Here I am — day 2 of my North Carolina drive trip.  I am in Tennessee, heading to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, no schedule, no plan, 100 degrees outside and I’m cruising in my black Nissan Sentra!

I don’t like mountain driving so what the heck was I doing?  I live in California, have driven in California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah …. surely Tennessee can’t be that bad.   It was.  Getting to the National Park involved lots of ups and downs on steep highways.   I pulled off the road often to let cars pass.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

But again I wasn’t in a hurry and had no plan.

I spent the afternoon in the park, hiking and sightseeing in the town of Cherokee.  It’s home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Museum.   The  Museum is worth a trip!

It dispassionately presents the history of the Cherokee and offers something for children and adults.

My  next surprise drive through was Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  What a gorgeous town, even as it’s overrun with tourists.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Would I go back?  Absolutely.  it’s gorgeous, rustic and surrounded by the Smoky Mountains.  Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood (who knew?)  and I decided to go.  Except as I’m driving toward Dollywood, I hear storm warnings on the radio.  When I arrive at the park, the parking folks told me the park was closing because of the coming storms.

Disappointed?  Yup but I continued on, this time opting to drive on to Knoxville.  And the proverbial c**p hit the fan as I neared Knoxville.   The skies grew dark (really dark) and as I neared Knoxville, the wind picked up.  I had a great recommendation for a bbq place in Knoxville and was heading there.  Until I exited downtown Knoxville and tree limbs, leaves, and trash cans were blowing around.

Oh maybe I don’t need to drive around Knoxville, maybe I should I continue driving.  So I did.

The dark skies opened up and the downpour started.  It was more than a downpour, it was torrential rain along with thunder and lightning.  Lightning that hit trees on the side of the road and started a fire.  Yup, saw that.

Being headstrong, I planned to continue on but I could barely see 5 feet in front of my car.  When 5 truckers exited the highway at one time, I followed them.  If truckers weren’t willing to drive on, I certainly wasn’t.

Later I heard on the 10p news there were 2 deaths in the park due to flash flooding in the National Park and extensive damage in Knoxville from the severe storms.  The thought suddenly flashed in my mind — no one knows where I am!  It was probably time for me to head east and check in with family.

But first I enjoyed a bottle of wine.

Bodega Elena de Mendoza Malbec

Delicious!  Best $9 spent on wine.   It made sitting in my Motel 6 room pleasant.

I’d like to say I dutifully headed east to family.  Maybe next time.  While I did head east, I saw a brochure for Chimey Rock   and decided to detour.

Brochure of Chimney Rock

The 2.5 miles up the narrow winding mountain road to reach the park left me shaking in the knees.  My Sentra wasn’t meant to climb up steep hills even if I had the gas to the floor.  Fear of mountain driving exploded.

I spent the afternoon there for several reasons — the hiking and the views are magnificant!  And the elevator.  Yup, elevator!  A 26-story elevator built in the mountain!

 And, um, I wasn’t ready to drive down the mountain.  I needed to work up my courage and game plan because on the down I was on the outside.  Yeah, the side next to the cliff.

It took me 1/2-hour to get down and I drove in the middle of road most of the way down.  Yeah I need to work on this fear.  next trip

4th of July in Great Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park

My trip was starting out on a good note — I was upgraded to first class on my red eye to Dallas!  No food but I did get a chocolate chip cookie.  It’s the little things, I tell ya.

Dallas to Raleigh was uneventful and I was quickly on my way to Hertz.  I joined the Hertz frequent driver program through my American Express.  Supposedly there are perks?

Woohoo!  Perk I thought I had when I saw my name on the Hertz board, showing slot 8 was my pre-arranged rental.

Candy Apple Red Cadillac SLS

Dare I believe?  I was certain I had requested the smallest car but maybe this was a free upgrade?  I cautiously loaded my suitcase into the car and drove to the exit gate. ….. uh, yeah, according to Gate Guard Joe this wasn’t my car.

Back to Hertz counter where the Hertz agent and I chuckled heartily over the mix up before she gave me keys to my new rental.

Black Nissan Sentra – Back
Black Nissan Sentra – Front

What can I say?  It started, had AC (which became critical during the days of 104 degrees)  and four doors.  And Gate Guard Joe smiled and let me exit.

Then Spontaneous Me popped into my brain — instead of heading east to Wilmington, North Carolina and family, let’s head west to Asheville and the Great Smoky Mountains!!  Ok, I stopped at a McDonald’s to look up the route on my Galaxy phone (does anyone use this phone to make calls? Just askin’…) and make a hotel reservation in Asheville.

It was 4th of July and I was being independent!

But first I had to stop at a local produce stand and buy fruit.  It was a ritual for my father to stop and get cantaloupe or watermelon when we drove from Massachusetts to North Carolina every 4th of July.   That first watermelon always seemed to be the sweetest and juiciest.

Crappy photo of roadside produce stand

I picked up 1 medium size watermelon and was getting ready to pay until the woman said “watermelons 3/$5.”  Oh yeah, baby, come to mama!   3 for $5?  Watermelons are $6-$7 each here in Los Angeles.  I was done until I spied cantaloupes.  3/$5!   Blueberries 2 quarts/$5.

Which led me to Walmart.  I normally don’t travel with silverware or knives and shortly after I drove off, I realized I needed both in order to eat the watermelon or the cantaloupe!  With a $4.98 watermelon knife (yes a watermelon knife) and $.96 forks (yeah, spoons would’ve been better)

Detour over …. well not exactly!  This is North Carolina on 4th of July, after all.

Fireworks for Sale in Walmart Parking Lot

Not being a fan of fireworks, I bought the smallest package of sparklers they were selling.

Suddenly the sky darkened and the downpour started, accompanied by brilliant bolts of lightning and loud cracks of thunder.  Um, there are no photos of that because I couldn’t figure out my new camera…..

Westward!

Ashevill North Carolina is the gateway to the Smoky Mountains.   My hotel was less than 2 miles from downtown — an easy walk even in the heat.  As any small town, downtown was pedestrian-only because of a 4th of July festival and parade.

My best decision was to stop and buy wine from the local supermarket.  Because unknown to me, I was going to go through several dry counties!