I spent most of last week on a little trip with the kids. We were only a three hour drive northward. But it felt like some place else entirely. How easy it can be to forget the beauty just outside your own backyard. It feels so good to rediscover it.
We spent a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the national park that straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The idea for this trip began a year ago when I realized that I have loads of memories in these mountains with my grandparents and cousins, filed deep in the back of my very best pieces of nostalgia. We went almost every summer, and yet my own kids still hadn’t seen it and experienced it like I did. I decided this summer was a good time to take them, and then my sister decided to bring her two along as well, and my mom and grandad even drove up for the last night. We found a perfect cabin on the river in the foothills of the mountains and more or less let the kids run wild.
We unloaded our things on the afternoon of the first day and indulged in s’mores that night. Campfires and cousins in a cabin are the very best ingredients for summer memories, I think. It doesn’t take much at all to make something feel special.
Something unique happens when you get away as a family. Kids sense the tension easing from your own back, I think. They walk lighter, just like you do. Happy with the littlest things – porch swings and smooth river rocks and open windows when we sleep. Vacation always feels like such an indulgent place, even when it’s close to home.
We braved an amusement park one day to appease the kids, standing in crowded lines with countless other travelers at Dollywood. I can remember loving thrill rides when I was growing up, but it’s been something like 18 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster. Jude dragged me through the line for a coaster that shoots you like a cannon at 73mph high above the rest of the park. I didn’t love it like I used to; in fact, I sort of clenched my teeth and my belly and went for it to please him, but it felt terrifying in this way that I definitely didn’t experience as a kid. Maybe it’s the time and distance between then and now? Maybe it’s the adult worry mind inside me? I don’t know. But I held my eyes shut the whole time and felt relief when my feet were firmly on the ground afterwards, holding an anxious fear I don’t remember feeling when I rode them before.
Both of my kids are daredevils on these rides, and I definitely used to be. But somehow it feels different to me now. Time and experience can have unexpected effects on our own sense of fear, and it can change what scares you. We ended the day with the drive back to our little cabin, and my kids were elated from the bustle of the park, but I was mostly just tired and relieved to be back to a slower pulse.
The next morning we spent slow hours in the national park, touring Cade’s Cove, an isolated valley with a few preserved historical structures and some beautiful wide open spaces. Life feels so quiet when you are there, like there is nothing to fear at all. But as I walked through old family homes with rock chimneys and one room for 12 people or looked at cemetery markers to find countless children and infants alongside each other, I thought a lot about how their fears were completely different than mine are today but were more real than I will ever understand.
We ended the tour there with an hour-long horseback ride through the wooded trails in the national forest. These are trail horses with a guide, and the pace is a leisurely trot, so those of you who grew up riding horses will laugh at this for sure … but this is another thing that was outside of my comfort zone to say the least. (Which is extra ironic given that only one generation ago family property held horses, and my 82-year-old grandad hopped on the horse with us last week like it was no problem at all.) But even so, an hour on the back of an animal 10 times your size in the depths of a national park isn’t something in the realm of my usual experience, and I was jittery as we waited to get on.
Once again though, it was the urging of my own son who pushed me there, and it’s not the first time I’ve done something scary for my kids – and likely not the last either. So we mounted the horses and set off in the woods, crossing a rushing creek at the start of the trail and listening to the clop, clop, clop through the ferns and fallen trees. With every step that I went beyond my own comfort zone, it got easier and lighter until it didn’t feel scary at all.
That’s the way it always goes, I’m finding. The definition of scary may be different for each one of us. What terrifies you may not bother me, and what gives me butterflies may not register on your list of worries at all. And even within my own mind, time has changed what my fear responds to. But all the good stuff is on the other side of what I fear. Always. Sometimes it’s a place you can only get to when you cross that bridge. And sometimes it’s just that quiet hum of satisfaction when you know you did what you’d thought was impossible. But if I just push myself past that space I fear so much, it is never as scary as I’d imagined.
I am home to mounds of laundry and loads of pictures I am weeding through from our time away. But I hope this is the lesson from our trip that sits with me for a long time – the value in that tension of bravery and rest. The satisfaction that comes from doing what you feared and pushing past your discomfort and the quiet space of rest that we need just as much as we need courage and challenges. The truth is in the ebb and flow between those two things, knowing when to forge ahead with courage and when to slow down and feel the solace that grows in quiet familiar places.