We left Fort Yargo in the morning. Not too early. A little drizzly. We’d decided to stop in Athens on our way to our next campsite. We like university towns. We like surrounding ourselves with younger people who are full of hope and creativity and infinitely cool. We can always find food shops, bakeries, cafes, breweries to excite our taste buds in these centres of hipsterdom (REM and B52s, the hipsters of our generation). Plus, there was a tree we wanted to visit. Yes, a tree. Not just any tree but a tree that owns itself. Including 8 ft of land on all sides.
It was deeded to itself by Col. William H. Jackson circa 1832. To be clear the tree we visited is the second generation of the original tree, the offspring, the scion of the original oak tree and was planted in 1946. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and became an Athens landmark in 1988. It seems appropriate that the road leading to the famous tree is a rather steep, old, not yellow, brick road at the intersection of Finley and Dearing Streets. The homes surrounding the tree are mostly grand, well loved with really lovely gardens. All of which were in full spring bloom. We left Athens with an armload of inspiration and hope, good food and our first oil change in the new van.
We were excited to camp at the site of Georgia’s longest remaining covered bridge. We drove through photo-worthy small towns and pastoral bright green countryside dotted with cattle. In contrast, there was an equal number of communities comprised of decrepit single wide mobile homes with names like ‘Tranquility Forest’ which were devoid of vegetation and seemingly, hope. The standout property was downright apocalyptic with its muddy yard, long dead trees and a Noah’s Ark bounty of farm animals wandering around aimlessly. The sound of our approaching vehicle brought the dogs running to the edge of the property and they pursued us headlong to the extreme end of the fencing, braying the entire way as if pleading for us to rescue them. In retrospect, we wonder if this was an omen. We checked in at the state park and excitedly jumped out of the van to take some photos of the historic bridge. Or at least we tried, let’s just say the gnat population was thriving. Most of the photos we took are of gnats with a blurry covered bridge in the background. THAT is how many gnats there were! We didn’t last long out there and opted to head directly to our campsite and set up before it began to rain any harder than the current drizzle.
It was still off-season in Northern Georgia near the end of March so there were only a couple of other campers way on the other side of the campground. We like campgrounds in the off-season even when they are overrun by gnats and the trees and leaves are still teasing us. Anyway, we’d set up camp and had just sat down to read up on this part of Georgia when we looked up to see a woman backing into the next campsite. Christian yelled, ‘STOP!’ The back wheels of the Chevy Volt were half way over the barrier at the rear of the campsite and the sedan was very close to Thelma and Louise-ing into the ravine below. Our neighbour, who we will refer to as Connie, got out of the car to see just what Christian was yelling about, before opting to drive her car forward to safety. Her little Chihuahua, Putin, jumped out of the car and immediately yapped his way over to MacDuff who had been calmly watching the scene unfold from his post on the rug. Putin was as vicious as his namesake. Nevertheless Connie was not the least inclined to put him on a leash as was a rule of the campground. Duff just looked at us like, you can’t be serious?!
Connie, a self-proclaimed expert camper, was camping in her sedan. She had not brought a single piece of gear for her scheduled five nights of camping. She immediately joined our camp and held court until it began to rain in earnest. At one point during the downpour she visited the bathhouse, had a shower in her clothes and emerged shivering and clinging to her synthetic purple bath loofa. Not a towel to be seen. Strange, we thought, as we watched her climb into her car. A couple of hours later the rain stopped and the sun was peaking out from behind the clouds so we decided to take Duff for a walk on one of the park trails.
As we closed the door to the van Connie exited her car wearing pyjamas, a fluffy, bubblegum pink bathrobe and flat white backless sandals. She asked where we were going and asked if she could join us. We asked if she had other footwear since the trails were extremely wet and muddy. She assured us that she was an expert hiker and would be fine wearing sandals and sleepwear. And so we walked.
She was urging us to follow her down a steep muddy slope to what was now a fast moving river. It was at this point that we began to worry that she was either suicidal or planning to push us in. It was also at this point that she decided she couldn’t walk any further as her ‘asthma’ was kicking in. The three of us happily walked the rest of the trail on our own. When we got back to camp we decided to make a fire. The fire was burning nicely and we were enjoying the warmth while we each sipped a little bourbon. Duff was starting to fall asleep. And then, BANG!!!!! It was so loud and so close. The sound of gunfire scared the living daylights out of us. Duff wouldn’t stop barking for a good twenty minutes. We were shaking and wondering aloud where it came from. Clutching his cup of bourbon, Christian worried that he was having a heart attack. We discounted hunters because it was getting quite dark. And then, there she was, standing beside our fire, asking to join us. The first thing we did was ask Connie if she’d heard the gunshot.
‘Of course,’ she said, ‘it was me. I just wanted to make sure my gun works and that everyone here knows I have a gun.’
Considering we were practically the only other campers our interpretation was that she wanted US to know she had a gun. We continued to sit around the fire talking about everything from fear to guns to drugs to family. During the course of our fireside chat she had decided to buy into the camper van lifestyle and follow us back to Canada! Oh, oh… It became independently clear to each of us that she was bat-shit crazy, high, on what we weren’t sure, and potentially dangerous. Not an ideal combination. So, you bet we were as friendly and accommodating as we could be. At one point after requesting permission she took a photo of us sitting by the fire with our van behind us and then passed her phone to Christian asking him to post it to her Facebook page and to friend her on Facebook. As he worked away I worried that our crazy new ‘friend’ would potentially become our crazy new stalker! He agreed and passed the phone back to her once he was finished. I later found out that he had thankfully been pretending to post it, and instead deleting the photo and NOT friending her on Facebook. By about 8pm Christian announced that he was tired and was going to go to bed. I agreed that we were both quite tired and that it had been a really full day. Connie asked us to promise not to leave in the morning without saying goodbye. Before returning to her car she made sure she had her glasses and her phone. And then as she was parting she patted the pocket on her pink bathrobe and said, ‘yep, I got my gun too.’
We lay wide awake in bed for hours weighing the pros and cons of packing up and leaving in the dark of night vs. waiting until morning. In case you were curious as to why we didn’t call the park ranger or the police – there was neither cell service or a ranger on duty. Soooooo, we decided to wait it out until morning so as not to pique Connie’s curiosity. Fortunately, at about 2am, still wide awake, we watched with relief as she drove out of the campground. Though we had very little sleep we still rose before 7am, agreeing not to wait around for her possible return. And sure as heck just as we were pulling out of the campground we gasped as a Chevy Volt driven by a wild-eyed blond woman grinning madly from ear to ear sped towards us, with a park ranger on her tail. We continued driving all the way to Tallulah Gorge with one eye on the road ahead and one in the rearview mirror stopping only once to gas up. We’ve met many folks on the road since beginning this adventure 5 years ago and it’s not often we meet someone we hope never to encounter again. It’s all part of the journey, though, and helps us sharpen our wits and heck, we got a story out of it.
EXTRA: This was the story we had written prior to the trail hike and the gun shot. We only just found it in the archives:
Sometimes you just know as you approach a park that there will be a story. A person with a story. As we approached the park we passed several single-wide houses that appeared to have seen the best of times long, long ago. It was quite a contrast to the neighbourhood we had just left and wandered around in nearby Athens. Athens, Georgia, not Greece. One single-wide in particular was surrounded by dirt, not a blade of grass in sight. All of the trees were not just dead, but fallen and leafless. It looked a bit like the end of the world except that there were two or three small horses wandering around the yard. They looked like they had survived something though I am not sure what. As we approached the state park we caught our first glimpse of the covered bridge for which it is named. The longest covered bridge in Georgia. The road leading through the park and over the bridge is a county road. We don’t know what’s on the other side of the bridge because our van exceeds the height restriction which means we are unable to cross to the other side. After checking in we excitedly stopped for some photos of the bridge and were immediately swarmed by gnats. If Hitchcock ever made a movie featuring gnats it would surely have been set here in the American south.
Not long after setting up camp our neighbouring camper arrived. From inside the Hymer I heard Christian yell, ‘stop!’ Connie, that’s her name, very nearly backed her car over the edge of the campsite into the ravine. She lives just 10 minutes away in this very county. Her husband, she tells us, does not like camping but no matter she doesn’t mind doing so on her own. It’s in her blood. Her daddy introduced her to camping as a child in California. She is not camping alone. She is with her 13-year-old Chihuahua named Sasha in a Chevy Volt. No tent, no camping gear but she is travelling with a dog bowl. We know that because we filled it with water since her water spigot appears not to be functional.
We weren’t here 30 minutes before it began to rain. She disappeared and soon after emerged from the shower with a puff, her clothes sopping wet and shivering. Something I for one found odd considering she lives just 10 minutes away. Also, not a towel in sight. Curious. Sometimes you know that the story you’re conjuring up in your imagination is nothing compared to the real story.