"Life's a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're gonna get," Mrs. Gump explained to her son in the movie Forrest Gump.
Vacations are certainly like that, even more so if they involve children. Now don't get me wrong. I LOVE chocolate (a little too much, if truth be known), a box of chocolates (preferably multiple boxes), and the variety of flavors within.
As for the sweeping metaphor, yes, I enjoy the unpredictability of life as well. Routine has always seemed rather boring in my book. Vanilla, stagnant, tedious. Since I have a desire to shake things up, I have frequently sought out change -- in jobs, homes, areas of the country where I've lived, etc. Change keeps me engaged, motivated, and on my toes. It's just how I operate.
But there does come a point at which ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Exhibit A: Our holiday vacation.
For the past few years, we have had practically nothing to do over the long Christmas/New Year's break from school. With no family to visit -- parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles -- our calendar has been WIDE open. Most of our cousins who are still living don't reside close by, and they are busy with their own families anyway. Having no family plans is just par for the course for us at any holiday time.
The onus is on me to create plans to fill up the TWELVE AND A HALF DAYS so we don't all go STARK, RAVING CHARLIE SHEEN with nothing to do for such a long stretch. Unlike previous years when I was behind in my scheduling, I had booked a couple of activities this time that would occupy seven consecutive days, a whole week.
I was pretty proud of myself. We were in good shape.
Before Christmas I didn't have to come up with anything really because I had my hands full scrambling to get ready for the holiday: stringing the outdoor lights along the railing in the front, putting up the tree for the boys to decorate, hanging the stockings near the fireplace, and purchasing and wrapping presents for them. Racing against the December 25 deadline, several tasks went unfinished -- taping up Christmas cards arriving in the mail, composing our year-in-review newsletter, and mailing out seventy-five photo cards with the newsletters.
We went to a friend's house Christmas afternoon, and the next day Christopher was scheduled to take a three-day ski racing camp at Bradford Mountain thirty-eight minutes away. Problem was: no snow but some rain. First and second days canceled. Honestly, I wouldn't have minded it at all if the third day, Friday, was also nixed because I needed the time to get us ready for our trip to New Hampshire the following day. But it was cold enough to make snow the night before, so the third day of camp was held. With Charlie in tow, I dropped Chris off at the mountain and returned later to pick him up. Total driving time: 152 minutes.
Now before I launch into the story of the NEW YEAR'S WEEKEND TRIP FROM HELL, let me mention that one other activity involving a part of two days and two more drives of varying length materialized during this period. This was the audio and film recording of the 26 Angels video
dedicated to the families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims. Created to raise money to build and
beautify a memorial park, it has now been seen by more than 11,000 people on YouTube. I wrote about it in my last post, and it was clearly the high point (VERY HIGH!!!) of our vacation.
Now onto the fiasco.
On Saturday afternoon, we were due in Franconia, NH, at a rustic lodge. (For the uninformed,
witFranconia is way up there, not far from Vermont -- the northeastern section of the state -- and not such a long way from Canada.) We would stay three nights with an Appalachian Mountain Club family group. The trip cost me $385 for accommodations and meals during that time for the three of us. We would ring in the new year with these people, the rest of whom (or almost all of them anyway) had arrived the previous afternoon. I hadn't wanted to stay four nights due to the higher cost, and that option conflicted with the ski camp anyway. Two nights felt too short for such a long drive, considering that we'd be attempting to fit in skiing, skating, and/or sledding during the days. I was afraid of wearing myself out -- always my primary consideration whenever we go away.
Three nights, on the other hand, felt Goldilocks just right . . . until I saw the weather forecast: a SNOWSTORM! The snow we hadn't gotten in time for the ski camp was coming in time for my THREE-AND-A-HALF-HOUR drive! Just my luck. I would have preferred to have arrived around noon to avoid the afternoon storm, but check-in was at 3 p.m. It looked like we might get caught smack dab in the middle of the swirling white stuff.
And that, of course, is exactly what happened! We hit the storm at the I-93 tolls in Hooksett. No warning flakes, just full-blown snow as I rolled down my window and reached into my purse for $1.00. The driving was slow going until it came to a complete stop just south of Tilton after a pickup truck slid off the road. I was not enjoying this driving, and there would be plenty more of it as I had MILES to go before even REACHING the White Mountain National Forest. (Franconia is just beyond it.)
Did I mention that I've crashed two cars in winter driving? The first: my post-college-graduation Nissan Sentra (totaled on black ice near Killington, Vermont, in a 140-vehicle, four-mile-long chain reaction). And my second -- my brand new Toyota 4Runner (rendered undrivable on New Year's
Day '98 after my then-boyfriend yelled at me to change lanes on a snowy/icy highway in British Columbia). Thanks a lot, E!
So, feeling unsafe, I got off in Tilton and checked into a Super 8. It would have been foolhardy to continue to drive to Franconia in those conditions and downright negligent with my two young sons in the back! In fact, I learned at KFC -- we trudged there through the snow for dinner -- that twenty cars had crashed earlier in the day on the highway in New Hampton just north of where we got off. Twelve in the northbound lanes and eight across from them heading south.
The next day I decided to take the boys to Gunstock Mountain in nearby Gilford. We were too far from Franconia to arrive in time for breakfast at the lodge. Since sandwiches were going to be packed then as well, we would also be missing lunch! My room charge at the motel included breakfast, so we would take advantage of that and grab lunch at Gunstock. We would leave the mountain early to make the Franconia check-in before dark -- twenty-four hours late.
Meanwhile, I had been in sporadic cell-phone contact with the trip leaders and was feeling agitated from discussing the lost night and lost meals (read: LOST MONEY). For example, I had suggested that the group save meals for us. Like leftovers from a restaurant, I could take the food home at the end of the trip. Very simple. But the trip leaders were not amenable to my idea. First it wasn't understood that I was talking about the meals AFTER preparation, not the separate ingredients BEFORE they became various dishes. Then the roadblock shifted to the containers. "We have nothing to put the food in," I was told. So I volunteered to pick up some containers on my way, my head spinning with thoughts of using our KFC trash (and that from breakfast at the Super 8) as containers to avoid spending any MORE extra money. Well, the trip leaders pooh-poohed that suggestion as well, saying they didn't think sending me home with "soggy eggs" was the way to go.
Hey, LISTEN UP! Since I PAID for those soggy eggs, I'LL decide whether I want to keep them or not. News flash: I WANT TO KEEP THEM!!! But no. The trip leaders wanted to send me home with nonperishables. I could just see it now: "Here, Shelby," one of them would chirp as she handed me a giant can of green beans as some kind of supremely lousy $385 consolation prize!
Well, nothin' doin'!
My stress only grew worse at Gunstock. We got a late start to the mountain. (I was enjoying breakfast too much.) The drive over took more time than expected. It was VERY cold and windy, and six-year-old Charlie was unhappy with the long walk from the parking lot. It would be a really short ski day, but after all that effort I couldn't exactly say no to the day's plans. After obtaining Charlie's rentals, a helmet for Christopher, and three tickets, we hiked uphill to the quad chair taking us to the trails named Upper Smith and Smith. Though they are blue squares, I felt confident Charlie could handle them. He'd been on intermediate trails before, and the few inches of fresh powder would make it easier and slower to ski . . . not to mention more fun!
Alas, again things didn't turn out as hoped for or expected. Since it was now afternoon, the snow had been skied off in the middle of the trails, and it was tough moving to the side with the skiers and boarders of all stripes whizzing by at breakneck speed. Charlie grew frustrated fast after taking a number of tumbles and getting snow trapped in his mittens and boots. I've skied the Smiths before but certainly not with a first grader (or third grader). So what I found not steep myself suddenly felt like a double black diamond (expert trail) now that I was responsible for my own young children!
Halfway down, Charlie staged a revolt. He screamed and -- like Bill Murray in Moonrise Kingdom -- threw a mitten at me. (It was a loafer in the movie.) Then he took off his skis and began stomping his way down the mountain. No amount of cajoling could change his mind about skiing, and the fact that the only green circle (beginner trail) was a LOOOOONG walk away certainly didn't help matters. He was done for the day. DONE. I carried his skis the rest of the way then headed for the ticket booth. I got my $108 back for the three lift tickets and $34 for the rentals. We then snagged a quick lunch and ride to our parking lot via a shuttle van.
The driver directed me back to the highway for our second attempt at reaching Franconia. But a lot of time was lost because she sent me THE LONG WAY. In heading west, I was also traveling south back to Tilton instead of north through Weirs Beach! Crap. Why didn't I check the map first instead of blindly taking her word for it?!
In the late afternoon of Sunday, it was very windy on the highway as I raced against daylight. I needed to arrive at our destination as soon as possible because I didn't want to be ALONE WITH TWO CHILDREN on the SNOWY roads in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE searching for the lodge in the DARK. With each passing mile and minute, I was growing increasingly tense and anxious as it looked more and more likely that I would not achieve my goal for the SECOND time this trip.
And then . . . the nail in the proverbial coffin: a neon sign overhead reading BLACK ICE POSSIBLE. Are you $&@?@ kidding me??? No, it was not a joke. Let me tell you: there is nothing that sign could say that would freak me out more. SERIAL KILLER AHEAD? Scary, but I could drive past. TORNADO ZONE? Turn around and drive south. AGENT ORANGE ATTACK? Lock the windows, kids! Okay, exaggeration yet you get my drift. Black ice terrifies me! I totaled a car on it. I will not drive on it, so I got off at the next exit in Lincoln. Comfort Inn: booked full. A hotel/resort whose name I've since forgotten: too expensive, though we could have stayed there for free if I'd been permitted to sit through a two-hour presentation the next day. I would have done it, but I was disqualified because I'm not married. (No comment.) EconoLodge: just right. Feeling like Goldilocks again. (Insert smiley, happy face.)
Let's get real.
I'd found a place for us for the night. However, that meant MORE money escaping my wallet like BP oil out of the Deepwater Horizon and many MORE trips from the car to the room and back transferring all our stuff -- three pairs of skis, three pairs of boots, two pairs of poles, two small backpacks or larger bags per person, snack bags, and extra coats that didn't fit in bags. Bags, bags, bags! It was a nightmare. I really couldn't believe it was happening, not to mention how mortified I was to have to place yet ANOTHER call to the trip leaders. I felt like a big fool, a giant wimp (new title for my blog: Diary of a Wimpy Mom), and a major Loser.
Yes, with a capital "L."
I envisioned the people in Franconia laughing at me. "Who is this bimbo who can't get to the lodge in TWO days from only ONE state away?" Needless to say, I'd lost my motivation to spend New Year's Eve with these "meanies." NYE is a special night -- meant to be shared with a person or people in your life you are close to. I knew one of the trip leaders from my single mother's support group and the AMC of the early '90s when I took courses, got certified to be a hiking/backpacking trip leader (she was one of the instructors who signed my certificate!), and flew out to Wyoming with her and two other hardcore AMC-ers to climb Gannett Peak. But I did not know the rest in Franconia, though I believe the other leader also ran the family camping trip we took to Cape Cod three summers ago. That adventure was noteworthy for Charlie getting lost on crowded Dennis Beach. Yet I do not remember this woman. If anything, she probably had a negative view of me/us from my wild then-preschooler's behavior at that time.
The Franconia Families had been bonding since Friday night. Showing up on Monday for one night only would feel AWKWARD. Temperatures hadn't risen before breakfast to even make me feel confident I wouldn't hit black ice during the remaining twenty minutes of driving. Plus, I was exhausted from all the moving around, lugging of SUV contents, intense road conditions, confrontational conversations with the trip leaders, waiting for callbacks from them for messages I left, and refereeing of my rowdy boys away from home. NO energy remained to accommodations-hop yet again to a lodge even FARTHER from home and where a ONE YEAR OLD (maybe a poor sleeper) was part of the group.
By Day 3, the idea of pushing on to Franconia SHATTERED my cardinal rule of single-mother traveling: Will taking this trip make me more wiped out than before I left? YES!!! It was settled. We stayed NYE as well at the Econolodge, swam in the pool, soaked in the jacuzzi (ahh!), and went to a movie.
Under the heading of ADDING INSULT TO INJURY: the last time I spoke to one of the trip leaders, she informed me that we could have arrived BEFORE the designated 3 p.m. check-in time the first day to avoid the snowstorm that started the chain reaction of problems! Again, I ask, "Are you &@$?! kidding me?!" The e-mail clearly stated the check-in time, and NOWHERE in the information provided did it state anyone would even be at the lodge at other times during the day to let us in! It seemed to me that everyone skedaddled right after breakfast to go skiing, sledding, and skating and didn't return until late afternoon. Well, I was understandably PISSED, and my head was splitting from the most intense headache of my life consuming the entire right side of my skull.
"Happy New Year!" said this trip leader as we concluded our last frustrating conversation.
"Happy New Year," I gritted through my teeth, the angriest new year greeting ever uttered.
I returned to my room and collapsed on my bed. I spent the day under the covers succumbing to my paralyzing headache and worrying that I was having a brain aneurysm like Sharon Stone when she was married to that journalist whose foot was attacked by a Kimodo dragon. My boys, meanwhile, were happy as clams catching a coincidental double dose each of Nanny McPhee (the original and Nanny McPhee Returns) and The Fairly Oddparents (the animated TV show and live-action movie called A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner!) over the course of the ill-fated weekend. Weird. In the afternoon, I felt well enough to take them to Parental Guidance. (Hey, we had to do SOMETHING fun out on NYE!)
It was at the movie theater that I met a couple who had spun out and crashed on the highway black ice just before reaching the neon warning sign and about ninety minutes after I came through that area. "You did the right thing," they assured me about getting off the next exit. The sentiment was repeated by our waiter at dinner. Like the couple, he said the roads were worse that night than he'd ever remembered them in twenty-five years.
I may have been a punchline up in Franconia, but I feel good about the decisions I made under very trying conditions with the information I had at the time. I kept my sons safe, and that's all that really matters.
As I try to recoup $385, let's just hope the top brass at the Appalachian Mountain Club agrees. What a way to start the new year!