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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hello Dolly!

We headed east from Rock Island to Sparta and Crossville before picking up Interstate 40. We were headed to Gatlinburg. The road was heavily trafficked and took us past Knoxville. It rained off and on, but seemed to be clearing as we got farther and farther eastward.

At Sevierville we turned on to Highway 441. Immediately the scene changed and we encountered the beginning of one of the most overbuilt, mind-blowing commercial shrines to American plastic culture either of us have ever seen. Sevierville led to Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge led to Gatlinburg.

The frenzy of crass American consumerism continued with hotels, chain restaurants, every big box retailer imaginable and an assortment of shrines to low brow culture including the FunStop Family Action Park, the Dixie Stampede Dinner Show, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.

Of course, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dolly Parton. This is the home of Dollywood. And this is all  Dollywood’s spawn. Actually, I don’t mean that to sound so nasty. There is no denying that Dolly Parton is a goddess in these parts. She has brought a tremendous tourism business to this region, supplied hundreds of jobs and never forgotten her roots.

In the wake of the devastating fires which raged around Gatlinburg, the Dolly Parton Foundation gave stipends to hundreds who had lost their homes for months on end. Indeed the payments had just ended with a surprise final bonus check for each household of $5,000.

Dolly was actually in town for the Annual Dollywood Parade during our visit and everyone was abuzz with excitement. She was featured in the parade on the evening local news as reigning royalty.

The Chimney Top 2 Fire which devastated an enormous area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg began just before Thanksgiving 2016, but its roots went back 80 years to the 1930’s when fire suppression techniques were adopted across the country. Over the decades dead wood and tinder accumulated. After four months with no rain in the fall of 2016, it took only two teens and a match to destroy 17,000 acres, kill 14 people and destroy countless homes. The fire began small, but after four days, hundred mile per hour winds blew it into an unstoppable conflagration.

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We were slated to stay at the Twin Creek RV Resort. I had tried to book us in to the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky National Park, but it was full. Twin Creek was highly rated and, as it turned out, much closer to Gatlinburg than Elkmont would have been.

We arrived to a darkened campground. When I entered the main office, the lights were off and only then did we find out that the power was off. A big wind event had hit the area the day before. Everyone had lost power. The national park was actually closed as was the main road, Highway 441, through the park. Winds had hit with 100 mph blasts, not unlike those which fueled the Chimney Top 2 Fire, and wreaked havoc in the park. All campers in the Elkmont Campground had been forced to leave.

Our resort hosts were harried. They had been turning refugees from Elkmont and other resorts away all day, but would honor our reservation as we had already paid. They explained that there was power in one part of the park and they planned to move us there. They were trying to get the power re-established in the other part of the park, but had no idea when it would happen. We decided to stay in our original spot. It was much prettier. We could always dry camp until the power came back on. It was a calculated gamble.

Our hosts were very nice. This has been a difficult time in the area. In the wake of the Chimney Top Fire, business had been down substantially. The fire received so much coverage that everyone assumed Gatlinburg was in ruins and stayed away. While there had been tremendous damage and Dolly Parton’s foundation had done much to help many who lost all, the town itself appeared unscathed. This accounted in part for the upset on the part of the resort hosts, they had already been hit and could ill afford more lost business.

We backed into our site and relaxed. We could last for days without power. It wasn’t two hours later that we noticed the power was back on. Our gamble had paid off. The park was pretty empty and we were happy in our camp site.

It was raining again the next day and we accepted with disappointed resignation that there would be no hiking. We headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out when the park was going to re-open and if we could use the trails the next day.

It was packed at the Visitors Center. An enormous topographical model of the park dominated the entry room to the building. It gave a great context to the enormous size and scope of the park. There was also a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the park. Some of the roads through the park were now open, but the higher elevations had been hit with snow and 441 was still closed. We watched a 20 minute movie on the ecology of the park and got some guidance from a ranger as to where we should hike.

The rangers we spoke to at the information desk looked a little overwhelmed. She said they had not been able to assess damage to the park yet. They were still working on getting the highway open. It would be months and months of work to clear the trails. She urged us to be very careful as there were bound to be trees down on the trails which could be dangerous. We felt sorry that they faced another big challenge in the aftermath of yet another devastating weather occurrence. It was absolutely pouring when we left the Visitors Center.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated in 1940. It is one of the first parks to have been purchased with federal as well as state funds. The federal government agreed to support the park if the states of North Carolina and Tennessee would each purchase part of the land. The park has two main entrances, one in Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and the other in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the largest protected area in the eastern United States and one of the most visited parks in the country.

The park is known for its tremendous diversity in terms of geography and biology. Ridges roll off into the distance in all directions. There are mountain tops and deep valleys. The area gets a lot of rainfall and is quite humid which makes for tremendous biodiversity. The park features over 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads. We had been waiting for this visit for weeks.

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We drove back into Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, despite the torrential rains, the streets were packed with people. Waddling from fudge store to burger joint, they were intent on consumption. We were intent on our own kind of consumption. I had heard the Pancake Pantry had excellent corn meal pancakes. We dove in out of the rain for a lunch of pancakes and sausage.

 

Waddling ourselves back to the truck, we took refuge in the Airstream. We did make one quick stop on the way back. I had seen in the Gatlinburg tourist brochure a write-up of a local fiber shop. It was the Smoky Mountain Spinnery. Incredibly, this was my first and only stop at any retail establishment with fiber for this entire almost five month trip. I had been a pillar of restraint for months on end. This was a very cute shop with a great selection of wheels, roving, rug hooking materials and some yarn. I tried out a very nice Ashford portable wheel. Restraint again. However, a little roving did somehow drop into my bag. Jim and Dakota waited patiently in the truck during this fiber foray.

We were getting a little tired of all this spring rain. The forecast was perfect for the next day. Meanwhile, since we were in a fancy RV resort, we had cable and we spent the evening watching television.

It was a glorious morning the next day. Having visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we knew exactly where we wanted to hike. We drove back through the craziness of downtown Gatlinburg. Oddly, it was a lot less crazy than it had been during the driving rain. It was, however, Sunday. I guess everyone was in church.

We headed to the Elkmont Campground area to hike. Our route took us past the Elkmont Campground. It was open, but close to empty.

We parked near the trailhead and discovered an unexpected treat: the remains of a former summer vacation community. Early in the 20th Century the Little River Lumber Company began selling plots of land to Knoxville residents many of whom were executives with the railroad which hauled lumber. They established The Appalachian Club. Every summer this retreat became quite a social scene.

The Club was divided into three sections. Daisy Town, was located in close proximity to the club house and consisted of more modest cabins, some were almost shacks. There was also Society Hill which was located on the banks of the Jakes Creek and Millionaire’s Row located on the rushing Little River.

With the creation of the Great Smoky National Park, residents were given lifetime leases to their cabins. Those were turned into 20 year leases most of which were renewed until 1992. Two cabins retained their leases until 2001.

Now the cabins sit vacant. A few have been made historic buildings and will be maintained but under the terms of the National Park, the rest will be torn down and the land returned to its natural state. They were actually in the process of tearing down cabins on Society Hill as we visited.

It was here that we learned the difference between a national park and a national forest. National parks are dedicated to the preservation of the land in its natural state. Hence, the tearing down of the cabins. National forests are used for multiple purposes. They may be harvested for lumber, used for grazing and, of course, for recreation. Making the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a park rather than a forest was controversial at Elkmont and a tremendous sacrifice for those families.

The Spence Cabin and The Appalachian Club buildings are now available for day use and indeed a wedding was taking place while we were there. It was an exquisite setting for a ceremony. The Little River rushed right past the cabin. It was easy to imagine how delightful summers must have been here: the heat of the day softened by the cool of the running water and mist from the rapids. Surrounded by towering trees, the daily soundtrack was that of the river’s waters.

Our hike took us along the cabins on Society Hill and the Jakes River Trail. We then ascended the Cucumber Gap Trail. The woods were very beautiful and the weather was perfect. There was definitely damage from the storm and we threaded our way carefully around and under downed trees. The rivers were running very high and it was hard to cross without getting wet.

The Cucumber Gap Trail was one of the most magnificent we had hiked. The trees were enormous. Rivers ran along the trail. There was tremendous natural beauty and we were constantly exclaiming at new sights.

Our hike was a good long one with lots of hills and we were tired and footsore at the end. We were also really sorry that we had only that one day to explore this absolutely entrancing park. Now we understood Dolly Parton’s passionate devotion and loyalty to this land. We vowed to come back one day and spend several weeks exploring this remarkable place.

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

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?

Ticked Off in Arkansas

We left Texas via Texarkana. Our route into and through Arkansas was atypical in that we were on a major highway. Interstate 30 headed northeast taking us in a direct line past Hope (birthplace of that most famous Arkansan) and directly up to the Hot Springs area. The truckers in Arkansas appeared to be fierce and not terribly thoughtful. Usually, truckers make space for us to change lanes and there seems to be a brotherhood among us. These truckers seemed intent on running us right off the road.

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Our next stop was the Lake Catherine State Park. The land for this park was donated to the state in the 1920’s when Harvey C. Couch, a very successful local businessman, built the Remmel Dam to generate hydro-electric power. The power station was later switched over to natural gas and oil. This is one of a pair of man-made lakes and dams serving the Hot Springs area.

The park is quite pretty. The campground at the park has two sections for rv camping and a group of cabins. The park caters especially to fishermen and golfers. Just before you reach the park, there is a large public golf course with housing and a restaurant.

5217 362Our site was beautifully situated right on Lake Catherine. Our lounge backed up to the shore just a few feet away. Tall maples ringed the site. Our neighbors to either side were a discreet distance away from us. Groups of quacking ducks and honking geese were our constant companions for our stay along with a heron or two. Once again, we got out all of our paraphernalia and decorated our site.

Did I mention the power plant dominates almost any view of the lake? Yes, right in front of us on the opposite shore of the lake sat the hulking power station. It was an omnipresent anchor to our, and anyone else’s, view of the lake.

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Of course, without the power station there would be no Lake Catherine. It gleamed in the sun and emitted a constant low-level hum. At night it was aglow with light and continued to emit that low-level hum. Like an unwanted dinner guest with bad table manners, it had pulled up a chair at the head of the table and anyone else at the table could only avert their eyes to enjoy the otherwise sumptuous spread.

This we did. We sat out in the evening air and watched as the sun slowly set and the world darkened around us. The power plant glowed and hummed and we steadfastly enjoyed a quiet evening at lakeside.

This park had quite a nice system of trails so the next morning we packed our lunches and headed out to hike the park. At the trail head there were interpretive signs informing us that this park, too, owed its infrastructure to FDR and the CCC.

We had a planned route but, as happens all too often, we missed a trial turn and ended up taking a different route. We both agreed this was actually much better. The first trail was called the Falls Branch Trail. It was a wooded trail and mostly followed the course of a small brook winding up and down rocky, mossy hills. There were lots of little water falls and it was cool and comfortable hiking in the woods.

To get to our next trail, Falls Creek Falls, we crossed the Falls Creek by the pretty waterfall for which it was named and headed up a steep and rocky trail. Our plan was to break for lunch at a spot on the top of a ridge with views down to the lake (and power plant) below.

We were out of the wooded area and hiking through tall grass and bushes at this point. It grew much warmer in the sun. We had feared we would leave behind good hiking as we headed east, but this trail made us feel there was hope for more good hikes in the future.

We made it to a bench overlooking the wooded hills and peaceful lake below us. We broke out our sandwiches. We were happily munching away when we became aware that we were sitting in the middle of a huge tick colony. Ticks were falling from the bushes onto us, crawling up our legs and swarming Dakota. For some reason, that ended our lunch break quickly. We gobbled last bites and retook the trail at a fast pace.

The rest of the day’s trail was easy walking and we made good time looping back to the Falls Creek Falls. From there it was a short hike along the banks of Lake Catherine back to our trailer.

The first thing we did back at the trailer was get out the tweezers and flamestick and check Dakota for ticks. There were quite a few. Ugh. We checked ourselves as well. The ticks made a satisfying popping sound when they were incinerated.

Rather than do more hiking at Lake Catherine, the next day’s plan was to head in to Hot Springs and visit Bathhouse Row and hike in the national park. Hot Springs National Park claims to be the first national park. The hot springs in the area had been drawing people for years and the area had slowly been developing in a haphazard fashion. In the 1830’s the federal government took the unprecedented step of “reserving” large parcels of the land for use by citizens. The creation of Hot Springs Reservation was the first attempt by the government to protect a natural resource. It was a bit ham-fisted, however, and failed to clearly delineate boundaries.

Over the years the bath houses in town had evolved from tents and crude lumber shacks to wooden structures. Hot Springs Creek ran right down the main street. The town was subject to frequent fires and the creek regularly flooded. In the 1880’s the federal government covered over Hot Springs Creek so that it ran under the main street of town. Next the government approved private development of new and more elaborate bath houses. Hot Springs’ reputation and popularity soared.

This popularity endured until the 1950’s when healing cures fell out of fashion and the bath houses slowly declined. Today only two of the bath houses are still in operation. The Fordyce, arguably one of the most elegant, now serves as the Visitors Center for the national park.

We drove into town and parked the truck on Central Avenue. Dakota was immediately engulfed by adoring fans. Central Avenue is the dividing line between the park on one side and the town’s business development on the other. Small shops and touristy places are on the town side and the row of preserved bath houses are on the park side.5217 467

Walking through the Fordyce was a treat. We took turns. One of us stayed with Dakota on the wide front porch while the other savored the vestiges of a bygone era. It was beautifully preserved, an elaborate and gracious emblem of the past.

After The Fordyce, we strolled the main street past the balance of the bath houses and back to the truck. We headed up Hot Springs Mountain Drive as it snaked back and forth up Hot Springs Mountain to the very top. Here we planned to walk the Goat Rock and Dogwood Trails.

The parking lot gave us a grand vista from the top of the mountain across wooded hills and the town below. It was very warm as we hit the trail. The sun was strong and the air heavy. We stepped off the trail to enjoy another overlook. When we got back on the trail, I noticed Dakota already had a tick on his paw. I removed it and we continued.

There were a few other hikers on the trails which was surprising since they seemed somewhat overgrown. I was feeling twitchy about ticks. We stopped for lunch at a stone shelter by the road. Sitting there eating my sandwich, I found another tick crawling on my arm. We never did see Goat Rock. If there was an actual Goat Rock, it eluded us. We completed our hike on the upper loop of the Dogwood Trail. I couldn’t find any dogwood either.

Back at the parking lot we checked Dakota for ticks. They were everywhere. We kept finding them and scrunching them into the pavement. I lost count around thirty. It was a total nightmare. Every time I ran my fingers through his fur, I found more. And more. Finally, it seemed we had them all. We got back in the truck and headed home, stopping in Hot Springs at a Kroger for groceries.

As we entered the park, I found a tick in my hair. We both felt itchy all over. When we got back to our camp site, I swept off the mat and laid Dakota down for another tick check. Unbelievably, we found more ticks. We found a few dead ones which meant we had missed them from before. We also found a few which had latched on to his skin. With dark satisfaction, Jim incinerated each tick, even the dead ones, with the flame stick. We felt terrible that we seemed not to have been diligent enough to protect him.

5217 363Sadly, we were no longer comfortable in this camp site. As I stepped into the trailer, a small tick fell from overhead onto my hand. In my research on ticks, the CDC said ticks can only crawl up their hosts. Experience proved otherwise. Later while sitting on the bench seat, I looked down to see another tick beside me. We felt under assault. Obsessively, we continued to go over Dakota checking for missed ticks.

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We holed up in the trailer. No more sitting outside on our mat enjoying the night air and scenic view of the lake and power plant. We contented ourselves with the view through the screened window.

No, Not That Atlanta, The Other Atlanta

We arrived at Atlanta State Park the Saturday before Easter Sunday. The park was alive with families enjoying the special weekend. The Easter Bunny had just presided over an Easter egg hunt and the excitement level was unparalleled. We saw the Easter Bunny zip by in the ranger’s golf cart. It was also quite warm, nay hot, and sunny.

The site we were assigned was very short. Short and uneven. In order to get the Airstream intothe site, we had to hang out in the campground road blocking traffic. This is precisely the kind of situation which Jim finds intolerable. He hates to be in the way or inconveniencing anyone. Of course, this meant we were trying to rush and that only prolonged the process. We needed to deploy the Andersons to level the trailer side to side. We got our signals crossed and had to rework the process. I thought Jim’s head might explode. He was quite literally a very unhappy camper. Finally, we were able to unhitch and get out of everyone’s way.

We were dead tired and hot and unhappy. To re-spark the magic, we got out all of Jim’s Airstream toys. We deployed the awnings and got out the palm tree. From the awnings we hung the strings of lights shaped like flamingos and flip flops. This was their maiden appearance as I had brought them back from my visit east. Of course, the flamingo from the Quilt Museum was on display. Smokey took a bow as did Jim’s replacement balloon from Ruidoso. We were the most festive and happening trailer in the park!

We sat in our chairs under the awning to enjoy the late afternoon and dusk. Jim sipped his beer. I drank my wine. A large red wasp began buzzing around us. Soon swarms of gnats were flying in our faces. We got out the citronella candles and remained steadfast. Just as darkness fell an enormous black beetle crashed into my head with his hard shell. My shriek rang out though the campground. I bounded inside the trailer. That was just one bug too many for me. I hate, hate, hate insects. I hate bugs. I really hate big red wasps and black, hard-shelled beetles that fly. I began to pine for west Texas and its bug-free environment in earnest.

Atlanta State Park has two campground loops. We were on the lake loop. The other loop was deeper into the woods. Rather than place the campsites right next to the lake as is most common, the sites were lined along both sides of the road leading through the campground to the picnic area. This picnic area was a peninsula which jutted out into the lake. The loop was ringed with tables. It was quite lovely. We pondered the democratic choice which had been made to leave the campsites in the woods and the public access picnic area on the prime spot.

 

The next morning we walked the picnic loop and admired Lake Wright Patman. It was a little rainy and the sky was cloudy, but all in all a pretty day. We spent some time cleaning the trailer. Living in a small space, there isn’t much to clean, but it does need fairly frequent attention. Cleaning is also a good way to exert control over one’s environment. It serves dual purposes.

Atlanta park was unusual in its lack of hiking trails. There was one trail which connected the two campgrounds, but it was uninspiring. We were still a little tick-shocked from Mission Tejas. Rather than explore the trail, we decided to see if the ranger had wood for a fire and head in to town.

The ranger actually gifted us with some firewood someone had left behind. We headed to WalMart for some firestarter sticks. When we got out of WalMart, Jim suggested we go to Sonic for burgers. It was already 3 pm and it seemed a little late for a heavy fast food meal. As Jim likes to say, I crushed his soul once again. We returned to the park. All was not harmony and happiness. We hunkered down for another evening dodging bugs.

The next day was humid and somewhat cloudy. At this point we were both ready to leave Atlanta. We were trying hard to be happy and content, but it wasn’t happening. It was time for some serious intervention. In the pantheon of tools to engender happiness on the road, doing laundry ranks at the top—even ahead of trailer cleaning. It was time to do the laundry. We were seriously intent on getting happy.

5217 342Jim had researched and there seemed to be just one laundromat in Atlanta. If it didn’t really exist (not an unusual occurrence) or was awful, we would have to go to Texarkana which was quite a ways away. We drove the twenty minutes back to town. With 34 years of happy matrimony under my belt, I suggested we try Sonic before the laundromat. This girl didn’t survive this long without knowing when to uncrush a soul. We don’t eat fast food very often at all. But Jim had this bee in his bonnet and it seemed the best course of action. It was okay. I don’t think I ever need to eat at Sonic again.

After Sonic, we found the Washateria. It wasn’t the cleanest place, but it had the necessary appliances. Jim and Dakota stayed in the truck and I headed in to get the job done. Doing laundry, even in a less than spotless environment, is good for the soul.

The next morning we were ready to hitch up and get underway. Our next door neighbor wandered by on his way from the bathhouse to his trailer. He was friendly and very interested in our hitch. We have a Pro Pride hitch which has tremendous stabilizing strength. It resists the gusts from wind and passing semi trucks and makes hauling a trailer much safer and easier. Lots of people haul with a simple ball hitch as did our neighbor.

Over time Jim and I have worked out a good process for hitching and un-hitching. By now we had done it many times. We barely need to speak as we work through each step. We each have our own self-assigned tasks. Despite this familiarity, having an audience threw us each into silent performance anxiety. As our neighbor peppered Jim with hitch questions, we performed each task, but without our usual level of concentration.

Once early on in our journey, we had had a near disaster in hitching. We could have totally crashed the Airstream and, even all these months later, we remained battle scarred. After that near disaster, I developed the oft-recommended hitching up checklist. Ever since we were religious in running through the checklist each time we hooked up no matter how confident we felt. Like a pilot preparing to take off down the runway, the checklist was our salvation.

The hitching in front of our kindly observer went well. Jim nailed putting the stinger in the hitch. He hooked his over center, I took the tool and hooked mine. My favorite job is to cross and hook the tow chains, hook the emergency brake release cable and seat the seven pin plug which makes the brake lights work on the trailer. All of that took place. Our satisfied guest wandered off pondering the joys of our Pro-pride Trailer hitch. Jim and I both breathed sighs of deep relief. We went through the hitching up checklist with the fervor of were newly ordained priests performing our first Eucharist.

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.