This past week the family and I took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. This, and the events that followed upon our return, are the reasons for my prolonged absence here. Thankfully, Ryan Nye provided some reading material in last week’s post: Guest Post / Contributor: Great Power Competition: A Primer. If you have not had the chance to check it out you really should do so. (This was supposed to be our first post after getting back but the editing process took a bit longer on this one than I anticipated.)
If you have never gone on an extended camping trip you might not realize the preparation it takes to get four kids and a dog out the door. Like most things that I attempt, I underestimated the time that it would take to best prepare for such an endeavor and routine things like coordination with the neighbors on taking care of the animals that we left behind (cats and chickens) and basic pre-movement vehicle inspections were either neglected to the last minute or not performed at all. The following story will hopefully make you laugh a little, leave you a bit hopeful and most importantly emphasize the little things that can help smooth out the challenges that life can throw your way.
In the week prior to our departure, we were busy gathering the foodstuffs and the equipment necessary for a four day three night trip to the Davidson River Campground which is approximately 5 hours away from where we live and is located in the Mountains of North Carolina. If you have never been to the area, I highly recommend it as it is known for hiking, waterfalls, trout fishing, camping and breathtaking views of the Pisgah National Forrest. From the Campgrounds website:
Davidson River Recreation Area offers camping and outdoor activities for the whole family. The campground boasts several loops of shaded campsites, as well as access to hiking trails, fishing spots, waterfalls and several nearby attractions within Pisgah National Forest. It lies just four miles west of the town of Brevard and less than an hour from the city of Asheville. The facility is open year-round.
Campsites are organized into eight loops and some are adjacent to the water. Sites are mostly shaded and equipped with picnic tables, tent pads, lantern posts and campfire rings with grills. The facility also provides hot showers and restrooms with flush toilets in each loop. Campers can purchase ice and firewood on-site and rent bikes nearby.
The campground is located in Pisgah National Forest at an elevation of 2,150 feet. The surrounding land boasts mile-high peaks, cascading waterfalls and slopes thickly forested with hardwoods and conifers. The group camping area is adjacent to the beautiful Davidson River.
The forest is known for its hiking trails, several of which are near the campground. Hikers can challenge themselves with the 12.3-mile Art Loeb Trail, the 3.7-mile North Slope Trail or a 1.5-mile walking trail. The Davidson River offers excellent trout fishing, plus tubing and swimming, which are kid-friendly favorite activities. Visitors wishing to learn more about the area can attend educational programs in summer and fall.
We were going to do it all!
To accomplish such a feat, packing tents, kayaks, bikes, food etc., we would require the use of our trailer. This trailer, however, was purchased after my first Iraq deployment in 2005. I bought it originally to haul my post deployment gift to myself a Ural motorcycle. Don’t let this date fool you, she has been a particularly reliable trailer and it’s not like this trailer was in terrible shape, we routinely use it to haul all sorts of stuff and it did make the trip from Tennessee to North Carolina, almost 700 miles, a few…almost six or seven… years ago.
The day prior to our departure was filled with all of the things homeowner’s must do prior to leaving for an extended trip and included mowing the lawn, taking out the garbage, shopping for food and buying all of the last-minute necessities. We however, decided it would also be a great time to can some pickles because why not? The cucumbers were ready! I did not make a checklist for all of the required items but we had plenty of time even though all of these things delayed the packing and loading of the trailer, but we were on vacation and were not worried.
Nine o’clock in the morning of Sunday, June 28th was our scheduled departure time, check in wasn’t until 2:00 p.m. We wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the sights of the campground and the forest on our first day but since we did not get as much finished as we had expected, we did not get on the road until about 10:30. We still needed gas but an hour and half is not too bad for us, it was going to be a great trip. On our way to the gas station my wife asked if I remembered to pack the tarp and the tubes for floating on the river. I had not, but we knew that we needed to stop on the way and that there were tube rentals by the park, it’s just a few more dollars, no worries. In retrospect, the following exchange between my wife and I would be considered foreshadowing, but in the moment, it doesn’t really mean much more than casual conversation. Just prior to, or just after departing the gas station, I do not really remember, my wife asked me about the condition of the trailer, specifically, would she make it? I confidently assured her that we routinely use it often to carry much heavier loads and that this would not be too much of an ask for her. And for just over four hours of driving, I was right.
Just outside Forest City, NC, my wife had recently taken over the driving duties, we happened to enter a driving rainstorm. It was one of those where cars stop on the side of the road and taillights are difficult to make out in the wash of the torrential downpour. However, we were dedicated and pressed on, albeit slower than we had wanted. When the rain finally began to let up, we heard a strange noise and vibration emanating from the rear of the car. As my wife began surveying the mirrors looking for the potential cause, the tire delaminated and rubber was sprawled across the highway.
We safely moved onto the shoulder as the rain began to pick back up. I surveyed the problem, removed the jack from our car and began lifting the trailer so I could remove the tire. Since the jack was not specifically designed for the trailer, I was having difficulty placing the jack in the correct place and the lug nuts were a different size than those on the car so I was not able to use the lug-nut wrench from the car. We did not have a spare for the trailer anyway so we decided, after a quick Google search, that this was going to require a quick trip to Tractor Supply to get a new tire and a new lug-wrench. In addition, the trailer fender was fairly severely bent when the tire flew off, so we needed to also buy a large hammer (and the tarp that I forgot). Anything can be fixed with the proper application of a large hammer!
Prior to leaving the trailer on the side of the road, I took a picture to ensure that we would purchase the correct tire size. After surveying the available choices for spare tires, and a quick consultation with my brother (he’s a mechanic) on the meaning of the numbers on the side of the tire in regards to height and width, we decided it would be best if we purchased two complete tires and rims because Tractor Supply did not have the exact size that we needed in stock. On the drive back to the trailer, I wore a small smile because I was confident in my abilities to fix the unexpected and I enjoy the challenge that often makes the fodder for a good story. I fully presumed to be back on the road in less than 30 minutes.
I quickly beat the bent fender back into place and removed the tire. As the sweat was pouring out of me, I went to place the first spare on the trailer…repositioned and tried again. It did not fit. Apparently, the two spare tires that we picked up had a different bolt pattern. Grumble. We quickly loaded the two newly purchased spares and the blown-out tire, I did get the correct lug wrench, and drove back to Tractor Supply. By this time, it was almost 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The bolt pattern on my trailer, 5×5.75, was apparently unique in the utility trailer world and they did not have a spare that would fit that bolt pattern. I began to reassess our options by searching for a tire shop that may be open. Little did I know that my wife was doing the same. In addition, she also called all of the U-Haul dealers in the immediate area. Nothing was open. My wife and I were openly discussing our dilemma when one of the attendants overheard our conversation about U-Haul. They said that they have a trailer that we can rent for only $27 a day! It was the same size and we were back in business. As we quickly began to shuffle all of our gear between the trailers my wife openly wondered if our trailer would be o.k. sitting on the side of the road. I noted that it was not in the best shape and the uniqueness of the lug pattern and that we would be taking the tire with us, all of these should deter the would be thieves. So, we proceeded west toward the camp with high hopes for the rest of our trip. I really need to pause here for a moment to note how particularly helpful the folks were at Tractor Supply. They could have been some of the nicest people that I have ever met. So, if you are ever in the Forest City Tractor Supply you should feel confident in the level of service that you will receive.
We pulled into camp with enough time to set up and cook some hotdogs prior to darkness descending on the forest. It was all good, we made it, had a few drinks to take the edge off and were about to settle into a nice sleep before a day of fun and adventure. At about 3 in the morning, the sky split open and rain began to pour down on us in near biblical proportions. The tent had some minor leaks but we awoke to a dawn that was surprising pleasant given the circumstances. After a quick check of the weather, we decided that we should get as much as possible out of today as it was the only day in our planned trip where there was no rain in the forecast. The trailer return and recovery were postponed by one day. The kids swam, fished, kayaked and we got the tire fixed for the trailer at a local joint called Charlies Tire and Auto Service in Brevard, NC. The waiting room was filled with all kinds of mounted wonders like, bears, wolves and fox it was awesome (the wolf was roadkill from Alaska). The people were amazing, we decided to purchase two tires for the trailer, one for the rim that we had and one for when we got the trailer back to camp.
I am not going to lie, during the previous weeks I have been kind of down on humanity. The news has not been overwhelmingly positive to say the least, but this trip was going a long way in restoring my hope in the citizenry of our country. We routinely met with people that were nice, polite and courteous. It seemed everyone had a smile and were relieved to be away from the noise that emanated from the current news cycle.
Early the next morning, we were greeted with more rain. I had put up the tarp that we purchased at Tractor Supply and we enjoyed a nice breakfast of peach and pecan pancakes and fresh coffee. The wife and kids went swimming and fishing and I departed for Forest City to return the trailer. I expected to only be gone for about 3 hours and we should have plenty of time left to enjoy our last scheduled night at the camp. I returned the trailer and texted my wife that Phase I was complete and I would be on my way back shortly. As I drove up the road to where we left our trailer, I could not shake the foreboding feeling instilled when I noted an SUV on the side of the road will all of the its tires missing. That’s weird I wondered, as the gentlemen sat crouched on the side of the road with his head in hands with blue lights flashing as a warning. I could not remember the exact location of the trailer, only that it was between the two main exits for Forrest City. I drove from one to the other and saw nothing but a pile of blocks. I circled back to the definite spot and the trailer was gone.
Being a rather hopeful (perhaps a little naive) I did not automatically think the trailer was stolen, who would take it, I wondered. I figured the Cops or Highway Patrol must have moved it. After several calls and some rerouting to the Highway Patrol, it was confirmed that the trailer was there because they filed a report and the cops did not move it. I shook my head in disbelief as I calmly waited to file the police report. I was not overly optimistic about a recovery. Since the trailer was purchased in Tennessee it did not require licensing in North Carolina and I am pretty sure the VIN number was on a sticker that has long since worn off. The police officer asked me what was the value of the trailer and honestly, if I sold it, it would only be worth maybe $500 but to replace it? I did not know for sure. After a short conversation with the wife due to bad cell service and a driving rainstorm at the camp, I was on the road with only a police report in hand and currently no way to get our gear back home.
I returned to camp to discuss the situation and found that it had been raining the entire time I was gone. The wife and kids were ready for a break but did not want to be stuck in the vehicle while I ventured out to get a new trailer. After a quick Google search and a call for a reference I drove a little over 15 miles up the road to Reece Trailer Sales. Again, I encountered nothing but great people but was left with a choice that could have dire consequences. I could purchase a 5×10 trailer for $1500 or a 6×10 trailer for $2100…. I knew what I should do, but when you have four kids everything needs to be considered when budgeting. With trepidation, I could not remember the exact dimensions of my trailer but believed it to be a 5.5×10, I choose the 5×10 knowing that it could be a tight squeeze on the way back home. After returning the formerly purchased tires that we no longer needed, I made my way back to camp at about 5:00. The rain had been pouring down the entire time I was gone, we had no dinner ready, we had not gone hiking as planned and our trip was supposed to be over the next morning.
Our new trailer and camp
The wife and kids were a bit on edge so we sprinted to the car, searched for some of the closest waterfalls and made a plan to order Jet’s Pizza. Looking Glass Falls and a short hike was just what we needed for a mental reset. After filling our bellies with pizza, we decided that this trip would require another night. To do this, we were going to have to move camps in the morning as ours was already booked for the next day. We bit the bullet, reserved the site and went to bed knowing we had a big day of moving camp and exploring to salvage this trip. The morning was clear but knew that rain was on the way. By 11:30 camp was set up as the sprinkles began to fall. Sprinkles turned to rain and we needed to go for a drive. I had promised the kids ice cream anyway. We headed south and ended up in Toxaway, NC. It was beautiful. After speaking with a local shop owner we decided that a quick adventure to Gorges State Park was in order to check of hiking and more waterfalls.
Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park
When we left camp, we were not really thinking about hiking, just getting out of the rain so we did not grab extra water and were mostly wearing flipflops. We arrived at the trailhead, 1.5 miles to the falls. Turning back was not really an option, we were on a time crunch and had to go. How bad could a difficulty rating of ‘strenuous’ be? It’s only 3 miles total right? Actually, the trail was not too bad, we did drink some water from quickly moving streams and Fours feet did develop blisters just after half-way. We rotated carrying her on our shoulders and ultimately, I ended up being very proud of One’s performance of carrying her most of the way. He wanted to prove to me that he could! The falls were amazing and I would do it again.
That night, the wife made some amazing jambalaya and we slept knowing that we got the absolute most out the trip that we could with the lone exception that the boys had not yet caught a trout. As the wife and I were packing, the kids were swimming and fishing. We had to rearrange the trailer to make everything fit and were almost finished when we saw Two speeding up the hill on his bike. They were catching fish and wanted us to see. It was awesome, four trout just prior to the need to begin the long trip home. The drive was uneventful.
One and Two with their four trout
When we finally pulled into the drive and opened the garage door, I noticed that the cats did not run out to great us like they normally would. Interesting. As I opened the inside door, I noticed that the cat door that allowed access to the litter box was locked. For five days the cats did not have access to their box…they used our daughters’ bed. The smell was indescribably bad as we choked back heaves while we tried to clean it up. As pet owners, we own a steam cleaner, one that we often use for such mishaps. As I was attempting to clean my daughter’s mattress water began to leak on my foot. It was broken and so was I. Through all of the last days, I maintained a relentless positivity, the kids did not complain once and the wife was incredible. This was the last straw; a small cloud of profanity is still hanging like a fog over Eastern North Carolina.
After some encouragement, I pulled myself back together, taught One how to gut a trout and had some of the best fish I have ever eaten. Here is the really simple recipe if you are interested:
4 fresh gutted trout (leave the head and skin on)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves finely minced
4-6 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme
1 lime thinly sliced
salt and pepper
Combine olive oil and garlic in small sauce pan. Heat olive oil until the garlic becomes fragrant. Let cool. Brush olive oil inside and outside the fish. Sprinkle the inside of each fish with salt and pepper, then layer the thinly sliced lime inside the fish and then stuff with lemon thyme sprigs. Cook fish on open charcoal fire over medium heat until the skin begins to peel off (about 5-7 minutes on each side).
After a long weekend of cleaning, we ventured out on the boat and other than catching 4 keeper black drum, which we later ate as fish tacos, had an uneventful trip. It was perfect.
So, what have I learned or relearned? The basics.
Make a checklist so you do not forget things
Routinely service your vehicles and check the tires
Most importantly, keep a relentlessly positive attitude when life throws the unexpected at you.
In addition, I got supremely lucky in marriage department. I do not know many wives that would have put up with all of the difficulties that we faced and not once took the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’ even though she could have been justified in doing so. I believe most would have thrown in the towel and went home. If we had not maintained a relentlessly positive attitude (Positive Polly as my wife calls it), we could have missed the natural beauty that Western North Carolina provided and the grace and friendliness of all of the folks that we met along the way. Were there difficulties, yes. But there were also many great memories made and I would do it all again.