If you follow this blog, it would be easy to think that we disappeared somewhere after our visit to Oxford, Mississippi. We sort of did vanish. Our next destination took us out of cell reception and sent some members of our family into a frenzied search for our whereabouts. Now, another six weeks have passed and I still haven’t written anything more about our trip. Our travels over the past two months have been so fun, so relaxing and so vary ing that I didn’t have any time (or desire) to put life on pause to update this blog. But now that we’re back home in Florida, I’m enjoying the chance to reflect on our trip a little .
After our visit to the academic enclave of Oxford, Mississippi, we headed toward one of our favorite places to camp: Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Along the way, we made a stop that fit nicely with our homeschool curriculum’s unit on the life of Helen Keller. Helen Keller’s childhood home is in Florence, Alabama. It is open to the public and our kids were captivated seeing the place where the pioneering woman grew up and began to revolutionize how the deaf and blind participate in society. (They made such an impression, that when my father-in-law called them in an attempt to trace our tracks, the lady at the front desk said she wished her grandkids were as attentive as ours.)
When there isn’t a pandemic, an outdoor stage is the setting for a theatrical production of “The Miracle Worker.” A play about a woman, performed in the actual place it happened—I think the kids call that “so meta.”
I had ulterior motives for passing through this area. Florence is adjacent to the town of Muscle Shoals (not it’s not Mussel Shoals, but it probably should be, but I don’t want to get into it). Some of you might know Muscle Shoals as the town that is name-checked in the classic Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” I’m not a huge fan of Skynyrd (more of a Neil Young “Southern Man” fan), but I don’t argue the qualities that make this a popular classic rock song. The song references “The Swampers,” studio musicians who helped make the area a mecca for recording artists from soul, to blues rock and country.
Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” was one of the first recordings to make a name for Muscle Shoals, and the list of great musicians who’ve come there to hone their sound includes some of my favorites, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, John Prine, The Black Keys, The Drive By Truckers and my very personal favorite (and North Alabama native son) Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit. We had to make a quick drive by FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on the off-chance a music legend was hanging out in the parking lot. One can dream. I find it bittersweet and ironic that an area known for its musical influence is also the home to the planet’s most famous deaf person.
FAME Studio is unceremoniously sandwiched between a CVS and a deli. This is not a place with the amenities of celebrity life. Unfortunately we weren’t there on a a day when any of the studios offered tours.
Free camping… with hookups?
One of the things we’ve learned the hard way is to avoid really long drives. Anything over four hours makes everyone weary and the kids get cranky. Every once in a while we just have to bite the bullet and drive eight hours, but we only end up covering the miles you’d make in a car in six hours. Not because I drive slow, but because we have to stop at every single historic marker.
Needing a place to stay near Chattanooga, I tried to book a campsite at a city-owned campground at Jordan Park. When I called to book a site, I reached the cell phone of a guy who didn’t work there anymore. He gave me a different phone number which went straight to voice mail so I left a message. I never got a call back. We arrived to find a “sports complex” of soccer and baseball fields and a long running trail (perfect!) In the midst of all this was an empty field of electrical and water hookups along with a dump station. There were a couple of trailers that looked a bit like long-term squatters, so we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves. Try as I might, I never found anyone to take our money.
Arriving at the Smokies in mid-May, it was the earliest we’ve ever visited the area and we found the weather delightfully chilly. I could go on and on about how we love the scenery, the climate, the foliage, the wildlife and the history of the Smokies. Instead, I’ll just direct you to some of our other great visits. Like our first visit when we experienced the magical synchronous fireflies, or the second time when a massive rainstorm and a vomiting child made our first night one to remember, or last year when the park ranger who greeted us, may or may not have been a psychopath.
This year was memorable because Cades Cove Loop*, which is usually an 11 mile traffic jam of people looking for bears from their cars, is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesdays (they used to only close it in the mornings, making it less friendly for people on foot). We took the entire day to explore the loop, care free and car free. We had no goal other than to spend the day walking the forest and cove, looking at old settlements from the era before it was a National Park, eating snacks, and enjoying a great family day. We saw more than a half-dozen bears. I’m not exaggerating when I say, rather emotionally, that it was one of the most content days of my life—I enjoyed it that much. This is why we live.
*(Cade’s Cove’s apostrophe omitted by the Federal Government, see: Harpers Ferry, Devils Tower)
I don’t necessarily suggest staying in a nondescript multi-use municipal park for a vacation, but it was a great place to stop overnight. Coco the kitten got to stretch her legs for the first time on the trip.
Yes, we have matching Keen backpacks that turn into chairs with seat-backs. They’re the greatest thing ever. But we look like a family on TV’s Amazing Race.
Cades Cove without cars is like the Garden of Eden. I think the bears appreciate the car-free day too
We promised our daughter that a good long walk without complaints would be rewarded with ice cream. These kids could walk 20 miles without complaining, so the prize was a sure thing. Tragically, we arrived at the ranger station only to be informed by an ice cream licking pair of retirees that the store had just closed. Tears of sorrow followed, but a trip to the vending machine for large amounts of Skittles and M&Ms cheered her up. A bear then came out of the woods to follow my candy-laden scent.
Home schooling was still in full effect. Every eight year-old must know the nuanced differences between the many Union army generals during the Civil War. We call it “Reading, Writing, and Mid-19th Century Military Strategy.”
In our next post: We exit the Smokies to find a minor search underway to locate us, and half the country out of gasoline.
You’re enjoying the FOURTH summer trip of “Don’t Make Me Turn This Van Around.” This blog is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. In 2016, after series of major medical issues, Jon was diagnosed with a serious genetic condition called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. With life completely altered, they developed a road-trip habit. Reach Jon at email@example.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.