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IN THE SPIRIT: You just can't wrap some gifts in pretty paper

EAST TENNESSEE - A bronze plaque atop a boulder caught my eye and as other people moved on, I, too, stopped to read: "Man has created some lovely dwellings, some soul-searching literature. He has done much to alleviate pain. But he has not create...

EAST TENNESSEE - A bronze plaque atop a boulder caught my eye and as other people moved on, I, too, stopped to read:

"Man has created some lovely dwellings, some soul-searching literature. He has done much to alleviate pain. But he has not created a substitute for a sunset, a grove of pines, the music of the winds, the dank smell of the deep forest or the shy beauty of a wild flower."

It was an overcast day, so I didn't see the sun. It's winter - too chilly for wildflowers to bloom. But I did see the pines, millions of them. I heard the music of the winds, and I breathed in the sweet aroma of the forest that is beyond description.

The Cherokee Indians referred to this expanse as "Shacomage," meaning "Place of Blue Smoke" because of the bluish mist that to this day still clings to the mountainsides and fills the valleys.

We know this corner of our beautiful nation as the Smoky Mountains, where ridge upon ridge of endless forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Known worldwide for its mixture of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains and its Southern Appalachian culture, Smoky Mountain National Park is America's most visited national park.

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My family and I, all 10 of us, spent the week between Christmas and the New Year here. At Newfound Gap in the park, through which the Appalachian Trail passes, the beauty is so breathtaking all I could say was, "Oh yes, only God could have done this."

We trekked a bit on the Appalachian Trail just to say we'd done so. The trail passes through Newfound Gap, the lowest drivable pass through the Smokies. Millions see this picturesque view each year, and we experienced what it's like to be captivated by the spirit of this mountain range.

On our way up, a string of cars stopped, and people gaped and snapped pictures of a black bear roaming a hill alongside the road.

Plans for our adventure were set in stone even before Granddaughter Grace sang Amy Grant's song, "Tennessee Christmas" at her December recital. The trip was something my husband, Jim, who grew up in west Tennessee, wanted to do for his sons, their wives and children.

I liked the idea, too. It meant no tangible presents to buy except small things for the grandchildren. The intangible gifts we received never could be put in a box and wrapped in pretty paper. It's gratifying to see your sons walking up a hill either hand-in-hand with their children or balancing them on their shoulders. It's even more heartwarming to know they want them to have "experiences" instead of "stuff."

And did we have experiences!

This may have been our best Christmas yet - just being together, cooking, eating, watching "Frosty" (as in Snowman), sleeping, playing Apples to Apples and whist, watching "Frosty," playing Balderdash, watching "Frosty," reading and hiking steep hills only to return to our beautiful three-level log chalet nestled in the Smokies near Gatlinburg, to watch "Frosty" yet again.

It was Ethan Frazier Dunavan, soon 2, who couldn't get enough of the snowman. "I wuve Frosty," Ethan says.

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We managed to slip in our FF (Favorite Films) "Return to Me" and "The Princess Bride." Watching them together is family tradition.

We went to Dollywood. Of course, we weren't fortunate enough to see Dolly Parton, but her theme park and its shows are wonderfully fun, as were the Gatlinburg shops, Pigeon Forge, riding horses in the rugged Tennessee hills and listening to Appalachian music (standup bass and banjo) by a couple named Jerry and Joan who invited Jyl to play guitar and sing along with them.

We also visited Ripley's aquarium in Gatlinburg, which has the world's longest underwater aquarium tunnel, and we filled a pew Sunday morning in a church we found called "The Father's House."

Some nights were spent just talking around the fireplace about, among other things, books. Each of the four grandchildren has stacks, and Amelia, 11, rarely looks up from one.

Uncle Dean asked Elyn, 4, "what is your favorite book?" Without hesitation, she answered, "the Bible." When Dean asked why, she said, "because it tells me that Jesus is born."

That's an unwrapable gift right there.

If you've never been to the Smokies, go. Watch God's sunsets, stand amongt His pines, listen to His wind, inhale the aroma of His deep forests and marvel at His beauty.

And for heaven's sake, take your family.

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Dunavan is a Herald columnist. Reach her at (218) 773-9521 naomiinthespirit@aol.com .

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