Eastern Tennessee

It was only fitting that on our journey through the land of orange dirt, we should stop at an old copper mine.  The mine has long since closed, but I had heard that this mine, in Ducktown, Tennessee, had one of the largest open copper craters in the area and I wanted to take a look.  Although we arrived after the small museum had closed, we had a nice chat with the woman who ran it.  She told us that on an ordinary day she’d stay open late for us, but she had to get home to see her daughter.  No matter, we were able to see the crater and be on our way.

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After a day and a half of exploring Chattanooga, we headed up to our highlight of Eastern Tennessee, the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton.  I’m a sucker for living history museums, and this was one of the best I’ve ever seen.  The curation was as interesting as the contents themselves.  It was pretty clear that this was not the work of a museum committee made up of historians who are at arm’s length from the history they are describing.  Instead, it was a more personal look at a community’s attempt to save, define, and communicate a sense of itself.  We were able to spend several hours there (it helped that there was a lot of outdoor space for Van to run around), but I could have easily spent a full day or so if I wasn’t tethered to a small child.

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We finished our stay in Eastern Tennessee with a couple of nights in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.  We technically camped in Virginia, but all three states meet right there, so we considered it more of an extension or our time in Tennessee.  We did some great hiking, but by far the coolest thing for me was walking along the Wilderness Road Trail.  This is the trail that Daniel Boone blazed in 1775, following the footsteps of many Indians and bison before him.  The Wilderness Road was recently restored to its original appearance as it crosses the Gap.  I spent all of our short time on the trail envisioning the many, many people who had crossed this Gap with all of their belongings, heading west not knowing exactly what to expect.  Certainly one could draw some loose parallels to our trip, but those folks had guts well beyond anything that travelers with motorized transportation, a cell phone, and ready access to clean drinking water and food sources could understand.

Alan’s favorite thing in the park was standing in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee at the same time.  I admit that it was cool, and made even cooler by the fact that this point is on a mountain, which is conveniently named Tri-State Peak.  We would have liked to have done even more hiking, but Van was having a particularly tough day (meaning lots of tantrums, crying, and not listening) and the hikes we were most interested in were rather long with a screamy two year old in tow.  Regardless, we were able to see a lot and get a few miles of hiking in before we headed north into Kentucky.

Van and Buddy the Bison, a gift from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenni for his travels to our National Parks

Van and Buddy the Bison, a gift from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenni for his travels to our National Parks

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The Wilderness Trail

The Wilderness Trail

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Memphis Highlights and Travel Updates

We took a break from dealing with our van headache to check out Memphis today.  It was great to get out in the sunshine and give our legs a stretch after being cooped up in a motel for the past day and a half.  We began our day with a trip downtown to see the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  It was more emotional than I was expecting given that the motel looks just the same as it did when he was killed.  The images of that balcony from that fateful day have been burned into most of our memories, so it was surreal to find it looking just the same.  We were looking forward to seeing the civil rights museum that is associated with the Lorraine Motel, but it is currently under renovation, so we made do with a moving visit to this historic but upsetting location.

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We wandered around downtown, checking out Beale Street, The Peabody Hotel and its fountain-dwelling ducks, and several other areas that looked interesting.  Van had a ball waving to every trolley driver that drove by.  I’m pretty sure every single trolley driver waved back – and so did many of the passengers.  Aside from the fact that Memphis will always be the place our van died, this is a mighty cool city.  Definitely a great place to be stuck for a couple extra days.

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We followed up our walk around town with some amazing barbecue.  The sauce was good but the pork was phenomenal and not much more costly (if any) than a value meal at the nearest food factory.   The banana pudding (of which I’m now a huge fan) wasn’t quite as delish as what we ate in Nashville, but it was a great dessert for only $2.50.  If you find yourself in Memphis (and hopefully it’s under different circumstances than ours), you should definitely mosey on over to Cozy Corner.

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Across the street we saw this – definitely a sign…

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Our evening ended in the lobby of our motel with beers and snacky-type dinner food.  The place we’re staying provides breakfast and snack/dinner food with three alcoholic beverages per adult per evening.  You can bet we’ve been getting our fill.  Van makes friends for us quickly down there, so we’ve been able to meet lots of other folks traveling through Memphis.  Tonight we had a long conversation with Grandpa Harrison, a retired dairy farmer from the panhandle of Oklahoma.  We met a few other folks from Oklahoma, all of whom were on their way back from a rainy, cold vacation in Myrtle Beach.  If these folks are a good representation of the residents of Oklahoma, it should be a very friendly state to visit.  I’m just hoping we get there at some point this year.

And that brings me to what you’ve probably all been waiting for, news on our travels.  We were able to get a much better assessment on the van today, enough to tell us that it is not a quick or inexpensive fix.  While we continue to sort things out, we’re going to rent a van to drive us and our things (that van sure could fit a lot of our belongings) to Arkansas for six nights and then drive straight from northwest Arkansas up to Denver in one long day.  We’ll finish sorting things out once we get there and reassess how we’re going to continue traveling at that point.  We will continue traveling – it’s just a matter of how we’re going to do it and what we need to do before we can get back on the road.  Regardless, we’ll have lots of visiting to do in Colorado with family and friends and we’ll take some trips here and there to places we’ve been wanting to check out as we firm up our plans.  While the situation is not ideal (let’s be real – it sucks), I am so glad that the van died when we were crawling out of a parking lot instead of hurtling down the interstate.  And even more important, no one was hurt.  Perhaps the van died to protect us from something even more catastrophic.  We’re learning a lot of important lessons, something we’ll likely write about once we’ve had a little time to reflect.  In the mean time, thanks so much for all of your supportive messages and words over the past couple of days.  It’s meant more to us than you will ever know.

Waylaid in Memphis

For those of you (mainly parents) who have been following our travels in real time, you know that we’re a bit further along than the blog implies.  I’ve been writing and posting a couple weeks behind – writing in batches and setting them to post every couple of days.  I will get back to the regularly scheduled programming and let you know about our last two weeks in Kentucky and Tennessee, but first I wanted to give you dispatch from the future (or rather, now).

We are, very unfortunately, waylaid in Memphis.  It’s not the city that’s the problem – I’m sure I’ll like it very much once I explore it.  The problem is that on our way into town yesterday our van broke down.  We were very lucky that it broke down in a parking lot as opposed to the side of a busy road, but a broken van is a broken van.  After waiting several hours to have it towed to the local VW dealership and finding a cab to take us to one of the only local rental car companies open on a Sunday (and getting there with less than five minutes to spare), we procured a rental car and a hotel room for a few nights.  The diagnosis of our car came in this morning – we need a new engine.  We’re not sure that’s entirely true, but it’s also likely not all that far off.  Given the cost of a new engine, it is very unlikely that this is something we will be pursuing.

We’ve spent the afternoon assessing our options – in terms of the van, our travels, and the costs involved – and have decided to get a second opinion from someone who has more knowledge of Eurovans.  Alan called around and talked to a guy who seems to have a bit more knowledge than the dealership, so our lovely van will be getting a second tow tomorrow.

We’ll keep you posted on what transpires and what we wind up deciding.  In the mean time, we have our eyes on the horizon and are hoping to still make it to Mountain Home, Arkansas by Thursday to meet my parents who will be spending the next week with us exploring northwest Arkansas.  It’s unlikely we’ll be meeting them in our van, but who knows, stranger things have happened.  And if we have to say our goodbyes to the van, we’ll just have to figure out a new way to travel.  We do still have a second car that is being temporarily stored in Alan’s parents’ garage in Colorado, so we may be downsizing to a smaller (but much nicer) traveling vehicle.  Not sure how we’ll make it work, but we’ll find a way.

Lessons Learned

One month in, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned on the road during thus far.  Here are a few of my recent thoughts.

  1. Living on the road gets easier.  There is a big difference between going on a several day or a week-long camping trip and living on the road.  I’m not sure I completely appreciated the difference until we began this journey.  Minor inconveniences that during a week vacation would be easy to brush aside become much more bothersome when you realize that you are going to have to adapt to this inconvenience for the foreseeable future.  The flip side is that once you’re on the road for a while, you begin to adapt and adjust to your new normal pretty quickly (similar to the principle of hedonic adaptation).  Each day it gets a little easier and any fears I have related to this journey lessen.
  2. Fewer things = Less stress.  When you’re living with so few items and in such a small space, there are fewer extraneous things to deal with, clean, put away, maintain, etc.  This also means that there are fewer issues that can crop up.  Of course when issues do crop up, there are often fewer ways to resolve them.  Even with this constraint and with the constraints of not having a permanent home or any sort of regular indoor location in which to relax, unwind, or even bathe, I’m finding that I can pinpoint, understand, and address problems easier and more quickly than when I lived with a house full of items.
  3. Traveling with a two-year old means you don’t get to see everything you want.  Two year olds nap, they get cranky on long tours, they’re not interested in all of the same things as you and will certainly let you know it, they need more sleep, and they like to eat – often.  Our pre-kid traveling itinerary contained many more things in a day than we’re able to do or see with Van.  That being said, although we don’t get to see everything we want, what we do get to see we see through the eyes of a child.  And, we get to see those things with the most important little guy in our world.  That makes all the missed visits worth it.  This leads me to…
  4. Naps trump everything.  What, Van fell asleep in his car seat just minutes before we got to our destination?  Oh well, it looks like we’ll be missing that last tour of the day.  Enough said.
  5. It’s remarkably easy to get mail on the road.  We had heard of general delivery, but never actually used it.  Once we know that we’ll be in a certain area for a few days, I can call the local post office to confirm that they’ll receive general delivery.  One post office in each town will receive and hold mail addressed to you as long as it is sent to the post office via general delivery.  Then, once it has arrived, you go to the post office, show identification, and pick up your mail.  Simple as that!  By my second visit to the Dillard, Georgia post office, they knew my name as I stepped through the door and even gave me my mail after the post office had closed because they didn’t want to make me make another trip down the mountain.  What service!
  6. Any ill feelings I may have ever harbored toward McDonalds have all but disappeared.  Although we haven’t actually eaten anything at a McDonalds on this trip, we’ve made plenty of stops to their parking lot.  Because we’re using an inexpensive cell phone plan, we’ve turned off the data.  In order to check email or, more importantly while traveling, the weather without being charged an arm and a leg, we need to find a free wi-fi spot.  Starbucks and McDonalds provide free wi-fi, but there are many more of the latter than the former, especially where we’ve been traveling.  As long as we can find a McDonalds, we can check email and make sure we’re not in for any torrential downpours.   And it’s probably only a matter of time before we break down and order one of their burgers or shakes.  Alan jokes that Van is not going to realize that McDonalds even serves food – he’ll just think of it as a place to pick up some free internet for a few minutes.
  7. When you have the option, stay at a state or federal campground.  They’re cheaper, they provide many of the same amenities, they’re cheaper, there are more tenters, they’re cheaper.  And did I mention that they’re cheaper?  It is amazing the difference in price we’ve seen for private and public campgrounds separated by only a few miles.  It’s true that many of the private campgrounds have pools and playgrounds and game pavilions, but many of the nice public campgrounds also have playgrounds and pools (or even better, lakes) and nice, hot showers.  While not all public campgrounds have hot showers or even running water, with a little bit of investigating, you can save a lot of money by staying at the nicer public campgrounds.  The one drawback that we’ve seen so far is that private campgrounds are not affected by the sequester or state budget cutbacks.  Public campgrounds are, which is why we had fewer camping options earlier in our trip.  That being said, most of the private campgrounds in those areas were also closed as we were apparently visiting too early in the season.
  8. Eggs in a cooler present several issues.  First, if you buy them in cardboard, the cardboard is quickly rendered useless by the melting ice.  Second, if they find their way towards the bottom of the cooler and become encased in ice, they will freeze and no amount of thawing will turn your egg back to what you once had.  No matter, it’s still edible, but you may not be able to make that nice sunny side up egg you had planned.
  9. Kids don’t need many store-bought toys.  Yes, I knew this already, as I’m sure almost all parents do.  But it wasn’t until this trip that I truly got it.  We packed away boxes of Van’s toys into storage and chose only a handful of small toys that could fit in one box for our trip.  Van has played with a few things from that box over the last month, but the vast majority of the toys we brought have remained untouched.  Instead, he obsesses over rocks, leaves, and sticks (especially sticks).  He also loves climbing steps, over big logs, across bridges, and up and down hills.  Our evenings are spent to the tune of “more sticks, more sticks, more big logs, more big logs” on repeat while Van scours the campsite for sticks and logs to make a fire.  He has plenty of toys at his disposal, just not the ones we packed for him.