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.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Splendid Isolation Within City Limits

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The drive from Fort Stockton to the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso was a straight shot across Interstate 10.

 

IMG_1989Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest park in the country to be contained within city limits. Its 24,000 acres are divided by a central mountain range into several distinct areas. Reaching our portion of the park meant driving Interstate 10 through the heavily trafficked heart of El Paso. We didn’t see much more of El Paso than the gritty interstate lined with truck stops, gentlemen’s clubs, sale outlets and fast food joints. There is no doubt that parts of El Paso are lovely, but we were relieved to reach the far side of town and the entrance to the Tom Mays camping area within Franklin Mountains State Park.

We would be dry camping in the park for three days. The campground ring designated for rv’s had five sites. We joined one Class A who was parked in the center area. We chose a spot where our trailer backed up to the most breathtaking spread of mountains we had ever seen. This was a sight we could never tire of.

Our site was incredibly uneven and a challenge we could not have faced just weeks ago. It was actually fun to get our side to side and back to front levels flat and we used every chock, the Andersons and a few handy rocks to achieve it. We were very, very proud.

Dry camping means camping with no hook ups. We were self-sufficient with our fresh water tank and grey and black tanks. Our power would come from the solar panels on our roof and the energy stored in our battery. If we needed it, we had two generators we could break out. We rationed our water usage washing dishes with as little water as possible, foregoing showers for navy baths. Of course, it was at this moment the gauge on our grey tank decided to go crazy and it kept telling us we were at 90% when we knew we couldn’t possibly be.

It was warm in the desert sun and we set up our chairs in the shade of the trailer. For the three days we camped there, we enjoyed the cool mornings which gave way to increasingly hot sun. In the afternoons the wind would come whipping up from the valley and then as the sun set, the wind subsided and the air cooled to a delightful temperature. It was very dry. So dry we felt desiccated no matter how much water we drank. We had also gained elevation. Our site was at about 6,400 feet. The taller peaks in the park topped out at 7,000 plus.

The park was loaded with great hiking trails. Our first trail was the Shaeffer Shuffle. This was a 2.65 mile trail designated as moderate in difficulty. I think we might quarrel somewhat with that designation. The trail was rocky and led across a valley and then up and over a ridge of mountain and then back down again.

It was a super hike packed with outstanding vistas, multiple kinds of cactus breaking into blooms and a brilliant blue sky. We broke for lunch at the apex of the ridge and surveyed this arid and beautiful landscape so unlike anything we were used to. The hike took us three hours and we finished just as the heat of the day spiked.

Dakota proved himself to be a true mountain dog. He deftly navigated the rocks leaping up and over the obstacles in his path. It was pretty hot to be hiking in a custom-made fur coat and we made frequent stops for water breaks. The rocks were tough on his paws. After our hike, he was exhausted and his paws were sore.

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Our camp circle had been joined by a Class B, but on our second day both the Class A and Class B left and we were completely alone. Day camp sites dotted the mountains around us and those were used by people with tents or small campers. So there were people around but no one anywhere close to us.

Our hike the second day was on a trail called the Upper Sunset which ran along the ridge top across the valley from us. This part of the trail was only 1.4 miles, but they involved hiking up and down and up and down the ridge line. The views were spectacular and way down below in the valley we could see our silver Airstream and Big Blue Truck glinting in the sunshine. We returned to our site on the Tom Mays trail which was a gentler trail, but it was hot and we were all tired from two days of hiking in the hot sun and high elevation. It felt good to relax in the shade when we were done.

This was in so very many ways the exact experience we had sought to have on our trip. We were in a foreign and exciting landscape. We had access to hikes to test our endurance and give us exercise. We were left alone to enjoy the experience. It was pretty much close to perfection.

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Transiting Texas to Fort Stockton

The second day’s big push across Texas took us from Crystal City to Eagle Pass and Del Rio on Highway 277. The scenery remained much the same with some brief interludes with less and then more vegetation. The area around Del Rio was dry and dusty, but the same could be said for much of the drive.

Our route followed the line of the border for a great distance. Border patrol cars were much in evidence. They seemed to be very active in insuring there were no incursions. Just past Del Rio, we encountered a surprise (for us) border patrol station. All traffic in both directions was being funneled into this mandatory stop even though we weren’t crossing the border. We pulled in and were confronted by an imposing and humorless border patrol agent. Where were we going? Where were we from? We showed him id which he scrutinized carefully. I felt guilty even though I knew we had no illegal aliens or substances on board. Dakota didn’t need to show id which is a good thing since he doesn’t have any. We were let through and breathed a sigh of relief. Not quite why we felt so anxious, but that is how we felt.

amistad reservoirWe motored on and our anxiety was slowly replaced by hunger. We began looking for a place to pull off and make a little lunch. Off to our left was the enormous Amistad Reservior. It continued for miles with signs directing traffic to different parts of the giant reservoir. It was an oasis totally at discord with the surrounding dry hills.

Just before we hit Langtry a sign appeared to our left which said “scenic picnic area.” We pulled off the highway onto a road which led upwards and around. Entering uncharted roads is always a little hair-raising. Would there be a turnaround? Would the road be passable for our Airstream?

At last to our right a magnificent vista appeared—far below us an impressive bridge spanned a wide river which had cut a deep ravine through the surrounding cliffs. It was breathtaking all the more so because it was so unexpected. IMG_1937

I felt a little dizzy taking it all in. We pulled to the curb in a large parking area with picnic tables and shelters. The wind was blowing and it seemed like we could topple on down the cliff.

Back when we were in Navarre on the Florida Panhandle navigating the main road we had seen a remarkable vehicle ahead of us. It was an extremely tall and ungainly looking camper van. It was like nothing we had seen before. It perched on enormous tires which looked like they could have supported a tank. The strange looking camper sported french license plates and two motor bikes were strapped to the back. Clearly these intrepid souls had shipped their beloved camper to the States for a big tour. It was an odd and unforgettable sight.

Hundreds and hundreds of miles later in this parking lot perched high above the Pecos River, here was what looked like the same strange contraption. French plates, motor bikes and giant tires. Could there be two of these vehicles or had we miraculously re-encountered each other?

We sat in our Airstream contemplating the view and enjoying lunch. Finally, I could take it no more. I had to ask. I walked over to the strange vehicle. It was so high the steps to gain access were actually a ladder. The door was open. The occupants were likely enjoying their own lunch.

“Pardon? Pardon?” A woman appeared in the doorway. “Bonjour! Parlez vous anglais?” “Non, mais mon marie parle anglais.” A nice looking man about my age appeared. “Bonjour!” I asked if they had been in Navarre near Pensacola a few weeks ago and they replied that they had. “C’est incroyable!” We saw you there and now we have run into each other again! The man agreed it was remarkable that in such a big country we would encounter each other again. He translated for his wife. There was much smiling and nodding and further expressions of amazement. We wished each other a good trip and I returned to Jim, curiosity satisfied. Shortly after, the big camper van pulled away as our frenchmen continued their journey. We followed moments later. In all the parking lots in all the world…

The landscape was arid. The air was warm. The highway wound through hills and valleys dotted with dusty scrub, mesquite and rock formations. We passed signs directing us to Big Bend State Park. Another place we would love to see, but must save for another trip.

We reached the Fort Stockton RV Resort in the late afternoon. The sun was beginning to set and, while it was still very warm, it would cool quickly once the sun was gone. The rv resort was large with a few brave trees dotting the camp sites. Half the park was devoted to transients and half the park was clearly comprised of full time residents.

It had been a long drive, but one full of new sights and adventures. We were tired from so many miles, but we unhitched knowing the next day was not a travel day. We would explore Fort Stockton. The ever present wind was blowing and we opened all our windows to catch the breeze. After Fort Stockton we would have one last leg in our hop scotch across Texas.