Every April, bloggers from all over the world participate in the April A to Z blog challenge, and you can too. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a great way to meet other bloggers. To play along, all you do is make a blog post for each letter of the alphabet during April, then visit as many other bloggers as you can.
Road trips would never be the same without the opportunity to stop at local diners, dives and drive-ins (OK…I gotta give credit to Guy Fieri). Food is such an important part of a road trip. Obviously, no matter where one drives they always come across the chain shops like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, etc. With those places, the food you get is always the same.
But, for me, the real joy is stopping at a local Mom and Pop shop or local Drive-In and trying out the fare. Someplace well known in that little town or region, but maybe not known anywhere else.
My good friend, singer/songwriter/storyteller/artist Antsy McClain did a song a few years ago called “Mom and Pop Don’t Work Here No More” in respect for these places that are quickly becoming a dying breed. (see the video)
“There used to be more flavor in this country that I roam I feel like I’m a stranger, no place to call my home I can eat the same cheeseburger from New Mexico to Main The same darn cup of coffee, just to link in someone’s chain No, mom-and-pop don’t work here no more”
So, when I am on the road I really make an effort to find the local places to eat and I have found many of them across this wonderful country of ours. For example, there is “Cozy Drive-In” in Springfield, IL which supposedly is famous because of its creation of the corndog.
Then there’s the place in Missouri called Lambert’s Cafe that is famous for its “Throwed Rolls.” Or how about the diner outside of Natchez, Mississippi that looks like an old 1930s black woman servant on the outside and service homemade sandwiches on homemade bread with deserts of homemade pie and cake? And how can I forget “Hillbilly Hotdog” in West Virginia or the unique burger joint called Fat Smitty’s that is plastered with dollar bills in Washington. And what about The Shack Burger Resort in Cypress, Texas?
Along the road there are always the burger joints, the ice cream places, and the roadside cafés. One never knows what they will get in some of these places. But, chances are the food will be much better than what one will get at a fast food chain place.
And each of these local places has their “speciality,” such as the Ku-Ku burger at Waylan’s in Commerce, OK on Route 66.
I recall visiting the “Tightwad Café” in Tightwad, MO. Amazing breakfast made for a king and not a miserly tightwad. The only indication that it was a “tightwad” type of place was that they only took cash — no credit cards.
But check out the food. This giant breakfast was very affordable and kept me filled up for a good part of the day.
Of course, there are the barbecue places. Oh yes, the myriad barbecue places across this country. I have had barbecue in North Carolina, Texas, Kansas City, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. In fact, one of my favorites was in Paris, Ontario in Canada!! And they’re all different and wonderful.
One such great barbecue place is Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City, Kansas. The café is inside a gas station and people are always waiting in line out the door to get their famous barbecue. And when I finished, my friend Brad Sweeten, and athletic director at one of the high schools in Kansas City, Missouri, took me to a local ice cream place that makes ice cream cones as tall is the Empire State building.
Honestly, I could write about the dozens and dozens of places I’ve visited over the years. Every single place has its own personality and tasty cuisine.
Following are a few of the photos of the diners, dives and drive-ins that I visited over the years. I have dozens that you can read about in my blog. I only have room to include a few. One piece of advice though… don’t go looking for a sandwich in Sandwich, NH. Been there…failed that. No sandwiches in Sandwich.
The year 2016 was not a banner year for travel for me as there were no super long cross country trips taken like I had done form 2012-2015. However, over the course of the year we did take a number of smaller trips and a couple of fairly long trips. I visited 11 states during the year and made it to some places where I hadn’t been for nearly 30 years. Even made it into towns from A (Abingdon, VA) to Z (Zanesville, OH) and one with an X too (Xenia, OH)!!
Here is a map that includes many of the places:
During the course of the year we visited a few major cities including Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We also visited Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee.
A good portion of my travel in 2016 was related to rails to trails bike trails that my wife Julianne had desired to ride. We visited some lovely bike trails in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. While Julianne rode, I would take the back roads and meet her along the trails. This was until I got my own bicycle on my birthday in October.
We took one flight during the year which was to Houston to celebrate a calling for my son in church and to visit our grandsons. In late October, we also drove to Fort Worth, Texas for the funeral of my father. Not as joyous a trip, but we did visit a few locations along the way for fun.
Our trips to Cleveland and Pittsburgh were predominantly because Julian sister Laura had moved from Idaho to the Pittsburgh area. So she met Julianne on a couple of the bike ride trips. She and Julianne also attended a conference at the Kirtland Temple and while they were there, I visited my family in Little Italy in Cleveland and also took some tours around the city with my sister Tina and her husband Jim.
Then we visited Laura in Pittsburgh, we got to see a number of wonderful things in Pittsburgh including the Monongahela Incline, hey unique rail type system that pulled us up to the top of Mt. Washington where we had spectacular views of the city of Pittsburgh and the three rivers down below.
The year ended on a high note as we took a long trip to Ocean City, MD where we stayed with Julianne’s sister and her husband Richard and their daughter for about a week on the beach. It was a wonderful trip! It was during this trip that we also visited Washington DC and the large LDS Washington DC Temple with all of its amazing Christmas lights. I also made my way up to Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, both of which I had not visited since the 1980s.
Of course, whenever we take road trips I always try to find the unique and the unusual whenever possible. And most of our trips were not immune from my searching to do so. On our trips visited such wonderful places as Friendly, WV, Prosperity, PA, Novelty, OH, Happy, KY, Eighty Four, PA and a few other unique named towns as indicated in photos below. I even located a Yellow Brick Road in Ohio and a Bliss Happens Lane in Maryland!
During the year we often ate at places that were focused on bicyclists and motorbike enthusiasts. One such location was in Oregonia, OH. It was way out of the way to get to. Then there was the place on the Virginia Creeper Trail which was almost impossible to get to my car but was built specifically for the bicyclists coming down the Virginia Creeper Trail.
In August, we got to visit Nashville and hang with my good friend and musician Antsy McClain. He took us around with a few other “field trippers” and showed us some of the sites of Nashville including music Row, some music dives and some good places to eat including the oldest diner in Nashville. We also have the unique chance to sit in a recording studio with Antsy and sing back up vocals on one of his songs!
During the course of the year, I also took a few “staycation” trips within Kentucky. This included one on the bike trail with Julianne, but also to Ravenna, where I visited hey famed café called the Wigwam. I also took a fun trip with my grandchildren and my daughter Marissa down to Cumberland Falls and then on into Corbin to visit the Harlan Sanders museum and restaurant which is where the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken got it start. During the fall I took a solo trip up into Red River Gorge to get pictures of the fall colors. I was about a week too late to get most of them, but that was because we were in south eastern Virginia on the Creeper Trail to see the beautiful colors down there.
Some of the other more unique places that I got to see over the past year would include the “Birthplace of Superman,” which was in Cleveland, as well as the house where the movie “A Christmas Story” was filmed. Also while in Ohio, I visited the world’s largest geodesic dome in Novelty, OH. That was fascinating.
Of course, I can’t neglect to mention the visit to Little Italy to see my birthplace and family. I ate fine Italian cuisine at Mama Santa’s and had a great time seeing other sites there. Its the best Little Italy in the US!
During the year I also visited two fast food restaurants that had included museums in them. The Wendy’s restaurant in Dublin, OH had a whole section built in there with the history of Wendy’s and a large statue of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas. In Canonsburg, PA, there is a McDonald’s restaurant that includes dedications and memorabilia of Perry Como and Bobby Vinton, both of whom grew up in Canonsburg.
It was fun for me to visit Xenia, OH and see the murals and the architecture and then also travel around some of the other areas nearby with Julianne and her sister and/or our grandchildren who rode their bikes along some of the bike trails including the Little Miami Scenic Trail.
We visited the Little Miami Scenic Trail twice and each time had a great time.
Overall, I have to say it was a wonderful year. I saw dolphins swimming at sunrise on Christmas morning in the Atlantic Ocean in Maryland. We got to visit some of our great national historical sites in Washington DC. On many of the trips, it was fun to travel with the grandchildren and see the delight in their eyes they saw big waterfalls, giant statues and other interesting places.
On a final note, I have to say that we did visit a few interesting places to eat. A great taco place in Houston, and, as I mentioned before, the Wigwam in Ravenna, KY. Also of note were the Crabcake Factory in Ocean City, MD and a Japanese place with a unique name Saketumi, in Rehoboth Beach, DE.
As I start a new position in new venture 2017, I look forward to traveling. The new company (PrecisionHawk) is in Raleigh, NC and so I will be taking a trip there in early January. Who knows what other delights I will find in 2017.
Following are a few other random shots from my trips in 2016:
I will have a different post about the Virginia Creeper Trail as part of my Bike Trail Series, but I wanted to post an article about the non-bike portion of our trip to Damascus, Abingdon, and Bristol, VA. Besides the bike trail, there is so much more to see and do on a road trip down to this part of Appalachia.
We began our trip by leaving early in the morning on Saturday to drive to Damascus via the towns of Hazard and Whitesburg in Kentucky on US Highways 23 and 119. Once into Virginia, we passed through the small towns of Pound and Wise.
The entire drive that morning was beautiful as we passed through the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia. The mountains were laced with fog and low clouds in this beautiful part of Appalachia. Many of the plants and telephone lines were covered with the invasive Kudzu (also known as Japanese Arrowroot) plant…though obnoxious, it does have its own eerie beauty.
Our first actual stop on the road was right as we entered the town of Pound. As we come down the hill there is a large mural painted on the side of a wall by the highway. As always, I stopped to grab a photo to add to my growing collection of wall murals from around the US and Canada. We then drove through the little village of Pound to see if there was anything interesting, which there wasn’t. But, these small little towns always have a charm about them.
Along US 23 after getting into Virginia, we came across signs that said we were on “The Crooked Road.” The Crooked Road is Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a driving route through the Appalachian Mountains from the Blue Ridge to the Coalfields region, following U.S. Route 58, but also with parts on U.S. Route 23.
The road winds through over 333 miles of scenic terrain in southwest Virginia, including 19 counties, four cities, and 54 towns. Famed Bluegrass musicians such as Ralph Stanley, Joe Wilson, the Carter Family Fold and others, all hailed from this area.
From Pound we made our way into Wise, VA on US 23 and just continued on the road to Damascus. Our trip eventually took us into Abingdon and then on to Damascus. From there we then went up US Highway 58 to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and near the top of Whitetop Mountain where there is a station called Whitetop Station where the bike trail begins (actually begins about a mile away in North Carolina).
It was a beautiful drive up there and they departed on their ride down the hill. Whitetop Station is about 3500′ in altitude and Damascus is at 1952′, so in a 17 mile stretch they would drop about 1600 feet. (I’ll cover that in a separate Bike Trail Post) After dropping them off, I drove a few mile back to Green Cove Station, which is another stop along the Virginia Creeper Trail. It was packed with bikers, but is also a very scenic part of the route.
Both Whitetop and Green Cove have snacks, drinks and also sell some t-shirts and hats, proceeds of which go to benefit the Creeper Trail Association that maintains the trail.
The stations also carry a few tools and some spare tires, etc., that have been donated by other riders.
Certainly worth a brief visit to see their offerings if you are up that way.
This area near Green Cove is dotted with Christmas Tree farms and is a lusciously pastoral environment for both the bikers and those tat are driving the back roads. The scene above is indicative (and you can see the Christmas tree grove on the left side).
From Green Cove I headed back down to the town of Damascus and drove around. Damascus touts itself as “Trail Town USA.” The reason for this is because many trails seem to converge into this town, most specifically the Appalachian Trail which is America’s most famous hiking trail and then the Virginia Creeper Bike Trail, which is one of the more well-known bike trails. There are apparently a few other trails that come through the area.
The entire town is set up to handle this “trail traffic.” There are outdoor shops, a number of bike shops that sell and rent bikes, there are outfitters that provide the things needed for hiking and camping such as tents and sleeping bags. Many of the eateries in town also cater to this type of crowd, thus giving the town a very relaxed and very friendly atmosphere. Sundog Outfitters was a great place for this and also has a large bike repair area with most of the items needed. We know as we had to get a repair done there during our visit.
Another thing I liked about the town was the murals. I am always looking for interesting murals and wall paintings. There are 4 or 5 murals including the Trail Town USA mural (shown above) which features a large compass and a life size mural poster of the Appalachian Trail with a pioneer on it. The Town Park features some interesting murals on the Restroom Walls…one of them I took has become one of my more popular Instagram photos. Following are a couple more I came across.
Unfortunately, as I noted above, Julianne’s bike broke down along the first few miles of the trail and she and Marissa ended up being stranded. They made their way to the Upbeet Cafe and the Creeper Trail Cafe, located along the trail on Taylor Valley Road, but really way out of the way for a car from Damascus. Map is below.
Actually, the Upbeet Cafe, where Julianne was stranded, is further north up VA 725. Fortunately, a good Samaritan took her in a truck from the Upbeet to the famed Creeper Trail Cafe where I was able to find her and get the bike loaded.
As a result of the downed bike and the time required to drive to Taylors Valley and back to Damascus, we decided to call it a day and go again on the next day. So, we drove back into Damascus, got the bike repaired at SunDog and then found our way to a place to eat.
I am always about eating at local places when on the road and had researched to find that the Old Mill Inn in Damascus was THE place to eat in town. There are many other eateries, but this one is along the river and overlooks a scenic waterfall.
The thing about this unique eatery is that the menu is upscale and the dining experience is nice, but they cater to the casually dressed bikers and hikers. We were given great treatment by Kara Maguire, who is related to the owners. And we got a special treat when the Head Chef, John King, came out personally to serve us our unique and tasty dishes. All this while we sat at a table overlooking the waterfall behind the mill.
The atmosphere was casual, but the dining experience was upscale. They first brought us some Asian inspired tacos as an appetizer. These were so good that they disappeared before I could even get a photo! For dinner, Julianne got a vegan dish called Beet Risotto that included some root vegetables that had been steamed and spiced and were laid on top of the risotto. It was very tasty. I picked up a nice pulled-pork three cheese sandwich with their homemade “Mill Slaw.” Marissa had a chicken curry sandwich which was also quite amazing.
After dinner, we spent the night in Bristol, Virginia. I had earned a free night through my Choice Hotels points and stayed at Quality Inn and Suites. It was a nice restful evening as prepared to get up early the next morning to return to Whitetop.
Our drive up to Whitetop Station on Sunday was phenomenal! Along the roadway there were many places where we saw sunbeams coming through the trees, such as the photos that I have included below. Reminded me of a reference to Paul the Apostle in Acts 9:3 in the New Testament that says: “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.” Indeed, on US 58 near Damascus, we too enjoyed the lights from Heaven on that Sabbath morning.
After dropping them off on the trail, I made my way back down the road and visited a couple of the bridges and then went on to Damascus and did more driving around town to find old buildings, little bed-and-breakfast places and ultimately a place for us to eat dinner.
On Sunday we stopped for lunch at a place along the trail called In the Country Bakery and Eatery. There are actually many places along the trail, some of which are actually a challenge to get to via automobile but have been built specifically to handle trail traffic. I
already mentioned the Upbeet Cafe and Creeper Cafe above. But on this day we stopped at In the Country which sit on the outskirts of Damascus. They offer sandwiches, baked goods and home made fudge. Their food was reasonable and they had indoor and outdoor seating with a view of the trail across US 58.
On the same site they have a great ice cream place called Off the Beaten Path Ice Cream Shoppe. It so happened that July 17 was National Ice Cream Day so we all indulged in ice cream.
They offered about 20 different flavors and also had some sherbets so it was perfect for a very warm day.
After lunch and a little relaxing Julianne and Marissa took off for the remaining 13 or 14 miles of their trip to Abingdon, Virginia on the Creeper Trail. I too made my way to Abingdon via US Highway 58 and took a couple of detours to get photos of the trail with them riding on it. I also found a couple of nice bridge shots along the way.
Apparently, the last few miles of the trail to Abingdon have a grueling gradual uphill climb, but not nearly the altitude change. Indeed, Damascus sits at 1952′ while Abingdon is at 2087′, which means about a 100′ rise. However, there was still some downhill from Damascus apparently.
I got to Abingdon much earlier than they did and was able to drive around the little town, which also caters to the biking crowd and to the hiking crowd. I discovered a movie complex with great wall art so had to grab a couple of shots. Always like fun Wall Art.
Abingdon has a Virginia Creeper Welcome Center at the end of the trail and it includes many old relics from the railroad and also has the last train engine to ride along that railroad from the 1980s. The final bridge, bridge number one, is the end of the trail and in that vicinity there are other little things to see.
After we loaded the bikes, we departed for Kentucky via Bristol, VA where we had spent the night previously. Bristol, VA is one of those unique towns that actually is split into two states. The drive along State Street will feature flags of the United States and Virginia on one side of the highway and flags of Tennessee and the United States on the other side. There are theaters, and number of murals in the town and the fairly well known large archway that welcomes people to Bristol.
While driving through town we came across a fast food place called Pal’s Sudden Service. We didn’t stop there to eat (we were already full), but I loved the unique building design — totally quirky. And I really got a kick out of their road sign — Exercise Daily. The building only has drive thru windows and no other windows. But the giant hot dog and hamburger can’t be missed! They apparently are located mainly in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, with 28 shops dotting this region. The company got its start in Kingsport, TN, where the original Pal’s still sits with its giant Burger Holding Muffler Man statue (looks like I need another trip!)
Our Drive back to Lexington from Bristol took us through Cumberland Gap and we were able to take the famed Cumberland Gap Tunnel which brought us into the town of Middlesboro.
Originally completed in October 1996, the tunnels each carry two-lanes of traffic. Each tunnel was bored through 4100-feet of solid rock. At the tallest point, the tunnels are 30-feet high. Cross passages, located every 300-feet, connect the two tunnels and are equipped with fire extinguishers and phones for emergency use.
Since the mountain releases approximately 450 gallons of water every minute, thick PVC liner around the tunnels ensures that the bores stay dry. Air quality is monitored constantly by electronic sensors, and ventilation fans are located every 600-feet to keep air circulating in the tunnel. Variable message board signs are located in the Cumberland Gap vicinity to warn drivers of impending hazardous traffic and weather conditions or to direct traffic flow. AM and FM radio stations can be overridden with emergency messages as well.
The town of Middlesboro, KY is one a few towns in the United States or perhaps even the world, that is built completely within the confines of a meteor crater. We stopped there for dinner at a Mexican restaurant and enjoyed some fairly good food. From there we zipped back up through Barbourville and Corbin and then back into Lexington.
It was a quick two day trip, but it was very fun and the scenery was amazing. The mountains of Appalachia especially in southeast Kentucky southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee are very beautiful. We look forward to taking another trip to the area in October when the colors should all be changed. Needless to say, the summer brings its own variety of colors in the wildflowers, some of which I captured in digital form…another plus to a trip like this!