Doesn’t time just fly by these days?
The last time you and I met, Loops and I were making our way north through Florida in much haste for a rendezvous in Nashville, Tennessee. Well, I can tell you we made it. In fact, since the last time I wrote, three other states have welcomed us over their lines, even if for a brief while.
It didn’t take us long upon leaving Three Rivers State Park in Florida to wind north and cross over the state line into Alabama, a very exciting moment for me as this is the first time I’ve been here. This made me give thought to the fact that if I actually add them up, out of the 50 states in the USA I have managed to visit 20 of them in previous years – 14 of those while hiking the AT. That’s not bad going. Hopefully with our travels this year, I’ll be able to add another 3 or 4 to my total.
So what did I find out on my travels through this new state? Well, oddly the first thing is that dropped into my mind was My Cousin Vinny. You know the film, and if you don’t you really should become acquainted with it.
Early in the movie there is a scene where Vinny and his girlfriend drive into town and two things happen – the first is the fact they turn heads, because they obviously ‘ain’t from around here’ and the second is that a local tells them the knocking sound they’re hearing when they drive their car is from ‘mud in the tyres’.
Well, Alabama does indeed have mud. Or at least the perfect soil for it. Bright red, iron rich, thick clay that makes the earth look like it’s on fire. It’s stunning to look at and probably goes unnoticed by most people because let’s face it, it’s dirt. However, it certainly draws my eye as we are chugging down the road, normal brown dirt on the roadside for company and then unexpectedly the soil flames red in an uncovered patch. Try as I might, we were travelling too quickly to snap a shot, but courtesy of a local AL paper, it looks a little like this…
As for turning heads, while I don’t think there is anything particularly peculiar about myself (aside maybe from the pink crocs with any outfit), it does seem that local people seem to sense that we just aren’t from these parts. And people do tend to stare at you a little while you’re walking around or doing something. Then again, maybe it’s because we’ve just rolled into town in perhaps the most obvious of vehicles…?
Determined not just to fly through the state with nothing to show for it, I had planned our route to swing through Dothan, a medium sized town on the map which during my investigations I discovered had an exciting feature. Peanuts. That’s right, peanuts. But not any peanuts, oh no. Dotted in and around Dothan are 50, four foot tall, fiberglass peanuts. These were part of some art festival or project and people like to try and spot them and have their photos taken with them. So guess what…?
Now given our visit was a brief stop, we only managed to spot four peanuts in the town but it was rather ridiculous how excited I got looking for them. I felt just like Annika Rice on Treasure Hunt (one of the best UK 80’s TV shows ever). I rather wished my best friend AJ was there to giggle excitedly with me, as Loops just really didn’t put in the childish effort that was required, I practically had to tie him to Mr Downtown Peanut in order to get a photo.
Dothan obviously has a love for the arts, for we saw many beautiful murals painted onto the walls of the town. We also decided to spend half an hour taking a peek at the small art museum which was a nice treat (not to mention the air conditioning was a welcome break from the sweltering heat outside).
With time ticking and still miles to put under the tyres, we left Dothan behind and headed to White Oak Creek, a Corps of Engineers campsite. This was our second time with the COE, having been so impressed with the St. Lucie Lock site we tried in Florida last month, and this visit didn’t let us down either.
We spent an incredibly pleasant afternoon lazily riding our bikes around the camp surrounded by forest after which Loops fired up the grill, housed safely in one of the bays beneath us, and merrily cooked up some chicken smothered in barbeque sauce.
We rounded off the late afternoon by making a stone’s throw trip to a small spit of beach on the banks of the lake, where small kids had been gaily swimming and boating all day, and I tried my hand for the first time ever at swimming in a lake.
Now I know that doesn’t sound like it should be a big deal, but I’ve discovered that apparently I get a tad bit nervous about launching myself into water of a slightly murky composition, where I know there are fish swimming around and potentially goodness knows what else that could be life threatening (in my mind that means poisonous snakes, alligators and seaweed. Yes, seaweed scares me). While it appears that throwing yourself into a natural watering hole and playing about does indeed seem like a normal and extremely common pastime here in the states, it’s certainly nothing I’ve ever done at home.
However, I am determined to try absolutely everything I can while traveling and so I wade slowly into the gloomy abyss. And of course by that I mean sloshing into water that is bathwater warm and only comes up to just past my knees. Admittedly I can’t see the floor of the lake and I find my toes are being gently sucked, but not too unpleasantly, into the fine sticky mud beneath my feet. I wade a couple meters out from the beach and now it is time to attempt to swim. In order to do this though, because the water is so shallow, I have to awkwardly lower myself close enough to the water’s surface that I can then fall in face first and quickly begin to paddle, but not plunge so hard as to end up with my body and arms scraping the muddy bottom (and disturbing all of the make believe snakes). And so begins my little dance. The one in which I crouch a little towards the water, wave my arms in a slight breaststroke swimming motion, looking for all intents and purposes like I am seconds from taking a dip and then burst into a fit of nervous giggles before I stand up again.
After about 5 minutes of this, Loops, who is already in the water looks like he’s ready to drown me. Finally, I am so shamed by the sight of a 4 year old kid leaping exuberantly into the water with no fear, I manage to dunk myself in and start to swim. Immediately I find that I have to keep propelling myself around, for if I stop, my feet, knees and hands immediately are drawn into the mud below. Also, because the water is so shallow, I cannot swim in any other fashion other than breaststroke or doggy paddle, otherwise I am dredging the bottom of the lake with my hands and arms. Apart from this, I find myself having the absolutely best time and feeling like I too am a kid playing around in the lake.
After I’ve had my fill of aquatic activity, Loops and I flop down into our folding chairs on the sand spit and watch, as the sun begins to sink, the boats and wave runners puttering up and down the lakefront and a small lad try to catch fish while sitting in his kayak.
Just before we are about to call it a day, a young girl runs down to the waterfront with a bucket and proceeds to throw what appear to be dead fish into the lake. Loops tells me that they are bait fish that they probably haven’t used, but doesn’t look happy with what she’s just done. He looks even more unimpressed as two of the fish then wash back up onto the beach. I sit and stare at one of them for a minute or so and I am convinced it is still breathing. I point this out to Loops who tells me it’s dead, but undeterred I get up and walk over to it, pick it gently up and wade a little back into the water. I place my hands down under the surface and low and behold its gills start flapping and as I pull my hands away it attempts to swim, albeit in a drunk fashion, away. Feeling pleased with myself I plonk myself back into my chair with and look at Loops with a satisfied grin.
A minute later my fish is back, having been washed up again. Loops tries to explain that when a fish has been in the bait bucket all day with just a small source of oxygen, it gives them brain damage and they are going to die. I can still see my fish’s gills moving so I wander back over for a second attempt, this time wading out a little further, away from the small waves lapping the shore. I feel he’s probably just a little weak and just needs to be in calmer water to give him a head start out into the larger part of the lake. I watch him again as he swims away, headed in the right direction and looking less wobbly this time. I’m convinced he’ll make it. And with that (and before I can possibly see him wash up a third time) we grab up our chairs and head over to Belle for the night.
I’m asleep. At least I’m 95% asleep when I hear Loops get up and presumably head to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I’m 100% asleep when the next thing I hear is a loud bang from outside the bus, like a storage bay door being slammed shut and the whole bus begins to rock from side to side. I shoot bolt upright, heart racing and try to get my bearings. Is someone breaking in? Is there a huge storm outside? Has someone just run into us? I’m totally befuddled.
It’s then I realise that Loops is nowhere to be found. I check the clock and realise it’s not the middle of the night after all, but 5.30am. I now wonder if the bang and rocking was Loops falling over in the toilet. Perhaps he’s slipped and hit his head? I throw back the covers and make my way down the bus quietly calling his name. The bathroom door is shut, so I knock a couple of times, and hear nothing. Eventually I slowly pull it open and peek in. Empty. He’s not there. I’m now even more baffled. So much so, I actually wander up and down the bus two or three times searching for him. It’s only 43 feet and there aren’t really any places to hide. Where on earth is he?
My mind finally clears enough to piece together the loud bang and the front door of the bus. Is he outside? I pop my head out of the windows on either side and see nothing. I scan around the immediate area of the campsite and see no movement at all. At 5.30am I can hardly start calling out his name, but I am getting worried. Loops would never be up this early. I’m starting to panic a little now, totally confused. At this point I’m sitting in the driver’s seat wondering what to do next, when I glance down and my eyes rest on the rear camera monitor. I flick it on without thinking much and as it moves from blurry to clear, I can see Loops, fully dressed for the day, climbing down the ladder off of the roof.
I throw open the window a second time as he comes around the side of the bus, poke my head out and whisper as loud as I dare ‘What the fuck do you think you are doing??? It’s 5.30 in the morning and you’re scaring the shit out of me by climbing about on the roof!’
He looks genuinely confused as to what could possibly be the problem with that. ‘I was trying to find the click’, he tells me.
Ah, the click. Yes, now I get it. Loops has gone mad. Or more specifically, the click is driving him, well, a bit loopy.
There is a click. A very specific click. Which magically appears in the evening when it’s time to sleep. The click, according to Loops, is the sound of an electrical relay firing at specified intervals. He knows this because he has spent, by my estimation, approximately 18 hours studiously observing the click. He will lie in bed at night and listen to it for a good hour or so, determining the pattern of the click. He has nailed it down to ‘something’ to do with the air conditioning, though we have three of these units and he has yet to work out which one is the issue, such is the randomness and chaos of the click. He cannot find the specific location of the click, because it appears the noise echoes through the walls of the bus, making it sound as if it’s in the bedroom, bathroom and living room. The click is playing games with him.
And now it has obviously exasperated him so much, that it seems that an investigation at 5.30am on the roof of the bus is perfectly logical to him. The hunt will have to continue though…the source of the click still remains elusive….
Later that morning, in a very stark reminder that the ‘outside’ world does continue to go on and I am still have to be part of it, I spend the morning via Skype with my mum and sister as they kindly help me complete my online tax return so it’s submitted on time. Oh, joy. But it does make the point that although Loops and I have set out on what appears to be a somewhat extended holiday, in fact we do still have some responsibilities and that what we have actually done is to have chosen a different lifestyle to the majority of people out there.
Anyway, taxes complete we head onwards and upwards towards our destination, passing a roadside fruit stand on the way where I hop out to buy the world’s largest watermelon to eat; but avoid the popular offering of boiled peanuts, something I will never understand why people would choose to eat.
Today as we motor along through small town America and I watch the world go by, I think about our speed and method of travel and realise what has been niggling a little at me for the past couple of days – it’s so much faster than walking.
Now, I’m stating the obvious here I know, but when I was first thinking about coming to the US to travel again, my only real point of reference has been hiking the AT, which I loved (amongst hating it a bit while I was sweating and swearing my way up about my 500th mountain). But what I guess I failed to take into account was why I enjoyed it so much, and it is becoming clear to me that it was because of the method of my journey, walking. While it was physically exhausting there was also the feeling of pure pleasure and achievement that went with finishing every day, arriving at camp with all of your thoughts and memories of the day’s passage tucked away and knowing how hard you had worked to get there.
Thundering through the countryside at 50-60mph, sitting on my backside in an extremely plush, bouncy chair with food, water and modern conveniences at my fingertips just really doesn’t evoke the same type of feelings or memories. Is it a pleasant ride? Are we seeing nice views and little towns I like? Do I get a chance to watch Gossip Girl while we are stuck in traffic while eating snacks? Sure thing on all counts! It’s just all a little more different than I expected and am now understanding it is going to take some getting used to in order to find my own rhythm and groove during our travels.
Anyway, despite my mind bubbling away in its own stewing pot, I can’t help but notice that our scenery is going through a definite change. To begin with, the roads are no longer as flat as they were. Instead I notice the bus has now entered a rollercoaster of gently undulating hills. The trees are becoming denser on the side of the road and, if possible, more green in colour. The grass on the verges has also undergone a change, from the thick and tough St. Augustine grass that I dislike so much, to Ryegrass and Fescue, the softer grasses I recognise from home.
I glance up and to my right to check the altimeter that resides above my seat, and it confirms that although we having been sitting mostly at just above sea level since Florida, we have now managed to subtly gain height and now are at 1,500 feet. And as if to really push this point home, as we pull into our stopping point for the night (the car park of an Elks Club in Anniston, AL) I can clearly see not too far in the distance, mountains. Small ones, but they are there. And it makes me smile, both inside and out.