Sunday September 16: Lake Barkley to Nashville
On Sunday morning we packed up the van (and were glad to put some of our overflow into my parents’ rental car) and headed south towards Nashville, caravanning with my sister and parents. As we were checking out the kids hit the lodge gift shop. Ben bought himself a coonskin cap at and the other kids found their own trinkets.
We stopped for Mass at St Michael in Oak Grove, right near Fort Campbell army base. There were lovely stained glass windows with various soldier saints— Michael, Martin, George— and other favorites like Rose of Lima, Kateri, Therese, Albert the Great, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and more.
After Mass we went out for lunch, we found very good Mexican food at Don Jarro and then headed south. It was only about an hour into Nashville, though we hit some traffic and had to make an emergency stop because one of the kids had an upset tummy. We found the airbnb, settled in, Mom an I went out to get some groceries and medicines and laundry detergent so I could wash all our clothes. It was a beautiful three bedroom house with a huge yard and a covered patio. After days on the road it was nice to have so much room to spread out in.
We found a Colombian restaurant where Mom picked up food for us: emapanadas and rice and meats, we just ordered a bunch of stuff and then shared it around. My brothers, came over too from their airbnb — and my sister in law Amber and my brother Stephen’s girlfriend, Michaela— and we had a nice family party until it was time to tuck the kids into bed. I wish we could have stayed there for a week just hanging out.
Monday September 17: Nashville
On Monday we had a slow start to the morning, which I think we needed. Finally we got out the door, my parents and sister having decided to skip the outing since they were flying home in the afternoon. We stopped by the Parthenon first, which was a big hit, especially with Anthony, who having read about the Parthenon in his history book was eager to see what it looked like with his own eyes. It’s full scale reproduction of the original, made for the 1897 Centennial Exposition. The building is closed on Mondays, but we were at least able to wander about outside and get a sense of the place. I especially love the reproductions of the bas relief frieze and pediment sculptures. I’ve been to the original Parthenon in Athens and of course there’s no matching the real thing. Still, you can’t walk around among the columns of the original and the marbles are of course in the British Museum (I’ve been there, too.) and seeing them all put together in one place really is a treat.
From there we made our way to the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, where we met my dear friend Jenny and her family. While we toured the house and grounds Bella and Sophie made friends with Grace and Olivia. We learned some history and some botany and the girls collected feathers. After our long hot walk we adjourned to Famous Dave’s BBQ for an early dinner where the girls continued to bond. After dinner we bade farewell to the Townsends and headed back to our airbnb which we had to ourselves for the night as my family had departed for Texas while we were adventuring.
Tuesday September 18: Nashville to Gatlinburg
On Tuesday we got up, ate, and then packed up and just made it out of the house by our check out time of 10 am. Though we had a late-ish start, we got to our Gatlinburg campground early enough to set up camp and explore the river before dinner time. The midges and flies were terrible as we set up the camp, but fortunately that was the worst of them, after diner they’d mostly dissipated. Still we decided not to cook dinner as planned but instead went out to eat.
But before we went out for dinner we explored a bit. The campground was on an island in the river and there was a swimming hold down at the end where the divided streams converged. There tubers climbed out of the water and there we met an old man fishing on the bank who talked to us about homeschooling. He was one of the homeschooling pioneers from the 70s (and evidently they were homebirthers as well; he said he’d caught all four of his kids). He’d lived some time in the Boston area and so we had a few things to chat about. Bella thought she spotted a kingfisher down by the water and was very excited.
We had really good BBQ at the Hungry Bear, fall-off-the-bones ribs and chicken with beans and mac and cheese and applesauce cups for the kids. The kids were all very impressed with the meat and declared the restaurant a favorite. I was surprised especially at how much Ben raved.
The campground was lovely once I got over the lack of privacy in the campsite itself where there were no trees or bushes separating us from our neighbors. The clean showers and nice laundry facilities were a bonus and the river was really quite nice, singing all night long and making the campground feel almost homey. We slept as well as can be expected, no major incidents.
Wednesday September 19: Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains
I guess we were pretty tired because we didn’t get up super early. When we did rise we decided to go out for breakfast since we’d not bought anything to cook and we wanted to get on with the day. After a pancake breakfast in Gatlinburg, we went to the Smoky Mountain National Park.
We stopped at the visitor center where it took some of us a while to get into the building. Bella and Sophie were charmed by black swallowtail butterflies flapping in the dewy grass. and Bella ended up picking one up and carrying it for a while, then handed it to me and I handed it to Sophie.
There was a lovely natural history museum with a very nice collection of stuffed animals and model plants and bunches of gorgeous nature drawings. I asked the ranger about the drawings and she showed me a copy of the out of print book by the naturalist who made them. I have a new ambition to find a copy for myself.
After the visitor’s center, we drove up Newfound Gap and walked a tiny bit of the Appalachian Trail and then drove to Clingman’s Dome, where we took the half mile hike to the lookout tower on the summit, the highest point in the park. It was a very challenging hike— Dom and I had to sit down every few minutes to catch our breath— and there was hardly any view at the top, just a swirl of clouds. But we’d expected that and it was still beautiful. And there was the thrill of visiting a place we’d read about in North with the Spring. And of achieving our goal.
Poor Ben’s ears didn’t take kindly to the changes in elevation and started hurting him on the way down. After a stop at the grocery store we had a picnic dinner of hotdogs roasted on the campfire. Ben woke up crying in the night with an ear ache. And that was only the beginning of a very bad night’s sleep.
Thursday September 20: Gatlinburg to . . . Gettysburg?
We got up early after a very stressful night in which our sleep was disturbed by two dogs who spend most of the night barking back and forth across the campground. How very rude and inconsiderate those owners were. I was reminded of Billy Collins’ poem about the barking dog, Another Reason Why I Do Not Keep a Gun in My House. It was not a promising start.
We got up early and broke down camp and were packed up and ready to go by 8:30. We ate a quick breakfast of yogurt and bread with Nutella.
We had a long drive to Gettysburg, racing the sun to try to set up camp by sunset. North through Tennessee and then Virginia, cutting across the western ends of West Virginia and Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Lots of construction, too many truck stops….
As the day progressed Ben’s head hurt worse and worse and by dinnertime camping was not looking like a great idea. We ditched Gettysburg and found a room for the night in Chambersville instead. I dosed Ben with pain killers and anithistamines and we had a very mediocre dinner at Ruby Tuesday.
Friday September 21: Chambersville to home
In the middle of the night Ben woke with a fever and we had him switch places with Dom so I could cuddle him. He repaid me by sticking his knee in my back. He felt a bit better by morning, but we thought it best to just head home and so decided to save Gettysburg for another day. It had always been a rather ambitious plan.
This time I remembered that an ipad is a very useful tool for mollifying sick children and deployed one to good purpose. It helped tremendously as did the thrills of the Swallowdale audiobook.
We crossed from Pennsylvania and into New Jersey. Then up through New York, through the Catskills and across the Hudson to pick up the Mass Pike into the Berkshires. It was a beautiful drive and the book ate up the miles. Then across Western Massachusetts, the rolling hills under lowering skies that looked like they wanted to rain on us. We crossed under an overpass that carried the Appalachian Trail over the highway and marveled at how far we’d come and how long it would have taken us to hike the same distance.
We made a stop for dinner at one last rest area, pizza and McDonald’s for the last time. And finally home sweet home by bedtime.
We didn’t quite finish Swallowdale, we have one more chapter to go, about half an hour. The kids have been delighted to share another favorite book with Daddy. I was glad to miss the heavy traffic in NY and CT and to see the prettier western part of our state. A fine day, overall, and it it quite, quite good to be home at last.
* * *
Growing up in Texas we basically took two kinds of road trips when I was a young child: we drove to Illinois to visit my Grandmother Scott, and we drove to Arizona to visit my Grandmother Carter. And I think we did each of those only once or twice. Then when I was 12 my dad began to take us kids on yearly camping trips “to see mountains”. The first one was to Colorado. My mom stayed home so it was just Dad and us four kids. I was navigator and sandwich maker and diaper changer— my youngest brother was just two and still in diapers. I found us a small campground called The Crags where there weren’t many sites and those quite scattered. There was a stream at the back of the site and woods and mountains. It was perfect. My brother Stephen fell into the water, we explored the mountains, we loved it.
Every year after that we headed north. First to Colorado where we discovered Pike’s Peak and the Great Sand Dunes and oh lovely mountains. Then after a few years of that we grew more ambitious. We went to Wyoming and Montana: the Grand Tetons! Glacier National Park! We even dipped into Canada and the Waterton Park just across the border. We went back to Montana a few times and Mom even came with us once or twice.
When I was in high school we took our most ambitious trip: from Texas we drove west through New Mexico and Arizona. We went through Utah and Nevada and across Death Valley to California. We camped near Arches we camped in Yosemite National Park. We drove up the coast to San Francisco and then further north. We saw redwoods and giant sequoias. We visited Crater Lake. We went through Oregon and the Washington. We visited Mount Rainier and the rain forest in Olympic National Park where I saw banana slugs. We went to Seattle and to Canada and Victoria Island. Then across Washington State, across Idaho where I loved Coeur d’Alene, across Montana and to South Dakota where we saw the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Nebraska and Kansas and Oklahoma and then back to Texas again. I think it took more than three weeks. And after that I’d been to almost every state west of the Mississippi: only North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa are not on my list.
Until I flew to Boston for grad school the eastern half of the map was terra incognita to me. Gradually I filled in New England: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island. My sister and I drove from Texas to Massachusetts, going across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, visiting Washington DC, Maryland, crossing Delaware, a corner of Pennsylvania, New Jersy and New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. I went back to New York and New Jersey with friends. I flew to Florida. I drove back to Washington DC.
But there were huge swathes of the eastern landscape that I didn’t know. This trip filled in much more of the map.
Now I think two more road trips would do it: drive down the coast to Florida. I’d see the Carolinas then. And then west and somehow hit Indiana and Iowa and Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Dakotas. And maybe someday I’ll even make it to Alaska and Hawaii….