The RV comes equipped with a “livability kit,” which is encouraging: It suggests we’ll live. Included in the kit: forks and spoons, coffee mugs, paper products. Not included: a Pack ’n Play, various stuffed animals, the white-noise fan we’ll never once plug in, wineglasses, Tylenol, diapers, a paper map, three trillion Legos, a sharp knife, a hair dryer, the baby backpack, fresh mozzarella, and, perhaps most hilariously, two novels. I pack two novels. As though there might be a moment, somewhere out there, when I’ll have time to read.
The plan is this: Head for westernmost North Carolina. In a recreational vehicle. With a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. On purpose. Fun fact: The little one might be too big for the Pack ’n Play, but he has never slept outside of a crib. Fun fact: My wife thinks she does not like to camp. Fun fact: The one time I drove anything this large, it was a U-Haul, and that was 15 years ago.
It’s a Winnebago Minnie Winnie, and it’s 33 feet long. I tape that out in blue tape from my kitchen to my dining room, just to see it. Perhaps I’m panicking. When Kevin Broom — the director of media relations for GoRVing.com, the go-to resource for all things RV — delivers it, I ask if he has any advice for a complete rookie. “You’re 11 feet tall in this thing,” he says. “Don’t drive under anything shorter than that.” Then he hands me the keys and leaves.
“Everybody thinks North Carolina ends in Asheville,” Karen Tipsword says. We’re standing on the side of a mountain somewhere west of Murphy, somewhere near Ranger, seven miles from the North Carolina-Tennessee border. “Call it Murphy,” says Karen’s husband, Tony. “Nobody’s ever heard of Ranger.”
The Tipswords are about to celebrate their sixth year owning and operating Persimmon Creek Campground — though that word, “campground,” doesn’t quite suggest the guinea hens and greenhouse and sawmill and shiitake mushrooms and pygmy goats, or the maple syrup they plan to tap this coming winter. Or the orchards and grape arbors they’re “rescuing” — their word — from the property they’ve just bought across the creek. Every board of every building has come from trees they cut from their own land.
Like everybody else we run into out here doing this crazy thing, the Tipswords are blisteringly, aggressively kind. To wit: After my older son, The Toad, falls in the pond while throwing every single rock from the gravel road into it, Karen arrives via ATV with a paper cup of homemade laundry detergent. Later, Tony makes cane poles from scratch, and teaches both my kids to fish. He helps The Toad catch his very first fish, a bream, that everyone agrees is eating-size, though since we have yet to explain the food chain in any kind of meaningful way, we throw it back.
The Tipswords talk a lot about community. About the whole area getting hit harder than most in what Karen insists was a depression, not a recession. About the whole area finally, finally starting to come back. They talk, too, about the paddlers and church groups and Boy Scouts who stay in their meadow off and on throughout the year. About the garnets and gold you can search for in the creek. About their roosters, who are named Gregory Peck and Russell Crowe. They talk about how they want a campground that has “the flavor and style we had when we were young.”
Most of what’s on offer at the Tipswords’ place works on the honor system: the washer and dryer, the firewood, the cherry cutting boards. There are red metal boxes to put your money in. They don’t take credit cards. “But in six years, we’ve never had a bounced check,” both of them say to me, on separate occasions.
It’s hard not to imagine us in one of those animated movie montages, a little cartoon Winnebago drifting across a map, a red line behind us showing where we’ve been. At some point on the road, my wife feels compelled to tell me the entire plot of Dirty Dancing. I tell her if she doesn’t quit, I’m going to put it in the story. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” she says. I start to tell her how far away from Lake Lure we are, but The Toad drops the aircraft carrier he’s making out of Legos. It explodes. This wakes his brother. Through the wall-to-wall wailing that ensues, I try very hard to keep the rig between the lines.
Places we go: 120-foot-tall Mingo Falls, outside of Cherokee in the Qualla Boundary, with its 161 steps and slick wooden bridge. The Benton MacKaye Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cullasaja Gorge. The headwaters of the Nantahala. Historic downtown Franklin.
Places we park: well away from those actual spots, in wide-open areas where one might imagine putting a tugboat through a three-point turn.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the only place we camp without “full hookups,” meaning water and electricity, meaning that’s the only place we really camp. They — the people who know the words for things — call this “rustic camping,” but it’s hard to feel rustic when you’ve got real beds and cilantro in a fridge that runs on propane. Still: This is the night we’ve been worried about, the night with no white noise. The first night, in the KOA in Cherokee — we wanted to start in a place where both experts and electricity might abound — the combo of running the A/C fan all night plus keeping the boys up way too late to play in a warmish rain gave us a miracle: They slept. Away from home. Which they almost always do these days, but we usually manage to work ourselves into a lather about it anyway.
Now, on rustic night No. 2, we feed them dinner at something close to the regular time. We shower quickly before quiet time arrives, meaning no generators. We throw away all our trash in the bear-proof containers. The powers that be at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are quite serious about bear-proofing: The park averages one bear per square mile. This, though, is not the bedtime story we tell. We get them snuggled down and tucked in, and they lie still in their beds, which is what you’d do, too, if your legs were 18 inches long and you’d hiked several miles up and down the Bradley Fork of the Oconaluftee River, but nonetheless, we pray fervently to the gods of our choice and lo and behold, the boys sleep here, too.
We sit outside the RV in lawn chairs and listen to the rush of the creek coming through the camp, the wind high up in the hemlocks and hardwoods, the nighttime sounds of the forest. White noise. I’m a complete fool. I get this proven to me all the time, but having a 33-foot-long rolling metaphor sitting quietly nearby, windows open and boys comatose inside, drives it home in a specific sort of way. The day before, in the KOA, I spent 15 minutes trying to understand how to light the pilot for the water heater. Then it lit itself, because the simplest, most obvious solution in an RV seems often enough to be the correct one.
The boys wake at dawn. Not even sunrise: dawn. We see them see each other in the barely blue light, and though that is an image I’ll carry with me forever, still I go up front and tell them, in as even a voice as possible, that we are not the sort of people who get up at dawn. It’s chilly on the rig. I change them into heavier pj’s, slide the windows closed. And I swear this is true: They go back to sleep. For two more hours. My wife and I fall back asleep, too. This is very nearly the best moment of the trip. Or perhaps of my entire life.
Except, no. The best moment arrives just after that, after we wake up for the second time. We crank the generator so that we can run the coffee pot. (That was the first question I had for the GoRVing people: Is there a coffee pot?) The generator dies — certainly due to operator error — immediately after the coffeemaker finishes making its 12 cups of coffee. My wife and I stand there and look at each other. I pull the phone book-size owner’s manual down out of a cabinet, but then think better of it, put it back, and let things be.
If you want a great cup of coffee, and you can travel both back in time and to the very edge of North Carolina, I can give you one.
Do not — I’m telling you, do not do this — drive Highway 28 between Franklin and Highlands in a behemoth RV you’ve had for three days. And you needn’t take my word for it: There are signs every two feet or so saying things like NO THRU TRUCKS and TRUCK ADVISORY and ROAD NARROWS 20 MPH CURVES and ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
But I wanted to see Bridal Veil Falls.
Because I had done some, but not all, of my research.
Many of the decisions one makes in an RV, it turns out, are irrevocable. The whole “let’s go see what’s down here” mentality takes on a kind of calamitous weight: If there’s nowhere to turn around — and let’s imagine a cul-de-sac as a sort of minimum requirement — then you have to keep going until there is. I knew I’d made a mistake within the first mile, but didn’t start apologizing to my wife until after we’d come to a complete stop on a hairpin turn, the gorge plummeting off into nowhere on our right and a wall of mountain on our left, to let two full-size dump trucks trailering steamrollers inch by. All of the literature attending to the Mountain Waters National Scenic Byway says that the drive is beautiful, and I’m sure it is. I remember not much, however, beyond white-knuckling it all the way to Highlands, and then, of course, back again.
(In Highlands, we attempted a turn at a produce stand. A very kind woman emerging from a very expensive car suggested we instead continue up the road to a covered bridge, drive under that, and turn around in what I think she said was a fairground. “How tall is the covered bridge?” I asked, and she looked up at our roof and said a word I don’t think this publication typically prints.)
Bridal Veil Falls, by the way? Bridal Veil Falls is the kind of thing that would be absolutely worth the drive in an automobile. In an automobile, you could even drive behind the falls on the little half-paved road. It’s a yesteryear kind of thing, and a definite photographic opportunity: Christmas card, social media, hashtag, what have you. Having a blast! I tweet you this! At not even the midpoint of our little afternoon death ride, however, Bridal Veil Falls was a bit underwhelming. And not at all the sort of place where we, in Sprocco, could turn around.
We wanted to camp as many different ways as we could, and Franklin seemed all along like the right way to cap off the trip: the first night in a KOA, where the kids could play on the fancy bouncy thing that The Wee called a “bency bency.” The second night on our own in the national park. The third night in a mom-and-pop setup, as close to the western tip of the state as possible. And now, the last night, in Franklin’s Downtown RV Park, because after cooking out for three days, we could walk to restaurants. And also because: What exactly is a downtown RV park, anyway?
That evening, after we’ve had an excellent restaurant dinner but terrible restaurant kid behavior, camp hosts Randy and Donna Wolfe build a bonfire and make the boys s’mores, and let them run themselves to empty. It turns out that a downtown RV park — at least this one, anyway — is more than anything else like camping in somebody’s backyard. We’ve got a mountain breeze and tall oak trees and a nice level spot to park, and the children manage to say “thank you” and we manage to put them to bed. My wife and I straggle back out to the fire, bone-tired but happy. We talk with Randy and Donna about how they ended up here in Franklin, about what it means to live in something on wheels, about how, on the doomed road to Highlands, Randy once saw an entire awning ripped from an RV hanging off the side of the mountain. Perhaps we have a cocktail. Every now and then, one of us goes to put an ear up against the door of the truck, to check on the kids.
“Western North Carolina’s on another part of the page,” Donna says at some point, meaning a map, meaning this is the part of the state that cartographers tend to lop off, squeeze into some other corner somewhere. There’s an edge to her voice. Not a mean edge, but an insistent one, like The Toad’s a couple of days ago when he was dead certain that the horseback riders we saw on the Benton MacKaye Trail were bandits.
Maybe folks out here in the Tennessee Valley do feel a little cut off from the rest of the state. Maybe it’s all these gorges, all this whitewater. Maybe it’s that the valley’s named for the state next door, or for its namesake river, anyway. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about, because this area is so gut-level familiar to me: As a kid growing up in Atlanta, I was in a Boy Scout troop that was very serious about camping. We hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, and when that was done, we crossed the border into these mountains, into the Nantahala National Forest. Maybe that’s why the two best drives — 74 from Cherokee to Murphy, 64 from Murphy to Franklin — felt so very much like, well, home.
I spent a good deal of time thinking about being on the rig versus being off. Maybe if you’re not a novice, you don’t think about the on part of things so much. I wanted a sign that first day that said something like, IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS, WHO CARES? GOOD LUCK. You don’t want to hit anybody changing lanes. You don’t want to sideswipe a gas station. You don’t want to drive away from a campground with the pop-out living room still popped out. You pay a brand new kind of attention to runaway truck ramps. You prepare the cabin, every time, for departure.
But once we were stopped? Once the parking brake was set and we’d cut the kids loose and we had only to look at the mountains rising up around us, make fairly certain no one was being eaten by a bear? It turns out that rhythm’s hard to give up. It got awfully easy: pull the chairs out, build a fire, start in on the slow, happy ritual of making dinner. That was when it felt like maybe we could figure a way to keep from returning to our regularly scheduled lives, a way to stay out here in this borderland, trucking it from waterfall to waterfall, forever.
Back home, days later, The Toad tells us he misses the camper van. “What was your favorite part?” we ask him. “I just told you,” he says, either confused or exasperated. “The camper van.” But we push him, and he offers up a pretty ready laundry list of people and rivers, fish and fowl. He wants to know when we can go again. I think back to those two gift hours before sunup in the Great Smoky Mountains, early in the trip, when we already knew we’d be all right, and I tell him: Soon.