Saturday, March 17, 2018

Great Smoky Mountains: SO Great!

We're in Atlanta at my aunt and uncle's very beautiful, very Southern lake-front home. A pork butt has been smoking in the Big Green Egg since 4:30 a.m., the potato salad, pasta salad, and peach cobbler are all prepped, and the margaritas are being blended by my aunt as I type. The big kids are running errands with my uncle, Cora is taking a forced nap upstairs (we've reached the stage of vacation where we've broken the third baby), and James is working while wishing he was napping on the couch. We leave tomorrow morning for the long haul back home, but what an excellent vacation it has been!

Let's go back to Days 4 and 5. We woke up at Mammoth Cave to snow and deer grazing right outside our window. We packed up and headed out, dropping off our key at the front desk of the lodge (something we almost forgot to do because what hotels have actual metal keys anymore?) and headed out to the Great Smokies!

4.5 hours later we were back in Tennessee and rolling in to the Sugarlands Visitor Center (Great Smoky Mountains NP has 4 visitors' centers! What a bounty of extra memorabilia and passport stamps you can gift yourself with there!) to pick up the kids' next round of junior ranger packets and talk to a ranger about a suggested hike. It was already about 3 p.m. and we knew we'd be hungry for dinner early since we'd refused to stop and just fed the kids PBJs and the last of our fruits and vegetables while riding in the car, so we needed something short, but we also really did want to DO a real hike. Something to make our legs a little shaky and our hearts feel like they were in the Smokies.

The ranger with the delightful dangly bear cub earrings suggested the Laurel Falls hike a 5-10 minute drive up the road. A 1.3 mile semi-paved path hike to a beautiful waterfall sounded perfect, so we drove over, ooohing and aahhing at the views along the way, and pulled right up to the trailhead sign. As it turns out, 3:30 p.m. is a great day to start a hike because everyone else who got there early is tired and leaving all the great parking spots open.

We thought the 1.3 mile trail sign meant round trip, so we just grabbed the camelbak hiking backpack and headed out. The kids took off and this was James and my view basically the entire time.

The trail was lovely and shaded, with lots of off-trail rock climbing possibilities. We finally had to tell the kids they could only climb rocks along they trail if they stayed ahead of us. Once we caught up, you had to jump off your rocks and run far ahead again. This worked well and meant James and I could walk and chat together, controlling the pace, while the kids go to run and climb to their little hearts' content.

While I know it broke a little piece of James's heart to leave the hiking backpack behind (he won't even hear of selling it, though I can't imagine what purpose it serves sitting in the garage) and I deeply miss having a happy little baby or toddler hiker to stick in it, one thing I will remember most from this trip is watching Cora grow in hiking love and confidence.

Charging ahead!

She stayed up with the big kids most of the way.

Climbing all the big rocks, and working SO HARD with her much shorter legs to keep up with their shenanigans. By the end she was dictating which rocks should be climbed on, "just watch this guys, see. did you see guys?" and James and I were cracking up behind her. She may still hate skiing, but we've at least got her hiking.

We got to Laurel Falls, which were actually 1.3 miles in one direction, and they were beautiful.

Just perfect and so fun to explore. Obviously, the kids were off trail immediately.

After a while we started the hike back, the kids keeping their pace but Cora slowly lagging. Finally, she had to call it and pulled on James's hand- "Daddy, my wegs are just too tired.". And so she came down the rest of the mountain like this.

We made it back to the car, gave everyone a granola bar, and consulted yelp on dinner. Our hotel was in Gatlinburg, but we headed to a place in Pigeon Forge that looked tasty. I'm not sure it was actually worth that drive back the other direction, but Pigeon Forge is a CRAZY touristy mecca and it was fun to exclaim over all the themed buildings and entertainment venues along the way. Our hotel turned out to probably be our least nice, but it was absolutely our biggest, with the kids in a separate double queen room with connecting doors to our single queen fireplace room. We each had our own bathrooms and this was the height of luxury. We had the kids in bed with lights out at 8:30 and just LUXURIATED in the ability to exist in a separate space from our children for the first time since Sunday morning. It felt like a honeymoon, except even more so, because on your honeymoon you generally already got to be alone before you went.

2.5 stars of private luxury

On Day 5 we woke up, partook of the hotel breakfast/tea station and headed back into Great Smoky. We'd decided the night before to let go of our dreams of Park #4 (Congaree, in South Carolina) and spend a little more time in the beautiful Smokies, which would also shorten our driving for that day by about 3 hours. It means our map will lack one extra pin, but it was the right call. We'd been doing a TON of driving and truly hadn't felt like we'd "seen" Great Smoky properly yet, so we headed out on the 25 mile journey through the crazy windy road of the park, up to the 11-mile Cade's Cove Loop.

It was beautiful. The drive was beautiful and showed us so much of the park, and Cade's Cove is a gorgeous valley filled with wildlife and historic homes, farms, and even an operating corn mill.

We found our second visitor's center and got out to explore the homes and mill. The mill operator told the kids how it worked and they got to see the corn poured into the grinder to come out corn meal.

They turned in their ranger books and got their third badge of the trip. We were very proud to have such qualified junior rangers.

It's possible I wore all of these.

We saw wild turkeys, deer, and lots of birds, but no bears as it still a little early in the season (though Cora did confidently spot MANY bears, none of these sightings were supported by peer review). We headed out, back down the long windy drive through the park to stop at several of the beautiful rock-filled river spots we exclaimed at along the way.

There's little we like more than jumping on rocks across a river.

Once again, Cora was a confident lead-hiker. "Come on guys, we just have to go this way." she'd exclaim while climbing rocks taller than her. James, of course, found an ill-advised river crossing to jump over to a Spider-man-style flat slanted rock landing. I thought it was a terrible idea that would end with him cold and wet, but he made it and will now jump something even more ridiculous later.

It was an incredibly beautiful morning and finally about 1:00 we decided we needed to stop flirting with cold water and start the drive to Atlanta. We headed out the snow-covered and gorgeous North Carolina side of the park, stopping for more than 30-minutes on a closed road to allow a helicopter to lift giant tree trunks out of the forest ahead of us. This was to be a theme of our alleged 4:30 drive to Atlanta that ended up being 6:30 due to traffic and random things like helicopter stops. We were QUITE done with the car by the time we pulled up to Peachtree City (and by "we" I mean James and I, as always the kids were fine and deeply embedded in Car Mode; though they did ask to not eat PBJ's again for a while/ever, since I fed them those again while driving down the highway), but my aunt and uncle had wine and delicious foods (and a washer and dryer!) waiting for us at the end.

travels in style, always

We'll get to our Atlanta adventures in the next post (we now have a pet whale shark and I've landed an MD-88 airplane), but I forgot to tell you a story from Mammoth Cave. On our second tour, when we were deep under the earth in large, open section of the cave, our ranger told us she had a special treat for us: we had a trio of operatic show choir singers in our group and they were going to sing for us to show off the acoustics of the cave! The ranger brought our singers to the center of the cavern, turned off all the lights, and in the absolute pitch-black darkness, they began to sing the most gorgeous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in perfect three-part harmony. When it ended and the last notes echoed through the cave, the ranger flipped the soft running lights back on and I could see that at least half the tour group was crying. It was gorgeous and so very special.

As Landon said afterward, "Mom, we get the most special things on our trips. First we get to be the special festival family at Disney World, and now this!" I adore that he puts those two things in the same category, and recognizes how special they are. It was certainly something I'll never forget, and those are the moments you go on vacation for.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mammoth Cave: SO Mammoth!

Morning of Day 4: We're packing up our Mammoth Cave motel room and heading to Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but James is taking a few minutes to catch up on swim school emails, so I'm going to try to catch up on blogging. Shockingly, the cell service in the middle of a National Park is not the best, so I haven't been able to do my usual late night wrap-up-blogging. Instead I've drunk wine from a paper coffee cup while we threaten the children with dismemberment if they talk again in bed. Sweet dreams for all!

Let's go back to Day 2. We woke up in Little Rock, Arkansas and ate a tasty hotel breakfast before piling in the car for a 6.5 hour drive to Mammoth Cave, with stops planned along the way. We usually NEVER stop once we're in the car, so the "drive 2 hours and stop" itinerary was disconcerting for all of us (my kids have a car ride mode; once they're in, we can drive forever, which is exactly what we usually do), but we wanted to see some new cities and eat delicious foods. Cora insisted on wearing her Hot Springs ranger badge, and paired it with a large tiara I didn't even notice she was wearing until after I looked at our lunch pictures. It's really just another Monday outfit.

We got to Memphis around 11, drove around a bit, decided we weren't up for any of the music tours, but asked the internet where should we have lunch. It answered resoundingly that Central BBQ and so it was. It was charming and local and DELICIOUS.

I'm not usually a big bbq person or a big pork person, but the Food Network told me to eat their BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich and it was amazing. I might have also ordered a large and very unnecessary bbq pulled pork nachos. I have no regrets.

We loved every bite, stopped at a park by the amazing-looking zoo we wished we had time for to let the kids run around, and then piled back in the car for a 3 hour drive to Nashville. In Nashville we found parking downtown and wandered around Broadway, walking past the Country Music Hall of Fame, one million bars playing live music (and we'd thought Austin had a lot of that!), and many other famous music-related buildings. It was great to stretch our legs and hear some music. We were still full of pulled pork, so we continued on to Mammoth Cave another 90 minutes away.


Along the way we decided we'd just stop somewhere for a salad to-go (thank you Yelp, Google Maps, and Saladworks in Bowling Green for making that happen) for James and I and then feed the kids the easy mac I'd packed in the car once we got to our cabin at Mammoth Cave. Except when got to our room - a very tiny motel room and not the roomy, new two-bedroom cabin we were supposed to have, the cabin that started this whole itinerary because I was so excited about a cabin INSIDE a national park and decided it was calling for us to stay there, because a pipe burst and all the cabins flooded a couple weeks before we left - and discovered we did not have a microwave. It was now 8 p.m., we'd been in the car off and on since 8 a.m. and we were NOT GOING BACK IN. We made a picnic dinner on the floor with leftover healthy car snacks, granola bars, and a few packets of peanut butter. The kids thought it was the greatest thing ever.

And once I got James to yank out my wine cork through brute force, I did too. I also immediately ordered a new travel wine opener. That was almost an emergency.

This should really be my new profile picture

We woke up on Day 3 to chilly temps and views of the national park around us. It had been pitch black and snowy when we'd arrived the night before so we really had no idea what it looked like. We walked to the Lodge for a tasty breakfast and then to the Visitor's Center to pick up our tour tickets (so glad I booked online a few weeks ago; both of our tours were sold out when we arrived) and get the kids' Junior Ranger packets!

We toured the Visitor's Center, wandering through the museum, watching the movie (narrated by Mike Rowe, which made me laugh), and filling out their Ranger packets. At 9:55 it was time to line up for our first tour! Mammoth Cave offers a lot of tours with varying lengths and difficulties. I highly recommend the two tours we did: Domes & Dripstones and the Historical Tour. Both were 2 hours long (D&D was about 3/4 mile of walking; Historical was 2 miles), both showed very different parts of the cave with very different stories, history, and facts surrounding them, and the kids handled both of them beautifully.

Domes and Dripstones requires a 10 minute bus ride from the Visitor's Center to get to the entrance. It's a man-made entrance built from a sinkhole in the ground. You feel like you're walking into a bunker when you go in, and it's immediately clear that if you're claustrophobic, this is not for you.

We walked down one million stairs to get to a large opening where we all sat on benches to wait for the full group to gather and the rangers to talk. The rangers were all great- full of facts and stories and seemed to be able to answer any question thrown at them. I'd wondered how the tour could accommodate 100 people at once, but you basically just amble along in a single file line, bending and stooping and pausing for pictures as needed, and then stop at 2-3 large gathering places, usually with installed benches, along the way to learn about what you're going to see next. It worked great and let you move at your own pace while also not missing anything the ranger said.

Claire was always ready to point me the way

We learned so much! Did you know the cave only had 44 miles mapped when it was dedicated as a national park in 1941 and now it has more than 412 miles mapped as of last year? And the cave explorers still haven't found the end so every year it gets bigger. It's the longest cave in the world by more than double and its rock is 100 million years older than the dinosaurs (which is why any fossils found inside are of prehistoric ocean animals and not dinosaurs; they got stuck in that rock long before North America existed).

Towards the end of the tour we got to the really incredible formations. They're in a newer, higher, and more active part of the cave where water is currently dripping.

We descended a bunch of tiny stairs to get to Frozen Niagara, admired it, took a picture, and climbed all the way back up. As Cora exclaimed throughout the day, "This is SO NEAT MAMA!!"

We climbed a bunch of more steps to get out, now in a totally new location from where we started, and a bus was there to pick us up and take us back to the Visitor's Center where the kids turned in their now completed Ranger packets and got their next badge. It was great. I didn't even cry this time! Mostly because I was distracted a Cave Research Foundation exhibit on the wall.

It was now lunchtime, so we walked back to our room and ate a chilly picnic lunch on the tables outside the motel rooms.

(For those who like logistics: I knew we wouldn't have access to a kitchen at any of our stops on this trip, so we'd have to eat out more than we prefer (both because we're very expensive at restaurants and also because we just get so sick of them; I hate eating and paying for food I'm not excited about). To avoid doing that too much, I just packed a bunch of lunch type stuff to keep in the car: bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, cheese sticks, carrot sticks, sliced cucumber, sliced apples, cutie oranges, and individual bags of chips to keep in a big car cooler to pull out when needed. I've made sandwiches while we drive and we've had them on our picnics. It's worked great and meant we can really enjoy a big hot meal somewhere yummy for dinner each night. Except Day 2 night when we had lunch for dinner on the hotel floor because we weren't driving anywhere, though we did eat out lunch that day.)

Our little trooper, walked all the miles in all the caves, and made everyone smile while doing it.

We planned to do some topside hiking before our next tour at 3:30, though we probably should have made everyone lay down. I think the giggling finally stopped at 10 p.m. the night before and we were all up at 7. But when I glanced at our bed I found that James was the only one worn out.

So I took the kids, still FULL of energy, out to explore the trails that ran by our room. Kentucky, even post-winter, is lovely.

James roused himself and we all did some exploring on the trails, finding Dixon Cave and other points of interest. Eventually is was time to get to the Visitor's Center for our 3:30 Historic Tour.

And it was AMAZING. Highly highly recommend. I'm so glad we also did Domes & Dripstones because it was awesome to see the formations and how different different areas of the cave could be, but the Historic Tour was definitely more fun and adventurous. It was quite a bit longer- 2 miles instead of the 3/4 mile - and you were able to just walk to the Natural Entrance from the Visitor's Center instead of taking a bus. This is the only natural entrance to the whole 400+ mile cave system.

This tour was much darker, so I didn't bother attempting many pictures, but it was really wonderful. Because this is the natural entrance, it has all the history of human's discovery and use of the cave. Native American symbols and scratchings from at least 5,000 years ago. The salt petre mining operations from more than 200 years ago (did you know 1 in every 7 bullets in the War of 1812 was made from Mammoth Cave Salt Petre? We do now!). We learned so much about the early explorers and mappers. The ranger even turned off the guiding lights so we could see the pitch black and incredible silence deep in the cave. She lit a small gas lantern that the early mappers would have used and you could see how INSANE it was that the cave was mapped at all.

We continued on until the path got narrower and the ceiling got lower and we entered Fat Man's Misery. This was by far our favorite part - tiny winding paths with tall sides you had to contort yourself around to get through. The kids loved it.

Then Tall Man's Misery where even Cora had to hunch a little and James and I were basically bent in half. It was SO fun. I was beaming. Exploring things makes me SO HAPPY. I realized later I was still proudly wearing Landon's junior ranger badge (he didn't want to put a whole in his favorite shirt) and that felt appropriate.

You exit into a large cavern again where you can stretch and then climb 260 stairs up a tall, winding tower to get out. "Intermediate" level tour indeed.

It was the best. We got in our car to drive to the nearest restaurant for dinner- a very cute but expectedly mediocre Mexican place in Cave City. It was snowing as we drove back to the park to get back in our room. We got everyone showered and brushed and changed and instituted "quite time" with kindles and headphones and movies for all. It was lovely. James and I lay on our bed, feeling like we should be productive, but just scanning the news on our phones and talking about the PA-18 race instead. (Woot!) Cora made sure her unicorn was as cozy as could be and it cracked me up every time I caught a glimpse of him all wrapped up.

Going to sleep went mildly better, but when you have 5 people in less than 200 square feet of space, it's never going to be great. I think they were all asleep around 9:30? I've flagrantly violated my "no sleeping with my children" rule, but it was supposed to be a cabin and for National Parks I can endure. Our hotel room tonight in Gatlinburg is a suite and it will be very nice to have a little more space.

And maybe a more inspiring shower? The yellow was adorable but I haven't washed my hair since we woke up in Fort Worth. Shh, don't tell anyone.

And now we're 30 miles out from Gatlinburg, Park #3 here we come!