#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.

#33: Our Month on the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dykes on the banks of the Mississippi.

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks and a full moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.

#30: Chasing the Sun

This weekend I did something highly unusual.  So unusual, in fact, that Chris laughed at me Friday night when I told him my plan.  He said, “that’ll never happen”, and smirked.  This is an understandable response for it is well-known that my typical morning demeanor is akin to an angry troll woken before dawn.  My morning bed-head doesn’t help.  

Friday night, after a week of rain, we finally had a clear, sunny evening.  As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, I mentioned that the sunset would be beautiful and that we should go up the mountain to watch.  Logistically speaking, this is problematic when the kid’s bed time is 7pm sharp and the sun wasn’t due to set until 8:30pm.  So instead I took a rare opportunity to go by myself for some peace and quiet.  

I drove up to the summit of the mountain and parked near the Tennessee Rock trailhead.  From there I walked up to the overlook and arrived just in time for the show.  

Sunset at 3,625 feet.

The view from there is spectacular. The overlook faces West and provides an uninterrupted sweeping view of the sun sinking down over North Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. It’s easy to see why this region is referred to as the Blue Ridge Mountains – the silhouettes of the many peaks overlap each other in varying hues of blue, like waves in a turbulent ocean, getting lighter as they disappear into the blue horizon. The sun lit up the sky in a fiery orange and the clouds looked like thick pools of smoke lingering above. As the sun disappeared behind the mountain peaks the sky erupted in a symphony of color; blues becoming purples, with pink and orange dashes streaking across the horizon.

There was a steady cool breeze that seemed to gently drift off the horizon and tickle at my cheek and through my hair. The birds chirped the last of their sweet songs as the light slowly died and was swallowed by the mountains and a curtain of darkness signaling the end of the show.

The last rays of light.

This 20 minutes of utter tranquility got me high.  The last few weeks have been somewhat stressful with Junior becoming more inquisitive, less cooperative, and more intrigued by his surroundings.  His undying need to explore EVERYTHING means I spend most of my days trying desperately (and failing) to redirect his attention and then, inevitably, chasing him up or down the mountain and dragging him away from ledges and lakes.  I love his enthusiasm for exploration, but it leaves me utterly exhausted by the end of the day and it’s not uncommon for me to be out cold by 8pm lately.  

So this rare serene moment was not lost on me and I gulped it down eagerly, embracing the ensuing intoxication.  I lingered on the rock for a moment before heading back to the truck and, though I wished Chris had been there too, I was grateful for some almost-extinct alone time.  

Upon my return I told Chris of my plan for Saturday, to which he laughed and betted against me.  

“You are not a morning person.  I know you, this is too ambitious.”

Well, let’s just say that Chris is eating his words now. For at 5:30 the next morning I woke, before my alarm, and was ready for sunrise. Blurry eyed and still rather sleepy, I quietly made some coffee, gathered my camera equipment, and loaded up the truck to head up the mountain. But alas, I cannot escape my tendency for poor planning and, upon reaching the park gate, I realized that I had neglected to get the code from Jessica the day before. I was, therefore, locked out of the sunrise I had defied my very biological tendencies to see.

Disappointed, but not disheartened, I turned around and headed for the lake with fantasies of being able to catch a deer, or even a bear, frolicking by the lake in the early light. 

While these may have been ambitious dreams, I was fortunate enough to happen upon Junior’s beloved ducks, still sound asleep in the morning fog. My presence stirred them and they softly quacked as I approached. They didn’t seem distressed by me and I like to think that’s because we’ve become old friends from my frequent visits.

Ducks before dawn.

Beyond them, at the mouth of the creek, was a large, plump, beaver snacking on something in the shallows. I mistook him for a log at first, but as I slowly approached I startled him. He promptly dove into the lake and slipped away under the dark green water before I could focus my camera. I took the next half hour to stroll around the lake and play around with my camera a little and snap a few more shots.

Waiting for the fog to lift.
This bright little fella was having a snack.
Experimenting with a birthday gift.
Morning dew on a spider web.

Suitably refreshed, I checked the time to see it was after 7am and the gates to the park would be open. I headed up to the Blue Ridge overlook to catch a glimpse of the morning sun stirring the mountain valleys to life.  

Though I missed the best part of the show, I was delighted to catch the tail end of it and happily snapped away as I sipped my coffee. The heavy morning fog had almost entirely lifted except for a few wisps of cloud that still clung to the deep valleys of the mountains and drifted silently between the blue peaks. The clouds above littered the blue sky, kissed with rosy pinks from the sun. The city of Clayton, below me to the South was still sleeping and I sat quietly and admired the majesty of the scene. As the sun slowly rose above the cloud, the light spilled over and bathed the vast mountain-scape before me. The warmth melted the sleep from my bones and I was grateful for a scarce opportunity to rise slowly with the sun.

Morning meditation complete, and satisfied with a couple of good shots, I made my way back to the truck and down the mountain again.

Moments like these are so rare for me nowadays.  I often think of my life before Junior and how I unknowingly took the sunrises and sunsets for granted.  These glorious natural displays are a reminder of the natural cycles of life, the power of nature, and the minuscule role we play in the world.  

Later that evening, Chris took the opportunity for some meditation of his own and headed to the lake for some fishing at sundown. It was his first time catching a fish in a couple of years so it was a much needed release for him.

Ready to wet a line.
First catch in a long time.

In an attempt to catch a full sunrise, I again rose early Sunday morning, loaded up, and ascended through the fog to the overlook at the top of the mountain. But alas, I arrived just in time to see the thick fog blow across the barely visible rays of sun, carried by the ever-present gentle breeze.

I waited patiently in hopes that the haze would lift and I would get a spectacular shot, but it wasn’t to be. Instead I sat and enjoyed the morning song of the mountain birds while I sipped my coffee.

Birds chirping and a mountain breeze.

Our lives are better lived for taking these moments to observe and appreciate; I appreciate the love of a good husband who makes sacrifices big and small for my happiness, I appreciate the good fortunate of having a short drive to such sublime marvels, and I appreciate the time and space to enjoy such moments and to miss my family.  These little breaks from the pressures of daily life provide a much-needed respite and a chance to put things into perspective.  It allows us to regain patience and understanding that is worn away by the trials and tribulations of trying times.  Though I won’t be enjoying another sunrise or sunset for the foreseeable future thanks to a rather grim weather forecast, I am deeply grateful for a weekend spent chasing the sun and look forward to the next one.

#29: The End of 29

Last week was a special one.  It was my last few days of my twenties and the start of a new chapter in my life; my dirty thirties.  Despite the best efforts of the pandemic and the weather, it didn’t dampen our spirits or our celebrations and I managed to have a memorable week anyway.

Tuesday May 5th was my last day of being 29, Cinco de Mayo AND Taco Tuesday.  Jessica invited us over for a cook out to celebrate – a great way to end my twenties.  Jesse and Kaci joined us, as well as Daniel.  I expected this to just be a little get-together for cinco de mayo but was delightfully surprised when they brought out a little cupcake with candles, sang happy birthday, and gave me flowers and gifts.  It’s hard to express my gratitude for these people who have made us feel so welcome and supported through all the madness of 2020 and brought such light into our lives.  We had a pretty terrific thunder and lightning storm close in on us after dinner.  But as we took shelter under the porch, Junior and Jessica’s girls had fun running through the mud puddles and playing in the rain.  It was a really great way to say goodbye to my twenties.

Cinco de Mayo and the end of twenties celebrations

On my birthday, in true getting-older fashion, we spent most of the day running errands and doing some pretty boring adult stuff.  But after we got Junior into bed we broke out my new telescope (a gift from my wonderful husband) and got a good look at the Super Moon, also known as the flower moon.  

A very mediocre shot of the flower moon.

On Thursday Chris got home early to continue the celebrations of The Week of Rachael – or the Month of Rachael (as I prefer) – and we set off for a hike.  Our first choice, Black Rock Lake, was slammed with visitors so turned around in search of somewhere a little less crowded.  We took a little drive and scoped out some property in the area (we’re starting to think about exit-strategies for the camp hosting life) and found Rabun County park.

We walked around the park and down to the small lake.  There we found a Canadian Goose sitting on her nest.  When she slipped into the water for a swim I took the opportunity to grab a couple snaps of her eggs and Junior giggled as she honked and paddled around the lake. 

Canadian Goose nest with eggs getting ready to hatch.

We found a trail toward the back of the lake so we decided to follow it to see where it went.  This turned out to be Junior’s first ever hike (without being carried) and he soldiered on for 1.5 miles.  He had a blast playing with the foliage and sticks along the trail and stopped to hug every tree he came across.  

My little tree hugger.

Chris took Friday off and we went for another walk in the morning.  Black Rock lake was much quieter so we set off in search of Junior’s beloved ducks.  He walked the mile long trail on his own, quacking furiously and calling out, “ducky” the whole way around until we finally came upon them on the far bank of the lake.  An older gentleman was nearby and had been feeding them some bread.  He offered some to Junior so he could feed the ducks, but as Junior took a piece of bread he promptly stuffed it in his own mouth and all the fishermen around erupted with laughter.

It was a wonderful week and I’ve been fortunate to receive many cards, messages, phone calls, flowers, gifts, and love from everyone.  The greatest gift, undeniably, has been spending time together as a family and making memories I will always cherish.  

Getting older doesn’t mean that you have to grow up.

Earlier this week we said goodbye to Jesse and Kaci who have become like old friends to us over the last few weeks. We’ve spent many evenings sitting around the fire and chatting about life. It was fun to have met another couple who shared so many of our interests and views that we were able to have such good laughs with. They’re a wonderful couple and, though I wish them all the best on the next chapter of their adventures and I know it was just time for them to go, we will miss them and hope that our paths will cross with theirs again down the road.

In recent weeks we’ve turned our attention to the future of our adventure and what our “plan” for the next chapter will be. While we enjoy the beautiful scenery at state parks and are grateful to have met some awesome people, we both have been pining for a place to put down some roots and at least have a home base. We love the Clayton area and hope to make it our home when the time is right. Before we can do that, however, we have to take a trip to Tennessee for a few weeks and work on our house there to get it ready to sell.

We plan to make the trip this summer – and it’s something we are all looking forward to. It will give us a welcome break from the daily hosting grind, and give us a chance to visit with family and friends while we make preparations for the next big chapter of our lives; embarking on our homestead journey.

#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.

#26: From a Nightmare Comes a Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Rock Lake trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sweet, goofy, happy boy.

#20: Fantastic Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “The fire is rolling.”

Chris: “You’re welcome.”

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

Chris: “But I collected the fat lighter.”

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

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

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

Chris: “Whatever dude.”

Me: “Whatever dude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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