Saturday, January 13, 2018

Great Smoky Mountains

Next up on our North Carolina adventure was a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It is said to be the most visited park, though we are not sure how they can really know.  You can simply drive through without paying admission or anything, so the statistics might be a bit off.  Nevertheless, we were excited to check out the wonders that it had to offer.

One of our first stops was Klingman's Dome, which demonstrates one of the bittersweet aspects of a place like this.  It is all about accessibility.  The trail to the scenic viewpoint is essentially a paved road that leads from a crowded parking lot to a concrete viewing area.  There are quite a few people and it isn't the most organically natural settings - but the view is still very cool.

When you are at the top of the dome you are at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.  You are also right along the Appalachian Trail, so even as you walk alongside your average tourist you also encounter the folks who are airing their feet and taking a break from doing some real hiking.  And while we are closer to your average tourist, we have hopes of trending more towards the real hikers as the years go by.

We could have stopped at a number of places to take a picture like this.  Overall, we were quite taken by the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.  All National Parks have a certain je ne sais quoi, and for the Smokies it is the layered mountain view that seems to go on forever.  We definitely want to come back in the fall and check out more of the park when the leaves are changing color.

Our hiking in this park centered around waterfalls.  It seemed as if every place we turned there was another cascading stream of water at along the trail.  We were not staying in the park, but nearby, so the trail heads were not out our front door, but we made a point of getting as much as we could out of the experience.

Cherokee, North Carolina was located between where we stayed and the entrance to the park, so we spent some time there as well.  At Oconaluftee Park Callie and Reese decided to wade out into the Old River.  The water was cold, and as Reese found out, the current was pretty strong.  She slipped on a rock, fell into the water, and had a tough time getting back up.  Once she got over the initial fright however, she was happy as a clam and wet as a fish.

Right by one of the visitor centers is the Mountain Farm Museum, and we spent some time there learning about the farm and even feeding the smelly, smelly pigs and the noisy chickens.  But we also got the very cool experience of seeing numerous elk, who at one point had to be scared off by the ranger because they were getting too close.  If you look closely at this picture you can see one of the elk in the middle of the girls' heart in the distance.

Bryson City is a neat little town close to Cherokee that relies quite a bit on the folks coming to visit the park.  We had a great time in Bryson City, and especially loved our lunch at a place called the Filling Station.  The dinner we had at the Nantahala Brewery was quite tasty as well.  Bryson City is one of the reasons why we think the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains is the place to be.

Another great reason to go to the North Carolina side is the Deep Creek campground area.  We did not camp there, but we found one of the great reasons to check it out.  We first went there to hike, but quickly noticed how much fun people were having tubing on the creek.  We had a number of places we could rent tubes, and so off we went.  We had the tubes and now just needed to hike up to a good launch point.

The girls were excited, especially since with their newly acquired tubing experience they were confident in their ability to tackle the faster moving waters.  Fortunately for us, that excitement also meant that they were willing to carry their tubes as far as necessary.

Against John's better judgement, Sarah insisted on taking his cell phone on the water to capture the special moments.  And if only because of this picture, John is very happy she did so.  This picture represents all that we hope for when we take these family trips.


The impending renovations to our house kept our summer travel plans relatively local.  The renovation plans also led to other changes in our travel plans, but that's a story for another post.  In any case, we headed down to Asheville, North Carolina in mid-June to see what all the hype has been about.  We are happy to report that you should believe the hype.  We got acquainted with the city the best way we know how, through a hop on, hop off tour company.

Downtown Asheville has a lot going for it.  In this particular case it was a coffee shop located inside of an old double decker bus.  It wasn't easy for John to stand up, but it was a really fun place to sit and hang out for a little while.  Callie's smile says it all.

When exploring any good city there is a lot of walking involved.  For the most part the girls walked without complaint, especially when we used the reliable carrots of ice cream and candy shops that were conveniently located throughout downtown.  Whenever we travel John has to keep his eyes out for people we might know.  It doesn't matter where we are or how big the population is.  As usual, his instincts were on target because within six hours of being in Asheville we ran into Mrs. Gilpin, the girls' art teacher, and her family on the street.  It is a small world!

One of our adventures took us to the neighborhood of West Asheville for dinner.  And as we waited for our table we conveniently found ourselves next to a party at a gas station.  There was a full band and something we have never seen before at a gas station, a brew pub!  Yes, taps serving local favorites in a gas station.

We often see bumper stickers saying, "Keep Asheville Weird".  Do you think this is what they meant?

Our trip happened to fall over the weekend of Father's Day, but the girls were ready to help John celebrate in style at our very nice Airbnb.  They had written a very sweet message on the white board and prepared to make a great day of it.

Not too far from Asheville is a state park called Chimney Rock.  It had some great trails, most of them leading to the vista at the top of the rock itself.  We had a beautiful day so our view stretched for miles, as Callie demonstrates here.  Our family certainly enjoys being silly even as we take in the wonders of nature around us.

Speaking of being silly, we saw Exclamation Point as an opportunity for an impromptu game of charades featuring the tallest and shortest members of our family.

And the silliness just would not end.  Maybe the thin air had something to do with it, but when we can catch Callie on a silly day, we take full advantage of it.  Her father is generally more than willing to be ridiculous on any day of the week, especially if it includes looking goofy in public places.

One of the hikes at Chimney Rock led to a very cool waterfall with a natural swimming hole at its base.  It was a great spot to cool off on a hot day and it also gave us an opportunity to get a full family picture.  You might be able to notice Reese's loose tooth in this picture.  It was a top one, and it had migrated to the center of her mouth and was dangling in a manner that was both creepy and gross.  But she refused to let her mother pull it out.

What's better than a coffee shop in a double decker bus?  How about a brew pub in a train car?  The Whistle Hop Brewing Company provided us with a good rest stop on the way home from Chimney Rock and we enjoyed a beer while the girls had a tasty cream soda.  Everyone won.

In researching things to do in Asheville, we saw a few posts about float trips on the French Broad River.  Although the weather wasn't perfect we decided to give it a go and it was a fun experience.  The river moved slow, so Captain Caution did not have to go until full safety mode.  All four tubes were connected and we had a great afternoon on the river.

We have many reasons to return to Asheville, but a big one is definitely the Grove Park Inn, which we had heard a little about prior to our trip.  It is an incredible piece of architecture with beautiful views and we have every intention of having an adults only weekend there in the not too distant future.

Reese at the Fire Station

Sometimes when your sister has a soccer game, you have to go and watch.  Other times, when she is playing in a tournament in Elizabethtown, you get to have your own fun experience.  In this case, Reese got to go with the Johnsons to visit their dad Seth at his fire station in Georgetown.  And of course when your dad is not just a fireman, but the captain of his own truck, you get some special treatment.

Reese soaked up being part of the Johnson crew that day and we had to stop ourselves from sharing all of the pictures.  But we figured this one captured her trip quite well.  She is getting bigger but still has a way to go before she can take on all that being a firefighter requires.

Music and Arts Camp

If it's June, it means time for Music and Arts Camp.  This was Callie's seventh year participating, and the second year that the Gipe sisters have joined in the fun.  It is a full week experience in and out of camp for the four kids and their respective parents and grandparents.  The girls love it and so do we.

Because the Music and Arts Camp themes are on a six-year rotation, this is the second time Callie has done "It's Good", which is all about the story of the Creation.  The camp always brings a ton of kids and parents together for the week and the girls love it.  And it's fun to see how Callie is part of the older crew now and Reese is working her way up through the ranks.

Reese even got a stand out part this year.  If you look closely at the picture you can see her as a pretty blue flower.  Callie enjoys the singing but is more than happy to take on roles like narrator or other background contributions.  Either way, it was another great year for the camp and the girls had a fantastic week with Libby and Lucy.

Visiting the National Park in Our Backyard

We love National Parks, and can't be more embarrassed that it has taken us ten years to visit the one that is only a couple of hours away.  Just a short drive from Lexington is Mammoth Cave National Park.  For a number of reasons, this year seemed just right for us to correct that shortcoming and visit the depths of western Kentucky.

In our research prep for our visit, we were delighted to find that they had cabins on site that could accommodate the four of us.  These cabins were not only clean and spacious, but also affordable and perfectly located for our trip.  We just had to walk two hundred yards to the Visitor's Center or to a trail head.
Our preparation also provided us the foresight that we needed to book specific cave tours each day that we were there.  Because of the age of the girls and because this was our first visit, we made a point of booking tours that highlighted all parts of the cave and weren't too lengthy.  That being said, our first tour lasted three hours and the other two were about two to two and a half hours.  And the girls loved it!

Although we took a lot of pictures, it was hard to truly capture how incredible and vast the caves are.  This particular picture came from our Domes and Drips tour, where we saw some amazing formations that have developed over thousands of years.

Any good park visitor knows to take advantage of their junior ranger programs.  The girls completed the tasks for Mammoth Cave pretty quickly, and so they go to take the oath on our second day.  We love the rangers and all the programming they put on.  Every night we attended the ranger talk at the park amphitheater, which meant we learned about Floyd Collins (a famous cave explorer), Caves around the World, and Tuberculosis.  Needless to say, the girls enjoyed all, but found the tuberculosis presentation a bit long and over their heads.

This picture gives some perspective on what it is like heading down into the caves, and often that is what people focus on.  But what is even more amazing is what the world looks like when you come out of the caves.  On our very first tour we spent three hours underground with only kerosene lamps lighting our way.  When we exited the cave we were overwhelmed with color.  The trees were incredibly green and the sky was a stunning blue.  So very cool.

On our very last guided tour of the trip we had the great fortune to be with Jerry Bransford, who is a fifth generation guide at Mammoth Cave.  He is an incredible individual who led a wonderful tour.  All the rangers who led the tours were phenomenal, however, the personal connection he brought to the whole experience was special.  Plus, he had served in the army so he was an expert in crowd control and kept us all on the straight and narrow.  It was helpful as we made our way through Fat Man's Misery and Tall Man's Agony.

Just because the caves are spectacular does not mean that they are the only game in town, however.  The park has quite a few trails above ground as well, and we made a point of going on a few hikes when we weren't hundreds of feet under ground.

Each time we visit a park we are reminded how much the girls enjoy being in nature and we are reminded that we need to do it more often.  They loved learning about the caves and exploring on their own.  It was another great national park experience.

But this trip will also be remembered for a few other moments.  One, a national park with an ice cream shop is always great and we took advantage of it.  Two, the bridge leading to this cream shop was the only location where John could get good cell reception, which was crucial because he unfortunately spent a couple of hours on the phone talking about insurance.  It just so happened that we were in the final phases of preparation for the renovation of our house, and John was negotiating the world of home owner's and liability insurance.  Ultimately, he was able to get what we needed and still enjoy the adventure.

Spring Updates

Since first grade Callie has participated in chorus, which is an extracurricular offered at Cassidy that leads to a spring concert.  This year, however, the chorus teacher took it up a notch and put together an entire musical. Callie surprised us when she said she was trying out for a solo in the production of Cinderella.  She did not get the solo, but she did get to be a town cryer.

One of the benefits for Callie was getting to spend more time with several good friends, including Holland, who is pictured here.  These two in particular enjoyed the idea of getting to wear makeup for their respective roles.

Now we were thinking what you were probably thinking - an elementary school musical production of Cinderella is a recipe that only parents can enjoy.  However, we are happy to report that it was a fun 45-minute production filled with great choreography, solid vocals, and lots of great humor.  It involved a lot of kids and they all had a great time.  Kudos to Miss Stringer for putting it all together!

With no snow days, the end of kindergarten came quickly for Reese.  It was exciting to be done with her first year at Cassidy, but it also meant that she was ending her time with Miss Willis and Miss Shambu, who had become two of her favorite people in the whole world.  We could not have asked for a better entry experience for Reese.  Callie, meanwhile, loved her teacher Ms. Jeter, but had no interest in an end of the year picture.

With the kids out of school, we decided to take a parent-only trip to Chicago while the girls stayed in Lexington with Nana Banana and Sport, who were excited to get some one on one time with Callie and Reese.  They had a great weather weekend which meant they were able to get outside.

Sport put the basketball Reese got from the Easter bunny to good use and started to work on the girls' jump shots.  Their work began to pay off and the picture of Callie above shows some pretty good form.  We may need to get them involved in a basketball league....

As an eighth grader in our church, Ella Abraham went through the confirmation process this spring.  She had to pick an adult mentor, and John was honored to serve in that role.  Their joint experience led to many giggles, including one Sunday when the two of them had to give the blessing of baptism to all the congregants as they came forward.  It is hard to describe, but picture a bowl of water, a small frond, and Ella trying to be serious while telling each church member to remember their baptism and be glad.  You can ask either of them about the tribulations involved with the process, but at least John managed to avoid getting his frond caught in someone's hair.

Finally, we end this post with a picture capturing Mother's Day brunch.  No one meal can truly honor Sarah for all that she does for the girls, but it is a start.  Callie and Reese are luckier than they know, and this picture says it all.

Soccer in the Spring

To our own delight, Callie and Reese both still have a big interest in soccer.  That means once the season begins we spend a lot of time at practice or games, and driving to practice and games.  This particular picture, however, is included, however, because we think Reese looks a lot like John when he was little.

The spring season marked Reese's second with the Sharks, and the sixth season overall for this uniform in the Bowes family.  She is still one of the smaller kids on the field, but she is mighty.  It is fun watching her play.  There is no doubt that she has the competitive hunger.

The Sharks were quite a crew this season.  Overall there were not too many problems with girls who didn't want to play, but Reese was always ready to go back in the game when such issues arose.  We can't wait to see what the next season brings.
Somehow we did not manage to get a team picture of the Infernos in the spring, but we did get this great picture of Callie about to strike the ball.  She is developing into a very strong player, and her left foot in particular is a very effective weapon on the field.  Just as important she loved playing with the group of girls on the Infernos and they had a very good season.  But this also marked the end of Callie's time in the U10 league.  Because of her birth year she will now move up into the U12 division, which should be interesting.