The text messages have been pouring into my inbox for a couple weeks now. My clan sending out ideas of how we might spend our vacation, suggestions swarming around my head like mosquitoes at a backyard BBQ. It’s been about five years since we all got together for a full-blown family vacation like this.
The great thing about this trip is that we will all be together.
The challenging thing about this trip is that we will all be together.
Together, we’ll have lazy mornings with coffee on the back deck. Conversations about whatever comes up. Incredible amounts of laughter. A 5-gazillion piece puzzle spread out like breadcrumbs on the floor. Moments in life that you can’t get any other way. I can’t wait until we get there.
Together, there will be a mixed group of adults, some of whom I’ve helped to raise, with all sorts of different ideas and preferences for how things get done. Some who like to sleep late. Some who must straighten the crooked picture by the fireplace. Some who like their coffee black, and some who like to ruin coffee with gargantuan amounts of condiments with exotic flavors.
This is us.
Vacations like this test your powers of negotiation. Personally, I think everyone should use Miracle Whip on their sandwich, but I also know that I am in the minority. I know going into this trip that we are divided. You mayo lovers can take a long walk off a short plank. This is the spirit of the family vacation.
We’re headed to the mountains of Tennessee. A cabin on a hillside not far from Gatlinburg.
The first order of business on the day of departure is to board Max for the week. I’ve never done this before, and as much as I want to bring him along, it just makes sense to leave him in other capable hands for the week. I washed him up good a few days before. I didn’t want the nice lady to think I was a horrible dog owner. So, this morning when I let him out to take care of business, he found something stinky to rub his neck in and he got in my truck smelling like rotten reptile bowels.
I’m headed north on the interstate when I get off on US 411. My kind of two-lane road. Forty years ago, when we lived in Cartersville, I practically lived on this stretch of highway. I was trying to finish up grad-school in Johnson City, Tennessee. For over a year, I traveled US 411 north on Mondays, and on Wednesday nights I’d make the run back home. About five hours both ways.
White, Georgia hasn’t changed much. The locals put an “s” on the end, as in, “I’ve got a brother that lives out in Whites.” This is the same thing my dad did with Kmart, which in his time was always known as Kmarts. White is where Beth got her very first teaching job at White Elementary. We were in Oklahoma City visiting her sister when the call came offering her the job. We had about 72 hours to beat it back to Georgia.
We’re making better time than I used to make back then. There’s a lot more passing lanes these days. Hickory Log. Fairmount. Chatsworth. A down-right pretty section of my home state with long valleys and the first signs of the Appalachians so close it feels like you could touch them out your window. Rich in the history of the Cherokee Indians.
Another hundred miles and we are strolling through Benton, Tennessee. I got a ticket one night in Benton. Speed trap town. I wasn’t speeding but I was tired and sleepy. I crossed the center line a couple of times when the blue lights came on. The nice officer made me stand with both feet together, close my eyes, and hold my arms straight out to my side. I was clean, but he still gave me a ticket.
US 411 takes you through Etowah, Tennessee and right on up into Maryville. You should always say the name of this town like you’re going to say Mary with a mouth full of marbles but leave out the “y” and know that “ville” is pronounced like “vull.”
I know you just tried to speak like you’re from Mairvull, Tennessee.
It’s not far and we are skirting the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest. I am in awe every time I wander into these hills. They may not be as grand as the Rockies, but they’re older and just as impressive in their own way. Undulating tree covered ridges running across the horizon. Offset in layers of green and blue and purple haze the further you look. Disappearing as Hwy 321 dips and winds down through the turns. Busting out in full view again whenever the road rolls out into the valley floor.
There’s a white wood-frame one-room church facing us in the turn ahead. The little sign says, “Entering Wears Valley.” And as if we stepped through an unseen curtain, the GPS screen on my dash goes black. Old fashioned directions get us the rest of the way.
Marshall and I get to the cabin first. Old men are wired to be an hour early. When the other two cars start checking in on their arrival time, we decide to meet up at a restaurant back down the road a piece. Nobody is exactly sure where anybody is, but how hard could it be to meet up?
For one thing, the restaurant is not where I thought it was. In fact, I’m not sure it even exists. I pull up to the traffic light at the main highway. Unknown to me, Eric and Laura are right next to me in the left turning lane at the same light. Eric sees the logo on my truck. So, when the light changes, he turns right from the left lane. He’s following and I don’t know it.
As it turns out, Brandon and Emily are in a side parking lot just around the corner waiting to get out on the highway. When we pass by, they see us, but I don’t see them. I’m not aware that there is an “us.” I turn into a drive where I think the restaurant is supposed to be and there’s nothing there but a carwash.
I stop to get my bearings. I see a car right behind me. Close. I mumble something about why that idiot behind me won’t just go around. There’s all kinds of room here. He doesn’t move, so I pull around to the left. He follows. I stop. He stops. I move. He moves. I gun it to get on out of his way.
Then there’s this white car behind him. It’s like we’re circling the wagons.
That’s when Marshall says, “Hey, that’s Laura and Eric behind us.”
Then, “And that’s Brandon and Emily behind them.”
So, here we are in Tennessee. Standing around in the car wash parking lot. Everyone made it in one piece.
Let the vacation begin.