Good-bye van, hello plan. And the Smokey Mountains are beautiful!

August 23, 2015

Well, this post has been simmering for a while.  It was basically done; I just needed to get some pictures uploaded.  I did that this morning so without further ado, here it is.

A view across fields at Cades Cove within the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

 

August 8, 2015

La bestia ha muerto!  (The beast is dead!)  Despite a recent post, I ended up buying a minivan after all.  It just made the most sense considering all factors.  A friend joined me for a Blackberry Smoke concert and some camping in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  I decided to take the old beastly van for several reasons:

  • It already had all of the camping stuff inside and I didn’t have time to transfer it;
  • I wasn’t sure how soon I was going to get rid of it, and I wanted to test it out on a longer trip;
  • The car probably wasn’t big enough to take the stuff I wanted to take;
  • I didn’t want to show off a new minivan to someone that was struggling to pay her bills.

 

Saturday August 1 – the Drive Up (#1)

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So take the big old beastly van we did.  At first, it ran just like it has been lately – it was a little rough at idle but as soon as you hit the gas it was fine.  About half of the way there, however, it started to run rough when first accelerating from a stop and while going up bigger hills.  Uh oh.  We were too far to turn around, so press on we did.  We saw some beautiful scenery along the way, passing through the mountain country of Northeastern Georgia, Western North Carolina, and Eastern Tennessee.  We stopped and ate dinner at a country diner Cherokee that served beef, buffalo, and elk burgers.  Not sure that I had ever eaten elk before, I went with that.  It was good – mild and lean.  There is an outdoor play called Unto These Hills, which is about the Cherokee National and the Trail of Tears.  I remember attending on a school trip – it is moving and reminds you quite pointedly that the land of the free has not always been so for everyone, nor is it still.

Right as we entered the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, we saw some elk.  I didn’t even know that there were elk in the Smokies.  Apparently, they haven’t been until recently; they were re-introduced starting in 2001.  I also wanted to see a black bear.  According to the main park page, they were “particularly active” at this time of year.  And the area where we were to camp was listed a a great place to see bear.  Oh great!  We passed through some beautiful mountain country in the Smokies.  We were running behind for the concert, so we headed straight to the concert venue and didn’t set up camp first.

The crowd getting ready for the headlining act, Blackberry Smoke.

The concert was at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Maryville, TN.  It (and the people) were everything that I expected and more.  There were lots of rebel flags, some being worn as capes (as a side note, several famous Mississippians including Morgan Freeman and Jimmy Buffet recently signed a letter saying that Mississippi should also get rid of the rebel portion of its flag; how do you argue with Morgan Freeman and Jimmy Buffett?).  Everyone we bumped into was very nice.  The crowd was not particularly diverse.  The beer was cheap and the music good.  Blackberry Smoke and the opening act were both southern rock bands.  Blackberry Smoke, especially live, sounds somewhat like a cross between the Georgia Satellites (you remember them – don’t give me no lines and keep your hands to yourself, the hippy-hippy shake) and Lynyrd Skyynrd (you remember them too – Freebird!).  After a fun concert, we were back into the mountains to camp at Cades Cove.  I love the new dome tents that clip onto two poles!  It was a breeze to set up in the dark.  We were not attacked by bears or any other sort of critter that night.

Blackberry Smoke doing their thang.

 

Sunday August 2 – the Drive Back (#1)

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We got some bacon and eggs from the campground store and had a nice breakfast.  We decided to drive the 10-mile loop around Cades Cove.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic and the van was acting like it was going to die.  I was a little nervous that we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere.  But it made it.  We then had to decide how to get home.  We had been hoping to do some sightseeing in the Smokies on the way home, but I wasn’t sure that the van would make it.  I decided to drop the van at the nearest airport (Alco, TN) and rent a car to get home.  I talked them into giving me a Camaro for $15 more per day than the cheapest car.  Good choice!  We took a different route home, skirting the edge of the National Park and winding across Northern Georgia.  One of the highlights was stopping at an amazing roadside taco stand, which had cook-to-order homemade tortillas and were the best tacos I’ve had outside of Mexico.

 

Tuesday August 4 – the Drive Up (#2)

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After working almost a full day, I headed up to take care of the van.  This drive was tons of fun!  The Camaro did not have GPS navigation, and so I was using my Garmin stand-alone GPS.  It must have sensed that I had a Camaro, because it took me down some crazy fun windy isolated mountain roads.  I zoomed in on the really fun parts above.  The stretch between Fontana Dam (the northwest end of the big lake in the middle of the picture) up and along the edge of the National Park was unbelievable!  I was able to fly along in the Camaro and the turns were so short, tight, banked, and regular that it kinda felt like skiing!  What’s funny is that because it is the most direct route, it didn’t take all that long.  The lake and the river and mountains were amazingly beautiful.  I will definitely go back to this area.  I don’t have a lot of pictures because I was on a mission to get up there so I didn’t really stop.

A view from the only place I stopped during the heart-pumping drive along windy mountain roads.

 

Wednesday August 5 – the Drive Back (#2)

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I had the van checked out at a Chevy dealer and they told me it needed a new engine.  I was not prepared to spend that kind of money on a vehicle that I had basically already replaced, so my attention turned to figuring out how to get rid of it.  First, I rented a minivan and transferred all of my gear.  Then I started looking for someone who would buy it.  The Chevy dealer wouldn’t buy it.  I identified a place where I could junk it.  But then I got lucky – I found a car dealer that specialized in older cheaper cars and they gave me more than I could have junked it for.  I’m glad that perhaps it will be driven some more – other than the engine it has some life left in it.

Then, I faced another 4+ hour drive back home.  I drove around until the GPS decided to take me a different way home – I was not up for the windy mountain roads at night and in a minivan.  I found the 4th different route in as many days.  This one showed off a few north Georgia towns that I have heard of but had been through, at least not in many years.  Again, many neat little places that I wished I had time to explore more.  I was relieved to finally make it home.  The next day I unloaded the junk from the minivan, turned it in, and decided to check out some A-Liner hard-sided pop-up campers at a dealership that was about an hour away.  You see, the whole time I was driving around, particularly in the minivan, there was this voice in the back of my head saying, You know what?  Now that you have a minivan and can tow something a little bit bigger than the VW, you could actually go full-time on the road.  It is now actually possible!  And I realized that although it was not always conscious of it, I had been testing out this idea all along.  I couldn’t do it with the VW, so I got the van to test things out.  I learned that the van itself was too small to be comfortable in, so I would need some sort of camper.  After looking at the camper-van in Maryland, I decided that wasn’t for me.  After looking at full-size trailer trailers in Colorado, I decided that due to money and gas mileage, that was not for me.  Trucks are great but they get awful mileage, I would rather have interior storage, and there is not a great place for a dog on extended road trips.  Hence, the minivan.  It gets decent mileage and can pull a pop-up or a cargo trailer.  It has lots of interior cargo room, much more than an SUV, and has plenty of floor space for the doggie to stretch out.  I am back to where I started, with a slightly bigger version of a hatchback.

I was excited thinking about possibilities as I drove down to see the A-Liners.  They were okay.  It was a great idea.  I love how they fold up.  Unfortunately, they just seemed pretty flimsy and generally poorly made.  Doing some research online, I found out that people have lots of problems with them.  So scratch that idea.  The only other travel trailers I would consider at this point are the Scamp trailers, but since they are factory direct in Minnesota, I will not likely be looking at them anytime soon.  That leaves with the option that I really have preferred all along – finding a cargo trailer and building out the inside myself.  While the option requires more work on my part (which is okay, I could use a project), most cargo trailers from good brands are much cheaper ad better built than cheap travel trailers from what I have seen.  I also like the ability to use real furniture rather than the crap that they put in cheap travel trailers.  I would rather have a real futon and a real table than those stupid fold-down dinettes that are ubiquitous in travel trailers.  Plus, I really don’t want all of the different water systems and holding tanks.  That adds cost and complexity, takes up space, and causes problems in freeing weather.

But before getting a cargo trailer, I’m going to see if I can do better with the one I have.  It is too small as it currently is, but I’ve thought of a couple of ways to expand it a little bit in height and length.  If that doesn’t work, then cargo trailer it is.  My lease runs until the beginning of next July.  That is my time frame for deciding between on the road full or part time.  Either way, I should be able to spend a bunch of time exploring, and I am so exited about that!!

Have a good weekend all.

 

August 17, 2015

I have spent most of my free time this week working on the possibilities of going full-time, starting with spending this entire ski season in Colorado.  I have been borderline obsessed, as I tend to get, but it has suddenly calmed down as I think I am approaching a solution.  As I’ve mentioned before, spending an entire ski season in Colorado is on my bucket list.  Skiing is my favorite outdoor activity, and Colorado is one of my favorite places.  Add in the fact that I’ve got a good friend / lover out there, and can you imagine why I’d like to spend more time there.  The question is how to best go about this.

There is a campground in Breckenridge that is open during the winter.  You have to have a 20 foot or larger RV (out of my price range) or travel trailer (doable).  After a lot of research, I decided that camping all winter in weather that cold did not sound like a lot of fun.  I also think that it would not be very doable with a doggie.  I called hotels to see if anyone had discounts for a monthly rate, but they do not.  There are no extended stay places up in the mountains.  Even the cheapest hotels close to skiing are too expensive to live in for a few months.  I found this website where people rent out rooms, and some people have monthly rates that are well below the daily rates (which tend to be similar to hotels).  I have inquired about a couple for renting a room for a month.  That is one option that might work.  Extended stay hotels around Denver are another option, although the reviews are bizarrely varied.  Two people say that it was great stay, then the next two say the entire hotel is a prostitute-infested meth lab.  Hmm.  I have also been inquiring into getting a short-term lease at an apartment.  I have found a few places up in the mountains that allow dogs, and am working on this angle.  The one place where I was able to talk with a person didn’t have units available, but put me on the waiting list.

A question I’ve been struggling with is if I am able to move out during the ski season, what do I after?  I would like to have a place to come back to in Georgia to visit friends and family.  But I don’t want to pay for two apartments.  I have a friend here in town that has a room for rent.  If I gave up my place and moved in there, then I could go out for ski season one way or another, and then be full-time on the road.  There’s just one problem: I’ve really grown to like Athens and my townhouse here on the edge of downtown.  I love the town, I love the location I’m in, and I just like being here.  So I am a little bit torn, and I may have a tough decision ahead of me.

I am coming down to two big options.  The first is to keep my place here and just travel around as much as I can and want to.  The second is to give up the townhouse, get the room at my friend’s place, and then travel around even more.  The big wildcard is that, while I’ve enjoyed many of my two- or three-week trips living out of campgrounds, I have always been excited to get back home after those trips.  As fun as they have been, I definitely do not yet have the right set-up to do that full time.  As I mentioned above, I have decided that the two options (whether I go full-time or just for extended trips) are either modify the current trailer to make it more livable, or get a cargo trailer and built it out.  The former costs significantly less, but may be the harder option.  In addition, the cargo trailer would be something else to store if I didn’t go full time.

I think I’ve settled on a good default, and that is to keep this place here in Athens, modify the current trailer, and take some longer trips.  If everything goes well, perhaps I will go full time next summer, when the lease runs out here.  In the mean time, it will be the best of both worlds in a way.

If I get a call from one of the apartments in Colorado and they have an opening before ski season, then I will have a real dilemma on my hands.

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