New Mexico: the other Las Vegas

Lisa:

After two days of intense driving, we arrived in northern New Mexico and what a change it is from Arkansas. First of all it’s freezing here.  We experienced high winds and light snow. Lee was wearing shorts and the kids were wearing sandals which did fit the 70 degree temperatures we had in Ozark country but definitely not this place. 

We had fun exploring New Mexico’s Las Vegas- a small town with Victorian buildings and a historic plaza rather than neon signs and casinos. Sadly, much of it was run down but it still retained its charm.

  
We had a snack at the unmarked World Traveller’s cafe, which we read about in the Lonely Planet guide. It had traditional woven blankets on display and weaving looms, lots of books, board games and friendly people. A nice respite from the cold! 

Then it was onward to Montezuma Castle, a former luxury hotel built in the 1800s to serve visitors to nearby hot springs. Now it is home to United World College of the American West.

  
The college is actually a two-year international baccalaureate program for students age 16-19 from around the world. More than 200 students live there. The school’s mission is “making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” What’s especially cool is all 50 US students chosen for the program can attend and receive room and board for free thanks to funding provided by philanthropists.

The campus includes the inspiring Dwan Light Sanctuary, a meditation chamber open to the public.

  
  The circular building features 12 large prisms which spread rainbows across the floor and walls. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was very peaceful.
  We’re actually not too far away from Mesa Verde National Park and Crestone, Colo. which we visited in May. It’s so great to be back in this beautiful region. 

Arkansas: Soaking in the bathhouse

Lisa:

Today I had my first experience with a traditional European-style bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park.

This national park is different than any other we’ve visited in that it’s right in the middle of a town. The centerpiece is Bathhouse Row- several ornate Victorian style bathhouses that date back 100 years ago or more along Central Avenue.

   

 There are more than 40 natural hot springs in the area that spit out odorless water at 140 degrees Farenheit. They were first enjoyed by American Indians and later Europeans. By the 1800s, some of them saw the springs as a way to make money.

I paid $71 to have the traditional bathing package at Buckstaff Baths seen above. I was taken to the ladies’ section where I stripped in a dressing room and stored my things, then was wrapped in a sheet “Roman style.” I was led to a private hot tub where an attendant scrubbed my legs and feet and then let me relax alone for 15-20 minutes. Heaven!

Next I was taken to a cot where I laid down on steaming hot packs to relax the muscles and my face was covered in a cold towel. It was a little too hot for me so I skipped the leg hot packs. After that I sat in a strange metal sauna box were I breathed in steam and then went to another chamber where I sat in some steaming water to relax my hips. I finished up with a “needle shower” a shower with water coming at you from your neck to your knees rather than just from a spout at the top, and then a magnificent Swedish massage.

It was odd to get naked in front of strangers but it was an extremely relaxing experience in luxurious surroundings. I would do it again.

Once my spa experience was done, I took the boys out for a lovely stroll on the Grand Promenade behind Bathhouse Row while Lee took his turn getting a manicure and pedicure. The promenade was a wonderful brick walkway lined by trees and surrounded by rolling hills.  

 
  I really wish we could stay here longer. I could get used to this. 

Tennessee: From Athena to Elvis

Lisa:

It was inspiring to see Nashville’s full-scale replica of the Parthenon, an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. 

  Somehow I never found out about this site until now. It was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the state. The reason for it was that Nashville considered itself the “Athens of the South” for its emphasis on education and learning.

The huge building is now the site of a small museum, which gives information about the Centennial fair and also contains the incredible 42-foot gold-painted statue of Athena. Sculptor Alan Lequire build this piece from 1982 to 1990. The statue then stood mostly white until 2002 when he and his collaborators gilded the statue in 23.75-karat gold. The statue is a scale replica of the original Athena Parthenos sculpted by Pheidias beginning in 447 BC.

   

 I found the statue awe-inspiring and brought in my 2- and 4-year-old boys to see it even though they generally don’t do well in museums and quickly become bored. I don’t think I’ll be able to show them anything like this again for quite a while. Theo, my oldest, was entranced – “It’s amazing!” he said when he entered the room. Arthur just took it all in but who knows how it will affect him in the future.

To get the other side of Nashville, I took Theo to Robert’s Western World downtown to hear some old fashioned country music. The venue on Broadway accepts all ages until 6pm and we arrived about 1pm. We heard a lot of songs about scorned and jealous lovers. After a bit, Theo turned to me and said “These songs are about bad people.” Ha! ha! Well, that’s part of life too.

  Next on our agenda was Memphis and a stop at Elvis’ mansion Graceland. Lee would have skipped it but I had to see the home of the King- if only to peek at his jet named after his daughter who shares my name. 

  We brought the boys, who were free, but they had a hard time standing still for even a minute and wanted to race around rather than gaze at the shag carpet, glittery costumes and 70s excess. Their favorite part was Elvis’ collection of classic autos. I think that was Lee’s favorite part too.

  The mansion was a bit smaller than I expected. The whole place had a lot of security- more than I’ve seen at other sites. My bag was checked before I entered and there were guards posted every few feet to tell you exactly where to go and not go. The iPads they gave you for a self-guided tour were cool but didn’t really work for us trying to supervise small children at the same time so we just wandered around on our own without listening to them.

  The funniest part to me was that the mansion today is off a major street filled with fast-food restaurants and stores. I guess I pictured it being way out in the country with a long drive to get in. I’m glad I visited and I enjoyed reliving memories of what was surely one of America’s greatest entertainers ever.

Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains to Knoxville

Lisa:

I gained new respect for North Carolina today when I saw the vast difference in the way that state treated the majestic Great Smoky Mountains National Park vs. Tennessee.

On the southern entrance near Cherokee, N.C., there are a modest amount of hotels and shops leading to the park.  On the northern side, there is the commercial monstrosity of Gatlinburg and Pigeon, Forge, Tenn. It reminded us of Myrtle Beach, S.C. in the hideous overabundance of billboards, amusement parks and general tourist trap businesses.

It came as a real shock to enter the Tennessee madness after the serenity and stunning beauty of the park.  

  
  

 We were so moved by the bright autumn colors and the mist over the mountains. We had taken a slow-paced stroll around a log cabin historic exhibit and a river and oohed and ah-ed over the roadside waterfalls. Then… back to commercialism with a vengeance!

We were glad to get past it all and head to Knoxville, Tenn., which we knew nothing about. We were impressed to find the World’s Fair Park, which was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair and features the towering Sunsphere. 

  We took the free elevator up to the fourth floor observation deck and got a panoramic view of the city, including a glimpse of the University of Tennessee. Then we headed to the nearby Holiday Inn to see the huge Rubik’s Cube that was on display at the World’s Fair. Nice 1980s nostalgia moment for me.

  

North Carolina: Fall in Asheville

Lisa:

IMG_4782Forget New England. If you want to see spectacular fall colors, head to Asheville, N.C. in October. Since arriving here a week ago, we were treated to a gorgeous array of reds, golds and oranges everywhere we turned and especially on the hills that surround this city. The city of 83,000 reminds me a lot of Eugene, Ore. where I grew up, which is also in a valley, except it had evergreen trees rather than these colorful deciduous trees.

I’d heard about Asheville for years as IMG_4778being a progressive, city with a lot of artists and a granola feel. Sounded perfect for us.

We didn’t see much art but we did enjoy soaking up the natural abundance while we were here, visiting Chimney Rock state park and the Western North Carolina Nature Center zoo.

Chimney Rock, about 25 miles south of the city, has several trails that give lookouts to the area. We IMG_4797went up the easiest Hickory Nut Falls Trail to a waterfall.  The boys did pretty well walking up most of it, though we had to carry them on our shoulders on the way down.

The nature center included only local animals, including black bears, wolves, foxes and snakes. It included a nice playground for the boys to as Lee puts it get their wiggles out.

We learned about Appalachian culture by attending Heritage Day at the Vance Homestead state park. Costumed characters demonstrated life of centuries earlier in different stations. One woman cooked a meal right from a fire in the house, another woman made cornhusk dolls, a man played the native American flute and some men showed hunting equipment. The boys were entranced.IMG_4787

We also learned that Asheville is the  home of famous Southern writer Thomas Wolfe and was the setting for his 1929 autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel.  Inspired to learn more about this place, I bought the book. Boy was I in shock. Rather than the rhapsodic ode to this beautiful place I expected, it was a blunt expose. Wolfe  hated Asheville, hated the mountains, hated the whole South. His descriptive and often poetic style is engaging and it drew me in as he described his dysfunctional family led by an alcoholic father and a money-hungry mother. But I found myself getting depressed at the blatant racism perpetrated by the lead character, who is purportedly the author and the harshness of life there in the early 20th century.

IMG_4803It did, however make it more interesting when Theo and I toured the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which is the boarding house, where Wolfe grew up and which figures prominently in the novel. The book caused an uproar in Asheville when it came out because of the unflattering depictions of the residents and was IMG_4802banned from the local library for years afterward. I think it’s funny that the town now celebrates the book and makes his house one of its main tourist attractions.  I guess communities appreciate fame, whether bad or good.

We loved our accommodations here – a two-IMG_4781bedroom cabin we found on vrbo.com. It has been in the current owner’s family for generations and its evident the place is very loved. It is on a one-acre property with a playhouse and has a big front porch with rocking chairs. That soon became my favorite spot.

Overall, Lee and I loved Asheville and could even see ourselves living here if we didn’t have to leave behind all family and friends. As most of our family lives on the West Coast, that is probably where we will stay.

Georgia: Creativity and Car Trouble in Augusta

Lisa:

We just had a brief but eventful stay in Augusta, where we got to enjoy more of that famous southern hospitality.

Our Airbnb rental this time was fantastic- a brick condo meticulously decorated in 1950s style in the fancy Summerville neighborhood. For about $100 a night, we got a fully stocked kitchen, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer and WiFi- plus free snacks and drinks! We enjoyed walking around the neighborhood and checking out the lavish estates and an Antebellum library.

 We adored the Imagination Station, a small children’s museum co-op in a community center. The center has a great playhouse, puppets, costumes and an assortment of toys and is run by parents. We only had to pay $10 admission for our two kids and if we lived there, we would have only had to pay $40 a year for unlimited access the whole year. I think this is a great idea that benefits everybody. The parents staffing the center that day greeted us warmly and one even put on an impromptu ukulele concert for our boys.

 Unfortunately as we left the museum, we discovered that our faithful Honda Odyssey wouldn’t start- the first time we have had any car trouble since we started this epic road trip six months ago. We pulled out the strollers and walked with the kids back to our apartment a 15-minute walk away then I walked back and called a tow truck to take our van to the local Honda dealership for repairs.

 Fortunately it was just a dead battery and it was fixed by the end of the day. Everyone I dealt with from the tow truck driver to the service staff was polite and helpful. It was a little nerve wracking waiting as we were due to check out of our place the next morning. We are very appreciative that the minivan is back in action.

We wrapped up our stay with a quick visit to a statue of a famous Augusta resident and a lunch date with my great-uncle. We happened upon the statue of Godfather of Soul James “I Feel Good” Brown by accident as we were driving around downtown. I had to jump out and take some shots and then get my picture taken with the remote camera that could be activated by text with my cell phone. Very cool!

 We were all delighted to lunch with my great Uncle Howard (my mother’s uncle), who is in his 80s and lives nearby in the same house he and my grandmother grew up in. It was my first time meeting him and it was a treat to learn a little about family history. Unfortunately, my young sons were in an unruly mood so it wasn’t a long lunch but it was still nice to connect. We even got a chance to briefly video chat with my mom and dad back in Oregon.


Good Moannnnnnning Georgia

Lee:

Finally we have arrived at a place where people are warm, friendly, easygoing and don’t try to run you off the road. They actually wait for pedestrians in the crosswalks and greet strangers like their friends. I like Savannah very much because it is beautiful with all of the park-like squares downtown, giant old oak trees full of Spanish moss, and cool cafes with exotic food everywhere.

Lisa and the boys enjoyed visiting the Jepson Art Center, a contemporary art museum that has children’s play areas. The kids’ section included building blocks, costumes, magnets and cute children’s books. Lisa also loved seeing the famous Bird Girl sculpture featured in the book and movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

They also attended Savannah State University’s vibrant homecoming parade, which included many high school bands and dance groups, classic cars and horses. The boys were entranced two hours straight.

 I don’t know if I could tolerate the humid summers here but we will most definitely return again soon. We will be leaving tomorrow for Augusta, Georgia for two days and then on to Ashville, North Carolina for an entire week. My only regret so far is not spending more time in Charleston, South Carolina. My mood has improved greatly ever since we entered Virginia from the North.

I would like to give a shout out to my beautiful daughter Kym who is having a birthday in a couple of days, we miss you and love you whole banana bunches. Also my son Clayton is now engaged to be married to a beautiful young woman in Modesto, CONGRATULATIONS!!! I don’t know what I did to deserve such fantastic children and grandchildren but I thank my lucky stars everyday and pray for their continued health and happiness.