In June, I was scheduled to go tent camping in the mountains of Tennessee with my three children. We were to spend two nights at Elkmont for the annual synchronous fireflies and stop at Cades Cove for a night on the way.
I had just had six children in my home from Friday to Sunday. I loved every second of it, but my grand plan for Monday was to rest. Eat good food that someone else prepared nice and slow, maybe even watch The Help. Actually sit on my new couch, possibly even for an hour at a time. Monday was looking good.
But then I got to to thinking…three nights in the mountains after driving nine hours to get there isn’t enough. “Ooooh, maybe I can leave early and stay in Asheville for a night! Ooooh, I love Asheville, though I’ve never been there. That’s it, I’ll leave early and finally see this funky, eco-friendly, hipster mountain town.” And just like that, my lazy Sunday evening turned into a whirlwind of packing for my first actual tent camping trip alone with my kids.
We drove to Asheville, camped at woodsy Lake Powhatan, named for Pocahontas’ father. The campsite we had here was probably one of my favorites of all time. It was tucked up into the trees on a large elevated camp pad. Once we climbed its wooden stairs to the pad we were mostly secluded from other campers. The kids played hide and seek in our own private forest area before we settled down to a hot dog dinner cooked by my ten-year-old. Before leaving, we swam in the campground lake, explored a little of downtown Asheville and ate breakfast at Tupelo Honey, where there was already at line when they opened at 9 am on a Tuesday and the biscuits and jam were the best I have ever tasted in my life and the grit bowl with avocado on top that I got was so amazing and the service was so good that my eight-year-old commented on it. I can’t wait to go back. Then we headed west. To Cades Cove.
“Two bears per square mile. 1600 bears. 800 acres. One was in camp last night,” the ranger at check-in told me.
We drove to our campsite and I found we’d been given a prime bear-target spot at the very edge of the campground, the big, wide 800-acre forest directly out our tent door.
I slept with a machete next to my head.
I awoke early the next morning with every ounce of my body telling me to stay there on my egg crate bed, sleep longer, take the day slow, enjoy the friendly neighbors we had met two sites down, let the kids ride their bikes round and round the safe campground roads to their hearts desire, rest from the packing and unpacking, the bike rack wrestling, the tent up and down, sip my tea as my kids whizzed by or got as close as they could to a mama deer in “our” woods. Just, you know, pause and enjoy.
But I didn’t. We had a plan. Ok, I had a plan. We had to get to the fireflies. I told a friend we’ll call AQ, the friend who’d given us her Elkmont campsite, that we would. I couldn’t flake. It’s not like she would be there or we were meeting anyone, but I hate to be a flake. So, I skipped my tea altogether and rushed us down to the bike rental shop.
This is where it’s helpful to get all the little details from someone with experience. Cades Cove is a beautiful valley where wildlife and the preserved homes of early settlers can be seen and toured. Our plan was to bike the beautiful 11-mile loop of Cades Cove before it opened to vehicles at 10 am. It was the reason I borrowed a bike rack and struggled with it every single time I attempted to hook up the bikes, the reason I borrowed a large bike trailer to pull my three-year-old in, the reason I got up so early to rent a bike for myself when I wanted to sleep. Even the best-laid plans go awry.
There are no bike trailers allowed. There are no tricycles allowed. That’s it. So we simply couldn’t bike Cades Cove that morning. I was heartbroken and distraught for a moment, but once we hit the loop in the van we were far from disappointment (and given a reality check about the hill climbs and three-year-olds and bike trailers). It was gorgeous. One spot in particular we all had a hard time leaving, the Dan Lawson house. Barn swallows flitted in and out of the simple 1840s cabin to a nest they had attached to a wooden rafter. The kids found bats hanging in the loft room upstairs and were just as ecstatic as if it had been some friendly bear cubs. They told everyone who came in.
The view of the cove from that deep, covered front porch was one I imagined must have been paradise to wake up to in the quiet 1800s, before the line of cars came through, when all you could hear were the chickens pecking behind the house and an occasional rooster crow, when it was probably common to look out and see wildlife most misty mornings in the green expanse before you.
By day three we had put up and taken down the tent three different times, cooked over a fire at least as many times, blown a bike tire, given up decent hair and true cleanliness, argued over one too many non-argumentative topics for my liking (is it just my ten-year-old?), searched for bear but seen a chipmunk, deer, a monarch butterfly cluster, bats and barn swallows, listened to the incessant chatter of my three-year-old, and moved to a more isolated campsite than the friendly, social one at Cades Cove, where I’d felt strongly we should have lingered.
I was getting tired. Maybe we all were.
I didn’t know it yet on that third night but the next day I would lose yet another pair of Reef flip flops in a river. My friend AQ had been all “oh yeah, there’s a river flowing past the campground and you can tube and it’s great!”
A failed rocky tube ride, a dump into an unexpectedly deep portion of swiftly moving ice-cold water and a rescue from my calm-under-pressure oldest as I balanced my tip toes on the one rock I could grasp beneath me while my two youngest screamed and cried their heads off as they clung to me was this trip’s mountain river experience.
My littlest had the nerve to say, long after the screaming had subsided, “that was ack-chewy fun.”
The next night we sat on an unpaved road, the Little River flowing along one side of it, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s forest filling up all the space on the other side. Hundreds of other firefly watchers lined the path with us, all the flashlights covered with red cellophane so as not to disrupt the mating ritual that is the synchronous lighting of the hundreds, no thousands, of fireflies in the forest that June night. They shuffled past us, most in hushed, reverent tones, but just a few (of course those who landed next to us) in obliviously obnoxious voice levels. Some came from our campground, Elkmont, but it seemed that the majority of those around us had been bussed in, or rather, trollied in from nearby Gatlinburg after getting lucky in the firefly lottery.
Each year the synchronous fireflies light up the sky at Elkmont for a few short weeks. As the sky darkens and the watchers wait, a few fireflies ever so slowly become a glorious twinkling in the pitch black night. By 9:30 or 10 pm they all light up at once, filling you with a mystical, sleepy feeling, wondering if it’s real or you’re just half-dreaming there in the dark. Then the fireflies all go dark themselves. One by one they all burn out until it’s just black again and you know you must have imagined it. And then the incredible, all at once twinkling again.
It’s like an understated natural forest magic, back there where there’s no cell service and the bears are abundant and the old buildings and graveyards of a long-abandoned village loom. The kids had begged me not to go looking for those old cemeteries. As it turned out, lying there amongst the enchantment of the fireflies was quite enough.
“Is this a mom and her kids?”
The guy had passed behind me in the dark as I sat breathing in the peace the fireflies had brought. He had turned, come back and leaned down beside me. An ounce of fear struck as I wondered what this stranger could want. It was gone when he asked me that question.
“Yes,” I softly answered.
“Wow! Five golden stars to you! That’s just great! Good for you. And the three of them lying there in the dark against the white blanket…that’s a great picture. Well done.” And then he was gone.
I looked down at my kids. They were all asleep on the white blanket I had carried up the trail. Rief was on his stomach, the other two lined up beside him and curled up in their sides, their poses almost an exact match.
This is why we’d come. To see those fireflies light up the night sky in a way we’d never seen. And my kids had fallen asleep. They were missing it. And I was ok with it. Because I so needed the peace. Because, if we’re honest here and I am, I was exhausted. I was grumpy. My head hurt. He hadn’t been the only one to comment on my making this trip alone with three kids. A friend of mine recently took a road trip to Texas alone with her four. Her takeaway from that long haul: “Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it!”
The fact is, this trip of mine, three children (one argumentative, one dramatic, one wild), one mom, 4 nights in a tent, cooking every meal over a fire…much of it was new to me, most of it was utterly gorgeous, but it was hard. For an introvert like myself, the body and mind need rest. Time alone to recharge. And that’s ok.
The funny thing is, the friend who gave me the Elkmont spot, AQ, she practically planned my trip.
“I have these campsites and we can’t go…do you want them?”
“Hey, you should also go to Cades Cove…”
And if it’s AQ recommended, I’m most likely always going to do it.
I repect this fellow homeschool friend, she makes me laugh, and she has pretty grand adventures of her own. Another mutual friend once casually commented, as we were discussing camping, traveling or some such, that AQ is tougher than me. My brow furrowed, my jaw set, my inner determination grew about 1000 times bigger, and I never forgot it.
But I realized through camping with my three that I’m just not AQ. We are totally different people, with different personalities, skills, passions. The trip was beautiful, but helped me realize where I need to set limits and listen to my own intuition. At times it was clearly telling me to do one thing, and I just didn’t listen to the wisdom of my own heart.
So as I lay there in awe amidst the fireflies, I let them sleep. I woke them toward the end of our time, they looked up with a “whoa” and were asleep again. This was just for me. Some things take many years, much life and an empty tank to appreciate. And that’s ok.