Friday, November 10, 2017

a veterans day tale (sort of)

The other day, I picked up Gramps after work to take him to the library. He loves listening to audiobooks, especially Westerns, and the library has a huge collection. I love the library; always have, ever since I was a little girl. But spending time with Gramps is always the bigger draw.

I found him in his office, writing on one of his ubiquitous 3x5 index cards. This has been his habit since retirement, to write down little snippets of things to keep their memory alive. I asked what he was writing about, and he took me to the kitchen, where a freshly polished antique wooden radio sat on the table. And then he told me a short story:
I bought this radio in 1956 as a Christmas present for your grandma. Notice how it has both AM and FM? I believe FM was the new innovation at that time, so it was a big deal. It cost most of my monthly pay to buy it. I think Bev was expecting a ring, but she got a different R word instead. And anyway, she didn't have to wait too long for the ring  I ended up buying one just two weeks later!
While he was talking, I glanced at the index card, and noticed that it mentioned his exact salary at the time: $122.66 per month from the army. I asked him about it, and he laughed and said yes, that was his salary, and that was four grades above the basic pay! Then he said, "And did you know they paid us in cash?"


That's right. According to Gramps, once a month, there would be one officer with a big box full of money, and another one with a machine gun or submachine gun standing guard, and all the soldiers would line up and collect their dough. Isn't that amazing?

Gramps with Great-Grandpa Jeff, Midway Airport, circa 1956
As a bonus, Gramps laughed in delight at telling me something I didn't know. He said he's made it his mission to think up things about history that will surprise/amaze/entertain me every time I see him, and it's a triumph when he hits on something like this. 

Could I adore my grandpa any more? I don't think so!

Thursday, November 02, 2017

we pose prettily

Sunday was picture day around these parts! I have been meaning to get the boys' pictures taken for a long time now  our last photos were in December 2015. This time, I decided to coordinate with my siblings so we could get new cousin pictures taken for my parents for Christmas. We also got a bunch of group pictures and a nice mix of family and individual shots (Bethany, J, and Lon also had pictures taken with their kids/significant others/pets, but I'll let them post those on their own platforms). Bethany's friend Charman was our photographer (she also took our pictures last time; she's great!), and we had so much fun tromping around in my parents' woods looking for interesting backdrops. I would say we were pretty successful, but you can judge for yourself. Seriously, go on. Judge away.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

dollywood and the sweet sorrow

Friday afternoon was a real treat! We met Megan and the girls at Dollywood. Lucky girls got to skip school for the afternoon (hey, it's educational!) and we had a chance to catch up. The girls were lovely guides, giving us pointers on their favorite and least rides at the park. In the end, everyone but me went on a roller coaster. The adults got headaches, but the kids were exhilarated. After one particularly fast roller-coaster ride, Henry came running up to us, breathless with excitement.

Henry: That ride went like 200 miles per hour!
Me: Nice! Did you like it?
Henry (still excited): NO!

And that about sums up our day. After the rides, we stopped for some food, and five Forts got their first taste of fried green tomatoes. YUM. We also got to explore all the pumpkin displays for the fall IllumiNights show, which were impressive. I think these were my favorites:

After an afternoon at the amusement park, we kind of wanted some downtime at the cabin, so we settled in. I laid down for a nap, and I woke up because Henry was in the bedroom shouting for me. Turns out that Mike and Max had made a quick grocery and food run, and while they were gone, Liam and Henry took Pluto out for a quick walk. He must have seen a squirrel or something, because he took off, and dragged Liam right into the curb. Liam jammed his big toe pretty badly in the process. Poor kid. Bending the toe was hard for him, let alone walking on it, so we made the executive decision to pack up and head home Saturday morning instead of Sunday. Between the injury and the extreme weekend crowds everywhere, it really wasn't a tough decision to make, and it's nice to be back home.

Until next time, Gatlinburg!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

the golden ticket, part two

After spending Thursday morning in Cades Cove, we decided to head back downtown in the afternoon to take further advantage of the VIP pass. This time, it was all five of us, so we had to pay for one ticket for each attraction, which I am in no way complaining about because it's still a magnificent deal. First up was a trip up the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, which I am going to complain about, but only a little. Going up the side of the mountain in the tram was really interesting ... except that we were in a single tram car with 115 new friends. Oh, the humanity! Listen, I have been on some crowded El cars in my day, but this put them all to shame. Luckily, it was only a 10-minute ride.

And the ride took us to Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park in summer, ski resort in winter. Here again the golden ticket got us wristbands that let us do all the activities. We didn't have a whole lot of time, so we skipped ice skating and the animal sanctuary. Instead, we headed up the chair lift. Mike and the boys got off halfway and went down the alpine slide, which they reported was great, while I continued up the chair lift to the top of Mt. Harrison, where I was treated to some pretty spectacular views.

We ended up taking the aerial tram back down the mountain (this time with 115 new friends who had been drinking beer out of plastic boots hung around their necks!), and by the time we got back downtown, we were all hungry, so we headed to Mike's chosen dining emporium: Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Surprise! We all got shrimp. Heh. It was delicious, and as a bonus, it turns out that Mike and I know a surprising amount of Forrest Gump trivia (our server gave us a quiz on the movie). 

Once we were all stuffed completely full of shrimpy goodness, we opted to play some more mini golf, this time at Treasure Quest Golf. Part of the course was lit by blacklight, so we had fun looking at each other's clothes and teeth. Mike ended up winning by two strokes (conveniently, Mike was also the scorekeeper), though I again got two holes-in-one. Hmmm, I might actually come to like something golf related! The boys liked it a lot too, though Max found it really frustrating because he was out of practice.

Just down from the golf place was another mirror maze (seriously, a town that can support not one but two mirror mazes?). Mike opted to stay in the front and buy some candy (yes, you read that right, Mr. No Sweet Tooth bought candy. For himself!) while the boys and I took on Ripley's Marvelous Mirror Maze. It was much more intense than the one we had done the day before, and featured an infinity room (think all the mirrors, plus strobe lights). Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" was playing, so the boys started dancing, which was pretty trippy and funny. After we finished the maze, the attendant told us we could go through it backward, which was very exciting for the boys. After much loud maneuvering, we finally made it out and back to the street.

We had promised the boys Ben & Jerry's ice cream once we had done a few activities, and we made good on it even though we were all still pretty full. After that, they decided they were too tired for any more fun. Second day in a row that I could have done more but they didn't want to. Might be a record!

cades cove

Mike's goal for this trip was to hike the Ramsey Cascade, but mine was to go to Cades Cove, a part of the park we didn't get to see last time we were here. So Thursday morning we set out to do just that. We knew it was a popular area, so we figured if we left early, it wouldn't be too crowded. All I will say is that I would hate to see it when it's "really" crowded!

Along the way, we saw a pull-off at Maloney Point, and Mike asked if I wanted to stop. I'm not sure why he even had to ask, given the incredible sunrise we were treated to. When was the last time you saw a sunrise quite so colorful? Last time I saw one this great was probably when we were in Portland three years ago.

So, Cades Cove. It was beautiful, and still filled with fog, which made for some great pictures. But then right away we ran into a huge traffic snarl, and it turned out that the reason for the backup was that a momma bear and her three cubs were foraging for food near the road. Since we were stuck in traffic anyway, I decided to go out and get a picture, and Max and Henry came with me (sorry, Mike, but that's what you get for wanting to always be the driver!). We got fairly close to them — although definitely not as close as the 30 or so other people who were standing super close and taking pictures with super huge telephoto lenses. It was like bear paparazzi!

After that excitement, traffic started flowing again, so we got to see all the beautiful sights. We stopped at the visitor center, where there were probably half a dozen deer around the parking lot, grazing and doing their deer thing. On one side there were two bucks, and for one exciting moment, they charged each other and butted heads. Antler clash! Then I guess they realized that there was no female in the vicinity to fight over, or that there was plenty of room for both of them to get adequate morning grains, because there were no more fireworks. Anyway, we walked around for a while, checking out the historic buildings and the grist mill, and the deer were completely unbothered by us or any other humans.

On the way out, we saw another couple bears, one on either side of the road. The one on Mike's side was climbing a tree (!!) but we couldn't get a good shot of it. The one on my side was kind of wandering around, generally in a direction away from the road. I took some pictures, but Liam piped up from the back seat, "Yes, Mom, we'll get some great pictures of bear hindquarters!" Where did that kid get his snark? A mystery that will no doubt be lost to the sands of time.

Friday, October 20, 2017

the golden ticket

While Mike and Max spent their Wednesday climbing the side of a mountain, Liam and Henry came with me to indulge in some more touristy activities. I mentioned that Megan gave us a VIP pass for area attractions, right? Well, it turned out to be pretty amazing (and so generous)! It gave us free admission for up to four people to a whole list of attractions — way too many to see in one day. We did our best to make a dent, though.

We started with the Amazing Mirror Maze, which was fun but a pretty quick activity. It was really disorienting — there were Hollis, Liams, and Henrys coming at us from every direction, and our voices bounced and echoed really weirdly too. Well, mostly their voices, which were loud and excited; I was just focused on not losing track of them.

Our next stop was Ripley's Haunted Adventure. We were loaded onto an intentionally rickety-looking metal elevator/lift thing and taken to an upper floor, where a guy with consumptive-looking makeup somberly directed us to stay together and keep a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us the entire time lest any terrible fate befall us. We then entered the first room. There was a scream, and a bang, and then Henry (who, I should add, is the one who insisted on going there in the first place) said very emphatically, "I DON'T WANT TO BE HERE ANYMORE." And Liam said, "I DON'T EITHER!" So we retraced our steps to the consumptive guy, who was nice enough to show us to the exit. Lesson learned.

After that, we headed next door to Ripley's Moving Theater ("in 5D!"), which was kind of a cross between a movie and a roller coaster. We had to strap in, and the seats were flung hither and yon in time with action on the screen. Also gusts of air and sprinkles of water were directed at us. They showed two short movies, one with Road Runner and Coyote, and the other with Angry Birds. Liam loved it, but after the first movie, Henry opted to go sit in the front with the operator lady (thankfully we were the only ones there so early) while I continued with Liam. I might have bruises, but it was fun!

Once we had a taste for moving around, we decided to head on up ... the mountain, that is. We took a ride on the Sky Lift, which was wonderful. I could have just ridden that up and down the mountain all day, looking out at the town and taking in the mountains in the distance. The Sky Lift has been rebuilt since last time we were in Gatlinburg because it was a victim of the wildfires, and we could definitely see the fire damage all around, especially once we got to the top.

We capped off the "top of Gatlinburg" portion of the morning with a visit to the Gatlinburg Space Needle, which was nice but honestly a little static since we had just gone on the Sky Lift. The views were incredible. Word to the wise, though: there's basically a kid casino on the main floor, and (of course) you have to go through it to get out. Don't make the mistake I made, which was to give each child $5 to spend on the games, only to watch them get "robbed" every time, especially by that "totally sketch" claw machine! In the end, Henry had enough credits to get a couple little boxes of Nerds candy, while Liam got like five individual grape Jolly Ranchers.

Once we came back to ground level, we decided to explore Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium. So much weird stuff all in one place! The boys really liked the interactive parts, like the huge Operation game and the dancing rooms with shadow freeze frame. But none of us were big fans of the "people do weird things to their bodies" displays. Most of it either grossed the boys out or went over their heads (or both, in the case of the human hair coffin ornaments). Oh! They also had trick bathrooms, which I thought was really funny. Like the door labeled bathroom only opened partway, to show the back of a (fully clothed) dude using a urinal. And the real bathroom was the next door down. Hardy har har, Odditorium, you got us!

We really weren't sure what the the VIP pass (or the golden ticket, as I've been calling it) would get us at some places, but at Gatlin's Smoky Mountain Fun, it turned out to be a LOT. We got to pick three activities, and our first choice was laser tag, which Henry and I had never played before. We had the whole course to ourselves, and we laughed so hard chasing each other around and making futuristic Star Wars sounds with out laser guns. See, this is a thing that in normal life, I would never shell out the money for because there's always something broken and never enough money to fix it all, let alone spend on frivolous things like laser tag, but I'm so glad we got to try it because we had a wonderful time. The second activity we chose was miniature golf — 18 holes of it! I haven't played in a very long time, but it turns out I'm not so bad at it — I got TWO holes in one! This was a lovely balm to my ego after coming in dead last in laser tag. We saved the best activity for last, though: BUMPER CARS. That's right, bumper cars. SO. MUCH. FUN. Look at their faces as they ram the cars into each other! Nothing I can write could capture the feeling better.

So there it is, our day downtown. We got hungry and stopped for lunch (nothing notable), and by the time we finished, Mike and Max had come down from the park and were ready to pick us up and head back to the cabin. We had kind of been worried about the logistics of it all with one car but two groups in two very different places, one of which had spotty cell service, but it all ended up working perfectly.

where i finally climb that f#@&ing mountain and see the cascade

the last time we were here in gatlinburg, i took a group of adventurers (max, jimmy, kelsey, and liam) on a 4-mile (each way) hike to see the ramsey cascade, the tallest waterfall in GSMNP (100 feet). the cascade is deep in the park, and just getting to the trailhead required driving 5 miles into the interior, most of it on unpaved roads (and no cell signal, as max kept lamenting). long story short, due to a slight (major) logistical error on my part, we parked about 2 miles from the actual trailhead, which resulted in excess hiking and us having to turn around with 2.5 miles still to go to reach the waterfall. fortunately, matt and katie (those guys again!) happened to be hiking up the trail behind us, so max, jimmy, and kelsey continued back up the mountain with them and got to see the ramsey cascade. i didn't get there, to my great disappointment, and i vowed that if i ever came back to GSMNP, i would climb that f#@&ing mountain and see the cascade.

and now, here we are. bright and early wednesday, max and i dropped holli, liam, and henry off in front of a pancake place in downtown gatlinburg (after breakfast, they were going to spend the morning/early afternoon using the golden ticket to check out all the stuff on the main drag), and we headed to the greenbrier park entrance. cell-phone service predictably faded as we drove to the trailhead, to max's dismay, and off we went.

the first mile and a half were not bad, with some moderate hills mixed with long flat sections. the trail follows the little pigeon river (or small tributaries thereof), so the sound of water running through rocks and rapids was never far away. not too long into it, however, we reached the 1.5-mile mark, which is as far as i made it two years ago. everything from that point was new to me. it was old hat to max, who just wanted to get on with it already.

after that point, it got hard. the ramsey cascade trail is listed in the various literature (hiking books, online, etc.) as "rugged," "difficult," or "strenouous" (or some combination of all those), and with good reason. the trail gains over 2000 feet in elevation over its 4 miles, and due to erosion, roots and rocks were constant obstacles. still, it wasn't so bad, and we made good time and passed several groups of hikers along the way.

shortly after the 1.5-mile mark (2.5 miles to go), we encountered the first (of 2) narrow bridge over the adjacent stream. max and friends had told me about how rickety and alarming the bridges appeared when they did this hike 2 years ago, but they either exaggerated the danger, or the bridges were rebuilt in the meantime (my theory, as the first bridge was completely moss-, lichen-, and algae-free).

mother nature was against us, at least a bit. several large trees had fallen over the trail, but they didn't slow us down too much. it became a joke, as we expected mother nature to eventually say, "my previous obstacles haven't stopped them. send in the bears!"

the area around the ramsey cascade trail includes large sections of old-growth forest that have never been logged (according to several sources, the national park designation was due in part to protecting old-growth forest in the face of excessive logging). we progressed into an area with big oaks, maples, and hemlocks, as well as several immense poplars.

while taking a break and photographing the huge poplars, i realized that i had put my backpack on a log with some interesting fungi. they looked like a pancake stack, which seemed appropriate considering my pancake-loving kids.

after that, the trail really started living up to its "rugged" and "strenuous" description. constant uphill with roots, logs, rock piles, and more, with nary a flat section to give us a breather. someone (park personnel, i would assume) helpfully constructed crude rock stairs in several places, which made things slightly less taxing.

finally, we made it to the top of the trail and received our reward: the ramsey cascade. it was very impressive, and i'm glad i was finally able to make it up here. supposedly there are salamanders in the pool at the bottom of the falls, but we didn't see them. after relaxing for a long while, taking about a million pictures, and eating some oranges and granola bars, we reluctantly headed back down the mountain. this turned out to be much easier than going up.