#35: Happy at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crickets and cicadas at black rock.

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

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

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

“Mushoooooo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#11: It’s a Hard Life

I’ve been working here at Vogel for 2 weeks now and have worked as a camp host for 2 months.  I had anxiety about any form of work after being a stay at home Mom for a year and a half now.  I had the return-to-work jitters that took a minute to wear off, but I really feel like I’m getting into the swing of it now.

I have almost completed two full rotations of work at Vogel.  I work 4 days on and then have 4 days off.  The work is definitely tougher than at Tugaloo but the 4 days off make it a lot easier.

Each day of work begins as any other: my wonderful husband wakes me with hot coffee and, if I’m lucky enough, a bowl of cereal which I end up sharing with Junior who lights up at the sight of the bowl, stomps over, frowns, points at the bowl, and opens his mouth.  He gets his eloquence from his father.

After getting dressed and wrestling the reluctant child into some clothing and then his stroller we walk the 1/3 mile to the visitor’s center to pick up our list for the day.  On brisk mornings I have a neat little sleeping bag for Junior complete with holes for the stroller straps.  It’s waterproof, lined with thick fleece, and zips up to his nose, so he stays toasty and looks like an adorable little eskimo.  This usually catches the attention of the campers who are bustling around the campsite, and most mornings we’ll stop for a chat with one happy camper or another.

At the visitor’s center we spend a few minutes catching up with the ladies there including one Ranger who Junior has taken a particular liking to and will channel his inner Chris Seeley charm to coax smiles and giggles from her.  Once the ladies are thoroughly smitten, we grab our list and head off to work.

The list consists of 2, 3 or sometimes 4 pages of incoming and outgoing campers for the day.  It details which sites need to be prepped for campers arriving before their 3pm check in (though most come early) and which sites need to be cleaned up after campers check out at 1pm.  Prepping the sites and cleaning the sites are largely the same thing and consist of leaf-blowing (an arduous and never-ending task at this time of year), picking up any litter, and cleaning out the fire pits of excess ash or trash.  Being that 9am is a little early for the irritating whine a leaf blower, we begin by cleaning the bathroom blocks.

Vogel is a large park with 4 “loops” and 4 bathroom blocks.  We are responsible for 2 of those loops; the first standard campsite loop and the walk-in site loop.  Standard campsites consist of pull-through and back-in campsites with electric and water hookups and a picnic table – there are 31 on our loop.  Walk-in sites can be accessed by foot only and are for tent campers looking for a more primitive setting, and there are 16 of these.  Loop 3 is another standard campsite loop with 29 sites across Wolf creek toward the back of the park, and loop 4 consists of 25-foot sites for smaller campers – of which there are 23.  Another set of hosts is responsible for loops 3 and 4.  Our neighbor and fellow host is responsible for our loops on my days off.

Cleaning the bathrooms takes about an hour for each block and is usually a pretty easy task.  I bring Junior in his stroller and he happily jabbers away telling me nonsensical stories while I set about my work.  Most days I get compliments from campers on the cleanliness of the bathrooms and my ability to balance a 1 year old and my volunteer duties.  I do believe that Junior’s presence invokes a certain sense of sympathy from the campers as they pass by and this makes them more likely to be respectful of the bathrooms and the park in general – after all, who wants to make more work for the struggling mother who volunteers to clean bathrooms at the state park?

Around 11am, bathrooms clean, we head back to the camper for Junior’s lunch and nap, though he sometimes falls asleep during the bathroom cleaning.  While he’s napping I grab the opportunity to do some dishes, have a tidy up, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll grab a quick shower.  When Junior wakes up, usually after an hour or 2, he has a quick second lunch and we head back to work.  

On weekdays the list can take as little as an hour to complete, but on weekends it can take much longer.  My first Sunday here had me going non-stop from morning until sunset trying to get through the list and blow leaves off the roads.  Of course, this was the peak leaf-changing season and so it seems to be gradually getting slower since then.

To complete my list with Junior in tow I usually opt for the backpack carrier, as he is usually tired of the stroller by now.  It can be pretty rough on a busy day with the weight of him on me as well as the leaf blower and we will usually cover a couple of miles like this.

It is also my responsibility to stock the firewood and ice at the visitor’s center throughout the day which can be laborious, especially on busy nights in the colder season.  I’m fortunate that the hosts on the other loop are kind enough to take over that responsibility for me most days.

After our work is done for the day we are free to spend the afternoon as we choose.  Most of the time I get Junior out for a run around to burn some of the energy he has pent up from being strapped to either a stroller or me all day.  This is usually when some friendly campers will stop me for a chat.

Most people tend to be quite curious about us.  Most campers come to state parks often, and Vogel is a park that many return to time and time again.  Some of the regulars have been coming here with their families for generations.  Being that we don’t fit the usual profile of campground hosts, this sparks curiosity and thus conversation.

Last week I finished blowing the leaves off the last site on my list when a camper began talking to me.  He was sitting in a camping chair on the neighboring site with his wife and they were enjoying the peace and quiet before I came along.  He was friendly and inquired about how I managed to balance my responsibilities, I told him that it wasn’t terribly difficult most of the time – but it definitely required some tact.  He asked about how we had come to be hosts and before I knew it I was sitting with them drinking hot tea and they were playing with Junior as I told them my life story.  

Larry and Pat were from Louisiana and had been married a long time.  Pat was a retired school teacher and Larry was retired from the insurance business.  It was Larry’s idea to get the camper and Pat, not much of an outdoor’s woman, seemed to try her best to enjoy the excursions they take in order to be a supportive wife.  They were a very sweet couple who I found very easy to talk to.  We shared many of the same world views and they admired the lifestyle that we have chosen for our son.

I spent about 2 hours chatting with them that day, and returned each day until they left to swap stories and enjoy each other’s company.  

On the day they left I wasn’t working so I took my time getting out of the camper. By the time I did, Pat and Larry were all but packed up and ready to hit the road. Pat’s face lit up when she saw us walking down the road and it was clear that she had begun to feel disappointed that we might not come and say goodbye – until we showed up. She gave me a big hug and expressed how nervous she was about the drive back down the mountain. I tried my best to reassure her by reminding her that millions of people go RVing ever year and many of them are a lot dumber than her – so if they can do it then so can she. She leaned in close and told me in a hushed tone that she had forgotten to get her jewelry out of the drawer but that it couldn’t be accessed while the slide was in so she was dreading telling Larry that he’d have to put the slide back out. I giggled and told her that she’d better do it sooner rather than later, as he was about to hitch the rig and lift the jacks.

She turned and called to him: “Larry!”

Pat’s voice seemed to cut through Larry and he slowly turned and poked his head from behind the camper.  He looked at Pat and shuffled over to me.  He leaned in and said “When she says “Larry!” like that, I shudder.”  Then he smirked and turned to Pat who gave him an endearing eye roll.  I chuckled.  I liked them a lot; they were polar opposites in some ways but they seemed to love each other dearly and make an effort for each other even after all these years.  She was still fearful of disappointing him and he was happy to do things at her pace. Pat told him she had left her earrings in the camper and that she needed him to put the slide back out and retrieve them for her. He sighed, smiled sweetly and said “of course, dear”.

It makes me think of Chris and me.  I think I hold him back from really running head first into adrenaline and risk sometimes because I’m such a nervous Nelly, but he seems to genuinely be ok with going a little slower sometimes or passing up the odd adventure when I’m feeling particularly anxious or uneasy.  In turn I try to push myself a little more and step outside my comfort zone so he doesn’t have to choose between me and whatever adventure he has his eye on.  I think it’s something that is important to any marriage; it’s the need to gauge each other’s comfort levels and never stay too firmly in them but never force the other too far out of theirs.  Pat and Larry seemed to have that down.

After I hugged them goodbye and Junior blew them kisses we continued on our walk through the park and around the lake – a walk that has become something of a favorite.  I took yet more pictures of the lake – something which I didn’t think I would spend so much time doing.  But every time I walk that same trail around that same lake I catch a different view.  When the sun catches the leaves in the morning the mountains turn a beautiful golden color that glows against the blue sky and illuminates the landscape with a peaceful aura. The afternoon sun seems to catch more of the reds and oranges giving the hillside a more lively energy.  But when a storm is moving in and the dark clouds begin to gather around the mountains and creep down the peaks casting shadow over the lake, the scene becomes an entirely more sinister and foreboding one.

Having snapped my pictures, I headed back to camp for snacks and playtime.  Along the way I bumped into Jason, a fella that I had been seeing around the campsite the last few days and exchanging pleasantries and idle chatter with.  He’s younger than the usual weekday camping crowd by about 25-30 years and was visiting from South Florida with his wife, April, and their 2 young daughters.  April’s mother and father, Sandra and Jerry, who live close by, were also camping at the park.  Jerry and I had also chatted a few times and I liked him a lot too.  In fact I adored the whole family.  These people were not the kind of people that you can take a disliking to – they are some of the most likable people I’ve ever met.  Each time we passed by them in the park they would take the time to ask how we were, see what we’ve been up to, and would also ask about things that we had talked about in previous conversations.  Jerry and Sandra even helped me numerous times to try and catch a hungry but friendly stray dog that had been running around the park for days (we still haven’t caught him).

Each one of them were so warm and friendly, easy to talk to, were fun to laugh with, and made us smile.  They were genuine and made us feel welcome at the park that they have been coming to for decades.  Jason and April came and sat with us by our campfire one night and we had a couple of drinks and chatted, swapped stories and laughed – it is exactly what camping is all about.

April and Jason had to leave for Florida the next day but we got a few more days with Jerry and Sandra before they, too, had to go.  But we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.  Jerry and Sandra asked for our numbers to keep in touch and said they think of us as family now.  They even invited us to Thanksgiving with them!

A couple of days ago a retired couple named Stan and Ann arrived to stay for the week. It turns out that they have spent a good bit of time in British Columbia, the Canadian province that I’m from, and share my adoration for its unique beauty. I’m sure I’ll enjoy more daily conversations with them until their departure on Friday.

When I took on this adventure, much like I do with everything, I worried.  I worried that I’d be isolated and wouldn’t have many people to talk to, or that if I did they’d be unfriendly or rude and that I would end up dreading leaving the camper each day.  I imagined that maybe after a while we might be lucky enough to meet some folks whose company we enjoyed and had some good conversations with, but I never imagined that we would come to meet so many memorable and wonderful people. 

There are many things about what we are doing that have helped me to begin restoring my confidence – after all, it took a pretty brutal thrashing after all we’ve been through in the last couple of years.  Going back to work – though it is volunteer work – gave me a sense of purpose and pride outside of motherhood that I had forgotten I needed.  Making the leap to live this lifestyle reminded me that I am brave and that our marriage is solid.  Climbing a mountain with my son on my back reminded me that I am strong.  And making so many great new friends reminded me that I am worthy of love. 

These are the lessons that I believe are essential to not just learn, but constantly re-learn over and over as the seasons of life can take their toll and bury those lessons deep within us.  They are lessons that I have always hoped to teach my son over and over as he grows.  They are lessons that I now know he is learning everyday of this adventure as he watches me relearn them.

#10: Things that Go ‘Bump’ in the Mountains

We’ve been at Vogel State Park for 13 days now.  Upon our arrival I was immediately aware that the vibe here was totally different than that of Tugaloo but I found it difficult to define.  Having spent a few days here exploring and working, I think I have finally put my finger on it: Vogel State Park is spooky.

There is an extensive list of contributing factors, the culmination of which creates a kind of energy that is both subtle and yet obtrusive.  It’s the kind of energy that causes an almost constant conflict between the rational mind and the irrational heart.  This feeling nagged at me incessantly for days before I finally consciously considered it carefully to determine why it has this quality.

The physical landscape is rugged and imposing.  While Tugaloo was also wooded, it was more sparse, mainly young pines, and very, very flat.  Here, the vast majority of the forest is made up of large, old hardwoods that soar upwards from the forest floor, looming ominously and covering the towering mountain peaks.  They themselves hold both a threat of danger (if they should fall), and a sense of history about them.  They are the keepers of the mountain, standing tall for many years through fierce storms, bitter winters, and scorching summers.  They whisper the history of this land as the breeze tickles at their leaves and whistles eerily through the valleys.  They bear the secrets of its violent and bloody past.

Vogel State Park was founded in 1931.  The land was previously owned by Fred and Augustus Vogel who owned thousands of acres of land in North Georgia.  They harvested the bark from the trees to use in the tanning of leather until a synthetic method of tanning leather was developed during WWI, rendering the operation obsolete.  The Vogels subsequently donated the land to the State of Georgia in 1927.  The park’s facilities were then developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  Young men worked tirelessly to dam wolf creek and hand dig the 22 acre Lake Trahlyta, as well as other park projects.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, however, this land was fabled to be the scene of many gruesome battles between the Cherokee and Creek tribes.  One such battle, according to folklore, was so long and gory that it turned the mountain red with blood, giving these peaks their names: Blood Mountain and Slaughter Mountain.  Blood Mountain is rumored to have a hidden cave bearing treasure stashed by the Cherokee which many have searched for but never recovered.  

These peaks are also said to have been home to an ancient spiritual people called Nunnehi, or the people that live forever.  According to folklore the Nunnehi lived underground across Appalachia and protected the Cherokee, often warning them of impending danger, even warning them of their forthcoming removal from their land (known today as the events of the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma) and inviting the Cherokee to live inside the mountain with them.

It is undeniable that these hills are steeped in a rich history that sets the imagination on fire.  Every curve of the winding road bears some relic of days past; the Indian Mounds at Sautee Nacoochee, the Walasiyi Inn (a backpackers’ Inn and outfitters on the Appalachian Trail), and the many arrowheads that litter the river and creek beds waiting for some lucky hiker or fisherman to stumble upon.

One of the particularly eerie places of the park is not actually unique to the park at all.  It seems that each park has one and I don’t really know why but it’s becoming something of a favorite for me to visit.  I call it the equipment graveyard.

At Tugaloo it was a dirt road off the main state road through the park.  Here it is a steep dirt road behind the maintenance complex.  It’s a dumping ground for anything and everything in the park that has served its purpose.  There are the twisted metal frames of old picnic tables, huge rotting tree trunks of felled trees, giant concrete slabs broken and crumbling, pallets, wheels, engine parts and tractor wheels.  They lay crumpled and mangled, vines and grasses of the forest smothering and reclaiming them.  It’s tragic for me to see such an abuse of this pristine land, but also beautiful to see the forest slowly creeping back in, bringing new life and continuing the cycle.

This place really comes alive at night though.

The tree canopy is still thick enough to extinguish any light from the moon or stars that tries to penetrate, cloaking the campground in darkness.  The only light is from campfires dotted around the park that send shadows dancing into the night.  The shuffle of dry leaves and occasional snap of a twig from the lurking raccoons, deer, and sometimes bigger creatures can be heard between the pop and crackle of the campfires.  Eerie owl hoots descend through the darkness and the sporadic eruption of howling coyotes over the ridge will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. 

Coyotes howl and yip almost every night while we sit by the fire.

Driving through the park at night to do laundry is a good way to creep yourself out.  The road twists down the valley between campsites and turns off the main road through the park onto a narrow track with an old wooden bridge that crosses Wolf Creek.  The wooden boards twist and creak under the weight of passing vehicles, the icy water rushing beneath.  A sharp curve on the other side winds the track along the creek toward the linen barn.  The creek is lined with the gnarled and contorted wild magnolia trees with branches that slither and jut outwards like hands grasping at passersby.

The linen barn is where resident employees and hosts go to do their laundry in the evenings.  It’s an old maintenance complex with block walls and no windows except for the small glass panels in the old metal roll up doors.  Far from the campground, there are no campfires to light up the darkness.

The building houses old industrial washers and dryers with big tubs on wheels fit for some old haunted hospital from a bad horror movie.  With stained concrete floors and a long dark hallway that every creak of each machine echoes through – it seems to have leapt from the pages of a Stephen King book.

The geographical location of Vogel contributes in no small part to its eeriness.  Tucked high in the mountain it is isolated and lonely.  Campers here, especially in the winter, are at the mercy of the mountain and the weather – which can be unpredictable and turbulent.

We seem to have arrived just as the vibe is shifting from Summer paradise to creepy ghost mountain.  The campsite is still busy with tourists coming to gawp at the almost supernatural scenery of the changing leaves, but the buzz of summer activity has ceased and the place feels almost deserted on weekdays.

During the summer months the park’s 90 standard campsites, 18-walk-in campsites, and 34 cottages are usually fully booked months in advance.  But this time of year the number of campers willing to brave the unpredictable weather and bitter nights becomes fewer and fewer.

As we walk the park during the day we are lucky to encounter some wonderful people who are friendly and always wanting to know who the young hosts are and what our story is.  As we tell them that we are staying through the winter, possibly until the spring, it seems to always be met with a raise of the eyebrows and a “well be careful, it can get kinda rough up here”.  

I’m not sure what to expect over the coming months.  I know that the first hard freeze is coming in fast tonight and winter seems to be descending quickly through the mountains as the temperature plummets to 12 degrees tonight (about -12 Celsius).  There is a definite change in the air and we are looking forward to whatever is thrown at us.  Perhaps we will get to see Junior experience his first snow, or even his first white Christmas this year, maybe we’ll get to drink some hot apple cider by the fire or curl up together and watch movies when the weather is bad and enjoy some time inside for once.  Or maybe this will be a winter of disaster that ends our short adventure of living in a camper and the mountain will triumph over us.  Either way, we know that our first winter in these spooky mountains will be an adventure to remember.

If you enjoy reading about our adventure, you’ll probably enjoy reading about my parents’ adventure too. They are about to embark on a mobile living adventure of their own on a canal boat in England. Read along with them here: https://myblogfromthefrog.wordpress.com

#8: Motherhiker

Living in such close quarters as we are certainly forces you outdoors a lot more than when living conventionally.  I’m sure there will be times where I will dislike this aspect of our life but this week has not been one of them.

My schedule at Vogel has me working 4 days on and 4 days off.  Wednesday began the first of 5 days off because of a screw up with the schedule when we first arrived.  With beautiful weather in the forecast I wasn’t upset about this.  So Wednesday morning I awoke with the itch to explore.  

Chris rose for work early as usual. I awoke around 7:30am and rubbed the sleep from my eyes just in time to give him a goodbye kiss as he handed me my coffee (I know, he’s wonderful). I stumbled, blurry eyed, into the kitchen to see Junior already in full destroy mode and he grinned at me with that cheeky little glint in his eye that says “I’m ready for mischief today”.

“Me too, son, me too.”

So I dressed us both and pulled on my running shoes, a scarf and a hat, strapped Junior into his stroller, slapped a leash on Dev and set out to find an adventure. We decided to begin with a gentle stroll around Lake Trahlyta – about 3km of flat and gentle terrain. I brought my camera and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous morning views.

The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
Fiery reds of Lake Trahlyta.
Looking South-Southwest over Lake Trahlyta towards Vogel State Park.

On our way back I stopped in at the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the other ladies that work there.  We exchanged friendly chatter and they cooed at Junior as he flirted wildly.  I picked up a map of the park trails and asked the ranger if there were any trails suitable for an off-road stroller.  She laughed.  I took this to mean no.  So we headed back to the camper to devise a plan.

Now, about 3 years ago I could have very easily slung a 25lbs child on my back and climbed a mountain for breakfast, but a rough pregnancy with a very large little boy left me struggling to regain my once athletic physique.  I sat at the camp looking at the various trails and trying to gauge the elevation gain and the roughness of the terrain.

There are several trailheads at Vogel.  The Coosa trail is a challenging 13 mile trail that scales several large peaks including Blood mountain and has a 2 mile stretch with a 1500ft elevation gain – not for the faint hearted.  I discounted that one immediately.

The Byron Herbert Nature trail is a 1 mile loop that doesn’t leave the park and features many sign posts along the way pointing out different natural sights en route. It’s aimed at young children and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Too easy. We want adventure. One cannot adventure in one mere mile.

Bear Hair Gap Trail.  That’s the one.  It’s roughly a 5 mile loop from the trailhead, not including the hike to the trailhead, and has an optional short additional loop to Vogel overlook at the top of the mountain for views over the park.  I looked at the time and knew that if we were to return before dark then we would have to set off immediately after Junior’s nap.  

About 2pm we were ready to head out.  I checked the weather again to make sure we were all clear and saw that we had about 3 hours until the sun disappeared over the ridges and darkness would move in fast after that.  I hesitated a moment and asked myself “am I really ready to do a 5+ mile hike up a mountain with this kid on my back?”  I didn’t hang around for the answer and, against my better judgement, decided to just go for it.

The sun coming through the leaves at the trailhead.
The sun hovers above the peak of Blood mountain and peeks through the trees.
Junior playing peekaboo with the camera as we set off.

With Junior in his backpack carrier on my back, a couple snacks, a map, and my phone I set out.  About a mile in I realized that I had neglected to bring any water.  This is not a smart decision when hiking in the wilderness.  A map is helpful but sometimes can lead you astray.  I considered turning back but knew that the trail crossed several clearwater creeks in the area and that I wouldn’t be in danger of dehydration so decided to push on.  Then Junior decided to chime in.

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

I lifted my eyes from the trail expecting that maybe we were encountering other hikers on the trail with a dog.  There was no one.

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

I cast my eyes to the woods, frantically searching through the trees.  My heart began to race as the name of the trail surged through my head: Bear Hair Gap.  You see, Junior has just begun to talk and his vocabulary is limited to a handful of words, his favorite being “doggy”.  We took him to the zoo on a recent trip to Memphis, TN and he exclaimed “doggy” at most of the exhibits there.  But he has also been known to just say the word sometimes, as though he had forgotten that he could and was proudly reminding everyone that he can speak.  Thus, I could not determine if he was seeing a dog in the forest, jabbering mindlessly or, as I feared, seeing a bear that I could not see and calling it “doggy”.

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

I span around again.  I stopped and listened for movement amongst the dry leaves that covered the forest floor.  The blood was pounding in my ears and I struggled to calm my breath after the mile of steep incline we had battled.  I suddenly became abundantly aware of the fact that I had decided to leave the pistol at home, had no bear spray, and was utterly defenseless against any attacking creature larger than a squirrel.  I wasn’t even sure about a squirrel in my current physical condition.

“Doggy.”

I span around again.  I put my arms behind my head to feel that Junior was looking to my left.  I span around to my left and searched the woods hard, knowing that bears can be incredibly stealthy creatures.  Nothing.

“Doggy.”

“WHERE, SON??  TELL MAMA WHERE THE DOGGY IS??”

Giggling.  

I sighed deeply and swallowed hard.  I couldn’t see any dog, nor bear.  I had no way of getting any sense out of the kid, so I decided that I should continue along – but as loudly as possible.  One thing I did know to protect me against black bears in the absence of weapons is to be as loud as possible.  Bears don’t like humans; we are not part of their natural diet and they have no interest in combat with us.  The biggest chance of being attacked by a bear is to startle one by coming upon them suddenly.  So being loud, it seemed, was the best defense to any bear attack.

The rest of the already challenging trail became further challenging by the need for me to sing various annoying nursery rhymes much to the amusement of my 1 year old.  I am convinced that he masterminded this whole thing just to get me to sing to him all afternoon.

After about an hour of pushing hard up winding mountain trails crossing creeks and a final 1/2 mile of approximately 10% grade, we made it to the top.  At Vogel overlook there is a small break between the trees – about 10 feet wide – with glorious views over Vogel and the surrounding mountainous area.  In the middle of the sprawling mountain peaks was a vibrant blue splurge which was Lake Trahlyta; the lake we had hiked around that morning.  

The view over Lake Trahlyta from Vogel Overlook. The picture DOES NOT do it justice and my limited camera equipment doesn’t capture the sweeping mountainscape behind the lake.

“Wow, look, Monkey!”  I breathlessly managed to squeeze out.  He was, for the first time in over an hour, completely silent as he stared hard at the view.  It occurred to me that, in his short 15 months on earth, he had never seen a view of our world like this where everything looks so small yet so vast at the same time.  It’s the kind of view that instantly reminds you of how small and insignificant you are on this earth.  

I tried to take a picture of us with the view behind us.  I held my camera out to one side and tried to get Junior to turn around and look at the camera but his little eyes were locked on the view ahead of him.  I didn’t mind, it meant that my son indeed carries the same sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful planet we live on, and that he does in fact have the capacity to be still and introspective sometimes.

I finished snapping my pictures and checked the time.  3:15pm.  It’s getting late, I thought, better press on.  At least this is the easy part.

So down we went.  The trail wound around the other side of the mountain and I gave in to the decline, trotting over tree roots and rocks.  Junior laughed hysterically as he bounced around behind me.  I giggled with him for a while.  Until, that is, I felt a wet gush on my back and my arm.  I reached down and wiped my arm to find that the kid, from all the bouncing of the steep decline, had thrown up on my back.  Great.  At least he was still laughing.

Then the trail got steeper, slimmer, and rockier.  Tree roots jutted out from every inch of the trail and dried leaves and pine needles made it slippery and tough to get good traction.  Roots and rocks created big steps downwards.  As the trail wound around the mountain and got even steeper the hillside began to become a cliff to onside with sheer rock face to the other.  I paused a moment and considered my options.

If the trail conditions diminished any further I wouldn’t be able to continue – not with a wriggly 1 year old on my back and old running shoes on.  But to turn back now meant climbing another mile back up the mountain to come down the 3 miles on the other side.  I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it before dark and the realization set in that I had gravely underestimated this trail.  I kicked myself for not properly preparing myself like I knew to do.

I had to push on.  No time to sit and deliberate now, I’d just have to be careful.  

The trail got steeper yet and wound around giant boulders jutting out from the mountainside.  These created steep drops in the trail that required me to crouch and jump down – not an easy task with Junior on my back.

Then I slipped.  I lost my footing and, because I was in running shoes and not proper hiking boots, my ankle rolled to the side and I collapsed – luckily forwards – and caught my knee and shin on a rock on my way down.  I lay there for a minute cussing and groaning in pain, holding my ankle and trying to calm my breathing.  Junior fell silent and I realized that he likely knew from the fall and then my tone that something was wrong.  So I began talking to him as calmly as I could – the last thing I needed right now was for him to lose it.

“It’s ok, baby, Mama just fell over because she’s silly.  You’re fine though aren’t you?”

I tickled his leg and he giggled a little.  Ok, phew, he’s fine.

I was not, however.  My skinned knee was stinging but was not an issue – I had powered through much worse in the past and knew that was fine.  But my ankle was throbbing.  I wiggled it to find it was sore, but not broken.  3.30pm.  I have to keep going.

So I pulled myself to my feet and, once again, soldiered on on the winding mountain path.  My ankle was sore and weak so I had to tread slowly and carefully for fear that I was hovering on the edge of disaster.

The steep drops eventually became gentler and at 4:40pm we finally made it back to the park – just 15 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the ridges of the mountain.  I text Chris to let him know that we were safe and to let him know that I had injured my ankle but that we were both ok and there was nothing to worry about.  I got the expected response: “You dumbass.  Glad you’re ok.”

I learned that day that one should never be so conceited as to not go prepared on unknown trails, even if they look easy.  I also learned that I am capable of much more than I thought I was with my jiggly postpartum body.  It is, perhaps, even because of motherhood that I was able to finish the trail.  It was a close call and certainly satisfied my appetite for adventure for a few days, at least until my ankle heals.

Calamities aside, it felt wonderful to get out and do things that I used to do often and really enjoy.  Before becoming a mother I was many things: a hiker, a primitive camper, a fisherman, a wood worker, a lawyer, a boxer, a runner, a cyclist… the list goes on.  I had many identities.  But almost immediately upon becoming pregnant I had abandoned most of those and assumed the role of mother.  For a while it was the only identity I had and this caused some emotional turmoil and something of an identity crisis which my dear husband spent many long teary nights counseling and encouraging me through.

Climbing that mountain with my son on my back, as reckless and dangerous as it was, helped me to realize that I can actually reclaim some of those identities without sacrificing my favorite one; being a mother.  Becoming a mother surely does mean that you have to shed some of your identities; it’s inevitable.  But with practice and time I have begun to figure out which of those identities was most important to me, and were a fundamental part of myself, rather than just something I do.  Now I have the confidence to embrace those parts of myself without neglecting my most important identity.  I actually found that including Junior made it considerably more enjoyable than I remember hiking to be.  I may not be signing up for the Appalachian trail anytime soon, but I will be taking a lot more regular hikes.  With the proper gear and supplies, of course.

#7: At the Bottom of the Waterfall

Yesterday we packed up Patsy and left Tugaloo.  The packing up part went smoother than our previous attempts and we were ready to roll out by 12.  Unfortunately a large storm system was also ready to roll in and 30 minutes after we left the park we hit rain.  

Because we need 2 vehicles – one for Chris for work and one for Junior and me to run errands etc while Chris is at work – it means we have to drive separately when moving the camper.  Chris drove our Ram 1500 with Junior and Devon pulling our camper while I drove my old Chevy that Chris now uses as a work truck with his utility trailer in tow.  We use 2 way radios to communicate back and forth while we are on the road; it allows us to communicate easily even when there is no cell service.  As I am riding in front, it also allows me to call in any sharp turns, low limbs, or treacherous road ahead.  

This turned out to be a good system as, about 15 minutes before we hit rain, I noticed that one of the skylights on the camper was open.  We had just pulled out on the highway so we were able to pull over before any damage was done by the wind and the rain.

The route to Vogel from Tugaloo was mostly an easy route.  It took us along mostly highways that were easy to navigate with a big rig.  Looking at the route, however, we could see that after Cleveland it became winding mountain roads with steep inclines that would prove tricky under good weather conditions, let alone what we were facing.  The trip was forecast to take about 1.5hrs but we decided to stop at a Walmart (now our trusty road friend when traveling with the camper) for a breather and to check the weather.  

As we got out the rain was really picking up and the peaks around us disappeared into dark clouds.  We looked at the forecast and found that there was a window in the storm for the next hour.  The forecast showed wind gusts of up to 60mph.  This is not good when you have a large rig in tow that catches the strong cross winds on the high mountain roads.  

It was time for a judgement call.  Do we press on in the hopes of beating the next wave of the storm that would bring heavier rain and stronger winds, or do we hold tight for a couple of hours with a boisterous 1 year old in a Walmart parking lot and hope that the storm blows through quickly.  Chris deferred to my judgement – a move I’m never usually fond of.  But the GPS was saying that we had 35 minutes left to go and the weather forecast said we had an hour to do it.  So I decided that we should push on.  

So we jumped into our trucks, turned our radios on and headed out.  From Cleveland onwards we knew we were leaving the highways behind and traveling only on byways and mountain roads from there out.  It was pretty smooth going until we turned a corner and found blue flashing lights and the road was blocked off.  Detour.

Detours are dangerous on byways because they are not necessarily safe for big rigs.  There could be tunnels, narrow roads, or sharp corners.  But there was no way of turning around now so we pushed on ready to face whatever might lay ahead.  

Thankfully it was an easy detour that lasted a few minutes and took us back onto our intended route quickly  Having looked at the route ahead though, I knew that the worst was yet to come.  The closer we got to Vogel the steeper the climb and sharper the bends got around the mountains.

Sure enough we began our ascent within 5 minutes of getting back on the byway.  Gradually the road began to curve and snake through the foothills.  Though the weather was dreary the landscape was breathtaking.  Thankfully there were only a few other cars on the road as it was hard to take my eyes off the rusty red, copper oranges, and golden yellows of the leaves dancing in the wind on the mountainside.  As Chris and I talked back and forth on the radio the running theme was “WOW, look how BEAUTIFUL this place is!”  I could hear in his voice that the excitement and anticipation was bubbling up in him too and the storm’s threat seemed less and less significant as we drove on.

The last few miles were filled with steep climbs, sharp hair pin bends and winding S-curves.  I knew that Chris couldn’t wait to get his motorcycle out and ride these roads and I had to remind him a couple of times to just focus on the road ahead for now.  Things, surprisingly, went pretty smoothly with me calling out sharp curves ahead on the radio and counting down the miles until we got there.

Then we arrived.  

The park itself is nestled in a valley on the edge of a lake high up in the mountains, 2500 ft to be exact.  As you enter the park on the narrow lane that winds through a tunnel of trees you reach a curve and small wooden bridge over wolf creek which spills into the lake on your right.  The clouds cleared for a moment and the trees gave way to the towering peaks surrounding us and the vibrant fall colors caught the sun and exploded with life and beauty.  It’s the kind of moment where forces converge and everything comes together perfectly to create an unforgettable moment that makes it impossible not to smile ear to ear and say “woah” out loud, even when no one is around to hear you.

We stopped in at the visitors center and checked in with the ranger to let them know that we made it and get directions to the site that would be our home for the next two months.  Driving to our site we followed the road around to the left of the visitor’s center, away from the lake and up the creek.  The campsite was heavily wooded and signs posted everywhere reminded us that this was “bear country”.  The giddiness in Chris’ voice spilled through the radio.  

We passed a couple of children’s play parks at the very base of the narrow valley, a mini golf course, and some cottages for visitors to rent.  As we pulled into the campsite itself we found our site which was one of the first on the right.  I pulled up ahead out of the way and served as Chris’ backup camera to help him navigate the tricky turn into the site.  Setting up went surprisingly smoothly and we set the camper level just as the rain began to set in again.  Junior and I danced around in the camper as Chris, our hero, braved the weather to finish setting up.  

I had left Tugaloo in short leggings and a T-shirt but another glance at the weather forecast suggested I should change.  As is common in the mountains, we were expecting a 30 degree temperature drop by sundown and a further 20 degrees by dawn.  This is a concept that, especially after months of 100 degree heat, is very difficult to fathom.  So I changed into jeans and a long sleeved shirt while I went about setting up inside the camper.  The next time I stepped out of the camper a couple of hours later I was met with a bitter whip of the icy wind and quickly retreated back inside to find several more layers.

After setting up we decided to head out to Walmart (yes, again) to stock up on a few supplies for the cooler weather.  The Walmart was in Blairsville, a short 15 minute drive through utterly breathtaking landscapes.  Looking out the window on the drive I watched as picturesque farms nestled into the hills passed by with luscious green rolling hills and perfect white fences holding the rugged forest back.  

Blairsville itself is a town I’ve visited a few times before and loved.  The square downtown is reminiscent of an old spaghetti western with its square-fronted buildings and a quaint red brick courthouse in the middle.  We passed through downtown to the Walmart on the main highway.  We both remarked how it was the most beautiful view from a Walmart parking lot we had ever seen with tall peaks rising all around us.

We loaded up on supplies and some $5 movies and headed back to camp.  We continued getting settled, made ourselves some dinner and put Junior to bed.  After trying to tune the TV we realized that we were too high in the mountains to get any service.  This was not a problem for me – I can happily go without TV for a couple of months – but Chris had a moment of sadness to himself as he realized that this was going to present problems for him for the rest of the football season.

We put a movie on and I sat down to do some writing.  The wind was now raging outside and the crisp cold made my teeth chatter when I went for a cigarette.  About halfway through the movie the TV suddenly went black.  Because our DVD player is also our radio it is hard wired into our rig so the movie kept playing through the surround sound.  Chris looked at me and said “what happened?”  As if I knew?  We played around with the remote and the buttons on the TV.  Nothing.

Then I had that, by now, very familiar sinking feeling as I looked up.  The lights to the microwave were off and the fridge “check” light was flashing.  Great.

The ceiling lights were all still on in the camper and the fan was still blowing.  Chis checked the TV in the bedroom; dead.

“It must be a power surge” I said, clueless as to what else could have caused 4 major appliances to die at once.  We checked the breaker and the fuses – all fine.  Well that’s it, we thought.  We officially CANNOT catch a break.

We can live without a TV, I thought, and we can make do fairly easily without a microwave, but no fridge leaves us severely up the proverbial creek.  We stepped out for a cigarette together to cuss and gather our thoughts.  As we stood there we noticed that the lights to the bath house were out.  

Now I should point out that at this conjuncture it’s rather sad that it still didn’t click as to what was going on.  But just remember that we are still new to this so it took us a minute.

“Well that’s weird, I guess the power surge blew the lights to the bath house too then”.

“We should have plugged in that damn surge protector” I said unhelpfully.  “Do it now before it happens again and ALL the appliances get fried.”

So Chris went behind the camper, flipped the breaker, unplugged our rig, plugged the surge protector in, and plugged the rig into the surge protector.  He came back and said “damn thing won’t work, the lights aren’t lighting up or anything”.

Wait a minute.  Ok.  Now I see what’s happened. 

There was no power surge.  Our appliances were not fried.  The power to the entire campsite was down.  The lights in the camper and the DVD player stayed on because we have a backup battery on our RV that automatically takes over when you lose power and continues to power the low-voltage appliances and outlets, hence the TV, fridge and microwave (higher powered appliances) were all off.

DUH.

So I messaged the park ranger and the power came back on within 30 minutes.  Luckily we had a taster of how easily storms can interfere with the power here and we won’t make the mistake of not using a surge protector again.  We had a good laugh about it and thanked our lucky stars that it wasn’t worse.

The next morning was beautiful and sunny, although still very brisk.  We decided to warm ourselves up with a walk around Lake Trahlyta trail, the trailhead of which was a short 5 minute walk away through the campsite.  So we bundled ourselves and Junior up, put a leash on Devon, and headed out.

Chris at Lake Trahlyta.  Pictures just don't do it justice (or at least mine don't).

The lake itself is small but glorious.  There are several trailheads near the lake edge, a boat dock with pedal boats and kayaks for rent, and a small beach area for the warmer months.  The lake trail is about 3-4km around and very gentle, flat terrain.  

The water was largely still and glassy with a fine mist that seemed to slip across it like ice.  It drifted upwards to look like smoke rising from the reds and oranges of the forest which glinted in the sunlight.  The rising mist from the lake rose above the fiery hillside to make the whole scene look like a silently blazing wildfire.  The vibrant colors of the mountainside bounced off the water and danced in the occasional ripples from the feeding fish.  We passed a couple of other hikers on our way round and we stopped frequently to take pictures.

About halfway around is the spillway which creates an extraordinary waterfall beneath it.  We parked Junior’s stroller at the top and took the winding path and steep steps down to the base of the falls.

Trahlyta falls as seen from the road above.

Trahlyta falls is approximately 75-100 feet tall from base to source and 10-15 feet wide.  It’s surrounded by thick woodland with a narrow break in the tree canopy above.  It’s a paradoxical setting; the water violently crashes and tumbles down the rocky mountainside with a roar while a thick mist rises at the base and drifts silently through the mossy trees and up through the canopy into the glimpses of daylight between the leaves.  It was a stunning sight that we took a few minutes to drench ourselves in before getting back on the trail and back home.

The falls from the viewing platform near the base.
The mist creeping through the trees at the base of the falls.

We’re breathing a sigh of relief tonight as it seems that things may be calming down for us and that we have made it to the bottom of our waterfall safely.  The trepidation I previously felt for leaving our paradise in Tugaloo and coming to Vogel has fallen away with the autumn leaves and I can feel myself relaxing into our new life already.

In a way this adventure is like getting to live new lives every few months.  We get to change the landscape and the people when we decide it’s time and it’s not a terrible upheaval.  Junior still has a safe place that he knows as home in our RV and Devon (who is an incredibly anxious dog who does not like change) still gets his familiar spot next to my side of the bed to retreat to when it all gets a bit much.  

The key, it seems, to sticking with it is the acknowledgment that the next life will not be the same.  The rangers, hosts, and guests will be different.  There will be a different routine to the park; some require hosts to be on duty pretty much 24/7, whereas others will have a rotation schedule where you work a few days on and then have a few off.  The landscape, the recreational opportunities, the weather, the whole vibe – they will all be different.  This adventure lies somewhere between a traveling job and an extended vacation.  It seems to marry the benefits of both and create it’s own genre of existence.  It’s easier to appreciate what each life has to offer if your greet it with the knowledge that it is finite and should be savored while it’s here.  And we intend to savor every drop of it.

#3: The Life of a Host

One of the things that drew us to this lifestyle was the possibility of having no conventional form of living costs such as rent/mortgage and utilities.  It sounds too good to be true but I assure you that it’s not.  Let me explain.

At state parks they employ rangers and maintenance workers to be on site from 9-5, but when you have campers at the park you need someone there to keep an eye on things from 5-9 and so the campers have someone to turn to if they need help from a site representative.  Enter the campground host.

A host is a volunteer who lives at the campsite in their own rig.  Each state varies depending on their rules and regulations for hosts but in Georgia you can stay at any one park as a host for a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 6 months.  During your placement as a host you receive a free site, but it generally has a few extra perks.  Most sites at state parks don’t have full hook up (electric, water, and sewer), they only have electric and water.  This means that you have the tedious task of moving your rig every few days to dump the black and grey water tanks at the designated dump site.  As a host you enjoy full hook up benefits so once you pull in you shouldn’t need to move your camper again until you leave.  You also tend to get cable TV free (even if you generally have to pay extra for it at a park), a small permanent shelter over your picnic table, and, our favorite, your own golf cart to use 24/7 during your time at the park.

In exchange for these benefits you do have some responsibilities.  Hosts must perform a minimum of 24 hours per week of volunteer work.  You’re expected to keep the bathrooms clean which means giving them a good wipe down and mop once a day and checking them several times a day.  You also need to ensure each site is clean after campers check out by picking up trash, cleaning out the fire ring if necessary, and sometimes blowing tree debris off the site.  Other duties vary from park to park and sometimes you may be asked to help with special projects like building/repairing picnic tables, benches, etc or you may be asked to help clear the walking trails.  Other than that, you’re just required to be the face of the park, be friendly, and help campers by providing information.

All in all it’s pretty easy work and the schedule is very flexible with the vast majority of tasks not requiring any set time to be done.  This is pretty perfect for me as I am a stay at home Mom and so my life generally revolves around my son’s ever-changing schedule.  Most of these tasks can also be taken care of with a 1 year old in tow.

When I pitched the idea to Chris I told him how this would satisfy my desire to contribute financially to the household.  I think most stay at home Moms would tell you that, while we know we are providing an invaluable service by raising our children, we feel like a bit of a drain on finances sometimes.  But by hosting I am able to alleviate the strain on Chris by eliminating our rent, water, and power bills while still being there to raise our son.  So, to put it another way, this “volunteer” work would actually save us about $18,000 a year.  That’s a pretty darn big savings.  

Aside from the financial benefits we figured it would afford us more opportunity to meet people such as other hosts, park rangers, and other guests.  Being a stay at home Mom can also get kind of lonely – especially when your husband is working long hours and your only interaction is with a teething 1 year old.  So the idea that other hosts would be around that I could interact with on a regular basis was appealing.

So how do you become a host?  It’s actually a really easy process.  Each state has its own individual set of procedures.  Here in Georgia there’s an online application which took about 30 minutes to fill out.  You also have to pay an annual fee of $15 per applicant (if you host as a couple then you are each an applicant) and that covers your background check.  My understanding is that a criminal record will not necessarily preclude you from hosting, but rather that each person is assessed on a case-by-case basis.  Once your background check has cleared then you’re free to start applying to different parks.  Online is a “hosting timeline” where each park posts their schedules for incoming and outgoing hosts showing the gaps in their calendar where they need hosts to fill in.  From here you simply apply to fill those vacancies and chase them up with a phone call to the parks.  

Overall it’s an incredibly easy process to get started with.  Once you begin hosting you get credited points for the number of volunteer hours you rack up.  As you bank more hours/points you receive more free stuff, benefits, or pins.  For example, after 500 hours logged you get a free park pass which gets you free entry and parking at all state parks for a year including discounts at gift shops etc.  You can also get a few free nights of camping, free nights at the cottages or yurts, free rentals, the list goes on.

It took a few weeks of playing phone tag with different parks and was a little frustrating at times trying to line up our first hosting placement but finally about 2 weeks before we were due to go full time RV we got a call from Vogel state park offering us our first placement.  The placement is from October 31st until the end of the year.  We figured this is a good start and should help us find our feet with the hosting journey.  2 months allows us a low level of commitment to begin with which should help me figure out how best to balance my daily duties with raising junior.  Meanwhile it gives us a good few weeks to get used to living in a camper before I have to start working again for the first time in 18 months.  

So hosting is a great way to spend some more time outside, significantly reduce your cost of living, travel as widely as you please (or stick around locally), and break free from the pressures and stresses of conventional living.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.  But I think the promise of freedom and less stress makes it worth trying.  Like Hellen Keller said: “Security is mostly a superstition.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

#2: The Start of Something

Our first campsite was at the very back of a loop at Tugaloo State Park – campsite 22. We were the furthest possible site from the popular lake-front sites which afforded us a little privacy that the other sites lacked. This meant we could let the dog roam a little more and be less fearful of nighttime campsite noise waking the baby.

Tugaloo State Park is located off the very last exit on i85 before you reach the South Carolina line. It’s downstream from the beautiful Tallulah Falls, on the Tugaloo River, where Lake Hartwell forms. The park itself is on a peninsula which is almost an island. There are 3 main loops of campsites which consist of roughly a 30-40 foot by 20 foot gravel pad, a picnic table, a fire ring, and electrical, water, and cable TV hookups. Each site varies depending on its location; the waterfront sites have gorgeous lake views and are located about 15-20 feet from the water, but unfortunately are also only a few feet from their neighboring sites. Then there are the “standard” sites, these are a little 2 or 3 minute walk through the loop to get to the water, but tend to have a little more privacy. Each loop also has a bathhouse with a few toilets and showers, and a washer and drier that’ll set you back $3.25 for a wash and dry.

Also at the park is a Yurt loop where there are 6 yurts and a bathhouse.  Then there are a couple of roads with cottages, my favorite being number 11 which is situated on a private peninsula with breathtaking views over the lake.

When we arrived on the Tuesday night there was no one else on our loop which meant we had even more privacy than we bargained for; we couldn’t even see any other campers from our site.  We woke in the morning just before dawn and sat in our chairs basking in the peace and cool morning air.  It was so quiet compared to the city, it was almost eerie.  The air was thick with the scent of pines and a fresh breeze tickled at my cheek.  As I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight my every careful step seemed to crash through the silence despite my best efforts to move stealthily.  On the way back to the camp I saw the lights from our camper and figured I didn’t need the flashlight so I clicked it off.  The darkness was almost suffocating like a thick blanket and I couldn’t see my feet, much less the uneven ground I was walking on, so I quickly turned the light back on.

The first day was largely dedicated to reorganizing, figuring out what we still needed, and getting everything put away.  Chris took Junior to the store for food and supplies while I happily sorted through everything and tidied up.  

That evening we cooked a basic meal and just enjoyed our achievement of making it to the campsite and finally fulfilling our dream that had taken months to realize.  Junior loved being outside and would play in his playpen so calmly, just looking around at the trees and the squirrels, occasionally lying down as if he were going to sleep.  

It took a couple of days to figure out how everything worked and to adapt our approaches to everyday tasks to life in a camper – but we were happy to do it and had expected it to be much more difficult.  

By Friday we were getting the hang of it all.  I went to Athens for the day with Junior and returned home late in the afternoon to find that a large Indian family had taken over every other campsite on our loop. There was a small city of tents spread across the sites with an army of excited children running around at the far end.  Their parents worked tirelessly to set up camp and the drone of air mattress pumps filled the air along with opening and closing of car doors, and the sound of bickering parents as they struggled to erect their shelters.  The children, apparently oblivious to the race against darkness to get camp setup, shrieked and laughed as they ran through the campsite playing.  It reminded me of the happy memories I have of camping with my father.  He would approach setup as a military operation and bark orders at us while my brothers and I ran around like drunken lunatics intoxicated by the fresh piney air and the sound of the lake gently lapping the shore.

It was certainly a stark change from our previously private slice of paradise, but it was a known certainty that the weekend would be busier and there would be a temporary disturbance, we were just a little surprised by the scale of the newcomers’ camp.  

Junior didn’t sleep overly well that night for some reason and woke a couple of times during the night.  Around 4am I gave in and just laid on the cushion beside him to calm him and I promptly fell asleep there.  Chris woke shortly after to the unexpected sound of rain. RAIN! He jumped up and rushed outside to gather the various things we had haphazardly strewn around the campsite because we hadn’t anticipated any rain that night.  He wasn’t the only one.  The Indian family had apparently also not been prepared for rain and scrambled out of their tents like ants rushing the lamps, fans, food, and other supplies they had left outside into their shelters.  Luckily it was a brief passing shower so nothing was soaked, but it was a lesson in not underestimating the weather when camping.

Walking through the campsite on Saturday after Chris went to work I had a moment of realization.  I had always considered camping to be an activity which only appealed to a very specific group of people.  I had previously judged that the type of people which we would encounter would all be the typical weekend warriors, active retirees, and maybe a few young families.  I was wrong. 

The Indian family weren’t the only newcomers to the park on Friday.  Nearly every site was now filled with an array of people; some with brand new 40ft $100,000 motorhomes with several slides and flat screen TVs and full outdoor kitchens on the outside; some with vintage 1960s 18ft scotty campers with just the basics; some huge 10 man tents complete with neat creases from being freshly removed from their careful packaging; some tents that were clearly older than me.  

There were retirees with a cute little hand-painted sign with their names, “Jen and Gregg, Summer nights camping” and little wind chimes and hummingbird feeders hanging outside.  There were young boys, about 12-13 years old covered in mud rough-housing in the woods near their camp.  There was a group of  3 or 4 twenty somethings, all men, with drills and hammers working on their rig that appeared to be about the same age as ours, cussing loudly as one missed the nail with the hammer and another hit his head on the cabinet as he stood up.  There was a couple with a small tent and a large cooking fire burning sitting peacefully in their chairs and admiring their lake view as they chatted quietly with each other.  There was a large older couple who had set up with a tent that were sitting on their loungers.  The man wore nothing but some little shorts that looked to have somehow survived since the 80s and were barely peeking out from under his large gut which hung low and there was a buffet fit for a small country spread across their picnic table.  There was a young family with an older rig circa 1985 that was playing a board game and bickering over whose turn it was.  There was a young couple with a modest camp unloading bikes and expensive camera equipment from their brand new SUV with brand new kayaks strapped to the top.  There was a single man in a raggedy old tent camping with his dog in his minimalist camp.  Hygiene and self-care seemed to be of little concern to him and he grunted his greeting as we strolled past.  There were two couples with motorcycles each with small utility trailers hooked up to the back, presumably to transport their camping gear.  I imagined that maybe they were in the midst of some long cross-country tour and that they had some great stories of the places they’d been and the things they’d done.

As I considered each camp I imagined who the campers might be in their everyday lives; how far they had come, how long they were staying, whether they were on a weekend vacation or traveling long-term, whether this was their first time or their hundredth time, what jobs they had, and why they liked camping.  It’s not as easy as you might think, but there were definitely a broad range of stories lurking there.

It occurred to me that camping has many appeals and many styles.  Some campers like to bring every single convenience of home and see it as a cheap and cozy alternative to staying in hotels, some prefer to see it as an expedition into wilderness and enjoy the challenge of living with as few modern conveniences as possible.  Some are just looking for a place to get the whole family together, some are looking to get away from their family.  Some are filthy rich, and some are obviously not.  But even with such stark differences, it is sure that everyone at least shares the commonality of enjoying the beauty and serenity that this place has to offer.

That evening Chris and I were sitting by the campfire musing about our new life and how great it was. He was asking about the campsite and the things we filled our day with. I told him we didn’t get up to much because it was too dang hot.

I told Chris about what was on my mind as I walked through the campsite that day.  I told him how it got me thinking about the diverse range of people and their many reasons for being here, in this campsite, on this day.  Our attention focussed on the raucous coming from the large Indian family that had moved in overnight.  Upon talking about it we noted that they had set up their “campfire/hangout” area on the far site on our loop, despite them having a whole stretch.  It seemed clear that this was a thoughtful and intentional move on their part so as to cause as little disturbance as possible to us; the only other people on the loop. Just then we could hear the whole group singing together. The lyrics or song was indistinguishable because of the distance between us but it was wonderful to hear them enjoying each others company unfettered by the distraction of screens and technology. When the singing ceased they erupted in cheers and applause. Then they began chanting a name as if to nominate the next singer. It’s difficult to describe the warmth that comes from hearing people just be together in this way.  We remarked how lucky we were to have such courteous and fun first neighbors and acknowledged that we likely won’t be so lucky all the time.

“Yeah, well that’s the beauty of camping, right?  If you get shitty neighbors, then at least you don’t have to deal with it long – ‘cus either they’ll be leaving soon or we will.” I said cheerily.  

And it is.  So far, at the beginning of our journey my current prediction for the future of our adventure is that we’ll spend more time being glad that people are leaving than being sad.  But it is still my hope that we will meet people that we are sad to see leave.  It is my hope that maybe we will meet some lifelong friends who we want to host with again, or that we hope come and stay at another park we’re hosting at.

My mind turned to how we speak of this journey we’re embarking on.  It’s hard to find another word to describe it.  ‘Adventure’ works but lacks something that’s hard to define.  Sure, this is an adventure, but in what sense?  I wonder if we’ll still call it an adventure in 2 weeks, or 2 months, or two years?  Will it be something that we look back on and say “remember when we started doing this and how we looked at it then compared to how we look at it now?” And then laugh.  Or will it be something that we look back on and say “remember that time we tried to live in that camper?” And then laugh.

Because let’s face it; however this turns out, we are going to laugh. That’s just who we are. Life is funny, it should be laughed at. Whether you fail or succeed at something it’s important to be able to laugh at it. This adventure is intended to give ourselves better lives and our son a better start to his; one that involves togetherness in the outdoors, exploration, self-discovery and financial stability. Whether this chapter of our life turns out to be the beginning of a new wonderful life, or a short-lived calamity-filled disaster, I am at least certain that it will bring life lessons and the comfort in knowing that we were brave enough and strong enough together to take the risk and, of course, that we will laugh about it along the way, or at least eventually.