#34: Cave Crawling Campers

After setting off from Tennessee we had a 4.5 hour drive to our next destination; Rickwood Caverns State Park in Alabama.  We had booked 2 nights here to break up the journey.  Our original plan was to leave a few days sooner and to break the journey up into 3 legs, staying at 2 different parks along the way.  But, such is life, our plans got changed and this was the only park I could find reservations at.  

Obligatory state line sign photo.

As it happens, it was a wonderful turn of events.  The park’s main attraction is the 260 million year old cave system below ground which stays a cool 58-62 degrees year round.  This made for the perfect place to escape the southern mid-summer heat for an hour or so in the afternoon.

When we arrived, we were delighted to find that the small park boasted numerous fantastic facilities that were all within short walking distance of each other.  The campsite consisted of a mere 12 RV sites (tiny compared to the ~110 sites at Vogel and the 48 sites at Black Rock).  About 100 yards or less from our campsite was the outdoor pool complete with a vortex slide, a diving board, and a high dive as well as a kiddie pool.  Between us and the pool was a grassy stretch with a few tall pines and scattered mossy boulders which our camper opened out onto – the perfect place for Junior to run around and stretch his legs.

The view from our camp/Junior’s yard for a couple days.

The campsite was only half full on arrival and there was an empty site between us and our neighbors, so we got to enjoy a little privacy throughout our stay. Between the lower temperatures and the shade of the trees we were overjoyed to finally have some relief from the heat. That evening we sat outside and soaked in the cool breeze for a while before turning in early for a big day of adventure.

The next morning I rose early for a run with Devon.  This time, he couldn’t be happier to see me pick up his leash and he leaped joyfully from the camper with little persuasion.  We set off for a gentle jog on the gravel “fitness trail” which wound through the campsite, behind the pool, and connected to the grassy “picnic trail”; a 1 mile fairly flat trail through the woods.  It was peaceful and quiet, the morning sun shone through the leaves and the cool forest air was energizing.

We returned around 7am for breakfast and coffee.  Junior and Chris were still sleeping so I took the opportunity to sip my coffee outside with my book while it was still quiet.  Before long, however, I heard the call of an excited Junior sitting on the edge of his bunk raising his customary morning summoning; “Mama! Papa! UP!”

After breakfast we set out on a 2 mile hike on the “Fossil Mountain” trail.  It certainly lived up to its name; the landscape was rugged and rocky, with little caveats in the rock in places that looked like small cave entrances.  The rocks featured so many fossils and interesting formations.  The purples and yellows of wild woodland flowers brought some color to the grey landscape, and the tall, mature trees provided some nice shade for our hike.

Upon our return we suited Junior up and headed to the pool for a morning swim.  He had a blast splashing around and watching the kids from our neighboring campsite jumping and diving into the pool.  I took Junior down the vortex slide which, retrospectively, was probably a poor parenting decision but it taught him a valuable lesson on holding his breath in the water.

Suitably refreshed and worn out, we headed back to the camper for some lunch and Junior went down for a nap.  He woke around 1:45pm – just in time for our 2:00pm cave tour.  This was the highlight we had been looking forward to.

The cave was spectacular.  It was originally discovered by a hunter and his dog in the mid 1800s, but lay rather forgotten until the 1950s when the boy scouts rediscovered it.  In the mid-late 1950s the cave was used as a nuclear fallout shelter, and many cool artifacts such as gas masks and other paraphernalia had been discovered and were on display in the small museum on site.

A block building was built over the entrance to the cave which housed a staircase descending into the cave.  At its deepest, these caverns lie 175 ft beneath the earth which is why the temperature is so mild.  

The cave consisted of many “rooms” filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The texture of the rock and the space in each room varied. Some of the rooms were smaller with a low ceiling but were 10- feet across in places, others were narrow with stalactites hanging 23-30 feet above and Chris had to squeeze and squat to get through some of the passages with the baby carrier on his back.

Some of the rock was smooth and seemed to flow like water throughout the cave, as if holding the memory of the ocean that carved it. Some of the rock was covered in tiny holes and was volcanic in its appearance. In places the walls glittered in the glow from the golden light of the bulbs strung along the cave walls, in others the light passed through the thin stalactites and natural bridges revealing streaks of red and brown earning it the nickname “the bacon”. Various tunnels spun off from the main cave in which the rock seemed to spiral into the abyss of the black hole. Many of the rooms had dark passages of various shapes and sizes leading away in different directions that crept away menacingly.

The scent of the rich earthen floor and damp limestone was both pleasant and dank.  The cavern was lit by small bulbs placed throughout and our guide turned the lights out when we were at the deepest room in the cave so we could experience total darkness.  A cave is one of only 3 places on earth where one can experience absolute total darkness.  As the lights went out Junior had a moment of wondering what was going on, but I gave his hand a squeeze and spoke calmly to him which relaxed him a little until the lights came back on.

Junior has had a fascination with rocks for some time now, so he spent much of the tour exclaiming “wow, rocks!”  We got to peek into the disused fallout shelter too.  The latter part of the tour took us into the rooms where the stalactites and stalagmites were still growing.  The room was damp and drippy which gave the cave a more eerie vibe. 

Towards the end was part of the underground lake.  On a recent investigative expedition divers found schools of albino fish living deep within the crystal clear blue waters of the icy lake.  

After an hour on the tour we reached the final ascent; a steep, narrow staircase winding up through the rock to the surface.  I took over with the baby carrier for this part and squatted and wiggled my way up the through the tight passageway, my legs burning from the extra 40lbs of baby and gear on my back. Satisfied with our daily dose of education we headed back to the pool for to cool off in the afternoon heat.

As the sun began to dip lower in the sky we dragged our enervated bodies back to the camper for some dinner.  By the end of bath time I was falling asleep on the couch.  Chris woke me to sing my goodnight songs to Junior before bed, at which point Chris was falling asleep.  In fact, the only one who didn’t seem thoroughly spent from our full day of activities was Junior, who only wanted to bounce on the couch and play.

When Junior was finally down for the night, we collapsed in our chairs outside and remarked on what a great day it was and how exhausted we both were.  It was a great mini-vacation and will be one to remember for a long time.  Dreary-eyed, we stumbled to bed at the rock-star time of 8:30pm for a full night’s sleep ready for our adventure back to the top of Black Rock Mountain the next day.

#33: Our Month on the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dykes on the banks of the Mississippi.

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks and a full moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.

#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.

#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.