Is it a round trip or is it just a bunch of little one way trips that make it around? Or is a round trip just actually the complete adventure regardless of the stops in between? I’m going with the latter because that’s exactly how this year’s spring break felt. All the adventures while we made all the stops. All the way around.
I hadn’t flown since January of 2020 and for someone who loves to take the trips, it’s been a bit of a challenge. And you know when you get to that point of not having done something for so long that you’re actually afraid of it? Well, that’s where I was. I only booked us a trip about a month and some prior because, quite honestly, I’m terrible at planning way in advance. So I hopped onto Kayak to see the cheapest flights to anywhere in the country we hadn’t been. This is how I do the things. Ultimately, I was able to find a flight from Lansing to Charlotte, North Carolina and because I like to keep it interesting, I wanted to drive as much as we could and not have to go backwards so I hooked us back up out of Knoxville, Tennessee. I didn’t even know people flew out of Lansing. Or Knoxville.
I’ll stop, too, to give the mad props to my parents who just made their migratory trip back north the weekend we were leaving for chauffeuring us to Lansing and back. I was so thankful to avoid parking fees and not to have to drive in a half-awake state at 3 a.m. Oh, yes we did book a flight that left at 5:30 a.m. meaning that our first day of travel was an absolute marathon.
We arrived safely into Charlotte a few minutes early and because I’m a Hertz Gold Plus Member (it became a running joke), we got our pick of vehicles and when I advised the attendant that the one with the bow on top that may have been one ridiculously sporty car out of my price range was mine, he directed me to the correct aisle which included the normal sedans and small SUVs. We picked a CRV.
I had sent CJ a list the day prior of the myriad of Trip Advisor-recommended stops along the way so we used that as a guide and started our trek. I won’t go into every detail about every place to save you precious time on a beautiful day, but suffice it to say by the time the CRV was tucked nicely back in in Knoxville, we’d put on about 450 miles. There were times I questioned if she would make it safely back because well, it was a rental and if I learned anything from my daddy growing up it was that rentals meant driving with care was entirely optional. I’M KIDDING. But curb checks were fine.
We attempted to hit our first stop at the Charlotte-Douglas airport overlook but after two trips around the terminal, we realized the entrance was under construction. So we headed into the city and hit up Metamorphosis which was a giant head sculpture in a business park; sure it was off the beaten path but it was super cool and we found a great coffee shop and that makes any detour completely worth it.
Next up we hit Freedom Park for a short walk and then found a parking ramp downtown so we could see the sportsing (yes, sportsing) stadiums. We wandered around outside the Carolina Panthers’ home field, BB&T ballpark (think Whitecaps) and pretended we were staying in a hotel so we could get to the top of a parking ramp for better views. We walked down to the Spectrum Center and the highlight of my day was CJ agreeing to ride on the public tram and checking out Whole Foods for lunch.
Since we had a two-hour trip to our first stay, we took off and made our way to Asheville with a stop at Pearson’s Falls. This felt like one of those finds that isn’t that well-known but doesn’t require an entire day to appreciate. We were only one of a few tourist-y types and I’m here to tell you the 90-foot falls were incredibly worth the stop.
We arrived into Asheville, NC where we’d spend our first night at a swanky little hotel right downtown. I will also say that signs in the stairwell that read ‘roof access’ do not mean you have roof access. At all. We learned that after walking up the 11 flights of stairs and then all the way down 19 so we could actually get out of said stairwell. I’d heard really great things about Asheville and none of those people are lying. It was one-of-a-kind being flanked by mountains and an incredibly artsy and retro-style downtown area. CJ and I debated over dinner options using our favorite app to find gluten free options and landed on THE most adorable eatery where breakfast was on the menu all day. I’m just saying that if you can’t have breakfast for dinner I’m not sure we can be friends. But truly the highlight was CJ having the opportunity to try fried chicken with gravy. GRAVY. And, I was super worried it would be packed and we actually ate dinner with only the server and likely one cook until we were nearly done.
After our bellies were full, we checked out some of the local area and of course, another parking ramp to get some good views of the mountains surrounding us. I wish we could have had more time there, truly, but when you have three days to make the most of things, and weather is threatening, you press forward.
On Tuesday, we headed out fairly early so we could check out another couple of falls on the way to Gatlinburg where we would stay that night and most of Wednesday. I’d given CJ the option of which route to take and I couldn’t be more thankful for the one he chose. We were able to view two beautiful waterfalls en route. The one was so indiscriminate we passed by it once and had to figure out exactly where to pull off to catch it. This was my favorite stop of the trip. Soco Falls is nestled in some trees literally right off the road and while you can see it from a pedestrian bridge up top, CJ found a series of ropes tied to various trees and suggested we traverse down. This is actually why it was my favorite. Normally, I’m the dare devil in this relationship and I have to push CJ to try things that might not be so smart. That’s how I do. But this time, he led the way and in the ultimate chivalrous display, kept ensuring I could make it down without face-planting. My mama heart nearly exploded and I’m not kidding one little bit about that. The scaling and the view made the stop more than worth it.
Next up was Mingo Falls. We had a fun construction stop along the way and I was worried the ‘stop’ flag holder was going to fall asleep standing up. I felt so bad for him that I told CJ to lower his window when we drove by so we could offer him some M&M’s. His smile was all we needed. Mingo Falls was a bit more of a hike and you knew it would be worth it because there were quite a few cars in the lot leading up to it. Oh, and there were actually signs to direct you to the fact that they existed.
The rest of the way to Gatlinburg reminded me so much of my Grandpa McEwen’s road trip videos. I told CJ that there would be numerous stops and he was going to appreciate each one because in fact there were slight differences. I was worried we both might get car sick, though, because apparently when they made road ways through the mountains they didn’t consider people who like to drive fast. So while we couldn’t film that part, we did stop plenty to catch some amazing views.
I’d mentioned we were facing a potential weather situation and I’m so happy to report that we were not about to let that dampen our spirits, just our hair. We arrived into Gatlinburg around lunchtime so we found a place to park after realizing that every other spring break family was in the same town. Today’s find was a burger joint (CJ’s choice) called Ole Red and it did not disappoint. There was live music, second floor balcony seating and a good ol’ Farmall hanging upside down from the ceiling. Oh, and gluten free buns.
Given it was going to rain for a bit, we checked into our resort just outside of town and found our way up to the top of … I don’t know what you call it down there, a hill? It was high enough to see a beautiful view of downtown, anyway. We changed because I packed so many clothes I felt guilty not wearing at least two outfits a day and don’t you dare come at me about that; I paid for my bag packed for three days longer than we would stay to sit safely in the plane’s under belly and was not one of those people shoving it in an overhead compartment.
We took off towards Pigeon Forge and further into cavern country to a well-known stop called Tuckaleechee Caverns. This stop became CJ’s highlight of the trip because he realized he could survive without cell service for two whole hours! But really, he did love that part. And the views inside were simply amazing. To know that 15 million years can result in rock formations that leave you breathless is just the coolest thing. We sat with the lights off, drank water streaming through and threatened to fall behind so we could pick up the $20 someone left in the wishing well. I still can’t believe that was a thing.
That night we were planning to head back into Gatlinburg as the weather cleared up enough and hit the space needle. I’d bought tickets online to avoid the crowds and it was awesome to find that the space needle was actually under maintenance for two weeks and therefore, we would not be viewing the city that way. Even awesomer that I’d just paid $20 to park close to it because that is how Gatlinburg says ‘thanks and come again soon!’ to tourists. It’s fine.
Instead, we decided to tour around and check out some shops. We bumped into a friend of his from school which further validated that every spring break family was in Gatlinburg and that they were all from Michigan. It’s really a cool town; just so people-y this time of year and I’m much more of a ‘give me some nature and maybe just a few people’ kind of gal. For dinner, we hit up the local grocery store and grabbed a pizza we could take and bake at home and had the chance to catch an amazing view of the city at night from our hilltop.
Our last full day was promising to be beautiful so we took off early to hike up to Alum Cave Bluff. The hike was listed as both ‘moderate’ and ‘strenuous’ so we agreed to get at least through the moderate part and see if strenuous was doable. Neither of us have hiked much but I know I like things that are physically challenging and Connor tolerates it. Turns out, we both loved it and the views from the top were absolutely worth the 2.3 mile stretch. I cannot put words to how glad I am that we did it in the a.m. as there were cars lined up and down both sides of the road we drove in on when we got back and we had enjoyed a rather quiet and moderately strenuous adventure together.
After, we took the scenic bypass through Gatlinburg and back up to Pigeon Forge for lunch as we’d found we could hit up a Chick-Fil-A there. We actually landed at a deli instead which was super delicious and again, not at all packed. These little spurts of quiet were everything I needed because what this trip was for me was an opportunity for 1:1 with my favorite human.
We got back to our condo so I could change again (I’m not actually kidding) and went back into Gatlinburg. I’d also scored tickets online for their Skylift Park and the best part was … it was not closed! We took chairlifts up the hill and traversed the 700 foot suspension bridge with amazing views of the city. It was just windy enough to remind you that you should know Jesus before doing things like that. It was truly beautiful, though. We hit up mini golf after and I think we tied. I know I was ahead at one point but then I got super mad at the ball on one hole and lost count. Hey, I didn’t throw the club and that’s a win.
We had just enough time after so we decided to hit up Pigeon Forge again (praise Jesus these cities are close) to visit the Island. It’s like a baby Disney World, or something. It has a couple of rides and lots of shops and restaurants. Most of our time was spent in the arcade and because I didn’t want to wait in line for prizes that would only make my luggage tip the scale, we gifted our winnings to a sweet little girl in line. Another highlight. We stopped in a couple shops and grabbed some candy, a pair of socks to gift his girlfriend with and a marionette that I am still hopeful CJ will figure out how to manage someday.
We saw storms threatening again for that evening so we grabbed some quick groceries (again. this does make this the worst part of just touring-style adventures. eating is sooooo expensive.) and made breakfast for dinner before heading out for Knoxville. We’d planned to stay in Gatlinburg again that night but my Hertz Gold Plus membership apparently doesn’t allow for me to ask them to open earlier or drop off my car and leave a key somewhere and we wouldn’t have enough time between to drop off and still make our flight in the a.m. So we took off in likely the most heavy rain we’d ever seen and made our way to a sleep fly (gross) place to catch some zzz’s before our early flight back to Lansing.
Wow. Gosh. I’m sorry that was so long. But, I honestly just wanted to capture our little spring break adventure. I wanted to remember what this very jam-packed three days included because I don’t have many of these opportunities left. I have one spring break, people. ONE. And only God knows if my 18-year-old CJ will want to go with me anywhere. It remains to be seen. But, I know this 16-year-old CJ made this trip absolutely incredible. We laughed. We laughed really freakin’ hard. And we had the chance to see things together that neither of us had ever seen before. And we had the chance to be generous to strangers and between those little moments and my brave son taking his old mama on a little rope climbing adventure, I had the best time. And I can’t wait to go on a round trip again soon.