#18: Merry Mountain Christmas

I love the Christmas season; the lights, the hustle and bustle, the excitement, the smells of Christmas spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, the Christmas trees, and yes, even the Christmas music.  I love egg nog, I love the cozy, dark nights snuggled up to keep the cold away, I love the classic Christmas movies and all the wonderful things that come with this time of year.

But the last couple of Christmases have been a little derailed. On December 1st 2017, after 3 negative pregnancy tests, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home to pick up some egg nog. I called Chris on my way home and told him to be ready to go pick up some rum after I got home so we could get drunk on egg nog and listen to Christmas music all night. But I was still a week “late” so I figured I’d take another pregnancy test before we left to put my mind at ease. I figured it was the stress of the possibility that was disrupting my cycle. But as I washed my hands and turned back toward the pregnancy test that was sitting on the edge of the tub I saw a very distinct little pink line that would put an end to our rum and egg nog plans for the night and change our lives forever.

I walked out of the bathroom with one hand over my mouth and the other holding the pregnancy test outstretched toward Chris.  He rolled his eyes, thinking I was pulling his leg, and snatched the test from me with a smirk on his face.  It’s rather rare to witness the sudden genuine drop of someone’s jaw and the widening of their eyes as panic surges through them.  Had I not been experiencing that same emotion I probably would have found it much more amusing.  

We sat on the couch in silence for around 10 minutes before Chris finally piped up: “well, there goes my hunting room then.”  

That Christmas the pregnancy hit me so hard that I spent the entire day just as I did most others that winter; sleeping all afternoon, then waking for dinner before my eyes got so heavy that I was out cold for the night by 8pm.  It wasn’t much fun for either of us.

Christmas 2018 was mildly better, but much more stressful.  We had recently endured the most stressful and scary spell of our lives after I lost my visa, job and health insurance while 8 months pregnant (see my previous post …And When it Doesn’t). Immediately following that debacle, we had found a house to rent in Lawrenceville, GA which was far from ideal but at that time it was what we needed – a roof over our heads.  Unfortunately, shortly after we moved in in late September I began getting rather under the weather and it wasn’t until Chris took some boxes down to the basement that we discovered water and black mold all over the entire 1200 sq ft basement.  This was particularly distressing with our 2 month old baby breathing in that air.  We informed the management company, Progress Residential, who told us we’d have to move out while they were remediating.  This meant digging into what little savings we had to pay for somewhere to go, but the management company had agreed to reimburse us.

So we moved out into an AirBnB place.  Then a few days turned into a week, which turned into 2.  Before we knew it we had blown every last penny of our savings and were dangling by a financial thread before they finally completed the work and we moved back into the house in November.  What followed was a rather long and incredibly frustrating struggle with the management company as they withheld our reimbursement and threatened eviction if we refused to sign a document saying that we couldn’t sue them for anything related to the damp or mold issues.  My refusal was borne out of an unwillingness to be strong-armed into signing away any possibility to recover in case our infant son developed any health issues related to the exposure, and the fact that we had no health insurance.  But eventually we had no choice but to sign for fear of being evicted – which was the most pressing issue.

By the time Christmas came around we didn’t have a penny to our name as the “reimbursement” came in the form of a rent credit so we still had no money in the bank.  Lean as it was, we still managed to enjoy each other’s company and I cooked some very mediocre turkey breasts.  But the whole season was overshadowed by the dark cloud of being stuck in a house that I still didn’t feel comfortable in and being tied to a management company that was crooked and underhanded, not to mention the extreme financial turmoil.

So this year we finally have earned a good Christmas.  But living in a camper makes some of the aspects of a traditional Christmas rather difficult.  A tree, for example, is a little difficult to have when you’re in such a tight space.  While I’ve seen other folks that manage to pull this off, it just wasn’t an option for us in our rig with a toddler who loves to grab, climb and chew.  We also had no decorations in the rig which made me a little sad at times because I do love Christmas decorations.  

You can also go ahead and cross “traditional turkey dinner” off the list, as the oven in our rig (and most rigs) is marginally bigger than a shoe box.  Plus, for two of us it seemed like overkill and a royal headache of dirty dishes in a tiny kitchen.  

But a Christmas without those things made me a little blue, so I thought outside the box a little bit and searched around for something fun to do in the local area.  A few years ago, when I first arrived in the states, I had been to a conference at Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa, just a few miles down the road from Vogel at Young Harris, GA.  I remembered how beautifully they had decorated the place for Christmas, the huge stone fireplace, and the incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Veranda.  So I had a look on their website and found that, as luck would have it, they did a Christmas Day buffet for $52.95 per adult and $10.95 for Junior so I called and booked the last available table for 3:20pm on Christmas Day.

Christmas morning I awoke, as always, at the crack of dawn and far too excited for someone my age.  I shook Chris awake who was displeased at this and told me to go back to sleep until the baby wakes up.  So I laid there impatiently staring at the clock until I decided that Junior needed to get up anyway or else he wouldn’t nap.

After Junior and I dragged Chris out of bed we FaceTimed with our families and opened our presents (technology sure is a wonderful thing for stuff like that when you live far away from everyone).  Chris then cooked us a scrumptious breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon before Junior went down for his afternoon nap.  I took this opportunity to see to my hosting duties and gave the bathrooms a good clean.

Unfortunately Junior didn’t nap long as he was fighting off a cold that he had picked up from one of the kids at his new daycare.  So with a rather cranky baby we set off for Brasstown Valley for our Christmas Dinner.  

The view from the entrance of Brasstown Valley Resort.

The hotel is nestled in the valley just below Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak. The resort boasts an impressive 523 acres, stables, a championship golf course, a pool and spa, and unbeatable scenery. The lodge, where the main dining room is situated, is very grand with soaring ceilings, an incredible stone fireplace, and large windows that look out onto the veranda and the mountains beyond. The whole lodge is tastefully constructed to resemble a grand cabin in the woods, with sawn log bannisters, exposed beams, and exposed stonework throughout the building.

My favorite feature – the beautiful stone fireplace.
The dining hall at Brasstown Valley Resort.

The Christmas tree in the main lobby and bar area is about 20 feet high, lavishly decorated, and excites the inner child with a hand crafted wooden rocking horse, a giant nutcracker, a giant wooden Choo-choo train, and other antique toys that contribute to the overall magic and make for another beautiful backdrop for family photos.  

The gorgeous Christmas tree complete with antique toys and gifts.

Despite me talking the place up for the last week, Chris was still pretty impressed once we arrived.  We made our way to the dining room and got settled at our table before tucking into the delectable buffet.  

Buffet, for me, is a word that conjures images of greasy sub-par food that is even less appealing because it has been sat under hot lamps for hours. This, on the other hand, couldn’t be further from that image. On offer was a full Christmas carvery of roast turkey or beef, stuffing, gravy and all the trimmings. There was also a salad bar with actual fresh salad greens like rocket and arugula – no iceberg lettuce in sight. There were pasta salads, green beans roasted in cranberry sauce, roasted potatoes, and a seafood bar with peel and eat jumbo shrimp, seafood salad, and fresh oysters on the half shell.

Unfortunately we weren’t able to sit and savor the gluttonous offerings for too long, and didn’t even get a peek at the whole separate room they had for desserts, for our wee lad’s health was deteriorating into a full-blown cold and he was getting so fussy that we just couldn’t sit and let him ruin everyone else’s meal anymore.  We still got a pretty decent fill, however, so we took the chance at some fresh air on the balcony just in time for sunset.  

Drinks on the balcony.

The warm glow from the setting sun radiated across the mountains on the horizon and at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit (about 20 Celsius) with the gentle tickle of a warm breeze, it was a very romantic end to a pretty wonderful day. We took a walk down to the sunset veranda, and chatted about what a dream it’d be to come back without Junior and spend New Years Eve here. We stopped to snap some pictures and really take in the sunset before finally heading back to the truck to go home.

Junior getting a good look at the beautiful sunset.

That night we got Junior into bed and retired to the campfire with wine to reflect on the day and relax.  We had planned to play a new National Parks Trivia game that I had gotten for Chris, but the sound of a sick baby awoken with a fever beckoned us back into the camper for a night of snuggles on the couch and temperature readings every few minutes.

Despite the damper on the day with Junior being under the weather, it has still been the best Christmas we’ve had together yet and there was much to be thankful for; some kind of financial stability, a great marriage, a beautiful place to live in a glorious mountain setting, and one beautiful little boy.  Christmas 2019 was definitely one to remember.

#17: One for the Family Album

I wrote out an entire post about how we had the Christmas tree lighting event at the park, hiked up to Preachers Rock as a family, and checked out a nearby diamond in the rough. But I realized, upon proof reading it, that the events were best told in photos. So enjoy.

Around 200 people gathered at Vogel on Saturday for the annual Christmas Tree lighting event. It all went down at the ball field, less than 100 yards from our campsite which was wonderfully convenient.
Various tents gave away free baked treats, hot chocolates, and crafts for the kids.
Santa made an appearance. Assistant Park Manager Mikayla was much happier to visit with him than Junior was.
Live local music.
Junior had a blast puddle stomping.
The 30ft Christmas tree after the big lighting.
Junior stole the show with his adorably uncoordinated dancing and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
Sunday afternoon we took a hike up to Preachers Rock – it was much more fun as a family. Junior was quite mesmerized by the view and Chris was delighted that I insisted he ride his motorcycle to take advantage of the 20 miles of twisting and curving mountain roads.
Father and son against the world. Insert appropriate Lion King quote here.
Chris had a rare early day on Monday so we took the afternoon to explore a little spot up the road from us that we’ve been wanting to check out for weeks. Helton Creek Falls is a mile up the main road then 2 miles down a gravel road. It’s definitely a diamond in the rough.
It’s a beautiful spot that strikes a perfect balance between rugged wilderness and accessibility thanks to some minor man-made adaptations.
At the bottom of the first set of falls (a little over 30 feet). The swimming hole here looks like the perfect place to cool off in those scorching summer months.
The upper falls – about 60ft high. Also looks very inviting for summer swims.
We even found a Junior-sized waterfall (yes he got soaked but he had a BLAST).
We finished off the weekend with a great meal at Brother’s restaurant in Young Harris, GA.
Junior couldn’t believe they didn’t have breast milk on the menu. He wanted to complain to the manager but we convinced him to just go for grilled cheese and mashed potato instead.
Sharing his dinner with Papa. Great family weekend.

#15: Camping with Cousins

This weekend we had a much needed visit with family.  Chris’ cousin, Caitlyn, her husband, Justin, and their two young children came to visit.  It was a relatively last-minute thing, and it turned out rather well.  There was a break in the rain and cold weather which afforded a brilliant opportunity for them to bring their kids, aged 2 and 5, camping for the first time.

They drove down from their home in Nashville, TN and arrived late in the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids were, as all kids are, immediately struck by excitement upon exiting the car.  They scurried around the campsite helping their Mom and Dad to find a good place to pitch the tent and inspecting our set up.

After we exchanged hello hugs and had the customary exchange about how the drive was, they quickly set about unloading the car and getting the tent erected before the sun disappeared over Blood Mountain.  Chris tried his best to spook the kids with stories of bears and coyotes that come sniffing around in the dead of night, but I think he only succeeded in spooking Caitlyn and Justin a little.  

With relative ease and only one minor error with the rain fly, the tent was erected and we were all ready for the best of camping – campfire sitting.  I had laid a fire that afternoon in preparation for their arrival so with a quick flick of a lighter we were in business.  The kids were pretty taken with fire, but Jay (the 2 year old) was particularly entranced by it.  Once he discovered the sheer delight of putting a stick in the coals until it was alight then waving it around he was in hog heaven.  Of course this set off a chain of events leading to some increased parental supervision and some lessons on the dangers of campfires, but the kid needed no further entertainment for the night – he was set.

Annabelle is their older child.  She’s incredibly sweet and dangerously intelligent with a thirst for knowledge that makes her an utter joy to hang out with.  Several times throughout the night she came and climbed into my camp chair with me for a snuggle and said “let’s talk”.  Then she proceeded to ask questions.  ALL the questions.  

“Why does water put fire out?”

“Why do trees grow taller than people?”

“What are stars?”

“What are those dark spots in the moon?”

“How long does it take for the light from the stars to reach here?”

“What is consciousness?”

That last one was a tough one.  But she’s a smart cookie and was able to not just sit and listen to my responses, but actually understand them and explain it back to me when I asked.  It was really fun to spend some time with her and see her learning about the world from a different perspective.  It made me excited for when Junior reaches that age where he will be full of questions big and small, and hopefully many of them about wildlife, the woods, and the world.

Unfortunately we had some trouble getting Junior to stay down that night (probably too excited about his cousins visiting) and so Chris and I had to keep taking turns trying to get him back to sleep.  But we were able to spend some time by the fire chatting and catching up.  I truly believe there is no better way to spend time with people than relaxing around a campfire.  It was nice for us to have some family around to share our new life with, where conversation comes easily because we have common interests and outlooks, and it was an adventure for everyone.

The next morning the campers piled into Old Patsy to defrost after a rather chilly night in the tent.  The kids went pretty much straight to playing and exploring and Junior was particularly tickled at having another little boy to play with.  It was nice to sit back and watch them with the hope that it’s the start of a lifelong friendship and that there will be years of getting into mischief together ahead of them.  

After everyone was suitably thawed out and fueled up, the campers set out for a hike around the lake while Chris and I plonked Junior in his stroller to set about cleaning the bathrooms.

Their hike went well without only a minor incident involving Jay’s shoe being launched into the water (boys will be boys).  So after they returned we got the fire going again to get Jay’s shoes dried out.  Caitlyn and Justin also brought a slack line – something Chris and I had never tried before – and set it up between two trees at the back of the campsite.  We each took turns attempting to find our balance on the narrow, taught strap – something that wasn’t very easy after a night of a little too much wine and beer – but it gave us all a good laugh.

The younger boys found great fun in picking up sticks, poking at the fire, and using a small multi-tool shovel to dig in the dirt.  Junior seemed to be rather intrigued by his cousin and spent some time following and mimicking him in an adorable attempt to try and communicate with him.  Annabelle pottered around the campsite and tried her hand at the slack line which put us all to shame.

Then Caitlyn showed Annabelle how you bust open rocks with a hammer and find geodes and pretty crystals inside.  So they had a great time smashing up some rocks and inspecting them closely.

As the afternoon drove on though, it was getting late and time to pack up and head out.  The kids were thoroughly exhausted and set to nap the whole way home with sweet dreams of campfires, waterfalls, and mountain trails winding through their heads.  

It was wonderful for the kids to spend some time together.  Living so far away from all our family means that we don’t often get to hang out together – so we don’t take these opportunities for granted and are grateful that Junior is able to form bonds, and eventually memories, with his cousins.

As for us, we had a blast running around with the kids and are so grateful to be a part of their first camping experience.  We hope it’s given them a thirst for it and that they will nag their parents endlessly to come back to the woods for a weekend soon.

We were also grateful to spend some time with Caitlyn and Justin.  A downfall of this lifestyle is that it does take some determination from family to have them come and stay.  We don’t have a big spare room that they can stay in and, though the couch and dinette fold into beds, it’s tricky with a 1 year old sleeping 3 feet away from 7pm to 7am.  So it requires visitors to either be willing to camp, or spend the money on a cottage.  This makes it logistically tough for anyone to visit us, so we’re very grateful for the company when we can get it.  But the flip side of this is that when a trip like this happens it’s nice to have the kids outside all day, learning, getting fresh air and exercise, and being stimulated without the need for screens.

We’ve made tentative plans for a return trip in the spring before we leave Vogel, and hopefully we can get someone here to take all 3 kids for a night so we can all do the 13 mile Coosa backcountry trail and do some REAL camping along the way.  So that gives us something to look forward to.

Overall we had a great weekend with family; the kids got to make some memories together and hopefully thoroughly caught the itch to camp; we had a great night catching up with some quality time around the fire; and we got a taste for what it’ll be like when Junior is a little older and all the fun things we can do with him.  But time flies when you’re having fun – and it did just that.  So we hope it won’t be too long until they come back for more fun by the campfire.