Thursday, October 13, 2011

Road Trip: on and on and on I-40

I just realized that I spent 5 out of the last 6 days driving for many hours a day. My arms are tired, my back hurts a little but not like some people who drive for 18 hours straight just to get somewhere. Or God forbid, those poor truck drivers.

It's fun and good exercise to stop at the many lovely rest stops along I-40 and walk around, maybe call a friend and chat, eat some lunch at one of the covered or shady picnic tables, visit with other travelers.

Flowers at a rest stop!

At a rest stop in Arkansas, after a fairly leisurely morning getting de-camped from the Petit Jean State Park's lovely campground, I paused to eat lunch at a shady rest stop. Parked next to me was another car from New Mexico. I waited for the driver to come out of the restroom and we chatted a few minutes. He'd started a DAY later than I had, and was driving like mad to meet some customers the next day in Nashville. Whew! He said I'd left NM in the nick of time (Friday) because it snowed that night in Taos. Not quite ready to press my body back into the driver's seat, I walked for over 45 minutes, talking to my friend Suzanne, who will soon be walking 50 miles in a cancer fundraiser in Philadelphia.

Arkansas and Tennessee appear to be much like each other, tall trees on either side of the freeway giving the appearance of a deep green canyon. Invisible towns are known only by the off-ramps and signs pointing into thick woods.

The car shimmied every once in a while and sometimes wouldn't stop vibrating. It felt like that dirt road from Nageezi to Chaco Canyon. It was difficult to tell if it was the road, the car, the brakes, or just what. I pulled off onto a tiny country road where there was a fried chicken cafe/gas station combo. A handsome black man with the bluest eyes took a look under the hood, determined it wasn't the engine or bad gasoline. He told me there was a Toyota dealership in Jackson so I pulled back onto the freeway and kept the car under 65 the rest of the way. In Jackson, there were signs to an RV park, but when I finally pulled in, it was hardly your standard KOA. No office, no shower or restrooms, the place was full of junked out motor homes and single wide trailers up on blocks. A couple of muscular men, smoking cigars and wearing white stained sleeveless undershirts were hanging around a black pickup with the hood propped open. I circled through and pulled out. Ended up staying at a motel. Probably would have been better off camping in a Walmart parking lot. Or, if I'd planned ahead better, I might have gone on down the road to one of many state parks.

The hotel was a Super 8 decked out with the quality linens, towels and equipment that you might expect. The sheets were as thin as cheese cloth. It had a refrigerator, but the thing made noises as if it were possessed by an evil spirit.  I could have gotten used to the sounds eventually, but it would clang, whine, and scream randomly. In the middle of the night I jumped out of bed from a dead sleep thinking an animal was being eaten alive.

In the morning, the included "breakfast" consisted of watery coffee, day old mini-bagels, white bread for toast, cream cheese, jam and something yellow with the consistency of butter. OR I could have a coupon for 10% off at the greasy donut shop across the street. Just lovely.

The car ran smoothly. I never found the dealership, so kept the freeway speed at 65 most of the way to Sevierville. It must have been the road or else the car just wanted to stop and rest a while. It's a ten year old van, so who knows? Maybe it's possessed by a spirit too.

Since I hadn't made it past Nashville, I had a long day ahead to get to Sevierville by late afternoon. Somewhere along the route the time shifted ahead another hour, so it was way later than I thought.

My buddy Dave suggested that I stop and have lunch in Bucksnort if I happened by there at the right time. It's just a spot in the road, but he remembered it having a great down-home restaurant and of course  got a kick out of the name. Sure enough, not far from Nashville, the sign to Bucksnort appeared. I pulled off to see the building that probably once housed the cafe, but now it's a 24 hour XXX rated Adult bookstore and video emporium. The signs boldly stated: No Children or Pets. I can understand the children part, but pets? Oh.....right.

Nashville, from what I could see of it through all the trees, is a lovely town. The freeway was crowded. Billboards advertised all kinds of music venues and the freeway seemed packed with stretch limos.  Two hours later, Knoxville,was jammed with rush hour traffic. I pulled off to consult the map, called Ellen and got some advice on getting to Sevierville via back roads that weren't nearly so crowded or dangerous. The scenery was lovely, a bit more open in places, the foliage changing faster at this higher altitude, and the mountains definitely looked "smokey" with the haze and low hanging clouds.

Wall of flowers at Ellen's house.
Ellen and Shane have a house set back behind trees in a neighborhood of large lots and thick woods. Everything is so green. The yard is full of flowers and strawberries growing out of a staggered wall, dogwood trees with red berries, green grass, and in front - their own little forest of tall trees. They made the most wonderful pork tenerloin with a rich sauce, honey-butter roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and salad. After dinner, and almost in the dark, Ellen and I went for a walk around the neighborhood. All the homes are set back from the road, but most have broad grassy lawns. My friends were smart to buy that particular house, they don't have to spend every summer weekend mowing acres of grass.

On Tuesday, Ellen and I went on a tour of craft stores, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. She is a Park Ranger with the Smokey Mountain National Park. Both towns seemed like Estes Park, Colorado, but on steroids. OMG, there was just one tourist trap after another. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood and it's a associated water park. Gatlinburg is more of a walking town, every street lined with carmel popcorn and fudge shops, crafts, magic stores, and clothing printed with logos and sayings. I wasn't remotely tempted to stroll around and buy things. We ate a nice lunch at a brew pub she'd been wanting to try, and then she had to go work the night shift. The weather drizzled and rained all day and night, though it hadn't rained at all in the previous two weeks. It was a lovely visit, but on Wednesday, I took to I-40 again to Siler City, NC for a house-sitting gig.

Example of just
how thick and lush
the Smokey Mtns. are.

All I have to say about that stretch of I-40 is that Mapquest LIED. I plotted a route, was told it was five hours, and it took exactly six. I don't think Mapquest has any idea just how curvy, steep, and dangerous I-40 is through the Smokey Mountains. But it sure was beautiful. The dense forests have begun changing in earnest at the higher elevations. I wish I knew more of the names of trees, and what colors they have in the fall. I've never spent an autumn in a deciduous forest, until now. I'm used to fall being a few groves of golden aspen that whiz through the change in the last couple of weeks in September. This is going to be magnificent when it reaches its peak.

Siler City is south of Greensboro. The house where I'll be for the next week is just charming, set in a magical wood off the busy highway. Susan, the owner, showed me around, gave me all the cat feeding instructions, and then took off on her own trip. I'll be here for ten days. I'm looking forward to exploring this little area of the world and especially to photographing the foliage as it rapidly changes color.

The sweet little cottage in the woods where I am house sitting.