Chapter 9: Chapel Hill to Rainbow's End
Dave and Helen Damouth
October 13 - October 27, 1997
10/13/97 We arrived in Chapel Hill, NC at 6 p.m., plenty early, we thought, to pick a campground and get set up before dark. We searched Map'n'Go and the TL Guide, and headed toward the campground closest to Chapel Hill. Map'n'Go didn't find the campground address, but did locate a road by a similar name, although it didn't seem to be in quite the right place. About this time, Map'n'Go crashed so Helen continued on, driving by memory while Dave restarted the computer and reconstructed the route information (which we hadn't saved to disk, of course). A few miles out in the country, it became clear that this couldn't possibly be the right route, so we dug out the TL Guide again, and backtracked to a point where we could simply follow the detailed directions in TL. When we got to the last turn, we couldn't find the specified road, even though our GPS assured us that we were in the right place. Map'N'Go also didn't have a road in the right place, and none by the name listed. We drove on until we could find a place to turn around (not easy on these narrow country roads), and finally ended up back in Chapel Hill before we found a phone. We called the campground and discovered that there is a misplaced decimal point in the TL Guide - we should have gone 4 miles instead of 0.4 miles on the next-to-last leg. But the campground was full anyway.
The next-best option seemed to be at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, about 20 miles south of Chapel Hill. We called, and as it turned out, again got incorrect information. We picked the easiest-to-reach of the 4 campgrounds in this large Park, got there just after dark, and found it deserted, with no visible directions for registering and picking a site. While we were wandering around in the dark with our flashlights, we were hailed by a lady who turned out to be the local campground host. She informed us that, contrary to what we had been told on the phone, this area was for pre-registered group camping only, and that we would have to go to one of the other three campgrounds in the area. By this time, it was 7:40 p.m., and the gates to all the campgrounds are locked at 8 p.m.. We dashed to the next closest campground, and, unable to read road names in the dark and feeling hassled by a long line of traffic behind us on the busy highway, hurriedly turned off onto a small country road which turned out to be the wrong one. There was, of course, no place wide enough to turn the rig around.
Now only 15 minutes from closing, we tried to turn around on the road, at a place where the shoulders seemed a little wider. We stuffed the back of the trailer far back into the shrubbery, got both truck and trailer wheels as close to the ditches as we dared, and began to back and fill. After a few tries, I got the whole rig almost perpendicular to the road, and discovered that we were a couple of feet short of having enough room to complete the turn. So after some more backing and filling to undo the whole maneuver we continued down the road. In another mile or so, we found a jeep trail heading back into the woods, and backed the trailer into it to make the U-turn, with Helen standing in the nearly pitch-black woods trying to keep track of both sides of the trailer at once, waving the flashlight and talking into the CB radio. We dashed back to the highway and continued down the road, noting that the map in Map'N'Go (with the more detailed street information imported from Street Atlas too) was not accurate enough at this point. The next road turned out to be the park entrance, although the only sign was unlighted and invisible in the dark until we had already turned into the road. We went through the gates at 7:58 p.m.. A sign at the unstaffed office directed us to take a park map from a bin and select a site, which we did. Stumbling around with a flashlight, trying to figure out which site is big enough and level enough to hold our rig (and had services) isn't really much fun. Anyway, we found a site, hooked up, and were preparing supper by about 8:30. In the morning, we discovered that we had a nice view out over Jordan Lake.
Perhaps we're finally in the south. It stayed warm last night - the low for the night was around 63 degrees. And this campground, as well as the one in which we stayed last night, is open all year.
10/14 We drove to the University of North Carolina art museum, and found it was closed for a private reception - we'll try again tomorrow. We walked the campus for a while. Huge old oak trees make the center of campus very impressive. The buildings are nice too. We wandered in to the main library building and found that it is mostly a museum. Before we had to rush back to feed a parking meter, we spent an hour in an exhibit of Sir Walter Raleigh materials selected from their huge collection, and also enjoyed a display of the earliest maps of the Virginia/Carolina/Florida area, again selected from their large collection of rare maps. We then had lunch in a campus café and headed to Raleigh to see the North Carolina Art Museum. The American collection was wonderful and we also enjoyed their European collection. They didn't have a lot of famous paintings, but had some impressive things by painters that we had never heard of. These two collections were almost entirely composed of paintings - only a few pieces of sculpture here and there. We then headed across town to the NCSU arboretum, where we learned a lot about the local flora as well as seeing rare curiosities from around the world. Now we can identify at least few of the southern trees.
10/15 A cold front is approaching, and it's raining, breaking a long string of warm sunny days. We puttered around the trailer all morning. I'm still fixing things that I would class as manufacturing defects on this nine-year-old trailer - things the previous owner just lived with. This morning, I re-mounted several of the cabinet latches on doors that have never latched properly; modified the lamp socket in one of the 12v. amber outdoor lights to fix an intermittent contact between bulb and socket; removed, straightened, and remounted a door hinge that creaked horribly because it was originally mounted crooked and then had been bent to sort of fit. I also spent some time tracking down a sharp "clack" noise that we would hear every once in a while. Turns out to be the ground fault interrupter, which is built in to the 120 outlet in the bathroom. Even after tripping the interrupter, which shuts off the load side, the "clack" still occurs randomly, sometimes every minute or so, and sometimes not for hours. The 120 v. line coming to this device tests ok. The "load" side of the interrupter shows about 20 volts between neutral and ground. This suggests to me that the GFI itself is sick. I'll substitute a new one, on that assumption, and I expect the problem to go away. Has anybody ever seen this type of failure?
After lunch, we headed to Chapel Hill and spend an hour or so in the Ackland Art Museum, which was disappointing. It's a fairly small museum, and a significant portion was torn up in the process of installing a new exhibit. The 19th-century American collection was not on display at all. We then visited the North Carolina Botanical Garden. This was at the opposite extreme - one of the best we've seen. They have a very extensive and well-labeled collection of local plants, very nicely displayed. There is also a large collection of carnivorous plants, more varieties of ferns than we've ever seen on one place, and the largest herb collection we've ever seen.
10/16 The Duke University Art Museum also was a disappointment - almost all of their American and European collection - including quite a few Hudson River School things that we wanted to see - had been removed to make room for an uninteresting special exhibition. Helen did enjoy the collection of pre-Columbian American pottery. The Duke University Chapel is an impressive building - could be called a cathedral, not a chapel. The Sarah Duke Gardens are extensive, with impressive design and excellent maintenance.
10/17 On the road again. We stopped at the R. J. Reynolds cigarette factory in Winston-Salem for a plant tour. They turn out 275 million cigarettes per day in this single building. Another factory a few miles away turns out almost twice this volume. This must be one of the last real factory tours in the country. Our group of five tourists and a guide walked right up to the various production machines, all running, and received explanations of how the machinery works. The smell of tobacco in the parking lot was almost overpowering. After the tour, we bought lunch in the employee cafeteria - collard greens, deep fried fish, hushpuppies. If we needed any confirmation that we're in the south, this was it.
We continued on to Asheville, NC. Actually to Hendersonville, about 20 miles to the south, which seemed to have the closest campgrounds (except for one that appears from the map to be in the middle of an interchange between two major expressways). We were surprised to find our first-choice campground was full. A few miles down the road, we stopped at Apple Valley Travel Park, and again were told it was full. As we stood there looking sad, the manager got a thoughtful look and started reexamining his reservation board, and finally decided he could fit us in by juggling some reservations. This is a pleasant park - lots of trees, concrete patios, mostly seasonal, with a handful of transient sites. We're paying $17 for full hookups. The sites are quite small, but this time of year most of the seasonal people are gone, so it is quiet. There is phone and cable TV at each site, but the phone must be hooked up on a monthly contract with the phone company. The manager flatly refused to let us use the office phone for Email - our first refusal in a long time.
Several people on the RV-Talk Email list have talked about how crowded Vermont is during leaf-viewing season. We've experienced the mobs of tourists in that area in the past. But we have been surprised to find that this is not limited to New England. We've been finding full or nearly-full campgrounds on weekends all down through the Alleghenies, for the past three weeks, and it isn't even peak leaf color yet.
10/18 We drove back to Asheville to Kinko's. Someone on the RV-Talk Email group pointed out that Kinko's has free modem connections available. Indeed, this is true, and moreover, this location has several convenient desks, each with a phone, phonebook, modular phone plug, comfortable chair, dictionary, and thesaurus. A sign suggests limiting phone calls to five minutes, but during uncrowded times, they don't seem concerned. I used the occasion to spend somewhat longer than usual on-line, browsing a couple of web pages, retrieving mail, updating stock and mutual fund prices from Quicken Online, and downloading the current status of our accounts from the Schwab Web site.
The Biltmore Estate, our primary reason for coming the Asheville, was incredibly crowded. After wasting half an hour in a traffic jam to get to the ticket office, we were warned that we would experience long lines at the house itself, so we turned around and went home.
Our neighbors in the campground told us that the local excitement was the high school football game - directly across the street from the campground. So in the evening, we walked across and watched our first football game in a decade or more. The home team, North Henderson High School, won, 38 to 0!
10/19 We went back to Biltmore in the morning, and found it much less crowded. The natural landscaping of the extensive grounds (originally 175,000 acres) is impressive (a Frederic Law Olmstead design in 1895). The house is a 250 room French renaissance chateau completed in 1895 and still privately owned by a Vanderbilt descendent. Dave took the "behind the scenes" tour - through the basements, kitchens, attics, etc, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the plumbing, the as-yet-unrestored rooms, the gigantic coal furnaces, etc. The house is an impressive architectural achievement, but it doesn't really have much "personality" and doesn't feel like it was ever really lived in. It's built and furnished in imitation of old European styles - complete with lots of gargoyles, ancient tapestries, paintings by old masters, period furniture, etc. It feels like a museum, not a home. I found myself wondering what would have resulted if someone with this much money to spend had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build a house. Just think of what Falling Waters could have been with $15 million to spend instead of $150,000.
10/20 The day dawned bright and clear - perfect for a tour of the local mountains. We headed out on a loop along back roads to another section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, along the highest part of the Parkway (6050 feet elevation at the highest point of the road), and then through the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains and back to Asheville on Interstate 40, which Map'N'Go insists is scenic through this area. We covered 140 miles, hiked to a couple of waterfalls, hiked to the top of Waterrock Knob (6292 feet elevation), and enjoyed both the view and the exercise. We stopped at many scenic turnouts to admire the views, and generally had a great time. We've put this area on our list of places that deserve consideration as a place to settle down when we stop traveling. We're told that the small towns which are above 2500 feet in the valleys among these mountains have a very pleasant climate.
10/21 Time to leave. We packed up and headed for Pine Mountain, GA. It was 4 1/2 hours of routine expressway driving. Even driving I-85 through Atlanta was relatively routine, since we were there in early afternoon, when traffic was moderate. It was tempting to stop near Atlanta and do some of the tourist stuff, but not quite tempting enough - we're beginning to feel anxious to get to Rainbow's End (the Escapee's home RV Park in Livingston Texas, and our permanent "residence" address). Once there, we'll get new license plates and driver's licenses and officially become Texans (shudder). By 4 p.m., we were settled into Pine Mountain Campground (listed in both Map'N'Go and Trailer Life). We dashed down to the post office to get there before closing, but our mail has not yet arrived.
10/22 Spent all afternoon at Callaway Gardens. Nice place - some of the greenhouse exhibit designs are very innovative and attractive. Unfortunately, the tropical greenhouse is closed for renovation. The butterfly house is also very well done. We went down to the chapel for an organ concert, and found the organist wasn't very good, so we didn't stay. The chapel itself is an interesting building - stone and rough timbers, large stained glass windows with a forest tree and leaf pattern. We picked up our mail on the way to the gardens - mailed late Monday afternoon from Livingston, delivered before noon Wednesday at Pine Mountain. Priority Mail really seems to work well.
10/23 Helen has gone back to Callaway Gardens, to study more botanical names. I stayed at the trailer to continue plowing through the accumulated mail. There is an old guy puttering through the campsites with rake and shovel, systematically picking up leaves and twigs and tiny bits of trash, raking out any rough spots in the gravel driveways, removing ashes from the fireplaces, etc. This park is squeaky clean - probably the neatest place we've been in. We're camped amid fairly large oak and pine trees. Our site is carpeted with pine needles. There have been perhaps a dozen RV's here each night (midweek), but they are scattered through a large number of sites, so it feels empty and spacious. The people who pulled in just a few sites from us last night have an old (about 1930?) Nash touring car in an enclosed trailer behind their motorhome. They got it out as soon as they arrived and drove off to the grocery store, then put it back in the trailer before dark. This morning, they got it out early and drove off somewhere.
10/24 During the night, the wind came up, rocking the trailer, hissing in the pine trees, and occasionally dropping a little twig on the roof. Every little stick sounds like a big branch, so we slept uneasily. Before dawn, it began raining. I had planned to change the oil and filter in the truck this morning. It's overdue, and we planned a long drive today, so I did it anyway, during a lull in the rain, getting only moderately wet in the process. We started driving west, in increasingly heavy wind and rain. For the first time, we heard the emergency radio system actually used for something other than "this is a test. This is only a test ...". Three times during the morning while we were listening to the local NPR radio stations, this system was activated to announce that severe thunderstorms were in progress, high winds and damaging hail were expected, and that tornados had been sighted. Fortunately, we were driving the right direction, and were out of the area of immediate risk.
We drove toward Vicksburg Mississippi. Along the way, we stopped at the Mississippi Visitor's Center, and Helen found a brochure about a tour of 16 private antebellum homes in Natchez, tomorrow and Sunday. Change of plans! Driving all the way to Natchez was a little too much, so as it began to get dark, we pulled into a Wal-Mart in Vicksburg, tucked ourselves into a remote corner of the parking lot, and settled in for the night. At midnight, a big truck drove in and hooked up to Wal-Mart semitrailer parked near us, and drove out with it - a noisy process. Before dawn, a huge truck-mounted vacuum cleaner began cleaning the parking lot - again, a very noisy process. Oh well - a truck stop would have been even noisier.
10/25 After touring four antebellum mansions today, I (Dave) find the descriptions getting repetitive and I'll probably not do any more. Helen will go back tomorrow for more of them. We set up camp this morning at 10 AM (a new record) in Natchez State Park. This is probably the shaggiest state park we've ever seen. It is reached by a two-mile narrow strip of deteriorating blacktop, running past numerous tiny backwoods shacks - no paint, yards full of junk and dead cars - very depressing. The park itself has six full-hookup sites with level paved pads, another dozen sites with water and electricity, and another handful of primitive sites. The toilet/shower building is cheap but adequate, but otherwise the park looks extremely rundown. We're paying $12 for full hookups.
Natchez also feels run-down. It was spared during the Civil War - essentially no damage, leaving an unusually large number of antebellum homes. But only a dozen or so of the big old mansions have been nicely restored and are maintained as museums, bed-and-breakfasts, or in a couple of cases, private homes. Many others are still decaying. And driving a block or two off the main streets almost anywhere in town got us into anything from small run-down bungalows to serious slums.
Natchez had a severe storm and a small tornado last Thursday night. Several of the mansions lost large ancient trees, and most of the traffic lights in town were still not working right. While driving into town this morning, NPR programming was interrupted with another tornado warning - but for Lee County, well north of us. This evening, when the park ranger came to our trailer to register us, he said the local area is under a severe storm warning until 1 AM. I really need to build some rigid covers for the solar panels, to protect them from hail and falling branches. The hard part is figuring out where to store the covers.
10/26 Helen toured another 6 mansions in and around Natchez. Dave stayed at the trailer, went for a walk, puttered away at the list of chores, took a nap, and generally had a great time.
10/27 On the road again, headed for Rainbow's End, an Escapees campground in Livingston, Texas. We need to be there before 5:30 in order to get a campsite - arrive after that and it's dry camping in a parking area until morning. But there's not much to distract us along the way. The route is 5 1/2 hours of small state highways across the middle of Louisiana and East Texas - miles after mile of second-growth forest, interrupted only by the scars of recent clear-cut logging. There's only one real town along the way, and a few other crossroads with a few buildings. We made it to Rainbow's End about 4 p.m. - somewhat faster than Map'n'Go predicted. We'll settle in here for at least a week while we complete the process of becoming Texans.