It’s Just a Phase

We just got back from a glorious week of family vacation at Acadia National Park. (You gotta go.) Dave and I realized we’ve been going for five years now – since Younger was small enough to carry on our backs on the harder hikes. It really got us remembering what it’s been like through the years, and how the boys themselves have changed.

Usually when we “remember last year” it’s where we ate, or what mountain we summited, or where the heck we found that candy apple that Younger is dying for. But this year we remembered how different the boys are.

It began with setting up our camp. We put up two tents, a shade for the picnic table, campfire chairs and wood, set up the kitchen, and unpacked the car in record time. It was because this year not only were they helping, but they knew what to do and didn’t need to be guided every step of the way. (That, and they really wanted to get to the pool.)

They never complained when we dragged them out for a bike ride or hike. Sure, when they got tired the whining began, but that used to start as soon as we announced the plan for the hike. This year they were into it – how many mountains can we climb? Can we go up the one we liked last year?

Older began to understand the geography and landscape and peppered Dave with questions about it. When I wasn’t sure which direction to go on a trail he said, “Just ask Daddy. He knows everything.”

Younger became obsessed with the license plates from around the country and asked why so many people came from so far away to Acadia. I explained what a National Park was and he instantly understood the difference between public and private lands. He joked about how if someone bought it we’d be on their lawn and they’d be yelling at us to get off.

I can’t imagine either of them being the least bit concerned about (or even understanding) either of these topics last year. Or being helpful around the campsite without being asked. Or passing up a treat because they felt they’d already had too many that day. It’s just a different level of development.

Watching them grow up like this is delightful, but of course the trip wasn’t all perfect. There were still moments when we told them to go away and play somewhere else because we couldn’t take their craziness anymore.

But after all our reflecting on the past I could honestly say it will be different next year. I asked Dave if he remembered the first two years when we wouldn’t even dream of taking them into a restaurant to sit for dinner? Now we take them everywhere without worry. Next year they might sit and read a book for half an hour (pipe dream).

So the thing that’s annoying you today: don’t worry so much. It may seem like it’s never going to end but it will. Another annoyance will take its place, but it will be different. Your child will be older and wiser. You will be too. And, God willing, each year the vacation will get better and better.

Oh. And I know that “Daddy knows everything” bit is just a phase too.

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I Can’t Believe Vacation’s Already Over

“Summer vacation rocks!” – Younger Son, July 16, 2011

Greetings from Schoodic Peninsula!

Why is vacation so awesome, and the rest of life so…not quite? I’d be really good at living a life of ease. I wait all year for one week: Maine vacation. ALL YEAR! When I said that to my husband he said “Really? Don’t you look forward to anything else?” I guess there are some things, but nothing comes close to vacation.

And then it comes and goes in a blink of an eye – I can’t believe it’s over already. Really over? I’m home, back at work? And I have to wait a-whole-nother year for my next one? (Sad face.) I could get even sadder if I stopped to count how many vacation weeks I have before my children grow up and don’t want to come anymore. But I’m still in my happy place.

How do I love vacation, let me count the ways. For one thing, you don’t have to deal with the annoying minutiae of daily life. On the drive home from paradise we started discussing the coming week, all the 100 details waiting to be figured out (on top of all the usual stuff, you know, cooking and cleaning and working and raising kids and so on). Rotate the tires, fill out the insurance paperwork, remember to fast after 7:30 because you have to run in and get blood drawn before you go back to work, pick up the summer reading book and homework, schedule the kids’ dentist appointments, aaaauuuuuuugh I wanna go back!

Who doesn’t want to escape from all that nonsense? And that’s just a normal week. My biggest concern on vacation was remembering to pick up fresh ice and milk at the end of the day. That much planning, I can handle. The rest of the week was do-what-you-feel at all times. It was soooooo nice.

On vacation, we are beholden to no one. Dave felt bad that we didn’t socialize with the campers next to us, who kindly invited us to sit by the campfire. I told him to blame me for being the completely anti-social one but, my life is busy enough. I care for eight children every day, and socialize with all their parents. I visit with neighbors and other parents on the school playground. I’m in contact with other providers and early childhood people on a daily basis. After school and work there are sports, where we’re socializing and visiting. We have big families and we’re always on the go, visiting someone here or there.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this life and I’m so grateful for the community we live in. But on my vacation, the one week I have to let it all go, why in God’s name would I want to sit next to complete strangers and try to make small talk?

Then of course there’s being away from the TV. Not having that box making noise at you all day is a beautiful thing. Well, the kids get their DVD player in the car, but we wouldn’t make it all the way to Maine without that. Plus they seem a little happier with some time away from us with earphones on their heads. And we get to have a grownup conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching now and then as much as anybody else, but as the media becomes ever more pervasive it is truly liberating to put myself out of its reach for a little while. (No cell phone service at the campground either, and that’s really OK.)

AND – yes – it’s hard to believe but I’m going to include this on my list: no computer. I love my laptop as much as I love air but I chose not to bring it – and barely missed it. Except when I needed the weather report, and then I just walked up to the camp store and asked the lady. Revolutionary.

I’m also somebody who truly loves to be with my kids, and they are the perfect ages for fun. They’re old enough to get showered and dressed by themselves and to help around the campsite. But they still want to hang out with us and play catch and jarts and bocce and wiffle ball. They love to steal change out of the dashboard for candy at the camp store. And then they beg all day for the pool, and want us to watch every jump and dive and slide. And I love to indulge every whim. OK I’ll admit it: I just like to play too.

The days are easy and relaxed. When we’re hungry, we eat. When we’re bored, we go for a drive and look at the scenery. We go to all the traditional places we love to visit every year. As the boys get older, we can explore and do more things that we couldn’t when they were younger. We went double-kayaking for the first time this year and found a hidden spot for a picnic and a swim. We lie around on blankets in the afternoon sun and make each other laugh with stupid jokes. We go into town for ice cream at night. And just because we felt like it, we saw Harry Potter twice.

Now if I just didn’t have to worry about where the money was coming from. I’d be living out of the car, traveling the country with my boys. At least until, instead of the change, they ask me for the keys and to please be so kind as to get out so they can be free of me.

I know these years are fleeting. This naturally comes from being a mom and watching the time fly by, but I think it’s compounded by my job. My little toddler who’s now walking and talking was in a baby swing just yesterday, puking on my shirt and requiring 27 diaper changes per day. Soon she’ll be leaving me for kindergarten. Blink.

So I savor every moment and even though I was consciously savoring every moment on this trip, it still seems far away already. I will content myself for the rest of the year to be as present with the boys as I can and try to remember all the hilarious, silly, obnoxious, outrageous things they do. I’ll carry the smoothest stone on the beach in my purse and when I come across it, I’ll remember the day I picked it up. I’ll try to break away from the daily chaos and have a few quiet moments with the kids – a bike ride or a game that doesn’t require a remote. And I will patiently wait for next year’s week off.

Hiking Acadia National Park

You know how I like to get all travel-guidey sometimes. Well today I’d like to say, “Welcome…to Acadia National Park” (say it like Richard Attenborough!).

What is there to say, really?

I’m almost crying because I’m home now and not there anymore. Wouldn’t you be?

But I’m here to talk about hiking because it’s really the most obvious thing to do once you’re here. Besides driving the Park Loop Road, where everybody and their mother is hanging out. So do me a favor. Get out of your car and walk a bit. Doesn’t this trail look inviting?

If you are an experienced hiker you’ll have no problem on most of the trails in Acadia. We still haven’t tackled the Precipice, which is supposedly the hardest, because I don’t trust the attention spans of my children to be able to hold onto the rocks long enough. I’m not taking my kids up a cliff face until they’ve shown me they know enough not to dance on the edges (which, at this point, they don’t). Otherwise you can have a field day out here. I know it’s not as huge or challenging as other national parks, but it’s still spectacular. Plus it’s got the ocean.

Check out those waves!!!

Here are some more views from shoreline hikes. They’re just stunning. Dave’s travel guide called this beach “a geologist’s heaven” because of the crazy assortment of rocks.

Here’s one from a sunset hike. Awesome rocks plus incredible light:

And then you come across scenes that just make you get all artsy-fartsy (but how can you not, when it’s so easy. Point and click and you’re a photographer. You can’t go wrong when nature gives you this to work with):

This is from Baker Island looking back up north at Mt. Desert Island (where most of the park is located). I love this view of the mountains, it’s more encompassing than anywhere else.

There are walks for all abilities and we like to challenge the boys a little more every year. This year it was the Gorge Path. And now that Younger Son isn’t the slowest anymore, I’m the one bringing up the rear. They actually thought of bringing whistles so they could call to me and make sure I was OK. How thoughtful. (Better make sure the old lady isn’t laying in the woods somewhere with a broken leg.)

Note my sturdy hiking boot

This can hurt your feet

But these trails challenge my ability too, as I get older and more out of shape, and my legs get tireder. So if you’re just a casual hiker (and non-exerciser like me) I recommend GOOD HIKING BOOTS. Much of what you’re walking on will look like the rocks pictured at right.

I hiked in both sneakers and boots this week and I can’t emphasize enough the difference decent boots made. They are heavier and clunkier, but they protect your feet and give you a firm, flat supporting surface. It is much more comfortable to move over jutting roots and pointy rocks with that hard sole. I thought that my legs would get tired from dragging the boots, but it was quite the opposite.

The sneakers bend and don’t offer protection on the rocks, but more than that they let your heel drop. I’ve been doing hard hikes for 20 years but I learned something huge on this trip that really made a difference: to trust my momentum. Dave’s been trying to explain it to me for years, and he did teach me the neat trick of staying on my toes going up steep climbs. But for some reason, in my 40th year, it clicked this week.

It's steeper than it looksYou can practice it going up regular stairs. If you just put the front part of your foot on the stair, your heel drops, stretching and tiring your calf (and pulling your weight down and back). If you have that strong hiking boot it keeps your heel up and pushes you forward. Instead of dwelling on how tired my legs were and trying to haul my butt over yet another big rock, I could think about keeping my forward momentum and hopping over them (while having to trust that they weren’t loose).

I found myself spending a lot of time choosing a good path too. You can stay up high and go over the rocks, or you can take the low road and cut among them. It probably sounds strange sitting there in your comfy chair looking at your computer, but this can be the biggest thought on your mind during some of these hard hikes. Maybe that’s why it’s so damn zen.

I also had to accept that, being the slowest, I had to be comfortable with setting my own pace. Let the boys run ahead and worry about me and whistle and yell. Part of a hard hike is the mental aspect and staying focused, especially in a place where the hike down can be just as challenging as the hike up (you would think quite the opposite, no?). But when there are sharp pointy rocks jutting up at you it can be a little scary, and gravity is pulling you down (especially when, as I mentioned, I’m not in the greatest shape I’ve ever been).

Anyway. Sorry to get so deep on you. Communing with nature will do that to a person. Oh and I just wanted to mention that hiking over tree roots is harder than you would think!

Trickier than you would think

Who knew? The entrance to Fangorn Forest is in Acadia. Once you’re in there you might see this. (But look out for the people-eating trees.)

Another great thing about Acadia is that there are plenty of short hikes with fabulous views. Dave calls it a big return on a little investment. This one isn’t the highest mountain or most sweeping vista, but I just liked it:

On your way up the mountains, and when you get to the top: please eat the blueberries. They are good for you (according to the travel guide, they have twice the antioxidants as the ones you get in the grocery store), they are the most scrumptious thing you’ve ever tasted, and they will not kill you. They are your reward for hiking.

No, they're not poisonous

But don’t rely on the blueberries to feed you. You must bring your GORP. I’m salivating just looking at it. I know, gross right? But when you’re hiking it’s like ambrosia. It’s a good thing I got this shot before Younger ate all the M&Ms.

Good ol' raisins and peanuts

AND, friends, when you are camping, do NOT forget sparklers.

Fancy camerawork!

So in conclusion: go to Acadia. And I have one final question. Does anyone else’s dashboard look like this by the end of vacation?

Detritus of vacation

Sometimes tourists are cool

Before Dave and I had kids, our vacations were private and romantic, sort of like this Wilco/Woody Guthrie song. Specifically, we chose places where we could hide from people. We would put a backpack on and hike for miles into the woods, or drive around to the less-popular national parks with no big tourist attractions.

These hidden places are free of people who drive through the park loop with their camera hanging out the car window to take pictures (if you’ve been to a national park you know I’m not exaggerating).

But then you become a parent and quickly learn that when you take the kids on vacation, it is unwise to venture too far from running water. Our vacations are still creative and fun, but we have to maintain more of a home base: Beds. Food. Washing machines. So we end up in places that, while they still fit our style, are riddled with other people.

This is usually tolerable for the first couple of days, and at some point Dave and the boys turned it into a joke. They invented a Tourist Identification Guide (“There’s the round-bellied chocolate eater. Here we have a neo-hippie suburban mother. Note the markings: L.L. Bean”). But eventually you get to the point where you can’t stand to hear one more person yelling at their kids or somebody misidentify another plant.

While I’m on that topic, what is it about being in a national park that makes everyone think they’re a naturalist? “Oh these are rosa rugosa.” Really? Are you a park ranger? Do you identify plants while you’re back home, walking into the mall? “No that’s a Japanese cherry, not a linden.” Suddenly everyone has to comment on the flora around them (and clearly, it gets on my nerves). Maybe it’s just that for once they’re not too distracted by schedules, ipods, and cell phones to look at their surroundings.

Anyway, we’d spent the afternoon fighting our way through pushy people in Bar Harbor (and I’d worked myself up into a similar tizzy) when we came upon this:

Can you believe a bunch of tourists did this?

Really cool spontaneous public art

A bunch of people — tourists, no less — spontaneously did this! It was amazing. We’ve been doing this hike for three years now and it was never there before. Somebody decided to add to the trail-marking cairns, and then it just grew. It’s a very rocky beach and there were literally hundreds of them all up and down the high water mark.

Everyone who saw them got excited – a teenage girl yelled to her brother, “Look how cool!” My boys of course were all over it and soon had dad involved. People who didn’t know each other chatted while their kids built. A middle-aged couple was building their own farther down the beach, which got to be almost four feet high, and when they finished they were high-fiving and hugging each other and taking pictures.

It was like spontaneous happiness. A place for everybody to play. And of course there’s nothing zen-ner than piling up rocks into a neat little pile. Isn’t that what all the ads and screensavers tell us?

Well it worked. I have to say, my faith in humanity was restored for another day.