So the last three weeks were fantastic.  J had been gone for nearly six months and he was able to seamlessly re-enter our lives.  I thought for sure that there would be an adjustment period of some sort.  But it wasn’t there – not even a little bit.  I’d say that means we are a pretty solid family.  And since that was one of my fears, I’m insanely grateful.  J and I spent virtually every minute together, and it still wasn’t enough.  I’m so excited for him to be home for good.

Let me go ahead and warn you – this post is going to include nearly 300 photos.  I tried like hell to narrow it down, but this was the best I could do.  So don’t feel bad if you bow out early.  I don’t blame you.

• • • • •

The week leading up to J’s arrival was filled with intense anticipation.  My stomach was in knots every day and there was a mad last-minute dash to clean our house.  I knew he wouldn’t care about our appearance or the status of our home, but that didn’t matter.  I needed everything to be perfect!

So we made that happen.  I will never again underestimate the awesomeness of my children.  When you give them specific cleaning tasks, they can kick ass and get it done.  It’s pretty cool.  And like most kids, they want so much to please me.  And they made me one proud mama!  I didn’t even have to stay up until 6am making sure the house was spotless. 😉

His flight was set to come in at 10:04am on Friday, May 3rd.  We woke up early, and I spent 45 minutes shaving my legs.  Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration – but not by much.  It felt like Christmas morning around here.  The butterflies were flittering around in my stomach and all four of us were full of smiles.

Are the kids’ shirts not super amazing?  They made them with love.

And then we were off to the airport!  We arrived way early so we hit Starbucks and grabbed coffee plus something that really didn’t resemble a healthy breakfast.  Then we walked over to the big window to see if we could find J’s airplane.

While they were searching, J walked out of the corridor.  I actually had to do a double take because I barely recognized him.  That seems odd since we Skype nearly daily, but he just seemed so different.  I got the kids’ attention and they, too, looked at him blankly for a few seconds.  That facial hair threw us all off!  He also looked all buff after months of weight training.  Yum.

I got no pics of the initial reunion because my hands were full and it was an emotional moment.  It felt so good to hug him again.  Technology is amazing and I’m so thankful for our communication, but it doesn’t satiate the need for physical touch.  It simply can’t.

We then made our way back to the van.  J only brought a backpack with him, so that saved us from hanging around baggage claim.

Our babies couldn’t have been any happier.  (Same for me.)

We came home so we could get changed.  That facial hair cracks me up.  15 years we’ve been together, and I’ve never seen more than stubble.  It’s also rare to see his regular hair get that long.  They tend to frown on that when you’re in the military.

After we changed, the kids wanted a bit of cuddle time with their daddy.

Then it was time to get started on our busy day.  First, we headed out for a bite to eat.  J was so excited to eat real (non-military-base) food!  From there, we went to surprise his parents for a little visit.  They even helped him trim that facial hair up a bit.  (Thank goodness.)  Then we hit the barbershop and the BMV.  His driver’s license expired back in February and we needed to get that taken care of right away.  He was home and I wanted a break from driving all the time. 😉  The barbershop butchered his hair, and that kind of sucked.  They went for the high & tight Marine look versus the Navy fade he normally wears.  I’m not going to lie – I was a tad bit upset since I knew we were doing portraits in a few days.  I got over it.

Then we went downtown to pick up our race packets for the Mini.  I wish I could have spent more time perusing the Expo that was set up.  I feel like such a running novice and it would have been great to see  all of the products that runners use.  But we had a schedule, so it will have to wait until next year.

We then ran home so J could shower again (he hates the tiny hairs that linger after a hair cut).

And then I made everyone pose for a picture.  They love my picture obsession.

It was dinnertime by then, so we headed to our fave Japanese restaurant.  Let me just point out now that  this was the start of a very nasty dining-out trend that lasted the entire 3 weeks.  Not a good thing.

Apparently J learned how to use chopsticks while overseas.  He attempted to teach me, but that didn’t go all that well.  I’ll stick with the fork, thankyouverymuch.

Austin is awesome.  He apparently wants to be an insect.

I think we went home to hang out for a while after dinner, and then it was time to take the kids over to my dad & stepmom’s house.  They had previously offered to keep them so we could run the Mini in the morning.  It was also nice to have a little free time on his first night home. 😉

We got a bit of sleep and then had a great time running our first half marathon the next morning.  You can read all about that on my Mini post.

The rest of Saturday was spent lounging and walking like an old woman.  Sunday also included the latter.

We went over to J’s parents’ house for most of Sunday.  He got to eat homemade chicken & noodles (courtesy of his mom) and we had a good time visiting with his parents, grandparents, and siblings. (I somehow didn’t end up with a picture of J and his parents.)

Audra had a great time playing with J’s parents’ German Shepherd pup.  He is such a smart dog.  Cute and playful as hell.

Monday was my surgery consultation day.  You can read all about that here, and a little followup here.

Then we went to the kids’ gymnastics class and J got to see the fun!

Tuesday was portrait day.  We spent the first half of the day gathering the last minute clothing we needed and trying to decide if we wanted J to shave his facial hair or not.

We ultimately decided that the clothing I chose warranted a clean face.  I totally cried when the hair was gone.  (It’s back now.)  And then we headed downtown for our portraits.  You can see the post about those here.

And then even though we swore we were not going to eat out, we did anyway.  We suck.

Austin was really focused on cutting his steak.  That kid is awesome – he ordered salad as his side.

On Wednesday afternoon, we went to the Indianapolis Zoo.  We’ve had our membership since October, and we have only gone once.  I vow to change that this summer!  We really had a good time that day because we decided to only visit what the kids wanted to see.  And we spent as much time as they wanted to at each exhibit.  We generally have this drive to rush through everything.  But that’s silly.  Spending an hour just in the aquarium is totally fine.  They learned so much in that hour.

This was totally not posed.  They just really wanted to read those maps!

Audra has acquired a recent fascination with birds.

We also walked through the plains area and saw the tigers too.  We can’t wait until next year when there will be a new orangutan exhibit.  I’m serious about visiting more – the zoo is actually a lot of fun.

After the zoo, we went for some frozen yogurt.

James eating = ew.  Who sticks his tongue out like that?

We went to the mall after that to find (hiking/water) shoes for our trip to Gatlinburg.  The kids also desperately needed new sneakers.  Austin has been wearing size 8s for what feels like forever.  His new pair are size 11s.  I’d say it was about time he got new ones!

On Thursday, we went back to my dad’s for dinner.  Baked chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, salad and fresh fruit.  Delicious!

Friday was the day we headed down to the Smoky Mountains!  We brought the pups down with us, and Astro made the rounds so he could spend time with everyone.

We packed healthy snacks so we could get the vacation started right.

I spent a large amount of time making my menu and grocery list for the trip.  Too bad it was mostly a waste of time!

Avery sat there most of the time wishing she was a little bit smaller.  She just doesn’t quite fit in our laps.

After 7 hours, we arrived at our destination!  The kids were so excited about all of the amenities.  

My grandparents hadn’t arrived yet, so we set out to find food and some fun on the Gatlinburg strip.  Our aim for the vacation was to focus mostly on outdoor adventures, but we knew we’d hit the tourist attractions a little bit.

World of Illusions was awesome, mostly because it was so haphazardly thrown together.  We had fun giggling at the out-of-date exhibits.  The kids had fun looking at everything.

The shadow screen – where you make a shadow and then walk away from it.

The Earthquake ride was not a hit.  Surprisingly, it scared the crap out of Audra.

We all loved the Mirror Maze.  J and I did this four years ago, and it was even more fun with the kids.  FYI: It’s much more interesting/difficult if you splurge on the $1 3-D(?) glasses they offer.

At that point, we headed back to the cabin because my grandparents had arrived.

Saturday was kind of a weird day.  We woke up to a coffeemaker that didn’t work (catastrophe!) and then we realized that Sunday’s ziplining adventure was booked at a place right off of the Pigeon Forge strip.  I had been envisioning soaring over/through the trees deep in the mountains.  Being able to see the parking lot while we were in the air was not my idea of a good time.  Especially when we were spending $400 to do it.

It took a few phone calls, but I was suddenly grateful that many of the attractions in that area are owned by the same company.  We were not able to cancel with just one day’s notice, but they were able to switch our reservations over to a different location.  And they didn’t even charge us the difference.  Score!  I had my fingers crossed that the new place was exactly what I had envisioned in my head.

We then set out to go hiking with the dogs and kids.  We entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and drove for what felt like forever to reach the trail that led to Grotto Falls.  We even stopped to get that great outlook picture.

We finally arrived at the trailhead and I was thanking my lucky stars for the bathroom there.  And then we realized that dogs are not allowed on trails in the national park.
Well, crap.
That tanked our moods for sure.  We drove aaaaaaaaaall the way back down to the visitor’s center and finally figured out that there were two trails that did allow dogs.  So we set out on one of them.  It wasn’t exactly the deep-in-the-forest experience we were going for, but we were determined to let our dogs get out to stretch their legs.  And we were ready to see some nature!

I love how these pictures make it seem like we weren’t right next to a road half the time, haha!
After our little 1.5-2 mile hike, we headed back to the van.  And then back to the cabin.  We had been listening to a hell of a lot of complaining and the kids were begging us to go to an arcade.  I was feeling some serious frustration.  Didn’t they understand that we were here to see nature?  Not the arcade?!  
Yeah, I know.  They’re kids.
My grandparents saved the day and shipped J and I out for an evening away from the whining.  
We went to a steakhouse that was recommended on my FB page (The Peddler).  They had a 45 minute wait, but we didn’t care at all.  We brought our iPads and each played Candy Crush.  Are we losers or what?  We had spent the entire day together though, so we were pretty much talked out.  And sometimes we just love to sit and be together.  No conversation necessary.
We enjoyed our way-overpriced dinner (I liked the salad bar more than the steak & chicken), and were grateful for the alone time.  Then we set out for the grocery store.  It turns out you can actually have a lot of fun grocery shopping when it’s part of a date night!  We even picked up beer and wine coolers.
I think that evening out rejuvenated us and I felt excited again about our vacation.  It’s okay if the kids don’t yet understand how much fun being active can be.  We haven’t yet taught them that.  We have always put so much emphasis on games, eating out, and shopping.  We have to change that and it’s probably going to be a long process.
When we arrived home, the kids were in a great mood and it sounded like fun was had all around.  GG (my grandma) had brought tiny toy presents for the kids.  Those presents included rubber mice and a snake.  Eek.
Sunday was Mother’s Day and it was probably my favorite one ever.  I woke up to the smell of pancakes and bacon.  J even remembered that I wanted eggs so he scrambled up some of those as well.
The babies spent the morning playing downstairs.  I took a few minutes to prove to them that I am the Air Hockey Queen.  Totally undefeated.

J also spent time trying to teach Aidan how to play pool.

GG and GGPa also came down for some fun.

I also learned that we are hillbillies.  Ya know, the kind of hillbillies that make a dog bed out of a Bud Light box.  Meet Sophie, my grandparents’ new puppy.  She is a total diva.  Love her!
After a great morning, it was time for some ziplining!  J and I went for the first time back in July 2011. Let’s just say that our first experience, in comparison to the second one, was similar to riding a bike with training wheels.  This time?  Soooo much bigger and badder and scarier!  But also, it was more incredible! 

All ready to go – and the only ones going on the tour!  Lucky us!

Walking up this bridge seemed a bit scary – right up until that first zipline.

And we were off!  This is Audra and me.

Aidan and one of the guides.  We were concerned that he would be the most scared, so it made sense for him to go with the guide who could best control the ride.  (The kids were all too small to go alone.)  After a few lines, we asked if he wanted to switch with Austin and go with J.  He decided he felt safer with the guide, haha!

J and Austin:

We got to ride in this ATV between two of the lines and then again at the end.  Bouncy and rough, but fun!

This was the big one.  2500 feet long (that’s nearly half a mile!) and 450 feet off the ground.  Can you see where the line goes into that bare spot in the middle of the trees?

Can you see the fear on our faces??  Well, I was feeling it!

I wish I’d been able to capture the beauty we saw that day.  These pictures really don’t do it justice.  I’m so thankful that we were able to switch our reservations.  If you are in the area and decide to go ziplining, please check out Legacy Mountain Zipline.  The guides were amazing and the whole experience was unforgettable.  And Audra just kept repeating “this is aaaaaaaaawesome” during each of the seven ziplines.  She wasn’t wrong.
I’m so proud of our babies and grateful that they took part in this adventure with us!  They mostly scared us to death because Audra and Austin weren’t the least bit afraid of heights.  I thought for sure that they’d go flying off the edge on accident between the lines.  Thankfully, they were almost always tethered to something.  It didn’t make it any better for me though.
Crazy kids.

We were riding on that ziplining high for days!

We went back to the cabin for dinner (one of our few homecooked meals) and conked out early.  Zipping through the air is apparently exhausting!

On Monday, we went to Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge.  J and I have been a few times, but it was an entirely different experience sharing it with the kids.

J zeroed in on his home away from home.

J and the three kids tried out this cold water challenge.  Austin made it 30 seconds I think.  J did it over a minute if memory serves.

Another earthquake ride that didn’t exactly thrill anyone. :)

We hung out at this mind game section forever!  The goal was to remain the calmest so the ball would travel to your opponent.  It was creepy how Aidan could make his brain waves flatten out at will.

I love playing with these pin art toys.  The large version was just as fun!

I made a huge bubble and Audra popped it before I could get a picture.  So she made another one for me.  Turd.

Another shadow wall!  This one was big enough for all of us to pose.

They had a big version of a Lite-Brite.  Yes, we are that big of nerds.
J and Aidan practiced landing space shuttles.  I don’t think NASA will be giving either a phone call very soon.  Maybe in the future though!

Indoor rock climbing!

This game is way more fun than it should be.  J and I played it repeatedly.  He definitely killed my score each time but I didn’t care.

I don’t think snowboarding is the sport for me.

How cool are the shadows that these creations make?

After we were done with the main portion, we decided to let the kids play laser tag.  There was a small arcade so I gave in and let the kids play for a few minutes while we waited for their laser tag game.  Austin would jump up after he rolled the ball each time.  We were dying.

So the guy got the kids set up and explained that you wanted to hold the gun so it shot away from you. Because it would count against you if you shot yourself.  Austin asked, “Will it KILL me?” Ha.  That was a new one for the clerk.

I can’t remember for the life of me who won.  But they had fun, so who cares.

We went back to the cabin that night and the kids spent some time singing and laughing with GG.  I’m so grateful for the time they all spent together!

On Tuesday, my grandparents offered to watch the little ones for us again.  We decided to go on a hike together.

But before that, we all spent the morning together.  And the dogs continued to believe that they owned the place.

We researched online and I also looked back through my FB logs to find what trails were suggested to us.  We decided to hit the Chimney Tops trail.

Excitement was running high riiiiiiight up until we got to the trail.  And guess what?  It was closed!  No idea why.  And of course we had no internet service, so I couldn’t research any other trails.  It was starting to feel like we weren’t meant to go hiking.
We rode back down the mountain and went back to the visitors’ center.  We found out that the Chimney Tops trail was closed because the bridge had been washed out and wouldn’t be opened again until July.  The volunteers there recommended we go to the Alum Cave trail.  I remembered that it had also been recommended on my FB page, so I got excited again.  The hilarious part was that if we had just kept driving about a mile or two past the Chimney Tops trail, we would have found it.  Oops.
So we drove baaaaaaack up and finally found our trail.  I was sad about all that time wasted.  We only had enough time to get to Alum Cave Bluff instead of the top of Mt. LeConte.  We had a show that evening.
But despite our time constraints, we had an amazing time on our hike.

The terrain and views are awesome.

When we made it to the bluff, I realized that I had done this same hike when I came here as a teenager.  Exciting!

On our way back down, we spent the time chatting about our future.  We are both so looking forward to whatever is in store for us.  The unknown is a bit scary but it’s also exhilarating.

I love that this trail was considered strenuous.  It didn’t hold a candle to our hike two days later!

We finished that hike and couldn’t wait to do another one!  
We arrived back at the cabin, showered, grabbed the kids, and headed out to see Bill Gladwell’s Head Case show.  We got there early and had to stand in line.  By the time we took our seats, Miss Princess was in a mood and refused to smile for the camera.  Joke’s on her – I like this picture more anyway.  Haha.

I look half drunk in this picture.  I promise I wasn’t.

So the show got started and Bill asked for a volunteer.  Hands shot up everywhere and I avoided eye contact.  So guess who he chose first?  Yeah…me.  (“You – the girl who’s avoiding eye contact.”  Damn.) WTF?  But I was a good sport and got up there.  I played along and honestly, it’s funny that I wasn’t even nervous.  The Nicole from 3 years ago would have died.  
He told me to choose three men.  One who was creepy, one who I would never enter into a van with, and the hottest guy there besides my husband.  Well, that’s not at all awkward.  I handled it though.  And yeah, I just picked random guys.  Hopefully I didn’t scar any of them for life.

We had a good time though.  I think the kids weren’t quite as impressed – it’s definitely a show for teens or older.
Later that night, the younger two hit the hot tub for a little while.  They were not happy that there was a 20-minute rule in the manual.  

Then it was time for the big kids to take a turn.

Then my grandma decided to give us some alone time.  She ran in and grabbed a wine cooler for me, a beer for J, and wine glasses for us both.  Then she promised to keep the munchkins busy so we could spend some quality time together.

Best. Grandma. Ever.

We used our time wisely.

Wednesday morning, we got up early(ish) so we could go hiking with the babes.  I was nervous that they’d complain the whole time.  But we were determined to get back to that trail that led to Grotto Falls.  This time without the dogs.
First, Austin had to spend some time with his iPod.
We got on the road and started our hike.

We made it to the waterfalls and even got to walk behind them.

On our way back, we met a nice couple who explained to us that the massive amounts of poop we saw on the trail were from llamas.  Apparently, llamas are used a few times a week to take supplies up to the lodge on Mt. LeConte.  They also talked to us about the trail we were planning to hike the next day.

And the kids?  They had a great time.  They loved how the terrain changed constantly and there was so much to see.  We didn’t hear any complaints – that was pretty awesome.  2.8 miles of fun!

After our hike, it was time to head out to Pigeon River.  We had appointments to do a ropes course and go floating down the river.
On our way, we stopped to grab this picture.  Gorgeous?  Yes.  Also, I love the iPhone’s panoramic feature.
It was quite the drive, but we finally arrived in Hartford, TN.  We got all strapped up in our gear and onto the ropes course.  So let’s talk about these ropes.  Online, they seemed more fun than scary.  In real life?  That was a different story.  There were four levels – easiest to hardest from left to right.  And then there were three sets of challenges.
J attacked the harder ones while the kids and I did the easiest one at first.  From there, J and the younger two started hitting nearly all of them.  Aidan and I?  We kind of just stood there.  Scared out of our minds. 

James fell!  Well, fell off the ropes.  He was still tethered to the top.  Scared him though!

Austin had me on edge during this entire line.  He got to the middle and couldn’t pull himself any farther.  But after a few adjustments, he got himself going again.

Audra showed absolutely no fear.

It took probably a half hour, but Aidan got the courage to try the second challenge.  And by then, I felt brave enough to do it too!  Thankfully, J was able to walk in front of him so he felt less scared.  (He also had to walk back across it, and that seemed to go much faster!)

And Audra was still going all over the place.

This was the hardest challenge at the end.  The blocks rolled!  She dropped down once, but got back up and finished it.

Austin got bored after conquering most of the lines and waited in the corral for us.

I did the first two easiest lines and called it quits.  Ziplining 450 feet in the air was easier than walking on ropes 20-30 feet in the air to me!

J decided to do one last line and it was quite the workout!

So apparently there are still some things that scare me.  Ropes courses are one of them.
Then it was time to board our raft and float down Pigeon River!
I decided not to bring my camera because I was scared it would get wet.  Once we got on the water, I realized it would have been okay.  But thankfully, the company offered photos of the whole raft.  
We loaded up and got started.  It was a tame experience because the kids are so little – we only hit small waves, and we went fairly slowly.  J and I talked about going back to do real rafting, but we had plans for a big hike.  There’s not much to tell you about the ride, but we did have fun!

On our way home, J stopped so I could grab another picture.
We drove back into Gatlinburg, and went to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to find a daypack for the next day’s hike.  
We also bought way more snacks than we could ever need.  But we wanted to be prepared!
Then we went back to the cabin and the kids enjoyed more time in the hot tub.  Aidan wasn’t interested at all. :)

J and I spent hours deciding on our route for the next day’s hike.  Sometimes the planning is just as exciting as the doing.  We used this site for all of our information.

In the end, we decided to do two different trails: Rainbow Falls up to Mt. LeConte and Bullhead trail back down.  Look at those difficulty ratings!  Our Alum Cave trail had a rating of 6.65, and Grotto Falls was 3.77.  Now we were attempting trails with ratings of 22.39 and 21.79.  Were we crazy?  Maybe.  Yes.  Turns out that the terrain and distance were the easiest part!

 Thursday morning, we woke up way early and headed out.  The idea that I would be so excited to hike so many miles is baffling.  But I couldn’t wait to see the LeConte Lodge!

We got started and for the first hour or more, we thought we might be on the wrong trail.  There was no one else around.  And it seemed like there were many offshoots of the original trail.

We got to this waterfall and J was convinced it was the big one.  But we knew the Rainbow Falls was supposed to be 80 feet tall.  Does this look like 80 feet?  No.  You’d think he’d learn that I’m always right.

We finally got to the “big” waterfall.  What a let down.  We weren’t impressed at all.  The good news was that we finally saw two girls behind us though and we knew we were on the right trail.  It helped that there was a big sign that said “Rainbow Falls” as well.

We continued up the trail and it became obvious that this trail was nowhere near as fun as the Alum Cave trail was.  The terrain was rough and there was just nothing to see.  We did count wildlife though.  We saw something like 15 chipmunks, 4 squirrels, 13 birds, 2 worms, a big snail, a centipede (millipede?) and a beetle.  No bears.  Or snakes.

We could not believe all of the rocks in the trail.  The couple we talked to a few days before had mentioned that it felt like a creek bed in many areas, and they weren’t wrong.  There were river rocks in so many places and fyi – that stuff is hard to walk on!  You have to look down the entire time.  So we felt pretty excited that we were taking a different trail back down the mountain.

After four hours, we finally reached the top.  And yep, this is the very top.  It’s a giant pile of rocks.  There isn’t even a sign.

Thankfully, there were some pretty amazing views almost at the top.  So we stopped there and the same girls we saw earlier took our picture.  (We did the same for them.)

We then took another path so we could see the Cliff Tops.  It’s a bunch of jagged rocks surrounded by greenery.  It was quite the trek, but the views were outstanding.

We came back down from Cliff Tops and headed over to the lodge.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, but it was definitely interesting.  It was a bunch of cabins plus a dining area and an office.  And most importantly?  There was a bathroom!  Someone had definitely sprayed the entire toilet area with cleaner (I hope) – every single thing was wet.  Even the toilet paper.  But I didn’t care.  I was able to pee.

Oh, and while we were up there, we probably saw about 8 people in addition to the first two girls.  I couldn’t believe that there were so few hikers!

I felt the need to take a picture with the map my dad sent with us.  It was really helpful in our planning!

Then it was time to start our descent.  I was feeling great!  I am so proud of my body for being able to handle anything I make it do.

So when we hit the split to head back down the Bullhead Trail, we were excited pretty early on.  We were able to see views that were nonexistent on the Rainbow Falls Trail.  On the other hand, the trail was soooo narrow.  It was pretty clear that this was not a trail that was made for mass travel.

But I couldn’t believe it when I looked over and could see both Gatlinburg AND Pigeon Forge.  (Well, I assume it was PF – it looks like it.)  Can you see it?  Gatlinburg closer and on the left.  Pigeon Forge farther up on the right.

Close up of Gatlinburg.  It looks so tiny!

We kept on walking.  And then the hike turned to crap.  J just happened to look up and saw this guy:

It was so still that I was hoping it was dead.  And then J said he thought it was a rattlesnake.  I just couldn’t believe that – until I took the picture and zoomed in.  Yep, definitely a freaking rattlesnake.  I could feel the panic rising.  We are just now learning to be outdoor people.  This isn’t normal for us.  What do we do?  Ohmygodohymygodohmygod.

We tried to get it to move by throwing things in that direction.  It didn’t work.  It didn’t move an inch.  I know, because I took more than one picture.  And then J finally hit it, and that thing coiled up so quickly.  I thought I was panicked before?  No.  When I heard that rattler going, I thought I might puke.

Our choices were to either turn around and hike back up the 2ish miles to the top (so we could hike back down the other trail) or find a way around the snake.  We knew we had been hiking over an hour, but we had no way to know our speed because my GPS watch was useless up there.  And there were absolutely no markers anywhere.  And to top that off, we hadn’t seen anyone since we left the lodge.

I’m freaking myself out now just thinking about it.  Eek.  It was that scary.

So finally we decide that we don’t want to hike back up.  And the sucker isn’t going to move.  It’s still pissed off and the rattler is going nonstop.  We need to do something and we need to do it NOW.

I’m so mad that I didn’t take a pullback picture of the scene.  About two feet to the left, the land dropped off and you couldn’t see through the trees and brush to know where it went.  About two feet to the right, it went into a steep (45º?) slope up.  And that slope was covered in some sort of thorn bushes and flowers.  There were basically no large trees to hang onto.

But J told me that snakes can generally strike as far as their length, so we couldn’t just walk around it.  No way.  We had to figure out how to climb that slope.

J went up first and he was able to dig in enough to help me up.  As we are grabbing onto every long stem of those bushes (and trying to avoid the damn thorns), I was scared to death that we would lose our grip and slide right down into the snake.  The grass was too tall, so we couldn’t exactly see if it was still in the same place.  But we could definitely hear the damn thing.  It was still pissed.

I have to give it to J – I know he was freaked out, but he handled things like a pro.  He even had to talk me down the whole time because I was on the verge of tears.  But I trusted him and I knew he’d help us through this.

We finally felt like we were far enough past the snake to climb back down the slope, so J went first.  The snake got quiet and then that scared us.  But as soon as I started moving again, it began rattling once more. And J could see it at that point, so I just raced down as fast as I could so we could keep moving.

Now, here’s the thing.  We made it past the rattlesnake – yay!  But we still had at least 4 miles left to hike and there was a ridiculous amount of tall grass surrounding the tiny trail.  So we spent the entire rest of the hike worrying that we’d happen upon another snake.  And would we get as lucky next time? Would it be just hanging out in the middle of the path?  And what if it was, but there was no way to get around it?  We’d have to turn back around and head back towards the last snake.

Yeah, it was pretty terrifying actually.  And we did not see anyone else.  Not a soul during the entire trail down.

We did see some bear poop though.  Yum.

And there were these stupid carpenter bees that swarmed me all the way down.  I think it was my shampoo.  Note to self – don’t use floral shampoo next time!

After a total of 15 miles, we finally got back to the parking lot.  My body felt pretty great, but my toes were sore.  And I was exhausted from being so alert for so long.  The trail down ended up taking us 3.5 hours, and we spent about an hour at the top.  So all in all – 8.5 hours.  Not too bad.  But I was pretty bummed that we never saw a bear.  I’m not sure what I would have done if we’d seen a bear while we were walking along.  But I think I would have been less scared than I was of the snake.

So we get in our van, and we notice that there is a Search & Rescue vehicle, plus two more ranger patrol cars in the parking lot.  That seemed weird.

And then when we started to drive away, we got to see our bear!  It was walking away before I had time to grab my camera, so the picture isn’t the best.  But we were still excited.  We were just bummed that the kids didn’t get to see it with us!

So we don’t know if that’s why the park vehicles were there, but it was really close to the trail and parking lot, so that would make sense.  We were wondering if they are tagged in some way.  Anyone know?

After that interesting day, we headed back to the cabin to celebrate my grandma’s 70th birthday!  I felt awful for sticking the kids with her and my grandpa for hours when it was her special day.  But when I asked her what she wanted, that is exactly what she told me!  Pretty cool. :)

When we got home, we were entertained by Astro and Sophie playing.  Sophie plays hard to get sometimes, but I think they are crushing on each other equally.

We ate pizza (at Grandma’s request) and cake!

Then we played with the sparklers that my grandparents brought.

Good times!

I only lasted until 9pm.  I swore that I just wanted to lay down for an hour, but I ended up sleeping completely through the night.  Being active is tiring! :)  And J didn’t make it too much longer than that either.

We woke up the next morning (Friday), and raced around to get packed up.  J and I are quite the team, but he always does a bit more when we’re leaving.  And I let him.

We made sure to get some pics together too.

Then we set out for Cades Cove while my grandparents went on their own way.  We had such a great time with them!

We were hoping to see at least one bear that morning, especially since the drive out to Cades Cove was an hour.  I was hoping it would be worth it!

Before we even reached the driving trail loop, we saw a turkey.

But once we got to Cades Cove, it was pretty uneventful.  We saw two deer – one grazing in a grassy area and one laying just inside the tree line of the forest.  It was people watching, which was kind of funny to me.

We also saw some pretty incredible views.  I mean, look at this.  I could imagine having that as a backyard.  Beautiful.

So about 9-10 miles into the 11 mile loop, we saw a bear!  It was just hanging out about 100 yards from the road – eating.  It didn’t seem at all impressed by the people ogling as they passed.

We all cheered about seeing that bear!  Since we were so close to the end, we had basically given up hope.  I’m fairly certain that J and I were more excited than the kids.  Isn’t that the way it always is?

But then we saw a big commotion right around the 10.5 mile area.  We saw two park rangers and many cars parked along the side of the road.  Of course we stopped.  The dogs were in the van, and they like to bark when they see people.  Ya know, any people.  So I got out and ran over to see what was going on while J put the dogs in the cage.

I could see some movement behind a tree and the rangers were trying to help everyone see.  But then J and the kids walked over and it appeared that the bear was going to walk deeper into the woods.

For some reason, it changed it’s mind and walked to the right.  So the ranger asked the kids if they wanted to walk out on the trail to see it closer.  How nice was that?!  Or maybe I should have been scared.  I don’t know.  They said it was a yearling (possibly 17 months old), so I guess they didn’t think it was much of a threat.

Then the kids and ranger came back up to the road, and we were all able to get a better look of the bear as it ate.

I took some video too!

Neat, huh?

So that was the perfect ending to our vacation.  Perfect!  We got back in the van and started on our journey home.

I realized that we hadn’t bought any souvenirs.  Such a change from four years ago when J and I visited Gatlinburg alone.  All we did was shop back then!  It didn’t even interest me at all this time.

So we stopped for gas and got lucky that it was a little gift shop as well.  I purchased a magnet (with a bear on it!) plus three little mini snow globes for the kids.  And we were on our way.

Astro found the perfect place to sit.

The drive home seemed quick and easy.  Traveling is so much easier when you don’t have babies or toddlers!  True story.

We made it home and had so many plans to prep for the next morning’s yard sale.  We even went over to my dad’s house to grab the tables we needed.

We all ate dinner, and then I started to feel bad.  Like flu bad.  I took some tums and we decided to wait it out.  But it didn’t get better – it got worse.  No one else felt bad, so I didn’t think it was food poisoning.  We all ate the same thing for dinner.  But I was hoping it wasn’t the flu, because I didn’t want it to make the rounds and have everyone sick for J’s last week here.  There was no great answer.

By 1-2am, I still wasn’t feeling better.  We decided to wake up early and get ready instead.

Nope, that didn’t happen either.  I still felt awful.  And I don’t get sick much, so I don’t handle it well when I do.  We hated to postpone the sale, because Audra was really looking forward to her lemonade stand.  I felt horrible, but I just couldn’t do it.  I try so hard not to be that flaky mom, but sometimes it happens.

We ended up doing not much of anything Saturday.  It was actually pretty awesome – we needed the down day.

On Sunday, we went to Uno’s for my stepmom’s birthday lunch!

From there, we headed down to see my dad’s lodge/cabin a few hours south of Indy.  He’s fixing it up and I can’t wait to see how it looks when it’s renovated.  I’m glad I got to see it in its before stage.  We also went into a historic hotel and checked out the scenery.  It might be a fun getaway sometime.  And pedicures are only like $400 – what a deal! 😉

On Monday, we didn’t do much until around 1pm.  We then went to Incredible Pizza so the kids could finally play in an arcade.

We found that awesome light game again.  J still beat me.

Audra and I tried to save the planet from asteroids.  Sorry, you’re all dead.

This damn game.  It costs like $1.50 and I can’t get it through Audra’s head that her chances of winning anything are basically zero!  She and Austin burned through their $25 (each!) in about 30 minutes.  She played this game and Austin was just doing another one to win tickets.  One day they’ll understand that winning tickets is so not worth the money.

Aidan spent at least 90 minutes playing this one game.  After our three hours at Incredible Pizza, he had only used like $10.  Now he knows how to use money wisely.

Surprisingly, Aidan wasn’t interested in riding the go-carts this time.  So this is J and Austin.

We also played mini golf.  I definitely beat J.  Go me!

Then we bowled!

And then we all played laser tag.  First, we did parents vs. kids.  The grown-ups won, obviously.  But then we played girls vs. boys.  Girls rule!

Then it was time to go, and we had a little girl who was having too much fun.  She didn’t want to leave.  Daddy made her.

I have no idea what we did the rest of that day.

Tuesday we did a whole lot of nothing and then we went out to eat with J’s parents.  Okay, so I was supposed to cook.  But, then I didn’t.  Yeah, I suck.

My baby boy decided to rock his new Green Lantern mask. ($1 at Target and it’s made of felt!)

We went to McAlister’s Deli.  My new favorite place to eat.  Healthy?  No.

Then we went back to my in-laws’ house to relax and flap our jaws.  We Facetimed with my nephew who lives in Ohio too.

I think Papaw rocks the mask.  You?

On Wednesday, we met back up with J’s parents to go to the Children’s Museum.  I had promised Aidan back in December that we would get back there within the next month.  I obviously was wrong. But better late than never right?  And we have a shiny new membership so we will be visiting often!  (We also got a +2 membership so any of you want to join us??)
We all got to touch a real t-rex bone.

I think he’s incubating his eggs?

We spent the most time in this area.  And this is the area that we neglected to visit back in December, so Aidan was so excited to visit it this time.  Who knew water could be so much fun?!

And I’m always posting things to Facebook.  But I’m happy to have a pic showing I was there.  And I really did participate – I just had the camera most of the time. :)

Audra thought she was hilarious with the crane – she just wished she could drop the foam blocks onto my head.

J’s mom and I decided to build this arch.  It took us a bit longer than it probably should have.

Do you see his dad to the right?  Yep, he totally knocked it down on our heads.

So they rebuilt it.

Audra spent forever in the mulch with a little friend she made.  It just goes to show you how very different kids are.  This girl can make a friend anywhere.  Socialization issues?  No.

The ball mechanism thing was a hot commodity.  After we were in the area for over an hour, Austin finally got to have a turn.  And the place wasn’t even that busy!

Aidan loved this little water area.

Mamaw & Papaw got bored.  They are slaves to the technology, just like we all are!

I went back to check on Aidan, and the poor kid tried to block that waterway with just about ever rock combination he could imagine.  It never worked.  I give him mad points for trying though!

We finally decided to head downstairs for the show in the planetarium.  Half the fun was running up and down the ramps.

All seated.

The show?  Not great.  We’ll have to try another one next time.

And then it was time to leave!  We got some pics before we left. :)

TWO smiling pics of my father-in-law.  Not normal.  I think he’s getting soft in his “old” age.  But I’ll take it!

After the museum, we ran some errands and then went to eat wings – J’s request.  I told you, we did nothing but eat out the entire 3 weeks.  Quit judging.

Audra entertained us with her attempt to eat the traditional wings.  She nibbled on two and gave up.  I think she’s lazy like her mama – wings are too much work!  (I ate pulled pork.)

From there, we came home and J & I had a movie night.  We finally watched Avatar – only 3.5 years late.  It was so good!

So since we didn’t do the yard sale on Saturday, we planned to do it on Thursday and Friday.  But by Wednesday night, we knew that it was not going to happen.  So what did we do?  We naturally bribed Audra with a trip to Monkey Joe’s in lieu of her having a lemonade stand.

We clearly aren’t perfect parents.  We’ll make sure she gets to have her stand this summer – I believe both mine and J’s parents are having yard sales at some point.

So even though we decided not to have the sale, I still wanted to get rid of the crap in the garage.  It took a few hours, but we transferred everything from the totes into boxes and bags.  And then we packed up both vehicles (sooooo much stuff!) and donated it all.

And whew.  It feels so good to have all of that gone.  And from now on, I hope not to get overwhelmed.

We then headed over to Monkey Joe’s and gave the babies some time to bounce around.

And to thank me, she pretended to throw a shoe at me.  Sweet girl.

After, MJ’s, we went up north to meet some friends of ours for dinner.  Yep, out.  Again.  But first, we stopped so J could get new running shoes at Blue Mile.  And the guy gave him a killer discount for serving in Afghanistan.  So nice.

And I took a pic of my man because he was looking super handsome.

We now have a new favorite Japanese place on the north side of Indy.  Tomo for you local peeps.  And  along with the food, the time we spent with our friends Pat and Andi was pretty great too.

Andi played rock, paper, scissors way more times than I would have, and Aidan assaulted Pat’s thighs with his bony butt.  The kid never stops moving. :)

They decided they wanted to live with the couple.  And when we left, they were heartbroken that I wouldn’t let that happen.  I informed them that you can’t go inviting yourself into people’s homes.  Ya know, FOREVER!  “But they seemed okay with it!” was the response I received back.  Ha.
We left the restaurant and ran home to grab PJs for the kiddos.  We took them over to my dad’s house so we could go see Hangover 3.  We figured we weren’t missing out on any family time because it was bedtime at that point.
The movie was awesome except for the contact high we received from the guy sitting next to J.  Considering we generally go see movies for a younger audience, we kind of forgot what it was like to be in an audience of adults.  Young adults.  It’s apparently smelly.  Thankfully the odor dissipated halfway through the film.
After the movie ended, we had huge plans to go home and relive our early twenties by staying up ALL.NIGHT.LONG.  What were we going to do?  Anything.  Everything!
I was asleep by 2am.  J wasn’t far behind.
We woke up at 7:30 on Friday, May 24th and went to pick up the little ones.  We didn’t want to lose a minute of our last day together.  Aaaaaand of course they were all asleep.
We stayed and chatted with my stepmom for a while before we packed up and went home.  It was a rough day.  Audra and I were particularly emotional – the kids definitely feed off of me.  She was worried because they were going camping all weekend and wouldn’t be around to console me.
I’ve got some awesome kids.
J had me shave his head and then we cuddled for a few minutes.  Not digging the shaved head.  And I’m so good at pretending like I wasn’t sobbing seconds before!

I told him he had to wear the hat to the airport.  He looks weird with no hair.  I didn’t bother getting dressed or putting in my contacts.  Constant crying = foggy lenses.

This picture breaks my heart.  Why do I torture myself?  Austin said, “Daddy, I’ve never seen you cry before.”

We got on the road later than intended, but we didn’t plan on going inside this time.  When we dropped him off in November, he just went inside a building on a base so I could have my meltdown in the van.  I just knew that saying goodbye inside the airport would be a monumental disaster.

So we hugged, kissed and watched him walk away.  And I don’t ever want to do that again.  Because I hate it.

I sobbed violently all the way home while we blared music and the kids let me have my time.  And then once I got home, I was mostly okay.  Because this isn’t forever and we are 58% done with our 15-month adventure.
I packed the kids’ clothes and dropped them off with my stepmom for a fun-filled camping weekend!
For me?  My weekend has been full of laziness, reading, and hours of schoolwork.  My summer classes started this week and I’m grateful for the distraction.
I was reminded in these last 3 weeks that I really like my husband.  And my family as a cohesive unit is pretty amazing.  We spent 3 weeks together and it wasn’t enough.  It will never be enough.
If you made it to the end – wow!  You deserve a medal.  Thanks for reading. :)