Saturday, August 31, 2013
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
We drove Tuesday from the Smoky Mountains to Mammoth Cave. The journey caused us to backtrack along the Nashville-to-Smokies route we took only a few days before, until we veered north into Kentucky and found our way to our campground in Cave City. Once we got set up for the night, we ate a dinner of - what else? - Kentucky Fried Chicken!
This morning we woke up and got to the Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center right as it opened at 8:15. We had time to play around in the gift shop (and buy Junior Ranger hats for our two youngest guys), ask the park rangers all of our annoying questions, and buy our tickets for the 9:00 cave tour.
There are several different cave tours to choose, each with a different route and emphasis, but we chose the historic tour to learn about the different ways humans have used the cave in the past.
First, a bit about the cave itself:
Mammoth Cave is named so because of its size, not because woolly mammoths were found there. And it lives up to its name, being the longest cave system in the entire world! I toured the cave with my parents and younger sister back in the 1980's, and at that time 390 miles of the cave had been discovered and mapped. Since then, that number has reached 400 miles. Yes, it is hard to comprehend just how large this cave is! And there is more of the cave yet being discovered!
Our tour guide "Ranger Joe" did a phenomenal job walking us through the two miles of our cave tour. At first we were a bit chilly, as the constant temperature in the cave is 54°F, but as we descended further and the outflow of wind died down, we adjusted to the coolness of the cave. Luckily we were smart enough to bring our sweaters with us!
We learned that indigenous people used the cave as deep as 14 miles in, as long ago as 4000-2000 years ago. A very interesting fact is that a female mummy was discovered in the cave in the 1800's, but she was removed to the Smithsonian Museum after people protested her presence as a tourist attraction.
White European discovery of the cave dates back to 1797. For many years the land was privately owned, and the cave was used as a money-making endeavor. During the War of 1812, when the British Navy blockaded American ports and we were unable to import gunpowder from foreign allies, saltpeter was mined out of the dirt in the cave (saltpeter being a key ingredient in gunpowder). African slave labor was used to accomplish this arduous task.
When the war ended, mining was discontinued, but exploration and tourism started to boom. And we learned that graffiti is not necessarily a modern phenomenon! We saw many "Bob was here" type of "wall art" in the cave with dates as long ago as the early 1800's. Everyone wants to leave their mark!
At some point, the cave was used as a hospital. A doctor took several tuberculosis (aka "consumption") patients down to live in the cave, thinking that the constant temperature and humidity would help them. Three patients died in there, but some lived in the cave as long as eight to nine months, then lived for as much as seven years longer.
But in 1925 a tragedy occurred. A man by the name of Floyd Collins was trying to map the cave when a boulder fell on him, trapping him in the cave. An extensive rescue effort was unsuccessful and he ultimately died in the cave from exposure. But the media coverage of the drama as it unfolded brought national attention to the cave, and in 1926 Congress authorized the cave to become a national park.
Our tour taught us about the historical significance of the cave, but we also got to experience the awesomeness of the natural underground beauty. Some of the chambers were so large, they literally could not be captured on camera. We saw the remnants of the saltpeter mining operation, the huge rotunda room, a rock formation called the "giant's coffin" - among many other things! We also had to squeeze through some very narrow passages. One in particular was called "Fat Man's Misery", and it lived up to its name by having a clearance at some points of only 14-15 inches to squeeze through! We also saw the "Bottomless Pit" which for years no one knew its depth. In addition, we saw several lone bats flying just inches away from us (one advantage to going on the first tour of the day).
After our tour, we came back to our camper for lunch and to work on the Junior Ranger workbooks with our two youngest boys.
At 2:30 we returned to the park for a little while. Steve and the four older boys attended a ranger guided tour about slavery in the cave while I tended to the younger boys and helped them receive their Junior Ranger badges.
About the slavery tour:
I already mentioned that the saltpeter mining operation was carried out by slaves. But there was one slave who is worth mentioning. Stephen Bishop was a slave who was given the task of guiding tourists through the known parts of the cave back when it was privately owned and used as a money making operation. There were many slaves who had this task, but it was Stephen Bishop who took it upon himself to make a written map of the known cave. He was the first person to map out the cave. But not only did he map it, but he also discovered many new areas of the cave through his own exploration. He was so instrumental in the discovery and mapping of the cave, a group of private citizens donated a proper headstone and burial plot for him when he died.
We then came back to the camper for dinner, then headed back to the park one last time for the ranger-led campfire program. The topic for tonight was about mystical and mythical history of the cave. It was very interesting, but once we returned home, all the kids were just about beat, and our 10yo barely made it into bed before falling asleep!
Monday, August 26, 2013
What a wonderful time we have had at the most frequently visited national park in the US - The Great Smoky Mountain National Park!
We arrived in Pigeon Forge from Nashville on Friday afternoon and got checked into our campground. We had a little glitch with the water hookup not working, but the campground was kind enough to let us use the site next to ours instead. Soon afterwards, it was pouring down rain and we had our first experience with thunderstorms since leaving Texas.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in the 1930's due to the environmental threat from the logging industry. These majestic "old growth" forests were being threatened by an industry that was booming due to Americans' need for wooden products. The forest was disappearing quickly, and soil erosion was the result. The mountainsides were literally washing away. Not only that, but the natural habitat for many creatures was being disrupted, most notably that of the American Black Bear.
So in 1926 Congress authorized the park, which was established in 1934. This park was among the first national parks assembled from the purchase of private lands. As a result, many of the original log cabins, country churches, and one-room schoolhouses are still standing and preserved in the park.
We didn't do anything touristy on Friday, but Saturday morning we headed into the national park. After stopping at the visitor's center, we spent the rest of the morning touring through Cades Cove. This is where you get a good taste of Appalachia and the lifestyle of the "hillbillies". The entire driving tour lasted most of the day, but we saw many original log cabins (and all their associated outbuildings), several country churches with hillside graveyards, and a few mills, not to mention breathtaking views of the Appalachian mountains!
On Sunday we took a different road through the park called the Newfound Gap Road. This route takes you up the Tennessee side to the peak of the mountain ridge, and back down again on the North Carolina side. Along the top ridge of the Smoky Mountains is part of the Appalachian Trail, which runs over 2000 miles and stretches from Maine to Georgia. We hiked for a little way along the Appalachian Trail, just to say that we did it.
One turn off the Newfound Gap Road and we found ourselves at the highest peak in the park, Clingmans Dome (elevation 6,643 feet). We huffed and puffed our way up a VERY STEEP half mile trail to get to an observation tower, but it was worth the hike. (And it was COLD up there!) We were in the clouds!
After Clingmans Dome, we came down the other side of the mountains on the North Carolina side, and we found our way to a working mill , a mountain farm museum, and another visitor's center where our 7yo son received his "Junior Ranger" badge which he proudly wore during the rest of our visit.
On our way back to our campground, just outside the national park, what should be crossing the road in front of us but a wild black bear! We were so excited to see it, but it disappeared back into the forest before we could get our cameras clicking. I think that seeing the wild bear so close up was definitely a highlight for our entire family! It's too bad that we didn't snap a picture of it in time!
Come Monday, we needed to spend a little time getting groceries and doing housekeeping - there's just no escaping it! - but in the afternoon we took one last jaunt through the park on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This is a narrow, one-lane, one-way, curvy, twisty road though a section of the park (speed limit is 10mph!) in which I sometimes wondered if we were going to fall off the side of the road down the mountain! Again there were many historic buildings to stop and see along the way.
One highlight of the Roaring Fork was when we stopped at a trailhead and hiked 1.5 miles (UP the mountain!) to a grotto waterfall. It was simply breathtaking, and the water was so cold and crystal clear! We spent some time there before we headed back DOWN the mountain (another 1.5 miles). We didn't see any bears on this trail, but there was plenty of... er... "fresh evidence" that bears had been on the trail recently. We had to watch our step!
Our time in Pigeon Forge is coming to a close, as we are heading out of here in the morning. Pigeon Forge and neighboring Gatlinburg are very touristy areas and look like a lot of fun (and no, we didn't go to Dollywood - bummer!), but because of budgeting concerns we stayed disciplined and only did things in the free national park. (Although we might yet hit that Russell Stover's chocolate candy outlet store on our way back to the interstate highway! YUM!)
Thursday, August 22, 2013
On Thursday, August 22nd, we left Jackson heading for Nashville. Although Nashville is best known for The Grand Ole Opry and country music, we bypassed that attraction since our family isn't particularly well-versed in that musical genre. Instead, we decided to do some sightseeing at The Hermitage.
The Hermitage was the cotton and tobacco plantation of our country's seventh president, General Andrew Jackson. (The boys were able to identify him when I told them he's the one on the twenty dollar bill.) He's really a fascinating person, and we all learned so much about him.
Andrew Jackson was a rather enigmatic figure. He was much loved by the common (white) man as "one of their own". He was deeply religious and completely devoted to his wife and family. He was a war hero from the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. On the other hand, he owned 150 slaves and had no qualms about it. He had utter disdain for women's rights and equality. And he was downright barbaric in his treatment of Native Americans, as the Cherokee relocation (aka, "The Trail of Tears") occurred under his direct order.
We started in the visitor center viewing some displays and a movie of his life. Then we each had an age-appropriate personal audio tour while it guided us through the grounds of the plantation.
The highlight, of course, was touring the inside of the mansion. Photography was prohibited inside the mansion; but I can tell you that even in this day and age, the mansion is still quite ornate and opulent. I can only imagine what visitors thought of it back in the day!
(Sidenote for my Texan friends: Sam Houston was a guest at The Hermitage! Texas was its own country during Jackson's presidency, known then as the Republic of Texas.)
The tour ended at the tomb of General Andrew Jackson (as he preferred to be called) and his beloved wife Rachel. Rachel died just before he was inaugurated, so she never got to see her husband as president. It is suspected that the stress from gossip about their "scandalous" marriage - it was her second marriage - caused her to have heart failure. They had no children together, so Andrew Jackson's niece became "First Lady".
One interesting note: There was a house slave named Alfred who must have been very highly esteemed by the Jacksons. He held the highest slave position in the household, and he lived in the slave quarter cabin closest to the mansion. But the surprising thing is that he had a prominent burial spot just to the side of Andrew and Rachel's tomb, on the opposite side as the rest of the family's grave sites. One can only conclude that he was well regarded by the family, ie, more than "just a slave".
I could go on and on about the many things we learned today, but this is already getting too long. I think this is a worthwhile stop if in the Nashville area.
Unfortunately, my battery died in my phone camera, so I have only two pictures to share. (There were so many good photo opportunities, too! Wah!)
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Monday night we stayed at a Navy base near Memphis. (I know! NAVY! In Tennessee! Who woulda thought?!?) After hitting the commissary Tuesday morning to restock our shelves with groceries, we headed out for a short drive to Jackson, Tennessee.
Once we parked for the night, we did a walking tour of a nearby Civil War battlefield called The Battle of Parker's Crossroads.
As is typical in the South, there is a Civil War battlefield around nearly every corner. Nevertheless, we found it quite interesting.
General Forrest was the commanding officer for the Confederacy. (The boys thought it was cool that Forrest Gump was named after a REAL Civil War hero, not just a fictional one invented for the story!) He was winning for most of the battle on December 31,1862, completely surrounding the forces of Colonel Dunham, the Union officer. However, Union forces under Colonel Fuller arrived with reinforcements, causing the Union to ultimately win the battle.
The historical trail was long, so we walked only the first stop and the last stop, but we saw lots of Tennessee rolling fields and hills, as well as a log cabin and the burial site of 30 Union soldiers. (Their remains were reinterred at a national cemetery in later years.)
This was a nice example of local history.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
On our second day on the road, we still had the goal of getting north to get away from the heat. So we basically blew through Arkansas in one day, making it to Memphis for the night.
We did, however, take time to stop at a historical site in the capital city: Little Rock Central High School.
In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public education could no longer be segregated by race. The court didn't, however, specify a timeline for desegregation. So many states in the South dragged their feet in making it a reality.
It wasn't until 1957 that the "Little Rock Nine" attempted access to Central High School in Little Rock. After three weeks of facing angry mobs, yelling reporters, and armed soldiers, they were finally successful.
The school itself is still an active school attended by over 2000 students. It just so happened that we visited on the first day of the new school year, so the scene was a little crazy there. Nevertheless, we took our time going through the historical exhibits in the visitor center, visiting the restored Mobil gas station across the street (where the reporters lined up to use the only pay phone in the area to call in their stories), and snapping pictures on the steps of the school.
The entire experience was completely free, so if you are ever passing through Little Rock, I recommend stopping to experience this little slice of history.
Monday, August 19, 2013
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step... or 450 steps.
We began our epic journey with one goal in mind: get the heck outta Texas! And so we drove...and drove...and drove! We drove due north from San Antonio until we got to Dallas, then headed northeast until we arrived in Texarkana. A total of 450 miles on the first day.
(And we managed to get through Austin traffic by annoying only one trucker. Not bad!)
We ate lunch and dinner along the way at roadside rest areas, then I went ahead in the van to scout out our stopping place for the night.
We stayed the night at the Red River Army Depot near Texarkana - only $12 for the whole family! It was a lovely little hidden gem of a place near a lake. After getting set up, Steve played basketball with the older boys then swung on the playground with the younger boys.
One thing that struck all of us was how much cooler it was in northern Texas compared to San Antonio, and how tall the trees were. As a matter of fact, when our younger guys went back out to the playground the next morning, they ended up returning to the camper to get their sweaters on, because according to them, "It's FREEZING out there, Mom!" (It was down to about 75 degrees - LOL!)
We all slept well our first night on the road, and had no trouble getting ready to leave for our next day of adventure.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
It is Saturday evening, August 17th, 2013, and we are pulling up our anchors this evening in order to hit the open road tomorrow morning!
Excess weight was shifted from the camper to the van. The van and pickup truck were both serviced. Our valuables were put in a safe deposit box... I think we just about covered everything!
At long last, we are on our way!
"Anchors Aweigh, my boys, Anchors Aweigh!
Farewell to college joys, we sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay;
Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam,
Until we meet once more, here's wishing you a happy voyage home!"
Thursday, August 15, 2013
I knew it was just a matter of time before one of the kids ended up breaking one of these mirrored closet doors. I did not, however, expect it to happen so soon.
This camper is going to trashed by the time we are done with it.
(That's my 7yo's foot in the mirror reflection, which is the likely culprit of the crime.)
Saturday, August 10, 2013
Steve and I were on our way to the store when I noticed something brown in the grass next to a traffic light we stopped at. As it lifted its head out of the grass, I realized it was a small puppy. Steve pulled over, and I got out of the car to check it out. When I lifted it out of the grass, it was covered in fire ants. I wiped off as many ants as I could, and we took the puppy back to the camper to figure out what to do next.
After making a phone call or two, we learned that the local shelter would take her. So after trying to get her to drink a bit of water, we headed to the shelter to drop her off, hoping for a healthy future for her.
However, the poor little pup died in my lap on the way there.
After doing some internet research, it seems likely that she died from an overdose of fire ant venom.
I don't know this puppy's backstory, nor do I know why Steve and I were destined to be in her last minutes of life. But I do know that compassion is never wasted.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Our obligations here in San Antonio are officially done. As of last weekend, our 13yo and 15yo sons had their Boy Scouts Eagle Court of Honor (we now have FOUR Eagle Scouts in our family!), and my 15yo son came home permanently from working at summer camp. We are now all eight of us together again... just in time for...
... THE HEAT!
I know, I know. You're tired of hearing about it. But it is SO HOT lately! (said in my incredibly whiney voice) I just can't stop complaining about it! Our normal temperature for this time of year is 95 degrees, but we have been consistently 5-10 degrees hotter than that. We have broken record after record, and even yet again today! Right now it is nearly 5:00 in the evening, and it is 103 degrees outside. Hence, we are at the library. Again.
So our strategy for dealing with the heat while in an RV is this: We run the main AC and the AC unit in the boys' room all morning long, along with the box fan to even out the interior temperature. In the afternoon, we completely close off the boys' room and switch to the front AC (along with the main AC) so we are cooling less square footage. Around 7:30 in the evening, when the sun starts to slip below the tree line, we start to cool the boys' bedroom again so it is cooled off enough by bedtime. In the meantime, we try to come to the library... or the bowling alley... or ANYWHERE where there is free AC.
We still don't know if he will be allowed to "telework" while we are on the trip or not. It sounds like his bosses are willing to let him telework for three days per pay period, as well as let him work on days that he is doing site visits at the Air Force bases around the country. All the other days would be "leave without pay". This would work out well for us because it would still keep a bit of a paycheck coming in while still giving us flexibility for the trip. As well, this allows Steve to keep his job so he will have a job to come back to. HOWEVER, his bosses wanted the legal office to look over this idea, and the legal office is hemming and hawing over it. I'm sure they are going to nix the plan. So we are less than two weeks away from when we want to leave, yet we don't know anything. I have a feeling that he's going to just end up quitting, which might be a HUGE mistake financially, but a risk we're willing to take in order to make memories with the kids.
In other job related news, the furlough days have been cut back to only six days, so the next round of furlough will (hopefully) be his last. (Although if he ends up quitting, this will be a moot point.) I hate when politics affects me personally. I wish Congress members would stop playing chess with our lives.
And speaking of income (and complaining of the government - haha), the Veterans Administration has kicked back Steve's disability claim for further review - again. Now it is not projected to be ready until February-July of 2014 - nearly TWO YEARS after his military retirement. Unbelievable! We were hoping to have that entitlement money while on the trip, but it sounds fairly certain that it will not be available to us for quite a while yet.
Okay, before I burst a vein, let's change the subject...
The older boys and I went to the dentist this morning to get a clean bill of health before hitting the road (and possibly losing our dental insurance). No cavities in any of us. Yay! The younger boys are scheduled to go the pediatric dentist next week, and hopefully we'll get more good news on that front as well.
We are still hitting the books. The older boys are getting caught up in some things. Here's what each one is working on right now. (Keep in mind that some things are done and we are waiting to start the new school year.)
17yo twins (finishing up 11th grade):
Physics (Apologia) - finishing up last year's curriculum; going at accelerated pace
Pre-calculus (Saxon) - one boy is nearing the end, one is barely starting it (sigh)
Economics (Notgrass) - we just started this semester course; hope to finish it in a month or so
Apologetics (Various) - just need to finish off this elective from last year
15yo (finishing up 9th grade):
Biology (Apologia) - finishing up last year's curriculum; slow-going
Algebra (Saxon) - working at an accelerated pace to get caught up
Geography (A Beka) - working at an accelerated pace to get caught up
Grammar (Rod & Staff) - slogging through it
Vocabulary (Vocabulary from Classical Roots) - finishing up last year's; should be done soon
13yo (finishing up 7th grade):
General Science (Apologia) - finishing up last year's curriculum; accelerated pace
Pre-algebra (Saxon) - going at an accelerated pace
Grammar (Rod & Staff) - nearly finished with last year's curriculum
Vocabulary (Vocabulary from Classical Roots) - should be done soon
Spelling (Spelling Workout) - about halfway done
10yo (special needs):
Reading (Stevenson) - just chugging along; reading has improved greatly
Arithmetic (Semple) - nearly done learning the addition facts
Handwriting (Handwriting Without Tears) - ugh, he hates anything that involves writing
7yo (finishing up 1st grade):
Grammar (First Language Lesson) - about halfway through 1st grade year
Spelling (Spelling Workout) - about halfway done
Reading (Phonics Pathways) - about halfway done
I know it sounds like we are way behind, and well, I guess we are if you look at it in terms of finishing curriculum. But I also know that these kids are doing well academically, so I'm not sweating it. Heck, even if they all take an extra year before they head off to college, I'm okay with that. It is what it is.
Oh, and speaking of college...
One of our 17yo sons is honing in on engineering college. (This is the boy who attended the NASA course this summer.) The other would like to go to college for creative writing, but he's less focused on his goals. He's actually considering joining the military instead of going straight to college after graduation. I'm not sure how I feel about that. After all, it was good enough for Steve and me, but when it's your own kid??? Hmm. Just not sure. Actually, he's not really sure either. Who knows what will become of this kid? Time will tell.
Sometimes I look around at my kids and can't believe my eyes. They aren't my sweet, innocent little boys anymore. Now they are... well, practically men! They are at least as tall as me, if not taller. They are shaving. They are opinionated. They follow politics and world events. They earn paychecks. They look at girls.
One night I went to bed a newlywed young mother with a circle of toddlers and babies around me; the next morning I woke up and found that nearly twenty years has passed.
And THAT is why this trip is so important to us.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Our adventure took us about 250 miles northeast to a small town in the piney woods called Livingston, Texas. Do you recognize that location? Yes, this is our legal "home" nowadays.
We drove to the Escapees flagship park called Rainbow's End to check out our new "home". Since this is where we legally live now, we thought it would be nice to actually see it in person before we start out on our long excursion.
We were able to make the trip with only one vehicle. Our 15yo son is still at Boy Scout camp for the summer, and we were able to farm out our 13yo son to a family friend. (Thank you, Noel!) So the six of us were able to cram into our "Cowboy Cadillac" (that's a suped-up diesel Ford F-350 dual-wheel pickup truck, for those who don't know) and make the journey.
The journey went well... until we drove through downtown Livingston. At a red light, making a right hand turn, we popped our emergency brake cable and the brakes on the camper locked up - right in the middle of the intersection! After a few initial moments of panic (and annoyed drivers trying to get around us), Steve was able to figure out what the problem was. He popped the cable back into place, and we were off again. Good thing too, because I was about ten seconds away from calling a tow truck!
Our time at Rainbow's End was delightful. You can tell that the park was at low capacity for the summer. Most fulltime RVers leave this area of the country for the summer months and return in the fall. (And no wonder! We've been hitting at least 100*F every day, with no end in sight! Blech!)
Rainbow's End is more than just an RV park. We stayed in the section meant for transient travelers, but there is a long-term site section as well as a permanent site section. (I think the permanent sites are deeded and privately owned.)
We stayed at a site that was very close to the swimming pool and activity center. Although the activity center was closed for the summer, the pool was not. Steve and the boys made heavy use of the pool, which was just the right depth for my youngest kids to swim.
Besides the pool and activity center, up the road a short distance was the clubhouse. Many social gatherings and classes are held in there throughout the day, but there is also a very nice book library and movie check-out room. In addition, there is a private television viewing room in which our kids could watch some movies.
On our departure day, we scheduled ourselves for a "Smart Weigh" to see if we were not only within our weight limits but also to see if we were balanced. Turns out that we are far below our weight limit, but our back axle is a little off-balanced. So sometime soon we need to try to even out the weight in the boys' bedroom a little better. Other than that, I think it proved to be a big relief to Steve's nerves to learn that we CAN tow that big of a camper with the truck that we own, and that we are NOT exceeding the weight limit of the RV.
Then we went into the headquarters building and collected our mail before heading back to San Antonio.
And so we were, like the Hobbit, "There and Back Again".