The ghost town and the train house

The first thing I noticed was the vast emptiness. I looked around and realized just how alone I was. Rolling hills of grass reached out as far as the eye could see to touch the sky. And it was so quiet. There was no sound except for the wind; hot and dry and incessant. It all gave me an odd feeling of claustrophobia to be in a space with so much nothingness. Grass and sky and nothing more, save for the deserted house next to me. How had someone ever lived here?

We had headed south out of South Dakota, driving in a land so foreign looking to us easterners. A dry landscape of brown and muted greens had replaced the bright greens and humidity of the east coast.

Soon we passed through Ardmore, a modern day ghost town on the South Dakota-Nebraska border. Abandoned homes and cars still stand; its residents finally abandoning the town in the 1980’s due to lack of fresh drinking water. Ardmore was a town founded by the railroads and became a thriving community as its people managed to make a living on the desolate plains. But when the trains that had once brought clean drinking water to the town no longer stopped, the town could not survive. It literally dried up and it’s residents abandoned the town leaving what remained to slowly be reclaimed by the grasslands.

Once in Nebraska we turned off of the tarmac and onto a crushed gravel road. We drove past a couple farms and soon were alone, nothing but miles of grasslands around us as we drove deeper into the landscape, our car kicking up a plume of dry dust so that we could no longer see where we had come from. Our road followed a railroad track which was still in use. We passed no other cars and saw no one as we drove on. After miles of driving through the rolling plains we saw something ahead on our right. An abandoned farmstead. We decided to get out and explore.

The house was set just a little ways off of the gravel road, surrounded by the grassland on all sides. This grass that had looked so soft blowing in the wind from the car window was anything but. The grass was dry and sharp and crushed beneath my feet as I walked along toward the house under the hot sun. I also realized that there were cactus’ mixed in as my heel brushed against one giving me a good scrape. Such a harsh landscape to build a house.

The house was a bit rambling with three separate buildings butting up to each other at 90 degree angles. We speculated that maybe the owners added on to the house as needed. A few outbuildings and farm equipment lay scattered about the property as well. The hot dry wind blew as we explored, rattling a piece of lose roofing.

We walked inside one of the sections of the house and the first thing I noticed was a lack of the mildew smell that’s so prevalent in the abandoned buildings at home where anything left on its own long enough will rot and decay back into the land. Here buildings seemed to reach a sort of dusty mummification, standing proudly as if to prove that someone had once survived in this harsh climate. The second thing I noticed was that this had not started out as a house.

The long, narrow room had walls that rounded up into the ceiling, a seemingly odd choice for such a rustic structure. We looked up and saw an area where the ceiling had come down. Instead of finding roof rafters above the ceiling dry wall, there was the ceiling of a beautiful old train car. It hit us then, the house was made out of old train cars!

There were three train cars to be exact. The owner had moved train cars from the nearby tracks and created a house, drywalling over the inside cars and covering the outside with wood siding and a traditional roof. The cars were placed together to create a home. All throughout the house in places where the dry wall had fallen down you could see the train cars still in really good condition. Such ingenuity!

We wandered around to some of the outbuildings and saw that these too were old train cars. It was easy to spot once we realized what they were. As we explored, we speculated on why the home was built this way. Was it because this was the best option financially for the owner? Or were the railroad cars a temporary solution to a house that just became permanent? Maybe it was just a fulfillment of the dream every child who has read The Boxcar Children has had; to live in a train car? We could only guess. Whatever the reason, it had been someone’s home. A life or lives were lived here, hard work was done, dreams were fulfilled or crushed. And then, in the not so distant past, the home was abandoned and left to the elements.

As we began to leave, I stood alone taking one more look around. The loneliness of this home and this place filled me. Such quiet and isolation. It must have been so difficult to scratch out a life here. Nature appeared to have won, yet I was glad the house remained, standing proud amongst the grasses and the never ending wind. A train whistle blew in the distance and I turned toward our car, ready to be back with my family and keep moving forward down the road.

Getting away from it all during Quarantine

The late afternoon sunlight danced around us; an ever-changing movement of light and dark, warm and cold, as it filtered through the tunnel of trees we walked through at the edge of the lake. The water sparkled as a duck quietly drifted by. I took a deep breath and briefly thought how nice it was to be out hiking away from it all. Then I stopped and laughed because I was hardly “away from it all”.

Our world’s have all become very small this past month. Most of us are in our home now almost 24/7. The place you know better than any place in the world just feels different when you can’t leave it. For some it might be filled with loneliness as you spend each day alone in your home’s rooms and for others your residence might be becoming exceedingly crowded, filled to the brim with family members who are always around, day after day. I, every once in awhile, will feel claustrophobic, missing driving hundreds of miles each day for work.

What helps is getting outside. It’s spring which means the weather here is all over the place. Some days and warm and sunny, others cold and damp. The wind always blows, carrying with it pollen and, some days, the threat of tornadoes. Yet, we get outside daily. With most parks and trails closed and travel discouraged, outside is now what is directly around us. We walk, circling our neighborhood and those nearby. Houses with manicured yards, rows of townhomes with the end units still being framed, apartments with kids on scooters circling the parking lot; we walk past it all. Over and over…and over and over again.

Then one day my son and I decided to venue out of our daily circling on pavement to an area across from one of the developments we frequented. We stepped off of the sidewalk and onto a faint trail and followed it into the “wild” and into our own small adventure.

The trail started around a lake. We passed a number of people who were fishing. I asked a man who was watching his young son cast a line into the lake if they’d caught anything. “Oh yes, we’ve caught a lot,” he told me as he held his hands up to show the size of what they were catching. We continued on and soon reached an ancient man-made dam. Water flowed out of the lake here and disappeared underground as it descended to a river far below. We too turned and scrambled down to the river.

At the river we stood and watched the water that had disappeared underground at the lake’s edge, reappear creating a couple small waterfalls as it flowed into the river. It had rained a lot earlier in the week so the river was high and flowed past us splashing noisily over rocks and creating some nice rapids.

We hiked back up towards the lake, crossing over the dam, and continued on into a large field. As we walked we heard some chattering and saw a bird running along the ground beside us. She ran up to us and then flew in a large circle around us only to land and run beside us again, chattering the entire time. We quickly realized why as we passed a nest with four speckled eggs in it just a foot off the path we were walking along. “Don’t worry, your babies are safe,” we told her as we quickly moved along.

A little further along we came to a basketball hoop in the middle of the field. An old soccer ball lay next to it so we shot a few baskets. It’s all that remains of what was once someone’s home and was a good reminder that we were not on a trail in the wilderness somewhere, but rather we were walking along a bit of land at the edge of civilization. A bit of wild surrounded on every side by suburbia.

In fact, a major highway ran north to south next to us; its noise a constant reminder that we were not in the middle of nowhere.

I love that there are scraps of wild left in the middle of civilization. Places where the road ends and cities have not yet encroached upon. These little pockets of wilderness that are easy to get to and explore. They’re often places where people once were and have left, allowing nature to once again take over. And nature does take over; the trees and grasses and birds and deer not caring that they are near civilization as they create their own pocket of wild.

As we continued on we came upon more old homesites. Nothing was left but the flat area where a home once stood and a few trees that would have shaded the house from summer’s heat. Here, the homes would have overlooked the lake. We stood in the empty space and, with the birds chirping around us and a warm breeze lifting our hair, for a moment we could imagine how peaceful it would have been to have a home here. The only sound’s then being the wind in the trees and water lapping along the shore. The spell was broken as a semi drove by on the highway behind us and we moved on, exploring our bit of wilderness.

Hiking the magical Lauterbrunnen Valley Waterfalls in Switzerland

The day had begun misty with low hanging clouds, concealing the mountains all around us. But by late afternoon the clouds had lifted, once again revealing the majestic Swiss Alps. It was time to hike!

Lauterbrunnen Valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It was also my favorite hike that we did in Switzerland. It’s a hike we’ll all remember the rest of our lives.

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There’s always time for a cave adventure

The cave we were exploring made a sharp turn to the left and narrowed so that we had to crawl through this new passage. We continued down it, my son going first. Soon we came to a room large enough to stand up in. My son went in and, just as I was about to enter, he turned around and began crawling out crying, ” Quick! Turn around!”

Earlier that day my oldest son and I met in the kitchen, each looking for something eat. We realized that we were both home for the rest of the day; me with a day off from work and he had finished a final at school and was home early. The December day, which had started off with bright blue skies, was now gray but fairly warm. We decided then and there that it was time for a mini adventure, so we did a quick wardrobe change and 10 minutes later we were off in search of a couple caves we had heard about.

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The loneliest spot on earth

“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea–this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth –is little graced with the picturesque. “

– Mark Twain

My first glimpse of Mono Lake was late at night. We had just driven up and over Sonora Pass, which had opened for the season a few days earlier. The road had been descending out of the snow covered mountains for quiet awhile when I caught a glimmer out of the corner of my eye. I glanced out of the window and saw nothing but thick darkness. A few minutes later we rounded a bend and there far below us was a glistening moonlit lake. The road continued down and ran alongside the lake. From this viewpoint the lake seemed to go on forever and it was impossible to tell where it began or ended. Then we rounded another curve and it was gone and we were left to stare into the inky blackness of night.

A few days later we made it back to Mono Lake, this time in daylight. Even in the light, we still felt a moment of surprise to round a corner and come upon the lake. A shimmering mirage in the middle of a dry, dusty landscape.

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The underwater ghost town

Tennessee is a beautiful state with amazing state parks. Parks that range from high mountain peaks to the Mississippi delta, from battle fields to Native American burial grounds, from gorgeous blue lakes to diverse river systems. There’s just so much beauty and variety. So, I’ve made it a goal of mine to visit every state park in Tennessee in 2018. Below is my story of my adventure at one park.

I stood high on a hill overlooking a vast expanse of water far below me. The lake, glistening blue in the late afternoon sun, was empty save one man fishing from a boat in a shallow cove. All was quiet and tranquil; a picture-perfect spring day at the lake. But this would have been a much different view some 80 years ago, before everything changed.

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The park that lost its namesake

Tennessee is a beautiful state with amazing state parks. Parks that range from high mountain peaks to the Mississippi delta, from battle fields to Native American burial grounds, from gorgeous blue lakes to diverse river systems. There’s just so much beauty and variety. So, I’ve made it a goal of mine to visit every state park in Tennessee in 2018. Below is my story of my adventure at one park.

The year was 1973 and things were really looking up for a bit of land in Northwest Tennessee. A state park had been created around a huge cypress tree, one that people came from miles around to look at. They named the park, creativity, Big Cypress Tree State Park.

The tree was the oldest and largest bald cypress tree in the United States and the largest tree of any species east of the Mississippi River. The tree was 175 feet tall, taller than any other tree in that bottomland forest. The circumference at the base was 40 feet, while the diameter measured thirteen feet. It was believed to be 1,350 years old and was named the Tennessee Titian.

Then, in July of 1976, tragedy struck. Continue reading “The park that lost its namesake”

Chasing bald eagles

Tennessee is a beautiful state with amazing state parks. Parks that range from high mountain peaks to the Mississippi delta, from battle fields to Native American burial grounds, from gorgeous blue lakes to diverse river systems. There’s just so much beauty and variety. So, I’ve made it a goal of mine to visit every state park in Tennessee in 2018. Below is my story of my adventure at one park.

 

Early morning had brought with it freezing fog that coated all surfaces with a sheen of ice. Now, though, the sun was out and quickly warming everything. The blue skies were such a great sight after days of rain. We were excited to begin our trip, searching for bald eagles.

The largest naturally occurring lake in Tennessee is relatively new.  During 1811-1812, a series of earthquakes hit the area. They were so strong that they caused the ground to drop ten feet and the Mississippi River to flow backwards for a period of time, filling in that 15,000 acres of collapsed swampland to create Reelfoot Lake.

Despite being tucked away in the far northwest corner of Tennessee, close to nothing, Reelfoot Lake gets tens of thousands of visitors every year. They come for the water and the cypress tress, they come to fish and hunt, and they come for the the reason we were there- the bald eagles. Each January and February, Reelfoot Lake State Park offers tours that let you observe and learn more about the American bald eagle.

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Hiking with boys

The other day I found myself on a hike different from any other I’ve ever taken; I went on a hike with just my two boys. We are a family of six with two boys and two girls, alternating boy-girl-boy-girl, so it’s just not a combination that has happened in the past.

I’m used to hiking with our entire family, the kids running ahead while my husband and I lag behind until our youngest usually ends up joining us. Or sometimes it’s just the kids and me, off on some adventure. On these hikes, my oldest daughter often hikes with me and we have civilized girl-type conversations or, often with her, just walk along in silence enjoying the day and scenery. But, hiking with just boys is…well…let’s just say different!

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In search of frozen waterfalls

I stood on a narrow strip of ground and looked at the ice beneath my feet. The ravine was deep here. On one side of me was the creek, snow and ice covered cliffs on the other. I gingerly stepped forward and began to slip. Inhaling sharply, I grabbed at the rock next to me only to get a handful of icicle. “Mom!”, came a yell from behind me and I realized that the kids had followed even though I had told them to wait while I checked things out first. “Well, were all in this together now”, I thought and continued to gingerly make my way forward.

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