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 cafĂ© 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. 

You need a Coffee Brake!
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. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Memorial Day Wknd 2011--Honeycomb Campground

Honeycomb Campground is on the opposite shore of Lake Guntersville, the same lake as the State Park we camped at the year before, but facing east instead of west. The morning views were awe-inspiring to say the least.

We were so close to the shoreline that we could pull back the curtains and see nothing but water!

Friendly Canada geese seemed to like hanging out at our camp spot as much as we did.

One especially hot afternoon we drove over to Cathedral Caverns and spent a couple of refreshing hours in an underground tour of the caverns, which stay a pleasant 50-60 degrees year round. A steady stream of southern drawl from our guide, "Little Man", made the tour memorable. He sure knew and loved the place, and it didn't hurt that phrases like, "' stuff like 'at..." wove their way through the monologue.

This was the view up out of the mouth of the cave, on our way down underground.

Ben's family came up for a day. That was the day our one-year-old niece discovered watermelon. She probably ate a quarter of that melon all by herself. Between the juice and her teething slobber, she was sticky, pink, soaked from head to toe, and perhaps the happiest baby alive. Well, unless we tried to take her rinds away. We had to dunk her in the lake to clean her off.

Can't wait 'til a break in our schedule and the cooler fall weather to get back out there...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

She Rides Again - Memorial Day 2010

Memorial Day Weekend, 2010.
Lake Guntersville State Park. Primitive Camping.
80s during the day, 60s at night, with intermittent rain showers.
Cool, comfortable, gorgeous.

We had our giant American flag set up as the awning for the first day, until it rained enough to soak through it. It was pretty cool. Didn't manage to get pics of that before we replaced it with the old duct tape patched tarp, though - sorry!

Obviously we haven't had the time to do the overhaul we were hoping to have done before taking her back on the road, but heck. We have an Airstream. We're going camping.

A local family came around with a truckload of firewood for sale and we split a stack with our neighboring site. Our half was more than enough to get a couple of good fires roaring, and we still ended up bringing most of it home for the fire pit on our patio.

Ben's mom and granddad came to visit Sunday afternoon. We sat out under the awning as long as we could, until it poured buckets and our duct tape patches started leaking. Then we all moved inside to chat, nibble on dried fruit, nuts and japanese rice crackers, and listen to the pitter-patter on the aluminum roof. Aaaahhh.

Then Ben walked down to the edge of the water to capture the incredible after-the-rain sunset...

...while Lisa got cookin' on some fabulous camping food...

...Thai coconut curry noodles with chicken and Japanese eggplant...spicy enough to warm us up after a cool rainy day.

And we sat around the fire 'til long after dark, with full and happy tummies.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Home for Thanksgiving

We both thought that the Carlsbad Caverns were one of the biggest highlights of the trip. It's hard to believe when you're already 750 feet underground that there's a whole other cavern underneath you! Definitely want to go back someday and spend a weekend taking all the guided tours of the side rooms - crawling through spider caves, rickety wooden ladders down into the lower cave. If you ever want to do those ones though, just keep in mind that they have to be booked about 6 months in advance. Oh yeah, and don't leave your camera in your car... :-)

After doing that for the morning on Tuesday, we put in a long day of driving and made it almost to the East end of Texas. We had the kind of good sleep you get when you're tired. The next day, since we were already farther along than we'd planned to be, we decided to bypass our next stop too and just get there. So we drove all the way across Louisiana (added to Lisa's list of "States I've Been To" - #30!) and Mississippi and pulled up to Ben's brother Will and Laura's place in Birmingham about 5 pm. The guys went to the fish market for some salmon filets and grilled and smoked them for dinner. Yeeeaaahhhh. We were tired from the longer days of driving but it was all worth it to wake up on Thanksgiving morning surrounded by family.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Close Encounters of the Museum Kind

Well, we said goodbye to California on Saturday. Wait, make that Sunday. We left Tom's on Saturday and headed down the Pacific Coast Highway #1 to a camp spot right between Santa Barbara and Malibu. We just weren't ready to be done with the ocean just yet. Needed just one more day to spend along the coast.

We've stayed at a bunch of different kinds of places, still finding our groove, so to speak. After staying in a bunch of RV parks last month, mostly overrun by retirees in enormous modern houses on wheels (one couple even got up from their picnic table and went inside when we pulled up in our little old tin can in Little Rock on our way out here - can you believe it?!), we were happy for the more welcoming "vibe" of the campground.

Sure, there were RVs at the campground too, some using noisy generators, and around us rambunctious kids were playing, practically rocking their tents off their pegs (one even sneaked up behind Ben and scared the daylights out of him, then ran away giggling in delight). But everyone quieted down around 9 and things got really cozy. We boiled up some water over a campfire (which was a thrill for us because apparently people at RV parks don't need those - you have to trade in your campfire rights for electricity - what if you want both?) and had some soup and genmaicha (Japanese green tea...which reminds me, we're going to have to post some pics of the Japanese garden and koi pond we found in San Jose. For now, check the pics Ben posted on his Facebook page). Then we listened to the waves crash on the nearby shore as we drifted off to sleep. Nice.

On Sunday we made the long haul through the Mojave Desert that is Eastern California, and tried something different - we just pulled up to a rest stop outside Tucson, climbed into the Airstream and camped out in one of the pull-through RV spaces. The weather was nice and warm and we actually slept really well that night, despite trucks coming and going. In the morning I washed my hair in the rest stop bathroom in a tiny sink barely big enough to get my head into, under one of those faucets that you have to hold down a button the whole time to keep the water flowing. When you're on the road it just feels great to get fresh and clean, however you can!

Now it's Monday. We drove from Tucson to Las Cruces this morning, then up through the White Sands Missile Range to Roswell, home of conspiracies about UFO and alien landings. We hit the UFO museum just so we could say we did. There was stuff about close encounters of the first, second and third kinds (now we know the difference), crop circles, the 1947 "incident," even the Bermuda Triangle. I (Lisa) wanted to see some stuff that they actually found out there, some parts of ships, you know, stuff like that, but it was more of an exhibit of newspaper and magazine clippings, everything everyone said and reported and wrote about the subject - the kind of stuff you could be there reading for hours and still not come to any conclusions on your own about. I guess I was hoping for some kind of conclusive evidence to be revealed once and for all, the real story straight from the horse's mouth. But who's the horse here? Hmm.

Ben, on the other hand...well, let's just say his curiosity has been piqued. After Roswell we headed down to Carlsbad for the night, and for much of the 70-mile drive, I watched the sunset and the stars coming out, while Ben watched blinking lights and unidentified objects moving across the sky. And since we arrived, he's been conducting some online research of his own, right here in the Airstream in the RV park!

Yes, another RV park, near the Carlsbad Caverns park entrance. It's okay, this place may just have redeemed RV parks for us. The owners are really nice, really organized (she handed us a big packet of information explaining their park, the nearby town and attractions, codes we'd need to use the internet and other facilities, and more. I commended her on it. And...they have an indoor heated pool that was open until 10! Since it's November and low tourist season, we had the 8-foot-deep pool to ourselves and it was like a big warm bathtub, with steam rising off the surface into the cooler night air (the pool building's windows were open). It's supposed to get down to 29 degrees tonight (that's about -2 for all you Canadians), which is colder than we expected this close to Mexico, but since we're plugged into electricity tonight, we've got a great little school bus heater to keep us warm. I guess that's a fair trade for the campfire (or lack thereof) tonight...