Tennessee and North Carolina

Monday, August 14th :: In the morning, at the campground in Sieverville we encountered this huge bee thing - it was like 3 inches long plus wings. We later were told that it's called a japanese hornet. Afraid that it might come into our camper, Matt tried to squish it and, although it died, it would not squish.

On our way out we drove into town for coffee and groceries. In the supermarket parking lot this couple came up to us to ask us about our van. We ended up talking to them for quite a while about our van and our trip and they told us about Tennessee and the Carolinas. Through the course of the conversation we got to a point where the husband said something along the lines of "What I like about Tennessee is that I got the right to protect myself." And he opened his vest, reveling his side arm. To say the least I was a little bit shocked that he would show his gun to complete strangers. I think he saw how taken aback I was and responded by showing us his concealed carry permit. He was a very nice and congenial man but I felt more than a little wary of him when we bumped into him a few times while doing our shopping. We did talk to him a little bit more and while standing next to the beef jerky section and he asked us a bit about ourselves. When he found out that I was born in Rhode Island he called me a yankee, which was a first for this California girl. And when he found out that Matt studies computer science he tried to hire him to fix a Windows problem he was having. Between the southern hospitality and difference in accent and gun laws I felt like we were in a completely different country. It's odd to feel culture shock without having passed through customs.

After finally leaving Sevierville we followed the friendly couples advice and altered our original course to skip the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as it would have taken us quite a ways away from our destination. Although we skipped the National Park we did get to drive through other parts of the Great Smoky Mountain and it was very beautiful. The mountains in the east are older than the ones we have in the west and so they are softer and less sharp and rocky. The road was lined with so many trees that it was rare to glimpse the scenery but when we did it was all wooded, rolling hills. Some of the trees had these funny webs on the branches and I thought that they were the nests of some big spiders. A couple days later we saw one up close and personal and realized that they were made by caterpillars.

We drove all the way into Ashville North Carolina that day and had planned to do some site seeing in the city, but when we got there we decided that we're not really into cities, so we drove through to Shelby and checked in at our motel. We met up with Matt's cousin, Amos, and he took us out to dinner at Chili's. It was really great to talk with him and hear about life in North Carolina. He moved there about a year ago to help with some construction on his mom's farmhouse and he ended up working in Charlotte as a film editor and doing very well with it.

Tuesday, August 15th :: Amos picked us up today in his great little Subaru and took us out to lunch at a really good mexican restaurant. It was very refreshing to find good mexican food on the road. After lunch we drove into Charlotte and Amos showed us the apartment that he lived in as a kid and his old stomping grounds. Then we went to Carol and Leon's farmhouse (where Amos has been living) in Grover. Matt and I explored the area a little bit, though not as much as we would have liked because I was worried about ticks and other biting things in the undergrowth. We did get to check out some old vehicles near the house. Among them were an old bug, a burned out RV and an old school bus. They had been there so long that plants have grown up around them and, in the case of the RV, inside them. Amos told us that the land that the house is built on has been in Leon's family for generations - even the road that it's on is named after his family. The farm house was built just before he and Carol moved to LA and it is currently undergoing more construction.

After exploring, we just hung out and watched TV and got mini burgers from Krystal Burger. We watched Kung Fu Hustle, which Matt and I love and Amos had never seen before, and an indie film called Home Videos. Home Videos was really interesting. It's about people who live in alternative housing, for example it featured one family who lives in an old missile silo and a woman who lives in a tree house. They were all really quirky, unusual people. After vegging we chatted for a while about old times when Amos lived with Matt's family as their summer childcare provider and how much things have changed since then and how much they have stayed the same.


Missouri and into Tennessee

Friday, August 11th :: West Plains; We spent this day with Matt's Aunt Sheila and Uncle Orv. Orv is a helicopter pilot and had planned to spend the day working in Arkansas, pollinating rice, aka "rice pimping". Orv flew home early because the fields were too wet for the pollination to be effective and he arrived that afternoon in his helicopter. We all went out to greet him, and, before putting it away, he took us for short rides over their property and the surrounding fields. Matt said that the sensation was like nothing he ever experienced before, like a roller coaster with a full range of motion.

After things settled down a little, Orv and Sheila gave us the grand tour of their property in a cool little 4x4 golf cart. They live in the Missouri Ozarks, so their place is essentially carved out of a very lush oak forest. They have a small orchard with various fruit trees and a garden with a number of blueberry bushes. We went into the garden and ate ripe blueberries directly off the bushes for a small pre-lunch snack. After hanging around and chatting for a while, we all went down to the Air Evac station -- the company that Orv flies medivac for.

In those parts of Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee, there are very few trauma centers. For instance, the nearest trauma center to West Plains is in Springfield, a 2 hour ambulance ride from West Plains. Because of the distance, many people who have sustained serious injuries wouldn't be able to survive the ride to the nearest trauma center. Thus, in the rural areas there are quite a number of air ambulance stations. Anyways, Orv took us down to his station and, just as we arrived, they were called out to the scene of an auto accident. So we got to see the whole pre-flight/liftoff procedure in action. We could tell that Orv loved his job when he explained that it was a "scene" call meaning that they would go to the scene of the accident and probably have to set down in the road (which can be pretty hairy), he said "That's what every pilot lives for!". To which, the pilot on duty shot back, "Not this pilot." :-)

That evening, Rachel made pizza from scratch and we had fun sitting around, chatting, and catching up with each other's lives.

Saturday, August 12th :: We had planned to leave Missouri today but we were enjoying the company so much that we decided to stay another day. We became a bit of a lazy day and we did a few errands and spent the majority of the day hanging out, playing with Orv and Sheila's little dog and doing crossword puzzles and sudokus from the newspaper. In the afternoon, we decided that it was a good day to teach me (Jessi) how to drive a manual, so we took the Capybara out on the country road in front of Orv and Sheila's house and played with shifting gears and getting used to the clutch. Jessi did great until we got back to the house and she stalled the car on a hill turning into the driveway. It was kind of a fun experience.

Sam and Sharon drove in from Wellington and arrived in the evening. For the rest of the day we chatted and swapped travel stories and simply enjoyed the company. We had a really wonderful time in Missouri with Matt's family and Orv and Sheila.

Sunday, August 13th :: West Plains Mo to Sevierville TN: Today was another driving day. We drove through the Ozark hills and a little bit of Arkansas and into Tennessee. It was really pretty and we liked how green everything is. Matt's aunt Sheila characterized the landscape of Missouri as "hills and hollers". Jessi was more favorably disposed toward the small bit of Arkansas ozarks that we saw. Going into Arkansas from Missouri, the hills become much more substantial. One might even be able to consider them mountains (in flatter parts of the world).

Another feature that we (primarily meaning Jessi... she's more observant of these things), is that much of the midwest and the south have far more flea markets and antique stores than we usually see in Santa Barbara. It's almost as if everywhere you look, you're bound to be able to see one somewhere in your field of vision. For instance, you're looking at one right now. :-)

We crossed the Mississippi river in Memphis and booked it through Tennessee as quickly as we could. Matt would have liked to spend more time in TN, the scenery we saw from the road was beautiful. It looked as if the Interstate had been cut straight through a lush forest hundreds of miles long. In most places, the trees lining the freeway were so thick that we could catch nary even a glimpse of the towns beyond them. We spent the night at a little lake in Sevierville. When we awoke, we realized that we were camping at the base of this huge wooded cliff. Check it out.


Wellington, KS to West Plains, MO

Thursday, August 10th :: We discovered two things about Wellington during our first (and only) night there -- it can get oppressively hot and trains run through town all night long. The "Wheat Capitol of the World" is a seriously small town. Shortly after we woke up from a fitful night's sleep, Matt's great-aunt Mary paid us a visit. It was great to meet her and chat with her for a little bit. She's the last of her generation of Matt's dads' side.

We took a short leave to find breakfast. We decided to walk a few blocks to a cute little 50's style diner called "Patty's Diner" for breakfast. It was about the size of a train car and was decorated with great period advertisements like "Straight Whiskey -- The Barn Stormers' Tonic" and "Smoke Chesterfields For Health". If only there were less accountability in advertising these days, we could have so many more great ads. :-]

On the way back from the diner, we decided to explore a graveyard that we noticed across the street. It was extremely old and derelict. There were very few grave markers still in place, and of those that remained, many had fallen over or broken. It was weird, many of them were from a very short span of years (1890's) and were for children and young adults (early 20's and younger). We wondered if maybe they had an influenza or small pox outbreak or something... but, it might just be that there was a high mortality rate for young people in those days. We'll probably never know.

Back at the house we met up with Matt's parents and Becca who had arrived that morning and were visiting with Tish and Steve. Together we all we into the house to explore and save any furniture or items of value or significance. As we mentioned earlier, the house was built by Matt's great grandfather in the early 1900s. It was like stepping into another time. There was lots of dark wood work and the layout was unorthodox. It was maze-like, in a way, with many small rooms and doors everywhere. Nothing was standardized in the house and the doors varied in size and the light switches were at different heights. We found a lot of old family treasures as we went through the rooms. In one closet Sharon found an old, old family bible. It was very large with an ornate carved wood cover. We also found furniture made by Matt's great-grandfather, sets of china, Matt's grandparents' old college textbooks and lecture notes from when they majored in Bacteriology (the days before viruses got all the attention), photo albums, old suitcases, and handicrafts aplenty. Matt found a 60+ volume set of classic literature, he had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that we don't have room for that many more books.

After exploring the house in Wellington, we hit the road along with Rachel, Nick, and Becca to go visit Matt's Uncle Orv and Aunt Sheila in West Plains, MO. That required driving across the rest of Kansas on a very hot day. We stopped for dinner in Coffeyville, KS. The name belies our experience there. Everything was SLOW. It was like we stepped into some sort of time warp where we're left experiencing the world at normal speed while everyone around us was in slow motion. We went into the grocery store to get sandwiches from the deli. After waiting around for about 10-15 minutes for the 2 or 3 customers in front of us to be helped, Matt stepped up to the counter and asked for a sandwich. "Do we make those here?" the girl behind the counter replied. Taken aback, he apologized, "I'm sorry, I just figured, it's a deli. Surely they make deli sandwiches." Well, it turned out that they did make sandwiches, just extremely slowly. On the upside, we went into the hardware store to get a few things and we were met by the most congenial, helpful hardware store cashier ever to be seen. There are some upsides to small towns like Coffeyville even if they don't drink enough coffee there.

The rest of the drive to Orv and Sheila's was fairly uneventful, well, that is, if you can call Coffeyville eventful. The forest landscape of Missouri was much easier on the eyes than Kansas' flat fields, the significant temperature drop as we drove in under a cloud cover right after the state line was quite nice too. Its as if Missouri has found a way to keep all the trees and clouds to themselves at Kansas' expense.


There's no place like... Kansas?

Monday, August 7th :: This was a long, driving day. We left Nebraska in the morning and drove to Pratt, Kansas. After getting into Kansas, the land became so flat that we could see for miles and miles in all directions. It was wierd at night when we would see a car coming towards us from the opposite direction we really couldn't gauge how far away they were at all. We would first see what looked like one bright headlight (the locals have BRIGHT headlights) It could take 10 or 15 minutes from the time we first saw their lights until we passed by them.

We arrived in Pratt sometime after 11 pm and it took us a little while to find our campground. We stayed at a super deserted campground by a pond just outside the town near the fish hatchery. It was so strange because there was only one other person there. In the morning we discovered that he was the caretaker of the area.

Tuesday, August 8th :: This was our planned car work day. After leaving the campground in the morning we went to this auto parts store to pick up some things that Matt needed for some routine maintenance to keep the Capybara running smoothly. The people at the shop were super nice and they let us use a cement pad out around the back to park on. We had a slight scare when an older man in a pickup truck drove up and I totally thought that he was going to harass us for working on the car on public property, but instead he introduced himself as Sam Baily, the owner of the parts house, and said that if we needed anything we could come in and use their facilities and just to come in the back door. As it turns out he is a really nice, very interesting person. We found out through later conversation that he builds tiny little acrobatic airplanes with Volkswagen engines and his grandson had built himself a really beautiful, green Baja Bug. In a state full of Fords and Chevys it was comforting to know that there was someone close by with a pretty good understanding of our vehilcle.

While Matt was changing the oil and replacing gaskets and such, I finished my first craft project of the trip. It's a cute little knit purse and my first completed cabled project ever! I was so proud of myself.

Now the reason that we were in Pratt Kansas was not so that we could fix the car or work on crafts or talk to the country folk. On wednesday our friend Chad was getting married to a girl (Dana) who grew up in an even smaller town about 20 minutes away. Matt's family and some of their closest friends were also in Pratt so when we finished up at the shop we went to the hotel where we were sharing a room with Matt's sister Rachel and her husband Nick. We met up with Matt's parents and youngest sister, Becca, there and we drove out to Dana's family's farmhouse for a BBQ. We got to meet Dana's family and friends and hear about how Chad proposed. Now someone, I think it was Rachel, had mentioned that she had never seen a locust before. So Dana's dad found one and brought it inside the house and it was huge! It started flying around the table and caused quite a commotion, finally landing on Matt's blissfully oblivious mom. Matt scooped it off and the offending insect was deposited outside.

Wednesday, August 9th :: Chad and Dana's Wedding! Poor Chad was so nervous before the wedding that he was just in shock. We went to lunch right next to the parts place (where we had spent the previous day) at this funny little restaurant called Donald's World Famous Serve-ateria and Smorgasbord. We had quite a crew, with Matt's parents, 2 sisters, Nick - our brother in law and the best man, Ace - a good friend and the other groomsman, Ace's brother - Skylar, his father, mother and her boyfriend. After lunch the wedding party went to go prepare and we, in our own slow timing, made our way to the church.

The ceremony and reception both took place in a cute little Lutheran church just outside of town. The ceremony was very sweet and at the reception Matt, Becca, Rachel, Skylar and I had a great time goofing off and stealing chocolates off the tables. Matt's brother Andrew is a wedding photographer and was quite busy the whole day but he managed to caught the garter anyway.

After the wedding we drove to Wichita and had dinner with Nick, Rachel, Sam, Sharon and Becca at this great restaurant called the Red Rock Canyon Grill. They have superb chicken and ribs. After dinner we ran into a bit of car trouble and we unloaded everything in the back to check the engine. After a while of looking and waiting we tried starting the engine again and again and it eventually worked. In retrospect we think that the problem was caused by the gas that we used - e10, that uses ethanol for addition power. Since we were up and running we put some high octane gas into the car and drove into Wellington to stay at the house that Matt's great-grandfather built.

Matt's great aunt Mary was living in the house until earlier this year when she broke her ankle and decided that she would move into an assisted living facility. Matt's father and uncle, after considering the issue for a good deal of time, came to the conclusion that they ought to sell the house. So Nick, Rachel, Matt and I went to see it. It was late when we got in but there Sam's cousin, Tish, and her husband, Steve, were already there in their RV. We enjoyed staying up chatting with them until it was quite late and they were kind enough to late Nick and Rachel crash on one of the RV beds.


South Dakota and Nebraska

Saturday, August 5th :: Drove from Sundance, Wyoming through Deadwood, South Dakota and onto Mt. Rushmore. We had planned to do some site seeing in Deadwood but it was way too packed with bikers for us to get a feel for the town. So instead we drove down Main Street and checked out all the sweet motorcycles. We saw a lot of Harleys again but also many of the customs bikes and choppers that people had trucked in in covered trailers. Mt. Rushmore was pretty cool, lots of bikers there, also. It was neat to see the exhibit that showed how the monument was constructed.

Then we did a lot of driving through the Black Hills and into the Prairie. We camped that night at Wind Cave NP which wasn't very windy. The campground was really nice, sheltered with not a lot of neighbors.

Sunday, August 6th :: On Sunday we took a tour of Windcave before setting out. It is an extremely large system of caves that according to our guide consists of 126 miles of discovered caves and possibly much more as of yet undiscovered or submerged. It's different than a lot of other caverns that you might see in the US because it is in a very dry area and was formed by standing water rather than running water. This means that the walls are very jagged and detailed instead of smooth and instead of stalactites and stalagmites the cave walls and ceilings are covered in boxwork and popcorn. Box work is a limestone lattice that is formed when limestone hardens in the cracks of another rock. That rock then dissolves and your left with limestone in the shape of the cracks. We took a tour of the cave that lead us from surface level to about 18 stories underground. The part of the cave that we toured was developed, meaning it had a cement walkway, periodic lighting and handrails, and made us feel like we were in line for a Disneyland ride. Especially since there were several children and a Grandma with a bad knee in front of us. For those who are especially adventurous they have a 4 hour caving tour where they give you knee pads and hard hats and take you off the beaten path.

On the road leading to the highway we saw lots and lots of prairie dogs. Then we drove for many miles into Nebraska. It's very empty but fairly pretty, with grass coving little rolling hills everywhere you look. There are a lot of cattle and bugs and little birds. The birds fly all over, just a few feet over the roads and we had many near misses with them and one that flew straight into our side mirror. Needless to say it's not a pretty sight when a bird collides with a van going 65 mph, especially if your window is open.

After that little misadventure we drove the rest of the way into North Platte, which, as we have been informed, is the 5th largest city in Nebraska. We camped at an RV park in the city and have been enjoying the wireless internet, electrical hookup and showers. Oh, and, it seems like all the bugs get bigger when you leave California. Check out the size of this bee that woke us up flying around the car in Nebraska.


Yellowstone to Sundance, WY

Thursday, August 3rd :: We left Yellowstone in the morning and drove about 5 miles to this tiny little town called Gardiner in Montana. There we got breakfast and made use of the internet in a little ice cream parlor called the Raccoon. It was the first time we had been able to get online since Idaho. The further we drive and the more of this country we see the more I realize how spoiled we are in So Cal. So much of the US is empty with no cell phone service and no wireless connections to be found.

After breakfast we drove back through Yellowstone to meet up with Jessi's parents and brother at Fishing Bridge, the last little village on the east side of the park. It was nice to see them and swap travel stories. On the way to fishing bridge we got stuck in some traffic as some bison were crossing the road. There are tons of warnings throughout the park not to approach the buffalo and seeing them about 4 feet away from our van gave us a better appreciation of why. The things are really big with some serious horns. They look like a cross between a bull and a bear. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the native americans that used to hunt them without modern firearms or any such things.

So anyways, we met up with Jessi's family in Fishing Bridge and spent a little bit of time with them and then headed out the eastern exit to Cody Wyoming. The road to the east exit got completely washed away a while back and they were still rebuilding it as we drove through. It's currently miles and miles of gravely road with huge cliffs below and above you. It made me a bit nervous but offered some really great views.

When we finally got into Cody we checked into our hotel - this neat place called the Buffalo Bill Village Cabins. It's this group of little bitty cabins that were built back in the 1920s. For dinner we went to this great restaurant called the Wyoming's Rib & Chop House. They have really fantastic food, especially the steak, but if you go make sure to make reservations - we waited for at least an hour for our table. Fortunately there was plenty to see on the street. Hundreds of bikers were also stopped in Cody, making their way to Stugis for the bike rally. We got there as the baby-boomers did. It was really interesting to see so many people our parents age on their touring Harleys.

Friday, August 4th :: Laundry day (yay!), Today we drove from Cody, WY to Sundance through the Big Horn Mtns. The Big Horn Mountains are really cool but very, very steep! We really gave our Capybara a workout on those roads. Then we drove up into the Black Hills, camped in Sundance at the Mtn. View campground... don't know about the mountain view, but it was a pretty nice place... think private, cheaper, better, KOA.

When we got to the campground, we opened up our fridge and found a surprise. Matt's been trying different things to make the fridge stay cold. We had it around 40 degrees for a short stint, but it seems like the thermostat may have gone out because the temperature inside started soaring. So, Matt got some dry ice to see if that would cool it down... well, it did, sub-zero in fact. Everything was frozen solid!


Yellowstone etc.

Wednesday, August 2nd :: Since we arrived in Yellowstone late in the day, all the campgrounds with showers had been filled. So we camped in the Madison campground, the closest to the West entrance, where we came in. Madison is right on the Gibbon River in the midst of a stand of pines. Today, in search of showers, we drove the 50 or so miles to Mammoth campground in the North. The northern portion of the park lies outside of the caldera that constitutes the majority of the park. The landscape is less lush, much more like the typical Wyoming landscape that we've seen since then.

Anyways, word to the wise, the Mammoth campground doesn't have any showers, we got there and they pointed us to the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. It's an old-fashioned hotel in which most of the rooms don't have any bathrooms. There's a single mens' bathroom/shower and womens' bathroom/shower per floor. It seems like the management attempts to keep the old-fashioned feel from the enclosed phone booths to the lounge where there is live piano music every night. Although it doesn't have all the modern convinces that we're used to it's a really sweet hotel. The little village there is really pretty cool, too. There are elk that hang out in the grass near the post office and hotel and the town looks like it hasn't changed much since the late 1800s.

We spent that day exploring the eastern side of the park. We saw a ton of elk and some bison, pikas and chipmunks. We also saw some really awesome places, like Artists' Point. It's this overlook area where you can look into this massive, multi-colored canyon. We also saw a bunch of waterfalls and some really amazing views from the mountain tops. We were astounded at the sheer size of Yellowstone. It's like the energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going...

After our drive we went back to the Mammoth Campground and spent the night there.