Monday, October 31, 2011

The Day After....

So many trees down.
On the day of the Freak Almost-Halloween snowstorm, Brenda and I went out into the slush and mounting snow to pick up some food and a 2-drawer file cabinet from her friend Cheyenne.

Cheyenne lives on a 90 acre farm where they raise grass-fed beef, and have several horses who are not pets and don’t have large balls to play with in their paddocks. One is an enormous Belgian draft horse whose hoofs are as large as a pie plate. He’s a gorgeous gentle animal whose main jobs are pulling a sleigh around Christmas time for tourists, and helping with tree clearing by hauling around a wagon full of tools and wood. Cheyenne’s house is a 300-year-old farmhouse that has been in her husband’s family for many generations. They purchased the farm next door and their now married son lives there. On that property they also have a small farm store where they sell their beef frozen, granola from a local bakery, and dairy products from neighbors. It smells like cinnamon when you walk through the warm door. 

Mexican Chiminea inside the 300 year old fireplace.
Fabulous juxtaposition.

In her newly remodeled kitchen, Cheyenne was making banana pudding and dinner for the hired hands who would be arriving shortly to fuel up for prolonged work all afternoon in the snow. Nothing had been put into winter storage, the place was inches deep in ice-cold mud, and there must have been tons of new chores to prepare for the foot or more of expected snow. We didn’t stay long, the roads were getting icy. Back at Brenda's place, I moved my car so it would be parked under an almost leafless tree. Just as I pulled forward a huge branch came down into the spot where my car had been. The rest of the day, we spent indoors listening to distant sirens and branches crashing all around us. The lights flickered a couple of times, but we never really lost electricity.

The next morning, the roads were slick, the sidewalks crunchy, and the neighborhood was awash in branches and trees. About 10:00 we ventured out to see if we could get to a road that follows the Delaware River.

Canada geese flying over the Delaware River

Her GPS, nicknamed PITA (Pain In The A**) led us down some country roads, many of which narrowed down in places to one lane because of downed trees. We chose to go around the Road Closed barriers, just to see what was down the lane. The closer we got to the Delaware River, the deeper the snow, and finally dead ends thanks to huge trees either downed or split in half. A woman we spoke with said that area had been without power since 1:00 the previous afternoon. In spite of the problems, it was a beautiful drive; lots of lovely little towns and farms made more beautiful by the snow.

The Red Mill, Clinton, NJ

We stopped in Clinton, NJ, a town with two picturesque old mills and open shops. We had lunch at a diner, the Towne Restaurant, that was celebrating 30 years in business. It was so packed we sat at the counter but still had no food for 45 minutes. It wasn’t packed because of the anniversary though. The waitress said most of the surrounding area was without power, so people had come into town to eat and get warm.

Beautiful snow covered farm
Awareness of just how much we depend on electricity is heightened in times like these. Even if a house has natural gas piped in, the furnace fans won’t run without electricity. Had power gone out in Bethlehem, we couldn’t have cooked a thing since Brenda’s stove is also electric. I thought one of the reasons it didn’t was that it was quite windy on Saturday and the wind shook enough snow off the trees that it didn’t build up.  Along those back country roads, the snow was plastered up and down the sides of tall fir trees, so obviously the wind had been vigorous there too. Near the river, the snow was much deeper, so perhaps it was simply a factor of quantity.

Why so many roads were closed.

The main roads were wet but not icy and flowing with traffic. We drove down the Delaware River valley to New Hope, just a bit south of the famous crossing of the Delaware by George Washington.  The oldest house in New Hope had a sign about its heritage. Apparently when they were restoring parts of it, they found buckshot in the roof beams, presumably from English muskets. The whole area is steeped in history. One of the horse-canals passes through and even flows OVER another creek via a water bridge. Amazing engineering back in those days.

Late afternoon, snow
is melted and fall
has returned.
Lambertville, NJ
Now, on Monday morning, much of the East Coast is still without electricity. And of course those wet roads froze into sheets of ice overnight making for a treacherous commute this morning. I’m guessing the stock market will tank a bit today too, once the amount of damage this storm caused is assessed. No one was prepared to deal with such an early onset of winter, certainly not the trees.

The storm outside of Cheyenne's kitchen window.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gifts from the Universe

Years ago, my husband’s brother introduced me to the concept of gifts from the Universe. In fact he’d furnished most of his home with such gifts, like a couch with a “Free to Good Home” sign put out in a driveway, and a lamp found in a dumpster. All of his pets over the years were animals that appeared as  manna from heaven on his doorstep.

Now, on a trip to the East Coast, a wandering lovely drive through small towns and scenic byways, the Universe has delivered several such gifts.

At a campground in Arkansas, the neighbors in the next campsite left behind a perfectly serviceable folding chair. It has a tiny burn hole in the cloth seat. The right armrest tends to slide down, a defect easily fixed with a strip of duct tape.

On a set of steeply descending stairs leading to a waterfall at Stone Mountain, North Carolina, there was a small rubber tip for a walking stick on one of the steps. My own collapsible walking cane had no tip on the bottom, but now it does. It was a perfect fit and just what I’d been wishing for since the sharp point on my stick was a bit slippery on some of those wet rock trails.

At another campground, a pair of expensive woolen hiking socks had been forgotten and left hanging from a short piece of clothesline between two bushes. The socks and the line would come in handy eventually.

Some gifts are more work than they are worth, like the wrecked director’s chair my friend Aroop found on the side of the freeway. It was an effort to fetch it from the side of a busy interstate. The chair back poles were broken, and the material was in tatters. He patched up the poles with flat sticks, lots of glue and twine, while I purchased canvass and sewed up a new back and seat.  Hours of work later, he had an odd looking but workable director’s chair.

It’s best not to ask the Universe for a gift. When I first moved to Los Alamos, NM, I was unable to sell my house in Albuquerque. So I purchased the cheapest housing I could find, one quarter of a Quad, a two story affair with a kitchen that had been badly remodeled by the previous owner. There were no upper cabinets! One day, frustrated by the poor layout with a refrigerator that hid the washing machine, I said out loud, “I wish we could bulldoze this damn place and start over!”

Three weeks later the Cerro Grande Fire swept through the mountains and destroyed 400 homes in the town, including our Quad. Six weeks later, after digging in the ashes for anything that might be salvageable, bulldozers came to knock down the foundation and level the lot. The Universe had delivered precisely what I’d asked for. But I never intended it to affect so many other people!!

Gifts come in the form of people. Individuals who help anonymously or behind the scenes, mentors who take an interest in the future of others, teachers and preachers. The communities in which we live, that foster our dreams and provide resources so we can accomplish more than we can by ourselves, are gifts just as WE are a gift to the community we live in. Friends and family play such a role in our lives, they too are gifts that often go unrecognized.

Some things are so commonplace we don’t actually recognize them as Gifts from the Universe. Americans and Europeans, certainly, won the lottery of the womb….born into the most technologically advanced time in human history, in wealthy countries where women and minorities have been treated better and given more opportunities than they had historically. As a result of winning that lottery we don’t starve to death, we have potable water coming out of every faucet, we even wash our cars and bodies with drinking water! We live longer and healthier. We can easily traverse our own countries and for a pittance really, the entire world. More technology presents more challenges for those creative people who invent and produce. While people can and should take credit for advances in technology and medicine, it was the chance of our births that put us here in this time frame.

The Universe’s great gift to me has been this life. This life where I have resources to travel, to experience the world and its multitude of cultures. This life, every second of it, has been a gift from the Universe, and for that I am eternally grateful. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stone Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway

View from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Years ago I read about the Blue Ridge Parkway and how gorgeous it is in the fall. Said to be one of the prettiest drives in the United States, it is actually part of the Park System. It stretches from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, south along much of the top of the Blue Ridge to the Smokey Mountains National Park. It’s over 400 miles long and if one does it right, takes at least three days. The speed limit is 45 most of the way, necking down to 35 along the more curvy sections. At various points, there are pullouts to look out over the vistas to the east or west, and in a few “saddle” spots, both directions offer up stunning views. The Park service has several visitor centers.

Beautiful little details.
I stopped at the Music center which had a wonderful presentation of the evolution of mountain folk music and instruments. The banjo is homegrown, based on an older gourd instrument that the African slaves knew how to make. From Irish tunes and African drumming, Appalachian music evolved, and from that, bluegrass, jazz, C&W, and rock’n’roll. True “roots” music. Outside in the breezeway a 6 piece band sang and played old country tunes with guitar, banjo, a base, and fiddles.

The National Park system owns as little as 10 feet on either side of the Parkway, or as much as half a mile in either direction. As a result, especially in Virginia, the road passes by many farms, small towns, and dairies. In places a second paved road parallels the Parkway, used by the locals to zoom along at higher speeds and for commercial vehicles that are prohibited on the parkway.

Stone Mountain
Stone Mountain, a North Carolina State Park is just east of the parkway.  Two full days, and two nights camping, were spent there. The first afternoon was a hike to the bottom of the falls, 340 steps down and back up…….I heard a couple of kids counting them! The falls are really a giant “slip-n-slide” down the rounded curve of the granite rock that makes up Stone Mountain.  Signs are numerous warning to stay out of the stream, it’s slippery and death can result.

The mountain is a granite intrusion from millions of years ago when the Appalachians were much taller. As the mountains eroded, this huge chunk of solid granite was exposed. In places it looks like a giant egg with trees growing out of the top and in occasional cracks and crevices. Dark stripes decorate the almost white granite, evidence of much rainfall streaming from the forest above.

Tree growing out
of solid granite.
At the base, on the south western side of the mountain, the Hutchinson family built a cabin, a multipurpose barn that was used to store cured pork during the winter and to cure and dry tobacco during the late summer, a blacksmith’s shop, animal pens, and of course an outhouse with a little moon carved into the door. (The outhouse is currently locked and boarded up, presumably to keep anyone from actually using it.) During the summer the buildings are open and I’m sure there are docents around to talk about life back in the 1800s. The farm took up the entire little valley between Stone Mountain, and another exposed section called Wolf Rock. A small stream runs down the valley, which was used to keep things cool in a “spring box” and for drinking water. There are two ways to get to the homestead: by road, reserved for people with handicap stickers on their cars, and a trail through the dense forest along the stream.

The second day, after a very cold night that left frost on the picnic table and all the dishes that had been left out to dry, I hiked to the very top of Stone Mountain, a three and a half mile round trip, with an elevation of about 900 feet.  It was beautiful up there. The granite could be very slippery when wet, but dry it has great traction. It curves down steeply in some places, but at the top a fairly large area of gently slopping rock is exposed. The views to the south and east are spectacular, even on a hazy day, you can see 45 or 50 miles. The mature hardwoods were at the height of their color change. The most colorful leaves are the maples. There aren’t many of those, so the few show up strikingly.

View from the top of Stone Mountain
West of the state park is the much taller Blue Ridge and an overlook up there looks down on Stone Mountain and Wolf Rock. From that vantage point it’s clear that the granite intrusion is quite large. Open areas of it show up like patches of snow in a golden forest several places to the south.

The road south of Roanoke, the only large city near the parkway, has many examples of private land ownership. The forests have been cleared, there are idyllic old farmsteads with weathered barns contrasted by trashed out single wide trailers surrounded by junk. In one area there were rows of identical white McMansions on tiny lots looking like marshmallows on a stick.

Village church along the Parkway.
But north of Roanoke, the parkway enters a national forest, and stays within it most of the way to Shenandoah. It’s rougher country. It becomes clear just how “ridgey” the Blue Ridge really is. Literally, the road travels along the spine of a very tall mountain range. In places the land drops away so sharply on both sides of the two-lane road that the only thing standing between the car and a plunge down the mountain are short rock walls built in the ‘30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Several “gaps” have amazing views to the east and the west from the same vantage point. The road is extremely curvy. It’s much slower going, taking often ten to fifteen minutes to go seven miles. But the scenery changes with every turn, here a stand of oaks, there a maple or dogwood in red regalia, a sudden bright drop off with no trees whatsoever and views that go on for miles, then a regress into the darker forest, or the road steeply descends down the east or the west side of the ridge, later to rise back up and progress along the spine.

Looking up into those gorgeous trees
The Parkway is known for its abundance of animals. Several times deer could be seen grazing in a field in the late afternoon, or jumping over fences, their long white tails sticking straight up, giving the impression that a puppet master in the sky lifted them. Their only predators are pot bellied men who wear T-shirts emblazoned with  phrases such as: Buck Huntin’, Truck Drivin’, That’s how I Roll!! 

There were almost no dead animals on the road, and that was a surprise considering how long and curvy the Parkway is. A woodchuck sat so still a few feet off the pavement, that at first I thought it was an oddly shaped piece of wood, till it moved and headed back into the trees. Turkeys are fairly numerous, as are Turkey Vultures, ravens, and squirrels.

The Park Service operates several campgrounds along the parkway. I stayed one night at Rocky Nob, high on the ridge and windy. None of the campgrounds have water or electricity at the sites, nor do they have hot water or showers in the bathrooms. At least the toilets flush, a step up from the typical Forest Service campground! Short distances east and west of the Parkway, there are many privately owned RV parks. I decided to stay in Montebello only three miles east of the Parkway. The plunge from the ridge to the valley was the longest three miles I’ve ever driven, all of it in second gear. On the valley floor there’s a general store and a beautiful little stocked lake where one can buy a permit to fish and all fish caught must be taken home! Down a dark road is a large campground with electricity and water available at all the sites. It’s next to a lake with Canada geese and ducks. Paddle boats and kayaks can be rented. It would be a great place to spend the weekend, especially with kids in tow.

On Wednesday, I head back to civilization after 5 days in the woods. (No Internet, little cell phone service, no way to charge batteries, whine, whine!) Next stop will be Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Pumpkin patch in the rural but civilized section of southern Virginia.

Some of the lovely fall foliage

A trail into the woods.

One of many vistas from the occasional "gap" in the ridge.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

North Carolina Zoo

Entrance to the Africa
section of the zoo.
By Saturday the 15th, the sun was out in full force, the air almost hot in addition to being constantly humid.  A neighbor, Caroline, asked if I'd like to go see a simulcast of the MET opera Anna Bolena at a theater near Raleigh. I'd seen some videos of operas in movie theaters and thought that's what she meant, but I was just thrilled by this production. It was like being at the Santa Fe opera with front row seats, and possibly even better than that. We could see every facial expression, enjoy the beautiful voices of the was fabulous and I would recommend it to any opera fan! For those not interested in Opera, this technology is also available and frequently used to show simulcasts of Broadway shows like Cats and Wicked. It's like being on the stage with the actors.

Big silverback in the gorilla enclosure.

Caroline recommended the zoo if I wanted a neat place to get in my walking exercise and see some very cool things. The state zoological park in Asheboro is an incredible attraction. To begin with: it's huge. They have animals from two continents; North America and Africa, with plenty of room for expansion to add the other continents sometime in the future. Walking, to see each exhibit, covers fully five miles. The day was as perfect a day as anyone could wish for. Temps were in the high 70s and low 80s, the sun shown, clouds periodically drifted by, the animals were active and interactive with people in some cases. The zoo is inside a mature hardwood forest where one is constantly being lightly pelted with tiny acorns. I spent all of Sunday afternoon there, and returned on Monday for another leisurely walk to catch the exhibits I'd missed. One of the surprising and impressive things about this zoo is the number and quality of the artworks. There are sculptures all over, murals on walls, and many kiosks with video and audio story telling going on to enhance the overall zoo experience.

Very muddy African elephant.
As a big fan of zoos, there are few animals I'm unfamiliar with, but this zoo surprised me. They had Red River Pigs from Africa, and a display of white albino alligators, plus many reptiles and amphibians I've probably never seen. Big animals like elephants, rinos, ostriches, and gazelles were housed in an huge wide open field. People followed a path that had viewing platforms interspersed along one edge. Ditto for the North American section where bison and elk shared a pasture.

Snake mural at the entrance to the Sonoran
desert exhibit.
As a native New Mexican, I was almost laughing out loud at the poor bull elk in rut. Compared to ones I've seen up close personally, he was pathetic. Every now and then, in the fall, a couple of friends and I go up into the Valles Caldera west of Los Alamos, NM, and hang out in our sleeping bags up under the pine trees on a moonlit night to watch the elk battle it out. It is important to be protected by the trees, else one of those giants might step on you. They get awfully focused on the other bulls and don't watch where they tromp around. Their mighty trumpeting is magnificent and when they lock antlers and try to throw each other down, it's something to see. Those bulls are three to four thousand pounds with antlers bigger around at the base than I can wrap both hands around.

Chimpanzee sculpture
At the edges of the pasture, signs said to stay back away from the fence, it's mating season and the bull elk is aggressive. What I saw was a skinny looking bull with a very small set of antlers with only 4 points! His bugle was about as impressive as the one Houston Martinez used to make swinging around a corrugated hose......The two cows completely ignored him until he slowly (shyly?) made his way over to them, then they all laid down in the grass together in the shade.

Brown bear
The zoo closed at 5:00 when I was on the other side from where my car was parked. I hopped one of the trams that traverse the two "continents". On the way out, over the bridge that leads across a swampy area next to the lake, I hung around a bit to watch the animals in the lake. There were large black fish, big greenish turtles so round they looked like watermelons with legs, little turtles that swam fast, and lots of frogs in the water and up on rocks near a bank of cat tails. In the trees were a few cardinals, squirrels, and crows. The sun hung low over the forest at the edge of the parking lot as pinkish clouds floated overhead. A lovely day, in every way.

Red River pig

Baboon and baby

Fake Yellowstone geysers,
nice display at the bison yard

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Siler City, North Carolina

Aint Bea's home in Siler City
Several quick trips into the main parts of Siler City have revealed a town not unlike Mayberry. In fact, this little town was the permanent home of the actress, Frances Bavier, who played Aint Bea. She's also buried here.

In many ways, the town is suffering from the economic slowdown. Quite a few buildings are empty, some even boarded up, but unlike McLean Texas, none are actually caving in. There are, however, some going art concerns, an interesting general store, and quite a few businesses that cater to a growing Hispanic population.
Barber shop still using
chairs purchased in 1940

I just had to stop in at a store called "Against His Will". It sounded too much like a Biblical reference, but I couldn't imagine which one it could be. Turned out to be a wool store. The owner sells weaving and wool spinning equipment as well as the woolen hats and scarves made by local people. I asked about the name. The owner is from the northeast originally. Years ago, her son wanted a goat for a 4-H project but her husband objected. Against his will, they got a goat, then later, again against his will, they moved to a farm and began to raise sheep and goats in earnest. In the move to the south, she opened the store and they named it Against His Will, which, I suppose it was too. Funny story. It never dawned on her, till they'd moved to the south that it would have such an intriguing effect on the religious locals.

A fun sculptured chair
in the Raleigh Street
Another art store, the Raleigh Street Gallery, is a large consignment place that also lets you paint your own pottery. There are the usual carved wooden boxes, stained glass, knitted items, pottery, and sculptures from 83 local artists, but the entire back section of the store is a studio where local clay artists work throwing pots or sculpting. No one was working when I stopped in but some unfinished sculptures showed promise. Along one wall, there are four or five long tables and chairs. The store has a good selection or will order bisque pieces for customers to paint, then dips the finished items in clear glaze and fires them. They even have a "to-go" kit so you can paint at home.

Across the street is a little diner called the Sidewalk Cafe and Bakery. Inside above the counter was a handmade sign advertising a Mossberg 935 12ga shotgun for $550. The food was classic diner: burgers, hot dogs, chopped steak special, fries, coleslaw. Even at 1:30 many people were stopping in for lunch. The waitress knew everyone and often sat with them in their booths while she took the order. It was fun listening to the gossip and conversations spoken in the soft vowels of a southern dialect which, fortunately is missing the harsh twang of the Texas Panhandle.

Mural of Siler City in 1888 on the side of the
Farmer's Alliance store, which is featured in the mural.
Inside the Farmer's
Alliance general store.
Down the main street are several establishments: barber shops and beauty salons, coffee with internet cafe, a custom tailor in a skinny strip of a store, latino tienda with all the familiar soul foods of a Mexican mercado, and a general store called The Farmer's Alliance, which has been in business since 1888. Walking in the door the nose is assaulted by the sharp tang of fertilizer. The front quarter of the store is devoted to bee keeper's supplies, plants, and gardening. Further back are tools, and in the far back, a counter with bags of locally-made peanut brittle, peanut brittle dipped in chocolate, jams and jellies, and honey with the comb left in. An opening revealed the other half of the store; ladies wear, and in the basement, work clothes for men. I'll have to take a gander in the basement next time I visit. It was too interesting to talk with the woman who has worked there for the last 44 years, and has to be in her eighties. A large poster has school photos of kids from the 30s and 40s with hand written names under some of them. I suppose people who grew up in Siler City can stop in and write the names of the people they recognize.

Highway 64 runs through town and is the site of the Food Lion, drive through banks, and fast food joints. It was busier, but not nearly as interesting as the few little streets in the old part of town. There are quite a few large warehouses that either have some kind of industry, like making cloth or cosmetics, and many are shut down with "for Lease" signs. The rest of the town appears to be homes, some old and decrepit, others old and well maintained. All have large lawns and stately trees. It's nice to be here in the early fall, the weather is cool, the sun hot, and there is always the chance of clouds and rain, though it's been nice since a few days ago when it rained quite a bit. Now the humid air is causing my very short hair to curl or just stick straight out. Maybe I should stop in one of the beauty salons for a trim, something more suitable for the deep south. I'm not sure how much they could cut off without making me bald though, and that would definitely not be a good look!!

The regal Miss Cloe at the home where I am
house sitting.

The much more down to earth and sweet: Domino

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lost and found, all by accident

As a relatively good outdoors person, I'm almost never lost. Almost never. India was an exception, but there, the spring sky was reddish brown with dust, the sun popped up off the horizon and was nothing but a hot spot directly overhead, the streets of most towns are merely paved ancient donkey trails meandering all over the place, and since I can't read Hindi, I couldn't even memorize the names of the streets.

Lots of mushrooms, but they wouldn't have
provided much sustenance if I'd not
found my way back to civilization!!
Here in Siler City, there is forest everywhere except where roads have been paved. Along the roadsides the forest almost looks shaved. A flat wide open grassy area bordered by thick trees and undergrowth that shoots skyward to form a green wall.

Beside the cottage there is a wide trail, almost an old road but overgrown with grasses. I followed it to come out into a horse pasture with an electric fence, and one lonely horse. On the eastern side of the pasture ran a two lane blacktop road which I followed north, thinking I would just make a big loop and end up back at the house. A couple of miles later, following streets that narrowed into a gravel path leading to a single house, I was plainly lost. It was difficult to tell where the sun was exactly thanks to the tall trees and overcast sky. I hadn't brought a cell phone, a compass or even water with me. The plan had been a leisurely stroll in a town, not to get lost in a dense wood.

Luckily, sound carries well through the trees. There was a narrow animal trail through the undergrowth that seemed to lead in the direction of traffic, and eventually emerged onto a muddy road. Finally out on a paved road which looked vaguely familiar, and with the sun acting as a psuedo guide to what I assumed was south, I walked a mile down the highway. A sign pointed towards the downtown area of Siler City, and I then knew Pine View street had to be just a little way further. Whew. Lessons learned: take a cell phone, a map, water, and a compass.

Cat tails growing
next to the pond.

But of course I don't follow my own advice. Much later in the evening, after dinner, I wandered down a nice open trail leading north from the cottage. It led to a lake with a path around it. It belongs to the homeowner's association and has a shelter with picnic table, some chairs circling a fire pit and someone's chained up canoe on a couple of sawhorses. I sat on a bench watching the sky and its reflection in the pond change colors as the sun set, then wandered on further north to see where the trail led. At the top of the hill, the trail ended at the gravel path leading to that single house. I had been so close to circling back to the cottage before getting lost in the woods!

The little pond near the house.

And some leaves finally turning red....

Road Trip: on and on and on I-40

I just realized that I spent 5 out of the last 6 days driving for many hours a day. My arms are tired, my back hurts a little but not like some people who drive for 18 hours straight just to get somewhere. Or God forbid, those poor truck drivers.

It's fun and good exercise to stop at the many lovely rest stops along I-40 and walk around, maybe call a friend and chat, eat some lunch at one of the covered or shady picnic tables, visit with other travelers.

Flowers at a rest stop!

At a rest stop in Arkansas, after a fairly leisurely morning getting de-camped from the Petit Jean State Park's lovely campground, I paused to eat lunch at a shady rest stop. Parked next to me was another car from New Mexico. I waited for the driver to come out of the restroom and we chatted a few minutes. He'd started a DAY later than I had, and was driving like mad to meet some customers the next day in Nashville. Whew! He said I'd left NM in the nick of time (Friday) because it snowed that night in Taos. Not quite ready to press my body back into the driver's seat, I walked for over 45 minutes, talking to my friend Suzanne, who will soon be walking 50 miles in a cancer fundraiser in Philadelphia.

Arkansas and Tennessee appear to be much like each other, tall trees on either side of the freeway giving the appearance of a deep green canyon. Invisible towns are known only by the off-ramps and signs pointing into thick woods.

The car shimmied every once in a while and sometimes wouldn't stop vibrating. It felt like that dirt road from Nageezi to Chaco Canyon. It was difficult to tell if it was the road, the car, the brakes, or just what. I pulled off onto a tiny country road where there was a fried chicken cafe/gas station combo. A handsome black man with the bluest eyes took a look under the hood, determined it wasn't the engine or bad gasoline. He told me there was a Toyota dealership in Jackson so I pulled back onto the freeway and kept the car under 65 the rest of the way. In Jackson, there were signs to an RV park, but when I finally pulled in, it was hardly your standard KOA. No office, no shower or restrooms, the place was full of junked out motor homes and single wide trailers up on blocks. A couple of muscular men, smoking cigars and wearing white stained sleeveless undershirts were hanging around a black pickup with the hood propped open. I circled through and pulled out. Ended up staying at a motel. Probably would have been better off camping in a Walmart parking lot. Or, if I'd planned ahead better, I might have gone on down the road to one of many state parks.

The hotel was a Super 8 decked out with the quality linens, towels and equipment that you might expect. The sheets were as thin as cheese cloth. It had a refrigerator, but the thing made noises as if it were possessed by an evil spirit.  I could have gotten used to the sounds eventually, but it would clang, whine, and scream randomly. In the middle of the night I jumped out of bed from a dead sleep thinking an animal was being eaten alive.

In the morning, the included "breakfast" consisted of watery coffee, day old mini-bagels, white bread for toast, cream cheese, jam and something yellow with the consistency of butter. OR I could have a coupon for 10% off at the greasy donut shop across the street. Just lovely.

The car ran smoothly. I never found the dealership, so kept the freeway speed at 65 most of the way to Sevierville. It must have been the road or else the car just wanted to stop and rest a while. It's a ten year old van, so who knows? Maybe it's possessed by a spirit too.

Since I hadn't made it past Nashville, I had a long day ahead to get to Sevierville by late afternoon. Somewhere along the route the time shifted ahead another hour, so it was way later than I thought.

My buddy Dave suggested that I stop and have lunch in Bucksnort if I happened by there at the right time. It's just a spot in the road, but he remembered it having a great down-home restaurant and of course  got a kick out of the name. Sure enough, not far from Nashville, the sign to Bucksnort appeared. I pulled off to see the building that probably once housed the cafe, but now it's a 24 hour XXX rated Adult bookstore and video emporium. The signs boldly stated: No Children or Pets. I can understand the children part, but pets? Oh.....right.

Nashville, from what I could see of it through all the trees, is a lovely town. The freeway was crowded. Billboards advertised all kinds of music venues and the freeway seemed packed with stretch limos.  Two hours later, Knoxville,was jammed with rush hour traffic. I pulled off to consult the map, called Ellen and got some advice on getting to Sevierville via back roads that weren't nearly so crowded or dangerous. The scenery was lovely, a bit more open in places, the foliage changing faster at this higher altitude, and the mountains definitely looked "smokey" with the haze and low hanging clouds.

Wall of flowers at Ellen's house.
Ellen and Shane have a house set back behind trees in a neighborhood of large lots and thick woods. Everything is so green. The yard is full of flowers and strawberries growing out of a staggered wall, dogwood trees with red berries, green grass, and in front - their own little forest of tall trees. They made the most wonderful pork tenerloin with a rich sauce, honey-butter roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and salad. After dinner, and almost in the dark, Ellen and I went for a walk around the neighborhood. All the homes are set back from the road, but most have broad grassy lawns. My friends were smart to buy that particular house, they don't have to spend every summer weekend mowing acres of grass.

On Tuesday, Ellen and I went on a tour of craft stores, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. She is a Park Ranger with the Smokey Mountain National Park. Both towns seemed like Estes Park, Colorado, but on steroids. OMG, there was just one tourist trap after another. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood and it's a associated water park. Gatlinburg is more of a walking town, every street lined with carmel popcorn and fudge shops, crafts, magic stores, and clothing printed with logos and sayings. I wasn't remotely tempted to stroll around and buy things. We ate a nice lunch at a brew pub she'd been wanting to try, and then she had to go work the night shift. The weather drizzled and rained all day and night, though it hadn't rained at all in the previous two weeks. It was a lovely visit, but on Wednesday, I took to I-40 again to Siler City, NC for a house-sitting gig.

Example of just
how thick and lush
the Smokey Mtns. are.

All I have to say about that stretch of I-40 is that Mapquest LIED. I plotted a route, was told it was five hours, and it took exactly six. I don't think Mapquest has any idea just how curvy, steep, and dangerous I-40 is through the Smokey Mountains. But it sure was beautiful. The dense forests have begun changing in earnest at the higher elevations. I wish I knew more of the names of trees, and what colors they have in the fall. I've never spent an autumn in a deciduous forest, until now. I'm used to fall being a few groves of golden aspen that whiz through the change in the last couple of weeks in September. This is going to be magnificent when it reaches its peak.

Siler City is south of Greensboro. The house where I'll be for the next week is just charming, set in a magical wood off the busy highway. Susan, the owner, showed me around, gave me all the cat feeding instructions, and then took off on her own trip. I'll be here for ten days. I'm looking forward to exploring this little area of the world and especially to photographing the foliage as it rapidly changes color.

The sweet little cottage in the woods where I am house sitting.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Road Trip - Oklahoma and Arkansas

By the time I got to Elk City on Friday night, it was dark, clouds had built up, and the moon was obscured.  I followed signs to an RV park. It was big and shady, but it took a long time to find the office, which was closed. I called the number given on the door and left a message, found a spot to park, and spent the night. On Saturday morning, the office was still closed and no one had ever called me back, so I left. The park didn’t seem to have a bath house or restrooms, and the place I’d parked had no electricity, so I didn’t feel in the least guilty for leaving without paying anything.

Western Oklahoma is almost as flat as Texas, but greener. The riverbeds actually have water, and trees appear to grow naturally. Eventually, on the way east, the land becomes more rolling, more wooded, and the rivers get wider. But the wind was just as strong and constant. It’s disconcerting to drive along and see a huge semi tractor trailer wagging as it rolls down the road. The big rigs with two trailers are especially wobbly and scary to get past. I was glad to see there weren’t any triple trailers. I hope they’ve been outlawed.

Oklahoma City isn’t nearly as large as I’d imagined. I asked the man at the visitors center on the eastern outskirts how many people live in the metro area. He said it was about 1.3 million. That’s just a bit bigger than Albuquerque! It didn’t take long to get through the city and out into the open country again. What pretty country too! On the eastern side of the state, the woods become thick and dark, made up mostly of junipers and pines with a smattering of elms and oaks thrown in for color. The Arkansas river is enormous. I made the assumption that crossing it meant we were in Arkansas, but not true. It wasn’t Arkansas until Fort Smith.

Cliffs of Petit Jean State Park in the sunset.

The plains disappeared and gave way to largish hills and even something resembling a mountain. Arkansas is replete with lakes and rivers, dense forests cover the hills and little towns are known only from the signs saying they are there, you never see them behind all those trees. It reminds me a bit of New England except the trees don’t arch over the road forming tunnels. So far, autumn is still a few weeks away. Some trees are showing a golden cast but the 80+ degree days make it feel very much like summer.

Foliage along the falls trail, no quite autumn yet.
My plan was to get to Petit Jean State Park by early evening. For whatever reason, travel by car always seems to take much longer than one would expect. At the suggestion of the visitor center guy, I took the scenic route to the park, dropping south at Russelville to Center and then east on 154 to the park. It was a winding road, steep in places with a speed limit of 20 most of the way. At the top of a ridge the view was magnificent. Just north was a cliff face, glowing in the setting sunlight, rising up out of dense green forest, overlooking a broad open valley of cleared fields and hazy blue distant mountains.  The park’s website shows some spectacular falls. The campground borders a lake and there is an airfield on the other side of that. Probably the only state park in the country with it’s own airport! As darkness approached, there was a loud buzzing overhead. It was a hang glider type parachute, powered by an ultra light engine carrying two passengers. I now wonder if you can purchase a ride. It would be beautiful to fly over the lake, falls and cliffs.  The park is something of a resort complete with tennis courts, a pool, even lodging in an old WPA era hotel.

Lake next to the campground in the sunrise.

If deadlines weren’t looming, I would stay here a week. It would take that long to explore the trails and photograph the falls at different “sun times”. Plus I would come back in mid-October. Autumn is barely started here, in a couple of weeks it will be phenomenal.