Staten Island Ferry


It’s one of the few things in NYC that’s entirely free. Except its refreshments.

Manhattan
Manhattan as seen from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo by me.

I rode the Staten Island Ferry with my other half Yvonne and her good friend Cameron on the Staten Island Ferry, watching as Manhattan came into view, then faded behind us. Gulls flapped by and

From inside the city, it may seem crammed together, and unclear as to where what you’re seeing fits into anything larger.

New York City
Looking up from street level. Photo by me.

From the harbor you can really see it as a whole.

Manhattan
Manhattan as seen from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo by me.

I’m not seasoned enough to know how many of the faces of different ages, costumes and races and even language speakers aboard were locals as compared to tourists, although plenty of them on the deck seemed interested in a lot of what was there.

Cameron pointed out certain details of Manhattan, Jersey City, Staten Island and various ships as we went by.

Staten Island Ferry
Cameron points out various sights. Photo by me.

Probably for tourists, though, the ferry may be notable as a free way to see the most famous landmark in the area, a certain French statue. Cameron mentioned his great grandfather passing by it. And now we see it perhaps as it was meant to be seen, passing by it. I will warn you though, cell phones aren’t the best way to photograph it in the evening.

The mother of exiles
My ancestors would have seen this, if they hadn’t instead immigrated to Boston. Photo by me.

 

 

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Hiking House Mountain in summer


House Mountain is a hidden treasure: a mountain very close to Knoxville, apart from both the Smokies and Cumberlands. While short even by East Tennessee standards, you can still see miles of surrounding countryside from its summit.

House Mountain overlook
The view from House Mountain.

Yvonne and I climbed up the Mountain Trail recently with our friend Linda. The two of us had originally wanted to reach Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains, but due to time concerns we aimed for something closer and shorter.

Closer and shorter, but still sweltering in the summer. Our older friend Linda, who came with us, decided to quit and lie on a rock rather than climb up all the way. We also ran out of water quickly in spite of me thinking I had enough bottles for Gregory’s Bald.

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House Mountain’s trail features various wildflowers.

In the summer, the climb features berries, butterflies and wildflowers, many of which will lead to later posts on this blog so stay tuned. It also features poison ivy, which doesn’t much affect me, but may lead to problems for others. So you may need long pants and even more water. But for me the trail is worth it.

Many locals know it well, so you won’t be entirely alone. At least we weren’t. But once they cleared out at the summit, it was just the two of us, the fence lizards and the vultures circling below us.

The trail is rocky. This used to make Yvonne panic but now she just sees it as part of a strategy. My strategy heading down is to trot fast enough that my momentum stops me from falling. Yvonne insists on carefully putting her feet in exactly the right places.

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Another view from House Mountain

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies


Yvonne Jellyfish
Yvonne admires a jellyfish at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Landlocked folks love ocean stuff. People want something exotic, themed to something that isn’t nearby. It’s with all this in mind, I assume, that Ripley’s decided to make Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

It’s smaller than its nearby competitor the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with far fewer fish and other creatures of the deep. I visited Tennessee Aquarium last year and will give a review here at some point.

In any case, Ripley’s has got some advantages that make it more geared toward children. With a playground in the center, two chances to touch sea creatures, a crawl-through tunnel that lets children be surrounded by penguins and various interactive exhibits, it makes for a very kid-friendly place. Also the smaller size makes it a great place to cool off in the air conditioning after a hot hike — which is what we did after climbing House Mountain -rather than spend all day.

Lionfish
A lionfish.

While the place doesn’t seem to trust the animals to carry the attraction, it does have some good ones. With giant crabs, graceful sharks, speedy rays, cute penguins, piranhas, mudskippers, jellyfish, eels, clownfish (kids know them as Nemo), blue tangs (kids know them as Dori) and lionfish among others, the place is full of some impressive creatures. The focus is on fun, but there’s nothing wrong with having some fun.

Nautilus
Nautilus.

Adults can visit too, although it is a bit pricey. But I can say Yvonne and I certainly had a good time.

Iguana
A sleepy iguana at Ripley’s Aquarium.

I visited Sat. June 7, with Yvonne, fairly late at night (from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when the crowds had thinned out, letting us crawl through the children’s penguin tunnel to view the penguins. Don’t judge us.

The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the shark lagoon tunnel, allowing you to see sharks swim above you as you move through a tunnel, along with a sawfish who likes to rest on the tunnel’s top. It’s best to visit this part when crowds have thinned because you can walk on the carpet rather than being stuck on the conveyor belt. The moving sidewalk has the advantage of speeding up some people while slowing down others.

The use of Pacobell’s cannon as background music there made Yvonne joke it sounded like the sharks were about to get diplomas. But the piece does its job in making people see the sharks as something other than scary.

Yvonne’s favorite part was getting a chance to touch moon jellies, a species with so little venom they’re harmless to touch (as a side note, that link’s to another aquarium, but I like to mix things up in terms of sources when it comes to learning about animals). The aquarium also lets visitors touch horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs
Visitors can touch these horseshoe crabs.

The weakest parts of the aquarium are in the special exhibits sections. The shipwrecks exhibit would be OK interactive fun due to its interactive archaeological activities and educational touch screens, but there’s something just annoying about hearing a repeated snippet of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot over and over again. For some reason it’s not even the full song. It’s not a bad song, in fact it’s a good one, but for Yvonne especially, it just gets to be too much.

Since I don’t know how else to end this, here’s that song in its full version and only playing once.

Get wet on the Cumberland Trail


Happy summer! It’s time to enjoy wading, floating, swimming and splashing around! Here are a few spots on or near Cumberland Trail State Park to do it, not in any particular order. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start. More to come, possibly!

For more on that trail, I recommend getting my book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail. More a collection of memoirs of day hikes with my father than a guide, it’ll nonetheless give you an in depth look at flowers, wildlife, waterfalls, rockhouses and plenty more. I’d like to thank the Cumberland Trail Conference for providing me with much of my information for that book. All photos here are by me. None of the videos are.

Obed Wild and Scenic River

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“Wartburg Beach” near Nemo Bridge. Photo by Ben Pounds

Looking down from Nemo Bridge in the protected area known as the Obed Wild and Scenic River, you may see many people floating about. If you like being with others and not far from the road, this place “Wartburg Beach” as locals call it is the spot for you. More hidden swimming spots await elsewhere in the Obed Wild and Scenic River and Catoosa Wildlife Management Area parts of the CT. I even swam naked at one of them. Just make sure you’re far away from Wartburg Beach proper before you try that.

Imodium Falls

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Imodium Falls. Photo by Ben Pounds

A fairly deep pool depending on rain sits right below Imodium Falls on the Possum Creek section. If you can get past the name, it may just be perfect for you.

I’m not usually much of one for jumping from rocks. But apparently some people are.

Piney River

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Piney River. Photo by Ben Pounds

The Piney River section in Piney River pocket wilderness area is among the best. Deep pools for swimming shallow spots for wading and, if you hike far enough, a good ways from the crowds. Ideally, experience this area as part of a backpacking trip so you can get plenty of time here like my father and I did.

The pocket Wilderness areas were created by the Bowater paper company. Piney is not to be confused with another pocket wilderness that’s even more famous and often just called “Pocket” by the locals. It’ s below.

Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness “Pocket”

Known to locals as just “Pocket” this area is near Dayton, Tennessee.

I’ve written about it in a piece for The News Sentinel and can safely say spending time there with my girlfriend Yvonne apart from my main hike was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. While on my main trek, the swimming holes were just one of the many things I explored about the place. Yet on return, I had to pry Yvonne, my girlfriend and hiking companion away from the swimming hole we found to look at other parts of the trail there.
I’m not the only one to discover it. Here’s a video from some other visitors enjoying a day there, shot with far better technology than I currently have to film it.

Bald River Falls in Winter


IMG_0321.JPGI could never create this. I could never make this up.

IMG_0316This is Bald Creek Falls in Cherokee National Forest transformed into glorious columns of ice with a few streams of water still left to remind us of what the falls had once been.

IMG_0318.JPGIt drew crowds, forcing us to walk up the road. After all, we’re Tennesseeans. Ice is a novelty to us.

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But the frozen falls was glorious, and so was the trail nearby. Stay tuned. More wintry photos of Cherokee National Forest. are on the way.

I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.


People call it tacky, a tourist trap, garish, overrated, commercial, lowest common denominatory. And I will nod my head and say, “Yeah. So?” I love it that way. And I hope it never leaves us, no matter how many fires it endures.

“This is a roadside attraction,’ said Wednesday. ‘One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.’”

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

I’ve known it since I was young. We never really spent much time there. It was always a way into the park and a place to eat afterward, but never really our destination. My mother found Ober Gatlinburg’s ski resort to be overpriced for lessons which she wanted to offer me herself, although as an adult I’ve grown to appreciate that place’s slopes, terrain park and everything else more and more.

As for the rest of it, as a kid, I found the weird animatronics outside of a haunted attraction back then creepy and the other ones were just weird. The whole place generally surreal and foreign to me, with its airbrushed t-shirts and samurai swords. The aquarium though, which I encountered as a teenager, was beautiful, although not as original or unified an idea as the one in Chattanooga.

As an adult, I mock everything freely there in my head and to my girlfriend as I’ve walked by, especially on my last few visits. Tiny Gatlinburg Bible Museum with Arc of the Covenant? So that’s where they took it after that warehouse. Although that’s closed now, so I can’t make that joke anymore. Oh well. The World of Illusions? People don’t seem to like it, but at least it has Doc Brown with nipple clamps visible from outside.  Though, speaking of nipples, that exterior can’t compete with the one the Batman Forever Batmobile crashed into at Hollywood Star Cars, which apparently has cars from just about every blockbuster film ever. I should probably visit some time.

And while The Village features old world charm, it also features my lame attempts at making M. Night Shyamalan jokes.

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.” -Neil Gaiman American Gods.

Oh, and then there’s all the places selling corn liquor in all kinds of flavors and with tasting counters like in California’s wine country, rather ingeniously called “moonshine” for the tourists, even though it’s legal. Real moonshine, of course, has no health standards and sometimes includes dead pickled squirrels. This stuff doesn’t. But it is fun to get wasted beneath the mountains and there’s plenty of sidewalk room for walking back to avoid any DUI problems.

The place lacks a certain variety even of the kind typically seen at some tourist traps. It’s low on dance clubs, for example, and most of the larger amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains themselves are beyond its borders. But it’s Gatlinburg. It’s my land of delightful craziness beneath the rolling mountains. And I wish it will continue.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

To all the Asheville folks who put it down: I prefer it to Biltmore Village and its overpriced estate to be honest. Much of Gatlinburg is silly stuff for the masses. But it never pretended to be anything else. And at the end of the day, I’m one of those masses, even if I pretend to be so ironically. So have at me, elites. Let me drop the irony and say, I love Gatlinburg. With all due respect to Neil Gaiman, I don’t feel profoundly dissatisfied beneath it.

It is more than a tourist place though. It’s where people, including both natives and immigrants call home and earn a living. And I feel sad for its recent loss and the second, smaller recent fire.

On my last trip, I saw a damaged resort by a stream flowing out of the park. I stood to contemplate the wreckage, the bravery of the firefighters who led rescue efforts, and the tragedy of the 14 lives lost.

But hearing the spooky music from the nearby Gatlinburg Mysterious Mansion, I felt another thing. Hope. And pride. Keep going, mountain strong. A place of power.

“Yesterday is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever.”—Dolly Parton, in a quote I’m sorry to say Chattanooga Times Free Press has already used, but at least I’m the first with Neil Gaiman. Probably.


Despite saying earlier that this will not just be a tourist blog, I will sometimes review various tourist attractions in the area here. People may just want more information about these places. Some of them (certain museums for instance) have long histories associated with them, which can be revealing.

Old haciendas in modern Mexico have become any number of things. In central Mexico especially, many had to divide their lands under beloved President Lazaro Cardenas, while being allowed to keep their houses.This particular one is now a water park.

Yeah, you heard me right. A water park. The old walls and the house are now parking lots and a cafeteria (which was not open). The slides and pools are out in what was once the fields. We actually went as a class with the summer group, mostly just to see the style in which Haciendas are built. (This was actually our second class trip with the summer group so far. I´ll get to the first one with Universal in Mexico City later).

I slid down two slides, both fun and both tunnel slides. I coasted in the wave pool and swam in a pool which had some of the old arches still over it. It was a great chance to get to know the new students more too.

Most of the slides weren´t open though. They try to conserve water on week days, which are, for that reason, cheaper to get in. Some travel bloggers would tell you that this conservation is a bad thing. I disagree. Sure, I may have wanted to do more of the slides, but water is a precious resource here in central Mexico. For that reason, I´m not sure how I feel about us having so many water parks nearby.