Testing Our Mettle

Anyone who’s ever been camping knows that it’s more fun to camp in great weather than it is to camp in the rain. Judging on that standard, this has been the week from hell.

We started out near Tulsa at Washington Irving Recreation Area, a Corps of Engineers campground on Keystone Lake.20170427_170244 We knew bad weather was coming – we are well armed with weather-watching tools when we have a bit of internet access. Since the shit was scheduled to hit the fan Friday night/Saturday, we decided to stay until Sunday morning, so that we weren’t trying to move down the road in severe weather. Smart Decision #1.

We never heard specific rainfall totals, but we believe we got between 6-8″ of rain from Friday night to Sunday morning. In the hopes of giving ourselves a bit of extra shelter, we deployed our large yellow awning when we setup camp on Thursday afternoon. So, at 4:30am on Saturday morning, we found ourselves outside in 60mph winds trying to wrestle the awning off the Campshack (our new name for the Fireball). It had totally pulled out of its stakes, but remained attached to the keder rail, which hooks the awning to the trailer. We got soaked, and were nearly flogged to death, trying to get a grip on the flailing awning (which miraculously was undamaged). We were absolutely pounded by rain and high winds (40-60mph). We got about four big bangs of hail, but mercifully escaped that ordeal. Here’s one telling photo.20170501_113921 The following photos tell the story of this storm. Check out the rising lake level.20170427_17033820170429_10180220170429_15563520170430_073231We escaped Sunday morning, driving through Tulsa to have breakfast with a fellow T@Bber, and headed toward Fayetteville AR to Lake Wedington, a somewhat shabby little National Forest Service campground in the Ozark National Forest. 20170430_144012Fayetteville got hammered by the storm, absorbing 10″ of rain. Fields were submerged, and ditches alongside the road were filled with rushing water. This sure doesn’t look like any river view I’m familiar with. 20170430_124435-120170430_124502-1Our campground had several sites underwater, but we grabbed a decent site, and hoped for the best. A bit of sunshine helped, and we put everything up and out to dry. Our awning and patio mat were soaked, and the inside of the Campshack had that ugly, wet feeling that comes with a perennially damp dog, and eight wet feet traipsing in and out. We were desperately seeking sunshine. While we were there, a boat drifted up and beached itself on our campsite. We immediately adopted it, and named it Plan B.20170430_180220 We were rewarded with sunshine for a day. What a lift to our spirits that was.Fayetteville is gorgeous. We drove into town to check out one of the many breweries. Good beer/marginal food at the Bricktown Brewery. It’s near the campus of University of Arkansas in a beautiful old downtown area. I was especially taken with this little garden area, and one of the sculptures there. The old lady knitting was so realistic that I could have struck up a conversation.

After lunch, we headed to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. It was a pleasant diversion, but small and not really notable. But it sure was a great feeling to be out and about in the sunshine.20170501_150459They either did a fantastic repair job, or had little storm damage.

Our next two choices for campgrounds moving eastward were both closed due to storm damage. We had hoped to camp alongside the Buffalo National River, but had to move east to Robinson Point, a Corps of Engineers campground near Mountain Home AR. The drive though northern Arkansas was incredible – rolling hills with every shade of green you can imagine. May must be the best month for this area – not a lot of color, but green and fresh. We passed through towns with names like Flippin and Yellville. I had thought that our route would take us right through Flippin, and was disappointed and surprised to find that we just passed closely. I really wanted a photo of the town name.

The amount of water at Robinson Point is astonishing – probably 45 of the 70 campsites are fully submerged, as well as is an entire island in the lake about 50 yards offshore.20170502_15130220170502_151442(The photo above shows an area of about 30 campsites which are wiped away.) This is primarily due to the fact that dams above this campground along the river have been opened up to release flood pressure upstream. We were told that the usual flow from the dam at Bull Shoals (the first one above us) is 20,000 gal/sec, but it was increased to 60,000 gal/sec. The lake here is the color of a latte – no resemblance to any kind of water color you’d ever want to see. We grabbed an available (high) site and set up. Jezzy and I wandered over to find the registration station to pay for our two nights. Couldn’t find it. We patrolled the entrance area – nobody home at the Camp Host site. I was heading back to camp when I spotted a Corps of Engineer truck heading my way. I flagged the driver down, and explained that I couldn’t find the registration box. The driver shrugged. “Just camp” he said. “Free?” I asked. He nodded. I remarked what a gorgeous campground this was, and said that I was sad to see such extensive damage.

He just kind of stared off ahead, nodded, and pulled away. It’s shocking to see this kind of damage. Some of these places will take weeks or even months to recover. Tomorrow (Wednesday), we’re supposed to get another 1.5″ of rain here.

Fun and Not-So-Fun Times

It’s been a week of crazy ups and downs, primarily caused by weather, which restricted our camping choices in very unfavorable ways.

Our RV park site in Vicksburg was not fun.  Located ten feet off US 61, it was loud!  The soggy conditions created by the previous week’s 5″ of rain sure didn’t help matters.  We could feel the Fireball sinking into the mud, although it had been level when we set up.  We wandered around town for one day on our bikes, touring the Coca Cola Museum (Coke was first bottled there).  It was pretty lame.  No ice cream.  No floats.20150324_130934 There are many pleasant sights in town, but it sure didn’t have a prosperous feel.20150324_124845At night, we were kept awake all night long by roaring traffic.  We were grouchy and unsettled, so we decided to cut our visit short by a day.  (Part of our unhappiness was the premature announcement that we have trailer brakes.  Turns out we have trailer BRAKE.  The brakes on the side where the new bearing and shoes were installed don’t work.)  Don’t even get me started on this topic….Vicksburg National Military Park was a must to see before leaving the area, so we decided to pack up, tour the Park, then leave from there. 20150325_110152I had really mixed feelings about my Vicksburg experience.  First of all, the Visitor Center was wonderful.  The video presentation at any National Park or Monument is always our first stop – we love the big overview that we get from watching the film. The personal element of the Civil War battlefield films is exceptionally good.  Excerpts from actual letters are read while re-enactments are shown on the screen.  The eloquence of the letters is always moving.  Vicksburg was very different than other Civil War Parks we have visited.  This was more than a battle between soldiers – the siege lasted more than six weeks, causing townfolk to retreat to caves for safety.  Confederate troops were near starving as supply lines on the Mississippi were cut off.    20150325_120053Armed with a brochure and our 20 minutes worth of video input, John and I set off on our bicycles to tour the 20 mile scenic drive through the Battlefield.  Cycling along any National Park scenic drive is an excellent way to see the area, and absorb the site. 20150325_120537 Perhaps it’s not for everybody, but we sure can appreciate the physical nuances of the geography better on a bike than we could in a car.  While we are wandering around, examining artifacts and looking for the trenches dug by the Union Army, we are passed by many cars.  Most people don’t get out to read the plaques or look around.  Vicksburg, check!  What’s next on the Bucket List?20150325_112156No blow by blow description here, but I do have to describe the sad feelings that overcame us here.  The grandiose monuments are from the Union states, Illinois and Wisconsin in particular.20150325_11302320150325_11351820150325_115139 Michigan’s monument features a woman with a large gear in her hand to symbolize industrial strength.  There is signage to the effect that some of the Confederate states took longer to return to prosperity than their Union counterparts, thus, their battlefield monuments are smaller, and less grand.  No kidding.  General Grant’s headquarters area features a huge statue of Grant on a horse.  The Sherman Circle is devoid of statuary.  It seems very lopsided.  Fair?  Correct?  To the victors go the spoils of war?

One area that we did enjoy exploring was the USS Cairo (Care-o) Museum.  The Cairo was one of seven ironclads built for the Union by one shipbuilder during a 100 day period, at a cost of about $100,000 each.20150324_144454 All we lost in battle.  The Cairo is the only one which has been recovered.  It was not discovered until 1960, then raised, and installed here a few years later.

At Vicksburg Battlefield Cemetery, the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers (of which 13,000 are unnamed), are buried, as well as soldiers from the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. 20150324_15134120150324_151526 Most Confederate soldiers killed in the Siege of Vicksburg are buried in another Vicksburg cemetery.

Several hours after beginning our tour of Vicksburg, we hit the road, intending to camp at Warfield County Park, about 100 miles away.  Too bad for us – this park was closed.  Underwater!  We were directed by a couple of helpful gentlemen to check out nearby Lake Chicot State Park, about 20 miles away.  Sure, why not?  We plugged the info into Google Maps (our go-to source for directions), and headed out.  We shortly thereafter found ourselves driving along a rutted road on top of a levee, surrounded by cattle, who didn’t seem to understand why we were driving thru their territory.  It was awful, and yet a bit funny. We knew it was going to have a bad ending…..when we finally got to an area where the Google voice told us to ‘turn left to our destination’, it was a downhill trek into a gigantic swamp.  Perhaps there really was a State Park and a campground there, but there is NO WAY that we could have plowed our way down there, and forded all that water to find it.  John verrrrry carefully turned the Fireball around on the narrow levee “road”.  When we got back to the Highway, we pulled out all maps, phones, and camping resources to find a home for the night.  Everything is full (Spring Break), or closed (flood).  The only spot we can find is the Pecan Grove RV Park.

Another spot on a very busy major US Highway.  We are directed to pick any spot we want – “the driest ones are over there….”  As we’re setting up, there’s an old Dodge Caravan driving through the park with the horn blaring.  One of the doors has a sign on it like you’d see from a pizza delivery joint.  Here’s how this conversation went…

Me:  Are you trying to find a particular campsite for a delivery?

Cranky 90-year old African American (woman) driver:  What?  I’m just trying to sell YOU some tamales and pies!

Me:  Tamales?  I love tamales.  How much are they?

C90YOAAWD: $12 a dozen

Me:  Can’t use a dozen, but I’d take four.

C90YOAAWD:  I can sell you six or nine.

Me:  I’ll take six.

C90YOAAWD:  How about nine?

Me:  Can’t use them.  Sorry.  Forget it.

C90YOAAWD:  Why are you giving me such a hard time?

She hauls herself out of the minivan, and opens up the back, where she has a huge stockpot full of tamales (in bundles of 3!  I could have had just 3!!!).  Wraps up six in foil.  I give her $7.  We’re done.  For the record, they were awful.  We ate a couple of them, and threw the rest away.  Bummer.  We love tamales.

Next morning, we decide to bust for Little Rock, AR.  We hadn’t planned to arrive there until Friday, but we call an are able to get our campsite at Maumelle Campground (a Corps of Engineers Park) a day early.  Pulling in, it’s Ahhhh…….a real campground.20150327_091520 Trees.  Picnic Tables.  Fire rings.  A river.  Kids on bikes.  We’re going to be here for five days.  Already, the pressure of the last hideous week begins to dissolve.

Downside?  It’s freezing here (40s), and STILL RAINING!  Our arrival day is Thursday – it doesn’t stop raining until noonish on Saturday.  Long story short – this post is putting even me to sleep.

Clinton Presidential Library.  Beautiful, and interesting, but not as inspirational as the LBJ Library. To me, it just seemed to lack the charm of the LBJ.  20150328_11431020150328_121618 Clinton did sign the Family Leave Act into law, and also signed the law that made COBRA health benefits available to workers changing jobs.  NAFTA came into being during the Clinton Administration, as well as major strides in the Middle East peace process.  Most of everything was lost by the scandal which ensued from the Starr investigations into Whitewater and everything else Clinton.  The enormous Library is well worth a visit – it’s the largest, and most well-attended of all Presidential Libraries.20150328_12552720150328_12565020150328_122504We wandered over to the State Capitol.20150328_14330020150328_143440And the old State Capitol.20150328_134734Around downtown.20150328_13405720150328_13285220150328_135727The above quote was in a special bicycling exhibit in the old State Capitol.

The Central High School National Historic Site was a must-see.  Central High was where school desegregation came to a head in 1957.  Nine African American students were denied entrance to the school in defiance of federal law.  Federal Marshals were called in to escort the kids to school, along streets lined with opposing State National Guards troops and townspeople.20150328_160338 The photos in the museum are chilling, and the audio is shameful.  It’s chilling to think that this disgraceful episode happened so (relatively) recently.  We met a fellow camper here (with a T@B, no less!) who graduated from Central High.  Her father was actually a Senior there in 1957.  Every day is a history lesson of some kind or another.

Everything we have seen here revolves around the Arkansas River.  Perhaps it’s not as wide or dramatic as the Mississippi, but it’s certainly impressive.  Our campground is along its banks, it rolls right thru the center of downtown Little Rock, and there’s a bike trail that covers the 15 mile distance from end to end.  One of the most impressive features is the Big Dam Bridge, which spans the river.20150329_13175220150329_131822 This is the longest, largest bridge ever built solely for pedestrian/bicycle traffic.  Wow!  We pedaled into downtown on a sunny Sunday – one of the first nice days in the area.  We saw hundreds of cyclists and walkers along the way.  The biggest Community Garden I’ve ever seen was also along the path – there must have been 200 plots.  Some were as large as 30 x 30.  Lots of people out digging and planning.  I did stop several times to try to photograph this amazing area, but was unable to get a photo of anything that didn’t just look like dirt and fences. But, it was a fantastic area.

We cycled today (Monday) up to Pinnacle Mountain State Park.  What a gorgeous spot to hike and bike.  The historic focus of the Park is on the Trail of Tears, the paths taken through Arkansas by the Native Americans who were relocated under federal order in the 1830s from their homelands in the Southwest to areas in the Southeast.  All these routes passed through Arkansas, either along the river or land.  There are amazing scenic views,IMG_1321-001IMG_1318 trails, and a quarry open for swimming in the summer. IMG_1316-001 It was worth all the huffing and puffing we had to do on our bikes to get up there.

We head out Tuesday for TN.  That will be our last camp before Evansville, where we’ll hang out with John’s brother for a few days before finally going back to Grand Rapids.  Until Little Rock, we were more than ready to go home.  Now, we’ve had a couple days of great weather, a sterling campground, and a bit of cycling and sightseeing to buoy our spirits.  Home doesn’t sound quite so sweet anymore.



Diamond John Strikes Out

Byebye, Airstream dream.  See ya, Easy Living.  Diamond mining was a bust.  Zero.  Zilch.  After falling for the dream of diamonds for the picking, we spent about two hours trying to mine, sift, dig, or shuffle up a diamond.  Any size, any color.  Our conclusion?  Diamond mining is hard!  We were hot, unfocused, and kind of sniping at each other for our crappy technique.  As miners, we suck!

So, here’s the deal at Crater of Diamonds SP in Murfreesboro, Arkansas.  You pay $8/person to get into the 40 acre diamond area.  Whatever you find, you keep.  Need tools?  Rent ’em!20140421_120514  There are live demos on how to find diamonds, and an on-demand video to watch.  After watching the demo, we decided that we would go for the double-screen water dip method.  We brought with us a small bucket and a garden scoop (you don’t want to know why we had this with us in the Fireball), and also rented a miner’s shovel.

Here’s how it goes….

1.  Our two screens fit on top of each other.  The top one has a larger mesh, so the finer grit, stones (diamonds) fall into the bottom box.  Of course, you have to carefully examine the top box to make sure you’re not discarding The Big One (providing you didn’t just stumble across it while walking to your chosen dig site).  Swish the boxes around in the sluice tank (or the waist-high troughs in the other areas) until you have only rocks in the top box. 20140421_11490020140421_114911Examine them for the obvious enormous diamond.  Discard.20140421_115609

2.   Using a Rock/Bounce/Turn technique, wash the lower screen of gravel in the sluice tank to wash away the excess clay, grit, dirt.20140421_11493420140421_114956 This technique (supposedly) also sends the heavier diamonds and minerals to the bottom of the screen, so when you flip it over to empty the screen, the good stuff is on top for you to simply scoop up.20140421_115158

3.  We never got any good stuff.  Just gravel. Scraping the gravel into the screens or buckets was difficult with the tools we had.  The ground was packed hard.  The folly of the undertaking quickly became apparent, although the guy who found a 6 carat diamond just laying on the ground two weeks ago was working nearby.  Here, in John’s distinctive left hand is a visualization of what we hoped to find.20140422_113913  We opted for shade, diet Cokes, and wandering about to see how others were approaching the task.

Liked this guy’s technique a lot.20140421_122237People employed various techniques to sift thru the gravely stuff for diamonds.20140421_12395620140421_124135

Perhaps this little girl had the best idea of all.20140421_130058

John’s best find was in the Visitor’s Center store (each to his own).20140422_113743Oh well.  It was fun, but I have to say that we really just flaked out on the deal.  As we rode our bikes home to the campground 20140420_163409(what a terrific place to camp!), we could hear distant thunder, and we caught a few raindrops.  Got Jezzy bundled into her Thundershirt, grabbed quick showers, and sat out the next six hours of pretty intense storms.

Tuesday, we cycled into Murfreesboro (pop 1764), and wandered around. 20140422_13372320140422_13011120140422_12394820140422_123602 It’s pretty s-l-o-w here.  There are a few ‘antique’ stores, a cemetery, hardware store, and Barry’s Hawg Town Cafe (unremarkable food by any standard, except for the interesting sticker vending machine)20140422_133408

We loved having a chance to slow down a bit and enjoy the perfect spring camping weather. After drying out in the Southwest for three months, the warm humid day and 80 degree temps were welcome.  The crazy green colors of spring are everywhere here, a real feast for the eye.  Two (of three) nights were perfectly still, so we enjoyed campfires until we were in danger of nodding off and falling into them.

Score?  Diamond mining – 0.  Camping – 10.  Life in general – 8 (at least).



Hangin’ out in Hot Springs

Spent the afternoon in Bill Clinton’s boyhood hometown, Hot Springs.

Wonder what Bill thinks of this depiction?

Wonder what Bill thinks of this depiction?

What a beautiful spot.  The elegant bathhouses that put Hot Springs on the map still line Bathhouse Row, although only one is still in operation in its original form.

John checks out the bathhouses.

John checks out the bathhouses.

The others have new lives as galleries, museums or some such.  One is about to become Hot Springs first brewpub (you can bet we’ll be back to try that out). There are fountains everywhere with hot mineral water bubbling out of them – about 95 degrees.  No special taste.

Had a beer at Maxine’s, a wonderful old tavern in the Bathhouse area.

A great spot for an afternoon beer.

A great spot for an afternoon beer.

Maxine’s used to be a brothel – probably the first time I’ve had a beer in such an establishment.

Interesting bit of Hot Springs history

Interesting bit of Hot Springs history

Hot Springs is lush and green.  We scored a great spot at Gulpha Gorge, the campground in Hot Springs National Park.  It’s a small campground (44 spots) and the sites are close together.

Gulpha Gorge is a beautiful campground.

Gulpha Gorge is a beautiful campground.

We got one with no water or power, and the bathrooms don’t have showers.  BUT, we’re perched right on top of a bubbling creek, we had one of the few firepits to use, and it was a great evening to sit outside and enjoy spring.  Cost a whole $5 with our geezer pass. The azaleas are all in bloom here, along with the dogwoods.

We’re already planning our next trip back to Arkansas.  The roads here are smooth and rolling, and the state highways have wide shoulders for bicycles.

We’re wondering why we never came here before…..

One lost pirate girl who wandered into town, and apparently never left

One lost pirate girl who wandered into town, and apparently never left


Ahhhh, Arkansas.  After several days of blowing around in the red Texas dust, we crossed into Arkansas with some trepidation.  Neither of us had been there before, and, quite frankly, we’re tired and weary of the struggle to camp.  The Fireball is dirty, we’ve got broken stuff, and our spirits are a little low.  We want warmth, a bit of sunshine, peace, and calm.

Millwood State Park.  Site 74.  Best.campsite.ever.  Our own swing on a spit of land extending into Lake Millwood.  Picnic table.  Fire ring. Hiking trails. Quiet. Sparkling clean bathrooms.  $15.90 for the evening (water & electric).  No neighbors at all.

We can hardly believe our good luck.  A brief hike with Jezzy confirms the awesomeness that is Millwood State Park.  Egrets. Birds everywhere. A half-dozen deer swimming from one island to the next in the lake.  Smiling, helpful Rangers.

This is why we camp.  This is what retirement is all about.

The Fireball, our swing, and the Lake.

The Fireball, our swing, and the Lake.

Long shadows enhance our perfect location.

Long shadows enhance our perfect location.

Happy Hour will soon commence.

Happy Hour will soon commence.

A simple dinner, consumed outdoors.

A simple dinner, consumed outdoors.

A campfire with wood we scrounged from the campground.

A campfire with wood we scrounged from the campground.

Campfire into the dark. The fire and frogs are the only sounds.

Campfire into the dark. The fire and frogs are the only sounds.

Camps like this are why we camp.