While most college grads celebrate their graduation with a party, my family likes to be unconventional. Since my Omi and cousin were coming from Germany, my dad used their visit as the perfect excuse to plan a road trip through Kentucky and Tennessee. It was like a scene out of a Chevy Chase movie: the entire Muehlbauer clan packed into a minivan and jamming out to country music as we made our way through the Smoky Mountains.
1st stop-Lexington, KY
It’s unintentionally (or intentionally, depending on how you look at it) become a theme in our family to try the native alcohol of each place we visit; so naturally we made a pit stop along the bourbon trail to taste Kentucky’s famous whiskey. Woodford Reserve did not disappoint. The distillery was surrounded by fields of potential race champions and offered a historic tour on how Kentucky bourbon came to be.
Fun fact: The minerals in the state’s water source are proven to produce stronger muscles in horses and is what gives the bourbon its edge. My family had a blast touring the property and taking part in a tasting. It’s no surprise that we left with too many alcoholic souvenirs (try the bourbon balls!)
2nd Stop-Pigeon Forge, TN
Driving into Pigeon Forge, the first two words that popped into my head were “cartoon” and “Vegas.” Just like in Sin City, there is a long strip of businesses with colorful lights, gaudy buildings and ads for unusual attractions (like an upside down house). But everything had a very whimsical and cartoonish vibe. We stayed on the “island” which was like a resort in itself. The Margaritaville hotel overlooked a village-like cluster of shops, restaurants and a ferris wheel.
On our first night, my dad, cousin and Omi discovered “Ole Smoky”-a moonshine distillery-on the Island. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness my 78-year-old grandma shoot back 13 different flavors of moonshine, but my family must’ve made an impression because the employees recognized them all when we did the tasting again the next day. We *shockingly* left the store with another armful of souvenirs (my favorites are the coffee and margarita flavors).
If we hadn’t put my poor grandmother through enough, we decided to check out a haunted house called “Outbreak-Dread the Undead” along the strip. Was it the smartest idea to take Omi and mom (who screams at anything and everything) through the ‘zombie apocalypse?” No. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. I can still picture all of us shuffling forward on the lookout for zombies while my mom screamed directly in my ear. It was by far one of our most memorable moments. Poor Omi had to chill on a bench, her heart was pounding so fast....
3rd Stop-Nashville, TN
The country music capital is always full of life, music and southern charm. I’ve traveled to Nashville three different times this year and still discover new things to do. A standout was the Belle Meade Plantation, which is a little bit of a drive outside of the city, but totally worth it. It was the perfect mix of history and entertainment. The employees were dressed from the 19th century and gave us tidbits of the family’s history as we toured the mansion.
Another surprise we found was Musician's Corner in Centennial Park. Every weekend during the summer, Nashville invites local musicians to play. I felt just like a local lounging in the grass and sampling from the food trucks. It’s by far my favorite venue to catch live, free, authentic music. Of course, I couldn’t leave Nashville without taking my cousin on a tour of Broadway at night. He was blown away by the neon lights, number of bachelorette parties and Predators fans. We had a few drinks at Tootsies and listened to the only band that didn’t cover “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” (which was very refreshing).
There’s nothing like traveling in a cramped minivan with your family. We bonded over moonshine, gained a new tolerance for country music and surprisingly didn’t kill each other.