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.

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.

Navarre and the Emerald Coast

Next up we had three days of civilization planned with a stay at Emerald Beach RV Resort in Navarre, Florida. This section of the Florida Panhandle is called the Emerald CoastEmerald_Coast_Florida. In our westward push, we have traveled from the Nature Coast to the Forgotten Coast and now we have reached the Emerald Coast.

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This was a nifty rv park. The sites were pretty close together, but the people were really friendly and nice. The rv park butted up to the shore of the Gulf and some sites actually had the Gulf at their back door. That would be pretty cool. The dog park also shared some of the beach and we enjoyed watching the sun set over the water and looking across the Gulf to the barrier island.

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Navarre is sort of a bedroom community for Pensacola and the Naval Air Station. In fact the area is packed with military personnel from Eglin Air Force Base, Whiting Field Naval Air Station, Hurlbut Field and the NAS. At night we could hear the report of ordinance going off from training exercises. For the three days we spent in Navarre, our son Alex was constantly in my thoughts. Twice he was stationed at Corey Naval Air Station in Pensacola for training and being so proximate to a place he had lived, kept him front of mind. As we traveled around, I had to wonder if he had been in the same places.

Sometimes Dakota is a very funny traveling companion. Certain things just set him off and Emerald Beach hosted two of them. Next to our trailer was a Fifth Wheel with a statue of an owl out front. Dakota would go crazy when he saw that owl. He actually attacked it one day and was shocked when it turned out to have a bobble head. He was equally upset by a cement statue of a dolphin. Something like that can really tire a guy out.

There weren’t a lot of hiking opportunities in the area, but we did manage to find one the first day. We headed about a half hour north to the Blackwater Heritage State Trail in Milton, FL. This is a 9 mile long rails-to-trails trail which follows the former Florida and Alabama Railroad. The railroad hauled lumber from nearby Bagdad, Fl up to Whirley, AL and later was used to haul airplane fuel to the nearby Whiting Field.

The ranger station for the trail used to be a railroad depot. At first it looked closed and deserted, but Jim peered through the window and the ranger opened the door apologizing that it seemed closed. He was a very friendly fellow and gave us background on the trail and the area. The portion of the trail we walked starts out in Milton and is lined with a few homes and then becomes mostly woods and fields. The day was a little overcast and cool and this made our walk pleasant. The Florida sun is so strong, sometimes a little cloud cover is a relief. We met very few people on the trail.

After our walk, we headed back down Route 87 to Navarre. This highway is lined on both sides with thick pine woods. The highway used to be a two lane road, but is currently under construction to become four lanes. I guess another quiet corner of Florida is about to be subsumed with gas stations and strip malls. There sure are a heck of a lot of gas stations.

We stopped for lunch at a spot we had noticed driving up 87 earlier. Scooters looked like a good local spot boasting fresh seafood. It was a no frills affair. You placed your order as you entered, took a table and they called your number when the order was ready for pickup. It seemed quiet when we entered and ordered, but no sooner had we sat down then a flood of people arrived. The food was outstanding. Jim had a fish sandwich he said was the best he ever had and my fish tacos were delicious. I also tried fried okra for the first time which was pretty tasty as well. Somehow we made our way back there the next day and ate exactly the same thing all over again.

Day two in Navarre was reserved for a little sightseeing. We drove a big loop west through the town of Gulf Breeze which was pretty much an extension of Navarre. Strip malls lined each side of the Highway 98 offering shopping, fast food, more gas stations and an occasional apartment complex. We banked left just before the bridge to Pensacola and drove through Pensacola Beach. What a desecration! This place was so overbuilt and PB-logohideously tacky, it could be hell on earth. The houses were on top of each other and the only thing more unattractive were the monstrous high-rise condos. Garishly-signed bars and plastic-looking restaurants beckoned sunburned tourists to waddle in to over eat and over-imbibe. We had most definitely found the Redneck Riviera!

Two giant towers punctuated the end of this stretch of desolation. The contrast could not have been greater as we entered the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Pristine white sand beaches with small dunes dotted with brush stretched forward as far as the eye could see. We found a dog-friendly beach and wandered out to feel the sand in our toes and watch the waves roll in. The unparalleled beauty and quiet made Pensacola Beach that much more awful by contrast. Someone made a ton of money taking glorious natural beauty and turning it into a human cesspool. The unspoiled beaches were punctuated periodically with small parking lots. Joggers and bikers shared the road with the procession of cars and rvs. We drove for miles through this paradise.  At the far end, the national park ended and human habitation signaled a return to Navarre. The tall buildings we had seen across the gulf from the rv park signaled tomorrow’s equivalent of Pensacola Beach. It is a shame Mammon will lead yet another part of a beautiful state into ruin.

Visiting Royalty

Visiting Jim and Betty meant a lovely drive down Hutchinson Island. This barrier island spanned the entire distance between Fort Pierce and Road Runner and Stuart on the southern end. It was no hardship to drive the length of the island in either direction. The sunsets were especially lovely. I thought of these days as our “city days.” We all went out to lunch at dog-friendly restaurants with outdoor spaces or ran errands. It gave me a chance to spend time with Betty as well as Jim.

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The beach in Stuart was dog friendly and we had great fun one afternoon taking Dakota over to see the waves. He was ferocious and gave each wave a piece of his mind while carefully avoiding getting his paws wet.

Our visit with Betty came to a happy conclusion. Jim’s sister, Linda, arrived on Saturday. The changing of the guard involved Jim returning to Road Runner as Linda took up residence in Stuart. Late Saturday afternoon she and Betty came up to Road Runner so Linda could check out the  Airstream. She was an enthusiastic visitor and Jim gave her a thorough tour. Betty and I sat happily under the awning and had our own good visit. We all had a delightful dinner in Fort Pierce at the Harbor Cove Bar and Grill.

The night was unfortunately chilly, but I would highly recommend this place to anyone. Nestled in the middle of a big harbor, there was live music and a very lively bar. We had a tasty and highly enjoyable meal.