For our 2015 summer vacation, we reserved a campsite at Harrison Bay State Park near Chattanooga, Tennessee. My folks drove from Green Bay and we drove from Enterprise to “meet in the middle”. I wanted to record each day in the event that we wanted to “relive” the fun.
Day One – Camp Cracker Barrell
The plan was to roll out around 9 am, which would put us at the campground around 4 pm. Dad and Cindy were driving down from Wisconsin and were also arriving at the park around 4 pm. We had a little bit more packing to do, so we didn’t leave until 9:45 am. The drive up to Chattanooga went pretty smoothly. My camper break lights weren’t working, so Tara had to follow pretty close in the van to keep cars from getting in between. We stopped for lunch in Clanton and then continued on our way. We stopped once more just outside Fort Payne for diesel.
We arrived at the park around 4:45. Dad and Cindy had arrived 20 minutes prior and were sitting outside “A-Frame” at the ranger station waiting on us. When I hopped out of my truck Dad met me with a frown. “I screwed up, I booked our site for the wrong Saturday.”
“I screwed up, I booked our site for the wrong Saturday.”
Originally, we were staying Sunday through Sunday. However, Dad was able to get off work a day early. So at the last minute, we both booked campsites for one night on Saturday, because who wouldn’t want an extra day of vacation right? We booked our reservations in “Section A” way back in February, but when we booked the sites in “Section B” for the extra night, we didn’t do our research. Dad booked the wrong day, and my site was only 25 feet long – and I have a 34-foot camper.
We talked it over with park rangers and decided it would be best to go find a hotel in nearby Ooltewah. Frustrating for sure, but hey – we were on vacation, no need to be grumpy right?!
By the time we made it to Ooltewah, it was 6:30 and everybody was dog-tired and hungry. We parked at a nearby Walmart, then we all took Tara’s van to a Cracker Barrel. Over dinner, I called all the local hotels. There wasn’t much available, and prices were high (it was Saturday night after all). I asked to speak to the manager at Cracker Barrel to explain our situation and ask if we could use their parking lot for the night. Without hesitation, she said, “Absolutely! Folks use our parking lot all the time for overnight stops. We have an RV parking area that is well-lit and has security cameras. We open at 6 am too, so join us for breakfast!”
FYI: Walmart has stopped offering overnight parking for trucks and those towing campers in some locations, Cracker Barrell however, says “Come on! park your RV!”
So that’s what we did. The first night of the family vacation was spent in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. There wasn’t any power or running water, plus it was 90 degrees all day, so you can imagine how hot it was in the camper. We had no luck getting Chloe to sleep in the sweltering heat, so Tara, Chloe, and Chase went to sleep in the van with A/C running. While I was getting the camper locked up before heading to the van myself, I heard a weird “click. click. click” sound coming from the camper refrigerator.
“What now!?” I yelled.
It’s 10:00 pm, and I’m hot, sweaty, tired, frustrated, and just want to go to bed. Turns out the camper battery was dead and our fridge (which I thought ran on LP) runs on both LP AND battery. I’m so confused at this point because the camper should have a fully charged battery. It was plugged in at the house for two days, plus the truck’s alternator charges it while we drove. Apparently, that was broken too. I started my truck anyway and went back into the camper. The clicking continued. “What the hell!? Why aren’t you charging!” Frustrated beyond belief, I went and lay down in the cab of my truck. The A/C felt good and I need time to think. I fell asleep around 10:30 and by 2:00 am I awoke with a big light bulb above my head…
“Check the fuses.”
I grabbed my screwdriver and opened the fuse panel on the truck. Looking at the manual, I located the two responsible for brake/turn lights and battery charging. Sure enough, both of the were blown. I stole the fuse for my windshield wipers and plugged it into the battery charging slot and ran back into the camper. The clicking had stopped and I had a green light. The fridge was running again! This sweet victory was just what I needed after a tough evening. I lay down in our bed and dozed off. By this time, it was only 70 degrees and the camper was quite comfortable…
Day Two – Broken Arms and Bratwurst
Around 7:30 am we all walked into Cracker Barrell for some much-needed coffee and bathrooms, but what we all really wanted was a shower! Check-in wasn’t until Noon, so we had a lot of time to kill. After breakfast, we drove to Wal-Mart to stock up on groceries and ice, then to O’Reilly Auto Parts for extra fuses, and finally, we topped off the van then headed back to Cracker Barrell. After everything was packed we headed for the campground.
We arrived around 11:40, a little early, but most everyone had cleared out. We checked in and drove to our campsite. It was a relief that there were no issues this time. When we pulled up to A16 and A17, we saw that the people in A17 were still there, their vehicle was gone. Their gear was thrown about the campsite and it appeared that they were making no attempt to check out on time.
Since our campsite was A16, I went ahead and started backing in and setting up. Dad parked on the side of the camp road and headed back to the A-Frame to see why A17 still had a camper on it. While he worked on that, I worked on getting the camper’s A/C running. It was already 88 degrees and the newly renovated campsites have fresh asphalt making for a heated campsite setup.
Out of nowhere, an old Ford F-350 whipped into A-17 and Bubba himself started throwing gear into the camper. Dad was back from the A-Frame by this time. He pointed at Bubba and said, “They’ve been at the hospital all morning, his daughter fell and broke her arm. She had to have surgery.” Dad walked over to him and asked if his daughter was going to be alright and if he wanted any help tearing down. Bubba declined but thanked him for the gesture.
An hour later and we had both our sites set up. It was around 1:30 and nobody was in the mood to do anything except shower and chill in the A/C. So, that’s what we did the first afternoon. Settled in and then we made beer brats, beans, and some salad for dinner. After an uneventful afternoon (and evening), we all went to bed early. Personally, I haven’t slept this good in a loooooong time…
Day Three – Trains, Ruby’s, and Urban Flooding
The coffee pot finished brewing around 8:00 am. The sun was beating down while Tara made some oatmeal and poured us some orange juice. By this time, Dad & Cindy were sitting on their front porch sipping on some coffee, so we decided to join them for breakfast.
Dad was getting cornhole out for Chase. In no time, we were slinging bean bags first thing Monday morning. Everyone agreed that this “sure beats typical Monday mornings”. After a few tosses, we had a plan for the day. After lunch, we were going to ride a train, see Ruby Falls, and then go downtown for dinner.
After some sandwiches and salads, everyone packed into the van and I pointed it south toward Chattanooga. We arrived at the Tennessee Valley Railroad depot just in time for the 1:15 Missionary Ridge Local. As we walked toward the depot we were able to see some really cool train cars parked out front. The was a train whistle blowing in the background as we walked into to buy our tickets.
When we walked inside there were two younger gentlemen talking on radios. They were both dressed in black and white, one with a train conductor hat – complete with a pocket watch. Ticket prices weren’t bad at all, only $17. I thought this was a great deal for a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Chase and Chloe. Tara had never been on a train, so she wasn’t sure what to make of all this. As we walked out to the platform, we could see one other couple in an otherwise (very) empty train car. I felt sorry for a moment, then remembered it was only 1:15pm on a Monday.
As we boarded we chose the open-air car instead of the air-conditioned one, besides we’d have the entire car to ourselves! As the conductor came and punched our tickets the train started to move. Nobody could hide their smiles as the whistle blew and the sounds of a train on the tracks filled the empty car. After a moment, the tour guide came over the loudspeaker to inform us our next stop was at the East Chattanooga station and Tennesee Valley Railroad Repair Yard and the “Turntable”.
When the train reached full speed, I started moving around the car snapping pictures and reading some of the informational plaques. It turns out, our car was built in the 1940s (or maybe it was the 1960’s) and had been restored with all the original furniture – including luggage racks and bathrooms. Clearly, this was a coach car, but I could definitely see the appeal of traveling by train. It was really neat to see the “hidden countryside” which included a river, bridges, and experience the thrill of going through a (very dark) tunnel.
As we approached the East Chattanooga sub-station, we could see all kinds of different trains including some steam engines! The conductor was back on the intercom system telling us we’ll be stopping for a tour of the repair shop and to watch the engine on “the turntable”. With whistleblowing, we slowed into the station and were instructed to exit our car and follow the conductor.
When all (eight) of the passengers were on the platform the conductor started his talk about the repair shop, and the specifics of the engine, and introduced our engineer all while unhitching the engine from the passenger cards. As we started walking forward, the conductor waved to the engineer and he started moving the engine forward as well. We walked 50 yards toward the turntable and stopped as the conductor walked onto this huge circular platform with train tracks in the middle. On one end was a small building not much bigger than an outhouse. The whole thing looked like a bowl, and it was plain to see why it was called the turntable. As the engine slowly crept forward to a halt in the middle, the conductor activated a motor and the entire turntable began to spin until the train engine had done a 180-degree turn.
We were given a short tour of the repair shop and told to board our car so we could make our way back. This time I took Chase and Chloe and stood at the back of the car. There was nothing but a gate to hinder the view back to the depot. As we passed by the river and went through the tunnel again, I could help but think how refreshing this was. Even though our ride lasted an hour, the contrast from the (sometimes crazy) interstate system with its cookie-cutter exits and fast-food chains, left me feeling nostalgic about taking the train for the next family vacation.