#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.

#25: A Place to Rest

We’ve been at Black Rock a few days now and had a chance to settle in.  We’ve met some folks, explored a little, and the place is quickly feeling like home.

Junior and Devon have really made themselves at home.  They have spent hours frolicking on the grass, running through (or away from, in Devon’s case) the sprinkler, digging in the gravel, and laying in the sun.

Being on the side of a the mountain with no surrounding peaks, there tends to be a more steady, cooling breeze here – this has been a welcome addition on these hot spring days.  The lack of tree cover is both a blessing and a curse.  While we are safe from falling limbs in the spring storms, we have no shade cover for the camper which means we will be using the a/c a lot in the coming months.  

The people here all seem very friendly and the place has a generally more relaxed vibe.  The park is generally quieter than Vogel which eases some anxiety related to the current coronavirus pandemic.  I expressed concerns about cleaning bathrooms with the rangers and they were understanding and have been very accommodating.

The sense of urgency that Vogel is shrouded in because of its popularity seems a distant notion here.  When we went to run some errands on our second day here, we discovered the gate to the complex was closed and we had been locked in.  I called the ranger to come and let us out and he said he’d be down soon but that “nobody was in a hurry here”.  I found this to be comforting.  Everyone seems laid back and easy going which certainly eases my anxiety about juggling life as a host with being a mother to a very busy little boy.

Black Rock Mountain State Park is the highest (elevation) park in Georgia and sits at 3,640 ft straddling the Eastern Continental Divide.  With no higher peaks surrounding it, there are impressive vistas and panoramic views throughout the park.  The majority of the park sits atop the narrow ridge of Black Rock Mountain meaning the trails are challenging but the scenery is spectacular.  On a clear day, a short hike up to the scenic overlook at Tennessee Rock provides views across four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and, of course, Georgia.  Established in 1952, what the park lacks in history it makes up for in stunning scenery.

The view from Cowee Overlook en route to the visitors center.
A little further up the mountain at Blue Ridge Overlook.

The park encompasses over 1700 acres across Black Rock Mountain and the 4 surrounding peaks and includes the 17 acre Black Rock Lake.  The lack of higher peaks surrounding it means that the majority of the park is exposed to the weather.  This coupled with the sheer rock faces and giant boulders gives the landscape a particular rugged beauty.

The view looking from the visitors center over Clayton below and South Carolina beyond.
Junior at the Visitors Center overlook musing at the buzzards flying overhead.

Because of its location on the top of a narrow ridge, the park facilities are rather spread out. The campground, significantly smaller than Vogel, features 44 campsites for tents, trailers, and RVs split into 2 loops (each with its own bathhouse). There are a further 12 “walk-in” sites on a separate loop for tent campers only. Virtually every campsite at the park boasts views across Northeast Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, with some having up to 240 degree views.

The view from Nantahala Overlook in the campground.

Black Rock is a little less family-friendly than Vogel, however. The steep drop offs on either side of the campground, the lack of any play park, and the level of experience required for most of the trails means that it can be difficult to keep kids entertained in the park. While fishing and paddling (canoes, kayaks, and trolling motors) are allowed in the lake, swimming is prohibited.

Sunset over Black Rock Lake.

For the truly outdoorsy family, couples, or friends looking for a somewhat wilderness adventure packed with beauty and just a 10 minute drive to local eateries and boutiques – Black Rock State Park is an excellent choice.

We’ve been fortunate in our first few days here.  Although the current pandemic has caused some cancellations to some of Chris’ jobs giving way to some financial woe for us, the silver lining is that Junior and I get to have him home with us for a few days.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better in life.  Throw in some warm, sunny days and that’s a recipe for some Seeley family adventures.

On our first sunny day at the park Chris was itching to go fishing for the first time in a while.  So he loaded his fishing poles in the truck, I got the backpack carrier, and we all headed down to the lake.  

While Chris wet a line, Junior and I took ourselves on a little hike to explore the area.  We took the short lake trail to begin with.  This trail hugs the banks of the vibrant blue-green water for approximately 0.85 miles.  Junior had a great time giggling at the ducks and mimicking their quacking.  He got a real kick out of it when they began diving and their little feathered butts were sticking up in the air.

Next we decided to explore a little bit of the James E. Edmonds trail.  This is the park’s backcountry trail and, though it is only an approximately 7.2 mile loop, it features challenging terrain and some pretty steep inclines.  One section of the trail includes a particularly gruesome 1000 ft elevation gain in one short mile.  

A Southern Woodland Violet marks the trail to the lake and mountains beyond.
A Native Violet dancing in the gentle lake breeze.
These Philadelphia Fleabanes are popping up all around the lake.

Signs of spring were everywhere.  The Christmas Ferns, some of the coolest little sprouts in spring, are abundant on the forest floor.  This time of year they resemble little green, furry worms curled up and protruding from the ground as they slowly stretch and come to life like everything else in the spring.  

A Christmas Fern getting ready to spring into life.

For obvious reasons, we didn’t attempt the entire trail, but did manage to do about a couple of miles of exploration.  The cool mountain air made it a great day for a hike through the woods.  The rugged landscape was littered with mossy rocks and dry leaves with specks of the blue, purple, yellow and white wildflowers beginning to push their way through the forest floor.  Underground streams created some small – and some very large – tunnels and caves throughout the mountainside, filled with moss and dripping with natural spring water.  In other places the water poured over the gigantic boulders and veins of biotite gneiss, the dark colored rock that runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains and gives the park its name.  

The trail passing over one of the many mountain streams.
More mountain streams.

We followed the trail, crossing the many trickling streams, until we heard the distant sound of rushing water enticing us further.  We rounded a ridge to find a 10 ft waterfall cascading down the face of the smooth, black rock and spilling into a small, sandy pool at its base; the perfect secluded swimming hole for Junior on a hot spring or summer day. 

The rays of sunlight piercing through the canopy glimmered on the water. The lush greens of the wild magnolias gently draping over the stream, the many forest ferns and the moss that seemed to slowly claim every inch of nearby rock made this spot feel like something created in a dream.  We sat for a minute and rested, listening to the chirp of the forest birds and the water running over the rock.  

The waterfall and sandy pool – a place we’ll return to better prepared and with more time for Junior to play.

Before long it was time to head back to find Chris and get some dinner for the kid.  I snapped my pictures and we set off back down the mountain toward the lake, satisfied with a few good shots and the promise to return with more time.  

There are more trails to explore here, and the taste I’ve had of them so far makes me restless for a chance to get back out.  With all the madness going on in the world right now it seems almost to be divine providence that we have found such a perfect place to take life a little slower.  Our escape from the hustle and bustle of Vogel has landed us in a place of beauty and peace and we couldn’t be happier for it.