We stayed in Michigan a bit longer than we had planned but didn’t regret our decision given the state’s epic beauty. All good things must come to an end though, and some hard deadlines made it necessary to start heading south. From Southern Michigan, we made the grueling (traffic-wise) drive to Elkhart Indiana, the birthplace of the RV industry and current home to most of the big manufacturers and suppliers. We needed a cheap stopover and ended up staying at the RV Hall Of Fame via our Harvest Hosts membership. The only requirement for a Harvest Hosts is to do some business with the proprietor, in this case, we shelled out the 24 bucks for access to the RV Museum.
The museum was interesting and we were able to kill a few hours looking at the exhibits. It’s a great place for people who like attending RV shows, the only difference is you get to see classic RVs after decades of use. As you can imagine, most of the RVs on display didn’t have that ‘new RV’ smell. It was interesting to see the evolution of the RV over the years, starting with small camping trailers with canvas roofs. The first thing we saw as we approached the museum was ‘Eagle One’, a Philadelphia Eagles themed class A RV emblazoned with the heroes of Philadelphia circa 2017: Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, and… The Pontiff? It should be noted that we have been bandwagon Eagles fans since 2016 when fellow Bison Wentz was selected #2 overall in the NFL draft.
The next day we headed further south and east to St. Henry Ohio to visit friends and moochdock in front of their house. We had a nice visit and got our first taste of ‘The South’ (at least it felt that way with the heat, humidity, and southern accents). After leaving Ohio we stopped for one more night in Brookville Indiana on our way south to Kentucky.
We crossed over the Ohio River expecting to see some drastic change upon entering the ‘real’ south. As it turns out nothing really changed other than the width of the roads, which in Kentucky are barely enough to accommodate 2 cars, and rarely include a centerline. After some white-knuckled driving, we arrived safely at ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ State Park in Bardstown, the epicenter of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.
While in Bardstown we did what we were supposed to do, tour distilleries and taste bourbon. The first tour was right in town at Barton 1792 Distillery, famous for the ‘Very Old Barton’ and more premium ‘1792’ bourbon brands. This particular tour was free and fortunately allowed kids. The tour started with a look inside one of the aging warehouses, where the distilled product ages 6 to 10 years. The smell of oak and alcohol, the ‘angel’s share’ as it is known, permeated the old wooden structure. After the warehouse, we moved on to the see the still in action, then to the tasting. While the 1792 brand was quite smooth, we opted to take home a bottle of the more affordable Very Old Barton.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Bardstown, which was preparing for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. We walked through the historic downtown, where buildings date back as far as the revolutionary war era. Bardstown is the self-proclaimed “Most beautiful small town in America”. I’m not sure I can go that far, but it is pretty nice with small shops, restaurants, breweries, and plenty of tourists. Bardstown was the center of Roman Catholicism west of the Appalachians in the early 1800s, and the ‘proto-cathedral’ completed in 1823 is still an active church.
Our second and final distillery tour was at the world-famous Maker’s Mark distillery near Loretto Kentucky. This popular tour wasn’t free ($38 for two adults and two kids), but the experience was well worth it. The tour was pretty similar to the Barton tour. In addition to a warehouse, we saw huge fermentation tanks in action and were even allowed to dip our fingers and taste the mash at various stages of fermentation. We saw the shiny stills and limestone cellar used in aging some of the more premium brands.
We were taken through the bottling room where they add the signature red wax to seal the bottles, and finally to the tasting room where we got to taste everything from raw un-aged ‘white lightning’ to their most premium ‘Private Select’ brand. Priceless glass artwork was featured throughout the tour, including ‘The Spirit of the Maker’ by Dale Chihuly, a work commissioned specifically for display at the distillery. Before leaving we bought a small bottle of ‘original recipe’ Maker’s Mark which Jackie hand-dipped with that famous red wax.
Next up on our tour of Kentucky was Moutardier Campground near Mammoth Cave National Park. The campground was well maintained and inexpensive, typical of an Army Corps of Engineers Campground. The campground was on Lake Nolin and thankfully had electricity so we could battle the heat and humidity with continuous air conditioning. There wasn’t too much to do around the campground, although we did go fishing one day (skunked again). Our site was close to the playground where the boys spent most of their time. They came home from the playground one day with a stray cat. I named her Calipari, and she lived at our site until we left.
The main purpose of our trek to this sleepy corner of Kentucky was to visit Mammoth Cave National Park. Tour slots at Mammoth cave are limited, so we arrived early to assure our place in one of the morning tours. Mammoth Cave has over 400 miles of passageways, but we opted for the one-hour Frozen Niagara tour where we’d only have to walk 1/2 mile. Jackie feared that any longer would be too much for the boys, and I feared any longer would be too much for my bladder. There are no bathrooms in Mammoth Cave.
We had a few hours to kill before our tour started, so we putzed around the Museum then walked down to the main entrance of the cave. As we approached we felt a cold wind emanating from the 50-degree cave, a welcome contrast to the 90+ degree surface temps. We were able to walk a few hundred feet into the cave before being met with a locked gate. For the most part, one must pay to enter Mammoth Cave.
As it got closer to tour time, we made our way over to the shuttle bus that would bring us to the Frozen Niagara entrance. After a stern lecture (cliff note version: no touching) and a short bus ride, we spelunked down into the cave along with about 40 other people, median age 71. We saw stalactites, stalagmites, giant cave crickets and thankfully no bats. The main attraction, an underground limestone rock formation named Frozen Niagara, was pretty cool. Since most of the action at Mammoth Cave is underground and requires a guided tour ticket we were content with just a single day visit.
Kentucky was great and all, and in a perfect world we would have spent more time. As it was, we needed to be moseying on. Our next stop was Tennesse, home to two of my personal heroes: Bill Dance and Dave Ramsey. Our first stop was Cedars of Lebanon State Park, about an hour outside of Nashville. We had originally wanted to stay closer but since we had only planned on a day trip into town, the drive wasn’t too bad.
As it turns out, our day in Nashville was pretty damn fun, and we made the most of our limited time. I had no idea what to expect since I rarely research on any of the places we visit. As usual, Jackie did all the planning and once again hit a home run. My first impression was ‘wow this city is huge’. I don’t know what I was expecting, except something smaller. After finding a parking spot on the very top level of a packed downtown parking structure we made our way to street level via the Nashville Public Library which was connected to the garage. Right away we were hit with a crush of humanity. Feeling overwhelmed and slightly disoriented, we mistakenly started walking towards the river. Once we got our bearings, we quickly backtracked towards our intended target, Music Row.
We started off easy, just walking the streets and taking it all in. The main attraction were the Honkey Tonks lining the streets where you can go inside grab a beer and jam out, or just listen from the sidewalk through the open-air stages. There were little hole-in-the-wall places that have been around forever alongside newer venues like “Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse”. Celebrity honkey-tonks were about as plentiful as flies on a goat’s ass and included offerings from the likes of Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bently, Luke Bryan, FGL, Alan Jackson, John Rich, and Wierd Al.
For lunch, we opted for Honkey Tonk Central where we ate some southern food and drank some local craft beer. The music was loud but the boys were unfazed. Thomas seemed to be in his element which is a bit scary. We listened to music for a while then headed back to the streets of Nashville where we stopped by the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, a Nashville fixture. BTW, I was lying about there being a Wierd Al honkey-tonk, but there should be!
There seems to be a lack of public bathrooms in Downtown Nashville but we were able to find some at Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators hockey team (seriously, who approved that name?). Bridgestone also houses the Downtown Visitors Center, along with a nice gift shop outfitted with a mock stage. The boys played some music, John on the triangle and Thomas on the tambourine.
Other activities included popping our heads in at Margaritaville, buying some Goo Goo Clusters at their flagship store, and smashing pennies at Wildhorse Saloon. Our final stop downtown was ‘The Stage’, another Honkey Tonk. We drank some PBRs and rocked out as much as one can with two kids in tow. We decided we are definitely coming back to Nashville and definitely without kids. On our way out of town, we took a detour to the Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens. The Parthenon was constructed for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897 because hey why not.
Our final stop in Tennesse was Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the nation. After another grueling drive on busy I-40, we arrived at Pigeon Forge, the gateway to the Smokies and home to Dollywood. Pigeon Forge was obnoxiously busy, but we soon found our way home to Elkmont Campground which offered something at least resembling serenity.
The Smokies are at their peak in October when the leaves start changing, but when we visited in late September it was still pretty magical. We had low expectations since we hate crowds, but were pleasantly surprised. We spent two days touring the park and it was a real treat. The first day we headed east towards the North Carolina border on Highway 441. We took the turnoff at Newfound Gap towards Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi.
Luckily we were able to find a spot in the Clingmans Dome parking lot and proceeded to climb to the top. On our way, eagle-eyed John spotted a tiny Salamander, what we later determined was probably an Imitator Salamander. As it turns out, the Smokies are known as the Salamander capital of the world. At the top of the mountain was an observation tower with a spiral-shaped ramp leading to the top. On top of the observation tower, we discovered spectacular 360-degree views, Tennessee on one side and North Carolina on the other.
On our way back down to the parking lot, we took a detour to walk part of the Appalachian Trail, very exciting for me after all the books I’ve read about Appalachian Trail through-hikers. As we decended we overheard a lady on her way up proclaim: “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done”. I deemed the statement very unlikely, but if true my hat’s off to her.
After climbing ‘The Dome’ we headed further East through winding Appalacian roads to Mingus Mill, one of several old grain mills located in the park. While most other national parks were carved from wilderness areas, the Smokies were populated and privately owned before being purchased by the government and becoming a national park. This means there are some interesting anthropologic sites to be found. Mingus Mill is even staffed with volunteers in period dress explaining the milling process and selling cornmeal milled on-site with all proceeds going to park preservation.
Next, we headed even further east to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum. The visitors center was standard national park fare, we stamped passports and saw some exhibits. Adjacent to the visitors center was the Mountain Farm Museum, an old farmstead in a grassy river valley surrounded by the Smoky Mountains. The farm had some more exhibits as well as some live animals including chickens and pigs. We then backtracked the way we came, with one final stop at Newfound Gap where we gazed from the overlook and hiked another small portion of the Appalachian Trail.
The next day we stayed firmly on the Tennesse side of the mountains and headed over to Cades Cove, an isolated yet lush valley that was once home to hundreds of settlers. During the civil war, Cades Cove was a hotbed of union sympathy and abolitionist activity and was frequently raided by confederate troops. As the national park was being formed, the state of Tennesse forcibly acquired the entire valley using eminent domain. The settlers left behind fields, farmsteads, and churches that are now preserved by the park service.
The area is served by a single lane, one-way loop road that traverses the cove. The day we visited it was bumper to bumper traffic. At about the half-way mark there is a visitor center and another preserved farmstead with a grist mill, cantilever barn, corn crib, sorghum mill, smokehouse, among other structures. We toured the grounds then got back in the car planning to drive a few more miles before eating lunch at a picnic area. Unfortunately, the traffic on the way out of Cades Cove was even worse than the traffic we experienced on the way in. As it turned out we were stuck in a bear jam. On the bright side, we did get to see our first black bear of the trip so the delay paid off.
We finished off the day by driving through Gatlinburg, another congested tourist town near the park. Once again the traffic was wall to wall. On the way back to the campground, we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitors Center, where we viewed a museum full of taxidermied specimens native to the Smokies. This is where we determined the identity of the salamander we saw the day before. We returned to our campsite and Jackie, feeling ambitious, went off on a solo hike near the campground. Much to her surprise and dismay, she saw yet another black bear. Luckily, it was non-threatening and scampered away into the brush. The next day we packed up camp once again and made our way to our next home in the state of North Carolina, but more on that later. Farewell for now and safe travels.
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