Tuesday, October 26, 2010

and I would drive 900 miles...

Thinking that a vacation would just present itself after my original plans had been dashed…I started going over road trip ideas. Canada was my first choice and though the 14 hour drive didn’t stop me in my tracks, the 40 degree daytime high made me rethink it. Perhaps during slightly warmer weather would be a better time to visit.

One of my buddies at work’s last day was my last day of work before my vaca so it was an emotional day. I started feeling sorry for myself and my pity party in my head was saying just stay home and be miserable and alone. The knee jerk reaction to this was to make a quick decision and just drive somewhere. I had looked into Ashville, North Carolina. Their website screamed, “you’ll have a wonderful time” and boasted about “Pet Friendly town” and quaintness. It was basically Awesometown. Wanting to see some Fall colors and mountains on my vaca, I decided to go. I borrowed a tent, bought a sleeping bag (drove to 2 different Targets to get a dark pink one) and packed a bag for myself and one for the dogs.

The dogs were very excited to be in the car. Zoe was wearing her new pink sweater. We stopped at every rest stop to adequately mark the new territory. I must say all the rest stops looked brand new and weren’t at all scary, shady or reminders of every horror movie nightmare situation. Judging by the people at the rest stops, apparently me, Fall Foliage tours and Bikers are the only people who vacation in October.

As I got closer to North Carolina the mountains appeared in the distance. The display of oranges, yellows, and reds covered the landscape. I was getting more and more excited about my hasty vacation decision.

When I got to Ashville a couple of hours later however, everything kind of lost its luster.
I’m usually pretty good with direction and rarely get lost. I didn’t have a map except for getting there and back which was basically just 1-40 the whole way. There were 6 exits for Ashville. Hmmm…..I took the 2nd or 3rd choice after almost killing myself when my lane (the left lane mind you) ended suddenly and I swerved just missing the concrete divider. Heart racing I took the next exit which happened to be the downtown area I was looking for anyway. Score!

I saw a sign for “art district” and “farmers market” so I took that turn. This was my first mistake…I ended up in the projects and it dead ended with a community college a few miles down. Hmm….I drove back the way I came getting scary looks from people standing in the street wondering what the hell I was doing there. Please don’t let the car break down, please don’t let the car break down. I was getting flashbacks of my scary drive through Memphis when I took a wrong turn.

I later found the streets where all the restaurants and art galleries were from the website. Yes, it was dog friendly as everyone seemed to be walking a dog BUT it was very crowded and the streets were packed with cars, it was kind of dirty, and there were a lot of homeless people…also walking little dogs. More research would have convinced me that it was actually a major city and not a small town as the website pictures made it out to be. The hotel areas were far from picturesque. I had to get out of the city.

Seeing a sign for Blue Ridge Parkway I decided to forget the hotels and look for campsites. As soon as I left the city area it got really pretty again. I drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped at the Park info and got a map for places to camp in the area.

The drive was beautiful. People were pulled over at every stop taking pictures of the fall leaves and having picnics. This was more like it. It was serene.

But as it got later in the afternoon I got worried about getting a tent set up. The campsites were farther then they appeared simply because the speed limit was 35 and when I finally started reaching them, they were full. Ugh!

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, wanting to wait for a cool local place so my mind was starting to go a little on the crazy side. “I wonder if one of these people would share their campsite….I wonder if one of these farmers would let me camp in their yard…I wonder just how serious is that bear warning.”

I decided to go back towards town but the next exit was pretty far down the road. It was going to be dark soon. I gave up on setting up before dark and enjoyed the last moments of daylight, stopping to take pictures at every scenic overlook.

When I got to the next exit off the parkway there was a choice…a town in either 17 mile direction. I sat there until another car came up behind me and decided to go right. To say it was a curvy road was putting it mildly. I would take my steering wheel in one complete direction only to spin it back in the other direction then back in the previous direction. It was the road to Holualoa times 100 and I was about to hurl.

As I reached the bottom I saw Campsite signs and perked up a little…that was until I saw it. How would I describe it….hmmm…it was as if the apocalypse had happened and all the people were killed but all their crap was left and the forest had started to take it all back. There was a half filled fishing pond and RV’s that looked to live there permanently. I didn’t see a soul but obviously it was a full campsite. Deciding this place was a big no way hose, I quickly turned around and got back on the road. The endless, dark, winding road into nothingness where towns consist of a Dollar Tree (or 3) and a Farm and Garden Store.

Half starved and going mad I decided to drive back towards Ashville and just crash at a hotel. I had coupons for $54.99 at major chains but would spend up to $100 at this point if it was clean and I could take a bath. This, as it turned out, was a pipe dream. An example of my stop in and checking adventure went like this…”Do you have any rooms available and are you pet friendly”…”Yes, we have one room left…its $199 plus $20 pet fee”. Oh, and this example was a Best Western. I almost laughed out loud remembering that Nathan and I had stayed at the Hilton in Hawaii for $199 a night and that was a 4 star hotel. Best Western off the highway in North Carolina was not getting $200 from me. I was not that crazy yet.

No vacancy signs or just comparable Best Western prices, who strangely also had only one room left, only upset me further. Now, I was saying no on principle. I left town thinking maybe the next town over would be more reasonable. No such luck. Even Red Roof Inn was full. At one point I was getting into the turning lane to make an exit and there was a sign, “painting the road, be prepared to stop”. I slowed down and waited to turn, but where the painting machine was at that point was right in front of the exit so people started getting confused and slamming on their breaks. The car behind me I guess didn’t see the sign at all, slammed on their breaks and slide completely sideways, inches from wiping me off the earth. I started to get a migraine and ended up at a truck stop buying Excedrin, and a granola bar. I got into the back seat of the car, curled up in the sleeping bag with the dogs and slept for 2 hours in the parking lot.

Migraine knocked out and now 10pm I decided to head for a rest area. 30 miles down the road I saw smoke and light. As it passed over the highway I thought it must be a forest fire but I saw no fire trucks and nothing about it on the radio. I got off at the next exit really curious about it. I drove closer to the pillars of smoke. It was over a massive area and the town seemed to be deserted. Had they been evacuated by the fire? As I got closer the smell was horrible so I turned off my car vents. I was about to turn around as it got unbearable when I saw where the smoke was coming from. It was a paper mill. I was horrified. I wanted to get out my camera but a lone security car started to drive towards me. Being the coward that I am, I quickly turned around and headed back towards the highway. I would not make a great investigative reporter.

Almost back to the Tennessee/North Carolina line I saw one of the nice Rest Stops I’d passed. Back in the back with my sleeping bag and dogs I fell asleep. Waking up to a cool 43 degrees I got back on the road and decided to spend the day at Chimney Rock park. This day was going to be better than yesterday….or at least it better be.

Wanting a little local breakfast and coffee I did make a few stops only to be let down by closed signs. The only thing open was Star Bucks and McDonalds so I got back on my way towards the Park hoping for something along the way.

Beautiful rolling hills of sunset inspired trees and horse ranches and apple orchards lifted my spirits. Getting better…..

Reaching the town of Chimney Rock put a quick smile on my face. There was a river between two mountains and all along the river were little shops and cabins. I stopped at a local coffee shop and had the best Pumpkin Latte of my life.

The place was adorable. You could get coffee and an old fashion photo of you and your dog. I got the latte but passed on the photo.

The dogs were ecstatic about walking along the river…new smells everywhere. I will remember next time not to carry hot coffee and two leashes though. I spilled hot coffee on myself but the coffee shop was happy to let me change clothes in their bathroom. The shower was filled with old timey clothes for the photo shoots. I was tempted to come out in a 3 piece suit and top hat but I resisted. When I left they sent me on my way with dog treats for the road.

The Chimney Rock park entrance was two stores down from the coffee shop. The park ranger at the entrance was a very nice old man who also sent me on my way with dog treats.

It was still pretty early so it hadn’t gotten crowed yet. The views were unbelievable.

No longer needing flannel, I wore jeans and a Tshirt. I packed my camera and a bottle of water in a backpack and the dogs and I started our walk.

I didn’t know the trail was mostly stairs. I guess I should have figured this out sooner. During the first flight up, Zoe was pretty hesitant. I started to think this wasn’t gong to happen but then they both started to pick up the pace so we continued. There would be a few flights then a little lookout area so I made sure we stopped each time, drank some water, took some pictures and rested a little.

There were a lot of dogs and so far they dogs were doing great and being friendly to everyone four legged and 2 legged. Patrick however was quite hurt that not everyone was stopping to pet him. Every time someone would pass us and acknowledge him but not pet him he was let out a little cry. It was pitiful. Soon he was just crying all the time. I picked him up and he stopped. Oh no, I had a two year old!

During the last flight by the big lookout, the stairs were tiny and wedged between two big boulders. They even freaked me out and the dogs were in a no way hosey stance. I had to carry them through while ducking through the opening. The lookout was very cool but I hadn’t thought about Zoe’s reaction which was why are we standing next to a 2200 foot drop. Humans are crazy! People kept walking by and telling them how brave they were and congratulating them for making it.

Going down all the stairs were a little easier and soon we were close to the bottom where there was a 1.5 mile trail to a waterfall. The Last of the Mohicans waterfall was at the end or so I was told. Later I learned that waterfall was fake but they did film in the park. The dogs started out having to pee on every shrub and tree but soon realized this was a colossal feat in a forest and there just wasn’t enough pee in the world to mark this territory.

It was a perfect day in the woods. It was 72 degrees in late October, just madness. Just as I started to wonder just how much farther was this falls, I heard it in the distance. Excited I picked up the pace. I turned the corner and there it was…and I was underwhelmed. It looked as though at one time it was a massive waterfall…but on this day it was more of a water trickle. I had seen more water coming out of Patrick.

We sat and took pictures of the giant wet rock. It was comical to watch peoples faces as they came around the corner and their first words. “How disappointing….”….”Well its pretty but I wouldn’t call that a waterfall”….”We walked all that way for this?”….”Well, I’m underwhelmed”.

After the walk back to the car the dogs were barely able to jump in, they were so tired. When I glanced in the backseat after we got to the park entrance, both dogs were out cold.

I decided to drive along the road some more. I wanted to see what was after the town of Chimney Rock. There was a place that was pet friendly along the river but it was one step up from sleeping outside but a little dirtier. I was going to stay there anyway and I started to walk up to the front desk when a bunch of bikers passed me holding amplifiers. I looked up and saw a sign, “Live music tonight, come and party with us”. Hmmm….I had 50% decided to not stay there when I read their pet policy about not leaving the pets alone in the room. I wanted to shop a little and eat dinner so if I couldn’t even do this I decided to keep driving.

I came to the town of Lake Lure which was also beautiful and full of fall colors and roadside fruit stands. At one of those fruit stands I ate the best apple of my life.

I was picking out some granny smith when the owner asked me if I’d tried, I can’t remember the name, apple. I said I had not, so he picked one up and proceeded to twist it open. I’d never seen a man twist an apple open and my eyes popped and I even jumped back upon seeing it done. I almost went and got my camera and asked him to do it again. He claimed it was the best eating apple. I thought, ‘eating apple??” what else would you be doing with it? I guess he meant eating alone or baking with.

It was a bold statement, “best”, but he was right it was the best apple I had ever eaten. I was so mesmerized by this apple I filled a $5 bag with them and forgot the name of the apple. I remembered however the second best apple I tried that day but only because it was called “Pink lady”. Why couldn’t the best apple be called that…it was so fitting for me. I love pink.

I took another way back and passed this, having to turn around and go back. It was a small fence in front of a storefront that had the biggest array of Dahlias I had ever seen.

Every bush was a different kind and color or Dahlia. I’d wished someone had been there so I could tell them how beautiful their garden was.

I devilishly wished I could dig them all up and take them home with me. I wanted to live here and have bouquets of multi-colored dahlias in every room.

Back on the highway I was exhausted. I wanted to be at home in my bed or eating at Chipotle. There was one other town, the artist town of Black Mountain, that I wanted to see. Me, the dogs and my camera walked around and took pictures. We were about to fall over with tiredness. I think even Zoe wanted to be carried at this point.

A couple of hours into my drive back home, I decided to stop at a rest stop for a quick sleeping bag nap. Driving at night is not my favorite. I was just about to snuggle up in my bag when I noticed a man walking to his trunk about 10 parking stalls down. Curious I wanted to know what was in that trunk. He was a typical serial killer looking guy...long stringy hair, slight pot belly…acid washed jean jacket. I half expected a body in the trunk. He got something out but I couldn’t tell what. I watched him as he walked into the picnic area and then….he began to practice his Kung Foo moves.

The man had what were either actual nunchucks or possibly imaginary ones. If I could have taken a picture without him knowing I would have and that picture would have been priceless. Perhaps even enlarged and framed in my bathroom. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed and it was not a short show.

The drive after Knoxville was the drive from Hell. The wind picked up and I thought I would get blown off the road. The only thing I hate more than driving at night is perhaps driving in severe wind...at night. Eight wheelers swerving in their lanes crossing the double yellow only made me dig my nails further into the steering wheel. Then the rain started. It wasn’t a light shower but a torrential down pour. The only thing I hate worse than driving at night in severe wind is perhaps adding a little rain. I couldn’t see anything but the little light reflectors on the middle lane so I stuck to that. Pulling over seemed even more dangerous so I kept trucking on.

It seemed to be the end times outside my car. I searched the radio for weather alerts…but I got the end of a Tornado warning which had already said the location of the Tornado. Frantic I checked more stations and kept getting the end of the warning. AHHHH!!! The only thing I hate more than driving at night in serve wind and rain is driving at night in severe wind and rain during a Tornado. I kept thinking it would let up…I had 100 miles to go until I was home. Alas, I learned later that I was basically moving with the storm so even when I got home it was still raining. I arrived home safe and sound and was able to peel my hands off the steering wheel. I’d driven 900 miles. After a hot shower I went to bed and slept for 12 hours.

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