Sunday, December 30, 2012

Across Tennessee: Elvis, Pandas, and The Creepiest Motel 6 on the Planet

After we left Gatlinburg, we were definitely on our way home.  However, we had a few days left and a few new places to see.

We didn't spend much time in Nashville, and it rained the whole time we WERE there, but we did manage to walk around Broadway, aka Honky Tonk Row.  I had read about Hatch Show Print and really wanted to see it.  It's this old print shop on Broadway that still screen-prints posters for all sorts of events.  It was old and funky and really cool to visit:
I kept my eyes peeled for a glimpse of Keith Urban (he and Nicole DO live in Nashville, after all) but the closest I came was a ginormous handbag covered in photos of him.  It was a bit much, so I passed, but I DID buy a guitar-shaped spatula that I now refer to as my Keith Urban Memorial Spatula.

Our hotel messed up our reservations (which was fine, because it was a pretty skeevy place) so we decided to drive on and see how far we got.  We made it all the way to Memphis, ready to find someplace cheap to sleep for a few hours.  Mission accomplished!  We managed to find the creepiest Motel 6 east of the Mississippi.  (I think they had a plaque.)  As if the rent-a-cop guarding the property weren't enough, our "non-smoking" room reeked of smoke and had an ashtray on the dresser, for our convenience.  You know you are scraping the bottom of the barrel when you are just grateful there is no hair in the sink.

However, after we woke up and got out of that room as fast as we possibly could, things could only get better, and they did.  After treating ourselves to breakfast at Cracker Barrel (pancakes, finally!) we headed on over to the Memphis Zoo:
 (We're walking like Egyptians, can't you tell?)  Now, you know I am a fan of zoos, and I can generally find something good to say about any zoo, but believe me when I say that THIS zoo is truly spectacular, one of the best I have ever been to.  I am sure it helped that the weather was cloudy and blissfully not hot, but weather aside, this is just a beautiful zoo with a terrific variety of animal exhibits and interaction programs.  The top priority for me at this zoo was the pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le:
I fell in love with the pandas!  They are one of only four pairs in the whole United States--the others are in San Diego, Washington DC, and Atlanta.  We got to watch them eat their bamboo, have a drink of water, and do a lot of sleeping.  They were enchanting.

We also got to feed a giraffe named Kenya, which was a hoot:
We also fed budgies:
All of the animals at the Knoxville Zoo were either asleep or hiding (or both) and while all the animals at the Chattanooga Zoo were awake, there were only 3 or 4 of them, so it wasn't really the ultimate zoo experience.  But Memphis Zoo, oh, Memphis Zoo was definitely worth the price of admission.

After the zoo we went downtown and rode the vintage streetcar to Beale Street, where we ate lunch and browsed through all manner of Elvis souvenirs.  Then, on our way out of town, we drove past Graceland:
With two tired kids in tow, Graceland would definitely NOT have been worth the price of admission.  (FYI, it's really expensive.)  So no Jungle Room or gold Cadillac, just the gates.

And then we were on our way home!  After one last motel, where all the crickets in Texas go to die (but at least there was no smoke OR hair in the sink), we made it home:
The Wheats made us a fab banner, which as soooo nice.  I took a picture of our trip odometer just to prove how far we had gone:
Hoo-boy!  What a trip.  I am so glad we went.

Great Smoky Mountains: Birthdays, Bears, and Waterfalls

I had long wanted to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It's the most-visited National Park in the nation and contains some of the oldest ecosystems on the planet.  The Appalachian Trail passes through it, and the park is chock-full of waterfalls.  What's not to love?

Gatlinburg TN bumps right up to the park border and is composed mostly of hotels, so I decided that would be the most convenient place to stay.  After two days of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway nearly all by our lonesome we entered the park in the dark of night.  (The Parkway ends at the North Carolina entrance to the park.) Peaceful Parkway gave way to dark Park, and it took us about and hour to drive through to the other side.  The MOMENT we left the park and entered Gatlinburg, our senses were assaulted by flashing lights, traffic, multiple Ripley's attractions of dubious interest, hotels and motels, fudge shops (?), and a ridiculous number of pancake houses.  It was horrifying.  Greg called it Hillbilly Holiday Heaven.  I didn't even have the desire to buy a postcard there, and I LOVE postcards!

Our motel, Carr's Northside Cottages, was a good deal, spacious and clean.  It was a two-bedroom apartment and was decorated in a style I can only describe as Early BYU Dorm, but it worked.  Natalie turned four years old while we were there:
(Note the lovely curtains.)  We found My Little Pony cupcakes at a supermarket in Asheville NC, and she was VERY excited about them:
We spent a couple days in the Park, hiking to every waterfall within a reasonable distance:
We bought Natalie her very own walking stick in hopes that it would make her a more enthusiastic hiker. (Nice try.)  It rained quite a bit while we were there, which is apparently par for the course in the Smokies, but we still managed to do and see quite a bit.  Greg took a nice run that covered part of the AT, and one morning I got up really early and rode the Cades Cove Loop:
It was stunningly beautiful, and chock-full of wildlife.  I saw deer and wild turkeys, and yes, a black bear!  I turned a corner and met a group of riders standing stock-still on the trail, staring off across a meadow.  There at the edge was a black bear, trundling towards the trees.  It was one of the highlights of my trip.

All the rain caused the waterfalls to swell considerably, and the last one we hiked to, Laurel Falls, was so full that it was surging right over the bridge.  Of COURSE we had to go stand IN the waterfall:
The water was freezing cold and really powerful.  Natalie loved it, but it made Ella cry.  (We made her stand there for a picture anyway.  Such good parenting!)  I've got to say, it was really cool.

We did not visit any Ripley's "attractions" (although I hear the aquarium is actually pretty amazing), nor did we indulge ourselves in any of the abundant dinner theater options (the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, for example, or the Lumberjack Feud, and no, I am not kidding), nor the 10+ go-cart establishments lining the highway through Pigeon Forge (proud home of Dollywood).  We didn't even eat any pancakes, or fudge!  So, it can probably be said that we did not have the quintessential Gatlinburg experience, more's the pity.  The park, though, was a great time.