A Year on the Road, Distilled

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Last May, we left Alaska and ventured out on a year-long (give or take) RV trip.  It has been a unique year in our lives—no work, no house, no obligations, no agenda, lots of change.  IMG_1941Some parts of the trip were expected, other parts were a surprise.  We did not have any epiphanies and I don’t think we changed much.  In fact, we knew ourselves pretty well in planning this as a year-long trip.  The length was just right for us.  Road fatigue is starting to set in and we are eager to settle into a community again, get our hands in some soil, dive into some creative projects, and do some serious cooking.  So, in another week or so we will park our trailer and move into a sweet little hillside house with an expansive view.  Our no-longer-new truck will start hauling lumber, compost, and tools for building projects and gardens.

Our truck one year later in Belfast, Maine.  It's enjoying a gorgeous oceanfront site and waits patiently while we eat fresh steamers and fried clams at the campground's restaurant.

Our truck, one year later, in Belfast, Maine. It’s enjoying a gorgeous oceanfront site and stands by while we eat fresh steamers and fried clams at the campground’s restaurant.

We covered a lot of territory this past year.  Our truck logged over 31,000 miles and we traveled through 23 states with the trailer (26 with the truck) and 2 Canadian provinces.

Alaska's Glenn Highway

Alaska’s Glenn Highway

A typical Zoe pose on this trip, nose high, sniffing for info.

A typical Zoe pose at every part of this trip, nose high, sniffing for info.

We saw a staggering amount of beauty out our truck’s windows, at our campgrounds, and on day trips.

Cassiar Highway, Yukon Territory

Cassiar Highway, Yukon Territory

Lovely Dubois, Wyoming campground view

Lovely Dubois, Wyoming campground view

Boston

Boston

We gawked at and photographed mountains, ocean, farmland, and city architecture.

Oregon's Painted Hills

Oregon’s Painted Hills

Idaho's amazing Sawtooth Mountains

Idaho’s Sawtooths (such a good name)

The Tetons

The Tetons

Zoe enjoying Cape Cod

Zoe enjoying Cape Cod

Hunting Island, South Carolina.

Hunting Island, South Carolina.

Hills above Oroville, Washington

Hills above Oroville, Washington

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Pennsylvania

Charleston

Charleston

We hunkered down through an extended bout of cold weather, forcing us to spend hours inside our tiny home, mostly reading and watching some really addictive (and mostly excellent) TV series (Orange is The New Black, The Vikings, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, House of Cards, Luther, The Walking Dead, Fargo FX, The Black Mirror (yes, we have eclectic taste and spent many evening hours in really cold, wet nasty weather, confined in a small trailer in remote campgrounds when it’s too cold to be outside)).

We met a variety of people—but not a wide variety—most were white and middle aged or retired.  Some were interesting and engaging, others … not so much.  We stayed in state and provincial parks, national forests, private RV parks, RV “resorts,” beach cottages (during George’s shoulder surgery rehab) and relatives’ driveways.

A slice of paradise, Lake Meziadin Provincial Park. British Columbia

A slice of paradise, Lake Meziadin Provincial Park. British Columbia

Horse at Dubois, Wyoming private campground

Horse at Dubois, Wyoming private campground

Neighborhood at Pennsylvania campground in Amish country

Neighborhood at Pennsylvania campground in Amish country

St. Simons

St. Simons

We knew the road trip/camping routine pretty well, having driven to Alaska and back from the Lower 48 several times over the years and having traveled around Alaska with an RV and a trailer.  But, it had been about twenty years since we had camped outside of Alaska and we were not entirely prepared for the sheer number of people RVing these days.  The roads and campgrounds were crowded, sometimes oppressively so (I know, we’ve lived in Alaska too long).

The biggest surprise—and disappointment—for me on this trip was how difficult it now is to camp without reservations.  It’s all about reservations these days.  Some state parks take them a year in advance and people hover online waiting to pull the trigger at a minute past midnight for their favorite campsites for the year.  And, once school gets out in the summer, forget it—if you don’t make reservations for the weekend, you likely will be searching for a Walmart parking lot or staying in some decrepit RV park next to hollow-eyed, meth-ridden neighbors in a rusty trailer that looks as if it hasn’t seen a highway in twenty years.  The necessity of planning out routes and destinations far in advance has sucked much of the spontaneity and freedom out of Rving—at least during the summer.  It’s a shame.  Moving when you want, where you want, at ANY TIME you want, is at the heart of a good road trip.

The Sawtooths

The Sawtooths before the summer rush.

Idaho's Redfish lake--this was an unplanned visit, and it worked because it was in May.  Later in the season, it would have been packed.

Idaho’s Redfish lake–this was an unplanned visit, and it worked because it was in May. Later in the season, it would have been packed.

Another thing we didn’t expect was the abysmal state of so many roads, bridges, and highways.  Some states were worse than others (Pennsylvania and South Carolina come to mind), taking a pounding from heavy truck traffic, which makes it even more stressful to drive.  There’s nothing like hitting a long series of crater-like potholes while travelling 65 miles an hour towing a trailer, while a massive truck barrels and sways along beside, sucking you into its turbulence.  Sweet.

Crowds and crappy roads aside, some things are a vast improvement from two decades ago.  I felt almost a personal bond with the modern joys of back up cameras (with a microphone no less, I didn’t have to appear as a screeching harridan giving back up directions into a tight site), tire pressure monitors, and RV GPS.  It’s a harsh world for Luddites these days (oops, your RV won’t fit through this 1910 tunnel, try turning around, sucker!).  I proudly embrace any stress-reducing technology out there, including phone apps for weather alerts and radar so that you will know when a killer tornado is heading your way.  Not that there’s much of anything you can do about it in a trailer.

Lobstah.

Lobstah.

I’m fatter and happier than I was a year ago.  As a warning to anyone contemplating a long road trip—it’s hard to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly when you are traveling.  We’re looking forward to some good eats and being less slug-like when we get into our house.  We will take many more road trips, but none quite like this.  This one was essentially a year-long celebration of retirement.  It was a sweet, fascinating interlude.

Dubois, Wyoming.  Loved it.

Dubois, Wyoming. Loved it.

Petroglyphs in Dubois hills

Petroglyphs in Dubois hills

Devil's Tower

Devil’s Tower

Hiking in the Black Hills, South Dakota

Hiking in the Black Hills, South Dakota

One of my favorite places on the trip--the Badlands

One of my favorite places on the trip–the Badlands

Small town Pennsylvania

Small town Pennsylvania

Florida Anhinga

Florida Anhinga

I don’t know if I will continue blogging.  I expect to be immersed in setting up our new life in a new place and don’t know if I will have the time or desire to blog.  If I do, obviously, it won’t be a road trip blog anymore, but will focus on exploring Maine, gardening, building stuff, and—of course—Zoe.  In any case, I will be taking a blogging break while we settle into our house and then I will see how I feel.

Our next-to-the-last campground in Belfast, Maine.  A fittingly beautiful, and chilly campsite

Our next-to-the-last campground in Belfast, Maine. A fittingly beautiful, and chilly campsite

I’ve enjoyed blogging immensely on this trip.  Thanks for coming along.IMG_0288

A Surreal Morning in Fredericksburg

IMG_9404One of the bloodiest slaughters in the Civil War occurred on the gentle slope of a hillside peach orchard in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  I knew that my great-great-grandfather, George Kriebel, died at Fredericksburg, but did not know any details.  I now know where and how he likely died.

We left Huntington Island State Park in late March with the goal of arriving in Maine on April 1 to start house hunting.  The weather was a challenge.  Below-freezing temperatures and snow hounded us all the way north.  IMG_9430We were in the vanguard of snowbirds heading north and most campgrounds were still closed.  But we found an open KOA in Fredericksburg and could not resist the opportunity to stay an extra day to visit the battlefield.

Zoe, being an Alaskan girl, was thrilled with the cold weather and celebrated her 11th birthday with a new ball.  IMG_9402There is something about the ball-within-a-ball that is all-kinds-of-awesome for Zoe.  She turned into a puppy again, especially because she got to enjoy it (off leash) at a nearly empty campground.  She was able to accompany us to the battlefield, too, so we all set off on an ugly, gray morning, with spitting rain.

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The Battlefield Restaurant

The Fredericksburg area has long been industrialized and developed and it takes some work to envision what it looked like in the 1860s.  IMG_9427The battlefield park feels like a sliver of green carved out of an unattractive, sprawl of old houses and decaying businesses.  I stupidly messed up the directions and we drove the length of the park before we found the visitors’ center.

A young man greeted us at the front desk of the visitors’ center, handing us the standard informational brochures.  His eyes lit up and he grinned when I asked if I could find out any details of George Kriebel’s fate–he said that he LOVED doing such research, it was the best part of the job.  He sent us down to watch a movie on the battle while he consulted their records.

We learned that George Kriebel was part of the bloody suicidal assault on Marye’s Heights–in which wave after wave of Union forces were ordered forward across an open field with no cover or protection to almost certain death.

This (now reconstructed) stone wall provided nice cover for the Confederate army to shoot down on the Union troops below.

This (now reconstructed) stone wall (also called the sunken road) provided cover for the Confederate army to shoot down on the Union troops below.

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A view of the stone wall from lower on the hillside

They were decimated by bullets and artillery mowing them down from the hillside above.  This grotesque squandering of lives resulting from the muddled mismanagement of the “Butcher of Fredericksburg,” General Ambrose Burnside–a man of flamboyant, bushy whiskers (sideburns were named for him) and the first president of the National Rifle Association.

Artillery posts higher above the sunken road, higher on the hill.

Artillery posts above the sunken road, higher on the hill.

Our young man researcher was joined by an older woman staff member–also greatly interested in helping us–who pulled out the battleground maps to show us exactly where Kriebel’s unit was in the battle.

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George Kriebel’s unit would have been to the left of the Stratton house in this picture.

We followed her directions to the Stratton house and then to the area where George Kriebel likely died.

Photo of the Stratton house after the battle

Photo of the Stratton house after the war.

This exhibit in the visitors' center tried to depict the scant cover--a wooden fence and a house--available to the Union troops at Marye's

This exhibit in the visitors’ center tried to depict the scant cover–a wooden fence and a house–available to the Union troops trying to assault Marye’s heights.

The Stratton house now.

The Stratton house today.

It is full of oldish square houses, a working class neighborhood now.  It was a peach orchard then.  A bizarre wartime grave for a man whose grandson and great grandson would be fruit growers.  I hope he died fast and didn’t lie there, suffering, in a mass of bloody, groaning bodies.

This neighborhood now covers the area in which George Kriebel likely died.

This neighborhood now covers the area in which George Kriebel and thousands of other Union soldiers died.

Oddly enough, this was the street next to the Stratton house.

Oddly enough, this was the street next to the Stratton house.

Who knows where he was eventually buried.  He was not one of those identified for burial in the battlefield cemetery.

Fredericksburg cemetery--it holds a small portion of those who died there

Fredericksburg cemetery–with the graves of identified dead

He was thirty-eight years old and left his wife and four children.  Emma, his youngest, and my great-grandmother, was only seven when he died.

It was a sobering morning.  It’s hard to really imagine the massive death visited on what was a small, lovely town and local farm fields and woods.  I came away with the core thought that war sucks.IMG_941520150326_113926

Kid Stuff

It looks like he's conducting the waves.

Before leaving St. Simons at the end of the month to continue our travels, we wanted to see our kids again.  Fortunately, the cottage we rented this month—one of the few available on short notice—is a large, rambling, old barn of a place, with several random additions.  Too big for George, me, and Zoe, but providing plenty of room for company.

Unfortunately, the weekend that my son, his wife, and her parents came down for a visit was by far the coldest that we have had here.  While Alaskan friends are bemoaning record high temperatures and lack of snow, the lovely arctic cold that they crave muscled its way down here with a whipping wind that made it too frigid to do anything outside.  We visited the lighthouse museum, drove around neighboring Jekyll Island, with its Gilded Age “cottages” (“they’re pretty … it’s freezing … let’s get back in the car”), and ate well.

Jekyll Island Club, a Gilded Age private winter retreat for the world's wealthiest, including the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans

Jekyll Island Club, a Gilded Age private winter retreat for the world’s wealthiest, including the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans

Patterns of live oaks seen from the lighthouse above.

Live oak branches seen from the lighthouse above.

Although the frigid temperatures abated a bit, it was still pretty nippy when our daughter arrived with our grandkids several days later.  Still, it was warmer than their home in North Carolina, where it was cold enough to snow, keeping school closed for days. Having been homebound all week, the kids had energy to burn and, despite the arctic-like conditions, were ecstatic to be on the beach.

IMG_7268IMG_7280The next day, we visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, a rehabilitation center for injured and ill sea turtles, and—most importantly for us—a warm indoor sanctuary from the cold.

From babies.

From babies.

We arrived at the turtle hospital’s feeding time, with a presentation on all of the current turtle residents, most of whom were there for cold shock, boat propeller strikes, and fishing line entanglement.

to big boys.

to big boys.

Then we all happily wandered around the educational section, which was filled with interactive exhibits geared for kids (and adults) of all ages.  It was well worth the visit.

Next morning, the temperature eased, so we drove over to Fort King George on the mainland in Darien for a little history. The Fort, which sits on the Altamaha River marshes, has been reconstructed as an outdoor museum.  It originally was built in 1721, as the southernmost British outpost in the Americas. IMG_7360Its soldiers died like flies from malaria, dysentery, and lack of provisions.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they were described as a discontented, undisciplined, wild group of indolent alcoholics. Apparently, Fort King George was not a popular posting.

The blockhouse

The blockhouse, palisades, and moat.

But we loved it.  The Fort museum is a throwback to a time when kids were able to play and explore without constant paranoia over imagined dangers in every activity. After paying our entry fee at the museum store, the kids were able to choose wooden muskets or pistols to use while running around the Fort pretending they were soldiers.  And run around and pretend they did.

With musket and bucket, after surveying the marsh from the top of the block house.

With musket and bucket for musket balls, the kids could scope out the landscape for potential invaders from the top of the block house.

View from the blockhouse

Looking out the blockhouse window

Everyone–including kids and dogs—is allowed to wander, climb, and poke around in the buildings and grounds to their hearts’ content, without tour guides or restrictions.

Ladders!

Ladders to climb.

Guardhouses to explore.

Guardhouses to explore.

Patrolling the palisades (actually this was one restricted area--he wasn't supposed to be there).  Soon remedied.

Palisades to patrol.  Oops, he wasn’t supposed to be up there–one of the few restricted areas–soon remedied.

A small group of reenactors was living there for the weekend, not putting on a show, but just going about their daily activities.  It was a playground of history—just amazing.  The kids were in heaven.

They had just finished breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the hearth.

They had just finished breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the hearth.

Pumping the bellows at the blacksmith shed.

Pumping the bellows at the blacksmith shed.

Chain mail for the kids to touch and feel its weight and texture

Chain mail for the kids to touch and feel its weight and texture

The barracks,  You can just see George (with Zoe) at the end of the table.

The barracks. You can just see George (with Zoe) at the end of the table.

Zoe enjoyed it, too.  She was allowed in all the buildings, full of intriguing smells.  She thoroughly sniffed the food smells at the baking shed and then settled in by the chimney.   She can spot a kitchen with good food anywhere.

IMG_7380I loved all of the angles and textures.

IMG_7328IMG_7415IMG_7374IMG_7358We left tired and happy.  The bliss track continued the next morning, with some final–much warmer–time on the beach, where the waves churned up impressive foam.  IMG_7456IMG_7473IMG_7448IMG_7433

Waters Shaking

IMG_7014We took a day trip yesterday to Okefenokee—a swamp with a percussive Native name roughly translated as “land of the trembling earth,” or “waters shaking.”  The swamp’s name refers to its peat bog, which is neither dry land, nor part of the water, but a sponge-like floating habitat, that squishes and quivers as you walk upon it.  Okefenokee is a vast expanse of protected land–a National Wildlife Refuge–on Georgia’s southern border, with a romantically gloomy cypress swamp at the western entrance and upland swamp islands on the eastern edge.

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We visited the western side years ago, so chose the eastern entrance for this trip.  Although the day was sunny and mild, the southern version of winter was hanging on, so it was very quiet, with few visitors, a skeleton staff, and little visible wildlife.  The quietness contributed to its stark beauty, though, with tall longleaf pine forests–burned over by wild fires or intentional burns that are necessary to maintain the pine ecosystem—very still except for birdsong and hammering woodpeckers.

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OF Feb-120The drive from St. Simons to the swamp took only a little over an hour, but brought us from the affluent coast to a sparsely populated inland area with pockets of heart-wrenching poverty.  The area’s housing consisted mostly of stark rows of rickety, weathered trailers that no one should have to live in.

The area used to be inhabited by hundreds of people logging the swamp’s old-growth cypress, with a system of railroad cars and waterways for transporting the logs and lumber out of the swamp, and by homesteaders, scratching out a living on the sandy flats.  At the swamp’s eastern gate, the Chesser family’s homestead cabin has been preserved as a museum.  It was like stepping into Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ book, The Yearling, although this area is farther north than her home place in Florida.

Walking through the pines to the homestead.

Walking through the pines to the homestead.

Robins singing their hearts out

Robins singing at the sky.  Time to find a mate.

The homestead’s yard was swept white sand, with no vegetation, to keep down the fire danger and discourage bugs, snakes, and other crawly and hopping creatures from coming into the house.

Chesser homestead cabin and yard.

Chesser homestead cabin and yard.

Chesser portrait photo on the wall--I love it.

Chesser portrait photos on the wall–I loved this one.

The homestead was nicely furnished with period pieces.

The homestead was fully furnished and felt pretty authentic.

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For natural aerial bug control, the homestead had gourd nests for martins, swooping birds that feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects.

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After the Chesser homestead, we walked a boardwalk that extends three-quarters of a mile out into the swamp.

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Seen from the tower

The burnt-over pines created a wonderfully eerie landscape, especially in the areas with standing water, which reflected back the stumps and contorted tree remains and had its own colorful water plants and algae.

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It's not easy to see where the water (and the reflection) begins.

It’s not easy to see where the water (and the reflection) begins.

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

The boardwalk ended at a viewing tower surrounded by tall moss-hung skeleton trees.  Dreamlike.IMG_6992

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We only dipped our toes into a tiny edge of the park.  Dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks or in boats on the water (they’re alligator bait–so tasty).  Next time, perhaps we will leave Zoe at home, take the plunge, rent a canoe, and really explore.

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Old Friends, Old Fort, Old House

IMG_4916Our days have fallen into a rhythm during our roadtrip time-out on St. Simons. We have leisurely mornings with coffee and the computer, followed by lots and lots of exercise, physical therapy for George’s shoulder, yoga for me, beach walks, town walks, exploring, good eats, reading, planning for our trip west, and thinking about our plans for when the trip ends.

IMG_4733The rhythm was happily interrupted by two unexpected visits with old friends, who by chance were in the area. One friend has lived in the Brazilian Amazon for decades and, aside from a brief visit thirty years ago, we had not seen each other in about forty years. She was visiting her parents in Florida and drove up here for an overnight visit. The other friend lives in Colorado and I had not seen her since eighth grade. Really. She was on St. Simons with family over the New Year and found time to meet up with me over coffee and lunch. It was oddly bizarre and quite wonderful to see them again. And it would not have happened if we had not taken this stop for George’s surgery. A little sweet side compensation.

Sydney Lanier Bridge

The weather has been all over the place. We had a severe storm and tornado watch that fizzled into nothing more than a brief rain that filled the gutters and then stopped. We’ve had fog again, and some gorgeous sun.

IMG_4685IMG_4965IMG_4712We took advantage of a sunny day to visit Fort Frederica a few miles up island.  We didn’t realize that it was dog friendly, but sure enough, Zoe was welcome.  We have been there before and continue to return because it is one of those places that–as George says–fires the imagination. There is not much there now, but it is easy–especially when you have time and no one is around–to visualize what it might have been like in its brief, vibrant existence. The Fort was established in 1736 as a British outpost laying claim to the area against the pesky Spanish.

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Remains of Fort Frederica barracks

The battery

The battery

The settlement was headed by James Oglethorpe and was intended to be a new start for landless poor and those held in British debtors’ prisons, bringing the diverse and skilled artisans and farmers necessary to provide for the needs of the town and troops. Oglethorpe also welcomed religious reformers including John and Charles Wesley, founders of modern Methodism (on an interesting side note, Charles wrote over 6000 hymns including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (how he found the time to eat is a mystery)). Fort Frederica had cannons, bibles, and a vision.

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Well … not surprisingly, things did not work out as expected. The Wesleys did not last long.  Charles hated Frederica and the settlers apparently didn’t care much for him either.  He left after a few months.  John left Georgia the next year after being haled into court for refusing communion to a woman who had spurned his courtship and married another man (he was perceived as vindictive–no surprise there). He quickly and quietly left the colony before the trial.

Frederica itself ceased to exist after the military regiment was disbanded in 1749 and a fire destroyed most of the remaining buildings about ten years later.IMG_4842

But, somehow, even though little is left of Frederica, when you walk among the old townsite, it is easy to envision it. The town was laid out on a grid that is still visible. The main street ended at the water and the foundations of the buildings remain. The park service has done a nice job in describing the buildings and their residents, with vivid details from first hand accounts.

Looking down Fort Frederica's main street to the battery on the marsh

Looking down Fort Frederica’s main street to the battery on the marsh

House foundations along the streets

House foundations along the streets

The Fort’s setting was strategic, but it’s also exquisitely beautiful, fronting miles of marshland.

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The remains of the battery and Sidney Lanier Bridge in the haze

The foundation of the courthouse with an marshside view.

The foundation of the courthouse with a marsh side view.

Near the Fort is Frederica’s Christ Church, dating from the 1800’s, and its cemetery in which many of the islands’ early settlers are buried.

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The cemetery was full of huge camellias draped with Spanish moss

The cemetery was full of huge camellias draped with Spanish moss

The church looks like something out of a fairy tale.

IMG_4860IMG_4881After our visit to the Fort yesterday, I took a walk along the marsh and unexpectedly witnessed an old yellow cottage that I had admired, with roof angles and a spacious front yard, being torn down. It was painful to watch. For all I know, the house was a termite-infested, rotting hulk of mold and deserved destruction. But it was so lovely, settled into its lot like it had grown there. St. Simons still retains many of its beach cottages, all different, many with beautiful design lines, others more on the practical or quirky side. Slowly, but surely, they are being torn down, to be replaced, mostly, by bloated ticks of houses, filling every bit of the lot and its view.

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We are expecting a hard frost tonight, which brings out garbage bags, bedsheets and other interesting plant covers.

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Hunkered down

 

A Sodden Solstice or Daughters of the Cold War

20141221_102247A year ago, I took the picture below on a midday walk along Cook Inlet in Anchorage on winter solstice.  As you can see, it was a dark, dreary day.

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This year, I took the picture below on a mid-morning winter solstice walk considerably farther south and east, along the Atlantic coast on St. Simons, Georgia.  As you can see, it was a dark, dreary day.  The palm tree is an improvement, though.

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We have been staying close to home (our little rental cottage) this past week as George recovers from rotator cuff surgery.  He had the surgery on December 15 and it seems to have gone very well.  The only glitch in the recovery so far has been a raging sore throat ulcer from the anesthesia tube.  George has his first follow-up on the shoulder tomorrow and we will know more then about recovery time.

While he has been healing, the weather has been unseasonably cold, with low clouds, intermittent drizzle or steady rain, and a biting wind.  Zoe loves it–she’s a cold weather dog–and I enjoy my beach walks in all weather, but photo opportunities have been few and far between.

Because all of my recent photos were variations on gray gloom, I will try to make this post vaguely informative on the topics of vegetable, animal, mineral, and the truly bizarre.  First, vegetable–even in the gray gloom, the vegetation here is startling.  If you fall asleep for too long, you may be in danger of waking up with plant tendrils creeping across your body.  The Spanish moss seems to take on a life of its own, draping everything from live oaks to orange trees.  It is an epiphyte—drawing its sustenance from the air—not the trees it inhabits.  Still, it really knows how to move in on a host.  It is gruesome and gorgeous at the same time.

The moss is taking over these citrus trees.

The moss is taking over these citrus trees.

Left unchecked, the ivy also runs rampant, covering and ultimately breaking down everything in its path.

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On the animal side, this may be the doggiest place we have visited so far.  These beautiful golden retrievers were waiting for their owner with the top down in a mini-Cooper convertible in the grocery store parking lot, in full Santa regalia.

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They appeared to feel that the costumes were undignified and below their proper status.  I agree.

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The beach is a dog playground.  If you don’t like dogs, you are out of luck.  This dog tribute was below a holiday-decorated driftwood tree on the beach.

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In a jarring contrast with the dog-love atmosphere, the sidewalk drainage grates are potential dog leg crackers.  The grates have enormous openings, just perfect for a dog’s leg to go straight in—first it’s a gotcha, then try to move and it’s a crunch.

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So far, Zoe has carefully walked around them, but I hope she will not be distracted by the multitude of roaming cats and accidentally step in.

The central dog message board in the Village

The central dog message board in the Village

On the mineral front, St. Simons has a building material called tabby that is a combination of sea shells, lime, water, and sand.  The tabby concept was brought to this coast from North Africa by early Spanish settlers and used extensively in early building by the colonists.  Tabby is still used here, although it’s “phony” tabby, being shells mixed with cement, not the more labor intensive lime and sand.  But, phony or not, tabby is a beautiful thing.  I cannot resist a wall embedded with shells.  Nice.

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An outside wall of a Village restaurant

Finally, the truly bizarre.  Everywhere we walk or ride on St. Simons, historical markers punctuate the path.  This area has always been a coastal crossroads and the people here are proud of its history, with groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and Daughters of the Confederacy promoting local tidbits of historical knowledge.

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But “Daughters of the Cold War” seem to be conspicuously missing.  And there should be chapter here because one of the most intriguing historical events in the area is missing a marker.  Perhaps because it’s not exactly a tourist draw.  It’s the “Tybee bomb,” an unexploded Mark 15 nuclear bomb lying somewhere in the offshore sediment just doing … whatever unexploded nuclear bombs do rolling around in the muck at the bottom of the ocean floor.

In 1958, during a military training exercise a bomber and fighter plane collided above Tybee Island, outside of Savannah.  The bomber was damaged but still able to fly and jettisoned the bomb before landing.  Despite several searches, the bomb has never been found.  Whether or not it poses a real threat (probably by slow leakage of radiation) is a matter of debate.  But it is something to think about when gazing offshore toward the north.  I wonder where it is and what it is up to.  Let’s hope it stays intact.

There's a bomb out there somewhere.

There’s a nuclear bomb rolling around out there somewhere.

The days are getting longer!

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Happy holidays, Mele Kalikimaka, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad, Joyous Kwanzaa, and have a good Festivus.  Enjoy.

 

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.

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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.

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North Campus

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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.

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Downtown

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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.

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Watkins Mill covered bridge

Watson Mill covered bridge

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

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Happy Thanksgiving.             GA-126

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Hickory

Hickory

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.

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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.

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Looking north at low tide.  Just Zoe.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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Sunrise

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

Lowcountry Boiled

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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