#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.”

#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.