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.

Lost in Maples Paradise

About halfway from San Angelo to Vanderpool, right about Eden, we lost cell signal. After a while it became apparent that we would not be getting that signal back anytime soon. We hadn’t expected it and had failed to let our children or anyone know we would be out of range. Not much to be done about that now. It may have been the lack of contact with the outside world or just the park itself, but our two days at Lost Maples State Natural Area were way too short.

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Entering Lost Maples is like discovering a verdant, hidden valley. It is hard to do the tremendous beauty justice. Turning off the highway one is immediately surrounded by tree-covered ridges. It feels safe, secure and delightfully isolated. After a few weeks in the very arid desert in both Texas and New Mexico, the effect of all this green and tree covered hillsides was all the more welcome.

This park has a small campground with 24 sites. The park was about half empty, but we later heard that it is an incredibly popular park especially when the leaves turn in the fall and people book sites a year in advance.

We did a full camp set up with mat, chairs, Jim’s site toys and awnings. Our site wasn’t completely even. In fact we ended up with a very long last step out of the trailer and we were unable to deploy the back stabilizer, but otherwise this was a very charming and congenial camp site. The afternoon was quite warm, but there was a nice breeze to keep us cool. We crossed our fingers that this park experience would not devolve into some terrible storm event.

We sat out in the afternoon and evening and enjoyed the stillness and bird song. Our site was sheltered by some lovely tall oaks. With no television and no cell service, we relished the quiet. No news from the outside world could disturb our peace. As the sun slipped behind the valley walls, a gentle darkness fell and we crawled into bed with the windows wide open to catch the sounds of the night.

One reason it felt so tranquil here is we had finally escaped the west Texas wind. For the last two weeks we had been continually swept by unrelenting winds. From the beginning of our transit across Texas to the interlude in Ruidoso to Monahans Sandhills and San Angelo, whether we were in a storm or just normal weather, there was the unceasing wind. I don’t know if I could take that on a permanent basis. It was a relief to feel the stillness in the air.

Lost Maples is known for and named after the bigtooth maples which are found on the rocky slopes of the Sabinal River. Cypress and sycamore trees and several varieties of oak trees are also found in the park. The park offers quite a few miles of trails and it was tough to make a choice. We only had one day to hike.

We decided to hike the East Trail. We chose this trail because it promised the most exposure to the bigtooth maples. These are the maples for which the park is named. This trail follows the Sabinal River and even cuts back and forth across it quite a few times. Dakota was really enjoying crossing the river. This dog who once disliked getting his feet wet was now wading with abandon through the rippling water.

From its beginning on the valley floor, the trail winds through wooded areas overhung by rocky slopes and outcroppings. The rock formations are remarkable. One highlight is Monkey Rock–named so for obvious reasons.

The trail gradually gains altitude until, after some steep stone stairs, it hugs the top of several ridges and eventually descends another steep and rocky grade back to the valley floor.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch up on top of one of the ridges with a dramatic vista across the valley. The sun was warm on our faces and looking out across the ridges covered with trees was dramatic. We sat on two large rocks eating our lunch and meditating on the view.

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The last stretch of the trail was a steep downward grade. It was very rocky and easy to slip or twist an ankle. We had to walk carefully. It was also incredibly tough on poor Dakota’s paws. He was a game fellow but finally we ended up carrying him over a good portion of it. We needed two pairs of doggy hiking boots. Those rocks are tough on little paws.

The park map warned the trail would be strenuous and challenging and they weren’t kidding. By the time we descended and joined the East-West Trail for the last mile of our hike we were walking mighty slow. Despite our fatigue, it was a really wonderful hiking experience and we were very sorry that we would have no more time for the other trails in the park.

IMG_1067We were a weary crew after our hike, but not too tired for a campfire and s’mores. The ranger’s station offered all the makings for s’mores and, unbelievably, Jim had never had one. We enjoyed our dinner sitting outside at our picnic table. We had been hauling some firewood with us since Ocklochonee (a big no-no we discovered, you’re supposed to only burn local wood) waiting for the right moment. It had seemed that there was always an impediment to make a fire undesirable—too much wind, rain, too much heat. But on this evening all systems were go.

We sat and watched the fire for a long time. Its warmth was welcome in the cool night air. We were pleasantly tired and very peaceful. It was truly a delightful evening and stay and we wished it could be longer.