Summer vacation

Isn’t funny how the anticipation grows for a vacation, and when it’s over you’re thrilled to be home. That’s how we’re feeling tonight. Or maybe that’s just how we feel after our whirlwind Wisconsin vacations.

I think perhaps whirlwind is an understatement when it comes to describing our latest six-day affair.

Let’s start from the beginning …

My graduate class, meetings and magazine proofing filled my calendar Monday. I worked a full day, and it was past 5:30 before I could get home to join the packing party. For the record, I was going on about four hours of sleep because I’d been up until nearly 2 a.m. the night before working on graduate homework and preparing a presentation for my class.

And talk about a big news day last Monday …

Kates and I had hoped to be out of the house by 5 -- 6 at the latest -- but it's never that easy. In 10 years of vacationing and road trips, I don't think we've ever departed when we planned. After all, I didn’t leave work until around 5:30.

As it turned out, very little about this trip went according to plan.

Nevertheless, Kates and I finished packing our clothing bags -- which of course includes two little girls now, and their accessories -- and I loaded the car with all of our camping gear. When we finished, there was barely enough room to put the girls. We were packed to the gills, as they say, and pulled out of The 'Ville around 8:30.

Right off the bat, we got two gems out of Phoebe's mouth.

First, “We’re going to Iowa, baby!" -- because our plans called for driving as far as we could into Iowa and spending the first night of our vacation in a hotel.

The second ...

“Phoebe, let me know if the trunk pops open and things start falling out, ok?”

To which Phoebe responded, “Well, then you're going to have to stop.”

By 11:30, we were nearing Des Moines and began looking for a place to stop for the night. But to our surprise, the parking lots were full at hotel after hotel. And when I stepped inside to check for available rooms, the clerks reported that all rooms were occupied. We must have stopped at hotels along four or five exits, and took a swell driving tour of downtown Newton, Iowa, before we found a place around 1:30 a.m. in Grinnell, a good 53 miles north of Des Moines.

Really, we lucked out. It was a cozy, well-kept Best Western, and we got it for almost $20 cheaper than any of the other places we stopped. We also got a great night's sleep.

* * *

Tuesday morning we reloaded the car and checked out of the hotel just before the 11 a.m. deadline. We stopped for some bunch and gas at a convenience store. Then it was off to our next destination: The Farm.

As we drove, we fired up some movies for Phoebe on her DVD player. And Faye just ogled at her monkey mirror. In the meantime, Kates accompanied me and took care of the music on our iPod.

Lately, I’ve reached a point where I’m tired of my playlists and I'm retreating to the days of listening to albums in their entirety. The really good ones. The favorites. The Grammy winners. … I pitched the idea to Kates of listening to albums, from beginning to end, and she was game. I threw out titles, and she either picked from those or selected her own favorites. …

The move conjured some sweet reminiscing about pre-marriage days and weekends of driving across northern Illinois to see each other and going to church functions, popping homemade CDs into the car stereo, listening to them all the way through and then replacing them with another one plucked out of the three-inch-thick CD case that was always with me in my car. Those were the days.

Funny thing about that last album, though. Kates and I love the last track on this album -- “Don’t Stop” with the USC marching band. The iPod played the second-to-last track, “Tusk,” and the anticipation surged between us as we waited for the grand finale to kick up. But then the iPod went silent. Apparently, when I recently reset my iPod, “Don’t Stop” was left out. Our hearts sunk at the thought we wouldn’t hear it – arguably one of our favorite road trip tracks – during this trip.

* * *

We were forced to make our first pit stop of the day in Solon, Iowa, when Faye began crying out of hunger. So while Kates and Faye solved that issue in a gas station parking lot, I decided to take Phoebe for a short walk through the vintage downtown. We ended up at a quintessential got-everything hardware store, occupied solely by a gray-haired woman who I presumed was the store’s manager. And Phoebe, wasted no time telling the woman our family’s life story, about how we were on our way to Wisconsin to go camping and her mom was feeding Faye in the car.

The story telling went on for so long that I ended up feeling compelled to buy something out of gratitude for the poor woman who stood patiently listening to Phoebe. Out of my wallet I pulled out a few dollars and bought Phoebe a purple flowered pinwheel that she had been playing with in the store. In an instant it was her new favorite toy.


And oh, by the way, the town also had a newspaper. ...

By mid-afternoon, we had traveled into Wisconsin and took a lunch/rest/bathroom break at a Culver’s. With Faye needing to eat again, Kates stayed in the car with her while Phoebe and I headed inside to order food. There, good ol’ Pheebs was at it again – bouncing around the restaurant and telling stories to the teenage girls behind the counter.

Adding another element to the fun, she shouted repeatedly, “We all scream for ice cream! We all scream for ice cream! We all scream for ice cream! …” Finally, one of the girls filled a spoon with a sample of the flavor of the day and handed it to Phoebe. But that stopped Phoebe in her tracks, she turned shy and refused to accept the spoon. … So I happily accepted the spoon on her behalf and downed the sample myself.

* * *

We arrived at The Farm around 5, where Kates’ parents were preparing dinner. Uncle Rod and Aunt Helen were on their way with Great-Grandma P.

I’ve professed our love for The Farm and its secluded qualities on this blog before. Unfortunately, our stay this time lasted less than 24 hours, but it was refreshing nonetheless. Phoebe always enjoys playing with the vintage toys and raiding the video cabinet of Disney animated classics on VHS.


More importantly, our visit was a chance to introduce Faye to her Great-Grandma P. Really, that was the primary reason for the entire trip. Phoebe and Faye are blessed by the fact that all four of their great-grandmothers are still living, and we managed to spend significant time with all four of them – with keepsake-worthy generational photos to prove it and show to the girls when they’re older.

After seeing Great-Grandma P. at The Farm, we saw Great-Grandma S. and Great Grandma R. in Sheboygan on Thursday and Friday, respectively. We saw Great-Grandma H. as we started back toward The ’Ville yesterday morning.

Age is catching up to them, making every chance we get to see them that much more special – and the lost opportunities ruled by the long distance that separates us that much harder. Every meeting is always memorable in its unique way.

Great-Grandma S. has a tendency to suddenly break into song, especially lullabies when the kids are around. As we stood around her in her room at Aunt Ruth’s home, Great-Grandma S. held Faye and broke into a sweet lullaby.

At Great-Grandma R’s house – her “Mad Men”-esque late ’50s ranch – the joy was in watching Phoebe run and play in huge back yard.

With Great-Grandma H, the joy was purely in watching her hold Faye, her namesake, for the first time.

* * *

We said our goodbyes to Kates’ parents and The Farm after an outdoor lunch on the deck Wednesday and hit the road again.

We made a late afternoon pit stop in Montello, Kates’ birthplace. We stopped at a convenience store on the main drag so Kates could feed Faye. We grabbed some supper at the store, and Phoebe led me on walk to admire the quarry.


Our next stop was one of our favorite camping destinations in this country, Kohler-Andrea State Park, nestled near Sheboygan on the shore of beautiful Lake Michigan. But the camping part of it was sort of secondary. The whole point of going there was to take advantage of some opportunities to see many family members Kates and I have in Sheboygan.

And this is when the excitement really began. Because we had been so looking forward to leisurely days at our campsite, hikes through the campground and along the Lake Michigan dunes, building sandcastles on the beach and swimming in the lake.

But none of that happened.

Still, perhaps the coolest thing to occur throughout our trip happened as we approached the park entrance around dusk Wednesday night. There, near the gate, was a pack of deer that stood still and watched us as we drove by, almost as if they were saying, “Greetings and welcome to the wilderness!” It was an epic moment.

As we drove the interstate and approached the campground, we could see storm clouds and lightning flashing in the distance. But I was betting the building storm was going to miss us to the north. Kates and I wrestled with the idea of checking into another hotel for the night – if only to ensure Phoebe’s happiness and to keep our camping gear from getting soaked. Ultimately, we decided to just go for it – the camping that is – and chalk up the storm to a part of the natural experience.

As I checked in at the office around dusk, I asked the park rangers what they knew about the weather that night, and they, too, predicted the worst would be north of the campground. But they also pointed to another large storm cell to the west that appeared more likely to hit the campground.

So, we located our campsite, and I worked quickly to unpack the car and set up our camp as the storm clouds got darker and the thunder grew louder. Kates and I set up the tent. Kates headed inside with the girls, and I began shoveling sleeping bags, duffel bags and other camping accessories into them.

I finished just in time. Moments after I stepped inside the tent, the sky let loose with a rush of rain and the thunder echoed loudly above us.

And there was Phoebe, standing straight as a board, arms at her side, fists clenched and crying, “I wanna go home! I wanna go home! I wanna go home!”

Faye, meanwhile, lay kicking in her Pack-N-Play, eyes wide open, wondering what all the fuss was about.

All we could do was sit in the middle of our tent and wait it out – as the water running under our tent made its floor feel something like a water bed.

Then, we started thinking of all the things I failed to retrieve from the car. Snack food and Phoebe’s activity bag among them. Eventually, there was a break in the rain and I made one more trip to the car.

About that same time, Phoebe announced she needed to go the bathroom. Fortunately, a set of pit toilets was within eye shot of our campsite. To save time, we let Phoebe go without shoes, and I scooped her up for the hike to the bathroom. … But about halfway there, I stepped into ankle-deep water. The road had flooded and all I could do was trudge through it to get to the bathroom. Phoebe did her thing, I carried her back, walked through the flood waters and promptly grabbed a towel to clean my feet back at the tent.

Then the rains came again. This time, Kates kept Phoebe calm with some bedtime stories while I finished setting up the inside of our tent.
Phoebe and Faye slept easily through the night. Kates and I couldn’t say the same. We tossed and turned all night – and the rain just kept coming. It rained steadily until about 5 or 6 Thursday morning.

Phoebe would have slept until noon had we let her.


* * *

With our camp site drenched and our bodies suffering from a lack of sleep, we dressed, loaded the kids in the car and headed into town for breakfast. At McDonald’s.

After all, we hadn’t packed much food and planned to go grocery shopping for our camps meals Thursday morning, knowing we were going to arrive at the camp late Wednesday. … At McDonald’s Phoebe was thrilled to get her “pan-a-cakes,” as she calls them. I always enjoy the breakfast burritos and Kates had a plate of biscuits and gravy. Camp food would have been preferred, but on this particular morning, a McDonald’s breakfast never tasted so good.

After a run to Target for our camp food and some supplies, we headed back to our camp. According to plan, Kates’ cousin, Jessi, rolled in with her two little ones a few minutes behind us. We were looking forward to an afternoon of catching up and playing at the beach.

Again, that’s not what happened.

During an earlier pass through the campground entrance, Kates and I thought we saw a notice posted about the beach. But we didn’t read it closely and shrugged it off. … Jessi brought with her the news that the beaches were closed because of high E. coli levels. Wonderful.

While Kates and Jessi babbled on, I made sandwiches for the kids. And nearly melted under the hot sun. At some point, we also decided to put Faye in her crib in the tent for a nap, only to hear her crying fiercely a few minutes later. When I went to the tent to check on her, she was burning up and I immediately pulled her from the tent for some air. I shudder to think what could have happened had she not started crying and we left her in there much longer.

To say the least, the kids were getting restless and it got to a point where we had to get out. We had to do something. … The kids wanted to go swimming. So Jessi presented us with the option to drive into one of the nearby towns for an afternoon at the community pool. It sounded like a great idea, we loaded up the kids and headed to the interstate again.

But as we headed south toward the town, dark storm clouds were swirling in front of us again. They only grew darker as we approached them. And then as we exited the interstate and arrived in town, the sky let loose a downpour – the kind that impedes your vision and pretty much forces you to pull off to the side of the road.

At this point, I’m thinking, What drought!?

We kept driving, though, and eventually pulled into a Culver’s parking lot. There, we sat in our vehicles – us in ours; Jessi, her kids and Aunt Ruth in theirs – until the rain let up enough that we could move into the restaurant. Inside, the dining area was nearly empty as the employees gathered around the entrance watching the storm.

We bought the kids ice cream and some sides for ourselves and proceeded to spend the next couple hours taking up room in a set of booths, mostly catching up on each other’s lives and swapping baby stories. In the meantime, Phoebe and Isaac literally marched around the restaurant counting and singing the ABCs.

By 4 in the afternoon, the sky had cleared. While us adults would have been content to go back to the camp, the kids had been looking forward to swimming. They were crushed by the mere suggestion that we wouldn’t go. We didn’t know the status of the community pool, whether it was open and whether more rain was on the way. But it was worth a try.

It turned out, in a week of so many memorable moments – not all for the right reasons – that our time at the pool Thursday evening, arguably, was the best of them all. It was a wonderfully designed pool with waterfalls and fountains and water slides and inviting shallow areas for small children. It was more like a mini waterpark than your standard community pool.

Phoebe wasted no time wading into the water, and I couldn’t help but follow her. We splashed and chased each other. We swam under the fountains and water falls. She practiced jumping off the deck into my arms, and I teased her by counting down but sometimes counting out of order. It was classic father-daughter time, and it was so refreshing.

We gathered our things and left as the sun was setting. Polka music was starting up and the smell of bratwurst was coming from the grills as the annual German Fest was starting at the adjacent city park. From there, we headed to Aunt Ruth’s for pizza and our visit with Great-Grandma S.

It rained again that night, causing another restless night of sleep.

* * *

Friday morning our vacation time was waning and becoming more of a final sprint to see the rest of the great-grandmas and a few remaining family members before returning to The ‘Ville. We spent most of Friday at Great-Grandma R’s house, playing in her back yard, relaxing on her deck, dining on Subway sandwiches for lunch and of course capturing some family photos. That evening, my parents joined us back at our campsite and Dad grilled up some of his famous hamburgers. We took a stroll around the campground and visited the beach …


As we were saying our goodbyes to them, Orrin and Kelli arrived, pitched a tent for themselves and stayed with us through the morning. It was their first meeting with Faye. We roasted marshmallows and made s’mores. The time went way too quickly.

The next morning my alarm went off at 6 a.m. I was determined to get our camp packed and be on the road by 8. We had a 10 a.m. appointment with my parents in Lake Mills to meet up with Great-Grandma H., and I had work I needed to get back to at home. We had to be in our house before the day ended.

On a mission, Kates and I packed up as much as we could while the girls continued sleeping. Then, once the girls were awake, Kates took care of them, Orrin helped me take down the rest of our camp. We managed to have the car packed within a couple hours. Beyond that, I was just impressed I got everything – even with some additions we'd picked up since the start of our trip – stuffed back into our car.

Before hitting the interstate we stopped yet again at a convenience store for food and gas. … We found my parents at our designated meeting spot around 10:30 and then followed them out to Great-Grandma H’s home. Something of a repeat of our Easter weekend visit, it was a special visit, made even more special to see her meet and hold Faye.

A couple hours later, we were on our way again. This time, we were heading home.

Like an alarm clock, Faye was crying for food and forcing us to stop almost exactly every two hours.

And we’d spent so much time at fast food joints and convenience stores that I don’t want to get near any more for a long, long time. We stopped at a Dairy Queen for a late lunch and an Arby’s – amid more rain – for a late supper. I’m literally sick of fast food.

As we crossed the Iowa-Missouri state line, we could see another storm building and lightning flashing ahead of us. It was only fitting after all of the storms we faced. We thought surely The
'Ville was getting showered, but that last one never hit, going southeast of town instead.

We rolled into our garage at almost exactly midnight. We had arrived before the end of the day, as I had wanted. 

We carried our sleeping girls to their beds. Then, I proceeded to unpack the car in a zombie state of my own, piling the duffel bags, toys and grocery sacks in the kitchen.

We slid into bed around 2 a.m. And that was our summer vacation.

No comments: