The original plan had been to head west. The big goals were to see family in New Mexico and Arizona, stay with friends in Oklahoma and spend time camping and enjoying the great outdoors of Northern Arizona. However, while sitting in a Nashville cafe good enough for any New York hipster, we started catching up on the news of the storm that was headed our way. Appropriately named, “Winter Storm Thor” was about to slam a very cold hammer across all of central USA and it did not care if some states were supposed to be so far south they should be free of the cold. There were predictions of snow as far south as Northern Texas on the very days we were supposed to be driving 600 mile legs west. Now, don’t get me wrong, La Bête was more than ready to drive through a little bit of snow. But I knew that even a little bit of snow (especially in states unprepared for it) would turn this 1200 mile drive into a long slow painful drudge across the central states. So we decided to turn tale and drive South away from the storm. A quick search found a low-priced AirBnB in the mountains in Northern Georgia where we could hide out for two days.
This is what we luckily avoided. Drivers stranded on I-65 in Kentucky.
The plan worked for the most part. We didn’t have to deal with any snow (even Nashville got dumped on) and we spent a day hiking through the Georgia mountains, a day wondering the cute little town of Chattanooga before finally cozying up in Alabama with Ms. Nina and her southern organic cooking. The first stop was Dalton, Georgia where we regained our bearings and tried to re-plan our cross-country trip through the South. The family we were staying with told us about some trails nearby up and around some waterfalls, but warned us that the weather called for rain. Well, we found the waterfalls, but lucked out and got sunshine instead of rain. After the first few miles of hiking we realized we had quite a bit of work to do until we were in shape for Machu Pichu, but overall we loved it. It was the first time in months we got to do something outdoors without the piercing cold to worry about.
We loved the sun, but knew it wouldn’t last because the next day the cold front would even reach Georgia. However, we found a way to hide from the cold while still enjoying the “outdoors”. Racoon Mountain, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, offered overnight cave expeditions. So we were off to Chattanooga, where we spent the day exploring the town before we drove up to Racoon Mountain to spend the night. Chattanooga turned out to be a cozy little southern town with some nice views, a riverwalk, a bit of good coffee, a cliff side bakery with amazing rosemary olive oil bread and a couple of donuts that we regretted immediately after. We were genuinely surprised with the number of art exhibits in this quiet little town, as well as their taste for street art. But once the cold front hit, we were ready to head somewhere warm.
Caving was incredible. This was not a walking tour through a well lit cave with handrails and footpaths. This was a sliding, crawling, ducking, diving, wet and wild tour through 3 and a half miles of limestone cave that felt like exploring the surface of Mars. Thanks to being underground it was a perfect 60° F (15° C) and because it was a weeknight, we had the entire cave to ourselves. Our guide Rhett, an Alabama local, did an awesome job giving us a tour for 4 hours. We got to see underground waterfalls, walk along an underground stream, explore rooms with an innumerable number of formations and crawl through some squeezes so tight our hard hat wouldn’t fit through (one fittingly named “the birth canal”). We saw bats, salamanders, gypsum crystals and fossils right in the rock. Then after we were covered in mud from head to toe we crawled out, took a quick shower and shared a few stories over mac ‘n cheese and beef jerky. The night was spent in the the front lit part of the cave called the “Crystal Palace”, which felt like a perfectly air conditioned room. Tired muscles combined with the pitch dark had us sleeping like babies all night long, even though it was 25º F (-4° C) outside. One hell of an experience I think everybody needs to try out at least once. All I could think the whole hike was how my dad (a geologist by education) would feel like a kid in a candy store in here.
After waking up at 7am to a breakfast of pancakes and biscuits we were on our way again. Driving south through Alabama off of the interstate was interesting as it brought us through half a dozen small towns. Some were cozy, others abandoned and rotting, others were nothing more than a gas station and a few farms. We even passed a “Haunted Chicken House”. Unfortunetaley the owners told us it was only haunted in October and currently it was just a normal chicken house. The destination was Lanett, Alabama to Ms. Nina’s white painted hundred year old southern home.
Our time at the “Belle Frances” was exactly what we needed: huge breakfasts of homemade jams, biscuits and eggs, afternoons of relaxing on the porch in a swinging bench, and all day with Ms. Nina, one of the nicest people we’ve ever had the pleasure of staying with. To put it most simply, if you were to look up “southern comfort” in the dictionary there would be a picture of Nina smiling and calling you inside for food while standing on the porch of her great big historic white house. Nina took us in and treated us as more than guests. Originally we had planned for two days, but we ended up staying a third because we had found a truly southern experience. I would go as far to say that no trip to Alabama/Georgia is complete without at least two nights as Nina’s guest. Nina cooked organic farm to table breakfasts and we shared some of our favorite dinners. The days were spent snacking on breads or whipping up our famous juices. The weather had finally turned warm and we had our little bit of paradise.
We did manage to go on a quick day trip into Pine Mountain, Georgia just to enjoy the scenic ride and a coffee at Rose Cottage Cafe and Bakery. We were sad to leave, but destinations further south called to us. Nina woke up early to make us a healthy breakfast before our 6 hour drive and even sent us on our way with enough coffee to sink a ship. Next stop, a stable-stay in the land of gumbo.
- Trail to Keown Falls, Johns Mountain
- Raccoon Mountain Cave Expeditions
- Chattanooga Bluff View Bakery
- Nina’s House on AirBnB