I know, I know.. no posts for ever. Well, we spent a week and a half on our summer driving vacation, then went right back to work afterwards. That meant that it took us a couple of weeks to get everything put back where it belonged, and to get the lawn cut and baled. Plus photos needed to be organized, a tailgate party needed to be attended, and then Independence Day arrived! It's been one thing after another, but I'm finally back to three-steps behind. (I may never get caught up, but so long as I'm no more than three steps behind, I can relax a little bit).
Anyway, as to the vacation... it was a blast! This is our third year driving cross-country for our summer vacation with the kids (now ages 2 and 10), and let me tell you, it's been a blast every time! We're playing car games, watching for weird roadside attractions, and hitting all of the best places of natural, historic and touristific wonder. Here's how it all broke down:
Day 1 (Sat): The Road to Kingston
In good Fishmonger family style, I was up at 3am, and everyone was loaded into the car and we were on the road by 4am. It was still dark when we left. And we made EXCELLENT time – no traffic through Chicago, no backup at the Sarnia border crossing. We were zooming. Until we were inexplicably routed off of the highway somewhere in Canada. Fortunately, our TrikTik had enough local roads that we were able to make it back to the highway and on to Kingston by night. By which I mean it was dark again when we arrived. Yawn.
Day 2 (Sun): Hemmingford, Lake Champlain Ferry, The Green Mountains at Night, Killington
With some distance under our belt, we slowed things down for this day. We stopped off at a Flea Market on the square in Kingston, bought way too much stuff, wandered around town. Kingston looks like a fun place to visit – we’ve put it on our ‘some day’ list. Then we were off to Quebec.
Hemmingford was our destination. After a bit of searching, we located the tombstone of TheWife’s Great Great Great Great Grandfather. And somebody asked me for directions in French. I was of no help to the guy. Why do people always think I know where I am? Is it because I look like I don’t know where I’m going? Is there some Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle subclause that I’m unaware of?
After Quebec, it was back to the US. Down through New York to take the Plattsburgh Ferry to Vermont. Except TheBoy thought we were saying Fairy. He was pretty obviously disappointed when we explained that Tinkerbell would NOT be flying our van across Lake Champlain. But he did enjoy the ferry. And he claimed to see Champ three times.
By the time we left the interstate toward Killington, it was coal black out. And raining. And mountainous. I spent most of the drive struggling to become at peace with my impending death. I highly recommend arriving at strange mountain resorts in the daylight. We were all relieved when we got there, but not impressed with the resort.
Day 3 (Mon): Maple Syrup, Covered Bridges, Long Trail Brewery
First thing in the morning, I opened the patio door, and was suddenly very impressed with the resort. A brook babbled down the hill from our unit, and mist-shrouded mountains were visible in the other direction. And a little daylight (and sleep) helped out opinion of the unit greatly.
We decided to kick off our first day in Vermont with a visit to the Maple Syrup Museum in Pittsford. As of 2009, admission is $2.50. The first couple of rooms are pretty cheesy. Life-size dioramas and paintings of maple sugaring through the ages. But then it got strangely cool. Loads of antique equipment, syrup themed professional artwork and, best of all, audio clips from some old guys who apparently made maple syrup in the stone age. These guys had the greatest voices, and really interesting stories about maple syrup production in the old days (even about fermenting it!). After the exhibits, there’s a little slide show, and the tasting room, featuring a display of decliing maple content in commercial syrups over the years. You can taste different grades of syrup, maple spreads, maple jellies, maple candy… I almost went into defib from all the sweetness! There is of course, a gift shop, it’s about the same size as the museum proper. But you really do get the feeling the museum was put together by some people who really love sugaring. It’s cheesy, but sincere. Is that possible?
The museum hands out little maps of local covered bridges, so we drove through some of them next. They’re cute and all but, really, what’s the point. The drive not unexpectedly ends up at the Marble quarry museum which cross promotes with this one. We opted out of that, and headed back toward the resort, and right on by. Long Trail Brewery was right down the road. They make some pretty tasty beers. They seem to do best with the more highly hopped specimens. And they serve some tasty lunch, too. I had a pork loin sandwich and onion rings that was the bee’s knees! There’s also a self-guided tour of- mostly their bottling line, which my machine-obsessed ~3-year old loved. I loved the beer can collection on the walls of the brew pub… even if they can’t tell Minneapolis from Milwaukee.
Day 4 (Tue): Apple Cider, Ben & Jerry’s, Rock of Ages, Spiderweb Farm
So you may wonder. Why did we pick Vermont as a summertime vacation destination? Vermont is usually visited in the fall (for the leaves) or the winter (for the skiing). Two words – ice cream. We’ve learned that any destination can be fun to visit, so we didn’t need any more reason than the presence of Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont to schedule a visit. So, up to Waterbury we went.
First stop – Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Like many Vermont attractions, this was a gift shop with a reason to exist tacked on behind it. Also like many Vermont attractions, the reason was actually fairly interesting! In this case the attraction was a big hydraulic cider press. Pulped apples are hosed onto sheets in layers, then pressed in this big hydraulic monstrosity. The cider pours off of the press. Defintely neat to see. They’ve also got a glass fronted bee hive. Both were very popular with TheBoy.
After the cider mill, we headed to Mecca – Ben & Jerry’s. We got the tour of the operation (no photography, please, and don’t remember anything secret that you see), followed by free samples (Cookies and Cream that day) and a couple of Lactaid tabs for me. It was amusing and light-hearted. The gift shop was full of nifty things and the Flavor Graveyard was everything TheGirl had hoped it would be. There was also a lovely playground that two weary parents greatly appreciated. On the way back to the car, we happened across an icecream stand, so we stopped and each got a scoop. What luck;)
After Ben and Jerry's, we headed to Rock of Ages to tour their operations.
These operations consist of granite quarries and monument (read: tombstone) manufacturing. Sounds boring, maybe a bit morbid? Well it was the grand surprise of the trip. There are a few quarrying operations you can visit in Vermont. I picked Rock of Ages because they had an additional activity there - for $15 you (or more likely, your kids) can pick out a pre-stencilled slab of granite the size of an index card and sand blast etch the design in yourself. Now that was cool (and the attendant was great with the kids. She knew just how to make my 3-year old feel like he was participating as I sand blasted the wolf he picked out, while not talking down to the 10-year old too much). The sand blasting was particularly cool after seeing the production floor - cranes and pulleys moved chunks of granite of various sizes, moving the various monuments in and out of various cutting, polishing and etching stations. The place was huge, say the size of 3 football fields side to side! But the most excellent thing was the quarry itself - 600+ feet deep with sheer sides so that people are lowered into the pit in a cage attached to a crane. Granite slabs weighing thousands of pounds (and also port-a-potties) are brought out the same way. In case of crane failure or other emergency, there was a system of ladders and stairs mounted on the sheer wall of the pit. Huge piles of massive chunks of junk granite were tucked away in every corner. We were all blown away. Probably the most amazing place we visited in Vermont, and that's not even considering the marble bowling lane they've built on the grounds!
Day 5 (Wed): Laundry, Geocaching, Swimming, Picnicking
After 5 straight days either on the road, or boucing from one tourist stop to another, we needed a break. Plus, we were running out of clean clothes. So, after an early morning trip to the laundromat, we enjoyed our surroundings on foot - picnicking along the brook at our resort, getting in a solid chunk of pool time that TheGirl had been asking for, and hitting a geocache at Kent Pond. Incidentally, Kent Pond was extraordinary. In addition to a fun geocache and pretty little series of waterfalls (featuring the laziest trout in the world, which let us approach within 5 feet before spooking!), the trail crossed the Appalachian Trail, adding Vermont to the list of states where we've done the Appalachian Trail (OK, OK, 'seen' may be the more appropriate verb - whatever).
Day 6 (Thu): The Road to Burlington (Rokeby, Magic Hat, World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet
The plan was to head for Burlington on Route 7, hitting tourist attractions along the way, then spend the night in Burlington. Good plan. In contrast to the route we used to initially arrive at Killington (Interstate blandness followed by late night mountain road driving terror), it was freaking brilliant. We got to see a bunch of interesting small towns, some oddities (statue of a gorilla holding a VW), and some amazing tourist attractions (World's Largest Filing Cabinet!). The high point was touring Rokeby farm. TheGirl is always interested in Underground Railroad info, and Rokeby had plenty of that, and more. It was a bit different from your typical UR stop, though. It turns out that the house was only opened as a museum a few years ago, and research on the family is ongoing. I'm always a sucker for old family history, and this family had a variety of interesting people in it (author, painter, illustrator, as well as the founding finger in every pie type farmer. But the really interesting thing is that there seemed to be little to no secrecy regarding the movement of escaped slaves through the property. Some of them worked on the property for months, earning money for a fresh start in Canada. One man in particular even exchanged letters with his legal owner in an unsuccessful attempt to buy his own freedom. I liked that they were still figuring things out, and willing to share their confusion. The site is owned by a private foundation, not a government agency, so if you wantto go, go now. In today's economy, there's no saying how long they'll be able to afford to keep staffing the place. Let's just say that money seems a bit tight.
We also visited Magic Hat Brewing on this leg of the trip. The visit was... oh, let's be honest, a complete CF. I still can't put my finger on what bugged me most about the place. The decor was reminiscent of Mad Planet in the 80's (lots of black, glow in the dark, and multiple piercings) - which should be a good thing. But there was a pervasive attitude that we visitors weren't really cool enough to take up the employees' time. I got a little fed up with that after a while. Maybe I wouldn't have if the tour had been good. But it sucked. A slide show with blown speakers, a rushed tour guide, a lecture on brewing that took place in a sweltering balcony overlooking the bottling line, whose roar made listening to the guide all but impossible. Free samples appeared to be unlimited which, again, ought to be a good thing. But how much beet beer (I kid you not) can a person stand? And shouldn't the beer at a brewery taste fresh? Even the beet free stuff had the whiff and gag of rarely cleaned tap lines. Not pleasant. I don't feel very positive about this place. And I no longer have any real desire to drink their beer. sorry guys.
PS: World's Tallest Filing cabinet. Imagine a field down a side street. It is grown tall with unmowed grass and weeds. In the midst of it stands a tower. A tower of filing cabinets stacked one atop another, welded each to its neighbor - over 30 drawers in all. All in their original colors, and rusting from their exposure to the elements. There is apparently no sign., no explanation, no owner. It's pointless. It's meaningless. It's joyful. I love it.
Day 7 (Fri): Burlington Strolling, Wildflower Farm, Shelburne Museum
Breakfast in Burlington was uneventful. As expected the 'square biscuits' they advertised were not the same as those ridiculously delicious ones we got at the Old Chicakahominy House (or whatever it was called) last year. But everything was still tasty. Especially the cob-smoked bacon. It's still bacon, but it's a different delicious. Highly recommended. I wonder if there's any place that does bacon tastings...
Anyway, after breakfast, we strolled Church St - one of those funky pedestrian shopping zones that some college towns are fortunate enough to have. It was a nice area, and we were able to let the boy burn off a little energy before the drive back to the resort. A trip to an antique store introduced us to an interesting character. When he learned that I worked at a pharmaceutical company, he wanted to know what I knew about Pfizer. I told him that TheWife had been laid off from Pfizer, but that they treated her well in the process. Turns out he owned some Pfizer stock, and wanted to make sure that they were behaving themselves. Total Burlington approach to life. Before hitting the road, we stopped of at Four Corners of the Earth cafe to pick up sandwiches for a picnic lunch. I'd read about the place on yelp.com, and it was everything they promised and more. This little subterranean sandwich shop makes incredibly delicious sandwiches in out of this world combinations. The owner/operator is another quirky Burlingtonian. They do no advertising, and their menu board just lists the sandwich names, not the ingredients. But ask him any of the 20 some odd sandwiches and he can rattle off the ingredients without thinking. I love this place. It's the kind of place I'd like to run once I give up on my job. I'll call it a Must Stop in Burlington.
The Wildflower farm was something of a disappointment, as the location is not the actual farm, and the large demo prarie/woods was mostly not in bloom. But the gift shop was kick ass, with all the coolest new gardening gizmos, and a boatload of wildflower seeds reasonably priced in small packs or big pouches. Worth a shopping visit, at least.
TheShelburne Museum on the other hand, is completely mind-blowing. If I ever end up with a week to kill in Burlington, I plan to spend it at this place. It's unbelievable. Dozens of buildings old and new scattered along pathways winding over dozens of acres, all of it beautifully landscaped. And inside each building? The wildest museum collections you've ever seen. For instance, there's the quilt building (filled with quilts), the stencilled house (whose walls were dramaticaly stencilled to distraction many years ago), the horseshoe barn (filled with dozens of sleighs, carriages and other horse-drawn conveyances). It goes on and on, and it's all orderly and pleasant to view. There's a heirloom garden, a lithographic print shop, a collection of old medical stuff (dental, optical, pharmaceutical, etc.). But coolest of all are the paddle boat and the steam train. You wouldn't believe it but to see it. You come around a turn in the path and there (miles from water) is a gigantic paddle boat, fully open for your inspection, from the captain's deck to the engine room. It's just so freaking cool I can't believe it! Then, once you've finished with that, and move further along the path, theres a steam train, and a collection of associated buildings from the same era. And you can walk through the train, see the various cabins and sitting rooms. Again, amazing! We had only a couple of hours to visit before closing, so we didn't even come close to seeing it all. I'm just glad they closed fairly early, or I'd have been driving home in the dark again.
Day 8 (Sat): Quechee Balloon Festival, Woodstock
If you ever attend a balloon festival/rally, be sure to plan your visit to coincide with the scheduled balloon lif-offs. We didn't. Without the balloons, a balloon fest looks an awful lot like a small town carnival. We did take a chance to go up in a tethered hot air balloon for $15 each, which was pretty cool and made me surprisingly uncomfortable, and convinced me that I did not want to soar free in a hot air balloon. So, we got our fill of that, TheBoy learned a valuable lesson about untying helium balloons from one's wrist, we checked our hand stamps and we headed to Woodstock, down the road. Meh. Nothing much special there. It's another small town that's been done up all quaint and cloying for the tourists. I can get that in Cedarburg. Next!
On the way back, we stopped at Simon Pearce, a crystal and pottery place. Their stuff is ridiculously expensive ($50 for a tumbler?!?), but if you go downstairs, you can see the glassblowers and potters at work. Plus, you can get a good look at their dam and associated electrical generator. Best of all, they have a table off on the side where clay is supplied so that you can make your own creations to take home or leave for others to see. Nice touch. Of course, at $50 a glass, I guess they can afford to give away some clay.
So we finally made it back to the balloon festival shortly before the first balloons started inflating. It was very cool. As a kid living close to country spaces, we'd occassionally see a single balloon drift by. It was pretty cool. At this event, we got to see over a dozen balloons proceed from the inital lay-out, to cold air inflation, to burn, and finally to lift off. The spectacle of a dozen or more balloons floating within view, even bumping playfully off of each other, or touching down briefly in the nearby river is not to be missed. Check out my flickr account for pics. Amazing! We've already started searching for ballon rallys closer to home. Who's with us?
Day 9: (Sun) New York to Ontario
Up early to head to Niagara. All in all, a rather uneventful day. We did learn that isolated gas stations in New York state often lack bathrooms, even if a newly potty trained nearly 3 year old really really needs one. Thank god for the portable potty we bought. TheBoy does not handle accidents well. As the long day of driving wrapped up, it looked like we'd make it to our hotel ont he Canadian side at a reasonable hour. No such luck. I recall two hours in line for the border crossing, thought it may have actually been less. I don't think we fed the kids dinner until around 9pm that night - Lebanese takeout from a strip mall. Tasty stuff, but as TheWife noted, we definitely blew our Responsible Parent awards that day. But the hotel was nice, clean, well maintained, and a view of the rapids that cut off just above the falls. Watching the weekend fireworks, eating tasty take-out, and super comfy beds were just what was called for by that point.
Day 10: (Mon): Niagara Falls (Cave of the Winds, Tesla, Maid of the Mist and Observation Deck, Aerocar, Lighting the Falls)
So after waiting ages in line to enter Canada the night before, what was the first thing we did? Of course, we headed back to the American side - Goat Island our destination. First stop, the Nikola Tesla monument. Given Teslas half-assed treatment by Edison-brainwashed americans over the years, I was happily surprised to see Tesla featured so prominently at Niagara. The whole area took every chance to give the man his due. Center of it all was a giant statue of the man reading and pondering. Much better than Smithsonian did years ago, when they placed an Edison Bust with a "Father of Electricity" banner adjacent to a model of Teslas AC generator, without even mentioning Tesla once. Good for you Niagara Falls!
But nobody goes to Niagara Falls to see statues of serbian-american inventors, however much their inventions changed the world. Nope. We came to see The Falls. We started at Cave of the Winds. In retrospect, we should have finished up there. It was heads and shoulders beyond anything else we did. There were, of course, disposable raincoats. And Teva style cheapo sandals. And once we got there, we saw why. The Cave of the Winds walkway is built on the theory of increasing wet. First you get the spray from the falls. Then you notice that the outflow is gurgling across the walkway. Finally, there's the Hurricane Deck, where you can actually walk under a tiny fragment of the Bridal Veil Falls. I was awestruck. The water crashed down, before us, pulling the air with it, and generating a substantial wind. We (The Girl and I) struggled up to the edge where the falls actually dropped onto the deck. The water poured crushingly over our heads, crashing down so hard that it was tough to remain standing. I was giddy. The sheer energy of it all.And then extrapolating that tiny fragment of the Bridal Veil to the entire American Falls. And then extrapolating that to add in the entire Horseshoe Falls. If you don't feel a sense of awe upon taking this in, well, then you're a soulless asshole.
We did do the other classic attractions, of course: Maid of the Mist, the American Observation Deck, the Spanish Aerocar over the whirlpool, and such tourist strip attractions as the Louis Trousseau's Wax Museum and the Ferris Wheel. But there's almost no point talking about them. Experiencing the Falls from the Cave of the Winds tour looms so large in my mind that I struggle a bit to recall the rest.
Day 11 (Tue): 150,000 and Home
We did eventually make it home. But by that point I was so wiped out, that I'm not sure about most of it. I remember a super old guy weaving between lanes in Michigan, s if he werehoping to kill us all. I remember the border guard asking me if I had any guns. I remember enjoying a Tim Horton's breakfast sandwich, but not the donuts. And I remember the odometer rolling over to 150,000 miles just as we pulled in to the Kenosha Perkins for dinner. But mostly I remember wanting to collapse in my bed when I walked in the door. I think we'd all agree it was a great vacation. And I think we'd all agree we love roadtrips. Now we just have to figure out how to do a road trip without the pain of coming home.