#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 ✌️❤️

#30: Chasing the Sun

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

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

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

Sunset at 3,625 feet.

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

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

The last rays of light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ducks before dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds chirping and a mountain breeze.

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

#25: A Place to Rest

We’ve been at Black Rock a few days now and had a chance to settle in.  We’ve met some folks, explored a little, and the place is quickly feeling like home.

Junior and Devon have really made themselves at home.  They have spent hours frolicking on the grass, running through (or away from, in Devon’s case) the sprinkler, digging in the gravel, and laying in the sun.

Being on the side of a the mountain with no surrounding peaks, there tends to be a more steady, cooling breeze here – this has been a welcome addition on these hot spring days.  The lack of tree cover is both a blessing and a curse.  While we are safe from falling limbs in the spring storms, we have no shade cover for the camper which means we will be using the a/c a lot in the coming months.  

The people here all seem very friendly and the place has a generally more relaxed vibe.  The park is generally quieter than Vogel which eases some anxiety related to the current coronavirus pandemic.  I expressed concerns about cleaning bathrooms with the rangers and they were understanding and have been very accommodating.

The sense of urgency that Vogel is shrouded in because of its popularity seems a distant notion here.  When we went to run some errands on our second day here, we discovered the gate to the complex was closed and we had been locked in.  I called the ranger to come and let us out and he said he’d be down soon but that “nobody was in a hurry here”.  I found this to be comforting.  Everyone seems laid back and easy going which certainly eases my anxiety about juggling life as a host with being a mother to a very busy little boy.

Black Rock Mountain State Park is the highest (elevation) park in Georgia and sits at 3,640 ft straddling the Eastern Continental Divide.  With no higher peaks surrounding it, there are impressive vistas and panoramic views throughout the park.  The majority of the park sits atop the narrow ridge of Black Rock Mountain meaning the trails are challenging but the scenery is spectacular.  On a clear day, a short hike up to the scenic overlook at Tennessee Rock provides views across four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and, of course, Georgia.  Established in 1952, what the park lacks in history it makes up for in stunning scenery.

The view from Cowee Overlook en route to the visitors center.
A little further up the mountain at Blue Ridge Overlook.

The park encompasses over 1700 acres across Black Rock Mountain and the 4 surrounding peaks and includes the 17 acre Black Rock Lake.  The lack of higher peaks surrounding it means that the majority of the park is exposed to the weather.  This coupled with the sheer rock faces and giant boulders gives the landscape a particular rugged beauty.

The view looking from the visitors center over Clayton below and South Carolina beyond.
Junior at the Visitors Center overlook musing at the buzzards flying overhead.

Because of its location on the top of a narrow ridge, the park facilities are rather spread out. The campground, significantly smaller than Vogel, features 44 campsites for tents, trailers, and RVs split into 2 loops (each with its own bathhouse). There are a further 12 “walk-in” sites on a separate loop for tent campers only. Virtually every campsite at the park boasts views across Northeast Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, with some having up to 240 degree views.

The view from Nantahala Overlook in the campground.

Black Rock is a little less family-friendly than Vogel, however. The steep drop offs on either side of the campground, the lack of any play park, and the level of experience required for most of the trails means that it can be difficult to keep kids entertained in the park. While fishing and paddling (canoes, kayaks, and trolling motors) are allowed in the lake, swimming is prohibited.

Sunset over Black Rock Lake.

For the truly outdoorsy family, couples, or friends looking for a somewhat wilderness adventure packed with beauty and just a 10 minute drive to local eateries and boutiques – Black Rock State Park is an excellent choice.

We’ve been fortunate in our first few days here.  Although the current pandemic has caused some cancellations to some of Chris’ jobs giving way to some financial woe for us, the silver lining is that Junior and I get to have him home with us for a few days.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better in life.  Throw in some warm, sunny days and that’s a recipe for some Seeley family adventures.

On our first sunny day at the park Chris was itching to go fishing for the first time in a while.  So he loaded his fishing poles in the truck, I got the backpack carrier, and we all headed down to the lake.  

While Chris wet a line, Junior and I took ourselves on a little hike to explore the area.  We took the short lake trail to begin with.  This trail hugs the banks of the vibrant blue-green water for approximately 0.85 miles.  Junior had a great time giggling at the ducks and mimicking their quacking.  He got a real kick out of it when they began diving and their little feathered butts were sticking up in the air.

Next we decided to explore a little bit of the James E. Edmonds trail.  This is the park’s backcountry trail and, though it is only an approximately 7.2 mile loop, it features challenging terrain and some pretty steep inclines.  One section of the trail includes a particularly gruesome 1000 ft elevation gain in one short mile.  

A Southern Woodland Violet marks the trail to the lake and mountains beyond.
A Native Violet dancing in the gentle lake breeze.
These Philadelphia Fleabanes are popping up all around the lake.

Signs of spring were everywhere.  The Christmas Ferns, some of the coolest little sprouts in spring, are abundant on the forest floor.  This time of year they resemble little green, furry worms curled up and protruding from the ground as they slowly stretch and come to life like everything else in the spring.  

A Christmas Fern getting ready to spring into life.

For obvious reasons, we didn’t attempt the entire trail, but did manage to do about a couple of miles of exploration.  The cool mountain air made it a great day for a hike through the woods.  The rugged landscape was littered with mossy rocks and dry leaves with specks of the blue, purple, yellow and white wildflowers beginning to push their way through the forest floor.  Underground streams created some small – and some very large – tunnels and caves throughout the mountainside, filled with moss and dripping with natural spring water.  In other places the water poured over the gigantic boulders and veins of biotite gneiss, the dark colored rock that runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains and gives the park its name.  

The trail passing over one of the many mountain streams.
More mountain streams.

We followed the trail, crossing the many trickling streams, until we heard the distant sound of rushing water enticing us further.  We rounded a ridge to find a 10 ft waterfall cascading down the face of the smooth, black rock and spilling into a small, sandy pool at its base; the perfect secluded swimming hole for Junior on a hot spring or summer day. 

The rays of sunlight piercing through the canopy glimmered on the water. The lush greens of the wild magnolias gently draping over the stream, the many forest ferns and the moss that seemed to slowly claim every inch of nearby rock made this spot feel like something created in a dream.  We sat for a minute and rested, listening to the chirp of the forest birds and the water running over the rock.  

The waterfall and sandy pool – a place we’ll return to better prepared and with more time for Junior to play.

Before long it was time to head back to find Chris and get some dinner for the kid.  I snapped my pictures and we set off back down the mountain toward the lake, satisfied with a few good shots and the promise to return with more time.  

There are more trails to explore here, and the taste I’ve had of them so far makes me restless for a chance to get back out.  With all the madness going on in the world right now it seems almost to be divine providence that we have found such a perfect place to take life a little slower.  Our escape from the hustle and bustle of Vogel has landed us in a place of beauty and peace and we couldn’t be happier for it.