Chattanooga Choo Choo

A week following my trip to Honduras, I departed for the Disaster Preparedness Symposium in Tennessee. This event took place in early March and I was excited to see the Chattanooga Choo Choo. I had also pre-ordered several new parts for my new Fat Boy that I was looking forward to picking up.

Leaving Costa Rica on March 6, my route took me to Chattanooga via Atlanta. This would be my first trip to the US in almost a year. The GR3 team would be hosting this event at the Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. The first three days of the event would be in a classroom for lectures and the like. The second half of the event would be the fun part, in the field and playing in the muck.

Originally, I was going to be staying at the Microtel Inn, but that changed at the last minute. When I arrived in Chattanooga it was early evening. As with many things, there are adjustments and I was taken to our host’s home, where I would be billeted with Sean D. and some others. Our host, David Canthor had a beautiful home which had been spared recently when a tornado ripped through his neighborhood earlier in the year. As David’s home had filled up, Sean and I decided to sleep in David’s mobile home, which was parked in the drive way.

The Conference

The conference, or symposium, was three days in the classroom learning about disaster response. Sean’s goal as the Regional Security Director was to have teams ready to respond as first responders. Really, this was also a goal of the then Humanitarian Emergency Affairs Director, Fabiano Franz. During my previous trip to Panama, one of the things we had looked at were possible venues for training.

I was surprised during this conference that my previous boss, Ton van Zutphen, was also in attendance for this conference. It was nice to see him again. Ton was the response director during my time in Haiti three years earlier.

During the conference, we were all issued some kit for use as first responders. This would be equipment that we would get to keep and take home. We would also use most of it during some field exercises here in Tennessee.

Harley Parts

There were a few times during the first few days that I did not have to be a part of, which worked out well. As I had ordered several parts for my Fat Boy, I needed to go pick them up. I was given the keys to one of the school vans to run my errands. So, off to the local Chattanooga Harley dealership I went!

The local dealership in Chattanooga was the Thunder Creek Harley Davidson (now the White Lightning HD), located next to a Confederate cemetery. This was my first time in a US Harley dealership and trust me, I was like a kid in a candy store! Obviously this would not be my last, but it was an experience. Fortunately I had brought empty bags for the return trip to Costa Rica with all my goodies.

Taking them back to the “Moses”, our camper at David’s house, space could have become an issue. Fortunately, Sean is of good heart and understanding. I was able to take the parts out of the boxes and fit them all into the extra bags.

Field Adventures

The field time would be the most fun of this trip, other than the dealership. The first activity we would have would be a night in a cave! Other activities included outdoor exercises with simulated rescues and rope training.

Cave Dwellers

Now that we had our “Rescue Kit”, we were ready to start putting some of it to use. The first activity would be spending a night sleeping in a cave. All of us loaded into the college vans and made our way to the Raccoon Mountain Caverns. The two photos below are of Sean and I before we entered. Adding to this adventure, being early March, the weather does not always cooperate. This was no exception as it snowed and rained.

Not that the weather would be a problem inside the cave, but the dampness and cold could be. This was also going to be an opportunity for us to test some solar powered gear from Goal Zero. Goal Zero had a booth set up at the symposium with a lot of fancy gadgets. Some were useful during the night in the cave, others not so much.

We descended into the cave some distance, managing ourselves around several natural obstacles. Similar to my recent trip to Wadi Rum, here we were completely in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Deep inside the cave, there is no signal for cell phones and definitely no power. We ended up somewhere that was flat and ideal for setting up camp. Here we selected areas on the ground to set up our sleeping gear and then we slept.

At some point we woke up, but since you are in a cave, there is no natural light. If not for watches, we would not know the time of day, which was pretty cool. When we made our way back outside the cave, we were able to see how dirty we had become. Quite a difference from when we first entered.

Other Activities

Back at the college, other activities included simulated rescues and a whole lot of rappelling. I think if we could go down at any location, we hooked in a rappelled. There were also rappel towers that we came down. By the end of these activities, we were almost rappel masters! (not quite).

Closing out the final day, one of the activities was feeding everyone. As in any emergency setting, food would be a necessity for responders. Not overlooking this, David’s team at GR3 had a kitchen trailer. However, this had not been used for some time and it showed. Sean and I had been assigned to the kitchen, which meant getting it cleaned and ready for use.

Having washed the mobile kitchen from top to bottom, cleaned all the pots, pans and utensils, we were ready to cook. The menu, spaghetti with garlic toast. Filling up the cook tubs with water, Sean and I were ready to get into the cooking mode to feed thousands! Actually, we fed around 60 for this event, but it felt like more.

Final Evening

One cannot go to Chattanooga and not see the famous Choo Choo! Our final evening we ventured out to the train station where we could see this famous site.

From the train station, we walked across the Tennessee River on the John Ross bridge. We had heard of a famous hot dog place just on the other side, where we would have our dinner. This was at the Good Dog restaurant. If you ever get to Chattanooga, I definitely recommend eating here.

On March 9, I started the journey back home with all my loot and new parts. My Fat Boy was starting to come to the way I wanted it, but there would be more customization ahead.

By this time, Vince had started pushing harder for a response to Syria and had planned a scoping mission. There was also the annual HOps meeting that would be happening in April. So, back home I had a month before heading back overseas for this meeting.


  1. I have never been to south America and never been in a camper van but your post has really motivated me to think outside the box.

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