Category: Interstates

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.

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.

Leaving Cataloochee

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

We went for the wildlife drive. It was very foggy, but the forecast was for a sunny day and the rest of the week was just afternoon showers. We saw the herd in the field. Some were lying down, some in the road, but all were fat and happy. We drove to the other end, a bit disappointed we haven’t seen any bears. There are also no deer. Ginger said the elk have driven the deer away. Still, there seems to be plenty of room for deer.

We turned around at the far end. The adjacent stream has gone down considerably, and looks like it would be fishable in a day or two. Through dense fog, we were surprised to see a single elk, because the herd was a half mile away. As we got closer, we could see it was big, with a huge rack. He was half again the size of the other bulls. He was eating fallen apples around a tree across the field. He bugled twice, the first time we heard that. Ginger would later tell us the big bulls stay on their own until time to mate.

At camp, we made pancakes for breakfast. I went over to offer some to Ginger, but she had eaten. She said she had to go to town. Her home town of Canton had historic flood levels. The Pigeon River had flooded several towns, and her mother was without water. I told her we might have to leave today, since our batteries were getting low. She said the road out was fine, but with all this rain, we should stay off the shoulders that might be soft. She said to stay in the middle of the road and make other drivers move over. I asked if she drank wine, and she said she did. I took her a bottle. She is simply the best! 

I went to the “phone booth” and called Greg at Autostar. He said he didn’t know when they could see me. His technician’s home was flooded. I thanked him for their help and paid only $100 for all their efforts. They have been very kind in these crazy times.

I went back to camp and we packed up our wet, soggy stuff. Putting the camp chairs in the truck, there were three yellow bugs on them – Yellow Sallies!

I had driven this road a number of times now. It is no doubt a bit scary, but I went slowly and honked at every blind turn. As we headed down the other side, a man stopped to tell me there was a big tractor/mower coming up the mountain a quarter mile back. “You won’t be able to pass him.”, he said. “Thank you. I’ll wait here.”

The “phone booth”

After waiting 30 minutes, Martha walked down the road to meet him. She texted me to come on, as he pulled into a driveway to wait, but I didn’t get the text. Walking back up the mountain, she yelled at me to come on. We passed him and waved happily.

The GPS took us north to Asheville. Martha had some views of the flooded Pigeon River, and it looked bad. After Asheville, we got on interstate 26, which was very nice, not too crowded, winding through the big mountains. By the time we got on 81 and passed Abingdon, I was getting a bit sleepy. Martha declined driving on a busy 81, so we looked for a place to stay the night, finally deciding on Raccoon Branch, a cute, little campground where we had stayed before.

I26 overlook
From I26 overlook

When we got there, Raccoon Branch was closed. We didn’t know where Grayson Highlands was, but we thought it was close, so we continued up the mountain. It wasn’t close. By the time we got to the state park, no one was at the gate. Driving to the campground, a ranger met us and said that campground was closed because they had no water. GEEZ! It made for a difficult place to turn around, but we made it.

Driving to the Equestrian Campground, I thought, we could have been past Roanoke by now. Thankfully there were lots of campsites. We chose #8, thankful to have a place. Martha took a shower for the first time not in the trailer. 

Grayson Highlands State Park picnic area
Grayson Highlands State Park

We enjoyed a quiet evening sitting by the fire playing some music, and discussing the trip. All I could think about was when I could go back to fish the Smokies. 

So how is the possessed truck you might ask. Thankfully, when driving, there are no problems. If I don’t lock the truck, there are no problems. Then I learned if I lock it with the key, there are no problems, so I removed the electric fob and removed the battery. When I get home, I will change the battery and see what happens. I am happy to not carry the bulky fob in my pocket anyway. If I lock the doors with the button inside, and then unlock with the key, the horn honks until I put the key in and turn it on. If I lock the door with the key, then unlock with the key, there is no honking. So I think it’s all the fob’s fault. Whether it just needs a new battery or not is soon to be determined. Whether is is possessed by the spirits of Cataloochee will be determined when I go back to fish. Right now I am just happy to be relieved of flashing lights, horn honking and very spooky doors rapidly locking and unlocking. And what the heck was that message about opening and then closing the driver’s side window??? As Willie commented, Gayle would have loved that kind of prank. I can hear her laughing to tears now.

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