#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 ✌️❤️

#28: The Tiger King of Black Rock and Other Strange Characters

Living in a campground – especially a short term stay one – means witnessing the many different types of people who arrive here.  As we are beginning to learn, each park has its own individual vibe which, in turn, attracts different clientele.  At Tugaloo we found the clientele to be rather middle of the road sorts: mostly working class, mostly families, mostly folks that came for the lake and didn’t care much for hiking or fitness but enjoyed the good cell service and cable TV.  Vogel, on the other hand, attracted a different group: lots of families, many of whom had been coming to Vogel for generations; lots of fitness fanatics; many families who were looking to escape wifi, TV, and cell service, and most of whom were somewhat higher income than those at Tugaloo.

Then there’s Black Rock Mountain.

Perhaps it’s the park’s isolated and somewhat ominous location at the top of a mountain peak, often hidden in the clouds.  Perhaps it’s the fact that novice hikers, or even intermediate hikers, are often deterred by the fact that everywhere is uphill and akin to cliff climbing rather than gentle hiking.  Perhaps it’s even the current pandemic that has turned the world upside down, shaken it around, and landed all the strange characters here.  Either way, we’ve seen some interesting folk here in the last few weeks.

Despite the “stay at home” order, our Governor has bizarrely insisted that campgrounds and trails should remain open and actively encouraged visitors to the park.  It’s baffling, but that’s southern politics and businessmen as politicians for you.  So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic where every other country in the world has shut down non-essential travel, and Georgia is vacation central.

There’s been significant frustration from all the volunteers and park staff surrounding this issue.  We have constant anxiety about the campers that are flooding into the park.  We are operating on a skeleton staff too.  Seasonal employees have not been allowed to return to work (and have been blocked from filing for unemployment – totally unfair) because of the stay at home order, many housekeepers have quit for fear of exposure, and we’re seeing summertime levels of park traffic.  The increased traffic amongst the madness has led to arrests at other parks of people intentionally coughing in rangers’ faces, and parks being temporarily shut down after being overrun by lunchtime.  Images from Cloudland Canyon showed over 130 cars lined up on the highway waiting to get in.

Our biggest fear, and that of our fellow hosts, is the campers and their refusal to adhere to social distancing guidelines.  I’ve had people walk right up to me, within a couple of feet, and start talking to me.  Even as I step backward away, they keep coming until I tell them to stop and step away from me.  It’s not a nice feeling – I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable but in this new world we have our health to think about.  I’ve also had one man walk straight up to Junior in his stroller, tickle him, then pick up his cracker and give it to him.  No matter how many signs are out, people don’t seem to care to obey – it’s business as usual for them.

We also had a camper staying for a week or so on one site that raised some issues.  After a few days, our fellow hosts remarked how they had seen no one come or go from the camper since its arrival and there was no water hooked up to the camper.  They raised the rather morbid but very possible point that the campers could be dead inside the camper and we wouldn’t know.  

So, out of concern for their wellbeing, one of the rangers went and knocked on the door.  The occupants refused to open the door, simply calling out from inside that they were ok, everything is ok, but that they didn’t want to open the door.  This was not comforting.  At the next meeting we raised concerns about the fact that these people could be sick and self-quarantining at the park.  But with no water hooked up to their camper they must be using the bathrooms – the same bathrooms we were cleaning everyday.  This raised our anxiety significantly, but with strict orders to remain open, we had no choice but continue on with our regular duties.

Another set of campers spent 2 days camping here from middle Georgia.  For their short stay here they packed 2 large SUVs full of – what I assume to be – everything they owned, and then spread it all out around their site upon arrival.  There were make-shift clotheslines with underwear and such pegged out, a tent with make-shift shelters built around it, and even a wooden rocking chair.  The two very large women occupying the site laid out for 2 days in skimpy bikinis at the front of their site waving to passersby.

There was also a family that came camping; a father and 3 children.  They were tent campers and occupied a site near Jesse and Kaci.  At 5am Jesse awoke to the sound of doors slamming and children screaming.  Concerned that it could be a bear or campers in danger, Jesse went to investigate.  Outside he found the father and the children running around their site with the fire smoking.  Jesse asked if everything was ok and the father told him that they were just cold.  So Jesse informed him that there’s a quiet time policy between 10pm and 7am so asked that they be considerate of people sleeping.

When Jesse got up a few hours later he saw that the family had left and their fire pit was now completely ablaze.  He also noticed that the door to the trash complex was wide open so he went close it.  Inside he found all of the family’s camping equipment; 4 chairs, blow up mattresses, sleeping bags, 4 person tent, camping stove – all of it brand new, the packaging in there too.  It seems the father, probably growing increasingly desperate having been stuck in the house with his kids for weeks, had attempted to take them camping.  It seems he likely didn’t know what he was doing at all and abandoned his venture – new equipment and all – before sunrise.  We all had a good chuckle at that, and Jesse got some free camping gear out of it.

Then the Tiger King arrived.

Of course, it wasn’t THE Tiger King (or Joe Exotic), he’s in prison.  But this guy could easily be from the same circus.  So we referred to him as Joe Exotic because we didn’t know his real name and it seemed to fit him well.

The first time I saw Joe Exotic he was out by his rig.  His rig was a large Discovery motorhome that looked like a decommissioned tour bus.  The thing was bigger than my last apartment.  It was an older model bearing a few small dents and rust spots here and there, but he seemed to take reasonable care of it.  The first time I saw him he was outside pressure washing the camper.  This is not unusual for RVers so I didn’t pay him much attention, just drove on by and went about my business.  

When I came back by, however, I had to stop.

He was around the side of his rig before and I had barely glanced in his direction.  This time though, he was out front pressure washing the gravel on the site next to him.  This bizarre act and his attire caught my attention.

He wore old brown leather cowboy boots – creased and scuffed from years of wear.  Between the boots and the black basketball shorts peeked his white, pencil-thin, smooth, veiny legs that seemed to get lost in the excess material from his oversized shorts.  On top he wore not just one, but two long sleeved acid-washed denim shirts.  The outer layer had the sleeves torn off and black lettering on the back referencing some motorcycle company or club in Florida.  On his head he wore a dusty brown felt cowboy hat over his straggly brown hair which was pulled back into a ponytail.  His approximate 5 day stubble and John Lennon-style glasses really finished off the look and, as I watched him standing there on the top of a mountain in the middle of a pandemic washing gravel I knew… this guy does a lot of cocaine.

He seemed pretty harmless, after all he wasn’t bothering anyone.  He certainly wasn’t achieving anything, but washing gravel wasn’t exactly a reason to be afraid of or angry at the guy, so we let him be.

A few days later I was talking to Jesse and Kaci, the other hosts, and it seems that Joe Exotic was getting a little lonely and was often seen roaming around with a leaf blower, blowing off campsites.  He had made several attempts to try and befriend Jesse – a bearded, tattooed, ex-military fella with a kind heart and a somewhat intimidating physique.  Jesse is a great guy with a wicked sense of humor and an easy-going attitude once you get to know him but – at least under current circumstances – he tends to vibrate on a high frequency and has a significant fear of getting sick.  So he doesn’t take kindly to being approached by random members of the public right now.  But, like us, they are stuck here until things open up again.

When Joe Exotic approached him for the 4th or 5th time and got too close, Jesse had stopped holding back and firmly told the guy to remain on his own site.  Joe failed to heed these warnings from Jesse and things escalated somewhat when Joe came over to Jesse’s site one day to tell him that he had unplugged the Christmas lights from the trading post in an effort to be helpful.  What Joe failed to consider is that his attempt to be helpful was causing more anxiety than good; he was walking around touching everything, breathing on everything.  Though he just wanted to be friends, he was going about it all the wrong way and at the totally wrong time.

So Jesse laid into him a little and told him to stop f****** touching everything and stay on his site.  Like a lost little puppy Joe apologized  profusely and returned to his site.  Jesse felt bad, but also didn’t at all because this guy was jeopardizing everyone.  This seemed to work fairly well and although he could still be found some days wandering around with a leaf blower, he mostly kept to his own site after that and out of trouble.

Until he found new ways to irritate Jesse and the other park staff.

One weekend we had a pretty big storm come through.  The storm swept across the south from West to East, dropping tornadoes as it went and killing dozens of people along the way.  The worst of the storm, and the worst threat for tornadoes, arrived in the dead of night around 2am.  Spring storms are pretty scary anyway, but at night, in a camper, on the side of a mountain?  That’s pretty darn scary.  So I stayed up that night watching the news in case there were reports of tornadoes in the area.

Around 2:45am Jesse and Kaci were awakened – not because of the powerful wind howling away and rocking the camper side to side – but rather because Joe Exotic was sounding a deafening air-horn from his camper, just 40 feet from Jesse and Kaci.  It seems that old Joe Exotic was up all night too, but probably for substance-related reasons, and decided to warn everyone that there was a storm.  Jesse did not find this amusing.  Furthermore, Joe called Jessica, the park manager, at 3am to tell her there was a storm coming.  Jessica, at home in bed, also did not find this amusing.

Tiger King only stayed a few more days after that.  I was a little sad when I saw his rig pulling out one day, knowing I likely wouldn’t see him again.  He was an odd character but had provided some entertainment for us through this dark time and, in other circumstances, I’d have loved to learned more about his story.  Jesse was delighted to see the back of him, of course, though I think he’ll miss him a little too.

We’re glad that we aren’t in the campground and don’t have to worry about possibly infected strangers coming up to our site and interacting with us.  I do miss people-watching and interacting with people from all walks of life.  A couple from New York has been staying for a few weeks now and told Jesse that they left out before the lockdown happened hoping to escape the madness.  I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to come to Georgia, how they feel about that decision now, whether they’d make the same decision again, and where they’re planning to go next.

There are many stories to be told in the campground, now more than ever.  I hope that when things calm down I’ll have a chance to hear some of them and maybe tell them.  For now, though, I’ll stick to my own campfire a little longer.

#27: Mishap on the Mountain

Thursday was another beautiful day on the mountain. Having done a few hikes in the park I decided to try a section of the longest trail in the park; the James Edmonds trail.  The trail is only 7.2 miles total (according to the park info which usually understates the length of trails) but given that I am far from my pre-baby fitness levels I decided to try a shorter 3 mile section of the loop.  

After Junior’s nap I gave him some snacks, milk, and a fresh diaper before strapping him into the pack and setting out. Our pack, a Deuter Kid Comfort II, is easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made and I’m so thankful for it. We walked down the gravel road to the main road through the park and down part of the gravel lake road until it met the section of the trail I intended to hike.

Setting out.

Looking at the map I could tell there was going to be a fairly challenging incline for the first part of the trail but I gravely underestimated how much of a gruesome cliff-scaling operation this would actually be. Within a few minutes of being on the trail I was too out of breath to continue my idle chatter and singing to entertain Junior and warn bears of our presence. At this altitude it’s still early spring and near freezing at night, so the trees were yet to sprout any leaves to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for us hikers.

The lack of leaves did, however, provide impressive vistas across the surrounding valleys.  The higher we climbed on Scruggs Knob along the eastern fork of the trail, the more spectacular the scenery became.  

The trail finally flattened out somewhat as we approached Marsen Knob and I was able to enjoy the hike a little more.  Junior giggled furiously as Devon bounced along next to us and I spent most of my time looking down for snakes or looking up for bears.  The hike was peaceful and we encountered no other hikers.

The trail around Marsen Knob.

After a little over an hour we reached our destination; the overlook at Lookoff Mountain.  Situated on a bald on the North side of the mountain, this spot was yet another beautiful place to soak in the view of the green valleys and blue peaks stretching into the horizon and kissing the azure sky.  I took a minute to rest here and slid the heavy pack from my back, flicked the kick stand out, and set Junior down on the flattest part of the rock.  I pulled out some water for all of us and turned to take a picture of the overlook.

The view from Lookoff Mountain Overlook.

This is where the hike went from just another great day with my son and my dog, to a pretty scary disaster.

As I was snapping a picture I heard a thud.  I turned to see that the backpack had fallen over with Junior in it.  I did the classic Mom-jog over to him, thinking he was fine and that it was just a little scrape.  But as I pulled the pack back up I saw that he had landed face first onto the rock with no way of breaking his fall.  I found that he had an enormous instant goose egg with some pretty serious bruising.

I raced to unclip him from the pack.  The shock of the fall and the pain that must have been horrific took his breath away and he was silently crying so hard and struggling for air that it panicked me even more.  I tried to remain calm as I pulled him out of the pack, held him close, and tried my best to assess the damage.  

Poor kid banged his head pretty good.

It was bad.  There was no denying that this was no little scrape.  As he caught his breath he let out a blood-curdling scream – the type that sends a surge of adrenaline through any parent.  There was little I could do on the side of a mountain.  I raced through the options in my head while I tried to calm my poor boy.

I called Chris.  Even though he was miles away and had no way of getting to me, he’s always the first person on my mind in a crisis.  As I spoke to him it became clear he didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the situation.  I sent him a picture of Junior’s head, at which point he immediately understood my panic.

My next move was to message the park manager, Jessica, who is now becoming something of a hero for us. I thought it was a good idea to let her know where I was, what had happened, and ask her what the quickest way was down the mountain. She immediately told me that she was on her way to meet me at the bottom of the trail and told me which route to take (there are several trails down the mountain.

The trail she told me to take was an old service road that hasn’t been used in many years. It’s overgrown and neglected, but cuts straight down the mountain and provides the most direct route. I hesitated for a moment. Going back the way I came was at least a route I knew to be passable, going for a new route was risky as I didn’t know how bad the recent storms would have washed out the road. Concerned that Junior may be severely concussed and need medical attention soon, I opted for the most direct route.

I set off as quick as I could.  Junior was reluctant to get back in the pack but cooperated nonetheless.  We headed back up the mountain to descend the other side.  When I reached the top the trail split in a place that I didn’t remember a split before.  I headed down the path I believed to be correct but after 100 yards we reached a dead end.

We’re not off to a great start.

I turned around, frustrated that I was wasting time, and took the other path. Paying close attention to the map I jogged back down the mountain side, taking care not to slide on the rocky slope, or turn an ankle over on the deep ruts caused by rushing water of recent storms. Junior continued to cry throughout the journey, despite my best efforts I couldn’t comfort him. I did, however, feel somewhat comforted by his crying. Crying meant he was awake. My biggest fear during the journey was that he would pass out or start vomiting. These were signs of a severe concussion and would mean that I was in a dire situation.

We reached another fork in the trail and stayed left following the old service road. The mouth of the road was in bad condition. The previous week we had a storm come through Georgia that brought tornadoes and 7 inches of rain in one day. I stayed up until 3am that night waiting for the rain to quit pounding on the camper and the wind to stop howling outside. That storm had left the trail in bad shape. I took another second to consider if this was really the best option, but brushed my fears aside and pressed on down the ravaged service road.

A lack of any kind of traffic on the dirt road had left it covered in waist-high weeds where there weren’t 2 foot deep ruts in the trail washed out by the heavy rain. Being careful to watch for snakes, I charged down the road as fast as I could with the 40 pounds of extra weight on my back. The trail sloped gently downhill and straight to the Southeast towards home. I was grateful not to have to crash down the steep mountainside and wind through the valley.

After 10 minutes on the trail we rounded a corner and I found the road almost completely washed away by storm water running off the mountain. The trail was ordinarily about 8 feet wide with a sharp drop off to my left and a sheer cliff to my right. The water had all but completely washed a 6-8 foot section out and left just 2 feet of earth near the base of the cliff. The remaining earth was sunken and was potentially unstable. Junior was whimpering on my back and clearly in pain. To go back meant losing another 10 minutes or more going back up the trail, then another 30-45 minutes to go back down the way I came.

I took a deep breath and hung onto the roots protruding from the cliff as I edged across the rut.  The wash-out was not as bad as I feared and the ground was stable enough for us to pass.

Safely on the other side, I resumed my exhausted trot down the mountain using my phone camera periodically to check on Junior’s head. He seemed ok, but I couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to waste with unstrapping the pack to check on him every few minutes.

Looking at the map and judging by the direction of the trail our position in relation to Scruggs Knob, we were only a few minutes from the end of the trail where help would be waiting.  But as we turned another corner another obstacle appeared.

This time it was a downed tree.  Not a tall slim pine, no that would be too easy.  This tree had big, bushy limbs coming out every which way and was laying straight across the trail.  Going back was not an option so I had to fight through the brush and clamber over the tree trunk with the awkward load on my back – now feeling more like 100 lbs.

Being thoroughly unprepared for this surprise obstacle course that had now become my hike, I was absolutely exhausted and begging the universe to spare me any further mishaps or misfortunes.  Once again I took off running down the trail toward the road.

Finally, after a very stressful and strenuous 30 minute race down the mountain I reached the road to find Jessica waiting in her car.  I threw the dog in the back seat, unbuckled Junior from his backpack and hugged him tight all the way home.  The goose egg was now protruding significantly and I was pretty concerned about whether we should take him to the hospital.  

When we arrived I thanked Jessica and took Junior inside to clean him up and assess him further.

Pupils seem ok, doesn’t seem drowsy, no vomit on my back, he seems alert and like himself for the most part, albeit obviously in pain.  I think he might be ok.

I tried to apply ice but he wasn’t having it. He kept pointing to the fridge. So I sat him down and listed off the contents of the fridge while he shook his head at each one. Honestly, at that point, I’d have given him beer if that was what he wanted to make him feel better. I was desperate to take his pain away. Thankfully we got to the cheese before then and he grinned and nodded.

Within a 30 minutes of getting home he was sat happily in his camp chair eating a half pound of cheese and watching the gameshow channel. I was relieved to see him smile and begin saying “happy” with a cheesey (pun intended) grin on his face.

We kept him up for a little longer after bed time that night to make sure that he was ok before we put him down. Amazingly, our little soldier seems to be alright. He’ll be sporting one hell of a shiner for a couple of weeks but I think he’ll still be starting school on time.

Once again, a simple walk in the woods became far more eventful than planned. But we’ve lived to tell the tale and still managed a good day overall. I’ll definitely be packing some extra first aid gear -including ice packs – from now on though. If you ever go to Lookout Mountain in North Georgia, be sure to look for the rock with the dent in it left by my brave son’s head.

The boy is ok-ish.

#26: From a Nightmare Comes a Dream

I don’t know exactly how many days it’s been since the “lockdown” began as we’ve not had to change much about our lifestyle.  Remembering social distancing when I do come into contact with people was a little difficult at first, but now I’m so acutely aware of people and the possibility that each one is sick so it’s impossible to forget. 

Otherwise things are pretty good.  I’m most anxious about it in the mornings when I know I have to head up to the campground to clean the bathroom.  There are 3 bathrooms here: 2 at the main campground (RVs and tents) and one at the lower “walk-in” sites (tent camping with no power or water on site).  On one of my first days here we had a meeting with the other hosts, the manager and assistant manager.  We talked about how to handle the current pandemic as it pertains to park duties, and who would have what duties.

Jessica is the park manager.  She’s a petite woman with a big heart and a big sense of humor.  She instantly seemed to be easy going and down to earth.  I had been anxious about management at the new park; camp hosting with an almost 2 year old can be challenging and doesn’t lend itself to a park with strict scheduling expectations of hosts.  I was relieved when I found a manager that was genuinely understanding and sympathetic to, not just our specific situation, but each team member – employee and volunteer alike – and the difficulties of navigating the pandemic from our perspective.  It was relieving to find that she was aware of it and cares about it.

So when we had our first meeting to discuss concerns and come up with solutions. Jessica took a minute to express her fears and anxiety.  She talked about seeing body bags on the streets on the news in Africa and her voice began to break. She talked about her husband and her daughters and the fear that they may get sick.  Her sincere compassion and eagerness to be truly good at her job – both on paper and in practice – makes her a wonderful person to work for both now and under normal circumstances.

So I agreed to clean the bathrooms at the walk-in sites to help ease the burden placed on Jesse and Kaci, the other campground hosts.  They’re a couple in their early 40s from Missouri and they’ve been covering the whole park for the lat month or two on their own.  By cleaning one bathroom block Monday through Friday it eases their burden a little and makes me feel less guilty.  

They’re great people too.  We’ve had them over a couple of times to hang out.  There’s enough space down here where we can sit our chairs a good 8-10 feet apart and just chat.  They’re fun, easy to talk to, and we have a lot of similar interests.  It’s nice to socialize from a safe distance in person and be distracted from all this for a little while.  It’s only been a couple of weeks but I already feel like we’ve made some solid friends here.

Aside from hosting, life is pretty good.  The weather has been beautiful so, when it’s quiet during the week, I’ve been taking Junior and Devon on some little hikes around the park where the trails are quiet. On a busy weekday we might encounter another person, but we’re able to pass at a safe distance.

Black Rock Lake trail.

We’ve come to love the lake trail.  It’s a good way to kill an hour or two on a beautiful day when the sun is warm on my skin but the mountain breeze is crisp.  It’s beautiful and peaceful down there.  The short, flat trail is easy, but the budding forest floor and the increasingly active wildlife provides plenty to enjoy for all of us.  Junior gets a real kick out of the two ducks and now quacks to coax them out of hiding, exclaiming “DUCKY” and laughing maniacally when they appear.  

The ducks of the lake have become friends that we visit often.
Devon resting in the sun on Turtle Rock.
The dam where we had a memorable day.

The grassy dam on the West end of the lake is a great spot to stop and let Junior run around chasing Devon, quacking at the ducks, and throwing rocks in the lake.  Earlier this week Chris picked up some pizza and came and met us on the dam where we sat in the sun, ate our dinner, then fed the crusts to the ducks.  It’ll remain a warm and happy memory from a time of darkness in human history.  It made me feel very lucky.

Junior running off into the sunset to find mischief on the dam.
Feeding the ducks with Papa.

Earlier this week Junior and I hiked the Tennessee Rock trail.  This fairly short hike will remain a favorite of mine in North Georgia.  It’s a somewhat unique trail in that in it’s short (approximately) 3 miles it traverses a variety of landscapes; starting as a dirt trail scaling the steep mountainside, tracing the narrow, rocky ridge of the park’s highest peak for a half mile, then dipping back into the canopy, winding through mossy mountain springs surrounded by mountain laurels, and passing through a 10,000 year old Appalachian Boulder field.  

The rocky ridge of the upper part of the Tennessee Rock trail.
The soft green spring grass is a beautiful sign that spring is arriving.
A poor picture of the 10,000 year old boulder field. It was almost dinner time and Junior was in no mood to wait for a photo shoot.

The views from the summit are spectacular; looking out to the North across a lush, fertile valley and onwards to the 80 miles of peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina. While spring is a little slower to make an appearance up here at 3,500 feet, the wild violets and seas of emerald ferns flooding the forest floor are early signs of the mountain awakening after a long, grey winter.  

The view from Tennessee Rock, enhanced by the perfectly timed appearance of a little yellow butterfly reminding us it’s spring.
Junior looking less than impressed – but he actually had a great time.
The wild violets that hug that speckle the trail in purple.

After a few hikes I saw how abundant the wild violets are here.  Their vibrant pops of purple hug the banks of the lake, surround the campsites, and speckle the grassy hillsides.  I decided to harvest a few one afternoon with Junior and used them to make a batch of homemade wild violet jelly.  Junior loves being outside and is equally fanatical about trying to help (even when he does more damage than good most of the time).  So this was an activity that combined two of his greatest loves and, even though he spent most of the time bringing me rocks and sticks instead of flowers or laughing at Devon rolling in the grass, we all had a lot of fun.  The jelly came out great and tastes like sweet spring in a jar.

Our haul of wild violets. Don’t worry – they were harvested responsibly and plenty were left over for the bees.
The violets have to be soaked in boiling water then steep for 24 hours. The violet tea ends up a beautiful, deep, bluish-purple color.
The finished product; homemade Wild Violet Jelly.

We’ve all enjoyed having Chris around more.  Even though it carries financial implications for him to be home, it sure makes family life a lot better.  On days when Chris is gone, Junior often spends his time walking around calling out “Papa!” And patting his leg like he’s calling a dog.  Junior awoke from a nap in a cranky mood a few days ago and, despite pulling out all our usual tricks, we couldn’t get him to calm down from his tantrum.  So we went outside onto the grassy hill and Chris and I threw a ball back and forth until Junior’s tantrum ceased and he joined in, giggling uncontrollably every time he threw the ball down the hill to me.

Junior goofing off with Papa on the tractor.
More fun with the tractors.

We’ve used our newfound time productively too.  Making use of our sunny, private site, we’ve planted a small container garden.  Soon we’ll have tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, cilantro, and basil – all a few feet from our door.

Chris and I have also spent a little time (mostly Chris) on a few “camper-improvement” projects adding a little storage for Junior’s clothes and our shoes.  This has freed the cupboard under Junior’s bed up to become a toy cupboard, though he now uses it as a reading-cave.  Devon has also taken to laying in the 4 foot deep cupboard, and Junior practically dies laughing at this and repeatedly slams the door then opens it again to see if Devon is still there.  

While there are days where I feel like a ball of anxiety from all this chaos in the world right now, I’ve found some fun and productive ways to silence it for a while and tune it all out.  Though there are many things that make this time seem like a living nightmare, I find that when I turn the news off and focus on what’s right in front of me I am at peace.  It’s those moments that make me wish that life this way would never end.

Our sweet, goofy, happy boy.

#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.

#24: Here We Go Again

Our time at Vogel has come finally come to a close.  Leaving Vogel was full of mixed feelings.

The long, cold, wet winter had us dreaming of a change and looking forward to new adventures at Black Rock.  But in the last week or two the sun had begun to shine more, the flowers were beginning to bloom, the weather was getting warmer, and we were reminded of why we loved the place so much.  Winter has a way of dulling the shine of a beautiful landscape and, though the snow and frost provided a fresh perspective of the beautiful landscape some days, Vogel was not immune to harshness of a long, grey winter.  

Now that spring is upon us, we found ourselves a little saddened to leave our home of almost 6 months.  The staff at Vogel have become like family to us and made us feel so welcome.  There were even mornings where I couldn’t get Junior to get into the golf cart for our morning ride to the Visitor’s center until I said “wanna go see Miss Terri or Mikayla?”  At this he would grin, nod, and climb in eagerly.  We’ll miss our catch ups with the friendly maintenance crew and passing the time with them just shooting the breeze.  I’ll miss strapping Junior into the backpack carrier and taking long walks around the lake and through the many trails.  

Vogel in bloom.
Vogel in bloom.
The first wildflowers beginning to bloom at Vogel.

But all good things must come to an end, and though we are saddened to leave, we are also anxious to leave behind the throngs of city folks ignorantly endangering the area. We’re excited for what’s ahead.

Friday night we sat by the fire talking about our plans to leave the next day – a venture which has not exactly gone smoothly or to plan for us in the past.  Moving always brings a certain level of anxiety.  Will we forget anything?  Will we be able to time it all right with Junior’s schedule?  Will we forget to close something or do something to the camper before we leave that will result in disaster?

Don’t even get me started on the drive to Black Rock.  The narrow, winding, STEEP road up was enough to give me a panic attack on our last visit there a couple of weeks ago.  Luckily, we are staying at the maintenance unit, which is nearer to the bottom of the mountain.  This means we don’t even have to attempt about 60% of the hellacious drive up the mountain, a fact that makes it easier to remain calm about the move.

Saturday morning was moving day and, against all the odds and expectations of my husband, I managed to rise at 7:30am.  Neither of us are morning people.  In fact, our marriage is based on a firm understanding that we just shouldn’t communicate with each other before I’ve had coffee and Chris has had an energy drink.  Life is just better that way.  But on Saturday we managed a very not unpleasant morning with no arguments or stress.  We put Home Alone on for the kid and set about our duties – I packed up and cleaned inside while Chris packed up outside.

Miraculously, and again against the expectations of my dear husband, we pulled out of Vogel at 11:52am – bang on schedule.  It was just in time, too, as the hoards of vacationers who refuse to stay at home during the pandemic were pouring in by the dozens.  We said a quick goodbye to the rangers who were out directing traffic, and went on our way.

As mentioned in previous posts, when we travel we use two way radios.  Chris drives the Ram with the camper in tow, and I drive my old Chevy that Chris uses for a work truck with his small utility trailer in tow.  I led the way to warn of any obstructions, sharp curves, or steep grade ahead.

This all went remarkably well. It was a clear, sunny day with a gentle breeze but no strong cross winds. We chose our timing and route based on avoiding traffic and it went to plan. Until we got about 100 yards from our destination, that is.

The road to the maintenance complex at Black Rock is a mostly gravel road about 300 yards long.  Being ahead of Chris, I pulled into the complex first and breathed a sigh of relief and allowed the excitement of setting up at our new home to set in.  Then Chris, still coming up the road behind me, came over the radio, “I’m stuck.”

Shit. 

“Ok, I’m coming.  What’s up?”  I parked the truck, jumped out, and went running back down the road to assist him.  Radio silence.  “Talk to me, are you ok?”

“I’m sliding.”

Double shit.

The small loose gravel on the road, the steep gradient, and the 6,500 lbs trailer with a steep drop off to one side and a ditch on the other created a very bad situation.  I ran as fast as I could in crocs with no socks on, cussing my horrible choice of footwear (in general, but particularly for this undertaking).  I turned the corner to see the truck, wheels cocked to one side, slowly sliding back down the hill.  The road curved gently to the left behind Chris and gently to the right in front of him.  Sliding straight back with no control meant sliding straight off the side of the road into the 100 ft drop off.  

I dug deep to find the calmest voice I could and assessed the situation quickly.  

“Ok, just stop for a second.”  Sound advice, Rachael.

“My foot is on the brake, I’m sliding, I can’t stop, there’s no traction!”  

“Right.  Ok.”

Finally the sliding ceased for a moment and the truck and camper came to rest.  But ahead of the tires was several feet of deep, pea-sized gravel and there was no hope of gaining traction on it with that big of a load in tow.  So I told Chris he’d have to just give in to the slide a little and that a few feet behind his tires there was some more solid ground.  If he could get to that and bring the rig to a halt then he could try again to make a run up the hill.  I could see the frustration oozing out of him and he was trying not to panic.  He slid back another foot or two then tried again to no avail – the tires were spinning and he began sliding again, edging closer to the curve and drop-off behind him.

“Alright, I’m going to run back and guide you backwards.  Your only hope here is to go back about 10 feet and get behind these ruts.  Once you’re on solid ground you’re going to have to steer to the right and make another run up the hill.  You can do it if you stay to the right.”

Chris put his head in his hands.  Visibility from the drivers seat was minimal, so I was his only eyes and he had to not only trust me to guide him, but hope that when I said “stop” he could actually stop.

“Ok.” He sighed heavily.

I ran to the back of the camper and became abundantly aware of the fact that I was downhill from a large, heavy, out of control vehicle. I swallowed hard, did a quick survey of the area around me for a somewhat safe place to bail to in the event that the following maneuver went south, and gave Chris the OK to start coming backwards.

As soon as I did, the truck began sliding again.  I heard Chris’ voice come through the radio, “I’m sliding”, the anxiety was rising.  He had about 10 feet before he reached the edge of the road, and the edge of the mountain.

“It’s ok, you’re clear back here, just straighten the wheel and try your best to control it.”  More sound advice.

“I CAN’T CONTROL IT.  I CAN’T TURN THE WHEEL.  I’M STUCK.”  Right.  Of course.

8 feet now.

“OK, well your fine back here, plenty of room.”  That’s about the best I could muster for reassurance.  

6 feet.

“Yep, keep coming.”

4 feet.

Should I tell him to stop now in case we need a couple of feet to allow for more sliding?

2 feet.

“Ok stop!”

The truck stopped and didn’t slide. We both let out a little breath.  He now had a few feet of solid ground ahead of him which would hopefully allow him to gain the traction and speed he needed to get up the hill.

I ran ahead and reminded him to stay to the right, and gave him some more stellar words of encouragement and advice that he had clearly now come to depend upon.  He rolled his eyes, swallowed hard, I gave him a nod, and off he went.  The truck slowly began to pull forward, groaning and creaking under the weight of the camper.  As the tires hit the gravel they began to spin.

“Keep going, keep going!”

The tires tried desperately to gain traction on the loose ground, spinning then rolling forward, then slipping again.  Inch by inch Chris managed to gain enough ground to get over the treacherous gravel ruts and finally onto the solid ground and up the hill.  I cheered and began running up the hill after him, again cursing my crocs and lack of fitness.  

We finally pulled safely into the maintenance complex around 2pm and, with a few minutes of wiggling, got the camper set and leveled, and hugged each other tightly. We took a few minutes to celebrate and just breathe – both of which were well-deserved.

We looked around at our new home.  It was a modest site and significantly different from our site at Vogel.

The complex is about an acre in size with a chainlink fence wrapping all the way around.  There’s a large two-story metal warehouse building to the right, and a large open metal barn up the gentle, grassy slope to the left which houses tractors and other heavy machinery.  Behind the warehouse, near the fence line, is the 40x20ft gravel pad that we now call home.  While it may not be beautiful or picturesque, what our humble home base lacks in eye-candy, it makes up for in commodities and convenience.

The lack of neighbors is a beautiful thing.  With maintenance only working 3 days a week, there’s minimal interaction with other people at our new home unless we seek it out.  Furthermore, the fence provides security against runaway children or dogs, and extra security for our home when we leave.  The big bonus for me is the laundry facilities (no quarters required), full kitchen, and full bathroom just 10 feet from our camper inside the warehouse building for which we have access whenever we want.  This means free laundry with nor restrictions on when we can use it, and all the long, hot showers we can swing a cat at – a welcome break from the 7 minute military showers in the camper.

To top the list off, it has cable TV – something that we did pretty well without but are glad to have it back – is only a quick 5 minute drive into town, and is actually closer to the lake than the campground.  Plus, we’re only a short 3-4 minute drive up the mountain from the many trails and beautiful vistas from the top.

Numerous factors (which I will go into in greater detail in a later post) make this park much quieter than Vogel, so we hope to enjoy a somewhat easier time of managing the hosting duties.  It’s also located in the county that we hope to one day settle in, so it gives us a chance to explore it more closely – assuming that the pandemic issue will be somewhat under control by the end of June.

We are excited about our new set up.  Junior and Devon are perhaps the most excited.  With a grassy hill for them to play on and lay around on, both have found that there are major benefits to our new abode.  As for Chris and I, well we’re just glad we’re not retrieving all of our stuff from a smashed up camper at the bottom of a mountain. 

#21: I’m still alive

This winter has been the winter to which all future winters will be measured against. We have endured the flu, colds, sinus and ear infections, stomach bugs with some serious vomiting, a motorcycle accident, snow, then 70 degree sunshine, then torrential rain and flooding, tornado warnings, then more snow, and a dangerous lack of hiking and fireside time.

It’s been a rough go round, but we’ve survived this far and I’m fiercely clinging to the notion that spring time will bring brighter days.

We knew that putting Junior in daycare would result in exposure to more germs and thus lots of sick days, but this has been a real shock to the system from a kid who never had so much as a runny nose for the first 12 months of his life. But he has been a real trooper through it all and I’m delighted to say that he’s faced it all with a cheeky smile and an undying love for his dog whom he snuggles with daily.

Chris gave it a good old college try at scaring me half to death a couple of weeks ago. Junior went down for a nap one afternoon and Chris decided it was a good time to go for a ride on his motorcycle. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly gave him a goodbye kiss. Not 20 mins later I got the call that I dread receiving every time he goes riding. But it wasn’t quite how I’d played it in my head 100 times before.

“Hey, what’s our permanent address?”

“Why?”

“Just give me the address!”

Oh god, he’s been pulled over for speeding. I’m gonna kill him. How many bloody times have I told him to be bloody careful on that bloody…

“Ok, I need you to come and pick me up, I’ve had an accident.”

I believe my heart may have actually stopped had he not been on the phone and talking to me. This one fact is about all that kept me together as I woke the baby from his nap, strapped him into his car seat, and tried to keep my hands from shaking as I drove down the mountain anxious to see what condition my husband was actually in.

As it turns out, Chris was downtown (thankfully) when the accident happened. An old man failed to look before pulling out right in front of Chris. With no time to react he slammed right into the side of the car and flipped over it. His hips and groin slammed into the handlebars and seem to have taken the brunt of the blow. Miraculously, however, he suffered relatively minor injuries compared to the many scenarios that had played in my mind before. Though badly bruised and barely able to walk, he suffered no broken bones and I cannot overstate how thankful I am that my husband came home that day.

Chris being Chris, he immediately started talking about getting another bike that night. We very rarely argue at all nowadays, but I sure felt one boiling up with that statement. Sure, I have compassion and empathy for the loss of his hobby and I understand that everyone needs a little escapism now and then. But it’s time to get a new hobby.

Despite emotions being high, we managed a calm and open discussion on the issue. We arrived at the compromise that Chris would use the insurance money to get a boat. This way he would have his “toy” to go and have some Papa time with, but this toy wouldn’t cause me extreme anxiety every time he wanted to use it. Though Chris is still grieving the loss of his dear machine (that we got married on), it’s a compromise that we both feel pretty good about. And I promised him that one day there would be a day, when Junior is much older, where I would definitely be on board with getting another motorcycle or two.

So all this to say: winter 2019/2020 has been a bugger. But we are all still here and all still together, so life isn’t so bad. The last couple of months have been very trying and admittedly has caused, at times, some resentment for living this lifestyle. But with spring around the corner and a new adventure at Black Rock Mountain on the horizon, I’m desperately hoping it’ll bring a renewed appreciation for our lifestyle.

Until then, here are a few snaps that I’ve managed to take on the odd days where I’ve felt somewhat human and been able to drag myself outside for some gentle hiking therapy.

Clouds rolling through Vogel at Lake Trahlyta.
Sunset over Lake Trahlyta
Foggy morning at Lake Trahlyta.
The same foggy morning at Lake Trahlyta.
If your eyes are open to it, there is beauty to be found even in the dreariest of times.
Lake Trahlyta.

#15: Camping with Cousins

This weekend we had a much needed visit with family.  Chris’ cousin, Caitlyn, her husband, Justin, and their two young children came to visit.  It was a relatively last-minute thing, and it turned out rather well.  There was a break in the rain and cold weather which afforded a brilliant opportunity for them to bring their kids, aged 2 and 5, camping for the first time.

They drove down from their home in Nashville, TN and arrived late in the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids were, as all kids are, immediately struck by excitement upon exiting the car.  They scurried around the campsite helping their Mom and Dad to find a good place to pitch the tent and inspecting our set up.

After we exchanged hello hugs and had the customary exchange about how the drive was, they quickly set about unloading the car and getting the tent erected before the sun disappeared over Blood Mountain.  Chris tried his best to spook the kids with stories of bears and coyotes that come sniffing around in the dead of night, but I think he only succeeded in spooking Caitlyn and Justin a little.  

With relative ease and only one minor error with the rain fly, the tent was erected and we were all ready for the best of camping – campfire sitting.  I had laid a fire that afternoon in preparation for their arrival so with a quick flick of a lighter we were in business.  The kids were pretty taken with fire, but Jay (the 2 year old) was particularly entranced by it.  Once he discovered the sheer delight of putting a stick in the coals until it was alight then waving it around he was in hog heaven.  Of course this set off a chain of events leading to some increased parental supervision and some lessons on the dangers of campfires, but the kid needed no further entertainment for the night – he was set.

Annabelle is their older child.  She’s incredibly sweet and dangerously intelligent with a thirst for knowledge that makes her an utter joy to hang out with.  Several times throughout the night she came and climbed into my camp chair with me for a snuggle and said “let’s talk”.  Then she proceeded to ask questions.  ALL the questions.  

“Why does water put fire out?”

“Why do trees grow taller than people?”

“What are stars?”

“What are those dark spots in the moon?”

“How long does it take for the light from the stars to reach here?”

“What is consciousness?”

That last one was a tough one.  But she’s a smart cookie and was able to not just sit and listen to my responses, but actually understand them and explain it back to me when I asked.  It was really fun to spend some time with her and see her learning about the world from a different perspective.  It made me excited for when Junior reaches that age where he will be full of questions big and small, and hopefully many of them about wildlife, the woods, and the world.

Unfortunately we had some trouble getting Junior to stay down that night (probably too excited about his cousins visiting) and so Chris and I had to keep taking turns trying to get him back to sleep.  But we were able to spend some time by the fire chatting and catching up.  I truly believe there is no better way to spend time with people than relaxing around a campfire.  It was nice for us to have some family around to share our new life with, where conversation comes easily because we have common interests and outlooks, and it was an adventure for everyone.

The next morning the campers piled into Old Patsy to defrost after a rather chilly night in the tent.  The kids went pretty much straight to playing and exploring and Junior was particularly tickled at having another little boy to play with.  It was nice to sit back and watch them with the hope that it’s the start of a lifelong friendship and that there will be years of getting into mischief together ahead of them.  

After everyone was suitably thawed out and fueled up, the campers set out for a hike around the lake while Chris and I plonked Junior in his stroller to set about cleaning the bathrooms.

Their hike went well without only a minor incident involving Jay’s shoe being launched into the water (boys will be boys).  So after they returned we got the fire going again to get Jay’s shoes dried out.  Caitlyn and Justin also brought a slack line – something Chris and I had never tried before – and set it up between two trees at the back of the campsite.  We each took turns attempting to find our balance on the narrow, taught strap – something that wasn’t very easy after a night of a little too much wine and beer – but it gave us all a good laugh.

The younger boys found great fun in picking up sticks, poking at the fire, and using a small multi-tool shovel to dig in the dirt.  Junior seemed to be rather intrigued by his cousin and spent some time following and mimicking him in an adorable attempt to try and communicate with him.  Annabelle pottered around the campsite and tried her hand at the slack line which put us all to shame.

Then Caitlyn showed Annabelle how you bust open rocks with a hammer and find geodes and pretty crystals inside.  So they had a great time smashing up some rocks and inspecting them closely.

As the afternoon drove on though, it was getting late and time to pack up and head out.  The kids were thoroughly exhausted and set to nap the whole way home with sweet dreams of campfires, waterfalls, and mountain trails winding through their heads.  

It was wonderful for the kids to spend some time together.  Living so far away from all our family means that we don’t often get to hang out together – so we don’t take these opportunities for granted and are grateful that Junior is able to form bonds, and eventually memories, with his cousins.

As for us, we had a blast running around with the kids and are so grateful to be a part of their first camping experience.  We hope it’s given them a thirst for it and that they will nag their parents endlessly to come back to the woods for a weekend soon.

We were also grateful to spend some time with Caitlyn and Justin.  A downfall of this lifestyle is that it does take some determination from family to have them come and stay.  We don’t have a big spare room that they can stay in and, though the couch and dinette fold into beds, it’s tricky with a 1 year old sleeping 3 feet away from 7pm to 7am.  So it requires visitors to either be willing to camp, or spend the money on a cottage.  This makes it logistically tough for anyone to visit us, so we’re very grateful for the company when we can get it.  But the flip side of this is that when a trip like this happens it’s nice to have the kids outside all day, learning, getting fresh air and exercise, and being stimulated without the need for screens.

We’ve made tentative plans for a return trip in the spring before we leave Vogel, and hopefully we can get someone here to take all 3 kids for a night so we can all do the 13 mile Coosa backcountry trail and do some REAL camping along the way.  So that gives us something to look forward to.

Overall we had a great weekend with family; the kids got to make some memories together and hopefully thoroughly caught the itch to camp; we had a great night catching up with some quality time around the fire; and we got a taste for what it’ll be like when Junior is a little older and all the fun things we can do with him.  But time flies when you’re having fun – and it did just that.  So we hope it won’t be too long until they come back for more fun by the campfire.

#14: The Courteous Camper

Anyone who has done the grunt work – whether it be washing dishes in a restaurant, making the coffee in an office, or doing the housework at home – you know that it is all too often the most under-appreciated work.  There’s little to no reward and it sucks.  It’s usually unpleasant and almost always taken for granted by everyone around you.  Worst of all, it’s often only noticed when you don’t do that work.

But much to my surprise I have found that the work I do here at the park – at least at Vogel – doesn’t always go unnoticed.  In fact I’ve been rather delighted to regularly receive anything from a brief “thanks” in passing as I’m lugging a mop bucket around, down to a heartfelt “thank you” for my hard work and a lengthy praising at how clean and wonderful the park is.  

On my last rotation I was lucky enough to receive 3 heartfelt thank yous from campers as I was hard at work scrubbing bathrooms while simultaneously singing sea shanties to Junior who was growing impatient in his stroller.  

The first was a middle aged woman looking to use the bathroom block that I was cleaning.  She courteously asked which of the 4 bathrooms was best for her to use to avoid walking all over my freshly mopped floor.  I think I visibly sighed with relief as she asked me this, for I had twice re-mopped floors that morning after ignorant campers had walked straight past the “wet floor” signs and muddied my pristine floors.  I told her that there should be one almost dry on the other side that she could use.  She told me that she was happy to wait for it to dry, then proceeded to thank me for working so hard to keep the bathrooms clean.  “It’s really wonderful to have such nice bathrooms to use, we sure appreciate the work you do.”

The next was a middle-aged man tending to his tent pitched on a site near the bathrooms I was cleaning.  He stopped me just to say thank you for volunteering and doing what I do.  He said it was “refreshing” to see someone as young as myself getting my hands dirty for free (figuratively speaking, that is – I do wear gloves).  He seemed to really mean it though, not just an off-hand “thanks” but more of a “hey, THANK YOU”.

The third was a woman who had just gotten out of the shower and was headed back to her camp when she noticed me and said “thank you for keeping the bathrooms so clean, I just had my first enjoyable shower in a campground and didn’t feel disgusted by the bathrooms at all.”  Anyone who has had the displeasure of using campground bathrooms knows what she meant by it.

It’s a really nice feeling to be appreciated, even for such menial work.  It irks me sometimes to know that I worked my butt off for a law degree and fought hard for years, giving so much of myself to the cause of justice – long hours, evenings and weekends, not to mention the emotional toll – just to now be slinging a mop and cleaning poo off of toilet seats.  To say that this work is as fulfilling as capital defense would be a lie, but I’m also at a point in life where I need to do what is best for my family.  So if peeling used sanitary pads off of walls and digging out ash pits will give my family a better life and my son a better start then I’m game.  Sure I miss a good courtroom brawl now and then and occasionally I’ll sneak a peek at court dockets to see how my old cases are doing, but I’m glad to be where I am in life right now.

Occasionally there are days where I mutter about those darn kids that throw toilet paper on the floor and day dream about days where I used to put on a suit and got to use my creative intellect to solve a problem that could actually save someone’s life as I hose down some lad’s ill-fated attempt to reach the urinal from 10 feet back.  And who wouldn’t resent the work they do when it involves scrubbing shit stains off the underside of the front of a toilet seat – because HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN??  Seriously, if you are pooping on the UNDERSIDE of the FRONT of the toilet seat then you need to revisit toilet training 101 and have a SERIOUS talk with your mother about why on earth she skipped the part out where she teaches you to poop IN the toilet.

But I digress.

My point here is that we should all take a minute to appreciate the grunt workers.  I have to admit, even as someone who does such work, I am particularly bad about this.  In the last couple of months it has occurred to me that I am one of those people that almost never even acknowledges the cleaners, the janitors, the custodians, the “little people” whose work I benefit from but rarely say thank you.  Paid or unpaid, these people weren’t born thinking “when I grow up I want to clean up other people’s trash for minimum wage or less”.  Some may be trying to work their way up, some may have disabilities or personal circumstances that leave them with limited employment options, some may be former-lawyers who are doing this work for the betterment of their family life.  

So the next time you use a public restroom or a go to a park: pick up your litter, leave the bathroom as clean or cleaner than you found it, treat the facilities with respect. And if you encounter the poor soul charged with the arduous task of maintaining the facilities then take a second to thank them and squeeze out a smile – it won’t kill you, and it’ll probably make their day.  And for god’s sake, try to aim INTO the toilet.

#13: Snow Day

Last night as we were getting into bed I did the mandatory weather app check.  

“There’s a 30% chance of snow at 7am.”  I said excitedly.

“Ah, that won’t amount to anything.” Chris said dismissively.

Though I knew he was probably right, the optimist in me wanted to believe it so I gave Chris strict instructions in the event of snow.

“If you wake up in the morning for work and you look outside and there’s snow I want you to come in here, jump on the bed and shout “SNOW DAY, SNOW DAY” over and over.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a sarcastic “ok” before giving me a kiss goodnight.

I awoke in the morning to the sound of Chris’ alarm, which seems to more be my alarm to wake Chris up.  I gave him a loving kick and mumbled something about getting up.  I heard him shuffling around and drifted back to sleep as he drearily went about his morning routine.  

“Babe.”  

I was drifting in and out of my dreams.  I could hear Chris’ voice pulling me out of my dream and into reality.  I snuggled into my pillow tighter, trying to fight my way back into my dream.

“Babe, it’s snowing.”

“You’re a liar.  Go away.”  Yes, I am very pleasant in the morning.

“Ok, but it’s snowing and everything is white.”  The realist in me knew he was probably just messing with me but the optimist in me, who is apparently a 5 year old child on Christmas morning, sent a surge of excitement through me and willed my heavy head to lift from the pillow and peek outside.

SNOW!!

It wasn’t a dream, my husband was not the liar I had accused him of being, it really was snowing!  I jumped up and made my way around the camper opening blinds and taking in the beautiful wintery scenes from every window.  It was only a light dusting but it was the first snow of the season, and of Junior’s life.  I considered the fun of bundling the boy up and seeing his face as we stepped out into the strange new powdery world.  I was giddy as I began making coffee and cereal.  

Junior was still sleeping soundly and, against my better judgement I began being louder and louder as I went about my work to try and get him to stir.  But alas, he sleeps like his mother – dead to the world – and didn’t care that I had now opened the curtain on his bunk, turned the radio on, and turned the lights on.  I climbed in his bunk and gently called his name.  He smiled but never opened his eyes.  Finally I began gently tickling him and he began laughing before he finally opened his eyes.  

As I brought him to the window, he stood staring with a perplexed look on his face.  He smiled and pointed then looked at me, wonder in his eyes.  It was now time to power through breakfast, get dressed, and get out into the snow.  

As Chris left that morning I asked him if it was wise to try and get to work in this weather.  The roads have not been salted yet and the forecast suggested that the temperature wouldn’t get above freezing all day.  This coupled with the fact that, to get to work, Chris had to go up the mountain before going back down the other side concerned me.  Those icy winding roads flashed through my head and I asked him once more to stay home.  But he shrugged it off, kissed me goodbye, and headed to work.  

As I fed Junior his cereal he kept his eyes on the window and the flurries that whirled in the wind outside.  It brought back a fond memory I have from my childhood.  I remember waking early one winter morning at our home on Vancouver Island in Canada to my Mom gently waking me.  As I rubbed my eyes, confused as to what was happening, she whispered that it was snowing and I ran to the window to see.  I remember how magical our front yard looked with a white blanket of snow and the snowflakes silently drifting through the calm air.  Though Junior won’t remember his first snow, it still makes me smile that maybe he has the same sense of wonder as he looks at the snow outside.

Just then, the door opened and Chris stepped in.  Apparently after a few minutes of trying to get to work he had decided that it was in fact not sensible to attempt to go up the mountain in this weather.  It was official – this was our first official snow day and we were snowed in.

After breakfast we all bundled up tightly, pulled on our boots, and headed out to explore the wintery scenes.  Junior giggled with delight as Devon sprinted around happily through the snow and the leaves.  Junior shrieked with delight and trudged through the snow and leaves after Devon.  

Junior in his snow gear.

We wandered down to the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the ladies that work there and grab some hot chocolate and coffee to warm up.  Refueled, we set out to walk around the lake to get some pictures of the mountains.  Though it wasn’t a heavy snow by any means, it was still a pretty scene with a light dusting and a gentle mist drifting through the peaks.  

A very light dusting on the Wolf Creek bridge roof.
Snow dusted peaks over Lake Trahlyta.
Snow dusted Blood Mountain.

But about halfway round the cold wind really started whipping and Junior still hasn’t mastered the art of gloves. To him they are a cruel torture device that hinder his ability to grab, pick up, and explore with his favorite tools. His refusal to wear them, however, means that his hands quickly went numb and bright red, which led to tears and cries for warmth, so we rushed home to defrost with snuggles on the couch.

It’s now 11:30am and the snow is still coming down hard and fast.  It’s not quite cold enough for it to settle on the ground properly but it’s enough to get me excited about the season.  I’m a sucker for egg nog, Christmas music, Christmas lights, hot apple cider, mulled wine, and snowy scenes that make everything look like a Christmas card.

We hope that this is a taste of things to come and that soon enough Junior will be throwing snowballs and building a snowman.  We are both really looking forward to the lake icing over, the snow capped peaks, the snow angels, the snow men, and all those wonderful things that winter in the mountains brings.  We’re grateful for the lifestyle that we chose that allows us to spend a winter in the mountains and a summer by the lake.  Today though, I’m most grateful for a snow day.