PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
We had a week until the last of the parts arrived for the RV and since we had the wheel well buttoned up so nothing was exposed anymore, we decided to go wandering in southern and eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.
We drove east on I-40 to Hwy 111 south. It's a two-lane AAA scenic drive that is beautiful. The road wanders through rolling hills with only light farming visible from the roadway. At Soddy Daisy (location of a nuclear power plant) 111 merges into 27 south. To the east side of the roadway, is the very long Chickamauga Lake and Tennessee River. We camped at a first class, inexpensive, large public park named Chester Frost Park located near the intersection of I-27 and 153 near Hixson. The weather was mild but we still had showers in the late afternoon and evening as an after affect of Hurricane Dennis. The campsite we chose was on the lake and we had several Great Blue Herons on a nearby island that would visit us. The park had boat docks, a swimming area, bike trails, and large spaces with full hookups so you didn't feel crowded against your neighbors. We were imagining that the nuclear power plant must have contributed to it's funding.
In the morning, after yoga and a wonderful bike ride through the park, we headed south into Chattanooga via a surface street named Hixson Pike. The north end of town was obviously the "poorer" area but it wasn't shrubby at all. Just older, a little more neglected. The Tennessee River runs through downtown Chattanooga and, right off the bat, we were struck that this was a neat city. We drove around for a while checking out the downtown core, which looked like it was flourishing. The waterfront had a wonderful artsy feel to it and within blocks were several museums including a Discovery Center, Science Museum and Aquarium. We really liked the feeling Chattanooga exuded.
We decided to follow I-75 northeast out of the city and connect to 64 eastbound since AAA had designated 64 as a scenic drive too. We passed the Ocoee Lake/River area. It is a hotbed for canoeing and kayaking. There were dozens of rafting companies along the narrow, windy two-lane roadway but very few motels or campgrounds. At the eastern end of 64, but still west of 68 is the area of the river that was developed for the Atlanta Olympics kayaking. Talk about a wild and wooly ride!
We still haven't gotten used to the plants and animals east of the Mississippi. Fireflies are constantly entertaining. We even found a walking stick on Ian's bike one morning.
The drive along 64 (it changes to 74/129/19 eastbound in North Carolina) was gorgeous through Tennessee. But literally, it seemed like as soon as we hit the North Carolina border the communities off the highway looked shrubby.
To our experience, all of Tennessee (excluding Memphis) and North Carolina are verdant and very green with growth. But there is an even moister, more tropical feel to NorthCarolina than Tennessee. Of course, we were feeling the after effects of Dennis but local folks said that this weather pattern was normal. To our eyes everything in western and northwestern North Carolina had a look of tropical decay to it. Anything stationary had that moist, mossy Washington state look to it. But the moistness here is warm. There are even rhododendrons growing everywhere (something we also relate to Washington state).Our wanderings had a secondary purpose of scoping out the area for family that is considering moving to this area so we were very conscious of looking at the area through the eyes of a prospective settler.
We continued along 74/29/13 through to Canton where we found a small campground that had hookups behind their corn and tomato fields. We thought that was a neat idea.We were right next to a river that not only overran it's banks during the 2004 hurricane season but the water flooded 10+ feet high -- enough to almost cover us where we were now camped. We continued along and merged onto I-40 into Asheville. On the way we passed through the very small towns of Candler and Enka. They are almost like a part of western Asheville. There are a couple of pulp mills in this area. You would think the stench of the mills would permeate the area, but it didn't. New pollution laws in effect perhaps? We drove into southwest Asheville (definitely the WRONG side of the tracks)and ended up jumping on one of the lesser highways that took us all the way to the north end of Asheville. We finally got off in Woodfin and decided to head south through town via Business 19/23/Merrimon Avenue, which routes through the middle of downtown.We stopped at AAA and discovered that it is the only AAA in the western end of the state. At the AAA, we learned a bunch of miscellaneous info:(1) The Woodfin/New Bridge area we had just driven through was considered the main B&B area that consisted mostly of restored historic homes; (2) The main draw to Asheville is the Biltmore Estate. It's the largest privately owned home in America, built by the Vanderbilts; (3) Population is only about 66,000 but it's the largest city in the western part of the state so it's considered to draw on 200,000; (4) Land cost averages at least $40K per flat acre, depending on the area; (5) The 2004 hurricane season wreaked havoc on the entire area. Parks, etc. are still recovering. We drove by/through two universities, Mars City (lovely!) and U of NC Asheville. The downtown core along Broadway/Biltmore had about 8-10 blocks of funky college-town stores and shops.
We drove south through Asheville along 25A and after we crossed the Swannanoa River there was a short area that seemed higher class as would be in line with the entrance to the Biltmore estate. But that lasted less than a mile. We took 25A south to the Arden area just northeast of the airport. It was in this southern area that appeared to be the more yuppie-like suburbs. We jumped on 25N/Hendersonville Road up to I-40 and it was built up as the newer 'burb' area along southern 25A. These areas were one of the few areas where we saw new California-style tract housing = small lots, houses close together. All in all, driving all around the area didn't give us the flourishing feel to it that many areas in Tennessee had left us with.
Heading out of town we jumped from 25 onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is a two-lane highway with walls of green trees on each side. Lush growth almost right to the roadway choked almost any hope of views of scenery. The Parkway has many overlooks but with the weather quite cloudy there were not many clear views. We camped overnight at Mt. Pisgah and it was pretty deserted for middle of summer. The tropical growth was almost overbearing. Walking around the pathways and the campsites were literally tunnels of green without skylight. We could imagine that in the hot, humid times it could be quite oppressive. Fortunately temperatures were mild the entire time we were in North Carolina. These higher altitudes (5000-6200 ft) averaged only about 70-75 degrees during high summer with equivalent humidity. Not uncomfortable to us at all.
In the morning we drove the Parkway west to Great Smoky National Park. There is no fee to enter here because that was a stipulation of the original owners that granted the government this land (including the Vanderbilts). Since we dropped down in elevation,temperature and humidity rose again. The humidity is so high that everything feels damp.You don't feel dry after toweling off after a shower. You're just left with a clammy sensation. Turns out that June, July and August are the wettest months of the year in this area with 5+ inches on average per month and 7+ inches at the higher elevations. Most of the rain occurs as afternoon thunderstorms so the moist, humid feeling that permeates everything and everybody, never really dries out. But it is a warm moist, not cold.
We haven't found bugs to be too much of a bother in neither Tennessee nor North Carolina. Ergo: our windshield hasn't been covered with them and/or we don't have bites all over us. But we have found in the Nashville campgrounds and the Smoketon campground in the Great Smoky NP had fleas!
We attended an evening Ranger program and learned that Great Smoky National Park: (1) is the most visited national park in the country (19 million visitors annually) (2) has been awarded, many, many times, the most polluted national park award. This is due to the prevailing air currents bringing the east coast and southern pollution to this area and the mists just hanging onto it. The air quality is worse than the city of Los Angeles. To our practiced eye it seemed that a large portion of the figure of 19 million must be folks passing through and/or using the park for day use only. It was prime season and both of the campgrounds we stayed in were no more than half full.
The southern entrance to the park features a traditional Appalachian farm with a nearby grain mill. The farm had buildings collected from surrounding properties including a barn, house, apple crib, corn crib, barn, and sorghum press & shed. It even had a pigsty. Docents were on hand in period costume. They were local folk who were quite knowledgeable in local history and customs.
The grain mill used normal millstones, but rather than a water wheel it used a turbine (original from the era). It still looked cool with the flume overflowing near the mill. The mill is still in use to grind both corn and wheat.and the day's production was for sale.
The first town south of Great Smoky NP is Cherokee and it is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. It is commercialized a little differently than most reservations. Yes, there was a Harrah's at one end of town but the entire main drag (several miles) is wall-to-wall tourist shops, including water activities for the Oconaluftee River that runs through it.
We spent a night camping in the Deep Creek area (southwest area of GSNP) because we had heard it was a neat area. On the drive into Deep Creek you couldn't help but notice all the shops renting inner tubes for "white water tubing." Upon entering the campground we saw why. The rushing current that engulfed most of the creek was just begging to have rafts on it. And it would if it wasn't for the fact that the water was only two feet deep in areas. But that didn't stop the inner tubers. The upper area, which was by far the most fun, had several drop offs that you had to plunge down. After several runs it was Ian who managed to lose his ride. After a good long chase for the inner tube he did manage to catch up with it. With the only real injury being his pride and bruised knees, it was still an eventful ride down the rest of the way. Between hiking up to the top of the rafting area several times while hauling a huge inner tube and trying in vain to steer away from the oh-so-common rocks, we were ready for a good nap afterwards.
We exited from the north end of GSNP and passed through Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We didn't know what to expect here but had heard from as far north as St. Louis that this was an entertainment Mecca, particularly due to Dolly Parton's Dollywood and her two other theme parks in the area. We only drove through the main drag and it was a zoo that we truly did not want to participate in. We headed north towards Knoxville and struck up a very informative conversation with a waitress about activities in the area. In fact, she directed us to a campground that wasn't in our encyclopedia of campgrounds. It was near a marina on the Tennessee River that looked worthy of exploring. However, we decided the next morning to carry on into Nashville, pick up the last part for the RV and move on out of the state.