10,550 Miles Later….

Home! We’ve been home for a week and a half now, and it seems like forever already. Life has been a flurry of catching up with family and friends, and trying to whip our neglected homestead into some kind of reasonable shape. (Note to self….make some real plans for the spring yard work to get done next year!) The grass in our back yard was nearly two feet tall in places – in ten days, I’ve mowed four times already. BUT, the herb garden is planted, and I’m already dreaming of the sweet tomatoes that we’ll be harvesting later.

Before I relate stories from our last week of camping, I have to share a remarkable photo from our last stop at the Ocoee River, and the National Whitewater Center there. Here’s a photo of the whitewater section when the upstream dam is open, and the water is pouring over the rocks. A friendly raft guide told me that section is a “solid Class IV whitewater”. 20170513_112715On Sunday, the dam is closed again. This is what that same section of the river looks like.20170515_093922-3 Amazing, isn’t it? We could hardly believe our eyes.

Our last week on the road in eastern Tennessee delivered some of the most beastly camping weather we have ever encountered. Temperatures soared into the mid 90s every day. Zero wind or breeze, and humidity around 80+ percent. While we were camped in Cades Cove Campground in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we were lucky to have a mostly shaded site. T@DA friends Gail and Sid from Virginia were camped nearby, so we had someone to share complaints with. It was truly miserable. John and I decided to do a ten-mile hike one day, intending to get an early morning start to beat the heat. Ha! We didn’t get going until 10:45am, so we hiked through the worst of the heat all day. When we neared the end, we had a cool stream to cross, and the first thing we did was soak our hats in the cool water and slip them back on our heads. We did the same thing at the next two crossings, and it saved us. Truly miserable conditions for a hike. I didn’t even take any photos!

The Cades Cove area of GSMNP has a twelve mile scenic loop, with old homesteads, churches, and other historic and scenic sights. Best of all, it’s closed to automobile traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am. So, of course we hauled out bikes out and did a fast spin Wednesday morning. What a pleasure to roll through the blue-green road, with no cars to dodge. The big disappointment for us was that once again, we saw no bears. We’ve been to GSMNP five times now and spent a total of at least 15 days there, and have yet to see a bear. Along the route, I stopped to take just one photo. 20170516_152137-1 (My intention was to add a link to an earlier post with photos from Cades Cove, but I couldn’t find it. My tags in earlier blogs were not very complete – I understand that now.) We were in a hurry to move on to our next spot – the long-awaited Blue Ridge Rally. Camping with about 60 of our best T@B and T@DA friends.

As you probably know, private campgrounds are not our favorite spots to stay, but Big Meadow in Townsend, TN is pretty nice. Sadly, they have a problem with some type of blight which is killing off their large shade trees. Bad news when its 95 degrees out. We had a nice view, but we baked in the heat!20170518_064754In a moment of foolishness, we had decided (weeks ago) to enter a bicycle ride called the Tour de Blount (we were in Blount County). Riders could select one of four distances – 78, 54, 42, or 25 miles. John and I decided that 42 rolling miles would be plenty for us, since we were on our mountain bikes, instead of lighter, faster road bikes. In fact, we were the only people on mountain bikes that I saw. What beautiful countryside for a bike ride! I sacrificed any thought of speed, and stopped frequently for photo ops.20170520_07185020170521_21322620170521_213144 20170519_11511520170520_080853It was still super-hot that day, and although we hit the road at 7:30am, the temperature climbed quickly. As long as we kept rolling, it was fine, but stopping was torture. Post-ride, we enjoyed beer and BBQ with the 350 other riders. I had the misfortune to miss a turn, so I tacked on about 5 ‘bonus’ miles to the 42 I had planned. Note to self:  Pay Attention!!

For four days we swapped camping stories with like-minded folks, shared meals, beers, coffee, and laughs. Some of our best camping tips have come from these groups, and getting together to hang out for a few days is always a blast.

But, we were SO ready to hit the road and get home. On Sunday May 21, we rolled out and pointed the Campsh@ck (our new name for the Fireball) directly north. Four hundred and twenty miles or so later, we rolled into Grand Lake St Marys State Park in Ohio for the night. 20170521_195933This gorgeous campground was pretty quiet on a May Sunday night, but it’s easy to imagine it being jam-packed all summer long.

Monday morning, we hit the road early and gave a little cheer when we hit the Michigan border. It wouldn’t be a complete trip without stopping at Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall MI for a pint and a sandwich before rolling into our driveway around 3pm.

148 days away from home. It feels good to be back.

Tennessee, Briefly

What a week! After our last night underwater in Arkansas,20170503_173005 we charted a course to Memphis, and headed out. Oops…after a couple of hours on the road, we hit an Arkansas State Highway which was closed by flooding. Detour. Oops…this other State Highway is also closed. To make a long story short, our 4-1/2 hour trip to Memphis turned into an eight hour ordeal.

First impressions of  T.O. Fuller State Park (12 miles from downtown Memphis) weren’t encouraging, but that was quickly overcome. The thick brush alongside the campsites was overgrown, and the campground had kind of a forlorn look to it. But we were won over by an onsite washer/dryer (only $1.00/ea), and a free ice machine! Not to mention sparkling clean, if aging, bathrooms. Fuller SP was the first State Park east of the Mississippi River to admit blacks. And, this was in the 1930s! It seems incredible to me.

The National Civil Rights Museum was our target for our first cycling trip into town. It was a long, crazy ride through some rather sketchy areas, punctuated with 20 minute wait for a freight train. The Museum is located at the old Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr’s. assassination.20170506_140122 The Museum is a testament to the everyday struggles non-white Americans have shared over the years to be granted equal rights. Why should that ever have been an issue? The bus on which Rosa Parks staged her quiet protest is there. 20170506_131845Remember the lunch-counter sit-ins?20170506_132258 Bus bombings? 20170506_132842One of the most moving areas (for me) was the section devoted to James Meredith’s struggle to gain admittance to Old Miss. The film clips are devastating to watch. So many reminders to all the shameful eras of US race relations. The lines to get into the Museum stretched way down the street – blacks and white, old and young. There are lessons to be learned here.20170506_134609Next stop was David Crockett State Park, where we had another history lesson. Near US64, the park encompasses portions of the original Trail of Tears, the route taken by the Cherokees (and some other Native American tribes as well), when they were forcibly relocated from their homelands in NC, GA, VA, and SC to new reservations west of the Mississippi. The sections here were along the route taken by 650 Cherokees led by Captain Bell. 20170508_112759Nearly four percent of the group died on this three-month trip. Lots of history to be absorbed here.20170511_113416 Jezzy was tuckered out after all the learning.20170508_135739 Camping at Crockett SP was great. 20170510_142613We had a huge campsite, and met our Canadian neighbors in their brand-spankin’ new Alto trailer. What a gem. It’s a step up we could seriously see ourselves making.

Onward to Tims Ford State Park in Lynchburg. The only game in town there is the Jack Daniel Distillery, so we took the tasting tour. 20170510_12321020170510_121339If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the word ‘whiskey’ has probably never been seen in print here. We’re beer drinkers! But, when in Lynchburg… And, we are happy we did take the tour – there’s much to appreciate here. Let me give you a few fun facts.

  1. Jack Daniel owned his first distillery when he was about 14, through an odd combination of circumstances. He was a small man – only 5’2″ (with a size 4 boot!). In a fit of rage, he kicked the safe in his office one day, and broke his foot, which never healed properly. After several successively more aggressive amputations, he eventually died of gangrene, after having the rest of his leg removed at the hip. This statue is entitled “Jack on the Rocks”.20170510_122214
  2. They make all their own barrels onsite, and also produce all their own charcoal, which is used to filter the whiskey. All the water used comes from a spring on the property.
  3. All the Jack Daniel’s whiskey sold in the world are produced in Lynchburg. Even more crazy is the fact that Lynchburg is located in a dry county in TN – the only place to get a drink in the county is on a paid tour of the distillery.
  4. During many sections of the hour-long tour, photos are off-limits. But we got to sniff and look at all areas, and watched a portion of the specialty bottling line.

Then is was time for our tasting. 20170510_130737To my surprise, I really enjoyed four of the five selections (the exception being Tennessee Fire, which is JD + cinnamon liquor).

Southern Tennessee is beautiful, rolling country. 20170510_16223220170510_105856Our travels from camp to camp were enjoyable as our eyes feasted on lush green forests and barns of every shape and age.

Crossing back into the Eastern Time Zone for the first time this year, we’re now camped at Thunder Rock Campground, along the Ocoee River. 20170512_151356This is the site of the whitewater course in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and our campsite is right on the river. We’re so fortunate to be here on this day (Saturday), as the dams have been opened for the day, and water is rushing along at 1400 cubic feet per second. Daredevil kayaks, river rafts of all sizes and careening downsream, with sometimes unexpected results.20170513_11590920170513_12013320170513_111738 It’s thrilling even to watch.

We cycled down to the area near the National Whitewater Center, and parked ourselves along the rocks to watch. It brought back memories of my rafting down the Gauley (WV) River two times many years ago. What a thrill. Our National Forest Service Campground is fabulous as well, with the only drawback being its proximity to US64. Lots of car and truck traffic. There are dozens of  hiking and mountain bike trails here. An adventurer’s paradise.

Sorry I haven’t included any links to these places or any additional background information. We haven’t had any phone signal or WiFi for a few days, so I’m sitting in the truck in the parking lot at the Whitewater Center, grabbig a bit of signal. The longer I leave these posts unwritten, the worse they get.

This is our last week of camping before turning the big red truck north and scampering for home. We still have Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and our Blue Ridge Rally to finish off this long trip. Can’t say we’ve enjoyed EVERY minute, but it’s certainly been an adventure.

Aliens and Unreal Landscapes

It’s been an interesting week. Since leaving the green altitudes of Datil Wells, we’ve been camping in State Parks in New Mexico and Texas. Our camping preferences run like this…1) National Parks, 2) National Forests, 3) State Forests, 4) State Parks/County Parks,   5) Everything else. 6) If we are truly desperate, a parking lot like Walmart or Cracker Barrel (although we’ve never had to resort to that yet). We LOVE pulling into a new-to-us campground for the first time – the anticipation of finding the perfect campsite is always lurking around the next curve.

So, it was with great anticipation that we pulled into Bottomless Lakes Campground near Roswell, NM. 20170417_19154720170418_083819Of course, we wanted to investigate all the UFO business that has been Roswell’s calling card for 70 years. And, we anticipated a really deep series of lakes. Um, not exactly.

“Bottomless” refers to the fact that there are sinkholes here, caused by an underground river. Instead of deep lakes, we found a shallow, swampy chain of lakes, which had an appropriately swampy aroma, and swarms of flies to accompany same. (They nearly drove me insane!) One lake, on which our campground was situated, had enough water to have a picnic/pavillion/swimming area. But, we arrived shortly after Easter weekend, and this area was trashed! After two days, it still had not been cleaned up (same case with the bathroom/showers). Disgraceful. There was crap everywhere!

Roswell is all about UFOs.20170418_10571920170418_110804 There was a reported UFO landing in 1947, which has spawned an entire industry – movies, a museum, and multiple investigations. 20170418_10354720170418_165838Did it happen? Will we ever really know? But, the UFO Museum and Research Center has all the information for you to make your own decision.20170418_10475320170418_10562120170418_11045920170418_170354We spent a couple hours there, reading all the newspaper articles and looking at the photos. It’s all about self-promotion, and selling souviners. John bought an alien fly swatter, in the vain hope of helping to quash to invasion at the campground. We hiked, and wandered around a bit and enjoyed a bit of free WiFi in the campground – a rarity. After two days, it was time to move on.

Ever since our first trip into Palo Duro State Park several years ago, we’ve wanted to return, so we booked a four-night reservation. Sadly, we didn’t get into the campground we had hoped for (full). But, we were assured that this would change later this year, when TX State Park Reservations will allow visitors to make site-specific reservations. As it stands now, you can only make a ‘reservation’, and you’re assigned a site when you get there. We were lucky to get a  pretty decent site anyway. Next year, we’ll get the one we want.

Palo Duro Canyon is called the Little Grand Canyon, as it’s the second largest canyon west of the Mississippi.20170421_13585820170421_135823 It’s spectacular, and mid-April is a gorgeous time to visit. Trees are budding, everything is greening up, and it’s generally pleasant. Two out of our four days did touch 90 degrees (unexpected), but the nights were cool and comfortable. We explored the Park on two great hikes – the Lighthouse Trail was the first.20170420_104953-120170420_105838 This unusual hoodoo is tucked away three miles from the roadway, so the only way to see it is to hike (or bike) in. It’s well worth the effort, which was really minor in the scheme of things).

We also did the Rock Garden hike, another six-mile round trip, which extends from the canyon floor to the rim, through an amazing boulder field. 20170422_13433220170424_10445320170422_114800It really taxes my imagination to  see all these enormous boulders strewn around. Did it all happen in one big explosion, or over the course of thousands (or millions) of years? It’s a crazy feeling to wander through this rock field, as we crawled up toward the canyon rim, about 700 feet above.

We spent the rest of our time cycling around, exploring the nearby town of Canyon, and generally just hanging out, wondering at the beauty of this unexpected place in Texas. At the Visitor Center though, we were taken aback by the appearance of Darth Vader in a diorama with big-horned sheep. 20170421_140955What’s with that? It was in a back corner, and it occurred to us that it might have been placed there by a rogue State Park employee. I was also taken aback by this Unidentified TSM (Texas-sized Moth) which was hanging out in the women’s shower. Yikes!I had to run back and get my camera to get this photo.20170422_202408 (I really didn’t need to rush – he was in the same spot for two days!)

Our last two days have been in Copper Breaks State Park – we are really making the best use of our annual Texas State Park Annual Pass. Breaks refers to the splits in the ground here, which result in a red ‘mini-canyon’ about 50-60′ deep. The surrounding area is absolutely flat. 20170424_134905Although there isn’t a lot happening around here, this is a very pleasant campground, with great spacing between sites and crazy helmetlike shelters over each picnic table. 20170424_195354We are especially pleasant to have nabbed a site with a shade tree. Although it’s been hot – nearly 90 today, we can sit in the shade and breeze and thoroughly enjoy being outside. (As I write this, it’s 9pm, and there’s a coyote party going on not too far away).  We cycled the entire Park, and hiked a few of the trails, although there’s nothing really spectacular to see here. Probably the highlight of the hikes was this former shoreline, preserved in rock, a long way from any current water. 20170424_135203This is the kind of stuff we really love to stumble across on any hike.

Tomorrow we head into Oklahoma. We want to escape any serious prolonged heat, so we’re creeping north a bit. The weather forecast for the upcoming weekend looks dangerous in the Oklahoma/Arkansas area, so we’re going to have to be willing to change plans on the fly if necessary.

Petrified

To a Midwesterner, the big skies and huge vistas of the Southwest have always captured my imagination. What must it have been like to be traveling across the land for months, and stumble across the Grand Canyon (for me, one of the most incredible of all the huge monuments out here)? But, last week, we rolled into the Petrified Forest, and it opened up a huge new world of wonder. This really stretches my imagination.

First, we had to deal with a few logistical items. There’s no camping in this National Park. There are two gift shops on the southern end which offer free camping (dirt parking lot on a highway), but we were happy to have a spot.wp-1492387376719.jpg There really isn’t anything else within 20 miles. So, here was our home for two nights. We opted to have an electric site for $10, so that we would be able to run our air conditioning for Jezzy, while we were gone for a whole day. Bathrooms are available from 11am-6pm. No water is available (“Don’t drink the water. It will make you sick.”) For two days, that wasn’t a hardship, although it would be tough if you weren’t prepared for it.

Since we only had a few hours to explore the first day, we decided to bicycle in, and check out the Visitor Center at the southern end of the Park. It sits in the middle of an astonishing forest of petrified wood. wp-1492387239774.jpgHere’s Petrified Wood 101: Two hundred million years ago, Arizona was at about the same latitude at Costa Rica – about 10 degrees north of the equator. It was loaded with conifer forests. Trees fell, sank into the mud, and were covered with mineral deposits, turning the wood into stone of the most incredible colors. wp-1492387254731.jpgThe color of the stone depends on the mineral in which the tree was buried. It really is indescribable – so different than the petrified wood we saw last year in North Dakota, which was essentially gray, with a woodlike appearance. I couldn’t resist, and purchased about a 50lb boulder at the gift shop. You can see it in my back yard if you stop by.

These mammoth rocks have knots and swirls like live trees. Many have fallen over, and have remained essentially whole and unbroken. The circled rock is a great example of that – the deposits above it have eroded away. Eventually, the deposits below will blow or wash away, and it will fall. You can see the floor below is littered with petrified boulders.wp-1492387568828.jpg Others are segmented, some by natural forces, but others cut by opportunists searching for valuable crystals before the forests were protected. Whether whole or broken, they challenged my imagination.

“Would you walk across this log on a horse for $.25?” 20170413_091138That was the question a Park worker asked John as we viewed the Agate Bridge, a complete petrified tree that had fallen, been buried, and millions of years later, re-emerged from its mineral mountain. Apparently, in the early tourist days, a local gent did just that – collected quarters from tourists, and rode his horse across this narrow bridge above an abyss. The rock has since been reinforced with concrete beneath, but the thought of riding or walking across is harrowing. It’s admittedly difficult to see in this photo.

We drove the length of the Park Drive, from the Petrified Forest on the south to the Painted Desert National Park Visitor Center at the north, which is a totally different change of pace.wp-1492387273437.jpgwp-1492387592159.jpgwp-1492387552889.jpgwp-1492387512441.jpgwp-1492387415831.jpg We pulled in at every turnout, and hiked every little hike. It’s mind boggling.

John has always been interested in astronomy, which led us to our next stop at Datil Wells Campground, just outside the town of Datil, NM. This immaculate BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground cost us just $2.50/night with our Sr. Pass.wp-1492466772645.jpg Our campsite was enormous! There aren’t enough kind words to say about these camp hosts, their friendliness, and their dedication to making this a spectacular spot to camp. We hiked with Jezzy one day, and enjoyed spectacular overlooks from our 8000′ vantage point.wp-1492467053818.jpg

20170415_122546But, our real quest was the Very Large Array, a farm of 27 huge radio telescopes which scan the skies 24/7 for faint natural radio waves from distant galaxies, black holes, and baby stars.wp-1492467244891.jpg wp-1492467305594.jpgThese 82′ dishes can be arranged are mounted on a series of railroad tracks, which enables them to be moved into four different configurations – from 1/2 mile to 13 miles from end to end. Every six hours, the dishes repoint in unison to a new position. Every four months, the entire array is repositoned, using a giant forklift-type of device which lifts, then rolls each telescope to a new position on the grid.wp-1492467321715.jpg It’s amazing. At one point, John thought he was receiving signals from outer space, but it turned out just to be that damned New Mexico wind roaring through the vents in his bike helmet.

A big part of this adventure though, was our bike ride to get there. Google Maps is both our friend and foe. When it’s spot on, there’s no better tool. But, woe be to the cyclist who gets ‘googled’ with faulty directions. In our case, Google suggested that we cycle Highway 60 for a short distance, then turn right on County Road 152. After another short distance we would arrive at “Old Highway 60”, which would take us right to the VLA. What could be more simple?

What we didn’t know was that Old Highway 60 probably hasn’t seen any car traffic since I was a baby. It consists of an occasional splotch of pavement surrounded by huge clumps of weeds. You can just barely see John in the center of the photo.20170416_105802For a while, it was fun riding.20170416_110601 A pack of Pronghorn Antelopes (fastest animal in North America) ran alongside us, as if issuing a challenge. It didn’t take them long to decide we weren’t worthy of a race. We let ourselves through two wire gates, into increasingly barren partures. At one point, three gigantic horses seemed to take exception to John’s advance (I, of course, stayed back in my role as official photographer). The lead horse was very aggressively advancing toward John, leaping and pawing the ground, when he wisely decided to turn around. wp-1492467155251.jpgAfter that, we had to drag ourselves and our bikes under a barbed-wire fence to get to a gravel road, where we eventually got back to the ‘real’ Highway 60. From there, we still had about 8 miles to get to the VLA.

But, what’s life without a little adventure?

We’re now at Bottomless Lakes State Park in Roswell, NM. Tomorrow we venture into Roswell to explore the International UFO Museum, and perhaps to meet a few extraterrestrials. Rest assured, we won’t be cycling in.

Still More Arizona

It’s’ been a low-key week for us. The best news is that we finally got Jezzy’s stitches removed by a Vet Tech at the Humane Society in Payson, AZ.wp-1491944559513.jpg She’s free of that annoying inflatable collar, and her face seems to be healing pretty well. I hope you don’t hear any more from me on this subject (other than when we find out what the disposition of our case with the Las Vegas Animal Control people comes out). We are moving on….

It was fun to camp in two new (to us) National Forest Campgrounds this week. First was Clear Creek Campground in the Coconino NF. wp-1491944098838.jpgThis small campground was rather non-descript, but had the wonderful composting toilets that are such a treat to run across in a rustic campground (those of you who camp know what I’m talkin’ about!). There are lots of trails around here, which made for a great bike ride, but I was rewarded with a couple of flat tires. Damn thorns.wp-1491944032952.jpgIt was just a pleasant bike ride down to Fort Verde State Historic Park.  This restored Fort was active for 20 years from 1871-1891. Luckily for us, it was the weekend of the History of the Soldier, so they had re-enactors representing all armed conflicts of the US – from the Revolutionary War to today.

It was sad that the majority of people there were volunteers or the participants themselves – there were hardly a large handful of others there. We feasted on Dutch Oven chili and peach cobbler made on site.wp-1491944155909.jpg One presentation on the Navaho Code Talkers was very interesting – we learned how the codes were set up, and the presenter (Navaho himself) actually read some transcripts in Navaho. The Arizona State Historian, who is kind of a cowboy singer-storyteller also gave a presentation. John really enjoyed this, but it was excruciatingly long. Yawn….

The big excitement of that portion of our stay there happened that night in camp. Apparently, the two guys next to us were doing some very heavy drugs, and OD’d. Every ambulance and cop in the county came rushing in. Both were taken to the hospital and one was arrested as well. We had wondered what was going on over there…..

Houston Mesa Campground in the Tonto NF (Payson, AZ) is our current home. This is one of the most gorgeous National Forest campgrounds we have ever stayed in. We’re at about 6000′ elevation, primarily in a pine forest. Campsites are huge, and quiet. Unfortunately, we’re pretty close to the road, so we do get lots of traffic noise until about 9pm. But, what a gorgeous spot. I have yet to get a decent photo, but will try again later.

One of the main attractions here is the Tonto Natural Arch. After setting up camp, we wandered back to check this out, and were rewarded with great view of this spectacular sight. wp-1491944421248.jpgIt was hard to get a decent vantage point for photos, and the light for shooting them was horrible.wp-1491944497897.jpgwp-1491944474399.jpg So, check these out and magnify them 100x in your mind to capture the real images. It really is a wonderful spot to visit, complete with a hair-raising twisty drive.

We’ve both been stricken with very low energy levels. Seems like we just want to kick back, read a bit, and hang out where we can have Jezzy with us. That included a stroll along the nature trail here in the Campground, where the terrain varied from open slickrock to deep Pondersa forest. wp-1491944613159.jpgwp-1491944648677.jpgA perfect hike for three slackers (I’m including Jezzy in the slacker designation). Our next destination is the Petrified Forest/Four Corners area, and we’ve got some more aggressive hiking targeted. Time to get our camping/hiking/cycling groove back.

Just to make everything just a bit more interesting, I got what is probably the worst haircut of my life today. John’s comment? “Well, probably the worst of it will grow out in a couple of weeks, and we’ll mostly be in Texas until then. Nobody will notice.” So, if you see me, you might not recognize me. I’ll be incognito – wearing a hat.