Camping and hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains with our young children was absolutely amazing. Until it wasn’t.
After what turned out to be an eleven hour drive, we settled into Gatlinburg, Tennessee for our first real adventure as a foursome. Contrasting all information from just days before, we faced the challenge of heading east during a hurricane onslaught that wasn’t far away. Because of Hurricane William, there was an influx of visitors to the Tennessee area crowding the streets and hotels with unprecedented numbers. So, we had no other options but to stick with our original plan to sleep in tents with our six and seven-year-old, regardless of the fact that the temperature was now supposed to be thirty degrees lower with possible rain. Cozy. Thank goodness for thermal sleeping bags!
Before our night of thirty degree frost-covered noses, we had a couple hikes planned. After much deliberation, map checking, review reading, and park ranger conversing, we chose several hikes that were deemed “kid-friendly”. We drove to the trailhead, removed ourselves from the car, and readied for a two mile hike out to a waterfall. Turning, we took the first step just as the rain began to pour. But, we persevered. Our tough kids kept going. The trees sheltered us, but two miles began to feel like farther and the loose rocks, wet terrain and less than groomed trail began to seem decidedly unfriendly. This was confirmed when my husband had to stand in a foot of water while we passed one child from one side of a river to the other.
Oh, and that six inch log bridge over rushing water may not have been top on my list to cross with my little ones. Nonetheless, we kept moving. But, we were tired and those little six-year-old legs were starting to feel the burn. We rested on an outcropping of rock to fuel up on granola bars and water and the tears began to bubble over my daughter’s cheeks. “Mommy, I’m tired. I want to see the waterfall, but I’m tired.”
Here is where the first book proved our savior. We chose to hike the Smoky Mountains because we have a deep love for The Last of the Mohicans. It seemed appropriate since our daughter is named for Cora, Hawkeye’s strong-willed love in James Fenmore Cooper’s epic story.
So, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and started telling her the story of her namesake surrounded by the same trees and mountains in which the story is based. She loved it! We made it to falls, which was definitely worth the fight, and began our return to the car convinced there was no way we had only left four miles behind. After a quick GPS check, ten miles had registered both in number and our legs. But, we did it together and had a blast! Looking back, I wish now that this could have been our last hike of the trip.
Camping that night was one of our favorite moments. Waking up to the sun touching the tips of the mountains, highlighting the yellows and oranges of the season changing trees. Drinking hot chocolate while we purified water from the rushing river next to the campsite. Perfection.
But, all good things have to come to an end.
Our next challenge, and we knew it would be, was after we drove to the highest point in the park. We’d been told by a park ranger that from there, we could leave our car, grab our two forty-five pound packs, two kids with backpacks and head straight down one mile to our next campsite. OK, one mile straight down with heavy packs. It stinks, but we can do it. We anticipated steep, but kid-friendly kept this path an option. We departed from the car and the wind at the top of the mountain was fierce. My daughter, in fact, was moving slightly as it berated us. But the view was absolutely majestic.
We grabbed our packs and sought the trailhead to begin our descent and get out of the wind. Starting at 6,600 feet, we marched down the path, which absolutely was kid-friendly and made it down one mile without losing a smile. In my head, I was thinking, this is going to be less than lovely going straight back up in the morning, but no big deal, everyone made it down. Until I saw the trail marker.
Two more miles until our campsite.
This is when my husband and I began our influx of telepathic conversation. Looking at one another, exchanging expletive after expletive without sound, we prepared our kids for the plan. “Oh, it’s like walking to the Dairy Queen and back from our house. You can totally do this.” This forty-five pounds is getting heavy. It’s already 5:00. How will we put up the tents in the dark? We are so not having s’mores tonight. I hate this… “Let’s go!” Well, as soon as we started, this is where kid-friendly went right out of the atmosphere. The trail was about a foot and a half across with a steep drop straight down the side of the mountain. There were loose rocks, roots, mud, water. Everything to which you do not want to expose your young children. Oh, and did I mention how quickly the sun drops behind a mountain when descending 3,000 feet in a valley?
Darkness was very quickly approaching, one mile turned into two, and there was no end in sight. A campsite has to have enough space for flat ground to pitch a tent. Unless we were heading all the way to the bottom of the valley, there was no indication that we were nearing redemption. It was now dark. We’d been hiking for almost three hours. I was now carrying my daughter’s backpack, as well as the big guy on my back and the tears started spewing. Frankly, I was holding back my own. Stopping at the nearest switchback, telepathy began again and I told my husband I was scared. “Ok, I think it might be the smartest thing for us to just cut bait here and go back up. It doesn’t look like we are getting where we need to be.”
And the nightmare hit its peak.
My daughter was wailing. Absolutely terrified and exhausted. It was now pitch black. In the middle of a forest. On the side of a mountain with horrific terrain. My son was fighting back tears whispering to me that he was scared, afraid of the dark and worried we would be eaten by bears.
As parents, this moment was paralyzing. Our children were frightened; we had put them in this position. That realization pulled at my own hysterics. The possibility of them being hurt was all consuming, but we just tried to talk about the next step. We tried using logic to move them forward. We tried talking about getting back to the car. We tried. But, nothing was working and options were quickly dissipating, along with any semblance of light.
The only thing we had going for us was that we were incredibly loud and hopefully any animal would write us humans off as not worth the battle.
We fueled up on more granola bars, after not eating lunch or dinner and dreamt of juicy cheeseburgers and lemonade. After a new low when my daughter fell and hit her knee on a rock, my husband debated ditching his pack and picking her up. But, I took her hand and started another story. This is when books really did save my family. I began a story about Stands With A Fist and how she fought for her land and what she believed. All the while praying we wouldn’t be dancing with any wolves this night.
As we adjusted our headlamps, the kids quieted down and the 3,000 foot ascent began. Breathing like I was running a marathon, I continued my story and then my husband took over. The Swiss Family Robinson morphed into Pocahontas and we just put one foot in front of the other.
Then the magic happened. Someone may have been looking out for us that night, but no sound was sweeter than when my son began his retelling of Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, the story being read in his class.
We all began asking questions. Even sweeter, my daughter was asking them too. They were laughing and chatting, as if no darkness surrounded us, as if the bats were not flying overhead tracking our lights. It was as if we weren’t pulling heavy packs straight up a mountain holding the hands of our small children, praying that this nightmare would end. Then, my daughter started in on The Iron Giant. And the colors of his eyes and how he saved the planet became a literary miracle. When I saw that one mile marker, I had never felt such elation.
Finally, at the top, we took a moment to lament about the stars and how incredible our family was. If nothing else, we told our children that this is a moment in which they must always remember that they can do anything. We didn’t carry them up that mountain. We didn’t face their fears for them. They did it. And I have never been so proud. When we dropped those packs and entered our car. I told the kids to put their headphones on and have the treat of watching a movie. The moment their giggles ensued, my husband and I hugged each other and let the tears fall. I have never been so sure that had it not been for those books and our love of them, this adventure would have ended very differently.