#33: Our Month on the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dykes on the banks of the Mississippi.

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks and a full moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.