Sunday, September 27, 2009

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 10 - Yellowstone

I'd never been to Yellowstone before, so I was a excited to check it out, even though I'd been warned that it is big and overwhelming and crowded. Even still, the place is beautiful. The ranger at the gate commented that we had the extra-cool park pass that R got and gives us entry into all the national parks in the country. It's good for a year and we most definitely got our money's worth.

Now the rest of Yellowstone was a bit of a blur, because we were racing against time. On our way to our campsite, we wanted to see Old Faithful, because that's what everyone has to see in Yellowstone. In retrospect, we were told that Yellowstone is best appreciated either camping off the trail, which is serious, hardcore camping and something we will work towards, or during winter, when you have to drive snowmobiles to get in.

Whatever be the case, we were going to see Old Faithful first. The drive took us awhile, what else is new, and we got there in late afternoon. Just in time, it turns out, to see Old Faithful go. They give you a rough estimate as to when she'll blow, and it's amazingly accurate. In fact, the tour buses time their arrival accordingly, and just as the time approaches, loads of people start pouring in, mostly elderly tourists from the Midwest and Asians (the Chinese are the new Japanese tourist, just louder).

And of course, while we were waiting, lots of big nasty dark clouds rolled in. With just about ten minutes to go, a freezing rain began to fall with strong winds, and we were freezing in our t-shirt and shorts. Luckily we had rain coats, we were more prepared than some of our compatriots, but even still, we got soaked. At some point, just as we were about to give up for fear of hypothermia, she went, and we were glad we stuck it out. It was cool, though R also wanted to walk around and check out the adjoining area, which had a lot of cool things to see, but it would have been hard while we went into hypothermic shock.

After seeing the geyser, we sought out shelter with the masses under the atrium and then went into the lodge. It's a beautiful place, warm and dry, and we looked into getting a room. We figured there was no way we were going to camp in these stormy and wet conditions, and I was all for having a shower and an internet connection. When we inquired, however, they told us the entire park was booked up. Everything in Yellowstone is run by a private corporation, so Big Brother knows the status of everything.

To get a hotel room, we would have had to have left the park, which meant hours of driving, and then we would have missed out on all the beautiful scenery. We decided to give it some time and walk grab a bite to eat. The cafeteria served this amazing buffalo chili that was awesome, but it's hard to screw up chili. It's like Indian food, enough spices will hide anything.

After dinner, the rain had calmed down a bit, and we went and checked out the grounds. While most people think of Old Faithful, there are hot springs all over the place, and they are really worth checking out. They've built a platform that you walk around, and you can get up close and personal with the springs. It's really cool, like walking on another planet, and there are other geysers that are not as big and reliable, but just as impressive. We saw several of them blow, and we all got huge kick out of it.

We cruised for a couple of hours, and by the end of our wanderings, it was not only dark outside, but cold. On the bright note, the rain had stopped. Now I was all for getting a room, but the downside would have been missing out on our camping and Yellowstone experience, and R was having none of it. It was decided that we would camp, and we headed out to the campgrounds. We weren't even sure if the grounds were full, but went for it anyway.

Just for the record, what made this trip affordable, and thus possible, was that we camped and spared ourselves the expense of hotel room and restaurant meals. You save a lot of dough camping, and the kids prefer it because it's so much fun. Who wouldn't love hot dogs for breakfast?

We arrived at the campgrounds after 9:30PM and set about finding a spot, which actually wasn't hard because it seems there are mostly two types of Yellowstone visitors. Those that stay in hotels, and those in RVs. The actual "sleep on the ground and eat beans" campers are fewer and far in between. We found a site, pitched a tent in the dark, and put the kids to bed. While they were sleeping, I set out to find firewood for the next morning, which proved to be an adventure in and of itself.

Being the short-sighted person I was, I set out looking for the manager's spot, where they usually stock wood and sell it. Of course, I didn't take into account that it was pitch black outside and had to remember how to get back. I just started walking. I got the front office and it was closed, and the wood had been pillaged. Bummer, but the bigger bummer was that I hadn't paid attention and didn't know how to get back. I had a moment of panic and just buckled down. I tried to remember the best I could, but the funny thing is, when it's dark out and you are in a campground, everything looks the same.

It took me about 15 minutes, but I found my way back. R must have been wondering where the heck I'd been, but we were too tired to discuss it. We climbed into our bags and crashed out, looking forward to the next day. One thing fun about campgrounds is seeing your neighbors, so we had something to look forward to the next morning. That, and campfires and hot dogs for breakfast.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Family Rollerblading and the Space Station

We spent a nice day in the big city doing fun family stuff. R has been working furiously to collect data for a big meeting she has coming up, which entails working on some weekends. This is not a problem because it usually means a trip to the big city (Hanover) and dinner out, so it works. Also, we can hit the library, which we love. This time around she had a big chunk of time waiting for an incubation, so we packed up our roller blades and found a big empty parking lot and practiced our skating. It is a lot of fun, and good practice for ice skating come winter. Then again, blading is really nice because you can pretty much go anywhere, whereas with ice skating, you are, for the most part, relegated to going in circles around the rink.

When I lived in NYC, it was my primary mode of transport throughout the city. I used to blade everywhere, and when the weather is nice, you can stop in a cafe and get some refreshments and sit at an outside table. And, of course, there's Central Park. We took our blades to Cape Cod and rode the bike path, but when I needed to replace a part, I learned that rollerblading is no longer en vogue, so you can't find the parts. It's hard to imagine that people would give up rollerblading just because it wasn't trendy anymore, but such is the world we live in.

After blading, we hit the library and got our weekly allotment of books. It was quiet and nice, I'm guessing because people were out enjoying the beautiful day. For whatever reason, they are doing a bunch of programs on the Civil War, which just happens to be a topic we will be covering this year in homeschooling. Nice coincidence.

Also, the children's librarian told us about the space station and how you can see it pass by at night. It is apparently 120 miles above the earth's surface, and as it gets dark, it appears in the sky not unlike a satellite. Say no more.

We had pizza for dinner, then went home in time to see the space station. It was supposed to show around 7:12PM, and we had some time. We got home around 7:00, parked the car and walked across the street to the flower farm and kept our eyes peeled. It was slated to approach from the west, whichever way that was, and we stood in the field and waited. It was cold, and we weren't even sure if the sky was clear enough, but it was N who saw it. He called out and we looked up, and sure enough, we could see the light across the sky.

It was bigger, brighter and clearer than a satellite, if you've ever seen one of those. In fact, it was very clear, and there was no mistaking it for what it was. Kind of cool. Actually, really cool. If you are interested in checking it out, NASA's website that will tell you when it is going to fly over your house. Check it out if it interests you. And be patient, if you do.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to David Kirby and Marcin Rybarczyk for the pics.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Homeschool Update - Extracurriculars and the State

By some miracle, I don't use that term lightly, we have managed to get all our regulatory stuff done for homeschooling in terms of the state. We've submitted next year's curriculum for both A&N, though we have not heard back regarding one of them. We have finished with the assessments for the previous school year. We wave obtained next year's materials for the school year, and we have our extra-curricular activities lined up, which include pottery, horses, dance, tennis, and racquetball. That should keep us busy, but more importantly, keep the state happy. Not an easy thing to do.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Reflections on Travel - Food

Some quick thoughts on eating on the road. It's really hard to eat healthy at home and under the most ideal circumstances, but when you're traveling, it's a huge conundrum. Not only are healthy foods in short supply, but you don't have a refrigerator or a facility to prepare them. When we're at home, we eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, and have fresh fruit smoothies every day, something we missed on the road, but we managed.

Dried fruits like raisins and prunes (my personal favorite) help in the fiber category, and fresh raw veggies during meals worked well, especially with a little ranch dressing. Apples were probably the only fresh fruit option, and a good one, because they have to travel well, and you can't beat them for convenience and value.

There were plenty of chance to buy food in whatever town we visited. There was usually a grocery store, and the small convenience stores carried dried fruit and usually an apple or two. We generally avoided bananas.

Either way, we managed, and ate fairly healthy meals. If we couldn't pull it off because of limited access, we followed the following mantra: if you're going to eat unhealthy foods, don't eat them for two meals in a row, and always follow them up with something healthy. Words to live by.

I will say this-it ain't easy. The world is simply geared towards cheap, processed, and unhealthy foods. They are everywhere, and you cannot escape them, and they make them seductive and tasty. And then people wonder why there's an obesity epidemic. It takes a lot of work to buy and prepare healthy foods, but you do what you gotta do. Otherwise you become the poster child for the Rachel Ray diet.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to Rob Owen-Wahl for the pic.

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 9 cont. - Big Horn

From S. Dakota, we headed north-west towards Yellowstone, though we first stopped in Big Horn National Forest to camp. Being the inexperienced camper that I am, I didn't realize that you can stop in any National Forest or Campground and camp, as long as there is room. It was an educational experience for me, and cool one at that. When we landed in a new state, R would scour the map for campgrounds, and we'd check a few out before deciding on one.

We chose the first one we could find in Big Horn, and you could tell right away that it was different from the National Campgrounds, and much different from the state grounds. First off, it was more remote. You had to drive off the main road for a few miles before you got to the site. This meant it was a more genuine experience. There was no running water, and no flush toilets. And, of course, a greater possibility of running into wildlife in the form of deer, rabbits, coyotes, and bears. I was hoping we wouldn't see the latter.

We chose a spot and set up camp, and it was a really nice location. Beautiful and uncrowded, so much so that at one point I wouldn't have minded a neighbor or two. We were literally the only ones in our section, and that made me a little uneasy. Eventually a guy pulled in a set up nearby, which set my mind at ease, until my neurotic mind began wondering why he was alone and whether or not he was a serial killer. When he registered his space with the manager, it made me more comfortable.

We walked around and gathered firewood and built a fire. It was really cool. We explored the area, played with the fire, and made dinner, which consisted of killer black bean soup and hot dogs. We supplemented with raw veggies and ranch dressing. At one point, the camp manager stopped by to collect our fees. He also sold us some firewood, which I was beginning to learn was quite the racket. Even still, it was nice to have wood, which we would need as it got later because it got really cold. In fact, high 30s was the forecast, and we had packed for summer camping! Luckily, our sleeping bags were designed for it, so we didn't suffer... sort of.

We went to sleep all bundled up, and the owls and coyotes were howling. It was cool and eery at the same time. Before sacking out, we walked to the ridge and watched a lightning storm across the valley, and that was really cool. The lightning was spectacular, and we felt lucky that it wasn't coming down on top of us, though our time was coming. No room for complacency when you're on the road.

Just a quick note, our good friend at work used to work for the National Park Service. He is currently a logger/sugarer in Vermont and just the coolest guy, a devoted family man. Like us, he and his wife opted for part time work so that they could be at home for the kids, though they do not homeschool. Anyway, he told us not to waste our time with places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. He said the National Forests are the way to go, and avoid the National Parks, which would include Yellowstone. I understood what he was saying. National Parks are less developed and thus less spoiled. You get the more genuine experience, if that's what you're looking for.

For the record, Big Horn and The Black Hills were my personal favorite spots, and the highlights of the camping experience.

More on this later.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 9 - Leaving S. Dakota

On our way out of S. Dakota, we stopped at the Prairie Home Museum, just outside of the Black Hills. It has an actual sod house built by a homesteader as well as real representations of what they used in their daily struggles. Again, it's amazing to think about what they went through, and our generation does not have nearly enough appreciation of how hard they struggled in the founding of this country. If people understood the perseverance of our forefathers, we would whine a lot less about our problems and just deal with our lives. They didn't even have trees to build their houses, and had to make them out of dirt bricks that they cut out of the ground (thus the name, sod houses). They barely survived, and many of them didn't make it.

Anyway, it was a really cool educational experience for parents and children alike (BTW, that's an outhouse, but the body you see is a mannequin with his pants around his ankles). Apparently we were in the vicinity of the house of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Little House on the Prairie fame. I was never a big fan growing up because there wasn't enough killing and violence in the stories, but I can appreciate them now that I'm a responsible parent. In fact, A is reading the books right now, though she's more partial to fantasy stories.

From there we took another detour and went to Devil's Rock. It is essentially a huge rock formation in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, which in and of itself is entire state in the middle of nowhere. The name resulted in a misinterpretation of the native language, and it just seems to have stuck. I listened to a couple of guys complaining that it should be called "God's Rock" or "Angel's Rock", instead of using the name of the Devil. I'm guessing it offended their pious sensibilities.

One thing cool about the Rock is that people actually climb the thing. There were dozens of rock climbers there when we got there, though it's crazy to see them near the top. Makes me a little uneasy. We hung out and read up on the Rock, then stopped for some lunch at the local KOA. We didn't like patronizing the cheesy camp grounds, but that's all there was at the time. One thing about KOA's and other really touristy places is they really stick it to you in terms of cost, and you begin to resent it after awhile.

After lunch, we jumped back in the car and headed for Yellowstone, unaware of what was awaiting us. Until then, thanks for reading.

AWOL

I've been busy attending to other issues in life and haven't been able to blog as much as I'd like, and though I regret it, there is so much to do. I still have the Ghana piece to write and cannot contact BS until I have something for him. I know he's fuming at me. In the meantime, I've been trying to crank out paid pieces in order to make some dough, and there's the ever present goal of writing query letters to pitch my story ideas, and the daily grind of being a SAHD, which in addition to cooking every meal and cleaning entails homeschooling and a whole slew of extracurricular activities that consume a huge amount of time. This is aggravated by the fact that we only have one car, and have to factor in time back and forth the take mom into work and then pick her up. Finally, there is all my real-man training with my Mentor, which includes rescuing our lawn, maintaining 14 cords of firewood (and making a year's worth of kindling), and finishing our front deck, which sits idly awaiting our next move, though I'm getting some insight into what I need to do.

Oh yeah, did I mention that we're trying to build a house, as well? My apologies to my Mentor for the snail's pace of things, I'm sure it makes him wonder what the heck is going on. One day we'll get our act together, maybe even today!

Until then, thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tunbridge Fair reprise

Just wanted to mention a funny and neurotic moment I had at the fair, but first a little background.

We had, once again, a bumper crop of cucumbers this year, and I'm never really sure why we plant so many. What exactly are you supposed to do with cucumbers? We decided this year to try pickling them and making relish. It's actually not that hard to make cucumbers, and they come out pretty good. They're good to give away, and R and I like them, though the kids are a bit lukewarm to them.

The relish, however, is hard due to all the chopping. It can take you days. The recipe we have said they used the Pampered Chef chopper, which made it all easier. I figured it was some sort of chopping device, and thought it would help, or some sort of food processor. Anyway, at the fair, they had a big auditorium devoted to real-man equipment. There were all sorts of heavy machines like tractors and snowmobiles and ATVs, some with rifle mounts. However, nestled in a small corner was a booth for Pampered Chef stuff, if you can believe that, and I could see the chopping device.

However, I wasn't about to go over the kitchen utensil stand in the midst of all those real men, so I smiled pleasantly at the woman behind the counter and kept walking right on by. Another lost opportunity, foiled by call to be a real man. Oh well, at least I'll get lots of practice chopping with my knife.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to sanja gjenero for the pic.

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 8 - Touring S. Dakota Pt.1

It was a cold night on our first night in the Black Hills, but the kids slept soundly in their sleeping bags. I, on the other hand, felt cold all night and had a rough time sleeping with the kids tossing and turning. It was close quarters in our tent, as I've mentioned, and they even complained of being too close to one another. We had the two of them sleep in the middle while R and I slept on the edges. Even in lieu of the rough evening, I felt good in the AM, maybe because we went to sleep so early.

I woke up first and went for a walk. The early morning light was beautiful, and the quiet and solitude peaceful. The camp was fairly small, in a somewhat linear pattern, and as I walked around, I noticed that they had firewood for sale, which was the case in most places. This campsite was unique in that it was based on the honor system. You took what you needed and left a donation. Being green to the whole camping thing, I left a couple of bucks for six logs of pine, which seemed to fair to me, but later I realized that most camps really stick it to you and rip you off, especially in places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. I also paid for our campsite, which worked fine in most places, though the bigger, more commercial areas demand money first, which I found kind of lame.

I eagerly built a fire (our first family campfire!), had my coffee and watched as the camp came to life. The campground was pretty full, and it's always fun to see the other campers and get an idea of what kind of equipment the have. Lots of nice tents, and in retrospect, we realized we could use another one, or a bigger one. Though I kind of like all four of us in one tent, the space is limited, and I think we would benefit from having another two-man tent. Besides, at some point, the kids are going to want their own digs.

R got up and made some tea, and slowly A&R rose from their sleeping bags. The chill began to wear off as the sun rose, and before long everyone was up and having breakfast. There was another family staying there, but for the most part, we didn't encounter too many young children. Mostly couples, an impressive number of older ones, though they mostly had campers and traveled in style. I actually met a guy from Florida who spent some time in Vermont. He was heading up to Alaska with his wife, which was a common destination.

After breakfast and an adequate amount of time for the kids to play with the fire, which amounted to burning everything they could get their hands on, we broke down camp and got ready for the next leg. The camp manager stopped by to chat because he saw we had California plates, even though it was a rental car. Turns out he was from Carson, south of where I grew up. Really nice guy, inline with the good vibe we were getting off S. Dakota on the whole.

Once we were in the car, we headed for some caves, but not before getting a good look at more buffalo. There are some famous caves in the area, the biggest of which are Windy Cave and Jewel Cave, both under the jurisdiction of the National Parks. We went to Jewel Cave in the hopes of seeing some cool stalactites or stalagmites, but it turns out there were none. The cave is impressive, with I believe hundreds of miles of tunnels. The ranger who led the tour was a cave lover, and was passionate about every nook and cranny that we saw, while I personally thought it was nice, but not that impressive. Call me a jaded city boy. Don't get me wrong, the caves were cool, and they went on for days, but for the most part, it was just a big, long, cold, dark tunnel. In fact, it is known as a dry tunnel, which explains the lack of formations.

I did learn how the caves were formed. Apparently millions of years ago, waters filled the cracks and crevices of the limestone and gradually eroded the stone to form the caves, so it formed from the inside-out. I thought it was some sort of underground river or something.

We emerged from the cave and set our sights on our next destination: Mount Rushmore. Now everyone knows about the place, but I really didn't know too many people who had actually been there. Somehow S. Dakota just isn't on most people's radar, including mine. Who goes there? Mt. Rushmore wasn't far from where we were, just about a half hour north, and we were there in no time. Like many national monuments, the place is built up and garish, and crazy-busy with people. A constant stream of tourists, which included us. We parked out car and did the long walk to the hills, quizzing the kids about the relevance of the figures. We had a good look, stopped for ice cream, and watched the tourists cruising around.

One thing interesting is that in order to rightfully acknowledge Native American culture, they created the Native Culture equivalent to Mt. Rushmore called Crazy Horse, in honor of several Native American leaders. There were pow-wows and light shows, and all sorts of things to experience to learn about Native culture. In fact, when we first saw it, I thought it was Mt. Rushmore, but not so. We were ready to check it out, but they were charging and arm and a leg to get in, so we passed and headed for Mt. Rushmore. Maybe next time.

One thing I've noticed is that the iconic busload of Japanese tourists had been replaced with busloads of Chinese tourists. You can tell the difference because they tend to be louder, making their presence known. Chinese is a harsher, more discordant language, to boot. They seem to pull in and take over a place, for better or worse. The Japanese tend to be quieter and more discrete.

We got out of there and headed for our next camping destination, the Badlands. We really wanted to check them out (again, I'd never been), though it was really out of the way. We had to head in the opposite direction for about 60 miles, all through barren desert. We did get to pass through Rapid City, which was a huge town and an exact replica of many towns throughout the US, filled with big box stores and restaurants, with the usual Walmart, Target, Applebys, and Denny's. You realize what this country is all about, and once you're there, you could be anywhere in this country. It's all the same.

One thing that was really fun was en route to the Badlands, we saw about a millions signs for a place called Wall Drug. At some point there signs practically every few miles for the place, and they were funny and clever. It made it fun for the kids (and parents) to anticipate the next sign, which was good on a long car trip. The drugstore is apparently one of the biggest in the world, and is famous. The story goes that they were a struggling pharmacy on the interstate that decided to give away free ice water, and from there the place took off. Of course, we had to stop by, and it was a lot of fun. Kind of reminded me of Vegas, like everything in the west, but cooler. I found a hat for my mentor there.

From Wall Drug, we hit the Badlands, and I have to confess, I almost liked it better than the Grand Canyon. Maybe because we hit it at the perfect moment in terms of light (late afternoon), but there's something dramatic and poignant about the place, maybe in the context of what the pioneers must have felt when they first saw it. Their hearts must have sunk. It's so desolate, and yet so beautiful at the same time. I really liked it, and was glad we made the detour to get there.

We found a campsite deep within the park and got a space, actually seeing a couple that we saw in the Black Hills. We chose a spot and pitched the tent. The wind was blowing pretty hard and we began to worry about sleeping, but it died down, eventually. Since it was late, we ate supper in the dark, by flashlight, and fires were not allowed. We couldn't see much around us, so we ate and then went to bed. For whatever reason, even though we hadn't move around much because we were in the car, we were exhausted, and fell asleep quickly, excited about seeing what our campsite looked like.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tunbridge Fair

We did our annual big fair event, the Tunbridge Fair. For whatever reason they call the Tunbridge World's Fair, giving it an air of cosmopolitan importance, but I'm not sure if it's warranted. Either way, though I'm a bit ambivalent about the whole thing, as far as our kids are concerned, there was no question that we were going to attend. The Tunbridge Fair is a lot nicer (and bigger) than the Balloon Fest because it's the real deal, with lots of animals and farmers, as well as local history. A real fair, to say the least, not a venue to just take your money.

Also, they were doing some school programs, and had included homeschoolers. The bonus was that they were letting schools/homeschools in for free. It sounded too good to pass up, though in reality kids get in free and adults are $5, so we weren't exactly saving a fortune.

Our good friends GK&T are from Tunbridge, and GS is kind of like the unofficial mayor of that town, he knows everybody. Kind of cool to hear all the stories. Since T is in school, she was going with her class and we were going to go at the same time and hopefully see them. The problem is, they started the events around 9:00 AM, and there was no way that we were going to get there on time given the fact that we had to take R to work. So we figured we get there a little later and at least catch some of the shows. Then again, we didn't take into account the fact that I was driving.

I got lost, but in my defense, the situation was ripe for confusion. To get to Tunbridge, you can take the 14 along the river until you get to the 110, which you take east to Tunbridge. The thing is, the 110 makes a loop, sort of, and connects with the 132 which also connects with the 14. The 110 direct is the short way, but the 132 connection comes before the 110 connect. Looking at the map, it sort of made sense to take the first turn you come to, which I did. Unfortunately, this is the long way, and is upwards of 3-4 times longer. It's the scenic route, though I couldn't enjoy the view because I was too stressed out over being lost and the amount of time it was taking. What a bummer. The kids must have thought I was crazy. The road just went on forever, and we were literally out in the middle of nowhere, and there were no signs. I need my navigator R there to guide me.

By the time we'd arrived, it was noon and the shows had ended. AND, they were no longer letting school groups in free, so I had to cough up the $5 to get in. No big deal. The next situation that we encountered was that we couldn't get our unlimited ride bracelets until 3:00, so if we wanted to ride the rides, which was pretty much the only thing on the kids' minds, we would have to pay an exorbitant amount for each time, and that was not going to happen. So we had three hours to kill.

The bright side to this is that it forced us to check out all that the fair had to offer, and it really is an interesting event. We went through the animal sections and checked out the cows and pigs and chickens, then we went to the equipment area to see the vendors, who were nice enough to let the kids sit on the plows and snowmobiles. That was good for at least 30 minutes. We walked all through the fair, something we'd never done before, and by the time we were heading over to the food section, we bumped into GS, whom we were going to meet, anyway, so we were in business.

We sat down to a fine meal of corndogs and lemonade, and before long, K&T showed up, so we were ready. It helps to walk through the fair with a guy like GS because not only is he knowledgeable and enthusiastic about all the fair events, but he knows everybody, and the fair is filled with colorful people. It really adds an unique air to the event, and suddenly there is a story to every situation. GS is a student of the world. Since the kids were now together, they had a blast just running around and trying to lose us. There were three adults, so between us we were able to keep an eye on them, but there were times when it wasn't easy.

We checked out the pig races, which were a scream, and then the horse races, and barn animals (BTW, we saw our Cobb Hill friends, who were doing the 4-H thing), and then checked out the various vendors. By the time 3:00 rolled around, we were ready for the rides. We got our bracelets and the kids were gone. Ran into P&J and their kids, and saw a few of our homeschool brethren, but for the most part, and I'm surprised by this, we did not see that many people we knew. Last year we encountered so many of our friends I couldn't believe it, but this year was not as crazy.

The kids went nuts riding all the rides, and because they were together, it meant that I didn't need to buy a pass and join them. Not only did I save money, but they got to enjoy the fair without me sticking my nose in and nagging them. It's always fun to lose the old folks. After several rides, we decided to check out the antique village, which I wished we'd checked out earlier. It was really cool, a throwback to a simpler time, and a potential learning experience. Reminded me of the prairie homestead with real examples of the tools and materials they used 100 years ago, complete with people in character. Of course, the kids got bored with it and ran off to slide down the hill, but a good time was had by all.

When 6:00 rolled around, it was time to go and pick up R. GS mentioned that maybe it was time to get a second car, but don't get me started on that one. We packed up, got some pulled pork from our favorite BBQ vendor, who BTW remembers my name every time. It's amazing, they are like gypsies, making the fair circuit, and yet remember the people they meet. Kind of special, actually. We also had a veggie burrito to offset all the sugar and fat that we'd consumed in copious amounts. For the record, we finally got to try the maple cotton candy, and brought some with us for R.

I set the kids up in the back seat with their dinner and some drinks, and we headed home, this time taking the short way, which was amazingly short. I was kicking myself for being so stupid. We met R at the bookstore and had desert, then went home. A had a bit of a stomachache, I'm guessing from all the rich food, and I was exhausted from a very long day.

But a great day, nonetheless, though next year, I'll know which way to go. Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to Josephine Carino for the pic.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 7 - Historical Perspective

Being homeschoolers and all, we're always looking for an opportunity to learn and impart wisdom, and we've found the interactive approach works best. Besides, learning really shouldn't end when the class bell sounds. This trip represented a good chance to learn about something I was really pretty clueless about: the westward migration. Sure, I knew that people moved to the west and settled this country, but how many people really take the time to think about what they did and what they went through? Does that really come through in a textbook?

On our trip, we purposely set out on the Oregon Trail, at least getting a sense of what the pioneers saw and experienced. Sure, we were in the air conditioned comfort of our rental car, but it was truly eye opening to see where they traveled and read see firsthand what they saw, only over a hundred years ago.

We set out of the traditional starting point for the Westward Migration, Council Bluffs Iowa. From there, we traversed Nebraska and hit Chimney Rock. It was moving to read the stories about the people who passed through there in their own words. Many of them were kids, and I can't even imagine how hard life was for them. Makes me feel ashamed when I whine about being too hot. These people walked two thousand miles to get there, and many of the ones that actually survived were greeted with a barren wasteland for a home. What a bummer.

Chimney Rock was a seminal moment for these people, not unlike the Statue of Liberty, though as I've mentioned, it was also a reminder that the hardest and most dangerous part of the trip was to come-crossing the Rockies.

I think the kids are too young to really appreciate all that happened, but it sure changed my perspective on things.

Anyway, enough of my pontificating. Thanks for reading.

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 7 - Nebraska and South Dakota

Our first night of camping went fairly well, even in lieu of the fact that we had camped out in the wrong area, but no harm, no foul, right? We'd found on this trip was that one of the most enjoyable aspects was the actual camping, so even though we'd miscalculated the timing and ended up driving a great deal, it was the camping part that we all looked forward to, even breaking down camp. We all had our assignments and went about them with eager enthusiasm. The kids really had fun with it, and felt a sense of duty and accomplishment, and rightly so. Plus, it was a great way for all of us to work together and have fun.

It was at this point that my blog had ceased because I no longer had an internet connection, a electrical connection, and an office. Usually I hole up in the bathroom and set up shop, but at this campsite, there were pit toilets, and it was warm, so you didn't want to spend any more time than you had to inside. Take care of business and get out of Dodge.

After camp was done, the kids went to the playground while R cleaned up the breakfast dishes and rolled up assorted sleeping bags and pads. Just wanted to reiterate our contempt for Quaker Oats for not making it clear that "low sugar" oatmeal actually means sugar replaced with Splenda. Also, it was pretty amazing how the four of us piled ourselves and our supplies into a single Toyota Matrix. It's not a huge car, though not a tiny one, either, and we managed nicely, albeit with some creative organizing. During out trip, we hadn't seen a single four-person group that had anything less than a minivan or a station wagon with a Thule pod, my point being that we were traveling light, and able to trim things down. Do we get points for that?

We then hit the road. We had left Omaha on the main highway and then cut into smaller roads with the goal of reaching one of Nebraska's national forests, which seems oxymoron, but they exist. It turned out to be too far to get to before dark, so we settled for the Victoria Springs State Recreation Area. Apparently in the past it was a destination for city folks because it has natural mineral springs with healing qualities. While we were there, we saw no evidence of this.
We got back on highway 2 and drove west towards S. Dakota, but not before stopping at the quintessential example of kitschy-Americana, Carhenge. Just for the record, it was a really cool place, and the town that it's in, Alliance, was actually interesting in a funky, artistic way. Carhenge was fun, and we spent some time just checking it out. We found a cool snake skin that had been molted, it was at least two feet long. The kids enjoyed just checking things out, and we could appreciate the surreal quality of the place.

We then went into Alliance to get supplies. We had developed a routine whereby we would pack up our camp, drive to where we needed to get, check out the local flavor, then find a store and get that evening's supper, which usually consisted of something canned (pork and beans was a favorite), some hot dogs, some fruits and veggies (consumed raw with ranch dressing), and water. It worked out well, and gave us a chance to check out the local markets. Also, we'd determined that we simply weren't going to be able to maintain our healthy eating plan. Life on the road comes with it's costs, and fresh fruits and vegetables is not one of them, so you have be creative as well as resigned to some junk. Makes you realize that traveling a lot on business takes a toll on one's health.

After making bologna and mustard sandwiches for the road, we jumped onto the 385 and headed north to South Dakota, with our goal being to make it to the Black Hills before night and camp. I have to confess, driving through Nebraska was a surprise, there's more to the state than I realized, and it played a significant role in the history of this country. The pioneers passed through this way en route to their new lives on the frontier, and as you travel west, the plains become pretty rolling hills and lots of trees. What a pleasant surprise.

With this in mind, we couldn't pass up a homeschool opportunity and headed for Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff, both important icons of the westward migration, though they took us far off course from where we were headed. I'm not sure how much the kids got out of this, though much more than learning it in some book in a classroom, but I found it fascinating to learn what the pioneers went through. Their lives were so incredibly difficult, and the courage and perseverance they displayed in settling the west were so profound that it makes me ashamed of how soft we've become as a society, most notably myself. It inspires me to whine a little less and just bear down and deal with the hardships of life.

Either way, Chimney rock is a typical example of the stunning and dramatic geography that characterizes the west. The rock is a tall column that the pioneers used to guide them towards Oregon. It was a bit of a paradox, however, because as happy as they were to realize they had made it this far, it was also an ominous indicator that the hardest part of the journey was head, crossing the desert and getting over the rocky mountains. It was reason for hope, nonetheless. There is a visitor's center where you can read about the families and what they went through and what their lives were like. We even got to watch a movie, which the kids enjoyed.

We'd spent longer than we'd intended at Chimney Rock, so we had to forsake Scott's Bluff and get to our campsite before dark. Rather than head back to the 385, we cut up the 29 and . We had a great system where I simply focused on the road and maintained a cruising speed of about 85 mph while R directed me. I'm not good a navigation, and R loves looking at maps, so it was a good arrangement.

We entered S. Dakota directly into the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, whatever that means. They give it this official designation, but in reality it's just a big area of grass, thus the name. It's nice that it's unspoiled. The southwest section of S. Dakota is actually very nice, reminiscent of traveling in Colorado along the river, where it's pretty and dramatic. We climbed the Black Hills and at one point I thought I saw a bear. We even backtracked to see if it was true, but whatever it was, it was gone. I had mixed feelings about seeing a bear in an area where we were going to camp. We passed through the town of Hot Springs, which is a good example of the touristy Western towns that you encounter. Everything is geared towards the cowboy lifestyle, and the buildings resemble either Spanish houses or wild west towns. It's kind of fun... sort of.

As we headed into the Black Hills National Forest, we passed through the town of Custer and then headed for our campgrounds in the Wind Cave National Forest, where we saw our first buffalo. There has been a lot of effort to restore their numbers after we decimated them, and it seems to be working. We must have seen hundreds of the just dotting the hills, and they walk around as if they own the place, because they kind of do.

It was getting dark when arrived at the camp, and it was nice. From our experiences, we'd found the National Parks were nice but a little more civilized than the National Forests. I.e., flush toilets and sometimes hot water. For the true camping experience, however, you can't beat the National Forests. I think they get less traffic and more true campers, so they tend to be quieter and cleaner and more natural, even if you have to use pit toilets and keep bears in mind. Either way, our first time in the Black Hills was in a National Park.

One thing that really struck me when we got there was the good vibe. People were so nice, in a genuine "outdoorsy" way, as if we shared a common bond of celebrating the great outdoors with respect and dignity. So, no alcohol or loud music or garish RVs (well, maybe a few). We kind of like that.

We set up camp and were on a slight hill, so we knew were in for a rough night of sleeping, but it was getting late and we were tired, so we went with it. It was too late to go searching for firewood so we went without, but cooking over the stove and hanging out was fun.

The kids had a blast playing with the flashlights and performed a "laser" show. After the dishes were washed, we did our bedtime routine (i.e., brush teeth and floss), and we were out like a light.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Surviving to Parent Another Day

We managed to survive our first go at homeschool teacher evaluations, and in typical fashion I made it out to be way more than it was, and stressed way more than I needed to. Oh well, some things will never change.

Since the dawn of man, or at least the beginning of our homeschool experience, we have been wrestling a bit with the state as to how we're supposed to homeschool. The state has many requirements regarding how we begin and end the school year, and they want to be in the loop. Fair enough, I'm all for the oversight, because not only do I not know what I'm doing, but it's nice to know that someone cares, or at least feigns interest.

The problem we keep running into is that we keep getting it wrong. Chalk it up to my inability to follow instructions, but every time we submit some necessary documentation, I seem to get a letter telling me what a loser I am, which actually is probably not so far from the truth. At least, that's what my mom would tell you. Anyway, it happened when we last submitted our curriculum for the 2009-10 school year, though I think we did better than last year because the changes weren't profound, just a few oversights on my part. Then again, we haven't heard back, so stay tuned for more.

The big problem we encountered last year was when we submitted our end of year portfolio, which was a complete bear of a job. There was so much information and so many documents that we sent a file one inch thick, and we had to omit many of the items. And then the state said we were completely clueless. There were a few weeks of back and forth while we tried to get our acts together, until finally they actually called me at home and told me what to do. They let me slide, but clearly I wasn't getting the point.

The problem I run into is that we do a lot of reading and conversation about many subjects. Some things just can't be quantified on paper. And proof of attendance wasn't enough, they wanted more in-depth documentation, which I could not provide. Anyway, it gave me a stomachache, and in the end, I wasn't sure what to do. So, in typical fashion, I applied the strategy that I always employ under duress - I ignored it and hoped it would go away.

Well, this approach worked until the next school year, and then come Spring, when they say your can begin sending in year end evaluations, I gradually became more and more anxious about the whole thing, until finally I had a conversation with another homeschool parent who said they use a certified teacher who does evaluations. Best of all, we know her.

At that point, it was a no-brainer. I wasn't about to try the whole portfolio thing again, and I figured I had a better chance talking to an evaluator face to face to explain what we'd done. Then again, I didn't know what she was expecting, so I tirelessly put together an outline of what we'd done for the year, complete with examples and documentation.

We met with her yesterday, and it went very well. I think it helped immeasurably that she got to sit down and speak with A, because after a few moments it's obvious that she's on top of her game, and I think this came through loud and clear. And the clincher was that while she was being interviewed, I was able to take the car and have the tires rotated because the shop was right next door.

I am so relieved, this was the big issue haunting me after our trip. Now, I await word from the state about our curriculum (BTW, I submitted N's curriculum, as well, and it passed with flying colors - go figure!). I don't know how it works with the evaluation, my understanding is that SG, the evaluator, will fill out the paperwork and give me two copies, one of which I will keep, the other of which I will send to the state. Fair enough.

In the meantime, we have the Tunbridge Fair to look forward to. It's going to be a madhouse, but in a good way. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Simona Dumitru for the pic.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bike Repair

To be filed under the annals of "Overcoming paralyzing fear." I had some issues with my bike, which I tried my best to ignore in the hopes that it would simply go away, all stemming from a fear of failure if I actually worked up the courage to deal with it. Then again, what's the worst that could have happened? I could have done it wrong and simply taken it into the shop to have it fixed.

I find that a fear of failure, or something I can't quite express, often paralyzes me from taking action and resolving a problem. I find this happens again and again throughout life, and as often as I realize the folly of it all, I still fall prey to it. Why can't I learn from my mistakes?

Because we only have one car (don't get me started on this), we end up riding our bikes a lot. There are many good consequences to this, including the fact that it's fun and we get some exercise, and it's good for the environment. Of course, it has its limitations, especially in light of the weather, but for the most part, it works out fine because we live in a wonderful town that has many things going on locally, and we usually end up seeing our friends close by. This makes riding a bike a great option. AND, the kids really enjoy riding their bikes, though I'd love to get a bike path because the cars make me too nervous.

Anyway, the other day I began to notice that that my bike was riding a little rough, though I attributed it to old age, not unlike what I see in my own body. The bump was getting progressively worse and as hard as I tried to ignore it, it wouldn't go away. Finally, one day R borrowed it and said it was like riding a death machine, so I decided to investigate.

And what a good idea that was, because it turns out that the rough ride was caused by a major rupture that was forming out of the side of my rear tire. The inner tube was literally poking out. I decided not to ride it anymore until the situation was fixed and stored it in the barn until either it magically fixed itself or by some miracle a new bike fell from the sky.

Well, neither happened, and at some point I really needed my bike because I use it to get to the bus stop for work and A&N were endlessly bugging me to play tennis (we ride our bikes to get there). The time had come to act. I had purchased a new tire from Morris Bros. and it was gathering dust and cobwebs in the barn. Now I was going to have to actually do something with it. I hadn't changed a bike tire in years, and the thought of it daunted me, especially since it was the back tire, involved multiple sprockets and the de-railer. Surely I would destroy something while I tried to fix it.

I had to man up to the job, because getting it to the bike shop was a pain, and how hard could it be? Taking off the wheel was easy, it's when you put it back on that the problems occur. But I realized the key was to keep in mind how it went on and take things slowly. And once I got the wheel off, it all started to come back to me.

Getting the tire off was a breeze because the thing was so old that it was like a rubber band. It was putting the new tire on that really challenged me. After a period of wrestling with it, I replaced the tire and inflated it. Of course, in typical fashion, I'd managed to create new problems while trying to amend old ones. The minute I inflated the tire, I could hear a hissing sound that indicated to me that there was a leak in the tube. It wasn't there when I'd started, so clearly I introduced the rupture myself. I had to get that bear of a tire off and then locate the leak, which was easy, it didn't solve my problem. Now I needed a patch repair kit or a new tube, which meant another few days before I could get to the shop. Meanwhile, the kids are waiting, tennis rackets in hand.

Well, as luck would have it, we have an old junker bike in the barn that I'd gotten for free from a neighbor. The thing doesn't really work, but the tires are in good condition. I immediately took one of the tires off, took off the tube, and used that in my book. Sure, it wasn't a perfect fit, but it worked, and in due time we were back in business and ready to hit the courts.

And best of all, I overcame my paralyzing fear and once again did something that I was trying to avoid because I didn't really know what I was doing. Then again, what else is new?

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Apple Picking

T's birthday was a few days back, and in typical fashion, G&K found a wonderful and unique way to celebrate it by spending good friends doing something seasonal and fun and very much in line with the local flavor - we went apple picking. Best of all, they like to stress good times doing things that don't stress presents and gimmicks. Last year we went fishing, and a good time is had by all.

Either way, there was no way we were going to miss out. We had arranged to meet at Riverview Farms in Plainfield and the day was looking a little dicey in terms of weather. Around this time, or should I say pretty much always, the days just can't seem to make up their mind in terms of weather. It was drizzly in the morning, then it looked nice, then the clouds moved in and it was cool. Of course, being the neurotic parent that I am, I packed things for every contingency: sunblock, hats, raincoats, warm coats. It was a little embarrassing, actually.

By the time we got there, the sun had come out and it was even a little warm. Perfect day, actually, for picking apples, and the crowds were out in full force. The kids had a blast and took off through the orchard. Being the aspiring gardener that I am, I can't tell you how impressed I was with the trees. Row upon row of beautiful apple trees, and raspberry and blueberry bushes, to boot. They looked so nice. There were a lot of varieties, and I know that everyone has their preference, but I personally focused on only one - Gala. For my money, the best eating apple there is. Most people seemed intent on the Macintosh or the Empire. I tried both and they were tart, but I know people like that in their apples. Galas are so sweet. I realize I'm in the minority, because not only was there only one row of Galas while there were dozens of rows of the others, but the Gala trees had all their apples still on the branches, at low levels. The other trees were picked clean.

Oh well, my good fortune, because I was able to pick to my heart's content. The kids seemed to focus on the Empires and the Honey Crisp, both of which are beautiful to behold but are pretty much destined for apple crisp. We're not big on apple sauce.

There was a corn maze as well, which the kids eventually converged on, and they had a lot of fun running away from the parents. In fact, they did a great job of avoiding us, though I think a little trail-cutting was involved. At some point I think they were growing weary and I could sense some fatigue in their voices. They just wanted to get out. I followed a safe distance behind them, not to too close to where they could see me, and I could hear every word they said. For the record, I got lost several times and cut between trails, myself.

After picking, we sat down to apple cider and snacks and it was a wonderful day.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to Dawna Capln for the pic.

On Hold

My blog is currently on a temporary hold because now that we are back, we have a few obligations to attend to. First and foremost is our homeschool evaluation. We are to meet with an evaluator who will look over our work for the year and interview A to see how things have been, all in an effort to answer to the state. So begins the process of gathering together all that we've done and then summarizing it for easy perusal. I feel like a college kid cramming for exams, but I don't want to stress to much about it. Do the best you can.

However, because I am dealing with this, I can't seem to find the time to blog, at least until this week is over. We did sort of dodge a bullet on the social front. We were slated for a playdate today and weren't sure how we were going to work out the car situation. Our friend HH asked if we could watch their girls, A&I after school. I enthusiastically agreed because they get along so well with A&N, but it would have involved picking them up after school and bringing them over here to play. The problem, of course, is that R would have the car at work, and it's a busy week for her. She would have had to come home early from work and then we would take the car, which we could have done, but it's a little silly and yet another plug for the concept of getting another car, but I won't get started on that one. I always regret it when I do. Also, it's the day before our big homeschool meeting, which I was going to spend getting all the stuff together.

Anyway, HH contacted us and asked if we could do next Tue instead. Whew, it sure simplified things. Now I can spend the day stressing over our interview and searching/locating all of our school work. Boy, it ain't easy.

We also got a break on the fun front. A has horses on the same day that she was going to take dance, and it was looking like we were going to have to sacrifice one or the other, which is a bummer. It turns out the times were far enough apart to make it work, so we're glad for that.

Sometimes you got to be grateful when life throws you a bone. It's the little things in life that give you your daily dose of sunshine.

Speaking of sunshine, it's raining today... again!

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 6 - First Day Camping

We finally got out of Dodge, or rather Omaha, and it was nice to hit the road, though no matter where you are, a certain amount of inertia inevitably sets in, making any sort of change more challenging. In fact, I was just reading an article about how fear of change is almost stronger than the desire for change, which goes a long way in explaining how many of us, including myself, work so diligently at maintaining circumstances that we loathe. Rather than make a change in our lives for the better, we live in a way we hate because we hate the alternative, which is change. How crazy is that? It's like Frank Sinatra said, "That's life, and as funny as it may seem, some people get their kicks stomping on a dream."

We left Omaha late in the day since we spent about 4 hours at the zoo, all well worth it. In fact, for both kids it was the highlight of the trip. It was kind of funny because we camped all over the Southwest, hitting such notable places as Yosemite, the Black Hills, and the Grand Canyon. When people asked the kids what their favorite parts of the trip were, they always said "Nebraska," which must have come as a surprise. The reason is, we spent a wonderful day at the zoo, so it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, but 3:00, we were on the road and trying to cover as much of the state as possible. We were shooting for a national park in Broken Bow, but we ran out of time and had to opt for a state park along the way. Have to confess, the state parks are not as nice, or maybe it was just a Nebraska thing. Either way, it was dark by the time we got there, and the camp manager was gone. Not really knowing what to do, we drove around looking for a campsite before settling into one near the lake, or should I say, pond?

By the time R got the tent out and set up, it was pretty dark, a pattern that repeated itself throughout our trip, and we didn't have much time. Even still, the kids were having a blast, and we got everything together and made a quick meal of pork and beans and hot dogs in the dark. It was fun, though I wasn't sure where we were, and the place seemed deserted. Kind of strange, even if the summer season was winding down.

We went to bed and slept pretty well considering a few key things. First off, we only got sleeping pads for the kids, so R and I were essentially sleeping on the ground. Not only was it hard, but you lose more body heat when you're in direct contact with the ground. Fortunately it was warm in Nebraska, but this would come back to haunt us in the mountains. Secondly, we were four people sleeping in what was really a 3.5 man tent. Talk about togetherness! We were practically on top of each other, but what else is new? And finally, the kids are restless sleepers, so throughout the night was waking up with one of them on top of.

The funny thing is, even though it was a night of interrupted sleep, I woke up feeling good. In fact, I felt rested and refreshed. Maybe it's just the fresh Nebraska air or the fact that we went to be so early.

Anyway, I began what was my favorite routine, which was to get up first, make coffee, and just hang out and take in the scenery. The place wasn't so bad, all things considered. It reminded me of a suburban campground intended only for day use. In fact, that's pretty much what it was, though it was at one time a hot springs that people came from miles around to see. Not much evidence of this left over, however.

We also found out in the daylight that we were camping in the day use area, and there was a big sign saying not to camp in the picnic area. Oops! Not that anyone cared, or for that matter, was even around. We made oatmeal for breakfast and R mapped out the next phase of the trip. Just a quick note/criticism of Quaker Oats-they sell a lower sugar version of their instant oatmeal, but do not say anywhere except the ingredients that it contains Splenda. Completely lame, and I'm no longer a fan.

After breakfast, we explored the place a bit. There was a family staying in one of the cabins and they were out fishing at the crack of dawn. For my money, however, if you're going to camp, you gotta stay in a tent, not that I have so much experience in the matter. The kids ran over to the playground and I went to check out the pit toilets. As I've mentioned in the past, because it was always close quarters when we traveled, I used to set up my office in the bathroom. It worked out perfectly, so while everyone slept, I could blog. Unfortunately, when you're camping, your bathroom/office options diminish considerably. When it comes to pit toilets, they completely disappear, especially when the weather is warm, as it was that day. This goes a long way in explaining why I couldn't blog while we were camping.

We got our stuff together and hit the road for South Dakota. We did a lot of driving on this trip, perhaps too much in retrospect, but it was necessary to see the things we wanted to see. We'd like to go back and spend less time on the road and more just staying put, but that takes time and money. We'll work on that one.

The drive through Nebraska was more interesting than I'd anticipated. In fact, there's more to the state than most people realize, I'm guessing. And, as I'd learned on our homeschool learning trip, Nebraska was an integral part in the history of this country. The pioneers who settled the west started in Iowa (Council Bluffs) or Missouri (St. Louis) and went through Nebraska or Kansas. And, as you go west, the state definitely becomes more interesting, with rolling hills and trees. Very interesting.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Funny How That Works Department

Isn't it funny no matter how hard you try to hide away from all the stuff you have to deal with in life (by going on vacation, perhaps?), when you get back, you still have to deal with it. For whatever reason, and I'd like to talk to the person responsible for this, but the world continues on whether you are there or not, and when you return to the grind, it awaits you, only this time a bigger and even more demanding.

We've been back for about two days and already I'm feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not only do we have to get back in the swing of things on the domestic front, but I've got loads of homeschool issues to confront. The state is once again letting me know what a loser I am, and next week we have end of year assessments which I have to prepare for. Reminds me of cramming for college exams. I also have to revise our curriculum for A for the 2009-10 year because I've been informed of its shortcomings, which are not insurmountable, but it's just one more thing to deal with.

On top of that, I was planning on baking bread (2 kinds), making a stuffed pumpkin, picking about a million cucumbers from our garden and figuring out what to do with them (can you give pickles for Christmas?), and then mowing the lawn and hauling firewood into the woods. I personally like the outdoor stuff because not only do I like being outdoors, but I can win real-man points with my mentor, not to mention my peers.

I've also got to arrange activities for the next school year to enrich our children so they'll be well rounded individuals. These are coming due now. I keep getting emails about dance and pottery and sports, and for whatever reason, they require my attention. Can't we just show up and have fun? No such luck.

I think I'm testing for my green belt in karate on Monday so I can move one step closer to be a lethal fighting machine.

Finally, I've got to write. I had one assignment that was given to me while I was on vacation, which I managed to finish this morning, but there is another looming on the horizon. For whatever reason, and I still can't find an adequate answer for this, but I volunteered to write a piece for a non-profit that does work in Africa. That was about a month ago, and I'd kind of forgotten about it until the guy emailed me and asked me what the heck I'd been doing all this time. Actually, I'm doing it for free, so he can't complain too much, but I still feel bad.

So how do I deal with all this responsibility? Why, by blogging, of course. What else is there in life? Now if you'll excuse me, I have to give the cats their flea medication, which always evolves into a wrestling match.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to Thomas Norsted for the pic.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 5

The funny thing about camping is that when you're in the middle of a national forest, you're hard pressed to find an internet connection, though I wouldn't put it past anybody. After all, the plane we were on had Wi-Fi, as did the bus we rode home on, the Dartmouth Coach. How do they do that?

With this in mind, I'm going to try to post about our trip retroactively, though I've tried this in the past with mixed results. It was a great trip, and I'm sorry I didn't get to blog about it.

So, here goes. By our second day in Omaha (day 5 of the trip) we were finally feeling a little better, but just barely. We kept plastic bags at the ready in the event of any ill feelings, and took Dramamine to combat motion sickness. We packed up the car, checked out of the hotel, and headed for the Henry Doorland Zoo. We'd learned that it was one of the biggest zoos in the world and had many of the biggest this and thats in the world, like the biggest indoor rainforest and the biggest gorilla thingamajiggy. Whatever be the case, it was a nice zoo, though I tend to find them a little depressing with all those animals behind bars. They don't get much space, by necessity, I understand.

They did have a beautiful aquarium, which was massive, though for my money I'd still go with the Monterrey Aquarium, but it was still beautiful. The kids really enjoyed the penguins, and though it was limited, I'm always partial to the jellyfish. The zoo was actually reasonably priced, though they charge extra for the smaller rides within the park, including the sky chair, or whatever it's called. It's basically a chairlift that rides across the park, and worth the price of a round trip. You get a bird's eye view of the zoo, it's a fun ride, and you get a fabulous look at the rhinos and elephants. I've found in the past that when you look at some of the big animals, they aren't always in full view and you sit there hoping that they'll come out from behind that tree. On the sky chair, you are right above them, and get a great look.

As I mentioned, they have the largest indoor rainforest exhibit in the world, from what our kids told us. It was pretty impressive, and what's interesting is the monkeys are not behind any barriers and can roam the entire grounds. Some of the smaller tamarinds were close enough to touch, though I didn't have the guts to do it. Chalk it up to doing SIV research, but wild animals make me wary. The howler monkeys were impressive, and startled us at first. I'd seen howler monkeys in the wild in Costa Rica, and they still startled me with their howls.

Being cat lovers and all, we had to check out the big cat exhibit, where they have a rare white lion. It was beautiful, as were all the animals. They seem to have an inordinate number of big cats, especially tigers. I counted at least a dozen or so, and they seemed in good health, though again, not to be such a spoil sport, but it seems a drag to be living in such a confined space, especially for an animal that roams over such a large territory. Oh well, I won't belabor the point.

On the final leg of our zoo tour, we were getting pretty tired, but the kids wanted to keep going. In fact, they could have stayed there all day, which highlighted a big miscalculation that we'd made on this trip. We wanted to see a lot of things, but it's a big country, and to do that requires a lot of driving. Consequently, we spent a lot of time in the car, too much, perhaps, though it was a great trip. Next time we'll plan on spending time in one place and less time getting there.

Either way, we were nearing the end. Our last stop was to see the gorillas, which again they have a lot of. They are amazing animals, and some of them come right up and love attention. They seemed really playful, even if they could rip your arms our with no problem. It was endearing, and it made me a little sad, but I won't go there. After the gorillas, it was well past 3:00, and we still needed to find a campsite for the night. We bid farewell to Omaha and headed into the wilds of Nebraska, in search of camping. But that's for another time.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Back For More

Wow, back home at last. It sure does feel good to be home. Traveling, however, does highlight the additional effort it sometimes takes to live in Vermont, because you have to get home, especially when you fly out of Boston. Landing at Logan is just the beginning, and you have to get back up to the Green Mountain State and then home, which adds another few hours to the trip. Factor in the time changes and the fatigue, especially with the kids, and you begin to wonder how you do it.

Our last few days were the most challenging, and maybe that's to be expected. The weather was terrible the entire time that we were in Kansas, which is perhaps telling of our experience there. Not only were we rained out of what little camping there was, but we seemed to drive for hours before finding anything resembling civilization. I remember as we searched for the hotel that the state just didn't seem to want to let go of us, for whatever reason.

When we finally did find a hotel, the next morning I found our tire was flat. I couldn't believe it, my heart sank. In retrospect, it was lucky that it didn't happen out in the middle of nowhere, my worst nightmare realized, or should I say my Rocky Horror moment. The town we were in, Hays, happened to be fairly big, so finding a place to repair the tire was not a problem. Furthermore, we got some good final vibes on our last day there. I went to a gas station and he directed me to the quickest and cheapest place to have it repaired, which I greatly appreciated. I was in and out of there in ten minutes.

The trip home went fairly smoothly, though it seems we're always cutting it close in terms of catching the bus home. We landed around 4:30 and had about twenty minutes to get off the plane, get our luggage, and get to the bus stop. It never seems like enough time, but they are pretty efficient at getting your bags to you ASAP, and we had plenty of time. The bus ride home was fine though we flirted with motion sickness one last time, but it was a false alarm.

The bus ride home is actually nice, it's fun to watch the scenery and I especially like it was we leave the big city and enter into the Vermont/New Hampshire. The view changes considerably as does the mood. By the time the bus stopped, it was well past 8:00, and we had been traveling for at least 12 hours. Then, of course, we had to drive home.

It felt good to be back in Vermont. When you travel around this country, you really are reminded of what a great place this is, if it's your kind of thing. If you love shopping and malls and big box stores with lots of traffic, then it's not for you, though you can always find it nearby. But if beautiful, natural scenery with trees and grass and quiet living surrounded good people is your thing, then I can't think of a better place to be. Again, we feel lucky to be here.

Getting home was great, the cats seemed happy to see us, they snuggled and spent the night asleep in our laps. I'd heard cats begrudge your absence and will let it be known, but they seemed fine, if not a little skittish at first. The kids went right to be and I did what I usually do in the evening, I made something to eat. I think I lost weight on this trip, I usually do when we travel, and I'd like to try to tone down my snacking. When you're away from home you really begin to realize how much food you push into your mouth.

Speaking of food, it really struck me on this trip how much people eat. It's in marked contrast with what you see in Europe, where they tend to eat small, almost inconsequential breakfasts of bread and coffee, followed by a few cigarettes. What we saw at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets made my head spin. So much food being eaten, it's crazy. It's almost as if there is some sort of pathological problem here, but who am I to judge? Live and let live.

Whatever be the case, it's good to be home. Lots to deal with, and I have to touch base with my Mentor to restart my real man training. Somewhere in the near future a front patio with concrete is waiting for me. In the meantime, I'll cut the grass.

Until the next time, thanks for reading, and thanks to iamwahid for the pic.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Final Thoughts on Travel and the Return to Civilization

The question is, how much can you pack into the back of a Toyota Matrix? We have all of our food, our clothes, our firewood and supplies in the back. The picture does not tell the whole story, because it doesn't show the sleeping bags, the tent, and all four of our backpacks. We really crammed it in there, and the car was really weighed down, but I give it two big thumbs up. We managed to fill the back and it performed like a dream. In retrospect, you begin to realize two things when you travel-you don't really need that much stuff, especially camping, and you can get by with less space than you realize. This became readily apparent to us on our travels out west, where you can't spit without hitting an RV. They are everywhere, and while I can appreciate the notion of traveling in comfort, at what point are you just bringing your home along with you?

A theme that began to develop on our trip was traveling light and making due with just the things you need, focusing more on the experience and the time spent together as a family. When you've got four people sleeping in what is barely a four-man tent, it doesn't get any more "together" than that, but there were no regrets. In fact, the time we spent together camping were the best. It was just about working as a team and not stressing over a clean outfit every day or having lots of toys or gadgets. Not bad for our first camping trip, it sets the tone for future endeavors.

Looking around at the other campers, we found we had definitely packed the lightest for a family of four. This makes the trip more economical, as well, because less stuff means less gas and a cheaper vehicle. I'm struck by how much stuff people bring along, but I won't get into it. This also made breaking down camp and hitting the road much more streamlined, and we fell into a comfortable routine where everyone was involved. The kids loved it, and I have to confess, it was a lot of fun.

Now that we are back in civilization, you get a new perspective on the state of our culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a suburban setting like the one that we're in. It's all about shopping and eating, and the marketing just pounds that into your head. Everywhere you go around here, and for that matter, just about everywhere, the message is the same: spend, spend, spend. It's amazing. I have to admit, I feel the seductive pull of their message, they are so good at selling it and make it look so appealing.

I'm glad we live in Vermont, where billboards are banned, and don't watch TV. We'd be doomed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the all-you-can-eat breakfast where the flat screen TV continually broadcasts CNN. What more can you ask for?

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

Heading Home and Scary Movie

Our last day of vacation and we are heading home. We are tired and worn out from the road, but had a wonderful time seeing the west and getting our feet wet family camping. We ended up covering a huge amount of ground, driving nearly 4000 miles, but in the end, it's a big country, and the only way to see it by either having a lot of time or covering lots of ground. We chose the latter.

We are in KC and will fly back to Vermont this morning. We drove straight through Kansas and couldn't seem to catch a break in that state. We had planned on camping the previous night but there are no forests (National or state) to speak of, at least none where we were traveling. We had cut up through Oklahoma and followed the highway north hoping to find a place to pitch out tent, and it was an interesting drive, to say the least. Besides being flat, it was dreary, if not depressing, and of course, flat. For whatever reason, places like Nebraska and Ohio are flat, as well, but not as much of a downer. Kansas was just bleak.

My Mentor said that Kansas is best seen at night, but I would beg to differ, with all due respect, of course. First off, at night you'd miss all those open spaces, and even though it is dreary, there is a surreal quality to the feeling of isolation you have when you're out in the middle of nowhere. We passed through these small towns that seemed to be abandoned, literally no sign of life. They were spaced apart with amazing regularity and all revolved around these massive, and I'm talking huge grain silos, as if the town and its people were just an afterthought. Kind of strange.

Furthermore, we passed by these incredible feedlots that spanned hundreds of acres and held thousands of cows. Makes you realize where all of our beef comes from. Just a quick note-their situation didn't seem as miserable as it is depicted by the media. Sure, there was no grass to speak of, but they were outside and not compacted like sardines. I'm not condoning the process of industrial beef, I'm just pointing out that they didn't appear to be as tortured as I'd imagined them to be.

Finally, driving at night in the Kansas prairie can be downright scary, mainly for the fact that there is nothing for hundreds of miles, and if you broke down, forget about it. You'd be smack in the middle of a horror movie. The setting is perfect, and we got to experience this firsthand. As I had mentioned, we had planned on camping on our penultimate night, but had a difficult time finding good camping. We checked out several places but they were all a little decrepit, and designed for day use. To make matters worse, we were in the midst of a serious thunder storm. The kids really wanted to camp, and who were we to deny them this?

We finally found a spot that was actually nice, though again, the storm made it hard to imagine setting up camp. There was a break in the rain, so we unpacked the food preparation stuff beneath a shelter and figured we'd at least have dinner and play it by ear. R cooked up a feast of hot dogs and pork and beans and we built a fire. By the time the food was ready, a steady rain was falling and lightning was striking all around us, which was kind of cool, actually.

In fact, it was the best view of lightning that I'd ever had, though at times too close for comfort. By the time we'd decided it was time to hit the road in search of a hotel, it was well past 8:00 PM, so we had to get moving. The drive back to the highway was torture because as I mentioned, we were out in the middle of nowhere, and there are no signs or houses or anything other than prairie grass and a random tree now and then. To add to the spooky effect, the lightning would strike with regularity and light up the entire area, just like in a scary movie. It was cool and eerie at the same time. I just kept hoping in the back of my mind that we wouldn't break down, or else live out our own version of Blair Witch Project, or for that matter, Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It seemed like hours before we finally hit the main interstate, and boy was I glad to be out of there and on a major road. We drove to the next big town, Hays, and got a room and went straight to bed. Even though the place was a dump, we were glad to hit the sack. And, they had a pool, which is always a bonus with the kids.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.