#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 ✌️❤️

#4: When Life Just Goes Your Way

We had been staying at Tugaloo for about 5 days.  I was sitting outside in my recliner with Junior happily bashing away at his toys in his playpen, both of us soaking in the warm sunshine on our quiet loop.  A golf cart came riding by and the woman driving it gave a friendly wave.  She was middle-aged with mousey-brown hair, small specs, and a kind smile.  Like many people often do, she stopped to say hi to Junior who was now standing up in his playpen pointing and cooing at her.  She commented on how adorable he is (and he is) and we exchanged pleasantries.  I asked her about hosting; how long she had been doing it and what she made of it.  She told me she was from Knoxville, TN and had been hosting a few years with her husband and that they loved it so much they were in the process of selling their apartment so they could live in their camper and host full-time.  I told her that we had a hosting gig lined up in a few weeks and she immediately became very excited.

“You know, they need a host here on this loop right now – you should go down to the office and ask them about it in the morning.  They’re desperate for someone, it’s perfect!”  

That is perfect, I thought.  

We had planned on spending our first few weeks paying to stay somewhere to give us all time to adapt to our new way of living before I had to take on the extra responsibility of the hosting duties and learn to balance them with raising Junior full-time. But after a few days we learned that we are all natural-born RVers and the learning curve was not as steep as we originally thought. The prospect of hosting a month earlier than expected would save us about $1,000 and was extremely attractive, so I jumped at this opportunity.

Sure enough I went to the office in the morning and they were delighted to have someone able to start the next day.  I told them that we had another gig lined up for October 31 and that we had a trip to Tennessee planned for a week but they were happy to have us for the time we could spare.  By Friday we had pulled our camper into the host site on our loop and I took up host duties that night by cleaning the bathrooms which took around 30 minutes.

The whole weekend we had other hosts, rangers, and maintenance workers dropping by to introduce themselves and check in on us.  Everyone has been so incredibly friendly and welcoming, we have been totally overwhelmed with our reception.  Happily, it seems that the last host on our loop was something of a slacker (which was evident by the state of the bathrooms on our arrival) so the bar had been set very low for us.  

So there are 3 other sets of campsite hosts (each is a couple) and then there is one set of Yurt hosts (also a couple).  Mike James and his wife, Vera were the first hosts to which I was introduced.  Mike was in the forestry service for 20 years and did some other odd jobs after retiring.  He’s 78 years old and it’s clear from the pristine appearance of his rig and site that he’s a stickler for detail and he likes to stay busy.  He and Junior developed a special bond immediately and Mike just loves to make Junior smile and giggle.  He calls Junior “spark plug”, which is pretty appropriate.  I ride by Mike and Verna’s site now and then and Mike always gives Junior a graham cracker, much to the kid’s delight.  

Jack and Rhonda have been coming to the lake for 20 years and host every summer for a few months.  Jack is a thin, older gentleman with a thick southern accent and the hoarseness of a seasoned smoker, the combination of which makes it hard to understand him at the best of times, even with his thick slow southern drawl. He has sun bleached hair, callous hands, and well-worn clothes; the beacon of a man who has worked in construction for many years.  He may look gruff, but his smile and soft tone soften him considerably. Rhonda is a high school teacher.  She is shorter and stockier than Jack with short brown hair and a wicked sense of humor.  When she introduced me to the maintenance worker, Burt, she said “we call him Turd”.  It caught me by surprise and I laughed pretty hard.  Burt said with a sneer “we like her husband, we tolerate her”.  I immediately knew that these people were my people.

Betty, the woman who suggested that I inquire about hosting at Tugaloo in the first place, is married to Clyde.  They are sweet, soft spoken, laid back people with a slow southern drawl and gentle voices.  They are always warm, friendly and happy to help.  They host at the yurt village where their site is secluded and not visible to anyone except people passing on the road on the way to the yurt village.  It’s a hosting gig we have our eye on for the future.

We only briefly met the other host, George.  He was an older gentleman, likely retired, and he seemed just as nice as everyone else.  His wife doesn’t like to do the full-time thing and they live nearby so she joins him here at the lake on weekends leaving him to fish 5 days a week.

The rangers are all very friendly and easy to talk to.  One ranger, who we call Ned Flanders, is truly the real life park ranger version of his cartoon counterpart.  He not only physically resembles him but also has a similar sing-songy disposition.  He stops by now and then and is always good for a chat.  He has some funny and interesting stories about the things that go on in the park and was happy to fill us in on the wildlife in the area and the things that we can expect.  He also told us that a couple weeks before we arrived an RV caught on fire on our loop.  It was some 30 minutes before a fire truck showed up but it wasn’t one that could pump water from the lake (there are no hydrants in state parks) so it was another 45 minutes before a water truck could arrive and by that time the entire rig had burned to ash.  I guess that’s a lesson in fire safety on your rig.

People drop by from time to time for a quick hello or a long chat to pass the time.  Time seems so much less valuable to people in the park and is happily frittered away on lake-gazing, idle chatter, long bimbles through the trails, or wildlife watching.  No one seems to be in a hurry, and it is even discouraged with a park speed limit of 15mph.  This all suits us to a tee.

We have been so incredibly lucky to have such a wonderfully welcoming and beautiful start to our hosting adventure.  We’ve seen more wildlife in a week than we saw in a whole year of living in a city.  We see deer everyday and they are so used to humans that they let you get within 15 feet of them sometimes without getting spooked.  Junior shrieks with joy when he sees them and points with wide eyes and an awe-struck look that fills my heart with happiness.  We had a family of 5 raccoons drop right in on us in our campsite one evening; they’re sweet little faces poking out of the trees as if they were just as curious about us as we were about them.  

One morning, as I had junior on my hip, I was walking across the campsite to take the trash out and a beautiful red fox came trotting across towards us.  His fur was a rusty red and his bushy tail slowly swished along behind him as he slipped silently across the clearing.  He came within 15-20 feet of us but never seemed phased by our presence and merely went about his business.

Junior and I get up in the morning and check the bathrooms.  This involves wiping down the countertops which accumulate a number of gnats and other creepy crawlies through the night.  We check that there’s toilet paper and hand towels etc, then move on to a walk through the campsite with Devon just to check on things and say hi to all the happy campers.  We then head home for some breakfast before we figure out what to fill the day with.  Sometimes we clean out fire pits and check the campsites for trash, other days I just let Junior run through the woods picking up pinecones and rocks and stumbling over tree roots.  He loves to wander through the forest and bring me little treasures along his adventures.  The park is always so quiet and sleepy that I don’t have to worry about cars or strangers suddenly endangering him so he gets some of the independence that he demands daily now.  He falls now and then and has taken a couple of face-plants to the pine needles, but he’s my little soldier and so he picks himself up and dusts himself off without so much as a whimper most of the time.

In the evenings when Chris gets home we sometimes go for another walk through the campsite or a golf cart ride.  Once Junior is down to sleep for the night we deep clean the bathrooms when necessary and spend the rest of our evenings sitting by the fire discussing the day’s activities and competing to see who is better at keeping the fire going (it’s alway me).

The other night another host dropped by to invite us to a cookout at a neighboring rig.  In the city this would have caused me a great deal of social anxiety.  Here it seems effortless to stroll across the park as a family and stop by for a quick fish fry and some football.  

Looking at our life now it seems like we have finally found our calling; a lifestyle that is bursting with all the things we have craved for so long – the outdoors, good people, and simple living.  Living in the city, life seemed such a constant struggle and it was always difficult not to focus on what we didn’t have even when we had so much.  Now it’s easy to see how rich our lives are even though we sold or gave away most of our possessions.  Living this way allows us to live more in the moment.  Living in this peace and quiet allows my mind to be quieter and more at peace.  Though we had some pretty big and chaotic battles to fight to get here, and there were moments where life itself felt like an endlessly loud and violent storm, we have persevered to find our paradise.  It may not be lavish or extravagant, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.