Winter Grinch Gathering – South Carolina

December 23, Monday: After celebrating Christmas with family on Dec. 21, we departed Meadows of Dan. We had taken the unprecedented step of draining the water pipes in the log house. We ran one electric heater in the kitchen and one in the water stove/pressure tank building. The weather forecast while we were gone was for mild weather until the week of our return (January 6-12). We were unable to engage a house sitter on short notice, so we bundled the dogs and their gear for the trip (I had previously transferred my red-tailed hawk, Blizzard, to my apprentice for the season, so I was birdless for the first time in 28 years).

We’d arranged to meet John and Mary at Hunting Island State Park in SC to be away for the holidays. We left after my third post-op appointment in Blacksburg and I got the go-ahead from the nursing staff there to leave town.

Our first night was a midway point somewhere between Charlotte and Charleston at a Pilot/Flying J truck stop with a Wendy’s attached. We awoke Christmas Eve morning to lots of holiday lights on both sides of our little trailer, as two enormous semis had scrunched in on either side of us, and they left their running lights on. Since we were running our own furnace, we didn’t hear much of the noise of their arrival or engines—just background to our sleep.

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Christmas Eve day: The first thing we noticed about Hunting Island State Park was the standing water everywhere. There had been a storm that dumped 7 inches of rain, and much of the park and the campsites were flooded. It was difficult to even see the paved drives because there was so much water everywhere. While all the “waterfront” sites and the premium areas near the beach were useless (with many folks awaiting the reconnaissance of the park ranger to see what sites they might move into) John and Mary’s and our sites were uphill and mostly dry, back off the beach.

The signage around the park is pretty awful, too, and there is but one dumpster at the exit area of the campground. That’s the only place to throw away doggie poop bags, so we set aside a collection/trash bag onsite, hung from a tree—and periodically disposed of the poop as we hiked around.

Our site, #168 presented us with an interesting uphill slope on which it was difficult to level the camper front-to-back. But the site was large enough to put up a dog run, although we elected not to erect the screen house. While the site offered both elec and water, we remained winterized and so used the electric only.

The really great news about this campground was that all over the park the wifi connectivity was robust. When lots of folks are online, of course, there was a dip in power. 

The really bad news was that it was infested with raccoons, and we saw a troupe of them ambling down a tree across the road from us, and into the woods. You cannot leave ANYTHING out for any length of time at all, lest the pests get into it and strew it all about. And, of course, the dogs went crazy when they spotted the beasties (there was also a ton of squirrels, but they were at least not so invasive).

Before dinner and to learn our way around, we took the dogs for a walk along the main road to where John pointed out a long-legged waterbird wading in the creek nearby.

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We strolled over the dune and to the beach—en route, in the looser sand of the dune area, the sand burrs were prolific, and all the dogs picked up the spiny devils in their paws. Riley had an especially bad go of it, as his fur is long. Removal was as hazardous to the human as pick up was to the canine.

The tide was out and we had a nice stroll along the beach (no sand burrs there).

Mary and John (and Riley) had set up several sites along from us, and Christmas Eve evening, we went to their site to share leftover lasagne, which Mary had made to take to John C’s down in NC for a meeting. It was delicious.

Christmas Day: We awoke to see 7 of Santa’s 10 (rein)deer out our front window, taking their leisure after a hard night delivering gifts to the world’s children.

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While we had hoped there would be the option for a seafood Christmas Dinner, with the rains and long drives to get here, none of us was able to get into town to obtain shrimp or whatever. 

We did take a drive out to the Visitors Center, and walked along the beach amongst what the locals call “The Bone Yard.” This strip of shoreline had made the news a short time before we arrived, as the state decided to bulldoze some section of the beach (not where we were) for safety. 

To access the area we crossed a bridge over shallow water (since the tide was out). Under the bridge, we saw a wading waterbird that offered a pretty neat reflection photo op.

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The Bone Yard was a section of shifting sands in which the carcasses of trees figure prominently in the landscape. Some were freshly drowned, others had been there long enough to have become bleached or bark-stripped. It was an amazing sight, and I took lots of photos. We also saw a very small horseshoe crab shell and a starfish. We really loved that part of the walk.

Our Christmas Dinner was Chorizo/Kale soup with Jack’s special bread, and J n M ate with us at our site. We enjoyed a bonfire and exchanged gifts.

Many, many people bring their dogs here to camp, and one of those Mary had met before we’d arrived stopped in during our bonfire hour and said, “I hate to be a bearer of bad news, but you’re Mary, right? Over at your site the raccoons are getting into your trash and coolers and making a mess. You might want to go back and interrupt them before they do real damage.”

Up they jumped and were able to save everything except some grapes stored in a cooler. They had quite a mess of garbage to clean up, though. Bloody raccoons!

December 26th (Thursday): Shortly after arising and using the bath house, a water main was either shut off or damaged during the staff’s management of the floodwaters. No fresh water anywhere in the campground.

The State Park offered many walking trails through neat mixed woods (palmettos and long-leaf pine) and we found some rudimentary maps around and about. John wanted to try one of the forest trails that would end up at the lighthouse. 

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We were almost stymied by an enormous pool right in the middle of the trail, not terribly far along the walk, but we managed to bushwhack around it.

The second, deeper and wider pool, however, confounded us. We could see no real manageable way to bushwhack around with the dogs (and the ticks were out, too) so we turned around and walked back to the car, parked at an access point off the main road.

So we drove to the lighthouse instead. Once there, first on our agenda was to use their restrooms. 

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Upon our return, we lounged a while and Jack roasted some game hens on the grill while I fixed some roasted winter vegetables in our Dutch Oven as John prepared some hassle-back potatoes in his DO. Delicious meal, and another campfire (solo stove).

December 27th (Friday): With another camper we had met (she also had a dog and camped nearer the waterfront in a conversion van) named Donna, we headed into town for fresh seafood, lunch, and a visit to the grocery store.

Back when my parents lived on Lady’s Island (nearer Beaufort than Hunting Is.) we frequently visited a little place along the main road called The Shrimp Shack. You order at the window and try to find a place to sit either inside or out. The place was still open, some 20 years after my parents had moved away.

Naturally, their shrimp was the best (I had a “shrimpburger” which is like a crab cake sandwich, only with shrimp instead of crab). But anything you order at the window is bound to be delicious. 

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Across the road is a fresh seafood place with shrimp boats moored alongside (another throwback to when my parents lived there, still in operation) and that’s where we got fresh shrimp to skewer and cook on the grill.

After our grocery stop, I took a lovely walk with the dogs as the shadows grew long at the beach. Saw some neat sand patterns, too.

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December 28th (Saturday): Fellow Alto owners, Hope and Elaine joined us in the campground coincidentally—with their two beagles. Their 2114 was “perched on an anthill” in a different section of the campground, elevated quite high above the road (and still-pooled rainwaters). 

We walked with them and Donna and her standard poodle along the beach all the way to the lighthouse. The tide was going out on our way to the lighthouse, so we had limited choices to get there. But the sand was wide and firm on our return to the campground. Elaine found several sharks’ teeth in the sand and we all looked for shells and more teeth on our way back to the campground. But she was the lucky one.

We all brought our own leftovers to J n M’s site just as the rain began to pour in the evening. We crammed ourselves under the awning, and for the most part, stayed moderately dry. It was fun spending more time with Hope and Elaine, whom I’d met for the first time this past October at the Watauga Dam informal Altogather. 

Soon after we’d finished our meals, the rain abated somewhat, and we all called it a night. Mary, John, and we were all set to leave in the AM, while Hope and Elaine were staying additional time at Hunting Island SP. J n M had a long drive all the way home, and we were headed more northeasterly to Carolina Beach SP, near Wilmington, NC.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Triggers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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