#35: Happy at Home

Refreshed from our mini-vacation, we packed up one last time and hit the road eastbound for Georgia.  After a long month we were ready to be back to normal.  But the thought of trying to ascend the steep, narrow mountain road towing our 8,000lbs home and then navigating the narrow campground to get into our site left my stomach in knots.  

We tried to forget our worries by playing what we had come to call “the alphabet game”.  The idea is that we each have to find the letters of the alphabet starting with A going through Z but you can only use a sign or license plate for one letter – once it has been used for one letter by one player, it cannot be used again by any player.  This was fun, but quickly grew competitive (particularly when Chris started losing consistently) which led to Chris cheating and soon descended into cussing each other out.  

It took Chris a minute but he finally grew up and realized I’m just better at games than him.  Junior was happily watching The Jungle Book in the back seat and was blissfully unaware of what a cheater his father was, fortunately for him.  

As we drew into Georgia, though, the fun and games wore off and the nerves began to set in.  Once we conquered the Atlanta traffic, we were just an hour or so from the park.  We had gotten lucky with the weather so far and as we drove into Clayton, about 15 miles from the park, we saw the peak of Black Rock ahead.  The sun was catching the window of the visitor’s center near the summit signaling that it was crunch time.  We decided to pull in at the gas station in Clayton.  We stepped out for a cigarette one last time before the ascent.

“Alright, this is it.  This is the moment of truth.  Think she can make it?”  Chris said smirking.

I exhaled deeply and glanced up at the mountain.  Not 5 minutes before it was a beautiful, clear day and I could see the peak of the mountain.  Now clear skies had been swallowed by a large storm cloud looming over the summit.  I chuckled flatly and gestured upwards rolling my eyes.  Chris lifted his head to see and quickly dropped it again shaking his head gently.  

“Of course.”

“Well let’s do this then.  Come on.”  I said, dreading what lay ahead.

Surprisingly, despite the ominous weather, we made it up the mountain to the campground with no trouble.  The rain started just as we were getting set up, but I was just thankful to be home and ready to get settled.

Chris took the week off se we could finish getting settled.  We spent the next couple of days walking around and taking in the new surroundings.  Though we were at Black Rock before we left for Tennessee, we were at the maintenance compound halfway down the mountain.  Now we were a few hundred feet higher up the mountain and far from the privacy of that site.

Our new site sits on the corner of where the road through the campground splits and the doors of the camper face the road instead of the thickly wooded mountain slope behind us.  It was a little bit of a downer those first few nights.  Schools hadn’t gone back yet so the campground was still very full.  Late into the evening people were walking past our fire chatting as they walked.  It’s not a big deal, but as people that enjoy our privacy, it’s definitely the worst aspect of living in a campground.  One of the things we liked about Vogel was how private our site was compared to the rest of the sites, here it’s definitely the opposite case.

But the high temperatures were around 72 (22 Celsius) and the evening lows were around 60 (15 Celsius) every night with low humidity and a steady cooling breeze.  It was a wonderful feeling that weekend to sit by the fire with long pants on and enjoy it.  We both remarked at how positively lovely it was to be home again.  

Being at the summit was different in other ways too.  With no light pollution from the street lights of the suburbs or the glaring lights of the maintenance shop, there was no light to be had.  The thin tree canopy further extinguishes most light from the moon and the stars, so the darkness was thick.  Sitting by the fire and looking around is like staring into the abyss.  Furthermore, at night time, the crickets, cicadas, and frogs all come alive and the noise is near deafening.  It drowns out the fireside conversations of nearby sites and people moving around.  

The blindness from the darkness and the deafness from the night critters creates a disorienting effect that is strange and hard to define.  You become more aware that there are people and beasts beyond the darkness, but your ability to know where they lurk is significantly diminished.  To enjoy it, you just have to accept it.  Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why people like camping; it’s vulnerability but in an exhilarating way.

Crickets and cicadas at black rock.

Most mornings here are spent in a cloud.  It’s grey and foggy everywhere you look. In drier mornings the campfire smoke and the fog hang silently in the air and blanket the summit.  I can barely see the campsite across the road from us some mornings.  But usually by around 9 or 10am the sun begins to penetrate the fog, the cloud lifts, and the views are spectacular.  The little birds are chirping, people are friendly and happy to be on vacation, the wildflowers are in bloom, and it’s warm but not hot.  

The morning light through the leaves, fog, and campfire smoke.

Junior has also had a blast exploring with us.  He’s taken to mushroom hunting with me.  We’ll walk around the campground and look for cool new fungus on the forest floor and the base of rotten trees.  When he finds one, he’ll squat down and say, “Whassat.  Mushooooooo.”  It’s adorable and I applaud his keen eye for finding them even when I can’t.  We’ve already collected a fine portfolio of cool and unusual fungus and I look forward to reading about and teaching him mycology one day.  His undying love for the outdoors is heartwarming. He often wakes in the mornings or from his naps with a hearty plea for adventure as he frowns, points to the door and says, “ow-siiiii”.

“Mushoooooo.”

We love exploring and discovering all the different kinds of life here at the park. On one mushroom hunt, Junior discovered a furry little caterpillar and laid down in the road to make friends with him.  Last week we rescued a tree frog that had found his way into the bathroom. He makes friends with every single living creature in the park.  He pets every dog that comes walking past (and there are a lot), he wins the hearts of every adult, and he has a few pet rocks that he totes around the campsite with him on our walks.  He even made friends with an older couple’s pet love bird that they brought camping with them.

We also made some human friends.  After a couple of days we were sitting outside the camper enjoying Junior’s nap.  I looked up from my book to see that a camper was arriving at the site across and to the right of us.  The couple, clearly new at maneuvering a camper, were having some trouble backing into hill-side site on the corner.  She was behind the camper trying to guide him in, while he was driving trying to see over the hood of the car.  From my vantage point I could see that he was about to steer himself right into the storm drain in front of him and to the right, so I ushered Chris to go and give them a hand.

It’s still fresh in my memory the first time we back our camper into a site.  Though I wasn’t driving, the pressure of being Chris’ eyes behind the camper, and therefore the responsible party should he collide with anything, made my hands shake and my heart race.  It’s a nerve-wracking event in which help is greatly appreciated.  

So Chris ran up to give them a hand and, within a minute or so, they had successfully backed into their site and Chris joined me again at the camper.  A few minutes later, after the couple had gotten their camper leveled, the man came down to say thank you for Chris’ help.

He was of average height and stocky stature.  His bald head, long grey goatee, and tattoos gave him a slightly intimidating appearance, but his thick German accent meant he had a good sense of humor.  His name was Volker, and this was their maiden voyage with their new camper.  His wife’s name was Bren, and she was American.  She had short, blonde hair and tattooed arms.  It turned out that they had met because of the motorcycle club they were both members of and this seemed pretty fitting for their appearance.

We became old friends fast and quickly discovered that we had so much in common.  That evening we invited them to our site for some drinks and we shared stories and laughs into the evening.  Bren was easy to talk to.  She had a wicked sense of humor and an intellectual outlook to match it.  We talked about everything from silly stories, to world travels, to being a mother, to the very core of life itself.  We shared similar beliefs about many things and looked at the world in the same way.  This made her good company.

Volker’s sense of humor is killer and we spent much of our conversations with him splitting at the ribs.  Though he spoke with an unmistakable German accent, his command of English made it easy to talk to and understand him.  He’s lived a rich life having joined the German army in 1982, traveled the world as an engineer, and has never said no to an opportunity for a good time.  He has both wisdom and the appreciation for laughter which made him good company also.

His accent and inherent German-ness made punchlines out of fringe details of his stories.  One night he was telling us about the difference in temperatures between Canada and Germany.  He said:

“The only things the same about the Fahrenheit and the celsius, jah, is that -40 Fahrenheit is -40 celsius, right?  What’s the difference??  Dude, it’s fucking cold, jah??”

He had genuine anger and confusion in his voice that sent us nearly falling out of our chairs as we cried with laughter.  

On another occasion he told us a story where he and Bren were on a road trip and she turns to him and says “how do you want to spend your retirement?”

For him this was a big question, one that is akin to “do you want kids?” Or “do you want to get married?”

He thought for a second before answering: “on a golf course”.

Bren was quiet for a moment, then suddenly began sobbing.

“‘What’s wrong with you??’ I asked her, because she is crying… like what the fuck?  So I immediately am confused and I ask her this.  She says, ‘I don’t think I want to spend my retirement on a golf course, I don’t even like golf!’  I start laughing so hard and she starts to get mad like, ‘WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING??” I was laughing because I said, ‘not a golf course – THE GULF COAST!’”

We were howling. They were guests at the park for 4 nights, and we spent every evening with them laughing, drinking, and swapping stories.  They told us that they had been discussing the possibility of going full time in the RV and we spent a lot of time talking about why we did it and why they’d love it, as well as the downsides of the lifestyle.  We talked about plans to visit them in Acworth (about 2 hours away just outside of Atlanta) and I truly hope we make it happen.  We were sad to see them go and hoped to be neighbors with them again soon.

“One for the haters” – Volker, Bren, Chris and me.

On the flip side, we’ve had some rather unwanted visitors.  The creepy crawlies in the area are big and poisonous.  There have been 2 dogs bitten by copperheads (snakes) in the last month.  One dog was laying under his camper when he was bitten.  A rattlesnake was also spotted at the visitors center just last week on the same day the a copperhead was found behind one of the bath houses.  

Then there’s the people.  Most are wonderful and at very least friendly.  But now and then some odd balls can wander in.  We had our first experience with one such character last week.

“Craig” was in his late 30s and had grown out his mullet in favor of an undercut on one side of his head.  He donned a worn striped t shirt that reminded me of a train conductor, and suspenders on his shorts with one side unclipped.  He was a little overweight and walked awkwardly.

The guy seemed nice enough when he approached and was talking to Chris because he couldn’t find his site.  I came outside to him standing in our campsite talking to Chris and joined them for the conversation.

He was cheery, but very talkative and would go off on tangents, like inner monologues with no break, and sometimes begin giggling uncontrollably at odd times.  He told us that he was a disabled veteran and showed us the huge scars running up the length of one shin and over his knee.  Then he told us that he was bipolar and was no longer taking his medication and I realized that this guy was manic.  I had been trying to figure out what it was about him that seemed familiar, and it was the mania.  I’ve worked with clients and have friends and family who are bipolar so I’ve seen my share of mania.

This fact made me uneasy.  Not because he was mentally ill, but because I didn’t know him at all and he was sitting there telling me he was not taking his medication.  He went on to tell us that his friends had him committed in May and that made me more nervous.  Then he told us about the land he owns in Mississippi and that he and his friends live there just playing music and living life they want to.  

He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but my 2 year old was asleep a few feet away and my gut was telling me it probably wasn’t the best situation.  We told him it was time to turn in for the night and he thanked us for a nice evening and went back to his site without incident.  The next day he came and knocked at the door and gave us a tea pot that his friend, a master potter, had made.  He told us he was headed out to ramble on to the next place and we wished him well.  Though he was a nice guy, he definitely gave me an uncomfortable feeling and I felt relieved when he left.

Other than our strange meeting with “Craig”, we’ve had an easy breezy stay at Black Rock so far.  We’re glad to be back with our friends, Jessica and Kevin, and we love getting to call such a beautiful place our home. Even the lack of privacy, which was a curse to begin with, has grown on us and now we rather enjoy the fact that it invites conversation with so many new and (mostly) awesome people.  We look forward to the adventures that lay ahead of us here for the rest of the year at our peaceful natural haven.

#32: Westward Bound

On Wednesday, July 1st, we packed up and set off for a month-long trip to Tennessee. We have some affairs to get in order there and both wanted a break from the stresses of work so we could have some time together as a family. We get few family days to enjoy together as Chris has been working so much and I usually have volunteer obligations at the park, so this was a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

We got packed up on Tuesday night for the most part. By 10am on Wednesday we were loaded up and ready to head down the mountain. This part of the drive turned into a bit of a skiing adventure momentarily and we skied down the gravel service road from the maintenance complex. Thankfully, Chris managed to maintain enough control to get us safely to the bottom and away we went. Junior spent the drive either napping or watching Home Alone on his new DVD player – a kind gift from his Tronny (my mother) and now our most treasured possession. We owe our peaceful drive entirely to her.

Though storms were forecast for the day we actually got remarkably lucky with the weather.  As we drew closer to Alabama the moving day jitters melted away and we arrived at our destination at around 2pm CST having gained an hour when we crossed the Alabama line.

Cheaha State Park was our home for the night and it was a fine choice, if I may say so myself.  The park is the highest point in Alabama.  Though the elevation is only 2,407 ft, it was a good transition point for us and still boasted the cooler mountain breezes we’ve grown so accustomed to, and some pretty stunning vistas.

Our reservation was for the lower campground which was toward the bottom of the mountain nestled in a valley next to Cheaha Lake. Arriving and setting up in the heat of the day put us in the mood for a dip so we promptly changed into our swimming gear and headed back out.

The lake was beautiful and the water was perfectly tepid.  The rocky peak of the mountain towered above us and we had the whole lake to ourselves.  We splashed around for an hour or so and Junior had a blast throwing big rocks into the lake and watching them sink to the sandy bottom.  It felt like our first real little family getaway – just us, no stress or worry, surrounded by wild nature.  I sat on the sand and listened to Junior cackling with delight as he splashed around with his Papa.  I think we all felt in that moment that we could have stayed there for an eternity.

But alas, dinnertime beckoned us back to the camper for some roasted veggies and smoked sausage.  After dinner we headed to the top of the mountain to Bald Rock for a walk.  The drive was stunning and we weaved through magnificent boulder fields and passed a few deer on our way to the top.

The short 1 mile trail consisted of a boardwalk elevated a few feet above the forest floor. It wound through the rugged ridge-top forest surrounded by lichen-covered boulders and twisted, gnarled trees. Chris and I remarked how we’d never seen so much lichen and that the landscape had a sort of eerie and ominous sense to it that was strikingly beautiful. “Cheaha” is derived from the Creek Indians who named the mountain “Cheaha” meaning high place. Roaming the landscape here and taking in its mysterious vibe, I was struck by what the Native American People must have seen in this land.

Of course, Junior had no time to notice this and he spent the entire walk charging up and down the boardwalk at full speed, only stopping momentarily here and there to gawp upwards at the towering tree tops. 

The trail ended at Bald Rock which provided a sweeping view to the West across the lower, flatter 400,000 acres of Talladega National Forest. We soaked in that breeze for a short while before heading back down the trail to the truck and we vowed to come back on our way home.

Chris and I indulged in a glass of wine for me and a beer for him that evening. We sat outside talking into the night and critically analyzing a Sturgill Simpson album. Though it’s the sort of thing we do regularly, the absence of the stresses and frustrations of everyday life as well as the change of scenery made it feel special. It was the perfect end to our mini family vacation.

The next morning we got packed up and, once again, managed to get on the road by 10am. Junior never made a peep for the whole 6 hour drive and was content with Home Alone and snacks. We got so lucky with the weather again, in fact we got lucky in just about every way with our trip. Every traffic light seemed to be green and every stop sign seemed to be clear.

That is, except for one heart-stopping moment. Coming out of the park there was a large dump truck in the middle of the road which forced us over and into the steep verge. This left the camper sliding down the bank off the road. Chris stepped on the accelerator and pulled us out in the nick of time. It was otherwise a very pleasant trip.

Around 2pm we stopped in Tupelo, MS at Veterans Memorial Park to stretch our legs. We thought it was a good, open space to let the boys run around and get some fresh air before the final stretch of our journey. But as we opened the doors and stepped out, the thick, heavy heat belted me in the face and about took me off my feet. I immediately began reconsidering my decision.

Junior had fun giggling at the ducks on the lake and Devon rolled happily in the grass as Chris and I tried our best not to collapse from the heat exhaustion. It wasn’t long before we were retreating back to the cramped quarters of the truck for the solace of the air conditioning.

Another 2 hours later and we finally made it to Chris’ parents’ house. As I stepped out of the truck the heat just about made me pass out. My head was immediately pounding and the sweat dripped from every inch of my body. 94 degrees (35 Celsius), 90% humidity, no trees for shade and not a lick of a breeze. Welcome to Tennessee. You’re not in the mountains now.

As Chris stepped out of the truck we looked at each other and said, with a shake of the head and a defeated grin, “shit, it’s gonna be a long month.”

We began setting the camper and getting things set up as quickly as possible, but ran into a snag. The outlet Chris’ Dad had gotten installed in the garage was the wrong one – we couldn’t plug our camper in. No power means no air conditioning. This was devastating news to me.

I was born in Canada and raised in England – I am biologically not cut out for these temperatures.  Chris laughs at me for my inability to handle the heat here.  I’m truly in awe of how anyone can actually function in these conditions.  It’s crippling to me, both physically and mentally.  In the last few years in the south I have found that summers often bring on dizzy spells and light headedness that has left me very close to passing out.  I get dehydrated quickly and I struggle to think straight.  No amount of water seems to help and I spend the height of the summer mostly inside – at least in the middle of the day.

So the lack of air conditioning was a deal breaker and I was close to suggesting we just find a nearby park to go to. Chris jumped in the truck and went out looking for a replacement receptacle to fix the problem. Meanwhile, I waited for his return outside. Devon doesn’t get along with other dogs at all so he couldn’t be in the house with my in-laws’ 2 dogs. He couldn’t go in the camper as it was close to 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in there even with the windows open. So I had to hang out with him in the front yard and wait for my husband to come to the rescue.

As Chris always does, he fixed it up and just before I completely melted in the heat, we finally had the a/c back on. Of course, by this point, I looked like I had just stepped out of a shower fully clothed.

I had hoped that the evening would bring cooler temperatures but alas it was not to be. The evening air was only mildly less stifling. As Chris and I laid down in bed that night with the a/c set as low as possible, we realized that we were in for a long, uncomfortable month with minimal outdoor activity. It was certainly a big shock to the system – one that we logically knew would occur but still knocked me sideways when we arrived. I’m hoping we get lucky with the weather and that there’ll be some rainy and overcast days so we can get out and go for some walks by the Mississippi river. But until this weather changes I’ll be in the camper hiding from the sun. Come hang out, but bring me something cold ✌️❤️

#31: A Stranger in the Night

It’s official: this is the craziest year in all of my 30 years.  The world has erupted in chaos in the last few weeks and the heartbreaking scenes on the TV have driven me further into the safety of my own bubble, desperate to limit my exposure to the horrific scenes and curb the ensuing anxiety.

Though I find myself sometimes transfixed by the media reports, unable to distance myself from the news for the sake of my own mental health, I try my best to throw myself into nature and my immediate surroundings. This welcome distraction helps me to center myself and not focus so hard on all the things I can’t control. The more I watch the news, the more I lay awake at night unable to turn my mind off and stop the thoughts of death and violence creeping back into my every thought. These swirling thoughts and worries for the world my son will grow up in boil up from my stomach and stick in my throat as my chest tightens and tears well up in my eyes. It’s apparent that grounding myself in nature is more important now than ever.

Lately we have reinstated our evening walks.  It was a ritual that began before I was pregnant and we were living in Clarkesville as a way to acclimate our dogs to each other – both of whom were used to one-dog households and needed a careful approach to their integration.  But retrospectively it was a therapy tool that Chris and I needed after a turbulent start to our marriage, and through it we became better acclimated to married life.

The pups on one of our daily walks of yore.

One of the many challenges of living this lifestyle is maintaining a routine through all the changes.  Each new park brings different commute times, new work routines, and new surroundings.  So the more we can retain these small rituals the more grounded we feel, especially when the world around us is so turbulent right now.

Just like old times, we take an evening walk down the dirt road – except now we have the pitter patter of excited little feet to keep up with too. I think this ritual is good for Junior – to experience a daily dose of family time with fresh air, no screens, and a little bit of exercise. I hope that it’ll teach him a healthy coping mechanism for life.

It’s usually a short walk on account of Junior’s little legs and Chris’ motorcycle accident in February which has left him struggling with walking/hiking at times still.  Some days we’ll go 2.5km, others just 1km.  But distance isn’t the goal, it’s the enjoyment, relaxation, and family time that matters.  I always return home feeling like a small weight has lifted and it caps the day off nicely before Junior’s bedtime routine. Junior seems to really enjoy the walks too.

One of my most favorite pictures of my little boy living free without a care in the world.

In paying more attention and consciously focusing on nature I’ve reaped an array of benefits.  I have begun to learn more about the flora in the area and have been trying to learn the names and medicinal purposes of the many flowers and herbs that grow naturally in this land.  

While junior was napping I was visited by a baby bunny rabbit the other day and, had I been gazing anxiously at the TV instead of in awe out the window, I would have missed him. His tiny little grey ears poked up from behind some weeds next to the camper and I stared perplexed for a moment as to what sort of curious creature was lurking. Then he hopped towards me and pushed his tiny, furry body through the chainlink fence and sat nibbling quietly on the grass as I quietly observed. I steadied my breath and held still so as to not frighten him. He turned and looked at me and we locked eyes for a moment, each curious about the other. I held his gaze for a moment before he hopped happily back through the fence and off into the wild beyond.

These sweet little encounters with the fauna of this mountain, although with common woodland creatures, feel like little miracles and I return to my day feeling that much luckier to have shared a moment with them.  But some creatures don’t have the same calming and non-threatening presence, especially the ones that lurk in the night.

A few weeks ago, shortly after our arrival, Chris and I were sat chatting by the fire. It was getting late and we weren’t far from turning in for the night. We were chatting idly about everything and nothing at all, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in the thicket behind the fence. Chris shushed me harshly and froze – something he does often because the poor old bugger’s imagination likes to run away with him at the slightest drop of a leaf. I rolled my eyes but obliged and held still and listened. The rustling sound was louder now and I realized that, at least on this occasion, he was right; something was lurking in the bushes.

Excited and curious we grabbed the spotlight and crept toward the corner of the fence where the sound was coming from. We held still and listened intently. Silence. I held my breath and strained to hear.

Suddenly the silence was broken again but this time much closer to the fence. So close, in fact, that it sounded like it was a mere few feet from us. Chris clicked the spotlight on and lit up the darkness but the light caught the twisted, tangled thicket and cast shadows beyond it which darted around with the movement of the light, playing tricks on our eyes. Suddenly another commotion, this time closer to where we had been sat by the fire. It’s on the move.

We quickly and quietly scurried across the grass toward the noise and clicked the light on again – but as soon as we did the light faded and died.

“No!  No, no, no.  The damn battery is dead” Chris exclaimed with frustration. “It’s right there, it’s right there!”  

He clicked the light on again and again it lit up the thicket for a second before fading and dying.  He repeated this action frantically, desperate to just catch a glimpse of the rustling creature just feet from our faces.

Then there was a sudden commotion back toward the corner of the fence where we were before. But then a commotion in front of us again. This time the rustling was moving. It wasn’t the delicate and graceful movement of a deer searching for a place to bed down, but rather the clumsy crashing of a much larger creature with no fear of predators. But it was two of them.

“It’s a mama bear and her cubs” I whispered, desperately searching the darkness for just a glimpse at the majestic creatures. We shot back up towards the corner of the fence as they crashed through the darkness, moving at speed now. I used the light from my phone out of sheer desperation. As I pulled it out of my pocket a thought flashed through my head that illumination of the scene could reveal an angry and protective mother scaling the fence at speed and a black, hairy face with long white teeth, drool dripping in anticipation. I took a cautionary step back, clicked the light on, and was a little relieved to find the fence unobstructed before me.

As the creatures crashed off into the abyss we returned to our fire, both disappointed and relieved. Chris has been itching to see a bear; he’s never seen one before in the wild. I have seen one before, but not in a few years, and always appreciate the majesty of those elusive creatures.

Excited by our encounter, we retired to our camp chairs and talked excitedly into the wee hours of how they were “right there, they must have been no more than 8 feet from us!”

As the weeks passed by, the many warning signs around the park displaying images of black bears and declaring this as “bear country” seemed to taunt us. Every day I’d cast my eye to the woods as I drove or hiked the park, hoping today might be my day.

Then our stranger in the night returned last night. As we sat in our camp chairs, Chris on the phone to his Mom, he noticed that Devon had run off and was barking at something.

“It’s just Devon, it’s probably nothing. He probably just saw his own shadow.” I said dismissively. Devon has a tendency to try and drum up drama for the sake of it, so we usually ignore it when he raises the alarm. But last night he was persistent.

“Should we go investigate?”  Chris said hopefully.

“Sure.  I’ll grab the spotlight.”

With the spotlight fully charged, we casually walked around the barn and to the fence at the very back side of the complex.  The fence was several feet up a steep bank overgrown with weeds and poison ivy – something neither of us dare go near for fear of the weeks of ensuing pain and wild itching blisters that follow.

Chris restrained Devon while I shone the spotlight up the bank to the small clearings on the other side of the fence. Suddenly a rustling began and we knew it was our stranger in the night again. I searched the tree line frantically but alas, the evasive little bugger disappeared into the woods before we could catch sight of him.

“We’ll see him eventually, babe.”  I said, trying to cheer Chris up.

Defeated, we returned to our camp chairs once again.  We made light of the incident by laughing about how big and scary Devon thinks he is, but how he would cower and run away if that bear made it over the fence.

This morning I headed up to the laundry barn at the mountain summit to help housekeeping with laundry.  On my way up I got a message from Jessica saying that a bear had been spotted at the walk-in campsites that morning.  Lucky buggers, I thought.

After all the laundry was done it was nearing lunchtime so I loaded Junior into the truck and started back down the mountain. I was running through my mental to do list as I rounded the corner near the visitors center a large black creature suddenly leapt into the road in front of me, bounced across, and disappeared into the bushes. Ecstatic and elated I pulled over and hopped out to see if I could see him in the woods but he was already gone.

So we continued on back down the mountain when suddenly he appeared again right in front of me.  I watched as he nimbly leapt onto the thin guard rail by the overlook and looked back at me.  I pulled over and jumped out with my phone ready to snap some pictures.  He lingered for a moment, almost unaware that I was there.  

My new best bud.

I watched in complete awe of him as he bumbled along the forest floor. He lifted his nose to to take in my scent drifting through the air and curled his paw up as he investigated. Then he turned and looked right at me. His big brown eyes stared into mine and I froze for a second trying to contemplate how long it would take me to bolt back into the truck behind me. He stared for a moment then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he darted off into the woods.

I jumped back into the truck with a smile plastered on my face and a little bit of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I was positively giddy. I love these creatures and felt so incredibly lucky to be visited by one and have him follow me along my drive down the mountain. I’ve anticipated such an encounter for months now, so to finally catch a glimpse of the adorable beast at last was a truly thrilling experience. Though I’m excited at the prospect of seeing the little guy again and maybe taking some better pictures of him, I definitely won’t be hiking without my pistol and bear spray anytime soon.

#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.

#29: The End of 29

Last week was a special one.  It was my last few days of my twenties and the start of a new chapter in my life; my dirty thirties.  Despite the best efforts of the pandemic and the weather, it didn’t dampen our spirits or our celebrations and I managed to have a memorable week anyway.

Tuesday May 5th was my last day of being 29, Cinco de Mayo AND Taco Tuesday.  Jessica invited us over for a cook out to celebrate – a great way to end my twenties.  Jesse and Kaci joined us, as well as Daniel.  I expected this to just be a little get-together for cinco de mayo but was delightfully surprised when they brought out a little cupcake with candles, sang happy birthday, and gave me flowers and gifts.  It’s hard to express my gratitude for these people who have made us feel so welcome and supported through all the madness of 2020 and brought such light into our lives.  We had a pretty terrific thunder and lightning storm close in on us after dinner.  But as we took shelter under the porch, Junior and Jessica’s girls had fun running through the mud puddles and playing in the rain.  It was a really great way to say goodbye to my twenties.

Cinco de Mayo and the end of twenties celebrations

On my birthday, in true getting-older fashion, we spent most of the day running errands and doing some pretty boring adult stuff.  But after we got Junior into bed we broke out my new telescope (a gift from my wonderful husband) and got a good look at the Super Moon, also known as the flower moon.  

A very mediocre shot of the flower moon.

On Thursday Chris got home early to continue the celebrations of The Week of Rachael – or the Month of Rachael (as I prefer) – and we set off for a hike.  Our first choice, Black Rock Lake, was slammed with visitors so turned around in search of somewhere a little less crowded.  We took a little drive and scoped out some property in the area (we’re starting to think about exit-strategies for the camp hosting life) and found Rabun County park.

We walked around the park and down to the small lake.  There we found a Canadian Goose sitting on her nest.  When she slipped into the water for a swim I took the opportunity to grab a couple snaps of her eggs and Junior giggled as she honked and paddled around the lake. 

Canadian Goose nest with eggs getting ready to hatch.

We found a trail toward the back of the lake so we decided to follow it to see where it went.  This turned out to be Junior’s first ever hike (without being carried) and he soldiered on for 1.5 miles.  He had a blast playing with the foliage and sticks along the trail and stopped to hug every tree he came across.  

My little tree hugger.

Chris took Friday off and we went for another walk in the morning.  Black Rock lake was much quieter so we set off in search of Junior’s beloved ducks.  He walked the mile long trail on his own, quacking furiously and calling out, “ducky” the whole way around until we finally came upon them on the far bank of the lake.  An older gentleman was nearby and had been feeding them some bread.  He offered some to Junior so he could feed the ducks, but as Junior took a piece of bread he promptly stuffed it in his own mouth and all the fishermen around erupted with laughter.

It was a wonderful week and I’ve been fortunate to receive many cards, messages, phone calls, flowers, gifts, and love from everyone.  The greatest gift, undeniably, has been spending time together as a family and making memories I will always cherish.  

Getting older doesn’t mean that you have to grow up.

Earlier this week we said goodbye to Jesse and Kaci who have become like old friends to us over the last few weeks. We’ve spent many evenings sitting around the fire and chatting about life. It was fun to have met another couple who shared so many of our interests and views that we were able to have such good laughs with. They’re a wonderful couple and, though I wish them all the best on the next chapter of their adventures and I know it was just time for them to go, we will miss them and hope that our paths will cross with theirs again down the road.

In recent weeks we’ve turned our attention to the future of our adventure and what our “plan” for the next chapter will be. While we enjoy the beautiful scenery at state parks and are grateful to have met some awesome people, we both have been pining for a place to put down some roots and at least have a home base. We love the Clayton area and hope to make it our home when the time is right. Before we can do that, however, we have to take a trip to Tennessee for a few weeks and work on our house there to get it ready to sell.

We plan to make the trip this summer – and it’s something we are all looking forward to. It will give us a welcome break from the daily hosting grind, and give us a chance to visit with family and friends while we make preparations for the next big chapter of our lives; embarking on our homestead journey.

#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.

#21: I’m still alive

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what’s our permanent address?”

“Why?”

“Just give me the address!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#18: Merry Mountain Christmas

I love the Christmas season; the lights, the hustle and bustle, the excitement, the smells of Christmas spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, the Christmas trees, and yes, even the Christmas music.  I love egg nog, I love the cozy, dark nights snuggled up to keep the cold away, I love the classic Christmas movies and all the wonderful things that come with this time of year.

But the last couple of Christmases have been a little derailed. On December 1st 2017, after 3 negative pregnancy tests, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home to pick up some egg nog. I called Chris on my way home and told him to be ready to go pick up some rum after I got home so we could get drunk on egg nog and listen to Christmas music all night. But I was still a week “late” so I figured I’d take another pregnancy test before we left to put my mind at ease. I figured it was the stress of the possibility that was disrupting my cycle. But as I washed my hands and turned back toward the pregnancy test that was sitting on the edge of the tub I saw a very distinct little pink line that would put an end to our rum and egg nog plans for the night and change our lives forever.

I walked out of the bathroom with one hand over my mouth and the other holding the pregnancy test outstretched toward Chris.  He rolled his eyes, thinking I was pulling his leg, and snatched the test from me with a smirk on his face.  It’s rather rare to witness the sudden genuine drop of someone’s jaw and the widening of their eyes as panic surges through them.  Had I not been experiencing that same emotion I probably would have found it much more amusing.  

We sat on the couch in silence for around 10 minutes before Chris finally piped up: “well, there goes my hunting room then.”  

That Christmas the pregnancy hit me so hard that I spent the entire day just as I did most others that winter; sleeping all afternoon, then waking for dinner before my eyes got so heavy that I was out cold for the night by 8pm.  It wasn’t much fun for either of us.

Christmas 2018 was mildly better, but much more stressful.  We had recently endured the most stressful and scary spell of our lives after I lost my visa, job and health insurance while 8 months pregnant (see my previous post …And When it Doesn’t). Immediately following that debacle, we had found a house to rent in Lawrenceville, GA which was far from ideal but at that time it was what we needed – a roof over our heads.  Unfortunately, shortly after we moved in in late September I began getting rather under the weather and it wasn’t until Chris took some boxes down to the basement that we discovered water and black mold all over the entire 1200 sq ft basement.  This was particularly distressing with our 2 month old baby breathing in that air.  We informed the management company, Progress Residential, who told us we’d have to move out while they were remediating.  This meant digging into what little savings we had to pay for somewhere to go, but the management company had agreed to reimburse us.

So we moved out into an AirBnB place.  Then a few days turned into a week, which turned into 2.  Before we knew it we had blown every last penny of our savings and were dangling by a financial thread before they finally completed the work and we moved back into the house in November.  What followed was a rather long and incredibly frustrating struggle with the management company as they withheld our reimbursement and threatened eviction if we refused to sign a document saying that we couldn’t sue them for anything related to the damp or mold issues.  My refusal was borne out of an unwillingness to be strong-armed into signing away any possibility to recover in case our infant son developed any health issues related to the exposure, and the fact that we had no health insurance.  But eventually we had no choice but to sign for fear of being evicted – which was the most pressing issue.

By the time Christmas came around we didn’t have a penny to our name as the “reimbursement” came in the form of a rent credit so we still had no money in the bank.  Lean as it was, we still managed to enjoy each other’s company and I cooked some very mediocre turkey breasts.  But the whole season was overshadowed by the dark cloud of being stuck in a house that I still didn’t feel comfortable in and being tied to a management company that was crooked and underhanded, not to mention the extreme financial turmoil.

So this year we finally have earned a good Christmas.  But living in a camper makes some of the aspects of a traditional Christmas rather difficult.  A tree, for example, is a little difficult to have when you’re in such a tight space.  While I’ve seen other folks that manage to pull this off, it just wasn’t an option for us in our rig with a toddler who loves to grab, climb and chew.  We also had no decorations in the rig which made me a little sad at times because I do love Christmas decorations.  

You can also go ahead and cross “traditional turkey dinner” off the list, as the oven in our rig (and most rigs) is marginally bigger than a shoe box.  Plus, for two of us it seemed like overkill and a royal headache of dirty dishes in a tiny kitchen.  

But a Christmas without those things made me a little blue, so I thought outside the box a little bit and searched around for something fun to do in the local area.  A few years ago, when I first arrived in the states, I had been to a conference at Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa, just a few miles down the road from Vogel at Young Harris, GA.  I remembered how beautifully they had decorated the place for Christmas, the huge stone fireplace, and the incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Veranda.  So I had a look on their website and found that, as luck would have it, they did a Christmas Day buffet for $52.95 per adult and $10.95 for Junior so I called and booked the last available table for 3:20pm on Christmas Day.

Christmas morning I awoke, as always, at the crack of dawn and far too excited for someone my age.  I shook Chris awake who was displeased at this and told me to go back to sleep until the baby wakes up.  So I laid there impatiently staring at the clock until I decided that Junior needed to get up anyway or else he wouldn’t nap.

After Junior and I dragged Chris out of bed we FaceTimed with our families and opened our presents (technology sure is a wonderful thing for stuff like that when you live far away from everyone).  Chris then cooked us a scrumptious breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon before Junior went down for his afternoon nap.  I took this opportunity to see to my hosting duties and gave the bathrooms a good clean.

Unfortunately Junior didn’t nap long as he was fighting off a cold that he had picked up from one of the kids at his new daycare.  So with a rather cranky baby we set off for Brasstown Valley for our Christmas Dinner.  

The view from the entrance of Brasstown Valley Resort.

The hotel is nestled in the valley just below Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak. The resort boasts an impressive 523 acres, stables, a championship golf course, a pool and spa, and unbeatable scenery. The lodge, where the main dining room is situated, is very grand with soaring ceilings, an incredible stone fireplace, and large windows that look out onto the veranda and the mountains beyond. The whole lodge is tastefully constructed to resemble a grand cabin in the woods, with sawn log bannisters, exposed beams, and exposed stonework throughout the building.

My favorite feature – the beautiful stone fireplace.
The dining hall at Brasstown Valley Resort.

The Christmas tree in the main lobby and bar area is about 20 feet high, lavishly decorated, and excites the inner child with a hand crafted wooden rocking horse, a giant nutcracker, a giant wooden Choo-choo train, and other antique toys that contribute to the overall magic and make for another beautiful backdrop for family photos.  

The gorgeous Christmas tree complete with antique toys and gifts.

Despite me talking the place up for the last week, Chris was still pretty impressed once we arrived.  We made our way to the dining room and got settled at our table before tucking into the delectable buffet.  

Buffet, for me, is a word that conjures images of greasy sub-par food that is even less appealing because it has been sat under hot lamps for hours. This, on the other hand, couldn’t be further from that image. On offer was a full Christmas carvery of roast turkey or beef, stuffing, gravy and all the trimmings. There was also a salad bar with actual fresh salad greens like rocket and arugula – no iceberg lettuce in sight. There were pasta salads, green beans roasted in cranberry sauce, roasted potatoes, and a seafood bar with peel and eat jumbo shrimp, seafood salad, and fresh oysters on the half shell.

Unfortunately we weren’t able to sit and savor the gluttonous offerings for too long, and didn’t even get a peek at the whole separate room they had for desserts, for our wee lad’s health was deteriorating into a full-blown cold and he was getting so fussy that we just couldn’t sit and let him ruin everyone else’s meal anymore.  We still got a pretty decent fill, however, so we took the chance at some fresh air on the balcony just in time for sunset.  

Drinks on the balcony.

The warm glow from the setting sun radiated across the mountains on the horizon and at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit (about 20 Celsius) with the gentle tickle of a warm breeze, it was a very romantic end to a pretty wonderful day. We took a walk down to the sunset veranda, and chatted about what a dream it’d be to come back without Junior and spend New Years Eve here. We stopped to snap some pictures and really take in the sunset before finally heading back to the truck to go home.

Junior getting a good look at the beautiful sunset.

That night we got Junior into bed and retired to the campfire with wine to reflect on the day and relax.  We had planned to play a new National Parks Trivia game that I had gotten for Chris, but the sound of a sick baby awoken with a fever beckoned us back into the camper for a night of snuggles on the couch and temperature readings every few minutes.

Despite the damper on the day with Junior being under the weather, it has still been the best Christmas we’ve had together yet and there was much to be thankful for; some kind of financial stability, a great marriage, a beautiful place to live in a glorious mountain setting, and one beautiful little boy.  Christmas 2019 was definitely one to remember.

#17: One for the Family Album

I wrote out an entire post about how we had the Christmas tree lighting event at the park, hiked up to Preachers Rock as a family, and checked out a nearby diamond in the rough. But I realized, upon proof reading it, that the events were best told in photos. So enjoy.

Around 200 people gathered at Vogel on Saturday for the annual Christmas Tree lighting event. It all went down at the ball field, less than 100 yards from our campsite which was wonderfully convenient.
Various tents gave away free baked treats, hot chocolates, and crafts for the kids.
Santa made an appearance. Assistant Park Manager Mikayla was much happier to visit with him than Junior was.
Live local music.
Junior had a blast puddle stomping.
The 30ft Christmas tree after the big lighting.
Junior stole the show with his adorably uncoordinated dancing and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
Sunday afternoon we took a hike up to Preachers Rock – it was much more fun as a family. Junior was quite mesmerized by the view and Chris was delighted that I insisted he ride his motorcycle to take advantage of the 20 miles of twisting and curving mountain roads.
Father and son against the world. Insert appropriate Lion King quote here.
Chris had a rare early day on Monday so we took the afternoon to explore a little spot up the road from us that we’ve been wanting to check out for weeks. Helton Creek Falls is a mile up the main road then 2 miles down a gravel road. It’s definitely a diamond in the rough.
It’s a beautiful spot that strikes a perfect balance between rugged wilderness and accessibility thanks to some minor man-made adaptations.
At the bottom of the first set of falls (a little over 30 feet). The swimming hole here looks like the perfect place to cool off in those scorching summer months.
The upper falls – about 60ft high. Also looks very inviting for summer swims.
We even found a Junior-sized waterfall (yes he got soaked but he had a BLAST).
We finished off the weekend with a great meal at Brother’s restaurant in Young Harris, GA.
Junior couldn’t believe they didn’t have breast milk on the menu. He wanted to complain to the manager but we convinced him to just go for grilled cheese and mashed potato instead.
Sharing his dinner with Papa. Great family weekend.

#16: Reflections on a Rock

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

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

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

So it was time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody Gap – the trailhead.

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

“OK!”

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

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

Come on.  Seriously??

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

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

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

This is going to get chilly.

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

The climb.

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

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

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

I wish Chris was here.  

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

I wonder what Junior is doing.

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

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

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