Carolina Beach, North Carolina

December 29, Sunday: Took our time on the drive to Carolina Beach State Park in North Carolina, near Wilmington. Arrived at dusk, and set up in site #34. Our “home” for the next 5 nights was deep and wide, well-separated from neighbors. A large graveled (tent-pitching?) area behind where the trailer sat had a lovely live oak branch cascading across it—Jack had to watch his head going back and forth to the bathhouse, but it was quite a nice addition to the amenities. We tied the dog run to it and later, used it to “air out” some of the dog bedding.

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Although our drive was dry, we found many mosquitoes upon our arrival in the waning light. It was rather damp in the air and on the ground all around. We had leftovers for dinner.

Because we arrived at dusk late on a Sunday evening, we didn’t discover the “shortcut” to the bathhouse until the next AM, right off the back of our site. Likely because of the holidays, Jack found the men’s side of the bathhouse to be messy, with too-little paper anywhere to serve. On the women’s side, not much was out of order and the facilities were just fine, including several semi-private showers. In the showers, however, I found few hooks on which to hang stuff (and the bench was small). In several of the showers, they had retro-fitted wooden covers over what I assumed had once been vents or windows, and these had closures on which to hang a shower kit and a net bag to keep clothes off the bench and dry.

December 30, Monday: There was more rain overnight, but we slept until the dogs got restless at around 7:30. Toasted some of Jack’s good bread, showered, and put up the awning, etc.—things we didn’t get around to during our late arrival.

Headed into Wilmington for groceries and lunch. Ate at a Mexican restaurant called Corzano’s, which I thought meant “deer’s” or “stag’s” or some such, due to the images on the sign. When I tried to translate it, the closest word I could find that was a real Spanish word was Corazóno’s, which means “heart’s.” Not sure how that fits, but I tried translating “hart” (another name for a deer, especially a male deer) but the phrase “corazón a corazón” means “heart to heart.” 

So I guessed that Corzano must be the surname of the person or family who owns the restaurant. In any case, our meal was delicious, with portions so generous I had to take some of my fajita burrito back to camp. They have excellent salsa, too.

I took a long walk with the dogs to the second (of two) camping loops. At the top of this loop are some cute (very small) cabins, which appeared popular. My guess is that one would need your own camping gear to stay in one, but I did not peer into any windows.

I found that this second campsite loop was mostly closed off. Not sure why, but not counting the cabins, it’s a small loop with its own bathhouse, and some pretty nice unserviced sites interspersed. In front of the gate was site #46—if one can live with an unserviced site, 46 has a beautiful, deep (private) access point to the Snow’s Cut Trail that traverses the high bluff of the Snow’s Cut River (a tributary of the Cape Fear River). I imagined that carrying a couple of camp chairs out to the bluff would make for some quite lovely sunset-watching with an adult beverage. But the downside would be that the vast trail system at the park is quite popular and that trail would be rather busy. 

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Boat on Snow’s Cut River

Because of the weather and the shady site, we ran the generator for ~3 hours to get our battery up to snuff for the night furnace. We ate leftover game hen & winter vegetables, and added some rice to the mix for our dinner.

December 31, New Year’s Eve, Tuesday: Another “good sleeping” night as the overnight was nice and cool (high 40s) and we decided to sleep without the furnace. Getting out from under the Rumpl blanket was another matter—it was 52 inside, so we hopped up to turn on the furnace and get the space warm before arising at around 8:30 to a lovely, crisp, and clear day. 

The cool temps for the rest of our stay kept the mosquitoes at bay.

In the wee hours, we’d been awakened by a horrible caterwauling and decided it was coyotes on the hunt and it sounded like they had caught their prey. 

Piddled around for most of the day. I wanted to try a breakfast casserole in the Omnia oven, so we’d gotten the ingredients at the grocery and I used the remains of Jack’s bread (going stale) in the mix. The recipe requires refrigeration overnight, so we put the Omnia with the ingredients ready-to-cook into the back of the truck to stay cool overnight. I will include the recipe I used below for anyone with an Omnia that wants to cook a delicious breakfast casserole—if you have space and weather to keep it cold-ish overnight.

I ate the leftover burrito from Corzano’s for lunch, and with the dogs, we headed to the Snow’s Cut Trail to see how it fit with the rest of the trail system. Our goal was to get to the Visitor’s Center and see the carnivorous plants, but the place was closed. In summer there’s a trail where you can spot them growing in the wild, but in the winter they are invisible in the wild and dormant. But apparently, the VC has an indoor display of them in an artificial environment. Even though the VC was closed, the restrooms were accessible so we took advantage and then carried on exploring more of the trails, clocking 2.6 miles total.

Saw lots of interesting plants, fungi, and flowers along the way.

For evening chow, we cooked the remaining half of kielbasa, and I roasted the second “round” of winter vegetables I’d prepared before we left home. This time, I roasted them for less time and they were much better—more flavorful and less mushy—than the first round had been (less time = 35-40 minutes). Got the opportunity to use one of my Christmas presents: a portable Dutch Oven steel cooktop with raised sides for wind protection. The legs are adjustable and can even be removed, leaving a 4-inch rise so the cooktop can be used on a picnic or other table without fear of burning up everything below.

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Enjoyed some kick-back time in the chill of evening, and rang out 2019 with a dram of whisky.

January 1, 2020, Wednesday: The dogs got restless around 5:30-6 on this morning, so we got up a bit earlier than normal to 44 degrees outside. 

After walking and feeding the dogs, I got out the Omnia from the “cold storage” in the back of the truck and cooked it on medium-low for about a half our, then turned it up to medium-high for the last half-hour (or so). Took it off the heat and let it sit for about 10 minutes while Jack grilled some toast to accompany. It was pretty delicious.

We tried to air out the dog bedding, but the site is shadier than expected, and it was quite cool all day, so our need for “sunshine and summer air” wasn’t exactly what we got. Later, we offered an Alto tour to someone who asked to see inside and thawed the filet mignon we’d brought along, in anticipation of our New Years Day meal.

We enjoyed a lovely bonfire, some good wine, and a delicious meal of grilled filets, “smokehouse” style green beans, and potatoes au gratin. Very nice (and hopeful) way to launch us into 2020.

January 2, Thursday: Another chilly night. We again awoke to 44 degrees outside, and only 49 inside. Ate a reprise of the breakfast casserole heated in a frypan, and took a very long hike to Sugarloaf Dune, “a prominent pre-Colombian geologic feature.” I have included the storyboards we read below in case anyone wants to read more about it.

The various trails to get there wind throughout the park and were marked on the map as being ~2.5 miles one-way. The ones we chose went mostly through what I might call “piney savannah”—we traversed the Campground Trail first, then connected and continued along the Sugarloaf Trail past Grass Pond, Lilly Pond, and Cypress Pond. We hit the Swamp Trail on the return (which was not swampy).

While the trails are well-marked, it’s a good idea to take one of the trail maps with you so you can see your options and choose your path.

After the hike, we took showers, and Jack began to pack for our departure. For dinner, we headed into Wilmington to Michael’s Seafood, and the place was packed. We sat on the back (enclosed) patio with enormous gas-flame heaters to keep it useful in winter. But the space was incredibly loud! It was difficult to hear yourself think. We both had shrimp and grits, and although it was tasty, Parkway Grille in Floyd does a better job of shrimp and grits (IMHO).

One final thing I should mention, especially for those who travel with dogs: There are trash and recycling bins all over the camping loops. Literally every 50-75 yards or so, there’s another 4-bin “station” for both garbage (including dog poop bags) and recyclables (single-stream). A true luxury if you’re walking and picking up after dogs.

Given these bins are just wooden containers, I had thought to myself, “Well, I guess they don’t have a raccoon problem here (see the prior post from Hunting Island, SC)!” But they do, indeed, have raccoons, as we saw a troupe of the pests traversing the campground just prior to leaving. I wondered how they managed to keep them out of the garbage . . . 

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Omnia breakfast casserole

Bread: you’ll line the lightly oiled bottom of the Omnia’s silicone liner with sandwich-width sliced bread cut in cubes/chunks. You can use store-sliced bread or homemade, white or multi-grain, crust on or off. How much you need depends on what type of bread you use. I used about 2 slices, chunked up and fit flat on the bottom. The bread should form a relatively unbroken “mat” at the bottom, approx. .5 to 1 inch thick.

  • ~7 eggs
  • ~1.5 c milk
  • ~ 1/2 c store-bought pico de gallo
  • ~ 6 grilled sausage patties, crumbled (or about 1/3 of a “loaf” of ground sausage, fried & crumbled)—can also use ham or cooked, crumbled bacon, etc.
  • 1-1.5 c shredded sharp cheddar
  • Cayenne and chili powder to taste
  1. Spray olive oil lightly on the Omnia silicone liner
  2. Drain the liquid from the pico de gallo as you assemble the rest of the casserole
  3. Mix the eggs with the milk and any spices or herbs you want to add
  4. Place the bread in one layer on the bottom of the Omnia
  5. Sausage on top of the bread
  6. Pico de gallo next
  7. Some of the shredded cheese (save some for the top)
  8. Pour egg mixture over all—the amount should cover easily but not drown the rest of the ingredients. Use a fork to press everything down and get some air out.
  9. Top with the rest of the shredded cheese.
  10. Let rest overnight in a cool place/refrigerator.

Pre-heat the bottom (separate) cooker (7-10 minutes?) before adding the Omnia on top.

Cook on Medium/Medium low for about a half hour. Raise temp to Medium/Medium high for another half hour.

Once steam begins to come out of the holes in the top of the oven, give it another 5 minutes and test with a knife to assure the eggs are solid.

Remove from heat and let it rest for 5-10 minutes.

Serve with toast or fruit.

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About Sugarloaf Dune — At 55 ft. Above sea level, Sugarloaf Dune is part of an ancient sand dune ridge that formed when sea levels were higher. It was named Sugarloaf in 1663 because it resembled a mass of crystallized sugar. The name caught on and Sugarloaf has been on navigational charts ever since. Throughout history, the dune has been a landmark for river pilots traveling the Cape Fear River.

American Indians inhabited the area around Sugarloaf from 6,000 BC until their decline [due to disease brought by Europeans and being forced west by white colonists—LC] in the early 1700s. Artifacts and remnant mounds of shellfish from these former inhabitants can still be found in the area today.

Sugarloaf played an important role in the defense of Fort Fisher and Wilmington during the Civil War. In the winter of 1864-5, about 4,500 Confederate troops encamped here. A one-mile line of heavy earthworks stretched from Sugarloaf on the edge of the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean. Confederate earthworks can still be seen in the park today.

Twenty-five years after the Civil War, a pier located at the base of Sugarloaf Dune became a major transportation link for the area. A local steamer called “The Wilmington” made regular stops at the pier, often carrying up to 500 passengers. An open car railway then carried passengers from Sugarloaf along what is now Harper Avenue to the boardwalk for a day at the beach.

Before the park was established in 1969, the Sugarloaf area was used and misused by the general public. Four-wheel drive vehicles, motorcycles, and beach buggies trampled the fragile dune vegetation and caused major erosion. Today, exposed tree roots are signs left behind by the activity of the past.

This historical landmark is still being threatened. You can protect it:

  • Stay on the designated trail
  • Do not climb or walk on the dune face
  • Keep out of the fenced areas
  • Report any damage or misuse to a park ranger

Help the park protect Sugarloaf Dune for future generations to enjoy. [Hear, hear!]

Belle Isle Hike

April 25, 2017

Took some of the rainy time to take a shower while no one is around.

The wind combined with the waterlogged soil made it challenging to keep the awning staked up, but we triple-guy-lined the windward side pole, and that seemed to do the trick.

About 12:30P the constant rain began to ebb and by 1 it was not raining for the first time in two nights and two days. I took advantage and headed out along one of the trails hereabouts. I donned my hiking boots that have sat, lonely and forlorn in the back seat of the car, and tied my rain jacket around my waist just in case the clouds were not serious about turning off the spigot. It was still pretty cool, so I kept my hoodie on and set out.

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Had a really lovely 4 mile round-trip walk; first down the trail they call Watch House that ended at the Rappahannock River. Of course, there was some mud, but mostly it was hard-packed gravel and dirt.

 

Another longer trail headed off of that one, to something called “Brewers Point.” Of course, I had to go out thataway. It was a longer, 1.9 mile trek and it was along there that the sun came out, the humidity rose and the hungry insects came to see what might be for lunch. So the good news/bad news thing of the day was that I had to wear my hoodie because I forgot bug spray.

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At the end of the trail to Brewers Point were more insects, but also a “canoe-in camping area.” It was actually quite nice, with four raised tent platforms, four picnic tables, a common fire ring, and an area to hang stuff like wet towels as well as lanterns.

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Of course, there was a fee-paying station; but oddly, no privy. Short of walking the 2-plus miles back to the campground for the bathhouse, one would have to portage in all one’s water, and bring along a good, light shovel for burying non-trash waste. If you’re a purist camper who packs out everything he packs in, this site would be perfect. Very remote and primitive.

Every creature in the region, including the biting insects, had been sequestered, it seemed, during the rains, because I saw no fewer than 7 rabbits out for a nibble along the path; and 3 groundhogs. The birds and frogs in the wooded areas were legion and loud!

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First rabbit

I got back to the camper where Jack had spread our outdoor rug and a couple of other wet things in the sun to dry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too much longer when the clouds rolled back in. It began lightly raining again at about 4, just as Jack received a Happy Birthday phone call from his longtime buddy, Harry (Jack’s big day is tomorrow, our transition day). Below are various additional scenes from my hike.

After a bit more reading and game-playing on our devices, we set to making dinner: tortellini pasta with pesto sauce, Italian sausage, and a salad. More things removed from the fridge, so I can get more beer in there (hehe) 😉.

That’s pretty much the sum of our Tuesday, April 25. Tomorrow the weather is supposed to improve and stay that way, so we might be able to take a quickie ride or two before we head over to Powhatan State Park near Richmond, VA.

Lakawanna State Park, Pennsylvania 

We got a late-ish start, but departed Shenandoah River State Park on Sept. 27 with JB & Martha (the other two RV-ers had left by 10A). Almost immediately, as we trundled through Front Royal, we lost JB & Martha in their Class C dragging a dolly with a Prius. 

Saw an adult bald eagle perched in a snag near the interstate as we headed through MD on Rt. 81 N, just before entering PA. Of course, I didn’t have my camera handy enough to snap a pic. There was tons and tons of construction zones along the route of our very long day.

We stopped off Interstate 81 near Harrisburg, PA at a Panera’s for lunch (around 1P) and as we finished, we got a phone call from Gloria, who reported JB & Martha were looking for our cell numbers because they’d experienced some strange dashboard warning lights since the day before. 

The backstory on that: en route to Shenandoah River SP, they had been squeezed between two semis and a couple of vehicles when someone hit their breaks or did something unexpected, and JB had to really hit his own breaks which locked up and skidded, but everything that was supposed to work did, even the breaking system on the Prius dolly, so they were able to avoid disaster. After that incident, they pulled over to the side of the road to get their nerves back on level and take visual inventory of their situation. When they got back into the RV, the yellow lights were illuminated on the dash.It took them a while to find the Operator’s Manual for the Class C to see if there was a problem if they continued, their thought being that, since all appeared well and their breaks were still working as expected that the yellow lights would cease at some point.

The Owner’s Manual, however, urged them to seek a dealer to double-check and re-set the lights indicating the ABS and Anti-Skid and a couple of other safety measures were okay. So they had pulled over in a rest stop and made some phone calls, but no one had gotten back to them by the time they called us and we stopped by the rest area to check up on them.

After some discussion, they still felt that their ability to stop the vehicle was not compromised, and that if they took it easy, they could carry on. So instead of waiting for a call back (which incidentally never came) while sitting, they thought to carry on to Lakawanna State Park (PA) with us, and wait for the call while gently moving down the road.

All went well, and we all made it to Lakawanna in good shape, if a considerable time later than we’d expected. Ken and Diane had been shuttled off to a dog-friendly part of the camping area, while we were next door to Kerry & Gloria (ours was site 28, a lovely woodsy spot with a path through the woods to the main road in front of the lake); and JB and Martha had the third site down, in which they were unable to get level. They moved the next morning, slightly farther along.

Site 28

Any of you who remember our Cooperstown (or several other trips) of last year, know that we dearly love Lakawanna State Park. It is really a great location, if the sites are a bit of a leveling challenge. Getting there, you roll through lovely agricultural country with barns + silos, stone houses, well-kept fences, and just an amazing, rolling countryside.

Anyway, with Ken & Diane (and Barley Boy) up the hill and around the bend, it was difficult to get together for campfires and meals, so during the stay we mostly hung with JB & Martha while Kerry and Glo hung with brother Ken and Diane.

That night, Martha was kind enough to share with everyone some leftover ribs JB had smoked for their house guests before joining us. Gloria added some baked beans to the repast and it was very nice (for us) not to have to cook after a very long day. Everyone except Ken & Diane ate at our picnic table, but we all turned in early.

The following day (Wednesday, Sept. 28) dawned clear and chilly. It was in the middle 40s when we awoke, but the temps rose to the mid-60s by noon. The wind was blowing falling leaves everywhere and it was truly a taste of autumn. 

Jack and I unloaded the bikes and took a lovely tootle around the whole park, using our “take every right turn” method of seeing all the loops and public areas. JB suggested we call this the “bike tour boogie,” based on what he and Martha used to do with their dinghy when they piloted a boat. But for them it was the boat tour boogie. Maybe we should call it the Site Tour Boogie, because we do it mostly to check out the campground and see where the best sites are, and what amenities we can find.

We went into several areas that were closed to camping, up high above the lake, and then carried on down along the lakeside public areas. There are access areas for picnickers, boaters/fisher people, family gatherings, hiking trails, and the water park they were still constructing last year when we were here.

There were many of these dry-laid stone walls scattered around the area.

As we rode, the sky began clouding up, the wind was colder/wetter, and the predicted rain showers appeared to be moving in. We decided to get back to camp, and begin the breakdown process early, so if/when it rained, the awning and stuff would not get wet. I fixed us some sandwiches for lunch while Jack began breaking down camp. Our plan was to leave space in the car for the grill, because we thought we’d be grilling brat-type sausages with onions and peppers on the griddle for dinner.

We went into Clark’s Crossing or South Abingdon Township (not sure if Clark’s Crossing is a part of the Township or what, but our navigation system called it South Abingdon Township) to a Weis grocery store to re-supply and get some firewood. It did begin raining but only for a little while as we went and returned. While in Weis, I found some pre-made, refrigerated pizza dough, so we changed plans and decided to try a pizza in the Omnia Oven. 

The moment we began merely thinking of making a fire, the rain came again. So we retreated for some Camembert on nice crackers while we waited to see what the weather would do. When it stopped again, JB came over and he and Jack started a fire, while I looked for a fire-poking stick. Once it was going pretty well, and we were having some adult beverages, it started raining again. We decided to remove to our respective abodes for our dinners and re-assess once we’d been fed.

The pizza turned out okay, but next time I would pre-bake the crust just a little before putting on the toppings. We tasted a hunk each and found it to be slightly undercooked, so we put it back on the fire for a bit, and our second lumps were quite good indeed. I only used half of the dough, so we’re going to try again within the next day or so.

Ended the evening with JB and Martha ’round the fire (Ken and Diane had already built a fire up at their site by the time we had built ours, so Kerry joined his brother up the hill). We had a final toddy around 9:30 while the last of the wood burned, and then all turned in expecting an early departure in the AM.

August Trip Final (Belated)

I never quite finished the series about our August trip back from by business engagement in Carmel, IN. When I left off, we were ready to move from Breaks Interstate Park to Grindstone, a federal camping ground near Damascus, Virginia. So I’ll do a quick catch-up here (on September 23) before I begin to relate our freshest upcoming adventure, Cooperstown v. 2, starting September 25, 2016.

So, we began our drive from Breaks Interstate with Kerry & Gloria in their Class C; and Jim in his car, trundling our way across the mountains toward Damascus, on August 11 via Route 80. If anyone reading this and dragging a trailer or driving an RV considers using Rt. 80, all I have to say is that the road is fine until right after it diverges from Rt. 19, headed toward Clinch Mountain. My advice is to use Rt. 19 NOT to stay on Rt. 80, but find any other way you can manage OTHER than Rt. 80 to continue heading southeast.

We stayed on Rt. 80 and it was the most harrowing experience I’ve had to date dragging a trailer, and I wasn’t even driving. Crossing Clinch and Poor Mountains, the road narrowed to a 6 or 7-hundred road size, and switchbacked high and long, without the merest ghost of a guardrail on the steep slope. If we had met anyone headed the opposite direction, our lead vehicle would have acted as the “airbag” for the rest of the group following behind. There would have been no where to pull over to allow another vehicle to pass; and lord help us if we’d met a logging truck or larger equipment vehicle.

So NEVER follow Rt. 80 southward all the way to Meadowview or Interstate 81.

Once we survived Rt. 80, we headed to Saltville and then south toward Chilhowie, then wound our way into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, and then along Rt. 603 to Grindstone.

We had a lovely site there, and zero insect disturbance, excellent weather, and a really fun time with Gary, Lorrie, Kerry, and Gloria (Jim decided to head back home instead of camping with us). Damascus was our shopping center and the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a Rails-to-Trails conversion that includes a steep ride down WhiteTop Mountain and many shuttle-your-bike-to-the-top options that make the Creeper famous among cyclists. Damascus is also famous as the entry to Virginia for the Appalachian Trail. If timed right, through-hikers can make it to Damascus by May and be feted and spoiled by the community’s Trail Days Festival, where everyone in the small city puts on the dog to celebrate the through-hikers and their journeys.

There is quite a lot more to the Creeper Trail than the thrill-ride down White Top. Lorrie, Gloria, and Kerry decided to walk the dogs around Damascus while Gary, Jack and I rode the 16 miles to Abingdon and back (total 32 miles). It was a lovely ride, although quite a hot day. We got some refreshment in Abingdon before reversing course, and then stopped at the Alvarado Station for a super delicious sandwich and homemade potato chips for lunch at the Happy Trails Cafe.

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But before we leave the Creeper, here’s some history about it from the Abingdon side:

The Abingdon Branch
“The Virginia Creeper”
Norfolk & Western Railway’s Abingdon Branch began in 1887 as the Abingdon Coal & Iron Railroad (AC&IRR). The Virginia-Carolina Railroad (VCRR) bought the AC&IRR in 1900, and extended rail service to Damascus. By 1915, VCRR trains ran over the 76.5 miles of track between Abingdon and Elkland, NC. The parking lot (adjacent to the sign) was the VCRR’s Abingdon yard, where equipment was kept, and the VCRR joined the N&W main line. In 1916, the N&W bought the VCRR, and the route became The Abingdon Branch. The track from Elkland to West Jefferson was abandoned in 1933.

The popular nickname, “Virginia Creeper” fittingly describes both the steep twisting mountain route and the speed of the trains. In some places, the posted speed limit was only 5 MPH.

The Abingdon Branch crossed some of the highest and most scenic terrain of any standard gauge railroad in the US. In the 55.5 miles from Abingdon to West Jefferson, there were 108 bridges, most made with timber, and no tunnels. In a classic series of photographs entitled A Day on the Abingdon Branch, O. Winston Link captured memorable scenes along this historic route during the last days of steam operations. Some photos from this series are on display at the Historical Society of Washington County Library in the former N&W passenger station in Abingdon.

The last train between Abingdon and West Jefferson ran on March 31, 1977. The Abingdon Branch rail bed was converted to the Virginia Creeper Trail through a cooperative effort of the Town of Abingdon, Town of Damascus, and the US forest Service.

Norfolk & Western Railway
Class M Locomotive #433
American Locomotive Co., Richmond Works

The N&W owned over 100 Class M locomotives from 1906 to 1961. Today, two survive: 433 in Abingdon, and 475 operated by the Strasburg Railroad, Strasburg, PA. By the early 1920s, heavier and more powerful locomotives had replaced the Class M on mainline service. Because of their light weight and small size, the Class M had a useful life until the very end of the steam era, working in rail yards and on local freight and passenger trains where roadbed conditions prohibited using heavier locomotives.

In 1952, 433 came from Roanoke to Bristol as a backup engine on the Abingdon Branch. While in Bristol, 433 was a common sight in the railroad yard and on the many industrial tracks lacing the Bristol area. Although 433 was then equipped with a spark arrestor smoke stack, it rarely ran on The Abingdon Branch.

Steam operations ceased on The Abingdon Branch in 1957, marking the end of an era and a way of life. Except for 433, all Class M locomotives based in Bristol were immediately scrapped. Number 433 avoided the torch and moved to Radford where it worked until retired in July 1958. In October 1958, the N&W donated the engine to the Town of Abingdon, and on November 24, 1958 it was moved to its current location at the junction of the N&W main line and The Abingdon Branch. Today, 433 sits at the junction of The Abingdon Branch and the main line as a tangible reminder of the era when these small hand-fired steam engines struggled up the steep, twisting grades through remote mountain communities along the 55.5 miles between Abingdon and West Jefferson, NC.

The next day, I took the Mount Rogers Trail hike about halfway up the 7+ miles of the hike to the top of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. We’d had some rain the night before, but the temperatures and humidity were just fine and I had a wonderful walk, enjoying many newly-sprung mushrooms.

On our last night together, we gathered at our Blue Roomba to share a meal, but the rain returned for some of the early evening. Thankfully, it quit by the time we were set to eat, and we didn’t have to get wet for our celebratory supper before we all headed home the next morning.

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We will definitely be returning to Grindstone and are thankful that Lorrie and Gary introduced us to this beautiful campground.

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.