Here we go!! This is the first installment in a multi-part series dealing with our epic cross-country road trip. Although our drive actually began in Portland, Maine, and we drove hard for 12 straight hours to make it to Sharon, Pennsylvania to see family, we have only decided to post about our trans-national drift from this final staging ground just north of Pittsburgh.
While in Pennsylvania we tied up many loose ends, visited with family, ate home-cooked food and planned our route to the Mexican border at Tijuana. Our plan consists of remaining as loose as possible, for we plan on taking as many scenic routes as we can; taking that lazy route certainly makes the time/distance predictions a bit harder to forecast.
So, here follows a brief bit of prose, along with enough photos to keep you wondering…and perhaps enough to set you wandering.
Having grown up in a state bordering West Virgina, it is sad to say I never really ventured into this land. There was some compelling reason for me to head straight for this area on our way to Mexico; the motto in West Virginia is “Almost Heaven” after all.
That moto may or may not hold true, but West Virginia has a few scenic routes (Route 219, 19, 60 and 41) that are totally stunning and worth every bit of your extra time. As you twist around each bend and slink up and down each mountain side you will be blessed with views of wooded mountains, valleys and bucolic vistas.
Curiosity got the best of us and demanded we pull into the state park honoring the Civil War Battle of Droop Mountain. We learned about this little-known skirmish and even received a personal tour at the museum from the friendly park ranger, Carl.
Further down scenic US route 219 we hopped out of the van and stretched our legs in the wonderful little town of Lewisburg, filled with galleries, unique shops, and some rather interseting little restaurants for such a tiny place. Just to the west of Lewisburg along US route 61 is more scenic landscape, dotted with old colonial farmsteads still in operation. There was even a covered bridge down a little country lane. West Virgina just may be “almost heaven.”
I hate to report we only passed through the pan-handle of western Virginia in some rather dreary weather and we did not venture from the interstate highway.
After spending the night in the van in Glade Spring, we set off for Tennessee and North Carolina. On the way out of Virginia we passed a tobacco farm, which Fiona had never seen before. The leaves had been just picked and were stacked in the field. This part of Virginia looked to be just as scenic as West Virginia, and even if the weather had not been so gloomy, we sadly would have passed through as we did anyway; we would have not seen much of it at all. Maybe next time…
Tennessee, North Carolina and The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park graces the corners of northwestern North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee, and this is the most visited national park in the country…for 2 reasons.
The Natural Beauty
This truly is a stunning part of the country, and the Great Smoky Mountains, which are free of admission charge, provide layer and layer of green and blue-hued backdrop to this rugged range. We imagined how much more the the scenery would have been accentuated by more agreeable weather, for our visit was dominated by cold wind, clouds and thick fog atop Clingman’s Dome, the parks highest peak. Views from other promontories were to be had though, and we did gaze out over seemingly endless mountains and valleys, and we left the park not feeling at all cheated by the atmospheric conditions.
The Other Reason for Their Popularity
Sadly enough, tumbling creeks and waterfalls, commanding vistas, inspiring landscapes, and even FREE ADMISSION are not enough to keep the crowds coming. The other reason this park grabs the attention of so many has to do with the fact each-and-every whim is provided for just outside of the park. This provision goes beyond traveler services in a major way, offering a bit more than a bed and a square meal.
All that natural beauty is literally book-ended by 2 towns that border the park, each one standing as a warning to future generations of what happens when you mix Coney Island with large doses of Disneyland, along with just enough of a Las Vegas attitude thrown in for good measure. As soon as you exit the northern end of the park, the neon starts quite suddenly. Each of these places are fine and dandy when sought out for their own wacky-ness and the heady celebration of our never-ending consumerism, but neither of these places evoke the splendor and majesty of nature and the primal, archaic draw we maintain as human animals to places such as The Great Smoky Mountains.
Sadly, it is as if people have come to see natural oddities at the “Ripleys Believe It or Not” in places like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, rather than the natural wonders waiting in the park that drew visitors in the first place. Gatlinburg manages it’s tacky take on the great outdoors and shopping in a rather compact little town, albeit one jammed (even in the off-season) with people who seem rather happy to see civilization after being surrounded by all that nature.
Pigeon Forge, just to the north, is an appalling strip of schlocky gift shops and neon-soaked fun houses that extends unmercifully for about 5 miles. Do as nearly everyone does and rent a customized golf cart to whiz you past one diversion and on to the next. My favorite was “The Hatfield and McCoy Fussin’ and Feudin’ Dinner Theater.” I am told it fills up quickly, so try to reserve in advance.
You will somehow find an even more faded version of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at the southern end of the park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Come here to gamble and to imagine what a place like Gatlinburg would be like had the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. decided not to come to town and inspire thousands.
We strongly recommend the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, though.
Nashville, as a tourist, is just what you should pleasantly expect after just being duped by the cheap draw of a “destination” called Pigeon Forge. In Nashville we fell in love with a city that provides a wonderful reason to stop and listen to life through music. Broadway Street downtown and the streets just around it are filled with history from multiple southern music genres, and plenty of museums celebrating the musicians who made those sounds famous.
What really won us over were the dozens and dozens of little music clubs offering FREE live music all day, every day. As you pass by each club, simply listen to a band or performer from the sidewalk and pop-in to whatever club happens to be playing your tune. Do as everyone does and help fill the tip bucket that comes around for the musicians.
We heard a real twangy group featuring that slide guitar sound we both love coming from “Layla’s Nashville Hillbilly Music,” located at the top of Broadway near the famous Ryman Auditorium. Once inside we stayed for hours listening to “The Erin Holiman Band” as well as “The Rische Sisters,” and the sound was pure.
We even met Layla herself, who was filling in on drums for the latter band; she personally approved us hanging a bumper sticker behind the bar. That prompted the attention of Bill and Ellen, the wonderful couple sitting next to us. We chatted for 2 hours to them about everything and they were quite interested in our past and future travels. They even bought us a beer as we chatted. Thanks Bill and Ellen!
The scene in Nashville must get amped-up even more on Sunday when the Tennessee Titans football team plays, for there is an amazing pedestrian bridge (formerly the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, now known as the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge) that spans the Tennessee river and links the stadium to the heart of downtown, where the smell of bar-b-q constantly hangs in the air along with all that world-famous music.
Not to be outdone with famous contributions to music is Memphis, which hangs onto the banks of the Mississippi River. The music genre born here is more blues and soul rather than country or bluegrass, but the true draw in these parts goes to Graceland and everything/anything related to Elvis Presley.
Our tour of Graceland was absolutely amazing! We must admit we are not huge fans of his music, but there is a un-deniable draw to the man and the reach of his total power and influence to this day. I once read a book about 20 years ago written by 2 of his entourage (The Memphis Mafia) and I must say it was a fascinating story. The whole experience that awaits thousands of visitors per day was done very well, and we spent about 5 hours on our self-guided tour. This is a tribute fit for a (ahem) king.
The Graceland mansion is quite austere from the outside considering the fame, fortune and god-like status of the former owner. Elvis and his personality certainly came to life inside the mansion, where a few rooms seem to ooze his style. The grounds outside are sprawling, and the whole property is presented rather well.
Across the road from Graceland is a rather new complex that is part of the “Graceland Experience” offering several museums detailing the life of Elvis, including his service in the army, as well as a wing dedicated to his cars, jumpsuits, shoes, movie career and even his Gibson guitar from 1956. Rounding this all out is a collection of everyday items from the Presley estate, including a television the King once shot out. You can also step aboard his 2 private aircraft.
River-Rambling in Memphis
All this time spent driving left us aching for a walk, and Memphis was the place to get moving. Mud Island is a destination offering a few things to keep you occupied, including a monorail ride to get you there. We saved our money and decided to walk across the span, and once on Mud Island we tried to figure out the scale model of the Mississippi River that has been built, complete with running water.
I did read a bit about the river that confirmed something I learned as a youngster; you can simply step across the Mississippi at it’s source in the state of Minnesota. Of course, you can step across the river at any point as you contemplate this interesting model of the famous waterway as it cuts through the park on Mud Island.
We wanted to keep walking, so we continued along the Memphis Riverwalk and found our way to the Big River Crossing, which is a pedestrian-only bridge across the river into Arkansas from Memphis. An old railway bridge has been turned into a walkway full of ambling families, joggers, and happy dogs eagerly getting a bit of exercise. Heading back into Memphis along the banks of the Mississippi River, we met an angler who seemed quite proud of the 2 catfish he snagged from the muddy water. Suddenly it was time to sit with a cold beverage…
This is what you do on Beale Street: you drink a big ass beer. Literally. For 5 bucks you can score a 32 ounce beer and walk down the street, which has been thoughtfully closed off to traffic. There are plenty of neon-signs touting blues music and you could even be forgiven for thinking you are back in Nashville. Sadly, the similarities end there, for there did not seem to be the same atmosphere of live music drawing you in to each club. We enjoyed our big ass beers and blissed out on a fine opportunity to people-watch as we soaked up the convivial vibe of a great city.
So there you have it so far… not bad for a trip that grew from the ground up as we pulled out of my old home in Pennsylvania, huh? Please keep checking back on our blog as we continue to keep this cross-country drift going. We hope to keep you entertained and informed as we pursue our dream of travel and going wherever the wind may take us!