Kolomoki Mounds State Park, Georgia

Sunrise over the water at Kolomoki State Park Those of you with a good grip on geography may reasonably ask: if I was in Alabama on my way to Florida, what am I now doing in Georgia? For once, it was not because I got lost.

But I realized Monday evening that Zelda had an ear infection. Sometimes, a good dog owner will notice her dog shaking her head or scratching at her ear, holding one ear oddly, maybe acting lethargic, maybe even a squishy sound coming from the ear, and think, “Hmm, I wonder if my dog has an ear infection.” I’m obviously dense as a rock when it comes to being a dog mom, because I missed all those clues and didn’t figure it out until black goop was oozing out of her ear. As the vet tech said on Tuesday, “That is a serious ear infection.” Yes, I’m a little mad at myself.

At any rate, from Gunter Hill (which is near Montgomery, Alabama) on Tuesday morning, I called the nearest Banfield. They couldn’t see her until 4, so I called the next nearest Banfield. They could get us in at 2:30 and were conveniently about two and a half hours away, so off I headed to Dothan, Alabama. Once there, I ran useful errands — grocery store, propane refill, purchase of ant traps and mouse traps*, delicious shrimp salad lunch in a parking lot — and then we went to the vet. $170 later, Zelda has some mega, high-tech antibiotic in her ears, and we needed a campground.

Kolomoki Mounds State Park was about an hour away, not quite in the right direction, but not totally in the wrong direction, so here we came. There were other options, of course, but it was already late in the day and I didn’t much want to chance having to keep driving while I looked for a place. Kolomoki had availability online and it sounded… educational. I thought it would be good for me as I headed back home after two months on the road to actually have done something tourist-appropriate.

Serendipity strikes again: Kolomoki is crazy pretty. The description talked about the historic mounds, but the campground proper is on a lovely lake. I have not just a view of the water, but easy access to get the kayak into the water. The campground itself is tiny — maybe 30 sites — and peaceful. I’ve seen cardinals and blue jays flying around and the bird noise is steady music. Plus, there are two little free lending libraries — one for kids, one for adults! How could I not adore it?

Little free lending libraries at Kolomoki State ParkEven the bathrooms look nice — I will definitely be taking a shower in the actual bathroom, instead of Serenity. Brief digression on bathrooms: Serenity is fine for so-called Navy showers. Get wet, stop the water, soap up, turn the water back on, and rinse off. If I try to condition my hair, though, chances are I will either run out of hot water or fill up the gray tank faster than is convenient. I’ve done it occasionally when I’ve got a full hook-up, i.e. can dump the gray tank without having to move the van, but mostly showers in Serenity are brief. So at every campground, I check out the bathrooms. At probably about 50% — not being a fan of dead bugs, dirt, mold, or icky shower curtains — I decide I’m content with Serenity showers. Sometimes that depends on how much my hair feels like straw or how desperate I am for a real shower — I can remember being pretty dubious at Palmetto State Park in Texas, where the bathrooms were quite run-down, but I really wanted a real shower.  They had absolutely fantastic hot water and water pressure, so you know, you never know what you’re going to get. Anyway, bathrooms here = nice enough to use without reservation. And that digression was not so brief, but whatever.

Last night I got the grill out and grilled chicken-apple sausage, and ate it with a salad of mixed greens, apple, cucumber, radish, black olive and shitake mushrooms. I think it’s the first time I’ve tried shitake mushrooms — they were on sale — and yum. So much of that earthy mushroom flavor. I’ve got more, so I may try to make that mushroom sauce again today and put it over brown rice. It’s definitely not weather for cooking inside the van, though. It might have hit 90 yesterday. Plenty warm enough for kayaking, not so great for using the stove or oven.

I’m not sure about the temperature because the internet here is impossible. No T-Mobile signal at all, and one bar on Verizon. I may or may not be posting this while I’m actually still at Kolomoki, depending on whether I can get Verizon to let me use data. Some people might find that a drawback… I am not so sure. I’m definitely starting to notice that my happiest campgrounds are the ones where internet is barely an option.

*Ant traps and mouse traps: Gunter Hill was ant city and by the time I left there, the van was filled with ants. Seriously, dozens, maybe even hundreds of them. I killed them as rapidly as I could but they came in faster than I could kill them. Fortunately I lived in northern California long enough that ants — at least that kind — do not freak me out. Although I was fairly grossed out to discover probably thirty of them crawling around the toilet when I went to use it. Ick! I seriously doubt that they had time to take up housekeeping, but I bought traps anyway.

On the mice, I finally gave in and bought glue traps. I think I’ve gotten rid of the mice, but the paranoia has been keeping me awake. So I set out the glue traps Tuesday night and nothing’s been caught in them. I will give them one more night then toss them with great relief. And a plan to use Fresh Cab mouse repellent absolutely regularly. I can live with the smell of Christmas much better than with the rustlings of mice in the cupboards.

In other news, Grace continues to make progress. Sophia is again being a determined little pain of a character but, I think, maybe, just possibly, I have found an ending that I can get to. (Yes, I’ve found endings before. This one might actually work, though.) If I’m right, it’s still about 20,000 words away and this will be the longest book I’ve written by a mile. I like short books personally, but I’m tired of fighting with this one, so a long book it will be. Either way, this morning I was running down my checklist of characters who need proper endings (eight of them — so many, too many!) and I realized that for the first time, I actually know what happens to each and every one of them and that was a remarkably satisfying feeling. So back to Grace I go.

Gunter Hill, Alabama and Granola

River view

The view from the window. More peaceful in reality, where I seem to look past the trees without seeing them to the water beyond.

From the van window, I see trees and river beyond them, in one of the loveliest, most peaceful views I’ve had in a while. It makes me wish that I regularly took pictures of the view out the window and put them in an album, dated, so that I could go back and figure out exactly when I had last had a nicer view. The one at Sanders Cove, the last Army Corps of Engineers campground I stayed at, was definitely close. Well, and that one had much, much better sunsets—my window faced directly west and the sun set over the lake—so I guess I’ll give it the win.

It makes me think that the ACOE are pretty good at laying out campgrounds. Obviously, not every site can be great, but this campground, like Sanders Cove, has the sites with a view positioned so that even though there are campers on either side of me, none of us are blocking the others’ views of the river. I should find out the name of the river, but it feels very Tom Sawyer — green and brown and still, a lazy, peaceful river that deserves to have rafts made out of wood floating down it. Haven’t seen any of those, but the fishing boats are small motor boats instead of big cruisers. (I’m not finding out the name of the river because my internet connections are abysmal: slower than molasses. I’m trying to find that peaceful, rather than annoying, with mixed success.)

I’m baking granola again: this time at 275, instead of 250, and with 30 minute stretches between stirring, rather than 20. This time I added sliced almonds, took out the dates, upped the cinnamon, and added some salt. I think I upped the coconut oil inadvertently, but I suspect that if I’m really going to start making my own granola, I’ll be playing with this recipe quite a lot. And I think I probably am going to start making my own granola. While I’m not sure there’s any economic advantage—the ingredients are still not cheap—I like the control. Every morning… hmm, this story requires more background.

So I have a theory about happiness. Actually, I have many theories about happiness. But this theory is relevant to granola. 🙂 I believe that happiness is woven from four threads: awareness, acceptance, appreciation, and anticipation, and that it’s something you can get better at with practice. When I eat breakfast in the morning, I like to practice. Yes, I practice happiness. I know it sounds ridiculous. Bear with me.

Breakfast these days is mostly yogurt with granola and fruit. I used to eat leftovers for breakfast but that doesn’t work as easily in the van—it’s hard to cook in quantities to create leftovers because I just don’t have the storage space. So for the past six months or so, most breakfasts have been the same thing. When you eat the same thing every day, it’s easy to stop noticing it. Who pauses to savor the cereal they eat every day, after all?

But that makes breakfast a really good chance to practice happiness. Before I take that first bite, I try to remember to anticipate: is this going to be good yogurt? Will it blend well with the granola? How are those blueberries going to taste? And as I take the first few bites, I really try to experience them. To notice if the yogurt is the perfect blend of tangy and sweet, or not. To feel the blueberries in my mouth and their burst of flavor. To acknowledge the crunch of the granola, its texture on my tongue and cheeks, its taste. And then I try to accept whatever the reality is, and appreciate it no matter what. Maybe the blueberries are not the best. They’re out of season and their flavor is bland, or they’re over-ripe and squishy instead of popping. But still, even not-very-good blueberries are a luxury, a fresh taste that I’m lucky to have. And then I get to anticipate tomorrow’s breakfast, when maybe I’ll have a different fruit, maybe banana or strawberries.

And yes, the cynic in me finds this entirely silly. But the me that’s living my life (the me that’s choosing happy over right) has discovered that starting the day by practicing happiness over breakfast makes for good days. I like beginning my day with a buzz of contentment flowing through me, a reminder of pleasure and joy. And honestly, I like it a lot better when the three pieces of my breakfast are actually really, really good. When my thoughts go something more like “Oh, yum, I love this yogurt, this is so GOOD,” rather than “Huh, I wonder how much sugar is in this, I should have read the label, but I will appreciate it nonetheless.” It’s all well and good to practice happiness, but it’s so much easier to do a good job at it when the ingredients are all positioning me for success.

And so, back to granola: I’m not sure how many different gluten-free granolas I’ve tried over the past six months. Ten? Twelve? I almost never buy the same one twice, because they’ve all got good parts and bad parts. There are some that I’ve actively disliked and I’ve mostly eaten them anyway. Getting good at happiness isn’t about finding perfection in life, it’s about being able to appreciate what I have. I did throw away one that I really disliked because being smart about happiness also does mean changing the things that really don’t work for me. But mostly the granola is neutral in my breakfast savoring, there because I need the calories to keep me going through the morning.

But the granola I made became something I could think about. My appreciation was… eh, lukewarm. The oats were sort of flaky, somehow. They had a texture that wasn’t quite finished. But they improved as they got a little stale, so maybe I just needed to bake them a little longer. And the dates were terrible, so solid that they crunched instead of being chewy. And it was missing something, which I finally realized was a sprinkle of salt. By the time I finished the granola, this morning, it had gotten really good, maybe not the best granola I’d eaten in the past six months, but pretty darn close. (I picked out the dates and added a little salt, as well as the aforementioned staleness.)

So yeah, wasn’t that a long-winded way of saying that I think I’ll keep making granola? In my practice of happiness, it really tilts the odds in my favor to be able to love my breakfast, to start the day thinking, “Wow, that was excellent,” and to have my appreciation all be about the greatness of the experience, rather than how fortunate I am to have the first-world problem of not quite loving my fresh fruit.

In other news, I can’t believe that I just spent so much time writing about granola and happiness. Writing on Grace went well yesterday. Actual progress, I think. I’ve got one more day at this campground with its inspiringly peaceful view, so I should be working on Grace right now, seeing how much farther I can get.

Happy Monday!

Edited to change Cedar Lake to Sanders Cove — got my campgrounds mixed up! 

T. O. Fuller State Park, Memphis

Those flowers are called spring beauty according to a sign I saw at Crater of Diamonds. Appropriate, since it is very much spring here!

If you like the sounds of planes, trains, automobiles, and even a bit of heavy machinery, this is the park for you. Me, I slept like a baby last night–awake at least once every hour–and I am seriously cranky as a result. (R was not a good sleeper. He didn’t consistently sleep longer than two hours in a row until he was two and a half, so I understand “sleep like a baby” somewhat differently than people with more peaceful children.)  Fortunately the dogs are tolerant.

To be fair, for a park in an urban setting, it’s really pretty impressive. The park is only about fifteen minutes from downtown Memphis, but it’s surrounded by forest. There’s a four and a half mile hike that goes around the park; an interactive nature center; a Native American museum; laundry facilities; and a pretty reasonable shower. And it’s close to empty so I got to pick my space. The sliding door looks out onto wilderness and there’s a fire pit with grill, a grill, and a picnic table. An abundance of riches! A person who slept better than I did would be enjoying it.

Plus, of course, it’s really close to downtown Memphis and all the things there are to do there. The ranger gave me a brochure and I could be going to art museums, music halls of fame, clubs and barbecue spots — I am missing one of the top barbecue places in the country, apparently! But yes, I am missing them all, because I am working on Grace and feeling grumpy. Maybe next time…

Crater of Diamonds State Park

Crater of Diamonds PanoramaI looked out over the vast expanse of dirt that makes up the diamond mine at Crater of Diamonds State Park yesterday and thought, “Yeah, no, this is not for me.” I might have mentioned (once, twice, a thousand times?) that I do not like dirt. The thought of going out into a field of the stuff — some of it muddy, some of it dry and dusty — and doing anything other than leaving quickly just seemed… not me.

But I was there, so I did it anyway. And it was surprisingly fun, like some combination of meditation and playing the lottery. I didn’t find any diamonds — or even any shiny, sparkly stones, no amethyst or quartz — but I found lots of pretty orange jasper and I listened in on loads of fun conversations. My favorites were the two boys planning how to divide their spoils, but the kids digging the biggest hole ever were pretty darn cute, too.

In fact, I liked it so much that I went back and did it again this morning. I think my chances of finding a diamond would probably have been better if I’d rented the strainers and buckets and tools but I really enjoyed just messing around, breaking apart big pieces of dirt and finding pretty stones inside. One of the conversations I eavesdropped on this morning was a guy talking about how the sapphire mine in Montana is more fun because most people actually find sapphires and I am so going to do that when I get to Montana. Despite the dirt. Or maybe because of it.

I liked the campground even more than the diamond fields. (Thanks for the recommendation, Carol!) It was a really nice layout, lots of distance between sites, and a real sense of privacy. From the sliding door of the van, I could see nothing but forest. This morning I ate breakfast (yogurt, granola, and delicious blueberries — perfectly ripe, so that they popped in my mouth instead of deflating, the way that mediocre blueberries do) sitting outside and watched a deer bounding away through the trees. It really was bounding, too. Or maybe bouncing? Three big leaps and then it disappeared. And there was a great walking trail, the Little Missouri River Trail, which was half dirt path through the woods, and half paved walkway along the river. Peaceful and pretty and scenic.

I’d only been able to get a reservation for one night at the campground, though, so after breakfast and digging in the dirt and a nice lunch (grilled cheese and tuna on gluten-free bread and an apple of a type I’d never had before, Lady Alice, that tasted almost flowery sweet), we headed out.

I know exactly how what happened next happened. It was me not being careful about double-checking what the GPS in the van was telling me to do. I really should know better by now. But the GPS wanted to take me down a road that was closed, so I asked it for a detour. It gave me a detour. A big detour. Instead of being in Mississippi, I’m now in Memphis, Tennessee. By the time I figured out what had happened, we were so far along the northern route home that I just sort of shrugged and took it.

Between kayaking, digging for diamonds, and driving many hours, I haven’t gotten much writing done in the past few days. But I think maybe that was my subconscious at work, too. I gave my current version of Grace to a writing friend last week. She’s not the kind of friend who would ever say “Give up ” but if it bored her, she wouldn’t finish it. And if she had issues with it, I’m pretty sure she’d tell me about them. Even if she didn’t, silence would be as meaningful to me as any criticism. Obviously, it shouldn’t be—letting a single person’s opinion discourage one is a terrible attitude for a writer—but… Well, anyway, she got back to me today and told me that I have to finish the book because I can’t leave her hanging. And that she was humming “Kiss the Girl” all day yesterday, which makes me smile. So tomorrow is going to be a writing day and I think my plan will be to have two big driving days over the next week — one to get me deep into Alabama and then the next to bring me back to Florida — rather than lots of short hops. That way I just might get some good writing in on the days when I’m not driving. One can hope, anyway!

Lake Catherine Redux

sunrise on Lake CatherineSomehow four days have gone by and I have to leave Lake Catherine today.

I would rather not.

I would like to move in here, to sit in my campsite and listen to the kids playing (so many kids! so much laughter!), to wander around the park and hike on its trails and kayak on its lake for, I don’t know, forever? I guess I’d get bored eventually. But I haven’t even done the hard hikes yet! And I only kayaked once!

I’m not sure how the past three days passed so quickly. They were the kind of days where one moment flows seamlessly into the next, where you never think, “What should I do now?” because there always feels like an obvious next thing to do.

Obvious next things included some cooking: granola (made, for future reference, with oats, pecans, pine nuts, chopped dates, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, coconut oil, maple syrup, honey, and cinnamon); a mushroom and asparagus omelette with hollandaise sauce; a spicy veggie hash topped with a fried egg; grilled chicken breast marinated in yogurt and herbs on mixed greens; and chicken salad with veggies and lime. Also a delicious cantaloupe with prosciutto one day; strawberries and yogurt with my granola every morning; baby carrots and celery with avocado ranch dressing for snacks… yes, I ate well. I mostly do, anyway, but… well, once before I questioned whether I am happy when I am cooking creatively or whether I cook creatively when I’m happy. I don’t know the chicken-and-egg relationship of those two things, but the happiness/food circle was definitely in full flow.

Another obvious next thing was some cleaning. The pollen here is so incredible that everything gets coated with a sheen of yellow powder in about two hours, so I’ve been steadily dusting. But also I desperately need to do laundry, so I took the opportunity of having an almost empty clothes cupboard to clean it out and re-organize. I was grateful to find no sign of mice. Less grateful when I did the same thing to the top drawers in the bathroom and kitchen because there was plenty of evidence of mice in them, grr… I also washed the incredibly dirty van, most of it with just a jug of water, no soap, and a dishcloth that is likely to never be clean again, but all the windows with Windex. Plus swept and washed dishes, rearranged the dog’s beds, changed the sheets… the usual sort of cleaning stuff.

Lots of walks, mostly with Zelda. Mostly just meandering around the campground, but we hiked on the shortest trail — 2 miles — on Sunday and it was terrific. It was hilly and narrow, running along a stream, with occasional bits steep enough or slippery enough that I regretted wearing sandals instead of sneakers or my hiking boots. About halfway through, Zelda was done, so I had to persuade her along for awhile, by walking out to the end of her leash, then crouching until she came to me, rubbing her ears and telling her how good she was, then doing the same thing all over again. I should probably not have made that our third walk of the day.

Eventually, the path led to a small waterfall with lots of kids playing. Zelda walked in the water for a while and perked right up. At the end of the trail there was a bridge that reminded me of nothing so much as the one on Tom Sawyer’s island, wobbly and shaky and so, so fun. In fact, this park in general reminds me of Tom Sawyer’s island. There are packs of kids running around everywhere — also biking, skateboarding, scootering — and it sure seems like they’re making friends with other campers, not just hanging out with people they know. They’re really cute. One of my neighbors has that perfect kid laugh, an uninhibited gurgle of joy. I love the sound of it.

And today I kayaked. I should have tried sooner, but I wasn’t sure about the walk to the water. The kayak is something like 35 pounds and unwieldy. My site is far enough away that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get it to the water’s edge — well, and more to the point, it would be annoying to get there and then be too tired to have fun on the water. Plus, then there’s the getting back to the camper part. But I should not have so underestimated myself. Not only did I make it to the water, no problem, I had fun kayaking.

I brought Zelda with me, and made her wear her life jacket. I wish I’d been willing to risk my phone to take a picture of her because she was adorable. She was not sure about the kayak for a while, but eventually she settled into hanging over the side, her front paws in the water, and let me paddle. It was gloriously beautiful. At one point, a butterfly fluttered by — yellow and black, not one that I recognized at all — and I thought, “I am on a lake. In Arkansas. Kayaking. With butterflies.” Which sure seems like stating the obvious, except — I’m in Arkansas! I feel like I should be pinching myself regularly. Not that Arkansas was some dream destination of mine, but maybe it should have been. It’s lovely. I think it’s more that I can’t believe this is my life right now.

Possibly one of my very favorite things about Arkansas is that a great many small boys, ranging from reasonably little — 4? — to reasonably big — 12?, inform me that they like my dog. They’ll be walking by or riding their bikes and they don’t say hi or anything, they just call out, “I like your dog!” After the fourth or fifth time, I finally settled on my response, which is to call back, “Thank you, I do, too!” But it is so endearing. I’ve had some nice conversations with the ones moving more slowly, about spring break and fishing and their own dogs, and that’s been fun, too.

So yeah, I like it here. But off I go, because a) I have to be back in Florida in ten days and b) I have a reservation tonight at Crater of Diamonds which sounds so incredibly cool and c) my time is up and the campground is full.

But it is with a definite sigh of regret. Two thumbs up for Lake Catherine State Park. Oh, but their showers — you get no control over water temp or pressure! You push a button and the water flows for a minute or two. Hot and hard, so I’m not complaining, but I definitely wasted my first minute or two trying to figure out how to make it not quite so hot. Doesn’t change my two thumbs up at all — this place is paradise (a perception helped by the absolutely fantastic weather of the last few days) — but it definitely struck me as notable!

Lake Catherine State Park, Arkansas

I’m sitting outside, computer in my lap, both dogs roaming around in the piles of dead leaves around me. The sun is shining, there’s a cool breeze off the lake blowing wisps of hair into my face, the birds are incredibly noisy, and I am feeling supremely content. The only improvement in my mood would be if I could write myself through this stupid scene in Grace. Actually, the major improvement in my mood would be if I could finish Grace and move to some other project, but enough said about that.

Yesterday, I left Oklahoma reasonably early and took the scenic drive to Arkansas. The first part was by far the most exciting: the road that my GPS took me down—well, up, really—was a logging road. Dirt and gravel, narrow and steep. It was ten minutes of thinking, “Oh, shit, what happens if I run into someone else on this road?” And then I did run into someone else, two someone elses, in fact!

Fortunately, I was on the side that could tuck into the hill, so I pulled over as far as I could without winding up crunched and they passed by on the scarier side, waving at me as they did. But the adrenaline and the excitement and the… the sheer FUN of the uncertainty was great. I was so worried that the road was going to come to an abrupt end and I would have to figure out how to turn around or how to back all the way down. Backing all the way down would have been disastrous. And then when it let me out onto this itty-bitty two-lane road, which turned out to be the scenic highway, I was so pleased. I stopped at a bunch of scenic vistas and took pictures of clouds. Look, more clouds!

Clouds on the Talimena scenic highwayI had just enough glimpses beyond the clouds that it was obvious that it was a really, really pretty road. In better weather. Someday, I will try again.

Arkansas, meanwhile, has been delightful. I emerged from the clouds into sunshine and spring, just as I’d hoped. For a lot of the drive, the woods alongside the road were simultaneously autumn and spring — lots of trees that hadn’t lost their orange and red leaves from fall yet, interspersed with pink plum trees. (I think plum trees.) But very lovely.

Because I needed dog food, I wound up coming all the way down to Hot Springs, and then beyond to Lake Catherine State Park. (Zelda will consistently eat Fresh Pet and their website lets me know where I can find it locally, but it’s not always available within a 50 mile range. I couldn’t find it in Oklahoma or my first stop in Arkansas, Mena, so I kept driving until I did.) The park had one campsite available, because of a cancellation, and it was available for four days, so I took it. And here I sit, ridiculously cheerful.

It’s the sun, I think. Well, and also, the campground is packed with happy families having fun camping, which is enjoyable to listen to. There’s water (surprise, a lake at the Lake Catherine park!), and trails, and people with boats, and kids on bikes and skateboards and it feels like… Spring? Vacation? Joy. It feels like joy.

Last night, I sat in Serenity watching other people’s flickering campfires and smelling wood smoke and appreciating the bare branches of trees against the dark sky with its sprinkling of stars. This morning, the sunrise was golden-orange against the same dark branches. I couldn’t find gluten-free granola in any of my most recent stores, so I’m baking some of my own and the van smells delicious, of coconut oil and baked oats and cinnamon. I’ve got a Verizon signal, but no T-mobile, so my internet is very limited, but I will still be able to talk to R today. The previous campers left behind a rawhide chew, so Z is having a very good time burying it in the leaves, then moving it to another spot and burying it again. All these little random pieces, they add up to happiness.

And now I have to open up Grace and ruin my mood. *sigh. But I’m going to give it one hour, timed, and then I’m going to do other things: a hike, maybe; dragging out the kayak, maybe; making myself some delicious lunch, maybe. Maybe all three!

Shortchanging Oklahoma

Yes, I am in Oklahoma! And yes, I feel like I should be singing. I wonder how many other people have that reaction? While I was driving, I was thinking about everything I know about Oklahoma (short version: almost nothing) and how strange it was to be in a national forest that I truly had never heard of before. Ouachita National Forest. Spell check doesn’t like that, so maybe I’ve spelled it wrong, but I think spell check is actually just as ignorant as I am.

My plan was to stay at Beavers Bend, a state park recommended by a reader (hi, Kyla!) through the weekend, at a primitive camping site — no water or electric. But when I got there, the park was bustling. So many people! So many cars! I drove slowly through the park, or maybe part of it, trying to figure out how to register for a camping site, but there was no parking anywhere and much traffic. I wound up heading back out the same way I came in, still looking for the camping headquarters, and when I got to the end of the road, I pulled into a forest service parking lot and started looking for a different campground. It really did look like a great location — there was a sandwich shop at the end of the road that had a sign up reading “organic, gluten-free” and I still can’t believe I didn’t take advantage, but even that parking lot was totally full. I’m guessing Oklahoma has spring break this week.

Reserve America had a walk-ins only campground listed that looked a reasonable driving distance away, so I got back on the road and headed north again. My bigger plan was to drive the scenic Talimena Highway into Arkansas when I’d spent a few days in Oklahoma. Imagine my surprise when I drove right by said highway on my way to my campground. Oops. Yep, I am geographically challenged. I hadn’t realized I was as close as I was to my intended final Oklahoma destination. Too long spent living in Florida and California, I guess, where halfway up the state is a long, long drive, and not enough perspective on the bits of map I was looking at.

But I kept going and made it to Cedar Lake. I drove slowly through the campground, again looking for the ranger station, the place where usually someone is waiting to take your money. I didn’t find the ranger station (it doesn’t exist) but wow, there are a ton of horses here. One loop is an equestrian campground and there are probably 30 sites occupied by people with horse trailers and horses. I really love the idea of people taking their horses on vacation with them — it just seems so friendly — but I’m guessing that there must be some horse event this weekend somewhere nearby. If I had internet, I’d try to find out, but I wouldn’t even know how to start the search.

I finally figured out that there was a fee station, where you fill out your info and put your money in an envelope and leave it for someone to collect. But this campground is also pretty full. I wound up in a spot that is just big enough for Serenity and sloped. If I had a tent, it would be perfect, because it’s a really nice tent spot. View of the water and everything. But the parking area (as opposed to the tent area) is not level enough to be an ideal camper spot.

And the weather… well, it’s not spring yet. I wish I could stay for two weeks, because it will be spring in two weeks, the hints of it are everywhere. There are violets growing in amongst the trees and the occasional pink flowering tree in full flower. But far more of the branches are barren and gray still, and the sky is overcast and gloomy and I… I am just sick of the rain.

So I only paid for one night here and my new revised plan is to head out tomorrow, drive the scenic Talimena Highway and wind up in Arkansas. A lower elevation is likely to be a little more spring-like, I think, so instead of a few days in the hills of Oklahoma — (Seriously, the hills of Oklahoma? I had no idea, my mental image of Oklahoma is entirely oil fields and plains and scenes from the musical) — I’ll have a week to spend in Arkansas.

And hopefully it will at least be nice enough tomorrow to make my scenic drive a little scenic. Today was so cloudy that at points I was driving through dense fog. Super gray, misty, beautifully spooky, but no visibility at all. If tomorrow is the same, my scenic drive will be scenic only in my imagination. It was fun driving through the fog — I like spooky in most circumstances — but I’d like to actually get to see some of Oklahoma before I leave it.



Sanders Cove

On Sunday, I was chatting with R and he asked me how I was doing. For some reason, maybe because it was R, maybe because he sounded genuinely interested, maybe just because of the space I was in, I opened my mouth to answer, “Great,” and instead, “I’m really getting tired of camping,” slipped out.

There was a pause. And then he said, ever so politely, “How unfortunate.”

I laughed.

Yes, it is unfortunate to get tired of camping when one lives in a camper. I wrote to a friend recently that I’m one of those sensible campers who, when it gets too uncomfortable, says, “Okay, it’s time to go home now.” Ah, yes, home. That would be right where I am, right? Which at the time was a crowded campground in the dreary rain.

Fortunately, yesterday I left said campground and headed north. I was a little worried about the drive: I’ve been aiming for two hours between destinations but yesterday was five. I shouldn’t have worried. Five hours is actually better than two, I think, because somewhere past two hours but before three, I hit the fun driving zone where being on the road started to feel like an adventure again. I was driving through cute little Texas towns — Athens, Paris — and along roads with real ranches. Also roadkill galore — dead deer, skunks, armadillos. Younger R used to get upset about the roadkill in Florida, but northern Texas has Florida beat by a mile. Or maybe their vultures aren’t as efficient. And so many places with lawn statues for sale! Bugs on bicycles, giant dinosaurs, all kinds of fun stuff. I drove through a town called Canton that obviously has an incredible flea market (on the first weekend of the month), with probably a mile of road that felt like an event waiting to happen. A ghost flea market.

In Paris, I stopped for groceries.  Google let me know that I had a choice between two local stores or Walmart, so of course I went to one of the local stores. Wrong choice, I guess, but at least I didn’t need much. The dog food was $16.99 (instead of the $12.99 I usually pay); the only granola that was gluten-free was actually Chex Mix; and I should have read the label on the yogurt before I bought it because I took one bite this morning, and only then discovered that the second ingredient is sugar. Oh, well. They did have these mega packs of meat that I wavered over for a while: $19.95 for four or five packages of different things — pork, chicken, ground beef. If I had a bigger freezer, I might have gone for it. Generally speaking, though, it was not a grocery store conducive to the shopping habits of a single person on a restrictive diet. I bought myself some spice gum drops as a consolation prize and even they were a disappointment. (I can’t remember if I mentioned this before but HEB, another local Texas store, has the best spice gumdrops I have ever tested. They might have spoiled me for all other versions.) It was still fun, though. In the past month, I’ve been to Trader Joe’s, CostCo, and Walmart, because they had things that I needed/wanted. But they’re all alike. Trader Joe’s in Texas might as well be Trader Joe’s in Florida or in California. Wandering around someplace different was good for me.

Post grocery store, I continued north to my campground. It’s my first Army Corps of Engineers campground and what a pleasant surprise. I’m not particularly good at researching my campground destinations. It takes a ton of time, it uses up my precious internet data at an appalling rate, and I haven’t figured out my priorities yet. Does a good view beat a level spot? Sometimes. Is proximity to the showers good or bad? It depends. Most everything feels like “it depends” to me, except space between campers (the more the better) and access to nature. I would never have figured out how nice this campground was from the internet because one of its advantages is that it’s really hilly. The sites are terraced up the hill, so that they all get a wonderful view of the lake. And it’s still winter here! Unlike southern Texas, the trees are mostly bare, with the occasional exception of a white flowering tree that might be a sweet olive. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t gotten close enough to smell them and it is so cold — 37 degrees when I was walking Zelda this morning — that the smell isn’t carrying on the breeze. Or maybe I’m just too congested to tell.

But my window looks directly west, over the lake. Last night, my neighbors down the hill from me were sitting out around their table, chatting with one another. I felt sort of silly as I kept opening the window to take picture after picture of the scene behind them, because they were looking toward me. But I also wanted to call down to them, “turn around, turn around, look at what’s behind you.” It was the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in weeks.

sunset at Sanders Cove in Texas

No filter, no enhancement. It was really that beautiful.

Last night, I left all the windows in the van uncovered. In most campgrounds, it feels… vulnerable, I guess, to be sitting in the camper with the darkness all around me. When it gets dark, I put the covers over the windshield and front windows, close the blinds on the kitchen window, pull down the shades over the side windows, hang up a magnetic curtain over the sliding door window, and pull the shower curtain in the back. It’s part of the evening routine, usually done before washing all the dishes and taking the trash out. But I didn’t bother last night. Instead I went to sleep looking at the stars in the black sky, between the bare branches of trees.

So this morning — ridiculously early — I woke up when it got light. Not light because of the sunrise, light because of the full moon. Zelda thought it was probably time to get up and it took me a while to convince her that no, we were not going outside in the not-quite-freezing cold to walk. I wanted to say “walk in the dark” but it really wasn’t dark. The light wasn’t warm, it was a cool blue light, but it was definitely bright enough that we could have wandered around the campground without worrying about tripping or running into things.

When we finally did get up, at sunrise instead of moonrise, the moon was still in the sky. So were huge flocks of birds. I have no idea what the birds were, but hundreds of them flew overhead, close enough that I could hear the beating of their wings, like taffeta rustling. They were sort of quacky birds, not cheeping or trilling, but I don’t think they were ducks. As I’m writing, another huge flock is floating down the river. They’re white — sea gulls, maybe? Geese? I’m going to have to try to get a closer look, because I really can’t tell. They’re just white dots drifting along the blue water. The flock this morning was the typical dark spots against the sky, definitely not geese because they were much too small.

Between the sunset, the stars, the moon, the birds, the water — well, and most likely, the fact that it did not rain yesterday and might not today either! — I am, at least for today, no longer tired of camping.

Lake Conroe, Willis, Texas

Lake Conroe

iPhoto wanted to enhance this photo by making the sky blue: it wasn’t. Just shades of gray.

If I had six kids, some tents, bikes, a boat, some fishing gear, coolers of food and a barbecue grill, I would really like this campground. Actually, maybe even just the boat would do it: I bet it would be fun to motor around the lake for a while, despite the rain and chilly air. (I wanted to say that it was cold — it was in the 40s this morning — but for people still having real winter, 47 probably does not feel cold. It did to me.)

That said, I strongly suspect that five years from now, if someone were to ask me whether I’d stayed here, I will not be able to pull up a single memory of the place. There are basketball courts with basketballs, tennis courts, shuffleboard courts, ping-pong tables, a fitness room, a swimming pool… but walking the dog feels like walking through, at best, a tiny home community. At worst, a reasonably nice trailer park. People are friendly, as they always seem to be at Thousand Trails campgrounds, but admiring the scenery while I walk the dog is mostly a matter of considering what lawn ornaments I like best; pink flamingos, garden gnomes, or other. One house had the exact same rabbit my mom used to have as a planter on the kitchen counter, so it’s pretty much won the contest for now, but I’ve got another day here, so I might find still find some competition. Hmm, that makes me want to go back out with the camera and take some photos of lawn ornaments to put at the top of this post. But it’s cold and wet and I have a dog sleeping at my feet, so that’s not going to happen.

I would love to understand why it’s so easy for me to walk miles on a beach where the scenery is technically pretty much all the same — endless ocean, endless sand, occasional birds — and so hard to do the same in a neighborhood. I was hitting a daily 10K steps in Galveston, and walked at least 2 miles before breakfast every morning, but this morning I walked less than a mile and it felt like plenty. I don’t want to break my streak, so I’m going to be aiming for another 2.5 miles today but it feels like a chore instead of pleasure. The rain, of course, doesn’t help — beach rain is exhilarating but neighborhood rain is just tedious.

I’m hitting the point where I have to start planning my trip home to Florida. It’s strange that it feels so much like a “have to,” though. I’m going home for two main reasons: to be with family on my 50th birthday and to go to Universal with my niece and brother. I’m also looking forward to having dinner with my writing group and seeing my friend C. So this is not a “have to” sort of event. Good things will be happening in Florida in April. Good things will be happening in May, too, and also June, and also July, so I think that my “have to” feeling is mostly that my time no longer feels so flexible. And I’m going to have to make some decisions: a few long driving days interspersed with no movement days or many short driving days. What I really want to do is spend a few weeks wandering around Oklahoma and then the same in Arkansas, but I’m not going to have the time for that. No regrets, though — my extra beach days in Galveston were absolutely worth it to me. The weather was typical of this Texas adventure — rain, rain, more rain — but I would live in that campground if I could.

I just looked at the clock and argh, how have I wasted so much time this morning? Ans: daylight savings time, of course. Time to get to work…

Yogurt and mushrooms

Salad with yogurt-based dressing, and steak topped with a yogurt-based mushroom sauceI bought a new brand of yogurt at the grocery store the other day — I always like trying new things — but when I ate it with my breakfast granola, I didn’t like it nearly as much as the incredibly good Greek yogurt I’ve been eating. It was really good yogurt, though, just not what I wanted for breakfast. So yesterday I made up yogurt recipes.

Early in the day, I made salad dressing: some yogurt, some olive oil, some finely chopped garlic, the juice of half a lime, a teaspoon or so of honey, and several chopped-up mint leaves. I let it sit in the fridge for a few hours so the flavors would mix, then had it on a salad of green leaf lettuce, thinly sliced cucumbers, radish and red onion. I was expecting it to feel Greek — because of  the mint and cucumber, I expect — but I think the lime and the honey made it different. It was delicious, though.

Then for dinner, I made a mushroom sauce to go over steak. I used to hate mushrooms — really, full-bore hatred. I thought they were disgusting slimy things and the feel of them in my mouth made me gag. Even now, I can get a visceral reaction of disgust when I think about them. But I discovered about ten years ago that I liked the flavor, just not the feel, and when I started AIP, my diet was so limited that I really started experimenting with any food that I was allowed to eat. Including mushrooms.

Eventually–maybe about six months ago–they became something I liked playing with. First, I mostly hid them — a tiny bit of finely chopped, sautéed mushroom in scrambled eggs, for example, or a few of them thrown into a stew. Just for the flavor, with no danger of encountering their texture. Then I started trying them raw, in salads. Or in my sandwich substitutes. For example, a thick slice of turkey, spread with pesto, topped with chopped mushrooms, and rolled up. Yum. And finally I graduated to eating them cooked and alone. Earlier this week, I chopped some in half and grilled them with a hamburger. With a little blue cheese dressing, they were very tasty.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s sauce. I sautéed a mix of mushrooms and some chopped up garlic in butter, then added room temperature yogurt, green onion, a little dijon mustard, some dried green herbs (a mix that I think includes parsley and oregano), and a sprinkle of salt, and let it simmer. I let it simmer for too long — as you can see in the picture, it wound up not quite a sauce anymore. But it was crazy delicious. I wanted to lick the pan when I was done. I ate every bite and I wished I had a lot more of them.

I think next time I will skip the steak. Well, and not simmer the mushrooms for quite so long. It would have been absolutely delicious as a creamy sauce over pasta or, since I have yet to find a gluten-free pasta that I appreciate, brown rice.

If you had told me as little as a year ago that I was going to consider eating mushroom sauce over brown rice… well, I suspect I would have laughed at you. I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.

I’ve decided that three nights, four max, is the right amount of time to stay in one place. That gives me two days to enjoy my campsite without needing to think about moving. When I go longer than that, I wind up with a situation like the one I’m in today: lots of cooking => lots of washing dishes => a full gray tank that needs to be dumped. I need to pack up today so that I can go dump the tank, and then come right back here for one more night. It’s not a big deal, really, but it’s a hassle.

And less time than that is really disruptive. In my fantasies of this life, I spent less time planning where I was going to spend the night and more time planning what I was writing. Finding the balance between those two things has been so much harder than I anticipated.

And given that today is going to be disrupted by needing to dump the tanks and tomorrow is going to be a relocation day — possibly with a trip to Trader Joe’s along the way — I should get back to the real writing. So far my grand fantasies of making it through Akira’s return have not worked out, but who knows, today might be the day that it all falls into place.