Saturday, May 27, 2017

#27 Ride On Boat

I am sitting here watching A Perfect Storm, a favorite of mine, for at least the 100th time. It is a true story about a horrible tragedy, but the passion these people had, their romances with maritime life and all of it's endeavors, I can understand fully. There is something so fascinating about coasting through bodies of water on a sailing vessel. It can be so relaxing and serene. Why?

Maybe it is the sky touching the water. Maybe it is the sound of water meeting boat. Maybe it is breathing in the fresh air that hovers above the open water. Maybe it is the foamy, wild churn agitated by the propellers. Maybe it is surrendering yourself to both the calm and the hazard that is a body of water. Maybe it is all of this and then some.

Water Churn
Water churn

On a clear day you can see forever. This is my constant thought when I gaze out into a massive body of water. Nothing but water and sky forever. Is this what heaven looks like? For some, I am sure it is. Heaven on earth is all around us, we just have to see it. Believe it. I myself have glimpsed many illustrations of heaven on earth.

Cape May Sunset
Sunset in Cape May on a boat

I remember taking my kids on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry when they were younger. We would always make sure to take one of the last boats of the night back from Delaware to Jersey. Riding in a boat on the ocean at sunset is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring experiences one could have.

I used to ask them if they could hear the sun sizzle when it touched the water. We would stand there and listen intently. All we heard were waves but I swear in our minds that sizzle, though very faint, did resonate in our ears. We would stand by the railing, smiling in awe at all the pinks, blues, purples and greys that made up the forever of sunset skies.

Cape May Sunset
Sunset on a boat. 
We would bird watch. Seagulls had no qualms about coming aboard to rest their wings for a spell. We would search the waters for fish, dolphins, whales and sea monsters. Hey, they could exist. Maybe they are just shy. We tried not to mention Bruce. Only his closest friends  could call him Bruce though. To everyone else, his formal name was Jaws. Sometimes we would breach the subject of Bruce, but never for very long.

He was pretty scary and definitely non discriminating. He ate boats, people, holiday roasts, family pets, a lot of Quint's fishing gear, and an explosive tank. I am pretty sure he also ate both Chief Brody's and Matt Hooper's eye glasses but I have never received a definite confirmation on those casualties. Sighs! Poor Quint. Anyways, we tried to keep our boat rides a positive experience.

Cape May Dolphin Watch
Cape May Dolphin Watch
Sometimes there was a band playing on the boat. It was so much fun chilling on the water, listening to music, gazing out at the black ink  canvas that was now the Atlantic. When the midnight blue sky blanketed the vast ocean, it became the perfect setting for gazing up at the night sky treasures.

The view was as brilliant as a Jackson Pollack painting, splashed with bright stars and glowing planets and blinking lights from UFOs. Well they were probably airplanes but they could have been UFOs. I wasn't up there to see for myself so I cannot confirm nor deny what type of flying aircraft they were. I'm just guessing.
Honestly though, there was never anything basic about our little ferry rides between Cape May and Lewes. And while I haven't rode the ferry in about 8 years, I will get back there one day. Maybe I will take a day and spend it on the Ferry going back and forth and back and forth. Why not? It's 90 minutes one way. I can do a few rounds. I know I would love it. Add that to the list!

My kids on their first boat ride. 
I have had the pleasure of being on many boats in my life, not just ferries. I have yet to take an actual cruise but it is on the list. Of course it is. I did drive a boat for a short moment. My friend Chris let me drive his. Almost hit the bridge over the Susquehanna in Sunbury, PA, but I managed to get us through. I panicked. Chris did not. He never does.

I do have much respect for those that do drive the boats. It's not nearly as easy as driving a car. There is so much more involved. You can't just put on the brakes. There are unseen obstacles. There are depth concerns. There are many things that go into being a captain.

So to all the Captain Stubings out there, I salute you! And I thank you!

Our last outing on the Cape May Lewes Ferry. 2008

In closing, I believe everyone should take a boat ride at least once in their life. Doesn't have to be a cruise. It can be a ferry, a pontoon, a whale and dolphin watch, a row boat, a kayak, a yacht, a paddle boat. They all have their own unique charm to them. And if you can catch a sunrise or sunset on one of them then you will know exactly what I am saying here. All the better!

Jimmy Buffet Night on the Susquehanna. Chris is the captain but he left me drive the boat a little on this day. It's five o'clock somewhere for Jere, Chris and myself.

Jere and I partying on the boat.

We made some mean margaritas!


The view from the Staten Island Ferry.

Staten Island Ferry
Staten Island Ferry

  My favorite captain, Captain B and his youngest Caryn.

   Future Captain B in the making.

First Mate Rebecca
Ahoy Mateys! This ship is sailing........


Sunday, May 21, 2017

#454 Play In A Tournament

So, just like the golf tournament I wrote about previously, my place of employment was also having a softball tournament. Of course I signed up. I signed up to cheer for the team. LOL! However, so many people signed up to play softball that there were enough peeps for our facility to have several teams. The catch was, we all had to play.  My anxiety started hovering around level 2. I never played softball before in my life. Wiffle ball, yes. Kick ball, yes. Softball, no.

My sister was the all star softball player growing up. My brother was the all star baseball player growing up. My dad was a little league coach. Me, I won the first grade spelling bee. Ok, so I was the nerd of the family. Alicia and Billy got cleats. I got awards for essays. Alicia and Billy got gloves. I got invited to take the SATs when I was 12. Alicia's and Billy's teams went to baseball and softball playoffs. I kept the score logs for the junior high girls' basketball team.

Alicia and Billy played in district softball and baseball tournaments. I cheered for the junior high wrestlers in tournaments. Alicia and Billy saw their name in the newspaper for athletic achievements. I placed 2nd and 3rd in the state for articles/stories I wrote for my award winning junior high newspaper. Alicia and Billy got trophies. I got the Presidential Academic Achievement Award.

Junior High Days
I could dance. I could cheer. I could twirl a flag. I could run. That takes some athleticism. Actually, that takes a lot of athleticism. I just never played an actual "sport". As a kid, sometimes the boys in the hood would let me play wiffle ball in the street with them. I wasn't great at it but it was fun. Maybe some of that would come back to me. I mean, I couldn't be any worse at softball than I was at golf. Could I? ( Thankfully no.) I still sucked at softball, not gonna lie. I just didn't suck on the epic level that I did with golf.

I did put in a request to be on the non competitive team, if there was one, because I didn't want to hold anyone back. I also didn't want my teammates to be mad at me because I was not very good. Turns out, most of my peeps at USCS are damned good at softball so there was no "non competitive" team. But, the team I was placed on was absolutely awesome. They were all so cool, supportive, and way fun. My anxiety was gone as soon as we started our first game of the tourney. But, I will get back to that shortly. Let's talk some more about my brother and sister.

I told my sister I signed up to play softball because the golf tournament was a lot of fun and even more peeps were going to the softball tourney. I also confided in her that I was a little nervous and scared. She was very excited for me. She gave me tips and pointers. She dug out her gloves and insisted I wear her cleats because it was safer for me. She told me to have fun and not be scared. My sister was awesome, supportive and wonderful. My brother on the other hand, well, it went down like this.

My brother explaining softball to me.

Me: Visiting my parents and mentioning to them that I was playing softball next week.
My Brother (overhearing the conversation): " Please tell me you didn't join the work softball team. Please god tell me you didn't do that."
Me: "It's just a tournament. Kind of like the golf outing. It's not like we are playing a regular schedule."
My Brother: "Why Chrissy? Why do you keep hurting these people like this? I feel bad for them."
Bill Sr. laughing.
Me: "I don't think I will be as bad at softball as I was at golf."
My Brother: "I think you will be."
Me: "No BILL. I won't be as bad."
My Brother smirking: "Yea, okay."
Me: "Zip it!"
My Brother: "Chrissy, can you even swing a real baseball bat?"
Me: "I don't know. We can find out. Get me one and I'll swing it at you!"
My Brother: "I would knock you out before you even had a chance to swing that bat."
Me: "Whatever Bill."
Billy then spent the next 30 minutes telling my dad and I stories about how much fun he had on his softball teams. I wanted to have that fun too! I told him so.
My Brother: "Yea, okay. It is fun. You will have fun. Just don't get cracked in the face by a line drive or anything."
Me (wincing because knowing my luck, that will happen.) " I'll duck or fall to the ground or something." 
A few minutes later my brother returns with one of his gloves. I didn't even ask him for one. He was being nice to me. Wow! He told me to use that glove to play. He also told me to catch the ball with the glove and not with my head. His finals words to me......
My Brother: "If you ruin or lose my glove, I will find you. I will hunt you down and you will pay."

My brother explaining the rules of his glove.

Talks of hunting partings and pending death soon subsided as Saturday, September 17th fast approached. The tournament was slated to start at 10 am. Schultzie and I headed down to Allentown to meet up with our other work peeps. I bought two cans of Vanilla Bean Monster drinks hoping they would keep me energized. I never had them before. I was hoping they would work. I drank one on the way down. My right eye started twitching and I had the steering wheel in a death grip to prevent me from waving my hands in the air like I just don't care. Yep, they work.

I also brought the vodka mini bar with me but I was by no means planning on getting blasted like I did at golf. Number #1, I drove this time. Number #2, the vodka was mostly for pain management. I remembered to bring ibuprofen as well. I have never played in a tournament like this before so I had no clue how long we would be here or how many games we would play. I was afraid I would get excruciating pains like I did with golf. I was terrified actually. I still cringe thinking of the pain in my lower arms and wrists the day after golfing.

We arrived to the park. Ed greeted Cindy and me. He suggested I move my car all the way down the block by his car in case there were any fly balls. I was parked right next to two fields. Good thinking! I do have a warranty on my car as well as full coverage but why even put myself through the possible hassle of a smashed windshield or window right? I totally moved my car. Cindy and I walked the five miles back to the field and set up our chairs.

I noticed a few of my peeps were tossing softballs around, practicing. I figured now was as good a time as any to showcase my shitty ball throwing skills to my potential teammates. I picked up a ball.  It was smaller, like a regular baseball. I thought were were playing with big softballs. Guess not. I started playing catch with Joe, Jeannine, Mare, Artie and Cindy. I definitely could not throw very far but I also wasn't horrible. My aim was pretty good too. I was able to catch a lot of the balls thrown at me so that was also bonus. I was already doing way better than golf and the games didn't even start yet. My anxiety was slowly decreasing.

Larry arrived with all the gear and apparel. We were given really nice burgundy and white baseball shirts to wear. They said "Hazleton" because, that is where we are from. Hazy in the house yo! Better watch yourself! I got to pick the color of the hats for my team. I picked white hats so we could all be white hats for the day. (It's a work thing.) As more people arrived and game time approached, I decided to have one of the mini bottles of vodka. I gave one to my gorgeous girl Alicia, whom I was incredibly happy to see. I missed her face at work. It was so awesome to spend time with her. I also gave a bottle to another beauty, my co-worker Steph.

It was now tee time. Just kidding. It was time for the first pitches of the tournament. We were split up into our respective teams. Our facility had three teams playing in the tourney. My team was going to play on the field at the far end of the complex. We were playing against the Quakertown facility. We packed up our drinks and made our way to the field. It was kind of warm already. Not 90+ degree, threshold of hell warm like the golf outing but it felt like it was going to be in the high 70's, low 80's. I was eyeballing the free beverage table to make sure there was enough beverages to quench my constant thirst. There was thank goodness.

I need my beverages!
As we arrived at the field, I told my fellow teammates that if there were too many people and not enough positions, I would be okay sitting out since I was not that good. My teammate Kelvin said no way. I was a member of this team and they wanted me to play. I was going to be the catcher. I felt so happy. I was so honored. I was going to be Gary Carter for my team. I was gonna make them so proud in
Wait for it.....
Wait for it.....
Anxiety level 70000. Oh my god!! I was going to be Gary Carter for my team? There had to be a mistake.

Gary Carter is a legend. Gary Carter was really, really, realllllly good at baseball. I can't be Gary Carter. I'm nowhere even remotely on the level with Gary Carter. Gary Carter had extensive baseball knowledge, athleticism and talent. I personally saw his plaque hanging in the Baseball HOF. It was on the wall. I took a freakin picture of it!! I gazed at it in awe and amazement. I mean it was Gary Carter, all star catcher for the 1986 World Champion Mets!

I didn't even know what a softball was supposed to look like. I was walking around earlier in the morning with my brother's baseball glove on the wrong hand for Christ's sake. I was a speck of dust on Gary Carter's cleats. As a matter of fact, I should not even be using my name and Gary Carter's name in the same sentence. It was sacrilegious. WTF is wrong with me?

Ed's typical reaction to me.
Panicked, I run over to Cindy and Ed. I announce that I am going to be the catcher and I have no clue how to be a catcher. I did not even have a catcher's glove. This was bad. This was epic failure. We were so much going to lose because of me! Laughing, they both reassured me that catching in a softball tourney is not the same as catching in a major league baseball game. But Gary Carter had to catch all those foul balls and he got knocked over a lot guarding home plate. What if someone has to throw a ball to home plate? Ed laughed and said to stay out of the way of the pitcher. I looked at him like he had two heads. I do that a lot. I ask him why? He said the pitcher will run to home plate and catch the ball.

Okay but what if the pitcher catches the batter's ball but there is a runner at third base coming to home plate and the pitcher has to throw the ball to me? Ed's reply was that I should try to catch the ball. I think the color left my face because he stated that there were enough basemen around to help me catch balls at home plate. If I see them coming, stay out of their way and let them do their thing. He was right. I needed to calm down. I always do this stuff to myself. If the pitcher throws the ball and I miss it, the Earth will still rotate around the sun and we will all live to see another day. Chill the F@CK out Chrissy!

Gary Carter
Freakin' awesome. Still get the chills!

Gary Carter
What a great pitcher catcher combo back in the day.

Dykstra Gooden Strawberry
Sighs. I liked the bad boys at an early age I guess.

We take our positions. I crouch down behind home plate like Gary Carter used to when he played for the World Champion New York Mets. We won't get into his Montreal Expos stint. I'm definitely going to achieve a personal best for squats today I thought. I was kind of excited for that. As for the rules of home plate, if the ball touches home plate at all it is an automatic strike. Each batter also starts with one strike already against them. I guess it helps move the tournament along faster.

Our opponents strike out pretty fast. Yep. The rules definitely helped move things along pretty fast. It was our turn to bat but the other team did not have enough gloves. Someone on my team picked up my brother's glove and was going to hand it to one of our opponents. I had a mini heart attack. You see, my brother was really, really being nice to me because he gave me his best, most favorite glove to use. That is why he threatened to end my life if it got lost or ruined. His name was not on the glove and I did not study the glove enough to recognize it. I could not lose this glove. I did not want to die.

I get the glove back and put it by my purse. I turned my head for a moment and someone else picked up my brother's glove and handed it to someone. Oh my god. Please don't do this to me people. I really want to share but the consequences could be fatal for me. I have two kids in college that need their mother.

What my brother will do if I lose his glove.

I walked over to the guy who had been handed my brother's glove. He had really long, perfect dreads. I called him Troy Polamalu. Troy did not wear his hair in dreads, I know this, but this guy was very soft spoken like Troy, and had long black hair like Troy. He was also wearing black and yellow socks. The guy took the nickname as a compliment.

I explained the whole brother situation to him. I told him that he was the only one allowed to use the glove and that he must give it right back to me after each inning because I wanted to live. He laughed and said it was a deal. He promised to take good care of the glove. And he did! I sat on the bleachers watching my teammates at bat. Holy shit were they good. Kelvin, Rafael, Alex, Clay, Robert, Alex #2, even Ed, they were all knocking them way into the outfield. These guys were good. These guys were real good. The boys definitely came to play today.

Ed asking me why I was swinging at every ball.
When it came my turn to bat, I did not knock any balls into the outfield like my team mates did. But, I thrashed the hell out of the air not once but twice. For a moment there I thought I experienced zero gravity. Not really, I just struck out. It's okay. I was just warming up. The second inning went pretty fast too. I also tried to catch my first foul ball. Actually Ed saw the ball fly in the air. I thought it went into the outfield. (The sun was in my eyes.) All I heard was Ed yell, "FESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! Get the ball!!!!!" I start looking up into the sky, shoulders hunched up around my neck for fear of getting knocked in the head by the foul ball and proving my brother right.

As I was twirling around looking into the blinding sun above me for this damn ball, the umpire taps me on the shoulder. I spin around too quickly, almost tripping myself up and falling on my ass. I'm still all hunched up, paranoid that the ball is going to fall out of the sky and crack me in the head. The umpire smiles and hands me the ball. I give him a confused look. How did he get the ball I wondered? Turns out it fell to the ground behind me like five minutes ago. I smile and thank him for doing my job for me. He gets a laugh out of it. So do I. Making an ass out of myself isn't just a natural talent for me, it's a bona fide gift. I embraced and accepted it a long time ago.

By the fourth inning of the game, it has become a slaughter. We are killing the other team. The score was like 12-3. I finally hit my first ball too. It was a line drive but there wasn't much speed on it. I was actually shocked I hit it to be honest. It took me a moment to get my feet moving but when they started, I flew to first base. I was tagged out unfortunately. As we walked back to get our gloves to take the field again, a few of my teammates came over and commended me on my hustle. I was pretty fast for a little one.

I don't mean to brag but I did finish second in the 50 yard dash and third in the 100 yard dash in the fifth and sixth grade on track and field day. I got cute little red and white ribbons. In my sophomore year, my gym teacher recommended I join the track team but I worked full time. Plus, the girls on the high school track team were amazing. They were always making it to districts. I was fast but they were bionic. And forget long distance running. I had zero endurance. LOL.

In the fifth inning I realized that I was the only catcher that was crouching. The opponents' catcher was just standing behind the plate. I looked down to the other field. That catcher was also standing behind the plate. Perhaps I was taking this catcher thing too serious? I don't know. I decided to just own it for the rest of this game. Next game I wouldn't crouch as much. Maybe I would though. I was getting some serious leg work in. Hell, I was getting a total body workout. As I was pondering those thoughts, I got hit in the face with the ball.


Seriously?? Did that just happen for real? Fuuuudddgggeee! No one else seemed to notice because I was able to get my hand up to the ball before it smacked my face too hard. I think Ed saw it but that was it. It still hurt way worse than the crotch ball I took in the second inning. People did notice that hit. I blushed and laughed that one off. Anyways, I could feel my lip starting to throb and sting. I could hear my brother laughing in my head. My nose wasn't bleeding thank god but it hurt. This was all Billy's fault. He jinxed me. I shook it off but I also felt a very deep resentment towards my brother. Jerk!

On to the sixth. It was in the sixth inning that I had my one big play of the day. By now I was warmed up. I was laughing, screaming and having fun. We all were. Our opponents were awesome and hilarious. Ed was hanging from the fence managing the team like Davey Johnson. Schultzie and I both told him managing was in his blood. He couldn't help it. I still wasn't so hot at catching the ball but I was great at scrambling to pick them up off the ground.

The last batter of the game was at the plate. He smacked a foul ball into the air. I was able to keep my eye on it. My gloved hand was stretched as far as it could reach. As the ball was falling from the sky, I realized it was going to land right on my head. "Don't stand directly under it dork!" I scolded myself. I backed up slightly. I have got to catch at least one foul ball today or I totally failed as a catcher I tell myself. Why I decided to reach up and catch the ball with my bare hand was beyond me but it did it. I regretted it immediately. Holy F that hurt!!

I caught a ball!!

I heard Ed screaming in the background that I just caught that ball with my bare hand. I had a death grip on the ball, mostly because my hand really hurt. The shock was still reverberating down my fingers and into my arm. I did not want to drop the ball either. My teammates congratulated me as I stood frozen in shock behind home plate, the ball still in a death grip. I was completely dumbfounded because I actually caught a ball. It was great! I could not wait to tell my other peeps what happened. See, I'm not so bad at this. Just kidding. Yes I am.

We walked back down to the main field. There wasn't much down time though. We were slated to play one of our own teams next on the main field. Mare pitched for this Hazleton team. She was too cute standing up on the mound too. I was cheering for her but since we were supposed to be bitter rivals I informed her that I could not cheer for her too much. We both laughed. I still cheered for her though. How could I not cheer for my girl. She did awesome but our team ended up winning that game too.

This game went on a little longer because both teams were good. There were a lot of runs scored on both sides. I was starting to feel some fatigue. Thankfully, we were able to sit for a few minutes after this game while the other two games finished. The third Hazleton team made their way back to the main field. They had won too. We were playing them next. Wow! We are playing a lot of games. I had a feeling we were going to lose this one. I asked Cindy if she was good staying to watch all the games, even if we were eliminated, She said absolutely. She wanted to stay and watch too. At this time, I had no clue it was a double elimination tournament. I thought it was one and done.

Awesome players and team mates.

Our third game was slated to play on the field where we played our first game. We all walked back down. I brought two cans of diet coke with me. I'm glad I did because a stupid yellow jacket flew into my first open can. He wasn't coming back out either. I covered the can with a tissue and tossed it in the trash. I made sure to cover my second opened can with something so none of the flying bastards could ruin another refreshment on me. It was midday and the sun was hot. I needed my beverages.

Cindy had twisted her knee a little in the previous game so I agreed to be a pinch runner for her. She was good to play and bat, but didn't want to make her knee worse with running. I was excited for the opportunity. I couldn't hit a ball to save my life but Cindy could. I had a good shot of making it to a base with her batting. Teamwork people! It's a beautiful thing. I actually got to run a few times in this game. I only made it safe to first once but once is better than never right?

Hazleton representing.

As expected, our team got our asses handed to us. This Hazleton team was just too good. I'm not gonna lie, I was actually a little relieved we lost. I was losing steam fast. Cindy and I walked back to our chairs. They were cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill. I wasn't hungry yet though. I just wanted to sit. A couple of peeps sat with us. A couple of peeps went across the street to watch the game taking place on the third field.

I walked over for a few minutes to see what teams were playing over there. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Mare's team was playing. Hmmmmm. It dawned on me this was a double elimination tourney. I was not yet done playing softball. I was okay with that. I was getting one hell of a workout. I figured if I played in one softball tournament a week, not only would I be a skinny bitch but I would also be able to eat and drink anything I wanted. I began wondering if there were any softball leagues in my town for shitty players. Probably not huh? That sucks.

Now this I excel at! Napping!
Unfortunately, we sat in those chairs for almost two hours until we played again. It was beautiful and breezy. We were all chatting and having some laughs. But, my muscles had tensed up. I was starting to feel sore. Earlier in the day I was getting exhausted, but my body was so warmed up from being active that there really wasn't any soreness. There was now. I did not want to move at all. Mare's team had to be spent. They played like 5 or 6 games in a row. I got even more exhausted thinking about that.

I had hoped it would be Mare's team that would we would be playing but unfortunately it was not. I watched what happened in Mare's final game and my team was about to face it next. I can't really get into it too much but let's just say we were not thrilled to be playing this team. I took my place behind home plate. Didn't realize we were allowed to play with Sammy Sosa specials in this game. I mean, it was just a softball tournament right?

There was a lot of crying going on. LMAO!

It's not like the MLB Commissioner's trophy was being awarded to the tournament winner.  Sure there was some facility pride on the line but this was supposed to be a fun outing. And up until that very game, I had fun in every single game I played against each and every team I played. We laughed. We threw some playful smack talk around. We cheered when someone did something awesome at bat or on the field regardless of what team they were on.

This team was not only a complete buzzkill but they were making everyone's blood boil. The cheating, name calling and rule changes were unbelievable. I was so happy when the game was finally over. I could care less that our team lost. There were a few decent guys on the team that came over to shake hands but the rest of them were calling us names and yelling and screaming. Our undefeated Hazleton team had to play these guys next. This is where I am going to stop talking about the games.

My sister's cleats!
As for the next day, I was stiff, sore and walking funny, but it was nothing I couldn't handle. There were no excruciating pains like I had with golf. It was funny because Monday at work, we were all still walking all stiff and funny. Tuesday at work, we were all still walking stiff and funny. I was not alone in my soreness. It took me almost a week to recover but like I said, it wasn't even a bad pain. It was like a really good workout kind of discomfort.

In closing, I really enjoyed playing softball. I wore my sister's cleats and used my brother's glove. I got to experience part of what their childhood was like. I did it at the age of 43 but it was still awesome and special to me nonetheless. And despite the shit show that became the second half of the tournament, I would still play in it again. What I am really hoping is that we have a Hazleton only softball tournament. I think even more people would come because it would be local. But, I would still go to the one in Allentown again. I know what to expect now. We all did. I won't let anyone ruin my fun. And boy did I have fun!

"Crying? There is no crying in baseball.....or softball!"


Thursday, May 18, 2017

#293 Visit The Smoky Mountains Of Tenneesee

I have been following the news of the Smoky Mountain Wildfires with a heavy heart. It has been so devastating. 1000s of homes and business have been destroyed. So many families have lost everything they own, including their livelihood. 14 people were killed in those fires. Many more were injured. I have no idea how many animals perished in those wildfires fires nor do I want to know. So many animals were chased from their woodland homes and food sources by the hasty, wind driven flames. Acres upon acres of precious forestry has become scorched earth. The charred remains of this wicked fire will affect generations.

And here is where this story begins........

"Mom? Where does this road end?"
"I believe it ends in Tennessee."
This was one of the conversations my kids and I would have on the way to see their Grammom in Schuylkill Haven. We were driving I-81 south. The kids would always be like "Wow! This is a really long road."

I would tell my kids how after prom, when I was a senior in high school, a group of my friends were going to drive 81-South to Tennessee. I was invited along. My kids asked me if I had gone on the trip. I told them that I ended up going to Hershey Park with a few other friends instead because I knew Pop Pop, aka my dad, would not have been thrilled with an after prom jaunt to Tennessee. Their eyes would get wide, then they would laugh and say "Silly Pop Pop". They had no idea how much I tortured that man with my gypsy soul.

I informed my offspring that I still wanted to go on that trip. I still wanted to journey down 1-81 to see where this road ended. It almost haunted me. I thought about it many times while driving I-81 South. Then, in the summer of 2003, President George Bush started giving families an $800 tax refund check. We decided we were going to use our check to take a random family road trip to see where I-81 ended in Tennessee. I was about to make a dream, reality. We packed up the kids and off we went.

The sage words Pop Pop, aka my dad gave me before our trip, "Don't speed. They don't like Yankees in the South." Ironically, he gave me that identical advice before I headed down to NOLA 7 years later in 2010. Thanks dad. You don't sound at all like your dad, aka my GP. Hahahaha!

He wasn't completely wrong though. Most of the people in the South I came in contact with were not only very nice and really cool but, they were also more fascinated with my accent than whether I was a Blue Coat or a Grey Coat. However, there were a few that were rude to me as soon as they heard me speak. Whatever. The war ended like 140+ years ago. Let it go.

Back to my plan. We decided to leave at midnight. We figured on arriving in Tennessee around breakfast time. I had my big 50 state atlas book with me because GPS was still pretty non existent. I also brought my police scanner. We were able to hook it up to the car which was pretty cool. I remember when we were crossing the Potomac River, this weird, evangelical show started coming over the channels of my police scanner. It was very 1970's. There was organ music playing in the background as a soft spoken guy talked about people. It faded in and out for about five minutes before it was gone. Creeped me out a little. Not gonna lie. What were we getting ourselves into I thought?

Thankfully I did do some research prior to the night we left. I spoke with some people who had been to places in the South other than Florida. Almost everyone I spoke with that had been on this journey swore by Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. They told me I would not be sorry taking my family there. I told them nothing was set in stone. We were not 100% on where we were going but I was very appreciative of their advice.

Not going to lie, I was actually relieved to know this information. I was worried were were going to drive 11-12 hours only to find nothing, then have to turn around and come back home. Boy, was I wrong. Still, I figured we could stop at all the welcome areas to get brochures and coupon books filled with information on places to go and things to do. I was also nervous because we were certainly on a budget. We did not have much more than the $800 tax refund. We wanted fun but we also needed affordable.

It was the longest drive I has thus taken so far in my life at that point in time. Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia all had the same mountain scenery that Pennsylvania had. Of course I needed to remind myself were were driving along the Appalachian Mountain range so the scenery was going to be the same. I don't know why but some weird part of me expected to see palm trees. I laugh at that now but back then, I thought anything midway through Virginia had to have some palm trees. Wrong! There were no exotic animals along the roadside either. Just cows.

Once we hit Bristol Virginia I started to really get excited. This is the city that is in two states! This was the city of one of NASCAR's short tracks. (Back then I was still pretty big into NASCAR. Not anymore.) I believe I also saw the Burton brothers racing headquarters along I-81 South near Bristol. Not 100% sure it was them but it was definitely a famous NASCAR racing team's headquarters.

A view of the Little Pigeon River

We stopped at the Welcome Center once we entered Tennessee. I picked up a bunch of travel info and we headed to a Cracker Barrel for breakfast. (Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses are everywhere down there.) At breakfast we decided to definitely check out Pigeon Forge, then possibly head down to Chattanooga or back up to Knoxville. We hopped in the Chevy Lumina and continued to the end of 1-81 South. The kids and I celebrated! We did it! We drove to the end of I-81 South. And yes, it does end in Tennessee.

From I-81 South our journey took us onto I-40 West. From there, we drove into Pigeon Forge. We found a really cheap hotel in one of the travel mags called the Royal Inn for $29 a night. It had a pool and clean rooms. When we pulled up I realized it was pretty much a Days Inn. LOL! The owner of the hotel told us we came at the perfect time. It was the first week of off season. I was taken aback by that. It was only the middle of August. Up North, that was still prime time. The owner told me the kids went back to school last week, hence, it is now the off season. He also reminded me their tourist season starts a lot earlier than ours up North. Good point.

Royale with cheese.
We were all tired and needed a nap after our 11 hour drive. We headed to our room to sleep. I had only reserved one night because we were still not sure what our game plan would be. Once everyone was rested and ready to go explore, we hit the main drag. We drove down the strip through Pigeon Forge, into Gatlinburg.

We were honestly shocked and amazed at how much stuff there was to see and do here. There were restaurants, museums, outlet shops, miniature golf parks, theme parks, the aquarium, theaters, fireworks supermarkets. Yes, I said Fireworks Supermarkets! Let's light up some cannons and sparklers and shit!  Man, the south was cool! How come I had never heard of this gem of an area before the last few weeks???

Another view of the Little Pigeon River. So Pretty!
I am so sheltered, I laughed to myself. We had four days to vacation before we had to head back North. After very minimal discussion, we came to a family decision that we would like to spend all four days here. There was plenty to see and do, and gathering from the brochures and travel magazines I collected, we could definitely afford four days here. When we arrived back at the hotel, I booked our room for three more nights.

Here are some of the places we enjoyed in the Smokey Mountains.

1. The Great American Steak and Buffet Company
We decided to eat dinner at a place a friend of mine recommended. The Great American Steak and Buffet Company was owned by country singer Alan Jackson. And while I am definitely not a huge country music fan, I know who he is. I also find it ironic and very amusing that I am vacationing in an area which included a theater owned by the band Alabama and a theme park owned by Dolly Parton.

The state of Tennessee was the home of country music but this rocker chick was down with that. It wasn't like I had to listen to it. (Yes I did. Just about every store, restaurant and radio station played country music or religious music. I was also in the Bible belt.) The buffet was outstanding. For $14 they had all you can eat Prime Rib, NY Strips, ribs and fried chicken!! I think I may have sang a bar or two of a song that had "chicken fried" in it. I didn't even know I knew that song. This was so wrong. I was going to have to spend a week listening to Metallica, White Zombie and Tool, 24/7,  to cleanse the pallet.

2. Three Bears Gift Shop
Some of the items they were selling in these little souvenir shops around town were an absolute riot. You had the redneck switchblade which was made from a a clothespin, a rubber band and a Popsicle stick. There was also the redneck flashlight, which was made from a stick with a clothespin fastened to the end by a rubber band and a match inserted in the clothespin. The best were the redneck wind chimes. They were made from beer cans tied to a stick. These pics are similar to the little redneck gems we found in the shops


In the backyard of one souvenir shop, there was an actual moonshine shanty from the early 1900's. The original moonshine tanks were still there. A family of 8 once lived in the one room shack. It smelled awful. The kids and I wandered around the room, amazed that so many people lived in one room. I may have also though to myself, how did the mother not lose her freakin mind because if I had to be trapped 24/7 in the same room as my family, as much as I love them, I would have definitely packed my shit and moved into the coop with the chickens. Wouldn't have taken me long either. Maybe 48 hours but probably less.

The kicker of this 1900's moonshine shanty/home to a family of 8 was.....there was an actual drive thru window!! It was still there too. You could open and close it. I know because...I opened it and closed it. Customers would either walk up to the window or ride in on their horse drawn buggy's, knock on the window, and place their order. Only.... they weren't ordering no cheeseburgers and fries, they was getting their shine on. Whoa Nelly! I found this to be so cool and rather humorous.

3. Cooter's Place 
 Just the good ol' boys, never meaning no harm......

Cooter's Pace

Hmmmmm. An area which boasts of shanties, moonshine, country music and rednecks reminds me of a Dukes of Hazzard episode. If only there was a Dukes of Hazzard museum around here. That would be sweet. Well guess what? There is Dukes of Hazzard museum down there and it's called Cooter's  Place. We so much visited this redneck relic museum too. Ben Jones, the actor who player Cooter in the Dukes owned this little treasure on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. He had some of the real cars used in the series on display including Daisy Duke's White Jeep "Dixie", Roscoe P. Coltrane's police car, Cooter's tow truck and of course, one of the numerous the General Lees.

Me and The General Lee

Dixie and feeding pigeons, cuz it's Pigeon Forge.

We had a lot of fun looking at all the memorabilia displayed throughout Cooter's Place. All of this brought me right back to Friday nights when I was a kid. My siblings and I loved watching the adventures of Uncle Jesse and his nephews, Bo and Luke Duke. They had a such a knack for pissing the living hell out of Boss Hogg and his deputies. I loved Roscoe's little basset hound too. Too cute! It really was so great growing up in the 80's. Sighs. What happened to the world?

4. Ripley's Aquarium of The Smokies
Speaking of shows from the 80's, another great show was Ripley's Believe It Or Not. I used to catch that show all the time as a kid. Some of the stuff I saw on there was just crazy and downright freaky! I had no idea Ripley's had expanded into the aquarium business until we came to Tennessee. Of course we were going to visit. They had Jaws in there! Well not that Bruce but relatives of Bruce. 

Ripley's Aquarium
Ripley's Aquarium was amazing!

The aquarium was beautiful from the outside but was even better on the inside. It was less than half the size of the Baltimore Aquarium but I have never seen an aquarium with such amazingly crystal clear water. The tour guide informed us that this aquarium had a state of the art filtration system that was brought in from Japan. At the time, in 2003, this aquarium was the only aquarium in the United States using this Japanese system.

Sp many tropical beauties.
We were able to walk through a clear glass tunnel under the large great white tank. I remember looking up and seeing the Great White swimming right above my head. His many, many teeth were razor sharp and his belly, pure white. He was scary as hell but a very beautiful creature nonetheless. We stood under the tank in awe for a long time just watching him swim around us.

As we continued through the tunnel, we came upon many tanks and displays holding huge, willowy Man O War jellyfish, adorable glow in the dark sea horses and tons of tropical fish. My pictures do none of it justice.The glow in the dark sea horses were so pretty and teeny. They were so cute.

We headed over to the interactive part of the aquarium next. Heather was able to pet a baby manta ray in the petting tank. We had to be cautious though because they also had baby sharks swimming around in the petting tank,  which I found to be kind of odd and dangerous. The baby sharks were adorable, I must admit, but their mouths were still full of razor blade teeth. Baby or not, you still needed to be very careful.

Another awesome part of the interactive center was the traveling Titanic Expo. This expo was very informative and really cool. There were portholes we could peer through that showed what the iceberg looked like rubbing against the ship. They had a replica of the bell used to warn of oncoming icebergs. Ringing it gave me the chills. They had charts and maps explaining the depths of the ocean and where the pieces of the Titanic landed on the ocean floor. They had replications of the china and decor that graced this magnificent ship. What affected me the most though, in this amazing exhibit, was the simple water display.

Having fun in the interactive area.
The exhibit had this tank of water with portholes for everyone to place their hand inside. The water was chilled to the exact degree of the the ocean's temperature the night the Titanic sunk. I knew it was going to be cold but when I stuck my hand into that water it literally took my breath away. It was the coldest water I had ever felt. All I could think about was how those people must have suffered, entering the painfully freezing abyss of the Northern Atlantic. So devastating.To this day I remember this exhibit very clearly.

5. The Old Mill Square
The Old Mill Square includes a restaurant and quaint little shops. We did not have a chance to dine at the restaurant, but we did visit the stores and walk the grounds. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The Old Mill itself was built in 1830 to damn the Little Pigeon River. It still functions to this day. We stopped and watched the the mill wheel spin as the water spilled over the damn. It was very relaxing and peaceful. 

Little Pigeon River
The Old Mill, Little Pigeon River

Pigeon Forge
The Old Mill. Pigeon Forge
The grounds were filled with planters and flowers. They were so pretty and colorful. We sampled chocolate covered cherries and marshmallows from the candy store. I bought a few syrups and jams from the Ole Country Store. It was my first time trying both elderberry and gooseberry jams. Both jams had an incredible flavor. Perfect to spread over buttered toast. You could easily spend a small fortune in these shops. Everything was so nice and unique. 

6. Pop's Catfish Shack
Fried catfish is huge in the Smokey Mountains. I mean HUGE! There were little restaurants and stands all over boasting of their fried catfish specials. And while I am not a huge catfish fan, when in Rome, you do want to try some local specialties and activities. I feel it really helps you genuinely connect with the area you are visiting.

We decided on Pop's because it was all you can eat for a great price. We also liked that they still fried their fish and chicken in the original little shack they started with many moons ago. They built the restaurant around the shack. The restaurant itself had wooden walls covered with license plates from all over the country. The kids were able to spot license plates from all 50 states on the walls. Yes, even Alaska and Hawaii were representing. I thought the whole license plate decor thing was great too because it kept them occupied. I knew were going to be there awhile.

Pop's Menu
You see, we ordered the all you can eat chicken and catfish combo. This combo came with fries, cole slaw, hush puppies, beans, corn muffins and scallions. That is a lot of food. And every person got their own servings! Holy Bargains Batman! When our server brought over the fried chicken and catfish baskets, I became a little apprehensive about trying the catfish. What if I did not like it? Sighs. I took a deep breath and shoved a bite of the breaded catfish strip into my mouth.

Oh.My.God. It was delicious. I have no idea what seasonings they used in their breading but it was both spicy and flavorful without overwhelming the taste of the catfish. The catfish was most definitely fresh. It was not "fishy." They fried everything in peanut oil which also made a huge difference in the flavor.  The chicken was even more amazing than the catfish. It was some of the best chicken I had ever tried. The hush puppies were out of this world! To this day, I have yet to find hush puppies that can even come close to comparing with Pop's. If you ever visit Pigeon Forge, this restaurant is my #1 must try recommendation. Very impressive!

7. Dinosaur Walk Museum
So, if there was an almost flop on this trip, the Dinosaur Walk Museum would be it. Do not get me wrong, they have exact replicas of dinosaurs that are truly lifelike and ginormous. But, the museum is very small, there were no interactive exhibits and it cost almost $40 per person for admission. We could not do both Dollywood and the Dinosaur Museum so we let the kids pick. My daughter absolutely loved dinosaurs. She had dinosaur books, encyclopedias, movies, documentaries, figurines and stuffed animals. The kid loved her dinosaurs. Ricky liked them too because his sister did.

Dinosaur Museum

I see you B.B.
The dinosaur museum won the vote. I will say it was 100% worth the price of admission just to see the kids faces as they looked at all the life-like dinosaurs. Again, this is a very nice, clean museum. The workers were very sweet and informative. The dinosaurs were way cool.

I just felt it was about $20 too much per person. If they had dinosaur rides then hell yes, $40 would be a deal. But, they did not have dinosaur rides. They may need to look into that. Maybe they could have a T-Rex puppet show or some dinosaurs follow you around trying to bite you or something too.

8. Downtown Gatlinburg and The Village
Downtown Gatlinburg reminds me so much of Jim Thorpe, PA. The streets are lined with specialty shops, art galleries, bakeries, wineries, restaurants and motels. Many of the buildings are made of brick, wood and stone. Little cobblestone sidewalks line some of the back streets. There are fountains and flowers everywhere. Trolleys shuttle people to and from different stops around the city for just 25 cents a ride. We definitely took advantage of the Trolleys. They were so much fun to ride and a nice break from walking everywhere in the August heat. I must say, Gatlinburg truly is a quaint, beautiful mountain town. 

Beautiful Shopping Area

The Village is a group of shops off of the main strip in Gatlinburg. Thomas Kinkade had a gallery in The Village with many of his paintings on display and for sale. It was so incredible to see his colorful work in person. His attention to detail was impeccable. In case you live under a rock and have no idea who he is, he was a painter from Northern California that specialized in nature and small town America paintings. Unfortunately he passed a few years ago, but his spirit will forever live on in his beautiful artwork. He truly was the "Painter of Light" and Gatlinburg was most definitely a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life.

The Village, Gatinburg, TN

The Village cottage shops were mostly comprised of European crafts and foods ranging from Celtic blankets, English baked goods, European cheeses, Scottish perfumes and lotions, to Irish pressed and dried flowers, British candles and European family crests. It was a little slice of Europe in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I bought a little ceramic beehive honey jar and honey candies from The Honey Pot as a memento from my Smoky Mountain trip. The honey candy tasted so soothing and sweet. I need to find more of it. I know a local farm stand in Drums, PA used to sell the candy as well.

Thomas Kinkade Gallery
At the Smoky Mountain Winery, I sampled a May Wine and I absolutely fell in love with the flavor. Never had I tried May wine before. Then again, back in 2003, I was mostly a non drinker. I did try a May Wine in NY a few years ago, and while it was very good, it did not compare to the May Wine from the Smoky Mountain Winery.

At the Pepper Palace we sampled some colorfully named hot sauces as well as some exotic jerky meat. Ostrich meat is actually really good. Tastes like turkey. We decided to pick up a few different jerkys to bring home including kangaroo jerky which is also really good. 

9. The Lodge Cast Iron Outlet and Mr. Gatti's
Sevierville is also part of the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg Area. In fact, to get to the other two towns, you have to hop on the Dolly Parton Expressway in Sevierville. Sevierville had some cool shops and restaurants as well including the Lodge Cast Iron Outlet Store. That was also a must do for me!

I love cooking with cast iron. And while I do not cook with it as much as I used to, there is nothing that can compare to an aged, seasoned cast iron skillet cooking food over an open fire. The food just tastes better. The Lodge Outlet was a cast iron cookware lover's dream. I picked up a few unique pieces from the outlet to add to my collection.

Mr. Gatti's is like the Chuck E Cheese of the South? I guess it is. For their lunch special of $20, we were able to eat at the all you can eat pizza, pasta and salad buffet plus, the kids got $5.00 in tokens to share. This was 13 years ago so I am not sure what the price would be now, but for us, it was a steal. The pizza wasn't bad. It wasn't Northern pizza by any means, not even close, but it wasn't as bad as I heard Southern pizza could be. It reminded me of  Dr. Oetker frozen pizza which I actually do like. Hey, for $20 I wasn't going to complain.

10. Pigeon Forge Factory Outlet Mall & Tanger Outlet Centers in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge.
These outlets were huge, with tons of stores. We hit quite a few of them. I was able to buy the kids most of their school clothes and supplies from these outlet stores which was very awesome!

11. The Incredible Christmas Place 
Christmas is kind of a big deal in this neck of the woods. There were quite a few Christmas shops in the area but The Incredible Christmas Place was the place to be! This store was HUGE! Seriously. It was the size of a hotel! It could have been Santa's headquarters for all I knew. It was literally head to toe Christmas on both the outside and the inside. They had every single theme and every color ornament, light and garland you could imagine. Tons of little toy trains were steaming around on tracks located throughout the entire store. There had to be at least 60-70 decorated Christmas trees in that store. Unfortunately they do not permit picture taking in their store so no pictures for me. Denied!

Holy Christmas Stuff All Year Round

There were a few things we were were not able to do on our trip. We did not get a chance to visit Christus Gardens nor Dollywood. We did not get to visit the NASCAR Cafe nor Ober Gatlinburg either. It was too hot and a burn ban was in effect so we did not get to walk on any of the Smoky Mountain trails. However, we were able to do all the things we wanted to most so we were happy about that. We played mini golf, took a trolley ride and enjoyed the great foods and beautiful scenery of the Smoky Mountains.

As we packed up and headed back towards 1 -81 North, we made sure to stop at a Sonic Drive In before we left Tennessee. At that time, there weren't any up North. I remember walking into the kitchen of the Sonic because I thought you still had to walk in to place your order. All the employees were looking at me like WTF are you doing in here?? Duh! It's a Drive In. Say's so right on the sign. Lessons learned in life.

In closing, it's been 14 years since I visited the Smoky Mountains. I drove by it briefly on my way to New Orleans 7 years ago but haven't visited since 2003. Becky was there this past summer. She told me the attractions have probably tripled since my visit. One day I may visit again, but I have so many other places to see and adventures to experience on my list. I never say never though. What I do know is that the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee will always have a special place in my heart for it's beauty, nature, amazing food and affordability.


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