Updated: Feb 26, 2020
On the Road in USA's Deep South
This is the beginning of an epic road trip across North America as we transition to a life living on the road in a small pop-up caravan. We’ve left our former lives in London to challenge ourselves to a new way of minimalist living. It’s a total cliche as van life is such a hot trend on Instagram & Pinterest right now, it seems like everyone is doing it right, especially young 20 somethings with a lust for travel & adventure & a cheaper way of living. So why at our age, with our means, did we embark on this?
From the outside looking in, I’m sure we appear to have it all; a nice flat, well paying careers in medical research, an ideal commute (20 minutes by bicycle, unheard of in London!), respected by colleagues, great friends, the best cat ever (Dusty), holidays in Europe at least twice a year & property in Australia. Sounds perfect doesn’t it. But somehow, I wake up one day and realise my partner, my best friend in life is miserable and as a result, so am I. After ten years of marriage we’re just cohabiting and I’ve been so busy working my way to the top I’ve conveniently ignored the decline in his physical and mental health, not wanting to rock the boat. How did we get here? We used to be so happy.
When my dad died from lung cancer in 2010, it was sudden and a huge shock, he was only 63. He never had a chance to retire and enjoy his golden years. He worked his whole life to give his family everything he could. Suddenly my world went from technicolour to greyscale and I went from crippling grief to comfortably numb. Exactly one year later we moved to London & I buried myself in my work to distract myself from the pain. I shut everything & everyone out. For a few years I just floated through life not really feeling anything, drinking became my comfort & I gained almost 2 stone in the process. And then, just as the fog began to lift and things started getting back on track, Glenn’s dad dies suddenly and we slowly drift further apart. Next it’s my grandmother and then my uncle. We quickly realise there are few guarantees in life; the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west and everyone dies. Here one day, gone the next. The next thing you know it’s 2017 and Trump and Brexit happen. Suddenly we are both awake! What is going on?
We’re not getting any younger and we always wanted to return home to Australia at some point, London was never meant to be a permanent move for us. We’ve spent our entire adult lives working to accumulate wealth and assets for the children we never had and the retirement we may never see. Our hearts are screaming go, do it now, live the life you always dreamed of. This boat is better off being rocked than sinking all together. So that is how we find ourselves here in the Deep South of the USA in the middle of one of the hottest July's on record (not the best planning, especially for a former project manager but hey, this trip is all about letting go of the reigns). Rather than going directly home to Australia, we decide to take a detour, a rather long 12 month detour (or more) around the Americas, in the hopes that somehow, somewhere along the road we will find our way back to ourselves, and each other. And so #GnTonefortheroad is born.
We begin on the coastal town of Bradenton Florida, which coincidentally is the same place as famous Spanish expolorer, Hernado de Soto . We chose Bradenton so we could visit some old friends. As it turns out, this road trip might not have been possible without their help sorting out the paperwork side of things as we don’t have a USA address. They also gave us a place to stay while we got equipped. Thank you for being such amazing, patient friends, we love you!
After a couple of months travelling in South America (Bolivia, Peru, Chile) we return to Bradenton & finally, after a couple of weeks getting sorted, it’s goodbye #hotelherman & we hit the road. It’s a bit of a false start at first as we’re waiting on a couple of deliveries to arrive so we decide to camp nearby as a kind of dry run. Good thing to as it turns out we don’t have any hose to connect to the mains water, cue trip to Walmart. As soon as the deliveries arrive we’re all set to head North as quickly as possible to escape the heat, humidity and hurricane season in the South. We manage to drive from Oscar Scherer State Park via Bradenton up to Ocala National Forest in a few hours. Of course it’s pouring rain the whole time and at one point we have to pull over onto the shoulder of the interstate as we can’t see anything. This storm is monstrous. Finally, we arrive just in the nick of time to secure a last minute campsite before the camp office closes. Glenn broke a few speeding limits the last 30 miles! We rush to make camp before the sun goes down and fall into bed.
Unfortunately, the next day the Salt Springs are closed for swimming due to heavy rains making it too murky (alligators and all), but the nearby Silver Glen Springs are open, gorgeous and freezing cold, some would say refreshing. We even spot our first bear crossing the highway.
What we learnt: Annual National Park Passes are for USA residents only, according to the Ranger, I’m still not convinced*
Having learnt our lesson, we make an early start to drive up to Atlanta. It’s a 6 hour drive to the campsite just North of Atlanta on Allatoona Lake and once again we don’t have a campsite reserved (we don’t want to be tied down). Unfortunately we neglected to factor in the slower speed for towing capacity, toilet breaks, re-fuelling, lunch breaks, traffic, detours, GPS failures, roadworks and meltdowns (yes I actually had a driving induced meltdown in Atlanta) & the 6 hour drive soon turns into a 10 hour drive. Did I mention the crazy billboards, seriously, so distracting! Anyway, we arrive at McKinney Creek just on 8pm and the lady very bemused just looks at us like “It’s Friday night in the middle of July and you don’t have a reservation? I’m sorry folks, we’re full!” We’re both trying desperately not to panic as I start calling every campground in the area just to get their after hours voicemail. We’re both thinking the same thing, Walmart carpark or truckers rest stop? I refuse to pike out in the first week and get a hotel room, we will not fail. But before either of us speaks, I guess she takes pity on us & she walks up the car and declares “I’ve found you a spot, it’s a bit of a drive and it’s not on the water, but it’s powered”. “We’ll take it!” We’re so relieved right now. So without an address or telephone number we set off with an old school map in hand, completely exhausted we make the 20 mile drive North to Sweetwater Creek campground.
Well not quite, suddenly we realise we’re lost and we’ve been driving for an hour in the wrong direction! We stop at some pretty backwater gas stations with some pretty colourful characters (to say the least) and ask around (without much luck). Eventually a young man kindly googles the address for us to put into our GPS (I really miss data roaming right now & he's a little confused as to why with our I-Phones we can’t figure it out!), & he sends us back in the right direction. We arrive at 9.30pm and set up in the dark getting eaten alive by mosquitos. It’s been a really long day but we can only get better at this I’m sure of that!The following evenings provide the most amazing electrical storms, even heavier than Florida and that’s saying something. Our little camper survives the storms and I sleep like a baby. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is going to sleep listening to frogs & rain on the canvas and waking up to the sights and smells of the forest. I can slowly feel my body and mind unwind.
Where we stayed: Sweetwater Creek Campgrounds, Allatoona Lake (4 nights)
What we did: Visited with friends from our previous Sail & Cycle Croatia holiday, Hiked Stone Mountain, Allatoona Pass, Etowah Indian Mounds, Williamson Bros BBQ (all you can eat on Tuesday), Yoga on the Lake, Tunnel Hill.
What we learnt: Booking ahead for a weekend in mid July is advisable (but not in Florida, no-one in their right minds camps in Florida in July)
You know, we can’t help but notice that at all the Civil War sights we visited in Georgia, there is no mention of what they were actually fighting for, besides the very general statement “Protection of the Southern Way of Life & Southern Freedom”. What does that mean exactly? I mean we know but why don’t they say it? On the way to Nashville, we stop just before the Georgia & Tennessee border in a small town at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Tunnel Hill is famous for it’s railway tunnel and involvement in the Civil War. We arrive around 3pm confident we have enough time for a quick tour. We’re invited to join a tour, lasting about an hour so we go ahead. Well this lady can talk underwater, she never even stops to catch her breath and she talks and talks and talks about the herself, her life, her hobbies peppered with facts about the civil war, the tunnel and great train chase (most of which I miss as I zone out during the blathering). Anyway, about 5 minutes in she points out an old oak tree, about 300 years old, “a Good Hanging Tree” says one of the tour guests. “Well it would be if they still did that, it would have been too small back then” says our guide. I pick my jaw up off the floor, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Really, people still speak this way? Glenn and I exchange looks and we are stuck on the back of the golf cart with these people for the next 2 hours as I impatiently look at my watch not wanting to set up camp in the dark again. At least we had the sense to call ahead and reserve a spot this time! And we’re getting pretty good at setting up in double quick time. The following day we realise what a lovely spot we’re in, with lovely hikes through the forest and meadows and even a swimming pool, jackpot!
Where we stayed: Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Lebanon (4 nights)
What we did: Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame, Honky Tonk Highway and Night Trolley Tour, Woolworths Lunch Counter (famous for Civil Rights sit in 1960), Hiking Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Swimming, Live Music, Shoney’s (all you can eat breakfast buffet)
What we learnt: We’re not country music fans but we’ve been influenced heavily by TV and films.
The drive from Nashville to Memphis is pretty non-eventful. We leave early and give ourselves an extra couple of hours for stops along the way, packing plenty of food and snacks. We actually arrive at camp with plenty of time to spare & it’s still daylight. See I told you we’d get better at this! Unfortunately for us the campsite’s infested with mosquitoes and these bastards are ruthless! Not only that but I get a bad feeling in this forest, it feels extremely oppressive, there is history here, if only the trees could talk.
But it’s totally worth it. Memphis is awesome. We finally get to hear about the African American plight, slavery, the reason for the Civil War and the battle for Civil Rights that continues for 70 years after the abolishment of slavery; to put an end of the Jim Crow Laws (enforcing segregation) and finally the introduction of the Civil Rights Act. We love Memphis, even though it has me in tears most of the time. They say Martin Luther King Jr was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement and Elvis & his music embodied the Freedom they were fighting for. Two great men lost too soon.
Where we stayed: Meaman Shelby State Park, Millington, Memphis (4 nights)
What we did: Mississippi River, Hiking State Park, Graceland, National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel (where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated), Central BBQ, Beale Street, Main Street and Riverside Trollies (buy an all day ticket), Shot Gun Houses
What we learnt: The Gift & Soundtrack of Freedom
It’s very tempting to stay an extra night in Memphis, but the next campsite doesn’t take reservations. We don’t want to make the same mistake as last time and arrive on a Friday in the hopes we’ll get a campsite, plus we can’t take these mosquitoes any longer. So, begrudgingly we leave early Thursday and make the 4 hour drive West. Once again we don’t have an actual address for the campsite and the GPS is no help. The closest we can find is the visitor centre for the Ozark Forest so off we go. The lovely young chap gives me some very straightforward directions which we follow & 20 miles later we find our campsite
(we’re definitely getting better at this!). The campgrounds are virtually empty, we have our pick of spots. Time for some RnR, nothing on the agenda apart from a very pressing need to make a campsite booking in Colorado for August as we hear it will be impossible to get a campsite there. Shit! No internet or even cell service to make any phone calls. We spend an entire day in the nearest Wendys (20 miles back in town) drinking re-fillable pop and using the free wifi until we secure our booking. There is literally one campsite left with places available. It’s not our preferred park but beggars can’t be choosers right. Now time to just relax and stock up on food, do laundry (a walk on the wild side on the wrong side of the tracks), do some hiking and exploring of this wonderful Ozark National Forest we’re in before we move on to the Wild Wild West and the Rocky Mountains!
Where we stayed: Long Pool Recreation Area, Ozark St-Francis National Forest (4 nights)
What we did: Bought an inflatable row boat, went sailing (ok floating) and hiking to Pedestal Rocks and Kings Bluff
What we learnt: It’s pronounced Ar-kin-saw
GnTonefortheroad Travel Tip: To find the cheapest parking in your location, use Parkopeadia app. Saved us $50 in parking in Nashville alone