By the last day of October we had completed our first small loop of vanlife. We are currently visiting family in New England and I write this from visit with our Aunt Jenny and Uncle Span from Mystic Connecticut, belly full of lobster risotto, and face sun kissed from a run along the shoreline. Over the two months we have learned a lot about life in the van (and in and out of friends homes), visited a few states and many cities we had never been too, and even stepped into a different country for a few hours.
From Asheville we drove west into the Great Smokies. Leaving behind the Blue Ridge Mountains I began to see how each range gets its name. A blue mist calmly envelopes the Blue Ridge Mountains, while the Smokes are hazy with the looming grey fog that famously gives them their name. Another short hike brought us the the peak of the range, onto a spiraling cement overlook, bringing each tourist above the treeline. We spend the night in the park, and enjoy gentle hikes over and through babbling mountain streams, past campers on horseback, and AT Through-hikers.
Then we were on our way to Nashville. Driving through Pigeon Forge, past their welcoming Shirtless Lumberjack sign, past Dollywood resorts and all the pink glitter that comes with them, past Gatlinsburg, a town that draws nostalgia as a hokey destination. Buildings that are stuck in the 1960s and the tram that escorts tourists from one themed attraction to the next. As we drive the buildings thin and we find ourselves driving past firework stands, run down gun stores. I was able to look out the window with the eyes of of tourist, reminding me of my first time driving through foreign countries, looking at a run down landscape that defies my experience of my home country. Eventually we cross a line and clocks flip an hour back as we make our way into Nashville, TN.
Staying on the outskirts of the city, we visited with friends, ate at trendy and delicious restaurants, and visited a nearby park. When the evening rolled around we headed downtown. The main street illuminated with the the neon shape of cowboy boots, country music flowing out of every doorway, and cowboy boots for sale, Buy One- Get TWO free. We made our way to the Country Music Hall of Fame to see our friends perform. A funk band in a country crowd, The Shadowboxers were well received. From the first high note, to the last song that you just can’t get out of your head, the band was amazing. If you haven’t had the privilege to see them live, check them out on youtube. A few fun country performers later, we headed out for beers, darts, burgers and fries.
The next day we make our way north to Mammoth Caves. A huge shift from the flashing lights of Nashville, Mammoth is miles from everything, a national park that offers a Hotel option in addition to their campgrounds. After a relaxing evening and a great dinner, we head to bed, starting to feel the cold encroaching for the first time on our journey. We wake early and head to tour the caves, heading in through a man-made, dynamite blasted entrance and exiting 4 miles away, having traveled more than 30 stories and 4 miles underground. While underground we pass an old concession stand, and an elevator that brought hotdogs and cotton candy 300 feet underground to feet tourists on their explorations, we pass a small pond, a former underground boat ride destination. I use the bathroom, because when else will I get to use a bathroom that far under the ground. After coming back to the surface we visit the original entrance to the cave, and cold air rushes out, the temperature dropping 10-20 degrees as you move towards the entrance.
And onward we go, to Paducah, KY to visit family. A town surprisingly on the cutting edge of the art scene they offered artists run down houses in town for a cost of only 1 dollar. The Artist Relocation program drew many artists into town over the past 15 years and created a thriving arts district and community. While in town Henry “Got Plastered” in a local artist’s enormous project. Large murals spanning the history of the town cover the cemental flood wall. In 1937 the Ohio River overflowed and flooded the town, water rising 11.5 feet high. The town now has a 12.5 foot flood wall.
From Paducah we began our loop back to the east, making our way to Pittsburg, where we found ourselves at Gooskis, music playing from the graffitied back pool room, we ordered perogies and hamburgers. In Googskis, a mirror behind the bar shows what is available on tap and also reminds customers that “an adult should know how to order a fucking cheeseburger”.
A few greasy potato and cheese perogies later we found ourselves heading to the van for the coldest night yet, 28 degrees. We woke with frost lining the inside of the windshield. After hopping out of the sleeping bag to turn on the car we slowly warmed up and the frost slowly melted, resulting in our first indoor rainstorm. While in Pittsburg we wandered around the strip and eventually found our way to The Mattress Factory, a museum that features site specific installation art. Rooms filled with interpretations of decay and death, shattered plates, woven rooms representing interwoven relationships. This museum had a few breathtaking pieces and an really impressive collection overall. I cannot show you pictures of James Turrell’s work, as it based in light but I highly recommend checking out some of his work if given the chance.
Leaving Pittsburg we headed north toward Niagara Falls. We walked for miles on boths sides of the falls. The power and enormity of the falls is humbling and as the water catches the sun, rainbows appear and disappear just as quickly. We crossed into Ontario for a short visit, walking through the halloween town that bordered the falls, confused by all the animatronic animals, zombies, and people, calling us to each local attraction.We walked to horseshoe falls and watched as a nearby women took out cases of mini figurines, the bag she held housed hundreds. She eventually settled on a mini woman jumping into the arms of a mini man and glued them to the railing keeping people from falling into the falls. She staged her characters and took photos of the miniature lovers in the falls. We headed back towards to border only to realize that we lacked the fifty cent tax to reenter the USA. Standing at the border we casually mention our conundrum to a few passers by, who smile but do not offer us the 50 cents. Eventually we made it to a starbucks and they charged me extra passing me 1.00 back in Canadian quarters to return home. From Niagara we moved on to Ithaca NY.
Ithaca is gorges.. resulting in over 100waterfalls. We spent most of our time hiking while here, enjoying the changing leaves and the sounds of the waterfalls. Beautiful round, deep pools formed each space where a waterfall cascaded down the rocks, then the shallow river beds carried the water to the next fall. Henry took me to the Bell Tower on Cornell Campus, where we watched a Bell Master play a 15 minute concert. We rushed up 10 flights of stairs to the top of the tower and enjoyed the sunset as the classic songs rang across the campus.
We left Ithaca to visit my sister-in-law in New Lebanon New York and then headed back to Vermont. Now here we are, enjoying beautiful days with family.