By Jeff Keeling
The lovely and talented Angela and I, along with our 6-year-old grandson the ebullient veteran camper Owen, took a big chance last weekend at Roan Mountain State Park. We brought along Owen’s sister, the spritelike Emmarie Lyn “Baby Sister” Chandley, less than a week shy of her third birthday, for what was to be her first camping experience.
To be on the safe side – and because we tend not to pack light for these things – we traveled in two vehicles. Should Emmarie melt down as darkness settled and the crickets struck up their evening chorus, one of us could take her home provided Owen wanted to stay behind with the other.
We needn’t have worried. From the moment she began splashing about in the Doe River, through her voracious consumption of two hot dogs and her first true campfire s’mores, and on to her intrepid ascent of Round Bald shrouded in the Roan massif’s swirling clouds, the sprite was in her element.
Oh, there were moments – she’s a toddler, after all – but we frequently praised Emmarie’s camping prowess. For her part, she seemed to be enjoying thoroughly all that the crown jewel of Tennessee’s state parks has to offer. We trekked to the Peg Leg Mine, stopping to check out a bristly, ash-white and black caterpillar on the way. We returned to the visitors’ center via the Cloudland Nature Trail, feeling the soft, cool damp held in by the highland coves even as the hot, dry weather parched the valleys below.
After campground arrival and set up, the kids made a few new friends and Owen introduced his sister to one of his favorite camping traditions – hunting for toy animals and action figures that Pop Pop or Gran Gran have hidden in the rhododendrons and other growth surrounding the campsite. A wade upstream in the Doe preceded dinner, and by the time Gran Gran had read a couple pages of a story and Emmarie was snuggled in her nest inside the tent, it was off to the Land of Nod for her.
We capped things off Sunday with a drive up to Carver’s Gap. With the clouds and wind pushing temperatures down and a half-mile, 300-foot climb to Round Bald in our plans, we were uncertain how the sprite would fare. Again, we needn’t have worried, as she trekked her way up just fine, playing games with the trailside goldenrod such that one might have expected a real live fairy to light on her shoulder at any moment.
Saturday is National Public Lands Day. We are blessed nearly beyond measure with a bounty of public lands in this area – Roan Mountain and its environs, spectacular as they are, being nearly equaled in other nearby spots. I encourage you to visit one of them and learn more, and I pray that as a people, we maintain our appreciation for these spots and do what it takes to preserve them for Emmarie, Owen, and the generations that will follow them. To act otherwise would represent folly.