Monday, July 15, 2013

Vacation Box of Chocolates: Part II (Sebago Lake Yo-Yoing)*

Going on a vacation is always an exciting experience. I suppose the trip could go smoothly -- no traffic jams, forgotten belongings, bee stings. I'm sure I've even had those kinds of trips. BC. Before Children. But that was in the distant past . . . a decade ago and more. No, my trips -- like my daily life as a full-time single mother of two young boys -- are hopping with drama.

Our first trip of the summer took place this week. School didn't get out until noon on June 27th. By that time (very, very late for the uninformed), I was as fried as a McDonald's onion ring. I desperately needed to get away and just chillax . . . by a lake . . . in the shade . . . with a pretty view. I planned to take my sons camping because nothing makes me happier than sleeping in a tent. (I know. I'm not your typical mom.)

Camping isn't something you can do on a moment's notice, however. Well, it could be, but you would likely find yourself unprepared -- as in, without raingear in a downpour or minus milk for your cereal. You get my drift. We couldn't take off on Friday, the 28th because I hadn't yet made preparations. Christopher, my older son, was planning to attend a friend's birthday party on Saturday. Since my kids' social engagements are a priority, I resolved to leave Sunday. My younger son can be a very good little helper. He came with me as I shopped for food during the birthday party.

I was psyched. Unfortunately, I neglected one thing: to check the weather in Casco, Maine, where we were headed. Lol. Pretty important item on the to-do list, I'd say! Actually, it was my second time this season making this particular sloppy error. The first time we were tenting it in our backyard. I set up my twenty-five-year-old dome-style Northface and tucked the boys into their sleeping bags then sat down to call up Rain, thunder, and lightning forecast for the night. Argh. Did I wake the boys to tell them to come in? No. Did I put the fly up over the tent? Nah. Too lazy. I crawled into my own bag and went to sleep. Sure enough rain started dripping on me through the leaky seams just after 3 a.m. I know what time it was because I listened to the tolling of the church bells in my town. Chris woke up because he was also getting wet. We nudged Charlie awake, and I sent the boys inside. Wouldn't you know it? The rain stopped a few minutes later, so I went back in the tent -- this time to Charlie's middle position, which had stayed dry.

So here I was again past the point of no return (not really, but I was in my mind) in my trip preparations -- supermarket, gas station, and ATM stops made and bag packing begun -- before I checked the weather. I'd had a recollection it was supposed to be poor but neglected to watch a recent TV report.

Packing the car took half of Sunday. Our first stop was a KFC/Taco Bell combo in Seabrook, NH, on the Massachusetts border about one hour from our home. We always stop there on trips to eastern New Hampshire or Maine. I'm not sure exactly how the subject of Charlie's iPod Touch came up. But the issue of its whereabouts was likely raised by me after my younger son started pestering his brother to hand over his own. (My older son waited until he was nine before getting the device; Charlie got his at seven because his brother's was a frequent source of power struggles between the two.) "Why don't you play your own, Charlie?" I probably asked. Silence. "Charlie? You do know where it is, don't you?"

"It's somewhere around here. No, Christopher has it." A moment later: "You put it in your purse, Mama."


My pulse started to race as the too-familiar thought of ANOTHER LOST ITEM (worse, A VERY EXPENSIVE LOST ITEM) kicked in. A back and forth exchange between the three of us ensued but led nowhere in helping me determine where the iPod Touch had last been seen. It was way too early in the trip to be having our first dramatic situation and not long after five items went missing from four communities in four consecutive days (truth!) -- raincoat at pizza place, backpack at school, baseball mitt at field, and blah blah). My patience level, in other words, was at -50. Pulling off an exit of I-95 North and into a side road, I parked in front of someone's house then launched into a search of the backseat. I was very aggravated, however, so I did only a cursory probe not a thorough going-through like the North Attleboro police in Aaron Hernandez's mansion.


Now in full-on Hunter-Downer Mode (see "Hunter-Downer Mom," 3/21/12), I ordered everyone back into the car. We were going to retrace our steps. We had several more hours of daylight with which to reach our destination and set up camp, and I knew I would be furious with myself if I didn't try to track down Charlie's $199 (not including tax) birthday present. Heading south with intentions of stopping at KFC/Taco Bell and Starbucks (where I'd obtained a much-needed coffee drink), I suddenly heard Charlie call out, "I found it!"


We lost half an hour of driving time and $1.50 in tolls, but we had it in our possession. We didn't need to make the two extra stops. The saga was over. (I wasn't foolish enough to believe that it would be our only saga, however.)

The rest of the drive to Sebago Lake was happily uneventful until the final stretch when lightning lit up the sky. It started raining as I drove up to the campground entrance. Are you kidding me? Let me tell you: it's not a great feeling to BEGIN setting up your tent for your young children in the lightning and rain. It was not looking good for the night. The last thing I wanted was to kick off this multi-day trip -- I wasn't sure how many days it was going to be, but I'd brought enough food for a week -- with a wet tent and soggy bedding! So I conferred with the campground staff at the entrance then turned my vehicle all the way around to search for a motel.

The first place we checked out had stuffy rooms. Despite being called an "inn," the second wound up being a residential care facility (assisted living). The boys got a huge kick out of the euphemism. It became a running joke every time we passed by the place. The third felt Goldilocks just right. It was pretty late by this time, and I was wiped out from packing, driving, and the heat. We made a dinner of strawberries and yogurt then hit the sack.

The next day was cloudy but no precipitation. Trying to be optimistic, I drove to the campground and obtained a site for one night. (I have learned the hard way that reserving ahead of time for multiple nights can come back to bite you in the arse. Exactly one year after an awful experience in the Berkshires, I still need to try to get money back from the state park system. See "Gut Instinct," 7/9/12.) I returned to the Casco motel and showered, and we checked out. Wouldn't you know it? It started raining ever-so-lightly just as we exited the parking lot.

When you are burned out, hanging around a campground doing practically nothing can be just the ticket. That was my plan for the day. I erected the tent and made the boys grilled sandwiches (turkey and tomato for them and cheddar cheese and tomato for me) in our pie iron. S'mores all around after that. It rained as I sat on the beach. Didn't care. It rained as I swam in the lake. Didn't care. It rained as the boys played tetherball. Didn't care. Dinner was simple: hot dogs, raw veggies with salad dressing, lemonade, and more s'mores. (In case you're wondering, we are crazy about s'mores.) The rain stopped barely long enough for dinner but started right up again as we said our "goodnights."

Was this some kind of joke?

I woke up with a stronger version of the headache I took to bed. Regrettably, the tent and everything in it got wet during the night. Water came in from the ground as well as overhead. If I happened to roll off my Therm-a-Rest pad, my sleeping bag suddenly felt damp and cold from landing in a small puddle. The sky, meanwhile, was solid clouds. Looking up and seeing no hope of meteorological improvement anytime soon, I decided to check out of the campground and back into the motel. So that's exactly what we did after eating cereal in the rain.

I tried to nap in our room but couldn't because the boys were too noisy. We headed down to Naples for a late lunch at Rick's Cafe where I spent way too much money. Back at the motel, I sat under the roof overhang tapping away on my iPad. Rain was still pouring from the sky -- yes, all day! -- and I was still pouring bottles of water down my throat in an effort to rid myself of my brain pain. My strategy appeared to finally be working. After enjoying about thirty minutes of a comfortable noggin, I noticed a dozen Canada geese coming toward me across the lawn. I told the boys, and Charlie came out to have a look. However, instead of very carefully approaching them to get a better glimpse or simply standing still, my energetic seven year old jumped in the air at the very moment I bent down behind him to kiss the top of his head. His head knocked hard into my mouth, giving me yet a new head pain!

Reading this, you might think to yourself: "Oh, just a freak accident." Well, not exactly. This is the second time in three years Charlie has bonked me in the mouth with his exuberance. The first time he leapt in the air to greet me at preschool pickup. A fat lip followed a bloody lip. This time the skin under my lower lip turned purple, and I had no ready access to an ice pack like before. Our room had no refrigerator, and the ice in my cooler in the car had melted. I could have searched for the motel owner or gotten in the car to find a store. I did neither. Too much trouble. Pretty lousy day all around, but my steak dinner at Applebee's was quite good.

By morning, the weather had improved, so I spread the wet tent and fly out in the motel parking lot to dry. (There had been a few other visitors the first night, but we were alone the second.) I was the first of the day to claim a nonreservable site (our old one, in fact) when the campground office opened for that purpose at 8 a.m. Before setting up camp, we induged in a delicious breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes, eggs, and bacon we couldn't resist at a nearby cafe.

As I stood at my SUV unloading our stuff, a campground hostess drove by in her cart, and we struck up a conversation about tarps. I'd noticed that most tents in the park had large ones suspended overhead to protect them from rain. I had a fly -- like a second tent you put over your first tent -- but in certain curcumstances it had not been enough. Definitely not enough several years ago when we got drenched in Camden, Maine, and not enough here in Casco. As a rule, I generally don't take the boys camping if rain is predicted, though we have also been caught off guard. (Killington, Vermont, last summer comes to mind.) When you consider that we've been camping in state parks as a family since my seven year old was four, I would say we've had very good luck overall. However, I've now experienced getting wet too many times to not do something about it. The hostess suggested buying a tarp. Reluctant to shell out more money after unexpectedly having to get a motel room, I decided instead to try making the ground cloth an air cloth.

While the boys resumed their tetherball competition, I spent an hour or more attaching our kelly green plastic sheet to trees and a picnic table. I extended thin ropes affixed to the corners of the cloth to both others previously attached to the fly and ropes the hostess recovered for me at abandoned campsites. My end result was not great or pretty, but I was willing to give it a try. It looked saggy, if you must ask. Still, it would divert rainfall from most of the tent unless we experienced a heavy downpour, in which case it would probably fail.

I didn't make it to the beach until after lunch. By then the Fourth of July visitors were pouring in in droves. My sons played in the water and on the sand and grass with toys and sports equipment I'd brought. Typical brothers-style, they argued over being hit by a ball or tagging the wrong base. Then they'd have to change activities or take a break from one another. That evening, tired from the motel-campground yo-yoing and the boys' squabbles, I suggested we go to a brand new dine-in movie theater in a nearby community. Seeing Despicable Me 2 proved to be a great idea.

The good news: the rain had finally stopped. The bad? A heat wave had begun. Luckily, we could cool off in a lake. I was very grateful to be stationed near the water. That is, until Charlie got hit in the eye by a paddle the next day! This is why KAYAKS ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE SWIMMING AREA, people! Meanwhile, I was kicking back with my light beach reading. Not! I was taking notes on a book called Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child. A friend gave it to me to help me deal with the common parenting issue of a child who constantly tests boundaries. My boys are complete opposites temperamentally, and that can create a lot of conflict on a daily basis.

We were excited to watch the fireworks over beautiful Long Lake that night. The lake is close to my heart as I went to a sleepaway Christian Science camp on its shores for six summers many years ago, following the lead of my mother who also attended as a camper and served as a counselor for a record eighteen consecutive summers! (She grew up in Manhattan so really needed a cool respite in the hot months.) To head off as many problems as possible, I decided to make a dry run to the Naples causeway to check out where we could park that evening. The temperature being above 90 degrees, we needed ice cream as well.

We had an early dinner at the campsite before returning to the causeway for the display. Well, wouldn't you know it? By some weird coincidence, we wound up standing right between the friendly Canadian couple in an adjacent site and two boys who had played with Charlie at the campground. Well, wouldn't you know it? Part II. The Strong-Willed One complained about being sleepy as soon as we arrived on the causeway. He's young and very physically active throughout the day every day. But Christopher and I were not about to miss the once-a-year event in another state. So Charlie, enterprising little fellow that he is, lay down on a nearby patch of grass and proceeded to fall sound asleep. Yes, that's right. He was completely conked out through the entire fireworks show, booms, hisses, squeaks, oohs, ahhs, and cheers notwithstanding.

The next morning we slept in as much as you can at a full campground the day after the Fourth, had a nice hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, and drove to the Naples Library to charge devices. I know what you're thinking: charge devices on a camping trip? Good question. Well, I would like to say that I absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent ban the usage of devices on such nature trips. Unfortunately, I can't. I allow them when we are driving -- and/or if a child is not cooperating to the point at which focusing on a screen is the only thing that helps. As a full-time single mother almost ten years running, I'm not going to apologize if I whip out an iSomething to appease a situation. My iPhone needs to be kept charged at all times for emergencies, and I like to stay up on the news even when I'm sleeping outdoors. Most importantly, however, the library was AIR CONDITIONED!

We had not spent a lot of time just hanging out at the campground, but I was already getting antsy. I am not someone who can just relax on a beach for two weeks straight. I am also not someone who likes to go, go, go! Vacation time should be a mix, in my opinion. I was ready to climb a mountain. The excessive heat was continuing, so it would have to be a small one. My younger son will tell you he doesn't like to hike -- on a flat trail, that is. Yet he likes to climb mountains, bag peaks.

The following day I wanted to rent canoes or kayaks to take advantage of the spectacular Maine waterways or, to be accurate, one spectacular Maine waterway. Regrettably, it was too hot for the former activity by the time we emerged from the library, and we needed to obtain a boat for the latter. So we settled for lunch and, natch, ice cream. (I was happy to return to the Lakeside Dairy Bar as a cute young server the day before had called me "sweetheart." I do not lie. Listen, when you are fifty-one and unattached -- and pretty much also unavailable due to your 24/7 solo-parenting duties -- being called "sweetheart" by an attractive male half your age is the highlight of your day. The HIGHLIGHT. Unfortunately, I was brought right back down to Earth that very same night when one of Charlie's friends, age 8, told me at the fireworks display that he thought I was Charlie's grandmother. Oh, geez. Sweetheart vs. grandmother in the same day! Hmm.) The 90-degree temperature precluded us from doing anything physical, so we returned to the campground to crash on the beach and cool off in Sebago Lake. It was not a bad choice, frankly.

Who would want to do anything else?

We got up and out fairly early on Saturday to climb Douglas Mountain before the heat set in. The one-hour circuitous route in the Town of Sebago was perfect for the day, albeit buggy. Charlie found two frogs along the trail, and we climbed the stone tower at the top. On the way back, we investigated canoe and kayak rentals in Bridgton. I wasn't thrilled with that option as it was not close by, and we would have to pull the canoe ourselves up the street (and even slightly uphill!) to Highland Lake because the shop only had one delivery person who couldn't be tied up with us. I swung through Naples next. Unfortunately, the outfitter was out on the road making deliveries and had locked up his office. Rats! The following day, Sunday, would be our last as we needed to return to Massachusetts. I wanted an arrangement that was easy and not taxing on me since I would be driving more than two and a half hours the fifth day of a heat wave.

Often in life trying to force something to happen creates the opposite effect. But when you let go, the very thing you want to happen may just come to you. That's how it transpired for us.

Disappointed but resigned to the fact that we probably would not be able to pull off canoeing or kayaking the next morning, I stood at our campsite contemplating repacking the car when a truck rattling its way up the road drew my attention. I looked up and, in probably the most serendipitous moment of the trip, could not believe my eyes. It was a pickup with "Sebago Kayak Company" emblazoned on the driver's door and hauling a trailer loaded with the colorful boats! So that's where the kayak outfitter had gone to deliver boats! Our campground! My next challenge was to stop the moving vehicle as it rounded the bend in the road. I couldn't very easily flag the driver down on foot because he was driving too fast, and I would have to cut through someone else's site to get to him. I had one shot at alerting him, basically. So I just went for it. "We want a kayak!" I yelled. Since it was blisteringly hot, the driver's side window was open, and he heard me. "We just went to your office!" I added.

"I'll swing around," he replied.

We made the deal right then and there. I chose my boats, and he lowered them from the rack. I was way too zonked to take the boys out for a paddle that afternoon, but Ted agreed to leave one two-person kayak for Charlie and me and one single for Christopher on my site overnight. He was in a hurry to return to his shop, so I didn't write him a check that day. My swim in the lake that afternoon felt especially refreshing knowing we would get our boating in after all! It had been a very good day, indeed.

The heat had still not let up by morning, which made being on Sebago Lake in kayaks the perfect final activity before leaving Maine. And, boy, did we need to cool off! It took us nine-and-a-half hours to get home -- a perfect storm of heavy holiday traffic, bathroom breaks, snack and meal stops, a gasoline fill-up, frequent cold water-bottle replenishment, backtracking through South Portland after missing a key turnoff, slower driving than usual to study license plates (tying last year's record, we counted thirty-two states to and from Maine), and even losing a tooth while biting into an apple at the Kennebunk Service Plaza!

Needless to say, the trip home -- just like the vacation itself -- was pretty grueling. But we were together coping with extreme weather, getting exercise, and reveling in summer. Fortunately, we like adventures, so our week away was a success. It was not a comfortable trip by any means; it was a challenging one.

It was our kind of trip.

*See "Vacation Box of Chocolates: Part I (Franconia Fiasco Edition)," 1/6/13

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