A Mother of a Park

Our drive took us from North Carolina, north through the easternmost tip of Tennessee and on to Virginia. We were headed to Hungry Mother State Park.

According to park lore, Hungry Mother got its name from a tragic story. Hostile Indians had attacked several settlements just south of what is now the park. A woman settler and her child were taken prisoner. They escaped the Indian camp and wandered through the wilderness foraging for food and looking for rescue. The mother finally collapsed, but her child was able to wander along a creek and found help. The only words the child could utter were “hungry mother.” Sadly when the rescuers came upon the mother, she was dead. The park and its man-made lake take their name from this legend.

We arrived at the park headquarters and were told we could choose any of the unreserved campsites. The road to the campground was exceedingly narrow and twisty with drop offs on each side. It was really only wide enough for one vehicle. This made it exceptionally exciting when we came upon first one and then a second car going the other way. Jim edged the truck and trailer as far to the side as possible and we squeaked past with millimeters to spare. I confess there may have been some verbal exclamations on my part.

The campground, named Creekside, featured a lovely stream running along the side. There was only one unreserved site along the creek and we struggled to back the Airstream into it. The site doglegged right. Trees and large rocks formed extra challenges and it was clear we would never make it into the site without damage to something. The Camp Host wandered over as we gave up and told us that they had just had a cancellation on site 16. It was the best site in the campground and it could be ours!

After checking with the ranger station, we backed in to the most exceptionally lovely site and un-hitched. There were ducks wandering along the creek and a momma duck and her ducklings came along to welcome us.

We opened awnings, got out our chairs, decked the awning with lights and prepared for a delightful evening. After dinner we sat out by the fire. It couldn’t have been more wonderful. With our trailer windows wide open, we slept deeply with the babbling sound of the water a natural white noise.

Rain began overnight and was expected. We knew our first full day at Hungry Mother would be a washout and planned accordingly. We hung out in the trailer listening to the intermittent stacatto bursts of rain on the trailer roof. We made a trip to town, cruised Marion’s historic downtown, bought diesel and enjoyed lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, Mi Puerto. The rain continued all afternoon and provided a perfect sound track to a long afternoon nap.

We spent the evening listening to music and watching video clips of late night comedians on YouTube. In a questionable moment of consideration, Jim logged on to Netflix and we enjoyed an hour of Slow TV: National Knitting Night—the ever popular real time program from Norway documenting spinners and knitters in a timed contest going from raw fleece to finished sweater. Perhaps not for everyone, but a total fascination to me.

Saturday dawned grey, but the rain had stopped. Our little babbling brook was now a turgid torrent. It had swollen its banks and ran brown and raw. We puttered around the trailer for a while. Just about noon the sun came out. We ate lunch and then headed out to hike the Lake Trail Loop around Hungry Mother Lake.

The park was full of people enjoying the now gorgeous day. The picnic shelters were occupied. A mountain bike and running event had taken place on the same trail we were planning to hike. A wedding was set up to take place with the white chairs in orderly rows and pretty flowers lining the aisle. We were happy to think that the wedding party would have a lovely day for the ceremony after all.

The first half of our trail followed the bank of the lake and the park road. We passed many happy fishermen standing casting their hooks into the water. We passed the dam and the trail wound into the woods. It emerged briefly at what is now the park boat launch.

This park is the oldest state park in Virginia. It, too, owes its infrastructure to the efforts of the CCC. The former CCC camp was located by the boat launch. This camp seemed a tiny bit less rustic than some. They actually had barracks rather than tents and bath facilities. We couldn’t help but remember the CCC baths at Mission Tejas.

The woods here were just lovely. The run off from the rains made streams down the mountain sides. It was cool and green in the woods. Rhododendron were in full bloom. The trail had just enough ups and downs to make it good exercise and plenty of pretty scenery to keep us occupied.

IMG_2315Hungry Mother was unusual compared to every other state park we had seen in that it boasted a restaurant. There was a sign right at the park entrance and we passed the building in which it was housed as we headed to the campground. I was dubious. How good could it be? The Camp Host mentioned it when we were selecting our site and urged us to try it. So, we planned a big Saturday night out.

We drove back to the rustic, but attractive building. The structure was wood and cabin like. The interior of the restaurant was pleasantly rustic as well. The tables were actually unassuming, topped with formica. The wait staff was college age. What a super summer job to work at the park. It would be like camp all summer long. The menu was quite nice. I ordered Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp with Grits. Both were scrumptious. The Shrimp with Grits was clearly full of wonderfully unhealthy cheese and butter.

We eavesdropped on the couple at the table behind us with intent. They were the new Camp Hosts at the second campground at the park. A ranger was talking to them and we found out that Virginia’s state parks are pretty much self-sustaining. They are encouraged to run for profit ventures, like this restaurant, to supplement the meager budget. It made a lot of sense and, from the sound of it, worked really well.

It was heady stuff to be out on Saturday night and we really enjoyed our dining experience.

Once again we enjoyed a camp fire in the evening. The roaring river was slowly returning to its former babbling brook status. We finished off our firewood and crawled into bed confident that the next morning would be so delightful, it would break our hearts to leave Hungry Mother.

We were right.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Eastward Ho!!

The drive from Pedernales Falls to our next stop at Mission Tejas State Park was tougher than we expected. The mileage wasn’t that far outside our normal range, but the drive seemed to take forever. We stopped for diesel once and then again for lunch.

We were hungry and I had just remarked that the Texas highway department would do us all a favor if they put more rest stops along the highway when a blue rest stop sign appeared. I guess they heard me. It was a little late for lunch, but the rest stop looked green and serene. We pulled into a nice long spot by a picnic table and opened up the trailer. I was in the midst of making sandwiches when another Airstream pulled in to the rest stop! It was very exciting and seconds later our new neighbors were knocking at the door.IMG_2288

Susan and Bob live in east Texas and had bought their Airstream in 2008. They actually bought their Airstream at Colonial from Patrick! (Patrick Botticelli is a legend in Airstream circles for his videos available on YouTube). That makes us sort of related. Cousins in Airstream ownership. We had two good chats. They were very friendly and enthusiastic. That is how Airstreamers tend to be especially with each other. It is a special society.

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Buoyed by our close encounter with another Airstream, we pulled back onto the highway right behind our fellow Airstreamers. We followed them through mile after mile and town after town until a construction stop light divided us. “Goodbye Airstream Buddy!”

It was after 5 when we reached our destination. Mission Tejas State Park is an old CCC camp and was founded and built in 1934. Not a big park, it has only 14 camp sites about half of which are for tent camping. It looked like they were in the midst of building a new park entrance when we were there. We never really did ask about that.

The site the ranger assigned to us was one of the worst we have ever had. It was narrow. It spanned a rise with trees on the street side and behind. The pavement was laughably uneven. It was supposed to be a full hookup, but we could see no evidence of a sewer connection.

In a comedy of errors we hadn’t dumped because we thought we would have a full hookup. When we saw no evidence of a sewer connection, we pulled off the site to head back to the dump station. We were so tired we were almost staggering as we returned to the site and worked with the Andersons to level the side to side of the trailer. We finally got it level. As we finished connecting shore power and water, we found the tiny little opening which was the sewer connection. We never did bother hooking up the sewer, we had already dumped. The site was so uneven we decided not to un-hitch. We would just stay put in the park for two days.

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Despite these rather sad beginnings, we liked our site. The trees surrounded us. It was green and leafy. The first day there were few campers. On the second day several families arrived and the forest rang with the kids’ excited voices and happy laughter and the deeper voices of parents chatting and catching up.

 

The park didn’t have a lot of trails, but there were enough. We hit them first thing the next morning. There was almost no cell signal at our site and we figured we would follow the trails and end up out at ranger headquarters where we could hopefully catch some signal.

Heading out to hike the first thing we did was to walk up the hill behind our site to check out the bathhouse as well as the Commemorative Mission building next to it. The bathhouse looked perfectly fine. It was a study building and clean. It is always reassuring to know a hot shower is attainable.

Next we headed to the Commemorative Mission. This was a replica mission building was erected by the CCC when they built the park.

It was a beautifully crafted replica of an old log building. Mission Tejas got its name from the Spanish who tried valiantly to settle the area and convert the local Caddo tribes. Tejas means “friend.” The Caddos were farmers. Ultimately, the Spanish attempt to convert the Caddo and other local tribes was a failure. Disease decimated the local tribes who attributed their illness to baptism.

The park is heavily forested with pine, oak and maple. We first walked a nature trail around a pond which let to yet another trail called the Cemetery Hill Trail.

We took a brief detour onto the Lightning Trail. This trail zigzagged through the woods, hence its name, and met back up with the Cemetery Trail which led, as one might suppose, through the woods to a cemetery. This was the local cemetery and still very much in use. The oldest graves, dating back to the 1800’s, intermingled with the newer graves charting generations of local inhabitants. We spent some time assimilating a bit of family history based on the names and dates on graves.

One of the highlight historical sights in this park are the CCC baths. The park literature and signage on the trails exhort the visitor to see the CCC baths. In my mind I was picturing some good-sized bubbling springs which one could paddle around in to get clean and cool. I idly imagines if it was warm enough I could give them a try. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we got to the springs, we saw three holes which punctuated the earth. They were glorified puddles. There were the initial spring, the soaping and cleaning hole and the rinse hole. Imagine scores of sweaty, dirty men bathing in succession in the tiny, mud-lined holes.

The men on the CCC crews lived in primitive conditions and worked really hard. They earned $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. Most of the men came from poor homes and in the depths of the Depression, these jobs saved their families from starvation and gave them skills and a sense of purpose. They built roads, bridges, parks like this, strung telephone and electrical wire and planted quite literally a billion trees. These CCC camps were stationed all over the country and did so much to build the park system which Jim and I have been so thoroughly enjoying. I give FDR full props for this. The CCC saved lives and constructively employed what would otherwise be lost resources.

After viewing the CCC baths, we headed along the Big Pine Trail to ranger headquarters. We sat on the old buggy seat on the front porch and Jim downloaded the paper (sadly only part of it came through) and I tried to send a couple emails with little luck. Oh well, the hiking was good enough even without a digital payoff.

Another major sight at the park is the Joseph Rice Log Home. This cabin was originally erected in another location along El Camino Real (the King’s Highway). Joseph Rice and his wife added to the cabin as they added to their family. It became a stopping off point for travelers. Eventually the cabin was no longer inhabited and was used for storage until it was donated to the park by the family.

 

Most fascinating in looking at the cabin was the interpretive information about building techniques. Squaring off the logs, smoothing them and then maneuvering them into place was a substantial undertaking. It is hard to conceive of the painstaking labor involved and the craftsmanship required to get a roof over one’s head. It is possible to see the marks from the shaping tools on the logs. It is all beautifully preserved.

Our return hike to our site followed the Karl Lovett Trail through a pine woods. The ground was thickly carpeted with pine needles and the red earth shone through in spots. The woods we had been in before were dense and green, this section of the park was much more arid and piney. We paused to look at the signage for the old fire towers. Jim always loves a good fire tower. He climbed one once in northern Michigan and it takes little prompting to get him to reminisce about the experience.

When we had spoken to the ranger at headquarters, she warned us the ticks were bad. When we got back to the trailer, I spread the blue quilted movers blanket we keep in the truck and began a tick check. Bingo. Dakota had a pretty good crop of ticks on him. Jim grabbed the tweezers and fire stick and we removed some ticks. This was an unpleasant reminder that we were no longer in the dry country. We would need to be careful moving forward.

IMG_2304We spent the afternoon reading and knitting (I was knitting, not Jim). It was a delight to use the sturdy bathhouse with hot running water and not the CCC bathtubs.  We enjoyed the quiet and relaxing afternoon. We had a cozy dinner. Since we had not unhitched the next day’s getaway would be swift. We would head to our last park in Texas. The eastward push was really underway.