When Melanie told me months ago that her dad’s family was planning a family reunion in Kentucky this fall, my initial reaction was that we wouldn’t be able to manage such a trip with all our kids. But as we talked about it, the idea became more plausible.
We left our home on Tuesday, September 11 at about 4:45am. Our first stop would be Pittsburgh, where our friends Chris and Emily Chapman had graciously offered to host us for a night, but in order to make it in time for dinner, we had to leave extra early, so it was up at 3am for me to finish the load up and then out the door in pouring rain, which followed us west in Connecticut, letting up to gray skies in New York and Pennsylvania. Once everyone was awake, we continued listening to The Hobbit on audiobook (which we would finish a few days later in Kentucky). We stopped somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania to switch driving because I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, which left Melanie in the driver’s seat going through Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, because of all the rain they’ve been getting, there were many streets flooded out and so Waze took us through the terrible rush hour traffic through the South Side, up and down the Heights, into the West End, and finally around and through to their house. (I cannot emphasize how many twists and turns.)
Finally, we were at Chris and Emily Chapman’s home, which was as beautiful as we saw in the photos and they were very welcoming. Even though they have a newborn baby, just hosted 150 people for a baptism, and Emily was going in for surgery the next day, they welcomed us in as houseguests for the night. They also ordered a ton of food to feed us dinner, which was so generous.
Return to Steubenville
The next morning, we headed off to Steubenville, which was about 45 minutes away. We started off on campus, visiting the Portiuncula first, then Christ the King chapel. In the Port, I was able to pray in thanksgiving for all the blessings I have received since that long ago day I first prayed there. We checked out the library, then Cosmas and Damian Hall, which is new since I was there, then the brand new plaza between Egan and Starvaggi. After that it was down to the J.C. Williams student center, which is massively increased in size with a beautiful addition. While waiting for coffee in the coffee bar, a young woman came up to us and asked if we were Bettinellis. She remembered us from one of my brother John’s pool parties. She said had just transferred in to the school. Small world!
It was sad to see how run down the old LaBelle neighborhood had gotten over the past couple of decades. One of the houses I lived in as a student is boarded up and many others nearby are rundown, boarded up, or completely overgrown by plants. Yet there are still pockets of nice places there and downtown and the university is really expanding outward to create new and upgraded properties.
We eventually met up with Tom and Noelle Crowe, who was hosting us for Wednesday night, the 12th. We all went to Drover’s for dinner, we got there kind of late, and the service was a bit slow, but the wings were as awesome as I remembered and so very good. I got a 4lb. bucket of atomic wings, shared some of them, left a few behind, but let’s be honest I ate most of them. I also recounted, once again, the Triple-Extra Hurt-Me Hot Wings story.
On Thursday morning, we made our goodbyes to the Crowes and headed west toward Columbus. We headed south down Route 7 along the Ohio River, marveling at the huge steel mills and coal plants and power plants along the way, not to mention the escarpments that showcase the geological strata. In Martin’s Ferry, we headed west along the major highway, I-70. Then it was a beautiful two-plus hour journey through first the hills and then the open cornfields of eastern Ohio.
What a marvelous opportunity it is to travel on a long road trip to appreciate the beauty and immensity of our country, where you can travel for miles and miles and go hours and hours between cities and see mostly empty spaces, either cultivated fields or the wilds along the highway. It’s not the last time I would have similar thoughts.
We arrived at our destination outside Columbus about mid-afternoon, a beautiful and picturesque little town that could have been the set for The Music Man, a straight-out-of-Hollywood, middle American town of front porches and neat lawns and streets lined with trees and pretty brick-fronted downtown full of shops.
Cat and Brendan Hodge opened their home to welcome us to form one gigantic herd of children who became fast friends. Isabella and Sophia connected instantly with the older Hodge girls, Lucy with the younger girl, and Benedict and Anthony enjoyed sword fights and LEGO-building with the boys. We had a great meal and then, after children were ensconced, Cat and Brendan and Melanie and I sat together talking and drinking beer (including some of Brendan’s excellent homebrew) until we had to drag ourselves off to bed.
On Friday morning, we reluctantly made our goodbyes, after joking about looking at real estate listings down the street, and embarked on another long day of driving. We drove out through Columbus then down through Cincinnati (past the stadiums where the Reds and the Bengals play) and into Kentucky (past Kansas Speedway; later in the trip we’d also drive past Bristol Speedway in Tennessee).
Lake Barkley and the Reunion
We eventually arrived at Lake Barkley State Park around 4:30pm Central Time, which our bodies thought was 5:30pm.
A couple of observations at this point: The state parks in Kentucky are much nicer than the state parks in Massachusetts; the Southern manners are so charming and disarming; and the roadside facilities for travelers, whether rest areas, truck stops, or what have you, are also far superior to what the Northeast offers. Traveling by road in this part of the country is pretty great.
Lake Barkley is a beautiful place and the state park has a resort of a lodge with rooms and cottages. Our cottage was serviceable and cozy, if not palatial or luxurious, but it didn’t need to be. There was a handy kitchen, working AC, WiFi, and enough room for us and Melanie’s parents and sister.
There first night there was a dinner at the lodge restaurant, which included a big buffet of southern food. I had green beans with bacon, fried catfish, hush puppies, hominy, mac & cheese, and seafood gumbo. We also got to meet and re-connect with lots of Melanie’s family, including her uncles David and Jim and aunt Mary, plus the many cousins, including some we know from Facebook. We were instantly part of her large, extended family.
On Saturday we got up slowly, got some breakfast and prepared to go to the reunion, which was being held at an outdoor pavilion on the grounds of the state park. It was a fun time, all of us getting to interact with all of Melanie’s siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles, but it was so hot for this northerner that eventually I went to the van to cool off in the AC.
I have to say the food that everyone brought was pretty awesome. There was BBQ pulled pork and a mac & cheese with corn and some awesome baked beans, plus all the desserts. After a bunch of family photos, we all decided to move the party to the pool at the lodge. After getting changed at the cottage, we went to the pool where I swam with the kids for a long time. After swimming, we had dinner in the lodge again, this time with Melanie’s brother Tim and his wife, Amber, and my mother-in-law, Pat. The buffet was awesome again with fried chicken and chicken and dumplings and brisket. And Anthony had the funniest moment of the meal when he kept calling the banana pudding “banana poop” complete with air quotes. He learned that from Melanie’s uncle David.
On to Nashville
On Sunday morning we got up and packed to go and were in the car pretty early. While checking out, we stopped in the gift shop at the lodge for each kid to pick out something as a souvenir, including a coonskin cap for Ben. He really wanted a coonskin cap and paid for it with his own money.
Then it was about 45 minutes to Oak Grove, Kentucky, next to Fort Campbell for Mass at St. Michael the Archangel parish. The priest who celebrated Mass was African obviously, but not Nigerian, I think, although I’m not sure where he was from. He had a good homily that not only talked about the difference between nominal, dormant, and active Catholics, but then addressed the scandal over the bishops and the pope and emphasized that our faith does not depend on any man, but on Jesus. At one point, one of the altar boys was falling asleep during the homily and his dad (I assume) got up from the back, walked all the way up front, poked his son awake, and then told him to stand next to his chair for the rest of the homily. Military discipline.
After Mass, we found a great Mexican restaurant nearby, Don Jarro, in Clarksville, Tennessee, which is right next Oak Grove (that’s right on the state line). Then we headed to Nashville, for our AirBnB, an awesome place, spacious enough for all of seven of us, plus my in-laws and Melanie’s sister. If you’re looking for a place in Nashville for a group, check this one out. (It was our first AirBnB experience and we were very happy with it. We’ll do it again. If you haven’t done it, I recommend it.)
Monday was a day to stay-in-place in Nashville. I woke with a bit of a sore throat and my stomach didn’t feel great either. But we were also due to head out and visit with the Townsend family, who we know from Facebook. We got some breakfast, said goodbye to Grandma, Granddad, and Theresa who were flying home that day and then headed out.
Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t very good. First, by the time we got going it was almost noon and we didn’t eat lunch before we left. Then I realized that the Parthenon, which was our first destination, was closed on Mondays, which Melanie evidently had known and forgot. But we went there anyway to take a quick look around and then headed out for The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation. We met the Townsends there and took a tour with them, four adults and 10 kids. It was fine at first, but the combination of heat and humidity and my under-the-weather feeling, not to mention dehydration and hunger made me pretty unresponsive and ill by the end of the day. I felt really sick.
In the meantime, though, we got a tour of the mansion and walked the grounds, which had as much about the slaves who lived there as they did the president. The kids got along great, especially the older girls. Isabella and Grace were fast friends by the end of the day.
After, we all went to Famous Dave’s BBQ where we got a lot of very good food and continued our conversation and I managed to perk up once I’d been fed and hydrated. Then it was back to the house, where I eventually fell asleep early.
Melanie and I agreed that at this point, the trip was starting to become a grind, that we were both looking forward to getting home, and that the idea of camping for the next four days was not exactly thrilling. I think it’s the nature of long trips that as you get on the back half of them, you start thinking about home.
This is the end of Part 1 of my blog post about our big road trip in September 2018. For Part 2, click here.