Category: Drives

Driving to New Orleans

April 28, 2022

Next week I am doing a 5-day photography/cultural workshop with Mark Zablotsky Photography in New Orleans. Mark lived in New Orleans for two years while doing his Periodontics residency in the 80’s, and he has been back many times for continuing education. 

I could have flown down, but didn’t want to, or I could have taken the train, which I strongly considered. It would have been cheaper than driving if I didn’t get a sleeper. A sleeper pushed the price to $507, so I opted to drive.

I thought about taking the Airstream, but a hotel is included in the price of the course. In my many campground stays, I have often wondered what it is like to stay in cabins or tents that are so often in campgrounds. They seem rather under-utilized, so I thought I would give them a go. 

Sweetwater, Tennessee is an hour short of half way to New Orleans. Actually I thought it was half way, but I didn’t factor in the time change, which happens just east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had booked a small cabin at Sweetwater KOA, not far off I75. The costs are about $77 without plumbing and $110 with plumbing. I thought I would try it without plumbing, which means no sink or shower, but I would later learn there is a faucet in front of the cabin.

It’s a bit like camping with the trailer, using the bathroom for showers etc, but in the middle of the night, the treck to the bathroom is cumbersome. Cooking is more like camping with a tent. All in all, it was a nice little cabin, and I slept well.

I liked the little reading light
The cabin was called Dolly

I chatted a while with the owner of this beautiful camper that isn’t made any more.

I was up and out early, but I had to go into town for gas and DEF. I went into Skinner Auto Parts Store at 7:00 and it was hopping. Sweetwater is a town of 6300, but looks smaller. I think everyone was in the auto parts store, and they all knew each other. A nice man behind the counter asked what I was looking for, and he pointed to the DEF right by the front door. He greeted two others by name before pointing to the Diesel Clean on aisle 10. After I paid he carried two containers of DEF (diesel exhaust fluid) out to the truck, set them down and said goodbye. Two small groups were talking in the parking lot. A donut shop next door caught my attention, so after filling the DEF tank, I went over and got a couple of donuts and coffee. I think it was the owner sitting at a table who thanked me as I walked out. What a nice, little town.

Sweetwater, Tennessee

Back on I75, traffic was busy on this Friday. Chattanooga was busy, but Birmingham was more busy with road construction making things come to a complete stop several times. By the time I got to I59, things got less hectic. I pulled into Buccaneer State Park at 5:15. A young man showed me to my Tentrr and wished me well.

I had visions of exotic tents I had seen pictures of in Africa, but it wasn’t exotic. It was a nice tent on a wooden platform with two chairs out front. Like the KOA cabin, there was a bed inside and a picnic table and fire pit outside. 

I went out of the park, along the gulf coast and turned toward Waveland and went into Da Kitchen Too restaurant. It was rated a 4.3, and I envisioned home-style black cooking. It was not. It was hopping on Friday night, and the all-white staff couldn’t keep up. A young girl pointed me to the refrigerated cabinets to get my own beer. The food wasn’t worth waiting for.

At my Tentrr, I poured a glass of wine, and started to relax when the mosquitoes came out. I retreated inside the tent. Tired from two days of driving, I went to sleep early. I vaguely heard a train horn in the distance. It progressively got louder until I thought it was coming through the middle of the tent! I could feel the rumbling of the train. I sat right up, trying to remember if there was a train track coming through camp. Fortunately it rumbled on by and I went back to sleep. Two more times trains came by in the night.

Tomoka State Park, Florida

We drove east across Florida from Manatee Springs State Park to Tomoka State Park, passing near beautiful Ocala. It’s like Lexington, Kentucky, with gorgeous horse farms. This is the height of show season, and big horse trailers were traveling to events. Tomoka sits between Orlando and Jacksonville, just north of Daytona Beach and south of Flagler Beach. It is a very nice state park with well-protected campsites and sand roads. The Tomoka River runs through the middle of it, providing a great place to kayak.

We have never been to this park, so we drove around exploring “The Scenic Trail Loop”. It is certainly scenic. It was Bike Week, so lots or Harleys were also driving the loop, mixed in with local travelers. I came to a frantic stop at Boardman Pond, a beautiful spot on the Halifax River. I grabbed my camera, tripod and walked back up the busy road, and for 40 frightening minutes took a hundred pictures of ducks, little blue herons, big blue herons and great egrets as cars whizzed by a few feet behind us. It’s a dangerous place to shoot, but would prove to be the best of the trip. I would later learn there is a viewing platform on the other side, but we would not see so much at that location.

Little blue heron

We drove over to Ormond Beach and went into Hull’s Seafood Market, maybe the best we have ever been into and bought a big Tripple Tail filet to grill over the fire. After lunch, we put the kayaks in and paddled Tomoka River for an hour or so. In the middle of the float, I was surprised by my phone ringing. It was Nick from The Apple Core. I find it difficult to understand people on a cell phone in perfect conditions, but with the wind blowing in my ears, I could barely make out what he was saying. He said he need to replace some chips and a board, that cost $450. The labor would bring it up to $920, and did I want to go ahead? “Yes, go ahead Nick.” That was an expensive bottle of wine!

Driving to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

It’s a 7-8-hour drive to the Smokies from Charlottesville, depending on how you go and where you are going, but Martha wanted me to break it up, so I booked a night in Highland Haven Campground outside Roanoke. I went down 29, which is pleasant enough. You just have to be alert to turns. Then 220, to 221 up the mountain. It is not an easy drive to Highland Haven, especially in the rain, but I arrived and met campground hostess, Nancy, and pulled into site 26. This campground is known for its spectacular sunsets, but I wasn’t going to see it tonight. It was hard to see anything.

I drank a half bottle of wine listening to music of Andrew Loyd Webber turned up loud while making a salad. Hope I didn’t wake the neighbors.

I got up at 4:00, read for a while until daylight, then hooked up, filled the water tank and got on the road at 8:00. It was raining lightly as I followed Rt. 221 south through the cute little town of Floyd, famous for its country music. 

I thought about Virginia Highland Haven Campground, which is an Airstream only campground that is owned by its campers. When someone is not there, you can rent a site for the very reasonable fee of $35 with full hookups. It’s a beautiful spot with wonderful views looking west. 

I have never driven 221, but it’s beautiful country with lovely, mountain farmland and quaint, little towns. Surely it would be more fun to drive when I have more time and it isn’t raining. At Hillsville I got on 77S. The rains became harder and would continue the entire drive, sometimes hard, sometimes light. One hand seemed to be constantly changing the windshield wiper speed. Still, I could see the majority of the big storm was to my west. Traffic was busy, but not as bad as I81. Still, it winds through the mountains to Statesville, where I turned onto I40 west, and into the storm I went. 

Sometimes the rains were so heavy, traffic slowed to 45mph. My strategy is to get behind a tractor trailer and follow at a distance that allows stopping, but where I can see his lights. If you are a car driver, you curse the trucks that are slow uphill and fast downhill. If you pull a trailer, you appreciate their professionalism, their knowledge of the roads and their ability to drive in all kinds of weather. They move into the left lane when passing a disabled truck on the shoulder. They blink their lights to let you into their lane. If you let them into your lane, they flash their brake lights to thank you. Actually, they put on their flashers for a second or two. It took me forever to learn how they made those brake lights flash, but without slowing down. 

I have the greatest respect for truck drivers. They deliver to every store, merchant, gas station and post office. They are the life blood of our economy. They drive at night or in daytime. They put up with poor car drivers entering the highway at too slow a speed, or changing lanes right in front of them. Whenever I am driving through a city, I follow a truck. It’s like a running back getting behind a 6’6. 360 pound lineman. They run interference for me. When I am in heavy rains like this, I follow a truck, and when I stop following, I flash my headlights or tap my brake lights to thank them for their help. At a rest stop, I laid down for a 1-hour nap. Whew! Renewed energy.

I thought I had a big truck!

I turned onto 220 south with the rains still coming. In Asheville, I missed a turn and had to go into a Home Depot to turn around and get new directions. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to do. Then onto 221 in heavy rains, then Rt. 19 through Maggie Valley. I’ve been in the mountains all day, and the rain wasn’t helping. When I could barely see the road, I ended up behind a pickup pulling a large water tank on a trailer. In front of him was another truck pulling a trailer with a front end loader on it. They were obviously working together, and they knew these roads, so I continued to follow. When they pulled into a rest area, I did too. Then back out on the road, following. These guys were excellent drivers. When I turned onto 441, I flashed my lights to thank them.

441 is called “The Smoky Mountain Parkway”. Driving through Cherokee, NC I stopped to fill up the gas tank – well the diesel tank in my case. This is a nice little town, not far from the campground. I thought I would be climbing up a steep mountain, but was surprised to see it was fairly level, following the Oconoluftee River. The rains had lightened up, and people were watching elk graze by the Visitor’s Center. I could feel my blood pressure ease.

At 3:00 I pulled up to Smokemont Campground and said my prayers, thanking God for guiding me safely in a difficult two days of driving. In a light rain I parked and leveled the trailer for my 9-day stay. I put the awnings out as it drizzled rain. By the time I finished, the rains stopped. I went for a walk around the campground to get my bearings straight. 

It’s a nice campground that would be entirely full by the weekend. Bradley Creek runs through the campground, joining the Oconoluftee River just below the campground. I was interested in fishing both of these, so I walked right over to the stream. High and muddy, as I suspected. It wasn’t terrible, but also not fishable. I wondered how fast it would run out of here. At the north end of the campground, I found the Bradley Creek Trail, which looked more like a highway. I could easily drive my big truck up it, except for the locked gate. As I read the fishing regulations sign, I noticed a yellow caterpiller walking up it. An odd looking creature, it’s black head had four antennae, and there was a black tip on it’s tail. Was this a Yellow Sally nymph? I have no flies that look anything like this. I reached for my phone to take a picture, but had left it in the trailer.

Walking back down the other side of the stream, I talked to an Airstream couple who were dumping rain from their awning. “Did it rain a lot here?” the lady asked. “Oh yes!” I replied. They had gone home for a few days. They were in a nicely shaded spot, but that wasn’t good for their roof covered with solar panels. The husband was deploying two portable panels, aiming them at the sun that was now peeking through the clouds. “One amp”, he noted. “Well” she said, “that’s the end of the rains for a while.” It was nice to see sun peeking through the trees.

As I walked along the stream, I looked tor yellow bugs, but didn’t see any. Back at the trailer, I got the Garmin InReach and turned it on. Without cell phone reception, it is my only means of communicating with Martha. “No signal” the device indicated. I took it up to a clearing, where i could get clear access to the sky. No signal. I waited 15 minutes before giving up. I set it on my little ladder in a clearing behind the trailer, leaving it there while I cooked dinner – ratatouille and chicken. Checking it again, I was happy to see the message and tracking were sent.

Hike Little River Trail, Cucumber Gap

We went on the Loop Drive in the morning, now the fifth time we’ve done it. We saw lots of turkeys early, but the highlight was finding a “bear jam” with a ranger present. There was a mother and three babies in a wild black cherry tree….all on one branch!

We relaxed and hung out, waiting for Karen to come at 12:30. She brought us lunch, and the kids told stories of the trip. They were so excited to see her! After a little nap, we drove to hike the Little River Trail loop through Cucumber Gap. The Little River is a beautiful stream with big pools. We saw two fishermen coming down the trail. I asked how they did. They had only caught one, probably because they were fishing behind someone else.

Little River
Little River

I was a little unsure after turning onto Cucumber Gap as it looked like it was going the wrong way. After awhile two ladies came down the trail. After some conversation, we determined we were going the right way. Martha stayed and talked with them as we walked on. One’s husband had been at the JAG School at UVA, and they had lived on Carter’s Mountain.

Josh was telling stories and talking about school that starts next week all the way down the mountain. I was behind them and Melissa and Martha 100 yards back. Suddenly, there was a large cracking noise. Looking up, we saw a tree fall to the ground with a big crash on our right. Scared us to death, but fortunately we were not in its way.

We got back a bit late, and the kids wanted to take Karen on the loop drive. Martha said she would stay and get dinner ready – campfire stew. What a show we had. Our best spotter is Melissa, especially standing out the sunroof. There were turkeys near the barn; then a coyote trotting through a field. Then Melissa spotted two bears in a big tree to our right. I handed the camera with a big, heavy lens to Josh in the back seat, first setting it to automatic and adjusting the iso. He did a fabulous job and loved every minute. Thinking that was all we would see, and talking about how lucky we were, we rounded a corner and were stopped by a husband and wife in the street. A mother bear and three babies were in the woods. I parked the truck and everyone got out. They appeared right in front of us in the field. Josh was shooting while a man was talking to the mother bear, guiding her to a hole in a wire fence. As she made it to the opening, I ordered everyone back in the truck. Josh stood on the console and out the skylight, still shooting pictures. All four bears walked right in front of the truck, up the side of it and crossed the road into the forest. We were breathless. Those little babies were soooo cute! What a night we had. Back at camp, we told Martha all the stories.

Melissa Quotes:

Getting up from the hammock, I asked where she was going. “Gone to Nebraska’, she said.

Eating her second piece of bacon while the eggs were cooking, I said, “Don’t fill up on bacon.” She replied, “You can’t fill up on bacon. Everyone knows that. It’s a commonly known fact.”

She kept calling me “Crazy Dude” as I tried to kiss her on the forehead while she kicked, pushed and screamed.

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