Saturday, July 15, 2006

We're home!

We drove from Chattanooga, TN to Monroe, LA yesterday. The drive took us about 8 hours, so we were home in time to order a pizza for supper. The vacation was very enjoyable, but too short.

Chattanooga is nestled between the Appalachian and Cumberland mountain ranges, giving the city breathtaking mountainous scenery. Although it is in Tennessee, it is less than an hour away from Alabama and borders Georgia.

Alana's family live on a mountain in Jasper, TN. We visited her two aunts (Sandra and Debbie, an older and a younger sister — respectively — of Alana's dad), Sandra's husband Wilroy, and a smattering of cousins (Jennifer, her husband Ray, Jonathan and Scott) the day after we arrived. They were disappointed that we didn't phone them in order to make arrangements to stay with them. We didn't want to impose due to the last-minute nature of the trip. We weren't sure exactly where we were going on our vacation until late last week. If we had known for certain earlier on, and if we hadn't taken Sabine with us, we could have stayed with them. They certainly offered us a place to stay, repeatedly.

We brought Sabine with us to Jennifer's house, where she was quickly overwhelmed by Jennifer's dogs. Sabine was so hyper that she spent a good deal of the visit in her crate in the garage just to stop her from barking. Sabine's hyper behaviour did not spoil the visit. Alana's relatives fed us all too well and made me feel a part of the family. The funniest part of the visit was a few hours after lunch. Ray cooked us steak for lunch. Later, an evidently hungry Logan went and took another hunk of steak for himself without asking. We wouldn't have known about it if he hadn't knocked over the dog's water dish. You just don't see kids going for steak when they are hungry.

On Wednesday Alana's family took us of a tour of rural middle Tennessee. It was nice to be chauffeured for a change! They drove us up and down a nearby mountain, stopping at a couple of lookout sites. They drove us into Sewanee (pronounced "Swan-nee"), where the University of the South is located. It has some beautiful architecture and a lot of history (two Civil War generals are connected with the university). Along the way Alana's Aunt Sandra took us to a gift shop that used to be a general store where her father once worked. He father also taught at the university for a short time, before becoming a high school teacher and later a principal. Her great grandfather was involved in building a retaining wall along the mountain highway.

The whole lot of us stopped by her Great Aunt Gladys' home, to see her and Great Uncle Merrel. They were incredibly shocked by the visit from the family, and terribly delighted. Uncle Merrel used to make his own furniture. He gave me a tour of the furniture in his home, which was awesome. My Dad would have enjoyed this. Later we drove to her aunt's cousin's home. Back in June we were supposed to go to a family reunion/anniversary party for Aunt Sandra and Uncle Wilroy, but we couldn't go because it fell on Father's Day (and we'd have to get Logan back to Monroe for a visit to Alana's ex). Cousin Beth had the reunion at her place, with the mountains visible from her home and farm. We got to meet Beth and Bill, and took several pictures with the mountains in the background. We returned to Jennifer's house for more food and more relatives.

We were late getting back to the La Quinta where we were staying. Sabine was happy to see us. This La Quinta is one of the few hotels in Chattanooga that allow pets. That morning we swapped rooms as the air conditioning died in our previous room. Sabine didn't have to stay in her crate all day, as the room was already clean. Alana had a problem with her door key twice, and there were a couple of times where housekeeping didn't clean up our room (probably because of Sabine, even when we told them that she was crated), so it wasn't a great hotel. It wasn't the Bates Motel, either. The hotel was inexpensive, which combined with taking pets made it ideal for us. It allowed us to take Sabine, saving us kennel money.

I'd been wanting to visit the Chickamauga battlefield for more than a decade. I finally got my wish on Monday. The battlefield is about 10 miles from Chattanooga, across the border in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. This is the site of the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, second only to Gettysburg in casualties. This doesn't tell the whole story: Gettysburg was fought over three days while Chickamauga was fought over two, and there were 30,000 fewer Union soldiers at Chickamauga (but about the same number of Confederates).

We followed the signs to the battlefield, which caused us some disconcerting moments due to the signs being somewhat vague. We got to the visitor's centre after lunch. Logan was immediately enthralled with the Civil War cannons on display. I answered his questions about how the guns were loaded and fired, which echoed something that happened later. The gift shop was fairly small, but well stocked. I purchased a couple of maps based on period surveys similar to those that I bought in Gettysburg in 1994 (only to discover, later, that the maps are double sided; I guess at some point I'll have to buy two more!).

The battlefield itself reminds me a lot of Shiloh. It is heavily wooded, without clear lines of sight over the battlefield (characteristic of the western battles). Instead of the battle being focused along a long battle line (as at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Manassas), it was fought in disjointed pockets (like at Shiloh). Unlike Shiloh, the defensive line didn't shift too much. The result is a battlefield with concentrated pockets of monuments and markers, but without a lot of distinctive features. Snodgrass Hill, though impressive, is no Little Round Top. It more closely resembles Culp's Hill at Gettsyburg, but is smaller and has far fewer monuments. For the casualties, the battlefield seems too small. It reinforces the largely unimaginative tactics used by both sides (particularly the winning Confederates) which produced massive numbers of dead and maimed.

We were at the battlefield for about 5 hours. I'd like to go back some time and check out some of the more obscure locations. I'd also like to spend more time on Snodgrass Hill and poking around in the woods. The fall would be a good time to go; it was a bit warm the day we were there.

After the battlefield, we went to Baskin & Robbins for ice cream. There is no B&R in Monroe (nor a Dairy Queen, anymore) so this was a real treat for Logan, who had never been in one.

There are three or four game stores in Chattanooga. I'm sure the only one we went to — Gameboard in the Hamilton Place Mall — was the most expensive. It had a great selection, though. They didn't have much in the way of miniatures games, but they had a whole wall of fantasy miniatures (and some old Battletech miniatures). Their roleplaying game selection was very good, with a heavy emphasis on GURPS, but also games from other companies (like the Army of Darkness RPG from Eden, and Rune — a heroic Viking game I purchased — from Atlas Games). There was an obligatory D20 section, but non-D20 or OGL games outnumbered the D20 stuff by at least three to one. I was impressed with their selection of "designer" board games, like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. I would have purchased the new Carcassonne game (Carcassonne: The Discovery) but that was about the only variant they did not have in stock. I almost picked up Metro. Its price tag put me off. Instead we bought Beetlez, a family card game that I'm sure Logan will enjoy. Oh, and we bought more dice! Alana is in denial; she says she isn't a gamer chick (in spite of playing RPGS and board games), yet she has a huge collection of dice. She claims it's because she is a dice collector. Anyway, she has more dice now, (as do I; I'm a sucker for new dice, too. I at least admit that I'm a gamer).

We hit a few of the local tourist traps. The best was the Tennessee Aquarium. We bought a set of group tickets that got us into the aquarium, the IMAX theatre, and the Creative Discovery Museum. The aquarium is in two parts. When we toured the ocean portion I was a little surprised at how small it was. Turns out this was an expansion building. The original building is about four times the size. It concentrates on life in rivers around the world, and in ocean areas fed by rivers (such as the Gulf of Mexico). I found the whole thing fascinating. So did Logan. He was thrilled to touch a live stingray and a sturgeon. We spent what must have been 20 minutes watching two divers feed some fish, including the big stingrays.

We split up the aquarium visit by going to the 3 p.m. showing of the IMAX Deep Sea 3D film. This is the first full colour 3D movie I'd seen. It was quite well done, even if you had to wear the dorky glasses, and even if you did go nuts trying to focus on things that were out of focus on the film. After the movie we ran over to the Creative Discovery Museum. This was a disappointment for Alana and I. It is almost a duplicate of the Children's Museum in New Orleans, which we took Logan to a couple of years ago, and is pretty similar to Sciport in Shreveport, which we went to last year. We were expecting something more/different. Logan adored it, though, and that's the main thing. His favourite part of the trip was digging for dinosaur bones in a big sand box.

Lookout Mountain is a large mountain that extends down into Georgia and, I think, Alabama. The north end of it overlooks Chattanooga. In the north face there was a cave complex known to the natives for centuries and used during the Civil War. It was sealed in 1905 when a railroad tunnel was created near it. In the 1920s, the land was purchased by Leo Lambert and an elevator shaft was drilled down to get to the cave complex. Lambert wanted to open it up for tourists. Instead, with a blast of fresh air, his drilling team discovered a different cave. Lambert crawled for hours until he came to an underground waterfall 165 feet high. He took his wife down to see it the next day and named it after her. Her name was Ruby. Ruby Falls is now a big tourist trap. The trip to the falls and back takes close to two hours, including elevator rides down and back up to the surface. The passageway is some 1100 feet below the gift shop on the surface. The trip through the cave was very enjoyable, particularly if you like stalactites and stalagmites, and flowstone. The falls themselves were disappointing. The guides build up the falls all along the route. They then crowd you into a dark chamber. Suddenly music fires up and a spotlight hits the falls. Oooo. Ahhh. Next they herd you around the back of the falls, and after about five minutes send you back down the passageway. It is all designed to get as many people through the tour as fast as possible. I expected the chamber to be bigger, like the kinds of caves you hear about in Carlsbad. Instead, it wasn't much bigger than our apartment. I didn't like the fact that they herd you out of the chamber so quickly.

Here is the Wikipedia article on Ruby Falls: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Falls

Rock City was different. It's almost the exact opposite of Ruby Falls. It's on the other end of this section of the mountain. Instead of being underground, it is all above ground. The limestone boulders form passageways you can walk through (some of which are a very tight squeeze). This is essentially just a hiking and nature trip around the boulders, but it is well worth the effort. A rope bridge spans a deep chasm. You have the option of crossing a stone bridge, but I took the rope bridge anyway, in spite of my legendary fear of heights. The rope bridge takes you to Lover's Leap. The view from the Lover's Leap cliff is breathtaking. They say you can see seven states from up there, but I was skeptical even when I got there. I've been up the CN Tower in Toronto and you can barely see Buffalo, NY. I didn't think it was possible to see Virginia from there. According to Wikipedia, you can't. The farthest you can see are the mountains in the Knoxville, area. You can see Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, but forget about Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia.

Part of the trip is through man-made stone corridors past fairy tale displays involving fairies and gnomes. The gnomes were garden gnomes painted bright colours and illuminated by black light. At the end of the passage is a large diorama of figures from various fairy tales. Alana and I independently described the displays and the diorama as "cheesy".

Here is the Rock City Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_City

I'd do Rock City again before I'd do Ruby Falls. The hike is a lot of fun, with a great view of the scenery. Best of all, you can take it at your own pace. Ruby Falls was interesting, but you are herded through too quickly to truly enjoy it. I will post pictures when I get them developed (probably not until we get paid next month).

These tourist traps are certainly not cheap. I think it was around $70 for the three of us to go to Rock City and Ruby Falls, and that was a package deal. It would have been more if we'd paid to go on the incline railway.

Between Ruby Falls and Rock City we went to Point Park. This is at the summit of Lookout Mountain. It marks the point where Union and Confederate forces fought in the "battle above the clouds" during the Battle of Chattanooga. Chickamauga was free to get in, so it was a surprise that they wanted $3 per adult for point park. The view was worth it. I mentioned early on that Logan wanted to know about Civil War cannons. We just missed a reenactor doing a rifle drill. Afterward, a park ranger demonstrated how they fired a cannon. An enthralled Logan wanted to be involved in this, but the ranger only picked the older people in attendance. It didn't stop Logan from standing near them, as if he was part of the action.

My trips tend to have themes. This trip's theme was climbing. I climbed up and down point park, taking pictures of the cannons and the view. I went down along one trail until I got to the point where a lot of the heavy fighting took place. From there I could see all of Chattanooga, including Missionary Ridge where the main part of the battle took place. I had to climb up and down pathways in the heat. This added to the climbing at Chickamauga (including an 85 foot high monument), the aquarium, the Creative Discovery museum (they have a tower there, too), and later that day. It hammered home just how bad a shape I'm in.

On the way back from Lookout Mountain we stopped at the Craven House, where I was able to take more battlefield photographs. On the way home, we drove to Orchard Knob (where I did even more climbing) and along Missionary Ridge, again as part of the Battle of Chattanooga (technically the Third Battle of Chattanooga) pilgrimage. Orchard Knob is a steep hill in a lower middle class area of Chattanooga. It was fairly important in the battle, and as such is sprinkled with monuments. Missionary Ridge is not really a protected battlefield area. There are some protected areas called "reservations" and some tablets on private properties. I hope the photograph of the cannons on the front lawn of a private home turn out. The view was spectacular from the ridge, but you could only catch it in several places. You'd think that if they were going to bother putting markers on the ridge that they'd bother to put places where you could park — or at least stop — without getting in the way of traffic. Considering how expensive some of these homes are, I suspect that they want to encourage tourists in this area as little as possible.

We drove off the mountain and on to the highway, stopping for lunch in Trenton, Georgia. As we left, Alana and I were hit with a mixture of looking forward to getting home and sadness at the end of the trip.

So, there you have it, our vacation. This was the first time Alana and I had gotten away for longer than a slightly extended weekend, without one of us working, since I moved down here. I guess it could have been our honeymoon if Logan hadn't been with us. We made a list of things we wanted to see and do. We got to most of it, but there are still other things on our list. We intend to visit Alana's family more often in the future. Logan wants to get to the amusement centre at Raccoon Mountain in the worst way. And, of course, I have more battlefield portions to visit.

Alana and I agree that we'd rather live in Chattanooga than Monroe. (We'd rather live in Shreveport than Monroe. In fact, there's not much to say about living in Monroe at all. The list of places we'd rather be is quite long.) Right now, the best chance of that happening is either us winning a lottery or somehow managing to retire to the Chattanooga area. With the U.S. dollar crashing, my dream of returning to Scotland is evaporating. A return to the Chattanooga area, though, is a good substitute.

1 comment:

Paulman said...

Sounds like a great trip. Nice to hear about all those places again.

Sewanee saw some mean Masks of Nyarlathotep action back in the late 80s (I know, I was there...).