Thursday, September 19, 2013

Over the Falls

      To close out the summer, and to fulfill some of my wife's corporate obligations, we packed the SMV one more time and headed north.  A business meeting in Toronto would serve as a final mini-vacation before school started.  My wife would spend a day secured within a conference room while the kids and I wandered the streets of Toronto, exploring Canada.  But first we had to get there.
      Driving to Canada is quite easy, just head north and eventually you will come to a border crossing.  The one we chose was in Niagara Falls, NY and would put us just a few kilometers from Toronto once we paid the toll and cleared the checkpoints.  One would think that a touristy destination such as Niagara Falls would be accustomed to an increased level of traffic.  The Canadian border guard thought otherwise, or maybe he was just having a bad day, but he could somehow not comprehend a family road trip to Canadian Niagara.  A trip without an itinerary, pre-planned and written out, seemed extremely foreign to him, though this was somewhat strange and quite frustrating juxtaposed against the Ripley's and Hard Rock attractions within spitting distance of the guard shack we were stuck in.  After some more witty banter between disgruntled border guard and increasingly frustrated "international" traveler, we were welcomed into Canada.
     The road to Toronto was like any other highway, only measured in kilometers, until we actually arrived in the metropolis.  Then the road transformed into a nightmare of detour and construction and quickly narrowed into a gridlock of streetcars and electric bikes.  This was NYC with cabs being replaced with a never-ending stream of trollies.  Mayor Bloomberg would be in heaven with all the changes he could make, or ban.  Smoking is much healthier in Canada, or so it would seem.  Work stops for lunch, which seems to be most of mid-day.  And a quick snack of a couple of burgers set us back more than $50.  The hotel was nice enough, though the construction followed us to the doorstep and a crane was erected overnight right outside our balcony.  The kids loved visiting the beach along the shore of Lake Ontario and the waterside lunch we had at the European café.  We appeared not so much as tourists as we sat outside, legs crossed, nibbling on crepes and spanakopita and loukoumades, sophisticatedly enjoying the second-hand smoke and lattes.  Our lunch spanned nearly two hours before most of the diners began drifting back to work.  I checked the time and found it nearly time to make our way back to the tall buildings of the city's center, with all the detours and construction easier said than done. 
      We arrived in front of my wife's building just in time for her to hop into the escape vehicle.  The journey to the highway would prove more than an adventure.  The sun was leaving us as we closed in on our home country.  It was decision time, cross the border now as the traffic waned with the day or spend the night sightseeing in Canadian Niagara and fight more traffic tomorrow.  We all voted to dash back to America while the getting was good.  The U.S. side of the border was far less glamorous and the hotels should be ashamed of themselves compared to the spectacle across the river.  In the cool night air we enjoyed strolling around the national park and gaping at a miniature version of Las Vegas, replete with glaring neon casinos and a ferris wheel,  glowing in the darkness just a bridge away.  The falls at night from either side is a sight to see and they are illuminated for a few hours to add to the attraction.
        The following morning we stepped out onto the park's observation deck to take in the glory of the falls in the daylight.  A quick elevator ride down into the gorge brought us to the Maid of the Mist's dock.  The boat ride is almost mandatory for any visitor and you get to keep the iconic rain poncho for the trouble.  The disclaimer here is you will get wet.  Just how wet is completely up to the tourist, but you will get wet in some fashion.  The power of the water is humbling and the closeness one is able to achieve, through hiking paths or wooden stairways, grants true scale to the magnitude of the falls.  It is strange here, a glorious natural wonder sandwiched between a carnival-like atmosphere and a dilapidated small town fighting to keep up, with its lone temple to gambling standing amongst the boarded up buildings.
      It seems the falls are now overshadowed by the casinos and the whole place has become more of a rest stop along the highway to other more interesting destinations.  The countryside along the 7 hour journey to the border is quaint farmland along the back roads or boring, monotonous asphalt along the highway.  Either way, the family is over the falls.  Maybe, one day we will be back, perhaps when another business meeting calls but a single stop was nearly enough.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Old Country

     Leaving the sand and the sun and the surf behind us, we followed the coastal highway northwest back toward Philadelphia.  We thought of completing our trip by visiting more Revolutionary sites but then decided that Philly deserved more attention than we had time for.  Perhaps a straight run back to the farm, but that trip was just too long to go without stretching the legs.  What to do?  Where to go in Southern PA?  Why of course, the checkerboard fields and manicured simplicity of Amish country.
      Everywhere you look the Amish culture is the hot topic of the moment.  Yet the roads and fields and homes we drive by are quiet and modest.  The scenery is tranquil.  It is like driving back in time.  The power lines and phone poles slowly fade away.  The traffic slows and lessens.  The roads are winding and relaxing.  This is not the land of producers and reality TV, the places we view on our screens. This is true Amish country, a place of quilts and farms and simplicity.  We are merely passers-by, quick visitors to their place trying to absorb the atmosphere.  The kids were wide-eyed trying to find a buggy, a glimpse of the new, or is it the old? 
      Whichever it was, it was an adventure.  And no adventure would be complete without a brewery stop, but this one would be different.  It was housed on the grounds of an antique mall in the heart of Lancaster County.  The restaurant attached to the brewery was toted as a mecca for aged beef and incredible steaks and farm classics and homemade bread.  What a surprise!  We did not find a farm-friendly brewpub.  Instead we found a building transplanted from somewhere in Transylvania.  The inside was dark and eerie.  It smelt of old country but not in a very good way, more in a musty, less-traveled air.  The food was alright, the beer cold and the pumpkin ale worth a six-pack.  I would not return and could not believe that a big name brewery, largely distributed, operated such a place.  Perhaps that is the kitsch of the place, a product of its location and surrounding population.  If its a Norman Bates dining experience in a sublime setting you are looking for, then Stoudts Brewing is worth the ride down the buggy roads of Lancaster County.
      Ours was a pit stop along the route to Cabela's and everything outdoors and, ultimately, our farm.  It was definitely a memory for the family, in a spooky, Halloween atmosphere.  Maybe a trip back is in order as the leaves change color and the ghouls begin to creep out.  Maybe, just maybe....

Monday, September 16, 2013

Summer Sand

     We left the Revolution and the original colony and the past behind.  We piled back into the truck and headed down the highway toward the salty breeze of the Atlantic.  We followed the overhead signs toward Virginia Beach and the ocean. We are not beach people.  Sand is not one of our favorite things.  The little crystals that invade every little nook and cranny are not our friends.  It is a rare occasion that we visit a beach.  A few months ago, however, the pull of curiosity fueled our children to inquire about a beach visit and on a spur of the moment decision, I veered the truck toward Sandy Hook and the lighthouse there.
     The Hook is not a great beach, rocky and rough and full of ocean debris and crushed, sharp shells.  The bay is protected by mosquitoes and rocks and jagged shoreline.  The surf is rough, bashing beach-goers.  It is not a perfect place, but it was a quick trip in a few spare hours before a mandatory family event.  And it was enough to feed the curiosity.  The kids now begged to visit a nice beach, to play in the waves and feel the sand between their toes.  With these nagging requests filling my ears, I followed the highway toward the eastern horizon.
      Virginia Beach was hosting a concert and a fishing tournament as we neared the tourist town's exit.  The traffic became increasingly oppressive.  Our movement was halted just short of the city.  We took a family vote and turned the truck northward to find less people and more open road.  The Cheasepeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is only a few minutes north of Virginia Beach and kept us on the road north.  It is a cool feat of infrastructure, a bridge that halfway across surprisingly dives into the depths to become a tunnel.  Out in the bay is a man-made island equipped with a rest area.  There are bathrooms and a café and a fishing pier and a view of the seemingly endless ocean horizon.  It was a nice diversion from the road and the traffic and allowed us to stretch and talk to some local fishermen as they pulled their bounty from the sea.  The lone stretches of highway that seemed to float on the choppy bay caused some distress to a few of the truck's occupants but the detour was worth the memories.
      Another hour further north brought us into Ocean City, where the party never ends.  The current population seemed a little too inebriated for a family stop.  The police presence, on foot and on bike, bespoke a rowdy atmosphere and not worth the effort.  Our family enjoys a quieter experience and so another vote kept the truck rolling further north.  We crept along the main drag of Ocean City, watching the partiers stagger along, every once in a while catching a glimpse of a drunken vomiter or hung-over balcony-sitter.  The music was loud and followed us down the road.  One large bridge later and the neighborhood quieted and the beach became inviting.  We settled for the night off the main strip of Rehoboth Beach.  
     As the sun brightened the day, we found a parking spot close to the manicured beach.  The sands were softer than the Hook.  The people more relaxed than Ocean City.  The crowds were much smaller than Virginia Beach.  The boardwalk is not as bustling as a Jersey spot.  Rehoboth is a small, peaceful place with everything a beach should be while keeping itself respectable.  They have the arcades and some rides and plenty of ice cream and fries and T-shirt shops.  They also have a brewery and some restaurants and plenty of scooters.  The lifeguards are pleasant and professional.  The beach boys are more than happy to run you out a chair or umbrella.  And the surf is rough enough to ride but not crushing.  The kids had a wonderful day, as did the parents.  We do not visit the beach often.  I really have no use for chafing sand and salty hair.  I do not see the point in visiting a place where one needs to carry their own shade with them and a nap will turn you into a French fry.  But on this day, the salt in the air was just right and the smiles of my children were worth the sand grinding between my legs and burning my toes. The beach rarely calls us but Rehoboth can call anytime.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Revolutionary City

     The first road trip of the family's summer, and to break in the new SMV, was an eight hour jaunt from PA down to Virginia and the Revolutionary City of Williamsburg.  It was an almost quick, straight run down the interstate, past D.C., and into another world.  After a few bathroom breaks to stretch our legs and gather some brochures at the different welcome centers, we arrived at our pleasant hotel room situated right across the road from 1776.  The restaurant downstairs from our room was just the ticket to get into the spirit of the place.  We filled our bellies, enjoyed a brew, and settled in to get enough rest for the coming day.
      Our trip back in time began as soon as we stepped away from the hotel.  A pedestrian bridge fitted with a timeline led across not only the road but across history.  The original surviving homes from the 1700's came to life with well-versed re-enactors.  Every few hours, right on schedule as listed on the map, history came to life and some of the most important moments in a young country's founding played out before us.  There were Red-coats and militia and declarations of independence and the actual reading of The Declaration.  There were horses and buggies and encampments and silversmiths and brick makers and blacksmiths.  The amount of detail in the "living museum" was overwhelming and the kids were enthralled.  The firing of cannons as the militia went off to fight the British, practicing with muskets in the encampment and marching with the re-enactors, and talking with revolutionaries filled our day.  The kids also tried their hands at being spies for George Washington and gathered clues as we explored the city.  We even came back after dinner to enjoy the city as the day cooled into night.  Fires lit the streets and lanterns guided us around the buildings as a ghost guide whispered stories of other-worldly residents still occupying the taverns and workshops.  It was a long and wonderful day. (One hint for those who visit here:  the souvenir mug is well worth the unlimited refills at the different tavern stops, especially the grocer that doles out root beer floats and root beer slushies in a never-ending fashion.)
       I could not in good conscience leave Williamsburg without stopping at the local brewery.  Their beer was fresh and made for the Revolutionary City to compliment the theme of the place.  Hardy brown ales and tavern porters, along with more modern, lighter renditions, filled their taps.  I was able to procure not only some of those brews for the coming chilly nights of Fall but also some hard won pumpkin ale that seemed to disappear from every shelf I tried to snag it from.  Other stops along the road included homemade pies, Chick-fil-a (no one wanted to pass this by), and the southern peanut shop to gather goodies for football Sundays.  Our only regret was not being able to visit nearby Jamestowne, the original colony and another living museum.  But we will be back, as voted upon by the back seat navigators.  As a whole, the first half of our first new road trip was a great success and a pleasantly relaxing endeavor for the driver.  It is quite enjoyable to have a couple of weird kids that dive into a detour away from the roller coasters and arcade games and feed their curiosity.  They will never forget touching the same doorknobs and bannisters as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  I know I never will and that thrill beats a roller coaster everyday, to say, as a family, that we touched history.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Summer Winds

     Where has the summer gone?  The winds of summer blew right by me.  The days have slipped quickly by.  The first day of a new school year has somehow snuck up on my family.  That is not to say that the days have been wasted, or lost track of.  I have tried to pack as much as I can into the short, quick-moving days of July and August.  The dog days have brought many changes to my workday and workload.  I have retired the old truck and tried to catch up to the times, under protest, with a new family "CUV" that sips less gas and holds more stuff.  In exchange, my family has decided that more road trips were in order and the miles needed to be piled up immediately.  There were adventures upon adventures and on this first full day of school I am able to catch my breath and look back on the summer and share some travels.
      My adventures began this summer by replacing the family's old, worn-out Pathfinder with a newer rendition of the same.  The purchase process was surprisingly painless and held little surprise in the way of acquiring an updated vehicle.  The surprises were more in what is now considered a "SUV" or truck compared to several years ago.  The salesman found my inquiries about skid plates and full-size spares and "real" four-wheel-drive almost comical.  The need for an opening rear window to access stacked cargo without opening the rear door stymied the man.  The lack of tie-down points in the cargo area raised eyebrows.  And the need for ground clearance measurements and departure angles just brought shaking heads and shrugging shoulders.
      The salesman, along with my wife and children, sat me down and tried to explain to me about gas mileage and weight savings and creature comforts.  They detailed the increased population of soccer moms not wanting mini-vans and their need for a more rugged looking vehicle and the new "civilized" family transport.  There seems to no longer be a need to leave the pavement with a vehicle to search out solitude and new sights.  The need is more to get through some slush in order to make it to PTA meetings on time.  I was regaled by all the participants of this sale by tales of glamping and resorts and golf clubs and reduced entry door sills so no one has to raise their legs too high to get in the truck.
      My family was more than happy as we left the parking lot with a cute new somewhat-truck.  They talked of new roads and new trips and new adventures right around the corner now that our odometer once again read "0".  They giggled as they played with the "dual-zone climate-control" and adjustable rear seats and any other new-fangled part that will break a year from now.  I am not impressed with any of this stuff but the new MPG sure helps to lessen the sting of driving a pseudo-truck SMV (soccer mom vehicle).  The road calls again and I am determined to test the limits of this new Pathfinder.  The first warm breeze of summer brought a big change, a new SMV with plenty of miles ahead and a new warranty awaiting testing.  So down the road we go (with the A/C cranking and the heated seats keeping our butts warm).