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Road Trip Across America – (Part 2: Philly Cheesesteaks and the Blue Ridge Parkway)

Nothing makes you feel more like a journalist, or perhaps a traveling salesperson, than trying to type up your work in a dingy hotel room in the middle of nowhere. Actually, my $55/night Hotwire hotel is pretty nice (it even has a kitchenette and a dining table) and I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee which has a population of 182,200 so it isn’t exactly “nowhere.” But you get the point.

So all is well, I’m alive (first question a few friends seems to always ask), but it hasn’t been without its unexpected adventures.  A bear attack, biblical rain, a really good cheesesteak sandwich later I’ve somewhat deviated from my original route (Part 1). Nonetheless good times and good photography were had.

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Knoxville is just “slightly” south of where I was supposed to go. Didn’t expect to have zero phone or 4G reception in the Appalachians. I heard there is wifi on the Himalayas.

Mile zero began at my place of residence for the last two years, a traditional Boston brownstone near Fenway Park. Miles tumbled carelessly away as I drove across Massachusetts and Connecticut while blaring iTunes radio. But in New Jersey and New York, the sky got mad.

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Captured by an iPhone 5 in panorama mode

The photo below really doesn’t capture the biblical-ness of the downpour, but both NY and NJ were put on flood warning alert. Cars slowed to a crawl, small ponds formed on the freeway, and I unwisely chose the lower deck of the George Washington bridge, so I had to drive through a small waterfall.

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

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I arrived in Philadelphia late at night, tired and hungry, I ordered room service and went straight to bed. Day two was my full day in Philly. First stop was Tony Luke’s, the highest rated cheesesteak joint on Yelp. Yelp can be a hit or miss sometime, but this place didn’t disappoint.

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After a 15min line up, I ordered the classic. Roast beef with Cheese Whiz and fried onions. For non-American readers, yes Cheese Whiz isn’t really cheese, it’s probably a chemical concoction by Dow, Inc., but this thing was delicious! I’m not even a big fan of Philly cheesesteaks but the roll was soft, the meat was juicy, and the combination was excellent. Only criticism? A bit high in sodium. Left me thirsty the rest of the afternoon.

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The Liberty Bell and its fabled crack (still shot on iPhone 5).

Up until now, I haven’t pull out my Sony A7. See, travel photography is at the core of my love/hate relationship with photography. It’s like pulling out a camera in the middle of a rock concert. You should really just enjoy and remember it, instead of looking at it through a screen. But over the years, I’ve come to manage this “disconnectedness” by learning to shoot quickly and very freestyle. I wander around, camera in hand, not really thinking or looking for photo opportunities.

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Folks playing frisbee in front of Independence Hall in the background and the Liberty Bell to the right.

Instead of a documentary style, recording things in detail to tell a story, I try to capture my feeling at the time. As you can see, the clouds were gorgeous that day, and that made me happy.

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Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution was signed.

I’d really hate to have “been there” but “not been there” if I was too busy thinking about the settings on my camera, or trying to find the best angle for the shot. This brings me to something I noticed with the Sony A7. I absolutely love the articulated back LCD screen. I never really utilized it shooting portraits, but for architecture and landscapes, it was so easy to lower the camera and flip up the screen rather than to get down in an undignified position.

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This is the actual room where the US Constitution was signed. But apparently, everything in the room is a fake (a reproduction) except for the throne like chair in the background.

The tour of Independence Hall was nice. The guide was very kind and spoke with a mid-Atlantic accent. As I’ll learn later, the further I go south, the harder it is for me to understand what people are saying.

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Philadelphia Museum of Art. A Philly must see, which I didn’t see, because of stupidity.

The highlight of my Philly trip was supposed to be the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the second largest art museum in the US after the Met in Manhattan. I’ve been to the Met, but I was really interested in the PMA for its Dali, Duchamp, and modern art collection.

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Frank Gehry is an American architect who designed the Guggenheim and also jewelry pieces for Tiffany’s.

On that Monday morning, I googled “Philadelphia Museum of Art hours” and it returned a large and unambiguous “CLOSED.” I was disappointed. I checked the PMA website and indeed it was closed on Mondays. Little did I know, and I really should have checked more closely, the PMA is open on select holidays. Monday was Labor Day, a public holiday, and it was open.

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View from top of the Rocky steps looking towards downtown. Crews are taking apart the stage. There was some kind of public event earlier in the afternoon.

I found out it was open when I drove by there just as it closed at 5PM. There was even a public concert in front of the museum. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise though. The roads were blocked off, parking was a nightmare even after it had been over for hours, and this gives me an excuse to come back. Thanks Philly, you are a beautiful city.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Further south, past Delaware and Washington D.C., is Virginia and home of the Appalachian mountains that it shares with North Carolina. To get to L.A., the shortest route from Philly was to go directly from an easterly direction. However, I kept going south just because for a set of roads call the Blue Ridge Parkway. Boy, it sure didn’t disappoint!

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A 500 mile ribbon of perfection lined the mountain range. My first day on this road was divine. I entered the parkway near Afton, Virginia, at Mile Marker 0, and numbers increase as you headed south. That night’s pitstop was the Peaks of Otter Campground near Mile Marker 86. I thought I’d do a little bit of the parkway to get a taste of it before doing a full second day.

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An unedited iPhone pano. This is about 180 degrees view, from directly behind the tent (left) to in front (right).

I grew up in the backwoods of British Columbia, Canada, so camping is quite natural to me. But this was no ordinary campsite. First, it was deserted. That was the first red flag. There was one other RV in the distance. The park office was closed, I didn’t see anyone else, but I had already prepaid online. I found the reserved spot, which was towards the very back of the campsite. Behind the spot was just endless trees and mountain. The trees had little undergrowth so I can see quite a long distance during the day. I could not see the peak.

The forrest was loud from crickets and other insects, but I have excellent hearing. After I had pitched the tent, I heard sniffing. Loud sniffing. Sure enough, less than a 100 yards away, I saw a black bear stop moving as soon as I looked in his direction. Before I got to the campsite, I stopped by a Burger King for a burger to supplement my late barbecue dinner. He must have caught a whiff of the bacon cheeseburger. I walked non-chalantly but swiftly back to my car and drive myself to the lakeside lodge next to the campsite. That night, there was also a severe thunderstorm, so I think I made the right move.

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Instead of becoming a human burrito in a tent, I woke up to this beautiful sight.

Second day on the Parkway was about driving and photography. Not only was there barely any traffic, the roads were freshly paved, so much so that it was still dark black in many places. I drove about 300 miles of the Parkway before I exited, in that distance, I was stuck behind four or five slower moving vehicles, total. Every other time, I was by myself with nothing but miles and miles of tarmac in front of me to enjoy. Much to my surprise, I didn’t see a single police car during my two days.

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Sweeping curves flowed in and out of each other. They were large radius turns rather than tricky tight stuff. I stayed between 4th and 5th gear most of the time, occasionally blipping down into 3rd to climb a hill, or reaching for 6th to save some gas going downhill. There was an undulating rhythm to the Parkway. At one point, it was almost therapeutic, like meditation. I just felt the road through my extremities. My rev-matched downshifts became perfectly synced, and with every heel-toe and snick of the gear, I was in motoring heaven.

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I struggled with stopping the car to take photos, because I honestly didn’t want to stop. I was suppose to get off the Parkway after the 276 mile marker, but I went beyond 330. I didn’t want to stop driving.  I wanted to do the whole 500 miles. I wanted to get to the best part, which was in North Carolina but too far south. Now, all I want is to go back. 


 

Here are all four parts of my travels: Part 2 (Philly Cheesesteaks and Blue Ride Parkway; Part 3 (Mammoth Cave, a Sherman Tank, and the Original KFC); Part 4 (Highest Road in America; Arches National Park; and Antelope Canyon).

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