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Traveling With No Destination

The Schoolhouse Gap trail in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

I've always been kind of a free spirit. I'm at my happiest when I have the open road ahead of me, some great music on the radio and the love of my life by my side. Normally, this kind of travel entails a destination, and the GPS is providing an estimated time of arrival that I am attempting to beat. Having a destination in mind is usually an important part of the journey after all, right?

This past weekend, my wife and I challenged that standard to see how different things would be if we just went where the wind took us.

We hit the road on a Thursday evening, with only the vague idea of what direction we wanted to go. Without looking too closely at the map, we wandered through southern Ohio, crossing the Ohio river and choosing to drift east for a little bit.

Reaching Ashland, Kentucky we decided it was time to stop for the night as the sun was sinking below the horizon, and we hadn't even stopped to eat yet. Making our way to Applebee's, we sat down in the very busy dining room and ordered dinner while discussing where we wanted to stay for the night. We both ordered burgers (we are simple folk and more often than we realize wind up with the same or similar meals) but were rather disappointed with the food overall. The problem was that the burgers weren't really seasoned and lacked much taste.

Subpar food in our bellies, we found a pretty nice hotel (the Delta Hotels by Marriott Ashland Downtown) only a mile up the road and reserved a room for the night. The hotel was, thankfully, miles better than the food. The best part of the room, in our opinions, was the shower. A nice, hot shower to end the first day of adventure was just what we needed before passing out.

The view from the hotel, looking out onto the main stretch of Ashland Kentucky
The view from our hotel Friday morning

Waking up early, as we normally do when on vacations, we gathered our things and hit the road once more. Breakfast at Mcdonalds on the way out of town was as expected and we started driving west before making our way south. We decided to try and make it out of Kentucky before the day was done, aiming for Tennessee since we hadn't really visited that state on a trip, and it looked like a fun place.

A rusty Ferris Wheel with some trees behind it.
This Ferris Wheel was sitting abandoned in a parking lot.

Not having a set destination allowed us to take our time and stop when odd things along the road caught our attention. One such thing was a couple of old Ferris wheels sitting in an abandoned parking lot. It looked like they had once been used in conjunction with a tent and some other equipment as part of a traveling circus. There was also an old rocket, probably used as a decoration to call people's attention to the show.

An old, rusty rocket with USA across the top and TITAN written down the side.
A rocket I only assume was used to get to the moon.

We stayed in that area for a little bit, wandering around some backroads like we were used to doing back home. Quickly, we found there was a slight difference in the kinds of roads we would find as many were labeled as "private" and threatened arrest to those who drove down them. Finding a dirt road that appeared to be drivable, we set off in search of adventure!

Seeing a label on the map for "Eagle Rock", we were hopeful there would be something cool to see at the end of what was becoming an increasingly difficult to drive road. After about 30 minutes of navigating a narrow, nearly washed-out area, we decided to turn back when a steep hill with some very slick looking mud stood in our way. We don't have 4-wheel drive and were not in the mood to get stuck.

Following Interstate 75 we made our way down into the Smokey Mountains. After a brief thought of moving west toward Nashville, we finally decided that seeing the Great Smokey Mountain National Park would be more fun. The forecast wasn't looking good as there was some rain in the area and it was supposed to be a washout the next morning, but we decided to risk it.

Pulling into the park a little after 4 PM, we knew there wasn't a ton of daylight left, but we did want to try a short hike. We came in through the Townsend entrance, just south of Townsend, Tennessee, and followed Laurel Creek Road as it meandered through the park. Stopping at the Schoolhouse Gap Trail, we parked the car, put on our hiking boots and set off into the unknown!

A sign with forest in the background and a trail crossroads. The sign reads Laurel Creek Road .2 miles and Schoolhouse gap trail 3.4 miles.
I stopped to take a picture of the trail sign to help remember where we needed to go.

The trail started off pretty smooth, with a slight downhill trek before we found ourselves at a crossroad. Knowing nothing about the area, and not wanting to become one of those "Missing 4-1-1" cases you see on YouTube all the time, we decided to keep following the same path we had started on.

We were soon facing some steep uphill climbing that would make this trail one of the more challenging trails we have faced so far. It wasn't really too bad, but we haven't come across many like it in our Ohio hikes. As we reached the top, we found ourselves at a tree lined plateau with the trail continuing further along the top of one of the mountains.

A mountain in the distance with some trees in the foreground blocking most of the view.
The best of the view from the plateau at the top of the trail.

With the light starting to fade and rain looking more inevitable, we decided to head back to the car. We had gone around a mile up the trail, all uphill, so we knew the trek back should be a little easier. We did stop a time or two as I spotted possible photo opportunities (one of which heads up this post), but for the most part we tried to make it as quick as we could to avoid being out in the dark.

Returning to the car, we traveled a little further up the road to the start of the Cade's Cove Loop, but not being sure what it was we decided to turn back and return when there was more light.

Going back into Townsend, we found a little place called The Talley Ho Inn to stop for the night. The man at the front desk was super friendly, drawing us up a map of cool places to check out and suggesting a place down the street, the Peaceful Side Social Brewery & Craft Kitchen, as a possible place to get dinner. After dropping stuff off in our room and freshening up, we made our way out to eat.

It was a little chilly, but the food was really good!

Taking the inn keeper's advice, we headed to the Brewery. The music and crowd noise inside was a little bit too much for us, but the patio was more peaceful, and they even provided heaters to keep us warm in the cool night air. We ordered a three-meat pizza, which they called "roundbread" and a pretzel that was much larger than we anticipated. Overall, the food was good, and the place was well worth the $40 we spent.

Going back to the inn, we found the bed not quite as comfy as the one at the hotel the previous night, but the location and the hospitality made up for that slight inconvenience. I stayed up much later than I had planned due, in large part, to the book I was reading hitting a particularly good part, but who needs sleep when you are on an adventure.

The next morning was to be our last of the trip as we had to get back so Mrs. Bearheart could go to work the next day and the kids could go to work and school as well.

Trees in the distance with a thick mist rolling between them.
Mist was rolling through the trees, providing a beautiful scene.

We started out with a drive through Cade's Cove, which is a loop through the western portion of the park. There were loads of deer and turkeys with a coyote making a guest appearance. Animals aside, there were also some beautiful views of the mountains with mist rolling through the trees in the distance. We took our time on the drive, staying for about 2 hours before finally finishing the loop and getting back to Townsend. After a quick stop to empty our bladders and grab a snack, we took a ride on the Foothills Parkway, hoping for some more beautiful views. Mother nature had other ideas though.

A mountain in the near distance surrounded by clouds with a tree in the foreground dripping wet from rain.
One of my favorite shots of the trip.

Thick clouds and pouring rain marred most of the drive, save for a couple of short stints where there was just enough clearing to get some awesome photos. As we came to the end of the parkway, we decided we need to find our way back here in the fall and see what it really has to offer when the trees start to change.

Starting the drive back, we began talking about how we wished we had more time out on the road. We don't get to do these kinds of trips as often as we want, and this was the first time we had done one with no destination in mind. Normally, we set an end point like New Orleans, the west coast, a park somewhere, but this time we just went with the flow. The overall goal was to see how we liked it as we are planning ahead for when the kids are out of the house, and we are empty nesters. We want to travel the United States and see everything we can through our 40's and this trip gave us some ideas for how to do that.

A black and white photo of a tree standing alone in a field with dark clouds above it and mountains in the distant background.
I just loved how this tree looked as we were driving through Cade's Cove.

If you've never tried a trip like this, I would highly suggest it. Just jump in the car and go with no destination and no plan. See what happens when you let your spontaneous side out. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result.

I want to try and make more posts like this going forward to cover places we go and things we see. I am always taking photos of our travels, so it only makes sense to share them in a way that tells the story.

Thank you for reading this far and I hope you have a great rest of your day!

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