Monday, April 30, 2012

Guided Hike in Frozen Head State Park

Frozen Head State Park is located in the Cumberland Mountains in East Tennessee.  It also has the highest mountain peak between the Smoky Mountains and the Rockies at 3324 feet.  I guess I got close last time I was there in the fall, we got to Chimney top at 3120 feet.  Nearby Frozen Head was a prison, which is still there but no longer in use.  When prisoners escaped in the past, they'd be found wandering around the mountains not too far away but they thought they had already traveled a hundred miles.  Poor dude.

Unlike last time I tried to go a guided hike, this time I successfully found the meeting spot and participated!  For an average person, that's not anything to be proud of but for someone like me who gets lost a fair amount (read: all the time!), I was proud of myself.

As for the guided part of the hike, it went really well!  Anyone who knows me knows that I'm always running a little late.  Ha.  I also went to the visitor's center, thinking the hike started there when it didn't (uh, yeah).  Luckily, tour guides take these factors into account and waited a little bit for stragglers.  After I got there, 5 minutes past the time it was supposed to start, I was still waiting with the group for others to show up.  Since this was a wildflower guided hike, we were going at a super slow pace.  (I'm saving the wildflowers for another post).  On the hike was an elderly woman in her eighties, maybe? who used to lead these hikes herself.  There was also an elderly gentleman who was very knowledgeable about flowers and foliage.  Of course, there was the ranger who actually led the hike.  There were a few others like me who didn't know much about native flowers.  Some lone hikers, like me, and a young family.  So it was a very informative hike, with many different people in the group.  If you ever see your local park hosting a guided hike, I would encourage you to try it.  :)

During the hike, I'd get glimpses of the water and was impressed by the blue tint from not that much water.  Due to the record breaking high temperatures this spring, the leaves came early.  Maybe it's not true, but during the spring, it seems like the leaves have a more vibrant shade of green, it's a really fresh and bright splash of color.  I love forests.  Only I get creeped out if I'm in the forest by myself so I had to do a guided hike to have companions.

Afterwards, I stopped between Oak Ridge and Frozen Head in the nearby town of Oliver Springs.  I read that there was a BBQ place and it had been a while since I've had southern BBQ.  Five different BBQ sauces.  Most of them were vinegar based and more liquid than BBQ sauce you'd find in stores.  I ordered pulled pork with hush puppies and potato salad.  For $1, I got dessert of a Tennessee moon pie heated up with chocolate syrup, whip cream and a maraschino cherry.

It was pretty nice to be back home around 1pm after doing so much already!  Yet, even though I know the benefits of getting an early start to my day, I still like sleeping in when I can.  :P

Monday, April 23, 2012

Booking Flights

Who loves booking flights?  The thrill of looking at prices and schedules, so exhilarating, right?  Not me.  Especially when it was my dollar.  Even when it was someone else's dollar at stake, it's not a good feeling to spend that much.

This weekend I looked at a myriad of flight combinations.  I need to go home early June before my precious sister goes to Taiwan for a mission trip (the girl has been selling candy and gum at her high school, with little luck, in efforts to raise money.  What a persistent and driven young'un!!) and then I need to book another ticket to go home when I finish my work here.  So 3 flights.  I have the option of booking (a) 1 RT flight for the first two and a one-way for the last one, (b) a one-way for the first flight and RT for the last two, (c) a multicity ticket or (d) 2 one-way tickets.  It all just depends on what's cheapest (and least inconvenient for my dad who has to take me to and from the airport).

Searching for flights was a nightmare and for reasons what I'm sure you have experienced.  The prices change as your search.  Ever had that experience where each time you look at the prices, it keeps increasing?  Sometimes there's a fix for that, sometimes.  (TIP!) Clear your cookies!  Some site track what you've been searching and will raise the price so that you sense that the prices are on the rise and book sooner.  Other flight search nightmare, the website that you counted on so faithfully to deliver you the best prices, doesn't, and you discover that seconds before you were about to book.  That is a blessing in disguise although you feel like an idiot for wasting so much time.  OR, you've looking ferociously at flights even though you don't have the permission for time off, therefore wasting your time because prices changes and all of that time spent searching was for nothing.  Yes, I think we've all been there and done that.  For me, it was all three this time (and the changing prices could not be cured with a simple clearing cookies exercise).

I trusted Kayak to give me the best prices.  I used to rely on and for the best flight prices, but then I realized that sometimes had better prices so I could just depend on kayak to do the legwork.  Nope.  I never click on the additional search option from other sites, but I forgot to uncheck it by accident.  I was astounded to see that priceline had better prices than kayak.  Sometimes STATravel also had better prices (there's the under 26 option so it's still okay for me to use that site).  I was also disappointed because it meant that I could not use kayak as a one-stop-shop anymore.  Oh well, at least I would be assured that I indeed found the best price.

FYI, in my efforts to find the best prices and trying to book with United to make use of my credit card that gives me free checked bags, it made the most sense to book 3 one-way flights, with the flights home with United so I can start taking stuff home in checked baggage, free.  Then, taking the cheapest flight back here, with another airline.  Also, most likely, I'll be booking a red-eye flight leaving at night and getting back in the morning.  Anyone have experiences with these flights?  I'm a little concerned because sleeping in airplanes can be hard for me (mostly the regional jets).  Also, concerned about sitting/sleeping next to a creep..  However, I could make it to work late morning and take one less (half)day off.  We'll see.

An hour later...

Booked flights to and from Sacramento at $190 each, aisle seats for all my flights.  Unfortunately long layovers but oh well!  Lots of magazine time at airport bookstores, I guess. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Norris Dam State Park: Trip Fail!

Embarrassing confession.  I always get lost when I go somewhere for the first time.  I thought I'd be okay because usually I don't travel with a GPS and this time I was equipped with a GPS.  On top of that, I looked up the address on Google Maps on top of that, so I know ahead of time how I'm getting there (which routes so I have a mental map).  

I was on my way to Norris Dam State Park to participate in a guided hike of wildflowers that I mentioned in an earlier post on spring plans.  This was a program offered by the park, free of charge to the public.  All that it would cost me was time and gas money.  Tennessee has a great diversity of wildflowers that have short growing seasons, so I wanted to take advantage of that.  

Knowing that I have a tendency to get lost going somewhere for the first time, I did all the pre-trip planning.  However, with parks and addresses, the address will lead you to a specific part of the park, but not necessarily where you want to go.  I figured it would be fine though because once I get to the park, I could figure it out from there.  Wrong!  So I go to the west side of the park, wandered around and finally realized that I wasn't where I wanted to be.  By that time, I was too late to hope of joining any guided hikes.  Even when I got to the other side of the park, it wasn't clear to me where I should have gone in the first place...  Oh well, I saw many pretty trees, a nice dam, and beautiful blue waters.  

As they say, better luck next time!!!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Museum of Appalachia

I had heard people reference the Museum of Appalachia numerous times, but I had no interest of visiting.  It's just another museum and I wouldn't describe myself as a museum person.  I was into museums at DC because they were free (and they were good) but more often than not, I haven't been super drawn in by museums.  That all changed for me when I heard that the Museum of Appalachia had about three dozen actual Appalachian buildings purchased and moved to the site.  Who does that?  Lived-in buildings, on-site? Wouldn't it be cheaper to build replicas?!  So here is this museum that models an Appalachian town, half an hour away from me?  Incredible!  So, after learning that piece of information, this museum was on my must-see list.  The admission fee was $15 (AAA discount applied) which normally I would consider steep, but to support such a museum, I deemed it $15 well-spent.  

I just love the artistic arrangement of marbles, beads and arrowheads.  It definitely adds interest to the exhibit.
The Appalachian people live near the Appalachian Mountains, surprise!  I was unaware until recently that they lived so close to me since I'm a bit far and technically live in the foothills.  So it turns out that the Appalachian-designated region is more cultural rather than directly related to the mountain range.  The Appalachian region extends from the southern parts of New York to the northern part of Georgia, even though the Appalachian mountain range starts in Canada.  The Appalachians carry a stereotype of being backwards people stemming from the early 1900's and to this day the media portrays them as "hillbillies".  Being from California, I have very little exposure to Appalachians, except for reading a children's fiction novel that time traveled there.  So in Sociology 101 when we read Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood we watched some pop cultural portrayals of Appalachian people and I was like, "Ohhh that's what a "hillbilly" is."  I've obviously heard that term but had no idea what it referenced.  

Another regional difference to throw into the story, in middle school geography, we were taught to pronounce it as "Appa-LAY-sha" and the teacher made fun of a student for pronouncing it as "Appa-LA-cha."  Well, I get here and that's how people in Tennessee (and apparently North Carolina and Georgia too) pronounce it.  North of the Mason-Dixon line, people pronounce it as "Appa-LAY-cha."  M-W Dictionary pronounces it the way the Yankees do.  Bias, much?

Chair made out of horseshoes!  Given that the motor vehicle was becoming widely available, horse-drawn transportation was a goner too.  What a creative way of reusing horseshoes, turns out the repurposed and upcycled stuff is nothing new! 
Extra large photo in hopes that you can read the hilarious story for yourself.  If not, the story goes that this curled up stick was once as straight as the stick next to it but after soaking in a jar of moonshine whiskey, it turned into this.   "Moonshine is a bad thing."

Can you tell that music is a big deal?  It was the first time I had seen a lot of these instruments

Here a bunch more pictures of the beautiful facilities.  Before visiting this place I had just learned that my friends got married here and I can see why.  There was a very peaceful vibe to this place.  I'm glad I didn't come when there was a special event because I think that crowds of people would takeaway from its beauty.  Although, the events are supposed to be really good, so I think that special events warrant an additional trip, not avoidance.  (Though I hear the special events are pricey for non-members)

What a beautiful serene place!  I was so glad I came!  Although that peacock was in my way and I was scared to pass it, so I hung around a bit longer...  I'm scared of birds.  :P
I like the hanging gourds.  They look so cool and sort of like a telephone pole.

I had heard that lunch here was delicious, and especially their desserts.  They try to serve true to Appalachian style food.  What you see here clockwise from the left are pickled beets, beef tips, butter pecan cake, corn bread and cornbread salad.  I was curious to what cornbread salad was so I had to try it. It was essentially cornbread broken up with celery, carrots and mayo.  The cornbread itself was delicious.  It had just come out of the oven so it was super hot, but impressed me was the thickness of the cornbread crust.  The crust covered the bottom and top of it and it was thicker than pie crust.  I wonder how they get such thick crust.  Must be their baking pans or something?  I had the save the butter pecan pie for breakfast the next day.  
A hot meal is served each day that comes with cornbread and 2 sides

I missed it that day but signature Appalachian dessert is their apple stack cake.  The stacked cake became a phenomenon for fascinating cultural reasons.  The Appalachians have long been regarded as the poorest part of the country.  That has changed in recent years.  Traditionally, when someone gets married, the bride's family does not prepare the whole cake because that would be a great financial burden.  Instead, guests will each contribute a layer while the bride's family prepares the filling.  How many guests attend=how popular the family is, and you can see it by how high the cake gets.  I think that's a super creative way of contributing to the newly wedded couple's big day.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How to Save on Gas

Petrol, that is, for those who speak Commonwealth English.  

Coinciding deals are the best ways to save money.  Kroger is running a special that quadruples your fuel points on gift card purchases.  100 fuel points will save you $0.10/gallon at Shell Gas Station.  If you spend $100 on gift cards, you get 400 fuel points.  So I decided to buy gift cards for Shell and take advantage of the quadruple fuel points.  The promotion lasts until April 7, at least in this area.

On top of that, my Chase Freedom credit card offers 5% cash back on rotating categories.  For the months of April, May and June, I get 5% cash back on grocery stores.  Combine that with the Kroger gift card purchases, not only do I get 5% cash back on my grocery store purchases, I get fuel points off.  With gas prices being so high, every little bit counts.

Maybe you have neither a Chase Freedom card nor Kroger or your neighborhood Kroger isn't running that promotion (it always has at least 2x fuel points on gift cards, at least at mine), but keep your eyes peeled for ways to game the system.  :P

In the meantime, keep your tired inflated & drive like you did on your driver's test.  Ha!