My idea of a holiday is to put my feet up in a car (or on the pedal, in case I am driving), turn up my favorite music, open a bag of the most sinful junk food, and drive away to places, which may or may not be on the ‘100 things to do before you die' list. Not everyone in my family sees it that way.
After the last few vacations that meant getting on a plane and seeing things in a hurry, it was a relief that the husband agreed to my idea of this trip next time. And so began my deep research of where to go from Washington DC, with a week in hand. With the help of the accumulated wisdom of other people, pulled out through Google, maps were consulted, itineraries were made, driving distances were calculated, and a final plan was chalked out. We were going to drive through North Carolina to Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountains! Final parameters for selection among dozens of towns? The way the names rolled on my tongue- Pigeon Forge, Chattanooga and Nantahala. Nothing more complicated than that.
For those of us who live in the United States as ‘aliens’, and especially coming from a rich and ancient history such as India, it is always a wonder how this country is able to market itself as a tourist destination of any kind! How do you become goggle-eyed about a 200 odd year nation and what it has to offer, when you compare it to many thousand year old nations in Asia or Europe, where civilizations rose and fell? The answer for me is you can’t and you shouldn’t! But what this country has to offer to those who want it is stunning natural beauty, the sheer expanse of one of their biggest asset- land, and fresh air which you can get by the lungful without choking! And that in one sentence is what this vacation eventually summed up to.
Come spring break, and we got our show on the road (pun intended!). Three hours out of Washington DC sits a ‘natural bridge’ in Lexington which has been formed over 30 million years out of a caved in mountain. I wasn’t at all happy to have to pay 20 dollars a pop to see something that nature had created and so decided already that this was a bad omen to start! But as I walked around the bend to its approach, the magnificence and beauty of the structure stopped me in my tracks. On a hot day, the shade it throws, the flowing water under it, the greenery it is surrounded with, embrace you in a coolness that is long lasting! Verdict- an absolute winner!
The journey continued South Westwards towards Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. And as we crossed the state line, I could almost hear ‘Welcome Y’all’ in the air. In fact, at a little highway gas station where we stopped to top up, the owner asked me whether I was from England. ‘On account of the accent, missy!’ she said. I told her we lived in DC. She was mighty impressed since she had never left this ole town (only 5 hours away just for perspective!) She also scolded my husband on feeding himself chemicals when he bought a little capsule of ‘Red Bull’ to keep awake during the night driving!
So this little town of Pigeon Forge at the foot of the Great Smokies is a kitschy tourist haven. I had been warned so by Google. But I thought the kids needed some kitsch! As we rolled into town, on the 5-mile odd strip of the town, there was one attraction after another.
Wonderworks, Titanic Museum, Nascar speeding track, Dollywood Amusement Park (yes! Dolly Parton hails from here!), Dixie Stampede Dinner attraction, Dinosaur Walk Museum, Tangier Outlet Shoppes. It went on and on. Even with so much man made artificiality, there was a simple charm about this place. I had picked out a couple of places to go to the next day. And I can say that they were all a hit! The Wonderwork museum is a fantastic place for kids which combines odd things with lessons in science thrown in. We took turns to lie down on a bed of nails and learnt why we didn’t get punctured! (Now I figure out how those yogis do it back home!).
The kids got their adrenaline rush speeding down Nascar tracks in swanky cars. I got my adrenaline rush scouring deals at the Outlet malls. My husband got his fix of Tennessee bourbon and vodka-Moonshine- which is brewed locally in shop after shop. Verdict: A happy family!
The next stop was Chattanooga- another extremely charming town by the Tennessee River further down into the state. A former industrial area which is going through a marketing make over as one of the top Southern charmers in the country. On the itinerary were Rock City, Ruby Falls and Bluff View Art District. If I had to be your tour guide and give summaries for each, they would be: Rock City- breathtaking rock formations. Ruby Falls- a surreal waterfall over a 1000 feet down in the bellies of the earth, and for the art district- quaint cafes and miniature houses overlooking the walking bridge! Like any decent Indian family who hasn’t got curry for 3 days, we were craving for Indian food and found some surprisingly decent grub at ‘Sitar’ sitting in the heart of charming downtown. Verdict: Never underestimate the power of small towns that don’t have airports!
And now came the Mountains, which for me, were the main reason for this trip! Driving eastwards back towards DC, we rode the Cherohala Skyway into the Nantahala forests, south of the Smokies. It was 20 miles of hairpin curves in the mountains, winding up and down, descending clouds to the ground, and trees till your eyes could see. The next two days were at a secluded cabin in the tiniest of towns called Topton. ‘Brye Haus’- I don’t have words to describe how nice it was; a work of love overlooking the mountains and Nantahala Lake. For two days we were surrounded by absolute stillness, but for the sound of the breeze during the day, and the trees and wolves at night. Hours were spent fruitfully insitting on the deck and contemplating life. Verdict: Nothing to beat nature as a tool for meditation and regaining perspective!
By this point, we were about 11 hours away from home. We had driven about 700 miles and the thought gave me a weird sort of kick! After such a magnificent and successful trip, I couldn’t really complain about the corresponding 11 hour drive back home. Doing it in one shot, it was clearer to see how wide uninterrupted stretches of green slowly gave way to denser habitation as we got closer and closer to bigger towns and finally the city. And when we pulled up in our driveway way past midnight, I felt like something inside me, which had been let lose a week ago, had slowly shrunk back in its tightly wound up place. But I had managed to put my feet up and dig into those sinful fries, revved the pedal, and stared out at the gazillion colors flying past. And had been left with an ecstatic high in having pinned down in my memory the places I had marked on a paper map just weeks ago!
Ruchira Kumar is a frequent traveller, courtesy her work, courtesy her zest for life! Having seen a lot of new places since her childhood, she continues to indulge her travel bug, and has in fact passed it on rather happily to the rest of the family too!
Image details and licenses: https://flic.kr/p/ayPdct (Michael Hicks, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/cQEyME (Bill Gracey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/zbdSJP (Jim Grey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/757YLh (Carlos Rios, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6FvZJQ (Darryl Moran, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/2rbSeh (Erik Eckel, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/8NeqRL (Dzmitry (Dima) Parul, CC BY 2.0) Natural Bridge Lexington VA (c) Ruchira Kumar, all rights reserved