Perched High on a Ridge

Highway 441 was still closed due to the big storm and the late Spring snowfall. Our next stop was Asheville, NC so to get there we had to drive a bit north and cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at a lower elevation. This was probably just as well. I am not sure about pulling a trailer over the top of the mountains.

It was a lovely day for a drive and you couldn’t beat the scenery.

We were staying at the Campfire Lodgings RV Park which was just outside Weaverville and a few miles north of Asheville. The campground is situated high on a mountain with an outstanding view of the valley below. A river runs through the valley and it couldn’t be much more beautiful.

The road leading up the mountain was a bit treacherous. As with so many of our arrivals, it was perhaps more excitement than we needed. The steep incline twisted and turned and, for the millionth time, I wondered how a Class A would ever make it.

This concern was echoed as Jim worked to back in to our site. The ground across the road dropped off precipitously and it was quite a trick to jockey the trailer into the site. We got settled and enjoyed a quiet evening in camp.

The caretaker at the campground was an extremely friendly and gregarious young fellow. He was very helpful. We would see him frequently during the next two days. He was obviously a devout Christian. I say obviously because his t-shirts invariably had a religious message. His standard farewell was, “Have a Blessed Day.” It was a little awkward for two reasons. The first was that we wanted to be cordial, but we were uncomfortable responding in kind. We solved that by saying, “Thank you, and you, too.” The other reason was we had begun watching The Handmaid’s Tale and it was frighteningly reminiscent of that disturbing dystopia.

Having had such a glorious hike in Elkmont, we were anxious to get back on the trail again. If I had thought Ashville would give us easy access to the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains as well as a neat town to explore, I was a little misguided. The National Park was a distance away. Not insurmountable, but farther than we wanted to drive round trip for a hike.

After a bit of research, we decided to hike the Craven Gap Trail. It was only half an hour away and had some decent reviews. The GPS took us on a wild ride to the trail. We drove up Webb Cove Road, a twisty-turny adventure ride up the side of a mountain. I have no idea how people drive this road in the dark or inclement weather. It was a white knuckle drive for me.

Sadly, a bologna sandwich is just not that satisfying after dining on pate. The trail was fine, but it was nothing close to the glorious Cucumber Gap Trail. We hiked for a good long while through the woods. Trees obscured the views of mountains and ridges. We stopped for lunch at the turnaround point and hiked back.

We spent the balance of the afternoon at the trailer. After all of our tick adventures, I had made another vet appointment for Dakota to get a Lyme test. There was no way I was taking my beautiful puppy to the vet in his current dirty condition. Since the shower plumbing was leaking I finally decided to wash him in the shower using buckets of water. As always Dakota was patient with the strange behavior of his human. He patiently stood and waited as I hauled buckets of water to we him, soaped him all over and then hauled more water to rinse him. Once it was over, it was easy to see how happy he was to be clean and even more beautiful than before.

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When we had woken that morning, we saw the site next to us was now occupied. Late the night before a somewhat dubious looking trailer and red pickup truck had arrived. I am ashamed to say we were a bit sniffy about it. We would never get to a campground late at night. We disparaged their ancient trailer and truck. We were not very nice.

Of course, we met the occupants and they were completely charming. They were two women in their late 20’s, early 30’s. They were taking a year off to travel the country. One had sold her house and together they had bought the old trailer and ripped it apart and re-built it. They gave us a tour of their 23’ trailer and the job they had done. I couldn’t have re-wired a trailer, ripped out the shower or built a platform bed. They had done a lot of work on the old pickup, too. In fact, they arrived so late because something had happened to the brake pads. I could not begin to fix brake pads. These women had moxie.

IMG_3478They were having a grand time and we shared our respective plans and adventures. One of them asked if I had read The Longest Road—about a man with an Airstream. I said I hadn’t and she offered to lend it to me. The book is by Philip Caputo and it turns out he lives in Norfolk right near us in CT. He decides to drive from Key West to the Arctic Circle and does so in an old vintage Airstream. I returned the book to them when we left and downloaded it to my Kindle so I could finish it. Not unlike Travels With Charley, the similarities in our experiences were striking.

Our second day in Ashville was dedicated to a walking tour of the city. Touristing with a dog means walking tours so we hit the Visitors Center first and got a map. It was a sunny day and perfect for sightseeing. We strolled around. Having been beautified, Dakota garnered much attention and pats. I was excited to visit Malaprops. It had been many years since I visited this independent. It was satisfying to poke around the bookshelves.

We stumbled upon Pete’s Pies. They touted their dog-friendly courtyard dining area and that was enough for us. It was a very delightful courtyard. I ordered a Ploughman’s Special. It was enormous. Dakota helped me with the apple slices and I had enough to take with for a lunch again the next day. Jim had a Shepherd’s Pie.

We had a vet appointment up in Weaverville at 1:30 so we hustled back to the truck. The Appalachian Animal Hospital had good ratings on-line. The building which housed the clinic looked brand new. I walked in with Dakota and was ushered to a small room. It was nice not to have to deal with other animals.

After a brief wait, a technician came in and asked why we were there. She was in her 20’s and very friendly. She had another young woman with her who was interning at the clinic. The vet came in and rather than look at Dakota on an exam table, joined him on the floor. She gave him a thorough check up. At one point Dakota was a little nippy and they got him a “party hat.” It was a very simple nylon muzzle with a velcro close. He didn’t seem to mind it at all. I love that they made it a positive experience. How could we mind a “party hat?” They drew blood for the tests which happily came back negative. Dr. Sheldon gave Dakota a clean bill of health especially for a dog his age.

It was once again a relief to know that our lifestyle of traveling and hiking, changing venue often was not having an adverse affect on Dakota’s health. In fact he had lost yet more weight and was now down to 26.5 lbs. That was just about three pounds of lost weight. I sure wish I had dropped 10% of my body weight on our trip.

We had one last night in Asheville. We enjoyed a fire in our fire ring and savored the lovely night air. The visit was too short, but we had enjoyed it.

 

 

 

 

 

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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

No Trace at Trace!

The park map of Trace State Park shows a large lake with three “fingers.” The two isthmi between the  three fingers feature on one the fishing piers and on the other two campgrounds. We were elated when we made our reservation to get a prime spot in the Eagle Ridge Campground looking out over the lake.

Our drive from Grenada was quite lovely. Northern Mississippi is green rolling country. We headed north towards Oxford and then east. I had desperately wanted to visit Square Books, a renowned independent bookseller in Oxford, but Google Earth made it pretty clear that a 48 foot trailer and truck was going to find no haven anywhere near town center. Ah, well, we’ll save that for another day…

Trace State Park sits just west of Tupelo. I was excited to see this city with the beguiling name and we planned to do both sightseeing and hiking. We pulled up to the ranger station at the park gate and got checked in. No mention was made of anything out of the ordinary at the park. I did ask after ticks and the ranger said they were pretty bad.

 

We pulled the trailer along the park roads, found our site which was right across from the comfort station/laundry and backed in. It wasn’t until we were backed in to the site that we noticed one tiny detail which deviated from expectations. The lake had disappeared! There was no lake. Instead there was a vast expanse of brown mud extending in all directions. How do you lose a lake?

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We were completely nonplussed. Rather than a glorious vista, we faced a mud horizon. We sniffed the air which was redolent of a smell redolent of cow manure. I kind of like the earthiness of a sometime whiff of cow manure, but three days of it seemed a bit much.5217 643

The earth around our site was barren and grass-less. The thought of sitting out on the scrabbly dirt staring off over the muddy lake-less expanse was less than attractive. On the positive side, the bath house did look quite nice and the laundry was spotless.

We weren’t too happy as we unhitched. There was cell signal and I hot spotted to go online and see if there were other places to stay. Jim went on-line to find out what happened to the lake.

It seemed that the lake’s dam had been slated for repairs. The contractor had been moving slowly when an inspection revealed an imminent danger of collapse. The lake was immediately drained to avoid flooding downstream. This had all happened six days before. It sure seems like they might have mentioned to those planning a stay that the lake had disappeared. They didn’t even mention it when we checked in. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

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It was quite warm and late in the afternoon. We decided to drive in to Tupelo and poke around. Jim needed to visit a hardware store and we both thought it was time for some barbecue. A trip to the grocery store and a re-stock on our boxed wine was also on the docket. It was forecast to storm that night. We would batten down the hatches, stock up the larder and decide our plans the next day.

Amazingly, after some excellent barbecue and a successful foray into town, life looked rosier. Bishop’s Barbecue had multiple locations and one was right on the way back to the park. It was very good barbecue. I had fried green tomatoes and pulled pork. They looked a little surprised when I asked for a container to take half of it home. From the looks of it, most of their customers belonged to the clean plate club. Meow.

The predicted storm was just a normal boomer and banger. The next morning was sunny and clear. It would get hot later, but a morning hike would be an excellent undertaking. Jim had done some research and found a very nice sounding Rails-to-Trails just west of us.

Rails-to-Trails are pretty dependable hiking locations. The former railroad beds run straight and true, are often elevated and paved. We had walked one when we were in Navarre and could find no hiking trails. This would fit neatly into our tick avoidance program (TAP) and give us some good outdoor exercise.

The Tanglefoot Trail runs just under 44 miles from Houston north to New Albany. We decided to pick up the trail at Pontotoc. The trail was gorgeously maintained. Where we parked there was a lovely rest stop/picnic area. It was so new we half expected to see a hammer still lying around.

We hiked along the trail enjoying the fresh air and sun and feeling quite confident that we were tick free. It felt good to stretch our legs and glimpse bits of Pontotoc as we walked along. It looked like a nice town and we could see the community park with ball fields from the trail.

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Pontotoc means “Land of Hanging Grapes” in the Chickasaw language. After our walk, we drove around Pontotoc. It was a suburb of Tupelo and had nice houses, a modest town square and some small businesses. At this point we had abandoned any thought of changing campgrounds. We spent the end of the day doing laundry at the campground and we drove around the park roads to see other parts of the park. The funny cow manure smell had disappeared after the rain.

One thing about Mississippi that we loved was the ubiquity of public television. Whether it was Natchez, Grenada or the outskirts of Tupelo, PBS came in loud and clear. The same was true for radio broadcasts. We were able to indulge our love of PBS NewsHour and the local radio broadcasts in the morning. For some reason I would not have expected this of Mississippi, but we thought much better of the state for its commitment to this media.

On our final day at Trace State Park, we returned to the Tanglefoot Trail and Pontotoc and hiked in the opposite direction. The weather during this second hike was humid and heavy. The sky was a little overcast and the trail cut through a more urban area. We were glad we had headed south the first day through a less urban part of the trail. It was still a good walk, but not quite as good this second outing.

In the afternoon, we headed in to Tupelo. We had an extremely tasty lunch at the Neon Pig. This butcher cum restaurant and bar was a fun spot. I am not a fan of pictures of food, but I will break my usual practice and share a visual glimpse of the tremendously tasty pork belly sandwich I split with Jim.

We worked off that tasty lunch wandering the streets of Tupelo’s historic district. The old courthouse stood squarely next to its more modern iteration. Many of the historic homes were now law offices. It must be a pretty nice life practicing law in a small city like Tupelo. A short walk from the office to the courthouse, a comfortable living and enough urban sophistication to make life interesting with the great outdoors is a stone’s throw away. Not a bad life.

Our early discomfiture with the disappearing lake had likewise disappeared. We enjoyed seeing both Tupelo and Pontotoc and would be happy to return anytime. With any luck the lake would also have returned and that idyllic campsite with a lake view would be part of the package.

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?

Restoration East of the Mississippi

The Arkansas we drove through after leaving Cane Creek flattened out and the sun burned down on the planted fields. We were heading south and east. This seemed to be mostly farm country with small towns parsed along the highway.

At McGehee we passed the Japanese Internment Camp Museum. Sadly, it was closed and we could not stop. It was late April and the thermostat already registered over 80 degrees in late morning. There were two internment camps in southeastern Arkansas, one in Jerome and one in Rohwer. Most of the Japanese interned in the two camps here were relocated from California. Life had to have been incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. The climate was tough, not the gentler climate they must have known in California. The camps were spartan at best. These people were held for years. The Museum opened four years ago. George Takei, who was interned at Rohwer as a small child, was on hand for the occasion. That was big news in these parts.

We flew across the graceful Greenville Bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville. Built in 2010, this was the fourth longest cable-stayed bridge in North America when it opened. It replaced an older bridge which was obsolete. There aren’t that many places to cross the Mississippi. We were back on the eastern side of this dividing line. We were back in a state which had earlier charmed us with its beauty and the grace of Natchez.

Our destination was Grenada Lake just outside of Grenada, MS. We were staying at the North Abutment Campground which proved to be nestled at the northern end of the Grenada Dam.

We didn’t quite know all of this at the time. What we did know was that Grenada was a fair-sized town in central northern Mississippi. We drove through town noting that every fast food chain one could imagine was represented. Blindly following the GPS instructions, we left town along Scenic Highway 333. The road wound through woods. We really didn’t have a clue where we were going and struggled to read the signs.

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Suddenly we broke out of the woods and the most enormous lake appeared to our right.We both exclaimed at the gorgeous blue water reflected under blue skies with fantastically puffy white clouds. We crossed the 2.6 mile length of the mighty Grenada Dam and found our campground at its northern end.

The Yazoo Headwater Project which created Grenada Lake with the construction of the eponymous dam was completed in 1954. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this was a massive project. Designed to protect approximately 1.5 milliion acres of the Yazoo River Basin from flooding, it also provided endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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Those army engineers weren’t fooling around. We drove across the enormous dam admiring the lake to our right and, far below to the left, the protected valley and the Yalobusha River flowing through it.

The North Abutment campground consisted of two separate camping areas. Unlike most parks, there was no real entrance gate and we felt our way to the site which had been designated on our reservation.

This was the flattest, longest and most perfect campsite ever constructed. We barely bothered to check our side to side and front to back levels. Of course, when we did, they were perfect. Even more perfect was the breathtaking view. Jim dubbed this the country club of campgrounds and he was right.

Early in the week, the campground was pretty empty. We relished the delightful weather, the gorgeous view and the serenity. It was deeply restorative.

We had only two nights booked at North Abutment. That left us with one day to enjoy the place. We didn’t do much at all. We relaxed at our campsite. Oddly enough, we almost never sit around relaxing. Unless the weather is bad, we tend to be out and exploring. It was a nice respite to spend some time reading and knitting and listening to music.

In the afternoon we made one brief foray into town. There were a couple trails to hike, but we didn’t have the heart for it. We talked a lot about the need to avoid ticks moving forward. To say we were obsessively haunted would not be totally overstating things. We needed to undertake a tick avoidance program (TAP). Hiking those trails didn’t seem worth it.

Grenada Lake is a big destination for fishermen. The lake when full in summer consists of 35,000 acres of water. It boasts 148 miles of shoreline. In the winter they draw down the water and it shrinks to less than a third of its summer size. At flood level the dam can hold back 64,000 acres of water and the shoreline swells to 282 miles. The whole project is immense.

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We hated to leave after our second night. We toyed with staying another day, but rain was predicted and it seemed best to move on and keep to our schedule. Hitching up was a dream on our perfect pad. The truck and trailer practically hitched themselves and we headed out to the next adventure.