Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

State Park Respite in Virginia

After staying in busy towns, constantly being on the go and sightseeing, we like to find a place to chill out.  For us, that usually means heading to a state park or forest where we can get away from the crowds and where we can spend time hiking and end the day with a lit grill and campfire.

So we headed to the mountains.  First up was Hungry Mother State Park.  Funny name, right? I’ve been called a “hungry mother” from time to time when “hangry” takes over but why name a state park that?  So the story goes a mother and child were captured by Native Americans when they raided several settlements on the New River south of the park.  The pair eventually escaped and wandered through the wilderness eating only berries.  The mother finally collapsed and the child wandered down to the creek where help was found.  The only words the weak child could mutter were “hungry mother.”  Unfortunately, the mother was dead when the rescue party found her.  After reading that we made sure we had plenty of food as to not repeat the scenario. 

The park and campground were just what we wanted – a nice site with a big yard and patio that yielded some privacy and the pleasant sound of a rushing stream nearby.  The park is 3,300 acres with the centerpiece being a 100-acre reservoir surrounded by 17 miles of hiking trails.  We were in heaven!  Spirit was happy to return to the water for some retrieving and energetically bound through the woods with us happily in tow.  The weather cooperated one day and I spent a few hours paddle boarding on the reservoir (which I think was a foreign site as I got strange looks from locals as I paddled past them in my bathing suit while they cast their lures towards the bass hotspots).  If you come in the summer, you may have a totally different experience as we’re sure this place fills up.  We visited during a quiet time when the weather wasn’t the most conducive to “camping” which became evident from the snow falling one morning. The park has a lot going on with three camping loops, a restaurant, conference center, swim beach, watercraft rental, playgrounds, large picnic areas and rental cabins.


Next up was Shenandoah River State Park – which is also where I started humming John Denver’s Country Roads song every time I saw the Shenandoah River.  Much to Betsy’s dismay I didn’t stop until we reached Maryland.  Again, we had a beautiful site which was plenty long enough for our big rig and car and with a super large patio. By now, we were really digging Virginia State Parks.  The park overlooks a beautiful bend in the Shenandoah River and from a high vantage point one can only imagine how spectacular it must look when flanked by autumn foliage.  The trails (24 miles in all) were great and so under utilized we hardly ever encountered anyone on our hikes.

One day we decided to venture out of the park and found that the tiny town of Browntown was having their annual Redbud Festival.  Ironically, we didn’t see one redbud in the town but we did get to see a performance by Amazing Grace the trick mule who entertains crowds by playing basketball, smiling for the crowd, giving kisses, and other antics.  And, of course, there was the Elvis look alike who also entertained the crowd.  From there we ventured into the town of Front Royal for a beer at Pave Mint Taphouse and Grille and were planning on sticking to the beer theme by going to the Virginia Beer Museum but decided that our peaceful campsite was where we really wanted to be.


These two parks were a great find for us having never camped at Virginia State Park campgrounds before. The sites and roads were super big-rig friendly and had there been sewer hookups we can imagine spending more nights there. If you are looking for a nice get away these two parks are worth a stop.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Charlottesville, Virginia is a vibrant town where the past of plantations and slavery fade into the modernism of today with the University of Virginia standing tall in the center (which Jefferson founded).  Monticello – the home of Thomas Jefferson – was the motivation for us coming to Charlottesville but it was soon apparent why this city is getting accolades and has become a big draw for tourists.  The town speaks volumes of American history (with James Madison and James Monroe homes being nearby), a vibrant almost hippy-like downtown, surrounding hillsides dotted with wineries and orchards, and off in the not-so-distant view, is the beautiful Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park.

Monticello was the beloved home of Thomas Jefferson who spent his adult life constructing his home, planting gardens, cultivating fields, and developing the 5,000 acres that he inherited from his father.  Monticello is among the best-documented, best-preserved, and best-studied plantations in North America due to Jefferson’s meticulous record keeping and scholarly research.  Jefferson was born and raised in the area and loved coming home to his mountain home. Monticello was years in the making and always evolving.  While Jefferson is most acclaimed as a politician, it was his interest and achievements in architecture he was most proud of.  He started working on Monticello when he was 26 and chose to build it in the Palladian style – an influence he acquired while working in Europe.

Jefferson was a renaissance man who promoted science and scholarship as he embarked in horticulture, literature, innovation, linguistics, law, and most notable politics. Jefferson spent 33 years in public life serving as Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President and the 3rd President of the United States. Jefferson is hailed as the author of the Declaration of Independence who wrote the famed words “All men are created equal.” This phrase has been called by historians "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" containing "the most potent and consequential words in American history." And while that phrase resonates liberty, there is a paradox as Jefferson owned some 600 slaves in his lifetime, choosing to set only five of them free. Something to think about … those famous words of equality were written by a slave owner in 1775, but it wasn’t until 1964 when all legally enforced public segregation was abolished by the Civil Rights Act.


A visit to Monticello is an all-day event. The best way to start is by viewing the 15-minute film. From there it is a short walk up to the house winding past the cemetery where he is buried and then a quick walk to the house. Viewing of the house is done by 45-minute guided timed tours which is a real plus so that you get the most out of your visit. Other aspects of the house that are available for viewing on your own are the kitchen, wine cellar, ice house and cooks room. Additional things to see are Mulberry Row – which was the center of plantation activities. Here enslaved, free, and indentured workers and craftsmen fabricated everything needed for the plantation and building construction. A stroll along this area also leads you to rustic cabins that were slave quarters. For more in-depth information on the gardens of Monticello and what it was like to be a slave there stick around for those respective guided tours which were very well-narrated and fascinating. Coming down the mountain back to the entrance there is an exhibit gallery, a very nice gift shop, and cafĂ©.

Charlottesville is definitely worth a stop and we regretted not having more time to explore the surrounding area. Especially since we now know this is one of Virginia’s most prominent wine regions! Keep in mind, Orbitz ranked Charlottesville as one of the “Top 5 Destinations Every American Should Visit” so you may want to put it on your travel list.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Little Mountain Time in Georgia and Tennessee

After leaving Florida we wandered up to the little Georgia Mountain town of Helen. Our good friends, Kelly and T (and their three adorable pups) were traveling with us and suggested we make that our first stop on our road trip to Maine. Of course, we were totally game as it is always fun to visit places we have never been before and spend time with them.  Helen is a Bavarian-style town where the buildings make you feel like you are in the Alps (albeit such shorter mountains) and whose charm is a huge tourist draw which makes it the state’s third most visited city.  While the town was originally Cherokee, European settlers came to the area in search of gold and to exploit the rich virgin timber stands for the booming lumber industry.  When those two industries dried up, the town was in decline.  In 1969, city leaders and business owners set out to revitalize the economy and attract tourists by adopting the Bavarian theme.  Soon facades were painted with scenes from Bavaria, gingerbread trim was added and the city became a tourist draw.

The downtown covers just over two miles but the surrounding area holds lots for outdoor enthusiasts as it is surrounded by Unicoi State Park and the Chattahoochee National Forest.  As our stay was only for two nights we had just one day to do all we could.  The beautiful Georgia mountains are home to many waterfalls and we started our day at Anna Ruby Falls (not to be confused with the famed “Ruby Falls.”)  The short hike up to the falls was pretty and was a hit with the two Labradors.  The double waterfalls are formed as two creeks, Curtis Creek and York Creek, tumble over a towering cliff below the summit of Tray Mountain.  The cascading water forms Smith Creek whose waters eventually make their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  It is this quartz that travels from the Appalachian Mountains via rivers that makes the sugar sands in Florida’s panhandle so white and fine.


Downtown Helen came alive while we were at the falls and was overrun with people by the time we arrived at lunchtime. The town's Bavarian theme is cute and reminded me (ever so slightly) of my days living in Europe. But, we were sorely disappointed that very few shops carried anything tied to that region of the world. Instead they were the same tacky tourist shops where you would find them full of airbrushed t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other souvenirs. The highlight was lunch at Hofbrauhaus Restaurant and German Pub where we indulged in potato pancakes, spaetzle, braised cabbage, bratwurst, knockwurst and a good selection of German beer.  Outside of Helen we found more interesting places to stop like Fred’s Famous Peanuts, a funky coffee roaster, antique shop, winery, and great grist mill where a new bag of grits was soon in my hand.


Two nights in Helen was all we had planned for so we were off and headed deeper into the Appalachian Mountains to the ever popular towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  Our sights were set on Dollywood, Bush’s Beans and exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park (NP).  We arrived to cold and damp weather but that was not going to stop us from checking our eastern Tennessee boxes!  The dogs were loaded up, we donned our hiking shoes and headed to the park with my newly purchased trail map.  Only, to be sorely disappointed to find out that dogs are only allowed on basically two trails in the entire park. (Yes, they are allowed in developed areas like campgrounds and on roads but who wants to hike there?)  There was one dog-friendly trail which ran along a pretty stream so not all was lost and the dogs didn’t know any better.  We humans were a little bummed but we came to the conclusion that a moonshine tasting would rectify the day and off to Ole Smokey we went.  Downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are very tourist-oriented which is quickly apparent as you drive down the strip (or sit in traffic as is often the case).  Lots of eateries, go carts, dinner theaters, and shopping.

Aside from Great Smoky Mtn NP the big draw to the area is Dollywood - attracting some 3 million visitors a year. Dollywood is an amusement park with a Hillbilly theme and a famous owner.  The sounds of banjos play in the background as you wander past rides, shows, exhibits, food vendors, and gift shops.  Our favorite part of Dollywood was “Chasing Rainbows” – a museum about Dolly Parton’s life and accomplishments.  We especially loved that her 1994 Prevost “home-on-wheels” was open for touring.  The bus features hand-tooled leather from Germany on the sofa and chairs, cherry cabinets, a bathtub, and brass fixtures.  In her bedroom are a guitar she used and a retired wig.


Hers is a great story that has a young girls dream to be a singer come true.  One of 12 children, Parton has described her family as being “dirt poor” and that her father paid the doctor who helped deliver her with a bag of cornmeal.  She was a natural performer who started as a youngster singing in church, strumming homemade guitars, and later performing on local television and radio stations.  The day after she graduated from high school in 1964, she moved to Nashville chasing her dream of making it big in the country music industry.  After achieving success as a songwriter for other artists, Parton debuted her first solo album in 1967.  Her singing career bloomed in the 1970 and 80’s but her success has never stopped and today she is recognized as the most honored female country performer of all time.  But more than being a singer, songwriter, actress, businesswoman, author, and record producer she is a philanthropist.

In the mid-1980’s Parton bought an interest in the Gatlinburg amusement park known as Silver Dollar City and as part of the deal it would be renamed "Dollywood".  Why would she want a stake in an amusement park, you ask?  Well that goes back to her philanthropic spirit.  Parton said she became involved with the operation because she "always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area.”  She has achieved that as Dollywood is the largest employer in the community with over 3,000 employees.  Whether you like Parton’s music, acting, boobs, and flashy clothes, and red lipstick or not you have to admire this woman’s accomplishments.  And at the age of 72 does not seem to be slowing down.  Go Dolly!  We had a great time.


Before we left the area we had to put a check next to one of Betsy’s bucket list items.  Which meant we were headed to a place made famous by a bald guy with a mischievous talking dog named “Duke” who’s baked beans represent approximately 80 percent of the canned baked beans consumed in the United States.  That’s right we are talking about Bush’s Beans!


Their story dates back to 1904 when A. J. Bush partnered with the Stokely family to open a tomato cannery in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee.  The cannery proved so profitable that, by 1908, he was able to buy out the Stokelys' interest and establish his own business.  He entered into partnership with his two oldest sons, Fred and Claude, and the Bush Brothers & Company business began.  In the early days, the company canned a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and even pet food.  The year 1969 proved to be pivotal.  When overproduction and low prices were wreaking havoc on the canning industry the company started looking for ways to ride out the tough times and boost sales with a new product.  They reflected on the previous success 20180406_162042of their canned pork and beans and Condon Bush (A. J.’s grandson) decided to develop a “table ready” baked bean product based on his mother Kathleen's secret recipe.  That idea proved far more successful than they could have imagined. Sales of Bush's Best Baked Beans went from 10,000 cases in 1969 to 100,000 in 1970 and close to a million cases in 1971.  Ultimately, those beans would  prove to be the biggest success in the company's history.

In the 1990’s the company was looking to for a new advertising campaign for the baked beans.  Enter the bald Jay Bush (Condon’s son) who spoke of the “secret family recipe.”  A year later, the mischievous golden retriever “Duke” was introduced and sales exploded.  As a result of that ad campaign sales of the company's beans increased from 48% to 80% of the national market share.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are busy places and built for entertaining tourists.  The towns were a little too touristy for our liking so we decided next up we need a state park with a little more serene setting for some hiking and campfires and towns without stoplights.