the kind of vacation we never, ever expected (vaca part 2)

After visiting the incredible Ark Encounter, we drove another 3.5 hours to one of our favorite places: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We arrived late Sunday night (but not too late for the kids to investigate the whole cabin!), and woke up Monday morning to a kettle corn breakfast by the fire:

It was actually delicious. :D Totally unplanned because we had zero groceries, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. :)

As we headed out to Pigeon Forge to eat lunch, we noticed half of the sky was a murky brown, and the other half blue. It looked so odd, but a quick search of the internet showed old articles that forest fires in neighboring states had created some smog over the city. 

After a fantastic lunch at Big Daddy's Pizzeria/Arcade, we drove the few miles to explore my favorite little town. Only the brown smoke kept getting worse as we drove into Gatlinburg:

As we toured the city from the car, we noticed the street was so smoke-filled that no one was there, and the few who were left were wearing masks. It seemed like the fire was much closer than North Carolina like we thought. And there were these huge wind gusts that felt like they were moving the car, far greater than we normally experience in Texas. It was all so very strange.

We still didn't have an idea of what was happening that Monday afternoon, but we surely didn't want to attempt to venture out in the smoke. Instead we left to do some shopping and went to Walmart that evening. Even miles away from Gatlinburg, the heavy smoke was still pervading the air in Sevierville.

We arrived back at the cabin, groceries in tow. While I cooked dinner, the kids ran upstairs to jump in the hot tub. Robert, in disbelief, called me to the balcony to see what Noah had spotted just over the far mountain ridge:

We couldn't believe our eyes. The picture is blurry, but we could see individual trees going up in flames. It was 2-3 miles away, but within 20-30 minutes it had burned the top of the ridge and was coming over. And the wind was still crazy high, with no sign of stopping.

We turned on the TV to hear that all of Gatlinburg was being evacuated, as well as some parts of Pigeon Forge. We had to figure out exactly where we were on the map- how long did we have before we needed to leave?

We starting repacking all of our bags in case we needed to make an exit, and prayed together for the Lord to stop the fire from getting to us, and to help us to have wisdom to know what to do if we needed to evacuate.

And then, over the next hour we watched over the balcony as the wind changed, and the direction of the fire stopped coming over the ridge altogether. The fire went the other way.

We glued ourselves to the local news until the late hours of the night, shocked as we watched clips showing the flames take over miles of Gatlinburg.

But it looked as if we were safe for the moment. Late into the night, God sent rain everywhere that seemed to turn our bright orange sky back to nighttime gray. The big fire we could see seemed to be extinguished before dawn.

We woke up several times in the few hours we slept to make sure there was no sign of fire. The next morning, it was difficult to distinguish the normal fog of the Smoky Mountains from regular smoke, but the view from our balcony was somewhat clear:

the last night's fire had been on the mountain area just above the neighbor's roof ridge.
We kept the news on all morning and stayed close to home. We had a scary night, but how much more for those who had to leave everything they had behind? What about those driving through the midst of it to escape? The hundreds of firefighters? It didn't seem like the media had much more information on where the fires were or if everyone was safe, but we kept watching as the kids played games. It seemed the worst was over.

Finally, in the afternoon, we ventured out again. The heavy brown smoke over Pigeon Forge had subsided after the rain, and the sky was clear as we unloaded at Mel's Diner.

Lots of businesses were open that Tuesday, but everyone's heart was on the fire, as most knew someone who had to leave their home behind. The servers even asked how we were doing, and if we were affected, and strangely all made us feel like we belonged there even though we lived hours and hours away. 

After enjoying that giant banana split we decided to head back to the cabin and stay in for the rest of the day. We made dinner, cleaned up, played another round of games and went to bed.

Only to be woken up by the emergency alert siren on our phones at 2:15. 

It was a tornado warning, and said to take shelter now.

I stumbled out of bed and out on the balcony to realize I've actually never been in a thunderstorm on a mountain before.

We decided to wake all of the kids and bring them into the living area. Robert built a shelter of a table and a mattress, and we took cover and tried to watch the local weather at the same time. We were in the area between the blue and the hot pink:

The tornado dissipated before it hit our area, thankfully. And after two more warnings, we finally headed back to bed, praising God for His protection again. The thunderstorm was still raging, and if you've ever been close to lightning striking in a cabin hanging over a mountain ridge, you could imagine why I was quoting Psalm 46 to myself as we went back to sleep. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble...

This vacation wasn't turning out quite like we expected, that was for sure. We wondered aloud as to what God was trying to teach us on this trip.

I think it was that He takes care of us, no matter where we are.

It rained most of the next day, so when it cleared out a bit, we drove to the other side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, to the Cade's Cove scenic loop:

We saw a ton of deer, but it started raining again before we left. Even with the rain, we had fun just getting out to do something nature-related.

Our last day in Tennessee, Thursday, we headed to the historic Old Mill area:

It was one of the highlights of the trip, walking from shop to shop and watching the potter make vases:

A couple hours before sunset, we decided to head back to the scenic loop again. I'm SO glad we did! 

We had fun exploring these old cabins:

And another mill:

But one of my favorite moments of the entire week? 

Seeing this:

Four bears. 

Wild in the forest.

You see, as we drove through the day before, I told the children to look carefully for bears in the forest. I have no idea why I thought we would see one, but my heart secretly petitioned the Father that we might be able to see one if it was possible. I didn't even consider it a prayer, really, just something I thought would be wonderful to see. And for some reason I truly believed we would see one, so I kept looking diligently until dark.

We didn't, and I wasn't disappointed at all, because the odds were pretty slim, and it didn't matter, of course. We were quite content with all the scenery and deer. 

But God. :) He drew us back there the next day, just because we really didn't have a way to do much else with the time we had left.

And then in His majesty, what did He do? He called four bears to come near the road on the scenic loop, out of 522,427 acres to hide in. At the exact time we happened to be there.

I hopped out of the car almost running, squealing with delight over and over and over again.

Real, live, bears in the wild!!! (Far enough away to take pictures, of course :)

Why? Why does He love me so?

Why does He even hear those little desires? Why does He do miracles to show me how much He cares?

He stops the fire, and even calls out bears and their baby cubs just so we can see them. He protects us from danger. He gives us wisdom to know what to do when we are uncertain.

All because He truly, steadfastly loves us. And sometimes He takes us to stormy places and showers us with tender mercies to remind us of who He is.

Oh, we bless His holy name.

Psalm 103:
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
2Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
8The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14For he knows our frame;a
he remembers that we are dust.
15As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
19The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
21Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
22Bless the LORD, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!

Sadly, we later found out that 14 people died that night and over 2400 homes and business were destroyed from that single fire. If you would like to help those sweet people in Gatlinburg who were affected by this tragedy, here is a great list of ways to help or donate.

a break away + the big door (vaca part 1)

I have been enjoying a bit of a break as we finished up our last week of CC for the year! (For the younger ones, anyway). Over the last few weeks of November we worked hard on our last Essentials papers and I taught/subbed lots of fitness classes right before Thanksgiving. We were busy for a bit there. :)

I've also been away from the internet so much more than usual lately, and it's been very good for my soul. Especially after the election, I felt like there was so much noise- so many voices and so many opinions- it felt good to get away from it all for a while. :)

Then we went on a long road trip from Thanksgiving Eve until last weekend and it was a wonderful break away from our regular daily grind. We headed to northwest Arkansas for Thanksgiving at my brother's house and from there we drove through Missouri, Illinios, Indiana, Ohio, and ended in Kentucky in one 12+ hour drive! The kids did so great, we didn't have to break out a movie until the last 3 hours! The baby didn't even cry much, if at all. They never cease to surprise and amaze me!

This was the big reason for the second long leg of our trip:

We went to see the Ark Encounter- a life-sized replica of Noah's ark and museum about the flood (and the Gospel!). It was incredible! We seriously debated as to whether we should go due to the high cost for our crew, but we were so happy we made the decision to after all. It was an unforgettable experience for sure!

It's so hard to get a feeling of scale from pictures, but see that tiny door below?

Here it is from the inside!

I think this door was my absolute favorite place in the entire museum. On the original ark, there was one door. Just like Jesus. He is the one door, the only way to be saved from the destruction that is to come:

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.
John 10:9

Oh friend, there is nothing more important I could EVER tell you today. The one thing you need to know in this world is that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.

1“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 10:1-10

He is life, and when you know Him you also have LIFE. Far greater than you could ever imagine.

Breaks away are lovely sometimes, but nothing satisfies my heart apart from Jesus, my life and my all. He is my salvation and my hope.

life in high gear: party days

Life at our house has been in overdrive for the last few weeks! We had SO much going on in the last couple of weeks that it seemed like every single minute was planned out. :)

We hosted a big birthday party on Saturday, and you know we always like to use big events as a way to get stuff done. :) And by we, you know I mean Rob does all the hard work and I plan and clean up. :D He won't let me paint or do manly things, and I do believe I like it that way. ;)

"We" made a chalkboard wall:

Built a couple of smaller decks:

Finished and painted the living room trim (except for the mantle):

And we almost completely finished the kitchen too! And really, that is only a portion of what he got done over the last month. The man is incredible. I don't know how he does it. And in the middle of all that, he was given the opportunity to preach a weekend ago, and he did such an amazing job:

I don't know why God blessed me with such a great guy, but I'm overwhelmed with thanksgiving. :) I love him so.

In the meantime, while he was working hard, I did piddling little things like buying flowers:

And keeping the littles happy:

Hanging maps:

Together, the kids and I cleaned out the fridge (and nearly every closet):

And went to a couple of great birthday parties:

And then the day finally arrived for the party at our place!

And we had vanilla cupcakes and carrot cake for dessert:

And Rob finally got to relax: :)

I got to enjoy the party too. I didn't take many photos, but we had a great time. :)

Ahhhhh, it was great. :) (Truly, thanks only to an answering of the Lord, because you should have seen the house the day before! 😂)

We didn't quite get to recover on Sunday, and then Ivy-loo was sick yesterday, but we didn't do any house work either day so it felt like a break (and we got the extra hour of sleep from time change! hooo-ray) It feels so good now to be coming up on the holiday season with a few finished projects, a momentarily clean house, and a somewhat normal schedule for the next few weeks. :)

Oh, these are happy, happy days. :)

fall birthdays (part 2), she's mine, and a rare sight

Our October birthday celebrations continued through the weekend to Rob's birthday on Sunday. We went to church, went to eat buffet pizza (his fave), and then went to another sporting goods store to pick up a heavy dumbbell for mid-workday lifting. Of course, he picked out a 50 lb. dumbbell that I can hardly lift. :D That one is all his!

Ivy-loo must be my daughter because I feel exactly like this when I get new weights:  :P

Then it was off to a fantastic Christian play with the whole fam:

I can't believe how big these oldest boys and girls are getting. They enjoyed all the sword-fighting and singing as much as we did. :D

Rob's parents surprised us by joining us at the play and then took us all out for dinner afterward. Rob's mom snapped one of our very few pictures of all 8 of us together (and hey, we're ALL looking!!!):

And after the flurry of birthdays it was back to real life on Monday with homeschool, a big certification test on Tuesday for me, CC on Wednesday, and major kitchen/living area renovations happening in the midst of it all..... :)

Phew. Someday we just might finish this one. :D It takes days and days to get things done when you live in the middle of it. But we're making progress, and it's good! And plus, after painting four houses, we should be professionals by this point, right? :)

Maybe someday with all this great experience we'll finally remember to get the coffee out of the coffee drawer before we tape it down, because we all know no coffee = no painting. :D

birthday celebrations + serious cake fails: part 1

At our house, we have three big birthdays in a single October week: mine, Elijah's, and Rob's. It's always 6+ days of cake, yummy food, and partying. :D 

This year's celebration all started when my mom came down and watched the kiddos for us a week ago Saturday, while I went shopping solo (Rob worked, good man!), and ate this gorgeous salad in complete silence: (!!!!!)

He gave me some birthday money to go shopping, and though I didn't end up finding much, I really enjoyed the alone time without everyone waiting anxiously for my return. :D It's the little things these days. You never know how much you take an easy day without deadlines for granted until you have 8 million things to do all the time. :D 

That Saturday night we went on a date and as hard as we tried to stay out late, we came back at like 8:30 or 9 p.m. :D We're old people now and I think we will happily accept the status. :D 

Then my real birthday began last week with one of my favorite parts of being a mama:

My dad watched the kids that day while Rob whisked me away for lunch and the chance to visit the sporting goods store to pick up a new water bottle! :)

It was perfect, just perfect. The entire day I was just overwhelmed at how wonderful it all was.

Of course, with school keeping us busy the rest of the week, Thursday came lightning fast. On that momentous day I became the proud mother of a teen: :D

I'm hoping I get this mother-of-a-teenage-boy thing. :D I tried to speak his love language of oddly-flavored junk food (cajun pickle chips and his favorite, jalapeno):

I think it worked. :D

Cinnamon rolls for breakfast, barbecue out for lunch...

Three pans of lasagna for dinner (we only ate one, surprise!):

And one massive chocolate cake wreck for dessert, and I think he was finally full. 😂

(psssss: you know I must love you dearly to show you that cake. 😂)

It was a lovely week of... eating merriment, and I still have so much left to share from Thursday until Monday! We partied so hard for Rob's birthday we hardly had time to stop, and I have to break it all up into two posts. :P

Obviously reaching middle age is an event worth celebrating around here. ;)