My husband and I took a whirlwind trip through North Carolina last week. We were on the road by 4AM Saturday morning. We drove through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana were we stopped in Indianapolis at a Steak n Shake for lunch. As we drove we saw the left-overs from the tornadoes that had ripped through Indiana a few weeks earlier. Then we trucked on through Kentucky and Tennessee. We arrived in The Smoky Mountains around 8PM and found a hotel in Kodak, TN. We found a cute little bar and stumbled in to eat. To our surprise there was a band playing, Billy Goats Gruff. They were amazing and the lead singer could belt out Fleetwood Mac like nobodies business! My husband had a terrible head ache by the time we had arrived, so our entertainment was short-lived. We ran into the local grocery store to pick up some supplies and headed back to the hotel. The bass guitarist tried his best to get us to stay (he was standing outside the bar as we loaded up). Turns out he use to play in Burlington, IA. Crazy small world we live in.
The next morning we were planning on taking a zip-line tour through the Smoky’s but the pouring rain had different plans. So we packed up and headed to Gatlinburg, TN to tour Ripley’s Belive it or Not Museum and drive through the Smoky’s. We had completely underestimated the drive time it would take us to go through the Smoky’s. We got out at the Tennessee/North Carolina border, which was also the highest point of the mountain. While gazing out at the clouds and the valleys down below we meet three hikers who were blazing the Appalachian Trail (which goes through the Smoky Mountains). They had hiked around 200 miles at this point and were heading towards Maine, a meer 2,000 miles to go. We chatted with them a bit about how the journey was and what they thought about a family of 7 completing a through-hike. They kindly suggested that we wait until our youngest (who is currently two) grows a bit older. We agreed. Our goal is 5-10 years out. NOTE: The youngest hiker to complete a through hike of the Appalachian Trial was three-years-old (started at the age of two). At this point we were extremely pressed for time. We had wanted to hike up to the look-out point, but we reluctantly got back in the van and drove on down the mountain. Our next stop was Cherokee, North Carolina. We stopped in several little shops looking for gifts for the kids. I found an adorable pair of moccasins and decided to treat myself. I have another pair that are less than a year old and are falling apart, needless to say, I love moccasins. My husband purchase a rattle snack mug. A statement piece if I do say so myself. I had wanted to stop at the Cherokee History Museum, but time wouldn’t allow. As we drove through Cherokee I was deeply saddened at the sight of devastation that has been bestowed upon the people. Gatlinburg is a glowing Vegas-like tourist attraction. On the other side of the mountain the Cherokee Nation is trying to pick its people back up from the ravishes of drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse that has all but broken the precious Cherokee way of life. Like many other sites, the reservation was not open to the public until April 1st. This also saddened me. My family in currently in the process of tracing our Native American roots. We had perviously thought that we were from the Cherokee people, but we are finding that our ancestors resided in the Lakota Nation reservation. We now think that they may have been Cherokee taken in by Lakota. I wanted to see the Cherokee Nation with my own two eyes, but that will have to wait for another trip.
Our next top was Ashville, North Carolina. We arrived around 2:30PM and found our way to the Biltmore House. We originally planned on buying our tickets, stopping at the Cafe for lunch and then touring the house and grounds. We were informed that the house doors closed at 4:30PM and we had to be inside the house before then or would have to return the next day (which wasn’t an option). With stomachs growling, we headed up to the main house and began our audio tour (highly recommend) which was an option at no additional cost. Sadly, no cameras were allowed within the house. It was spectacular! I was amazed with the size of the library, which houses over 23,000 books. The house staffed a full-time librarian when is was occupied. We were in complete awe at the sheer size of the house. The tour covered 44 of the 250 rooms: including the dinning hall, pool hall, servant quarters, kitchens (pastry, rotisearre, main kitchen and a half-dozen pantry/storage rooms), the guest bedrooms, Master and Mistress quarters (wealthy couples had separate rooms that were adjoined by a breakfast room, due to modesty rules of the time). We also toured several bathrooms, the indoor heated swimming pool and the laundry facilities. To put the house into context of the times, it boasted 43 bathrooms, and as above mentioned a heated indoor pool with underwater lights and electricity throughout. This is at a time when electricity and bathrooms were a rarity and many servants were use to living in houses without heat. By the time we had finished the house tour the Cafe was closed. We quickly wandered through the courtyard and gift shop and walked down to the conservatory. If you love gardening/nature/beauty you will fall in love with the conservatory (green house) which is the size of most ‘large’ homes today. I told my husband that we could just live in there. A few beds, a stove and VIOLA! Insta house. We attempted strolling the gardens, but we were both starving. We hiked back to the van (parking lots are about 10 minutes from the gate entrance) and headed into Biltmore Village. We ate a Moe’s, which was a first. It was delicious and reasonably priced.
Our next destination was Raleigh, North Carolina. We were going to spend the night there and head over to the wetlands of Columbia, North Carolina the next morning. I was concerned that we would be overwhelmed with the morning drive (we had a 9AM appointment) so I decided to keep driving until I couldn’t drive anymore. We ended up pulling into a hotel at Rocky Mount and calling it a night about midnight. The next morning we were on the road by 7AM. On the way we stopped in a Mom n Pop type gas station for something to drink and a snack. By this point in our trip we had caught onto the boiled peanut rage in North Carolina. It’s everywhere! This station offered a variety of homemade peanut snacks. Chocolate covered peanuts, peanut clusters, peanut brittle..well, you get the point. They also had homemade butter sitting on the counter for purchase. So cute. The cashier had a deep southern drawl and a lit cigarette sitting on the counter. That is certainly not something you see in Iowa. We arrived in Columbia and had a personal tour of the town. Then we drove across Lake Mattamuskeet (which for this lady who had never seen the ocean, looked like an ocean) and across the Pamlico Sound. For lunch we stopped at a Bojangles (similar to KFC) in Vanceboro. Vanceboro’s street signs are wooden stakes that have been painted white with the street names written on the sides. We were traveling on Main Street. To be able to read the street name you were traveling, you had to quickly turn your head and read while driving as it was directly facing the street. Side streets could easily be read as you were driving past, as they were written on the side of the stakes. We then drove through New Bern and across the Neuse River (again, looked like an ocean to this lady) and met our next tour guide in Havelock. We toured the town, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (we did not tour the actual base) and the Croatan National Forest. One minute we were in the middle of the National Forest (were we saw what Hurricane Irene left behind) and then 30 minutes later we were crossing the Bogue Sound (huge bridge!) into Atlantic
City Beach. Atlantic City Beach, North Carolina is filled with board walks, palm trees and white sand that is cotton-soft. Talk about a mind-blow. I never in a million years imagined that you could go from one extreme to the other in a blink-of-an-eye. We naturally, acted like complete tourist. Everyone was in bikinis and trunks (it was only about 60F) and I was in long-sleeves, an ankle-length skirt and knee-high moccasins. After we strolled the beach and I about died from the ocean chill we had dinner out on the deck of The Crab Shack. My husband insisted that I taste FRESH seafood. We opt’d for the surf and turf meal. Fresh lobster (the size of your head!) and filet mignon . I had sweet potato fries to go with and we shared a triple chocolate cheese cake for dessert. While we were taking in the views our server came over to point out the orcas that were feeding near shore. It was spectacular! After dinner we climbed back into the van and drove until I couldn’t stand it anymore. We ended up staying somewhere south of Fayetteville, honestly, I cannot even tell you were we stayed. That’s how tired I was. I had no clue. None.
Our next tour was of Red Spring, North Carolina. Red Springs is a well-known treasure for its mineral springs. The Scottish refer to it as “Slante mhor agad” meaning good health to you. It is believed that the water from the natural aquifer is responsible for health and longevity and it serves as the water source for the city. We toured the city in the morning. Red Springs is sought out by professors and military families alike that work in the nearby Lumberton and Fayetteville. Red Springs, like many North Carolina cities is historical and was home to a plethora of Victorian homes. A rare jewel in The Carolinas. A tornado ripped many homes from the city and followed by the economic downturn of the nation, it is a city still on recovery. Red Springs would be considered uplands as it sits 204 feet above sea level. compared to 25 feet elevation of Havelock, the wetlands had all but disappeared.
Our afternoon consisted of a lengthy drive from Red Springs, through Charlotte, ending at West Jefferson, North Carolina. West Jefferson is situated in the mountains of the Northwest and a stones-throw from both Virgina and Tennessee borders. We had perviously planned a tour for that afternoon but arrived much too late. We stayed at a recommended hotel and raced to see Mount Jefferson. We were very bummed to find that the park closed at 7PM, we arrived at 6:58PM. We quickly drove up the mountain to the look out point and jumped out for the views. You could clearly see all the different mountain tops that housed West Jefferson, Jefferson and Todd. You could also see Virgina and Tennessee. We headed back down the mountain for fear of the Ranger locking us in the park for the night. For dinner we strolled historic downtown West Jefferson to sample the famous Carolina Burger fare at Good Ole’ Days. A Carolina Burger is a juicy beef patty smothered in: ketchup, mustard, relish, cole slaw and chili. Can I just say, YUM! While we were there we learned about a local man who caught the attention of the National Weather Service by his handed-down ancient knowledge of predicting the weather. A mechanic by trade this man serves as the local weather man, actually predicting the weather to the tone of 97-100% The National Weather Service was astounded to find that he neither used or owned a computer and used animals, the woods, food and the fog to predict the weather. After studying his weather journals they assigned him his accuracy rating. They said as a whole, the National Weather Service found their predictions satisfactory is they averaged an 88%. With that being said, I hope this man writes a book or decides to teach the younger generations before this amazing knowledge is lost for all times.
After turning in early that night, we met up with our tour guide who took us on a 4 1/2 hour tour of Ashe County. Man alive, the mountains are beautiful! Ashe County is on its way back from the economic hardships, like many American counties and cities. Our tour guide gave us a comprehensive education in the history, economic developement (and hardships), and ways of the land. We were even entertained with stories of her family which has forged the mountain sides for generations. We learned about her Grandfather who owned the entire mountain and how he slowly sold off the bottom parts, keeping the top for himself. We learned about her Aunt, who still to this day lives on the mountain top, too stubborn to come down. The private roads can be very tricky and some are scarsley maintained, to the point of the roads becoming non-existent. I can still hear our tour guide, Karrah, in her sweet, southern draw, “and my Aunt still lives up there, with no road, she just forges the river and I say, good Lord, Edna, that is going back to olden times.” I love Karrah, she is a hoot! I could have stayed and listened to her talk for days. Such sweet, caring people to be found in North Carolina. Our tour ended around 2:30PM and we were again, starved. So upon Karrah’s recommendation, we headed to a little Mexican restaurant in Jefferson, North Carolina, called Caliente. As soon as you walked through the doors, it was like you were in the motherland. Beautiful hand-carved chairs and booths, hand-painted tables and service so fast, it’s no wonder my lunch was called Speedy Gonzalez. Muy bien!
After filling our bellies we drove all night through Virgina, Kentucky, Ohio (I think we grabbed a salad here), Indiana, Illinois and back into Iowa. We stopped at the Worlds Largest Truck Stop otherwise known as I-80. Cheese and crackers is that place huge! For those of you who have not stepped foot there (like me), let me paint a picture. There are several semis inside the building and they look small, tiny…toylike. We made one last pit stop in Parkersburg for a make-shift breakfast. Mine was a banana and a V8. I think my husband had cookies…yes, I was proud. We arrived home around 9AM. Stopped to change the oil and wash the van. Unloaded the van and cleaned it out. Grabbed a bite from Subway and then we picked up our babies.
For a lady who has never before traveled east of Chicago, this was an experience for sure! I cannot wait to go back. Perhaps next time, we will venture a little more south. I can tell you one thing, this lady was very much in a Idgie Threadgoode state of mind while traveling through the country side. Towanda!