Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains (or the impermanence of eternity)

View of The Great Smoky Mountains from Cades Cove, Tennessee.

View of The Great Smoky Mountains from Cades Cove, Tennessee.

There is something effortlessly romantic about the Great Smoky Mountains in early spring.

Driving through this stretch of Appalachia is driving through a stretch of eternity. The beauty of the Smokies is its timelessness: the range having formed centuries ago, breathtaking in its imposition, an impossible eternity in the Carolina horizon.

Paradoxically, spring ushers in life anew, a perfectly continual ode to impermanence, a jeer at eternity. The tragedy of autumn’s loss gives way to the triumph of spring’s revival.

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#smokymountains #tennessee

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Snowmelt sends creeks and Little Rivers flooding over roadways, reclaiming their rightful paths. It is a lesson in the impermanence of eternity: The waters have always been and will always be, but every rock the stream touches is etched away forever, and not a stone the river carries will ever go back to where it once rested.

This timeless Smoky mountainside is forever changed by each among thousands of springs and snowmelts. As water flows over its bluffs, its eternity is fleeting, eroding.

The trees, too, teach us this lesson. Autumn’s fallen leaves lay under a light blanket of snow, the wet rot already fertilizing the next generation of leaves.


The chill of winter lingers. In the fields of Cade’s Cove, Tennessee, wisps of warm breath drift from the snouts of young deer, patched with dark winter coats they’ve only just begun to shed.

A dusting of snow covers mountaintop branches, while in the valley, ice melts in every hour of sunlight.

Icicles cling to the sandstone cliffs on the roadside where, decades ago, men hacked at the earth to give other men access to its depths. The icicles, like claws, dig into winter, but the sun is winning; each glassy fingertip drips, drips, drips until it’s gone.


In a dream, the historic Carter Shields Cabin is our home. A rustic fantasy. I imagine flickering firelight through the windows at dusk, billowing white smoke above the chimney. In the distance, howls echo off the hills and mountainsides, welcoming the night.

I imagine us, shuddering off the winter, heralding the spring, calling in the dawn.

These are the mountains that gave me birth; they will always beckon me home; but, like spring, my presence here is never permanent.



Travel highlights: Cruising the West Caribbean

Travel highlights and things to do in Cozumel, Mexico; Roatán Island, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; and Grand Cayman Island


About the trip

Disclaimer: I wanted to write about this trip today because it’s very cold in Pennsylvania, and these photos make me feel warm again.

Joe (husband) and I are not Cruise People. We thrive in big-city hostels, shirking fine dining for eating out of grocery stores or through the kindness of acquaintances. We seek natural, real-life (read: free) experiences at our destinations, preferring to explore cities on sidewalks or watch the sunset over tourist traps.

But for our honeymoon in the spring of 2013, we wanted to take it easy. When else would we allow ourselves to relax in luxury, our every meal provided for us, swimming and entertainment just steps away from our rooms? Plus, we knew we wanted to visit somewhere warm, and we don’t know anyone living in Central America or the Caribbean to give us a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live there, so we resigned to take this trip as full-on tourists.

I’d mention the name of the cruise line or the ship we took, but frankly I don’t have much to say about those. The cruise itself was underwhelming. Many of the on-board restaurants were totally closed, the events were campy and lame, and everything just felt pretty grimy. Maybe it would’ve been nice if we liked to get drunk and hang out with strangers much older than us, but that’s not really our jam. For our at-sea days, we read on our balcony, watched the waves and ate way too much ice cream. We didn’t get out to many cruise ship events or spend any time on deck or in the pool, because people in general are weird and gross and drunk most of the time.

That said, a cruise is a good way to check out several different locales in only a few days. Cruises are great if you just want to float along your vacation, taking in the sun and the sights. Planning excursions ahead of time means you never have to ask, “What are we doing today?” and a day is never wasted. So, instead of dwelling on the particulars of cruising, I’m focusing on our four destinations: Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Roatán Island, Honduras; and Grand Cayman Island.

Here I’ve posted a brief outline of things to do at each destination, along with a small gallery each day of us doing those things. Enjoy!

Day 1: Cozumel, Mexico (Paradise Beach)

Honeymoon0513_082After a day at sea, we chose a day at the beach. We had breakfast ashore and ate huevos rancheros on the deck of a super sketchy restaurant near the port. First time eating Mexican food in Mexico was a hit. Thanks for the good times, Sketchy Cozumel Restaurant.

We took a cab and spent the rest of the day on an excursion to Paradise Beach.

Paradise’s private beach area is closed off, and in the entrance sits a little gift shop, where you pay a small admission fee. Through there you’ll see a huge pool area with lounge chairs and a walk-up outdoor cantina. We had lunch there – Joe had some kind of nacho contraption, and I had a burrito. We both had fancy tropical adult beverages with lunch as well.

Past the pool are a few trees, then you’ll meet the sand and the waves. We sat all day in the sun, jumped in the water, inspected tiny shelled creatures in the ocean and ordered a few more fancy tropical adult beverages. Probably the best part: The beach had free wifi, so we could taunt all out friends back home in Pennsylvania with pictures of Paradise all day.

Here are some photos from Cozumel, Mexico:

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Day 2: Belize City, Belize (Xunantunich Mayan ruins)

We were warned about traveling around Belize City as tourists by a friend who lived in Mexico for much of his life. We were told by other family members that there would be armed guards around the port and security checkpoints throughout our excursion. We didn’t see any of that. There are, of course, real dangers to getting cocky in a tourist area, with luxury shopping tucked away at cruise ports in third-world countries. But we minded our business and had no troubles at all.

Off the ship, we boarded a bus to the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in the Cayo district of Belize. The reviews for this excursion complained about the 2-hour bus ride to the ruins, but for me this was one of the best parts of the trip. It was one of the only moments when we could get a sense of what life is like for Belizeans in that region. Our tour guide, a Belizean woman, recited history of the areas through which we rode, talking about the local economy, exports, politics, how land ownership works and more. She taught us that like Pennsylvania, Belize has a sizable Amish population. She even shamed some of the less inhibited of the tourists into trying out the local English dialect.

We arrived at the ruins, impressive as expected, and explored for a few hours. I’ll let the photos speak to that. On the way back, we ate some ridiculously delicious local food. Rice and beans like we’ve never had before.

Here are photos from Belize City:

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Day 3: Roatán Island, Honduras (Gumbalimba wildlife park)

Roatán Island is a place like I’ve never heard of: A swath of the island has been purchased and is owned entirely by cruise companies, developed for the express purpose of entertaining zipline-and-snorkel-enthusiast tourists. A large portion of the island is basically off-limits to Hondurans, except those who work there. There are locals on Roatan Island, and fishing brings the largest income for locals, second to tourism in economic importance on the island.

The whole colonialism thing really grossed me out, so we got out of the cruise-owned area and went to a wildlife park on the island, called Gumbalimba.

Joe’s top highlight was definitely ‘snuba’-diving, a combination of scuba and snorkeling, where divers breathe through respirators attached to air tanks floating on small inflatable rafts. We saw some really cool wildlife down there, and our guide even helped us sneak out a huge shell. But, for a claustrophobic person like me, trying to breathe through the respirator was overwhelming at times. I didn’t have an underwater camera, so I don’t have any photos of our snuba adventures for you.

We also toured the animal sanctuary, and we hung out with a very colorful bird and a tiny monkey. We even watched a larger monkey steal one woman’s expensive sunglasses, wear them, crack them against a tree branch, and drop them on the ground. That was hilarious for everyone but her.

Here are some photos from Roatán Island:

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Day 4: Grand Cayman Island (Grand Cayman Turtle Farm, Hell and the Stingray City sandbar)

Grand Cayman had so much potential, but our tour guide was uninspiring. He was obsessed with the American celebrities who have bank accounts in the Caymans or who vacation at the island’s private beaches. He didn’t get into any of the particulars of life for locals there, even though he had lived there his entire life.

Our excursion here first took us to the Grand Cayman Turtle Farm,  where sea turtles are raised either for re-introduction into the Caribbean or for consumption. Turtle is a staple of locals’ diets. We didn’t have much time here, so we just checked out the giant adult turtles, then got to hold some very adorable baby turtles.

Next we went to Hell, a large limestone formation so named presumably because it looks a bit like my nightmares. It was cool, but of course the gift shop was full of kitschy stuff like “I went to hell and back and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts.

Our final stop was the Stingray City sandbar – definitely the highlight of Grand Cayman. We took a small boat out to a sandbar where we waded among dozens of huge stingrays, trained to docility by years of tourist organizations feeding and petting them. Joe was giddy with excitement.

Here are some photos from Grand Cayman:

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In the end…

It was a great trip, and we got exactly what we wanted out of it: namely, relaxation. We saw four new places and soaked up more sun than ever. I even conquered a few fears by letting a winged beast sit on my shoulder and going snuba diving  in Roatán. We got an overview of a few Caribbean locales, so we got an idea of where we may want to visit for a more inclusive, culturally fulfilling trip in the future.

Want the scoop on where you should visit?

Cozumel: Would recommend Paradise Beach, though other excursions would have shown us more about Mexico.

Belize City: The ruins were stunning. Highly recommended.

Roatán Island: Most excursions were weird and hyper-touristy, but the wildlife park was fun.

Grand Cayman Island: The island was gorgeous, but I wish we had chosen a different excursion, maybe something with more nature/beaches involved.

Any Caribbean locations you’d recommend we visit next? 

Adios for now!


To-Do List Neurosis: Debt phobia, goals and Sweden

On Lake Vänern

On Lake Vänern

I hope you’ll forgive me a humblebrag/reflection post today.

Yesterday was a huge day for me: I paid off my final student loan. At 25, four years after graduating from an expensive university, it seems impossible.

How did I do it? Well, the last few steps were accomplished thanks to two things: 1) an overwhelming fear of debt and 2) an obsessive need to check things off my to-do list.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale. I grew up suburban with a supportive family; I have a dad who had a good job; and I got a decent public education. I am white. All of these things helped lead to my success throughout grade school. Those privileges also helped me network and land great jobs out of college.

Still, I graduated with a hair above the national average in student loan debt, around $30,000. It’s not too shabby, considering that during my four years at Susquehanna University, the tuition hovered around $40,000 annually. For those of you playing along at home, that’s $160,000 in costs overall.

Debt phobia

May 2011

May 2011

I asked Google whether there’s a term for a phobia of acquiring debt. I came up empty.

It’s apparently A Thing, whether it has a name or not, and I found plenty of financial advice columns on how to overcome this fear. I don’t think I’m debt-phobic – I’m not kept up at night – but I’ve been preoccupied with my debts since I entered college. I didn’t understand how loans, creditors, or interest rates worked, and that lack of knowledge quickly translated to fear and avoidance.

This fear helped me early on: It meant I applied for lots of scholarships. In the end, more than half of my tuition each year was paid by scholarships and federal grants. I also worked while going to school full-time. A retail job at first, then interning and freelancing for my regional newspaper. All out of fear for the financial system in Big Education.

To-do list neurosis

What propelled me more than a fear of the unknown was a compulsion to make to-do lists: on paper, in my head, in emails, in organizational apps on my phone. And an obsession with whittling those lists down as quickly and completely as possible.



These lists are the only way I make it through a day without forgetting, you know, the basic aspects of being a functioning adult. I rely on them for everything. Each day, I keep a task list in the calendar on my phone: Pick up Rx; gym; transfer $ from savings; call mom. But there is a broader, more imposing task list in my head at any given time: Pay off debts; build up funds; apply for residence permit in Sweden; move. It gets a little fuzzier after that, but even post-Sweden life isn’t unplanned.

I had realized something important: I could use my neuroses for good. I took my goal of moving to Sweden and turned it into something I knew I couldn’t resist: a to-do list. Day-to-day pressures, reminders and steps to take to lead my husband and me down that path. We’re making not just specific savings goals and payment plans, but lesson plans for Swedish, research goals for immigration information, tasks to connect online and meet up with other ex-pats in Gothenburg.

Paying off my debt is the first major step to our Big Move. I turned it into just another item to check off my to-do list. Starting a new life in Sweden is something we’ve been talking about since our first trip to Gothenburg in 2011. We sat in the car outside an office building, watching the sun rise before I went into work, and made a five-year plan: we’d save up, we’d learn a bit of Swedish, we’d visit again (in 2014), we’d learn everything we can about emigrating, and we’d make it happen.

For someone with an obsessive personality like mine, it’s a huge relief to continue to check those items off the list.

Exploration | Reclaiming childhood adventures

By Phae, Flickr.com

By Phae, Flickr.com

Most days that summer, the neighbor kids, my brother and I would climb down the bank into the creek behind the neighbors’ house, shaping miniature cats or dogs out of the natural clay. Most days, we’d dig for and catch salamanders, admiring their agility and counting their spots.

This day, we decided to make a raft out of a saucer sled, or maybe it was a trashcan lid. There were four or five of us, riding down the creek like Lewis & Clark, exploring in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina. Or, that’s how I imagined us – the creek was no more than two feet deep, and the rapids made more of a babble than a roar. At seven years old, this was a true adventure.

We traveled for what felt like miles and miles, spying newly built developments, a blooming meadow, strange and looming roadwork equipment. When the sun began to set, we traced the creek back, and we were home in time for supper.

This bed was dry most of the year, but when the creek ran, the water draining from the mountain rain could be ferocious.  I always feared that a title wave would sweep me up as my tiny, bare feet teetered on boulders and my eyes scoured the pebbles for treasures. Unlike our suburban creek, this dry bed indeed had its gifts: little fossils we called “Indian money,” a racially questionable and technically inaccurate term of which I’ve since tried to let go. Once I found a real arrowhead, but I’m not sure where it is now, more than 15 years later.

The creek curves behind the rural Tennessee farm where my mother’s longtime best friend/cosmic soulmate, Sherry, has lived for I-don’t-know-how-long. Like much of my family, she is originally from Florida. Not 100 feet from a bridge is a small cave that gave us kids blissful cool in the summer, as long as it hadn’t rained. Usually, I’d wander up the creek bed, into its cave, or up its banks to the mountainside, with my brother or Sherry’s sons, all older than me. My most treasured were solo expeditions, accompanied only by a protective and attentive dog named Waylon.

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Extreme hiking. #tbt

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I’ve had the kind of day so far that makes me feel like an independently wealthy 30-something single woman who closes each relaxing day with a few glasses of dark, dry wine. Like Liz Lemon when she’s on paid leave, before she finds out her new group of leisurely lady friends is actually (spoiler alert) a fight club.

I woke up and lounged around in my bathrobe until I decided to skip my usual Friday morning at-home yoga session and opt instead for some time at the gym. Then, I grabbed breakfast and a chai latte at Starbucks, chatting with the mom of a spirited red-headed, blue-eyed toddler who looked just like me.

I sat near the window and read a few pages of House of Leavestaking my time and shaking off the cold. I drove to Macy’s and bought a much-needed black Calvin Klein blazer for too much money (an investment piece), and I even dropped it off at the tailor to get the shoulder pads trimmed.

It felt strangely domestic. But a passage I read this morning in House of Leaves has reminded me of my childlike, adventurous side. The passage, an aside, is frankly inconsequential to the story. It’s cute and whimsical and probably not intended to be thought provoking. It’s a relief from the never-ending tension that lives in the exploration of Will Navidson’s dark, terrifying, mysterious house.

“Based on what we can tell in The Navidson Record, it appears Chad [Navidson’s young son] soon got fed up with his class assignment and took off down the street with Hillary [Navidson’s dog], determined to explore his own dark. Navidson had to look for almost an hour before he finally found him. Chad it turned out was in the park filling a jar full of fireflies. Instead of scolding him, Navidson helped out.

“By ten, they had returned home with jars full of light and hands sticky with ice cream.”

Of course, I’ve indulged my adventurous side as an adult, but airline tickets, eight-hour flights and customs agents have a way of dampening the whimsy of exploration.

As Joe [husband] and I prepare to move from Harrisburg, Pa., to Gothenburg, Sweden, I feel a bit like Chad – wandering off, exploring my own dark with my closest companion, hoping to fill my own jars with light.

Here’s to palms clammy with anticipation, bright beginnings and charging headfirst into the unknown.

Happy Friday, everyone.