Sunday, June 5, 2016

Memorial Day 2016 Bike Camping Trip

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve posted here, busy with a toddler and work and life. While the Airstream awaits further work, we decided to borrow a tent last weekend and keep the campfire burnin’. So without further ado, we bring you a story that has nothing to do with Airstreams but everything to do with camping and adventures: 

The Clark Family Memorial Day Weekend 2016 Epic Southern Bike Camping Trip 

After weeks of planning and preparation, it was finally time. We had our cooler packed, our bikes dialed in, and our camping gear at the ready. Silas had his own pictorial packing list that included trucks, his flashlight, and his trusty sidekick, Woof. Ben’s mom, known to Silas as “Gg”, made a surprise stop the night before we left to complete his kiddie camping gear with a cool bug-catching kit for the trip. 

We loaded up the truck and drove down to Weaver, AL, where the Chief Ladiga Trail begins, and parked under the convenient, watchful eye of the local police station and their video surveillance cameras. After unloading and hitching up the trailers, and finding a quick rest stop, we were ready to roll. Ben rode his Surly Pugsley fat bike with Silas in the Chariot sidecar, his front rack loaded up with sleeping bags and our picnic lunch. Lisa rode her Surly Cross Check, towing an Equinox pull-behind-kid-carrier-turned-flatbed, holding our cooler, camp stove, tent, and other miscellaneous supplies. 


The path was relatively flat, with a slow, gradual climb about 70% of the way. It wasn’t unmanageable with the loads we were pulling, but just enough of a challenge that we stopped for quick rest and water breaks every few miles. The only rough spot was a mile-and-a-half detour early on where part of the trail had collapsed due to a sinkhole. The detour went up and down a couple of long inclines, and Lisa had to hop off and push the trailer once, but only for a very short time. Further down the trail, as we neared a small rural town, we crossed paths with an older fella on a wobbly bike. He glanced at us and said, “Y’all READY, ain’t ya?” We all laughed. It really was nice to be away from the city. Our gear held up well, and we stayed pretty well on target for our estimate of 3 hours’ riding time for the 25 mile journey. We added a couple of hours to our total time with one stop for a picnic lunch and splash in a cold spring-fed creek, and a second stop at a bike café in Piedmont for some cold drinks. Silas even managed to get a great nap in between those bigger stops! 


All of a sudden, there was the campground. One of its two driveways led straight off the paved trail. The gravel was no match for the guys’ fat tires, but Lisa’s trailer had to be pushed through one place where the gravel was thick. She was happy to get off the bike by then anyway. We pulled up to the office and there were a half dozen older folks sitting around, playing Rook and chatting. While Lisa kicked back in a rocking chair on the porch next to Debbie and 90-year-old Mama Hazel, and listened to stories about campers they’d hosted from around the world, Terry got into his truck and led Ben and Silas on a ride around the grounds so they could pick a campsite. They chose a good one, right next to the creek and some really great neighbors, Tim and Lisa, who we didn’t know but who happened to be from the town Ben grew up in. Tim took a nice family photo for us on arrival, and tossed some extra firewood our way until we could get our own. 


Turned out the campground only accepted cash and checks, neither of which we were carrying (oops!), so Terry graciously offered Ben a ride the 6 miles back to town, as he had to go back there later anyway to drop off his mom and feed the dogs. First we pitched the tent, a Coleman Instant Tent that seriously only took about a minute to put up, and took a quick dip in the cool stream. Then Ben saw some kind of grey snake, and what he thought was a water moccasin, each about 3 feet long, wriggling through the water away from him as fast as they could go, and we all hightailed it out of there. 


While Ben went to town to get cash, Lisa got the rest of the campsite organized and then waded with Silas some more, closer to shore this time, skipping rocks and catching tiny brown frogs in his new bug catching net. The Boy soon decided he’d had enough of that and needed to burn off some of the energy he’d stored up while riding in the sidecar, so after casting a mischievous glance at Lisa, he took off running up the gravel road, across the bridge, and up the hill toward the office. Lisa gave a half-hearted chase on legs spent from pulling a trailer uphill. The remaining camp staff were still sitting on the porch in rockers, watching the whole thing with great amusement. Fortunately, as Silas reached the porch, the truck pulled in carrying Ben and order was quickly reestablished. 

Terry liked to drive around in his truck from time to time and check on his guests, sometimes pulling a trailer with firewood or other supplies on it to stock up where needed, so we were well provided for. He also liked to stay and chat for a few minutes when he found a willing ear. On the drive to town he had told Ben that back in the day, his dad used to fetch "the white liquor" for the bankers in town because they were too embarrassed to go and get it themselves. 


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As soon as the sun started to dip behind the mountain, we got a nice roaring fire going and cooked up some smokie dogs and foil-wrapped potatoes simply seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. When you’re camping, the simplest things taste so much better than usual! When it got dark, we were so ready to sleep that we all went inside the tent and laid down. We weren’t sure if it was 8 or 9 pm by then; our phone clocks sometimes showed Central time and sometimes Eastern – even changing zones within our camp site between the fire pit and the tent! It was only going to get down to the mid-60s overnight, so we left some screens open and let a beautiful cool breeze blow through. Perfection. Silas had never slept in a tent before, and he was so excited and energized to be camping that he lay there wide awake for quite a while, chatting and singing softly to himself as we all dozed off. 


Sunday morning we awoke early, but not too early, lying awake for a bit until we heard others stirring around us. We made our coffee and tea, and Lisa got started on a savory breakfast of bacon, eggs, and grits cooked on the camp stove. When breakfast was almost ready, some movement caught our eye. There was Gg’s car coming down the hill from the office toward us! We knew she’d be coming out that day, but we didn’t know when, so it was a fun surprise that she’d gotten up so early and just gone for it. 


After breakfast we played some more in the water. There were rocks to skip and critters to catch. We were spotting all sorts of lizards, centipedes, frogs, and snails, when Ben suddenly pointed to a rock in a shallow pool. “Crawdad! Sunning itself on that rock!” It hopped back in the water. Lisa grabbed Silas’ bug net and waded over there. After carefully turning over a rock or two, a short chase ensued, and the little net was held up triumphantly. “Got him!” 



She carried it to the picnic table and deposited her catch into the empty saucepan she’d cooked the grits in, along with a couple of inches of fresh water, and headed back to the creek. Where there’s one, there are bound to be more … and sure enough, another, and another, and several more, until seven of the critters were swimming around in the pot. Not enough for a meal, but enough for a taste. We were glad we’d kept the few bites of leftover cheese grits from breakfast, as they reheated nicely and were the perfect complement to our impromptu seafood snack! 


We took a little drive to town with Gg during the hottest part of the day, and found some ice cream to cool things down. It was a great little break from the heat, and then it was right back to the creek for some more adventures. The place was magnetic. Silas said the whole weekend, and since, that the water was his favorite part of the whole camping trip. He used his little yellow construction trucks to build “Silas Island”, a small pile of river rocks about 18” around where he sat and played for a good while. 



While scouting for flat rocks to skip, Ben spotted an arrowhead on the creek bank. Its tip had been broken, but there was no mistaking its shape. Our neighbor Tim was out fly fishing a little further up, and stopped by to have a look. He and Ben talked about arrowheads and the history of the area, and then we chatted with him and his wife, Lisa, for quite a while before dinner. They’re a few years older than us, so they were having trouble coming up with shared acquaintances, until we stumbled upon a former classmate of Ben's who also happens to be Lisa's sister-in-law. Small world! Lisa handles records for the police department, so we all had a few laughs over some crazy local news stories Ben remembered from the 80s. 

Gg had headed home sometime that afternoon, and we’d taken the opportunity to send a couple of the heaviest items home with her, including the camp stove and propane cylinder. We’d do the rest of our cooking on the fire. We roasted some sausage and sweet pepper skewers and ate as the sun set over the mountain again, then toasted some perfect golden mallows for s’mores. Silas ate half of one, but in the end he preferred his “meshmellows” and “chock-lick” straight out of the package. 


Once it was dark enough to see tons of stars, Ben grabbed his bike, flipped on his big, bright headlight, and said, “Hey buddy, wanna go for a ride?” Silas hopped into the sidecar, eyes wide and shining with excitement, and they headed off in the dark. After about 20 minutes, they were back at the fire, spooked and laughing nervously, talking about bears and all the other animals one could encounter on a trail at night. A bonding moment for sure! The day’s excitement had caught up with Silas by then, and soon he was snuggled up on Lisa’s lap next to the fire, and asked to lay down in the tent and go to sleep. After about 30 seconds in his sleeping bag, he was snoring. We adults weren’t too far behind. 


We woke up early, and while Silas continued to snore, we quietly packed up everything but the tent he was in. That went on top of the pile anyway. We wanted to hit the trail early to beat the heat, as it was going to get up over 90 by late morning. We had saved quick snacks like oranges and granola bars that didn’t require cooking, and instead of tea and coffee that morning we had water. Tim and Lisa stepped outside as we were just about packed and ready. He gave us his number in case of any problems on the trail. We said our goodbyes and headed for home. 


Fortunately things rolled even smoother on the way back and no emergency calls were needed. With the slightly lighter and better-balanced load, the trailer easily scaled the gravelly rise onto the paved trail, boding well for the remainder of the ride. As we had suspected, it was mostly downhill all the way back, so we kicked up some high gears and upbeat tunes and made really great time. There were a lot of people out on the trail, and Ben was shouting out extra-chipper greetings like, “Hey everybody!” to total strangers. As we passed two women coming the opposite direction, one of them suddenly yelled, “Is that the Clarks?!” We did a double-take. “Yes!” Lisa yelled over her shoulder, but that was all the conversation that was possible at that speed. The thick red braid told us that she had to be a friend from college who lives in the area but who we hadn't seen in quite a while, and a quick post on her Facebook page later that day would confirm it. 


Before we knew it, we’d cruised past both of the places we’d stopped along the way and were almost there already. The final hurdle was the detour, and while we had to drop down to our lowest gears and move slowly up that hill with our loads, we kept on riding and conquered it. We reached the truck just as the heat was really starting to come on, and boy, that a/c never felt so good! One more ice cream stop later, we were on the road home, with pictures and memories that we and our little happy camper will share forever. 

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