Almost Seeing the Smoky Mountains and Tennessee’s Sad Elephant Story

In drive by lauranoll Comments

Our first morning in Louisville reintroduced the breakfast tradition of our legendary past travels: hotel waffles.

Trying to stick to the diet my trainer had recommended weeks prior, I opted for scrambled eggs, ham and my deliciously glorious black coffee. Grandpa, though, stayed true to our tradition. I kicked things off by loading up the waffle maker and waiting the customary two and a half minutes to baked perfection. Grandma settled in to the chair next to me and we all set to work waiting for the caffeine to kick in.

Back in the truck we set our sights on Ark Encounter. Grandma had mentioned it several times before and I managed to find a few details online to piece together its location. About an hour north of the highway we were traveling on sat an actual ark built to the specifications of Noah’s version. Naturally, we had to hunt it down.

The morning drive was a beautiful, quick trip up the interstate. As we inched closer, the GPS announced next turns and time to destination. Suddenly, we rounded a curve outside of Williamstown, Kentucky, and there it was. Sunken down into a small valley, one end of the ark and its attached museum building peeked out of the trees. Vast empty parking lots surround the area – we were there first. Buses were warming up and all seemed to be almost perfectly planned for a fast stop – all except the gate, that is. The tall, steel gates with their heavy lock announced one giant problem: Sunday opening at 12 p.m.

We were more than 2 hours early.

We drove the smaller road that circled the property – hoping for any decent angle from which grandma could get a good iPad photo. But we were just left with disappoint. The builders obviously intended to earn every possible tourism dollar from their attraction and did a solid job of blocking every opportunity of snagging an unpaid snap.

After the fact, we realized that you could probably only enter the ark in male/female pairs anyway. #dadjokes Being the odd woman out, I’m not entirely sure how grandma and grandpa planned to sneak me in on this one – or if they would have just left me in the car. The world may never really know. We took a minute for a gas break and quick regroup in the car. Despite the obvious disappointment, we reset the GPS for the Smoky Mountains National Park and started on our way toward Tennessee.

Kentucky into Tennessee was beautiful. We whizzed through lush green fields, wove our way through road work and mountainous areas, stopped for quick rests at great facilities with hiking trails. Generally, it was nice and peaceful. A little cat nap here. A bit of work on the laptop there. We were easily settling into a rhythm and my on-the-road workout goals were doing pretty well to boot.

Then, just outside of Knoxville, our hanger-induced confusion and frustration set in. We were about 45 minutes out of the park and had spent more than half of the day getting there. We were creeping in on the mid-afternoon and somewhere in the back seat grandpa grumbled about the wrong direction.

I’m still not entirely sure of the what or why in that conversation – but our long detour south quickly turned northeast. We found a fast fried chicken joint – Bojangles – stopped for a meal and ended up bypassing the national park all together. I had a friend spamming photos of it on Instagram for the following two weeks – so I feel like I was there anyway. I’ve also taken note that it’s a place to go with the intent of hiking, so no real loss in the drive by – but definitely an addition to the “places I must go back to” list.

Oh, Bojangles – by the way – was a hard pass on all three accounts. I snagged a pretty decent salad that stuck to my food goals, but it wasn’t anything to fuss over. Grandma didn’t care much for the spice in the chicken and grandpa thought it was pretty terrible all around. Lunch score: 0/10.

It was a long drive north into Virginia that afternoon. We watched hills and mountains weave in the distance. I pulled up a variety of roadside attractions on my phone – all sounding like cheap, weird photo ops.

One – Big Mary – simply described a five-ton elephant that, after killing her trainer, was hung from a derrick in Erwin, Tennessee, in the early 1900s. It was a piece of the internet I would have been cool with avoiding, but instead spent a good chunk of the miles reading her stories in shock and tears. Americana is weird sometimes.

Eventually, my online scavenger hunt did strike gold and we rolled straight into our first big stop.

New England + Canada #withBobandRoseMary
In 15 days, we covered 19 states and 1 providence – totaling more than 5,000 miles on the road through New England and Canada. The journey marked yet another amazing adventure with my grandparents, Bob and Rose Mary. See the trip