With our social engagements in Tennessee finally concluded (UK friends, bus barn friends, family passing through), it’s time to resume our journey north, mostly for the simple reason that the south in June is too oppressively hot for this fair-weather Brit.
That’s right, for me stepping out of my door and having a wall of humid heat practically knock me off my feet is not my idea of fun. Standing outside for five minutes, becoming drenched in sweat and looking as if I’d just emerged from the shower is not pleasant. Nor is having to change my clothes three times a day (especially when my washing machine is so small it then takes me two days to wash them all). And so for these reasons we continue northwards with our eyes glued to the thermometer.
Admittedly we are on petrol budget too, so it’s also fair to say it might take us a while to reach cooler climes; which is why we find ourselves having only travelled today only a little over an hour north to Cove Lake State Park, TN.
Our stop here is on a bit of a whim, I spotted it on the map and figured we could spend the afternoon hanging out in the park, but it turns out they have available camping spots, it’s quiet and lusciously green, so why not?
After a short afternoon nap (yes, I have recently discovered the joys of napping on the odd occasion, usually after reading about 80 pages of Game of Thrones), a quick skype conversation with both my mum and then my best bud AJ, I decide to take some exercise. Out comes the Blue Bandit, raring to go, and Loops and I opt for an early evening ride around the park.
And what a beautiful evening it is, the air cools down and there is a slight breeze as we cycle around the paths in the park. Almost 700 acres in size it has open green spaces, a swimming pool, playing areas, a sports field and basketball hoops, a large lake and an excellent woodland walk and cycle area. I really wished that we could have stayed a couple days to really enjoy it all, this is definitely a recommended visit for anyone in the area.
After cycling the woodland path at the far end of the park, we come to a stop in front of the lake where there are some handy swings for sitting on and watching the lake life. We see fish intermittently flopping around at the surface catching flies, herons drifting in and out on the breeze, looking for a place to roost for the evening and the occasional dragonfly dancing on the lake surface.
As I swing gently back and forth I glance around at the wider landscape and to my absolute delight and astonishment, I see a hummingbird! It is wavering back and forth near a tree, around the trunk and then up near the branches. For a moment I think it’s about to land, but in an instant, he’s gone in a flash.
The light begins to fade and I turn fully around, with my back to the lake, and face out over the field in front of me. Within a minute I see the first flash of a firefly, followed by another and another. As the sky continues to darken and the evening takes hold, the field comes alive and is awash with tiny glowing green lanterns. A natural and simple sight and yet I feel humbled, privileged and in awe to experience it.
Before it becomes too dark to ride by, we mount up and peddle back to Belle for the night.
We cross the state line into Kentucky the next day heading for another Corp of Engineers park where we plan to stop for a couple of days to make our travel strategy for this state. Kentucky makes me think of horses and fried chicken and not much else, which is pretty limited information to go by and so we pop in at the visitor centre as we cross the border to pick up armfuls of tourist guides to help with our plans.
With Loops at the wheel I spend the drive flipping through maps and booklets and discover that horses are indeed a big industry in this area (think Kentucky Derby), that KFC was actually born in this state (and you can visit the original restaurant in Corbin, KY) and additionally that this is the major home of Bourbon production (that being the whiskey and not the very delicious chocolate biscuit, much to my dismay).
I glance up from my reading material every now and then as we barrel along the I-75, Loops is driving us towards the Daniel Boone National Forest, and the view becomes fairly interesting along parts of the motorway and so I set aside my reading material. Rather than the general mundane mile after mile of scrubby grass and trees, we motor through rock cliff passageways, steep sided and towering above us, these are obviously areas of the mountains that have been cut through to make way for the road we are travelling on. While on one hand a bit of a sad reminder of how the human race seems to alter or destroy large swathes of the natural environment, it is simultaneously fascinating to see the layering of rock and the colour changes within it.
As we approach the edge of the National Forest we veer off the main motorway and onto a smaller state road to travel through the heart of the woodland. The forest is named for the famed pioneer and explorer who blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap in 1775, the place whose name always makes me think of Wagon Wheel (a song by Old Crow Medicine Show – listen to it, I beg you).
And just for the history and significance, the Cumberland Gap is a natural low point in the mountainous area that surrounds it and, way back when, it was the easiest way through the terrain if you wanted to head out west. Therefore it was a vital travel route and so a historical moment when Mr Boone and his buddies made the trail passable and accessible for those settlers coming behind him; lesson over.
The forest road is full of twists and turns, continual trees on either side and is well shaded, but it’s not the vegetation that takes my interest, but rather the unexpected stop Loops makes at the Natural Arch Scenic Area. Having been told about it back at the visitor centre he wants to see what it’s all about, and so we make our way down a rather narrow back country road to the site.
It turns out there is a nice little parking area with some picnic tables and an amphitheatre and is completely deserted apart from ourselves and one other car. Stepping from the bus I immediately noticed the silence. All I can hear is the wind rustling through the leaves and the birds singing. We inspect the information board that tells us our viewing options. We decide to first head down a short paved walkway that points to the overlook and I am a little lost for words as we approach the overhang; the world opens up over a huge forested expanse and there right in the centre of it is indeed a huge archway made of natural stone. It seems just a very surreal sight in the middle of nowhere and does slightly take your breath away.
Loops pulls out the binoculars to get a closer view of the arch and notices that there is a medium sized bolder resting on a ledge, slightly lower down from the main arch ridge. It does not look natural at all, but how on earth someone would have moved the bolder, and then leaned it out over the edge of the arch to wedge it onto the ledge is beyond me, you would certainly need some sort of mechanical assistance for that.
Despite the suffocating heat, I decide I want a closer look, and so begins the slight bargaining conversation with Loops. I’ve made it clear I will be walking down to the arch, a distance of about a quarter or half mile (with a shed load of stairs there and back admittedly) and I assure him it’s fine if he wants to wait here. With a slight sigh but no more than that, he points me forwards and I set off and feel him pace along behind me.
Between the heat and the stairs it doesn’t take long before we are both dripping with sweat. The further we descend towards the valley floor, the more we become enveloped in the trees and the closer the air draws. The high point for me though is that I spot two trees I recognise – the first is a tulip tree and the second is sassafras. I am completely thrown off by seeing them both sitting side by side next to the trail.
The tulip tree is the strangest discovery as the only other place I have ever seen it is in the college grounds where I used to work, right next to the library. I remember clear as day, ten years ago, being told by one of the horticulture lecturers what the tree was and about its distinctive leaves, it looks like the end tip of the leaf has been cut horizontally off. He was at great pains to explain it was not a tree native to the UK, but I don’t recall him ever saying where it came from. So to see it here in Kentucky was a shock to say the least, but a sign nearby confirmed my identification and that over here it’s called a Yellow Poplar. For the horticulture geeks out there (yes, Mr Mills, Sarah and Bunny this is for you), I would like to point out that despite its two names, this tree is neither related to tulips nor poplars, but is actually a type of magnolia – who knew?
The sassafras reminds me of no one else other than my trail buddy, Bunny. She identified it for me while we were hiking the AT and I’m pretty sure I remember her chewing on it which no doubt freaked me out (however, sassafras is used to make root beer). It made me smile to see it and to wish she was here to tell me about the other plants around too.
We reach the base of the small valley and as we approach the arch the immensity of it becomes apparent, it feels like a pressure bearing down us. We clamber around the arch looking at the smooth, pock marked stone, before wandering under and through it. The back side of the arch is almost more impressive than the sight of it from the hill. The temperature plummets in the shadow and shade it throws, and the air is suddenly pleasantly cool, verging on chilly. Hidden from view until you walk through is a further drop off valley, packed with yet more trees. Silence abounds. It’s as if the rest of the world has ceased to exist.
I would be happy to stay in the shade for the next, ooh, four months or so; but time is once again getting the better of us and this is just a late lunch stop after all. Feeling a little recharged by the coolness, we begin the slow trudging climb back up the stairs and to the bus. After a change of sweaty clothes we are back on our way and are just a short twenty minutes or so from the Waitsboro COE campground outside Somerset, KY.
We pull into the registration area and Loops completes the necessary paperwork before we head into the campground. He re-boards the bus and explains that in order to access our back-in campsite at the front of the grounds; we have to go all the way to the end of the park, around the turning circle and back to the entrance again. Ok, well that’s fine, I reason, it’ll give us a chance to check out the facilities.
Now, before I explain what happens next, I would like to clarify a couple of things.
The first is that Loops and I usually perform some reconnaissance work when we camp. Due to the massive size of Belle, both length and width, we are very aware there are some places where she is not compatible; and therefore we have a tendency to unhook our bikes and scout the land before driving in.
Second, Loops is a very able driver. He has a fair amount of experience driving RV’s and HGV’s and so I implicitly trust his driving skills and judgements when it comes to manoeuvring our home.
I can only offer up that we were in such a good mood from our afternoon and the view of the massive Lake Cumberland before us at the grounds, along the assurance of the host that they regularly have 45ft RV’s in the park as the reason we didn’t we didn’t follow usual protocol.
We chug through the camp, oohing and ahhing at the lake and talking about our good luck to score a site here, as we approach the turning circle. We stop and grimace a little about the small size of it, but with the lady’s assurance ringing in our ears we opt to curve around to the right of the circle and make our turn.
Loops pulls wide, watching the left side and front end, and I watch carefully for the front right, so we didn’t hit the wall that is on my side. As he begins to curve around to the left to make his turn, he’s concentrating hard on the flimsy little fence in front of us, all that separates us from a forty foot sheer drop off into Lake Cumberland.
Somehow we both missed the elevation change in the road. Honestly it didn’t seem that steep, but well, I guess it was.
As we descend I hear a grinding sound, which I took to be the tires crunching over the gravel to our left. It’s only when Loops brakes and asks me to get out and check the bike rack on the back end of the bus that it occurs to me he’s thinking it’s something else.
When I look, part of me wants to break into laughter and the other half wants to cry.
We’ve managed to bury both the hitch and the end of the bike rack into the asphalt of the road.
With my brain being a little limited with this type of situation, I tell Loops he’s going to have to back up to set us free. But this is not the case. With the weight of Belle and the angle of the dip, if he tries to reverse, he won’t be able to move. He will simply be forcing the hitch further into the asphalt behind us.
It is then I noticed about half a dozen other gashes in the asphalt, this is clearly not the first time this has happened here.
Now I could tell you the extremely long winded, in depth version of this story, but I fear I might end up losing all of you through boredom. So let me give you the short version instead.
It’s 4pm when we discover we are stuck. Loops assesses the situation and doesn’t look happy. The two camping families we have now blocked in at the end of the campsite come out and assess the situation, and while thankfully we have not made them angry, they don’t look as if they have any answers either.
Loops and his two new buddies gather together, there is discussion. They put the jacks down on the bus to lift up the back end so they can at least remove the bike rack. Bike rack removed, bus still stuck.
Button realises she has no purpose here and so quietly goes to read her book and to try and not feel like this is the end of the world. Convinced Loops will sort it out shortly as he always does.
More discussion and now talk of wood. Wood is placed under the tires to try and raise Belle up enough she can move forward. Then it is discovered that Belle’s front end is actually too far to the right to make the turn and she needs her back end to be moved over so the front is then facing further left. Everyone throws their hands up as they can’t work out how they can shift 50,000lbs of bus in that direction.
It now begins to rain. It also dawns on us that we have singlehandedly shut down the entire park to any newcomers, for no one has a hope of manoeuvring around us to reach their own campsite.
Loops finally decides to try and get his breakdown company out to rescue Belle. It turns out they put him in contact with a company that has no ability to move Belle because of her size and weight.
He then tries his insurance company and waits to hear back if they can help.
It’s now about 5 hours later. During a second trip for more wood (not quite sure what for this time), Loops and one of his new buddies have now kidnapped a random tow truck driver they found coming out of Wendy’s. This is not a joke, this actually happened.
While kidnapped man is surveying the problem, his phone rings. It’s Loops’ insurance company asking if he’d like the job of moving a 50,000lb bus stuck in a campground.
Kidnapped man is returned to Wendy’s with the promise he will bring a suitable truck and more men to help.
It’s now 10pm and kidnapped man has made good on his promise and returned. Now follows two hours of pulling and shoving the bus sideways across the asphalt on her jacks accompanied by hideous dragging and jolting sounds of metal.
11.30pm and Belle is able to start edging forward to try and complete her turn, her back wheels are all up on a cobbled together wooden platform. For every foot she moves, the wood must be removed from the back of her wheels and brought to the front in a caterpillar type motion.
12am and Loops finally eases her fully back onto the asphalt and completes her turn, enabling us 8 hours after we arrived to pull into our campsite.
Yes. This is one of those stories we will be telling for quite some time to come.