Friday, November 18, 2016

New Jersey's Living History

     Allaire Village is a quietly preserved village in the middle of New Jersey.  Over a century ago it was a self-sufficient community with a glowing furnace producing iron for the Industrial Revolution.  A town complete with carpentry, blacksmith, and even a bakery.  The bakery is still active today and supplies bread, as well as locally sourced baked goods, to visitors.  The shops are alive with volunteers showcasing their skills and educating anyone that will listen on their dying trades.  We, as a family, enjoy visiting these living museums and interacting with the re-enactors and volunteers.  And what better days to visit but the cool, sunny weekends of Fall, October, Halloween.
     The village hosts an Autumn festival for a small, token fee.  The shops are alive.  The houses warmed by fired hearths.  The gift shop brimming with ideas for the upcoming holiday season.  There is fresh bread and other treats, pumpkin picking and crafts, a train ride and hiking trails, even a traveling flea circus.  It is quite a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in NJ.  Not many folks make use of this resource as is evidenced but the "uncrowded" feeling of the place, even as children race back and forth between the activity tents.
     As the sun begins its descent, we stretch our legs on a 30-mile back road jaunt toward another living museum, the site of one of NJ's largest cranberry bogs.  Whitesbog lays claim to the innovation of the highbush blueberry and is a National and State Historic site.  We were visiting for the spooky lantern tour of the bogs and the surrounding Pine Barrens.  The local caretakers and volunteers were excited to see our arrival and to share their knowledge of the community.  The place had a lonely, fading feel to it, which only added to its Halloween charm.  The buildings held all the museum standards while also being decorated for the evening's events, replete with real lanterns with actual flickering flames.  There was a community bonfire and elegantly dusty general store.
    The sky loomed grey and grumbling with far off thunder as we took to the walking paths following our lanterned guide from building to building, past the glowing depiction of the Jersey Devil and into the Barrens.  We were only amongst the trees for a few paces when the Halloween lights began to glow in the trees and the planted wisps of artificial spider webs brushed against our faces.  Then with a booming thunderclap, the skies opened, and in the dark of the woods and the October evening, we were thoroughly soaked.  Turning frantic circles along the paths, the guide had us misguided for a few steps and the spooky tour was truly becoming a trick and a treat.  The village's volunteers, in their earnest to make the best possible situation out of a stormy deluge, had created the best Piney experience one could ask for.
     It is a mystery why anyone would not visit these living history sites or make the day out of enjoying such local treats.  But for me and my road-tripping family, we'll take the smaller crowds and unique gems along the back roads.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Forgotten Day

It should be right behind the Fourth of July. It should be held in higher regard than all the rest. There is no reason for it to be forgotten. Parades and ceremonies and fireworks simply are not enough. This is a day to truly be thankful, a day that should be met with football and giant dinners and family gatherings. It is the one day that should never be taken for granted. Today is Veteran's Day.
      The company I work for, like most companies theses days, does not recognize today as a day worthy of remembrance. It is a normal Wednesday. The union, as willing to accept dues as they are to concede recognized holidays, does not consider today a day worth fighting for. I wear the American flag stitched upon my work clothes, but can not recognize the heroes of this country without a sick day. The men and women who have fought and sacrificed for my rights and freedoms are not worthy of a day of recognition according to many, my company, it's customers, Local 807, and most of the rest of the country included. The beginning of Summer is more important. The "unofficial" end of Summer is more important. A fictitious fat man in a red suit is more important. Watching a giant ball descend a pole while partying with friends is much more important. The veterans of this country are not as important as these things. However, without them we would not celebrate such frivolous matters.
      For many years, I hunted with my father on Veteran's Day. We used to meet in the morning and drive to the Delaware Water Gap and walk the fields there in search of small game, pheasants and squirrels mostly. We never mentioned that it was a holiday. We just walked the woods together. Spending time together was enough, no hoopla. As my parents left New Jersey to reside in the slower pace of Pennsylvania, my father and I still made plans to meet on Veteran's Day to walk the same fields. Times have changed since those youthful hunts. The holiday calendar at work has grown lean on what is considered an important or allowable day off. I, at one time, resorted to sick days to keep the tradition of hunting with my dad on Veteran's Day going. Recently, I have used seniority and vacation to ensure that this day is spent with family.
      My father is a disabled veteran of the Vietnam Conflict. He carries many scars of all kinds with him. There were years when those scars took their toll not only on him. I lost some years to those scars, too. The loss was of time and chances to make memories and I refuse to allow that to ever happen again. My children take pride in the fact that their grandfather was a soldier and fought for this country. I will not allow them to lose the opportunity to make memories of time spent with their grandfather. They proudly celebrate this day knowing they are, in some small part, connected to it. It is his day and he should have it. He has surely earned it and continues to earn it, everyday.
      My story is only one of thousands, perhaps millions by now. My experiences of the effect of war and the cost of politics and freedom are merely a blade of grass in a meadow of such experiences. All of those stories deserve a place, a day of recognition, a moment to reflect and remember, and a small word of thanks. These stories are attached to lives, to families. They can not be allowed to fade from the memory of a nation. They have sacrificed for every American. They have earned their day.
     Who wants to be the one that takes their day away? Who wants to be the one that allows their memories to fade? Who wants to be the one that keeps their stories from being told?

It will not be me. Mine is but a small inconvenience compared to their scarifices. It will not be me.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Upstate Apples

     About an hour outside of Manhattan, pretty much a straight ride north on the NYS Thruway, apple orchards abound.  Usually situated next to, if not with, these orchards, vineyards grow in neat rows.  The farmlands are surrounded by history and historic sites.  Some of those farms actually are the historic place.  Over two weekends in October, we spent a free day or so away from our errands to enjoy the scenery and, literally, the fruits of that scenery.
     Our first sojourn was to the acres of farms surrounding Poughkeepsie and New Paltz.  There was Bad Seed Hard Cider Co., Weeds Orchards, a handful of local wineries, several other orchards offering donuts and cider and pick-your-own apples.  We simply could not travel down a road without coming upon a farmers market, orchard, or vineyard.  One could spend more than a weekend traveling all these roads visiting every single apple hawker.  We found a favorite at the Brooklyn Ciderhouse.  It was a combination marketplace, hard cider tasting room, u-pick orchard, artisan pizza kitchen, and picnic spot.  This place had it all and effortlessly and, for some strange reason, a noticeable lack of overwhelming crowd.  There is a new mark on our travel map for apple season.
     After a side trip to a bizarrely hipster farm brewery, with taps literally amongst the picked veggies, and seats straight from the farmhouse kitchen strewn out in the garden, we decided a slightly more commercial stop would suit us better.  Angry Orchard is a destination.  A treehouse tour, a tasting room with entertainment stage, food truck parking, gift shop.  This is Upstate NY essence trapped in an orchard where no one picks the apples.  Most of the people here seemed as if they were visiting for the day, comfortably lounging on the grass as games of cornhole were being settled nearby.  Our trip would conclude at The Mill House in Poughkeepsie.  A rather quaint brewpub with satisfying fare, quality brews, rooftop patio seating, and comfortable indoor accommodations, the Mill House is awkwardly situated in a somewhat derelict neighborhood.  Do not let that be a deterrent to visiting this place and to make it more enticing it is only a short distance to the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is worth the effort also.
     Our second weekend would not bring us as far north but was just as satisfying, if not more so, than our last trip.  The destination was General Washington's final cantonment of the Revolutionary Army.  The actual site was oddly developed around by a small neighborhood and the bell tower was nearly in someone's backyard.  The paths around the place were overgrown and unkempt and the boardwalk was rotten wood.  A glaring difference across the road was the Purple Heart Memorial and a living history museum that protected what seems to be the oldest Revolutionary War hut in the country.  This is what we had come for, a fitting tribute to our armed forces at the site of the its original presentation.  Another overcrowded apple farm and then off to Storm King Mountain overlooking West Point.  With our continuing summit quest, we felt a short, steep hike to take in the views would be appropriate.  The weather was perfect for the walk, a mix of October cool and comfortable blue sky.  The trail was an entertaining mix of scramble and path and quite worth the non-descript parking area.
     We would conclude our dual weekend odyssey to Upstate with the Halloween staple of Sleepy Hollow.  This year my youngest would try her mettle at the Horseman's Hollow at Philipsburg Manor.  The living history village would be transformed into the haunted rendition of the Headless Horseman's sleepy Hollow home.  It was her first haunted house and she was "scared awesome" and smiling ear to ear as she walked the lantern-lit path.  The village of Sleepy Hollow always does well to represent this wonderful time of year and this time around was no disappointment.  We look forward to visiting every year and next year will be no exception.  The sites of Upstate NY never disappoint and I look forward to traversing the further reaches of the state in our annual jaunt to Cooperstown.  The backroads of NY, less than an hour from the Big City, are always worth the day.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Renaissance?

     With Halloween close by and some free time due to multiple weeekend obligations monopolizing only one day, we had decided to take a leisurely drive through the Amish countryside and visit an out of sorts land protected by a castle.  We dared the time travel to fuedal Pennsylvania and the Renaissance Faire in Manheim.  It would be our first such journey and it would prove most interesting.
     In the rolling farmlands of Lancaster County lies The Shire.  It is filled with shops and "taverns" and strange folk.  The food and the wares and the folks wearing the wares made for an exceptional day of people-watching.  To be quite honest, I could easily spend plenty of hours just sitting and enjoying a pint and a turkey leg and watching the people in this unique place.  There were plainly dressed families meandering happily.  There were serious characters dripping in authenticity and somewhat less authentic players trying to look the part.  There were plump bar wenches pushing their corsets to the limit and poofy skirts and plenty of exposed flesh.  There were fairies and women with horse hoof shoes.  Steampunks somehow found their way here as did pirates and barbarians.  What a strange melting pot of costume-clad time-hoppers.
     And this is where the happiness dwindles.  We, as a family, enjoy reenactments, historical places come-to-life, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Ticonderoga, Fort Lee.  We have traveled to many.  This place lacked all of that.  The paid actors were authentic enough and took their trades seriously but the whole community seemed mired in selling to a crowd not truly invested in the charade.  Many of the replica weapons were plastic or wooden or cheaply fashioned.  The pirates wore Halloween costume plastic boot covers and phony hats.  Faux fur was everywhere.  Only the women's costume shops carried quality items and they came at a premium.  The rest was a confusing mash up of everything role-playing; blown glass, sterling silver, pixie dust, leather shops, dragons, sea-faring merchandise, elves and dwarves, centaurs and witches and the persistent steampunk (of which I will credit with the best effort).
     I grew up with a paperback in my hand, reading the adventures of Conan and Merlin and King Arthur, Bilbo Baggins and Gandolf, and other more obscure characters popular amongst the "nerdier" set.  I have troves of vintage Dungeons and Dragons material and a closet full of fantasy art by Boris and Frazetta.  My comic book collection is nothing to take lightly and reference books on medieval weapons and torture and architecture line many of my shelves.  No truly self-respecting geek would be caught in this Shire or caught in such shabby garb.  I have perused many custom kinfe shows shoulder to shoulder with history buffs and reenactors looking for that perfect piece to complete their outfit, not a costume at all, and none of those were here.  This cosplay nonsense has diluted the accuracy of everything, including history.  I essentially paid for my family to walk around a mall shrouded in a corset and robe.  My kids loved it.
     I escaped back to reality 15 minutes down the road in the perfect Halloween brewpub, Springhouse.  The place was swathed in fake blood and zombies and cobwebs.  Fake rats hid in the bathrooms that seemed to be having lighting issues, lots of red flickering bulbs.  There was Braaiins for Zombies Pumpkin Ale, Blood Turning Black Porter, and Spinal Remains Stout.  All fitting brews and insanely delicious.  We dined on a wonderfully Kraken-like grilled octopus and pulled pork and poutine.  The motif and food and beer were all playful but extremely well done.  They definitely understand the season.  And the decorations definitely kept the costumes at bay.
     We will definitely return to Springhouse but will probably bypass the Shire for more realistic renditions of history (or fantasy).

Monday, October 17, 2016

Chasing Summits

     It was a year ago that we visited.  I wrote about it back then as a destination to revisit.  The summer ski slopes of Stowe, the winding, twisting roads of Smugglers Notch, and the peak of Mount Mansfield.  A year ago we turned back as the afternoon caught up to us and my wife's body betrayed her, lungs heaving, legs burning.  We vowed we would return.  The mountain has haunted us for all that time, daring us, taunting us, always calling.
     Again, as in our previous road trip to Vermont this year, our time would be abbreviated but we knew what to expect and what needed to be done.  We would arrive at night to ensure an early start and also a good night's sleep, along with a hearty dinner to fuel our hike.  Prohibition Pig was more than expected, a wonderful BBQ menu of locally-sourced everything paired with some of the finest local beer and cider.  The feast brought the contented sleep that only a full belly could and dreams filled with happy dinner plates would follow.
     The morning breeze welcomed us to Smugglers Notch and we collected some geocahces as we waited for the mountain road to open.  This area is an outdoor mecca even during the summer months, with bouldering, hiking, biking of all sorts, kayaking, and canoeing, all in large supply.  The quick searches for geocaches with their mini-hikes served as a warm-up for the morning's goal.  And, so, we were ready.
     The road to the upper parking lot was the same.  The trail keeper's house was still the same.  The trail signs were still the same.  But, quickly, the trail had become different.  Within 20 minutes, the landscape had changed.  My wife could not believe that in such a short amount of time we had covered the section of mountain from last year and were on our way to the summit of the mountain.  There were some scrambles and some narrow ridges and some steep walking.  There was bugs and breezes and sun and clouds and views in every direction.  We had lunch above Stowe and looked out at Canada and Lake Champlain.  We had reached this summit and then left it behind.  A filling mid-afternoon Reuben, fresh cider to celebrate, and a stop for Vermont cheddar would complete our day.
     Our journey home would have us visit the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, a place of joy my kids have not visited since they were in strollers and the tour never disappoints.  It would swing us by Dakin Farms and a bag full of smoked snacks for the miles pointing south.  A few more waypoints would steer us on to the highway and the happy snores of a successful trip.  It was short.  It was sweet.  It was filling for the body and the soul.  It was another trip to remember but it was also a trip to reflect on.
     A year ago we had left the mountain and headed home, somewhat defeated.  My youngest daughter vowed to return at some point, with or without us, and hike to the top.  She pleaded with her mother to be better prepared the next time or, perhaps, stay in the car so that my daughter would not be forced to turn back.  Months later my wife returned, 60 pounds lighter and determined to achieve the summit with her daughter.  This was more than a morning hike, it was a year-long journey which has seemingly transformed into a longer quest.  Upon that summit my daughter and my wife talked of reaching other summits on other mountains in other states.  Some we are already planning to visit while others may well take a lifetime to reach.  But this one little mountain with a short hike has already left its mark.  I am proud of my daughter for being so resolute and so motivational.  I am proud of my wife for being so determined.  They are both an inspiration.
     And so we begin to chase the next summit.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


     The weekend would be cut short because of the selfish meanderings of an aging employee that feels entitled way beyond his contributions.  Years of service may garner respect and tolerance but it does not allow for a complete divergence from basic workplace standards and the rules of conduct must still be followed.  Yet even in his disciplinary sanction, he found a way to make the workplace uncomfortable for everyone around him.  And thus my extended weekend that had been planned for some months would have to be abbreviated in order to cover another's suspension.
     Undaunted by the situation we began our journey on a Sunday and quickly left the stress and drama somewhere on the highway behind us.  Fort Ticonderoga in upstate NY was our original destination.  The hours of operation would not coincide with our new schedule but we could still catch a glimpse of the historic structure and scout other waypoints along the road for a future sojourn to this area.  Besides the road to the fort would lead us to a wonderful little ferry crossing of Lake Champlain, a shortcut into Vermont and the Green Mountains, just a few short miles from Middlebury.  The ferry ride was worth the miles, was worth a note as a road attraction, was the perfect landmark to leave work behind and embrace the peace of the landscape.
     We came to Middlebury because it held a hotel, several restaurants, and easy ferry access to Fort Ticonderoga while also allowing easy access to Route 7 and a way south toward home at the end of our weekend.  What we found was a quaint town with a beautiful college campus, the home of Woodchuck Cider, celebrating 25 years of turning apples into some of the most inventive, tasty adult beverages, and unexpected dining experiences.  Two Brothers Tavern seemed like any other neighborhood tavern from the outside, but inside, the food appeared to be the role models for culinary magazines.  The candied bacon served by the bucket on Sundays should be either outlawed or given its own holiday, and is way too addictive to merely try just one.  The beer list was wonderfully local and allowed for sampling all the greatness Vermont has become known for in the craft beer scene.  It also helps that there are several cideries and breweries within a stone's throw.  DropIn Brewing was one of those tiny local breweries and it was conveniently situated right across the road from our hotel.  It was the epitome of a microbrewery, just beer and only a few on tap to travel, and it offered a "grumbler" never before seen, a full gallon of fresh beverage to go, and home it would go, full of fresh IPA.
     Route 7 would lead us south toward home but not before winding its way past a few roadside stands holding maple everything and other tastes of Vermont life.  It would cross over into Massachusetts and lead us to Mount Greylock.  We could not pass up an opportunity to bag the highest peak in the state.  The best part of a road trip is finding the off beat, the interesting, the peculiar, along the way.  A side trip is always just a slight turn away and Mount Greylock was worth that turn.  The view from the peak may not be the same as some of the neighboring peaks but it was the perfect view to return perspective to a jaded eye.  Just a few short hours, barely two days, can reset the mind, revive the body, and return sanity to work life.  Time spent in a car on the road with family should never be short changed, especially when it is rewarded with great food, quality libations, and the wonder and beauty of nature.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


     It could be said that my wife and I have a long distance relationship.  We love to collect the miles and memories that pass beneath us on our journey.  We enjoy the hours together traveling down the road always searching out new places.  Some of the views are spectacular, some soothingly mundane, all of them seen together.  There are times of knowing silence and then there are the moments, sometimes long, filled with conversation and discussion about our road, about life, about the path of our children.
     During our most recent exploration of this great country's byways, and having a teenage daughter giddy with socials and semi-formals, some of our 4000 miles became dedicated to the new dating rituals of the young and the new meaning of a long distance relationship.  My original view of this sort of thing had its foundation in the realm of one or both people going off to college, the military, or perhaps a job assignment.  This was assuming the participants of the relationship had at least some experience with love or like or somewhere in between, that they have had time to form opinions on the subject of matters of the heart.  The couple would be faced with what would seem to be some of the most important decisions of young adulthood, whether their convictions and resolve could weather the storm of emotions and the crippling distance...and the honesty or lack there of.
     Oh how wrong I could be.  My wife bewildered me with tales of pubescent "love" found on the Internet, relationships built on Smartphones and little screens on tablets.  She baffled me with stories of connections made without ever physically seeing a person, of a world inside a touchscreen that was all too real.  I was truly taken aback not just that this alternate relationship reality existed but that some parents not only allowed their children to indulge it but supported, even aided, the fantasy.
     Are we as a society truly shortchanging our children this way?  I can understand adults, even young ones, twenty-something's especially, embracing the new technology of dating.  But these are adults that have experienced the trials and tribulations of the first feelings for another person.  They have learned from the dramas of high school, from the new found independence of college, from the harshness of beginning their own lives, and have felt both the joy and sadness of love.  To rob our children of their high school lives, their proms and decorated lockers and graffitied notebooks, seems so wrong.  To be distracted by a little screen by a questionably real person should be criminal.
     And what of the physicality of it all?  Are we that apt to give up the presence of a hand, the warmth of a stolen breath, the wisp of a passing hair, the brush of an eyelash, the softness of the lips? Should we replace the captivating scent of perfume or the squeeze of a hug with a router and wifi?  Can a caress be felt through a touchscreen?  Can we truly feel fulfilled through radio waves?
     Perhaps I am "old-fashioned" by today's standards, but I am not ready to give up on some of the rites of passage into adulthood and the journey to get there.  Perhaps this new age way of meeting and forming and growing relationships works for some people.  I am not yet ready to blur the lines between outside and inside this little electrical box, between what I can touch and feel and my touchscreen.  I do not want to rob my children of their teenage angst and the life lessons that will grow strong adults and of all their glorious memories of high school milestones.  And, besides, I have many more miles to go in my own long distance relationship and I do not wish to travel them without my hand on my wife's knee and her hand scratching my neck, discussing the ways of the world, however strange they may be.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Miles Behind

     The highways, the byways, the back roads, the dirt roads, all of them behind us now.  After 4100 miles we have returned to our regular days and short trips to work.  But each mile traveled will be remembered, captured with our cameras, etched into our memories, talked of in our shorter rides, joked about during our next road trip.  Each of those 4000 miles holds something special and we tried to pack as much into each road as possible.
     We saw snow and cold and rain and heat and wind and calm, blue skies and wintry grey, mountains, hills, plains and swamp, beaches and ocean and rivers and bridges and lakes, stars, sunsets, and horizons filled with nature's magic brush strokes.  We flirted with the honky-tonks of Nashville, stood at the burial site of Meriweather Lewis, walked in the footsteps of ancient Indians, and played at being an old ferryman stationed at the Gordon House.  We stopped by the birthplace of Elvis and slept at the gates of a Civil War battleground in Vicksburg, witnessing a survivor of river gunboats.  There were ducks and TV celebrities and several football stadiums.  We awed at rockets and space shuttles, smiled at lions and gorillas, giggled at sting rays, and paid quiet respect to the preserved remains of ancient cultures.  We brought home some sand from the Gulf Coast while peering out into the ocean's distance at the dangling offshore oil rigs.  We were dwarfed by oil ships and amazed at the massive refineries.  Bewildered by the gator population, we visited the bayou, strolled Bourbon Street while enjoying beignets, walked the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, and lingered in a cypress swamp.  The ghosts of an antebellum plantation swirled about us.  The longest bridge in America and the largest knife store, history of the nation and the future of space flight, jazz and blues and country, all are behind us now but also always with us.
     Our family has earned their road trip badges, counting miles while achieving destinations.  We accumulated memories along with waypoints.  The stories of these adventures will last a lifetime.  It made me smile as the last few miles before reaching home brought talks of where to go next and which highways and states will bring the best adventures.  Near or far, time spent exploring the country with my family in tow, watching the world through the frame of our windshield, revisiting history, delving into science, and immersed in nature can not be replaced.  Everyone should take the opportunity at least once to be trapped in a vehicle with their family for a few hundred miles seeing this great country first hand, singing songs and snoring, and laughing, and maybe visiting the world's biggest ball of twine.  The adventures are out there, go have one.  We did and we're already planning our next one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Miles Home

     Tuscaloosa came up fast.  After so many miles, four hours from New Orleans didn't seem so long. The highway was nondescript as was the exit, the hotel, and the local fast food hamburger joint.  This was the middle of nowhere along a dark highway with a cool name.  The only highlight was a hidden gas station with no name that supplied just enough fuel to make the next hundred miles.  The flickering overhead lights were a beacon for local denizens as the only fuel and fried food for miles.  While I pumped a quick five gallons in order to make the final push to Tuscaloosa, the remaining pumps were occupied by jacked up trucks hauling trailers carrying quads jacked to the clouds with snorkels reaching even higher.  My younger daughter's attention was peaked and I could not help but ask the man fueling these machines if the mud holes down here were really that deep.  Now, we ride ATVs on our farm up north and even have oversized tires to dig through the winter's snow but these were of a different sort.  Tires bigger than many pick-ups (I believe 35's) and the ability to submerge in four feet of water, mud, and mire, these were impressively built and pretty cool.  The owners themselves were more than happy to show their pride and speak of their adventures in the local and not so local mudpits. We left the creepy gas station smiling.
     Roanoke would be our final stop before cruising the last seven hours home.  And to get there, we needed to pass the biggest knife store in the world, The Smoky Mountain Knifeworks.  The kids were excited to pick out their own pocketknives for the summer at the farm and to pick up some more road trip gifts for Grandma and Grandpa.  The store is large and filled with more than just knives but all manner of edged creations as well as crystals and tin signs and kitchen supplies.  It stands right down the road from the Bass Pro Shop that stands as sentinel at the exit ramp.  We were able to bolster our snack supply with a stop at the Jerky Outlet and stamp our NPS Passport at the visitor center that led to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  We cruised through Virginia, before and after Roanoke, flirting with the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The cold was growing ever more present.
     The snow started to gather in shady spots along the highway until the shade and miles could no longer contain it.  By the time the PA border arrived and we had crossed the Mason-Dixon back into Yankee territory, the thermometer dipped into the 30's and the snow was back to stay for awhile longer.  Reality slapped us all hard when the "Welcome to NJ" sign came blaring out of the highway median.  The warmth was gone, blue skies turned grey, roads began to seesaw through the hills, and drivers became increasingly more aggressive and less courteous.  We were home, or close to it.  Soon all that would be left would be to unpack the truck and slog through mounds of laundry.  And just like that our journey was over.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bayou Miles

     We could see them rising out of the meadows from a long way off.  The land was flat here, gently sloping to the ocean, so the view seemed to dissolve into forever.  They stood out like small cities etched into the blue sky, castles with towering minarets touching the clouds.  The small highway that leads from Beaumont to the coast points right at these goliaths.  The bridges that cross the bays and connect the pavement are cartoonish, more like roller coaster tracks, in their steep inclines to heights that allow the massive freighters access to the harbors attached to some of these giant outposts.  Everyone in the truck was amazed at the oil refineries nearly consuming the landscape in the desolation of the marshes along the coast.  The highway follows the coast and is positioned at times impossibly close to the salt water.  For a time we kept pace with an oil ship that dwarfed our truck and cast a shadow across the highway.
     The highway was a small two-lane that wound through several small towns that supplied manpower to the refineries and the ocean oil rigs that jutted up out of the water off the beaches we drove along.  All the architecture here followed the post-Katrina practicality of low profile elevation. Churches, schools, municipal buildings, homes, barns, even electrical substations and RVs, were single floor structures set upon telephone poles twenty feet high.  Everyone seemed to live in bird's nests built on sticks hovering above the ground.  There was a solitude, a desolation, to this area, and then the road ended and the water lapped against the pavement.  A small amount of panic overcame my wife as we watched the ferry chugging through the chop toward our ramp at the pavement's end.  We would cross the inlet on a DOT-provided, free-of-charge ferry that connected the scenic byways.  That scenic byway would turn toward New Orleans but the desolation lasted.  Along the road's edge the swamp persisted and with it came the dinosaurs that made it their home.  The first alligator brought screams of surprise and delight.  There was a rush for the cameras and phones to capture the creature sunbathing.  At first it became a competition to see who would spot them first, then came the  fun of counting how many we could see, and finally the boredom of the frequency of occurrence.  The giant lizards became so prolific that counting them as we passed by put everyone to sleep as if counting sheep.
     We may have lost a full day to the scenic coastal byway and the highway hovering above the bayou but the views were more than worth it.  Reminiscent of our overnight stop in Nashville, we pulled up to the Superdome with the night fully upon us and the giant stadium awash in colored light.  By this point in our trip my younger daughter had determined that she wanted to visit every professional football and/or baseball stadium in the U.S. and the Superdome was right there on cue.  New Orleans, however, quite differently from Nashville, did not disappoint.  The streets were booming with people, buzzing with jazz streaming from every open cafe door.  There were folks on balconies and performers on street corners.  Our timing was slightly off for the age of the girls in the backseat and we decided to return during the day when the sun would chase some of the heartier revelers to the respite of their beds.
     Our hotel was a short(?) jaunt across the longest bridge in the world, a twenty mile stretch across the water of Lake Pontchartrain.  We dined on local seafood cooked with the traditional New Orleans spice and washed it down with local brews with Abita only a few blocks further down the road.  In the morning my wife completed her business trip by meeting with her contracted collector, a guitar player turned ghost hunter with his hands in multiple media outlets for music and TV productions that somehow took an interest in collecting money as a corporate endeavor.  Pontchartrain in the daylight appeared more ocean-like as we headed back to Bourbon Street to walk among the cobblestone streets and window shop our way around.  The atmosphere was just as advertised and the street performers and beignets were the perfect NOLA experience.  The Jackson Brewery provided a filling lunch of fried green tomatoes and crawfish and shrimp po'boys.  Somehow we just could not get used to the laid back disposition of all the locals we encountered between here and Beaumont.  The waiter was in no hurry, the shop owners seemed unmotivated, the street vendors moved leisurely, even the pedestrians barely walked across the street.  It wasn't until the food arrived and the band took the stage to accompany our meal with jazz and the paddle-wheel riverboat slapped the Mississippi in passing bringing with it a wonderful breeze carrying all the smells and spirit of the city through the open doors and windows of the brewery that we collectively began to understand the slower pace of this place.  We found it hard to abandon our perch in the second floor window, watching from above the ebb and flow of the southern street, but it was time for more miles.  We had a long way to go to reach our fast paced home region, like it or not.

Lions and Tigers and Mummies

     Another pleasant sunrise found us in Hermann Park.  We were parked and patiently waiting for the Houston Zoo to open its gates and welcome us.  The park surrounding the zoo was nearly empty on this work day.  To kill some time while we waited, a walk around the lake that was the centerpiece of the park was in order and perhaps a chance to find our first geocache in Texas (and our first geocache in awhile).  The ducks quacked as we searched and the squirrels barked at us from just off the gravel walking path.  We had earned our Texas geocache badge just as we heard the gates of the zoo roll up.
     I had forgotten exactly how relaxing and enjoyable a visit to the zoo could be.  We took our time, lingering in front of any display that held anything of interest, be it an informational plaque, a display kiosk, or an actual animal enclosure.  It might not have been the biggest or oldest zoo but it held plenty within its confines and it had a pleasant layout.   The animal enclosures were built to mimic real environments and to engage the animals in "real" life.  They also offered several unique viewing points, with sunken pits with ground level windows for the African lions, roof windows for the climbing mountain lions, and above/below water split windows for the river otters.  Our family has reached an age that engaging in mature, intelligent discourse about the science of things, the nature of animals, and the overall experience is not only possible but wonderfully engaging with some unique views.
     The zoo began to fill as we reached the last enclosure and the sun bespoke of high noon and lunch to be had.  The snacks and drinks waiting for us in the cooler gave enough pause to map out the opposite side of the park and the museum that was built there.  We would be able to escape the afternoon warmth surrounded by history in the Museum of Natural Science.  The display of fossils dovetailed precisely with the kids' current course of study and the staff in this area of the museum were near bursting with excitement to share their knowledge.  The information we gained about the process of displaying fossils and rebuilding dinosaur skeletons was in-depth to say the least.  The collection of petrified wood was massive.  The hall of minerals, rocks, and gemstones enthralled my children, to my pleasant surprise.  They awed at gold nuggets as big as their heads and gawked at mineral finds the size of watermelons.  My oldest walked open-mouthed through the vault of cut gemstones crafted into mind-boggling jewelry of unspeakable value.  Yet the actual gem in this building was the mummies encased on the upper level.  There were sarcophagi of all sizes and in all states of closure.  Fully exposed mummified relics lay behind glass, perfectly preserved.  The entire hall was presented as if it were an actual tomb, complete with flickering torchlight and hieroglyphic-covered walls.  Every display within these walls, be it fossil or mummy or gem, was not only presented with respect but more as if it were a piece of art.  The whole place had the feeling of a cherished fine art museum rather than a cold scientific display case.  I would have been severely disappointed to have missed this museum only to learn later the treasures it held.
     The afternoon began to wane as our truck was once again packed full and pointed toward the highway.  We were headed east this time, however.  Our road was leading back home again.  Five days ago we had left New Jersey, 1900 miles ago we had jumped on the NJ Turnpike, forever ago we had headed west for the sunset, and now we were leaving Houston with the sun setting at our backs.  The horizon ahead was already dark and the purple waves of grain were waving at our tail lights.  We hoped to reach Beaumont for a good night's sleep and a two hour head start toward our next waypoint, New Orleans, by way of the Gulf Coast.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Mission Control

     Perhaps we were stuck in the Westchase neighborhood of Houston so that my wife could meet with her Texas work counterparts, but we would not be anchored here.  Our hotel was situated in a strange land of never-ending strip malls and miles of fast food joints.  The parking lot of the hotel shared space with a grocery store, casual restaurant, and service station, just a short block from an office building.  The whole neighborhood seemed a hodgepodge of apartment complexes, pawn shops, big box stores, and bail bonds bracketed by every manner of chain restaurant with small bodegas used as the mortar for the mosaic.  Houston's sprawl is hard for an East-coaster to imagine.  It seemed realistic that a drive from Brooklyn through the Bronx up to Westchester would be shorter than driving across town in Houston.
      This unfamiliarity would not deter my kids and I from unguided explorations.  With two days to "rest" and take in some sights, the single major draw was, most obviously, NASA-Houston and the Lyndon Johnson Space Center.  The visitor center was the current standard of museum display offset with educational interactive for the younger crowd.  These served as fillers for the two separate halves of the experience that were the real reason for our visit.  The chance to not only board a space shuttle but also tour the 747 ferry aircraft as they stood proudly alongside the property's entrance was exciting for kids and parents alike.  The true gem to this whole place was the tram/walking tour of the giant space center complex.
     Boarding a tram and snaking through a short government tunnel on to the space center had a sort of X-files feel.  The giant gate with government property signs did nothing to dispel those feelings.  We drove down small streets that were towered by large, nondescript buildings that had extremely scientific-sounding names labeled on their walls.  Some housed astronaut debriefing and quarantine areas.  There was an open lot filled with sand and rock to test space landing vehicles.  Somewhere inside one of the buildings was a giant pool to simulate near-zero gravity.  All of these facts blared from the speakers of our tram car as we soaked up the bright Texas sun.  We were able to stretch our legs at the facility that holds the training mock-ups for astronauts visiting the International Space Station as well as the robotic exploration vehicle testing area and a section for high school robot team competitions.  The Orion project was also represented, though slightly obscured (purposely?) in the back and brought promise of a manned mission to Mars.  We were afforded access to get up close and personal with a Saturn V rocket, an overwhelming monolith of space technology.  The highlight of the tour, as if the tour was not highlight enough, was the chance to stand in a room once occupied by giants of science, space, technology, and politics.  Mission Control, the legendary room that monitored the Apollo missions, in all its dated glory.  Buttons and knobs and switches and levers and giant headphones and red phones and giant screens and ashtrays and theater seats, it was amazing.  It became surreal as they played moon landing footage on the screens as if we were witnessing it for the first time as it happened.  All the details of the tour should be kept secret for only those who decide to visit as everyone should visit this place at least once to witness the history and unending endeavor of space flight.
     With a few short hours left in our first day in Houston we were able to visit the Downtown Aquarium and make use of our CityPass that allowed acces to many of the city's museums.  The place is smallish and can be seen in an afternoon but on a Tuesday evening there was no one around.  We had the displays virtually to ourselves.  The displays were captivating in each environment was set within a thematic room molded around the fish being showcased.  The oil rig pillars of the Gulf Coast, the shacks and moss of the bayou, the suffocating overgrowth of the rainforest, and a white tiger.  The kids were able to play with the sting rays and enjoyed the dancing fountains that sparkled in the night air.  Outside a waterfall added some watery atmosphere and framed an upscale aquarium restaurant.  It called to us with its desserts just as Mom called us from work to pick her up.  Dessert would have to wait until we added a passenger and stopped by the 24 hour House of Pies.
     We would eat dessert in bed and revel in our journey thus far and fall asleep talking about our next day in this journey.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Longer Miles

     The fog clung to the hollows and shrouded the cannons.  The monuments hid within the trees and the statues stood stoic against the grey morning sky.  It all seemed fitting as we sidetracked through the old Civil War battlefield.  The more history engulfed us the darker the sky became.  Vicksburg will forever hold the key to the Mississippi River and will forever keep the battlefield memories of a young country in turmoil.  Within the national park that preserves the battle ground, beneath a giant tent, next to a small museum housing salvaged relics, stands the USS Cairo, a Civil War gunboat resurrected from the river waters just beyond the battlefield's impoundments.  The gunboat resides partially intact bearing the scars of its service, a gaping hole from the mine that took her down.  The sky opened and the rain poured and the thunder echoed through the valleys and across the hilltops.  The battlefield was sprawling and humbling.  We met the highway quietly behind schedule.
     West Monroe, Louisiana was not far as the highway and the landscape began to flatten.  It was strange to physically see the stores and shops of a television show brought to life.  My daughters begged for this route, cried for this pit stop, and I could not deny them.  The exit was somewhat disappointing.  The stores and donut shop and others were there but the area was the same as most places that we had left behind.  The scene, the highway jug handle, could have been any in NJ, a strip mall oasis.  Yet amongst the mundane sat a squat warehouse with a gravel parking lot set back a short distance from the main road.  A modest sign bearing "Buck Commander Duck Commander" adorns the building.  The children giggled and skipped through the rain to gain entry to the store that has been set up in a portion of the warehouse.  They took pictures with the world's largest duck call and picked up small road trip gifts for Grandma and Grandpa.  While the wife and kids stood in the cashier line I took to the cooling rain outside, as the small store began to fill with duck tourists.  My oldest daughter happily joined me so that she may take pictures of the warehouse sign.  The commotion was a quiet hum.  My daughter glanced through the exit door to see her sister scamper from the line to meet John Godwin, one of the famous Duckmen, a TV character come to life.  Her legs could not move fast enough as my oldest darted to gain reentry to the store.  Her current camo fashion statement did well to gain her favor with this celebrity and made for a fun photo opportunity. In the end, it was refreshing to meet a TV personality that was so genuine and so willing to share a few moments with each person in the room, making each feel so welcome.
     So much to take in before lunch even touched our lips and before the road truly stretched its reach.  Texas was in our sights but the distance would be long and flat.  The cruise control was set at 80 as the southern speed limits rose steadily the farther we traveled.  The miles rolled by, more than 200 before Dallas poked up from the horizon.  It shimmered in the heat of the horizon some 30 miles distant.  The frigid temperature of our Northeast home had been replaced by the welcoming February warmth of Texas.  The car's outside thermometer nearly matched the speedometer as Dallas continued to grow in our windshield.  These extra 300 miles were another side trip to bring a smile to the backseat passengers.  My youngest wanted with all her heart to see AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, and visit the pro shop for a camo Cowboy hat and some pictures.  Her enthusiasm is hard to dissuade.
     Dallas dreams gave way to a truly spectacular sunset that transformed the clouds and sky into a pallete of pinks and purples.  The clouds were aglow with colors sung about in historic songs and the highway seemed to lead right into them.  I drove until the colors faded and the clouds were awash in darkness and the black of the road matched that of the night.  I drove on a highway that seemed to never reach its destination.  I drove until my mind could no longer remember the words to songs coming from the back, until the trivia questions became so obscure they seemed crafted by hermit scholars who studied only 70's TV.  I drove until the signs read "Welcome to Houston" and then drove for another hour through this sprawling city.  With all those miles behind us, I would not, could not, stop driving until the parking lot of our hotel that would be our base for the next two days.  After three days bursting with experiences and waypoints, we had reached our destination.  Some of the miles had been longer than others, while others had passed slower than some, but we had arrived on time, happy, fulfilled, and quite tired.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Slower Miles

     Sunday brought a warmer clime than the one we had left behind.  Forty degrees was a far cry from the previous day's 19 and although the air still held a chill and the clouds foreshadowed some rain there were more miles to go before our destination.  The day's route was a scenic bypass of the crowded highway, 400 miles of history called The Natchez Trace, a slowly winding two-lane from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi.
     We entered the nationally treasured parkway at its northern terminus, the very last mile marker, just outside Nashville.  A ribbon of pavement that snakes its way through a rolling landscape to follow an ancient footpath first used by Native Americans then Mississippi River boatmen returning north and Andrew Jackson's regiments.   There were small roadside sections of preserved original footpath that we gladly made time to walk upon, following in the footsteps of this country's ancestors.  We visited a slowly disappearing example of a tobacco farm and the hollow remains of a ferry crossing, the Gordon House.  We found a more somber reminder of our history further along as we paused at the burial site of Meriweather Lewis, who had died along the Trace as he journeyed to Washington, D.C. to deliver his expedition journals.  History and the ghosts of history hung thick around us as state lines came and went, Alabama and then Mississippi.
     At the main visitor center for the Trace, near the halfway mark, we enjoyed more history and some brochures to aid in planning a future trip.  The kids found the National Park Service stamp station to add another reminder to their growing collection within their NPS passport.  Alongside the center was a side street leading into Tupelo and the birthplace of the king himself, Elvis Presley.  There were statues and plaques but also a peculiar air about the place.  Perhaps it speaks of the age of things but Elvis has seemed to become more historic for the older generations than the young.  As the memory of things fades so does that piece of music history, the old shack in the heart of Mississippi that birthed a music legend.
     Abandoning the Natchez Trace and Tupelo for a more expedient highway heading west, we gained momentum toward Jackson.  The clock allowed us to gain Vicksburg by the time the sun bid ado and sleep began calling.  I had hoped to gather more miles on Sunday but a slower pace and historic sites are not easily passed.  The trip, our cameras, and the children's education are all the richer for it.  I may have added hours to the next day's route but I had also added plenty to discuss during those hours.  Besides, who can resist sleeping in a hotel guarded by cannons and overlooking a Civil War battlefield?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Miles To Go

    The truck was packed tight with more than a week's worth of clothes suitable for any type of weather.  One cooler lay empty awaiting the spoils of the trip to come while the second, smaller one was packed tight with snacks and drinks for the road ahead.  There was even a few cold cut sandwiches squirreled away in there for lunch on the run.  We were prepared with real, live maps and a GPS and some color brochures of scenes we wished to experience.  Some of us had travel pillows and cozy blankets.  Our collective communications devices were charged and we had miles to go.
     The sun had barely warmed the truck's windows when I started the engine.  My family tiredly piled in.  The gas tank had been topped off the night before so there would not be the need for any unnecessary pit stops.  The road lay bare before us on this early Saturday morning and we had miles to go.
     The excitement didn't really set in until we reached the first state line.  Pennsylvania came in less than two hours and with it came the snow.  A full whiteout that blotted out the highway and mixed the sky, the ground, and the horizon between.  We were driving into a wall that stayed just ahead of the truck's hood.  It only took 30 minutes of white knuckle driving with the hazards flashing before we encountered the first pile up in the slow lane of the highway.  The snow crunching beneath our tires as we inched by the accident, the weather relented shortly after.  Once again we were cruising at highway speeds and we had miles to go.
     West Virginia came surprisingly fast after passing the Maryland state line.  We blew by the plaque on the side of the highway marking the Mason-Dixon Line.  Before lunch we had officially crossed into the South.  The journey had finally become real and we had reached the marathon section of it.  Virginia would be six hours due south, more than 300 miles of rolling farm land on both sides of us, and to our east rising above the farms, the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The sandwiches would become crucial during this leg of the journey.  Lunch would be in Virginia at 65 miles per hour as the skies cleared and the temperature began to rise and we still had miles to go.
     We had passed cavern attractions, drive through safaris, historic markers, and Civil War battlefields.  This was only day one and we had miles to go.  Sightseeing would wait until some more miles were between us and home.  Tennessee seemed like forever to get to but the sun had only begun to touch the horizon.  A solid day of driving, through sun and snow and rain and sun again, was enough to transport us a world away.  A quick stop in Knoxville for fuel and Hardees brought the sun to the horizon.  The passengers voted for stopping for the night at 8 but that time would have to wait as we crossed over an imaginary line that changed our clocks and gained our travels an extra hour.  A new time zone and extra hour allowed us to reach Nashville by the end of day one.  There were more miles to go but perhaps it was enough for one day.
     Nashville was somewhat strange to this family from the suburbs of NYC.  Although the nightlife on Saturday seemed alive, it only consumed a few city blocks.  The weather had warmed enough for the venues to have their doors open to the night air and music filled the streets.  But the nightlife seemed more akin to a NY neighborhood and not a whole bustling metropolis.  We gathered tourist info and rolled down the neon-lit streets taking traveler notes for a return visit.  In the overall plan Texas was our finish line and Nashville only a mile marker to reach before resting for the next leg of the journey.  Exploration would have to wait and the day's efforts had already proven that Nashville is less than a day away and we had miles to go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


     Today would be "Read Across America" in our local elementary school.  I have been implored, begged, harassed, and in all manners just about beaten by my children into visiting their classrooms to beguile the class with tales read from a Dr. Seuss book.  I can't recall exactly how many years it has been since this ritual began.  I must admit that each year brings its own special brand of trepidation.  The littlest audiences are usually the most brutally honest with the most acute questions. And so I gather myself and prepare to walk down to the school.
      My little one is not so little anymore and this will be her final year in the elementary grades.  It will be all too soon that she will accompany her sister on her daily walk to the next school.  The clock has once again fooled me and somehow let the time fly by.  Where have all those minutes gone?  This will be my last walk down the block to take up a book and read in front of those little not-so-little faces.  The material will be slightly more mature and meaningful than the good Dr. had written but the pages will be few.  Those classroom minutes will disappear quicker than all those years and minutes before.  I will remember the story that I read because it is the same tale I read a few years prior in the same classroom.  I will remember it for its content and the moral it conveyed.  But most of all I will remember it because of my daughter's beaming smile.
     Today was my final walk down to the little school to read for my daughter and her classmates.  Today was the final day my daughter will wish my presence in her classroom.  Today was bittersweet.  We have all outgrown Dr. Seuss and in doing so have outgrown the elementary school.  The years have disappeared but the memories will linger.  Maybe one day I will get a chance to visit with the Dr. again.

Monday, February 22, 2016


     There was a chill in the air.  It was not cold but comforting in that comfy sweatshirt, glowing campfire sort of way.  A few friends would be venturing through the evening's chill to shake hands and exchange witty banter.  It had been forever since we all had been in the same room together.  Some of those lonely beers from eons ago had been squirreled away for just this moment.  As the cars began to fill the driveway, we retired to the dim light and quiet of the barn, the gruff language of truck drivers and train conductors is better suited for trees than children.  We would eventually wander the woods to sleep in the hidden cabin that housed more of those lonely beers.  It had been awhile since I had drank so deep or laughed so heartily.
     The stars twinkled through the treetops and the sky was alive with a meteor shower that had been so highly touted, and it did not disappoint.  Yet some of us did not want to fully embrace the darkness or the natural fireworks or even the prized bottles of cellared liquid.  The memories swirled and the laughter flowed but they all seemed to be held at arms length, friends for decades, close yet with a distance now, somehow guarded.  Perhaps our differing paths have led us further away from each other or maybe our age or experiences have placed a new filter on our life-lenses.  The weekend, as they all do, flew by and the cars crept back out of the driveway.
     Our time together was quite like those lonely, hidden beers.  Some moments were sweet and mellow and warmed the heart and belly.  Others did not age as well, harsh, bitter, flat.  Some of us stopped for a moment, took a breath and enjoyed the streaks across the sky while others blinked and missed it.  Was it trying to recapture those youthful moments or chase away the mundane present that brought that undercurrent, no one will ever know nor will it ever be brought to light.
     In the end the meteors put their stamp on the weekend, fleeting and hot, bright against the dark sky and quickly gone again.  The lonely beers are gone and their hiding spots now beg for new occupants.  Next year the meteors will be back and we will hopefully have another chance to catch up with old friends.