This post is just intended to summarize an eventful few weeks of my Christmas break. It includes five driving days, two dog vomits, one national park, and one violent insurrection against the government of the United States. Enjoy!
My Christmas break began on December 17, right when I finished off a (long) dynamics final exam. Elizabeth wanted to go home for Christmas, with the difficulty that she needed to bring her two work computer monitors with her. This required some intricate packing – further complicated by Scipio, a known carsickness threat who had vomited in Elizabeth’s car three times in one day before. Our solution – buy him a dog car seat. Early returns were promising:
But this necessitated using the backseat. Our solution to that – whoever wasn’t driving would sit in the back with Scipio, while all of his stuff and his crate sat in the front passenger seat. Between that, and heavily bubble wrapping Elizabeth’s monitors, we managed to pack the car reasonably well.
On Friday, December 18 we set off from Norman for Nashville. I drove early, and tried to drive on eggshells to avoid a Scipio throw-up. As time went on, it became clear that he was going to do reasonably well and the driving became more comfortable, but every jolt led to a wince and a worried look back. With that said, the early start afforded us this beautiful sunrise view from Okemah:
Following an exhaustively created itinerary I had made for our drive, Elizabeth and I settled into a rhythm quickly throughout the morning. Every hour to hour-and-a-half, we would stop somewhere (usually a Loves Travel Stop), use the bathroom, and let Scipio stretch his legs briefly. He got into the rhythm too, going potty quickly and then sleeping in his bucket.
We had a packed lunch at the Loves in East Little Rock. While sitting on the grass in front of our parking spot, the poor dog issued his only yack of the trip to D.C. (not in the car!). Otherwise, munching on peanut butter sandwiches and snacks we’d packed, I commented that the trip was going exceedingly well. And it continued to be that way! Navigationally, the trip from Oklahoma City to Nashville is exceedingly easy – just a straight shot east down I-40. Even with that, we were handling the limited lane changes inside cities like pros. My schedule had called for a Bojangles dinner before we got into Nashville, but we were so far ahead of it that it made more sense to go straight into the city and eat after checking into our hotel.
The hotel, booked on a reservation from Pam, was the Kimpton Aertson – a four-star downtown high-rise hotel right across from Vanderbilt’s campus. We scuffled briefly to find it, accidentally parking at the apartments of the same name next to it – but soon enough, Elizabeth was checking in (signing a contract in Scipio’s name promising not to bark). We brought everything we needed (plus the computer monitors) upstairs to our swanky room, and then placed a to-go order from Hattie B’s Hot Chicken on Broadway. It took a while for our order to be ready, so the dog got to be the center of attention outside the restaurant for a while. We collected our food, coaxed the dog into going potty on one of the rare patches of grass on Broadway, and returned to the relative covid-safety of our room.
The hot chicken was delicious. Afterwards, Elizabeth took a shower and I retired to bed with Scipio to watch the Pac-12 championship game. Getting in to our hotel early was nice, but that meant leaving earlier in the morning. Thus, we were ready to go to sleep early.
The next morning, after succeeding in my mad dash to get Scipio outside before he went potty indoors, I decided to sleep in a little more than the itinerary showed. We still were up and at it early, first walking a short distance down Broadway so Elizabeth could get her necessary Starbucks. While standing outside so Elizabeth could sip her drink, we ran into a brief problem wherein I dropped Scipio’s leash, which he is scared of, so he ran away, hooking a chair in the process and dragging it with him. Seeking to avoid facing recriminations for that unfortunate moment, I hastily suggested we take a walk on Vanderbilt’s campus. It was quite pretty – old brick buildings, big leafy trees, a stately fraternity row – all in the middle of downtown Nashville. With the campus closed for winter break, we were literally the only people around. The two of us walked over to the football stadium to get our pictures in front of it, then made our way slowly back to the hotel to hit the road – led always by Scipio, who was in heaven on a college campus full of good smells and tall-grass gardens.
We almost managed to check out of the Kimpton without hitch (Scipio may or may not have peed in the hallway outside our room). Before getting back on I-40, we took a drive down Broadway so I could see the country music bars where Elizabeth had spent her 21st birthday. In the cold light of morning (in a pandemic no less), I’m sure it was much different than it would be on a normal Friday night, but I’d love to get to visit again sometime. An interesting and horrifying fact – just six days later, that area would be subjected to a terrorist bombing on Christmas morning.
Elizabeth and I settled back into our routine – drive for a little over an hour, then switch off at a Love’s somewhere where the dog could empty his bladder. Apart from a small “Nolan accidentally emergency calls 911” incident, the morning continued to go as flawlessly as the day before. In fact, we didn’t run into a schedule issue until lunchtime in Knoxville. I had scheduled us to eat at a Culver’s, assuming nobody in Knoxville would be at that drive-through. But the dining room was closed, so *everyone* was in the drive-through. It took a while to get our food, all while I was trying to keep up with the Big 12 Championship Game. Combine that with trying to feed a dog from a parking lot, and you get yourself a nice boiling blood pressure pretty quickly.
For the next several hours, Elizabeth and I drove to the sounds of OU’s radio team, which was calling the Big 12 Championship Game. OU jumped out to a big lead over Iowa State, then spent the rest of the game holding off a furious comeback from the Cyclones. The moment that Tre Brown intercepted Iowa State’s last pass to preserve a 27-21 OU victory will probably last in my memory forever – sitting in the backseat, staring out the window toward southwest Virginia’s mountainous skyline in stress, and then the shared moment of elation thereafter. I enjoyed listening to that game so much, in fact, that I figured I’d like to listen to the ACC title game afterwards – it really did help pass the time. Unfortunately, that game sucked, so Elizabeth and I were reduced to listening to 2000s pop. One more dinner in the car – Cracker Barrel somewhere along I-81 – and we were in the home stretch.
Finally, late in the night, we made it to Pam’s house in Virginia. I was exhausted, but happy to have made it all the way without any hitches, and even happier to have a day to rest before continuing my travels home. Perhaps the happiest news of all was that I had two weeks without having to deal with Scipio and Snowball’s antics.
On the 21st, I flew home to be with my family. Saying goodbye to Elizabeth is never easy, and to make matters worse, I was plagued by the worry that after two weeks my puppy wouldn’t remember me. With that said, I didn’t get to see my family much in 2020, so I was excited to spend two weeks with them. I donned my N-95 mask and flew to Grand Rapids.
I wasn’t able to do everything I normally would while I was home, but that didn’t stop my family and myself from having fun. On the 22nd, my parents and I took a trip to East Lansing to visit my sibling, Alex. I got to see where Alex lives, works, and attends classes at Michigan State. I also got to see a fat squirrel:
Later that night, my parents, Taylor and I drove to Ada so we could walk through the town and see Christmas lights featured throughout the area. We met up with many of my parents’ neighbor friends, so despite being outdoors everyone had to wear masks. If you haven’t worn a mask and glasses in 30-degree weather, let me tell you, it sucks. It was quite pretty though, especially the Ada covered bridge:
I was the only person at home, which meant I got to help my mom with making the Christmas cupcakes and cookies. Alex did make it home in time to help decorate them. Here is my signature “Michigan highway map” Christmas cookie:
Taylor and Kyle had the family over for a lovely Christmas Eve dinner. Taylor made soups to go with salad and appetizers; a fairly low-key but intimate evening. We played a board game, I tried some of their endless beer stock, and a new Christmas tradition was born.
The next day was odd, in some ways. For one, I’m still not used to Christmas without my grandma on my dad’s side. For another, both grandparents on my mom’s side were already in Florida. Furthermore, half of the presents for me were actually dual presents for both myself and Elizabeth, so I had to have her on Facetime the whole time. It was still nice, but it was doubtless a weird Christmas.
Over the next week and a half, I generally stayed home to avoid bringing covid back to Elizabeth’s family. The few exceptions were a trip to Hopcat’s outdoor Beer Garden in downtown with Taylor and Kyle one night, and New Year’s Eve, which I spent with Taylor, Kyle, and a few of Kyle’s brothers. There was this legendary moment when 2021 began:
But for the most part it was a quiet time. I watched a lot of bowl games, occasionally joined in the basement by my dad. The beatdown OU handed Florida in the Cotton Bowl was a particularly satisfying moment to end an otherwise underwhelming season. My parents and I occasionally played board games, especially Listography, a game I had gotten for Christmas. And, as always, there were the ubiquitous puzzles. Otherwise, I helped them take down Christmas decorations or pull cabinets off the wall so they could repaint the main floor. It was a quiet time, but that was fine with me.
On January 4, I drove up to the Grand Rapids airport to receive a rapid covid test, and once it was confirmed as a negative, boarded my flight back to Baltimore. Pam picked me up there, and for the first time in two weeks I was going to see my girlfriend and my dog. I was still really worried Scipio wouldn’t recognize me, and for about five seconds, he didn’t. But his reaction once he did catch me scent – his tail wagged so hard it looked like his butt was going to fall off – made it all worth it.
We spent a couple of days in DC before driving back to Oklahoma, which meant that I was in fact in DC on January 6, 2021 – the day of the armed storming of the Capitol by deranged Trump supporters. I’d been watching the certification of the electoral vote already beforehand, and remained glued to the TV throughout the afternoon. I even brought my computer upstairs into Elizabeth’s office where she was working so she wouldn’t have to miss out on what was happening. Sometimes, you can’t help but know that you’re witnessing history, and I can’t wait until I no longer get that feeling every month or so.
We finished off the night with the traditional Fairchild Christmas dinner, rerun for my benefit, followed by a quick game of Listography. I know Elizabeth really misses her mom when she’s in Oklahoma, so a part of me was sad to be leaving the next morning.
That’s not to say that our adventure was done, by any means. Instead of driving back in two days, we were going to take three, and use the extra time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On January 7, we took off from D.C, bound for Gatlinburg in the distant Blue Ridge. It first took a heroic packing effort for me to manage to fit everything we’d brought with us weeks before as well as everything we’d received for Christmas, while still maintaining room in the back for the dog.
Whereas on the way to Virginia weeks before we had mostly listened to music and sports, this trip we mostly listened to news and politics (timely and relevant). We first got into trouble while trying to find lunch in Lexington, Virginia, which for some reason was overrun with Amish people (who do not wear masks in restaurants, making it a no-go for me). Meanwhile, the search made Scipio dizzy, and then ill, and then he promptly threw up. Thanks to heroic work from Elizabeth, his vomit was directed onto the tarp we had set off, which I was able to rapidly clean off when we stopped. And after that, we headed a few miles down the road to find an Amish-free KFC.
It took most of the afternoon to make it to Gatlinburg, tracing the spine of Elizabeth’s nemesis I-81. By the time we got off of the interstate for the short (but, for Elizabeth, harrowing) drive to Gatlinburg, night had fallen on the scene. Our hotel was a Quality Inn and Suites on the far northern side of Gatlinburg. The drive in consisted of turning off the main road onto a side street, driving a few hundred meters across a river, and up to the hotel, which is nestled in the hillside. After some false starts, we found the front desk and got the keys to our room.
The room was shockingly nice. I will admit that I had low expectations, and the Quality Inn managed to clear them with ease. It was clean, well-kept, and had a fireplace. We settled down to give Scipio his dinner and order our own, from the Great Smoky Mountains Brewery. I volunteered to drive to the other side of town to get it. I’ve been to Gatlinburg before, but that was at least 10 years ago when I was a kid. I really didn’t remember much about the downtown. Fortunately, the Brewery was all the way on the other side of downtown by the national park entrance, so I was able to drive through the whole thing. After fumbling around in the dark for a while trying to find the restaurant, I finally picked up our food and beer and returned to the hotel room. It was a struggle to open the beer with a plastic knife, but we managed to get the job done.
Because of the ongoing pandemic and our puppy, all of the fun things one could do in their mid-20s when in Gatlinburg were rather out of the question. Instead, after dinner we lit the fireplace and got into bed to enjoy a quiet evening.
I did want to make sure Elizabeth saw Gatlinburg itself, as crazy a place as it is. So early the next morning, after Scipio woke me up for the third time demanding his breakfast, we jump-started the day and started to get ready. The national park had a visitor’s center just two miles inside the park, and from the park entrance in town itself to the visitor’s center is one of just two dog-friendly trails in the park, so it worked out perfectly. For my part, I figured we may as well tack on an couple of miles by walking from the hotel so we could see the downtown. Excellent decision, as it turned out. The night before had brought a winter storm to higher elevations. Gatlinburg had been spared the snow, but a persistent drizzle left the streets barren compared to the revelry I’d seen the night before. During a pandemic, with a very young puppy? I’d take that.
Elizabeth and I once again tortuously packed the car, and then she turned in our room keys. We coaxed Scipio into going potty right outside the hotel, left our car, and began the 7 mile roundtrip walk.
The first ten or so minutes were amusing, because as we walked through the outskirts of town I could tell that Elizabeth was struggling to understand the touristy reputation Gatlinburg had built. Sure, there were a lot of hotels and some quaint shops and restaurants, but I could literally see her expectations not being met. Then we approached one of the few streetlights along the road (named Parkway. Not The Parkway. Just Parkway), and it all fell into place for her.
The cool and quiet nature of the morning made it a lot easier to gawk at all of the absurdities downtown has to offer. A Margaritaville just plunked in the middle of the river? The giant chairlift disappearing into the foggy skies that give the Smoky Mountains their name? Everything that has to do with Ripley’s? All primed up for our viewing pleasure. A not-so-small part of me wished that I could be in Gatlinburg during another time, without coronavirus to worry about (and possibly without a dog to worry about either). The bars that plaster downtown, the giant bridge between two mountain peaks, whatever the hell “mountain golf is” – I’m sure Elizabeth and I could plan a four or five day vacation in Gatlinburg without even considering the vast national park. I definitely want to make sure we return, possibly without our furry fiend.
Even though I had that nagging feeling, this was still one of those mornings I was just glad to be alive and doing what I was doing. Elizabeth and I were cheerfully walking through the town, her holding a Starbucks drink she’d stopped to get along the way. The dog was managing the rain like a trooper, despite the fact that his sweater was already soaked. In the absence of the memories we could have been making, the memories we did make more than sufficed.
On the far side of town, we reached a sign that told us we’d reached our destination: Elizabeth’s next national park.
The only issue with the Gatlinburg Trail, as I saw it, was that it was soaking wet and muddy everywhere. Which, admittedly, is a big issue. Within bare moments, I gave up on the idea of Scipio escaping this walk unmudded. Although he showed a fair amount of delicacy to avoid standing water and mud to a degree, it was just impossible to stay fully dry. He was going to have dirty paws.
Interestingly, although the town looked pretty good, I could see signs of the horrible 2016 Smoky Mountain wildfires on the ridgelines from Gatlinburg. These were also quite pronounced while walking through the entrance to the national park. I did some reading later about the wildfires – the fact that signs were still there approaching half a decade later is pretty insane.
The Gatlinburg Trail winds upstream along the Little Pigeon River, following the main highway into the park. Traffic was pretty light, but it was pretty dog-and-child-heavy. Scipio loves barking at both of those groups, so we had to keep an even tighter hold on him than the 6-foot leash. Even though the trail only barely went uphill, it was still enough to notice that there was a coating of snow as we got higher up. The trail crossed the Little Pigeon on a long bridge (I think there’s a picture on Elizabeth’s phone somewhere), then went up a big hill past the remains of an old homestead.
As we got close to the visitor’s center, the trail became less-well-defined. At one point, it was basically just the shoulder of a park service road. Then, finally, we made it to the end of the trail, where the quaint Sugarlands Visitor Center was located.
Because of the pandemic restrictions and because of the dog, we had to take one turn at a time going into the visitor center. Elizabeth went first while I tried to keep him from terrorizing the rest of the tourists. After about 15 minutes of her raiding the gift shop, it was my turn.
The visitor center was highly cordoned off because of pandemic restrictions, and I had to squirt myself with hand sanitizer before I could enter. I quickly read the exhibits within the center. Some important facts that anyone still reading at this point ought to know: the water in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is becoming more acidic, which may kill all the trout. Also, there is an average of two bears per square mile inside the national park. Make of that information what you will.
I bought a pin inside the gift shop and grabbed a map for Elizabeth. Unfortunately, our plans for the rest of the morning were dashed when we saw that the main roads into the highlands of the park were closed due to snow. We had hoped to drive up to some of the pull-offs within the mountains, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. Thus, when we turned around and retraced our muddy steps back down the Gatlinburg Trail, it was the end of our brief time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I hope, in the future, to be able to return (again, probably without the dog).
Speaking of the dog, his sweater was now sopping wet and hanging down from him. His legs were covered in mud. Despite that, he kept a brisk pace on the way back into town, his nose forever perched 3 inches off the surface of the trail. In fact, if anything, he quickened the pace, and Scipio is not a slow dog to begin with. We did make one stop on the way back at the NPS sign:
And remember when I said there’s two bears per square mile in the national parks?
I’m not saying that’s a bear track, but that may be a bear track.
When we backtracked through downtown, we discovered that despite the persistent cold and drizzle, people had ventured forth outside. Elizabeth started to get annoyed by people crowding her. I started to go blind as my mask fogged up my glasses. And Scipio started to become very interested in cigarette butts on the sidewalk. All things considered, the first walk through Gatlinburg was better.
Finally, we made it back to the Quality Inn. Poor Scipio was completely slathered in mud up each leg past the knee, and we needed to wipe him down while he shivered in the cold. I turned on the car and put the heat on full blast. Elizabeth covered the dog with towels in his bucket while he slowly groomed himself clean. It was a little short of lunchtime, and we’d already had a full day of adventure.
With the car continuing to warm up, I drove back up the mountain passage toward Sevierville and lunch to go from Bojangles. The drive that day wasn’t horribly long – just a shot across Tennessee on I-40 to Memphis. In a twist of fate, I drew the driving shifts through Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis. I am proud to say that I got through without any issues, aided by excellent navigation from Elizabeth. While she drove, I was able to call my dad from the snow-covered mountains of middle Tennessee. Scipio, exhausted from our seven-mile walk, slept like a rock the whole way.
We made it into Memphis shortly after nightfall. Our last hotel of the trip was the Hilton in East Memphis. After a slight struggle finding the front desk once again, we headed *down* from the lobby to the pet floor, dragging all of the stuff we needed to keep safe on a luggage trolley one last time. One last time, we ordered dinner to go – this time, tacos from a tapas restaurant called “Babalu”. This may have been the best dinner we had the whole time. Afterwards, given some ongoing political drama on social media, Elizabeth sent me downstairs to get two margaritas to go from the hotel bar. $25 and some smooth Patron later, we were ready for sleep.
I’d been having a rough time sleeping on my parents’ couch and Pam’s guest bed, so that night in Memphis was fantastic. We weren’t in a rush, either, so we slept in. By the time I’d managed to rush Scipio out through the lobby to go bathroom and Elizabeth had gotten her Starbucks (right from inside the Hilton!), it was around 10:00. Incredibly, I managed to squeeze everything into the car one last time. Back onto I-40 and across the Mississippi we went, into Arkansas for the final stretch. I was worried about cooping Scipio up so much, but on the last day of a major trip all you want to do is get home. We went through a byzantine process to pick up Chic-fil-a from suburban Little Rock which we then ate from a parking lot of a Kum N Go. After visiting a few more Loves Travel Stops, we were back inside of Oklahoma and getting closer to home with every moment. I had the privilege of drawing the last driving shift, and opted to take the shortcut east of Shawnee down to Highway 9 despite the gathering darkness. With Elizabeth having work the next day, we made a brief stop at Wal-Mart for the bare essentials – bread, milk, lunchmeat – before finally pulling back into The Links. Three weeks and one day after our trip had begun, it was finally over.
Like I said, I’d like to go back to Great Smoky Mountains with Elizabeth one day for a longer period of time. Still, it was a fun and memorable way to cap what had been a memorable few weeks outside of Oklahoma.