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As I drive to work this morning, seeing nothing but barrages of orange cones and traffic backups, I put myself in a place that I remember when I was happiest; a flashback, as some may call it. I begin to reminisce about camping northern Michigan with my family. I remember out trips to the Smoky Mountains, renting cabins in the outskirts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, in the heart of the National Park. I recall memories of road trips to upstate New York, and driving through the mountainous small towns of West Virginia, and our family vacation in Wisconsin Dells where my daughter had her first real taste of true excitement hitting the water slides for the first time at the age of four.
Those were the good times. The thing that consumes my mind is how I can experience more of that? How can I allow my wife and kids to encounter more of those beautiful, breathtaking nature moments? I’ll make it happen.
In the meantime, happy Friday world! I’d like to take this moment to begin a little tradition here. Let’s call it Friday Night Flashback. I am hoping to make an effort here to go back to those good times, and share with you some of our greatest past memories. It may not be every Friday night, but let’s start here.
I remember my wife’s and my 5th year wedding anniversary in August, 2011. Now, keep in mind that our first daughter was born in March that same year, so we were brand new parents…for the first time. Our daughter was almost five months old. We hadn’t experienced parenthood before and we were exhausted after four and a half months. Both of our parents decided to give us a break and allow us a week’s long vacation to celebrate the two of us by taking care of little Abby.
We were elated, and knew that we would miss her, but needed the getaway. We packed our bags and early in the morning, drove straight through from Michigan to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Of course, we couldn’t just take the quick route on the freeways all the way there, so I mapped out a detour once we got in to Tennessee to take the back roads through the National Park before arriving at our home for the next week.
What an amazing idea that was, no lie. Even though we were tired of driving, a second-breath caught us, as we were able to see sights we would not have been able to if we had taken the easy road. We stopped at a small, local diner in the middle of nowhere for a bite to eat, and our first real taste of Tennessee hospitality. I remember everyone looking at us as we entered, but greeted with smiles across the room and a few waves and head nods. They knew we were from out of town, but made us feel at home.
Now, you must realize that we had been to Gatlinburg once before. About 7 years prior, before I married my wife, my mother-in-law got married at a chapel in Gatlinburg. I can’t remember exactly how many of us there were, but about 12 or 15 of us stayed in a large cabin for the week. I remember showing them all my amazing omelet-cooking skills. Anyways, my wife and I were not first-timers in these here parts, but we didn’t veer very far from the cabin and downtown Gatlinburg when we were there prior.
Back to our anniversary trip, we had agreed that we would go cheap on the accommodations, and rent a room at a motel downtown (best idea ever, and I’ll tell you why in a bit). We wanted to spend more on the experiences and shopping (her idea). After wandering through the winding park roads, stopping many times to take photos of the mountains, rivers, small waterfalls, and beautiful scenery, we finally arrived at the motel, unpacked our things, took a deep breath, and relaxed for the night in the room. We knew we had a fun, adventurous week ahead of us.
Now, this was 6 years ago, and we have been back here since (last year), but I will try and remember as much as I can, and leave last year’s trip for another Friday Flashback, as that was a whole ‘nother experience in and of itself. Besides doing what one might do when staying in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, of course shopping down the main parkway, spending large amounts of money visiting all the Ripley’s museums and endless amounts of putt-putt golf courses, we had plans for some real mountain adventure and excitement. Now, don’t get me wrong, we did do some shopping down the main parkway. We did spend uber amounts of cash at the Ripley’s museums. We did perfect our short game and a few miniature golf courses.
One of my favorite days with my wife was when we had decided to schedule a zip-line tour at Climbworks, on the outskirts of town, in the heart of the Smokies. You must realize, that my wife has a small fear of heights, so she was a little out of her element, but agreed to step out of her comfort zone to have an awe-inspiring experience with yours truly. I remember being in a tour group along with a family of five. We all climbed into these six wheeled all-terrain vehicles, and headed up the mountain, with the owners’ dog chasing us all the way up. We were all standing on the first perch, and I volunteered to be the first chump to take the plunge across the first of many lines.
I distinctly recall listening to all of the guides instructions, advice, and cautions, then leaning over the edge to experience my first zip-line experience. I was about to drop off, when all of a sudden the guide starts yelling, “Wait! Stop! Hold on!” I quickly sat back, my heart about to pound completely out of my chest, trying to remember how to breathe again. When I turned my head to see what the guide was up to, he had a huge smile on his face and started laughing. His words, as I recall, were something along the lines of, “It’s my job to do that to everyone at the beginning of every tour.” Wow! It took me a moment to get up the nerves to drop again, but it’s a good thing I have a great sense of humor and humility.
The tour was amazing! I had never quite been in my element more than I was during this two and a half hour adventure. My wife was extremely brave, but had the time of her life as well. I remember trying to catch video with my digital camera as I was soaring over the treetops, screaming with joy the entire time. I remember turning myself upside down on one of the lines, where my wife caught a great photo of me. I didn’t want it to end. The two of us drove back into town, laughing with each other, and telling each other our own thoughts and experience we just had. What a rush!
The next day was not any bit short of the thrills we had had the day before. We donned our swim suits, and headed to the mountains away from town again, but this time headed to raft the white waters of the Big Pigeon River. There were up to class 3 and class 4 rapids, which we had not experienced before. We weren’t novices on water, as we were an experienced canoe and kayak couple, and I don’t mean that we had been on a canoe once before. We love the rivers, and take any chance we have at experiencing many river locations in our home state of Michigan, as the state is not short of water. Nonetheless, we had not encountered whitewater leading up to this day’s adventure.
With such names as Powerhouse, Razor Blade, Too Late, Accelerator, and After Shave, the rapids we were about to encounter had the air of being intimidating and spine-chillingly perilous. Our guide had made the decision to put the two of us in the front, since we had the most river experience out of the group that would share our raft. We weren’t used to wearing helmets on our river trips, so this helped with the impending risk we were about to encounter. It was like no other river journey we had experienced.
We were all in sync with each other as a group, and killing the whitewater game, with our amazing captain screaming out instruction at every rapid, downed tree, or rock that we were confronted with. What a rush it was to be in the front of the raft as well…until….
We were coming up on a rapid called Lost Guide, and our guide had at least warned us that we were going to “surf the rapid” even though we had no clue what that meant, my wife and I had no idea what we were in store for. As we approached the monster, the captain dug his blade into the Smoker and whipped the rubber in a complete 180, plunging the bow into the throat of the beast. Okay, here’s a little glossary of rafting lingo.
The water was rushing in so fast, covering our laps. The raft was at a forty five degree angle from front to back, as our captain was almost towering over us from the back of the raft. We were frantically trying to dig backward so as not to allow the rapid to swallow us. After staying in this position for a good 20 seconds (which seemed like a lifetime), we realized that our captain knew exactly what he was doing, and providing us with an experience we had never had before. He succeeded, and after he pulled us out, we had a great laugh about it. I will never forget that moment, and seeing the look on my wife’s face. It was timeless.
I wished I had owned a GoPro during these adventures. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to get any photos during our whitewater experience, but I know that the trip will forever be ingrained in my memory.
My wife and I took it easy for the rest of our trip, and by take it easy I mean that we still did some hiking in the park, riding a ski lift up the mountain in downtown Gatlinburg to get some amazing photos, played mini golf at Hillbilly Golf where were a lift took us up the side of the mountain and each hole took us back down to the bottom. We enjoyed plenty of sightseeing and specific must-see spots in the National Park such as Clingman’s Dome, Cades Cove, Laurel Falls, and driving down Newfound Gap Road.
I am going to begin coming to a close on this entry, but I will leave you with a story that I tell my kids which was created from this trip.
It was our second to last night in Gatlinburg. Remember, we stayed at a motel in town. Our room was on the second floor of the motel, with a small, rickety, winding metal staircase that led us up to our level. The floor of the second level, that allowed entrance to the 6 rooms, was laden with cheap green turf. Outside the door of each room sat 2 plastic chairs with a tiny wooden table holding a plastic ashtray for smokers. It was a great seating area for relaxing outside on a hot, summer night in Tennessee. I had frequented this spot outside our room late into the night and early morning every single night since the motel owners advised us upon our arrival that bears can be seen at night in the area.
This specific night, I was growing impatient, as I had not lain my eyes on a single bear our whole trip so far. It was late, and I was exhausted, so I returned to the room to join my already asleep wife. A short while later, at about three o’clock in the morning, I was awoken by the sound of banging metal. With my wife still asleep, I crept to the window to see what had caused the disturbance, but I was not able to see much. I quietly unlocked the room door, slithered through the doorway, and snuck up to the railing overlooking the parking lot below.
Trying to think about what would cause that hollow sounding metal bang, I remembered that the trash cans were inside metal cages with locks on them to keep the bears out. As I looked down at the cage holding the trash can just at the bottom of our stairs, I noticed a large, hairy figure trying to get into the trash. No, it wasn’t the guy staying two doors over from us. It was a bear!
This black bear had to be at least 8 feet tall, weighing over 300 pounds, with paws bigger than my head. He was interested in trying to get the leftover food dumped in the trash for a late light snack. I was astounded at what I was looking at, not even 30 feet away from me. I was quiet as I could be, but my allergies were not on my side that night. Trying relentlessly to keep it inside, I let out a small sneeze, and the bear immediately turned its attention up at me. My eyes went wide and my mouth dropped. I swiftly turned around and reentered my room.
My wife was still asleep, but without care of being subtle, I quickly locked the door handle, chained up the chain lock, and pushed the dresser to the door. I hurdled onto the bed, startling her from dreamland, and pushed my finger to my lips in silence. “There’s a bear, and he saw me.” My entire body was trembling and my wife could feel it. We slowly slithered off the bed and crawled to the window. I cautiously moved the curtain to look out as we heard the creaking of the metal staircase, and could almost feel the floor move as a large mass shook the building. The bear was climbing up to our floor.
I knew it had seen me, and I knew that it knew which room I was in. We watched as the bear reached the top of the staircase, and made its way to our door while it stopped a couple times to tip it’s nose in the air to get a sniff of what could be its next dinner. The temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees at least, as a chill ran through by bones. I could hear the breath of the beast just outside the door. My wife jumped back into the bed and under the covers. I crept against the wall just inside the door and grabbed hold of the heavy stone based lamp on the side table in panic.
The next thing I heard hurt my ears, as the sound similar to fingernails on a chalkboard screeched so loud that it left a ringing in my ears. Then, pounding so loud, as if my head was inside the drum as someone pounded away with all their might. I could feel the room shake as I stood, one hand holding the lamp, and the other pushing against the dresser holding the door closed. After the fourth or fifth pound, the door pushed open a bit as the lock on the door handle gave way, but the door only opened a few inches as the chain caught and stretched to its limit.
My weight along with the weight of the dresser and the help of the chain stopped the door from swinging wide open, but the bear was able to get its enormous paw through the opening. I raised my hand holding the lamp, closed my eyes tight, and swung at the bear’s arm with all of my might. The heavy stone lamp landed a great blow to the limb of the bear, and crashed into pieces. I heard a deep, loud cry and whimper as the bear retracted its arm out of the doorway. Quickly, I shoved the entire weight of my body into the dresser and against the door.
I heard a continuous cry as I felt the floor move relentlessly as the bear stormed away in pain across the second-floor motel balcony and down the rickety metal winding staircase. When I knew it was safe, I peeked out the window and watched as the large shadow of the beast skirted away and into the woods. We were safe, and I felt like a hero. My wife and I were so awake at this point, still shaking from the traumatic experience, but we needed to step outside on the balcony for a smoke. As I opened the room door, recalling the loud screeching sound, we noticed the four deeply engraved lines carved into the outside of the door to Room Number 225. Now, we have been back since, and the motel owners have since replaced the door to Room Number 225, but I could still see the scratch marks in my mind, and will never forget this trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Good night all, and sweet dreams.