After 40+ years on this Earth, my father has discovered cars; I don’t mean that he’s been riding horses this whole time but that he actually gets excited about them now. His dad has always been a car nut to the n-th degree, from his years as both a Pontiac salesman and mechanic, and I was never quite sure if over-exuberance on his part pushed my dad in the opposite direction or not. Whatever the case, my dad now has a 1980s Bronco that he works on all the time; partially because it’s a Ford, and he can’t wait to take it into the woods camping.
The automobile, even more than the train, has been the great democratization of our country’s wild places, both for better and worse. Since the 1920s, people have taken to their cars and traveled to all of the amazing places that America has to see. In the early days, it probably would have been easier to take an ill-tempered donkey across the country but that was never the point. Before there were even campers people were taking trucks and building giant wooden monstrosities, either in the beds or on trailers to tow behind, to use as their home away from home in remote places. A distant relation of mine did that back in the early 30s just so they could see the giant redwoods in California. Less glamorously, I’ve slept in the back of a Suburban after a 15 mile hike because I was convinced if I had stayed in a tent I would have blown away in the 40mph gusts.
With the advent of the car came the road-trip which has become a time honored tradition steeped in coffee, beef jerky, and finding out just how much the person in charge of the music loves Taylor Swift. (Side note: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: when leaving on a 12+ hour trip, make sure you have more than 1 albums worth of music; a friend of mine still has panic attacks any time that band comes on the radio). Before that can even begin though is the packing and loading stage, where with a care greater than that of Egyptians building the pyramids you place every bag and container just so, filling every open nook and cranny. In our family, in a Plymouth Grand Caravan affectionately called “Adventure Van”, the only space for the children to sit was carved out of the piles of gear leaving small gear outlines of where they sat. When we went to leave wherever we were staying though, we found that all of the gear had expanded approximately 41% making it nearly impossible to repack as neatly; if it was raining while we were packing to go home, the expansion rate of gear was roughly 87%. So when returning, whoever was in the back seat had to study up on avalanche survival techniques because in all likelihood you would soon be covered in gear completely up to your neck; if a deer jumped in front of the car and dad slammed on the brakes, you had to start swimming towards the ceiling in an attempt to create an air pocket until help could arrive and dig you out.
The Adventure Van is still to this day the best camping vehicle my family has ever owned. Sure, my Grandfather’s Suburban has hauled us and gear everywhere without a sniffle and my friends Dodge pickup has taken him and his boat all over 6 states paddling without a hiccup. Neither of them cut as impressive a figure as Adventure Van: Covered in stickers on 3 sides, green paint flaking off, Yakima racks on the roof with chrome skull end caps…driving it around town gave my mother a reputation as a goth soccer mom, but we loved it.
The pinnacle of Adventure Van’s career was our first trip to Rock Town GA. After hearing for years of the massive boulder fields near Chickamauga GA, we decided to head down for 5 days one February. After the 6 hour drive where we got to fight Atlanta traffic, we finally ended up at Cloudland Canyon State Park about 30 minutes away from Rock Town. Cloudland Canyon, like every other gorge in the south (Linville, New River, Tallulah), calls itself “The Grand Canyon of the East” and while that’s hyperbole it is one of the more impressive sights I’ve ever seen with a deep cut V lined with rocky cliffs. Cloudland also has an excellent disc golf course set on the cap of a small mountain which had an old homestead and apple orchard, and we enjoyed several rounds there in the evening.
Rock Town was every bit as impressive as I was told; boulders seem to be as common as trees and most were easily house sized and some would qualify as mansion class boulders. The climbing was great, with every kind of route imaginable, all with the signature slopers and texture that Rock Town is known for. One of the problems though is that the drive up Pigeon Mountain to the boulder area was treacherous to say the least; if you’ve ever gone up to Catalooche Valley in the Smokies, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, imagine driving up a guardrail-less dirt and gravel road that’s only a lane-and-a-half wide, with plenty of switchbacks, curves and the occasional RV coming down the mountain at breakneck speed making you question how close you are to the edge and if you packed enough underwear. After a particularly harrowing experience with a Winnebago, my dad got to looking at the map and decided that there must be a better way off the mountain and sure enough, there was a road that had the topographic lines spaced apart where you could actually see them individually compared to the drive up.
Secure in the knowledge we had finally figured a smarter option to get back to Cloudland, we threw the bouldering pads into the back of the van around 3pm and started down our newfound road to camp. From our guesstimation of the map, instead of 1 mile straight down to the main road, this other option was about 5 miles and eventually came out on a sketchy-sounding “Hog Jowl Road”. The first 2 miles were pretty uneventful, just your typical gravel forest service road but then the gravel disappeared and washouts started appearing. A few minor washboards in the road is no cause for concern, but soon Adventure Van was facing ruts in the road that were several feet deep and filled the entire road. Not exactly known for it’s offroading ability, we had to baby and coax the minivan for the next 3 hours by piling loose rocks in the ruts to drive over, pushing it when it got close to getting stuck and a constant, fervent prayer that banjo music wouldn’t suddenly start playing. Eventually, the road we were on smoothed out some and ran parallel to large fields so we knew we were getting close but we faced a new problem of water covering the entire road for 50’ sections. My dad, too tired to care, simply mashed on the accelerator and hoped to not flood the engine.
Suddenly in the distance the black gleam of pavement gave us hope and we realized we were finally off that God-Forsaken road. Looking back from where we came, there was a sign sitting smugly that said “4x4 Traffic Only!”. After snapping a picture of it for posterity, we started driving down Hog Jowl Road which, much to our surprise, was apparently where movie stars hide in Georgia because every house we passed was 6x the size of the mansion-class boulders at Rock Town.
Adventure Van for me was the greatest camping car in the world, able to haul 5 kids, 2 adults, and a ridiculous amount of gear just about anywhere. It died of old age, a bad engine, and a twisted frame about a year after Rock Town. We always blamed that road for it’s death, and I think that Dad is building up his Bronco just so he can go back and avenge it’s death.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.