#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. 

#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!

#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.

#17: One for the Family Album

I wrote out an entire post about how we had the Christmas tree lighting event at the park, hiked up to Preachers Rock as a family, and checked out a nearby diamond in the rough. But I realized, upon proof reading it, that the events were best told in photos. So enjoy.

Around 200 people gathered at Vogel on Saturday for the annual Christmas Tree lighting event. It all went down at the ball field, less than 100 yards from our campsite which was wonderfully convenient.
Various tents gave away free baked treats, hot chocolates, and crafts for the kids.
Santa made an appearance. Assistant Park Manager Mikayla was much happier to visit with him than Junior was.
Live local music.
Junior had a blast puddle stomping.
The 30ft Christmas tree after the big lighting.
Junior stole the show with his adorably uncoordinated dancing and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
Sunday afternoon we took a hike up to Preachers Rock – it was much more fun as a family. Junior was quite mesmerized by the view and Chris was delighted that I insisted he ride his motorcycle to take advantage of the 20 miles of twisting and curving mountain roads.
Father and son against the world. Insert appropriate Lion King quote here.
Chris had a rare early day on Monday so we took the afternoon to explore a little spot up the road from us that we’ve been wanting to check out for weeks. Helton Creek Falls is a mile up the main road then 2 miles down a gravel road. It’s definitely a diamond in the rough.
It’s a beautiful spot that strikes a perfect balance between rugged wilderness and accessibility thanks to some minor man-made adaptations.
At the bottom of the first set of falls (a little over 30 feet). The swimming hole here looks like the perfect place to cool off in those scorching summer months.
The upper falls – about 60ft high. Also looks very inviting for summer swims.
We even found a Junior-sized waterfall (yes he got soaked but he had a BLAST).
We finished off the weekend with a great meal at Brother’s restaurant in Young Harris, GA.
Junior couldn’t believe they didn’t have breast milk on the menu. He wanted to complain to the manager but we convinced him to just go for grilled cheese and mashed potato instead.
Sharing his dinner with Papa. Great family weekend.

#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.

#12: Zen and the Art of RV Maintenance

“Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

Life in an RV is very different to conventional living.  There are adjustments to be made in both the physical day-to-day living, but also in terms of one’s mentality.  Some differences are obvious and readily identifiable by merely looking at any rig.  Others are more subtle and take careful research and consideration to avoid costly mishaps.

Campers are, undeniably, small and cramped. Therefore a drastic reduction in one’s things is absolutely essential to make such a venture as ours successful. We spent about 3 months painstakingly sorting through each and every single item we owned from every drawer, closet, and cupboard. We sold, gave away and threw away more than 2/3 of everything we owned. The rest was either put in our camper or put in our 10×15 ft storage unit in Clarkesville, GA.

Even with all that hard work, we still would have appreciated another month or so to go through everything thoroughly as we were somewhat rushed when it came to crunch time and therefore our storage unit looks like a small third-world country after a natural disaster.  My number one tip to anyone considering simplifying their life would be give yourself time and start ASAP, it will take a lot longer than you think.

We did carefully consider every item that we brought into the camper, but even so, we have ended up with clutter and mess everywhere you look (hence no pictures of the inside of our camper as yet).  I have organized and reorganized but the trouble with campers is that they are not really designed to live in, but merely to vacation in.  Therefore it requires a fair amount of reworking and adapting your space before you move in to maximize your use of it.

In our old camper we had time to do this before we moved in. We had about an hour to move everything we owned from Old Jessie into Patsy, so as you can imagine it was a bloody headache to get it all straightened out when we got back to where we were staying.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There is no other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

Living in a camper also requires an adaptation of your mindset.  By choosing this lifestyle you are also choosing to live without many modern conveniences that you may have grown to love, or even depend upon.  The biggest conveniences that I miss are a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  

In the first few months of our marriage, we were very nearly torn apart by a lack of a dishwasher.  About 3 months in I put my foot down and bought one.  We laugh about it now but the struggle, at the time, was very real and arguments about dishes came close to ending our marriage in the early days.  I therefore had a great deal of trepidation about electing to subject myself to living in close quarters without such a vital lifeline for our marriage.  As it turns out, however, we have grown significantly since then.  That coupled with the fact that I don’t work full-time anymore so have more time to actually do the dishes, means that there is only mild name calling and only rare death-threats related to someone not doing the dishes.  

Another consideration when moving into a camper is the bathroom.  This is an important one to some and should not be glossed over in the decision-making process, both with choosing this lifestyle and with choosing a rig.  Bathrooms are TIGHT spaces in rigs.  They are, by no means, luxury spaces and are designed to simply allow you to take care of your basic personal hygiene.  Women: if you can’t live without 3 bags of make-up, 4 different hair styling appliances, and 18 cans and bottles of lotions and potions then this life is NOT for you.  I did have a large collection of such things prior to taking the plunge but I really only had them because we had the space for them (sort of) and I rarely used most of it anymore, so it wasn’t hard to part with the vast majority of it.  

Even so, the bathroom is tiny and there is not a lot of room for drying off after a shower or getting dressed.  We did, however, elect for a camper with a small tub.  This tub would be entirely impractical for either of us unless we felt like sitting in 10 inches of water with our knees pulled up to our ears.  But for our 1 year old who LOVES bath time – it’s perfect.  For long, hot showers on those frigid winter days however – don’t count on it.  The hot water lasts about 10 minutes in the shower; long enough to do what you need to do, but not for a good soak in scalding water like I love to do.  If you’re really hankering for a long, hot shower, then there are bathhouses at each park.  But, depending on the park, you may have to put up with poor drainage leaving you standing in a lake of your own and other campers’ filth, or generally old and unclean bathrooms.  The bathrooms here at Vogel are rather nice and so occasionally we will pop in there for a long, hot shower.

Water is an RVer’s number one enemy.  Living in a camper is a constant battle against moisture.  Roofs on RVs require regular inspection and maintenance to prevent the seals going bad on the rubber membrane, pipes and hoses are subject to regular inspection, and winter months in particular bring the need for constant diligence.  We check the weather daily and monitor for incoming or potential freezes.  When it even comes close to freezing at night we fill our fresh water tank and disconnect our city water connection to avoid a burst hose.  We also make sure to turn our space heater off or down (which we use in above-freezing temperature to save on propane, as electricity is free to us hosts) and switch over to propane heat.  Our propane heat is ducted and therefore forces heated air into the underbelly of our camper where our pipes, hoses, and holding tanks are.  Failure to prepare in this way for an incoming freeze could be disastrous and VERY costly.

Then there is the added annoyance of condensation.  In the colder months it is simply not possible to live in a camper without a dehumidifier.  Ours runs constantly through the night when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  If we turn it off then within 30 minutes or less there’s water dripping from the windows and down the walls.  Improper management of condensation leads to mold, and mold can render a camper uninhabitable fast. The underside of our mattress is a particularly troublesome area which we addressed in late winter 2020 by adding a den dry mattress pad, maxx air vent covers on the roof, and foam board insulation into the pass-through storage below our bed in order to prevent moisture and mold not the bottom of the mattress.

Managing the tanks is another ordeal. Even with full hookup sites as hosts, we still needed to monitor the tanks several times a day as newbies. Leaving the tanks open leads to nasty sewer gas creeping up the hoses and into the camper – it smells bad and can set off the propane alarm. So instead we remain hooked up to the sewer but only pull (release) the tanks as and when we need to; usually once a day or every other day.

We have 3 tanks to pull on our camper. We have one grey water tank at the front which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink; one grey water tank at the back which holds everything that drains from the bathroom, and the black water tank which holds everything that drains from the toilet. The grey water tank at the front has a sewer connection near the front of the camper, whereas the bathroom grey water and the black tanks share a sewer connection at the back (but have their own respective levers). We therefore have to have 2 sewer hoses joined to a wye connector and an elbow that is attached to the sewer line.

Seasoned full timers will tell you to ignore the infamously inaccurate sensors and instead develop a sixth sense for full tanks. The black tank, for us, needs to be dumped once a week, the grey tanks usually every 2-4 days.

We recently learned how delicate these sewer hoses are.  After a hard freeze lately, Chris noticed that the slide topper (an awning over our slide out that prevents water and debris from building on top of the slide itself) was sagging.  This concerned him, so I told him we should just pull the slide in to knock off the leaves, debris, and maybe water that was sitting up there.  So I opened the window on the slide, he stood out there to watch and make sure we weren’t going to hit or crush anything and I stood inside to operate the slide switch.  What we neglected to do was disconnect and move the hoses, which turned out to be detrimental.  As I pulled the slide in, a sheet of ice still present on the slide topper fell like a guillotine and sliced both sewer hoses clean in half.  Luckily the tanks had just been pulled and so we didn’t have to rush to Walmart until the next day to shell out another $100 to replace both hoses.  Lesson learned.

We also had a bad pipe connection on our outdoor kitchen in our new camper recently.  Within a week of having it I opened the compartment door for the outdoor kitchen to find half an inch of water at the bottom.  Upon closer inspection we found that, because the, this water had slowly crept from the outdoor kitchen at the back of the camper along the wall through the pantry, behind the kitchen cabinets, and into Chris’ sock cupboard in the bedroom.  This calamity took 2 trips to home depot and an unexpected day off work for Chris.  It wasn’t the most fun Sunday we’ve ever had.

Then there’s the kitchen.  This is a constant source of frustration for me.  As previously mentioned, I have a strong loathing for doing dishes by hand.  The trouble with this is that they can build up in the sink.  Being that the kitchen is so tiny, this means that the presence of dirty dishes in the kitchen immediately renders the kitchen virtually unusable.  So it requires a level of discipline that I have yet to master.  

The lack of space also means that we had to drastically thin out our collection of pots, pans, and kitchen gadgets. This, however, turns out to be something I am very grateful for, as I now realize how much of all that stuff I neither used nor needed. But lack of pantry space has been a difficult thing to overcome and we are still fighting that battle.

The next area that has proven most problematic for us is clothing storage.  I am addicted to thrift stores.  RVing does not lend itself to this lifestyle.  Since marrying Chris I have gone from over 150 pairs of shoes to just 20.  In preparing for this adventure I also donated 8 large trash bags full of clothes.  But lack of well-designed clothing storage means that we are constantly wading through the many clothes that are bursting from each closet and shelf.  On top of that, there is zero built-in storage for junior’s clothes or toys.  We have resorted to storage baskets of clothes haphazardly placed on the top bunk but it’s impractical and messy so finding a better solution is top of our to-do list.

Another area for serious consideration when living in a camper is the unavoidable fact that the thing moves.  Living in something that moves means that everything gets jiggled around, twisted and jolted.  More than once we have arrived at our destination, opened the door, and found that things had been thrown off shelves or out of cupboards, or that things have started to fall apart.  Luckily we’ve only suffered one broken plate so far, but that is because we take care to take the TV in the bedroom off the wall before moving, strap the living room TV to the wall, push totes on the top bunk away from the edge, and remove things from shelves that could fall while in transit.

There’s also an inherent lack of privacy in a camper. Probably not such an issue for a couple that has been together for some time, but certainly could be problematic for anyone who isn’t very, very comfortable with their partner. I have too often been cooking dinner in the kitchen or been sat on the couch writing when the bathroom door, 5 feet from me, swings open to reveal Chris sat on the toilet who asks “whatcha doin’?”

There is no escape from each other in a camper.  This is fine for us, we are quite happy living in each other’s pockets and rarely feel the need to have time away from each other.  But getting quality time away from the baby can be tough, even after he goes to bed.

Everything is easily heard throughout the camper so we have a noise machine playing white noise in the kid’s bed throughout the night, plus we put the radio on in the living room (3 feet from his bed) to drown out the sound of us talking or moving around.  But sudden noises outside or a late night knock on the door from a camper in need of help means the dog will bark and the baby WILL get woken up.  Occasionally one of us will drop something or otherwise cause a raucous which will upset the delicate peace of a sleeping baby.  Thus we spend most of our evenings outside by the fire or in the bedroom watching a movie in bad weather.

Overall, however, Junior is becoming pretty accustomed to the noise of living in a camper and is becoming a fairly heavy sleeper now.  The other day, while Junior was napping, I watched Hacksaw Ridge, a WWII movie featuring loud and graphic battle scenes which were especially loud coming through the surround sound on the camper, but Junior didn’t even stir despite the blood-curdling screams and the deafening explosions.

The sum of these factors can make for rather difficult living. But proper research, regular maintenance, and due diligence ensures that the lifestyle is not as complicated one might think, and in many ways is much easier than living in a house. The trade off here is that you end up with a dramatically lower cost of living (the payment on our camper is less than $300 per month and we have no rent or utility costs), it takes less than an hour to deep clean and organize your entire home, and you naturally just spend way less time inside whiling away hours binge watching Netflix and spend more time outside engaging with each other and exploring.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

For our son this means that in his most developmentally formative years he is outside every single day for hours playing in the woods, talking and interacting with other campers, and learning at an astounding rate. For Chris, it means a significantly lower financial burden which allows him to work less, take days off more frequently (means more family time for us), and not be subjected to the horrors of Atlanta traffic ever again. For me, it means less time cleaning and organizing, more quality time with my son, less driving around or spending money just to keep him occupied, and more time enjoying life. Hosting further allows me to regain some of my identity outside of motherhood and do something else meaningful.

The success of embarking on this adventure, at least so far, is due in no small part to the timing. If we had attempted this a year ago when we had 2 dogs that didn’t get along it would have been a catastrophe of epic proportions and someone likely would have ended up in hospital. Had we attempted it right after we got married, it would have ended in divorce and/or criminal charges. If we had waited too long until Junior was in school then fear of it being too big of an undertaking and upheaval would have prevented us from ever trying.

“Is it hard? Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

Beyond timing and preparation, the fundamental requirement for this lifestyle is the right attitude and values. Consumerism has no place here. We, as people, are happy to sacrifice wifi, television, abundant indoor space, and some modern conveniences in order to preserve what is really important to us; being together. Valuing these things highly and not wanting to give them up doesn’t make you a worse or bad person, but it does mean that you have no business even considering this lifestyle. Conventional living allows your world to revolve around those things now, and while there are so many awesome and incredible things that come from that, it comes at a price that we are just not willing to pay.

It’s a question of quality. If quality of life to you is dependent upon the quality of your wifi, cell service, and modern conveniences then this would be utter misery to you. But if quality of life is dependent upon time spent with your family, exploring nature, and simplifying – and you would be willing to sacrifice the consumerism and commit to the regular maintenance – then it is time to buy an RV.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.”

*All quotes are from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig

#11: It’s a Hard Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned and called to him: “Larry!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This place really comes alive at night though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#9: Lazy Days

Monday was another beautiful day here at Vogel.  Though the evenings are getting pretty chilly, we are still having some warm a sunny days, yesterday included.  We went for a wander around the park in the morning with Devon.

Junior has discovered the fun of walking Devon.  He happily takes the leash and follows Devon wherever he leads.  It is incredibly cute to watch.  

Being thoroughly worn out by lunch, he went down for a nap pretty easily.  We took this opportunity to explore the woods behind our camp.  Armed with the baby monitor and an axe in case we should come across some good fat lighter, we set out.

Fat lighter – for those who are unfamiliar – is an essential for winter camping.  It forms at the base of a dead pine tree before it falls.  All the sap from the tree drains into the trunk and the wood becomes saturated.  After the tree falls it leaves a gnarled and twisted stump that ignites easily, even when wet, and burns well for some time.  This means that you can start a campfire relatively easily even after a good rain.

After a few minutes of trekking through the woods, the dry leaves crunching under our feet, I noticed that there was a bird following us.  Every time we took a few steps this sweet little fella would flutter to the next branch and remain within 4-5 feet of us, sometimes getting even closer.

Curious little guy.

At first I thought that maybe we were near his nest and that he was trying to shoo us away, but after getting another 15 feet further I realized that he was just a curious chap looking for some companionship.  

I pointed him out to Chris and we remarked at how unusual it was and decided to see how close he would let us get.  Chris slowly stretched his arm out towards the little guy and he didn’t seem to mind.  He pecked at Chris’ hand a couple of times before taking flight right for my face.  He seemed to be toying with us.  Though I shrieked with surprise at this move, it still didn’t seem to frighten him away and he landed on a close by branch to survey us further.

The little bird flapping over to Chris to say hello.

He continued to follow us down to the creek where we abandoned our search for fat lighter and decided instead to look for arrowheads.

Vogel sits at the base of Blood Mountain, near slaughter mountain, and is in the heart of Cherokee country.  Blood and Slaughter mountains are fabled to be the sites of some big battles between the Cherokee and Creek tribes that once inhabited this land before their slaughter and removal in the Trail of Tears era of the early 1800s.  Blood mountain earned its name following one particularly gruesome and brutal battle between the tribes that reportedly turned the mountain red with blood.  Arrowheads and other Indian tools can be found by lucky hikers and explorers of this area littering creek beds and the forest floor in these mountains.  This became our goal for the day.

We split up at the creek and began sifting through rock and examining the erosion at the side of the creek in hopes of finding something cool.  As I crouched by the creek bed I noticed that our feathery friend was still sticking close by to me.  He flew down to my side and landed just 2 feet from me.  He fluffed up his plume and gave me a look as if to say “what are we doing?”

I called Chris over and he came to marvel at our new tagalong.  I dug around by the creek and found a worm.  “Let’s see if he’s hungry” I said.  I handed the worm to Chris who held it out for the bird.  He fluttered to a branch near Chris and examined the contents of his hand before lunging forward and snatching the tasty treat right from Chris’ open palm.  Incredible!

Eating a worm out of Chris’ hand.

“He’s hungry!”  I exclaimed.  “Let’s find him some more snacks.”

So I dug around for another minute or two searching for a worm.  As I did so, our little friend flew down and landed on my head, which startled me and I jumped up, causing him to fly to a nearby branch.  I laughed and told him to stay close, but not too close, and continued my search for his snack.

After another minute or two I found another worm.  It was my turn to feed the little guy this time.  I held it in my hand and stretched it out toward the little guy.  He picked it up and tried to toss it back into his beak but missed, dropping it into the leaves below.  I picked it up and held it out to him again, holding my hand flat beneath him to catch the worm should he drop it again.  Totally unfazed by me, he gently pecked the worm from my hand, tossed it, and dropped it back in my hand.  He repeated this 2 or 3 times before finally gobbling it up.  Then he gave me a look as if to say “delicious, what else is on the menu?”  

We were thoroughly tickled by this.  We’ve each spent a fair amount of time in the woods in our lives and neither of us have encountered a creature so curious and uncharacteristically friendly as this wee lad.  He stuck by for about an hour, hopping from branch to branch, just checking us out and being friendly.

After some more digging around in the creek, Chris was lucky enough to come across an almost completely intact arrowhead.  While part of it is chipped off, it is still easily identifiable as an Indian relic.  We took some pictures of our finds and sent them to a close friend, Ron.  Ron is an expert in Indian tools and artifacts and has an extensive and very impressive collection which is fully catalogued and labeled neatly in pristine display cases.  He was able to confirm that Chris had indeed found an arrowhead, and that I had found some oddly shaped rocks, but no arrowheads or tools.

The arrowhead that Chris found.

Chris spent the rest of the day gloating about his find so I decided to take another trip down to the creek in a desperate effort to not be outdone.  But alas, my efforts were fruitless and I eventually retired to the camper to face Chris’ tactless gloating with dread.

It was a lazy Monday for us.  We didn’t feel up for a long hike and with the morning being filled with our hosting duties and the evening promising grim winter weather it didn’t leave much opportunity for big, planned adventures.  But it seems that even lazy days in our new life can be little adventures full of little surprises, lasting memories, and valuable moments of togetherness.  

When we lived in the city these kind of days would be wiled away watching endless TV shows on Netflix or doing endless projects around the house.  We rarely had time, money or the energy it took to venture out and find excitement.  Even if we did, it wouldn’t compare to that which we can accidentally stumble upon in our new backyard.  

It seems so effortless now to find new and exciting ways to entertain ourselves.  We spend almost no time in front of screens anymore and have become much closer as a family.  We spend more time outside, talking, exploring and learning.  We have been making friends with other hosts, park staff, guests, and even with the wildlife in the area.  I look back just a couple of months to when we started this adventure I wondered then if it would be a lonely existence or if we might be lucky enough to meet a friend or two along the way.  A couple of months in and we have already made great friends with hosts that we are trying to host with again, hung out with park guests sharing a glass of wine and a laugh by the fire, and been invited to thanksgiving dinner with guests that said we are “like family” to them already.

As for our newest friend, Chris’ Mom – a fellow nature lover who is forever taking pictures and adoring the butterflies and the birds – tells us that he is an Eastern Phoebe.  We hope to see him again and have even considered getting some worms from the bait shop to keep him coming around for snacks.  But even if we don’t encounter him again then, just like all the people we meet and experiences we have, we are grateful for the moment – however long it may last.

#8: Motherhiker

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

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

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

“Me too, son, me too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

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

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

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

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

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

“Doggy.”

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

“Doggy.”

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

Giggling.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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