Catfish Conquers Chipmunks and Saves the Planet!

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What’s it like, traveling with four little kids in one car for two weeks all over the South?

A chipmunk convention with lots of whine and no wine.

With me were Andrew (a.k.a. Daddy) and four kids younger than 9. Between work and kid commitments, we were forced to drive in one day to Sevierville, Tenn.

The trip down was a cold blur.

I’d armed us with movies, including Alvin and the Chipmunks, which the kids love–and Daddy won’t let them watch. Instead, he keeps telling them, “Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

He was telling them that at 2:30 p.m. It’s 9:19 p.m.

Supertramp’s “Long Way Home” is playing on the radio. Daddy likes it. I’ve heard it four times today. I used to like it.

At 10:43 p.m., we’re deep in the mountains and in the midst of a thunderstorm. It’s gorgeous, but my kids aren’t accustomed to seeing Nature’s Wrath so unbridled–they even want Daddy to pull over to extract a fly from the car. When I was a teenager and vacationing in the Smokies with my parents, lightning struck our car, and I survived, as you probably guessed.

I tell my kids this. They are not comforted.

The second day, they had many significant cultural experiences. Their swift speech and Chicago accent got them mistaken for French-speaking Canadians. Individually…

*Max: What is that machine, Mommy? A pay phone? What does it do?

*Josh: Can bears get in our hotel?

*Madeline: Mommy, where are all the Starbucks?

The third day, we visited Tennessee’s Tuckaleechee Cavern, and I wore the adorable flipflops I got for the pool. Everybody, especially the guide, laughed at me, and I was like, what? Flipflops are waterproof, and water makes caves. Besides, the heels were flat.

Nevertheless, while I held little Madeline’s hand, I slipped on the slick path. After I rightened myself, Madeline looked at me and said, “Mommy, you should’ve worn more sensible shoes.”

On Day Four, we got in the car to return to our cabin in Townsend, Tenn. For two hours, we drove hairpin-curve roads marked with blue signs that said, “Travel at your own risk: Few emergency vehicles.” After the last slim turn, twenty yards from the turnoff we needed, we saw a sign that proclaimed the road was closed. We had to retrace our steps for two hours. We got so loopy, we were throwing socks at each other–one ended up on Daddy’s head.

He ended up guessing which way we needed to go, and we ended up on the Cherohala Scenic Skyway. A drive above the clouds, it was a symphony in blues. We were higher than five Sears Towers, and the clouds curled around us. I opened the car windows, and cool wisps floated into the car–delightful.

We descended to Tellico Plains, starved, to find a roadside fry joint so small, it didn’t have bathrooms. But we sat on picnic benches with the river rushing behind us, and my freshly caught catfish and hushpuppies tasted better than the fare at a $500 dinner.

On our last day before our return drive, we visited the Cherokee Reservation and learned about the Trail of Tears. While hiking a mountain trail, my daughter Madeline had a meltdown.

Like always, Max trudged along silently behind us, staring into the middle distance with grim fatalism. Finally, he said, “This is the trail of tears, I think.”

Obviously, something stuck.

Despite all the kids’ drama, I did have fun. The wood floors of our log cabin felt wonderful on my bare feet, and my usual cinnamon rolls somehow smelled more like a holiday. The cave was just as cozy as our cabin. And as an almost-Southern girl, I got to savor barbecue in roadside joints–the axiom is that the best barbecue is made in places that would fail a health inspection.

And I gained appreciation for the Region, where I can find turkey burgers and whole-wheat anything in the supermarket. Here, it doesn’t take twenty minutes for a fast-food crew to give me coffee. Here, the most ferocious wildlife is the big poodle down the street that fixes me with a baleful eye when I jog past. And here we take for granted just how comfortable summer temperature and humidity is–we focus on the worst of winter instead. At least one inch of snow doesn’t shut down the city, as it does in my hometown on the Ohio River.

Did I wish you were with me in the South? Yes, but home is on the way to sweet awesomeness, too.

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About Rebecca Bailey

* Columnist, The Times of Northwest Indiana, for three years. * Professor for twelve years. * Mom of four teeny kids. * Voted "Most Dramatic," Castle Junior High School eighth grade, 1984. * Failed to diaper her first child before he projectile-pooped on the curtains. * Accidentally splattered her white Jack Russell Terrier with her red hair dye, which did not come out.

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