RV Life – Year One – Autumn

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Summertime
Sunlight illuminates the brilliance of Creation.

From Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina, October in the Great Smokey Mountains is a vibrant showcase of radiant Autumn colors.


The I-81 / I-40 drive from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Middle Tennessee passes through some impressive scenery. If you are one who appreciates the colorful leaves of October, then you should try this route at least once during the Autumn season.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Fertile fields and thick forests. Staples of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

From the Wyoming Valley around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, I-81 winds southwest through the Coal Region, Dutch Country, and the Susquehanna River Valley.

Near Hagerstown the highway crosses the border for a brief, 12-mile stint in the state of Maryland, crossing into West Virginia at the town of Williamsport. A short, 30-mile stretch along West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle carries you into Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Long before the Interstate, natives and pioneers walked here.

From the northern tip of Virginia to the Tennessee border at Bristol, the terrain is as beautiful as one can find in the USA.

Interstate 81 meanders through the Shenandoah Valley between the Appalachian Plateau and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Marvelous views of the “beautiful distance” surround you as you travel through these historic frontier lands.

The beauty continues into Eastern Tennessee, where the highway changes over to I-40 near the town of Dandridge. Views of the Great Smokey Mountains dominate the southern horizon all the way to Knoxville. From there, the interstate travels across the Cumberland Plateau into the heart of Middle Tennessee and the Nashville metro area.

That was my journey home from a fabulous 2017 summer season up north. See RV Life – Year One – Summertime, Part 2.

I arrived in Middle Tennessee on the first Sunday in October and set-up camp at the Manchester KOA to await Cheri’s return from Kansas City.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Mother Nature signals change with a vibrant display.

Our plans for the Autumn season were already set, because we wanted to see the full display of Fall colors in the Great Smokey Mountains.

If you are wondering why Cheri flew home to Nashville rather than meeting me in Knoxville, it was the cost of air fare. We saved hundreds, and it is a short, 3-hour drive back.

October is Cheri’s birthday month, so we started the season with plans for dinner and a show in the Knoxville area. We learned that one of our favorite comedians would be doing a show on the very evening of her birthday. We purchased 2 tickets to see Gabriel Iglesias, nicknamed “Fluffy”, on his Fluffymania Tour at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium.

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Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
An iconic landmark on the Knoxville skyline, the Sunsphere.

For dinner, we found a great spot in downtown Knoxville within walking distance of the famous World’s Fair Park.

Chesapeake’s served an amazing meal with an added personal touch. They customized one of their menus with a “Happy Birthday Cheri!” message printed on it.

After dinner we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the park before heading off to the show.

Fluffy delivered a great performance, earning him a standing ovation. His popularity was so evident that when he closed the show with a few of his well-known jokes, the entire audience quoted the punch lines back to him! All he could do is laugh out loud and savor the moment.

The campground we chose was the Volunteer Park Family Campground, conveniently located right off I-75 just 15 minutes from downtown Knoxville and close to many of our favorite spots around the region.

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Long before Going RV, we made several visits to this area and knew it well. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of Cheri’s favorite childhood memories, so she was immediately drawn back to it when we moved to the Nashville area in 2014. I fell in love too when she first introduced me to the Smokies.

We visited many of our favorite spots, but also took in a few new places …

  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
  • Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
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One particular sight-seeing experience left a lasting impression on me. At the Cumberland Gap, we followed Skyland Road all the way to the top of Pinnacle Overlook. A sweeping view of the valley below provides an eagle’s perspective of the Gap and the Wilderness Trail.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
A panoramic view from the Pinnacle Overlook. Beautiful Distance.

Imaginations filled my mind’s eye of Daniel Boone wandering through the forest below with a group of settlers on their way to the frontier in search of a better life. I also imagined Native Americans, who were here long before the settlers. This was never the frontier to them, just home.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the USA, over 430,000.

I stood there gazing off to the horizon. A cool breeze, the warm sun, and the smell of the forest filled my senses.

In that moment, the soft sounds of flute music drifted through the air. I turned and noticed a Native American man sitting in the shade slightly off the trail.

He played a soothing melody that was perfect for the moment.

We approached the man and had a brief conversation. He talked about his Native American lineage and told us about a petition he was working on to get the government to officially recognize his small tribe as part of the Cherokee Nation. We thanked him for sharing his story, complemented him on his music, and made a donation to his cause.

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November arrived and we pulled the rig back to Middle Tennessee, staying again at the Manchester KOA. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends before starting the long journey to our winter spot in Arizona.

We had been planning for this long trek since we started the RV Life in April. So we knew it would take us through 5 states and over 1700 miles across the southern U.S. This required us to divide the trip into multiple sections. We planned our stops accordingly, allowing us to limit each travel day to around 8 hours. We also planned to spend some time at each stop so we could explore.

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Leg One:  Manchester, TN to Little Rock, AR

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

About 400 miles, this section took us around 7 hours. We stayed at a great little spot on the north side of the Arkansas River with a gorgeous view of downtown Little Rock. Called the Downtown Riverside RV Park, this campground is not very big. You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation because they fill up fast.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
An urban oasis. Downtown Riverside RV Park

There’s a convenient pedestrian bridge close by that takes you across the river to the front steps of the Clinton Presidential Library.

You can follow a well-kept, paved pathway from there to the Julius Breckling Riverfront Park and dozens of shops, restaurants, and attractions along the riverfront.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

We arranged for a visit with Cheri’s brother, Marshall, while we were in Little Rock. He and his wife, Sandi, made the 6-hour drive from Kansas City to spend a weekend with us.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Try your luck. Many have found some serious money in the dirt.

We spent a Saturday at the Crater of Diamonds State Park digging for gemstones, hoping to strike it rich.

We found nothing of value, except for the memories we created sitting together in the dirt searching for treasure.

Leg Two:  Little Rock, AR to Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

It was another 400 miles or so to our friends’ house, Marta and Luiz. See related story, Full Circle – A Kiss Forgotten.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

They showed us around the Fort Worth area, introducing us to the Sundance Square and the Stockyards.

Cheri also took a day trip during the week while I was working to see the Magnolia Silos in Waco.

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Leg Three:  Dallas-Fort Worth, TX to Carlsbad, NM

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

It was about 450 miles on this leg across some rather boring West Texas flatlands. There’s not much to see here, but we were surprised at how many cotton fields there are in this part of the country.

At the small town of Big Spring, Texas, we left Interstate 20 and followed State Highway 176. The lonely landscape offered wide open views of empty horizons along this road-less-traveled. The road eventually connects with US Highway 62 in New Mexico, taking you into Carlsbad. We stayed at the Carlsbad RV Park on the south side of town.

Carlsbad is a place etched into Cheri’s mind from her youth. She came here with her family in the 1970s to see Carlsbad Caverns National Park. She always wanted to return, and since I had never been there it became our target attraction for the stay.

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Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Over 100 caves have been found. How many more are here?

The park covers over 45,000 acres, mostly as designated wilderness.

About half-a-million visitors come every year to see the main attraction, Carlsbad Cavern.

More than 30 miles long with an 8.2 acre main chamber, it’s the largest, readily accessible cave chamber in North America.

In the old days, Cheri made the slow decent by foot along a winding, mile-long pathway. In 2017, we enjoyed a quick descent by elevator 750 feet down.

It was literally like stepping into another world. The main chamber of the cavern, called the Big Room, opens like a grand ballroom 255 feet high. The area around the elevators is developed for tourism. Like a mini-indoor mall, there are shops, restaurants, and restrooms.

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Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Self-guided or Ranger-guided, geological wonders await.

We took a Ranger-guided tour, joining a moderately sized group of about 20 people.

The Ranger provided all kinds of fascinating details about how the cave was discovered and developed, offering curious geological facts about the various formations.

At one point, we all filed into a small area and the lights were turned off so we could experience total darkness. What an eerie moment!

Before leaving Carlsbad, we took the time to visit another attraction in the area. We didn’t know about this place, but spotted a road sign one day and decided to check it out.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
A peaceful place you can feel in your soul.

Sitting Bull Falls is slightly north of Carlsbad Caverns.

To get there requires a long loop around the park on a lonely county road through some empty wilderness.

It’s a pleasant drive that takes you back to nature.

A short walk from the Visitor Center takes you to the base of the Falls.

It was a small trickle when we were there, but it was enough to create a beautiful pool of water in the middle of the dry desert.

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I imagined Native Americans enjoying this oasis in the middle of nowhere, far from enemy danger. Perhaps Sitting Bull himself soaked in this very pool seeking spiritual guidance for the future of his people?

I could feel a peaceful aura emanating from the place. A strange calmness came over me. I left there feeling a change on the inside. I can’t explain it. I can only say that this is a very special place that I will never forget.

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
Can you find me in this photo?

We experienced an RV learning moment upon our return from Sitting Bull Falls that day. I failed to pay attention to the weather forecast and didn’t realize we had dropped below freezing overnight. While we were away sight-seeing the outside water filter burst and was spewing water all over the place. Thankfully, someone turned off the water for us. I should have known, because it was December in the high desert … a rookie mistake.

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Now, I am always looking at the weather app on my phone to keep tabs on the temps and will disconnect the water line if I see a freeze coming. I can still have water service by filling up the fresh tank and running off the pump until it warms up. Many RVs come equipped with tank warmers for this scenario.

If you’re wondering what weather app I use, my personal favorite is WeatherBug. It provides a good hourly forecast of temps and wind speeds. It also has a radar map you can use to track storm threats and includes alerts for all kinds of weather-related events, such as wild fires, pollen counts, or air quality.

The Last Leg:  Carlsbad, NM to Picacho Peak, AZ

Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn

The final leg of the journey was the longest, covering over 500 miles. We decided on a slightly longer route, heading north out of Carlsbad, because we wanted to drive through Lincoln National Forest and White Sands National Park. The geography is way more interesting along this route than in West Texas! The horizon is dotted with mountain peaks and canyon lands, showcasing the beautiful distance of the desert southwest.

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Eye of the Beholder - RV Life - Year One - Autumn
A Picacho Peak silhouette contrasts the brilliant desert sky.

Our destination was Picacho Peak, Arizona, situated about half-way between Tucson and Phoenix on Interstate 10.

We stayed at the Picacho Peak RV Resort right next door to Picacho Peak State Park, where we had an up-close view of the distinctively shaped Picacho Peak.

We settled in for the winter, enjoying a beautiful desert sunset as the mountain cast its shadow over the campground. It was Christmas Eve weekend and we were excited for our first RV winter experience as Arizona Snowbirds.

Daniel 2:21

See next article, RV Life – Year One – Winter.

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Steve Coryell