Our 2019 Road Trip, Part 29: The Last Outpost

giant guitar!

You know you’re in road-tripping territory when you start seeing giant-sized objects straight out of 1950s Batman comics.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. My son tagged along from 2003 until 2013 when he ventured off to college. We’ve taken two trips by airplane, but are much happier when we’re the ones behind the wheel — charting our own course, making unplanned stops anytime we want, availing ourselves of slightly better meal options, and keeping or ruining our own schedule as dictated by circumstances or whims. We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.

For years we’ve been telling friends in other states that we’d one day do Atlanta’s Dragon Con, one of the largest conventions in America that isn’t in California or New York. We’d been in Atlanta, but we hadn’t really done Atlanta. Hence this year’s vacation, in which we aimed for a double proficiency in Atlanta tourism and over-the-top Dragon Con goodness. Before we went to D*C, there was the road trip to get there, and the good times to be had before the great times at the big show.

After Kennesaw Mountain effectively rebuffed us, all that stood between us and home were eight hours, 500 miles, two more meals and whatever other biological imperatives got in our way. With no further sightseeing intended, we knew our Sunday drive would be long and mostly boring. Lunchtime proved to more of one than the other.

Unfortunately the mountain wasted so much of our time that we knew we couldn’t hold off on lunch all the way to Nashville. One stop for gas and snacks was too early to count.

Bacon Cheese Krystal!

One Bacon Cheese Krystal kept me for a few more miles and was cheaper than most gas station snacks.

We were past Chattanooga and deep into Appalachia when the time came. We kept passing one exit after another in search of any town that might have more than a double-digit population and more than just McDonald’s or Subway for mealtime options. Around 12:30 we pulled into the town of Monteagle, which we’d never heard of but seemed good as any. Monteagle has been name-checked in songs by Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed, and was the birthplace of Mary Anderson, inventor of the windshield wiper. Good enough for us.

giant donut and eagle mug!

We’d already had donuts earlier, but we appreciated the town offering up more.

After a few miles and a bit of Google Maps wizardry to whittle down the nearest finalists, we homed in on Jim Oliver’s Smoke House Restaurant, Lodge and Trading Post. The late Mr. Oliver had been a renowned restaurateur in the area since 1960 until his passing in 2007, whereupon his family took over the Smoke House and have kept it running ever since. In addition to food and motel accommodations, the grounds include a concert venue where many a budding country star has played on their tours through the mountains.

Welcome to the Smoke House!

Right this way to more wood carvings and food, in that order.

We didn’t pick the best moment for a surprise visit. We arrived just as Sunday church services were letting out. Anne and I both had enough restaurant experience in our youth to know that’s one of the times you never want to eat out if you’re in a hurry or if you still have an extremely long drive ahead of you. All told, we found ourselves in line for a full fifty minutes before being seated, leaving us plenty of time to scope out our surroundings.

Wall of Sound!

A sort of Wall of Sound with autographs and tributes to the stars of country music and Christian rock.

Wall of Sound 2!

More wall, more sounds.

gift shop!

Amenities include a deeply authentic General Store that puts to shame the corporate fakery behind too many Cracker Barrel anterooms.

Willie Nelson?

Possibly the base of a Willie Nelson totem pole.

cutting board!

Cutting board offers big promises.

Smokehouse sauces!

The barbecue sauce options at our table. Parental guidance suggested.

We gathered the Smoke House was having staffing issues. Not every table was full, meaning they were only seating as many folks at a time as they believed they could comfortably serve. After we sat down, a full ten minutes passed before our existence was again acknowledged. Eventually a waitress showed up to apologize and take orders. Everything after that moved with relative quickness.

catfish!

For Anne, the fried catfish and mashed potatoes, because you can’t go wrong with a classic or take another fifty minutes to cook it, which they blessedly didn’t.

brisket browns fritters!

Southern hospitality strikes for the last time on this vacation with brisket, corn fritters, and hash browns topped with cheese, peppers and mushrooms.

Our waitress let us know we were each entitled to pick up a serving of free fudge on our way out. As we finished up, I noticed some previous customer had left their trucker cap on the floor next to my seat. I placed it on the table and we adjourned to the General Store, where we got our fudge and a couple of big ol’ fried pies in to-go boxes for future relishing.

As I was browsing through the store, a sudden impact jarred me in the back of my head. I turned around to find our waitress staring at me and smiling wide, having just slapped the trucker cap atop my head. She’d assumed it was mine and had tried to do a good deed in returning it in a grand gesture. I understood the mix-up, handed back the cap with an explanation of what little I knew about it, and prayed its rightful owner was uninfested.

take-home pies!

The fried pies later proved to be everything we’d hoped. Peach pie for Anne, apple pie for me.

The remaining 380+ miles home were largely inconsequential, especially the entire Kentucky stretch. In southern Indiana we made a pit stop at one of those multipurpose trucker outlets where, due to interior remodeling, any males who needed the restroom had to use temporary, claustrophobic facilities in a semi trailer outside. Their adjacent McDonald’s sounded like a good place for drinks, but their McCafe latte machinery was broken. Instead they handed me a tall macchiato for the same price. That trade-off was more than enough sugar to propel me the rest of the way home and well into the night.

The Smoke House fixings were likewise more than powerful enough to keep us filled all the way home. As part of the annual tradition to acclimatize back to ordinary living, our late supper — say around 8 pm — was at the Five Guys down the road from our house.

The following morning was Labor Day, our one day of rest before rejoining the rat race. We were at last ready to tear into those pies. By this time we’d forgotten which was which. I threw caution to the wind and proceeded to bite into the wrong one.

Because sometimes when you don’t know what you’re in for, you just have to jump in, give it a try anyway, and give yourself a high-five for the parts that work out despite the drawbacks. That goes for small-town diners, unfamiliar states, or super-sized fantasy conventions larger than any you’ve ever seen.

This concludes the narrative of our 2019 road trip. Coming soon: outtakes!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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