There & Back Again (Part 3)

(Click on links for part 1 and part 2)

…Now, where were we?

Road-weary? Naaaahhh...

Road-weary? Naaaahhh…

After our time visiting with the fam damily was at an end, we had plans to continue east and give our children a peek at the ocean. It was the first time for Seth and Ollie; Maxwell had seen it in NYC in February 2012, though that hardly counts. I mean…yes, technically speaking it was the ocean, but in comparison to North Carolina’s white beaches in June?

Old men and the sea. Blessed to have this moment burned into my memory.

Old men and the sea. Blessed to have this moment burned into my memory.

My initial (foolish) wish was to just “see the ocean” the first evening, after we’d driven across the state and set-up our camp at Croatan National Forest–just to scope out the nearby beaches in preparation for the following day. But we could not keep them apart; it was love at first sight for my boys and the sea.

Followed by Joe experiencing love at first bite at the Big Oak Drive-In for dinner–the only establishment that would welcome wet, sandy, salty customers such as ourselves. Shrimp burgers=YUM.

Big Oak Drive-In. A favorite!

We reluctantly went back to the campground and rolled out our sleeping bags. It was perfect weather for camping (says the camping novice). 70 degrees, breeze, no rain in sight. Just the five of us, lying under the screen-top tent and a canopy of stars. It was magical. At least until the boys started rolling all over each other and us during what turned out to be a rather restless evening.

Our view. Spectacular!

Our view. Spectacular!

The next morning dawned bright and bonny, and along with it my bright and bonny Ollie.

Blue skies, blue eyes.

Blue skies, blue eyes.

Everyone stirred, eventually, and we got ready for a morning at the beach. First things first, however: breakfast. What better than Waffle House to fête the most fabulous on Father’s Day?

photo 5 (7)

“At the edge of the dark abyss/The confusion descends like this…”

(I’m sorry, but that is the perfect Waffle House photo.)

Our bellies full of syrup and coffee (well, just for the parents on the coffee part), we hopped on over to yet another beach along the Emerald Isle. We were awestruck every single time we drove over the Highway 58 bridge that spanned Bogue Sound. The boys and I fell into a habit during our short stay of greeting the ocean and saying goodbye each time we met & parted.

Hello, ocean!

Hello, ocean!

We were out in the sand and surf by 9 AM, sunblocked within an inch of our lives and with me essentially camped out under a pop-up tent cabana we’d rented in a (vain) effort to keep me from turning into a lobster. Unfortunately, no amount of sunblock or shade was really going to help much when we were faced with the scorching southern rays. We wisely cried “mercy!” around noon, went for lunch (where else? Big Oak, Papa’s choice!) and spent the afternoon in an air-conditioned movie theater. We ate at a restaurant that was really too nice for us that evening, and then headed back to camp before it got too dark. As Joe took a shower at the bath house, Ollie fell instantly asleep and Maxwell regaled me and Seth with the most beautiful story about a gnome and a firefly, inspired no doubt by the dancing fireflies outside our tent, as the last of the watercolor sunset succumbed to inky night skies. The winking stars and soft insect sounds lulled the last two boys to sleep, and when Joe returned from his ablutions we hatched an alternate plan for the rest of our trip. We decided to spend just one more brief morning at the beach, as we were all very sunburnt already; we would call our upcoming hotel stays and see if we could bump everything up a day. I felt a little sad that the beach portion of our trip hadn’t gone as I’d planned and hoped, but everyone has to face the reality of their genetic weakness at some time. Ha.

The next morning, we got breakfast from a great local spot, went for a last stolen hour of silvery morning sunshine at the ocean before bidding it a melancholy farewell. We had assured the boys, though, that in exchange for not getting (more) sunburnt, we’d let them have an hour or so at the nearby arcade. While the boys played inside, I called three hotels to rearrange nights, if possible. Success! We went on to have a quick campfire lunch of roasted hot dogs and s’mores at the campsite, packed our gear, and started wending our way back home. First stop, the best hotel in the universe, or at least in Virginia. Of course, I might have been a bit biased due to the hot shower and clean, comfortable bed that awaited me. I am such a n00b of a camper.

Beds! Glorious BEDS!

Beds! Glorious BEDS!

After waking, eating, and packing back into the car, we essentially spent the next 8 hours nearly hyperventilating from the beauty of our country. We had passed through some twilight beauty the night before, but now our stunning topography was on full-display. Virginia, West Virginia? I salute you! Hello, Interstate 64. I nominate you for “most beautiful freeway in America”!

Lame windshield-shot...but the scenery was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

Lame windshield-shot…but the scenery was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

We had (late) lunch in the greatest place. I want to give it a shout-out and hope that Google brings people here (in addition to my glowing Yelp review) because the guys at 5 Corners Cafe in Charleston, WV did us a solid. They welcomed us into an empty, near-closing-time restaurant and were so incredibly gracious, so funny and generous that I would have given them a James Beard Award if I’d had one in my purse. I mean, it was a half-hour until they closed and they rolled out the red carpet (and delicious food!) for us and our wild children. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, please go. Or take a trip to WV just to see them. So fabulous.

5 Corners Cafe! Smiles have never been so big and/or weird.

5 Corners Cafe! Smiles have never been so big and/or weird.

We got to Cincinnati that evening. We felt like it was mandatory to give their famous chili a shot. It was good enough. We got our snapshot, anyway, and satisfied bellies. Then: time for laundry and bed at the hotel.

Just before Skyline Chili 3-Ways

Before Skyline Chili 3-Ways

The next morning, we checked-out but, before leaving town, we just had to go see their world-famous zoo. It.was.PHENOMENAL.

I loved this zoo. It was very, very clean and well-conceived. Though it was nearly 100 degrees that day, every path we walked on was shaded and periodic misting features kept us relatively cool. The animals were fun!

Up close and personal with some rhinos on the way in.

Up close and personal with some rhinos on the way in.

I was worried this "dragon" wouldn't live up to the hype, but Ollie loved the Komodo.

I was worried this “dragon” wouldn’t live up to the hype, but Ollie loved the Komodo.

Monkeys!

Monkeys!

We would have liked to have stayed longer, since there was plenty to see (check out the insect house if you go!), but we’d planned to sleep in Chicago that night so we needed to hit the road by lunchtime. Off we went, to the Windy City and our last “destination” on the trip.

After eating what must have been Seth’s dream breakfast and number one meal of the trip (Dunkin’ Donuts!) we hopped on the L and headed in to the Museum Campus to hit Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.

Misty Morning City.

Misty Morning City.

Seth kept saying this fish wanted to kiss Joe.

Seth kept saying this fish wanted to kiss Joe.

These three. I just love watching them learn and explore together!

These three. I just love watching them learn and explore together!

You don’t have to do it like we did, of course, but here’s some advice for budget-conscious travelers with kids: you can see quite a bit at Shedd for just the general admission price. It’s basically unadvertised, and I think it works best if you arrive early on a not-too-busy day or you’ll be in line forever, but it’s only like $8/person instead of $20+. If your kids are little, they will probably not want to spend 4-5 hours in a crowded aquarium anyway. So we saw the exhibits in the “hub” of the Shedd and it was just enough for the boys before aquatic life was getting old-hat. Then we went on a little walk over to the Adler…

...but first: a giant noodle.

…but first: a giant noodle.

…which, in my opinion, is way UNDERrated as far as Chicago attractions go. It was fabulous. Once again, a general admission will be plenty for kids and parents to spend several hours having a blast. They participate in a museum reciprocity program, so with our MN Science Museum membership we got in for FREE. Great deal! The exhibits seemed to be new/updated and were very engaging for all ages. The boys could have spent a whole day playing in the most kid-centric area, which reminded me more of a children’s museum (all hands-on) than what I’d expect hearing “planetarium”. We only left because they were closing, and even then very reluctantly. I definitely want to get back there.

Astronomy School.

Astronomy School.

Across the Universe...

Across the Universe…

Ground control to Major Oliver...

Ground control to Major Oliver…

Pretend camping is so clean!

Pretend camping is so clean!

After a quick stop in at Trader Joe’s, we hopped back on the L and decided to ride it all the way around the Loop, so we could get a glimpse of the city with the boys before heading back to our hotel, which was, needless to say, NOT downtown. We’d ordered delicious Chicago-style pizza to the room the night before and had plenty leftover, with our veggies from the store, for a final dinner on our last night of the trip.

Then we went home. And it was beautiful, and looked different somehow, and was both sweet and sad at the same time. I love our home, but our first big trip as a family had been so incredibly fantastic that it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it was over!

If you made it this far…thanks for coming along with us. It has been fun re-living it a bit while preserving it here for posterity. Someday when my kids are older, I hope it jogs a few fun memories for them. They made it very much worth remembering.

Categories: Mostly Me, Travel | Leave a comment

There & Back Again (Part 2)

When we last left our heroes…

We fared much better than the Griswolds...

We fared much better than the Griswolds…

After three days of driving and spelunking (not really), we reached our Mountain People. Crazy Aunt Linda and her slightly less-crazy fella, Big Uncle Willy, greeted us at the top of their very steep driveway. Their sweet doggies were in a state, because my children exited the car after hours and hours and began “exploring” the house post-haste. In the whirl of activity, I was handed a beer that I didn’t actually drink for at least an hour, because I needed to get the kids to sleep before they made the universe collapse on itself right there in the mountains of North Carolina.

CALi telling baby puppy Otis stories. Let's just pretend it was a bedtime story and not a morningtime story.

CALi telling baby puppy Otis stories. Let’s just pretend it was a bedtime story and not a morningtime story.

Over the next few days, we had us some adventures! While I’d been to North Carolina before, I’d never stayed in this beautiful wild and mountainous western portion before. The first day of our visit we went to the nearby Western North Carolina Nature Center, which was like a specialized zoo of sorts for rehabilitated animals native to the region. It was a great outing for our family, because it was a very manageable size for short legs and engaging enough for short attention spans. So it was great for Ollie’s running ahead/running back M.O., and he couldn’t really get lost. We got to see a wonderful little screech owl, and then the kids put on puppet shows that basically went like this: two animals fight. One wins. Then two more animals face off. One wins. I think you get the idea.

Cutest little owl ever. During Q&A, Seth just kept telling them things about himself.

Cutest little owl ever. During Q&A, Seth just kept telling them things about himself. I don’t think he understood that his job was asking questions to be answered, not answering questions no one asked.

Slapstick. With puppets.

Slapstick. With puppets.

After all this excitement, it seemed the only way to cap off the day was to go to the wonderful little park near Linda & Bill’s home for a good ‘ol fashioned hot dog grillin’. Chips and fruit and hot dogs galore, on a mild and sunny NC evening in the mountains, watching my kids play in the creek like they were born country boys? Perfection.

Like a fish to water.

Like a fish to water.

The next day we all headed out to Chimney Rock for a hike. It should be noted that, when faced with the many trail choices and their descriptions online, we opted for the “leisurely stroll” to Hickory Nut Falls. Um: not leisurely. Perhaps for national park service folk who live there, or the couple of show-off extremely fit families we saw jogging on the rocky, rolling trails but us? Well, it was manageable, which is about as much as I can say about it. Joe ran around like a mountain goat with various children on his shoulders, though, so apparently it was leisurely enough for him!

The scenery was pretty gorgeous, though.

View at Chimney Rock.

View at Chimney Rock.

After our hike, we could not climb this. Well, Joe could have, but didn't.

After our hike, we could not climb this. Well, Joe could have, but didn’t.

The falls.

The falls.

Obligatory family portrait where everyone is exhausted and giddy.

Obligatory family portrait where everyone is exhausted and giddy.

Our hosts enjoy a rare quiet moment...

Our hosts enjoy a rare quiet moment…

Lunch and treasure hunting in the “main street” shops just outside the park were our reward for a hike well-finished. It was fun to see what the boys would choose as their souvenirs. They kept trying to choose weaponry, and like a real drag of a mom I kept declining. In the end, Maxwell chose a straw cowboy-style hat, Ollie a Chimney Rock-emblazoned tambourine, and Seth an undulating wooden snake.

Later that night, my CALi and I snuck away at bedtime to see “The Fault in Our Stars”, which was fitting because I forced her to read it (she would agree it was maybe one of the best things she’s ever been coerced to do) and she loved the book as much as I did. And, indeed, she has come to know John Green’s parents because they live in Asheville and have similar interests/friends. The movie was great–not as genius as the book, by any means, but quite faithful and well-done. You can read–and SHOULD read–the amazing article my aunt wrote about it for her local paper here on page 11! It is such a great piece. Even though she says it better, it was perfect to see the movie with her…a full-circle moment, if you will, considering the movie was released just in time for our visit to NC.

The following day we had to get ready to leave. Our plans had changed, shortening our stay in Asheville and our stay at the beach by a day on each end to facilitate a trip home for Joe to attend Kristin’s memorial service. So after buying an outfit Joe could wear the following day for his travel and the service, eating one more meal at the lovely park (Bojangles!) and playing one more round of Nerf baseball, we had to say goodbye and set out for Raleigh.

Mmmmm...that's good!

Mmmmm…that’s good!

...but not the pole beans! (according to these two, anyway.)

…but not the pole beans! (according to these two, anyway.)

Biscuits! And sweet tea! And baseball!

Biscuits! And sweet tea! And baseball!

The North Carolina Nitwits versus...

The North Carolina Ninja/Nitwits versus…

The MN Marauders! A Most incohesive team, they were.

The MN Marauders! A Most incohesive team, they were.

Just look at that form!

Just look at that form!

Early the next morning Joe took a shuttle to the airport, and the boys and I had a day to spend in Raleigh. Good thing my Crazy Aunt Laura (are you keeping track?) lives in town and was brave enough to offer some adult company to me. After a diner lunch where Oliver was absolutely nuts, we knew the next stop had to be an energy-burner for the boys. We went to the park where they played while we gals chatted, and then we took it back to the hotel so the boys could swim and we chatted some more. I didn’t document much of this day because, to be honest, my heart and head were in two places and I felt so sad and disoriented. But I was very grateful for the time spent with my aunt, who I see altogether too little.

The little fish.

The little fish.

Maxwell trying to be helpful, while his brother tries to lick his face.

Maxwell trying to be helpful, while his brother tries to lick his face.

CALa had her own business to attend to later that evening (my guess is a lot of napping; just being near the atomic levels of energy the boys put out is exhausting!) and I had homework, homework, homework to do while I had some WiFi. I ordered pizza in because I could not face the thought of taking the three boys out for dinner alone after the crazy lunch. When everyone was asleep, I took my quiz and texted with Joe and my aunt, then reveled in HGTV before drifting off to sleep myself. By the time we woke up, Joe was back sleeping soundly, too, after a long day of travel and family and saying goodbye to our friend. Oh, how I wished I could have been there, too. But I was glad that Joe could go. And now that we were reunited, it was time to enjoy one last brunch with CALa before hitting the road and seeing the ocean…

With sweet CALa on our way out of town...

With sweet CALa on our way out of town…

Categories: Travel | 3 Comments