#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.

#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 ✌️❤️

#28: The Tiger King of Black Rock and Other Strange Characters

Living in a campground – especially a short term stay one – means witnessing the many different types of people who arrive here.  As we are beginning to learn, each park has its own individual vibe which, in turn, attracts different clientele.  At Tugaloo we found the clientele to be rather middle of the road sorts: mostly working class, mostly families, mostly folks that came for the lake and didn’t care much for hiking or fitness but enjoyed the good cell service and cable TV.  Vogel, on the other hand, attracted a different group: lots of families, many of whom had been coming to Vogel for generations; lots of fitness fanatics; many families who were looking to escape wifi, TV, and cell service, and most of whom were somewhat higher income than those at Tugaloo.

Then there’s Black Rock Mountain.

Perhaps it’s the park’s isolated and somewhat ominous location at the top of a mountain peak, often hidden in the clouds.  Perhaps it’s the fact that novice hikers, or even intermediate hikers, are often deterred by the fact that everywhere is uphill and akin to cliff climbing rather than gentle hiking.  Perhaps it’s even the current pandemic that has turned the world upside down, shaken it around, and landed all the strange characters here.  Either way, we’ve seen some interesting folk here in the last few weeks.

Despite the “stay at home” order, our Governor has bizarrely insisted that campgrounds and trails should remain open and actively encouraged visitors to the park.  It’s baffling, but that’s southern politics and businessmen as politicians for you.  So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic where every other country in the world has shut down non-essential travel, and Georgia is vacation central.

There’s been significant frustration from all the volunteers and park staff surrounding this issue.  We have constant anxiety about the campers that are flooding into the park.  We are operating on a skeleton staff too.  Seasonal employees have not been allowed to return to work (and have been blocked from filing for unemployment – totally unfair) because of the stay at home order, many housekeepers have quit for fear of exposure, and we’re seeing summertime levels of park traffic.  The increased traffic amongst the madness has led to arrests at other parks of people intentionally coughing in rangers’ faces, and parks being temporarily shut down after being overrun by lunchtime.  Images from Cloudland Canyon showed over 130 cars lined up on the highway waiting to get in.

Our biggest fear, and that of our fellow hosts, is the campers and their refusal to adhere to social distancing guidelines.  I’ve had people walk right up to me, within a couple of feet, and start talking to me.  Even as I step backward away, they keep coming until I tell them to stop and step away from me.  It’s not a nice feeling – I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable but in this new world we have our health to think about.  I’ve also had one man walk straight up to Junior in his stroller, tickle him, then pick up his cracker and give it to him.  No matter how many signs are out, people don’t seem to care to obey – it’s business as usual for them.

We also had a camper staying for a week or so on one site that raised some issues.  After a few days, our fellow hosts remarked how they had seen no one come or go from the camper since its arrival and there was no water hooked up to the camper.  They raised the rather morbid but very possible point that the campers could be dead inside the camper and we wouldn’t know.  

So, out of concern for their wellbeing, one of the rangers went and knocked on the door.  The occupants refused to open the door, simply calling out from inside that they were ok, everything is ok, but that they didn’t want to open the door.  This was not comforting.  At the next meeting we raised concerns about the fact that these people could be sick and self-quarantining at the park.  But with no water hooked up to their camper they must be using the bathrooms – the same bathrooms we were cleaning everyday.  This raised our anxiety significantly, but with strict orders to remain open, we had no choice but continue on with our regular duties.

Another set of campers spent 2 days camping here from middle Georgia.  For their short stay here they packed 2 large SUVs full of – what I assume to be – everything they owned, and then spread it all out around their site upon arrival.  There were make-shift clotheslines with underwear and such pegged out, a tent with make-shift shelters built around it, and even a wooden rocking chair.  The two very large women occupying the site laid out for 2 days in skimpy bikinis at the front of their site waving to passersby.

There was also a family that came camping; a father and 3 children.  They were tent campers and occupied a site near Jesse and Kaci.  At 5am Jesse awoke to the sound of doors slamming and children screaming.  Concerned that it could be a bear or campers in danger, Jesse went to investigate.  Outside he found the father and the children running around their site with the fire smoking.  Jesse asked if everything was ok and the father told him that they were just cold.  So Jesse informed him that there’s a quiet time policy between 10pm and 7am so asked that they be considerate of people sleeping.

When Jesse got up a few hours later he saw that the family had left and their fire pit was now completely ablaze.  He also noticed that the door to the trash complex was wide open so he went close it.  Inside he found all of the family’s camping equipment; 4 chairs, blow up mattresses, sleeping bags, 4 person tent, camping stove – all of it brand new, the packaging in there too.  It seems the father, probably growing increasingly desperate having been stuck in the house with his kids for weeks, had attempted to take them camping.  It seems he likely didn’t know what he was doing at all and abandoned his venture – new equipment and all – before sunrise.  We all had a good chuckle at that, and Jesse got some free camping gear out of it.

Then the Tiger King arrived.

Of course, it wasn’t THE Tiger King (or Joe Exotic), he’s in prison.  But this guy could easily be from the same circus.  So we referred to him as Joe Exotic because we didn’t know his real name and it seemed to fit him well.

The first time I saw Joe Exotic he was out by his rig.  His rig was a large Discovery motorhome that looked like a decommissioned tour bus.  The thing was bigger than my last apartment.  It was an older model bearing a few small dents and rust spots here and there, but he seemed to take reasonable care of it.  The first time I saw him he was outside pressure washing the camper.  This is not unusual for RVers so I didn’t pay him much attention, just drove on by and went about my business.  

When I came back by, however, I had to stop.

He was around the side of his rig before and I had barely glanced in his direction.  This time though, he was out front pressure washing the gravel on the site next to him.  This bizarre act and his attire caught my attention.

He wore old brown leather cowboy boots – creased and scuffed from years of wear.  Between the boots and the black basketball shorts peeked his white, pencil-thin, smooth, veiny legs that seemed to get lost in the excess material from his oversized shorts.  On top he wore not just one, but two long sleeved acid-washed denim shirts.  The outer layer had the sleeves torn off and black lettering on the back referencing some motorcycle company or club in Florida.  On his head he wore a dusty brown felt cowboy hat over his straggly brown hair which was pulled back into a ponytail.  His approximate 5 day stubble and John Lennon-style glasses really finished off the look and, as I watched him standing there on the top of a mountain in the middle of a pandemic washing gravel I knew… this guy does a lot of cocaine.

He seemed pretty harmless, after all he wasn’t bothering anyone.  He certainly wasn’t achieving anything, but washing gravel wasn’t exactly a reason to be afraid of or angry at the guy, so we let him be.

A few days later I was talking to Jesse and Kaci, the other hosts, and it seems that Joe Exotic was getting a little lonely and was often seen roaming around with a leaf blower, blowing off campsites.  He had made several attempts to try and befriend Jesse – a bearded, tattooed, ex-military fella with a kind heart and a somewhat intimidating physique.  Jesse is a great guy with a wicked sense of humor and an easy-going attitude once you get to know him but – at least under current circumstances – he tends to vibrate on a high frequency and has a significant fear of getting sick.  So he doesn’t take kindly to being approached by random members of the public right now.  But, like us, they are stuck here until things open up again.

When Joe Exotic approached him for the 4th or 5th time and got too close, Jesse had stopped holding back and firmly told the guy to remain on his own site.  Joe failed to heed these warnings from Jesse and things escalated somewhat when Joe came over to Jesse’s site one day to tell him that he had unplugged the Christmas lights from the trading post in an effort to be helpful.  What Joe failed to consider is that his attempt to be helpful was causing more anxiety than good; he was walking around touching everything, breathing on everything.  Though he just wanted to be friends, he was going about it all the wrong way and at the totally wrong time.

So Jesse laid into him a little and told him to stop f****** touching everything and stay on his site.  Like a lost little puppy Joe apologized  profusely and returned to his site.  Jesse felt bad, but also didn’t at all because this guy was jeopardizing everyone.  This seemed to work fairly well and although he could still be found some days wandering around with a leaf blower, he mostly kept to his own site after that and out of trouble.

Until he found new ways to irritate Jesse and the other park staff.

One weekend we had a pretty big storm come through.  The storm swept across the south from West to East, dropping tornadoes as it went and killing dozens of people along the way.  The worst of the storm, and the worst threat for tornadoes, arrived in the dead of night around 2am.  Spring storms are pretty scary anyway, but at night, in a camper, on the side of a mountain?  That’s pretty darn scary.  So I stayed up that night watching the news in case there were reports of tornadoes in the area.

Around 2:45am Jesse and Kaci were awakened – not because of the powerful wind howling away and rocking the camper side to side – but rather because Joe Exotic was sounding a deafening air-horn from his camper, just 40 feet from Jesse and Kaci.  It seems that old Joe Exotic was up all night too, but probably for substance-related reasons, and decided to warn everyone that there was a storm.  Jesse did not find this amusing.  Furthermore, Joe called Jessica, the park manager, at 3am to tell her there was a storm coming.  Jessica, at home in bed, also did not find this amusing.

Tiger King only stayed a few more days after that.  I was a little sad when I saw his rig pulling out one day, knowing I likely wouldn’t see him again.  He was an odd character but had provided some entertainment for us through this dark time and, in other circumstances, I’d have loved to learned more about his story.  Jesse was delighted to see the back of him, of course, though I think he’ll miss him a little too.

We’re glad that we aren’t in the campground and don’t have to worry about possibly infected strangers coming up to our site and interacting with us.  I do miss people-watching and interacting with people from all walks of life.  A couple from New York has been staying for a few weeks now and told Jesse that they left out before the lockdown happened hoping to escape the madness.  I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to come to Georgia, how they feel about that decision now, whether they’d make the same decision again, and where they’re planning to go next.

There are many stories to be told in the campground, now more than ever.  I hope that when things calm down I’ll have a chance to hear some of them and maybe tell them.  For now, though, I’ll stick to my own campfire a little longer.

#27: Mishap on the Mountain

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

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

Setting out.

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

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

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

The trail around Marsen Knob.

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

The view from Lookoff Mountain Overlook.

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

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

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

Poor kid banged his head pretty good.

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

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

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

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

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

We’re not off to a great start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy is ok-ish.

#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.

#23: A Plea for Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#21: I’m still alive

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what’s our permanent address?”

“Why?”

“Just give me the address!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#16: Reflections on a Rock

Most days are much the same lately.  I get up with Junior, we hang out and have breakfast, then head out to work or go on a little walk around the park.  Around 11am we come back to the camper for elevensies, a little indoor play, then it’s nap time.  After his nap, it’s lunchtime, then more walking/outdoor play, then home for dinner, indoor play, Chris comes home, bath, and finally bedtime.  The “new car smell” of Vogel has all but dissipated, and while I still love it (especially compared to the city) I have explored much of the park and am no longer surrounded by the unknown.  This coupled with the monotony of the daily routine and Chris working hard, and often late, on his current job means that I’ve once again begun to thirst for adventure.

I love staying at home with my son and watching him grow, but a year and a half without any kind of break from him, except for a handful of times where family have stepped in for a few hours, has taken its toll on me.  When we lived in the city it wasn’t an option to pay for childcare – we simply didn’t have the money.  It was either have childcare for a day or eat for a few days, so there was no point even dreaming about it.  But our new lifestyle means there’s a little wiggle room in the budget for a day care a couple days a week.  My husband, being the supportive and loving old sod that he is, has been pushing for this for a few weeks now.

I really struggled with the idea of it at first.  I felt like I was failing at my job, because it is my job, after all, to care for my son.  So putting him in day care felt like admitting that I can’t handle motherhood.  But once Junior’s molars started pushing through I realized that it was time.  The lack of “me” time left me irritable, impatient, and not the most loving of people.  I was tired from getting up with the kid several times a night, I wasn’t eating most days because I didn’t have time, I wasn’t getting a shower during the day – my overall self care had gone down the drain and my family had begun to pay for it.

So it was time.

I found a day care in Blairsville, about 20 minutes down the mountain, and called them.  As luck would have it, though they had a long waiting list, they agreed to squeeze us in because we were flexible.  After a visit to check the place out and sign some papers we were all set for Junior’s first day of day care.

This morning I dropped him off shortly after 8am.  He seemed pretty happy, though a little confused and shy, but I didn’t stick around long for fear of making it harder to leave if and when he started to have a meltdown.  I slipped out while he was distracted and my heart broke just a little when he didn’t notice, even though I know it’s really what is best for us both.  As I walked out the door and got in the truck I took a deep breath and tried to shake it off and look at the day ahead.  What shall I do with my 9 hours of freedom?

It was an easy decision.  Hiking had been on my mind since the day we pulled into Vogel and I had a bucket list of local hikes that I was itching to try.  There was one in particular that I had my eye on: Preachers Rock on the Appalachian Trail.  It looked like a relatively short and easy hike – perfect for an out of shape Mom-bod that hasn’t seen any real trail action in years.

So I drove back home, trying very hard to not keep periodically glancing in my mirror at an empty baby seat out of habit.  I wasted no time at the camper, I made some coffee, grabbed a bite to eat, threw some supplies in a backpack (eager not to repeat my last hiking disaster), grabbed my camera, and jumped back in the truck.

The trailhead begins at Woody Gap, a roughly 25 minute drive up the mountain on very narrow and winding roads.  The sun was shining and, though it was a few degrees below freezing, it was a beautiful day for such a drive.  

Devon had spent the ride, as always, laying on the passenger floorboard trying not to fall asleep.  I watched as his heavy eyelids drooped making his grey face look even older.  It reminded me of the old days when he was a pup and we lived in Athens.  He was my faithful hiking buddy back then and would leap excitedly and nimbly into the truck every weekend, eager for our next adventure.  But the black markings on his face had since turned to grey and lately his leaps lacked the spring of his younger years.  I wondered if he would be as excited for a hike as he used to be.

I arrived at the trailhead around 9:30am.  The elevation at the trailhead was 3,160ft and the view was incredible.  I knew that the hike would involve a further climb from there so this little teaser was exciting.

Woody Gap – the trailhead.

As I put the truck in park, Devon’s little head perked up and his now wide brown eyes scanned the surroundings as his tail began to wag.  He leapt out of the truck with all the vigor of his younger self and he waited for me to give the command that would let him run free.

“OK!”

He sprinted ahead down the trail and I chuckled as he frantically zipped around from exciting smell to exciting smell.  It almost felt like old times.

It was a calm morning and though the air was crisp and cool, the sun felt warm on my face.  The lack of any breeze meant it was blissfully quiet and I relished the absence of a screaming child.  As we rounded the first corner we came to a mossy rock face about 20 feet high and 50 feet across with 10 inch icicles clinging to the protrusions in the rock.  I don’t know why but I love icicles – I just think they’re really cool – so I pulled out my camera for a few shots.  But as I turned it on I was greeted with the message “no memory card” on the viewfinder.

Come on.  Seriously??

I had remembered to charge my camera.  I had remembered my lens.  I had neglected to put the damn memory card in the camera.  Rookie mistake.  That’s two for two.  Frustrated, I took a minute to express my frustrations toward the rock face, which kindly echoed my profanities back at me, making it all the more satisfying.  But I didn’t want to let it ruin my day of freedom, so I resigned myself to the fact that I’d just have to snap some pictures with my phone and come back when I was better prepared.

My sub-par pictures of icicles with a mediocre camera.

We pressed on, Devon leading the way with his soft little ears happily flapping up and down as he bounced along. The trail was surprisingly flat and easy to start out and there were some pretty views to the left through the trees across the mountains. Then the trail wound around to the right between the two peaks and into the wind. The deceptive calm of the northwest side of the mountain had lulled me into a false sense of security and as I left the shelter of the first peak the wind arrived with an icy punch. I took a second to appreciate its force, zipped up my fleece and shoved my hands into my pockets.

This is going to get chilly.

And it did. The trail began a steep incline up the second peak. The last 1/3 mile or so had an elevation gain of 500 feet and my wobbly, unfit legs felt every step of the rocky climb. The wind roared with such force that every tree was creaking and squeaking as they swayed in the bitter breeze. The higher I climbed the more vicious the wind grew until it became impossible to keep my eyes open without them tearing up.

The climb.

Eventually we made it to the top.  As I rounded the crest of the mountain the view was spectacular.  Mountain peaks stretched for miles, and the clear day meant that I could see all the way to Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, on the horizon.  Both Devon and I stood on the rock face and soaked in the view.  It’s the kind of sight that is so spectacular that you are forced to contemplate the earth as a planet and are starkly reminded of your tiny insignificant existence on it.  I sat and pondered all the life beneath me at that moment and how unaware it was that I was there.  A wave of awe came over me and I had to sit down.  

Devon soaking in the view and contemplating the big questions in life.

We spend all our time so consumed in our little lives that when moments like this do come along, these big picture moments, it snaps you out of your little world for a second and makes you really look at life for the fleeting thing that it is and appreciate it all the more.

I wish Chris was here.  

I knew he would love it just as much as I did and I wondered what big picture thoughts he would have upon seeing the view.  So I called him for a quick FaceTime, but the view on a small screen with a lens that pales in comparison to the human eye meant that it just didn’t have the same effect.  

I wonder what Junior is doing.

Funny.  I’ve been dreaming of getting away from the kid for weeks now and having some time to myself.  I’ve cried as Chris held me and told him how I just need a break.  I’ve spent weeks thinking about all the wonderful things I would do with just one day to myself to do whatever I want on my own time without anyone else to worry about or work around.

But all I can do is wish that the two people I love most were with me.  I guess that’s my big picture moment.  I came for escapism, a chance at recapturing a simpler time when it was just my dog and me against the world – but wound up finding that I no longer wanted that.  I remembered how many times on those hikes in the old days that I wished I had someone to share it with, and I guess that hasn’t changed much.  Except now I had a husband and a son whose company enhanced every great moment – even if they annoyed the heck outta me sometimes too.  So I took a second to be thankful that I now had two wonderful people in my life that I wanted to share everything with.  And though I knew the hike would be better if shared with them, I was still grateful for the space to gain that perspective.

I sat for a while on that rock with Dev just thinking about life and all the incredible and beautiful things in it, including that spectacular view.  I was grateful to be able to do that, and grateful for the company of my old four-legged friend.  But as I set off back down the mountainside the only thought left in my head was how I can’t wait to come back with my family. 

#15: Camping with Cousins

This weekend we had a much needed visit with family.  Chris’ cousin, Caitlyn, her husband, Justin, and their two young children came to visit.  It was a relatively last-minute thing, and it turned out rather well.  There was a break in the rain and cold weather which afforded a brilliant opportunity for them to bring their kids, aged 2 and 5, camping for the first time.

They drove down from their home in Nashville, TN and arrived late in the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids were, as all kids are, immediately struck by excitement upon exiting the car.  They scurried around the campsite helping their Mom and Dad to find a good place to pitch the tent and inspecting our set up.

After we exchanged hello hugs and had the customary exchange about how the drive was, they quickly set about unloading the car and getting the tent erected before the sun disappeared over Blood Mountain.  Chris tried his best to spook the kids with stories of bears and coyotes that come sniffing around in the dead of night, but I think he only succeeded in spooking Caitlyn and Justin a little.  

With relative ease and only one minor error with the rain fly, the tent was erected and we were all ready for the best of camping – campfire sitting.  I had laid a fire that afternoon in preparation for their arrival so with a quick flick of a lighter we were in business.  The kids were pretty taken with fire, but Jay (the 2 year old) was particularly entranced by it.  Once he discovered the sheer delight of putting a stick in the coals until it was alight then waving it around he was in hog heaven.  Of course this set off a chain of events leading to some increased parental supervision and some lessons on the dangers of campfires, but the kid needed no further entertainment for the night – he was set.

Annabelle is their older child.  She’s incredibly sweet and dangerously intelligent with a thirst for knowledge that makes her an utter joy to hang out with.  Several times throughout the night she came and climbed into my camp chair with me for a snuggle and said “let’s talk”.  Then she proceeded to ask questions.  ALL the questions.  

“Why does water put fire out?”

“Why do trees grow taller than people?”

“What are stars?”

“What are those dark spots in the moon?”

“How long does it take for the light from the stars to reach here?”

“What is consciousness?”

That last one was a tough one.  But she’s a smart cookie and was able to not just sit and listen to my responses, but actually understand them and explain it back to me when I asked.  It was really fun to spend some time with her and see her learning about the world from a different perspective.  It made me excited for when Junior reaches that age where he will be full of questions big and small, and hopefully many of them about wildlife, the woods, and the world.

Unfortunately we had some trouble getting Junior to stay down that night (probably too excited about his cousins visiting) and so Chris and I had to keep taking turns trying to get him back to sleep.  But we were able to spend some time by the fire chatting and catching up.  I truly believe there is no better way to spend time with people than relaxing around a campfire.  It was nice for us to have some family around to share our new life with, where conversation comes easily because we have common interests and outlooks, and it was an adventure for everyone.

The next morning the campers piled into Old Patsy to defrost after a rather chilly night in the tent.  The kids went pretty much straight to playing and exploring and Junior was particularly tickled at having another little boy to play with.  It was nice to sit back and watch them with the hope that it’s the start of a lifelong friendship and that there will be years of getting into mischief together ahead of them.  

After everyone was suitably thawed out and fueled up, the campers set out for a hike around the lake while Chris and I plonked Junior in his stroller to set about cleaning the bathrooms.

Their hike went well without only a minor incident involving Jay’s shoe being launched into the water (boys will be boys).  So after they returned we got the fire going again to get Jay’s shoes dried out.  Caitlyn and Justin also brought a slack line – something Chris and I had never tried before – and set it up between two trees at the back of the campsite.  We each took turns attempting to find our balance on the narrow, taught strap – something that wasn’t very easy after a night of a little too much wine and beer – but it gave us all a good laugh.

The younger boys found great fun in picking up sticks, poking at the fire, and using a small multi-tool shovel to dig in the dirt.  Junior seemed to be rather intrigued by his cousin and spent some time following and mimicking him in an adorable attempt to try and communicate with him.  Annabelle pottered around the campsite and tried her hand at the slack line which put us all to shame.

Then Caitlyn showed Annabelle how you bust open rocks with a hammer and find geodes and pretty crystals inside.  So they had a great time smashing up some rocks and inspecting them closely.

As the afternoon drove on though, it was getting late and time to pack up and head out.  The kids were thoroughly exhausted and set to nap the whole way home with sweet dreams of campfires, waterfalls, and mountain trails winding through their heads.  

It was wonderful for the kids to spend some time together.  Living so far away from all our family means that we don’t often get to hang out together – so we don’t take these opportunities for granted and are grateful that Junior is able to form bonds, and eventually memories, with his cousins.

As for us, we had a blast running around with the kids and are so grateful to be a part of their first camping experience.  We hope it’s given them a thirst for it and that they will nag their parents endlessly to come back to the woods for a weekend soon.

We were also grateful to spend some time with Caitlyn and Justin.  A downfall of this lifestyle is that it does take some determination from family to have them come and stay.  We don’t have a big spare room that they can stay in and, though the couch and dinette fold into beds, it’s tricky with a 1 year old sleeping 3 feet away from 7pm to 7am.  So it requires visitors to either be willing to camp, or spend the money on a cottage.  This makes it logistically tough for anyone to visit us, so we’re very grateful for the company when we can get it.  But the flip side of this is that when a trip like this happens it’s nice to have the kids outside all day, learning, getting fresh air and exercise, and being stimulated without the need for screens.

We’ve made tentative plans for a return trip in the spring before we leave Vogel, and hopefully we can get someone here to take all 3 kids for a night so we can all do the 13 mile Coosa backcountry trail and do some REAL camping along the way.  So that gives us something to look forward to.

Overall we had a great weekend with family; the kids got to make some memories together and hopefully thoroughly caught the itch to camp; we had a great night catching up with some quality time around the fire; and we got a taste for what it’ll be like when Junior is a little older and all the fun things we can do with him.  But time flies when you’re having fun – and it did just that.  So we hope it won’t be too long until they come back for more fun by the campfire.

#13: Snow Day

Last night as we were getting into bed I did the mandatory weather app check.  

“There’s a 30% chance of snow at 7am.”  I said excitedly.

“Ah, that won’t amount to anything.” Chris said dismissively.

Though I knew he was probably right, the optimist in me wanted to believe it so I gave Chris strict instructions in the event of snow.

“If you wake up in the morning for work and you look outside and there’s snow I want you to come in here, jump on the bed and shout “SNOW DAY, SNOW DAY” over and over.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a sarcastic “ok” before giving me a kiss goodnight.

I awoke in the morning to the sound of Chris’ alarm, which seems to more be my alarm to wake Chris up.  I gave him a loving kick and mumbled something about getting up.  I heard him shuffling around and drifted back to sleep as he drearily went about his morning routine.  

“Babe.”  

I was drifting in and out of my dreams.  I could hear Chris’ voice pulling me out of my dream and into reality.  I snuggled into my pillow tighter, trying to fight my way back into my dream.

“Babe, it’s snowing.”

“You’re a liar.  Go away.”  Yes, I am very pleasant in the morning.

“Ok, but it’s snowing and everything is white.”  The realist in me knew he was probably just messing with me but the optimist in me, who is apparently a 5 year old child on Christmas morning, sent a surge of excitement through me and willed my heavy head to lift from the pillow and peek outside.

SNOW!!

It wasn’t a dream, my husband was not the liar I had accused him of being, it really was snowing!  I jumped up and made my way around the camper opening blinds and taking in the beautiful wintery scenes from every window.  It was only a light dusting but it was the first snow of the season, and of Junior’s life.  I considered the fun of bundling the boy up and seeing his face as we stepped out into the strange new powdery world.  I was giddy as I began making coffee and cereal.  

Junior was still sleeping soundly and, against my better judgement I began being louder and louder as I went about my work to try and get him to stir.  But alas, he sleeps like his mother – dead to the world – and didn’t care that I had now opened the curtain on his bunk, turned the radio on, and turned the lights on.  I climbed in his bunk and gently called his name.  He smiled but never opened his eyes.  Finally I began gently tickling him and he began laughing before he finally opened his eyes.  

As I brought him to the window, he stood staring with a perplexed look on his face.  He smiled and pointed then looked at me, wonder in his eyes.  It was now time to power through breakfast, get dressed, and get out into the snow.  

As Chris left that morning I asked him if it was wise to try and get to work in this weather.  The roads have not been salted yet and the forecast suggested that the temperature wouldn’t get above freezing all day.  This coupled with the fact that, to get to work, Chris had to go up the mountain before going back down the other side concerned me.  Those icy winding roads flashed through my head and I asked him once more to stay home.  But he shrugged it off, kissed me goodbye, and headed to work.  

As I fed Junior his cereal he kept his eyes on the window and the flurries that whirled in the wind outside.  It brought back a fond memory I have from my childhood.  I remember waking early one winter morning at our home on Vancouver Island in Canada to my Mom gently waking me.  As I rubbed my eyes, confused as to what was happening, she whispered that it was snowing and I ran to the window to see.  I remember how magical our front yard looked with a white blanket of snow and the snowflakes silently drifting through the calm air.  Though Junior won’t remember his first snow, it still makes me smile that maybe he has the same sense of wonder as he looks at the snow outside.

Just then, the door opened and Chris stepped in.  Apparently after a few minutes of trying to get to work he had decided that it was in fact not sensible to attempt to go up the mountain in this weather.  It was official – this was our first official snow day and we were snowed in.

After breakfast we all bundled up tightly, pulled on our boots, and headed out to explore the wintery scenes.  Junior giggled with delight as Devon sprinted around happily through the snow and the leaves.  Junior shrieked with delight and trudged through the snow and leaves after Devon.  

Junior in his snow gear.

We wandered down to the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the ladies that work there and grab some hot chocolate and coffee to warm up.  Refueled, we set out to walk around the lake to get some pictures of the mountains.  Though it wasn’t a heavy snow by any means, it was still a pretty scene with a light dusting and a gentle mist drifting through the peaks.  

A very light dusting on the Wolf Creek bridge roof.
Snow dusted peaks over Lake Trahlyta.
Snow dusted Blood Mountain.

But about halfway round the cold wind really started whipping and Junior still hasn’t mastered the art of gloves. To him they are a cruel torture device that hinder his ability to grab, pick up, and explore with his favorite tools. His refusal to wear them, however, means that his hands quickly went numb and bright red, which led to tears and cries for warmth, so we rushed home to defrost with snuggles on the couch.

It’s now 11:30am and the snow is still coming down hard and fast.  It’s not quite cold enough for it to settle on the ground properly but it’s enough to get me excited about the season.  I’m a sucker for egg nog, Christmas music, Christmas lights, hot apple cider, mulled wine, and snowy scenes that make everything look like a Christmas card.

We hope that this is a taste of things to come and that soon enough Junior will be throwing snowballs and building a snowman.  We are both really looking forward to the lake icing over, the snow capped peaks, the snow angels, the snow men, and all those wonderful things that winter in the mountains brings.  We’re grateful for the lifestyle that we chose that allows us to spend a winter in the mountains and a summer by the lake.  Today though, I’m most grateful for a snow day.