A ten-hour road trip with a three-year-old and a one-year old. That might seem scary enough. But if you're hell bent on holding on to your own sense of adventure and raising kids with one of their own, then a family road trip is just the thing. Our trip took us through a few different destinations, but the time we spent in Gatlinburg, Tennessee was by far the most goosebump-worthy.
A FAMILY ADVENTURE BEGINS
There’s a fine line between adventure and stupidity, and a few weeks ago, I was standing on it.
After spending the previous day exploring the tourist trap that is the town of Gatlinburg and splashing around our resort’s indoor water park, I was determined to do something that would give the kids a taste of the real Smoky Mountains. After all, we hadn’t driven all the way from Orlando for more man-made attractions.
I did a bit of online research and identified a hiking trail I thought we could tackle with a one-year-old and three-year old in tow. It was just 2.6-miles round trip, a few hundred feet in elevation, and ended at a beautiful waterfall. The best part was that it was paved. “A good choice if you have little ones,” the Internet proclaimed. When is the Internet ever wrong?
SCREW THE WARNING SIGNS
That morning, we snagged the last parking spot in the lot. A small and early victory. After dosing the boys with sun block and bug spray, we snapped them into the stroller and wheeled them up to the trailhead. A giant warning sign awaited.
TRAIL ADVISORY! USE OF WHEELCHAIRS, OTHER POWER-DRIVEN DEVICES OR STROLLERS ON THIS TRAIL IS DANGEROUS AND IS NOT RECOMMENDED.
Conundrum time. It seemed silly to protect our boys from bug bites and sunburn, but put them at risk of plummeting off the side of a mountain. Still. This was our first official family vacation and we had a choice to make. Would we be the kind of family that backed away from a good adventure just because someone else said it would be difficult and maybe a little bit deadly? Or would we stroller on, Griswold-style, and let our own stupid decisions determine our destiny? For a family that makes a point of watching Christmas Vacation every holiday season, there was nowhere to go but up.
BRAVERY IS NOT ALWAYS BOLD
Three hundred and fifteen feet of elevation isn’t much when it’s just you and your water bottle. But when it’s you and fifty pounds of toddler in a fifteen-pound stroller, things get a little bit tougher. When Charlie said he would push, I wasn’t about to fight him for the honor.
The trail was just wide enough to allow one person to pass alongside the stroller. While it was paved as promised, the pavement was rocky, uneven, and completely broken in some parts. Fellow hikers regarded us with a mix of admiration and incredulity. Those coming from the top warned us that the trail gets “pretty sketchy up there.”
We hiked on, a wall of rock to our right and a sheer drop to our left. The pavement sloped ever so slightly towards the drop side, forcing Charlie to twist his wrist in a painful way and push extra hard on that side to keep the stroller upright.
“If at any point it gets too sketchy and you want to turn back babe, say the word,” I said.
He never said the word. He just pushed on, cursing his way over thick tree roots and picking the stroller up entirely when the broken pavement was impossible to cross. I walked beside them as long as I could, attempting to create a barrier between the stroller and the growing cliff. But as we got higher, the path narrowed, forcing me to walk behind them. We were very close to the top when the front wheel must have hit something big. From a few steps behind, I saw the stroller tilt towards the drop at a terrifying angle. I watched Charlie fight to right it again, my heart racing. Then a single thought settled my mind.
He would never let those boys fall.
I knew it in my bones, as confidently as I knew that the sky was a gorgeous, Smoky Mountain blue. He would never fail this family. He never does.
I used to think of myself as the brave one. I’m the one that likes scary movies and motorcycles. I’m the one that will get on carnival rides that came off the truck ten minutes ago. I’m the one that researches and suggests the exciting adventures that we’re going to put our family through. I thought that made me brave. But in that moment, I realized that bravery isn’t being the one who says, “Hey! Let’s do this awesome thing!” Bravery is being the one who says, “Okay. I’ll do the hard part.”
A few seconds later, the stroller was straight and we were marching on, the sounds of a distant waterfall just around a bend.
REMEMBER THE GOLDFISH
We reached the waterfall in an hour and half. It was actually two waterfalls, with a little bridge in the middle of them and big, flat welcoming rocks all around, perfect for basking in the glory of nature and your own feelings of accomplishment. But we had only taken a few deep breaths and a single triumphant family photo when our three-year-old, Maxon, so captivated by touching the waterfall just seconds ago, turned on us.
“I’m huuuuuungry. Can I have a snack?”
I looked at Charlie. He looked at me. We both looked at the stroller. A desperate search turned up sunblock, bug spray, diapers, wipes, two hoodies, some Kleenex, and not a single snack. Not even a stale Goldfish. In the rush of prepping the kids for this thrilling adventure, we had forgotten the one thing you need to keep a toddler tantrum at bay. Not wanting to ruin anyone else’s tranquil waterfall experience with a wailing kid, we turned and headed back down the mountain.
Moral of the story: you can dream the big dream and get the right people on your team, but if you forget the the little, day-to-day details in the process, you’re pretty much fucked.