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Posts Tagged ‘Back Roads’

Sometime in our lives, we have an experience that words are inadequate to describe. I had one on 8/21/17, the day of the Total Eclipse. It was my first. I’d missed every other solar eclipse in my life by being in the wrong place or because of cloudy weather. I wasn’t going to miss this one. But summers are so busy. I traveled through eight states in three weeks. Serendipitously, a library in West Virginia had free eclipse glasses. I picked up a pair.

On my way home, I checked for available campsites at my favorite state park in South Carolina. They were booked. I returned to Florida a week before the eclipse, having made no plans, and my van needed TLC before it could make another trip. Despair was not an option.

 

Not my van, but definitely my sentiment.

 

Fate began to smile. My mechanic made the critical repairs in a timely fashion. When I told him where I was going, he said, “You must really like to drive.”

“No. I just like to go places.”

South Carolina campgrounds were full, but what about Georgia? Only about 100 miles from Orangeburg, Magnolia Springs State Park still had vacancies! Instead of a grueling six hour drive to Orangeburg, I faced a four hour trip to Magnolia Springs, followed by only two hours the next day. I made reservations.

Sunday afternoon, I headed north. With no rangers on duty when I arrived, I chose a campsite and enjoyed my evening at the park. Bright and early Monday morning, I reported to the park office, but the staff wasn’t ready to do business yet. I told them I was going to South Carolina to watch the eclipse. “You registered online?” they said. “Then just go! You can do the paperwork when you come back.”

I drove through fog, optimistic the sky would clear. There was little traffic on US 301 although the interstates were jammed. I arrived in Orangeburg at 9:45 and found a shady parking spot at Edisto Memorial Gardens. With hours to spare, I walked around the Rose Garden and decided this was where I wanted to watch the eclipse. Workers were busy mowing and weeding. I thought, what a great job they had—being paid to experience the eclipse!

When I returned to the parking lot, it was full. I’d been wise to get an early start. Half the cars, it seemed, had Florida tags. I strolled through the Sensory Garden and rang the farm bell. Then I went down to the Azalea Garden, where other folks awaited the big event. From time to time, I heard the farm bell ring. Despite growing numbers, the atmosphere was peaceful, friendly, upbeat.

I asked those I encountered, “Where are you from?” Many were from Florida. A mother and daughter from Orlando had driven all night and slept at a rest stop in their Mini Cooper. A couple of ladies came up from Georgia. One couple was from Denver but had been vacationing at Hilton Head. Family members wore matching eclipse shirts. Some had brought their dogs. All races were represented, and many nationalities. I heard accents I could only dimly place, and one group spoke German.

Every so often, I put on my eclipse glasses and looked at the sun. It looked like an orange cookie. The sky cleared and clouded again. Some expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to see anything (Oh you of little faith!) but others were, like me, optimistic that the weather would be kind.

I walked through a sunny area where families had set up canopies. As I approached a scattering of trees, someone called my name! Who here would know me? It was fellow writer Jessica Elkins and her husband. They’d stayed in a motel in Statesboro, Georgia and were enjoying a little picnic of fruit and cheese and crackers. I joined them.

About 1:30, people wearing eclipse glasses stood pointing at the sky. The sun looked like someone had taken a bite out of the orange cookie. Over the next several minutes, the bite grew larger. Then a cloud occluded the sun and we couldn’t see anything. The cloud gave us some relief from the heat, but many were anxious we’d miss the eclipse. I kept saying, “The cloud will move on and then the sky will clear.”

Eventually, that cloud moved, but another took its place! Blue sky lay all around, but that cloud seemed happy to stay put.

The weather was kind. After a very long 20 minutes, the cloud went away and the crowd went, “Ahhh!” The sun now looked like a crescent moon. The light around us was subdued, as though clouds still shaded the Earth. The crescent grew slimmer. Around 2:20, I took leave of my friends.

On the way to the Rose Garden, I passed a group of Seminole Indians who were drumming and chanting. The light continued to dim. I sat down on the ground in the middle of the Rose Garden.

Dusk is falling.

By 2:35, the sun was only a thin sliver and the air was noticeably cooler. Dusk had fallen. Then it grew dark. The crowd cheered. We clapped with excitement. We laughed with delight. The drummers increased the volume of their chant. I took off my eclipse glasses.

In the sky was a silver white ring—the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

Streetlights came on. At 2:45, a band of sunlight appeared on the north side of the garden. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” I glanced up to see a tiny jewel of sunlight on the edge of the silver ring. It was time to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Pictures don’t do it justice. (Photo by Jake McElveen.)

Daylight returned. People stirred, their eyes lit with wonder, exclaiming, “Wow.” “Cool.” “Incredible.” As I made my way back to my friends, I encountered a phenomenon that wasn’t visible on the lawn of the Rose Garden. The asphalt was covered with little crescents of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, as though the image of the crescent sun had been shattered into a thousand pieces and  projected onto the ground. A stander-by said they’d been present before the totality, facing in a different direction.

A Thousand Crescent Suns

There were no strangers. Everyone was overcome with awe. One said, “There are no words to describe it.” Another, “Words are inadequate.” A lady said she now understood why people get addicted to solar eclipses and will go anywhere in the world to see them. I’d heard that the experience was a life-changing event. It’s true.

Jessica began to talk about the next one, in 2024, and said she intended to watch it. Yes, I thought, me, too. The wonderment buoyed me all the way back to my campsite. That night, all I could think about was that beautiful silver ring that was the sun. It still remains in my mind’s eye.

The next total eclipse in Florida is August 12, 2045. I’ll be…how old by then? In the meantime, there are others in parts of the world I have yet to visit. On April 8, 2024, less than seven years from now, a total eclipse will begin in Mexico, cross Texas and Arkansas (where I have family), the Midwest, and into western New York and New England.

Arkansas, 4-8-24, here I come!

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The mountains beckoned. I had to get high. My daughter in Virginia lives on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The trip there usually takes me two days, but I had to get away from the low country’s heat and humidity and mosquitoes, so instead of my usual route I took US 441, which tracks further to the west. I spent the night in a national forest campground and the next day I was in the mountains. I consulted my roadmaps and my GPS for a good route to my daughter’s and could have driven there in one day, but I couldn’t resist. When the highway intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my heart soared and I turned right and drove all day.

(Disclaimer: You who are familiar with the Rocky Mountains and other lofty ranges may wonder why I find the Appalachians so spectacular. They may appear modest by comparison, but these are old mountains with ancient stories you can feel in your bones.)

This part of the Parkway snakes through the Smokey Mountains, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, than any other part of the road. Heading north, I found the afternoon sun on my right. What? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the west? That was the west! At the moment, the winding road had me going south. The speed limit is 45 mph, but a flatlander like me isn’t going to take hairpin curves at that speed. Fortunately, there are scenic overlooks every quarter mile, it seems, so I could pull off to let more mountain-savvy drivers get by.

Whenever traveling, I try to stop every hour or so to stretch my legs. I reached Waterrock Knob Visitor Center late that afternoon. A good place to stop, I thought, where I could get a new map and inquire about camping. But once I stepped out of my van, I was assaulted by a magnificent view, wildflowers, and mile-high air. On my way to the Visitor’s Center, I was waylaid by a trail. Why not? I’d been driving too long. A long walk would do me good.

 

The sign at the beginning showed options: a two mile trail and a shorter one, only a half mile. The sign didn’t mention that it was half a mile straight up.

I took the asphalt-paved path. Before I reached the first bench, I was out of breath and had to rest. I forced myself to breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the rarified air, and once my heart stopped pounding, I pressed on. The paved path gave way to stone steps which twisted up the side of the mountain. Some had been placed there by mankind, but most appeared to have been graciously set forth by the mountain itself, inviting me to a higher realm.

I made use of every bench beside the path and finally came to a round lookout area enclosed by a low stone wall just the right height for sitting. Had I reached my destination?

A group of young women came down the path. Foolishly, I asked them how far it was to the top. “Oh, it’s a ways, not really that far. It seems farther than it is. We had to stop and rest a lot.” Did I look doubtful? “But it’s really worth it. You’ll be glad you went up.”

I thanked them. They were sweating and out of breath, but they had me—I couldn’t lose face. One was a heavy girl. If she could make this climb, so could I. Struggling to my feet, I resumed my ascent.

Beauty surrounded me—mountains, trees, wildflowers, rocks. I took pictures. Some of the wildflowers were familiar, a few I could guess at, and many I couldn’t identify as they were not found in Florida. The rhododendrons were in bloom. Their southern relatives, my wild azaleas, had blossomed in March. Was the season so late at these heights?

I met two more groups coming down the trail. Each time I asked how much further to the top. The second was a trio who answered as vaguely as the girls had. “Are you just going to the top or are you making the loop?” No! Not the two mile loop! “Oh, it’s a ways, but not too far.”

The third was a fit-looking middle aged couple with backpacks and gear. “You’re just going to the top? You’re almost there. When you get to a wooden bench, take the path to the right and you’ll come to a big rock.” At least they told the truth.

I reached the bench too eager to sit down. The short path to the rock yielded its promised view of more and more mountains. Way down below, in the parking lot, was my van. Yup—a half mile straight up. But the air! I don’t know when I’ve breathed sweeter air. My lungs had blown out all of Florida’s humidity and discovered Oxygen on Steroids.

As I took pictures, the mist rolled up and thunder growled in the distance. Time to go down. I took my time. As I descended, I found more spectacular things to photograph. How did I miss them before? Once I reached the parking lot, my fatigue was gone. I felt good, ready to drive on.

 

But the mountains weren’t done with me. More overlooks, wildflowers, and the approaching sunset. I was higher than the clouds which crept among peaks and valleys below. Finally, I came to Highest Elevation on the Parkway, at 6053 feet, more than a mile high.

A silver car had kept pace with me, stopping to photograph wildflowers, pulling into or out of overlooks as I entered or left. They caught up with me here and the lady said, “We’ve been following you.”

They, too were from Florida. Although heading north on the Parkway, they were returning home from Ohio. The gentleman had never experienced the Parkway, so they’d taken a detour. Kindred spirits, we chatted. I took pictures of them with the magnificent view in the background and they returned the courtesy. “See you at the next overlook,” they said as we parted, but we didn’t connect again.

I camped at Mt. Pisgah and the next day exited the Parkway at Fancy Gap, ready to see my grandchildren, taking the exhilaration of the mile high drive with me.

(See: marieqrogers.com/2017/02/28/the-jewel-of-fancy-gap)

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The month of August saw me traveling and visiting grandchildren, wrestling with my new “smart” phone, and trying to figure out how to use GPS. Before I set out on my trip, I went to a Verizon store for help. I told the nice young man that the GPS insisted on sending me on the Interstate and I don’t do Interstates. “Why not?”  he said. “You get there faster.” What’s his hurry? He’s young. He has plenty of time. As for me, I’m in no hurry to get to the end of my journey, and I prefer to enjoy the drive. You miss a lot when you stick to the Interstate.

You won't find this on the Interstate.

You won’t find this on the Interstate. (Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Google Maps on my computer gives me the option of avoiding highways. Apparently the young man didn’t know how to program my smart phone this way, so he put another app on the phone that (he said) would do back roads. It didn’t.

After plotting my course using road maps and Google Maps, I headed north.

Or this

Or this. (Near Ludowici, GA)

I planned to camp in Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina. Since I got off to a late start that day, it was dark by the time I reached to Uwharrie. I thought this was a good time to put the GPS to the test, since I was far from any Interstate. I pulled over and typed in Uwharrie National Forest campground.

The lady’s voice on the GPS—whoa!–that’s too awkward. Let’s call her GyPSy. (We used to have a pony named Gypsy and she was cantankerous, too.) Anyway, Gypsy directed me down a series of back roads and deposited me in front of someone’s driveway. I didn’t think the residents of the house wanted me to camp in their yard, so I drove on, hoping the campground was nearby. I never found it. Gypsy kept telling me to make U turns, turn down such and such a road, and the like for the next hour until I figured out how to shut her up.

Consulting my map, I concluded I’d taken the wrong road to the national forest. It was raining and I didn’t want to backtrack, so I drove on. The next town had a Walmart. With the permission of a manager, I parked there for the night. The next day I stuck to the directions I’d written down before my trip and reached my granddaughter’s house with no trouble.

One thing I’ve discovered is that newer road maps are less detailed than older ones. That plus poorly labeled roads makes it hard to plot a course. Is there a conspiracy? Do “they” want us to stick to the Interstates? Are “they” trying to sell more GPS gadgets? Or is our growing dependence on GPS letting highway departments get away with sloppy work?

I spent two pleasant weeks in West Virginia. Toying with the phone during my stay, I figured out how to program Gypsy to avoid highways. Before leaving for Virginia, I drove over to Hampshire County in search of some ancestors who are buried in Slanesville. Although, I knew my way around, I thought I’d see if Gypsy could find a short cut. No–the poor dear was lost! Maybe I was too far from any Interstate. That thing on a computer that goes round and round when it’s searching for something went round and round and round until I reached Romney.

Slanesville, WV

Slanesville, WV

I consulted a map and spent the rest of the afternoon driving through picturesque West Virginia mountains. Almost Heaven. I hated to leave but was expected at my daughter’s home in Radford, Virginia that night. I stopped to eat in Covington. The day had been pleasant and sunny, but the night turned dark and rainy. Over supper, I consulted my road map for the most direct route to Radford, then I programmed Gypsy.

Computer savvy people refuse to believe that those devious machines have a mind of their own, but they do. I know what Gypsy was thinking: “So, she wants back roads? Well, I’ll give her back roads!”

And back roads I got. Roads with names like 617 and 725. Roads that weren’t on my map. Before long, I was helplessly lost and dependent on her caprice. Gypsy directed me to turn here and there, mostly in unpopulated areas, through two national forests. One road was so narrow that if I’d met an oncoming vehicle, we’d both have scraped paint off trying to squeeze by. Fortunately, I had plenty of gas and my compass told me I was gradually making my way south. I breathed with relief when I came to US 11, Lee Highway. Now I knew where I was and where I was going.

I have to give Gypsy credit—she got me there in one piece and in the time frame she’d predicted. But how’d she know about these forest roads when she was totally lost on a state road in West Virginia?

Is this Tow Mater?

Is this Tow Mater? (Near Hillsville, VA)

On my way home, she successfully navigated me through Salisbury, North Carolina, where I invariably get lost. I planned to spend the night at Santee State Park in South Carolina, so I gave her this destination. She found a short cut that wasn’t on my map, but when I got to the park, she argued with me that the campground was at a ranger’s residence. Don’t you hate a machine that thinks she’s smarter than you?  But I knew better. A sign clearly pointed to the campground.

The next morning, I expected Gypsy to find a shortcut home, but she routed me through Orangeburg, South Carolina. I didn’t mind. I never drive through that city without stopping at Edisto Memorial Gardens to smell the roses.

Edisto Memorial Gardens

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Several years ago, I bought a third hand, 1989 Dodge Road Trek camper van which takes me on most of my adventures. While its V8 engine is well up to Montana highway speeds, the driver is not. My occasional ventures onto interstate highways are brief, due to my fear of being run over. So, armed with good road maps and a lackadaisical attitude about getting lost, I travel mostly on two lane rural highways.

My grandson Tristan has accompanied me on several trips. He is a great traveling companion. The “Are we there yet?”s are kept to a minimum as long as we make frequent stops at interesting places. Indeed, when I get to the point of wanting to reach a campground before nightfall, he will complain if we pass one of those brown signs, which indicate historical or other places of interest, without stopping.

In July, 2008, after visiting my parents in Blackfork, Arkansas (I challenge you to find it on the map), we headed back to Florida. From Mena, we took Arkansas Route 8 through some pretty countryside: mountains, hills, farmland, and forests. We stopped for a late lunch at Marks Mill Battleground, a quiet roadside park where we could stretch our legs.

But before we could de-camper, we were met by two dogs. They did not appear to be litter mates. One looked mostly hound and the other was a black and white mutt. I wouldn’t let Tristan out of the van until I was sure of his safety. Both dogs turned out to be quite friendly. Tristan dubbed them Joe and Sally and he played with them until we had to leave. Then he wanted to take them with us. I didn’t try to explain how inadvisable it would be to take two stray dogs with no shot records 1000 miles while staying at public campgrounds. I just reminded him that we already had a dog and Teddy might be jealous if we brought two more dogs home.

I have little clue as to Joe and Sally’s history but people had been taking care of them. Both looked quite healthy, in no way neglected. In the picnic area was a small bag of dog food that had been cut open so they could eat. A water bowl nearby was almost empty, so we filled it for them before we left. All the way home, Tristan talked about Joe and Sally and wondered how they were. I told him that they were such nice dogs, someone who had no dog would come by and take them home. And I’m sure that is what happened. In a rural area which has no animal shelter, people who could not provide them with a home, myself included, nevertheless had the goodness of heart to take the time and expense of providing food and water until their fortunes improved.

Whenever I travel on Route 8, I stop at Marks Mill for a break. I think about Joe and Sally at such times, but of course I have never them seen again.

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