June 27, 2011

6/22/11 – Blue Ridge Parkway

We decided to go back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, starting from the same place we started from on Monday but going north this time.  We drove back through Maggie Valley to Hwy. 19.  The weather was a little owly.  
This highway was built along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains by the CCC.  I think there are 27 tunnels along the 469 mile route that goes from Shenandoah NP in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains NP in North Carolina.  Roads are a little narrow, and the tunnels are definitely low!  Some of the overlooks don’t have views anymore because the trees have grown up and block them.  For Pete’s sake, it’s been more than 50 years!

No view from this overlook!
We stopped at the Waterrock Knob Visitors Center to get a stamp for the Passport book.  By the time we left, it was just starting to rain.  Down through a quick storm, then the sun came out and the road started steaming.    
In this part of the country, they talk about “balds”, which are chunks of mountaintops that only have grasses or shrubs growing on them.  They're peculiar to the Appalachians, and apparently no one knows why they don't have trees like other hills around them.  It's a mountain mystery...  
Rough Butt Bald
At the highest point on the Parkway (6,053’), some folks we’d been leapfrogging with from viewpoint to viewpoint took our picture.

The mountains were really blue--but the sky wasn’t!  It was full of gathering clouds that were getting darker by the minute.
We had lunch at the Haywood-Jackson Overlook, watching the clouds build and blacken.  There was a funny-looking bug on the picnic table, so I took his picture before I shooed him away. 
 It was raining really hard when we turned back for home.   Sure is different weather than we have in Puget Sound!

June 26, 2011

6/20/11 – Great Smoky Mountains NP

The most visited national park in the country is Great Smoky Mountains NP; we added ourselves to the statistics.  We got off to a rather late start—there were thunderstorms the last 2 days where we were staying near Maggie Valley, NC.  We wanted to make sure the weather would be okay, and didn’t head out until after 11:00.
We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Soco Gap where it crosses US 19 and drove the 13 miles to the southern terminus of the park near Oconaluftee Visitors Center.  We went through some pretty low tunnels, so it’s a good thing we didn’t have the 5th wheel behind us. 
There were orange Flame Azaleas and Rosebay & Catawba Rhododendrons clinging to the mountainsides.  Most of the trees are hardwoods, not evergreens—it’s bound to be beautiful in the fall! 

We stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center.  No movie there, but the ranger told us there was one at the Sugarlands Visitors Center.  He said the drive through the park to the north end of the park in Tennessee would take about an hour.  (Ha!  Not the way we stop everywhere.)  Then we headed out back to the Mountain Farm Museum.  It’s a recreation of a mountain farmstead from the early 1900s.  All the historic buildings were moved here from other locations within the park.  The park was created from logging and farm lands back in the 30’s, and existing buildings were left intact.
 Next stop was Mingus Mill, a gristmill from the 1800’s.  It’s having some renovation work done on it now, but usually the mill actually still grinds corn.  It uses a water-powered turbine instead of a water wheel.
We stopped at LOTS of overlooks for pictures of the Smokies.  Between the glare and the haze, I wasn’t sure if any of my pictures would even turn out, but they came out better than I expected.  I loved the layers of mountains receding into the distance.  Certainly are a lot different than the Cascades!
Newfound Gap at 5,046’ is the lowest drivable pass through the park.  (It's a "gap" here; in the west we call them "passes".)  That’s where the park was dedicated in 1940, and where you cross the into Tennessee.  (George was a little distracted...)
There's also a junction of the Appalachian Trail.  We walked down it about a mile, until George’s silent reluctance was screaming in my ears.  It was still muddy in places from the rains and in some places we had to clamber over rocks, but now I can say “I walked a piece of the 2,174-mile-long AT.”

Back in the truck, we headed downhill on the Tennessee side.  When we got to Sugarlands, we watched the movie, wandered around in the museum—lots of info about plants and animals in the park—then turned around and headed back the same way we’d come.  This time at Newfound Gap, we turned off to take the 7-mile drive to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies at 6,643' AND on the Appalachian Trail.  There’s a steepish paved ½ mile hike up to the rather ugly concrete Observation Tower.  We huffed & puffed our way up (don’t forget, we’ve been in flat country for a couple of months!) and looked at the mountains through the glare of the late afternoon sun.  (On top of Old Smoky...)
I’d checked elevation on the GPS when we parked:  6,343'.   (I've just learned to do that, after months of wishing we had an altimeter, and now I do it a lot!)   It was showing 6,300' when we got back!  Could the parking lot have sunk 43’????  Did the truck slide downhill??  No wonder that stupid GPS doesn’t know where we’re going half the time!

June 18, 2011

6/14/11 – Stone Mountain

George had been to Stone Mountain before.  It’s a memorial, a natural wonder and a theme park.  We weren’t much interested in the rides, but were there for the history and geology.
Geology first:  Stone Mountain is literally that.  It’s a giant dome of granite sticking more than 800’ above the relatively flat countryside, about 15 miles from downtown Atlanta.  It’s more than 5 miles in circumference.  They say that the underground part of the rock is 10 times larger than what you can see above ground.  There’s a trail to the top on one side—or you can ride a tram (they call it a “Skyride”).
Wait—I’m getting ahead of myself!  On the north side of the mountain is the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, the Confederate Memorial Carving, which depicts three Confederate leaders of the Civil War, President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General “Stonewall” Jackson (and their favorite horses!)  The carved surface is about the size of 3 football fields.  The size is impressive from the ground, but even more when you’re seeing it at eye level on the tram.
Oops—I skipped ahead again...We got there bout 11:00 am—and found it was surprisingly deserted for a theme park!  There were families at some of the rides, but not like what you’d expect.  There’s a laser show projected on the face of the mountain, but it doesn’t start until 9:30, so I assume most people don’t come ‘til later.  We didn’t plan to stay that long.  We headed over to the memorial lawn and stared at the carving.   Walked all over the place and took way too many pictures. 
Opposite the mountain, down at the other end of the huge grass lawn is the Confederate Memorial Hall.   There are individual memorials for each state in the Confederacy around the outside.  All except two (Kentucky & Missouri) show the date the state seceded from the Union, was admitted to the Confederacy, and was readmitted to the Union.  I know a lot of people have problems with memorials to anything about the Confederacy, but there were a lot of good people on both sides, and they shouldn’t be ignored just because it's now politically correct to do so.

At Memorial Hall, we watched two movies:  one about the Civil War in Georgia, and the other about the history of creating the carving. 
THEN we rode the Skyride to the top of the mountain.  George made me buy round-trip tickets—he didn’t want to walk down.  (sigh)  They don’t run the tram frequently enough, so you’re stuffed in like dill pickles in a jar, and really can’t see much unless you’re on the outside.  (I made sure we were on the outside in the back on the way down.)  Then you can walk around on top of the mountain until time for the ride down.  It was windy and really hazy.   Apparently on a clear day, you can see forever.  (Sorry, Barbra.)  I mean, you can see all the way to the Appalachian Mountains.  We couldn’t.  We could barely see the skyline of Atlanta. 

Impressive hunk of rock!  Stone Mountain 

June 12, 2011

6/11/11 – Congaree NP

We stayed at a really lousy RV park near Columbia, SC, to visit Congaree National Forest.  Never heard of it?  Well, we hadn’t either—at least not until I read about it in my National Park book.  It's fairly new, just getting NP status in 2003.

We watched the movie at the Visitors Center.  The park was a successful rescue effort to save the largest contiguous area of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the US.  There are lots of different kinds of trees in the 26,000 acre forest, including what they call “national champion trees”.  It’s not a swamp like we’ve seen in other places, but rather a floodplain wetland system of the Congaree River.   It floods an average of 10 times a year.   
We took the self-guided Boardwalk trail, a 2½ mile walk that takes you in a square loop back to the Visitors Center.  You go out to Weston Lake on the Low Boardwalk.  The return is on the Elevated Boardwalk which is 6’ above the forest floorf.  There were pictures in the Visitors Center taken during a flood when only the top railings were above water!  It was sunny and in the 90's, but much cooler under the tree canopy.  

We didn’t see any champion trees—giants for its species—on this trail, but there were bald cypress, loblolly pine, sweetgum, tupelo, holly, elm, several kinds of oaks   (there must be dozens of different oak tree species in the south; who knew???) plus palmettos and  
persimmons and pawpaws.  
George had never heard of pawpaws, but I remembered the line from the song from when I was a kid.  (Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in a basket, Pickin’ up pawpaws…”)  Now I can’t get the stupid thing out of my head!  As usual, it's only a little bit and not the whole song...
At the lake, we stood on the observation platform and watched turtles in the water for a while. 

When we left, we promised one of the rangers we’d tell other people about their park.  They're new and don't get a lot of visitors.  So now I have!!

Link to Congaree pics 

June 10, 2011


5/26/11 - When we were setting up at the campground in Yemassee*, SC, there was a minor incident.   George already had the trailer on the blocks and jack stands, and was just starting to release the hitch so he could drive the truck out from under the 5th wheel. 

CRASH!  The trailer slipped off the blocks and the hitch landed on the truck!  Damage is to the tailgate, top of the truck bed, rails for the tonneau cover, fiberglass cover over the hitch.  George was not pleased. 

 Of course, it was coming up on Memorial Day weekend, so it would be Tuesday before we could even take it in.   State Farm gave us the names of 5 body shops; we opted for Beaufort Collision Shop, in Beaufort, SC.  The owner, Andy Marshall, really took care of us.  Besides the bodywork on the sides of the truck, they had to get a new tailgate from GM,  the truck had to go to Savannah for the Line-X protective coating, and then bed cover railings from Fold-A-Cover in Michigan had to be put on. 

The rental car we got was a Dodge Journey—uncomfortable SUV with a great name!  We used it to visit Ft. Pulaski near Savannah and Ft. Sumter in Charleston. 
Of course it took longer than the initial “should be ready by Friday”.  I had to keep extending at the RV park each time we got a new date--Babette & Clarence at The Oaks at Point South RV are a perfect example of southern hospitality.  We finally got the truck back on Thursday, June 9th.  They did a really good job with the truck and customer service was amazing.   Andy kept us posted every time there was a delay.  Because we were travelling, he put us ahead of 15 other cars.  His father drove the truck to Savannah for the bed lining. 

George still has to coordinate with Heartland to have a new hitch cover shipped to an RV dealer near somewhere we’ll be staying in the next few weeks—and I don’t usually plan that far in advance…
6/10/11 – Hooray!!!  We’re back on the road again, and headed to Columbia to visit Congaree NP.

* Yemassee is pronounced "YAM-uh-see", not "ya-MAS-see".  I said it wrong for a week.

June 6, 2011

6/5/11 – Fort Sumter NM

Fort Sumter National Monument—where the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years agois on an island in Charleston Harbor.  I checked the NPS (Natl. Park Service) website and found tours depart from Liberty Square 3 times a day:  9:30, noon and 2:30.  The plan was to visit Fort Sumter, then drive around to Mount Pleasant and see Fort Moultrie too.  The USS Yorktown is docked at Mount Pleasant, and I knew George would be interested in another WWII aircraft carrier if we could squeeze it in.
We got to Charleston in plenty of time.  We took some pictures in Freedom Square, bought the tickets for the 12:00 boat and looked around the Visitor Education Center until time to go.  I hadn’t finished looking at at all the exhibits when George said they were starting to load.  I figured I could see the rest when we returned.
The tour boat is run by a concessionaire.  It takes 35 minutes to get to Fort Sumter, then an hour on the island, then another ½ hour ride back.  There are (recorded) narratives periodically during the trip, explaining the history of the four forts in the harbor.  Normally I would have listened to everything—but I got distracted today.  We started talking to the couple sitting next to me, and the 4 of us hit it off immediately.  Consequently I didn’t listen, didn’t take as many pictures, didn’t read every word in the museum like usual, so I didn’t learn as much about this fort as the others we’ve visited.  (Frankly, I don’t think they let you have enough time at the fort.  If I was in charge, I’d have smaller boats that ran more frequently, and give you the option of when you wanted to come back.  That way you wouldn’t have to be with such a huge crowd either.)
Okay—here’s today’s history lesson, such as it is:  Fort Sumter is where the Civil War started on April 12, 1861.  Initially it took the Confederates 34 hours to batter it enough to force the Federal troops to surrender.  Nobody died.  Two years later, the Union decided they wanted it back, and started bombarding it.  It was quickly reduced to rubble but the garrison refused to surrender and kept repairing it.  For 20 months over 40,000 shells were blasted at it.  When General Sherman started from Savannah, they evacuated it.  It was originally 3 stories high; it's not anymore... 

(Hmmm, I must have registered a little more than I thought I did…)
After we docked, we went to lunch with Bob and Joan, who are from Pittsburg, KS.  That’s one of the best things about this travelling, meeting very nice people from all over the place.  (And they’re the first people we’ve met on this trip who had even heard of Miami, OK, where I was born!) 
Photos of Fort Sumter NM

June 3, 2011

6/3/11 – Pinckney Island NWR

We went to Hilton Head Island today.  There must be more golf courses per capital on that chunk of land than anywhere else on earth!  We stopped at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge on the way back.  You cross Pinckney Island getting on and off Hilton Head, so we didn’t even have to detour.
We stopped to read the historical markers—there were two.  Well, actually, there were four…each one had something different on the reverse side.  I’ve never seen that before (or maybe I’ve just never checked the backs of any other markers before!)
There was no Visitors Center, but a big information sign about the refuge identified the trails.  I talked George into taking the shortest one (1.2 miles round trip) out to Ibis Pond. The trail at least to that point is actually a dirt road.  The lower end of the island where we were seems to be all salt marshes, dried out in the summer.

There were tiny little crabs anywhere there was water, scurrying either into their little holes in the sand or out to deeper water when we got close.
There were lots of ibis in the marsh grasses across from the pond.  A few would get nervous and take flight, but there would be more.  Then a few more would take off, but there always seemed to be more. 
It was in the high 90s, so we didn’t stay to watch very long. 

Pics of Pinckney Island NWR 

June 1, 2011

6/1/11 – Fort Pulaski NM

On the way to Fort Pulaski National Memorial, we drove right past Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, so we made a U-turn to the Visitors Center.  We watched the video they had there.  The refuge used to be rice fields of plantations dating back to the 1700’s.  There’s  a Wildlife Drive that would have been nice to take, but they’re doing work on some of the “impoundments” so it’s closed.  So it's onward to Savannah and the fort.  

Showing us how to load a musket

Fort Pulaski’s Visitors Center is built of red brick like the fort itself.  We watched the movie, then headed over to the fort just in time to see a musket demo by a volunteer.  He was dressed in a Confederate uniform, and talked about it first.  I didn’t realize that the shoes they wore were made of paper, and were exactly the same for both feet.  “Breaking in a new pair of shoes” had a completely different meaning back then.  Then he explained all about the gun and how it was loaded.  The soldiers would have drilled to be able to load those single-shot muskets 3 times in one minute.  That’s pretty impressive with black powder and ramrods.   

Right after the demo, a ranger was giving a tour of the fort, so we tagged along.  Fort Pulaski was built as part of a group of forts to protect national security after the War of 1812.  Completed in 1847, it was considered invincible.   It even has a moat, complete with water and standard alligator.  Just before South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, the Georgia militia seized it so the North wouldn’t take it like they did Ft. Sumter.   (Not as impressive as it sounds—there were only 2 maintenance guys there at the time.)

Protected by moat and demilune
By spring, the Union decided to take it back.  They had a new weapon:  cannons called “Parrott Rifles” with rifled bores that could fire farther and with more accuracy than the cannons that the Confederacy had.  Instead of a round cannonball, their shells looked more like great big bullets.  For 30 hours in April, 1862, the US bombarded the fort from Tybee Island with over 5,000 shots!  They breached one corner of the 8’ thick walls.   They were getting close to hitting the magazine with over 40,000 pounds of gunpowder in wooden kegs; rather than risk the lives of his men needlessly, Colonel Olmstead surrendered the next day.  

The Union rebuilt the walls in 6 weeks (that's the bright-red brick part), but there are still shells embedded in the outside walls.  This was the first time that rifled cannon was used against a masonry fort, and after this battle no one ever built a brick fort again.
Repaired breach and shelled walls
We had a picnic nearby after all that (it was late and I was starving!)  Still not used to the idea of palms and pine trees together...

Pictures of Fort Pulaski