This 21st year of the 21st century was a big one for us for several reasons … including that it came with a big birthday for Seth. Not quite his 21st, but if you multiply that by two and then subtract two, you have it: 40!
What also made this a big year is that we’ve celebrated big, with four trips for the occasion — including this one to Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky during the week of Seth’s birthday. Which I guess in a sense makes it the pinnacle of our celebration — and although I’d have a tough time picking a favorite, I’d say this adventure was a great one for marking the actual milestone!
– feature film –
See the occasion come alive in these video highlights!
day 1 • 09.11.21
Although we were celebrating Seth’s birthday, our first stop of the trip actually was inspired by a pushpin map I got for my birthday several years ago. That map is where I first noticed an Erin, Tennessee, not too far from Nashville — and I’ve wanted to visit my namesake city ever since! It truly didn’t disappoint, as evidenced by the first sight that caught my eye upon our arrival. Wisdom Lodge was a perfect place for a Wisdom family photo (as my parents were with us on this trip), not to mention just an iconic photo op in general (for an Erin Wisdom, at least).
Erin is the Gaelic word for Ireland. Legend has it that the hills and creeks here reminded Irish settlers of their native country, so they named their new home after it. And with the town looking like it’s perpetually decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, that Irish identity seems to still be going strong.
I can’t overstate how exciting it was to walk around seeing my name everywhere (and I choose not to dwell on what this might indicate about a potential narcissism issue 🤣).
Fun fact: Four other states — Alabama, New York, Texas and West Virginia — also have towns named Erin. The United States also has a few Seths, and fittingly, all of them happen to be in states that also have Erins (Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia)! From what we could tell, the Seth in Tennessee seems to be an unincorporated area not on a map and without identifying landmarks, so we opted not to add it to our itinerary this trip. But I definitely foresee future adventures to as many other Erins and Seths as possible — although I’m not sure any will be as adorable as Erin, Tennessee.
I mean, come on. A shamrock at the top of the key and a leprechaun going in for a layup? That’s a lot of cute for a basketball court:
Above: Casting my shadow alongside those of the pillars at Erin Elementary. And all the heart-eyes 😍 over all of this:
day 2 • 09.12.21
Above: Hotel art in Music City. And below: Our first stop in Music City — the Grand Ole Opry House. For anyone like me who’s not super well versed in the history of country music (although I know more now!): The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly stage concert that began in Nashville in 1925 and is now the longest running radio broadcast in U.S. history. The show was instrumental (no pun intended!) in Nashville developing its identity as the world capital of country music, and it’s a crowing achievement in country music for an artist to become an Opry member.
After viewing a film about the Opry, we toured its soundstage and artists’ dressing rooms before ending in the auditorium.
The iconic 6-foot circle on the Opry’s stage is from Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, which served as the Opry’s home from 1943 until 1974 (when it moved to its current location to accommodate growing crowds). By bringing a piece of the Ryman’s stage to its new home, the Opry honored the Ryman’s role in its history and also helped preserve the legendary charm that had grown there.
We saw a lot of downtown Nashville by foot and by trolley that afternoon, starting in Centennial Park. Seth is pictured at above left with the park’s Parthenon centerpiece, which was originally constructed as a replica of the one in Athens for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition.
As much as I liked Nashville for its own attributes, my favorite part of experiencing it was probably walking around in this skirt. Which has pockets. (Enough said.)
We saw a number of the studios on Music Row, including the headquarters of Big Machine Records (at below left in the collage above), Taylor Swift’s first label. And at left in the collage below is a sign designed by Shel Silverstein, who I was surprised to learn was not only a children’s poet and cartoonist but also a prolific song writer. Johnny’s Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” was one he wrote (which totally tracks, when I compare it to his writing I already knew), and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
Above is Spence Manor on Music Row, which has a guitar-shaped swimming pool and was a favorite place to stay for stars like Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers and Elvis Presley. And below is Union Station:
Lower Broadway (above) was bustling on this Sunday afternoon. This entertainment district is just a short walk from Ryman Auditorium (below), and we spent a little time on Broadway before making our way to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Ryman’s history is rooted in a tent revival that took place in 1885 and was attended by a steamboat captain and prominent businessman named Thomas Ryman (depicted by the statue in these shots). He was so moved by the experience that he dedicated his life and wealth to building the Union Gospel Tabernacle as a gathering place for worship. After his death, it was renamed in his honor and went on to become the first permanent home of the Grand Ole Opry. Because it was built to project the booming voices of evangelists, the venue has great acoustics and is still known as one of the best performance halls in the world.
The architecture of the Country Music Hall of Fame has a lot of fun symbolism. To name a few examples shown in these shots: The windows on the front of the building allude to black piano keys. The sweeping arch on the right side is meant to resemble the fin of a 1950s-era Cadillac, and when viewed from above, that front wall takes the shape of a bass clef. The vertical stone bars on the Rotunda (at left in the shot above) portray music notes for the museum’s unofficial anthem, the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” And the tower rising from the Rotunda resembles that of WSM Radio, the station that began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry in 1925.
Waving hi from the Music City Walk of Fame:
Above: The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Cumberland River. And below: The AT&T Building, a 33-story skyscraper that is the tallest building in Tennessee.
We were fortunate to make it back onto a trolley right before a Tennessee Titans game ended, which our driver informed us would have had us stuck in a sea of 70,000 people leaving the stadium (above right).
Above left: The Tennessee Military Museum. Above right and below: The Tennessee State Capitol.
We ended our trolley tour where we’d started, at Centennial Park. And I came across one last photo-worthy stop on our way back to our car:
Above: My family was gracious enough to brave vegan food for me. And below: One last look at Nashville as the sun set.
day 3 • 09.13.21
Burgess Falls State Park >>> Oak Ridge, TN >>> Harrisburg Covered Bridge >>> Gatlinburg, TN
I started this day in a new hat and ready to hike, as we stopped about an hour into our drive to Gatlinburg at Burgess Falls State Park. The park contains four waterfalls that flow from the Falling Water River and are all within a mile of the parking area, beginning with the 20-foot Falling Water Cascades:
I like how the colors of my hair kind of correspond to those of the water and rocks in the shot above, and its waves could be imagined to mirror a waterfall. A little accidental symbolism that was fun to come across while putting together this post!
The trail next passes the 30-foot Little Falls, which still showcases a suspension bridge that used to be instrumental in transporting water from the Burgess Falls Dam to a powerhouse located below Burgess Falls.
Next up along our hike was the 80-foot Middle Falls.
And finally, we reached the park’s impressive namesake — the 136-foot Burgess Falls — before wrapping up our hike and continuing on our way Gatlinburg.
Above: We also stopped at a golf course in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at my dad’s request — because this city is one of the least windy in the country. And if you’re a lifelong golfer, wind conditions matter to you (which is actually something golfers share in common with photographers!).
And below: Our last stop on our way to Gatlinburg was at the Harrisburg Covered Bridge, which was originally constructed in 1875 for $75. Covered bridges were relatively common at that time in history because they lasted five times longer than uncovered bridges (100 years vs. 20 years), but only about one in 10 survived the 20th century. So I figured we should take a look at one when we had the chance!
On the drive to our mountaintop condo in Gatlinburg, we turned a corner and came upon a mama bear with a cub — which simultaneously thrilled and frustrated me, since I was not in a good position to get a photo before they disappeared into some trees. But fortunately, all (literal) signs pointed to the possibility of another bear sighting …
And I actually had two bear sightings from our balcony that evening! I suspect it may have been the same bear twice, and our best shots were from the second time:
About 1,500 black bears — or two per square mile — live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was my first time seeing a bear in the wild (other than the brief encounter in the road earlier that evening), and I’m especially thankful to have gotten such a good look at this one since the only other sighting we had later in the trip was farther away and more fleeting.
Also notable about this evening is that is was Seth’s last in his 30s! I don’t think he could have asked for a prettier view for seeing them out:
day 4 • 09.14.21
Gatlinburg, TN & Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The big day arrived! I’d planned a secret itinerary filled with four activities for celebrating Seth’s (finally official) 4-0. And I was most excited about the first — a mountain coaster — because I knew Seth would love it but would never expect me to pick it, as I’m really not a rollercoaster fan.
Unfortunately, Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster was short-staffed and unable to open. But Seth was still happily surprised, and I was still committed to getting him on a coaster (although I easily could have taken this as an out to keep myself off of one!). In the meantime, though, we moved on to activity No. 2:
Hillbilly Golf transports players in this cart to the top of a mountain, where they then play their way downhill on one of two putt-putt courses. I thought this would be something unique even for my dad, the master golfer. And it was in fact such a hit that we came back a couple days later to play the second course.
Above: Holes-in-one all around (Well, almost all around …).
Above: A second hole-in-one for my mom, and I love that we caught this one on video; it was a really fun shot both in camera and in life!
Above right: Still no hole-in-one for me as we wrapped up the game — but my club and ball matched my shirt, which should count for something, right?
Next up: Success in finding a Plan B coaster ride at Rowdy Bear Mountain. We rode it twice, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was much more my speed (literally) than most theme park rollercoasters — even though Seth employed the brakes a lot less our second time through.
Special thanks to my mom and dad, who did not want to ride themselves but were agreeable when I asked them to be our photo-and-film crew (along with the GoPro strapped to my chest). They took the job quite seriously and did great work, and I’m so glad to have these shots of what turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.
Our third activity was the Gatlinburg SkyLift, which took us to the top of Crockett Mountain. And with my parents being in the chair in front of us, Seth and I could return the favor for their camera work at the mountain coaster and this time be their photo-and-film crew!
After eating lunch at the top of the mountain, we walked across the SkyBridge — the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. Some of Seth’s background is in bridge-building with the Army, so I thought experiencing a notable bridge would be fitting for his big day. It also gave us great views of Gatlinburg and the Great Smokies:
After riding back down into town, we made our way to the trailhead for the Gatlinburg Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d aimed for birthday activities that were more out-of-the-ordinary for us than hiking — since we do a lot of that when traveling — but with National Parks being a big deal to us, I also wanted to make sure Seth’s big day included at least a little time in one.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park actually is the most visited National Park — by a lot. It had 12.1 million visitors in 2020, compared to only 3.8 million at Yellowstone, the second-most-visited. Given that we happened to have been at Yellowstone on almost the exact dates last year that we were at Great Smoky Mountains this year, this statistic made me a little nervous — because Yellowstone had been pretty packed.
Some of that was from increased numbers due to the pandemic limiting vacation options and wildfires driving people out of California, but still, I was really hoping we wouldn’t encounter exponentially larger crowds on this trip. And fortunately, we didn’t! I’m sure it helped that we visited in between the peak summer and fall foliage seasons, but really, I would never have guessed this to be such a hugely popular park if I hadn’t seen the stats.
Above: Always on the job / always commanding my people to stop and pose when I see a perfect photo spot.
Above left: I was surprised to come across a cemetery not far from the visitor center and in researching it later found that the Smokies contain about 160 cemeteries dating back to before the land was a National Park. The one pictured here is Forks of River Cemetery, which has about 25 headstones.
This was the final of the four activities I’d planned, and it came with one final fitting detail: Our hike from the edge of Gatlinburg to Sugarlands Visitor Center (and back) ended up being 4 miles and about 10,000 steps — which of course was pretty perfect for a 40th birthday!
The rest of the evening was up to Seth’s discretion, and he picked Mellow Mushroom Pizza as our dinner spot. We ate on a balcony overlooking the Parkway — the main street through Gatlinburg’s downtown — and it was a nice, relaxing end to all our birthday activities.
After another sunset over the Smokies, we officially capped off the occasion with cupcake toppers … which were on muffins rather than cupcakes, since those were the closest approximation we could find at the little Gatlinburg grocery store where we’d stopped the day before. But I’d say they still looked appropriately festive — which I hope is also how Seth will always remember this big birthday!
day 5 • 09.15.21
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This was such a fun day full of little surprises as we crossed Great Smoky Mountains National Park — traveling the 36 miles from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina, along Newfound Gap Road. We stopped midway through to hike to the top of Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet is the highest point in the park and in the entire state of Tennessee, as well as the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River.
Fun fact: The observation tower at the summit of Clingmans Dome is identical to one at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, which we visited in May. So we saw and stood on both of these twin towers within a matter of months!
The observation tower offers 360-degree views of the Smokies and beyond. On a clear day, it’s possible to see 10 states and up to 100 miles … But clearly, we did not have a clear day! We were quite literally hiking in the clouds, which made for poor visibility but was actually a little magical.
On our way down Clingmans Dome, Seth and I took a little detour to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. We didn’t go far since my parents were waiting, but we loved the small section we explored. And another fun fact: This point where the Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome is the highest point along its journey from Georgia to Maine.
I mentioned little surprises, and this was the day’s first — a secret tunnel. Granted, it’s not entirely a secret, because I happened to find out about it on the internet. And it wasn’t entirely a surprise, because I knew to look for it. But it’s not on any maps, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to find it. So it was thrilling to come down that hill (above left) and see it in front of us!
This tunnel was part of the Appalachian Trail from sometime in the 1930s through sometime in the 1960s, when it fell out of use after Newfound Gap Road was rerouted. So now it’s just a charming piece of hiking history.
Next, we backtracked just slightly to the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.
The Smokies get their name from the haze that results when trees, shrubs and other plants in their forests emit hydrocarbons that react with ozone particles. When combined with moisture, these aerosols scatter the shorter wavelengths of light in the blue-violet spectrum to produce the mountains’ signature “blue smoke.”
A less rugged section of the Appalachian Trail was accessible at the state line, and my parents hiked a little of it so that we can now all say we’ve been on this iconic trail!
We took a photo very similar to the one above two years ago, with the Rocky Mountains as our backdrop then. I shared both on Facebook and said we seem to have started a tradition of biennial family portraits beside major roads bisecting mountainous National Parks — and I truly hope it’s one we can keep up!
Above: We stopped for lunch alongside the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been branded “America’s Favorite Drive.” The 469-mile road follows the ridge of the Blue Bridge Mountains, connecting Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Our next stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and waiting for us there was our next surprise in the form of a pewter magnet! I’ve mentioned before that we collect these at National Park sites, but not every site has them. So we often have to improvise by buying a pewter coin (or something similar) and putting a magnet on it ourselves. Visiting gift shops is something like a scavenger hunt for us, and it always feels like a win to find an actual magnet!
Also at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the Mountain Farm Museum, which has historic farmstead structures including a log farmhouse, a barn, an apple house, a springhouse and a working blacksmith shop.
After exploring the Mountain Farm Museum, we set out to hike some of the nearby Oconaluftee River Trail. It’s sort of the sister trail to the Gatlinburg Trail (which we’d hiked the day before) in that both connect the towns on the park’s outskirts with their nearest visitor center. So while the Gatlinburg Trail connects Gatlinburg with Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Oconaluftee River Trail connects the town of Cherokee with the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
And we didn’t have to go far on this trail to encounter our next surprise:
I knew it was possible to see elk on this side of the park but wasn’t sure that we would, since we wouldn’t be around at the times most likely for sightings (shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset). So coming across this big bull elk in the middle of the afternoon really was a surprise — although perhaps not as much to me as to Seth, who’d been so sure we wouldn’t have any wildlife sightings that he’d opted to leave his camera with the superzoom lens in the car. I’d warned him that if he did that, we’d definitely come across an elk, and he’d have to go back to get the camera. And sure enough, both were the case!
A park ranger told us to keep our heads “on a swivel” for any elk that might wander out of the woods, since with it being a cloudy day, they’d likely make their way early to the field beside the visitor center for their evening meal. Thus we were cautious about staying on the trail very long and opted to head back around 4 p.m. — which turned out to be fortuitous timing, since the rain that had been in the forecast finally caught up to us just as we reached the parking lot.
We considered waiting around for a while to see if any elk showed up in the nearby field — but knowing there was no guarantee we’d see any, we opted to go ahead and start our drive back to Gatlinburg. The day would bring us one more surprise, though …
… In the form of a whole herd of elk just a little ways down Newfound Gap Road! We stood in the rain watching them for quite a while, and eventually the bull of the herd emerged from the woods.
We knew we wouldn’t capture anything better than this shot of the bull elk with his tongue out, so we called it a day and made our way back to our condo to watch the storm clouds from our balcony:
One other find at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center was this Yahtzee game, which we broke out that evening. I’m pretty sure it’s obvious (from the shot at above right) who came away with the win!
day 6 • 09.16.21
Great Smoky Mountains National Park & Gatlinburg, TN
Our last day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park included two waterfall hikes, starting with one to Grotto Falls that morning.
Grotto Falls is the only waterfall in the park you can walk behind. I made sure Seth and I brought water shoes to wade in the pool around it, which was freezing but so fun!
After this hike, we drove back into Gatlinburg for lunch and some shopping (spotting bear cubs in the woods along the way!).
Above left: Gatlinburg brings out its Pumpkin People for its annual Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, which began on this day and was scheduled to last through November. Above right: Seth knew how enamored I was with the bears we’d seen so bought me one of my own to take home. And here we are with another bear:
Later that afternoon, we set out on a hike to Laurel Falls. With it being one of the park’s most popular destinations, I had to purchase a parking reservation ahead of time to ensure we got a spot at the trailhead. But despite this — or maybe due to this new reservation requirement — we had the trail largely to ourselves.
The 80-foot-tall Laurel Falls is named for mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub that blooms along the trail and near the falls in May. It consists of an upper section (above) and a lower section (below) divided by a walkway that crosses a stream at the base of the upper falls.
We had rain on our trips to and from the Laurel Falls trailhead but none at all on our hike — and I know weather commentary isn’t the most exciting, but I really am amazed how fortunate we were with the weather we had this trip (especially after being rained on almost constantly on our last one!). Despite rain being in the forecast for two of our three days in Gatlinburg, we for the most part experienced it only during short windows of time while driving.
And sure enough, this afternoon’s rain cleared out by the time we got back to Gatlinburg and set out for our second round of Hillbilly Golf:
Above right: Finally a hole-in-one for me (and for my dad) on the last hole of the game. And in other good news, we had one last beautiful sunset for ending our time in Tennessee:
day 7 • 09.17.21
Mammoth Cave National Park
We would have been remiss on this trip to not stop at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park on our way home, and we had a gorgeous drive for getting there.
Mammoth Cave is the world’s largest known cave system, and it’s still being discovered! At the time of our visit, 420 miles (on multiple levels) had been mapped. And almost as impressive as this is the fact that we found another pewter magnet here to add to our collection!
These images are at the cave’s main entrance, which is where we went for the first tour we’d scheduled. It was the historic tour, which is described as “ideal for people with an interest in history and a sense of adventure” … And I’m pretty sure that latter point translates to “people who don’t mind squeezing through dark, tiny spaces.”
It was an adventure for sure — and if anyone happens to wonder why Seth and I were dressed so differently for it, it’s because I was dressed for the 50-degree temps inside the cave, while he was dressed for the 80-degree temps outside (and also because evidently he’s fine in a T-shirt in 50 degrees, whereas some of us need a stocking cap).
Mammoth Cave’s name comes not from all the miles it covers but from the large rooms it contains.
Early in the tour, our guide turned off all lights in the cave other than a lantern to show what visitors saw in the early 1800s, when tours first began. She then extinguished the lantern so we could experience the full darkness for a moment. That pitch black was incredible, and even with lights on, the cave was so dimly lit that capturing anything on camera was a challenge. But of course we did our best!
The cave walls contain quite a bit of writing, and any from before the 1940s (when Mammoth Cave became a National Park) is considered historic. Adding your name now is against the law, of course, but I did take a shot of my hand casting a shadow alongside some of the names as an impromptu and permissible way to (sort of) make my own mark.
This tour involved 2 miles of walking, sometimes through very tight places like Fat Man’s Misery (which I think my dad would attest is not all that fun of an experience for a tall man either!).
Along the way, we learned about the cave’s early history — including unexpected aspects like enslaved men mining vast amounts of saltpeter to send to gunpowder factories in support of American military efforts during the War of 1812, and tuberculosis patients living in the cave in the 1940s in hopes its air would cure them. We also caught a glimpse of the River Styx, which runs through the cave.
Above: A look at what a quick temperature transition does to a camera lens.
For our second tour, we took a bus to another part of the park — because Mammoth Cave really is massive! This tour was of its Frozen Niagara section, which is one of the most famous due to its impressively decorative formations, including one resembling Niagara Falls.
Also in this part of the cave, we encountered a number of cave crickets (above).
A main feature of this tour was the Drapery Room, which we first viewed from the top before taking stairs to its base. At above right is Frozen Niagara, one of the most famous examples of flowstone. This term refers to sheets of calcium carbonate that form along cave walls, hanging downward and sometimes creating curtain-like sheaves known as draperies.
At top left in the collage above is evidence of one of the water leaks responsible for creating the stunning formations in this area of Mammoth Cave. While Mammoth is a dry cave system for the most part — with layers of sandstone and shale keeping water out — it extends beyond those protective layers at some points, which is why this Drapery Room exists.
Looking up from the base of the Drapery Room, it was hard to believe all of this formed as a natural process of (not to mention from something as simple as a water leak!):
After one last look at Frozen Niagara, we were bussed back to where we began and took a few more photos before leaving this last notable stop on our itinerary.
Although the trip was all but over, we did get another beautiful view from our hotel room in Bowling Green that evening:
day 8 • 09.18.21
Bowling Green, KY >>> Independence, MO
Our last day consisted solely of the long drive home. But it also came with its own beauty, as evidenced by this rainbow across the road somewhere in Kentucky. Seth and I were set to hit the road again in less than a month for his final 4-0 trip (one also marking our anniversary) — so as bittersweet as it was for this adventure to end, we knew we had another just around the bend!
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