The following article is part of a series of blog posts from the Holcombe family. Peter, Kathy and their Keystone sixth grader, Abby, are sharing their adventures with Learning Liftoff as they journey on an 18-month tour of the country’s national parks. And Abby is taking her high-quality education on the road with The Keystone School, a fully accredited, online private school.
As we snake through yet another switchback in the Appalachian Mountains, Abby asks for the 10,000th time, “Are we there YET!? How much longer?” For a kid living in an RV, this is certainly atypical behavior. Her excitement is palpable, radiating throughout the RV. As we cross the bridge over the Nantahala River, her seatbelt is the only thing keeping her from levitating out of her seat. We are heading to the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s annual NOCtoberfest, for a fall celebration of epic proportions, and one of Abby’s all-time favorite places.
Last year, we discovered NOCtoberfest by accident but, this year, it is an intentional stop, and one Abby has been looking forward to for months. She has methodically put together her Cyndi Lauper Halloween costume for the contest, and she and Peter have carefully plotted their strategy for the Great Pumpkin Race later in the afternoon. But, as soon as we pull in, Abby bounds out of the RV intently focused on one thing—finding Evie, her friend and fellow online student. Within minutes, they find each other and settle into the familiar rhythm of friendship as they carve jack-o-lanterns side by side. They swap stories of adventures and catch up on all that has happened over the last year—the twelve-month gap between visits seemingly nonexistent.
There is a friendly competition between the girls in the costume contest, with both girls taking a prize. Next up is the Great Pumpkin Race. This is a no-holds-barred whitewater paddling event where the organizers drop 300 pumpkins with raffle numbers on them into a class three section of whitewater with over 100 kayaks, rafts, and canoes in hot pursuit to collect as many of the pumpkins as possible through Nantahala falls—truly a spectacle to behold and the highlight of NOCtoberfest.
Before the closing of the event, the girls have plotted to spend every possible moment together during our brief stay in Bryson City, North Carolina. The next morning, Abby is up early and focused on completing her lessons. By 9 AM, Evie and her dad have arrived and are loading kayaks for a daddy-daughter double date on the nearby Ocoee River. The difficulty of this river is right at the top of Abby’s ability level, and just a week prior, she struggled in the most difficult rapid and ultimately swam out of her kayak (a less than ideal outcome), but with Evie’s encouragement and promise to show her the most fun lines down the river, Abby is game to try it again. Perhaps it is paddling with someone her age and size, but this time down the Ocoee, just seven days later is a game changer—while still cautious, the timidness from the week before has vanished, and Abby is charging into the rapids with a confident smile.
The next day, the girls are off to kayak the Nantahala River, a grade easier than the Ocoee and Evie’s home river—she knows every inch of it. Before the adults are even in their boats, the girls are off, their chatter and laughter reverberating off the riverbanks. They stop at every single river feature trying to one-up each other by surfing waves and launching their kayaks into arial, acrobatic maneuvers at every opportunity.
Before we are off the river, there are pleas for a sleepover and promises to do school, side by side, the next morning. That night there are giggles ruminating from Evie’s room until the wee hours but, as promised, they are both up early and focused on school. They are both enrolled in different private online schools under the K12 umbrella. Evie has opted for K12 International (a challenging curriculum in a more traditional format) and Abby is at Keystone Online (known for its quality programming and flexible scheduling). The school day is interspersed with periods of intense focus, punctuated by frequent breaks of shared whispers. Moving at their own pace through their assignments allows these smart, motivated girls to soar through their daily schoolwork, leaving them ample time to do as they choose on their last afternoon together. As we pull away from Bryson City that evening, the girls are already on their phones together plotting their next rendezvous.
One might think that life on the road, migrating from place to place (sometimes on a daily basis) would be a lonely, solitary lifestyle— completely void of a community and friends. And, as we embarked on this adventure and removed our daughter from a traditional school environment, isolation was one of our greatest concerns. Now, eighteen months later, as we continue to explore new places and discover new people, we find comfort in returning to familiar ground and reuniting with friends we have met along the way on this incredible journey. Remarkably, instead of fading into isolation as we anticipated, we have found our community has grown ten-fold and returning to a favorite place and reconnecting with old friends feels more and more like coming home.