Tuesday, March 29, 2016 Road Junkies 0 Comments

In recent months, we have attended family events that drew large numbers of relatives.  While we enjoyed the opportunity to visit briefly with everyone, we realized that our interaction with each person was much too brief.  To really catch up, we needed more time with fewer people, not less time with more people.  Hearkening back to our old Polar Express treks to deliver holiday gifts to our nieces and nephews when they were young children, we conceived the Meals on Wheels Tour.

Like our long ago winter whistle-stops in Santa’s footsteps, the idea of the trip would be a brief visit with one family unit only.  To ensure it would not interfere with their regular routine, we would meet them at a restaurant of their choosing.  That way they wouldn’t need to worry about cleaning their house.  The meal would, of course, be at our expense, and at the end of it we would part ways.

After we volunteered to drive our travel buddy Steven to Alabama for a visit with Nanamama, his return home to Tennessee seemed the perfect time to implement the first course of Meals on Wheels.
SUNDAY:  Kathy and Steven at Drake’s

FRANKLIN, Tennessee—It was Easter Sunday, the last day of his spring break, when we drove 13-year-old Steven back home to Franklin, Tennessee.  Rachel had come home from college for the weekend and we just missed her by a few hours, but we’d catch her on another stop.

Fortuitously, we had the opportunity to participate in Steven and Kathy’s clever restaurant lottery game.  Last year, they compiled a list of restaurants in Franklin, and there are many—both local fixtures and regional and national chains.  The names of all these eateries were inscribed on index cards and placed in a bucket.  Each Sunday Kathy and Steven draw three cards from the container and pick one of those three for a meal.  Having three options keeps the game interesting and lively because they still have an element of choice.  The ones not selected are returned to the pail.
Steven and Kathy—a great pair of trivia partners!
As we discovered, today’s options were somewhat limited because several of the places initially selected were closed for the Easter holiday.  Nonetheless, we eventually settled on Drake’s, a Kentucky-based regional chain of sports bars featuring the unusual combination of burgers, sushi and craft beer.  Ample vegetarian choices were on the menu, and the sweet potato waffle fries were the hit of the meal.  We chanced upon Trivia Night, and though we arrived a bit late to be in the official competition, we all enjoyed the challenge of trying to answer the questions. 

The biggest news we learned from Kathy and Steven was about Steven’s plans to attend a special three-week college campus program through the Duke University Center for Summer Studies.  Scoring in the top 1% nationally among seventh graders in math on the ACT was his ticket to eligibility.  This 13-year-old is very excited about getting a taste of college this summer. 

MONDAY:  Alison at Crescent City Po Boys

GALLATIN, Tennessee—Cousin Alison, a teacher of gifted middle schoolers much like Steven, was our lunch date for Monday, her spring break beginning as Steven’s came to a close.  We met in downtown Gallatin near Alison’s cherished First United Methodist Church, where she has been singing in the chancel choir for 16 years.  The church was a short walk to the reinvigorated Gallatin town square and Alison’s favorite local restaurant—Crescent City Po Boys, purveyor of fresh, authentic Cajun and Creole food.   
A little bit of N'Awlins in Tennessee
Raised and trained in Louisiana, the Crescent City chef has contributed to the revitalization of the traditional downtown of his adopted city by hosting events such as monthly crawfish boils with live music.  Alison was fascinated with the stunningly intricate tattoos on the arms of our waiter, and he was quite flattered by her interest, sharing his future plans for the continued development of his dermal canvas.

In addition to hearing the latest news about her family, we learned from Alison how to determine a dog’s previous name.  Last year her family adopted a ruggedly handsome Bouvier des Flandres (Flemish cow herder), a black-coated shaggy dog, from a local animal shelter.  Learning that their new pet was almost five years old, Alison was convinced he had a name from his prior home, though the shelter staff had no information available. 
To ease the dog’s transition into her household, Alison employed a brilliant bit of deductive reasoning.  Once she got the pup home, a little research turned up the most popular dog names.   Armed with the list, Alison parked herself near the dog.  One by one, she called each name and watched for a response.  When she spoke “Riley,” the dog lifted his head and walked to her.  Bingo!  And Riley he is again.  This simple but ingenious technique could be a big help to shelters who offer dogs for adoption and to the canines’ future families.

MONDAY:  Rachel and Gavin at The Cheesecake Factory

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee—After a brief walking tour of downtown Gallatin, we drove east for our dinner date with niece Rachel and her friend Gavin.  They chose The Cheesecake Factory near the University of Tennessee campus.  With almost 200 locations around the world, the restaurant had its humble beginnings in 1972 when Detroit natives Evelyn and Oscar Overton moved to Los Angeles and opened a bakery selling cheesecakes made with recipes Evelyn had spent 30 years perfecting.  With a flair for business, their son David soon opened a restaurant featuring both entrees and a wide variety of desserts to showcase his mother’s creations.  The Cheesecake Factory was born.  In the intervening years, the chain has built a faithful following with its eclectic menu and generous portion sizes. 

It had been at least 20 years since we visited a Cheesecake Factory.  After our delicious dinner, we wondered why.
Rachel and Gavin arrived promptly on time, and we were glad for the opportunity to catch up with our niece and meet her Canadian American friend.  Attracted by the music industry, Gavin’s parents moved to the Nashville area from their rural home north of Lake Erie before Gavin was born.  His studies focus on construction management, and Rachel has finally given in to her passion for politics.  Taking three political science courses this semester has only reinforced her interest in the subject, and she recently decided to declare it as her major.  She talked animatedly about the current Presidential election and about a study abroad opportunity in London between her junior and senior years at UT.

After finishing our meal with a sampling of some of the restaurant’s legendary cheesecakes—tiramisu for Rachel and Gavin, salted caramel for us—we hugged our goodbyes and smiled wistfully as the two college kids trundled off to campus in Gavin’s vintage cafe au lait Ford pickup truck.

TUESDAY (Knoxville to Asheville)

With no engagements on Tuesday, we letterboxed our way from Knoxville to Asheville along a picturesque section of I-40.  Near the state line, we had parked on the shoulder of a side road to fetch a letterbox hidden on the Appalachian Trail nearby.  From our vantage point on a hill overlooking the road, we noticed another car pull over behind our vehicle.  After disembarking, the driver took a quick look around.  Finding no one in the vicinity, and with a look of desperation we recognized only too well, she demonstrated that it is indeed possible to view a full moon in the middle of the day. 
Other boxes led us along portions of the scenic and tranquil Blue Ridge Parkway.  One was hidden near the ruins of a seven-bedroom hunting lodge constructed by the Vanderbilts near their still thriving Asheville estate, Biltmore House.  It was no surprise that the lodge had been located on a ridge with a spectacular view overlooking the nearby mountains.

We spent Tuesday night in Asheville in preparation for beginning of the North Carolina part of this first course in nearby Waynesville the next day.
This Crescent City food didn't last long.
The lovely Rachel and charming Gavin