This is part 2 of my blog post about our big road trip in September 2018. For part 1, click here.
We headed out from the AirBnB in Nashville right on time, just a few minutes before our check-out time of 10am. It was a bit of a mad rush to pack and clean up, but we got it all done and were on the road heading east. We made good time and had good sunny weather along the way, listening to the beginning of Swallowdale. Again, the countryside we drove through was beautiful and sometimes breathtaking. I can’t how often on the whole trip one of us would just point out the window and say, “Wow, look at that.” It was helped by the fact that apart from the rain on the first day and clouds on the last day, we had amazing weather the entire trip, sunny and warm.
Holy Smokes, It’s the Great Smokies
We got to Greenbrier Campground near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, (on the edge of the Great Smoky National Park) around late afternoon, and got our site set up. We were hassled by clouds of gnats, which were quite distressing and by the time the tent was up I was dripping with sweat. It’s a very nice campground compared to what we’re used to with water on all sides as it sits on an island in a river. One end of the campground has a swimming hole which was very tempting but very, very cold as it is mountain fed. We picked Greenbrier in part because, unlike many other campgrounds, they were very accommodating to a family that has more than two kids. The tent area was not ideal as there was no shrubbery or foliage or other separation between sites and so you were very close together.
I couldn’t get a fire going so we ended up going out to dinner at a local BBQ joint, the Hungry Bear BBQ. The ribs were so delicious and so tender the meat literally was falling off the bone. We bought a whole slab and ended up getting another half slab along with the half chicken and several sides.
Sleeping in the tent was a chore as usual. I was so hot and overheated in my sleeping bag when I had thought I would be too cold because the temp outside was in the lower 60s. And then I woke up at 2:30am, then 3, then 4, then 4:30, then finally I just got up at 6 or 6:30. Due to our lack of preparation, we really didn’t have the fixings for breakfast (like butter to cook eggs or coffee for me to drink), so we headed out to The Little Pancake House of Gatlinburg down the street. (There are a lot of pancake places in Gatlinburg.) Everyone agreed the pancakes were pretty awesome, although the coffee was just mediocre. Rather than head back to our camp site, we made a snap decision to head into Gatlinburg and then Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Wow, Gatlinburg is super touristy kitschy, like Las Vegas in the mountains. It even has a Ripley’s and a Guinness Book of World Records place. It was overwhelming. And then suddenly at the end of one block the town ended and it was just trees and forest at the border of the park. The transition was very startling.
First stop was the visitor’s center where we got a road map, went to the park store, and then looked at a very fine exhibition of all the flora and fauna in the park, including nice taxidermy animals.
We drove from there up the Newfound Gap Road, which is about 7 miles, to an overlook that has amazing views on both sides of the range and sits on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and also sits on the Appalachian Trail. From there we continued on 11 more miles up to Clingman’s Dome. From the parking lot there, we stopped in the store (of course) and then walked 1/2 mile (seemed much longer) up a paved trail, which was very steep at times, requiring frequent rest stops for Melanie and me. It was wild to see us go from walking through clouds to bright sunny skies, from temps in the 70s down to the 60s (or maybe even colder), while the temp back in Gatlinburg was in the 80s. At the top is a cement tower with a winding walkway to the top that on clear days gives you a panoramic view of the park since it’s the highest point in the park. Unfortunately, this was not a clear day and while the clouds parted a couple of brief times while we were there, we didn’t get the awesome views.
We then walked back down, which was harder on the knees and calves and shins. Then it was back down the Clingman’s Dome road and the Newfound Gap road back to the camp site, where the kids went swimming in the swimming hole (but only after Lucy and Sophia both fell in the water in their clothes). Then I finally got a fire going by putting in a bunch of charcoal and lighter fluid and piling the wood on top so the kids could cook hot dogs on the flame.
To Gettysburg … Or Not
The next day was to be the longest drive of the trip. We’d originally planned to spend one night in Gatlinburg, then a night somewhere in Virginia, and then go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but I didn’t relish the thought of setting up and breaking down the tent three days in a row, plus the extra day in Tennessee let us experience the National Park. But the cost would be an early start for a long day of driving so we could arrive in Gettysburg early enough to put up the tent before dark.
But the best laid plans of mice and men… We woke up on Thursday after a rough night. Not only were there dogs barking all night to keep us awake, but Ben was up several times complaining about his ear hurting. We were still able to get on the road by 8:40am, which I was estimating would get us to Gettysburg by 5pm with a quick lunch stop.
We made good progress up through Virginia and stopped at a rest area for a 40 minute lunch. We did hit some traffic slowdowns and our arrival in Gettysburg slipped to 6pm. But soon after lunch Ben started complaining of a headache. Melanie gave him some ibuprofen and it seemed better for awhile, but a few hours later he was even worse. We realized that if we tried to comp with him in this condition, not only would he be miserable, none of us would get a good night’s sleep and we’d probably keep the campground awake.
So we switched our destination. Melanie found an inexpensive hotel in nearby Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which is 40 minutes from Gettysburg, in case we still wanted to go if Ben got better. We got to the hotel, a Clarion Inn & Suites, and got our room. I don’t know which smelled worse: the room that smelled like cat pee or the halls that smelled like a Yankee Candle store. Melanie asked to switch rooms and luckily the second room did not smell. The hotel is an interesting combination of modern upgrades with shabby details: A standup glass shower and cheap wall plaster, for instance. Odd.
In Which We Change Our Plans
We had another rough night, with Ben waking up and crying for an hour or more at 3am with a fever and earaches. Melanie and I were in one queen bed while Ben and Sophia were sharing the other one and the rest sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor, but in the middle of the night I moved Ben to the bed with Melanie because he wanted to cuddle with her and I moved over with Sophia, who flops while she sleeps and steamrollered me all night.
By the next morning, we all knew that our vacation was going to end a day early and that we wouldn’t be going to Gettysburg. It was another 9 hour driving day to get home. Another oddity: The Waze app worked well for most of the trip, but that morning wouldn’t connect to its servers to give us a route, so I switched to Apple Maps. That worked well for the most part, and I especially liked the Apple Watch interface that tapped my wrist when a change in direction was coming up. Originally, I had several routes home to choose from and so I chose the one that avoided NYC, but crossed the Hudson on the Tappan Zee bridge and went up 84 to the Massachusetts Turnpike. But when we stopped for lunch, Apple Maps changed our route radically to take us nearly up to Albany and then down the entire length of the Mass. Turnpike. I didn’t notice the change until well past the point of no return. I don’t think it lengthened the journey (and may have helped us avoid the traffic near NYC/New Haven/Hartford), but I would have preferred to have had it tell me about the change.
We listened to almost all of Swallowdale on the second half of the trip with about 30 minutes left of the audiobook, which is a bother. I want to know how it ends. They’re such good books and give me lots of ideas with which to muse importantly.
Ben seemed to do fine with Melanie giving him doses of Benadryl, Ibuprofen, and Zyrtec, plus iPad time when he wasn’t listening to the book and we finally made it home by 8pm.
So over the past 11 days, we traveled more than 2,500 miles, visiting 11 states (Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey), staying with three families, at a resort, an AirBnB, a campground, and a hotel.
Happily we did so without major injury or illness, without auto breakdown or speeding tickets, and with a minimal of things lost along the way (a penguin being shipped from Ohio and a bottle of salad dressing lost forever at Drover’s.)
Luckily, the only major disruption came at the very end of the trip and Gettysburg is the easiest of the destinations to re-schedule for the future because it is the closest.
It’s the longest road trip we’ve ever done and we saw a great big swath of the country. I’m not eager to do it again right away, but I’m also confident that we could long trips this in the future and we even look forward to it. Melanie’s already saying we should head toward Michigan and Wisconsin next time.
I will reiterate another takeaway from this trip: Our country is big and beautiful and sparsely populated, even in the northeast. It was amazing to see all those wide open spaces of hills and mountains and plains and forests. We only ever drove through a few big cities on our trip and were astonished by the vastness the corner of America we saw.