Starting Friday afternoon, I took an unexpected four day/three night vacation.
…Something about that sounds like I went to prison, but no.
We, as a family, discovered the pure joy in taking a completely unplanned weekend getaway.
It all started at noon on Friday. Chris had told me he was going to be trail running the next morning at Oak Mountain State Park, and he’d love for us to join him out there for a day of family fun after his run. I also help out the state park system every now and then to provide them with pictures for marketing to help keep the state parks open (because we’ve had our share of State Park…and all other sorts of governmental drama in Alabama lately), and they had requested some specific pictures not long ago. It hit me that this might be a perfect weekend to stay in one of the cabins there, take pictures, play as a family, and get away. I checked with Chris, and he told me that in fact there was also a Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS, my favorite group acronym ever) trail run up to King’s Chair for sunrise on Sunday, and that I should go to that.
Well that sealed the deal. There’s no way I’d do a pre-dawn trail run if I weren’t staying 2 minutes from the starting point. This was a fantastic chance to see something I’d probably only see once in my life, and I was for sure now. This needed to happen.
But the chances that the ten cabins in the biggest state park in Alabama were not all booked seemed farfetched – especially since it was 3pm on Friday before I was able to check. But I contacted them anyway. And to further the trend of everything coming together for us, a wedding had just been cancelled and eight of the cabins were now available.
I mean sure. I was sad for the people who cancelled their wedding one day beforehand, but, better to realize mistakes before rather than after the nuptials. My condolences / congratulations, former couple.
And I was appreciative of the sudden availability of cabins.
It was 3:13pm when I got confirmation that we had a cabin for two nights and began packing. Check-in was at 4pm. I pulled out of my driveway at 3:59pm, everything packed except for Chris’ clothes, which he would get on his way after work.
I was pretty proud of my mad packing skills.
I have so many pictures to go through and thoughts to sort out and I’m sure I’ll come back and share more about our trip, but until then, here are the nine reasons why this spontaneous jaunt half an hour away might have been the best family vacation we have ever taken.
- We didn’t overplan or overpack – we had (nearly) everything we needed with only 45 minutes per adult of prep and packing. The things we forgot (mental notes for next time): folding chairs, paper plates and cups (there were real plates and cups in the cabin but who wants to do dishes), and a net to catch bugs, frogs, and turtles (just kidding, turtles. Kinda.)
- There was no internet and spotty cell service (“Tranquility Lake” might be code for “You might as well throw your devices out the window”.) We perfected the cell spots around the outside of the cabin for checking in and not being totally unplugged, but the forced unpluggedness was really quite lovely. Chris and I sat on the porch every night, listened to the extraordinarily loud (and, we suspected, amorous) frogs, and felt no guilt about the fact that I just couldn’t blog and Chris just couldn’t read Twitter. I mean sure I could’ve written and published later, but I didn’t. I only opened my computer for photo editing.
- The cabins are at an ideal location within Oak Mountain. There are 10,000 acres out there, so you can drive 6 miles between various activities. But at the cabins, there’s an unofficial trailhead as many trails cross paths there, there are canoes and boats, there’s a few tiny beaches and a lovely dock, and a gorgeous waterfall I didn’t even know existed less than half a mile away. So there was plenty to do, and also plenty to keep the kids entertained while we were at the cabin.
- We decided on Sunday that we wanted to stay an extra night, and so Chris was able to just commute to work the next morning. I remember doing this as a kid from Tannehill State Park – we would “vacation” during the week, and my Dad would just drive in to work every day. I’ve always wanted to recreate this experience, but Tannehill is way too far from Chris’ office. Oak Mountain isn’t super close, but it’s not undoable. We are definitely looking at doing this more often, and would LOVE for friends to rent other cabins at the same time, and just have complete and absolute kid heaven.
- The lake is small enough that Ali and I or Ali and Chris could canoe (she adored it) while Noah played at the dock (he allowed me to take him on a couple canoe trips but wasn’t a voluntary fan) and whichever responsible adult was in the canoe could keep an eye on him. Noah also could yell to said canoe, but somehow couldn’t hear me yelling back “BE QUIET!!” The kid doesn’t understand the meaning of “Tranquility Lake.”
- There are SO MANY DISCOVERIES to be made at Oak Mountain. We still can’t even comprehend it all. Besides there being a ridiculous number of miles of trails (over 60) and many of those trails being vastly different in terrain and foliage, there were all sorts of things we didn’t even know existed. Like the demonstration farm with peacocks and donkeys and goats? No idea that was there. And Flip Side, the zip line ski park? I knew it was there, but just barely, and we haven’t done it yet but OH MY GOSH it looks fun. And then there are paddle boats and kayaking and paddle boarding and the BMX track and even golf. For so long we stayed at many other state parks but never Oak Mountain because “it was so close to home it didn’t feel like vacation.” We were wrong. SO WRONG.
- Our kids are at the perfect age for outdoor vacations. They hiked without complaining (mostly), endlessly played together perfectly, thanked us many times for taking them on a last minute trip (they found out about it 15 minutes before we walked out the door and didn’t know where we were going until we arrived), and enjoyed the lake without us worrying about them. I mean, I want to take the kids to Disney, but based on our track record, I think that perhaps we may be more cabin-in-the-woods kind of family than a theme park kind of family.
- Something about the unplannedness made it feel that much more relaxing. It was such a surprise to our systems that we all four appreciated it so much deeper than usual. It’s probably a feeling that is entirely unrecreatable, but it was just magical.
- King’s Chair is an awesome hike and view, but one I’ve never done with kids (too steep) or for sunrise (too dark.) Staying out there for so long made both challenges much more attainable, and I did both. In the same day. My feet nearly fell off.
So, friends and family. We will be planning more cabins-at-Oak-Mountain trips soon. And you really should consider joining us. Because I think we might have discovered Heaven In Birmingham.
More pictures and less words to come…