Thursday, August 22, 2013

Acadia National Park

Acadia is a three hour drive from Portland so that really wasn’t too bad after going all the way from Jersey to Maine a few days ago.  The kids and dogs were very relaxed during the ride and we almost made it all the way there without stopping outside of one brief potty stop in a very hip looking town called Ellsworth.  On the way in Ava and I saw a bald eagle overhead.  At first I wasn’t sure that was what it was but then I saw the white head and confirmed with some other people that is one of the many kinds of wildlife you can see here.

I’m not going to lie; I was a little disappointed about the campground when we first arrived.  The spots looked a lot farther apart on the map they had online and it was a little closer to the road than I would have liked.  There was however a playground and a nice pool that the kids were already excited about.  It’s also supposed to be walking distance to the ocean.  I’m starting to realize that Acadia is a very popular place and so for profit campgrounds are not as worried about maintaining an entirely bucolic setting.  But the National Park sites were booked out two weeks and at least we still get to camp out so we went with it.  The kids didn’t seem to mind and they were pretty respectful of quiet hours.  I had made friends with our neighbor beforehand in case they weren’t.  LOL.  The dogs are already getting used to the driving/camping routine so there really wasn’t a lot of excessive barking and the lady next door just LOVED Regis.  I got the campsite set up in just under an hour.  Hopefully I can shave some time off my breakdown time whenever we leave now that I’ve had some practice.
We made a big fire and the kids had chocolate so they were happy as clams.  Incidentally we brought some clams from Portland to eat during our time here.  Not to mention 3 pounds of crab legs my wife picked up for $6, salmon burgers for 50 cents apiece, and some other wonderful seafood deals my wife found.  (Eating food from the store is not only tastier and healthier, it is easier on the road budget.)   So yeah seafood in Maine is ridiculously cheap.  We actually passed a Walgreens in Bangor that had a sign proclaiming they sold live lobster for $3.99.  The stuff is like chicken out here.  My wife said the crablegs were cheaper than the turkey at the deli. 

Ava, Sullivan, and I had a pretty intense New Super Mario game tourney as you can see here:

Ava also spent some time relaxin' with her sis.
We slept with the rainfly off so the light of the full moon came into the tent and shone on our little family.  Though full the campground was so still and quiet.  Amy and I joked that the other campers thought the 10 pm “quiet hours” meant they had to go to sleep.  We stayed up late and watched the fire burn out.  We were having such a good time talking we eventually ran out of wood and I had to hunt for pine cones and little twigs to keep the fire going.


A day at the beach in Portland, ME

Change in plans.  Rain in Acadia, sunny skies in Portland so why not stay here one more day?  This trip is ALL about going with the flow.  We let the kids have plenty of time to chill this am and then drove down to Old Orchard Bay, a beach suggestion we got from some local cops when we were in Portland some years ago.  It was a warm day and the beach was filled with families.  The boardwalk was jumping too and there was even an amusement park that I didn’t notice the last time we were there.  We parked at Steve’s parking, a makeshift lot fashioned out of someone’s front yard.  Very smart.  We then proceeded to play at the beach for like six hours.  The water was so clear you could see all the way down to your feet.  It was cold but once you were all the way in you got used to it pretty quickly and the sun was warm but not blisteringly hot like you get in So Cal sometimes.
Amy found a shell that still had a snail inside.  Sully was pretty excited about this; he loves snails.  He wanted to keep him as a pet and made a miniature habitat inside a plastic cup we brought but it was to no avail.  The snail got away and Sully was heartbroken.  We tried to explain that the snail would be a lot happier and would live a lot longer if left in the wild but he was inconsolable.  I guess it takes kids a while to learn that having something isn’t always as great as just seeing and experiencing it.  We did get a cool picture of him with it.

Ava dug an enormous pool out of the wet sand that low tide leaves behind.  Juni, Sully, and I helped too while Mama relaxed and soaked up the rays.  Her skin glows when she gets sun like that.  I just burn.  L  The waves weren’t as powerful as the ones we had encountered in Florida a few years back so the kids really enjoyed running out and jumping over or into them.  Juni and I ran to “chase the waves” about 20 times and it made me smile because Ava had developed a similar game when we were in Portland years ago before Juniper was even born.  While we were playing Ava noticed that the water had “moved.”  I explained to her how the tides worked, that the moon’s gravity pulled the waves further and further toward shore at high tide and then further and further out at low tide.  She didn’t believe me at first.  It is pretty miraculous.  I can’t remember another time I was at the beach when the tide went out while we were there like that.

At one point all 3 of the kids were making sand castles but they were each doing it their own way a good distance from the others.  Ava made a whole bunch of turrets, I mean like 30.  It was like a miniature city.  Later we got video of her and the other kids destroying the city like Godzilla.  (I'll try to insert it here at a later date; we don't have any reception bars in Acadia.)

Sully turned his into bowling pins and bowled balls of wet sand at them.  Gotta love it.  Juniper worked very hard too she had perfected the art of getting them to hold together the way she wanted them to.  Amy pointed out how they often seem to get along better when they have moments to spread out and have time to themselves like that vs. being in the motel room where they’re on top of each other the entire time.
Later Sully, Ava, and I had a sand fight.  They won but I still had a blast.  We all rinsed off as best we could in the water and I went to get the car.  Sully had so much sand in his swimsuit he had to ride home naked.

After some much needed showers and baths we went out to dinner at the Portland Lobster company.  This was a place we visited after whale watching a few years ago so we knew it was good.  Same deal, order your food up front only here they give you one of those little restaurant beepers that tells you when your food is ready.  Best part is the beeper is shaped like a lobster and his eyes blink to tell you he’s turned on.  The kids thought he was pretty cute and got all excited when it went off. 

There was a cover band playing too so that was fun for me; the kids don’t seem to get into live music all that much although I remember Ava did like the lady singing gospel at one of the subway stops back in Manhattan.
After we absolutely annihilated dinner we went home and to bed.  We found out all of the national park campgrounds at Acadia were completely full!  We had to pick a private one instead.  We identified a few to call first thing in the morning.

Travel day

Amy woke up early and couldn’t sleep.  She woke me just before six and we talked about the potential benefit of driving straight to Portland, ME and skipping the CT stop we had originally planned on which threatened to suck anyway since they had more rules than any campground I’d ever heard of and fees for everything from early check in to hot water to late check out.  Really?  I had been itchin to do some extended driving so I signed up and we drove five hours straight through to Portland, ME where she found a super cheap motel 6 we could stay in for one night and then make the 3 hour trip to Acadia National Park the next day.

The kids did really well with the long drive and were good sports overall.  I am proud to say Juniper pulled her first prank on someone.  I’m not sure which is funnier in this pic, the look on Juni’s face or Regis’s worried expression in the background.  (don’t worry folks, the seatbelt fits her fine, she is just leaning to the side in this pic.)

We had a few stops along the way but they were surprisingly efficient and we got into town around 5:30.  We had dinner at this place Amy heard about from another person at the motel called The Lobster Shack.  It was on Two Lights Road which I remembered from a previous trip to Portland.  We had gotten lost on the way out there that other time.  This was of course pre GPS, Siri, etc.  All I had was a little neighborhood map from the front desk and byzantine directions from various locals full of notes like turn right at the little store that sells apples out front and take your first right after the bridge but not a hard right, just sort of bear right.
This place was just fantastic.  It was like some of the other places we have been to in Portland in the past where it’s very casual and there are no servers.  You just order your food up front and they call your number when it’s ready.  I didn’t get a chance to check out the menu but we got two big lobsters, biscuits, and some chicken and fries for the kids.  It was a good thing Amy called ahead because it was BYOB and I’m not sure they even had a corkscrew there.  I brought ours just because I’m a nerd and I like to be prepared and I saw a guy there who had brought his own as well.  I also brought a grocery bag with some ice and a few beers from Portland’s Shipyard Brewing which we actually toured the last time we were here.

The food was just phenomenal.  It was so fresh you could suck the mixture of salt water and lobster juices out of the claw after you cracked it.  We sat on one of the picnic tables in the back overlooking the shelves of hard, black rock leading down to the beach and the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean beyond.  There was a full moon lighting all the tables like we were sitting in someone’s backyard instead of at a restaurant and it lit up the water for miles. 

(Kudos to my wife for this fantastic picture and basically just about every single other one in here as well.  She is the I phone Ansel Adams.)
There was a little path that led from the tables to a small rock garden that sported a chair made of slabs of rock and what appeared to be rebar.  This thing was surprisingly comfortable and actually rocked back and forth.  The kids loved it.
It was just too early to go back to the room so from there we went out in search of some oysters for the adults and ice cream for the kids before bed.  We found a place called Boone’s on Commercial Street, the main drag in downtown Portland, that we had never been to before.  As we were driving around looking for a place we realized that between those two trips we had eaten lobster at almost every joint in town.  Boone’s has been selling oysters and other good stuff right on one of the piers in Portland since 1898.  They didn’t put dessert on the menu.  Rather the server told us a list of what she had left for dessert everything from blueberry pie to vanilla gelato to brownies and something called an icebox cookie.  The brownie was warm and good and the icebox cookie was so sweet and light.  The server said you can do this by putting whipped cream on a cookie and just leaving it in the fridge so the cookie absorbs the moisture and flavor of the whipped cream.  It is so good.  And of course the oysters.  They brought us an oyster menu very similar to what you get when you order sushi.  You could pick from 8 different varieties of oyster, most of them from parts of Maine, one from New Brunswick, Canada.  We got 4 different kinds and they really did taste distinctly different.  They were fantastic.  It tasted like they had just pulled them out of the water.

While we were there I snapped this pic of our family's own Lady Madonna.  Check out the girls clasping hands across her chest.
By the time we left we were stuffed and sleepy as all get out.  As I write this everyone but Ava and me is sound asleep. That’s good because we’re going to have a big day journeying to Acadia tomorrow!

Laundry day


So today was a catchup day.  Though we weren’t going to make it into the city again there was no way we were ready to roll out for a big driving day.  For one thing we had some serious LAUNDRY to do.  Motel 6 had washers and driers but Ames thought it might be more fun to take the kids to a Laundromat.  Boy was she right!

After we got all the clothes loaded we picked up some lunch and ate it at a little business park.  It was one of those medium sized corporate buildings that has a little picnic table out front where people eat their lunch when the weather is decent and they can get away from their desk.  Kids got to take breaks from eating to run back and forth in the green green grass with the sun beating down on them.  And of course Frank got to pee on everything in sight so everyone was happy.

We hustled back to switch clothes over to the dry cycle and this is where things get kind of funny.  When my wife came out from loading the clothes I saw this guy say something to her.  She gets back in the car and I ask her:
Me: what did he say to you?
A: He said I had a nice ass.
Me: (trying to hide my fury) Really?
A: Yeah.

Now I realize I can’t exactly start shit with this guy with my kids right there even though that seems like what I ought to do.  The wife doesn’t seem very upset which kind of surprises me but that combined with the kid factor means I should let it go.  When we go back to get the clothes out of the drier I see his car is still there.  
Me: I’ll go in to fold the clothes.
A: Why?
Me: That guy is still there.  He’s going to try to talk to you.”
A: (perplexed)  He’s allowed to try to talk to me.  I’m not worried about it.

At this point I’m thoroughly confused about why she is not creeped out by the guy or at least irritated.  I go in the fold the clothes.  I mad dog the guy the whole time all the while a little befuddled about why a guy that looks that mild mannered would make a sleazy comment to my wife, but still I try to play it cool and don’t say anything.  Once I’ve got everything folded I come out to the car where everyone is waiting patiently. 
Me: Well that’s done.
A: I don’t know why you didn’t just let me do it.
Me: I told you because that sleazy guy is still in there.
A: What’s the big deal?  He just told me I had nice eyes.
Me:  Nice eyes?  I thought you said ass.

We both laugh uproariously.  Now, of course everything made sense.  The whole time she was confused about why I was so uber pissed about the guy saying she had nice eyes.
While the clothes were drying we took the kids to a local school playground that someone at the laundromat told Amy about.  It was a great big playground with lots of slides and handicapped accessible ramps.   Nice. 

There was another little boy there named Braden that was 5.  Sullivan and Juniper enjoyed playing with him.  Ames and I talked to Braden’s Mom who it turned out owns a Honda Pilot same year as ours with over 200,000 miles on it.  Good sign.
After we were done with the clothes we went to the grocery store to get some supplies.  By the time we got back to the room and unwound it had gotten to be pretty late so we ordered a pizza.  This one wasn’t as good as the night before and they forgot Amy’s salad.  Boo!  That night Ava created her own doll café.  She fashioned tiny doll coffee cups from an adult coffee cup complete with stir stick straws.  Then she made this elaborate drink dispenser, utensils, and money and turned a shelf into the café.  She then proceeded to act an entire play that was about one of the dolls being a thief and getting caught.  She is so creative.  I don’t know where she comes up with this stuff.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New York City!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

New York City!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NYC is just an amazing place.  I would really like to live or work there someday.  I always feel oddly at home there and I enjoy trying to figure out the subways and where all the cool things are.  It seems like even when you’re a little lost or just walking there’s something cool around every corner.

The night before I located the train station for New Brunswick that services New York City via the New Jersey Transit System.  It was only a ten minute drive from the hotel but the train station was a bit of an adventure in itself.  Like a lot of things on the east coast it was old and not very modernized and thus not very child friend either.  The bench I told the kids to sit on while I bought the tickets backed up against a two floor dropoff.  All they needed to do was climb over the back of it.  My appalled wife herded them over to another bench that offered a view of the yawning open window above the bench across from them that offered an even higher fall and through the doors beyond the bench trains rushing past the platform to make any T rider in Pittsburgh say, “Holy shit” and never EVER call the trolley a train again.  We’re not the most controlling parents.  We try to let them find their own way and make mistakes when it’s appropriate.  Unfortunately neither falling to their death nor getting crushed by a train is a “safe” mistake.  So yeah it was a little nerve wracking waiting for the train but once it came the kids were plenty excited.
There were no seats and we had to walk from car to car looking for some.  Unfortunately we walked to the front instead of the back and had to turn around after learning 4 cars later that all the open seats were in the back.  This is of course typically a commuter train and all the commuters just know these things.  Eventually we found a seat and the kids, as kids do, found fun and mischievous ways to pass the long ride into Manhattan. 
They talked about the train.  Sully loved looking out the window at all the neighborhoods that passed by.  Ava talked about her American Girl dolls.  Juniper climbed on the seats and laughed and enjoyed how the train shook and rattled when it came into stations.  Poor Amy looked a little rattled herself.  She is fearless in terms of her own personal safety when it comes to stuff like this but when it comes to her babies she is a very protective mother bear.  When we walked between the train cars and you could see the tracks rushing past below I knew she was not going to be a huge fan of the train ride.  She did a good job of hiding this from the kids though so they could just have fun.
Train let out at penn station which was seriously teeming with people.  We quickly adopted holding hands as an important safety measure though we typically try not to utilize that one unless absolutely necessary or requested by one of the kids.  Once I got my bearings we walked downstairs to wait for the 1 line to south ferry street where we could get a ferry to the statue of liberty.  The subway was a lot cleaner than I remembered it and Sullivan was ecstatic that the seats were all different colors and that he got to have a blue one by the window. 

It was a Saturday so this made the train from NJ free for the kids as noted in previous blog and it made getting around by subway a lot easier today. 

We got off at S. Ferry street and went above ground where we were greeted by a pink ice cream truck.  Manhattan ice cream is apparently $3 per cone not including toppings but the guy gave them to me anyway even though I only had $10.  The kids loved their cones.  Sullivan wore a good portion of his.
Battery Park was also a lot nicer than I remembered it.  When Amy and I were in NYC in ’95 there was not a lot at battery park except for some homeless people.  I remember being surprised about that since obviously the Statue of Liberty is a big tourist destination.  Well now there is room for kids to play and one of those big fountains like we visited in Baltimore.  The kids all agreed this one was too cold to peruse.  There was also a very hip looking restaurant with a beer garden.  Unfortunately their bathrooms were closed.  I said to my wife, “Don’t they understand how beer works?  It’s kind of essential you have a bathroom to go with your beer garden.”

Further into the park there was a little place called The Garden where you could get coffee or sandwiches or beer brewed in New York.  We opted for the latter.  Poor Ames was still coming down from her train/subway experiences.  It was nice to watch the kids play somewhere where there weren’t enormous metal vehicles rushing by.  The 20 somethings working at The Garden were really nice.  One of them asked me to sample a white sangria he was working on and the other gal gave the kids free smoothies.  They were listening to Mumford and Sons.  It was really cool to sit there and look out on the harbor with the Statue of Liberty in the distance. 

Just outside the place where you buy tickets is a very cool lifesize metal sculpture of immigrants arriving in the United States.  The rope and metal anchor in the foreground make it clear they have literally just gotten off the boat.  Some are crying tears of joy, one has chains on his ankles, another has a baby in her arms.  You can feel how overcome they must be with relief and anticipation at the same time.  Juniper and Ava climbed all over the thing; I love artwork that is interactive like that.  The sculpture is called simply “The Immigrants” and is made of bronze and granite.
Later I walked the girls back to Sullivan and Mama so I could stand in line for ferry tickets.  We had seen online that Juniper wasn’t tall enough to go up to the crown and we thought that might be a lot of steps for the other ones anyway.  Amy and I climbed up into the crown back in ’95.  It is a winding and surprising narrow spiral staircase that goes hundreds of feet up.

When I came back with the tickets Amy told me that she had noticed she was being followed by an older guy as she and the kids went from the café over to the open play area and then the bay.  She said that right around the time started to get freaked out he came over and told her he liked watching her mother them and he thought it was sweet how well the kids got along.  She is such a great mom!

We met a lot of friendly people that day just like the last time we visited New York. 
They really cram a lot of people on the ferry!  Luckily we did get some seats by the window. 

There was also a bit of a crowd crush getting off and on.  I think anytime you put that many people in one place you tend to get that “survival of the fittest” effect and some people tend to just push and pull to get forward.  This one particular lady kept trying to use her stroller as a weapon so I parked my big gunboat feet right in front of her to keep my babies from getting run over.  LOL.

Once on Liberty Island (used to be named Bedloe Island interesting enough and used for everything from quarantining people to imprisoning people to hiding British loyalists back in the day) we got to walk all the way around Lady Liberty.  This was a big thing on Amy’s list for the trip just like it was the last time we were in New York.  It’s neat to me how much she loves to see the Statue of Liberty.  Maybe it’s because she is only two generations removed from her immigrant roots.  I often think about her grandfather coming over from Ireland to make a new life for his family in first Brooklyn and then, ironically, Pittsburgh. 
Unfortunately this is one of the few pics we got in NYC since the phone battery died shortly after we got there.  No worries since we will definitely be back someday!

Ava, Sullivan, and Juniper were very curious and interested and had many great questions about how the statue was made, why she was there, why she had chains on her feet, what the book in her hand meant, and why she had spikes on her head.  Luckily there were many plaques you could read that had all the answers to these questions and more.  We talked about her greeting people that wanted to make a new life here and how different the boats they used were from the one we took to get to the island.  We also talked at length about how she was constructed which I thought was pretty neat.  I knew she was hollow inside, obviously, since I’ve been up in there but I never knew how thin the copper she is formed from really is.  Apparently she is made out of sheets of copper that are only as thick as two coins held together.  They hammered out the shapes in France, shipped over the individual pieces, and then put her back together like a puzzle over a metal frame created by the same guy that designed the Eiffel tower, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.  Ava seemed to appreciate this in particular.  Metal is one of the few artistic mediums she hasn’t worked in yet.
We also talked with the kids about how France gave her to the US to celebrate our Declaration of Independence which had inspired their own Revolution. As we discussed this I was reminded of the Arab Spring.  It’s interesting how history really does repeat itself in some ways.  Apparently the US had to pay for the pedestal which she was mounted on so there was an elaborate campaign at the time to help raise money to build it.  As part of this a famous poet named Emma Lazarus wrote this piece which I thought was so great I can’t help but include it here:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

On the way back to the ferry we saw a sign for guidebooks and it had flags to indicate which languages they offered.  In addition to the US flag Sully recognizes both Germany and Japan!  He and I talked about which countries the other flags belonged to and what languages went with them.
Ferry ride back to shore was uneventful but getting off the ferry was not.  I pointed out the enormous ropes to the kids as they tied our ferry to the pier.  Shortly after they started offloading people the deck starting pitching up and down so wildly one guy almost fell.  We were rolling up and down 20-30 feet at least.  It was bad enough people on the pier were videoing it.  Ava and Amy were a little scared, Juniper thought it was great fun, and Sully was too tired to comment.  Finally the waves calmed and we were able to get off.

By now the kids were understandably a little tired, but we were in Manhattan for goodness sake so we couldn’t call it quits yet.  I hailed a cab.  The kids think cabs are soooo fun and this one even had an onboard computer with a map they could play with.  We had the driver take us to Chinatown so we could have dinner and he dropped us off right in the heart of it.  Sullivan wanted to know why all the signs were in Chinese so we talked about how when large numbers of immigrants settle in one place immigrant communities crop up where native languages are spoken and they cook and serve their favorite foods just like Mexicans speaking Spanish in Beechview back in Pittsburgh.
There were so many weird, cool restaurants to choose from it was ridiculous.  We settled on one that was long and narrow and just teeming with people.  Literally everyone was Chinese except for us.  It was awesome. All the staff was super friendly and attentive and seemed to enjoy the kids.  One of the female servers was just fascinated with Ava’s American Girl doll.  It was a bit of a challenge to order because we didn’t speak Chinese (it was that authentic) but we worked it out.  The duck was unbelievably good and the Szechuan beef was literally the best I’ve ever had.  All 3 of the kids love lo mein noodles these days and they are all willing to try new things so Chinese tends to work out well for them.  The noise in the place was almost deafening between the clatter of plates, the owner of the place shouting out directives to staff, and the constant clamor of people talking excitedly to one another.  The table across from us had about 12 people of all different ages eating family style.

We bought the girls shoes in Chinatown since both of theirs had literally worn out.  Sully didn’t need shoes so he got a pair of those metal balls people use for hand exercises.  They had Yin Yangs on them which for some reason he just loves right now.  Amy bought me a “New York City” shirt that looks identical to the one John Lennon wears in one of the photos I have of him.  She’s so sweet.  Despite the late hour the streets were still, of course, packed with people.  We walked down canal street and took the subway to Times Square so the kids could see the lights and all the crazy ads.  They could also glimpse the top of the Empire State.
We saw a street performer tap dancing and two guys doing spray paint art.  Juniper insisted on watching them for about ten minutes solid while they worked.  Despite the rudimentary tools (spray paint cans, lids, and a putty knife) the outcome was truly extraordinary.  They were only $10 apiece so we just had to get one.  Ava said it was worth at least a thousand.  The entire family agreed on which was the best one so we bought it from the artist, Mano.  The next day we shipped it FedEx to Uncle B, the guardian of all our art back in Pittsburgh.

On the way to Penn Station we came across this very hardcore looking tattooed guy who stopped to tell us we had a beautiful family.  So cool.  I just love the people in this town.  By the time we got Penn Station it was 10:15 PM and we were all a little worried about the dogs.  We found the NJ train and saw there was one boarding at that very moment.  I didn’t think we’d make it but Amy said we should try and we did just make it.  Fantastic.  Would have had to sit around for another 40 minutes otherwise.
We got seats easily this time and sat next to a carpenter who’d been working all day in the city.  He lived in Edison, NJ, one stop before us.  The kids laughed and sang and played the entire way back.  Amy was impressed I could find the hotel without Siri.  The stakes were pretty high since everyone was just exhausted at that point.

The dogs were soooooooooooooooo good.  I guess that is one of the benefits of ¾ of them being geriatric: they don’t mind lying around all day. 
They demolished the leftovers Amy had put down for them from our dinner at the pizza joint the night before.  I was up until 2:30 AM talking to my wife and writing.  What a night!

New Jersey

Friday morning was BUSY.  We all got up at the same time except for Ava who slept in a lil since she was up later than the other ones watching the fire with us the night before.  Amy and I packed up everything.  Once we had the sleeping bags rolled up and the kitchen, stove, and tent broken down I climbed up on the bumper and Amy tossed me stuff that I fit into the car carrier like some adult version of Tetris, just didn’t have that catchy music to accompany me.  This was all actually pretty hard work.  It took about 2.5 hours including interruptions from the kids and dogs and I was wiped by the end.

The kids had plenty of time to play at the playground for the last time.  There were two little girls there that had an American Girl doll so that was a lot of fun for Ava.  Sully spent a lot of time playing in the dirt and rocks too.  I think he liked the way they felt between his fingers. 
We headed out and drove two hours east.  The kids were patient with travel day since they had plenty of time to play in the sun and Amy made sandwiches for everyone before we left.  The drive to East Brunswick, NJ only took two and a half hours or so.  We had plenty of time to settle into the hotel room.  I ran out and found a grocery store to pick up some provisions: juice boxes, coffee for next campsite, donuts, and some shampoo and conditioner for full service showers for everyone.  Also found a really cool local pizza place on the way that we went to for dinner later that evening.

I took a shower before we went to dinner.  This is noteworthy because I didn’t shower the entire time we camped.  I really got my money’s worth out of that shower.  The water running down the drain was actually grey and my feet, which hadn’t left their socks in days, smelled truly horrific right before I got in.  Anyway that’s probably already more than you wanted to know about that.
The pizza place was called Michelangelo’s.  Small place inside a strip mall not far from the Motel.  The best part was that it was walking distance from our Motel.  On the way Ava showed off some of her tree climbing skills.  Sully and Juniper can climb pretty good now too.  Juni and Sully also put together a race to show off their speed, all in the little greenspace between the motel and the strip mall.  I love it when little kids have such a great day and in that moment feel like the world is just made for them.

They loved the thin crust at the pizza place and did really well at the restaurant since they got so much exercise beforehand.  The staff were all really nice so that always makes things more fun too.  By the time we finished dinner everyone was pretty tired.  We made our way back to the room and enjoyed the cozy queen size beds. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Last night at Susquehanna State Park


A day of relaxation.  We needed it after that big hike yesterday and knowing that we were slated to finally leave tomorrow.  We had originally planned on leaving today but everyone was having such a great time and the weather promised to really be beautiful so we tacked on another day. 
(It was funny because this day ended up paying for itself: this pushed our Manhattan trip to Saturday and kids ride New Jersey Transit for free on weekends.  More in subsequent post.)
The weather indeed proved to be great.  Sunny and warm but not too hot and so clear the sky was this super deep blue color.  Sully actually remarked on it first thing that morning, “Look at the sky!”  He’s so observant and admiring of the natural world.  It’s interesting because sometimes he gets so bored walking in the city he doesn’t always pay attention to where he is going.

We took everyone on a short circuit around the campground.  Sully told me he wanted me to tell him “every animal in the whole world.”  I started naming off all kinds of random animals (I mean why not, right?)  but I kept adding “of course you’ve already heard of that one.  So then he asked me to instead name for him “all the animals I’ve never seen.”  I thought it would be fun to do them alphabetically.  Pretty soon the whole family was participating.  It was a lot of fun.  I think the kids learn a lot more efficiently and lastingly when they’re having fun while they do it.
Back at the camp it was soon nap time for Amy in the warmth of afternoon.  She worked on her book for a while and then dozed off while the kids worked on various projects like playing in rocks or walking down to the playground.  I took some time to work on a song Amy and I thought I should write about how hard it was to fit both my guitar and Regis in our Pilot.  It’s going to be country.

The kids really like having the bathroom on site not only to test their independence with going there but also so to take advantage of the shower.  They each took two today.  This is unfortunate as it may make it more obvious to them how I am smelling lately.  I haven’t showered since we’ve gotten here.  I’m embracing the caveman life and not having to worry about how dirty my clothes are.
I did accompany the kids during many of their trips to the bathroom and on one of them I saw the biggest spider I have ever seen outside of a tarantula my old buddy Grace at value options found.  This thing was black with yellow spots that almost looked like a face and about as big as my thumb.  There were two, one on each side of the mens room.  Now I like spiders but this one just looked menacing.  I was a little afraid to stand under it but tried not to let on to the kids.  As we were standing there talking about the spider his partner in the other web snared a moth.  The moth struggled to get free but like lightning the spider skittered down the web toward it and within seconds had spun it into a cocoon to save it for later.  It was just like what Shelobe did to Frodo on the last lord of the rings movie.  Even moved her legs the same way.  Ava felt bad for the bath and tho I reminded her the spider had to eat too I did feel bad for the moth as well.  It did not look like a good way to go.

Interestingly enough when we came back about an hour or two later for another bathroom trip the web with the spider and his newly caught prey had been destroyed.  There was nothing left but a few anchor lines blowing in the wind.  Me and the kids speculated on what might have happened.  The web was far too high for a human to have done it.  Ava thought maybe it was the wind.  I thought it might have been a bird or even a bat swooping down to eat the spider just as he had eaten the moth.  We talked about the food chain and the “circle of life” in the bathroom and Ava wanted me to sing that particular song from Lion King because she thinks I sound funny doing it but I declined for the sake of the other gentleman in the bathroom with us.  Wish I could have gotten a picture of the spider.  However here is a cool one of the girls catching one of the many different caterpillars they enjoyed observing during our time here.
The only other big news was that since it was a Thursday night there were a lot of new neighbors, one of whom brought his bichon/shi tzu mix.  (For some reason they call them a Bizoo as opposed to a Shits on.  I wonder why?)  Anyway Frank got off the leash eventually and ran over to meet this dog.  Usually things go well when he does this but this time he and the other dog decided they needed to have a proverbial pissing contest with real piss.  Juniper told me about how Frank kept peeing on top of the other dogs pee.  The other owner and I talked about how hilarious the whole situation was since they were both these foo foo dogs trying to go UFC on each other.

That night we had the biggest, hottest fire of all.  After all it was our last night.  L

Hiking the trail


I woke up early because it was so chilly out.  It’s not as fun staying in bed late when it’s cold and you’re camping.  Still, once I had some coffee on board and I found a ray of sunshine to park my camping chair in I felt remarkably peaceful.  Directly in front of me I saw a bullseye shaped spiderweb.  Perfectly round center anchored between two trees about twenty feet outside our campsite.  It was right at eye level so I got closer to look at it.  I watched the spider crawling along the web for a few seconds before I realized she was actively working on the web.  I watched her make her way around the center feeding out web from the lower part of her body and sticking it to the web using her rear two legs.  She worked quickly but with methodical precision.  I watched for a long time before I saw her complete a section that was uneven.  I thought this must have been how peaceful Thoreau felt when he escaped to Walden to watch ants for entire afternoons.  Suddenly she skittered towards the center from one of her outer concentric circles and left a couple dents in the web in the process.  I couldn’t tell if I had spooked her somehow or if this was something she did to protect herself from the breeze or, as Ava pointed out to me later, perhaps she had just run out of web.
The kids were all really good sports about how cold it had been and once everyone had some food on board they were ready to do a trail.  I love stuff like that and so was pretty excited that Amy wanted to do one so badly.  We figured if the two of us enjoyed it that much the kids would hopefully get something out of it.  We chose the trail that led from our campground north to Deer Creek which is a tributary of the Susquehanna River.  There was something on the map marked as the Pumping Station.  The trail was beautiful.  It wound up and down a long, windy ridge covered in trees so thick it was hard to tell where you were going.  It worked out well that the weather was cooler than two days ago because we still worked up a sweat on all the switchbacks.  The kids were really excited to get to the creek and Amy was so sweet she carried all of their swimsuits up there. 

Finally the trail went down a steep grade and I could water and, oddly, traffic.  Apparently the Pumping Station was not some kind of historical artifact it was a real water treatment facility of some kind.  Not very scenic.  Undaunted, we crossed the street and found a path down to the creek only to find it was not quite what we expected.  Creeks where I’m from in Arizona are usually about 2-3 feet deep max and they’re clear so you can see the moss growing on the rocks beneath your feet.  This “creek” was around 30 feet across, muddy as hell, and VERY fast moving.  In short the kids were not going to be doing any kind of wading, much less swimming in that monster.  The bank in front of it was so muddy it swallowed up Ava’s flip flops and proved to be unnavigable.  What a disappointment!  Amy and I had to get everyone back up to the grass where it was safe.  I could barely get close enough to rinse Ava’s shoes off. 
Everyone was understandably disappointed, but Amy retained her usual positive attitude and reminded the kids that when you seek adventures you don’t always know what’s going to happen and things don’t always go as planned.  I took her lead and told them that the X on the map isn’t always treasure but trying to find it can still be fun.  The way back was long and everyone was tired.  We took a break at an enormous Beech tree that sported a multitude of initial carvings, some quite a ways up as if each engraver sought to somehow undo the previous and set himself “above” the crowd.

From there all the way back to camp I carried Juniper piggy back.  Almost a mile.  Right before we arrived she said to me, “I think I can walk now.”  She got down and sure enough she could.  I smiled.  It made it more fun to know that she honest and truly believed she could not walk when she asked me to carry her.  She is so cute!  I was very proud of Sully who sometimes gets “bored” with long walks.  He was checking out bugs and butterflies and trees the whole way up and back.  Ava actually led everyone on the way back.  I had to call out to her to slow down a few times to let us catch up.   They are all so amazing.
We got back later than we meant to obviously and everyone was wiped.  Somehow Amy still got dinner made for the kids right away which was so sweet.  She is such an amazing mother.  Here is a great picture of her and my beautiful boy.

Now I’m still not sure if it was the wood I bought from the camp store instead of the honor system shed people or if I was just tired or what, but the first two fires I made promptly went out.  I was feeling the pressure and getting a little frustrated.  It wouldn’t be any fun to sit in the tent at 8 PM shivering.  Ava was very encouraging and told me to stop being negative and that’s probably why it wasn’t working.  Amy told me that it was OK but she was puzzled because I never had problems like this before.  I said, “Next you’re going to tell me this happens to all guys sometimes, right?”  She didn’t miss a beat: “It’s Ok, honey, you’re probably just tired.”  We both thought the whole impotence comparison was pretty funny.  I admit I do equate fire starting with other manly capacities.

Finally I did get the fire going.  I had to use cardboard from my notepad to get it started.  I parked myself in my chair and my wife brought me this amazing seared (Pittsburgh rare style) steak with avocado and fresh French bread topped with chipoltle cheese.  It was so excellent.  I know she had to be every bit as tired as I was so it really meant a lot to have such a fine meal in front of my finally blazing hot fire.
And since tilapia was on sale and we had so much we cooked some for the dogs like this on the fire and they were in heaven!

The kids fell asleep in their chairs in front of the fire and I carried them into the tent and zipped them right into their bags.  They slept the whole night through!  No one woke up cold.   Best of all Amy and I got to talk and watch the fire in the darkest, quietest hours of the night while the kids (and the dogs) sawed logs in our cozy little tent. 


6:30 AM: RAIN!  Rain and more rain!  I heard it sprinkling around 6 and thought in that strange dozing kind of sleep, “well it’s good Ames had me put that rainfly on.  Now I can just keep sleeping.  30 minutes later it’s like a torrential downpour.  I wake up again and think, “no problem, got the rainfly on.”  I wake up about ten minutes later and everything at the foot of the bed is soaked.  Um, the rainfly is great and all but if you don’t close the windows you’re going to get some water coming in.  Ava was a really good sport about her dolls getting wet.  She was a little frightened of the lightning just because it was so close and loud.  You definitely feel a lot more exposed to things like that when you’re camping.  I told my wife at some point that day that being out in the woods like that I alternate between feeling like the world is so huge and we play as tiny of a role in it as the insects crawling on leaves and feeling like the world is so small and all that matters is the four people with me and the dogs and as long as they’re fed and warm nothing else really matters.  I guess what I mean by that is that this trip has already brought me a lot of perspective.  I always tried to take quiet moments even when I was working but it was difficult.  Even when you sit there and try to appreciate your surroundings or your morning cup of coffee all the things you have to do that day at work creep in and you start looking forward to the high points (lunch, coming home, seeing coworkers you like) and dreading the low points (dealing with people you don’t like or who don’t like you.)   Even when I was on vacation in the past it was hard not to think about heading back, what time to leave, what I had to do at home before going back to work, etc.  Now my head is really truly clear.  When I sit and try to be mindful of the moment I find that my mind is really, truly empty.  (please save the laughter I mean empty in the Zen sense of the word.  Clear, like an untouched pool of water.)

Back to the rain.  So we had to hide in the tent until about eight.  It did not let up much at all before that.  Once it did Ames and I got the tarp hung up.  She had this really great idea of using the tree limbs to make the twine taut instead of just tying them around the tree trunk like I was going to do.  We also utilized our trusty True Blue to anchor a few of the ropes.  Once this was done it wasn’t so discouraging when the rain picked up again.  I sat on the ice chest and make breakfast for everyone while the rain drizzled down and made intermittent waterfalls down the low side of the tarp.  The kids were surprisingly good sports about it even though at least half of the bedding in the tent was wet.  Finally after breakfast it stopped altogether and Amy and I got right to work.  We hung up all the sleeping bags, sheets, and blankets from the tarp lines and on top of the vehicle.  I also cleaned up all the water in the tent. 

Once that was done we had some down time and I taught Ava how to play crazy 8s.  Seriously all it took was for her to watch Amy and me play one round and I went over the rules while we were playing.  Then she and I played and she beat me on the first try without having to draw a single card.  She was/is hooked!  This really made me smile since cards were an important part of my childhood from as far back as I can remember.  My grandmother traught me to play all the games she played with my grandfather and their family on the farm: crazy 8s, casino, go fish, gin rummy, and in later years kings on the corner.  The way Ava took to playing made me think it must be in her blood.

Sully has really enjoying exploring his independence on this trip.  He has decided he likes privacy when using the bathroom so now that we are finally in the woods with a million trees for him to pee on he wants to have the privacy of the bathroom.  Or maybe it’s just that he enjoys the freedom of walking down there all by himself.  Amy or I tail him of course.  Even Ava has helped out with that.  He knows how to get there by himself; we just don’t want him to get turned around on the way back.  Today I was following him and he turned around abruptly right before he got there.  I ducked behind a tree, worried he had seen or heard me.  I caught up with him at the bathroom and told him I had to go too.  He told me he had seen a spider and it scared him.  He asked if I would walk back with him in case he ran into it again.  It really captured how little he still is even though he yearns to be a big, grown up boy.  I’m so proud of his bravery and kindness.  He will make a great man.

In the afternoon I walked down to the ranger station with Juniper so we wouldn’t have to untie the tarp from the vehicle to go buy wood in town.  By then we had actually pulled the car forward twice (amy’s idea) to make our canopy even higher and more taut so we were pretty attached to it by then.  On the way there I pointed out a bird I’d never seen before to Juniper and then a cardinal as well.  A few minutes later she urged me to be quiet, as I had her when I was trying to show her the cardinal, because she had seen Bambi in the woods.  “He’s hard to see because he is brown,” she said.  “He is very shy.”  I looked into the trees earnestly for a good five minutes or so.  She is so imaginative; she was pretending to watch him the whole time.  Finally she said still in a whisper, “We should go.  We don’t want to scare him.”  I was very proud of both her imagination and her desire to “find” cool things she hasn’t seen before in the woods like mom and dad do.

Once we got to the ranger station we bought wood, ice, and Gatorade.  They didn’t carry marshmallows or chocolate.  Really?  Anyhow I knew Juniper probably wouldn’t be up for carrying the small pack of “starter” wood on the way back but I asked anyway because the twenty pounds of ice and the cord of wood was pretty heavy.  She gave up after about 50 feet or so.  No problem.  “Can you carry your Gatorade?” I asked.  She reluctantly agreed but after only ten feet this time she just kind of stood there like it the 20 oz Gatorade might as well have been a 20 pound bag of dog food.  So I ended up carrying two bags of ice, one cord of wood, a small pack of starter wood, and two bottles of Gatorade which I might have been able to manage if we didn’t have to stop and smell the proverbial roses every few minutes.  Needless to say I arrived back a little tired from our “short” jaunt to get supplies.  I thought to myself this is why the cavemen used to go hunting while the family was still asleep!

One other great thing that happened is that while Juniper was sleeping Ava and Sully played in the mud for like two hours.  They started out making mud pies and mud cakes and other forms of mud food and eventually, of course, ended up throwing it at each other.  I told them it made me happy to see them making such good use of the after effects of the rain.  They got their shower in just in time before the evening rain sprinkle arrived.

We got all the newly dried clothes put away and the windows closed just in time.  We were prepared!  And all the kids helped.  Ava in particular understood the importance of keeping the windows closed.  Once it let up we were still able to cook another amazing dinner: seasoned shrimp and zucchini with grilled tomatoes brushed in olive oil and spices, and meatballs cooked over the fire.  I also managed to get a nice hot fire going.  All of the wood in the forest around us was wet.

That night tho it was COLD.  We weren’t very well prepared and everyone woke up around 3 AM cold as all get out.  When I woke up the second time at 8 everyone was in bed with us trying to stay warm except for Juniper who was cozily zipped into her sleeping bag.