Onward and Eastward!
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Arriving in Austin, TX was a hugely welcome change of pace. I was able to stay with a great friend from college, Hans, in East Austin. We ate Tex-Mex for dinner where I met the founder of a recent venture of Hans', Golden Ratio Coffee. I haven't tried it myself, but it's a coffee alternative that is far less acidic than traditional coffee and doesn't stain your teeth. It's coffee that is steeped in hot water through tea bags. Hans is an intellectual, a lover of great music (esp. hip hop), and an incredibly positive, kind guy. I'm so grateful I could include him as a stop!
I stopped by the state capitol building in Austin the next morning. I thought it was a beautiful monument with a soft red tint to the stone from which it was built. There are many statues which I always like to look for around the grounds at capitols because they mark significant people or moments in history related to the state. As this was the first capitol building I'd visited in the south, something distinguishable to others I've visited was the regular reference to "Dixie", and quotes by Jefferson Davis & Robert E. Lee. Not necessarily surprising - it is representative of Texas history - but definitely caught me off guard at first.
At this point in the trip, my primary time constraint was my arrival date in Washington, VA, aiming to schedule around a prior commitment of my host. I was going to add a day at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, but also needed to add a day somewhere between Austin and Washington. When I was about 20 minutes north of Austin, an old friend with whom I grew up skiing reminded me that he's living in Austin and invited me for a night at his place. Just like that, I found my extra day in Austin!
I probably hadn't seen Jasper since the last time we skied together (at least five years ago) so we spent a while that evening catching up on life and testing out his new drone. Jasper films mountain biking professionally. If you're familiar with the mountain biking community, you've probably watched one of his videos. He films with some of the biggest names in mountain biking and has repeatedly worked for Red Bull, filming their cornerstone mountain biking events for the past several years. Jasper introduced me to some real Texas BBQ (according to him) at Terry Black's and we cruised around a mix of riverside parks just outside of downtown Austin for the evening.
I took my time getting up to Dallas the next day and spent the night with a college friend, Colton, and his girlfriend Fatima. We had a casual dinner at a beer garden and walked the nearby Katy Trail on a calm Dallas evening. The next day I pointed it toward Hot Springs, AR. Hot Springs National Park is located here and I explored that a bit.
Hot Springs NP was very different than the national parks I'm used to. The main attraction is the naturally occurring hot spring water, however, there isn't access to any natural hot spring pools (the water leaves the ground at around 140°F). There are historic bath houses from the early 1900s that are privately owned and operated. After experiencing one of the public bath houses, I'll say I wasn't overly impressed. Think of a public indoor pool but big hot tub pools. It was nice to soak and it wasn't crowded, but I enjoyed learning about the town more than the hot spring soaking itself. There is also some camping and hiking in the surrounding area that I didn't explore.
After staying the night at the historic Arlington Resort Hotel (built in 1875), I drove east toward Tennessee. After stopping in Memphis for a drink with a friend and sitting in awful traffic, I pulled into Nashville around 8:30pm. Uncle Rob came up HUGE, gifting me a hotel room at the Marriott with his reward points. I walked around the main nightlife street, Broadway, a bit, but opted not to check out any of the bars. They were extremely crowded with very few masks in sight. Also, I was by myself. I didn't feel like I was missing out and know I'll be back there at some point with friends or family.
I saw the Tennessee state capitol the next morning. Something notable: James K. Polk and his wife are buried on the capitol grounds which I believe marks the only president buried on a state capitol's grounds. Also a cool monument for both Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson.
My last stop of this Phase 3 would be for two nights at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I pulled in around dusk and set up camp at Cade's Cove in the western section of the park. The temperature in early March was fluctuating from below freezing at night to the upper 50s during the day. By the time I got up the next morning, packed my gear for the day, and left in search of a hike, it was warming up with clear skies and sun in the forecast.
At national parks I typically make a point to stop at the visitor's center first. There's usually seasonal information, information on any COVID-related restrictions, as well as a wealth of knowledge from the park staff. I wanted to get some recommendations on hikes, but the nearest visitor's center had limited resources available due to COVID. This time I skipped the visitor's center and pulled off to a random set of marked trails about a mile from camp. And boy did the random trail pay off.
The forestland here exceeded my wildest expectations. I always assumed the West reigned king of pristine nature, but the Southeast proved me wrong. The deciduous trees, having already lost their leaves, made for a skeletal feel of the forest that played tricks on your eyes. One of the ways I found 'smokiness' in these mountains was from viewing the adjacent mountainsides from a distance. Groves of deciduous trees alternating with groves of evergreen trees created an effect where the bare trees looked like clouds of smoke hovering above the evergreens.
I got back to the main trail, about a mile and a half from the car, around 3:30pm. Considering how nice of a day I had been given and how close my campsite was, I decided to go down a different fork to add an extra mile or two to the hike. This trail brought me down into a valley where I came across the most serene setting I could've hoped for. A river ran through this valley and the river banks provided a beautiful, flat spread of land to enjoy the river. I ate lunch here before packing it back out and down to the car.
Arriving back at my campsite around 5:00, I unpacked my gear and got organized for the evening. A friendly Arkansan walking around the campground loop noticed my "WARRRRRshington" license plate and struck up a conversation. She, along with many other folks I met at various campgrounds, spend their retirements bouncing around to national parks and other campgrounds 4-8 months out of the year. I'm about it! There was a new family that had pulled into the neighboring site with a first grader to whom I was apparently very approachable. He's from Greenwood Mississippi which he said I might "think it's a history place, but really it's our home." Due to a sliiiiiight lack of preparation, my dinner that night was a bit lacking. But sometimes on the road, an orange, a bag of caramel corn, and a couple of beers becomes a meal. I'm sure my friend Paul would agree with me.
From the park (Townsend, TN) I continued toward Washington, VA (colloquially, Little Washington) to stay a couple of nights with my Great Aunt and Uncle.
Keep on keepin' on, people!