Summer Is Finally Here – Time To Learn!

Hello Friends!  I apologize for being MIA but its been a busy few weeks and while I have thought about it repeatedly, I have simply not had the time or energy to sit down in front of my computer to write!  Today, I am supposed to be lounging at the lake reminiscing with some of my college teammates and their families, BUT life had other plans…sick kid, low funds, busy work schedule this week…it just didn’t work out!

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Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels.com

While I am super bummed that our plans didn’t work out, this is still the first official weekend of summer vacation for my kiddos and I have lots to do as we plan for them to be home for the summer!  This year we have decided that Elle is old enough and mature enough to help us out with Hayden – she is great with him and Husband and I are not usually very far from home for work.  In fact, Husband and I both have a home office we can work out of in a pinch!

So, Monday morning Hayden will start “Elle School”!  I am in the process of planning activities that will help to break up their days, while hopefully keeping Hayden motivated to read and learn so that starting school in August will not be miserable for him or Husband and I!  Also, it keeps BOTH of them from sitting in front of the television all day!

The first week’s activities will involved learning about volcanoes!  This is a request of Hayden’s since he caught a glimpse of a news clip of the erupting volcano in Hawaii. On task this week:

  • volcano art project
  •  Google search of volcano activity
  • library trip for books on volcanoes and
  • an actual erupting volcano in our back yard!!

Other topics Hayden wants to learn about this summer include dinosaurs (he can probably give this lecture rather than learn something new but that’s ok), other STEM projects, the solar system and race cars, including how the engines work!!  Hayden is also participating in a summer reading challenge through our local library (10 pages or one picture book a night will earn him a pool party!) Finally, our weekday summer plans for Hayden includes a few trips to children’s museums and lots of outdoor and pool time!

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What types of summer activities do you have planned to keep your little ones’ minds engaged and having fun!?!

Up In Smoke…The Reformed Life of Part-Time Pitmasters

Its been one year since we handed over the keys to our beloved BBQ catering trailer and watched it, and our little part-time BBQ life, drive off into the distance.

Something you may not know about Husband and I, about 6 years ago we started a barbecue catering and concessions business.  It is one of a couple side gigs that we have owned/held.  It all started not long after Hayden was born and I went back to work (a week later – no maternity leave for a sub-contractor) and was just unhappy with my career and whining about wanting my own business.  So, Husband took our tax return and drove to Athens, Georgia and bought a smoker!  Not that I ever said I wanted to be a barbecue caterer…nevertheless I stopped complaining about having my own business!

I am a decent cook but not trained formally and had NEVER in my life “smoked” anything!  Husband began experimenting with temperatures, woods and cuts of meat while I concocted several barbecue sauces and learned how to make coleslaw and my own version of baked beans.  You read that correctly, I am a country girl who did not like and had never made coleslaw or baked beans!  No worries though, I have mended my ways and by the time we closed our proverbial doors last year I had it down to a fine art!

Soon, Husband and I signed up to do concessions at a few local festivals.  I think we only smoked 3 pork shoulders (Boston Butts) the first festival!  By the end, we would smoke anywhere from 25-30 Boston Butts for a single day festival and hope that we didn’t run out of barbecue!  Our little business grew in no time and by the fall of that year we were catering our first wedding!  It was on our anniversary of all days! In the early days we smoked the day of an event and hand-pulled all of the barbecue!  Thinking about it now, I am not sure how we had time to do anything else…I do recall MANY late nights and super early mornings.  We eventually purchased a tool for Husband’s drill that made light work of pulling the pork and even had the ability to smoke days and months in advance by vacuum sealing and freezing the barbecue!  No more were rainy or cold days a hindrance to the timing of our events or our stress levels!

It was a great time in our lives.  As our girls grew they enjoyed helping out at concession events and catered affairs.  Their favorites were always weddings; Elle and Christina became expert bubble-blowers and bird seed throwers, as well as baked bean connoisseurs and held the secret to our coveted, homemade blackberry barbecue sauce.  These events also peaked Christina’s interest in photography as she was never far behind when the wedding photographer pulled out his camera; the girls even made their way into several photographic memories! It was an amazing experience to be a small part of someone’s special day.  As a criminal defense attorney, I do not often have the opportunity to witness my clients’ happy moments and catering was a welcomed break.

But I suppose every part of our lives only remains in a season and barbecue season had come to an end for us.  Our girls are older and more active than ever and we realized that it was more important for us to relish every warm summer afternoon or fall day with them , rather than slinging barbecue out of a concession window or spending long nights cleaning up long after the wedding reception ended and the bride and groom drove off into the sunset!  Also, barbecue catering is exhausting, back-breaking work and Husband and I did not have as many “all-nighters” in us as we did 6 years ago!

We cherished our time behind the smoker and the benefits it brought our family ($$ and LOTS of family time in our cramped concession trailer, along with lessons of hard work and kindness) but for now the impending break in the weather means we lace up our hiking shoes instead of tying on our aprons!

Who knows, maybe we will fire up the smoker and venture our of retirement when the kids are all away at college…maybe!

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The Mini-Vacation…Have As Many As Possible and Our Favorite Spots!

Today a colleague told me that he wanted to live our life….a compliment by any standard but I inquired further anyway!  He said that we always seemed to be going somewhere new or doing something, even in the middle of the week!

It’s true, I admit it, my family is addicted to the mini-vacation and we take them as often as possible!  Last week it was an impromptu trip to Knoxville to watch our Lady Vols Basketball team play their last home game of the season on a Thursday night!20170223_190258.jpgI am also in the process of planning a hiking weekend over Memorial Day , a short trip to the Great Smoky Mountains and this past Sunday we actually booked our week long beach vacation in Kure Beach, North Carolina.

My family has never been one for long, drawn-out vacations (aside from our beach week) and we often do not go very far from home.  Mostly because it is difficult for a family of five on a somewhat unpredictable income to save for those long journeys, so until the time comes that we can venture to more exotic places we will continue enjoying those not too far from home.  We are blessed to live in the Appalachian Mountains so fortunately nature’s playground surrounds us.

Some tips for an abundance of mini-vacations:

  1. Be an outdoor addict:  Hiking is much cheaper than touristy stuff anyway and the memories you will make connecting with nature will last a lifetime.
  2. Watch what you eat:  Since we take several trips to familiar places we have had time to perfect our favorite places to eat affordably and where to get the best snacks.  Its important to plan meals though, if not, wandering aimlessly looking for a place to eat will almost certainly guarantee that you will spend more and enjoy less because you are starving!  Pack snacks – helpful to tide hungry little mouths over while hiking or waiting in a line for a roller coaster and allows you to save money for the goodies you really want later!
  3. Camp as often as possible:  Our family has both a tent and a camper.  The camper is large and bulky to pull around but if the weather is cooler it can still be cheaper to stay in a campground for $30-$50 per night as opposed to a hotel for $150.  We tent camp when possible especially if we know we aren’t gonna be hanging around the camp site all day but rather getting out and doing things.
  4. Hold up on the souvenirs:  Save your hard-earned money for a meal or adventure, no need to bring home an over-priced trinket.  Take pictures instead, they will last alot longer and won’t need dusted sitting on the shelf at home.

Here are some of our favorite short getaways:

Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/The Great Smoky Mountains

These quaint mountain communities, while somewhat touristy in places, are as beautiful as the locals are kind and genuine. Known as the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is something for everyone from handmade crafts, fantastic cuisine, a first-rate theme park and every other kind of adventure the outdoor enthusiast could ask for!  We prefer camping in the warmer months off of US Highway 321.  It is about 15-20 minutes outside of Gatlinburg but it is an easy drive into downtown Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge and the scenery is beautiful.  Additionally, Highway 321 provides access to exceptional hiking with nearby trailheads at the Greenbrier and Cosby Campground.

When in Gatlinburg, we often opt for dinner at the Cherokee Grill.  It is moderately priced and the food is delicious.  If you are in the mood for pizza, we recommend Luigi’s Pizza (1017 Parkway). For treats in Gatlinburg, the caramel dipped rice krispie treats at Kilwins are mouth-watering and the ice cream isn’t too bad either! Finally, if you are ready for entertainment like no other, and enjoy the occasional shot (or 8) of moonshine, do not miss out on the distillery tastings.  Our favorite is Sugarlands, the Apple Pie flavor with a caramel finish is a favorite! The distilleries are all fun to browse even if you are not partaking in the libations.  Both Ole Smoky and Sugarlands provide music on weekends that seem to bring the streets to life!

If you have children, and even if you don’t, do not miss out on Dollywood theme park.  My mother took my sister and I, along with countless other doting Girl Scouts to Dollywood every summer when we were children and in over 30 years of operation its standards for cleanliness, hospitality and a down home good time are unsurpassed. The park really has something for everyone.  The food is wonderful (do not miss out on the cinnamon bread sold in the gristmill building ), the shows and entertainment are top notch and even the holiday festivities in the winter are a joy to embrace. Did I mention that the roller-coasters are a scream!

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Daddy and Christina after riding Dollywood’s 2016 Lighting Rod

Our oldest is a roller-coaster addict and fully enjoys the attractions Dollywood has to offer from the Lighting Rod, Wild Eagle, the Tennessee Tornado (boy do I have a story about that one, or rather its predecessor), the Fire Chaser (a family coaster my 6 year old son affectionately calls the Big Bertha) to the Thunderhead, a wooden coaster that makes me laugh like a crazy person!  I am biased, I know it, I love the feeling I get walking through the gates!  I feel like a kid again and I want to share those memories as well as make new ones with my children.  Finally, Dollywood is super affordable compared to many theme parks and for those within driving distance, offers a 6 month payment plan interest free on season passes!  Season passes are super helpful when one person in your group has a gold pass, think free/reduced parking, discounts on almost everything you purchase in the park, including food and drinks.

Other helpful Dollywood tips:  1. You can take your children for measuring at guest services when you enter the park so that you don’t have to wait in line to learn that they are too short to ride; 2.  Remember, water is always free so let them fill your cup as much as you like and save your cash for dipping dots or those cinnamon rolls; 3.  Do not ride the train after water rides – it is a bonafide steam engine and if you are wet the soot will stick to you and your clothes, 4.  The Celebrity Theater shows, while wildly entertaining to my older girls and my husband and I, always puts my son to sleep so if you need a nap time place those are always winners, especially during the Festival of Nations – those shows are spectacular  5.  Be sure to catch the Harvest Festival – fall in the mountains is the best (although hotel rooms will be a bit more expensive), and finally 6.  In the summer months we find is best to avoid Saturdays, lines are long and hot even though the atmosphere is still nice, we often do other things on Saturdays and go to Dollywood on Sundays, the kids are out of school, what’s a late drive home – hone in your sense of adventure!

Bryson City, North Carolina

We had our first adventure to Bryson City last Memorial Day Weekend.  While still part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this little town boasts a more laid back attitude.  While I admit that we spent most of this trip camping just outside of town in Whittier, we visited the downtown area on a few occasions, lightly browsing the unique shops and checking out the railroad station.  Bryson City is home to the Great Smoky Mountain scenic railroad and while we did not take a railroad excursion on our last trip is it certainly on the list!  Also nearby to Bryson City is the Natahaha River, Fontana Lake and the infamous Tsali Trails (these are absolutely on my list to bike – although you need to check the schedule as certain days are designated for biking and others are not).

20160529_132952.jpgWe had the pleasure to hike in the Deep Creek area of the GSMNP. The trails in this area are mostly moderate and well marked.  We encountered horses and backpackers alike as well as day hikers like our family.  The most impressive part about Deep Creek is that after a tiring day of hiking you can rent tubes (cheaply I might add – a full day of fun for about $5) and  float your cares away down the mountain stream.  If you are looking for a wilder ride we recommend hiking up about a mile  and riding the upper section of the gorge which contains patches of whitewater (we also recommend a life jacket as it is easy to be separated from your tube in this section especially after a rainfall).

Our second day of hiking near Bryson City took us to The Road to Nowhere, a scenic mountain highway that takes you six miles into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ends abruptly at the mouth of a tunnel.  The GPS calls this road Lakeview Drive but to the locals it represents a broken promise.  The history of this area is quite interesting. In the 1930s and 1940s  many Swain County residents gave up private lands to the federal government for the creation of Fontana Lake and the GSMNP.  The creation of the park meant that many ancestral home places were gone as well as Old Highway 288, the road to those communities. The federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with Lakeview Drive, which was to have stretched 30 miles west from Byrson City to Fontana.  The real importance of this road to many residents was that it would have provided access to family cemeteries.  Lakeview Drive was stopped just six miles in though due to an environmental issue and was never completed.  On weekends in the summer the parks service ferries groups of Swain County residents across the lake for family reunions and to visit these cemeteries.  The legal issue wasn’t resolved until 2010 when the federal government entered into a settlement to pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of building the rest of the road!  Walking through the tunnel will open up a world of adventure for hikers and horseback riders alike (we will opt for a flashlight next time thought!) including a trek to beautiful Fontana Lake.  Be wary though, many of these trial while otherwise moderate are somewhat steep and are shared with horses.

The Breaks Interstate Park (www.breakspark.com)

This bi-state park is located on the Virginia/Kentucky line in the Jefferson National Forest.  Affectionately called the Grand Canyon of the South, this park hosts a 5 mile gorge plunging to 1,650 feet to the Russell Fork River.  The Russell Fork is well known by adventuresome rafters for its Class 6 rapids and jagged rocks beneath.  Water is released from the John Flannagan Dam the first 4 weekends in October each year and the rafters come from all directions to try their luck.  One stretch of this river is considered the most difficult rafting in the East.

 The park boasts 25 miles of some of the most beautiful trails in the area.  Most are moderate to easy trails and are shaded for easy family adventures.  My personal favorite is the Geological Trail, the large boulders and majestic forest floor make this short hike more than memorable.  Additionally, the overlooks in the park are breathtaking, especially the Virginia/Kentucky Stateline Overlook near the Geological trailhead.

The Breaks also features a newly renovated lodge and new lake-side cabins.  The park completed a waterpark on the property just a few short years ago!  There is also horseback riding, fishing and plenty of geocaching opportunities!

While I have ventured to the Breaks on countless occasions I had never stayed until this past fall.  My family spent the weekend in the campground in late September when in town for a family reunion.  The campground did not disappoint!  The bathhouse was typical for a state park but clean enough – come on people, we are camping here!  We will definitely be making a return trip.  The weekend in the campground and hiking in the Breaks was relaxing and peaceful!

Other places we like to visit include: Knoxville, Downtown Greensboro, Asheville and surrounding areas, and Grayson Highlands State Park….

A Zero Day

Once in awhile, its nice to just be Mom for a day!

Sounds cliché, I know, we all enjoy motherhood and think20160313_142226.jpg it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us and frankly, you wouldn’t be reading this post otherwise! We hold these thoughts everyday of our lives, even when we are washing our 18th load of laundry or in the middle of an important meeting at work or at a parent-teacher conference to discuss why our little one licks the desk, or even when we are away on a much deserved “adult” weekend with daddy! Even though we as mom’s always feel this way without a shadow of a doubt we are often so busy, working cleaning, organizing, chauffeuring and trying to survive that we do not take the time to truly relish in the joys of motherhood! Sure, as we kiss them goodnight and say bedtime prayers we take in those moments and they renew our strength and bond, but if we are honest with ourselves, sometime during the hour it takes you to wrangle the Lil booger to bed you weren’t thinking how precious motherhood is, but whether or not you think you could stay awake long enough for that much needed glass of wine you had promised yourself if this nocturnal beast would ever go to sleep!!!

Today though, I was blessed with an entire day of motherhood bliss! Hikers call it a “Zero Day,” a day they come off the trail, eat a hot meal and relax to truly enjoy their surroundings and refocus on their journey ahead. That is exactly what I did with my son today. It all started with record breaking temperatures for late February here in the Appalachian Mountains and an article I had read about children, especially those with focus and hyperactivity issues, needing to simply play outside more often. So, I took that 70 degree forecast as a sign from above that we needed a mommy/son-play outside all day- kind of day! I didn’t go into the office, I let him miss school (yes I said it, he’s only in kindergarten) and we spent the day in the sunshine! We walked our dog around the lake and discovered she is quite the swimmer! We dug in the dirt and talked about different kinds of trees and the seasons. We identified signs of Spring and read numbers on the road signs and played spelling games as we laughed and sang at the park and for the first time in a long time I felt like an honest to-goodness, “good” mom! I felt so good, I even came home and made a homemade dinner, with dessert!

Today, I didn’t allow myself to feel rushed or stressed to achieve an unreal number of goals I typically set for myself in a day. I did take two brief business calls while my little man threw rocks in the lake! Otherwise, I didn’t tell him to be quiet or to stop fidgeting or running or jumping or not to get dirty; I simply enjoyed the day with him and appreciated his enthusiasm and excitement! What I achieved was more than I could have ever imagined. He and I were both immensely happy and settled and whole, and think even our lake swimming pooch would agree as she snores heavily at my feet!

When considering how I spend my time, I often spend weekends when we are home and not otherwise obligated, to accomplishing tasks around the house, catching up on cleaning I can’t complete during our busy week or preparing for the upcoming week. I rarely ever just take a walk or sit and watch the kids play. Parenthood isn’t  a dream sequence, we can not just sit around leisurely every weekend, we have a home and family and businesses to run, but that is why I believe taking days like today are so important, not only to us as parents but to our children as well.   I am so thankful for our Zero Day and I hope to carve out more of those in the future!