A Soft Landing

This is a short little story about the unexpected glories of aging. Between Christmas and the new year, I had the chance to get away for a few days. Usually my husband and I visit friends at their mountain cabin for New Year’s Eve, and on the way I sneak in a short but vital one night visit with my sister. When I found out our friends were not going to their cabin this year, my sister and I had to put our heads together quickly to be sure we got to see one another.

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Because we just need to. That’s why.

While I was searching for a meeting spot somewhere between our two homes, my friend R. mentioned that he too wanted to have a short getaway, and so he made us a trio. My online search wasn’t yielding much. It seems people book ahead for holiday trips. When I don’t immediately find what I want on line I tend to look more and more and more until I am totally flustered. In this case, as a last resort I typed in “state parks close to Knoxville” instead of “TN state parks close to Knoxville” and VOILA! Up it came! Cumberland Falls State Park in Corbin, Kentucky. And guess what? They had just ONE available cabin, a two story, two bedroom, two bath with kitchen and fireplace. I’ll take it!!  I shouted into the phone.

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View from the stairs of the cabin.

When I left for Cumberland Falls on the 28th I had made few concrete plans, perhaps because by that time I had had  three house guests for eight days.  I just threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and hit the road with my friend R. The easy six hour ride I envisioned did not take place, as it rained hard on us all the way to Nashville, all the way to Bowling Green, and all the rest of the way. I’m a cautious driver in the rain, and so did not use my cruise control one time.  We drove through the dark wet night, two tired travelers, one with a cramped right leg, until we saw the welcoming lights of the  the 1930s era DuPont Lodge.

Soon we were at the executive two story cabin, enjoying the spread prepared by Ellen, who had not been delayed by rain. We could not have been more thrilled to simply put on our pajamas, drink a glass of wine, and eat cheese and crackers.

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The little table cloth belonged to my mother, who knew how to make folks feel comfortable. 

We found that each of us had brought little treats for the others. Ellen had brought adult coloring books. I had brought face cream and little facial kits, just in case, and R., a set of essential oils to share. No hikers ever smelled better.

In the morning we of course reconnoitered our surroundings by the light of day. Our cabins were situated on a ridge overlooking the Cumberland River.  About a fourth of a mile away was the Lodge, where we walked for a standard country breakfast.

After admiring the CCC  era lodge construction and lovely view from the restaurant windows, we made the important decisions of the day. To whit,  we would first walk whatever trails we could. Afterwards we would procure supplies, meaning wine. Ellen, who had approached the park from another direction, allowed as how she had passed the “Liquor King” on her way in. Third, we would build a fire with the firelogs we had purchased from the lodge. And finally, we would watch Transparent.

The weather was brisk but not too wet or too cold. And we three old folks set out for the woods.Let me tell you a little bit about the park. Known as “The Niagara Of The South”, the park is most famous for  its seven story waterfall on the Cumberland River.

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During full moons, a spectacular “moon bow” effect is seen on the water. We did not get to see that but enjoyed what we did see.

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The trails are well marked and maintained. There are  camping, hiking, horseback riding and water activities available depending on the season. We were fortunate to be able to rent the very last cabin for our stay.

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Just visible through the bars of the balcony is the warning that we are on a cliff. 

The first day we chose what we thought would be a manageable trail. After we left the Visitor’s Center we saw few other people. Sometimes we talked, but often we were each silently contemplating our own lives, watching our feet trudge through the fallen leaves. Though the scenery would no doubt be more striking in one of the three other seasons, we still found numerous photo opportunities.

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After several hours of hiking, or maybe it was only walking, we called it quits so that we could head into civilization. We had a good little drive before we pulled into Corbin. As I cruised down the main drag, Ellen kept a lookout for the “Liquor King” and sure enough there it was on the right. By the time we chose our wine and provisions we were eager to return to our cabin and build a fire.

Soon we were all in our pajama pants, reeking of soothing essential oils but ready to eat our cheese, hummus, fruit and cut veggies. We toasted to our collective health, for we had finished a somewhat arduous hike, which many folks our age cannot attempt. Our fire that night was not a success. Having no matches or extra kindling, we resorted to using toilet paper to stoke up the fire. Don’t even try it.

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Do note the handy toilet paper.

Finally we were ready to start watching Transparent. I had already seen it, but my companions had not. After watching several episodes our commentary was hotter than the fire. The writing: genius, the acting: genius, the characters: self centered and extremely annoying. ( If you are not familiar with this award winning Amazon Prime series, it is about a man in his 60s who comes out as transgendered. But the show is also about the lingering effects of secrets in families.)

Perhaps it was the combination of the thinking time we had during the first day and whatever we were reading ( I was reading a biography of Winston’s Churchill’s wife, aptly named Clementine ) along  with watching the dysfunctional Pfefferman family that evening, that gave rise to our conversations the second day.

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For a time we talked about what seemed important to each of us at the moment. R. was focused on the need to take pictures to record memories, not just for his family, but also for him. Ellen shared how she had, like me, been unable to take to scrapbooking. But we  all acknowledged that our memories had gotten somewhat tricky, and that we needed to make records of our time however we were able to do so. What was  the truth anyway, I wondered, writhing mentally, as I am wont to do,  at not being able to reconcile the various threads of the Churchill’s marriage.

Ellen, no doubt having grown tired of hearing about Clementine Churchill and the unfairness of it all,  mentioned some  tribulations of a family she knew. As tribulations go, they were of the kind that could happen to anyone.

Suddenly, the conversation changed from what happened to a certain family to what we know now that we are old. The three of us had entered a space where we did not have to censor ourselves for fear of upsetting someone else. Because by the time we  live past fifty, we have either lived through trying situations or known someone else who has. And we  can’t live through these things without coming out a little wiser at the end. We could admit our thoughts and conclusions now, for we were all past the stage of saying that these things could not or should not be so.

A family is no guarantee of happiness. 

In fact sometimes you have to protect yourself from your family.

You may have to face an obstacle or situation that you thought only happened to others, not to you or yours. In fact you will certainly have to do this. 

Some things don’t end. They are managed. But they don’t go away.

Dreams are not for some future date, but for today, for we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

This may sound depressing, but it was a moment of refreshing honesty. No one tells you these things. You must learn them for yourself. It felt good to know we had all paid our dues.

As we sat at the breakfast table, we felt the comfort of being old together, of knowing that we had all learned hard life lessons, and that we could openly say so.

After breakfast just as we had done the day before, we struck out for the woods, stopping to admire carved out boulders, caves, and waterfalls.

cumberland falls-178We had gotten a late start because of our leisurely breakfast.

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View from the back verandah of the Lodge.

Ellen was in a happier mood because that day she had actually remembered to wear her new hiking shoes. It seems some parts of growing are not profound, only silly.

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We passed through some muddy spots close to the river, where we each had to navigate in our own way to get to dry land.

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Once, R. who was in the lead at that time, lost his footing on a  slippery slope, unable to gain purchase on anything, and landed on his posterior at the bottom of a hill. Ellen was in front of me, and reached him first. I heard her ask if he was alright,  and he said he was. Then she asked, “Was it a soft landing?”

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That phrase has stuck with me. Soft landings. I think that is what we were all trying to say at breakfast. There are sadnesses and disappointments in life, in ways we never could have expected, but when we accept that these things are bound to happen, there is peace. Because there are sadnesses and disappointments, we decide give up on certain dreams and grieve our losses. In the process we learn to cherish the very simple but meaningful aspects of our lives: smiles, memories, small acts of service, being present for others. We find we can thrive on these. Productive lives have been made of less.

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When I was younger I struggled like anyone else, but without the knowledge that comes from experience, the knowledge that tells me that in the end I will find peace, increased awareness, humility,  or just an enhanced ability to appreciate daily life.

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In the woods, we three old folks were making our respective ways the best we could. In the end we chose a shorter route back to where we had begun, for the sun was setting faster than we expected.  Sometimes we became winded and longed to be back at the cabin. I found myself daydreaming of taking a piping hot bath upon my return. R. was no doubt wondering about his muddy pants, as he had brought only one pair. But even as we hiked the steep paths, we knew we could look forward to another cozy evening of sitting in front of a fire, warm in our pajamas. We were confident of  providing ourselves  a soft landing.

May you all find soft landings in the year ahead.



Winter Holiday Club

Who wants to join the Winter Holiday Club? Requirements: Wish fervently for snow so that we can all stay home. Go nuts when it does snow. And most importantly, sing the Winter Holiday  Theme Song. I’ll teach it to you now. It is sung to the the tune of the song “Happy Holidays”. The lyrics are “Winter holiday.” Just those two words. As soon as the first flakes fall, or as soon as the forecast seems bound to actually come true, members are to serenade other humans and pets with the lovely song. If no one is around to serenade, then the telephone may be used to share your joy. Dancing while singing is optional. After numerous stanzas, or when you are are told to please stop, go find your snow clothes and get outside!

Since so many of you will  be joining, I’ll go ahead with my Club Report. I, as founding member of the Club,  have gotten a head start on the snow season by spending the new year in Banner Elk, North Carolina. That is not cheating. Many of us do not live in a place where we can count on snow every year. We have to go places where we can be surrounded in winter loveliness.

My destination at Banner Elk was Boulder Falls Retreat, owned by our dear friends Beth and Jim. Their mountain oasis, which they rent out through VRBO when they are not using it, has everything one could want in a mountain hideaway: mountain views, privacy, comfy furnishings, toasty fireplace, hot tub, and a waterfall on the property. Who wouldn’t dream of being snowed in there, sipping a warm drink by the fire, and listening to the rushing mountain stream outside?

Boulder Falls Retreat. It's only a few years old.

Boulder Falls Retreat. It’s only a few years old.

As we drove to the cabin a few days after Christmas, I thought I might get my wish of being snowed in. About an hour out of Banner Elk we ran into snow, sleet, and hail. Yippee! Would it stick? We didn’t know, but when we left the cabin to eat dinner, the roads had become more treacherous. We decided not to venture further that night, and pulled off the road to eat at a place I will not recommend.

Jim is not a member of the  clergy, but it looks as though he is either praying that our car made it to the restaurant or that we would be able to eat the sub par food.

Jim is not a member of the clergy, but it looks as though he is either praying that our car would make it home from the the restaurant or that we would be able to eat the sub par food.

Back at the cabin, snow continued to swirl around us. I wanted to take pictures, but night pictures of snow are way beyond my skill level. Sadly, lots of the snow had blown away in the morning. But I was not to be deterred. Right after a heavenly breakfast of sour dough bread French toast on a bed of melted butter and warm maple syrup, ( Good food is a vital part of WINTER HOLIDAY)  I donned my “I only wear this stuff once a year” snow togs, grabbed my camera and got outside for WINTER HOLIDAY!!!!!

Rushing water outside the cabin.

Rushing water outside the cabin.

Don't worry. I'm the only one out here.

Don’t worry. I’m the only one out here.

Since I was apparently the only one celebrating WINTER HOLIDAY, I was on my own to explore the environs, and try different settings on the camera.  Being alone in the snow is a delightful solitude. And it was magical! The world was white, crisp, and clean. I could hear only my crunching boots and the icy water tumbling over the boulders. Overnight, the world had decorated itself just for me.

The waterfall behind the house.

The waterfall behind the house.

DSC_0351I continued a ways down the road before making my way back to the cabin and sliding down some boulders on their property to climb some railing onto one of the porches. From there I could take pictures of the view beyond the cabin.

There were no takers for the rocking chairs that day.

There were no takers for the rocking chairs that day.

Later that day, my hostess and I drove into Boone to try to stimulate the economy while the men visited the local family billiard hall. No alcohol, no cola, good burgers.We celebrated the evening with a hearty winter dinner of kale, sausage and pasta.

Downtown Boone, North Carolina

Downtown Boone, North Carolina

DSC_0381The next morning the four of us debated whether to go snowshoeing or to hike the trail at Linville Gorge Sate Park. Because our hosts had more company coming that afternoon we opted for hiking at Linville Falls. But first we had to bulk up with this mountain breakfast of crispy hash browns, eggs, crumbled bacon with toasted sour dough bread. Disclaimer: If you rent the Boulder Falls Retreat, the owners will not be there to cook; you’re on your own.

Was I in danger of becoming spoiled?

Was I in danger of becoming spoiled?

Without a doubt. Especially with the freshly ground Peet's coffee my husband made us each morning.

Without a doubt. Especially with the freshly ground Peet’s coffee my husband made us each morning.

Vigorous outdoor exercise is a vital part of WINTER HOLIDAY.  The idea is to challenge yourself physically and go inside and treat yourself to whatever goodies you want. Linville Gorge had just the kinds of hills and trails I needed to hike. And the views were spectacular.

The falls.

The falls.

Here I am with our hostess. I was trying not to look as though I were afraid I would fall off into the chasm below.

Here I am with our hostess. I was trying not to look as though I were afraid I would fall off into the chasm below.

These beautiful vistas were worth the climb over a sometimes slippery trail.

These beautiful vistas were worth the climb over a sometimes slippery trail.

This fungussy stuff reminds me of  hydrangea leaves.

This fungussy stuff reminds me of hydrangea leaves.

Shiny snow crystals.

Shiny snow crystals.

After many bracing ups and downs, and photo ops, the four of us were tired and chilled. And we ALL recalled an establishment we had passed on the road, advertising coffee and desserts. How convenient that we would be passing by there on our way back!

Winter Holiday Club members are always on the lookout for a place like this!

Winter Holiday Club members are always on the lookout for a place like this!

After our exertions, did Linville Mercantile ever hit the spot! The proprietors don’t need publicity from the likes of me; they’ve been featured in Rolling Stone and other publications. Apparently the area has  “Merlefest”, and the Rolling Stone writers dropped in then, and kept coming. And if you had walked in that place with a freezing nose and freezing hands and smelled that sour dough bread fresh out of the oven, you’d keep coming back too. DSC_0477

It can be hard to remain civilized when someone sets down a loaf of steaming hot fresh bread in front of you.

It can be hard to remain civilized when someone sets down a loaf of steaming hot fresh bread in front of you.

I think the owner said there were one dozen eggs in this cake.

I think the owner said there were one dozen eggs in this cake.

Oh, the steaming hot bread and butter! Oh, the apple butter! Oh, the pineapple upside down cake! Have mercy!I f I hadn’t had the option of getting up to take pictures I don’t know if I could have maintained decorum; I may have reached right cross the table and crammed an entire loaf of bread into my mouth.

Other customers also trying to act civilized.

Other customers also trying to act civilized.

More desserts for next time!

More desserts for next time!

I wish I could have lingered to shop.

I wish I could have lingered to shop.

Or set a spell on the porch.

Or set a spell on the porch.

We arrived back at the cabin in time to prepare for six New Year’s Eve  guests: two neighbors with their two houseguests for cocktails, plus two more houseguests for Beth and Jim, Allan and Janet. My husband and I didn’t know any of these people, but we joined right in, chatting about where to stay in Italy, weddings in Scotland, and life in the Czech Republic.  See what good fun the Winter Holiday Club members experience?

When the cocktail guests departed, we enjoyed a chicken and olive dish for dinner, with bourbon cake for dessert.DSC_0490DSC_0492 Grouped comfortably around the fireplace. the four of us welcomed the New Year with toasts of homemade limoncello. My only regret was that I was way too full to contemplate getting in the  hot tub. Maybe next year.

All too soon it was morning, and time for my husband and me to make the nine hour drive home, where no snow would await us. We had time for one more mountain breakfast at the Grandview. By the time we all ordered I could see we were going to have the whole works: corned beef hash, grits, biscuits, eggs, sausage – in short, everything people our age are not supposed to have.DSC_0493DSC_0494DSC_0495 But we did have good company while eating  it!

DSC_0497We took leave of friends old and new right there in the parking lot. I didn’t think to ask them if they want to join the Winter Holiday Club. But I think I will. How about you? I’d love to hear YOUR WINTER HOLIDAY reports! See you at the next meeting, but in the meantime, get started memorizing those theme song lyrics!