Fall Colors

I finagled my way to a business trip to Seattle, and got to spend a bit of the weekend with my folks. The answer to the question “what do you want to do” is pretty much always “head up to the mountain”. Yesterday it rained nearly four inches in 24 hours – which is a lot. So the thing about mountains is that they’re pretty far away and hard to see when there’s a bunch of water between you and the mountains. But we headed up anyway.

The colors out here are glorious. The East Coast is suffering one of the most drab autumns I’ve ever seen – I’m not sure if the leaves are going to change colors at all or just fall off. But I don’t remember the leaves out west. I think this might be the first time in 20 years I’ve been in Mineral in October and the colors! They’re amazing! So mom and I drove up to Paradise today, where it snowed. We went part way up the West Side Road, but it was washed out prior to the closure. The passes were closed, so we couldn’t go through. Then we went Skate Creek, which had the most phenomenal colors but also had a minor road washout. We didn’t have the clearance to make it, so we turned around and got the colors a second glorious time. On our way back we heard Highway 7 was also closed due to a slide, but we couldn’t get up to see it.

Right now, there is only one bridge you can use to get out of Mineral. Happily, it’s a pretty tall one and also in the direction I need to go. The mountains are so beautiful, and the colors are so glorious. But we forgot how tenuous our connections can really be.

You can see all my pictures here. The colors were far, far more vibrant than my poor phone could capture!

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The Summer of their Years

As we close the book on the summer, I can’t help but think that this will be The Summer. I’m sure you had a summer like that – a summer you look back to in your childhood. It stands out golden and long and joyful, and is the marker for what summer should be. My Summer was when I was 9, and it included a pond and a raft, waves of grasshoppers that would explode from every footstep I took and journeys through the wild woods behind my house.

This summer, Grey was 11 and Thane was 8. And if this summer wasn’t peak-childhood-summer, I don’t know what could be.

We did a bit of pre-season summering with our first camping trip of the year, to the Waterville Valley Campground. It was a superbly relaxing weekend. We didn’t go very far or do very much, and were contented to hang out in hammocks and read books and be together. It was a superb camping trip, and we resolved in the future to carefully plan more nothing for our camping trips.

The summit of our one hike

The summer started a bit quietly. School ended in mid June. We spent the last few weeks of June saying goodbye to our dear and beloved friends, as they prepared to move. We spent absolutely as much time together as possible, including heading up to New Hampshire together to celebrate about five of the kids’ birthdays. I armed them all with NERF for some epic neighborhood battles.

Last hurrahs

It was a strangely empty neighborhood we left for our longest camping trip of the year, the 4th of July trip, to our ancestral camping grounds at White Lake State Park. We’ve been there every summer since Thane was a 9 month old, and it never ceases to be a favorite of all of ours. You can take a hike, hang in a hammock, go down to the beach, ride bikes or forage for the sweet fern which grows nearby. In keeping with the traditions of our camping trip, there was extreme weather. In this case, we upped our game to include tornado warning, which sent us to a favorite local watering hole. In this case, the correlation between the soccer game we wanted to watch and the necessity to shelter in place was very serendipitous. We returned to a campsite that hadn’t been evacuated, but which had been clearly flash-flooded. Since we include moderate flooding in all our camping plans, this was accepted as nothing more than expected excitement.

Waiting out the storm
After the rains left

We’d only be home a few days from the camping trip when the second annual Flynn’s Fiery Feast came up. It was a particularly peripatetic adventure, since the weather was gorgeous… between storm cells. So we kept moving the people and the stuff in and out, and in and out. Everyone was remarkably good sports about the whole thing.

The very next day, it was time to drive to New Hampshire again (a theme in my summer) to drop an extremely confident eldest son off at his third (or fourth?) year at Camp Wilmot. We spent a special week at home with our littlest one, and got exactly one letter from our eldest telling us what we’d forgotten to pack him. The next Sunday found me driving that oh-so-familiar stretch of 93 to drop Thane off for his first year. He sent three letters in six days, earning the “Mailman” award at camp. When Erin and I picked up our collected progeny, Thane told me that as much as Grey loved Camp Wilmot, he (Thane) loved it more.

Week one Wilmotters
The week 2 Camp Wilmotters, minus M. whom we couldn’t find

We picked the kids up from New Hampshire on Saturday. On Sunday, we drove up to New Hampshire for a tubing trip on the Saco (rescheduled from the 4th weekend when the river was at flood stage). We had a great time throwing frisbees and floating, with the exception of the section where Thane and I managed to get totally tangled up, lose our tubes and I permanently lost my favorite hair thingy. Woe! Thane is not a huge fan of tubing after that, sadly.

How can you not love this?

They had a whole five days between that tubing trip to recover before it was time for my company summer outing at Six Flags. It rained, but that just meant that there were ZERO lines for the biggest baddest rides. Thane is now tall enough for Superman (the biggest of the Six Flags roller coasters, and a legitimately big one). They have no fear, those children. It was neat to be able to do it with friends, as well!

The rain was our friend

The day after our Six Flags adventure, we flew to Barcelona and spent a totally jetlagged day there, as well as most of a second, walking the green and joyful espalandes of Las Ramblas. Thane chased the pigeons, we ate ice cream and caught Pokemon and lost ourselves in the rambling alleys of the Gothic Quarter.

Thane and the pigeons had a special relationship
The Gothic Quarter

The next day we went up to Montjuic on the Funicular, and spent time going deep on the history of that grim fortress – first built to protect the city and then used to terrorize it. We walked in the gulleys where hundreds were executed, and watched the flags flying with philosophical questions.

Thought provoking art installation
Montjuic parapets

The next day we took the train from Barcelona to Carcassonne. As we sped through the Mediterranean countryside, the boys opened their dice bags and continued the role-playing games that have threaded through all the fun times of our journey. Carcassonne city was glorious. We stayed in the newer section (you know, like 1600) in this Roaring 20s era hotel near the train station. We’d walk through the high end shops and cross the bridge to go up to the medieval city itself. It was truly remarkable, even knowing that it had been restored a mere shmere 130 or so years ago. You could lay your hands against stones that had been placed there by the Romans as they spread across Europe. But there was this whole lack of self-consciousness of the weight of history that only the Europeans can really pull off. Even the medieval city felt lived in, as though it was home to real people.

Also, the cassoulet was unbelievable.

The city had walls connecting it to the river
The keep
The small well in the city

Our greatest highlight of the Carcassonne portion of our visit was the day we spent with James MacDonald visiting Lastour and Minerve, and coming to come to intimately know the Cathars and the Crusaders who persecuted them. Climbing up to the remarkable towers at Lastours was unbelievable. It looked like a Byronic play backdrop. Minerve seemed barely changed at all from the siege of 1220, except for the Victorian bridge that now spanned the chasms. Between them we visited a neolithic tomb. There are some days where you can feel yourself accruing the value of your life. Days where you find the very meaning that you have longed and yearned for. This day was all that – to gaze on these places and walk their worn steps. It was remarkable.

How could this possibly be real?
High above the modern era
Thousands of years ago, this was wrought by human hands
Long imagined city, visited

Adam and I passed our 17th anniversary in the warmth of Barcelona, before we headed back to the states from a truly remarkable week in the 13th century. (And a scant week before terrorists plowed through the crowds we’d just been part of in Las Ramblas.)

Barcelona cathedral

Once again, we gave the boys a gracious allowance of a week before the next thing. Although this particular week, we sent them to boating camp on Spot Pond where they spent six or so hours a day on the water honing their sailing and kayaking skills. I counted, and the children kayaked on three distinct bodies of water this summer, in three different states. I kayaked in zero bodies of water. I think this shows that my children are living more wisely than I am.

My folks departed Boston ASAP on Friday night after they finished boating camp for parts west, racing the sun across the country to be in Idaho Falls in totality to witness the complete eclipse. On the way they passed through Niagara Falls, Minnesota with their cousins, Wall Drug, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, the Hiawatha Trail (where they went on a 17 mile bike ride) and Yellowstone. They also kayaked on Mineral Lake at the end of their journey.

Niagara
Wall Drug
Mt. Rushmore
Eclipse
Hiawatha Trail
Kayaking on Mineral Lake

They got back from this adventure about 3 days before school started. (Meanwhile, I was hiking Chocorua.)

We were supposed to go camping Labor Day weekend. I regret that we didn’t. It is not restful to be home, I swear. But we were so worn out from all our wanderings that we just stayed at home and took a deep breath in preparation for our busiest season, the fall.

But truly, if that doesn’t count as the best summer of your childhood (maybe your life?) then, well, I’m not really sure what it is you are hoping for. It was a glimmering, golden, busy, joy-filled, friend-filled, nature-filled, history-filled, ice-cream-filled summer, and I will treasure it forever.

Conquering Chocorua

Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)… White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385

If only I’d seen this

About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.

Note how ominously close that sun is to the horizon – that’s also where we’d been a few hours prior

My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”

Not the steepest, scariest part of the trail

It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”

My usual view of Chocorua from White Lake State Park

The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.

Not enough information

We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”

I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!

Chocorua is on the left here. We’d be coming down where the white cliffs are to the right.

Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.

The wild blueberries were superb and I grazed continually as I hiked!

We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.

The view of Chocorua from Middle Sister

This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.

But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….

See more pictures here!

The City of New Orleans

Back in September, at “The Event”, I bid on one item in the silent auction we hosted, the trip to New Orleans. I was super excited, but knew I didn’t want to go WITH children. February break, when the kids be at their grandparents, was unfortunately Marti Gras. (There were blackout dates on the hotel, alas.) So as April break arrived, I welcomed my mother-in-law and said a quick farewell as we hied ourselves down to The Crescent City.

The heart of the tourism zone

We had a great time. We got half our to-do list done the first day. We had begnets for breakfast, with accompanying live jazz. We hit the largest historical museum. We had foot massages. (Well, we did that pretty much every day!) We did the cocktail tour (of which I remember the beginning better than the end… for some reason…) The best part of the cocktail tour was the set of scientists we were doing it with who were there for a Physical Anthropology Conference and were fascinating conversationalists. The worst part of the cocktail tour was absinthe. UUUUUGH.

But it looks cool!

The French Quarter was a noisy, tumultuous crazy place. I found myself slightly off-put by just how pleased everyone seemed with the moral decrepitude. Also, the concept of to-go beer is surprisingly disconcerting. We liked it best in the morning – and there were some great museums. I loved the Pharmacy Museum, and the Insectarium was well done. The leaf-cutter ants were the coolest part!

Many of those implements were terrifying!

Food and drink are a huge part of the appeal of the Crescent City. While I think they were well done, Adam doesn’t eat seafood and I don’t like spicy food. I think the best of it was a miss for us. My favorite were the Cajun Eggrolls at the Huck Finn Cafe. We went to one of New Orleans top restaurants, the Commander’s Palace where I had a soft-shelled crab. I was upset when I realized that after the glorious diversity of New Orleans, I didn’t see a single person of color in the entire restaurant, as server or patron. There were probably 300 people there. That was not a statistically plausible outcome, even correcting for income inequality. That realization made my bread pudding souffle taste much less sweet.

You just eat the whole thing

Three days was a short trip, but we were both in dire need of rest. The lovely weather, down time and amazing things to see were just what the doctor ordered – and not a creepy 19th century doctor either!

White Mountain Hotel: historic without history

White Mountain Hotel - taking in fading light. Not in black and white.
White Mountain Hotel – taken in fading light. Not in black and white.

I will never ski again. This is not a mournful expression, but a promise to myself to ease my anxiety even looking at the slopes. Skiing, which I have only done once, and only for half a run, cost me great pain and brought me no pleasure. But I am raising New Englanders, and we love the mountains of New Hampshire, so… here I am, close to the shadow of Chocorua, in the snow.

For the second year we are staying at the
White Mountain Hotel
. It’s a grand old inn, nestled between a state park containing a truly impressive thousand foot granite cliff, and a state park containing a picturesque mountain lake. It has a gazebo, a pool heated to 90+ degrees where my children swim in the driving snow, a grand entryway with a roaring fireplace, and an elegant dining room with an unparalleled view of the mountains around Conway.

It is charming, comfortable and soothes my heart with the glimpses of mountain majesty through every window. From the warm couch in my comfortable room, I’ve all day watched a line of cold-looking people wait their turn in 17 degree weather to scale White Horse Ledge. That sounds hard enough in good weather!

This grand hotel is also just that level of worn that makes you think of ghosts. I polled through the histories of the region, to see if I could find the provenance of this grand old lady on the hill. It has the feel of history to it. One book I found (thank you Google Books!) had descriptions of hotels and I wondered if it might be this one, under a different name.

Sunset Pavilion
Sunset Pavilion
(The History of the White Mountains: From the First Settlement of Upper Coos and Pequaket by Lucy Crawford, 1883)

My favorite line there is from another ad, which speaks of “the beautiful views of weird Chocorua”. Mount Chocorua haunts me. I once tried to climb it and failed, and have been thwarted in climbing it ever since. (It’s too long and risky to go alone. My children cannot yet tackle it. And I can’t go with my husband because who would watch the children? And so I watch it and it taunts me in its loveliness. Someday!)

Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake
Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake

I began to wonder why the hotel didn’t boast of it’s history anywhere I could see. Where was the “built in 18XX”, or the faded picture on the wall to give it that great sense of gravitas that so rightly belonged to it? Although I scanned the histories and advertisements, I found nothing that boasted of this spot between cliff and lake. I pondered the scandal that might cause them to try to blot out all prior histories. A murder perhaps? Was this hotel featured in some haunting book? Like, oh, The Shining?

Finally, I looked up specifically when this hotel was built. 1990. So much for that romantic fancy! And so much for my quiet afternoon – time to pick up my skiiers!

My snow bunnies
My snow bunnies

Roller coaster family

One of the great joys – and hardest parts – of becoming a new family by having children is figuring out who they really are. Do they love to read, like you do? Do they love hiking and camping? Are they morning people or night owls? Do they tend to see things as funny or offensive? Is their first reaction one of compassion? Do they work hard for their goals? There are so many things you discover over time about your children. Many of these things you can influence. It’s hard to get a kid who loves to read if they never have any books around, whereas a constant supply of books and time set aside for reading increases the odds dramatically … but not guaranteed.

Some of these identities extend from the individual to the family. We learn who “we” are. “We” go camping together. “We” play board games. “We” play soccer. For this period of twenty some odd years, we’re a team who does a lot of things together, or not at all.

This weekend, Adam and I asked our family a big question.

Do “we” like roller coasters?

Six Flags New England - I didn't take this one!
Six Flags New England – I didn’t take this picture!

There’s a lot riding on this question. If the answer is absolutely not, then I probably never ride the big coasters again. It’s not worth it to go with reluctant kids, and it’s probably not something I’d do after I have no kid responsibilities. I mean, maybe my life would hold one or two more big coasters… but not many more. With Thane at the 52″ mark, this was the first time we’d be able to investigate and really thoroughly address the question. I confess to being a bit nervous – I really like roller coasters and would be sad not to share that with my kids.

I’m happy to report, the kids loved the coasters.

We tried a bunch: the one built in 1941, the one where you bounce up and down from a great height. We went on the Mind Eraser three times, when a gentle rain dissuaded everyone else from riding it. Then the skies opened and there was thunder, which means nothing was going on. We had lunch (totally breaking from the Pantry Challenge for a day), bought ponchos that were apparently spun from the most precious plastic-sheep ever raised and waited for the rain to stop.

Legit downpour
Legit downpour

This was the best possible thing to have happen, since most folks left at that point. We bought too much fudge and waited. Miraculously, the weather cleared and we had fast run of almost all the rides. It was phenomenal.

Bumper cars were first to open
Bumper cars were first to open

Then we hit the big rides, with very very few lines. Our favorite coaster was the Cyclone. It was a perfect coaster – great drops, twists, upside curves… but not so shaky or vertiginous that we felt like barfing. The kids loved it. We loved it. I think we ran it three or four times.

Grey in line for the Cyclone
Grey in line for the Cyclone
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset

At the end of the day, Adam wanted to do one of the really big coasters. Thane is 52″, not 56″, so there was a category of coaster out reach for him. So Adam and Grey went to do the big one, while Thane and I tested our courage against 300 feet of elevation. Thane loved it. He was phenomenal. After every roller coaster he’d say “That wasn’t even scary! Let’s go again…”

So. This weekend I discovered, we’re a roller coaster family.

Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats
Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats