What I Learned About Myself While Traveling

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View From The Back Seat

The view from the back seat. Hard to get mountain pics from there! Mostly you get Mom. Note: I LLLLOVED this vehicle. Chrysler Pacifica, possibly a hybrid.

I learned something about myself in traveling these past two weeks. When I’m in charge of travel, I’m susceptible to some pretty strong anxiety.

I like traveling. I like experiencing the world, seeing new places. I like it a lot, in fact. But until last weekend, I didn’t realize how stressful I would find it to be The Responsible Party for a major trip—you know, airport security, anxious child, rental car, driving in a remote mountain area. Until last weekend, I hadn’t really sympathized with the stress Christian feels when we travel as a family. You know how it is—in a marriage, one person takes lead in certain areas (mine are kid logistics, meals, and family scheduling) and the other takes the lead in another. One of Christian’s areas has always been travel arrangements; I’ve always been the support personnel.

Halloween Olympics

We didn’t win these Halloween Olympic golds by ourselves, but since I didn’t warn the other 10 people on our team that I blog, I figured I wouldn’t post pics of them. 🙂

Last weekend it was just me and Nicholas. It was supposed to be a 3-hour road trip from the airport to our destination, but it ended up taking nearly five. Services signage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is basically nonexistent. We had to just pick an exit and hope there would be food and gas there, and we ended up in a traffic snarl. Then there was the chocolate factory stop—we saw it on the Philadelphia map and since one of my goals for Nicholas on this trip was teaching him to navigate by a real map (gasp!), I had him give me directions. I was smart enough to study in advance and get a general idea of where I was going, but the map was not exactly…complete.

We found our way, but we asked a local for directions on the way out.

And lest anyone be thinking, “If you’d just follow Google”…. We had a classic Google Maps fail, too. The kind where the directions said, “Continue straight onto No-Name Road,” which didn’t exist, though there was some other road there. One-lane. Like a private drive. Turning to gravel. And then dirt. With road construction vehicles, and forest pressing in on both sides. We had to backtrack 8 miles of 25 mph mountain roads to find another route.

And of course, I don’t have a smart phone, so I couldn’t default to following the GPS. (The resort recommended not relying on GPS anyway, but I am perfectly willing to admit when it’s time for me to bow to reality; I remain a smart phone conscientious objector, but following this trip I am willing to admit that I need a phone that will allow me to buy internet minutes in order to access GPS if I get lost.)

But it’s always the getting there that causes the stress. Actually being there was…wonderful. We could not have enjoyed ourselves more. The pool, the paddleboat, the kayak, the shuffleboard, the Halloween Olympics, the food, the bumper boats…there was nothing not to like about this place. We settled in and didn’t budge all weekend. We even attended Mass virtually so we wouldn’t have to leave the property.

Poconos 2

At the end of the weekend, I wanted to spend a couple hours at Valley Forge on the way back to the airport, partly for my own sake, but mostly to add a veneer of education to taking Nicholas out of school. We made it, but we had signage issues on the Turnpike again—another Google maps fail, as they don’t give you exit numbers, only mileage amounts, and so I was looking for I-476, not the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and when the sign said “Penna Turnpike—Scranton-Harrisburg”—and NOT Philadelphia (how can they NOT HAVE PHILADELPHIA ON THAT SIGN????)—well, suffice it to say I missed the exit and blew 15 minutes getting turned around.

Somewhere on that last 30 miles down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with traffic backing up and stopping and the minutes we had for visiting the national park ticking away, I realized that my blood pressure was sky-high and all my venting was adding considerably to my son’s anxiety levels. After that I toned it down a lot, but it made me realize how much impact my own anxiety has on other members of my family.

It also made me reconsider our approach to family trips in general. Upon coming home and hearing my stories, Christian laughed and said, “I’m kind of glad you had this experience, because now you know how I feel on trips.” We decided it was time to rethink the way we split up the duties on these trips. He has to give up some control and I have to take some responsibility—and we both have to be willing not to get mad at each other when things go wrong, as they inevitably will.

One of the things they say about travel is that it’s educational. I always knew that—I guess I just didn’t realize they meant you’d be learning about yourself.

If I Were Planning An Epic American Road Trip…

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I’m in the midst of writing a road trip book right now, and it was ridiculously fun to plan my main character’s route across the country. So I thought today I’d share a few of the gems I discovered—places I hadn’t heard of before, but which have been given a place on my “someday” list. (Although only one of these made my book. Want to guess which one?)

There are quite a few “soul food” places, of course. I was surprised at how many I hadn’t heard of, given that I’ve taken multiple trips to these areas of the country:

Antelope Canyon (Arizona):

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Photo by Moyan_Brenn, via Flickr

And The Wave, also in Arizona. Who knew there was more awe-inspiring beauty in this state than the Grand Canyon? (Probably everyone except me, but there you go.)

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Photo by Moon Howler 97321, via Flickr

Oneonta Gorge, Oregon:

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Photo by Sarah McDevitt, via Flickr

And there’s Hamilton Pool, in Texas:

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Photo by Knowsphotos, via Flickr

There are historical locations like Taos Pueblo, in New Mexico, where residents still live a traditional Native American life. (But Fodors had me at “fry bread”):

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Photo by Phillip Capper, via flickr

Then there are the quirkier locations, which were a whole lot of fun to explore. There’s a great site and app called “Roadside America,” which has done the work for you. Check it out, but do it when you have some time to kill, because this site is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes.

Ft. Worth Stockyards

Photo by Jeremy Wilburn, via Flickr

Photo by Jeremy Wilburn, via Flickr

The “Enchanted Highway,” North Dakota.

One of the sculptures along the Enchanted Highway. Image by drewweber, via Flickr.

One of the sculptures along the Enchanted Highway. Image by drewweber, via Flickr.

Because sometimes cheesy looks kind of fun: the Gunfighters Wax Museum (Dodge City, KS)

Photo by TravelKS, via Flickr

Photo by TravelKS, via Flickr

It also seems like it might be a fun thing to take a spin through Casey, Illinois, which seems to boast an inordinate number of the “world’s largest,” to wit: wind chime, golf tee, knitting needles, crochet hook, rocking chair, mailbox, and pitchfork.

But this one is my favorite: the UFO Watchtower, in Hooper, CO

Photo by anyjazz65, via Flickr.

Photo by anyjazz65, via Flickr.

 

In Gold Field, Nevada, there’s an art car parking lot:

Photo by what's_the_frequency, via Flickr

Photo by what’s_the_frequency, via Flickr

And finally, closer to home is this: the Billion Gallon Lake, formed in the defunct Bonne Terre mine in south Missouri: (You can scuba dive here, too, and see the mining equipment abandoned there. How cool is that?)

Photo by The_Gut, via Flickr

Photo by The_Gut, via Flickr

So what other beautiful, quirky, or just plain fun places should I add to my list?

I Give My Kids Experiences

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It turns out that physical things don’t buy as much happiness as experiences. It’s experiencing things together that binds us. This makes sense to me. My kids want an Xbox. We’ll let them earn money to buy it themselves, but we’re not buying it ourselves. We don’t have room in our living room for any more crap, and anyway there’s too much useless screen time in our house as it is.

Besides, it may pacify them in the moment they’re actually using it, but if psychology is right, and I think it is, a few years from now they’ll get much more emotional satisfaction out of remembering the cool things we did together.

Like staying at a cool historic hotel (this one, review to come later on Pit Stops For Kids), high on character…

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…with a bowling alley in the basement!

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Or like walking 1.5 miles each way to visit a 2300-foot-long rail-to-trail bridge.

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Or getting this close to a wind turbine…

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…on the way to the wedding of Mom and Dad’s friends:

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…who managed to do the impossible and have AMAZING food (Ecuadorian!) for a whole lot of people at quite possibly the coolest reception venue ever:

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Oh yes, and don’t forget the thoroughbred horse racing we squeezed in between Mass and wedding on Sunday.

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It was a pretty intense weekend. We filled just about every moment, because whenever we tried to settle down at the hotel, the littler boys turned on the “stir crazy” gene.

We have two more travel writing trips this summer. In the preparation stages I almost always go through an introvert’s panic attack feeling of being overwhelmed by the desire to stay home and keep things simple hesitation. But I always take a deep breath and push through, knowing that the experience is worth the effort.

 

Tips For Traveling in the Adirondacks

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Dunkley Falls 1I’ve been hearing about the Adirondacks my whole life. But trying to plan our recent trip by using the Great Google was less than successful, so I thought I’d compile my list of things I wish I had known before we went to visit. Note: we were in the extreme southeastern corner of the park, northwest of Lake George, so I can’t promise that everything below applies to the whole park, but I would guess that much of it does.

1. Although it is bigger than the biggest three national parks put together (at least, so we were told by a local), it is not a national park, it is a state park, and the services and amenities are not as easily available. This includes maps, restrooms, access to water fountains/concessions, and so on. It’s more like an enormous nature preserve, so you have to come prepared with your own water containers and snacks. Because it is remote and not overdeveloped, it is breathtaking and amazingly, beautifully quiet, with soul food around every bend, but you have to come prepared.

Dunkley Falls 22. If you look at the Adirondacks on your Google map, you’ll see patches of white and green. The Adirondacks were preserved by the state long after people had purchased land and established towns within the borders, so all the white is privately owned or incorporated—but it’s still within the park. Look to the towns if you want more touristy things to do. We stumbled upon a wine & cheese event being held by the Upper Hudson Valley Wine Trail, a conglomerate of a dozen or more wineries near I-87. The town of Lake George has a ton of attractions.

Garnet Lake from Lizard Pond trailhead3. Invest in an Adirondacks guide book, because the ability to plan hikes online is negligible. Or, rather, you have to really know what town you’re close to, and then you can find their resources online, but there’s no good clearinghouse site that encompasses everything. I found this frustrating until we got there and realized why this is….

Hadley Mountain view 14. There is NO CELL PHONE SERVICE in most of the Adirondacks. We were told to expect that at the camp where we were staying, but we didn’t realize it applied to the entire area. Close to the towns you’ll have a signal, but you CANNOT plan your day trips and assume that you will have Siri ‘s dulcet tones giving you every turn to get to the trail head, because cell towers have been prohibited in the preserves by the state of New York. Plan ahead. Bring a print guide.

Hadley Mountain view 25. The concept of an “easy” hike in the Adirondacks is quite different from what would be considered “easy” in, say, Rocky Mountain National Park. We took the kids on an “easy” hike in RMNP when the oldest was eight, and it was fine because the trail switched back and forth when the going was too steep. The “easy” hike we took up Hadley Mountain in the Adirondacks, on the other hand, went pretty much straight up the side of the mountain for 1600 feet. In Jazzercise terms, it was like being at or near the top of the curve for fifty minutes, with the total ascent taking an hour and fifteen minutes. The views are worth it, but be prepared.

Hadley Mountain view 36. Sunscreen, Tecnu, Zanfel (or generic equivalent), bug spray. Let me say that again: Sunscreen, Tecnu, Zanfel (or generic equivalent), bug spray. Lots of poison ivy to get into. Some trails are wide and kept open by frequent usage; others, like the Lizard Pond trail we kayaked out to, were much more ruggedly-kept and overgrown. (Which is an attraction all its own—but does require a different kind of preparation.)

7. As I scan this list, it sounds discouraging, so I just want to emphasize that this rugged country is packed full of beauty and is oh so worth visiting. These are just a few things I wish I had known ahead of time so I could have planned better.

Monday I’ll talk about “glamping” (what a horrible word for such a wonderful experience) and share a little about our experience with it.

Travelogue, Day 1: Headed Westward

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We’re not even to the first stop sign in our neighborhood when Nicholas asks, “Are we in Kansas yet?”

For the first twenty miles, Julianna shouts every three minutes, “Hotel pool!” She only stops when the refrain changes to a pathetic, “Toilet! Toilet!” We have to make two bathroom stops in the first two hours, despite having put the kids on the toilet just before starting out. The third stop is at the home of some former neighbors we haven’t seen in five years. The kids play, we chat and snack, then get back on the road.

Colorado Cousins Trip 791 smallFive miles west of Topeka, the terrain changes abruptly, like the flip of a switch. Vast expanses of undeveloped land, sweeping hills, low grass punctuated by low shrubs. Then the switch flips again, and it’s like looking at home: uneven fields of corn and dense woodland. And then the prairies return, stealing my breath with the hazy green beauty.

For the first time I understand what it was that drew people to the frontiers, far from convenience and even safety. There’s a wild loneliness to the landscape that calls hearts overwhelmed by the chaotic buzz of urban life. To someone caged in by buildings and brick and mortar, all that open space looks like freedom.

Colorado Cousins Trip 764West of Salina, where we stop for dinner at IHOP, we see a billboard advertising free land for residential and commercial use. Now that’s revealing. I didn’t think any land was free anymore, anywhere.

Colorado Cousins Trip 770 smallFor twenty-three miles we drive through a wind farm–in one mile on one side of the highway, I count thirty-two. Hundreds of windmills, dwarfing more familiar windmills that sit spinning in the hot wind, even when there’s no farmhouse or barn anywhere to be seen. The terrain is not nearly as dull and unvarying as I remember.

Sat., June 22, 2013: Hays, KS to Estes Park, CO

My day begins, predictably, at 4 a.m. I lie in bed for almost an hour, trying to go back to sleep, but I can’t. Time to do some novel work by the sliver of light between the hotel curtains. We’re so far west in the time zone, it’s still pitch dark at 5:30, and the floodlight right outside the window is all the light I have to work by.

The bigger towns in Kansas seem to be at geographic break points. Leaving Hays, we see the first set of gates used to close the interstate during blizzards. And the terrain abruptly flattens out. But it remains greener and more lush than we expected.

10a.m. Mountain time, ten miles shy of the Colorado border, a crop duster and three semi trucks carrying blades for a wind generator (those things are so much bigger than they look! They made the semi look like a 3/4 size toy), we run out of distraction tools and have to pull out the junk food.

All morning, we have unfair amounts of fun at the expense of the world’s largest prairie dog, which sounds almost silly enough to get off the highway to see. Almost. We want to make it two hours without stopping for a change.

2:40 p.m.: It’s official! First sight of the Rockies! The haze is so thick, perhaps from the Colorado Springs fire, that we can’t see them until they are already looming over the power lines. They emerge from the horizon all at once.

We roll into Estes Park in the nick of time to attend Saturday Mass…but not in time to change clothes. I have never felt so conspicuous in my life. I am not only not dressed for church, I’m still dressed for hot plains weather, in short denim shorts and a tank top, and I spend most of Mass chasing a toddler who is equally inappropriately dressed and has been stuck in a car for two days. I could swear the guy behind us is giving us the evil eye. I take it as a lesson in humility and charity, my word of the year: a reminder that behind every judgment is a story you can’t know. It’s a reminder I desperately need, considering they sing “Colorado on my mind” by Merle Haggard as a Communion meditation–and half the assembly sings.

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The view from our cabin window

After a dinner-and-breakfast grocery run, we arrive at our final destination: a cousins reunion at Overlook Ranch. It is perfectly still here, and the air smells vaguely sweet with the light scent of the ponderosa pines all around us. I know that however late I stay up this week, talking with cousins, I’m going to be up at 5:30 every morning to drink in the stillness. I’m already glad we’re here, even if they are warning us that there is a bear in the area, and it does visit the ranch.

Featured Recipe: Chrissy’s “throw-it-together” dressing for fajita salad:

  • 1 part lime juice, including some pulp
  • 1 part rice vinegar
  • chopped fresh cilantro to taste
  • A “blob” of honey
  • 2 parts olive oil

Whisk together first four ingredients, then add olive oil while whisking. Serve over a salad of greens, roasted  peppers and onions, grilled marinated chicken, black beans, avocado, cheese–whatever sounds good.

In Defense Of Flyover Country

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This weekend, we took a trip to Iowa City. It was the first trip in seven years in which we got to choose our destination. Yes, I can see your reaction right now. You’re thinking, Iowa?  You chose Iowa?

As enlightened and tolerant as we think we are these days, we still view certain destinations as intrinsically better than others. Times Square: the center of everything. Rural Iowa: cornfields, with no culture at all. I won’t even go into the way the Midwest is portrayed in the movies.

I’ve lived my entire life in “flyover country,” and thanks to my grandparents, who took me on long RV vacations when I was a young elementary schooler, I’ve traveled quite a bit too. I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Washington, L.A., Florida. They’re great places to visit, but all you folks on the coasts who think the only things worth seeing in the great interior are the Grand Canyon and the ski slopes of Colorado–it’s time to open your mind.

Iowa, for instance, has its act together. It has five minor league baseball teams, countless professional and semi-professional symphony orchestras, more than two dozen state parks, plus lots of trails, local parks and recreational lakes with summer and winter activities (snowshoeing, cross country skiing, etc.).

We spent three days in Iowa City visiting friends, and for every block of time we had to fill, we had to choose one option from among many. Friday morning we went to Coralville’s Devonian Fossil Gorge:

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Saturday we visited the Iowa Children’s Museum. Our friends apologized for it being small–small, at least, compared to one big-city museum which boasts a carousel inside it so big that you can’t see the whole thing at once. But bigger isn’t necessarily better. It doesn’t take long to cross the line from “great” to “overwhelming for the target population.” This museum kept our kids completely occupied for three hours. Plenty of time.

(Julianna and I even got our faces painted.)

Saturday afternoon while the little ones napped, the older kids went to the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

I’ll grant you there’s something exciting about visiting the big cities, the historic sites and landmark images that permeate the culture. But there’s so much more to the world, and so much of it you can’t get on the coasts. The vast expanse of this country is beautiful and diverse in its geography. Just look at the national park system. It’s so much more than a handful of big-name attractions.

I learned this weekend that digital cameras have twice as many green sensors as they do red or blue. This is because the human eye sees more variations in green than in any other color. As we drove home, I realized anew how truly wired for nature we are. I marveled at the array of green all around me, framed by the brilliant gold of wheat under harvest: thick carpets and rippling waves of fields growing in strips of  pale lime-yellow and primary green, deepening to near-blue beneath the wide shadow of a cloud–to say nothing of the variation in texture and color of the woods beyond. I watched with wonder the puffy cumulus clouds stacked upon each other, tried to guess their height and superimpose cityscapes on them. Why haven’t I ever seen clouds like these swirling around skyscrapers? Are the clouds higher than I think they are, or does something about the buildings disrupt the flow of air and prevent such clouds from forming in a downtown area?

The cities, the coasts are great, and I will enjoy them to the fullest when the time comes to take those stereotypical vacations. But everybody’s been on those trips. Everybody has the same pictures, the same stories, the same experiences. I’m going to go looking for places to enjoy in flyover country. Because this is where the untold story is.

Your turn: I know a lot of my readers also live in Flyover Country. What should we all be going to visit, see or experience?