Road Trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Autistic Travel Photographer
It was very early in the morning as I began to wake from my short slumber in the rental vehicle. Had to save money after all due to the tight budget I had. It wasn't bad and didn't mind in the end however, as I did bring pillows and lower my seat back to create a makeshift bed for myself. The memory of my positive experience from attaining the rental from Enterprise was still fresh in my mind, as if I only got it a mere hour ago. Was feeling unsure of how well things will go as this was another first out of many for me. While the original economic car I wanted wasn't available, I did end up getting a free upgrade to a better vehicle. Less gas mileage but still had plenty of space. Overall this transition went smoothly. This was soon followed by the long ride across the flat landscapes of Indiana on what began as my very first road trip across America. I didn't go on this trip entirely alone, as my friend Ron decided to come along with me for the ride to share this experience. He has traveled cross country before so it didn't feel as intimidating of a drive. It helped eased me into this new kind of lifestyle I wanted: an autistic travel photographer that is always on the move and sharing my experiences online.
This was the beginning of my first road trip across America as an autistic travel photographer, with the first destination being Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains. I had been preparing this trip for nearly a year, full of anticipation. Looked up information on different locations to visit, estimating the costs of a rental and gas, looking for anything that I needed to account for. I was unsure of how it will go and what I will experience. Every time I did try to plan it never goes off without a hitch. A lesson one has to learn while going on a trip or doing anything in life is learning to adapt to any situation. Guess you can say this is one of if not THE ultimate rule of this universe. Things will always change and never truly stagnate. Those who try such as the older generation that wished everything was trapped in time to stay in their comfort zones will get left behind. I was leaving behind what felt like an old life and story of my negative perspective on life as the only thing I expected was my perspective of life to change for the better and much more positive. Even better was taking this trip with a friend and seeing his own perspective of life. For such a long time I kept thinking my Asperger's Syndrome would hold me back to mediocrity.
As it turns out, it was labels I chose to believed about autism that held me back. I could preach about how it was society that shoved them down my throat, yet I could have always chose to ignore and break those barriers before. I can see now that I always have the final say in what I choose to do. I choose to go out and see what I am capable of and to finally answer questions I ask myself. Who am I? Where is my place in this universe? Is there a place where I belong? It is as if I am slowly awakening from a long slumber, yet still groggy and unaware of where I currently am. Or even unaware of who I am right now due to being stuck in a dream or nightmare. Was hoping this road trip will help with making me slowly start opening my eyes instead of leaving them closed.
The long 10 hour drive to our first stop did get a big grueling at times since it was featureless flat lands of Indiana, but I also know I could be passing a lot of great shots. I've certainly have experienced this photographing nature while cycling along county roads. I simply did not have the time to stop every couple of minutes to do this. A shame considering one visually interesting feature did come up during the drive. On our way south we drove through one large wind farm with wind turbines as far as the eyes can see. Each evenly spaced and spread across the land on both sides of the road we were driving down through. Other than that it was the same plains that felt never-ending. I have a feeling the same could be said for a number of states in the Midwest if you're simply driving through and not taking random photos of roadside flora.
We eventually passed through into Kentucky and Tennessee late at night. I felt during the whole trip that I was missing out on visually wonderful vistas that were hidden within the pitch blackness of the night, with fog that flowed onto the road from the deep valleys on occasion. It was rather difficult for me to stay awake during what was feeling the need to arrive at our destination and simply end the drive, even with caffeine from the gas station coffee within my veins keeping my eyes wide open. The price one pays to be on schedule for the road trip. Besides the noise of cars and trucks passing by however, it was completely silent. It did feel eerie at first, but that was because I have been use to tons of noise what felt like 24/7. I did live in a noisy area after all full of cars driving by, airplanes landing, an occasional train passing by and making the home shake a little, and even kids screaming their heads off while running around on occasion. It was essentially noisy and jarring for me, so this silence was a welcome change of pace for me.
It was the middle of the night when we arrived at Gatlinburg. Everyone but a few late night workers at inns were asleep in their cozy beds as we turned our car into the national park. Slowly but surely we followed the road that slithered around the side of the mountain. Ron lowered the car windows and proceeded to talk about how fresh the air was in comparison to Northwest Indiana as I felt the wind brush against my face. It was certainly indeed very clean air from what I have been used to. Cleaner air with a whiff of the trees and fall foliage filled my lungs as the car continued on its way up to our destination. All kinds of different faint scents came and went along with the pure air quality that only the wilderness could provide. It was a night and day comparison! Even more of a jarring difference was complete silence that had my mind in a slight panic at first. I was not use to such silence where I lived. It felt rare to ever really get a sense of peace and even then it was marred by the sound of cars and trucks passing by. I was on alert with my mind filled with what if scenarios and trying to fill in the silence in any way, even if it became negative.
To which eventually subsided as we passed through what looked like fog or mist. My friend turned and then informed me that we were actually passing through a cloud. A cloud! That was one of the features of the Great Smokey Mountains apparently. It got its name due to clouds rolling onto the mountain top and giving it a "smokey" look. I have been on flights before and wondered what would be like grabbing the clouds that pass by the plane. Well now I got that change and didn't miss a second putting my hand out the window and grasping the mass of crystallized water. No doubt this seemed silly for some, but I didn't see anything wrong with it. I certainly felt the chill coming from both the wind blowing by and the cloud that rolled in. The wind always manages to relax me, especially when not among a crowd. This wasn't any different. I recall closing the window since there was a bit of a chill, but Ron opened it back up. He really wanted me to breath in and experience the fresh air in the rural areas of America. I didn't close it again however, as I keep taking in deep breaths. This was no smoggy Northwest Indiana air I am taking in after all. Made my lungs cheer with every breath taken.
The winding road up the mountain eventually met its end at a parking lot that was apparently situated at the top. One of two actually. The second was higher up by an observatory that he showed me, saying this would be the best spot to get night photography and see the Milky Way. Unfortunately for me, the cloud cover persisted throughout the night and morning hours. It's simply one of those things that can happen to photographers like ourselves. Sometimes that perfect shot never comes and simply have to make the most of it. For me, it was standing on the edge and staring off in that misty distance. I couldn't see what was beyond, but that wasn't the most memorable thing that evening.
It was the feeling. The sense of cold that gave a slight chill down to my very bones, yet it wasn't a sharp jab like it is with Midwest winters. It was more gentle accompanied by a slight breeze every now and then that caressed my face. Each breath of wind brought the crisp night air full of scents from trees, moss, flowing rivers untainted into my nostrils and made me less tense each time. A sense of calm enveloped me as I sat down with my legs crossed and continued to stare off into the concealed distance. It's funny how at that moment I felt like a tiny spec in a vast, seemingly limitless space. No walls, no noises from man's creations, no fences or barriers. Just me and the silence of nature. Me and the world I occupy in. Me and the universe.
What is also funny? I've felt more fulfilled in life from this moment than any expensive gift or tech I have received. The connection with nature and the world felt very strong at that moment. No noise interrupting that connection. If it ever was. Maybe being in this silence has help me recognize that connection was always there. I only need to pay attention instead of letting the news feed, work and the latest season of some show distracting me from what already exists. What has always existed. Feels as if only now I am alive and full of energy in comparison to before. As if only now I have awoken to the world and ready to explore what exists out there. Little did I know that I would receive this emotion and even more at a later date in this long trip, but that is a tale for another day. For me at the moment and even while typing this, there is just that moment now.
All moments eventually faded away as easily as it came as I returned to the car to take a nap in my seat. There will be more time the next day after all to truly explore the mountains and Gatlinburg after all. Both of us awoke to find that the cloud was still covering the mountain in a blanket of mist. The sun however had other ideas as its golden rays slowly pierced through it and lit up the side of the mountain. Ron took a stretch as he grabbed his camera while I was already taking photos of the parking lot area, from the stretch of woods that towered above us to the small amount of moss on the trees.
Exploring the woods just outside the parking lot was the first thing we did for a mini hike, following a gravel trail that was at the edge of a steep drop down the side of the mountainous terrain. Each photo reconnected me to the world at large as the clouds still slightly hanged on to the mountain edge even with the morning sun. It was an eerie yet beautiful sight. It filled me with a sense of wonder as I kept taking each shot with my camera. I have never felt this amount of relaxation before. It was amazing. It felt...freeing.
As I type, I feel down in my very soul a need to explore the world, but it isn't necessarily linked to big cities and attractions. More like a need to connect with nature. Travel to national parks and hike among nature's wonderful wilderness while they are still there. Or even just travel across the landscape by car and simply enjoy the journey itself towards the destination. Even though I was tired from the long drive, I still feel energized to do it again. It is something I yearn for and leaves me fulfilled. This big first step of a very long trip has me slowly opening my eyes a little.
How this emotion evolved throughout the day is something that will be described in the next blog post. It was one of a couple of experiences I will not ever forget in my lifetime. I admit I was getting a little fearful with what ifs as that date started looming over my head, but in the end getting myself out of my comfort zone and autistic shell was the best decision I have ever made in my life.
Visit me next time with my next post to view the rest of my trip in Gatlinburg and other locations! =)
For more information about the Great Smoky Mountains, visit the official site HERE.
Learn more about Gatlinburg, Tennessee HERE.
Looking for a rental? Learn more about Enterprise HERE.
Not being sponsored by anyone listed above as of this post. Simply sharing my positive experience at these locations and people. =)
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