Week 73: From Starry Nights to Civil Rights

Getting wet feet
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Getting wet feet

Week 73: From Starry Nights to Civil Rights

Pigeon Forge – Tourist mania

Ok, so if we thought the Great Smoky Mountains was getting busy, we had certainly not understood beforehand the mania that is known as Pigeon Forge. Think of fun fair, shopping mall and outdoor action all rolled into one. The main drag is filled with dozens of places to be entertained, with the most random themes thrown at you – Jurrasic river ride anyone? – and right outside of the center is the theme park Dollywood.

We ended up here however because we have a Sightseeing Pass for the USA, and it turns out some of these places have an affiliation to it so we decide to go check it out. First stop: Paula Deen’s adventure park, an outdoor climbing experience with some really nice extra’s. We climb up a large wooden beam, try to walk across rolling timber over water, and take the obstacle course high up in the sky. The best part however are the two attractions starting high up from the platform: The zipline-coaster and the tower jump. Without fear, we all take the jump a few times and go down a zipline rollercoaster as well!

Next stop is the ‘Grand Majestic Theatre Hit Parade’; a show that is a 2hr string of big hits performed by a live band and group of singers. We wanted to slap on some good ol’ times and boy did we get what we asked for! Turns out the theatre is a bit of a tired looking dinner theatre venue (our boys find it very fancy 😊), and that the average age of the guests is about 60+ years old… Not to mention we only filled up about 20% of the room, a very memorable experience.

Now that could make you run for the exit, but we have to be honest that the show itself is very entertaining and there is actually some really good singing done by the cast members! We have an absolute blast, we sing along to the songs and even get a little dance in, after which we all can meet the cast as well and take pictures. As we leave we get treated to some fireworks in town and our first encounter of proper Christmas lights displays… we are really heading to the end of the year!

The next morning it rains terribly, so we decide to slap on one more attraction on the list: Wonderworks (we could also choose the Titanic Museum but that just seems SO random in the middle of the country?!). Wonderworks is a mix of science-themed entertainment and arcade-like fun, culminating in a round of laser tag. Enough to stay happy for a few hours, after which you go nuts with all the sounds and lights and colors and you want to really get out of there. All in all we have to say that Pigeon Forge will not leave you bored, but we expect the money will pile out of your pockets very quickly.

Obed & South Fork River Reserve

With the weather not cooperating, visiting the Obed and South Fork River is not as river going as we expected it to be. We tackle the visitor center for Obed first, and then drive out to the Blue Heron campground in the South Fork River reserve. We are in desperate need of a bit of electricity to charge some of the higher voltage apparatus we have like toothbrushes, vacuum and beard trimmer – which means Luc will get a haircut and Sven’s beard comes of!

The next morning we drive down to the mining site at the river, which unfortunately opposed to what the app is saying is closed… Seeing the old mining machines and trains is very cool though, so it was not a complete waste. Driving back up to the ranger station we are disappointed again with a closed door… so the river experience has been really cut shorter than we had planned and we move on up in the state of Kentucky.

Mill Springs NB & Abraham Lincoln NHS

Kentucky has a rich history as it is a state right between ‘the North’ and ‘the South’, which means it has its share of Civil War locations. We visit the Mill Springs battlefield, a relatively small site in the town of Nancy and learn there about the battle that was fought and won here by the Unionists. Now to be fair, every single battlefield we have visited says they were the key battle that decided the outcome or direction of the Civil War, and of course Mill Springs was no different. The gun collection is quite impressive, and so is the broad visitor center exhibit about the battle and its place in the Civil War.

Of course we can not miss out on one of the greater president’s birthplace; Abraham Lincoln. After having learned about him at his memorial in Washington DC, all the Civil War battlefields and the place he was murdered, it is only fitting to visit where his life started. There is even a big memorial building (like the one in DC) which has the wooden cabin in it he was supposedly born in. He moves away from Kentucky as a young boy, but realizes the importance of the state throughout his presidency so it is nice to come full circle on Abraham :-).

Mammoth Cave National Park

The rain has passed on, but the cold is still there as we drive up towards Mammoth Cave NP. While the cave is of course the main attraction which is put to the spotlight very well through the visitor center exhibits, we decide not to visit the cave itself. The National Park has another draw: a double loop mountain bike trail. So once we have warmed up we take the bikes off the RV and put our gloves on for this next adventure. The first part is a road bike down a gorge where a small ferry takes us across the stream, and then an upward paddle out of the gorge again towards the trail.

The flow of the trail is great, and we really enjoy it, but as the sun does not come out as the forecast had promised (does it ever?) the day does not warm up enough to keep going. Right as we decide to reevaluate the plans, we lose sight of each other – new rule: always stop at any intersection – which means we turn out chasing each other for almost 1 hour across the loop. The moment we reunite is hilarious as the boys were completely freaking out somehow and are now hugging each other like mad men. Funny how brothers can not live with, nor without each other :-). So then of course we have really had enough, so we roll back across the ferry to our RV to warm up and take off!

Nashville & Stones River NB

For Nashville we have a few things on the program, one being a Grayline bus tour to explore the city and get a feel for its history. While it is cold, the sun is out so we are brave enough to sit in the outside top of the tour bus to have a great birds eye view of the city we roll through. The guide on the bus has interesting facts and history of Nashville – The Music City – and surprising especially the number of artists owning a bar or restaurant. Even around 10:30 on a Monday morning, there are live performances going on in the bars at Broadway! If that does not scream ‘Music City’ we don’t know what does. After seeing the silly things like the exact copy of the Parthenon downtown, the bus rolls around the massive Nissan stadium before returning at the train station.

From there another must-do is the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, THE museum that takes you through the entire history from when it started as recent as the 2021 Covid-year and impact on the genre. The museum does a great job at combining the history of country with separate exhibits on certain artists or music streams that developed over time. There are interactive exhibits where you can do your own song mixing and recording, or do quizzes, mixed in with movies to enjoy. Of course there is a healthy dose of Taylor Swift in it for the youngsters, but mom is most excited about the Garth Brooks sections including his plaque in the official Hall of Fame.

Then it is on to Broadway, and as this seems to be a 24/7 scene we get to enjoy some live performances with the boys in the bars around the main drag. While the rowdy rockers impress walking down the street, they are too loud when walking into the bar, so we opt for a few more relaxed performances. Then it is time to check out some of the cowboy boot stores (buy 1 pair, get 2 for free??) where the temptation is big, but we end up not buying. And the self-proclaimed first ever created candy bar – The Goo Goo bar – has its outlet in the city which is a fun little detour for the boys.

With some time left in the day we drive out of the city towards the Stones River National Battlefield, which we did not expect to be as entertaining as it actually was! We unfortunately did not have a lot of time in the visitor center (damn you different time zone!), but the ranger is kind enough to give us time until sunset for all the activities we have to do around the premises. We manage to tackle at least 10 of them, which means that the boys do not only receive a badge, but also a patch! As we get to talking to the ranger, who takes time to explain and teach the boys, we are as always impressed with the dedication and enthusiasm. The boys are laden with extra booklets and badges, which they have earned through all the other Civil War sites we have visited, so there is not a better way to top off this day!

Russel Cave NM & Little River Canyon NRR

Rain is again upon us, so as we roll up to Russel Cave National Monument in Alabama (3 more states to go!), we make a run for the visitor center and immerse ourselves in the world of pre-historian societies and ways of living. The cave itself is only a short hop away, so we do brave the rain as it lets up just a little bit. The longer hike up the mountain is out of the question in this weather, so we make a nice lunch and drive further into the state of Alabama to the Little River Canyon National Recreation Reserve. Thankfully the weather has improved ever so slightly, which means it stopped raining as we get to the visitor center here.

The visitor center is actually a broad education center with a great movie about its purpose in the area and the Little River Canyon. Like the last 2 sites, this is also a location where the so-called ‘Trail of Tears’ came through, the forced move of Native American tribes most notably the Cherokee to the ‘Indian Territory’ in the east. It is a heart breaking story of thousands marching over 800 miles across the country as a result of the ‘Americans’ taking over the east. As we hike towards the falls we take in the landscape and do the Junior Ranger work for the park, as well as reading up on the Trail of Tears story.

As we get back it turns out the ranger also has badges for the Trail of Tears, so the boys are excited about testing their knowledge on it. 2 badges richer we walk out and start the scenic drive along the gorge further south. We find a place with a free shower that we really like and hide away on the parking lot, hoping we do not get ‘the knock’ tonight :-).

Civil Rights day – From Anniston to Montgomery

No knock, so we had a great night sleep and put the boys under the shower before we take off. Alabama has been the stage of much of the 60’s civil rights movement action, and today we plan to tackle a few of those and get educated. First up is the town of Anniston, where the plight of the first Freedom Riders bus was captured in a relatively new NPS site in town. Wanting to check if the desegregation of interstate bus stations was being acted upon in the south after a supreme court decision, 2 small groups of interracial activists took an interstate bus from Washington DC to New Orleans.

Anniston was the town where their opponents caught up with them (as white racist police forces called in their arrival) and their bus was ambushed by a mob. While they were able to leave the station, their tires gave out a few miles out of town and the mob that followed them set the bus on fire and did some more damage. We take an audio walking tour through town after being fantastically set on our way by the local Chamber of Commerce attendant, and after exploring the bus station and town center, we drive past the site where the bus was actually set on fire. Shockingly the front yard across the street has a confederate flag in it…

Via the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, we end our day at Montgomery, the final stop of the Selma to Montgomery marches. These marches were being held to ensure the voting rights of African Americans were being upheld and secured, as the reality was that while they had the right, those in power ensured they could not exercise it. Several lead activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., took part in the nonviolent protest while being met with the opposite from law enforcement and a racist mob. After a first failed attempt (ending in what is known as Bloody Sunday), a crowd of over 25,000 make it to Montgomery, and forces FDR to work on better laws and rules. The day leaves us impressed with the plight of those living here in the 60’s and thankful for our own rights and liberties… democracy is not free.

Tuskegee Institute & Airmen NHS and Horseshoe Bend

In the southern Alabama town of Tuskegee, the now famous Tuskegee Institute was started by Booker T. Washington (remember him?), which now has a museum within it on the university grounds. Unfortunately the NPS app seems to be wrong about it being open, so we go back to the RV after a stroll on the grounds, and make our way to the Moton Field Airway, which is the location of the first African-American men being trained as pilots for the army during WWII. According to the NPS app they are closed due to Covid, but as it turns out the reverse is true here and we get to visit the site. The ranger on site explains the Institute site is closed for renovations, but they are related so we can do the JR work from there here too.

The Tuskegee Airmen NHS turns out to be an impressive site, combining knowledge of air force training with the incredible story of segregation in the armed forces. There are a lot of interactive displays and audio playing in the separate rooms that give you a real feeling of what it must have been like. While the airfield turns out to be a great example of cooperation between civil and army air crew of any color, the town of Tuskegee was still very much a KKK town back then, which dampened the euphoria of being one of the first Afro-American pilots every time confronted with heavy racial violence. The rangers are a great help and the boys are being spoiled rotten with badges, patches, a flashlight/pen, eraser/sharpener and a kite! Highly recommended to visit this site.

Our final stop of the day is the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, which after a line up of Civil Rights sites is something completely different. It tells the story of the final battle in the Creek wars, a war between American forces and Native Americans in the early 1800s. Taking refuge in a horseshoe shaped bend on the river, the Red Sticks waited to be attacked in what had been a war of several battles, all over the right of the Native Americans to keep and stay on their own lands. The American general Jackson led the battle and managed to crush the Natives with help of Cherokee tribesmen, ending the Creek wars.

While treaties were signed over land rights, history tells us those turned out to be worth nothing, and years later the same Jackson became president and signed the removal act that would force all Native Americans east on the Trail of Tears. The site has a nice 3-mile nature trail that meanders the tour road, and as the weather is beautiful we decide to stretch our legs and take the loop through the park, visiting the different points of interest. As the sun sets, we park under the bridge around the corner, where the boys launch their dishwashbottleship – and Bo gets his feet and pants wet as he runs after it when the current catches it 🙂 – and settle in for the night.

Next week: Rolling east, back to the coast

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