#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 ✌️❤️

#8: Motherhiker

Living in such close quarters as we are certainly forces you outdoors a lot more than when living conventionally.  I’m sure there will be times where I will dislike this aspect of our life but this week has not been one of them.

My schedule at Vogel has me working 4 days on and 4 days off.  Wednesday began the first of 5 days off because of a screw up with the schedule when we first arrived.  With beautiful weather in the forecast I wasn’t upset about this.  So Wednesday morning I awoke with the itch to explore.  

Chris rose for work early as usual. I awoke around 7:30am and rubbed the sleep from my eyes just in time to give him a goodbye kiss as he handed me my coffee (I know, he’s wonderful). I stumbled, blurry eyed, into the kitchen to see Junior already in full destroy mode and he grinned at me with that cheeky little glint in his eye that says “I’m ready for mischief today”.

“Me too, son, me too.”

So I dressed us both and pulled on my running shoes, a scarf and a hat, strapped Junior into his stroller, slapped a leash on Dev and set out to find an adventure. We decided to begin with a gentle stroll around Lake Trahlyta – about 3km of flat and gentle terrain. I brought my camera and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous morning views.

The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
Fiery reds of Lake Trahlyta.
Looking South-Southwest over Lake Trahlyta towards Vogel State Park.

On our way back I stopped in at the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the other ladies that work there.  We exchanged friendly chatter and they cooed at Junior as he flirted wildly.  I picked up a map of the park trails and asked the ranger if there were any trails suitable for an off-road stroller.  She laughed.  I took this to mean no.  So we headed back to the camper to devise a plan.

Now, about 3 years ago I could have very easily slung a 25lbs child on my back and climbed a mountain for breakfast, but a rough pregnancy with a very large little boy left me struggling to regain my once athletic physique.  I sat at the camp looking at the various trails and trying to gauge the elevation gain and the roughness of the terrain.

There are several trailheads at Vogel.  The Coosa trail is a challenging 13 mile trail that scales several large peaks including Blood mountain and has a 2 mile stretch with a 1500ft elevation gain – not for the faint hearted.  I discounted that one immediately.

The Byron Herbert Nature trail is a 1 mile loop that doesn’t leave the park and features many sign posts along the way pointing out different natural sights en route. It’s aimed at young children and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Too easy. We want adventure. One cannot adventure in one mere mile.

Bear Hair Gap Trail.  That’s the one.  It’s roughly a 5 mile loop from the trailhead, not including the hike to the trailhead, and has an optional short additional loop to Vogel overlook at the top of the mountain for views over the park.  I looked at the time and knew that if we were to return before dark then we would have to set off immediately after Junior’s nap.  

About 2pm we were ready to head out.  I checked the weather again to make sure we were all clear and saw that we had about 3 hours until the sun disappeared over the ridges and darkness would move in fast after that.  I hesitated a moment and asked myself “am I really ready to do a 5+ mile hike up a mountain with this kid on my back?”  I didn’t hang around for the answer and, against my better judgement, decided to just go for it.

The sun coming through the leaves at the trailhead.
The sun hovers above the peak of Blood mountain and peeks through the trees.
Junior playing peekaboo with the camera as we set off.

With Junior in his backpack carrier on my back, a couple snacks, a map, and my phone I set out.  About a mile in I realized that I had neglected to bring any water.  This is not a smart decision when hiking in the wilderness.  A map is helpful but sometimes can lead you astray.  I considered turning back but knew that the trail crossed several clearwater creeks in the area and that I wouldn’t be in danger of dehydration so decided to push on.  Then Junior decided to chime in.

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

I lifted my eyes from the trail expecting that maybe we were encountering other hikers on the trail with a dog.  There was no one.

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

I cast my eyes to the woods, frantically searching through the trees.  My heart began to race as the name of the trail surged through my head: Bear Hair Gap.  You see, Junior has just begun to talk and his vocabulary is limited to a handful of words, his favorite being “doggy”.  We took him to the zoo on a recent trip to Memphis, TN and he exclaimed “doggy” at most of the exhibits there.  But he has also been known to just say the word sometimes, as though he had forgotten that he could and was proudly reminding everyone that he can speak.  Thus, I could not determine if he was seeing a dog in the forest, jabbering mindlessly or, as I feared, seeing a bear that I could not see and calling it “doggy”.

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

I span around again.  I stopped and listened for movement amongst the dry leaves that covered the forest floor.  The blood was pounding in my ears and I struggled to calm my breath after the mile of steep incline we had battled.  I suddenly became abundantly aware of the fact that I had decided to leave the pistol at home, had no bear spray, and was utterly defenseless against any attacking creature larger than a squirrel.  I wasn’t even sure about a squirrel in my current physical condition.

“Doggy.”

I span around again.  I put my arms behind my head to feel that Junior was looking to my left.  I span around to my left and searched the woods hard, knowing that bears can be incredibly stealthy creatures.  Nothing.

“Doggy.”

“WHERE, SON??  TELL MAMA WHERE THE DOGGY IS??”

Giggling.  

I sighed deeply and swallowed hard.  I couldn’t see any dog, nor bear.  I had no way of getting any sense out of the kid, so I decided that I should continue along – but as loudly as possible.  One thing I did know to protect me against black bears in the absence of weapons is to be as loud as possible.  Bears don’t like humans; we are not part of their natural diet and they have no interest in combat with us.  The biggest chance of being attacked by a bear is to startle one by coming upon them suddenly.  So being loud, it seemed, was the best defense to any bear attack.

The rest of the already challenging trail became further challenging by the need for me to sing various annoying nursery rhymes much to the amusement of my 1 year old.  I am convinced that he masterminded this whole thing just to get me to sing to him all afternoon.

After about an hour of pushing hard up winding mountain trails crossing creeks and a final 1/2 mile of approximately 10% grade, we made it to the top.  At Vogel overlook there is a small break between the trees – about 10 feet wide – with glorious views over Vogel and the surrounding mountainous area.  In the middle of the sprawling mountain peaks was a vibrant blue splurge which was Lake Trahlyta; the lake we had hiked around that morning.  

The view over Lake Trahlyta from Vogel Overlook. The picture DOES NOT do it justice and my limited camera equipment doesn’t capture the sweeping mountainscape behind the lake.

“Wow, look, Monkey!”  I breathlessly managed to squeeze out.  He was, for the first time in over an hour, completely silent as he stared hard at the view.  It occurred to me that, in his short 15 months on earth, he had never seen a view of our world like this where everything looks so small yet so vast at the same time.  It’s the kind of view that instantly reminds you of how small and insignificant you are on this earth.  

I tried to take a picture of us with the view behind us.  I held my camera out to one side and tried to get Junior to turn around and look at the camera but his little eyes were locked on the view ahead of him.  I didn’t mind, it meant that my son indeed carries the same sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful planet we live on, and that he does in fact have the capacity to be still and introspective sometimes.

I finished snapping my pictures and checked the time.  3:15pm.  It’s getting late, I thought, better press on.  At least this is the easy part.

So down we went.  The trail wound around the other side of the mountain and I gave in to the decline, trotting over tree roots and rocks.  Junior laughed hysterically as he bounced around behind me.  I giggled with him for a while.  Until, that is, I felt a wet gush on my back and my arm.  I reached down and wiped my arm to find that the kid, from all the bouncing of the steep decline, had thrown up on my back.  Great.  At least he was still laughing.

Then the trail got steeper, slimmer, and rockier.  Tree roots jutted out from every inch of the trail and dried leaves and pine needles made it slippery and tough to get good traction.  Roots and rocks created big steps downwards.  As the trail wound around the mountain and got even steeper the hillside began to become a cliff to onside with sheer rock face to the other.  I paused a moment and considered my options.

If the trail conditions diminished any further I wouldn’t be able to continue – not with a wriggly 1 year old on my back and old running shoes on.  But to turn back now meant climbing another mile back up the mountain to come down the 3 miles on the other side.  I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it before dark and the realization set in that I had gravely underestimated this trail.  I kicked myself for not properly preparing myself like I knew to do.

I had to push on.  No time to sit and deliberate now, I’d just have to be careful.  

The trail got steeper yet and wound around giant boulders jutting out from the mountainside.  These created steep drops in the trail that required me to crouch and jump down – not an easy task with Junior on my back.

Then I slipped.  I lost my footing and, because I was in running shoes and not proper hiking boots, my ankle rolled to the side and I collapsed – luckily forwards – and caught my knee and shin on a rock on my way down.  I lay there for a minute cussing and groaning in pain, holding my ankle and trying to calm my breathing.  Junior fell silent and I realized that he likely knew from the fall and then my tone that something was wrong.  So I began talking to him as calmly as I could – the last thing I needed right now was for him to lose it.

“It’s ok, baby, Mama just fell over because she’s silly.  You’re fine though aren’t you?”

I tickled his leg and he giggled a little.  Ok, phew, he’s fine.

I was not, however.  My skinned knee was stinging but was not an issue – I had powered through much worse in the past and knew that was fine.  But my ankle was throbbing.  I wiggled it to find it was sore, but not broken.  3.30pm.  I have to keep going.

So I pulled myself to my feet and, once again, soldiered on on the winding mountain path.  My ankle was sore and weak so I had to tread slowly and carefully for fear that I was hovering on the edge of disaster.

The steep drops eventually became gentler and at 4:40pm we finally made it back to the park – just 15 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the ridges of the mountain.  I text Chris to let him know that we were safe and to let him know that I had injured my ankle but that we were both ok and there was nothing to worry about.  I got the expected response: “You dumbass.  Glad you’re ok.”

I learned that day that one should never be so conceited as to not go prepared on unknown trails, even if they look easy.  I also learned that I am capable of much more than I thought I was with my jiggly postpartum body.  It is, perhaps, even because of motherhood that I was able to finish the trail.  It was a close call and certainly satisfied my appetite for adventure for a few days, at least until my ankle heals.

Calamities aside, it felt wonderful to get out and do things that I used to do often and really enjoy.  Before becoming a mother I was many things: a hiker, a primitive camper, a fisherman, a wood worker, a lawyer, a boxer, a runner, a cyclist… the list goes on.  I had many identities.  But almost immediately upon becoming pregnant I had abandoned most of those and assumed the role of mother.  For a while it was the only identity I had and this caused some emotional turmoil and something of an identity crisis which my dear husband spent many long teary nights counseling and encouraging me through.

Climbing that mountain with my son on my back, as reckless and dangerous as it was, helped me to realize that I can actually reclaim some of those identities without sacrificing my favorite one; being a mother.  Becoming a mother surely does mean that you have to shed some of your identities; it’s inevitable.  But with practice and time I have begun to figure out which of those identities was most important to me, and were a fundamental part of myself, rather than just something I do.  Now I have the confidence to embrace those parts of myself without neglecting my most important identity.  I actually found that including Junior made it considerably more enjoyable than I remember hiking to be.  I may not be signing up for the Appalachian trail anytime soon, but I will be taking a lot more regular hikes.  With the proper gear and supplies, of course.