For our 29th anniversary weekend, Gary and I went camping. We have only camped once before in our entire marriage, and that was years ago in my parents’ travel trailer with an eighteen month-old toddler. This time, I wanted to sleep in a tent, in a sleeping bag, and cook on a camp stove. I wanted to really get out there with nature. So we did.
Being a planner, I researched what gear we absolutely needed, what we already had, and what we could get by without. I researched where we should go as newbies. It needed to be somewhere far enough from home that we wouldn’t be tempted to pack it in early, but close enough that we could if circumstances became dire. We settled on Cheaha State Park which is about an hour and a half from home, and has beautiful lodges and campgrounds built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. It is at the lower end of the Appalachian Mountains and the park surrounds the highest point in Alabama, Cheaha Mountain at 2,413 ft.
Let me say, that NO map provided of the park and the campgrounds is accurate. I picked a campsite in what they call the “Lower Campground” because it seemed a little more remote than the tent sites up on the top, and also was more shaded and better fit my idea of getting out with nature. It was the correct choice, but only because we were stupid lucky. What looks on the map like one continuous campground with a lake and a bathhouse and several nice amenities is actually two campgrounds separated by a paved road that has a pretty good amount of traffic during the day. And of more significance is the fact that the bathhouse and lake are located inside the State Park (behind a gate where you must buy a pass) and our campsite was located outside the park. So popping over to the bathhouse with the actual flushing toilets was not an option. More on the toilet facilities at our campground in a minute.
Everything I read about camping for beginners said don’t try to set up your brand new tent in the dark, so of course we did exactly that. It really wasn’t that hard. Our tent is a simple Kelty 4 person dome, and it went right up easily. We got our campsite set up, sprayed ourselves with insect repellent, and then it became obvious that we were going to have to visit what was preciously described on the campground map as the “modern outhouse.”
Now, I am no delicate flower who has never used an outhouse before. I grew up in the country. My elementary school had an outhouse for the first two years I attended. The algorithm for using an outhouse is not something you forget:
It is: T(P-B)<t(Sa-Sb)
The T (time) you can P minus B (where B= breathing) must be less than the t (time) S can travel from a to b (where S=spider, a=anywhere and b=your body.
Also, in this particular “modern outhouse” the girl potty and the boy potty are right next to each other (as in the same space) so it provides a unique bonding experience for couples who might be in somewhat of a rut about these things after 29 years of marriage.
After that adventure, we relaxed in our camp chairs and munched on snacks of M&Ms and Wheat Thins and watched other arrivals until bedtime. That is how we realized that we had really lucked out in our choice of campsite. Although we could see the paved road, it was far enough away that the noise was minimal. Best of all, our site was sheltered from the others by a hill, so that we could only see one other site. We were secluded from other campers, and this turned out to be a good thing. By morning, the campground was full of tents and trucks and kids. But we were secluded from all of them. Not that we are anti-social, but this was camping. I wanted to be out where it was dark and naturey.
Except for the fact that it was Alabama hot, we slept pretty well. All the websites were correct that a good inflatable mattress made for camping is a must. Ours has a battery operated inflater, and it worked great. We slept on our sleeping bags rather than in them, and a little battery operated fan hanging in the tent made it tolerable. We folded back the rain fly so it just provided a little privacy on one side and left the rest of the tent uncovered. We could see the stars through the trees. It was wonderful.
The next morning, we made sausage and eggs on the camp stove, and then set off on hiking adventures.
Cheaha Mountain is rocky. Like, I can’t begin to tell you how rocky. The trails are well-kept and well blazed, but you really have to pay attention to where you are putting your feet. I always hike in boots, because they make me feel more secure. I was certainly glad I had brought them, even though we did not hike any significant distances. I wished for my hiking poles, which I didn’t bring. Gary and the boys make fun of me for using them, but I like them, and I don’t care if they make me look elderly.
First we hiked out to Bald Rock. It’s a short, easy hike out to a high overlook. there is even an accessible boardwalk if you choose to go that way. We took the ground trail, and it was nice. The view is incredible. The drop-off is perilous and there is no railing, so the folks with kids were nervous. I don’t like heights, but this one did not bother me, because no one was getting too close to the edge. The danger was obvious, and people had a death grip on their kids.
We walked back on the boardwalk, which is elevated ten or twelve feet above the ground, and gives a different perspective. There are seating areas along the way, and the whole thing is sturdy and nicely maintained. Best news: there are actual flushing bathrooms at the parking area to Bald Rock!
We went back to the campsite and made some lunch. Hot dogs cooked outside are really delicious.
After lunch, we set out for a hike to the other high overlook in the park, Pulpit Rock. this hike was shorter, but significantly more difficult. There is a steep descent at the beginning, which means a steep ascent when you come back. Saying this trail is rocky doesn’t even begin to cover it. You are often just stepping rock to rock. It was dry the day we were there, so not slippery, but still requires constant attention to where you are placing your feet. There were not nearly as many people on the trail as the one to Bald Rock. We passed maybe three groups each direction.
Pulpit Rock is spectacular. It is a huge boulder, seemingly balanced on another, with a large part of it just hanging out in space. I didn’t go out on it. Duh. There were, of course, two young males sitting out on the edge, being cool. I heard their friend, standing back on solid rock behind them, say, “Y’all my anxiety is up there with those clouds right now!”
We made the hike back to the trail head, including the killer steep part, and decided we were ready to go back to the campsite and chill. We stopped by the little store and grabbed some more water and ice and a bundle of firewood, and spent the late afternoon hanging out, dozing and snacking and watching some sort of emergency over by the lake that involved ambulances and sheriffs and a LifeFlight helicopter. We never did find out what happened.
As dusk approached, I made our dinner (foil pouches with chicken, peppers, onion and potatoes) and Gary started a campfire. It was 80 degrees, but it is not camping without a campfire.
And you know what? Men love sports, and they love cars, but they really, really love fire. A campfire can entertain a man better than a 60 inch Hi-def color TV. We had a good evening, me with my wine in a coffee cup and Gary with his fire.
On Sunday morning, we slept until it was light, which we never do at home. The lack of showers and the heat combined to make us sort of offensive, so we decided to pack up and head home. We were missing our cat, too.
We broke camp like pros, packed up the car, left no trace, and headed down the mountain. The GPS thought we needed to see more nature on the way home, so it sent us along super-uninhabited back roads that were barely paved.
We saw a car, empty, parked on the side of the one-lane road. Gary said, “What do you think that’s about?” I said, “Well, disposing of a body, obviously.” I mean, you know you are FAR off the beaten path when your GPS looks like this:
Eventually, we reached something like civilization, and the little town of Munford, which sits beside I-20, familiar territory.
We got home by midday, enjoyed the comforts of air conditioning, refrigeration and running water, apologized profusely to the cat for our absence, and napped.
The verdict on camping? I liked it. I want to go again.