All smiles, ready for some vacation fun.
On a brilliant Sunday in 1994, my husband and I, along with our little daughter, headed down the interstate in a worn out van, pulling a pop-up camper behind us. It had been a long day, and we were anxious to reach our vacation destination in the Great Smoky Mountains. Just a couple more hours and we’d be in Chattanooga, where we planned to camp for the night, then head to Pigeon Forge the next morning.
"Dad," It was Anna from the back of the van. "How many more miles?"
"Dad! How many more miles?"
Still, no answer.
"Stan," I said, "Anna wants to know how much farther to Chattanooga." I glanced at my husband, who was staring in the left rear-view mirror, a perplexed look on his face.
Suddenly, he turned to me. “Do you smell something?”
The tone of the question unsettled me. I sniffed, but didn’t smell a thing. "What does it smell like?"
"Something burning," he said. "I'm afraid we've got a serious problem."
At the next rest area, Stan walked around like a bloodhound picking up a scent. He found oil splattered across the back of the van and the front of the little camper. It looked ugly and I felt sick.
Pulling out his tools and jack, he set out to diagnose the problem. My daughter and I spread a quilt out under a tree, where I quickly sank down with my misery.
It’s always something, Lord, I muttered under my breath. Always something.
If only Stan would have listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. When the idea of a vacation first came up, I expressed deep concerns over taking such a long trip. The van had been in our family since it rolled off the showroom floor, shiny and new, in 1983. But since that time, it had accrued more than 200,000 miles. Still, being the eternal optimist that he is, my husband was convinced all would be fine.
Now, here we sat on the side of the road, a sad little bunch. So much for optimism.
Before long, Stan rounded the corner. There was an oil leak. He said if we drove slow and stopped to add oil every few miles, we should make it to the next town. We would spend the night there, then have it looked at tomorrow.
Back in the van, we crept along the freeway in silence. My mood plummeted with each miserable mile.
Soon darkness gathered at the windows, chasing us into a tidy campground in Gadsden, Alabama: Noccalula Falls Park and Campground. We registered at the office and arrived at our campsite in a dreary mood. After setting up camp, we fell into bed, exhausted.
If you look closely, you can see the oil splatters on the pop-up.
(I wasn't a blogger in 1994, but, as you can see, a persistent photographer.)
In the morning, I rose to the inviting aroma of breakfast cooking. Through the canvas flap, I saw my husband frying bacon in a skillet, four round eggs beside him, waiting to be cracked and scrambled.
I opened the door an inch. "Whatcha doing?"
He smiled. "Making the best of a bad situation. Let’s eat."
My amazing husband. Always rolling with the punches.
Still depressed, I nodded but wasn’t interested.
"I'll take the van to the dealership and see what the problem is," he said. "You know how that goes; I may be gone all day. But—" he said, sounding encouraged, “maybe we can do some sightseeing tomorrow."
I didn’t say anything, but if I had, it would have been, Have you lost your mind? Sightseeing? It was the last thing I was in the mood to do, but I kept quiet.
We finished eating and I watched Mr. Optimistic drive off at a snail's pace, a trail of gray smoke following him. How, I wondered, could he always take such things in stride? He really expected to enjoy our visit to this unexpected town.
“Mom,” my little daughter’s voice interrupted my dismal thoughts. “Can we go to the pool?”
“Sure, sweetie,” I said, forcing a smile. “I’m right behind you.” I could see the local paper’s headline now: Distraught woman drowns herself in campsite pool.
My angel girl at the pool, cheering her mommy up with that adorable smile.
Just before dusk, Stan drove up in a rental car. From the way he clumped into the camper, I knew it was bad news.
And it was. After a full day of waiting on a diagnosis, another full day was needed for repairs. The cost proved staggering. We discussed payment options. None brought relief. Later, I climbed into bed, wondering if this whole trip had been one giant mistake.
The next morning, despite my lingering gloom, we set out on a sightseeing excursion, trying not to think about why we were here. We discovered that Noccalula Falls Park and Campground, lying at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, is both large and enchanting. A place of unspoiled natural beauty.
Not far from our campsite, we followed a sunny path to a stone monument of Noccalula, an Indian princess, poised as if about to jump from a 90-foot cliff. Cold water swirled around her feet and rushed over the ridge, creating a spectacular waterfall. Legend has it that Noccalula's father promised his daughter's hand in marriage to a member of an enemy tribe, in an effort to obtain peace. But the Indian maiden was in love with a man from her own tribe. Seeing no happy ending, she is said to have jumped to her death from this very cliff.
A few feet away, we took steep steps down into the cool gorge below the falls. As we navigated the slippery trail, I paused in a mossy clearing and looked up.
Out of the frothy spray of the waterfall, giant cedars and evergreens rose up like fluted columns and, overhead, yellow sunlight winked through a canopy of leafy branches. "Beautiful, isn't it?" Stan said.
“Yes,” I said, mesmerized. "It is absolutely gorgeous."
After lunch, we hiked along a narrow trail that curved around magnificent pines, winding its way to the top of a straw-covered hill. Looking down to the valley below, I was captivated.
The air was alive with the smells and sounds of summer. Breathing deeply, I sensed a lightness of heart, as if this were the place I should be.
As we gathered for supper that evening, we couldn’t stop talking about the enjoyable day we had spent together, and the spectacular beauty that was ours for the taking. Had our trip stayed on course, we would never have seen this delightful place.
Noccalula Falls remains one of our all-time favorite memories, and it was there I learned a valuable lesson: No matter where the road may take me, I won’t let an unexpected detour spoil the day. Instead, I will follow its impulsive path to the sunlight and shadows just waiting to be discovered in serendipitous places.
This story is taken from the book, Silver Linings (Pacific Press) by Dayle Allen Shockley. All rights reserved.