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!