It’s been a while since I’ve written one like this, a travel story from our family vault. I don’t know how well these posts fit in with the overall cohesiveness of my blog, but since I don’t keep a journal, I enjoy looking back on these to read later. So that’s why it’s here.
This trip caught us by surprise. We only found out, with about two weeks notice, that N would get Veteran’s day off. And with a baby coming at the end, but not the very end, of the school year, and a job that just started a year ago with a clean slate of vacation/sick days (i.e. very little), we have tried to use them sparingly.
So we jumped at the chance to take a mini-trip, though it almost got spoiled by a rainstorm. Yes, the Tuesday before we left, I woke up (around 1am #murphyslaw) to an unmistakeable dripping sound coming from our kitchen. There were at least six spots in our kitchen ceiling where the rainwater was dripping in and pooling onto the floor below (our NEW floor, mind you that we had just laid in March). N and I worked quickly to mop up and contain the water, puzzled as to why this was happening, especially since there was a bedroom (and not a roof) directly above the most worrisome drip.
Since then, we’ve seemed to diagnose the problem (and will be getting a new roof and ceiling out of it, it seems), but of course the timing couldn’t have been worse and made us question whether we should continue on with our trip plans or just throw in the (soggy) towel.
Thankfully, my dad stepped in and was able to be at our house while we were away, to meet with insurance and roofers, and the like. We took off across I-40 as soon as we had eaten breakfast and tried not look behind.
Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge was our ultimate destination, with our first stop being a picnic lunch in the Great Smoky Mountains. The last hour or so of the drive was through a small town and across The Tail of the Dragon, which I later found out is an infamous stretch of road known well to motorcyclists who love the thrill of the twists and turns.
I’m not one who becomes car sick easily, but with babies growing me, I’ve always been a little more prone to feeling it. Plus it was nearing lunchtime, which for some reason, my pregnant self confuses hunger with nausea, so I was ready to be at our destination and out of the car. We were just at the entrance of the park when we thought we were turning into it, but instead onto another 15 mile stretch of twists and overlooks into the great park itself, but nowhere to actually breach the interior.
To compound the frustration, our cell phones completely lost service about a mile from the entrance, which meant we had no navigation nor any idea how long this road would be, other than the mile marking signs along the way. It was just like being back in the 1990’s again, and as bad as I imagined.
Finally, we made it to the end of the parkway and were able to use more signs to guide us, more directly, into the entrance of the park. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a good parking/eating/hiking area immediately, so we kept driving. We began to see signs for Cade’s Cove picnicking area so we blindly followed along, hoping for the best, at the end of another long and twisted 7 miles.
But we reached the end and it was as if the Heavens opened all at once. There was a row of picnic tables, evenly spaced, with a nice bathroom (another thing on our wishlist during the last hour of the drive), an ambient stream coursing along a shallow riverbed, and beautiful sunlight streaming through the gorgeous, gilded autumn trees. We had arrived.
We ate lunch and enjoyed the sights and sounds of God’s beautiful handiwork. I don’t think there could be a more ideal picnic spot on the face of the earth. We could hardly finish our lunch before the girls were begging to play in the stream (though we shooed them away as it was too cold, and possibly dangerous). Instead, we followed the stream backwards, and uphill, hiking up a short incline and stretching out our car legs. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful fall day with the leaves’ burnt reds and oranges and beginning to cover the ground.
On our way back down the incline, we saw a pack of wild turkeys, who were completely non-plussed by the sight of us, and continued to scavenge crumbs off the ground while the girls watched in fascination.
Around 4pm, the sun was beginning to arc into its descent and we decided to make our way down and out of the mountains. I’d seen a Sweet Shop at the entrance to the park and had promised the girls a treat on the way to our hotel. We continued to navigate by signs, with no luck from our phones, and discovered, to our dismay, the shop was closed. We continued to blindly drive, back the way we came, hoping we would see signs for Pigeon Forge or our phones would pick up soon.
About ten minutes later, we began to read hand-lettered signs on the sides of the road, hand-tacked to poles. It was a shop promising fudge and ice cream and all the delights a Great Smoky Mountain tourist could want. N pulled over the car, finally, in front of a shack with signs promising, “worth the stop”. We eased the girls inside, only to find no ice cream, old and oddly-wrapped fudge, and a bowl of ring pops for a $1 each. (MG also discovered a very old looking box of sweetarts with a garage sale sticker of $2 on the lid). Adorning the shop were also lots of rocks, crystals, and other breakable items, right in the eyesight of Sib. We quickly backtracked and found our way back to the van where we promised the girls we would find something better than that.
Luck was on our side about 5 minutes later when we passed a very touristy, but still an actual building promising homemade fudge and other delights. Inside was decorated with Christmas overkill and long, counter height tables with open jars of all kinds of sauces and jellies for customers to sample. They also had about a dozen barrels filled with assorted, old-fashioned candies, though the girls ended up choosing fudge after a free sample. A first for them.
Shortly after, our phones finally kicked back into gear and we were able to successfully navigate our way to Pigeon Forge. Our hotel was located at the end of a long strip of crazy looking museums and dinner theaters. The girls kept asking if each one was Dollywood, but each time we would say no, and promised it would be better than they could imagine.
We specifically chose our hotel for its promise of a grand, indoor pool and its suite style rooms. We willingly pay just a little extra for the extra room and when we are traveling with a pack n play and not a great out-of-crib-sleeper, it feels worth every penny to us.
As soon as we got checked in, we had to go to the pool right away. This one was perfect because it had a 1.5 foot deep pool, shallow enough for Sibby to walk around in, a small splash pad, another shallow pool (only going up to 4 feet), and then two, two story tall water slides that started indoors, went outdoors, and then finished inside in a wading pool. I immediately wrote off the slides, thinking the girls would be too afraid of them. They both summed them up and said they weren’t interested. That was fine because we had a lot of swimming to do.
But about 15-20 minutes later, MG made up her mind that she wanted to try it. I thought for sure she would chicken out after getting to the top of the stairs, but instead she launched herself into the very dark tunnel and exited about 6 seconds later. She said it was awesome and continued to go up and down, over and over again. Well LB was not going to be left out so she had to try it too. Once again, I waited for the moment where she would back down gracefully from the stairs, but she flung herself into the tunnel, cheeks full of air, and held her breath the entire way down. She, too, declared it awesome, and went again and again.
An hour and a half later, we were worn out and ready for dinner. I’d called ahead to a pizza place and they delivered to our room. The girls took a warm bath and then devoured their extra-large slices. N and I strategized breakfast and decided that Paula Deen’s restaurant would be our #1 choice. He called to ask for reservations, wait times, etc. They said they stopped serving breakfast at 10:30 and that there was usually never more than a 10 minute wait. Perfect.
Sibby was beyond exhausted at this point, having only caught a short nap in the car (ironically on the 15 mile detour that soured our pre-lunch dispositions). She willingly went into her pack n play, but when N went back into the room to retrieve something (per my request), she was set off into a fury of tears. The only thing that would calm her down was to rock her and she quickly fell asleep on me in our darkened room, something she hasn’t done in months but brought me quickly back to her baby days. It was a sweet moment I savored for about 10 extra minutes before texting N. We ended up moving her pack n play into the main room and the rest of us into the bedroom as it was past the girls’ bedtimes at home.
We pulled each one into a bed with us and N began telling stories, from our first date to our engagement, to the story of our day that very day. We had to keep shushing the girls as their giggles got too loud. It was a sweet moment for me, being with just them for a little bit, a taste of the old days. Man, do we love our Sib, but she brings down our average a bit, (though it won’t always be that way), and it was nice to have some alone time with the oldest.
We all fell asleep somewhere between 9pm-10pm, and I prayed Sib would successfully make it through the night.
Sadly, my prayers were not answered as I had hoped and the first wakeup began around 1:30am. Disorientation and diaper changes claimed the next 4 hours of sleep for me, and some for N as well. Thankfully, she did a final four hour stretch until about 9am. The girls slept that late too, which was awesome, and promised a good start for the day.
We assessed the time and decided to go ahead and pack up our room since checkout was drawing near, then we would go visit Paula. We also had to buy DW tickets at the front desk, so by the time this was all completed, we were leaving our hotel at 10am. We rushed over to the restaurant, which was a 15 minute drive. I hurried inside, asking for our name to be put on the list, but they said the earliest we could get seating was 11am and they would be serving lunch.
With great disappointment, we moved on and began the hunt for another place. But at this point, it was nearing 10:30 local time, when most restaurants stop serving breakfast and begin transitioning to lunch. There were a few dedicated breakfast houses, but on a saturday morning, they all had hour long waits.
Finally, we passed another little shack, of sorts, and hoped we would fare better than our shack experience yesterday. As it turned out, they had a table immediately open for us and served breakfast all day. We eagerly accepted.
After a smorgasbord of biscuits and gravy, inch thick pancakes, froot loops for Bea, and an omelette for me, we were happy and satisfied. And it was time for Dollywood to open! Perfect timing.
And…as this has already grown long and detailed, perfect timing for me to stop here. To be continued…