The lavish lure of the Smoky Mountains

The stage is set. All of nature has been waiting with breath held for this, this moment in time, this blink of history. As the sun rises the show begins; grand in entrance, yet quietly dripping with elegance, she pierces through the curtain of foliage like a bugle sounding her battle cry.

smokeymountains
On the road to Clingmans Dome (highest spot in the Smokies)

Standing at attention with stately brilliance, row upon row of attentive trunks swell their breasts with pride as they lift their branches in unabashed arrogance against the backdrop of the pale sky. “Look here!” they cry. “Gaze upon me!” they plead.

smokey-mountains
The view from Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains National Park

And we do, we cannot look away, our eyes are fixed, our faces set against the sky, pulling the view close, attempting to etch it into our memory with frail focus. For we know that this moment is fleeting. Like a whisper it will come and go. Like the Smoky mist, it will slowly become obscured, crowded out by more pressing persuasions. Perhaps that is part of the lavish lure of it all. So we cast our longing glances, capture, click and sigh knowing that when the curtain closes on the day, we didn’t miss the show–we were part of it.

Beautiful boringness

Some of the very best memories from my week thus far were so removed from the arena of exciting, that they actually hung out with lame and boring for fun. Are you ready to hear my top three moments?

Making 8 batches of apple brownies last week
Making 8 batches of apple brownies last week

Making apple brownies in my own kitchen

Last week we were WWOOFing at a ranch. For the entire week we cooked in their lovely kitchen and ate every meal in the ranch café. The kitchen was large, well stocked and filled with stainless steel. One day I made 8 batches of apple brownies for the weekend dessert (click here for the recipe). Sunday, after we’d pulled into a new campground and had settled in for the afternoon, I wanted to made dessert in my own teeny tiny kitchen. Standing between my sink and stove slicing apples felt cozy, like a wearing a favorite pair of sweat pants. I knew where every ingredient was (including the ones stored under my bed) and the only dishes I had to wash were my own.

Going grocery shopping with the whole family

After I made apple brownies, Trent needed to create his own version of kitchen comfort (chocolate chip cookies) and discovered we were low on butter. We explored another new grocery store together roaming the aisles and crossing items off of our list. Quinten pushed the cart. Hunter found the cereal isle. Ashlyn and I scoped out the frozen veggies and Trent and Tanner found the butter (which was also conveniently close to the ice cream). It was mundane yet, not. Fun new finds greeted us around every corner. The meat department had a lobster tank and offered stuffed crab. The dairy isle didn’t just have almond milk and cashew milk but also almond and cashew milk blended together! Even the cereal isle hosted new surprises (hello grits!). It felt like a family food field trip.

Visiting a local thrift store

When we decided to bring only a few changes of clothes for each child, we knowingly assumed we would be stopping from time to time to replenish or replace needed items. Yesterday we found a thrift store and meandered through a myriad of shirts until we found just the right long sleeve to come live in our dresser drawers.

None of these activities were special in their own right. But following several weeks of consistent events, it was the mundane that rose to the top as the richest part of the day. Isn’t it ironic that what we often crave is simply what we haven’t had enough of lately? I can’t live in a constant state of activity without wearing thin and craving routine, but I also can’t maintain too much sameness without itching for a new adventure. It’s the pull between the two that creates the needed tension of appreciation. It’s the attention to the moment that allows the thankfulness of the memory.

WWOOFing in an RV with kids

Is WWOOFing in an RV with kids a good idea? First things first, let’s clarify exactly what “WWOOFing” is. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. As described on their website,

Visitors, or ‘WWOOFers’, spend about half a day helping out on a host farm, learn about the organic movement and sustainable agriculture, and receive room and board during their visit – with no money exchanged between hosts and WWOOFers.

When Trent and I first sat down to creatively carve out an itinerary for our trip, WWOOFing was a strong contender that we wanted to consider. We were intrigued by the potential possibilities that this kind of arrangement could offer us, particularly for our children. We liked the idea of exposing them to lifestyles that we have not had and opportunities for work that have not previously been an option. Free food and a place to park our RV would also be a helpful bonus.

WWOOFing in an rv with kids:
first impressions

Last week Sunday we arrived at our first WWOOFing location nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains entirely unsure what we were in for and hopeful that we would have a positive experience. Right out of the gate, we realized that our first error was assuming that because this ranch had RV hookups, they would also be in a location that was easy to access with our 40’ 5th wheel. I slowly followed behind my husband as he turned off the main road and inched along a narrow drive. Lined with beautiful deciduous trees bursting with color and threatening to baptize our home with branches, the one-lane road wound slowly toward our destination. With each turn I winced inwardly hoping he would not come to a low overpass or narrow bridge that would end our progress forward.

Thankfully, we had been advised to arrive in daylight and the road finally opened up to our destination. Upon our arrival, our WWOOFing hosts exclaimed, “You just pulled that RV down that road? I am so sorry; we had no idea your RV was that big. We would have advised a different route had we known that!” Lesson learned: give more details about the size of our RV before assuming that it will be a perfect fit.

Our little home tucked into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains
Our little home tucked into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains

The upside to having a rough entry road for a remote ranch is fewer neighbors. For the first 6 days of our stay, only one little Class C motor home (another WWOOFing couple) shared our view. One additional pull behind RV arrived at the very end of our stay. Being in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains with this fall backdrop right outside our front door was an intense treat. Having so much breathing room around us was an extra bonus.

unfettered room to roam
unfettered room to roam

Our second erroneous assumption was that we would be the only WWOOFers during the duration of our stay. In reality we shared the week with five other WWOOFers. Three of them were young single men and the other two were the before mentioned motor home couple. We were the only WWOOFers with kids, but we enjoyed the mix of consistent workers throughout the week. After a month of consistent traveling, getting to interact with the same group of people each day as we worked was nice. Everyone treated our kids with kindness with some even going so far as to let our kids borrow personal art supplies, play their guitar, share a saddle on a their horse and letting the kids help with cooking projects in the kitchen. We appreciated the willingness to let our kids participate whenever there was interest or opportunity.

WWOOFing in an rv with kids:
The upsides

Community:

The community feel created by the mix of WWOOFers seemed like a strange college déjà vu. We would all sleep in our own rooms at night but then see the same non-family faces for breakfast, lunch and dinner while also intermingling for work and downtime. Cooking, washing dishes and working next to others day after day creates a unique environment to visit and learn from each other and certainly makes what could be a menial task more interesting.

Learning to make wontons
Ashlyn learning to make wontons
Hosts:

Aside from the other WWOOFers, our hosts displayed an incredible aptitude for encouraging learning throughout the week. Want to learn to drive a tractor? No problem! Want your son to learn to drive a zero-turn mower? Sure! Would you like to use our horses to go trail riding with your kids? Absolutely! It was obvious that their intent was to share the experience of their ranch to anyone who was interested in receiving it.

Food:

This particular location offered cabin or lodge room rentals, RV hookups, and room for horse trailers throughout the week, as well as a café that operated on the weekends. Having a professional, well-stocked kitchen was ideal for feeding our WWOOFing group. I’ve enjoyed our little RV kitchen much more than I thought I would, but having free rein to cook in a large space again was a real treat. In addition to having space to cook, having no food costs for the duration of our stay was a huge benefit.

trail riding
Getting ready to go trail riding
RV Lodging:

It is my understanding that while many “RV friendly” WWOOFing locations may be able to provide electricity and water, having sewer hookups is not common. In light of that, having full hookups with sewer was also wonderful.

impromptu concert
Quinten and Tanner enjoying an impromptu concert
Play:

Despite the fact that we were the only WWOOFing family with kids, our hosts did have children. Each weekday after their kids returned from school, our kids had the chance to interact, play cards, chess, soccer and tag with new friends.

First time driving a zero turn lawnmower
First time driving a zero turn lawnmower
Kid’s work:

We appreciated that our kids could participate in several jobs around the ranch. This was after all, the primary reason that we opted to WWOOF. It was also something we discussed specifically on the phone with one of our hosts before coming.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
The downsides

Schedule:

Obviously it is understood that the intent of the WWOOFing arrangement is to trade labor for learning, room and board and (depending on the location) food. Exactly what you may be asked to do may or may not be something that appeals to you. In addition, the schedule of your day may vary from one day to the next.

Because we only stayed for a week, we decided to let the experience take precedence whenever we had a conflict with school. This meant that we did school in the morning on some days and in the afternoons on others. Some mornings we got up earlier than typical. Some days we worked late into the evening pushing the kid’s bedtime out farther than typical.

Flexibility is important and something we worked to maintain. However, almost every night of our stay Trent and I went to sleep very tired and I believe that juggling our family needs with work needs with an ever-changing schedule played into that. We could have set school aside for the week of our stay but because we have had so many travel days packed into our last month (and we opt not to do school on travel days), we chose to work school into our routine this week despite the extra business it would create.

Internet:

Internet service for us in our RV was dependent on what we could get through our phones. However, in the café area we were able to connect to the local Wi-Fi. It would have been nice to have access to this Wi-Fi in our RV because we had almost used up our monthly data when we had arrived. I imagine that this would vary at each WWOOFing location. If internet is important for your work or school, be sure to clarify this before arrival. Thankfully for us it wasn’t essential.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
The work we did

Some of the jobs that the kids helped out with included:

  • Watering plants
  • Washing dishes
  • Food prep
  • Breaking down boxes for recycling
  • Cooking
  • Lawn mowing
  • Assisting with building projects
  • Cleaning a hot tub

Jobs that I did included:

  • Meal prep, planning and cooking
  • Washing dishes
  • Kitchen cleanup
  • Organizing the laundry room with labels

Jobs that Trent did included:

  • Fixing leaking toilets
  • Helping with the initial construction of an outdoor pavilion
  • Weed whacking
  • Hot tub cleaning
  • Dish washing

WWOOFing in an RV with kids:
other details

  • Food: you may or may not have food included in your arrangement as that varies from location to location. Exactly what benefits are included are typically defined in the profile of each host on the WWOOF.org website. If you have special diet needs (vegan, vegetarian, etc) this may limit how may “matches” show up as options for you when you search for potential farms but there are filters for those diet requests. Some locations may cook meals for you, while others simply provide ingredients and expect you to cook for yourself.
  • Hours: While the WWOOFing website says you can expect to spend “about a half a day” working, this varies from location to location as well. As I read though different farm profiles, I noticed some expecting as many as 6-8 hours of work while others were much more laid back. Some expect work on certain days of the week with specific days off, while others may have lots of work on one day and little to none the next day.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
Final thoughts

As a family traveling in an RV, we do not fit the typical demographic in the WWOOFing community. Our host said that we are the first WWOOFing family they have had in the three years they have been a part of the WWOOFing program. However, the WWOOF.org website does have filters allowing you to specify that you only want to be shown farms that allow RVs and farms that allow families with kids. (There is also a filter for those that have pets as well as filters for how long you wish to stay at a location).

WWOOFing in an RV with kids

As a RV WWOOFing couple with kids, we tried to clarify through our initial phone call “interview” that my husband would be doing most of the regular work and that the kids and I would be available to help out once school work was completed. I think it is important to decide ahead of time what your family is comfortable offering in terms of work and hours. Be sure to discuss this ahead of time with your potential host. This will help ensure that everyone has similar expectations.

We like having flexibility in our schedule and freedom in our days. Therefore, I don’t see us WWOOFing frequently or for long durations of time. However, we did have a very positive first experience. We are be open to WWOOFing again. Particularly if the location or farm is unique and offers something we want to learn. It is the people and the experiences that create the unique memories that make this lifestyle rich and rewarding. Because of the people and the experiences gained, our first experience WWOOFing in an RV with kids was a success.

Are considering WWOOFing in an RV with kids? I hope hearing about our experience will help you decide if this might be a good fit for you.

2,200+ miles and still alive

In college I drove 279 miles from Spokane, WA to Seattle, WA alone. I remember turning up the music full blast, rolling down my window and eventually pulling over numerous times to jump around on the side of the road in an attempt to wake myself up. In our early years of marriage, there were a few times that I offered to drive on a long trip to relieve Trent when he was getting sleepy. I never lasted more than 30 minutes before he needed to take over again for fear that I would be the one to fall asleep. Therefore, you may understand when I say I had a legitimate concern about driving the van on this trip. “We may die or at the very least, we may arrive a week later than expected due to frequent stops to wake myself up,” I reasoned.

At the beginning of the trip, I did struggle. Montana worked out okay, partially because I was on an adrenaline high from beginning our adventure. However, South Dakota was harsh. My mind was turning to mush out there on the prairie and was threatening to blow away my focus like the tumbleweeds. By the time we arrived in Minnesota, Trent and I were having serious discussions about leaving the van at his parent’s house and simply continuing together as a family in the truck. This option would be doable, but not ideal. Having a second vehicle gives us freedom and flexibility. We can easily leave the truck and RV at the registration desk at a campground, jump in the van together and scout out the best RV site without having to navigate the truck and RV around the countless loops. Once we are parked at a campground, we can use the van for day-trips. Should the truck (or van) have issues, we are not without a second back-up vehicle . . . However, none of these options matter if I can’t stay awake.

Somehow a little miracle happened. This last Thursday I drove 256 miles, stopping just one time so Trent could gas up. I could have kept going! My driving muscles seem to have slowly strengthened with each passing mile. Is that possible? Perhaps more probable is that the landscape has grown increasingly more interesting as we’ve traveled. Thursday was no exception. We left Indiana in the morning and arrived in Virginia by mid-afternoon. It was slightly mind blowing to leave the mid-west and arrive in the east-coast in a matter of hours. Driving through the state of Kentucky was a treat. The distant hillsides were filled with tremendous texture as the hardwoods heralded their splendor, intermingling color and shape and size. Closer to the road we were treated to picturesque views of fenced green meadows with grazing horses. Who could possibly fall asleep while seeing this for the first time?

falltrees

As we arrived at our campground location in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, we felt doubly blessed to be situated in such a lovely location for a portion of our trip designed for downtime.

cumberland-gap-campsite

After enjoying a slow start to our morning and completing our school goals, we ventured out to the ranger station for the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. After our three youngest finished their Junior Ranger booklets and received their new badges, we ventured up to the pinnacle overlook. From this location we were able to take in a breathtaking view of the Appalachian Mountains and see where the three states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia come together at the top of a nearby ridge. We could also locate the Cumberland Gap where between 1175-1810, 300,000 settlers traveled after Daniel Boone helped clear a trail for their travels. The kids hurled countless acorns over the side of the viewing platform, but no matter how hard they tried, the acorns kept landing in Virginia.

cumberland-gap

Fact: I’ve now driven over 2,200 miles.

Fact: I’ve been the only adult in the vehicle.

Fact: I have had at least 3 of the 4 kids with me at all times.

Fact: We are all still alive.

Let’s celebrate!

 

Travel details:

  • Cumberland Gap National Historic Park has no admissions fee.
  • Camping is $20 for a site with electricity and $10 without. There is no water or sewer. Camping is first come, first serve with no reservations.
  • They have a lot of sites but many of them are too uneven or too short to work for our 40-foot RV so this was a time in which we appreciated having our van along to help us scout out where we wanted to go.
  • Despite the fact that we arrived mid-week, nearly all the sites with electricity were full. We ended up staying at a non-electric site. The public bathroom and showers are very clean.
  • The camp hosts were friendly, quick to welcome us and fill us in on the details of the park.
  • We spent about 1 ½ hours at the ranger station. If we were not helping kids with their Jr. Ranger booklets we would likely have been there 45-60 minutes.
  • There are Gap cave tours available for $8/adult, $4/child (ages 4-12). These book up early so plan at least a day in advance. We opted not to do a tour here as we recently did a cave tour in South Dakota (Jewel Cave) and plan to visit one again in a few weeks (in the Mammoth Cave area).
  • There are many hiking trails in the area as well.

at home

“The sky overhead, the earth below, the mountains around. I stand in the middle place—at home.” Dr. Tine Swentzell, Santa Clara Pueblo

Mesa Verde Overlook

A few days ago I was standing in the visitor center in the Mesa Verde National Park and read the above quote.  It whispered into my ear and dripped like thick honey into my heart.  At that point our family had been on the road for 12 days traveling in our van. Our road trip was taking us from Idaho to Nashville, Tennessee and back in a lazy fashion. This was the longest stretch we have taken as a family on the road. As I write, we are finishing up the final hours of our return voyage.  In the last fifteen days we have traveled 4, 714 miles covering 14 states, 5 National Parks/Monuments, 12 hotel rooms and countless potty breaks. It was rushed, there was a lot of rain, at times we couldn’t remember which state we were in, we but we loved it entirely. Continue reading “at home”