favorite pictures of my little boy living free without a care in the world.

In paying more attention and consciously focusing on nature I’ve reaped an array of benefits.  I have begun to learn more about the flora in the area and have been trying to learn the names and medicinal purposes of the many flowers and herbs that grow naturally in this land.  

While junior was napping I was visited by a baby bunny rabbit the other day and, had I been gazing anxiously at the TV instead of in awe out the window, I would have missed him. His tiny little grey ears poked up from behind some weeds next to the camper and I stared perplexed for a moment as to what sort of curious creature was lurking. Then he hopped towards me and pushed his tiny, furry body through the chainlink fence and sat nibbling quietly on the grass as I quietly observed. I steadied my breath and held still so as to not frighten him. He turned and looked at me and we locked eyes for a moment, each curious about the other. I held his gaze for a moment before he hopped happily back through the fence and off into the wild beyond.

These sweet little encounters with the fauna of this mountain, although with common woodland creatures, feel like little miracles and I return to my day feeling that much luckier to have shared a moment with them.  But some creatures don’t have the same calming and non-threatening presence, especially the ones that lurk in the night.

A few weeks ago, shortly after our arrival, Chris and I were sat chatting by the fire. It was getting late and we weren’t far from turning in for the night. We were chatting idly about everything and nothing at all, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in the thicket behind the fence. Chris shushed me harshly and froze – something he does often because the poor old bugger’s imagination likes to run away with him at the slightest drop of a leaf. I rolled my eyes but obliged and held still and listened. The rustling sound was louder now and I realized that, at least on this occasion, he was right; something was lurking in the bushes.

Excited and curious we grabbed the spotlight and crept toward the corner of the fence where the sound was coming from. We held still and listened intently. Silence. I held my breath and strained to hear.

Suddenly the silence was broken again but this time much closer to the fence. So close, in fact, that it sounded like it was a mere few feet from us. Chris clicked the spotlight on and lit up the darkness but the light caught the twisted, tangled thicket and cast shadows beyond it which darted around with the movement of the light, playing tricks on our eyes. Suddenly another commotion, this time closer to where we had been sat by the fire. It’s on the move.

We quickly and quietly scurried across the grass toward the noise and clicked the light on again – but as soon as we did the light faded and died.

“No!  No, no, no.  The damn battery is dead” Chris exclaimed with frustration. “It’s right there, it’s right there!”  

He clicked the light on again and again it lit up the thicket for a second before fading and dying.  He repeated this action frantically, desperate to just catch a glimpse of the rustling creature just feet from our faces.

Then there was a sudden commotion back toward the corner of the fence where we were before. But then a commotion in front of us again. This time the rustling was moving. It wasn’t the delicate and graceful movement of a deer searching for a place to bed down, but rather the clumsy crashing of a much larger creature with no fear of predators. But it was two of them.

“It’s a mama bear and her cubs” I whispered, desperately searching the darkness for just a glimpse at the majestic creatures. We shot back up towards the corner of the fence as they crashed through the darkness, moving at speed now. I used the light from my phone out of sheer desperation. As I pulled it out of my pocket a thought flashed through my head that illumination of the scene could reveal an angry and protective mother scaling the fence at speed and a black, hairy face with long white teeth, drool dripping in anticipation. I took a cautionary step back, clicked the light on, and was a little relieved to find the fence unobstructed before me.

As the creatures crashed off into the abyss we returned to our fire, both disappointed and relieved. Chris has been itching to see a bear; he’s never seen one before in the wild. I have seen one before, but not in a few years, and always appreciate the majesty of those elusive creatures.

Excited by our encounter, we retired to our camp chairs and talked excitedly into the wee hours of how they were “right there, they must have been no more than 8 feet from us!”

As the weeks passed by, the many warning signs around the park displaying images of black bears and declaring this as “bear country” seemed to taunt us. Every day I’d cast my eye to the woods as I drove or hiked the park, hoping today might be my day.

Then our stranger in the night returned last night. As we sat in our camp chairs, Chris on the phone to his Mom, he noticed that Devon had run off and was barking at something.

“It’s just Devon, it’s probably nothing. He probably just saw his own shadow.” I said dismissively. Devon has a tendency to try and drum up drama for the sake of it, so we usually ignore it when he raises the alarm. But last night he was persistent.

“Should we go investigate?”  Chris said hopefully.

“Sure.  I’ll grab the spotlight.”

With the spotlight fully charged, we casually walked around the barn and to the fence at the very back side of the complex.  The fence was several feet up a steep bank overgrown with weeds and poison ivy – something neither of us dare go near for fear of the weeks of ensuing pain and wild itching blisters that follow.

Chris restrained Devon while I shone the spotlight up the bank to the small clearings on the other side of the fence. Suddenly a rustling began and we knew it was our stranger in the night again. I searched the tree line frantically but alas, the evasive little bugger disappeared into the woods before we could catch sight of him.

“We’ll see him eventually, babe.”  I said, trying to cheer Chris up.

Defeated, we returned to our camp chairs once again.  We made light of the incident by laughing about how big and scary Devon thinks he is, but how he would cower and run away if that bear made it over the fence.

This morning I headed up to the laundry barn at the mountain summit to help housekeeping with laundry.  On my way up I got a message from Jessica saying that a bear had been spotted at the walk-in campsites that morning.  Lucky buggers, I thought.

After all the laundry was done it was nearing lunchtime so I loaded Junior into the truck and started back down the mountain. I was running through my mental to do list as I rounded the corner near the visitors center a large black creature suddenly leapt into the road in front of me, bounced across, and disappeared into the bushes. Ecstatic and elated I pulled over and hopped out to see if I could see him in the woods but he was already gone.

So we continued on back down the mountain when suddenly he appeared again right in front of me.  I watched as he nimbly leapt onto the thin guard rail by the overlook and looked back at me.  I pulled over and jumped out with my phone ready to snap some pictures.  He lingered for a moment, almost unaware that I was there.  

My new best bud.

I watched in complete awe of him as he bumbled along the forest floor. He lifted his nose to to take in my scent drifting through the air and curled his paw up as he investigated. Then he turned and looked right at me. His big brown eyes stared into mine and I froze for a second trying to contemplate how long it would take me to bolt back into the truck behind me. He stared for a moment then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he darted off into the woods.

I jumped back into the truck with a smile plastered on my face and a little bit of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I was positively giddy. I love these creatures and felt so incredibly lucky to be visited by one and have him follow me along my drive down the mountain. I’ve anticipated such an encounter for months now, so to finally catch a glimpse of the adorable beast at last was a truly thrilling experience. Though I’m excited at the prospect of seeing the little guy again and maybe taking some better pictures of him, I definitely won’t be hiking without my pistol and bear spray anytime soon.

#28: The Tiger King of Black Rock and Other Strange Characters

Living in a campground – especially a short term stay one – means witnessing the many different types of people who arrive here.  As we are beginning to learn, each park has its own individual vibe which, in turn, attracts different clientele.  At Tugaloo we found the clientele to be rather middle of the road sorts: mostly working class, mostly families, mostly folks that came for the lake and didn’t care much for hiking or fitness but enjoyed the good cell service and cable TV.  Vogel, on the other hand, attracted a different group: lots of families, many of whom had been coming to Vogel for generations; lots of fitness fanatics; many families who were looking to escape wifi, TV, and cell service, and most of whom were somewhat higher income than those at Tugaloo.

Then there’s Black Rock Mountain.

Perhaps it’s the park’s isolated and somewhat ominous location at the top of a mountain peak, often hidden in the clouds.  Perhaps it’s the fact that novice hikers, or even intermediate hikers, are often deterred by the fact that everywhere is uphill and akin to cliff climbing rather than gentle hiking.  Perhaps it’s even the current pandemic that has turned the world upside down, shaken it around, and landed all the strange characters here.  Either way, we’ve seen some interesting folk here in the last few weeks.

Despite the “stay at home” order, our Governor has bizarrely insisted that campgrounds and trails should remain open and actively encouraged visitors to the park.  It’s baffling, but that’s southern politics and businessmen as politicians for you.  So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic where every other country in the world has shut down non-essential travel, and Georgia is vacation central.

There’s been significant frustration from all the volunteers and park staff surrounding this issue.  We have constant anxiety about the campers that are flooding into the park.  We are operating on a skeleton staff too.  Seasonal employees have not been allowed to return to work (and have been blocked from filing for unemployment – totally unfair) because of the stay at home order, many housekeepers have quit for fear of exposure, and we’re seeing summertime levels of park traffic.  The increased traffic amongst the madness has led to arrests at other parks of people intentionally coughing in rangers’ faces, and parks being temporarily shut down after being overrun by lunchtime.  Images from Cloudland Canyon showed over 130 cars lined up on the highway waiting to get in.

Our biggest fear, and that of our fellow hosts, is the campers and their refusal to adhere to social distancing guidelines.  I’ve had people walk right up to me, within a couple of feet, and start talking to me.  Even as I step backward away, they keep coming until I tell them to stop and step away from me.  It’s not a nice feeling – I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable but in this new world we have our health to think about.  I’ve also had one man walk straight up to Junior in his stroller, tickle him, then pick up his cracker and give it to him.  No matter how many signs are out, people don’t seem to care to obey – it’s business as usual for them.

We also had a camper staying for a week or so on one site that raised some issues.  After a few days, our fellow hosts remarked how they had seen no one come or go from the camper since its arrival and there was no water hooked up to the camper.  They raised the rather morbid but very possible point that the campers could be dead inside the camper and we wouldn’t know.  

So, out of concern for their wellbeing, one of the rangers went and knocked on the door.  The occupants refused to open the door, simply calling out from inside that they were ok, everything is ok, but that they didn’t want to open the door.  This was not comforting.  At the next meeting we raised concerns about the fact that these people could be sick and self-quarantining at the park.  But with no water hooked up to their camper they must be using the bathrooms – the same bathrooms we were cleaning everyday.  This raised our anxiety significantly, but with strict orders to remain open, we had no choice but continue on with our regular duties.

Another set of campers spent 2 days camping here from middle Georgia.  For their short stay here they packed 2 large SUVs full of – what I assume to be – everything they owned, and then spread it all out around their site upon arrival.  There were make-shift clotheslines with underwear and such pegged out, a tent with make-shift shelters built around it, and even a wooden rocking chair.  The two very large women occupying the site laid out for 2 days in skimpy bikinis at the front of their site waving to passersby.

There was also a family that came camping; a father and 3 children.  They were tent campers and occupied a site near Jesse and Kaci.  At 5am Jesse awoke to the sound of doors slamming and children screaming.  Concerned that it could be a bear or campers in danger, Jesse went to investigate.  Outside he found the father and the children running around their site with the fire smoking.  Jesse asked if everything was ok and the father told him that they were just cold.  So Jesse informed him that there’s a quiet time policy between 10pm and 7am so asked that they be considerate of people sleeping.

When Jesse got up a few hours later he saw that the family had left and their fire pit was now completely ablaze.  He also noticed that the door to the trash complex was wide open so he went close it.  Inside he found all of the family’s camping equipment; 4 chairs, blow up mattresses, sleeping bags, 4 person tent, camping stove – all of it brand new, the packaging in there too.  It seems the father, probably growing increasingly desperate having been stuck in the house with his kids for weeks, had attempted to take them camping.  It seems he likely didn’t know what he was doing at all and abandoned his venture – new equipment and all – before sunrise.  We all had a good chuckle at that, and Jesse got some free camping gear out of it.

Then the Tiger King arrived.

Of course, it wasn’t THE Tiger King (or Joe Exotic), he’s in prison.  But this guy could easily be from the same circus.  So we referred to him as Joe Exotic because we didn’t know his real name and it seemed to fit him well.

The first time I saw Joe Exotic he was out by his rig.  His rig was a large Discovery motorhome that looked like a decommissioned tour bus.  The thing was bigger than my last apartment.  It was an older model bearing a few small dents and rust spots here and there, but he seemed to take reasonable care of it.  The first time I saw him he was outside pressure washing the camper.  This is not unusual for RVers so I didn’t pay him much attention, just drove on by and went about my business.  

When I came back by, however, I had to stop.

He was around the side of his rig before and I had barely glanced in his direction.  This time though, he was out front pressure washing the gravel on the site next to him.  This bizarre act and his attire caught my attention.

He wore old brown leather cowboy boots – creased and scuffed from years of wear.  Between the boots and the black basketball shorts peeked his white, pencil-thin, smooth, veiny legs that seemed to get lost in the excess material from his oversized shorts.  On top he wore not just one, but two long sleeved acid-washed denim shirts.  The outer layer had the sleeves torn off and black lettering on the back referencing some motorcycle company or club in Florida.  On his head he wore a dusty brown felt cowboy hat over his straggly brown hair which was pulled back into a ponytail.  His approximate 5 day stubble and John Lennon-style glasses really finished off the look and, as I watched him standing there on the top of a mountain in the middle of a pandemic washing gravel I knew… this guy does a lot of cocaine.

He seemed pretty harmless, after all he wasn’t bothering anyone.  He certainly wasn’t achieving anything, but washing gravel wasn’t exactly a reason to be afraid of or angry at the guy, so we let him be.

A few days later I was talking to Jesse and Kaci, the other hosts, and it seems that Joe Exotic was getting a little lonely and was often seen roaming around with a leaf blower, blowing off campsites.  He had made several attempts to try and befriend Jesse – a bearded, tattooed, ex-military fella with a kind heart and a somewhat intimidating physique.  Jesse is a great guy with a wicked sense of humor and an easy-going attitude once you get to know him but – at least under current circumstances – he tends to vibrate on a high frequency and has a significant fear of getting sick.  So he doesn’t take kindly to being approached by random members of the public right now.  But, like us, they are stuck here until things open up again.

When Joe Exotic approached him for the 4th or 5th time and got too close, Jesse had stopped holding back and firmly told the guy to remain on his own site.  Joe failed to heed these warnings from Jesse and things escalated somewhat when Joe came over to Jesse’s site one day to tell him that he had unplugged the Christmas lights from the trading post in an effort to be helpful.  What Joe failed to consider is that his attempt to be helpful was causing more anxiety than good; he was walking around touching everything, breathing on everything.  Though he just wanted to be friends, he was going about it all the wrong way and at the totally wrong time.

So Jesse laid into him a little and told him to stop f****** touching everything and stay on his site.  Like a lost little puppy Joe apologized  profusely and returned to his site.  Jesse felt bad, but also didn’t at all because this guy was jeopardizing everyone.  This seemed to work fairly well and although he could still be found some days wandering around with a leaf blower, he mostly kept to his own site after that and out of trouble.

Until he found new ways to irritate Jesse and the other park staff.

One weekend we had a pretty big storm come through.  The storm swept across the south from West to East, dropping tornadoes as it went and killing dozens of people along the way.  The worst of the storm, and the worst threat for tornadoes, arrived in the dead of night around 2am.  Spring storms are pretty scary anyway, but at night, in a camper, on the side of a mountain?  That’s pretty darn scary.  So I stayed up that night watching the news in case there were reports of tornadoes in the area.

Around 2:45am Jesse and Kaci were awakened – not because of the powerful wind howling away and rocking the camper side to side – but rather because Joe Exotic was sounding a deafening air-horn from his camper, just 40 feet from Jesse and Kaci.  It seems that old Joe Exotic was up all night too, but probably for substance-related reasons, and decided to warn everyone that there was a storm.  Jesse did not find this amusing.  Furthermore, Joe called Jessica, the park manager, at 3am to tell her there was a storm coming.  Jessica, at home in bed, also did not find this amusing.

Tiger King only stayed a few more days after that.  I was a little sad when I saw his rig pulling out one day, knowing I likely wouldn’t see him again.  He was an odd character but had provided some entertainment for us through this dark time and, in other circumstances, I’d have loved to learned more about his story.  Jesse was delighted to see the back of him, of course, though I think he’ll miss him a little too.

We’re glad that we aren’t in the campground and don’t have to worry about possibly infected strangers coming up to our site and interacting with us.  I do miss people-watching and interacting with people from all walks of life.  A couple from New York has been staying for a few weeks now and told Jesse that they left out before the lockdown happened hoping to escape the madness.  I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to come to Georgia, how they feel about that decision now, whether they’d make the same decision again, and where they’re planning to go next.

There are many stories to be told in the campground, now more than ever.  I hope that when things calm down I’ll have a chance to hear some of them and maybe tell them.  For now, though, I’ll stick to my own campfire a little longer.

#26: From a Nightmare Comes a Dream

I don’t know exactly how many days it’s been since the “lockdown” began as we’ve not had to change much about our lifestyle.  Remembering social distancing when I do come into contact with people was a little difficult at first, but now I’m so acutely aware of people and the possibility that each one is sick so it’s impossible to forget. 

Otherwise things are pretty good.  I’m most anxious about it in the mornings when I know I have to head up to the campground to clean the bathroom.  There are 3 bathrooms here: 2 at the main campground (RVs and tents) and one at the lower “walk-in” sites (tent camping with no power or water on site).  On one of my first days here we had a meeting with the other hosts, the manager and assistant manager.  We talked about how to handle the current pandemic as it pertains to park duties, and who would have what duties.

Jessica is the park manager.  She’s a petite woman with a big heart and a big sense of humor.  She instantly seemed to be easy going and down to earth.  I had been anxious about management at the new park; camp hosting with an almost 2 year old can be challenging and doesn’t lend itself to a park with strict scheduling expectations of hosts.  I was relieved when I found a manager that was genuinely understanding and sympathetic to, not just our specific situation, but each team member – employee and volunteer alike – and the difficulties of navigating the pandemic from our perspective.  It was relieving to find that she was aware of it and cares about it.

So when we had our first meeting to discuss concerns and come up with solutions. Jessica took a minute to express her fears and anxiety.  She talked about seeing body bags on the streets on the news in Africa and her voice began to break. She talked about her husband and her daughters and the fear that they may get sick.  Her sincere compassion and eagerness to be truly good at her job – both on paper and in practice – makes her a wonderful person to work for both now and under normal circumstances.

So I agreed to clean the bathrooms at the walk-in sites to help ease the burden placed on Jesse and Kaci, the other campground hosts.  They’re a couple in their early 40s from Missouri and they’ve been covering the whole park for the lat month or two on their own.  By cleaning one bathroom block Monday through Friday it eases their burden a little and makes me feel less guilty.  

They’re great people too.  We’ve had them over a couple of times to hang out.  There’s enough space down here where we can sit our chairs a good 8-10 feet apart and just chat.  They’re fun, easy to talk to, and we have a lot of similar interests.  It’s nice to socialize from a safe distance in person and be distracted from all this for a little while.  It’s only been a couple of weeks but I already feel like we’ve made some solid friends here.

Aside from hosting, life is pretty good.  The weather has been beautiful so, when it’s quiet during the week, I’ve been taking Junior and Devon on some little hikes around the park where the trails are quiet. On a busy weekday we might encounter another person, but we’re able to pass at a safe distance.

Black Rock Lake trail.

We’ve come to love the lake trail.  It’s a good way to kill an hour or two on a beautiful day when the sun is warm on my skin but the mountain breeze is crisp.  It’s beautiful and peaceful down there.  The short, flat trail is easy, but the budding forest floor and the increasingly active wildlife provides plenty to enjoy for all of us.  Junior gets a real kick out of the two ducks and now quacks to coax them out of hiding, exclaiming “DUCKY” and laughing maniacally when they appear.  

The ducks of the lake have become friends that we visit often.
Devon resting in the sun on Turtle Rock.
The dam where we had a memorable day.

The grassy dam on the West end of the lake is a great spot to stop and let Junior run around chasing Devon, quacking at the ducks, and throwing rocks in the lake.  Earlier this week Chris picked up some pizza and came and met us on the dam where we sat in the sun, ate our dinner, then fed the crusts to the ducks.  It’ll remain a warm and happy memory from a time of darkness in human history.  It made me feel very lucky.

Junior running off into the sunset to find mischief on the dam.
Feeding the ducks with Papa.

Earlier this week Junior and I hiked the Tennessee Rock trail.  This fairly short hike will remain a favorite of mine in North Georgia.  It’s a somewhat unique trail in that in it’s short (approximately) 3 miles it traverses a variety of landscapes; starting as a dirt trail scaling the steep mountainside, tracing the narrow, rocky ridge of the park’s highest peak for a half mile, then dipping back into the canopy, winding through mossy mountain springs surrounded by mountain laurels, and passing through a 10,000 year old Appalachian Boulder field.  

The rocky ridge of the upper part of the Tennessee Rock trail.
The soft green spring grass is a beautiful sign that spring is arriving.
A poor picture of the 10,000 year old boulder field. It was almost dinner time and Junior was in no mood to wait for a photo shoot.

The views from the summit are spectacular; looking out to the North across a lush, fertile valley and onwards to the 80 miles of peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina. While spring is a little slower to make an appearance up here at 3,500 feet, the wild violets and seas of emerald ferns flooding the forest floor are early signs of the mountain awakening after a long, grey winter.  

The view from Tennessee Rock, enhanced by the perfectly timed appearance of a little yellow butterfly reminding us it’s spring.
Junior looking less than impressed – but he actually had a great time.
The wild violets that hug that speckle the trail in purple.

After a few hikes I saw how abundant the wild violets are here.  Their vibrant pops of purple hug the banks of the lake, surround the campsites, and speckle the grassy hillsides.  I decided to harvest a few one afternoon with Junior and used them to make a batch of homemade wild violet jelly.  Junior loves being outside and is equally fanatical about trying to help (even when he does more damage than good most of the time).  So this was an activity that combined two of his greatest loves and, even though he spent most of the time bringing me rocks and sticks instead of flowers or laughing at Devon rolling in the grass, we all had a lot of fun.  The jelly came out great and tastes like sweet spring in a jar.

Our haul of wild violets. Don’t worry – they were harvested responsibly and plenty were left over for the bees.
The violets have to be soaked in boiling water then steep for 24 hours. The violet tea ends up a beautiful, deep, bluish-purple color.
The finished product; homemade Wild Violet Jelly.

We’ve all enjoyed having Chris around more.  Even though it carries financial implications for him to be home, it sure makes family life a lot better.  On days when Chris is gone, Junior often spends his time walking around calling out “Papa!” And patting his leg like he’s calling a dog.  Junior awoke from a nap in a cranky mood a few days ago and, despite pulling out all our usual tricks, we couldn’t get him to calm down from his tantrum.  So we went outside onto the grassy hill and Chris and I threw a ball back and forth until Junior’s tantrum ceased and he joined in, giggling uncontrollably every time he threw the ball down the hill to me.

Junior goofing off with Papa on the tractor.
More fun with the tractors.

We’ve used our newfound time productively too.  Making use of our sunny, private site, we’ve planted a small container garden.  Soon we’ll have tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, cilantro, and basil – all a few feet from our door.

Chris and I have also spent a little time (mostly Chris) on a few “camper-improvement” projects adding a little storage for Junior’s clothes and our shoes.  This has freed the cupboard under Junior’s bed up to become a toy cupboard, though he now uses it as a reading-cave.  Devon has also taken to laying in the 4 foot deep cupboard, and Junior practically dies laughing at this and repeatedly slams the door then opens it again to see if Devon is still there.  

While there are days where I feel like a ball of anxiety from all this chaos in the world right now, I’ve found some fun and productive ways to silence it for a while and tune it all out.  Though there are many things that make this time seem like a living nightmare, I find that when I turn the news off and focus on what’s right in front of me I am at peace.  It’s those moments that make me wish that life this way would never end.

Our sweet, goofy, happy boy.

#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.

#18: Merry Mountain Christmas

I love the Christmas season; the lights, the hustle and bustle, the excitement, the smells of Christmas spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, the Christmas trees, and yes, even the Christmas music.  I love egg nog, I love the cozy, dark nights snuggled up to keep the cold away, I love the classic Christmas movies and all the wonderful things that come with this time of year.

But the last couple of Christmases have been a little derailed. On December 1st 2017, after 3 negative pregnancy tests, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home to pick up some egg nog. I called Chris on my way home and told him to be ready to go pick up some rum after I got home so we could get drunk on egg nog and listen to Christmas music all night. But I was still a week “late” so I figured I’d take another pregnancy test before we left to put my mind at ease. I figured it was the stress of the possibility that was disrupting my cycle. But as I washed my hands and turned back toward the pregnancy test that was sitting on the edge of the tub I saw a very distinct little pink line that would put an end to our rum and egg nog plans for the night and change our lives forever.

I walked out of the bathroom with one hand over my mouth and the other holding the pregnancy test outstretched toward Chris.  He rolled his eyes, thinking I was pulling his leg, and snatched the test from me with a smirk on his face.  It’s rather rare to witness the sudden genuine drop of someone’s jaw and the widening of their eyes as panic surges through them.  Had I not been experiencing that same emotion I probably would have found it much more amusing.  

We sat on the couch in silence for around 10 minutes before Chris finally piped up: “well, there goes my hunting room then.”  

That Christmas the pregnancy hit me so hard that I spent the entire day just as I did most others that winter; sleeping all afternoon, then waking for dinner before my eyes got so heavy that I was out cold for the night by 8pm.  It wasn’t much fun for either of us.

Christmas 2018 was mildly better, but much more stressful.  We had recently endured the most stressful and scary spell of our lives after I lost my visa, job and health insurance while 8 months pregnant (see my previous post …And When it Doesn’t). Immediately following that debacle, we had found a house to rent in Lawrenceville, GA which was far from ideal but at that time it was what we needed – a roof over our heads.  Unfortunately, shortly after we moved in in late September I began getting rather under the weather and it wasn’t until Chris took some boxes down to the basement that we discovered water and black mold all over the entire 1200 sq ft basement.  This was particularly distressing with our 2 month old baby breathing in that air.  We informed the management company, Progress Residential, who told us we’d have to move out while they were remediating.  This meant digging into what little savings we had to pay for somewhere to go, but the management company had agreed to reimburse us.

So we moved out into an AirBnB place.  Then a few days turned into a week, which turned into 2.  Before we knew it we had blown every last penny of our savings and were dangling by a financial thread before they finally completed the work and we moved back into the house in November.  What followed was a rather long and incredibly frustrating struggle with the management company as they withheld our reimbursement and threatened eviction if we refused to sign a document saying that we couldn’t sue them for anything related to the damp or mold issues.  My refusal was borne out of an unwillingness to be strong-armed into signing away any possibility to recover in case our infant son developed any health issues related to the exposure, and the fact that we had no health insurance.  But eventually we had no choice but to sign for fear of being evicted – which was the most pressing issue.

By the time Christmas came around we didn’t have a penny to our name as the “reimbursement” came in the form of a rent credit so we still had no money in the bank.  Lean as it was, we still managed to enjoy each other’s company and I cooked some very mediocre turkey breasts.  But the whole season was overshadowed by the dark cloud of being stuck in a house that I still didn’t feel comfortable in and being tied to a management company that was crooked and underhanded, not to mention the extreme financial turmoil.

So this year we finally have earned a good Christmas.  But living in a camper makes some of the aspects of a traditional Christmas rather difficult.  A tree, for example, is a little difficult to have when you’re in such a tight space.  While I’ve seen other folks that manage to pull this off, it just wasn’t an option for us in our rig with a toddler who loves to grab, climb and chew.  We also had no decorations in the rig which made me a little sad at times because I do love Christmas decorations.  

You can also go ahead and cross “traditional turkey dinner” off the list, as the oven in our rig (and most rigs) is marginally bigger than a shoe box.  Plus, for two of us it seemed like overkill and a royal headache of dirty dishes in a tiny kitchen.  

But a Christmas without those things made me a little blue, so I thought outside the box a little bit and searched around for something fun to do in the local area.  A few years ago, when I first arrived in the states, I had been to a conference at Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa, just a few miles down the road from Vogel at Young Harris, GA.  I remembered how beautifully they had decorated the place for Christmas, the huge stone fireplace, and the incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Veranda.  So I had a look on their website and found that, as luck would have it, they did a Christmas Day buffet for $52.95 per adult and $10.95 for Junior so I called and booked the last available table for 3:20pm on Christmas Day.

Christmas morning I awoke, as always, at the crack of dawn and far too excited for someone my age.  I shook Chris awake who was displeased at this and told me to go back to sleep until the baby wakes up.  So I laid there impatiently staring at the clock until I decided that Junior needed to get up anyway or else he wouldn’t nap.

After Junior and I dragged Chris out of bed we FaceTimed with our families and opened our presents (technology sure is a wonderful thing for stuff like that when you live far away from everyone).  Chris then cooked us a scrumptious breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon before Junior went down for his afternoon nap.  I took this opportunity to see to my hosting duties and gave the bathrooms a good clean.

Unfortunately Junior didn’t nap long as he was fighting off a cold that he had picked up from one of the kids at his new daycare.  So with a rather cranky baby we set off for Brasstown Valley for our Christmas Dinner.  

The view from the entrance of Brasstown Valley Resort.

The hotel is nestled in the valley just below Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak. The resort boasts an impressive 523 acres, stables, a championship golf course, a pool and spa, and unbeatable scenery. The lodge, where the main dining room is situated, is very grand with soaring ceilings, an incredible stone fireplace, and large windows that look out onto the veranda and the mountains beyond. The whole lodge is tastefully constructed to resemble a grand cabin in the woods, with sawn log bannisters, exposed beams, and exposed stonework throughout the building.

My favorite feature – the beautiful stone fireplace.
The dining hall at Brasstown Valley Resort.

The Christmas tree in the main lobby and bar area is about 20 feet high, lavishly decorated, and excites the inner child with a hand crafted wooden rocking horse, a giant nutcracker, a giant wooden Choo-choo train, and other antique toys that contribute to the overall magic and make for another beautiful backdrop for family photos.  

The gorgeous Christmas tree complete with antique toys and gifts.

Despite me talking the place up for the last week, Chris was still pretty impressed once we arrived.  We made our way to the dining room and got settled at our table before tucking into the delectable buffet.  

Buffet, for me, is a word that conjures images of greasy sub-par food that is even less appealing because it has been sat under hot lamps for hours. This, on the other hand, couldn’t be further from that image. On offer was a full Christmas carvery of roast turkey or beef, stuffing, gravy and all the trimmings. There was also a salad bar with actual fresh salad greens like rocket and arugula – no iceberg lettuce in sight. There were pasta salads, green beans roasted in cranberry sauce, roasted potatoes, and a seafood bar with peel and eat jumbo shrimp, seafood salad, and fresh oysters on the half shell.

Unfortunately we weren’t able to sit and savor the gluttonous offerings for too long, and didn’t even get a peek at the whole separate room they had for desserts, for our wee lad’s health was deteriorating into a full-blown cold and he was getting so fussy that we just couldn’t sit and let him ruin everyone else’s meal anymore.  We still got a pretty decent fill, however, so we took the chance at some fresh air on the balcony just in time for sunset.  

Drinks on the balcony.

The warm glow from the setting sun radiated across the mountains on the horizon and at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit (about 20 Celsius) with the gentle tickle of a warm breeze, it was a very romantic end to a pretty wonderful day. We took a walk down to the sunset veranda, and chatted about what a dream it’d be to come back without Junior and spend New Years Eve here. We stopped to snap some pictures and really take in the sunset before finally heading back to the truck to go home.

Junior getting a good look at the beautiful sunset.

That night we got Junior into bed and retired to the campfire with wine to reflect on the day and relax.  We had planned to play a new National Parks Trivia game that I had gotten for Chris, but the sound of a sick baby awoken with a fever beckoned us back into the camper for a night of snuggles on the couch and temperature readings every few minutes.

Despite the damper on the day with Junior being under the weather, it has still been the best Christmas we’ve had together yet and there was much to be thankful for; some kind of financial stability, a great marriage, a beautiful place to live in a glorious mountain setting, and one beautiful little boy.  Christmas 2019 was definitely one to remember.

#16: Reflections on a Rock

Most days are much the same lately.  I get up with Junior, we hang out and have breakfast, then head out to work or go on a little walk around the park.  Around 11am we come back to the camper for elevensies, a little indoor play, then it’s nap time.  After his nap, it’s lunchtime, then more walking/outdoor play, then home for dinner, indoor play, Chris comes home, bath, and finally bedtime.  The “new car smell” of Vogel has all but dissipated, and while I still love it (especially compared to the city) I have explored much of the park and am no longer surrounded by the unknown.  This coupled with the monotony of the daily routine and Chris working hard, and often late, on his current job means that I’ve once again begun to thirst for adventure.

I love staying at home with my son and watching him grow, but a year and a half without any kind of break from him, except for a handful of times where family have stepped in for a few hours, has taken its toll on me.  When we lived in the city it wasn’t an option to pay for childcare – we simply didn’t have the money.  It was either have childcare for a day or eat for a few days, so there was no point even dreaming about it.  But our new lifestyle means there’s a little wiggle room in the budget for a day care a couple days a week.  My husband, being the supportive and loving old sod that he is, has been pushing for this for a few weeks now.

I really struggled with the idea of it at first.  I felt like I was failing at my job, because it is my job, after all, to care for my son.  So putting him in day care felt like admitting that I can’t handle motherhood.  But once Junior’s molars started pushing through I realized that it was time.  The lack of “me” time left me irritable, impatient, and not the most loving of people.  I was tired from getting up with the kid several times a night, I wasn’t eating most days because I didn’t have time, I wasn’t getting a shower during the day – my overall self care had gone down the drain and my family had begun to pay for it.

So it was time.

I found a day care in Blairsville, about 20 minutes down the mountain, and called them.  As luck would have it, though they had a long waiting list, they agreed to squeeze us in because we were flexible.  After a visit to check the place out and sign some papers we were all set for Junior’s first day of day care.

This morning I dropped him off shortly after 8am.  He seemed pretty happy, though a little confused and shy, but I didn’t stick around long for fear of making it harder to leave if and when he started to have a meltdown.  I slipped out while he was distracted and my heart broke just a little when he didn’t notice, even though I know it’s really what is best for us both.  As I walked out the door and got in the truck I took a deep breath and tried to shake it off and look at the day ahead.  What shall I do with my 9 hours of freedom?

It was an easy decision.  Hiking had been on my mind since the day we pulled into Vogel and I had a bucket list of local hikes that I was itching to try.  There was one in particular that I had my eye on: Preachers Rock on the Appalachian Trail.  It looked like a relatively short and easy hike – perfect for an out of shape Mom-bod that hasn’t seen any real trail action in years.

So I drove back home, trying very hard to not keep periodically glancing in my mirror at an empty baby seat out of habit.  I wasted no time at the camper, I made some coffee, grabbed a bite to eat, threw some supplies in a backpack (eager not to repeat my last hiking disaster), grabbed my camera, and jumped back in the truck.

The trailhead begins at Woody Gap, a roughly 25 minute drive up the mountain on very narrow and winding roads.  The sun was shining and, though it was a few degrees below freezing, it was a beautiful day for such a drive.  

Devon had spent the ride, as always, laying on the passenger floorboard trying not to fall asleep.  I watched as his heavy eyelids drooped making his grey face look even older.  It reminded me of the old days when he was a pup and we lived in Athens.  He was my faithful hiking buddy back then and would leap excitedly and nimbly into the truck every weekend, eager for our next adventure.  But the black markings on his face had since turned to grey and lately his leaps lacked the spring of his younger years.  I wondered if he would be as excited for a hike as he used to be.

I arrived at the trailhead around 9:30am.  The elevation at the trailhead was 3,160ft and the view was incredible.  I knew that the hike would involve a further climb from there so this little teaser was exciting.

Woody Gap – the trailhead.

As I put the truck in park, Devon’s little head perked up and his now wide brown eyes scanned the surroundings as his tail began to wag.  He leapt out of the truck with all the vigor of his younger self and he waited for me to give the command that would let him run free.

“OK!”

He sprinted ahead down the trail and I chuckled as he frantically zipped around from exciting smell to exciting smell.  It almost felt like old times.

It was a calm morning and though the air was crisp and cool, the sun felt warm on my face.  The lack of any breeze meant it was blissfully quiet and I relished the absence of a screaming child.  As we rounded the first corner we came to a mossy rock face about 20 feet high and 50 feet across with 10 inch icicles clinging to the protrusions in the rock.  I don’t know why but I love icicles – I just think they’re really cool – so I pulled out my camera for a few shots.  But as I turned it on I was greeted with the message “no memory card” on the viewfinder.

Come on.  Seriously??

I had remembered to charge my camera.  I had remembered my lens.  I had neglected to put the damn memory card in the camera.  Rookie mistake.  That’s two for two.  Frustrated, I took a minute to express my frustrations toward the rock face, which kindly echoed my profanities back at me, making it all the more satisfying.  But I didn’t want to let it ruin my day of freedom, so I resigned myself to the fact that I’d just have to snap some pictures with my phone and come back when I was better prepared.

My sub-par pictures of icicles with a mediocre camera.

We pressed on, Devon leading the way with his soft little ears happily flapping up and down as he bounced along. The trail was surprisingly flat and easy to start out and there were some pretty views to the left through the trees across the mountains. Then the trail wound around to the right between the two peaks and into the wind. The deceptive calm of the northwest side of the mountain had lulled me into a false sense of security and as I left the shelter of the first peak the wind arrived with an icy punch. I took a second to appreciate its force, zipped up my fleece and shoved my hands into my pockets.

This is going to get chilly.

And it did. The trail began a steep incline up the second peak. The last 1/3 mile or so had an elevation gain of 500 feet and my wobbly, unfit legs felt every step of the rocky climb. The wind roared with such force that every tree was creaking and squeaking as they swayed in the bitter breeze. The higher I climbed the more vicious the wind grew until it became impossible to keep my eyes open without them tearing up.

The climb.

Eventually we made it to the top.  As I rounded the crest of the mountain the view was spectacular.  Mountain peaks stretched for miles, and the clear day meant that I could see all the way to Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, on the horizon.  Both Devon and I stood on the rock face and soaked in the view.  It’s the kind of sight that is so spectacular that you are forced to contemplate the earth as a planet and are starkly reminded of your tiny insignificant existence on it.  I sat and pondered all the life beneath me at that moment and how unaware it was that I was there.  A wave of awe came over me and I had to sit down.  

Devon soaking in the view and contemplating the big questions in life.

We spend all our time so consumed in our little lives that when moments like this do come along, these big picture moments, it snaps you out of your little world for a second and makes you really look at life for the fleeting thing that it is and appreciate it all the more.

I wish Chris was here.  

I knew he would love it just as much as I did and I wondered what big picture thoughts he would have upon seeing the view.  So I called him for a quick FaceTime, but the view on a small screen with a lens that pales in comparison to the human eye meant that it just didn’t have the same effect.  

I wonder what Junior is doing.

Funny.  I’ve been dreaming of getting away from the kid for weeks now and having some time to myself.  I’ve cried as Chris held me and told him how I just need a break.  I’ve spent weeks thinking about all the wonderful things I would do with just one day to myself to do whatever I want on my own time without anyone else to worry about or work around.

But all I can do is wish that the two people I love most were with me.  I guess that’s my big picture moment.  I came for escapism, a chance at recapturing a simpler time when it was just my dog and me against the world – but wound up finding that I no longer wanted that.  I remembered how many times on those hikes in the old days that I wished I had someone to share it with, and I guess that hasn’t changed much.  Except now I had a husband and a son whose company enhanced every great moment – even if they annoyed the heck outta me sometimes too.  So I took a second to be thankful that I now had two wonderful people in my life that I wanted to share everything with.  And though I knew the hike would be better if shared with them, I was still grateful for the space to gain that perspective.

I sat for a while on that rock with Dev just thinking about life and all the incredible and beautiful things in it, including that spectacular view.  I was grateful to be able to do that, and grateful for the company of my old four-legged friend.  But as I set off back down the mountainside the only thought left in my head was how I can’t wait to come back with my family. 

#15: Camping with Cousins

This weekend we had a much needed visit with family.  Chris’ cousin, Caitlyn, her husband, Justin, and their two young children came to visit.  It was a relatively last-minute thing, and it turned out rather well.  There was a break in the rain and cold weather which afforded a brilliant opportunity for them to bring their kids, aged 2 and 5, camping for the first time.

They drove down from their home in Nashville, TN and arrived late in the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids were, as all kids are, immediately struck by excitement upon exiting the car.  They scurried around the campsite helping their Mom and Dad to find a good place to pitch the tent and inspecting our set up.

After we exchanged hello hugs and had the customary exchange about how the drive was, they quickly set about unloading the car and getting the tent erected before the sun disappeared over Blood Mountain.  Chris tried his best to spook the kids with stories of bears and coyotes that come sniffing around in the dead of night, but I think he only succeeded in spooking Caitlyn and Justin a little.  

With relative ease and only one minor error with the rain fly, the tent was erected and we were all ready for the best of camping – campfire sitting.  I had laid a fire that afternoon in preparation for their arrival so with a quick flick of a lighter we were in business.  The kids were pretty taken with fire, but Jay (the 2 year old) was particularly entranced by it.  Once he discovered the sheer delight of putting a stick in the coals until it was alight then waving it around he was in hog heaven.  Of course this set off a chain of events leading to some increased parental supervision and some lessons on the dangers of campfires, but the kid needed no further entertainment for the night – he was set.

Annabelle is their older child.  She’s incredibly sweet and dangerously intelligent with a thirst for knowledge that makes her an utter joy to hang out with.  Several times throughout the night she came and climbed into my camp chair with me for a snuggle and said “let’s talk”.  Then she proceeded to ask questions.  ALL the questions.  

“Why does water put fire out?”

“Why do trees grow taller than people?”

“What are stars?”

“What are those dark spots in the moon?”

“How long does it take for the light from the stars to reach here?”

“What is consciousness?”

That last one was a tough one.  But she’s a smart cookie and was able to not just sit and listen to my responses, but actually understand them and explain it back to me when I asked.  It was really fun to spend some time with her and see her learning about the world from a different perspective.  It made me excited for when Junior reaches that age where he will be full of questions big and small, and hopefully many of them about wildlife, the woods, and the world.

Unfortunately we had some trouble getting Junior to stay down that night (probably too excited about his cousins visiting) and so Chris and I had to keep taking turns trying to get him back to sleep.  But we were able to spend some time by the fire chatting and catching up.  I truly believe there is no better way to spend time with people than relaxing around a campfire.  It was nice for us to have some family around to share our new life with, where conversation comes easily because we have common interests and outlooks, and it was an adventure for everyone.

The next morning the campers piled into Old Patsy to defrost after a rather chilly night in the tent.  The kids went pretty much straight to playing and exploring and Junior was particularly tickled at having another little boy to play with.  It was nice to sit back and watch them with the hope that it’s the start of a lifelong friendship and that there will be years of getting into mischief together ahead of them.  

After everyone was suitably thawed out and fueled up, the campers set out for a hike around the lake while Chris and I plonked Junior in his stroller to set about cleaning the bathrooms.

Their hike went well without only a minor incident involving Jay’s shoe being launched into the water (boys will be boys).  So after they returned we got the fire going again to get Jay’s shoes dried out.  Caitlyn and Justin also brought a slack line – something Chris and I had never tried before – and set it up between two trees at the back of the campsite.  We each took turns attempting to find our balance on the narrow, taught strap – something that wasn’t very easy after a night of a little too much wine and beer – but it gave us all a good laugh.

The younger boys found great fun in picking up sticks, poking at the fire, and using a small multi-tool shovel to dig in the dirt.  Junior seemed to be rather intrigued by his cousin and spent some time following and mimicking him in an adorable attempt to try and communicate with him.  Annabelle pottered around the campsite and tried her hand at the slack line which put us all to shame.

Then Caitlyn showed Annabelle how you bust open rocks with a hammer and find geodes and pretty crystals inside.  So they had a great time smashing up some rocks and inspecting them closely.

As the afternoon drove on though, it was getting late and time to pack up and head out.  The kids were thoroughly exhausted and set to nap the whole way home with sweet dreams of campfires, waterfalls, and mountain trails winding through their heads.  

It was wonderful for the kids to spend some time together.  Living so far away from all our family means that we don’t often get to hang out together – so we don’t take these opportunities for granted and are grateful that Junior is able to form bonds, and eventually memories, with his cousins.

As for us, we had a blast running around with the kids and are so grateful to be a part of their first camping experience.  We hope it’s given them a thirst for it and that they will nag their parents endlessly to come back to the woods for a weekend soon.

We were also grateful to spend some time with Caitlyn and Justin.  A downfall of this lifestyle is that it does take some determination from family to have them come and stay.  We don’t have a big spare room that they can stay in and, though the couch and dinette fold into beds, it’s tricky with a 1 year old sleeping 3 feet away from 7pm to 7am.  So it requires visitors to either be willing to camp, or spend the money on a cottage.  This makes it logistically tough for anyone to visit us, so we’re very grateful for the company when we can get it.  But the flip side of this is that when a trip like this happens it’s nice to have the kids outside all day, learning, getting fresh air and exercise, and being stimulated without the need for screens.

We’ve made tentative plans for a return trip in the spring before we leave Vogel, and hopefully we can get someone here to take all 3 kids for a night so we can all do the 13 mile Coosa backcountry trail and do some REAL camping along the way.  So that gives us something to look forward to.

Overall we had a great weekend with family; the kids got to make some memories together and hopefully thoroughly caught the itch to camp; we had a great night catching up with some quality time around the fire; and we got a taste for what it’ll be like when Junior is a little older and all the fun things we can do with him.  But time flies when you’re having fun – and it did just that.  So we hope it won’t be too long until they come back for more fun by the campfire.

#14: The Courteous Camper

Anyone who has done the grunt work – whether it be washing dishes in a restaurant, making the coffee in an office, or doing the housework at home – you know that it is all too often the most under-appreciated work.  There’s little to no reward and it sucks.  It’s usually unpleasant and almost always taken for granted by everyone around you.  Worst of all, it’s often only noticed when you don’t do that work.

But much to my surprise I have found that the work I do here at the park – at least at Vogel – doesn’t always go unnoticed.  In fact I’ve been rather delighted to regularly receive anything from a brief “thanks” in passing as I’m lugging a mop bucket around, down to a heartfelt “thank you” for my hard work and a lengthy praising at how clean and wonderful the park is.  

On my last rotation I was lucky enough to receive 3 heartfelt thank yous from campers as I was hard at work scrubbing bathrooms while simultaneously singing sea shanties to Junior who was growing impatient in his stroller.  

The first was a middle aged woman looking to use the bathroom block that I was cleaning.  She courteously asked which of the 4 bathrooms was best for her to use to avoid walking all over my freshly mopped floor.  I think I visibly sighed with relief as she asked me this, for I had twice re-mopped floors that morning after ignorant campers had walked straight past the “wet floor” signs and muddied my pristine floors.  I told her that there should be one almost dry on the other side that she could use.  She told me that she was happy to wait for it to dry, then proceeded to thank me for working so hard to keep the bathrooms clean.  “It’s really wonderful to have such nice bathrooms to use, we sure appreciate the work you do.”

The next was a middle-aged man tending to his tent pitched on a site near the bathrooms I was cleaning.  He stopped me just to say thank you for volunteering and doing what I do.  He said it was “refreshing” to see someone as young as myself getting my hands dirty for free (figuratively speaking, that is – I do wear gloves).  He seemed to really mean it though, not just an off-hand “thanks” but more of a “hey, THANK YOU”.

The third was a woman who had just gotten out of the shower and was headed back to her camp when she noticed me and said “thank you for keeping the bathrooms so clean, I just had my first enjoyable shower in a campground and didn’t feel disgusted by the bathrooms at all.”  Anyone who has had the displeasure of using campground bathrooms knows what she meant by it.

It’s a really nice feeling to be appreciated, even for such menial work.  It irks me sometimes to know that I worked my butt off for a law degree and fought hard for years, giving so much of myself to the cause of justice – long hours, evenings and weekends, not to mention the emotional toll – just to now be slinging a mop and cleaning poo off of toilet seats.  To say that this work is as fulfilling as capital defense would be a lie, but I’m also at a point in life where I need to do what is best for my family.  So if peeling used sanitary pads off of walls and digging out ash pits will give my family a better life and my son a better start then I’m game.  Sure I miss a good courtroom brawl now and then and occasionally I’ll sneak a peek at court dockets to see how my old cases are doing, but I’m glad to be where I am in life right now.

Occasionally there are days where I mutter about those darn kids that throw toilet paper on the floor and day dream about days where I used to put on a suit and got to use my creative intellect to solve a problem that could actually save someone’s life as I hose down some lad’s ill-fated attempt to reach the urinal from 10 feet back.  And who wouldn’t resent the work they do when it involves scrubbing shit stains off the underside of the front of a toilet seat – because HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN??  Seriously, if you are pooping on the UNDERSIDE of the FRONT of the toilet seat then you need to revisit toilet training 101 and have a SERIOUS talk with your mother about why on earth she skipped the part out where she teaches you to poop IN the toilet.

But I digress.

My point here is that we should all take a minute to appreciate the grunt workers.  I have to admit, even as someone who does such work, I am particularly bad about this.  In the last couple of months it has occurred to me that I am one of those people that almost never even acknowledges the cleaners, the janitors, the custodians, the “little people” whose work I benefit from but rarely say thank you.  Paid or unpaid, these people weren’t born thinking “when I grow up I want to clean up other people’s trash for minimum wage or less”.  Some may be trying to work their way up, some may have disabilities or personal circumstances that leave them with limited employment options, some may be former-lawyers who are doing this work for the betterment of their family life.  

So the next time you use a public restroom or a go to a park: pick up your litter, leave the bathroom as clean or cleaner than you found it, treat the facilities with respect. And if you encounter the poor soul charged with the arduous task of maintaining the facilities then take a second to thank them and squeeze out a smile – it won’t kill you, and it’ll probably make their day.  And for god’s sake, try to aim INTO the toilet.

#12: Zen and the Art of RV Maintenance

“Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

Life in an RV is very different to conventional living.  There are adjustments to be made in both the physical day-to-day living, but also in terms of one’s mentality.  Some differences are obvious and readily identifiable by merely looking at any rig.  Others are more subtle and take careful research and consideration to avoid costly mishaps.

Campers are, undeniably, small and cramped. Therefore a drastic reduction in one’s things is absolutely essential to make such a venture as ours successful. We spent about 3 months painstakingly sorting through each and every single item we owned from every drawer, closet, and cupboard. We sold, gave away and threw away more than 2/3 of everything we owned. The rest was either put in our camper or put in our 10×15 ft storage unit in Clarkesville, GA.

Even with all that hard work, we still would have appreciated another month or so to go through everything thoroughly as we were somewhat rushed when it came to crunch time and therefore our storage unit looks like a small third-world country after a natural disaster.  My number one tip to anyone considering simplifying their life would be give yourself time and start ASAP, it will take a lot longer than you think.

We did carefully consider every item that we brought into the camper, but even so, we have ended up with clutter and mess everywhere you look (hence no pictures of the inside of our camper as yet).  I have organized and reorganized but the trouble with campers is that they are not really designed to live in, but merely to vacation in.  Therefore it requires a fair amount of reworking and adapting your space before you move in to maximize your use of it.

In our old camper we had time to do this before we moved in. We had about an hour to move everything we owned from Old Jessie into Patsy, so as you can imagine it was a bloody headache to get it all straightened out when we got back to where we were staying.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There is no other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

Living in a camper also requires an adaptation of your mindset.  By choosing this lifestyle you are also choosing to live without many modern conveniences that you may have grown to love, or even depend upon.  The biggest conveniences that I miss are a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  

In the first few months of our marriage, we were very nearly torn apart by a lack of a dishwasher.  About 3 months in I put my foot down and bought one.  We laugh about it now but the struggle, at the time, was very real and arguments about dishes came close to ending our marriage in the early days.  I therefore had a great deal of trepidation about electing to subject myself to living in close quarters without such a vital lifeline for our marriage.  As it turns out, however, we have grown significantly since then.  That coupled with the fact that I don’t work full-time anymore so have more time to actually do the dishes, means that there is only mild name calling and only rare death-threats related to someone not doing the dishes.  

Another consideration when moving into a camper is the bathroom.  This is an important one to some and should not be glossed over in the decision-making process, both with choosing this lifestyle and with choosing a rig.  Bathrooms are TIGHT spaces in rigs.  They are, by no means, luxury spaces and are designed to simply allow you to take care of your basic personal hygiene.  Women: if you can’t live without 3 bags of make-up, 4 different hair styling appliances, and 18 cans and bottles of lotions and potions then this life is NOT for you.  I did have a large collection of such things prior to taking the plunge but I really only had them because we had the space for them (sort of) and I rarely used most of it anymore, so it wasn’t hard to part with the vast majority of it.  

Even so, the bathroom is tiny and there is not a lot of room for drying off after a shower or getting dressed.  We did, however, elect for a camper with a small tub.  This tub would be entirely impractical for either of us unless we felt like sitting in 10 inches of water with our knees pulled up to our ears.  But for our 1 year old who LOVES bath time – it’s perfect.  For long, hot showers on those frigid winter days however – don’t count on it.  The hot water lasts about 10 minutes in the shower; long enough to do what you need to do, but not for a good soak in scalding water like I love to do.  If you’re really hankering for a long, hot shower, then there are bathhouses at each park.  But, depending on the park, you may have to put up with poor drainage leaving you standing in a lake of your own and other campers’ filth, or generally old and unclean bathrooms.  The bathrooms here at Vogel are rather nice and so occasionally we will pop in there for a long, hot shower.

Water is an RVer’s number one enemy.  Living in a camper is a constant battle against moisture.  Roofs on RVs require regular inspection and maintenance to prevent the seals going bad on the rubber membrane, pipes and hoses are subject to regular inspection, and winter months in particular bring the need for constant diligence.  We check the weather daily and monitor for incoming or potential freezes.  When it even comes close to freezing at night we fill our fresh water tank and disconnect our city water connection to avoid a burst hose.  We also make sure to turn our space heater off or down (which we use in above-freezing temperature to save on propane, as electricity is free to us hosts) and switch over to propane heat.  Our propane heat is ducted and therefore forces heated air into the underbelly of our camper where our pipes, hoses, and holding tanks are.  Failure to prepare in this way for an incoming freeze could be disastrous and VERY costly.

Then there is the added annoyance of condensation.  In the colder months it is simply not possible to live in a camper without a dehumidifier.  Ours runs constantly through the night when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  If we turn it off then within 30 minutes or less there’s water dripping from the windows and down the walls.  Improper management of condensation leads to mold, and mold can render a camper uninhabitable fast. The underside of our mattress is a particularly troublesome area which we addressed in late winter 2020 by adding a den dry mattress pad, maxx air vent covers on the roof, and foam board insulation into the pass-through storage below our bed in order to prevent moisture and mold not the bottom of the mattress.

Managing the tanks is another ordeal. Even with full hookup sites as hosts, we still needed to monitor the tanks several times a day as newbies. Leaving the tanks open leads to nasty sewer gas creeping up the hoses and into the camper – it smells bad and can set off the propane alarm. So instead we remain hooked up to the sewer but only pull (release) the tanks as and when we need to; usually once a day or every other day.

We have 3 tanks to pull on our camper. We have one grey water tank at the front which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink; one grey water tank at the back which holds everything that drains from the bathroom, and the black water tank which holds everything that drains from the toilet. The grey water tank at the front has a sewer connection near the front of the camper, whereas the bathroom grey water and the black tanks share a sewer connection at the back (but have their own respective levers). We therefore have to have 2 sewer hoses joined to a wye connector and an elbow that is attached to the sewer line.

Seasoned full timers will tell you to ignore the infamously inaccurate sensors and instead develop a sixth sense for full tanks. The black tank, for us, needs to be dumped once a week, the grey tanks usually every 2-4 days.

We recently learned how delicate these sewer hoses are.  After a hard freeze lately, Chris noticed that the slide topper (an awning over our slide out that prevents water and debris from building on top of the slide itself) was sagging.  This concerned him, so I told him we should just pull the slide in to knock off the leaves, debris, and maybe water that was sitting up there.  So I opened the window on the slide, he stood out there to watch and make sure we weren’t going to hit or crush anything and I stood inside to operate the slide switch.  What we neglected to do was disconnect and move the hoses, which turned out to be detrimental.  As I pulled the slide in, a sheet of ice still present on the slide topper fell like a guillotine and sliced both sewer hoses clean in half.  Luckily the tanks had just been pulled and so we didn’t have to rush to Walmart until the next day to shell out another $100 to replace both hoses.  Lesson learned.

We also had a bad pipe connection on our outdoor kitchen in our new camper recently.  Within a week of having it I opened the compartment door for the outdoor kitchen to find half an inch of water at the bottom.  Upon closer inspection we found that, because the, this water had slowly crept from the outdoor kitchen at the back of the camper along the wall through the pantry, behind the kitchen cabinets, and into Chris’ sock cupboard in the bedroom.  This calamity took 2 trips to home depot and an unexpected day off work for Chris.  It wasn’t the most fun Sunday we’ve ever had.

Then there’s the kitchen.  This is a constant source of frustration for me.  As previously mentioned, I have a strong loathing for doing dishes by hand.  The trouble with this is that they can build up in the sink.  Being that the kitchen is so tiny, this means that the presence of dirty dishes in the kitchen immediately renders the kitchen virtually unusable.  So it requires a level of discipline that I have yet to master.  

The lack of space also means that we had to drastically thin out our collection of pots, pans, and kitchen gadgets. This, however, turns out to be something I am very grateful for, as I now realize how much of all that stuff I neither used nor needed. But lack of pantry space has been a difficult thing to overcome and we are still fighting that battle.

The next area that has proven most problematic for us is clothing storage.  I am addicted to thrift stores.  RVing does not lend itself to this lifestyle.  Since marrying Chris I have gone from over 150 pairs of shoes to just 20.  In preparing for this adventure I also donated 8 large trash bags full of clothes.  But lack of well-designed clothing storage means that we are constantly wading through the many clothes that are bursting from each closet and shelf.  On top of that, there is zero built-in storage for junior’s clothes or toys.  We have resorted to storage baskets of clothes haphazardly placed on the top bunk but it’s impractical and messy so finding a better solution is top of our to-do list.

Another area for serious consideration when living in a camper is the unavoidable fact that the thing moves.  Living in something that moves means that everything gets jiggled around, twisted and jolted.  More than once we have arrived at our destination, opened the door, and found that things had been thrown off shelves or out of cupboards, or that things have started to fall apart.  Luckily we’ve only suffered one broken plate so far, but that is because we take care to take the TV in the bedroom off the wall before moving, strap the living room TV to the wall, push totes on the top bunk away from the edge, and remove things from shelves that could fall while in transit.

There’s also an inherent lack of privacy in a camper. Probably not such an issue for a couple that has been together for some time, but certainly could be problematic for anyone who isn’t very, very comfortable with their partner. I have too often been cooking dinner in the kitchen or been sat on the couch writing when the bathroom door, 5 feet from me, swings open to reveal Chris sat on the toilet who asks “whatcha doin’?”

There is no escape from each other in a camper.  This is fine for us, we are quite happy living in each other’s pockets and rarely feel the need to have time away from each other.  But getting quality time away from the baby can be tough, even after he goes to bed.

Everything is easily heard throughout the camper so we have a noise machine playing white noise in the kid’s bed throughout the night, plus we put the radio on in the living room (3 feet from his bed) to drown out the sound of us talking or moving around.  But sudden noises outside or a late night knock on the door from a camper in need of help means the dog will bark and the baby WILL get woken up.  Occasionally one of us will drop something or otherwise cause a raucous which will upset the delicate peace of a sleeping baby.  Thus we spend most of our evenings outside by the fire or in the bedroom watching a movie in bad weather.

Overall, however, Junior is becoming pretty accustomed to the noise of living in a camper and is becoming a fairly heavy sleeper now.  The other day, while Junior was napping, I watched Hacksaw Ridge, a WWII movie featuring loud and graphic battle scenes which were especially loud coming through the surround sound on the camper, but Junior didn’t even stir despite the blood-curdling screams and the deafening explosions.

The sum of these factors can make for rather difficult living. But proper research, regular maintenance, and due diligence ensures that the lifestyle is not as complicated one might think, and in many ways is much easier than living in a house. The trade off here is that you end up with a dramatically lower cost of living (the payment on our camper is less than $300 per month and we have no rent or utility costs), it takes less than an hour to deep clean and organize your entire home, and you naturally just spend way less time inside whiling away hours binge watching Netflix and spend more time outside engaging with each other and exploring.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

For our son this means that in his most developmentally formative years he is outside every single day for hours playing in the woods, talking and interacting with other campers, and learning at an astounding rate. For Chris, it means a significantly lower financial burden which allows him to work less, take days off more frequently (means more family time for us), and not be subjected to the horrors of Atlanta traffic ever again. For me, it means less time cleaning and organizing, more quality time with my son, less driving around or spending money just to keep him occupied, and more time enjoying life. Hosting further allows me to regain some of my identity outside of motherhood and do something else meaningful.

The success of embarking on this adventure, at least so far, is due in no small part to the timing. If we had attempted this a year ago when we had 2 dogs that didn’t get along it would have been a catastrophe of epic proportions and someone likely would have ended up in hospital. Had we attempted it right after we got married, it would have ended in divorce and/or criminal charges. If we had waited too long until Junior was in school then fear of it being too big of an undertaking and upheaval would have prevented us from ever trying.

“Is it hard? Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

Beyond timing and preparation, the fundamental requirement for this lifestyle is the right attitude and values. Consumerism has no place here. We, as people, are happy to sacrifice wifi, television, abundant indoor space, and some modern conveniences in order to preserve what is really important to us; being together. Valuing these things highly and not wanting to give them up doesn’t make you a worse or bad person, but it does mean that you have no business even considering this lifestyle. Conventional living allows your world to revolve around those things now, and while there are so many awesome and incredible things that come from that, it comes at a price that we are just not willing to pay.

It’s a question of quality. If quality of life to you is dependent upon the quality of your wifi, cell service, and modern conveniences then this would be utter misery to you. But if quality of life is dependent upon time spent with your family, exploring nature, and simplifying – and you would be willing to sacrifice the consumerism and commit to the regular maintenance – then it is time to buy an RV.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.”

*All quotes are from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig