#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.

#34: Cave Crawling Campers

After setting off from Tennessee we had a 4.5 hour drive to our next destination; Rickwood Caverns State Park in Alabama.  We had booked 2 nights here to break up the journey.  Our original plan was to leave a few days sooner and to break the journey up into 3 legs, staying at 2 different parks along the way.  But, such is life, our plans got changed and this was the only park I could find reservations at.  

Obligatory state line sign photo.

As it happens, it was a wonderful turn of events.  The park’s main attraction is the 260 million year old cave system below ground which stays a cool 58-62 degrees year round.  This made for the perfect place to escape the southern mid-summer heat for an hour or so in the afternoon.

When we arrived, we were delighted to find that the small park boasted numerous fantastic facilities that were all within short walking distance of each other.  The campsite consisted of a mere 12 RV sites (tiny compared to the ~110 sites at Vogel and the 48 sites at Black Rock).  About 100 yards or less from our campsite was the outdoor pool complete with a vortex slide, a diving board, and a high dive as well as a kiddie pool.  Between us and the pool was a grassy stretch with a few tall pines and scattered mossy boulders which our camper opened out onto – the perfect place for Junior to run around and stretch his legs.

The view from our camp/Junior’s yard for a couple days.

The campsite was only half full on arrival and there was an empty site between us and our neighbors, so we got to enjoy a little privacy throughout our stay. Between the lower temperatures and the shade of the trees we were overjoyed to finally have some relief from the heat. That evening we sat outside and soaked in the cool breeze for a while before turning in early for a big day of adventure.

The next morning I rose early for a run with Devon.  This time, he couldn’t be happier to see me pick up his leash and he leaped joyfully from the camper with little persuasion.  We set off for a gentle jog on the gravel “fitness trail” which wound through the campsite, behind the pool, and connected to the grassy “picnic trail”; a 1 mile fairly flat trail through the woods.  It was peaceful and quiet, the morning sun shone through the leaves and the cool forest air was energizing.

We returned around 7am for breakfast and coffee.  Junior and Chris were still sleeping so I took the opportunity to sip my coffee outside with my book while it was still quiet.  Before long, however, I heard the call of an excited Junior sitting on the edge of his bunk raising his customary morning summoning; “Mama! Papa! UP!”

After breakfast we set out on a 2 mile hike on the “Fossil Mountain” trail.  It certainly lived up to its name; the landscape was rugged and rocky, with little caveats in the rock in places that looked like small cave entrances.  The rocks featured so many fossils and interesting formations.  The purples and yellows of wild woodland flowers brought some color to the grey landscape, and the tall, mature trees provided some nice shade for our hike.

Upon our return we suited Junior up and headed to the pool for a morning swim.  He had a blast splashing around and watching the kids from our neighboring campsite jumping and diving into the pool.  I took Junior down the vortex slide which, retrospectively, was probably a poor parenting decision but it taught him a valuable lesson on holding his breath in the water.

Suitably refreshed and worn out, we headed back to the camper for some lunch and Junior went down for a nap.  He woke around 1:45pm – just in time for our 2:00pm cave tour.  This was the highlight we had been looking forward to.

The cave was spectacular.  It was originally discovered by a hunter and his dog in the mid 1800s, but lay rather forgotten until the 1950s when the boy scouts rediscovered it.  In the mid-late 1950s the cave was used as a nuclear fallout shelter, and many cool artifacts such as gas masks and other paraphernalia had been discovered and were on display in the small museum on site.

A block building was built over the entrance to the cave which housed a staircase descending into the cave.  At its deepest, these caverns lie 175 ft beneath the earth which is why the temperature is so mild.  

The cave consisted of many “rooms” filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The texture of the rock and the space in each room varied. Some of the rooms were smaller with a low ceiling but were 10- feet across in places, others were narrow with stalactites hanging 23-30 feet above and Chris had to squeeze and squat to get through some of the passages with the baby carrier on his back.

Some of the rock was smooth and seemed to flow like water throughout the cave, as if holding the memory of the ocean that carved it. Some of the rock was covered in tiny holes and was volcanic in its appearance. In places the walls glittered in the glow from the golden light of the bulbs strung along the cave walls, in others the light passed through the thin stalactites and natural bridges revealing streaks of red and brown earning it the nickname “the bacon”. Various tunnels spun off from the main cave in which the rock seemed to spiral into the abyss of the black hole. Many of the rooms had dark passages of various shapes and sizes leading away in different directions that crept away menacingly.

The scent of the rich earthen floor and damp limestone was both pleasant and dank.  The cavern was lit by small bulbs placed throughout and our guide turned the lights out when we were at the deepest room in the cave so we could experience total darkness.  A cave is one of only 3 places on earth where one can experience absolute total darkness.  As the lights went out Junior had a moment of wondering what was going on, but I gave his hand a squeeze and spoke calmly to him which relaxed him a little until the lights came back on.

Junior has had a fascination with rocks for some time now, so he spent much of the tour exclaiming “wow, rocks!”  We got to peek into the disused fallout shelter too.  The latter part of the tour took us into the rooms where the stalactites and stalagmites were still growing.  The room was damp and drippy which gave the cave a more eerie vibe. 

Towards the end was part of the underground lake.  On a recent investigative expedition divers found schools of albino fish living deep within the crystal clear blue waters of the icy lake.  

After an hour on the tour we reached the final ascent; a steep, narrow staircase winding up through the rock to the surface.  I took over with the baby carrier for this part and squatted and wiggled my way up the through the tight passageway, my legs burning from the extra 40lbs of baby and gear on my back. Satisfied with our daily dose of education we headed back to the pool for to cool off in the afternoon heat.

As the sun began to dip lower in the sky we dragged our enervated bodies back to the camper for some dinner.  By the end of bath time I was falling asleep on the couch.  Chris woke me to sing my goodnight songs to Junior before bed, at which point Chris was falling asleep.  In fact, the only one who didn’t seem thoroughly spent from our full day of activities was Junior, who only wanted to bounce on the couch and play.

When Junior was finally down for the night, we collapsed in our chairs outside and remarked on what a great day it was and how exhausted we both were.  It was a great mini-vacation and will be one to remember for a long time.  Dreary-eyed, we stumbled to bed at the rock-star time of 8:30pm for a full night’s sleep ready for our adventure back to the top of Black Rock Mountain the next day.

#32: Westward Bound

On Wednesday, July 1st, we packed up and set off for a month-long trip to Tennessee. We have some affairs to get in order there and both wanted a break from the stresses of work so we could have some time together as a family. We get few family days to enjoy together as Chris has been working so much and I usually have volunteer obligations at the park, so this was a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

We got packed up on Tuesday night for the most part. By 10am on Wednesday we were loaded up and ready to head down the mountain. This part of the drive turned into a bit of a skiing adventure momentarily and we skied down the gravel service road from the maintenance complex. Thankfully, Chris managed to maintain enough control to get us safely to the bottom and away we went. Junior spent the drive either napping or watching Home Alone on his new DVD player – a kind gift from his Tronny (my mother) and now our most treasured possession. We owe our peaceful drive entirely to her.

Though storms were forecast for the day we actually got remarkably lucky with the weather.  As we drew closer to Alabama the moving day jitters melted away and we arrived at our destination at around 2pm CST having gained an hour when we crossed the Alabama line.

Cheaha State Park was our home for the night and it was a fine choice, if I may say so myself.  The park is the highest point in Alabama.  Though the elevation is only 2,407 ft, it was a good transition point for us and still boasted the cooler mountain breezes we’ve grown so accustomed to, and some pretty stunning vistas.

Our reservation was for the lower campground which was toward the bottom of the mountain nestled in a valley next to Cheaha Lake. Arriving and setting up in the heat of the day put us in the mood for a dip so we promptly changed into our swimming gear and headed back out.

The lake was beautiful and the water was perfectly tepid.  The rocky peak of the mountain towered above us and we had the whole lake to ourselves.  We splashed around for an hour or so and Junior had a blast throwing big rocks into the lake and watching them sink to the sandy bottom.  It felt like our first real little family getaway – just us, no stress or worry, surrounded by wild nature.  I sat on the sand and listened to Junior cackling with delight as he splashed around with his Papa.  I think we all felt in that moment that we could have stayed there for an eternity.

But alas, dinnertime beckoned us back to the camper for some roasted veggies and smoked sausage.  After dinner we headed to the top of the mountain to Bald Rock for a walk.  The drive was stunning and we weaved through magnificent boulder fields and passed a few deer on our way to the top.

The short 1 mile trail consisted of a boardwalk elevated a few feet above the forest floor. It wound through the rugged ridge-top forest surrounded by lichen-covered boulders and twisted, gnarled trees. Chris and I remarked how we’d never seen so much lichen and that the landscape had a sort of eerie and ominous sense to it that was strikingly beautiful. “Cheaha” is derived from the Creek Indians who named the mountain “Cheaha” meaning high place. Roaming the landscape here and taking in its mysterious vibe, I was struck by what the Native American People must have seen in this land.

Of course, Junior had no time to notice this and he spent the entire walk charging up and down the boardwalk at full speed, only stopping momentarily here and there to gawp upwards at the towering tree tops. 

The trail ended at Bald Rock which provided a sweeping view to the West across the lower, flatter 400,000 acres of Talladega National Forest. We soaked in that breeze for a short while before heading back down the trail to the truck and we vowed to come back on our way home.

Chris and I indulged in a glass of wine for me and a beer for him that evening. We sat outside talking into the night and critically analyzing a Sturgill Simpson album. Though it’s the sort of thing we do regularly, the absence of the stresses and frustrations of everyday life as well as the change of scenery made it feel special. It was the perfect end to our mini family vacation.

The next morning we got packed up and, once again, managed to get on the road by 10am. Junior never made a peep for the whole 6 hour drive and was content with Home Alone and snacks. We got so lucky with the weather again, in fact we got lucky in just about every way with our trip. Every traffic light seemed to be green and every stop sign seemed to be clear.

That is, except for one heart-stopping moment. Coming out of the park there was a large dump truck in the middle of the road which forced us over and into the steep verge. This left the camper sliding down the bank off the road. Chris stepped on the accelerator and pulled us out in the nick of time. It was otherwise a very pleasant trip.

Around 2pm we stopped in Tupelo, MS at Veterans Memorial Park to stretch our legs. We thought it was a good, open space to let the boys run around and get some fresh air before the final stretch of our journey. But as we opened the doors and stepped out, the thick, heavy heat belted me in the face and about took me off my feet. I immediately began reconsidering my decision.

Junior had fun giggling at the ducks on the lake and Devon rolled happily in the grass as Chris and I tried our best not to collapse from the heat exhaustion. It wasn’t long before we were retreating back to the cramped quarters of the truck for the solace of the air conditioning.

Another 2 hours later and we finally made it to Chris’ parents’ house. As I stepped out of the truck the heat just about made me pass out. My head was immediately pounding and the sweat dripped from every inch of my body. 94 degrees (35 Celsius), 90% humidity, no trees for shade and not a lick of a breeze. Welcome to Tennessee. You’re not in the mountains now.

As Chris stepped out of the truck we looked at each other and said, with a shake of the head and a defeated grin, “shit, it’s gonna be a long month.”

We began setting the camper and getting things set up as quickly as possible, but ran into a snag. The outlet Chris’ Dad had gotten installed in the garage was the wrong one – we couldn’t plug our camper in. No power means no air conditioning. This was devastating news to me.

I was born in Canada and raised in England – I am biologically not cut out for these temperatures.  Chris laughs at me for my inability to handle the heat here.  I’m truly in awe of how anyone can actually function in these conditions.  It’s crippling to me, both physically and mentally.  In the last few years in the south I have found that summers often bring on dizzy spells and light headedness that has left me very close to passing out.  I get dehydrated quickly and I struggle to think straight.  No amount of water seems to help and I spend the height of the summer mostly inside – at least in the middle of the day.

So the lack of air conditioning was a deal breaker and I was close to suggesting we just find a nearby park to go to. Chris jumped in the truck and went out looking for a replacement receptacle to fix the problem. Meanwhile, I waited for his return outside. Devon doesn’t get along with other dogs at all so he couldn’t be in the house with my in-laws’ 2 dogs. He couldn’t go in the camper as it was close to 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in there even with the windows open. So I had to hang out with him in the front yard and wait for my husband to come to the rescue.

As Chris always does, he fixed it up and just before I completely melted in the heat, we finally had the a/c back on. Of course, by this point, I looked like I had just stepped out of a shower fully clothed.

I had hoped that the evening would bring cooler temperatures but alas it was not to be. The evening air was only mildly less stifling. As Chris and I laid down in bed that night with the a/c set as low as possible, we realized that we were in for a long, uncomfortable month with minimal outdoor activity. It was certainly a big shock to the system – one that we logically knew would occur but still knocked me sideways when we arrived. I’m hoping we get lucky with the weather and that there’ll be some rainy and overcast days so we can get out and go for some walks by the Mississippi river. But until this weather changes I’ll be in the camper hiding from the sun. Come hang out, but bring me something cold ✌️❤️

#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.

#27: Mishap on the Mountain

Thursday was another beautiful day on the mountain. Having done a few hikes in the park I decided to try a section of the longest trail in the park; the James Edmonds trail.  The trail is only 7.2 miles total (according to the park info which usually understates the length of trails) but given that I am far from my pre-baby fitness levels I decided to try a shorter 3 mile section of the loop.  

After Junior’s nap I gave him some snacks, milk, and a fresh diaper before strapping him into the pack and setting out. Our pack, a Deuter Kid Comfort II, is easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made and I’m so thankful for it. We walked down the gravel road to the main road through the park and down part of the gravel lake road until it met the section of the trail I intended to hike.

Setting out.

Looking at the map I could tell there was going to be a fairly challenging incline for the first part of the trail but I gravely underestimated how much of a gruesome cliff-scaling operation this would actually be. Within a few minutes of being on the trail I was too out of breath to continue my idle chatter and singing to entertain Junior and warn bears of our presence. At this altitude it’s still early spring and near freezing at night, so the trees were yet to sprout any leaves to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for us hikers.

The lack of leaves did, however, provide impressive vistas across the surrounding valleys.  The higher we climbed on Scruggs Knob along the eastern fork of the trail, the more spectacular the scenery became.  

The trail finally flattened out somewhat as we approached Marsen Knob and I was able to enjoy the hike a little more.  Junior giggled furiously as Devon bounced along next to us and I spent most of my time looking down for snakes or looking up for bears.  The hike was peaceful and we encountered no other hikers.

The trail around Marsen Knob.

After a little over an hour we reached our destination; the overlook at Lookoff Mountain.  Situated on a bald on the North side of the mountain, this spot was yet another beautiful place to soak in the view of the green valleys and blue peaks stretching into the horizon and kissing the azure sky.  I took a minute to rest here and slid the heavy pack from my back, flicked the kick stand out, and set Junior down on the flattest part of the rock.  I pulled out some water for all of us and turned to take a picture of the overlook.

The view from Lookoff Mountain Overlook.

This is where the hike went from just another great day with my son and my dog, to a pretty scary disaster.

As I was snapping a picture I heard a thud.  I turned to see that the backpack had fallen over with Junior in it.  I did the classic Mom-jog over to him, thinking he was fine and that it was just a little scrape.  But as I pulled the pack back up I saw that he had landed face first onto the rock with no way of breaking his fall.  I found that he had an enormous instant goose egg with some pretty serious bruising.

I raced to unclip him from the pack.  The shock of the fall and the pain that must have been horrific took his breath away and he was silently crying so hard and struggling for air that it panicked me even more.  I tried to remain calm as I pulled him out of the pack, held him close, and tried my best to assess the damage.  

Poor kid banged his head pretty good.

It was bad.  There was no denying that this was no little scrape.  As he caught his breath he let out a blood-curdling scream – the type that sends a surge of adrenaline through any parent.  There was little I could do on the side of a mountain.  I raced through the options in my head while I tried to calm my poor boy.

I called Chris.  Even though he was miles away and had no way of getting to me, he’s always the first person on my mind in a crisis.  As I spoke to him it became clear he didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the situation.  I sent him a picture of Junior’s head, at which point he immediately understood my panic.

My next move was to message the park manager, Jessica, who is now becoming something of a hero for us. I thought it was a good idea to let her know where I was, what had happened, and ask her what the quickest way was down the mountain. She immediately told me that she was on her way to meet me at the bottom of the trail and told me which route to take (there are several trails down the mountain.

The trail she told me to take was an old service road that hasn’t been used in many years. It’s overgrown and neglected, but cuts straight down the mountain and provides the most direct route. I hesitated for a moment. Going back the way I came was at least a route I knew to be passable, going for a new route was risky as I didn’t know how bad the recent storms would have washed out the road. Concerned that Junior may be severely concussed and need medical attention soon, I opted for the most direct route.

I set off as quick as I could.  Junior was reluctant to get back in the pack but cooperated nonetheless.  We headed back up the mountain to descend the other side.  When I reached the top the trail split in a place that I didn’t remember a split before.  I headed down the path I believed to be correct but after 100 yards we reached a dead end.

We’re not off to a great start.

I turned around, frustrated that I was wasting time, and took the other path. Paying close attention to the map I jogged back down the mountain side, taking care not to slide on the rocky slope, or turn an ankle over on the deep ruts caused by rushing water of recent storms. Junior continued to cry throughout the journey, despite my best efforts I couldn’t comfort him. I did, however, feel somewhat comforted by his crying. Crying meant he was awake. My biggest fear during the journey was that he would pass out or start vomiting. These were signs of a severe concussion and would mean that I was in a dire situation.

We reached another fork in the trail and stayed left following the old service road. The mouth of the road was in bad condition. The previous week we had a storm come through Georgia that brought tornadoes and 7 inches of rain in one day. I stayed up until 3am that night waiting for the rain to quit pounding on the camper and the wind to stop howling outside. That storm had left the trail in bad shape. I took another second to consider if this was really the best option, but brushed my fears aside and pressed on down the ravaged service road.

A lack of any kind of traffic on the dirt road had left it covered in waist-high weeds where there weren’t 2 foot deep ruts in the trail washed out by the heavy rain. Being careful to watch for snakes, I charged down the road as fast as I could with the 40 pounds of extra weight on my back. The trail sloped gently downhill and straight to the Southeast towards home. I was grateful not to have to crash down the steep mountainside and wind through the valley.

After 10 minutes on the trail we rounded a corner and I found the road almost completely washed away by storm water running off the mountain. The trail was ordinarily about 8 feet wide with a sharp drop off to my left and a sheer cliff to my right. The water had all but completely washed a 6-8 foot section out and left just 2 feet of earth near the base of the cliff. The remaining earth was sunken and was potentially unstable. Junior was whimpering on my back and clearly in pain. To go back meant losing another 10 minutes or more going back up the trail, then another 30-45 minutes to go back down the way I came.

I took a deep breath and hung onto the roots protruding from the cliff as I edged across the rut.  The wash-out was not as bad as I feared and the ground was stable enough for us to pass.

Safely on the other side, I resumed my exhausted trot down the mountain using my phone camera periodically to check on Junior’s head. He seemed ok, but I couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to waste with unstrapping the pack to check on him every few minutes.

Looking at the map and judging by the direction of the trail our position in relation to Scruggs Knob, we were only a few minutes from the end of the trail where help would be waiting.  But as we turned another corner another obstacle appeared.

This time it was a downed tree.  Not a tall slim pine, no that would be too easy.  This tree had big, bushy limbs coming out every which way and was laying straight across the trail.  Going back was not an option so I had to fight through the brush and clamber over the tree trunk with the awkward load on my back – now feeling more like 100 lbs.

Being thoroughly unprepared for this surprise obstacle course that had now become my hike, I was absolutely exhausted and begging the universe to spare me any further mishaps or misfortunes.  Once again I took off running down the trail toward the road.

Finally, after a very stressful and strenuous 30 minute race down the mountain I reached the road to find Jessica waiting in her car.  I threw the dog in the back seat, unbuckled Junior from his backpack and hugged him tight all the way home.  The goose egg was now protruding significantly and I was pretty concerned about whether we should take him to the hospital.  

When we arrived I thanked Jessica and took Junior inside to clean him up and assess him further.

Pupils seem ok, doesn’t seem drowsy, no vomit on my back, he seems alert and like himself for the most part, albeit obviously in pain.  I think he might be ok.

I tried to apply ice but he wasn’t having it. He kept pointing to the fridge. So I sat him down and listed off the contents of the fridge while he shook his head at each one. Honestly, at that point, I’d have given him beer if that was what he wanted to make him feel better. I was desperate to take his pain away. Thankfully we got to the cheese before then and he grinned and nodded.

Within a 30 minutes of getting home he was sat happily in his camp chair eating a half pound of cheese and watching the gameshow channel. I was relieved to see him smile and begin saying “happy” with a cheesey (pun intended) grin on his face.

We kept him up for a little longer after bed time that night to make sure that he was ok before we put him down. Amazingly, our little soldier seems to be alright. He’ll be sporting one hell of a shiner for a couple of weeks but I think he’ll still be starting school on time.

Once again, a simple walk in the woods became far more eventful than planned. But we’ve lived to tell the tale and still managed a good day overall. I’ll definitely be packing some extra first aid gear -including ice packs – from now on though. If you ever go to Lookout Mountain in North Georgia, be sure to look for the rock with the dent in it left by my brave son’s head.

The boy is ok-ish.

#23: A Plea for Action

The world has watched as, over the last few weeks, the outbreak of COVID-19 has grown to become a global pandemic.  For many like us, these are uncertain times that spark significant fear over what may be to come over the coming weeks.

We’ve all seen the warnings: wash your hands, distance yourself socially, stay home from work, schools and daycares are closed, and avoid all unnecessary travel.  For those who are adhering to those guidelines – I applaud you.  But unfortunately I’m not seeing that.

Here at Vogel State Park I watch everyday as more and more spring breakers pour into the campground.  I watch as children swarm the playground.  I watch as people line up outside the bath houses in the mornings.  I watch as people pour into the visitors center to check in, get maps, and buy firewood and souvenirs.  I am seeing car tags from Florida (by the dozens), Tennessee, North and South Carolina, nearby Georgia counties, and even from Wisconsin.  

I spoke to a camper this morning (from a safe distance) who said that they had planned to go to Disneyland for spring break but when Disneyland closed they decided to come here instead.

I think there is something that these people are fundamentally overlooking or ignoring.

Disneyland and other places are closing because we, as a country, need people to stay home right now.  That doesn’t mean that you should change your plans and find some other place to crowd.  It means that, if you have a home to stay at, then stay home.

For us, these crowds are extremely troubling.  We have no sticks and bricks home to go to.  We live in our camper – a <200 sq ft space in which we depend on campground hosting to have somewhere to stay.  To ensure our placement I must fulfill my daily hosting duties which includes cleaning the bathrooms that hundreds of campers are using daily.  I cannot opt out of this or we will lose our placement at this park and will have no other place to go.  Furthermore, with daycare closed, I am now required to do this with my 18 month old son with me full-time.

Sure, we are young and healthy and will likely overcome the illness should we contract it.  But if we do, in fact, contract COVID-19 we will be forced to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  I think (or I hope) it’s probable that the staff at the campground will be compassionate and allow us to stay during that time, if it should come to that.  But my husband is self-employed and if he doesn’t work then we have 0 income.  With little savings, a 2 week self-quarantine would leave us in significant financial turmoil.  We’re already facing significant financial turmoil as the markets continue to plummet and unemployment continues to rise as it is likely that, over the coming weeks, Chris’ customers will begin to cancel the home-improvement projects for which they had him scheduled.  So a 2 week quarantine would seriously diminish our chances of getting ahead of any future dry periods of work.

Aside from us, I worry about the other folks here at that park that are being placed at risk by the influx of spring breakers.  Most of the women in the visitor’s center are over 50 or 60 years old.  The other campground hosts here, and for the vast majority of state parks, are over 60 years old and therefore in the high-risk group.  The park cannot operate without us; as volunteers we are the only people responsible for maintaining the campground facilities and if we all decided to leave then it would place a massive burden on the park staff who have become like our family.

I understand that, particularly for families with young children, canceling spring break plans can be devastating. But I am urging people to consider the wider consequences of their actions. Overnight I watched the number of confirmed cases in Georgia jump from 197 to 287 and the death toll leap from 3 to 10; numbers which continue to grow by greater margins daily. I have watched the local stores empty of ALL toilet paper, canned goods, bread, meat, cleaning supplies, and now fresh produce.

I am NOT suggesting that this is a time to panic.  The stores will refill and officials are working to mitigate the effects of the shut downs on citizens.  There is simply no need to panic right now.

There is, however, a need to very strongly and carefully consider the impact that your actions will have on EVERYONE around you when you make the decision to leave your home.  Now is not a time to go on vacation, now is the time to collectively sacrifice for the most vulnerable in our society; the elderly, the immunocompromised, the low-income, and the self employed.  You may think that this is no big deal and that this will blow over – but that’s likely because you have little to lose in this situation.  For folks like us, there is so much at stake and we are surrounded by uncertainty.

So, while it may suck to have to abandon your spring break plans or let those cheap flight and hotel prices pass you by, please help your fellow humans who are dependent upon your responsible decision-making during such turbulent times.  By all means, get out and take a hike on a trail, or explore the great outdoors, but only if this can be done without visiting public areas where the risk of the spread of the virus is high.

We will all pull through this and one day look back on it and be glad that it’s over.  For now, though, let’s do what we can to help each other out.

Please share and encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to abandon all unessential travel plans.  Thanks!

#21: I’m still alive

This winter has been the winter to which all future winters will be measured against. We have endured the flu, colds, sinus and ear infections, stomach bugs with some serious vomiting, a motorcycle accident, snow, then 70 degree sunshine, then torrential rain and flooding, tornado warnings, then more snow, and a dangerous lack of hiking and fireside time.

It’s been a rough go round, but we’ve survived this far and I’m fiercely clinging to the notion that spring time will bring brighter days.

We knew that putting Junior in daycare would result in exposure to more germs and thus lots of sick days, but this has been a real shock to the system from a kid who never had so much as a runny nose for the first 12 months of his life. But he has been a real trooper through it all and I’m delighted to say that he’s faced it all with a cheeky smile and an undying love for his dog whom he snuggles with daily.

Chris gave it a good old college try at scaring me half to death a couple of weeks ago. Junior went down for a nap one afternoon and Chris decided it was a good time to go for a ride on his motorcycle. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly gave him a goodbye kiss. Not 20 mins later I got the call that I dread receiving every time he goes riding. But it wasn’t quite how I’d played it in my head 100 times before.

“Hey, what’s our permanent address?”

“Why?”

“Just give me the address!”

Oh god, he’s been pulled over for speeding. I’m gonna kill him. How many bloody times have I told him to be bloody careful on that bloody…

“Ok, I need you to come and pick me up, I’ve had an accident.”

I believe my heart may have actually stopped had he not been on the phone and talking to me. This one fact is about all that kept me together as I woke the baby from his nap, strapped him into his car seat, and tried to keep my hands from shaking as I drove down the mountain anxious to see what condition my husband was actually in.

As it turns out, Chris was downtown (thankfully) when the accident happened. An old man failed to look before pulling out right in front of Chris. With no time to react he slammed right into the side of the car and flipped over it. His hips and groin slammed into the handlebars and seem to have taken the brunt of the blow. Miraculously, however, he suffered relatively minor injuries compared to the many scenarios that had played in my mind before. Though badly bruised and barely able to walk, he suffered no broken bones and I cannot overstate how thankful I am that my husband came home that day.

Chris being Chris, he immediately started talking about getting another bike that night. We very rarely argue at all nowadays, but I sure felt one boiling up with that statement. Sure, I have compassion and empathy for the loss of his hobby and I understand that everyone needs a little escapism now and then. But it’s time to get a new hobby.

Despite emotions being high, we managed a calm and open discussion on the issue. We arrived at the compromise that Chris would use the insurance money to get a boat. This way he would have his “toy” to go and have some Papa time with, but this toy wouldn’t cause me extreme anxiety every time he wanted to use it. Though Chris is still grieving the loss of his dear machine (that we got married on), it’s a compromise that we both feel pretty good about. And I promised him that one day there would be a day, when Junior is much older, where I would definitely be on board with getting another motorcycle or two.

So all this to say: winter 2019/2020 has been a bugger. But we are all still here and all still together, so life isn’t so bad. The last couple of months have been very trying and admittedly has caused, at times, some resentment for living this lifestyle. But with spring around the corner and a new adventure at Black Rock Mountain on the horizon, I’m desperately hoping it’ll bring a renewed appreciation for our lifestyle.

Until then, here are a few snaps that I’ve managed to take on the odd days where I’ve felt somewhat human and been able to drag myself outside for some gentle hiking therapy.

Clouds rolling through Vogel at Lake Trahlyta.
Sunset over Lake Trahlyta
Foggy morning at Lake Trahlyta.
The same foggy morning at Lake Trahlyta.
If your eyes are open to it, there is beauty to be found even in the dreariest of times.
Lake Trahlyta.

#19: A 21st Century Redneck Fairytale

It was a beautiful weekend when Chris and I met, much like it is today here at Vogel.  Though it’s colder here today, the sun is warm and has a way of making everything look so much prettier.  This time of year makes me think of how Chris and I got our start 3 years ago, though it was a few months earlier than that when we first met.

As I said, it was a beautiful weekend – or at least in my mind it was.  Meeting my future husband was, most definitely the last thing on my mind that Friday when I opened the door to Chris.  

In 2016 I was living with my roommate in Athens.  We had a large house with 2 spare rooms and a spare bathroom.  We decided to capitalize on this and rent the spare rooms out through AirBnB.  This proved to be a very lucrative venture for, in case you’re unfamiliar with Athens, GA, it’s the home of the Georgia Bulldogs (American college football).  On game weekends the population of Athens almost doubles from ~125,000 to ~200,000.  Their stadium holds about 93,000 but many come just for the spectacle of the tailgating events where fans spill onto the streets to grill out from the back of their trucks and play various drinking games on any square inch of outdoor space they can find.  The place becomes a circus.

Hotels hike their prices way up and still sell out for these events forcing fans to find alternative places to stay.  By renting our 2 spare rooms, and eventually our large sun room at the back of the house, we would make enough money in one weekend to cover the rent for the month.  We had up to 13 people staying in the house at any one time before.

So when Georgia played their long-time rival, Tennessee, on the last weekend of September in 2016, it was no surprise when we were booked up months in advance.  One such booking was from two young men from Memphis, TN; Bo and Chris.

They arrived on the Friday and we immediately clicked.  I had two friends, Sharryn and James, visiting from the UK, so we all hung out together for the weekend.  After Chris and Bo arrived I showed them to their room to get settled and then they came downstairs to the den for some drinks with us.  We had a lot in common – including the same twisted sense of humor, and we all became old friends instantly.  The Memphians found it hysterical to hear us Brits cuss so we gave them a lesson in British swearing – in my opinion one is not a true Brit unless they can swear and drink like one.  They asked where the good bars were in Athens so I invited them out with us that night and they gladly accepted.

Bo on the left, me in the middle, and Chris scowling in the foreground. 2016

We ended up hanging out all weekend, tailgating together before the game and then meeting up afterwards to go home, get refreshed, and then head back out to the bars for commiserations (Georgia narrowly lost thanks to a hail mary from Tennessee in the final seconds of the game).  

Chris told me that weekend that he was going to marry me.  I laughed and rolled my eyes.  Yeah right, I thought, I’ll never see this guy again.

On Sunday it came time for them to go home.  We all exchanged numbers and social media info and said we’d stay in touch.  I remember thinking that I would love to see them again and hang out, but figured that it just probably wouldn’t happen given that they lived an 8 hour drive away.

Chris has told me numerous times that as he and Bo drove away that day that he reiterated his vow to marry me.  He’s not right often, but on this occasion he actually was.

A couple months went by and we had sent the odd message to each other and loosely stayed in touch but never mentioned any plans to hang out.

Then right after Christmas I took a trip to Memphis, TN with my Canadian parents.  

Making our way from Georgia to Tennessee through Alabama…

…and Mississippi…
… and finally to Tennessee.

I am fortunate enough to have many loving parents across the world.  My Mom, Tron, and Step Dad, Rob, live in England.  My Step Mom, Morgan, and Step Dad, Ara, divide their time (when they are not gallivanting around the world) between Washington State and Victoria, BC.  My in-laws, Ric and Cindy live in Tennessee.  And our Mountain Mama, Carol, lives in Cornelia, GA.

I spent a few days over New Years with Morgan and Ara staying at Bo’s in Memphis.  Being that we were all in our twenties we had planned to hit the bars again for drinks and maybe some pool.  That first evening of our trip on December 30th 2016, at a bar called Arcade on a chilly night in Memphis, Chris finally kissed me and started something that neither of us had any idea would change our lives forever.

The next few days we were inseparable.  We took a freezing cold motorcycle ride from Chris’ house in Titpton County to downtown Memphis and, though my legs were numb within minutes into the ride, I’d never felt so content as I was on the back of that bike with my arms around the man that I already knew I was quickly falling in love with.

By the end of the short trip my heart ached at the idea of saying goodbye.  There was one question lingering at the back of my mind that whole trip but I didn’t dare ask it for fear of the answer; am I ever going to see him again?  

We kissed goodbye and I tried to be happy for the time we had together and told myself that it was unforgettable few days, if nothing else.  But as we drove away I felt sick and couldn’t get that pesky Memphian out of my head.

In the weeks that followed we spent every waking (and sometimes sleeping) moment on the phone to each other, texting and snap chatting throughout the day, then talking for hours into the night.  We visited each other a few times in the following months, every couple of weeks.  He’d drive 8 hours after work on a Friday to visit me in Georgia, returning on Sunday.  Then a couple of weeks later I’d take a Friday off, leave on the Thursday night, and stay until Sunday.  We’d spend the ENTIRE drive there and back on the phone to each other.  

Then in February Chris came to visit me.  The weather was still pretty cold, but it was dry which made for good camping weather.  So we packed up on the Saturday and headed out to the mountains and hiked in to my favorite spot on the Chattooga River.  We sat by the fire talking, went exploring, took some pictures, and laughed a lot.  That night we told each other that we loved each other.  The next day Chris was supposed to leave to go home, but we both called in to our jobs and got the Monday off so we could stay another day.

Exploring the mountains around North Georgia and North Carolina
Chris enjoying the camp at the Chattooga River.
I don’t think I stopped smiling that whole weekend.

Over the next couple of weeks Chris kept reminding me of his vow to marry me.  I’d still laugh and brush it off.  But as we thought about our future together we realized we had a lot of figuring out to do as to whether he would move to Georgia or I would move to Tennessee.  But one thing was certain and never required a conversation: one of us would be moving, because the worst part, and only bad part about our relationship was having to say goodbye to each other for a couple of weeks each time we were together. 

So one Monday in March, after 3 months of long distance dating, we were one the phone late at night and we were making plans for my visit to Chris that coming weekend.  

“We could just go to the courthouse and get married.”  He said, not joking at all.  I had never cared for a lavish wedding.  Neither of us had the money for it and there was the logistical nightmare of having family in 2 different countries; which family will be subjected to the expense of flying over?  Then if we do it that way we’l have to wait a year or two for everyone to save up.  The more I thought about it, the more it became about planning a wedding for everyone else, not for us.  

“Ok, let’s do it.”  I said, not quite believing the words coming out of my mouth.

So on Thursday, March 16th 2017 I drove to Tipton County.  The next afternoon, on St. Patrick’s Day, we hopped on Chris’ motorcycle after he finished work and we rode to the house of a very nice woman named Patricia, whom we had never met, but whom had agreed to marry us for $100.  After a quick ceremony in our best jeans and helmet hair, we were officially married.

Marriage license in hand, off to Patricia’s house.
Newlyweds.

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea – but it suited us just fine.  We knew from the get go that we were committed to each other and had the same ideas for what we wanted in life.  It was actually a very easy decision to make, and one that neither of us regret in the slightest.  

While it was difficult to break the news to our families – our mothers, in particular, who were understandably rather hurt that they hadn’t even been told of the wedding – we still don’t regret doing it our way.  I think (and hope) that with some time they now understand why we did it the way we did it, and most importantly that we are happy.  Which is all that should matter.

We are risk takers.  It is who we are.  Sometimes those risks pay off and we have been very fortunate with the way some things turn out.  Sometimes those risks don’t pay off and we have certainly had more than our fair share of that.  But perhaps the biggest risk of all, and one that many people seriously doubted us for, is the best risk I’ve ever taken.  

I trusted my heart and, as cliche as it may sound, it steered me right.  That leap of faith has brought me to a man that I never thought I would be worthy of.  He is, in every way, my best friend and the love of my life.  3 years on and I still can’t ever spend too much time talking to him.  

So if there’s one thing that I wish for the people that I love going forward into this new year, it’s that they have the faith in themselves and their own hearts to take a risk this year.  Don’t put too much stock in playing it safe, life is boring that way.  Thinking of moving to a new place?  Do it.  New career ideas?  Do it.  Thinking of buying an RV and moving into it full time?  Do it.  Thinking of eloping with the person you love on a motorcycle?  Do it.  Make 2020 a year where you don’t overthink, you just do what makes you happy.

#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.