I’ve just returned home from a week in the mountains of North Carolina. While there, I hired a guide to take me and my family literally off the beaten path, deep into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our guide, Tim, drove us up an unpaved road, over 6,000 foot peaks that make up some of the oldest mountains in the world and the most rugged in the southeastern United States.
As we arrived at our destination, the remote Cataloochee Valley, the hustle and bustle of 21st century life was gone. With the exception of a few SUV’s filled with other folks who had traveled into the valley, some historic structures and a tent or two, there were no signs of the man-made, commercialized world that we left behind on the other side of the mountains. As I looked around my new environs, for the first time in a long time, I felt truly at peace.
I really needed this vacation – an opportunity to get away from it all and relax – something that I have a hard time doing. It’s a shame I can’t relax at home. I live in tropical South Florida. I have a beautiful pool in my backyard and am just a few miles away from the beach. But, staycations don’t work for me. Even if my family and I have events planned that get us out of the house and keep us busy in South Florida, I still see the garden that needs my attention, the room that has to be painted and the stack of papers that is calling my name.
Going away from home and the obligations and routines associated with home help me forget, albeit temporarily, all of the stuff that can easily keep me busy and stress me out. This being said, simply being away on vacation does not make me relax either. I am a planner. My wife and kids get frustrated with me because when we do travel, I usually come up with a pretty rigorous vacation schedule. After all, if we spend the time and money to travel somewhere, we might as well see the place. Sitting around while on vacation does not make me relaxed – it actually stresses me out!
But, in the Cataloochee Valley, there’s no stress. There’s just nature at her finest. Huge fields and soaring trees. Streams and rocks. Wild turkeys. Deer. A rustling in the brush, perhaps a bear? And elk! One of the largest land mammals in North America, elk were reintroduced in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2001. Overhunting and destruction of their habitat led to the elimination of elk in the region in the early 19th century. But you wouldn’t know that today. Everywhere we looked in the valley, we saw elk. The enormous male elk weighing on average around 700 pounds, crowned with towering antlers, grazed in the fields. Nearby, the slightly smaller female elk kept watch over their young calves resting in the grass. To watch these awesome creatures thriving in their natural environment was truly a spiritual experience for me.
We did many incredible things while in North Carolina. While my need to schedule our vacations does frustrate my family, they did appreciate all the adventures I set up. Without a doubt, for me, the highlight of our trip in the mountains was our time spent with Tim in the Cataloochee Valley. My wife and kids enjoyed the valley, but they had their own favorite experiences. For my wife, it was both hiking up steep mountain trails on a daily basis and rafting down the French Broad River while experiencing level three and four rapids. Zip-lining through the forest was unquestionably the best part of our trip for my son. And for my daughter, it was spending quiet time with the llamas, alpacas and horses that live in the barn next to the mountain cabin we called home while in North Carolina.
While all four of us had our favorite moments, for each of us, being in and among nature, in places where Wi-Fi signals were weak, strip malls were scarce and the things that normally keeps us busy were pushed aside by the remarkable beauty surrounding us, made for a great vacation. I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that we all enjoyed some really incredible farm-to-table meals while in North Carolina. What’s a great vacation without great food?
As our tour of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park came to an end and we began the trek back over the 6,000 foot peaks, Tim stopped at the top of one of the peaks that gave us an amazing view of the Cataloochee Valley.
As we looked out at the wilderness, Tim shared with us his favorite quote of John Muir, a 19th century naturalist whose efforts to protect the American wilderness earned him the title of Father of the National Parks: “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 alike.”
I am so grateful that Tim shared Muir’s words with us as they capture what made our vacation such a great experience. Our time in North Carolina gave me and my family the opportunity to connect with the simple, beautiful, inspirational natural world – an opportunity that our daily obligations and routines often keep us from embracing. My family and I needed this connection – this time to enjoy and absorb our surroundings and, in turn, recharge ourselves.
Yes, I’ve returned home to the obligations and the routines. The garden needs my attention. The room needs to be painted. The pile of papers is calling my name. But, thankfully, my time in the mountains gave me “beauty as well as bread”. I’ve returned home with the strength needed to tackle the tasks before me. And I know that, when I need them, the mountains will be there.
Rabbi Andrew Jacobs has been the spiritual leader of Ramat Shalom Synagogue (www.ramatshalom.org) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida since 2002. He is the founder of ISH (www.findyourish.com), an innovative spiritual source and service that enables all spiritual seekers with opportunities to connect with Jewish wisdom. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Jacobs is a graduate of Vassar College and holds a Masters of Arts in Jewish Art and Material Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary in consortium with Columbia University and the Jewish Museum of New York. He posts regularly on his blog (rabbiandrewjacobs.org).