Bicycling and More

April 19

The plan for the three nights/two days we had left in our trip was to share some of the cycling opportunities in the area with Mark and Angie; they, too, were just starting the cycling season and wanted to take it a bit easy on some flat terrain. Two notable rails-to-trails conversions relatively nearby are the Tobacco Heritage Trail (Boydton) and the Highbridge Trail (Farmville).

Still, our first cycle jaunt was Jack’s and my usual tour of the North Bend campground. Our “game” is to take every paved left-hand turn we can make throughout the campground (even around the barriers to un-opened areas), hitting each campsite loop, boat launch, group-camp loop, picnic area, etc., and eventually ending up back at our campsite.


The last time Jack and I did this at North Bend, we clocked just over 10 miles. On this adventure, we added a crossing to the other side of the major hydro-electric dam, and got in nearly 13 miles all told (my average speed was 9.5MPH). We were all hungry, so we decided to skip going downhill (and then back up—a serious chug) to the picnic and launch area “beneath” the hydro-plant itself, and instead decided to head back out again, aimed at the Tobacco Heritage Trail, after a good nosh.

The day was splendid, although the wind seemed to never die, as was the case at First Landing. At lunch Jack and I decided the wind was strong enough that we rolled up the awning, leaving it attached to Roomba by the Kieder Rail, and secured the poles and guy lines so they would not blow into the lake.

We loaded the bikes on Mark’s four-bike hitch rack, piled into his van and headed to Boydton to find a trail head for the Tobacco Heritage Trail. As it turned out, the parking area we were looking for wasn’t in Boydton at all, but rather LaCrosse, a small burb just east of Boydton.


We got started around 2:45, and the beginning part of the trail at this section is paved, which is very nice for riding. But the wind was wicked (again), and we didn’t know exactly how far to go nor how long it would take us. Angie wanted to get back to camp (about a half-hour drive) in time to do some prep work for the dinner they wanted to host for us. So we decided we’d ride for an hour, turn around, and head back. 

Once we started peddling on the cinder/sand surface of the trail, things got more difficult because the footing didn’t seem to be packed as hard as some other cinder trails we’d ridden in the past. But the Tobacco Heritage Trail is a relatively new effort, and has been completed in sections only, so this was not surprising. The last time Jack and I had ridden this trail, we went all the way to Lawrenceville. On this day, we went about 14 miles (7 out and back). The return was a challenge since the wind was in our face the entire time, and still rising with significant gusts. We were all glad we’d decided to roll up our awnings before leaving camp.



Once we got back to camp, Mark and Angie beavered around getting our dinner together, and insisted we bring nothing but ourselves. The effort was made to sit outside while we enjoyed starters, but the final decision was to make the room inside their 1743 for all four of us to sit down because it was so cold and windy. We had a wonderful meal of “chicken pouches” done on the grill. All the veggies, potatoes, and meat for each person—in other words, each meal—was combined and secured in a foil pouch and roasted on the grill until done. It was quite yummy, with Cole slaw on the side, and ice cream and strawberries for dessert. 

April 20

On the final full day of our trip, we had an appointment to show our Alto to some folks who live nearby. While in Virginia Beach, a newcomer to the Alto-interest group on Facebook (to which we have belonged for years) asked if there were any owners in the vicinity of Boydton. Since we were going to be there, Jack invited Scott and Myra to come by North Bend. We spoke to them for about an hour, and they had really done their research—had even tried a friend’s longer American-made trailer—and asked really good questions. 

After Scott and Myra hopped over to briefly see Mark and Angie’s fixed-roof setup, we used Mark’s bike rack in our hitch (to share the driving) and headed to one of our favorite rail-trails, Highbridge Trail in Farmville. It was about an hour’s drive and we decided that we’d eat lunch in town before setting off on the ride. Scott had recommended a place on the river called Charlie’s and we found it and ate quite a good meal of soup and sandwiches (the full name might be Charlie’s Riverside Cafe or some such).


Farmville sits at the approximate middle of the entire rail-to-trail conversion. We headed toward the High Bridge itself, which is East of Farmville (we’ve ridden the trail west out of Farmville, but there is nothing to see and it’s an obvious, steady, significant uphill crank going that direction—truly exhausting outbound, but somewhat of a thrill coming back to town on the downhill).


The High Bridge itself has lots of history both before and during the American Civil War. Just beyond the bridge is a stop with reader boards discussing the Confederates’ attempts to protect the bridge, and the structure’s importance during Lee’s retreat to nearby Appomattox, where the war ended with his surrender.

With Farmville being a college town, there were many young adults using the trail on the day we rode. The infrastructure for this trail is excellent so we did not want for pit stops, and the cinder footing is well-packed and tire-friendly. Also, the wind had finally decided to give us a break, which was a good thing, since the High Bridge is indeed, quite high.

We started the ride at about 2PM and peddled for about 1.5 hrs. covering a total of ~17 miles. My average speed was 11MPH, while Jack’s was up to 12.5MPH because he “found his zone” on the return from the bridge, and smoked the rest of us back to the car.

It was our turn to do dinner, so we put together some Brunswick stew (the area is famous for its Brunswick stew), grilled some bratwursts, and accompanied the whole with some fresh-baked rolls (in the Omnia oven).

During this entire trip, we did not have one campfire, due to the winds and rains. So on our last night, the air wasn’t exactly still, but it was still enough that we did not fear setting ourselves or our surroundings alight, so we enjoyed our dessert of Trader Joe’s chocolate-filled crepes (heated in the Omnia) by the fire until about 9 or so, and called it a night. 


Mark and Angie wanted to be off early the next morning toward their next destination (Savannah). On our minds was the fact that our house sitter told us he needed to vacate by noon. Even though it’s just a 3-hour drive, we didn’t want the doggies to be left inside the house terribly long. So our goal was to be on the road no later than noon.

Thus ended the April Birthday and Bicycling trip. We hope to do a similar early-cycling adventure next spring.

PS – When we got home, the first thing we saw was our screened-in porch punched in on one panel, with muddy BEAR PAW prints on the outside of the screening. Interesting visitor in our absence, which the house sitter had heard during the 3AM incursion, and yelled at to chase it away. No damage done except the screen.

Difficult to see in the pic, but the muddy paw prints around and below the tear in the screen indicate the bear was probably not an adult, but certainly (by any measure) big enough. From the ground (my flowers!) it was standing on, it’s about 4 feet up to the tear.

Final Stop: Grindstone Federal Campground, Virginia

Friday, August 4

Not much of note about the drive to Grindstone, which, of course, is always good news. Although on the main road out of Oak Hill (Rt. 93) there had been two accidents, the first of which appeared to be the result of the alternating-lane road work the crew had probably just begun. It looked to be a serious rear-ending, likely from the second car going to fast around a curve and right into the back end of the last car waiting at the one-lane-only construction.

It was mostly interstate the rest of the way. I tried but was unsuccessful in the attempt, to load a blog post or two as we ate at a McDonalds, so I dropped a line to my Facebook page instead. As Grindstone has no cell service, never mind wifi, I’ll have to upload once I get back home. What we WERE able to do, since we had finished our audio book and both of us had finished our Kindle books, was to get more entertainment via Mickey D’s wifi. I love technology (when it works).

Anyway, we arrived between 2:30 and 3PM, set up in the totally lovely site 52 (Cottontail Loop), and still had plenty of time to cook burgers on the grill. Both of us reported having very tired eyes, but thoroughly enjoyed the Carl Hiaasen book we listened to, Razor Girl, an oldie, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Climbing up to Grindstone, our temps fell from the high 80s down to the low 70s, and we just sat around and soaked up the cool, rejoicing in not having to close up and hit the AC. This site is one we had spied last year when we were here, and really liked the looks of. It’s deep and wide, and behind is a clear meadow (although not a huge space) where we want to bring the doggies and let them run just a little bit. The fire ring is well positioned away from the awning, and the shade is constant.

Site 52 on Cottontail Loop
The woods throughout offer plenty of privacy
Roomba is as happy as Lee and Jack
The meadow for doggie ball-throwing action next time

As we were setting up, the clouds kept rolling past, making it quite a dark site, and inside Roomba, I had to turn on lights so I could “nest.” It never rained on us, but it sure looked as if it wanted to.

The plan for both full days of our stay at Grindstone is to head to the Creeper Trail and get some pedal-pushing under our belts. So we hit the hay after an adult beverage and bundling against the cold; and cocooned ourselves, knowing we didn’t have to arise early.

Saturday, August 5

It was 8:30 before we emerged on Saturday. We got right to the business of breakfast, finishing up the last two sausage patties, and the two remaining eggs (from the spinach pie) for brekkie sandwiches. Then we kitted up for the drive to Damascus, where we’d jump on the trail, ride, and do some provisioning before returning.

Remembering that the Creeper Trail toward Abingdon went right behind Damascus’s primary grocery store (a really good Food City), we decided to park there and catch the trail, ending back in the parking lot for shopping. We both really like the Creeper, as it’s a truly lovely, mostly shady run. Like most rail-to-trail conversions, there’s a gradual downhill coupled with a gradual uphill for the day. What I hadn’t remembered, however, was this: even though you’re riding downriver headed to Abingdon, because of these mountains, the way is not a steady downhill going out with the prospect of a steady uphill on the (tired) return. It’s actually about half and half both ways.

For the history and naming of the trail, see Peregrinations post from last year, and scroll toward the end to read all about it:

By starting at the Food City (around 12:30), we cut about a mile off where we’d begun the ride last year, so we had about 15 miles by the time we turned around in Abingdon. Turning around, we went back to Alvarado and (like last year) we stopped for lunch somewhere between 2 and 2:30. The River Cafe does a great job with lunch and they also offer free wifi, so we settled in for about an hour and a half, hydrating, eating, and resting; and finished the ride sometime around 6:30P.

Damascus is a serious outdoors person’s town, specializing in bicycling and hiking (this is where the Appalachian Trail enters Virginia)


Cycling stats:

  • Ride time = 2:32
  • Stopped time = 1:25
  • Distance = 30.24
  • Average speed = 12mph
  • Fastest speed = 18mph
  • Ascent = 556 ft.

Shopping was quick and easy, and we embarked on the half-hour drive back up to Grindstone around 7-ish. Honestly, neither of us was terribly hungry when we got back, but we decided not to shower, since we planned to ride the same distance next day. We even left the bikes on the car, so we could make it a slightly earlier day. Happily, dinner was quick and easy to throw together: chicken salad on a bed of good greens with cheese, croutons and crackers on the side.

I opted for a couple of the beers I’d picked up at the Full Bottle Swap event at the Convention. The idea is to take one of your fave local brews (or a selection thereof) and for every one you bring, you are able to take a similar sample from others participating, brought from their own locales. My first sampling was from Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville, CA — it was their self-named India Pale Ale. Next I tried SnapBack, “A west coast IPA for the weird at heart.” This came from Mother’s Brewing Company in Springfield, MO. I liked the SnapBack best of the two.

We had picked up some kiln-dried firewood and kindling at the Food City, so we had a very nice fire, while our neighbors to the left and over the “meadow” were sending smoke signals. Feeling quite smug, we enjoyed the fire and some tunes while the Saturday Night frolics happened amongst friends all around us (although this loop is quite staid and relatively quiet, as compared to the Groundhog loop, where we were sited last year). We saved enough of the wood to enjoy another round tomorrow night. Around 9PM we packed it in and made sure to open the blackout curtains a little after our lights were out so we’d see some daylight in the morning and not sleep until all hours.

Sunday, August 6

After a breakfast of cinnamon rolls from the Omnia, we headed out moderately early, around 9:30A. The plan for today was to find a parking lot midway up the White Top Mountain end of the Creeper Trail — a section I’ve not ridden for many year, which most folks ride only on the downhill side, having been shuttled or dropped off at the tops. Jack had made an effort to ride up to the top of White Top a couple years back, but was toppled off the edge by someone coming down who didn’t remember she didn’t have coaster brakes on her rental unit, and never slowed down before nearly hitting him. He left the trail and tumbled down the side in his effort to avoid a collision.

What we thought we’d do this time, to get our 15 miles out and 15 back (and not have to take the same ride as yesterday) was to park at this waypoint not too far up the Mountain and not too far from Damascus, then ride uphill as far as we could before the “downhill bombers” met us, then turn around and head (in front of the people who don’t know how to ride) into Damascus.

Evidently, the families and troops and reunions that shuttle to the top get a later start on Sundays. We rode every bit of 7 miles before the packs of folks who haven’t been on a bike in 100 years came wobbling past. It was a tough climb, and our tires were too inflated to make the rough surface any easier on our fannies and hands, so we paused at our selected turn-about to let some air out of the tires, planning to stop at the car en route back down to re-inflate them for the flats (generally speaking).

It was a good plan and worked out quite well. There were two family packs that bombed past as we deflated, so once we began our descent it was a bit of a trick to get around those two unsure, wobbly groups. And due to the rough surface (very sharp and difficult-to-see rocks sitting significantly proud of the surface, mostly — but also roots and mud and sand) we had to concentrate and hang on to our handlebars and brake levers with a death grip.

Finally down the steepest part and re-inflated, we meandered through Damascus thinking to find a Gatorade for a spot of energy, but ended up at the Food City again, with fruit juice instead. This time, our stoppage time was only 45 minutes. We had two more miles past Food City to go so we’d close in on 30 miles by the time we got back to the car, because we’d calculated that our trip would be about 8 miles from our Food City turn-around to finish.

Those were just about the longest 8 miles I’ve ridden in a while. Tired from yesterday, tired from the earlier climb up toward White Top, my legs were just depleted for that final climb, all uphill from Damascus to the car. I stayed in the largest crank ring, and wavered between the #2 and #3 sprockets in the back, really working hard. When Jack, who had led the whole way and “cleared the path” for “wheezing-behind-Lee” (clearing the path against the remaining “downhill bombers” still making their way toward the shuttle parking lots), reported that we were about 9 tenths of a mile short of 30, I was happy to stop despite being disappointed that the Big Three Oh had not been logged. Overall, it had been a hotter day than the one before, even taking into account the fact that the first climb up toward White Top had been gloriously cool, moist, and shady.

Quite near our finish line, we overtook a group that had distinguishing features enough that we could identify them as the very first “downhill bombers” we’d passed after we’d turned around to descend that morning.

Typical scene along the steep part headed up White Top, from one of the many trestle bridges

Cycle stats for day 2 of our back-to-back 30-milers:

  • Ride time = 2:45
  • Stopped time = 44 minutes
  • Distance = 29.1
  • Average speed = 10.6mph
  • Fastest speed = 18.85mph
  • Ascent = 1120 ft.

In town, Jack had checked the weather, and we decided the better part of valor would be to get back and break down as much camp as we could that day. The rain was forecast to begin at around 10 that night, and carry on throughout the night and into departure day. Minimizing the amount of wet stowing we’d have to do, we got most stuff packed up, and then showered.

But there was plenty of time for a good dinner of hamburger steaks, boiled potatoes, and grilled veggies, plus an adult beverage or two around our second fire. While we were fixing dinner, a teensy teardrop pulled in with operators who obviously did not know how to back into their site, across the way from us – newbies to this camping routine, we guessed. Eventually, they created the strangest setup we’ve seen, with a large tent as their main living quarters and an awning pitched so high (to include the large tent) that all the rain water would flow back onto their little trailer. And forget their setup if the wind came up!

I mention that because after our dinner, they stopped by and we gave our final Alto tour of the trip. Although they seemed happy with their tiny teardrop (towed, incidentally, with a Subaru Outback) they called it “a bed in a box.” It was custom-made by a guy who does this, I think they said he operates out of Texas, but I might be mistaken.

It did, indeed, rain most of the night and we managed to await a break in the showers to hitch up, but we still took our time and didn’t check out until the area’s 1PM checkout time. We noticed that the neighbors’ reverse awning had, indeed, caught a pool of water overnight, and they’d tried to offset that weight by pushing a pole up in the center – but still the water flows back onto their trailer and living space. Strange, but I guess they’ll learn as they go.

It’s been a great trip and will be difficult to get back to “real life” after the 3-hour drive home from Grindstone, still one of our favorite camping places of all time. Looking forward to seeing the puppies again!


Douthat State Park, Virginia

Most of us did a lot of lazing around on Wednesday, October 5. JB and Martha got into camp from their adventures in RV Repairland at about 11:30A. Ken and Diane wanted to spend a lot of time with Barley hiking some of the many, many trails around the park, and I think in the end they made some 6 miles.

They highly recommended a portion of their hike that went past a waterfall and up a ridge to the Tuscarora Overlook. They said the best way to get there was to traverse Blue Suck Falls Trail, and some of it is challenging and steep, but well worth the effort, they said. There’s a shelter and bench and resting/picnicking area at the overlook, and if you start at the dam end of Douthat Lake, it would be somewhere in the 4 mile range. We might think about carrying a few snacks when we go up there. Next Time.

We did hop in the car and run up to the park store and restaurant to grab some ice, and at the same time, we got a trail map. There’s apparently another waterfall to see along a different trail, and the waterfall is maybe a mile and three-quarters before the path begins climbing and switch-backing. The trail is called Stony Run, and there’s a parking area at the trailhead near the road. Jack and I wanted to do some biking this time (we hadn’t even brought our cycles last year when we made this trip) and we noticed another trail, part of the Allegheny Highlands Multiuse Equestrian State Trail. Its trailhead is tucked in the woods right at the very beginning of the Whispering Pines campground loop, near the (narrow) main road. We were lamenting the fact that the main road carries big rigs, and is actually a commuter road through the middle of the park, even though the speed limits are quite low (35 and 25 MPH). It has zero shoulder, and so we were worried about riding along it for 3 miles just to get to the Park Office, not to mention adding another half-mile of curvy uphill to get up to the restaurant and lakeside.

So we asked the person in the Office if the Equestrian trail (called Flat Run Trail, sounding more positive for us) was appropriate for bicycles, and she said sure. It ends at the day-use Horse Trailer parking area, but that’s only a few hundred yards from the Office. Sounded good to us for an exploration next day.

Wednesday evening, we wanted to grill a pork roast for everyone, and each couple volunteered to bring a go-with. I’d thought I’d boil up some potatoes to accompany the meal, but a pasta/pesto side, a salad, a sweet potato casserole, and some fresh tomatoes all ended up being tossed into the hopper, so I didn’t have to do anything except start and mind the fire.

We had a lovely meal that night around a beautiful fire (even if I do say so myself). The wind was still, and the temps mild, so it was simply a perfect evening with friends.

We began our last full day of this camping adventure (Thursday, October 6) by saying an early goodbye to Ken and Diane. They live in eastern North Carolina, and with hurricane Matthew bearing down on FL and SC, they felt that it might be wise to get home and see if they can batten down any hatches. Frankly, they might have to turn right around and meet Kerry & Gloria back up in VA, to seek refuge from the storm.

The day dawned with a blue sky, and Jack reported that he’d seen the constellation Orion when he got up in the night. It was, however, 44 degrees inside and 43 outside at our site, so we had to run the heat pump for a little just to get the chill off.

With our coffee and tea, we heated some frozen spanakopita (spinach and cheese) filo dough triangles, and I must say, they turned out pretty darn good in the Omnia oven. I used the rack, could get only 7 in the one layer, and heated them up on medium-low for 15 minutes, and at medium for another 15; then I turned them back down to medium-low for the third 15 (in my experience, nothing cooks quickly in the Omnia, which is fine with us). Yum.

The temperature was still in the mid-50s when we hopped on our bikes, and I elected to leave my jacket behind, so I had to ride a fast loop around the paved campground to warm up. Then we headed to the Flat Run Trail origin.

We were fine for the first section – rocky but pretty manageable. Then we got to a deep ditch that we had to walk through, and things went quickly pear-shaped from there. Jack let some air out of his tires so he could keep the fillings in his teeth. I soldiered on, but it was tricky going. The path more-or-less paralleled the road, so all of the drainage culverts carrying water off and under the road intersected the trail, and dried debris carried by the stormwater made parts of the trail unnavigable.

As a trail, it’s a great horse path. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone on a bike without fat tires and some suspension on their machines.

There are, however, two excellent bridges. One is a suspension bridge that I would not have touched with a ten-foot pole (vertigo), but I asked Jack to give it a walk so I could take some photos. This one is in place to cross a shallow but wide creek to carry hikers along an intersecting trail.

The other is a part of the Flat Run Trail itself, and is sturdy and an interesting color blue. We crossed it and soldiered on, though the trail’s footing was quickly deteriorating even more. Large stones, both well-set but sticking above the trail surface; and those kicked loose by hooves and feet made the cycling very unsteady. Several additional ditches were not ride-able with our cycles, so we had to watch the path carefully and dismount on many occasions.

At last we made it the 2.58 miles to the parking area for the horse trailers, and we scurried onto the main road for the last bit to the Park Office. We really didn’t need to stop there for anything, so we carried on along the road to the Lakeside Restaurant (open only weekends this time of year).

Jack felt his tires might be rolling on their rims (well, not really, but they were very soft) so we stopped and he got out a cartridge to refill to something nearer pavement PSI (80 for his tires). We went on to the end of the park where the horse camping is (Beaver Dam Campground), and took our Site Tour Boogie through there; then headed back toward home with a long stop at our fave camping area discovered last year, which is the Lakeside Campground, a no-hookups area that is quiet, beautiful, and as the name implies, right beside the Lake. While the sites are not reservable, they do allow pets, so Next Time, we will check them out to see if we might boondock there.

After visiting the last camping area (White Oak), we returned to Whispering Pines along the road, and made one stop to see the trail head for the Stony Run Trail, and our intention was to have lunch, then drive back with appropriate foot gear and hike up to the waterfall.

Our cyclometers indicated it had been a 13 miler, and we raced back along the road to beat the traffic (not one vehicle came up behind us), and Jack’s computer said his top speed along the road was 29 MPH.

Leftovers for lunch, and we got sleepy in the sun. Jack wanted to do some packing that afternoon, so we decided to ditch the hike and take our showers and tidy the campsite. Next Time.

As the afternoon segued into evening, JB built a fire at his site, and we all gathered there for the cocktail hour.

Still emptying out the refrigerator and cupboards, we had leftovers again and I got to make the potatoes I’d intended to make the night before, and we used up the fresh veggies in a big salad. The evening was clear and relatively warm, but the forecast was for rain beginning overnight, and everyone said they were going to try to beat the damp by breaking camp early the next AM.

Jack and I finally pulled out around 10A, and had a totally uneventful but quite wet drive home; about 3 hours, plus a stop for lunch and fuel along the way. We followed a full dump truck the entire length of Rt. 8 from Christiansburg’s Floyd exit off I-81, so the speed along there was only about 45 MPH.

In the pouring rain, we off-loaded most of the stuff in the car and in Roomba, then (after the Subie engine had cooled down) backed Roomba to stand the week in front of the garage.
Next adventure is the one we’ll take right before winterizing everything for a winter’s sleep.

Let falconry season begin!

Hoosier National Forest

Jack and I stayed two nights in the Charles C. Deam (yes, that’s supposed to be an “m” not an “n”) Wilderness area, 13,000 acres of the Hosier National Forest in Indiana. The campground we stayed in Sunday, July 31 and Monday, August 1—Hardin Ridge State Recreation Area—is one part of the Wilderness area that was designated as such in 1982. The entire area is managed to preserve a natural condition and provide opportunities for solitude.

The campsites are mostly level and actually better-maintained than the above description might lead one to believe. The really noticeable aspect of this being a wilderness area is there is quite a lot of greenery and un-tended space between each site. 

Hoping for a bike ride if the weather holds
Our set up and Jack’s home for the next week
Under the awning and in the outdoor kitchen

On Monday, it was raining, so we decided to head into Bloomington to do some shopping. A nice bridge or causeway spans the enormous recreational lake adjacent to the area, Lake Monroe. It was fun to drive through Bloomington, because one of our fave movies is Breaking Away, a cycling story set in that college town. We did our shopping but it was still rainy or threatening rain, and this was my “send off” dinner night (before I went to Indianapolis/Carmel for my business meeting). So we endeavored to build a campfire in the intermittent rain, and had some success. Grilled steaks with fresh corn on the cob and portobello mushroom caps (also grilled—Jack was the chef of the evening) were yummy.

Building a campfire in the rain takes patience and persistence
This gives a good idea of the space between campsites
When it really poured a couple of times, we took refuge in the screened porch

It finally cleared up enough for us to sit by the fire to finish up our wine and the day.

Skies clearing above

We took a bike ride Tuesday morning, before I had to head north. We rode all around the campground and rec area and logged 12 miles by following all the loops, and heading all the way down hill (a rather steep grade, at that, which was delightful heading down, but somewhat of a chug climbing back up) to the beach and public access area for Lake Monroe. 

Boat launch area for Lake Monroe
Lovely swiming beach and picnic area
At the top of the chug back up from the beach is a pretty overlook back to the Lake

Our observations, having seen the 4 or 5 loop areas where camping is permitted (plus one section where there are just a couple of cabins) indicated that the first two loops closest to the ranger station are the oldest. The shower/restroom structures in these two loops are the oldest. While they are certainly clean, the fixtures and structures themselves are showing quite a lot of wear.

The loops farther away from the ranger/check in area appear to be newer facilities. Not all—in fact, relatively few—of the sites have water hookups on site. There is a wide variety of electric, however, but also many areas where walk-in camping sites for tents are available, and even sites that have tiered levels for tents and RVs, and primitive RV sites with no hookups.

A person can find most anything in this camping area, and the managers and rangers are all quite nice and helpful, and (at least at this time of year) there is hardly anyone using the entire place. We might have seen a total of 12 users other than the camp hosts on each loop. Of course, it was Sunday/Monday, and one of the folks said that school starts hereabouts in a week or so. That might have something to do with it being relatively quiet.

There are lots of trails for all types of uses—hiking only, multi-use, equestrian. And among the materials about the area the Rangers hand out when you register is some interesting history about the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, which I’ll reproduce below, for those of you who like local lore as I do. If you don’t want to read about it, you can skip that part.

With the rain and humidity came the flowering of rather amazing fungi. I loved all the shapes and colors, so I took a few photos to share. These were all around our campsite and all totally amazing.

We left around 1PM for the ride to Carmel and my convention at the Renaissance North Hotel. Everything you never wanted to know about beer will be my life for the next 4-5 days, although Carmel Indiana is reported to have some very fine bicycling trails so I will also be exploring those if the weather cooperates.

Quite a passable IPA from a local brewery (whose name I cannot remember) kicked off my stay in the big city

Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower

This structure stands guard over the Charles C. Deam Wilderness area, the last lookout tower remaining in the Hoosier National Forest. Built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), it was manned and used for fire detection until the 1970s. It is 110 feet tall, made of steel, with a 7 share foot cab and 123 metal steps. 

Early lookouts were simple perches in the crowns of tall trees, or mere ladder steps nailed to a tall tree so someone could climb up to look around. By the 1930s, however, the design for lookout towers had become uniform. At their peak, there were 5,060 towers in the nation, eight of which were in the Hoosier National Forest.

Inside the cabin, entered through a hunger trapdoor in the cabin’s floor, was an alidade on a podium. The alidade was a circular map with the fire tower’s location in the center, and compass directions around the edge (it has been removed from this tower). Attached to the map was a swivel range finder with a sighting wire. When smoke was sighted, the tower man lined up the sighting wire with the smoke, and by plotting the intersection of the lines of sight from different towers, the precise location of the fire could be determined. A telephone or radio could be used to report the fire and dispatch crews. It was common for the towers to be the first site in a rural to get a telephone or radio, and they often served as the community’s link to the outside world.

Raymond Axsom manned the Hickory Ridge Lookout for 26 of the years it was in use. Axsom stayed in the tower during periods of high fire danger. When he wasn’t on duty in the tower, he helped survey land lines, marked timber, routed signs, and did maintenance work on the Forest.

Axsom had a farm 2 miles from the tower and was hired in 1936 as the first tower an. He was replaced in 1938 and 39 by young men from the CCC camp who were assigned to keep watch. Axsom noted the young men kept falling asleep in the tower: a few fires got unnecessarily large because they were not reported promptly. So in 1940, Axsom was called back to be the lookout.

While many of the towermen were local farmers recruited to man a tower during high fire danger, at least two of the towers were “manned” by women. These were the wives of the men originally hired to do the job. According to Clarisse Carroll, former lookout in one of the towers, her husband just gave her the job when other duties called him away. “The rules weren’t as strict as they are now,” she said. “I never told anyone I was taking over. I just did it.”

During periods of high fire danger, a small crew of fire fighters was stationed at the base of the tower. If smoke was spotted, the crew was immediately dispatched to put out the fire. Axsom recalls periods when there might have been 4-5 fires a day, so the fighters were kept busy.

He recalls the wors fire in the Hickory Ridge area was in 1952. A farmer was burning off his garden plot on a windy day, and the fire got away from him. Before it was put out, the fire burnt 2,000+ acres and spread over ~6 miles. It was stopped with on a half mile of the Hickory Ridge Tower.

As frightening as the fire was, Axsom said the time the tower was struck by lightening with him in the top was worse. Still, he said he was the most frightened when an unexpected storm hit with high winds. Since towers had been known to blow over, he had quickly started down toward the ground. But the wind blew so hard he said he had to sit down and wrap his legs around the stairway to keep from being blown off the top.

Over time, the open farmlands around the tower have reverted to forest. Raymond Axsom is now gone, and the house near the base of the tower has been torn down. Today, the tower serves visitors to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness by offering them a panoramic view of the forest and Lake Monroe.