The Wind Turns

We woke on Sunday morning a bit tired and decided to spend the morning relaxing at the trailer. Jim had the Sunday crossword to do and I am always happy knitting and reading. It was a delightfully sunny morning and it felt deliciously lazy to just hang out.

After lunch we walked over to the Ranger Station to rent kayaks for the afternoon. We always intend to go kayaking, but on previous trips were hampered by lack of a life vest for Dakota. This time we had brought his and the Tahquamenon River was much too alluring to resist.

Kayaks on order, we decided to walk the rustic campground at Rivermouth. This campground did not loop as most do, but ran alongside the Tahquamenon River. Heavily wooded, the campsites were generously spaced and had views of the river through the trees. I would definitely forego electric hook ups to stay here if we ever were to return.

As we walked, I began to feel an uncommon disturbance in my tummy. When we got back to the trailer, our kayaks were there, but I needed to lay down for a moment. I went back to the bedroom and just kept feeling worse and worse. I was increasingly in distress, sweat began pouring down my face and body and I couldn’t even lie down I was so uncomfortable. Indigestion? Flu? With alarming speed, the pain increased until I finally realized this was something I could not deal with on my own.

Jim headed to the Ranger Station to find out options for medical intervention. The ranger said we could drive to Sault Ste Marie, an hour and a half to the east, or we could head west to Newberry. She recommended Newberry as it was her own home hospital and she thought they were good.

We chose the latter and by the time we got in the truck all I could do was writhe in pain and moan. My thoughts, my whole being was just consumed by pain. Jim made the trip in about 45 minutes and I have only brief recollections of trees flying by and passing many cars as he sped as quickly as possible to the hospital.

Newberry coalesced as a collection of streets and buildings. The blue sign with the H was a beacon. We pulled up and I staggered into the Emergency Room. They rushed me back and I was never so thankful to be anywhere. When the morphine failed to quell the pain, they switched to something called Dilaudid. It took multiple doses and then finally the all-consuming pain was under control. At this point I had no idea what was wrong, but they ordered a CT scan. The CT scan revealed my small intestine was obstructed. They ordered an ambulance to take me to Marquette, which was over two hours away, and where they had the facilities to perform surgery.

Poor Jim had been most of this time in the waiting room, but he was on hand to say goodbye as I was loaded into the ambulance. It would be left to him to head back to the trailer and Dakota and the next day hitch up all by himself and follow me to Marquette. It had to have been a lonely and dismal night.

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My surgery was scheduled for the next morning. At the same time, Jim was hitching the trailer. He texted his sister, Linda, to bring her up to speed. Enter the goddess/saint Linda. She called him immediately and said she was jumping in the car. It was about a seven-hour drive, but she would meet Jim in Marquette to provide much needed and desired moral support. Linda would stay with us several days and, while we may have managed without her, it made all the difference in the world to us.

As terrifying as this whole episode had been, we were incredibly fortunate to have been not too distant from care. The Helen Newberry Joy Hospital in Newberry did a great job of stabilizing my pain and diagnosing my problem. We were again fortunate that they have a close working relationship with the UP Health System–Marquette Hospital. The transport they arranged arrived instantaneously and we began the two hours plus trip.

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The UP Health System—Marquette Hospital turned out to have just opened in June. It is a gorgeous state-of-the-art facility. I had arrived at the hospital Sunday night and my surgery was scheduled for the next morning. Any concerns I had about who my surgeon would be were irrelevant. I was grateful to be there and hoped for the best outcome.

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All went well with the surgery. They removed 19 inches of small intestine, but that’s okay because there is plenty left. The eight inch incision did in all likelihood put an end to my bikini modeling career, but it was a small price to pay.

Jim arrived to visit in the late afternoon. Linda was on hand and they were busy scouring the area for appropriate places for my recovery when I got out. The average stay after my procedure is 5-7 days. My recovery was an upward trajectory. I rejoiced each time a tube was removed and by Thursday, my happiness was transcendent as I surveyed my first meal.

Jim and Linda had found the perfect place for us to recover. The Country Village RV Park in Ishpeming is about 20 minutes up the road from the hospital. Abutting the campground is the pet-friendly, Jasper Ridge Inn. We would have the trailer on hand and the comfort of a hotel room within a few hundred yards.

Linda drove me from the hospital and Jim followed in the truck. It was great to be out and floral tribute greeted me at the hotel. Linda left shortly thereafter having taken incomparable care of both Jim and Dakota. This was the end of the trip we thought we were taking and the beginning of a homeward voyage. We would take our time convalescing and, when it was time, hit the road back east. It was a little sad, but mostly we were grateful that everything worked out so incredibly well.

Day Two in Paradise

We wanted to give Dakota an opportunity to rest up a bit after yesterday’s hike. Even though he didn’t seem over-stressed by the hike, one month post-surgery, he needed to come back slowly.

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The solution was a delightful day exploring the eastern peninsula of the UP in a graceful loop from Paradise to Whitefish Point, back south and then east to Sault Ste Marie and back to the park.

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We were really excited to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The Shipwreck Museum is co-located with the Whitefish Point Lighthouse Tower. The later is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior. The shipwreck museum does a fantastic job of documenting the fury of Lake Superior, which really should be classified as a sea, and the thousands of wrecks resting at the bottom of its depths.

Happily, the collection of buildings comprising the complex are all dog-friendly. While we strolled the exhibits in the museum, Dakota lounged in my arms. Of course, the star of the museum is the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, but there were plenty of other breathtaking wrecks to discover. You can bet Gordon Lightfoot’s song runs throughout the exhibits and was an earworm for me as well.

The exhibits were really well curated and gave an unwavering portrait both of the importance of the shipping pathway around Whitefish Point and the tremendous dangers presented. Lake Superior is unforgiving and only the essential economics of shipping cargo, mostly iron ore, around that treacherous point could overcome any trepidation sailors might have felt.

Thousands of wrecks lie below the surface of Lake Superior and this was a theme we would encounter throughout our travels through the UP.

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After the museum, we wandered over to another building to watch the 15-minute movie, The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald, chronicling both the story of its sinking as well as the effort to raise its bell. This was no mean feat as the Edmund Fitzgerald had come to rest over 500 feet below the surface of the water. The original bell is on display at the shipwreck museum and was replaced in situ with a duplicate bell featuring the names of all who perished on that terrible night.

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Equally compelling was the awesomely restored Lighthouse Keepers Quarters. Life tending a lighthouse was not easy. In addition to keeping the enormous lights in good working order, fueled with trimmed wicks, lighthouse keepers lived in semi-isolation. They needed to grow their own food and be very self-sufficient. This looked to be a comparatively comfortable living quarters, but one could easily imagine how difficult life could be in the winter as the lake threw storm after storm against its coasts. With fifteen feet of snow the norm, this was a tough life in the UP.

We opted not to climb the tower, but walked out onto the deck by the beach. The beach was inviting and off the coast we could see an enormous freighter off the shore. That freighter would accompany us all day as we made our way towards Sault Ste Marie and the Soo Locks.

We had gotten to the museum right when it opened which was a good thing. By the time we left, the parking lot was packed. We retraced our path down past Paradise and took a left on to the 33-mile scenic Curley Lewis Memorial Highway.

The highway ran along the coast of Lake Superior sometimes close by and at other times separated from the water by trees and houses. On the left were woods with more remote cabins often grouped in small settlements. Partway along the drive we found the Point Iroquois Lighthouse Tower. At 155 years old, this is one of the oldest lighthouses on Lake Superior.

Dakota remained in the car as we toured the grounds. One exhibit featured the lighthouse keeper’s quarters as it was in the 1950’s. Pretty grim actually.

We did climb the tower to enjoy the view and there was that freighter again inexorably heading to the locks in Ste Sault Marie.

Tummies were rumbling as we reached Brimley and passed a driveway leading to a gravel parking lot and signed “Pickles.” Dimly, I remembered the school teacher from Newberry telling some fellow passengers about a little known gem of a restaurant on the scenic highway to Sault Ste Marie.

We pulled in and Pickles was indeed quite a hidden gem. We sat on the deck overlooking Lake Superior and had marvelous meals. I enjoyed beautifully spiced White Fish tacos and Jim had a fried Lake Perch basket.

After seeing so many beautiful miles of coastline, lighthouses and other curiosities, Sault Ste Marie was an abrupt change of pace. The land around the city was flat and unattractive. That isn’t totally fair, it was clearly agricultural and, therefore, very different from what we had previously seen in the UP. The town was pretty unattractive as well crammed with tourist trap shops and sidewalks packed with tourists.

We made our way to the famous Soo Locks. We stood at the gates to the park and inspected the crowds watching the locks. We were un-enthused and the park was not dog-friendly and that was as far as we wanted to take it.

We drove around Sault Ste Marie a bit just to confirm our first impressions and then headed back out of town south on I-75 and then M-28 back to Paradise. It was clear that this far eastern outpost of the UP was agricultural flat land and we were ready to immerse ourselves in the forests further west. We arrived back at our Airstream tired, but having had a really excellent tour of this part of the UP. We had done our tourist bit and tomorrow we had great plans to kayak the Tahquamenon River.

Five Days in Paradise

We motored along two-lane highways through piney woods and marshlands. Traffic was sparse. Cars were outnumbered by rv’s. Tahquamenon Falls State Park is an enormous piece of land. It is almost 50,000 acres of wilderness punctuated by few roads and little else. This is the stomping ground of Hiawatha and the Chippewa Indians.  The Tahquamenon River runs through the park down to Whitefish Bay. The river is 89 miles running though woodland with the Upper and Lower Falls punctuating along its length.

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The park features four campgrounds. There are two campgrounds at the Lower Falls and two campgrounds where the river empties into Lake Superior. We were staying at Rivermouth Campground which has both a modern campground as well as a rustic loop.

This park books up early in the season and we considered ourselves fortunate once again to have gotten a site. In our case, our site was in the modern loop (electric hookups) right next to the bathhouse. While many people would love the proximity to the bathhouse, we prefer to be further away, but, hey, we had a site!

With a five day stay, Jim let it all hang out and broke out all of his bling. We had the palm tree, the glowey flowers, the pineapple, the flamingo, the flip flop/flamingo lights along the awning and my five American flags. One thing about being next to the bathhouse, you get good visitor traffic. We like to think we brightened a few people’s evening trip to brush their teeth.

Despite weeks on the road, we had yet to enjoy a real hike and that was first up on the agenda. The most exciting hike runs along the Tahquamenon from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. The beginning and ends of the trail are paved for accessibility, but the middle is a lovely run through the woods and along the river. Signage warned of rough going and roots along the trail in addition to elevation changes.

It was a really nice run. The weather was delightful. The sunlight filtered through the woods and clouds skidded across the skies. It was easily five degrees cooler under the leafy canopy. At exactly the right moment, a rough wooden bench appeared with a prospect of the river below. We broke out our sandwiches and enjoyed lunch.

Dakota showed no signs of his recent surgery. He was hot to trot along the trail. Trails are his favorite and we like to imagine all the scents he picks up as we walk along. There were plenty of wet spots along the trail. Dakota can be relied upon to head for the muddiest bits. I carried him over those parts. He does, after all, sleep on our bed. At a bantam weight 24 pounds, I didn’t want him to lose any more weight. To his delight a lunch was served and would be moving forward each time we hit a trail.

We emerged from the trail to an unpleasant scrum at the Upper Falls. Now I understand why the DNR claims 600,000 people visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park each year. They all park at the Upper Falls and walk the pavement to the viewing stations. After our extremely pleasant hike, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

An enterprising social studies teacher from Newberry runs a summer season shuttle back and forth from the Upper to the Lower Falls ferrying hikers back to their starting point. Dogs are free. We arrived back at the Airstream dreaming of hikes to come.

Been There, Dune That

We did get to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Jim did some careful research and pinpointed a nice trail to a dunes overlook which was very dog friendly. This checked all of our needs.

The Empire Bluff Trail IMG_2322 (002)is a 1 ½ mile loop up and down hills and through the woods. It proved very popular with people and their dogs. We got there later in the afternoon which was a good thing as many people were leaving the crowded parking area.

The weather was again perfect and we hiked briskly along the trail to the dunes overlook. It was a very pretty sight.

An alarming number of people on the trail were sporting flip flops. While this was not a hugely demanding or long trail, I can’t quite imagine negotiating it in flip flops. The trail map at the trail head warned of mosquitoes and poison ivy. While we did not encounter many of the former, Jim brought a bit of the latter home with him. Happily, it does not seem to itch.

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Frost Family Fun

Brighton Recreation Area was an unanticipated treasure. Originally chosen as the closest decent campground to Ann Arbor, Northville and Livonia—all key concentrations of Michigan Frosts, it ended up being a super place to camp.

We spent three days catching up with Jim’s brother, Phil, his wife, Renee, Jim’s sister, Linda, and her spouse, Lisa. We also were fortunate enough to catch Chris and Sarah, Jim’s nephew and his partner. And, of course, the main event was seeing the matriarch of the extended Frost family, Jim’s mother, Betty.

Many delightful hours were spent chatting. Phil and Renee were tremendous hosts offering us tasty treats and libations. Dakota was happy relaxing on their deck listening to the conversation. Betty seemed as tickled to see Jim as he was to see her.

On our last full day, Linda and Lisa joined us at Brighton to continue enjoying the perfect summer weather and each other’s company.

We sat and enjoyed our fire long into the summer’s evening.

Tempus Fugit

We drove east and northward through Virginia to our next destination. Virginia flattened out a bit as we headed east. We drove through Lynchburg and gazed upon the sprawling campus of Liberty University. It lined each side of the interstate. The President had just spoken there so I, at least, was more aware of this place of Christian education. It was indeed an enormous campus. I had to wonder how the students negotiated such distances especially with a big highway running through the middle.

Next we passed the Jerry Falwell Memorial Highway. We were certainly in the white-hot center of things Christian.

We arrived at Holliday Lake State Park on a beastly hot afternoon. A heat wave had engulfed half the country so we weren’t alone in the sweltering heat. We un-hitched at our camp site. Halfway through the process we were both dripping with sweat. There was a little breeze so it was cooler sitting in the shade outside.

We needed to do some planning. We had reserved two nights at Holliday Lake. Our next stop was in College Park, MD and that was quite a distance from our current location. All told it was a 220 mile drive, but much of it was in urban traffic which would make the drive more taxing and certainly longer.

 

Sitting at our camp site, we were becoming convinced that we should only stay one night at Holliday Lake and then push on. We were also feeling oddly detached from this park. Perhaps it was the heat or the concern about the drive in two days. Maybe it was the fact that this was the last state park scheduled for us to stay in. In any case, we decided that we would leave the next morning and find an intermediate stop before heading to the DC metropolis.

However, the camp ground was deep inside this state park and any whiff of a cell signal had long since faded. We identified two potential places to stay, but with no signal, we wouldn’t know which path we would take until we were under way. This was all somewhat out of character behavior for us.

Our site was next to the Campground Host’s site. We met them coming out of their Fifth Wheel. They were off duty and it looked like they were heading to town. Reluctantly, we closed up the trailer for the night. It was just too hot inside and there wasn’t much of a breeze. We had a somewhat desultory dinner. We listened to some music and then turned in.

The next morning was cool and lovely. The campground at Holliday Lake was so deep into the forest, there was only the sound of birds singing. We had driven close to five miles from the highway through the forest to get to the campground. We hitched up in the  cool air knowing the heat would soon come.

There was one particularly enormous bumble bee hanging around the campsite. He had been there when we arrived and Dakota had barked angrily at him as if he were a small dog. That is how big he was. Now, as we put away the awnings and prepared to hitch, he buzzed around us like a small aircraft. He was an interested bystander and seemed to be watching everything we were doing. He was a benign and friendly presence.

The Camp Hosts had told us this was their favorite park. They loved being here. We tried to see what they saw. It was pretty. Mountain Laurel was in bloom and there was a bush just inside the trees. We had driven past the lake for which the park was named when we arrived. It had a wide beach and was undoubtedly popular on the weekends. There were trails all through the park, but in the heat we had no desire to hike them.

We set the GPS for one of our two proposed destinations. We drove for miles through rural countryside before there was enough signal for me to call to see if they could accommodate us. The woman on the phone at the campground paused when I asked if they had availability. Whether it was because she was checking or hadn’t been asked that question in a while was an open question. Once we got to Shenandoah Hills Campground, it seemed like the latter was the stronger possibility.

We were somewhat aware this campground had mixed reviews when we chose it. We read online that the roads were pot-holed. The campground personnel were not very friendly or nice. More recent reviews had been positive and that had emboldened us to give it a chance.

The campground at Shenandoah Hills could have been nice. There were plenty of trees and appropriate space between the sites. One of the issues with campgrounds which we had slowly come to understand is full-timers. When a campground has a significant number of full-time tenants, things begin to deteriorate. Rigs begin to age and can become covered with moss and dirt. Since this is an inexpensive way to live, the trailers and rv’s aren’t always high-end to begin with. Camp sites become untended as they fill with accumulated possessions. The infrastructure begins to degrade. It is almost counter-intuitive, but transient guests help keep a campground looking fresh and tended. This campground was almost half filled with full-timers.

Indeed when we pulled in the potholes were terrible. The woman at check in was friendly enough. Tipped off by the reviews, I asked if there had been some fairly recent change in management at the campground. She said there hadn’t although they had been a KOA campground until five years ago. She explained that they had dropped KOA because they didn’t like paying the marketing fee. Cash flow did seem to be an issue at Shenandoah Hills.

Our next door neighbors were a friendly family who had just bought their travel trailer used. They were planning a big trip west through Texas in June. That’ll be hot all right. The man was full of questions and Jim was only too happy to share his newly gained wisdom. He was no longer a newbie, but a seasoned Airstreamer with knowledge to share.

We ran our air that night for the second night in a row. We really missed the open windows, night sounds and fresh breezes. We were up the next morning ready to hitch and go. Even though we had cut the day’s driving distance in half, we had a lot of ground to cover. But there was a big payoff. A major incentive to head to our next stop.

A Mother of a Park

Our drive took us from North Carolina, north through the easternmost tip of Tennessee and on to Virginia. We were headed to Hungry Mother State Park.

According to park lore, Hungry Mother got its name from a tragic story. Hostile Indians had attacked several settlements just south of what is now the park. A woman settler and her child were taken prisoner. They escaped the Indian camp and wandered through the wilderness foraging for food and looking for rescue. The mother finally collapsed, but her child was able to wander along a creek and found help. The only words the child could utter were “hungry mother.” Sadly when the rescuers came upon the mother, she was dead. The park and its man-made lake take their name from this legend.

We arrived at the park headquarters and were told we could choose any of the unreserved campsites. The road to the campground was exceedingly narrow and twisty with drop offs on each side. It was really only wide enough for one vehicle. This made it exceptionally exciting when we came upon first one and then a second car going the other way. Jim edged the truck and trailer as far to the side as possible and we squeaked past with millimeters to spare. I confess there may have been some verbal exclamations on my part.

The campground, named Creekside, featured a lovely stream running along the side. There was only one unreserved site along the creek and we struggled to back the Airstream into it. The site doglegged right. Trees and large rocks formed extra challenges and it was clear we would never make it into the site without damage to something. The Camp Host wandered over as we gave up and told us that they had just had a cancellation on site 16. It was the best site in the campground and it could be ours!

After checking with the ranger station, we backed in to the most exceptionally lovely site and un-hitched. There were ducks wandering along the creek and a momma duck and her ducklings came along to welcome us.

We opened awnings, got out our chairs, decked the awning with lights and prepared for a delightful evening. After dinner we sat out by the fire. It couldn’t have been more wonderful. With our trailer windows wide open, we slept deeply with the babbling sound of the water a natural white noise.

Rain began overnight and was expected. We knew our first full day at Hungry Mother would be a washout and planned accordingly. We hung out in the trailer listening to the intermittent stacatto bursts of rain on the trailer roof. We made a trip to town, cruised Marion’s historic downtown, bought diesel and enjoyed lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, Mi Puerto. The rain continued all afternoon and provided a perfect sound track to a long afternoon nap.

We spent the evening listening to music and watching video clips of late night comedians on YouTube. In a questionable moment of consideration, Jim logged on to Netflix and we enjoyed an hour of Slow TV: National Knitting Night—the ever popular real time program from Norway documenting spinners and knitters in a timed contest going from raw fleece to finished sweater. Perhaps not for everyone, but a total fascination to me.

Saturday dawned grey, but the rain had stopped. Our little babbling brook was now a turgid torrent. It had swollen its banks and ran brown and raw. We puttered around the trailer for a while. Just about noon the sun came out. We ate lunch and then headed out to hike the Lake Trail Loop around Hungry Mother Lake.

The park was full of people enjoying the now gorgeous day. The picnic shelters were occupied. A mountain bike and running event had taken place on the same trail we were planning to hike. A wedding was set up to take place with the white chairs in orderly rows and pretty flowers lining the aisle. We were happy to think that the wedding party would have a lovely day for the ceremony after all.

The first half of our trail followed the bank of the lake and the park road. We passed many happy fishermen standing casting their hooks into the water. We passed the dam and the trail wound into the woods. It emerged briefly at what is now the park boat launch.

This park is the oldest state park in Virginia. It, too, owes its infrastructure to the efforts of the CCC. The former CCC camp was located by the boat launch. This camp seemed a tiny bit less rustic than some. They actually had barracks rather than tents and bath facilities. We couldn’t help but remember the CCC baths at Mission Tejas.

The woods here were just lovely. The run off from the rains made streams down the mountain sides. It was cool and green in the woods. Rhododendron were in full bloom. The trail had just enough ups and downs to make it good exercise and plenty of pretty scenery to keep us occupied.

IMG_2315Hungry Mother was unusual compared to every other state park we had seen in that it boasted a restaurant. There was a sign right at the park entrance and we passed the building in which it was housed as we headed to the campground. I was dubious. How good could it be? The Camp Host mentioned it when we were selecting our site and urged us to try it. So, we planned a big Saturday night out.

We drove back to the rustic, but attractive building. The structure was wood and cabin like. The interior of the restaurant was pleasantly rustic as well. The tables were actually unassuming, topped with formica. The wait staff was college age. What a super summer job to work at the park. It would be like camp all summer long. The menu was quite nice. I ordered Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp with Grits. Both were scrumptious. The Shrimp with Grits was clearly full of wonderfully unhealthy cheese and butter.

We eavesdropped on the couple at the table behind us with intent. They were the new Camp Hosts at the second campground at the park. A ranger was talking to them and we found out that Virginia’s state parks are pretty much self-sustaining. They are encouraged to run for profit ventures, like this restaurant, to supplement the meager budget. It made a lot of sense and, from the sound of it, worked really well.

It was heady stuff to be out on Saturday night and we really enjoyed our dining experience.

Once again we enjoyed a camp fire in the evening. The roaring river was slowly returning to its former babbling brook status. We finished off our firewood and crawled into bed confident that the next morning would be so delightful, it would break our hearts to leave Hungry Mother.

We were right.

Hello Dolly!

We headed east from Rock Island to Sparta and Crossville before picking up Interstate 40. We were headed to Gatlinburg. The road was heavily trafficked and took us past Knoxville. It rained off and on, but seemed to be clearing as we got farther and farther eastward.

At Sevierville we turned on to Highway 441. Immediately the scene changed and we encountered the beginning of one of the most overbuilt, mind-blowing commercial shrines to American plastic culture either of us have ever seen. Sevierville led to Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge led to Gatlinburg.

The frenzy of crass American consumerism continued with hotels, chain restaurants, every big box retailer imaginable and an assortment of shrines to low brow culture including the FunStop Family Action Park, the Dixie Stampede Dinner Show, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.

Of course, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dolly Parton. This is the home of Dollywood. And this is all  Dollywood’s spawn. Actually, I don’t mean that to sound so nasty. There is no denying that Dolly Parton is a goddess in these parts. She has brought a tremendous tourism business to this region, supplied hundreds of jobs and never forgotten her roots.

In the wake of the devastating fires which raged around Gatlinburg, the Dolly Parton Foundation gave stipends to hundreds who had lost their homes for months on end. Indeed the payments had just ended with a surprise final bonus check for each household of $5,000.

Dolly was actually in town for the Annual Dollywood Parade during our visit and everyone was abuzz with excitement. She was featured in the parade on the evening local news as reigning royalty.

The Chimney Top 2 Fire which devastated an enormous area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg began just before Thanksgiving 2016, but its roots went back 80 years to the 1930’s when fire suppression techniques were adopted across the country. Over the decades dead wood and tinder accumulated. After four months with no rain in the fall of 2016, it took only two teens and a match to destroy 17,000 acres, kill 14 people and destroy countless homes. The fire began small, but after four days, hundred mile per hour winds blew it into an unstoppable conflagration.

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We were slated to stay at the Twin Creek RV Resort. I had tried to book us in to the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky National Park, but it was full. Twin Creek was highly rated and, as it turned out, much closer to Gatlinburg than Elkmont would have been.

We arrived to a darkened campground. When I entered the main office, the lights were off and only then did we find out that the power was off. A big wind event had hit the area the day before. Everyone had lost power. The national park was actually closed as was the main road, Highway 441, through the park. Winds had hit with 100 mph blasts, not unlike those which fueled the Chimney Top 2 Fire, and wreaked havoc in the park. All campers in the Elkmont Campground had been forced to leave.

Our resort hosts were harried. They had been turning refugees from Elkmont and other resorts away all day, but would honor our reservation as we had already paid. They explained that there was power in one part of the park and they planned to move us there. They were trying to get the power re-established in the other part of the park, but had no idea when it would happen. We decided to stay in our original spot. It was much prettier. We could always dry camp until the power came back on. It was a calculated gamble.

Our hosts were very nice. This has been a difficult time in the area. In the wake of the Chimney Top Fire, business had been down substantially. The fire received so much coverage that everyone assumed Gatlinburg was in ruins and stayed away. While there had been tremendous damage and Dolly Parton’s foundation had done much to help many who lost all, the town itself appeared unscathed. This accounted in part for the upset on the part of the resort hosts, they had already been hit and could ill afford more lost business.

We backed into our site and relaxed. We could last for days without power. It wasn’t two hours later that we noticed the power was back on. Our gamble had paid off. The park was pretty empty and we were happy in our camp site.

It was raining again the next day and we accepted with disappointed resignation that there would be no hiking. We headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out when the park was going to re-open and if we could use the trails the next day.

It was packed at the Visitors Center. An enormous topographical model of the park dominated the entry room to the building. It gave a great context to the enormous size and scope of the park. There was also a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the park. Some of the roads through the park were now open, but the higher elevations had been hit with snow and 441 was still closed. We watched a 20 minute movie on the ecology of the park and got some guidance from a ranger as to where we should hike.

The rangers we spoke to at the information desk looked a little overwhelmed. She said they had not been able to assess damage to the park yet. They were still working on getting the highway open. It would be months and months of work to clear the trails. She urged us to be very careful as there were bound to be trees down on the trails which could be dangerous. We felt sorry that they faced another big challenge in the aftermath of yet another devastating weather occurrence. It was absolutely pouring when we left the Visitors Center.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated in 1940. It is one of the first parks to have been purchased with federal as well as state funds. The federal government agreed to support the park if the states of North Carolina and Tennessee would each purchase part of the land. The park has two main entrances, one in Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and the other in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the largest protected area in the eastern United States and one of the most visited parks in the country.

The park is known for its tremendous diversity in terms of geography and biology. Ridges roll off into the distance in all directions. There are mountain tops and deep valleys. The area gets a lot of rainfall and is quite humid which makes for tremendous biodiversity. The park features over 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads. We had been waiting for this visit for weeks.

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We drove back into Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, despite the torrential rains, the streets were packed with people. Waddling from fudge store to burger joint, they were intent on consumption. We were intent on our own kind of consumption. I had heard the Pancake Pantry had excellent corn meal pancakes. We dove in out of the rain for a lunch of pancakes and sausage.

 

Waddling ourselves back to the truck, we took refuge in the Airstream. We did make one quick stop on the way back. I had seen in the Gatlinburg tourist brochure a write-up of a local fiber shop. It was the Smoky Mountain Spinnery. Incredibly, this was my first and only stop at any retail establishment with fiber for this entire almost five month trip. I had been a pillar of restraint for months on end. This was a very cute shop with a great selection of wheels, roving, rug hooking materials and some yarn. I tried out a very nice Ashford portable wheel. Restraint again. However, a little roving did somehow drop into my bag. Jim and Dakota waited patiently in the truck during this fiber foray.

We were getting a little tired of all this spring rain. The forecast was perfect for the next day. Meanwhile, since we were in a fancy RV resort, we had cable and we spent the evening watching television.

It was a glorious morning the next day. Having visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we knew exactly where we wanted to hike. We drove back through the craziness of downtown Gatlinburg. Oddly, it was a lot less crazy than it had been during the driving rain. It was, however, Sunday. I guess everyone was in church.

We headed to the Elkmont Campground area to hike. Our route took us past the Elkmont Campground. It was open, but close to empty.

We parked near the trailhead and discovered an unexpected treat: the remains of a former summer vacation community. Early in the 20th Century the Little River Lumber Company began selling plots of land to Knoxville residents many of whom were executives with the railroad which hauled lumber. They established The Appalachian Club. Every summer this retreat became quite a social scene.

The Club was divided into three sections. Daisy Town, was located in close proximity to the club house and consisted of more modest cabins, some were almost shacks. There was also Society Hill which was located on the banks of the Jakes Creek and Millionaire’s Row located on the rushing Little River.

With the creation of the Great Smoky National Park, residents were given lifetime leases to their cabins. Those were turned into 20 year leases most of which were renewed until 1992. Two cabins retained their leases until 2001.

Now the cabins sit vacant. A few have been made historic buildings and will be maintained but under the terms of the National Park, the rest will be torn down and the land returned to its natural state. They were actually in the process of tearing down cabins on Society Hill as we visited.

It was here that we learned the difference between a national park and a national forest. National parks are dedicated to the preservation of the land in its natural state. Hence, the tearing down of the cabins. National forests are used for multiple purposes. They may be harvested for lumber, used for grazing and, of course, for recreation. Making the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a park rather than a forest was controversial at Elkmont and a tremendous sacrifice for those families.

The Spence Cabin and The Appalachian Club buildings are now available for day use and indeed a wedding was taking place while we were there. It was an exquisite setting for a ceremony. The Little River rushed right past the cabin. It was easy to imagine how delightful summers must have been here: the heat of the day softened by the cool of the running water and mist from the rapids. Surrounded by towering trees, the daily soundtrack was that of the river’s waters.

Our hike took us along the cabins on Society Hill and the Jakes River Trail. We then ascended the Cucumber Gap Trail. The woods were very beautiful and the weather was perfect. There was definitely damage from the storm and we threaded our way carefully around and under downed trees. The rivers were running very high and it was hard to cross without getting wet.

The Cucumber Gap Trail was one of the most magnificent we had hiked. The trees were enormous. Rivers ran along the trail. There was tremendous natural beauty and we were constantly exclaiming at new sights.

Our hike was a good long one with lots of hills and we were tired and footsore at the end. We were also really sorry that we had only that one day to explore this absolutely entrancing park. Now we understood Dolly Parton’s passionate devotion and loyalty to this land. We vowed to come back one day and spend several weeks exploring this remarkable place.

Onward to Tennessee

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The countryside we drove through as we headed to the Rock Island State Park was gorgeously green with rolling hills, grassy pastures and deciduous forests. Once off the interstate, our trip wound through the countryside and through small towns. We passed through Lynchburg and noted the scrum around the Jack Daniels distillery. There had been signs advertising it for miles and miles, since back at the Interstate. Free tastes to drivers? Is that such a great idea?

Turning off the highway at last, a narrow road led us past the small settlement of Rock Island and on to the park. Rock Island was a sweet looking village. It had a couple of small antiques shops, a local market and two churches. One of the antiques stores also sold cord wood. We would be stopping there later.

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The road was narrow and twisted constantly. It was heart-in-your-mouth exciting especially when hauling a 28 foot trailer. A river ran next to the road. This was the Caney Fork River and Gorge. We crossed a small bridge over a stream and passed an abandoned brick mill building nestled between the river’s shore and the narrow road. It felt like we cleared the corner of the building with barely an inch to spare. The river was now roiling and wild. It raged and fell cascading down the Great Falls Dam. The TVA had a power station here and it felt familiar to encounter this power force again.

We made our obligatory stop at Ranger Headquarters. The amiable woman on duty gave us an assigned site right next to the Camp Host. When I asked if there were other sites open, she agreeably took a highlighter and marked almost every other site in the park. We had our choice among many.

We chose a site at the back of the park. There was a tag on the site marker saying someone was supposed to be in that site. We were momentarily confused and I called the ranger with a miraculous bit of cell signal. She assured me the site was available. It was only afterwards we realized the tags were from the previous May. Very odd. Those tags stayed in place for a whole year and this was the week which duplicated them? Why did they stop putting out reservation tags? What did that mean for park maintenance? It remains a puzzle.

We backed the trailer onto the pad. The picnic table and grill were nestled behind the site pad and that made it feel even more private. There was a nice even gravel pad and the picnic table was on a sort of gravel platform. The fire pit was well placed and called to us.

A man came by with his truck. He dropped off some wood. He was heading home to Michigan and gifted us the logs. They were enormous chunks of wood and would make for a very big and long-lived fire. But not tonight, we were tired and ready to have dinner and turn in.

It was 4:15 a.m. and I was lying awake in bed when suddenly light suffused the Airstream bedroom. I looked out our open front bedroom window to see the back up lights to a car. It backed itself into the camp site next to ours and turned off the engine.

This was very odd and unsettling. What was this white SUV doing parking in the site next to ours in the wee hours of the night? There was no one anywhere near us and we felt suddenly alone and very vulnerable. I woke Jim and we considered what to do. We could see the driver in the reflected light as he checked his cell phone. Why was he here? Was he drunk? Did he have some nefarious intent? Had he had a fight with his wife and drove off angry? What was he doing in the middle of a campground in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?

I went to get my phone and the campground info to see if there was a number to call for security. There was no cell signal. Jim turned the outside trailer light on to signal that we were aware of the interloper. Next he hit the unlock button on the truck so it beeped and flashed light. Shortly thereafter our sometime neighbor fired his ignition and drove off. We sighed with relief and went back to bed. It was the first time we had felt the slightest concern for our safety at the hand of another after so many weeks on the road.

The next morning we were determined to get out and hike. We could not live in fear of ticks forever. There were numerous trails available in the park. First we poked around some of the park roads and visited what in warmer weather was the beach area. Then we drove out of the park past the Great Falls Dam to hike the Collins River Nature Trail.

This trail was a three-mile loop through the woods. It followed the bank of the Collins River which was just visible through the trees and then looped around back to its beginning. It felt really good to be hiking in the woods. It was hot and sunny already, but the trees kept us shaded and cool. When we got back to the truck, we stood broiling in the sun while I did a tick check. Most happily there were no ticks. Hooray for us! We had managed to enjoy a hike with no negative after effects.

After our hike, we visited the Caney Fork Gorge and the Great Falls Dam.

The mill building which had so frightened us when we were first driving in to the park turned out to have been the only mill in Franklin County. It operated for ten years before a flood wiped it out in 1902. The waters washed the giant turbine away and it was too expensive to replace it so the mill simply closed down.

Across the street there was an odd castle-like structure. This was a spring which had supplied drinking water to the mill. It was mossy and eerie and I am not at all sure I would want to drink this water.

After dinner we made a lovely fire and sat out in the cool night air, warm from the fire. I had made a pot of beans and we ate those by the fire. The stars were bright overhead and we sipped wine and enjoyed the evening until late. Thanks in part to the wood from our Michigander friend, our campfire was still burning the next morning when we got up.

We knew there would be rain on our second full day at the park. All day and that night it rained and rained. We spent the morning cleaning and doing our laundry. Later we drove into nearby Sparta to look around. With no cell or wi-fi at the campground, we sat in a bank parking lot for an hour catching up on email.  Back in camp that afternoon, we took advantage of breaks in the downpour to get hitched and ready to go the next day. It was a quiet and early evening with reading and a little music.

The next morning we woke to a grey and wet world. We pulled out and headed east. We were very excited to be visiting our next stop, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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