Category Archives: travel

Adventures in Our Odyssey: Why We Drove to South Dakota

We drove for two and a half days, pressing on hard for our destination, with few stops along the way. So many miles–over 4,000 in all–with so much to do and so little time. We were a family on a mission, journeying from Georgia to South Dakota, trying to satisfy all our pent-up wanderlust in the proper, allotted vacation time like respectable folk. Sometimes I wish we were not nearly so respectable.

Crossing the Mississippi River

Our Honda Odyssey, aptly named, was jam-packed with enough clothes, snacks, books, CDs, camping gear, and supplies to carry our family of five through our 10-day adventure. An adventure that included camping in the Black Hills, hiking in the Badlands and around Devil’s Tower, traversing the Great Plains, and searching for diamonds in Arkansas. We did bring some entertaining electronics, but the kids were limited in their usage because–hello!–my husband and I wanted them to see and experience the trip. We did not embark on this journey so our kids could achieve new levels of video game expertise; we wanted them to experience this amazing world in a way that only a road trip can provide.

Buffalo Herd (yes, I know technically they’re bison, but I like the word “buffalo” better)

The open road has long called out to me, and my parents encouraged it with annual winter drives from New Jersey to Florida when I was a child. I loved the changing scenery, the quirky billboards (South of the Border in the ’70s, anyone?), the changing state signs to mark our progress (Welcome to North Carolina!), the truckers chattering on the CB radio. I loved the going and all that it entailed. The sheer joy of going somewhere away and different. I still love it, and I want to pass that on to my kids.

The road trip has its limitations, of course–like how far you can go on a 10-day vacation. But it also has benefits that flying to your destination just can’t deliver. The road trip provides continuity for your travels. You know where you start and where you’re going, and you get to see how everything changes in between. When we crossed two time zones between here and South Dakota, we changed our minivan’s clock each time. We knew when and where it happened; we didn’t just plop down in the midst of two hours’ difference.

A driving adventure allows you to really experience this great country of ours, both in the details and in the distance. If we had simply flown to South Dakota, we would have missed the winding roads and small towns, ButterBurgers at Culver’s in Iowa, the far-reaching corn fields, and very cute, little 13-stripe squirrels at a rest area in South Dakota. We might also have missed out on the realization of the great distance we had come.

His first ButterBurger

13-Stripe Ground Squirrel


The driving allows the places, the land, the experience to seep into your heart and soul. They become yours in a way that I believe flying cannot offer. We stopped to touch the waving prairie grasses, and admired the neat stacks of hay bales. The hot prairie winds pushed against us unrelenting while we marveled at the immense sky. We drove through towns that had been crossed by the Trail of Tears and the Oregon Trail, and learned a little about those who came before us.

Our kids were mostly awesome on our trip. Though I’m sure they had times of boredom, they hardly complained at all, so maybe they didn’t mind the driving too much. Maybe the driving was good for them. Maybe they will continue to grow in a love of driving and traveling and experiencing this great big world of ours.

The open road is calling…

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When It’s More than Just an Oyster Roast

The sun sinks low beyond the marshes as we gather under the canopy of trees in the cooling night air. Family and friends, old and new, swap stories, speculations, and pleasantries. And the fire crackles in anticipation of the oysters.

Men place the square metal table over the fire. Once the table is good and hot, oysters are tumbled on, ready to be covered in wet burlap. Ready to steam.

Not a fan of oysters myself, I’m here for the company, as well as the other food–Lowcountry boil; grits casserole with collards, broccoli, bacon, and secret ingredients; twice-baked potatoes; and more.

Our hosts are gracious and welcoming, happy to share the beautiful winter evening under the oaks with the whole lot of us. Adults mingle around the fire. Kids flock together, playing games. More than a handful of dogs patrol the area on the lookout for wayward food or just a good belly-rub.

Before long the first batch of oysters is ready, and an eager throng huddles around a long table, oyster knives in hand. A woman from Atlanta tries oysters for the first time, and declares they are worth moving to this area. I muster my courage to try one, and I don’t mind it, but I’m content to leave the rest for the more enthusiastic eaters among us. My husband can eat my share. Besides, he has a little help from our 10-year-old son who realizes he likes oysters alright, but he really likes opening them for his dad.

Spanish moss drapes down from the branches as laughter rises up with the smoke to the wide Southern sky. Like a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of life. Somewhere through those branches above, the nearly full moon oversees the winding rivers and marshlands, impartial as a judge or a jewel set in the crown of this night.

My daughter and I sit a while at a picnic table, as my younger son fills up on crackers, cookies, and cake. My girl and I are eating Lowcountry boil when she announces we should do this more often. This oyster roast gathering of friends and family and food has made a good impression on her, and she’d like some more. And I think of how this is hers, in a sense, as it is ours.

This whole January-oyster-roast-with-friends-around-the-fire is part of the beauty and magic of the coastal South, an inheritance of tradition that mingles with the land. This land that clutches its treasures of history from Native Americans to Revolutionary War, through the Civil War to modern times, all cloaked in pine needles, acorns, and this sandy soil, and wrapped up in the distinctive scent of the salt marsh.

This is our inheritance, for those of us who call it home. Even for me, an adopted daughter of the South, raised here since the age of 12, the age of my daughter now. Here the hospitality is served with sweet tea, shrimp or blue crabs from the local river, oysters steamed outside on a chilly winter night, and good home cooking. Here we greet strangers, and hold the door open.

Though the heavy heat of summer drags on forever, and the sand gnats attack when the weather turns fine, still there is something special. The easiness in the sway of the Spanish moss in the breeze carries over into our easy manners, generous attitude, and good-natured stories. And our run-ins with alligators and snakes and flying palmetto bugs the size of your palm make for some great stories.

The evening draws to a close, and most of the crowd is gone by the time our family says our goodbyes. We load up in the minivan, and make our way down the dark dirt road sheltered by stretching live oaks. It’s time to head back to the paved roads and our usual daily routine. But we carry a little piece of the magic with us. It’s always there, just below the surface, a part of this unfolding story of our land, our region, ourselves.

Back at home, when the breeze blows just right, the scent of the salt marsh drifts down our street, reminding me of this privilege, of this inheritance, of this story we become.


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Why You Should Cross the Border

Sometimes it’s good to get out into the world and cross some borders. This summer our family drove to Canada–from Georgia–for our vacation. We crossed several state borders along the way, but, of course, the big one was the border into Canada, where we dared to leave our homeland behind, if only for a few days.

And so I’ve been thinking about borders recently. Borders are handy and necessary. We use them to define ourselves, to distinguish between Us and Them. We are Here and do things this way. They are over There and do things differently. Even in nonconformity, our borders define us: although I am Here, I am unique and do this instead. We draw our borders all around. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it sure is exciting to cross over now and then.


When we crossed into Canada in early July, we had to show proper identification. Border crossing does not change our identity; it just lets us explore and appreciate more of the world. In the best case, it enables us to get to know Them better, to appreciate There in a personal way, to make connections beyond our usual realm, and to see the world through Their eyes.


Border crossing helps you to examine your assumptions and make new discoveries. In Quebec we learned that a plate of french fries covered with cheese curds and a delectable gravy (a dish called poutine) could be heaven. We also discovered some unique signs appropriate for a place where winter reigns, though they seemed funny to We who live in the land of summer. We found that the simple act of driving can take a challenging turn as the traffic signs converted to French only, and used symbols that were strange to us. Crossing borders keeps you on your toes in exciting, surprising ways.


I love to travel, especially far away. It makes me feel alive and filled with wonder. And our summer trip to Canada was amazing. I recommend traveling as much as possible.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to travel as much as I would like. But, whether traveling or not, there are always borders to cross if we just look for them. I’m not saying necessarily to eliminate borders, as they can be good and useful. But maybe we can consider where borders can, or should, be crossed–if only temporarily–and then watch our world expand.

Where have we drawn lines between Us and Them? Can we reach out and see the world from their perspective for a while? Not that we should all be the same (how dull would that be?), but that we should gain appreciation for our differences and our commonality.

There’s a great, big, wonderful world out there. Go out and explore. And if you can’t go far, then explore where you are.


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How to Win an Inn

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There’s an inn to be won for $150 and 200 words. The transfer of real estate by essay contest is becoming a bit of a trend around the country, and the most recent example to catch our family’s attention is a lovely inn located in a cozy town in coastal Maine. I imagine the delicious wild Maine blueberry pancakes for breakfast, the friendly visitors, rocky shoreline, small town community, stunning scenery, and long, exceptionally long, winters.

And I wonder how does one win an inn? Out of 7,500 essays, what does it take to be the top pick? What can you pack into 200 words to convince the innkeeper you are worthy? Is she looking for credentials? A resume? Passion? Writing skills? Originality? If I write that I’ve always wanted to run an inn, does that make me enthusiastic and hopeful or just like 6,000 other innkeeper wannabes? Is it even worth saying, or is it a waste of precious words?

Maybe luck is the best you can hope for. Maybe a certain number of essays make the short list due to their likeability. But probably a whole lot of essays are just fine, so some are chosen and others discarded by sheer chance or whim. It’s kind of like the lottery, only with much better odds. And, after all, somebody’s going to win (unless there are not enough entries, in which case the deal is off and money is returned).

Though we have not decided to enter the contest, our whole family is excited just by the idea of winning the inn. After visiting Maine on vacation a year ago, our three kids think it would be great to live there. True, we visited for about a week in the summer with near-perfect weather, and had a lot of fun. Which is not at all comparable to living there year-round running an inn, but nevertheless… they are ready to pack up and move.


It’s odd to me that our children are so eager to move away. When I was 12 years old, my family decided to make a big move, and I could not understand why we would ever move away from home. Home was a place back then, tucked in the context of extended family and history. It’s not so much that way anymore as our society has become so much more mobile. Most of our kids’ cousins live far away, only coming for visits from time to time. And we have had plenty of friends move away over the years, so why shouldn’t we move away, too? There is something to be said for being the one to leave rather than the one always left behind.

Will, who is nine, has another reason to want to move. He is sure that if we pack up all our belongings he will finally find his lost Gameboy. Never mind that he hasn’t wanted to play with it in ages until recently. Or that he has some issues with putting his toys where they belong. There is something to be said for being organized enough that you don’t have to rely on a major move to find your stuff. But enough of that… no need to launch into lecture mode.

But wouldn’t it be something if we were to win the inn? How exciting and terrifying and life-changing! It would perfectly turn our world upside down, which is sometimes what we need, or maybe what we crave, even secretly. A change big and bold and dramatic. Crazy enough to shake loose the cobwebs of complacency and comfort, to raise questions and eyebrows. Some might call it folly. Others might call it a fresh start. I would call it an adventure.

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Our Epic Family Vacation

In July our family embarked on our Epic Family Vacation to New England. This trip added about 3000 miles to our minivan, enabled us all to learn the words to the Frozen soundtrack, spanned city and country settings, brought us face to face with history and wildlife, and tested our camping skills, adaptability, patience, and perseverance. It was the best of times.

Our first stop was Boston, Massachusetts, a city rich in history and conveniently located near prime whale watching areas. Our family boarded the Hurricane II in search of whales on Saturday, and enjoyed a morning full of breaching humpbacks and swimming minkes. It was amazing.


In the city, we followed the Freedom Trail, learning more about the American Revolution along the way and reflecting on the ideas of liberty and courage. It is always inspiring to gaze into the lives of those who were brave to stand for what they believed. We wrapped up our time in the Boston area with a dip in Walden Pond where Thoreau found inspiration and I hoped for some of the same.

The next leg of our Epic Family Vacation took us six hours farther north to Acadia National Park where we camped for four nights to the sound of waves crashing on the rocky coast. It is a magical, postcard kind of place. The air was cool and refreshing, a world apart from our own south Georgia in July. Sunshine sparkled on the waves while we clambered over rocks and ate wild blueberries along the path. We couldn’t resist taking a dip in this frigid part of the Atlantic, discovering that it’s not so bad once your legs go numb. We also had to swim in Echo Lake, which was just a tad less frigid.


Our greatest vacation accomplishment was hiking to the almost-top of the South Bubble Mountain near Jordan Pond. The kids climbed like mountain goats up the rocky scramble trail, and we actually had to tell them to slow down. Eight-year-old Will was determined to make it to the top. Almost there, we came to a very narrow, steep section. Jon climbed up to check it out, and we decided not to proceed with our 10, 8, and 5-year-olds. The trick, of course, would be not just going up, but also coming back down with tired legs. Will was terribly disappointed. One day when they are older maybe we will tackle it again. Unfortunately, we will also be older!


All too soon it was time to pack up camp and move on, meandering southward like a lazy river. Our river, however, crossed the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, which is when we went into full moose lookout mode. The road signs clearly indicated moose crossings in abundance, but not a single moose graced us with its appearance.

The evening we slept in New Hampshire, we drove around a while after dinner. When we came upon a good potential moose area, we set up our stake-out, watching and waiting. It was a grassy area by a pond, surrounded by woods. Prime moose habitat. A fellow moose-seeker stopped his car and told us he had seen moose there before. And so we waited more. But it was not to be.

Although we returned home mooseless, we did enjoy seeing many critters on our trip… amazing whales, incredibly cute red squirrels, zippy chipmunks, giant slugs, dead porcupines and skunks, lots of deer and turkeys and groundhogs, a peregrine falcon fledgling, tidal pool starfish, and a mink (we think). Not bad at all.

Maine was so awesomely beautiful, we didn’t want to leave. We hope to visit again some time, though it is such a long drive. But I think one has to go far to get to some place so completely different. And different can shake us up and shake us free sometimes. And that, I think, is one of the best things about travel.



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Our First Family Camping Adventure on Our Own


Our family has been trying to go camping for weeks now, but we have been thwarted consistently by other obligations or threats of bad weather. This past weekend we took the plunge in spite of a less-than-desirable forecast of thunderstorms and high temperatures. We arranged care for our pets, loaded the minivan, and made the short drive south to Fort McAllister State Park for our first camping adventure on our own.

In the past we have camped out with my son’s Cub Scout troop, which is great fun, but we wanted to see how we would fare on our own in the wilderness, aka campground. This has become an important mission for our family because, crazy or not, we are planning to camp out for four nights in Maine this summer during our vacation. So before we live out the storyline for a new National Lampoon family vacation camping movie, we thought it would be a good idea to test out our camping skills and preparedness a bit closer to home.

The campground was quite nice, with an elevated spot to set up the tent, along with running water and an electric hookup. The bathroom was a short walk away, as were the playground and dock. The Magnolia Trail that we explored a few times was smooth enough for our bikes, and wandered through a lovely Spanish moss-draped forest with views of the river and marsh.

As for wildlife, we saw an armadillo, osprey, dolphins, and several deer including a couple fawns. At the dock we watched one man reel in a sting ray and another carry his catch of blue crabs back to his campsite where he said the pot of water was already boiling.

But the real excitement started with the sun’s retreat. That’s when the masked bandits descended from the trees, and skipped around the edges of the campsites, looking for an opportunity to move in on some food. There’s no telling how many raccoons we saw. One raccoon tried to open our cooler with my husband and sons sitting right there! In the morning our campsite, and even my son’s hat that he had left on the table overnight, was covered with little raccoon footprints to remind us of our furry visitors.


All in all, our camping trip was a success. We had a great time in the outdoors as a family. We worked together as a team. We discovered some items that will be handy to have next time around. We even survived the heat and humidity and some thunder, although the real storm graciously passed us by.

Most importantly, perhaps, we gained some confidence to apply to our upcoming vacation campout. So, hopefully we will not return from Maine with Griswold-style stories to tell. Although there is something to be said for having a good story to tell. Anyway, I’ll let you know how the Big Campout goes…

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