Family · Life · My Local World · Nonsense · travel

The Camping Trip

For our 29th anniversary weekend, Gary and I went camping. We have only camped once before in our entire marriage, and that was years ago in my parents’ travel trailer with an eighteen month-old toddler. This time, I wanted to sleep in a tent, in a sleeping bag, and cook on a camp stove. I wanted to really get out there with nature. So we did.

Being a planner, I researched what gear we absolutely needed, what we already had, and what we could get by without. I researched where we should go as newbies. It needed to be somewhere far enough from home that we wouldn’t be tempted to pack it in early, but close enough that we could if circumstances became dire. We settled on Cheaha State Park which is about an hour and a half from home, and has beautiful lodges and campgrounds built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. It is at the lower end of the Appalachian Mountains and the park surrounds the highest point in Alabama, Cheaha Mountain at 2,413 ft.

Let me say, that NO map provided of the park and the campgrounds is accurate. I picked a campsite in what they call the “Lower Campground” because it seemed a little more remote than the tent sites up on the top, and also was more shaded and better fit my idea of getting out with nature. It was the correct choice, but only because we were stupid lucky. What looks on the map like one continuous campground with a lake and a bathhouse and several nice amenities is actually two campgrounds separated by a paved road that has a pretty good amount of traffic during the day. And of more significance is the fact that the bathhouse and lake are located inside the State Park (behind a gate where you must buy a pass) and our campsite was located outside the park. So popping over to the bathhouse with the actual flushing toilets was not an option. More on the toilet facilities at our campground in a minute.

Everything I read about camping for beginners said don’t try to set up your brand new tent in the dark, so of course we did exactly that. It really wasn’t that hard. Our tent is a simple Kelty 4 person dome, and it went right up easily. We got our campsite set up, sprayed ourselves with insect repellent, and then it became obvious that we were going to have to visit what was preciously described on the campground map as the “modern outhouse.”

Now, I am no delicate flower who has never used an outhouse before. I grew up in the country. My elementary school had an outhouse for the first two years I attended. The algorithm for using an outhouse is not something you forget:

It is: T(P-B)<t(Sa-Sb)

The T (time) you can P minus B (where B= breathing) must be less than the t (time) S can travel from a to b (where S=spider, a=anywhere and b=your body.

It’s science.

Also, in this particular “modern outhouse” the girl potty and the boy potty are right next to each other (as in the same space) so it provides a unique bonding experience for couples who might be in somewhat of a rut about these things after 29 years of marriage.

After that adventure, we relaxed in our camp chairs and munched on snacks of M&Ms and Wheat Thins and watched other arrivals until bedtime. That is how we realized that we had really lucked out in our choice of campsite. Although we could see the paved road, it was far enough away that the noise was minimal. Best of all, our site was sheltered from the others by a hill, so that we could only see one other site. We were secluded from other campers, and this turned out to be a good thing. By morning, the campground was full of tents and trucks and kids. But we were secluded from all of them. Not that we are anti-social, but this was camping. I wanted to be out where it was dark and naturey.

Except for the fact that it was Alabama hot, we slept pretty well. All the websites were correct that a good inflatable mattress made for camping is a must. Ours has a battery operated inflater, and it worked great. We slept on our sleeping bags rather than in them, and a little battery operated fan hanging in the tent made it tolerable. We folded back the rain fly so it just provided a little privacy on one side and left the rest of the tent uncovered. We could see the stars through the trees. It was wonderful.

The next morning, we made sausage and eggs on the camp stove, and then set off on hiking adventures.

Cheaha Mountain is rocky. Like, I can’t begin to tell you how rocky. The trails are well-kept and well blazed, but you really have to pay attention to where you are putting your feet. I always hike in boots, because they make me feel more secure. I was certainly glad I had brought them, even though we did not hike any significant distances. I wished for my hiking poles, which I didn’t bring. Gary and the boys make fun of me for using them, but I like them, and I don’t care if they make me look elderly.

First we hiked out to Bald Rock. It’s a short, easy hike out to a high overlook. there is even an accessible boardwalk if you choose to go that way. We took the ground trail, and it was nice. The view is incredible. The drop-off is perilous and there is no railing, so the folks with kids were nervous. I don’t like heights, but this one did not bother me, because no one was getting too close to the edge. The danger was obvious, and people had a death grip on their kids.

We walked back on the boardwalk, which is elevated ten or twelve feet above the ground, and gives a different perspective. There are seating areas along the way, and the whole thing is sturdy and nicely maintained. Best news: there are actual flushing bathrooms at the parking area to Bald Rock!

We went back to the campsite and made some lunch. Hot dogs cooked outside are really delicious.

After lunch, we set out for a hike to the other high overlook in the park, Pulpit Rock. this hike was shorter, but significantly more difficult. There is a steep descent at the beginning, which means a steep ascent when you come back. Saying this trail is rocky doesn’t even begin to cover it. You are often just stepping rock to rock. It was dry the day we were there, so not slippery, but still requires constant attention to where you are placing your feet. There were not nearly as many people on the trail as the one to Bald Rock. We passed maybe three groups each direction.

Pulpit Rock is spectacular. It is a huge boulder, seemingly balanced on another, with a large part of it just hanging out in space. I didn’t go out on it. Duh. There were, of course, two young males sitting out on the edge, being cool. I heard their friend, standing back on solid rock behind them, say, “Y’all my anxiety is up there with those clouds right now!”

Amen, brother.

DSC01056 - Copy
Do I look nervous?

We made the hike back to the trail head, including the killer steep part, and decided we were ready to go back to the campsite and chill. We stopped by the little store and grabbed some more water and ice and a bundle of firewood, and spent the late afternoon hanging out, dozing and snacking and watching some sort of emergency over by the lake that involved ambulances and sheriffs and a LifeFlight helicopter. We never did find out what happened.

As dusk approached, I made our dinner (foil pouches with chicken, peppers, onion and potatoes) and Gary started a campfire. It was 80 degrees, but it is not camping without a campfire.

And you know what? Men love sports, and they love cars, but they really, really love fire. A campfire can entertain a man better than a 60 inch Hi-def color TV. We had a good evening, me with my wine in a coffee cup and Gary with his fire.

On Sunday morning, we slept until it was light, which we never do at home. The lack of showers and the heat combined to make us sort of offensive, so we decided to pack up and head home. We were missing our cat, too.

We broke camp like pros, packed up the car, left no trace, and headed down the mountain. The GPS thought we needed to see more nature on the way home, so it sent us along super-uninhabited back roads that were barely paved.

Really, GPS?

We saw a car, empty, parked on the side of the one-lane road. Gary said, “What do you think that’s about?” I said, “Well, disposing of a body, obviously.” I mean, you know you are FAR off the beaten path when your GPS looks like this:

No roads, just trees.

Eventually, we reached something like civilization, and the little town of Munford, which sits beside I-20, familiar territory.

We got home by midday, enjoyed the comforts of air conditioning, refrigeration and running water, apologized profusely to the cat for our absence, and napped.

The verdict on camping? I liked it. I want to go again.


The Total Newb’s Hot Take on NYC***

Four days. Three total newbies in Manhattan. Here’s some of what we learned.

  • DO spring for a cab for the trip to and from the airport. LaGuardia is a very nice airport, but only an expert could get you there. It is surrounded by a morass of construction and barricades and one-way narrow ramps and not that much helpful  signage. I feel bad for the people who are there when the Rapture happens. They will be left behind because Jesus will not be able to find them. I was told it would cost about $40 for the ride into Midtown, and it was just about that, with moderate traffic.
  • DON’T be disturbed by all the horn blowing. They’re not mad, it’s just something they do, like geese honking as they fly from one lake to another. “Here I come! ::HONK:: This is my space! ::HONK:: Don’t come in it! ::HONK::”
  • DO walk, as much as you can. It’s free, and you get the hang of getting around so much more quickly. I took one pair of shoes; dark colored, supportive walking shoes. I wore them everywhere, even to the theater, and no one cared, and my feet felt great. There is definitely an etiquette to walking in Manhattan. Don’t make sudden stops, don’t walk three abreast, don’t weave around. Be alert at pedestrian crossings. Watch the locals. They are super efficient at getting around without being hit by cars.
  • DON’T eat McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Subway. I think that needs no elaboration. McDonald’s is for emergency bathroom stops. More on that later.
  • DO use Google and Google Maps, plus your own reconnaissance while you are walking around to find local places to eat that have character, and food you like at the right price. The choices are endless. Food is expensive, but it is part of the experience and you can save money by grabbing lunch at a pizza counter. They are everywhere, and the pizza is delicious.  As for the ubiquitous food carts that serve hot dogs and pretzels and various meats on sticks – we didn’t, but I would not judge if you like that sort of thing. People obviously eat it and don’t die.
  • DON’T spend too much time in Times Square. Of course, you need to see it, but it is super touristy, super crowded, and over-stimulating. It was also the only place we ran into pushy panhandlers. There are guys who approach, loudly asking for “donations for the homeless.” Ignore. If you want to help someone in need, there are actual homeless men sitting huddled against walls on some of the side streets. Also, don’t accept anything that someone thrusts at you, even from the sweet little Buddhist monks. They expect money.
  • DO go up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I know some people say it is not worth the wait, but we went on a Thursday afternoon, and there was hardly any line at all. It is a beautiful building, and the views are amazing. It was cold and windy up there – take a jacket.
  • DON’T be intimidated by the Subway. That being said, DO study up a little before you go, and make sure you have a good app on your phone. The app I had was crappy and didn’t work at all, but Ben had a good one. Also, he had spent time in Paris and is used to a big, complicated subway system. We each bought a Metro Card and put about $10 on it a day, and only once ran out of fare before the day was over. The card machines are agents of Satan, but be patient. Also have some cash in small bills because they only give change in coins.
  • DO buy a CityPass online before you go. We bought the one that gave us access to any three attractions, out of a list of about 12. It saves you money, but just as important, lets you bypass the long line to buy tickets. We walked straight in to the 9/11 Museum on a Saturday morning, bypassing a huge line.
  • DON’T try to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on a Saturday afternoon. It is a sea of humanity, plus part of it is taken up by souvenir stands – and we had to pee. This is where McDonald’s comes in. There are few public restrooms in Manhattan. Make sure you can locate a McDonald’s in case of emergency. Their sign says for customers only, but they never threw us out.
  • DO tour the United Nations. Buy tickets online before you go, and make sure you read up on security procedures. This was one of the most interesting things we did. I was so impressed with the knowledge of our lovely, multilingual guide. The artwork and sculptures in the UN are impressive, and the UN Bookstore is well worth a visit. There is a snack area and a public restroom in the building. Our tour was small, but they are equipped to take large school groups, too.  You can get a tour in English, or in several other languages.
  • DON’T expect the bars to have college football on TV. We went to a lovely small restaurant for dinner on Saturday about the time the Alabama game was starting, and asked for a booth in the bar area. They had BOXING on all three TVs. Gary said, “What is wrong with these people?”
  • DO see at least part of Central Park, but also enjoy the smaller parks around the city. Central Park is amazing and lovely, but it is also the outdoor space for millions of people, and a good part of them are there on a nice Saturday. (Also, the Trump Tower is just as tacky as you would expect.) It was a little disconcerting that these places, particularly Central Park, are just like you see them in the movies, except with hoards of people. When Harry and Sally were strolling through Central Park on that fall afternoon, you only saw a few other people. In reality, on a nice fall afternoon, there are throngs.
  • DON’T grieve over the things you don’t have time to see. You can never see it all. Enjoy the things you do see, and especially enjoy the little unexpected treasures you happen upon by accident, like a neighborhood street fair in the South Seaport neighborhood, and a delicious and cheap hot food bar in the Amish Grocery.
  • DO visit the main branch of the New York Public Library . See the lions, and watch the men playing backgammon and chess in the park. Do have your bags open when you go in, because the security lady is TERRIFYING. Once you make it past her, if you aren’t too traumatized, you can go upstairs and wander through the amazing reading rooms. Note that there are areas for gawkers, like us, and areas for the actual library users. Try not to disturb. See how many movie and TV references you can make (Ghostbusters, The Day After Tomorrow, Carrie and Mr. Big’s wedding that didn’t happen.)
  • Also DO spend time in Bryant Park, which is essentially the back yard of the Library. It is lovely. I read that in the 80’s it was referred to as Needle Park because of the crime and drug use that happened there, but there is no trace of that now. If you are interested in historical public spaces, read about Bryant Park. It is old. George Washington’s troops camped there during the Revolutionary War. It was a potter’s field for a time, until the city undertook to exhume and move the remains elsewhere. It was, for many years, surrounded by an iron fence and tall hedges, and was therefore a dangerous area where things could happen unseen. When the park was renovated, it was excavated down to be more nearly at street level, and the fence and hedges were removed. That, combined with movable park furniture that visitors could arrange as they liked, transformed it into a place where people felt safe to gather and spend time.
  • DON’T try to get your picture taken with the Charging Bull and the Fearless Girl in the Financial District. Seriously, there were a million people on that tiny sliver of pavement between two streets. We stood across the street and stared in amazement. You know the Biblical story of Moses coming back with the Ten Commandments and finding the people worshiping a golden calf? I’m just saying.
  • DO see the 9/11 Memorial pools. I was never all that impressed with the design, until I saw it in person. It is really beautiful and moving, and the symbolism is so clear. The names of all those lost in the attack are around the edge, and they aren’t just engraved into the stone, they are pierced through it, so that you can look right through the letters and see the water underneath. The water flows over the edge between hundreds (thousands?) of evenly spaced stone projections that are reminiscent of the outside of the towers. I got the impression of individual lives merging into a great fall of water that travels downward and then flows toward the center, where it falls again, into a place we can’t see. It is moving. We went to see the pools twice. The Museum itself is another post.

There is so much more I could say, but I’ll end here by saying that New York is amazing. I can’t wait to go back. I found New Yorkers to be  nice and polite. They hold doors, they give up their seats on the subway to old folks, and they are very efficient in getting around and very aware of personal space.

I will note that I saw more penises in New York than on any other trip – two – One onstage at the theater, and one in Central Park. The one in Central Park was my fault for choosing to sit on a bench that happened to have a direct sight line into the open door of the very busy men’s restroom. Don’t do that.

***I wrote this post before the attack on citizens that happened in lower Manhattan on Halloween. My heart goes out to the victims and their families, and also to the witnesses and first responders who were forced to face the incomprehensible yesterday. I love you, New York.


Vagabond Shoes

I have never been to New York City.

Can you imagine? My mom went almost every year with her girlfriends, usually in the fall. Over the years they saw a ton of shows, and all the museums, and stood on top of the WTC about a year before the towers came down. She loved New York.

So, in a very uncharacteristic moment of impulsiveness, I booked a trip for the fam. Just a four-day long weekend. Ben wants to tour the UN, I want to see one museum, Gary wants to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We’ll see a show on Friday night. We’ll ride the Staten Island Ferry. We’ll go to the top of something, maybe the Rock, or the Empire State Building.

This will be our First-timers Trip: touristy, but not too touristy. We have to do it without Will, because he has plans and can’t really take off work. He’s our Yelp! Manager, and we will miss him. He has a very good record of picking places to eat that are good and local. Ben is going to have to pick up the slack there.

I have my usual travel anxiety/excitement (anxitement? exciety?). I’m obsessing over shoes, weather preparedness, and camera choice. I’m aiming to cut the amount of unnecessary shit I pack by half.

I’m a little scared of pissing off New Yorkers. Gary lives for breaking “the rules” and I’m afraid New Yorkers won’t put up with his shenanigans.

I would love to hear advice from folks who have been to New York. What is the one thing you wish you had known/done/not done your first time there?

Beach · Family · Inspiration · Memories · travel


I have spent the last few days slathered in sunscreen, dozing under an umbrella with this as my view and soundtrack.

Gulf of Mexico, Aug 2017

For 25 years, one week each summer, we have gone to the same beach, eaten at the same restaurants, shopped at the same grocery store, enjoyed the same delicious seafood. It is truly a relaxing vacation. We read, we nap, we walk, we cook if we feel like it. And when it is over, we come back home, more calm and more tan, and ready to fit ourselves back into our “real” lives and responsibilities.

Memories · travel

I rode in a helicopter

DSC01035In Alaska. Over mountains and lakes and snow and many a rocky precipice until we landed on a massive glacier.

I have a fear of heights, but I love mountains. I know I should have a little fear of flying, because that is very high, but I don’t. During the safety briefing before we boarded the helicopter, there were many instructions about how to walk out on the helipad: stay between the yellow lines, stay with your guide, if your hat blows off DO NOT run after it. Don’t deviate from the instructions, and load in the order the guide tells you. It was all about not getting chopped up by the rotors, which I was definitely pro that.

But, instructions about what to do in case something happens to those (very flimsy) rotors that are holding us up in the air and we start to go down? Not so much. In fact, nothing. Because, I realize now, what would be the point? If you fall out of the sky onto a mountain in a thing roughly the size of a Volkswagen, emergency exits and flotation devices are not really going to figure in. But I didn’t think about any of that at all while we were flying. I think my whole thought process during the 30 minute flight over the mountains consisted of, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh. Wowwwwwwwww. Ohhhhhhhhh.”

I’ve seen movies and National Geographic specials about the glaciers, but to fly over one is stunning. There is no sense of scale because there are no roads or buildings to compare. You just know it’s huge. It is blindingly white because new snow was still falling regularly in late May, and the mountain peaks threw dark blue shadows across the vast whiteness.

As we continued up the glacier (it was the Mendenhall, not far from Juneau), we spotted a faint grid of black dots on the snow far up ahead. It had to be manmade, and as we got closer, we realized it was the dog camp where we were going to learn about dog sledding and meet the dogs and finally ride a dogsled. Each tiny dot was a doghouse. There were probably 200 of them, flat-topped, and on many of them, the occupant was happily standing or sitting on top, barking and howling as if welcoming us.

Our guide explained to us that sled dogs are not the blue-eyed Huskies that you see on commercials that are bred for their beauty. These dogs are small, strong and amazingly eager to do one thing, and that is pull the sled. They don’t mind the cold. In fact, the May weather was a little warm for them. They prefer the frigid air, and hard-packed, icy snow. Running is what they do, and they each burn more calories on a race day than an adult male human.

The two lead dogs of our team were veterans of the Iditarod. This team runs only for one particular “musher,” and they respond to his voice. It was amazing to watch them watch him, waiting for his voice signals. They pulled like their lives depended on it. There was joy in every muscle in their bodies.

When we stopped and got off the sled, we went up and petted each dog, telling them they did a good job, and they just about wiggled out of their skins with delight. We got kisses. When we boarded the sled again, they were ready to go, jumping up and down with excitement.

Back at the camp, we thanked the dogs and our musher for the ride and went over to visit the puppy pen. A mom dog had a litter of 9 day old pups and we got to hold them! Incredibly adorable! They fit in our two hands and their eyes weren’t open yet. It is so hard to believe that those little guys will grow up to be strong, eager sled dogs like the ones that pulled us.

After a while, the helicopters returned; three tiny red dots against the blue sky. They landed one by one, a careful and precise distance apart. The dogs howled their good-byes and we boarded to fly back to the heliport. The trip back seemed way too short. I couldn’t look hard enough at everything – the vast glacier, the moraines of ground up stone and dirt pushed up by the pressure of the slowly moving ice, the sharp mountaintops, the light and shadows. I knew I probably would not see these things again, and that this incredible place is undoubtedly thawing away, and someday will be gone entirely.

The Mendenhall Glacier. I was so lucky to see it. I am proud that my children saw it. I hope their children see it.