Back in the U.S.A.

I flew into Tampa International on May 26th, my first trip to the U.S. since leaving last fall. My choice of May 26th was meant to deliver me in time to celebrate my grandson Jacob’s birthday with him, but it was a classic case of “best-laid plans.”

Jacob, now 8 years old, rides motorcycles competitively, and he was spending his birthday racing in Ohio at one of the various regional races. Currently, he is in Virginia. My daughter, Amy, her husband Andy, and Jacob travel in a large motor home with a mobile maintenance shop they pull behind. It is a family enterprise, and they all enjoy it. He goes by Jake rather than Jacob – I might be the only one who still uses his given name – and he is known among his peers as both a nice kid and a winning rider. He is a grandson to be proud of, and I am.

I missed the birthday party, but I met Amy and Jake in Shenandoah National Park for some outdoor time, three days of camping in the Appalachian woods. Scientists have now demonstrated that spending time outside enjoying nature is good for you, mainly by inducing relaxation and lower blood pressure. No TV, very little cell phone, absence of traffic, sirens, and other noise pollution all play a role. The “hottest” media available is a good book. Add fresh air, sunshine, trees, and s’mores, and I could do that for a long time.

Andy was in Tampa, taking care of his automotive repair business that opened last year. Business is growing, but Andy leaves others in charge of the shop and home while he flies in for the weekends so he can continue taking care of Jake’s bikes and helping Jake.

I used my Senior Pass issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Parks and Recreation Department. I was lucky, I heard about it and purchased it before the fees changed, but if you enjoy camping, it is still a good deal. (For my New York friends, it is sold through the Hector Ranger Station, but check on their office hours.) It admits the senior pass holder, their one vehicle and whoever is in it, to national parks, forests, recreation areas, monuments, etc. It doesn’t cover concessions, rooms in a lodge, or other “extras.” There are two types of Senior Pass available for citizens 62 years or older: lifetime and annual. The lifetime pass is $80.00, plus a $10.00 handling fee if you order it online. The annual pass is $20 per year. There are 54 national parks. When you add that to all the other categories – forests, recreation areas, monuments, etc. – the pass provides access to a lot of the United States and its territories (there’s a park on the U.S. Virgin Islands!)

Jake has grown up a lot since I last saw him, which was just before I left for Bahrain last fall. He has become a reader of books (Yay!) and very curious about the world around him.

We set up camp on Monday. Because I plan to use my NP pass this summer and in the future, I have started to equip myself for car camping. I wanted to be able to accommodate others, and to prevent claustrophobia on a rainy day. That’s my explanation for the six-person tent I brought, which sounds more spacious than it actually is. “Six-person” only means that six adults can sleep on the floor inside in a pattern that will consume the entire square footage. And preferably, they should be small adults. For me, Amy, and Jake, it was plenty of room and tall enough for adults to stand up throughout most of it.

I have pitched larger tents in earlier years when I was married and we had four children. My tent promised that it could be done with two people and the description intimated that even one person could do it. The designers didn’t lie. It was up in seconds, ready to pound pegs and tie guy lines, and with a little bit of fast-tap-dancing, I will be able to do it myself.

We spent the first day unwinding. That is the great thing that camping does for you. Cell phones don’t get service, trees surround you, deer wander on the edges of the camping area, and squirrels come to see if you will feed them. It was wonderful. Amy and I spent time catching up, while Jacob rocked in the hammock or explored the campground. Sometimes he sat with us. Evening brought campfire, food, and s’mores!

We cleaned up – this area is home to black bears – and got ready for bed. Amy read a book I had brought for Jacob about two adolescents who were attending a floating boarding school. It’s by Alexander McCall Smith, an author whose adult stories I enjoyed while living in Jordan. And we fell asleep to the rhythm of a passing rain shower tapping on our tent.

Tuesday morning, we were up and on our way to Washington D.C. We parked at a suburban commuter lot and took the Metro into the city. Amy had reserved seats on a Duck Tour. It’s an amphibious military vehicle pressed into peacetime duty to provide a quick overview of the major monuments, using both street and river venues. Jake thought that was pretty cool. The International Spy Museum was next. Jake liked the “spy tools” display, so beware if he comes to visit! Great fun, and informative.

We returned to camp, ready to sit by the fire and roast hot dogs. Jake and I played Hide-and-Seek while Amy started the fire. Some creative hiding places were discovered and no one was eaten by wild animals in the process, although the deer was sniffing at Jake and helped me find him.

Hiking was the order of the day on Wednesday. Our nearest camping neighbors packed and left, leaving their camp fire burning. (Not a good practice.) I took one of Amy’s metal pots and went over, scooped up the burning pieces, and our breakfast fire was nearly instant! I felt very Homo Sapiens. After clean-up, we found a short hike to Dark Hollow Falls, a 1.4 mile rocky trail descending for the distance to the viewpoint, and then ascending on the return. It was true to its word, but the steepness was more moderate than described. It was a lovely day in the woods, glad I had used mosquito repellent, and the falls were gorgeous. It is still springtime in the mountains, so the falls were flowing fully.

The rest of the day went at a relaxing pace. We ate lunch in the cafe near the falls, worked the crossword puzzle on Jake’s menu, and shopped for souvenirs. We had a good dinner around the campfire, then decided we would try to join the “Ranger Talk.”

The “Ranger Talk” is a National Park tradition, and when Amy and her siblings were younger, we always attended. The rangers were given a lot of latitude, so the topics were varied and almost always interesting. It’s where I learned about Banana slugs – they can grow to about 10″ and are territorial, fighting each other for dominance by rasping each other with their tongues. Who knew? There is more to know, but Banana slugs are not found in Shenandoah NP, so I use it merely as an example of the interesting things you can learn at the Ranger Talk.

We missed this Ranger Talk, however, because we spotted black bears and chose to spend our time observing them – from our car. It was a first for all of us to see a Black Bear in the wild. It was also a reminder of why we have to be careful cleaning up after meals. Bears leave people alone unless they start to associate humans with food, and then their behavior can become a problem.

The next morning, we saw more bears on our way to the lodge, and they were just across the road from our campground! We ate breakfast in the lodge rather than start a fire, so we could get an early start. Amy and Jake were headed for a Virginia moto-cross track for another race, and I was headed to Charlotte, NC, to visit friends. I will see Jake and Amy later this summer, and Jake reminds me that I owe him a game of “Clue.”

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