Bright and early Monday morning, we left for our winter break trip. Our van was packed with many duffel bags, sleeping bags, giant purses (thanks Chief Big Bag aka Vanessa), and a wonderful group of six individuals. We bonded over music (thanks to random radio stations and Kelly's fabulous, albeit scratched, CDs), family stories, discussions about former ASB trips, and miscellaneous other topics.
The ride to Tennessee was pretty smooth, minus a few bumps in the road due to half printed directions (thanks to my printer!), but my GPS - fondly named FranPaco for this trip - managed to find the Once Upon A Time residence on the outskirts of Maryville, Tennessee - our home away from home for the week. We settled into our bunkhouse (complete with outhouses!) and then helped our hosts for the week - Ed and Arleen - prepare dinner. We ate dinner and then set down to a presentation of artifacts by a Cherokee warrior, Archie. Archie shared many stories and really helped us to understand a little bit more about the Cherokee people and the area that we were staying in for the week. My favorite artifact was the eagle feather that warriors are awarded and wear on their berets. Archie said the eagle feather was the highest honor bestowed to the Cherokee people, which was really neat to hear.
We also got to enjoy Arleen's world famous blackberry cobbler (which was fantastic...and the first time that Kelly had had a blackberry!) and went to bed more knowledgeable and full of wonderful dessert!
The next morning we woke up and found that we would not be traveling on "The Dragon" (more on this later) due to the weather, and instead, we would be working on the homestead at Once Upon A Time. So after a delicious breakfast of pancakes, we watched a documentary about the Cherokee tribe. After learning even more about the history of the Cherokee people, Arleen helped us make blackberry jam! And boy was it fun! We first mushed up the blackberries (grown from Arleen's garden) and mixed it with pectin (to help it solidify) and sugar; then, we stirred it and let it get up to a rolling boil. After that, we each packaged our own tiny jam jars, which was really fun.
We had a delicious soup lunch, and then went out and helped Ed gather up tree sections and chopped them into firewood to be used by other groups to heat the bunkhouse. That's right...the bunkhouse is heated by a wood stove that you have to feed every 2-3 hours in order to keep the fire burning. This would come back to bite us with a cold, cold morning, when we didn't wake up to feed the fire. Lesson learned...haha. We chopped firewood with a wood splitter and even got a chance to chop wood using an ax. I failed miserably for a couple minutes and then miraculously (and there is video proof too!) managed to chop a piece in half. However, if I had to do that for the rest of my life...I am pretty sure that I would invest in a wood splitter (or a heating system)!
We were finally able to go into Snowbird and try to conquer "The Dragon" (over 300 turns in 11 miles in the Tennessee mountains)! We had a great breakfast of eggs and biscuits (complete with our homemade blackberry jam), and then we headed out to volunteer. Al did a great job of driving "The Dragon," and we reached the Snowbird Senior Center safely. While there, we chatted with local seniors about their lives and also sanded and painted gourds. I, of course, painted a Indianapolis Colts gourd.
We were finishing up with our craft, when into the senior center walks the principal chief of the Eastern Cherokee band. This is comparable to meeting the President of the United States; so of course, we had to shake his hand and get our picture taken with him. After finishing up the craft and lunch, we said goodbye to the seniors and headed out to Lonnie and Viola's house to help them with some tasks around their house. We crushed pop cans, moved furniture around, and even did some carpentry (more so Al and Izzat than me...but I did manage to hand them the right tools!). Lonnie and Viola took some time to tell us more about their lives and the area, which was very interesting to hear. We then headed to Shirley's home to learn more about the Cherokee language. She told us how difficult of a language it is to learn and how it is slowly making its way back into the culture of the Cherokee people.
After Shirley's, we headed to the Joyce Kilmer forest to see the big trees and did a little bit of hiking. The trees there are huge! It took almost all six of us (we could have probably done it with five people) to surround just one tree! We then headed back to Maryville...only this time, it was my turn to "slay The Dragon" by driving us safely back. Kelly and I had an awesome conversation about life and the future in the front of the van, while the other four slept the entire way back (must have been some awfully awesome driving going on...haha).
We had a delicious dinner of chicken taco salad...and went to bed early due to our long day!
Thursday was our day off and we went to the Lost Sea, which is a really cool cave with a underground lake that was discovered in 1905. After exploring the cave for a bit (and taking a ride on a boat on the lake), we headed to Gatlinburg to explore the area. This is when I discovered that I only liked Gatlinburg for one reason: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Peanut Butter. EVerything else there is really touristy, but we had a great time as a group exploring the area and making fun of stuff in the shops. Al also managed to discover a really cool road that allowed us some great views of the mountains in the area.
We then managed to think on our feet and made it to a movie theater to see "It's Complicated" with the fabulous Meryl Streep; the movie was cute and I got a giant Diet Coke - my first since Monday- which if you know me...is a huge feat! Only, after the movie, we were greeted with about two inches of snow on our car...and on the road...which was not cool, especially since it was my turn to drive! We drove slowly and carefully through the snow and found our way to an Applebees near our home and ate dinner there. We also went to Walmart and made our best purchase of the trip...an Ipod connector. This was the moment where Kelly was crowned "DJ Kelly" and proceeded to make some awesome song choices.
We made it back safely to Once Upon A Time and didn't even disturb Ed and Arleen as we clumsily drove up the very steep driveway!
This was our last full day of the trip, and we were headed to the Sequoyah Memorial Museum. Sequoyah (or George Gist, as the English would call him) is the creator of the Cherokee syllabary. Charlie, the head of the museum, gave us a brief introduction to Sequoyah and the Cherokee language and allowed us to explore the museum. After exploring and eating lunch, we then headed outside to "Hike the Max" or the 1.5 mile hike around the property. After we finished hiking, we went outside on the trail with loppers, a hatchet, and a machete to do some trail maintanence on some trees that were being choked by wild vines and weeds.
For those of you who don't know, trail maintenance is hard, but the six of us working hard and together managed to save 18 or so trees...and Izzat is a master at the machete.
We enjoyed our last real meal with Ed and Arleen and then had smores over the wood stove. Ed and Arleen also taught us Cherokee dances and songs in Ed's shop...and Izzat is not only a natural at the machete...but he can seriously bust a move. I'm sure that the video will be shown sometime, but I don't know if I have ever laughed so hard in my life when he basically "party boy-ed" during the middle of a traditional Cherokee dance! Loved it.
We said goodnight early to Ed and Arleen so that we could write thank you letters to them and also wood-burn our plaque for their bunkhouse. Ed has a tradition in which every group that stays at Once Upon A Time has to wood-burn a piece of wood with memories of the their specific trip happenings. Ours looked amazing after we all had a chance to burn a little memory of our trip in it...it was basically a family tree of the six of us, which really summed up my experience on the trip. After a long night (and a long enjoyable week), we all went to bed.
The next morning was hard for me as we cleaned up and packed up our belongings. It was sad to be leaving Ed and Arleen (and Dixie and Blue and all the cats!) and Tennessee and all the wonderful memories of the trip. On the way back, I lead the reflection, which I stole from the lovely Kacey Bourdage (who lead a similar one on my Oklahoma Spring Break 2009 trip). It was basically a love-fest in the car for everyone to share something that they admired or learned from each individual on the trip. I cried when Izzie told me that he liked when I called them all "kids" (because I'm the Mom/Grandma of the group) and also when Missi shared her words with me - what can I say, I'm a big softie!
It was also hard to return home, because you never know when you'll see these people again (except when you have to deliver Vanessa - Chief Big Bag - her left behind jam) and interact with them on the same level again. You've all bonded in a way that can never be duplicated: in a new city; under unique circumstances; wearing gross clothes, no makeup, and sometimes not even showering; crying about silly stuff; volunteering for people that are living in the only way that they know how; learning about a completely different culture stuck in the middle of the US; and offering yourself up, completely vulnerable and free, but knowing that these people really care about you. That's the great beauty of Alternative Spring (or Winter or Summer) Breaks, and I am so lucky to have experienced my fifth one with these amazing people in Tennessee.
So all my ASB love to Eyedrop (Missi), Chief Big Bag (Vanessa), Hummingbird (Kelly), Izzie (Izzat), and Baby (Al)! Thank you for making this a truly remarkable and unforgettable (and my best/only) alternative winter break trip ever!