What the Appalachian Mountains lack in elevation and steep relief, they more than make up for with a grace and grandeur that only comes with age.
From peaks shrouded in a smoky cloak of clouds to the deafening roar of water tumbling over rocky ledges; from grassy balds that boast endless panoramas to hidden coves that reveal secret swimming holes; from the iridescent buds of spring to the explosion of color in fall, these ancient mountains mark the passage of time in infinite splendor.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
~ John Muir
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Our family spent the first days of spring in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We traversed babbling brooks on foot bridges but couldn’t resist skipping across the rocks too.
In April we hiked close to home and hunted salamanders in the creeks running down Buffalo Mountain.
May was all about wildflowers and waterfalls, as abundant showers saturated the fields and streams with color and volume.
As we ticked off the miles at a gentle pace meant for little legs, I was struck by how much hiking has changed for my husband and me over the years.
In our early 20s, hiking was less about the journey and more about how quickly we reached our destination. We blazed through the miles, our legs constantly churning to reach the next summit.
In our DINK glory days, we shifted our focus to marathons and triathlons. We traded trails for pounding the pavement, save for annual pilgrimages to national parks, where we crammed as many miles as we could into our vacation days.
When our joints begged for mercy from the unforgiving concrete, we returned to the trails and awakened new life in our limbs as we ran through the woods on serpentine single track.
The miles – and years – passed in a blur. Our lives became more complicated, yet we continued at a frenetic pace.
Even the arrival of our daughters didn’t slow our stride. If anything, it accelerated the tempo of our days. Sleep-deprived and bleary eyed, we strapped our babies to our chests and backs and carried them through the peaks and valleys.
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It wasn’t until this spring, when our youngest turned 4, that we allowed ourselves to slow down and rediscover the mountains we call home.
We chose shorter hikes that both girls could conquer, hikes we snubbed in our pre-kid existence because the distance and grade didn’t equate to a workout. We meandered through budding forests and marveled at thundering cascades we’d never seen before.
Along the way, something incredible happened. Our children opened our eyes to details that we, as adults, were quick to dismiss – or miss altogether.
Closer to the earth, our daughters pointed out tiny snails, delicate blooms and funky mushrooms. They wrapped their arms around our necks as we forded swift streams and let out deep belly laughs when icy water swirled to our waists and covered their dangling feet. They raced down the trails and scrambled up the rocks, their sheer delight impossible to resist.
As we crossed a sunny riverside meadow, I hung back to watch the scene unfold before me. My husband led the way, his long strides covering ground with ease. Next went our eldest daughter, her long, lean legs mimicking her father’s gait.
Never one to be left behind, our youngest followed closely. Her body is built more like mine, but the defiant bounce in her step is all her own. Moments later, she clutched my hand as we navigated a narrow path along the riverbank. I held her fingers in mine and savored each step, never wanting to let go.
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As parents, we know these moments are fleeting. We gaze at our children with bittersweet longing, wishing we could freeze time just as they’re ready to sprint ahead.
So, we do our best to live in the moment. Often we fail.
But sometimes, the innocence and wonder of our children paired with the eternal grandeur of the mountains coax us to a more leisurely pace.
In those moments, when we stop rushing to our next destination, we finally appreciate the journey.
What a beautiful journey it is.