Thursday, August 22, 2013

Smokies Vacation

Wow. I can’t believe it’s been more than two weeks since I last posted here. Well, maybe I can. You know what they say about time when you’re having fun…

Let’s see, in the last couple of weeks, there were my birthday (and thanks to My Guy, it was more amazing than ever), the anniversary of the first time I set foot here (19 years! Which is special because this means I would’ve been in the States for as long as I’ve been in Malaysia), and the second of two anniversaries that I celebrate with My Guy every year. This one marks our eighth. And also our best one yet.

There was also a vacation somewhere in there because we wanted, no, needed, something to look forward to after a busy month in July, what with the various large projects we each had that mandated late nights and a mastery in juggling.

To pick a location, I googled, “closest mountains to Chicago” and as soon as we met our deadlines, we packed about 15 bags (because the girls had to have their pillow pets and blankets and sleeping buddies and snacks and entertainment...) that My Guy skillfully fit into the trunk of our SUV from years of playing Tetris, and took a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

So yes, we’ve been busy. And, man, what a trip.

On top of inhaling the beautiful scenery and exploring new and exciting things, we added so many firsts to our experience. Like having me drive on a road trip when My Guy, who loves to drive, did all of it before. We drove through Indiana, rested for a night in Kentucky so we could make a Bourbon stop at a renowned distillery (priorities!). It was also another first for us as we’ve both only recently acquired a taste for whiskey, although I was much slower to come around.

Barrel-aged bourbon. It smelled so good in here.

State Capitol Building of Kentucky in Frankfort.

But we also stopped at a candy factory so the girls could get something out of our quick side trip too, and finally snaked our way up a mountain chalet in Tennessee, with the city of Gatlinburg as our base.

There, we did a lot of this:

First hike.

And this:

Gnarly roots, on our way to Grotto Falls.

And this:

Pickle, at 26 months, managed to walk quite a bit on our hikes, completing the full 1.2-mile trip to Laurel Falls by herself. On the way back, however, she would usually nap in her carrier to recover.

And this:

We hiked a total of three waterfalls – Cataract, Grotto, and Laurel. This was Grotto, the only one in the Smokies that people could walk behind.

And this:

Laurel Falls. Yes, we’re waterfall junkies. But can you blame us?

And this:

Wading through cool mountain streams and collecting rocks.

And this:

One of many selfies.

Photobombed by a four-year-old!

However, even though the Smokies provided the nature we urbanites craved, the girls could only take so much hiking with their little legs. We mixed things up with a trip to this really impressive aquarium (Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, it was called, and yes, it’s by the same Believe It Or Not people, would you believe it?), where we walked in a tunnel as the fish (and sharks! rays! giant sea turtles! eels!) swam around and above us.

Did you know the Sawtooth here is not a shark but a ray?

The kids had a field day at the Penguin Playhouse that also had a see-through tunnel so kids could crawl through it while watching penguins swim around them and end up inside the penguin exhibit to be in the middle of the action!

I loved how interactive it was, as both girls got to touch rays and horseshoe crabs, and as with all-things Ripley, I learned, it was also a little cheesy, with a “mermaid show” that had women dressed like mermaids swimming with the fish and taking pictures with the kids. Four-year-old Little Miss was no less impressed even after she learned they weren’t real. (“Pickle, let’s go see the real mermaids,” “Err...they’re not real…” “Oh yeah, the real ones are in Disney.”)

We also went on an old-fashioned ski-lift that made my heart leap when I saw my feet dangling over the river with nothing but a steel bar across Little Miss and me to keep us from falling to our deaths. I was also afraid of seeing snakes below me, as reported by a reviewer on, which gave me a many sleepless hours, okay, maybe minutes, while I was there. Don’t ask; it’s silly, I know, but a phobia isn’t exactly rational behavior.

At the summit, we saw the city below and the mountains around us, which made the somewhat scary ride almost worth it. I’m also not a roller-coaster type, so yeah, going three miles an hour suspended on cables wasn’t exactly thrilling to me. In fact, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t afraid of heights before I was convinced that I could make it back down again, which we obviously did, safely. (And no snakes, yay!!!)

As if the ski lift wasn’t exciting enough, we saw two bears on separate occasions - one was rummaging through a neighbor’s garbage in the morning while we watched it from afar, nestled safely in our car. (See below.)

The other was a cub that caused a traffic jam on our way back from Cades Cove as it dined on leaves on top of a rather tall tree, oblivious to the ruckus it caused below. But that wasn’t even the highlight of our visit to the Cove.

Famous for its wildlife, people drove or biked Cades Cove’s 11-mile loop in the mountains to catch a glimpse of these animals in their natural habitat, but we also rode on a carriage through the woods (another first!), and ran through a mountain meadow, something I’ve been wanting to do since I’ve learned the word “meadow” in nursery rhymes before even entering kindergarten, over thirty years ago! Who knew? Firsts and bucket lists, all in one trip.

These excursions were a great diversion to our day-to-day here in Chicago. It’s the breath of fresh air we needed - literally, since the mountain air did feel better in my lungs - but because we never know how our kids would handle change, their reactions alone could make or break a vacation. Luckily for us, it was the former, as they both traveled well, with the occasional minor hiccups, thanks to their incredible coping skills.

On our first night away, in a hotel room with two full-sized beds in Kentucky at nearly 10pm, we were all preparing to shut down for the night after a long day of preparations for traveling and the drive itself, when I suggested, “Hey, Pickle, you get to sleep in a big bed with your sister tonight!” To which she simply responded, “No...I want to seep in my keeb (sleep in my crib).” It surprised us, as she was already sleeping in her sister’s twin-sized bed at naptime at home, but we didn’t push the issue.

She slept in the Pack ‘n Play we brought that night, and all the nights that followed, which I suspected gave her the comfort and security she needed for being in an unfamiliar place. At the chalet, the only time she had a difficult time settling in was the third and last night their schedule was in an upheaval, where they had a really late nap and were kept up two hours past their regular bedtime.

That evening, she cried inconsolably to sleep, and did it again at midnight, so I decided to lay next to her, which was something I hadn’t done since she was eight months old. Since then, she had always slept well by herself in her crib, and lately, her sister’s twin bed.

When I lay down beside her, she nuzzled up to me and fell asleep in 20 seconds, with her warm little hand on the side of my neck, which eventually found its way to my cheek. Unsurprisingly, my presence calmed her, and she slept quietly the rest of the night. It took me awhile to fall asleep, so enamored I was by this little girl who happily breathed in the air I breathed out. I held her hand in mine and my heart fluttered when the tip of my finger found the dimples in the dark. She’s still my baby…
In the morning, her smile was the first thing I saw, which was certainly one of the best things to wake up to.

In the eight days we were together, apart from the rough night with Pickle, the only meltdown that happened came at the end of our trip, on our 9.5-hour drive home, which became a nearly 12-hour affair with seven stops that included gas, bathroom, meal, and tire-the-kids-at-a-playground-in-Lexington-Kentucky breaks.

We were supposed to have another stopover in Kentucky, but as much as we enjoyed our time away from home, we couldn’t delay it another night. My Guy needed a break so he could dive back into work on Monday. And we were homesick.

So we braved that long drive home with the girls, who have never been on a drive that’s longer than five hours. Another first. Actually, that would make two: First long-ass drive. First time we’ve ever truncated a vacation.

Like I said, so many firsts.

But I suppose that’s typical of any vacation. Being away means learning to adapt to the new and foreign, and making deliberate choices outside of the old and familiar. Or hearing things you never thought you’d hear from your two-year-old: “I can see the sun shining. Also, I can see the mountains from my keeb!”

These mountains. This view. From her windows and the balcony of our chalet.


Or how about this spectacular sunrise?

It was an amazing vacation for so many reasons - the vistas, the nature, the serenity, the novelty, and the girls who did so very well despite everything that seemed alien to them.

My favorite part of the vacation - any vacation - is the learning. Of new places and its culture and history, of how much my children are capable of when they’re pushed outside their boundaries, of life outside the comforts of home, of our capacity to accept and grow with what we’ve absorbed in our travels. Of the fierce loyalty we have for our own hometown.

When we came home to the skyline of Chicago against the pink-orange sky of dusk, I was ready again for all that I love about my own home, in the city of my heart. We cut short our vacation just so we could take the Sunday to rest but instead, no more than 24 hours after being in the mountains, we’re back on the beach, in the water, after a jaunt to a neighborhood arts festival and a visit to our favorite breakfast place that wasn’t just another “pancake house”.

Fairy princess in progress.

They walked right in with their street clothes.

It’s like we couldn’t wait to get back to our lives again.

That, too, I suppose, is the mark of a good vacation. The best, really.

* * *

What was your favorite or most memorable vacation? Why?