The Return Is the Next Beginning

Our last stop on our five month walkabout was the same as our first had been. We were back at Colonial Airstream in Lakewood, New Jersey. We had a laundry list of repairs and fine tuning to take care of. One downside of never having a practice trip to break in the Airstream, but simply heading out, was we had no shakedown trip. We discovered issues as we traveled and slowly assembled a prodigious list of things to address. We would spend two nights and the intervening day waiting to become ship-shape.

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This is in no way a negative about Airstreams, Colonial or the Airstream manufacturer. Even in a travel trailer with no engine to worry about, things are bound to break or go wrong and need attention. The issues we faced were far fewer than those potentially faced by Fifth Wheels with lots of pull outs and moving parts or even the giant Class A’s with their amazing amenities. Our trailer is a simpler creature. It has fewer bells and whistles and, therefore, fewer things to need repair. But there is inevitable wear and tear.

Our home base was a pet-friendly Comfort Inn. We had stayed there before. It was clean and the staff was very nice. Located about 20 minutes from Colonial Airstream, it is the only pet-friendly motel in the area.

We dropped the Airstream at Colonial on Tuesday evening. The drive from Jersey Shore had been wet and grey and the parking lot at Colonial was a succession of small lakes. We were feeling sad and bereft at leaving our comfy trailer. Those feelings were somewhat balanced by the thought of a long hot shower in a private bathroom. Ah, that would be nice.

We got ourselves checked in to the Comfort Inn. There was plentiful Wi-Fi signal and Dakota seemed pleased when we brought his bed in from the truck and, of course, his yellow duck and his water and food bowls. All the furnishings that a furry dog could need or want.

With no kitchen at hand, we were forced to go out to dinner. I had been hankering to go to a Longhorn Steakhouse for weeks and there was one nearby. We loaded Dakota and his bed back into the truck and headed over through the rain. Dinner out in a restaurant, how exciting!! A steak, a little red wine and all was fine.

For the next two days we would need to entertain ourselves. The next morning was grey and rainy and we hung out in our room. Then we made a stop at Petco. Dakota was properly satisfied with the 35 lb. bag of kibble we picked up. We have a storage container in the back of the truck. Periodically, we refill the container of kibble in the trailer. We had pretty much run through our inventory so it was good to top that off. We enjoyed a lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s. We hadn’t been to one in years. As Peter put it once so nicely, we don’t eat out often, but we tend to patronize restaurants owned by sole proprietors.

The day stretched before us. We still had a whole afternoon to kill. I was secretly hoping they would call from Colonial and say, “Surprise, we’re all done…” But that call never came. We thought about going to a movie, but didn’t want to leave Dakota in the truck for such a long time. We ended up driving around looking at public libraries. We thought we could go in one and catch some Wi-Fi. Sadly, the local libraries all looked terribly uninviting. We finally went back to the room and hung out. We were so stuffed from lunch, we ended up skipping dinner and eating unhealthy munchies in the room.

It was still grey and rainy the next morning. This was getting ridiculous. Once again we hung in the room until checkout time. We drove over to the shore. Jim’s longest term friend, Bruce, had a family place in Mantoloking so we drove from the south to the north checking out the beach towns along the way. It looked like things had been pretty well cleaned up after Superstorm Sandy.

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Jim had located a state park not too distant from us and we thought a hike might let us stretch our legs. I was still secretly wishing the folks from Colonial would call to say we were all done. This waiting was really getting on our nerves. We were both anxious that we get under way heading home as early as possible. Neither of us wanted to get caught in the traffic around the Garden State Parkway and the city.

 

The Double Trouble State Park was billed as an outstanding example of the pine barrens ecosystem. Despite its frolicsome name, they were clear online that they had a lot of ticks. Nevertheless, it was the only game in town. This park is a restored village. Originally, they harvested and shipped cranberries. They did claim to still have a cranberry bog and I had always wanted to see one. We wandered around the park looking for a map and the bog. If I had only wandered over to the little white house which said ”Restroom”, all would have been clear. Unfortunately, I only did that after we tried unsuccessfully to locate the cranberry bog. And there were the trail maps… And speaking of locating, I picked three ticks off Dakota’s paws. Yuck.

Next we stopped by Colonial just to let them know we were there. They said we might be done about 2. That was excellent news. We were hopeful. A delivery man wandered by with a stack of pizzas. We asked him where the restaurant was and we headed there for some comfort food.

There was a long table set up in the restaurant and shortly after we sat down about 20 older gentlemen trooped in. This was clearly a fairly regular gathering and all were in fine spirits. We entertained ourselves eavesdropping on their lively conversations and jokes. They had known each other for a long time and it seemed like a really good group of fellows. The pizza was excellent.

Still no call. It was after 2:30. We had no motel. We had nowhere to go. It was still raining. We couldn’t eat another bite. We were out of entertainment ideas. About half a mile from Colonial was a bowling alley. We toyed with the idea of going in to bowl a game or two, but we had no heart for it. In a pathetic display of lack of imagination, we parked in their large parking lot and Jim snoozed while I knitted. We weren’t the only ones. There was another truck parked in the lot just whiling away time for some reason as well.

Finally we headed back to Colonial to see what was happening. It was 4:30 and we thought they would be closing for the night at 5:00. We were completely impatient to be under way and secretly concerned that they wouldn’t finish and we would need to stay another night.

Happily, they were almost done. They had ticked off every item on the to-do list except for one. They had determined that our antenna had failed. That explained why halfway through our sojourn we were no longer able to get television reception. They didn’t have a new antenna on hand so we would need to deal with replacement at another time. Amazingly, we were charged not one thin dime for the two days of labor and parts. It was all covered under the warranty. That was a very happy surprise. Life doesn’t usually work that way.

We hitched up and headed out of the Colonial parking lot for the last push homeward. Very clear in both of our minds was the memory of leaving that same parking lot at the beginning of our trip. So much had happened. So many miles had been traveled and we were now so much more confident and seasoned as Airstreamers. It was a very satisfying moment.

The rain continued off and on as we drove northward on the Garden State Parkway and then picked up 87/287 and crossed into New York. As we passed our former home town of Rye Brook, we mused that we would be home now if we still lived there. But, no, we had another hour and a half of driving ahead of us.

It was well after dark and 10 p.m. when we made the turn on to Grantville Road. We were bone tired and anxious about the final hurdle. While we were on the road, a parking pad had been built for the Airstream next to our house. We would be backing our trailer into an unfamiliar pad in the pitch dark. Ironically, this was perhaps the most difficult maneuver we had faced since way back in January when we needed to extract the frozen Airstream from the snow and ice in our yard. After over 8,700 miles, here we were back wrangling the trailer in the yard.

After two hair-raising attempts at backing in, Jim almost gave up. I was shining a tiny flashlight to help illuminate the target. The pad wasn’t quite wide enough where we needed some extra room and the ground beside it was very soft. We were falling down tired and had begun to try to think where we could hang up the trailer for the night when Jim gave it one last try. He gunned the engine and forced the trailer back on to the pad. Thank heavens. We locked the truck, left the trailer hitched and headed directly to bed. We were home. Our trip was now officially done.

In the time since we arrived back home, I have thought about an appropriate coda. What insights would I share as a conclusion to our voyage? How would I sum up what this trip meant to us?

We had a dream about venturing around our country with an Airstream. We were so incredibly fortunate, and determined, that we were able to live out this dream. We learned so much. We got to know a pretty good swathe of the south and west of our country. We feel a connection to this land we could never otherwise have felt. Florence, Tupelo, Lost Maples, Pedernales Falls, Ochlockonee; these places and memories will live in us as long as we breathe.

We met so many people who were living their lives in other places, under other circumstances. These people may well have held different beliefs than we and, yet, we could share the experience of travel and discovery. On a macro level we may have felt very differently about our respective worlds, but on a micro level, we could and did share much. We are, after all, humans with hearts and souls and dreams and disappointments. Ultimately, we all want the same things in life.

Being on the road together brought us closer than ever. We were a team. We were a team of three in many ways, but certainly Jim and I were more reliant upon each other than we had ever been before. We needed each other for companionship and for the daily tasks at hand. I think we learned to be kinder and more accepting of each other. We were traveling through a great land in a very small space. There was so much to share and everything meant more to us because it was shared.

Being home was an effortless transition. We were happy to be back in our familiar setting. We were also very happy to have our Airstream just outside the door. Being home coexists with the promise of future travel and adventure.

Sometimes we just go out and spend time in the trailer. It is so familiar and comfortable. Dakota grabs his yellow duck and curls up on his bed. He often smiles and it is easy to see he is relaxed and happy to be in the trailer. So are we, we are happy to be in the trailer.

There will be future adventures. We will head out again. We saw much, but we left even more to be discovered. We have a short trip already planned for the near future and the glimmer of a grander undertaking farther into the future.

Returning home was not a conclusion, it was simply the next beginning.

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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.

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.