Celebrating Christmas in the Smokies

Hello everyone! I hope 2021 has been a great adventure for everyone so far. One thing we want to be able to do with our travel and lifestyle series here at The Mathews Experience is discuss some of the great adventures and fun times we get to have. Of course, with the current climate, work, the seasons, and general lack of time, travel just hasn’t happened much so far this year. So, to remedy that, we want to take some time to talk about some of our past adventures. The most recent one we had took us to one of our favorite places in the world; the Great Smoky Mountains!

Amanda and I left from our mountain home around the middle of December and went to our mountain home away from home to celebrate the Christmas season and get a nice break from everyday life. The trip began with a fantastic drive, with plenty of great holiday music and fun conversation. Once we arrived in the Smokies we were immersed in the season, with lights on every available space they could be strung or placed, and holiday music coming from every speaker in existence. Despite not having a fresh blanket of snow on every surface we looked at, it was a Winter Wonderland.

While on this trip we found ourselves staying on the Gatlinburg parkway, so close to most of the attractions we were interested in we didn’t even move our vehicle to get to most places. Walking on the parkway was an enjoyable experience. There was quite a crowd most of the time, but the vast majority of people we saw were wearing their masks and making at least some effort to maintain distance from anyone they weren’t with. From the smells of food coming from every restaurant, to the sounds of Christmas, and the decorations surrounding us, we were definitely greeted by that mountain holiday feeling we were looking for.

While trying to cram as much Smokies experience as we could in our short trip, we decided to go to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and see the fish and fun there. We managed to arrive at a time when the aquarium was almost empty, and were one of the few customers wandering the aquatic wonderland. The whole place was decked out in holiday decorations, with ornaments and lights everywhere, even in several displays. It was very easy to take our time and look at all the various exhibits without being rushed – or being held back by crowds. This was, perhaps, one of the most peaceful aquarium trips either of us had ever experienced. The only down side being that we did not get to see the beautiful Green Sea Turtle, Sally, despite making our way through the Shark Tunnel twice. No matter! We saw plenty of awesome sea life, including a couple of baby Bonnethead sharks, so our trip was a great one.

Not to play favorites among the Ripley’s attractions nestled into the foothills of the Smokies, we also made our way to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum to see the wonderous exhibits there. This attraction also did not disappoint. Though a little more crowded, most everyone in attendance was sure to maintain a respectful distance and be cautious with their masks, which is something you really can’t be too careful with during such a time. The displays, however, were a little surprising in that some of the interactive ones were still uncovered and in working order. Some of the more hands-on ones were, of course, roped off or closed to the public, but there were several exhibits that had a button or switch you could use to turn this light on or uncover that bizarre fact, etc.. and several of them were nowhere near a sanitizing station. We also did not notice many employees coming by to clean as often as we would have expected, but we were more than prepared with our own wipes and sanitizers. None of that took away from our trip, but it was worth noting. The entire museum was enjoyable to us, particularly the large matchstick model of Hogwarts, and (for me at least) the shrunken head exhibits and the Devil and the Damsel rotating statue, based on the German epic poem, Faust.

The highlight of our trip, and reason behind it, was Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas. The day started with a nice breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp and such a massive amount of food that much of it went home with us. The quality of the meal was very good, and the environment, made to look like a novelty lumber camp of the 1800s, was quite appealing to me. From there we made our way to the park to bask in the down-home holiday traditions of those amazing mountains. From the second we got to the entrance to the park we felt the spirit of the holidays and the happiness of the park everywhere. Despite the cold, we were in awe at the millions of lights and fun displays that adorned the buildings and trees, filled the windows, and lit the park with every color imaginable. We started our Dollywood experience with a classic ride through the mountains on the Dollywood Express. Once a free for all, now the conductor requires tickets to board the train, which you can get from an employee for pretty much any scheduled time through the day. We felt this was a definite benefit and a way to, hopefully, help people maintain distance by limiting the amount of people who climb aboard the old passenger train.

Following along behind that old steam engine, we got to see the massive park from all angles, catching glimpses of rides in progress, lights on display, even the newer developments that are almost always happening these days. It was a great, if frigid, way to start our Dollywood day. Most of the rides we wanted to go on were either down due to the weather, or had some very long lines, but we were able to cover nearly every inch of the park – and I’ve got the photos and video to show it! We were very impressed by the level of professionalism shown by the in-park retail locations and restaurants, many of which seemed to have one door designated as an entrance and another as an exit only, which kept the lines of customers flowing in one solid direction for the most part. We stayed in the park from opening (around 2) until after dark, loving the lights and the holiday celebration, but absolutely wore ourselves out walking around the park. Between grabbing a bite to eats at Red’s Drive-In and finishing our day by buying a little Dolly-approved merchandise, the park was absolutely fantastic. With the changes that take place from one year to the next, I think we will be happy to return year after year to see the wonderful Christmas displays and experience the warm Christmas spirit.

One of the last things I must mention about this trip was our great dinner at Dolly Parton’s Stampede. It had been years since either of us had ever been, but the show did not disappoint. This was one of the few places we ran into people who were a little reluctant to follow mask regulations, but it did not ruin our experience by any means. With a fantastic four-course Southern meal and a heart-warming show filled with positive messages and good, fun comedy, it was a great night for us. Overall, the trip was one that we will not soon forget and will hopefully only improve upon as years go by.

January is nearly over, which means we will hopefully have some warm weather to travel by soon, so keep your eyes open for more content. Follow our social media pages, and see the flashbacks of our past trips continue to roll out as we prepare for plenty of new adventures. In the meantime, feel free to share any great experiences you all have, or places you suggest we add to our list!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!

Merry Christmas, everyone!! I know this year has been difficult, and the holidays can sometimes be stressful, but I hope you will all take the time to cherish the good things today and every day for the rest of this year – no matter what holidays you celebrate (or don’t).

Personally, I have had an excellent Christmas with my wife here in our snowy mountain home. I am beyond ecstatic that our first Christmas as husband and wife has been a white one and a happy one. All things considered, the blessings we have been able to enjoy this year have given me so much to be thankful for.

Our Christmas adventure has shown us a lot of excitement, a lot of smiles, and a lot of joy- and it isn’t over yet! Tomorrow will be yet another happy day of celebration for us. I know a lot of people haven’t been able to celebrate with their loved ones this year, and many traditions have been put on hold or altered to meet the current state of affairs, but I hope everyone has been able to draw a bit of joy from the holiday. With luck next year will bring a return to the things we have enjoyed in the past, hopefully with an added sense of appreciation and love for those traditions.

Whatever your holiday brought to you, however you were able to celebrate, I sincerely hope love and peace met each and every one of you. Do your best to enjoy the rest of this day and this last week of 2020!

The Holiday Season

It is officially the Holiday Season, guys! Halloween has passed us by and we’re well into the second week of November. Less than three weeks stand between us and Thanksgiving, and just over a month and a half await before Saint Nick makes his way around the world to visit us all in jolly peace. As I’ve stated before, the holiday season is my absolute favorite time of year. Of course, if I’m considering every holiday that I love, that means my favorite time of year is from October through the first week of July, but that’s beside the point. The typical holiday season is the focus of this post. The glorious time of year that brings us from All Hallows’ Eve, through Thanksgiving and Christmas, right into the start of a brand new year – which is really just a reset so we can do it all again, right?

Of course. Many people share my love of this time of year, with decorations galore and festivity so thick you can cut it with a knife, but are we celebrating quite like we should? It’s no secret to many of you that it seems like the older you get, the faster the years go by. It seems like just yesterday I was a senior in high school, when realistically my ten year reunion is next year. Yeah, that reminder hit me today. Talk about feeling old, but that’s life. In all it’s fast-paced glory. And what more could we ask for? We’re a species that is always looking to tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. But is that really a good thing? Our holidays can be great for us, but often we find ourselves thinking of the cleanup while everyone is tearing into gifts, instead of just letting the paper build up. We think about how to improve next year’s celebration before this year is even over. But, what’s the best way to improve the moment?

Be in it.

Slow down. Take it all in. Let the magnificent fun of the celebration seep into your very bones, and just … be there. I’ve always been one to enjoy the present, look to the future and remember the past. I’ve also, unfortunately, been known to compare present celebrations to those past, which can be dangerous and vastly unproductive. As much as I would like to caution everyone against this behavior, I can’t pretend I won’t likely be doing the same thing this year. This will be my family’s first holiday season without my grandmother. No matter what was going on in the world, she was the first person to make sure the holidays were planned for, often going above and beyond in every way she could, regardless of her own health or situation. My family has always been one that doesn’t always find it easy for everyone to get together at once, but the holidays always gave us that. My grandmother would plan for weeks on end to hold our celebrations on a day that would see as many of us as possible under the same roof. It meant the world to her.

As the holidays she loved most approach us with an ever-quickening pace, I want to hold on to the spirit of the season, the reason for the season, and the amazing way I always felt during this time of year growing up. Thay is the best way, in my opinion, to really enjoy the season.

The main reason I wanted to present this post goes back to what I said earlier – slow down. We are all guilty of that “tomorrow” attitude, being so worried about what the future holds that we can’t stop to take a breath and enjoy things right where we are. I’m quite guilty of this myself at times. Whenever I start to slide into that habit, I try to remind myself of the bible verse:

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” – Matthew 6:34

Of course, there, Jesus was cautioning us about worrying about money, food, and the like. He was telling us that God will provide these things for us, because we are his beloved children. I know that was the meaning behind this verse, but I do believe it can be applied to everything. Don’t spend your day off wondering what the following day of work will bring you. Don’t keep yourself up at night worrying about the morning commute. Don’t squander the opportunity to love and celebrate with your family this holiday season, worrying about things that are or are not going to come regardless of your concern.

When your family is right in front of your face, put aside everything else. Live in the moment. Make memories, instead of comparisons or regrets. As the holidays approach us, I think we should all take a moment to prepare ourselves for the amazing time we can have this year if we just celebrate the moment. Personally, I plan to take every moment in stride, enjoying my family, friends, and loved ones with every second. I do hope you’ll all join me in that resolution (oh no, it’s almost time for those again, too!) and make an effort to live in the moment this holiday season. There will never be another today, but there may be any number of tomorrows. Let them deal with themselves. Instead of wondering about that hypothetical future moment, let’s keep our brains trained on the moment we’re in. After all, it’s the only one we’re certain we’re going to have.

In light of the holiday season, I’d love to hear about the traditions you guys hold dear. I think as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach I’m going to write a post or record a podcast talking about the traditions that have helped make my own holidays so memorable. In the meantime, I thank each and every one of you all for reading my blog and listening to my podcast. If you can think of anyone that would enjoy either or both of them, I invite you to share away. I’m always happy to reach a new mind and enjoy new ideas, as well. Feel free to share this post, and share your ideas and traditions with me, either in the comments or by going to my contact or social media pages. I love hearing from you guys, and I appreciate the feedback more than you all know. I hope you had an amazingly spooky Halloween, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Until next time, friends and fans.

The featured image for this post is one of the dual Christmas trees in Bristol, Virginia from 2016.

November Announcement

Happy November, everyone!! I apologize for this post being a bit later than normal, but such is the strife associated with NaNoWriMo! I hope you all enjoyed last month’s read, as well as the short break you’ve gotten here. 

This month, I’m going to return to one of my tried and true authors, with a twist! I will be reviewing Stephen King’s newest work, “Sleeping Beauties.” This book is a collaboration King wrote with his son, Owen,  which makes it even better. The novel explores what happens in a small West Virginia town when women all over the world fall into a strange sleep that sees them wrapped in a strange cocoon. When waking the women proves deadly, men are given few options, while the women who have not yet fallen asleep will try nearly anything to stay awake and keep from knitting cocoons of their own. Can men find a way to come together and put an end to the Aurora sickness before it’s too late?

Admittedly I’ve already started the novel and I have to say I’m hooked. The book is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a fictional county that would be around an hour from where I grew up. The idea of that setting had me quite excited when I realized exactly where fictional Dooling County was positioned on the map. 

I won’t say much more, because thisnisnt the review yet! Since it is so late in the month I think I will plan to post my reveal on December 4th, to give everyone a few extra days. This book falls in at 700 pages, so it’s not a rapid read, but it’s not grueling either.  I look very forward to discussing it with you all! 

For a quick update on my NaNoWriMo progress; my plans were changed a bit. I had hoped to finally bring Maverip to a close in October, but unforseen circumstances put a damper on that. Some of you may have noticed my originally planned work entitled “Last Christmas was replaced on my NaNo profiled by Maverip. I have decided that the time has come to really place the challenge on myself wholeheartedly. Part of me is terrified to finish this novel, as it is one book on my queue right now that I feel most compelled to push forward, and it is one that I have put a lot of pressure on. But this month will see it completed. I won’t let myself or you guys down any more! I look forward to sharing the completed work with you all ASAP, and as always, if anyone is interested in being a beta reader, just let me know! 

We’ll talk all things “Sleeping Beauties” in a few weeks, and from there we’ll examine a Christmas-themed work, so get some suggestions ready!!! 

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

This book is simply a classic. Of all of the stories in literary history, this is one that almost everyone knows about in some fashion. Even people who have never read it may have watched one of the dozens of movie adaptations that have been made over the years. Dickens, while not necessarily intending to, created one of the most called upon and cherished Christmas tales in the history of the holiday. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge finding his humanity and embracing the true meaning and love of Christmas is a tale that has never died and has only grown in popularity. Let’s jump right in!

First of all, this book is obviously written in that impeccably detailed and British style that Dickens is known for. The picture of a dreary, foggy, yet remarkably beautiful London  Christmas brings us right into the picture. When reading this book I feel myself walking around in this world, being a third (fourth??) party observer that even Ebenezer and his spirit guides don’t sense, much like the visages of Scrooge’s life don’t sense him watching them. Doesn’t that kind of set the stage for an unending spiral of who’s watching whom? But that’s a different story.

Dickens describes Scrooge as a miserly old man, coining a description that has since become synonymous with anyone unwilling to look  on favor at his fellow man. Scrooge is only happy sitting in his frigid counting house keeping count of his money, only happy as he gains more and more to add to his purse. Never one to spend money, Scrooge is described as being so cold that “no warmth could warm or wintry weather chill him.” I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a man I would never want to meet. Scrooge’s reaction to being told Merry Christmas is one of the most familiar phrases coined in classic literature. Bah Humbug. The harsh nature of Scrooge’s character runs so deep when we first meet him, that he refuses to believe in Marley’s ghost as it stands right in front of him.

Watching Scrooge’s transformation in this short novel may one of the most rewarding parts of the piece. We see his heart soften as he experiences the truth of his life, the truth of Christmas. He is immersed in the true spirit of Christmas from his past and gets to see the happiness of those people he thinks have nothing to celebrate before being bombarded by the possibility of what awaits him should he not change his ways. The truth of the story is almost biblical in nature in that it gives Scrooge a look at the damnation that awaits if he does allow peace, love and compassion into his heart.

The lesson that money is evil is one of the largest messages Dickens put forth here in an attempt to show people that material desires can not bring you happiness. Scrooge must come to terms with that fact in the book, and he does in a great way. He overcomes everything that he has built, everything he has destroyed and he is well on his way on Christmas Day.

The style of this book is one that stands out among a lot of other, for me. Dickens writes very candidly about the occurrences here and he takes the time to do it in an incredible way. Dickens does an awesome job of tackling this somewhat risky subject matter in a way that captures the minds and hearts of countless generations. One of the things that I’m most drawn to is the sheer conversational manner of the piece and the way that Dickens breaks the fourth wall. Granted, at this time I don’t even think there necessarily was such a thing as the fourth wall.

The linguistic stylings of the book, of course, are classic Dickens and follow closely to his other works. One thing that I really love to consider about the book is the idea that it can be classified as a gothic novel. Ooohhh… I just felt the chill of countless literary minds screaming at me in disagreement. But take a look at the material. Some of the things that makes a work a gothic novel are a haunted or ghost/monster visited house or castle, romance or love, madness, ghosts, and the classic one-dimensional character. For most of these I really don’t even have to give an explanation. Obviously there are ghosts. That’s one of the main points of the work. Scrooge’s very large mansion (in which he only occupies one part) is visited by four of these ghosts. Scrooge himself experiences a wide variety of love and madness throughout the novel. He goes from being an angry old man, to falling in love with life and Christmas, to being considered mad by it. This can also be attributed to The Sublime Sickness (which is a term I coined and an entirely different topic) but is the reason for the story. This change does kind of lead us away from considering Scrooge as one-dimensional and static, but we’ll put that aside for the rest of the qualifications.

Regardless of whether or not you think it is a gothic novel, what do you think of this book? Is it something that you read (or watch) every year? Or was this the first time you’d actually read the tale of Scrooge’s trial (yes, I just moderately compared this to a Herculean tale, and that can definitely spark something in the comments – hint hint). I look very forward to hearing what you all think about this book, and I would love to know if you plan on making it or keeping it a part of your Christmas celebrations!

Finally, I’m hoping to get a lot of suggestions for my January book, which will start a whole new year of writing efforts. Expect that post after the first, of course. Make your suggestions in the comments or shoot me a message on any form of social media or via email. I hope you all enjoyed this book the way I did, and I hope you all had a great Christmas (or any and every holiday you celebrate!) and Happy New Year! Here’s to a great 2017 and a great year of awesome books and book discussion. As always, share this with anyone who will appreciate it and read on!

Christmas is coming

Hey everybody! I can’t believe Christmas is only a week away! The year has lent itself to many awesome experiences and many interesting days, but that’s still to come!

In case any of you have forgotten, my second book club review will be posted in just under two weeks. This month’s book is none other than the age-old classic “A Christmas Carol” by the legendary Charles Dickens. This is a book that I wanted to read for years before I finally got my hands on it. Whether you’ve read the book or not, you definitely most likely know the story, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas. I hope that you’ll all take the time to read the book, regardless of whether or not you celebrate the namesake holiday. It does hold messages that can we could all use in everyday life, not the least of which (spoiler alert) is that we should cherish every moment we have and enjoy our lives.

I look very forward to having a discussion about this book with everyone who is willing, so grab your copy and read through it! The book is fairly  short, and (even though it’s Dickens) is a quick read, so two weeks is plenty of time!

Anyway, I just wanted to remind everyone of our book of the month and wish you all a very Merry Christmas. For those of you that don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Holidays. I hope the last two weeks of this year go great for each and every one of you. Keep your heads up and enjoy the holiday season as we look forward to what 2017 can bring!

Share the book club posts with anyone and everyone who may be interested, and make sure to read and post your own comments as well!