28 Nov RV Diary: Touring Appalachia
Over the course of two months in late summer and early fall, we set off on the first major leg of the RV journey we’d spent so many months planning. And while most of our family and friends hear our new lifestyle and see visions of Yosemite, Utah, and California’s Highway 1, we chose not to go that route right away.
Instead, we set off from the familiarity of home in New England, meandered through the hills and farms of Pennsylvania and into the incredible natural environments of West Virginia, Kentucky. Tennessee, and North Carolina. Most of this time was spent in places often overlooked by hot-shot Instagram accounts and PTO opportunists. Although it seems to be known more for the backwoods hillbilly and moonshine stereotype than a destination to write home about, we found Appalachia to be stunningly beautiful, complex and thoroughly enjoyable.
From the solitude of Seneca Rocks in West Virginia to the hiking and climbing paradise of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, the world-class touring roads and waterfalls of Eastern Tennessee and the ultra-hip mountain city of Asheville, we constantly found new surprises and a love for Appalachia we won’t soon forget.
West Virginia & Kentucky
We started the trip by taking a full week off to move south along the central axis of West Virginia. We spent two frosty nights without hookups at Seneca Rocks, surrounded by towering cliffs. We spent our days on Appalachian ridgeline hikes that revealed views for miles, and our evenings bundled in sleeping bags in the Jeep, listening to Celtics playoff games on the radio with Grizzly curled at our feet, a confused but happy and tired very good boy.
From there, we took our rig at a snails pace up and down mountain passes and through towns where a stoplight would have seemed out of place. We saw sleepy manufacturing facilities and bustling gun ranges. After hours revving the engine up hills and low-gearing our way down the other side, we pulled into our next stop: the recreation hub of Summersville, West Virginia, home to the famous New River Gorge. Fun fact, the New River Gorge Bridge that crosses it is the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third highest in the United States.
Summersville was an ideal home for a couple more days of outdoor adventure. We hiked through lush rhododendrons and canoed on the serene Summersville Lake surrounded by cliffs, with no one else in sight.
For the home stretch our our days away from work, we hoofed it from Summersville to Red River Gorge, a rock-climbing mecca that deserves greater recognition beyond that passionate community. From our not-so-coincidentally chosen campground named Callie’s Lake, we spent the first day driving the park loop (after going through the super cool one-lane Nada Tunnel) with the dog, popping around for a handful of short hikes to various vistas.
Ready for a bigger adventure the next day without our low-ground-clearance canine companion, we did one of our favorite hikes of the year thus far: combining the Indian Staircase and Cloudsplitter trails into one epic hike that included lots of scrambling up sheer rock faces to enjoy stunning panoramas of the whole area. A couple of groups were actually hammock camping at the top. We can only imagine how great their sunrises and sunsets were!
The scariest part wasn’t the scrambling though – it was the amount of bear droppings (droppings seems quaint when talking about bears but hey, manners). We sang our way through the walk to announce ourselves to any bear in the area, and as a reward for our survival, we feasted on Miguel’s Pizza—a famous establishment where rock climbers tent camp behind the restaurant.
Then on to Tennessee
After a week-long stop in Chattanooga, we boogied out to the Easternmost parts of Tennessee, an area we didn’t know anything about. We had planned it based on word of mouth from once-met friends who themselves were relying on word of mouth. But they were very right to recommend it, and we got to meet up with them in the area!
We loved our time at the Cherohala Mountain Trail Campground in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Tellico Plains is a true hidden gem, mostly visited by bikers who want to tackle some of the windiest mountain roads in the country, such as the Tail of the Dragon. There are waterfalls and swimming holes everywhere you look (and hike) and the campground owners at CMTC, Kelly and Wayne, treated us like family. They loved Grizzly from the start and gifted him his new favorite snack, yak cheese—despite his neuroticism and obvious desire to snack on their chickens.
We jumped in some of the coldest water we’ve come across (since Aidan jumped in Lake Ontario in February…) to “freshen up” after great day hikes in the Nantahala Forest. Aidan and Grizzly took the Jeep for an afternoon of boy time and went off-roading along the rivers near Indian Boundary (at one point, way way too off-road and had to back up in a straight line across a narrow creek—eep). We saw an elite sunset at the top of Buck Bald and enjoyed great food, drinks, and chats with locals on the patio at Iron Works more than once. We felt for the first time since our college days in Massachusetts that we were getting the full fall foliage. experience.
North Carolina Next
After two great weeks, we packed up and scooted out to Asheville to visit Aidan’s Mom. Even better, we got to travel the length of North Carolina’s most expensive highway. No, not the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s The Cherohala Skyway, which extends 42 miles east from Tellico Plains across the mountains and into North Carolina, and which cost $3 million per mile to build. This was an awesome drive with nonstop views that had us going up in elevation for nearly an hour straight. Nothing makes Aidan happier than when the most scenic route is also the fastest route. Even better when that road leads to his Mama’s house!
We could write a whole post about our three weeks in Asheville, but we might move there someday and want to help keep it a somewhat-hidden secret. Don’t go there—it stinks! 😉
The Unavoidable Election Backdrop
Touring Appalachia in the weeks leading up to the election, we were exposed to regional politics simply by driving through towns. Seeing so many Trump signs— many on shiny trucks parked in front of dilapidated homes—was eye-opening. Seeing so many confederate flags, or “stars and bars” as they’re commonly referred to around those parts, wasn’t surprising based on the reputation, but it was unsettling regardless.
A personal note from Caroline: In the weeks leading up to the election, while I was volunteering with a group called Nomadic Activists, I exchanged Instagram messages with multiple Black and LGBTQ RVers who avoid Appalachia and the south, aside from some urban areas, for their safety. Regardless of your politics, it’s important to understand that there are still huge swaths of the country that don’t feel welcoming or safe to a lot of people. There were many towns we drove through that had me saying out loud, “I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be here as a non-white person.”
Despite all of the angry, hateful signs and bumper stickers we saw driving through Appalachia, we had lovely interactions with most of the strangers we met at campgrounds. It’s as if the people were completely separate from their signage.
In the beautiful James County Park campground where we stayed in Charleston (with the Festival of Lights blinking all around us!), we saw a brand new Jeep truck parked in front of a brand new Winnebago motorhome with a plaque across the back that read:
“PROUDLY BURNING THE GAS YOUR ELECTRIC CAR IS SAVING”
The owner of that vehicle is surely repulsive, yes? Yet, it’s quite possible that we unknowingly met the owner of that vehicle while out walking the dog, had a nice chat, and shared a moment of recognition about how lovely everyone is in the south.
We often meet people away from their campsites and the messages they choose to display there, so we can connect without bias, purely as fellow campers. We can compliment each other’s dogs, swap travel stories and tips, and move along with the feeling in our hearts that most people are good.
At least when they’re camping, most people are good.
When we locked ourselves out of our RV in the lovely Sesquicentennial State Park (apparently we can lock our RV doors from the inside, open them, and they’ll lock behind us…) our campground neighbors let us use their phone and helped us get a ranger’s help, delaying their own departure and a long drive home.
When Caroline took a walk at Mama Gertie’s Hideaway in Asheville for some fresh air and a break from the TV the day after Election Day, she met a sweet older couple, both veterans, who told her fascinating stories about their time stationed as spies in Japan during the Vietnam War. They fondly recalled being embraced by the village where they were stationed; how hard they worked to learn the language and customs. “Because it’s all about respect there. We worked hard to learn their language so they fed us the best spaghetti we’ve ever had and helped us raise our babies.”
They remembered being embarrassed the night a fellow American troop in the village got caught killing a chicken for drunken entertainment. His punishment was reflective of the culture: He had to knock on every single door, with a police escort, and apologize to each person in the town for killing that chicken. And he had to pay a sizable fine calculated based on the potential lifetime worth of the chicken he killed—including the value of its hypothetical offspring. He paid something like $1,000 and lost all of his social capital for what would be considered pretty minor tomfoolery in most parts of America.
As we continued to swap stories, the couple never mentioning the extremely tense presidential election taking place. Maybe they didn’t care; they were happily retired. Or maybe their worldliness helped them put it all into perspective. We didn’t mention it, either.
At the campground, people just want to have a nice time.
Camping culture is gloriously simple. People sit around campfires together all day and all night; sometimes in silence, other times having a chat. Letting minutes and hours pass without a worry, and without the need to document the experience.
We’re not quite there yet; we’re still working and not on permanent vacation, after all. But we’re living more present, mindful, exciting lives than we were before. We feel more energized, do more healthy activities and go on many more adventures, and have short and sweet interactions with strangers—many of whom likely think and vote very differently—who are mostly kind and just want to have a nice time.
Making Sense of This Complex Nation
Now, we’re hunkered down in magical Beaufort, South Carolina for two weeks in the driveway of a dear family friend. The history of Beaufort and its role in the Civil War is so interesting. As a direct result of that history, this is one of the most diverse and integrated cities of its size in the country. And we’re looking forward to experiencing aspects of the Gullah culture while we’re here.
By learning as much as we can about the history of each place we visit, and by thinking about our country as many small countries forced to play together—like children who don’t have much in common but their parents are friends—it all makes a little more sense and feels a little less dire. Some of the divisiveness does come down to good and evil, but most of it comes down to history and culture. This is a nation of many histories and cultures lumped together, with lines that are visible when you live on the road.
And of course, just to shake up this philosophy as we try to make sense of it all, every singleplace we visit reveals paradoxical surprises.