#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.

#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.