Outdoors: Cheap weekend

Elijah, my 6-year-old, had been patient these last 15 months as he adjusted to having a baby brother. But come July, it was time to leave the baby with Daddy for a night: Elijah and I were hitting the road on my Ducati Supersport 900.

Ready, set, zoom! Elijah Freese shows he's ready for a moto-camping trip with mom. Photo by Bettina Freese

At home, Elijah used the big bike as a jungle gym, and by age 2, he could identify the brakes, clutch, throttle and exhaust. He took his first ride, around the church parking lot, when he was 3. Once Elijah was big enough to put weight on the back foot pegs, we took him out for longer adventures. The ride to Hot Springs would be his most ambitious yet.

I packed almost everything into two saddlebags, stacking the tent and Therm-a-Rest pads behind Elijah's seat to make a kind of La-Z-Boy recliner. As an afterthought, I threw in knives for both of us. Little did I know a Swiss Army knife would turn out to be the weekend's focus — and Daddy's idea of emasculation. ("Why don't you just teach him how to fish too?" he complained a week later. Oops.)

Waving goodbye, we headed toward the French Broad River. With Elijah in charge of hand signals, we rode north beside the sparkling waterway, grinning into the wind as we whipped past folks fishing and boating.

In downtown Marshall, the scenery changed: shops, art galleries, eateries and even a biker bar. From there, we wound our way past the river-rafting companies into Hot Springs. Elijah was perfect in the long, sweeping curves, leaning out far enough to see the road ahead of us and helping the bike make its best angle.

Near the campground, we spied a snow-cone truck that loomed like an oasis. Lying in the shade, we slurped root-beer-flavored ice topped with marshmallow cream.

We set up camp, Elijah somehow managing to inflate his Therm-a-Rest while sitting on it. And then came the knife. First we opened every tool, learning how to do it without slicing off fingertips (all weekend, Elijah needed just one Band-Aid on his thumb). We quickly advanced to whittling. When we weren't searching for the perfect stick, we were looking for the perfect place to sit and whittle. And every stranger we encountered gave Elijah a chance to show off his new skill.
In between, I wooed Elijah to a riverside beach downstream from a little rapid where kids rode inner tubes. We dug ponds, built bridges and watched a Northern water snake swim along the shore.

After walking to town for dinner, we explored the campground's secluded, upstream sites, sitting along the bank as the sinking sun turned the leaves flame orange. Elijah whittled, of course. We watched a movie at the camp bandstand, snuggled into our sleeping bags, and later fell asleep to the rushing river's hush.

There was no 6 a.m. train the next day, but the 6:38 barking dog cut our slumber short. We blinked awake, lolling in our warm bags in the crisp air. Soon Elijah reached beneath his pillow for the knife, showing me how to open the saw blade. We watched the sun rise over the mountain while enjoying juice, coffee and egg-and-cheese biscuits.

A summer shower ruled out a planned hike up to Lover's Leap, and we got doused en route to the nearby Sandy Bottom Trail Rides. Served us right for blatantly disregarding a cardinal rule of motorcycle trips: If you don't want it to rain, wear your rain gear. We hadn't even packed it.

Saddling up, we enjoyed an hourlong jaunt through woods and rolling meadows tended by cows and goats. Elijah rode his own horse, and trail guide Ronnie Ball kept us both safe and laughing as he shared his local knowledge and good humor. Naturally, after the ride, Elijah wanted to show off his whittling techniques.

But the rain was catching up to us again, so we rolled on out, staying just ahead of it. We stopped in Marshall for snacks and a climb on a caboose, Elijah suddenly cranky as he realized our trip was nearly done. We rode the swooping roads home, following Elk Mountain Scenic Highway to the Blue Ridge Parkway, then down Town Mountain Road for the grand finale. Back home, I tallied our expenses: gas, $10; food, $50; camping, $25; horseback riding, $75.

The whittling was free.

Bettina Freese lives in Asheville.

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