Friday, 24 August 2018

Technology Backfire

I've been in England for three and a half weeks, getting back on Tuesday night. I was welcomed home with the reminder that the apocalypse will come about not because of zombies or nuclear war, but because of a software crash.

The run up to the trip was pretty busy as our downstairs ceiling and upstairs carpet needed replacing due to water damage. This would be a messy process and most of our belongings would need to be packed up and removed, so the builders were scheduling it for when we were away.

England was fantastic, but Tuesday was long. We had a 5am UK start which became 3am in my case, as my brain had one of those hyper-aware-the-alarm-will-be-going-off-in-less-than-two-hours moments. By the time I landed on US soil, it took me three tries to get the right answer to immigration's question: "What city have you come from today?". My sister-in-law collected us from the airport and dropped us off on our drive at 11:30pm US time—i.e 4:30am UK time.

My husband had checked on the house earlier that day, so he had warned me that while the furniture was back, most of our stuff was still boxed up. Still, he had been able to make up the beds for us, so I was comfortable in the knowledge that for tonight all we had to do was fall into bed.

STAGE 1: The Lock.

Between the builders and the catsitter, I didn't have a front door key for myself, but this wasn't unusual. Before our separation, my husband had fitted the front door with a smart lock, so I had got into the habit of opening the door with my watch. In fact, I hadn't bothered to take any keys to the UK with me. As we lugged our cases up the front steps, I tapped the green unlock circle on my watch... and nothing happened.

As it can sometimes be slow to find the connection, I didn't panic for a good two minutes. And then my first thought was to get hold of my husband who could unlock the door remotely via an app—failing that, he's the father of my children, so I could justifiably ask him to drive over in the middle of the night. Except, of course, like most sensible people who have work next day, he was asleep and I couldn't raise him.

I really began to panic at this point because I didn't have many options. The kids were busy waving at our cat, Meg, who was peering through the glass door at us with great interest, but that didn't help my state of mind. A lockbox on the doorknob contained the key for the builders, but this was useless as I didn't know the code and the builder wasn't awake to ask. I knew my sister-in-law would still be awake, but I also knew she didn't have a key because she had given hers to my friend who had cat-sat for part of the time.

This train of thought finally reminded my addled brain that said friend lives on the same street as we do, so I sent a desperate: "Are you awake?" message while trying to figure out what our sleeping options were if she wasn't.

My friend was awake, but she was just heading to bed and almost ignored the message on the assumption it would be just an "Arrived back! Thanks for looking after the cats!" note. Luckily, modern dependence on social media prevailed, she read it, and we hastily arranged a key transfer.

So it was that the kids and I went running up our street at midnight, which is not something I'd ever consider advisable—our neighbourhood has Character, and every now and then there are Incidents. Luckily, it was not a night for our street to make a bid for the local news, and we got to my friend's house in safety, collected the key and returned. (Our cat was now sat in the window watching us with even greater interest and considerable confusion.)

Triumphantly, I turned the key in the lock and let us into the house at last. And, of course, the alarm immediately started beeping.

STAGE 2: The Alarm

Back in the late 90s, we used to have to punch in the alarm code manually every time we wanted to set it or turn it off. These days, we just push a button on a key fob. Actually, these days, we can use an app on our Smartphones, but I confess I've never signed into that app. It's easier to get out the keys than the phone.

Except when the keys have been packed into one of dozens of boxes standing around my living room.

Of course, I still can punch in the code manually... except I realised years ago that I couldn't remember the exact sequence of buttons required, and I never followed that up with our alarm provider because I always used my keys.

On Tuesday night, the keys weren't an option, and it quickly turned out that punching the code manually wasn't going to be an option either. I failed to switch the alarm off in time, and klaxons started blaring at us. I closed the front door, prayed none of the neighbours were being woken up and waited for the alarm provider to call us. I would tell them the password, they would switch off the alarm and we could go to bed.

One problem with that: the phone was in a box somewhere. The alarm provider didn't have the number for my new mobile; they did have my husband's number, but I knew he wasn't hearing his phone anyway. I was going to have to wait until the police showed up to investigate a breaking and entering.

And wait I did. After about fifteen minutes, the alarm suddenly stopped. I had no idea why... there was still no sign of the police. Perhaps the alarm company had managed to reach my husband after all? At any rate, I was in no mood to question the efficacy of this emergency response, so I turned all the lights out downstairs and hustled the kids into bed.

As I crossed the hall into my own bedroom, I saw lights outside and looked out of the window to see a young policeman with a torch (flashlight) coming up the stairs to the front door. In the next moment, I realised that if I opened the door to him, the alarm was going to go off again.

Hastily, I ran downstairs and pressed my face up against the glass panels of the door. I had neglected to turn on any lights, so I succeeded in scaring the crap out of this poor cop and should probably be thankful he wasn't holding a gun. Through the glass, I yelled that I couldn't open the door because the alarm would sound. He was unimpressed by my reasoning: "Yeah, I'm going to have to ask you to open the door."

I called a warning up to the kids that it was about to get loud again and complied. Thankfully, the alarm had now been changed to a more muted complaint, but that was the accompaniment to my truthful yet highly implausible explanation to the policeman. (My sister-in-law later observed that telling him we were squatters and promising to be gone the next day would probably have been easier.)

Thankfully, I am a petite, white woman (the British accent probably helps as well), and white privilege very much came through. He never even asked to see my ID... just said he would have to go and fill out some paperwork. Doing that took some time, so the alarm stopped and I had to trigger it again when he came back to drop off my copy of the report. And then I had to wait for it to stop again before I could get to sleep. But that was, finally, the last barrier between me and my bed.

I now have a key to the front door again and my key-fob for the alarm. It must be noted that I still haven't called my alarm provider about how to turn off the alarm manually, but that is on the to-do list. I'll get round to it. Sometime. Definitely.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Six Months

Today marks six months since I learned the end of my marriage was nigh.

Things are... better. With me, at least. And mostly with my life... a lot that needs improvement, but plenty of time to work on that, and the important thing is that I'm feeling like I can handle it. Somewhere along the road trip way, I got my confidence back and my sense of control. It's all perception, really, as nothing fundamental has changed, but I'm suddenly able to think through many potential scenarios that previously devastated me and come up with plans to tackle them should they arise.

And obviously, there are going to be a lot of ups and downs still. Let's be honest, I had a minor panic attack last week, and I'm still hypersensitive about getting things right in the whole co-parenting side of things, but the whole concept of divorce and moving back to the UK is no longer so overwhelming.

I wouldn't say that I've accepted it yet. Divorce is a tough pill to swallow. I am, however, finding myself able to take steps to normalise it.

I hadn't taken my wedding rings off... I had looked at them often, thinking they were an example of denial, but I've worn those rings for thirteen years, and I like them. They were part of me, a symbol of my family, not just my marriage. Besides, though I'm technically single, it's not like I am "available"—I can't offer anybody a healthy relationship right now.

Ultimately, I decided that if I wasn't ready to take them off, then I didn't need to. That was one part of this whole process I did have control over.

I vaguely thought I'd take them off once the divorce came through, but on Thursday I found myself thinking it was time. That feeling was with me all day, so in the evening I did it. They're on my dressing table for now. I often look at them or at my empty finger, but it's felt right. I'm still not interested in finding a new relationship, but I feel single—or confident in that identity—now in a way I didn't before.

The inscription inside my wedding band reads "No joy without you." (In a rather awful piece of foreshadowing, we didn't have time to engrave my husband's before the wedding and never got around to doing it afterwards.) I remain adamant that I regret nothing about getting married, but I will have to prove those words a lie.

The day after I took the rings off, I changed back to my maiden name on Facebook, so I can start to reclaim that identity. Baby steps. If I do enough of them, I might start actually believing this divorce is going to happen. (Don't ask me what I currently believe is going to happen. We're just going to stay in limbo forever! The kids won't grow up, and the cats will never die, and it'll be fine!)

My daughter spotted the rings on my dressing table the morning after I took them off, and immediately tried to put them on herself... I had to stop her. I didn't need to wear them any more, but I did need to keep them. She seemed very surprised I'd done it but not upset, which was a relief. She then forgot about it for a few days before telling her brother yesterday. He was shocked but, again, not obviously unhappy.

I asked them if I should take one of our pictures down: the one from our tenth anniversary which is on the wall underneath their school pictures. They said "No," so it's still up. It feels a little weird and inappropriate for me to display it, but this is the children's house too. To them, it's a picture of their parents. If not before, we can put it somewhere less public than the front room when we move house.

They're both being supportive in their own way. My daughter tried to match-make me the other day, literally telling a friend (in his twenties and engaged) that I could be his girlfriend. Apparently, while I wasn't around, she also asked a couple of my other friends to be nice to me—which I believe is a reflection of her father's exhortations to behave for Mummy. It's incredibly touching. She and I have butted heads a lot this year, thanks to my current irritability, and it's a good reminder of how much she actually cares for me.

My son is less demonstrative, but also more laid back about it all. I worry that he's bottling things up, but every now and then he'll say something that lets me know he's processing things. Now that I can keep things more matter of fact, I do try and talk about my emotions to the kids and discuss the various steps we're taking to work through this period of our lives. I always want to be as open as is appropriate with them, let that conversation be out there in the hopes that they will feel readier to bring up their own concerns—if nothing else, I don't want them to feel left in the dark about what is going on in their own lives.

The road trip probably did help us feel more bonded in our smaller family unit. The absence of Daddy was sorely felt, and we found ourselves taking turns to fill in for him in old family in-jokes. But otherwise, it was gratifying to prove to ourselves we could and would still live our lives. One of my fondest memories is us in the car, singing along to American Authors, What We Live For, as I drove:

This is what we live for, 
Baby, you're my open road,
You can take me anywhere the wind blows,
Drive into the great unknown,
We can throw our hands up out the window,
This is what we live for.

Starting next week, they'll get the other side of split-family-bonding when I go to England for two weeks of Montessori workshops and their father takes over as the resident adult. Hopefully, we can continue to build security for them.

And self-confidence for me. For years I've had issues with self-esteem and feeling that I wasn't pulling my weight in our marriage, but ironically, the end of the marriage banished rather than confirmed these. Their father is still our sole source of income and I'm still a stay-at-home Mum, but over the past six months, I've been responsible for managing the house and the kids (and my studying), and, well... we're all still standing. Nothing's burned down.

It's not all been graceful, but it's a little like when you have your first pet or baby at home for a week: you're so incredibly impressed with yourself for keeping this dependent creature alive. That's how I feel now. I did this. Advanced level adulting. Go me!

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Cedar Run and home!

For our last day, I had planned to drive down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and do a couple of hikes: one with a rock scramble (Bearfence Mountain) and one with a natural waterslide (Cedar Run Falls). On our last morning, the kids and I consulted and agreed we'd rather go straight to the waterslide. We were close to home now and could do any of these another time, so there was less impetus to pack everything into today.

We had our routine down to the point that my seven-year-old daughter checked us out of the hotel. The hardest part was getting them to stop saying goodbye to the stray cat hanging around outside. (One of the receptionists tried to get us to adopt him; it was very tempting.)


A long drive later, we arrived at the lower parking lot for the Cedar Run trail. You can access it from Skyline Drive, on top of the mountains, but that would mean hiking down to the waterfall and then up at the end of the trip, when we were tired. I opted to go from Whiteoak Canyon Parking Lot at the bottom of the mountain. It should be noted that this car park was already virtually full when we got there late morning—very much at the create-your-own-space stage—and that there's still an entry fee into Shenandoah National Park before you get to the trail.

I had read about this place on the Getting Out of DC blog, and based on that entry I felt confident that my kids could handle the hike to the waterslides. Maybe if this had been five days earlier, they could have done. However, at the end of the trip, on a hot day, up a steep and rocky trail? Not happening. The trail wasn't beyond their capabilities, but it was arduous, it wasn't clear just how far we had to go, and there were tempting little swimming holes scattered all along the trail—though not necessarily easy to reach!

In retrospect, we should have stopped at the first swimming area, where the trail fords Cedar Run. The main waterslide was much further up, but there's a little bit of worn rock there that can be used as a slide and it would have given the kids a respite from hiking, a chance to try the water and decide if we wanted to continue. As the mountain water is cold, this is a really good opportunity to find out if you're going to enjoy this experience or not.

Our first, missed, chance to stop and slide.
Instead we continued—partly because we didn't see anybody else swimming there. The first place we did see swimmers, there was no obvious path down, but there were a group of people in a large swimming hole, jumping off the rocks. They called to us that we needed to carry on, cross over at the top and then scramble down. Initially, we misunderstood and thought the trail was going to cross at the top and this was an extension of the waterslides that were our goal.

Nope. We carried on walking and scrambling and climbing until we met some park rangers who told us that the waterslides were perhaps another half a mile up the trail.

At this, the kids were done. My son wanted to go home; my daughter wanted to go down to the river from this point. I agreed to the latter, but soon realised that rather than finding a suitable pool to swim in, the kids were determined to scramble over the rocks all the way back downstream to where we'd seen the swimmers.

OK, the trail was rocky, but it wasn't this bad!
In no way was this easier than following the trail down, but we did it. It was clear that the waterfall here was not suitable for sliding down, but the pool was deep enough for cliffjumping. We arrived at the same time as a group of students and they went straight to the rocky edges while the three of us went down to the stony beach. Getting our first taste of the cold, cold water, we shivered in the shallows, while the students got up the nerve to jump from the lowest point.

They took the plunge before we did, but eventually I steeled myself to swim out to where the waterfall splashed into the pool, keeping a careful eye out for jumpers. Under the ledge from where they had first jumped, there was actually a small cave just above the waterline. I swam to that, checked for snakes and hoisted myself up. I wasn't in the sun, but the air was warm enough that I didn't feel cold, and I could dangle my legs in the water while watching the students try out a higher jump on the other side. (One girl was the bravest of the group but even she took several minutes before leaping down. Afterwards, she swam to the shallows, looked back up at the boy now dithering on the edge and yelled: "Don't be a pussy! Your girlfriend did it!" That girl is my hero.)

My daughter was desperate to join me in the cave, but she was still only waist deep in the water and couldn't quite get up the courage to drop the rest of herself in and swim. My son wasn't progressing past mid-shin. In the end, I swam back to them and told my daughter I would swim with her. With that final bit of persuasion, she swam out to the cave where I helped her up. Unlike me however, she was still cold once she got out of the water and we didn't stay in the cave long before I took her back to the beach so she could get in the sun.

It was also cold enough that after the waterproof camera had a dip, it fogged up everytime it was exposed to the humid air.

I really wanted one of us to do the cliff-jumping if we weren't doing waterslides, so I climbed up to the low ledge. One look convinced me that this wasn't happening. I may have no problems throwing myself down 100 feet of rock and white water, but I can't bring myself to fall through ten feet of clear air—in our family, that's my son's forte.

So I coaxed my son to do it. He wasn't convinced that it would be any easier to get into the cold water from ten feet up, but the students started cheering him on. Reluctantly he climbed the rocks... and started choking up before he got anywhere near the edge. It wasn't the jump that bothered him, it was the swim through "freezing" water that would follow.

As soon as I saw him getting upset, I told him he didn't have to do it. Part of me regrets not jumping myself... it was something I might have got up the nerve to do eventually... but I didn't want to spend all my focus on psyching myself up instead of being there for the kids.

I had brought some food, so we had a patched together picnic and watched the students jump some more before we found our way back to the trail and the car. The downhill scramble definitely went more quickly, and this time my daughter stopped at the first swimming area to see if it was any warmer there. (It wasn't; she didn't try the slide.)

View of the swimming hole from its beach.
 One awkward change in the car later, and we started heading out towards Charlottesville to meet some friends who had driven up from home for a few days break in the Blue Ridge. But we stopped for lunch once we got back to the main road and I consulted with the kids again. The verdict was in: we could see our friends after we were all home; we just wanted to get back at this point.

We drove back, half-referring to the GPS and half-referring to the BBC's live updates on the World Cup semi-final. It was a long stressful two hours before Croatia knocked England out of the Cup. We were not impressed.

Football did not come home, but we did, after driving almost 2,100 miles. (Still less than the Appalachian Trail.)

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Hitting the Appalachian Trail, Pine Grove and Harpers Ferry

When I was figuring out the itinerary for our trip, the Appalachian Trail was one of the first things I thought about as a way to structure it. It might not be typically known as a road trip, but the internet has everything, which is how we ended up at the Red Caboose Motel in the first place.

Most handily, I discovered that the halfway point of the Trail was in Pennsylvania and there was a museum nearby. This seemed perfect for sampling this bit of Americana, so we headed to Pine Grove Furnace State Park once we left our caboose behind.

The Appalachian Trail is over 2,100 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine. The Appalachian Trail Museum is built next to Pine Grove General Store which is usually taken as the halfway point (the actual halfway mark is apparently three miles south). It is traditional for hikers to celebrate by taking on a challenge of eating a half-gallon tub of ice cream. The children were very interested in this challenge, but I firmly told them that it was only for thru-hikers (hikers doing the entire trail in one trip) who had completed 1,000 miles.

Sure enough, as we arrived, a couple of hikers were already there, digging into their tubs at a picnic table. Over the next hour, while we ordered and ate lunch from the store, we watched more of the hiking party arrive, greeting and teasing each other. The sign out front said the record for the challenge was twelve minutes and fifty seconds. None of these hikers seemed interested in breaking it, eating their ice cream at a much more leisurely pace. We asked where they had come from—they had started in Georgia, two and a half months earlier, and they hoped to finish the trail in September.

Ice Cream Challenge Site

The museum was small, asked for donations only, and had a very nicely laid out children's section downstairs... though by its nature, it was providing information displays rather than hands on exhibits, and while my nine year old son read them curiously, my seven year old daughter soon got bored.

I also liked the upstairs section, which went more into the history of the trail. (I was particularly gratified to learn about Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who took up hiking at the age of 67 by becoming the first woman to thru-hike the trail, and then proceeded to hike it two more times before her death at 85. Never too late, indeed!) The kids however found it more fun to play outside, on a lawn landscaped into a switchback ramp.

A quilted map showing the Appalachian Trail in the children's section of the Museum.

For the children, watching the hikers at the General Store (the trail is busy enough you should find some there most summer days) was a better illustration of the trail than any museum exhibit. From them, they got a feel for the camaraderie of the Trail and learned the distinctive features of the thru-hiker: massive backpack, hiking poles, shorts, beards for the men, easy-going smiles and muddy, clompy, hiking boots. We would be on the trail for the next two days, and we saw a lot of people who, like us, were sampling a few miles of it as tourists, but my daughter confidently pointed out every actual hiker we saw.

As has been noted before, my children aren't hikers and are wary enough of their mother's ambulatory ambitions that my daughter will freak out at the mere mention of the word 'mile'. So while I was determined to hike some of the Trail, I had chosen my sites carefully: I invited the kids to come and do some "rock climbing."

For this, I needed to navigate to Whisky Springs, which would have been easier if I had a phone signal so Google could do it for me. However, remembering my success at Ohiopyle State Park, I nevertheless figured out a course from the cached maps, and we set off. At the point where we found ourselves plunging into the woods on a single lane gravel track, I began to suspect this was not the route Google would have recommended. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't.) My kids, however, were delighted with the journey: "We love it when you freak out!" I choose to believe that this is because they want me to challenge myself and grow in self-confidence. It's probably not filial sadism... right?

I spent a good five minutes dreading an oncoming car which thankfully never came, before we finally came out onto Whisky Springs Rd, found the pullout I needed to park the car and the bridge marking where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road. Inspired by the hikers, the kids found themselves hiking sticks and bounced eagerly up the trail for a good five minutes before they began asking how long until we got to the rocks. The above link suggested it was a quarter mile. Admittedly, it's always tough to judge distances when walking with the kids as their pace is so inconsistent, but it certainly felt longer.

The Trail crosses Whisky Springs Rd.

We passed a few small boulders. One crop of them was sizeable enough that the kids decided we should eat the fruit picnic we'd brought and play hide and seek, but it didn't seem remarkable enough for me to believe that this was the place I'd read about online. I let the kids rest while I climbed higher up the trail and finally I found the spot: it was certainly obvious enough once I did!

I was worried the kids wouldn't care enough to go any further uphill, but they were eager to see it, and not at all disappointed for their pains. My daughter wanted to play the Lion King, my son wanted to do more hide and seek and I just wanted to see how far I could climb. There was some squabbling over exactly what game we were playing as we explored, but overall we had fun—despite me thoughtlessly telling my daughter that she was standing on a spider's foot (it had long legs) causing her to jump off her rock with no thought for where she might land. Luckily, she did not fall to her doom, and the spider scurried off quickly enough that we assume no damage was done.




Afterwards, we headed on down the road to a phone signal and then a petrol station. I encouraged the kids to clean the bugs off the windscreen as I filled up the car. This distraction was sufficient for me to completely forget to put the cap back on my tank, and it was still dangling on the side of the car as I drove out of the station. Thankfully, somebody else noticed and tapped on my window before I turned onto the road.

The lesson here is that to make it as an independent adult, I will need to rely on the kindness of others. (I'd feel inadequate if I wasn't pretty sure this applies to most people.)

Over the rest of the afternoon, we left Pennsylvania behind us and even Maryland, before spending about two minutes in Virginia to cross into West Virginia and Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry is on the point of land where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac (which marks most of Maryland's southern border.) The Trail passes directly through the town, and it's traditional to take a picture at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Center there (though it's not on the trail itself and we only figured out where it was when it was too late to visit it.) Harpers Ferry is also a surprisingly historic little town, as George Washington established the US armory there, which made it a strategically important location in the Civil War.

However, Harpers Ferry is mostly closed on a Monday, as was the case when we arrived, and we were hard put just to find a restaurant open to serve us dinner. Still, I was very taken by the town, which is built on the steep hillside leading down to the rivers, and as such was reminiscent of every Cornish town of my youth.

A waterfall that diverges down somebody's front steps is the most Cornish thing I've seen outside of Cornwall.

The kids were not nearly as enthused by the steep streets as I was, and were reluctant to do any exploring after dinner, although I did coax them to walk along a disused railtrack near the station on my quest to find the footbridge that took the Trail across the Potomac into Maryland. This ended when my daughter tripped over, getting a nasty cut on her hand. I then compounded the accident by pushing my son lightly, at which point he took a dive worthy of any World Cup player and skinned his knee. We gave up, and drove back to the hotel.

It'll end in tears...
I had picked the hotel, a Quality Inn, on the basis that it was right next to the stretch of Trail leading into town. This apparently wasn't reason enough for there to be an official footpath from Hotel to Trail, but the following morning I led the kids along the far side of a crash barrier next to the road for several yards to find it. We found a painted rock and then what looked to be an entire, if disassembled, skeleton of some luckless roadkill (I believe a deer, but I'm no expert) and finally the Trail itself, my son delightedly pointing out the white blazes that proved it was the Appalachian Trail.



It was going to be a scorchingly hot day, so we had started early—we even saw a live deer as we went—but the trail was steep and uneven, and we were hot long before we got into town. However, I had motivated my son by telling him about Jefferson's Rock: the third president had passed through town in 1783, and climbed upon a boulder to view the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. He declared it was "one of the most stupendous scenes in nature" and "a view worth crossing the Atlantic for," so people took due note of that rock—to the point that it had to be given sandstone supports in the mid-nineteenth century.

I traveled the wide, wide world, and came back to this...

It was predictable, but to our disappointment, you're not allowed to stand on the rock today. We consoled ourselves by standing on the rocks nearby, confident that Jefferson must have scrambled around these as well. The view was very nice, though I wouldn't go to Jefferson's hyperbole. Perhaps there were fewer trees obstructing his view... or perhaps he'd never seen Niagara Falls.

From there, we continued downhill into town, descending the Appalachian Trail Staircase (which was ridiculously uneven, so brought me more Cornish nostalgia). Again, I would have liked to explore. The town is on the Lewis and Clark trail by virtue of Lewis getting supplies here before the expedition started. It's most famous for the abolitionist John Brown's failed attempt to seize the armory in order to arm slaves for an uprising throughout the south. There was another African American museum here, so we had a chance to learn what we had missed in Philadelphia, if we were willing to stay in town until it opened.

One historical event; two memorials with two very different (though not mutually-exclusive) takes on it.
Except it was already so hot. It was 9:30am, nothing would open until 10am and just hiking the mile and a half in had taken a lot out of us. I promised the kids they could have ice cream, so we set out to find some. Luckily, my son remembered seeing a coffee shop the night before and reasoned that that should be open this early. He was right and it sold ice cream. Once we'd purchased it, I decided to just start back as we ate.. on the return trip, a lot of the uphill part would be in full sun and it was only going to get worse as the day grew hotter.

Besides, we had a tubing trip booked for 11am. This was perhaps the one thing that would have been better on a Saturday. I had put us down for the Antietam Creek Tubing, long before we left for our trip. At the time, I had been advised that three people were not enough to confirm the booking, but the girl on the phone was confident that other people would sign up and said they would be in touch. I never heard anything, and when I checked the evening before, I was told that nobody else had joined in, so it couldn't take place.

I switched to the Shenandoah River tubing which was cheaper, but a shorter and less exciting trip. I then screwed up by remembering our time as 11:30am instead of 11am, though it proved to be a quiet enough day not to matter. We set off with one or two couples and a summer camp group. No guide... just instructions on where to get out. (It was hard to miss anyway.)

While something of an anticlimax to my planning, this mellow hour and a half worked out very well for this late in our trip and for this hot a day. Depending on where you hit the currents, the tubes went downriver at wildly different paces, and we lost track of my son all together. My daughter and I spent a lot of time discussing crocodiles, crabs and the fearsome Shenandoah piranha, before she got bored and left me hanging onto her tube while she went for a swim in her lifejacket.

At the end of the tubing, we found my son waiting at the shore for us, tossing rocks into the river. We splashed around a bit longer before heading out to buy lunch.

After lunch, it must be confessed, that we went back to our hotel room and indulged in a/c and electronic education. All the historical intrigues of Harper's Ferry went unexplored because we were too tired and too hot. It's a shame because there's a lot to unpick, and on a different kind of trip, this would have made a great companion excursion to a Philadelphia tour.

Come the cooler temperatures of the evening, we dragged ourselves back out to dinner and afterwards I informed the children that I, at least, wanted to follow the Appalachian Trail to Maryland. (Rather wonderfully, only four miles of the Appalachian Trail are in West Virginia.) They agreed to this on the grounds that they could wait for me on the WV side of the bridge.

The far side of the bridge: the track continues after the footpath heads down.

It's actually a railway bridge with a footpath alongside (and a chain link fence dividing the two because people can't be trusted). It allows for a nice view of the two rivers and the columns of old bridges that once spanned them.

And numerous options for padlocks declaring your love.

At the far end was a spiral staircase that practically begged me to go down it and take pictures. I walked along the trail for a few yards—it coincides here with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail, a now dry throwback to the rivalry between boats and trains—and found my way to a beach where hikers were cooling off in the river. From here, I could photograph back the way I had come (and see the diminutive figures of my children, patiently sat on a wall).

This was once one of seventy-four locks along the canal.
 That done, I returned to the bridge, but as soon as I started along it, I saw my daughter running towards me. We caught up to each other, I hugged her and, in agitated fits and starts, she told me that they couldn't see me and they freaked out. I consoled her pretty quickly by telling her she could get down to the water on the Maryland side at which point she rushed off to see and I faced up to my son's nine-year-old wrath as he crossed the bridge at a more sedate pace.

Apparently, they had not realised I planned to leave the bridge and spend a few minutes on the other shore. Wondering what was taking me so long, my son had got up to look down the bridge and discovered I was gone. He told his sister and in great concern, she decided to run across and see if she could spot me. If she couldn't, my son had planned to call the police.

As embarrassed as I was by the misunderstanding, there was something very touching in the responsibility the children had taken when worried about me. I apologised to my son, but I also thanked him and told him he'd been very sensible about the not-quite-crisis. By this point, we had caught up with my daughter, as she scrambled down the rocks to the water under the bridge, so my son's reward was to endure our insatiable desire for paddling. (We later looked into it on the West Virginia side of the Potomac, but this is both very muddy and a lot more exposed to nasty currents; not recommended!)

Having "hiked" the Appalachian Trail in three different states, we were ready to leave it. We only had one more day, and we were all looking forward to going home.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: The Red Caboose Motel

While I came very close to cancelling the Red Caboose Motel altogether, I decided to leave it in an itinerary as a weird little offshoot. As it turned out, the children were furious with me for not staying an extra night.

The Red Caboose Motel is a group of vintage train cabooses that have each been refurbished as a hotel room. Although no longer running, they're still hooked up in a train and on tracks to nowhere in the middle of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I figured it would let us get a taste of some Amish farmland on our trip, and the kids would appreciate the novelty of sleeping on a train. In this, I was absolutely correct, but we got a lot more out of it than that.

There were rules against climbing on the cabooses, so we missed out on some amazing parkour opportunities.

By this point in our trip, we were all getting tired and missing our own space. Our sleeping arrangements were usually split between two beds, and we had been taking turns for who got to sleep by themselves. For this night, I had been able to book a caboose with bunkbeds, so we could each sleep alone. Of course, the downside was that the kids started arguing about who got the top bunk... until we got to our caboose and discovered that after the top bunk you could climb further up to a loft bed, set in the raised portion of the caboose roof. This was something of a heat trap during the day, but cooled down rapidly during the evening.

Loftbed, complete with rooftop view

My son readily conceded this loft bed to my daughter, while I luxuriated in a queen bed to myself that was divided off from the children's sleeping area—I could finally have my own space in the evenings after they went to bed.

The typical downside of the non-typical motel is that breakfast would not be included, but the on-site restaurant, Casey Jones, was actually very good, and came with a view of the nearby Strasburg Railroad, a fully operational steam railroad, as well as passing horse and buggies from the Amish community.

View from the restaurant window, as a steam engine pulls out of the station.

Better yet, the small resort area of the motel was quiet enough for me to trust the kids to play on it unsupervised. There were a few small playgrounds scattered around, a tiny but free petting farm and a barn in which they showed movies every evening. So after dinner, the kids took themselves off to watch Finding Dory, while I returned to our caboose to type up some of our travels.

Going outside to play—we definitely got lucky in our caboose's location.
I was engrossed in blogging when my son came rushing in to tell me to come and see the fireflies. I'm so glad he did... We get fireflies down in Norfolk VA, but we don't see many at a time, and we don't have a lot of open space. It had been a long time, if ever, since I had seen so many fireflies over an open field: it was literally sparkling in the twilight. For the kids, it was a revelation. I showed them how easy it was to catch them, and they 'made friends' with several before I finally made them go to bed.

In the morning, my daughter was clamouring for one of the Amish Buggy Rides offered on site while my son was eager to visit the neighbouring toy train museum. Technically, we had a long way to go that day, but the idea of seeing stuff that we didn't have to drive to was really compelling and I indulged them both.

The first buggy ride was at 9:30am. We took the short option which was just 25 minutes and carried us and another family up the road and back with a stop at an Amish farm where a woman brought a tray of home-made cookies and lemonades to the buggy for purchase. As we left, one of her son's piled down the driveway on a scooter, pushing furiously in barefeet to catch up to us. He caught hold of the buggy with one hand and let it pull him up the hill. In the scooter's basket were two empty gallon bottles: he was on the milk run.

It was little moments like these that provided a more memorable insight into Amish life than passing farm machinery pulled by mules (though I did appreciate the contrast between that and the motorised tractor spreading pesticides/herbicides (?) on the other side of the road). The driver of the buggy explained how he had been born here and had ten brothers and sisters still in the Amish community. He had left decades ago and now lived in Florida, except for the four months of the year when he returned to do these buggy rides.

I talked to the children about how it was a harder way of life, but a more environmentally friendly one. I didn't get into the religious aspect, although there were bible verses printed around the caboose site. But this was very much just a taster... An opportunity to learn rather than the purpose of the trip. We could probably have delved more into it had I granted the children's wish to stay an extra day.

The buggy ride finished at 10, which was when the National Toy Train Museum opened, so we walked across the motel to that. This was a small museum with a proportionate entry fee, but very nicely done. Essentially, it was a room full of model train displays, with some historical exhibits around the walls. We were thrilled to discover a LEGO train layout, the Hogwarts Express chugging from country to city.

The trains started at the push of a button—as did other powered models on the display... We got a lot of mileage out of pushing "Accessory" buttons and seeing what happened. It might just be a sign lighting up, or an entire firehouse would burst into life, with a fireman sliding down the pole and an engine driving out to the road.

The Drive-In was showing Thomas the Tank Engine Episodes. Perfect.

As fun as it was, it didn't take long to see everything, and while the children would have happily stayed in the foyer to play with the Thomas train tracks and LEGO table that were there, I hauled them away to check out. We were on the road again by 11am, making our stay at the motel a scant 17 hours. Not long enough for the kids, but it was a much needed respite from our travels.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Ohiopyle State Park

This is where my itinerary went a little off the rails. I hadn’t originally planned on coming anywhere near this far west, but then I heard about Meadow Run, the natural water slide at Ohiopyle State Park. And then I learned that Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, was also located at Ohiopyle State Park. It seemed to me that if we were doing a waterfall-themed holiday and were driving through Pennsylvania, we couldn’t not include these.

The minor problem here was that I had already mapped out our route and booked a night at the Red Caboose Motel, 209 miles to the east (which, honestly, also didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it looked really cool). I couldn’t shift the night at the hotel, so after some staring at the map, I resigned myself to some hefty zig-zagging on our way south. I will say, this stretch of Pennsylvania is really fun to drive. I’ve never been a long distance driver, I’ve never been a fast driver or a mountain driver, but I got completely hooked on cruising up and down the hills and valleys at 80 mph. (Full disclosure, the speed limit is actually 70mph, but nobody in Pennsylvania treats the limit as anything more than a guideline.)

Anyway, from our night at Connellsville, Ohiopyle was only half an hour away, so we got to Meadow Run right around 9:30am, and we only arrived there that late because it was a cooler day and I wanted the air temperatures to warm up before we splashed into a mountain river. I didn't tell the kids what we were doing in advance, but purely by coincidence, they had watched a video of the Top 10 Most Insane Natural Water Slides on YouTube days before we left for our trip. As we pulled into Meadow Run’s car park, I told them that this was number four. (I was wrong. It was number three.) They were thrilled.

Now I had done substantial research on this place before we left, and everything had pointed to this being safe (as in non-terminal) for children, although there seemed to be some conditions based on water levels. As I was going to be the only adult and unable to be in all places on the slide at once, I packed life jackets for my peace of mind, but it had been a dry few days, and I was feeling pretty confident as we headed down the steps from the car park. 

Then we saw it: viciously churning water overhung by pointed slabs of rock. There was no possible way I could let my children in that.

A group of young men had arrived just before us, and they seemed to be having a similar reassessment of affairs. They had brought a football (the American kind) with them, and they sent that down the slide as a test run. The ball survived, but they reported that it got stuck in one pool, just swirling around for a few minutes. They left the river without getting more than their feet and their hands wet.

I was a little perturbed by this as I had really wanted to watch some people go down the slide before making my own decision… but I knew I’d be mad at myself if we left without trying it. So I stalled for time, encouraging the kids to play up or downstream of the slide, while I studied the slide. The end stretch of the chute seemed designed to pin sliders underneath a rocky ledge where they would be first concussed and then drowned, and I gingerly knelt down and put my hand in the water, where it gushed back from the side. It certainly had a lot of force, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough to keep a person from getting stuck there. 

I talked to a handful of locals who were out walking their dogs. They cheerfully assured me that kids went down all the time without any trouble (“It’s deep there, so they go under and they pop right back up again!”). They also assured me that they’d seen the water flowing much higher and faster than today, and kids still went down without trouble. Finally, somebody told me that you could do the top part which actually did look like fun rather than a death trap, and then get out at the first pool, without going down the rest of it. I passed this information on to the kids; my son went to the top, inspected the course and decided that this was insufficient assurance. 

I was gradually coming to the terrifying conclusion that if somebody was going to go down first, it would have to be me. I certainly couldn’t let the kids be the guinea pigs, nobody else was showing up, and I was the only adult of the party. Unfortunately, I was also the only person without a lifejacket and by this point I was seriously regretting not packing the bicycle helmets. At least if something went horrifically wrong, there were non-swimming adults around to raise the alarm and take care of the kids.

The water was cold, but I assumed that I would stop noticing that once I started. With the cheerful encouragement of the kids, I sat down on a shelf of rock in the shallows near the start and stared at the slide, telling myself I just needed to get to the first pool and stand up. My son was videoing, so I now know that he came up to me, cheering me on and offering to give me a push—I had no idea he was there.

After a good sixty seconds of girding my loins, I pushed myself tentatively into the current and immediately found myself slithering rapidly down, white spray of water all around me, and hard stone thudding uncomfortably underneath my backside. It wasn’t long, but it was breathtaking, before I splashed into waist deep water, almost going under, and still getting pushed along towards the next part of the slide. I stumbled to find my balance and grabbed onto a rock, but it was on the opposite bank. Disoriented, I looked at my daughter on the other side, just a few feet away and tried to figure out if I could walk there against the current. Somewhere in my giddiness I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to complete the slide. After all, I was already wet, and from this angle, it didn’t look so bad. So I settled down and let the current wash me away.

This was a decision that made absolutely no sense. Now I was sliding down a rocky shelf, doing my best to keep facing forwards until I splashed into that deep part I’d been told about and went under, before, as predicted, popping back up again. I flailed to keep my feet in front of me—here came the white churning madness of that scary part… Avoid the rocks—no, crap, that wasn’t the scary part, this is the scary part. Rocks and spray everywhere. Somehow I avoid concussion and I’m slithering down one final zigzag before splashing into deeper water. The slide is done and I’m swimming dizzily with and against the current, managing to fetch up against a rock before I wash further downstream.

The start of the course - I have just passed the first pool.
The absolutely insane part as modeled by a random guy.

Washing out of the slide into open river while my anxious daughter watches.
The water came up over a shallow ledge here, and I managed to climb up onto it. It took a few more seconds before I realised I could stand and walk across it to dry land, where my son came barreling to meet me, still videoing and screaming with excitement. “Did you mean to go all the way down??” At least a minute had passed since my ordeal, enough time for me to feel the adrenalin high instead of concentrating on survival. I assured him it was great, that he should do it and that I was going to do it again. I added that I didn’t feel cold at all. Damn straight, I didn’t.

My daughter did not share our excitement. After watching me disappear down the flume, she trailed after my son in tears and told me she didn’t want me to do it again, she just wanted to go. I comforted her, assuring her with little success that it was fine, I’d had fun.

I did do the slide again, this time positioning my son in a better place to video it. (Not that that made a lot of difference. My son is still early in his videography career and has yet to understand the pitfalls of shaky-cam.) 

Then he did it, after I told him how to get out at the end. I tried to simultaneously video and run along the rocks alongside, frantically envisioning him getting stuck somewhere... The only place he did get stuck was on the rock ledge at the end; I found him clinging onto it as the current tried to drag him downriver, yelling for help. He, too, needed a moment to realise all he needed to do was stand up.

And neither of us did it again after that, because honestly, it’s quite painful. You don’t really notice it at the time, but you feel it and see it afterwards. I had a scrape on my wrist and red marks all down one thigh. A family came down just as my son finished up, with their kids itching to try it out. Their daughter was wearing a bikini, and I cautioned her to cover up, showing her my thigh. She went back to the car and returned wearing jeans and a T-shirt which was probably the smartest thing to wear. However, a trio of cliff-jumpers showed up next, and they went down wearing swimming trunks and nothing else with no apparent ill effects.

War wounds.
Personally, the palms of my hands were stinging for the rest of the day, even though they had no apparent injury. It was an hour before I realized I must have bruised my tailbone, but I was in for a shock when I inspected my rear end that night and discovered it was covered in bruises. I’m not talking under-the-skin discolouration; I’m talking solid, plum-coloured blotches. Never have I been so close to posting a picture of my backside online. 

However, my son had no bruises at all. It’s very possible that I tensed up and rode the slide down in the least forgiving way. The cliff-jumpers were talking to each other about how you could steer yourself on the water plane, which was a world away from my out of control experience.

But it was absolutely worth it. You don’t feel the force of the water because you’re going at the same speed, so while the rock may be hard, you’re also riding on pure foam. In the pools, the rock disappears and the water embraces you, soft and cool, before you’re on your way again. For me, it was hands down the best experience of the trip.

Afterwards, we had to navigate to Fallingwater without the aid of a GPS as I couldn't get a phone signal. Luckily, it was just up the road and we had passed it on the way there. Unluckily, the cover for my spare tyre spontaneously fell off the back of my car as I was pulling out of the car park. Luckily, I heard the clatter, saw what had happened and was able to U-turn to retrieve it. Even luckier, there was a guy passing who knew how to latch it back on. (Yes, I shamelessly asked a man to aid me with car problems. I'm the worst.)

I had expected Fallingwater to be more of a me-thing and for the kids not to be too interested, but when I explained the concept of keeping the architecture organic and working with the natural surroundings to my son, he got totally into it, and was crushed to hear that we wouldn't be going inside the house. (You can only go inside on a guided tour which is fearfully expensive, has to be reserved ahead of time and not recommended for children.) 

The house is built atop a waterfall.
 We got tickets to wander around the grounds instead, which does let you get right up to the house and the kids liked inspecting it, but ultimately they lost interest before I was done taking pictures and refused to walk to the different birds-eye viewing points. They did join me going around the gift shop which was full of genuinely beautiful art deco ornaments—also fearfully expensive. I deeply regretted the emergency expenditures we've had to make this year. Another year, I would have loved to splurge on something. (Though perhaps not on the $1,600 lamp...)

Afterwards, we returned to the little village by the park's visitor's center for lunch and ice cream while I used Google map's cache to find a way back to the interstate. (Successfully!). The drive back was fraught with traffic, which made it considerably less stimulating. For the first time since the drive to Philadelphia, I found myself struggling to stay awake and had to pull off at a rest area for a quick nap. Ten minutes was all I needed, the kids had their iPads so they weren't complaining, and then we drove straight through to the Red Caboose Motel, which deserves its own entry.