Day 2 – Derby Day

And… They’re…. Off to the Kentucky Derby!

We woke up Saturday morning more excited than ever (some of us may or may not have woken up several times throughout the course of the night). The weather wasn’t looking optimal. We were looking at a 90% chance of rain all morning, with it continuing well into the afternoon. Rain or shine, I was really excited to enjoy my first ever Kentucky Derby. We coordinated shower times (8 people using a single shower, takes an awful lot of coordination and planning) made some breakfast and started to get ready. As the morning went on, the weather was starting to look a little more promising. We called a couple of Ubers to pick us up and bring us to Churchill Downs.

We got to the grounds about 11 a.m. and the rain was barely coming down. The radar indicated that it would stop about noon, and it did exactly that. We hung out in front of the main entrance for a while. We had a case a beer and a few flasks full of bourbon to be passed around. We took a bunch of pictures of our group and posed for a bunch with groups of random people.

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Jarrod, Kelsey, Brian and Lacey before the Kentucky Derby

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Jake, Brian and Nate getting ready for the Derby

Generally speaking, people were super excited to be there so it was fun hanging out and chatting with some of the random people we ran into. The Derby seems to bring out the some of the most unique fashion statements. This makes people watching very entertaining. Nate, Lacey and I took a walk over to the gate that all the celebrities enter through. We didn’t see anybody noticeably famous, though we did see a number of police escorts, limos and crazy attire.

For some reason, not one, but two separate news stations thought it was important to interview me prior to the Derby. The first was a news station out of the UK. When I asked when if/when I could see the interview, I was told “at some point in mid-August”. The second news station that wanted to interview me was based out of Japan. I didn’t even bother asking when/where I could watch this one. The moral of the story: foreigners love drunk Americans who dress like idiots.

We headed into the grounds about 2 o’clock in the afternoon to place some bets and take in the races. There’s 12 races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, which keeps people entertained all day long. We had general admission tickets, which got us into the very muddy, “standing room only” area of the infield. We walked around for a while, placing bets and doing plenty more people watching. The infield at Churchill Downs is so large that you can almost forget where you are. From many spots, you cannot even see the track because of the mutuel betting windows, bars, and restrooms. For this reason, the world’s largest 4k video screen is a great way to watch the races.

We placed our final bets for the big race. My money was on Irish War Cry. We also wanted to make sure we were able to enjoy a world famous, Mint Julep, at some point today. What better time than right before the race? We made our way back to the infield (we had done some exploring of the venue by going through the underground tunnel that connects the infield to the bleacher area) to get situated for the race.

Post time for the Kentucky Derby was 6:42 p.m. Shortly before that was the “Riders Up” call, followed by the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”. Because of the sheer number of people near us, we couldn’t hear either of these but new race time was coming. We got situated in a spot where we could watch the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

The weather cooperated for the good majority of the day, but the race track was still very sloppy. My horse, Irish War Cry, was in second place as they horses made their way into the home stretch. Unfortunately, he faded and finished 10th. The odds on favorite heading into the race, Always Dreaming, took the lead out of the gate and never looked back. It was the 5th straight year that the odds on favorite has won the Kentucky Derby.

After the race, they do some ceremonial stuff. Again, we weren’t able to hear much of this, as the party in the infield picked back up. We hung out for the final few races. I think they run a couple of races after the big one to try to limit some of the chaos. 160,000 people trying to leave Churchill Downs (which is in the middle of a rough looking, residential neighborhood) at the same time would not be very efficient. A huge majority of people leave immediately following the race. This meant that spots in the bleachers (where the rich people sit) were free game. We enjoyed a race or two from the bleachers, right at the finish line. We caught an Uber back to my sister’s place and crashed pretty hard. We got made fun of by a few of my sister’s friends for being “old” and “boring” and not wanting to go to any local Louisville establishments. We all had a long day and Lacey, Nate and I had a long drive to make on Sunday, so the rest was much needed.

Overall, the Kentucky Derby was a fun and unique experience that I’ll be “Always Dreaming” of, until I get the opportunity to go back and enjoy another first Saturday in May.

Day 1 – Beers, Bourbon & BBQ

Attending the Kentucky Derby live, has been on my bucket list for quite some time. We are finally making it a reality. Santa Claus got Lacey and I tickets for Christmas. Two weeks ago, Nate decided that he’d join us for the quick road trip. We left Stillwater, MN about 5:30 p.m. last night (Thursday,  5/4/17) and arrived in Chicago around 11 p.m. We’re spending the night at Houawah and Ashley’s apartment. Chicago is about the halfway point and we figured it would be a good stopping point after a long work week.

We got a little rest and hit the road bright and early this morning. We got to my sister’s apartment in Louisville, Kentucky right around 1 p.m. local time. It was raining, and didn’t appear to be letting up any time soon. We unloaded our stuff and headed to Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, located inside of the Louisville Slugger Field. Louisville’s first traditional brewpub was packed with Derby goers. Lacey, Nate, Kelsey, Jarrod, Sarah and I enjoyed a few beers and caught up.

We had really wanted to take a tour of a Whiskey distillery while we were down here, as part of Kentucky’s famous “Bourbon Trail”, but all the distilleries tours had been sold out for months. We figured we’d do the next best thing and head to the Haymarket Whiskey bar. We all enjoyed some bourbon and cocktails. The barkeep thought that his Old Fashioned rivaled the Old Fashioneds that we’re used to drinking in Wisconsin.

It was time to grab some dinner, so we headed over to Feast BBQ for some grub. I had, quite possibly, the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. The place was, again, similar to the other places we’ve been to, pretty full of Kentucky Oaks and Derby fans. We got all filled up on food and had a few more beers before heading back to Kelsey’s apartment. On our way back to the apartment we stopped to pick up a few things. The forecast for tomorrow is looking pretty wet. Apparently we weren’t the only people hoping to grab a few ponchos at the last minute. Walmart, Target and the Dollar Store in Louisville, were all sold out of ponchos. Luckily, Jake and Danielle were on their way from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and were far enough from the craziness to grab a few ponchos for our group.

We headed back to her apartment to do some late night prep for the Derby. You can bring water and soda into the gates, as long as the seals haven’t been broken. I learned a pretty neat trick on how to insert whiskey into a bottle of Coke, without breaking the seal. We did this three or four times before playing multiple rounds of Quiplash and Telestrations and hitting the hay. Her one bedroom apartment is plenty big enough to sleep all 8 of us comfortably. Tomorrow we’ll get all dressed up and head over to Churchill Downs to witness “the most exciting two minutes in sports”.

Day 7 – Country Music

We grabbed breakfast down the road from the hotel. I felt like I had to get chicken and waffles at some point in our time down south. It was delicious. After breakfast we headed off to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The building was huge. Admission to the museum costed $25. The museum seemed to be targeted at a bit of an older crowd (what did I expect?). I didn’t know a whole lot about a good chunk of the musicians and artists recognized in the hall. But it was still really interesting.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Country Music Hall of Fame

I enjoyed learning about those who I was a bit more familiar with, like the Kenny Rodgers exhibit, which was brand new. The last section of the museum was all about today’s artists. We felt much more at home at this point. The museum had all sorts of artifacts, from the dress Carrie Underwood wore when she won American Idol, to Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac, to handwritten song lyrics from Eric Church and Taylor Swift. It was a pretty cool experience for anybody who is interested in country music. Once we were done at the museum we checked the radar, since we’d heard a big storm was coming through. The storm was approaching very quickly so it was time to find a tavern. We stopped at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and listened to some very talented female musicians. We were glad we found shelter when we did because the storm hit hard and fast. There were very strong wind gusts and a crazy amount of rain. Then the tornado sirens started going off. About and hour and a half later, the storm had passed and we walked to Rippy’s to grab a bite. We listened to three gentlemen who took turns playing music for us. We ended the night at Center Stage. This was a wide open bar with lots of room to dance. The band was a bit more rock than country which made it a super fun place to be. We really enjoyed our short lived time in Nashville. Tomorrow it’s back to Green Bay.

Music City

Music City

Enjoying Live Music

Enjoying Live Music

Round Trip

Full Road Trip Map

Day 6 – Music City

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Gatlinburg to Nashville

We got up early and grabbed some breakfast at a place called Camp Breakfast. It was a huge place that serves giant portions of breakfast food all day long. The menu was inside a real newspaper. Lacey and I split a country fried steak skillet and couldn’t finish all the sides that came with it.

Camp Breakfast

Camp Breakfast

We got all filled up and then it was off to Nashville. It was about a 4 hour drive but it was super easy. We checked into our hotel and had our first experience with valet parking. This hotel is definitely way too nice for us. It’s right downtown so it worked out perfectly. Once we got unloaded we went out to explore the town a bit. It was a beautiful afternoon. Our hotel was right up the road from the capital building. As we wondered throughout town, we found a pedestrian bridge which crossed a river that split the city in two. On the far side was the Tennessee Titan’s football stadium, which looked like it was still under construction (it wasn’t). We got halfway across the pedestrian walking bridge and it looked like rain, so we headed back to the hotel. Right as we got back it started to downpour. The rain lasted about an hour and cleared up just as we were ready to head out for the evening. We grabbed dinner and drinks at Honky Tonk Central. Then went to the Tin Roof and ended the night at Tootsies. All of the bars had live bands which we really enjoyed. None of them had cover charges, and they were all just a few blocks from our hotel, wins all around. Not only did all of the musicians sound awesome, but they would take requests if you tipped them, and they would do their best to play that song. If they didn’t know a song that you requested they would look it up on their smartphones and do their best. It was really impressive.

Nashville

Nashville

Day 5 – Last Day in the Mountains

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Today may have been my favorite day in the mountains. We started off with the Alum Cave Trail. It was a beautiful 2.5 mile hike that had everything you could ask for. We hiked along a river for about a mile before starting our incline which went through a cool little tunnel.

Morning View Along the River

Morning View Along the River

Once we really got up in the elevation, we had some spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains. About 10 minutes from a nice lookout spot spot was the Alum Cave. It was a really cool site to see, though it wasn’t technically a cave. We took our time getting down because we had nothing else planned for the day. When we got back to the lookout spot that we liked so much, we decided it would be a great lunch spot. We ate lunch and enjoyed the views.

Alum Cave

Alum Cave

Enjoying the sites on our way to Alum Cave

Beautiful Sites Near Alum Cave

We finished the 5 mile round trip hike and decided to drive the Newfoundland Gap. The gap connects Tennessee to North Carolina and has some amazing views along the way.

Newfoundland Gap

Newfoundland Gap

We enjoyed the 33 mile ride before heading up to Clingman’s Dome one more time. Yesterday wasn’t as clear as today, so we thought we might get some better views. We couldn’t have been more correct. We drove down the mountain and had enough time for one last hike.

Beautiful View of the Smoky Mountains

Beautiful View of the Smoky Mountains

The destination, Laurel Falls. After hiking 40+ miles over a four day span, this two mile round trip, paved hike seemed like the perfect way to finish the trip. The falls were beautiful, as advertised.

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls

We were exhausted so we grabbed a quick dinner and now it’s bedtime. I almost forgot, we saw a bunch of black bears in broad daylight today! Before we got to the Laurel Falls trail head, we saw a bunch of cars pulled over on the side of the road, so naturally we decided to see what all the fuss was about. Everybody was looking at a momma bear and her two cubs. On our way back down the from the falls, same scenario, a mama and her two cubs. We tried to snap a few photos then got back into the car to get back to our hotel. Less than a mile down the road, 3 more bears. It was really a cool sight to see, 9 bears in total.

Baby Black Bear

Baby Black Bear

A few notes as we reflect on our hiking:

  • We met lots of people from Wisconsin
  • We loved our hiking boots. They were sturdy, and waterproof, and very comfortable.
    •  We witnessed all sorts of foot attire. Everything from tennis shoes, to flip flops, to loafers.
  • Water was our best friend.
  • For the future we will always make a plan. The first day we strayed from our plan and barely got back before dark.
  • The final thought, we enjoyed the hike we did today because we were in absolutely no rush. Taking our time was the best thing we could have done. It really helped us appreciate everything and take it all in.

Day 4 – Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We made a plan last night to do a few hikes, all of which ended at waterfalls. We had heard about a very difficult, but awesome hike called Rainbow Falls. We hopped in the car and headed that way. The parking area at the Rainbow Falls trail head was full so we pulled the car up a bit and found a spot to park on the side of the road directly between two trail heads. We planned on doing both, so we figured this was perfect. We started off on a trail and eventually came to a “T” with a sign that told us Rainbow Falls was to the right and Grotto Falls to the left. Unsure of which to start with, I made the decision, that, after a long and challenging day yesterday, our motto today was “when in doubt, take the downhill route”. The trail to Grotto Falls happened to be downhill at that very moment, so that’s the direction we headed. The first half mile of the trail was along a road which was a bummer. Eventually we got up high enough where we were away from the road and could enjoy nature’s beauty. It was a pretty steady uphill hike, not overly strenuous though. At the top was a beautiful waterfall in which you could walk behind.

Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls

This ended up being our lunch spot which was really cool. We snapped some photos and headed back down. I had a much easier time going down than I did going up, funny how that works. Round trip, this hike took us 3 and a half hours to go a little more than 7.5 miles. We went to the car to grab a snack. When we had originally planned out our day, we thought we wanted to see Grotto and Rainbow Falls. At this point in the day, we changed plans a little bit. We decided all of our hikes didn’t need to revolve around waterfalls and we’d heard good things about another spot called Chimney Tops. We decided to check it out. We drove over to the trail head and got ready to go. This was definitely the most strenuous hike we’ve done yet. It was a two mile hike, basically straight up. I had to stop for water and to catch my breath a number of times, but once we got to the top it was well worth it.

View From Chimney Tops

View From Chimney Tops

In order to get to the summit, we had to scale the side of a very steep mountain for about 200 yards.

Chimney Tops Summit

Chimney Tops Summit

This was a bit terrifying. We made it about halfway up the final climb before deciding to turn around. There were plenty of others who got to the same point we did and turned back. There was a nice young man who worked in the park and offered to guide us up to the top. We were both extremely sore, tired and hesitant to go any further so we politely declined his offer and began heading down, not before taking in some breathtaking views.

Halfway Up Chimney Tops

Halfway Up Chimney Tops

Because of the slope, the trek down was no walk in the park, but we made it. We got back to the car with just enough to to catch the sunset at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Smoky Mountain National Park. It was a 45 minute drive followed by a half mile hike to the top. It was worth every minute. We could see all the way to North Carolina. We took in some absolutely stunning views. It was chilly at the top though, 42 degrees, while my car said 59 degrees an hour after dark once we were back at our hotel. We grabbed a six pack and some ice cream to celebrate our second successful day in the mountains. Cheers!

Sunset at Clingman's Dome

Sunset at Clingman’s Dome

Day 3 – Humans, Turkeys and Bears, Oh My!

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

An 80%  chance of rain had us a bit worried about how our first day in the Smoky Mountains would be. The rain stopped by 8:30 a.m. and it was blue skies the rest of the day. We grabbed a bite to eat at the ‘continental breakfast’. All they had to choose from was a few muffins and doughnuts. Oh well. We got ready for the day by getting the backpack packed before we headed to the visitors center to get some maps and try to create a plan for the day. We decided to drive an hour and a half to get to Cade’s Cove. There as a scenic driving route which ended up leading to a few hiking trails. We’d heard good things about an awesome waterfall called Abram’s Falls. A little after 1 p.m. we set out to check it out.

Abram's Falls

Abram’s Falls

The waterfall was awesome. Most people see the waterfall then turn around and make the 2.5 mile trip back. We wanted to make a loop and see a bit more than we already had, so we continued on. We noticed a trail on our map that would be an additional 5 miles but looped back around to the car park. It sounded like the perfect distance, so we took off. We didn’t get too far before coming across a river. In order to complete Rabbit Creek Trail (and get back to the car) we’d have to wade through the rapid river that was at least knee deep. The ranger suggested a different route which was a 9+ mile loop. Feeling very eager to explore, we decided we were up for the challenge. At 2:30 p.m. we said goodbye to him and continued on. Brian's Kentucky.Tennessee Pictures 355We witnessed some unbelievable sites all day long. The Cooper Road and Hatcher Road Trail were pretty strenuous at times. Lots of ups and downs. We basically zig-zagged from mountain peak to mountain peak which, besides exhausting, was really neat. We had some in depth conversations about black bears because we were warned that they can be a common site in the Smoky Mountains. Brian's Kentucky.Tennessee Pictures 375Just when we were commenting on how quiet it was and how little wildlife we’d been seeing, a couple of turkeys scared Lacey half to death. We continued on, up and down, up and down. We saw a family about 8 p.m., which was the first human interaction we’d come across since running into the ranger about 5 and a half hours prior. We really felt like we were a part of nature. It was starting to near dark and the signs on the trails became slightly misleading. We ended up finding the nearest road and walked along the road back to the car. After hiking well over 15 miles, sitting in the car without a heavy backpack on felt great. It was just about dark when we left the lot for our hour and a half drive back. Along the way, we pulled up next to a parked car with their window rolled down. I was worried they were having car issues, until she pointed out 3 black bears in the field in front of us. We watched them safely from our car for a few minutes before continuing the winding drive home. I don’t think either of us will have a problem falling asleep tonight. IMG_2729