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.

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Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway was an incredible ride. The Parkway runs for over 460 miles and, like the Natchez Trace, is a national park for its entire length. Both of these narrow, ribbon-like parks are beautifully managed by the National Park Service. The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and runs north and east to Roanoke.

Begun in 1935 under FDR, the parkway was originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway. Construction was begun with private contractors but in 1936 Congress declared the highway part of the National Park Service. Construction was then undertaken by various New Deal agencies including the WPA and the CCC. Construction of the entire parkway took over 50 years to complete. It is one of the most visited destinations managed by the National Park Service.

 

Having so enjoyed the Natchez Trace, we were excited to sample this other famous drive. Our ride began just east of Asheville and we enjoyed 91 miles of amazing scenery before we had to continue in a different direction.

The first half of our ride was easily the most dramatic. We started at mile marker 382.6. The two lane highway wound around, up and over hills. We passed the spot where we had parked to hike the Craven Gap Trail. We continually gained altitude and the views just became more and more breathtaking.

The speed limit on the parkway is 45 mph. While I am sure sports cars and motorcyclists find that speed unnecessarily turtle-like and conservative, it was hard to travel that fast with trailer in tow. Curves could be tight and with only horizon beyond them, it seemed prudent to take our time and relish the experience.

Also breathtaking was the guard rail situation. Sometimes there were guard rails along the roadside before a sharp drop off. These were often rustic wooden affairs. It was hard not to wonder if they could possibly stop the forces of gravity and trajectory involved with a 28’ Airstream and Ram 2500 Laramie with Cummins diesel engine. More often there was simply no guardrail at all. The edge of the road gave way to an amazing vista and clean mountain air.

The highest point for us on our drive was Craggy Gardens at mile marker 364. As we approached the visitor center and parking lot, we were enveloped by clouds. We had gained over 3500 feet in elevation since joining the trail.

When shopping for our hike the day before, I had toyed with hiking the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, but discarded the idea due to the trail’s short length. Now I was kind of glad. One of the things which often gets hikers in trouble is failing to take into account the impact of elevation changes. The temperature must have dropped by 20 degrees. We would have frozen up here on the trail.

The parkway is dotted with scenic overlooks and pull-offs. It was difficult to pass any of them without stopping. Each vista was breathtaking and not-to-be-missed. It was as if the planners couldn’t help themselves and needed to provide a stop for each successive vista. We stopped at many of them.

Tunnels are also frequent along the parkway and added yet another element of excitement!

The second half of our Blue Ridge Parkway drive took us to lower elevations. The scenery was still glorious, but less terrifying. The mountains gave way to hills and finally to fields and signs of civilization. Local roads intersected the parkway and houses could be glimpsed through the trees.

Lunch was quite a visual affair. We stopped at yet another amazing pull off just below Grandfather Mountain. I made sandwiches and we sat munching away as we stared up at the impressive mountain. This was close to the end of our time on the Parkway. We exited at Blowing Rock at mile marker 291.9.

Highway 321 took us in to the town of Boone and onward through more lovely rolling hills and small towns. It was almost disorienting to be back in civilization after such an engrossing and eventful drive through breathtaking scenery. It was as if we had woken from a strange and beautiful dream.

 

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.

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

Stars Did Not Align

Editor’s note: this post should have preceded the post entitled Restoration East of the Mississippi. Apologies for the inadvertent geographical diversion. 

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Just outside Star City is Cane Creek State Park. We arrived on a sunny and warm afternoon. The drive from Lake Catherine had been short and it was just past 1 p.m., early for check in. The woman in Ranger Headquarters said she wasn’t sure our site was free yet. We drove past and it didn’t look like anyone had thought about hitching up yet.

We needed a place to wait. Jim had looked at the map and saw there were two roads, one led to a boat launch, the other to the picnic area. Both roads were shown to have loops at the end. We headed down the road to the picnic area only to discover to our dismay that here was no loop, just a dead end. Uh oh.

At the picnic area, there was a small parking lot near the bathrooms and Jim pulled in. Some folks were sitting at one of the picnic tables. We figured they were probably wondering what the heck we were doing. Choosing to flee this potentially volatile scene, I headed to the rest room and left Jim to it. When I emerged, he had managed magically and gracefully to get turned around in the small parking lot. We had to laugh. Those people at the picnic table must have thought he just happened to drive me to use the ladies room with the trailer hitched even though we had a bathroom in the trailer. It was pretty funny.

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Right on time, the previous tenants pulled out of our site and we got backed in and settled. This campground is pretty small, only 24 sites and most were unoccupied. It was wooded and shady which felt good in the warm afternoon air. The lake was just visible through the trees down a hill from our site. Given our concerns about ticks, we did not set up the mat or our chairs outside. The great outdoors held little charm for us.

The ranger had warned me right up front the ticks were bad. Having just had an upsetting tick experience, we weren’t really anxious to get on the trails. We lounged around for the afternoon and managed to get the weather before the tv began pixilating wildly. A big thunderstorm was predicted.

It was a boomer and a banger all right. The lightning and thunder were impressive and the rain prodigious. It was still spitting the next morning. We spent the morning reading the paper and cleaning the trailer. We had just enough cell signal to send emails, hot spot and even make calls.

The park rented kayaks and I walked back to the ranger station to inquire about rentals. Due to the rain, they weren’t renting any that day. I had been obsessing over the tick issue since we left Lake Catherine. I was so worried about Dakota and totally grossed out that we seemed inundated with ticks. I asked the ranger if she thought I was over-reacting. She was most commiserative and sympathetic. Rangers have to do many things in their jobs, I guess therapy should be added to the list.

Lunch was an appropriate rainy day meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Right after lunch, I headed in to Star City’s sole laundromat to do the laundry. It was actually a pretty nice laundromat. Having spent quite a bit of time in various iterations of laundromats in the last few months, this was a happy surprise. I was so content sitting there knitting, I didn’t even notice when the wash cycle ended.

Late in the afternoon the skies cleared. Dakota and I took a (hopefully) tick free walk down to the fishing pier. The air was incredibly fresh and clear. Some couples were taking pictures down at the dock in full prom regalia. They seemed very happy and excited. I would expect prom is a pretty big deal in a very small town like Star City.

Since hiking the trails was off the list, the next day we decided to drive up to Pine Bluff. For some reason Pine Bluff sounded terribly familiar to us. Jim had done some research and discovered they had a series of murals painted on the walls of buildings in the downtown area in the 90’s. The walls depicted scenes of local history.

Pine Bluff was about 40 minutes north and we drove through open country. We followed the signs for the downtown and parked the truck. It was a sunny and comfortably warm day. Jim had noted the locations for all the murals and we decided to make it a walking tour.

The murals were still there, but Pine Bluff’s downtown was deserted and the buildings were crumbling. It was beyond creepy. Store windows were boarded up. We walked the sidewalk past a couple of store front lawyers’ offices proximate to the county courthouse. Otherwise, there was nothing left.

Going out of business signs decorated the fronts of buildings which were now roofless with walls beginning to collapse inward.

Railroad tracks split the downtown. A train signaled its approach and we stood by as it rumbled past us through the desolate town.

The Historic Depot Museum was defunct. We peered through windows to see the empty lobby. The ticket desk displayed its open hours and pamphlets were littered across the counter. It was as if the people had simply disappeared one day.

North of the tracks there was still some activity. A few small and dilapidated houses stood. The convention center was flanked by a now-closed hotel. A government building stood next to the post office. We turned back towards the downtown and passed a recently erected brick structure housing the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.

We spied a deteriorating brick building. Painted on its side was the legend “Tear Me Up.” Not “Tear Me Down”, but “Tear Me Up.”What did that mean? Was it a plea for restoration? Was it a protest against the rampant neglect? A cry of anguish from a heart wrenched by loss? Another building seemed to sport the beginning of the same plea, but it remained unfinished. What happened?

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Back in the truck, we drove through some depressed residential areas and up to the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. This is a predominately black institution with just over 5,000 students. The campus included a stadium, some dorms, academic buildings and, while not architecturally outstanding, it appeared to be in good shape.

We were deeply saddened at the state of Pine Bluff. The city is 75% black with about 20% of inhabitants white. The median income in the city is $30,413 and almost 1/3 of the population lives below the poverty line. How had this been allowed to happen to these people? They had been abandoned by all appearances as their city collapsed around them. In 2013 CNNMoney reported the crime rate in Pine Bluff was second only to Detroit. Recently the city was awarded $2 million to stimulate development. Hope for the future?

We drove back to Star City. Back at the park, we walked down to see Cane Creek Lake on the park road. Standing on the dock, Dakota began ferociously scratching at his leg. I checked only to discover a large tick embedded in his flesh. We walked briskly back to the trailer to perform yet another tick check.

While we were in Arkansas, a big story on the national and local news was that state’s plan to execute inmates on death row before the expiration date on their death serum. Popular opinion in the state seemed to hold that this would bring closure to the victims of heinous crimes. Others suggested taking a life under even these circumstances was unacceptable. This was not the first time that we experienced the collision of local and national news. It always made for thought-provoking juxtaposition and this was certainly the case in this instance as the state did successfully carry out four executions, two in one evening, during our stay.

The next day we would head back to Mississippi and we were glad of it. Arkansas had been a difficult state for us. We had been beleaguered by ticks. We felt uncomfortable and often unhappy. It seemed a strange state with scenic lakes anchored by hulking power stations and cities left desolate and crumbling. It was a state where even the truckers seemed malevolent. Was it us or was this really a state where good and bad seemed to fit into the same glove?

Forced Interlude

During our extended adventure, we have made our plans and schedules in stages. We wanted to have some flexibility and we didn’t really know where we would want to go. Planning in stages gave us the ability to respond to new information or follow a sudden whim.

Our planning sessions could only take place when we had access to wifi or enough cell service to create a hot spot. They also usually happened during inclement weather when we couldn’t really be out hiking or sightseeing. Jim and I would sit at the table in our lounge with atlas at hand and plot out the next stages.

The one inflexible aspect to our trip was my need to fly back to Massachusetts for the spring meeting of the Friends of Smith College Libraries. We knew that where ever we were, I needed to head east in early April.

IMG_2218In mid-March we had a planning session and identified San Antonio as the best place for me to fly out of and for Jim and Dakota to hang out in until I could get back. We worked our plans around this. After our happy idyll in Lost Maples, we headed to San Antonio and the Blazing Star RV Resort.

Blazing Star was quite nice. It was located on the west side of San Antonio in an area which was being built up at a dizzying pace. The traffic in the area was relentless. Driving in or out of the rv resort was enough to make me want to scream. The resort itself was an oasis.

 

We arrived at Blazing Star on a Tuesday afternoon. We unhitched and got settled in. Little did we know our stay would extend to a full week. Bright and early the next morning Jim and Dakota drove me to the airport.

My plan was to fly in to Bradley/Hartford airport. Bradley lies equidistant between our house in CT and Northampton. I would land, rent a car and drive to our house in CT for the night.

IMG_2168By a happy coincidence Peter had a work dinner in Wilton and would join me for a brief overnight visit before I headed to Northampton that next morning. We had a really nice visit. As always he required feeding and we had breakfast at Christy’s in Torrington. It was so great to see him after three months’ absence.

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Going back to Smith and Northampton is always a homecoming. Being there just makes me feel happy and peaceful. I have been on the Friends of Smith College Libraries’ Executive Committee for at least seven years now. The board is a great group of very smart and interesting women and it is always delightful to be with them. It is fun to see the students on campus and to stay in touch with this amazing place.

This visit was especially exciting. Saying I feel at home in Northampton has extra meaning these days as Jim and I are having a house built in nearby Florence. This is another long-held dream of ours. We love this community tucked in the hills with five colleges nearby to give it a cultural life and a thriving downtown full of restaurants and shops. We had discovered the development in which we were building our house two years earlier just before Ellie graduated from Smith. After a somewhat attenuated courtship, we settled on our lot #20 at Bear Hill.

On Thursday after a lunch with Susan Fliss, the Dean of Libraries, and Mary Irwin, Gifts Officer, and my co-conspirator for FSCL, I headed over to see our house in progress. It is starting to really look like a house! Shauneen Kocot, our realtor, met me and we toured the construction site together.

After our library meeting ended on Friday, three of us headed to the airport and that is when the fun began. Of course, “fun” is not really the proper term. To say Delta seemed either drastically incompetent, uncaring or both, would be an understatement. I won’t go into detail, but just say the next two days involved hours of standing line, holding on the telephone and teeth gnashing. Wait times on the phone exceeded three hours and their call back system didn’t work.

I was fortunate in that I could re-rent a car and go back to our house in CT unlike so many who were stranded in airports. At least I had a familiar pillow and comfortable environment. After two days of trying to re-book a flight on Delta, I gave up. It didn’t seem like they even remembered my existence. I booked a flight on American. I hope never to fly Delta again. What I also hoped is that American would carry me back to San Antonio and Jim, Dakota and the Airstream and we could get back on the road.

This experience did give me one interesting perspective. Home. What is home? I was at home. I was at our house in Connecticut which has been my home for 34 years and yet, I kept saying I needed to get home. I was almost frantic to get “home.” Home in that context was home to Jim, Dakota and the Airstream. So, I guess home can be a place, but perhaps more significant is that home is a state of mind or of heart. My heart was in San Antonio.

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Angling Towards San Angelo

Our drive would take us east to Odessa and Midland and then south to San Angelo. My Blue Beacon app told us a truck wash was to be had in Odessa. We stopped, got cleaned up and headed through the arid west Texas plains.

Right outside Sterling City we saw our first big wind farm. We couldn’t count the number of turbines standing at the top of the ridge silhouetted against the bright blue sky. It was quite striking and in this easterner’s opinion, much more beautiful than the oil derricks dotting the west Texas landscape. But I know that would be a minority opinion among most in these parts.

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San Angelo lies south east of Midland and north east of Fort Stockton. We had almost closed a giant loop of travel through west Texas and up into southeast New Mexico. The San Angelo State Park is just west of the city of San Angelo. The park sits just outside the city which is slowly encircling the park. The park is shaped somewhat like a bent hourglass with two distinct sections joined by a narrow middle.

We were camping in the Red Arroyo section of the park which abuts the O.C. Fisher Lake. The O.C. Fisher Reservoir Dam was visible to the right of our campground and beyond the dam was San Angelo. The other section of the park contained the North Concho and Bald Eagle campgrounds.

Our campground sat on a plateau above the lake and was sparsely populated. The sites were spaced well apart.

Our site overlooked the lake but the water’s edge was still quite far away. When we got to our site, we were pretty excited to see our next door neighbor was another Airstream. The wide spacing between sites was not conducive to campsite chatting and we never did speak to them.

It was very hot and sunny when we un-hitched. The picnic table and shelter were a cooler oasis and caught the breezes. We sat there as dusk deepened to night sipping our wine and enjoying the vast sky. It was a sweet magical evening. The ever-present west Texas wind was soft and gentle.

The next morning we got ourselves up and headed out to find one of the park’s trails. Darn if we could find it. We ended up following the park road back to the ranger headquarters to ask where to pick up the trail. Of course, it had been just inside the bushes and brush the whole time. We followed a big loop trail through our end of the park. It was very hot and the sun was strong. There was no shade and I had an eye out for snakes and other dangers. The thermostat read 92 degrees and I worried about Dakota in his heavy coat.

Once we had the trail, it was no problem to follow and we wound through our end of the park ending up quite close to our campsite. We were hot and sweaty and surprisingly tired since it wasn’t that long a hike. We got cleaned up and decided to head into town. We needed to re-supply groceries.

The parking lot at the H.E.B. was packed and hotter than hades. We had grown to love these Texas supermarkets named for Howard Edward Butt. They had great produce and pretty much everything else was first-rate. Traveling through small towns you are at the mercy of the local supermarket and some of them had been pretty dismal affairs. Of course in this kind of heat, we couldn’t leave Dakota in the truck alone so poor Jim was relegated to the firey-hot parking lot while I shopped. I felt vindicated to hear the checkout people complaining to each other about the excessive heat.

We succumbed this second night to the high winds and heat, closed the trailer and put on the air conditioning. The news broadcast predicted more heat for the next day and the arrival of a major storm front which would ultimately break the heat wave. It was a quiet night in the campground and we were grateful for the creature comforts of our Airstream.

Despite the weatherman’s prognostication, the next morning seemed cooler. A hike in the other section of the park was on the docket.

It was actually quite a long way to the other park entrance, a matter of six or seven miles. The ranger at the north entrance was very excited that the Wiener Dog races were taking place in the park. Indeed, the parking lot was packed with vehicles and wiener dogs were everywhere. Given Dakota’s predilection to lose his mind barking at small dogs, we hustled him off to the trailhead.

It felt good to hike the trails in the north end of the park. It was much greener with trees, a creek and more bushes and vegetation. The trail signage was inscrutable and had nothing to do with the trail map the ranger had given us. Not only were the trails not where we expected them to be, there were trails which never appeared on the map. Despite those frustrations, we wandered up and down and all around. We had a picnic lunch sitting on a bench and left the north end of the park tired and satisfied.

Tired and dusty, we got back to the trailer and cleaned up. That afternoon we drove into San Angelo and poked around the downtown. San Angelo grew up next to Fort Concho in the 1870’s. San Angelo regards itself as the Wool Capital of the World which should have been enough to endear it to me forever, but I didn’t see any sheep. We had just missed the Rodeo in February which was probably quite an event. I am sure there are amazing things to be seen in San Angelo, but either we just weren’t into a cosmopolitan experience or it was lacking there. After a brief reconnaissance, we headed back to the park.

The evening skies were spectacular. Huge white clouds stretched thousands of feet up into the atmosphere. The wind was blowing fiercely. The storm was blowing in from the south and east. The wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand outside. It would wrench the door to the trailer from our hands every time we tried to go in or out.

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We watched the weather with rapt attention. The storms were severe. To the east of us hail and tornadoes were threatening and entire counties were on alert.

The storm actually hit after we were in bed and we lay listening to the thunder, rain and wind as it rocked the trailer. The lightning lit up the sky. Dakota hopped up on the bed for comfort. The storm lasted for hours. All I could think of was how much I wished we had a surge protector and vowed we would get one first chance.

We were spent and tired the next morning from a night of worry and suspense. All was well, however,  and we hitched up to head out with a sense of relief along with our fatigue.