#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 ✌️❤️

#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.