Whither The Family Driving Trip?

We’re just about at the time of year when American families normally would pile into their Family Truckster, hit the open road, and head west, or east, or south, or north for their magical summer family driving vacation. But in Ohio, and elsewhere, gas prices are continuing to climb–raising the question of whether, this year, the Griswold clans throughout the country will be forced to conclude that they just cannot afford those hours in the car.

According to the AAA, the average price for a regular gallon of gas in Ohio is $4.464 (and $5.125 for a gallon of premium). That compares to $3.764 for a gallon of regular a month ago, and $2.887 a year ago. And dire predictions about what lies ahead suggest that in a few months $4.46 for a gallon of unleaded regular may seem like a bargain. CBS News is reporting that commodities analyst Natasha Kaneva, with JPMorgan, predicts we may see a “cruel summer” in which gas prices top $6 a gallon for regular by August. Her research note published earlier this week explains: “With expectations of strong driving demand — traditionally, the U.S. summer driving season starts on Memorial Day, which lands this year on May 30, and lasts until Labor Day in early September — U.S. retail price could surge another 37% by August to a $6.20/gallon national average.”

That’s the kind of news that makes me glad I walk to work. But the fuel price increases also make you wonder whether many families will be able to afford the classic American driving trip this year. The CBS News article reports that the average American family now pays about $4,800 a year for gas, which is a 70 percent increase from a year ago. How many household budgets can accommodate another 37 percent jump in gas prices, at the same time that costs for food and other staples also are climbing?

At some point that driving trip just becomes unaffordable, and a stay-at-home summer is the only realistic option. That means some American families will miss out on the kids poking and prodding each other in the back seat as the long freeway hours roll by, paying visits to roadside hotels, and seeing cheesy “attractions” like the Corn Palace or Wall Drug. That’s too bad, because it means they will be missing out on a classic American experience and a chance to savor the freedom to roam and see different parts of the country at ground level. As the Griswold clan can attest, those traditional family driving trips can be the stuff of which lasting memories are made.

Sand Dollars

The basic Belizean unit of currency is called a “dollar,” but the $20 bill has a nice picture of a younger Queen Elizabeth on it, rather than Andy Jackson.  And if that’s not jarring enough, the dollar coin is a weighty hexagon — also with the Queen’s visage.  It would be a cool ball marker on the golf course, but it doesn’t seem like real money, does it?

After a while, you really don’t care.  It’s beach money.  Call it sand dollars.  You’re not taking it back to the states with you, and then trying to exchange it at some midwestern bank branch with a befuddled clerk trying to figure out the “exchange rate.”  If you brought it back, it would just end up in that box with the weird change in it, right?  So spend it while you can.  On your last day of Vay-Kay, head down the beach to that nice bar where the beer was especially cold, and give the barkeep and the cook an especially generous tip.  They deserve it!

The goal, ultimately, is to spend every paper and metal scrap of vacation currency before the departure plane leaves the runway.

Rockywold Deephaven Family Camp

IMG_2658Kish’s and my road trip last week was one of the most enjoyable vacations we’ve ever had, and part of the reason was our two-day visit to the Rockywold Deephaven Family Camp near Holderness, New Hampshire.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get away from the hurly burly of the modern world for a while, reconnect with their family, and relax.

I’m not going to try to describe the camp, its history, or its activities, you can find that information at the RDC website.  Instead, I just want to list a few reasons why I think this place is special.

First, Squam Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen, anywhere.  Remarkably clear water, physically beautiful, perfect for sailing, canoeing, kayaking, or using the motorboat for a tube run.  We used it mostly for swimming and floating and basking in the warm sunshine.  Even better, it is absolutely, perfectly, breathtakingly quiet in the morning.

The view from Bungalow bench

The view from the bench in front of our cabin, Bungalow

Second, you have lots of lodging choices.  We were going to stay in a communal lodge, where guests share common areas, but there had been a cancellation and we got a small cottage instead.  Ours was a one-bedroom enclave called Bungalow, and the cabin options — all of which have their own names — run the gamut from one bedroom to cabins large enough to accommodate multiple generations of a family.  Our cabin had a porch that faced the water, a bench that was right on the shoreline with a great view, and its own little dock where we did our swimming.  It was ideal for us.

Third, there’s not a lot of clutter with modern amenities.  Don’t worry, there are plugs so you can recharge every one of your 50 electrical devices, and we had good cell phone and wireless coverage in our cabin, so you can still get your technology fix.  But there was no TV, no refrigerator, no stereo or radio in our cabin — which encouraged you to get off your duff, walk the grounds, breathe deep the fresh air, hike, swim, fish, read, or join in one of the communal activities, and otherwise avoid the insipid cat videos and internet mindlessness that otherwise fill so much of our lives.

The Deephaven bell tower

The Deephaven bell tower

Fourth, there was an interesting tradition and dynamic at the camp.  Many of the guests when we were visiting had been coming there for years, if not generations, and the RDC encourages that by using a kind of seniority system to assign cabins and tables at the dining hall.  And because there is some separation between the Rockywold and Deephaven parts, which have different dining halls for example, the old pros have formed strong allegiances to their respective sides.  Our cabin was in the Deephaven section, and when we got to talking to other Deepers at a picnic lunch it was clear that they would never consider the prospect of ever staying on the Rockywold side.  Horrors!

Finally, the dining was all done in a communal dining hall.  Meals were served at set times and announced by a bell ringing at the bell tower.  The food was good, and plentiful, and served buffet style, and every family sits at its own assigned table.  It was a pleasure to see parents, kids, and grandparents as they ate their meals together.  There were other communal activities, too — a chance to make tie-dyed shirts, a picnic, a family movie (Frozen, of course), a talent show where little kids were the stars for a night, boat cruises, an ultimate Frisbee match — and all of them seemed to involve kids, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  I’d wager that the families that spend a week at the RDC grow stronger and closer in the process, which is probably why they come back.

The Rockywold Deephaven Camp has been around since 1897.  It probably hasn’t changed much, while the world around it has changed a lot.  It’s part of the reason why it’s such a great place.  I wish we had known about it when Richard and Russell were kids.

The Deephaven dining hall

The Deephaven dining hall

Emerging From The TV-Free Zone

When Kish and I arrived from from our trip yesterday, we had gone eight full days without watching a minute of TV.  Last night we broke the string by checking out the end of the PGA tournament.

IMG_2667For the first few days of our trip, there was no real TV option to be had.  Our room at the bed and breakfast in Tamworth, New Hampshire didn’t have a TV set, and there wasn’t a TV to be found anywhere on the premises of the Rockywold-Deephaven Family Camp (which is, I think, part of the whole idea of that great facility).  We didn’t feel deprived in either place because our days were filled with walking, swimming, reading, and visiting places we wanted to see.  In fact, not having a TV was kind of liberating — there was one less choice to be made.

The same was true at our stops in the Berkshires and at the Chautauqua Institution grounds, except that I think our rooms in those two places may well have had TVs.  We didn’t really notice because in both places we had lots to do, with more strolling past new places, visiting the spectacular Mass MoCA Museum, and watching Shakespeare and a fine concert and ballet performance.  After days filled with such activities, watching some limp TV show would have been a kind of comedown.

I’ve often thought that TV is a kind of reflexive gap filler; you’ve got a few hours to kill before you go to bed, and watching TV helps to pass that time.  It’s not that TV is an evil force, it’s just that it’s an easy default option — and a mindless one.  Our vacation showed it doesn’t have to be that way.

Lake Squam

We’ve moved a few miles south, to the Rockywold-Deephaven Family Camp in Holderness, New Hampshire. We’ve got our own little cabin, with its own dock stretching out into the beautiful, crystal clear water of Lake Squam.

The picture above really doesn’t do justice to this lovely, peaceful place.

Those Soul-Deadening Travel Delays

The flight from Columbus to Dulles left on time and arrived early.  It left me plenty of time to take the train over to C Concourse to catch my connecting flight.  I wanted to get an early start on my holiday, and specifically picked early flights so as to avoid any travel snags, so all was working according to plan.

IMG_4248The screen at the gate showed an on-time departure.  Sitting in C Concourse, I heard the United Airlines rep explain that we would be boarding in groups.  And, then, with no warning or explanation, disaster struck.  The flight, which was supposed to leave at 8 a.m., was delayed until 1 p.m. for “aircraft servicing.”  Huh?  How did the need for servicing come up so suddenly, and on an early morning flight?  Wasn’t the need for “servicing” apparent more than 30 minutes before departure?

So now I’m stuck in the Dulles C Concourse, experiencing all of the soul-deadening elements of an aging American airport — lame food selections, cheap naugahyde seats, bad music on the intercom, a couple changing their baby’s diaper two seats over, and an unreconstructed hippie woman strumming a guitar in the waiting area.  I guess I’m just lucky she didn’t say we should all join in for a “singalong thing,” or a number of us would have had to give in to the urging of our inner Bluto from Animal House.

How has Edward Snowden managed to do this for weeks now?  The only good thing about this delay is that it will make the vacation all the sweeter — if I ever get there.

The Waterside Way

We’ve been staying in a bungalow on the shores of the bay outside Blue Hill, Maine.  Our cottage is a bit rustic, but with the beautiful scenery and sound of water and the wind through the trees, you quickly adopt a more forgiving attitude toward the world.

No air-conditioning?  No problem!  Open the windows wide and enjoy the fresh air.  Spiders in the shower?  That’s okay, too — just part of the woodsy charm of this place.  Put your wet clothes outside and let Mother Nature dry them for you, leaving a faint scent of salt behind.  There’s no point in hurrying off to dinner, either, not when you can sit on the porch chairs, your feet up on the railing, and have a pleasant, meandering conversation and drink some wine while you watch the boats slip by.

It didn’t take long for the water to work its magic on the big city attitude.  If only we could bottle the relaxed waterfront approach and take it with us, to dole out when the stresses and pressures of work and normal daily life seem to conspire to make every molehill into a mountain!

Tea Time

One of the many distinctive touches you find at The Greenbrier is tea time.

The tea time concert

Every day at 4 p.m., a pianist sits at the grand piano in the garden room to play a march.  Then, uniformed waiters and waitresses come striding into the main lobby to the  cadence of the music, carrying silver trays groaning with cookies and sweets.  The trays are placed on a large central table in the main lobby, tables with silver canisters of steaming hot tea and iced tea are moved into the room, and the guests descend to enjoy the feast.

In the meantime, the pianist gives a 45-minute concert to all who prefer to take their tea with musical accompaniment.  It is quite pleasant indeed to sit in the beautiful garden room with the pianist, sipping tea and milk, nibbling on an almond cookie, and listening to the strains of Beethoven’s Fur Elise or a medley of Disney movie tunes.

Good vacations are made, I think, of little moments like this, where you do something fun and unusual in a distinctive place and then can recall the moment with pleasure after you return to your ordinary routine.

Returning To A Three-Day Week

Successful vacations take planning, of course.  People spend hours deciding where to go, and how to get there.  One often-overlooked aspect of the planning process, however, is deciding when to return.

There are several crucial considerations at play.  How much work is likely to have piled up in your absence, and how much is due after you return?  When will your boss or most important client be on vacation?  Can you return mid-week?  And should your travel plans contemplate an aggressive schedule, like returning on a flight arriving at midnight the night before a 9 a.m. meeting with the boss or an important client and a day chock-full of immovable deadlines?

Too many people pick the standard, week-long, Saturday-to-following-Sunday vacation without much thought given to their options.  Their no-margin-for error travel plans put them at risk of missing crucial work assignments upon their return or leave them ridiculously stressed as a result of that prospect.  They come back and immediately are plunged neck-deep in work.  By noon on the day of their return, their blood pressure is back at jack-hammer levels and their vacation is a distant, wistful memory that seems like a bad mistake.

I like to take time off around the holidays because, for litigators, the period around the holidays tends to be slower than normal.  This year we decided to return on Monday on a week where Friday is an off-day, leaving — voila! — a three-day work week.  And I can spend that week working at a measured pace, getting ready for the new year and savoring a fine Costa Rican holiday.

Hey, How Was That Vacation?

You are an American who gets two weeks of vacation a year.  You decide, after some consideration, to take a cruise for part of that vacation time.  You’ve seen the commercials that feature attractive, fun-loving singles dancing, drinking, and gambling on a luxury liner that steams serenely through warm, bright blue waters.  That looks pretty good!  Maybe you’ll get a chance to relax, to meet someone and enjoy some high times off the Mexican coast.  A cruise would be a fine way to spend those few, hard-earned vacation days!

The big day comes.  You board the ship, filled with anticipation.  You are ready to cruise, baby!  At first you enjoy the Lido deck, the endless buffets and late-night sundae bar, some gambling, and the drinking games by the pool.

But then, a fire breaks out.  The ship is left powerless and without communication, drifting off the coast of Mexico and rolling sickeningly in the ocean’s swell.  There is no hot food.  Instead of the endless buffet, you are eating Spam and Pop Tarts.  Your cabin is dark and stifling, because the air conditioning isn’t working.  Your toilet, and every other toilet on the ship, is filled, reeking, and inoperable.  You are sweaty and smelly, so foul that you disgust yourself, and your fellow passengers are no different.  The happy-go-lucky, ready-to-party cruisegoers who bounded aboard the ship only days ago are nowhere to be found, and even the brightest cruisewear can’t hide the sullen expressions of the lost souls who aimlessly roam the decks.  The hallways of the ship are filled with barf bags and the decks are redolent of the ripe odor of vomit.  The ship that seemed so bright and big now feels grim and horribly confining.

Finally, though, your ship is rescued and towed to San Diego.  You get off the ship, vowing never to take another cruise.  And then you go back to work, and one of your office friends asks:  “Hey, how was that vacation?”

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part VI)

We left Fargo and drove across Minnesota to our next destination.  When we planned the trip, we asked Richard and Russell what they wanted to see out west.  Mount Rushmore?  Check.  The Crazy Horse Memorial?  Check.  Devil’s Tower?  Ditto.  To my surprise, however, they also expressed an interest in seeing the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota . . . and that was our next destination.

After a few hours driving we approached the Mall of America, took advantage of the ample parking spaces provided, and entered the mall.  I’m not sure what I expected, but when we got inside we found a really big mall,  and that was about it.  Sure, it had an amusement park in the middle, and lots of stores on multiple levels, but it looked and felt like any mall found anywhere in America, just bigger.  There really wasn’t anything to do but shop, which none of us felt like doing.  After looking around for a while we hit the road for Minneapolis.

We had stayed in a few sketchy places on our trip, so we decided to splurge and stay in a nice downtown hotel in Minneapolis.  It was well worth it.  Minneapolis has a vibrant downtown, and we enjoyed walking around for a bit of exploration of another thriving Midwestern city.  We had a good dinner and went to see a movie in a downtown theatre.  The only unusual thing I noticed was that everyone out on the streets seemed to be smoking, which gave the place a significantly different feel than Columbus, where a public smoker is as rare as as an honest Chicago politician.

The next day we drove to Evanston, Illinois, to explore the Northwestern campus where Richard would soon be attending college.  By that time, we were within range of Columbus, and the pull of home had become irresistible.  The next day we got up earlier than normal, drove the final eight hours of our Western Swing, and happily dropped our bags at the old homestead with another family vacation under our belts and some good memories to treasure.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part V)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part IV)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part IV)

The next morning we left Deadwood, drove west, and crossed the state line into Wyoming.  Our initial goal was Devil’s Tower.  It is another iconic location in the American West, made even more so by being featured so prominently in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It is also out in the middle of nowhere, and it takes some time to get there, even driving at “western speeds.”

Richard at Devil's Tower

The long drive to Devil’s Tower is worth it, because the sight of the Tower is so striking.  It sits by itself in the rolling countryside, like a colossal tree stump that has been vertically clawed by a gigantic bear or a landing spot for the chariots of the gods.  It is visible for miles as you approach, looming larger and larger in the windshield.  When you finally reach the base of Devil’s Tower the impact is overwhelming.  The massive, grooved rock overhead, guarded by the rubble of huge stones that have slid off the rockface, has an almost physical presence.

Richard and Russell immediately began scrambling up the rocks surrounding Devil’s Tower, heading up to an area on the monument itself.  There are no fences to keep people away, just a sign that advises that climbers will proceed at their own risk.  No kidding!  Kish and I half expected to see bodies cartwheeling down the rocks after a misstep.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the kids were, I think, exhilarated by their climb.  As they scrabbled up the rocky base of Devil’s Tower, Kish and I explored the surrounding area, which was interesting in itself.  The Tower is sacred to native Americans, some of whom had left little message bundles tied to the trees at the bottom of the Tower.  As the breeze moved through the trees dotted with the colorful bundles, my thoughts turned to what tribal life was like in the shadow of the Tower, long ago.

The view from our seats at the Cody Rodeo

After leaving the Tower and getting back onto the interstate we headed to our farthest western destination, Cody, Wyoming.  The idea was to see a true western town and a true western rodeo.  Cody filled the bill admirably on both counts.  After checking into a somewhat lame hotel just outside of town, we drove back to Cody, walked around the well-preserved downtown area, had dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then drove out to the Cody night rodeo.  What a great scene!  You sit in bleachers, drinking beer and watching some of the best rodeo found anywhere, complete with roping exhibitions, trick riding, bronco busting, calf wresting, and rodeo clowns. The smell of leather, dust, and animal sweat is in the air, the athleticism and skill is extraordinary, and testosterone levels are through the roof.

My sense is that many people drive by Cody, on their way to nearby Yellowstone Park, without giving a second thought to stopping.  In my book they are missing something.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part III)

On the road into the Crazy Horse Memorial

We awoke to a brilliant blue sky and warm temperatures and then, stoked by a hearty breakfast, took a short drive to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is still under construction and has been under construction for years.  We also visited it on the Webner family trip west in the 1960s, and it has made some progress since then, but not as much as you would think in nearly 40 years.  The Crazy Horse Memorial is much larger than Mt. Rushmore, and the kids actually thought it was more memorable than Mt. Rushmore.   Walking around the grounds of the Crazy Horse Memorial, you realize that, in a profound way, it sends its own special message about out country’s treatment of native Americans.  Why should it take decades to complete a monument to native Americans?  (Note to Congress:  if you are going to pass another stimulus package — God forbid! — we could do worse than contribute whatever funds are needed to complete the Crazy Horse Memorial.)

Kish and Richard at Custer National Park

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial it seemed like a good idea to get out into the countryside on a beautiful day and get some exercise.  We therefore visited the nearby Custer National Park, which is an enormous, largely ignored tract set squarely in southwestern South Dakota.  The Park has many different trails, and we selected one at random.  Almost immediately, we came upon an enormous, fly-blown pile of droppings.  At that point, Kish decided to stay back with the car, and the boys and I struck out over the prairie.  The trail wound through woodland and a skittish prairie dog community, past streams and rock faces, and during the entire walk we did not see another human being.

At one point, however, we did see, up ahead on the trail, what appeared to be a very large, very dead animal.  We quickly decided that the better part of valor would be to bypass that area, so we scrambled up a hillside and back down again a safe distance past the remains.  Still later in the walk the trail took us past a solitary, munching buffalo, which also caused us to loop around while keeping a wary eye on the shaggy beast.  When we finally got back to the car we felt like we had gotten a good taste of the real, unadorned West.

Our day ended with dinner and a stay at the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood.  Deadwood, of course, is one of the evocative names of the Old West, and Kish and I were big fans of the excellent HBO series of the same name.  I’m sorry to say that Deadwood was a real disappointment for us.  Sure, you can see where Wild Bill Hickok supposedly was shot, and the Bullock Hotel itself is an interesting bit of Americana.  For the most part, however, Deadwood seems like a sad mass of cheesy gambling establishments and tawdry bars.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation’s End

Well, Kish and I have experienced a bit of temperature shock on our return home.  During our stay in the Bahamas we enjoyed mostly sunny days with temperatures in the 70s.  Here in Columbus it is snowing and the wind chill factor is probably in the single digits.  Morning walks in the Bahamas were barefoot strolls on the warm sands, accented by the coconut smell of suntan lotion and fragrant tropical breezes.  This morning the walk was a slippery, bundled up tromp across crusty snow-covered ground, with snow pellets blowing against every inch of exposed skin.

Vacations always seem to end abruptly, but this is ridiculous.

Vacation Time: Waterfront Bars

What is it about waterfront establishments that are so conducive to a pleasant drinking experience?

A view from the deck at Banana Bay

Beers rarely taste so good as they do when you are sitting at a picnic table, gazing out at the surf from under palm trees and a thatched roof, and eating a hot conch fritter.  There are two good waterfront venues within walking distance of the Pisciottas’ home, and we’ve taken advantage of both of them on this trip.

To the left, about a 15-minute walk away, is Banana Bay.  It has a big covered deck with picnic tables that looks out over the broad sweep of Banana Bay and a sand spit that stretches far out into the ocean at low tide.

Chuck at the entrance to the Sand Bar

To the right, past Club Fortuna, is the Sand Bar.  It is a smaller establishment with a narrow entrance off the beach, two outside decks with good views of the beach and ocean, and a dim interior bar with a sand-covered floor and a collection of local characters.

Banana Bay is more of a lunch restaurant with a drink menu, whereas the Sand Bar is more of a bar with a few food choices. They are both good options for a cold beer on a hot day.