It’s summertime in TN, which for me, means it’s time to put on an old pair of flip flops and a new pair of cheap sunglasses. It’s time for swimming pools, backyard barbecues, and sunburns. Time for homemade ice cream churning in the shade on a hot afternoon and warm nights, sleeping to the symphony of cicadas and crickets.

As a kid, I counted down the seconds to the sweet sound of that last school bell ringing, declaring to all, that Summer had begun. Free from homework and responsibility, this meant that I could spend my days doing anything I wanted or absolutely nothing at all.

But more than anything, Summertime has always meant taking the time to participate in one of the greatest traditions of them all…The family vacation. For me, many of my best times live in the sunshine of Summer vacations. And it seems like the older I get, the more I realize how important it is to find quality time for family.

On this episode of TNU, the crew and I are hopping in the minivan and heading to Camden, TN to enjoy a few of the many TN treasures at Kentucky Lake.  So pack your bags and put on your sunscreen because today we’re taking a good ole’ fashion family vacation to reconnect with the simple joys of Summer.

TN Freshwater Pearl Farm:
They say that good things come to those who wait, and since vacations are all about slowing time down, I thought it’d be a great first stop to take a look at a very timely process.

There’s a strong tradition of farming in the state of TN. And like many small rural towns, agriculture plays a big role in the economy here in Camden. Just outside of town, the countryside is a patchwork of fertile farmland and fields of grazing livestock, however amidst the long rows of soybeans and high cotton, there’s a TN farming tradition you may not know about.

Now I’ve met a fair share of farmers in my lifetime, but Bob Keast is officially the first pearl farmer I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. That’s right folks…Bob is a pearl farmer and the owner of Birdsong Resort and Marina, which is the home of The Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm…The only freshwater pearl culturing farm in North America. 

To put it simply Pearl farming is a practice of patience. But where the crop farmer has to wait at most a few months in a growing season before the harvest, a pearl farmer must have the patience to wait years.

Before today, I didn’t know much about pearls…In fact, I had no idea that pearl farms were even a thing. The freshwater pearl is proof that Mother Nature is a beautiful lady. And while I can only hope that the next generation will have the patience to sow what were once the secrets of the sea,  I can promise you this--I will never take the pearl buttons on my western snappy shirts for granted again.

TWRA Freshwater Mussels:
After just a few moments with mussels, I’m already inspired to dig deeper. So, I’ve floated off to find some folks who are fighting to ensure these natural filters are around for quite some time.

Speaking of time, They say that “time heals all wounds”, and while I do believe there’s some truth to that statement, there’s also more to the story. Because you see, To ensure time’s cure, wounds must first be cared for. Over the last 3 decades, TWRA has been doing just that—taking care to restore not just water quality, but the health of the wildlife that call that water home Before the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, some of our waterways were so polluted that the water was no longer providing life, but instead was taking it.  In the worst cases, some waterways could actually catch on fire.

One of the cornerstones to the recovery of our water quality has been through freshwater mussel management.  It turns out, freshwater mussels do a lot more than just provide beautiful strands of pearls. In fact, mussels act as indicators of the overall health of a body of water, in addition to serving as natural filters that clean our many lakes, rivers, and streams.  At one time, Tennessee once harbored the most diverse and abundant assemblage of these mussels.

Unfortunately stepping up to save our rivers and streams came at a cost, and in recent years, many species of mussels are declining at an alarming rate. Many are now considered endangered or threatened, and sadly, several species are already extinct.

I had no idea how important mussels are to our environment and that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy many of our waterways without the work that TWRA is doing with them. But today has also taught me that change takes time.  And that’s why proper management, protection, and monitoring of the surviving native mussel resources are essential to preserve them and their many benefits.

The Crew Enjoys KY Lake:
Kentucky Lake is the largest man-made lake in the eastern US and by many, is considered a recreational paradise, offering a ton of great outdoor opportunities like boating, tubing, canoeing, and fishing.  And since the foundation of any good family vacation is built on the saying, “The family that plays together, stays together”, the crew and I thought it was high time to enjoy a little lake time.

But as we all know, unfortunately not all family vacations go off without a hitch…or in this case, a hook. 

In our family, one of the first questions asked when someone returns from a trip is “Where all’d you eat?” Luckily, Camden is not only the hub of the American shell and pearl industry but a good place to get some great grub as well.

With its family values and home cooked pride, Goodwings is special to locals and visitors alike, serving as a perfect little getaway no matter what time of year it is. Now, if you’re like me, one of the things I look for in a family vacation is a chance to get away from it all. And what I like most about summertime is its ability to shine a light on the simple things. At Goodwings, I not only swooned over the exceptional service and friendly smiles but the sheer and utter magic they performed on something as simple as chicken. It was sensational, sublime, and exactly what our road-weary crew was looking for.

(Plus, when you’re in the South, you’ve got to love any place that serves chicken livers on their daily menu!)

Jackson Generals:
Growing up, I played baseball from tee-ball all the way up into high school.  And I don’t want to brag, but I was really good at swinging the bat…it was just hitting the ball that I had trouble with. But these days, as time seems to be passing faster and faster, I can’t think of a more fitting activity for our family vacation , reminding us to slow down and savor the show, one inning at a time.

There’s a reason the players are called “The Boys of Summer”.  Where else can you go and pay to see grown men play in the dirt for a few hours? And as crazy as that sounds, I believe that baseball is important.  I believe that it cries out to the kid inside us all. This “old ball game” gives us all a chance to go back in time, to be young again, and to forget that we’re grown ups for at least a few hundred pitches a night.

After tonight, it’s clear to see that The Jackson Generals offer so much more than just a baseball game, which to me, makes this diamond worth a lot more than anything that could ever be measured in karats.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or the money to take an extended vacation.  Thankfully, though, sometimes you don’t have to take a trip to take time off, sometimes the perfect getaway is just a 7th inning stretch away. Today I learned a lot about the importance of time. Like diamonds and pearls, time is precious. Good things take time to grow.  It takes time to heal. And the best that we can do is make the most of our time.

Regardless of where you go, I believe there are few adventures greater than a family vacation. So lets all pile in and roll down the windows of an over-packed car with a broken air conditioner, where no one can agree on a radio station or where they want to eat. Let’s join in with the repeated choruses of “Are we there yet?” and “Don’t make me come back there!”. Let’s open our hearts to the funky smells, the soggy French fries, the sweat, the blood, the tears…remember what it means to enjoy Summertime in TN.