When I booked my flight & hotel for the 2023 EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) conference in Washington, DC, I originally figured I'd fly right home and get back to work the next day. This was, of course, in violation of everything I've come to understand about how to travel mindfully.
It eventually occurred to me that ignoring the necessary buffer day only to end up with a two-day workweek was kind of pointless. And I could use this opportunity to also solve the problem of my not having planned a break for the year yet.
Since I'd only ever briefly been to DC and have not experienced most National Parks in the Eastern US, I augmented the conference with a roadtrip through Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
The conference was very enjoyable and was also a TON of information. EMDR is a therapy I love and am deeply enthusiastic about, and being immersed in the latest research, techniques and theories inspired me.
Probably the most impactful part was getting an immersive and experiential training in the 'Flash Technique', a protocol for helping clients who aren't yet ready to do direct reprocessing of trauma to get there faster while also experiencing results they don't have to wait for.
I can also confirm that, whenever you're at a conference or convention, it's absolutely worth the extra cost to stay in the same hotel as the event. Especially when you get super overstimulated by sitting in large groups of people for extended periods like I do.
Parks n' Stuff
The big thing I wanted to see in DC was Arlington National Cemetery. What I love about the Eastern US is how much history really comes alive there. Being driven through the endless fields of white headstones, touring the home of Robert E Lee where slaves labored and where people fled in panic as the tide of Civil War came in, history stops feeling so far away. So does the seemingly distant present.
It wasn't a long trek from there to Luray and the Shenandoah Valley. Honestly Luray Caverns was the most interesting part of this leg of the trip. The Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park is a lovely scenic trip. The Harry F Byrd Visitor Center features a good museum where you can learn the checkered history of the park.
After a couple days there, I headed down the long stretch to America's most heavily visited National Park. And the area sure does know it.
As a former resident of Orlando, FL, I'm familiar with "tourist trap" areas like the one between Disney World and Universal, crowded with themed restaurants and wacky ticketed experiences. But this place was even more garish than what I remember from the land of the mouse. It had everything from a Space Needle to laser tag, at least old timey photo studios, and three different offerings from Ripley's including a "Believe it or Not!" and an aquarium.
Then you pass through the last light on the strip and suddenly you're in the deep woods. It really felt like driving through a portal to Narnia.
All in all, for the country's most popular park, I found GSMNP kind of underwhelming. I guess I've been kind of spoiled with the epic parks of the West with their unique, towering monuments to nature's grandeur. Here the woods were pretty and the wildlife plentiful, but other than the beautifully misty mornings of its namesake, Smoky Mountains didn't evoke that awe I feel in Yosemite, Zion, or Arches.
I did run into a bear during a morning hike, though. Happened right as I was thinking "I'll never see any wildlife in these thick trees", and suddenly, not twenty feet ahead, she hopped out onto the trail. She was more scared to see me, I think, and did a quick jump and bounded off into the woods. So, despite lacking the jaw-dropping sights of other parks I know, Smoky Mountains did provide one heart-pumping thrill.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a counselor and founder of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.