Beautiful Spaces — Smoky Mountain Vacay

As I’ve mentioned before, I love traveling. I have a long list of places I long to visit, and prioritize budgeting for trips. I think it’s really important to explore the world outside of your own small reality, and I think it is equally as important to take time away from work. In fact, Americans work more than anyone else in the world, take far fewer vacations, and as a result are the most stressed and unhappy (and therefore actually less productive). I’m not about that life.

If you think that’s all well and good, and only sissies take vacations, maybe you should look into the links between productivity and taking time off or which county is actually the happiest (hint: it’s Denmark where work/life balance is a cultural value and workers’ rights reign supreme). Really if you value your work, you should value your down time. It only makes you better at your work.

But anyway. Offa dat soap box.

Steven and I haven’t taken a week-long trip since our honeymoon (and I consider us very… privileged to have the means for a trip then and now). We’ve taken several small trips and extended weekends, but we decided at the beginning of this year that we wanted to take a larger trip. I was really hoping we would be able to save enough money to travel to Europe. But of course that didn’t happen. Because. Life. (Somedaaaaaayyyy……)

It was actually a strange twist of chance that we ended up planning a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee (which I had never heard of). Once I realized the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was right there in Gatlinburg (or rather, part of it), I was sold. A change of scenery sounded nice. Mountains are cool.

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It was a 12-hour drive that we broke into two chunks — 4 hours to St. Louis where we stayed the night with my cousin and another 8 hours on to Gatlinburg.

We stopped in Nashville for lunch at Burger Republic, which was delish.

There is booze in my shake, y'all.
There is booze in my shake, y’all.

We had a few things planned throughout the week, but also left room for just hanging out and going with the flow. Our first full day in Gatlinburg we ventured on a couple easy trails. The first was a 2.6 mile hike to Laural Falls which provided us with these stunning views:

2 3After Laural Falls, we still had a few hours of daylight, so we decided to try another easy, but longer hike (5.5 miles) along a river. We learned the hard way how to actually read the trail signs when we went four miles and then realized we were supposed to turn around a mile and a half ago. What was supposed to be a 5.5 mile hike turned into an 8.5 mile hike for more than 10 miles total that day. A lot of serious hikers do much more than that in a day, but it was a lot for us! Luckily the trails were easy with minimal elevation changes, but we did lose daylight toward the end and did not want to find ourselves in that situation again.

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There were many historical buildings and houses along the Little River Trail.

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Things are all well and good here....before we realized our mistake!
Things are all well and good here….before we realized our mistake!

The first few days in Gatlinburg we had beautiful weather, so we knew we wanted to maximize our time outdoors during the first half of our trip. We rented a RZR (is that how you say/spell it? Heh.) for the afternoon on Monday, went horse back riding on Tuesday, traveled to Clingman’s Dome and (attempted to) hike Rainbow Falls.

Clingman’s Dome was probably my favorite part of the trip. The views were breathtaking and we were lucky enough to venture out on one of the clearest days in the Smokies all year. We could see mountains in North Carolina nearly 70 miles away! It was so majestic I probably would have cried, but there were a lot of people around, so I held it in. (There were a lot of people everywhere.)

Clingman's Dome
Clingman’s Dome
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View from Clingman’s Dome

Traveling to Clingman’s Dome was mostly a drive, but we did “hike” (on paved road) the last half mile, which was a 300 ft climb.

Later that day, in an attempt to take advantage of the nice weather we knew was coming to an end, we attempted the Rainbow Falls trail and made another rookie mistake. I mixed Rainbow Falls up with another trail I thought was a moderate 2.5 miles. Rainbow falls is actually a moderate/strenuous 6 miles, which we began around 4 p.m. (thinking we could knock it out in about an hour). We got many looks from people coming down, and one lady asked us if we were planning to make it to the top to which we replied, breathlessly, “??????” When she told us it was at least another hour, we realized we screwed something up and turned around not long after. We were not going to get stuck out there in the dark again! (Because when you are out there, you are out there. No cell phone service and no one around to help you.) Whoops.

The rest of the week brought colder, gloomier weather, which was still very beautiful. I hung out at the spa on Wednesday (glorious) and we went out for BBQ. We decided to attempt one last hike on Thursday — a moderate/strenuous 4.4 miles along the Alum Cave trail.

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This was another highlight for me, and Steven’s favorite part of the trip. The trail was tough, but really cool. We didn’t have great views due to the fog and snow moving in, but somehow the scenery was still stunning.

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We were pretty tired when we got to the top, so we sat for a while and had some snacks. (Fun fact –> Steven would not let me eat the trail mix we brought unless we were on a trail. He scolded me for trying to get into it during the car ride out to Gatlinburg! “It’s for the trail, Mrs. Fluffy.” — Real talk from Stevoid.)

As we were sittin’ around enjoying some trail mix we saw a few people coming down from the trail above us. At Alum Cave, we were a little less then halfway up to Mt. LeConte — the third highest peak in the park. We struck up a conversation with one couple coming down who asked us, “You going up or down?” To which we replied, (again, breathlessly), “DOWN!” Steven made a joke about us being from Kansas and how there were no mountains there. (lol Stevoid).

I fought back the urge to challenge myself and attempt the hike up. I knew we didn’t have time (11 miles round-trip) nor the gear (nor perhaps the ability!). And it was starting to snow.

13Our last day in Gatlinburg we visited all the wineries and moonshine distilleries and enjoyed free samples! It was a lot of fun. And so many flavors. Much tipsy. We couldn’t leave Tennessee without a little moonshine.

14Not pictured: Gatlinburg Chili Cookoff, Hungry Bear BBQ, Smoky Mountain Brewery, the random people who stopped us to tell their life stories, horseback riding, Smoky Mountain Candy Kitchen, all the ice cream.

I think the best part was just……being in a beautiful place with the man I’ve loved for eleven years. Not having a care in the world except where we would get ice cream after dinner. (BTDubs, I gained 5 pounds on this vacation. In one week. DESPITE all the hiking. #worthit Overall, life is about balance, but vacation. Vacation is about indulgence.)

15I have heard people say when they go to beautiful places that they don’t understand how some people can’t believe in God. That some…thing some….body had to have created such magnificence by hand with the stroke of some mystical paintbrush. Or something like that.

I have to say I felt that too. That feeling of majestic brilliance that fills you with wonder and awe. As humans we feel the need to explain such phenomena just like we feel the need to explain the evil in the world. Everything must make sense. Everything must have a reason.

But what I felt most powerfully about the spaces I found myself in was the magical mystery of it all. A strong sense of connectivity to all living things. A sense of smallness. How any given problem on any given day has no place on the mountaintop. How a creek running through the woods has a beginning and an end just like everything else, but that it also becomes the rain and the mist and that it never disappears. And, ultimately, a dutiful responsibility to protect the wilderness as if  life itself depends upon it.

I didn’t find myself thinking, “How can someone not see that this is a creation of God?” And instead found myself thinking, “How can anyone look at this and only see dollar signs?”

You cannot put a price on awe and wonder.

Nor can you put a price on rejuvenation.

But you can put a price on the moment you return. A cog in a machine. To the never-ending grind.

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