Going Solo

Thursday, June 20. I’ve been backpacking for forty years. But I’ve never gone on a solo trip. That changes tomorrow. I am packed and ready to head out in the morning to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

During the last forty years I’ve hiked hundreds (thousands?) of miles, mostly with my husband. I’ve always said that I wasn’t interested in hiking alone, that it wouldn’t be any fun without someone to share it with.

Last weekend I looked at the calendar and realized three things: next Friday is the summer solstice, I have a three-day weekend, and I have a weekend alone. Four things–and I want to go to Mount Rogers for an overnight hike. All by myself.

My planned route is a loop, about 10-12 miles total. I’ll take the main trail up from the parking lot, head south on the AT to Rhododendron Gap, take the Pine Mountain Trail back to the AT, continue southbound to Scales, over Stone Mountain, down to the bottom, then camp somewhere along one of the creeks for the night. The next morning I’ll walk past the Wise Shelter, and then up and over to head back to the car, taking the trail back down to the backpacker parking lot.

Friday, June 21. When I drove up to the entrance station at Grayson Highlands State Park, the ranger had two questions: you know about the bear warnings, right? And, you know about the weather forecast? Yes to both. This could be an interesting hike.

Since last summer the Mount Rogers area has had intermittent bear problems at the shelters and along Wilburn Ridge. They’ve installed bear boxes at these locations. Hikers are encouraged to use them or bear canisters for food storage.

There had been severe thunderstorms Thursday night and the forecast was the same for Friday night. The weather up there is always volatile and can change from warm sunshine to cold, windy rain in minutes. You’ve got to be prepared for all of it.

I left the car at 9:30 AM with a 22.5 pound pack. We’ve done this hike so many times that it felt completely familiar, but also completely new and exciting, all at the same time. As I crossed the parking lot, I saw my first bird of the hike, an indigo bunting singing in the top of a small shadbush tree. An excellent omen.

It was really windy as I climbed, sometimes sunny, sometimes ominously cloudy. A bit chilly in the wind without sun. Absolutely gorgeous. Summer meadow grasses and wildflowers, blackberries and mountain laurel in bloom, the Christmas tree fragrance of the Fraser firs. It was so much fun to be out there! Life’s been a bit busy lately and I haven’t had enough trail time in the last year or so. Just breathing the air up there was good for my soul in a way I’d almost forgotten.

I stopped for lunch on Pine Mountain in a little grove of evergreen trees, trying to get out of the wind. There was a jumble of rocks inside, so it seemed like an ideal spot. I was clearly not the first to think it so–there was also a lot of evidence that the horses had spent a lot of time there…

The trade-off for being out of the wind was also being out of the sun, so I didn’t stop for long. By the time I got to Scales the wind had died down a bit and the sun was out for good. I took a break just to sit and be there. And watch the cows.

On the way down Stone Mountain I stopped at a spring along the trail for water. While I was there I met a northbound thru hiker from Germany. For the second time that day. She stopped to talk because she recognized that we’d passed each other earlier in the day as well and found that a bit puzzling, until I explained that I was hiking a loop.

As I continued down the trail, I started thinking about my camping spot for the night. We’ve camped before at a spot that we call the old homesite. There’s a small clearing, a spring, and some overgrown household junk on the other side of trail. When I got there I decided that it was too early in the day to stop and that would leave me a longer hike in the morning than I wanted (since I had to hike out, drive home, then pick up my husband at the airport the next afternoon).

My next two stops were along the creeks at the bottom. At the first spot there’s a nice campsite under a tree. Unfortunately the only flat spot to pitch a tent had a gigantic pile of horse manure. Sigh. I looked around a bit in the more open grassy areas, but every flattish spot was either soggy or full of blackberry brambles. The next spot a little further down the trail was just too soggy. So on I went.

Finally, like Goldilocks, I found a spot that was just right. Out of sight of the trail, close–but not too close–to the creek, flat enough to pitch a tent, and high enough to be dry.

I had everything set up by 5 PM, so I had the rest of the afternoon and evening to just enjoy being out. I had brought my knitting, of course, so I worked on knitting a hat and just watched the world go by. There were lots of birds, a few deer, but no hikers anywhere nearby. I walked around a bit, exploring the area and looking for a place to secure my food bag overnight. I made dinner and just relaxed, enjoying being out on the longest day of the year.

Saturday, June 21. I was up early, as soon as it began to get light. I retrieved my food, made coffee and breakfast, and watched the morning. My company was a chestnut-sided warbler in the maple nearby. I sat for a few minutes meditating, and realized that this entire trip is an exercise in mindfulness and presence.

It had been an interesting evening. I first heard thunder at about 10:30. When I looked outside, the sky was full of stars to the east. Not so much in the west. I had a few showers at about 11:30, then things were quiet until about 3:30, when the thunder and lightning woke me up. The rain started coming down hard after the first thunderclap. All was dry inside–so far so good.

I started counting the time between lightning and thunder. Ten seconds. Then eight. Four. Two. Then four again and I resumed breathing. The storm moved off and the rest of the night was quiet.

I took my time breaking camp and I was on the trail before 8 AM. Within ten minutes I had crossed the last creek and passed the Wise Shelter and the 20 or more tents and hammocks pitched nearby. I guess the bear warnings have concentrated the hikers near the bear box locations.

It took about an hour to get to the top of the ridgeline and the trail back to the backpacker parking area. I stopped fairly frequently, mostly because I wanted to prolong my time out and enjoy the glorious morning. I saw deer and turkeys, and heard a hermit thrush, a wood thrush, and plenty of chestnut-sided warblers.

Would I do this again? Absolutely. I discovered that hiking alone allows me to focus entirely on the experience, on the world around me, on how I feel and what I need–when to stop, eat, or drink. I also saw and heard more birds and other animals, perhaps because I was quieter alone or maybe because I was paying more attention. I returned home restored and energized, ready to check my calendar for another opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry.

Camping at the Mt. Airy Festival

Shows our Cricket set up in camp at the Mt Airy festival.

We attended the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention for the second year in a row. This time we had the Cricket as our secret weapon. Instead of sleeping on the muddy ground in constant heavy rain, we had comfortable beds, a great kitchen area, outside covered seating, and a secure place to stash our instruments while keeping them cooler than inside the truck.

The photo above shows our new REI 12.5×12.5 foot square tarp, and next to it, a large pop up shelter that a friend brought. Together we had a huge covered area for music and shared meals. The REI tarp works a lot better than the stock TAXA tarp that came with the Cricket. It has more coverage, doesn’t sag and collect water, and handles bad weather well. Plus it has much less of a gap between the tarp and the camper. There is still a little bit of water that runs down the side and over the big window, but it doesn’t get everything under the tarp wet. Plus the REI tarp was about $70. Attached it using small carabiners, one on the back tarp attachment point, and the other on the far end of the handle in the center of the roof. It’s tight enough without putting a lot of stress on it.

I’m still learning how to choose a good site. We got there on Thursday morning, and all the shaded sites had been occupied for days. But the large open field was flat and grassy, and had plenty of good sites left. My biggest mistake was moving the truck over to a parking spot along the road. This allowed another group to pitch their tent/tarp right up against our camper (really, it was touching in one spot), where they proceeded to talk and sing loudly until after 3am, and — much worse — smoke incessantly. The noise wasn’t that big a deal — it’s a festival, after all. But the smoke was pouring through our camper while we slept. Next time I will park the truck on that side of the camper and make sure I have blocked out areas around it.

Cricket in camp.

Here’s another view of the tarp over the Cricket. I have two tall adjustable tent poles, one on each corner, and I made the front corner much higher so water can run down off the back. I guyed out each pole in two directions so I could control the tension both ways.

We had the water pump replaced, so we drove up with a mostly full fresh water tank. We were able to clean dishes, and ourselves, brush teeth, etc., without leaving the camper. Worked well.

Playing music in camp.

The point of the festival is to jam with your friends, of course, and we spent most of our time doing just that. So I don’t have many photos from this adventure. The cool thing about old time music is the community of folks who play it. We play with people in their teens and in their 70s and all in between. People from all over the region and the country. It’s a relaxing atmosphere and the music is excellent.

Fiddling Around in the Cricket

20190504pomac2157

On the first weekend in May we took our Cricket to its first music festival, the Piedmont One Mic Acoustic Convention (POMAC) in Franklinville, NC. This is the second year of the festival, which celebrates acoustic music of all kinds, including Old Time, bluegrass, Piedmont blues, and mill music. POMAC is organized by some friends in the Piedmont Old Time Society, and it’s still a small and accessible festival for musicians and fans.

The festival is in a tiny town park along the Deep River. There is a wide grass flood plain where we were able to camp, with a grassy road running one way through the long, skinny park for access. The camping area was about five or six feet below the level of the road, and we had some concerns about getting the camper out after all the rain, but these proved unfounded.

20190504pomac2155

We got there Friday after work and set up camp. I chose the site based on easy access, being able to swing around next to the river like a pull-through site, rather than trying to back down the hill. It’s not a great choice in other ways, though, since it gets no shade during the day. After a quick dinner and a walk around the park, we found our friends and played music until all hours.

20190504pomac2184

On Saturday morning we explored the park. There is a bridge across the river to a trail system, and we hiked to Faith Rock, a large rock outcrop with an interesting history and a great view. In the afternoon we entered the fiddle contest, and played with our friend Bob in the band contest. A good time was had by all.

20190504pomac2219

With the water pump not working, we didn’t have water for washing up and personal hygiene. This has never been an issue before, but we’ve generally camped in places with bath houses. So we learned that having a functional internal water system is a great feature when boondocking. Other than that one issue, the Cricket handled well. Since one of the primary reasons we wanted a trailer was for music festivals and fiddler’s conventions, this was a great experience. Just what we wanted.

20190504pomac2158

Next up: The Mt. Airy Blue Grass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.

Five Days Paddling in the Swamp

20190418paddling0416

We took the Cricket for its first long weekend camping trip to one of our favorite places, Merchant’s Millpond State Park, in Gates County, NC. The main attraction is an old millpond that has grown into a cypress-tupelo swamp. We went in late April at peak warbler migration, and had some good paddling and great birding. Plus snakes.

I was hoping to learn how long I could run the TAXA Cricket on battery power with the usual load: Dometic 40 liter refrigerator, the LED lighting system, the Truma propane furnace/water heater, and charging various devices using the USB outlets. We have a dual battery setup with a pair of Type 24 80 amp hour marine/RV batteries. Since the park has no hookups, and we’d be there for four nights, it was a good test.

20190417paddling0006

We were planning to leave early Thursday morning, but the weather forecast made us rethink that plan, and we hustled to leave right after lunch on Wednesday. That got us to the park in time to set up the camper and make some dinner. Here’s a photo of the camper with the kayaks on our 4Runner – good thing the camper isn’t any taller than the tow vehicle. With the full load of camping and paddling gear, but dry tanks, the Cricket handled very well on the highway. We got about 15.5 mpg on this trip, on mostly level interstate. The Cricket normally trims about 2 mpg off our 19 mpg average, so the rest was from the kayaks.

20190418paddling0545

There are about 20 campsites at the park, all level back-in sites with gravel driveways and no hookups. Most of them have a fair amount of privacy. There is one bath house with showers and bathrooms, and there are water spigots located along the road.

I used a 5-gallon water container to fill the fresh water tank in the Cricket. It takes 15 gallons, so I made several trips. That gave us hot and cold water for washing dishes, cleaning up, brushing teeth, etc. We drank and cooked with bottled water. There is a small water pump that pulls water from the tank and pressurizes the plumbing system.

We had a lovely 8 hour paddle on Thursday, heading up Bennett’s Creek to an area with thousand-year-old cypress trees. We were able to find a small island where we could land the kayaks for lunch and restroom breaks, making such a long day possible.

20190418paddling0466

The weather on Friday turned out to be just as bad as predicted, so we went for a short birding hike down to the dam from the campsite, then drove to the small Colonial town of Edenton for lunch. Edenton is a like a tiny Williamsburg, with Colonial architecture and restored buildings, but also a functioning downtown area with shops and restaurants. We had a terrific lunch at The Governor’s Pub.

20190419paddling0595

We had severe thunderstorms heading back to the park, and several more overnight, though we were spared the tornadoes that hit elsewhere. The Cricket handled the weather quite well, though the tarp that TAXA sells for it is less than ideal. Rigged as directed, the heavy flap that is supposed to seal the gap with the camper doesn’t do so. It also collects water in large bulges no matter how I set it up, so I was up several times that night pushing the water out before it ripped. I tried rigging it to get better coverage, but we ended up buying a different tarp and will report back when we use it next month.

No matter, we hung out inside and played a little music.

20190419paddling0608

You can see in this photo the interior space and how crucial it is to be organized. We use a 2-inch memory foam pad, which adds a lot of comfort but also takes up a lot of room. It’s rolled up in the fitted sheet at the rear of the seating area. We can slide it around to get inside the underbed storage, at least when the bed is not made. Up top you can see our quilt and pillows in the bungee net, and the stuff we use during the day is just laying on the bed. At the bottom right is the Dometic 40 liter refrigerator — it looks like a medium sized cooler, but it has a small compressor and so far has been very good at keeping a steady internal temperature. On the floor in the middle is the connector for the table support. The banjo is a Deering Goodtime open backed banjo played clawhammer style.

20190419paddling0632

Above is a view of the Cricket from the front, taken late in the evening in between thunderstorms. Another issue with the stock tarp is that it doesn’t cover the open door, so we end up closing the door when it’s raining hard. That has an effect on ventilation inside. Note that we have a small outdoor carpet, and a 4-foot folding table that we use as an outdoor kitchen in good weather. There is a 12 volt outlet on the side of the Cricket under the folding table, so we can move the fridge outside into the kitchen.

So how long did the batteries last? All weekend and then some. With the fridge set to 37F, the Truma making hot water, the LED lights on as needed, and charging devices overnight, our voltmeter was down to 12.1v as we packed up on Sunday morning (it starts at 12.6v.) I’m comfortable letting it go to 11.4v before recharging, and my battery expert tells me I can go as low as 10.5 in a pinch (but then I have to turn off the batteries and get them to a charger.) Given this experience I will have no qualms going for as much as a week or even more without worrying about hookups or solar panels.

20190420paddling0690

Here’s a nice view of the interior showing the excellent headroom and all the natural light coming in the windows on a sunny day. The table is in position and all the canvas windows are unzipped.

We thought we’d go home Saturday, but the weather was incredible — clear blue skies, cooler temperatures. So we went for a 3 hour paddle instead, then had a pleasant dinner in camp. The campground – which had been almost entirely empty the previous three nights – was now full, but it still didn’t feel crowded.

20190418paddling0539

When we got home Sunday afternoon, I planned to clean out all the tanks with fresh water. At that point the water pump failed. I went through the various troubleshooting steps and couldn’t get it working. (Later I would do all the steps again, then take it to the dealer for a new water pump under warranty. I’ve seen several posts on the owners’ Facebook group about similar issues with the pump.)

On our next trip we’ll take the Cricket to a small music festival.