The sun peeked over the trees (and our blockade) and woke us up around 6:45AM. We decided to get a jump start on the day since we had 2 stops to accomplish. We broke down, packed up, and managed to be out of the KOA by 7:30AM. We headed straight out to the USS Alabama to spend some time on Memorial Day weekend, remembering the sacrifices of those before us.
The USS Alabama is a preserved/restored BB60 Battleship that served in the Pacific during World War II. It rests within Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama alongside numerous restored/preserved relics of American Military Prowess. (Multiple tanks, a submarine, planes, jets, bombers, and rockets just to name a few) The USS Alabama was originally going to be scrapped but was ultimately saved by statewide fundraising efforts. Interestingly enough, this park is not maintained by tax money which gives one a true sense of the love and appreciation Alabama has for their namesake battleship.
The park offers a few options for self-guided tours of the ship, and after purchasing tickets they provide a piece of paper that outlines the attractions along on the tour lines. We opted for the “Yellow Tour” which enabled us to climb the upper levels of the ship as well as the outer-decks for better vantages out over the sea. As wells as admire all the weaponry that was used during warfare. The self-guided tour took around an hour to complete, but gives one a solid understanding of what it means to move around in such tight quarters.
We left the ship and headed into the airplane hangar where they display the jets and planes they have acquired as part of the memorial. We even got a look at a “field-style” ambulance - which offered 2 bunks for the wounded in the back (one at a time for me please, thank you). We wandered around for a while and then continued outside to see a WWII Submarine, the USS Drum which is the oldest American submarine on display in the world. It was only around this time that we realized we had been terrible fools and forgotten sunscreen. Partially cooked, we headed back to the car to make our way toward our next destination – New Orleans, Louisiana.
We drove towards Mississippi and felt our bellies grumble. So we searched and searched for food that would be close to us, however there was none. There were no grocery stores, no markets, nothing except for Waffle House, Sonic, Chick-fil-A, and the increasingly popular Arby’s. All of them death traps. Hangry, stressed and out of options, we exited the roadway to the Mississippi Welcome Center, hoping they might be able to provide some direction for relief in this food desert. We walked into one of the nicest welcome centers to date. It had an Antebellum Plantation style appeal which is so popular in the South. The woman behind the counter was named Leann, and she offered us ice cold sweet tea and some much needed guidance. She showed us an area where we would have better luck finding food for me, as well as a more scenic route through Mississippi along the Coastal Roads. Rejuvenated and determined, we hit the road again for the coast. We found a Mellow Mushroom and stuffed our faces with gluten free pizza. Satisfied after splitting 2 pizzas, we headed down the coastline. It looked exactly like Pensacola, but was significantly less crowded, lighter traffic, and nicer looking hotels. But I suppose no one ever says that they want to go to Mississippi Beaches for vacation?
We made our way in to the French Quarter of New Orleans and were immediately introduced to one of her less fine traits. The smell of these streets is vaguely reminiscent of the Sunday morning after a weekend bender at a frat house. That familiar nostalgia mixed with humidity, and sun-baked horse manure, creates a potent perfume that singes the nose hairs and lodges itself in your sinuses and memories. Despite this pungent odor, we were somehow hungry. We walked out of Le Richielieu and headed toward the French market. We stopped at El Gato Negro and gorged ourselves on a pitcher of sangria and enchiladas. Primed and ready to take on The French Quarter and Bourbon Street, we stepped out into the heat and explored. We headed back up toward the French Market and walked along the mighty Mississippi for a bit. Then wandered down the streets along some of the parks and admired some of the local artistry.
We encountered a wedding processional strutting down Bourbon Street; the bride and groom looking elated. Following behind them was their closest friends and family, all dancing to the jazzy beats of one of a New Orleans Original “Iko Iko” - complete with a motorcycle police escort. We enjoyed their processional, and wandered into voodoo shops, to-go cocktail bars, and along the streets themselves. After a few hours of drinking and inhaling the hefty aroma of the streets, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.
We woke up at a lazy 8:30AM in our hotel and began to try and figure our breakfast options. We set out to walking and found an extremely tiny hole in the wall coffee joint called Spitfire. With barely enough room to turn around you begin to wonder if its worth it. We ordered drinks, and then realized that what we had ordered came in the teeniest tiniest baby cups. We began to really question if it was worth it. And, it was. Thank god! Absolutely delicious coffee and plenty of zing to get us going to walk around all day. We sipped our tiny coffee and walked around in search of breakfast. The first restaurant we went to had purported themselves as gluten free and found their way on to my app. Turns out when you ask them for a menu, they look like they’ve seen a ghost, and it becomes “Oh, ah, welllllllll……” let me tell you, this instills A LOT of confidence. After watching 3 servers hem and haw about if they can feed me, Joe and I politely told them we were no longer interested, and ran out.
We managed to find another hotel called the Bourbon House who was able to accommodate my needs, but by that I mean there was exactly one thing that I could eat safely. However, I very much enjoyed my Cajun potatoes and eggs.
Truthfully, traveling down the east coast was fairly easy as far as it came to food. There was always *SOMEWHERE* (It may have been only one place but it was somewhere) for me to find safe food. Normally, we have to travel an average of 50 miles between safe locations. We figured that being in New Orleans, inside the French Quarter, would allow us a little bit of flexibility as far as food goes. Incorrect. There were in fact a myriad of restaurants who stated that they offer gluten free menus, however when you call them because you can’t find their menu, they ask you what you mean. They take a moment, and then, as if the connection has finally been made, they brightly inform me that I cannot have the dairy items included on their menus and that they cannot guarantee my safety. This is agonizing. It is awful getting hopes up to be able to eat culturally relevant foods, and then have them dashed by the fact that no one is willing to take the time to feed you.
Placated by mimosa and breakfast, we paid our check and headed out the door. However a surprise waited for me on the streets! Turns out New Orleans wanted to greet us properly, so a local man - heavily enveloped in the city’s pungent perfume (and adorned with oddities including a black fine toothed comb half in his shaggy beard and half inside his nose), curtsied, and opened his palm. Inside was a small, green…. banana. Plantain? I’m not entirely sure. I said thank you but no, and turned to walk away in the opposite direction and was greeted by another pan handle curtsy. Caught in the panhandle curtsy triangle, we wriggled our way past their offerings while giving our thanks and skirted down bourbon street. We wandered down the streets trying to find something to pique our interests. Lost wandering in the same way that so many had been wandering before, we meandered into Boutique du Vampyre and admired their wares. The woman behind the register could see the appreciation in our eyes and offered us a map to the cities unique secrets. She showed us where to find séance rooms (Muriel’s) and utterly fabulous cocktails, as well as where to get the best absinthe (hint: Pirate Alley) which offered up to 140 proof absinthe. Holy licorice, Batman!
After chasing my absinthe with a random concoction created by our bartender, we wobbled the streets between more to-go bars. And headed back to the hotel in order to figure out our plans for dinner. We called restaurant, after restaurant, after restaurant…… after restaurant. (How can there be a food desert in one of the most gluttonous cities that America has to offer?!) We took this as a small blessing in disguise because as we searched for dinner, New Orleans took this time to cleanse herself, and it rained. Frustrated with the continuous barrage of “No” we decided on a dinner at the El Gato Negro again, as well as enjoying dessert - which was by far and away the best flan that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. So thank you to El Gato Negro for multiple safe meals.
We headed back to the hotel exhausted after a day of wandering and collapsed in our bed.
We awoke before 6AM to the sound of a bird screaming for his friends to come over and check our out tent, so we figured instead of entertaining the riff raff we would get an early start to Pensacola, Florida for the kick off of Memorial Day Weekend. We said thank you to Bill, and hit the road. It was a fairly short drive we figured, so we opted to take our chances on finding breakfast on the road. We Failed. Miserably.
Faced with no other alternative, we pulled in to a Love’s for a pit stop, and had some seriously delicious coffee for breakfast. We figured since we were in somewhat of a gluten free food desert, we would wait for Pensacola until we ate real food. Oh man, am I glad we did. We waited for over 30 minutes to get a spot at Another Broken Egg but it was it worth it. Voted best breakfast by 3 different publications last year alone, they also offered separate cooking areas for gluten free food and several gluten free choices; including PANCAKES! Actual, real, honest to god pancakes that I ordered at a RESTAURANT. LIKE A HUMAN! (Life hack - if you order an omelet dish, they replace your English muffins with said pancakes. Who’s the real winner here?) Score one for Claire.
Having finally tasted their food I now know exactly why I waited a half hour and sat at the bar to eat brunch. Their service was incredible, and the way they worked with each other through the morning rush was impressive. They were friendly, constantly communicating with each other about what tables need, and perpetually making sure no one accidentally dumped food on one another while turning from the kitchen to the floor. I even saw one of the servers insist on walking a to-go order to his car because the gentleman was holding a baby. WHAT? Maybe it’s because New York has ruined me, but I could be holding 45 things and no one has ever offered to bring ANYTHING to my car, whether I was holding a baby or not.
Regardless, after we left Another Broken Egg, we headed down to the beach. Apparently we did that at the same time everyone else was planning to do so (the fact that it was a holiday weekend certainly did not help.) We drove out as far as we could until we were mostly out of the tourist zone, and walked to the water front. We dipped our toes in the water, and promptly realized that neither one of us had put on sunscreen. Feeling lightly roasted we headed back to the car and back towards town to see if we could get a much needed oil change. (we have already driven over 3,000 miles!!!)
We found an American Lube Fast and had no wait. The assistant manager Preston introduced himself and kindly walked through what services their station offered. We chatted for a good while about car parts, the different states we had been to, as well as the trip that we were on. He told us that we should go wander for a bit since the oil change would take 15 minutes or so, but to steer clear of the main roadway we were on. He informed us this particular highway was knowingly referred to as “Death99” and that it was well known for the amount of deaths that occur on the roadway. He told us that cutting through the backs of the stores would be significantly safer. We let Preston get to work and meandered through a few small shops. After a short stroll we headed back, and after another 20 minutes chatting, we hit the road to our campground.
Since we inadvertently decided to spend Memorial Day Weekend at a massive beach town that meant we couldn’t find any National, State, or County parks with a vacancy for a tent. We finally found a campground called KOA Gulf Island/Milton. Turns out we booked the very last tent space available, which really meant we were put on a space on the side of the road leading to the campsites right next to the community picnic house. This led to even more people becoming increasingly curious about our car tent. “Hey mama, you think they really from New Yawk? Is that how they camp?!” After setting up, we went for a dip in the KOA pool, and headed back to our “site” for dinner. The park was absolutely packed, and there were a significant number of curious passersby loudly guffawing at our tent and discussing “what you think those people from New Yawk doing with that tent ‘tached to the back.”
We tried to pack it in for the night but were kept awake by a multitude of lanterns. In particular, one directly across from our doorway. Frustrated, we built up a blockade of our things to block out as much lantern light as we could. We finally fell asleep to the sounds of pop music and yelling adults.
The last day we spent with the Kuster Family was a bit of a lazy one. We hung around the house and got ready for the next day’s ride to Alabama, and ate at Tom+Chee for dinner. For those who have never heard of this glorious eatery, the theme is grilled cheese and tomato soup, AND they offer gluten free options which include a separate kitchen space for gluten free preparation. They even had gluten free beer! Since the last grilled cheese I ate had to be somewhere in the ball park of 2 years ago; I was thrilled to have a grilled cheese, chunky tomato soup, and an ice cold beer. It is the best rainy weather food for - you guessed it, crazy down-pouring rain (way to go Brennan and Adella on the spur of the moment run to the car). Tennessee had provided us with the longest stretch of sunshine yet, but she apparently decided she was sad to see us go, so she poured buckets to say goodbye.
Thankfully, when we set off in the morning it had stopped raining, giving way to a gorgeous day for a drive. We got ourselves some coffee and fantastic muffins from a dedicated gluten free bakery called The Wild Muffin and hit I-65 on our way toward The US Space and Rocket Museum in Huntsville, Alabama.
From the parking lot the Museum does its best to get you involved by staging to-scale information posts about each of the planets and the distance between them. These informational posts line the walk way leading up to the doors of the museum and right in to the gift shop (aka the Sun). As per the theme of this trip we encountered another field trip, which actually was several field trips. Needless to say it was hundreds of kids. It was nice seeing them so interested in the space program and all of the history behind it. Honestly the museum did an incredible job making exhibits as interactive as possible so children would be more likely to pay attention and learn. The museum offered rides which were fairly grounded in the spirit of the astronauts training, as well as included interactive attractions which allowed an individual to occupy the space where an astronaut trains, in order to provide perspective.
Outside they displayed examples of The United States’ Military prowess with the Chinook Helicopter, Rocket Launcher Tank, missiles, etc. Massive vehicles and marvels of design, rocket power, and function. While wandering around underneath the fragments of our countries’ accomplishments, we realized we were in fact starving. Instead of playing Russian roulette with the museum grill food ($12 hamburger anyone? Oh you wanted cheese…that’s extra), we opted to stop at a nearby Cantina Laredo. It was close to 90 degrees outside and the cantina provided a lovely air conditioned atmosphere, a welcome oasis from the midday sun. Bellies full, we headed toward Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama.
When we got to the park it was around 5:30PM, which meant that the camping store to register your site was closed, so we had to register for a site at the entrance of the park. This took some time because unbeknownst to us, Oak Mountain State Park is over 10,000 acres of hiking, biking, equestrian, boating, beaching, fishing, archery, zip lining and summer camps. And we decided to show up, with no reservation, 2 days before memorial day weekend. Go team! Thankfully, the campsite had exactly one space that would accommodate our needs as a car-tent set up. AND! We were finally not camping in Mud! (which is odd, because if “My Cousin Vinny” taught me anything, it’s that Alabama is famous for its mud)
We set up shop in a tucked away corner at the end of a cul-de-sac. Super sweaty, hot, and tired we collapsed in the tent in our underwear, reminiscing about air conditioning. We settled for a bottle of wine, and got comfortable for the night. That’s when we realized there were quite a few traffic stops happening outside of our campsite. At first we thought we were being paranoid, but as the night wore on, more and more stops were being made in front of our car-tent. A trail head was about 75 yards away from our site, so we thought maybe that’s what everyone was stopping for, but we couldn’t figure out why they were stopping at our site instead of the trail head. The next morning, we woke up to the sound of children laughing and riding their bikes around the cul-de-sac. Most notably, a little girl yelling “Look GiGi! It’s a car-tent!” Joe and I laughed, but mostly didn’t think anything of it. We headed for the bathrooms to brush our teeth, and we were stopped by our campsite neighbors…who also had an Element which happened to be orange. They had never seen a car-tent setup before and were very interested in the idea. We chatted about camping, they congratulated us on our nuptials, and wished us many children (we don’t know if that was a blessing or curse). We thought it was funny, but again, didn’t think much about it. We started to get ready to head down to the registration office to book another night when we met Tom.
Tom is a volunteer at Oak Mountain State National Park, and came to check our registration for the site. He then asked us where we were from. When we told him we were from New York he balked and said “Ha! The’ ain’t nobody from New Yoawk he’, eva’!” He double checked the tags and reminded us that if we were staying we better get down to registration because he had heard all the spaces were sold out. So we put the valuables away, and went down to the store. The clerk asked our name and as we said Celeste, the man behind him turned around and said, “Oh, ya’ll are in the Element?” Turns out the Orange Element, complete with car-tent, was the talk of the Campground. They confirmed that people had in fact been doing drive-bys and taking pictures of our set up the night before. Alas (in spite of our new found celebrity) we had been bumped from our site, and the only spot left required a long hike up a steep hill. Tom encouraged us to take it because he was genuinely worried that with no reservations anywhere, we would have nowhere to sleep. Joe and I, although ever appreciative, ultimately decided to head out on the road and roll the dice with a campground that was south of Montgomery.
Our original plans shot, we ran back up to our camp and broke down our site under the watchful eye of its next inhabitant’s den mother. A late start meant a late breakfast. No time to waste! We stopped at The Funky Muffin and had ourselves some doughnuts (I had a cinnamon and Joe enjoyed a chocolate glazed) and we split a blueberry muffin. We did some driving and stopped at Zoe’s Kitchen for lunch - an amazing little Mediterranean chain that offers fresh ingredients and safe options for me. Satisfied with our find, we hit the road to set up camp in Greenville.
We pulled into Sherling Lake and met Bill. When Bill found out we had a car-tent and ultimately we would prefer to not park separately from the car, he offered us one of the spots normally reserved for a camper at no additional charge. Grateful for the flat ground, (which was originally not the case) we set up shop at the hottest time of the afternoon in Alabama. Dying from the heat we collapsed in the tent and hid from the afternoon sun. That of course didn’t mean the neighbors weren’t intrigued by our home. Two little girls who had never seen anyone camp “our way” kept riding their scooters past yelling “Mama look! Have you ever seen that?! Do you think they live like that?!” and “You think they home?!” Honestly not in the mood to entertain we hid in our tent and prayed for the cooling gift of darkness. We pulled up “Finding Nemo” and counted the amount of cars that slowed as they passed us. We got up to 8 before finally falling asleep.
We slept for the night and to our surprise woke up to sunshine. This was momentous for us being the first time crawling out of our tent in the morning to sunshine. Excited for our good fortune, we made coffee and broke down the site. We are becoming pros at breaking down the tent, a mere 17 minutes this time! We even had a little cheerleader!
Afterwards we freshened up and headed out on the road to Nashville, Tennessee for a family visit to The Kuster’s. The girls, Brennan and Adella, both graduated this year (Brennan from College, and Adella from High School) John and Linda were happy to shelter us for a bit and act as impromptu tour guides taking us all over Nashville. They prepared a lovely homemade dinner on the first night complete with homemade ice creams and sorbets and enjoyed a quiet evening at home. The following day we drove over the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge (the first segmentally constructed concrete arch bridge in the United States) and then took a tour of Carnton Plantation which during the Civil War became an impromptu field hospital in the midst of The Battle of Franklin (which went down in history as the longest battle fought in the dark). The casualties on both sides were massive, with the confederates losing the most, including 14 of their high ranking generals. Rusty, our incredibly talented tour guide, brought us through each painstakingly restored room of the house, recounting the lives of the McGavock family leading up to The Battle of Franklin. The tour ended in the upstairs rooms that housed the over 300 soldiers who sought refuge after being wounded. Rusty pointed out the blood stains on the floor that were presumed to have been from heavily wounded soldiers that military surgeons tried desperately to save. He also explained how the conservation company utilized first person accounts from the soldiers to reconstruct the story he wove as he led us through the past. He made the past reach out and touch each and every person on the tour (some to the brink of tears).
After such a humbling experience we needed something to lift our spirits which came in the form of Las Paletas. If you get a chance to try one of their ice pops I highly recommend the banana chocolate chip! We walked around the park across the street before heading to see the full scale replica of the Parthenon. This replica was so exact (although made of concrete) that during the reconstruction of the original Parthenon in Athens, the Greeks used measurements from the replica to complete the restoration.
We rounded off the day at A Matter of Taste (AMOT), an all gluten free restaurant that had incredibly delicious food like onion/bacon crusted mac n’ cheese, jerk wings, chicken fried chicken, vegetable pot pie, and shrimp n’ grits. We finished our meal with apple fritters that were covered in powder sugar (It was heavenly) With bellies full we drove around down town Nashville admiring the neon lights and the open window bars that filled the streets with country music. (Buy one pair of boots, get two free!)
In stark contrast to the neon lights from the night before we took a ride to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens the following day. Cheekwood has acres of rolling manicured gardens smattered with art installations. Currently there are playhouses that were constructed in each garden section used to illustrate types of environments children from around the world would play in. They also had an incredible train set installation which wove multiple train tracks together and used wood and other natural supports to create a wonderful miniature world. Originally, the train exhibit was supposed to be rotated out like any other installation, but due to its popularity it has been kept on for an undetermined amount of time.
While we were visiting, an artist named Steve Tobin was displaying his most recent works called “Southern Roots”. The Roots exhibits were based off of the castings he had created of real tree roots, and developed his style from there. He explored the use of steel, glass, ceramics and bronze castings with the natural shapes of plants, animal bones and letters. One exhibit he called “bang pots,” crafted pottery in which he placed fireworks, detonated them while still pliable, then glazing and firing the pots to preserve their exploded states. There was another installation called “Lantern House,” which utilized old glass slides as the walls and ceiling of a house. The house was backlit which created luminaries out of the slides and projected their images on the blank walls of the museum. Cheekwood also peppered some of Tobin’s larger sculptures throughout the grounds, mixing his modern works with the peaceful scenery of the gardens.
After spending several hours walking around the beautiful gardens with our tour guide Brennan, we ended the day with the whole family at Jim N’ Nicks BBQ. This is a restaurant that understands the need to create a larger potato to stuff with BBQ, so they cut one end off of 2 potatoes and push them together, making a vessel suitable for barbeque. (Anyone who knows how much I love potatoes, knows that this is a dream come true for me.) Joe said he enjoyed his barbeque just that way it was, I told him he wasn’t living although he seemed quite happy. Our family certainly made us "Believe in Nashville!"
We left Atlanta Georgia around 10 am and hit the road to head to Kentucky to spend 2 nights in Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. Of course, it rained. (Are you beginning to sense a theme to this trip?) Fortunately, when we arrived at the campground the rain had stopped and so we shopped for the driest and flattest spot we could find. We located a spot that allowed us to park on an angle and have flat ground to sleep on. (Hooray for not falling down a mountain!) After a muddy set up, (there was no such thing as a dry spot) we went and washed off. On our way back to the site, we met Pat and Jerry. We told them about our trip, and they told us some of their tips and tricks for living on the road.
They are a retired couple from Florida who are traveling the country, towing a camper and caravanning with their friends. They told us how the campground showers worked, and let us know which of the cave tours would let you see the best parts of the cave system. They also introduced us to the AllStays App which points out where all the campgrounds, KOA’s, and traveler friendly Wal-Mart’s are located. The app also shows us truck stops, rest areas, and camping stores like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shop. One of the best things it points out is low clearance areas, which works out fabulously for us considering the Thule car top carrier on top of our Element makes us just under 8ft tall (we’ve had a few nail biting moments). We chatted with them for a bit and then headed back to the tent for some dinner and relaxation.
Another theme that we have been noticing during our trip is finding field trips. This time we encountered Boy Scouts who were camping for the weekend, so there were about 15 tents taking up two campsites a few sites down from ours. And let’s just say they were enjoying themselves, so at about 11 at night while listening to the orchestra of post rain frogs, we also enjoyed the noise of scout troop leaders yelling at the boys to behave.
We woke up early in the morning and at Pat and Jerry’s suggestion took the “Domes and Dripstones” tour of Mammoth Cave. It was unbelievable. There were over 100 people on the sold out tour with us, so we took 3 buses to the entrance of the cave. We entered through a door that a man named George Morrison blew open with some TNT in order to make his own entrance to cash in on the cave craze of the early 20th century (Now that’s the American spirit). The entrance leads to 279 supremely narrow, steep, winding, and wet steps down in to the actual cave system. At the lowest point in the tour, the cave is 250 feet below surface. The rangers refer to the LED rope lighting as “Theatre lighting” what they really mean is “Holy freaking dark, Batman!”. After all this winding, turning, dipping, ducking and dodging, the cave starts to give way to wider (not necessarily bigger) spaces, the first of which was the aptly named tunnel called “The New York Subway”. It has low ceilings, unforgiving walls, and even serves as the entrance way to “Grand Central Station” - a large cavern that has about 6 different exits sending you to different parts of the cave system. The tour continued in to the dry parts of the cave and ended with the “dying section” (by dying they mean that in 3 million years, these sections may be filled with stone.)
After about 2 hours of exploring inside the cave we climbed out to the light, and found……. (drumroll please) it had been raining. So we huddled under the shelter and waited for the bus to bring us back. By the time we got back to the visitor center where the tour began it had stopped raining, and we came to the realization it was mid-afternoon and we hadn’t eaten breakfast. So, we headed out to the closest town, Park City, to see what kind of food options there might be for a girl like me. Short answer: There are none! We went in to a few places to investigate whether or not I could snack on anything, and found out that most eateries in this particular area in Kentucky don’t really accommodate food allergy patrons. However, they do support smoking, and fried foods. By that I mean there were full ash trays at most tables, hardly any ventilation, and almost all the food options were fried. Disgruntled, hangry and stressed, we headed back to the campsite and made ourselves some food rather than risk an allergic reaction or smelling like smoke for the next couple days. We decided that spending the time at our campsite was very relaxing and so we just enjoyed the fact that it was no longer raining.
“Families are like branches on a tree - we grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one” - Unknown
After some stormy North Carolina weather, we were eager to set off early inland through South Carolina and on to Atlanta Georgia, to see the historic and recently controversial Stone Mountain; and spend some time with the Manusama family. We had a daunting 7-hour drive in front of us, with the finish line being one of the worst traffic areas in the country.
Knowing that starting our day right would be the best idea, we attempted to utilize our US Market App to find local fresh farmers markets on our route to Georgia. After 2 failed attempts at open markets, we had to stop to fuel our car and rethink our plan for breakfast. We were hopeful we might find something worthwhile by taking a peek inside the mini mart, but our hopes were promptly dashed by the sheer volume of pork rinds and fried chicken.
As if by a miracle, we stepped out of the mini-mart, and there! Across the street! A farm stand (not registered on our app) had just started setting up for the morning. We ran across and introduced ourselves, and asked if they were open. They said that all the produce hadn’t been brought down yet, but we were welcome to whatever was available. This lovely couple had grown some of the juiciest plums, peaches and apples I have ever had - In. My. Life. We are talking full on chin dribbles. At least 3 napkins each. We made sure to register the market’s location on the US Market App so that other people in the area would be able to enjoy their bounty as a well.
Satisfied with our chance encounter, we set off on the road again in uplifted spirits. … And then… it rained….again. But true to form, as we approached the last hour of our journey, the only hazard we had to battle was Atlanta drivers. The highways were a gauntlet of people veering off the exit ramps with no blinker from the left lane. After driving in traffic that felt a bit more like home, we were happy to be greeted by our family. Maggie and Michael gave birth 4 months ago to our littlest nephew Maddox Pfeifer. I say littlest, but what I really mean is youngest, because Maddox “The Madman” Manu rings in at a whopping 14 pounds and 24 inches long.
He’s a monster! He legitimately is the length of Joe’s entire torso.
Anyway, we were fortunate enough to be able to spend the entire week with the Manu’s which meant many fun moments talking to and hanging out with Maddox. They helped us remember our way around the kitchen where many delicious dinners were prepared, like an avocado pesto over black bean pasta. It was a week spent wandering around Sprouts grocery store a place that I highly recommend for anyone who has never been to one.
On Wednesday we were a little selfish and dropped The Mighty Mad-Ox off at day care so we could go walking around Stone Mountain Park. For those of you who don’t know, Stone Mountain is essentially the Southern Mount Rushmore. It was originally started in 1916 by the man who went on to carve Mount Rushmore; Gutzon Borglum. Borglum abandoned the project in 1925, and an American Sculptor, Augustus Lukeman, picked up the project and worked on it through 1928. For 30 years afterwards there was no work done on the relief. It wasn’t until 1964 when Walter Hancock was selected to complete the carving that work began again. The carving was considered complete in 1972 but not by Hancock. It was completed by a man named Roy Faulkner and then later a theme park developed around it so that there would be more of an attraction for people to come and learn about the Civil War.
Of course, true to the theme of our road trip we bore witness to yet another school field trip. Except this time there were significantly more children… like in total 150 kids. After they had their lunch on the great lawn under the stony faces of President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson, they wanted to spend more of their time in the theme park as opposed to the historical portion (because after eating, who doesn’t want to go on a rope course? This gave us some interesting data for our research on adrenaline activities and their effects on digestion.) Thankful for the theme park portion at this point, we were now able to stop at each one of the patios they had carved out of the hillside leading up to the mountain. Each terrace was adorned with a state and noted what year they succeeded, what year they joined the Confederacy, and what year they rejoined the Union. Every area had plaques about that particular states’ famous contributors to the war, historic battles, antebellum technologies and noteworthy bits of information about the Civil War. It provided extremely interesting facts about the losses on each side, the cost in the number of their lost soldiers, and the war plans that had brought the war to its culmination. The pathway led up to a museum which displayed the photographic records of the scaffolding and the unbelievable amount of planning that Stone Mountain required in order to be the goliath work of art that it is today. Standing at the foot of the naturally vast surface of the mountain, looking up at the deliberately carved memorial of the Confederate Forefathers was undeniably humbling. The relief itself is a massive 1.57 acres (6,400 square meters or for those of you who don’t math well, roughly 2 football fields), although when you’re looking up at the three figures on horseback, (400 feet in the air) you can’t help but notice how small a space that they take up of the surface of the mountain.
Recently, Stone Mountain has been in the news because there is a call to remove the Confederate flag from the park (the last national monument to do so). Obviously, due to the tensions that run deep within Southern history, as well as Stone Mountain’s history, one can understand this causing a stir (to put it mildly). Stone Mountain has been a hotbed for racist demonstrations and counter demonstrations for years, even decades. There are those that call for the monuments immediate destruction and re-imagination into a giant Liberty Bell. While I can understand this I feel as if defacing the past is criminal, and does more harm than good. Perhaps there is a compromise to be had? Why not leave Stone Mountain’s relief exactly the way it is and simply add more art? We have the chance to depict our collective history and embrace, as a nation, one of the darkest moments in our past. Allowing us to come together as not just the Northern Yankees and the Southern Confederates, but as Americans. The smoothed surface of the mountain does provide a vast canvas for an imaginative individual, maybe there is room for some additions? Ok, I’ll get off my soap box now.
We spent our last night with the Manusama’s enjoying some delicious food at PURE Taqueria, hands down some of the best tacos, and definitely the best queso fundido chorizo dip ever. Dessert came in the form of some healthy competition at Andretti Indoor Karting and games. (This really contributed to our supremely scientific research in adrenaline activities and their effect on digestion.) Maddox, while a giant, is still not tall enough to be behind the wheel, so we took turns holding on to him for the races. It seems that the hundreds of miles we have already driven has not discouraged Joe in any way. Actually, he seemed happier to be able to go faster than the speed limit for once. But, on to the real question. Who was the faster Celeste?! Joe. Joe was the faster Celeste - but I gave him hell. I was ahead for 6 laps. SIX LAPS. And then, in the final lap, some random person (who I suspect Joe bribed) bumped me out of the way long enough for him and Joe to skirt by. (I will mention again that bumping is illegal, but Joe says “Rubbin’ is Racin’.“) one lap was not enough time for me to catch him, and alas, Joe took first place. I have already demanded a rematch to be announced at a later date - not that we are competitive or anything.
After a few hours of karts and games, we headed back for our final sleep at the Manu’s, the last night of roof before spending 2 days Getting Clucky in Kentucky at Mammoth Cave National Park. We are so lucky to have been able to spend all this time getting to know our newest family member and to spend real quality time with our family. Can’t wait to come back and see you again!!
“Don’t confuse your path with your destination. Just because it is stormy now, doesn’t mean you aren’t headed for sunshine” - Unknown
We awoke from our mini-coma to the sound of rain dripping from the trees on to the outside of our tent. We decided to pack up, treat ourselves to a sit down breakfast. Julie from the campground who had checked us in, told us about a little diner The Grandview that was a stone’s throw from the grounds. So we decided to start our journey there. Egg-cellent choice. The people were nice, the service was amazing, and they even indulged my curiosity and explained what “Livermush” is, and for those of you who don’t know, it’s an amalgamation of liver and head parts ground up and shaped into a loaf. Kinda like Spam? It’s fried to be crispy, but sliced thick so it’s almost like a sausage patty. Learn something new every day. I opted to not go that route. Great coffee, great conversation, great meal, even greater price. $15 for two very fulfilling breakfasts. The best part was that by the time we were finished the rain had stopped! It was still extremely cloudy, but in the distance there were peaks of sunshine hiding behind the massive system of clouds.
Reinvigorated for the journey ahead we set off to stand a mile above sea level, in the clouds at Grandfather mountain. That’s where we met a lovely man who informed us that the mountain was closed due to wind. Disheartened, we decided to see if we could at least take a picturesque photo from a part in the valley below. The clouds, while finally drained of all their water, decided to keep the suspension bridge hidden from us. Accepting of the unfortunate unforeseen weather issue, we continued on our Journey to Winnabow, NC; our first family stop along the way. As if the world approved of our decision, the clouds began to part ways and fade more in to the mountains. Blessing us with 72-degree weather, and beautiful sunny skies on to our journey to North Carolina.
…and then it rained. Not just rained, thunder-stormed. It was if the sky cracked open and all the water in the world poured down. The sky lit up with lightening and rumbled above us. Thankfully, we caught this amazing storm on our GoPro.
Even better was the fact that we were driving through and away from the massive storm-front, and by the time we arrived at the Tamney family home we were dry. We were welcomed by Meghan, Larry, the beautiful Kylie, and the adorable pit-bull puppies (seven of them) and mama dog they were fostering. We had a lovely night out to dinner at the Fork-n-Cork, even though poor Kylie had a fever and an ear infection. The powers of Tylenol and Motrin helped her feel better while we were out and she began to try and feed french-fries to her mama. It's incredible how we start out tiny, helpless, dependant creatures, and push ourselves to become more. We are so grateful that we are able to spend this time exploring and seeing family on the way.
Next stop is Roswell Georgia, to see the Manusama family (to meet our newest family addition Maddox), and the recently controversial Stone Mountain.
Let’s just say Day 2 didn’t go so much to plan – not that we really have a plan, but we have a loose outline of how we would like the day to go, and let’s just say, almost kinda counts. We woke up this morning with hopes of testing out our percolator on the Coleman grill which were promptly dashed after coming to the realization that it had rained all night long, and was still mostly raining. So, we decided instead of dawdling in the campground that we would get a head start to the day, turn a negative to a positive. It took us about an hour to break down and get freshened up and out of the site. Although, since we are new to camping, we didn’t realize that we needed to check out, we had to double back and grab our registration receipt in order to do that. As we came out of the campground, the fog we have come to know and love (loathe?) settled upon our car once more. We decided instead of spending the rest of Skyline Drive encased in dense pea soup, that we could shave a few hours off our trip, jump off at the next exit and make our way to the Lost World Caverns in West Virginia. Grateful for a successful stay in Shenandoah National Park, we headed out in to the crazy world of the highway once more.
Our next stop along the way was The Lost World Caverns in West Virginia. When we arrived at the street to turn down to make our way to the caverns, we thought we were being led astray. Turns out that the road we were on was in fact still a real road, and not a mistake made by Waze. It’s a winding dirt/ gravel road that is not wide enough for two cars to pass each other without both of them being on the grass. We honestly thought that it was possible that at the end of this rambling road was a giant hole in the ground and that was all it needed to be to be a cavern. Thankfully, we were pleasantly surprised. The road opens up to a fairly large parking lot and a very pretty wooden building. Half house, half store with a giant water wheel out front. …. And about 40 elementary school aged kids running around, screaming like maniacs - all in matching blue “Field trip of 2016!” t-shirts. Apparently, Joe and I managed to pick the day where there was a school field trip in the works. Of Course. So we waited a little bit and dawdled in the store until all of the pint sized banshees made their way outside. Each of them bragging about how much money they managed to spend on the inside of the shop, I could understand why. Lost World Caverns store is a wealth of gadgets, dohickey’s, thinga ma jigs and gizmos. There are stickers, fossils, toys, magnets, bumper stickers, geological crystal rocks, shark teeth and all sorts of fun stuff. After the last straggler made it out the door, we spoke to the employees about how exactly it works to go see the cavern, because up until this point, we hadn’t even seen an entrance for the cavern.
Turns out, that is because the entrance and exit are conveniently located inside the gift / souvenir store. We paid our money, were handed a flash light and told to stay to the right. The cavern is a self-guided tour, which is nice because it means you can take your time and really appreciate the amazing structures that the earth created with nothing but the power of erosion and time. You come down a tunnel that has concrete steps and pvc railings. It’s lit on the sides and leads you to a rock overhang ledge that you have to duck under. On the other side of that ledge is the largest hole in the middle of the earth I have ever seen. The sheer vastness of the cave is magnified by the distant echoes of water trickling down the sides of the walls and in to the streams rushing underneath. So, the first thing we want to do is test out our new GoPro in this beautiful, low light environment. Who wouldn’t?! Excited for our new fancy high quality photos we geared up for our first photo together, we put the GoPro on the bannister to take a picture in front of the bride’s veil (an impressive pure crystalline column that looks white because of the calcifications of the crystals) and it promptly plummeted to the bottom of a collection of fallen hex rocks and stalagmites.
Devastation washed over us. Immediately, we found the best place to enter and climb over the craggy rocks and search in desperation for our camera. But then hope! We found….. the supposedly impregnable housing and tripod. Grief edged its way in to our hearts as we searched in vain for the actual camera that had through the force of the fall, ejected itself from the housing and continues to tumble even further down the craggy rocks below. Precariously perched on the mere edges of these rocks we searched. And failed. It was gone. Defeated we continued our tour in hopes that the caverns natural wonder would improve our spirits. We resolved ourselves to the fact that we would simply buy a new one, and that since it was essentially only money that it didn’t matter. We trudged up the cavern steps resigned to our fate.
And then we met Kyle. Kyle is an incredibly nice and talented employee of the Lost World Caverns, who makes lost item relocation a special talent. I guess you could call him head (toes?) of Retrieval services. Kyle walked back with us to where we watched our GoPro plummet to its surprise death. He climbed quite skillfully over the terrain and searched for our camera. After approximately 10 minutes of rooting around in stalagmites Kyle looked at us and said “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
Bad News: It’s very difficult to reach the space where the camera is.
Good news: The camera is still intact.
And then, with some very impressive foot fenagaling, and excessively impressive toe gripping skills, Kyle retrieved our GoPro. Praise be to Kyle! Except that wasn’t enough for Kyle. His exceptionally talented tootsies also managed to take a few pictures as the camera was being raised from the depths of the cavern, into our welcome arms. We took this gift from Kyle as our sign to leave. We were exhausted, sweaty, hungry, and shaking. The emotional rollercoaster of an “Essentially Priceless memories and $500” swing made us experience something of an Adrenaline dump. Thankfully, there was a vegetarian gluten free café called the Wild Bean Cafe less than 2 miles from where we were. We gathered our honestly stunned and unbelievably grateful selves, and settled our spirits. (Black bean spinach Quesadillas and Ultimate grilled cheeses are really the only thing that was going to help, obviously.) After filling our bellies, we set out determined to make the best of the rest of the day.
We booked a space at Grandfather Mountain Campground and began our 300mile journey. We crossed from WV back to VA and even a touch through Tennessee before finally hitting North Carolina. And you guessed it, it rained. Fog and rain mostly chased us throughout the entire journey. There were moments where we were able to peek out from underneath the massive cloud systems and see the sunshine on the pavement as we traversed the winding highways carved out of the mountainside. Originally we had wanted to see Grandfather mountain when we arrived, but we were exhausted from the rainy winding drive, as well as starving. So we opted to see Grandfather Mountain in the morning, and simply set up camp.
Even though it was drizzling, the set up for the tent took half the time it did on day 1. (Practice makes perfect) and we were cooking on our Coleman in no time. After dinner we relaxed in the tent, only to discover that we were on a mild side incline this time. So, my brilliant husband and I angled the bed so it would not be sliding down the hill again, and also created a make shift headboard / end table to prevent our pillows from falling off the bed. After a bit of relaxing, talking, and picture reminiscing. (Mostly about losing the GoPro in the caverns) we laid ourselves down to sleep and had one of the most solid nights’ sleep that either one of us has dared to have in weeks.
The day is finally here. Actually here! Embarking date is here!! And I’m crying. Truthfully I am surprised at how emotional this day is for me. Joe and I could not sleep last night. We were up until about midnight whispering under covers about our fears, and about how crazy this all was. It’s unbelievable that our dreams of this trip, our hard work, creativity (and bank account) have actually come together, culminating in this defining moment, and that we are on the precipice of something extraordinary. For the next few months, the only home we have is our Element.
The main reason I’m crying is because I don’t want to leave our puggle Guinness behind. Unfortunately, traveling with a dog is not exactly the easiest thing to do, specifically when he doesn’t even have room to have a seat of his own! He is staying with my mother and brother in his comfy puppyhood home while Joe and I have our little adventure.
We woke up at 4:15AM and took our time getting ready to leave. We probably hit the road somewhere around 6:30. We went over the bridges and as we are travelling across the outer bridge crossing, our back interior light turned on. Apparently, our tail gate was not as closed as we had hoped. Thankfully, we made it without the tailgate spilling our new home all over the bridge. We got mildly lost in New Jersey, but thanks to Waze, managed to get ourselves straightened out. Fortuitously, it allowed us to get our first stop’s post card at a rest area. After New Jersey, we went on to Pennsylvania. We pulled off in to the city of Philadelphia, looked for post cards, were disappointed 4 different times, hemmed and hawed about our schedule, and got back on the road. Our next stop was in Delaware at a rest area, and again the hunt for a post card continued. We may have seemed a little crazy to the poor woman who had to help us, but we couldn’t help but laugh at the fabulous oddity of their advertising of post cards and the only post cards they actually sold were for Maryland. We got back in the car and then went on to Maryland. It was when we managed to make it to the Great State of Maryland that it started to rain. Really rain. Determined, we kept persevering and told ourselves that it would get better in Virginia. Incorrect. Instead, as we climbed the mountains to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, the fog began to engulf us and everything else around. Truly, the furthest we could see past the nose of our vehicle was 20 ft.
It. Was. Creepy.
Stephen King’s, “The Mist” Creepy.
“Should we call our mom’s now and tell them we love them?” Creepy.
Instead we kept traveling in the fog to Mathews’ Arm Campground which was 22 miles in to SkyLine Drive. Joe and I both sat on the edge of our seats, straining to follow the winding curves of the road. As we passed overlook after overlook, we became dismayed that we would not see the iconic views that made Shenandoah famous. With bleary eyes, we opted to take a rest at the Visitor station, pulled over and stared out over the valley of fog. And then went inside to see if there were any pictures of what we were actually missing. We were the only ones there, so the nice park employee played a video for us of what the park normally looks like.IT was amusing to be the only ones around. Once we felt a touch more refreshed, we headed back out in to the dense fog in search of mile marker #22 and the Mathew’s Arm Campground.
Our Element then began to climb. 2400 feet, 2500 feet, all the way to above 3000 feet in some places - and it was at those incredible heights that we saw what the world could be from above the clouds. Breathtaking views of the valley below, luscious greenery painted with fog like an ocean. Wisps of clouds drifting up the mountainside like tendrils of slowly moving thick smoke, with echoes from birds singing in the distance. Utter perfection. In just one moment, you can go from being utterly encased, take one step up, and see the world laid at your feet. It was humbling to feel so incredibly small and unimportant, but still quite literally know what feels like being on top of the world. We looked down at the sea of fog knowing all too well just how thick it was, reveling in these quiet moments.
Reinvigorated, we continued to the campsite, and tentatively began to construct our SUV tent. Now, for those of you who don’t know what an SUV tent is, it’s a tent that attaches to the back of your car (hatch or tailgate style) and allows you covered access to your vehicle without having to leave the cover of the tent. It’s not a water tight seal mind you, but if it’s raining, it’s a hell of a lot better than having to get out of the car to get whatever you need. But, if you have never set up a tent like this before, it can get confusing VERY fast. This particular model also has a screen separator for the tent so that you can keep the bugs out from your tail gate. It allows you to close your car and keep it safely locked while you sleep adding a bonus of a surprising amount of much needed air flow for the rest of the tent. The other feature about this tent (which we did not trial run) is the water proof cover the tent needs in order to keep you dry if it’s raining. It’s a separate attachment and again, if you have never seen or done this before, it’s very confusing. However, with some patience (And swear words) Joe and I managed to get the cover on our new home. (Have a I mentioned that red clay mud is difficult to get off of sneakers?) It took us about an hour to get everything set up for the tent (a time which will get better as we get more comfortable with the process) and by the time we finished we were starving.
Perfect time for us to try out our new Coleman camping grill (the electric burner didn't work with our power-inverter) and our portable kitchen set utensils. Truthfully, they surpassed our expectations. It may have just been because we were exhausted and starving that our expectations may have been set a bit lower than we originally intended, but in all actuality, everything worked the way he hoped and needed it too. Quite honestly our little Coleman was cranking!
After dinner we relaxed and watched the videos of the day, looked back in to the photos, and got acquainted to the size of the tent. It wasn’t until we went to lay down for the night (with bellies full of wine) that we realized we had chosen a space that was on a mild decline, meaning that all night as we slept, we were sliding toward the bottom of a hill. At one-point Joe actually woke me up and dragged me back up the mattress, as I had wandered all the way down to the bottom 1/3 of the bed. Truthfully I think he came to grab me because he was cold, and I offer a considerable amount of lifesaving body heat. But I like to pretend it’s because he didn’t want me to fall off the bed. All in all, not a bad day 1.