Athens — Georgia not Greece

Face jug

Face jug

We have been hunkered down in the cold in Athens, Georgia for the past few weeks.  I did not intend to spend much time in cold weather on this trip and packed light when it came to long pants and warm coats.  So, I was under dressed for the cold spell (into the teens some nights) and spent more time in the trailer than I would have liked.  George just continued to wear shorts, except for one particularly cold night.  He’s tougher than I am.

Stuck inside

Stuck inside

We have been in Athens to visit our son and daughter-in-law and to catch up on routine medical visits.  The simple procedure of having your teeth cleaned becomes a lot more complicated when you are traveling.  Finding a reputable dentist who takes traveling patients, scheduling an appointment on short notice, and trying to just get a cleaning rather than the full blown “new” patient treatment is a challenge.  But, thanks to our daughter-in-law, we succeeded.

Trees in the dentist's parking lot

Trees in the dentist’s parking lot on a cold and windy day

The leaves have been at their peak.


Our old neighborhood, Avondale Estates–several inches of crunchy leaves to shuffle through.

We visited our old neighborhoods from our time living in Georgia in the 1990s.  And we went to one of our favorite places–the DeKalb Farmers’ Market.   It is a misleading name because it is not a mere farmers’ market, but a cavernous warehouse-like expanse filled with every edible product–animal, mineral, vegetable–that you could possibly want or imagine.  We hit it on a Saturday and it was absolutely packed with people from most corners of the world, seeking the food they like to eat.  And they probably found it.  If you like food and are ever in the vicinity of Decatur, Georgia, check it out.  I was dying to take pictures, but they were prohibited.      

My favorite sign in the area.  We passed it everyday near our campground.

This was not a sign for the farmers’ market, I just liked it.

One of my favorite things in Athens was the yoga.  I am new to yoga, having resisted anything to do with it for decades because it seemed too touchy-feely for me.   But, in an attempt to lessen my insomnia and to find another way to keep in shape on this trip, I took classes for a few months before we left Anchorage.  I usually avoid exercise classes and gyms—I like to exercise on my own.  But surprise—I loved it.  This was the first time on this trip that we have been in one place long enough for me to have the time to go to yoga classes.  I researched online and found a wonderful (donations only?!) yoga studio not far from the campground.  The people there were extraordinarily warm and welcoming.

Let it Be Yoga in Watkinsville

Let it Be Yoga in Watkinsville

Artwork inside the studio

Artwork with yoga

Athens itself is one of my favorite college towns.  The University of Georgia’s North campus runs right into the downtown, which is full of lovely old buildings and a wide variety of shops, bars, and businesses.


North Campus


North campus quadrangle

North campus quadrangle

In the 1970s and 80s, Athens was a musical petri dish, giving birth to groups such as REM and the B-52s.  I’m not sure how much music is generated there now, but the restaurants are thriving.  Hugh Acheson—the black browed chef with the caustic wit who often serves as a judge on Top Chef—has two restaurants in town.  We had a pretty amazing meal at his restaurant, the 5&10.




GA-3520141121_150321Our campground was full of Georgia football fans on the weekends with home games, but now is about half empty and everyone is cocooned inside their RVs.

A statue of UGA, the Georgia mascot, at the campground entrance

A statue of Uga, the Georgia mascot, at the campground entrance. Football is serious business here.

The countryside near Athens is rolling hills with woods, creeks, and pastures bordered by wide-branched hardwoods.  We drove to the Watson Mill State Park on a rare warm day.  It was almost deserted.


Watkins Mill covered bridge

Watson Mill covered bridge


Now we are getting ready for our first Thanksgiving in over ten years with both of our children and their families.  Sweet.


Happy Thanksgiving.             GA-126


Asheville Snapshot

ASH-13-3In western North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, there is a small city that looks like the east coast but feels like the west coast.  It’s Asheville, a dot of blue in a sea of red, with restaurants full of foodie delights, locally crafted beers, and hipster waiters—all looking disturbingly similar with their shaved heads and carefully coiffed bushy beards.

We left the trailer at our Georgia campground and drove to Asheville for an overnight at a bed and breakfast—a birthday present for me.  It seemed like the height of decadence—taking a vacation from our never-ending vacation road trip.  But after six months living primarily in campgrounds, it was oh-so-very-sweet to have a night in a city, with a bathtub to boot.


Asheville is unique.  Surrounded by the wooded, gentle peaks of the Appalachians, it’s an art deco town nestled in a valley created by the French Broad River (love the name).  Long touted for its healthy mountain air, Asheville was a center for tuberculosis (then commonly known as consumption) treatment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and a draw for a wide variety of alternative style folks in the past few decades.  It’s one of those places that attract the wealthy, talented, and quirky.  It’s the town where Thomas Wolfe grew up, Zelda Fitzgerald perished in a fire, and the Vanderbilts built a Gilded Age estate.  And, its fifty years of economic hard times after the Depression meant that there was little new development downtown, which resulted in largely untouched architecture since early last century.  An unintended but wonderful consequence that gave the town a time-capsule feel.



ASH-15-3The Asheville area has a schizophrenic quality.  Hendersonville, on one side, was home to the back-to-the-land Mother Earth News, while, in the other direction, Montreat, a beautiful, but eerily perfect-seeming woodsy enclave, was home to Christian religious retreats and Billy Graham.  In 2009, Asheville elected a “post-theist” city councilman and then sought to remove him based on North Carolina’s prohibition of atheists in elected offices (they eventually abandoned the effort).  The odd mix of people seems to work and keeps things interesting.


20141112_122817We spent our first afternoon exploring some of the area around Asheville, including taking a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  A true throwback, it is a roadway started by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that winds for hundreds of miles high through the mountains, with no clutter of signs or buildings and with limited access, sometimes without an exit for thirty miles or so.

The stone bridge is the Blue Ridge Highway as it passes near Asheville

The Blue Ridge Highway runs over this stone bridge near Asheville

No distractions, just road and woods.

No distractions, just road and woods.


The Blue Ridge Parkway has lots of tunnels in this area and roadbed carved out of hillside rock

The Blue Ridge Parkway has many tunnels in this area and a roadbed blasted out of hillside rock


In the afternoon, we settled into our B&B, which used to be a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients.  It was in a huge old house, with several outbuildings and, most importantly, within walking distance of downtown.

We spent most of our time walking around and eating.

20141112_122631We had excellent meals at two dog-friendly restaurants, sitting outside and watching the world of Asheville passing by.

Zoe has city manners now.

Zoe has city manners now.

The most bizarre spectacle was the pubcycle.  We could hear loud laughter and music before it appeared.  Then a contraption rounded the corner and headed up the street—an open-sided vehicle with six people on each side, facing each other across a bar, all while propelling themselves down the street by pedaling.  Unfortunately, I did not get a good picture, but these will give you some idea of this party-while-you-burn-calories vehicle.


Pubcycle.  Everyone was sitting on a bike seat and pedaling while they drank.

It drove by several times

From galloping consumption to pedaling consumption

It was fun to be in the city at night.


Our restaurant view. We had the outside seating to ourselves. It was a little cold for most people.

Pork parts

Pork parts

Santa smoking.  It's not a good nighttime shot, but the fuzzy quality makes it look like a painting

Santa smoking.

The temperature dropped when the sun went down and our walk back to the B&B was pretty chilly.  But we got to indulge in our first hot baths in six months.  What a luxury.  The next morning, we had a group breakfast in the ornate dining room and I further indulged in a sauna before we left.

Zoe got to sleep on the couch

Zoe got to indulge too with a sleep on the couch–with a blanket for that purpose provided by the B&B

Waiting for a three course breakfast

Waiting for a three course breakfast

We had intended to do more sightseeing and hiking that day, but it was frigid outside.  So we decided to drive back to Georgia by a scenic route through the mountains.  Big mistake.  We drove onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed up to over 5000 feet in elevation.  Unfortunately, that was high enough to be well into the cloud cover.  In all my years of driving, it was the worst visibility that I’ve ever experienced.  We could hardly see the road right in front of us.  After creeping along for about ten miles, and continuing to climb, we decided to turn around and head down into the valley.

Two days was not nearly enough time to explore the area.  We did not even get near the Biltmore Estate, did not take any hikes, and did not have time to visit the homemade potato chip store.  We will be back.



Hickory Wind — CCC in SC

croppedWe spent only two days in South Carolina after leaving Hunting Island.  We drove inland on back roads through small towns, decades past their prime, now emptying of people and sinking into decay.  We saw gas station after gas station sitting dead, with the last posted price of gas giving a sense as to how long they had been abandoned.  Whole areas looked like the backdrop for The Walking Dead.  It was pretty depressing.

Then, as we approached the outskirts of Aiken, South Carolina, we abruptly entered an oasis of prosperity.  Aiken is thoroughbred horse country, and suddenly there were acres and acres of neatly fenced pastures, state-of-the-art barns and paddocks, and shiny well-muscled horses.  There was, quite obviously, some money residing in Aiken.

Aiken was a storybook fantasy of a gracious southern town, with a picture-perfect downtown of thriving businesses, wide tree-shaded streets, multi-colored, multi-angled old houses, B&Bs, and tiny horse pictures on the street signs.  Scratch under the surface prettiness and dig around a little, who knows what dirt you may find, but, at first view, it was quite lovely.

We were not there to sample Aiken’s charms, however, just passing through.  We stayed at a small campground about fifteen miles out of town, Aiken State Natural Area, which we picked for one reason—it was there—at a convenient stopping point on our route to Georgia.


The backyard of our Aiken campsite

Zoe approved of the Aiken campground

Zoe approved of the campground

We knew very little about the campground, which can be a nice thing these days.  It’s easy to research a place to death ahead of time, wringing every bit of surprise out of new destinations.  It’s good to be surprised now and then.  And this little campground was a wonderful surprise–it felt like a forest retreat from an earlier era.  It was beautifully designed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.  The CCC was a New Deal public works program for unemployed, unmarried young men on relief, usually on conservation or natural resource-related projects.

Park bridge built by the CCC in Oregon

Small bridge built by the CCC in Sylvan Lake Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills

I have appreciated the CCC’s work since I rode on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I was young and I continue to be amazed by how widespread a mark they left—often with their signature stonework—and how beautifully their work has endured.

Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel--CCC construction

Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel–CCC construction

Did they enjoy the work—those young men—many hauled out to the country from their city homes, working in a military-like environment, and having to send most of their pay home?  I hope so.  And I hope that they had some inkling of how decades later, people like me would marvel at their work and give them a silent thank you for it.  A nice kind of immortality, I think.

The Aiken park headquarter's stairs.  I loved the curved end to the stone rail.

The Aiken park headquarter’s side stairs. I loved the curved end to the stone rail.

Not surprising for the times, I guess, the CCC was segregated and an African-American company created the Aiken State Natural Park.  They did it well.  It is a small park–but thoughtfully designed, beautifully executed, and now immaculately maintained.

Headquarter building fireplace area with chairs and porch overlooking a small lake.

Headquarters fireplace area with chairs and porch overlooking a small lake.

A road circles the park, with several ponds and recreation areas.  There is a small campground, a headquarters building, and canoeing on the Edisto River.

Park road

Park road

The campground also is laid out in a circle, with about twenty-five campsites around the circumference surrounded a grove of enormous pines.  There was no underbrush, just a carpet of pine needles, and a large campfire area with benches and a monster grill.

Campground.  We were the speck of red.

Campground pine grove. We were the speck of red on the left.

While there, we hit a cold snap that caught several groups of tent campers by surprise. They made roaring fires and bundled up.  In the morning, the campground smelled like bacon, wood smoke, and pine—a sweet combination. But I was happy we had our cozy trailer and weren’t having to leave the comfort of warm sleeping bags to emerge to frigid tents and shivering around the fire.  Been there, done that.

The park road was a nice walk, with sassafras and hickory in full color.  When I was young, I used to dig sassafras root for tea—it was my favorite.


I moved to Alaska soon after sassafras was identified as a carcinogen and sassafras does not grow there, so I stopped drinking it.  In a few more years, I intend to start digging the roots and drinking the tea again.  At some point, you should be too old to have to worry about carcinogens anymore.

Mitten-shaped sassafras leaves.

Sassafras and pine.



Spanish moss

Spanish moss

There is a little dock on the Edisto River for launching canoes.  The Edisto is a black water river, sluggish, and stained by tannins to a dark coffee color.  The dark color made the tree reflections especially vivid.

The sleepy Edisto

The sleepy Edisto

Blackwater reflections

Blackwater reflections.  Looked like a painting.

Near the dock was an artesian spring overhung by a huge camellia bush in full flower.  Pink camellia petals were strewn all around the moss of the spring.  Just as I wondered about the people who constructed the stonework and buildings of the park, I wondered who it was that had to foresight to plant that camellia.



IMG_3894Thanks CCC.


Princess of Tides — Hunting Island, South Carolina, Part II.

IMG_3477Zoe was bred to be a water dog.  And she is true to her breed, following her nose to any body of water large enough for a swim.  But in Alaska, she mostly swam in fresh water and did not have many opportunities to be an ocean beach bum.  She was blissful during our week on Hunting Island–salty, soggy, and smiling–with twice-daily romps in the waves–often with no one else around.

Hunting Island-117We all spent most of our time on the beach.  It was about four miles long and wasn’t just an ordinary stretch of sand.  The more we walked, the more we discovered.  The campground was near the north end of the beach and a walk to the north often meant solitude.


Looking north at low tide.  Just Zoe.


Curve where north end meets the estuary

After about half a mile the beach ends, curving around into the tidal estuary.  There were lots of shells, and some sand dollars and sharks’ teeth.  We saw a few horseshoe crabs, which intrigued Zoe.


You can see the crab legs working--a push up and forward, then hunker down.

These prehistoric-looking crabs move ponderously.  The legs push the shell up, stalky eyes peer ahead, it scoots forward a bit, then hunkers down, to slowly repeat the process.

Where the campground abutted the beach, there often were several people shore casting and they were actually catching fish.  So were the dolphins, which trolled back and forth offshore, accompanied by gulls, in what looked like fertile fishing grounds.


A redfish. I was told it was too big to keep because it’s spawning size.

Heading south on the beach, there was a sandy expanse inshore with a minnow-rich marsh pond, a resident egret, scores of crabs, and deer and raccoon tracks crisscrossing the sand.


But the most intriguing part of the beach was the drowned forest, where the sea has encroached on the trees, leaving a ghostly landscape of the skeletons of palms, pines, and hardwoods surrounded by sand and water.

Hunting Island-103Hunting Island-115Hunting Island-120Hunting Island-116Hunting Island-406Except at full low tide, it was difficult to round the point of live trees bordering the drowned forest, so we would take a path through the woods to get to the next part of the beach.

Hunting Island-113

The path’s tall trees were full of woodpeckers and one day while watching the birds, I startled two good-sized beetles rolling a dog turd down the center of the path, trying to navigate the roots. I felt like I was watching a Nature Channel show on African dung beetles.


It was utterly fascinating.  They worked together quite effectively and had gnats hitchhiking on their backs, apparently waiting for their turn at the table.  We found that quite a few people at Hunting Island did not clean up after their dogs.  A shame, but, in this case, it made some beetles and gnats very happy.

The path was short, leading back to the beach and the Hunting Island lighthouse.  A black and white beauty–it’s open to the public for a bargain price of $2.00.

Hunting Island-108

IMG_3548During the week we were there, the caretakers were trying to kill wasps that had nested on the top near the light.  As we ascended the steps the smell of insecticide got stronger and the surviving wasps were still swarming around the outside walkway at the top.  It made the trip up a little extra exciting.  George ran up and down the nine flights of steps for exercise several times during the week.
IMG_3551Hunting Island-106

Window almost at the top

Window view — almost to the top

Spectacular views from the top

Above the trees at the top

Emerging from the lighthouse area, there are many more miles of beach, strung right along the dense palm and pine forest.  It was just stunning.

Hunting Island-123


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Sandcastle on walk headed south

Sandcastle on walk headed south

And an hour later on the way back

And an hour later on the way back almost erased by the tide

We never made it all the way to the southern end of the beach.

Hunting Island-207


Hunting Island-119

Hunting Island-414



Low tide, high tide, it’s all good to Zoe.

Lowcountry Boiled

Hunting Island-507

Several hours of driving South Carolina’s spine-jarring, pot-holed Interstate 95 brought us to another world.  In those hours, we went from North Carolina’s crowded Wilmington coast–much of which looked like any other suburban part of the country–to Hunting Island, a state park in a unique and relatively unspoiled area of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.  It is a place heavy with history, beauty, and humidity.

Hunting Island-101

After leaving the interstate, we passed through lovely Beaufort, South Carolina (a worthy destination itself).  We drove on through salt marshes, golden with cordgrass, and sandy pine barrens and farmland on St. Helena Island until we came to a very narrow bridge to Hunting Island.  St. Helena does not allow gated communities or condominium developments and generally has maintained its rural feel, with small farms, lots of trailers and rickety houses, shrimp boats, and some funky tourist shops and restaurants.

Hunting Island-204


I cannot do justice to the area’s unique history in a short blog post.  But, to give a few highlights, it was a popular stop-over for pirates, the descendants of its plantation slaves developed a unique and rich Gullah culture, and it’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “I have a dream” speech.


Hunting Island and Fripp Island are the yin and yang outer barrier islands.  Hunting is a state park with a campground on miles of undeveloped beach and neighboring Fripp is a gated resort community.  They serve different demographics, but the ebb and flow of sand and water on each island is affected by what is done on the other.

Hunting Island’s state park is the state’s most popular and we had to book our campground reservations months in advance.  Nevertheless, we were surprised at the line for check in, a first on this trip.  The park was fully booked, even during the week in October.

There was a southern coast T@B gathering while we were there

There was a southern coast T@B gathering while we were there

The roads in the campground are notorious for their narrowness and tight turns through trees, but the turns were overshadowed by the sight of an enormous spider web spanning the road overhead with a large (three to four inches across) yellow spider sitting in the middle waiting for her prey.  She was impressive.  We settled into our jungle-like site and were promptly attacked by swarms of pesky little gnats.

Hunting Island-508

Hunting Island-125

Our first days were buggy and humid, humid, humid.  It was the type of humidity that makes you feel sticky just sitting at the computer.  Hot, humid, and buggy—we were not in Alaska anymore.  But, as in Alaska, the seafood was extraordinary.  We hit the local fish market, Gay’s, and brought home fresh local shrimp, scallops, and mahi.  The roadside farm market was next, where we bought tomatoes, squash, purple sweet potatoes and a Gullah melon for what, to us, was the amazingly low price of $8.00.  The sweet potatoes ended up hatching insects and I’m not sure what was “Gullah” about the watermelon, but it was delicious.

Hunting Island-303


We also bought some little handmade sweet grass baskets from a woman selling them in her front yard.  She said her grandchildren helped make them.  They smelled like fields of ripe grass.

We saw egrets, dolphins, deer, an alligator, and a vast mudscape of crabs along the marsh boardwalk.

Hunting Island-200


Marsh boardwalk

Marsh boardwalk, first section

Marsh boardwalk, second section, the mud on the right was the crab neighborhood

Marsh boardwalk, second section, the mud on the right was the crab neighborhood

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Hunting Island-211

A little guy on the rim of his mud hole

Hunting Island-511There were some downsides.  The campground was beautiful and lush, but badly in need of a clean up.  Our campsite was covered with cigarette butts and the previous residents cleaned up after their dog but then left the bag in the fire ring.  Lovely present.

Hunting Island-415

There were some grim, worn-out looking people at the campground who had a “don’t mess with me” edge to them.  One couple had a “Confederate Parking Only—If you don’t like it, go back North” sign at their campground, flew a large confederate flag, sported a car plastered with inflammatory bumper stickers, and had two abused-looking dogs barking at the end of short leashes as if they wanted to devour every passerby. Our across-the-road neighbor treated George to a jacked-up tirade about what is wrong with this country, which was mostly a litany of things that he passionately despised.  In passing by, I interjected that his view of the Constitution was not exactly accurate (I couldn’t help myself). I imagine that I added a new category to his list of things to despise—uppity Alaskan women.

Sun filtering through the leaves and woodsmoke

Sun filtering through the leaves and woodsmoke

There were some funny aspects to the campground, too.  Drinking was supposedly prohibited, but the gift shop offered at least a dozen different types of shot glasses.  And one night we heard our neighbor, an elderly guy with a booming voice, telling stories at the campfire, one of which ended with, “and then he lit a fire in the fireplace and the snakes came out and got him.”  I wish I had heard the rest of the story.

By far the best part of Hunting Island, however, was the glorious beach—miles and miles of it.  But that will have to wait until the next post.


Hunting Island-316