We weren’t going to do it. We had a big year last year, were away for roughly six months total, and figured we had a lot to accomplish at home. But then the Great Deep Freeze happened over the holidays and that was that. Let’s go find someplace warm.
We targeted January 29 – 30 for our departure, but Mother Nature struck again. Looking at the developing weather patterns, it became clear that if we didn’t get out by the 28th we weren’t going to get out until spring. So we had a mad panic of packing and organizing, hit the road early in the morning on the 28th, and enjoyed a warm, damp, trouble-free ride out of New England, across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, then down I-81 along the Blue Ridge Mountains, just ahead of a dandy winter storm.
Our first destination was the Great Smoky Mountains in Eastern Tennessee. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains National Park are excellent fun and we always enjoy our little Campground, Riveredge, right on the Little Pigeon River at the base of the Parkway.
For those who have never been to Pigeon Forge, it can be a jaw-dropping experience. The first time we went there we were expecting a small Tennessee town at the base of a National Park, which to us meant a certain amount of civilization associated with the natural beauty of the nearby mountain wilderness.
How wrong we were. Pigeon Forge, it seems, is a whole-hearted rejection of all things remote, rugged and natural, driven by the desperation of parents with kids starved by their woodland adventures in the National Park for modern conveniences and crazy diversions. There were buildings built to resemble mansions tipped upside down. A full-sized Titanic plowed into a fake iceberg along the side of an eight-lane traffic nightmare. King Kong swinging from a skyscraper. And that was just the start. Dollyville, of course. And endless blocks of mini-golf, amusement rides, shopping strip malls, every chain food restaurant imagineable, and 6000-room resorts all built to look like log cabins. Oh my.
Our little campground was an oasis in the midst of all this, and thanks to the time of year, we were one of just three campers there overnight. It was very pleasant and the pups enjoyed sniffing about among the empty campsites.
One of our objectives each visit to the area is to join the Thursday Lunch Barhounds at Calhouns on the River in Knoxville.
On our first trip through Tennessee we ended up there by accident, looking for some good BBQ, and stumbled on this very friendly bunch of natives and their trusty bartender Jennifer. Unfortunately the weather derailed our schedule this year so we showed up on a Tuesday, but we were not to be disappointed. Mike was there waiting for us even on the wrong day! New friend Jim and pals joined the crowd (by next year Bruce will have mastered the cork finger puzzle), and bartender Derek, who was in for the flu-struck Jennifer, took excellent care of us all. We had such fun we’re going to try to do it again on the way home.
The rest of our visit included poking around Gatlinburg, a small mountain town at the entrance to the Smoky Mountains National Park which probably started out as the last town park visitors stocked up in before hiking up into the wilderness, but is now a crazy destination of its own, a cross between alpine village, Pigeon Forge, Vegas and Tennessee Moonshine. Almost as head-turning as Pigeon Forge. We like walking the streets and have found a few decent restaurants among the chain-restaurants and ubiquitous pancake houses. I guess if you visit the mountains in Tennessee, you have to eat stacks of pancakes every day, all three meals. Who knew?
Normally we like to end our visit by driving straight across the Smoky Mountains via Newfound Gap Road. Sometimes during the winter the road is closed due to snow and ice, and alas, so it was this year. We decided to go west-around the mountains via the Foothills Parkway road, which was actually quite lovely and I don’t think we saw more than three other vehicles the entire time. It was a delightful ride.
Next stop: Florida.