Breezing through Kansas – for FREE!

Up until now, my knowledge of Kansas was limited to Dorothy’s escapades and knowing that’s where convicted military criminals go to make big rocks into smaller ones.

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We opted by bypass Leavenworth and focus on more noteworthy (and less felonious) stops.

We departed Cuba wicked early and made for Topeka, Kansas.  It was our intent to stop and do lunch in Topeka after we checked out the National Park Service (NPS) site, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The following and final leg of the day’s drive was rather nebulously defined as we had yet to determine where in Kansas we would overnight. Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, should be pretty easy to find a reputable place to park the rig sans reservations, right?

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This particular NPS site is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, which was one of the four segregated elementary schools open to African-American children in Topeka in the early 1950’s.  This schoolhouse served as the launching point for the five collective cases that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which began the process to legally overturn the Jim Crow laws that had sprung up in the decades following the Civil War.  Following these segregation laws was the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson that specifically permitted that separate but equal public education was permissible.  Until I put together Keeper’s study packet on this subject, I hadn’t remembered that there were five cases that fell under this notorious ruling.

 

During our visit, I learned it was then 46-year old Thurgood Marshall who, while representing the NAACP, told each of the plaintiffs that their impact would not be significant enough to get the Supreme Court’s attention should each case be evaluated alone. He convinced them it would be wiser to band together, arguing that these five different situations in Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington DC all demonstrated that the previous ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson was indeed unconstitutional.  In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and our nation began the process of desegregating educational experiences “with all deliberate speed”.

Two things jumped out at me in that little schoolhouse in Topeka.  First, because the quality of education and the disparity between segregated schools varied widely by location, the Supreme Court deferred to state and local governments to responsibly make the desegregation of public education so, which meant there was no defined timeline for the transition to occur.  I was dismayed to learn the great lengths some pockets of our nation went to defy this Supreme Court Ruling.  For example, Virginia state legislature rallied to advise that any public school subject to federally-mandated integration would be closed instead.  This opprobrious behavior continued for five years.

I was also intrigued to learn that the Brown v. Board case was specifically chosen because the two elementary schools used to demonstrate the inherent inequality in segregated educational experiences were nearly identical in every way (e.g. facilities, teacher education, books, etc.).  By citing the segregated elementary school system of Topeka (whose higher grades had been integrated for decades and where on paper the schooling was nearly identical), it was possible to clearly demonstrate that, by removing all other variables, a segregated primary educational experience was fraught with disadvantage for everyone involved.  Interesting to note, they also used the name of the only male parent plaintiff to gain more “credibility” for the class action case. In putting this Supreme Court ruling in historical perspective, I incredulously realized it still took another decade for the remaining Jim Crow Laws to be overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  I took a moment to reflect on my own amazing elementary and middle school experience at the widely diverse Martin Luther King, Junior, Experimental Laboratory School (King Lab for short) and gave thanks again for the bubble in which I was raised.

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Junior Rangers badged, we had a short, hot lunch – hot not for the food choices but because the temperature within Davista skyrocketed as she was parked, windows closed in open sun. Lunch devoured, we got underway with several Kansas State Parks as potential overnight possibilities on our way to the Denver area.  And, as we have been reminded by many a non-RV owning friend, there was always Walmart…

We learned at our first stop why no one was answering the phone when we tried to call to make a reservation.  It was free! You could just pull up and set up your rig anywhere.  For any period of time.  And plenty of folks did.  Still subject to find-the-best-campsite-itis, Flight and I eyed the remaining mileage to get our Rocky Mountain high on (check out this vintage ad for Coors), assessed our long-encamped potential neighbors, and looked at the upcoming lakefront Kansas State Parks along our path.  Despite Flight’s fiery sciatic nerve, we decided to press on.

We rolled into Glen Elder State Park at dinner time-ish.  A 30-minute drive through each of the four campgrounds showed no open designated spots, not even any primitive ones without hook-ups (e.g. water, electric, sewer, even cable at some…).  After passing through the four different campgrounds, we noticed there were plenty of folk getting their camp on pretty much wherever.  We stopped to ask one of the Camp Hosts (a temporary title bestowed on an RV family who serves as the Park POC in exchange for a free stay) about finding a spot.  They assured us all official spots, with hook-ups or no, were reserved, but we could park anywhere we wanted.   When we asked about a fee, they told us since Memorial Day Weekend was such a madhouse and we were leaving in the morning anyway, we could just stay for free.

Well, Kansas is all right.

Flight and I debated the pros and cons of a free off-grid birdie in the hand versus the unknown of the next Kansas State Park down the road.  It wasn’t a long debate and we unceremoniously staked our claim at the next open lakefront location we saw.  It was unceremonious in that we pulled off the road, didn’t even disconnect the Subaru, or exit Davista before we extended the slide out, deployed our stabilization jacks, and turned on the generator, using the latter to prepare dinner and support our children’s screen habits.  Exhibiting uncharacteristic apathy, even Flight refrained from exploring our local environs before we dined, shared a family movie night, and crashed out.

Were we inclined to stay longer, this State Park was in a lovely location, but we were eager to get back to the mountain west where we had reservations with full hook-ups.  I did capture our spot after we retracted jacks and the slide before we rolled on to Golden.

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An added benefit to our staying at Glen Elder was that it put us near another NPS site in Nicodemus NHS, so we stopped just after they opened and learned about another aspect of our nation’s history, one that tied in nicely with our Topeka stop the day prior.

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Nicodemus, Kansas, is a unique town that is now 18 citizens strong, yet the current diminutive population size should not take away from its significance.  In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, those Americans who, despite being legally granted their freedom, still found substantial discrimination in the deep South longed, understandably, for a truly free community.  Acting on these desires was a remarkable group of recently liberated families who made their way west to establish a place free of the limiting beliefs deeply entrenched in the southern states.  One of the volunteers at the NPS site was a 6th generation resident of Nicodemus, where her three times great grandfather was the first born in this new settlement.  She further confided her four times great grandmother traveled west at eight months pregnant.  !!!

What I found most remarkable about Nicodemus was not only what those founding families accomplished, but that they recognized how significant their actions were and recorded everything, taking a surprising number of photographs and keeping copious journals.  Much to the frustration of archeologists, most of humanity, unless you have “Emperor” or “Queen” in your title, has not seen fit to leave records of their day-to-day existence.  In speaking with this 6th generation Nicodemus resident (and her young daughter is 7th generation, she told me), I commented on how impressive it was that these early Nicodemus residents were so intent on capturing their experiences.   She replied that they simply knew what they were doing was momentous and documented as much as they could.  Although most of their descendants have since moved on, I am awed by what these early pioneers were able to accomplish.

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As we pressed westward, Flight and I had an interesting discussion stemming from the one I had with the Nicodemus volunteer.  We, too, are (somewhat belatedly, sigh…) attempting to capture our trip’s experiences in this blog because we recognize how uniquely privileged we are to be able to so travel.  Very few people have a flexible enough occupations to allow for this opportunity, and fewer still are willing and able to capitalize on that flexibility.

Flight and I agreed that we have each formed our impressions of places we had seen in our younger years and are finding that those perspectives are sometimes jarringly (and sometimes only slightly) different from our interpretations this go around.  Neither of us is sure whether it is these locations or we that have evolved in the interim, likely both.

Our discussion then pushed in an unexpected direction, and not just because I was driving and it was (surprise, surprise) blowing stink across Tornado Alley.

 

Breezy indeed!

I observed to Flight that, despite taking pride in our nation as a melting pot, there seems to be an opposing desire to normalize the collective American experience.  I’m not sure if this push for normalization is due to or based on the apparent globalization of small town, USA, redefining much of our nation as a conglomerate of golden arches, Sam’s Club, Target, and countless other ubiquitous chains.  While that movement has certainly made our travels far easier (I’m thankful Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are far more prevalent than even five years ago), I can’t help but wonder what long-standing local Mom and Pop treasures we’ve missed out on.  These unique gems seem to be slowly winking out across our nation, overrun by the ever-expanding gargantuan chain establishments. Stephen King’s Langoliers come to mind…

After mulling that over for a stretch of miles, I further wondered aloud why, despite this longing to become loosely defined all-American citizens, there still remains a conscious pursuit of tribal self-identification. Using DNA testing companies and participating in the genome project have recently become all the rage.  But why? I had always learned it was our nation’s diversity that provided our unmatched strength and depth, so why then do we as individuals eagerly seek out a unique existence defined by our roots, genetic or otherwise, despite a public (subconscious?) tendency to promote a uniform American identity?  At first blush, I’m really not sure what’s at the root of these seemingly contradictory personal and public agendas and, frankly, I’m not sure what that juxtaposition says about the prognosis of our nation’s prosperity.  In the meantime, I will continue to give thanks for the freedoms I enjoy, for the privilege of doing my part to help make that so, and, with intention this Memorial Day, for my sisters and brothers in arms, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

My Mother’s Making Me Marry Meramac

One of the greatest things our travels have afforded us is the opportunity to reconnect with friends we’ve met throughout our lives.  One of those people who made a great impact on both Flight and me was one gentleman we each worked very closely with in our squadron days.  He was the Chief Aviation Electrician in my first shop and, a true mentor, taught me a lot about how the Navy runs.  In addition to being a stellar electrician, he was also a flight engineer and flew on Flight’s crew.  While we worked through some challenging issues with our shop on the ground, he and Flight worked through countless of them in the air, every time safely returning them both to land.  Flight so respected and valued his input that he called his former flight engineer while he was limping a plane back to the Netherlands from the Caribbean during his exchange tour with the Dutch Navy.  Not only do we each value his professional savvy, he’s just an all around solid fellow we wish we could spend more time around.

We were fortunate that his son was stationed in Annapolis for a short time, so we were able to connect with him once during a family visit, but as our travels hadn’t previously taken us to Cuba, Missouri, we hadn’t seen him much since his retirement from the Navy many moons ago.  We both welcomed the opportunity to route our trek west through his neck of the woods.

Flight and I really struggled with coming up with an appropriate path as we moved west, mostly owing to our ignorance about the middle of the country.  With an anchor point of Cuba, MO, there remained any number of ways we could take five days to get from Atlanta to Denver where we had our next campsite reservations.  I had originally suggested going through St. Louis so we could see the magical Gateway Arch. After reading the reviews of this particular National Park Service (NPS) site (and seeing the tic start jumping in Flight’s eyelids in response to the likelihood of having to wend Davista through another tight metropolitan area), I broadened the scope of our trek and found another NPS site to see on the way.

Most fortuitously, Flight had also indicated his interest in seeing the Ozarks so traveling through the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was a no-brainer.  We stopped to stretch our legs, have lunch, complete Junior Ranger badges, and freak out to be reminded that snakes climb trees (maybe that last one was just me…).

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I don’t know why that particular serpentine skill set escaped my attention, especially considering I can sing all the words to “Trust in Me” from the Jungle Book, but I had to work very hard to talk myself out of believing that snake must have plopped onto Davista and snuggled into some cranny to ride to Cuba where it would then make its stowaway presence known in a most disturbing manner.  For me, snakes fall into the same category as unidentified swimming objects (USOs).

I find water boasting clear visibility to be soul-soothing and lovely, whereas murky water tends to unleash my imagination so it can enhance the capabilities and instincts of any and all hypothetical USOs I might fathom.  And I can dream up some doozies.  I admit this character trait does not serve me the best, especially when doing a float along the sediment-rich Meramec River.

Upon first hearing the river’s name, I couldn’t get the Irish Drinking Folk Song “Mary Mack” out of my head.  Try as I might, it’s on a loop soundtrack even as I now type…

When we pulled up to the Indian Springs RV Campground we were a little concerned.  Apparently the previous week’s rain made the Meramec so swollen the entire campground had been waterlogged.  The sites along the river, of which ours was one, were only now becoming usable, which meant the campground was empty and we could choose any site with the mud viscosity of our desires.  We opted for the driest of the lot and were steadily joined by other RVers as Memorial Day weekend approached.

Our friend was able to take the day after our arrival off and he and his daughter met us at our campground with kayaks to explore the river.  It was extremely convenient to put in steps from Davista and we got underway just after lunch.

WoodSprite accompanied me in one of our two seaters and Flight and Firebolt cruised in our other one.

Keeper, however, was kayaking solo and, most impressively, made the opportunity to read Tom Sawyer along the way.

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The timing of this book choice was hardly incidental as we knew we’d be moving through Mark Twain’s stomping grounds.

Our leisurely six-hour paddle afforded the opportunity to kayak beside and visit with our friends as we floated down the river, the transit interspersed with swim calls, cliff jumping, attempted rope swing operations, and modest cave spelunking.

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It was fantastic to be introduced to the Meramac’s treasures by two of the locals who know it best.  Fortunately, our friends had let us know about the native alligator gar, a fish that looks an awful lot like its namesake (see the picture below I found online…).

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I say fortunately because I saw one surface close to our kayaks, nearer than I found comfortable. It looked like a baby gator and two thoughts immediately came to mind.  First was the trailer for the terrible movie “Alligator” which I remember seeing on TV while growing up.  The gist of the film was an unwanted pet baby alligator was flushed down the toilet, fed on escaped scientific test subjects (rats) that were riddled with growth hormones, and grew to Godzilla proportions to wreak havoc on Chicago.  Inspired by that movie, I remember dubiously eying the commode every time nature called, unsure of what might surface when I was most vulnerable.  My uneasy truce with modern plumbing lasted for several months until I was drawn into other preoccupations.  Although, frankly, port-a-potties still invite my creative juices to go in such unwanted directions.  The second and more recent flash pointed to the signs surrounding the “lake” in Houston. Although I didn’t see any telltale gator silhouettes, I could imagine them circling darkly beneath the muddy waters, awaiting foolish appetizers to enter their domain.  Such creature sightings, even when I know what they are, don’t do a whole lot to help me keep my imagination in check and serve only to reinforce my desire to maintain a healthy distance from those who call the water home.

Purposefully and intently stuffing my creativity back in the box, I ignored what I had just seen and instead focused my energy on how to make use of the many rope swings dangling over the river.  We tried to take advantage of several, but they were all in poor repair and impossible to reach.  Bummer.

Our last stop on the float was a cave behind a spring.  It’s important to tell you this because the spring appeared to be channeling water in directly from the Aleutian Islands.  It was ludicrously cold.  As we were approaching the inlet, the spring’s artic tendrils crept out of the river’s alcove and the water temperature noticeably dropped.  I did not take that as a good sign.

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Steeling ourselves for the frigid (and slippery!) walk through the water, we slowly made our way to the cave entrance.  Mildly claustrophobic, I chose not to venture too far into the cave but captured this picture of the braver souls in our party.

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The beautiful view out to the icy pool was almost enough to make me forget my lower legs were still numb. Almost.

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Once more through the pool, I held WoodSprite’s hand in a death grip to preclude either of us inadvertently going for a brisk swim.  We made it back to our respective transports and carefully extracted ourselves from our waypoint.  The rest of our float provided me the privilege to soak in this valuable time with our friends that we rarely see.  It was made even better by having his extended family meet us at the take out point and caravan us back to Davista.

Flight and I spent much of our drive the following day reflecting on how incredible this journey has been, especially in affording us the opportunity to reconnect with some great friends, and we again gave thanks for being in a place in our lives where we are able to so travel.

Confluence

We departed Hotlanta and meandered towards the Land Between the Lakes, which spans the confluence of Western Tennessee and Kentucky.  On our way, we stopped at the Stones River National Battlefield to learn more about the Civil War.

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The girls had the opportunity to earn another Junior Ranger badge, making it their third at a designated civil war site, which meant they were also eligible for becoming Civil War Junior Rangers.  A twofer – WOO HOO!

Actually, our little sojourn in Tennetucky (Kennessee?) provides a great opportunity to give a little update on the roadschooling aspect of our travels.  Why, you ask?  Well, frankly, because we didn’t do much else there.

Permit me to back up to the start of the second phase of our travels, which we started up again on the Spring Equinox.  Our girls had been playing going to public school for six out of the eight weeks prior to our departure (minus our time in Bend) while Keeper continued homeschooling while we were back in Maryland.  You can read more about the decision making process for that choice here.

Getting back on the road and resuming the education of all three of our kids has been extremely rewarding, most especially because everything is all converging at the end of the official academic year.  Our kids are (mostly) motivated to knock out their work in a timely manner and are learning by leaps and bounds.  A quick refresher on our educational goals for our kids that generally fall into three categories:  1) the basics (math and the Four Arts of Language (reading, writing, listening, and speaking)); 2) the application of the basics in other directions (e.g. science, art, history, geography, economics, social studies, etc.); and 3) life skills (e.g. meal planning, cooking, cleaning, laundry, sewing, knitting, etc.).

To solidify the first of these basics, every day our kids each complete a math exercise, review, or test in accordance with their respective Singapore Math curriculum.  To improve their writing skills, they each pen a journal entry on their respective experiences the day prior (WoodSprite a few sentences, Firebolt a paragraph, and Keeper at least three paragraphs).  To further advance in the other three arts of language, they all silently read at least one chapter in a book to themselves (we alternate between books of their choosing and ours) and each is also required to read aloud to the others (or me or Flight).  Keeper reads The Story of the World to his sisters, Firebolt reads the latest Laura Ingalls Wilder book to WoodSprite, and WoodSprite reads Inside Out aloud to me.  Somehow I came across a History Sticker Book in the bargain books section of Barnes & Noble and, just for fun, completing at least one page has been an additional requirement for WoodSprite.

A bonus – it has neatly tracked along with Keeper’s readings aloud on world history, and Firebolt has been eager to help her sister through the pages.

While they are all practicing the fundamentals of math and the Four Arts of Language (they also each have weekly spelling tests), we are encouraging them to apply these basics in directions they enjoy.  Keeper started the year intrigued by chemistry, so Flight and I have worked through an online high school chemistry class with him until we returned to Maryland. Since then he’s been captivated by physics, so Flight covered the basics of trigonometry with him before we jumped into a high school physics class, which he has enjoyed.  While on the road, the girls have had the opportunity to complete Junior Ranger programs at all the National Park Service (NPS) sites we visit (24 so far!). In earning Junior Ranger badges, the girls have become savvier on social studies, biological diversity, ecology, history, paleontology, archeology, marine biology, and numerous other varied disciplines.

Aside from writing about his observations about his experiences in his journal, Keeper had not been held accountable for learning much of anything at any of the NPS sites we had seen.  Although I didn’t stumble onto it until later into our adventures, the NPS website has a cache of curricula for teachers to use, aptly named “Teaching with Historic Places.”  Most conveniently, the curricula available are listed by subject and by location.  When asked whether he would prefer to study more about somewhere we’d been or learn about where we we’d be heading, Keeper insisted on the former.  From these posted lessons, I put together a solid packet that Keeper could work through in a week.  He’s evaluated the varied manifestation of urban planning in the vastly different cities of New Orleans and Savannah and how those architectural differences reflect the identities and societal norms of these developing urban centers.  As we were departing the Great Smoky Mountains, Keeper studied the Trail of Tears and the forced relocation of the Cherokee people. As we roll into Kansas, he’ll be assessing the five different cases that are collectively referred to as Brown v. Board of Education, which I’m excited to tie to our heavy civil rights day in Atlanta.  It’s all coming together…

Tangentially related to their daily writing exercises, our children are each required to draw something that illustrates some aspect of our travels that they’ve written about.  I’m excited that at the end of our journey they will each have a portfolio journal capturing their experiences in their own words and drawings.  Hopefully some of those will make their way into the blog before too long…

One of the topics we really can’t get around is geography.  Thanks to dedicated focus, each kid now knows the location of all 50 states, and they have nearly mastered learning their capitals (mostly thanks to this youtube video…).  Keeper learned about this video in 5thgrade and recently introduced his sisters to this fantastic study aid.  WoodSprite is the last of the three to learn the capitals by heart, and you can see her intensely study during our stay at the Land Between the Lakes.

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We also hope to teach our kids some of the major geographic landmarks that define our country (e.g. rivers, mountain ranges, lakes, etc.), which we’ll continue to revisit through our travels.

The final focus for our roadschooling efforts is on life skills.  The kids take turns helping to meal plan, generate grocery lists (although I relish the opportunity to shop unencumbered), assist in the preparation of meals, set the table, and clean up after meals.  They are also each working on a knitting project, although Firebolt’s is in hibernation while she finishes her very first latch-hook project.

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This week Keeper learned how to sew on a button. Maybe next week he’ll teach his sisters. I think surgeons are onto something with trying out new procedures: “See one, do one, teach one…” Truth be told, I’m much more comfortable with the efficacy of such a practice when learning how to sew on buttons, measure twice before cutting out a sewing pattern, or binding off a scarf.  However, on second thought, these evolutions do strangely resemble basic surgical procedures…

This academic year has been incredibly rich with learning for everybody, me especially.  Although it took a while to get everyone on board and eager to work, slowly we’ve gotten the hang of it (literally).

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True to Navy form, now that we’ve figured out how to roadschool most effectively, it’s time to change our SOP.  Summer will be officially upon us after Memorial Day and we’ll be downshifting our academic efforts.  Not entirely, mind you…  It is our intent to still require some academic work over the summer (namely math, reading, and writing) and we’ll be seeing plenty of our country, NPS sites and otherwise, as we make our way west.  May the learning never end…

Hotlanta

We had made the decision to jog south to Atlanta after our time in the Great Smoky Mountains based on two main draws.  First, we have several friends from our Navy days who live in the greater Atlanta’s area and, second, the busy airport makes a commute for Flight fairly reasonable. After deciding we’d be in Atlanta, we took a look at all we could do there and our schedules were immediately packed.

Because Flight had a work trip starting only two days after we arrived and the weather threatened thunderstorms (and wicked heat) the rest of our visit time, our first day at the Holiday Harbor RV Park in Acworth, GA, centered on being on Lake Allatoona.  Flight rented a pontoon boat, suitable for towing our gaggle about on a tube, and beached it right at our campsite so we could load our gear before getting out on the water in earnest.

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Surprisingly, although maybe it wouldn’t have been so had I spent any time looking at a map, Lake Allatoona is relatively enormous.  We spent the first stretch of our boat rental period checking out the nearby nooks and inlets of this expansive waterway.  And then the kids got serious about tubing.

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Not at all surprisingly, Keeper and WoodSprite were the first to volunteer to get on The Big Shot tube. Firebolt wanted no part of it. After watching her brother and sister have so much fun, they convinced her to give it a shot.  Her counteroffer was she’d get in the tube and make the call to actually tube from there.  Flight, unaware of Firebolt’s ongoing negotiation tactics thought she was all in and let the tube drift behind the boat to resume tubing operations. Firebolt panicked and, despite her siblings’ gracious attempts to assuage her concerns, rallied to near hysterics.

Flight pulled the tube back in so Firebolt could frantically disembark.  I gathered a shaken and tear-stained Firebolt onto my lap and immediately did some Chinese Medicine triage.  Suspecting there was an energetic block between Firebolt’s kidney and pericardium systems (you can learn more about what that means in my Acupuncture 101 summary here), which tends to manifest as excessive fear, I helped her clear this block with a short breathing exercise and within two minutes she was calm and willing to entertain going tubing for real.  Meanwhile, Keeper and WoodSprite got another turn.

All three kids rode together for a stretch.

Then the girls went without Keeper, because he wanted to do some boat yoga.

Impressed by his subconscious gentle bow, I asked Keeper what he was doing and he said, “I don’t really know.”

We anchored and enjoyed a swim call and some snacks before we got back to the serious business of tubing.

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And for the final event, Firebolt went all by herself.

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A few things struck me about our day on the water.  First, I was delighted to see that Firebolt totally rallied.  For a child as stubborn as her parents, she was able to accept some direction and move through her fear to take advantage of a great time. Second, I was most impressed by the behavior of Keeper and WoodSprite.  Clearly, they had no issues getting into a small, round, plastic, bottomed donut and being slingshot about Allatoona Lake. In fact, they thought it was great fun.  What was particularly heartwarming was their compassion for their sister as her initial trepidation ramped up to near debilitating.  They were both kind and empathetic, telling Firebolt how much fun they had tubing and how much more they’d enjoy it if she came along.  Never did our kids express any heckling, ribbing, or mockery (I’m not sure how they’re the offspring of two naval aviators who eat, sleep, and breathe accompanied by such antics…). Instead, they gently and lovingly encouraged their sister to participate in some good fun.   Our lovely afternoon on the water came to a close and Flight made some of his famous Sausage and Kale Pasta.  All in all, it was a glorious day.

After an exciting (simulated) day of laundry and homeschool tasks, we got ready to head to our former squadron mate and friends’ house.  We hadn’t seen them in ages and were stoked to carve out some visit time. The kids disappeared to a local park shortly after we arrived and we were able to catch up with Inigo and his lovely bride uninterrupted by children.  One of the things both Flight and I observed was that in the years since we last saw Inigo and his crew, we have grown to walk paths very similar to theirs. Sadly, we were too busy catching up that we neglected to take a picture, but vowed we wouldn’t let another 18 years lapse before our next get together.

The next day was more of the same with homeschool activities and torrential downpours, but I took advantage of Flight’s being in town and made the opportunity to meet up with another dear friend whom I have known for more years than I’d prefer to count.  To give you an idea on our friendship’s vintage, we first bonded in French class at the Naval Academy and have been fast friends ever since.  A remarkable woman, she was first a Surface Warfare Officer upon graduation and commissioning and has since completed a joint program at Emery where she earned both her Law Degree and a Master of Divinity in only five years.  No slouch, that one…

In addition to practicing law, she has recently become an Episcopal Priest and is very active in her church’s outreach to those impacted by the current administration’s take on immigration law, especially those affected through no choice of their own. Although we had only a short visit sandwiched in between work and parenting obligations, it was incredibly uplifting and I remain hopeful that our professional paths may converge in the future.  I returned to our family refreshed, my soul nourished, and the Subaru full of goods hailing from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.  And Flight welcomed me back with a new InstantPot creation of pork ragout – he totally rocks.

We dropped Flight off at the airport the following morning and focused our studies on a day heavy on Human and Civil Rights.  You can read more about that awesome and powerful outing here.

We had a weekend without Flight and I looked to the weather forecast to help us decide how we would schedule our remaining time in Hotlanta.  High on my list of priorities was to see nearby Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield.  As I explained to our kids, on our travels thus far we’ve had a great opportunity to learn about the colonization of our country by various nations that ultimately led to our declaring our independence from England and establishing our own identity.  We had also learned a considerable amount about the Civil War, evaluating the significance of places like Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter in that conflict, yet we hadn’t seen any of the National Battlefields.  Before we made our way west again, I thought it important for us to see a couple of these sites to better understand the nitty-gritty details of life in the trenches of that particular war.

Nearby to the Holiday Harbor RV Park is the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield.  Sunday threatened more reasonable weather, so we took Saturday to chill after the previous day’s heavy topics.  After lunch on Sunday, we trundled into the Subaru and headed for Kennesaw Mountain.

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Just as we arrived, we learned there was a firing demonstration getting underway outside. As we zipped through the Visitor Center, we slowed momentarily to collect Junior Ranger Books for WoodSprite and Firebolt before vectoring outside to get a good seat.  A lone Confederate Soldier (he assured us he switched to wearing Blue on alternating days) walked us through standard riffle drill for that time period.  He then demonstrated firing, reloading, and firing again.  Holy cow did that take an inordinately long time – I can’t imagine having to rely on that painstaking ritual to separate me from an untimely death.

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After heading watching the demonstration, which I hope Keeper will blog about as he got some great footage, we headed into the Museum and learned what it was like to be a soldier on both sides, some fibbing about their ages and enlisting as young as 8 to be drummers (11 was the recommended age).  I couldn’t imagine sending Keeper off to war and belatedly realized that such a practice has been done as long as humans have been in conflict, which is pretty much since we starting walking upright.  But I digress…

After the Museum, our Junior Ranger hopefuls needed to accomplish one of the local hikes and make some observations along their trek before they could hand in there booklets. We picked the least lengthy hike because we would turn into pumpkins in short order.  The Visitor Center was closing at 5 pm, which meant we had 49 minutes or less to complete the hike.  The girls took their tasking seriously and stopped along the way only to write answers to their questions.

 

I took this picture for our niece who develops a reaction to Poison Oak if she walks by and sees it. Yikes.

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She wasn’t terribly appreciative…

After reading about the battle raging through in these woods, it was easy to envision young men hunkering down amidst the haphazard boulders, courage outpacing fear, as they exchanged volleys in the brutal heat.  While I was escorting the girls through the museum, Keeper had been tasked with watching the NPS film.  He rejoined us to report what he had learned.  It had been so hot in late June and early July of 1864 that both the Union and Confederate Forces agreed to hit pause on the war fighting and take time out to bury their respective dead as the stench of decomposing bodies was too overpowering.  Gross. But good on them for making warfare less offensive (?!).

When the Junior Rangers were sworn in, the Rangers really surprised us.

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We had let them know we were dashing out to do a hike and would be back with completed booklets just shy of 5 pm.  They went over the top and, after swearing in the girls, gave them each a swag bag of NPS goodies to include a stuffed bison, pencils, tattoos, and, of course, their new badges.  They’re running a great outfit there – totally over the top!

Equally over the top was our family’s very own reenactment, titled “Fire in the HOLE!”

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Flight joined us late that night (gotta love Uber!) and we made preparations to get underway, bound for the Land Between the Lakes, which is a little peninsula spanning Southeastern Kentucky and Tennessee between, you guessed it, two lakes.  Never heard of it?  Me neither – can’t wait to check it out…

Overcome

I had the privilege of attending most of Elementary School and Junior High at the Martin Luther King, Junior, Experimental Laboratory School (King Lab for short) and it was extraordinary.  The picture below is from last June when my sister and I took a trip down amnesia lane.

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The school has gone through several name changes since I was a pupil there, but the focus remains the same.  “Experimental” in the title meant this school was one that cultivated an environment of learning outside the proverbial box, however you wanted to define that.  As Dr. King had promoted, it was an educational experience that encouraged such thinking and centered on celebrating the character of a person as opposed to any physical characteristic she or he might have.  My school routinely celebrated its namesake’s powerful legacy and Dr. King has since been one of my heroes.   King Lab made a huge impression on the woman I am still becoming and it was a timely opportunity to allow me to revisit that which I learned so young, but can now better evaluate with an additional 30+ years of living.

After dropping Flight off at the airport for another work trip, the kids and I headed to the heart of downtown Atlanta to pay homage to this incredible man, although our discussions about Dr. King’s contributions started long before our current pilgrimage. Most recently while we were overwintering in Maryland and before the girls resumed school at the local Elementary School, I took the kids to see Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House across the street where President Lincoln died.  Unfortunately, the theater was closed to visitors, as a play was opening a few days later, and the Petersen House was being refurbished.  Bummer.

 

We still made the most of the visit and spent a good bit of time in the two museums on site as our Junior Rangers tackled their work.  The first museum is situated beneath Ford’s Theater and has a robust series of exhibits on the Civil War, President Lincoln’s role in the War of Northern Aggression (Sorry, I’m writing this post while still in the deep south), and the conspiracy to eliminate not just the Commander in Chief, but several others who sought to preserve the Union at all costs.

 

The second museum is next to the Petersen House on the second and third floors above the site’s gift shop.  On that brisk January day next to the Petersen House, we watched a short film on the Lincoln Memorial. I hadn’t realized how many influential talks, ones that have specifically served to mold our nation’s evolving identity, first echoed from the steps of this monument to freedom.  My favorite of these is Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech and the film showed several clips of his powerful words, which, to the surprise (but not yet embarrassment) of each of my children, reduced me to tears.

Every January at King Lab, we honored Dr. King’s work in an assembly near his birthday, the center point of which was a classmate’s (a fellow who, hardly incidentally, is now a successful stage actor in Chicago) brilliant delivery of that very speech.  Every time I heard this rendition, usually as a precursor to the 3rdand 4thgraders singing, “We Shall Overcome,” I was overcome.  My compelling reaction to Dr. King’s exceptional words has only grown in response to what I have experienced along my own journey, combined with the realization of how much more similar work there is left to do in the world.

Fast forward to yesterday. When we decided we were going to spend a stretch in Atlanta, I was eager to take in both the Martin Luther King, Junior, National Historic Site and, only minutes away, the Center for Civil and Human Rights.  Flight’s early departure meant we were available to start our field trip day just after 9 am.  Since the Center didn’t open until 10, we started at the National Park Service Visitor Center.

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Even before picking up the Junior Ranger books for the girls, we went into the theater to see a 30-minute film on Dr. King’s contributions.  There were a few things about Dr. King that really stuck with me this go around, now that I have a few decades more perspective.  First, I hadn’t realized that Dr. King, at 35, was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.  Ever.  I momentarily reflected on what I had managed by that age (never mind having passed that milestone by more than a couple years) and realized I’d better get busy. I also remember reading at some point that Dr. King had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to solving problems, but I didn’t know that he and his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King (a dynamo in her own right), went to India for a month to study Gandhi’s unconventional methods so they could return to the United States to implement and affect similar sweeping changes.  Finally, I had somehow forgotten that Dr. King was only 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis. After being so reminded, I was momentarily caught up imagining how much faster our society might have evolved had his life not been cut so short – and how might Dr. King have helped us to better navigate today?

Ignoring my preoccupation with my musings, our Junior Rangers wasted no time at getting to work and meandered their way through the museum to complete their activities.  My favorite page of their activity book first gave more history on the newer properties that have been added to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s (one of which we’ll see next week when we drive through Topeka) and then moved to open Junior Ranger awareness about other civil rights struggles in our nation.  The five follow on questions asked about different parks that honor some of these trials: the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail ranging from Illinois to Utah in the 1800s; Independence Hall in Philadelphia; the Women’s Rights National Historical Park; Manzanar National Historic Site to teach about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII; and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail to educate on the relocation of the Cherokee people from the Appalachians to Oklahoma in the late 1830s.  This activity provided a great opening for a discussion on the unfortunate habit humans have of turning everything into “us vs. them” posturing (the sociology term is “othering”) and how a lot of heartache and suffering here and across the globe has followed in its wake.

From the Visitor’s Center we went to the bookstore located next to Dr. King’s birth home.  It was only a block away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church where both he and his father had preached.  As we walked over to the church, we passed The Martin Luther King, Junior, Center for Nonviolent Change (often referred to as “The King Center”), which holds the greatest collection of his written works, houses the crypt where Dr. King and his wife are interred above a reflecting pool, and endeavors to remind the world of his legacy.  Sensing our children were short on attention and long on grumbling bellies, we opted not to go inside The King Center and stayed only a few minutes in the church before swearing in our Junior Rangers and heading to the car.

 

I thought we should drive to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, park (should be easy, right?), and find a nearby place to grab some grub.  My game plan was good in theory and, unlike other brilliant plans I have had along this journey, this one, despite my best efforts to almost unsuccessfully navigate a honeycomb of one-way streets, did not go horribly wrong. We found a parking garage common to the Aquarium, the World of Coca Cola, and our destination.  Perfect!  And, wait for it, a fabulous brunch place was right across the street. I was so hungry I didn’t manage to take a picture, but found this one online.

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At the Atlanta Breakfast Club, Keeper ordered the Peach Cobbler French Toast, Firebolt the Buttermilk Pancakes and bacon (the older two were going to share both dishes, although Keeper almost backed out of the agreement when caught sight of his order), and WoodSprite jumped on some French Toast and a side of bacon.  I was the only one who ordered something that didn’t resemble dessert breakfast and happily scarfed down my seafood gumbo on a bed of grits, as I knew this flight of Yanks would be heading west next week and that variety of hominy goodness would soon be scarce.

Delightfully full, but thankfully nowhere near food coma, we walked over to the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

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The Center’s space is divided into three main areas that are housed on separate floors. Although it was just a 33% chance, we started on the top floor and worked our way down to the basement, which was absolutely the way to go.  The second floor houses the exhibit on global human rights and it is brilliantly done. The entry passageway is lined with mirrored panels, each of which is an interactive touch screen allowing the viewer to see and hear the stories of people who have escaped persecution for being different.  Along one wall of the exhibit’s main room is a collection of the most notorious mass murderers in humankind’s recent history, some of whom are dead, some serving sentences, and some are still at large.  When I saw those chosen for the gallery, I couldn’t help but think of Eddie Izzard’s assessment of these heinous characters in Dress to Kill.  If you haven’t seen his show, he’s a genius.

The ground floor of the Center focused on the civil rights struggles in our nation, much of which was focused on Dr. King’s work.  The most impactful exhibit we saw was along a mock-up of a 1950s diner countertop. There were four barstools at the counter and one lower space that could accommodate a wheel chair.  At each barstool’s place setting was  a pair of handprints, an accompanying headset, and a digital clock timer on the wall behind the counter.  For the full experience, you don the headset, place your hands on the handprints in front of you, close your eyes, and see how long you can withstand the vicious hateful voices calling you names, taunting and threatening you.  The whole experience goes no longer than three minutes, which I made it through, yet it made me sick to my stomach.  The gentlemen who participated in the famed sit-ins simulated by this exhibit were subjected to that abuse and far worse for eight hours a day, everyday, as they so nonviolently protested.  Although the girls really wanted to listen to the headsets, Keeper was the only one I allowed to try this experience on and he made it to 1:07 before taking off his headset and saying, “I am so angry with humankind right now.”   Amen, my son.

Feeling that we were nearing the end of our collective attention tether, we quickly passed through the basement floor, which housed only a small collection of Dr. King’s written works.  While I would have enjoyed staying longer to read every page, I didn’t need the escalating game of tag around me to tell me we were only moments away from a meltdown of some variety and hastily shuffled everyone out the door and back to the car. It took over an hour to drive the 33 miles back to Davista in Atlanta’s famed rush hour traffic, so we broke up our commute through gridlock with a stop at a Redbox to procure some light-hearted fun and a grocery store for some cheese cloth (Stay tuned, we’ll be making goat cheese this weekend!).

I was rather subdued after we left the Center, consumed by the mostly self-induced plight of the world weighing heavily on me.  I could not get my brain wrapped around how humankind can be so cruel to one another. I just don’t get it.  Fortunately the kids were entertaining themselves on the stop-and-go drive back as I was preoccupied by processing all that I had taken in. Yes, humans are flawed and are capable of unspeakable atrocities, many of which result from and perpetuate the cycle of fear and abuse, yet we are also capable of profound love and selfless action.  I remembered the portrait wall at the Center showcasing such models of character, hanging on the wall opposite mass murderers row, and how each worked tirelessly to better the human condition.

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Dr. King’s portrait hangs near that of Mahatma Gandhi, another of my heroes.  I stole a glance at Keeper in the passenger seat, now engrossed in yet another youtube science video, but who had earlier been outraged at the sit-in counter experience.  I then caught sight of the girls in the rear view mirror, giggling with heads bent close over the only functional Kindle in the car, both of whom had expressed great indignation upon learning of the unkind treatment of fellow human beings just for being different.  Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” kept echoing in my thoughts and after again surveying our future, cautiously optimistic, I wondered, “But will it be enough?”

Overcome by this heavy day, I was thankful to escape to the light-hearted kindness of Paddington 2 for our movie night.  When I crawled into bed, I silently prayed that the seeds that we have planted and are nurturing will grow to make a stand against whatever inequalities our children encounter, and may those be far fewer as we progress to become truly free at last.

Sleuthing Sleuths and Driving Droves in Shaconage

I had never been this deep into Appalachia before, nor had I ever seen The Great Smoky Mountains.  In fact, I had never even contemplated why these gentle (gentile?) mountains have this name. It turns out “Smoky” has nothing to do with the ever-vigilant bear who encourages us to prevent forest fires (that particular cub lived in New Mexico) as only the uninitiated might assume. Instead, the name comes from ubiquitous blue vapor that continuously escapes the thick layer of lush vegetation on these mountains.  Before the native Cherokee were forced to relocate to Oklahoma along the devastating Trail of Tears, they called this range “Shaconage” or “place of blue smoke.”

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As we were driving about the countryside, I became very aware of the heavy influence of the Cherokee Nation along the North Carolina boundary of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I have traveled far and wide through North Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, and nowhere have I been so intrigued by a written language.  At first glance, I could not even establish a rhythm to the language and it was no surprise to learn that in WWI the Cherokee were enlisted to serve as our nations first “Code Talkers,” just as the Navajo had done so successfully in WWII.

Although it may seem entirely out of place, I think it’s important to give a quick homeschool update before I can get to a more extensive summary of that enterprise. While the girls have been ardently earning Junior Ranger Badges at all the National Park Service (NPS) sites we have visited, these exercises were well beneath Keeper’s attention and interest level.  To help him get the most out of our visits, I delved into the extensive curricula offerings on the NPS website that has by location and subject matter a wide array of options for “Teaching With Historic Places.”

Entirely applicable to our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, Keeper spent a week doing readings and answering questions about the Trail of Tears.  In putting together this assignment, I learned that most but not all the Cherokee were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi.  The vibrant community in this neck of North Carolina is made up of either the descendants of those forced out to Oklahoma who then walked back to their homeland or those who were able to hang onto their property despite the land grab of the early 1800s.  I would have liked to spend more time exploring the nearby town of Cherokee, but our short stay didn’t allow for such an excursion. Next time.

The only real time I have spent along the Appalachian Trail was about a week over 20 years ago and I was entirely distracted by other goings on.  I had the privilege of attending SERE School in Brunswick, Maine, before reporting to my squadron in Whidbey Island, Washington.  Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training teaches you to do exactly that.  After a few days of all-day lectures, you spend your first stretch of training learning how to live off the land.  Next you practice evading capture in hostile territory.  Then, even if you were able to stealthily avoid capture, they call “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” (actually they ring a bell) and you have to report for capture.  Finally comes the trickiest part – learning how to resist interrogation as a prisoner of war (POW), all the while trying to plan an effective escape.

I had the privilege of doing SERE School in February.  Have you been to Maine?  It is absolutely beautiful.  Have you been to Maine in February?  It is still absolutely beautiful in February – it looks like an Ansel Adams winter wonderland – but the weather is very unforgiving.

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Photo taken from the Maine Tourism Board

It was 22obelow zero our first night on the mountain and I remember crawling into my little self-made snow cave and praying that I might still be alive in the morning.  SERE School was, by far, the most valuable training I have ever had, I just pray I never have to use it.

While in the classroom portion of SERE School, we were instructed how to harvest berries, none of which would be in season until June (if memory serves, most of the red ones and all of the white ones will kill you), and to not eat snow, yellow or otherwise (you need to heat it up and turn it into water first or it will kill you). During training breaks we also heard some pretty entertaining stories of previous classes’ shenanigans and learned that, on occasion, hikers either finishing up or starting their long trek along the Appalachian Trail will stumble into the mock-up POW camp.  Having been deeply entrenched in that military experience, I cannot imagine what a rude awakening that might be for the average hiker.

It was these reminiscent thoughts that were keeping me entertained as we crisscrossed the Appalachian Trail during our first hike to Clingmans Dome and back.

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On our trek to the observation tower we saw a sleuth of bears (betcha didn’t know that’s what more than one is called – I had to look it up), which you have to take my word for their presence in the brush.

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The walk to the top of the observation tower was crowded (note to self, avoid the weekend crowds in the future…), but led to some breathtaking views.

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I was surprised to see Cold Mountain listed among the peaks, a location made famous by a heart-wrenching movie made based on Charles Frazier’s historical novel.

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After the 360oview offered at the top of the tower, we ducked into the forest proper to follow the Appalachian Trail for a very modest distance to find a picnic spot.

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As we meandered through the woods, I realized we were on a “Clingmans Dome Bypass” for folks who are hiking the Appalachian Trail in earnest and don’t want to be bothered by the throng of tourists.  We ran into a few such hikers looking none the worse for their travels and I thought of my cousin who has hiked both the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest Trails in their entirety, leaving only the Continental Divide to go before she earns the coveted Triple Crown title.  !!!  After a short stretch, we were happy to come across this beautiful setting for our lunch.

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We returned to the car and were rewarded with another sleuth sighting when we wound our way down the mountain.

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One last stop before returning to Davista was to check out Mingus Mill, a historic and still active grist mill.  Instead of using a water wheel to do the work, Mingus Mill uses a water-powered turbine that had diverted the flow of the river to harness its energy to grind grains.  At first glance, I had originally thought this was a rather inefficient planter outside, but quickly realized it was one of the original millstones.  !!!

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With two of the major sites seen, we settled into Davista to enjoy dinner by the river.

The next morning dawned on Mother’s Day.  My family made a wonderful breakfast and we set out to explore another of the local hikes, and possibly float the falls’ source, Deep Creek.

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Although we had our share of inertia getting away from Davista, the kids settled into the hike after minimal grumbling (it was Mother’s Day, after all) and we hit a potential snag in our plans.  WoodSprite was bitten by a nasty bug that left a ghastly welt in its wake.

As we loaded up the backpack departing the car, I had heard the Angel’s recommendation to be sure to bring our stash of lavender oil, which, shamefully, I disregarded.  Lavender oil is our go to for any bug bites as it immediately takes the sting away.   All I had on hand was Band-Aids and homemade lip balm.  After convincing a tear-stained WoodSprite that lip balm was merely peppermint salve for the lips, I was able to apply it to the sting site and, much to everyone’s relief, it mitigated the pain shortly thereafter.

While I was carrying and soothing a crying WoodSprite along the waterfall path, Flight told us all to stop and back up.  I had heard nothing but the shedding of tears, but when we paused heard several somethings stumbling through the nearby brush.  With yesterday’s sleuth sightings in mind, I had expected Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear to come lumbering into view.  Instead we were favored with a drove of wild boar dashing across the trail no more than ten yards ahead of us, including three wee piglets.

Distracted by the cute factor of wild piglets and the sting’s hold fading by the moment, WoodSprite was happy to walk on her own power.  Big brother, Keeper, took WoodSprite by the hand and helped her navigate the way ahead.  Almost as sweet as seeing wild squealing piglets dashing through the woods…

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At last we found what Flight had been seeking throughout our waterfall hike, a suitable place from which he could dunk his head in the stream.

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I don’t get it, but Keeper and WoodSprite do, as they usually join in…

Following our hike, we reposed for a moment by Deep Creek and weighed the options for the afternoon’s water activities.  We first contemplated renting some tubes at one of the many nearby shops to float, but, even after witnessing some very creative logistics of other tubing enthusiasts, we couldn’t envision a safe configuration that might allow us to get five tubes (and us) from shop to parking lot in the Subaru and then on foot to the put in place. Instead, we opted to return to the campground and play in the river.

Keeper was stoked to engage in varsity waterplay with his sisters and Dad and I stayed outside the spray radius to document it all.

Another delightful day nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains came to a satisfying conclusion with s’mores around the campfire.

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Before we left the next morning, WoodSprite and I went for a short hike along a nearby nature trail. Throughout our travels, Flight and I have made it a point to carve out one-on-one time with each of the kids and I was delighted to have the opportunity to hike with WoodSprite, just the two of us.  We had to cross three modified planks to get started and found a wee turtle on our way around the loop.

The last activity before we scooted on to Atlanta was returning to the Oconaluftee (that’s pretty fun to say) Visitor Center so our newest Junior Rangers could be sworn in.

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Sadly, we didn’t make it around back to see the living farm museum, but we were okay with that omission. Having seen many of the spectacular National Parks out West, I was surprised to learn that the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited NP in the nation, boasting over 10 million visitors annually, but then discovered that it’s within a day and half’s drive for over half the American population.  I also realized that these gentile mountain slopes are far more accommodating for people who may not be avid outdoor enthusiasts.  After hearing all the rave reviews of this particular National Park, I was very glad we made the opportunity to check it out.  Although it was lovely to see, and I can certainly see its appeal, my heart yearns to return to the west to view the newer crags and sharper peaks of the Cascades.  They are calling me home.

San Francisco of the South

Asheville, NC, holds a dear place in my heart for many reasons.  First and foremost, it was one our first “destinations” after we acquired Davista in Cincinnati last April and will always serve as the backdrop for my fond memories of getting to know our rig as we started this crazy adventure. Prior to visiting Asheville, everyone I knew thought my crunchy self would be right at home there and told me I probably wouldn’t want to leave.  Apparently I exude granola.

Actually, early in our marriage, I tentatively confided to Flight (after doing a clearing turn to see who might be listening), “I think I might be a little crunchy.”  With an incredulous look, he laughed and simply said, “You’ve been in granola denial for a very long time – you just need to embrace it.”  “Really?!” “Yes, really.”

And so I have.

Strangely, despite embracing this latent aspect of being, I did not readily find my peeps during our first visit to Asheville. Instead it seemed I found my granola limit, which I didn’t even know I had.  Now, I am all about living a life being mindful about the rest of my fellow creatures on this planet and our collective home.  In fact, that philosophy informs many of our family’s decisions, be they existential or mundane.  What I’m not particularly fond of is those who use something akin to this mindfulness as an excuse to abstain from being contributing members of society. “I can’t get a job because it will interfere with my ability to commune with….” That mentality makes me crazy and Asheville seemed thick with it.  Flight was surprised at my reaction to Asheville and thought I might start yelling, “Hippie, take a bath!” at the many such folks I saw loitering while we were out and about. Interesting.  I couldn’t help but wonder – am I getting old?!

Nope.  Not happening.  I refuse.  Crotchety, maybe.  Old? Never. Actually, that reminds me of another pretty funny conversation Flight and I had, this one while still living in Maryland.  While I was still teaching at the Naval Academy, Flight would patiently listen to any of my rants about the current episode of “Midshipmen Behaving Badly” I was witnessing at work,  and wait until I was done before grinning and saying, “And while you’re at it, GET OFF OF MY LAWN!”  I enjoy returning the favor when he relates any reality show-worthy shenanigans from 36,000’.  After one such particular venting, I impishly observed, “You know, I think we’re both getting a little crotchety, but in different ways.”  Not missing a beat, Flight fired back, “Yeah, we are, but that’s because we have different crotches.”

So there ya go.

With all that said, I was a little apprehensive about what hippy factions we might encounter on our return to Asheville, not so much for their fanciful existence but for the potential of my crotchety reaction thereto.  Fortunately (?), I was distracted by the repercussions of our crew’s inability to follow checklists, which made our time in Asheville proper virtually nonexistent.

Despite being limited by self-induced mechanical failures and the consequent repairs, we did manage to return to two highlights from our first visit.   Sliding Rock was one of our family’s favorite activities last year.  River water has sculpted the smooth rock into a long slide that has become a local draw for generations.  Since we were there again early in the season, pre-season if you will, the public restrooms were closed and the water was rather, um, brisk.  Content with my memories from last year, I abstained from the sliding activities but caught some decent shots of the family.

 

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From Sliding Rock we then went to the Sierra Nevada Brewery to spend an early evening enjoying some “Corn in the Hole” (WoodSprite’s title for the game) and walking the extensive garden before we dined within.

 

It was a lovely day.

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Just before we collected the car from the miracle mechanic, we drove out to Black Mountain to see what that not-so-booming metropolis was all about. I was curious about this particular town as it was the setting for two very different series of books that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  The first of these is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which is now a series on Starz.  The last part of the fourth book (The Drums of Autumn) and the first part of the fifth book (The Fiery Cross), which I happened to be rereading now, is a Scottish clan gathering set in Black Mountain.

The other series is a trilogy by William Forstchen that explores what might happen in the event a nuclear device (or several) is detonated in space specifically to generate a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to fry electronics across a sizable footprint.  For those of you not associated with the Space Cadre, this is actually a big deal. The ramifications of detonating such a device are not what you (and Stephen Colbert) might think (radiation fall out, scorched earth, etc.).  Instead of nuclear holocaust unfolding on Earth, everything dependent on 1s and 0s would cease to function, becoming only conversation pieces and paperweights, to include the satellite network that informs most of the developed world’s communications and defense networks.  In a word, YIKES.  The series is set in Black Mountain and is a solid contemplation on how all might unfold should such an event occur.   After finishing Forstchen’s books, I again gave thanks that I know how to grow my own food and have at least one skill I can barter.

As excited as I was to leisurely stroll about Black Mountain and reconstruct scenes from these books in my mind’s eye, I was also acutely aware that additional time in the Subaru never serves our flight well.  We opted to dine at Louise’s Kitchen (which is well known for its enormous breakfast dishes) before seeking out Montreat College (which, sadly, we only caught a glimpse of), do a 180oand head back to Davista.  We made it in plenty of time to get a serious fire going, and followed up with S’Mores.

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Safety Standdown complete and no hippy sightings, I was eager to get to our next destination (with the Subaru parking brake appropriately released) and explore the Great Smoky Mountains.  I have never seen this neck of the Appalachians and can’t wait to see what they’re all about…

Safety Standdown in Asheville

In Naval Aviation, Safety Standdowns are periodic events that are put together to help aviators optimize safety awareness while in flight and on the deck.  The Safety Standdown is a day where all aircraft remain on the deck and the entire squadron gathers together to hear or provide safety-related discussions on a wide range of topics (e.g. having a state trooper relate the importance of wearing seatbelts (I can attest to that!), an aerospace physiologist share the latest research on the systemic impact of sleep deprivation, etc.).

While all hands were usually happy to have a breather from the flight schedule, the day served to remind everyone that aviation is inherently dangerous and one must remain ever vigilant against complacency.  Invariably when one gets complacent checklist items are skipped, corners are cut, and mishaps can easily follow.  It is important to note that these day-long events were scheduled periodically, most often at times where complacency might be higher than usual.  Typically a Safety Standdown would occur half-way through deployment where many start to think, “We’ve got this…” as they switch to autopilot and become less mindful about operations.  Another optimal time was just before redeploying home when many minds have already shifted to reuniting with family members after the long separation and may be suffering from “Get-home-itis, ” where potential safety red flags might be ignored to avoid delaying homecoming.  And, of course, a Safety Standdown is an expected evolution following any mishap, be it crunching metal or injuring personnel.

As our current travels resemble a deployment more so than not (and I’ve already touched on the value of checklists), I had already noticed that in resuming our travels this phase we were maybe a little looser in following SOP than our prior journey. For example, the grey water drain valve had been left open following tank dumping procedures, which is no big deal really as it just meant Flight got his shoes washed with some soapy water while getting hooked up at our next campsite.  We had also missed setting a cotter pin on one side of our Blue Ox tow bar contraption, which meant that by the time we arrived at our next campsite one of the two larger pins that directly connect the Subaru to the Blue Ox tow bar had not been locked in place and had wriggled half-way free in transit.  Although our tow bar has safety cables in the event of such a mechanical disconnect, I’d prefer not to see them engaged.  You’d think that two seasoned naval aviators would take these signs of complacency for what they were and immediately debrief the possible consequences of departing from checklists, but we were too wrapped up in our deployment experience to make that a priority.  Shame on us.  Instead, our Safety Standdown was triggered by a mishap.

We departed Charleston at a most civilized hour entirely delighted by our introduction to this lovely city and meandered northwest to Asheville, NC.  After a stop at Congaree National Park (I’ll get to that shortly), we arrived at the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area & Campground and registered to get our lovely spot nestled in the trees.  Even if a spot is “drive through,” we tend to disconnect the Subaru and park it out of the way so I can help Flight maneuver Davista into the ideal location (depending on layout, water and electrical hook-up locations, view, obstructing branches, etc.) within our assigned spot.  Our Carpinteria episode taught us well.

Although the details of who discovered our blunder and when are open to interpretation, the upshot is that when either Flight or I opened the door to collect the hardware box used to store the Blue Ox tow bar connection gear and set the parking brake (that became SOP when we had forgotten to do so once early in our travels on a not so level road – yikes!), it was more than a little surprisingly to find it was already engaged.  My brain slowly leapt beyond the mildly befuddled observation “Well, that’s not supposed to be like that” to meet Flight’s “Holy crap.  How long has that been on?! “ to “Shoot – We likely no longer have a functioning Toad.”  !!!  I then cycled through today’s activities to try to pinpoint how we might have managed such an oversight.

Let me back up. Before departing Charleston, we had discussed making a stop at Congaree National Park, because it was so darn close to our intended path.  It was another opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of a pocket of our country we’d not yet seen and probably wouldn’t ever if we didn’t stop now.  Although it wasn’t as last minute an addition to our itinerary as the two stops I had suggested (insisted on?) from Tampa to Savannah, the conversation that followed that extended travel day was fresh in my mind, which meant I was keen to minimize the time of our layover at Congaree.  I guess you could say I was sporting my own variety of “Get-on-the-road-to-our-next-home-itis.”

Upon our arrival at Congaree, we noted that all the spots in the oversized parking lot big enough to accommodate our crazy 51’ road show were taken up by NPS vehicles far shorter than ours.  Dang it.  To fit in the remaining longer than normal spots without blocking traffic entirely, we had to disconnect the Subaru and take up two spots with our vehicles. Fortunately, Congaree was hardly slammed on this Tuesday afternoon and taking up an additional oversized spot with our regularly sized Subaru was entirely forgivable.

This particular National Park is an interesting mix of swamp, old growth bottomland hardwood forest, and more swamp.  While the Visitor Center boasts some great information about the native population and the push to preserve Congaree’s biodiversity, I was ever aware of our time on the road ahead of us and did my best to make our stop most expeditious.

When we collected Junior Ranger books (a theme, you might note), there was not a Ranger in site. Several volunteers were at the desk, but they were not official NPS Rangers.  We learned there was a proscribed burn underway (used to cull the dead undergrowth and help the forest rejuvenate), which is an all Ranger hands on deck evolution and closed off a good portion of the main boardwalk hike through Congaree. Led by our complaining bellies, we returned to Davista to have a sandwich lunch while we sorted out what the girls needed to do and how much of the requisite hike was possible/necessary to complete their requirements before we could be away.

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Hunger assuaged, we walked a mile along the boardwalk out to a short overlook peeking over a small, not particularly clean-looking, lake where we saw several turtles frolicking.

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Along our boardwalk trek, we also saw some unique creatures, or evidence thereof.  I saw these houses (?) and had no idea what to make of them. I took this picture specifically to show the folks at the Visitor Center to ask what they were.

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The answer?  Crawfish chimneys.  Apparently crawfish build these towers and turn circles about in their mud structures to create a center hole vent to increase the oxygenation of the water in their homes.  Pretty savvy, those crawdads.  We also saw several blue-tailed skinks running about the forest.

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Running nowhere were the endless ranks of baldcypress knees, whose true purpose has yet to be identified.

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The baldcypress is a cousin to the magnificent redwood and enormous sequoia trees whose acquaintance we made last fall as we meandered through California.  Unique to these southeastern swamp dwellers, are flared out trunks serving to offer stability in the ever-changing water levels.  These buttressed stems provide the strength to resist additional stresses without a deep root system, which might actually suffocate the tree in the low-oxygen environment of a typically waterlogged swamp.  Early botanists thought the knees provided a means of additional oxygen exchange by elevating the roots above the standing water, I thought this one looked like a faerie house.

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That theory has since been disproven, so their true purpose remains one of the great mysteries of life.  Perhaps such existential rumination is what distracted me when we departed Congaree.

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After the girls were sworn in for their 20thJunior Ranger badges, we hightailed it to Davista and rapidly made ready for driving into the seasoned (meaning worn smoother by time than the newer more jagged ranges out west) mountains of North Carolina.  A quick refresher on the checklist for readers would be a good idea.

The Hitching Up the Toad checklist to date looked a little something like this:

  • Unlock Blue Ox Tow Bar from locked position (locked “up” so it doesn’t drag)
  • Reposition Blue Ox Tow Bar into Y in preparation for hook-up
  • Maneuver Toad into position (or Davista if doing so solo – says Flight ??!?!!)
  • Toad parking brake – set
  • Keys in ignition, set to detent position 1 to enable lights mimicking Davista’s
  • Grab plastic box holding connection hardware from Toad
  • Pin Blue Ox tow bar into left and right sides of Toad connection points
  • Set cotter pins left and right (to lock connection pins)
  • Connect dead-man’s switch (in case both the tow bar and the cables fail, engaging Subaru’s brakes should she run tether-free)
  • Connect safety tow cables beneath tow bars
  • Connect red electrical cable above tow bars
  • Return plastic box holding connection hardware to Toad passenger seat
  • Gear shift in neutral
  • Disengage the Subaru parking brake

All good, right?

In principle, yes, yet we neglected to identify who was responsible for executing the final steps.  I had assumed that Flight was checking the settings for the key in the ignition and verifying the parking brake was off and the engine was not in gear. Flight was under the assumption I was setting the key, disengaging the parking brake, ensuring the stick shift was out of gear and he would verify (position one, parking brake off, gear shift neutral).

And so we exemplified the saying “When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me…” or at least it will burn out your Toad’s braking system.

Somehow, in our collective oversight, we missed that last step and dragged the Subaru behind us for 180+ miles with the parking brake engaged.  Oops.  The mechanic who outfitted us with new brakes informed us the old ones had gotten white hot during our travels from Congaree.  Flight and I realized that we have gotten off rather light by only having to purchase new brakes. The Toad could easily have burst into flames, but didn’t.  If we had lost our Toad, our journey would have come to a screeching halt.  As Flight is fond of saying, although averted for now, we could certainly see disaster from here.  Fortunately, it looked much less ominous through a pint of Sierra Nevada, and we settled into our Asheville time, our wallets a little lighter, but with brakes shiny and new.

Lagniappe

As I learned at the Jean Lafitte NHP, here’s just a little something extra to add on our last full day all together in New Orleans…

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After knocking out a full day of studies, we picked Flight up at the airport in the early afternoon and headed back into The French Quarter.  Since we enjoyed lunch before coming to collect him, I suggested he grab a quick bite at the airport as we were en route.  From the airport we headed straight to the French Quarter. After a quick debrief precipitated by Flight throwing out a few suggestions and my replying “Oh, we did that yesterday…” we parked the car and, not sure of where to start, wandered over to check out the docked Steamboat Natchez, which was about to get underway. For a three-hour tour.

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Kidding, it was only two.

And it was the perfect opportunity to relax, see the French Quarter from a distance, learn a bit about the mechanics of a steamboat, get some traditional beans and rice, hear some jazz (the girls couldn’t help but dance), and sort out what we were going to do before we departed for Pensacola, which I hadn’t quite realized (and wouldn’t for about another day) was in less than 40 hours.

I had done some research and learned that NOLA would be celebrating her 300-year anniversary, complete with a floating museum of tall-ships coming into port that evening.

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Although it would have been great to get over to see the tall-ships in person, it was enough to see a couple of them at anchor from the steamboat’s shifting vantage point.  Observing the city gearing up for celebration, my inner 22-year old wanted to take in NOLA in full party finery, but my mama bear instinct realized that was probably unwise.

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We did manage to introduce our kids to the art of eating beignets.  I have very distinct memories of several all out powdered sugar fights at Café du Monde that I may or may not have started been drawn into and thought we should go easy on the kids.  The carnage wasn’t too bad.

Flight and I ordered together, as we often do, when we enjoyed an early dinner at the New Orleans Creole Cookery (= “city food” with tomatoes).

I stuck with the standard fare and got another sampling dish and Flight ordered oysters, it was the perfect taste of NOLA.  As sunset is about the right time for kids to move out of the French Quarter, we repaired to Davista to pack up for relocation to the heart of the Vieux Carré following school in the morning.

As the kids were finishing up school, Flight and I walked about the campsite to check out the gator traps cabins perched above gator lairs.

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All I could think imagine was having one of those enormous reptiles waddle up the plank to snack on the nicely contained morsels sleeping within.  I’m good with the nice half-mile buffer to the campground, thank you.

We were slow to leave our last location having had plenty of The French Quarter for the last few days, but somehow I didn’t equate time spent at our Bayou Segnette spot as time taken away from our last hurrah in the New Orleans.  In retrospect, that should have been obvious, but, much to Flight’s occasional exasperation, I never really have had a solid grasp on the passing of time.

Our new address was smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, one that was safe enough to walk to and from, in the daylight, anyway, “but you should plan to Uber at night” according to the campground host. parked right next to a cemetery.  For those of you who are not familiar, the water table is pretty close to ground level, which means that any serious rain would transform traditional graves into the last scenes of Poltergeist.  It was a little eerie to look out our bedroom window and see an expanse of nothing but crypts and mausoleums.  I should have taken a picture, but, regretfully, didn’t think to do so.

We finally sauntered into town just shy of 3 pm and zipped right by Bourbon St for obvious reasons. Now that I had backup, I told Flight I wanted to catch the Historical Pharmacy Museum and was able to pop in almost free of children.  Almost.

WoodSprite assured me she was just as keen as I to learn about making Absinthe and ghastly versions of rhinoplasty used to restore functional noses to those stricken with advanced syphilis, so she joined me on my pilgrimage to honor ancient medicine.

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Yikes.

Fear not, those pictures were in glass cases that required at least a five-foot vantage point, so WoodSprite departed that establishment without those dreamy images to fill her head.  Actually, there was quite a bit to this little museum and I would love to go back for a longer visit without the added, “Hey, Momma, how much longer?” interruptions.  Next time.

We rejoined Flight and the older two in Jackson Square and we turned towards the French Market in search of trinkets and an early dinner.  As Flight mentioned, the market was quite an experience for Keeper, but we departed only with two name bracelets made for the girls and, sadly, sans fedora.

Dinner, however, was surprisingly good. Flight got his boudin fix and the only other open offering was a crèperie, which fed the other four of our herd.

As they were sweeping up around us, we mobilized to show the kids more of the Vieux Carré.  After getting shut out at Pat O’Brien’s on our way to the French Market (What do you mean we can’t bring our kids into a bar to get hurricanes?), we thought we’d take in some serious jazz and sauntered over to Preservation Hall only to find those in the 90-minute line straining to hear a preview of their evening’s entertainment.

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Flight and I realized that probably wouldn’t do and, unsuccessfully, sought out the next slice of NOLA to share.   Flight and I came to the same “What exactly are we trying to accomplish here?” moment simultaneously and steered our gaggle back to Davista, a little baffled at our belated disillusionment.

While the monkeys immersed themselves in digital worlds, Flight and I grabbed some adult beverages and slipped outside to debrief our New Orleans time in the fading sunlight. Due to our inability to communicate and hash out our respective ideal plans prior to executing Operation Big Easy, we came to the conclusion that there were plenty of things outside the French Quarter we would could should have done to truly experience living in the bayou. Recognizing the Woulda Coulda Shoulda Game is never a productive undertaking, our two take aways were this: ultimately we did a reasonable job of exposing the kids to the PG version of our NOLA memory playlist, hopefully piquing curiosity for further exploration much, MUCH later down the road and, as always, solid communication remains paramount in every successful campaign.  May we keep every mindful of this debrief and practice our lessons learned.

But first, anyone for a Diesel Fuel at Flounder’s?

Le Vieux Carré

New Orleans brings to mind two very distinct collections of memories.  The first dates from the few times I made it over to the Big Easy from Pensacola while in training to become a naval aviator over twenty years ago. The second from my three weeks in Officer Recruiting Officer training that was held at the Navy’s Belle Chasse Department of Redundancy Department a mere 15 years ago.  Most noteworthy is that both memory-gathering eras were before kids.  Much of what little I knew of New Orleans was through the eyes of a much younger person unfettered by the joys of parenting, which meant I didn’t plan this visit accordingly.  This sign kinda summed up my previous vision.

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And somehow I didn’t know to recognize that disconnect until we pulled chocks and rolled on to Pensacola.  Sigh…

New Orleans is a vibrant town whose reputation I understood to center on its laissez faire attitude.  Although the city itself is a beautiful compilation of the varied influences of the many different people who have called this area home, I think it is the shifting identity of “creole” that is the basis of this attitude.  I’ll get to what it is to be creole shortly, but first, a few highlights of what was in my greatest hits memory playlist to share with our kids.  The French Quarter topped the list for sure, as that’s where we’d find the perfect mix of all that NOLA is known for – a little Jazz, a hurricane or two, beignets at Café du Monde, street musicians.  What kid wouldn’t want to be exposed to that?

Right?

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Right.

Hmm.  Not unlike Las Vegas, there is a wide range of how one might experience New Orleans, all of which you can’t unsee, and so the plan evolved into how best to do so without scarring our kids unnecessarily.  Looking back, we had planned our time in Texas quite well, meaning Flight and I discussed very specifically what we were cleared to do while the other was out of town, saving things we both wanted to enjoy as our flight of five for when we were all together again.  Not only did we neglect to have that critical conversation before we moved Davista into the city, only steps away from the French Quarter the night before we moved on to Pensacola, but our individual ill-conceived visions for sharing the past with our kids were strikingly similar, which meant we perhaps overdid the French Quarter and didn’t see much of everything else. Shame on us.

So, let me back up our arrival and Flight’s departure for his work trip.  When we departed Houston and blew by the road to Galveston, I was astonished to learn the combined Houston/Galveston metropolitan area boasts the fourth highest population in the U.S.  !!! It would not be my preference to plant my flag in the line of annual hurricane wreckage, but apparently a lot of people do.

As Flight was at Davista’s controls, the flight path to New Orleans was his to choose.  We mostly hugged the shoreline, and my meteorological assessment of this neck of the Gulf Coast proved spot on as we wound our way through small town after small town with all buildings of consequence on stilts.

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I had previously seen houses in flood zones so perched, but was surprised to see a high school campus on stilts.

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At last we arrived at the Bayou Segnette State Park.  I initially had some reservations about this location, but our site proved a lovely little corner from which we could strike in any direction.  A bonus was seeing whatever flora and fauna was out and about as we strolled along the raised boardwalk to get to and from the bathhouse. We saw an abundance of turtles, ripe mulberries (which Flight and I each sampled whenever passed through, much to the dismay of Keeper and Firebolt (WoodSprite actually tried one but decided they weren’t her favorite) whose anxiety was not eased as we repeated nearly verbatim our SERE training on berries), and thankfully only one snake.

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Shortly after our arrival, we managed an early dinner, some chalk artwork, and rolled to the airport.

 

We dropped Flight off on Sunday evening and had to fend for ourselves until we collected him three days later.  The following morning, after many hours of strong work devoted to dawdling school, I saw the wisdom of staying put for the afternoon to regroup before we headed to the French Quarter.  I made the opportunity to review the two National Park Service sites that are only blocks away from each other and tentatively put them on the calendar to check out on different days.

Despite their proximity, there was a night and day difference between the two National Park institutions.  The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a conglomeration of six sites and headquartered on Decatur St, one of the main drags through the French Quarter. There was also a daily Ranger presentation scheduled every morning at 0930.  Typically we will try to knock out academic business in the morning, sometimes modified sometimes not, before we use the afternoons to explore the local environs.  Primarily based on the scheduled Ranger talk I thought we should hear, we made the whole day a field trip day and headed into New Orleans proper at a most unreasonable hour.

Most fortuitously, and likely due to the early hour, we readily found parking and made it to the Visitor Center with four minutes to spare.

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After a brief introduction on the title of the collection of NPS sites falling under the Jean Lafitte NHP (“I have a hard time with this site being named for a notorious pirate…”), the Ranger gave a solid history on the development of New Orleans and all the flags that have flown above her constantly shifting boundaries.  What I hadn’t realized is that in the wake of LaSalle’s exploration of the Mississippi, the travel route from what is now Quebec to La Louisiane (named for then King Louis XIV) opened up, further compounding the influence of far reaching empires.  In fact, a large part of what now makes up the local Cajun population is rooted in Acadian transplants (les Acadiens became the truncated “Cajun”) who, after being forcibly removed from their homes, traveled down the river from NE Canada. WoodSprite’s greatest take away from the talk was “Don’t treat people who work for you bad or they might kill you.” Apparently, LaSalle was notoriously unpleasant to his crew and, after several failed ventures (we’re talking on the scale of sunken ships and being shipwrecked 500 miles away from the intended destination), his minions mutinied and killed him.  Zoinks!

After the Ranger’s presentation, we collected the Junior Ranger books and the girls got to work. Overall, this was the most depressing NPS Visitor Center we have visited.  The Junior Ranger books were sloppy copies and many of the audio exhibits for listening to variations in local dialects and juxtaposing different music styles that have their roots in New Orleans, which I certainly would have enjoyed hearing, were out of service.

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Even the Ranger who administered the oath to the girls looked as though she had just come straight out of a week in the field at the Barataria Preserve. On a positive note, we still learned a ton about both the Creole and Cajun cultures.

I had always understood “Creole” to be the nebulous descriptor for anyone who called the bayou country home. Not so.  The term Creole has gone through several iterations in its meaning over the years.  With its roots in South America, the term originally meant “native-born,” and was used as a means of identifying the native population from European transplants. Creole then morphed to include children of mixed racial descent and/or those who have French or Spanish blood. The best description of current usage I found comes from Louisiana historian Fred B. Kniffin, in Louisiana: Its Land and People, who stated Creole “has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house, and many other things. It is therefore no precise term and should not be defined as such.”  Well, that clears things up.

Despite having no more solid a grasp on what it means to be Creole, my inner foodie was excited to see there was a discussion of the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine.   In the loosest terms, the former tends to refer to “city food” and the latter to “back country” eats, however those terms are becoming interchangeable in the mainstream culinary circles.  Or so I read at the Visitor Center.  I have since learned that one of the prime discriminators between the two may be tomatoes, as Creole cooking uses them and Cajun does not, but not even that is a strict definition.  The two styles of cooking reflect the unique identities of the people who have added to them over the years.  The resourceful Cajun practice of using every bit of an animal and layering seasoning throughout its creation is very different from the Creole cuisine that developed more wide-ranging flavors steeped in the aristocratic tradition of having access to more exotic ingredients.  I thoroughly enjoy both styles and was delighted to sample some of each, which brings me to our next unplanned evolution.

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Our Junior Rangers were sworn in at 11:30ish and the Ranger encouraged us to make our way to the New Orleans Jazz NHP to catch the free jazz concert at noon.  There would be another concert down the street at 2 pm featuring a band of Rangers who were all Jazz Musicians.  After contemplating what kind of a threshold our children had for National Park venues as the lunch hour was nearly upon us, I proposed this compromise: let’s go pick up the new Junior Rangers books, listen to some of the concert and then get some lunch.  The kids were game so we trundled off to other NPS site, collected new activity books that were no more challenging, and sat down to hear some Jazz.  Much of this light, airy Visitor Center was taken up by a small performance hall with a goal of telling the story of this very important part of New Orleans history through experiencing the music.

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Now I will admit I came to this session entirely uneducated in the mechanics of jazz save knowing there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on throughout sets, which usually starts with blending the sounds of all the musicians first, working through solo opportunities for each instrument, and then coming together again in a finale of sorts.  I knew nothing of jazz piano, except that my uncle loves to play Dixieland jazz and I’ve only had the opportunity to hear him once or twice.

We were fortunate to have Richard Scott (see above photo) as our high noon solo entertainer.  He spoke about the birth and evolution of Jazz and infamous piano player Jelly Roll Morton’s, well, role in that changing musical discipline, all the while playing examples of what he had just discussed.  He gave a fantastic description of playing “Stride” jazz, where a piano player takes on the role of three different musicians to play a melody, a base line, and the in between harmony.  Because a pianist is usually limited to two hands, the base hand walks or strides between the base keys and those hammering out the harmony.  I have to say it was far more impressive to hear him play and improvise knowing a little more about all that goes into such a production.  You can learn more about the New Orleans Jazz NHP here.

Exhibiting uncharacteristic patience, our kids did brilliantly with this experience.  I knew to cut our time short than overstay their threshold for learning and have them give in to mounting sass driven by gnawing bellies. We quietly excused ourselves and meandered down to the Royal House Oyster Bar where all the kids all tried fried alligator.

 

While the girls are still eager to rely on the familiar offerings of kids’ menus, Keeper is quite pleased to order from the regular offerings.  He surprised all of us, especially our waiter, by ordering the blackened redfish, which was delicious.  I enjoyed sampling his meal more than my Taste of New Orleans that featured jambalaya, crawfish etouffée, and gumbo.

While we were awaiting our meals, the girls finished up their NO Jazz Junior Ranger workbooks and after dining we popped back over to have their work evaluated to earn their newest badges.

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We took a rather serpentine route through the French Quarter to find our car and I realized there were so many places I wanted to further investigate, but that likely wouldn’t happen on this trip.  Although, really, how scary might some voodoo stuff be especially for the 8 and under crowd?  Exactly.

I knew Flight wanted to introduce our kids to beignets and so avoided Café du Monde.  Instead we sampled some other New Orleans goodies and passed through the French Market at a steady clip.  On our way we found pralines for all my friends.  Happily double-badged and sweet-tooth pacified, our girls were delighted to call our French Quarter experience good.  Keeper, however, started feeling nauseous on the way back to Davista.  His system was overwhelmed by the rich food combined with the sugar hit.  Poor guy.

As always, I was thrilled we’d be collecting Flight the following morning.  In general, and as one might expect, this journey is so much easier with my life’s partner present, but keeping track of our gaggle together through the French Quarter was especially stressful and I was relieved we’d be returning to the 2-on-3 zone defense.  After a quick Instant Pot dinner (for everyone but Keeper, still woozy he abstained), I sorted out the kids’ respective school agendas for the morning and didn’t think much beyond what time we had to depart for the airport before crashing out.  My last coherent thoughts were vaguely centered on wondering what we’d do tomorrow with Flight as we’d covered a lot of Vieux Carré ground already today…

More on that in the next post…

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