The far distant reaches of our planet often call with a very specific tone of seduction. A sexy whisper, a titillating chirp in the ear of the wayward tramp. The beaches of Sri Lanka or the valleys of southwestern Colombia have much more sultry dispositions than the hills of Virginia or the backwoods of northern Maine. The former are the cool kids, the latter are the plain Jane’s.
Luckily, as we all know through years of watching cheeky romantic comedies, the likeliest lovers aren’t always the best. Sometimes, the prize at the end of the movie is the person who is hiding in plain sight the whole time, the person who predictably gets a makeover just before prom.
My travel partner (and actual partner) Jenelle Kappe and I were overdue for a crash course in this lesson. Our rom-com chops were getting dull and we’d lost sight of the nerdy kid who sat alone at lunch. In our case, after a few years focused on far flung travel, the nerdy kid sitting solo on pizza day was the American interior southeast. Specifically Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a match made in heaven that none of us saw coming.
For too long, Jenelle and my days of wandering had taken a forced hiatus. After roaming almost non-stop for the better part of three years a brief stop in our home state of New Jersey ultimately ground our adventures to a halt. Doctor’s visits, taxes, bills, and business all worked as a team to keep us grounded, as the world around us kept moving at a rapid-fire pace. We sat and fantasized about trips to Portugal or Morocco without the means to make either one happen.
One month at home quickly turned to six and when we finally found a window to get away, it wasn’t the window we were hoping for. We could swing ten days. Not enough to thoroughly explore the beaches of Morocco but plenty for a quick road trip. It wasn’t much, but it’d have to do. As our window was realized Jenelle and myself both took to Instagram for ideas. In a matter of hours, we found a tiny house resort in northern Georgia that looked exciting enough to travel for. Then we were packing; then we were driving; then it was on.
We barely had an inkling of a plan but as the wheels started rolling south on the Garden State Parkway I started thinking about how distant northern Georgia seemed. It was a mere 846 miles away (in a van that tops out at 65 mph) but we’d be exploring a region that felt 12,000 miles away. My excitement built with every passing mile marker. As we’ve seen in past trips, the culture of the south is as different as the culture in Mexico. We begrudgingly accepted our small travel window but the destinations we chose were as foreign as any other.
The bones were there but they stood beautifully.
As the sun hung low, the property’s four tiny homes glimmered in all their Pinterest-able glory, catching the last hours of daylight. The owners greeted us at the driveway and showed us to what would be our homes over the next couple of nights. Our road-weary bones lightened up a bit as we were told that we would start in a home they named the Wandering Gypsy.
Shortly after sunset, we met one of the owners, Brian, by the communal fire pit. He told stories of hang gliding off the cliffs of the region. It was a scene Jenelle and myself had no idea existed, and our questions began to pile up. Brian’s epic fashion of storytelling swept us into the world of hang gliding for hours. Each detail was injected with the uninhibited passion of someone who’d found his purpose.
As our road-weary eyes started to fade we were forced to say goodnight. “Man, I’ve gotta try that some day,” I said as I started to walk back toward our home across the embers of the dying fire, “Don’t worry, brother,” he shot back, “We’ll get you up there before we send you on your way.”
Over the course of the next two days, we capitalized on our freedom and explored the streets of Chattanooga and the winding paths of Cloudland Canyon State Park. The culture seemed familiar in all the expected ways — currency, Whole Foods, Trump talk — but still bubbling with surprises. The people in Chattanooga were welcoming and inquisitive, the beauty of the canyon was flooring, and the Trump talk was every bit as scared as you’d expect in NYC.
When we returned to the tiny encampment on the hill, Brian was standing near a homemade bench that would one day decorate the grass covered lawn. He was looking up proudly, “The air’s perfect,” he said. “I promise you the boys will be flying tonight.” To us this may as well have been another language but as we cooked dinner in our tiny little lodge a primal howl, “Yewwwwww!” Pulled us outside.
Barely 30 feet above our heads a crew of hang gliders buzzed the treetops, hooting and hollering with every pass as they rode the thermals. As Jenelle and I sat on our tiny porch and ate our normal sized dinner, she looked up.
“You think Brian was serious?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Let’s find out.”
I ambled over to our host to ask a few questions. Was the hang gliding offer real?
“You guys are all set,” Brian said, between sips of a local craft beer. “Be down in the valley by 7 am.”
Our alarms were promptly set and our fates were sealed. We barely slept as we couldn’t help but wonder what the morning had in store for us.
The alarm eventually sounded and we slowly and quietly got dressed and inched down the hill through the morning fog. We sauntered across the landing pad and soaked our feet in the morning dew. The rom-com kid we had underestimated, the lonely kid at the lunch table, was shaping up to be a knockout. Our mellow road trip, had turned into a true adventure.
Once upon a time back in the shoreline of Sea Bright, New Jersey my dad put his arm around a 16-year-old Parker Hilton who looked down at his newly acquired license. He said encouragingly “Now you’ve got the freedom to explore every inch of road this planet has to offer.” It took me almost 12 years to realize you don’t have to race across the world to appreciate your neighborhood.
In our ten day “mini-road trip”, Jenelle and I made it to Nashville and saw face-melting bluegrass jams. We passed through northern Tennessee and slowly inched north through the pea-soup fog of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We lived with a pulse and we breathed for the now. Portugal or Morocco will come in time but for now, we savored adventures less than 1,000 miles from home.
My assessment of what it means to be a traveler had been rattled. To plan, and pull off, a big destination is one thing. It’s a straight shot to our psyche that reminds us we’re alive. To initiate a move on a smaller scale is a completely different thing. It’s a reminder that the nuances of life are sometimes all we need to re-ignite the joy.