Sweet Home (for a time) Alabama

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The Saturday afternoon we arrived at Joe Wheeler State Park was hot and sunny. The park was hopping busy. In fact when we checked in the ranger said the park had been crazy busy for weeks. This park had three campground loops and a large separate section with cabins. It also had a golf course, marina and even a hotel. This is a big park and a favorite destination of Alabamans.

We had driven most of the way from Tupelo on the Natchez Trace. It was a gorgeously green and sylvan drive. We wound through woods, passed fields and over hills through northern Mississippi. We had been on the Trace briefly when we left Natchez. That was its beginning. Now we were seeing it some 300 miles north. It would continue all the way to Nashville and is actually managed by the National Park Service which accounts for its pristine state.

Along the Trace there were places to stop for picnics, nature trails and we even saw three Indian Mounds. We crossed the state line into Alabama and then we crossed the Tennessee River on a very pretty bridge. It is a wide and very beautiful river at this point. Shortly thereafter, we left the Trace for a county highway which led us through Florence and to our park just east of the town.

Almost every site at Joe Wheeler was occupied. Our site backed on a hill over Wheeler Lake which was just visible through the trees. We got unhitched and Dakota and I set off to walk the campground.

Walking the loops is always a good way to get oriented to a new park. It is fun to check out everyone’s rig and see what they are up to. This park was full of families and groups of friends hanging out at their campfires, cooking and chatting. Kids were running and biking on the campground road and Dakota received his usual due. He is always very patient and friendly when little hands thump him on the head and run their fingers through his fur.

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Storms were predicted for the next day but it looked like they would hold off until afternoon. Jim had discovered some paved hiking trails just next to the Wilson Dam and that was our destination. Our site neighbor, from Nashville, had confirmed ticks were prevalent in the park.

The Wilson Dam is in Muscle Shoals. The drive took us about 40 minutes through the countryside. The Wilson Dam site is on the Tennessee Valley Power Reservation. We stopped at the Visitors Center with an overlook to the dam. This is one of the oldest and largest hydroelectric plants in the country.

Before the Tennessee River was dammed, this whole area was impoverished. It was subject to frequent floods making farming a frustrating experience doomed to periodic failure. The flooding also caused much disease, small pox and cholera, in addition to starvation. Poor crop management had depleted the soil adding still more deprivation to the area.

Wilson Dam was built in 1918 by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide power for nitrate production during WWI. Once the war ended, that need no longer existed, but the dam had proven it could improve the quality of life in the area and Wilson Dam became the foundation of what would be the TVA.

It wasn’t clear to us if there was an actual Visitors Center at the dam, but we stopped at several interpretive displays. They gave us a good background about the dam and the history of the TVA. The dam was very impressive up close with water pouring through the 49 spillway gates at a prodigious pace. Inside 21 Francis turbines powered energy production. They are the most efficient in use now and generate 663 megawatts of power each day.

We had intended to walk a loop appropriately called the Energy Trail. We tried unsuccessfully to find one end of the trail by the Visitors Center. We drove a ways up Reservation Road to find another point of entry. Unsuccessful again, we took a path instead which led us to the base of the dam and a series of pretty waterfalls which spilled over a high rocky wall. Dakota waded in the cool water pooling at the base of the cascades.

We strolled back to the truck and decided to head over the O’Neal Bridge back to Florence. The TVA had been a fascinating learning experience, but there didn’t seem to be much else to see in Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals and Florence are sort of sister cities in this area. But locals refer to the entire region as the Shoals. The topography is distinguished by the myriad lakes and rivers. Everywhere you look there is some sort of body of water. It is a paradise for fishermen and boaters.

We drove back through Florence on the same highway we had driven the day before. We continued east past the entrance to Joe Wheeler and on to Rogersville. We were trolling for a Red Box to rent a couple videos to entertain us during the expected storm. We never did come upon a Red Box, but we did find a spot for barbecue. Whitt’s was a drive up restaurant with a front porch for dining. We stopped for lunch.

The sky to our west was dark and heavy with forbidding clouds. We sat on the front porch of the barbecue place and watched the clouds draw closer and closer. Rain began to fall, but we were dry and continued dining. Just then the wind exploded and the storm broke. We grabbed our lunch before it was whipped away by the gusting winds. A siren went off and with concern we asked the restaurant staff if they knew what it was. They seemed equally concerned and uncertain. Fire trucks streamed past on the road and Jim dashed to get the truck.

It was impossible to run two feet through the deluge without getting completely soaked. Poor Dakota and the entire interior of the truck were soaked as well since we had left the windows cracked open for him. There was almost no visibility as we drove through the torrents back to the park. We were soaked and nervous.

The park had emptied during our absence. Families had headed home to start the work week or perhaps to avoid the storm. We were now almost completely alone. We switched on the tv to get the weather report. There were tornado warnings throughout the area and it was clear from the map that the front had hit us while we were at the barbecue place.

We watched the news reports and finished our interrupted lunch. It was really good barbecue, way too good to waste. The weather bulletins were interrupting one of the NCAA tournament broadcasts and the weathermen were repeatedly apologizing as they updated the deadly storm’s progress. They were getting slammed on social media for co-opting the game. We could hear the storm hitting the station’s roof with rain and hail as they broadcast. We continued to monitor the weather until the danger was past.

The rest of the evening was quiet and uneventful. We opened the trailer windows and enjoyed the cool air. The smoke from a distant campfire drifted through the open windows. We watched a local PBS broadcast on Alabama’s privately-owned forests. Seventy percent of Alabama is covered in privately-owned forest. Only 7% of the state’s land is government owned. Forestry is obviously a significant economic factor. Property taxes have historically been kept quite low to encourage landowners to hold their land and manage the forests. This provides timber, recreational areas, supports wildlife and controls pests. It all sounded quite wonderful and we were sorry we wouldn’t be seeing more of Alabama.

The next morning the sky was sparkling clear, but the temperature was quite cool and the wind fairly strong. We wanted to spend some time exploring Florence and kicked it off with a visit to the Visitor’s Center.

A charming woman greeted us at the Visitor’s Center. She armed us with a brochure offering a walking tour of historic Florence. We had a nice chat and I picked up another brochure detailing “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” Sadly, I would leave 99 uneaten, but the one we enjoyed made it all worthwhile.

Much of historic Florence is clustered around the campus of the University of North Alabama. Designed by the sons of Frederic Law Olmsted, who designed the campus of Smith, UNA’s roots go back to 1830 and the founding of LaGrange College. It was later relocated and renamed Florence Wesleyan University. The campus had recently been restored with landscaping and trees in keeping with its original design.

We parked the truck on Walnut Street near the campus and walked the three blocks consisting of the Walnut Street Historic District. The houses ranged from Victorian to Arts and Crafts bungalows. The street was quiet and tree-lined.

We turned on to Tuscaloosa Street and walked the block past the Wood Avenue Church of Christ and right again on to Wood Avenue.

This street was quite a bit busier with traffic. The houses were impressive as well, but less attractive due to the rushing traffic. The architecture ranged again from massive Victorians to more modern bungalows.

After walking both Walnut Street and Wood Avenue and admiring the pretty homes, we headed back to the shopping district and a stop at Trowbridges for our must-eat Alabama treat. Little did we know Trowbridge’s itself was quite a treat.

Seated in a booth, we ordered Trowbridge’s renowned Orange-Pineapple Ice Cream from a very friendly young waitress with a delightfully thick accent. It was an incentive to chat with her just to hear her speak. The ice cream was completely delicious. The color was magnificent and little bits of pineapple speckled the lovely orange color. We savored our ice cream as we savored the ambiance at Trowbridge’s.

It was late afternoon when we headed back to Joe Wheeler and our Airstream. We had had two really fun days exploring Muscle Shoals and Florence. We had a thrilling encounter with a deadly storm, learned about the Tennessee Valley Authority and visited the Wilson Dam and perambulated through Florence’s lovely streets. It was a successful and all too short visit to Alabama

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Ticked Off in Arkansas

We left Texas via Texarkana. Our route into and through Arkansas was atypical in that we were on a major highway. Interstate 30 headed northeast taking us in a direct line past Hope (birthplace of that most famous Arkansan) and directly up to the Hot Springs area. The truckers in Arkansas appeared to be fierce and not terribly thoughtful. Usually, truckers make space for us to change lanes and there seems to be a brotherhood among us. These truckers seemed intent on running us right off the road.

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Our next stop was the Lake Catherine State Park. The land for this park was donated to the state in the 1920’s when Harvey C. Couch, a very successful local businessman, built the Remmel Dam to generate hydro-electric power. The power station was later switched over to natural gas and oil. This is one of a pair of man-made lakes and dams serving the Hot Springs area.

The park is quite pretty. The campground at the park has two sections for rv camping and a group of cabins. The park caters especially to fishermen and golfers. Just before you reach the park, there is a large public golf course with housing and a restaurant.

5217 362Our site was beautifully situated right on Lake Catherine. Our lounge backed up to the shore just a few feet away. Tall maples ringed the site. Our neighbors to either side were a discreet distance away from us. Groups of quacking ducks and honking geese were our constant companions for our stay along with a heron or two. Once again, we got out all of our paraphernalia and decorated our site.

Did I mention the power plant dominates almost any view of the lake? Yes, right in front of us on the opposite shore of the lake sat the hulking power station. It was an omnipresent anchor to our, and anyone else’s, view of the lake.

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Of course, without the power station there would be no Lake Catherine. It gleamed in the sun and emitted a constant low-level hum. At night it was aglow with light and continued to emit that low-level hum. Like an unwanted dinner guest with bad table manners, it had pulled up a chair at the head of the table and anyone else at the table could only avert their eyes to enjoy the otherwise sumptuous spread.

This we did. We sat out in the evening air and watched as the sun slowly set and the world darkened around us. The power plant glowed and hummed and we steadfastly enjoyed a quiet evening at lakeside.

This park had quite a nice system of trails so the next morning we packed our lunches and headed out to hike the park. At the trail head there were interpretive signs informing us that this park, too, owed its infrastructure to FDR and the CCC.

We had a planned route but, as happens all too often, we missed a trial turn and ended up taking a different route. We both agreed this was actually much better. The first trail was called the Falls Branch Trail. It was a wooded trail and mostly followed the course of a small brook winding up and down rocky, mossy hills. There were lots of little water falls and it was cool and comfortable hiking in the woods.

To get to our next trail, Falls Creek Falls, we crossed the Falls Creek by the pretty waterfall for which it was named and headed up a steep and rocky trail. Our plan was to break for lunch at a spot on the top of a ridge with views down to the lake (and power plant) below.

We were out of the wooded area and hiking through tall grass and bushes at this point. It grew much warmer in the sun. We had feared we would leave behind good hiking as we headed east, but this trail made us feel there was hope for more good hikes in the future.

We made it to a bench overlooking the wooded hills and peaceful lake below us. We broke out our sandwiches. We were happily munching away when we became aware that we were sitting in the middle of a huge tick colony. Ticks were falling from the bushes onto us, crawling up our legs and swarming Dakota. For some reason, that ended our lunch break quickly. We gobbled last bites and retook the trail at a fast pace.

The rest of the day’s trail was easy walking and we made good time looping back to the Falls Creek Falls. From there it was a short hike along the banks of Lake Catherine back to our trailer.

The first thing we did back at the trailer was get out the tweezers and flamestick and check Dakota for ticks. There were quite a few. Ugh. We checked ourselves as well. The ticks made a satisfying popping sound when they were incinerated.

Rather than do more hiking at Lake Catherine, the next day’s plan was to head in to Hot Springs and visit Bathhouse Row and hike in the national park. Hot Springs National Park claims to be the first national park. The hot springs in the area had been drawing people for years and the area had slowly been developing in a haphazard fashion. In the 1830’s the federal government took the unprecedented step of “reserving” large parcels of the land for use by citizens. The creation of Hot Springs Reservation was the first attempt by the government to protect a natural resource. It was a bit ham-fisted, however, and failed to clearly delineate boundaries.

Over the years the bath houses in town had evolved from tents and crude lumber shacks to wooden structures. Hot Springs Creek ran right down the main street. The town was subject to frequent fires and the creek regularly flooded. In the 1880’s the federal government covered over Hot Springs Creek so that it ran under the main street of town. Next the government approved private development of new and more elaborate bath houses. Hot Springs’ reputation and popularity soared.

This popularity endured until the 1950’s when healing cures fell out of fashion and the bath houses slowly declined. Today only two of the bath houses are still in operation. The Fordyce, arguably one of the most elegant, now serves as the Visitors Center for the national park.

We drove into town and parked the truck on Central Avenue. Dakota was immediately engulfed by adoring fans. Central Avenue is the dividing line between the park on one side and the town’s business development on the other. Small shops and touristy places are on the town side and the row of preserved bath houses are on the park side.5217 467

Walking through the Fordyce was a treat. We took turns. One of us stayed with Dakota on the wide front porch while the other savored the vestiges of a bygone era. It was beautifully preserved, an elaborate and gracious emblem of the past.

After The Fordyce, we strolled the main street past the balance of the bath houses and back to the truck. We headed up Hot Springs Mountain Drive as it snaked back and forth up Hot Springs Mountain to the very top. Here we planned to walk the Goat Rock and Dogwood Trails.

The parking lot gave us a grand vista from the top of the mountain across wooded hills and the town below. It was very warm as we hit the trail. The sun was strong and the air heavy. We stepped off the trail to enjoy another overlook. When we got back on the trail, I noticed Dakota already had a tick on his paw. I removed it and we continued.

There were a few other hikers on the trails which was surprising since they seemed somewhat overgrown. I was feeling twitchy about ticks. We stopped for lunch at a stone shelter by the road. Sitting there eating my sandwich, I found another tick crawling on my arm. We never did see Goat Rock. If there was an actual Goat Rock, it eluded us. We completed our hike on the upper loop of the Dogwood Trail. I couldn’t find any dogwood either.

Back at the parking lot we checked Dakota for ticks. They were everywhere. We kept finding them and scrunching them into the pavement. I lost count around thirty. It was a total nightmare. Every time I ran my fingers through his fur, I found more. And more. Finally, it seemed we had them all. We got back in the truck and headed home, stopping in Hot Springs at a Kroger for groceries.

As we entered the park, I found a tick in my hair. We both felt itchy all over. When we got back to our camp site, I swept off the mat and laid Dakota down for another tick check. Unbelievably, we found more ticks. We found a few dead ones which meant we had missed them from before. We also found a few which had latched on to his skin. With dark satisfaction, Jim incinerated each tick, even the dead ones, with the flame stick. We felt terrible that we seemed not to have been diligent enough to protect him.

5217 363Sadly, we were no longer comfortable in this camp site. As I stepped into the trailer, a small tick fell from overhead onto my hand. In my research on ticks, the CDC said ticks can only crawl up their hosts. Experience proved otherwise. Later while sitting on the bench seat, I looked down to see another tick beside me. We felt under assault. Obsessively, we continued to go over Dakota checking for missed ticks.

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We holed up in the trailer. No more sitting outside on our mat enjoying the night air and scenic view of the lake and power plant. We contented ourselves with the view through the screened window.

The Permian Basin

The highways from Carlsbad to Monahans were packed with trucks moving products associated with or derived from the oil fields, potash mines and fracking. The arid desert fields were yielding all sorts of valuable products and every mile was devoted to the serious business of extraction. Well services, pumping specialists, welders and RV lots with workers quarters rounded out the offerings in the small towns we passed.

We crossed the state line from New Mexico to Texas and immediately lost an hour as we moved from mountain to central time. The state and time may have changed, but the landscape remained the same. We would have liked to travel into northern New Mexico, but we had passed the halfway point in terms of the time we had for our adventure. We would have plenty left to see for our next trip.

We turned off Interstate 20 into the Monahans Sandhills State Park and entered another world. This park is a strange oasis of sand dunes. It bills itself as a family getaway where kids can saucer down the dunes on plastic discs. The discs are rented at the ranger station.

Far from finding hordes of families with children clambering the dunes, we found a quiet, almost deserted campground. The campground loop boasted 24 sites, but fewer than ten were occupied. The landscape was beautiful. The mounded dunes rose and fell in undulating hills. Campsites were nestled between the dunes and neighbors were barely visible. It was warm in the sun. Close to 90 degrees, but in the shade under the shelter at our site there was a cooling breeze.

We set up camp happily all the while marveling at the unexpected beauty. We hadn’t broken out our mat and chairs in Carlsbad, but now we did a full camp set up. Dakota’s tether was set so he could sit under the shelter in the shade or on the mat next to us and the trailer. We relaxed looking up at the vast blue skies with brilliant white, fluffy clouds. Jim scampered around taking pictures. We were so happy to have two nights in this amazing place.

Far off to the west we noticed dark grey clouds roiling in the sky and the unmistakable trace of rain descending from the clouds. We watched with naïve enjoyment as the clouds drew closer and flashes of lightning sliced the sky in the distance. The storm was moving to the north and east and looked like it might miss us. It didn’t. Strong winds accompanied the driving rain as it hit us and we scattered to batten down chairs, the mat, put awnings away and shelter in the trailer from the driving storm. It was a big Texas storm.

We had reception for one English language television station and we watched the constant weather updates to monitor the progression of two separate fronts which were colliding to form these giant storms. Red flag alerts were issued and at least one tornado touched down closer to Midland which was east of us. The weather woman, who was quite accomplished, urged everyone to seek their safe places. This storm was serious business.

The storms were moving north and eastward and eventually we could see the cells had passed us. The skies had cleared and blue sky and fluffy clouds regained their hold on the horizon. “Hey, Jim, let’s take a walk around the campground loop and check out the bathhouse.”  We got Dakota on his leash and headed out for a perambulation. As we walked the asphalt path, off to the west the skies dimmed again. We were only somewhat aware of this turn in the weather. Just as we reached the point in the park furthest from our Airstream, the dust storm hit.

The sky turned an ugly olive green. The air was thick and dark. The winds almost blew us off our feet and the sand stung our skin and threatened our eyes as it struck us with tremendous force. We started running to get back to the trailer to secure it against the onslaught. Dakota was dragging on his leash. I grabbed him up to shield him from the sand and wind and struggled to keep running. Jim tried to offer shelter by turning and running backwards, but it only slowed us further. “Just run for it!”

We reached the trailer as the full fury of the winds struck and Jim was almost unable to swing the trailer door shut against the blasts. The trailer rocked with the force of the winds and the dunes were whipped with lashes of sand. The television reception pixilated with the atmospheric disturbance, but the weather woman reported wind gusts from 65 to 70 miles per hour. How heavy is this trailer again?

Reporting weather in a place like west Texas must be the epitome of professional satisfaction. The young and attractive woman reporting the weather on our sole television station was the center of attention and interest. She was clearly good at her job and she sure had a cornucopia of weather events to report: rain, winds, hail and tornadoes. She urged those east of us again to seek their safe place and move their cars. This was clearly a familiar drill.

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We quelled our nervousness watching the Spanish language broadcast of the Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico football match. Mexico won by a goal, one nil. Eventually the winds subsided. Jim broke out his ancient iPod and we listened to The Dixie Chicks and read until bedtime. The peaceful evening was a marked contrast to the maelstrom which preceded it. Wonder what tomorrow will bring?

The next morning heated up quickly. It was easily 90 degrees in mid-morning. The wind was still blowing strongly and periodically grey clouds would skid across the sky. We were still feeling a little undone by the previous night’s weather events.

We stopped by the ranger station to see their exhibit on the sand dunes and the nature trail and ended up in a long chat with the ranger on duty who explained a bit about the back story of this amazing stretch of sand dunes. Mr. T (Tavares) demurred he was not an interpretive ranger, but he had a pretty excellent way of explaining this remarkable landscape. He said that over 10,000 years ago, this approximately 30 mile wide swath of sand was created when sands from the exposed flood plains of the Pecos River were blown and deposited against the Caprock Escarpment.  The winds had formed a river of sand.

His example of the ecosystem of the dunes employed a sponge analogy. The water table in the sponge (dunes) was what held the sand pretty much in place. Sometimes the water table was higher and sometimes lower and when it was lower the sands would shift, but they would never completely blow away or disappear because the water table held them in place.

Also helping to hold the dunes in place is the vegetation. Because the water table varies, the scrubby trees which cover the dunes extend their roots up to 150 feet into the sand. Their roots anchor the dunes. Honey mesquite and havard shin oaks are found all over the park. The havard oaks actually look like bushes, but they are actually small trees.

Mr. T. said that before Katrina, the park had gone through a 15 year drought. The water table had dropped year after year. In the wake of Katrina over 50 inches of rain fell replenishing the water table. That fall the dunes were covered in brilliant carpets of wild flowers. It was magnificent and ironic since that same weather event had also caused such destruction and damage elsewhere. We really enjoyed our time with the ranger and left with a much better understanding of this remarkable environment.

Of course, our last morning dawned cool and sunny. It was just as delightful as that first afternoon had been when we had expectantly deployed our mat and chairs only to be assailed by Mother Nature. It was time to hitch up. Our mat was still buried in sand where the wind had tossed it against the trailer. The chairs were covered by sand as was Dakota’s tether. The Airstream was streaked and dirty from the lashing of the rain and sand.

Hitting Rock Bottom at Bottomless

IMG_2033When we arrived at Bottomless Lakes State Park, the thermometer in the truck read 90 degrees. Bottomless Lakes is named for the series of sink holes or cenotes which punctuate the park. The campground is set next to the largest of the cenotes, Lea Lake. This is the high desert. The landscape was all sandy dirt, rocks and scrub bushes. The far side of the lake rose abruptly into jagged red cliffs. The park is well known in the area as a great place to cool off. This I can believe since it was broiling hot in the middle of March. I cannot fathom what July and August must be like. Just because the humidity is low, hot is still hot.

 

The park has public access for day visitors and when we arrived the parking lot was packed and the lake resounded with the cries and shouts of many swimmers. We pulled into our site. It was hotter than blazes and the sun was burning everything it touched. We unhitched and set up camp with the perspiration dripping down our sides.

Our site was next to the lake as advertised, but that was actually less than ideal as it meant we were next to hordes of children jumping in the lake. The campground was barren of trees and color. A few scraggly bushes decorated our site. The picnic table was sheltered under a cement structure. Hundreds of ants swarmed the table and shelter and I quickly hustled Dakota away.

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Desperate to cool off, we decided to avail ourselves of the lake. We suited up and headed over. The water was surprisingly cold and we waded in. The water was brown, but the cold was a relief. I dunked under to take full advantage. The water was brackish and suddenly less appealing. Even though we were now much cooler, we decided a shower was a necessity.

We grabbed our shower items and headed to the camp bathhouse. Over at the lake we had noticed signs saying some of the public bathrooms were closed for the winter. It was immediately apparent that the overflow day campers were using the campground facilities.

Despite signage designating the campground from the day areas, people were swarming through the campground. When we got to the bath house, the campground host was in the middle of hustling some people out who had actually tried to lock themselves into the women’s room for privacy. The bathrooms were absolutely filthy and littered with detritus. I will spare any further details except the shower had a  push button and water would flow in a weak stream for thirty seconds and then shut off.

Back at the trailer, we gave up and fired up the air conditioning. We huddled in misery in the trailer. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate confluence of many factors and timing, but this was an untenable situation. We had booked five days at this place. We came the closest to snarling at each other as we have during the entire trip. Something had to give.

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When we decided to get only one air conditioner unit for the Airstream, there were multiple factors driving the decision. One factor was that meant we could use 30 amp, rather than 50 amp service and that would give us more flexibility when looking for campsites. Another factor was our disinclination to use air conditioning. If we got to a place which was too hot, we figured we could always hitch up and head out for cooler climes. This philosophy would now come into play.

The desert air was cool the next morning. The day visitors were gone and it was quiet and calm at the park. Nevertheless, we knew the day would soon warm and the weatherman on the news the night before had predicted a record heat wave. I remembered wistfully the drive over and how cool it was around Ruidoso. The elevation was just over 6,000 feet and the mountains were covered in cedar and pine. I called an rv resort just outside the town and we hitched up and headed out. The benefit to having your house on wheels is you can always just take it with you to a better place. This we did.

Palmetto Paradise

We took big and little highways on the drive from Natchez to Palmetto Island State Park in Abbeville, LA. The country through Mississippi was green and beautiful. In fact each day the grass glowed a brighter and brighter green and the azalea blooms were popping out. Spring was coming to Mississippi.

330px-Audubon_BridgeWe crossed that mighty river into Louisiana at the Audubon Bridge.  This is a beautiful and quite new bridge. It is the only crossing point on the Mississippi between Natchez to the north and Baton Rouge to the south. Our intent was to get around a traffic issue in Baton Rouge. The outcome was the experience crossing the second largest cable stayed span in the Western Hemisphere and travel through a very rural part of Louisiana. Once over the bridge, we followed rural highways which twisted and turned through small towns and along small rivers.

IMG_1810It was almost five o’clock when we arrived at Palmetto Island State Park. The park was pretty and we were happy to see copious stands of saw palmetto for which, I expect, the park was named.

When we got to our site, there was a red truck parked in it. The site next to ours was packed with pick up trucks and a big guy came walking over to us. When I say a big guy I mean big. Very Big. This guy knew his way around jambalaya, pork rinds and beer. He made Larry the Cable Guy look svelte. VBG said they would be moving the truck and immediately began dispensing guidance to Jim about how best to park. Jim told him thanks for the advice but he didn’t need it as his wife was Boss and Chief Parking Officer. (Jim will say anything to get a “helpful” adviser off his back). As we inspected our site, loud music, loud voices and the overpowering smell of something cooking drifted over to us. VBG’s wife appeared, cigarette in hand, along two hyper-yippy kind of nasty looking dogs. Did I mention the two sites were really close together with little vegetation in between? This was not an auspicious arrival.

By now Jim was looking a bit volcanic and muttering darkly. He climbed into the truck to maneuver into our site and VBG, uncomprehending and undeterred, proceeded to direct Jim’s every move with hand signals and shouts. This was not going well.

Suddenly, Jim gunned the motor and, if it is possible to do so with 48 feet of truck and trailer, patched out of the site with gravel spraying and flew off down the road. Standing next to VBG after this abrupt departure, I smiled. VBG said, “Guess he got pissed.” I agreed it seemed like that might indeed be the case. Feeling a bit exposed and with nothing else to do, I started walking. I figured if I headed to the ranger station, I would find my spouse, truck, trailer and dog eventually.

I was all the way back to the main road when the distinctive sound of a Cummins diesel engine roared up behind me. A definitely chagrined and sheepish Jim asked how furious, outraged, indignant or mad I was. Mad? I wasn’t mad. Indignant? I thought it was kind of funny.

We headed back to the ranger station to see if there was another site we could have. The station was closed but tacked to the door was a list of empty sites. We chose a site as far from our first site as possible. In a few brief moments we were unhitched. It was a lovely evening and we sat sipping a beer as the sun set. There was no sound of a radio. No yipping dogs. No loud voices. The breeze rustled through the trees and palmetto. Jim turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll be reading about this in the blog…no more than I deserve.”

When Jim had booked this park, he was told he could only book for two days because they were going to be working on the water system. There were three days blocked off on the online reservation system so no one could book sites. When we arrived on Sunday the park was pretty full, but soon it began to empty as people headed to their next destination and, since no one new could book, there were no new arrivals.

We really loved this park. It was extremely pretty. The campground was u-shaped with 96 sites strung like beads on a broken necklace. The sites were nicely distanced and well demarcated with lush vegetation. This effect was amplified greatly as the park emptied out. The comfort station was very clean and nicely appointed. There was ample hot water and you can’t overstate how important that is. I’ll go almost anywhere and do almost anything if I can have a long, hot shower. There was a laundry at the comfort station with the best lending library for books and  dvd’s we had ever seen.

The weather turned pretty hot and steamy on our third day. The Vermilion River runs through the park and canoes were available for rent. We took a paddle up the river.

The scenery was lush and teeming with all kinds of life. Spanish moss hung from the limbs of live oak and festooned the river. Moss climbed the banks of the river and the trunks of the trees. Fish jumped in the river and I had my eye out for gators. We did actually have a baby gator swim right in front of our bow. It was very atmospheric. It was also somewhat perilous. It had been decades since I was in a canoe. I’m more of a kayak person really. The canoe felt so tippy and Jim and I were not exactly synchronized in our paddling. We hit the bank periodically (snakes!) and spun in circles (gators!). I was greatly relieved when we returned to our putting in place dry and unscathed. I think Dakota prefers kayaks, too. He can see out better. Dakota reaches a zen state in a kayak sitting with his eyes closed in the sun, listening to the water.

We learned Mardi Gras had been thoroughly celebrated at the park the weekend before we arrived. Apparently, Palmetto has a bit of a reputation as a party park. Vestiges of the celebration remained. We gathered abandoned bling from vacated sites and decorated for our own Mardi Gras.

Palmetto Island is just outside the town of  Abbeville. The drive to town took about twenty minutes. It was a fascinating drive with much to see. On the way to town we passed large fields of standing water with what looked like lobster traps poking up out of the water. This gave us much to speculate about. Were those rice fields? What were the little orange traps? Well, those were indeed rice fields. The twist to this story is that the farmer wasn’t raising rice as a crop, he was raising the rice to feed his real crop—the much beloved crawfish. Crawfish actually can make a farmer some money and rice can’t. Louisiana raises 90% of all crawfish in the country and I bet they eat at least 90% of their crop themselves.   They surely do love crawfish boil.

Another puzzler on our way to and from town we a airfield with a fleet of helicopters standing at attention in a row. Next to the airfield was a parking lot jammed with every color and variety of pickup truck imaginable. After some investigation, it turned out that among the charter businesses operating out of the airport were several servicing the oilfields. We postulated that the many trucks belonged to the workers pulling their shifts out on the rigs.

Abbeville was a more prosperous town than many. Our guess is this was partly due to the presence of oil field workers in the town. It would make sense they would live near transportation to the fields. In town there were some historic old buildings, what appeared to be two local theater groups. Local businesses, lawyers and health services rounded out what was on offer to local inhabitants. There were also a good handful of restaurants.

The plan was to have a big night out in Abbeville. We had eaten out only a handful of times during our entire trip and never for dinner so this was pretty heady stuff. The ranger at Palmetto had a hand out of restaurants and we checked them out. The winner was Shucks. It billed itself as having the best oysters and seafood and looked like a hopping establishment.  It may have been the day after Mardi Gras, but the place was packed. We had delicious oysters and seafood gumbo. It was great fun rubbing elbows with the locals and seeing a bit of Abbeville at night. We drove home through the lush night air and enjoyed one last night at Palmetto Island.

Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.

 

Brain Farts Test Even the Strongest Relationship

 

Our crossing to Naples was not without incident. For the last stretch of our drive we followed Route 41 and then exited to a street paralleling 41. It had been a long drive and we were tired. Well, at least I was tired—something has to account for the major brain fart I was about to have.

As we neared the entrance to the next rv park, Jim said, “are you sure this is where we’re staying?” What? Huh? I panicked. Is this were we were supposed to go? I freaked out and told him not to turn in to the gate. We cruised past as I scrambled to find our reservation information and confirm our destination. It wasn’t until we were a good half a mile down the road that we realized the road came to an abrupt end and the only possible egress was a hard right turn.

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The hard turn to the right wasn’t a problem in itself, but arranged vertically at the side of the turn was an assemblage of signs saying, “No Trespassing,” “Private Road,” “Do Not Enter!” “Proceed at Your Own Risk.” It was hot and we were tired. Within our trailer was general consternation. It was too far to back up to the entrance to the park and we desperately needed a way out or a place to turn around.

Despite our somewhat bleak circumstances, Jim did not utter an angry word or get upset. His wife, the Chief Navigator, had just pulled a major boner and we were in deep doo doo, but he was calm and quiet. It was hot and we were tired. Within our trailer was general consternation. It was too far to back up to the entrance to the park and heading right didn’t look like too good an option either.We sat quietly for a few moments, then Jim said he was going to brave the intimidating signs and walk ahead for a place to turn around. With 48 feet of truck and trailer, we couldn’t risk not finding a place to turn around.

I sat in the sun for a long time feeling stupid and useless. Jim was gone for a long time. Finally, I realized Jim had chosen the low tech path, but there was another option for determining what lay down the forbidding road. I downloaded Google Earth and found our location. Down the road about a mile was another road intersecting at a perpendicular angle. We could definitely use those 90 degree angles to effect a turnaround. Jim’s cell lay on the console. There was no way to let him know and I had to do something to redeem myself.

The forbidden road was narrow. I made the turn on my maiden voyage at the helm of the Airstream at a cautious speed. I felt alternately terrified to be driving Jim’s beloved rig and hopeful that somehow I would redeem myself. The road continued to be lined with hostile signs. “Turn back now.” “This means you!” sporadically driveways intersected the road and each bore “Beware of dog” and “No Trespassing” signs. This was the most unfriendly road on the face of the earth. What was their problem?

Jim came into view. How best to describe the look on his face when he saw his beloved blue truck and Airstream heading his way…horror? Terror? Deep love and affection? Maybe not the latter. Just then a truck pulling a horse trailer came into view heading my way on this incredibly narrow and unfriendly road with steep sides. My palms were drenched as I contemplated what would happen if we couldn’t pass each other. It drew closer and closer and, with inches to spare, we made it. I came to a stop as Jim approached the truck.

We executed the turnaround and headed back out the unfriendly road. We were both sitting kind of low in our seats in case gun fire should ring out. A battered pickup driven by a wild-eyed, bearded man passed us going the other way, he pounded the air with his fist and shouted at us and we sat even lower in our seats.