I like to take my kids on vacation. There, I said it.
And I especially like to take them on adventures during my most favorite season of all – fall.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all fourteen thousand seasons we have here in Tennessee; you never get bored with a season when it changes all the time and each brings a host of different activities and myriad of things to enjoy. But there’s just something about fall that is bewitching to my soul. It stirs the Old World in me. I crave history, exploration, mysticism and Mellocreme pumpkins.
And for my favorite season, no matter how grown my kids are, for fall break we fall together, instead of fall apart.
Let’s face it, traveling is taxing and you almost need a vacation to recover from a vacation, especially when you’re traveling with your favorite monsters like I do.
Whether it be a destination-cation or a staycation, some of our most memorable ones have been themed. With the way my brain works, I get overwhelmed with the possibilities of all the things we can see and do when we travel and have a terrible fear of missing out. Having themed trips has allowed us to make plans for specific points of exploration and helped narrow down our activities. With a specified site list and activities, we accomplished the goal of the theme, my adventure card is satisfied and I don’t get overwhelmed or don’t overbook our days.
In 2017, my four Z’s were on fall break. Nobody could decide what we should do, but we wanted to do something. I didn’t want to waste any more of their break or the season. We were going to run away for a while.
I proposed a theme: a straight run through the Smoky Mountains from Sevierville, TN, to Cherokee, NC, for a three-day fall break elemental-themed trip.
So, by the seat of our britches, my Z-eople and I packed a few days’ worth of clothes and we took the Smokies by the elements – air, land, water and fire.
We arrived in Sevierville, TN, in the late afternoon, and caught a flight on scenic helicopter that took us up and around for the Foothills Tour just before sunset. It was the first helicopter ride for all of us. Even the Z’s with a slight fear of heights were surprised that the flight was more than tolerable and the bird’s-eye view was incredible. The leaves were changing and set ablaze with a magnificently deep red-orange as the sun was setting. The scenery was everything we hoped it would be and the adventure was worth every dollar.
Helicopters handle so much differently from airplanes. They are really smooth, respond so gently and offer such unique viewing. It was such an enjoyable and exceptional experience.
We followed up with dinner at the Pigeon Forge Hard Rock Café and goofing off in the parking lot. Yes, we are easily entertained. Yes, it’s all on video. Yes, we all got Hard Rock, Pigeon Forge, souvenirs.
We drove through Newfound Gap at the state line and into Cherokee, NC, under a meteor shower and booked a room. The next day, we went to the Smoky Mountain Gold and Ruby Mine to pan for jewels. Technically, we could have counted this as the land and water elements since it used both. But, we didn’t want to cheat ourselves out of an experience.
With handfuls of quartz and amethysts among other gems, we headed out to our next land-element destination, a horseback trail ride at Smokemont Riding Stables.
It was the last tour of the day and, though we had fun, the horses weren’t exactly cooperative. Z2’s horse didn’t want to walk and Z1’s horse tried to swipe her off on a tree in the river. It was a little scary to tell you the truth. As we neared the last leg of the trail, the horses took off like a shot because they wanted to go back to the barn.
That day we learned to always make horseback riding reservations early in the day after the horses had been properly rested and fed in the morning. They are much more agreeable. By the end of the day, the horses are exhausted and are harder to handle.
Still in Cherokee, I was concerned about how to incorporate the water element since it was not exactly swimming weather. We took a wrong turn and ended up on a small chip and seal residential road. Stopping to turn around, we saw an elk eating the cornstalks in someone’s yard. We took pictures, and when we turned out we happened upon Saunooke’s Water Grist Mill. We weren’t sure if we would have another opportunity and decided to make that part of our water element. After all, it had a working water wheel they actually used to stone grind cornmeal, flour, breading mixes and grits. Though it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, we figured it counted.
The inside of the mill was a general store with their milled products, locally made ones, funny toys, gifts and more. It was like a spectacular mom and pop’s version of Cracker Barrel. Z1 bought me a leather bracelet from their selection of Native American-styled jewelry. Among other things, we bought some old-time toys, corn meal and Indian fry bread mix.
Dark descended on the evening and we were off to figure out how we could complete the list with our final element.
As people were walking along Tsali Boulevard, the visiting the Qualla Arts and Crafts Co-Op, and open-air art market where artisan members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and co-op were selling their crafts and wares. We met Little Feather who translated names into Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary. With a rotary carving tool, he engraved the syllables into a pendant stone. He had to use water to quench the carving tool so as not to heat the stone as he worked. A form of fire, we considered, that could be part of our fire element since some of the stones smoked a bit under the friction of carving.
We each had one made, wearing them around our necks. As we gave Little Feather our names, we learned that some of the sounds made in the English language were not used in the Cherokee language and were not represented in the Cherokee syllabary. Being that our names are pretty unique, especially the Z’s, the artisan substituted sounds from the Cherokee syllabary as closely as he could.
As we walked back toward the car, only partially enthusiastic about somewhat accomplishing the element, we saw it – fire. People were gathered on benches situated around the roaring the Cherokee Bonfire with a storyteller passionately delivering a tale complete with drumming and music. Little did we know, every Friday and Saturday evening at the Oconaluftee Island Park in Cherokee, regional storytellers and performers tell traditional Cherokee history and folklore passed down from generation to generation.
We stopped to enjoy the story and music for a while, completely satisfied that our final element had actually been satisfied and we had completed our elemental mission.
As the storytelling came to a close, I heard the burbling babble of water.
Flowing nearby, the Oconaluftee River was the perfect opportunity to officially complete the water element with an actual body of water. We walked over to the river, giving the Z’s permission to take off their shoes and socks and dip their feet into the chilly water. They did, and I snapped photo-finish of our elemental Smoky Mountain adventure.
Having three Z-eople still living at home, this fall break we decided to actually take the break and fall together on a staycation. We all agreed to stay home and play the tourist to enjoy a few local activities.
On Monday, we decided to have a nice full day off with a lazy day of crafting and catching up; binge watching “Stranger Things,” knitting, sewing and drawing. On Tuesday, the girls and I hiked at Cumberland Mountain State Park. We worked a little longer on our craft projects but, inspired by the dark, we then took a midnight drive to Lilly Bluff Overlook to watch Draconid meteors blaze across the clear night sky. On Wednesday, my three Z’s and I had reservations at Wildwood Stables for the long trail ride. It had been a couple of years since we’d ridden there and the kids prioritized this as a must-do for fall break. For Thursday, I took the three Z’s to jail. (And the best mom award goes to …) We jotted over to Petros, TN, to have some supper at the Warden’s Table before taking the self-guided tour of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. We definitely plan to go back and take the guided and paranormal tours. On Friday, Z2 and Z4 had a big kid night while I took Z3 to Nashville to see the Sturniolo Triplets. While that wasn’t necessarily on the list of fall to-do’s, the tickets dropped on her birthday and that was what she wanted. Luckily, it just happened to be on fall break and we had the opportunity to have another little adventure.
Fall doesn’t end with Halloween for me. There are still so many fall things to do before winter hits. Besides, the first day of winter isn’t until the winter solstice on Dec. 21.
As for me and my house, we will fall as much as we can. We are so fortunate to have the beauty and grandeur of the mountains all around us. We never have to venture too far to enjoy the crisp air, changing leaves and fall activities. As with any adventure, whether you vacation or staycation, making memories big and small are what it’s all about.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how far you fall as long as you fall together and don’t fall apart.