Going to the Woods

Having decided to spend Labor Day weekend in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we first have to make it there.  As we head out of Chattanooga with our entire plan being:

  1. Drive to South Entrance
  2. Find an available front-country campsite
  3. Hike,

I am somewhat nervous that our trip will implode.  But as we head off of highway 75 and into Cherokee National Forest, I have to relax.  The woods surround the roadway and we drive along a river that appears to be a popular white water rafting destination.  I give up counting rafts after about 50–the river is swarming with them.  I’m glad we’re not rafting today–it’s a bit too crowded for my tastes.  But the people in rafts all smile and look happy, which is the point.  As we twist and turn along the river’s edge, watching rafters, kayakers, and fishermen, we realize we haven’t had lunch.  Just about that time, we see a large lodge-like building on the edge of the river just ahead.  We pull in and discover a visitors center at the 1996 Olympics Kayaking course.  The river has been altered here to create an olympic shoot of rapids that probably all have special names, but I’m afraid I didn’t take the time to read all of the signs explaining the course.  We watch both kayakers and rafters take the course one-by-one.  One man in a kayak rolls over in the middle of a big rapid, but bounces right back up again, looking like he meant to do that.  I like kayaking in sea kayaks–the kind that you couldn’t roll if you stood on one edge and jumped up and down.  The notion of being tied into a boat and hanging upside down in rapids just doesn’t appeal to me, although I suppose it’s something I may end up learning how to do someday just out of shear curiosity.  (What’s that about cats?)

After watching for a while and even getting a few shots, we walk into the downstairs of the visitors’ center and find a cafe.  The man and teenaged boy working there appear to be father and son.  The son pitches their curried macaroni salad and baked potato salad enthusiastically as well as their “vintage” sodas.  We get one of each along with a ham sandwich, a grape Nihi and some specialty root beer.  I ask the teenager what year it was made.  He looks puzzled and I remind him that it’s supposed to be vintage.  He cracks up, revealing a mouth full of gums.  It’s nice to make a teenager laugh, especially when he might be self-conscious about his smile.

Selecting a table with a view of the kayak course, we discover an interesting large insect parked on our table.  I’m not sure what s/he is–but it’s large and green with the longest antenna I’ve ever seen.  I get out my macro lens and do my best to shoot it without making it move.  I didn’t have much to worry about–I don’t think an earthquake would have gotten that guy hopping.

The teenager brings our food to us and we settle down to eat.  The curried macaroni salad is more interesting than most macaroni salads, but it’s still macaroni salad.  The baked potato salad tastes just like a baked potato with sour cream and chives.  It’s really nice.  We finish our food quickly and sip on our sodas (we can’t call them “pop” anymore now that we’ve moved out of Ohio) that taste like they were definitely made recently.  I have a craving for ice cream and the cafe has a freezer full of frozen treats including Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bars.  However, we decide to use the restrooms before getting ice cream and when we return, about a dozen people appeared from no where and lined up to get food.  Deciding it’s not worth it to wait in line, we head back towards the car.

As we come up the steps to the parking lot, there are several people coming towards us.  Two of them are shirtless young men who look like they spend all of their spare time in the gym.  I really barely noticed, but I catch my sandal on a step and trip going up the stairs, which, of course, makes Pat think I’m so distracted by these shirtless wonders that I can’t walk straight.  Pat has known me for over 15 years and he’s seen me trip going up stairs about 90% of the time, so we both know that the fact that this time there happened to be a couple of shirtless men on the stairs at the same time is completely unrelated, but both of us laugh hard at the sheer silliness of it.

We return to the car and head on up the road.  When we get a stretch that is traffic free, Pat opens it up a little and enjoys the enhancements he’s made to the car over the years.  It’s a fun car to drive.  Pat is the master of making cars last forever and this BMW is no exception.  Plus, we’ve invested a little money into making it more fun, so Pat gets his money’s worth as we lean into the turns on sticky tires and a sport suspension, accelerating out of each turn with verve.  Unfortunately, the break in traffic doesn’t last long, plus, it’s getting hot enough to require air conditioning for comfortable driving and air conditioning just ruins the whole driving experience.  Pat settles back down and I get comfortable in my seat, finding my eyes closing with a full stomach and the sunshine coming through the glass.  Sometimes I think that if I could put a bed in a car, I would sleep a sound 8 hours every night.  I lean the seat back and give in to the need for an afternoon nap.

Defining Home

I’ve made up my mind–home really is the place where you have your own bed.  Set aside the view from our apartment, the endless things to do, the relaxing walks by the river–those are all things we would enjoy on vacation.  It’s our bed that I look forward to returning to.  I find it odd that after 40+ years of living in Columbus, moving my bed makes me feel like I’ve moved my home.  Leaving behind good friends and the opportunity to see those friends makes me sad, but in a world where I can text, Facetime, Skype, Facebook, email, and call from various devices and at no extra charge, it’s hard to feel like I’m really leaving anyone behind.  It’s the bed that calls me home.

Once on the road and thinking about sleeping in my own bed, I find myself anxious to get there.  Unfortunately, the road isn’t so cooperative.  North of Cincinatti, we are snarled in a traffic jam that brings us to a dead stop.  I make good use of the time (since Pat is driving) and pull out my new Verizon MiFi.  I manage to get online and get a bunch of work done as efficiently as if I’m in the office.  Even Sametime (Lotus instant messaging) works flawlessly.  Pat decided to get off the highway and we drive through small towns trying to find a way around the traffic jam.  My wireless broadband hotspot keeps me connected through the whole thing.  After spending about and hour and half in the traffic and another half an hour half lost and working our way back to the freeway, we once again cruise along at highway speeds.  I continue working for a couple more hours with childlike amazement that I can instant message and email and surf uninterrupted as we speed along the highway.  Having worked in telecom for many years prior to my current job, I know too much about what can go wrong to not be impressed by the technological advancements that allow for this moment in time when virtual presence can be maintained from virtually anywhere.

Pat gets tired of driving and we change seats once we make it into Kentucky.  It’s the first time I’ve gotten behind the wheel in nearly 3 weeks.  I set the cruise control and enjoy the feeling of driving for several hours.   I am surprised that it feels no different.  I don’t know why this surprises me–I have gone for weeks without driving many times in my life.  Years ago, when I used to have a job that involved traveling internationally for weeks at a time, I would go without driving for as long as 6 weeks.  I am reminded of a trip to Italy when, after having been there for 3 weeks, I rented a car since it was over Easter and the colleague who normally drove me was on holiday for a week.  Driving in Italy definitely felt strange.  The last day my colleague was still with me, we decided I should drive to the office so I would learn the route (since I never seem to pay enough attention as the passenger).  When I went to enter the freeway for the first time, I started accelerating on the entrance ramp, preparing to merge.  My colleague started screaming, “No, Dianne!  No!  Stop!” as I looked over my left shoulder for a gap in traffic (which I couldn’t find).  When I turned to see why he was screaming, there was a concrete wall dead ahead of me.  I screeched to a halt just in time to avoid slamming us into unforgiving concrete.  My colleague was sweating.  This was my second trip to Rome and even after having ridden with him daily for a combined 6 weeks, I had failed to realize that Italian entrance ramps aren’t designed for merging.  I’d always wondered why he stopped before trying to jump into traffic moving at a high rate of speed!  I quickly learn how to go from a standstill to moving into traffic going 80 KPH in an under-powered sub-compact Italians call a “medium” sized car.

But this is not like driving for the first time in a foreign country.  In fact, even the things that annoy me remain the same.  I am particularly annoyed by people who change speeds dramatically.  This phenomena is heightened by the fact that I am on cruise control in a vehicle with a powerful enough engine to make it up the hills going through the Kentucky mountains without much change in speed.  Others seem to slow down 10 MPH or more going up the steeper hills and speed back up coming down.  I understand when trucks carrying heavy loads crawl slowly up hills, but when a car whose average speed is only slightly slower than mine keeps passing me on the downhill only for me to have to pass them again on the uphill, I get annoyed.  Perhaps this annoys me because I want to feel like I’m making rapid progress towards home and the repeated passing of the same vehicle gives me the sensation of going backwards.  I do not do backwards well.  Ask Pat.  He frequently teases me about my unwillingness to take a route that includes backtracking, to go back for something I’ve left behind, or to change my mind once having set a plan into motion.  It’s one of life’s lessons I retake on a daily basis, yet I seem to always end up in the remedial class.

We make it to Knoxville before I find myself growing too sleepy to drive safely.  After a pit stop at Burger King (see previous post), Pat takes the wheel for the final stretch home.  I try talking to him to keep him awake, but quickly find myself slumping over, my head drooping towards the window.  Each time I reawaken, I imagine what my slack face must look like to drivers that we pass–head bobbing, loose jaw, closed eyes.  I wonder if I look like I’m dead.  I try my best to stay awake, knowing that Pat is fighting sleep too, but I suspect my parents used to take me for car rides on nights I couldn’t sleep and the feel of being on the road well past my bedtime still hypnotizes me.  I tell Pat to stop and sleep for a bit if he can’t stay awake.  He says we’re almost home; it would be weird to stop now.  I say, “better weird than dead.”  He laughs, which energizes him for a few minutes at least.

We do make it home safely.  Tired and groggy, we pull our bags out of the car and make our way into the lobby of our building.  I enter the access code four times before it works, giving me a moment of panic that we’ve forgotten the code and we’ll be stuck outside sleeping in our van after all.  We make it to the apartment, drop our things, brush our teeth and fall into bed otherwise un-groomed.  Ahh!  The bed!  It is good to be home.