COOPER DISCOVERER: Middle-earth by Montero...with Four Kids

haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#1
Middle-earth by Montero...with Four Kids
The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
April 26-30, 2016​

Are they too young? Are they too many? Kids are a difficult variable in the "adventuring by vehicle" equation. Typically you throw two adults in a four-wheel drive with a paper map and a free weekend and you've got a sure recipe for a good time. Toss a kid or two in there and your math skills better be, well, let's just say above average. More planning, less freedom, whining proportional to age, and bathroom breaks squared...not to mention the financials of the whole thing, the real world numbers that we all use real math to deal with. It's an inverse relationship: more kids means less money, and nobody's pretending that our shared hobby of exploring the world by internal combustion is cheap. So what does this equation look like when you're married with four kids? And what does it look like when those four kids are all five and under? Are they too young? Are they too many? I haven't done any advanced mathematics since high school, and that was more years ago than I have fingers to count on. Are we seriously considering this? Well...

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It's a bug, like the flu I guess. Growing up outside meant I'd had my fair share of run-ins with camping, hiking, Scouts, hunting and fishing, etc. It was in my blood already, probably from birth. Things got a little more complicated after leaving home for college, since an '84 AMC XJ left with me. Four-wheel drive's disease had a slow onset, flaring up whenever something would break or become annoying. The only cure we know is to upgrade, though that only aggravates the condition. Slowly this new affliction began mingling with the latent love for nature, and long before I'd heard the term "Overland" I was already infected. But when this superbug finally began to manifest its familiar symptoms I was already happily married, happily fathering four sons. How do you fit intense vehicular wanderlust and a family of six into a Jeep that's in a thousand pieces...on a rice-and-beans budget? Our math problem is also kind of a health problem, and maybe a bit of a mental problem. But uncommon problems require less traveled solutions. And for my wife and me those solutions would be found in Middle-earth by way of a Mitsubishi.

It Began with the Forging of the Rings

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Tolkien is a familiar voice around our home. In addition to at least one mega-Middle-earth movie marathon around Christmas, there's always some allusion or hint of these stories around the house. I have always appreciated Tolkien's approach to story-telling, seeing mythical fairy stories as a means of more seriously appreciating the real world, that real story we're all a part of. Rather than stealing one's attention away, good stories should be a catalyst for a heightened appreciation of the realness of things. Colors more vivid, smells richer, moments deeper. This is why I've purposefully chosen to bring Tolkien's mythology into my home, that I might help my children see, hear, taste, and feel the world they are a part of in indelible ways. Many would say the same things of travel and of adventure.

It became easy to see the balancing effect Tolkien's stories could then have on my "adventuring by vehicle" equation, if only I could find something to elicit the kids' interest and assuage the wife's worries. I found my bridge in the forging of seven rings while at work (note that the picture only has six, haha...math be hard). With all seven rings in hand I set off to plant the seeds of adventure in my boys, done in the re-watching of the Fellowship of the Ring's introduction. They heard for the hundreth time Lady Galadriel say:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

Movie paused I asked the boys, "Whatever happened to the seven dwarf rings?" An honest "I dunno" is about all I would expect out of these preschoolers, but when I came home the following day with a cryptic map I claimed to have found hidden in the library, I knew I had their interest. All of it. My wife was even a little curious, though she had an idea of what I was up to due to the adult conversations we had been having about this whole crazy thing. Smiling, she grabbed the camera and helped get the kids out the door. We were about to go on an adventure, and though it would start a mere stone's throw from our home, it would quickly expand to misty mountains, distant shores, magical waterfalls, and fearsome frontiers. But first we had to find the rings.

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In what was the closest thing to an Elven forest I could find on the way home from work, assuming the elves in question were low-life drunken litterbugs due to the beer bottles strewn everywhere, I hid a small treasure cache. Map in hand I went home, rounded up the excited brood, and returned to what was in fact an old Civil War battlefield. After a short hike, a little amateur cartography, and a big "it's over there" hint from daddy my boys stumbled onto the biggest haul they'd ever come across under a tree...if you don't count Christmas. Again, I have four boys, and they have all self-identified as one of the Ninja Turtles very naturally, so they immediately knew which chest was meant for them. Inside they found all the gadgets and gizmos they'd need for the trip ahead: compasses, flashlights, Jr. Ranger badges they'd earned last year, ponchos (for armor, as will become important later), and other random stuff I'd dug out of my "outdoors chest" in the attic.

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The little guy, our one-year old, needed a little help opening his. That's why I intentionally hid the seven dwarven rings inside his Mikey chest. It allowed the excitement to build up, kinda like the moment you whip out that last big present on Christmas morning to a room full of wide-eyed "Oh my gosh! There's more!?" expressions. When the boys laid eyes on those re-purposed and spray-painted chain links, letting out an overjoyed "IT'S THE RINGS!", I'm sure every drunken elf in a half-mile's radius was roused from his stupor. As far as my young hobbit boys were concerned, they had just come into possession of all the necessary ingredients for an adventure...well, except that they didn't know what to do with these accursed golden things.

That's where the maps came in. Along with each chest came a piece of a large map illustrating our intended route, and highlighting a number of important landmarks along the way. In the most Tolkien-like way I could, I explained that this quest intended us to destroy these seven rings, six by being cast into the torrents of magical waterfalls, and the seventh by being taken to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain. With my wife's gracious support I had planned out a five-day, 500-mile adventure by vehicle trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She had taken care of all the food planning, clothes packing, and general keep-the-kids-alive type stuff, while I busied myself with maps, trip reports, decades-old camping gear, and one other all-important piece of equipment...our new to us '03 Mitsubishi Montero.

Blue Ridge Mountains or Bust (...Please Don't Bust, Mr. Montero)

I told myself once that I'd never let myself become a "previous owner." I've always seen owning a car as a commitment, something kinda like marriage that's only supposed to be broken by death. My first car was literally a part of my family. That '84 Cherokee I rode off to college in had been in my family for three generations, bought brand new by my grandmother mere months after I was born. She passed it on to my father, where it would become our adventure-mobile as I grew up. When he passed it on to me it felt natural, meant-to-be. I loved that silver piece of crap for all the right reasons, it was a conduit of shared memories. Family memories. It was a part of our story. When it finally died a few years after I got married it was a no-brainer what we'd replace it with. It was among the first XJs to roll of the assembly line, and the silver 2001 I bought was one of the last. But this new Jeep had something my '84 AMC did not, an unknown previous owner.

I never considered my dad or grandmother previous owners. They were family, and though there was a change of name on the title, there was never a gap in Rimmer ownership. So what do I consider a "previous owner". Well, let's just say that they're affectionately known on internet forums the world over by the acronym "PO", and I'm sure if an "s" got tacked on there by mistake there would be no squiggly red line underneath. From my experience they're the people who forget to mention the bank lien on the title, or the check engine light that they cleared before your test drive, or the minor accident hidden from CarFax that irreparably damaged the steering knuckle, or the fact that they forgot to change the oil...every single service interval, or installed bling electronics but couldn't afford a roll of electrical tape...(I could go on ad infinitum). I'm sure they're not all like this, but I've dealt with three in my lifetime, and without exception they've been bad experiences.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, we've got more kids than a Jeep Cherokee can (legally) transport. In addition, it has been undergoing a several seasons long Tim the Toolman Taylor style garage restoration, currently sitting on two wheels with a seized engine. It's out of the current consideration. Second, remember the inverse relationship in the equation...more kids, less money. The "less money" means that I'll never escape the reaches of the PO when it comes to the vehicle portion of the problem. The previous owner is an unwanted, but necessary evil in my "adventuring by vehicle" formula. It also means that the used vehicle I want probably won't be the vehicle I get. There's gonna have to be some compromises made. Basically put, I need something that seats six, goes reliably off-road, and isn't subject to the Toyota Tax. So, after months of researching and searching I decided to take a chance and rescue a black and tan Mitsubishi Montero from an unintentionally abusive previous owner.

My wife was not immediately taken in with the Japanese ogre, probably for good reason, ahem, reasons: It leaked every fluid, everywhere. Transfer case stuck in AWD. Tires sounded like they were rolling howler monkey cages. Interior, just gross. Electrical gremlins, aplenty. Like I said, it was abused. I tried to pull the Jesus angle on her saying that kinda like how Jesus adopted us when we were all messed up and broken I could likewise adopt this thing in its unsaintly state. Jesus is fixing us, we'll fix the Montero. "But you're not mechanical Jesus," came the apt reply. I love my wife. She patiently and supportively let me roll in the pig pen of a decision I had made, me doing what I could to make the best of a not so great starting position. Brakes, tires, fluids, transfer case repair, a few modest but necessary upgrades, and a plethora of annoyances later I assured her that we were ready to go.

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The morning following our battlefield treasure hunt was our scheduled departure time. Overnight rain meant loading the roof rack had to wait until morning, and then morning rain meant it had to happen regardless. The weather forecast had made a sudden and ominous turn in the days before our scheduled setting off. Heavy thunderstorms were predicted in the areas we'd be venturing. It's hard to describe what I was feeling that morning as I lugged our gear onto the roof of the ogre in the early drizzle. Apprehension, sure, I mean I was taking my four young boys five hundred miles into bad weather with an untested truck on dirt roads that would be outside the reach of even Verizon's over-hyped towers. It was easy, natural to think of all the what-if's and holy crap situations. It was obvious who would get the blame for this going bust, not just from my family but also anyone who might catch wind of our failed venture, our reckless...no MY reckless ambitions. "What were you thinking? Why'd you want to do that?" These seem like they'd be rational questions from rational people that I don't think would be impressed with me spouting off about wanderlust and blaming Tolkien.

I ran into the house to grab a roll of painter's tape, the blue stuff, and a black marker. Finding a small strip of center console, right behind the coffee cups, I stretched a piece across it, scribbling two words for my wife and me to remind each other throughout this trip into the unknown. It's hard to imagine anything more wasteful than worry. Won't change the weather forecast. Won't make the Montero bulletproof. Surely won't get rid of these accursed rings. Worry was there, but worry is dumb. Beyond the apprehension I'd say there was also something like eagerness, an impatient longing to just go do something indifferent to the circumstances and hindrances. The more the Montero took on our burdens the more resolved I was to hit the road and find out what it had in store for us. I wanted to put things to the test, to find them out: the Montero, myself, our family's abilities and limits. That Amelia Earhart saying "Adventure is worthwhile in itself"...yeah, let's test that too. Bet she didn't say that in an airplane with four kids in the back!

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So with four kids loaded in, fridge filled to the brim, gear strapped down, and seven golden rings safely stored away we finally set off. We pounded the interstate, plowing through the rain all the way to Rockfish Gap and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I said to everyone, "Now the real adventure begins." We rolled to a stop. Left would go to the Skyline Parkway of Shenandoah, right down the BRP to our first camping stop. I hit the indicator, and as I look down to see the right arrow flashing I notice three other lights flashing too. Hmm? "What are these three warning lights for? Oh, wonderful. It's the Check Engine, ABS Warning, and Traction Control lights, nothing too important," says the sarcastic side of the keyboarder's brain. My eyes look right, meeting my wife's, who with a smile reads me the note on the blue tape, "Choose Joy." I love my wife. It's gonna be a great trip.

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More to come..."This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it." - Tolkien, in the Preface to LOTR
 
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haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#8
The 2nd Portion

“I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” - C.S. Lewis​

Fool of a Took!

This little hobbit guy named Peregrin Took once said, “The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm.” Wise ol' Treebeard, who happened to be carrying the young hobbit, responded with a puzzled, “Hmm. That doesn't make sense to me. But then, you are very small.” I think that if I were to have had a similar conversation with my Montero at this point in our trip (in my head of course, cuz only Shia Labeouf actually talks to his car...and he's crazy) it might have gone down similarly. “What the, um...seriously?! You do see these warning lights, right?” But like Pippin I assumed it would be the last thing our adversaries would expect, so south we went, seven rings in hand.

On the more adult side of things, thank God I didn't have the same conversation with Gandalf the Grey. As I turned the Montero right, commencing our south-bound journey, he probably would have gotten all shouty with me, saying something to the effect of “Fool of a Took! At least go to AutoZone and read the blasted MIL codes!” Alas, he was not there to suggest something so rational, and besides, by our first stop the warning lights had gone away on their own (fortunately never to return all trip). Magic, I guess.

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ARB Doesn't Sell Imagination

There was something “magical” about the weather as well, though not the benevolent kind. As mentioned earlier we were passing through various stages of rain, from thunderstorms to heavy fog to light drizzle, all ever-changing. My well-laid plans, schedules, and agendas were already in jeopardy by the first stop at the Humpback Rocks. The prospect of lightning and slick rocks made our original plan to hike up these impressive cliffs a no-go. A shame too, since the boys were eager to see their trip's first dragon, the Humpback Rock Dragon. Terrible wyrm, that one. We could just catch a glimpse of the granite beast's jagged outline from the old Appalachian farm we'd stopped at. I'd have to come up with a different use for him that was more in keeping with the weather. If only there were a tool for that...I'm pretty sure ARB doesn't sell imagination, but every adventurer needs it (dare I say more than a 4wd).

The imagination is one of God's greater gifts to men. I love to see it at work in my boys, even my youngest who's not even talking yet. Every evening when I get home as soon as I pull off my boots, he’s climbing into them. But his imagination has him climbing into a world that he isn't yet ready for, isn't yet able to understand. For a brief moment he's a man, a working man like his dad. I love that he sees it, and he wants it, and that the imagination opens up the door for him to experience it long before his little feet are ready to fill those boots. All my boys have it in spades, and they get it from me I guess. Tolkien called it the faculty of the “sub-creator”, whereby men make and shape worlds all their own. With proper use, and some careful guidance, it may even help them become men that find joy in making and shaping the real world someday.

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As it pertains to adventuring, imagination is indeed something every adventurer needs, and fortunately already has to some degree. It's that extra ingredient to quick-thinking that adds a smile to whatever solutions or detours you cook up. Almost anybody can solve a problem, but it takes some imagination to have fun doing it. And we needed some smiles at this point...or maybe something terrifying. Trolls are scary...

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We walked around this recreated Appalachian farm for a little while, making sure to knock on every door in the village. Strangely nobody answered, nor did we see anyone around. I asked the boys, “Where is everybody? You don’t think maybe they’ve been kidnapped do you?” My oldest picked up the magic right away, enthusiastically shouting, “Trolls!” Sure as I can spit I bet the bad weather had brought the trolls down out of the mountains, hauling off the imaginary farmers to only-dad-knows-where. That’s something we’d have to look into tomorrow. For now though we needed to find camp before the weather got any worse.

Paper Maps FTW

In planning for this trip I’d purchased a few of the Nat. Geo. Trails Illustrated topo maps. Map #789 in particular was perfect for helping me find our way off the Blue Ridge Parkway and onto the dirt roads hidden from the Google Maps travelers. The goal was to snake back and forth across the blacktop, staying off of it as much as possible. SR814 took us down to our first base camp, downstream from the Crabtree Falls.

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Because it was so early in the season we had the entire campground to ourselves, save a few Appalachian Trail hikers. The boys ran around while my wife cooked dinner (deer steak tacos) and I set up camp...side note: if anybody from one of them nifty roof top tent or camping trailer manufacturers reads this just know that my family is an advertiser’s dream sponsorship. You’d sell millions of them thingies if people saw my kids in them. Shameless, I know, but setting up camp for six when the kids are too young to help sucks. Haha, anyways…

Putting Saruman On Blast

A brief break in the weather coupled with the extra hour of daylight (remember this was in March, right after daylight savings) meant we had a little more time to kill, and maybe a window to destroy our first ring. Since our basecamp was a stone’s throw from the Crabtree Falls we scurried over. Here’s where a little silver lining dawned on us...while the heavy rains and mist would normally make for poor camping conditions, for an adventure centered around destroying dwarven rings in waterfalls you couldn’t ask for better. All the waterfalls would be at their grandest, and Crabtree did not disappoint. It also meant we’d have everything to ourselves, which isn’t too shabby either (popular sites here in the East can get pretty crowded).

In the twilight hour one of my boys cast the first ring into the flood. It was now official. The white wizard Saruman had been chosen as our primary nemesis and scapegoat for any troubles we’d encounter during this trip, and we just put him on blast. One down, six to go. We headed back to camp for some rest, for tomorrow would be a big day, hopefully beginning with a rescue mission.

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haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#10
The 3rd Portion

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The Rescue Mission

The kidnappers’ trail was easy to pick up the following morning, drawing our party north into the Big Levels Wildlife Management Area off the Coal Road. Trash was everywhere, and my oldest discovered a few clear signs of struggle. We were hot on their tails, and they knew it. For the farmers’ sakes we needed to press on despite the Wizard’s poison ivy being everywhere, not to mention the faint smell of fire on the air. This were no campfire aroma though...best I could guess, it reeked of dragon breath...or a controlled Forestry Service burn (which it was). Yet there was a more pressing issue demanding our immediate attention this late morning…SECOND BREAKFAST!

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These hobbit boys, like any army, move on their bellies, and our Montero is therefore a rolling cafeteria most days. Food, drink, and even an easily deployable picnic blanket are a must for any trip, even somewhere as simple as the grocery store. I’d reckon that even if we were to forget to pack a snack, despite my best attempts to keep the Montero halfway clean inside, I’m sure these halflings could live at least a day or two off all the Cheerios and Ritz crackers fallen down between the seats. Parents of the world, can I get a witness?

After filling up our bellies I walked the boys around a little and tried to fill their minds and hearts full of disgust. I couldn’t believe all the trash we saw everywhere. We filled a plastic bag, but honestly could have spent the day picking up the rubbish left behind. Nasty trolls, these, but my junior rangers were learning why we need to tread lightly. One day they’ll be daddies, and their children will need a place open for them to dream, play, and wonder. Right before setting off we found a small salamander, almost as if he came out to tell the kids thank you for picking up.

A Bald Mountain Full of Trolls

The trolls were not so thankful, and our pursuit led them to take a much tougher path than the Coal Road we were on. In their attempts to shake us they scurried up the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail (Forest Road 162). I guess they didn’t notice that we’d brought our seven-time Dakar Rally-winning off road ogre equipped with its fancy all-terrain battle boots and Mitsubishi Active Skid Traction Control II (some kinda elven magic from Japan that’s supposed to be super great). I looked over to my clearly apprehensive wife and asked, “Are we ready for this?” An enthusiastic smile from her and I was shifting into 4H. A quick look back to the boys with the same question. They all brandished their water guns with gritty resolve. Let’s go rescue these farmers.

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A quick note about trolls for anyone unfamiliar with how things work in Middle-earth. They’re not exactly overfond of direct sunlight seeing as how it tends to turn them into stone. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning the sky was blue as a robin’s egg, and our trolls were therefore hard as rocks. Being a Jeep trail meant that these trolls were everywhere. Small ones, flat ones, large ones, and fat ones. As the Montero rolled over most the boys picked off the stragglers through the windows. It was a merry, bumpy affair, unless of course you were a troll.

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The rusted remains of previous adventurers were hung from the trees in an attempt to shake our courage, and with that failed they flooded the road at certain portions. “No snorkel, no follow us!” was their twisted logic...I guess they spent too much time reading “To Snorkel or Not To Snorkel” forum posts on ExPo, haha. Cautiously we pressed through, slowly making pursuit as if we were the Dread Pirate Roberts. Though only ten miles long, when you’re bouncing around at two to three miles per hour the trail seems to go on and on and on and...unfortunately some in our party fell victim to this trick. Then again, maybe it was the IFS/IRS combo.


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Hours into our pursuit we finally came upon an obstacle worthy of serving as our trolls, a pair of large rocks blocking the trail. For anybody that’s never been down this road we found this to be the only rock-crawler type obstacle of the whole trail. Everything else was easy and stock-friendly (unless you’re driving a stock minivan or something ridiculous like that). Alone with a car full of kids, and being a novice off-roader, we tactically took the bypass (trolls weren’t expecting that, haha). Flanking the fiends we pounced upon them from the rear with our water guns. Trolls vanquished, farmers freed. Rescue mission accomplished...right?

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Yet, before we could celebrate too much we began to notice a change in the air. The blue skies that had lent us so much good fortune with the trolls was filling with the voice of a grieved sorcerer. Fog from Saruman and the rumble of distant thunder. Time to get back to basecamp before the weather broke for the worse, though we were forgetting an even more pressing matter directly at hand...ELEVENSES! Hobbit boys gotta eat.

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haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#11
The 4th Portion

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I've always had this weird thing with my eyes. It's hard to explain, but it isn't really anything wrong with seeing (I don't wear or need glasses at this stage of life). I see just fine, but looking at things, looking for things, that's when it shows up. “Did you see that groundhog?” When I was a kid on road trips with my dad I had to always have my eyes looking out the windows because I'd get carsick, yet I'd always be the last to see stuff. Deer, turkeys, road signs...sometimes I'd get lucky and happen across it before we passed by, but more often than not...missed it. “Uh, yeah dad...cool.”

You know that saying, “Missing the forest for the trees”? It's like a literal, physiological case of that. “Little John, DEER!” I heard in a whispering tone. “Huh, where? Uh, oh...is it a bu…” By the time I'd found the creature in my vision my dad had already dropped it dead in its tracks. Perfect shot, but we both knew it was supposed to have been mine. “You've got to pay attention son.” But I was...frantically scanning one tree at a time. It's like my default viewing mode is zoomed in to street level rather than a state-wide panoramic. I prefer to see things one at a time rather than all at once, and while that can be great at times it can often be frustrating or very funny depending on the situation.

That Lego Movie scene where he's watching the show Where Are My Pants?...yeah, that's like real life in my home. “Did you look downstairs?” my wife asks. Of course I looked downstairs woman! Twice! Thinking that I say this, “Yes dear. They're not there.” Knowing me, loving me, she proceeds to walk downstairs where she sees the pants laying in the middle of the floor. I love my wife. She's already showing she's ride or die for the day when my dementia sets in.

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

The Bald Mountain Jeep Trail spits you out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway right after mile marker 22, and from there it was a short trip to our predetermined lunch spot. I'm sure the Slacks Overlook is for fine viewing most days, but we couldn't see much in the clouds, plus we weren't there for that anyways. Ring number two was bound for destruction in the White Rocks Falls just south around the Twenty Minute Cliff. Finding our trailhead took a little advanced planning. As we set off south down the Parkway, on foot no less, my wife asked, “Where are we going now?” Honestly I didn't really know, having only read about this place on the internet, where they rightly warned that there were no signs marking the way. “We'll just have to keep our eyes peeled,” I replied with a coy expression on my face.

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This saying is something we say a lot with our boys. On road trips I'll specifically ask them to call out when they see anything noteworthy, be it a cool car (they LOVE cars), an animal, the lawman after daddy's money, whatever. Inevitably one will excitedly point out some discovery only for another to miss it. Whining ensues. Whining always ensues, as if I or mom had the ability to pause or rewind things long enough for everyone to see what's going on. Life doesn't work like that. That's why we always respond, “You've gotta keep your eyes peeled.”

And finding these White Rock Falls would require everyone to do just that. I didn't exactly know where or what to look for, but did notice yellow trail marks periodically that I gave the boys the task of finding. Only problem was I didn't know what the yellow marks were for. Next thing we noticed was an X carved into a tree. Not knowing what that was for either we just kinda kept bumbling down the path.

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Visibility was getting worse and worse as thicker precipitation rolled in. The fog turned into a thick, lazy drizzle, the kind that hangs around waiting for you to walk into it rather than making the effort to fall down onto your head itself. There was an addling aura in the air as we soggily stumbled on. If you don't know where you're going, does that mean you're lost? Maybe we just hadn't found our way yet was all. As our road began climbing I suspected something amiss, as water tends to flow opposite our trajectory. My suspicions were shortly confirmed as we found ourselves looking over the edge of a cliff (not too far over due to the blanketing fog). This was not our road.

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Not comfortable herding cats on the edge of who knows how high a drop I turned our crew around. We'd have to go at this another way. Keeping our eyes peeled wasn't really working with this fog only opening up about twenty-five feet of viewing area in any given direction. My default way of seeing the world was now the only way to see these woods. There would be no zooming out to gather the bigger picture, to gather our bearings. Honestly reminded me of Bilbo and the dwarves wandering aimlessly through Mirkwood, drunk off the magical air. That'd be us too, if not for ears. Thank God for ears.


Water does this strange thing when it flows down a hill called “making noise.” I don't know who first noticed the sound, but somebody had the wits to follow it. Before long we were back at the carved X where my wife and son Rapha noticed a hidden spur trail venturing off to the source of the sounds. Following that, under rhododendron branches, over oak logs, we eventualy came to a small series of falls. Regardless of which falls these actually were we were resolved that they were in fact waterfalls and therefore fit for ring ruining. Ring number two, adieu.

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The walk out was a merry one, despite everyone being tired and drenched. With all the days' accomplishments we were quite proud of ourselves. Judging by the fog we guessed the wizard was pissed, but no matter. Sleep and sticker books awaited us back at camp, and the road to get there (SR687, North Fork Rd.) would be the most beautiful of the whole trip (I highly recommend the dirt drive for the beautiful sights).

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Proper Perspective for Adventuring (?)

“How could you not see your pants laying in the middle of the floor?” she struggles to ask through her gasping-style laughter, eyes closed, head back. It's a laugh we've shared dozens of times at this point in our marriage, and I'm sure we'll have more. She sees the whole room at once, I'm focused in on the texture of the couch pillows, everything else a background blur I guess. “You've got to pay attention son”, dad says...and I do, but I guess I just put all my attention chips down on one number at a time as life's roulette wheel spins in front of me. Sometimes that'll mean bigger paydays, but it also means I miss a lot. I'm thankful that God's improved my odds by giving me my wife and kids (and hopefully some adventure-minded friends in the future) for there's just so much to see, enjoy, and do out there. Too much for just one person, one set of eyes, one perspective.

Or even just one visit. I know folks who have been everywhere, done everything, but whose lesson from it all is something akin to having visited all the vast, wide oceans only to so much as dip your toe in. On the other side of the coin there are those that could tell you about every wrinkle, rock, and recipe ingredient from their home town, while the whole wide world is ablur outside of their vantage. Neither does this masterpiece justice, and our hearts know it. It's what wanderlust really is, that tension between wanting both to see it all, but also know it. Deeply know it like a man and wife sixty-five years into marriage...even if one of them has dementia and can't find his pants.

We who want to be adventurers need to see wide, but also deep, yet the reality is that God's put eternity into our hearts. It's too big, too deep for any one person and any one lifetime. It's meant to be shared because the proper perspective for adventuring will be different for each person in each place. Some will see the yellow mark and where to go, while others, like my son Rapha, will see the dragonfly and what's here now. That's proper perspective...shared.

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lumpskie

Independent Thinker
#12
This is a fun adventure. I love the references to Tolkien and the "where's my pants" theme. On top of that, the foggy weather makes the trip feel like even more of an adventure.

Subb'd
 

haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#13
The 5th Portion: The Road South

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There was this guy, Scottish bloke who once wrote a poem to a mouse, occasioned by the accidental ruining of the mouse’s house. The short version of the incident was that said mouse made the poor decision of building its winter nest in the farmer man’s field. Seemed like a good plan at the time, but Spring plowing brought the house down. Oops…

But Mousie, thou are (not alone),
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men (often go awry),
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still, thou art blest, compared with me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Ouch! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects drear!
And forward though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!​

from To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough
by Robert Burns (1785)

I like plans. In fact, I like planning to plan plans...according to a preplanned master plan handed down by the party-planning committee. Me and Heath Ledger’s Joker would not be friends. I’m one of the schemers he’s so irked by in the Dark Knight. And I had big schemes in mind for this, our third day of adventuring. We were hitting the road, plowing South, ring ruin on our minds.

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The Road South

As the crow flies...not the right expression...as the crow leisurely drives down the Blue Ridge Parkway, it would be about sixty miles from the Crabtree Falls to the Peaks of Otter Campground. But we would not be following the same turn-by-turn directions that tourist crow was mindlessly heeding. Our intended scheme was to zigzag back and forth across the blacktop backbone, following dirt service roads to a few hidden gems along the way to our adventure’s next basecamp.

Three of these stops would be waterfalls…

The Wigwam Falls

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The Staton Creek Falls

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The Panther Falls

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Even the Best Laid Schemes…

We couldn’t have asked for a better morning. Sun was shining. Beautiful dirt drives. Interesting sights to explore, including an old dwarven logging railroad. We met several people along the way, including as off-road instructor from the Rausch Creek area of Pennsylvania and a retired couple full of info on the best swimming holes between their home state of North Carolina all the way into West Virginia (good to know for future trips). But best of all: three waterfalls, and three rings ruined. For once, all boxes checked and ahead of schedule. All that planning ahead was paying off.

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But then, in the words of the Joker, a little anarchy got introduced, upsetting the established order, bringing in some chaos. Riding the backroads and dirt tracks is fun for all the things you get to see, but there are some things you’ll never see. Like gas stations. My Montero has a bit of a drinking problem, and despite having a twenty-three gallon canteen to drink from supplies were running a little lower than anticipated. I’ve heard rumors that this thing should be getting about eighteen miles per gallon, but being a little depressed over news of Mitsubishi’s corporate woes has the ogre hitting the bottle a little harder than it should (I’m sure there are mechanical reasons in there somewhere too, probably, but it’s mostly psychological). Thirteen miles per gallon, maybe...in the shade downhill.

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No problem. We’ll just jump back onto the Parkway and scoot on down to Big Island for a refill. Now...Where’s that paper map we’re supposed to be following? Where are we, exactly? How come there’s a locked gate here, blocking this road? Wait a minute, this isn’t the service road. It’s a driveway. Hey, what did that sign say back there? We’re not supposed to be leaving the George Washington National Forest! Where in the world are we and how do we get out of this crazy dirt maze!? Even the animals were looking at us like, “Hey man, you lost?” Maybe, just a little.

But Ouch! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects drear!
And forward though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

This part wasn’t so fun for anyone. Despite my wife’s best attempts at navigation we kept running into locked forest service gates. Some weren't on the map, some were listed as seasonally opened, some were supposed to be open...but they weren’t. And we were getting lower and lower on gas. Then the napping princes started to wake up in the back of the car. Like most children born to Adam, my boys aren’t exactly excited to be awake after a long nap. I’ve never seen it from the inside of their heads to know what’s exactly going on in there, but my best assumption is that it’s like a catfish dreaming. They probably dream about food or something and having this awesome dream about worms they chomp down on the little wigglers only to have their bodies violently yanked out of their sleepy water hole by some three hundred pound bubba noodler with one tooth. The catfish is not happy. My boys are never happy. So it must be something like that.

Our car was quickly becoming a cocktail of chaos, and wouldn’t you know, so was the weather. More fog began rolling in with light drizzle mixed in. Did I mention how our Montero has these little electrical gremlins involving the air conditioner hogging all the volts, refusing to even share any with the spark plugs? No, well it’s a long story for another thread, save to say here that the current accessories on included wipers, fog lights, rear a/c, headlights, fan, etc. Looking down at the plug in volt meter’s red warning light was not exactly encouraging...but there was that little strip of blue tape right behind it. “Choose Joy!” Words to lead by. My inner Bobby McFerrin got into a little “Don’t worry. Be happy.”, but nobody in the back was going “Ooh-ooh-hoo-hoo-ooh hoo-hoo-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh.” I’m not a very good singer. But I am a dad, so I had to at least try to be a leader. If anybody was going to be happy it had to start with me.

When our headlights finally punched through an open yellow gate onto the Blue Ridge Parkway my wife and I cheered, taking in great sighs of relief. Hopefully we had the two or three gallons of gas left to get us to a filler station, but at least the maze was ended. And we did. The weather even broke back into some sunshine at that point. Having lost all the time we were originally ahead we decided to take a different road south than the Parkway. Just an old country road, flanked by rolling fields on either side, rolling left, rolling right, up, down, and all around. And then my oldest PUKES ALL OVER THE PLACE. Wonderful.

I’ll spare you the glorious, aromatic details save to say that everybody was laughing at this point. Rather than feeling terrible or embarrassed, Manny was joyfully intrigued by the second glimpses of his lunch. “I must have ate way too much of this, and that,” he’d say, pointing out the menu items all over the inside of the Montero. It was gross, but it was hilarious. And he was happy. That meant my wife and I were happy. Circumstances what they were, the boys were at least making an effort to enjoy life. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice” said my inner Paul.

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At The Foot of the Mountain

Coming in sight of our destination, we noticed Sharp Top’s peak forebodingly wrapped in cloud. That was a matter for tomorrow’s consideration though. This evening we just needed to find and make camp. Exhausted, hungry, road-weary, car reeking of vomit, with the sun dipping low we finally rolled into our much-desired haven…

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You’ve got to be kidding me! At this point it looked as if Saruman had spent his Spring day driving his plow through all of our well laid schemes...but this, this was through our home for the night.

But Mousie, thou are (not alone),
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men (often go awry),
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy!​
 
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Sabre

Overlanding Nurse
#14
Oh, this is excellent! I knew back when you first posted that video months ago of the boys sleeping in the truck that great things would be coming. Thanks for sharing!
 

haolepinoy

Incomplete Idiot
#15
The 6th, and Final Portion

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”​
- Rocky Balboa​

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This kind of corner coaching was unfortunately not what was going through my head as I stared out the windshield, this rude plank stretched across our road. For a while there I didn’t know what to think. This was a put-you-on-your-knees kinda punch, right in the solar plexus. After the war of attrition style day we’d been having this was an eleventh round knockdown, and as I sat there on my metaphorical knees trying to catch my breath it was all I could do to not stay down.

Today was supposed to be the opening day for the campground. I was sure of it. The website said so, and I checked and rechecked and double-checked before setting off from home. Yet regardless of what the internet told me, this gate said loud and clear, “We’re Closed.” Just then something appeared in my rearview mirror.

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As I stepped out of the Montero the RV’s driver stuck his head out the window shouting, “Closed?! What do you mean they’re closed?!” Walking over and introducing myself I learned that this couple from up north had called ahead last week, being assured by the Ranger’s Office that they were indeed going to be open this weekend. Finally I could take my first deep breath. I wasn’t crazy and though this was indeed some kind of mix up, at least it wasn’t mine. He and I proceeded to walk around a little, checking out the check-in office, the Park Service trucks, and the Keeper’s residence for any signs of recent activity or just somebody to tell us what was going on. Nothing. Nobody. Daylight waning we needed to seriously consider what we were going to do for the night. I didn’t have a backup plan. But then I noticed something...fortunate.

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This lock isn’t, well...locked. I looked at him and he looked at me, both of us thinking the exact same thing. Hopping into our vehicles after swinging that gate open we proceeded to unofficially inaugurate the 2016 camping season at the Peaks of Otter. I made good and sure to put my sixteen bucks in the office box, getting a picture of it just in case. Sorry to any Park Rangers reading this, but everything on our end was legit. With four hungry, sleepy kids on-board I wasn’t about to let your website snafu stop us. “Seven! ...Eight! ...Nine!! And they’re up!” Rocky would have been proud.

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I can say with somewhat assurance that we were the campground’s first campers this year, and only campers in the tent section (the RV couple rode off to the RV loop, never to be seen again). Another campground wonderfully all to ourselves. It turned out to be our first dry evening of the trip, and we took the opportunity to make our first fire. In the words of Tall Talkin’ Sam it’s strange “how a fire’s angry flame can be your best companion” (shout out to the Okee Dokee Brothers, whose music has been our official family soundtrack)...but that fire lifted our spirits high after such a grueling round of battle. We’d need it. We were at the foot of the wizard’s mountain, and he’d be coming out this next round for the knock out.

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The Final Round

The last two morning had been bright spots in our trip, but this one, owing probably to our near proximity to our goal, was one of weather sent to war. Immediately there was a cold chill in the air, made more potent by the wetness all around. Thick fog and heavy tree top rain drops soaked us through our coats before breakfast. The forest floor itself, owing to the week’s heavy rains acted like a malicious bog, filling our feet with sticky mud as we hiked around the campsite. There was something odd about this morning, and though the fog should have felt familiar by this point, there was a foreign element. Something eerie in the air.

It wasn’t long before it struck, something that tore into three of my boys. That foul sorcerer had put a spell on them...a stomach spell. Thank God I brought a shovel, because for the better part of the morning I would dig near twenty holes. We needed to break camp, if for no other reason than to find someplace with a bathroom. A nearby gift shop did the trick, where I noticed a very fitting piece of memorabilia for this morning...

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Our day’s agenda was supposed to consist of visiting the Apple Orchard Falls in the morning and hiking to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain in the afternoon. Attempting the first we found it overrun with escaped mental patients...some kind of ultra marathon thing was going on, utilizing the trail as part of the race route. Fearful that these strange people would try to eat my children or something we quickly reversed it out of there, thankfully not having to run over any of the masochists as we escaped with our sanity. The prospects for the afternoon’s agenda wasn’t looking all that hopeful either. This fog was thick, and any attempt at mountaineering would make us just as crazy as the members of that emaciated running cult we’d escaped earlier.

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The Pass of Caradhas

The events of this day reminded me so much of this scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, the one where Gandalf is attempting to lead the Fellowship up over the mountain of Caradhas only to be resisted and rebuffed by the combined efforts of Saruman and the mountain itself ([video]https://youtu.be/YH4Xr6GIp4U?t=1m21s[/video]). In our case, this was some of the thickest fog I’d ever seen, wrapping itself around everything like the misty breath of a wicked dragon. A sober assessment of our fellowship's condition revealed the sorry state we were in: a wounded vehicle, soggy supplies, three cases of diarrhea, devilish weather, and a possible case of trespassing on federal land...not good. We spent some time in the Peaks of Otter Visitors Center, pondering what to do next when Boromir took me by the shoulders and shouted, "We must get off the mountain...We cannot stay here! It will be the death of the hobbits!!!" I couldn't argue with him, but what would the alternative be? We were here to destroy these rings, and short of the apple-flavored gravity water and razor-edged, dragon breath-covered summits there was no other way to do that. What, were we just gonna let the wicked wizard win!?

I tried to pull the old, "Let the Ring-bearer decide!" thing that Gandalf did in the movie. My wife, unimpressed by my veiled cowardice just replied, "Leaders lead, daddio." I love my wife. At this point there was only one sane thing we could do...and Gandalf said it best. "FLY YOU FOOLS!!!" And after a hot meal in the visitors center restaurant (way overpriced) we set off for home. We had made a grand effort, giving it all that we had, but it just wasn't enough with this attempt. Two rings remained, but for another day, another tale. We made our flight in the evening rain, pressing on through the darkness of night, arriving safely home before midnight with all members of our fellowship safe and accounted for.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
- Bilbo Baggins​

The Road Goes Ever On...

This has been a year of great ambitions for my family, of which this tale is just one piece. Those questions, Are they too young? Are they too many?, are ones we'll always have to ask. But this trip has served to teach us that answers aren't found in the asking, but in the doing...in the finding out. Want to know what we're capable of, what our family is made of, the limits of our abilities? Then let's go! Let's find them out. The world will not wait for us behind our hedge of excuses, nor will our children. Missed opportunities are the only way to fail on these paths. Hopefully our maniacal trip is a good lesson in that for anyone patient enough to read the whole blasted thing (geez haolepinoy...ever heard of TL;DR? This is the internet you know). Just think what would have happened differently if I'd never grabbed that roll of painter's tape and set us off out the door into the unknown world of Middle-earth. As Bilbo says, "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." But we did set off, and just look at all that happened as a result...Godspeed everyone, and happy adventuring!

In the meantime, "I have some things that I must see to...Questions. Questions that need answering!...Keep it secret. Keep it safe."

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