The next stop on my route towards home was Chattanooga, which I’d been hearing great things about from my friend Destani for years whenever she went to visit relatives. I arrived in town in the late afternoon on a drizzly, overcast day. Not ideal for viewing from the surrounding mountains, but I figured a little rain wouldn’t affect seeing a cave, so my first stop was Ruby Falls.

Situated on Lookout Mountain, the waterfall inside a cave system filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other cool rock formations was a full on roadside attraction for families. As part of entry you can go up a lookout tower to see the city, but it was kind of a bust with the clouds and all. Inside the cave our guide led us through the slippery paths, pointed out the formations, and we arrived at Ruby Falls for a culminating lightshow with music. The kids on the tour and the group of loogie hawking drunk guys loved that. I loved leaving them at at the end of the tour.

I was surprisingly taken with Chattanooga. Everyone I talked to was extremely nice, and not just in the way people serving you are to make tips, but actually engaged in real conversation and seemed eager to share what makes their city great. The couple I was sitting next to at dinner even invited me to come stay at their house if I needed (I declined) and I got suggestions for breakfast among other tidbits. The food was great, the town seemed to have a variety of cool shops and restaurants, and while there were obviously neighborhoods and income levels and places more put together than others, it seemed like a very livable place.

After peeking in at the train (all I really knew about this place was that Chattanooga choo-choo song so had to do it) in the big hotel, I spent found a quiet sleeping spot and got up early for breakfast at a cafe recommended by the locals the evening before. Great food, better prices. I took my to-go coffee (which is a thing in the south that is frivolous but I love) and took a walk across the southern end of the Tennessee River on a pedestrian bridge and on the river walk path. I didn’t walk the whole thing, which spans over 10 miles, but the part I did went from a cool neighborhood with a circus-y fountain I wish I’d seen in action, across the Walnut Street Bridge, and around the artsy neighborhood past the sculpture gardens at the Hunter Museum and one on the bluffs. There had been a lot of rain so parts of the riverbank looked to be flooded, but I wasn’t sure how much was covered really.

My last stop before leaving the city was back up Lookout Mountain to this bizarre attraction called Rock City. This place is a proper tourist trap attraction, and I commend them on their marketing and obviously getting as close to a theme park as they could. There are signs for miles, they have their own series of restaurants and snack carts strategically sprinkled throughout (or would in warmer months), and several gift shops. The works. The place itself is a walk through boulders with little photo op places and lighting, with a hanging bridge, a view of a cool waterfall at “Lovers Leap” point, a spot where allegedly on a clear day you can see 7 states (I could see 2- thanks for nothing, clouds), and my personal favorite… the gnomes.

The gnome and fairy tale garden is built into the grottos and underground space, and features crazy black light glowing, creepy music, and is what I imagine an acid trip while reading Mother Goose would be like. Wow. The woman who originally owned and created the property was German and brought her love of garned gnomes to new levels.

I was headed northeast, planning to make Asheville my next stop, which took me right through the ridiculous place that is Pigeon Forge. Had the weather been nice I 100% would have stopped off at Dollywood, but it was gross and drizzly with occasional snowflakes popping in and out. Man is that town something. I wish I had taken photos, but just google it. It’s like the Rainforest Cafe, a Vegas off-strip casino, and boardwalk fun zone all had a sad knock off baby that threw up everywhere. That is Pigeon Forge. I literally (and mean literally) drove through with my mouth agape the entire time and am not sure how I paid attention to the road at all. I remember a Titanic shaped building, one with a gorilla on it, a giant dinosaur, and all kinds of other craziness before my mind got overwhelmed. One day I will be back and do this whole town roadside attraction justice.

Since the road took me right through, I stopped off at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and did a short hike up to a waterfall, since the ranger at the visitor center recommended it as on my route and not affected by the snow. It was great to be back outside and smell that happy fresh smell of running water and leaves.

I made it to Asheville and sampled the wares at three small breweries, one of which I’m pretty sure I had gone to last time I was in town and must have forgotten the name. My plan had been to stay the night, go to the Biltmore and do some major eating and drinking for the day before heading back towards DC, but the predicted snow flurries were intensifying unexpectedly into more snow coming in earlier, enough that the local schools had already called off for the next day. I think it was only going to be 1-2″, but my van is not ideal in even rain on hills, so just to be safe decided to call it short and head back a day early to avoid snow or ice on mountain roads.

My little van blended in easily with all the delivery vans and beer trucks, so I spent a chilly night parked on the street, stayed in my ridiculous pajamas, picked up some delicious biscuit sandwich for breakfast, and hit the road. I found a rest stop a few hours later where I ate half my breakfast and carefully wrapped up the rest for later. I looked out at the snow coming down (roads still too warm to stick, but still makes for annoying drivers), wondered how I’d convinced myself this was a good plan, missed the warm sunshine of Florida, and kept on trucking. Another hour later, I sadly realized I’d thrown out the leftovers instead of the trash. Sigh.

After that low point, the rest was smooth sailing. Once I was a ways into Virginia I was well ahead of the flurries coming in later, and stopped off outside Charlottesville (flooded with memories of baby gymnastics class) at the winery where my friends are getting married later this year. Once I hit DC traffic, I remembered how much I hated rush hour and instead found a parking lot near dinner I was going to pick up and took a nap in the van. Mobile home pays off! Now I just had to pull off my surprise…

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