#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 ✌️❤️

#7: At the Bottom of the Waterfall

Yesterday we packed up Patsy and left Tugaloo.  The packing up part went smoother than our previous attempts and we were ready to roll out by 12.  Unfortunately a large storm system was also ready to roll in and 30 minutes after we left the park we hit rain.  

Because we need 2 vehicles – one for Chris for work and one for Junior and me to run errands etc while Chris is at work – it means we have to drive separately when moving the camper.  Chris drove our Ram 1500 with Junior and Devon pulling our camper while I drove my old Chevy that Chris now uses as a work truck with his utility trailer in tow.  We use 2 way radios to communicate back and forth while we are on the road; it allows us to communicate easily even when there is no cell service.  As I am riding in front, it also allows me to call in any sharp turns, low limbs, or treacherous road ahead.  

This turned out to be a good system as, about 15 minutes before we hit rain, I noticed that one of the skylights on the camper was open.  We had just pulled out on the highway so we were able to pull over before any damage was done by the wind and the rain.

The route to Vogel from Tugaloo was mostly an easy route.  It took us along mostly highways that were easy to navigate with a big rig.  Looking at the route, however, we could see that after Cleveland it became winding mountain roads with steep inclines that would prove tricky under good weather conditions, let alone what we were facing.  The trip was forecast to take about 1.5hrs but we decided to stop at a Walmart (now our trusty road friend when traveling with the camper) for a breather and to check the weather.  

As we got out the rain was really picking up and the peaks around us disappeared into dark clouds.  We looked at the forecast and found that there was a window in the storm for the next hour.  The forecast showed wind gusts of up to 60mph.  This is not good when you have a large rig in tow that catches the strong cross winds on the high mountain roads.  

It was time for a judgement call.  Do we press on in the hopes of beating the next wave of the storm that would bring heavier rain and stronger winds, or do we hold tight for a couple of hours with a boisterous 1 year old in a Walmart parking lot and hope that the storm blows through quickly.  Chris deferred to my judgement – a move I’m never usually fond of.  But the GPS was saying that we had 35 minutes left to go and the weather forecast said we had an hour to do it.  So I decided that we should push on.  

So we jumped into our trucks, turned our radios on and headed out.  From Cleveland onwards we knew we were leaving the highways behind and traveling only on byways and mountain roads from there out.  It was pretty smooth going until we turned a corner and found blue flashing lights and the road was blocked off.  Detour.

Detours are dangerous on byways because they are not necessarily safe for big rigs.  There could be tunnels, narrow roads, or sharp corners.  But there was no way of turning around now so we pushed on ready to face whatever might lay ahead.  

Thankfully it was an easy detour that lasted a few minutes and took us back onto our intended route quickly  Having looked at the route ahead though, I knew that the worst was yet to come.  The closer we got to Vogel the steeper the climb and sharper the bends got around the mountains.

Sure enough we began our ascent within 5 minutes of getting back on the byway.  Gradually the road began to curve and snake through the foothills.  Though the weather was dreary the landscape was breathtaking.  Thankfully there were only a few other cars on the road as it was hard to take my eyes off the rusty red, copper oranges, and golden yellows of the leaves dancing in the wind on the mountainside.  As Chris and I talked back and forth on the radio the running theme was “WOW, look how BEAUTIFUL this place is!”  I could hear in his voice that the excitement and anticipation was bubbling up in him too and the storm’s threat seemed less and less significant as we drove on.

The last few miles were filled with steep climbs, sharp hair pin bends and winding S-curves.  I knew that Chris couldn’t wait to get his motorcycle out and ride these roads and I had to remind him a couple of times to just focus on the road ahead for now.  Things, surprisingly, went pretty smoothly with me calling out sharp curves ahead on the radio and counting down the miles until we got there.

Then we arrived.  

The park itself is nestled in a valley on the edge of a lake high up in the mountains, 2500 ft to be exact.  As you enter the park on the narrow lane that winds through a tunnel of trees you reach a curve and small wooden bridge over wolf creek which spills into the lake on your right.  The clouds cleared for a moment and the trees gave way to the towering peaks surrounding us and the vibrant fall colors caught the sun and exploded with life and beauty.  It’s the kind of moment where forces converge and everything comes together perfectly to create an unforgettable moment that makes it impossible not to smile ear to ear and say “woah” out loud, even when no one is around to hear you.

We stopped in at the visitors center and checked in with the ranger to let them know that we made it and get directions to the site that would be our home for the next two months.  Driving to our site we followed the road around to the left of the visitor’s center, away from the lake and up the creek.  The campsite was heavily wooded and signs posted everywhere reminded us that this was “bear country”.  The giddiness in Chris’ voice spilled through the radio.  

We passed a couple of children’s play parks at the very base of the narrow valley, a mini golf course, and some cottages for visitors to rent.  As we pulled into the campsite itself we found our site which was one of the first on the right.  I pulled up ahead out of the way and served as Chris’ backup camera to help him navigate the tricky turn into the site.  Setting up went surprisingly smoothly and we set the camper level just as the rain began to set in again.  Junior and I danced around in the camper as Chris, our hero, braved the weather to finish setting up.  

I had left Tugaloo in short leggings and a T-shirt but another glance at the weather forecast suggested I should change.  As is common in the mountains, we were expecting a 30 degree temperature drop by sundown and a further 20 degrees by dawn.  This is a concept that, especially after months of 100 degree heat, is very difficult to fathom.  So I changed into jeans and a long sleeved shirt while I went about setting up inside the camper.  The next time I stepped out of the camper a couple of hours later I was met with a bitter whip of the icy wind and quickly retreated back inside to find several more layers.

After setting up we decided to head out to Walmart (yes, again) to stock up on a few supplies for the cooler weather.  The Walmart was in Blairsville, a short 15 minute drive through utterly breathtaking landscapes.  Looking out the window on the drive I watched as picturesque farms nestled into the hills passed by with luscious green rolling hills and perfect white fences holding the rugged forest back.  

Blairsville itself is a town I’ve visited a few times before and loved.  The square downtown is reminiscent of an old spaghetti western with its square-fronted buildings and a quaint red brick courthouse in the middle.  We passed through downtown to the Walmart on the main highway.  We both remarked how it was the most beautiful view from a Walmart parking lot we had ever seen with tall peaks rising all around us.

We loaded up on supplies and some $5 movies and headed back to camp.  We continued getting settled, made ourselves some dinner and put Junior to bed.  After trying to tune the TV we realized that we were too high in the mountains to get any service.  This was not a problem for me – I can happily go without TV for a couple of months – but Chris had a moment of sadness to himself as he realized that this was going to present problems for him for the rest of the football season.

We put a movie on and I sat down to do some writing.  The wind was now raging outside and the crisp cold made my teeth chatter when I went for a cigarette.  About halfway through the movie the TV suddenly went black.  Because our DVD player is also our radio it is hard wired into our rig so the movie kept playing through the surround sound.  Chris looked at me and said “what happened?”  As if I knew?  We played around with the remote and the buttons on the TV.  Nothing.

Then I had that, by now, very familiar sinking feeling as I looked up.  The lights to the microwave were off and the fridge “check” light was flashing.  Great.

The ceiling lights were all still on in the camper and the fan was still blowing.  Chis checked the TV in the bedroom; dead.

“It must be a power surge” I said, clueless as to what else could have caused 4 major appliances to die at once.  We checked the breaker and the fuses – all fine.  Well that’s it, we thought.  We officially CANNOT catch a break.

We can live without a TV, I thought, and we can make do fairly easily without a microwave, but no fridge leaves us severely up the proverbial creek.  We stepped out for a cigarette together to cuss and gather our thoughts.  As we stood there we noticed that the lights to the bath house were out.  

Now I should point out that at this conjuncture it’s rather sad that it still didn’t click as to what was going on.  But just remember that we are still new to this so it took us a minute.

“Well that’s weird, I guess the power surge blew the lights to the bath house too then”.

“We should have plugged in that damn surge protector” I said unhelpfully.  “Do it now before it happens again and ALL the appliances get fried.”

So Chris went behind the camper, flipped the breaker, unplugged our rig, plugged the surge protector in, and plugged the rig into the surge protector.  He came back and said “damn thing won’t work, the lights aren’t lighting up or anything”.

Wait a minute.  Ok.  Now I see what’s happened. 

There was no power surge.  Our appliances were not fried.  The power to the entire campsite was down.  The lights in the camper and the DVD player stayed on because we have a backup battery on our RV that automatically takes over when you lose power and continues to power the low-voltage appliances and outlets, hence the TV, fridge and microwave (higher powered appliances) were all off.

DUH.

So I messaged the park ranger and the power came back on within 30 minutes.  Luckily we had a taster of how easily storms can interfere with the power here and we won’t make the mistake of not using a surge protector again.  We had a good laugh about it and thanked our lucky stars that it wasn’t worse.

The next morning was beautiful and sunny, although still very brisk.  We decided to warm ourselves up with a walk around Lake Trahlyta trail, the trailhead of which was a short 5 minute walk away through the campsite.  So we bundled ourselves and Junior up, put a leash on Devon, and headed out.

Chris at Lake Trahlyta.  Pictures just don't do it justice (or at least mine don't).

The lake itself is small but glorious.  There are several trailheads near the lake edge, a boat dock with pedal boats and kayaks for rent, and a small beach area for the warmer months.  The lake trail is about 3-4km around and very gentle, flat terrain.  

The water was largely still and glassy with a fine mist that seemed to slip across it like ice.  It drifted upwards to look like smoke rising from the reds and oranges of the forest which glinted in the sunlight.  The rising mist from the lake rose above the fiery hillside to make the whole scene look like a silently blazing wildfire.  The vibrant colors of the mountainside bounced off the water and danced in the occasional ripples from the feeding fish.  We passed a couple of other hikers on our way round and we stopped frequently to take pictures.

About halfway around is the spillway which creates an extraordinary waterfall beneath it.  We parked Junior’s stroller at the top and took the winding path and steep steps down to the base of the falls.

Trahlyta falls as seen from the road above.

Trahlyta falls is approximately 75-100 feet tall from base to source and 10-15 feet wide.  It’s surrounded by thick woodland with a narrow break in the tree canopy above.  It’s a paradoxical setting; the water violently crashes and tumbles down the rocky mountainside with a roar while a thick mist rises at the base and drifts silently through the mossy trees and up through the canopy into the glimpses of daylight between the leaves.  It was a stunning sight that we took a few minutes to drench ourselves in before getting back on the trail and back home.

The falls from the viewing platform near the base.
The mist creeping through the trees at the base of the falls.

We’re breathing a sigh of relief tonight as it seems that things may be calming down for us and that we have made it to the bottom of our waterfall safely.  The trepidation I previously felt for leaving our paradise in Tugaloo and coming to Vogel has fallen away with the autumn leaves and I can feel myself relaxing into our new life already.

In a way this adventure is like getting to live new lives every few months.  We get to change the landscape and the people when we decide it’s time and it’s not a terrible upheaval.  Junior still has a safe place that he knows as home in our RV and Devon (who is an incredibly anxious dog who does not like change) still gets his familiar spot next to my side of the bed to retreat to when it all gets a bit much.  

The key, it seems, to sticking with it is the acknowledgment that the next life will not be the same.  The rangers, hosts, and guests will be different.  There will be a different routine to the park; some require hosts to be on duty pretty much 24/7, whereas others will have a rotation schedule where you work a few days on and then have a few off.  The landscape, the recreational opportunities, the weather, the whole vibe – they will all be different.  This adventure lies somewhere between a traveling job and an extended vacation.  It seems to marry the benefits of both and create it’s own genre of existence.  It’s easier to appreciate what each life has to offer if your greet it with the knowledge that it is finite and should be savored while it’s here.  And we intend to savor every drop of it.