Am I Still on this Crazy Drive? (Home Leave Phase One Part Two)

Day 7 of my travel from post / home leave began with a drive from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi. I think I made a very wise choice in changing my route from the original seven hour drive to Orange Beach, Alabama to the four hour drive to Jackson. Again, I am shaking my head. What was I thinking? Within minutes of starting the drive the cats were mewing again and after an hour on the road my sweet little toddler was asking “hotel?” There goes my mother of the year award.

Yet even for me four hours on the road felt too long. Good thing I at least knew this would happen and started scheduling in more than one night at each stop for us all to recharge. The drive along some back roads and then I-20 to Jackson had little to occupy my attention with the exception of the unanticipated bear crossing sign (bears? In Mississippi? I would never have thought!) and driving over the Mississippi River. I tried to point out the river to C, but at 2 ½ she cannot see much out the window and just does not get excited about things like the fourth largest river in the world. Gosh, I remember taking a cross-country Amtrak trip from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles with my mom, an aunt and cousin, and two sisters when I was eleven years old. Crossing the Mississippi, going through a tunnel in the Rockies, and the 30-minute stop in Albuquerque to wash the train, were the major highlights.

I so wanted to stop at Vicksburg, Mississippi to at least see the National Military Park. After all, this is what home leave is for, right? It is not just to reacquaint ourselves with our country but to see and learn more of its amazing history and culture. I am seeing a lot of the highway system, which to be honest, is certainly part of our society and customs—our love of the automobile and being on the open road. Right? Or so I tell myself as I pass by exits with enticing signage of things I would like to stop and see but just cannot do so with the cats or even with C.

To be honest I also hate having the junky car – the one with the visible piles of crap on the front and back seats. As the daughter of pack rat parents, whose habits extend to their cars, I have tried very hard to keep my car clean and stuff-free. However, it simply was unobtainable for this trip. Oh, how I envy those childless, pet-less, single people driving out of Juarez in their SUVs… I know, I know. I am the one who adopted my two kitties from the mean streets of Jakarta and brought them to Juarez. I am the one who had the adorable child. I am the one who bought the high re-sale value nondescript Honda Civic… No one forced me.

We make good time to Jackson. No sooner have I checked into the hotel and unpacked the car, when I turn around and take C to the Mississippi Children’s Museum, where we spend THREE hours having a blast. This is hands down one of the best children’s museums I have been to and we have now been to them in Indianapolis, Boston, Santa Fe, and Houston. Though both of those in Houston and Boston made Forbes’ top 12 best children’s museums in the US, I think they may have made a mistake not including this one in Jackson. I am reinstated to the Mother of the Year award competition.

Day 8 is another of those days when I miss out on historical sites that tug at my brain strings. Both the Old Capitol Museum and the Eudora Welty home call out to me. Though there is no way C will remain patient through a by-guided-tour-only visit to Welty’s home, the Old Capitol Museum might be a possibility. Except it is a Monday and both places are closed so the decision is made. I briefly flirt with the idea of making an early morning dash to the Old Capitol on Tuesday before returning to en-cage the cats and hit the road, but realize this is another of my delirious moments and let it go. Instead I take my daughter to the Natural Science Museum, where we still enjoy an hour and a half of fun, and then we finally have some pool time at the hotel and I wisely wash a load of laundry.

Day 9 began with the knowledge that Cat One and Cat Two had each chosen a separate mattress base to hide in. Yet the evening before, as I snuggled in bed with my daughter, I felt incredibly blessed to have this time to spend with her. It’s like one extended sleepover. So I pick up those mattress bases and shake out those kitties with the best attitude I can muster. I choose to see it as my morning workout. Also, although the drive was longer, I did rather enjoy it. I was thinking wow, our highway system really is extraordinary.

I drive to Albertville, Alabama. I wanted to stop at Gadsden, Alabama to visit the Noccalula Falls Park, which I had found on a list of top ten places to visit in Alabama. Unfortunately, there were no hotels in Gadsden available (that accept pets) so Albertville was the closest I could get. Though tired when I arrived at the hotel at 3:00, I mustered the energy after unpacking the car and getting the cats settled to get C and I back in the car and drive back to Noccalula. I was glad I did. The falls and the park are quite nice and my daughter had a great time on the little train and at the petting zoo.

Day 10. Oh man, here I am driving again. This time from Albertville to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This time the four plus hour drive feels a little harder – easier enough to diagnose since I had not had a day of rest. I really notice the greenery surrounding the highways. It has been green for days, but it particularly strikes me today. After living in the desert for two years, though I found it beautiful, I also often felt starved for color, especially green. It is otherwise an unremarkable drive until I hit sudden and grindingly slow traffic just miles from our destination. We have arrived at one of the most popular summer destinations in the East, what seems like a cross between Ocean City (without the beach or boardwalk) and Las Vegas (without the strip clogged with pedestrians carrying gallon sized alcoholic beverages). I am informed by friends on Facebook I have reached a hub in the “Redneck Riviera.”

I am a HUGE fan of aquariums and have probably visited 50 or so all over the world. I had thought I would visit the following day, but I found out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is open until 9 or 10 pm during the summer. So, although tired, I do rally after a rest at the hotel and take my daughter over to Gatlinburg to see the fish. She is thrilled; yelling “Fish! Fish!” in the car.

Day 11. We head to Ober Gaitlinburg, the mountain-top playground accessibly by a large tramway or a curvy road. The day is all about C. I buy tickets for unlimited rides on the Carousel and other kiddy rides, which she takes very, very seriously. Seventeen times total on the rides as well as at least half an hour on the playground! I am so exhausted when we get back that I take a nap as well.

And then I received a rather extraordinary message from C’s paternal grandmother. She tells me that her and her husband happen to be in Sevierville, just down the road, for a wedding this weekend. I immediately message her back and ask if they have had dinner and want to get together. This is so amazing. I kept my route home close hold because I knew it could change – and it did. I also had no idea her paternal grandparents would be in this area. We only met them in person once, last summer. They let me know they are up for dinner and text me the restaurant, which also coincidentally happens to be one right behind our hotel! It was a really nice dinner and my heart felt so full seeing C and her grandparents interact with one another.

Day 12. The plan for this day was “Mommy’s Day” since the day before was all about C. I wanted to visit the Old Mill and also take an auto tour of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A friend had recommended the Cades Cove loop drive. It sounded lovely. Yet by afternoon everything from all the days of driving and sightseeing caught up with me. C fell asleep in the car as we drove to the Great Smoky Mountains visitor center on the road to Cades Cove. The parking lot at the Visitor’s Center was swarmed. As I parked the car in the extension of the extension lot I just could not muster the energy to get out of the car, rouse C from her seat and carry her leaden 28 pounds in my arms to get information. Though I wanted very much to see the park, I wanted a nap far, far more. The nap won.

I reminded myself yet again this is a drive. This is a trip to get us, the cats, and a bunch of stuff from Point A to Point B with some rest time and maybe, just maybe, a chance to see and do some things other than driving along the way. I had more than succeeded on this score. We were able to see the Old Mill and C’s grandparents again that evening for about an hour.

Day 13. Eight hours in the car to finally arrive in Winchester, Virginia to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days. Finally, staying in a home and not a hotel. Though we still have 50 more miles to arrive at our actual home leave destination but I consider the drive done.

Total Drive: Six States. Eight Stops. 2,221 Miles. $246.67 in gas. One audio book finished. One Kindle book started. No one threw up in the car. Phase One of Home Leave 2014 completed. Success!

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