#34: Cave Crawling Campers

After setting off from Tennessee we had a 4.5 hour drive to our next destination; Rickwood Caverns State Park in Alabama.  We had booked 2 nights here to break up the journey.  Our original plan was to leave a few days sooner and to break the journey up into 3 legs, staying at 2 different parks along the way.  But, such is life, our plans got changed and this was the only park I could find reservations at.  

Obligatory state line sign photo.

As it happens, it was a wonderful turn of events.  The park’s main attraction is the 260 million year old cave system below ground which stays a cool 58-62 degrees year round.  This made for the perfect place to escape the southern mid-summer heat for an hour or so in the afternoon.

When we arrived, we were delighted to find that the small park boasted numerous fantastic facilities that were all within short walking distance of each other.  The campsite consisted of a mere 12 RV sites (tiny compared to the ~110 sites at Vogel and the 48 sites at Black Rock).  About 100 yards or less from our campsite was the outdoor pool complete with a vortex slide, a diving board, and a high dive as well as a kiddie pool.  Between us and the pool was a grassy stretch with a few tall pines and scattered mossy boulders which our camper opened out onto – the perfect place for Junior to run around and stretch his legs.

The view from our camp/Junior’s yard for a couple days.

The campsite was only half full on arrival and there was an empty site between us and our neighbors, so we got to enjoy a little privacy throughout our stay. Between the lower temperatures and the shade of the trees we were overjoyed to finally have some relief from the heat. That evening we sat outside and soaked in the cool breeze for a while before turning in early for a big day of adventure.

The next morning I rose early for a run with Devon.  This time, he couldn’t be happier to see me pick up his leash and he leaped joyfully from the camper with little persuasion.  We set off for a gentle jog on the gravel “fitness trail” which wound through the campsite, behind the pool, and connected to the grassy “picnic trail”; a 1 mile fairly flat trail through the woods.  It was peaceful and quiet, the morning sun shone through the leaves and the cool forest air was energizing.

We returned around 7am for breakfast and coffee.  Junior and Chris were still sleeping so I took the opportunity to sip my coffee outside with my book while it was still quiet.  Before long, however, I heard the call of an excited Junior sitting on the edge of his bunk raising his customary morning summoning; “Mama! Papa! UP!”

After breakfast we set out on a 2 mile hike on the “Fossil Mountain” trail.  It certainly lived up to its name; the landscape was rugged and rocky, with little caveats in the rock in places that looked like small cave entrances.  The rocks featured so many fossils and interesting formations.  The purples and yellows of wild woodland flowers brought some color to the grey landscape, and the tall, mature trees provided some nice shade for our hike.

Upon our return we suited Junior up and headed to the pool for a morning swim.  He had a blast splashing around and watching the kids from our neighboring campsite jumping and diving into the pool.  I took Junior down the vortex slide which, retrospectively, was probably a poor parenting decision but it taught him a valuable lesson on holding his breath in the water.

Suitably refreshed and worn out, we headed back to the camper for some lunch and Junior went down for a nap.  He woke around 1:45pm – just in time for our 2:00pm cave tour.  This was the highlight we had been looking forward to.

The cave was spectacular.  It was originally discovered by a hunter and his dog in the mid 1800s, but lay rather forgotten until the 1950s when the boy scouts rediscovered it.  In the mid-late 1950s the cave was used as a nuclear fallout shelter, and many cool artifacts such as gas masks and other paraphernalia had been discovered and were on display in the small museum on site.

A block building was built over the entrance to the cave which housed a staircase descending into the cave.  At its deepest, these caverns lie 175 ft beneath the earth which is why the temperature is so mild.  

The cave consisted of many “rooms” filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The texture of the rock and the space in each room varied. Some of the rooms were smaller with a low ceiling but were 10- feet across in places, others were narrow with stalactites hanging 23-30 feet above and Chris had to squeeze and squat to get through some of the passages with the baby carrier on his back.

Some of the rock was smooth and seemed to flow like water throughout the cave, as if holding the memory of the ocean that carved it. Some of the rock was covered in tiny holes and was volcanic in its appearance. In places the walls glittered in the glow from the golden light of the bulbs strung along the cave walls, in others the light passed through the thin stalactites and natural bridges revealing streaks of red and brown earning it the nickname “the bacon”. Various tunnels spun off from the main cave in which the rock seemed to spiral into the abyss of the black hole. Many of the rooms had dark passages of various shapes and sizes leading away in different directions that crept away menacingly.

The scent of the rich earthen floor and damp limestone was both pleasant and dank.  The cavern was lit by small bulbs placed throughout and our guide turned the lights out when we were at the deepest room in the cave so we could experience total darkness.  A cave is one of only 3 places on earth where one can experience absolute total darkness.  As the lights went out Junior had a moment of wondering what was going on, but I gave his hand a squeeze and spoke calmly to him which relaxed him a little until the lights came back on.

Junior has had a fascination with rocks for some time now, so he spent much of the tour exclaiming “wow, rocks!”  We got to peek into the disused fallout shelter too.  The latter part of the tour took us into the rooms where the stalactites and stalagmites were still growing.  The room was damp and drippy which gave the cave a more eerie vibe. 

Towards the end was part of the underground lake.  On a recent investigative expedition divers found schools of albino fish living deep within the crystal clear blue waters of the icy lake.  

After an hour on the tour we reached the final ascent; a steep, narrow staircase winding up through the rock to the surface.  I took over with the baby carrier for this part and squatted and wiggled my way up the through the tight passageway, my legs burning from the extra 40lbs of baby and gear on my back. Satisfied with our daily dose of education we headed back to the pool for to cool off in the afternoon heat.

As the sun began to dip lower in the sky we dragged our enervated bodies back to the camper for some dinner.  By the end of bath time I was falling asleep on the couch.  Chris woke me to sing my goodnight songs to Junior before bed, at which point Chris was falling asleep.  In fact, the only one who didn’t seem thoroughly spent from our full day of activities was Junior, who only wanted to bounce on the couch and play.

When Junior was finally down for the night, we collapsed in our chairs outside and remarked on what a great day it was and how exhausted we both were.  It was a great mini-vacation and will be one to remember for a long time.  Dreary-eyed, we stumbled to bed at the rock-star time of 8:30pm for a full night’s sleep ready for our adventure back to the top of Black Rock Mountain the next day.

#23: A Plea for Action

The world has watched as, over the last few weeks, the outbreak of COVID-19 has grown to become a global pandemic.  For many like us, these are uncertain times that spark significant fear over what may be to come over the coming weeks.

We’ve all seen the warnings: wash your hands, distance yourself socially, stay home from work, schools and daycares are closed, and avoid all unnecessary travel.  For those who are adhering to those guidelines – I applaud you.  But unfortunately I’m not seeing that.

Here at Vogel State Park I watch everyday as more and more spring breakers pour into the campground.  I watch as children swarm the playground.  I watch as people line up outside the bath houses in the mornings.  I watch as people pour into the visitors center to check in, get maps, and buy firewood and souvenirs.  I am seeing car tags from Florida (by the dozens), Tennessee, North and South Carolina, nearby Georgia counties, and even from Wisconsin.  

I spoke to a camper this morning (from a safe distance) who said that they had planned to go to Disneyland for spring break but when Disneyland closed they decided to come here instead.

I think there is something that these people are fundamentally overlooking or ignoring.

Disneyland and other places are closing because we, as a country, need people to stay home right now.  That doesn’t mean that you should change your plans and find some other place to crowd.  It means that, if you have a home to stay at, then stay home.

For us, these crowds are extremely troubling.  We have no sticks and bricks home to go to.  We live in our camper – a <200 sq ft space in which we depend on campground hosting to have somewhere to stay.  To ensure our placement I must fulfill my daily hosting duties which includes cleaning the bathrooms that hundreds of campers are using daily.  I cannot opt out of this or we will lose our placement at this park and will have no other place to go.  Furthermore, with daycare closed, I am now required to do this with my 18 month old son with me full-time.

Sure, we are young and healthy and will likely overcome the illness should we contract it.  But if we do, in fact, contract COVID-19 we will be forced to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  I think (or I hope) it’s probable that the staff at the campground will be compassionate and allow us to stay during that time, if it should come to that.  But my husband is self-employed and if he doesn’t work then we have 0 income.  With little savings, a 2 week self-quarantine would leave us in significant financial turmoil.  We’re already facing significant financial turmoil as the markets continue to plummet and unemployment continues to rise as it is likely that, over the coming weeks, Chris’ customers will begin to cancel the home-improvement projects for which they had him scheduled.  So a 2 week quarantine would seriously diminish our chances of getting ahead of any future dry periods of work.

Aside from us, I worry about the other folks here at that park that are being placed at risk by the influx of spring breakers.  Most of the women in the visitor’s center are over 50 or 60 years old.  The other campground hosts here, and for the vast majority of state parks, are over 60 years old and therefore in the high-risk group.  The park cannot operate without us; as volunteers we are the only people responsible for maintaining the campground facilities and if we all decided to leave then it would place a massive burden on the park staff who have become like our family.

I understand that, particularly for families with young children, canceling spring break plans can be devastating. But I am urging people to consider the wider consequences of their actions. Overnight I watched the number of confirmed cases in Georgia jump from 197 to 287 and the death toll leap from 3 to 10; numbers which continue to grow by greater margins daily. I have watched the local stores empty of ALL toilet paper, canned goods, bread, meat, cleaning supplies, and now fresh produce.

I am NOT suggesting that this is a time to panic.  The stores will refill and officials are working to mitigate the effects of the shut downs on citizens.  There is simply no need to panic right now.

There is, however, a need to very strongly and carefully consider the impact that your actions will have on EVERYONE around you when you make the decision to leave your home.  Now is not a time to go on vacation, now is the time to collectively sacrifice for the most vulnerable in our society; the elderly, the immunocompromised, the low-income, and the self employed.  You may think that this is no big deal and that this will blow over – but that’s likely because you have little to lose in this situation.  For folks like us, there is so much at stake and we are surrounded by uncertainty.

So, while it may suck to have to abandon your spring break plans or let those cheap flight and hotel prices pass you by, please help your fellow humans who are dependent upon your responsible decision-making during such turbulent times.  By all means, get out and take a hike on a trail, or explore the great outdoors, but only if this can be done without visiting public areas where the risk of the spread of the virus is high.

We will all pull through this and one day look back on it and be glad that it’s over.  For now, though, let’s do what we can to help each other out.

Please share and encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to abandon all unessential travel plans.  Thanks!