Friday, June 13, 2014

Following the Long Trail

     Just about 24 years ago a young man, a fresh-faced kid is more like it, set out in a car packed with some camping gear and a map.  He wanted to see some of the country.  Not from the far-reaching view of a plane window, not the oft-visited tourist venues seen in every brochure, not the everyday sights, he wanted to see the real country.  He wished to touch the back roads and farm stands, the real people (farmers, fishermen, general stores) and places.  He needed to see the hard-to-find nooks of a vast nation and discover some of the secret little places hidden along the dirt roads.  He wanted to get off the bold black lines of the road atlas and follow the thin, fading contours that no one pays attention to.  This would be his first road trip, his first foray away from home, his first taste of so much more that would feed a need to see even more.  And so with a map and a full tank of gas, the road led north.
     I can not believe that it has been nearly a quarter of a century since I drove up I-95 heading for Maine.  It was my first road trip and I was excited.  Leaving New Jersey behind and crossing state lines seemed so foreign back then.  The sound of the highway buzzing away beneath the tires as the miles piled up.  I did not want to exit the highway until I had put enough distance between NJ and my first campground.  It would take five hours to reach that campsite in Freeport, Maine.  A cute site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the clam diggers in the morning and the lapping waves in the evening.  The breeze filled the old bivy tent with a faint hint of salt.  The coast was rocky and steep, nothing like the beaches of Jersey.  Seafood, lobster and clams, were sold on the roadside, a "sea farmers market" along the back road.  The local "big" city was a cobblestone-paved wharf holding antique tall ships and whale tour charter boats.  Looking out across the ocean from my little tent one could believe that the road ended here, but there were more tiny lines to follow.  Lines that led away from the ocean, further north and slightly west.
     Those lines would bring me to the base of a mountain.  One thin line did not end at the mountain's base but at the very top.  One road led up the rocky slopes through the clouds, above the treeline and into a whole other climate.  The Mt. Washington Auto Road allows for intrepid drivers to conquer the mountain from the driver's seat and obtain a view of forever.  From the summit the land flows away from the mountain for as far as the eye can see.  The clouds fill a sky that reaches farther than the view of the melting horizon.  At once a person feels so big atop that peak and so small in the midst of all the world flowing around them. On the top of that mountain, looking out at the country, I could envision all the lines branching out from the dirt road that winds back down the mountain and I wanted to see them all.
      One of those lines led me further west and north into the Green Mountains and farmland of Vermont.  I met ice cream makers that would change the freezer case of every grocery store churning their special brand of frozen treats hidden in a little holler away from any big city.  I saw teddy bears handmade with love and recycled materials and personalized while you wait in a little warehouse disguised as a vibrant-colored farm building.  Both places offered "behind-the-scenes tours" of their facilities filled with laughter and stories and cute little samples, so personable.  Along those thin little lines were sugar shacks and moose tracks and hiking trails and swimming holes and cheese and apples and cider and milk from a glass quart and an antique flea market in an old barn.
       It was like any other flea market in an old building.  Vendors divided into little sections within the building selling their different wares.  It really was nothing special.  The only reason to stop was to see if there were any hidden treasures to bring home as evidence of a successful road trip.  Vendor after vendor held not a single memorable piece to put in the car.  Yet hidden away in the building, no, beneath the building in the basement was a special place.  Below all the antiques was a tiny hole from which beer flowed.  Being only 18 at the time and seeing only the typical cheap swill of the secret high school party and not being a fan of late night drunken debacles, I had no idea that such things existed.  The walls were lined with cans from beer companies and brands long forgotten.  Can styles that were no longer in manufacture were everywhere.  Even the smell was intoxicating in that basement.  I could not sample the production line but I could take home some of the best mountain road trip memorabilia.  I could return home with tangible memories that truly summed up a camping road trip.  A couple of beer coasters with a little red mountain and a tribute to Vermont's Long Trail.
     I returned home full of memories and sights and pictures.  I also came home with the desire to return to that basement at the end of every road trip.  And that is exactly what I did for the next several years.  Every camping trip, road trip, visit out of state, would somehow find a back road that led back toward that antique mall.  Trips to upstate New York would mysteriously wander into Vermont.  A visit to a candle maker in Massachusetts would transform into a jaunt further north into Vermont.  Eventually I had reached an age to actually sample the products but that did not matter as much as the destination and the destination did not matter as much as the journey.  Each time I visited the place a different road would lead me there and I would see even more of the country, sample even more back roads. 
      By this time college had taught me the appreciation of cheap yellow liquids that could be consumed in mass quantity.  But this stuff was different.  It was not churned out in large factories on massive assembly lines and stacked high.  It was brewed with care and flavor and seemed to put the essence of the outdoors, of campfires and gurgling streams, in that little bottle.  Maybe it was the scenery or the lovable bears on the labels or the hiker that has come to symbolize the brewery.  It could have been the Blackbeary Wheat, the first seasonal beer I had ever tasted, mixing a light brew with blackberries, or the Pollenator, a honey-infused taste of Spring.  This was nothing like anything I had ever seen.  The little basement gave way to a true brewery further down the road and the place had now become a true destination complete with food and a patio deck overlooking the beer's water source.  It was Long Trail Brewing.
     They turn 25 this year and my family and I will take a road trip back there again.  I will pick up some beer and maybe a T-shirt.  But along the way my kids will visit a teddy bear factory and a sugar shack.  They will sample cheeses and apples and dips and homemade soda and fudge.  Perhaps they will get a chance to try some roadside lobster or clam chowder.  They will drive up a mountain and look out on forever and hopefully I can get them to see the thin, faint little lines that lead out across the horizon.  Just maybe, as the wind stings their cheeks, they will find their own back road and they will remember it and yearn to follow it as they grow.  Because the world is full of wonder and surprises and adventures and little roads that hold little treasures that stay with you, always.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Badges for Lessons Learned

     It is no secret that my daughters are proud Girl Scouts.  My wife is a more than proud Girl Scout leader and lifetime member.  I am, by default (and winkingly willing), a proud Girl Scout dad and volunteer.  Our email is filled with updates and questions and comments and concerns from parents, scouts, and Girl Scout officials.  Everywhere we go (movie theaters, aquariums, zoos, environmental centers) my wife is quizzing employees about the possibilities of group trips and Girl Scout events.  My computer is cluttered with pictures destined for the local papers and websites that boast sleepover events and educational programs.  And my living room is piled high with badges for every occasion from baking brownies to planting a flower to actually doing chores that should have been done without a badge reward.
     Over the last couple of years their troop has established a standard of pushing limits and comfort zones and continually challenging the girls as they grow older.  They have also looked to expand their reach in the community, going outside the typical animal shelter or garden projects.  They sing Christmas carols with the folks at the senior center and collect used school uniforms for distribution to families in need.  They take a break from the serious to go rock climbing, quad riding, and hiking.  They learn about nature and staying safe by attending seminars on outdoor survival and primitive living.  They have been visited by Search and Rescue personnel and their dogs.  They have embraced the movement of putting the outing back in scouting and a return to the outdoors. 
     And this is where the happy rainbows of the sisterhood ends.  Being outside means giving up cell service and being away from the computer world.  It means dirt and bugs and sleeping in tents, away from a "real" bathroom.  Pushing outside the comfort zone means adventure and scary places and trying new things and thinking beyond the bubble of the living room.  Community services beyond the end of the block means commitment and responsibility and facing unpleasant realities of the world that mom and dad might have to uncomfortably explain at home.  It is that discomfort of the parents that really holds the children back.  The fear projected upon the kids at home, the unwillingness of their folks to face their own fears outside the comfort zone.  The trepidation of living without being plugged in 24/7.
     The troop's recent year-end trip coupled with the announcement of forgoing some incidental badges for smaller events in order to bolster budgets for more intensive activities and extensive trips was met with some of the loudest groans of displeasure.  The unhappiness came from giving up embroidered rewards for regular activities and community service that should be done willingly with a smile.  It came not from the kids but from the parents that felt a reward should be given to their children so they did not feel bad for not participating in the "big" events.  And this year's big event was a camping trip (oh no a tent, outside!!!!) to meet with a dog musher and learn about the history of dog sledding (animals and learning?????).  They would participate in team-building and low ropes courses (oh the horror!!!) and then challenge their fears on a high ropes challenge course tethered 50 feet above the ground walking on I-beams and rope ladders (dizzying heights, my spinning head!!!!!).  There would be BBQ and kickball and a two minute walk to a bath house (seriously???).  On the final day there would an introduction to scuba diving (WHAT??? with fish and water and such?) and an aquapark with floating iceberg water slides and water trampolines and a water catapult (this is getting seriously scary!!!!).  The fear emanating from the parents was tangible.
      The troop's fearless leader, afraid of heights and overweight and just six months out of back surgery, scaled the walls of the ropes course, daring the heights with a timid step and some audible outcries that spurred the rest of the girls along.  The girls resolved some of their team issues on the problem-solving course and laughter followed the initial arguments.  Again the troop's leader, equipped with an uncanny ability to sink instead of swim and an extreme fear of the water, donned a life-jacket and held hands with the most fearful to conquer the water slides.  The true highlight of the trip was watching everyone experience the wonder of swimming underwater.  Afraid or not, the girls that attended the trip experienced things that even a lot of adults will never try.
     As the pictures began to circulate and the stories were told at school, the scouts that did not attend, along with the parents that had convinced them that outside (the house, the bubble, the comfort zone of knowing) was no place to be, began to quietly consent that trying something new might not be all bad.  The girls that had gone on the trip did not wither, did not turn to mud (does dirt hurt?).  They had grown in some fashion.  Some had faced fears.  Some had experienced new, intriguing activities.  Some pitched a tent for the first time.  Others spent a night away from home for the first time ever.  Some just enjoyed hanging with friends, new and old.  They all earned badges for the stuff they participated in over the weekend.  But the most important badge was earned by the girls (and parents) that did not attend.
     At the end of the scouting year (last Monday) there was quiet regret from those that did not attend, that did not camp.  There was fun missed and good times that can only be told by others.  There was the thought of something exciting missed.  And the badge of lessons learned was silently passed.

(A big thank you is in order to Kari and her staff at NorthStar Adventure at Dutch Springs in Bethlehem, PA. for such a great trip.)

A Good-Bye to the Little School

     Where has the time gone?  Where have the years flown?  When have the children grown?  They seem like little "big" people now, mature way beyond their numbered age.  Perhaps it is me but I can not remember being so old so young.  The words, the thoughts, the mannerisms are all so grown-up.  I can understand my youngest fighting so hard to be tall, to be older, to be like her sister.  She wants to be the sister she looks up to, probably better, stronger, faster, smarter.  The competition never ends.
     Yet, her older sister looks at her with an understanding eye.  She picks her sister up and helps her reach those lofty goals of overachieving.  She is a patient soul that loves her sister, cares about the friends around her, and holds her family above all else.  She can not understand the drama of the schoolyard, the politics of the playground, the competition of grades, projects, and friendships.  She believes that everyone can achieve more by helping each other and everyone can be friends if they simply overlook the little nonsenses.  She may be a little naive about people but she believes strongly.
     During this year of changes, growth, and anticipation, she has suffered some in her studies as the distractions of the impending "graduation" from grammar school, elementary grades, and recess have loomed large.  She has been sidetracked by the petty dramas (in her eyes major happenings and life-altering events) that come with nearing the dreaded teen years.  She is truly excited for changing schools and entering middle/high school, of taking on new challenges and adapting to new routines.  To her parents, grades are not nearly as important as her growth as a person and in this she has excelled.  She refuses to compromise her beliefs though she struggles to voice them (which in time should sort itself out).  Patiently allowing her sister to keep up and keeping her eye out for the pitfalls of others' behavior while keeping her head in her books.  There is an age, a wisdom in her eyes and it is comforting to her parents.
     The nonsense of a year ago may have had its effect on the school year but it has made my daughter stronger for it.  She has not become jaded or excuse-ridden.  She has not looked to her peers as adversaries or their parents as villians.  The world is as it should be, a place to adapt to and continue on, stoic is perhaps the best way to be and perhaps her parents should learn from that.  Being angry, adverse, upset "with an attitiude" may keep one warm during the winter but it is no way to look forward to the freedom of the summer months, especially for a kid.  The neighbors and "friends" and hypocrites of a year ago are still there, pulling their slackers up by dragging the studious down but my daughter has reminded us that only her paper matters.  And she keeps her eyes on her own paper and that's all that really matters.