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Yellow blazes and Skip-Bo

It’s been a somber few days since the world learned of the death of Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter, Gianna, and the seven other passengers on that helicopter in Calabassas, California. Hearing of the tragedy and reading the coverage made me realize that mortality stops for no one, not even a sports hero as big as Kobe.

Numerous friends and celebrities have commented what a wonderful person, father, husband, athlete, role model and friend he was. It’s hard to understand why things happen the way they do, and my heart aches for the surviving friends and families of the victims.

When bad things happen, it makes life seem paradoxically vibrant. It magnifies small, seemingly insignificant moments into meaningful experiences. 

On Saturday, Matthew and I set out to hike Mount Sterling, using instructions from a little guidebook I’d bought several years ago. We didn’t do any backup research regarding navigation so when we got to a confusing crossroads and had no cell reception, we decided to turn around as opposed to guess our way to the trailhead. We were admittedly bummed because we had our hearts set on Mount Sterling. Instead, we ended up hiking the Asbury Trail, which starts at the Haywood County entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Saturday was a chilly day, but we are on a quest to complete at least two or three hikes a month, no matter the season. We started down the Asbury Trail and observed the first yellow blaze. Continuing along the ridge, we saw snow-covered fences, stacked river stones that may have once been a structure and several grounded national park signs that must’ve fallen off trees. 

We did not encounter human nor animal; the primary sound being the crunch of leaves beneath our shoes. Our hike was sandwiched between two basketball games. We’d watched my 8-year-old play in the morning and planned to watch Matthew’s 12-year-old play in the afternoon. Being in the woods offered a lovely juxtaposition to the noisy excitement of a ballgame. 

Yellow blaze by yellow blaze we explored the overgrown path, alone with our voices and an occasional far-away bird sound. We hiked a little over 4 miles round trip. When we got back to the car, we commented how relaxed we felt. Nature truly is a type of therapy. While we will hike Mount Sterling eventually, serendipity took us on a different route on Saturday. And for that, we were grateful. 

When the boys were little, I worked from home and routinely enjoyed early afternoon play dates with my good friend, Kate, and her boys. In the warmer months, we’d sit outside in the sun and watch them ride bikes or play with water balloons. During the colder months, we’d hole up indoors and the boys played with LEGOs or dressed up in superhero costumes. No matter the time of year, all the boys would run off yelling and playing while the moms chatted and caught up on the news of our lives. 

Through all of this, the boys and the moms were making memories. Upon reflection, these were cherished play dates I took for granted at the time, assuming they’d always happen.

Once I started working outside the home and as the boys aged into afternoon sports practices, these play dates became few and far between. After a while though, I realized that with the boys going back and forth between my house and their dad’s, these play dates were more important than ever before. They were anchors during turbulent times. And, if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, anchors are essential for stability. 

I’ve been trying hard lately to make these play dates happen, not only for the boys but for me too. When life gets crazy and complicated, it’s easy to let friendships slide into the background, but just like parent/child or romantic relationships, friendships must be nurtured too. 

On a recent snow day, we had one of these play dates. My boys’ faces lit up, as they always do, when I mentioned visiting these good friends of ours. When we got there, the boys all went downstairs while we moms talked. After a while, Kate asked if I wanted to play Skip-Bo. I’d never played Skip-Bo, but she’s been playing since childhood and she said she could teach me. 

While strategizing with the multi-colored cards, two images came to mind. I imagined us as giggling little girls playing Skip-Bo at a sleepover. Then, I imagined us as old ornery women playing our daily card game, eyeglasses resting on our noses. In both visions and in the current moment, I could feel the joy of sitting with a good friend, shutting out the noise of the world, and playing a card game. 

When tragedies and heartache run amok, it’s important to lean into simple pleasures. Whether it’s a hike on a surprise trail or a snow day playing Skip-Bo, it’s these little moments that add up, one by one, to create a beautiful, well-lived life.

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and marketing specialist at The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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