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Archive for the ‘Vacations’ Category

A little over a year ago, almost all our family (Jake excepted) took a short vacation together.  Going on vacation all in the same car was something we thought we’d sworn off forever, but this was a quickly planned journey.

John’s uncle was sick, and he wasn’t getting better.  John felt strongly that we needed to get up to Baltimore to see him, and soon.  It turns out he was right.

We had a wonderful couple of visits with Uncle Boh.  He’d been in the hospital right before we arrived, and had to go back almost right after we left, but he was home while we were there, and we were able to share meals and conversation.  It was truly a blessing, as he died less than two weeks later.

We couldn’t burden Uncle Boh and Aunt Barbara with our company the entire time we were in town, obviously.  So we took the opportunity to see some sights.

Even when you’ve spent as much time visiting one place (Baltimore) as we have, there’s always something new to explore if you look! We visited Harpers Ferry, West Virginia one day and the Baltimore Museum of Art the other.

John and I had been to Harpers Ferry close to 30 years before, but I had only the vaguest memories of that rainy day visit.  We were blessed with incredible weather this trip, which made for some beautiful pictures that I am excited to share here.  Unfortunately, my waiting so long to memorialize this trip means that this post will be long on pictures and short on explanations.

If you’ve heard of Harpers Ferry at all, it will be in connection with John Brown and his failed attempt here to abolish slavery via armed insurrection.  You’ll learn plenty about those events if you visit.

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That, obviously, is the man himself!  Below you’ll see the building where he and his men holed up.

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Harpers Ferry is full of history with displays in several of the buildings on the main street.

There are also shops and restaurants to explore along the main thoroughfare and side streets.  Harpers Ferry is a stopping point along the Appalachian Trail so there is some serious hiking gear available.

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There’s an historic home to visit and a church (and the remains of a church) to investigate.

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Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, it’s also a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

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Looking back at this visit one year later, I still remember how beautiful everything was and how happy we were.  It was one of those perfect days.

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The next day we stuck closer to home base, and visited the Baltimore Museum of Art.  I can’t think why we’d never been there before.  It’s not because of the kids, because our kids like that kind of thing.

Here’s some of what we saw outside:

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Inside there were several sections to explore.  We saw sculptures and other three-dimensional expressions of art:

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The collection of the kind of paintings most people probably think of when they hear the words “art museum” was indeed impressive:

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But they also have interesting collections of art from Africa and Asia:

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They also had a great modern collection that we had to rush through because we were supposed to be somewhere.

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But that’s okay, because now I have a reason to go back there!

And don’t worry, we didn’t leave Baltimore without taking part in the essential summertime ritual:

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We’ve just returned from an epic weekend of graduation festivities as Teddy’s Notre Dame adventure has come to a close.  Four years flew by, as they are wont to do when you have kids, and it won’t be long before I’ll be writing a melancholy post about having a child leave the nest for good to start adult life very far away.

But I won’t go there today! This weekend was fun and I didn’t feel melancholy, or too stressed, or anxious, or any other way I expected to feel.  And I took lots of pictures!

We (and by “we” I mean me, John, Emily, William, and Lorelei) left Knoxville Thursday night and drove about halfway, stopping in Florence, Kentucky just outside Cincinnati.  This enabled us to get a (relatively) early start the next morning and make it to Notre Dame by around three, because Teddy had plans for John and me.

We left the “little people” (which is surely a ridiculous thing to call them at this point) with Emily, who took them out to eat at a conveniently located (actually in the parking lot of the hotel!) Asian restaurant and then to the hotel pool, and headed for campus, where one of Teddy’s favorite political science professors had invited him and other students to attend a Mass and reception.  This event was really for kids who were in a program that Teddy was not a part of, but it was lovely to start off the weekend with Mass in one of Notre Dame’s many beautiful residence hall chapels and then to meet some of his professors.

We didn’t get to stay long, though, because we had another event to attend.  This one was a party hosted by Scott Malpass, Notre Dame’s CIO, for students in a program he sponsors at the university.  These students were allowed to invite some of their friends, which was how we ended up at this utterly amazing party held downtown at Cafe Navarre.

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Alcohol of all kinds flowed freely, along with canapes, caviar, a raw bar, a full buffet dinner . . . y’all, it was insane.  Many people were having a VERY good time, and I enjoyed the people-watching and the music as well as the food.

Predictably, John and I tired of this before Teddy did, so we left him there and went back to the hotel, to get some sleep before the next full day of activities.

The next morning we were all invited to brunch at someone’s lake house, but I bowed out of that and Teddy took John, Jake, and Jessica (that’s Jake’s girlfriend–they had arrived late the night before and were crashing with Teddy at the house where he lived off campus with several friends).  The rest of us drove over to campus because Lorelei and William had never seen the place and I wanted to show them a couple of things.

We started at the Grotto, then walked up to the Basilica, made sure we saw the Golden Dome, and stopped by Teddy’s residence hall, Saint Edward’s (called Steds by the boys, and the oldest one on campus).  Then we took a short walk by one of the lakes.  Notre Dame’s campus is huge, so if you are ever up that way and have limited time to spend, those are the sights I recommend you see.  Of course, I took some pictures:

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Then it was back to the hotel to change clothes and meet up with the rest of our people and time for the serious stuff to begin.

First up was the Political Science Senior Recognition Ceremony.  Teddy is a Business School grad, but he double-majored in Finance and Poli Sci.  We enjoyed this relatively short and low-key ceremony, where we were encouraged to clap and walk down as close as we could get to take pictures.

From here we walked straight across the parking lot to the Joyce Center, where so many of the events that have made up our Notre Dame experiences have taken place.  We were attending the Baccalaureate Mass in the Purcell Pavilion, and we wanted to get there early enough to find a seat and avoid being placed in the overflow room.

We sat very high in the arena and had an hour to wait for Mass to begin. (There was a LOT of sitting and a LOT of waiting over this weekend, y’all!)  There was music to make it more bearable–throughout the weekend the musicians were amazing and added so much to the experience.

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There’s something special about attending Mass with thousands of other people.  And, as always, we ended by singing the Alma Mater.  I’ve said this before, but anyone you’ve ever heard complaining about Notre Dame’s lack of Catholic identity can’t have ever been there.

Next we attended a much-anticipated event:  a catered dinner in the vacant lot across from the row of house where Teddy and 15 of his friends spent their Senior year.  This event was planned by one of the mothers and many other families pitched in to help with the arrangements.  I’ve met some of the mothers before, and it was great to get to see them again.

All the family joined us for this celebration, as well as my friend Mary Jo, who was in town visiting family.  It was certainly a highlight of the weekend to catch up with her, and she came back to the hotel with us when the kids grew weary and wanted to leave (we left John and Jake and Jessica there with Teddy and they continued to have a great time!).

The threat of bad weather hung over the entire weekend, and it was raining pretty hard when we left the party (thankfully we had sprung for tents!).  The administration decided to delay the start time of the commencement ceremony the next morning, for which we were very grateful!

Because of tight security, we needed to arrive around 8 a.m. and wait in a VERY long line (it moved pretty quickly, though).  There were many items we were not allowed to bring inside, including umbrellas–but rain ponchos were provided! (It sprinkled at one point for maybe five minutes.)  Once inside and seated we had a long wait ahead but it wasn’t so bad as there was music and several screens with pictures of the graduates lining up outside the stadium.

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As is customary, the ceremony began with the academic procession, which took awhile as there were 2,081 graduates plus the faculty who had to get to their seats.  Here is a picture showing the Business School candidates starting to come in.

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The ceremony followed the usual predictable format for such events.  If you’ve ever been to one you don’t need a description.  I came expecting to be bored, to be honest.  But I was wrong–very wrong–and this turned out to be a highlight of the weekend for all of us.

It started with the introduction of Vice-President Pence, who was the Commencement speaker.  Around 100 kids stood up and quietly left the stadium as part of a previously planned protest.  This wasn’t a surprise to many people, including the administration, who had already indicated there would be no repercussions for those who chose to participate, but it was a surprise to me!

Before you ask, no, Teddy did not walk out.  And while I don’t have any issue with peaceful protests, I have a feeling Mr. Pence (who graciously took no notice of the protest and gave a largely unobjectionable, if unremarkable, speech) was more impacted by the other two speeches we heard than by the walkout.

The valedictory address was amazing.  What kind of bravery must it take for a 22-year-old to stand on the same stage with the man who may well be President one day and say, “Our generation must stand against the scapegoating of Muslims. Our concern for freedom of religion must mean freedom for all religions, not just our own, otherwise none of us is free. . . . If we are going to build walls between American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence . . . Our mission calls us to act on behalf of justice. It is precisely in response to the suffering of Syrian refugees, fleeing war, that the arms of Jesus outstretched on God Quad call for a courageous response.”

And then there were the words of Laetare medal winner Father Greg Boyle (who is a Jesuit so I already had a soft spot in my heart for him): “You go from here to dismantle the barriers that exclude.  And there’s only one way to do that: and that is to go where the joy is, which is at the margins, for if you stand at the margins, that’s the only way they’ll get erased, and you stand with the poor, and the powerless and the voiceless. You stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear, and you will go from here and have this exquisite privilege once in a while to be able to stand with the easily despised and the readily left out, with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, and with the disposable, so the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

We all felt blessed to have had the opportunity to hear such wisdom, and that’s what I am still thinking about days later.

One unfortunate consequence of the rain delay is that there was no time for lunch before the next and thankfully last event:  the Mendoza College of Business Diploma Ceremony, otherwise known as the ceremony that wouldn’t end.

Y’all, this is the one where they call out the names.  I don’t know how many names there were but it was a lot.  We were there for an hour waiting for it to begin on extremely uncomfortable bleachers, and then I think it was at least 2.5 hours before Teddy’s name was called and there were about an hour’s worth left to go.

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I felt rude but I couldn’t stand it.  I took Lorelei and William out and went to the student center and got them snacks and drinks.  Then I went back inside to watch Teddy walk out and then thank God in Heaven it was over and time to take pictures!

Teddy (and I) would have appreciated a more scenic background but we were pressed for time and there were members of our party for whom walking long distances is an issue.  Jake was like, “Here’s a nice tree.  Stand in front of it,” and we got the whole thing done in maybe five minutes.

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And now, AT LAST, it was dinner time!

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Y’all have heard of Studebakers, right?  My Uncle Charlie had one MANY years ago, as I recall.  Well, they were once manufactured in South Bend, and the guy who founded the company lived in this 40 room mansion.

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Only now it’s a restaurant–Tippecanoe Place–and I hope y’all will indulge me because I just couldn’t stop taking pictures:

I didn’t get any interior pictures except for the group shot below because it just seemed kind of awkward but it was as beautiful as you might imagine–grand staircases, marble fireplaces, fancy woodwork everywhere.  And the food largely lived up to the surroundings, as did the service.  It was the perfect special spot to end our celebration.

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Teddy (who I should tell you goes by Theo everywhere other than with family and old friends) graduated summa cum laude.  He received the Raymond P. Kent award for outstanding work in Finance courses.  He’s had a job lined up for months and will be heading to San Francisco in July to start work as an investment banking analyst.  As this chapter closes, a new adventure is just beginning for him.

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Our Notre Dame adventure is about to come to a close.  The day this is published, we will be in South Bend for Teddy’s graduation, and I’m sure there will be stories and adventures to share!

But before that, let’s go back to last February, to Junior Parents’ Weekend, which for some reason I did not write up at the time.

Many colleges have special weekends each year for families.  Spring Hill did, and I attended four Family Weekends, bringing along various family members each time.   Because Emily did not have a car and we had to pick her up for every vacation, our visits to Mobile were quite frequent, and we grew very familiar with and fond of the city.

Our Notre Dame experience has been different.  In contrast to the over 20 times one or the other of both of us drove back and forth to Mobile, we’ve been to Notre Dame maybe six times.

So JPW was a big deal.  It started off rockily, as we were a little late to the big dinner gathering Teddy’s friends and their families–three tables full of them, with Italian food served family style.

JPW 27JPW 28JPW 29 Afterwards, we headed to the Joyce Center for the Opening Gala, but we only milled around there for a bit because we were tired.

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The next morning we attended the Open House at the Business School (Teddy has double-majored in Political Science and Finance).

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We spent the rest of the day walking around campus and seeing sights.

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We’ve visited Notre Dame in summer, fall, and spring, and for this winter visit I was hoping to see some snow, but I suppose I should be grateful that it was unseasonably mild as you can see.

Notre Dame boasts its own art museum, the Snite Museum of Art.   We thought we were going in for a quick look but remained for some time, impressed by the size and quality of the collection.

Of course, I couldn’t pass up the chance to walk around one of the lakes with Teddy.

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There’s no such thing as a special weekend at a Catholic college without a special Mass, so next we headed back to the Joyce Center for Saturday evening services.

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Then it was just a short trip to another area of the building for the President’s Dinner.  Check out the Irish detailing on the dessert below!

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The REAL fun happened after the dinner and the speeches, when Teddy and a group of his friends hosted a party for us at one of their off-campus residences.  Some of dads in particular had a lot of fun reliving their misspent youths.  There was certainly much alcohol, and beer pong was played, but what I enjoyed much was talking to Teddy’s friends and renewing friendship with some of the moms I had met on my last visit.

It was a LATE night, and then there was brunch in the morning followed by the long drive home.  I can’t believe that it was more than a year ago already, but what is even more unbelievable is that Teddy’s four years at Notre Dame have gone by so quickly.

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We didn’t go anywhere for Spring Break this year, except to the zoo.  Today’s planned trip to Dollywood was canceled due to illness.  So I got to feeling nostalgic about last year’s Spring Break trip, which I had never gotten around to sharing here.

Because I’ve waited a year to write about this, the details of the trip are less than clear.  So I’m going to dump a LOT of pictures here, with less explanation than usual.  But let me start by saying that if you live in Knoxville, and you’ve never taken a trip to Chattanooga, you are missing out.  If you live farther away, it’s still worth the drive.  We only did about half of what we wanted to do last year–the children’s museum, the nature center, the art museum, and more all await another visit.

So one year ago yesterday we packed up and drove 90 miles to Chattanooga, where our accommodations were cheap and convenient and that’s the best that could be said about them.

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Clearly, Echo was not in favor of our leaving!

Tickets to local attractions are available at reduced prices online, so we were ready to get started as soon as we arrived.  We began at the bottom of Lookout Mountain and rode the Incline Railway to the top.

I’ve ridden this thing before, years and years ago, but the cars were more enclosed than they are now and the . . . STEEPNESS . . . did not register with me.  It registered with poor William, though, and he was not a fan.

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Once at the top, the first thing to do is marvel at the beautiful views, which are not in short supply on Lookout Mountain.

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We also got a look at the machinery that runs the Incline Railway.

Our first stop was Battles for Chattanooga, right down the street.  On our way we enjoyed the beautiful homes and gardens we passed.  We browsed the gift shop which is replete with Civil War memorabilia while we waited for the show to start.

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The show itself is a combination of film and one of those models of all the battlefields that lights up to illustrate the various campaigns.  You may have seen something similar in Gettysburg or Atlanta if you’ve been there.  This was the first time I’d been to this attraction, and it was very instructive and provided context for Point Park, our next stop.

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History, rock formations, and views are plentiful in Point Park, which charges a small entry fee on the honor system.  There’s a little self-guided museum, and miles of walking trails which I am hoping to return to explore one day.  Seriously, it’s so beautiful and you could spend an entire day right here.

We had other places to go, though, so we rode the Incline back down (William had to be very brave!) and drove the car back up so we could SEE ROCK CITY, just like the barns say.

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Rock City is an attraction that is hard to categorize.  The brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. Carter above, what began as an extension of the garden around their home is now a network of trails, massive rock formation, nerve-wracking bridges, breathtaking views, and more.

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Above you see a nice solid rock bridge and a swinging bridge.  Can you guess which one I walked across?

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I bet you guessed right! 🙂

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Directly above you’ll see a shot of Lovers’ Leap (with the waterfall turned green in honor of Saint Patrick!) and then what Rock City is probably most famous for: the view of seven states which strikes me as totally possible on a clear day.

There are some rare white fallow deer housed at Rock City.  I didn’t get a picture but you can see Lorelei and William looking at them below!

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The white deer are part of the fairy tale motif for which Rock City is known.  Gnomes are plentiful, and there’s a whole gallery of nursery rhyme scenes.

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At the conclusion of our Rock City adventure, we found a family-friendly Asian restaurant nearby before retreating to our lodgings to rest up for the next day’s activities.

We started the second day of our trip with another iconic Chattanooga attraction:  Ruby Falls.

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All I can say is that it’s a good thing God chose Leo Lambert and not me to discover His handiwork and reveal it to the masses.  The story of his harrowing crawl through the pitch-dark and tiny passageways is terrifying. Luckily we can experience the beauty of the caverns without doing that.  I’m just sharing a few pictures because even with an iPhone (WAY better than the Kodak with flip-flash I had the first time I visited almost 40 years ago!) it’s just hard to capture good images in the low light.

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With Ruby Falls behind us, we headed down Lookout Mountain and into downtown Chattanooga with the Tennessee Aquarium next on our agenda.  They’d added a whole new building since our last visit.  One building showcases freshwater and the other seawater creatures.

I’d give more info on these creatures if I could, but it’s been a year and my memory of what things are is hazy.  William would be able to tell me if I asked him–it’s fun to hear him announce the names of obscure animals without reading the informational placards.

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These guys I recognize and you will too.  There are many of them in the bayou area and it was fun to watch them.

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I love all the beautiful colors and patterns–living art.

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Water creatures share the Aquarium with some other wild things.  This was taken in the butterfly room, where if you are lucky you may find yourself a perch for several butterflies!

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And while penguins seem a bit out of place to me I’m not going to complain because look how cute they are.  We had a hard time dragging the kids away.

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These guys though–they are creepy.

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The other-worldly, ethereal beauty of jellyfish is always fascinating to me.

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And there were more to come, as the Aquarium is currently hosting an art exhibit with jellyfish and art inspired by them.

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I’m pretty sure my kids would name the Aquarium if you asked them which part of our visit to Chattanooga they enjoyed most.

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We were there until closing time and then we hit downtown to search for a William-approved restaurant (Genghis Grill) before heading back to the motel.  We squeezed a lot of fun into two days and I was just talking to John today about how much more there is to see and do in Chattanooga.  We will be back!

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To celebrate 30 years of couple-hood, John and I stole a weekend away in Gatlinburg.  Secure in the knowledge that Lorelei and William were in Emily’s capable hands, we headed South on Saturday afternoon.

We are so blessed to live so close to Gatlinburg, which feels like a getaway even though it takes less than an hour to get there.  After getting settled in our lodgings, we went out to explore.  Normally we stay more in the middle of town, but this time we were on the north end which gave us the opportunity to see something new (to us).

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There are several antique shops at the north end of town and both because of their location and the fact that we always have kids with us we’ve never set foot inside a single one.  American Sideshow Antiques was open and we enjoyed browsing through the eclectic wares and meeting Danny, the owner, who told us about his harrowing escape from the recent fires that devastated the area.  He shared with us the support of his regular customers from many states who have come to his aid by ordering from his shop from afar since the fire.  Having experienced similar kindnesses after our own fire, we were moved by his story.

And actually that’s why I’m writing this post, because in our many interactions with the people of Gatlinburg we discovered that businesses are suffering because of rumors that Gatlinburg was leveled by fire and that there is no reason to visit anymore.  This mistaken belief is causing more suffering to those who live and work in Gatlinburg, many who have already lost their homes and belongings.  Whenever possible, I donate money to fire victims–today I am donating my time and this space to convincing as many people as possible to visit Gatlinburg!

After the antique store, we headed to the Smoky Mountain Trout House, a Gatlinburg institution we had never tried before.   When we noticed that the upstairs was closed, the owner told us that he hadn’t needed that space since the fire because tourism is way down.  Let me tell you that people don’t know what they are missing, with super-fresh trout deboned right there at the table and big enough to cover the entire plate, along with the usual fixings.  We only barely managed to eat it all.

The next morning was cloudy but mild.  We enjoyed our motel’s ample free breakfast before setting out to walk along the Parkway.

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When I was a child, Gatlinburg shops consisted primarily of t-shirts and cheap, kitschy items, and if you went in one of them you’d pretty much seen all there was to see.  A lot has changed since then, with multiple outdoor malls showcasing a combination of local crafts and high quality mass-produced merchandise.  Window shopping is always fun, but if you want to buy something you can do it without breaking the budget! And if you don’t want to carry your haul around all day, many merchants will hold items for later pickup.

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Gatlinburg’s main strip was almost untouched by the fire.  There were two or three shops that remain closed, but most everything was in full swing.  I’ll be honest, though–we spent most of our money on alcohol. 🙂

One big change that has come to Gatlinburg in recent years is the proliferation of distilleries and tasting opportunities.  I believe this began with Ole Smoky Moonshine but they are no longer the only game in town.  We warmed up with two wineries, each of which allowed us to try two varieties for free.  But we were just getting started.

At Sugarlands Distilling Co. we learned that a new procedure for tasting has been put in place.  What used to be free now costs $5 per person, but you also get a $5 coupon good toward the purchase of any item in the store.  Since you are definitely going to want to buy some moonshine after you’ve tasted it, this is the cheapest drink in town.  Our bartender was Gyver, and he regaled us with jokes and creative shine recipes.  Gyver was one of many locals who lost his home and possessions in the fire.  He asked us to encourage anyone who wants to help fire victims to vacation in Gatlinburg.

We sampled 12 varieties at Sugarlands and used our coupons on hazelnut rum.

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Moving on down the road we ended up at Ole Smoky, where live music was in full swing.  We took a look at the product in process before heading in to sample the wares.

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D’Brickashawn was our bartender and he won us over by making fun of everyone who didn’t know what snow cream was.  Yes, there is snow cream flavored moonshine and along with blackberry that’s what we used our coupons for.  By now after 24 (small) samples I was a bit tipsy.  That facilitated bonding with our neighbors at the bar who told us that they were high school sweethearts reuniting for the first time in over twenty years.  Gatlinburg is very romantic!

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Our last stop was also Ole Smoky, at their whisky location on the other side of the road.  We got 13 samples there and took home a bottle of Tennessee Mud.  There is one more distillery in town but they weren’t open when we walked by.  That may have been for the best as each tasting was the equivalent of about 3-4 shots!

After more window shopping we walked back to the motel.   In the evening, we drove to The Peddler restaurant, one of the few old homegrown places left in town.  Because there was an hour wait, we went for a drive up the mountain to pass the time.  This is where you see the devastation wrought by the fire–burned foundation after burned foundation.  It’s unbelievable and heartbreaking.

We had a great dinner–worth the wait–and went back to the motel, enjoying the Winterfest lights along the way.

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It was back to Knoxville, reality, and hungry children the next morning but it’s nice to know that an inexpensive and fun weekend is always such a close drive away for us.

Now, you want to help the people of Gatlinburg, don’t you?  Here are two easy ways:  You can schedule a weekend getaway of your own–or a day trip if you are local!  Or you could share this post to let folks around the country know that Gatlinburg is open for business.

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I told y’all we’ve been traveling a lot lately–one trip each month since May–and last weekend was our October trip.  Thanks to the generosity of one of my oldest and dearest friends, we had tickets to the Notre Dame vs. USC game, so we headed up for some football and a visit with Teddy, who is a Junior now.

This was my third visit to Notre Dame–John and I brought Teddy up to begin his college career, and then I returned that Spring for Moms’ Weekend.  John was the one who drove him up to see the campus when he was in high school, and he’s been up briefly to pick him up a few times, but since Teddy has a car now we hadn’t had any reason to visit since his first year.

We left on Friday with the idea of arriving early.  Can I laugh at our hopeful plans?  First we couldn’t even make it out of Knoxville for one reason or another until almost two hours after we left our house.  Then en route we had to sit unmoving for 1.5 hours because of a wreck that shut down the bridge over the Ohio River.  So it was after 9 p.m. when we finally arrived.  We blundered about a bit because I was driving and I can’t see so well in the dark until we were able to find the parking lot where Teddy wanted to meet us so we could have a late dinner together.

I got my hugs, which is my favorite part, and we had a good time talking over supper.  Teddy probably would have been good to hang out some more but we are old and tired and still had to get to our hotel (12 miles away because football).

The football game was a night game, with kickoff at 7:30 p.m., so I asked Teddy what time we would need to arrive at the game.  He said tailgating started by noon (actually, it starts even earlier!).  I asked who was having a tailgate? “Everyone,” he answered.  I asked which ones we were going to, and he replied, “All of them.”

Well, that turned out to be an exaggeration, but it was still pretty amazing.  We made a trip to the bookstore first–which was predictably a zoo, but I needed a sweatshirt–and then spent about five hours taking in the spectacle that is Notre Dame tailgating.

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The pictures really don’t give a sense of the full scope of the thing, with an enormous parking lot pretty much completely given over to revelry.  Tents, televisions, generators, tiki bars, rows and rows of porta-potties, food of all kinds (we sampled brats, burgers, and burritos, to name just a few), and naturally freely-flowing alcohol (insert Irish stereotype here).

I’m not a seasoned tailgater, so perhaps the above isn’t so unusual, but there were definitely some uniquely Notre Dame touches:

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The tents we visited were hosted by parents of Teddy’s friends, many of whom attend all the home games.  It was good to meet them, and also to talk to Teddy’s friends and hear them say nice things about him.  And to see him get irritated when they heard us calling him Teddy instead of Theo (his preference) and tried to follow suit.

We were ready to head to the stadium before Teddy was, him having no interest in the pre-game activities.  So around 6:30 we left the party and headed over.  To me it was a thrill just to enter the stadium.  Not that anything can top Neyland Stadium here in Knoxville, but there’s just something about Notre Dame football.

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It was sunset when we arrived, and not too cold yet, but that was soon to change.

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We were pleased with our seats–we had a good view of the field and of the famous Touchdown Jesus.

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All colleges have special traditions and ways of doing things.  Notre Dame may have more than most.  Of course I appreciated that when the players run out onto the field they all fall to their knees at the end of the field and pray before the game begins.  Yet there was no invocation before the game–perhaps that’s a Southern thing?  Every time they announced their fight song they let us know that it’s the best one ever (I forget the exact words they use but the phrase is always the same).  In general, Notre Dame fans and for that matter their alumni seem more insanely devoted than people from other schools.

Anyway, we enjoyed the new experience–and the win–but not the rapidly falling temperature; it was 37 degrees by the time the game was over and we went to find Teddy.  There was still some tailgating going on–one of our hosts sang an Irish tune for us before we headed back to our car.  Thankfully, Teddy lives off campus just a short walk away, and was able to get us free parking there; non-residents normally pay $35 on game days.

The next morning we drove back to campus to hang out with Teddy for a little while, which gave me an opportunity to take some Fall pictures:

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We ended up at the Grotto to say a prayer before heading back to Knoxville.

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There were no blocked bridges on the way home, thankfully.

We will visit Notre Dame again for Junior Parents’ Weekend in February, after which you will likely be seeing some pictures of a snow-covered campus!

Fall, Family, and Football

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REVIEW- Hollywood Wax Museum in Pigeon Forge (SPONSORED)

This has been a traveling year for us so far! In May, we went to Baltimore for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday; in June, we took the kids to Gatlinburg; in July, John and I went to Chicago; in August we spent a weekend in Pigeon Forge; in September we went to Nashville for my cousin’s wedding; and this month we are headed to our first Notre Dame football game!

I’m writing today about our little Pigeon Forge vacation, during which we visited the Hollywood Wax Museum and the Castle of Chaos and all the attractions therein.  I was provided with free tickets for myself and my family in exchange for my honest opinion.

We did not start our mini-vacation with the Wax Museum, though.  We went up on a Friday afternoon, and the first thing we did was go to Joe’s Crab Shack for dinner.

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PF 2John was excited about this crazy drink.  We were ALL excited about eating crab.

After dinner, we were able to go next door and play some miniature golf because we still had a ticket left from my review of the Ripleys attractions in June!  In fact, we played twice because I got a hole-in-one on the final hole!  Then we headed across the street to the motel we had chosen.  This vacation did not require much driving once we got to Pigeon Forge (well, I think technically we were still in Sevierville at this point.).

PF 4 The Oak Tree Lodge fulfilled all Sholly requirements for suitable lodgings and then some.  We demand free breakfast, free WiFi, and a pool.  This place also had cookies in the lobby, unlimited free arcade games, and an exceptionally friendly staff.  Also, the pool was super awesome with the splash pad you see above and a big slide!  We made our first trip to the pool before bed, and then the kids and I went back the next morning while John slept in.

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Then it was time for the main events of the trip–and the main subject of this review.

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We have been curious about this place forever, because you simply cannot miss King Kong looming over the building as you drive down the Parkway.

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PF 51The first building is home to the wax museum, while the Castle of Chaos (pictured below) is in the same parking area, set back a bit from the road, and houses three additional attractions.
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We decided to start with the Hollywood Wax Museum.  We were welcomed by this fellow:

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PF 22This aerial view is to show you his hand, where all entering parties are told to pose and first smile, them look scared, while they are photographed.  At the end of your tour you have an opportunity to view (and purchase!) said photograph.

The exhibits begin in the next room.  Let’s start with the positives.  There are a wide variety of exhibits.  Great care has been taken with the setting of said exhibits–actors are featured in some of their most famous roles, with backdrops to match, and even the theme music playing in the background.  There are fun little factoids and interactive kiosks posted throughout.  Opportunities for interacting with the scenes–including dress-up items–are provided, as you will see in my pictures.

The negatives?  Well, here’s a big one:  a lot of the figures are just BAD.  Conspicuously absent from this museum is any explanation of how they make their figures.  After having visited Madame Tussaud’s in D.C. earlier this year, we were spoiled.  Rather than meticulously measuring the models as was described there, it’s quite clear that in some displays heads were attached to generic bodies.  Now, I have seen worse wax figures.  I might have appreciated these more if I hadn’t been to Madame Tussaud’s first.  And they are not all bad by any means.  I would say the quality appears to be improving.  But I will post some pictures and let you decide for yourselves.  Keep in mind that but for one exception (and you will be able to tell which one it is, I assure you) I did not post the worst figures because I didn’t feel like photographing them when they didn’t look anything like the people they were meant to represent.

First I will show some examples of my family interacting with figures.  Some of these figures were not the best but we liked whom they represent so much we wanted to get into the scenes anyway!
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Anyone who knows William will understand why this was his favorite part of the museum–and it was also the most well-done part, presumably because it’s harder to mess up non-human figures.

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Didn’t you always wish you could get inside that bottle when you were a child? I know I did.

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This was kind of fun since when we visited Savannah we saw the ACTUAL bench and the location where this iconic scene was filmed.

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And here are some figures on their own.  In my opinion, the basketball player’s hands are the most well-done thing in this museum.  What do you think?

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With that, it was time to leave Hollywood for the Castle of Chaos.  I’m going to TELL you what we did there, but I can’t SHOW you, because the experiences were not conducive to picture-taking.  You can see some promotional pictures at my preview post for this review, if you want.

First up was Hannah’s Maze of Mirrors. This is the third mirror maze I’ve been to this year, and it was the best.  With mirror mazes, it’s a kind of “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” deal, and they have worked to change that here.  This maze comes with a story–a little movie that you watch at the beginning, which provides a purpose to solving the maze (besides just getting out!).  There are also a few additions to the maze itself–musical stairs, a “rotating” bridge, characters appearing in the maze–that make it special.  If you want to do a mirror maze, pick this one.

Next we hit up the titular attraction, Castle of Chaos.  This was a 5D theatre experience in which we spun about to face various scary scenes.  The twist here is that we were armed and got to shoot at them, and our scores appeared on the screen along with our pictures at the end (John shot the most things out of everyone in the theatre!).  This was a slightly scary and mildly entertaining attraction.  The Ripleys 5D attractions are better if you are looking to experience this kind of thing.

I’m going to rave about the final attraction, though.  Outbreak–Dread the Undead was well done and lots of fun.  William and I went to this one alone, because Lorelei was scared and John sat it out with her.  The premise was that we were going to be doing some clean up of a government experiment gone bad.  Supposedly all the zombies were locked up, but something went wrong . . . We went through several rooms, and there was a combination of models and live actors playing zombies.  Per usual, there were jump scares and imitation blood flying.  It was just creepy enough and I would do it again.

I hope I’ve given you enough information to decide which of these attractions you’d like to visit.  If you want to hit them all up next time you visit Pigeon Forge, here’s a coupon for my readers:

My Readers receive $2 OFF ALL ACCESS PASS
Please visit HERE for more information about the attractions.

As for the rest of our visit, we ate dinner at our favorite Asian place in Pigeon Forge before returning to the motel for MORE swimming and a good night’s sleep before heading back home on Sunday.  We have been really enjoying these short weekend jaunts.  I want to take the kids to Chattanooga next and look forward to sharing that trip with you.

HOLLYWOOD WAX MUSEUM REVIEW (SPONSORED)

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