Beartree Park (VA) Campground

Another shower rolled in as I began writing this, July 1, under our awning, campfire blazing to the left, dogs at my feet. I didn’t make it far before abandoning the post in favor of dinner prep. So I’ve continued this update several days after arriving back home again.

Beartree Park Site 25

Wednesday, July 1 was day three of our first Roomba camping adventure with our dogs. We were in Beartree Park; a National Forest/Park campground in Southwest Virginia. As it turned out, Beartree is one of many campgrounds in this large recreation area that includes Mount Rogers, a part of the Appalachian Trail, and segments of the Creeper Trail. Our site was shady, secluded, and totally surrounded by blooming rhododendrons.

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The entire area was just spectacular with blooming rhodies — one of the best years in a while for this “weed” that grows wild all over our SWVA mountains. Not too many folks were camping during this week, but we expected most would begin rolling in for the Independence Day holiday as we headed back home. And we were right on that front.

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This trip was an experiment on several levels: taking the dogs of course, but also leaving the birds alone at home. With no housesitter, we gave the birds a good feed and enough water to last and left. It was overcast, and the forecast was for the same-old/same-old all week, so primarily, I hoped the heavens would provide enough water — I knew all the birds were fat, so I didn’t worry too much about the food situation.

Most National Parks don’t have hookups at the campsites. Knowing this, we knew this trip would also be an experiment for us in seeing how long the 12v battery would last without much solar re-charging during the daylight hours (we elected not to carry the generator). As it turned out, we got 4 days (3 nights), before we had to turn off the 12v refrigerator due to the low battery situation.

On the first night, our friend, Foxy, joined us in his tent set up in the next-door site. The plan was to head to Damascus and ride some of the Creeper Trail the next day. As it turned out, neither the weather nor Foxy’s health was good enough for us to take a ride on Tuesday. Monday night, Foxy brought appetizers, and we had grilled hamburgers and pasta salad for dinner, with a bit of wine. There might have been some wee drams of a certain adult beverage or two consumed in the dark, beside the campfire. Jack and Foxy chatted long into the night while I read my book inside with the dogs.

Not riding on Tuesday was excellent, in terms of helping the dogs feel comfortable in camp. I’m really glad we didn’t have to worry while leaving the dogs in the Roomba for 4 or 5 hours while we rode and had lunch in town. Certainly, it was cool enough. We needn’t have worried about them overheating, so that was a relief. But I worried they’d try to dig their way out of the Roomba, and damage the screens or cushions.

Beartree Park Doggies

After Foxy packed and went home, we just sat around, walked the dogs around the campground, ate, and sat around some more. There might have been a nap thrown in for good  measure, to the tunes of the rain dripping on the Roomba roof from the surrounding trees.

By the time I began writing this post on Wednesday, the dogs were fully integrated into the scheme of things. So much so, in fact, that they ferociously defended their territory from any and all canine comers (people, however, are totally welcome — the Axe Murderer could come and they’d wag and wiggle and welcome him to our home).

Of course, they were leashed the entire time, and we rigged up a “dog run” style containment system with one of our tent pole guy lines. But one time, an innocent camper with her dog was walking past — just as mine had walked past many other sites — and I had just enough time to grab Chase’s leash when he threw himself at the passing dog (not anywhere close enough to cause anyone real fright), crashing the back of my hand into the metal of my camp chair. Ouch.

Luckily, there was some ice handy in the cooler, so I could treat the enormous bruise rising on my hand. But it seemed the dogs had taken ownership of our site and the Roomba. While I didn’t care for the behavior, I took it as a good sign.

Earlier that day, we’d taken the bikes on a tour of the entire campground, including Beartree Lake. We cycled through the group camping area, another multiple-site area called Beaver Flats (ours was called Chipmunk Circle — with good reason!), along a walk-in tent camping area, and down to the lake, complete with sandy beach, fishing docks, and a walking trail circumnavigating the lake.

Beartree Lake Pano

It was all uphill back to Chipmunk Circle, so proved to be a good bit of training after all. When we got to our site, I left Jack to keep the dogs company (they’d been alone in the Roomba for about an hour and a half by the time we returned); and I rode down to the gate and back a second time (skipping the campground and lake tours this time).

We shared a delicious steak done “Tuscan style” (lemon, olive oil, and garlic) on the grill, plus a broccoli salad and couscous for our final dinner. Awakened on departure day to the sounds of steady rain.

As we broke camp, we did, indeed (and finally) run the battery past what was required to run the 12v ‘fridge, so we turned it off and hooked up the car and ran it for a while so we easily had enough juice to lower the roof when the time came. But of course, that was when it started pouring in earnest, and so the canopy/awning and the “footprint” were totally soggy when we packed them up — as were our dog towels; and we got good and soaked as we hitched and stowed.

There was zero cell service, so devices were used only for a few low-battery-use games, reading, and their cyclometers. So not charging them wasn’t a problem, and we never tried to charge them up. But we probably ran too many lights at once during our stay, and we certainly chose an unfortunate time to experiment with the water pump and water heater. But now we know. Actually, I was impressed that it lasted three nights in total shade and overcast, running the ‘fridge and lights.

We continue to find we have loads and loads of storage space going unused. So we’re going to figure out how to carry along the generator when we know there will be times we might need it (and are allowed to crank it up). But this was a great short trip to a nearby (2.5 to 3 hour drive) camping area that is lovely and offers many of the amenities we seek. And we’ve stepped another rung up the ladder affixed to our learning curve.

En Route to Beartree Park



The first thing was to hide all the bedding, toys, and food bowls. We did that through streaming tears on the first day, merely to make the house habitable. Couldn’t then and still haven’t actually “dealt with” the paraphernalia, but simply moved it from sight. Those triggers were just too big to endure.

Since then, the triggers are small. Simple. Ordinary.

We drop a piece of food on the kitchen floor while cooking, and no one trots over to clean it up. I look out the kitchen window as I’m washing dishes but there’s no one stretched out sunning on top of the picnic table. Processing a load of laundry leaves the warm sheets in the living room to fold later, but there’s no one to yell at to keep their grubby paws off the clean sheets.

My dogs are gone and they’re never coming back.


Today, we’re a week into our bereavement. Yuck. Such an inadequate word to hug our devastation to our chests—to encompass the tsunami of tears; the avalanche of tissues; the derecho of splintered heart. Our glasses have been smudged and wet for days and days because our eyes continue to leak and our hugs for one another are tight and desperate and full of snot. We awaken with crusty eyelids because we cry in our sleep.

Triggers accost us at every turn. A squirrel at the feeder doesn’t prompt ear-splitting barking; a deer eating apples in the orchard isn’t answered by 4-legged lightening-streaks down the hill; our return from town isn’t ushered in with “singing” from our bedroom window.

I’ve taken refuge in work: I have had that advantage over Jack, with a job to do that gets me off the property. His work keeps him bumping up against the triggers, all day. Every day.

The gray, foggy weather hasn’t helped. Our first weekend alone in the house, we thought a nice Netflix movie would be a good distraction. But the popcorn made us cry. Jazz and Radar loved catching popcorn puffs tossed in the air. We cannot even snack on dry-roasted peanuts because they always shared with us. Popcorn and peanuts: the only “human food” we allowed our dogs.

Mornings are the worst. In a normal life, I came downstairs with my fleece jacket over my nightshirt and sweat pants under. I put the kettle on the stove, clicked the flame on, and walked outside to release them from their “playpen” below the front porch. Always so happy to see me, they’d stretch and yawn; jump and wag; and lift a leg or squat en route to the kitchen and their breakfast. We’d turn on the radio and settle down to a quiet cuppa for me and a post-breakfast snooze in the warmest, smelliest spots for them. Sometimes, there would be some lap-sitting and snuggling included.


Now. There’s nothing.

Me, my tea, and Tab O’Neal & Steve Inskeep on the radio. Jack comes down the stairs and we hold each other for everything that was lost.

We got brave and took our first walk around the ponds over the weekend in the drizzling rain and fog. We knew it would be upsetting without them running in the woods, barking up trees, and checking in at a gallop, only to race past and find a new spot to harry. No more water snake harassing. No more snatching catfish food out of the air as we toss it into the pond.

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I discovered that digging their grave was a great way to vent anger, frustration, heartbreak, and self-pity. Using a digging bar to loosen the clay and the inevitable substantial rocks—all the while cussing and crying and kicking dirt clods—was actually therapeutic. Who knew?

I know that, for me, the worst is yet to come. These were my falconry dogs; partners to the redtailed hawk in the hunt; with four and five years of experience behind them. The bird, acquired in 2011, was at long-last “getting” the game we played together—understanding the usefulness of the dogs. The dogs were “getting” the idea that, even though they weren’t allowed to catch the quarry, they could still experience success when the bird actually scored the take-down. It was an enormously talented team, which was admired by everyone who saw them work together.


Now, in one fell swoop, I’m demoted from falconry chauffeur to rabbit dog. I think the redtail will be sorely disappointed in what I can produce for it to chase, as compared to what Jazz and Radar were able to flush. That will, again, break my heart for all that has been lost.

Jack & I graduated to being able to talk about potential breeders of puppies as we were comforted by friends over the weekend. The images of my dogs that I see in my head are now, rarely of their bodies lying in the road; or as we arranged them in their final resting place, to appear as if they were snuggled together in sleep. I am beginning to see pictures of them as they lived, rather than as they died. Healing is happening.

And, I realize it is important to keep things in perspective. I just heard that a good friend does not, in fact, have cancer. That news is monumentally important to me and I am delighted to hear it and know it in my heart. I rejoice for her and her family and friends. We have received many wonderful expressions of heartfelt understanding from a tremendously wide range of our home community members. So much in our lives could be so much worse.

But for right now, right here, we are assaulted by triggers. And we cannot cleanse the pain with tears.