This is the third installment of my summer road trip travelogue, starring Artificially Sweetened (AS), Cupcake, and this Turkey.
Morning came and we awoke. As I exited the bathroom, I found AS and Cupcake out in the room playing their respective computers like Vladimir Horowitz played his Steinway. This is a vacation, already? Oy! I wrested them from their screens and we packed up for departure. The destination for Day Two would be Pittsburgh, but first, a taste of the mountains was in store.
We descended to the lobby to check out. Cupcake admonished me for averting the checkout line and just leaving my key cards, stating that they would likely charge me for three or four days. I didn’t feel the need to argue with a teenager who somehow surmised that she had learned all about how hotels operate, but AS chimed in that I knew what I was doing, so I didn’t need to. I just wanted to hit the road.
Staying away from Belle Chere, the art festival we had stumbled into in downtown Asheville, we found the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is one of my favorite scenic roads in all the land. After all, not only is there abundant mountain scenery, but also speeding is a Federal offense. Zbeard had once fallen asleep while driving with me as a passenger on this very stretch of road. The sinuous, narrow, two-lane strip has some impressive overlooks and drop-offs at elevations up to and greater than one mile. I think the ladies were enjoying the scenery, if not my driving.
After a while, I felt that Cupcake, who had been taking pictures through the not too clean van window, needed to get out and take some non-occluded shots for a change. I pulled off the parkway onto one of its many scenic overlooks where she could better indulge her photographic creativity. Meanwhile, AS was rescuing a partially disabled black butterfly, at least from her perspective. Soon, I heard the inevitable bickering, “Mom, like you’re not saving it! You’re like killing it. You like rubbed the black flight powder off its wings!” Then AS responded saying something about like this and like that and whateverrrrr. They were both speaking Valley Girl.
Oh, no! It’s contagious! I knew that I would have to recall the entire script from Clueless and try to pepper my sentences with “like” in self-defense from then on.
Back on the parkway, I asked if the babes would like a little hike. I had hiked to the top of Craggy Gardens several times in the past and knew what was in store. They didn’t, being primarily experienced with flatland hiking in Florida. But they were game, so we stopped there.
The two-mile round trip hike was a leg-stretching refresher. Or a leg killing refresher for some of us. The lungs weren’t exactly in the best mountain climbing shape, either. But AS asserted, “Doggone it, we’re like going to make this summit!” and doggoned if we didn’t. Of course, Cupcake was always pushing ahead, with neither legs nor lungs bothering her. We old folk were like huffing and puffing at times. Cupcake found a baby at the shelter on top, a sturdy log structure that had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s. (Why don’t we have something like that now with all those people unemployed? I suppose it is because they’d rather sit on their fat asses collecting unemployment compensation, now that the misguided disincentive has been extended ad nauseam.)
Oh, wait! Didn’t mean to leave you hanging. It was just a doll that Cupcake found up there at the shelter.
We cavorted around the top for a while before making our descent back to the trusty Toyota Sienna, with Mount Mitchell State Park being the next stop.
Mount Mitchell is less than a half hour north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Craggy Gardens. A road enables people to drive up to a parking area close to the summit and then walk up a paved trail to the viewing platform at the top, 6,684 feet above sea level, the highest point in the eastern United States. The road involves an altitude gain of over 1,000 feet. About halfway up, there is a restaurant and a tent camping area. We planned to have lunch in the restaurant after paying our respects at the summit.
The parking area was jammed, as were the facilities. It was Sunday, after all. We checked out the gift shop (of course), then trudged to the top for a look out at the beautiful scenery from the tallest of all eastern peaks.
Oh, yeah? Well, Cupcake disputed that notion. She said that like some of the surrounding mountains looked taller. I heard AS explaining that perhaps there was like one tree sticking up or something. Clearly, she was engaged in an uphill battle. I muttered something about writing to the U.S. Geological Survey with Cupcake’s new and revolutionary findings that conflicted with all the complex measurements that had been taken and all the computations that had been made through the years. After all, she would soon be entering tenth grade, where she would be taking plane geometry.
By and large, however, I enjoyed the slices of Cupcakian wisdom proffered at frequent intervals throughout the voyage. Traveling with a teenager wouldn’t be like a National Lampoon Vacation experience after all. Furthermore, I might like learn something. At the very least, I would like add some stories to my catalog. Whateverrrrrrr.
It was getting late, but the plan was to have lunch in the Mount Mitchell restaurant, and I wanted to stick to the plan. It didn’t look good when we pulled into the parking lot and found it almost full. We found that there would be a 45 minute wait. I wanted to get to Pittsburgh by midnight, so there was no way we could have wasted the time waiting. So, AS ducked into the ladies room for some bladderial relief (after all, we all have bladders, you know) and Cupcake and I waited outside. I pointed out a robin that was casing the lawn for some tasty worms. Cupcake began snapping pictures of the bird, telling me she had never seen a robin before.
When AS emerged, I happily let her know that Cupcake now had some good pictures of a robin, a bird she had never seen before.
“You’ve seen robins before. I’ve pointed out the large flocks of them we get in Florida. You just weren’t listening, as usual!” scolded AS.
“No, I haven’t,” Cupcake retorted.
“You have, too!”
Now, I was getting worried that there would be a “did not/did, too” war, but it somehow fizzled as we walked back to the van.
Cupcake admonished me to drive slower on the way down the mountain, because she was tired of “all our crap” flying all over the place. Hey, I can’t help it that the engineers decided not to run the road straight up the side of the mountain. Curves are inevitable in the mountains. We don’t have many in flat Florida.
I needed fuel, but my GPS wasn’t working because — well, it’s actually a Garmin Mobile application running on my BlackBerry. If there’s no cell signal, there’s no way to start it up, as it checks for a valid subscription via the cell network on startup. So, for the first time during this trip, I conceded that I would have to look at a paper map. Studying the road atlas, I developed a plan. We had to get off the Blue Ridge Parkway in order to find fuel, after which we would find a place for a late lunch, and then proceed to Pittsburgh, our second overnight stop.
I found a gas station/country store. The gas pumps were 1960’s vintage, without credit card readers. There was one pump for each grade of fuel. On each was a sign that read “Prepay First.” After commenting to AS about the redundancy, I got out and began walking toward the ramshackle wooden building. A good ol’ boy appeared in the driveway and said, “You can go right ahead.” Later, AS conjectured that I didn’t have to prepay because I didn’t look like a gas thief.
After pumping $44 worth of yellow volatile liquid into the van’s hungry tank, I went inside to pay. I picked up some apples and, taking a chance, some boiled green peanuts for the girls. I commented to the owner about the apples.
“The sign outside said ‘Enjoy North Carolina Apples’ but the labels on these say ‘Chile’,” I said.
“Just lak evathing else these days. Ain’t nothin made here no more. Ain’t nothin growed here no more neither.”
OK, so we’ll have to enjoy some Chilean apples. They can’t be all bad down there. After all, they extradited Joran van der Sloot to Peru. But I digress.
Not everybody likes boiled peanuts. These two claimed that they weren’t bad, but they sure as hell didn’t eat many of them. Nevertheless, I had to feed them something to avoid the crankiness effect until I found a suitable restaurant, particularly because that area was pretty rural and restaurants were few and far between.
“At this point, I’d go for a chain,” admitted AS. So, the anti-chain rule lasted exactly one day.
We found a Burger King in Burnsville, North Carolina, not far from the Tennessee line. For entertainment there, a couple of kids were hanging around, both of whom apparently were shift workers there who were off. As I recall, the girl had pretty short shorts and the guy had Justin Bieber hair. They seemed to be joined at the hip. However, we were confused at one point when the older manager kissed the babe over the counter. AS was of the opinion that the manager was a Yankee, so that dispelled my notion that he was the chick’s father or uncle or something. We never found out who was doing what to whom.
While finishing our chain store food, I determined that there was a Geocache 150 feet from where we were sitting, so Cupcake and I went outside to find it while AS made another pit stop. We all have bladders, but hers must have been lower capacity than the rest.
Finally, after finding what turned out to be a very pedestrian lamp pole magnetic cache, we left Burnsville to find I-26 and start the final leg of the day to Pittsburgh. The trip was largely uneventful, with Cupcake sleeping much of the way. We woke her in time to get a picture of the welcome sign, then before she went back to iPod induced sleep, she favored us with an assessment of West Virginia’s motto: “Wild and Wonderful is a stupid motto for a state”. There was rain throughout much of West Virginia, which we knew meant that a welcome cold front was pushing through. As we pressed on, we survived a moronic driving incident (not by me) in Clarksville, and soon we were zooming through Morgantown and into Pennsylvania.
The rain had let up. We were in familiar territory. Very familiar. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Ahhh, the potholes, the cracked cement, the abandoned steel mills, the Iron City beer signs, the bars on each block patronized by a single particular ethnic group, the omnipresent Steelers totems—it felt like home. The Cupcake thought it looked like Chicago. Yeah, sure.
The hotel for the night was a Radisson. I got such a good deal through Priceline that I splurged on two rooms. I thought that the Cupcake deserved some privacy, as did AS and this Turkey. What did I pay? $38 each. And this was a three-star hotel in the Priceline scheme of things. I had stayed there before, so I knew what to expect. The rooms were nice and comfortable. They had to be. My ass was sore.
We checked in and, upon reaching our floor, AS expressed dismay that the two rooms were not adjoining. I didn’t share that disappointment; I was happy with the separation. We settled Cupcake into the room that backed up against the elevator bank, then we took the quieter room down the hall. And that was all she wrote for Day Two.
On Day Three we would be seeing some sights in “da Burgh”, then briefly visiting my birth town of Altoona, and finishing up in State College, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Read about it in our next installment.