Journey for Pure Life

That we may be overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of it all.

Category: Travel & Trips (page 1 of 2)

The pain love truth that is reunification

AT 3 (2)

There’s a sad face on the large family calendar on my dining room wall.  A sad face on the night that I typed these messages to my husband….

“I wrote that last night. That’s not what’s in my heart right now…now I just feel dark.”

“I didn’t know they would make it hurt like this.”

“I feel like dying.”

It was the day that we received a phone call, on a sunny afternoon as I rode shot gun down HWY 24 towards the middle school pickup line, all dressed up and lots of places to be.  The three children in our care were away for an extended visitation and we expected them back before the court date. But as we turned into the middle lane in front of the school that afternoon, pines and cars and lives began to blur all around me while I  listened to my husband’s end of the conversation.  I knew what he was being told.

They weren’t coming back.  The kids, they wouldn’t be coming back…to my home, my hugs, my dinner table, my love, my imperfect everything. Just like that. Just like that. They were gone. Anger and tears in all those public places that evening.

AT 11

I hadn’t said that kind of goodbye, I hadn’t explained anything to them, I hadn’t told them I’d always be right where I am and love them just like I do. My heart wasn’t prepared for what was done that day.

It wasn’t a literal death I felt. But that of a heart ripped out, a soul forever changed. Again. And worse this time.

Court was coming up. I knew, I certainly knew, that things would likely change after that court date. But I thought…I assumed…court orders were adhered to.  I thought, I assumed…I had one more night, at least. I thought, assumed, had faith and trust that they’d tell me what everyone else had discussed and already knew.  They didn’t.

AT 10

It wasn’t only these children that caused my pain, or this situation. I hurt for a future I’d envisioned for so very long, for partnerships I’d worked hard for and felt strongly about, for a system I’d trusted. For all the foster moms who’d given their whole heart…only to be tossed aside when they were no longer needed.

That afternoon I felt how the world had so often made me feel, from the time I was a young girl. When my performance was done, they were done. I wasn’t wanted anymore. And on that day, what I’d done,  it seemed like it hadn’t been enough after all…


AT 13

One week following that phone call, we left the courthouse with finality and I just wanted to be in a beautiful place, in a spot where the sun was shining and I could soak it all up. I wanted to celebrate instead of grieve. I wanted to feel something good. I wanted to be done with the sad.

We sat on the waterfront at a favorite downtown restaurant, a place that has stood since the 1930s and where I had one of my first jobs. Familiar faces, people who knew me to be good, who’s respect I had earned. A favorite meal, fishing boats coming in for the day, a brilliant blue sky.

I couldn’t go back to that empty house by myself that day, not yet, so I’d asked my husband to put off work for a little longer and lunch with me.

As we sat there, we made a list of all the things we could do now, now that we only had three children again….


…Puerto Rico…

…trade in the mom van…

…have lunch dates in the middle of the day…

Basically, do us again. The extravagant and the simple.

AT 2

I wanted to celebrate that day and in the days to come, and grieve no more.   Life, without my whole heart consent, had just changed again, and there was nothing I could do but

squint my eyes hard for the silver lining, love so much I could feel the ache in my chest and return to an us I hadn’t seen in awhile.

And a me. Because who was I now, anyway, without the six?  I never went anywhere without, “are they all yours?” to which I would stumble over an answer that I maybe never quite figured out. I wasn’t invited to family weddings because I had too many kids. Strangers thanked me for what I was doing, on the street, in the hair salon, to which I was shocked and surprised. Six billion people would probably do it better, but I’m what they’ve got. And I like to think all the aunts out there would give it their best effort as well.  But that identity had been a hard one.

That was probably the day that I started planning a section hike on the Appalachian Trail.  It wouldn’t have been possible before.

Now I’d do it, even if I had to do it alone.

AT 5

When the kids first left, the abrupt shock of the silence in my home (with my own now away at school during the day) was a bit traumatic. One day they were there, with all their needs and their noise and their snuggles…and then they weren’t.

I was left alone in a house that was empty. The empty, it was twofold. We could get back to the core family, the originals. I could get back to my home, all that had been neglected. To patience and time and lovies that wouldn’t be interrupted. But then, the empty came and overwhelmed me. I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t let my thoughts be free in that silence, couldn’t let my mind go to all the places it had gone a thousand times before…

“What if…?”

“How can they…?”

“This isn’t…”

“What will…”

“Who will they…”

“Why did they…why did they…why?”

Couldn’t do it, sit in that quiet with a mind that’s always turned on, not for that first week. And so, in my grief, while I packed up little belongings, took down a crib I couldn’t continue to look at fresh each morning and each night before I closed my eyes, ripped wallpaper down that I’d been wanting to for years…I did something else…

Spiritual or deep or philosophical or meaningful it wasn’t. But it’s what I did.

I binge-watched Friends in the background of all that grief and packing.

That’s right. All. Day. Long. My “friends” would see me through, with their witty banter and familiar voices. Rachel, Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Joey, Monica. And they did see me through. Almost to the final season.

AT 6

And after that week, when I’d retreated from most people and activities, after my tears and anger had presented in the initial shocking moments, after all the wallpaper was down and the 4T and 5T and size 8 clothes were packed up, after the Batman figures and books and Little People were placed carefully into boxes, God gifted me this one afternoon when I didn’t need Friends anymore. Out on my green lawn under another sky of blue, He gave me peace.

And after that, He gifted me with a friend to share the AT trek with.

Fifteen painful miles Amy and I hiked, with about 30 pounds on our backs, along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Starting at Carvers Gap in North Carolina’s Mitchell County, we hiked Jane Bald, Round Bald, Yellow Gap Mountain, Little Hump and Big Hump Mountain, before ending up on Highway 19 in Watauga County.  About six miles in we camped with other backpackers at Overmountain Shelter, sharing fireside laughs and stories.  We hung our hammocks in the trees and lay for hours, aching, under a bright harvest moon, Roaring Creek Valley below us, the high-pitched howling of coyotes making its way to us a few times through the cold night air. Sleep we did little of.

Somehow, despite the intense pains all over my body and the lack of sleep, I felt energized and amazing in a way I hadn’t in a long, long time. The deepest crevices of my soul knew that even though things were unpleasant, things were right.

AT 14

We talked for hours and hours and hours, Amy and I. On the ride up and back, on the trail, a distraction from everything that hurt so much worse than we’d anticipated.

I told her about the kids and what had happened. But only once and then we didn’t talk about it again.

I realized on that trail without it needing to be said…There are no perfect journeys. We all have a cross to bear, a healing to seek, a pain to endure.

Her toes, my knees.  Her childhood, my present. Hiker Joe’s shortened route, because the agony overwhelmed . Our altered end point, because we couldn’t bear to walk the same enchanting wretchedness twice.

Love, it’s the most painful journey of all, I think. When it’s done right and done for real. When it’s the hard days. When it’s letting go when you’re asked to. When it’s imperfect and holding on tight anyway. When it’s messing it up real good and having the courage to try again. When it’s foster care. When it’s loving yourself and those with big mama hearts enough to speak out. When it’s losing yourself for a season to fill up the spaces where a child was empty. When it’s doing what love asks of you, no matter what that is.  And I think, that it’s in that hurting kind of love where you’ll find your most exquisite self.

Three days ago a woman cried to me. She’d never been a mom. She longed to be a mom, even a temporary mom. Her hearts whispers to her of the children in need, of the safe haven she could be….but for the fear, and the fear of the pain, she hesitates. This is all I know…

Things will be hard. And we  may will be mistreated, forgotten about, left behind.

We can’t control it all, even some of the big things.

We can choose wisely when given the choice. We can let go and love through the hurt when we aren’t.

We can keep moving toward what’s good.

We can surround ourselves with those a bit ahead on the spiritual/life trail. They’ll hold us up when we’re weak, and some of the time, they won’t even realize they’re doing it.

Amy taught me, and the trail taught me those few days, that we press in hard, move forward, and we count it all joy that we can and we will. We laugh, make lovely whatever small space we’re given, let others in, sleep under the stars.

We stay the course, we love like we know how, how people need us to, even when it hurts like the dickens, even when it’s the most unfair, even when it all feels wrong. Because, the essence of what is real love asks us to. To suffer with those who suffer.

I’d do it again. A thousand times over.

Magic Upon the Rocks

Deep Creek, North Carolina.

It is THE quintessential experience of childhood and family camping.

Deep Creek 10

But when she first mentioned it, I was surprised my friend Lindsey would want to go again. She said she’d been several times over the past few years.

And when we first pulled up and I saw how close the tent pads were (me, who likes a good deal of quiet and space…if quiet and space is possible with six children), I was a little hesitant that this was the place for me (and all these loud children).

Deep Creek 1

After a day at Deep Creek the magic was obvious.

Most everyone I spoke to had begun visiting the creek in childhood…and they just never stopped. Years and years after that initial visit, they come, still, children and grandchildren in tow. They make friends-for-the-week with those at the nearby tent pad. They share their nieces, nephews and grandchildren, who run through the campground with our own to play manhunt through the darkening night sky….catch fireflies while trying not to squish them….take tube runs down the creek, olders helping the littles….and then they all run back for more, giant tubes slung across backs, coldest water in western North Carolina not so cold anymore…again and again and again. And then, all tired out, they share quiet moments by the fire making bracelets and s’mores. Camp friends that will always have a spot in their memories, moments they won’t soon forget, if ever.

Deep Creek 7

Deep Creek is located in western North Carolina’s Swain County, just inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via Bryson City. The community of Deep Creek is just a couple of miles outside the city. The creek itself is a tributary of the Tuckasegee River, which flows right through Bryson’s downtown area. Deep Creek runs north and practically all the way to Clingmans Dome at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. A Civil War battle was once fought on its banks, and included more Native Americans than most western NC battles of the war. Today, the creek is one of the most family-friendly spots in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s known for its fishing, hiking, picnicking, camping, waterfalls and, of course, tubing.

Deep Creek 8

But here’s my truth…

I’m smitten, so completely, with the community of Deep Creek and Bryson City. But the creek itself…it kind of terrifies me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a child laying unconscious before me and then airlifted by helicopter after a traumatic brain injury. Maybe it’s because I’ve been put in my place by little river rapids before.

I recently saw a short video that described the creek as a “lazy river.” And yes, perhaps that’s what everyone else sees. That is the opposite of what I see.

Deep Creek 14

Despite the huge smiles, the pure joy on their faces, when I, adventurous though I typically am, look at Deep Creek and watch my kids carry tubes higher and higher (ie. dangerous-er and dangerous-er) it’s all

rocks rocks rocks


rapids rapids rapids

and my blood pressure is rising and I’m thinking everyone should be wearing helmets for this, especially that one with the now long hair and sweet curls at the end.

And that caution at the bottom of the National Park Service website that clearly states that tubing is not recommended within the park because of water-related injuries…though, clearly, this is what people come here for, due to the numerous tube rental spots available just before the park entrance and the hundreds of tubes coming down the icy waters all day long…that warning is still flashing through my mind like it’s a tv screen with the tornado warning scrolling across the bottom and interrupting your regularly scheduled programming and it’s probably all over my face as I scramble to follow along the trail at the edge of the creek’s now-steep bank and and my eyes are scrambling to find my child and I’m trying to stay calm but inside I’m not at all and so I’m praying, pleading with God to keep them safe.

Deep Creek 9

So there’s me, doing that.

And then there’s my friend, Lindsey. My friend Lindsey who once lived in a tent for a summer while guiding rafting trips on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. My friend Lindsey who has the same last name as me, but who’s lived in Ecuador and whose husband is currently there leading adrenaline junkies over class V rapids and occasionally camping in the jungle. My friend Lindsey who knows three languages, one of them, American Sign Language, chosen for her when her oldest was born without hearing. Lindsey, whose two sons, at ages eight and ten, already know how to roll a kayak in case they are accidentally flipped while in rapids. Lindsey, who grew up looking at a river out her back door every morning, swimming in it most every evening. My friend who often goes without technology and doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Lindsey, who moves to her own beat, rolls with the punches of life with a peace that far surpasses my own, is always content and never, ever not. Mi amiga whose phone was dead for the entire duration of our trip and to whose mom I finally sent a Camp Robles photo just so she knew we were all okay. My friend who, while I’m frustrated with my six when the littlest won’t go to sleep and she’s running crazy all over our tent and I just want her to “go to sleep!” and I’m telling her so and I’ve lost my patience completely, hasn’t at all. Because when I step out of my seven-man tent and pass by Lindsey’s little one I hear that she’s sweetly, patiently, beautifully singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to her three and it’s just about the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard. And the most humbling.

Deep Creek 13

Deep Creek 16

I tried not to think about it, but court was approaching while we were camp-firing and “lazy-rivering” amidst the magic (and terror, but only to me) of Deep Creek. It would be kind of a big deal day for the kids in my kinship care. And for me. I couldn’t control it. Not really at all and not really sure that I would want to.

Deep Creek was there, just at that time, with all its risks and its rockiness and its slippery, steep creek banks, and with its new friends and fun-filled days that no one wanted to end…and with Lindsey and all her calm and her peace and her preparedness and her faith…and I just had to let them go. The kids with their blue tubes, the court outcome.

We prepared, we took it slow and small, learned from our mistakes and how to handle ourselves. But then we went higher, past the waterfall, to the place where the rocks became larger, the risk greater, the fall harder, the waters swifter.

And I let go.

And it was good. Really good.

Deep Creek 15

Deep Creek 11

Deep Creek 12

Now I see, why she wanted to come back here, why they all did…again and again. Because past that place of hesitancy, past that place of the unknown, the fear, the big and the scary, there was something so very special. So worth it.

Children had the time of their lives, but they also looked out for one another. Left no one behind. Helped out a cousin stuck on a rock. Coached a sibling on how to maneuver a rapid.

Built rock pools together. Learned to make doughboys and foil packets. Honed their fire-building skills. Endured the freezing cold waters and the long hikes up the steep hill. Laughed and played all the live-long day. Communicated in a bit of sign language, or as best they could. Slept one last tent night with a bit of rain dripping down on them because their moms thought rain tarps were unnecessary.

Families unified and crafted moments here. I had discovered that I wasn’t the only one bringing along children in kinship care or similar situations. Others knew this was the place…

The place where we see and learn and feel…without any words at all…that there’s a whole wide world just outside the tent flap, and though it may be scary at first, that world’s got so much more for us than what others may have chosen for us, back when we were too young and new to choose any of it for ourselves. And in that world there are people who do things differently, and those people can be good.

And maybe it’s a place where, though we can’t erase what was before and the ugly that continues and we can’t control the outcome, we can give them this, this gift, this summerbecause magic happens in a childhood summer…and maybe, we can dim those bad memories just the slightest. And all those in-between times can be filled with ones oh-so-good. Ones they’ll hold on to forever. And every once in a while they’ll peek in on that memory and remember, the world was on my side after all. Just maybe.

Winter Along the White Oak: Part I

White Oak 1

I had purposed in my mind to spend the winter outside, no matter how cold, gloomy, rainy, or dreary. There are, after all, excellent benefits to getting outside during the cold weather months. Continue reading

Misadventure on the White Oak

Old Bridge 2

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.”

I unpack my little bag and look down upon everything I was able to salvage, those things that seemed of so little value when I packed them. Those things that now seem miraculous to have made it out of the river today. A completely sopping black towel, an apple, granola bar and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie, my Audubon Society tree identification book, also waterlogged. The White Oak River Trail map I had picked up only moments before the accident at the campground, still attached to my daughter’s pink leopard print lunchbox where I had safely stored my new camera. And the two best things, my glasses, new and necessary at most all times now, which I was wearing at the time of the incident, and my tiny green journal with a sprig of a plant and the word “Inspire” etched on the front.  I took a deep breath of gratitude for these, at least.

Those items lost today…my flip flops and phone, I never even saw them go they were gone so fast. A towel. My oldest son’s green water bottle. I remember catching sight of that bright green in the river during my distress. A pocketknife my oldest had leant me. It had been sitting between my legs…in case I saw a bear. My kayak, my actual bleeping (feel free to insert any and all words, I certainly did that day…and if you know me, you’ve probably never or only rarely heard them out of my mouth) kayak. Not that it was gone, just stuck. With hundreds of pounds of rushing water holding it in a position it wasn’t likely to come out of anytime soon, especially with more rain on the forecast. And finally to my deepest sorrow, my new camera. My days old, very expensive, the one I had my heart set on, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas, the doesn’t have insurance on it yet, camera. I got it. And then I watched as the beautiful White Oak River submerged it in milliseconds.

Old Bridge 1

I had wanted to kayak the day before, and put in at White Oak River Campground and Lakes in Maysville (not to be mistaken with White Oak River Campground of Stella). I hadn’t kayaked that far up river yet and had put in at Dixon Field Landing the day before that, just a day or two after Christmas. I planned to take my youngest two with me. No big deal, the river was tame. They’ve come with me on different trips. But by the time we drove out there it was overcast, drizzling and the temperature had dropped significantly. So we headed back home, stopping to play in the woods for a bit at Dixon Field off of HWY 58 on the way.

I received a text from my husband the next morning:  “If you want to go kayaking today I can come home and watch the kids.” My weather app showed less than ideal conditions and shortly after his text it briefly showered at my house. If I was going to blaze a new trail I really wanted it to be beautiful outside while I was doing it. So I held off…until about 1 p.m., when I saw that it was windy but sunny and warm. So I talked my husband into dropping me off at the Maysville campground launch. (Normally, I make a round trip and drive myself back home, but this time I wanted to be able to explore further without turning.) I had a slight unexplainable funny feeling, but all my experience on the river thus far had been great and so I dismissed it.

I packed up a little backpack with essentials. I waved goodbye to my husband and littlest, who stood on the bank and watched me go. I snapped a few pictures of them as I went, to which my husband shouted, “You should be using your old camera out here!” I could tell he wasn’t happy but I smiled and lightheartedly called, “No way!”  I’d done this many times by now and knew there was no way my camera wasn’t safe with me. It’s not like I was rafting down the Colorado River, for goodness sake. The White Oak is more like a lazy river. And I thought so as I sat back, a smile on my face and in my heart, happy as a clam, and let the river slowly take me.

White Oak River Campground

As I drifted away from the campground I remembered the so-called “rapids” I had read about and seen photos of. From other’s recordings it was completely manageable. Plus, two days ago I passed the first people I ever had on the isolated river, three adults and a child, who told me they had put in at the very spot I just had and seemed to have been having the grandest time of their lives. So I knew what was coming and from what I had researched, it wasn’t dangerous.

White Oak 1

The narrow river wound behind a few houses before turning away from the highway and in towards the dense forest. The sights of civilization fell away as the trees and thick brush rose up on each side. I began to hear rushing water then. I did get a bit nervous, but reminded myself it was nothing. If the others had been fine, so would I also be. And I truly believed it.

An old steel bridge came into sight, small rapids, ripples really, below it. The bridge, the whole scene, was quaint. Sunny late December day, tall pines and bald cypress lining the cool black water between, wilderness so close to and yet untamed by the world around it, and then the old bridge. Abandoned and hidden, overgrowth cutting off any pathway that would have ever been on either side. It stood at the end of the enchanting tunnel I was in.  Obviously no longer in use I didn’t wonder too much about the small bridge until later, when I discovered it was probably built around the late 1800s as a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and is one of the few pieces still remaining. Today it stands alone and I doubt very little of the nearby residents even know of its existence, or remember it in its heyday.

Old Bridge 3

I took a quick photo, put my camera away and gently rolled over the first rapids. Ah, nice, I thought, as I smiled. At the end of that first set water came up and over the front of my skirt-less kayak, a little making its way into the front end where my bags were. My smile became a shaky one. A little close but ok, still manageable, I thought. Everything had to be fine, after all. It was then that I realized I was quickly heading directly toward a piling instead of in between them. As fast as I could move I attempted to right myself between them but was unsuccessful. I had no life jacket on.

“The ones who push the limits, discover the limits sometimes push back.”  Chasing Mavericks

I hit the concrete piling at an angle, more perpendicular to it than parallel. I used my oar to push off of the piling. The now rushing water proved stronger. A small amount of water came over the left side, reaching my bags. Problem. Bleep. Then I watched as, in what could only have been milliseconds, water rushed in, flooding every corner of my yellow kayak, capsizing it and dumping me out. It happened so fast that I don’t remember the actual moment of exit. But I too vividly recall watching with horror as hundreds of pounds of water pushed my kayak on its side, pinning it and me against the piling. In complete panic and desperation I gripped the kayak and grasped inside the black hole where I hoped my bags still were. I had no idea if they were but as the water roared around me I had to try to retrieve them. Unable to see, I plunged my hand inside, frantically swatting it from left to right and up and down, water fighting against me with each movement. My hand landed on something and I yanked it up on the piling. The blue and orange backpack that held my food. Bleep. NOT the camera bag. Not that there was any hope for it. I plunged my hand back into the darkness, deeper this time, grasping, grasping. Nothing. I couldn’t find it. Had it already been washed out? My eyes focused on nothing as my hand fought the loud, overpowering deep and dark water. And then, I pulled out that little pink bag that held my prized possession. I can’t recall getting on top of the piling but suddenly there I stood, panting, stricken with shock and horror at the sight before me, bleeping away. I should have felt cold but I felt nothing but survival adrenaline. I pulled off my glasses, covered in water droplets but thank goodness still on my head. After assessing my desperate situation, registering what could have been and what was quickly, I almost immediately began yelling. “Hello?! Help!” Over and over. Nothing. I put my glasses back on to inspect the shapes I saw beyond the steep bank on one side. Bleep. Not buildings, as I had thought. They were what looked to be those massive piles of dirt and rock, characteristic of the nearby and totally isolated quarries. I had come across another one just two days earlier, the first I’d ever seen.

Old Bridge 4

Shaking, I looked around. Below me, the river was roaring, rushing and apparently deep. My brightly-colored kayak was still pinned hard directly beneath me. Several attempts with all my muscle power to free it were in vain. It wasn’t coming out that way. I walked to the other end of the piling. The water was still rushing pretty decently on this end. There was no way I was hurling myself, without my stuff, back into that mess. I walked back to the kayak, noticed my hot pink jacket attached to the seat, which was submerged, and pulled with all my might until it was free. I paced the piling. I looked up river and down river and to each unreachable bank on my sides.  I had no idea what to do. My phone had apparently been washed down the river, and my husband was obliviously on his way back home at that moment. I was completely stuck.

My eyes fluttered up, to the steel above me. They quickly followed the length of the rectangular beams upward and over the thin x’s crossing them, up to the parallel rails above, one to two foot gaps in between, that led out to the riverbanks on each side where a jump (or something) would have to be made in order to get back on land. It became clear then that the only way out was to scale the old bridge, and hope that it didn’t crumble beneath me.

I put on my coat, packed everything left into the backpack and put it on my back. Not only did I have to do this thing, I had to do it sopping wet and with weight on my back. Still trembling, I attempted a few times before finally and miraculously finding my footing and balance on the maybe 3 inch wide flat beam that had a raised piece of metal along one edge, making it difficult to keep my foot on.  I gripped what metal I could with my hands while I made my way up the diagonal beam, and then shifted my weight as it ran higher in the opposite direction. At the top I hoisted myself up onto the metal rails. Shaky inhale. Shaky exhale. I was sitting 20 or so feet above the rapids and concrete pilings. If the rusty bridge didn’t decide today was the last day it would stand there was also the good chance of slipping between the rails, to the rapids below. But I had to do it. I moved towards the middle to lessen the risk of falling over the side. Carefully and incredibly quivery I made my way to the side of the riverbank with less overgrowth, the quarry side. I made it to the end and exhaled at being over land again, despite the fact that I was still a good distance above it. Jumping was not an option, I concluded. The land was at too steep an incline. I would only topple over and down with all my stuff. I had to scale my way back down the small beams. Wet beams, now that I was dripping all over it. After a few false starts I managed to half slide down those diagonal beams and step down onto blessed, glorious, beautiful dry land. Oh my heavens, I was going to make it after all.

Barefoot, I made my way through a couple yards of underbrush, thorns digging into my feet and tearing at my clothes the whole way. Just as I emerged my foot sank about six inches into what was not a sand pile as I had thought (was I thinking at that point or just moving?) but a massive ant hill, with red ants that began swarming my feet. I barely cared. I stepped out, wiped them off and kept going. Before me were towering sand and rock piles. There were a few scattered trailer buildings. I yelled, I knocked at the closest, but I was all alone. I made my way through the maze of quarry piles and rock beneath my feet. I could hear the highway then. Thank God. I wasn’t far from it and as I came to the highway I found there was a mini mart just beyond the quarry. I made a call to my husband (“You’re camera??”), the attendant running his eyes down to my wet, dirty bare feet as I spoke. I left his floor muddy as I mumbled an apology and sat down on a log by the highway, looking and feeling wretched as I laid out all the pieces of my Christmas gift in the sun to dry…

I had received this luxurious, soft, snow white robe for Christmas. I came home and changed out of my still-wet clothes, took a hot shower, put on new pajamas and that cozy robe. I stayed in it for the rest of the day.

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.” That was my husband. He barely spoke to me that evening, though he did spend a lot of time talking to the phone and camera companies. He spoke to me only to lecture me. About taking a new camera on the water, about not going out without a life jacket, no matter what. I didn’t blame him. And then: “I won’t bring it up to you again. I’m just glad you’re ok.” And he didn’t, as both of our shock and horror at the loss of my belongings turned to realization and horror at what could have been. But wasn’t. My legs were bruised from my ankle to my femur. I had cuts and sore spots and what looked like leprosy from those ants but I was ok. We were all ok.

I reluctantly went to bed that night, and prolonged the event. I wanted to stay asleep once I hit the bed. I was shaken up over what had happened and I knew all I would see that night was that horrible scene. And I did. I awoke over and over again, each time hearing the roar of the water, rushing all around me, filling my kayak, the forgotten bridge, no way out but up…and then seeing what could have happened…to me, to my children had we gone the day before like I planned….

The thing is, when we walk away from scary situations unscathed we do tend to focus on those valuables we may have lost in the midst of the great misadventure. But had I not walked away, no one would have cared about those items. A kayak and a camera. They’re just things. Just things. Nothing more. Not health, not a child, not a life. I may have pushed the limits, but I still have all of those things.

And those “what if” moments, they do happen, with no forewarning and in seconds. Things go from great to really bad, with everything on the line. Happy as a clam one moment, and then everything changes. Keeping it all in perspective. Just in case we forget how blessed we are.

White Oak 2

*Note: The river was several feet higher than normal the day I set out, creating a class one rapid, which I just happened to hit wrong. The people I had seen had been put in at the Quarry Lakes, a point past the old bridge because of the dangerous rapids. Campground staff just failed to tell me. I have learned to wear a life jacket always. My kayak has since disappeared and Canon was unable to fix my camera. Ah, such is life. It’s a good one.

A Day in Edenton

Please read the very first 100 NC Counties post for background info on our quest here.

We hadn’t planned on spending the day in Edenton. We drove two hours north of home to Bertie County to deal with some family matters, but literally the second we arrived plans shifted and we were left with nothing to do but turn around and head directly home. Um, no.

I began to rack my brain for what was in the area. At the time all I could see was corn field after corn field, with a tobacco field thrown in here and there. Then I remembered Edenton, rumored to be one of the South’s prettiest small towns and a place I couldn’t remember ever visiting. We headed about 15 more miles northeast into Chowan County, across the Chowan River and made a day of it.

Edenton 7

We started on the waterfront, at the Barker House. Built in 1782, it was owned by Penelope Barker, one of the 51 women who were a part of the Edenton Tea Party. The women didn’t dump any tea into the Albemarle Sound, but they did let the British know they would be having no more of their tea. It was a big deal for the little town.

The house is a welcome center and it was there that we picked up information on the trolley tour, the lighthouse and other activities.

It was also there that we saw our first mayflies. As the day progressed we saw hundreds of these bugs, maybe thousands. My little bug-lovers were captivated.

We headed to Colonial Park, steps from the Barker House, to burn off some energy. The park is waterfront and has showers and bathrooms for those who dock their boats in Edenton’s harbor. The gnats fly pretty thick here; bug spray will be premeditated next time!

Edenton 2

After leaving the park we did a little shopping on Broad Street. It was a hot day and we soon found ourselves inside an old-fashioned drug store that advertised ice cream and orangeades on their sidewalk sign. We’d never been inside one and I was fascinated. At the back of the small building was the pharmacy for prescription pick-up, at the front was an old-style soda fountain, and in the middle you could find everything from perfume to toilet paper to Little Golden Books. I was in The Andy Griffith show and loved it! Walgreens has nothing on a quaint, friendly, family-owned store.

We picked up a few things at a cute little children’s shop called The Silly Monkey before heading back towards the water for our trolley tour.

I was a little worried about how my nine, seven and three-year olds would do on the hour tour. The stars must have been aligned just right because we had no problems, even though it was mid-afternoon.

We saw the home of Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. We saw graveyards, each with interesting stories of their own. One had been moved, all the bodies dug up and carried to a new location, save three or four. One had people buried under the church and one on top of the other.

Edenton 5

We saw what was recently discovered to be the oldest house in the state, a tiny little thing near the old cotton mill village.

Edenton 4

We even saw one of the old Sears catalog houses. Ordered in 1900, it cost $400.

Our tour didn’t last the full hour and each of my kids left the trolley happy. Whew.

Edenton 1

We walked a short distance to the Roanoke River Lighthouse, originally built in 1886 and moved to its current location over Edenton Harbor in 2012. It is now the last standing original screwpile lighthouse left in North Carolina. For a small cost we toured inside, which had a parlor/living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and the actual lighthouse light, which was not available for viewing.

After our lighthouse tour we stopped at a few cannons placed along the waterfront for my youngest to see. He pretended to fire cannons at the enemy. It was after we left that I learned a civil war battle was fought precisely where he was firing. Hence, the cannons.

Edenton 6

We headed back to Bertie County, where we were staying for the night. We picked up some southern cooking at Heritage House in Windsor (“best place in town,” Grandaddy B told me) and took it back to a cottage on the Chowan River, a place where some of my most vivid childhood memories were made.

The cottage hadn’t changed one bit since I had been there many, many years ago. The kids got to see the place they had often heard about…the place where I would catch fireflies in a jar and sit them beside the little bed I slept in at night….the place where I would lay in the screened-in porch hammock for hours with a book…the place where I stepped into a wasp nest while exploring the hillside woods and then screamed my head off until Aunt B came out with tobacco from her cigarettes to put on my multiple stings…the place where I swam, at the very bottom of a steep, winding road, in the river with my sister and whatever other children were visiting the other cabins at the time…a happy place where there was always family and perfect pancakes on a griddle and sips of coffee and love. I just called it The River, and if I knew we were going then all was right in the world.

Edenton 8

And that’s how my children and I spent the evening, in The River. Clothes and all, because you can’t miss out on memories made just because you didn’t pack a bathing suit. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

The next day we spent a lovely morning eating blueberry pancakes and exploring forts and fields and attics with precious family that we see far too little of. Sometimes life requires that you surrender your plan, go with what’s in front of you, and let the blessings pour out.

Beauty for Ashes

Please read the very first 100 NC Counties post for background info on our quest here.

“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be  made stronger…”  Oceans, Hillsong United

Mountains 6

In July, my oldest set off for church camp in the mountains. Ma (my grandma), my two littles and I headed for Avery and Watauga Counties.

During our four-night stay: Continue reading

Haywood and Jackson Counties

#2 Haywood County and #3 Jackson County

Please read the very first 100 NC Counties post for background info on our quest here.

Carving 2

As I drove away from my house and headed west for our mini mountain vacation, I seriously thought, “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?” I was actually already exhausted from the full day of packing I had just spent. At one point my husband, who wasn’t joining us on the trip, said, “It’s going to take you all day to pack?” after I hesitated on something he asked me to do. Oh, if he only knew. Yes, it did indeed take the entire day! Plus, my littlest has been…well, a challenge…and we have mostly held off on traveling with him, or going to restaurants, or doing things in general.  At that point it crossed my mind that our trip may be more work than fun.

After I picked my grandma up on our way out of town I never thought that again, not even once. It turned out to be a busy trip, but an energizing busy. A new-discoveries-are-being-made-everyday-so-this-is-awesome kind of trip.

Creek 2

When I got the idea to visit North Carolina’s 100 counties I thought, “How am I ever going to do that? We never go to the mountains.” Barely any time after that thought the way was provided. I received a text from fellow homeschool mom, photographer, artist, Classical Conversations tutor, and friend, Rachel Howard, asking if I wanted to join them near Asheville at the end of May. I never say no to such a question if I can help it, so I was in.


We stayed in cabin #7 at Pride RV Resort in Waynesville, Haywood County. I expected bare bones. We had stayed in the Outer Banks before in cabins that were bare bones (no sink, no stove, certainly no bathroom), and also more expensive. This cabin was not that. It had a bathroom, kitchenette, even décor on the walls. Small but comfortable, with plenty of space for all the groceries I brought in. Well-worth the $65 a night. But better than the inside was the fishing pond just feet from our screened-in front porch. At 8 o’clock that first night I was out buying fishing poles because we hadn’t thought to bring ours and the kids were dying to fish. After that they spent hours at the pond’s edge, catching fish and throwing them back. And I spent about half that time untangling fishing line, and cutting it out of the nearby trees.

RV Pond 2

The Howards showed up after dark that first night. I parked my car in the middle of the gravel road and shone my headlights into their spot so they could see while they hooked up their RV for the very first time. As I sat there and watched (I could be no other help!) I only wished I could have been equally as large a blessing as Rachel and her family had been to me these last two years.

Creek 1

I remember the day I met Rachel. It was 2012 and it was both of our first year as a part of Classical Conversations (CC, a homeschool group and classical curriculum), and her first weeks as a resident of the Crystal Coast. She had just moved back from Japan. We were at a CC practicum and she was easy to talk to. She had two boys, and my oldest was sandwiched in between their ages. So we kept on talking.

RV Pond 4

Sometimes, without realizing it, people we believe to be in our lives for convenience’ sake, turn out to be there for so much more. I happen to speak the “words of affirmation” love language. (If you’re unfamiliar with those terms read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages.) I believe that if people are important to you, you should let them know. Life is too short to do otherwise. I know the Howards may not be people of mushy-gushy words, but they chose me as their friend, and I am.

RV Pond 3

I could not talk about Haywood County without them in it. In fact, we did less actual activities than I had intended in these two counties(I carry a three-ring binder packed with historical information and maps and places to visit, don’t you?), and more enjoying the people and surroundings. This was a goodbye trip, you see. The Howards had lived 10 or so minutes from us but it had been two years and now they had to move on. They were military, and orders had been sent. The Howards had bought an RV and were traveling across country to California, after which they would be LIVING in said RV for six months….or six to eight…now I hear it’s eight to ten. Apparently military time is a bit like Costa Rica time. After that, it was Japan again. Being a younger couple in our area, we are mistaken for a military family all the time. We aren’t, and we certainly aren’t accustomed to the goodbyes.

Soco Falls 2

What we did see of Haywood and Jackson counties was beautiful. We saw tree farms on the side of sloping mountains. Wood carvers in the midst of their work.  As we made our way along the winding mountain road between Maggie Valley and Cherokee on our way to Soco Falls we learned from my grandma how moonshine is made and what it’s made in, and then happened to come upon one such “still” (which I thought was “steel” because of her thick Greene County twang until I googled) in an adorable roadside store. Should you ever find yourself in this spot on HWY 19 and you see signs for Frog Jam and Moonshine Jelly, stop there. A cute little man may turn on Buck the Deer, which he fixed up himself, for the kids while you pick out fresh produce, jams and ciders, admire the hundreds of antiques lining every inch of the store’s walls, and find out where you may be able to pick up your own blue spruce.

Soco Falls 3

There were friendly people at every single place we stopped. Even my Ingles (pronounced Ingalls) grocery store clerks were smiling and laughing, in no hurry and chatting away. No one behind me seemed to mind. Are all mountain people really this nice or did we just catch everyone on a great day? Rachel Howard fit right in there for the entire 36 hours she was there.

Soco Falls 1

Over the past two years, Rachel had given me countless photography tips, sharing any and all of her knowledge with someone who bought a camera and a fancy lens with very little background info on what to do with them. I know this would have been a frustrating task to many other skilled photogs. She gave my oldest incredible art lessons which he LOVED and I can never thank her for enough, and that we may never find an equal to. She included me at times when I probably wouldn’t have typically been included. She was giving and unselfish and almost always up for whatever anyone suggested (my kinda gal!). Most importantly, she taught me about the kind of mom I want to be. The kind who teaches her children to be polite and respectful at all times, much like those amazing moms of decades past. The kind who teaches them to look people of all ages in the eye and communicate clearly to them. The kind who asks questions of her children and teaches them to be inquisitive, and who patiently and thoroughly gives or finds answers. The kind who realizes she has a small window of opportunity to instill some character and integrity into the world’s next generation. The kind who has her own dreams and desires, but knows that her first calling, in this moment, is mom. And she gives 100% everyday in order to live up to that calling. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, once said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” She does just that every single day. She is the kind of mom who has high standards for her children, and never lets the world shake those down.


So I’ll always remember Haywood County with them in it, and how they immediately made friends with the park owner and manager and exchanged email addresses with the retired couple in the RV next door after ONE night because they are just those type of people. They’re the kind who remember a name the first time it’s said, and your cat’s name even when you don’t. They’re the kind who stop what they’re doing to say hello when everyone else is too “busy” to acknowledge you. They’re Marys in a Martha world, if you will. They’re the kind of people I strive to be more like everyday.

I’ll always remember that I drove away from this mountain trip a tiny bit sad, but mostly inspired and with a full heart. Great beauty tends to do that to a soul.


Until we meet again,


100 NC Counties: The Quest

     A memory came to me recently of something I must have said over 20 years ago. I was a little girl, and one day I turned to someone I loved and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an explorer.”

“I think everything’s already been found,” he said, shutting me down right there. What he and I both failed to realize at the time is that those places and people that had already been discovered or “found,” hadn’t been explored by me.

A year or so ago I had been really praying about the direction God wanted me to take. I should be “doing” something “big” and “successful” with my life after all, right? It isn’t as often that I feel I hear from God now (who can hear anything with all these kids around all the time?) but I feel like I clearly heard Him say two things.

1. Focus in. Focus on my family, my children, my husband. Focus in. Not out at the world and things I think I should be doing to be “somebody.”

2. Enjoy. Enjoy the beauty of creation and all that has been given to me. God created this amazingly gorgeous world for us and so often I get distracted by what MAN has created that I forget to relax and take it all in and stop doing and simply enjoy it.

That memory came to me around the time of my 30th birthday, and it has helped me begin to understand myself and my tendencies, to know that they are deep-rooted, to peacefully know that God made me just as He did for some purpose that I usually don’t see, that He put some desires in me that haven’t changed for 20+ years.

I get excited by new and different things, people and places. I get bored with the familiar. I thrive in the sunshine and outdoors. I am passionate when learning new things and gaining new skills. I lack passion when I’m not. My decision to homeschool was made in a foreign country and with the motivation that we could go and come as we please. I live on whims and when I get an idea in my head there’s usually no stopping my determination until the thing gets done. I, of all people, know these traits can work in favor of good OR evil, and have done both countless times. But I am what God made me and if I let HIS creativity flow, there’s no limit to the beauty that will result.

There’s another “explorer” I know of, Chris Guillebeau, who wrote The Art of Non-Conformity, among other things. I read his book and then watched through his blog as he completed his goal of visiting EVERY country in the world. All 193 of them! Of course I thought, “I am totally doing that!” But then I remembered my three kids…and our local business…so, scratch that. Besides, that was HIS thing. But the inspiration stuck.

Then, last summer we visited some friends in Florida. While it was lovely to see them it was a long and hard trip with three children, one of whom still wasn’t (and still isn’t!!) sleeping through the night, by myself. After some challenges on the long drive back home to NC, I had never been so happy to see Carolina pines in all my life. I had always wanted to drive AWAY from my home state, never towards. But God had been working behind the scenes to give me fresh eyes with which to see my home. Furthermore, over the past year I had been digging into my family history only to find some rich and affirming information about my family line and where they all came from…and where I come from. It may have taken 30 years but suddenly NC had captured my heart in a way it never had.

With American history coming up on the homeschool agenda for the 2014-2015 Classical Conversations year, I realized what my new practical, completely attainable goal for my family would be (that’s another thing, I like to have a goal and a vision at all times!):

     We will visit all 100 counties of North Carolina!

Obviously, we have already been to many. We will start at the beginning, with fresh eyes, and a focus on history, culture and recreation as much as possible, and thoroughly enjoy all that our state has to offer to us as locals, as visitors and as homeschoolers. We won’t be thorough, of course, but will highlight what is special for our family during a particular visit. Tag along if you like, and please, throw out suggestions if you have stops in mind that absolutely shouldn’t be missed!

Keep reading to hear about COUNTY #1: Swain County, and our new favorite NC spot within it.

The town of Cherokee is technically located in both Swain and Jackson counties, as is the reservation. For my purposes, this post will only be on Swain County.

Indian Dance in Cherokee

Cherokee was a hopping little town while we were there during Memorial Day weekend. We saw Native American dances, we danced Native American dances. We met a guy in the KNIVES and LEATHER store that Carver had to go in who showed us an old New Testament written entirely in the Cherokee language. He taught us how to say Cherokee in the native language. I assumed he was a native but, “no, I just have a deep appreciation.”

Gem Mining

We went gem mining on the main strip in Cherokee, and it proved quite educational and informative. The kids spent hours in creeks afterward looking for similar stones and gems. Carver came home and, at the suggestion of some other homeschool moms, immediately made himself an organized rock collection in a tackle box. Rock-savvy I am not, but we are learning.

Mingo Falls

From the town center we then headed 10 or 15 minutes northwest to Mingo Falls. At 120 feet tall, I gasped when I saw it. Located at the end of a dirt road and up a steep staircase/trail, it was my first waterfall. Ever. And it was perfect. Absolutely stunning and, as everyone on the way up told us, “worth the climb!” I think even my grandma, who had to stop and rest a few times, would probably agree. There’s a fun little trail off the main trail. It’s a bit sketchy and I ended up scaling the space between a mountain rock and a tree to reach the top because we thought the kids had gone through there. They hadn’t gone through there. They were waiting patiently on level ground at the bottom. Of course.

I hadn’t thought to change my lens at the bottom, so I couldn’t even attempt to capture its entirety in a frame. Unless I climbed back down and back up again with two kids and a toddler, which I wasn’t. Just go there if you ever have the chance. Go there first.

And then, we came to the best place of all. The simple flyer had said “Trout Farm, No License, No Limit.” It sounded great for us beginners but I hesitated a little because I wasn’t sure of the quality of the place. Located down a looooooooooong dirt mountain road just outside of Bryson City, you are met at its entrance with quaint cabins on a large property with a well-stocked rainbow trout pond. When we came through to the farm it was even more glorious because we had just come back DOWN the mountain after taking a wrong turn. The signs said all the way in, “Stay to the right” and “follow the creek.” Well, eventually the brush gets so thick you can’t see the creek. Long story short, I took a left when I should have STAYED BY THE FRICKIN’ CREEK and was in full panic mode trying to get my minivan up steep, pot-holed, Costa Rica-like (I was having flashbacks) mountain roads. I can barely breathe just writing about it. So, today’s lesson should you ever visit Cooper Creek Trout Farm, never go even slightly left!

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 1

The staff were super helpful, on the phone as I was freaking out, and when we arrived. They helped the kids fish every step of the way. I was able to take pictures and take care of my littlest one. They had everything we needed, fishing poles, bait (worms), everything. $2.00 per person to fish, $4.50 per pound, you must keep what you catch (rainbow trout don’t have scales as other fish do and will die after handled), $1.00 extra for cleaning. I realized quickly that we could easily have spent several hundred dollars that afternoon. Fish were on the hook almost as soon as the line was cast. The kids were ecstatic. (I had to get a fishing license almost as soon as we got back home.)

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 2

The owner spoke with me for a few minutes as I was admiring the farmhouse on the property. Built in the 1860s, he is doing the necessary upgrades to make sure it and its original stone chimney (unseen in the photo below) remains standing.

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 4

There is also about a 1.5 mile trail leading to falls on this property. We weren’t able to get to it this time, but hopefully on our next trip. We’ll have to start training grandma now.

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 3

We were even able to see fish eggs as the trout were being cleaned. Yum.

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 8

When I asked the kids what their favorite part of our trip was, Cooper Creek Trout Farm was their answer. The property was beautiful and the staff were awesome. They were friendly, helpful, and they made it possible for my 6 and 8-year-olds to bring home dinner that night, and for many nights in the future. We will certainly stop in again.

I called my husband at one point, who was surfing in Hatteras while we were fishing in the mountains. “I feel like I’ve had a mini-vacation in another country,” he said, refreshed and stoked on his trip. I felt exactly the same way. North Carolina, you are pretty good to us after all.

Cooper Creek Trout Farm 5

Thanks for reading and please share your favorite NC spots with us!


Sunday at the Shore



I adore a day when no one has to be anywhere and we can stay in our jammies with messy hair all day long if we want to. I mean I really, really do. Don’t you? After a couple hours of waking up slow and lounging around I decided to take the kids for a walk down to the water. It felt so amazing out that we decided to pass the first water access and head to the second. Mama needed some calorie burn, anyway.



This super quiet spot at the end of our neighborhood is the perfect place to unwind, explore and enjoy a little sunshine after a busy week of lessons, extracurriculars, and mounting exhaustion from too little sleep. Seriously, I need my 8+ hours.



Rief took a lovely little nap while Carver and Emma searched for any critters they could find.



Emma built a clam shell creation on our small piece of shore, which she called her clam shell “firework.”



Carver found some live creatures of some sort that he said we could take home and eat. Luckily, we left them on the dock.



The kids found about one thousand hermit crabs and snails, and showed me every single one.




From where we were standing we could see Jones Island, a small island in the middle of the White Oak River used occasionally for research and preservation activities. I decided then and there that Carver and I would kayak over this coming week and do our schoolwork there…until I remembered that I have a two-month old. Dang.

Ah well, we may just have to spend every Sunday at the shore.


A Week-Long Quest to Find Local Fun For Free! (or almost): Day 2

Day Two:  Fort Macon


Fort Macon, which took 9.2 million bricks and eight years to construct, was used to fight against pirate attacks, during the Civil War and World War II, as a prison, and is now a state park located at the eastern tip of Bogue Banks.


I happen to love historical houses and buildings, so to walk across hundreds of years old pine wood and through original archways and thick wooden doors gets me excited. You would think that maybe the kids wouldn’t be quite as excited. Yet, they were! Really! They loved exploring the little nooks and crannies of the fort, some of them super creepy. They loved climbing in one former cannon hole and out another. They loved looking out from the very top of the fort, to where they could see Beaufort Inlet, the ocean, and Shackleford Banks, where their daddy was surfing at that very moment. They especially loved the cannons, climbing on them and pretending they were firing red hot cannonballs at enemy ships.


There are tours held at 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. We did listen in on about the first ten minutes of a tour, until the kids were ready to explore themselves. I listened intently while I could, knowing I would later hear questions about the very same information we were being given. Now I was able to tell them that, no, those aren’t doggie doors but wicket doors. They were the only way a soldier could get out of the fort at night once the heavy wooden ones were locked with an enormous key. And no, those aren’t tiny windows but holes where soldiers would stick out their muskets and fire against the enemy. Carver loves anything to do with guns and weapons. (Is this all boys?)


There is now a visitor’s center at the fort, including a small museum area and gift shop. There is no cost to visit the fort, and there are even frequent musket demonstrations, cannon firings and ranger-led hikes.


Just up the road is a huge beach access, bath house and picnic tables. We brought our packed lunches to the tables before heading the half hour back home.


As a kid I had visited the Fort plenty of times, but certainly hadn’t been in years. I felt just a tad touristy, and yet my heart is happy when my kids give me the chance to experience something like it’s the first time. These days my body basically feels like it would like to stay on the couch and do nothing, but their fresh excitement and constant joy makes any effort I give so worth it. No couch-lying can can give me what they do in those moments.

For information on this and other parks, please visit



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