It didn’t take me being involved in this whole “overlanding” scene long to realize that the name of the game is really flexibility. It is important on these journeys that we don’t get so locked into one plan, that we lose our ability to have fun and enjoy it. It is easy to forget that just being out in nature and enjoying each other’s company is the main priority. In other words, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.
We didn’t know when we started planning our trip that our flexibility and commitment to the journey was going to be challenged. We had been planning this trip for months with our friend Alex from Scenic City Overland. In fact, we started talking about it while we were on the Kentucky Adventure Tour back in July. In July, us southerners were still experiencing the refreshing almost daily afternoon pop-up storms and showers of the summer months. We couldn’t predict that by October our region would have been plagued by one of the most significant droughts of our lifetimes.
The week before we were supposed to leave to complete the Georgia Traverse, the drought in the southern United States hit a critical capacity. Wildfires began popping up left and right. They were easily sparked and difficult to contain. Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia were some of the hardest hit areas, precisely where our route would lead us. That week, before we even finished packing we were forced to complete an exercise in flexibility. We couldn’t risk the safety of ourselves or others. So let the brainstorming begin…
An idea was hatched. We have all been in love with the idea of the Trans-American Trail (TAT) since we found out about it. For those of you who don’t know, the TAT is a trail that crosses the country using rural and dirt roads mixed with trails. It is a giant undertaking, and honestly one that would require a huge time commitment. We decided to use this time to start exploring the TAT in sections, as our time would allow. Maps were studied, and we decided to pick up the trail in Sewanee, Tennessee. Well away from any currently active wild fires in South East Tennessee. Our plan was to see if we could make it from there all the way through Mississippi and just barely into Arkansas in two days. Of course we had no idea what the trail would entail, or what challenges we might encounter.
Thursday afternoon we rolled out of our driveway loaded up and ready to go. The planning and packing phases were done, now it was time to adventure! Frankie the trail dog was so excited, we couldn’t keep her in the house while loading up.
We left our home, South of Nashville, and headed towards Monteagle, Tennessee. We got off the highway at the top of the mountain just as the sun was starting to set, it couldn’t have been more perfect timing. As the 4Runner pulls off the interstate, the windows go down and the fresh air rolls in. This is when things got real for me. We are camping!
We made our way to Foster Falls campground, excited because we had not seen Alex since the summer, and we were all excited to meet up with him and have our team back together! We all settled in for the night, had a great time visiting, and climbed into the roof top tents with excited dreams of our next few days.
Day 1: Sewanee, Tennessee to Collinwood, Tennessee
It was a cool, crisp, autumn morning and we were excited to go! No one had trouble getting up and going in the morning, and we were easily on the trail early. Quickly, we found some beautiful country paved roads with mountain views, fall coloring, and the remnants of a supermoon from a few days ago stared down on us. It was 70 degrees at nine in the morning in November, and I don’t think it could get any better than this. We passed Breezy Knoll Farm, a private animal preserve established in 1892, and honestly, I think we all felt like we are on top of the world!
Unfortunately, our feeling of ecstatic adventure was short lived. As we were traveling through a four way stop, Alex radios ahead to us that his jeep suddenly wouldn’t go. Honestly, as we turned around, I thought it was something simple that Michael and Alex would be all over, fix it, and we would be on the trail again. Luck was not on our side that day, and no matter how much throttle Alex used, the Jeep would not move. We pulled into the adjacent parking lot, dropped the trailer, and pulled out the recovery gear. Using our tow rope, we pulled the Jeep out of the intersection, into a church parking lot. Quickly, it became apparent that our adventure was put on hold. It seemed as though the torque converter in the the Jeep’s automatic transmission had bit the dust. There was no trail side repair for this dilemma. Multiple passers-by stopped and offered to help, one guy even offered for us to hang out at his nearby house while we waited. In a not great situation, it was inspiring to see how people just stepped right up to help out. Luckily, we were only an hour or so from Alex’s uncle who very kindly came to the rescue. Michael and I couldn’t go on and leave Alex here alone, so what do we do? Pulled out the chairs and tablet to watch the brand new episode of “Grand Tour”, that had just released that day, while we were sitting on the side of the road!
After Alex’s uncle arrived to pick him up, Michael and I had a decision to make. Do we continue on, or do we turn and head for home? We no longer had the safety of a second vehicle or the company of a good friend. Honestly, this was a pretty significant bump in the road for us. We didn’t want to waste the time we had taken off work, but it was so hard to imagine continuing this trip without Alex. After a very frank discussion, we decided to continue, but at a much slower, less determined pace than before.
Somberly, we hit the trail again, but it was not long before we started coming upon our first gravel roads. A quick trip up a ridge provided us with some stunning valley views. We saw an interesting old log cabin, that we admired and pondered what it must have been like to live there.
Suddenly, we found ourselves on a beautiful tree lined road through a gorgeous forest. We grabbed the new drone and got some stunning footage. We spotted a couple of promising campsites near a creek, but it was still fairly early in the afternoon and we felt the need to keep pushing on after our big delay earlier in the day. The sun fell as we were driving on a gravel road toward the horizon with a valley of pine trees framing the sunset.
The difference in summer and winter overlanding suddenly became very real. In the summer, we would have easily had another three hours to find a campsite in the daylight, with little worry about the trail or what we would encounter. In the winter, when it is pitch black at five o’clock, everything felt more dramatic. Of course, this would be the moment when we found the first real trail conditions. Following the route, we turned off of a perfectly graded dirt road and onto a narrow, rocky, and slightly rutted uphill trail. Looking at each other, we both thought we might regret our decision to move past those earlier campsites.
No one wanted to get stuck on the trail, in the dark, and without backup. Our concern was short lived, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a nice logging area with a clearing we decided to call home for the night. The air was crisp and smelled of fresh pine. We set up camp, cooked, and prepared for a windy, stormy night.
Day 2: Collinwood, Tennessee to Pickwick Dam, Tennessee.
After an incredibly windy night with a deluge of much needed rain, we woke to a significantly cooler day. There had been a 35 degree drop in temperature since we went to bed, and now it actually felt like fall. We watched the sun come up over the trees, packed up camp and hit the trail. We drove through some gorgeous forest areas on dirt roads, and the drone was launched to capture the birds-eye view of our incredible surroundings.
That morning we came into a small town, where I fed my coffee addiction, sampled some local biscuits, and continued on. Honestly, I have lived in Tennessee my whole life and didn’t realize how much pine tree farming there is. It was gorgeous to drive through. As we were traveling along a red clay dirt road through one of these pine forests, we crested a hill and are immediately treated to a stunning view of Pickwick Lake, which sits in the corner of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
Our track took us right along the lakefront, traversing up and down steep sections of dirt path, for a while and we stopped to enjoy some lakefront vistas several times along the way. We enjoy a drive along the lakeside on a dirt road called “Paradise Road,” and honestly we both kept saying “This really is paradise!”
We stopped for lunch at an unbelievable, lakefront campsite, where Michael tried to convince me that noon isn’t too soon to stop for the night. The spot was marked on the gps, and with the promise of some summer camping right here, we continued on our way.
We stopped in the town of Savannah, Tennessee for a top up on gas for Riley. Immediately, as we were heading out of town our track lead us onto a dirt road running through miles of open corn fields. Miles! Really…! More than 12 miles of dirt road and open corn field. It was a spectacular, and maybe mildly spooky sight to see just blocks outside the main square of the town. I could only imagine what this would look and feel like in the late summer when the corn is taller than the 4Runner, and you are on a 12 mile long corn maze.
As we exited the cornfield, we found ourselves at Pickwick Dam, with spectacular lakefront views. Pickwick State Park provided a great place to get out and walk around for a little bit before we press on to camp for the night. It took us almost two whole days of driving to make it here. Initially, we thought we could make it here to camp when we first started looking for campsites on the first night. That would have meant eight more hours of driving in the dark. What were we thinking? There is no way we could have made it this far. We weren’t out of the park for long before we found a little clearing in the pine trees to camp, just in time to catch the sunset.
Day 3: Headed Home
When we awoke to a chilly 27 degree start to the day, we were not really eager to end our adventure. Packing up camp that morning, we knew we’d have to begin our journey out of the forest, and back to the real world. Exiting out of the forest, we found ourselves in a sea of crystal. The plants are heavily frosted, and the sun is glinting off of them saying goodbye. Not forever. We will be back out here soon, we vowed, as we turned towards home.