Onward to Tennessee

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The countryside we drove through as we headed to the Rock Island State Park was gorgeously green with rolling hills, grassy pastures and deciduous forests. Once off the interstate, our trip wound through the countryside and through small towns. We passed through Lynchburg and noted the scrum around the Jack Daniels distillery. There had been signs advertising it for miles and miles, since back at the Interstate. Free tastes to drivers? Is that such a great idea?

Turning off the highway at last, a narrow road led us past the small settlement of Rock Island and on to the park. Rock Island was a sweet looking village. It had a couple of small antiques shops, a local market and two churches. One of the antiques stores also sold cord wood. We would be stopping there later.

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The road was narrow and twisted constantly. It was heart-in-your-mouth exciting especially when hauling a 28 foot trailer. A river ran next to the road. This was the Caney Fork River and Gorge. We crossed a small bridge over a stream and passed an abandoned brick mill building nestled between the river’s shore and the narrow road. It felt like we cleared the corner of the building with barely an inch to spare. The river was now roiling and wild. It raged and fell cascading down the Great Falls Dam. The TVA had a power station here and it felt familiar to encounter this power force again.

We made our obligatory stop at Ranger Headquarters. The amiable woman on duty gave us an assigned site right next to the Camp Host. When I asked if there were other sites open, she agreeably took a highlighter and marked almost every other site in the park. We had our choice among many.

We chose a site at the back of the park. There was a tag on the site marker saying someone was supposed to be in that site. We were momentarily confused and I called the ranger with a miraculous bit of cell signal. She assured me the site was available. It was only afterwards we realized the tags were from the previous May. Very odd. Those tags stayed in place for a whole year and this was the week which duplicated them? Why did they stop putting out reservation tags? What did that mean for park maintenance? It remains a puzzle.

We backed the trailer onto the pad. The picnic table and grill were nestled behind the site pad and that made it feel even more private. There was a nice even gravel pad and the picnic table was on a sort of gravel platform. The fire pit was well placed and called to us.

A man came by with his truck. He dropped off some wood. He was heading home to Michigan and gifted us the logs. They were enormous chunks of wood and would make for a very big and long-lived fire. But not tonight, we were tired and ready to have dinner and turn in.

It was 4:15 a.m. and I was lying awake in bed when suddenly light suffused the Airstream bedroom. I looked out our open front bedroom window to see the back up lights to a car. It backed itself into the camp site next to ours and turned off the engine.

This was very odd and unsettling. What was this white SUV doing parking in the site next to ours in the wee hours of the night? There was no one anywhere near us and we felt suddenly alone and very vulnerable. I woke Jim and we considered what to do. We could see the driver in the reflected light as he checked his cell phone. Why was he here? Was he drunk? Did he have some nefarious intent? Had he had a fight with his wife and drove off angry? What was he doing in the middle of a campground in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?

I went to get my phone and the campground info to see if there was a number to call for security. There was no cell signal. Jim turned the outside trailer light on to signal that we were aware of the interloper. Next he hit the unlock button on the truck so it beeped and flashed light. Shortly thereafter our sometime neighbor fired his ignition and drove off. We sighed with relief and went back to bed. It was the first time we had felt the slightest concern for our safety at the hand of another after so many weeks on the road.

The next morning we were determined to get out and hike. We could not live in fear of ticks forever. There were numerous trails available in the park. First we poked around some of the park roads and visited what in warmer weather was the beach area. Then we drove out of the park past the Great Falls Dam to hike the Collins River Nature Trail.

This trail was a three-mile loop through the woods. It followed the bank of the Collins River which was just visible through the trees and then looped around back to its beginning. It felt really good to be hiking in the woods. It was hot and sunny already, but the trees kept us shaded and cool. When we got back to the truck, we stood broiling in the sun while I did a tick check. Most happily there were no ticks. Hooray for us! We had managed to enjoy a hike with no negative after effects.

After our hike, we visited the Caney Fork Gorge and the Great Falls Dam.

The mill building which had so frightened us when we were first driving in to the park turned out to have been the only mill in Franklin County. It operated for ten years before a flood wiped it out in 1902. The waters washed the giant turbine away and it was too expensive to replace it so the mill simply closed down.

Across the street there was an odd castle-like structure. This was a spring which had supplied drinking water to the mill. It was mossy and eerie and I am not at all sure I would want to drink this water.

After dinner we made a lovely fire and sat out in the cool night air, warm from the fire. I had made a pot of beans and we ate those by the fire. The stars were bright overhead and we sipped wine and enjoyed the evening until late. Thanks in part to the wood from our Michigander friend, our campfire was still burning the next morning when we got up.

We knew there would be rain on our second full day at the park. All day and that night it rained and rained. We spent the morning cleaning and doing our laundry. Later we drove into nearby Sparta to look around. With no cell or wi-fi at the campground, we sat in a bank parking lot for an hour catching up on email.  Back in camp that afternoon, we took advantage of breaks in the downpour to get hitched and ready to go the next day. It was a quiet and early evening with reading and a little music.

The next morning we woke to a grey and wet world. We pulled out and headed east. We were very excited to be visiting our next stop, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hitting Rock Bottom at Bottomless

IMG_2033When we arrived at Bottomless Lakes State Park, the thermometer in the truck read 90 degrees. Bottomless Lakes is named for the series of sink holes or cenotes which punctuate the park. The campground is set next to the largest of the cenotes, Lea Lake. This is the high desert. The landscape was all sandy dirt, rocks and scrub bushes. The far side of the lake rose abruptly into jagged red cliffs. The park is well known in the area as a great place to cool off. This I can believe since it was broiling hot in the middle of March. I cannot fathom what July and August must be like. Just because the humidity is low, hot is still hot.

 

The park has public access for day visitors and when we arrived the parking lot was packed and the lake resounded with the cries and shouts of many swimmers. We pulled into our site. It was hotter than blazes and the sun was burning everything it touched. We unhitched and set up camp with the perspiration dripping down our sides.

Our site was next to the lake as advertised, but that was actually less than ideal as it meant we were next to hordes of children jumping in the lake. The campground was barren of trees and color. A few scraggly bushes decorated our site. The picnic table was sheltered under a cement structure. Hundreds of ants swarmed the table and shelter and I quickly hustled Dakota away.

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Desperate to cool off, we decided to avail ourselves of the lake. We suited up and headed over. The water was surprisingly cold and we waded in. The water was brown, but the cold was a relief. I dunked under to take full advantage. The water was brackish and suddenly less appealing. Even though we were now much cooler, we decided a shower was a necessity.

We grabbed our shower items and headed to the camp bathhouse. Over at the lake we had noticed signs saying some of the public bathrooms were closed for the winter. It was immediately apparent that the overflow day campers were using the campground facilities.

Despite signage designating the campground from the day areas, people were swarming through the campground. When we got to the bath house, the campground host was in the middle of hustling some people out who had actually tried to lock themselves into the women’s room for privacy. The bathrooms were absolutely filthy and littered with detritus. I will spare any further details except the shower had a  push button and water would flow in a weak stream for thirty seconds and then shut off.

Back at the trailer, we gave up and fired up the air conditioning. We huddled in misery in the trailer. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate confluence of many factors and timing, but this was an untenable situation. We had booked five days at this place. We came the closest to snarling at each other as we have during the entire trip. Something had to give.

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When we decided to get only one air conditioner unit for the Airstream, there were multiple factors driving the decision. One factor was that meant we could use 30 amp, rather than 50 amp service and that would give us more flexibility when looking for campsites. Another factor was our disinclination to use air conditioning. If we got to a place which was too hot, we figured we could always hitch up and head out for cooler climes. This philosophy would now come into play.

The desert air was cool the next morning. The day visitors were gone and it was quiet and calm at the park. Nevertheless, we knew the day would soon warm and the weatherman on the news the night before had predicted a record heat wave. I remembered wistfully the drive over and how cool it was around Ruidoso. The elevation was just over 6,000 feet and the mountains were covered in cedar and pine. I called an rv resort just outside the town and we hitched up and headed out. The benefit to having your house on wheels is you can always just take it with you to a better place. This we did.

A Neat Pocket of a Park

We motored along Interstate 10 past the somewhat tawdry area of Lake Charles and crossed the border into Texas. At Beaumont we hung a right and headed up Route 92 to Lumberton. Up over some tracks and through a little subdivision and there was the Village Creek State Park.

The campground at Village Creek was perched on a hillside with 25 sites marching down each side of the camp road. Oddly enough, this park was also quite empty. We were beginning to feel a little weird about all these empty parks—especially when we keep having trouble making reservations. What gives?

The most interesting aspect to our site in this park is its shape. It is the equivalent of a railroad car style New York apartment. The picnic table and living area of the site was actually situated behind where our trailer was parked. Trees ringed our site and the whole effect was really pleasing.

The best part about this park is the hiking trails. During our three days here, we had two great hikes. Our first hike was the Water Oak Trail. This trail led through several different kinds of landscape from sandy areas with cactus and yuccas to swampy bottomland. Past hurricane damage was apparent both from the damage to trees and the decimation of bridges across the swampiest parts. In places fallen trees had been pulled into service as ersatz bridges. We took turns carrying Dakota over those areas.

At one point on the trail I looked down in my ever vigilant search for snakes and saw an unbroken string of yellow. Little bits of yellow petals were parading across the trail. It was a whole colony of ants carrying small flower petals back to their hill. They marched in tight formation across the trail struggling under their heavy loads even as their brethren headed back in the other direction to shoulder the next load. It was quite fascinating.

Our hike the second day took place in a light rain. This hike followed the Village Creek trail mostly along the banks of the eponymous creek. The trail terminated at a nice swimming sandbar. If it had been warmer and sunny, it would have been a tempting place to take a dip.