Into the Mountains We Go.

As a refresher, my family – parents, brothers, sister-in-law, nephew and nieces take a family trip every year rather than giving each other gifts. 2016 was our twelfth trip.

As I mentioned earlier, we stayed in a “resort neighborhood” in the mountains for this year’s family vacation. It was in the mountains in North Georgia, a beautiful area to see, but a terrible area to navigate. There were so many shockingly long dirt roads that I began to actually praise ALDOT, our own inept and corrupt department of transportation.

Oh – and North Georgia is at times exactly how they describe Kenneth Parcell’s hometown in 30 Rock.

IMG_5069As excited as I was about this knife shop, the missing apostrophe IN MY OWN NAME hurt.

The “resort”, and I call it that both in truth and because they really REALLY like quotation marks there,

IMG_5096Where is Bill Pound’s other unnecessary quotation mark?!

was actually a gigantic neighborhood laid out over 5,500 acres that were (and still are) seemingly uninhabitable. The impossibly narrow roads (all 170 miles of them) roll up and down continuously as if someone was shaking out a giant blanket in the wind. The houses hang off cliffs and are surrounded by deer-filled woods.

It was quite peaceful and beautiful, but was full of quirks.

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One day, we took our kids to the resort’s Mini Golf. It had seen better days – Hole 3 had a traffic cone in it, clearly marking its out-of-order status, which was also apparent by its complete lack of carpet.

But we played it anyway. Uneven concrete and all.

Each hole of the Mini Golf was sponsored by a local company or one of the resort’s amenities.

Such as Dottie, Nancy, and Ann’s services:

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The hole would be decorated by theme and matching the sponsor, so this particular hole had frogs, all sorts.

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Including this Tic-Tac-Toe frog who’d really lost his butt in the game.

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The hole for the Corner Store Café definitely made me hungry,

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But my favorite hole was the one sponsored by a local attorney.IMG_5083

The signs around the hole were very stoic and professional, clearly marking this as a well-sponsored hole.

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But the décor added to the hole itself – they were priceless.

…Deeds sure has a different connotation when it becomes “Deeds.”

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And by the time we got to “Appeal”, Chris and I decided that this was meant to be marital advice, not legal advice.

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Because what spouse doesn’t appreciate it when you Say “Pleas”?

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We did lots of hiking and running, both in and out of the “resort”, both with and without kids. Chris and I got just barely off the beaten path of the resort and, right after finding Ord, friend of Mater’s,

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we came across what I was sure held a body

IMG_4964Who knew that Volvo made Chevy Expos?

Another day, the entire family went to Springer Mountain, a one mile trail at the start of the Appalachian Trail. My brother did not tell me that it would be a 7 mile perilous cliffside dirt road to get there, but with a little bit of eye closing and deep breathing, I survived the trip up.

Thankfully, it seemed we had plenty of time to take our hike before the meter maids made it up the road.

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The kids, all adept hikers, did fantastic going up the mountain.

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We made it to the top and celebrated by resting, drinking water, taking in the view,

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And of course, climbing trees.

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On the way home from that adventure, because it clearly wasn’t enough, we took an even longer frightening dirt road (aptly named Winding Stair Gap Road) and visited Amicalola Falls, which was okay from the top,

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but then tempted you with 600 steps down to see the actual view.

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We managed to cajole the children back up 200 stairs, then sent Chris to get the car to retrieve them.

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Chris and I snuck away for adventure and intrigue one afternoon, getting lost on dirt roads and trying to find a trail that ended up being closed.

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We took part of it anyway, only to read later that it was closed due to high voltage power lines being put in.

Oops.

Always obey signs, kids.

But we found another trail that was just gorgeous, and ran/walked it together, enjoying all its offerings.

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This is why you visit North Georgia.

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And of course, due to all the outdoors activity, there was plenty of this.

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And this.

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Because what is vacation without chill-out time?

Before we left, we ran out back to the delightful woods behind the house to get our annual family photo. Ali was happy to volunteer to be my model for lighting and tripod setup, and I marveled at her total grownup-ness.

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Of course, there had to be a spider on that tree we were going to use. Luckily, we had Pop there to quell all spider fears.

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We finally got everyone in place and snapped before any other creepy-crawlies found their way into our scene.

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And of course, I grabbed a few cousin shots.

Ali, Princess of Organization and Activities Coordinating,

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Eli, Prince of Original Ideas and Holder of All Animal Facts,

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Tessa, Princess of Quiet Determination and Winning All The Things,

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Noah, Prince of Make-Believe and Matchbox-Car-Road-Making,

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And Andi, Princess of Playing Happily With Everyone.

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All five of them are AMAZING at the whole cousin thing.

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Three Ingredients For Adventure: Ford, Hilton, and Twitter.

We left a night early for our annual family vacation so as to detour for an Alabama History field trip on the way. We planned to stay near the field trip destination, a couple hours north of Birmingham.

Except that, 45 minutes out of town, my car beeped, presented a message telling us we needed service immediately, then flashed a wrench icon at us.

Oh – and also, the gas pedal quit working.

On the interstate.

Chris veered into the right lane as I asked rather frantically, “Is that you slowing down or the car??”

He calmly informed me that the gas pedal was no longer working, and I not-so-calmly informed him to get in the emergency lane, don’t just hang out in the right lane as we quickly quit moving.

He got over while I searched the owner’s manual for the wrench icon. What does the wrench mean? It wasn’t in the first section of dashboard emoji – believe me – I looked at every icon four times. Finally I found a second section where it was listed.

“Powertrain or All Wheel Drive Failure. Contact your nearest dealer immediately.”

I don’t have all wheel drive. Which meant it was a powertrain failure. And I don’t know much about cars, but I know that the powertrain is fairly important to the process of transportation.

My vehicle is less than a year old – we bought it new after the wreck. My internal panicking was high, but I also was slightly comforted that it would be covered under warranty.

Chris was still idling, very slowly, toward the next exit – about a mile ahead. Just in case, because newfangled cars, I suggested that he turn the car off and back on again – a reboot – just to make sure this wasn’t computer error.

He said no. He did not want to risk it not turning back on with us on the side of the interstate.

So I called the Ford emergency number, they arranged a tow truck to meet us and take my car to the nearest dealership (already closed and in the middle of nowhere), and we continued to idle, quite nervously, up the exit ramp, across the street, and into the gas station parking lot.

Idling can take you farther than you think.

My bladder was not feeling well from the stress, so I ran into the gas station. When I came back out, Chris had finally rebooted the car.

The error light was gone, and it was running fine.

As I bit my lip to not say ‘I told you so’, I suggested we call my dad (and automobile and in particular Ford expert), get his opinion, and please please please keep going. I knew there was no rental car company open in the rural area we were in, and if we got towed to the Ford dealership, then what were we to do?

Chris and Dad agreed, after a minute of me stressedly insisting, that we could keep going.

Meanwhile, I Googled the problem and found that it was quite a common Ford failure on all models from 2008-2016. The Electronic Throttle Body – the thing that tells the engine how hard you’re hitting the gas – had malfunctioned. Which seems like something Ford would want to recall – an easy fix to prevent cars from losing their ability to drive on the interstate – but alas, Ford apparently thinks otherwise.

We kept driving, and the farther we went, the less my soul was consumed with anxiety. But it was dark now, so I really didn’t want to experience that error again.

Just as I got cozy with the idea that we were going to make it to our destination, it happened again.

This time, Chris calmly pulled over to the emergency lane and rebooted the car.

Seven miles later, car failure #3.

We were an hour away from our final destination, but neither of us wanted to experience this any longer. We were close to another city, Fort Payne, that we knew had a hotel and a Ford Dealership.

So I called Hilton to see if they would be so kind as to move our Hampton reservation from Kimball to Fort Payne. After a few transfers, a couple holds, and multiple retellings of my sad, sad story, they agreed. Without fee, they cancelled my first reservation and got me a closer one.

I was so gushing with thankfulness for the kindness of Hilton that I agreed to talk to their vacation salesman at the end of the call. I really should have known better – this was no time to be planning a vacation or dealing with salesmen – but I even felt kind feelings toward Paris Hilton in that moment.

“Hello Mrs Callahan!! My name is Josh and I would LOVE to tell you how Hilton can give you a deeply discounted vacation!! Only one in fifty callers get to talk to me at the end of their call, so you’re already a winner tonight!!”

That’s one way to describe it…

“Uh, hi, Josh.”

“Now. What prompted you to call Hilton tonight?”

“Well, we’re having car troubles – like my car is dying on the interstate over and over, and I needed to move my reservation to a closer city.”

“Oh my goodness! Well that’s just terrible. So let’s talk vacations. First, though, would you consider yourself single, happily married, or co-habitating?”

“Married.”

Happily, right?”

“Of course.”

“You’re saying that because he’s sitting next to you?”

My stress was starting to bleed away my Hilton Love…

“We’re VERY HAPPY, okay Josh? But right now we’re just trying to make it to the next exit!!”

“Wow. Okay, Rachel. What kind of car do you have so I don’t get one?”

“A Ford Flex. It’s a fantastic car except for right now.”

“And except for being a Ford, amiright?” (Salesman Chuckle)

I was not in the mood.

“Sure.”

“I was just messing with you, Rachel. Now. Let’s talk vacations. I’m going to give you four destinations, and you tell me which interests you the most. Las Vegas, New Orleans, San Francisco, or Hawaii?”

“You know what Josh there’s no way I can make vacation decisions right now. I’m just praying we make it to Fort Payne. I’ll talk to you some other time.”

Maybe it was my tone, or maybe it was my complete lack of humor at his jokes, but Josh got the hint.

“Okay Rachel. Have a great night!”

Right after I dumped Josh, we had failure #4. Thank God Josh wasn’t along for that – I might’ve veered off my kid-appropriate curse word list.

When we finally made it safely to the hotel, I tweeted a simple tweet about our adventure.

IMG_5135Several people replied to it, I had a couple short conversations, then I put my phone away for the night.

The next morning, Chris had my Flex at the dealership at 6:50am. It was a large franchise (AutoNation) and had a great website where he had been able to get an appointment the night before. We needed to leave Fort Payne by 10am to get to our field trip on time, and I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about that happening – especially after reading that this problem was so widespread that the part was often on severe backorder.

But AutoNation had us covered. They had the part, they’d just replaced someone else’s the day before, they agreed it was definitely the problem, and they had my car fixed, under warranty, before 9am.

Gratefulness again abounded in my heart – I would’ve talked to their vacation salesman for days.

Chris returned victoriously, and we packed up. He mentioned offhandedly, “Did you delete your tweet from last night?”

“No – why?”

“Well this morning, I could see all the replies to it, but the original tweet was gone.”

All of a sudden the world felt creepy, as if the big brothers at Twitter and Ford were looking over my shoulder and had determined that they didn’t want my 140 character memo in the world.

After confirming that my tweet had definitely vanished, I tweeted again.

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Chris and I checked for my tweet multiple times as did a few followers – it was clearly gone. I didn’t want to believe they’d deleted it – I work hard at being an Anti-Conspiracy-Theorist in all areas of life.

We left for our journey, and had no more car problems the rest of the trip.

48 hours later, I got another reply to the original tweet, so I went back and checked, and…the tweet had been returned to my timeline.

I felt another chill of conspiracy.

…So they decided to delete my tweet until it was no longer new enough to show up in most people’s tweet streams, then they put it back? How much did Ford pay Twitter for this concierge censoring service?

I’m an open fan of Twitter and Ford – I’m a loyal Twitter user and evangelist, and have written multiple blog posts about my Ford Flexes and how awesome they are. This subtle censoring of my rare negative viewpoint felt a little like I was being accused of being a troll, and this made me irritated.

But I moved on to look at the bright side: at least I had a working car, and I DIDN’T have a discounted Hilton vacation that I would forget to use.

The Varying Degrees of Tubing.

For family vacation this year, we went to a mountain “resort neighborhood” that might have been the most confusing place we’ve ever visited.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about yet.

While we there, my mom, Ali, and I decided to take a tubing trip down the river that ran through the resort.

The bus was frightening just to behold. But we realized we didn’t know what Bus Fear was until we were on the tiny mountain roads in it, groaning and jolting as it failed in the long ascents, and barreling as it felt way too much like a bus-tragedy-about-to-strike while going downhill.

But before the ride, we were left to sit on the bus and consider our future. Ali looked warily forward to the metal box hanging above the driver’s seat.

“Uh, mom, what does ‘Body fluids cleanup kit’ mean?”

My mom jumped in and started listing off all the instances that could cause a spill of bodily fluids on the upcoming bus ride.

This did not help Ali’s excitement about the ride ahead.

The Mayberry-esque driver bounded onto the bus and began to count. Loudly. Pointing to each passenger as he did so. It felt very much like a kindergarten class skills demonstration.

On the first count, he made it to 34. He threw up his hands and said, “Okay, let’s try again.”

Apparently, 34 was not the number he was looking for.

He started his second round with, “Okay. I got one guy standing up.” Then proceeded to count everyone sitting down, starting at one.

This time, he got to 31.

“Hold on, y’all. I gots ta’ get some help.”

As soon as he exited the bus, all 32 passengers agreed: he never counted the guy standing up. The guy that he singled out to remind himself to count. He was gone long enough for us to do an independent audit and discover that there were actually 32 of us.

He came back with a young guy that looked as if he could count. He quickly checked off that we were all there, and sent us on our way.

Thus began the barreling and groaning.

As we reached the top of a long country hill, the driver stood up, turned halfway around, and announced loudly: “Now I know we don’t have no real air conditioning, but this here is country air conditioning!!”

Then he proceeded to dance wildly, flailing his arms about to…create a breeze? All while the bus careened down the hill.

My cautious daughter gasped and let out a tiny scream.

My Mom, in an attempt to distract Ali, asked her what her favorite part of vacation had been so far. Ali was not ready for conversation. Her bulging eyes turned accusingly to my mom and she screamed, “I have no idea but it’s certainly not right now!!”

Once the driver took his seat again, he decided it was time for a chat.

“Okay. I’m gonna go ahead and go over the safety measures so that when we get to the river, we don’t have to do it.”

He then outlined enough information to print on an 8 1/2 x 11 laminated reference sheet.

“There will be three rapids. On the first one, go right. On the second, go center. On the third, go right. Oh – and there’s a fresh tree down over the river. I’ve heard the rapids will take you right into it – go left! DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR TUBE, and DO NOT GET OUT OF THE RIVER. The river runs through a gated community, and they don’t cotton to me comin’ to pick you up. They give two exceptions: weather and a medical emergency. If you have a medical emergency, exit to the right. If you exit to the left, there are no roads and I can’t come get you. Oh – and right after the third rapids, you need to start lookin’ for stairs on the left – that’s where I’ll be waitin’. That’s the only time you can exit to the left. If you miss them, and it does happen, DO NOT GO UNDER THE METAL BRIDGE. If you go under, you’ll find yourself in rapids that are NOT SAFE FOR TUBIN’, and you’ll have to be on the river for EIGHT MORE HOURS until you dump out into the lake and I can come get you. Got it?”

Everyone looked aghast.

So he continued.

“Oh – and do NOT take anything valuable on this trip. That includes phones. I had a man lose an $800 cell phone and I had begged him to leave it with me. This river will strip everything you care about away from you. Do you understand??”

Ali looked at me, partially horrified, partially judgey, since she knew good and well that I had my phone tucked into the top of my swimsuit.

We had talked Ali into this little adventure by promising (as the tubing employee on the phone had) that it would be a calm, relaxing float along the river – just like a lazy river! Except a real river! Neither the bus ride nor the bus driver’s ominous speech had made her feel confident in our promises.

We got out and began collecting floats and life jackets, and a worker yelled out at our bus driver, “Did ya bring any of the sticks back?”

“Naw, I forgot.”

“They woulda been real useful for the tubers! The river is movin’ REAL slow today.”

Um. Okay.

Ali grabbed a short stick for me as we got in, then I strapped our three tubes together with our life jackets. The float started off calmly, except for the 32 panicking people from our bus – everyone was a bit frightened at having everything they cared about stripped away from them.

Meanwhile, the river was barely moving. And I was doing way more paddling than I had in mind for this relaxing tube ride.

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At the first bend, we approached the first rapids. We went right, remembering our right-center-right directions. They were calm, fun, and not at all stripping away of the things we cared about.

At the next bend, the second rapids. We went center, with the same slightly quickened water pace – just enough to make Ali say “wheee!!” with no fear whatsoever (which should indicate that “rapids” was a strong exaggeration.)

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Notice the giant log my mom is holding? Yeah – she managed to steal that from the banks to help us get down this lake of a river.

We saw the third rapids ahead, right behind the freshly felled tree, and began to question ourselves. We’d only been on the river half an hour – it was supposed to be a two hour trip. Surely our trip wasn’t already over…

But there were no stairs on the left.

So we kept on floating.

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After twenty rapids that were indistinguishable in ferocity from each other and three freshly felled trees, we determined that our driver’s difficulty in counting was not limited to the bodies on the bus.

And also, it didn’t look like two hour time limit was going to happen.

Ali was done after an hour and a half. We kept trying to encourage her, telling her that any minute we’d be spotting stairs.

After another hour, this wasn’t as comforting. She had her chin resting on her fist with a blank look of death-by-boredom on her face.

So I told her, “Tubing and Canoe trips are always a little longer than you want them to be.”

She jerked up and indignantly said, “A LITTLE?!?

Just past the three hour mark, after another set of rapids in which we repeated for the tenth time “Maybe THIS is the third rapids!!”, we saw it. Glorious, glorious stairs.

And about ten feet after the stairs, we saw the ominous metal bridge that promised a waterfall and 8 more hours of tubing.

“DO NOT!! MISSSSSSS!!! THE STAIRS!!!!”, Ali screamed at us.

We paddled with all our might, little branch and big branch, and secured our spot on the return trip of what was actually the part we should have been warned ominously about – the bus ride.