#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 ✌️❤️

#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.

#19: A 21st Century Redneck Fairytale

It was a beautiful weekend when Chris and I met, much like it is today here at Vogel.  Though it’s colder here today, the sun is warm and has a way of making everything look so much prettier.  This time of year makes me think of how Chris and I got our start 3 years ago, though it was a few months earlier than that when we first met.

As I said, it was a beautiful weekend – or at least in my mind it was.  Meeting my future husband was, most definitely the last thing on my mind that Friday when I opened the door to Chris.  

In 2016 I was living with my roommate in Athens.  We had a large house with 2 spare rooms and a spare bathroom.  We decided to capitalize on this and rent the spare rooms out through AirBnB.  This proved to be a very lucrative venture for, in case you’re unfamiliar with Athens, GA, it’s the home of the Georgia Bulldogs (American college football).  On game weekends the population of Athens almost doubles from ~125,000 to ~200,000.  Their stadium holds about 93,000 but many come just for the spectacle of the tailgating events where fans spill onto the streets to grill out from the back of their trucks and play various drinking games on any square inch of outdoor space they can find.  The place becomes a circus.

Hotels hike their prices way up and still sell out for these events forcing fans to find alternative places to stay.  By renting our 2 spare rooms, and eventually our large sun room at the back of the house, we would make enough money in one weekend to cover the rent for the month.  We had up to 13 people staying in the house at any one time before.

So when Georgia played their long-time rival, Tennessee, on the last weekend of September in 2016, it was no surprise when we were booked up months in advance.  One such booking was from two young men from Memphis, TN; Bo and Chris.

They arrived on the Friday and we immediately clicked.  I had two friends, Sharryn and James, visiting from the UK, so we all hung out together for the weekend.  After Chris and Bo arrived I showed them to their room to get settled and then they came downstairs to the den for some drinks with us.  We had a lot in common – including the same twisted sense of humor, and we all became old friends instantly.  The Memphians found it hysterical to hear us Brits cuss so we gave them a lesson in British swearing – in my opinion one is not a true Brit unless they can swear and drink like one.  They asked where the good bars were in Athens so I invited them out with us that night and they gladly accepted.

Bo on the left, me in the middle, and Chris scowling in the foreground. 2016

We ended up hanging out all weekend, tailgating together before the game and then meeting up afterwards to go home, get refreshed, and then head back out to the bars for commiserations (Georgia narrowly lost thanks to a hail mary from Tennessee in the final seconds of the game).  

Chris told me that weekend that he was going to marry me.  I laughed and rolled my eyes.  Yeah right, I thought, I’ll never see this guy again.

On Sunday it came time for them to go home.  We all exchanged numbers and social media info and said we’d stay in touch.  I remember thinking that I would love to see them again and hang out, but figured that it just probably wouldn’t happen given that they lived an 8 hour drive away.

Chris has told me numerous times that as he and Bo drove away that day that he reiterated his vow to marry me.  He’s not right often, but on this occasion he actually was.

A couple months went by and we had sent the odd message to each other and loosely stayed in touch but never mentioned any plans to hang out.

Then right after Christmas I took a trip to Memphis, TN with my Canadian parents.  

Making our way from Georgia to Tennessee through Alabama…

…and Mississippi…
… and finally to Tennessee.

I am fortunate enough to have many loving parents across the world.  My Mom, Tron, and Step Dad, Rob, live in England.  My Step Mom, Morgan, and Step Dad, Ara, divide their time (when they are not gallivanting around the world) between Washington State and Victoria, BC.  My in-laws, Ric and Cindy live in Tennessee.  And our Mountain Mama, Carol, lives in Cornelia, GA.

I spent a few days over New Years with Morgan and Ara staying at Bo’s in Memphis.  Being that we were all in our twenties we had planned to hit the bars again for drinks and maybe some pool.  That first evening of our trip on December 30th 2016, at a bar called Arcade on a chilly night in Memphis, Chris finally kissed me and started something that neither of us had any idea would change our lives forever.

The next few days we were inseparable.  We took a freezing cold motorcycle ride from Chris’ house in Titpton County to downtown Memphis and, though my legs were numb within minutes into the ride, I’d never felt so content as I was on the back of that bike with my arms around the man that I already knew I was quickly falling in love with.

By the end of the short trip my heart ached at the idea of saying goodbye.  There was one question lingering at the back of my mind that whole trip but I didn’t dare ask it for fear of the answer; am I ever going to see him again?  

We kissed goodbye and I tried to be happy for the time we had together and told myself that it was unforgettable few days, if nothing else.  But as we drove away I felt sick and couldn’t get that pesky Memphian out of my head.

In the weeks that followed we spent every waking (and sometimes sleeping) moment on the phone to each other, texting and snap chatting throughout the day, then talking for hours into the night.  We visited each other a few times in the following months, every couple of weeks.  He’d drive 8 hours after work on a Friday to visit me in Georgia, returning on Sunday.  Then a couple of weeks later I’d take a Friday off, leave on the Thursday night, and stay until Sunday.  We’d spend the ENTIRE drive there and back on the phone to each other.  

Then in February Chris came to visit me.  The weather was still pretty cold, but it was dry which made for good camping weather.  So we packed up on the Saturday and headed out to the mountains and hiked in to my favorite spot on the Chattooga River.  We sat by the fire talking, went exploring, took some pictures, and laughed a lot.  That night we told each other that we loved each other.  The next day Chris was supposed to leave to go home, but we both called in to our jobs and got the Monday off so we could stay another day.

Exploring the mountains around North Georgia and North Carolina
Chris enjoying the camp at the Chattooga River.
I don’t think I stopped smiling that whole weekend.

Over the next couple of weeks Chris kept reminding me of his vow to marry me.  I’d still laugh and brush it off.  But as we thought about our future together we realized we had a lot of figuring out to do as to whether he would move to Georgia or I would move to Tennessee.  But one thing was certain and never required a conversation: one of us would be moving, because the worst part, and only bad part about our relationship was having to say goodbye to each other for a couple of weeks each time we were together. 

So one Monday in March, after 3 months of long distance dating, we were one the phone late at night and we were making plans for my visit to Chris that coming weekend.  

“We could just go to the courthouse and get married.”  He said, not joking at all.  I had never cared for a lavish wedding.  Neither of us had the money for it and there was the logistical nightmare of having family in 2 different countries; which family will be subjected to the expense of flying over?  Then if we do it that way we’l have to wait a year or two for everyone to save up.  The more I thought about it, the more it became about planning a wedding for everyone else, not for us.  

“Ok, let’s do it.”  I said, not quite believing the words coming out of my mouth.

So on Thursday, March 16th 2017 I drove to Tipton County.  The next afternoon, on St. Patrick’s Day, we hopped on Chris’ motorcycle after he finished work and we rode to the house of a very nice woman named Patricia, whom we had never met, but whom had agreed to marry us for $100.  After a quick ceremony in our best jeans and helmet hair, we were officially married.

Marriage license in hand, off to Patricia’s house.
Newlyweds.

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea – but it suited us just fine.  We knew from the get go that we were committed to each other and had the same ideas for what we wanted in life.  It was actually a very easy decision to make, and one that neither of us regret in the slightest.  

While it was difficult to break the news to our families – our mothers, in particular, who were understandably rather hurt that they hadn’t even been told of the wedding – we still don’t regret doing it our way.  I think (and hope) that with some time they now understand why we did it the way we did it, and most importantly that we are happy.  Which is all that should matter.

We are risk takers.  It is who we are.  Sometimes those risks pay off and we have been very fortunate with the way some things turn out.  Sometimes those risks don’t pay off and we have certainly had more than our fair share of that.  But perhaps the biggest risk of all, and one that many people seriously doubted us for, is the best risk I’ve ever taken.  

I trusted my heart and, as cliche as it may sound, it steered me right.  That leap of faith has brought me to a man that I never thought I would be worthy of.  He is, in every way, my best friend and the love of my life.  3 years on and I still can’t ever spend too much time talking to him.  

So if there’s one thing that I wish for the people that I love going forward into this new year, it’s that they have the faith in themselves and their own hearts to take a risk this year.  Don’t put too much stock in playing it safe, life is boring that way.  Thinking of moving to a new place?  Do it.  New career ideas?  Do it.  Thinking of buying an RV and moving into it full time?  Do it.  Thinking of eloping with the person you love on a motorcycle?  Do it.  Make 2020 a year where you don’t overthink, you just do what makes you happy.