Day 1: The Woodlands, Texas to Sam Houston Jones State Park, Louisiana
Louisiana is everything I hoped it might be: hot, sticky, swampy, filled with friendly people, signs warning about alligators, Spanish moss, and cypress trees growing out of the water.
Before I left, my husband insisted I use black magic marker to put a “sign” on the trailer advertising the website. It looks goofy, but I’ll give it a few days and see if it attracts any attention.
At a gas station somewhere near the Texas border, a tow truck driver parked in the fuel stall next to me called over shyly that he liked the trailer. Chesky threatened to kill him from the backseat; he has something against bald white men, although I’m not sure where it comes from.
I left Texas on rural back roads. Near population centers, the lots were huge and many had a double-wide mobile home sitting on it. Nothing about the homes looked movable; these all looked as settled on the land as any stone house. East Texas was green after heavy summer rains, and the air was thick and heavy with moisture. I’ll be glad to get away from the heat.
We stopped at small, well kept, and shady dog park called Bark Du Lac in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Chesky sniffed everything and dug a big hole.
The campground looked like it had been the scene of a busy Labor Day weekend. Trash was strewn all over the restroom doorstep and all the fire pits were filled with garbage. The rest of the campground was nice, with shaded, spread-out campsites.
I took Chesky for a walk around the park. Despite the soul-crushing heat, we passed about twenty other people on our lap around the lake, and everyone was very friendly and said hello. A barefoot shirtless kid on a bike that was too small for him rode along with us. Chesky liked him. The boy told me all about his dog and wanted to help Chesky catch a squirrel.
I walked along a little path to a bridge over the swamp, but kept hearing the loud kerplunk of a large animal slipping into the water through the reeds. Signs warned of alligators, and I was spooked: the last thing I wanted was for me or Chesky to get eaten by an alligator on our very first day on the road. A ranger later told me the noise was probably nutria, medium-sized rodents that launch off the bank and into the water with a belly flop and a big splash.
I made the mistake of giving Chesky a knee knuckle bone to chew on after dinner. He got bones and gristle all over his blankets, which started to smell almost immediately.
Day 2: Lake Charles to Houma to West NOLA KOA, New Orleans
I slept terrible last night but awoke with the feeling of adventure. Chesky burst forth from the trailer as if trying to catch a vermin waiting unawares outside, and his ears dropped in disappointment when there was nothing there.
Three people have already looked at the website in Louisiana, so I guess the sign on the back of the trailer is working.
I watched a purple-haired barista in Starbucks tell off a nosy old man who proclaimed her hair would “scare all the boys away”. Her response: “it’s a good thing I am not sexually attracted to boys, then.” When it was my turn to order, I told her I didn’t think the man had the right to make comments or criticize the way she (or anyone else) looked. She thanked me.
Near Houma, I stopped at a roadside stand advertising blueberries. They didn’t have blueberries or anything else worth buying, but they did have a palm-sized pieces of gator jerky for $80.
Today was a tough day. I drove too far and Chesky wasn’t feeling well from the bone he had last night. He threw up three times in the backseat and it smelled awful in the heat. I arrived late to find the campground I planned to stay at was closed, so I had to scramble and ended up at a KOA. It cost almost twice as much money but had excellent wifi.
After dark, there was a high-pitched whine as a truck drove around the campground, spraying something into the air. I don’t know if this was normal or just due to Zika fears.
I received an email from a couple who had seen the trailer on the road and wrote to me. It was cute: enthusiastic and supportive; and I was touched and reinvigorated.
Day 3: New Orleans to Clarkco State Park, Mississippi
I woke up early and threw away Chesky’s vomit-covered bed, which had grown rancid in the night. No more bones for him.
I hurried to get moving and joined New Orleans rush hour traffic. As I was driving on the freeway, a man in a pickup honked and gave me a thumbs up as he drove by. People love this trailer.
My destination was the Garden District of New Orleans. The neighborhood just north of it was beautiful: run down and overgrown and truly a photographer’s dream. Men sat on crates, little kids dragged backpacks off to school, people waited for a bus. The buildings were dilapidated and covered with foliage.
A man on a bike ran a red light and rode in front of me as I was starting up. He made eye contact as he rode by, and then when he realized I wasn’t mad, he grinned and waved. I like these southerners.
The roads into the Garden District were small and bumpy and many were under construction. I parked under an enormous stately elm and took some photos.
A grizzled gardener with a flip phone took pictures of the trailer and told me he liked the camper. He pointed out Sandra Bullock’s house across the street. I asked about the neighborhood to the north with all the beautiful overgrown buildings and character, and he warned of danger. Someone, he told me, had been mugged there in weeks past at two o’clock in the morning.
I could have spent days in New Orleans, but I had road to cover so I moved on.
I decided to drive north across Lake Pontchartrain on the causeway bridge for two reasons: it looked cool on the map, and there was a Whole Foods in Mandeville on the north side of the lake. The lake is more than twenty miles across. On the water, one can only see fifteen miles because of the curvature of the earth. This means that when you drive onto the causeway, it looks like a road that goes out into the wide dark sea and never ends.
It was long minutes before things started to come into view on the other side of the lake, and more long minutes before I was reassured those things were actually trees and houses. High winds would have made the drive terrifying: there’s not much between the road and the sea and the causeway is narrow.
Thankfully, my brakes waited to crap out until after I was off the bridge. I noticed a shuddering as I slowed. It had happened once the day before, but I didn’t think much of it; sometimes the trailer just pulls and kicks like a ornery mule. I made my way towards a nearby dog park, and it was apparent something was very wrong.
I pulled onto a side road and ran through some troubleshooting. It turned out to be the fridge running off DC power messing with the brake controller. I turned the fridge off and the brakes were fine. My fears of spending time at an RV repair shop and thousands of dollars were not realized.
Our next stop was the best dog park ever, with huge, shady trees, and lots of room to run. Chesky took full advantage of the space. He is very playful with other dogs and wants everyone to chase him. He learned how to lay down in a kid’s paddling pool to cool off. A black lab taught him, and like a child, Chesky copied the behavior.
Dog parks are a great place to observe human behavior. There’s always a misbehaving dog, trying to force themselves on other dogs in weird and awkward ways and causing contention in the canine pack. The owner invariably follows them around, braying corrections and whatever thought comes into their head at any given moment. I wonder if the social awkwardness of the dog is a reflection of the owner.
Today I really wanted a Starbuck’s coffee. It was 92, sunny, and high noon, and I couldn’t find a place to park in the shade so I could run in and grab a coffee and not suffocate the dog. I was idling in the Walmart parking lot mulling over my predicament when a woman pulled up next to me and rolled down her window to ask about Rucio. People love this trailer. After chatting with her, I was refreshed and realized I could fit through the Starbuck’s drive thru. Coffee was attained.
I drove long hours to northern Mississippi to Clarkco State Park and arrived grouchy and exhausted, but was immediately enchanted: well-kept trees arched over a charming little road. I checked in at the lodge and found my campsite, a glorious location with a patch of grass leading down to a placid lake.
My neighbors two doors down have a “Mississippi Rebels” flag hanging from their trailer and a seven foot high bouncy house for kids next to their camper. They have kayaks, bikes, and two satellite dishes at the edge of the water. It looks like they are having an awesome vacation.
The parking area for my site is small and narrow, and if it hadn’t been a sanctioned parking spot, I probably wouldn’t have attempted it. But I was armed with gumption: I knew it was possible, so it was. Chesky provides support for parking efforts by way of calm, non-judgmental observance.
When I sat down to eat dinner at the rough-hewn picnic table, looking out over the water and the setting sun, it was quiet and peaceful. I had a glass of wine and a nice meal, my dog was sitting happily at my side, and the scene was idyllic. I wanted to stay there for my entire trip.
Living in the trailer has been better than expected. It’s cozy, roomy enough, and feels safe. Chesky likes it. We are getting into an easy routine. I stake him out as soon as we get to a campsite, and he sniffs around while I set up. It works out well for both of us.
Day 4: Clarkco State Park MS to Hidden Cove RV Resort, AL
This morning, it was 66 degrees in the camper. I opened all the windows for the first time and cooked breakfast to the sound of birds. There was mist on the lake at sunrise. I’m still in the deep, hot south, but I can feel cold weather in my future for the first time.
I sat at the picnic table and watched the mist swirl and move like an ethereal ghostly river along the top of the still water, moved by a gentle breeze. The weather was perfect. After I spent all morning at that beautiful spot writing, I told myself: “remember this moment for the hard times ahead. It’s not all going to be perfect peaceful campsites and misty dawn mornings filled with inspiration.”
Twenty minutes later I sprayed myself in the face with six gallons of congealing urine. We’ll call it the Sewage Incident: I opened the valve, there was the deluge, the cap wasn’t on right, and “gray water” from the black tank went everywhere. Even though I have showered and laundered everything, I can still smell it from time to time, the particles lodged in my nostrils.
The experience was horrible. We will never again speak of the Sewage Incident.
Chesky has been an unfailingly pleasant travel companion. Other than the occasional barking incident (yesterday he bellowed abuse at a tiny little girl who had the nerve to fall off her bike in the road in front of our campsite), he’s been pleasant to strangers.
I continue to get messages on the website from people who see us on the road, and it’s really nice. They express support for the trip, compliment the trailer, and give tidbits on their area.
I left the wild and wooded land of Mississippi with its unkempt secrets and rolling hills and entered into Alabama on a nice, shady two-lane road between towering trees.
It was another long day’s drive. I stopped in Tuscaloosa at a dog park, but Chesky wasn’t feeling very sociable. He hid behind my legs and only came out when I walked around. He was intimidated by a friendly bull mastiff and her sidekick, a cheerful fluffy little mutt. Although the mastiff wagged her tail and joined us on our walk, she made Chesky nervous and he just couldn’t enjoy himself.
Tuscaloosa is home to the University of Alabama. There was a game the next day, and the radio was filled with lively chatter about football. The main route running through town was busy; a four-lane highway lined with stores, most of which looked as if they had been there since 1960: local hardware stores, insurance agencies, feed and supply stores, and diners.
I stopped at a gas station in a rural area and had to wait while a man filled up his pickup truck at the center diesel console, blocking the other pumps. Another man in a pickup arrived, and the two were acquainted and had a conversation I couldn’t hear. The one filling up his truck gave me an apologetic shrug through the windshield and I waved to let him know I wasn’t bothered by the wait.
Then he started to scratch his privates. He spread his legs, stood on tiptoes, adjusted himself, then itched. The other man didn’t appear to notice, but I was a bit dismayed. We had just made eye contact and he was only ten feet from my front bumper. He wasn’t being creepy or disrespectful or anything, he just had really itchy genitals. And he didn’t care who knew it.
Day 5: Hidden Cove RV Resort, AL
The Hidden Cove staff are welcoming, enthusiastic, and keep the facilities in great shape. Like everything else in Alabama, this place is groomed and pleasant. I would definitely stay here again.
The campground is located on Lake Smith, formed as a reservoir in 1961 after the construction of a dam. Most dams in America were build in the 1960s and 70s, so represent a profound change to the landscape since Steinbeck’s time. I started doing some research on dams in America and there is definitely a project there; more on dams to come.
The lake is beautiful, with cliffs all around from a former mountainous valley and houses perched high up with long wooden staircases down to the water.
This was my first day off with no driving, and I had the anticipation of a whole day stretched out in front of me. I was surprised mid-morning by the arrival of my husband. We were on the phone and then I heard a knock on the door. I opened it, and there he was. It was a lovely surprise. We walked to the lake with Chesky and caught up with one another for a few hours before he needed to move on.
That afternoon, I noticed ants in the trailer, and found a line of them coming in through a crack in the window. They were crawling up the power cord in a mighty column. It was a good opportunity for me to meet the neighbors and bum some ant spray.
The front of the trailer is covered in dead “love bugs”. I have tried to get them off with gas station windshield-cleaning wands to no avail.
That evening after dark, the wind began and I watched as my screen house blew away. I chased it down in my pajamas, tackling it as it rolled like a tumbleweed across the field. I grappled with it for five minutes to get it put away, then packed up the rest of the things I’d left outside just before the rain came. As I opened the door to go back inside, Chesky took the opportunity to break free and raced gleefully off into the night.
I knew he wouldn’t go far, but I was concerned about being made “persona non grata” at the campsite for allowing my dog to run wild. I changed into clothes I didn’t mind getting wet (I had only one pair of pajamas), and went into the rainy darkness after him.
Chesky was was pleased I had joined him, but he wasn’t ready to go in and danced out of reach. An unwilling Vizsla is impossible to catch. We went for a walk around the RV park instead. I was furious, but I don’t think he cared; he needed a run. It had been a full 24 hours since he’d had the afterburners on. Somehow, since he’s so good and calm, I forgot. I vowed not to neglect him again.
Day 6: Hidden Cove RV park in Alabama to Doll Mountain Campground, Georgia
My neighbors last night were a couple from North Carolina. The husband put me through my paces this morning to make sure I did indeed know how to hook up the trailer and was going to be safe on the road. I passed the test.
After leaving the campground, I took Chesky to a dog park in Cullman, AL. He ran around gratefully on his own until a German shepherd puppy showed up. With another dog there, Chesky went full throttle. The GSD had a hurt elbow, but was playful; she just couldn’t keep up. Chesky ran in large circles around her, tongue lolling and grinning like a deranged racehorse.
The dog’s owner provided an overview of local life and changes, which were much the same as other places: more fast food joints, less small businesses, new buildings being inexplicably built next to decrepit ones. Many people in Cullman are employed by a nearby Walmart distribution center.
I entered Georgia after a dry spell, on a hot sunny day. The mountains were covered in pine and other trees with small, water-preserving leaves very unlike the foliage of the Gulf Coast. The roads were narrow and winding and wooded.
I went to Doll Mountain campground on Carters Lake, another reservoir created by the tallest earthen dam east of the Mississippi in 1977. My campsite was glorious: perched high on a forested hill overlooking the lake far below.
Around sunset, the campground monitor came by to provide a verbal list of all the things I needed to be afraid of, which included: bears (they had one in the dumpster in the spring) and bobcats (someone once saw a bobcat but he wasn’t sure when but he didn’t think it was this year). I am becoming accustomed to custodial attention of campground staff.
A lot of people tell me scary things. I met a woman at the laundry facility who explained someone in her Georgia neighborhood had recently been decapitated while walking their dog.
The ants are still here, hundreds of them. I have been killing them all day. They are wandering around aimlessly, looking for the way back to their colony. I have no sympathy.
I’m running the air conditioner to sleep; I like the white noise. If that bear that was here six months ago decides to return, I don’t want to hear it.
Day 7: Doll Mountain Campground, Georgia
Today was an administrative rest day. Chesky went to Camp Bow Wow Woodstock for day care in suburban Atlanta, and I went to Starbucks to connect to the world.
I have seen at least ten men in Georgia with beards, which must be in fashion here.
I still have ants in the trailer, and have degenerated into using chemical bug spray. The ants have become a pale brown color, which I hope means they are slowly dying.
Last night, before we went into the trailer for the night, Chesky was growling out into the dark woods at some unseen menace. I was a little freaked out, so I left the outside light on to keep the campsite illuminated. Ten minutes later, Chesky got up and growled at the door as if he thought someone was trying to get inside. Heart racing, I looked out with my very bright flashlight and saw nothing.
A few minutes later, Chesky growled at the door again. We repeated the process of opening the door and looking out into the night, but there was nothing there. The third time I finally heard what he heard: a gently smacking sound. Moths and various other bugs were collecting around the porch light and running into the door and the side of the trailer. I turned off the light and the drama was over.
My description of each state so far in two words or less:
Texas: oppressive heat
Louisiana: ramshackle quaint
Mississippi: mobile homes
Georgia: dry mountains
For the best photos of the trip so far, please see the Instagram feed (you don’t have to have Instagram to view). I post here a few times a day, so it’s a good way to keep up on our progress.
Thanks to everyone who has written in with messages of support and welcome to their communities! In every single place I have been so far, I have wished I had more time to explore.
Stay tuned for next week’s report!