We pulled up the drive to a sparsely lit cabin, the sound of stones popping under our hot tires, dragonflys and moths dancing drunkenly together around the nearly blinding porch light. It was after 9 o’clock. We’d arrived later than we’d planned, but we were here. The girls faces, cast in a muted bright blue from the small screen playing Cinderella, were peering out of the fingerprint-smudged windows, Sweet Nightingale crooning in the speakers.
The property owner, Bridget, walked us quickly around the house. Her husband, Conor, decided to take up building cabins as a hobby years ago. There were two others up the road. This pastime, of course, came after he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
“Have you done any of the trail?” Bridget asked, sincerely interested.
“Just a couple of sections,” I conceded. “Ya know, with young kids we don’t get out there as often as we like. But eventually, in our lifetime, we hope to complete the whole thing.”
“You will,” she said, nonchalantly.
I asked about restaurant recommendations, though I had some from a facebook post I’d put up earlier that afternoon.
“Those are a bit of a drive. You’d have to go all the way to Brown County,” she said. (Just so you know, I thought I’d booked a cabin in Brown County. Turned out, I had no freaking clue where we were in southern Indiana. But I didn’t want to tell her that. Or Hank. This trip was a birthday gift to him from me and the chicks. I played it off.)
“Oh, yeah, I wasn’t sure just how far they were.”
“You can totally do it! It’s just a bit of a haul.”
Quick, change the subject. You reek of rookie airbnb user.
“It said in your bio you’ve been to Ireland?” I inquired.
“Oh, yeah. A few times. Actually Conor has family there, so he’s been more than me.”
“Ya know, Ireland is at the top of my bucket list. I want to go backpack around there for my 40th maybe … I don’t know … it’s so overwhelming.”
“If you want to, you will.” she said. Again, unflinching.
She took the girls up to the loft, lined with perfectly made twin beds. The setup was a vision straight out of a Three Little Bears illustration. She showed them the books she’d set aside for them, a worn, treasured copy of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein among them. She invited the babes to dig around in the drawers for treasures and games she’d stowed away for young visitors. She was so relatable and transparent and warm, a true traveler’s soul, I’d say.
She opened the creaking screen door and wished us a good weekend before slipping out into the darkness. I surveyed our space for the next 48 hours and smiled. I was instantly enamored with Bridget and Conor and their rustic log cabin. I felt soothed by the smell of simplicity and optimistic talk of wanderlust. And I wasn’t even planning on going to Solsberry. (That’s where we were.)
The next morning, we went to the local “greasy spoon” Bridget recommended. It was one big open room of locals, and as out of towners, we were certainly the minority. The girls ate the ears of their Mickey Mouse pancakes while Hank and I tried to enjoy cups of diner coffee between Sloppy Joan’s 500 trips to the potty. Public restrooms are as entertaining as playgrounds at this point.
Bellies full, we went back to gather supplies, change shoes and head out to McCormick Creek State Park, which was just 10 miles away. We picked the trail the woman at the guard station recommended; the one that led to “the waterfall”.
Shortly into our hike, I realized I’d left my phone in the car. As had Hank.
“Aw shoot! I don’t have my phone.” I said.
“That’s OK, Mom,” JoJo responded. “Sometimes it’s good to leave it behind. You just have to protect your memories in your mind. Or your heart.”
“Yeah, it’s OK,” Spike chimed in.
I turned to my husband and exchanged the look I often shoot his way when I get absolutely schooled by our 8, 6 or 3 year old. Too often to feel good about myself as a grownup.
We came to a flight of stairs that led down to a small river. Crossing was an exercise in calculating risk, as one by one we worked our way from shakey stones to more reliable boulders that wouldn’t budge. Eventually we came to the other side, and more rocks to navigate, just on land this time. As a self-proclaimed future American Ninja Warrior contestant, JoJo was like a pig in slop. She pulled her Cheryl Strayed boots off and wrapped her bare feet boldly around the stones. No fear, just adrenaline. This was her ultimate obstacle course.
We closed in on the waterfall. It was a petite pour, though it splashed thunderously onto the rocks below. The bedrock was coated in a natural oil slick. The girls would timidly waddle across the river, slipping sporadically and crashing to their knees with a cautious giggle.
I sat on a boulder off to the side, their little muddy shoes and soaking socks lined up to my right. My mama bear commentary echoed in the hollow of the mineral slabs that enveloped us. “Careful, Spikey!” “JoJo … not so far.” “Girls, help your sister.” As their bravery swelled, they got deeper into the stream and closer to the waterfall. While watching them, I started to notice people climbing down from the top of the cascading water.
JoJo noticed, too. Before I could make it that far, she was halfway up the jigsaw puzzle stones on the side of the waterfall. A kind man stood behind her, coaching her while simultaneously searching for her parents.
“Now she’s got it,” he smiled at me, relieved this child belonged to someone. “You really should try to go up there. It’s pretty cool.”
“OK, gotcha,” I said. Thinking there was no way in hell, kind stranger, I would be pulling my 34-year-old ass up the side of a slippery waterfall.
Then Spike showed interest and I knew I was screwed. I stood behind her, a tiny tush in the palm of my hand. I had no choice but to follow now. I tempted gravity, placing my foot about 12 inches off the ground on a bulging rock. The stones were dark and slimy, promising a concussion, or an embarrassing slip as best case scenario. Now it was my tush in Hank’s hand.
As my eyes crossed the crest of the downpour, I saw what the stranger had seen. A shallow stream laid out before me, curving off into the horizon. My JoJo was there, bouncing back and forth across mounds of sand and shards of stone. Spikey was following less confidently in her sister’s shadow. The trees formed a whimsical canopy over their heads, creating an intricate masterpiece of sun and shadow on the shore. I took in the scene, inhaling it into my memory.
I leaned over the ledge to Hank. “You should probably come up here,” I conceded. “It’s pretty cool.”
I grounded my feet on a patch of dry rock and reached for Sloppy Joan, who was determined to reach the summit all on her own. As the pads of her two little feet pitter pattered into the water beside me, Hank’s hand reached the top.
We spent the next hour splashing and stomping and jumping in and out of the afternoon sun. Each set of footprints was different. We all went to the same place, but took a unique path to get there. Five souls, connected by love and blood and the most important stuff, just going on an adventure before summer escaped entirely.
There weren’t many people here; A couple trying to find some alone time. A trio of exchange students. We sloshed our way past them, a disorganized circus on parade.
Eventually, we came to a large stone bridge. Hank decided to hike back the way we came and collect the girls’ shoes and the car. He would meet us on top of the bridge. I found a significant, sturdy rock in the shade of the overpass and sat down. I watched the soldiers in my little tribe. One always going too far, out of my sight. Brave and bulletproof. Another the observer; Always dipping her toes into the water rather than catapulting herself all the way in. And then my baby. Unaware of anyone but the reflection staring back at her and the bug inching toward her toes. So in the moment. So breezy and independent.
I felt gratitude. For this stone, for this time, for these humans. Everything that came after the climb, brought such unexpected peace. Such beauty. Such natural curiosity. And we weren’t even planning on going past the waterfall.
We tackled a 2-mile hike to a small cave next. I wore Sloppy Joan on my back like an impatient gorilla. She rested her head between my shoulderblades, only lifting it to ask, “What was that?” each time a woodpecker went to work. We came to a cave and Hank volunteered to take them through. My claustrophobia was ranking at Code Brown just thinking about it, but through they went. They loved the cool, black cavern, and begged to go through once more on their own. Why not? This was a day for exploring.
And then, the thing they’d been waiting for since the moment we descended the wooden staircase earlier that afternoon. We went back to the waterfall. We let them take off their shoes, their socks, their fear of reprimand, and we just let them go all in. After all, how often do you get to swim in the plunge pool of a natural wonder, small as it may be?
After Spike and Hank spotted a water moccasin that could, as she put it, “kill 99 people with one bite,” we loaded the swamp sisters into the car and made our way back to the cabin to clean up. We decided to take them into Bloomington to see the campus and grab a bite. After 500 more trips to the potty, and a mediocre meal, the troops were fading, and I was adamant about ice cream. Thus began a Google maps goosechase Hank is not likely to let go anytime soon. Every place we went looking for miraculously disappeared from where it was supposed to be. But – and this is a very important but – God had a plan.
The creamery we eventually came to, Hartzell’s, had homemade flavors and a variety of toppings. Including puppy chow. Puppy chow! I had puppy chow on top of from-scratch cookie dough ice cream and the entire world could have fallen away and I wouldn’t have cared. And we weren’t even planning to go to Hartzell’s.
We went home; exhausted, satisfied, full in many ways. I curled up on the couch with the girls and read “The Giving Tree”, and it made me think of family. How I would give everything I had for these people. Everything. Because this love we share is that good. Have you read the book?
“and she loved a boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.”
I fell asleep right there, a daughter in my nook. The smell of lumber in the air. I was so content, there was nothing to fight or contemplate. Just rest, drunk on nature and sentimental thoughts.
The next morning, we woke up to Sloppy Joan announcing her poop in the potty. The victorious No. 2 stirred the four of us and we slowly came to life. The girls played for a few final minutes up in their loft. I went about packing and sweeping the treated wood floor. We all looked out the window and said, “Goodbye, cabin.” with frowny faces as we drove away.
We made it to Martinsville, a small town north of Bloomington before the demands for breakfast rose from the back seat. We pulled off into a diner and followed the friendly hostess to a corner booth. Here, Sloppy Joan would only go potty three times, a record, perhaps made possible only by one very special distraction. An older gentleman sitting at a small booth that backed up to our table felt our hurricane of a 3 year old bumping up against his arm. In a world where we don’t often notice each other and interaction is often viewed as an inconvenience, this man spoke to my little girl. He was playful and kind and smirked at all the same things that make her grandparents smirk.
He was a retired sheriff, we would learn from his friends. And a real softie it would seem. He gave each of our girls a quarter to buy a gumball on their way out. Which they did (chocolate for Sloppy Joan), and held them up against the window to give him a thumb’s up before climbing in the car. Aside from my unforgettable cinnamon roll french toast, that stranger was the sweetest part of our journey home. Such a kind, restorative display of humanity. Such a lovely exchange. And we weren’t even planning on going to Martinsville.
The more we replace things with experiences, the more we let fate be our travel guide, the more unexpected joy is revealed. The more I stop trying to drive this bus, the clearer I see that the best things can’t be planned. They are 100 percent organic. They’re found in modest cabins in cities that don’t make most maps and on long, winding trails. In rolling the dice and twists of fate. They’re in strangers with pure hearts and that rare, generous nature you have to be born with. They’re what you see when you leave the filtered lens behind and protect your memories with your heart.
The best things are just beyond the waterfall. But you have to be willing to climb.