Asheville (Vacation part 2)

After John, Arie, and I spent a week near the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, we drove a couple hours northeast to go camping in Asheville, North Carolina.

Now if you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I go camping but don't love it which may lead to you ask why we would tack 4 days of camping on to our summer vacation?

It was for the food.

The food in Asheville. You guys. The food.

Oh my.

Last year a vlogger I follow took her family to Asheville and left me drooling over videos of what they ate. When John and I made our plans for Tennessee he asked me, "When your family leaves, do you want to do something just the three of us for a few days?" "Actually... let me google map something a moment..."

Asheville was less than two hours from our location in Tennessee  (!!!) and it turned out to be a big microbrew hub which made my husband happy.

So we booked a site at a KOA camp just outside the city and started making our plans.

I love KOA camps! (If anyone from KOA is reading this, you can pay me to be a spokesperson for you. Here's a free sample.) They always have the best things for kids to do (playgrounds, pools, or Arie's favorite: jumping pillows) and most importantly their bathrooms are SO CLEAN! I've stayed at different state or provincial (Canada) parks and I'll tell you it is like night and day. State parks bathrooms smell like feet and seem to always have a collection of bugs committing suicide around ceiling lights. Between our travels last summer and this summer I've stayed at five different KOAs and their bathrooms are so fresh! They barely even have water splashed around the sinks. I could almost shower in them without flip flops. KOA camps you make camping enjoyable for me.

We arrived in Asheville a few hours before we could check into the campground. We ate a picnic lunch at the visitor's center, picked up a handful of maps and went to explore the city. Here's the first thing I loved about Asheville: cheap parking! The city is pretty old and it quickly became obvious that it was not build to accommodate modern parking needs... or driving needs for that matter (map NECESSARY). To make up for it, the city has lots of garage parking. The first hour in the garages we used was free and then it was only $1 for each additional hour! Sweet.

Once we scored our parking spot, we began to explore. After a few shops we stumbled upon a parked double-decker red bus. Ever since we rode on for a tour of Quebec City last summer Arie gets really excited when he sees them, "Can I go on it Mom? Can I? Can I? Can I?" (Side note: this spring in Chicago we saw one with an enormous Victoria's Secret ad plastered on the side. In lieu of explaining lingerie I may have failed to correct Arie's belief that it was a bus you could ride in your underwear. He now categorizes double decker buses as ones you can ride in your clothes and... ones you can ride in your underwear.)
Studying the big red bus we quickly realized it wasn't a tour bus, but food bus! (Of course!) The shinning star of the menu was something my dear boy loves even more than bus rides: milkshakes.

After the milkshake we got back in our car and went to check into the KOA.

In Michigan we like to joke about the weather: If you don't like it, just wait five minutes! and the weather forecasters: Seriously do they just GUESS what the weather might be!? but the reality is that living so close to the Great Lakes, it can be hard to predict the weather. The lakes can turn the weather in strange and unpredictable ways. Well, Asheville is just outside the Blue Ridge Mountains and it TURNS OUT THE MOUNTAINS DO THE SAME THING! Only, worse.

Here is how our first 24 hours-ish of camping went:

4ish PM: The weather forecast is terrible. Lots of rain. There is an angry cloud and a lightning bolt picture on my weather app. There is an 80% chance of thundershowers all evening and night long. We have upgraded our tent site to a camping cabin to avoid setting up our tent in the rain.

5PM: We are checked in to our cabin. The sun is still shinning so YAY we can eat outside! John I say, Can you go grab us some tacos and bring them back? John does. We eat the most delicious tacos outside, sipping red wine from our plastic cups and smiling at our fortune that the rain as held off just long enough for our dinner.

7PM: The rain has still held off! I am a little perturbed that we spent extra money on the camping cabin when we really could have set up tent by now. Oh well, says John, At least we know we'll stay dry tonight. 

7:10PM: Arie asks for a campfire. Not tonight, we say, It's going to rain any minute now. Maybe Papa can take you for a quick swim before bed. I think the rain will hold off. It is partly cloudy right now, but the cloud parts look pretty angry.

8PM: Arie has swum and is now in bed. It starts to sprinkle. Here comes the storm! Glad we didn't waste our money after all. 

8:05PM: The sprinkle storm has passed.

10PM: We go to bed. Check, check, and double check that we have pulled all our wet towels off the cabin porch railing, all our stuff us off the picnic table, van windows rolled up... etc

7AM: We wake up! Wow we all slept through the storm. Awesome! We go outside. Hm. Things are a little damp... but I'm pretty sure that's just the dew. Did it even rain?? 

8AM: I check the forecast. John, I say, the morning is clear, but it looks like rain "again" this afternoon. Can you ask at the office if we can move to our site early so we can set up before it rains? 

10AM: We pull the van into our tent site. Looks great! We pop the hatch and pull out all our crap. It starts sprinkling.

10:05AM-NOON: It rains for two hours while we set up our camp. John moves the dining tent three times because I can't decide where I want it. We are all crabby. We get a divorce. We get remarried. Arie has left and entered the van 45237 times to get in and out of the rain, leaving an inch of mud caked to the floor under his carseat.

12:01PM: We finish setting up. It stops raining. We go to lunch.
From Instagram: high five. We survived setting up a tent in the rain! Marriage tester. 
HOW CAN YOU BEAT AN AWESOME MORNING LIKE THAT, you wonder? I know. It was hard. We did it by getting lunch and stiff drinks at the most DELICIOUS vegetarian cafe IN THE WORLD. (We ate a lot of BBQ in Tennessee and our bodies were like please give me some vegetables!)

If you are going to Asheville I very much recommend the Laughing Seed Cafe.

The rest of our trip was mostly eating. This is not a food blog, so I won't leave you with food pictures but here are some recommendations if you find yourself that way:

White Duck Taco Shop (I think we tried 8 different kinds but my favorite was the mushroom taco.)
The Laughing Seed (Went for lunch and Sunday brunch. Both fantastic. Brunch was to die for.)
Wicked Weed Brewing (Tried steak tartare here for the first time. I'm squeamish about such things but boy... it was great. I can see why people love it! Also, good beer.)

And a few more pictures:
Exploring a neighboring village. 
back in Asheville

And the end.

We looooooooved our time in Asheville. If you are at all into food or craft beer you too would love this place. If you would like to save money on accommodations so you have more to spend on food like we did, we recommend the Asheville West KOA. Very clean bathrooms. Very poor weather forecasting.



Smoky Mountain Vacation!

On Tuesday I unpacked (read: dumped) my, John's, and Arie's suitcases out after a two-week-long cabin/camping vacation in Tennessee and North Carolina. The t-shirts, the shorts, the bathing suits, my skirts... all wrinkled and worn, falling out of their duffle bag homes into a colorful pile. I find post-vacation laundry to be more satisfying than most. It's mostly because completing this chore is going to be like doing a little clothing "makeover"... a dramatic BEFORE (they're stained! they're wrinkled! they smell!) and AFTER (they're clean! they're folded! they smell good!), but also because just the simple act of tossing each article into the wash brings with it a flood of good memories: the buff John wore when he hiked up a mountain I still can't believe he did that... the small shorts Arie stained with his chocolate milkshake in Asheville He was so excited about that treat!... and oh look, the pair of jeans I packed in the bottom of my suitcase are still there, folded and unblemished because I never had to take them out. We had great weather, didn't we?! 

Yes we had fantastic weather and created even better memories. 

I have to tell you that I feel two ways about vacations. On one hand, they are a privilege. When we were in Tennessee we stayed in a cabin that overlooked the Smoky Mountains. This was the view from our porch and our bedroom window:

Every time I took that mountain view into my eyes, sealing it into my mind, I felt lucky. Not lucky in a "something randomly good happened to me!" way, but lucky in the sense that I knew that view- that time off and away from everyday life- was something special and I should be humbled and grateful for the opportunity to enjoy it.

On the other hand, vacations are necessary. Not that they have to be big and fancy, but simply a time away from our usual routines and responsibilities: a time to play. Particularly a time to play with your family. Each year after our vacation, John, Arie, and I come away stronger and more connected to one another. Our vacations are a time for us to put aside the worries of our regular days and enjoy each other. Laugh together! Rest. To not only love one another, but to love being with one another.

This year we enjoyed being with our little family of three and also being with my side of the family- making us 10 in all. We began our vacation spending a week near the Smoky Mountains with my parents, siblings, their spouses and my little niece. After that week John, Arie and I drove a little farther to camp near Asheville, NC for a few days.

The idea for the Smoky Mountain side of our vacation was born from a few sources of inspiration: a friend who traveled there years ago and came back with the most beautiful pictures (I want to go to there! I thought), a re-occuring comment that John and I had made on numerous past vacations: I wish [insert family member] was here to see this!, and- maybe strangest of all- a cabin rental recommendation from an office assistant at Arie's dentist!

That last one was incredibly serendipitous. Back in January I was scheduling his summer appointment and she asked if we would be away for any vacations (which we would schedule around). I mentioned we were looking into a trip to Tennessee and she replied with Oh I have just the place for you! She scribbled the name of a cabin rental company on the back of a business card and just a few days later (with many emails, calendar checks, and Skype conversations) we had the 10 of us booked for a week in the Smokies! (Lots of you who followed our trip on Instagram and Facebook have been asking me where we stayed! Here's the link to our cabin.)

As you know, this past spring was incredible painful for me and John having finally conceived after years of infertility only to miscarry. Through those painful months we spent a lot of time researching and thinking about our trip to the Smokies. It wasn't just a happy distraction for me. I knew at that time when God's presence seemed so far away what I needed was to be awed. I've always been this way: some of my earliest memories of being comforted by God's presence happened for me as I stared out across the endless sea of Lake Ontario near my home. I've noticed the Psalmist bends this way too: finding relief from the personal cries of his heart by looking up and around at the vast creation. Reminding himself of the power, the creativity, the dominion of his God.

I love Psalm 121:1: I lift my eyes to the mountains- where does my help from from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 

How often in our time of need do we struggle to conjure up the trust we need to survive? My well of internal strength quickly runs dry and I am learning as I get older that I cannot make myself trust God. I don't have enough optimist or will-power to do it. I need to look outward. I need to look to Him to fill me. He has left evidences of his power all around our planet and often what I need to do to reestablish my trust in Him, is simply to look at them. To lift my eyes to the mountains.

That's what this trip to the Smokies was about for me. Lifting my eyes.

To that end I had a three part "bucket list" of things I wanted to see and do on our trip:

  • Swim in a swimming hole. 
  • Hike to a waterfall.
  • Stand on a high point with a breathtaking view. 
I also hoped to hike along a babbling brook like we did last summer when we were in New York state, but that experience last year was so magical I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment so it didn't make the list. However I am happy to say it did indeed happen and much to my surprise the experience was even more beautiful than last year's. 

Enough talking, more pictures! (I'll leave the names of these places in case any of you find yourself here one day.) 

Swim in a swimming hole: check. ("The Sinks.")
My sister-in-law Kaitlin leading the boys in a plunge off this rock! #girlpower

Hike to a waterfall: check. ("Laurel Falls")
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls:
all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Psalm 42:7

Stand on a high point with a breathtaking view: check. ("Clingman's Dome")

Hike alongside a babbling brook: bonus check! (Chimney Tops Picnic Area)

I went into this trip wanting to be awed and I was. In the face of those mountains I felt small and vulnerable, but I also remembered how enormously powerful my God is. I feel like I've been put in my place. I know we don't usually use that phrase "put in your place" in a positive sense, but I mean it in one. Not in a shameful way; in a right way. I've been put in my place in a way that humbles me and opens me to trust my God. I need that. I want that. I'm getting that.

Part two of our trip to Asheville to come.... once I get this laundry pile sorted out. ;-)



Michigan Summers: camping in Petoskey

Just days before I left my Ontarionian (read: "of Ontario, Canada") home for college I took an early morning walk in a park on the shores of Lake Ontario. The walk wasn't a purposed leisurely stroll but a by-way I took to from my car to a destination up ahead where I had an appointment. Nevertheless I enjoyed the short journey beside the big lake turned pinkish under the rising sun. I remember thinking why have I not enjoyed this park, this view, this lake more? I had grown up just minutes from its vast beauty but only truly enjoyed it maybe a dozen times. I was about to say goodbye and I was just realizing that in eighteen years I had barely noticed where I lived.

There is something about leaving that wakes a person up to the pleasures of place and presence.

John and I are not leaving our state of Michigan any time soon, but as a ministry family we know the day will come. In our denomination it is common for a pastor to move to a new church within a 5-10 year window. While we have no plans to leave, the knowledge that we won't always live here has given the two of us a special sense of purpose when it comes to enjoying our place and being present in it.

Sometimes it's hard. And by "sometimes" I mean in February and March. In February it just feels like the winter will never, ever, ever end. And then in March it feels like spring should be arriving, but instead you just get more snow.

In those times John often jokes with me that God will call us next to a church in a very warm and sunny state where cold and snow is just a concept people hardly think about. I'm kidding he says... kind of. 

But then just when we think the winter is truly going to drive us crazy (or maybe juuuust shortly after) the winter breaks, spring arrives, and we find ourselves falling into another Michigan summer.

Michigan summers.

They're a thing.

They're a really, really good thing.

Michigan summers are lush in a particularly Michigan way. For me that word lush conjures up a jungle or a tropical scene, but truly it applies to Michigan summers as well. Our greens are thick forests of maple, cedar, and oak trees, our blues are both the vast Great Lakes and the thousand smaller water bodies littered over the state, and our white-golds are the miles and miles of breathtaking coastline.

We live close to the shores of Lake Michigan. I'm surprised by how frequently John and I will hear someone who was born-and-raised (and will probably die) here say, "I don't really get to the beach too much."

I mean not to judge but... you're crazy and we can't be friends.

(Really though, I can't judge. See my opening paragraph.)

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to meet the Michigan shoreline from a new place when we went camping in Petoskey.  John had been hoping to run the Chicago Marathon in the fall (I know. He's crazy and awesome.) but alas entrance into the Marathon is by lottery and his name wasn't drawn. The Charlevoix Marathon was his back-up Marathon so he picked up his training speed and by late June we found ourselves camping in what is likely one of the most beautiful parts of our state.

I'm not a camper by nature but I am a camper by financial necessity because it truly is the cheapest way to vacation. You will see me blow drying my hair in the van via extension cord and car mirrors, but besides that I think I'm actually okay at it. And you know, camping is pretty fun!

No one judges you on your outfit even if you wear stripes and bright orange and a cool-dad sweatshirt all at once...

AND you can take a five minute walk from your campsite to this:

I'll blow-dry my hair in the van for that.

We enjoyed afternoons at the beach, evenings by the campfire, and early mornings being awoken by the birds. (Truthfully being awoken by the birds is kind of magical on the first day, but after that I had a few fantasies involving shot guns. They start singing really early.)

John ran his Marathon like the champion that he is and finished in under four hours at 3:52:17. So proud of this guy!
Can you find John?

Arie and I got up with the early birds at 5am to watch him run. Arie was slightly grumpy from lack of sleep. He wanted to yell, "YOU'RE MY SUPER HERO!" to John as John ran by. He "practiced" on a dozen runners who came before, but then froze when he saw his dad. Ha! Hopefully it was at least encouraging to those dozen strangers!
Even grouchy he's cute. :-)
We enjoyed some beautiful views as we cheered our superhero on.

Michigan is truly an incredible state to enjoy.

Have you ever been to Michigan? Do you like camping? What do you love about your place?



Living in a pit with a heavenly view

One year ago yesterday John and I met our embryo donors. I remember because it's Vacation Bible School week at our church and last year I taught VBS the morning before we met them.

We were blessed by our donors who gave us four embryos to transfer. Their gift filled us with hope and expectation. I felt as though our next child was so close. Like I could almost reach out and touch her, my fingers just barely grazing her skin.

Nine months- how ironic- after that warm June day all four embryos were gone. Dead. All four beat the odds to survive the IVF thawing process, at least one implanted in my womb.... but none survived. We never got to meet our baby.

It's been three months now since I miscarried that one who implanted inside me. When people ask me how I'm doing I like to use an analogy. Maybe it will help someone else name something they're going through so I'll share it here. (If I've learned one thing through infertility it's that none of my experiences are unique. They are shared. They are common. They're so common they'd be boring if they weren't so painful.)

Living with infertility feels like living in a pit.


Every cycle is like the sun rising and setting over the pit and with it my hopes. When it's daylight I think, "Maybe I can climb out of here!" or "Maybe someone will walk by and throw me a rope!" or "Maybe if I cry upwards loud enough, someone will hear me and rescue me!"

But every month, the sun sets on my pit. I have not found a way out. I am left in darkness. I sit down in the pit to weep and gather my strength to try again.

When I finally, FINALLY! found out I was pregnant last winter I climbed out of the pit into the glorious sun! I felt the warmth on my face, I lifted my hands to the heavens, I cried in victory and sheer relief!

Even as I stood in the sun, though, I knew I was just one small step away from the gaping mouth of the pit. Even in my joy, I could feel the greedy darkness lurking behind me. My biggest fear was that I would fall back inside.

The moment I lay on the ultrasound table as my doctor searched for a baby and then said, "I don't see anything" it was like someone pushed me, hard, right back into the pit.

I fell with a tremendous THUD. Initially it was all I could do to breathe. The wind was knocked right out of me. I lay gasping on the floor.  Then the shock wore off and the pain of my broken body set in. I writhed. I agonized.

It's been three months now and the agony has faded to a dull and constant ache. I broke a few bones in that fall; they're healing, but I don't think they all set exactly right. And... I'm still in the pit.

I've gone through all the stages of grief in this pit (and am still going through them). I've been angry, weepy, denial-y...

Something I've learned in the pit is how little there is to say about something like this and how good it is to be still before the LORD. At first I didn't really have anything to say because I was just so crushed. There were no words to express it. Then I didn't want to say anything because it would have just been a long string of angry expletives. I thought about bargaining with God to somehow coerce him into giving me a child, but I've been a Christian long enough to know that I'll never hold up any end of any deal I could ever make with him. Plus, what could I ever offer that he doesn't already have? And also: God doesn't work that way.

There is really so little to say about loss. It's not fair but what's fair? It's not right but it's happening. Let's just all say, "This is a nightmare. I hate everything. I'm going to go hide in the garage." (Anne Lamott, Stitches.)

Realizing how little there is to say about loss is quite difficult when you're a blogger and a talker and a general word-er. I kind of felt like I was shushed by God.

Thank God my faith starts with love. I know that shushing wasn't a sharp, "SHHH!" like a librarian scolding noisy kids between the book aisles. It was more like the way a mother scoops up and "shhhhhh"s her little child after a big tumble on the sidewalk and a skinned knee.

I'm still in the pit. I don't know when or how I'll ever climb out of it. But what I am learning is how to live here better than I have been. How to not be so angry about being here, how to accept sadness, how to embrace the idea that somehow living in the pit for however long is preparing me for something I can't see yet.

Truly, what can a person see from a pit? The sun. Clouds. Sometimes a patch of blue. Tiny stars in the night sky. The heavens. All you can see in the pit are the heavens.

Here I am. In the pit. All I can see are the heavens. All I can do is trust that my heavenly view is enough to sustain me for now.

"Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens;
Who created these?
He brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God"?

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint."
- Isaiah 40:26-31

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