Friday, May 12, 2017

The .1%

We decided to end our trip a little early so this was our last day on the road. We didn't rest at all or stay in any place two nights in a row ad while we could have, it was best to just keep going and then get back home and pick up the dogs.

Our last destination was the Biltmore Estates outside of Asheville. We've talked about going for years but it's just far enough away (and expensive enough) that we've never done it. Since it was on our way back, we finally went to see it.

The little town it's in is pretty nice - even the McDonald's looks fancy. Driving in, the grounds look pretty nice and the visitor's center/ticket area is nice too. Of course, it better be for like $70 a person. It's brilliant from the descendants of the Vanderbilts - just charge tourists a ridiculous amount to a see house they couldn't even afford to stay a night in and keep being rich!

The driveway in is very pretty - they put a lot of thought into the landscaping and after 100 years, it's still fantastic. The house itself is a Chateau-style house and is the largest privately-owned home in the United States. It's also situated on a huge piece of prime land at the base near the mountains.

We all had to admit that the self-guided tour and the length of it was pretty impressive. Everything is beautifully done and there is a lot of look at. We did rent one of the audio devices to give some more info on each room and that was well worth the price too. It does feel more home-y than you'd think and there is a lot of history with it. The planning for it was incredible and was well-executed and it's certainly worth a visit if you're in the area.

We took a very brief stroll through one part of the gardens and then we all agreed we were petering out and it was time to get home. 4 hours later a nice dinner at ZB's (that's what people in the know call Zaxby's) we were back at the house.

We got lucky (again) with the weather and everything worked out really well. We all got to see and do everything we wanted and there weren't any hiccups along the way. It definitely makes us look more forward to our trip in September, assuming the government hasn't shut down by then.

As they say at the Biltmore, "It doesn't matter how much money you have." Note: No one says this.

The Grueling Appalachian Trail

Note: Internet was spotty and/or expensive over the last couple of nights so the last couple of posts were written after we got back. To our loyal 3 readers, we apologize for the inconvenience.

While it was tough to leave the classy Gatlinburg, we had to make our way through the Great Smoky Mountains. Our first stop in the park was the visitor's center where we saw all kinds of taxidermied animals (including something called a skunk and another animal called an opossum - I hope I got the name right because they were beautifully exotic). We also learned that the park got its name in 1981 when they honored the movie Smokey and the Bandit 2. However, the spelling was changed to match the Cherokee translation.

Next up we went to Cade's Cove. Cade was maybe a settler who built a church or something. Anyway, his cove was pretty nice and there were lots of picturesque views. The highlight here though was a traffic jam, which meant there was a bear, an elk or a bicyclist fell down a hill. Luckily for us it was the first one and it turned out it wasn't just one bear: it was a mom and four small cubs. Of all our trips out west, Jess and I never saw any bears of any kind so it was cool to see 5 black bears relatively close by.

The following stop on the trip was the Newfound Gap which is where the park was dedicated and is where the North Carolina/Tennessee border is. You can stand in both states at once although it's not as good as the 5 corners site we visited a few years back where you can be in Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Texas all at once.  This is also where the Appalachian Trail runs through so we decided to hike it. It was basically straight uphill and I think we probably hiked it for 100 miles (we must have went far as we saw a sign for Maine). Upon getting back to our car, we powered through a big lunch to regain the thousands of calories we likely expended on the trail.

Our last spot in the park was Clingman's Dome, which is the highest point in the park. There's an observation tower at the top that provides some good views although it is a steep half-mile hike up to the top. Being experienced hikers, it wasn't that bad and we finished without any trouble.

We ended the day the only way possible when you're int he NC mountains: at a casino. The Harrah's Cherokee Hotel and Casino was ok although having visited many, many, many, many casinos in the past, it was probably one of the worst. The slots were tight, the rooms were ok but expensive for being kind of blah and everything there was straight out of the late 90's, including the Ace of Base and Third Eye Blind playing on the speakers. I will say that the dealers they had were some of the best - the $5 Let It Ride table was made much more enjoyable because of the personable dealers which is something you don't see much anymore. Unfortunately, they did ruin it a little by charging Kevin for a beer - while we were sitting at the table spending $10-$20 a hand! I've never seen that before and hope it's not a sign of things to come.

I convinced Kevin to go back to the tables after a brief break which was great for him and he ended up hitting a nice hand and ending up for the night. I didn't do so well but that just means I'm due.

As they say in the Cherokee Casino, "Budweiser? That'll be $4." Note: They actually say this.

Now, are you gentlemen gonna buy some wigs or ain't ya?


That is right: all caps because this day deserves it. Bucket list check mark acquired!

Talladega was a great time and with everything having worked out so well, we knew there might be a letdown at some point. Fortunately, today was not that day. We had planned on making this a drive day in order to get to Gatlinburg before heading to the Smoky Mountains on Tuesday. Thankfully there was plenty to do along the way including a highlight in Knoxville.

Our first stop this morning was the Russell Cave National Monument. It was barely out of the way and was another stamp so it seemed worth going. It's pretty small and is mainly a boardwalk to a large cave opening. You can't go in there (for safety or archaeological reasons) but they did have a nice visitor's center that had some of the artifacts that they had previously recovered. It was a decent enough National Monument, though I think the highlight may have been a dog that was hanging around outside their owner's motor home that enjoyed laying in the shade and getting pet.

After the cave we headed up to Chattanooga. I knew virtually nothing about it but since it was lunchtime, we looked up a recommended place on TripAdvisor and headed into the City. It ended up being right next to the Terminal Station which was cooler than we thought it was going to be. After a good lunch, we headed over to the Terminal Station which is now a hotel and meeting center. The building itself is kind of nice inside with some high ceilings and an old railway switchboard from the 40's (which Kevin used and presumably caused a massive collision). Outside there was a train that you could walk around and it looks like they have some cars that they still use for a restaurant. I had never heard of the the Chattanooga Choo Choo but Kevin and Jess seemed to know the song that they claimed was famous. I consider myself an expert on 1940's music and if I never heard it, it probably wasn't that popular.

The next stop was the most important - Knoxville and the Sunsphere. It's a beautiful tower with a golden sphere built for the 1982 World's Fair that has been recently renovated with office space and the observation deck is free for the public. It was vacant for a long time and was the subject of a 1996 Simpson's episode which is why Kevin and I wanted to see it (well, that and we love towers and the World's Fair). In fact, the only other two people up in the observation deck with us were there for the exact same Simpsons reason. One of the informational panels even made mention of the episode where Bart takes a car and drives to Knoxville to see the World's Fair (not knowing his AAA guide was from 1982) and the empty sphere has now been used to store wigs. The Wigsphere definitely did not disappoint. Even Jess had her expectations met, albeit because they were so very low to begin with.

We ended up having dinner in Pigeon Forge before getting to our hotel in Gatlinburg. It's basically Myrtle Beach in the mountains but maybe somehow worse. Kevin and I went out to the Gatlinburg Space Needle and while two towers in one day was great, this was probably the worst tower we've ever been to and I don't think it's even close. We walked around for a bit, probably ran into a grifter who quickly moved on to an older couple nearby and marveled at the how much of a tourist trap this place is.

Tomorrow is our first trip Great Smoky Mountains National Park so it should be a nice day of scenic drives and some hiking.

As they say on graduation day at the University of Tennessee, "May your career reach heights as great the Sunsphere." Note: No one says this.

Sunday, May 7, 2017



That is right: all caps because this day deserves it. Bucket list check mark acquired!

Today has me feeling all the feelings and I don't know where to begin. This road trip came up just a few weeks ago with Kevin (Ryan's brother) in town. I am always ready for a trip to National Parks or to see some of the interesting parts of our country but it took on a whole new meaning when Talladega and the GEICO 500 came up. As most of you know I kinda sorta think Dale Earnhardt Jr is cool (honestly, I am totally fascinated by him and he is the only reason I have watched or paid attention to NASCAR as long as I have).We started to plan the trip and then it happened: Dale Jr announced his retirement. I actually get a little choked up typing that. That made this a must-do and must-do-it-right kinda situation. We got tickets and pit passes not knowing what to expect.

Today began at 6:30 AM, in the car by 8:30 AM and at the track at 10:00 AM. It was a fairly easy ride and organized parking situation. The atmosphere was even more than expected. There were people everywhere but it wasn't crowded. We walked to the outside of the Super Speedway and got our tickets and pit passes without even a wait and did some shopping. After dropping off our new purchases, we put on some sunscreen and headed to pit road.

 The distance around this monster of a track is 2.66 miles so it took us some time to get around but we were taking it all in. Walking across the track and onto pit road is awesome. I have been to 3 other races but never gone down to pit road or had decent seats and it was a game changer. You really feel a part of the event and you can get up close to everything. I saw Dale Jr's pit stall and car but unfortunately not Dale. We got to stay on the track for driver introductions and watching him walk out to thundering applause made me a little teary thinking this will be his last season and how much people really love him.

We had nice seats and after a few laps we finally had a chance to grab some nachos and much needed water. The race didn't go as expected and even though Dale Jr was 3rd with about 15 laps to go he finished 22nd. A little heartbroken, we watched Ricky Stenhouse Jr, celebrate and headed back to the car.

I must have reminded myself 10 times today to soak it all in because it was one of my favorite days ever. The pre-race fly over and truck driving around with a huge American flag were touching and gave a real sense of the part of country we were in. When the green flag waved and the cars took off it was electric and you could actually feel it every lap. It was great watching Dale Jr. move up through the field and seeing everyone's passion for their favorite driver. I will carry the memories I made today forever as a member of Jr Nation.

I am exhausted, a little sunburned and sad Dale Jr. didn't win but if you asked me to do it all over again tomorrow I wouldn't hesitate.