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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Birds of a Feather

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It is a given that our Airstream was always a bit of a lone ranger at the state parks and RV resorts we stayed in. Dwarfed by Class A’s and Fifth Wheels, our Silver Bullet gleamed in the sun and was a bird without a flock.

IMG_2288When we met Susan and Bob at the picnic area back in east Texas, they had asked if we had ever stayed in an Airstream-only park. The idea had floated in the backs of our minds, but their question turned the thought into action.

 

So, here we were traveling along the narrow highways of western Virginia. The pronounced hills and valleys lifted, twisted and dropped the road we were traveling. We knew Airstreams had mastered this obstacle course before us, but it was still a bit of a nail biter.

The Virginia Highland Haven Airstream Park sits atop one of the most gorgeous hills in the landscape. Pulling into the park is to enter another world. Spread out in all directions are views across other valleys and mountains. The wind blows through the trees and across the grass. Every sunset is different and as equally breathtaking as the last.

Like other Airsteam-only parks, Highland Haven is a cooperative. There are 46 campsites in the park and 46 shareholders. The park is open from May 1-October 15. The shareholders can stay the entire season or just drop in for a week or two. In any case, shareholders share the workload of park maintenance and all are expected to pitch in. When shareholders are not on site, guests can stay on the empty sites providing a revenue stream.

We pulled into the park and up to the Camp Host’s site. Robert was on duty this week—shareholders must act as host at least one week each season. Robert was very friendly and directed us to our site. A line of beautiful Airstreams extended the length of the road along the hilltop. The Airstreams—of all vintages—gleamed in the sun.

The sites were gravel and quite narrow. Having long since abandoned the feeling of performance anxiety at a state park or RV resort, it returned now. Somehow we felt a little intimidated at being in this society of fellow Airstreamers. Nevertheless, Jim negotiated the narrow site skillfully and we got ourselves set up.

The wind was blowing steadily and the sun was warm. We walked down to the clubhouse to poke around a bit. The club house was formerly a home and offered communal living areas, a very nice enclosed front porch, the kitchen and a laundry area. It was all comfortably worn and very neat and tidy. We talked with one of the shareholders who was preparing homemade ice cream for the evenings ice cream and brownie get together. He urged us to join them. This was a welcoming community.

Back at our site, we settled into our chairs and looked out across the landscape of mountains and valleys. We weren’t quite ready for the brownie social, but each passerby waved and we returned the greeting. We watched the sun set in a brilliant fire that burned the edges of the clouds and reflected off the shiny aluminum shells of the Airstreams standing in a row.

Somehow beyond staying in a park full of Airstreams, we had no agenda or itinerary for what we would do the three nights and two days at Highland Haven. The ice cream chef had mentioned Floyd as a possible destination. I was also very interested in retracing our steps to Christiansburg where I had seen an antiques store which called to me.

We set off across the roller coaster roads to Floyd. Floyd may have a one syllable name and only one traffic light, but it was a delightful surprise. Here in the middle of rural Virginia was a little hotbed of artisans, music and culture. We parked and wandered around the shops.

The hardware store was both picturesque and bursting with anything one might possibly need. We wandered along poking into stores which seemed intriguing. The yarn shop was closed which was probably just as well. There were multiple establishments offering live music. The community park was under renovation and looked like it would be a lovely garden spot when done.

The old railroad depot had been transformed to host the weekly farmer’s market. Hanging from the raftered ceiling were banners from local establishments and craftsmen. Jim’s eye was caught by one for the Five Mile Mountain Distillery. My Google app said it was only 1.1 miles down the road.

The Five Mile Mountain Distillery perched itself over the road leading south out of town. The steep drive led to a small gravel parking lot. The building itself was a quirky blend of mill and factory. We stepped across the wooden porch and entered to be greeted by a very great Great Dane. A young man with an impressive red curly beard greeted us. He was co-owner of the distillery.

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Our host reflected in mirror

We never did get our host’s name (a holdover from the illicit past?), but we enjoyed his passionate history of the distillery and how he came to be a purveyor of moonshine whiskey. He grew up locally and the hills around Floyd were filled with stills. He learned from the old masters who had kept the country fueled during Prohibition. After years in construction, he had cast about for a next career. By chance he heard of someone else planning to open a distillery in Floyd and, figuring the town wasn’t big enough for the both of them, they joined forces. A spirit of cooperation sadly often lacking.

The tasting room was an attractive meld of wood and copper dominated by the bar and on the far wall, display shelves which featured a trio of old stills. The building had formerly been part of the water works for the town before it was abandoned. Our host related the process of renovation from a dilapidated home for black snakes to the attractive venue we were now in.

We tasted thimblefuls of the moonshine on offer. The Vanilla Plum had a warmth of plum followed by a touch of the vanilla. The Elderberry was a gorgeous deep color and much more astringent than I had expected. The Sweet Mountain Moonshine was 100 proof and exploded with warmth in our mouths. I was unable to finish even the thimbleful I had been given of the 100 proof.

One of the old stills on display had been given to our host by an old moonshiner now 93. He had walked the fields with him one day. The old guy would come to a gate, kick around in the dirt a bit and come up with a jar. After a sip, he would replace the jar and they would continue. At the next gate the ritual was repeated. During Prohibition this old fellow ran moonshine up to the mines in West Virginia. He would sell his load and head over to the company-owned store. They would load him up with sugar out the back door and he would head back to distill another load of clear thunder.

After a long and enjoyable conversation, we learned that the Tasting Room wasn’t even open that day. Our host was just so passionate, he was happy to share his enthusiasm. They were there distilling moonshine and building their business. We left with some of their inventory in hand.

The drive to Christiansburg was another half hour away. Back up and down the hills, twisting through the valleys. It was a heck of a lot easier without a trailer in tow, but tiring for Jim nonetheless. I left him dozing in the truck while I headed in to the antiques shop. I never go to antiques stores, but something about this shop called to me.

It was a large, labyrinthine affair crammed to the ceiling with antiques. I was on a special, secret mission about which I cannot write. I can only report I was very successful and left two happy proprietors in my wake.

We returned to the Haven. It was very windy and the temperature was dipping down to the 40’s. We hung out in the trailer and watched downloaded episodes of NCIS.

Our second and last full day was much warmer and the wind had dropped. We decided to test the laundry facilities. While the loads were drying we walked along the country road past the fields of timothy hay. They had just cut one of the fields and it smelled sweet in the warm air.

After lunch we headed back to Floyd. Ostensibly, we were after some groceries and diesel, but there was most likely an ulterior motive as well. A couple of shops had been closed the day before and we were interested in checking them out. Jim scored a devilishly handsome hat and I found some birthday presents for both Ellie and Peter. For once we were avoiding the monotony of the big box stores which seem to dominate our urban areas. These little shops supported local artisans. Our list of five items including groceries and diesel was soon checked off and we headed back to Highland Haven.

That evening two shareholders were hosting a chili and cornbread dinner. We had signed up before heading to town. Just before six, couples began heading down the park road to the club house and we joined them. Everyone was most welcoming. After a brief grace, Robert, the week’s host, asked the guests to introduce themselves. There were six couples visiting from Quebec, South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts and, of course, Connecticut.

The chili and cornbread were good accompanied by a tossed salad and happy chatter. By chance (I swear), I had worn my USMC t-shirt and we ended up seated with our next door neighbor, a retired Marine who fought in Viet Nam. Always happy to talk about Alex and the Marines, dinner was enjoyable. The highlight was Banana Pudding. Everyone was most amazed that these two Yankees had never had banana pudding. I will definitely add it to my new repertoire of southern cooking. I asked after the recipe and it was, of course, from that doyenne of southern cooking, Paula Deen.

That night featured another brilliant sunset. We sat under our awning, wine in hand and watched a completely different show put on by the setting sun. The bittersweet realization that we were now in our last week of the trip was tempered by the beauty of the evening.

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.

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

We’re On the Road Again, Willie!

Despite my deep desire to get back to San Antonio, re-entry was a bit challenging. Simultaneous with the challenges in getting a flight back, I suffered a technical challenge with my email support. Verizon was discontinuing email service and when I tried to move my account, it was frozen. Two lengthy calls with Verizon later, the upshot was I needed to change email addresses. This was a huge and unwelcome task. So I spent that first day back in San Antonio dealing with Delta in trying to get a refund for my ticket (down to a ninety minute wait) and changing email addresses.

It was hot at Blazing Star and we did not want to be there. We were missing one of the parks we had most hoped to see: Pedernales Falls State Park. Finally, common sense rallied and the next morning I called the park to see if they could still accommodate us. We were assured we could salvage two days of the four we had planned to spend there. We immediately felt much better.  We hitched up and were were back on the road in no time.

The same ranger I had spoken to on the phone was on duty when we arrived. There had clearly been a major downpour at the park. When we arrived at our site, there was quite literally a river running through it. A stream ran though our site and the step into the trailer was under water. We were a little daunted, but the site was really pretty. We had our very own little meadow. There was lots of space around our site. We decided to stick it out. As we un-hitched, we could see the flow of water beginning to diminish. By the time we returned from a get-to-know-it perambulation around the campground, we were almost on dry ground.

The two nights we were able to salvage at Pedernales (locals pronounce it Perdernales, per the park ranger this pronunciation dates back to LBJ, I don’t know about that, but everyone really does pronounce it with the “r”), gave us one day for hiking. Looking at the map, it was hard to choose where to hike. There were so many attractive options. We decided to hike Trammel’s Crossing and the 5.5 Mile Loop to which it led. When we got to the trailhead, all bets were off.

We were just beginning to understand that Pedernales Falls was a flash flood zone. Due to yesterday’s very heavy downpour, the river was up and running hard. Trammel’s Crossing was under deep and fast running water. Reaching the 5.5 Mile Loop was impossible. A nearby camper directed us to the nearby Twins Falls Trail. We took that as a warm up hike and visited the little waterfall on the trail.

After some debate between the Wolf Mountain Trail and the Pedernales Falls Trail System, we opted for the latter. It was a very fortunate decision. We would never have wanted to miss the falls for which the park was named.

The Pedernales Falls Overlook was fairly crowded, but we headed up the trail and were soon totally alone in a very beautiful landscape. It was a beautiful landscape with a frisson of fear attached to it.

We walked out onto the rocks. Signs warmed to watch the water even on a sunny day. If it turned muddy and brown, run for the hills. Literally. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on some rocks looking at the glorious view.

We got a bit turned around with the trails and wandered onto the North Loop Equestrian Trail. It was hot and very sunny as we followed the wide track. There were enormous colonies of fire ants. We picked our way around them, but they made me wish we were on horseback.

Eventually, we ended up back at the park road which wasn’t our goal. There was room for improvement in signage at this park. We realized if we headed back towards the parking lot, we could pick up the Hackenburg Loop Trail. We followed what we thought was the correct track and encountered a sign which said “river” with an arrow. This seemed a bit inscrutable, but beneath the wood cut letters was a small dymo-label “Hackenburg Loop.” Someone else recognized the signage shortfalls.

This proved to be a lovely trail through meadows and along the river downstream from the falls. Spring was in full flower and we marveled at the bountiful wild flowers. It was thrilling to see a prickly pear cactus in bloom. We had admired so many on so many trails, we finally got to see one in bloom!

The river was running hard and fast. No wonder our first choice trail was closed. This water was impassable and deadly. The force of the water was apparent along the banks. Trees hung onto their ground with tough, exposed root systems. Hold on guys, it is just a matter of time. The water will win.

When we finally returned to the beach below the Pedernales Falls Overlook, we were footsore, but happy. It had been an especially rewarding hike.

Back at our campsite, we visited the Camp Host and bought some fire wood and a fire starter. It was a complete delight to relax after dinner by the cozy fire and gaze at our private meadow as the darkness deepened. We were so fortunate to have made it to Pedernales Falls. We could stay a week at least, but tomorrow the camp would fill and we were expected elsewhere. Maybe its good to leave wanting more, we hope to be back one day.

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The force of the water laid leaves in a lovely pattern.

Natchez: It’s Not Just for Nabobs

We headed west across Mississippi to Natchez next. We traveled Route 98 for most of the trip and rolled through softly rolling landscape which was just at the beginning stages of greening up for spring. There weren’t many towns. This was very sparsely settled country. Homes dotted the roadside and, of course, small churches.

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Leaving the highway, we took the State Park Road for about six miles to get back in the woods to the Natchez State Park. This was a smaller park and mostly dedicated to fishing. It had a very nice, large fishing lake. There were two campground loops, but one of them was out of commission because there was a problem with the water system. This was typical of this park. While it was an attractive park, it was not as well maintained as many parks we were used to.

As usual, our first day was dedicated to getting a feel for the park. We explored all over.

On the way to the park office, we came across an impressively large and thankfully dead rattlesnake stretched across the road. A cogent reminder that this country was full of life and sometimes danger. We stopped in at the ranger station to have a chat. There were nice picnic pavilions next to the lake and at the far end of the park were cabins. The remaining campground numbered 22 sites and was quite nice. Our site sat up on a hill overlooking the lake.

This country is so lush and teeming with life. Life and renewal are balanced with death and decay. Just take our rattlesnake. He was stretched out dead across the road and carrion birds were feasting on his flesh. He had lived, killed and feasted and was now food for another creature. In the humid warm air the cycle of life seemed to have sped up. Life burst forth, flourished and when quickly spent, made way for more life.  Even though it was clearly winter, we could almost see the buds beginning to leaf before our eyes. Each day the grass became greener and the azaleas were bursting into bloom.

There weren’t a lot of hiking trails at this park. We did attempt the nature trail on our second day. The trail began right at the campground but just a hundred feet into the woods, it crossed a deeply ravined creek and the bridge was down and impassable. We decided to attempt the trail from the other end and hiked along the park road to where we had seen another sign for a trail. The woods were quite thick with trees and underbrush. The trail wound through the trees and popped out for views of the lake. We got almost all the way back to the campground when we ran into the same creek and ravine. Again, the way over was no longer negotiable. We retraced our steps looking for another trail and ran into the same problem. Finally, we gave up and left the trail. We wound our way through the brush carefully remembering that impressive rattlesnake. Poor Dakota had lots of logs to jump and brush right at eye level. We finally made our way through the woods back to the park road.tick

On our way back to our site, we chatted with a woman at another site who warned us to check carefully for ticks. Bingo. We embarked on beauty parlor and I found one on Dakota. You can’t kill these things easily. I incinerated it with our flamestick. “Die you nasty little creature!” I found another one on the dinette where Jim had been sitting. He was also quickly incinerated–the tick not Jim. After lunch I headed to the showers. Much to my dismay and disgust, I found my own tick and mine was affixed. Yuck. I finished my shower and sped back to Jim for surgical removal. This third tick was promptly incinerated. These woods are alive with ticks in the summer, but going off trail allowed us to find those winter-hearty souls. I really, really hate ticks.

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Following Tick Day, we decided it was time for some civilization and tourism. Natchez has a really together tourism operation. They have a gorgeously produced 50+ page guide to the city with touring info, restaurant listings and lots of glossy photos. It is available for download and in print at their attractive and informative Visitors Center. We headed into Natchez and parked at the Visitor Center. A very friendly and helpful lady greeted us and gave us our printed edition. We stayed to watch the nicely produced 20 minute film about Natchez’ history.

Armed with a map, we gathered Dakota from the truck and walked up the road to the center of town. It was a sunny and cool day just perfect to be out and about, but Natchez was oddly deserted. It was almost noon on a Saturday, but the streets were empty. The roads were devoid of traffic. Natchez was a ghost town. Where was everyone?

As we walked, we noticed broken strings of colorful beads strewn across the sidewalks and scattered in the streets. An alarming number of Solo cups and beer bottles lay about in drunken profusion. Finally we chanced upon a sign in a shop window advertising the Mardi Gras parade and celebration. It had taken place the night before. Realization dawned, Natchez was sleeping off its Mardi Gras.

People down in these parts take this whole Mardi Gras thing very seriously. Mardi Gras is not some distant bacchanal taking place in New Orleans, it is a multi-week regional build up to days of revelry. We had noticed this preoccupation for quite some time. Local news broadcasts featured special Mardi Gras graphics. Television ads offered Mardi Gras special deals. Every town had at least one parade scheduled and gaudy parade floats sprouted in parking in lots and passed us on the roads as they were hauled into position. The local radio station even had beauty tips for celebrants to help them look their best after days of festivities: stay hydrated with water, always use sun block, be sure to remove eye make-up each night, always moisturize and sooth under eye bags with cool cloths. This Mardi Gras lifestyle is serious business—a girl needs to stay looking her best.

Natchez was picturesque and we strolled the streets taking in the historic buildings. Despite the focus on tourism, Natchez was not “touristy.” These people lived in their history and it was there for tourists, but uncorrupted by tourism. Natchez lies at the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez proper sits up on the Bluff overlooking the river. Here lived the “Nabobs of Natchez,” the wealthy plantation owners who preferred life in the city to the more remote life on their plantations.

And then there was Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Quite literally down under the bluff, life here was rough and rowdy with saloons, gamblers, longshoremen and women of ill repute.

We fetched the truck, stowed Dakota and parked it next to a barbeque spot, Pig Out Inn, “swine dining at its finest.” This was seriously good barbeque and a perfect coda to our tour of Natchez.

Just before leaving Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi over the bridge into Vidalia, Louisiana. Vidalia did not have much to recommend it. Once across the river, we turned around and, with full bellies, we headed back to our trailer and home.

The next morning we were all hitched and ready to go when the ranger stopped by on his rounds. He seemed surprised we were leaving and it turned out we actually had another day reserved. But, despite what had been a very nice stay (except for the ticks), sometimes a nomad just knows when to go. It was time to move on.

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Media notes: At the Natchez Visitor Center I picked up a book by Nevada Barr titled Deep South. Although the book is fiction, it gives a tremendous sense of the country and given that the author was actually a park ranger on the Natchez Trace, almost counts as nonfiction.

60 Minutes just broadcast a story, on chess,  Chess Instills New Dreams In Kids From Rural Mississippi County, in Franklin County which is the county next to Natchez. This story, too, gave a good sense of the rural nature of this country. It was a heartwarming story well worth watching.