Gulf Coast vacation

Last week Derek and I took a week-long road trip vacation to several destinations at the Gulf Coast.

We visited Gulf Shores, Mobile and Dauphin Island in Alabama, and Biloxi in Mississippi. These locations are about a six and a half hour drive.

Neither of us have visited any of these places, and after this trip, now I can add Mississippi to the list of states I have visited.

A bonus to this road trip was that it took us right past the Buc-ee’s in Robertsdale, Ala. If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, it is an amazing gas station and convenience store. That’s a horrible description for it though; it’s so much more than a convenience store. The company originated in Texas (where we lived for three years) and now it’s starting to branch out around the south.

Our first two days were in Gulf Shores. However, all of the hotels closer to the beach were above my budget, so we stayed a few miles inland in Foley. I think we lucked out though, because we stayed at a beautiful bed and breakfast called Hotel Magnolia.

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Also a coincidence was being across the street from a railroad depot museum and model train display in Foley. My dad loves trains and he passed that on to me. My dad has always had some type of model train layout. That was a neat first thing to see to ease into our week of fun.

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Also on our itinerary was Alligator Alley, which is a natural habitat setting for alligators that have been rescued from dangerous situations. Visitors to Alligator Alley start out by seeing hatchlings, and the alligators in different young age groups. The last part is the best part, seeing the (very, very large) adult alligators in a swamp. There is a boardwalk that goes over the swamp, and it is honestly beautiful scenery.

I asked a worker a few questions, and he said that he estimates they have around 700 alligators! He even said that some wild alligators have gate crashed, and now live among the rescued alligators.

I also got the chance to hold a three year old alligator named Gatorade.

In addition to admission, you can also buy alligator chow. It looks like large brown pellets, similar to what you would feed goats at a petting zoo.

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We also went to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. It is a small zoo, about the same size as our local Chattanooga Zoo.

What I enjoyed about this zoo is its layout. It is a large circle, so you can only go backward or forward, and not have to worry about missing any animals.

Another big draw, at least for me, is the different kinds of cats. My favorite animals are all the cats, so I was happy to see lions, tigers, black panthers, lynx and cloud leopards.

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We also explored Gulf Shores and spent some time at the beach. I find it interesting that Gulf Shores was more crowded than Biloxi, and they were both similar tourist beach towns. I am not sure why that is.

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We also drove all the way to the end of the island and visited Fort Morgan, the site of a Naval Civil War battle. It’s just not a complete trip for me without visiting some type of historical site!

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Something extra we did was stumble across Gulf Shores State Park. There, we found a nice pedestrian boardwalk that went over the marsh.

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Our next stop was Mobile. I did not have high expectations of Mobile. It was just meant to be a stop over to get us to other destinations that I was more so looking forward to. Mobile pleasantly surprised us. Our hotel, Malaga Inn, was in a great location, walking distance to the historic district. The streets and architecture of the buildings were beautiful.

Our hotel had a lovely courtyard, and I am glad we took advantage of it on our first evening, because on the second day we had quite the downpour!

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In Mobile, we took a tour of the Oakleigh House, built in 1833. There wasn’t much original to the house itself, but the people who are in charge of the home, took great care to make sure that they filled the home with both Mobile and period era items. The tour guide did a great job of telling stories of multiple Mobile people and families.

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A highlight of the day in Mobile was visiting the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. There, we got to see the USS Alabama, submarine USS Drum, and countless military historical aircraft on display.

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After a full day in Mobile, we left early the next morning for a full day at Dauphin Island. This is interesting: I expected to like Mobile the least and I liked it the best, and I expected to like Dauphin Island the most and I liked it the least.

This is not to say that we did not enjoy our day on Dauphin Island; we did. However, I was surprised with how little there was to do. This is definitely not a tourist-crazy area like Gulf Shores. Dauphin Island seems to be a place to “get away from it all.” Families could rent a house here for a week and just spend all of their days at the beach. That would be perfect for some people, but it’s not my idea of a vacation, personally.

At Dauphin Island, we first headed to Fort Gaines. This fort, and Fort Morgan, can almost be sister forts in a sense, if you are looking for Civil War history about the Battle of Mobile Bay. Both forts, just across from each other on different islands, were witness and played a part in this battle. I enjoyed Fort Gaines much better than Fort Morgan. Fort Gaines is much smaller, and the self guided tour was more organized with more information.

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The second thing we did on Dauphin Island was to walk the lake loop trail, part of the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. This is a nice wooded, marshy area filled with trails.

At this point, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention the weather. The weather on the first half of our trip left something to be desired, but up until this point we had gotten lucky. It rained and thunderstormed every day, but it was always during mealtimes, when we were in the car, or back at the hotel for a mid-afternoon break.

It had drizzled on and off during our time that morning at Fort Gaines, but by the time we parked at Audubon Bird Sanctuary, the sun was starting to shine. We left the umbrellas in the car. Big mistake.

The skies opened up on us and it DOWNPOURED. We were instantly soaked. At that point, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we turned back to the car or kept walking on.

We knew we had dry clothes waiting for us in our suitcase in the truck, so we just laughed it off and made the best of it.

It was a beautiful trail, and at some point it did finally stop raining. We were taking pictures of the lake on a little pier, when a group of people walked up behind us. They said, “You do know there is an alligator underneath you, right?” That made the walk more special, and made it even more interesting after the downpour.

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After changing (underneath towels while parked on a dead end road where there were hopefully no people watching) we found a place to eat lunch. We spent the second half of the day driving around, taking pictures, browsing in stores, and ended the day with time on the beach.

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After that, it was time to head to Biloxi, our last stop of the trip. I enjoyed Biloxi the most, because there was so much to do, and, as I mentioned earlier, it was less crowded than Gulf Shores.

Our hotel was right across from the beach, which we took advantage of multiple times a day.

My favorite part of each day was going to the beach in the evenings. Low tide was at that time, and the water was gentle. You could walk out very far, over multiple sand bars, and still only be in water up to your ankles.

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The highlight for me in Biloxi was visiting Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ last home. Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy. By now, you probably all know that I love Civil War history. Behind Beauvoir is the Presidential Library and Museum, where we learned a lot about the man.

The home was filled with all original artifacts belonging to the family. In addition, there were many interesting Civil War related items in the museum. The coolest item, I thought, was the coat that Davis was wearing when he was captured at the end of the war in May, 1865.

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Plans had to change unexpectedly on the second day, but I think things turned out for the better. We had tickets for the Betsy Ann Riverboat, but the ride was cancelled due to a mechanical issue.

Instead, we visited the Big Play Entertainment Center, where we raced in a go-kart, and then we played a game of mini-golf. After that, we headed to the Ohr-O’Keefe Art Museum. Ironically enough, these three things were all together cheaper than the river boat tickets.

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Other, small things that we did included visiting the Biloxi Lighthouse, seeing tree sculptures, (made from trees destroyed in Hurricane Katrina), the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, and of course, more beach time.

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After two and a half days in Biloxi, it was time to head home. To break up the drive, we decided to make a pit stop at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This was a great decision. We had lunch in their cafe, and spent over an hour exploring all of the different gardens and flowers.

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We had a great time. We did everything that we had set out to do (except the Riverboat) and then some. When we got home, I made a YouTube video with footage from the trip.

We can’t wait until the next vacation!

Nashville daytrip

We went to Nashville for the day on Saturday, July 3. It was a long day, about 21 hours, in fact.

We left at 5:35 a.m. and did not get home until about 2:20 a.m.

The reason why we went to Nashville in the first place was an Alabama concert, which was originally scheduled for last July, pushed back a year because of the pandemic.

Since we had never been to Nashville before, we made a full day out of it.

Our first stop was breakfast at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. We went here because it’s next door to the Grand Ole Opry. This is a large hotel, with a beautifully designed interior. There are water features inside, including more than one waterfall. There are different sections of the hotel. My favorite was the Delta section, which looked like New Orleans. We got breakfast at a grab and go marketplace, and walked around the hotel.

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After time at the hotel, we went to the Grand Ole Opry for a 9 a.m. backstage tour. This tour was about an hour. It included an introduction show at the beginning. We saw all of the artist rooms, the wall of plaques listing Opry members, and got to walk out on stage.

I was disappointed with how the tour handled the stage part. Everyone got to walk out on to the famed circle (a circle of wood taken from the Ryman Auditorium) and a photographer took a picture. You had to pay for the picture. It cost $25 dollars to get three copies, one large and two small, of the photo, which was poorly printed. I understand that there had to be a way to control the group across the stage, otherwise everyone would have huddled around it waiting to get their own picture, but the photographer should have offered to take photos with people’s own phones and cameras. We ended up sneaking a photo of the photo with our phone, so at least we have proof that we stood in the circle.

However, it was a thrill to stand in these places on the stage where so many famed artists have stood before.

Overall, we enjoyed the tour, and we would like to come back to see a show.

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After our tour, we headed into downtown Nashville. The Opry and Gaylord Opryland are a few miles away from downtown, in a section called Music Valley.

We walked the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge over the Cumberland River. The bridge is short, compared to the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge in Chattanooga.

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After that, it was time to check out Lower Broadway, the main tourist area filled with honky honk type bars, shops and restaurants.

I am sure that things were busier than usual due to it being the 4th of July holiday weekend, but we were both quite overwhelmed by the amount of crowds and noise. A lot of the bars had open windows and doors, and there would be a band inside playing ear splitting music. It seemed like the bars all had a contest with each other to see who could play the loudest.

I think I would enjoy Broadway much more during an off-season visit, and earlier in the morning.

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Some other things that we saw included the Music City Walk of Fame, which is similar to the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, the Tennessee State Capitol, and the Instagram famous What Lifts You wings mural by Kelsey Montague.

We were having a lot of difficulty finding parking, exacerbated by getting stuck in traffic all over the city, so Derek dropped me off at the Union Station Hotel, a historic train station, so I could take a few pictures, while he drove around the block.

In the afternoon we headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The highlight for me was seeing Kacey Musgrave’s exhibit, All the Colors. It was a treat to see the white lace jumpsuit that she wore to the Houston Rodeo performance, a show I saw in March 2019.

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Other neat things were the hall of gold records, Willie Nelson’s shoes and bandana, a dress of Dolly Parton’s and hand written song lyrics from Brooks and Dunn.

The last thing we did during the day was the whole reason why we came to Nashville, the Alabama concert. It was a great show. Martina McBride was the opening act, and it was awesome to hear her sing “Independence Day.”

There were two surprises during the show. First, Gov. Bill Lee came on stage and made a proclamation designating July 3 as “Alabama in Tennessee Day.” Second, Tim McGraw came on stage and sang a song with Randy and Teddy.

I got to hear a bunch of their songs that I had not heard during the first concert in Houston. I was excited to hear “Roll On,” which is one of my favorites.

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After the concert, it was time for the two hour drive back home. At the end of the day, my phone had recorded 22,000 steps! Also, I learned a lesson; do not wear pointed toe cowboy boots! My toes were squished all day and hurting, but at least I had no blisters.

Overall we had a good day, and we learned a lot so we can make the next trip a better one.

Missionary Ridge Local

I am happy to say that, as a train lover, I have finally taken a ride on the Tennessee Valley Railroad.

A few weeks ago we rode the Missionary Ridge Local, which is a one hour train ride that travels through Missionary Ridge with a stop at the East Chattanooga Depot.

I am not quite sure what happened the weekend we were there, but there were some amendments to our trip. For starters, the steam engine is supposed to run on weekends, but we ended up with a diesel engine. This disappointed me, but this is just another excuse to go on another train ride someday. There is also supposed to be a short tour of the shop, next to the East Chattanooga Depot, but this did not occur on our ride. I am not sure why.

One thing I did enjoy was the turntable demonstration at the East Chattanooga Depot. The conductor was knowledgeable and explained the whole process while the engine turned around to prepare for the trip back. The conductor told everyone that this turntable is one of only a few in the United States. I was giddy when hearing this, because I know of another one, in Frostburg Maryland, in use by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which my parents both work for.

The train passed through some neighborhoods, as well as over Chickamagua Creek and through Missionary Ridge Tunnel, a tunnel dated to before the Civil War.

Commentary was provided throughout the trip about the local history and what we were seeing through the windows.

Chattanooga has a rich railroad history, especially during the Civil War. The area became a railroad hub in the 1850s. During the Civil War, both sides recognized the importance of holding onto the city, for its railroad lines. There was the infamous “Great Locomotive Chase” during the Civil War, organized by civilian James Andrews, in which he and Union soldiers captured a locomotive, The General, in Georgia, in order to destroy as much of the Western and Atlantic Railroad on the way to Chattanooga. They were eventually captured, and now there is a monument and grave sites dedicated to those men in Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. When Chattanooga was captured by the Union in 1863, it was called the “Death Knell of the Confederacy,” undoubtedly because of the importance of the railroad.

The train depot from where we left, Grand Junction, has a nice gift shop and a deli as well.

After the train ride, we walked through the collection of train cars and engines that are on display.

I admit, I’ve been on better train rides. Maybe I’m spoiled because as a kid, I’ve frequently rode in the First Class Parlor car, the Marian, on the Strasburg Railroad. However, I still enjoyed this trip. I am looking forward to longer rides, such as a dinner train, or the Chickamauga Turn, which is a six hour ride with a layover in Chickamauga.

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About to enter the 1858 Missionary Ridge Tunnel.
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Passing the shop as we were pulling into the East Chattanooga Depot.
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The engine takes a spin on the turntable.
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At the East Chattanooga Depot. I loved the little set up they had, complete with chickens!
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The inside of our car.
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One of the engines on display outside the Grand Junction depot.

A half-day in Trenton, GA

Trenton, Georgia is the county seat of Dade County, on the border of Tennessee and Hamilton County. I work in Trenton.

It is a rural county, and the town of Trenton is small, but there are some nice shops and good places to eat. Coupled with a visit to Cloudland Canyon State Park, you can spend about half a day there.

All of my favorite places to eat are all located on the square on Main Street. Corner Coffee has good soups and sandwiches. I ate there this past weekend and I got the grilled cheese sandwich with loaded potato soup. Lalitos is a Mexican restaurant. My favorite meal there is the #15 dinner plate: one chicken tamale, one beef taco and rice. Their chips and salsa are amazing! Thatchers is a BBQ restaurant. Their pulled pork sandwiches are awesome!

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The inside of Corner Coffee. The owner is really nice and enjoys chatting with everyone while waiting for their food.
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Indoor dining at Corner Coffee is currently closed, but expected to open again soon.

The historical courthouse is in the middle of the square. It is empty right now, but it is a pretty building and makes for some nice pictures.

On the other side of the square is a small park with a gazebo. A few times Derek and I have grabbed a meal to go and then have eaten it in the park.

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The Dade County Historical Courthouse.
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This park is located near the square and is right across from where I work.

If you like history, you can check out the American Legion’s War Memorial Museum, which is a great collection from local veterans. There are some really interesting items in the collection, including an original Revolutionary War drum, and bullets found at the various Civil War sites. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, and by appointment.

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The American Legion War Memorial Museum.

Cloudland Canyon is just a few miles south of Trenton. One of the trail heads for Sittons Gulch is actually in a residential neighborhood of Trenton. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can just enjoy the view at the overlook, and check out the visitor’s center. There are a few different hiking trails to choose from, ranging from an easy 1 mile, to strenuous. I have written about Cloudland Canyon multiple times. Here is the most recent article.

There are also some antique shops scattered around the town, if that’s your type of thing. If you’re heading back home to the Chattanooga area, take Highway 11 north and stop at the Wildwood Depo, a great little antique shop with a unique collection of items.

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The Wildwood Depot.

Reflecting on the past decade, new year

So much has happened in the last 10 years, and in just 2019 as well. I’m sure everyone has claimed that, but Derek and I have gone through so many changes.

From 2010-2019 we went from being engaged to married, we bought our first house (and then subsequently had to give that house up when we felt we had no choice but to leave Pennsylvania), we started new jobs and careers and then got laid off from jobs.

We added two bachelors degrees in graphic design to our education, and then moved cross country to Houston, Texas, for Derek to get a masters degree in fine arts.

We enjoyed life in Houston for three years while he was in school, and I had a job that I loved. We had hoped to stay in Houston for a few more years, but when the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offers a job to teach graphic design, well, you pack up again for another (at least smaller) cross country move.

Derek moved out here first, on August 1, and I joined him on Sept. 12. We were apart for about five weeks, with a one week visit to Chattanooga in the middle of that time period.

It was rough to be separated from Derek for that long, but the time ended up going by fast, and now we’re better off for it.

I always enjoy starting over, for the sense of adventure, but with it also comes feelings of depression and hopelessness. Derek got to move to a new place, and have a plan in place for himself, whether it was starting school as a student or a teacher, but I had to worry for two months about finding a job.

We’re finally over those hurdles, and I’m happy that we’re starting the new year and decade with a little bit more of a permanent plan in place, or at least a longer term plan.

Chattanooga feels more like home to me than any other place I’ve lived in, and we won’t be ready to leave any time soon.

It would be great if we could stay here permanently, but because Derek ultimately wants a tenure track position, there will possibly be another move in our future. The nice thing though is that it won’t be in the near future.

Derek and I seem to do things in twos or threes: We lived in our first apartment in Pennsylvania for two years. We owned our house in Pennsylvania for three years. We went to school for the second degree for two years. Derek went to school for three years for the masters program. We were in Houston for three years. We were in our first apartment in Houston for two years.

It will be a relief to break free from that cycle for a while. No more moving, no more schooling. No more new jobs. I am quite happy with my current job, so I hope this rings true for me as well as Derek.

It’s comforting to know that, with any luck and barring any unforeseen circumstances, a good part of this decade will be the same, with no changes.

So far the first month of 2020 has been quiet for us, and I expect most of the winter to be quiet as well, but we’re enjoying our time together, and enjoying getting back on track.

For this year, I’m looking forward to spring coming, and with warmer weather comes more exploring. We have already seen so much of the Chattanooga area and I’m excited for all the things we still plan to do.

Visiting old friends, and getting a glimpse of the Smoky Mountains

One of my best friends Dawn, and her family, live in Sevierville, Tennessee, near the Smoky Mountains. We used to work together in Pennsylvania, and have stayed close. We moved to Houston in August, and her and her family moved to Tennessee that November, so it had been over three years since we last saw each other.

When Derek found out he got the job at UTC, I texted Dawn and said, “Best friends will be reunited again in the great state of Tennessee!” It is comforting to know that I have a friend relatively close by.

We spent the day with her two weeks ago, and we got a good preview of the Smoky Mountain region, and some of the things to do in the nearby tourist towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

We got there early in the morning and all headed out to breakfast at Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin. I had heard that this part of Tennessee was known for their pancake houses, so I was happy to experience one. I loved the decor inside!

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Dawn with her twin daughters at Flapjack’s. Not pictured is her husband Brian, who was also with us.
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Strawberry pancakes for breakfast.

Our first stop after breakfast was the Dolly Parton statue, in front of Sevierville’s court house. Dolly was born in Sevierville.

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We drove down the Smoky Mountain Parkway, on the way to Gatlinburg, and Derek and I were amazed at how many tourist attractions there were. Most of them looked quite cheesy! I knew that was what the area was like in general, but I didn’t expect so much of it.

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An example of one of the tourist attractions: The Hatfields and McCoy’s dinner feud.

We drove through Smoky Mountain National Park for a few miles to get to Gatlinburg on the other side, and we were shocked at how much traffic there was. We had thought we would miss the foliage crowd by going in November, but it was a sunny, mild day, so that was probably the last of the tourist rush.

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A quick shot through the windshield while driving through the National Park.

We were initially planning on finding parking in Gatlinburg, and then getting out and walking around for a little bit, but it was a madhouse. We quickly abandoned those plans. However I am glad that it ended up happening that way, because now I know what to possibly expect when we vacation there, hopefully next year.

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Scarecrows lined the streets in Gatlinburg.

We ended up going back towards Pigeon Forge. Gatlinburg seems to be the most popular of the towns, so the traffic died down considerably.

While in Pennsylvania, Dawn and I would get together on Friday and Saturday nights at our houses, and enjoy cups of tea together at our kitchen tables, while chatting about anything and everything. Many, many hours were spent together with cups of tea. Therefore it was important to us, and symbolic as well, that we get drinks together during this visit.

We stopped at Espresso Yourself, a small coffee shop in Pigeon Forge. It was great to continue our chats as if no time had passed at all since we last saw each other.

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Chatting and drinks at Expresso Yourself.

Then we headed to the Apple Barn in Sevierville. It is a large complex that consists of two restaurants, a general store, a winery and more. What a nice store! I could have bought a lot more than we did. We bought red and white plaid table place mats with apples on them, plus some apple butter and a big jug of apple cider.

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Dawn and I at the Apple Barn.
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Inside the Apple Barn general store.

After that we got a quick mid afternoon bite to eat, and then we headed back to her house to say our goodbyes. We had a great day together. They will come visit us in Chattanooga next, sometime after the holidays.