On New Year’s Eve, Radek and the two older kids and I set off to hike the Molly’s Knob Trail, the most difficult, but most scenic hike in the Hungry Mother State Park in my hometown. It’s only a 1.6 mile hike but the nearly 200 meter elevation change makes the last leg of the trail the most challenging. On a clear day, the views of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains are well-worth the sweat to get up the trail. On overcast days, at least it feels as if you’ve accomplished something by the time you stand catching your breath at the top. Radek and I try to hike this trail every visit. Sometimes we hike with friends, and once years ago, we took four-year-old Anna Lee up in a hiking backpack.
If we’re alone, we usually reminisce about one of our first hikes together up Molly’s Knob nine years ago for our non-traditional, impromptu wedding on top of the knob. My parents and brother, along with my eighty-year old grandfather and a few friends made the hike. Along the way, Radek spotted a few edible mushrooms, much to the amazement of the local crowd. Dad and my brother had to push my grandfather up the final steps of the trail. At the top, the justice of the peace, whipped out a bow-tie, fastening it around his sweaty shirt and one family friend’s dog barked excitedly at the edge of the woods as we said our vows. When my brother and his wife later made a slide-show for our Czech/American wedding celebration, they included scenes from the mountains.
On the hike this year, we brought Anna Lee, Oliver and my four-year-old nephew Alexander. After a little bit of grumbling about who was the “president” and in charge of the hike, who would carry the backpack and which person would use the toy binoculars and the spy glass they’d insisted on bringing, we were off. Much to Oliver’s dismay we forgot the animal “tracks” book he’d gotten for Christmas, but we agreed I’d take pictures of the tracks we found and then match them up back home. As a surprise, Radek had given me a new lens with a larger zoon for my camera for Christmas, and I was eager to try it out. Twenty minutes into the hike, we were only a short ways up the trail. We’d collected various pine cones, walking sticks to match the height of each boy and photographed a half-dozen snow-covered “tracks” that the children insisted might just belong to a black bear. I’d also snapped two-dozen pictures of the trail, the children and the lake down below.
By the time we reached the lookout point about a half-mile up the trail, we’d already dipped into our snack reserves (banana muffins, mozzarella cheese sticks and Capri Sun juice). I wondered if we’d actually see the knob this hike. Luckily, my father, who’d been jogging down around the lake, caught up to us on the trail and “rescued” the younger boys. He lured them home with promises of jumping on the trampoline.
With only Anna left, we settled into a steady pace, Radek led the way while Anna and I walked side-by-side several steps behind him. As we walked, I told her about her first trip up Molly Knob’s and I recounted our wedding-day hike. She wanted to know immediately how I’d managed to hike in a wedding dress, and I think she was a little taken-aback when I told her that I had worn khaki slacks and a white shirt instead. She consoled herself with the image of me she’d seen in pictures, wearing a crown of wildflowers in my hair and decided the crown had made me justifiably “fancy.” Anna was also surprised to learn that most Americans don’t go mushroom hunting.
When the trail got steeper, Anna and I fell further behind Radek, and her enthusiasm for the journey began to lag, so I started asking her if she had any New Year’s resolutions that she wanted to make. We talked for a bit about what a resolution was, and she decided she’d like to be able to do a front-handspring in her gymnastics class. She resolved to practice hard this coming year. By the time we finally reached the top, Anna had begun to doubt that she’d actually made it up the mountain (albeit part-way in a backpack) years before. She stood proudly and took in the view. Before we headed down, she and I posed for a picture in the spot where Radek and I had stood so many years before. He caught us giggling.
Coming back down was much faster, although walking the steep trail down required as much concentration as getting up it had. I vowed to print out of the picture of Anna and me on the mountain top for her scrapbook. I hoped in the summer we’d be able to take Oliver up the entire trail as well and start our own family tradition. Anna wanted hot chocolate and marshmallows and that night she fell asleep early, her cheeks wind-blown and rosy from the afternoon outdoors.
During our US visit, we had more rainy and overcast days than we had pretty ones, so it had been a real treat to hike on one of the only sunny days. Although we planned a few other outdoor adventures, most of them were canceled due to uncooperative weather. But the children made the most of the bad weather, enjoying trips to the basement of my father’s office where they had free reign to build a fort from old chairs or ride their bikes. Watching the Disney channel, they learned the expressions, “whatever,” and “you’re busted,” or “you’re fired.” Despite not wanting them to sound like little smart-alecks, I enjoyed hearing them try out the new phrases to find the appropriate situation. Against my wishes, they soaked in American television. Before the end of the trip, even Samuel had learned how to use the remote control to turn Curious George on. But, it was a culture, of sorts, and it was a holiday, so I tried to loosen up.
For a break from my hometown, we drove to an indoor water park in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (home of Dolly Parton). As one friend told Radek when he announced where we were heading, “You mean you’re going on a real ‘redneck’ vacation?” Although I took slight offense to her comment, once we were actually driving down the main stretch of Pigeon Forge, I had to say, I hadn’t seen anything tackier in years. It looked like a miniature Las Vegas, only instead of casinos there were strip malls filled with chain restaurants and various themed-stores. The kids were thrilled by replicas of an upside down building, the sinking Titantic and King Kong climbing a skyscraper. It was Americana at its finest/worst. We stopped in one Christmas-themed store to look for typical American souvenirs for our Czech family. When Radek came back after fifteen minutes empty-handed, I asked why. He replied, “They had everything and nothing there.”
When we finally reached the downtown of Gatlinburg, nestled in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, the bumper to bumper traffic deterred us from going further. Although we could see beautiful mountain vistas in the distance, when Radek suggested trying to drive up there go for an afternoon walk on a mountain ridge, my mother said, “Sorry, you can’t. That’s the thing about Tennessee. You can see the mountains, but you can’t get to them.” Whether or not that was true, we saved our hiking for another day.
After returning from our Christmas holiday in the US, it’s taken a few weeks for me to get back into my Prague rhythm. For the kids, the excitement of seeing friends after the holidays and the routine of school have put their minds back squarely in the Czech Republic. Overall, the kids seemed to enjoy being home, although they miss American family and talk fondly of all the fun they’re planning to have in America this coming summer. Still I’ve heard Anna Lee sigh with pleasure in her room and say, “I am so glad to be back.” Although it surprised me a little since she was the one who’d burst into tears when we’d said goodbye to my parents at the airport, I take it as a sign that she’s maturing. I feel very much the same way myself.
With the house quiet, except for the babbling of Samuel, who is delighted to have full-reign of the playroom after having to share play space with his siblings and cousins, I’ve begun to unpack the suitcases and duffle bags that line our upstairs hallway. We brought back twice as much as we started with, but I have a feeling most of what’s important isn’t in the luggage. Maybe the photographs from Molly Knob’s hike are a start.