Day 2-3

Solidly Southern

When it’s five pm and the skin on your back is still sticking to the leather couch, it’s clear that the trip is heating up in more ways than one. 

Picture this, I’m driving, and from the back of the RV comes a panicked voice, “Where’s Samantha?” And quickly from panic to terror, “Where’s Samantha?!” Michael is searching frantically on either cramped side of the bed in the back (I intuit this mostly because my eyes are fixed madly on the road as a brand new sensation of the entire rig pulling to the right has me on edge before the nightmare vision of our dog slipping out a door left open a little too long, and running around lost and miserable from parking lot R to E to J of Nissan Stadium in Nashville… twenty minutes in the rear view by now). 

“She’s been locked in the bathroom?!” he nearly screams…

Now, before I go on with the point of this story, which is to illustrate just how hot this trip is getting, in every sense of the word, I must address the fact that our dog was not discovered missing for at least 20 minutes after we’d hit the road. Since I didn’t grow up with dogs, or have dogs in my 20s or my early 30s, and having never even seen the inside of a working RV until 3 days ago, I was naively in a set of people who blissfully pictured that dogs could just do dog things in an RV, just like home. Sit, sleep, eat, cuddle and play. While googling… (actually, figoogling a term I invented after the RV refrigerator debacle) every inch of RV life that I could think of… I guess I never typed in the simple three words “RVing with Pets” and took the abundance of dog friendly campsites as well as the all around good natured personality of our dogs, and the fact that they regularly spend 6-8 hours together in a crate while we are at Bagel Grove, to mean that we would do just fine taking our pets with us. It was the humans I was worried about. But after about 5 seconds of figoogling out what to do about Samantha’s anxiety while driving, I discovered, duh, that our pets need to seat buckled in just like the rest of our irreplaceable family members. I promise, especially to anyone who has already picked up their phone and started figoogling out how to get the local authorities to track us down and take away our doggies under charges of pet abuse… we are stopping at a Walmart in the morning and getting a seat belt harness for Samantha and Libby. I could not be more sorry for my oversight.

Still driving, I’m in shock, the kids are silent at the mercy of their father’s/step-father’s rage as he spits out “bunch of zombies.” This insult, even though it was clearly a meaningless discharge from an incredibly stressful situation, winds me up almost immediately to a point of tension where minor wars are declared. So to help the situation, because that’s what I was born to do, I yell back, “Why can’t you realize we made a mistake and stop yelling at everyone!” Which gives me the exact same feeling you get when you are fed up with your toddler and you finally snap at them and literally scream the most ironic statement known to motherhood, “you don’t get your way by screaming!” 

Yeah, that kind of hot.

My husband and I are like fire and, well, to be honest, more fire. Stubborn, opinionated, sensitive and deeply concerned with what we believe is right. It takes a fair amount of strong talk before we reach a homeostasis of togetherness and forward momentum. Mind you, I love this man more than anyone on this planet that I didn’t give birth to. That’s really the heart of the problem. Too much goddamn heat!

And the temperature outside is rising as well.

As we drive towards Memphis, and with my battery power on 3%, I’m scanning with google street view to see if we can park our RV near mud island dog park RIGHT ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER (geez, never knew how good it would feel to finally, at age 40, have it come in handy to be able to spell that word… but then spell check actually just reminded me that I forgot the second P, which is what happens when you get excited that you know something and then mess it up over your excitement). No one else probably wants to stop, but it will be 6pm, and I feel that the road trip gods are definitely smiling on my perfect picnic by the mississippi (got it right the first time, this time, except that I didn’t capitalize the M, but I actually like it that way at the moment, so I’m keeping it). So stop we will.

As far as travel blogs go… I must admit, this is failing pretty hard at the travel + blog part. Because last you knew I was pulling out of our driveway in upstate NY, and as far as I know the only Memphis on the mississippi (that word is mine now.) river is leaving out a whole lotta stuff in between. Well, there’s a couple reasons for that. One, is that at merely day 3, the novelty of the RV, and specifically spending about 47 of the last 84 hours with all 7 of us (that’s 5 with 2 legs and 2 with 4 legs, which if you do the math is approximately .38 legs per hour, but an ever increasing amount of hours per leg) inside the RV, means that’s what I’ve got to write about. Secondly, when I’ve got time to write, its while we’re driving between “rest for the weary” and “fun in the sun”, so hashtag rvlife is what bubbles to the fingertips. So as the next place of rest is on the horizon, I’ll give you some pictures of what our life is like south of mason dixon line… (chronological order attempted here)

After hours and hours of Pennsylvania rolling hills, bespotted with outlet malls and billboards for gentlemen’s clubs (I wen’t to college in Philadelphia as well as growing up driving down to visit my father’s family in Virginia, so this stretch of highway is well known to me, and not the least beloved) we finally crossed into dixie and the 3rd state of the trip, Maryland welcomes you but it quickly runs off to the east and kicks you into West Virginia, and you feel you are making amazing time, a whole state in 30 minutes, and just as you’re figuring out how West Virginia ended up all the way over in what firmly feels like East Coast territory, you’ve clocked yet another state, and the whole lovin’ state of Virginia has you in it’s mountains for the next 5 hours.

As we near the Tennessee border I get a phone call from the RV park we are staying at that night. And while it’s fine if we roll in past midnight, because a little envelope with our name on it will be waiting just outside the office door (best RV park in Pigeon Forge, if you ever need a recommendation) the rain (did I forget to mention it was raining for about 12 out of the 15 hours that first day) has them a little concerned about the creek. (where I’d romantically chosen to spend our first night) flooding. So picture a boat in a flood… and now picture that boat filling up with water… Thank you Pigeon Forge RV Resort for your caution! So she was moving us to spot “F as in Frank and the number 6, yes ma’am that’s F as in Frank an the number 6, yes ma’am.” Now… if you want the full effect of that line, start by saying Tinniseeee, with as much Dolly Parton smile and twang as you can, and then roll right on into “F as in Frank and the number 6…” Welcome to the South kids!

As we enter Tennessee I discover (on my phone’s google map) that we are near the junctions of Virginia and North Carolina. And because Tennessee’s shaped like a dachshund (yeah, a leggless and headless one) Georgia isn’t too far away, and even South Carolina feels like a simple day trip. So if you’re from one of those places, then you probably know Pigeon Forge Tennessee has a reputation. But let me tell you it was way more fun to drive into this land at the foot of the great Smoky Mountains, at night, and have no idea what was coming. Picture you’re an alien, and you land somewhere in the desert driving through Nevada having no idea what Las Vegas is. Now cross that with the local, held together with tape and gum “kidz fun zone” in your town, and you may begin to get a picture of Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge Tennessee. We see indoor water slide parks the size of a small mall, outdoor waterslide parks with slides the color of skittles, outdoor roller coasters lit up with a string of lights (which in the daylight we saw are built along the side of the mountains so that your are careening over mountain ledges as part of the ride), a house the size of the white house built upside down and off kilter holding a museum sized Wonderworks engineered to expand the minds of unsuspecting children, an almost life size Tiitanic reproduction, large clubs advertising slapstick comedy dinner theater, Bible dinner theater, and musical theater comedy that tells their stories backwards (made that up), then more water parks, more roller coasters, the largest knife store on earth, a museum of cowboy boots, and on and on for miles. And that’s just the miles of road that lead up to the city’s main draw, DOLLYWOOD.

At Dollywood I learn an important lesson, taught to me in part by my desperately begging daughter. Seize the moment, it may not come again. And another one, don’t let fear be your guide. A roller coaster called “Wild Eagle” that I’d watched a POV video on YouTube seemed to me one of the most uniquely built roller coasters on planet earth. Designed with two branches of seats spread on either side of the track (kind of like Eagle’s wings), your feet are dangling, and it has careening twists and playful loops that make you feel (I hear) that you are as free and wild as an eagle soaring above the entire park. I wanted to go on this roller coaster more than any of the 10 or so that all looked unique and fun and thrilling… except for one birdlike feature at its origin… the nosedive. When the time comes to go with everyone, my son backs out, my step son isn’t even considering it, my husband says “sure, sounds fun” and my daughter is jumping around on tiptoes ready to take flight herself out of excitement. It is down to me, and just when the moment I’ve been looking forward to arrives, I lose my nerve. I back out. I say, “I can’t do it, maybe next time…” Even though I know I would have loved it. After getting off the roller coaster called the Tennessee Tornado earlier in the day, I was hooping and hollering, loving the feeling of weightlessness during the loops, the thrill of the twists, and the joy of overcoming my fear of the drops. But I panic, I forget how to be brave. And as the day goes on, before I have worked up my nerve to experience this coaster with my daughter (who is begging me even harder after she’s experienced it and knows how much fun it is)… the park is closing, we dash to the final (wooden) roller coaster on our list, only to find the rope drawn across the entrance saying “ride closed.”  Our only option is the long trolly ride “home.” (which takes even longer because we follow a sign after exiting the park that says “trolley this way” which leads us with a group of other folks heading to the parking lots. After walking the length of 4 or 5 parking lots we stop one of the tram drivers who is bringing people to their cars, and ask them where the trolley stop is… only to find the trolley stop was way back past where we’d started. So if you are ever exiting Dollywood, and you need to take a trolley home, don’t follow the signs, they make no sense. Find someone that isn’t a tourist, or fight your way back into the park to find a park employee, and just ask where the trolley picks up.)

Day three is another one spent mostly staring at multiple versions of the same thing for hours on end, the road, a book, a phone, this computer screen, and for bits and pieces, out the window. Not a whole lot to catch our attention as far as Tennessee highway scenery once we leave the breathtaking Smoky Mountains. But we do stop in Nashville for lunch at a tourist destination, Hattie B’s, for Tennessee Hot Chicken. Our international basketball playing, motorcycle riding, world traveling uber driver tells us that he doesn’t think Hattie B’s is the best hot chicken, and not worth the 30 – 40 minute wait… but when we see a line out the door of only about 8 or 9 groups deep, we are pleasantly surprised. A few southern sides, chicken bones and breasts and all manner of spice levels from mild all the way to “shut the cluck up” (which we order on 1 tender just to try it) we are feeling very pro Nashville. But our opinion is sealed, (and we begin to sense that the road-trip gods have started to open up and pour upon us their blessings), while walking back to the RV (we decided the $20 Uber ride from the stadium where we’d found a city spot to park an RV was not something we needed to repeat and that we could handle a dozen or more city blocks and a lovely pedestrian bridge across the Cumberland River) we head down Broadway. Immediately we are serenaded on every side by live country music acts pouring out of the open windows of loaded bar after overflowing bar after bar, for 3 straight blocks. (At 2pm on a Thursday?!). There is also a group of women, about 20 of them, moving slowly down the street to our right on a sort of party bus that is shaped like a bar on wheels and powered by everyone peddling. (My 13 year old daughter was mesmerized and convinced this was the coolest way to spend an afternoon with your 20 closest friends… She nodded emphatically when I asked if that’s what she wants to do for her 21st birthday. Lord I hope she changes her mind when she gets there…) Music is all around. And even with none of us fans of country music, we can’t help smiling, laughing, snapping pictures and being completely caught up in the dumb spirited life of it all.

Back in the car we make our way through Tennessee, stop in Memphis (my dog park picnic on the Mississippi is ruined by rain, even though we stop, we immediately get back on the highway, which is only saved by the curious appearance of pyramid to our left, which my 12 year old son recognizes immediately as the 9th largest pyramid in the world (he knows so much random shit)… which is now a Bass Pro Shop. Weirdest thing ever), then cross the great Mississippi (last time I will write this until the way home I’m sure) and head towards Hot Springs National park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. We drive through Little Rock in the dark, so I can’t tell you a thing about that city… and arrive at the national park and the campground at Gulpha’s Gorge about 9:30pm. Turning in for the night, I close my eyes to the sounds of country, not the music… the thing itself.