Monday, September 23, 2013

Cookin' at Da Big Red 6

Travel all the way from Canton, OH to Elizabethtown, KY

Post by Amy

We’ve been cooking in front of our motel room door whenever we stay in one.  I really like giving my kids the home cooked meals they’re used to: comfort food.  Whoever said that food shouldn’t be for fun or comfort or to make you feel happy is a dick.  Maybe if people didn’t have so much guilt and shame surrounding the foods they loved they wouldn’t feel the need to binge on them.  Sometimes I make my kids three different dinners because it’s fun for me to bring them joy, give them the foods they crave, and I like the challenge of doing all this on a small dirty sidewalk in front of the motel room with a hot Coleman stove the size of a TV tray.  And that leaves the dishes.  I don’t mind the prepping, the various food requests and when we’re camping I ENJOY the dishes!  But in the motel, especially when they’re kinda iffy on cleanliness, doing the dishes makes me feel sort of like I’m gonna power puke.  Ava has completely on her own offered to do all the dishes every time they need to be washed.  She said she LOVES doing them.  On the morning that we left Ohio (thank god we left when we did as I was starting to worry some of their football problems would rub off on us Steeler fans) I made a huge breakfast because we had to drive for like 1,000 hours (OK more like 7 or 8.)  After breakfast I took the dogs for a walk and when I came back Ava was doing ALL the dishes.  She said, “I know it kinda bothers you Mommy so I wanted to help and from now on I’ll do them every time we stay at a motel.”  It was so helpful that she offered to do that; it meant that Jeff and I had more time to pack and prepare for the long drive. 

 My boy Sully LOVES White Castle cheeseburgers that come in the frozen boxes at the grocery store.  In Pittsburgh we don’t have a White Castle restaurant.  But in Ohio they do and Sully was so cute, he said, “You mean in that whole building they have only white castles?”  We told him they probably have other stuff like fries too. 
It was a fun experience!

The rest of the drive was smooth and when we got to the motel the kids had energy to BURN!  When we camp they get so much time to run and play and explore especially off season they even get the chance to be LOUD.  A lot of times we are the only campers within view or ear shot.  I still needed to cook dinner for everyone so I suggested they run the dogs at the back of the parking lot (completely in eye and ear shot) with their dad right nearby.  This gave me a chance to cook (and have a wonderful glass of wine.)  I made filet mignon wrapped in bacon and veggies on the side.

They ran and ran and then a man came out of his room.  I looked at him and smiled and said, “They’ve been in a car for 8 hours.” He said he TOTALLY understood and sent his 7 year old son out to join them.  Before I knew it we had a “race track” complete with a start and finish line.  Mama bear came over (me) and showed them the start and finish line which still gave them a lot of room to race but kept them completely in my view. 
OK I have a confession to make and it’s not pretty.  When all the kids were fed (and us too) and then showered— I think they’re starting to love showers and baths since when we camp they aren’t always as readily available—  I cranked the A/C all the way down so that they’d want to cover up with blankets and get cozy (it was midnight after all and we’ve had our share of motel complaints in the past.)  It worked!  They all got cozy next to me and within minutes they were out cold, literally and so was I! 

On this trip I sleep better than I ever have before. 

Amish country, OH


Today we got to Amish country earlier in the day so we stopped at a winery we’d seen yesterday first thing.  It turned out to be a wine store that offered tasting as opposed to an actual winery.  It was a neat place though.  Upstairs they had an elaborate selection of wooden toys as well as antiques.  There was a fair amount of things I would have classified as “breakables” but they proprietor, a nice older lady who exuded the kind of classiness that is all too often paired with the dislike of small children, assured us that the kids would be fine to play up there alone if we wanted to sample the wines together.  I was a little nervous but all three of the kids really lived up to her high expectations.  (Remember the earlier post about how having a positive attitude drives behavior?  Proven again today.  If only more people in the world thought highly of little children it would be easier for us parents to do the same.)  When we went upstairs this is how we found Juniper:

The wines however were not great.  Amy and I agree that you just cannot get a good red in this part of the country.  The sweet reds taste like grape juice and what passes for “dry” has a strange acidic, almost chemical kind of aftertaste to it.  Good thing the Amish weren’t sampling wine with their cheese.  They’re not missing a lot there.

From there we went to have lunch at the Amish country house.  This had been high on our list so we thought we ought to check it off the list early on.  We were treated to some serious comfort food on a wooden table in a wide open dining area surrounded by handmade quilts and gorgeous oil paintings of the area.  We ordered one of the “signature” dishes: broasted chicken.  The waitress explained that it is fried under pressure to eliminate a lot of the greasiness that comes with fried chicken.  She said the process is actually quite dangerous and they have a fair number of injuries unfortunately.  I guess it makes sense.  Hot oil is dangerous enough, I can’t imagine trying to deal with pressurized hot oil.  But I credit those cooks’ bravery; this chicken was awesome and the mashed potatoes really tasted homemade.  I’m not a huge bread guy but the dinner rolls were so sweet and fluffy they deserved to be called something different than just “bread.”  Each table came with a squeeze bottle of peanut butter along with the salt and pepper.  This stuff was no ordinary peanut butter, obviously, or it wouldn’t have been very squeezable.  It was so sweet and buttery that the kids made sandwiches with it out of the dinner rolls.  As most of our friends know we don't set any kind of arbitrary limits/requirements on food intake.  Despite that sometimes things get a little crazy around the dinner table.  Here is a funny picture of Juniper and Ava fighting over the last bites of salad.

Next was a tour of Yoder’s Amish Home.  We followed several different country roads as they twisted and turned through vast plots of corn and fields of green and snaked up and down through valleys adorned with a cool mist that didn’t burn off until the very end of the day.  Sometimes the apex of the hills featured a short, square farm house, other times a cemetery, a grain silo, or a clothesline lined with single color shirts and dresses.  I had to keep my eyes on the road for the most part though.  Often when you crested the hill there’d be a little horse and buggy or someone on a bike on the other side.

The tour at Yoder’s covered two houses, the one Yoder built for him and his wife for $250 and the one he later built for his son and his family for $500.  The plainness of their life attracted me, the focus on work, family, and food.  The straw beds were a little firm for my taste but the guide informed us that only the strictest Amish order, the Schwartzengruber or something like that, still sleep in straw beds.  Apparently the Amish have varying levels of orthodoxy just like most other major religions.  One belief they all share though is that baptism should not take place until their children are old enough to make their own decision about religion.  They endured a great deal of persecution for this and eventually fled to what is now the US as a result. 

After the house tour, the driver for our carriage ride was an older man named Henry who told us he had 3 girls, only one of which chose to practice the Amish faith.  He seemed to harbor no resentment for the two that had chosen to live in the “English” world, but rather accepted it as a choice that was theirs to make.  Incidentally he didn’t seem worried about them burning in hell either.  He was strikingly laid back and easy to talk to considering the piousness of his world.  In a world where people are killed over organized religion every day, where parts of children’s bodies are cut off for “religious” reasons, I found his respect for the right of his children to make their own life choices truly inspirational.  He was a damn good buggy driver too.

My wife asked him if he owned a farm.  He said no, he only had a small 5 acre plot.  I told him how 5 acres was a large parcel by Pittsburgh standards and he seemed to marvel at the idea of living in a place so small.  “I just don’t think I could live somewhere where people were right on top of each other like that.”  He didn’t mean it judgmentally at all.  It was a fact offered after a brief but insightful moment of introspection.  I chuckled and said something neutral like, “I hear ya,” but I thought to myself that after all this camping and time spent in rural areas I’m not sure I can go back to city living either.

For the kids the highlight of the trip to Yoder’s house was these kitties.

The kittens were ridiculously friendly.  They seemed to enjoy being carried around and having their faces nuzzled by the kids.  I counted 7 of them all together.  I’m not good with animal ages but they were still little enough to have that playfulness that many kittens tend to lose as adults.  I realized that these were the same kind of farm cats my grandmother told me she had large quantities of as a little girl.  The Amish kept them for the same reason her parents did: to help get rid of mice.  The cats looked so natural lying in the thick green grass I kind of felt bad for all the house cats out there.  I mean, I know they’re well cared for but they’re not getting to do all those things they must still want to do on a very deep instinctual level: killing, sunbathing, primarily killing I guess.  As I write this though I think of my two favorite cat owners: Henry and Uncle B.  Now that I think about it Uncle B's cats get to kill bugs, particularly Maya, and Popester's cats get to roam in the back yard so it's all good for them. 

After the buggy ride we got to check out an Amish schoolhouse.  My favorite part was that the tour "guide" was a young Amish gal pretending to be the teacher.  She had me sit at a desk and everything.  She said she had recently graduated 8th grade and according to Amish law that's enough education to be a teacher.  This really got me thinking about homeschooling and what John Holt wrote about "How Learning Works."  A lot of us "English" would say, "8th grade!?!?!?  That's not enough education to be a teacher."  Yet, the Amish seem to be doing just fine.  They run farms that are clean and efficient.  They have attached relationships with their children and families and they don't go out and rob liquor stores or kill people.  Perhaps most importantly the ones I met also seemed really HAPPY.  And there's a lot to be said for that.  

Amy asked this young gal if she was participating in Rumspringa, the time for young Amish people to "experiment" with some English practices before they formally sign up for being Amish.  She said she wasn't interested in getting a cell phone.  "Who would I call, myself?  Not everyone needs to sow their wild oats."  Very mature for a gal her age.

Last stop for the day was Ruth's doll shop.  Ava saw an episode of "Amish Mafia" and heard about how the Amish kids play with dolls that don't have faces.  Ever since she saw that she wanted to go to Amish country so she could get one of these dolls and give it a face.  In case you don't know Ava that well let me explain.  Ava is so empathetic that she not only wants to take care of her siblings and her pets but she also wants to take very good care of her dolls.  I can remember being her age and feeling the same way, like some of my favorite toys were alive a little bit, kind of like the velveteen rabbit.  Well, she and Juniper got their dolls from the ONLY Amish lady in this part of Ohio that makes them.  I was pretty impressed with the faces Ava created for them.

Ten Things I've Learned on This Trip

Ten Things that I learned on this trip so far:

1: There are many Motel 6s out there that actually feel dirtier than camping.  I’m not sure if it’s the dirty carpets or the strange folks renting rooms weekly upstairs but even when you have a hot shower and plenty of soap, Motel 6 still feels dirtier.  It’s a dirty that creeps into your soul.  That camping dirt comes right off in the shower, no matter how thick it gets.  The Motel 6 dirty I think penetrates a lot further if you stay there too long.
I do want to say though that Motel 6 has some seriously good coffee.  Its appeal is equal for tired travelers as well as their more long-term residents.  Whether you’re trying to pull it together after a night of heavy drinking or get amped for a morning of prostitution, everyone at Motel 6 seems to agree that the coffee is the bomb.  Seriously.  They should have a Motel 6 blend at grocery stores.  It could come in a blue bag with the bright red six on it.  I’d buy it. 

2: Abigail and Blanca love to camp.  Raised in the lap of luxury with Amy’s aunt and uncle in Pueblo, CO they ate nothing but their Aunt Donna’s cooking and doggie bags from fine dining in Pueblo.  They never walked on leashes because Uncle Bob always carried them out back to do their business.  They were groomed every week and probably slept on silk sheets.  Despite all this these lil old gals have really taken to camping with their new family.  They love cold hot dogs.  They love to huddle around the fire in the camp chairs we bought for the kids.  They love to follow us on crazy trails, even the ones that involve lots of steps and steep cliffs.  They love sleeping on Mumsie and Dad’s laps on travel day.  I’m very proud of our new little family members and happy they have found ways to enjoy themselves during our mad adventure.

3: My wife has more patience and positive energy than anyone I know.  She never seems to get discouraged and never seems to run out of patience for our kids.  I have really enjoyed this uninterrupted time together with everyone but there have been a few times, typically when we are all crammed in a 50 x 40 foot motel room that I want to run for the hills or at least the nearest bar.  Amy seems to sense when this happens and immediately remedies it.  She makes me a sandwich or gets me a beer or makes sure I get to sit and blog or watch “The Regular Show,” my current favorite cartoon.  This trip wouldn’t have lasted a week without her.

4: My kids have as fast of a metabolism as I do.  This means 4 of the 5 of us have VERY high maintenance stomachs.  My poor wife is constantly worried about keeping all of us full so that crabbiness doesn’t ensue.  I remember at one of our stops my son ordered pancakes, a side of sausage, a side of bacon, French fries, chicken fingers.  He ate everything in front of him and then asked where his eggs were.  A few hours later he was hungry again.  We are at the point now where when Sullivan says he is hungry the whole family goes on alert.  Despite all this we have been eating a lot of very healthy stuff on the fire or our camp stove as you’ve seen in previous pics.  Cheers (again) to Ames for being such an amazing meal planner.

5: We are one of the most attached families I have ever seen.  Whenever Amy or I separate from the kids they spring into our arms when we return like we’ve been deployed in Afghanistan or something.  It’s really very sweet and makes me realize how hard it’s been working 40 hours a week for so long and missing out on so much during the week.  Though Amy and I always parented as a team we had very different perspectives then than we do now.  I know we can’t do this forever but I think whenever we do go back to work it’s going to be different.  Maybe we’ll have our own business or both work part time.  I’m not sure.  One thing I know for certain is I want to be able to spend as much time as possible with all of them!

6: Attitude is SO important.  I’m not sure if other kids do this too but my kids seem to pick up on how their mom or dad is feeling.  If there’s a problem; IE if dad is crabby they actually tend to act up a little more as opposed to tiptoeing around the grouchy bear.  I feel guilty as I write this because I’ve realized that this is because my unhappiness makes them unhappy too.  Even if they don’t show it, they do feel bad when I’m crabby.  They feel like they’ve done something wrong.  It makes them uncomfortable and they do more of the semi-destructive, irrational things that made me crabby in the first place.  I’m realizing that the more I think the best of them and try to ride out those situations that tempt crabbiness the better things go and the happier everyone is. 

7: Siri is almost always right but when she’s wrong it’s funny.  In Ohio we were looking for a dog park and she took us to the very center of a run-down apartment complex and proclaimed that we had “arrived at destination.”  Once I saw how big the park was on googlemap I chuckled at our difficulties.
8: This world is so much more vast than you realize when you live in one place for a long time.  There are so many different accents, skin tones, and ways to live just in our country it is really incredible.  Then right when you think you’re giving your kids a nice cosmopolitan upbringing you sit up one night under the stars and realize just how ephemeral and tiny our world really is.  Is it all worthwhile?  If it’s fun, yes.  Yes it is.

9: Automatic dishwashers really are great.  Doing them at a campsite or in a hotel room is equally challenging.  Fun, but challenging.
10: If packed strategically a medium sized ice chest can hold food for a family of five for five days.  After some initial frustration the first week I can now claim to be an expert in managing the storage of our cold food.  The importance of this can’t be overstated.  My wife does all the shopping, meal planning, and almost all of the cooking so I feel no small amount of pressure to ensure the food she’s picked out remains fresh and tasty.  I’ve learned that you don’t want to drain the water every day, especially when you’re camping, or it won’t stay cool enough between ice runs.  But I’ve also learned that if you get too much water in there your high end cheese can get weird.  I now understand the science of where to stack steaks, condiments, and cheese, and how to get them out with minimal discomfort to my hands.  As I’m writing this I realize anyone who hasn’t been camping for more than a weekend is going to think this is kind of silly.  Oh well, I guess my chances of getting a job as an ice chest consultant are probably not very good.

Yesterday we started our tour of Amish country at Heini’s cheese chalet.  Amish country in Ohio is basically a small series of villages that surround Berlin, OH.  First off I want to say that the Amish really appreciate good food.  I’m not sure if it’s because they have such a close relationship with the food from growing/raising to cultivating or if it’s because food is one of the few things often described as “sinful” that they have access to.  Either way these people know their cheese.  There were at least 40 different kinds of cheese at this place, all free for you to sample.  I closed my eyes and made a valiant effort to grasp the subtle different between swiss, baby swiss, yogurt based baby swiss, and smoked swiss.  After 37 samples things started to get a little murky.

Amy and I agreed that the most incredible product there, however, was these pickles.

Did you see the word habanero?  These bad boys are the perfect combination of heat, butteryness, and pickle flavor.  They are equally good on a sandwich or eaten right out of the jar.  I’m quite confident my wife and I will fight over swilling the pickle juice out of the jar when they’re all gone.  The spicy beef jerky was a close second.  I had no idea that the Amish had such an appreciation for spicy food.  This is especially ironic considering their proximity to Pittsburgh where a mild hot wing will send 87% of the population scurrying for ice water.  (Except for the folks at Senor Frogs.  They know how to make some HOT wings!)

Ava's birthday!!!!

Ava’s birthday written by her mama

Happy 8th birthday to our sweet, Ava Bloom!  We surprised her with cupcakes frosted with a colorful rainbow on the morning of her birthday. 

The night before she had me cut her hair, first it started as her wanting bangs.  Prior to this she had only had maybe one or two trims and her hair when wet went down to the small of her back.  After I cut her bangs she was so excited with the outcome that she was jumping up and down and squealing.  “Should I cut more?” She asked seeking my approval.  I told her that it was her hair and completely her choice.  Deep down I was a just a smidge sad to see it go.  It was so long and beautiful and thick.  I was also a little surprised that she trusted me (a nonprofessional hair stylist) to give her the very first short ‘do she’s ever had.  Ava’s appearance is extremely important to her. She has a natural sense of style and elegance that she was just born with. 
Sully woke up first and we told him it was Ava’s birthday.  He immediately ran over to her bed and hugged her saying, “Happy birthday, Ava, wake up, it’s your birthday!” She smiled and hugged him back.  Jeff and I brought the cupcakes over and sang to her.  We all piled in the car pretty early to head the American Girl store but first Ava wanted to take Juniper and Sully to Toys R Us where they could each pick out a small toy, that way they would have a little more patience while she picked out the newest member of her doll family which turned out to be the African American doll, Addy who happens to have one bad ass story of escaping slavery which is exactly why Ava wanted her that and the challenge of doing ethnic hair.  She opened the box quickly and within seconds she was braiding Addy’s hair with the quickness of the Jamaican women who did my hair and Jeff’s beard.  Even the store employees mentioned how impressed they were with her abilities.

I thought it would be fun to take Ava to Taco Bell for lunch which is one of her new favorite restaurants and I think that’s so adorable because when I was her age it was my most favorite place to go too!  As much as we’ve been traveling we only go out to eat if it’s something special like: broasted chicken in Amish country or fried perch in Erie or White Castle for Sully.  But she chose McDonald’s because the one near our hotel had a 3 story play area that her brother and sister had been wanting to check out.
After a fun lunch and playtime we rushed back to the hotel and quickly I got ready to dye Ava’s hair Manic Panic Wild Fire Red.  I wrapped a motel towel around her neck and put my gloves on and we got right to it!  It brought back memories of all the colors I dyed my hair.  Hot pink was my favorite and I wanted Ava to pick that a color just a little bit I even showed her the bottle while we were picking out the red.  “Aaaaava, looook what other colors they have.” I said smiling and shaking the neon pink bottle in my hand.  “Mother, I told you I wanted something fun but also a shade that’s more natural.  Hair never comes in PINK!”  Sometimes I like our role reversals.  “OK,” I said and lowered my head showing her my pouty lip.  She placed her hand on her hip and said, “Fine, maybe next time.”  And she flashed me a smile.  The red went on well and pretty even.  Jeff stood by swabbing her forehead and ears with alcohol wipes anytime I made a mistake because I know how much my girl who always asks after eating, “Is my face dirty?” would absolutely loathe having fire engine red stains on her head even if they would fade after a day or so. 

Then I made her a MacGyver shower cap from a small motel garbage bag.  I think that’s the most use I’ve ever gotten out of one of those, truly they’re not even good for holding trash.  I had consulted with some of my friends that know a lot about dye to make sure the color wouldn’t permanently alter the health of her hair and all of them said Manic Panic was the way to go and the longer you let it set the better so she settled in with her 3ds, made some art, walked to the front desk to get more ice, walked the dogs with me and about three hours later she couldn’t take the suspense any longer and we rinsed it.  She literally jumped up and down with happiness then she asked me to text ALL of our friends and family to show them pictures.  She was up late on her birthday, later than me.  She worked on various art projects and at some point curled next to me.  I always feel her come to bed because she lifts my arm; pushes up against me then places my arm down around her.  When I woke up she seemed like such a little girl in all that she does, all the help she gives and the mature conversations we have sometimes she seems more like my equal and other times she seems even more mature than me.  I paused for a moment and thought about her coming of age, eight is a big deal.  She’s becoming her own person with passionate ideas that are all her own.  I couldn’t be more proud to be her mama.  Happy birthday!  I hope you’ll remember it forever, Ava!

Friday, September 20, 2013

We did it!


Travel day.  Packed up that walk in campsite and got out in 2.5 hours!  Here I am schlepping one of the mattresses again.
We made the relatively short drive to Columbus and found a school playground where the kids could play while Amy grocery shopped.
At some random point during the time I was playing with the kids I stopped to reflect and was kind of stunned that we are actually doing this.  We’ve been on the road over a month.  Jobless, living as a family unit, experiencing everything the world around us has to offer.  It has been fantastic, even better than we imagined.  I can't believe we ever considered not doing this trip and we're not even close to half done.
Amy snapped these fantastic pics of the kids at the playground.  I think they really capture how alive they feel when they're playing with one another.

The one of Juni on the manhole cover is my favorite.  She was SO tired by the time we finally left.

After we dropped off the groceries and the dogs at the hotel we had lunch at one of my all time favorite places to eat: Waffle House!  Yessssssssssssssssss!  We only have a few Waffle Houses in PA and they are nowhere near where we used to live.  Everything was the same as I remembered it when we walked in and the server was so sweet to the kids.  We all ate a ridiculous amount of food.  Amy said the Waffle House is like Tiffany's: there's something for everyone!  Here's a pic of me and my son chillin' out front.  I was trying to teach him how to act "cool" and disinterested.  LOL.

He's six and he's already cooler than I am. 

Old Man Cave


This was a great day.  That’s why it became the campground from heck and not full on hell.
One of the best parts of today was learning that Old Man Cave is named after an old recluse that made it his home back in the 1800s.  We wondered how he kept it all to himself.  Throwing rocks at trespassers? 

Old Man Cave is a recess cave meaning that you don't actually go down underground.  You walk down a series of steps and a winding path with deadly drop offs and gorgeous views.  The path snakes underneath cliffs where trees grow up to the very edge, leaving exposed roots to see.  One of the bridges we crossed had an enormous dent in the heavy duty metal guardrail where one of the trees above had fallen into the chasm between the two cliffs.  You could see the striation along the face of the cave wall where erosion had shaped it out of the sandstone over thousands of years. 

The kids absolutely LOVED the trail even though they had to hold hands most of the time.  I think they liked the element of danger.  Thankfully we don't micromanage them too much so when we told them why it was important they held hands they REALLY listened. 

Beyond the cave beneath the cliffs we found a tiny frog swimming in a pool of rain water.  You could hear the water running feeding into it from the cliff walls high above in staccato dripping sounds. 

The kids spent a lot of time exploring while Amy and I just took it all in. 


When we got back to the campsite more surprises awaited us.  Ava found a partially formed cocoon hanging from one of our camp chairs.  We all looked more closely and saw the caterpillar poke his head out periodically as he made adjustments to the cocoon.  Then we realized he was gradually lowering himself down to the ground.  He eventually crawled away still attached to the cocoon.  I always thought they made those things in one day but maybe he had to stop for a snack in between.  Ava took this picture below:

Here's the other surprise...

Amy found a real garden snail for Sullivan.  For anyone who doesn't know Sullivan LOVES snails and has been wanting to have a real one for a very long time.  This really felt like an act of fate.  Amy and Ava made a nice habitat for the little guy and Sullivan named him Golden.  He's been riding along with us ever since in his little plastic cup with holes poked in it.

That night we made a super hot fire so we could dry some clothes that got wet in the early morning rain.

This really does work!  The grill makes it even easier.  You can smell when they're done.  LOL.

Yum!  Noodles...