It is possible to drive out of Texas if you try. We didn’t try hard enough but we did manage to reach Cooper Lake State Park out east of Dallas near Sulphur Springs. We traveled about 250 miles to get there and that equals the fuel range of a 3/4 ton pickup pulling nearly four tons of tall trailer. It also equals 7 mpg in case you might be thinking of doing something like this the way we do it.
Cooper Lake S.P. is a nice park but we didn’t stay long enough to enjoy its many charms. We were anxious to get out of Texas and its summer heat wave and kick back in more temperate northern climes. Well, ha ha. Sometimes where you’re going is precisely where you are not going. If that sounds a little too Rumsfeldian, take a few minutes and read, or re-read, Maugham’s very short, Appointment In Samarra. Sure, it was hotter than Hell in Texas, but at least it was dry heat as they say. Up north it was hot and humid, so much so that in Kentucky, even Ohio, I could have sworn I was in Houston. Reality bites again.
In our attempt to escape the frying pan, we only camped two nights at Cooper Lake. Our normal minimum stay anywhere is three nights which gives us a little time to both rest and see the sights. Two nights in a place barely registers unless there’s a murder or something. Frankly, I can’t remember much about the park except that the lake was way down due to the general drought conditions Texas has suffered for a number of years now. Climate change, aka global warming it is.
The people who run this country at the moment seem to take issue with the reality of this issue which is the Mother of All Issues and that is not an opinion. There might be plenty of reasons to replace a lot of them in November, but this particular one will do all by itself. Speaking as a guy who has dabbled in science, I can assure whoever might want to listen that the chemistry involved in this phenomenon is simple and quite approachable. If you’re willing to objectively search that half of the internet not devoted to porn and cat videos, you’ll be able to figure it out on your own. Or… you can swim in denial but watch out for crocodiles. Better to soak in the clear restorative waters of reason.
Speaking of restorative waters, our next stop was at Lake Ouachita State Park near Hot Springs, Arkansas. You might want to write that down. Without doubt, this park is beautiful beyond words and the maintenance is superb. Looking out at the shimmering lake we both had the same simultaneous regret. I said, “Damn! We shoulda’ brought the kayak.” Dahna said, “Yeah Pat, why didn’t you bring the kayak?”
A couple of years ago we splurged on a couple of Hobie pedaling kayaks. These things are great for fishing, birding, hunting or whatever you want to do with your hands totally free while using your much stronger legs to zip across the water. Geezers like me love them because once you get them into the water they glide along almost effortlessly, fast enough to leave a satisfying wake. You can even sail them, an option that sold me on the spot.The only problem is getting them to the water because they’re heavy. Oh yeah, they’re kind of expensive too.
We (and I say “we” with authority) decided not to bring the 100 lb. tandem “Oasis” in order to save gas. It occurs to me now that at 7 mpg, you’re already screwed and that a kayak sitting atop your truck isn’t going to make that much difference. Only three weeks out and we’ve already seen several Hobie kayaks like ours strapped to vehicles, not to mention hundreds of other types. New Rule: When you plan to spend three months constantly camped beside a stunning lake, river, or ocean, take the frickin‘ kayak, Homer.
Us at Lake Ouachita State Park
The only thing missing at this extraordinary park was birds. It was weird because if some other place seemed more hospitable to birds, I didn’t know it. Actually, most places experience bird dropouts at certain times each year as they move on. Dahna was a bit miffed, but unruffled, knowing about this. She figured some would show up before we left in a few days. That didn’t happen because we had to skip out of there early.
Our neighbor Steve came by to visit the on the morning of day two of a three day stay. He was wearing a Natchez Trace State Park t-shirt, and when I told him that was our next stop he gave me a little tip about the place. He said, “If that big ass vapor light down by the fish-cleaning station bothers you, just cut the white neutral wire.” Steve had a career as a street light installer but, even so, I won’t take his advice because of Lou Coin.
When I was about 12, my dad came in my room and asked me if I remembered Lou, the diminutive Lebanese electrical engineer that was on his bowling team.
I said, “Sure.”
He said, “Well, Lou’s dead. He electrocuted himself in his attic working with the wiring hot and he grabbed a water pipe and that was it,” he snapped his fingers . “Don’t ever work with electricity when it’s hot, understand?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He looked in a little deeper and said, “Did you hear me, boy?”
I said, “Yes sir,” and I sure did.
Steve also said, “By the way, you might want to check the weather.” When he left, I did just that. Sacha jumped straight up when I shrieked, “HOLY SMOKES!” or something to that effect. Tropical Storm Gordon had come ashore in Mississippi and was taking a slanty northwest course designed to bring it directly over our campsite the very next evening. Local Hot Springs forecasts predicted dire flash flooding and so, discretion being the better part of valor, we got hell out.
The ranger at headquarters knew the forecast, and as he took in my tale of woe I was careful to add my mostly heartfelt praise of his beautiful park. He refunded our last day’s fee and I promised we would come back soon, a promise I intend to keep probably.
The plan was to hotfoot it to Natchez 325 miles to the west, beat Gordon, then rest and relax for four days in the Volunteer State. But, instead of the originally planned three days, or the tropical storm-modified four days, we ended up staying at Natchez Trace S.P. for five days because of hurricane Florence.
Dahna and I grew up in Houston on the Gulf Coast and that’s where we expect these storms to stay at all times. It’s just part of our culture and we’re proud of it in a dumb kind of way. We remember the big ones like Allison and Alicia, Betsy and Carla, Katrina and Rita, and Ike and Harvey. We could fill out the rest of the alphabet with the names of other monsters that hit our hometown or nearby. The beach house we lived in a dozen years ago on Bolivar Peninsula lies in pieces at the bottom of East Bay right now thanks to Ike. It’s just that we don’t associate these storms with camping deep inland much less getting pushed around by them up here. Well, we had an appointment in Samarra.
Fortunately, Natchez Trace is a nice state park even if it is a little bit small. [Aside: Is it odd that the last three words of the previous sentence make sense in context, yet each one has the same meaning individually? You never see this in science.] We had our doubts at first because its approach is blanketed in kudzu rendering the underlying native foliage a mystery of green lumps. You citizenry of the North Country might not know about this stuff or fire ants or nutria or killer bees, but don’t worry about it. Just stay away from the climate data.
The kudzu was beautiful in a disturbing alien way but it wasn’t to be seen in the park’s camping areas. I suppose the rangers had some method of hacking it back and a good thing too. It’s no stretch for southern campers to have nightmares of becoming entombed by the stuff in their RVs.
Natchez Trace S.P. had the beautiful lake you would expect in Tennessee, further rubbing it in about the kayak thing. We weren’t able to directly enjoy the lake by boating on it, but we certainly got the benefit of the crappie that live in it. Thanks to the generous family of fishermen next to us and the well-lit fish cleaning station (with its white wire intact), Dahna and I plus half the people in the camp ate like royalty.
I was reading at the picnic table when Brittany came over and introduced herself and asked if we would like a plate from their big fish fry. I was noncommittal since Dahna was off birding but that didn’t matter. Fifteen minutes later Brittany’s mom brought over a huge styrofoam clamshell full of perfectly cooked crappie, fries, and a bunch of her justifiably famous hush puppies. When Dahna got back we tore into it like Sacha into a wiener dog. Bogart once said that a hot dog at the ball park tastes better than a steak at the Ritz. That goes for fresh crappie at a state park too. Man, you meet the nicest people out here.
Natchez Trace State Park
Brittany is a country girl with kids in high school who looks like a high schooler herself. It could be that her youthfulness derives from a career of good works. She is a helicopter-borne EMT and has cared for thousands of critically ill or injured patients over the years. It was a delight to meet her, and she joins a number of smart tough women we’ve met on the road. A lot of them like our new friend Laura travel far and wide and do it alone. It seems to me that more women than men do this.
I once got a laugh out of Dahna when I remarked on all the “ramblin’ man” songs out there: Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”, Lightfoot’s “That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me,” the Allman Brothers, etc. I said, “Shoot, it’s hard getting around with all these ramblin’ men all over the place getting in the way.” Truthfully though, there really are a lot of ramblin’ women out there.
I first “noticed” Laura when I looked out the window and saw her talking to Dahna at the picnic table. They were talking about the merits and failings of various travel trailers, but I had no idea what the subject was. They could have been discussing String Theory for all I knew since they both were intently into whatever it was. So I kept my distance. She was wearing a well-worn cowboy hat which makes a lot of sense when you meet her, and I did later that day.
Laura is attractive, middle aged and recently retired as a physical therapy assistant. She is in a long term love-hate relationship with her home town of Nashville and travels not only for pleasure but also steam release. At the moment she pulls a new 20 ft. Coleman trailer with her trusty Silverado but misses her high quality T @ G teardrop. I think her real love is motorcycling and she’s lost count of all the bikes she’s owned. Neil Young wrote a pretty good song about a woman and a motorcycle on “Harvest Moon” and it reminds me of Laura a little. She describes herself as a gear head, and she is that and more.
We took her to lunch on our last rainy day at the park’s surprisingly tony restaurant. It was a good meal in good company and when I paid the check Laura said, “Next time it’s on me.” I told her I would hold her to that and I will. She briefly entertained the idea of caravanning up to Kentucky with us on a lark but, unfortunately, had business back in Nashville. We parted the next day but are staying in touch. You might be hearing from her in these pages as we go along.
The next day we headed to Taylorsville Lake State Park. Kentucky is a beautiful state as towns with names like Bowling Green attest. Almost 50 years ago a friend and I hitchhiked from Houston to his hometown of Pineville in the southern part of the state. It wasn’t beauty that caught my eye then, rather the poverty. While there I drove out of town with his brother to a spot where we parked. Then we walked across a set of railroad tracks and out to a miserable shack in the distance. An old woman in rags was scrubbing laundry on the open porch and inside her son and grandson stood in near darkness.
They quietly small talked with my friend’s brother for a long time. With long pauses between topics they eventually got down to the delicate business of bargaining for a car part. The courtesy shown back and forth between the men was remarkable and humbling to me. I never said a word, just nodded hello and goodbye. I think I understand what changed Robert Kennedy’s heart when he went to Mississippi and Appalachia after Jack was killed. It is sad beyond words to me that those two brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. will always stand for the high road, the one not taken.
The hurricane lopped off a day of our stay in Kentucky and my memory of it is a gray and drizzly blur. We managed one day of driving around the serpentine lake that wraps around part of the park to look for birds. Fat chance on a day like that though. The thing I remember vividly is the narrowness of the rural roads. At one point we met an oncoming pickup that we only missed by inches. I pulled off the road into a driveway and pushed my side mirrors in to the retracted position. The other thing was the beautiful homes that dotted the lush countryside.
Kentucky is rightfully known for faster horses and older whiskey. One thing in abundant supply there is charred oaken barrels. You can’t call your rotgut “bourbon” without aging it in these specific barrels and bourbon is the whiskey of choice in Kentucky. They even have a famous Bourbon Trail for tasting the various brands. It’s like the Appalachian Trail only less straight.
Dahna and I are bourbon drinkers and are faithful to one brand and one brand only and that’s Old Crow. None of our friends like the stuff but oddly enough seem to enjoy our house drink which is loaded with it. When we offered Laura one, she was hesitant at first but, feeling adventurous, said, “Oh hell, I’ll try anything once.” After a few sips she said, “Hey, I like this.” Later on she suggested I put the recipe in Trail Writers. Okay, here it is:
1-1/2 oz. Old Crow
Juice of 1/2 lime (1 Tbsp)
1/2 cold can of club soda (we use La Croix lime soda)
1 heaping tsp Splenda or sugar
Lots of ice
Now, you can use “better” bourbon but why bother? Here’s what I know about Old Crow:
- It’s cheap.
- it won’t give you a hangover.
- It’s America’s oldest continuously distilled bourbon.
- It’s easier to develop a taste for O.C. than scotch.
- U.S. Grant and Mark Twain reportedly preferred it.
We enjoyed our short stay in Kentucky but were glad to leave and head to Ohio and meet our friends Linda and Jeremy. Linda was going to cook for us and we were ready Freddy!