(Jace eats his first birthday cake with a family audience.)
Lisa and I have many reasons this year to celebrate meaningful events and remember our family’s blessings. For instance, Jace’s first birthday occurred on July 1, 2023. The simplest blessings sometimes possess life’s most powerful messages. My children, Annabelle and Jace, are safe and healthy with two married parents who deeply love them. Sometimes I take these luxuries for granted – safety, good health, and a fruitful marriage. Not every family happens to be so lucky.
While sitting down, Jace often sways to music with his two hands in the air, waving them like he just doesn’t care. These sways might be interpreted as his form of dancing. He especially enjoys dancing to the music of movies and cartoons, such as Frozen’s "Let It Go" or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song (the latest version of the show). As such, we decorated our home for Jace’s party with Ninja Turtle adornments.
My sister, Allison, has two children, Ayden and Brogan. My father, Jim Cartee, Jr., is known as G-Daddy by Ayden and Brogan. Annabelle has since named G-Daddy, JayJay, for reasons unknown to me. The new nickname seems to have taken hold…. Annabelle and Jace say “JayJay” much more often than "G-Daddy." It is endearing when Annabelle constantly asks, "Where is JayJay? Where is CeeCee?” Annabelle has developed a strong sentiment toward my parents.
CeeCee, JayJay, and Allison attended Jace’s party. In doing so, they traveled from Nashville to Knoxville, a decent drive of approximately three hours. During the occasion, Jace had his first taste of birthday cake. At first, Jace seemed hesitant, like, "What do I do with this food sitting in front of me?" He then wrecked the cake with his bare hands by stuffing the delicious dessert into his mouth. Jace’s reactions to sweet flavors were entertaining, to say the least!
After scouring the birthday cake, our family shared dinner together. Then Jace opened his presents. Of course, Annabelle was extremely helpful, eating as much cake as possible and then playing with the gifts…all the things a big sister should do. Annabelle now constantly reminds us that her birthday is approaching in August. As a once-in-a-lifetime event in Jace’s journey, turning one, it was wonderful having the family together. These times together used to be more frequent. So, I cherish the few moments a year we are all together.
As I grow older, I have realized how difficult traveling becomes with two children under the age of three, especially on long road trips. We stayed close to home for a summer vacation to keep things simple. We traveled to a small mountain town named Townsend, close to Knoxville, Tennessee. Before our trip, Allison left after the party on Saturday, returning to Nashville.
Townsend is nestled in the heart of the picturesque Great Smoky Mountains and offers visitors a unique blend of natural beauty and historical prominence. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Townsend experienced a logging business boom that fueled its economic growth. The dense forests surrounding the town provided abundant valuable timber, attracting logging companies and sawmills to the area. Townsend now serves as a unique tourist destination on the quiet side of the Smokies, away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
For six days, my parents rented a cabin for our family in Townsend. I wish I had taken more pictures of this residence. The house was built by the grandfather of the man who owned it. The craftsmanship was awe-inspiring! The layout of the cabin included one bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. CeeCee and JayJay slept downstairs while Lisa, I, and the kids slept upstairs. There was a comfortable space for socialization and watching television on the main level. Another similar smaller space existed in a loft area upstairs with furniture and another television. The cabin felt homey with candescent lights and the fresh smell of mountain wood. The residence occupied property across the street from the Little River, a waterway where thousands of visitors tube every summer in Townsend. I could have stayed several more days in this beautiful home!
On our first day, with the company of my parents, Lisa and I wanted to take the kids to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg. We also visited a local moonshine establishment called Sugarlands Moonshine Distilling Company. My parents were soon tired of the July 4th crowds and the midday heat. So, CeeCee and JayJay left Gatlinburg a little early. At the same time, Lisa, I, and the kids enjoyed an arcade, some light shopping, and the Ole’ Smoky Candy Kitchen. This candy store existed in Gatlinburg since 1952, and this establishment has made homemade taffy since its opening. Their taffy selection consists of thirty-three flavor choices. If you ever visit Gatlinburg, you must visit the Candy Kitchen. Our first day in the mountains was definitely full of action!
On Tuesday, July 4, we all took the kids down by the riverside to swim. Annabelle and Jace would sit in the shallow parts, throw rocks, and enjoy the cool water. At first, both kids were intimidated by the current, but eventually, both seemed to acclimate to the river. At night, the town leadership of Townsend planned a Fourth of July fireworks event. Before the fireworks, there were food trucks and live entertainment with local bands. Annabelle and I threw a Nerf football on a nearby field. When Annabelle and I returned to our chairs, Annabelle wanted to involve CeeCee in throwing the football. Annabelle can throw pretty hard if close enough to your face. She did just that! Annabelle hit Mom in her mouth, knocking her glasses off and messing up a glamorous hairstyle fit for the occasion. I laughed vigorously for several minutes, thus frustrating Mom even more. Annabelle joined in on the laughing escapade as well.
Unfortunately, we might have been too close to the fireworks launch site. It was very loud! While Jace seemed unaffected by the noise, the fireworks scared Annabelle. She has since declared that the fireworks are over and that there will be no more fireworks this summer. The event and celebratory spectacle were phenomenal!
We visited The Dancing Bean coffee house on Wednesday and a few more local country souvenir shops. This coffee shop sits in a large log cabin, close to other shops and a winery. The interior of the Dancing Bean is quaint and homey, with a few tables and chairs. For coffee alone, this is our favorite spot in Townsend. However, if you desire both an excellent coffee and a dessert treat, we also thoroughly enjoy The Chocolate Bar.
We then ate at Townsend's newest restaurant, The Peaceful Side Social Brewery and Craft Kitchen. The eatery includes a microbrewery and a solid food selection. The beer was good, and the food was tasty. The Peaceful Side had a large patio outside and a small playground for young children with slides and a tunnel on what resembled a small hill of greenery. The area's layout was well-designed with families and outdoors enthusiasts in mind. Because Annabelle and Jace enjoyed the river so much the day before, Lisa and I took them back to the same shallow river spot as before. This time, we stayed longer than our visit before, so the kids could soak and swim leisurely. Mom and Dan decided to go home rather than take another swim in the river.
On Thursday, Mom and Dad left to go home in the morning. Lisa, I, and the kids stayed one extra day. While a little challenging with Annabelle, we decided to hike on the West Pong Trail in the Smokey Mountains National Park. The trail is wide and relatively flat with a steady incline, ideal for families with kids. We hiked approximately one and a half miles on the trail before Annabelle wanted me to carry her. We continually try to acclimate the kids to the outdoors; however, kids will be kids. They quickly grow tired and then want to be carried.
After our three-mile hike (1.5 miles in and out), the kids took a one-hour nap in the car. The Peaceful Side restaurant has a taco bar from Thursday-Sunday during the spring and summer seasons. Lisa and I were eager to try this specific cuisine since we thoroughly enjoyed the restaurant the previous day. The food tasted like traditional Mexican street tacos with delectable spices and ingredients. We again enjoyed being with the kids outside, with the mountains surrounding us on all sides.
On Friday morning, Lisa and I wanted to visit The Dancing Bean one more time for a last-minute coffee. Townsend has several miles of paved walkways, including alongside the Little River. We walked another three miles with the children in a stroller. Before returning home to Knoxville, we visited the Foothills Parkway, which has some of the most beautiful Wears Valley and Townsend vistas. It is a relaxed road through the mountains without much traffic, so one can pull over and soak in the scenery. It was a solid note to end the trip on!
Because of Jace’s first birthday and our trip to Townsend, I was reminded of some valuable life lessons. For example, swimming in the river and savoring the taste of moonshine again taught me to find happiness in life's simple pleasures. Life is full of everyday moments that can bring joy if we are present and appreciative of them. This trip reminded me of the importance of living in the present, fully engaged in each moment, just as I was fully present in nature's embrace.
The memories I created with my family during this trip are precious. They reinforced the significance of nurturing and cherishing connections with loved ones, as these relationships enrich our lives.
Nature operates on its own terms, reminding me that there are aspects of life beyond our control. Sometimes, the best approach is to let go and trust the journey, just as I have trusted trails that led me through the wilderness while hiking.
(Jace loves playing with balloons!)
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