Friday, July 20, 2018

Colorado Wrap-Up

We knew we'd had a good vacay when we woke up on our last day, at the hotel in Denver...and were too tired to contemplate doing much of anything exciting...or physically demanding, for that matter. That's about when I realized something crucial, in hindsight: I'd neglected to build any downtime into this expedition. I mean, the only time we spent in our sleeping quarters was to work in the "8 (or however many we could manage) hours of beauty rest". (Oops...over-ambitious-tour-guide mistake. On the other hand, we got a lot done...and we survived to tell the tale(s), harm, no foul? Yeah, let's just go with that...)

We had originally hoped to visit Red Rocks, but decided to scrap that idea, based on the amount of time and energy it would take, as well as our need to catch a plane at a prescribed hour. (Curse those...rigid airline schedules!) Looking for something low-key and close by, we settled on the Denver Botanic Gardens, which I had penciled in as a possibility when researching the city before we came out west. The rest of the team--notably the male portion--was lukewarm to this notion, but willing to play along...although they insisted on calling it the (wait for it...) BRO-tanic Gardens. (Because they're all big honkin' goofballs, in case you had any doubt...)

So we motored on over to the complex after breakfast, prepared to walk around for a while and admire the impressive variety of flora. However, it was quickly blossoming (Ha! Sorry...) into another scorching, sunny day, so some of us (um, that would be "the menfolk") kind of shuffled along aimlessly, trying their best to remain in the shady spots, glancing disinterestedly at the pretty flowers every once in a while--but, let's be honest, mainly killing time. While others (yep, "yours truly") wound in and out of every pathway they could find, stopping frequently to photograph the lush greenery and colorful blooms...and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

When the guys'...patience for plants...was exhausted, we regrouped to head in the direction of the airport. In a unanimous family vote (a rare and precious thing, indeed) we had agreed to eat our final Colorado meal not only at Wahoo's Fish Tacos...but at the very same location in which we'd begun our adventure upon our arrival on Tuesday. It seemed like a fitting (and delicious!) end to a successful and rewarding trip, bringing things full-circle and tying them up with a neat little bow, if you will. (Side note: we also concurred that these quirky joints should TOTALLY make their way to the East Coast. Seriously, Taco Powers That Be, I'm telling you that we'd eat there All. The. Dang. Time. So on second thought...maybe not a super idea for Team WestEnders? We'd have to exercise some mega self-control, I'm just sayin'...)

And now, here's a collection of random thoughts regarding our travels:
--Riley commented (I think when we were on our way back home) about how it had seemed relatively easy, for once, to find food that suited all four of us during our western wanderings. And he was right--the vegetarian/vegan and gluten-free options abounded in the Centennial State, which was soooo nice. Plus, it was stuff that pleased salad connoisseurs and carnivores alike, so nobody had to compromise...BONUS! (Thanks, Colorado!)

--I was chatting with someone at work in the days before I left, and he asked, with a sly grin,"So, are you going to stop by any dispensaries?" I was completely baffled by his question...but to stave off any social awkwardness, I laughed obligingly and pretended I understood. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about...that is, until we started spotting the ubiquitous marijuana emporiums...all the heck over the place. Granted, I live 2,000 miles away, so I think I can be forgiven for failing to remember (or care, for that matter) that weed had been legalized (both recreational AND medicinal! As the billboards all brightly proclaim). But suffice it to say that you can't swing the proverbial stick without hitting either a shop or an advertisement for this particular product. It was a bit bizarre to the Mid-Atlantic contingent, I'm gonna be honest...but also amusing...

...right up until the moment we realized it's probably the reason security in the Denver airport is the tightest we've ever experienced. As in, two out of four of us were flagged for extra examination of the suitcases. In all fairness, Husband forgot he was carrying my camera for me, since he somehow had more space in his bag than I did on the return jaunt, and the TSA officer just wanted to take it out and make sure it was kosher (or whatever...). But they also removed all of the snacks from my backpack--prepackaged granola bars and nuts and whatnot that we hadn't polished off during our hikes--which I'd insisted on schlepping home, rather than throwing away perfectly good munchies. It didn't occur to me until later that the officers have to be ensure that devious people aren't trying to get away with sneaking pot out of Colorado to...wherever they're going, where possession of it might still be a crime. Wow. That was certainly a new one for us!

--Also entertaining, albeit in a veeerrrry different way, my trusty FitBit informed me that we pounded the pavement (and trails, of course) for over 110,000 steps in our 5 days away, averaging over 19,000 per day....and totaling a whopping 47 miles...and change. So yeah, I'd say we got our  money's worth in the whole Tour de Colorado! (And no wonder we were wiped out after all of that...frolicking!)

--Now, regarding climate: having lived all of their young lives in places where humid air is the norm, the boys expressed their extreme displeasure with the "dry heat". Derek summed it up thusly, "I feel like humidity protects you from the sun. Without it acting as a barrier, it just feels like my skin is...baking!" Derek and Riley both said that they'd take the waterlogged atmosphere over desert-like conditions, any day. In fact, it became a repeated smart-aleck comedy bit during our stint in Colorado, to describe everything as "dry", whether it was appropriate or not. For example, during the chilly, stormy day in Rocky Mountain National Park, when we all came to the conclusion independently that we could really go for a bowl of soup at the end of the hike, one of them quipped, "As long as it's...a dry soup!" Then they'd inevitably high-five each other and remark, in a totally self-satisfied tone, "That's never gonna get old!" (Oh, I beg to differ...siiighhhh....) 

And finally, an assessment from Derek, who mused one day, "You know, Denver is pushing to be one of my top 5 favorite cities." When asked to elaborate, he added, "Well, Seattle had too many...farmer's markets...and rainbow crosswalks...but I don't get that from Denver!" In case you don't speak fluent Derek Dialect, allow me to explain: in his opinion, Seattle gave off a strong artsy, funky, hippie vibe, which is not his wheelhouse, as they say. He continued, "I always try to imagine whether I could live here, if I had a job, and I feel like I'd be comfortable in Denver." 

Well, alrighty, then! To sum up, Colorado earned high praise from the newbies, and renewed appreciation from those of us returning after a long absence. We explored two new cities...we got our fill (and then some) of Mother Nature...we ate well...we saw a fun baseball game in a gorgeous stadium...and we made it triumphantly back home with our carry-on full of trail mix and protein bars! Now we can settle back down in North Carolina...with a new perspective on the overbearing humidity for the remainder of the Summer. I suspect it'll be a couple of months before any of us has a hankering to go climb a mountain...but we might need to find us some tacos much sooner than that! For now, peace out from the vagabond Team WestEnders!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A 4th Day in the Centennial State: so much for "easy"!

For our last hurrah in the Boulder 'burbs before heading back to the bright lights/big city, we planned…why, a HIKE, of course! In my pre-vacation research, I’d found one that sounded right up our alley--promising gorgeous scenery, reachable via a pleasant walk. Even the name itself seemed innocuous: the Flatirons--how tough could that be? (Uh-oh...again with the foreshadowing…)

I’d also been told that it was a very popular destination, so we made our way there around 10:30 Thursday morning, armed with drinks, snacks, sunscreen...and the tattered remains of our waning energy. True to the advance billing, there were already quite a few folks at the park, so we found a space along the neighborhood street to legally leave our car, and meandered in to get the 4-1-1.

We opted to grab a map and also chat with a ranger, to help us decide which of the myriad trails would best suit us. After listening to our desired parameters--moderate difficulty and length, with substantial elevation gain and impressive landscape--she suggested a route that she thought would meet our needs. Now, keep in mind that this would be our third such outing in as many days, so ye olde legs (on all 4 members of Team WestEnders, the young and the...more mature) were feeling a tiny bit…weary….to be honest. And the first thing we had to do was tackle the only paved portion of the entire endeavor…unsheltered beneath the blazing sun…straight up a steep hill. Seriously, we were sweating and gasping for breath within the first 5 minutes of this supposedly light exercise day.

But got even more challenging, as the path changed to dirt (fine), and then rocks (less okay). And I’m not talking about gravel that you just march right over; I mean hefty stones that you had to use to pull yourselves along as you climbed upward, where the suddenly less-clearly-marked trail was supposed to be. This was more than I, at least, had bargained for, and well outside my comfort zone. (What was that guide lady thinking, anyway? Or, wait--did I accidentally forget to tone down my “nature’s badass” vibe, and switch over to “adventurous…within reason”? Whoops…my mistake…)

So, much to Derek’s chagrin, the parentals issued an Executive Order, that we were changing the plan and taking an alternate…scenic stroll. Aaannnd, he shouldn’t have worried. As it turned out, the “Flatirons Loop” was anything BUT level, and featured multiple spots in which we had to carefully choose hand and footholds to scramble up and over piles of boulders (some bigger than me--which I know isn’t saying much, but trust me when I tell you that these suckers were huuuuge). Oh, and all the while, we were plowing ever upwards, toward the Royal Arch, which was our final destination…if we made it, that is.

So, it was…difficult? Yep. A little scary? Absolutely. But towards the end, when we weren’t certain how much further it was, or whether we should consider giving up, we passed folks coming the other way from the summit, who assured us that A) we were close, and B) it would be well worth it when we arrived. So, we took their word for it, and kept going…and you know what? They were totally right. The formation itself--like a giant stone keyhole, open to the brilliant blue sky--was awesome enough. But the sweeping view from the top, encompassing the valley and greater Boulder area, was utterly stunning.
Alrighty, then--after we sat for a while and marveled at the vista, all that was left to do was return to the beginning…2-1/2 miles back down the hill, over all of those delightful rockpiles again. Ay yi yi…nothing like an “easy recovery workout”, yeah? Well, yet again we’d earned our lunch in dramatic fashion, so we found a place called Modern Market--a sort of cross between the convenience of fast food and the formality of a sit-down restaurant--where they advertise natural, in-season, fresh ingredients. Yum! 

NOW we could check into our hotel and collapse for the rest of the evening, right? Hahahahaha--that’s adorable. Nope, we had baseball tickets for the 6:40 game between the Rockies and the Mariners, so there was just time to unload the car, clean up a little, and drive into Denver. Husband and I had been to Coors Field waaay back in the day, but the kids had never visited, so it was a new stadium for them to check off their list.

It was just as beautiful as we remembered--the building itself, but also the incomparable panorama presented by the team’s namesake peaks, visible throughout the night over the outfield wall. As the sun sets, the clouds turn pink and the mountains take on a distinctly purplish shade, making for a breathtaking spectacle. The actual contest on the diamond was a slugfest between two teams we don’t care too much about, but it was nice to SIT and appreciate the evening’s entertainment, with no further effort required on our part.

Altogether it was a lovely last full day in Colorado, that brought together several of Team WestEnders’ favorite things: quality time spent communing with the Great Outdoors, and a chance to enjoy America’s pastime. We’ve had some amazing experiences exploring this little corner of the West…and nobody fell off a cliff, so really, I’m calling this a big old W-I-N!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Colorado Day 3: Wambushed!*

(*Weather ambushed....yes, I just made that up, but I would argue in my defense that my brain is still soggy...details to follow...)

Team WestEnders woke up this morning with one goal in mind: achieving a one-day tourist extravaganza in Rocky Mountain National Park. So we diligently prepared by lathering on the sunscreen, packing layers of clothing in case of sudden temperature changes, and gathering mounds of snacks to fuel us on our planned 5-1/2-ish mile hike. I even checked the forecast ahead of time, and it promised a cool 74*, with a mixture of clouds and sun. (And if you've guessed that this sounds suspiciously like foreshadowing, you would be 100% correct! Stay tuned...)

Feeling fully ready, we set off on the one-hour journey from Boulder in high spirits, and under a clear sky. sooner had we arrived than things took a rapid turn. What I mean by that is, in the time it took us to obtain maps and information at the Visitor's began to rain. It appeared to be a scattered weather pattern, though, since we could see blue sky in spots, so we remained optimistic that it would pass quickly. That is...until we headed up toward the peaks where we would be taking our nature walk...and the massive bolts of lightning commenced zig-zagging down from the heavens.

Then we reached the Park and Ride, where we'd been instructed to catch a shuttle to the trailhead. Here it wasn't actually precipitating...but we couldn't exactly be relieved about this, because we had the opportunity to witness crowds of shivering, sopping wet people getting off the bus, presumably after having spent time on the mountain. Oh...goody. That was probably the moment we realized we were in for a very different experience than the one we'd signed up for (in our heads, anyway).

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, mountain, outdoor and natureI suppose we should be grateful that we had a bit of advance warning, at least...because we stepped out of the courtesy vehicle straight into an absolute downpour. We'd come to enjoy the Great Outdoors, though (damn it!)--and we're nothing if not stubborn--so we weren't going to let a little bit of water (or, you know, a DELUGE) stop us. The path was waiting...we steeled ourselves mentally to withstand the unpleasant conditions...and off we went. And you know what? We were rewarded for our grit and determination...and perseverance...with absolutely spectacular scenery. A thundering waterfall...spooky, mist-enshrouded peaks...lush green pines and brilliantly hued wildflowers--it was all utterly amazing.

The showers even ceased, TWICE--long enough for us to dry out, almost--before picking back up again as we neared our designated halfway point, and from there on out until the end, it just...soaked us. (About that SPF? Yeah, obviously unnecessary, and completely washed away in less than 5 minutes. The extra shirts? All hastily donned...and rapidly drenched through. The food was super-useful, though...yay?) But despite all the...challenges...I've gotta say that the physical discomfort took a back seat to the awe we all felt at the overwhelming beauty of our surroundings. For example, one highlight for the boys was when we had almost reached out ultimate destination--a serene lake nestled amid soaring craggy cliffs on three sides--and we came upon a mound of snow that still remained, at this height, in July. (Seriously, they were positively giddy with excitement--it was adorable.)
So, we had completed our mission...and by that point, we'd also started hearing ominous, rolling thunder to accompany the other... delightful meteorological circumstances. Aaannnd we pretty much resembled drowned rats, in the sense of "couldn't honestly get any freakin' wetter. Oh, and as a special bonus, I, personally, could no longer feel my fingers or toes, so that was an additional...situation. Suffice it to say, when we turned around to trek back to the trailhead, I practically RAN the 2+ miles, hoping to beat the very real threat of hypothermia. (Don't worry--I was fine...and I even regained sensation in all of my extremities...eventually...)

When all was said and done, the kids rated it as the #1 (Derek) or #2 (Riley) hike that Team WestEnders has EVER that's really all that counts. There was nothing left to do but crank up the heat in the car (not kidding), and wind our way down to the cute little community of Estes Park, at the foot of the mountains. Here we knew we could obtain two very important things: shelter from the elements, and some nice, hot lunch. And wouldn't you know, it WAS. NOT. RAINING. IN. TOWN. What the heck? That's just...insulting! But the delicious pizza (at Bob and Tony's) and the successful souvenir shopping soothed our ruffled feathers. That, and the fact that the warm rays helped us to finally lose the remaining dampness that had been lingering.

So thanks for the memories, Rocky Mountain National Park--when all was said and done, this story has already become an unforgettable part of WestEnders family lore!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Day 2 in Colorado: Peaceful wide open spaces...and funkytown....

Team WestEnders' Wednesday Colorado wandering began with packing up the rental car and vacating Denver temporarily, in order to spend some quality time with her cousin Boulder to the northwest. But first we made a stop at a state park on the way, that Husband had chosen for its hiking opportunities, and the promise of spectacular scenery for our efforts. In order to get to El Dorado Canyon, you turn off the main road and wind your way through towering rocky cliffs, before pulling onto a dirt-and-gravel path that leads you at a crawling pace into the protected parkland. Then you get out of the vehicle...and your gaze is drawn irresistibly the craggy outcroppings covered in scrubby green bushes, which soar over your head towards the impossibly blue sky.

Well, now--that's a pretty impressive start to a trek in the Great Outdoors, if I do say so myself. But there was much be experienced, since Husband intended to lead us on a nice little walk that would encompass an approximately 6-1/2 mile out-and-back excursion. It goes without saying that the first half of this would--as you'd expect--go almost entirely UPHILL, right? So we gathered our PowerAdes and water bottles and granola bars and bananas...and got down to it.

Sometimes picking our way carefully along the dusty path, other times scrambling over boulders of varying sizes, we plodded steadily upward. Despite the elevation (this trail began at around 5,700 feet above sea level, a startling number to these East Coast denizens) and temperature (Yeah, yeah, "it's a dry heat", but we were still working hard), we actually didn't have much trouble. Perhaps it helped that we had to stop fairly often to marvel at the sweeping vistas--waves of pine trees, distant peaks still displaying visible patches of snow, and multicolored rock formations--all under an azure sky now dotted with gigantic puffy white clouds. In short, it was like being surrounded by a 360-degree postcard...while breaking a healthy sweat!

When we'd finished...conquering the canyon, if you will...we patted ourselves on the back for successfully completing our mission...and agreed that we'd definitely earned a meal. The GPS helpfully informed us that we weren't too far from the condo we'd be renting for the next several nights, so we headed that way, and figured we'd devise a plan on the fly. When Husband (Googling busily while I handled the driving duties) stumbled upon an eatery that described itself as "like Farm Burger, in Buckhead"--which happens to be a spot we've now eaten at TWICE while touring Atlanta--we quickly decided it must be fate. And Larkburger proved to be just what the doctor ordered, for a post-exercise late lunch (beef for the carnivores, and portobella on a gluten-free bun for yours truly!).

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However, you know what they say: "no rest for... those who've just spent 4-hours tromping up and down a mini-mountain"...and whatnot. We'd arranged to meet friends (whom we hadn't seen since, oh, about 2003) in Boulder for dinner, so we had to make ourselves presentable and get ready to socialize. We found our amigos waiting for us outside a bookstore in the area called Pearl Street Mall, which is a pedestrian walkway filled with quirky shops, a mixture of chain and local restaurants...and other...unique features, such as street musicians galore, as well as the fairly risque, quite tasteless, and possibly technically illegal group"performance artists"?...doing lewd, embarrassing things in the middle of all the action. It was...super-interesting, that's for sure!

Overall, Boulder struck me as an adorable college town, buzzing with personality and energy to spare. We ended up at a little joint called the Yellow Deli for freshly made sandwiches and salads--which were yummy enough for my picky crew to ignore the overwhelmingly...hippie vibe...that the cafe exuded. Hey, we got to catch up with old pals, savor some tasty food...and sit down for a while--it's all good!

And now it's time for some REAL recovery, because tomorrow, we're tackling the biggie: Rocky Mountain National Park. Oh, and undertaking another hike (of a length to be negotiated between the spry youngsters and their older, more tired and sore parents later, depending on how well our legs have the morning). Memo to me: better take some ibuprofen before hitting the sack. 'Nite!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Welcome to the Wild, Wild West!

Despite the (very mild, and mostly on principle) protests of reluctant teenagers, Team WestEnders arose early this morning to set off on our big adventure of Summer 2018: Communing with Colorado. Unlike last year's odyssey, this travel itinerary was relatively smooth and simple, involving only one direct flight from NC to Denver. Although--due to Southwest's unhelpful boarding policy--none of us got to sit together on the plane, the 3 hours in the air passed quickly...and blessedly free of turbulence. (Bonus points for the fact that the time difference made it seem like the whole affair had taken only an hour! Whoo hoo, Mountain Time!)

And when we landed, it marked Husband's and my first return to the state in 20 years or so...and the boys' inaugural despite some fatigue, there was excitement about our impending explorations. That being said, the first order of business was locating some lunch, so we picked up our rental car and left the airport in search of sustenance. What we settled on was a little joint called Wahoo's Fish Tacos, which is apparently a chain, but it doesn't exist where we live, so it meets our minimum criteria of "local...enough". And you know what? The burritos, rice bowls, and kale/mango salad, served amid a surfer-chic decor, satisfied all hungry members of our gang. Win!

Then we could concentrate on the more important agenda--sightseeing in the city. First up: the Capital building and surrounding area, filled with serious-looking courthouses, halls of government, artsy fountains...and whatnot. We were suitably impressed by the grand marble structures (including the famous 13th step of the Capital, which proclaims itself to be exactly one mile above sea level)...even while we were melting in the blazing sun. That's right, you heard me correctly--the temperature in Denver today was a searing 96*. And although I kept trying to convince the children that it wasn't that bad, "because the humidity is so low", we were warm. Later my well-intentioned comment would come back to haunt me, however, since every time someone mentioned weather, in any context, either Derek or Riley would immediately interject, "Oh, it's okay--it's a DRY heat!" ( alecks....) 

Image may contain: outdoorAnyway, if you think about it, we've kind of...cross-trained for this situation, if you will; what I mean is, having learned to tolerate NC Summers, we just...shrugged it off and powered through. Next we checked out a spot I'd read about, called the 16th Street Mall. It's a 1-1/4 mile long pedestrian corridor lined with restaurants and stores, encouraging people to stroll, shop, eat, and hang out. So we spent some pleasant time doing all of those things, and enjoying the cosmopolitan Denver vibe.
But after several hours on our feet, we were ready to rest and regroup, so we headed to our hotel to figure out a dinner plan. We ended up returning to the same retail mecca where we'd found our delightful afternoon meal, to introduce the kids to Mongolian barbeque (HuHot), which they had shockingly never experienced. 

But there is one side note that I must share: you see, while driving along a fairly busy 4-lane highway, we had a THRILLING wildlife encounter. I'm talking about the prairie dogs that apparently in the dirt-and-grassy swatches next to the interstate...and randomly pop up and scurry around as you drive by. They're absolutely adorable, no doubt, but also incredibly distracting to those of us unused to catching glimpses of them on a regular basis. Case in point: I had to remind Husband to pay attention to traffic several times until we were safely past them. I suppose if you live here permanently, they must become as uninteresting as squirrels are to us...but for now, we find them fascinating creatures. (Hey, Eyes. On. The. ROAD!)
So that's it for Day 1 in Denver. Tomorrow we travel a bit further north, where we will hike before rolling into Boulder, our second stop of the Colorado tour. Whatever time it might be, according to my body clock, it's time for bed. Peace out, Centennial State!

Monday, July 9, 2018

A Little Slice of...Something...

On the last day of our Maryland Summer Sojourn, Team WestEnders had the opportunity to  experience what I like to think of as a special peek into...the heart of America...or what have you. You see, our host family lives in a rural area--very similar to the one in which I grew up, actually, except that while neither spot features what you'd call a defined town center, per se, at least their 'burb has a string of retail stores and fast food. And, more to the point: an annual carnival, sponsored by, and benefiting, the local fire department.

Image may contain: 1 person, sky and outdoorNow, my kids have visited amusement parks before, but they've never been to an event quite like this. So with their super duper Ride-All-Night wristbands (purchased-in-advance, just for the occasion), they set off to explore the large grassy field...where the myriad of daredevil thrills presumably awaited. Meanwhile the adults parked themselves in folding camp chairs, in front of a stage that had been set up for the week's musical entertainment offerings.

We were there to enjoy a band known as The Reagan Years...whose repertoire ran to 80s covers, which of course invited the crowd to join in one big, rollicking sing-along to the familiar pop tunes. And they were gooood, too--even though the temperature when we arrived was still hovering in the sticky 90s, I give them a lot of credit for the energy and enthusiasm required to jump around in front of a melting--but appreciative--audience.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting and outdoorAfter a while, I had to get up and stroll around, to see what this whole carny thing was all about. There were some lovely aromas wafting through the humid air--buttery popcorn, charcoal, tangy barbeque sauce, and sugary cotton candy being the primary my nose identified. And then there was the unique scenery provided by the brightly painted--if slightly battered--attractions that allowed intrepid youngsters to spin, plummet, or whirl to their hearts' content. Whilst wandering, I happened upon two such gentlemen, about to take a chance on the free-fall extravaganza (Yeah, don't they look utterly terrified? Except for this moment captured on film--um..."digitally"--I don't think they stopped chatting through the whole thing...)

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And then, tucked in amongst the stuff you might expect, if you've ever been to one of these things (or, you know, seen one on TV, or something) there were the...elements...that I don't even claim to understand. For example, a booth that allowed you to toss a ring (so far, normal, right?)...and try to get it around the handle of a KNIFE (oh...kay...decidedly less typical) which case you got to take the cutlery with you. Oh, unless you were under 18, and then your parent had to come sign for it before you could carry it home. What. The. WHAT? Win a goldfish, sure--this I totally get. But the awarding of weapons as a lovely parting gift? Not so much.

But even less comprehensible to me was the display shown to the left. I mean, I don't even...I got nothin', folks. I admit that I was just a teensy bit afraid to tiptoe too close and try to figure it out. Yep, I thought this was clearly a situation where it would be best to just keep my distance, try to look innocent and natural as I loitered for a second, and nonchalantly take a quick photo....then hightail it back to my comfort zone...eating ice cream, and belting out Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Madonna, and other beloved 80s icons along with my fellow nostalgia-hounds. As the sun set, blessedly cooling the atmosphere from "hellish" to merely "tropical", Team WestEnders chalked this one up to an enjoyable lesson in Americana that will live on in our collective memory...long after we return to our own little corner of the world...where it's not quite so easy to obtain either funnel cake (boo) or dangerous objects (whew!). Until next time, Maryland--adios!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Maryland, my (our) Maryland...

Team WestEnders lollygagged at home for 5 whole days after our mini-trip to Atlanta, so it must be time to take off again, right? Well, normally the answer is "no", but this year our Summer Pilgrimage to the Homeland--er, ""--came hot on the heels of our southbound excursion. The timing might not have been our first choice, but you see, with all of the other stuff we have going on in the coming weeks and months, we had to squeeze it in when we could. And when you add in the absolutely required once-yearly Orioles game, which of course depends on the MLB schedule, it came down to a window of...RIGHT ABOUT NOW.

So we unpacked our suitcases briefly for the intervening week of work...and whatnot...and then loaded them right back up and headed north, this time. After the usual Interstate 85/95 highway hijinks, we arrived late Friday night and settled in with our hosts. But on Saturday it was up-and-at-'em, since we planned to spend the day with my family at my dad's house. Several pleasant hours passed with cousins bonding, adults chatting...and everyone filling up on a tasty, reasonably priced, quality lunch, because our next activity involved all of us piling into automobiles to trek to Baltimore for afternoon baseball (and hopefully avoiding paying the proverbial arm and a leg on ballpark fast food).

Now, to be honest, the Os have's go with "putrid" this season, so the stadium has been much emptier than it typically is, with fans understandably not being too keen to show up for such...emotional torture. However, it just so happened that the game that fit into our visit featured a coveted giveaway...of a loud, cheerful Hawaiian shirt...that many people apparently desired for their wardrobe. So this meant there were hordes of people on hand--which made for crowds to negotiate, but also folks in the seats to cheer for the action on the field, which is certainly more fun than sad silence, for sure!

But there was another factor that had a huge impact on the day: I'm talking about the oppressive HEAT. By the time we arrived in our seats, in the upper deck, all 13 of us were flushed, dripping, and already fanning ourselves with anything on hand that might coax a breeze out of the stagnant, steamy air. Fortunately, our section was mostly in the shade, but when the freakin' "Real Feel" is in triple digits, there's just no getting comfortable in the Great Outdoors. (I mean, when even the backs of your knees are sweaty? It's just icky, y'all...)

If the home team had just cooperated, and posted a win, all of the misery would instantly have been forgiven and forgotten by our loyal crew...but nooooo, they couldn't deliver that for us. We dejectedly watched a slim lead evaporate due to...bullpen incompetence...but at least we had our new orange apparel to lift our spirits as we shuffled out of Camden Yards at the end of 9 innings. (And those cool, refreshing showers we all enjoyed when we got back to our home base? P-R-I-C-E-L-E-S-S...)

The next day was designated for our previous hometown, so Derek could meet up with his Middle School buddies, and I could touch base with some of my friends as well. Our soccer fams weren't available this year due to their own vacations and other commitments, so Husband and Riley didn't have any reason to accompany us this time. Therefore, in a complex logistical arrangement, I borrowed a car from our hosts to pop over to Olney early and have a charming catch-up-coffee with an amiga, and Derek drove himself a bit later in his dad's vehicle.

Then I moved on to my next engagement, which was a delightful, chatty lunch with college girlfriends, and Derek returned to HQ to pick up the other two male members of Team WestEnders, so they could all travel together to my dad's house again, where we would be having dinner. (Are you keeping up? Good...stick with me...) After several hours of laughter and conversation, I bid my chicas farewell (until December--when hopefully it won't be so...Hades-like! And I'll probably complain about the cold...but whatever...) and navigated over to Lake Needwood, a park where I used to run sometimes when we lived in the area.

I know, I know, it sounds insane--and stupid--when it was literally 96* (and the damn Heat Index was again over 100), but my only defense is that I thought the tree-covered trail through the woods might make it bearable. Um...suffice it to say that it did NOT. But I didn't faint...or succumb to there's that, I guess.

Finally, having survived my ill-conceived exercise adventure, I joined the rest of my gang for the aforementioned Bonus Time with my extended clan. And then, when the long, satisfying day of socializing was over, it was time for one last round of hugs and goodbyes, before returning to our "home-away-from-home" for more showers...soaking up the blessed air conditioning...and slumber. Tomorrow, we chill! (Well...if not least metaphorically...)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

You learn something new every day...

The Team WestEnders Atlanta odyssey continued on Saturday with an excursion to nearby Stone Mountain. We’d read in some tourism brochure that it was a landmark you could hike to the top of, to gain a sweeping view of the city and surrounding area. Well, lemme tell ya, that’s the fancy-words propaganda version…what they actually MEANT to say was “it’s a big-ass hunk o’granite that you can plow your way straight up…and if you make it, you might be rewarded with a lovely vista, blah blah blah”. (I should totally write their material, yeah?)

So we started marching up the side of this thing, along with the multitudes of other visitors from toddler age to senior citizens (some of whom were NOT dressed for strenuous outdoor activity, I’m just sayin’. Yeah, Ms. flip-flops, sparkly tank top, and skinny jeans, I’m talking to you…). After a sweaty, heart-pounding trek, we reached the summit…where most of the promised scenic landscape was obscured by the muggy haze blanketing our little corner of Georgia that day. Oh well, it was worth a shot…

However, there was one more…ahem..."feature"…we had to find. You see, Derek had heard in one of his history classes that Stone Mountain was called (brace yourself) “the Confederate Mt. Rushmore”, and he was dying to discover why it had earned this moniker. We figured it was probably just a plaque somewhere, or a flag, or something (hopefully) subtle. Ohhh, it wasn’t. When we found the massive carving on the other side of the rock, our collective jaws hit the ground in shock…and horror. Yep, that would be Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Andrew Jackson, MUCH larger than life, and preserved for all eternity. Just…I can't even...y’all.

It was all we could do not to turn our Yankee selves around and run screaming, but being us, of course we had to process our thoughts and discuss it a little bit first. Here’s a summary of what we came up with:
Me: That’s…infuriatingly offensive.
Riley: (couldn’t even express his distaste, but only managed to shake his head ruefully)
Husband: It’s….a travesty.
Derek: (interjecting brightly into his family's collective somber demeanor, with a wickedly mischievous grin) Heeeyyyy...can I buy a t-shirt? (Which naturally lightened the mood considerably-- even while earning him a well-deserved smack.)

Ohhh-kaaay….moving right along: on Sunday we planned to venture to the town of Athens, sort of on our way home, to explore the University of Georgia while we were “in the neighborhood”. I must say, there were some conflicted thoughts going into this, though—such as the fact that the University of South Carolina and UGA are fierce sports rivals. You didn't know that? You clearly haven't had the...benefit...of Derek mentioning “Week 2 of the football season” in conversation at every possible opportunity (when the teams will...I don't know...enact their gridiron clash of the titans…or whatever).

Anyway, this is excuse Derek gave for why he would not, under any circumstances, be photographed during our outing—and he proceeded to duck comically behind bushes, and dart erratically out of the frame, every time I took out my camera. However....never one to back down from a challenge, I managed to get a sneaky shot while his back was turned and he wasn’t expecting it. His reaction was priceless: supreme indignation, throwing up his hands and shouting, “Jeez, Mom, you had ONE job!” Then for the next 20 minutes or so (which was as long as he could sustain his faux outrage), he enacted his revenge, refusing to speak directly to me, and instead asking Riley to convey his responses to my comments…even though I was right behind him, and could hear him perfectly. (Riley of course thought this was hysterical, and played right along. Overgrown brats…)

Aaannnd then there was Riley’s issue…he had been so taken with Georgia Tech that he'd purchased a souvenir in the bookstore…a banner that simply proclaims THWG. Don’t worry, I had to ask what it meant, too: in short, To Hell With…Georgia. (And yes, after a little bit of parental consideration I allowed him to get it, having deemed it amusing…and only mildly inappropriate…)

So Riley was honestly hoping NOT to like this campus as much as Tech, to avoid any potential crises in the (not-so-distant) future when he begins seriously thinking about where he might want to attend college. (And can we just pause one moment for the obligatory Mom Freak Out: Ack! Didn’t we JUST do this? It can’t be time to go down this road again already, right? Okay, I’m better now….)
In all fairness to UGA, though, the grounds are gorgeous, boasting towering, stately old trees and ornate, classical architecture. 

Hmm…about that…it occurred to me as we strolled through the quads and around the buildings that the whole thing gave off kind of a…plantation air. The commemorative sign that described how the school had closed during one period…so students and professors could support the…"War for Southern Independence”…did nothing to dispel this impression. (And once again—ay yi yi with the Confederate spin on history. I find it very disconcerting….)

Anyway, it turned out not to matter all that much, since Riley declared very shortly into our tour that he wouldn’t want to spend 4 years there. To summarize, he asserted that he preferred the smaller, centrally-organized Georgia Tech, with its proximity to Atlanta, over the sprawling, enormous Georgia, set in a small town.

Or, as Derek phrased it in his own unique way: “So, you’re looking at the ACC, rather than the SEC—and forget about the Big Ten schools, you’d hate them!” (Siiiighhhh…leave it to my sports fanatic son to reduce the complex, deeply personal college search to…an ESPN sound bite!)  Alrighty, then—Riley was also pleased that this comparative exercise helped him to crystallize what he does and doesn’t want from his potential institution of higher learning. Mission (that we didn’t even know we were attempting) accomplished!

And with that, our Georgian ramble of 2018 was finished. We took our drippy selves (goodness gracious, it’s HOOOOTTT in the South…in June…) back to the car to navigate 350-ish miles northeast (and well out of Dixie). Thanks for the new memories, Atlanta--our experience was certainly…all kinds of educational!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Education...sea creatures...and America's pastime (oh, my!)

For the first official getaway of Summer 2018, Team WestEnders chose to revisit an old favorite: Atlanta. We spent a long weekend there 2 years ago and thoroughly entertained ourselves, but weren't able to squeeze in all the things that interested we decided to return for another go-round.

But first, there was the ever-delightful (or, you know, "death defying") I-85 Derby to navigate. At least the middle section, which was designated at Derek's Shift, passed amusingly...since he took control of the radio with his own carefully-constructed playlist...of country music. Now, I have nothing against this sort of thing--in theory--but I do tend to be extremely picky about which artists I enjoy in this genre. (Let's just say, "yes" to crossover pop-y, "hard no" to twangy and/or sappy.) So my beloved smart aleck son purposefully selected the first song just for me...a charming little ditty entitled...Shut Up and Fish. Oy. (Needless to say, I HATED it...) After that, though, we played a fun game in which I'd ask "Who sings this" (as there were very few I could identify by myself, based on the voice alone), then rate each one as to whether I liked it, loathed it, or had no opinion one way or the other. Fortunately, my reward for surviving this exercise was his second group of tunes, which ran more along the lines of  One-D, Biebs, T-Swift, and Maroon 5. (Whew!)

After making it through the grueling odyssey that is Atlanta traffic--and I'm not even going to bother telling you how long the trip actually took, compared to how long it was supposed to--we arrived in Buckhead, where we would be staying for the duration of our adventures. We'd already determined ahead of time that we wanted to eat dinner at a place we'd discovered on our first sojourn: Farm Burger...or, more accurately "beef (Husband and oldest son) and veggie (younger child) patties, kale salad (me--duh), fries, and onion rings (ALL). As we remembered, it was super-yum. Even better, we were able to shake off our extended day in the car by walking there from our hotel, so by the time we headed back to our suite, we had full bellies, good spirits, and our legs had gotten at least slightly stretched out.

The next day we'd planned a full agenda of storming the city (albeit in a totally friendly fashion), starting with a self-guided tour of the Georgia Institute of Technology...or Georgia Tech, as it's more commonly known...G-Tech, which we lazily began using as the day progressed...or...G-Twizzle, which Derek coined, and we all found ridiculously hilarious, so we adopted it. (I suspect we'll have to rein that in if Riley actually ends up at school here...but for now, it sticks...) As we prepared to depart for our campus constitutional, Derek set the tone for the morning by remarking in a vaguely satisfied tone, "Yep, it's not a family vacation unless the car smells faintly of sunblock!" Well alrighty, then--I guess we're off to a good--UV protected--start!

Okay, without further silliness (for the moment) let's move on to the school itself, which all members of Team WestEnders awarded a hearty thumbs-up. First, we approved of the location, nestled as it is into a corner of Atlanta. However, while the tall buildings of the skyline were clearly visible, and you were aware that you were surrounded by a bustling metropolis, the grounds remained surprisingly and pleasantly quiet, sheltered as they were by copious amounts of trees, wide areas of green space, and a combination of lovely red brick, and modern steel-and-glass buildings.

Speaking of which, while wandering around and exploring, we took note of all the cutting-edge features apparent at the university, such as the high-tech science labs and classrooms, state-of-the-art student rec center...and one of our faves: the roof of the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, which boasts a garden covering its entire surface area, with tables and chairs set amidst the array of decorative, well-manicured plants, for students to study--while also basking in the great outdoors.

After admiring these impressive aspects of the institution, we had worked up an appetite. So it seemed like an ideal opportunity to seek out and evaluate some on-site dining options. We located a food court that--besides Coke, which is apparently the required beverage in Atlanta--contained a variety of other edibles. Better yet, we also stumbled upon a cool hangout spot, with a mini-bowling alley; pool, ping pong, and air hockey tables; a movie theater; and a lounge with a stage for live music. The way his eyes lit up when he took all of this in, I swear Riley was ready to fill out his application for (reeeaalllly) early admission...immediately. Finally, we made the obligatory trek to the stadiums (baseball, football, and soccer), to pay homage to the sports teams...and called it a successful...information-gathering outing.

And then, it was straight on to the next endeavor, otherwise known as the Atlanta Aquarium. It was awesome to escape the muggy heat for a few hours and ogle a plethora of underwater their (generally) peaceful, soothing habitats. From the playful, adorable penguins and otters, to the hypnotically captivating jellyfish, to the creepy-crawly eels and snakes, it was all fascinating. But the absolute best part had to be the walk-through tunnel, where you could stand and watch ENORMOUS creatures glide above or beside you--like an 8-foot (not even full-grown) grouper, manta rays with 5-yard wingspans, and the most astonishing to me, whale sharks weighing several tons each. Seriously, an employee actually laughed at me and made a teasing "pick your mouth up off the floor" motion while I was frozen in place, gaping at the spectacle. Worth the price of admission, I tell ya.

Once we'd had our share of frolicking with the fishes, we got a reprieve for a few hours, before our final activity of the evening--a baseball game at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Braves (Ha! Sorry. And can I just add: corporate naming rights result in such booooring monikers...), where they would be hosting our own Baltimore Orioles. Since it would be our first foray to the field, I opted for the pre-paid parking...and we did not regret this, once we had safely stowed our vehicle at a nearby mall, in an underground lot, a short walk away from the action. It allowed us to approach the scene by strolling through what can only be described as a full-on party atmosphere. Bars, restaurants, and shops open to the sidewalk, crowds of people milling about, loud music and conversation--Derek described it as "like a baseball...frat!" (As if he would know...yet somehow, he was not wrong...)

Until you got close to the entrance gate, that is...then you came to a screeching halt while you waited for the strictest security check I've ever experienced outside of an airport. No kidding--they poke into every corner of your bag, scan  your cell phone, and direct you through an honest-to-goodness metal detector on your way in. I have to wonder what the HECK Atlanta's crime rate looks like, with those kinds of precautionary measures! At least they were thoughtful enough to install a gigantic television screen next to the line-up, so you can watch what's going on inside until you're able to join in the festivities.

Once we did make it in the front door, as it were, we found that our seats afforded us a sweeping view of the diamond, the Jumbotron, and the scoreboard. And everything was...nice. Don't get me wrong, it was all sparkly and polished (like a toy that just came out of the box) and a perfectly fine place to see a just didn't thrill me. If I had to put my finger on it, I'd say it seemed cold, and lacked a certain amount of charm that even Turner Field managed to exude, in my opinion. But we were obviously there for the 9-innings (or so we thought...more on that later); thus we settled in to watch the contest. It was 1-0 in our favor for quite a while--which was somewhat shocking, given the pitching performances put forth by the Orioles lately. Eventually, though, the Braves struck back, going ahead 3-1 in the 8th.

And then...the 9th frame happened...starting with the Os plating 6 runs in their half. So, that should be it, right? All the visitors needed was THREE MEASLY OUTS to secure the victory...and allow Team WestEnders to pack it in for the night and go to bed content. Also I could finally stop hearing the annoying tomahawk chop that fans do incessantly--and which is cool to witness once or twice, because sometimes the Braves' powers-that-be turn out the lights in the stadium, and folks wave their phone flashlights while making the eerie "ohhhh, ohhh, ohhh" noise--but trust me, it gets super-old after the 8th...or millionth...time.

But noooo...the Birds' bullpen promptly imploded, giving 4 runs right back in the bottom of the 9th, and for those of you scoring at home, that left us all tied up at the end of regulation, as they say. At this point it had been a 4-hour shindig, at the end of an already looooong day, and the clock was pushing those of us who were old(er) and (more) tired decreed that we'd be leaving after the Orioles batted in the 10th...regardless of whether anyone had won.

Aaand, they had NOT. We trudged back to the garage...drove all the way to the hotel while listening to the game-broadcast on the radio...took showers and got ready for bed with ESPN on in the background so we could continue to monitor the nonsense...and when we finally hit the sheets at 12:45 a.m., there was still no decision. As it turns out, we checked first thing in the morning and learned that Manny Machado had ended the ridiculous affair in the 15th, with a 2-run homer. Ay yi yi. Nice going, Manny--we were totally with spirit!

And there you have it: a jam-packed day o'gallivanting in Atlanta. For now, we rest...and tomorrow, we tackle all the history...and whatnot!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Tale of...Two Towns...and One City

Once last weekend's graduation-palooza reached its satisfying conclusion, my sister was luckily able to stick around a while longer and hang out with us. So it seemed like a no-brainer that we'd get out and about for some essential touristy-type activities, exploring at least the Chapel Hill/Durham 2/3 of the Triangle.

We hit the ground running on Sunday morning, with a much-needed excursion to obtain iced, caffeinated refreshments. (Which proved the perfect antidote to even a non-alcoholic-celebration-hangover...yummm!) Since our local Starbucks is conveniently situated in the heart of Tarheel-nation, I parked the car and we set off on foot to meander Franklin Street and take in the sights. I took the opportunity to point out various Chapel Hill institutions (such as Top of the Hill, the Carolina Coffee Shop, Sugarland Bakery, and Sutton's Drugstore, to name a few) as well as several souvenir emporiums that proudly offer not only supportive and tasteful UNC gear of all kinds...but also hilarious anti-Duke apparel that ranges from the mildly obnoxious to the wildly inappropriate. (My Blue-Devils-fan sibling accepted this graciously...especially knowing that I'd already promised her a jaunt to Durham at a later point, so she could get her...collegiate rival revenge...or whatever...)

And obviously, we couldn't leave the scene without strolling onto the grounds of UNC, to admire its canopy of majestic shade trees, stately, serene red brick buildings (quiet and still now that the students are gone for the Summer, at least), and of course one of its iconic landmarks, the Old Well. No doubt fortified by the Frappuccino, she survived the experience (and even managed to look happy about it!).

Perhaps that's due to the fact that she was already looking forward to the next field trip, to that other Blue Blood bastion of higher learning just a few miles away. Now it was MY turn to smile politely while patiently enduring a visit to the wrong side of the tracks--er "Triangle". (Totally kidding--I  stop by the gardens on campus on a regular basis...but I tend to avoid the Krzyzewski-ville section like the plague that it Carolina supporters.)

After taking care of the first order of business--the fangirl spending gobs of moolah on Duke-themed apparel and whatnot in the university store--we wandered through the cool, hushed, elegant chapel, with its towering organ and soaring stained glass windows; the always-gorgeous botanical displays; and, finally, the mecca for any (snickers immaturely), the stadium complex, where my sister was unfortunately only able to pay her respects to the outside of Cameron (home of the basketball teams, if you're wondering), rather than being allowed to wander freely through its halls, oohing and ahhing at every turn. (Seriously, did we neglect to tell them we were coming so they could roll out the red carpet...or at least leave the doors unlocked? Doh!)

Having completed our dual-collegiate tour on a warm, steamy day, we finished our regional tribute by settling in for dinner at yet another beloved local destination: Elmo's Diner in Carrboro. From pancakes to a burger to a sweet potato and bean burrito, that place never disappoints! Thus fortified,  we needed to rest up for the continuing antics the following day, which would include a whirlwind outing through our neighbor to the slightly-east, Durm (spelling intentional--it's an affectionate nickname thing, apparently).

Wonder of wonders, we actually got the teenagers to consent to accompany us on our adventures--which actually isn't that surprising, considering we would be making a pilgrimage to one of their favorite spots: the DBAP (pronounced Dee-Bap, and shorthand for the Durham Bulls Athletic Park). Although the website proved uninformative, we happily discovered when we arrived that the ballpark store was open...allowing mi hermana to add to her collection of travel mementos. Then we played sightseers for a while, circling the field, reading the commemorative plaques around the exterior, soaking in the baseball atmosphere, and paying homage to the famous outfield bull

Finally we headed back to the Subaru, to drive around and see some more of the city. Downtown, the Warehouse District, Brightleaf, the 9th Street corridor--somehow...sheerly by winging it, I tell ya...I managed to hit all of these without having to resort to the GPS. Therefore, we got a nice glimpse of some of Durham's character--what I tend to think of as a mixture of lovingly preserved history...a dash of gritty urban decay...and a good dose of newly-renovated upscale chic

I feel like we squeezed in as much entertainment as we possibly could on this sister-sojourn, but it was time to say farewell and let her return to her life in the northern Mid-Atlantic. There are many more things to see and do the next time she makes her way to the meantime, Team WestEnders will be making our Summer journey to MD in just a few weeks, so we'll get to do the whole thing in reverse. In fact, I just realized that there's plenty of time for me to pick up something with a Tarheels logo for her upcoming birthday...since she seems to have acquire anything fitting that description while she was here...ha! Here's to more future family fun!