Friday, March 30, 2012


We camped at two locations in Arkansas, having absorbed through osmosis the notion that it was a nice place to spend time. First stop was at Lake Catharine State Park, near the resort & National Park city of Hot Springs. We backed up to within a dozen feet of the lake, and settled in to enjoy our stay. It was very warm with daytime temperatures in the mid-80's and around 60 at night. Paddling on the lake brought some relief from the heat, and we watched the banks for the scores of turtles basking in the sun. We collected them and made soup. (No we didn't)

A nice trail followed the lakeshore to a feeder stream with a very nice waterfall...

...with a nice clear pool into which Toby and I considered leaping. We both settled for wading in the cool waters.

One morning we drove to a trailhead north of Hot Springs, to go for a mountain-bike ride. The Cedar Glades trail network was marked up to show which trails were easiest, intermediate, and hardest. Nancy and I rode the easiest one, and Nancy got a taste of the relativity of these trail rating systems. An "easy" trail at one location might be more, or less, easy than an "easy" trail at another network. I think that this one was fairly rated, but it was certainly more challenging than several that Nancy has tackled. After we completed that loop I took off to check out the "most difficult" trail, which was a lot of fun. In keeping with the relativity theme, this one was not really technically harder than the "easy" trail, just longer and with a fairly long climb. Good trail system.

While getting geared up at the trailhead we were approached by a friendly lady who introduced herself as Janis Percefull, a local historian and author. She generously gave us three of her books: one a history of the Ouachita region of Arkansas, and the other two historical fiction about people living in Hot Springs. Check her out at

After the ride we went into Hot Springs to grab some lunch, then checked out Hot Springs National Park.

HSNP is unusual in that it is mostly an urban park. The federal government took control of the region to protect the resource as its popularity grew, and insure that anyone who wanted to enjoy the restorative waters could do so. It is in partnership with a number of bathhouses where patrons would go to soak their troubles away, rheumatism and the like. The bathing craze peaked in the 1940's, and has been declining since. I think just one of the big bathhouses is still operating as such. The park service occupies one of these, which it preserves as a museum. The bathhouses are all beautifully built and maintained structures:

Early bathhouses were wooden, but they found that this left something to be desired in terms of sanitation, rot resistance, and fire resistance. When they all got all skeevy, rotted away or turned to ash, they were replaced by the luxurious stone and tile structures that still stand today.

This stained glass lets light into one of the men's bathing areas:

More stained glass in this beautiful "music room":

This contraption is in the ladies bathing area. Any guesses as to its purpose? Remember, this is a family show...

Our next stop was the town of Ozark, on the Arkansas River, just south of the Ozark mountains. We stayed at Corps of Engineers park Aux Arc (pronounced "ozark"), which was a nice state-park-like facility, and a bargain at $18/night. We again scored a waterfront site...

...with a view of this attractive bridge:

It was even hotter during our stay in Ozark, getting up over 90 during the day, and barely under 70 at night. Our air conditioner got a workout. We went for a paddle on a tributary of the Arkansas, seeking out what little wind there was. I tried out paddleboarding the Frenzy:

We took a drive up into the Ozark mountains where the roads turned narrow and twisty, a challenge with Gigantor's Q.E.II-like handling. An abundance of motorcyclist were out enjoying the mountain roads, and we pulled over many times to let them pass.

It was pretty up there, and a couple degrees cooler. We found a trailhead and took a short hike up to a rough stone house built under a rock overhang:

All along the trail grew Arkansas ground-cover: poison ivy. We had to watch every step to avoid brushing against its leaves. Also in abundance was some kind of wild hydrangea.

On our drive we crossed or followed several rivers with clean water of a beautiful green color:

Many people were paddling these rivers; self shuttling, or shuttled by an adventure outfitter company. So, a good experience in Arkansas. Assuming that it isn't always hotter than the surface of the sun, it would be nice to return to get to know it better.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Life on the Mississippi

Our westward migration took us from one music capitol to another; from Nashville to Memphis - country to blues. We camped on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, just far enough from the city to be away from the noise and light. We were actually in Arkansas at a campground which took a rare but admirable approach to their site plan, wherein the 5th-wheel trailers are in one section and the motorhomes in another. This way the 5th wheels are oriented so that their big rear windows face the river, and the motorhomes are oriented so that their big front windows face the river. All campgrounds with a view should be so arranged.

It was nice to sit by the river and watch the barges labor by. Most of these are actually many barges lashed together to form one enormous one. The largest we saw was 6 barges across and 9 barges long. So one big tugboat pushed 54 barges upriver!:

It was a quick drive to downtown Memphis from the campground, and we went in for music and barbecue, Memphis' other specialty.

Trolleys and ornate horse-drawn buggies carry passengers around the city streets:

We also noticed an abundance of showroom-shined American sedans and SUVs with giant rims and low-profile tires. They looked pretty silly - must be a Memphis thing. We walked around town...

...and ended up on Beale Street, the home of the Blues. Beale Street was hopping - like a mini French Quarter. Crying guitar and raspy vocals filled the air.

We went into B B King's blues club, his original establishment that spawned a series. There we ate pickle chips, pulled pork and BBQ ribs, which Nancy rated the best she's ever had. While we ate Patrick Dodd sang and wailed on his guitar, accompanied by his band, including his soulful keyboard player. Good stuff:

For a different blues experience, we stopped into Mr. Handy's Blues Hall (Juke Joint), where Dr. Feelgood Potts Band was playing some old-school Mississippi blues.

Notice the orange Home Depot 5-gallon bucket for tips. Dr. Feelgood is optimistic!

Not only did we sit in the shade of the awning, watching barges labor past on a hot afternoon, and suck down ribs dripping with barbecue sauce, but we got out for a good mountain bike ride. Tour de Wolf is a six mile mountainbike singletrack trail in Shelby Farms park, east of Memphis. It was a really fun trail for me, and a great one for Nancy as she grows and gains confidence in the sport.

Gentle hills meant that she could focus more on technique, gear shifting and picking lines. Turns out she's very good at picking a line when the trail gets ugly! Here she comes around a corner to find a series of diagonal roots, followed by a wood bridge over a mudhole, and she nailed it!

So, it was a great and relaxing few days in Memphis, on the muddy Mississippi. I leave you with this excerpt from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi:

"The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day."

Friday, March 23, 2012


OK, the next stop falls more into the "when in Rome" category...Nashville, Tennessee. I guess I could have lived my life without regret had I never been to this city, home of country music and the Grand Ole Opry. But Nashville happened to be an appropriate number of hours away from Asheville and in the right direction (West), so we went there, and I don't regret it...

We camped at a private campground not two miles from the famous Grand Ole Opry, but we did not go there to see a show. See, the problem is, it seems only country musicians perform there! Neither Nancy or I is what you would call a country music fan. The closest either of us have ever come to enjoying the genre would be some of the twangier of Jimmy Buffet's songs, maybe an Eagles riff or two, and a few of Johnny Cash's tunes. Nothing against it - don't get me wrong. If a-pickin' and a-grinnin' is your bag, if you like some twangin' in your sangin', that's cool. Just because I'm not a fan doesn't mean it's not perfect for you, right?

But before we get to our lifetime-supply-of-country-music-in-one-evening story, first my bit about the Gaylord (ha!) Opryland Hotel. Nancy had wandered around in there once before and was impressed, so she wanted me to see. I had no expectations - it's a hotel. Whatever. But when we passed through the back entrance and into the Delta atrium, I have to admit, I was pretty amazed. Picture, if you will, a monstrous luxury hotel built so that all of the rooms overlook a giant covered courtyard. Now double that. Double it again. Multiply by nine and divide by seven, then add the square root of pi. That's how big this place is. Fill the football-stadium-sized courtyards with lush tropical foliage, koi ponds, pools, waterfalls, and a freakin' river with boats in it, plus an island with shops and restaurants. Yeah, crazy stuff.

Not just potted palms and ferns thrived there. There were tree species I've never seen before, flowering shrubs, groundcover plants, mosses, water plants, annuals, air plants, and orchids. I think I even saw a truffala tree!

So then there's the music:

I already said that we didn't go to the Grand Ole Opry. I'd have gone, actually. I've found that almost any kind of music is much better when performed live. I bet even bands with names like "Insane Clown Posse", or "Wayne Newton" would be entertaining live. But we didn't go because you pay a bit of money for the privilege, and then file in with 10000 old people, and if you don't like it, then what? Instead we went downtown... Broadway, where all of the Honky-Tonk bars are.

Dozens of these venues line the street, always have live music, and no cover charge. Plus, they serve alcohol! So, we bar-hopped, and checked out three honky-tonk bars and one that was more upscale. In order, they were Legends Corner, Second Fiddle, The Stage and Benchmark. At the first we listened to a five-piece band play straight-ahead country, and just as I suspected, it wasn't objectionable at all played live! And the more we drank, the better it sounded!

Lead signer looked as if his shampoo bottle ran out a while back, but he sang good, I reckon, and he taught us to "Holler 'n' Swaller", which will surely come in handy. Next stop featured a four-piece band that played country that was a little more rock-n-roll, which we actually kind of liked. But in the interest of experimentation, we moved on to The Stage, where there was like a 10 piece band, doing something like country-crooning, and we got the heck outta there. Lastly, at Benchmark, we heard a lot of variety, from country to rock to blues, and it was good.

So, that's our Nashville Country Music experience. Checked off the list (well, first we had to write it on the list, then we checked it off). I won't be so adamant in my dislike for the genre anymore, and if you like it, we can still be friends.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Asheville revisited

Asheville is a great town, but getting there this time ranks as our new number one most annoying drive in two years of travelling. Third place goes to the last few miles of our drive into St. John, New Brunswick.
Second place goes to our drive from Astoria to Troutdale, Oregon (through Portland). This drive was the worst because of multiple and agonizing traffic jams between Columbus and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. For reasons that will remain unknown, traffic came to a stop in the mountains. We crept along for 1/2 hour or so, then it picked back up. Not for long. Another creeping session. Seemed over, but no. The closer we got to Asheville the worse it became. Ultimately I looked out over several bends in the highway and saw zero movement.
So, barely containing my road-rage, I somehow managed to cut across the lanes of stopped traffic and onto an off ramp, and, ignoring the protestations of Madam Garmin, feel my way around the east side of the city and pick up the highway over there. It worked great, but by that time we'd already suffered 1.5 hours of delay. What should have been a 3.5 hour drive took 5. I hate traffic jams under any circumstances, but I really, really hate them with 11000 pounds in tow. was with great relief that we pulled into our campsite,
15 feet away and parallel to the French Broad River. It's constant gentle rushing soothed my soul. Well, that and a stiff santo libre! (That's dark rum, Sprite and a wedge of lime).

The rest of our stay was great, a sequence of sights and experiences that reminded us why Asheville ranked so high on our list of favorite places. Such a funky, relaxed and hip little city, bursting with culture and spirit, its inhabitants free-spirited and healthy. We went into town on the first day, an unseasonably warm Saturday, and Saint Patrick's Day to boot, and found the place hopping. The street musicians were out...

...and impressed us with their quality and originality. We had a tasty lunch at the far-out Mellow Mushroom:

There we learned what Ronald McDonald looked like back in the 60's before he got all corporate:

Also while in Asheville we did laundry at (why didn't anyone think of this before?) a laundromat/bar, called Bar of Soap. We took the dogs to a very well patronized dog park, where Toby engaged in a butt-sniffing contest and some mud wrestling, leaving much less white than he went in:

The summery weather was perfect for a stroll through the North Carolina Arboretum, where the daffodils were still in their glory, and the magnolia and redbud(?) trees were popping:

A trip to Asheville wouln't be complete without some mountain biking, and we both took to the trails at Bent Creek. It was very hot and hilly, so Nancy joined me for a short loop before I went back out to ravage the trails on my own. No pics this time, so imagine if you will, fast and swoopy winding trails, each climb rewarded by a rocketing descent, and punctuated with freqent drainage berms for plenty of opportunities to take flight. It felt great to get back in the saddle and tear up some single track.

Capping off our 2012 Asheville experience was a top-notch BBQ dinner from 12 Bones. We missed this last time because they don't stay open for dinner, but happened by on our way to the dog park and had to pull over to stock up for the evening meal. Crazy-good baby-back ribs, seriously tasty mac-n-cheese, and finally a reason to eat grits - all loaded up with cheese and jalapenos. Still, the ribs, oh, the ribs... If I ever find their equal I'll be sure to let you know.

Gotta love Asheville. I said it before, and I'm sayin' it again. This is a place worth spending a lot more time...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the shores of Strom Thurmond Reservoir

We returned to Hamilton Branch State Park, on the shores of Strom Thurmond Reservoir, because we really enjoyed our stay there back in November of 2010, and wanted to attempt to recreate that experience. And recreate it we did. If anything it was better. Too short, but better. Amazing campsite - huge, water on three sides, no-one else around. Being early season and mid-week, it was like we had the entire campground, even the entire lake to ourselves. Just the sounds of the birds kept us company - rafts of moorhens, flocks of canada geese, loons. Looking out from camp we could see no sign of human beings at all - it was awesome!

View from camp:

Nancy paddles in the reservoir - look carefully and see The Whale along the lakeshore, all by itself:

What brought us (and by us I mean me) here the first time was a mountain bike trail system called FATS (Fork Area Trail System), a highly rated trail network that is a model for trails everywhere. Last time it was just me who marauded the trails, but this time Nancy joined me to put her Mamba to good use!

Look at her go!

We rode the 6 mile long "Skinny" trail together. It was pretty hot, and Nancy is just getting started, so she was pretty tired by the end, but she did great. The next day I went back to really hammer the trails, getting lots of air, and carving up the turns. Excellent trails - I had a blast!

The Brown Wave trail is so named as it feels like surfing and endless wave of brown dirt track:

So, just two full days, days of pedalling and paddling...

...two perfect, peaceful, blissful days to remember always.

Next stop, another return visit, this time in Asheville, North Carolina.