Sent on November 6th, 2015.
I seem to have done it again. Days have passed since I last wrote, and when I went and refreshed my memory I realized we were in Stone Mountain, Georgia when you all heard from me. So now I need to unpack the days into moments and get you all back in the loop.
At the end of our Stone Mountain visit, DH returned from Road Atlanta, and we decided to go see the Stone Mountain memorial in the RV before driving to our next spot. It was when we were there that I checked Facebook on my phone and discovered my friend Eric had passed away. He’d been struggling with mental illnesses for years (bipolar, depression, etc) and it finally just got to be too much, apparently. The fact that he’d made it to his 50’s was a miracle, really. But even knowing that, I was pretty shattered. I called Youngest’s dad, who also knew him, to find out what happened, and had to hand the phone to DH because I was too broken up to talk. After that it was a bit of a blur – I contacted all the folk I knew who knew Eric, just to make sure they knew, and DH and I started talking about maybe going to the Memorial, which wouldn’t be for a while.
I did photograph Stone Mountain, in spite of the news, because, well. Sometimes you just keep completing tasks just to maintain. If that makes any sense. It was a grey day, and the skies were threatening rain, and the mountain looked a bit dull through the viewfinder, but I think the photos turned out just right. Somehow I managed to capture a moment I wasn’t sure I wanted to remember.
Youngest returned to us at the end of our Atlanta time – much rested and rejuvenated from his time away – being a bit spoiled by his grandmothers. Our next couple nights were spent boon docking for free in places like Lowes and Walmart as we worked back towards Texas. We spent two nights at Poverty Point Reservoir, in Louisiana, just because we liked it the first time through that area, and we wanted Youngest to see it. I often remember places by the animals we saw – Poverty Point was the spot with the fish cleaning station that had been taken over by feral cats. We spied a few armadillos as well. Although they boast of a large black bear population (this was also the place where the ranger at the front assured us that as far as wildlife, they had “ERRRRYTHING.”) we saw no bears. Overall it was quiet and peaceful, which was much needed.
Then it was back to Cresson, Texas, to the Motorsports Ranch, where DH had some work to do, and we camped at the track in the RV. We hung out a bit with D, his client there, and had some excellent barbecue at a place called Rudy’s. Their pulled pork was amazing, and the green chili stew was delicious. Rudy’s had fantastic cobbler, so we got some peach cobbler to go, and we committed the first crime against desserts a week later, when we realized we hadn’t eaten any of it beyond the first taste test…and we’d let it sit too long…so we had to throw it out.
We left Cresson on October 9th, and for those of you keeping track, our appointment with the Hugo elephant sanctuary was on October 10th, in the morning. The night of the 9th was spent with our old friends Walmart, in Hugo, Oklahoma. It was a strange night – we were less than a mile from elephants, and I knew it, and I was quite excited. The entire city of Hugo is a bit like the parking lot and streets around a fair ground or circus, on the days following the event. Strange characters wandering about, old fliers and empty cups roaming the ground, and even a stray dog that kept surfacing on one end of the car park or the other. It’s the sort of place where you wouldn’t be surprised if you spotted a clown escorting a llama. The cars all look well used, the clothing faded, the people tired and leathered from the sun.
But the weather was lovely, and we opened windows and fell asleep to the not-soothing sounds of cars in the parking lot and (at least for me) thoughts of elephants.
The next morning off we went to the Endangered Ark Foundation – the elephant sanctuary started by circus pioneers and inhabited by a variety of Asian elephants: trouble makers, bulls, babies and their mums, and two rowdy escape artist elephants named Isa and Lilly. The parking lot was really a giant dirt lot with hay bales scattered and lots of gravel. We parked the RV (OK, yes, DH parked it, because I still have not driven much), opened some windows for Milo, got our camera bags all ready, and off we went to join the other folk milling around waiting for the elephant tour. The crowd was varied – a young blonde woman with too much makeup and her husband/boyfriend, a motley crew of dog rescue types (you know the sort, with the “my dog rescued me!” bumper stickers and dog hair everywhere – and I am not stereotyping – they worked for an animal rescue group!), a couple with their young daughter, and well, all sorts, really. There were maybe a dozen of us, and everyone made small talk until we were invited to board the “trolley” and start the tour.
The trolley was a trailer attached to a tractor. On the trolley were several metal benches, and we all piled on eagerly. The tour guide explained that she was new to this – the president of the organization would typically run a tour, but she had a family emergency, so she was out of town. We went through a large gate and into the sanctuary, where we stopped about 15 feet from a pen holding a very young elephant and its mum. Adam, the caretaker of the elephants, joined us then, and I will admit to being very hopeful when I saw he held a large shopping bag of carrots. Yes, everything I read said we would have a chance to get close to the elephants, but DH can tell you I am not an optimistic sort, and I had already started worrying this tour would not include that. He talked about his background, his time caring for elephants, learning about them, and how he was the sole caretaker at the EAF, which meant he didn’t sleep much (and some nights slept in the barn), he was always on call, and he often worked 12 hour days. Watching the baby elephant run towards him like they were old friends, in spite of his long hours, I thought, “Man, this would be the best job ever.” I mean, I’ve worked in IT since ’99, and much of those years were spent on call, working 12 hour days, and well. Not sleeping. So to do that AND have elephants totally would balance out for me.
Through this whole thing Youngest and I were snapping photo after photo. When he first spied the baby, he went, “Awwwwwwww,” as did I, and we just grinned at each other. Even DH might have cracked a smile, though I didn’t capture that on camera.
On we went, through the tour, and the very best part was when we met Isa and Lilly. To give you some background on these two – in 1975, when they were approximately 5 years old, they escaped from a circus in Hugo, Oklahoma, and managed to live in the woods surrounding the city for over a month. This was huge – they had a reporter from New York visit in his fancy suit and say things like, “How do you lose an elephant? I bet I can find them!” And off he went to look, only to return a few days later, muddy and discouraged, and disappear back to the city. Jokers in town altered lost dog forms at animal control, adding elephant ears and descriptions of the two renegade pachyderms. When they were finally discovered they weren’t any worse for the “vacation” and they were put into the Endangered Ark Foundation, where they have been ever since, living in comfort, roaming through a large fenced plot covered in trees, weeds and grass. I liked to imagine their conversations – they probably figured the sanctuary was their reward for surviving on their own in the woods all that time, evading authorities. Our trolley had to go through an extra fence to get to the part of the sanctuary where we could find the two escapists. It stopped next to a fence, and Adam walked over and called them in. When they appeared out of the brush, one of them (not sure which) was making a sound just like a large idling truck engine – they were so excited! They came up the fence and Adam greeted them, and explained to us that we would all file off the trolley, one bench at a time, and come to the wire fence to feed them carrots. The tour guide gave all of us a carrot (and the smart ones broke it up so we’d have more interaction chances), and DH, Youngest and I waited for the benches in front of us to have their turns.
It seemed to take forever, but soon we were there, standing face to trunk with Isa and Lilly, while Adam stood between them, facing us. As soon as I fed the first bit of carrot to Isa, I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I was there! There, with elephants looking down at me with their big brown eyes and long lashes, and seeming to know I was having what DH would call, “a moment.” Adam took one look at my face and said to the tour guide, “Um, we’re gonna need more carrots over here.” DH took photos. Youngest and I, first gingerly and then more comfortably, touched their trunks, their foreheads when they bend down, and handed them carrot after carrot. Whenever Lily (I think it was Lily) got a carrot she would put it in her mouth and then do a very dignified nod, and I suspected it was an old circus thing, though I’d prefer to think she was thanking us.
It was lovely – beyond lovely, really. We had tons of time with them, and it was a dream come true for me. Their trunks kept poking about, looking for carrots – I had elephant slobber on my hands, my legs (I was in shorts), and my shirt. And that wasn’t even the end of the tour! After that, we got back on the trolley and went back towards the pens. Adam led a very large elephant out of a pen, walked her past us, and proceeded to give her a pedicure on her front foot (to show us how they care for their toenails) and then a bath. That elephant looked downright delirious when the water hit her.
The tour wrapped up, sadly, and we all went back to our vehicles. When we hit the RV, Milo was all excitable, but had to sniff every inch of us thoroughly to try and decipher the smells. I didn’t want to leave, but we had a new destination planned. DH had to be in College Station, Texas, for yet another event.
Before leaving Hugo, we stopped at the Mt Olivet Cemetery. They have a section called, “Showman’s Rest,” where circus performers are buried. We wandered through the plots, reading them aloud and taking photos. “Popcorn” read one stone, with clown shoes carved into it and the birth and death dates. One woman was praised as the queen of bareback riding, and the front of her stone had a photo of her and her horse. It was impressive, really, but nothing compared to actually feeding elephants, if I were honest.
I will end this here, and pick up more tomorrow. Our next spot was Sawyer RV park, in Sawyer, near Hugo. So imagine us there, with an 80 year old man driving us around in a golf cart (although I could have walked the distance we traveled through the park in half the time) to pick our campsite. Telling us how he’d owned a bunch of these parks, that we ought to buy one. He also warned us that if Milo disappeared, we would find him in the office, and he might be feeding him treats – he was quite taken with our dog. So imagine us there, in a rundown teeny RV park, but comfortable, and relaxed, and planning our dinner, or walking the dog, or wandering out to stare at the night sky.
I love you all, and miss you all, and I wish you were all traveling with us sometimes. I’ve been carrying a heavy weight of sadness since learning about Eric, and honestly what really hit me was that I hadn’t seen him in ten years, and that I couldn’t recall if I’d told him how much I loved him. So I’ve vowed to tell people things, and see them, and make sure they know they matter to me. All of you do.