32: The Unexpected Detour

32: The Unexpected Detour

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

The Unexpected Detour

Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.
~Carl Sandburg

On a warm June evening my husband and I, along with our little daughter, headed down the interstate in a worn-out van, pulling a pop-up camper behind us. It had been a long day, and we were anxious to reach our vacation destination in the Great Smoky Mountains. Just a couple more hours and we’d be in Chattanooga, where we planned to camp for the night, then head to Pigeon Forge the next morning.

Suddenly, my husband said, “You smell something?” He stared into the rear-view mirror, perplexed.

The tone of the question unsettled me. I sniffed, but didn’t smell a thing.

“Smells like something’s burning,” he said. “I think we have a serious problem.”

At the next rest area, Stan pulled out his tools and commenced diagnosing the problem. My daughter and I spread a quilt under a tree, where I quickly sank down with my misery.

“It’s always something,” I muttered under my breath. “Always something.”

If only my husband had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. When the idea of a vacation first came up, I expressed deep concerns over taking such a long trip in a van with 200,000 miles under its hood. But, being the eternal optimist that he is, my husband’s faith proved stronger than my doubts. And now, here we sat on the side of the road, a sad little bunch. So much for optimism.

Before long, Stan rounded the corner and gave the disturbing report. There was definitely an oil leak. A bad one, from all indications, but if we drove slowly and stopped to add oil every few miles, we should make it to the next town. We would spend the night there, then look for an auto shop tomorrow.

Heaving a sigh of surrender, I folded the quilt and crawled back into the van.

For what seemed like hours, we crept along the freeway in silence, stopping often to add oil. My mood plummeted with each miserable mile.

As darkness gathered at the windows, we came upon a place called Noccalula Falls Park and Campground, just outside Gadsden, Alabama. We registered at the office, set up camp, and fell into bed, exhausted.

In the morning, I rose to the wonderful smell of breakfast cooking. Peeking through the canvas flap, I saw my husband frying bacon in a skillet, four round eggs beside him.

I cracked the door an inch. “Whatcha doing?”

He smiled. “Making the best of a bad situation. Let’s eat.”

My amazing husband. Always rolling with the punches.

Over breakfast, Stan handed me some brochures. “I got these from the office,” he said. “Looks like a neat place.”

Still depressed, I nodded but wasn’t interested.

“What I thought I would do,” he said, “is take the van to the local dealership and see what the problem is. You know how that goes; I may be gone all day. But maybe we can do some sightseeing tomorrow.”

I didn’t say anything, but if I had, it would have been, “Have you lost your mind?” Sightseeing? It was the last thing I was in the mood to do, but I kept quiet.

We finished eating and I watched Mr. Optimistic drive off at a snail’s pace, a trail of gray smoke following him.

How could he always take such things in stride? He really expected to enjoy our visit to this unexpected town. I, on the other hand, had no such intentions.

“Mom,” my little daughter’s sweet voice interrupted my dismal thoughts. “Can we go to the pool?”

“Sure, sweetie,” I said, forcing a smile. “I’m right behind you.” I could see the local paper’s headline now: Distraught woman drowns herself in campsite pool.

Just about dusk, my husband drove up in a rental car. From the way he clumped into the camper, I knew it was bad news.

And it was. After a full day of waiting for a diagnosis, another full day was needed for repairs. The cost proved staggering. We discussed our payment options. None brought relief. Later, I climbed into bed, certain that this whole trip had been one giant mistake.

The next morning, despite my lingering gloom, we set out on a sightseeing excursion, trying not to think about why we were here. We discovered that Noccalula Falls Park and Campground, lying at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, is both large and enchanting. A place of unspoiled natural beauty.

Not far from our campsite, we followed a sunny path to a stone monument of Noccalula, an Indian princess, poised as if about to jump from a ninety-foot cliff. Cold water swirled around her feet and rushed over the ridge, creating a spectacular waterfall.

Legend has it that Noccalula’s father promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to a member of an enemy tribe, in an effort to obtain peace. But the Indian maiden was in love with a man from her own tribe. Seeing no happy ending, she is said to have jumped to her death from this very cliff on the day she was to be married.

A few feet away, we took steep steps down into the cool gorge below the falls. As we navigated the slippery trail, I paused in a mossy clearing and looked up.

Out of the frothy spray of the waterfall, giant cedars and evergreens rose up like fluted columns and, overhead, yellow sunlight winked through a canopy of leafy branches. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Stan said.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly mesmerized. “It is absolutely gorgeous.”

After lunch, we hiked along a narrow trail that curved around magnificent pines, winding its way to the top of a straw-covered hill. Looking down to the valley below, I was captivated by the sight. Summer’s sun lay in golden ribbons along the newly mown grass. Off in the distance, a cluster of children skipped among the shadows, their laughter rising and falling. The air was alive with the smells and sounds of summer. Breathing deeply, I sensed a lightness of heart, as if this were the place I should be.

As we gathered for supper that evening, we couldn’t stop talking about the enjoyable day we had spent together, and the spectacular beauty that was ours for the taking. Had our trip stayed on course, we never would have seen this delightful place.

Noccalula Falls remains one of our all-time favorite places, and it was there I learned a valuable lesson: No matter where the road may take me, I won’t let an unexpected detour spoil the day. Instead, I will follow its impulsive path to the sunlight and shadows just waiting to be discovered in serendipitous places.

~Dayle Allen Shockley

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