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My First Blog Post

The Long Road

I sometimes think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house.

— Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

I started this blog as a sort of diary of my adventures with my husband, Chris, our one year old son, and our dog, Devon.  

In about June of 2019 our lease on our rental house was approaching expiry and so we had to make a decision whether to renew or go somewhere else.  We HATE moving and are NOT good at it.  We also didn’t really know where we wanted to go.  Though we had a baby, I wasn’t ready to settle down in one place yet and still craved adventure.  It’s hard to adventure, however, when you exist on one income, you barely cover rent and bills every month, and you have a baby and a dog.  It was hard for us even to visit my family in England and Canada, or even his family in Tennessee. The perpetual need for childcare, dog sitting, and money made it a bloody nightmare every time we wanted to even take a weekend away. Not to mention the need to cover bills while we were away which, on one income derived from self employment meant that any time away always left us frantically scraping for weeks afterwards just to get by.  

In November of 2018 we had bought a 1969 slide-in truck bed camper. This started as a search for a camper shell to transport the dogs and the baby stuff to make visits to Tennessee possible in one vehicle. Anyone with a new baby knows that you can’t go anywhere for a weekend without packing your entire house.

The camper was very basic with one light, 3 power sockets, a small bed and dinette (which turned into a second bed), and a 5 gallon water jug which could be placed over a sink which drained outside the camper in place of running water.  It was very dated so Chris, a carpenter by trade, worked tirelessly for 2 days and nights to replace rotten wood, paint, and put new floor in.  I recovered the original mustard yellow and brown dinette cushions and together we breathed new life into that camper.  We took it to Tennessee and stayed in it for a few nights.  It was so much fun and we really loved the whole experience.  The two of us, a baby, and a dog (Chris’ dog stayed in the house with Chris’ parents’ dogs, my dog is socially retarded so stayed with us) crammed into that thing and loved every minute.  We decided then that something bigger would be more practical so we sold it for more than double what we had put into it.

Then we got Miss Daisy.  She was a 1968 Frolic 16ft pull-behind camper with bad leaks and a horrible hot-pink paint job inside and out.  Chris gutted it, repainted the outside with my choice of white and soft yellow, and I recovered the cushions.  We sold it, still gutted, for a good profit and bought our current camper just 8 weeks before our lease was up.

We decided in June, before we sold Miss Daisy, that we were not satisfied with our current life.  Chris was working long hours to make rent which meant I was stuck at home with the baby on my own a LOT and it was taking its toll on us.  We realized that we were working so hard to afford a life that we didn’t actually even like.  We hated the city, we hated that house, and we hated not spending time together.  So I did a little research and pitched the idea to him that we live in a camper full time. It just made sense to me – we could travel and bring our home with us. No more having to worry about what to do with the dog, or how we would deal with a baby who refuses to sleep in a bedroom with which he is unfamiliar. 

Chris looked at me like I was crazy the first time I brought it up.  But I told him that there was this “campground host” program where we could live for free in state parks (of which there are several within the area in which Chris works) so long as I volunteered at the park.  In this way, Chris wouldn’t have to work all the time to fork out for rent and we would be able to be back out in the country where we belonged.  We could actually enjoy weekends together and be able to afford to spend a little money here and there to do fun things as a family.  He considered it and said “ok, if that’s what you want (yes, I have a wonderful husband who often responds to my wild ideas in that manner).

I spent every waking moment looking for a camper.  I watched facebook marketplace for months to see what kind of used campers were out there and what price they were going for. I researched floor plans and style to get a good idea of what would work for us and what was a definite no-go.  Finally I found a 30ft 2006 Jayco Jayflight 29BHS at an absolute steal of $6,000 and it was immaculate.  It has a master bedroom at the front, a full kitchen with fridge/freezer, oven and stove, microwave, and a little Belfast style double sink.  The couch slides out when parked to give an extra 18-24 inches or so of floor space in the living area, and the couch and dinette both fold down to make 2 extra double beds.  The best part was that it had bunks at the back with the bottom bunk being a double. I planned to convert the bottom bunk into Junior’s own little bedroom and take the mattress off the top bunk so that we could put plastic totes up there for storage.  It also has a full bathroom with a perfect little tub for bathing the kid.

So we JUMPED on it as quickly as we could, with a little (actually a lot) of help from my family and a close friend.  That weekend we brought our new home back to our rental house and parked it in the driveway.  We were smiling ear to ear that night and spent about an hour just sitting in the camper and looking around talking about all the things we could do in it.

The following weeks were spent selling all our furniture and much of our stuff, organizing a storage unit for what we wanted to keep but couldn’t take on the camper, and, of course, finding our first hosting placement.  Finding a placement proved a little more difficult than anticipated and I spent a lot of time calling various parks and playing phone tag with others.  Eventually, with just a couple weeks to go before our lease was up, we found a placement from October 31 – December 31 at Vogel state park near Blairsville, GA.  It actually worked out perfectly because it allowed us to spend a few weeks in the camper just as paying guests at state parks while we got used to living in it and got Junior and Devon both adjusted to all the new sights, noises, and routines of a living in a camper.  

Finally, on September 24th, a day later than originally planned, we set off from our old rental at around 8pm and headed for Tugaloo state park for our first 2 week stay in our new little home on wheels.  The weeks of frantically packing, selling and organizing had become more chaotic until the last few days was filled with constant packing and moving, and very little sleep.  It was EXTREMELY stressful and I had more than a few dread-filled sleepless nights of thinking “I don’t think we’re gonna make it”.  Thankfully we ended up with another day at the house to finish getting our stuff out and into storage or the camper, and get the house cleaned up.  When it was finally time to pull out and hit the road it was past the baby’s bedtime so he was devoid of all patience which made working out the last few technical hiccups with the trailer hitch all the more stressful as he wailed at us from the back seat of the truck.

We arrived at the campground, in typical Rachael-fashion, at 9:45pm – just 15 minutes before they closed the gate for the night and locked us out.  We backed the camper into our campsite in the dark which was, surprisingly, not disastrous.  The very second that we put the camper in park it was like all the stress had completely melted away and I was overcome with relief and sheer joy.  The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming and we were grinning like children on Christmas morning all night.  Then was the fun part (for me). We set the camper, lowered the jacks, plugged in the power, turned some lights on, put the slide out, hooked up the water, got beds set up, moved stuff in – all with excited chatter and frequent hugs and “we did it!”  Junior had gone from screaming bloody murder to running back and forth in the camper, squealing and giggling with delight at his new home as he chased Devon around. We couldn’t help but laugh too, and the four of us jumped and rolled around laughing for a while as we basked in the moment.

Much to our delight and EXTREME surprise, when we finally put Junior down in his new bed for the first time – the kid who hates disruption to his routine and will not sleep anywhere but his bedroom – with ease and he went straight to sleep and slept through the night until around 8am.  We went to sleep with smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts that night.  We deserved that moment.  We worked our butts off for it.  We stressed and worried and researched and planned and sacrificed our way to that moment. It was a long and brutal road to the campsite but the view of our future that night as we sat exhausted in our chairs by the empty fire ring was gloriously bright, full of hope, and tasted so much sweeter than I had even dared to imagine.

Zen and the Art of RV Maintenance

“Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.”

Life in an RV is very different to conventional living.  There are adjustments to be made in both the physical day-to-day living, but also in terms of one’s mentality.  Some differences are obvious and readily identifiable by merely looking at any rig.  Others are more subtle and take careful research and consideration to avoid costly mishaps.

Campers are, undeniably, small and cramped.  Therefore a drastic reduction in one’s things is absolutely essential to make such a venture as ours successful.  We spent about 3 months painstakingly sorting through each and every single item we owned from every drawer, closet, and cupboard.  We sold, gave away and threw away more than 2/3 of everything we owned.  The rest was either put in our camper or put in our 10×15 ft storage unit in Clarkesville, GA.  

Even with all that hard work, we still would have appreciated another month or so to go through everything thoroughly as we were somewhat rushed when it came to crunch time and therefore our storage unit looks like a small third-world country after a natural disaster.  My number one tip to anyone considering simplifying their life would be give yourself time and start ASAP, it will take a lot longer than you think.

We did carefully consider every item that we brought into the camper, but even so, we have ended up with clutter and mess everywhere you look (hence no pictures of the inside of our camper as yet).  I have organized and reorganized but the trouble with campers is that they are not really designed to live in, but merely to vacation in.  Therefore it requires a fair amount of reworking and adapting your space before you move in to maximize your use of it.

In our old camper we had time to do this before we moved in.  In Patsy we had about an hour to move everything we owned from Old Jessie into Patsy, so as you can imagine it was a bloody headache to get it all straightened out when we got back to where we were staying.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There is no other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”

Living in a camper also requires an adaptation of your mindset.  By choosing this lifestyle you are also choosing to live without many modern conveniences that you may have grown to love, or even depend upon.  The biggest conveniences that I miss are a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  

In the first few months of our marriage, we were very nearly torn apart by a lack of a dishwasher.  About 3 months in I put my foot down and bought one.  We laugh about it now but the struggle, at the time, was very real and arguments about dishes came close to ending our marriage in the early days.  I therefore had a great deal of trepidation about electing to subject myself to living in close quarters without such a vital lifeline for our marriage.  As it turns out, however, we have grown significantly since then.  That coupled with the fact that I don’t work full-time anymore so have more time to actually do the dishes, means that there is only mild name calling and only rare death-threats related to someone not doing the dishes.  

Another consideration when moving into a camper is the bathroom.  This is an important one to some and should not be glossed over in the decision-making process, both with choosing this lifestyle and with choosing a rig.  Bathrooms are TIGHT spaces in rigs.  They are, by no means, luxury spaces and are designed to simply allow you to take care of your basic personal hygiene.  Women: if you can’t live without 3 bags of make-up, 4 different hair styling appliances, and 18 cans and bottles of lotions and potions then this life is NOT for you.  I did have a large collection of such things prior to taking the plunge but I really only had them because we had the space for them (sort of) and I rarely used most of it anymore, so it wasn’t hard to part with the vast majority of it.  

Even so, the bathroom is tiny and there is not a lot of room for drying off after a shower or getting dressed.  We did, however, elect for a camper with a small tub.  This tub would be entirely impractical for either of us unless we felt like sitting in 10 inches of water with our knees pulled up to our ears.  But for our 1 year old who LOVES bath time – it’s perfect.  For long, hot showers on those frigid winter days however – don’t count on it.  The hot water lasts about 10 minutes in the shower; long enough to do what you need to do, but not for a good soak in scalding water like I love to do.  If you’re really hankering for a long, hot shower, then there are bathhouses at each park.  But, depending on the park, you may have to put up with poor drainage leaving you standing in a lake of your own and other campers’ filth, or generally old and unclean bathrooms.  The bathrooms here at Vogel are rather nice and so occasionally we will pop in there for a long, hot shower.

Water is an RVer’s number one enemy.  Living in a camper is a constant battle against moisture.  Roofs on RVs require regular inspection and maintenance to prevent the seals going bad on the rubber membrane, pipes and hoses are subject to regular inspection, and winter months in particular bring the need for constant diligence.  We check the weather daily and monitor for incoming freezes or potential freezes.  When it even comes close to freezing at night we fill our fresh water tank and disconnect our city water connection to avoid a burst hose.  We also make sure to turn our space heater off (which we use in above-freezing temperature to save on propane, as electricity is free to us hosts) and switch over to propane heat.  Our propane heat is ducted and therefore forces heated air into the underbelly of our camper where our pipes, hoses, and holding tanks are.  Failure to prepare in this way for an incoming freeze could be disastrous and VERY costly.

Then there is the added annoyance of condensation.  In the colder months it is simply not possible to live in a camper without a dehumidifier.  Ours runs constantly through the night when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  If we turn it off then within 30 minutes or less there’s water dripping from the windows and down the walls.  Improper management of condensation leads to mold, and mold can render a camper uninhabitable fast.

Managing the tanks is another ordeal.  Even with full hookup sites as hosts, we still need to monitor the tanks several times a day.  Leaving the tanks open leads to nasty sewer gas creeping up the hoses and into the camper – it smells bad and can set off the propane alarm.  So instead we remain hooked up to the sewer but only pull (release) the tanks as and when we need to; usually once a day or every other day.  We have 3 tanks to pull on our camper.  We have one grey water tank at the front which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink; one grey water tank at the back which holds everything that drains from the bathroom, and the black water tank which holds everything that drains from the toilet.  The grey water tank at the front has a sewer connection near the front of the camper, whereas the bathroom grey water and the black tank share a sewer connection at the back (but have their own respective levers).  We therefore have to have 2 sewer hoses joined to a wye connector and an elbow that is attached to the sewer line.

We recently learned how delicate these hoses are.  After a hard freeze lately, Chris noticed that the slide topper (an awning over our slide out that prevents water and debris from building on top of the slide itself) was sagging.  This concerned him, so I told him we should just pull the slide in to knock off the leaves, debris, and maybe water that was sitting up there.  So I opened the window on the slide, he stood out there to watch and make sure we weren’t going to hit or crush anything and I stood inside to operate the slide switch.  What we neglected to do was disconnect and move the hoses, which turned out to be detrimental.  As I pulled the slide in, a sheet of ice still present on the slide topper fell like a guillotine and sliced both sewer hoses clean in half.  Luckily the tanks had just been pulled and so we didn’t have to rush to Walmart until the next day to shell out another $100 to replace both hoses.  Lesson learned.

We also had a bad pipe connection on our outdoor kitchen in our new camper recently.  Within a week of having it I opened the compartment door for the outdoor kitchen to find half an inch of water at the bottom.  Upon closer inspection we found that, because the camper wasn’t 100% level, this water had slowly crept from the outdoor kitchen at the back of the camper along the wall through the pantry, behind the kitchen cabinets, and into Chris’ sock cupboard in the bedroom.  This calamity took 2 trips to home depot and an unexpected day off work for Chris.  It wasn’t the most fun Sunday we’ve ever had.

Then there’s the kitchen.  This is a constant source of frustration for me.  As previously mentioned, I have a strong loathing for doing dishes by hand.  The trouble with this is that they can build up in the sink.  Being that the kitchen is so tiny, this means that the presence of dirty dishes in the kitchen immediately renders the kitchen virtually unusable.  So it requires a level of discipline that I have yet to master.  

The lack of space also means that we had to drastically thin out collection of pots, pans, and kitchen gadgets.  This, however, turns out to be something I am very grateful for, as I now realize how little of all that stuff I neither used nor needed.  But lack of pantry space has been a difficult thing to overcome and we are still fighting that battle.

The next area that has proven most problematic for us is clothing storage.  I am addicted to thrift stores.  RVing does not lend itself to this lifestyle.  Since marrying Chris I have gone from over 150 pairs of shoes to just 20.  In preparing for this adventure I also donated 8 large trash bags full of clothes.  But lack of well-designed clothing storage means that we are constantly wading through the many clothes that are bursting from each closet and shelf.  On top of that, there is zero built-in storage for junior’s clothes or toys.  We have resorted to storage baskets of clothes haphazardly placed on the top bunk but it’s impractical and messy so finding a better solution is top of our to-do list.

Another area for serious consideration when living in a camper is the unavoidable fact that the thing moves.  Living in something that moves means that everything gets jiggled around, twisted and jolted.  More than once we have arrived at our destination, opened the door, and found that things had been thrown off shelves or out of cupboards, or that things have started to fall apart.  Luckily we’ve only suffered one broken plate so far, but that is because we take care to take the TV in the bedroom off the wall before moving, strap the living room TV to the wall, push totes on the top bunk away from the edge, and remove things from shelves that could fall while in transit.

There’s also an inherent lack of privacy in a camper.  Probably not such an issue for a couple that has been together for some time, but certainly not for anyone who isn’t very, very comfortable with their partner.  I have too often been cooking dinner in the kitchen or been sat on the couch writing when the bathroom door swings open to reveal Chris sat on the toilet who asks “whatcha doin’?”  

There is no escape from each other in a camper.  This is fine for us, we are quite happy living in each other’s pockets and rarely feel the need to have time away from each other.  But getting quality time away from the baby can be tough, even after he goes to bed.

Everything is easily heard throughout the camper so we have a noise machine playing white noise in the kid’s bed throughout the night, plus we put the radio on in the living room (3 feet from his bed) to drown out the sound of us talking or moving around.  But sudden noises outside or a late night knock on the door from a camper in need of help means the dog will bark and the baby WILL get woken up.  Occasionally one of us will drop something or otherwise cause a raucous which will upset the delicate peace of a sleeping baby.  Thus we spend most of our evenings outside by the fire or in the bedroom watching a movie in bad weather.

Overall, however, Junior is becoming pretty accustomed to the noise of living in a camper and is becoming a fairly heavy sleeper now.  The other day, while Junior was napping, I watched Hacksaw Ridge, a WWII movie featuring loud and graphic battle scenes which were especially loud coming through the surround sound on the camper, but Junior didn’t even stir despite the blood-curdling screams and the deafening explosions.

The sum of these factors can make for rather difficult living.  But proper research, regular maintenance, and due diligence ensures that the lifestyle is not as complicated one might think, and in many ways is much easier than living in a house.  The trade off here is that you end up with a dramatically lower cost of living (the payment on our camper is less than $300 per month and we have no rent or utility costs), it takes less than an hour to deep clean and organize your entire home, and you naturally just spend way less time inside whiling away hours binge watching Netflix and spend more time outside engaging with each other and exploring.  

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

For our son this means that in his most developmentally informative years he is outside every single day for hours playing in the woods, talking and interacting with other campers, and learning at an astounding rate.  For Chris, it means a significantly lower financial burden which allows him to work less, take days off more frequently (means more family time for us), and not be subjected to the horrors of Atlanta traffic ever again.  For me, it means less time cleaning and organizing, more quality time with my son, less driving around or spending money just to keep him occupied, and more time enjoying life.  Hosting further allows me to regain some of my identity outside of motherhood and do something else meaningful.

The success of embarking on this adventure, at least so far, is due in no small part to the timing.  If we had attempted this a year ago when we had 2 dogs that didn’t get along it would have been a catastrophe of epic proportions and someone likely would have ended up in hospital.  Had we attempted it right after we got married it would have ended in divorce and/or criminal charges.  If we had waited too long until Junior was in school then fear of it being too big of an undertaking and upheaval would have prevented us from ever trying.  

“Is it hard? Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

Beyond timing and preparation, the fundamental requirement for this lifestyle is the right attitude and values.  Consumerism has no place here.  We, as people, are happy to sacrifice wifi, television, abundant indoor space, and some modern conveniences in order to preserve what is really important to us; being together.  Valuing these things highly and not wanting to give them up doesn’t make you a worse or bad person, but it does mean that you have no business even considering this lifestyle.  Conventional living allows your world to revolve around those things now, and while there are so many awesome and incredible things that come from that, it comes at a price that we are just not willing to pay.

It’s a question of quality.  If quality of life to you is dependent upon the quality of your wifi, cell service, and modern conveniences then this would be utter misery to you.  But if quality of life is dependent upon time spent with your family, exploring nature, and simplifying and you would be willing to sacrifice the consumerism and commit to the regular maintenance, then it is time to buy an RV.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.”

*All quotes are from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig

It’s a Hard Life

I’ve been working here at Vogel for 2 weeks now and have worked as a camp host for 2 months.  I had anxiety about any form of work after being a stay at home Mom for a year and a half now.  I had the return-to-work jitters that took a minute to wear off, but I really feel like I’m getting into the swing of it now.

I have almost completed two full rotations of work at Vogel.  I work 4 days on and then have 4 days off.  The work is definitely tougher than at Tugaloo but the 4 days off make it a lot easier.

Each day of work begins as any other: my wonderful husband wakes me with hot coffee and, if I’m lucky enough, a bowl of cereal which I end up sharing with Junior who lights up at the sight of the bowl, stomps over, frowns, points at the bowl, and opens his mouth.  He gets his eloquence from his father.

After getting dressed and wrestling the reluctant child into some clothing and then his stroller we walk the 1/3 mile to the visitor’s center to pick up our list for the day.  On brisk mornings I have a neat little sleeping bag for Junior complete with holes for the stroller straps.  It’s waterproof, lined with thick fleece, and zips up to his nose, so he stays toasty and looks like an adorable little eskimo.  This usually catches the attention of the campers who are bustling around the campsite, and most mornings we’ll stop for a chat with one happy camper or another.

At the visitor’s center we spend a few minutes catching up with the ladies there including one Ranger who Junior has taken a particular liking to and will channel his inner Chris Seeley charm to coax smiles and giggles from her.  Once the ladies are thoroughly smitten, we grab our list and head off to work.

The list consists of 2, 3 or sometimes 4 pages of incoming and outgoing campers for the day.  It details which sites need to be prepped for campers arriving before their 3pm check in (though most come early) and which sites need to be cleaned up after campers check out at 1pm.  Prepping the sites and cleaning the sites are largely the same thing and consist of leaf-blowing (an arduous and never-ending task at this time of year), picking up any litter, and cleaning out the fire pits of excess ash or trash.  Being that 9am is a little early for the irritating whine a leaf blower, we begin by cleaning the bathroom blocks.

Vogel is a large park with 4 “loops” and 4 bathroom blocks.  We are responsible for 2 of those loops; the first standard campsite loop and the walk-in site loop.  Standard campsites consist of pull-through and back-in campsites with electric and water hookups and a picnic table – there are 31 on our loop.  Walk-in sites can be accessed by foot only and are for tent campers looking for a more primitive setting, and there are 16 of these.  Loop 3 is another standard campsite loop with 29 sites across Wolf creek toward the back of the park, and loop 4 consists of 25-foot sites for smaller campers – of which there are 23.  Another set of hosts is responsible for loops 3 and 4.  Our neighbor and fellow host is responsible for our loops on my days off.

Cleaning the bathrooms takes about an hour for each block and is usually a pretty easy task.  I bring Junior in his stroller and he happily jabbers away telling me nonsensical stories while I set about my work.  Most days I get compliments from campers on the cleanliness of the bathrooms and my ability to balance a 1 year old and my volunteer duties.  I do believe that Junior’s presence invokes a certain sense of sympathy from the campers as they pass by and this makes them more likely to be respectful of the bathrooms and the park in general – after all, who wants to make more work for the struggling mother who volunteers to clean bathrooms at the state park?

Around 11am, bathrooms clean, we head back to the camper for Junior’s lunch and nap, though he sometimes falls asleep during the bathroom cleaning.  While he’s napping I grab the opportunity to do some dishes, have a tidy up, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll grab a quick shower.  When Junior wakes up, usually after an hour or 2, he has a quick second lunch and we head back to work.  

On weekdays the list can take as little as an hour to complete, but on weekends it can take much longer.  My first Sunday here had me going non-stop from morning until sunset trying to get through the list and blow leaves off the roads.  Of course, this was the peak leaf-changing season and so it seems to be gradually getting slower since then.

To complete my list with Junior in tow I usually opt for the backpack carrier, as he is usually tired of the stroller by now.  It can be pretty rough on a busy day with the weight of him on me as well as the leaf blower and we will usually cover a couple of miles like this.

It is also my responsibility to stock the firewood and ice at the visitor’s center throughout the day which can be laborious, especially on busy nights in the colder season.  I’m fortunate that the hosts on the other loop are kind enough to take over that responsibility for me most days.

After our work is done for the day we are free to spend the afternoon as we choose.  Most of the time I get Junior out for a run around to burn some of the energy he has pent up from being strapped to either a stroller or me all day.  This is usually when some friendly campers will stop me for a chat.

Most people tend to be quite curious about us.  Most campers come to state parks often, and Vogel is a park that many return to time and time again.  Some of the regulars have been coming here with their families for generations.  Being that we don’t fit the usual profile of campground hosts, this sparks curiosity and thus conversation.

Last week I finished blowing the leaves off the last site on my list when a camper began talking to me.  He was sitting in a camping chair on the neighboring site with his wife and they were enjoying the peace and quiet before I came along.  He was friendly and inquired about how I managed to balance my responsibilities, I told him that it wasn’t terribly difficult most of the time – but it definitely required some tact.  He asked about how we had come to be hosts and before I knew it I was sitting with them drinking hot tea and they were playing with Junior as I told them my life story.  

Larry and Pat were from Louisiana and had been married a long time.  Pat was a retired school teacher and Larry was retired from the insurance business.  It was Larry’s idea to get the camper and Pat, not much of an outdoor’s woman, seemed to try her best to enjoy the excursions they take in order to be a supportive wife.  They were a very sweet couple who I found very easy to talk to.  We shared many of the same world views and they admired the lifestyle that we have chosen for our son.

I spent about 2 hours chatting with them that day, and returned each day until they left to swap stories and enjoy each other’s company.  

On the day they left I wasn’t working so I took my time getting out of the camper. By the time I did, Pat and Larry were all but packed up and ready to hit the road. Pat’s face lit up when she saw us walking down the road and it was clear that she had begun to feel disappointed that we might not come and say goodbye – until we showed up. She gave me a big hug and expressed how nervous she was about the drive back down the mountain. I tried my best to reassure her by reminding her that millions of people go RVing ever year and many of them are a lot dumber than her – so if they can do it then so can she. She leaned in close and told me in a hushed tone that she had forgotten to get her jewelry out of the drawer but that it couldn’t be accessed while the slide was in so she was dreading telling Larry that he’d have to put the slide back out. I giggled and told her that she’d better do it sooner rather than later, as he was about to hitch the rig and lift the jacks.

She turned and called to him: “Larry!”

Pat’s voice seemed to cut through Larry and he slowly turned and poked his head from behind the camper.  He looked at Pat and shuffled over to me.  He leaned in and said “When she says “Larry!” like that, I shudder.”  Then he smirked and turned to Pat who gave him an endearing eye roll.  I chuckled.  I liked them a lot; they were polar opposites in some ways but they seemed to love each other dearly and make an effort for each other even after all these years.  She was still fearful of disappointing him and he was happy to do things at her pace. Pat told him she had left her earrings in the camper and that she needed him to put the slide back out and retrieve them for her. He sighed, smiled sweetly and said “of course, dear”.

It makes me think of Chris and me.  I think I hold him back from really running head first into adrenaline and risk sometimes because I’m such a nervous Nelly, but he seems to genuinely be ok with going a little slower sometimes or passing up the odd adventure when I’m feeling particularly anxious or uneasy.  In turn I try to push myself a little more and step outside my comfort zone so he doesn’t have to choose between me and whatever adventure he has his eye on.  I think it’s something that is important to any marriage; it’s the need to gauge each other’s comfort levels and never stay too firmly in them but never force the other too far out of theirs.  Pat and Larry seemed to have that down.

After I hugged them goodbye and Junior blew them kisses we continued on our walk through the park and around the lake – a walk that has become something of a favorite.  I took yet more pictures of the lake – something which I didn’t think I would spend so much time doing.  But every time I walk that same trail around that same lake I catch a different view.  When the sun catches the leaves in the morning the mountains turn a beautiful golden color that glows against the blue sky and illuminates the landscape with a peaceful aura. The afternoon sun seems to catch more of the reds and oranges giving the hillside a more lively energy.  But when a storm is moving in and the dark clouds begin to gather around the mountains and creep down the peaks casting shadow over the lake, the scene becomes an entirely more sinister and foreboding one.

Having snapped my pictures, I headed back to camp for snacks and playtime.  Along the way I bumped into Jason, a fella that I had been seeing around the campsite the last few days and exchanging pleasantries and idle chatter with.  He’s younger than the usual weekday camping crowd by about 25-30 years and was visiting from South Florida with his wife, April, and their 2 young daughters.  April’s mother and father, Sandra and Jerry, who live close by, were also camping at the park.  Jerry and I had also chatted a few times and I liked him a lot too.  In fact I adored the whole family.  These people were not the kind of people that you can take a disliking to – they are some of the most likable people I’ve ever met.  Each time we passed by them in the park they would take the time to ask how we were, see what we’ve been up to, and would also ask about things that we had talked about in previous conversations.  Jerry and Sandra even helped me numerous times to try and catch a hungry but friendly stray dog that had been running around the park for days (we still haven’t caught him).

Each one of them were so warm and friendly, easy to talk to, were fun to laugh with, and made us smile.  They were genuine and made us feel welcome at the park that they have been coming to for decades.  Jason and April came and sat with us by our campfire one night and we had a couple of drinks and chatted, swapped stories and laughed – it is exactly what camping is all about.

April and Jason had to leave for Florida the next day but we got a few more days with Jerry and Sandra before they, too, had to go.  But we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.  Jerry and Sandra asked for our numbers to keep in touch and said they think of us as family now.  They even invited us to Thanksgiving with them!

A couple of days ago a retired couple named Stan and Ann arrived to stay for the week. It turns out that they have spent a good bit of time in British Columbia, the Canadian province that I’m from, and share my adoration for its unique beauty. I’m sure I’ll enjoy more daily conversations with them until their departure on Friday.

When I took on this adventure, much like I do with everything, I worried.  I worried that I’d be isolated and wouldn’t have many people to talk to, or that if I did they’d be unfriendly or rude and that I would end up dreading leaving the camper each day.  I imagined that maybe after a while we might be lucky enough to meet some folks whose company we enjoyed and had some good conversations with, but I never imagined that we would come to meet so many memorable and wonderful people. 

There are many things about what we are doing that have helped me to begin restoring my confidence – after all, it took a pretty brutal thrashing after all we’ve been through in the last couple of years.  Going back to work – though it is volunteer work – gave me a sense of purpose and pride outside of motherhood that I had forgotten I needed.  Making the leap to live this lifestyle reminded me that I am brave and that our marriage is solid.  Climbing a mountain with my son on my back reminded me that I am strong.  And making so many great new friends reminded me that I am worthy of love. 

These are the lessons that I believe are essential to not just learn, but constantly re-learn over and over as the seasons of life can take their toll and bury those lessons deep within us.  They are lessons that I have always hoped to teach my son over and over as he grows.  They are lessons that I now know he is learning everyday of this adventure as he watches me relearn them.

Things that Go ‘Bump’ in the Mountains

We’ve been at Vogel State Park for 13 days now.  Upon our arrival I was immediately aware that the vibe here was totally different than that of Tugaloo but I found it difficult to define.  Having spent a few days here exploring and working, I think I have finally put my finger on it: Vogel State Park is spooky.

There is an extensive list of contributing factors, the culmination of which creates a kind of energy that is both subtle and yet obtrusive.  It’s the kind of energy that causes an almost constant conflict between the rational mind and the irrational heart.  This feeling nagged at me incessantly for days before I finally consciously considered it carefully to determine why it has this quality.

The physical landscape is rugged and imposing.  While Tugaloo was also wooded, it was more sparse, mainly young pines, and very, very flat.  Here, the vast majority of the forest is made up of large, old hardwoods that soar upwards from the forest floor, looming ominously and covering the towering mountain peaks.  They themselves hold both a threat of danger (if they should fall), and a sense of history about them.  They are the keepers of the mountain, standing tall for many years through fierce storms, bitter winters, and scorching summers.  They whisper the history of this land as the breeze tickles at their leaves and whistles eerily through the valleys.  They bear the secrets of its violent and bloody past.

Vogel State Park was founded in 1931.  The land was previously owned by Fred and Augustus Vogel who owned thousands of acres of land in North Georgia.  They harvested the bark from the trees to use in the tanning of leather until a synthetic method of tanning leather was developed during WWI, rendering the operation obsolete.  The Vogels subsequently donated the land to the State of Georgia in 1927.  The park’s facilities were then developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  Young men worked tirelessly to dam wolf creek and hand dig the 22 acre Lake Trahlyta, as well as other park projects.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, however, this land was fabled to be the scene of many gruesome battles between the Cherokee and Creek tribes.  One such battle, according to folklore, was so long and gory that it turned the mountain red with blood, giving these peaks their names: Blood Mountain and Slaughter Mountain.  Blood Mountain is rumored to have a hidden cave bearing treasure stashed by the Cherokee which many have searched for but never recovered.  

These peaks are also said to have been home to an ancient spiritual people called Nunnehi, or the people that live forever.  According to folklore the Nunnehi lived underground across Appalachia and protected the Cherokee, often warning them of impending danger, even warning them of their forthcoming removal from their land (known today as the events of the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma) and inviting the Cherokee to live inside the mountain with them.

It is undeniable that these hills are steeped in a rich history that sets the imagination on fire.  Every curve of the winding road bears some relic of days past; the Indian Mounds at Sautee Nacoochee, the Walasiyi Inn (a backpackers’ Inn and outfitters on the Appalachian Trail), and the many arrowheads that litter the river and creek beds waiting for some lucky hiker or fisherman to stumble upon.

One of the particularly eerie places of the park is not actually unique to the park at all.  It seems that each park has one and I don’t really know why but it’s becoming something of a favorite for me to visit.  I call it the equipment graveyard.

At Tugaloo it was a dirt road off the main state road through the park.  Here it is a steep dirt road behind the maintenance complex.  It’s a dumping ground for anything and everything in the park that has served its purpose.  There are the twisted metal frames of old picnic tables, huge rotting tree trunks of felled trees, giant concrete slabs broken and crumbling, pallets, wheels, engine parts and tractor wheels.  They lay crumpled and mangled, vines and grasses of the forest smothering and reclaiming them.  It’s tragic for me to see such an abuse of this pristine land, but also beautiful to see the forest slowly creeping back in, bringing new life and continuing the cycle.

This place really comes alive at night though.

The tree canopy is still thick enough to extinguish any light from the moon or stars that tries to penetrate, cloaking the campground in darkness.  The only light is from campfires dotted around the park that send shadows dancing into the night.  The shuffle of dry leaves and occasional snap of a twig from the lurking raccoons, deer, and sometimes bigger creatures can be heard between the pop and crackle of the campfires.  Eerie owl hoots descend through the darkness and the sporadic eruption of howling coyotes over the ridge will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. 

Driving through the park at night to do laundry is a good way to creep yourself out.  The road twists down the valley between campsites and turns off the main road through the park onto a narrow track with an old wooden bridge that crosses Wolf Creek.  The wooden boards twist and creak under the weight of passing vehicles, the icy water rushing beneath.  A sharp curve on the other side winds the track along the creek toward the linen barn.  The creek is lined with the gnarled and contorted wild magnolia trees with branches that slither and jut outwards like hands grasping at passersby.

The linen barn is where resident employees and hosts go to do their laundry in the evenings.  It’s an old maintenance complex with block walls and no windows except for the small glass panels in the old metal roll up doors.  Far from the campground, there are no campfires to light up the darkness.

The building houses old industrial washers and dryers with big tubs on wheels fit for some old haunted hospital from a bad horror movie.  With stained concrete floors and a long dark hallway that every creak of each machine echoes through – it seems to have leapt from the pages of a Stephen King book.

The geographical location of Vogel contributes in no small part to its eeriness.  Tucked high in the mountain it is isolated and lonely.  Campers here, especially in the winter, are at the mercy of the mountain and the weather – which can be unpredictable and turbulent.

We seem to have arrived just as the vibe is shifting from Summer paradise to creepy ghost mountain.  The campsite is still busy with tourists coming to gawp at the almost supernatural scenery of the changing leaves, but the buzz of summer activity has ceased and the place feels almost deserted on weekdays.

During the summer months the park’s 90 standard campsites, 18-walk-in campsites, and 34 cottages are usually fully booked months in advance.  But this time of year the number of campers willing to brave the unpredictable weather and bitter nights becomes fewer and fewer.

As we walk the park during the day we are lucky to encounter some wonderful people who are friendly and always wanting to know who the young hosts are and what our story is.  As we tell them that we are staying through the winter, possibly until the spring, it seems to always be met with a raise of the eyebrows and a “well be careful, it can get kinda rough up here”.  

I’m not sure what to expect over the coming months.  I know that the first hard freeze is coming in fast tonight and winter seems to be descending quickly through the mountains as the temperature plummets to 12 degrees tonight (about -12 Celsius).  There is a definite change in the air and we are looking forward to whatever is thrown at us.  Perhaps we will get to see Junior experience his first snow, or even his first white Christmas this year, maybe we’ll get to drink some hot apple cider by the fire or curl up together and watch movies when the weather is bad and enjoy some time inside for once.  Or maybe this will be a winter of disaster that ends our short adventure of living in a camper and the mountain will triumph over us.  Either way, we know that our first winter in these spooky mountains will be an adventure to remember.

If you enjoy reading about our adventure, you’ll probably enjoy reading about my parents’ adventure too. They are about to embark on a mobile living adventure of their own on a canal boat in England. Read along with them here: https://myblogfromthefrog.wordpress.com

Lazy Days

Monday was another beautiful day here at Vogel.  Though the evenings are getting pretty chilly, we are still having some warm a sunny days, yesterday included.  We went for a wander around the park in the morning with Devon.

Junior has discovered the fun of walking Devon.  He happily takes the leash and follows Devon wherever he leads.  It is incredibly cute to watch.  

Being thoroughly worn out by lunch, he went down for a nap pretty easily.  We took this opportunity to explore the woods behind our camp.  Armed with the baby monitor and an axe in case we should come across some good fat lighter, we set out.

Fat lighter – for those who are unfamiliar – is an essential for winter camping.  It forms at the base of a dead pine tree before it falls.  All the sap from the tree drains into the trunk and the wood becomes saturated.  After the tree falls it leaves a gnarled and twisted stump that ignites easily, even when wet, and burns well for some time.  This means that you can start a campfire relatively easily even after a good rain.

After a few minutes of trekking through the woods, the dry leaves crunching under our feet, I noticed that there was a bird following us.  Every time we took a few steps this sweet little fella would flutter to the next branch and remain within 4-5 feet of us, sometimes getting even closer.

Curious little guy.

At first I thought that maybe we were near his nest and that he was trying to shoo us away, but after getting another 15 feet further I realized that he was just a curious chap looking for some companionship.  

I pointed him out to Chris and we remarked at how unusual it was and decided to see how close he would let us get.  Chris slowly stretched his arm out towards the little guy and he didn’t seem to mind.  He pecked at Chris’ hand a couple of times before taking flight right for my face.  He seemed to be toying with us.  Though I shrieked with surprise at this move, it still didn’t seem to frighten him away and he landed on a close by branch to survey us further.

The little bird flapping over to Chris to say hello.

He continued to follow us down to the creek where we abandoned our search for fat lighter and decided instead to look for arrowheads.

Vogel sits at the base of Blood Mountain, near slaughter mountain, and is in the heart of Cherokee country.  Blood and Slaughter mountains are fabled to be the sites of some big battles between the Cherokee and Creek tribes that once inhabited this land before their slaughter and removal in the Trail of Tears era of the early 1800s.  Blood mountain earned its name following one particularly gruesome and brutal battle between the tribes that reportedly turned the mountain red with blood.  Arrowheads and other Indian tools can be found by lucky hikers and explorers of this area littering creek beds and the forest floor in these mountains.  This became our goal for the day.

We split up at the creek and began sifting through rock and examining the erosion at the side of the creek in hopes of finding something cool.  As I crouched by the creek bed I noticed that our feathery friend was still sticking close by to me.  He flew down to my side and landed just 2 feet from me.  He fluffed up his plume and gave me a look as if to say “what are we doing?”

I called Chris over and he came to marvel at our new tagalong.  I dug around by the creek and found a worm.  “Let’s see if he’s hungry” I said.  I handed the worm to Chris who held it out for the bird.  He fluttered to a branch near Chris and examined the contents of his hand before lunging forward and snatching the tasty treat right from Chris’ open palm.  Incredible!

Eating a worm out of Chris’ hand.

“He’s hungry!”  I exclaimed.  “Let’s find him some more snacks.”

So I dug around for another minute or two searching for a worm.  As I did so, our little friend flew down and landed on my head, which startled me and I jumped up, causing him to fly to a nearby branch.  I laughed and told him to stay close, but not too close, and continued my search for his snack.

After another minute or two I found another worm.  It was my turn to feed the little guy this time.  I held it in my hand and stretched it out toward the little guy.  He picked it up and tried to toss it back into his beak but missed, dropping it into the leaves below.  I picked it up and held it out to him again, holding my hand flat beneath him to catch the worm should he drop it again.  Totally unfazed by me, he gently pecked the worm from my hand, tossed it, and dropped it back in my hand.  He repeated this 2 or 3 times before finally gobbling it up.  Then he gave me a look as if to say “delicious, what else is on the menu?”  

We were thoroughly tickled by this.  We’ve each spent a fair amount of time in the woods in our lives and neither of us have encountered a creature so curious and uncharacteristically friendly as this wee lad.  He stuck by for about an hour, hopping from branch to branch, just checking us out and being friendly.

After some more digging around in the creek, Chris was lucky enough to come across an almost completely intact arrowhead.  While part of it is chipped off, it is still easily identifiable as an Indian relic.  We took some pictures of our finds and sent them to a close friend, Ron.  Ron is an expert in Indian tools and artifacts and has an extensive and very impressive collection which is fully catalogued and labeled neatly in pristine display cases.  He was able to confirm that Chris had indeed found an arrowhead, and that I had found some oddly shaped rocks, but no arrowheads or tools.

The arrowhead that Chris found.

Chris spent the rest of the day gloating about his find so I decided to take another trip down to the creek in a desperate effort to not be outdone.  But alas, my efforts were fruitless and I eventually retired to the camper to face Chris’ tactless gloating with dread.

It was a lazy Monday for us.  We didn’t feel up for a long hike and with the morning being filled with our hosting duties and the evening promising grim winter weather it didn’t leave much opportunity for big, planned adventures.  But it seems that even lazy days in our new life can be little adventures full of little surprises, lasting memories, and valuable moments of togetherness.  

When we lived in the city these kind of days would be wiled away watching endless TV shows on Netflix or doing endless projects around the house.  We rarely had time, money or the energy it took to venture out and find excitement.  Even if we did, it wouldn’t compare to that which we can accidentally stumble upon in our new backyard.  

It seems so effortless now to find new and exciting ways to entertain ourselves.  We spend almost no time in front of screens anymore and have become much closer as a family.  We spend more time outside, talking, exploring and learning.  We have been making friends with other hosts, park staff, guests, and even with the wildlife in the area.  I look back just a couple of months to when we started this adventure I wondered then if it would be a lonely existence or if we might be lucky enough to meet a friend or two along the way.  A couple of months in and we have already made great friends with hosts that we are trying to host with again, hung out with park guests sharing a glass of wine and a laugh by the fire, and been invited to thanksgiving dinner with guests that said we are “like family” to them already.

As for our newest friend, Chris’ Mom – a fellow nature lover who is forever taking pictures and adoring the butterflies and the birds – tells us that he is an Eastern Phoebe.  We hope to see him again and have even considered getting some worms from the bait shop to keep him coming around for snacks.  But even if we don’t encounter him again then, just like all the people we meet and experiences we have, we are grateful for the moment – however long it may last.

Motherhiker

Living in such close quarters as we are certainly forces you outdoors a lot more than when living conventionally.  I’m sure there will be times where I will dislike this aspect of our life but this week has not been one of them.

My schedule at Vogel has me working 4 days on and 4 days off.  Wednesday began the first of 5 days off because of a screw up with the schedule when we first arrived.  With beautiful weather in the forecast I wasn’t upset about this.  So Wednesday morning I awoke with the itch to explore.  

Chris rose for work early as usual. I awoke around 7:30am and rubbed the sleep from my eyes just in time to give him a goodbye kiss as he handed me my coffee (I know, he’s wonderful). I stumbled, blurry eyed, into the kitchen to see Junior already in full destroy mode and he grinned at me with that cheeky little glint in his eye that says “I’m ready for mischief today”.

“Me too, son, me too.”

So I dressed us both and pulled on my running shoes, a scarf and a hat, strapped Junior into his stroller, slapped a leash on Dev and set out to find an adventure. We decided to begin with a gentle stroll around Lake Trahlyta – about 3km of flat and gentle terrain. I brought my camera and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous morning views.

The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
Fiery reds of Lake Trahlyta.
Looking South-Southwest over Lake Trahlyta towards Vogel State Park.

On our way back I stopped in at the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the other ladies that work there.  We exchanged friendly chatter and they cooed at Junior as he flirted wildly.  I picked up a map of the park trails and asked the ranger if there were any trails suitable for an off-road stroller.  She laughed.  I took this to mean no.  So we headed back to the camper to devise a plan.

Now, about 3 years ago I could have very easily slung a 25lbs child on my back and climbed a mountain for breakfast, but a rough pregnancy with a very large little boy left me struggling to regain my once athletic physique.  I sat at the camp looking at the various trails and trying to gauge the elevation gain and the roughness of the terrain.

There are several trailheads at Vogel.  The Coosa trail is a challenging 13 mile trail that scales several large peaks including Blood mountain and has a 2 mile stretch with a 1500ft elevation gain – not for the faint hearted.  I discounted that one immediately.

The Byron Herbert Nature trail is a 1 mile loop that doesn’t leave the park and features many sign posts along the way pointing out different natural sights en route. It’s aimed at young children and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Too easy. We want adventure. One cannot adventure in one mere mile.

Bear Hair Gap Trail.  That’s the one.  It’s roughly a 5 mile loop from the trailhead, not including the hike to the trailhead, and has an optional short additional loop to Vogel overlook at the top of the mountain for views over the park.  I looked at the time and knew that if we were to return before dark then we would have to set off immediately after Junior’s nap.  

About 2pm we were ready to head out.  I checked the weather again to make sure we were all clear and saw that we had about 3 hours until the sun disappeared over the ridges and darkness would move in fast after that.  I hesitated a moment and asked myself “am I really ready to do a 5+ mile hike up a mountain with this kid on my back?”  I didn’t hang around for the answer and, against my better judgement, decided to just go for it.

The sun coming through the leaves at the trailhead.
The sun hovers above the peak of Blood mountain and peeks through the trees.
Junior playing peekaboo with the camera as we set off.

With Junior in his backpack carrier on my back, a couple snacks, a map, and my phone I set out.  About a mile in I realized that I had neglected to bring any water.  This is not a smart decision when hiking in the wilderness.  A map is helpful but sometimes can lead you astray.  I considered turning back but knew that the trail crossed several clearwater creeks in the area and that I wouldn’t be in danger of dehydration so decided to push on.  Then Junior decided to chime in.

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

I lifted my eyes from the trail expecting that maybe we were encountering other hikers on the trail with a dog.  There was no one.

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

I cast my eyes to the woods, frantically searching through the trees.  My heart began to race as the name of the trail surged through my head: Bear Hair Gap.  You see, Junior has just begun to talk and his vocabulary is limited to a handful of words, his favorite being “doggy”.  We took him to the zoo on a recent trip to Memphis, TN and he exclaimed “doggy” at most of the exhibits there.  But he has also been known to just say the word sometimes, as though he had forgotten that he could and was proudly reminding everyone that he can speak.  Thus, I could not determine if he was seeing a dog in the forest, jabbering mindlessly or, as I feared, seeing a bear that I could not see and calling it “doggy”.

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

I span around again.  I stopped and listened for movement amongst the dry leaves that covered the forest floor.  The blood was pounding in my ears and I struggled to calm my breath after the mile of steep incline we had battled.  I suddenly became abundantly aware of the fact that I had decided to leave the pistol at home, had no bear spray, and was utterly defenseless against any attacking creature larger than a squirrel.  I wasn’t even sure about a squirrel in my current physical condition.

“Doggy.”

I span around again.  I put my arms behind my head to feel that Junior was looking to my left.  I span around to my left and searched the woods hard, knowing that bears can be incredibly stealthy creatures.  Nothing.

“Doggy.”

“WHERE, SON??  TELL MAMA WHERE THE DOGGY IS??”

Giggling.  

I sighed deeply and swallowed hard.  I couldn’t see any dog, nor bear.  I had no way of getting any sense out of the kid, so I decided that I should continue along – but as loudly as possible.  One thing I did know to protect me against black bears in the absence of weapons is to be as loud as possible.  Bears don’t like humans; we are not part of their natural diet and they have no interest in combat with us.  The biggest chance of being attacked by a bear is to startle one by coming upon them suddenly.  So being loud, it seemed, was the best defense to any bear attack.

The rest of the already challenging trail became further challenging by the need for me to sing various annoying nursery rhymes much to the amusement of my 1 year old.  I am convinced that he masterminded this whole thing just to get me to sing to him all afternoon.

After about an hour of pushing hard up winding mountain trails crossing creeks and a final 1/2 mile of approximately 10% grade, we made it to the top.  At Vogel overlook there is a small break between the trees – about 10 feet wide – with glorious views over Vogel and the surrounding mountainous area.  In the middle of the sprawling mountain peaks was a vibrant blue splurge which was Lake Trahlyta; the lake we had hiked around that morning.  

The view over Lake Trahlyta from Vogel Overlook. The picture DOES NOT do it justice and my limited camera equipment doesn’t capture the sweeping mountainscape behind the lake.

“Wow, look, Monkey!”  I breathlessly managed to squeeze out.  He was, for the first time in over an hour, completely silent as he stared hard at the view.  It occurred to me that, in his short 15 months on earth, he had never seen a view of our world like this where everything looks so small yet so vast at the same time.  It’s the kind of view that instantly reminds you of how small and insignificant you are on this earth.  

I tried to take a picture of us with the view behind us.  I held my camera out to one side and tried to get Junior to turn around and look at the camera but his little eyes were locked on the view ahead of him.  I didn’t mind, it meant that my son indeed carries the same sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful planet we live on, and that he does in fact have the capacity to be still and introspective sometimes.

I finished snapping my pictures and checked the time.  3:15pm.  It’s getting late, I thought, better press on.  At least this is the easy part.

So down we went.  The trail wound around the other side of the mountain and I gave in to the decline, trotting over tree roots and rocks.  Junior laughed hysterically as he bounced around behind me.  I giggled with him for a while.  Until, that is, I felt a wet gush on my back and my arm.  I reached down and wiped my arm to find that the kid, from all the bouncing of the steep decline, had thrown up on my back.  Great.  At least he was still laughing.

Then the trail got steeper, slimmer, and rockier.  Tree roots jutted out from every inch of the trail and dried leaves and pine needles made it slippery and tough to get good traction.  Roots and rocks created big steps downwards.  As the trail wound around the mountain and got even steeper the hillside began to become a cliff to onside with sheer rock face to the other.  I paused a moment and considered my options.

If the trail conditions diminished any further I wouldn’t be able to continue – not with a wriggly 1 year old on my back and old running shoes on.  But to turn back now meant climbing another mile back up the mountain to come down the 3 miles on the other side.  I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it before dark and the realization set in that I had gravely underestimated this trail.  I kicked myself for not properly preparing myself like I knew to do.

I had to push on.  No time to sit and deliberate now, I’d just have to be careful.  

The trail got steeper yet and wound around giant boulders jutting out from the mountainside.  These created steep drops in the trail that required me to crouch and jump down – not an easy task with Junior on my back.

Then I slipped.  I lost my footing and, because I was in running shoes and not proper hiking boots, my ankle rolled to the side and I collapsed – luckily forwards – and caught my knee and shin on a rock on my way down.  I lay there for a minute cussing and groaning in pain, holding my ankle and trying to calm my breathing.  Junior fell silent and I realized that he likely knew from the fall and then my tone that something was wrong.  So I began talking to him as calmly as I could – the last thing I needed right now was for him to lose it.

“It’s ok, baby, Mama just fell over because she’s silly.  You’re fine though aren’t you?”

I tickled his leg and he giggled a little.  Ok, phew, he’s fine.

I was not, however.  My skinned knee was stinging but was not an issue – I had powered through much worse in the past and knew that was fine.  But my ankle was throbbing.  I wiggled it to find it was sore, but not broken.  3.30pm.  I have to keep going.

So I pulled myself to my feet and, once again, soldiered on on the winding mountain path.  My ankle was sore and weak so I had to tread slowly and carefully for fear that I was hovering on the edge of disaster.

The steep drops eventually became gentler and at 4:40pm we finally made it back to the park – just 15 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the ridges of the mountain.  I text Chris to let him know that we were safe and to let him know that I had injured my ankle but that we were both ok and there was nothing to worry about.  I got the expected response: “You dumbass.  Glad you’re ok.”

I learned that day that one should never be so conceited as to not go prepared on unknown trails, even if they look easy.  I also learned that I am capable of much more than I thought I was with my jiggly postpartum body.  It is, perhaps, even because of motherhood that I was able to finish the trail.  It was a close call and certainly satisfied my appetite for adventure for a few days, at least until my ankle heals.

Calamities aside, it felt wonderful to get out and do things that I used to do often and really enjoy.  Before becoming a mother I was many things: a hiker, a primitive camper, a fisherman, a wood worker, a lawyer, a boxer, a runner, a cyclist… the list goes on.  I had many identities.  But almost immediately upon becoming pregnant I had abandoned most of those and assumed the role of mother.  For a while it was the only identity I had and this caused some emotional turmoil and something of an identity crisis which my dear husband spent many long teary nights counseling and encouraging me through.

Climbing that mountain with my son on my back, as reckless and dangerous as it was, helped me to realize that I can actually reclaim some of those identities without sacrificing my favorite one; being a mother.  Becoming a mother surely does mean that you have to shed some of your identities; it’s inevitable.  But with practice and time I have begun to figure out which of those identities was most important to me, and were a fundamental part of myself, rather than just something I do.  Now I have the confidence to embrace those parts of myself without neglecting my most important identity.  I actually found that including Junior made it considerably more enjoyable than I remember hiking to be.  I may not be signing up for the Appalachian trail anytime soon, but I will be taking a lot more regular hikes.  With the proper gear and supplies, of course.

At the Bottom of the Waterfall

Yesterday we packed up Patsy and left Tugaloo.  The packing up part went smoother than our previous attempts and we were ready to roll out by 12.  Unfortunately a large storm system was also ready to roll in and 30 minutes after we left the park we hit rain.  

Because we need 2 vehicles – one for Chris for work and one for Junior and me to run errands etc while Chris is at work – it means we have to drive separately when moving the camper.  Chris drove our Ram 1500 with Junior and Devon pulling our camper while I drove my old Chevy that Chris now uses as a work truck with his utility trailer in tow.  We use 2 way radios to communicate back and forth while we are on the road; it allows us to communicate easily even when there is no cell service.  As I am riding in front, it also allows me to call in any sharp turns, low limbs, or treacherous road ahead.  

This turned out to be a good system as, about 15 minutes before we hit rain, I noticed that one of the skylights on the camper was open.  We had just pulled out on the highway so we were able to pull over before any damage was done by the wind and the rain.

The route to Vogel from Tugaloo was mostly an easy route.  It took us along mostly highways that were easy to navigate with a big rig.  Looking at the route, however, we could see that after Cleveland it became winding mountain roads with steep inclines that would prove tricky under good weather conditions, let alone what we were facing.  The trip was forecast to take about 1.5hrs but we decided to stop at a Walmart (now our trusty road friend when traveling with the camper) for a breather and to check the weather.  

As we got out the rain was really picking up and the peaks around us disappeared into dark clouds.  We looked at the forecast and found that there was a window in the storm for the next hour.  The forecast showed wind gusts of up to 60mph.  This is not good when you have a large rig in tow that catches the strong cross winds on the high mountain roads.  

It was time for a judgement call.  Do we press on in the hopes of beating the next wave of the storm that would bring heavier rain and stronger winds, or do we hold tight for a couple of hours with a boisterous 1 year old in a Walmart parking lot and hope that the storm blows through quickly.  Chris deferred to my judgement – a move I’m never usually fond of.  But the GPS was saying that we had 35 minutes left to go and the weather forecast said we had an hour to do it.  So I decided that we should push on.  

So we jumped into our trucks, turned our radios on and headed out.  From Cleveland onwards we knew we were leaving the highways behind and traveling only on byways and mountain roads from there out.  It was pretty smooth going until we turned a corner and found blue flashing lights and the road was blocked off.  Detour.

Detours are dangerous on byways because they are not necessarily safe for big rigs.  There could be tunnels, narrow roads, or sharp corners.  But there was no way of turning around now so we pushed on ready to face whatever might lay ahead.  

Thankfully it was an easy detour that lasted a few minutes and took us back onto our intended route quickly  Having looked at the route ahead though, I knew that the worst was yet to come.  The closer we got to Vogel the steeper the climb and sharper the bends got around the mountains.

Sure enough we began our ascent within 5 minutes of getting back on the byway.  Gradually the road began to curve and snake through the foothills.  Though the weather was dreary the landscape was breathtaking.  Thankfully there were only a few other cars on the road as it was hard to take my eyes off the rusty red, copper oranges, and golden yellows of the leaves dancing in the wind on the mountainside.  As Chris and I talked back and forth on the radio the running theme was “WOW, look how BEAUTIFUL this place is!”  I could hear in his voice that the excitement and anticipation was bubbling up in him too and the storm’s threat seemed less and less significant as we drove on.

The last few miles were filled with steep climbs, sharp hair pin bends and winding S-curves.  I knew that Chris couldn’t wait to get his motorcycle out and ride these roads and I had to remind him a couple of times to just focus on the road ahead for now.  Things, surprisingly, went pretty smoothly with me calling out sharp curves ahead on the radio and counting down the miles until we got there.

Then we arrived.  

The park itself is nestled in a valley on the edge of a lake high up in the mountains, 2500 ft to be exact.  As you enter the park on the narrow lane that winds through a tunnel of trees you reach a curve and small wooden bridge over wolf creek which spills into the lake on your right.  The clouds cleared for a moment and the trees gave way to the towering peaks surrounding us and the vibrant fall colors caught the sun and exploded with life and beauty.  It’s the kind of moment where forces converge and everything comes together perfectly to create an unforgettable moment that makes it impossible not to smile ear to ear and say “woah” out loud, even when no one is around to hear you.

We stopped in at the visitors center and checked in with the ranger to let them know that we made it and get directions to the site that would be our home for the next two months.  Driving to our site we followed the road around to the left of the visitor’s center, away from the lake and up the creek.  The campsite was heavily wooded and signs posted everywhere reminded us that this was “bear country”.  The giddiness in Chris’ voice spilled through the radio.  

We passed a couple of children’s play parks at the very base of the narrow valley, a mini golf course, and some cottages for visitors to rent.  As we pulled into the campsite itself we found our site which was one of the first on the right.  I pulled up ahead out of the way and served as Chris’ backup camera to help him navigate the tricky turn into the site.  Setting up went surprisingly smoothly and we set the camper level just as the rain began to set in again.  Junior and I danced around in the camper as Chris, our hero, braved the weather to finish setting up.  

I had left Tugaloo in short leggings and a T-shirt but another glance at the weather forecast suggested I should change.  As is common in the mountains, we were expecting a 30 degree temperature drop by sundown and a further 20 degrees by dawn.  This is a concept that, especially after months of 100 degree heat, is very difficult to fathom.  So I changed into jeans and a long sleeved shirt while I went about setting up inside the camper.  The next time I stepped out of the camper a couple of hours later I was met with a bitter whip of the icy wind and quickly retreated back inside to find several more layers.

After setting up we decided to head out to Walmart (yes, again) to stock up on a few supplies for the cooler weather.  The Walmart was in Blairsville, a short 15 minute drive through utterly breathtaking landscapes.  Looking out the window on the drive I watched as picturesque farms nestled into the hills passed by with luscious green rolling hills and perfect white fences holding the rugged forest back.  

Blairsville itself is a town I’ve visited a few times before and loved.  The square downtown is reminiscent of an old spaghetti western with its square-fronted buildings and a quaint red brick courthouse in the middle.  We passed through downtown to the Walmart on the main highway.  We both remarked how it was the most beautiful view from a Walmart parking lot we had ever seen with tall peaks rising all around us.

We loaded up on supplies and some $5 movies and headed back to camp.  We continued getting settled, made ourselves some dinner and put Junior to bed.  After trying to tune the TV we realized that we were too high in the mountains to get any service.  This was not a problem for me – I can happily go without TV for a couple of months – but Chris had a moment of sadness to himself as he realized that this was going to present problems for him for the rest of the football season.

We put a movie on and I sat down to do some writing.  The wind was now raging outside and the crisp cold made my teeth chatter when I went for a cigarette.  About halfway through the movie the TV suddenly went black.  Because our DVD player is also our radio it is hard wired into our rig so the movie kept playing through the surround sound.  Chris looked at me and said “what happened?”  As if I knew?  We played around with the remote and the buttons on the TV.  Nothing.

Then I had that, by now, very familiar sinking feeling as I looked up.  The lights to the microwave were off and the fridge “check” light was flashing.  Great.

The ceiling lights were all still on in the camper and the fan was still blowing.  Chis checked the TV in the bedroom; dead.

“It must be a power surge” I said, clueless as to what else could have caused 4 major appliances to die at once.  We checked the breaker and the fuses – all fine.  Well that’s it, we thought.  We officially CANNOT catch a break.

We can live without a TV, I thought, and we can make do fairly easily without a microwave, but no fridge leaves us severely up the proverbial creek.  We stepped out for a cigarette together to cuss and gather our thoughts.  As we stood there we noticed that the lights to the bath house were out.  

Now I should point out that at this conjuncture it’s rather sad that it still didn’t click as to what was going on.  But just remember that we are still new to this so it took us a minute.

“Well that’s weird, I guess the power surge blew the lights to the bath house too then”.

“We should have plugged in that damn surge protector” I said unhelpfully.  “Do it now before it happens again and ALL the appliances get fried.”

So Chris went behind the camper, flipped the breaker, unplugged our rig, plugged the surge protector in, and plugged the rig into the surge protector.  He came back and said “damn thing won’t work, the lights aren’t lighting up or anything”.

Wait a minute.  Ok.  Now I see what’s happened. 

There was no power surge.  Our appliances were not fried.  The power to the entire campsite was down.  The lights in the camper and the DVD player stayed on because we have a backup battery on our RV that automatically takes over when you lose power and continues to power the low-voltage appliances and outlets, hence the TV, fridge and microwave (higher powered appliances) were all off.

DUH.

So I messaged the park ranger and the power came back on within 30 minutes.  Luckily we had a taster of how easily storms can interfere with the power here and we won’t make the mistake of not using a surge protector again.  We had a good laugh about it and thanked our lucky stars that it wasn’t worse.

The next morning was beautiful and sunny, although still very brisk.  We decided to warm ourselves up with a walk around Lake Trahlyta trail, the trailhead of which was a short 5 minute walk away through the campsite.  So we bundled ourselves and Junior up, put a leash on Devon, and headed out.

Chris at Lake Trahlyta.  Pictures just don't do it justice (or at least mine don't).

The lake itself is small but glorious.  There are several trailheads near the lake edge, a boat dock with pedal boats and kayaks for rent, and a small beach area for the warmer months.  The lake trail is about 3-4km around and very gentle, flat terrain.  

The water was largely still and glassy with a fine mist that seemed to slip across it like ice.  It drifted upwards to look like smoke rising from the reds and oranges of the forest which glinted in the sunlight.  The rising mist from the lake rose above the fiery hillside to make the whole scene look like a silently blazing wildfire.  The vibrant colors of the mountainside bounced off the water and danced in the occasional ripples from the feeding fish.  We passed a couple of other hikers on our way round and we stopped frequently to take pictures.

About halfway around is the spillway which creates an extraordinary waterfall beneath it.  We parked Junior’s stroller at the top and took the winding path and steep steps down to the base of the falls.

Trahlyta falls as seen from the road above.

Trahlyta falls is approximately 75-100 feet tall from base to source and 10-15 feet wide.  It’s surrounded by thick woodland with a narrow break in the tree canopy above.  It’s a paradoxical setting; the water violently crashes and tumbles down the rocky mountainside with a roar while a thick mist rises at the base and drifts silently through the mossy trees and up through the canopy into the glimpses of daylight between the leaves.  It was a stunning sight that we took a few minutes to drench ourselves in before getting back on the trail and back home.

The falls from the viewing platform near the base.
The mist creeping through the trees at the base of the falls.

We’re breathing a sigh of relief tonight as it seems that things may be calming down for us and that we have made it to the bottom of our waterfall safely.  The trepidation I previously felt for leaving our paradise in Tugaloo and coming to Vogel has fallen away with the autumn leaves and I can feel myself relaxing into our new life already.

In a way this adventure is like getting to live new lives every few months.  We get to change the landscape and the people when we decide it’s time and it’s not a terrible upheaval.  Junior still has a safe place that he knows as home in our RV and Devon (who is an incredibly anxious dog who does not like change) still gets his familiar spot next to my side of the bed to retreat to when it all gets a bit much.  

The key, it seems, to sticking with it is the acknowledgment that the next life will not be the same.  The rangers, hosts, and guests will be different.  There will be a different routine to the park; some require hosts to be on duty pretty much 24/7, whereas others will have a rotation schedule where you work a few days on and then have a few off.  The landscape, the recreational opportunities, the weather, the whole vibe – they will all be different.  This adventure lies somewhere between a traveling job and an extended vacation.  It seems to marry the benefits of both and create it’s own genre of existence.  It’s easier to appreciate what each life has to offer if your greet it with the knowledge that it is finite and should be savored while it’s here.  And we intend to savor every drop of it.

Farewell to Tugaloo

In 2 days’ time we will be leaving our home of the last month and 3 days (excluding our 9 day Tennessee disaster – see previous post “…And When They Don’t”).  Our time at Tugaloo has, very sadly, come to an end.  On Thursday we pack up and leave for our 2 month stay at Vogel State Park.  This has prompted us to look back on the last few weeks.

When we arrived on September 24th it was chaos, but an exciting chaos.  It was the final push to close the last grim chapter of our lives.  We said goodbye to living in the city; to a damp, moldy rental house; to everlasting rush hours; to, hopefully, living paycheck to paycheck.

We arrived toward the end, but still in the midst of, the endless sweltering summer.  Our first few days were spent indoors after lunchtime until after sundown because of the intense heat.  Once we returned from The Trip That Shall Not Be Mentioned (see “…And When it Doesn’t”) the heat had died down and the days were mildly warm and cool enough at night to have fires outside, thanks to the free fire wood from the maintenance guys.  

Our friends, Betty and Clyde who hosted at the Yurts, kindly covered us while we were gone and took over all our hosting duties.  Clyde is a retired Sheriff’s deputy and was bored with the minimal duties over at the yurts so was actually grateful for the extra work.  When we got back we invited them over for some of my vegan Chilli which has become Chris’ most favorite meal lately.  They came and hung out by the fire and drank wine with us.  We chatted and laughed into the wee hours and Betty and I even (apparently) ended up dancing together by the fire.  It was a LOT of fun.

One of the many things we love about this lifestyle is the feeling of being in the country but, if you can get lucky and have other hosts or guests that you gel with, then you’re just a short walk or golf cart ride away at the end of the night so it’s conducive to socializing.  

In our last couple of weeks at Tugaloo we probably hung out with Betty and Clyde 8-10 times.  They cooked for us and always sent us home with bags of chocolate, candy and leftover dinner.  They dropped by one day to give us a brand new TV that they didn’t need so we would have one to hang on the outside of our camper for Chris to watch football on.  They have been so kind and hospitable, they offered to babysit Junior for us numerous times, and they offered to help with the bathrooms whenever I needed it.  Betty gave us homemade fire starters when I let her borrow my sewing machine for a couple of hours one night.  They are just wonderful people and we had a blast with them.

We didn’t get as much time as we had hoped to go fishing or take long hikes together.  I did manage to get in my first 5km run in in a very long time.  I took Devon with me and it felt just like old times when I used to run with him every day in Athens.  We ran along the Sassafrass trail which winds around the whole park through woods and along the shoreline.  It’s beautifully peaceful with no people in sight and the cheerful chirp of birds to accompany us.  

At one point while we were running along the shoreline, Devon ran down to the water to get a drink and I carried on knowing he would catch me up.  Just then I saw a herd of deer.  They saw me and, being unafraid of my painfully slow pace, merely slowly trotted away while still keeping an eye on me.  Just then I turned to see Devon The Deer Fiend sprinting full-speed ahead after the deer.  The trouble with Dev is that he is too good at being stealthy in the forest so the deer didn’t see him or hear him until he was a matter of feet behind them.  They startled and launched into full speed gracefully leaping through the woods making a b-line right for me.  I halted in my tracks and they bolted past me.  It was exhilarating and a beautiful reminder of how majestic those creatures are – and how sneaky Dev can be.

The guests and our work weren’t much trouble during our time there.  We had a couple of incidents of guests being a little unruly.  On the day we were leaving for Tennessee I went in to give the bathrooms a quick wipe down before we left and found that someone had had diarrhea all over the wall of one of the stalls in the men’s bathroom.  HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN??  Needless to say it was not my favorite moment to be a host.

The park was mostly quiet except for a little more bubble and pop at the weekends when there would be an influx of visitors.  Little did we know when we signed up, however, that Halloween weekend (celebrated on the 26th this year in Tugaloo) was the busiest weekend of the year here.  They have a “trunk or treat” event at the park that draws visitors from all over.  The campsite was completely full for the weekend so we were instructed to be on hand and do our best to maintain the cleanliness of the bathrooms for the hoards of visiting children.  

That Saturday was one to remember.  The morning started with a steady stream of campers rolling in and the air was abuzz with campers setting up their rigs and excited children running around.  The “trunk or treat” event was designed as a safe place for kids to come and trick or treat.  Unlike a neighborhood, all the doors for children to knock on are highly and easily visible and they are close together making for less walking and more time to get candy.  Furthermore, the presence of Park Rangers, Georgia State Patrol, and low speed limits make it a safe destination for trick or treaters.  Then there’s the decorations.  There is a competition between the campers to see who can deck their campsite out in the best decorations.  So riding through the site that night there were ghosts and skeletons sitting in camping chairs or hanging from trees, 20ft inflatable monsters, and lights everywhere.

We went to Betty and Clyde’s for dinner and began our ride back home around 6pm – we had only been gone an hour or so.  The previously deserted state road through the park was now lined with cars about 3/4 of a mile back.  These were cars of trick or treaters that were not campers, just visitors to the park for the night.  By 7pm the place was crawling with kids jacked up on candy running back and forth yelling “happy halloween”, golf carts zooming around also decked out in lights with orange and black tinsel or ghosts or other halloween decorations, and the hay ride tractor slowly putting around making loop after loop.  It was certainly a spectacle and it was wonderful to sit by the fire in the middle of it all and listen to the children laughing maniacally and comparing their hauls from each camper they visited.  It is definitely a place that we will be visiting in the future when Junior is old enough to enjoy it.

Junior has had a ball at Tugaloo.  In the few short weeks we have been here he has already changed so much.  He runs more confidently and can navigate much more rocky and uneven landscapes.  He’s taken a few tumbles and learned the value of caution when in the woods.  He’s shown a keen interest in the wildlife, much to his father’s delight, and squeals with amusement at each deer sighting.

I took him down to the lake one day (or rather he took me).  I had planned to just walk around the campsite following him wherever he stumbled to.  He happened to notice the lake itself and, before I could rein him in, he was already running down the bank toward the lake jabbering away happily.  Realizing there was no way that I could now pull him away from his one true love (water) without him having an almighty meltdown I succumbed and helped him strip off so he could have a splash.  He spent 45 minutes picking up rocks, sticks, weeds and handfuls of mud from the lake bed and handing them to me as if he were doing me a favor.  It occurred to me after about 30 minutes that I really had no way of getting him back to the camper on my own with Dev on the leash (Junior does NOT like to be carried right now – especially away from water).  So I was stranded there until Chris came home from work and came to rescue us on the golf cart like a night in shining armor on a battery powered steed with a scratched up plexiglass windshield.  

Our last night at the campsite will likely be filled with cleaning, organizing and preparing for the move.  My anxiety level is higher than normal because we are moving on Halloween on roads that wind through Blood Mountain on a day where there are expected be bad storms with heavy rain, strong winds, and possible tornadoes.  I’m not generally a superstitious person but this still doesn’t fill me with confidence following our last attempt to move the camper.  

But we are looking forward to it.  Tugaloo has been a lot of fun and we’ve learned a lot of lessons here.  It’s a beautiful place with some fun things to do and we’ve made great friends in Betty and Clyde and hope to host here again with them in the spring.  

But Vogel is in the heart of the mountains – a special place for us.  It has more rugged and secluded scenery that inspires adventure in both of us.  I feel positively giddy at the idea of a real white Christmas and Chris grins with anticipation at the idea of a bear sighting.  Not to mention that the extended summer this year means that the leaves are changing late this year so we are hopeful for that stunning mountain scenery painted with the beautiful yellows, oranges and reds of fall.

The park itself is one the two original state parks opened in Georgia in the 1930s so has a bit of history to it.  It’s also surrounded by old Indian country which means there are museums and places to explore on rainy days too.  But our start to hosting at Tugaloo has set the bar high and now Vogel has a lot to live up to.

It’s one of the many reasons why we chose this life – the ability to pick up and go somewhere new and never have time to get bored of our surroundings.  Though we are nervous about the move, it is the kind of trepidation you feel when you’re about to go on stage and do something exhilarating.  It’s the kind of anticipation we felt when we loaded up the camper and drove to Tugaloo.  Though it’s scary, it’s the rush that we craved and we hope to feel again and again.  

…And When it Doesn’t.

I generally try to be a positive person.  This is something that I have worked hard on over the last couple of years with special thanks to my husband.  He developed a nickname for me in the early months of our relationship: Negative Nancy.  He used to laugh as he’d call me it, brushing off whatever pessimism I had just thrown at him to prompt him to call me that, but it began to sink in that he was onto something; my outlook on life was often negative and I spent a lot of time and energy worrying about the worst case scenario.  At that time in my life I had inadvertently developed this as a survival tactic which had grown to become second nature until I slowly realized in a telephone conversation with Chris one day that it was my only nature.  After years at an incredibly high-pressure, high stakes job, living on my own in a foreign country thousands of miles from my family I had developed coping mechanisms and the most prominent of these was my ability to find ANYTHING that could go wrong in ANY situation and exert every ounce of energy on preparing for that.  It served me well in a number of instances but, without me being aware of it it had consumed me and become the very focus of every thought – even when I was spending those long nights on the phone with Chris daydreaming about our future.

After that, I made more a conscious effort to be more positive and not give way to negative thoughts.  By the time I learned of my pregnancy I had a real moment to myself where I realized that anxiety was consuming me.  It had put my marriage in jeopardy a number of times, it had hugely affected my job performance, my ability to sleep, and I had developed severe cystic acne.  So when I found out I was pregnant I knew it was time to really change for the sake of my unborn son growing inside of me who depended on me the be the healthiest version of myself – physically and mentally.

When I was 8 months pregnant with Junior I had been offered a new job in Nashville, TN and, with the ever-reliable support of my husband, I had accepted and we were preparing for a big move.  We sold the house within 2 days of me accepting the job and were renting it back from the new owner for a couple of weeks until we finalized the paperwork on our new house in Nashville.  

Then disaster struck.

After I had already left my job of 5 years so that I could have a little down time before the baby came and the new job started.  About 5 days before we were due to close on the new house in Nashville I received a letter from USCIS (the immigration authority here) to tell me that they would not allow me to transfer my visa from my old job to my new one because I was married to a US citizen.  As a result they were revoking my work permit, so not only would I lose my new job in Nashville before I had even started, but I would also not be able to take my old job back, or any other job for that matter.

It’s a long and boring story but essentially the moral is that by simply marrying my husband I had violated the terms of my visa.  While I had applied for a green card and would be eligible for one, there is a crack in the system which doesn’t allow you to change jobs while you’re in the midst of your 1 year wait for a green card.  It’s a nonsensical crack in the system, one which I took a hard fall through.

So at 8 months pregnant I had nowhere to live, no job, and, because of the way the American healthcare system operates, I was due to lose my employer-sponsored health insurance 1 week before Junior was due to make an appearance.  Now on 1 income, we couldn’t afford to take on the $800/month premiums, it would bankrupt us.

To say I was “stressed” doesn’t cut it.  My husband can testify to the fact that prior to this happening I was already dangling on the edge of a nervous breakdown by a very fine thread.  But I had a beautiful baby boy growing inside me, the love of a wonderful husband, and the echo of that nickname bouncing around my head; “negative Nancy”. So I took a deep breath as I held that letter in my hand.  I felt my son bouncing around in my belly the way he did when I sat still and I thought of my husband and how hard he had worked over the last couple of years to build a life for me that would ease my stress, and I said “it’s going to be okay”.

And it was. 

Junior was delivered by C-section 1 week early, just 2 days before my health insurance lapsed.  The owner of our house was kind enough to see that we were in real trouble and allowed us to stay for another couple of months while we found a house to rent, and Chris worked round the clock to supplement my lost income.  It was not easy but we weathered that storm together and were stronger because of it.  It also taught me a valuable lesson in not focussing on the chaos that rips your life apart but rather focussing on your fortune.  My fortune was a beautiful, healthy baby boy, and a husband that loves me fiercely.  You can’t put a price on that.  Everything else is just padding.

18 months later when we decided to embark on our adventure, partly because we were still recovering from the emotional and financial trauma of this disaster and we thought that this new plan would help us to do so.

So, as you’ve probably read from my previous posts, we landed on our feet and were off to a running start.  The clouds of the previous trials and tribulations seemed to suddenly clear; the sun shone a little brighter, the air tasted a little sweeter, and the future seemed brighter than ever.

What I had yet to learn was that this moment of calm was indeed just that; the eye of the storm that had not quite finished raging.

After a couple of weeks of hosting we had a trip to the Memphis area of Tennessee planned for my brother-in-law’s wedding.  We planned to stay about a week to give us time to visit family and friends and really enjoy the trip instead of a brief fly-by like trips of the past.  As always, our plans to get up early and leave at the crack of dawn were unsuccessful after a late start and a grave underestimation of how much crap we had to load into Old Jessie (that’s the name of our rig).  By nightfall we had finally loaded up and were on the road headed West toward the sunset.

Because of our late start we decided to stop for a pause before Atlanta rather than trying to fight through the gruesome rush hour traffic.  After a stroll around the Walmart parking lot and stocking up on supplies we headed back on the road at Junior’s bedtime so that he would sleep through the whole drive.

After about 5 hours on the road we were only halfway to Memphis.  We stopped just outside Birmingham, AL to get gas, stretch our legs, and shake our weary bodies awake.  Chris ran into the store to pick up some cigarettes and snacks while I sat on the curb outside smoking a cigarette.  I was admiring Old Jessie and glancing at the tires and windows making sure everything seemed okay when my gaze lifted and my heart sank.

I must be seeing things.  I’m tired.  It’s dark.  That’s not real.

I stood up and walked closer.  My jaw dropped and my stomach began turning.  As I looked up to the top of our rig I saw that something – probably road debris – had hit us.  The metal at the top of the front panel had peeled back and the rubber roofing of our rig was ripping off.  This was big.  This is not a duct tape sort of job, this is a potentially life-ending injury for Old Jessie.

Life in an RV is definitely simpler, until you realize that that RV is your home and one little piece of road debris can turn your whole world upside down.

Chris came out of the store and saw my face.  “What?” He asked before slowly turning to follow my gaze.  I saw the same heart-sinking look take over his face.  A string of profanities followed which, for the sake of decency, I shan’t repeat here.  But I’m sure you can imagine.

He turned back to me and we both smiled and hugged each other tightly.  It was horrifying, but we both immediately had the same thought: we have each other, we are all ok, this will be ok.

15 hours that journey took.  We stopped repeatedly at Walmarts across Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee to buy flex tape (an expensive and larger version of duct tape) to prevent the high winds of the interstate speeds from doing further damage, and to rest.  At one point we pulled over on the interstate to swap so I could drive and Chris could rest.  That turned out to be my first ever time driving with a trailer and it was at 5am after almost 24 hours of no sleep and a wrecked 30ft rig behind me on treacherous Mississippi roads.  By 6:30am we were close but it became a battle against not just sleep deprivation, but rain.  

That’s right, RAIN.  That evil lurking force, the enemy of all RVers everywhere, especially those with a wrecked rig.  Because why wouldn’t there be a huge storm coming towards us at the exact moment that we were incredibly vulnerable to such weather?  The tiredness was overwhelming now as we left the interstate and traveled the last few miles on the back roads, the huge black storm clouds looming overhead threatening to undo us at any moment.  Our eyelids were so heavy that it was physically painful to keep them open.  Dangerous as it was to keep going, we couldn’t stop as everything we owned was in the trailer behind us and would certainly be ruined by the looming torrential downpour.

At around 7am we finally made it to Chris’ parents house.  As we pulled into the driveway the baby woke up and was ready to rock and roll.  We dragged our tired bodies from the truck and lurched to life frantically trying to set the trailer level, put the jacks down, unhook the truck and get a tarp over the roof.  The storm was nipping at our heels now and lightning flashes spurred us on over and over as we hurried through our work.  With moments to spare we secured the tarp over the front of Jessie and the storm erupted over us dumping gallons by the second.  

I’d like to say at this point we breathed a sigh of relief and got some much needed rest.  But there was no relief and there was no rest.  We had a 1 year old who had slept for the last 15 hours and was ready to unleash his pent up energy, and we had a few days to figure out what we were going to do about Old Jessie.

I spent the morning on the phone with the insurance company finding out what could be done.  They told me they’d have to send an appraiser out to look at it and take pictures.  In my exhaustion and absence of sanity I told the insurance agent that “it might just be that the seal was old and gave way”.  Chris’ head dropped and began shaking.  I hadn’t assessed the damage myself but for standing in that dark street in Alabama at 10pm.  I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I knew even less about how that would trigger the insurance agent to say “if the seal is bad then it’s not covered”.  Though I thought it wasn’t possible, my heart sank even lower.  Now they would want us to take our home into a repair shop to have professionals assess the damage which would delay the claim even more.  

Then she tells me that even if it is covered it would likely be write-off as the cost of a new roof would exceed the value of the camper itself.

Now what?

We were stuck 500 miles from our home in Georgia and our house had half a roof and may have to be put down like a sick dog.

We spent the next couple of days weighing our options while we waited to hear from the insurance company.  We considered waiting to see if they would fix it but after the rain let up and we got a good look at it we realized that was not going to happen.  A new roof would be the only way forward with Old Jessie and insurance wasn’t going to pay for it and neither were we.  So we set off to go and look at RV lots to find a replacement home with no money and severely dampened spirits.

After a couple of days of driving around with a cranky 1 year old we found Patsy.  She was a brand new rig – a 2019 Keystone Passport 2820 with a Super Slide and an outdoor kitchen.  Here’s a link to a virtual tour of her: https://www.keystonerv.com/travel-trailers/passport/floorplans/2820bh-gt-travel-trailer/  She was perfect – or as perfect as we were going to get with our limited resources.  Best of all she came with a 10 year roof warranty – something we both fell immediately in love with.

With gritted teeth we begrudgingly signed the paperwork and agreed to the finance terms that would leave us with another monthly payment.  While we knew we could afford it, it was disheartening to take on another $22,000 of debt when the very reason for this whole undertaking was to ease our financial burdens.  But we had no choice, so we made the best of it.

There was a whole mess of dealing with the shop that was supposed to send the damage assessment to the insurance company and we are still dealing with it now.  We made it back to Georgia after another long 13 hour drive and sadly we barely got to see any family because buying Patsy and moving everything from Old Jessie to Patsy took up the rest of our trip.

We are still waiting to hear from the insurance company and we are less than hopeful about recovering anything from this disaster.  With careful budgeting and planning it will probably take us about 3 years to pay off Patsy and that puts a devastating dent in our plan to be debt-free in 2 years.

There are silver linings in life to EVERY dark cloud, I’m a firm believer of that.  There are lessons to be learned from every heart break, I’m also a firm believer of that.  Some silver linings from this debacle are already clear; we have a new rig with more space, warranties, and more modern conveniences.  Perhaps the lesson was that one should never embark on such a journey without more financial security.  Perhaps it’s that I should never, ever be the one to speak with an insurance company.  Perhaps it’s that Alabama roads are horrific and should be avoided at all costs.  Who knows?  

As time goes on I’m sure things will become clearer.  We will pick up the pieces and rebuild again and come through this storm stronger, happier, and more prepared for whatever the future holds.

I know one thing is certain at this point, and that is that we will not be attempting a trip to Tennessee anytime soon – at least until we have some money saved up and a LOT of duct tape.

When Life Just Goes Your Way

We had been staying at Tugaloo for about 5 days.  I was sitting outside in my recliner with Junior happily bashing away at his toys in his playpen, both of us soaking in the warm sunshine on our quiet loop.  A golf cart came riding by and the woman driving it gave a friendly wave.  She was middle-aged with mousey-brown hair, small specs, and a kind smile.  Like many people often do, she stopped to say hi to Junior who was now standing up in his playpen pointing and cooing at her.  She commented on how adorable he is (and he is) and we exchanged pleasantries.  I asked her about hosting; how long she had been doing it and what she made of it.  She told me she was from Knoxville, TN and had been hosting a few years with her husband and that they loved it so much they were in the process of selling their apartment so they could live in their camper and host full-time.  I told her that we had a hosting gig lined up in a few weeks and she immediately became very excited.

“You know, they need a host here on this loop right now – you should go down to the office and ask them about it in the morning.  They’re desperate for someone, it’s perfect!”  

That is perfect, I thought.  

We had planned on spending our first few weeks paying to stay somewhere to give us all time to adapt to our new way of living before I had to take on the extra responsibility of the hosting duties and learn to balance them with raising Junior full-time. But after a few days we learned that we are all natural-born RVers and the learning curve was not as steep as we originally thought. The prospect of hosting a month earlier than expected would save us about $1,000 and was extremely attractive, so I jumped at this opportunity.

Sure enough I went to the office in the morning and they were delighted to have someone able to start the next day.  I told them that we had another gig lined up for October 31 and that we had a trip to Tennessee planned for a week but they were happy to have us for the time we could spare.  By Friday we had pulled our camper into the host site on our loop and I took up host duties that night by cleaning the bathrooms which took around 30 minutes.

The whole weekend we had other hosts, rangers, and maintenance workers dropping by to introduce themselves and check in on us.  Everyone has been so incredibly friendly and welcoming, we have been totally overwhelmed with our reception.  Happily, it seems that the last host on our loop was something of a slacker (which was evident by the state of the bathrooms on our arrival) so the bar had been set very low for us.  

So there are 3 other sets of campsite hosts (each is a couple) and then there is one set of Yurt hosts (also a couple).  Mike James and his wife, Vera were the first hosts to which I was introduced.  Mike was in the forestry service for 20 years and did some other odd jobs after retiring.  He’s 78 years old and it’s clear from the pristine appearance of his rig and site that he’s a stickler for detail and he likes to stay busy.  He and Junior developed a special bond immediately and Mike just loves to make Junior smile and giggle.  He calls Junior “spark plug”, which is pretty appropriate.  I ride by Mike and Verna’s site now and then and Mike always gives Junior a graham cracker, much to the kid’s delight.  

Jack and Rhonda have been coming to the lake for 20 years and host every summer for a few months.  Jack is a thin, older gentleman with a thick southern accent and the hoarseness of a seasoned smoker, the combination of which makes it hard to understand him at the best of times, even with his thick slow southern drawl. He has sun bleached hair, callous hands, and well-worn clothes; the beacon of a man who has worked in construction for many years.  He may look gruff, but his smile and soft tone soften him considerably. Rhonda is a high school teacher.  She is shorter and stockier than Jack with short brown hair and a wicked sense of humor.  When she introduced me to the maintenance worker, Burt, she said “we call him Turd”.  It caught me by surprise and I laughed pretty hard.  Burt said with a sneer “we like her husband, we tolerate her”.  I immediately knew that these people were my people.

Betty, the woman who suggested that I inquire about hosting at Tugaloo in the first place, is married to Clyde.  They are sweet, soft spoken, laid back people with a slow southern drawl and gentle voices.  They are always warm, friendly and happy to help.  They host at the yurt village where their site is secluded and not visible to anyone except people passing on the road on the way to the yurt village.  It’s a hosting gig we have our eye on for the future.

We only briefly met the other host, George.  He was an older gentleman, likely retired, and he seemed just as nice as everyone else.  His wife doesn’t like to do the full-time thing and they live nearby so she joins him here at the lake on weekends leaving him to fish 5 days a week.

The rangers are all very friendly and easy to talk to.  One ranger, who we call Ned Flanders, is truly the real life park ranger version of his cartoon counterpart.  He not only physically resembles him but also has a similar sing-songy disposition.  He stops by now and then and is always good for a chat.  He has some funny and interesting stories about the things that go on in the park and was happy to fill us in on the wildlife in the area and the things that we can expect.  He also told us that a couple weeks before we arrived an RV caught on fire on our loop.  It was some 30 minutes before a fire truck showed up but it wasn’t one that could pump water from the lake (there are no hydrants in state parks) so it was another 45 minutes before a water truck could arrive and by that time the entire rig had burned to ash.  I guess that’s a lesson in fire safety on your rig.

People drop by from time to time for a quick hello or a long chat to pass the time.  Time seems so much less valuable to people in the park and is happily frittered away on lake-gazing, idle chatter, long bimbles through the trails, or wildlife watching.  No one seems to be in a hurry, and it is even discouraged with a park speed limit of 15mph.  This all suits us to a tee.

We have been so incredibly lucky to have such a wonderfully welcoming and beautiful start to our hosting adventure.  We’ve seen more wildlife in a week than we saw in a whole year of living in a city.  We see deer everyday and they are so used to humans that they let you get within 15 feet of them sometimes without getting spooked.  Junior shrieks with joy when he sees them and points with wide eyes and an awe-struck look that fills my heart with happiness.  We had a family of 5 raccoons drop right in on us in our campsite one evening; they’re sweet little faces poking out of the trees as if they were just as curious about us as we were about them.  

One morning, as I had junior on my hip, I was walking across the campsite to take the trash out and a beautiful red fox came trotting across towards us.  His fur was a rusty red and his bushy tail slowly swished along behind him as he slipped silently across the clearing.  He came within 15-20 feet of us but never seemed phased by our presence and merely went about his business.

Junior and I get up in the morning and check the bathrooms.  This involves wiping down the countertops which accumulate a number of gnats and other creepy crawlies through the night.  We check that there’s toilet paper and hand towels etc, then move on to a walk through the campsite with Devon just to check on things and say hi to all the happy campers.  We then head home for some breakfast before we figure out what to fill the day with.  Sometimes we clean out fire pits and check the campsites for trash, other days I just let Junior run through the woods picking up pinecones and rocks and stumbling over tree roots.  He loves to wander through the forest and bring me little treasures along his adventures.  The park is always so quiet and sleepy that I don’t have to worry about cars or strangers suddenly endangering him so he gets some of the independence that he demands daily now.  He falls now and then and has taken a couple of face-plants to the pine needles, but he’s my little soldier and so he picks himself up and dusts himself off without so much as a whimper most of the time.

In the evenings when Chris gets home we sometimes go for another walk through the campsite or a golf cart ride.  Once Junior is down to sleep for the night we deep clean the bathrooms when necessary and spend the rest of our evenings sitting by the fire discussing the day’s activities and competing to see who is better at keeping the fire going (it’s alway me).

The other night another host dropped by to invite us to a cookout at a neighboring rig.  In the city this would have caused me a great deal of social anxiety.  Here it seems effortless to stroll across the park as a family and stop by for a quick fish fry and some football.  

Looking at our life now it seems like we have finally found our calling; a lifestyle that is bursting with all the things we have craved for so long – the outdoors, good people, and simple living.  Living in the city, life seemed such a constant struggle and it was always difficult not to focus on what we didn’t have even when we had so much.  Now it’s easy to see how rich our lives are even though we sold or gave away most of our possessions.  Living this way allows us to live more in the moment.  Living in this peace and quiet allows my mind to be quieter and more at peace.  Though we had some pretty big and chaotic battles to fight to get here, and there were moments where life itself felt like an endlessly loud and violent storm, we have persevered to find our paradise.  It may not be lavish or extravagant, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The Life of a Host

One of the things that drew us to this lifestyle was the possibility of having no conventional form of living costs such as rent/mortgage and utilities.  It sounds too good to be true but I assure you that it’s not.  Let me explain.

At state parks they employ rangers and maintenance workers to be on site from 9-5, but when you have campers at the park you need someone there to keep an eye on things from 5-9 and so the campers have someone to turn to if they need help from a site representative.  Enter the campground host.

A host is a volunteer who lives at the campsite in their own rig.  Each state varies depending on their rules and regulations for hosts but in Georgia you can stay at any one park as a host for a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 6 months.  During your placement as a host you receive a free site, but it generally has a few extra perks.  Most sites at state parks don’t have full hook up (electric, water, and sewer), they only have electric and water.  This means that you have the tedious task of moving your rig every few days to dump the black and grey water tanks at the designated dump site.  As a host you enjoy full hook up benefits so once you pull in you shouldn’t need to move your camper again until you leave.  You also tend to get cable TV free (even if you generally have to pay extra for it at a park), a small permanent shelter over your picnic table, and, our favorite, your own golf cart to use 24/7 during your time at the park.

In exchange for these benefits you do have some responsibilities.  Hosts must perform a minimum of 24 hours per week of volunteer work.  You’re expected to keep the bathrooms clean which means giving them a good wipe down and mop once a day and checking them several times a day.  You also need to ensure each site is clean after campers check out by picking up trash, cleaning out the fire ring if necessary, and sometimes blowing tree debris off the site.  Other duties vary from park to park and sometimes you may be asked to help with special projects like building/repairing picnic tables, benches, etc or you may be asked to help clear the walking trails.  Other than that, you’re just required to be the face of the park, be friendly, and help campers by providing information.

All in all it’s pretty easy work and the schedule is very flexible with the vast majority of tasks not requiring any set time to be done.  This is pretty perfect for me as I am a stay at home Mom and so my life generally revolves around my son’s ever-changing schedule.  Most of these tasks can also be taken care of with a 1 year old in tow.

When I pitched the idea to Chris I told him how this would satisfy my desire to contribute financially to the household.  I think most stay at home Moms would tell you that, while we know we are providing an invaluable service by raising our children, we feel like a bit of a drain on finances sometimes.  But by hosting I am able to alleviate the strain on Chris by eliminating our rent, water, and power bills while still being there to raise our son.  So, to put it another way, this “volunteer” work would actually save us about $18,000 a year.  That’s a pretty darn big savings.  

Aside from the financial benefits we figured it would afford us more opportunity to meet people such as other hosts, park rangers, and other guests.  Being a stay at home Mom can also get kind of lonely – especially when your husband is working long hours and your only interaction is with a teething 1 year old.  So the idea that other hosts would be around that I could interact with on a regular basis was appealing.

So how do you become a host?  It’s actually a really easy process.  Each state has its own individual set of procedures.  Here in Georgia there’s an online application which took about 30 minutes to fill out.  You also have to pay an annual fee of $15 per applicant (if you host as a couple then you are each an applicant) and that covers your background check.  My understanding is that a criminal record will not necessarily preclude you from hosting, but rather that each person is assessed on a case-by-case basis.  Once your background check has cleared then you’re free to start applying to different parks.  Online is a “hosting timeline” where each park posts their schedules for incoming and outgoing hosts showing the gaps in their calendar where they need hosts to fill in.  From here you simply apply to fill those vacancies and chase them up with a phone call to the parks.  

Overall it’s an incredibly easy process to get started with.  Once you begin hosting you get credited points for the number of volunteer hours you rack up.  As you bank more hours/points you receive more free stuff, benefits, or pins.  For example, after 500 hours logged you get a free park pass which gets you free entry and parking at all state parks for a year including discounts at gift shops etc.  You can also get a few free nights of camping, free nights at the cottages or yurts, free rentals, the list goes on.

It took a few weeks of playing phone tag with different parks and was a little frustrating at times trying to line up our first hosting placement but finally about 2 weeks before we were due to go full time RV we got a call from Vogel state park offering us our first placement.  The placement is from October 31st until the end of the year.  We figured this is a good start and should help us find our feet with the hosting journey.  2 months allows us a low level of commitment to begin with which should help me figure out how best to balance my daily duties with raising junior.  Meanwhile it gives us a good few weeks to get used to living in a camper before I have to start working again for the first time in 18 months.  

So hosting is a great way to spend some more time outside, significantly reduce your cost of living, travel as widely as you please (or stick around locally), and break free from the pressures and stresses of conventional living.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.  But I think the promise of freedom and less stress makes it worth trying.  Like Hellen Keller said: “Security is mostly a superstition.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”