A long and winding road trip · bikes planes and automobiles · family fun

Day 115: Road trip winds down.

This is so typical of me. I start something with all the enthusiasm and with the best of intentions, and then I go on a tangent and never come back to the original goal. That changes today — either that, or “never” is now.

Huh. We really were in the middle of nowhere.

So… after we left Boston we drove through Vermont for a while. It was beautiful, but so isolated that there was absolutely no cell reception for several hours. We noticed it when my phone stopped displaying highways and arrows and started showing us someone’s geometry homework a blank Cartesian plane.

Lesson learned: Always take a paper map along on a road trip, even if you have GPS. And no, the printed map of our route that I laminated onto the kids’ clipboards was nowhere near detailed enough for us.

So on we drove, keeping our eyes peeled for road signs. The kids got hungry. Someone needed to pee. We decided to look for a friendly, local place to eat… and we found it.

The sign at the side of the road said “Good Food Here”, so we stopped to eat at The Old Hancock Hotel. We added Toronto to their blackboard of visitors’ hometowns and sat in a room that looked more like some Granny’s dining room than like a restaurant. The apple crumble was outstanding and the service was friendly.

The next day, after an overnight stay in a hotel with a pool (read: we stayed up late to swim), we drove to the Ausable Chasm for some spectacular views, hiking, and rafting. The kids moaned and complained about the long lineup; I tried to distract them by pointing out interesting lichens on the wall of the chasm. That worked for a bit. Thankfully the line started moving faster and we were soon on a raft.

The chasm was awe-inspiring, especially the part where you can clearly see where two huge sheets of rock met millions of years ago, resulting in one going up and over top of the other.

We left the chasm and drove to Montreal, where we checked into what would be our final hotel.

The next day started out at Pointe-a-Calliere, a museum and archaeological site that explains the history of Montreal. We saw some ruins and walked through an old sewer (now sewage-free and beautifully lit). The kids enjoyed an exhibit on pirates that included a model pirate ship to climb around and explore.

After a beef-and-chicken fondue for lunch — which, to our surprise, N ate and loved! — we went down to the Old Port and got lost at SOS Labyrinthe, a giant maze escape game. In the end K and T won, but a good time was had by all.

Once out of the labyrinth, we explored the rest of the Old Port. K and R chose to use their remaining pocket money to ride the zipline while the rest of us stayed on the ground. Dinner was frozen bananas dipped in chocolate.

On the last day of the trip, Mr. December pulled R away from packing to visit a Barbie Expo nearby. R was in heaven.

On our way out of Montreal we stopped for a picnic with Mr. December’s Aunt, Uncle, and cousins… and a surprise guest! One of Mr. December’s good friends who now lives in Montreal had arranged with our Aunt to surprise us at the picnic. We feasted, sat in the wading pool, and chatted; then we were on our way home with nothing between us and Toronto but an abnormally large apple and some excellent pie à la mode.

A long and winding road trip · bikes planes and automobiles · el cheapo · family fun · Kids

Day 107: Boston (road trip report)

We left the dude ranch and drove to Boston. On the way through Brookline we met up for dinner with a friend from Mr. December’s university days. Checked into our hotel room — which was a two-room suite, a real treat after sharing one room for so many nights in a row. Before bed we watched an Oversimplified video about the American Revolution to prepare the kids (and ourselves) for what we’d be doing the next day.

We woke up to rain. We took an Uber to the Boston Tea Party Museum, where we participated in a re-enactment of the church meeting and the subsequent throwing of tea off the ship (one of the actual Tea Party ships, which is now part of the museum.) After viewing the indoor exhibits, we went upstairs to the tea room and enjoyed some scones and a few antique table games.

From the Tea Party Museum we could see the Boston Children’s Museum, which hadn’t been on our itinerary. Still, it was another indoor venue to explore while we waited out the rain. Right before we went to buy tickets, I remembered that with our Ontario Science Centre membership we had reciprocal benefits with a whole host of museums. Some googling later, and after a quick phone call to the OSC membership desk (“Um, could you please email me a copy of my membership card? I’m in Boston and my card is in Toronto…”) we got in for free.

This was where we lost N. He was with us one minute, and then he wasn’t. Fortunately we were wearing our matching family trip t-shirts, so he was easy to describe and was found very quickly.

Eventually we took another Uber to Boston Common and the Public Gardens. I had hoped the Frog Pond would be open for wading and water play, but apparently in Boston you can’t play with water if it’s raining… or something like that. Anyhow, we let the kids play in the playground for a while before we moved on to the Public Garden. In a heart-warming turn of events, R helped E get across the monkey bars by holding her legs up.

The Public Garden was where the magic happened. We sat on a bench and I read Make Way for Ducklings aloud to the kids, sitting in the exact place where the story was set — our view over the top of the book was identical to the book’s illustrations. When we had finished, we took pictures with the statues of the ducks from the book.

It was a two kilometre walk to Boston’s North End, where we were meeting a friend for dinner. Firm believers in developing grit and in “you can do hard things”, we walked it with the kids. To their credit, the complaining was minimal; their effort was rewarded with fresh cannolis.

We walked back to our hotel (maybe a twenty minute walk), stopping along the way at the famous Old North Church. The kids didn’t remember its significance from the Oversimplified video, so I whipped out my phone and read them Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride.

The next morning we toured the USS Constitution museum and ship, which was conveniently located across the parking lot from our hotel. The museum was outstanding. Once again, I learned a lot about the causes of the War of 1812, about ship building, and about the life of a sailor (that was in the well-executed children’s area of the museum.) Then we climbed aboard the ship (nicknamed “Old Ironsides”) and clambered below decks to see where the crew slept and ate, and to discover what the ship used for ballast (rocks. Large ones.)

That was the end of our time in Boston. We loaded up the car and headed out on the road with only our phones and Google Maps to guide us. Until, that is, our phones displayed… a blank cartesian plane.

Okaaay… now what?

Lesson learned: always, aways bring along a paper map as backup. You never know when you might drive off the highways and onto someone’s geometry homework.

A long and winding road trip · family fun

Day 103: First we Take Manhattan, Then we Take the Ranch.

Our second day in Manhattan contained none of the adventure, excitement, or death-defying biking of our first day. It was a different kind of fun that appealed to our more cerebral pastimes.

It was raining when we woke up, so an indoor destination was in order. Lucky for us, our hotel was just a few blocks away from the New York Public Library. Our resident lion enthusiast (N) was drawn to the giant lions guarding the building — their presence guaranteed his approval of the outing. Inside we saw the original stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories (yes, they belonged to the real Christopher Robin), examined the stunning architecture of the Rose Reading Room, and ended up sitting on the floor in between the stacks to read.

The afternoon gave Mr. December an opportunity for some exercise: he (and the rest of us) rode a square-wheeled tricycle at the Museum of Mathematics. Math has never been my strong point, but at this museum I was fascinated. In a pattern that persisted from the Niagara Power Project through museums in New York, Boston, and Montreal, I learned more from the museum than the kids did, although they did enjoy themselves immensely.

It was around 4 p.m. — teatime. We took a squishy cab ride uptown to Alice’s Teacup, where they offer you fairy wings when you come in. Mr. December looks adorable in pink sparkly wings, doesn’t he?

Back at the hotel we rested, then readied ourselves to move on the next morning. We did our laundry, packed our stuff, and went to sleep early, dreaming of cowboys and horses. Dude ranch, here we come!

By the time we left Manhattan, I was on edge. I’m not a fan of crowds, noise, and endless concrete. We left the city (very slowly) and drove out to Kerhonkson, NY. Never heard of it? Neither had we. We arrived at Pine Ridge Dude Ranch and settled in for a long weekend.

You guys, I am such a country person. I loved every minute of it. We rode horses, of course, but also spent lots of time in the pool (with waterslides!), jumping on this gigantic bouncy cushion, and washing the horses. We (a few families with kids) took over the empty “Bullroom” (dance club downstairs) one night and asked the (bored, lonely) DJ to play all of the kids’ favourites — even N came out of his shell and boogied to Old Town Road. There was line dancing every afternoon before dinner, and every night there was a campfire with s’mores. The kids were in heaven; so were Mr. December and I. Travel and adventure are fun, but there’s something lovely about an all-inclusive resort where everything is arranged and all you have to do is show up.

Alas, all good things must come to an end; after three days of food, fresh air, and fun, we packed up once again and made our way towards Boston.

A long and winding road trip · family fun · Kids

Day 102: New York, New York

I had a Groupon voucher for bike rentals near Central Park, so we headed up there first thing. E’s toe was still swollen, poor kid, so K very happily gave E a piggyback ride for seven blocks.

We got our bikes (including a tandem trailer for E) and biked around the park a bit, stopping at Hecksher playground (with giant formations of gneiss for the kids to climb all over) and the castle, which was really underwhelming to these Torontonians.

This is the castle?” K asked in disbelief, “Haven’t they ever seen a real castle, like Casa Loma?”

At this point we agreed to meet our cousins at the Times Square M&Ms store. I googled the route and said, “Hey, it’s not that far. Let’s bike there.”

I’ve always said there’s a very fine line between bravery and stupidity, but that day in New York, biking down Fifth Avenue in the Manhattan traffic, we definitely crossed that line. When we finally arrived I said a prayer that is usually said upon surviving a life-threatening situation.

We were all in heaven at the m&m store; the kids used up most of their pocket money there. Eventually we met up with our cousins and headed over to Ellen’s Stardust Cafe, where the wait staff are all Broadway performers who serenade you in between their other duties. The food was mediocre and overpriced, and the wait was long, but on the other hand it was the cheapest Broadway entertainment to be had. It was excellent.

Since we were in Times Square anyhow, we decided to check out the discount tickets booth. I was expecting a long lineup; there was none. Five minutes later, we had tickets to see Stomp.

Our kids and cast members from Stomp

That evening we took the subway downtown. The show was fabulous; even E admitted it later, although she spent the first two numbers saying, “Stomp isn’t very insteresting!” I saw through her right away — she was practically dancing in her seat. The show was marred only by a sudden burst of that irritating emergency alert sound from someone’s cellphone. As we exited the theatre and turned our phones back on, we saw why: there was a flash flood warning in effect.

It was pouring rain. Fortunately it was also very hot out, so the rain was a bit of a relief. We wandered over to a bubble tea place and then to a pizza joint. Finally, exhausted, we went back to the subway station… where we saw yellow “CAUTION” tape blocking the entrance.

A workman was at the bottom of the stairs, and in response to my frustrated, “SERIOUSLY?” directed us to another station nearby, where he promised we’d be able to catch the train we needed. So we trekked over there, paid our fares, and waited on the platform. And waited. A few trains passed, none of them ours. Finally I googled the train schedule to discover that we had missed the very last train of the night by just a few seconds.

By this time, the kids were beyond tired, and very whiny. “You know,” I told them, “this will make a great story one day. The most frustrating travel stories always do.” And then I related the story of “Two Rooms, Three Lightbulbs, and a Guy Named Jacques”, a rollicking good tale of me, my brothers, and my parents, searching for a hotel room that didn’t stink and that had a functioning light. Ah, those were good times.

We ended up leaving the subway station and taking a taxi all the way back to our hotel. The driver told us that he’s not allowed to have more passengers than there are seatbelts in his tiny car, but that he couldn’t just pass a family with little kids by in the pouring rain.

Next Time: Fun at a library and a math museum, and Mr. December in fairy wings.

A long and winding road trip · blogging · family fun · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 101: Questions you want the answers to

If you want to hear the highlights of our three (two and a half?) days in Manhattan, there are questions you should be asking. Questions like:

Why did the emergency alert system sound while we were watching Stomp?

Whose dumb idea was it to bike from Central Park to Times Square? And why?

How did we get the driver of a tiny cab to let all six of us squeeze into his car?

What did K find to scoff at in a Central Park landmark?

Why was Mr. December riding a tricycle with square wheels?

What’s up with the fairy wings we’re all wearing at that restaurant?

Why did I feel the need to regale the kids with a story from my family road trip through New York, particularly an episode my brothers and I called “Two rooms, three lightbulbs, and a guy named Jacques”?

Did we ever make it to the m&ms store?

And, the question you’re all dying to ask:

Why is this post just a teaser for a future post?

The last one, at least, I can answer: it’s late, I’m tired, and a little suspense never hurt anyone 😉 See you tomorrow!

A long and winding road trip · blogging · education · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · The COVID files · whine and cheese

Day 100: Wait, what?

It’s been one hundred days since the COVID shutdown began. You know how people with new babies say, “I can’t remember what life was like without her”? I can barely remember what life was like before the shutdown. I mean, I remember intellectually, but it doesn’t feel real anymore.

E often makes statements that begin with “After the coronavirus…” She has big plans, like a playdate with her friend and eating at a restaurant — things we wouldn’t have thought twice about four months ago.

There is definitely a part of me that doesn’t want to go back to driving, schlepping, extracurriculars, and over-scheduled days. But there’s still this sadness about the possibility that our world really has changed forever (although I’m a bit skeptical about that; major things happen and everyone says the world has changed, and then it just kind of goes back to status quo.)

Today is one of those days where I just need the kids to stop talking for five minutes. I’m irritable and so frustrated by how… slowly… they… do… everything. We played a game of Agricola and by the end I was rushing them along because all I really wanted was five minutes to myself to enjoy a bedtime snack without people watching me eat and sidling up to me with mouths upturned, like baby birds waiting for a regurgitated worm.

“Holy cow, R, just make a move already!”

“I’m thinking!

“You need to do your thinking while other people are taking their turns, then. N, you do realize there are negative points for having empty spaces, no animals, and no crops… right?”

He ended up with a grand total of 8 points (for those who don’t know the game, when good players play they might have fifty or sixty points at the end) to R’s 21 and my 32. Afterwards I wanted them to go to bed so badly that I volunteered to clean up all the pieces — and this game has a lot of pieces.

Anyhow, what I wanted to say was that other than the odd day here and there, I’m actually enjoying being all together as a family — almost like on our road trip, but not quite. On the road trip I had absolutely nothing to do other than be with my family. Everything was pre-planned, mapped out, and scheduled. I got to actually enjoy the things we did. The only way I could achieve that level of enjoyment being with my kids is if I took a full day every week to do all the planning, scheduling, and prep work… which isn’t a terrible idea, come to think of it, but something always comes up.

Like today, when we found mouse droppings in the basement storage room. Time to drop everything, clear out that room, clean up, plug up all holes in the masonry with steel wool and expanding foam, and set out some traps. It definitely took me away from things like doing math with E or reading to the kids.

So it’s been 100 days. Have we learned anything in that time? Well, I learned that my kids had huge gaps in their academic learning; that if I don’t make time for myself (and I don’t, sadly,) nobody else will; that I mostly enjoy having my kids around me; that some of my children function far better at home than at school. I’ve probably learned other things, too, but that’s what I’ve come up with tonight, still running on last night’s six hours of sleep (because I stayed up googling ways to help K overcome some of her academic issues). I guess I could claim that I’m 100 days smarter, if not better rested.

What have you learned in the last 100 days?

A long and winding road trip · bikes planes and automobiles · crafty · DIY · family fun · parenting

Day 99: More road trip? Why not!

I’m not going to give you a day-by-day account of our two week road trip, as tempting as that is to me (hey, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a new blog post every day.) But let’s pick up in Niagara Falls, where we left off.

We crossed the U.S. border at Lewiston and headed for the Niagara Power Project Visitors’ Center (yes, I spelled “center” wrong. American spelling, people!) — I can’t say enough good things about this place. I can’t speak for the kids, but I learned a lot about how electricity is produced and transported. We took part in a simulation of a day at the power plant — each of us at our own station focusing on different aspects of the job. And my favourite, the very cool table where you try to create an electrical grid by placing homes, businesses, generators, transformers, and towers in the appropriate places. We were there for three hours and the kids didn’t want to leave. And did I mention that it was free? Seriously, it’s worth the drive to Lewiston (when the borders open back up, of course.)

N and his electrical grid. The checkmarks mean his connections are all good.

Later, at the Corning Museum of Glass, K and I made our own glass pendant necklaces while Mr. December and the others tried their hands at sandblasting ice cream goblets.

We finally rolled into Scranton, PA late that night after going to the wrong Courtyard by Mariott Scranton (couldn’t they have come up with two different names?), where E showed us the sore toe she’d been whining about since Niagara Falls. I was shocked to see that her entire toe was swollen. I felt like the world’s worst mom for spending two days telling her, “I hear that your foot hurts, but that’s because we’re just walking more than usual. You’ll be fine tomorrow.”

She wasn’t; by the next morning, E’s toe was enormously swollen, shiny, and very painful. Mr. December took her to a doctor while we cooled our heels in the hotel lobby. Eventually they returned with a diagnosis of cellulitis, a bottle of antibiotics, and instructions to keep tabs on whether the redness was spreading or receding.

We rushed straight over to the Lackawanna Coal Mine (listening to my themed playlist that included Coal Miner’s Daughter and Workin’ in a Coal Mine), hoping to catch the last tour before it was too late. Thankfully, we were on time and they had a wheelchair down inside the mine, so we wouldn’t have to carry E on our backs. I spent most of the mine tour (and the rest of the day) saying, “OK, kids. Remember this next time you want to complain about having to load the dishwasher. You could have been born in another time and be that kid sitting in the dark all day long!” To this day, when they complain, I say, “At least you’re not working in a coal mine.”

I wish we’d had more time at the mine. Right next to the mine shaft was a Museum of Anthracite that we didn’t get to see, and the chance of us returning there at any point is almost zero.

We got to our destination later than we wanted to that evening, since our medically necessary late start meant that we hit New York City rush hour on the way into town. It was okay, though — we listened to a few episodes of the Tell me Something I Don’t Know podcast (which is highly entertaining.) As we inched through the tunnel into Manhattan, we turned on a playlist I had compiled of songs about New York. Know who noticed and/or enjoyed it? Nobody.

Since we would be parking our car for the duration of our stay in the city, we had to take out everything we might want. So the big bins with our shoes and sweatshirts got loaded onto the luggage cart, along with the two suitcases, the schoolwork box, and everyone’s backpacks. And the stuffies. Also pillows. Passers-by on the sidewalk seemed entertained by our attempts to keep everything from falling while children exited the vehicle one after another; it was a bit like a road trip clown car.

I dropped the car off at one of those parking garage towers where they take your car at the entrance and put it on an elevator to some other level, then enjoyed the relative peace of a two-block stroll without any whining, arguing, or begging for snacks. I rode the elevator up to the top floor, where we had booked what Manhattan hotels call a “suite” and hotels everywhere else call a closet. It actually was large enough for all of us, but just barely. At bedtime it was basically wall-to-wall mattresses and beds.

It was too late to do anything or go anywhere. That night was an ETB (Early To Bed) for all of us — the next day we’d be exploring the m&ms store Manhattan!

A long and winding road trip · bikes planes and automobiles · el cheapo · family fun · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 97: What I did on my summer vacation, part 2

Before I get to the meat of this post, let me just say Happy Fathers’ Day to all those celebrating today, but in particular to my father, my husband, and his father — each of them, in his own way, a supreme example of a good father.

When we left off last week, we were reversing out of our driveway and heading towards adventure on a Sunday morning. Right before we left, Mr. December pulled me aside and asked, “Should we do some kind of announcement when we get on the road? Like on an airplane?” I thought it was a great idea, so we recorded something like this:

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard the B-bus. Today we will be riding at an altitude of about four feet. The weather is clear and we’ll be in Niagara Falls in about ninety minutes. For your comfort and convenience you will find a fleece blanket, a full water bottle, and an in-flight entertainment clipboard in the seat pocket in front of you. On behalf of all of us, we wish you a pleasant journey.”

The kids giggled, but they hadn’t heard the best part yet: Mr. December then translated into “Buk Buk” language (I’ve mentioned his chicken alter-ego before, right?).

“Buk buk bukbuk buKAW, buk buk B-bus. Buk bukaw Niagara Falls bukbuk buk.” … and so on. You get the idea.

An hour and a half later we arrived in Niagara Falls and spent the day on the Maid of the Mist, the Niagara Skywheel, at Ripley’s Believe it… or Not!, and at the IMAX film about the falls. And, of course, we stopped in at the Hershey store. The kids were so busy deciding what candy they wanted to buy that they completely missed the free samples (so did Mr. December, but I shared mine with him. I’m nice like that.)

Our lunch that day was a packed lunch from home, so it wasn’t until dinner that we discovered that in Niagara Falls, even large chain restaurants are overpriced. We went to East Side Mario’s and I gaped in disbelief when I saw what they were charging. We still had to eat, though, so Mr. December wisely ordered a few dinners (huge dishes) and we all shared them.

Back at the hotel it was bedtime, but we all wanted a swim in the hotel’s pool. As it happened, so did all the other families at our hotel. We were still swimming when the pool closed at nine. Baths for all, and then bed. Right?

Wrong. The falls were lit up in colours and, according to the guest information in our room, the fireworks would begin at ten. As soon as they heard the first of the fireworks, the kids shot up out of their beds and dragged two armchairs to the window.

“Eema, why are you trying to sleep? Aren’t you coming to watch?” They asked.

“No. Somebody has to be alert enough to drive tomorrow, you know!” was my half-mumbled, half-whined response. And with that, I put in my earplugs, pulled on my eye mask, and went to sleep.

One day down, thirteen more to go.