I’ve started to continue writing the vacation journey numerous times, but I keep having to stop to pick up EVERY. DANG. EMPTY. WATER. BOTTLE. Why is this so hard? If I were the boss, cases of water wouldn’t even be a thing – everyone would get two refillables and they could alternate drinking out of one while chilling the water in the other. But, I am the boss. I just have to let Rich think he is and this is one of the areas in which I acquiesce. As payment, I am constantly picking up empty bottles and either tossing them or sneaking them back into the fridge with new water. One day, in a moment of frustrated weakness, I picked one up, threw it directly at Zack’s chest and said ‘throw your dang water bottles out!!’ while he and Rich stared in horror. Calm down, it was completely empty and probably weighed less than an ounce. But it was a bit of a hiccup in our week of bliss. I did apologize, sort of.
I’ve realized (again) that the mess associated with a family on vacation does not necessarily come from having kids in the camper. Unless we can count the other near-50 year-old as a kid. Anytime my beloved leaves a seat it’s like the Ghost of Richs’ Past stay…crumpled napkins, not quite empty Diet Dr. Pepper Bottles, a pair of shoes, maybe a magazine, a Walmart bag that has yet to be emptied…. And I do get it – it’s vacation, right? Why not be a little lax? But there’s also a bit of false advertising that always pops up at these moments – from our very first hotel stay together when I was a self-invited stowaway on his work trip to San Francisco. He’d suggested I come – I just didn’t know that, after only four months of knowing each other, it wasn’t a real offer. And before he could say ‘just kidding’ I had my flight booked. Free stay in San Francisco? Yes, please! I remember arriving at the hotel door to a quick summary of how he really likes to keep a neat room without items strewn about. Okay, buddy, sounds good – I’m not trying out for the maid’s position, just here to shack up, see the Golden Gate Bridge, and eat sourdough bread on the company dime. It sounded good to me, though, having lived alone for years, to hear that neatness mattered. Which was why I was perplexed hours later (and now years) at the draped collection of worn shirts hanging on the back of all chairs. Okay, so if we ever do live together…I can just get him a chair and have the entire closet to myself….
Chapter Five: I have no idea what we did that day. They all run together now in a mesh of ‘oh, how beautiful!’ and ‘man, it’s hot!’ and ‘is it cocktail hour?’ and ‘should we go back up the mountain?’ and ‘who the eff owns this empty water bottle?!?’ My brother, sister-in-law, Rich and I did our traditional Walmart supply run Monday. I used to think this was insane – to arrive on vacation with minimal food, only to dash out and drop a wad of cash on sundries just after arrival. After years of uncomfortable-ness with this practice, I actually look forward to it. There’s no pressure to stock everything before departure (which, in our case, means no pressure to make sure the RV is perfectly level in order for the fridge to kick on) and, frankly, how do I know if I’m really going to want to stick to a relatively health diet on a vacation that is still weeks out? Isn’t it easier to make a game day decision between Fruity Pebbles and Granola? Plus there is a bit of silliness that accompanies the big shopping trip. It’s become the sounding bell to the start of vacation – like, oh okay, now we’ve about gotten kicked out of Walmart for trying to grab each other’s attention from six aisles over – let it begin!
The selling feature of Stone Mountain, GA is, in fact, the mountain. As with everything, it comes with a price – for a mere (discounted) thirty-two dollars, you can access the ‘attractions,’ the Sky Summit and the Sky Walk. This all sounded fun and we lined it up for Tuesday. There was a pretty clear banner on the ticketing website that some attractions were limited due to Covid and masks/social distancing were required. The not so clear part was that it wasn’t some. It was nearly all. We set off to the historic village with high hopes, kids in tow (dang it – you’ll get an education this year if it kills us!) and explored a half dozen or so 200-year-old homes. As with all social distance situations, there were only two families at the village – obviously the other family basically followed on our heels so closely that I imagine in an empty movie theater, they would sit directly in front of me. One thing Stone Mountain doesn’t have is clear signage – so we hopped in our cars and drove the long way (again) to the Dinotourium only to realize we were mere steps away from it already.
This is where things became less enticing. When you pull into any kind of attraction or park and there are zero cars in the parking lot, your first thought should not be ‘Oh! We get the whole place to ourselves!’ Although we did. Unfortunately, that also included anyone who might work there on a regular day as everything was closed. That’s not true. We were able to walk through a dinosaur exhibit which was pretty cool with everyone else who’d come to see which of the ‘some’ attractions were open. The problem is, we came out of that hungry and thirsty and hot and the search for water or snacks or alcohol was not fruitful because (did I mention?) everything was closed. Hello, Stone Mountain Webmaster: Some attractions limited is not the same as everything is closed. In our group, hangry comes on quick. Hangry accompanied by it’s so stinking hot comes on even quicker. We were losing the group. Back to the cars for another long drive to get (again) just around the corner. Can we get ONE clear directional arrow?!?
The next stop was the Sky Summit – a cable car to the top of the mountain that started next to a gift shop that THANKFULLY had water and stale Combos. Life started to pour back into us as we waited for the entire party to arrive for our ticket allotted time. We’d planned out the day to all meet at 2:15pm for a 2:30pm ride – except upon arrival it became clear that time didn’t matter here – just go get on the cable car. Tickets likely optional. This was more challenging than expected due to several hiccups involving lack of handicap accessibility, a missing ‘wheelchair available,’ and putting two 77-plus-year-olds in a box hanging on strings to make a wobbly ride up the side of a mountain. We did ask for the available benches to be unlocked for the seniors and were told no…by the conductor…as he sat down…in his seat. I’d like to throat punch his mama for not teaching him some manners, but I’m afraid she’d be mortified to hear the story. We were saved at the top by a security guard who kept a personally-owned wheelchair in his office for such occurrences. We were also saved at the top by the AMAZING view from the top of the mountain. We thought it to be a ride up – a quick peek around the top of the village – and a ride back down. Instead it was a ‘take as long as you’d like enjoying the view’ from wherever you were brave enough to walk. And the view made us all very brave – it was gorgeous.
We spent the next day on a day trip to Atlanta, fulfilling our ‘we’re a family that likes to explore’ need. We’d all been there – or at least as far as a layover at the airport – but never for more than business. The trick of it was – much of Atlanta was still closed down either due to the surging Covid numbers or to protect businesses from various protests. What was open was the aquarium – actually a perfect option as when I say we’re a ‘family that likes to explore,’ I mean we’ve hit aquariums in most states multiple times. Yes, they are mostly all the same – tall, round building with tank after tank connected in some hidden place housing aquatic life in themed stations. This was no exception. For us, they are relaxing. I’d have no problem sitting in front of a tank watching the resident fish interact for hours while losing any stress to the quiet blue darkness. One of the things I loved first about Rich was his ability to do the same. And, as Zoe used to be a budding biologist, she completed the puzzle. Zack, well, he used to take some convincing and usually the smuggling in of some sort of ‘other distraction’ to keep him occupied. But now, after we send the kids off with a designated meeting time and place, we catch glimpses of him staring into the waters or passing through the shark tunnel or, well okay, at the snack bar. It’s an easy way for us to spend a few hours and the Georgia Aquarium got our vote as one of the nicest we’d seen. It had only recently re-opened and it seemed that some of its inhabitants were showing off their returning guests.
My lone request in Atlanta was Centennial Park – the centerpiece of the 1996 Olympics that housed the medal ceremonies each night. It was right next to the aquarium so a walk over after would be perfect – had we not come out to torrential rain. Of course. There was no rain scheduled – so why wouldn’t it be front and center? Have you ever traveled with teens? Do you know what happens when they’ve done ‘they’re thing’ and ‘you’re thing’ is in jeopardy? It goes like this: Oh it’s raining okay well we can just head back I’m good the aquarium was fun we could just drive by that thing you wanted to see on the way no big deal wait you want to sit in the car until the rain stops why when we could just go back to the campground? I did maintain my alien mom form and play happily along. Sure, yes, we’ll go back. After we wait it out for a bit. Or find something to eat nearby. Yes, there’s a restaurant right over there – one of the best in Atlanta. We can just zip across the street with this one umbrella. Which we did. Which is how we ended up as the absolute minority in this most delicious establishment, Atlanta Breakfast Club.
I’ve spent the last six weeks hearing from my kids about how woke they are. They have latched onto the plight of Black Lives Manner with vocal fervor. I’m not upset about that – but I might be more convinced of their zest if they spend less time with Rich and I under their judging microscopes and more time putting their zest to work. Yes, it’s great that you are so quick to pounce on any words, statements or sarcasm that might have a whisper of intolerance while under our roof – and no, we will never convince you that as adults with 30+ years more of real life experience that we may not actually be complete idiots…we gave up trying to discuss the current climate with them weeks ago. My daughter’s statement of ‘Listening to people’s opinions is pointless because it won’t change my mind’ sort of says it all. She has swung into another universe of not needing any further education on, well, anything – a natural path for an 18 year old, but one that is a bit difficult on the rest of us. And her brother is following right in her footsteps looking very much like an impressionable 14-year-old who has learned everything he needs to know from Google.
Which brings us to the moment of total hilarity of walking into the restaurant, ABC, and seeing them both turn as white as sheets and fall back in a terrified attempt to hide against the glass door. Oh, I see, that’s how woke you are. I left them easing closer to the exit to put our name on the seating list, came back to announce it would be twenty minutes and cancelled their departure by handing out menus. Yes, this food looks amazing and, yes, your father and I are not even entertaining the idea of leaving for somewhere more ‘familiar.’ This will do just fine. When we reached our table, they did start to relax. Oh, we order just like normal? When the food came, they about started doing cartwheels. They actually became slightly giddy – like they’d accomplished something big by landing (after being pushed) so far out of their suburban Richmond comfort zone. Good. We left chattering about the life changing food – while Rich and I shared a glance at the (maybe) life lesson served on the side. Was that too cliche? Yeah, probably…
We spent our last day on a photo op – having realized this would likely be our last ‘whole family’ vacation in a yet-to-be-determined amount of time. On our return to Virginia, Zoe would move into the final phases of boxing up her belongings for her move to VCU – meaning she wouldn’t be with us for either our annual beach trip or our run-away-from-winter February trip. Really, we have no idea when she will be back on a trip with us. So we do the thing that kids love most – forced them in the car and out into a HOT Georgia day to stand in various pretty places and have our picture taken by total strangers. Now one with a mask. Now without the masks. In front of this. This will be good. You didn’t bring water? Oh too bad. Just smile anyway. Now you on this side. Hey lady, can we borrow your son? Do you know how to work an iPhone? Now over here. One more. Where are the kids? Rich? Where’d they go? Oh, they’re done? Done. Okay. Right, that’s probably enough.
We have learned the art of coming back early. We packed up Friday and made the long drive back to Richmond in one shot (well, in one ten hour shot with multiple stops for food, bathrooms and thunderstorms), thrilled to know that we still had Saturday and Sunday to unpack, decompress and hide in different corners of the house before the real world came calling again this morning. I used to hate those transition days – for years when I was still ‘new’ to the Barlows, I’d watch them pop right back into life where they left off, while I’d sit sad, missing my family and missing the freedom of free range travel. Oh, right, this is my new life…with dependents. It’s gotten easier each year and, again, the alien arrived making this time the best yet. This time, I, too, just relaxed back into home life – picking up where I left off, planning meals and schedules and a quick to-do list for the week. It does help that the entire family is all getting back together in August at the beach, sans Zoe – but I think maybe this parenting/wife-ing thing is just starting to stick.
Yes, these people drive me bananas – especially the eldest child (ahem…the eldest…no, older) but adventuring with them is never not worth it.