A Tennessee camping trip with family is worth some treacherous weather


  • USA TODAY Network Tennessee Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee.

When I heard the clap of thunder, I briefly thought we should wait in the car. The sun was down at the Stone Door campground, and we were quickly losing the light. Pitching a tent in the rain sounded easier than finding the campsite in the dark. On our family trek into the Tennessee wild, I rediscovered my own need for adventure.

So much of family life is meticulously planned. From work to school to piano lessons to football practice, my crew is on the go. Add in sleep and meals, and we don’t have time for much else. With four boys, idle hands are more than the devil’s workshop. They are his demolition crew. 

Tight schedules don’t allow minds to wander. My sons need space to imagine, dream, and build. Much to their mother’s chagrin, they need to do so in an area where there’s an element of risk. Whether it’s the heat of a flame or a frigid waterfall cut into a limestone rock face, creativity demands the kind of adventure that makes the heart beat faster.

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The thunder shook the trees

When my wife tells me I’m solely responsible for trip logistics, my family is almost certainly in for excitement. I tend to go and worry about the details later. Between canceled football practice and a break from school, we had an opening in the schedule. I went online, booked a campsite about two hours away, and loaded the car.

The Tennessee outdoors

I knew we might hit a few storms, but I had no idea our arrival would feel like a scene from “Twister.”

As we walked to the campsite, the storm hit full force. The thick fall canopy extinguished what little light remained. The floodgates opened and trails turned to streams. We tried our best to follow the map to the campsite. My father signaled for a retreat to the car as thunder shook the trees. Slipping, falling, and crashing through the woods, we flopped back into the car.

Meanwhile, my brother who was joining us watched the winds rip the side off of a barn, throw it across the pasture, and through a barbed wire fence. Cows wandered on the road in front of his truck. Thankfully, Drew and his kids made it as far as the ranger’s station where a large tree blocked access to the campground.

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No camping trip is complete without a fire

The balance between bravery and stupidity is delicate, but my middle son and I knew we needed to pitch our tents quickly. It wasn’t going to get any easier as the gale wasn’t letting up. We headed off into the forest, kept to the trails, and fortunately found our campsite.

I have never been so thankful for high quality pop-up tents. In less than five minutes, we had two tents up and secure. My father returned from rescuing my brother’s family. He dropped off the other children and went to pick up my brother. Seven children under 13 helped me carry our provisions to the campsite.

They literally howled back at the wind and the rain along the way. Not even the hostile weather dampened their spirits.

We weathered the storm in our dry tents. My father and brother joined us safely after a bit of wandering in the woods.

No camping trip is complete without a fire. Cold hotdogs and smores simply won’t do. We gathered small sticks and branches soaked by the deluge. The children seemed concerned that a fire wasn’t possible without divine intervention. Like the prophet Elijah, I planned to call down the fire. Unlike Elijah, I packed a MAP-Pro torch in my bag.

In short order, we had a roaring fire. As we ate and laughed, the boys broke out their pocket knives and started whittling away. I quickly discovered that the boys packed more knives than we had people. At first they made more roasting sticks, but then they graduated to spears and other weapons. They couldn’t be sure whether the next day’s hiking might require defending against a bear or mountain lion. Thankfully, no blood was drawn in the process.

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A life of routine takes a toll on our spirits

As we bundled up for the night, the rains returned and lulled us to sleep.

In the morning, we packed up and headed for the great Stone Door and a few nearby waterfalls. Up and down the bluffs and rock formations, we explored the Cumberland Plateau. We swam in Greeter Falls, squeezed between massive stone cracks, and watched red-tailed hawks ride the winds blowing along the massive cliffs.

Cameron Smith, columnist for The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network Tennessee

The whole day was wild and free with a side of beef jerky and plenty of water. Even the insignificant features of the trip excited the children. They couldn’t get enough of our LifeStraw which enabled us to drink straight from the waterfalls.

Many of us don’t want to hassle with the details of activities outside our routines. We love our access, connectivity, and convenience. I certainly love my comfortable mattress waiting for me in the evening.

That life takes a toll on our spirits. We need adventure in our lives. From time to time, we must look over the edge and realize what small, fleeting beings we are. Our souls need an opportunity to breathe as much as our bodies.

Before we headed back home, I walked to the edge of a high overlook and howled like my children the night before. As the echo came back to me, I understood. Every day can’t be an adventure for my family, but more ought to be.

USA TODAY Network Tennessee Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine. Direct outrage or agreement to smith.david.cameron@gmail.com or @DCameronSmith on Twitter. Agree or disagree? Send a letter to the editor to letters@tennessean.com.


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