Thursday, September 26, 2013

Herkimer (or is it Hermiker?)

As the fall foliage nears its peak season, we found ourselves wandering into the foothills of the Adirondacks, specifically staying in Herkimer, New York. (Or is it Hermiker? We were always confused as to how to say it!)

Before I launch into a narrative about the fun things we did in Herkimer, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the natural beauty of the area. It had been so long since I last experienced an autumn this far north that I had completely forgotten how breathtaking the scenery can be during this time of year! The gently rolling hills; the shallow bubbling creeks; the migrating Canadian geese; the yellow, orange and fiery red leaves which cover the hillsides - all of it causes a man (like *ahem* Steve) to say, "I want to stay here forever!" It truly was spectacular.

Although our stay in Herkimer was short, we enjoyed two noteworthy - and unique! - activities.

During the morning of our day, we went to the famous Herkimer Diamond Mine and tried our luck at mining for diamonds. ("Herkimer diamonds" aren't actually true diamonds. They are what's called "double terminated quartz crystal", and this is found in natural abundance all throughout Herkimer County, New York.)

The younger boys did some sluicing instead of mining. They got to pour bags of dirt into a screened box, lower the box into the water, sluice it around, and see if anything appears out of the muck. I'm happy to say that they each discovered some Herkimer diamonds, a few other gemstones, and a several fossils. My 7yo is convinced that he's rich now!

Steve and the four teenage boys went into the quarry with hammers and bags, and they spent several hours chisling away at the earth - and had very sore arms to prove it! It was all worthwhile in the end. Besides some interesting geodes, they all found some of the diamonds. One of my 17yo's stash was assessed at $45 of value, which pleased him quite well!

After our time at the diamond mine, we ate lunch then headed into the Mohawk River Valley to ride a cruise on the famous Erie Canal. (Sing with me: "I've got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal...")

What an educational ride that was! Did you know that there wasn't just ONE Erie Canal, but rather THREE? The first canal, opened in 1825, was shallow and narrow, and mules pulled the barges up the canal. But it forever changed the landscape of America; the Atlantic Ocean was now connected to the interior Great Lakes. The Mohawk River Valley was chosen as the location because it is naturally flat and the only natural passage through the Appalachian mountains. The original canal was only 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and ran from Albany to Buffalo (363 miles).

Since this became the first and only available water route to the western side of the Appalachian mountains, the canal's popularity spread quickly. New York City became a very prosperous port city, population quickly spread into western New York and western Pennsylvania, and traffic on the canal boomed. In 1834, construction began to enlarge the canal in order to keep up with all the traffic.

The second canal, known as the "Improved Canal", did not follow the exact path of the first, but it was very close. Locks were put in place to raise the barges with "water elevators" instead of using brute force of mules along a towpath to move traffic along. The canal was enlarged to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep. However, with the advent of the railroads, passenger traffic ceased on the canal by the late 1800's even though cargo traffic continued to thrive.

In the early 1900's the third canal was built. Under the governorship of Theodore Roosevelt, the state of New York established the New York Barge Canal. This canal put controls on the existing rivers in the area and utilized them as much as possible. As with the first renovation of the canal, prior existing sections of the canal were abandoned.

Once again, the canal hosted unprecedented amounts of cargo barges, until the beginning of the interstate highway system in the 1950's. All at once, water was no longer the cheapest way to ship cargo. The trucking industry dethroned the Erie Canal, and it would never be the same. Today the canal is used mostly for private recreational water vessels.

On our cruise of the canal, we learned all this history and more. We were able to experience going through Lock 18 on our journey, and the captain of our tour boat allowed our boys to pilot the boat for a short distance. Not many kids these days can say they steered a boat down the Erie Canal!

Two wonderful and unique experiences in one day in Herkimer, New York.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rochester and Seneca Falls

On Tuesday, September 24, we continued to travel west to east across the state of New York.

Even though we had a loud, fun, and energetic day at Niagara Falls only the day before, this day proved to be somber for us.

We stopped in Rochester, New York, for one reason only: to visit the gravesite of Steve's father for our first time. Even though he passed away only a year ago, we found the gravesite to be well maintained with beautiful planted flowers and a veteran's headstone in place. Steve and each of the boys individually placed some cut flowers on the gravesite, then I took the boys to the car so Steve could have a few moments alone. Our 7yo had an uncharacteristic meltdown once in the car, something about never being allowed to sit in the back seat. (Huh???) After the meltdown, it dawned on me that this outburst probably had nothing to do with seating arrangements and everything to do with confused emotions, poor boy. It was an emotionally charged hour, after all.

Steve and the younger boys continued on to our next campsite while I stopped with the older boys to the Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Yes, I am mean enough to force my four teen boys into learning about women's struggle for equal rights in this country. (*evil laugh*)

Actually, it was a very nice museum. We spent about an hour in the visitor center learning about the First Women's Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848. Five women organized the convention: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M'Clintock, Lucretia Mott, and Martha Wright. The notable freed slave Frederick Douglass was in attendance, and he published and disseminated copies of the drafted "Declaration of Sentiments".

At first, of course, people thought these ideas were crazy. But as a small flame can burn until it is a huge roaring fire, these ideas spread and took hold. Suffragists took up the rallying cry, and finally in 1920 women earned voting rights. Of course, not everything is equal even in this day and age, but it is a far cry from how it used to be a mere 150 years ago.

After the visitor center, we briefly popped over to the restored Wesleyan Chapel where the convention was actually held, then explored the reflection wall in Declaration Park. It was a short visit, but one of historical significance to half of the country's population, myself included.

Overall, it was a somber day. We visited a beloved father/grandfather/father-in-law's gravesite, then we reflected on the subjugation of women through the ages. Sometimes one needs to consider these things.

Niagara Falls

On Monday, September 23, we spent the entire day touring the American side of Niagara Falls.

I've been to Niagara Falls many, many times in my life. We visited when I was a girl; as a teenager my friends and I would drive up and goof off; Steve and I honeymooned there; we celebrated an anniversary there; we've taken the kids a few times. But each time I've gone there, I went to the Canadian side.

It used to be that the border was fairly open and one could go up and visit the falls on a day trip by merely showing ID. However, all that changed shortly after 9-11. Nowadays passports are required. Well, we decided that a day trip into Canada wasn't worth the $80 per person to buy passports. (Do the math: $80 x 8 people = $640. That would make one very expensive day trip!)

So for the first time in my life I visited the American side of the falls, and I have to say that I wasn't disappointed! Surprisingly, Niagara Falls is not a national park, but it is a New York state park. As a matter of fact, it is the oldest state park in the country! (I guess New York claimed it before the federal government did.)

We started our day at the visitor center and bought everyone in our family Discovery Passes. These passes entitled us to free admission into five attractions in the park plus ride the park trolley all day for free.

Our first stop was something I've wanted to do my whole life yet never have: ride on the Maid of the Mist. We boarded a boat downriver from the falls and rode it right up to the base of each waterfall. It was stunning as we approached the foot of the American Falls, but it was absolutely breathtaking when we got up to the Horseshoe Falls (aka the Canadian Falls). The awesome power of the falls is hard to describe in writing, and pictures don't do it justice. But imagine looking up as far as the heavens and seeing half a million gallons of water come roaring over a precipice above your head, only to come crashing down with such incredible force as to shake the ground for miles around. I actually started tearing up and got a lump in my throat when I saw the power behind this incredible force of nature.

After the Maid of the Mist, we climbed a stairwell along the American Falls for some photo opportunities, then headed up into the observation tower which overhangs the river and allows for a spectacular view of both waterfalls.

Then we went to our second attraction: the Cave of the Winds. Like when we rode the Maid of the Mist, we were issued a rain poncho to keep us dry. However, here we were also issued sandals. We had to change out of our shoes, roll up our pant legs, and wear these sandals in addition to wearing the rain ponchos. Even at that, we didn't keep ourselves dry! We walked along the pathway leading to the base of Bridal Veil Falls (a smaller, separate waterfall next to, and part of, the American Falls) until we reached "Hurricane Deck". The water and wind were amazing, and it really did seem like we were in a hurricane! The attendant told us that the wind speed is anywhere from 45-60 mph - wind caused by nothing more than the rushing water over the waterfall! And as with any hurricane, we got soaked! Had we thought that through a little better, we would have saved that for the end of the day!

To help us dry off, we ate lunch at the "Top of the Falls" restaurant which overlooks the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Great food, full bellies... we were a little tired so we took a bit of a rest by walking to the observation point (called Terrapin Point) which overlooks the Horseshoe Falls. Then we boarded the trolley and rode the tour around Goat Island and back to the visitor center where we took in our third attraction, a movie called Niagara: Legends of Adventure.

Feeling refreshed (and a little drier), we again rode the trolley, this time to our fourth attraction: Aquarium of Niagara. We saw lots of neat aquariums plus seals, penguins, and sea lions. The younger two boys enjoyed this place more than my four teens, but everyone did enjoy it.

By this time it was getting close to dinnertime. The fifth attraction on our Discovery Pass, the Discovery Center, is open only on weekends, so we didn't get a chance to experience this hands-on museum.

We came back to our camper and had dinner, then after dark we drove back to the falls to see the colored floodlights on them. This looks really lovely, but I have to admit that the angle for nighttime viewing is better from the Canadian side. Still, we took it in, then called it a day.

Niagara Falls is one of my favorite places to visit. To me, it never gets old.

Leaving Meadville

Last weekend we wrapped up our time in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

We stayed there for two and a half weeks, but to me the time flew by quickly. While Steve worked back in Texas, the boys and I did some schoolwork and spent lots of time with my dad. We took in a couple of local attractions, went to a car show, had dinner with my uncle and his family, went to a family reunion, and visited my 92 year old maternal grandmother in her retirement home - among other things.

It just didn't seem to be long enough. But I know that in order to see New England before it gets too cold, we needed to leave. I'm so thankful for the time we had.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Drake's Well

Where does the modern petroleum industry have its roots?

The Middle East?  Nope.
Alaska?  No. 
Russia?  Nuh-uh. 
Must be Texas, right?  Sorry, but no.

The world's first oil well was in northwestern Pennsylvania near a town called Titusville.  (Ever hear of PENNZOIL?)

Prior to the mid-1800's, people fueled their lamps with expensive whale oil.  Not only was obtaining whale oil dangerous, but the practice of whale hunting was beginning to decimate the world's whale population.  A cheaper, easier alternative was being sought.

Enter Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880).  People knew that crude oil burned, but no one had an easy means of getting it in large quantities.  Besides harvesting seepage through the earth's surface, no one knew how to get lots of this "black gold" efficiently.  Mr. Drake thought he could drill for it, just as people dug water wells.

He was right.  On August 27, 1859, after digging only 69 feet into the earth, Drake struck oil.  The world's first oil well was born.

Boomtowns popped up all over the area as speculators and wildcatters rushed in.  However, once the wells ran dry the towns disappeared just about as quickly as they appeared.  Even John D. Rockefeller got in on the game by helping the Standard Oil Company survive the "boom and bust" of the era.  The oil industry eventually moved away from Pennsylvania, first to Russia in 1864, then to Texas in 1901.

We spent our afternoon visiting Drake's Well, which is now a state park in rural northwestern Pennsylvania.  There is a great interactive museum, along with an accurate replica of the oil well right over the exact spot that the oil was first discovered.  Since we were there on a Thursday afternoon and were just about the only ones there, we had a private exhibition of the steam-powered oil pump in action.  We toured the grounds and ended by skipping rocks into Oil Creek.  Lovely afternoon.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lake Pymatuning

There is a hidden source of entertainment known to the locals here in northwestern Pennsylvania.

It's mesmerizing.  It's disgusting.  It's entertaining.  It's... redneck.  But those of us from this area hold it with great pride.  We have fond memories of the place, as it dates back to the 1930's. Everyone's childhood contains at least one memory of...

The Pymatuning Spillway. (Strike up the Hallelujah Chorus.)

Fish.  Lots and lots of fish.  Carp, specifically.  HUGE ones.  And they squirm and squish and slink and slime all over one another in a feeding frenzy when the locals toss day-old bread into the water.

Oh, what entertainment!

And, of course, I had to share the experience of my childhood with my own children.

When I first said, "Hey boys, let's go out to the lake and feed the fish!" I was met with great resistance and grumbling.  After all, what teenage boy wants to spend a Friday afternoon feeding fish?  How lame!

But once we got there, they, too, were struck by the mesmerizing awesomeness of the thousands of 50-pound carp.  I didn't hear any more grumbling after that.

And as my 7-year old said, "That's just HORRIFYING!"

Ah, traditions.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Looking Backward... And Forward

"You have to know where you've been in order to know where you're going."

I don't know who said those words, but I heard it a long time ago and it stuck with me all these years.

This post isn't going to be about RVing, but rather it's going to be about what RVing has enabled us to do.  Plus, I'm feeling rather pensive at the moment, and this is what's going on in my head today.

We are currently in rural Pennsylvania visiting my father for a couple of weeks.  He lives in the same house that I grew up in, so this is almost surreal to have all my kids milling about in this house.  Thirty years ago I would never have thought that I'd be sitting in my bedroom (which is now the computer room), typing up a blog post while listening to my six kids in the next bedroom (which was my sister's bedroom) playing Minecraft together on their smart phones.

When I was a girl living in this house, we spent many Sunday afternoons visiting with relatives, usually old ones.  Very old ones.  At the time, it was almost torturous to have to sit through that.  After all, old people are... strange!  They aren't "with it".  They live in the past.  They talk about people who've been dead for decades as if they are still alive. Their interior d├ęcor is like a blast from the past. To a child, this is bizarre and uncomfortable.

Yet, I am so thankful NOW to have had that chance to connect with the past, even if I didn't appreciate it at the time. I can connect the past with the present.  I can see that life is a continuum, and that the passing of one generation to the next is exactly how it's supposed to be.

I can remember being forced to visit with my great-grandparents when I was a girl.  They were in their upper 80's.  Great-grandpa had Alzheimer's disease, and he scared me.  But great-grandma's mind was sharp as a tack until the day she died.  My great-grandparents were born in the 1890's.  It was THEIR parents and grandparents - who would have been very much "alive" to them - who touched the history that I only read about in my textbooks in school, and which is practically ancient history to MY kids.

Anyway, last weekend I had the chance to take my children to the very same family reunion that I had the pleasure of attending every year as I was growing up.  Except, it was different this time. I remember the reunion being vibrant, with the "old generation" being only as old as my parents are now.  I remember attendance being around 75-100 people.  I remember lots and lots of kids my age to play with.   I remember the reunion being out in the rural Pennsylvania countryside, with a hand-pump well out front for water (which we kids loved playing with and getting each other wet!).

But this time it was different.  There were only about 30 people there besides my family.  There are only four people left of the old generation, as the rest have passed on to Glory.  My kids were the only kids there besides two little girls whom I couldn't even figure out how they were related to me.  As a matter of fact, the "family tree" is such a "family forest" now with such distant relations, I'm sure my kids could marry those two little girls!  And sadly, the country location is now surrounded by active Little League fields, and the hand-pumped well was modernized into an outdoor water fountain.

But I know where I've been.  I know about the past.  I know the old generation.  I remember them.  They are part of who I am.  And because of this, I know where I'm going.

It's the way it's meant to be.  My dad was saying that it won't be much longer until this family reunion will stop occurring, after more than a half-century of annual autumn get-togethers.  When the last of the "old generation" passes, there will be one last reunion, then no more.  Each branch will go on their own separate way.

It's sad in a way, but it's how it's meant to be.  Time is a continuum, and each day ticks away regardless of what happened the day before.  We are born, we grow up, and we die - but that's not the end of our story.  We die, but we continue in the children around us.  Our memories, our personhood, our experiences. They don't die with us.  They are passed on to the next generation.

Because they remember.

And time continues on.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


Steve and my dad got the bedroom slide-out cable replaced, and our bedroom is fixed!
Can you believe the look of this frayed cable? I have no idea what caused this to happen in the first place, but I hope it doesn't happen again!
It's weird, but I feel like I'm just biding my time until the next thing breaks. There's always something!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Aviation History (aka, Dayton, Ohio)

We arrived in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday night, August 30th.  We took time to get set up at the military campground, then pretty much crashed for the night.

The next day, Saturday, we reconnected with some longtime friends of ours.  We have known them since our college days, so over twenty years already!  They happen to have the same last name as us, but we spell it differently by one letter.  They were in our wedding. The Air Force assigned us the same duty stations after college, we had our children around the same time, and we have been raising boys together all these years.

We were planning to go to their community pool with them, but as soon as we arrived and set down the cooler, thunder rumbled in the distance and the pool was shut down.  So we piled into the cars and invaded their house instead.  All together, there were TEN boys in the house (our six, their three, plus a bonus neighbor boy). The boys had a great time playing toys and video games, and my 10yo said it was "so much fun!"

The next day, Sunday, we took our family to the National Museum of the US Air Force.  We've visited it in the past, but the boys don't remember much about it.  (This is actually where Steve pinned on the rank of Captain many moons ago.  The twins were still babies!)  The museum is absolutely huge, and you could spend several days taking in everything there is to see.  We spent several hours going through the exhibits before we decided to be done.  The boys and Steve did the museum scavenger hunt, while I got to entertain a very bored yet overwhelmed 10yo special needs child. 

Steve got to see his favorite airplane, the SR-71.  He was an avionics specialist on the SR-71 back when it was still in the Air Force inventory.  Back then, it was the fastest, highest flying airplane in the world.  Today it sits in mothballs. Sad, really.  But it isn't needed now like it was needed then, since the Cold War ended.

After the museum, we drove into Dayton to take in part of the Aviation Heritage National Historic Site.  Dayton is where Wilbur and Orville Wright had their bicycle shop and where they developed the first airplane.  We got to go through the visitor center, see the site of the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop, and see the site of their home.  The younger guys were able to get yet another Junior Ranger badge.

The next day in Dayton, Monday, we tried to go with our friends to their community pool once again, and this time we were successful!  We spent several hours at the pool.  The kids played in the pool while the adults chatted underneath the beautiful sky.  It's always a nice treat to be able to sit and talk with these old friends of ours.

On Tuesday we wrapped up our time in Dayton by touring a potential college for one of our boys.  This son is VERY interested in Cedarville University, and it is probably the highest contender for him.  It is a lovely campus, and the school is solidly Christian and academic.  (Now if only we can figure out where the money is going to come from to send him there!)  The campus tour took all day, but we were able to get a really good feel for the school.

Early Wednesday morning we left Dayton, drove through Ohio and into northwest Pennsylvania.  We are now stationary for several weeks while we visit with my dad, or "Grandpa".  The weather is so crisp and cool here.  Fall is creeping upon us, and I'm sure that in a few weeks the leaves will be on the ground.  .

We did have one snag when we arrived in Pennsylvania.  Upon setting up the camper, one of the slides didn't want to open up.  When we inspected it, we found that a cable is about ready to snap on the bedroom slide-out.  Steve and my dad are out right now trying to fix it, so hopefully we can open up our bedroom again before too long.

One thing we've learned on this adventure is that there is ALWAYS something to fix in camper.  ALWAYS.