There had been one or more tornadoes during the days before our arrival in Chattanooga. On Friday, as we approached the Tennessee state line, we were hit with a torrential, near-zero visibility rain and hailstorm. As the rain and hail pounded down on our rig, Rocky, who does NOT like even a mild rainstorm or thunder, tried to climb up onto Maureen's head. He was either trying to get away from the storm or was trying to protect her head. Your guess is as good as ours.
Anyway, traffic speed went to near zero, with trucks, RVs, and cars pulling over and trying to squeeze under the overpasses for some little bit of protection. Maureen kept reminding me that she had heard that the safest thing to do was to abandon your vehicle and lie flat in any ditch that you might find along the roadside. Well, the ditches were flooded with water at that moment and I didn't think that Rocky would vote for abandoning the SUV. So I decided to keep the nearest semi's lights a few tenths of a mile in front of me, just at the edge of my vision, and crawl forward, hopefully following him out of the storm — which is just what happened.
With rain and hail pounding down on us, we finally broke out from under the storm and headed for our next stopover point, the "Best Holiday Trav-L-Park" just outside of Chattanooga.
Our GPS device's announcement that we had arrived at our destination proved to be a bit premature. As we drove up Mack Smith Road, looking for the entrance to the campground, Helga (the name we've given to our GPS) informed us to take the next right and we'd be at our destination — which I did — right into a mobile home park with speed bumps every 20 feet or so. I knew we were in the wrong place, but I had to follow the road, since there was nowhere to turn the rig around. As the SUV and trailer bounced over speed bump after speed bump and I imagined the contents of our trailer flying around and smashing. When I finally turned down a street that had an exit sign at its end, a helpful resident finally appeared and, waving his arms, signaled the way out — which we had already seen and considered his directions helpful, but a bit late.
I really don't remember all that much about the park, other than it was filled with puddles and that a threatening black sky hung overhead, warning of more torrential rain at any moment. We just prayed that there wouldn't be any more tornadoes, which we learned had killed two people that week in Tennessee near Matt's home. Rocky's walking schedule was all mixed up and he wanted to go out for a walk every 15 minutes. He finally gave up and went to sleep after I walked him at around 2 AM. It had not been a good day, but we were safe and unharmed.
On Saturday we left a little late (we had slept in after a lousy night) and headed for Matt's house. Along the way, we spotted trees along the highway that had been ripped apart by a tornado. We prayed that the storms were over and that Matt and his family would be safe.
We learned from our last trip that Helga didn't know how to find Matt's home as it is in a newly built neighborhood. Still exhausted from yesterday's horror show, all we wanted to do was to get to Matt's and collapse. Helga had other ideas and sent us right by Matt's street. One of the first things you learn about pulling a trailer is that they don't turn around on a dime. I had to go more than a mile past Matt's street before I found a suitable place to turn around and go back.
Rocky often seems to know when we're near a destination (he's actually better at it than Helga), especially when he's visited it before. True to form, He starting sniffing at the SUV's air vents miles before we got to the house. After parking the car and hooking him up to his lead, he pulled me out of the car and made a beeline for Matt's front walk. He turned and raced up the walk to the front stoop, just as Matt came out with Rocky's old friend, Roscoe the foxhound. On top of amazing us by remembering which house was Matt's, he began whimpering the way he does when we've left him at home for a day or more and then come home. He has a distinctive whine he voices at those times, welcoming his beloved family back home. Well, Rocky made the same sound that day as he raced right up the front stoop and said hello to his old friend Roscoe (by sniffing Roscoe's butt and then by wrapping his legs around one of Roscoe's rear legs and humping away). Dogs are so amazing...
Maureen arranged an Easter egg hunt for the girls on Sunday. They thought that it was great. Maureen had hidden candy-filled plastic eggs and books and other surprises around the backyard. The girls, and especially Kaylin, have a special love for Maureen, who has always been there with Tracie after she got home from the hospital to help take care of the new baby or watch over Kaylin. Both girls have amazed us as we've watched them become their own little people, with their likes and dislikes, separate personalities and abilities. Ella is no longer a baby, but a sweet little girl who likes to hug and be hugged. Kaylin is wise beyond her years and never ceases to amaze us with her intelligence and physical prowess. She loves to dance and is now taking gymnastic lessons (At four! Today's kids seem to be so smart and advanced, they make our childhoods seem so boring and limited!)
Not knowing what to expect as we signed up, we were disappointed by what we saw (and heard) once we were directed to our campsite. It might have been a nice site, located right up against the river, but wasn't because of the loud noises of bulldozing going on right on the other side of the river. Our prospective neighbors informed us that the noise had been going on all day, every day, since they had arrived. We asked to be moved to a quieter site, which the management did readily. The problem was that we could still hear the bulldozer and road grader over by the river, and now could also hear the tourist's helicopter tours taking off and landing just across the highway from the campsite.
Maureen hated the park (I readily agreed) and strongly suggested that we leave the campsite the next day, but then admitted that she had prepaid for the next 4 days. Groan! At first the management told us that our payment was non-refundable (I had a suspicion that a LOT of people had been checking out early lately), but, after a few minutes, one of the owners came down in his golf cart and told us that it had been a mistake and that we would be given a full refund for the days not used. Yay!
Excuse me for not having taken any pictures of Rippling Waters. For obvious reasons we didn't feel we needed photographic reminders of our stay there. We both agree, though that the name of the campground be changed to "Rumbling Bulldozers."
We moved to Pigeon Forge the next day, to the Creekside RV Resort on Henderson Springs Road, just outside of town. It was a relief after Rippling Waters. Very friendly people, well managed and maintained CG, with gravel pull-through sites with concrete pads and picnic tables. We spent the next 4 days there, using it to explore Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and make some exploratory drives into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP).
While at Creekside, we took in a dinner-show at the Tennessee Shindig playhouse (with buffet dinner at a restaurant next door). A mixture of country western, rock and roll (with a very talented Elvis impersonator), comedy and dance, Tennessee Shindig was a hoot. We strongly recommend it.
We also drove into Gatlinburg, last visited by us some 35 years before and much changed. Its winding main street is surrounded by the tree-covered mountains of the Smokies and reminded us of a European mountain village. Sure, it's a tourist trap, with every kind of tacky store you can imagine, but it also had nice little shops and cafes on winding pedestrian streets off the main drag. Parking was non-existent unless paid for. There were tow-away zone signs everywhere.
doing research for her new large portfolio book,
"Restrooms That I Have Visited,"
"Never Pass Up A Chance To Empty Your Bladder,"
soon to be published by Vanity Press and available
at Barnes & Noble, nationwide.)
A day later we took a different route from Pigeon Forge and drove into the middle of the mountains and visited Townsend, TN, a picturesque village at the edge of the park with several nice-looking campgrounds. I also wanted to visit Cherokee and spend some time at the Cherokee museum and the various Native-American attractions, but we were running low on time and wanted to visit Cades Cove, a mountain valley in the park we we had camped all those years ago.
Cades Cove has a 20-mile loop road that is closed to automotive traffic twice a week until 10 AM. Only cyclists and walkers are allowed in during that time. I had wanted to ride our bikes there, but couldn't get myself up early enough for the long drive from Pigeon Forge to the loop road before 10 AM. It was just as well that we didn't try. We drove the loop road, which proved to be very hilly and I doubt that we could have completed the 20-mile loop on bikes. The views from the road were outstanding, with picturesque mountain valleys, restored homes and farms, wildlife, and views of the surrounding mountains always in the background.
We stopped at one point and took one of the many marked trails into the woods. There was a waterfall 2.5 miles up the trail we chose, which ran along the river that fed the falls. On the way up the trail, we met several riders on horseback coming down the trail and a lot of friendly (and some even worse conditioned than we were) hikers. We made it only about a mile or so up the trail when we admitted that we weren't in shape for the mildly challenging hike and turned back. But, hey, we did try! The road loop ended where it had begun, at Cades Cove campground. I had wanted to camp there, knowing it had no hookups and would have required us to "boondock," which means camping at a campsite or Wal-Mart/Sams/Cracker Barrel Restaurant parking lot without any hookups. Although Maureen was put off by the notion of camping without electrical, water, or sewer hookups, the real deal-breaker was not having any way to heat the RV if the temperatures dropped too low during the night. We have an electric-fired propane furnace, but without an electric hookup, the furnace's fan would quickly drain the RV's battery. I tried to buy a small portable catalytic heater before and during our drive up, but found that there weren't any left on the shelves. After all, I was informed, it was Spring and heaters are a "seasonal" item (I still believe that they shouldn't be in a mountainous region where temperatures were sometimes 20 degrees lower than in the valleys).
While at Cades Cove CG, we spent some time checking out the campsites and the camp store, but didn't see anything that we remembered from our visit in the distant past. And NO, Christopher, we didn't find the sneakers that you, then-a-toddler, had lost one day in the mud while we were there.
By Sunday afternoon, April 26th, we were on route 40 heading South through the mountains headed toward Asheville, our next stop. I had done some research about this portion of our trip (actually, about ALL portions of our trip) before leaving home and had gotten advice about the least challenging way to cross the Smokeys on the way to Asheville. I was concerned about whether our 6-cylinder SUV could handle the mountain roads while pulling a loaded trailer that maxed out its towing limit of 3500 lbs. The SUV had been doing fine up until this trip, with its temperature gauge never going above normal and no scary noises coming from its transmission, but that had been while driving in flat-to-moderately-hilly terrain. I was concerned about this first challenging tow through some serious mountains (for the East coast, anyway). But the SUV did fine, only dropping to 45-50 mph during the steepest climbs. Mileage continues to average 11-12 mpg while towing, 24 mpg without. Not too bad considering pickup-towed 5th wheelers average 10-12 mpg and class A motorhomes about 4-5 mpg. We try to stop for the day after going through two tankfuls (2X15 gallons per tank @ 10 mpg, or 150 miles = 300 miles per day).
Mile after mile of woods and carefully groomed roadsides, with trees and plants, many in flower, carefully placed so that every turn of the road had some scenic beauty to view. I could only guess how much money it must have taken to build — and maintain — such a vast property. It just couldn't be done today (outside of the Middle East, anyway).
Of course, it had all been done during the great age of the so-called "robber barons," before income tax, the SEC and anti-monopoly laws. Thousands of workers could be hired for a pittance to move tons of earth around, creating what would later look like natural ponds, streams, and hillsides.
Plants were imported from all over the world to grace the Biltmore grounds. It was said the Olmstead wanted every turn of the road to look like a postcard. He was successful.
The mansion (castle?), with more than 2 million square feet of living space, was fantastic. If you've been to Europe and seen some of the great county homes you'll have some idea of the splendor of Biltmore. But only some. In comparison with some of the estates that I've seen, say Blenheim and Inverary castles in England or even Windsor castle, Biltmore equals or exceeds their size and beauty.
Comparing it to Versailles in France wouldn't be fair; Versailles is more of a palace than Biltmore; with more gilding and mirrors, more ostentatious decoration than Biltmore. But Biltmore is more of a home than Versailles. It's rooms are huge and decorated with tons of beautifully carved wood and stonework, its glass-roofed central atrium with its tropical plants is beautiful (I'm beginning to run out of superlatives; the place just blew my mind, man.) and on and on...
But with all its splendor, Biltmore is more homey; you can picture people living there, entertaining their guests or relaxing with their family on a quiet Sunday morning.
I know that the era of great homes like Biltmore is over; one just can't get enough reliable help these days. Just kidding. What you can't get is hundreds of trained servants who are willing to work for pennies and accept their station in life and roles as invisible beings meant to act quickly and expertly on every whim of their lord and lady.
We'd love to be one of those servants (for about a day), there in the background, treated like furniture, but present for all the usually hidden drama that goes on in every family and perhaps more so in the lives of the great families. On second thought, we'd like to be one of the Vanderbilts or a member of their extended family that got to live at Biltmore.
We learned that some of the surviving family members, related through marriage to the Vanderbilt line, moved out of Biltmore nearly 30 years ago and live modestly in a four bedroom, three bath home in Asheville. "Oh Jeeves, be a good man and bring the minivan around front, won't you? Today is sample day at Costco."
If you haven't seen Biltmore, see it. It'll provide you with a picture of what it must have been like to live as one of America's great families.
After registering, I dropped the SUV into its lowest gear and drove slowly up to our pull-through site. All the while, I waited for a bang or other noise informing me that the transmission had just given up the ghost, but our trusty Mazda made its way up without a problem (I blame my neurosis on all the negative feedback I got on the RVNet.com website from more experienced towers who told me that my 6-cyl. Mazda could never pull a 3500 lb. load without damaging itself).
The campground was beautiful, as you can see from our photos. We met some very nice people, including one traveler staying at the campground with a group of people that brought some leftover steak up the road for Rocky and introduced himself as Charles the mystic, a former Methodist minister, and current Russian Orthodox lay person. He informed me that he had always received premonitions and "messages." I kept expecting him to stop talking, put his hand to his head and announce, "Wait! I'm getting a message!"
The funny thing was that, in discussing what may have brought us together that afternoon, we discovered several parallels between our lives. Such as he was raised in Rockville Center, Long Island; a town next door to Baldwin, LI, where I grew up. We discussed 9/11 and I mentioned Maureen's godchild, who worked for Kanter-Fitzgerald and died that day in the attack. He paused and told me that he knew someone who worked for that company and said he was getting a feeling (a message from the beyond?).
Well, he didn't get a message about Maureen's godchild, but did get me to give him my phone number in case something popped into his consciousness (you should hum some spooky music here) that he might want to share with me. As we parted, he turned and seriously thanked me for not treating him "like a nut," something he probably experiences from time to time.
(Below the author can be seen relaxing in our trailer's living room-kitchen-bedroom-den, watching our huge, wall-mounted LCD TV.)
We're definitely going back to Mama Gerties', maybe this fall for the foliage change and our 44th wedding anniversary.
Asheville proved to be a small, hilly city with a definite artsy-fartsy feeling. UNC at Asheville is located there and has a beautiful, wooded campus. Many of its students where wandering around the city and were of the long hair, baggy clothes variety. Many carried either a musical instrument or a portfolio. We guessed that the college specialized in the Arts.
The city's small centrally located park had a sizable group of what looked like possible drug users, all carefully watched by what appeared to be a full-time resident police officer. We toured one of the many galleries and Maureen bought a pretty bracelet.
Rocky accompanied us everywhere and drew a lot of attention. It seems that Australian Terriers are not well known in that part of the country.
After a nice lunch at an organic cafe, we spotted an elderly man and woman about to cross the street. They had the most outlandish attire that I've ever seen outside of a 60s music concert. Both had wild gray hair and were dressed in what I can only describe as psychedelic: red, orange, green, blue, pink — you name it — they were dressed from head to toe in what looked like crazy quilt fabric. As a joke, I walked up to them and said, "Now you two people look like you can tell me where Asheville's Young Republican's meet." We laughed together over my obvious genius for humor. The man mentioned how he'd been pulling his hair out for the past 8 years (over what I have no idea [wink! wink!]).
[Actually, Maureen has been losing her patience with me lately for being so willing to strike up a conversation with complete strangers, something I used to avoid. I'm not sure what is happening, but I do know that, at 64, I have no patience with pretense or hypocrisy anymore and enjoy talking with people.]
While Maureen shopped at the local Wal-Mart, located several miles out of the city on the way back to Mama Gerties, Rocky and I waited outside.
Once again proving that I seem to attract (or is it seek out?) unusual specimens of humankind, a hippy-looking older man started up a conversation with me. Following my belief that you never know whether the next person you meet might be an angel, I told him a little bit about myself. As he packed a newly purchased (Chinese, of course; he bought it at Wal-Mart) backpack (the old one had fallen apart), he told me all about the real reason the FBI attacked the Davidian Waco compound, what really happened that day, how he has learned the truth about the world from shortwave radio, and numerous other conspiracy theories. As he climbed on his small motorcycle/scooter and shouldered his backpack, he told me that he was working with Asheville's homeless and that maybe he'd see me around the "square." I assumed that he meant the park Maureen and I had seen and didn't think that our meeting there was very likely, but I wished him a good life and off he rode. It had been an interesting, if somewhat strange conversation.
We checked out of Mama Gerties Thursday morning and set off for home, expecting one last stopover for the night. Looking for a half-priced campground in our Camp Club USA or Passport America guides, we decided to try the Jolly Acres Camping and RV Park in St. George, SC.
Once again foolishly putting our lives in our GPS, Helga's, hands, we followed her directions to the campground. All went well until, several miles from the nearest highway, she told us to turn onto a dirt road. Mile after mile went by with the road becoming more and more dusty and rutted. As it narrowed down to a single, narrow lane, Maureen began berating me for following Helga's questionable advice and demanded that I turn around and go back the way we came.
Once again, I reminded her that you can't do a u-turn on a narrow dirt road with a travel trailer. At that moment, we came to four of the worst ruts in the road that I have ever seen. The rig dropped and then bounced up into the air, four times — hard. Maureen began questioning my sanity and family history. I informed her that she was wrong; I knew who my father was and that we'd just have to keep plodding along. After all, Helga said our destination was just down the road a bit...
A nice, neat CG, Jolly Acres had a handful of snowbirds and other long-term campers. There wasn't much shade (or much doing), though, with most of the sites on what was probably former pasture land. There was a lot of room and yet the sites were very close to one another, as if they planned to be a much larger CG some day with many more sites.
After pulling in, we found that our neighbors on either side, two big 5th wheelers, were empty and the only company we had was right behind us, a dozen or so beef cattle and their calves in a picturesque field. It might have been lucky that neither neighbor was in, because our awning side neighbor had parked the reverse of us and had his table about 6 feet from ours. It wasn't his proximity that troubled me though, it was the spittoon sitting next to his folding chair...
We did learn from the owner, after telling her about the horrible dirt road leading to her park, that the REAL route was just outside the CG to the right; not the left. A fully paved road would take us back to I-95 in minutes with no problems. Arghh!
A resident who had overheard my story asked if I had seen any "carcasses" while navigating the dirt road (I hadn't, thankfully). He went on to explain that the locals dump dead farm animals/roadkill along the road. Yecch! The owner seemed to think that our experience was funny and admitted that other campers, including one huge 40 foot class A, had experienced the same problem when their GPS's had led them astray. Very funny...
The following morning, we left Jolly Acres (jolly about all the dumb SOB's that had driven on the local Ho Chi Minh trail, I guessed) and started out on the last portion of our road home.
After the previous day's excitement, we decided to keep going all the way home and not stop for another night. After 7 hours or so, we finally got home in the dark and I backed our RV up into our driveway very badly. By that point I just didn't care. I left everything hitched up and went into the house, where I fell back into my La-Z-Boy with a great sigh of relief. Home at last — Yay!
The next day, I began planning our next trip...