Monday, August 21, 2017
A few campers straggled in Monday, but not many. A great time to relax and do the housekeeping chores required when you’re on the road for an extended time. That means it’s time to wash clothes. The campground washing machines and dryers are available any time we want – there are a pair at both toilet/shower facilities on the West Rim Camping Loop – so it is a great time to do the mundane chores and enjoy the good weather. We’ll get back into tourist mode on Wednesday when we head for the 600 step staircase that heads down to the waterfalls in the valley below. Like my wife says, we’ll play that hike by ear. I think she’s secretly hoping for rain that will keep us in the camper. The West Rim Loop Trail we did two days ago was fun, but at times a bit tough for us flat-landers who only do this mountainous stuff once a year. Still, she was game enough to do that trail, and she’ll give it her best tomorrow, the scenic beauty is always worth the effort.
We did our best to be good tourists Monday by touring nearby downtown Chattanooga, which like any large U.S. American city is filled with contradictions. While driving through the manicured downtown Market Street, headed for the Tennessee Aquarium, we watched a pair of America’s social outcasts dumpster-diving right alongside a downtown intersection as we waited for a traffic light. I honestly wish political ideology would vanish in a cloud of humanistic concern for our country, but then again, what do I know.
After road construction near the Aquarium trumps our GPS instructions, we end up on the Bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River, looking for a place to conveniently turn around. The Hunter Museum parking lot serves as a great place to recheck the maps and GPS, and as we pull through the parking loop, we stop to watch a pair of well fed ground hogs, which ignore us until I get out to take a photo.
Chattanooga deserves admiration and praise from what we have seen, but they are fighting a tough battle, as is any large city. They have several really neat innovations including bicycles kiosks where participants can pick up or leave bicycles as they tour and traverse the downtown area. We parked in
one of many automated garages near the renovated Riverfront Area and walked to the Tennessee Aquarium across the street. We bought tickets for a Thursday tour on the Tennessee River Gorge Tour, also operated by the Aquarium. We walked around the Riverfront, then headed for a nearby Thai Restaurant with some reservations about what to expect. No need for concern, the Pad Thai was among the best I’ve ever had – sorry Royal Orchid – and by looking at Ilse’s clean plate, I don’t think she had any problem with her meal either.
We had an exit gate at the parking garage that wouldn’t process my paid-up ticket, and luckily I had no one behind me as I backed up the garage exit ramp and switched gates. I did draw strange stares from a worker who appeared from nowhere carrying a Styrofoam doggie box, obviously leftovers from his recent lunch, but since he seemed dumbfounded by my explanation, we just waved once the gate opened and just drove out.
We struggled with my GPS to find the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which was closed, then shopped at a grocery store on the east side of town that was getting a serious construction face-lift. Off course it poured rain as we left the store in the chaos of the construction, when else would it rain?
Heading back out to the Interstate for the short, wet trip back to the campground was a grim reminder of why I don’t like big cities where three Interstate Highways intersect, especially when they have lane-changing construction that narrows three lanes down to about six feet wide each. Bumper to bumper traffic with eighteen wheelers trying to get to their destinations on schedule makes for interesting driving. The rain got heavier and traffic finally got lighter and a little more cautious. We were soon at the Trenton exit and only seven miles from the campground with a huge, tailgating pickup truck that was so close it looked like I may have been towing him, right on my bumper. As we climbed the newly-paved highway through the clouds into another realm, the old expression, so near but yet so far came to mind. I can see why this park is so popular. Soon, we had the road and the mist-filled world all to ourselves.
By the time we finish the laundry Tuesday afternoon, many of the sites empty campsites are filled, with at least three aluminum Airstreams. Pop-up campers and small towables are quietly tucked away in many of the wide camp sites, along with a scattering of tents and one new one for us: a tent mounted on a platform on top of a car carrier, aluminum access ladder and all. The little Subaru sedan seems to be bearing the additional weight well. Only one of the big Class A motorhomes and one of the extra-large fifth wheel trailers in the park. Everyone seems to be keeping to themselves as the park is as quiet as it was when we took the laundry bag to the laundry room.
We know all the campground hosts by name now, and we chat with them whenever we meet on the camp road. One campground host just signed in, traveling from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and he’ll be here until February. Another couple will pack up at the end of August and head for their next hosting gig in New Mexico. An interesting life style, but it isn’t for us. We toyed with the idea of being camp hosts, but we just aren’t ready to cut the umbilical cord, so to speak. We’d rather head for home when the summer heat breaks and sleep in a familiar homestead. Friends and our familiar surroundings in southwest Florida make a comfortable winter home base. I guess that makes us snow-birds of sorts, but since we never see snow, I don’t know if that is completely accurate. We’ll keep rolling with our travel trailer as long as we still enjoy RVing, escaping to the Appalachian Mountains to avoid the summer Florida heat and humidity. And, of course, doing our laundry when the campgrounds are empty.
Friday, August 18, 2017
After a week of short hikes and walks, we decided to try the full West Rim Loop Trail at the Cloudland Canyon State Park to view the vistas we had seen from the easy-access, other side of the park. We were camped just a few hundred yards from the wide path that led to the rim trail and if push came to shove, and we felt we were over our heads, we could exit the rim trail at several points and walk back to the campground on the paved road that crosses the loop near the western-most top of the mountain.
We did a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast and watched the huge tent city consume itself and disappear into a myriad of car trunks. By ten o’clock, we were ready to hit the trail, and except for one remaining tent, the one with the snarling dog that stood between us and the trailhead, the campground was empty.
“Great!” we thought, “We’ll have the trails to mostly to ourselves.” Compared to the number of hikers we met on the trail Saturday, we were almost correct.
We locked up the camper and took the long way around our aggressive neighbor and started down the quiet, shaded access path in a beautiful, cloudless day and mild temperatures. We had a taste of the west rim overlooks from the other side of the park when we first arrived. People on the west side of the canyon waved at us as we stood a few feet from the main parking lot, and of course, we waved back, thinking “Gee, what does it look like from where they are?” Today would be a great day to find out.
We began meeting other hikers as soon as we started the trail, including two couples hiking together – one of the young men precariously carrying a baby on his shoulder – and a young girl who ran past us like a rabbit. We also met several young couples with dogs, all on leashes. As we manipulated the often narrow path along the top of the canyon, we became adept at passing techniques with the dogs. One girl even pulled a traditional dog waterdish from somewhere in her backpack to give her young, four month old puppy a drink. We showed her our combination doggie bottle/waterdish we carry in our back pack and I think she may have actually been somewhat interested in something us old folks had to say. Well, maybe.
Several couples had young puppies, and just like our thirteen year old dog, Taz, too worn out and tired to be aggressive. The temperature stayed in the mid eighties, but we were sweating as if we were at home in Florida’s southwest coast. The dogs obviously felt the same.
Parts of the West Rim Trail have been “re-pathed” - their wording, not mine – and we found several markers to be misleading, or just plain meaningless. One marker had crude arrows scratched into it with car keys or knives, or something sharp, to add directions inadvertently or thoughtlessly left off the marker. You can’t wander meaninglessly forever as you either cross the paved road or you fall off the cliff, but it is an afternoon saver if you know where on the trail you are. Still, the West Rim trail, marked as moderate/strenuous, is visually rewarding with several great lookouts, and a few interesting caves, along the root and rock strewn trail.
We headed back from the scenic overlooks at the end of the canyon and decided to head for the walk-in campground via another supposedly marked trail. We stood at one unmarked junction and stared at two identical flashes, the markers nailed to trees to mark a trail, that marked two divergent trails, one to the left and one to the right. As we stood trying to decide which path looked more worn, two women appeared from our right.
“Oh, you aren’t far from the walk-in campground,” one said as she brushed past, her chihuahua pulling on a leash, “Just keep going, it’s just up the hill.”
By the time we were back at our RV camping loop, by way of the paved access road, we were both drenched in sweat. We stripped, threw our clothes into the laundry bag, grabbed towels, flip flops, quick covers and headed for the empty, spotlessly clean showers. Even our pain-in-the-neck neighbor dog was gone. We shower not just because we get sweaty, but to also avoid the curse of trail hiking: chiggers! If you don’t shower and isolate your clothing, you may remember your hike long after the thrill of the scenery is gone.
Cheerful throngs of smiling, happy children rush from beneath the multi-colored fabrics that cover every possible campsite to greet Taz as Ilse takes him for his morning walk through the misty, damp campground.
“Please, Come back, we have more children who want to pet him!” one of the young boys wails.
“We’ll come back this way,” my wife answers, smiling at the crowd of children.
If you were expecting my typical pragmatic – some call it jaundiced – viewpoint, you’re probably wondering what Ilse slipped into my morning coffee. It’s hard not to put a smiley face emoji on the morning’s event since most of the throngs came in late last night, well after dark, and even though we finally turned on the air-conditioner so we could close the blinds to shut out the parade of the new, high intensity LED camping lights, they did not make a sound. Amazingly, the morning campground is filled with tents that weren’t there when we turned in for the night. Just as amazingly, it is as quiet this morning as it has been all week when the campground was empty. When it’s quiet, we occasionally see one of three feral cats that wander across the campsite. There may be more, but we have identified three cats by their distinctive colors. One of them sat and stared after being called, but soon scooted for the cover of the underbrush. I doubt we’ll see them for the next several days.
The threat of rain storms hovers over us, even if the clouds themselves have failed to materialize. That doesn’t seem to bother the weekend campers who gather to head for the trailheads on the east rim. The tent next to us was put up by a young woman and her companion who appears to have never slept outside before. He basically stands back and watches as she competently and efficiently erects the tent, cuts and heat-seals nylon rope, and covers everything with a blue camping tarp. They also have late night activity as they are joined by friends long after we’ve gone to bed, who also put up a tent. They did it quietly as well. We’ve been in campgrounds where three ring circus late arrivals had everything except a steam calliope, so we are actually pleasantly surprised by the civility of the weekend campers.
The campground is barely half-full, a surprise as the park rangers were preparing for a full campground over the weekend. The weather, coupled with the first week of school, probably dampened many plans. One large group spread across five campsites has seven tents and several huge fabric shelters arranged to create a “social center” set up adjacent to our young neighbors. While they were quiet setting up at night, the excitement of the weekend has become a constant reminder that no one knows what to expect during a weekend.
Ilse remarked that most of the campsites were either filled with tent campers or smaller pop-up campers. There are only a handful of medium size travel trailers or self-contained Class C’s, and only one large Class A motor coach in the campground. Many of the license plates seem to be from the Atlanta area. The large pull-through campsites with 50 amp electrical service are all empty. All of the registration cards posted at each campsite show none of them staying beyond next Monday. We will have the campground all to ourselves once again. All in all, the campground is far less hectic this weekend than we anticipated.
We decided to test the capricious gods of weather and drove the eight miles out of the Main Gate to the Five Points Recreation Area on nearby highway 157 to hike one of the many trails that converge on the old, overgrown mining site. The only remnants of the old mine are circular terraces, discretely hidden by nature as the forest has reclaimed the entire site. After a half-mile walk through the heavily wooded area, we decided the trails here are better suited to mountain bikers, and sure enough, we soon met riders converging on the main trail intersection trying to decide which trail to take next. Another fellow with his ten or eleven year old daughter peddled up an adjacent trail from the parking area as Ilse and I headed back to the car. Nice, but not as visually rewarding as the West Rim Loop Trail, which we can access from not fifty feet from our camp site. So, we head back to the camper and decide to see just how busy the trails are on this weekend.
We start down our connecting loop after first avoiding a nasty, snarling dog somebody must love tied at a campsite, and decided we’ll go as far as we are comfortable and return when the thigh muscles say “enough!” After meeting group after group on the trail, all friendly, even one with a German Shepard wearing saddle-bags to carry its own refreshments, we decide to let the weekend visitors enjoy their hike without interference from us. We’ll come back early Monday morning when everything slowly reverts to normal. We’re ready for the waterfall trail, just not with this many spectators.
Friday, August 11, 2017
The tall, garish, red lettered sign high above Battlefield Parkway that reads “Battlefield Burgers” restaurant, stands in stark contrast to the marble Georgia Memorial which rises remorsefully in an empty field just a few miles south. One identifies a bustling commercial zone along a six-lane highway, expanding with new construction and stores as quickly as commerce will allow, the other a somber, pastoral meadow crisscrossed with old, split rail fences, rimmed with cannons, that will remain forever unchanged.
The Chickamauga battlefield where over 4000 men lost their lives is a somber reminder of our bloody Civil War. It is less than an hours drive from Cloudland Canyon State Park even with the roundabout route we took along the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway, which really isn't much of a parkway. It is, however, scenic, even if at only one location. The parkway offers one great vista of the valley west of Lookout Mountain. There are no signs or guardrails at the pull-off. No indication anywhere of the magnificent view below. We just happened to see the break in the trees and pulled off the road to take a look.
After following our GPS instructions through the quaint, and obviously well-off college town of Lookout Mountain, we descended down the other side of the mountain and into the Battleground Memorial Park by way of local Lytle Road, not the main entrance most people see when visiting the park. It was rather like coming in the back door. After driving through the battlefield and photographing cannons and monuments, we headed for the visitor center for more information. The huge, well maintained battleground is part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, administered by the National Park Service, and lies near the foot of Lookout Mountain.
The visitor center has battle displays and dioramas, photographs, a gift shop, and a theater where they show a well done video about the famous battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. The center also houses the famous Fuller Gun Collection, a marvelous, well showcased collection of shoulder arms.
The city just outside the park, Fort Oglethorpe, offers all the amenities and restaurants of any modern suburban American town. The new, clustered retail areas all look the same to me. I can’t tell Asheville from Oglethorpe from Ocala. They all have the same stores with their familiar logos sticking high in the air and the accompanying traffic trying to figure out which entrance to use. We are so accustomed to individual corporate images we can tell an establishment by looking at the building. We don’t even need to look at the signs to know which store is which.
We stocked up at Walmart, Home Depot, Aldi, and Advance Auto Parts, in that order, before heading back to campground to have a late lunch and clean up before the next round of rain storms.
There is so much more to see within a short drive from Cloudland Canyon State Park, from historical places to mountain vistas and isolated waterfalls. We have an extended stay here, and I think we are going to be busy.
Thursday, August 10, 2017
We were spared severe weather in in our campground at Cloudland Canyon State Park as a line of heavy storms spread across the entire southeastern United States. We had a steady, night-long downpour, but no storms. Sleeping was a pleasure as no one needed any kind of artificial environmental noises to induce the sandman. Nature supplied everything. The continuous, ten hour downpour eventually faded away as sunshine began to filter through the dense forest as morning quietly slipped into the campground.
We checked the local weather and found we were experiencing an exclusive, temporary break in the rain. We decided to explore one of the many hiking trails. Cloudland Canyon State Park has thirty miles of trails dedicated just to mountain bikers, not including the many footpaths for people like us. There are plenty of trails to keep most hikers happy.
We arrived Monday afternoon as we love checking into state or Federal campgrounds after the weekend crowd leaves. Public school started in Georgia a week ago for most students, and will start this week for the rest of the state, including here in Dade County, so there are no families in the campground except for a British couple with a nine year old daughter who loves to pat Taz. It is only August seventh! We have four full-time camp hosts on the west rim campground and only three or four campers. As a result, the shower and toilet facilities, although rather old, are absolutely spotless.
Vacancy at the park will change again on Friday night, it always does, but most of those weekend camping trips and family reunions break up early Sunday. We rarely check out of a campground on Sunday morning as the waiting line for the dump stations remind me of US-1 headed back to Miami from the Florida Keys. Monday is Nirvana to cross-country RVers.
Long gone is the day after Labor Day start to the school year. I personally believe, without the benefit of any research or facts of any kind, that the start date has been skewed to allow high school football teams to begin practice earlier and begin their regular schedule to align with the National Football League and the Collegiate schedule football schedules. The NFL just played their first exhibition game. But then again, what do I know. At any rate, campgrounds are emptier earlier than in years past, which, miserable me, I don’t mind at all. Labor day is the exception, of course. Finding a campsite over the Labor Day Weekend requires someone named Merlin to make your reservations. Strange looking dude, with flowing robes, a pointy hat, and a magic wand.
According to CBS News, the RV industry expects to sell 400,000 new RVs this year. The RV manufacturers are running at full employment, and have increased most RV sales in the mid-range Millennial market. No wonder making reservations at popular campgrounds is a task best done as soon as reservation windows open. But not here, and not today. The dripping, dense forest has only our twenty-one foot trailer and a few occupied campsites that are still dormant. Until a beautiful, black and grey house cat, wearing a bright red collar, casually strolls across the front of our camping pad, headed for the forest. Our Golden Retriever sees the cat, bolts through the open camper door and down the hill they go, into the dense underbrush. Taz, over thirteen years old, has a hearing deficiency, and thankfully, limited endurance. He doesn’t go far, and as soon as he sees me, heads back up the hill to the camper, tongue out, with a look of duty well done.
Today, however, is a time to relish the tranquility and relative solitude of a beautiful state park and the empty trails. I swing by the visitors center where only a few hikers, mostly young, college age couples, complete with back packs are registering. We decide to do the waterfall trail starting at the environmental center on the east rim, but after a walking a short way on the rim trails, decide we need to tune up first before heading down the thousand foot trail to the waterfalls below. Prudence is an art gained through age. And experience.
Our first day was spent relaxing and taking walks to check the park’s facilities and many vistas. I played around with my television antenna and tuned three or four stations we may watch if the weather turns wet again. Except for the news, we rarely watch television. Cell phone coverage faded in and out so not only were telephone calls sporadically dropped, but the Wi-Fi hot-spot was unreliable as well.
As we relaxed in the fading evening sun, a pickup truck backed into the site next to us and a woman with two dogs set up a small, domed tent. She was our only neighbor until another camper pulled in just before dark. We were the only campers in the park except for the British couple tent camping at the top of the hill and one other RV that shows no sign of life. The evening was pleasant, cool and absolutely still except for the serenade of Georgia’s forest insects.
As we kissed and snuggled up under the covers, Ilse turned off her night light and we both went silent as a bright, yellow light flashed in the darkness just over our heads.
“What was that!” We sat up in bed and tried to figure out what had just happened. The light flashed again, this time down by the foot of the bed, suspended in mid-air. It took a few seconds to realize I had let in a firefly, a lightning bug we used to call them, when I took our dog, Taz, out for his evening trip to the nearest tree. Another first in our adventures of RVing.
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
How did we miss Cloudland Canyon State Park? In the six summers we have spent camping in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia and North Carolina, we’ve stayed at many state and Federal campgrounds, including Vogel, Unicoi, and Amicalola State Parks in the Georgia mountains. We’ve visited nearby Moccasin Creek And Tallulah Falls during day trips. We’ve spent many nights at Richard Russell, Stephen C. Foster and Hard Labor Creek State Parks in Georgia as well. We’ve stayed at one of our favorite state parks, Vogel, near Blairsville, several times, but for some reason or other, we never made it to Cloudland Canyon State Park in the far northwest corner of the state.
Located on the western rim of Lookout Mountain, only twenty six miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the fairly large park was recommended by Hill and Marianne, friends we met at Vogel last year. The park sits atop a mountain plateau created by the gorge of the headwaters of Daniel Creek, forming a unique “Y” layout that allows to park to have two separate campgrounds. The East Rim campground, which is a tighter, more family oriented type campground, and the larger West Rim Campground which has the more secluded, woodsy type camping sites we prefer.
We had a taste of what to expect as we drove through dense, misty clouds that floated across the heavily forested mountainside highway on our way up to the park. It rained off and on the entire day as we drove 185 miles from Athens, Georgia, but the rain held off as we registered at the visitor center a little before three in the afternoon. The young ranger seemed rather bored with counter duty as she handed me my vehicle pass and a campground map with little comment. I then asked her to apply the discount visitors over the age of 62 receive when registering in person. I have to apply in person every time I sign in at a Georgia visitor's center as the online system does not offer the discount. She asked if I was over 62. I said yes, way over. She glanced up, then keyed the information into the system without further comment
I asked if the park was busy. “Nope,” she said, “Only six reservations today for the whole park.
Great! We had our pick of the 72 campsites – Georgia is first come, first served – and we soon backed in to the spotlessly clean, level site on the west rim we liked best. No one else in the campground but the camp hosts.
No sooner did I have the power cable plugged in than it started raining. We retired to the camper, broke out the chocolate and the wine and put our feet up while the rain gently soaked the forest around us. The park looks great with many trails, we can’t wait to explore the area during our stay. I don’t see how we missed the place.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Our first day on the road this camping trip exposed us to our lowest experience ever in despicable conduct by fellow RVers in the 463 days we’ve been on the road with our travel trailer. Whoever used the dump station at the pristine Stephen Foster Cultural Center State Park in White Springs, Florida, in front of us emptied their holding tanks without the benefit of a discharge hose. They simply opened the valve to their black water tank and let their sewage drain onto the pavement in the general area of the dump station drain. That was the “Downright Abominable.”
We thought the unit next to us that left their bright, LED awning lights on all night was “Worse,” until, of course we departed the flag-ship Florida State park and found I had to hose down the apron of the dump station so not to spoil my shoes. We have had thoughtless neighbors next to us before who left their bright, glaring lights on all night, so we have a set of black-out curtains we drape over our regular window blinds when we encounter them. I personally think they are afraid of grizzly bears or boogeymen, or who ever they think evades the campground security system. Whatever the reason, they are a pain to park next to at night. I have outside lights on my awning as well, but they are on a timer so they shut off automatically in case I forget to shut them down when we pack it in for the night. If I can’t sleep with my own lights on, how do they do it? Easy, they’re unconscious to start with.
And then there are the “Better,” the ones who make it all worthwhile. The one-time neighbors you’ll probably never see again, who think and act like you do. You know, the ones who smile, wave, and actually clean up after their dogs. The ones who stop to chat and trade information about restaurants or sights to see, tell you about their pets or grandchildren, or sometimes their grandparents. You know, the ones who shut their lights off at night, and use discharge hoses at the dump station.
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