Day 12 – I Call Shenanigans on Shenandoah

Roanoke to Washington DC

So, time for the last leg of the road trip phase of this trip, the final drive back to Washington DC. Of course we cannot take the direct route, we are determined to go via the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, which is reckoned to be the most spectacular section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Oh, the anticipation!

Oh, the reality!

Not really the best weather today and so this is the magnificent view from one of the scenic overlooks…

Viewless
It’s there, no really, it is.

I can’t imagine why Ethan didn’t want to get out of the car to see this.

So the views were pretty limited, although it was quite an interesting drive through the thick fog and there were some good spooky forest scenes.

We spotted a few critters but unfortunately still no bears

Where are the bears at?
Have you seen any bears?

The gift shop was superb though so all was well. From this to rush hour DC was something of a culture shock and we spent a horrifying hour circulating around Union Station looking for the secret, un-signposted entrance to the hidden car park above the train station that concealed the location of the Budget drop off point.

So that was that. Something like 2700 miles and, by my reckoning, 11 states and one non-state (District of Columbia is not a State according to Ethan – he is a veritable gold mine of American facts and quite the guide to DC). Checked in at the hotel and straight out to explore via the capitol, Washington monument, and a brief hello to Mr. Lincoln.

Evening Abe
Evening Abe!

Ethan is like a kid in a political sweet shop. Should be an interesting last week!

Day 11 – On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Blue Ridge Mountains

Pigeon Forge to Roanoke

Time for the return leg back to DC. Goodbye to the South and thanks y’all!

An epic drive today. Could have been more epic as we had intended to do the entire route via the Blue Ridge Parkway but, once it became apparent that this would cause us to miss our homeward flight in a week’s time, we diverted onto interstates for part of the route.

The Blue Ridge Parkway itself is as scenic as you might expect, but dangerously so. Not only is it distracting, but there is an urge to stop at every overlook, which would extend the journey time beyond the end of the universe. To be honest, it all looks very similar and, although it is quite spectacular with layers of mountains gradually fading into the distance, I don’t think that the camera will do it justice. Still, this country has far too much space and too much scenery!

Blue Ridge Mountains
Mighty fine view!

I couldn’t help thinking about the Waltons and Laurel & Hardy as we drove through. Just looked it up and we are not far from the Walton’s museum – I think they have the original farmhouse used in the TV series. Little too close to Charlottesville for comfort though and Ethan has no idea what the Walton’s was all about.

We have probably seen more of rural America today than on any of our other trips. Lots of it looks very pleasant and patriotic (I can’t imagine seeing that sort of concentration of flags outside houses in the UK). Other parts look a little more sinister with menacing looking shacks and imagined sheds full of meat hooks. We were both a little concerned when the sat nav threw a wobbly in Arse End, Virginia.

There are of course some great place names. I was somewhat disappointed, given that I know there is a theme park containing a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark, that is wasn’t on Mount Ararat Hill as we drove through.

We resisted (well mostly) the urge for juvenile humour at Rocky Knob and by the time we passed through Back Creek after almost 10 hours of driving, it sounded oddly prophetic.

A lightweight 7 hour scenic drive tomorrow…

Day 10 – From the Top of the World to the Bottom of the Barrel

Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg / Smoky Mountains

A day of contrasts today. We are perched in the hills high above Pigeon Forge, living in the lap of luxury…

Down in Pigeon Forge, life does not seem to run at the same slow pace. Imagine Skegness and Blackpool combined, throw in a little Vegas showmanship and overdo it in the way that only Americans can, and you will have some idea of what Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are like. As far as I can make out, Pigeon Forge is where the larger attractions are and the all-you-can-eat sing-along-ho-down-diner-barns (Americans love their barns!) and Gatlinburg is more arcades, souvenir shops and catering for the hard-core drinkers with the moonshine tasting experiences. My cold had reached the level where I couldn’t smell anything, but the moonshine bars managed to break through that – although I sensed it first with my eyes!

The joys of Pigeon Forge

Sunday breakfast in Pigeon Forge was quite an experience. I suspect that on top of the tourists, it may be an occasion for folk to come down from the hills. Nuff said.

From Pigeon Forge we drifted into the Smokies proper and up to Clingmans Dome – the highest point in the east Smokies I am reliably informed. The majestic views were somewhat veiled. I can’t help but think that sometimes things can be a little too smoky!

Ethan, of course, is still looking forward to meeting the creators of these that we keep seeing everywhere…

Be afraid, be very afraid…

The trees are full of them and we can’t figure out whether each is the work of one spider or a colony. Not sure which is worse.

And just when I was feeling bad about once again stereotyping folk, this turned up at the cabin below us…

 

Day 9 – The Sound of Humanist Banjo

Georgia Guidestones

Atlanta to Pigeon Forge via the Twilight Zone

I seem to be coming down with Ethan’s cold now and could probably do without a long drive, but needs must.

First stop of the day – further into the back of beyond than we would generally like – is the Georgia Guidestones. This is a sort of mini Stonehenge commissioned by an anonymous donor, wanting to spread his message to humanity in multiple different languages. Much beloved of all the mystery and conspiracy shows, I felt it had to be worth a visit. Most of the message makes perfect sense, although the first few have been interpreted in some quarters as some iffy eugenics scheme.

Georgia Guidestones

From here we drifted on to Tallulah Falls. This is where Deliverance was filmed – although you would never know it from the information in the visitor centre. Apparently, they don’t like to draw attention to it. Not a single mention of purty mouths – very disappointing! Anyway, as I didn’t have my crossbow with me, we decided to skip the long hike up the trail in the heat and settled for an ice cream instead. How intrepid are we?

From here, a long, slow, tortuous drive up into the Smoky Mountains and our cabin above Pigeon Forge. This genuinely is purty and I’m typing this sat in a rocking chair on the balcony overlooking this view…

Day 8 – Peak Tourism

Atlanta

A day exploring the joys of Atlanta today. It started off with some homeless guy spotting our directional confusion and appointing himself as our tour guide. To be fair he was very engaging and well spoken and gave me a detailed lecture on the socio-economic shortcomings of Atlanta. I couldn’t help but agree and (much as I am a guest in the country and don’t feel particularly inclined to comment), with all that is going on here at the moment I can’t help thinking that they would be better fixing the present rather than trying to fix the past. Anyway, our guide then relieved me of slightly more money than I had intended. Ethan said it was the politest mugging ever, but given that we were just about to drop $80 to visit an aquarium, I couldn’t really begrudge a homeless guy a meal.

The aquarium is quite spectacular, especially the vast tank with 4 whale sharks in there. They are pretty impressive beasts.

Whale Shark

Some of the other denizens were creepier or cuter to various degress

Shiver!

What? Not another tourist…

Onwards to the Coca-Cola museum. I have to admit, that I couldn’t really see the point of this place other than to extract money from people with sugar addictions. Having been there, I don’t see any reason to change my view. Ethan has wanted to visit this place for years, particularly the hall where you can try all of the drinks that Coke make around the world. Ironically, his cold meant that he couldn’t actually taste most of them. I think that the Indian one that tasted like TCP got through though – probably did his throat some good too! I hadn’t realised that they actually had a Coke dispenser on the space shuttle.

Evening was given over to a trip to the baseball to watch Ethan’s favourite team the Atlanta Braves. That was quite an experience and the Braves won which was all good.

I was surprised to see that, given the various racial tensions which are bubbling just under the surface here, noone thought twice about the celebration involving a chant and dodgy tomahawk motion of the hand.

Go figure.

Day 7 – The Hall of the Mountain What Now?

Chattanooga to Atlanta

A day of mountains today, of which I thoroughly approve of course. We started the day with a visit to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, the sole purpose for us including Chattanooga in the trip. Those who have read American Gods will know that it is one of the key sites in the book, but I won’t add any spoilers for those who are just watching the series (should arrive about season 3 or 4 at the current rate I guess!).

Rock City seems to have started as someone’s garden on a cliff with a view over a number of states and in true American style was seized upon as potential gold mine. It follows the standard pattern of taking a natural wonder and “enhancing” it with some bizarrely manufactured kitsch. The “Enchanted Trail” is all very pleasant (piped soothing music notwithstanding).

Fat Man's Squeeze

… and yes I did make it through! Things get decidedly

Things get decidedly weirder as you venture into the Fairytale Cavern.

Moonshine Gnomes
Moonshine Gnomes

Red Ridng Hood

I love this stuff. There is something very appealing about a personal folly elevated to the level of obsession and shared with the public (it’s what makes the internet great after all). If you are going to do it, may as well go for it! I can see why Neil Gaiman latched onto these places as places of power.

Anyway, having had our fill of gnomes, it was on to Atlanta via Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain is America’s version of Ayers Rock – a huge granite monolith (only about a tenth of which is above ground), rising 1700 feet just outside Atlanta.

Stone Mountain
Granite Iceberg

Stone Mountain

We toyed with the idea of walking up for all of 4 seconds before leaping on to the cable car to the top. Stopped for a snack in the cafe, but the only veggie option was fries. I went for the cheesy option, thinking UK style cheesy chips and then looked on with horror as they piped some noxious gloop on top. Ethan was very amused.  It is a bizarre concoction which seems to combine a very unpleasant slimy texture with a thoroughly bland taste, and yet not quite bland enough…

Didn’t stop me eating the fries of course, but I felt dirty.

At least the dining was better in Atlanta later, even if it was in a restaurant famed for its bison.

Westin
Home for the next few days

Day 6 – Elvis has (largely) left the building

Smaller on the Inside

Memphis to Chattanooga

Today could be a struggle. We started off with a trip to the pharmacy to get some drugs for the poorly one and I can feel whatever lurgy he has burrowing its way into me.

Still, a trip to Graceland beckoned so we manned up and hit the road. The actual mansion turns out to be smaller than expected

Smaller on the Inside

but it manages to cram in a fair amount of tackiness. Any room that has carpet on all surfaces is pure class. I would say that the decor is of its time, but I don’t quite remember the 60s and 70s like that.

Onwards with the tour and a visit to the grave. People were still genuinely upset visiting the grave 40 years after his death. Given the sombre atmosphere, I felt that reenacting the scene from Spinal Tap might be considered inappropriate. All those hours learning the harmonies to Heartbreak Hotel wasted…

Since my baby left me..?

Leaving Graceland, we girded our loins for the long drive to Chattanooga, passing through Mississppi, Alabama and (briefly) Georgia (tick, tick and tick). We were both a little nervous about stopping for food. Spotted a shack called the Camo Cafe and wondered whether to stop. Not so much. A Burger King further down the line seemed a better bet. The staff were the friendliest, most helpful people I have met on the trip so far. That will teach me to harbour unwarranted prejudice based on shallow media stereotypes! Alabama also looked pretty pleasant and (mostly) devoid of Confederate flags, so there you go: more civilised than Norfolk. Move on. That said, I was very careful not to give any excuse to be pulled over by a southern sheriff.

Sweet Home Alabama

In Huntsville we passed the space centre. Had I realised that we would be passing that way I would have tried to spend some time there. The Saturn V and space shuttle looked pretty impressive even from the road.

 

Day 5 – Pyramids, Goats and Absinthe

Memphis to… well, Memphis

It would appear that Memphis has broken Ethan. Whether it is the syrupy air or some airborne malady emanating from the Mississippi, he seems to be struggling with a sore throat and feeling a little iffy. Looks like the Nicholls men will not be taking Memphis by storm tonight.

I just about convinced him to venture out for some food (first taste of catfish at the Flying Fish cafe – surprisingly good!), and then dragged him along to Beale Street to soak up the atmosphere. He clearly felt that he had soaked up enough of the atmosphere earlier in the day and dismissed the experience with a “Like Vegas, but sleazier”.  I don’t necessarily disagree, but the music is much better. So with a sense of regret and a vague urge to head back to the absinthe bar later, we left Beale Street behind, reeling from Ethan’s disapproval.

Like Vegas, but sleazier

We stopped on the way to replenish our supply of Wild Turkey with honey, the new favoured tipple, which Ethan tried to pass off as a medicinal requirement. I was rather amused to be IDed for this (I’m assuming it is Tennessee law rather than holiday relaxation resulting in me looking under 21) and quite pleased to partake of the American tradition of carrying a bottle of spirits in a brown paper bag, Fitted right in with some of the locals.

Will have to sneak in past the Sleepless One though. The concierge in the building seems to be there 24/7. Not only is he in the lobby every time we have entered or left the building, but he has also been in the elevator several times when I have called it. I am beginning to be just a little freaked out by this…

It’s been another long day, although one without driving. Had I booked the right day for Graceland, I would have had to get the car out of the car park. I would like to think that I had planned it that way, but it is clear that only one of us did any planning! Anyway, Graceland tomorrow left the day open for some exploring.

Wandering around Memphis, it is obvious that the recession has hit here. Much of it is very run down, although, in common with most US cities, it is easy to move from run down to swank in the space of a few hundred yards. I have to say that everyone is really friendly here – even people asking for money, No sign of the tension which is gripping large parts of the US in Memphis.

So, following an abortive attempt to visit the civil rights museum (not open on Tuesdays apparently; not our first inappropriate day for an activity on this trip), we wandered down the riverfront to the pyramid. Yes, Memphis has a pyramid. Get over it.

En route we passed a memorial to the Sultana disaster. I couldn’t help but agree with Ethan when is espoused the view that anything involving sultanas is a disaster.

Sultanas

Onwards to the pyramid, which is a sporting goods store containing a fake swamp with real alligators – don’t attempt to understand the logic, just go with it.

Not Egypt

Any sign of alligators?

Following that, we trudged back through the heat for a boat trip, The trip itself was pretty dull ( just a loop between several bridges, but the commentary was quite entertaining and for at least half of the journey, there was a very welcome stiff breeze), but it was on the Mississippi, nuff said.

Oddest thing of the day? Irish goats. I must remember to ask Dec about this – I had no idea it was a thing:

It’s not clear whether the goats are Irish or whether they tend to dive at Irish people and hence the warning.

 

Day 4 – Hunkered down in Hopkinsville

Woah!

Bowling Green to Memphis via Hopkinsville

Well, it seemed like a good plan: Get to Hopkinsville (sorry, Eclipseville) early, avoid the traffic and soak up the party atmosphere.

Even without an eclipse, the 21st August is an important date in Hopkinsville, being the anniversary of the Hopkinsville goblin incident when a number of locals were pestered by goblin-like creatures – possibly of extraterrestrial origin, possibly the result of moonshine visions. The incident is celebrated every year with the Little Green Man festival. Having a total eclipse on the 62nd anniversary is surely a sign of imminent return, and we wanted a piece of it.

Unfortunately, as I was wide awake at 4am like an excited kid at Christmas, I was in danger of dozing off and missing the eclipse entirely. I even set an alarm just in case!

The heat doesn’t really help. It’s one of those days where to exist is to sweat – no movement necessary. Rather aptly, the W3W tag for this place is tapes.saxophone.sweat (can’t help thinking that that should be somewhere in Memphis). If only I had checked first. The other thing that may have borne checking was where the viewing site is in relation to the centre of town. Ethan and myself are no strangers to walking, but 3 or 4 miles in this heat is probably not sensible, so probably just going to have to tough it out here and sadly miss all the weirdness.

Ethan has even been (largely) restrained in telling me that I was overly paranoid about traffic, and needn’t have made him wait in the heat for 5 hours, but I expect I will pay sooner or later.

It is all depressingly sensible and civilized at the viewing site. Everyone seems to have come prepared with their gazebos, deck chairs, coolers, barbecues, telescopes etc. We had a beach mat purchased from Walmart this morning, but assumed the moral high ground, having travelled further than everyone else.

Still, you don’t need all of the professional kit. The eclipse itself was awesome. I can see why people chase them all around the world.

Woah!

I was a bit concerned at the sound of gunfire during the eclipse though. Fireworks, fair enough, but shooting at the sun?

Having ventured off the interstates today, we have seen something of small town Kentucky, which all looks very pleasant. Into Tennessee and we found a town which seemed to have more churches than people, I am actually going to check. It also had a place for drive-thru prayer, which I couldn’t quite get my head around. Ethan has done some more routing jiggery pokery today to maximize the number of states visited. Hence we traveled from Hopkinsville to Memphis via Missouri and Arkansas, crossing the mighty Mississippi several times in the process.

It's huge!

I’m sure it was the quickest route… I’m not sure what to think about those two states though. Imagine the excitement of Lincolnshire if it was the size of France. (Seems I didn’t have to wait too long to pay for the early start after all!)

The Memphis apartment seems pretty good and ideally located, even if it was like an episode of the crystal maze to get in via various codes, time trials and battle of wits. Seems unlikely that much exploring will be done tonight after the epic drive,  but lots within easy walking distance to see tomorrow. I feel that driving 1100 miles in 3 days entitles me to a day off.

Day 3 – Hotter than a coonskin jockstrap

Winchester to Bowling Green via Louisville and Mammoth Caves

Phew! 90-odd degrees and humid… and stays that way well into the evening. Just as well we spent a few hours in the subterranean coolness of Mamouth Caves. Not that we thought we were likely to make it. We turned up with exactly zero minutes (well not exactly, we were in fact late) to spare, despite having an extra hour due to crossing a time zone. I don’t know who thought that having several time zones within a state was a good idea, but we appreciated it today. We are choosing to view it as an exceptional example of planning and maximizing use of time. And Mammoth Caves? It’s a big cave.

To rewind…

The day started with a trip to the very pleasant looking Lousiville to visit the Lousiville Slugger Museum.

En route, we were constantly encouraged to divert to various distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. Tempting but oh, wait minute, it’s Sunday and thinking about alcohol is beyond the pale. Who planned this trip? If it wasn’t for the extreme temporal ninja skills already mentioned, I might have been critical of this. As it turns out, the prohibition does not extend to Liquor Barn. Oh my, that was quite some discovery. I could happily take up residence in their bourbon section (or the wine section, rum section…) so we were well provisioned when we got to Bowling Green.

From Lousiville there was a quick trip across the Ohio river into Indiana (another state, tick) to Clarkesville Seafood. A fantastic throwback to simpler, cholesterol-friendly times. Ethan described it as “greasy, salty perfection” and who am I to argue? He certainly knows his onions when it comes to food research.

Greasy, salty perfection

Sadly, my weak attempts at Monkees based humour went unappreciated. I had suggested that we should head to Clarkesville later in the day by train, but this was met with a look which expressed the concern of having to potentially have an elderly relative locked away for their own safety.

Ah well, onwards to Mammoth caves, or so I thought. Apparently, there were plans to undertake a drive-by photograph of Fort Knox.

Show me the money!

It was this “diversion” that put us into a lively debate around priorities and led to the aforementioned scheduling masterclass, although a certain amount of flexibility with regards to local conventions around vehicular alacrity.

Anyway, we finally made it to Bowling Green, with quite the party atmosphere developing in the hotel amongst the eclipse celebrators. I guess we could stay here and watch the eclipse, but who is willing to put up with a mere 40 seconds of totality when you can get 2 minutes more by queuing in traffic to get into Hopkinsville? Ethan has learned that the twin princes of conspiracy theories Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura will be in Hopkinsville tomorrow (presumably awaiting the return of the goblins), so the die is cast…

I am now inordinately excited about the eclipse, and irritating Ethan severely with my geeky desire to get up at stupid o’clock and head over to Hopkinsville.