We’re beginning a big adventure and we hope you will travel with us. Mostly I expect I will be writing, but I hope Jim will chime in from time to time with his own very special point of view.
We drove east and northward through Virginia to our next destination. Virginia flattened out a bit as we headed east. We drove through Lynchburg and gazed upon the sprawling campus of Liberty University. It lined each side of the interstate. The President had just spoken there so I, at least, was more aware of this place of Christian education. It was indeed an enormous campus. I had to wonder how the students negotiated such distances especially with a big highway running through the middle.
Next we passed the Jerry Falwell Memorial Highway. We were certainly in the white-hot center of things Christian.
We arrived at Holliday Lake State Park on a beastly hot afternoon. A heat wave had engulfed half the country so we weren’t alone in the sweltering heat. We un-hitched at our camp site. Halfway through the process we were both dripping with sweat. There was a little breeze so it was cooler sitting in the shade outside.
We needed to do some planning. We had reserved two nights at Holliday Lake. Our next stop was in College Park, MD and that was quite a distance from our current location. All told it was a 220 mile drive, but much of it was in urban traffic which would make the drive more taxing and certainly longer.
Sitting at our camp site, we were becoming convinced that we should only stay one night at Holliday Lake and then push on. We were also feeling oddly detached from this park. Perhaps it was the heat or the concern about the drive in two days. Maybe it was the fact that this was the last state park scheduled for us to stay in. In any case, we decided that we would leave the next morning and find an intermediate stop before heading to the DC metropolis.
However, the camp ground was deep inside this state park and any whiff of a cell signal had long since faded. We identified two potential places to stay, but with no signal, we wouldn’t know which path we would take until we were under way. This was all somewhat out of character behavior for us.
Our site was next to the Campground Host’s site. We met them coming out of their Fifth Wheel. They were off duty and it looked like they were heading to town. Reluctantly, we closed up the trailer for the night. It was just too hot inside and there wasn’t much of a breeze. We had a somewhat desultory dinner. We listened to some music and then turned in.
The next morning was cool and lovely. The campground at Holliday Lake was so deep into the forest, there was only the sound of birds singing. We had driven close to five miles from the highway through the forest to get to the campground. We hitched up in the cool air knowing the heat would soon come.
There was one particularly enormous bumble bee hanging around the campsite. He had been there when we arrived and Dakota had barked angrily at him as if he were a small dog. That is how big he was. Now, as we put away the awnings and prepared to hitch, he buzzed around us like a small aircraft. He was an interested bystander and seemed to be watching everything we were doing. He was a benign and friendly presence.
The Camp Hosts had told us this was their favorite park. They loved being here. We tried to see what they saw. It was pretty. Mountain Laurel was in bloom and there was a bush just inside the trees. We had driven past the lake for which the park was named when we arrived. It had a wide beach and was undoubtedly popular on the weekends. There were trails all through the park, but in the heat we had no desire to hike them.
We set the GPS for one of our two proposed destinations. We drove for miles through rural countryside before there was enough signal for me to call to see if they could accommodate us. The woman on the phone at the campground paused when I asked if they had availability. Whether it was because she was checking or hadn’t been asked that question in a while was an open question. Once we got to Shenandoah Hills Campground, it seemed like the latter was the stronger possibility.
We were somewhat aware this campground had mixed reviews when we chose it. We read online that the roads were pot-holed. The campground personnel were not very friendly or nice. More recent reviews had been positive and that had emboldened us to give it a chance.
The campground at Shenandoah Hills could have been nice. There were plenty of trees and appropriate space between the sites. One of the issues with campgrounds which we had slowly come to understand is full-timers. When a campground has a significant number of full-time tenants, things begin to deteriorate. Rigs begin to age and can become covered with moss and dirt. Since this is an inexpensive way to live, the trailers and rv’s aren’t always high-end to begin with. Camp sites become untended as they fill with accumulated possessions. The infrastructure begins to degrade. It is almost counter-intuitive, but transient guests help keep a campground looking fresh and tended. This campground was almost half filled with full-timers.
Indeed when we pulled in the potholes were terrible. The woman at check in was friendly enough. Tipped off by the reviews, I asked if there had been some fairly recent change in management at the campground. She said there hadn’t although they had been a KOA campground until five years ago. She explained that they had dropped KOA because they didn’t like paying the marketing fee. Cash flow did seem to be an issue at Shenandoah Hills.
Our next door neighbors were a friendly family who had just bought their travel trailer used. They were planning a big trip west through Texas in June. That’ll be hot all right. The man was full of questions and Jim was only too happy to share his newly gained wisdom. He was no longer a newbie, but a seasoned Airstreamer with knowledge to share.
We ran our air that night for the second night in a row. We really missed the open windows, night sounds and fresh breezes. We were up the next morning ready to hitch and go. Even though we had cut the day’s driving distance in half, we had a lot of ground to cover. But there was a big payoff. A major incentive to head to our next stop.
It is a given that our Airstream was always a bit of a lone ranger at the state parks and RV resorts we stayed in. Dwarfed by Class A’s and Fifth Wheels, our Silver Bullet gleamed in the sun and was a bird without a flock.
When we met Susan and Bob at the picnic area back in east Texas, they had asked if we had ever stayed in an Airstream-only park. The idea had floated in the backs of our minds, but their question turned the thought into action.
So, here we were traveling along the narrow highways of western Virginia. The pronounced hills and valleys lifted, twisted and dropped the road we were traveling. We knew Airstreams had mastered this obstacle course before us, but it was still a bit of a nail biter.
The Virginia Highland Haven Airstream Park sits atop one of the most gorgeous hills in the landscape. Pulling into the park is to enter another world. Spread out in all directions are views across other valleys and mountains. The wind blows through the trees and across the grass. Every sunset is different and as equally breathtaking as the last.
Like other Airsteam-only parks, Highland Haven is a cooperative. There are 46 campsites in the park and 46 shareholders. The park is open from May 1-October 15. The shareholders can stay the entire season or just drop in for a week or two. In any case, shareholders share the workload of park maintenance and all are expected to pitch in. When shareholders are not on site, guests can stay on the empty sites providing a revenue stream.
We pulled into the park and up to the Camp Host’s site. Robert was on duty this week—shareholders must act as host at least one week each season. Robert was very friendly and directed us to our site. A line of beautiful Airstreams extended the length of the road along the hilltop. The Airstreams—of all vintages—gleamed in the sun.
The sites were gravel and quite narrow. Having long since abandoned the feeling of performance anxiety at a state park or RV resort, it returned now. Somehow we felt a little intimidated at being in this society of fellow Airstreamers. Nevertheless, Jim negotiated the narrow site skillfully and we got ourselves set up.
The wind was blowing steadily and the sun was warm. We walked down to the clubhouse to poke around a bit. The club house was formerly a home and offered communal living areas, a very nice enclosed front porch, the kitchen and a laundry area. It was all comfortably worn and very neat and tidy. We talked with one of the shareholders who was preparing homemade ice cream for the evenings ice cream and brownie get together. He urged us to join them. This was a welcoming community.
Back at our site, we settled into our chairs and looked out across the landscape of mountains and valleys. We weren’t quite ready for the brownie social, but each passerby waved and we returned the greeting. We watched the sun set in a brilliant fire that burned the edges of the clouds and reflected off the shiny aluminum shells of the Airstreams standing in a row.
Somehow beyond staying in a park full of Airstreams, we had no agenda or itinerary for what we would do the three nights and two days at Highland Haven. The ice cream chef had mentioned Floyd as a possible destination. I was also very interested in retracing our steps to Christiansburg where I had seen an antiques store which called to me.
We set off across the roller coaster roads to Floyd. Floyd may have a one syllable name and only one traffic light, but it was a delightful surprise. Here in the middle of rural Virginia was a little hotbed of artisans, music and culture. We parked and wandered around the shops.
The hardware store was both picturesque and bursting with anything one might possibly need. We wandered along poking into stores which seemed intriguing. The yarn shop was closed which was probably just as well. There were multiple establishments offering live music. The community park was under renovation and looked like it would be a lovely garden spot when done.
The old railroad depot had been transformed to host the weekly farmer’s market. Hanging from the raftered ceiling were banners from local establishments and craftsmen. Jim’s eye was caught by one for the Five Mile Mountain Distillery. My Google app said it was only 1.1 miles down the road.
The Five Mile Mountain Distillery perched itself over the road leading south out of town. The steep drive led to a small gravel parking lot. The building itself was a quirky blend of mill and factory. We stepped across the wooden porch and entered to be greeted by a very great Great Dane. A young man with an impressive red curly beard greeted us. He was co-owner of the distillery.
We never did get our host’s name (a holdover from the illicit past?), but we enjoyed his passionate history of the distillery and how he came to be a purveyor of moonshine whiskey. He grew up locally and the hills around Floyd were filled with stills. He learned from the old masters who had kept the country fueled during Prohibition. After years in construction, he had cast about for a next career. By chance he heard of someone else planning to open a distillery in Floyd and, figuring the town wasn’t big enough for the both of them, they joined forces. A spirit of cooperation sadly often lacking.
The tasting room was an attractive meld of wood and copper dominated by the bar and on the far wall, display shelves which featured a trio of old stills. The building had formerly been part of the water works for the town before it was abandoned. Our host related the process of renovation from a dilapidated home for black snakes to the attractive venue we were now in.
We tasted thimblefuls of the moonshine on offer. The Vanilla Plum had a warmth of plum followed by a touch of the vanilla. The Elderberry was a gorgeous deep color and much more astringent than I had expected. The Sweet Mountain Moonshine was 100 proof and exploded with warmth in our mouths. I was unable to finish even the thimbleful I had been given of the 100 proof.
One of the old stills on display had been given to our host by an old moonshiner now 93. He had walked the fields with him one day. The old guy would come to a gate, kick around in the dirt a bit and come up with a jar. After a sip, he would replace the jar and they would continue. At the next gate the ritual was repeated. During Prohibition this old fellow ran moonshine up to the mines in West Virginia. He would sell his load and head over to the company-owned store. They would load him up with sugar out the back door and he would head back to distill another load of clear thunder.
After a long and enjoyable conversation, we learned that the Tasting Room wasn’t even open that day. Our host was just so passionate, he was happy to share his enthusiasm. They were there distilling moonshine and building their business. We left with some of their inventory in hand.
The drive to Christiansburg was another half hour away. Back up and down the hills, twisting through the valleys. It was a heck of a lot easier without a trailer in tow, but tiring for Jim nonetheless. I left him dozing in the truck while I headed in to the antiques shop. I never go to antiques stores, but something about this shop called to me.
It was a large, labyrinthine affair crammed to the ceiling with antiques. I was on a special, secret mission about which I cannot write. I can only report I was very successful and left two happy proprietors in my wake.
We returned to the Haven. It was very windy and the temperature was dipping down to the 40’s. We hung out in the trailer and watched downloaded episodes of NCIS.
Our second and last full day was much warmer and the wind had dropped. We decided to test the laundry facilities. While the loads were drying we walked along the country road past the fields of timothy hay. They had just cut one of the fields and it smelled sweet in the warm air.
After lunch we headed back to Floyd. Ostensibly, we were after some groceries and diesel, but there was most likely an ulterior motive as well. A couple of shops had been closed the day before and we were interested in checking them out. Jim scored a devilishly handsome hat and I found some birthday presents for both Ellie and Peter. For once we were avoiding the monotony of the big box stores which seem to dominate our urban areas. These little shops supported local artisans. Our list of five items including groceries and diesel was soon checked off and we headed back to Highland Haven.
That evening two shareholders were hosting a chili and cornbread dinner. We had signed up before heading to town. Just before six, couples began heading down the park road to the club house and we joined them. Everyone was most welcoming. After a brief grace, Robert, the week’s host, asked the guests to introduce themselves. There were six couples visiting from Quebec, South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts and, of course, Connecticut.
The chili and cornbread were good accompanied by a tossed salad and happy chatter. By chance (I swear), I had worn my USMC t-shirt and we ended up seated with our next door neighbor, a retired Marine who fought in Viet Nam. Always happy to talk about Alex and the Marines, dinner was enjoyable. The highlight was Banana Pudding. Everyone was most amazed that these two Yankees had never had banana pudding. I will definitely add it to my new repertoire of southern cooking. I asked after the recipe and it was, of course, from that doyenne of southern cooking, Paula Deen.
That night featured another brilliant sunset. We sat under our awning, wine in hand and watched a completely different show put on by the setting sun. The bittersweet realization that we were now in our last week of the trip was tempered by the beauty of the evening.
Our drive took us from North Carolina, north through the easternmost tip of Tennessee and on to Virginia. We were headed to Hungry Mother State Park.
According to park lore, Hungry Mother got its name from a tragic story. Hostile Indians had attacked several settlements just south of what is now the park. A woman settler and her child were taken prisoner. They escaped the Indian camp and wandered through the wilderness foraging for food and looking for rescue. The mother finally collapsed, but her child was able to wander along a creek and found help. The only words the child could utter were “hungry mother.” Sadly when the rescuers came upon the mother, she was dead. The park and its man-made lake take their name from this legend.
We arrived at the park headquarters and were told we could choose any of the unreserved campsites. The road to the campground was exceedingly narrow and twisty with drop offs on each side. It was really only wide enough for one vehicle. This made it exceptionally exciting when we came upon first one and then a second car going the other way. Jim edged the truck and trailer as far to the side as possible and we squeaked past with millimeters to spare. I confess there may have been some verbal exclamations on my part.
The campground, named Creekside, featured a lovely stream running along the side. There was only one unreserved site along the creek and we struggled to back the Airstream into it. The site doglegged right. Trees and large rocks formed extra challenges and it was clear we would never make it into the site without damage to something. The Camp Host wandered over as we gave up and told us that they had just had a cancellation on site 16. It was the best site in the campground and it could be ours!
After checking with the ranger station, we backed in to the most exceptionally lovely site and un-hitched. There were ducks wandering along the creek and a momma duck and her ducklings came along to welcome us.
We opened awnings, got out our chairs, decked the awning with lights and prepared for a delightful evening. After dinner we sat out by the fire. It couldn’t have been more wonderful. With our trailer windows wide open, we slept deeply with the babbling sound of the water a natural white noise.
Rain began overnight and was expected. We knew our first full day at Hungry Mother would be a washout and planned accordingly. We hung out in the trailer listening to the intermittent stacatto bursts of rain on the trailer roof. We made a trip to town, cruised Marion’s historic downtown, bought diesel and enjoyed lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, Mi Puerto. The rain continued all afternoon and provided a perfect sound track to a long afternoon nap.
We spent the evening listening to music and watching video clips of late night comedians on YouTube. In a questionable moment of consideration, Jim logged on to Netflix and we enjoyed an hour of Slow TV: National Knitting Night—the ever popular real time program from Norway documenting spinners and knitters in a timed contest going from raw fleece to finished sweater. Perhaps not for everyone, but a total fascination to me.
Saturday dawned grey, but the rain had stopped. Our little babbling brook was now a turgid torrent. It had swollen its banks and ran brown and raw. We puttered around the trailer for a while. Just about noon the sun came out. We ate lunch and then headed out to hike the Lake Trail Loop around Hungry Mother Lake.
The park was full of people enjoying the now gorgeous day. The picnic shelters were occupied. A mountain bike and running event had taken place on the same trail we were planning to hike. A wedding was set up to take place with the white chairs in orderly rows and pretty flowers lining the aisle. We were happy to think that the wedding party would have a lovely day for the ceremony after all.
The first half of our trail followed the bank of the lake and the park road. We passed many happy fishermen standing casting their hooks into the water. We passed the dam and the trail wound into the woods. It emerged briefly at what is now the park boat launch.
This park is the oldest state park in Virginia. It, too, owes its infrastructure to the efforts of the CCC. The former CCC camp was located by the boat launch. This camp seemed a tiny bit less rustic than some. They actually had barracks rather than tents and bath facilities. We couldn’t help but remember the CCC baths at Mission Tejas.
The woods here were just lovely. The run off from the rains made streams down the mountain sides. It was cool and green in the woods. Rhododendron were in full bloom. The trail had just enough ups and downs to make it good exercise and plenty of pretty scenery to keep us occupied.
Hungry Mother was unusual compared to every other state park we had seen in that it boasted a restaurant. There was a sign right at the park entrance and we passed the building in which it was housed as we headed to the campground. I was dubious. How good could it be? The Camp Host mentioned it when we were selecting our site and urged us to try it. So, we planned a big Saturday night out.
We drove back to the rustic, but attractive building. The structure was wood and cabin like. The interior of the restaurant was pleasantly rustic as well. The tables were actually unassuming, topped with formica. The wait staff was college age. What a super summer job to work at the park. It would be like camp all summer long. The menu was quite nice. I ordered Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp with Grits. Both were scrumptious. The Shrimp with Grits was clearly full of wonderfully unhealthy cheese and butter.
We eavesdropped on the couple at the table behind us with intent. They were the new Camp Hosts at the second campground at the park. A ranger was talking to them and we found out that Virginia’s state parks are pretty much self-sustaining. They are encouraged to run for profit ventures, like this restaurant, to supplement the meager budget. It made a lot of sense and, from the sound of it, worked really well.
It was heady stuff to be out on Saturday night and we really enjoyed our dining experience.
Once again we enjoyed a camp fire in the evening. The roaring river was slowly returning to its former babbling brook status. We finished off our firewood and crawled into bed confident that the next morning would be so delightful, it would break our hearts to leave Hungry Mother.
We were right.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was an incredible ride. The Parkway runs for over 460 miles and, like the Natchez Trace, is a national park for its entire length. Both of these narrow, ribbon-like parks are beautifully managed by the National Park Service. The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and runs north and east to Roanoke.
Begun in 1935 under FDR, the parkway was originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway. Construction was begun with private contractors but in 1936 Congress declared the highway part of the National Park Service. Construction was then undertaken by various New Deal agencies including the WPA and the CCC. Construction of the entire parkway took over 50 years to complete. It is one of the most visited destinations managed by the National Park Service.
Having so enjoyed the Natchez Trace, we were excited to sample this other famous drive. Our ride began just east of Asheville and we enjoyed 91 miles of amazing scenery before we had to continue in a different direction.
The first half of our ride was easily the most dramatic. We started at mile marker 382.6. The two lane highway wound around, up and over hills. We passed the spot where we had parked to hike the Craven Gap Trail. We continually gained altitude and the views just became more and more breathtaking.
The speed limit on the parkway is 45 mph. While I am sure sports cars and motorcyclists find that speed unnecessarily turtle-like and conservative, it was hard to travel that fast with trailer in tow. Curves could be tight and with only horizon beyond them, it seemed prudent to take our time and relish the experience.
Also breathtaking was the guard rail situation. Sometimes there were guard rails along the roadside before a sharp drop off. These were often rustic wooden affairs. It was hard not to wonder if they could possibly stop the forces of gravity and trajectory involved with a 28’ Airstream and Ram 2500 Laramie with Cummins diesel engine. More often there was simply no guardrail at all. The edge of the road gave way to an amazing vista and clean mountain air.
The highest point for us on our drive was Craggy Gardens at mile marker 364. As we approached the visitor center and parking lot, we were enveloped by clouds. We had gained over 3500 feet in elevation since joining the trail.
When shopping for our hike the day before, I had toyed with hiking the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, but discarded the idea due to the trail’s short length. Now I was kind of glad. One of the things which often gets hikers in trouble is failing to take into account the impact of elevation changes. The temperature must have dropped by 20 degrees. We would have frozen up here on the trail.
The parkway is dotted with scenic overlooks and pull-offs. It was difficult to pass any of them without stopping. Each vista was breathtaking and not-to-be-missed. It was as if the planners couldn’t help themselves and needed to provide a stop for each successive vista. We stopped at many of them.
Tunnels are also frequent along the parkway and added yet another element of excitement!
The second half of our Blue Ridge Parkway drive took us to lower elevations. The scenery was still glorious, but less terrifying. The mountains gave way to hills and finally to fields and signs of civilization. Local roads intersected the parkway and houses could be glimpsed through the trees.
Lunch was quite a visual affair. We stopped at yet another amazing pull off just below Grandfather Mountain. I made sandwiches and we sat munching away as we stared up at the impressive mountain. This was close to the end of our time on the Parkway. We exited at Blowing Rock at mile marker 291.9.
Highway 321 took us in to the town of Boone and onward through more lovely rolling hills and small towns. It was almost disorienting to be back in civilization after such an engrossing and eventful drive through breathtaking scenery. It was as if we had woken from a strange and beautiful dream.
Highway 441 was still closed due to the big storm and the late Spring snowfall. Our next stop was Asheville, NC so to get there we had to drive a bit north and cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at a lower elevation. This was probably just as well. I am not sure about pulling a trailer over the top of the mountains.
It was a lovely day for a drive and you couldn’t beat the scenery.
We were staying at the Campfire Lodgings RV Park which was just outside Weaverville and a few miles north of Asheville. The campground is situated high on a mountain with an outstanding view of the valley below. A river runs through the valley and it couldn’t be much more beautiful.
The road leading up the mountain was a bit treacherous. As with so many of our arrivals, it was perhaps more excitement than we needed. The steep incline twisted and turned and, for the millionth time, I wondered how a Class A would ever make it.
This concern was echoed as Jim worked to back in to our site. The ground across the road dropped off precipitously and it was quite a trick to jockey the trailer into the site. We got settled and enjoyed a quiet evening in camp.
The caretaker at the campground was an extremely friendly and gregarious young fellow. He was very helpful. We would see him frequently during the next two days. He was obviously a devout Christian. I say obviously because his t-shirts invariably had a religious message. His standard farewell was, “Have a Blessed Day.” It was a little awkward for two reasons. The first was that we wanted to be cordial, but we were uncomfortable responding in kind. We solved that by saying, “Thank you, and you, too.” The other reason was we had begun watching The Handmaid’s Tale and it was frighteningly reminiscent of that disturbing dystopia.
Having had such a glorious hike in Elkmont, we were anxious to get back on the trail again. If I had thought Ashville would give us easy access to the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains as well as a neat town to explore, I was a little misguided. The National Park was a distance away. Not insurmountable, but farther than we wanted to drive round trip for a hike.
After a bit of research, we decided to hike the Craven Gap Trail. It was only half an hour away and had some decent reviews. The GPS took us on a wild ride to the trail. We drove up Webb Cove Road, a twisty-turny adventure ride up the side of a mountain. I have no idea how people drive this road in the dark or inclement weather. It was a white knuckle drive for me.
Sadly, a bologna sandwich is just not that satisfying after dining on pate. The trail was fine, but it was nothing close to the glorious Cucumber Gap Trail. We hiked for a good long while through the woods. Trees obscured the views of mountains and ridges. We stopped for lunch at the turnaround point and hiked back.
We spent the balance of the afternoon at the trailer. After all of our tick adventures, I had made another vet appointment for Dakota to get a Lyme test. There was no way I was taking my beautiful puppy to the vet in his current dirty condition. Since the shower plumbing was leaking I finally decided to wash him in the shower using buckets of water. As always Dakota was patient with the strange behavior of his human. He patiently stood and waited as I hauled buckets of water to we him, soaped him all over and then hauled more water to rinse him. Once it was over, it was easy to see how happy he was to be clean and even more beautiful than before.
When we had woken that morning, we saw the site next to us was now occupied. Late the night before a somewhat dubious looking trailer and red pickup truck had arrived. I am ashamed to say we were a bit sniffy about it. We would never get to a campground late at night. We disparaged their ancient trailer and truck. We were not very nice.
Of course, we met the occupants and they were completely charming. They were two women in their late 20’s, early 30’s. They were taking a year off to travel the country. One had sold her house and together they had bought the old trailer and ripped it apart and re-built it. They gave us a tour of their 23’ trailer and the job they had done. I couldn’t have re-wired a trailer, ripped out the shower or built a platform bed. They had done a lot of work on the old pickup, too. In fact, they arrived so late because something had happened to the brake pads. I could not begin to fix brake pads. These women had moxie.
They were having a grand time and we shared our respective plans and adventures. One of them asked if I had read The Longest Road—about a man with an Airstream. I said I hadn’t and she offered to lend it to me. The book is by Philip Caputo and it turns out he lives in Norfolk right near us in CT. He decides to drive from Key West to the Arctic Circle and does so in an old vintage Airstream. I returned the book to them when we left and downloaded it to my Kindle so I could finish it. Not unlike Travels With Charley, the similarities in our experiences were striking.
Our second day in Ashville was dedicated to a walking tour of the city. Touristing with a dog means walking tours so we hit the Visitors Center first and got a map. It was a sunny day and perfect for sightseeing. We strolled around. Having been beautified, Dakota garnered much attention and pats. I was excited to visit Malaprops. It had been many years since I visited this independent. It was satisfying to poke around the bookshelves.
We stumbled upon Pete’s Pies. They touted their dog-friendly courtyard dining area and that was enough for us. It was a very delightful courtyard. I ordered a Ploughman’s Special. It was enormous. Dakota helped me with the apple slices and I had enough to take with for a lunch again the next day. Jim had a Shepherd’s Pie.
We had a vet appointment up in Weaverville at 1:30 so we hustled back to the truck. The Appalachian Animal Hospital had good ratings on-line. The building which housed the clinic looked brand new. I walked in with Dakota and was ushered to a small room. It was nice not to have to deal with other animals.
After a brief wait, a technician came in and asked why we were there. She was in her 20’s and very friendly. She had another young woman with her who was interning at the clinic. The vet came in and rather than look at Dakota on an exam table, joined him on the floor. She gave him a thorough check up. At one point Dakota was a little nippy and they got him a “party hat.” It was a very simple nylon muzzle with a velcro close. He didn’t seem to mind it at all. I love that they made it a positive experience. How could we mind a “party hat?” They drew blood for the tests which happily came back negative. Dr. Sheldon gave Dakota a clean bill of health especially for a dog his age.
It was once again a relief to know that our lifestyle of traveling and hiking, changing venue often was not having an adverse affect on Dakota’s health. In fact he had lost yet more weight and was now down to 26.5 lbs. That was just about three pounds of lost weight. I sure wish I had dropped 10% of my body weight on our trip.
We had one last night in Asheville. We enjoyed a fire in our fire ring and savored the lovely night air. The visit was too short, but we had enjoyed it.
We headed east from Rock Island to Sparta and Crossville before picking up Interstate 40. We were headed to Gatlinburg. The road was heavily trafficked and took us past Knoxville. It rained off and on, but seemed to be clearing as we got farther and farther eastward.
At Sevierville we turned on to Highway 441. Immediately the scene changed and we encountered the beginning of one of the most overbuilt, mind-blowing commercial shrines to American plastic culture either of us have ever seen. Sevierville led to Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge led to Gatlinburg.
The frenzy of crass American consumerism continued with hotels, chain restaurants, every big box retailer imaginable and an assortment of shrines to low brow culture including the FunStop Family Action Park, the Dixie Stampede Dinner Show, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.
Of course, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dolly Parton. This is the home of Dollywood. And this is all Dollywood’s spawn. Actually, I don’t mean that to sound so nasty. There is no denying that Dolly Parton is a goddess in these parts. She has brought a tremendous tourism business to this region, supplied hundreds of jobs and never forgotten her roots.
In the wake of the devastating fires which raged around Gatlinburg, the Dolly Parton Foundation gave stipends to hundreds who had lost their homes for months on end. Indeed the payments had just ended with a surprise final bonus check for each household of $5,000.
Dolly was actually in town for the Annual Dollywood Parade during our visit and everyone was abuzz with excitement. She was featured in the parade on the evening local news as reigning royalty.
The Chimney Top 2 Fire which devastated an enormous area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg began just before Thanksgiving 2016, but its roots went back 80 years to the 1930’s when fire suppression techniques were adopted across the country. Over the decades dead wood and tinder accumulated. After four months with no rain in the fall of 2016, it took only two teens and a match to destroy 17,000 acres, kill 14 people and destroy countless homes. The fire began small, but after four days, hundred mile per hour winds blew it into an unstoppable conflagration.
We were slated to stay at the Twin Creek RV Resort. I had tried to book us in to the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky National Park, but it was full. Twin Creek was highly rated and, as it turned out, much closer to Gatlinburg than Elkmont would have been.
We arrived to a darkened campground. When I entered the main office, the lights were off and only then did we find out that the power was off. A big wind event had hit the area the day before. Everyone had lost power. The national park was actually closed as was the main road, Highway 441, through the park. Winds had hit with 100 mph blasts, not unlike those which fueled the Chimney Top 2 Fire, and wreaked havoc in the park. All campers in the Elkmont Campground had been forced to leave.
Our resort hosts were harried. They had been turning refugees from Elkmont and other resorts away all day, but would honor our reservation as we had already paid. They explained that there was power in one part of the park and they planned to move us there. They were trying to get the power re-established in the other part of the park, but had no idea when it would happen. We decided to stay in our original spot. It was much prettier. We could always dry camp until the power came back on. It was a calculated gamble.
Our hosts were very nice. This has been a difficult time in the area. In the wake of the Chimney Top Fire, business had been down substantially. The fire received so much coverage that everyone assumed Gatlinburg was in ruins and stayed away. While there had been tremendous damage and Dolly Parton’s foundation had done much to help many who lost all, the town itself appeared unscathed. This accounted in part for the upset on the part of the resort hosts, they had already been hit and could ill afford more lost business.
We backed into our site and relaxed. We could last for days without power. It wasn’t two hours later that we noticed the power was back on. Our gamble had paid off. The park was pretty empty and we were happy in our camp site.
It was raining again the next day and we accepted with disappointed resignation that there would be no hiking. We headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out when the park was going to re-open and if we could use the trails the next day.
It was packed at the Visitors Center. An enormous topographical model of the park dominated the entry room to the building. It gave a great context to the enormous size and scope of the park. There was also a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the park. Some of the roads through the park were now open, but the higher elevations had been hit with snow and 441 was still closed. We watched a 20 minute movie on the ecology of the park and got some guidance from a ranger as to where we should hike.
The rangers we spoke to at the information desk looked a little overwhelmed. She said they had not been able to assess damage to the park yet. They were still working on getting the highway open. It would be months and months of work to clear the trails. She urged us to be very careful as there were bound to be trees down on the trails which could be dangerous. We felt sorry that they faced another big challenge in the aftermath of yet another devastating weather occurrence. It was absolutely pouring when we left the Visitors Center.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated in 1940. It is one of the first parks to have been purchased with federal as well as state funds. The federal government agreed to support the park if the states of North Carolina and Tennessee would each purchase part of the land. The park has two main entrances, one in Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and the other in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the largest protected area in the eastern United States and one of the most visited parks in the country.
The park is known for its tremendous diversity in terms of geography and biology. Ridges roll off into the distance in all directions. There are mountain tops and deep valleys. The area gets a lot of rainfall and is quite humid which makes for tremendous biodiversity. The park features over 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads. We had been waiting for this visit for weeks.
We drove back into Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, despite the torrential rains, the streets were packed with people. Waddling from fudge store to burger joint, they were intent on consumption. We were intent on our own kind of consumption. I had heard the Pancake Pantry had excellent corn meal pancakes. We dove in out of the rain for a lunch of pancakes and sausage.
Waddling ourselves back to the truck, we took refuge in the Airstream. We did make one quick stop on the way back. I had seen in the Gatlinburg tourist brochure a write-up of a local fiber shop. It was the Smoky Mountain Spinnery. Incredibly, this was my first and only stop at any retail establishment with fiber for this entire almost five month trip. I had been a pillar of restraint for months on end. This was a very cute shop with a great selection of wheels, roving, rug hooking materials and some yarn. I tried out a very nice Ashford portable wheel. Restraint again. However, a little roving did somehow drop into my bag. Jim and Dakota waited patiently in the truck during this fiber foray.
We were getting a little tired of all this spring rain. The forecast was perfect for the next day. Meanwhile, since we were in a fancy RV resort, we had cable and we spent the evening watching television.
It was a glorious morning the next day. Having visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we knew exactly where we wanted to hike. We drove back through the craziness of downtown Gatlinburg. Oddly, it was a lot less crazy than it had been during the driving rain. It was, however, Sunday. I guess everyone was in church.
We headed to the Elkmont Campground area to hike. Our route took us past the Elkmont Campground. It was open, but close to empty.
We parked near the trailhead and discovered an unexpected treat: the remains of a former summer vacation community. Early in the 20th Century the Little River Lumber Company began selling plots of land to Knoxville residents many of whom were executives with the railroad which hauled lumber. They established The Appalachian Club. Every summer this retreat became quite a social scene.
The Club was divided into three sections. Daisy Town, was located in close proximity to the club house and consisted of more modest cabins, some were almost shacks. There was also Society Hill which was located on the banks of the Jakes Creek and Millionaire’s Row located on the rushing Little River.
With the creation of the Great Smoky National Park, residents were given lifetime leases to their cabins. Those were turned into 20 year leases most of which were renewed until 1992. Two cabins retained their leases until 2001.
Now the cabins sit vacant. A few have been made historic buildings and will be maintained but under the terms of the National Park, the rest will be torn down and the land returned to its natural state. They were actually in the process of tearing down cabins on Society Hill as we visited.
It was here that we learned the difference between a national park and a national forest. National parks are dedicated to the preservation of the land in its natural state. Hence, the tearing down of the cabins. National forests are used for multiple purposes. They may be harvested for lumber, used for grazing and, of course, for recreation. Making the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a park rather than a forest was controversial at Elkmont and a tremendous sacrifice for those families.
The Spence Cabin and The Appalachian Club buildings are now available for day use and indeed a wedding was taking place while we were there. It was an exquisite setting for a ceremony. The Little River rushed right past the cabin. It was easy to imagine how delightful summers must have been here: the heat of the day softened by the cool of the running water and mist from the rapids. Surrounded by towering trees, the daily soundtrack was that of the river’s waters.
Our hike took us along the cabins on Society Hill and the Jakes River Trail. We then ascended the Cucumber Gap Trail. The woods were very beautiful and the weather was perfect. There was definitely damage from the storm and we threaded our way carefully around and under downed trees. The rivers were running very high and it was hard to cross without getting wet.
The Cucumber Gap Trail was one of the most magnificent we had hiked. The trees were enormous. Rivers ran along the trail. There was tremendous natural beauty and we were constantly exclaiming at new sights.
Our hike was a good long one with lots of hills and we were tired and footsore at the end. We were also really sorry that we had only that one day to explore this absolutely entrancing park. Now we understood Dolly Parton’s passionate devotion and loyalty to this land. We vowed to come back one day and spend several weeks exploring this remarkable place.
The countryside we drove through as we headed to the Rock Island State Park was gorgeously green with rolling hills, grassy pastures and deciduous forests. Once off the interstate, our trip wound through the countryside and through small towns. We passed through Lynchburg and noted the scrum around the Jack Daniels distillery. There had been signs advertising it for miles and miles, since back at the Interstate. Free tastes to drivers? Is that such a great idea?
Turning off the highway at last, a narrow road led us past the small settlement of Rock Island and on to the park. Rock Island was a sweet looking village. It had a couple of small antiques shops, a local market and two churches. One of the antiques stores also sold cord wood. We would be stopping there later.
The road was narrow and twisted constantly. It was heart-in-your-mouth exciting especially when hauling a 28 foot trailer. A river ran next to the road. This was the Caney Fork River and Gorge. We crossed a small bridge over a stream and passed an abandoned brick mill building nestled between the river’s shore and the narrow road. It felt like we cleared the corner of the building with barely an inch to spare. The river was now roiling and wild. It raged and fell cascading down the Great Falls Dam. The TVA had a power station here and it felt familiar to encounter this power force again.
We made our obligatory stop at Ranger Headquarters. The amiable woman on duty gave us an assigned site right next to the Camp Host. When I asked if there were other sites open, she agreeably took a highlighter and marked almost every other site in the park. We had our choice among many.
We chose a site at the back of the park. There was a tag on the site marker saying someone was supposed to be in that site. We were momentarily confused and I called the ranger with a miraculous bit of cell signal. She assured me the site was available. It was only afterwards we realized the tags were from the previous May. Very odd. Those tags stayed in place for a whole year and this was the week which duplicated them? Why did they stop putting out reservation tags? What did that mean for park maintenance? It remains a puzzle.
We backed the trailer onto the pad. The picnic table and grill were nestled behind the site pad and that made it feel even more private. There was a nice even gravel pad and the picnic table was on a sort of gravel platform. The fire pit was well placed and called to us.
A man came by with his truck. He dropped off some wood. He was heading home to Michigan and gifted us the logs. They were enormous chunks of wood and would make for a very big and long-lived fire. But not tonight, we were tired and ready to have dinner and turn in.
It was 4:15 a.m. and I was lying awake in bed when suddenly light suffused the Airstream bedroom. I looked out our open front bedroom window to see the back up lights to a car. It backed itself into the camp site next to ours and turned off the engine.
This was very odd and unsettling. What was this white SUV doing parking in the site next to ours in the wee hours of the night? There was no one anywhere near us and we felt suddenly alone and very vulnerable. I woke Jim and we considered what to do. We could see the driver in the reflected light as he checked his cell phone. Why was he here? Was he drunk? Did he have some nefarious intent? Had he had a fight with his wife and drove off angry? What was he doing in the middle of a campground in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?
I went to get my phone and the campground info to see if there was a number to call for security. There was no cell signal. Jim turned the outside trailer light on to signal that we were aware of the interloper. Next he hit the unlock button on the truck so it beeped and flashed light. Shortly thereafter our sometime neighbor fired his ignition and drove off. We sighed with relief and went back to bed. It was the first time we had felt the slightest concern for our safety at the hand of another after so many weeks on the road.
The next morning we were determined to get out and hike. We could not live in fear of ticks forever. There were numerous trails available in the park. First we poked around some of the park roads and visited what in warmer weather was the beach area. Then we drove out of the park past the Great Falls Dam to hike the Collins River Nature Trail.
This trail was a three-mile loop through the woods. It followed the bank of the Collins River which was just visible through the trees and then looped around back to its beginning. It felt really good to be hiking in the woods. It was hot and sunny already, but the trees kept us shaded and cool. When we got back to the truck, we stood broiling in the sun while I did a tick check. Most happily there were no ticks. Hooray for us! We had managed to enjoy a hike with no negative after effects.
After our hike, we visited the Caney Fork Gorge and the Great Falls Dam.
The mill building which had so frightened us when we were first driving in to the park turned out to have been the only mill in Franklin County. It operated for ten years before a flood wiped it out in 1902. The waters washed the giant turbine away and it was too expensive to replace it so the mill simply closed down.
Across the street there was an odd castle-like structure. This was a spring which had supplied drinking water to the mill. It was mossy and eerie and I am not at all sure I would want to drink this water.
After dinner we made a lovely fire and sat out in the cool night air, warm from the fire. I had made a pot of beans and we ate those by the fire. The stars were bright overhead and we sipped wine and enjoyed the evening until late. Thanks in part to the wood from our Michigander friend, our campfire was still burning the next morning when we got up.
We knew there would be rain on our second full day at the park. All day and that night it rained and rained. We spent the morning cleaning and doing our laundry. Later we drove into nearby Sparta to look around. With no cell or wi-fi at the campground, we sat in a bank parking lot for an hour catching up on email. Back in camp that afternoon, we took advantage of breaks in the downpour to get hitched and ready to go the next day. It was a quiet and early evening with reading and a little music.
The next morning we woke to a grey and wet world. We pulled out and headed east. We were very excited to be visiting our next stop, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.