Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Last Stop: Destin, FL

Our last stop on the road trip was Destin Beach, Florida where it was just playing on the beach all day, every day. There were no giant bounce pillows or organized campground activities or a pool with slides or other kids to run around with (a la OBX), so instead there was a lot of family time and a lot of "Whattaya wanna play now?" Here is evidence (and my favorite shot!) of some of the silliness that ensued during our free time: 

"Look at what we can do with our hair, Mommy!"

The first time we camped in Henderson Beach, Destin was in 2012 during that first "long"short trip. I had been completely amazed by it: no mosquitoes, a gorgeous campsite that was super clean and private and spacious, a beach with water so clear and sand so white that it looked straight out of a postcard. I referred to it as the "Marriott of Campgrounds."

And we loved it this time, too, for the same reasons. Not to mention that we were exhausted from the last few weeks and all the activities, so a few days of consecutive "just beach" days were very appealing. However, believe it or not, we chose to leave a couple of days earlier than planned. We had all been missing home (even when you're "glamping" in your own RV, some comforts and joys of home can't be matched), and...brace's a sentence I never thought I'd say...ready...? 

I just could not face one more day of hot sun and alcohol. 

I know.

But it's true. 

By this point of the trip, Hubby and I were getting to the point where we were actually craving acai bowls, water, and vegetables. (You know life's good when you almost have too much vacation time.)

Plus, I think after so many years of traveling and camping, I've come to realize that although I'm happiest on any beach, some beaches make me happier than others. The bliss and connection I felt in Hatteras in Outer Banks was missing. If OBX was all Roxy and Quicksilver, Destin is all Lily Pulitzer and LL Bean. Nice...but not our thing. 

We spent the days walking on the beach, slathering on layers and layers of SPF, playing in the sand, body surfing, being silly, going crabbing, playing family ladder toss tournaments, stand up paddle boarding, boogie boarding, drinking, and eating. 

That's Kai's head sticking up out of the sand...LOL

Poor Hubby...we called him the Family Mule the whole trip.
Here he is carrying my SUP the nearly half a mile walk from the beach back to our campsite!

Waiting for our table at the local restaurant...a wait time of an hour did not seem that long when I had beer and beach!

Night time crabbing

It feels like forever-ago that we took that first summer road trip in our first RV. That had felt like such a daring adventure. And now here we are, all these years later...the boys are so much bigger, the trips are so much longer, and the adventures are so much more daring. We are already planning our next summer road trip...this time to the national parks and the Grand Canyon. As much as I joked above about having too much vacation time, don't get me wrong: Hubby and I do not take these days for granted. We're lucky; we know. We've worked at this life, though. We've made changes and sacrifices and every day we work at setting up our lives so we can go on these trips, have these experiences. It is our hope that these days help bond the boys to each other (and to us) even more...that they look back on their childhoods and remember these days...and even more importantly, that those memories help shape them into men who value family, each other, nature, and adventures, because after all..."Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

...and now

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Stops 7, 8, & 9: Nashville, TN; Lynchburg TN; and Florida Caverns State Park, FL

Before heading back to Florida, we wanted to make a couple of stops in Tennessee for two of our favorite things: country music and Jack Daniels Whiskey.

Stop 7 was Nashville, TN. We knew this was not a particularly family-friendly town, but we wanted to scope it out and see if it was somewhere Hubby and I would want to go back for a mini getaway in the future. Plus, the kids could say they saw a super popular city, even if they hated it (which, by the way, they did). The campground where we stayed, despite a million excellent online reviews, was a bit bizarre and quite disappointing. What we thought was going to be a cool, family campground with a country theme, turned out to be a clean, but super hot and shade-less parking lot filled with really old and serious folks listening to even older people perform on their little stage at night. I felt like I was stuck in a parody of RV traveling. One of the perks of traveling this way, however, is the flexibility it allows, so we cut this part of the trip short and only spent a couple of days there. We went into downtown Nashville for a few hours on the first day, ate dinner at the Florida Georgia Line House, longed to go into one of the many smoky and totally kid-inappropriate bars we walked by where excellent live music was playing, and watched the city prepare for its huge July 4th festivities.

Downtown Nashville

Celebrating July 4th at the bizarre campground
Disclaimer: No children were harmed in the taking of these photos

The next day was Stop 8  Lynchburg, TN...a town that seems frozen in time. Seeing my truck with all the boards parked in front of the Jack Daniels Hardware Store in "downtown" Lynchburg was quite amusing.

We toured the Jack Daniels Distillery, which, even for non-whiskey drinkers is a major tourist destination, so for us...well, if you know us, you understand.

The excellent reviews we had read did not lie: this tour was super cool. Even the kids tolerated it. They especially enjoyed the part when they found out that Jack Daniels died of gangrene infection brought upon by a broken toe from kicking his safe in frustration.
Dramatization of the fateful moment when Jack Daniels kicked his safe

And if you've ever seen any of those Jack Daniels commercials on TV....well, all those people really do work there. We hung out a bit with this guy and got some cool stories.

The distillery is to Lynchburg what Disney World is to Orlando. The entire area (which, ironically, has been a dry county since the days of Prohibition) is completely dependent upon the distillery, which is the only place in the world Jack Daniels whiskey is made.

We spent quite a bit of money in the store, which sold everything from key chains to furniture made out of the recycled barrels. We have been enjoying some of our souvenirs already...

After saying goodbye to Nashville and Lynchburg, it was time to start heading back to our home state. Stop 9 was Florida Caverns State Park in Florida. 

Back when we were rookies at all this RV stuff, we took our first "long" road trip: 8 days in Florida, and the caverns was one of our stops. We wanted to take the boys back there, especially since Aidan Kai didn't really remember much.

Here we are in the caverns in 2012 on that first trip:


And here we are in 2018:

One of my first RV-ing memories is of pulling into that campground, late at night, opening the door, and being a bit intimidated and awed by the height of the trees and the darkness in that park. It felt so isolated and "in the woods." It was interesting to go back now, all these years later, and see how the trees weren't really that tall, and it wasn't any darker than other parks.

We toured the caverns and were once again amazed by them and their natural history. We also did a mini hike that took you by and through some caves which were used by Native Americans and returned to a natural spring recreation area which we had visited in 2012. We had a lot of fun jumping off the diving board and into the cave opening of the spring, and after all those frigid water temperatures in the mountains, 72 degree water did not shock us quite as much as it did the first time around.

Aidan Kai's cannonball

Ben's dive of joy

Super cool spot but it's no beach...

Next (and last) stop: Destin, Florida!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Stop 6: Smoky Mountains, NC

If Outer Banks was all decadence and bliss, then the mountains were all ass-kicking and adventure. Base camp was a KOA campground in Cherokee, North Carolina, but we pretty much covered everything from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina. The mountains portion of this trip was awesome and exhausting. We had 6:00 am wake up calls almost every day, and pushed our Florida flatlanders' asses to the brink pretty much constantly. 

Adventure #1: Get over my fear of white water rafting.

I had only been white water rafting once, and if I had the picture with me now, I would post it here so you could see the proof of my terror: I literally threw myself into the bottom middle of the boat in the fetal position in such a way that you can not see me in the picture. At all. So, needless to say, when the boys all said they wanted to do this, I was not looking forward to it. I'm not sure if it's the fact that the kids were with us this time, but somehow I managed to put on my Big Girl Pants and get on that raft. Because Hubby was certified in white water rescue back in the days, and because he actually knows what he's doing about 99.9% of the time, we opted for the self-guided ride. The deal was this: Whatever he said to do on that raft, the three of us were going to do it. This was one of the very rare times in the history of this family when there was no arguing about who among us is the Alpha.

Most of the river was class II, some III mixed in, and one class IV drop at the end. We managed to get through that last one without anyone falling out of the boat (or dropping to the floor in the fetal position and missing the photo op entirely), but boy, were we ever not graceful...

We watched other boats do that rapid later on, and every one either went straight through the line expected, around it, or even zig zag...a few people did fall out...but everyone pretty much was facing forward somewhat. Not us. Nope. Forward was too easy. We went up and over the main rock and ledge...backwards. Let's just say our Alpha Guide was shouting out some expletives amidst his orders of "Paddle hard right! Paddle hard right!"

I think we were all so relieved when we realized we had made it without losing anyone, that the look on our faces was pretty priceless in some of the shots.

Amazingly, this little adventure completely eradicated my fear of white water. I actually, for a moment, debated doing it again. And talk about family bonding...

Adventure #2: Hike the 6 mile trail of  Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest.

We hiked 3 miles up to an elevation of 3,970 feet, to a stunning overlook (with a scary-looking drop) that made the work worth it for a 9-year-old, a sometimes-surly preteen, a middle-aged woman with a somewhat-still-busted-post-op-knee, and an ever-optimistic and uber-athletic Hubby who got stuck carrying about 30 pounds worth of all our water, lunch, bug spray, and just maybe, some baby wipes I snuck in there. I'd like to say that the 3 miles down were a piece of cake, but we were passed by quite a few people, during which I wanted to yell "We are from the very flat, flat state of Florida!"

View at the top after the first 3 miles

After that, we drove a few miles to Sliding Rock, a place we  had seen on videos online, but, as South Floridians, had a hard time wrapping our heads around. Hubby and I were actually not too excited about this one, but the boys really wanted to do it, and since they managed to complete the hike without ever complaining once or admitting they wanted no part of it, we figured we owed them one. 

Boy, am I glad. It turned out to be one of the funnest things I have ever done.

Adventure #3: Slide down a 60-foot waterfall

Sliding Rock is a natural boulder that has been smoothed out over time enough that people can slide down the 60 foot waterfall relatively unscathed and plunge into an 8 foot deep "pool" of 50 degree water. Words to describe: freezing, thrilling, silly, butt-scratching, bumpy, fun. I sincerely thought, before I got there, that maybe I would do it once, just to say I did it, but I felt like a little kid wanting to go back "again and again" and "one more time." It wasn't until I bruised the right butt cheek on a wayward rock ledge and scratched the left on that one-damn-rough-spot-that-pretty-much-no-one-else-managed-to-slide-over-except-me that I finally called it quits. The best part was that you were allowed to slide in groups, pairs, train the four of us had a blast. I literally could not stop giggling the entire time we were there.

Daddy and the boys after their "train" came apart

Me and the boys...we started out together holding hands but inevitably would always come apart

Hubby and me...of course, I'm holding my nose while he is all arms in the air woo-hooing

After Sliding Rock, we drove into downtown Asheville for a pizza dinner and the best ice cream sandwiches we've ever had. That was one of those days...from morning to night...when you just go to bed with a smile on your face, feeling grateful and exhausted all over.

Adventure #4: Aerial Park (or, When the hell did I develop a fear of heights?!?)

We drove into Tennessee for an Aerial Park Adventure. We had done this before in New Hampshire on a much larger and higher scale, so I wasn't worried. Little did I know that, apparently, while I wasn't looking, my mind decided to develop an unnatural fear of heights. We listened to the safety spiel, harnessed up, clipped in, and climbed the tower. I wasn't nervous. I wasn't worried. I, in fact, was the one who insisted on doing this particular activity. Then I stepped onto the first "challenge" as they call it: a log suspended about 20 feet in the air. Complete and utter panic. Tears welled. Heart drummed. And I thought for a second that I couldn't do it. I would simply go back the one whopping step and go back to the ground. I think the only thing that stopped me from doing just that was the disbelief: I have never been afraid of heights! What the hell is wrong with me?!? So I pushed through...did a few while literally holding back tears...had to go back to the ground to center myself a bit (I insisted I just wanted to take pictures of the boys to everyone but Hubby). Then I made myself go back out there. The boys didn't even find out I was freaking out the whole time until almost the end. In fact, once Ben found out, he was so kind and protective, it made the whole experience worth it. At one point, I was making it to the end of a particularly challenging obstacle, and he was standing on the platform waiting. I started to fall (which really means I would have fallen about 2 feet before my harness caught me), and he grabbed my rope and kept saying (in the same exact tone we would have used with him or his brother) "It's okay. You're okay. I've got you." 

We spent three hours on the course, which ranged from a minimum height of 14 feet and soared to over 50 feet up at its highest. The boys did a couple of the highest, while I completed most of the ziplines and  challenges on the first level, all the while literally hugging the trees as I arrived on each platform. I think I did more of my meditative breathing at this place than I have in all my yoga and meditation sessions combined! (That breathing shit really works. FYI.)

Would love to say this was a silly, posed shot, but nope...that is literally how I would stand on the platforms while waiting for my turn.

Aidan Kai on one of the lower challenges while Ben and Daddy wait on the side platforms

One of the easiest challenges that didn't scare me so much so I managed a smile

 Adventure #5: Tubing (Lazy river, my ass!)

Don't let this serene pic fool you....

Perhaps we should have known we were in for a little more than some lazy tubing when the teenage girl returning her tube declared it as "eventful" and the lady at the desk chuckled as she declared that "the river is really high and fast today, so you're gonna have some class IIs in there..."
Give us an ocean filled with sharks, jellyfish, waves, and rip currents and we are good to go. Put us in a river on some giant floaties and watch us nearly drown.

Most of the river was either calm, like the picture above, or fun little rapids, but there were a few spots where overhanging trees along the edges and rocks made for a couple of close calls. Incident #1 happened when the rope we had used to tie our tubes together got caught up on a tree limb right over a super strong current, trapping Aidan Kai right over the rushing water and nearly flipping Ben, who I saw panic for one of the first times. Hubby managed to get everyone unstuck and onto dry land, but it left the boys (and me) a bit shaken. Incident #2 happened after we decided that the rope was a bad idea, and Aidan Kai fell out of his tube. Watching your kid floating down a river with no life vest as he desperately tries to swim to the shoreline where his brother is reaching out to grab him is no joke.

Incidents aside, we did have a ton of fun on our first tubing adventure. We felt kinda silly that we had found it so rough, but felt a bit validated when, back at the campground, one of the local "mountain people" told us he wouldn't let his grandkids do it because the river was a little too high and dangerous.

More reason to love the ocean...

After Incident #1

Adventure #6: Hike 4.6 mile Alum Caves Trail Hike

We decided to do one more hike after reading about the Alum Caves Trail Hike, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The trail is 4.6 miles and has an elevation of 4,955 feet. This hike had more to see the whole way, as opposed to just the one breathtaking view at the top. As we hiked, the kids stopped to explore little pools in the streams and build rock cairns. There were pseudo-bridges made of logs with "railings" on only one side, rock stairs with cable handrails along Arch Rock, panoramic mountain views, and Alum Cave Bluff, a massive concave overhang that towers 80 feet high. 

Entering Arch Rock (you can see the "cave" and the rock stairs to the right of the bridge)

Arriving at the Bluff

Prior to this one, I had never really enjoyed my mountain trips very much. We had either always had bad weather or other glitches that made me wonder why so many people loved traveling north for these kinds of vacations. And I'll be honest: green mountains just do not impress me. (Put 'em up against a backdrop of clear turquoise waters, however, and I'm sold.) But this trip was just pure fun, and I found myself wearing a shit-grin most of the time. It was just the four of us. Just playing. I can finally say I loved a trip to the mountains and want to go back. BUT...I still spent a lot of time at the campground drinking Coronas, missing the beaches, and listening to Kenny Chesney's Pirate Flag song, completely understanding why he sings:  "I come from a little bitty, homegrown small town, Smoky Mountains, nice place to hang around...but I jumped on a greyhound bus one night and took it all the way to the end of the line..." I guess you can take the girl out of the beaches, but you can't take the beaches out of the girl...even when she has an awesome time playing in the mountains. 

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee