Campground Review: Old Stone Fort State Park, Manchester TN

More than just a river nymph…she’s my soulmate

Dates: June 13-25, 2015

Campsite: 30

Overall Score: 3.7 (out of 5)

Summary: We chose this state park because it’s just a 20-minute drive from my parents’ home in Tullahoma. We’re spending a significant amount of time with them this summer as my mom has advanced bile duct/liver cancer and is under hospice care. Our typical morning was spent hiking/jogging/exploring the park and then we headed to Tullahoma to have lunch with my parents and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with them. The park has excellent hiking trails, waterfalls and swimming holes, along with some Native American history.  We definitely plan to return.

Recreation/Amenities: 4.5 – The 7+ miles of hiking trails feature some waterfalls, swimming and fishing holes, and elevation changes. To reach the best swimming hole, take the Old Stone Fort Enclosure Trail clockwise from the museum ¼ mile, and then descend the second set of steps and follow the path to the river. The best hiking trail is the Little Duck River Loop Trail which features a beautiful river, a moderate climb, and a ridge. I caught (and released) 4 bass and 11 blue gill where the Duck River meets the Little Duck River along the Forks of the River Trail.  Lil Jan sat near me on the cooler, reading her Christian fiction and occasionally looking up and calling my attention to a large fish that should be caught.


Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 – electric, water, and dump station (partial hookups). No Wi-Fi, cable TV, or sewer connection at site.  (We managed to go all 13 days on a single black tank…which ultimately resulted in what could only be described as a massive dump upon exiting the park.)

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 3 – aside from the huge annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, there’s not much happening within 15 miles of the park…aside from small town festivals, antique stores, etc. In fact, the “9th best” thing to do in Manchester according to TripAdvisor is the movie theater…and there isn’t one!  However, the park is built on/around the “Old Stone Fort” which was built (by Brian Williams) 1500-2000 years ago during the Middle Woodland Period. Native Americans used it as a ceremonial gathering place and eventually abandoned it. When the European settlers arrived, they didn’t know what the area was used for and mistakenly named it a fort. According to the park brochure, it is considered the “most spectacularly sited sacred area of its period in the United States and the largest and most complex hilltop enclosure in the south.” (narrowly edging out Graceland, I presume)  The park museum contains photos, dioramas, an orientation film in the theater, displays of prehistoric Native American replicas, and a gift shop.


Cleanliness: 3 – while the campsites are well-maintained and the bathhouse showers had hot water, the bathhouses themselves were fairly rustic and showed signs of wear (to include some moldy shower curtains).

Intangibles: 4.5 –

Pros – proximity to Steve’s parents and Arnold Air Force Base. We got to spend an awesome father’s day with them and Steve’s sisters and some of their families. Quiet campsite. Museum on grounds. Saw several deer, possums, rabbits, and squirrels while hiking. Good spacing between campsites, which are fully shaded. Golf course next door. The staff offers guided nature/historical tours on the weekends. . $22.20/night.

Cons – rustic bathhouses are adequate but could use some sprucing up.  Couldn’t pick up any local tv channels with the antenna, but then we’ve pretty much weaned ourselves off of tv.  Didn’t catch any of the fish Lil Jan pointed to.


For more information…

Big Steve



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Masterpiece on a Mission

Lil Jan, Normita, & Jasmine at Didasko
Lil Jan, Normita, & Jasmine at Didasko

One thing that derails some well-intentioned Bible study programs is a focus on quantity (reading the entire Bible in one year) rather than quality (doing a “deep dive” on a particular story or a specific verse). Both approaches are beneficial, but lately I seem to get more out of going in-depth on specific stories or verses.

One verse that has meant a lot to me this year is Ephesians 2:10, which reads “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I’ve always liked this verse, but after studying it in more detail, it now amazes me. Meditating on it has changed my life. God’s word has a way of doing that. So let’s take a closer look at the words God, through Paul, had to say to the church at Ephesus, and to you and me…

We are God’s handiwork… Some translations use workmanship in place of handiwork, and the Greek word used here is poíēma which means “that which is made” or “workmanship”. The idea here is of an artisan designing and creating a product. It is from the Greek word poíēma that we get the English word poem. So when God created mankind…when God created you…he was a poet writing his very best poem, a sculptor creating his very best sculpture, and a painter painting his life’s masterpiece. Let that sink in for a minute. The creator of the universe…the all-knowing and all-powerful entity that created everything…was at the top of his game when he created you. Ever struggle with self-esteem? Remember that you are God’s handiwork. Feel like you are not up to the task before you? Remember that you are God’s masterpiece, made in his own image (Genesis 1:27). It’s no wonder that when God looked over all that he had made, including man, he knew that it was very good (Genesis 1:30). I hope that makes you hold your head a little higher and walk with a little more confidence in your step. You’re not patting yourself on the back; rather, you’re giving God all the credit for having written such a beautiful poem when he wrote you into existence.

Someone may ask, “But what about the sorry state of mankind? What about all the crime and corruption and hate in the world? What about all the people who live a life that sure doesn’t look like the masterpiece of an all-powerful Creator?” Those are fair questions. I guess my first thought is that some choose not to become Christians, but instead remain in their old selves. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Those who are in Christ, then, seem to have ripped the packaging off the product and are daily being transformed into the full masterpiece that God intended. That’s simply not going to happen if you haven’t turned your life over to God. My other thought is that some masterpieces never reach their full potential. Someone can sell an old painting for $5 at a garage sale, not realizing that it’s a famous work of Picasso. Someone can allow an original Shakespearean manuscript to crumble away by not properly preserving it. There is no telling what masterpieces waste away through indifference and neglect in attics around the globe. That doesn’t change the fact that they started out as masterpieces with great potential for good. It’s also possible that, with a little effort, a neglected masterpiece could be cleaned and restored to its original, wonderful condition (in the spiritual sense, a process called repentance). Regardless of what condition you and I are in, at our core we are something amazing created by God.

Created in Christ Jesus to do good works… So why would God create his masterpiece known as mankind? Why do you and I exist? What’s our mission? The answer is simple…to do good works. Our purpose is not to accumulate money, although money can be used for good works. Our mission is not to attain high-ranking positions in a profession, although those positions might give us a larger platform from which to do good works. We are not here to be the most talented or best looking or to die with the most toys. Our mission, rather, is to do good works. As Christians, we don’t do this to get saved, to somehow earn our salvation. Rather, we do good works because we are saved. These works are the natural outpouring of someone who realizes what God has done for them. If you miss that point, you miss everything. As God’s handiwork, you and I were uniquely and wonderfully created to do good works, both big and small. Your good work might be helping a stranger fix a flat tire. Or perhaps it’s building a house for a poor family in Honduras. Or maybe God needs you to mentor a troubled teenager, or buy Christmas presents for a family that has none, or build a well or a clinic for a poor village in Haiti. Or perhaps your mission is to spend time with a loved one dying from cancer, and to encourage her worn-out, caregiving husband. No matter how big or small the work, it all matters. It all counts. And God gets all the glory, because he made you, his masterpiece, with the skills and abilities to accomplish these good works of service. So, we’ve established what you are…a masterpiece…and we’ve covered why you’re here…to do good works.

Which God prepared in advance for us to do… This is where things really get interesting. Because all those good works we just mentioned, along with all the ones not mentioned, were put there by God with our name on them. Let that sink in for a moment. Before you were even born, God had in mind some good works for you to do 10, 20, 30, or even 70 years later. There is something God wants me to do later today that I don’t even know about yet. But God has prepared it for me to do. When that moment comes, it won’t be by chance or luck. God is intentional, not random. I no longer believe random stuff happens. Even when bad things happen, based on our poor choices or natural disasters or whatever, God is right there preparing the opportunities for good works that will follow. The question, then, is whether we will seize the opportunity and accomplish the good work prepared by God in advance for us to do, or will pass on the opportunity with some lame excuse like we’re not good enough, or someone else will surely do it.

Several years ago some missionaries headed out into the Honduran countryside to bring a bus full of food to a women’s prison. Their driver ended up getting lost, and the team ended up on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. At the end of that dirt road in Nowhere, Honduras was an orphanage called Didasko that had literally just run out of food. In fact, the director had just said a prayer asking God to work a miracle as they had run out of food along with the money to buy more food. The bus pulled up, the missionaries distributed the food, God answered the prayer, and missionaries (including Lil Jan and myself) have been going there ever since. It’s a great story, but I don’t believe chance or luck or randomness were involved. Rather, God was very intentionally at work throughout. He might have even confused the bus driver just enough to get lost. I believe God saw to it that a bus full of food-carrying gringos (his masterpieces) would have an opportunity to fulfill their mission by doing a good work. And I bet he prepared another good work which involved the women at the prison being fed as well.

I suspect Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:10 were a great encouragement to the Christians at Ephesus. They lived in a big, bustling city full of people who frequently did wrong, to include worshiping at the Temple of Artemis, among other temples. The Christians there were known for their deeds, hard work, and perseverance, and yet apparently some of them had forsaken their first love (Revelation 2:2,4). Paul encourages them and challenges them by reminding them that they are God’s masterpieces, uniquely and wonderfully made. He tells them what their purpose is…to do good works. And he reminds them that God has already prepared the works for them to do.

To sum it all up, we are masterpieces on a mission. God is counting on us to do good works in order to fulfill that mission. Whatever the opportunity is that you will face later today or tomorrow, God put it there. And as his masterpiece, you are uniquely qualified to perform the good work and accomplish your mission.

Big Steve

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Campground Review: Alafia River State Park, Lithia FL

We plan to do reviews on the various campgrounds and state/national parks where we stay. We hope these posts are as useful to future visitors to these locations as existing reviews have been to us. The reviews will also constitute our personal note taking of things to do or avoid doing when we visit again. We will update the ratings as appropriate as our travels give us a better basis for scoring and making comparisons.


Caveat: The things that matter to us heavily influence our scores. So, for example, we won’t be deducting much if a campground lacks a playground or doesn’t allow pets since that currently doesn’t matter to us. (Mandy, our dog, is dead.) We will, however, deduct if the location lacked good hiking trails, as that is a priority.


Our Categories:

Recreation/Amenities – hiking, gym, rec room, marina, pool, beach, etc.

Hookups & Connectivity – electric, water, sewer, Wi-Fi, cable, etc.

Local Vicinity Things to Do – cultural, historical, or otherwise fun things to do within 15 miles

Cleanliness – of bathrooms, showers, and grounds in general

Intangibles – friendliness, cost, wildlife, noise, things that really stand out, etc.

Overall Score – the average of the above 5 scores


So then, here we go…

Campground: Alafia River State Park, Lithia FL

Dates: June 9-12, 2015

Campsite: 30

Overall Score: 3.8 (out of 5)

Summary: We had a great time at this state park and would definitely return. I had been here a couple years earlier to run a half-marathon with my friend, Clare DeBoef, and had high expectations. The campground definitely lived up to those expectations.

Recreation/Amenities: 4.5 – Fairly high score based on 20+ miles of outstanding hiking/biking/equestrian trails. In fact, the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA, of which I am not a member) gave it an “epic” designation. To see a sampling of what makes it epic, check out this link…

To see why I will not be riding a mountain bike at high speeds through this park, see this link…

We did, however, hike two long hikes and enjoyed the views and exercise. There is also a nice fishing pond (with alligator), pavilions, and horse stables for boarding campers’ horses.

Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 out of 5 – electric, water, and dump station (partial hookups). No Wi-Fi, cable TV, or sewer connection at site.

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 2 out of 5 – not much happening within 15 miles. Nearest restaurants are at Fishhawk. Awarding 2 points for the abundance of things to do within fairly easy driving distance (Tampa, Ybor City, Orlando, beaches, etc.)

Cleanliness: 4.5 out of 5

Intangibles: 4.5 out of 5 –

Pros – quiet, especially during the summer. Saw several deer every morning and evening throughout the campground. Good spacing between campsites. Friendly staff – a ranger spent several minutes explaining the various trails to me. Cool bat house by the lake. Our friends, John and Laurie, joined us for Chinese take-out and a final round of cards before leaving the state. $24.64/night.

Cons – several campsites were partially submerged following a heavy rain—we saw a couple of tent campers having to relocate to higher ground. Each campsite has a few trees providing shade, but only a few. Water had a bit of a rotten egg smell (hydrogen sulfide, maybe?)…I first noticed it while in the camp shower and thought, “Was that a frog?”

Big Steve

IMG_1051 IMG_1055

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Was that a Frog?

Family traditions are important. They provide continuity between generations. They involve things said and things done. They are part of the bond that holds families together.

We have a family tradition that goes back for generations (I’m told), but I first learned about it from my Uncle Phil while on family vacation as a young child. My uncle had eaten something that disagreed with him. I don’t recall if it was Mexican casserole or noodles or perhaps some combination of the two. I do recall that in the middle of watching a golf tournament on TV, he raised his leg and, well, pooted…tooted…broke wind…let one rip…made noise…whatever you want to call it. It happens. We all do it. And my uncle had just done it. Without hesitation, and without apology, he simply glanced up, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Was that a frog?” Despite only being five or six years old, I was pretty sure what had happened and that it wasn’t a frog. I knew what frogs sound like and what I had heard was similar and yet different…more like a frog that smoked cigarettes and had a very bad cold. But Uncle Phil was insistent, and the other males in the room all affirmed that the noise was indeed most likely attributable to an unseen amphibian in the room. So I went along with the deception, nodded that I too had heard the frog, and by doing so became a part of the family tradition.

Last night we parked our RV between two semi trucks in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Perry, Georgia. Full-timers do this on occasion (it’s called boondocking or living off the grid) on their way to the next destination as a way to save money on campsites and make the lifestyle more affordable. So we pulled in around 7pm, I went for a run, and then we played Cribbage and Sequence. As first-timers spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, we were a little nervous about the truckers nearby, the safety of our tow vehicle, local gangs, and that sort of thing. But we’re on an adventure…and this is part of it.

About midnight we were just about asleep and I made a medium-sized noise. It happens. We all do it. Not only did Lil Jan not scold me, but she further secured her place in family tradition with these little four words: “Was that a frog?” I smiled and affirmed that it was indeed a frog and nothing to be alarmed about…aside from the fact that the frog needed to quit smoking.

Twice during the night something happened that you may not believe, but it is 100% true and one of the weirdest and funniest things that’s ever happened to us. At about 1:30 a.m., Lil Jan was awakened by something cold landing on her arm. She gasped, flicked her arm, and sat up but didn’t see anything. I, of course, didn’t notice her agitation and if I had, would have dismissed it as just a dream. But an hour later, I was awakened from a deep sleep and startled by what felt like a cold, wet paper towel hitting me in the right thigh. I rose up in bed, took a swing at my right thigh, and hollered, “What was that?” Equally startled, Lil Jan quickly sat up and turned on the light. We look around and discovered a two-inch long tree frog on the wall next to me…the kind with the sticky legs that can climb anywhere. We laughed for a solid five minutes and she told me the same thing had happened earlier to her. We wondered where the little fella had come from. Did we carry him in a storage compartment all the way from Florida? Was he a Perry, Georgia, frog who lived in the Wal-Mart parking lot and was just checking on us? Or is it possible that he was from a nearby swamp and, two hours earlier, had heard a noise that he thought was a mating cry from a fellow amphibian?

We may never know the answers to these questions. But it made for a rather exciting first night boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot. As I released the little fella with a toss out the RV door, I decided to name him Phil in honor of my uncle. Because maybe Phil had been right all along, and the noise that had been heard in our RV at midnight was indeed just a frog.

Big Steve

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The Next Rodeo

Janet HS

I’ve been called out by a few of my family and friends for letting Steve do all the blogging about our journey. So, here goes my first shot at putting some thoughts together about this whirlwind adventure we’re undertaking.

I am accustomed to packing up my belongings, purging unnecessary things I’ve accumulated, saying goodbye to friends, and leaving congregations where I’ve been involved. I guess you could say this isn’t my first rodeo! Each time I feel nostalgic and realize I will miss seeing those friends on a regular basis. But mostly, I’m excited about what lies ahead. Growing up as a “preacher’s kid”, we moved 5 times…3 of which were before I started grade school. The toughest of those was when we moved to Tennessee from Spartanburg, SC, after having lived there from 1st grade through the middle of my junior year. When I learned of the move, I was devastated! As a young teen, I went into full “Little Miss Drama” mode. I was certain life would never be the same and I would never make as good of friends in Tennessee.

Well, God in his infinite wisdom always knows best. I can see clearly now (the pain is gone) that the move to Tennessee changed the course of my life. Being a social butterfly, I quickly made new friends and packed a lot of great memories into that year and a half before leaving for college. Speaking of college, this is where moving to Tennessee had the most impact. Several of my new friends were interested in going to David Lipscomb College in Nashville, TN. This is not a school that was anywhere on my radar before moving to Tennessee. Yet I would not be sitting here today in this beautiful pavilion at the Alafia River State Park in Florida if God had not made me aware of David Lipscomb College. You see it was there (during the first hour on campus) that I met the love of my life, Steve Johnson. (He says I fell in love with him instantly, but that’s not quite how I remember it.) His adventurous spirit has taken me to places that I would have never dreamed of. As a military couple for 23 years, we had 8 moves around the globe, including a 2-year tour in Germany. If you had asked that young teen from Spartanburg what I would be doing 18 years later, I would’ve never guessed living in a foreign country! I thought I needed to stay right there in SC. In fact, the farthest west I had ever been was Memphis. There again, God always knows what’s best!

The military lifestyle brought so many wonderful experiences for us. We have friends scattered all over the country thanks to God and Uncle Sam. Leaving each assignment was always difficult and I always wondered how the next stop could possibly be better. But God graciously looked after us and made each assignment a blessing in its own way. People always ask, “How do you handle all the moving and leaving friends so easily?” My answer is, “I know that right around the corner is another blessing coming my way. “ Do I miss the friends I’ve made at each stop? You better believe it! Just about every day I think of someone I’ve known at some point in my life and wonder how he or she is doing and recall some of the fun times we’ve shared. But then I remind myself that if I had stayed in Spartanburg, SC, just think how many people I would’ve missed out on knowing.

Cabin Girls

As we start out on this RV adventure, we hope to stop by and see many of those friends that we’ve made and make some new friends along the way as well. We look forward to reconnecting and catching up. I hope that each of you that read this “rambling” will think back on our friendship and look on it as pleasantly as I have. Thank you all for being a part of who I am and for playing a role in my life’s adventure!

Lil Jan

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The Schnauzer with Nine Lives

For as long as I can remember, my dad has owned a schnauzer.  On the list of important things in life, dad would likely rank schnauzers just below my mom and just above his beloved Cleveland Browns.  Most evenings of my childhood, I could find dad sitting on the family room couch in his boxer shorts and white sleeveless t-shirt, with Air Force paperwork under his left arm, and the family schnauzer under the other.  On one occasion my good friend Jeff Battreall walked through the family room, caught a glimpse of my dad, and whispered, “Steve, your dad may want to throw a towel or something over those boxers.”  I explained that he was in his cave and the Air Force paperwork, boxer shorts, and Eddie (the schnauzer) were all cave fixtures.  Jeff understood, and made it a point to avoid glancing in the family room when dad was there.


When my grandmother passed away a couple decades ago, my parents inherited her condo in Port Charlotte, FL (where I sit this evening with Lil Jan).  It’s an interesting little 16-condo community made up of 50% Canadian snowbirds who migrate here every winter.  The full-timers keep a close eye on things and strictly enforce the comprehensive HOA code…pool hours, acceptable mulch color, garden gnome height, etc.

Not long after my folks started visiting the condo on a regular basis, the HOA passed a new code forbidding dogs.  The new ordinance may or may not have been a result of my dad’s life-long tendency to let his schnauzers roam freely in order to poop at the time and place of their choosing.  Fortunately for my dad (and his schnauzer, Sissy) the code allowed existing dogs to remain, but forbade the acquiring of new dogs once the existing dogs had passed away.  The HOA reasoned that time was on their side, and Sissy the nuisance would eventually be gone.

This loophole turned out to be just what my schnauzer-loving dad needed.  You see Sissy passed away a few years later.  My dad was heart-broken, but did what he had always done before…acquired a new schnauzer and named her Scarlett.  Scarlett bore a striking resemblance to Sissy, particularly while wearing Sissy’s collar during her time at the condo.  A decade later Scarlett died, and dad replaced her with “Goonba”, his current schnauzer companion.  Once again, Goonba inherited Sissy’s collar, at least during her time at the condo.  While my dad may be violating both the letter and spirit of the law, I admire his boldness and creativity.

I suspect the HOA leadership will eventually do the math and begin to question how “Sissy” has survived more than two decades.  Until then, she’ll continue to live on borrowed time in the body of Goonba…roaming freely and relieving herself on gnomes during the day…and falling asleep under the right arm of her boxer-wearing owner at night.  – Big Steve

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