That time I almost lost it at Great Wolf Lodge (but didn’t)

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There are several stages of Traveling with Children.

The first is, of course, excitement. We’re going on vacation! As a working parent, I especially look forward to this uninterrupted time with my family. It’s easy to fall into this trap of daydreaming about the perfect trip during the planning phase: finishing a book poolside, laughing with my perfectly-behaved children at a calm dinner, tucking them into woodland-themed bunk beds, watching HGTV in peace. Ahh.

Next comes getting acclimated. After three hours on the road, we’re here! “Here” was Great Wolf Lodge last weekend: a family-themed resort with energetic children at every turn. GWL has a cult following and festive vibe that gets even straight-laced adults to don the trademark wolf ears (myself included). Getting acclimated includes taking in all the craziness that a change of scenery entails. Our four- and two-year-old basically just … screamed and ran at full speed for the first six-plus hours on the Williamsburg property. Calling them “keyed up” is an understatement.

Once reality sets in, we hit the “ooh, was this a good idea?” stage — usually around bedtime. This phase includes being kicked in the ribs at 2 a.m. by a child who refuses to sleep in the bunk bed of the pricey “wolf den” suite, because bunk beds are cool strictly during daylight hours. Your spouse must sleep on the couch.

So, I mean, I’m not a monster; I realize that a change in sleeping arrangements can be weird for kids. And my son, an extreme creature of habit, greatly depends on his routines. The idea of crawling into the top bunk and actually resting there alone was … a hard no.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, I was a little annoyed with myself that it did surprise me. But every time, I think … this time will be different. The kids are older now, and more adaptable; we won’t have the fussing and issues we’ve had on previous trips.

While it’s true that we don’t have to worry about round-the-clock feedings and a truckload of diapers anymore, thinking that Oliver, in particular, is adaptable? Mmm. This is the kid that, on our first beach trip, screamed so long and so hard at being put in a pack-and-play that Spencer and I wound up driving the beach access road for hours to get him to sleep … then carrying him inside in his carseat. Also the same kid that required another midnight drive around downtown Bedford, Pennsylvania, because we were desperate to calm him down. We wound up finding a well-lit gas station to catch a few hours of rest ourselves, then cut our trip short.

My blood pressure climbed just typing all that.

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Sleep is at the heart of so many issues. And when traveling, of course, sleep is a major unknown … because the comfortable routines we have at home don’t directly translate. Hadley goes down relatively easy at bedtime, but Ollie is different. He struggles to settle on a regular day at home, constantly telling me that “sleeping is boring,” so traveling is just … next level.

So in the “ooh, was this a good idea?” phase, I beat myself up with big questions. Why is it so hard to enjoy something that hundreds of families are all enjoying at this very moment? Why does this feel challenging? Am I broken? Are my children? Why are we spending all this money to be exhausted and stressed in a different location? And, of course, why can’t I just relax and have fun? 

Thankfully, after the first night, this exhausting (and depressing) phase typically melts into a better scene: making the best of it and hey, this is actually enjoyable, which comes after the kids, Spence and I have adapted to staying in a hotel room — all four of us, together, with little distraction — and being out of our normal patterns.

Great Wolf Lodge has the advantage of being very obviously kid-friendly. Kids here, there, and everywhere. Kids shoving past you in Build a Bear. Just … kids.

While it got overwhelming at the end, it was refreshing not to have the added stress of feeling like we were disturbing everyone around us. Our crew never earned the familiar glares of nearby couples just trying to enjoy their crab dip appetizer in peace, thankyouverymuch. 

Camaraderie was in the air, actually — an “in the trenches” solidarity amongst the weary parents and grandparents. Wading through knee-high water in our similar tankini tops and skirted bathing suit bottoms, the thirty-something moms and I exchanged knowing smiles. These women got it. They, too, were wrestling toddlers into swim diapers and chasing sugared-up “PAW Patrol” characters through hotel halls. They were also in line at Dunkin’ because they would croak without another shot of caffeine.

Because we visited GWL during their “Howl-o-Ween” festivities, we enjoyed nightly trick-or-treating. Spence and I wound up walking the candy trail with another couple whose kids were close in age to ours, and our shared jokes warmed me up with the recognition of kindred spirits. My husband and I joked that we should have asked where they were from. Everyone needs friends. And this couple — with the dad dressed like Rocky ready to enter the ring, and his playful wife continuously “dinging” a bell on her iPhone — were definite contenders.

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So … did we have fun at Great Wolf Lodge? Absolutely.

After our iffy first night, I faced a hard truth: Traveling with young children feels so challenging because I’m just as much a creature of habit as they are.

Understanding myself better as an adult, this is about anxiety. I get stressed when I’m out of my element. I thrive on predictability — and traveling with children has none of that. My anxiety kicks into overdrive and mostly-managed OCD issues flair up. The familiar fight-or-flight panicky feeling awakens, and I want to run away to feel normal again. By then? Well, I’m just a hot mess.

I’m working on all that.

By realizing it fairly early this trip, I could collect myself, pull it together, and coax my anxious brain back into neutral territory. Once I relaxed, we had a great time with my mother- and father-in-law at the expansive resort. There was plenty to do, and the water park was enjoyable even for a mom (and kids) who can’t swim!

Most importantly, Hadley and Oliver had a blast — and we have a new collection of fun family memories with their grandparents. I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about “the wolf place” for a long time to come. And who knows? Now that he’s four, maybe our GWL trip will be one of Ollie’s earliest memories.

Which brings us to the final phase: looking at photos and reminiscing about the great time you had. The hotel neighbors having a dance party at 1 a.m. and long lines behind indecisive middle schoolers at the breakfast buffet are all forgotten. We’re left with sweet smiles floating on a tube in the lazy river, joy when hitting the 1,000-ticket prize in the arcade, and happy, tired kids passing out within minutes on the drive home.

These are the days. The tiring, wild, haphazard days.

I have earned that pumpkin creme cold brew, friends … but it’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Bring on the wolf ears!

 

On the Irish Sea

Flags

Though our time in Ireland was brief, I think of Guinness and colorful flags and warm air.

Stone buildings, kind-faced people and shimmery green landscapes.

Castles and pubs, expansive seas, old cemeteries.


Guinness

Cemetery


I think of 2011: walking in a foreign country an ocean apart from Spencer, trying to find a way to call home . . . and somehow managing to exist without a cell phone.

For a week, anyway.


Irish sea


I think of waking up in Dublin to pull back the curtains in the tiny hotel room I shared with my sister, both of us bleary-eyed after an early wake-up call as we watched a buzzing city come to life.


Moss on stone


And I think of taking it all in with my family, laughing at how American we must have looked with our cameras, comfortable shoes and wide eyes.

I don’t mind being a tourist . . . or even looking like a tourist. So long as I’m soaking it all up, taking it all in, what does it matter?

We only live once.

And we should definitely spend part of our days on the Irish Sea.


Johnny, Baby, corners

Dirty Dancing

My earliest memories of “Dirty Dancing” involve a dusty VHS tape propped in my parents’ living room. Our old wall unit with the TV at its core had movies tucked into every nook and cranny. The bright-colored script on the spine of the box always got my attention, but I was told it was a “grown-up” movie.

I wanted desperately to watch it, of course.

I can’t remember my very first viewing (sometime in the ’90s, inevitably), but I remember later ones — and when my grandmother asked if we’d be interested in seeing a stage version at the National Theatre for a girls’ afternoon, we didn’t hesitate.

It was awesome.

Steamy. Very steamy.


Ahem.


In high school, I was the consummate theatre geek — and even headed up our school’s thespian society in my final year. I hung with drama geeks and was a drama geek . . . probably stereotypically so. But I loved the heck out of it. Most of my friends were my partners in crime on stage, and I can’t separate my memories of my teen years without remembering the highs and lows of all those moments in and out of the spotlight. (Fun fact: I was even the lead in Jane Austen’s “Emma” senior year. And I didn’t really know who Jane Austen was at the time, so: progress.)

Going to see shows as an adult is an entirely different experience, of course — mostly because, you know, these are professionals. This performance of “Dirty Dancing” was as expert as you’d expect from a show with an activity in the title. I was mesmerized by the angle of their bodies, how effortlessly they moved across the stage. Given I’m incredibly uncoordinated and feel embarrassed at the mere idea of dancing in public (save my own wedding), I was very impressed.

My sister and cousin said most of the dialogue was straight out of the movie, and I recognized many pivotal scenes. Several of the women to my right were getting quite excited during the performance, whistling and shouting like teenyboppers as the lights came up on a shirtless Johnny with Baby appearing at his door. When Johnny delivers the movie’s most famous line, the audience erupted.

We knew where it was going — and that spoiled nothing. If anything, it made it better.

Though theatre hasn’t been a huge part of my life in the decade since high school, I feel so energized at live performances — and want to remember that moving forward. Time and money can be tight, but there is something electric about great musicals . . . and I was still tapping my foot all day Sunday. Our day was rounded out with lots of time chatting with wonderful family at dinner afterward, all of us buzzing, and our girls’ afternoon at “Dirty Dancing” was very well spent.

Especially as the whole audience sang and clapped along with “Time of My Life.” It’s pretty much mandatory.

And oh, that Johnny.



Enjoying the ride

Tall balloon

The quiet surprised me the most.

The first time we took a hot air balloon ride (over Napa Valley, back in our dating days of 2012), we were in a large basket with at least 10 other adults. It was crowded, everyone was chatting — and Spencer I wound up in different compartments on our ride.

(Side note: I was somewhat convinced Spence was going to propose on that fateful ride, but that moment would come six months later. Also, if he had wanted to pop the question in that balloon, it might have been mighty awkward. We would barely have been able to reach each other and hug.)

Back on our honeymoon last November, Spence and I booked a second ride over Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Having had so much fun the last go ’round, we were hoping for another memorable experience. Alas — cold and wind kept us grounded that trip, meaning we had to reschedule . . . for nine months later.

We certainly could have gotten back out to Woodstock, Va., before last weekend, but it’s a long trip — and I knew we’d be in the area for an annual ham radio event Spencer loves on Sunday. The stars finally aligned for us to get airborne once more.

Climbing into the basket (I have stumpy legs — it’s a process), I felt a rush of nerves as our balloon was untethered and the ground crew below us began to fall away. When a hot air balloon is released, everything happens really quickly; one moment you’re on the grass, the next you’re airborne and looking down at the world you thought you knew.

Everything looks different from above.


Blowing up balloons

Mountain view

Church sunset

Farmland


I thought I’d be scared, but somehow . . . I wasn’t. On paper, this looks like exactly the sort of experience that would push me into a fetal-position panic attack (extreme heights, lack of protection/parachute, risk of pilot error and, um, horrible fall to imminent death), but I didn’t even hesitate to ungracefully get in.

Not even after signing my life away in a series of legal documents.

Unlike our large ride in California, only five of us — including the pilot — shared this basket. Without the occasional bursts of fire from the burner keeping us afloat, it was silent . . . or close to silent, anyway. Even from high above we heard cars on the highway, cicadas in trees, dogs barking below on working farms. It was peaceful . . . almost holy.

No one said much. We were smashed with strangers, for one, but more than that? It just didn’t seem like the time. I was too busy gazing at the mountains — ones we were almost even with, it felt — and taking in the low clouds cresting the darkening mountain peaks.

Though only in flight for about a half hour, our view from above was totally different from our sunrise trip in Napa — but just as exciting.


Hills and house

Shadowy hills

Red house

Balloon landing


And this time? I totally wasn’t analyzing Spencer’s every movement, waiting to spot the glint of a diamond. That was a beautiful thing.

We’re married now, I thought. This was an experience we were scheduled to have had in the early days after our wedding, but I suddenly felt grateful it hadn’t worked out.

We needed this break. From the house, from our worries, from work. Though it hasn’t been so very long since our Yosemite trip, the summer has been brutally busy — and this balloon ride, though brief, was almost medicinal.

I didn’t even panic as we sank toward the ground, our basket just clearing the treetops as our pilot prepared us for landing.

For once, I hadn’t worried about the ending.

I just enjoyed the ride.


Hands


Beauty in an unlikely place

Lush flowers and greenery.
Stunning views of the San Francisco skyline.
Seagulls flapping gently overhead, their calls muffled by the bay.
Gorgeous expanses of water lit up at dusk.

You’d never know you were . . . at a former prison.

The remains of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, in fact — one of the most infamous buildings in the world.

I didn’t expect our ferry ride to the island to include such gorgeous vistas, but nearly everywhere you looked was a beautiful and unexpected scene. In fact, some of my favorite photos from the trip — which included Yosemite and Sequoia national parks — came at a spooky jail.

Who knew?

I think it was all about the juxtaposition for me. Side by side are beauty and dreariness, pain and hope.

Side by side

Side by side - cell and bird

Located just over a mile offshore of the city in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island was once home to the iconic high-security prison once believed to be “escape-proof.” A little family research on my dad’s part discovered relatives who served time at Alcatraz before it shuttered in 1963, and it has served in many capacities both before and after its life as a penitentiary.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986, Alcatraz is now primarily a tourist attraction — and a very popular one at that. We took one of the last boats over on our recent trip and were some of the last off the island before darkness fell. I couldn’t believe the crowds and wandering tourists; I was among them, of course, and the place was cool, but all this attention for a former prison?

It’s a mythical one, though. And in addition to its storied history, the property today is surprisingly beautiful. The gardens were impossible to ignore. Roses, succulents, lush grasses and fruit . . . exquisite! blooming! This purple thatch of flora is visible from the shore, and I had no idea what it was until we got almost close enough to touch it. And totally by accident.

You never know where a random door will lead you.

Main Alcatraz

Purple flowers

Sources note the gardens were once planted by families of the original Army post and later tended by prison guards’ loved ones, but the grounds became wild after the prison officially closed. They’re now being restored by staff and volunteers, who have even discovered original plants still growing where they were planted — 100 years ago.

Alcatraz garden

Rose garden

Skyline II

It’s an interesting place. A creepy place. A spot with a fascinating history — one that extends all the way into the present. My dad has become something of an Alcatraz scholar, and judging by the crowds? He’s not alone.

Tower and flag

Bright blooms

Admin Building

Just, you know, wouldn’t want to spend the night there.

Winding roads, take me home

Sequoia IV

Sequoia National Park, man. That place is no joke.

We arrived in Three Rivers, Calif., after a four-hour drive from San Francisco. The road was long, the sun scalding . . . the day young. After learning we couldn’t check into our hotel quite yet, we set off for the park in search of the famed giant trees.

We made it.

Kind of.

Please observe:

winding road

There’s a road in there.

I have exactly one photo from our time climbing switchbacks up mountains in Sequoia — mostly because I’ve never been so terrified in a car in my life. My dad was behind the wheel with Mom beside him, and Spencer and I were clinging to life (and the door handles) in the back.

I should note that Dad is a very good and cautious driver (as evidenced that I’m alive to write this post), but there was only so much one could do on those treacherous roads. Families seemed to be happily sailing along next to us, and all I could think about were the unbelievable drops immediately to our left and right. Drops off a cliff. Into the abyss.

Despite the fact that I’m a well-known scaredy-cat, I vouch you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t a little shaky driving through Sequoia. It’s awe-inspiring, yes — unbelievable, crazy, gorgeous. Brother (or sister?) to the mighty Yosemite.

But it’s scary as hell, too, and there’s just no way around that.

Whether through lack of research or information ahead of time, we had no idea the hour-long drive from the park entrance to the grove of Giant Sequoias was going to be filled with endless hairpin turns. I’m talking serious, no-joke, terrifying angles — many without guard rails — as we climbed into the sky. The temperature was a good 30 degrees cooler at the apex than it was in Three Rivers, where it was breath-stealing hot.

That was one good thing.

As we made our way up, I had to roll my window down because I was pretty sure the motion sickness was going to result in actual sickness . . . but that meant not even a plate of glass was separating me from certain death should one minor thing go wrong.

The views were pretty spectacular, though.

Sequoia

Sequoia II

Sequoia III

Pretty enough to make up for a near-death experience? I guess so. We did eventually get to the sequoias, where we paused to breathe in that cool, clean, crisp mountain air. But this was only after one member of our party did become ill and every member of our party came down with the jitters.

And we almost ran out of gas.
On the side of a mountain.
Without a shoulder.
And no cell phone service for miles and miles.

Never. again.

But the trees? The trees were nice. Impressive. Tall.

Spence and trees

Tall tree

Sequoias

And we got a stamp for our crisp new passport book, which makes me feel like a giddy 8-year-old collecting neon Lisa Frank stickers all over again.

I’m kind of obsessed with it.

And by “kind of,” I mean I now carry it around with me “just in case.” Just in case I happen upon a national park during my work day in suburbia.

Passport book

It’s the little things.

And I’m just thankful to be alive, so #stampsforeveryone.

Sequoia, you did not defeat us!

(But I’m never going back there.)

(I have white hair now.)

Golden State of mind

Golden Gate


I’ve spent a surprising amount of time shuttling to the West Coast in the last decade — mostly because, well, it’s beautiful. And fun. And amazing.

We’re headed back to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park to take lots of pictures, haunt delicious restaurants and generally relax. I long to breathe mountain air. I don’t really know what we’ll be up to and don’t have many expectations . . . if I’m out and away and standing in the trees or by the river or near the sea, I’ll be happy.

Like a responsible blogger, I intended to schedule posts for my absence — but I decided, you know, I should take a break. It’s important to pause, step back, think. So write meg! will go quiet until the week of June 2, but I’ll look forward to seeing (reading?) your smiling faces when I return. (Or follow the fun on Instagram.)

See you soon!