Leaving Memphis at 9:30 am for a 285 mile jaunt to Coleman Lake in Talladega National Forest, AL was expected to take 5 1/2 hrs. That was the only thing certain about this leg of our trip. Where we would set up residence for the next three days was the biggest question mark.
Our design was to camp at the lake, and take advantage of the Department of Agriculture’s generous $10 site fee with electric and water hook-up provided. We monitored the vacancy prospects from the road, since there is no reservation system, unlike the Park Service, which operates through the Interior Department.
From the time we started out, we knew from Louise, a central office clerk that we were competing for seven coveted slices of real estate. Midway through our trip, a phone call confirmed that only five sites remained. And by the time we reached Birmingham–which was one hour away from our piece of Eden–the odds started working against us, when we learned that only 3 spots remained. It was time to consider contigency plans.
A quick scan of the internet was less than promising, considering we were looking to escape to an area that was off the grid with limited availability. Fortunately, we wandered across an obscure RV park with decent reviews just outside the forest within Heflin city limits that according to Lawrence still had three sites available for $30 a night.
We proceeded as planned, moving closer to staking our claim as we pulled into a Shell station off Exit 199 on I-20. A phone call to Louise produced a small panic attack; there was only one site left, and we were within striking distance. Could we, would we make it there in time? Gassing up the truck would put us behind by 15 minutes, but with 12 miles to empty, there was no doubt that this was time we needed to allow.
Once we started rolling again we were committed to the bitter end, now that cell service was interrupted by the beautiful forest scenery. The trees were filling in with seasonal green, and the switchbacks and narrow roads were becoming more challenging. We held our breath (not literally) during the last 10 miles of our journey up the mountain. We exhaled (literally) turning the corner into the campground; we had arrived to uncertain news. The campground steward met us at the truck.
“Are we in time?,” Leah blurted out.
“Are you the one’s been callin’?,” he wondered, “Cause last time I checked, I got one space left, B-37 I think, and you’re welcome to follow the road around ’til you come to it, and we’ll settle up after you get settled.”
Leah and I exchanged “we-just-won-the-lottery” grins, and chugged out in search of B-37. The site was almost a full circle around the ring road, up a steep embankment on the left with enough room to hold two trucks, a trailer, a pop-up tent, three bicycles, and seven interlopers. Gramps was busy hand-cranking the camper to a level position, while Granny was herding the kids.
“Are you shitting me?,” I asked nobody in particular.
We immediately resorted to Plan B, driving back down the mountain road while struggling with inputting a new GPS address. We got Lawrence on the phone when we were free and clear of our traitorous natural surroundings, and returned to 3-bar civilization.
“I got three spaces left,” he offered.
“We’ll take it,” Leah yelled. “We’ll be there in half an hour.”
An hour later, after setting up and rewarding myself with a cold beer while sitting in my burnt orange-colored travel chair atop a woven Navajo-patterned polyester mat, two massive 5th wheels with slide-outs pull in close on both sides of our Airstream, threatening to swallow us. While setting up on my right, Mr. Proximity turns to me.
“Hey, didn’t I see you at Tom Sawyer’s earlier today?”
As a matter of fact he did. We spent the last three nights trailering at Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi River RV Park in West Memphis, AR. But the only people we spoke to were a retired couple from Ringwood who saw my truck plates, and that led us to playing Jersey geography. It turns out their son, Jeff and Leah’s daughter, Carrie are Facebook friends who graduated from Lakeland Regional High School together. Other than that, I had no connection to the people moving in beside me.
“Wow, I’m impressed you remembered my Airstream. I hope you’re not stalking us,” I kidded. “We were on our way to Coleman Lake, but got turned away last minute, so now we’re here.”
“Us too,” he said. “Can’t beat the $10 fee up there. We was passin’ through Talladega last Monday. Pretty sites an’ all, but between the highway traffic an’ the train whistles, I’d just as soon stay here where it’s quiet. Besides, we’ll be gone by morning.”
I liked the sound of that.