Continued from:Roadtripping Part 1- Atlanta & North Georgia…..
Our next stop is Rock City, a well-known park made famous decades ago thanks to widespread ads painted on barn roofs throughout the Southeast and Midwest. Tickets are a budget-busting $20 each, but since I brought my girl here a couple of years ago, it seems important I share the experience with my boys, even if they are grown. Traveling with the kids separately or even two at a time is a lot less overwhelming and definitely more enjoyable. We spend a couple of hours going through the park in the 90+ degree heat, shimmying our way through the narrow passages and across the swinging rope bridge until making our way to the spot where we can see forever, really only seven states, but close enough. The boys enjoy the sights, but definitely lack the enthusiasm their seven year-old sister showed as she skipped through the park, gasping at every turn. Once we’ve had enough of the heat, we head for Chattanooga, only 15 minutes away.
The visitor’s center is always a good first stop and where I learn the Delta Queen Steamboat has a $69 special walk-in rate. We find her docked at popular Coolidge Park on the North Shore side of the city just across the pedestrian bridge that connects to downtown. Kristen, at the front desk, gives us the scoop on everything we ever wanted to know about the steamboat.
The Delta Queen came here in 2009 from California after being forced into retirement. As a hotel, she got off to a rocky start with poor management in place. I considered staying on my last visit, but with the Internet loaded with mixed reviews, I opted not to take a chance. Now under new management with many original staffers from her cruising days, according to Kristen “things have improved dramatically.”
A stout wooden door opens to our cabin revealing turn of the century antiques and two soft little beds. In the rear of the room, there’s a very small bathroom with a toilet and mini-shower, which requires a little flexibility for those taller than five feet. There’s also a small separate changing area with a granite sink and top of the line hair and body products, which makes me happy since quality of freebies offered often indicates the quality of the hotel’s management. I glance at the boys who look skeptical and remind them we’re in a cabin on a steamboat not a regular hotel room. “We’ll only be sleeping in here anyway,” I say. We roam around to find plenty of spacious sitting rooms, all loaded with antiques, stories, and photos about the Delta Queen when she was in her prime. Some of the stateroom doors have plaques with names of famous former guests, including three presidents. We also find board games, chess tables, and a computer area where we spend time chatting and hanging out together, two grown boys and their mother.
Since the boys can’t stand too much of the heat, I don’t get to show them around town as much as I’d like. I find my dinner at a nearby organic market, while they order take-out wings and eat on deck. Minutes after we get back on board, a fast-moving storm hits dumping heavy rain for the next few hours. We sit and watch the storm from our rockers, walk around the boat, and discuss our plans, and decide Gatlinburg will be our next stop.
I wake before the boys and join others both young and old for a run across the old Walnut Street Bridge. The morning air is crisp, clean, and slightly cool, such a difference from yesterday’s stifling heat. To my right, early morning clouds still blanket the Appalachians, to the left, rowers and stand-up paddleboarders dot the Tennessee River below. As I run, I remember once reading how this city was once notorious for being America’s most polluted. Maybe that’s part of Chattanooga’s appeal for me, it’s an underdog city, one that came from worse than nothing, its newfound beauty and blend of city and mountains make it a place you want to root for. I didn’t get to see it before, when it was at its worst, but I’m here now and can see beyond the beauty to the challenges it has overcome. Black and white, rich and poor, crime and peacefulness all meld together here, enough so to keep it affordable, obtainable. Maybe I don’t yet fully understand why, but whatever the reasons, I am smitten by it and now claim it as my own, My Chattanooga.
After a buffet breakfast on the boat, we head out. Not too long into our drive, discussions of camping come up. My ears perk, “No way in hell,” I say.
“But, it’ll be different than the last place. It’s a lot colder in the Smoky Mountains,” oldest man/child says. “That means no bugs.”
“Absolutely not. Forget it,” I say.
Total Spent- $120 lodging and food
Not exactly sure how it happens, but I find myself passing right on through Tennessee’s version of the Las Vegas strip better known as Gatlinburg and heading into the Smoky Mountains. I only agree to check it out, but somehow an hour later find myself setting up camp next to a wide rolling stream at 2100 feet elevation. No electricity, no showers, no hot water and best of all, right in the middle of a freaking bear habitat, which by the way I had to sign a contract promising to pay $75 if I leave as much as a water bottle or condiment pack out of my sight.
We make the short drive back down the mountain and into touristy Gatlinburg to get food and supplies. As soon as we pull back up to our site, Man-child #2 Jake hops right into the frigid water with his newly acquired River rafting tube. He’s been dying to go tubing for days.
I set up my bed this time inside of my Forerunner, which when the seats are folded down, makes a perfect sized cozy little bed for me. As we start losing daylight, the boys get their tents situated and make a fire to help fight off the chill. We sit around the warm fire, talking and playing cards until the firewood is almost gone. The campgrounds here are packed with families and friendly older couples. It is really nice here, even without hot water and showers.
My only real fear is of the bears, which without protection I would be crazy terrified of. Before bed Jimmy says. “If you see a bear clawing at our tent whatever you do, don’t shoot it.”
“Umm, why not,” I ask?
“You’ll end up doing nothing more than making the bear really angry and probably end up hitting one of us,” he says.
So on top of having the wrong kind of gun, apparently I have the wrong kind of ammo for bears. Who knew?
“Just use the panic button on your keychain,” he says.
Feeling comfortable that will work and not wanting to shoot up my boys, I go to sleep.
After a good bug-less nights rest and before the boys and nearby campers wake, I lay my mat beneath the tall pines, next to the fast moving stream and do some yoga. The serenity of this place soothes me and makes me so happy I agreed to stay. I have a much better attitude about camping and would definitely stay another night if heavy storms weren’t predicted to be rolling in. Maybe it was because I slept in my truck or maybe because I didn’t see a single bug, but I really enjoyed it our time here. Jake wakes and makes a fire both for warmth and for some heavenly instant coffee. Never imagined I ‘d have positive things to say about instant coffee, but being cold and in the woods changes your perspective on everything. We pack up and head down the mountain to spend the next day and night in Gatlinburg.
Total Spent- $25 campsite & $20 snacks & supplies
Gatlinburg is the epitome of a tourist town with at least three Ripley’s attractions all within walking distance of one another. There’s an endless amount of tee shirt and taffy shops, ice cream and pancakes, but there is something unique about it- it’s at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. Having the best of both worlds makes it possible to be surrounded by nature, camping in a remote spot high in the mountains until the urge for a little civilization… or a good hot dinner strikes, then just a short drive down the mountain and poof there it is in all its neon glory.
We choose a hotel right at the edge of the insanity and to the entrance to the Smokies- Bearskin Lodge. The hotel is built to look like a rustic log cabin with all of the modern amenities. Jake is beyond thrilled to have a large room with both TV and WIFI, Jimmy would have preferred to stay another night in the mountains and I’m most excited about having a shower. We cruise around the town and up the narrow mountain roads above it, hoping to find a place to take pictures from new perspectives. There’s hardly any place to pull over so with my heart in my throat, I drop the truck in the lowest gear and inch my way back down the mountain. The roads are so narrow and steep and there are no guardrails anywhere. When we finally reach the bottom, we are all relieved.
I decide to reward our Mountain driving survival with a good dinner at Calhoun’s, a steak and barbeque place with great reviews, but as soon as we walk in the door the power goes out, not only in the restaurant, but in the majority of the town. It takes almost two hours before power is restored and we’re able to sit down and order dinner. Jimmy and I also order beer, which is brewed at Calhoun’s sister brewery next door. After eating packaged food and granola for so long, I’m in awe of my delicious hot meal, even if it is only a plate of vegetables. The boys are equally pleased with their barbeque and ribs.
With horrendous weather forecasts, we debate our plans for tomorrow. I really want to take the boys to Asheville, but they’re calling for the worst weather of all in that area, so we decide to head for home early in the morning. We stay up until 2:00 am watching old movies and listening to the pouring rain and agree camping tonight would have been disastrous, especially with our spot right next to the stream.
Total Spent- Hotel and Food $175
After our free continental breakfast, we head back through the Smoky Mountain National Park in the misty rain. As we climb higher, visibility gets worse and worse until finally at 5,000 feet, I can’t see past my truck hood. Being a sissy driver anyway, my heart thumps in my chest and I say little prayers in my head, asking for this fog to end. Thankfully, the speed limit is only 35 mph and the roads are wide with frequent pull off areas for sissy-drivers like me. As we start descending, it’s as if we’re driving out of the clouds and back down to earth. While I’m busy being grateful just to be out of the fog, the boys spot a giant magnificent Elk at the base. I pull off to take pictures and he just stands there grazing, oblivious to us.
The boys and I are happy to be heading back to St. Augustine. Jake will be on his way back to Penn State soon and Jimmy to the police academy. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to spend this kind of quality time with my boys, getting to know them as adults, as the amazing people they have become. I remember days of frustration and desperation thinking they, life, would never get easier, they’d never be grown up and now… here we are, two respectable responsible boys all grown up and still willing to take trips with their mother.
*We made it under budget- barely. Our total- $468, not including gas, which alone was almost $300.
Where to stay:
100 River Street – Chattanooga, TN 37405 – (423) 468.4500
*Great Smoky Mountains National Park Camping
*Bearskin Lodge on the River 840 River Road Gatlinburg
Where to Eat:
301 Manufacturers Road Chattanooga
1004 Parkway Gatlinburg 865-436-4100