Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Flashback Thursday | Gatlinburg Ramblings Part 1

We have loved traveling for as long as we have been together and I feel there have been many EPIC trips over the years.  Up until now, I have been posting "Throwback Thursday" pictures via Facebook with little insights into our travel past.  And then last week it came to me...what about "Throwback Thursday" articles?  I have wanted to write more, to fill the blog with interesting content, but have fallen short.  This idea could be part of the solution.

Though refreshing, these past 6 months in the cabin in the "middle of nowhere" Arizona have made it easy to drift back into the trap of the "daily grind".  Our lease ended the 30th of April and it appears we will be extending our stay here.  It was about a week ago, as we were coming up on this "deadline" to move on, I came across an article posted by The Big Blue Bus Tour.  Our lives seemed so parallel.  We were traveling and then we stopped.  Something remains unfulfilled.  And then, the day after reading the article Brian looked at me and said, "This 6 months was supposed to be about relaxing and regrouping and I feel neither".  I couldn't disagree with his statement.  I had been feeling the exact same way.  We we have decided we will stay a minimum of three more months.  This decision has been followed by a sense of peace and a renewed enthusiasm in the atmosphere.

The first year of our journey started on a whim and a prayer...and a bit of a dare.  There was some serious lack of preparation and excess "flying by the seat of our pants" going on, but we never gave up.  We kept moving forward.  Along the way we learned a lot and carved a new path for our mended family.  Now armed with experience and a renewed spirit we have begun planning our future.  Brian and I have spent a lot of time recently in deep discussion and brainstorm sessions trying to figure out "where do we go next"?  And I'm excited to say that there are some winning ideas in the works.  As I mentioned above, it is going to take us a few more months here to reach our goals to make this next step possible.  In the meanwhile, I intend to give the blog portion of G3W more attention and I think committing myself to a "Throwback Thursday" article will at the very least get me producing at least one written piece a week.  In addition, we have plans to visit a "bucket list" of places within a day's drive.

I think one of the things that motivates continued travel is the database of positive travel memories stored in your mind from previous trips.  I'm talking about that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia.  This Thursday's Throwback article is just that.  It was actually written July 2, 2010.  The day after it was experienced...captured there, in the moment.  We had been planning our trip to the Smokey Mountains all Summer...and had been training since Spring.  We were about to embark on a 6 day back country experience.  3 days on land and 3 days on water and all our gear on our backs.  This day included my first glimpse of the Great Smokey Mountains and their gateway town Gatlinburg.  We kept hand written journals for the duration of our trip.  This article is the first of many I hope to share.  Enjoy!
The Great Smokey Mountains

We didn't get into Gatlinburg until about 5pm leaving too little time to get into the first site on our itinerary before dark. Apparently the road to Fontana Lake from here is only 30 miles, but takes about 2 hrs to drive. Plus, we wanted to check out this cool little mountain town.
Smokey Moonshine Holler Distillery

We picked the Hampton Inn because it's a name we knew, reasonably priced, and always clean. Plus, the beds rock! Brian checked us in. He came out telling me he had secured a creekside room with a fireplace! I couldn't have been more excited! We parked and made our way up to our room to find a gorgeous view from our window. Literally dropping everything in our path and our door to our hotel room open we found ourselves drawn out to the patio. Feeling the breeze and a renewed energy, we both turned to go inside and a strong wind slammed the door shut. Brian reached for the door to was locked. LOCKED! We were locked on the balcony, the front door to the room wide open and all our valuables right in the path where we had dropped them when we entered the room and raced to the patio...including cell phones. We are on the 3rd floor. A three floor drop to a rock filled creek! Climbing down...out of the question. We looked at the open door of our room through the window...hoping for a by passer. We pounded on the door, tapped on the window...nothing. We could see the pool, but no one was swimming. We saw a passer by on the street, but she could not see us through the trees and probably thought she was hearing voices. We started to yell...HELLO! HELP! HELLO! To be perfectly honest...panic was starting to set in and irritation...and then the blame game began. I turned to Brian and snapped..."Did they tell you about this at Check In?" "Were you paying attention?". He responded just as irritated..."NO!". So I moved on to the hotel "They should have told us about this when you checked in!" "This is a safety hazard!" Anxiety attack begin now...3, 2, 1.

All of a sudden we hear a "Hello?!?" It's coming from the balcony below. A southern gentleman, about our parents' age was on the balcony below looking up. I think he thought at first we were goofing around...until he saw the look on our faces. He said he would call the front desk and disappeared from view and back into his room. We looked nervously down where he had been, every second feeling like forever, waiting for him to reappear. He popped his head back out and said "Someone will be up soon! Hang tight!" And we continued to wait!

About 10 mins later, a kid showed up with tools to let us back into our room. He had to use a tool to fix the lock to let us back into our room. As calmly as possible I asked if there was a manager on duty that we could speak with...he told us nonchalantly "tomorrow". TOMORROW!!!! In my mind this was unacceptable. I called the front desk and recounted our harrowing experience. The woman at the front desk was unsympathetic and said we could speak with a manager tomorrow.

At a dead end, we decided to ready ourselves for any evening out on the town. We walked the entire main street of Gatlinburg. We checked out every nook and cranny. We found ourselves in the Moonshine Holler nook. It's the home of the first legal Moonshine in Tennessee and their grand opening was last night. Free samples of straight Moonshine, as well as a little table set up with free samples of mixed drinks made with the Moonshine that got bigger and bigger as the evening progressed...and we got to know the bartenders better. Shout out to Jude and Marc Anthony the best bartenders in Gatlinburg!
There was indeed "free moonshine tasting"

There was also live music on almost every corner. The best Bluegrass band of the night was...Wherelse?!? Moonshine got it! The fiddler was straight out of an old time photo. Overalls and all! We shared a few stories, drinks and laughs with the fiddler while the band was packing up.
Lovely live music!

Not ready to move and a bit tipsy, we continued to sit on a bench in the "Holler". An older couple walking past asked if they could join us. We sat and talked for at least an hour. Brian and the husband, me and the wife talking about everything under the sun. We felt like we'd known them for years and that we were simply catching up since a previous another life maybe?
Our view from dinner

Then we were off again...on to dinner at 10:30 at night. We decided to try out Bubba Gump Shrimp. Great service...horrible food. We paid $50 for a meal we barely touched. And we were HUNGRY! Oh well...too tired to complain. We paid our bill and strolled back to our hotel. The air was clean, the night was clear and cool. Brian wrapped his arm around my shoulders keeping me warm as we walked.

Back in the room we collapsed into sweet sleep.

This morning I got up early and went down to speak with manager. Kudos to the sympathetic manager and our free stay last night at the Hampton Inn in Gatlinburg. Because he showed sincere concern for our experience on the balcony and comped our room we have already secured a reservation for when we get back from the wilderness!

A Year After Roosevelt

It's getting late here.  Truman fought sleep tonight and has taken to commandeering my laptop for his own personal use during his waking hours.  Recently, plans to write seem to get waylaid until he is asleep.  But I must write, as today is an important anniversary in our journey.  One year.  It's been one year since we walked away from our volunteer commitment with the US Forest Service, after just 6 weeks.  It left a deep wound in us and has taken this long to want to revisit our time there.  Looking back it feels like a series of bad decisions encouraged by string of misinformation...and maybe a little naivety and lack of research on our part.
Truman watching "How to Train Your Dragon" on my laptop for the millionth time.
From the time we left Pittsburgh until we arrived in Roosevelt, AZ we had been traveling in the pop up we purchased before we left.  Just $700 and paid in full, it had become our home.  The Arizona Spring was the perfect climate for living in such a way.  Warm days, cool evenings...the ability to leave all the windows open to reveal starry nights that rivaled Texas.  And the sunsets...just WOW!
Pop up-Sunset-Four Peaks
We first learned about camp hosting during our stay in Alabama.  The idea was sparked and we began looking into options for camp hosting.  This quickly led us to sites with information regarding volunteering with the US Parks and Forest Services.  And that's where our research stopped.  It was the best of both camping in exchange for giving back by acting as volunteers.  We submitted e-mails of interest with several locations throughout the western United States.

Our first call came from Northern California.  The Red Woods National Forest was looking for volunteers beginning in late June.  It was only mid March.  We submitted our application, but remained open to other options.  Approximately two weeks later we received a call from Roosevelt.  At the time we were camped in a place called Corney Lake, a primitive site near Bernice, Louisiana.  Corney Lake was tough.  It was cold and we were worn.  We had been using the opportunity to try out a solar panel battery combo Brian had built.  The weather was insufferable.  We were plagued with bitter cold temps, wind, and rain.  Truman maintained a wonderful temperament throughout and kept Brian and I grounded.
Corney Lake, Louisiana
We felt like our call from Roosevelt Lake was a bit of fate.  You see, Truman's middle name is Theodore in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.  Before Truman we were avid back country campers and hikers.  We enjoyed the national parks and forests, many of which were protected by legislation passed during Roosevelt's term.  In addition, this forest utilized solar power.  Brian's experience in building and maintaining solar made us a hot commodity.  They wanted his skills.  They needed his skills.  Flattery got them everywhere and we left Corney Lake the very next day to begin the 1200 mile journey to Arizona.
Solar Panel / Battery Combo aka Brian's Baby
But we couldn't have been more wrong.  In hindsight, this is where we made a serious error in judgment.  We should have resumed research and investigated reviews of volunteer experiences with the Tonto Basin National Forest (Roosevelt Lake).  It was only later we found blog articles recounting similar experiences to our own.

We arrived on April 1st, 2013.  The joke was on us, when we realized no one knew we were coming.  Our two points of contact were out of the office.  Oddly, this mattered little.  We were handed keys and advised to set up camp in the host site located in the camp ground named Schoolhouse.  This was followed by almost no interaction with the Forest Service for about a week.  During this time we made ourselves at home.  This included scrubbing and stocking the bathrooms.  It appeared it hadn't been done in months and since we had to use them, it was important they be usable.  When someone did finally arrive, we were scolded for doing so.  It seemed to go down hill from there.  

Our first glimpse of Roosevelt Lake
Part of our compensation was free camping which was to include power, water, and sewage.  We had usable water half the time and power arrived after 3 weeks in the form of a solar power trailer, not even strong enough to brew a pot of coffee.  We were continuing to feel pressure from Forest staff to purchase a camping vehicle with air conditioning and to move to a different camp ground with shore power.  Believe me, we weren't opposed to actual power, but we were a bit hesitant to move to a place were our view was a parking lot.  And I can't say we were comfortable with creating new debt by purchasing a camping vehicle with AC.
Schoolhouse Campsite
During this time Brian was working the equivalent of  a full time job and I was putting in close to 20 hours in the camp ground cleaning bathrooms, picking up litter, and monitoring campers.  While Truman and I were holding down the fort in camp, Brian was maintaining solar panels, mucking out pit toilets, collecting water samples, and riding co pilot for garbage duty.  In addition, we were given equipment to maintain the campground landscape.  Unfortunately, this equipment didn't work properly.  Before it was repaired, we were advised the department of corrections crew would complete the landscaping tasks.  To be honest, we really didn't give the landscaping another thought after that.

Then came the decision to purchase an RV for $1800.  The Executive was a 1977 luxury it's day.  But it needed a new brake master cylinder and only had one working air conditioning unit.  We figured it was still a steal of a deal.  And at the time we had  been considering staying with the Forest Volunteer Program through the summer giving us time to make the necessary repairs to get the vehicle road worthy.  What were we thinking...we were thinking it was getting hotter by the day, we had a toddler, and we needed air conditioning STAT.
The day we bought the RV (bird not included)
Driving The Executive was a challenge.  A brake master cylinder is to brakes what power steering is to steering.  I'm still grateful Brian was the one who drove from Mesa back to Roosevelt.

When we got her back to camp we found more issues.  The kitchen faucet needed replaced, it was out of propane (stove and oven inoperable), the generator didn't work, there was no water heater (and later when we were given a water heater we found there was no plumbing for it either).

Again, feeling pressured, we decided to move to the alternate camp site.  The one with shore power and consistent water.  The new site was in a campground just 6 miles away.  On the way, The Executive stalled and would not restart.  A fellow volunteer stopped to help.  It turned out the RV just needed some gas...$60 to be get it going again.  As a thank you, we bestowed upon this good Samaritan our beloved pop up (free of charge).

Brian continued his previous workload and I began maintaining bathrooms at our current location as well as our  previous campground.  And that is why we were surprised that less than a week after our move to the new site and less than 2 weeks after purchasing an RV to get us through our volunteering commitment that we were approached regarding our performance as volunteers...or lack their of.  We were told we were not doing what was required.  In fact, we were told we had done nothing.  When we listed what we were doing our "supervisor" said, "but you didn't complete the landscape tasks at the Schoolhouse campground".

This made both of us very angry.  So angry that we decided to break our commitment contract and leave the Forest the next day.  We weren't there because we were desperate, we were there because we wanted to be.  Because we loved our national recreation lands and we felt compelled to give something back.  We were left feeling deceived and discouraged.   It had not been the experience we had imagined.
What we'd imagined!
We wanted to make sure what happened with us did not happen to future volunteers.  Following the chain of command up to and including an in person meeting with the Forest Ranger, we placed our complaints and concerns out there.  All we received was an apology.  Over the next few months, multiple volunteers broke there commitments and moved on as well.  I can't help but wonder if we started a chain reaction.

After leaving the Forest, we moved into an RV resort located in the town of Roosevelt.  We may not have been desperate enough to stay with the Forest Service, but unfortunately our RV was not capable of traveling without major repairs.  In the end, we saved money and had more time for wandering after we parted ways with the the Forest Service.
See ya!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

In honor of the Pittsburgh Marathon

This was written back in April of 2007.  Life was different then.  Not better or worse, just different.  We were kid-less, working 9-5 jobs, happy hours on a whim.  Tears welled in my eyes as I read the words of my former self.  This part of my life I call RUNNING.  I feel so far from the person that wrote these words 7 years ago.  Wow...SEVEN years!  I am sharing this old piece in honor of those running the Pittsburgh Marathon today.  Enjoy!

Pirates 5K Home Run Challenge 2011

A little over a month ago I watched the movie "The Pursuit of Happyness!" I think it changed my definitely changed my perspective. In the movie, the main character Chris Gardner talks about Jefferson and his great work the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration, Jefferson writes of our inalienable, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness. I was one of those people waiting for happiness to be given to me (like on a silver platter sort of given). I kept waiting to be happy, waiting to be thin, waiting to be worry free, waiting...

It was then I realized HAPPINESS was something I had to pursue. It was in me. I was going to have to work for it. Make it happen. Baby steps...

I started with a new job. On March 26th, I started the first Monday thru Friday job I've had since 2000. It is the first job I've had in years that requires ONLY 40 hours a week. I am content being private, productive and collecting a bi-weekly paycheck. It is not my dream job, but it is what my husband calls "one of my life lesson jobs." This life lesson job includes learning everything I can about the current state of health care and insurance in America.

It is in this job that I met a friend. A real friend. One that knows what friendship truly is. It's been a rough year for friends. This is not a put down to the friends I have, but it is nice to know that once again swimming in the shark pool of corporate America I have a friend who has my back (this is to be continued in a different post). What I can say, is that this is a friend who wants friends that treat her as she treats them. This is a friend who understands that good friends do keep score. This is a friend who isn't afraid to call it like she sees it. I did not go into this job with expectations of finding friendship, but have found myself pleasantly surprised.

And this friend has led me to the part of my life I call RUNNING! On April 3, I began running with this friend an hour a day after work. We run 5 days a week. We run when it rains. We run when it snows. We run when it's cold. We put on our running shoes and leave the troubles of the day behind and RUN! This has made the rest of my life better. I leave the troubles of work at work. There are no troubles at home. I feel proud, motivated, and accomplished everyday!

Today I hit the one month mark! 963 minutes of running. For once, I am not passively running away from a problem, but running towards a goal with HAPPYNESS in my heart!

Originally written: April 27, 2007

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Tale of Two Restaurants

It's been a day of local restaurants, as varied in cuisine as experience and located just blocks apart. 

A non-typical Wednesday, I had taken on 2 clients.  The first job was in the town of Show Low from 7:30am to 8:30am and would allow Truman and I to be on time to play group at 10:00am.  We are rarely on time...(insert "anywhere" here). We had about an hour to kill between dropping off the kids at school and heading over to the McDonald's play land where play group is hosted by an organization called Healthy Steps. I decided to give operation "getting Truman's Passport Photo" another try.  We had tried unsuccessfully the day before.  It took the better part of an hour to capture an acceptable photo.  Then is was off to the post office to pick up a passport application.  Feeling accomplished (with both the application and photos in hand), we headed over to play group. 
Operation:  Truman's Passport

My experience with this type of socialization for Truman (and myself) has been a good choice.  I have made connections with some lovely moms raising some great kids.  It's becoming a bit of a standing "thing" to go to lunch at a local restaurant following play group instead of staying and eating McDonald's.  Today we decided on a place called Sweetheart's Cafe...because the menu has fries for the kids.  And yes, I know how funny that sounds.  
Photos snapped outside Sweetheart's Cafe
Sweetheart's Cafe is located on the main street of Show Low.  I was advised by the local moms that parking is in the rear.  I had idea such a cute little place existed behind these storefronts, which have their own sense of charm.  It made me pull out my camera and snap a few photos.  This back patio was actually the best part of the dining experience.  The menu looked decent. Today we had a party of 4 adults and 5 children.  The waitress advised us to seat ourselves.  Just like outside the inside had charm.  Tables lined with mismatched chairs and brightly painted wooden benches fills the small space.  We found a large booth in the corner that would accommodate our group.  When the waitress finally  approached the table she advised us they were out of kids menus.  Absent menus aside, we all decided fairly quickly...quite an accomplishment for our large party, and placed our orders.  I ordered the special, a spinach, feta, tomato omelet for myself and for Truman chicken fingers with fries (of course).  I then advised the other mom's I would be taking my over active toddler out to the patio until our orders arrived.  I ended up taking another little boy with me as well.  The more, the merrier.  The boys played and I snapped more photos.  Once a reasonable amount of time had passed we went in to check to see if our food had arrived.  Not yet.  And it was back to the patio to run off some more steam.  A little more time had passed.  We check inside again.  Still no food.  This pattern continued 3 times.  Close to an hour had passed at this point.  Trying for even the best behaved kids.  When the food finally arrived they were missing mine, Truman's and another child's meal.  The meal wasn't just delayed.  It had never been made.  It took an additional 30 minutes for our food to arrive.  By this time, Truman was beyond hungry and had moved to tired.  Nap Time imminent.  We were at the restaurant a total of 2 hours.  The food was mediocre and nothing was offered to compensate for the delay of the 3 meals.  They had forgotten to add our drinks to the receipt and I kindly, but forcefully mentioned that it would be best they simply waive the cost of the drinks for the inconvenience.  When one of the moms mentioned something while paying her bill at the register she was advised the new cook was at fault.  Irregardless the reason, that will probably be our first and last trip to Sweetheart's Cafe.
More photos from Sweetheart's patio

The day picked up momentum when I picked up my second client of the day at his elementary school in Snowflake.  Then it is back to Show Low to pick up the morning clients, now done with school.  An hour and a half of pure after school kid energy later and it's back in the car to Snowflake to drop of the last child with his brother.  These days are long.  I leave the house at 7:15am and usually don't make it home until 7:00pm.  Truman is always by my side and he is a super trooper toddler.  On long days it's hard to coordinate dinner and so it's nice to grab something take out.  A mom friend recommended Jalapeno's Cafe and I am so glad I stopped.  It is just blocks up the same road from Sweetheart's Cafe, but my experience could not have been more different.  
Think Chipotle, but privately owned with amazingly fresh options.  The owners serve on the line.  You can tell they are very proud of their business and their product.  The choices were abundant as were the portion sizes.  I will be getting at least 3 meals out of one of their burritos.  I had ordered one burrito for Brian and one for myself...we could have split one.   I also ordered beans for Truman and a side of chips and salsa for us all to share.  The total bill, just $20.65...and Truman ate his beans with cheese on the drive home with is hands.  Two thumbs up all around.
But it wasn't just the food.  It was the conversation with these proud business owners as they created the masterpieces that would be our dinner.  I am fascinated with people's "back stories".  And their's was no disappointment.  They love their business and have a vision for it's future.  They shared their dream.  A dream that includes selling their free standing restaurant and purchasing a food truck.  They hope to park that food truck at the docks up in coastal feed hungry fisherman coming off the ships after days at sea. I hope the Crabdree's reach that goal...and until then I hope that they continue to make delicious, affordable food right here in Show Low, AZ.