Thursday, April 29, 2010


What a GREAT stay this has been!  A beautiful park, good weather, and not enough tourist attractions around to crowd the agenda.  Yesterday we visited the Natchez Trace National Parkway headquarters and took a hike on the Trace Scenic Trail.  Odel is playing his second round of free golf at the neighboring country club course, and I’ve been working my way through the stack of books I picked up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. 

Oxford, Mississippi, 40 miles west of here, has been on my mental list of places to visit for a couple years, for two reasons: Its reputed beauty, and its pivotal role in the civil rights movement, when courageous James Meredith integrated Ole Miss.  Our plan has included two days for visiting Oxford after we leave here, and we had set our sights on a Corps of Engineers campground north of town – the closest campground we could find to Oxford.  Last Monday, we decided to go check it out. 

After a quick stop at the convention center to pick up a map and some brochures, we headed to Oxford’s historic square.  I immediately fell in love with Oxford.  Its town square, anchored by the courthouse in the center, is lined with 100+ year old buildings housing galleries, shops and restaurants, including a highly regarded independent bookstore, Square Books.  Oxford is another of the small towns that have resisted colonization by large chain stores, and the square looked vibrant and exciting.

Ajax Diner Chicken and DumplingsOxford appears to have way more than its share of enticing restaurants, but we zeroed in on the Ajax Diner.  We arrived just before 1 pm, and the place was packed – a good sign.  Once we scored a booth, Odel ordered Chicken and Dumplings, southern style, dumplings like dough noodles instead of like steamed biscuits.  I hope they don’t mind that I took this photo off of their website, since I took NO photos all day long. 

I had a 4-choice “veggie plate” because I wanted to taste several of their “sides”: macaroni and cheese, squash casserole, cheese grits, and butter beans.  It came with a hunk of jalapeno cornbread.  We both laughed over the misnamed “veggie plate” – while it was indeed free of meat, it seemed like “starch plate” would be more descriptive.  Delicious, whatever you call it!

While there, I perused the info we’d picked up from the convention center.  One small sentence, well hidden, caught my eye: RV parking with hookups available on the Ole Miss campus.  Hmmmm… we had thoroughly scoured all the usual sources for information on camping in the area, and this was the ONLY mention we had seen of the Ole Miss campus.  We called the number listed, left voice mail, and headed out of town 10 miles north to the COE campground.

For us, it was a disappointment – heavily forested (no views), with mostly fairly short and sloped sites.  Poor Verizon reception.  The place was completely deserted except for one RV and a tent camper.  Back to Oxford we went, intent on discovering the campus RV parking.

When we hit town, I made another phone call and we got lucky.  The RV parking would be open this weekend.  During football season, the RV sites (50 amps, water, and cable TV) in this asphalt lot are leased for the season to rabid Ole Miss fans… for $1,400 per season!  For us?  $25/night, payable by check mailed to the Ole Miss Physical Plant. 

We immediately drove to the specified lot and picked out exactly where we want to park Scoopy.  From there, we can walk two of the campus walking tours detailed in the tourist brochures we picked up (one recounts the history of the riot when Meredith, protected by U.S. Federal Marshals, was finally allowed to register at Ole Miss) and can walk the mile to the square.

That’s where we’re headed tomorrow when we leave Trace State Park. The only bad news?  The weather forecast warns of the possibility of more severe weather on the way, beginning Friday night and continuing into next week (when we move 60 miles or so north to Memphis).  Shades of Huntsville!  Spring in the Mississippi River Valley – always exciting.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Our sweep of the southeastern US is about to end.  From here (Trace State Park near Tupelo, MS – click here to read our review), we have one last, exciting stop – Oxford.  Then north to Memphis (Odel’s hometown) for a ten day stay and a family visit. 

The American falls near Niagara Falls Planning our trip to the southeast was easy, even though we’d never been east of New Orleans along I-10.  Savannah and Charleston were not to be missed, of course.  Biloxi, MS, through Alabama and the Florida Panhandle almost planned itself.  Asheville, NC, was on my “must see” list, and from there it was easy to map the route to Memphis to include the Unclaimed Baggage Center and Oxford, Mississippi, another town on my radar.

This summer, we plan to be in the northeast.  We visited the Great Lakes during our first year of travels, exploring parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and making a quick run to Niagara Falls (today’s photos are from that trip in 2003), but have never been up the eastern seaboard.  We have a lot of planning to do.

We are taking two weeks, from mid-May to Memorial Day, to travel from Memphis to the DC area (another family visit), via Cincinnati (more family).  We’re undecided about what route to take.  We’ve stayed at Land Between the Lakes before, and at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington – and would be happy to return to either, but wonder what we would be missing.

The harbor at Grand Marais, MN What route would YOU take?  We don’t need suggestions for what do see or do around DC – we’ve both been there several times  – but the sightseeing and camping possibilities from Memphis to Cincinnati and on to southern Maryland is a mystery to us.

And then…!  We plan to spend June, July and August in the northeast and Great Lakes states (no leaf peeping for us, as we plan to be in California by mid-October).  We’ve never been to Philadelphia or Boston (been to NYC).  Don’t know anything about Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate NY (except the phrase “the Finger Lakes”), Pennsylvania, little bitty Rhode Island… 

So, though our most immediate focus in on our route from Memphis to Maryland, we’ve got a summer to plan.   If you’ve visited Philadelphia or Boston with your big RV, where did you stay?  If you’ve explored the far NE in a bus-sized vehicle, where would YOU return – or, what would you avoid?  As usual, we’ll sightsee using our Jeep, but need campsites large enough to accommodate a 40’ motorhome. 

Campsites, attractions, restaurants, local food specialties (a lobster roll is a given)… advice welcome!  Comments, or email (click on our profile photo near the top left of this blog for a link to our email address) – both are appreciated.  Thanks!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Yesterday afternoon, for the first time in 7 years of travel, we abandoned Scoopy and checked into a hotel to wait out the bad weather that swirled around Huntsville.

Our patio and view at Trace State Park Beginning on Friday, the National Weather Service broadcast warnings of possible severe weather over the next 36 hours.  Usually, we wait and watch, keeping track of updates through The Weather Channel, the internet, our NOAA weather radio, and local TV stations – plus an eye on the sky. 

Unfortunately, in our heavily forested hilltop site at Monte Sano State Park, we had no satellite TV (no Weather Channel), no view of the sky, and extremely tenuous internet.  We did have local TV stations, and the NOAA weather radio, which blares a siren-like alert for anything from a severe weather “watch” to a tornado warning – in our county or any of a dozen surrounding counties.   There is no sleeping through a night with the weather radio on!

The first wave of possibly severe weather was forecast to arrive on Friday night – and it did, right on schedule.  We had wind and heavy rain, and neither Odel nor I slept soundly that night.  The forecast didn’t improve on Saturday.  Feeling vulnerable, we brought in Scoopy’s slides, disconnected from the utilities, and battened down the hatches.  We packed our computers and some light overnight gear into Jules, took a last look at Scoopy, and headed to the Huntsville Public Library, where I posted yesterday’s blog.

A couple hours passed by, we went off to get some lunch… and the forecast didn’t improve.  Although I truly believed Scoopy was safe and we would be safe inside, the isolation at the campsite was unappealing.  At 3 pm, we checked into a Holiday Inn.

Leaving Monte Sano State Park this morning.

Our site at Trace State Park this afternoon.

Last morning at Monte Sano State Park Site 36, Trace State Park

For the rest of the day, we watched storms pass to the north and south, and sometimes right overhead.  Huntsville missed the brunt of the worst weather, which hit hard in Mississippi, to our west.  I’m sure we felt more secure sleeping in the hotel, but I’m not sure we slept any more soundly, between the noise of people in the hall, in the room next door, and the incredibly loud air conditioning cycling off and on all night (the window didn’t open, of course). 

We were up and dressing by 6:30 am, and home shortly thereafter.  The sky was clear and blue, but with wind still in the forecast, we took off early from our site, on the road west before 9 am.  It was smooth sailing, through rural northern Alabama, with a third of our mileage on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a lovely Scenic Byway – no commercial traffic allowed.

I love this sign – Watch Out for Tractors!

A hiking stop along the Trace Parkway

Tractor signs along the roadway Another stop on the Trace Parkway

Our travel day ended at Trace State Park (click here to read our review), a Mississippi State Park just west of Tupelo.  We have a full hookup site on a lake, with all the modern conveniences we longed for yesterday: internet, cell phones, and satellite TV.   Get this: daily free round of golf is included in the price of the campsite.  A nearby country club draws water from the lake for irrigation - in return, campers get to play golf for free!

The afternoon was all about relaxation.  I feel a good night’s sleep in my future… :)

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Unclaimed Baggage Center, Scottsboro, AL The Unclaimed Baggage Center captured my imagination from the first time I read about it, on the internet, around 1998.  I never dreamed I would one day find myself in Scottsboro, Alabama, ready to head through the front door.

We already own everything we need (more, in fact), so my interest was not in finding bargains, although I am sure there are there to be found.  Instead, I was simply curious – intensely curious.  What is this place?  How did it come into being?  How do they get hold of “unclaimed baggage”, and what do they do with it?  Why is it in northern Alabama, rather than an airline hub city?

Thanks to our reader, Dan, we had an “in”.  We arrived around 10 am and, after we wandered through the store for 20 minutes or so, stepped up to the customer service desk and asked for Brenda Cantrell, the Director of Marketing.  A phone call to the administration building, a short wait for us, and there she was, a vivacious dynamo, ready to answer every question we had plus those we hadn’t formulated yet.

Odel, Brenda, and I in front of a rug display on the wall. Brenda is a Scottsboro native who grew up with the Unclaimed Baggage Center.  Though she never intended to work there – partly because employees are not allowed to buy merchandise until it has been on the retail floor for at least 3 days, and she didn’t want to have to wait that long – she has been employed there for since she graduated from college (12 years, I think she said).  She seemed to us to be a perfect fit for the job – funny, knowledgeable and extroverted.  She regaled us with stories of Oprah’s visit to the store, and interviews with all the major news outlets and morning news shoes.  She is a natural for the job.

No, the Unclaimed Baggage Center isn’t run by the airlines.  It was started decades ago when a friend of the founders, who worked for Greyhound, asked them if they wanted to buy, sight unseen, a pickup load of unclaimed baggage that he needed to unload.  They did buy it and, upon examining their purchases, saw an opportunity.  I don’t remember all the details of “then until now” – truthfully, I was too focused on Brenda’s accent and storytelling skills to remember it all – but the “now” part is fun and impressive. 

Some of the strange and valuable items found in unclaimed baggage, from the "museum". The UBC, still family owned, is the only place in the US that buys the airline’s unclaimed baggage – which becomes “unclaimed” in one of two ways: it is lost for more than 90 days, and there is no identification inside or out that allows it to be united with its owner, or it is a carry-on left behind by its owner and not reclaimed.  The baggage is purchased sight unseen in container loads.

When new baggage arrives, it goes to the sorters.  Brenda explained it like this: a sorter sits at an organizing table and opens the bag.  Each item is removed and sorted.  Small, not valuable items – pens, pencils, pads and stationary, for instance – are bundled together in a clear container to be sold as a batch.  Books go into another pile.  Jewelry is separated out, and so are cosmetics, perfumes, toiletries.  Shoes go into the shoe pile.  Clothes are examined and sorted, with items to be donated in one pile, items to be sold in another.  (By the way, 40% of the clothing is donated to non-profits for resale.) If clothing that can be resold is stained, it is immediately spot-treated.  And the suitcase goes into another pile.

Some of the items can be priced and are ready to go onto the retail floor.  Others take a longer path.  The UBC runs the largest dry-cleaning operation in Alabama, as all clothing is cleaned or laundered before it is priced and sold.  Jewelry is examined, tested and priced.  Laptops are reformatted before they are priced and moved to the sales floor.  It all was fascinating to hear, and made our return to browsing the retail area all the more interesting.

High heeled sneakers!One rack held bridal gowns, maybe half a dozen.  Lost on the way to the wedding?  Or on the honeymoon?  Was the bride heartbroken?  Relieved?  Did the tux arrive?

And the shoes!  Presumably, they complemented an outfit packed in the bag.  What could it possibly have been??  What goes with fuchsia high-heeled sneakers?  “Put on your high-heeled sneakers, ‘cause we’re goin’ out tonight…”

The main store is 40,000 sq. feet, and the warehouse is as large.  As you would expect, there are racks and racks and racks of clothing.  A jewelry department sells the expensive jewelry and watches that were never reclaimed by their owners.  Up a flight of stairs, the electronics department: dozens upon dozens of digital cameras (a great place to buy one, judging from the prices I checked); PDA’s; MP3 players and iPods; cell phones; laptop computers; and cords galore – rechargers, power cords, all kinds of electronic tethers.

And sporting goods!  Fishing rods!  Backpacks!  Portable gyms! 

And then I got to the book department.  You can imagine how many books are left on planes.  All hardbacks are priced at $6, all quality paperbacks at $4 – and Brenda had given us a discount card, 25% off.  Whoopee!  I came away with 5 hardbacks and 4 paperbacks.  Yes, there is something for everyone… and that was before we had walked across the parking lot to the “annex”, home to the linens, kitchenware, tools, cosmetics, art supplies.

Half Slabof ribs at Mud Creek Restaurant It was a fun visit, and I am glad I’ve seen it.  My questions were answered, but my imagination was fired up.  I know for certain that I will do a better job of identifying my luggage, both inside and out, from now on (Brenda had tips on that, too).

Not far from Scottsboro, Hollywood, Alabama is home to another restaurant on the “100 Foods to Eat in Alabama” list: Mud Creek Fishing Camp Restaurant.  It’s another BBQ and catfish joint in the classic mold, and we enjoyed a big lunch before we headed back to Huntsville.

As I post this, Saturday morning at 11 am, thunderstorms are rolling over Huntsville, with a forecast for severe weather – with a chance of tornados - all day long.  We closed up Scoopy, unhooked the utilities, loaded our computers and light overnight gear into Jules, and headed down out of the forest to town.  Without reliable internet, cell phones, or the weather channel at the park – and deep in a forest of tall trees – we felt too out of touch to relax (especially with the weather radio blaring).  Now we’re sitting at a comfortable table in Huntsville’s beautiful public library, both using the library’s high speed WiFi, watching clouds tear along outside.  GIVE A CHEER FOR PUBLIC LIBRARIES!

We plan to watch the weather, using the library as our home base.  If it still looks scary by nightfall, we’ll check into a hotel, with all the conveniences of modern telecommunications and television! 

Friday, April 23, 2010


Crossing a one lane bridge on our detour. We’ve had a busy few days!  When I last wrote, we were on the road, heading to Huntsville, Alabama.  The afternoon turned into an adventure when we saw, on the two-lane, rural road we took to reach Monte Sano State Park (click here to read our review), a big, bright orange DETOUR sign.  Of course, there was no place to pull over, let alone turn around – so we followed the twists and turns of an even narrower rural road, through a tunnel of green trees, over one lane bridges with load limit signs that made our stomachs flip, with our GPS moaning at every turn.

Eventually back on track (whew), we passed Hampton Cove Golf Course , where Odel planned to play on Wednesday.  We climbed up another narrow, twisting road to the state park, on top of a high hill outside Huntsville, and found our way to a large, level campsite in a heavy forest of green.  It felt good to be parked.  The huge surprise?  No Verizon service for our phones, and an extremely tenuous, intermittent signal for the aircard… so I’ve fallen a bit behind on the blog.

Site 80, Monte Sano State ParkWe gained an hour passing from Eastern DT to Central DT, so it was early afternoon when we completed our setup.  We hopped into Jules and headed back to the Hampton Cove Golf Course, one of the 26 courses that comprise Alabama’s celebrated  Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.  Though Odel usually plays the more reasonably priced municipal golf courses, here was a chance to play a beautiful course with a famous name – and very reasonably priced compared with coastal golf resorts.  He had a day to reconcile himself to the greens fees.

After we visited the pro shop and examined the course from the clubhouse balcony, we headed back towards the parking lot, passing rows of ready-to-go golf carts and a cluster of employees.  They wondered if we had any questions, struck up a conversation… and soon we were taking off in a golf cart to explore the back nine of the course Odel intended to play

If you are not a golfer, let me tell you – this just is Not Done!  The course was virtually empty – a tournament would start in 45 minutes – so we ranged freely while Odel studied the layout.  Wow, did we have fun, speeding along the cart paths, critiquing the mansions along the boundaries, and taking note of the sand traps, water hazards, and various hidden obstacles. 

The challenger plots his strategy.Wednesday morning, we were on our way around 9:30.  I dropped Odel at the course, then headed downtown to the visitor center.  Once again, the GPS was my savior – Huntsville is a VERY confusing town for the driving visitor.  I left the visitor center loaded down with brochures and suggestions, and had no trouble filling four hours before it was time to pick Odel up at the course.  Once again, a town that deserves more time for exploration than we have to give on this trip!

When I mentioned on the blog a few weeks ago that we would have the chance to visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, on our way to Memphis, we received an email from Dan, who reads our blog in Huntsville, Alabama.  A friend of Dan’s is the CEO of the Unclaimed Baggage Center, so Dan thought he could get us a bit of VIP treatment on our visit.  Also, Dan and his wife Carolyn are planning to begin fulltiming in 2012, and hoped we could get together for dinner and a “pick your brains” session.  A flurry of emails resulted in plans to meet for dinner on Wednesday night at Greenbrier in nearby Madison.

Lots of water on the course! When we crossed the border back into northern Alabama, I dug out my all-time favorite travel brochure (picked up when we first entered southern Alabama early in March), “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die”.  Guess what?  Catfish and Hush Puppies at the Greenbrier are on the list, so our mouths were watering as we drove to Madison.

We settled into the popular restaurant with Dave, Carolyn, and their friend, Jim, and soon a basket of hot hush puppies was plunked down onto the table.  I should have taken a photo, but if I had taken the time to do so, I would have missed out.  Those puppies were gone in a hurry! 

Let me say a word about hush puppies here.  If you don’t know, hush puppies are served all over the south, and have a long history, with many stories of why they are called hush puppies.  The stories have one thing in common: these deep fried balls of corn batter were used to hush up the dogs… because the sly Yankees were approaching, or because the dogs were howling for the food the slaves were carrying from the detached kitchen to the main house… you get the picture. 

Hush Puppies-1 I’ve tasted so many heavy, greasy, hard hush puppies outside the deep south that I couldn’t understand anyone other than a hungry dog would eat them!  Frequently served as an included side, I usually took one small nibble and gave up.  I finally had my first good hush puppy at PoPo’s Restaurant in Boerne, Texas, then a few more as we got deeper into the south. 

To my taste, Alabama has the BEST hush puppies, and those at the Greenbrier must be the pinnacle (followed – at least for now - by the hush puppies we had yesterday in Hollywood, Alabama, shown here).  Straight from the fryer, hot and crisp on the outside and tender as a dumpling on the inside… that’s what I’m talking about.  It was almost embarrassing how quickly that (free) appetizer disappeared.

Our group met for dinner at 6 pm, and if we weren’t the last to leave, we were darn close.  Our conversation covered the wide range of interests of fulltimers and wannabe’s – plus the history of Huntsville, “Rocket City”.  Thanks to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (we are planning to visit today), Huntsville has the highest number of Ph.D’s per capita of any city in the U.S. – and if rocket scientist Jim is any indication, that is a good thing.  :)  We had a great time meeting these new friends.

Yesterday, we headed 40 miles back to the east, to Scottsboro and the Unclaimed Baggage Center.  That is for the next post, along with our visit to the rocket center today.  If you harbor any notion that Alabama holds few stops of interest along your route, time to think again.  :)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Flooded marble quarry at Ijams Nature CenterAfter the fun we had in downtown Knoxville, we decided to spend Sunday exploring the outskirts of town.  We took a Sunday morning drive on one of the half dozen “Dogwood Trails” – mapped drives through Knoxville neighborhoods designed to highlight the best of the neighborhood gardens, the dogwood and azalea blooms.  Maps are available from the visitor center and online, and the routes themselves are well-marked with signs and pink stripes and arrows on the pavement!  The dogwoods and azaleas cooperated fully; the blooms were spectacular. 

In the afternoon, we visited the Ijams Nature Center, hiking their trail loops for the day’s exercise.   The quarry loop was my favorite – the old marble quarry is striking, filled with green water. 

When we got home Sunday afternoon, Odel noticed a spot of fluid under Scoopy’s engine.  We set a container on top of the spot overnight, and collected a tablespoon of light yellow oil by morning.  After an internet search and a few calls, we were off to a repair facility, Covington Power Services, Allison transmission specialists. 

Boardwalk along the Tennessee River at Ijams Nature CenterThe leaking fluid turned out to be hydraulic fluid, solved by replacing a hose.  While there, we had a few adjustments made to our transmission, too.  It was one of those unusual excellent repair experiences – lots of education for us, and we were kept well informed of progress during diagnosis and repair.  We recommend Covington.

By the time the repairs were finished, it was 3:30 pm, so we headed back to Raccoon Valley RV Park (read our review here) for one more night.  We awoke to sprinkles in the morning, but kept to our schedule and hit the road.  After heavy rain for our first 80 miles, we’re on dry roads just outside of Chattanooga, heading to Huntsville, Alabama.  Unclaimed Baggage Center, here we come!

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Chalk Artist at Work Serendipity!  Heading slowly towards Memphis, we stopped for a few days in Knoxville, a place neither of us knows anything about.  Turns out, we arrived during their annual “Dogwood Arts Festival”, a 3 week long celebration of flowering dogwood and azaleas – music, art, food, and mapped routes through Knoxville neighborhoods graced with some of the prettiest of springtime’s blooms.

A special event is planned for each weekend, and we hit the “Chalk Walk”, artists creating their works on the concrete canvas of downtown’s Market Square.  With a bit of research, we discovered that Market Square is also home to Knoxville’s Saturday farmers market.  Sounded like fun to us.  We plugged the Knoxville Visitor Center into the GPS and took off. 

Market Square, before the crowds arrived. The Visitor Center is on the edge of Market Square.  We got the lowdown and a map from the center’s staff, moved our car to a free parking garage, and headed to the small farmer’s market to buy a few grocery items from the locals: organic eggs and pork cutlets, a loaf of cherry/pecan bread, a bag of collard greens, and a giant cookie for immediate gratification.  These we stashed in a cooler in the car, then took off on a walking tour of downtown.

Add Knoxville to the list of cities that deserve more exploration.  The University of Tennessee is here, within walking distance of downtown, along the Tennessee River.  The downtown area is beautifully revitalized, with a mix of interesting old buildings (again, much of the history here is pre-revolutionary war, never mind pre-Civil War), a few appealing new buildings, and a share of ugly boxes built during those years before the idea of saving the old buildings caught on.  We walked six blocks from Market Square to the Tennessee River, where paved walking paths through “greenways” along the river offered an appealing stroll. 

Old and new, side by side Waterfalls along the greenway walk.

The old and new, side by side.

Walking the path towards University of Tennessee

After exploring the riverfront greenway, we headed back to Market Square to check out the artistic action.  Much more crowded in the afternoon!  Since we were hungry, Odel picked a cafe and we settled into an outdoor table for a delicious meal, a cold draught beer for him, and my new favorite (southern) beverage: sweet tea.  (I can hear Doug and JoAnn laughing!)  We sat in our shady spot, lingering over a slow meal, enjoying the people watching.

View from under the awning at Cafe 4

Excellent people watching during lunchtime

View from lunch table Watching the people in Market Square

It was such a lovely day that we weren’t ready to head home after lunch.  We found a bench in a small park nearby, in the sunshine (yes, it was cool enough that sitting in the sun was perfect) and watched other people watch the artists and snap photos flowers and families.  Time slowed.  The afternoon stretched out.  After five minutes passed without a peep from either of us, Odel turned to me and whispered, “I could fall asleep here”.  I’d just been thinking the same thing.  Time to go!

Thursday, April 15, 2010


After three weeks of non-stop touristing, we were ready for a break, ready to kick back and slow down.  From Asheville, we drove into yet ANOTHER state (seems like we cross a state line almost every time we move!), to Warriors’ Path State Park (click here to read our campground review) near Kingsport, Tennessee.  The drive was just over 90 miles – short, but the steep grades required re-energizing those brain cells that deal with downshifting.  We haven’t had to do that for quite awhile!

Holston River from Devil’s Backbone Trail

Our Site at Warriors’ Path State Park

River View from Devil's Backbone trail Our site at Warriors' Path S.P,.

Warriors’ Path is a very large state park with amenities that make it seem more like a regional or county park: soccer fields, huge swimming pool (not yet open for the season), stables, golf course, marina, Frisbee golf, and miles of trails.  The park gets lots of use by the locals.  We felt lucky to snag one of the very few sites that could accommodate our motorhome, especially when we saw other big rigs circle the campground, then head back out, over the three days we stayed.

Daniel Boone's Cabin Here’s something I’ve learned while traveling in the east: there is a LOT of history here!  I was determined NOT to fill our three day stay with sightseeing, so I refused to research “things to do” in Kingsport.   That was fine with Odel, because once he saw the golf course, his plans fell into place.  So, after our first night’s sleep, I found myself heading out to run a few errands after dropping Odel at the golf course.

With the help of my GPS, I found my way to the main post office, which was near the historic downtown… and soon I was engrossed in some of the local history.  Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, former presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James Polk – they all passed through here.   Here’s Daniel Boone’s house (moved here from its original site in Virginia), where he and his wife Rebecca lived from 1773 to 1775.  I nosed around town, visited a small farmer’s market, stopped at the grocery store, then headed back home to do as I had intended – nothing!

We did take a hike each day, saving the Devil’s Backbone Trail, the longest here in the park, for last.  Since it’s been quite warm, we got an earlier start today, but the long steep slopes and the humidity made for some warm, sweaty hiking.   Lovely countryside, though.

Along the trail... Blooming trees

The park has slowly filled today, and I’m sure someone will be thrilled to find our site vacant for the weekend after we leave tomorrow.  We’re on our way to another Escapee park, near Knoxville, for a few days – always curious about what the Escapee parks look like.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


America's Largest House Four stories and four acres of floor space.  250 rooms.  34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.  A tiled and lighted swimming pool in the basement, along with a gymnasium, changing rooms, a two-lane bowling alley (servants provided the ball return and pin replacement), servant’s quarters and kitchens (with both an electric and manual dumbwaiter).  Twenty to thirty indoor servants.

The Biltmore home, the largest home in America, took six years to build.  George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius, the Vanderbilt who went from zero to $100 million as a transportation magnate) officially “opened” his home to family and friends on Christmas Eve in 1895.  Now it is open to us, the hoi polloi.  What fun!  (Hover your cursor on a photo for a caption; double click any photo to enlarge it.)

Our $60 tickets included entrance to the grand house, an audio tour on an MP3 player, and unlimited access to the gardens from opening until closing.  We could visit the winery, the farm, the lakes and all the trails.   Tickets include a specific time to enter the home (we scheduled our entrance at 10:30 am), and the audio tour takes about 2 hours.

Tulip time in the Walled Garden We choose Monday for our visit, assuming it would be less crowded than the weekend, and we were right.  Arriving a hour early, at 9:30, the parking lots were mostly empty and we were able to wander the garden paths almost in solitude. 

Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture who designed New York’s Central Park, designed the gardens and landscape of the estate.  (Gifford Pinchot, who went on to become the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, founded the first private forest in the U.S. on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate.)  Olmsted’s design called for “grand gardens” closest to the house, with less manicured wild land gardens beyond.

With time to spare, we walked into the “Walled Garden” and were dazzled by the tulips in bloom.  In the Conservatory beyond, tropical plants touched the ceiling, and orchids bloomed in profusion.  We wandered through the Azalea Garden (where most of the plants are a week or two from blooming) and down to the Bass Pond and Waterfall.  Words fail!

One extremely interesting detail (to me): at the entrance to each garden and the conservatory, a small, tasteful sign gave a phone number to call for an audio tour.  Call the number, press a single digit specified on the sign, and you could listen to a 3-4 minutes “guided tour” of the garden you had just entered!  Pretty cool use of technology.

Orchid in the ConservatoryTen thirty was fast approaching, so we hurried back to the house to begin our tour.  No photos are allowed in the house, which is a good thing – flashes would be flaring non-stop and the already slow-moving tourists would move even more slowly… and this blog would grow exponentially! 

The audio tour is worth whatever it cost (it was included in the price of our tickets, which we had picked up previously in the Asheville Visitor Center) – we could move at our own speed without missing the highlights.  As we stood in the Grand Dining Hall (two stories high), our audio tour described the dress code – white tuxes for the gentlemen, floor length ball gowns for the ladies – accompanied by the sounds of a champagne cork popping and the bubbly filling (imaginary, crystal) glasses.  In the kitchen, we heard sounds of cutlery and plates, and in the maids’ living room, the approach of the head housekeeper was signaled by the jingling of her many keys – all in background to the voice-over of the tour.

One of my favorite rooms was the library, with its soaring ceiling and a balcony that ran all the way around the room for access to the upper tier shelves.  A spiral staircase climbed to the balcony, which also could be accessed from the guest room hallway through a door that opened directly onto the balcony – so guest could stroll into the library to pick out a book for an afternoon read.

A vista in the Spring GardenEarlier this week I wrote about imagining the lives of the Appalachian homesteaders after visiting the farmstead at Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I could kinda’ imagine it. 

Today was a different story!  Imagine never giving a thought to doing your laundry, to planning and cooking your meals, to packing and unpacking for travels.  Lonely?  Invite friends or the interesting authors, actors, inventors or politicians of the day to come and stay in your home, so huge you fold them seamlessly into your life.  Bored?  Walk down to your bowling alley, or take a swim in your pool after changing into the swimming costume your servant left in a changing room.  It’s far, far beyond the limits of my imagination!  :)

Biltmore Estate is like an amusement park for adults.  Once we exited the house, we were a few steps from the huge old stable building, now home to a few shops and a variety of appealing cafes and restaurants.  Instead of coffee and baked goodies or pizza slices or ice cream (all upscale, of course), we sat down in the Stable Cafe for lunch.  The “Biltmore Sampler Platter for Two” ($19.95), caught our eye – “sample portions” of local southern food: pulled pork, ribs, rotisserie chicken, collards, squash casserole, cole slaw, cornbread and Biltmore-made pickles.

Sampler Platter for two??It should have been called “Biltmore Sampler Platter for Three or Maybe Four”!  It included about half a pound each of pork and ribs, and half a chicken.  We couldn’t begin to finish all the meat, though we did a great job on the sides.

Refreshed, we headed out for more exploration of the grounds and compounds in other corners of the extensive property.  Biltmore makes wine under their own Biltmore Estate label (20-30% of the grapes are grown on the estate, with most of the remainder coming from California).  The winery, tasting room and gift shop, incorporated into the new Antler Village shopping area, is another big draw. 

As with everything else on the estate, the tasting room is incredibly well organized: a host greeted us to ascertain whether we wanted to taste (or tour), then introduced us to our hostess, who escorted us to one of more than two dozen “tasting stations”.  At each station, a “pourer” handled ten tasters, pouring measured tastes from an extensive list.  No crowding, no waving your empty glass to catch the attention of the pourer.  Very efficient, gracious and relaxing.

A walk in the Spring Garden.Finished with our tastes, we headed into the wine/gift shop where the wine - plus every imaginable wine opener, glass, decanter and accessory - is available for purchase.  Spoiled by Trader Joe’s, of course we are not willing/able to pay $14 and up for a bottle – but we enjoyed the tasting.  :)

After walking close to six miles and tasting 8 wines, we were ready to call it a day.  If we lived in Asheville, I’d buy an annual pass (around $100), to enjoy the estate in all four seasons.  Due to their huge staff and excellent organization, the Biltmore estate retains an air of graciousness, rather than the feel of a “tourist trap”, in spite of all the shopping venues.  We recommend it!

Monday, April 12, 2010


Vibrant downtown Asheville, NC Though it would be very difficult for me to choose a place to settle down, Asheville, NC, makes the short list.  I never dreamed I would be saying that about a city in a southern state, but we have thoroughly enjoyed our stay here.

Ashville is larger than I expected, with a population of around 80,000.  Yesterday we drove into town to explore the historic downtown area.  We had an official walking map in hand, heavily annotated by the visitor center staffer to make sure we didn’t miss any of the highlights.  Being Sunday morning, we didn’t encounter much vehicular or pedestrian traffic, and spent a couple of hours exploring this truly wonderful city.

Asheville highlights its history through a series of 30 “markers” around town.  These markers were artworks, mostly sculptures and metal works, drawing our attention to plaques set in the sidewalk detailing the history of the site.  Numbers on our walking map corresponded with the markers, and a supplemental “Urban Trail” brochure provided more information. 

Buy Local Sign seems to work Inside the Grove building

“Buy Local” seems to work here!

Inside the renovated Grove Arcade building

We had a perfect day for the walk, sunny and mild.  We missed a few of the markers, but had a fun time following the Urban Trail, past the boarding house where Thomas Wolfe grew up, the Grove Arcade (said to be America’s first indoor shopping mall), the beautiful Art Deco city hall, through newly renovated parks, past fountains and outdoor restaurants.  It was a vibrant, lively scene, extremely enjoyable.

Street musicians Downtown buildings

Entertaining the Sunday brunch crowd.

Note the foreground streetlight

I had read a description of Asheville as “North Carolina’s Austin”, and I understand the comparison. We passed more than one group of street musicians, and art galleries, interesting shops and public artworks abound.  Tempting restaurants – Thai, Indian, seafood, vegetarian, upscale, casual, street food carts – beckoned. (We resisted – can you believe it??)   Most of the shops and restaurants appeared to be independently owned, though we did see a few chain stores – Urban Outfitters comes to mind – and the businesses seemed to be thriving.  It was a wonderful morning, spent in a memorable town.

Today we visited Asheville’s most-recommended “Must-See”, the Biltmore Estate.  We had balked at the $60/person price, but finally decided to cough it up.  WOW, was it worth it!  But now it is time for dinner, so that for tomorrow’s blog.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Looking back towards the Newfound Gap Road in the Great Smoky Mountains Did you know that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park?  I surely didn’t!  Based on photos I have seen, I’ve never felt I would go out of my way to visit that park – but now, here we are, an easy day trip away.  Yesterday we grabbed a handful of maps and the GPS and took off on a long, long drive.

The southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is open, and links to the Newfound Gap road, the only road that goes from the North Carolina side of the park to the Tennessee side.  We picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway around 30 miles from the national park.

We are two or three weeks to early for the blooming of the huge rhododendrons growing wild in these mountains, and the trees at elevations only slightly higher than Asheville are still starkly bare.  This drive would be beautiful in the full bloom of spring, and pleasurable in summer – but it would be breathtaking in fall, dressed in autumn’s spectacular colors.  This time of year must be the very least impressive time to make this drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was virtually deserted, and we saw many signs of the downed trees and rock falls that had to be removed to open the road to traffic after winter’s storms.  We pulled into a huge parking lot at a high point on the road, sharing it with no more than a dozen cars, and took a short but strenuous hike to the top of a '”knob” for a long distance view.

Our stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking down on the parkway from the Knob

Waterrock Knob, where we stopped for a hike. Looking down on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Later, we compared this to our stop at the high point of the Newfound Gap road in the national park – where we were lucky to find a parking place!  Not only is this the high point on the Gap road, it is the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee AND a spot where the famous Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Cars, busses, swarming kids, yelling parents attempting to set up family photos to memorialize their Spring Break vacation.  Whew!  We squeezed into a parking spot, took our own photos (a challenge!), turned around and headed back down the hill.

My first time on the Appalachian Trail!

Odel standing in his birth state.

LB on Appalachian Trail NC TN State Line in Great Smoky Mountains

I am grateful that we entered the park on the North Carolina side, far less developed than the Tennessee side.  Aside from the hike we took at our stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, my favorite part of the day was our visit to the “Farmstead” at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. 

Appalachian Farmstead home Similar to the Chesser Homestead we visited in the Okefenokee Swamp, this farmstead illuminates the life of a self-sufficient farm family in the Appalachians.  A small home, spring house, apple house, corn crib, hog pen, sorghum mill, stables… it is so interesting to see the importance of specific crops and animals to the life of these families.  I have a much better understanding of why pork is so prominent on menus in the south!

We learned a lot wandering through the farmstead, and I realized that much of the enjoyment of the national park would come from exploring the history and lives of the people who settled here.  Yet another place that would benefit from more time!

Friday, April 9, 2010


Along Interstate 26 heading to Asheville.

Our lunch stop at the NC Welcome Center

Trees blooming along the interstate Scoopy and dogwoods

Driving from Columbia to Asheville yesterday, the anticipated arrival of a cold front was right on target.  The rain washed the smashed bugs off the windshield and the pollen out of the air and off the vehicles (thanks to our friend Barry for this link about how bad the pollen is this year).  The temperature plummeted.  We threw an extra blanket on the bed during the night, and it was 38 degrees when we got up this morning.  The sky was blue, the sun was soon shining, and we thought we had a perfect day for driving and hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Until we stepped outside! 

All bundled up at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. We’d already forgotten what cold felt like, but the wind slapped us in the face with a reminder.  Now, we’re at around 2,000 ft. elevation, and the high point of the drive we planned to take is at 6,000+ ft. elevation.  Cold here, freezing and miserable there??  We decided to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, pick up some info, and revisit our plan.

Well… what a disappointment!  Due to huge storms here in December, long stretches of the parkway, especially heading north, are closed.  Our volunteer informant told us there are trees down the on the parkway, with no estimate of when the various sections will reopen.  :(  The better news: there is a long section of the parkway open to the south.

Since the weather hadn’t warmed appreciably, we decided it would be prudent to hike at the lower elevation.  We drove a short distance to the Folk Art Center (fabulous, fabulous, fabulous arts and crafts), where we picked up a trailhead.  We started uphill almost immediately, and soon were shedding gloves and scarves, wishing we could shed the fat reserves we’ve packed on during our culinary tour of the south.  Yes, the fried chicken has come home to roost! 

Scoopy in Site 24 at Mama Gertie's HideawayOnce we got back to the car, we headed to the Asheville Visitor Center to orient ourselves for the next few days.  A LONG chat with the knowledgeable staff helped solidify our plans: a drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway tomorrow (with hiking); a walking tour of Asheville on Sunday; and we decided to spring for tickets for the Biltmore Estate on Monday.  Why be cheapskates when we might not ever get back this way?

It was a long day, and felt good to get back to our home at Mama Gertie’s Hideaway (click here to read our review), a little gem of a campground around 8 miles east of Asheville.   Our site is high on a terrace at the very top of this hillside park, very pretty.  For entertainment, we’ve watched two BIG 5th wheels park in sites near us, and now have the Masters tournament on.  Another excellent day.  :)