Tuscaloosa came up fast. After so many miles, four hours from New Orleans didn't seem so long. The highway was nondescript as was the exit, the hotel, and the local fast food hamburger joint. This was the middle of nowhere along a dark highway with a cool name. The only highlight was a hidden gas station with no name that supplied just enough fuel to make the next hundred miles. The flickering overhead lights were a beacon for local denizens as the only fuel and fried food for miles. While I pumped a quick five gallons in order to make the final push to Tuscaloosa, the remaining pumps were occupied by jacked up trucks hauling trailers carrying quads jacked to the clouds with snorkels reaching even higher. My younger daughter's attention was peaked and I could not help but ask the man fueling these machines if the mud holes down here were really that deep. Now, we ride ATVs on our farm up north and even have oversized tires to dig through the winter's snow but these were of a different sort. Tires bigger than many pick-ups (I believe 35's) and the ability to submerge in four feet of water, mud, and mire, these were impressively built and pretty cool. The owners themselves were more than happy to show their pride and speak of their adventures in the local and not so local mudpits. We left the creepy gas station smiling.
Roanoke would be our final stop before cruising the last seven hours home. And to get there, we needed to pass the biggest knife store in the world, The Smoky Mountain Knifeworks. The kids were excited to pick out their own pocketknives for the summer at the farm and to pick up some more road trip gifts for Grandma and Grandpa. The store is large and filled with more than just knives but all manner of edged creations as well as crystals and tin signs and kitchen supplies. It stands right down the road from the Bass Pro Shop that stands as sentinel at the exit ramp. We were able to bolster our snack supply with a stop at the Jerky Outlet and stamp our NPS Passport at the visitor center that led to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We cruised through Virginia, before and after Roanoke, flirting with the Blue Ridge Parkway. The cold was growing ever more present.
The snow started to gather in shady spots along the highway until the shade and miles could no longer contain it. By the time the PA border arrived and we had crossed the Mason-Dixon back into Yankee territory, the thermometer dipped into the 30's and the snow was back to stay for awhile longer. Reality slapped us all hard when the "Welcome to NJ" sign came blaring out of the highway median. The warmth was gone, blue skies turned grey, roads began to seesaw through the hills, and drivers became increasingly more aggressive and less courteous. We were home, or close to it. Soon all that would be left would be to unpack the truck and slog through mounds of laundry. And just like that our journey was over.