National Treasures

By Gregory Keer

yosemite1“Do I have to go? Nature’s overrated and hiking is boring.”

No, that was not one of my children, who complain about things just because we ask them to do it. This time, it was good ole city-boy me, moaning about Wendy’s suggestion that we head to the woods for a five-day excursion.

Sticking with her habit of ignoring my complaints, my wife scored a last-minute reservation at a lodge in an up-state national park. I had wanted anything else – a few days by the beach to doze or maybe a miracle European trip (hoping airfares would magically lower to 1970s prices). But Wendy, who works travel Web sites like a computer hacker, snagged this affordable trip to a land of dust, granite, and bad food.

When we announced our plans to the boys, they did something their father could not muster. They cheered and set about packing rugged clothes, flashlights, and survival food with the gusto of seasoned K2 climbers.

“Daddy, can I help you pack?” my middle son, Jacob (age 10), offered, sensing I needed a little push.

While it wasn’t enough to erase my internal resistance, seeing my kids rally to get on the road spurred me to ride the coattails of their enthusiasm. So I loaded up the iPod with music — a mix of songs the boys like and a bunch of Daddy’s R&B classics — dug out the neglected hiking shoes, and packed the SUV for adventure.

Less than seven driving hours later, we were in the park. Any remnants of grumpiness on my part were whisked away by the breeze wafting through our open windows. Tall pines, their tangy scent filling our senses, lined our route as we pulled over to make our first hike to an easily accessible but nonetheless impressive waterfall.

A little while later, we dropped our luggage in the dated yet comfy room and the kids rushed outside to play at a stream not more than 70 yards from our back door. Above us, mountains ringed the valley where we stood, replacing the office buildings we had in our recent memories.

“Look at the deer right in front of us!” Ari (7) announced as he scampered toward a pair of beautiful creatures munching on grass. With only one warning, as opposed to the six we usually have to shout to get him to comply, he stopped and stared at the deer as they enjoyed their late-afternoon snack.

Over the next few days, this national park vacation of ours – one that I had dreaded – climbed in my estimation. Every day, we combined fairly rigorous hiking with sitting by rivers and streams, taking in the endless natural curiosities around us. Little Ari made it up most of the mountain climbs, rarely objecting to the effort, and stalwartly dealing with wet clothes from the time he tripped into a pool of water.

A favorite trek was one I made with the two oldest boys. My frequently edgy teenager, Benjamin, was never so focused on a family effort as he was in leading us up a 2,425-foot climb. Feeling my age a bit, I relied on Benjamin and Jacob to inspire me up to the top, where we bore witness to a spectacular view. We took pictures and hugged each other, having conquered something bigger than just getting to school on time.

In our downtime, we sipped lemonades in the lodge while the kids read books about national parks. Truly fascinated, they never hesitated to teach us about the wildlife and geography they learned through the words on the page and the experience outdoors.

At the end of the stay, we stopped to see one last vestige of nature’s showmanship – a young bear scratching his butt on a fallen tree trunk. As the kids laughed, Benjamin, who seldom seems to enjoy time with his younger brothers and boring parents, suggested, “We should see a different national park every year.”

I’m certainly game to do this, because it confirmed what I sometimes forget. Kids are meant to play in nature. It calms them. It inspires them. The ground is meant to fall on, its earthy softness easy on young knees. The mountains and trees are meant to be scaled, rather than observed as pixilated images on video games. I owe more opportunities like this to my children.

In this month of our nation’s birthday, it’s fitting to praise “America’s best idea.” National parks are wonders worth beholding, whatever your camping aptitude is. They entertain as they teach and respect the average citizen’s budget. Although they need more financial support than ever, they do more for our children than we can ever repay. Most of all, they can turn cranky city dads like me into lovers of nature. Now that’s worth a proper salute.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Travel, Traveling With Kids | 1 Comment

What Dads Need to Know: The Long Ride Home

By Laura Diamond

The following is an excerpt from the journal about Laura Diamond’s cross-country experience with her husband and kids. You can read her entire travel journal at her Web site, linked below.

Moving from Stowe to Burlington, Vermont, meant moving up in population size from 5,000-ish to 40,000-ish. Like astronauts acclimating to earth’s gravitational pull after time in space, we were visiting increasingly larger places so that Los Angeles would not crack us upon re-entry.

Burlington, a bustling college town with views of Lake Champlain, was a boon to our license plate game.  Students gearing up for the start of classes at University of Vermont came from all over the country — Washington, Tennessee, Iowa, even California. Church Street Marketplace, several pedestrian blocks of stores and restaurants, was reminiscent of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, minus the buskers. We walked along the bluffs of Lake Champlain, and could all but convince ourselves we were on Ocean Avenue looking at the Pacific Ocean, but for the minor fact of New York’s Adirondack mountains in the distance.  Our adjustment process was progressing.

Until we visited Shelburne Farms, a 1400-acre working farm, national historic site and nonprofit environmental education center located on the shores of Lake Champlain, which welcomes guests to milk a cow, gather eggs, watch cheese being made, and enjoy food grown on its grounds. Two steps back toward small town goodness.

We left Burlington loaded with goodies from Shelburne Farms’ gift shop – wine, maple syrup and chocolate – to enjoy and share with friends and family who would be hosting us on our path. We decided to skip Boston and gratefully accepted an old friend’s invitation to visit her in Amherst. It had been nearly twenty years since we’d seen each other. Among other things, one of the highlights of this trip was the chance to renew friendships, and inaugurate new ones between our families.

The next day, racing against Hurricane Irene’s arrival, we aimed to arrive in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania in time for dinner. The route we chose was, nonetheless, along a path less taken.

Forgoing speed, we charted a course through Redding, Connecticut in order to visit the setting of My Brother Sam is Dead, a book we were reading to delve into American revolutionary history while in that neck of the woods. (Teacher extraordinaire Mr. Miguel Espinoza had pointed the way to, which pointed the way to the places in the book, as did Redding’s own town website).

Despite initial griping, Aaron took the helm of the camera, and documented the places from the book, including gravestones of the real people we were reading about.

We continued on smaller roads, through New York towns like Chappaqua (of Clinton fame) and Tarrytown (of Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow fame), crossing the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. We arrived in Washington Crossing in time for dinner with grandparents, aunt, friends and dogs, and hunkered down for Hurricane Irene. When the coast was clear, we bade farewell and set off to complete our journey.

The boys could smell home, just two days away. They’d had it with history. With sightseeing. They were done. But we had two days, and the wealth of potential activities in Washington, DC tormented me. How could we choose? Bicycle tour of the monuments; visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; tour the Bureau of Engraving & Printing to see money being made, the International Spy Museum?! These were all on our list of want-to’s. But time ran out, and they’ll be on our list again next time.

We decided to venture past Washington, D.C. (okay, we accidentally went to Virginia while looking for parking near the National Mall – my fault), to visit the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, and historic Alexandria, Virginia.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Mount Vernon. On the one hand, I was curious to see how the first President lived, see the faded wooden floors where he stood, the chair where he sat, the bed where he died. On the other hand, I was sickened by imagining the horror of being enslaved there, as I walked on the same paths as the human beings he dominated to keep his house painted, his chamber pots cleaned, his family well-fed and pampered. I looked at the massive stately tomb of the most revered American, knowing that paces away nearly 300 slaves were buried without so much as a gravestone.

So, that was fun.

We lightened things up later that afternoon in Alexandria, eating crepes outdoors by the Town Hall, cruising the Potomac, and browsing some of the 62 artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. We drove our rented Chevy over cobblestone roads past charming brick buildings. I soaked up the other-ness of it, anticipating the mini-malls and wide avenues of L.A. in my future.

The following day, our last full day of this summer adventure, we spent with friends at the Newseum, a gleaming treasure trove of history and temple to the First Amendment.

Here’s a place I could visit again and again. The kids were enthralled by “the Death Tower,” one of the checkpoints the museum had imported from East Berlin along with sections of the Berlin Wall. They listened with astonishment as to its purpose — for guards to see and then shoot fellow citizens trying to escape to the other side — and noted that the West side of the wall was painted with murals and graffiti, the East side was dismally blank.

In another exhibit, I listened to a radio report of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1932 Berlin Olympics, then watched Tom Brokaw reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone had a chance to try their hand as TV news reporters, joining their cross-country friends.

And then it was over.

We boarded an airplane headed for Los Angeles. On my right, the kids watched a Harry Potter movie for the tenth or twentieth time. On my left, Christopher read a magazine. In the middle, I typed these words. When we pulled up to the California grandparents’ home, they were waiting for us, along with the cousins and sister we’d missed more and more every day.

Everything is as it always was.

Thanks for reading.

Laura Diamond is the mother of two (frequently healthy) boys. She is the editor of the best-selling anthology  Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, and is now at work on her first novel. Read more of Laura’s essays at Laura Diamond Writes On…

Posted in Activities With Kids, Featured Moms & Dads, Travel, Traveling With Kids, What Dads Need to Know | Leave a comment

Dating Dad: Solo Journey

By Eric S. Elkins

I wasn’t able to give much thought to my own vacation until Simone was on the bus to summer camp, headed into two-and-a-half weeks of adventures. Adventures I’d only learn about via the occasional letter and by scrolling through hundreds of photos on the camp’s web portal, looking for hints that she was enjoying herself.

The days before she left were fraught with preparations — gathering up the needed clothing and equipment for the session; coordinating with her mom to make sure we’d made the right purchases and had collected sufficient underwear from both houses; pre-addressing and stamping envelopes to make it easier for her to write to me, her grandparents, her aunts and friends. There really wasn’t time for me to start compiling my own pre-vacation to-do list.

But after she was finally on the bus, both of us waving nervously to each other, with me suppressing tears until I was walking through the emptying parking lot, I pointed my car to Target, and spent the next half-hour gathering up travel supplies. By the time I got home, I finally got to work building out a list of stuff that had to happen before I hit the road. It was extensive.

The plan for my trip stemmed from a conversation I’d had with the Peach in late spring, actually. We hadn’t spoken for several months, and decided we were past-due for a catch-up. The Peach and I are still friends, and we enjoy meeting up every once in awhile to share the latest stories and developments. This time, the plan was to meet for tea at one of my favorite spots, then go to a yoga class with her favorite teacher.

I was thrilled to see her as she came into the shop, and I jumped up to give her a hug. After the usual pleasantries and updates, we got to talking about Simone’s latest exploits, and I mentioned her upcoming trip to overnight camp.

“What are you going to do with yourself while she’s gone?” The Peach asked.

I told her I hadn’t come up with anything satisfactory yet. I knew I wanted to run away somewhere, but the thought of another solo trip didn’t really appeal to me, and I’d been stalling. I told her that I didn’t mind traveling alone, but I wasn’t the kind of guy who makes small talk in some bar with a group of like-minded travelers. So that meant, no matter where I went, I’d share a lot of meals with a book and beer.

The Peach smiled, not really believing that I’d be very long without making new friends, but made a suggestion — to attend a yoga retreat center in Costa Rica. She and her sister had been there a couple years ago, and she thought it would be perfect for me.

“The meals are communal, so you’d be able to eat with people and get to know them if you wanted to, but you could also have your alone time. You’d get to do yoga everyday, and really have some time to unwind!”

My email inquiry was answered within an hour of sending it, and I was presented with a package that was truly irresistible — a yoga and surfing vacation, with three vegetarian meals per day, and a daily shuttle into the seaside village of Puerto Viejo. I paid my deposit and used miles to book my ticket before I had time to over-think it and talk myself out of the trip.

So there I was, two days away from an 11-night solo getaway, and I hadn’t done crap to get ready. I was only interrupted from my flurry of activity (finalize work stuff and take care of requisite deadline deliverables, shop for a raincoat and wicking clothing, arrange pet care, do laundry, pack, get recommendations for the couple of days after my time at Samasati ended) when I took a moment to browse through the aforementioned web portal and found a photo of Simone, smiling with her new bunkmates. I broke down, the sob escaping my chest involuntarily, and I couldn’t stop weeping for a good twenty minutes. By the time the heaving and sobbing tapered off, I was sitting on a dining room chair with my head in my hands. I was so relieved to see that smile, and so heartbroken to miss her so much already. It took me a few more minutes to launch myself out of the chair and get back to it.

And, damn, the trip was a stunner. I’m still processing the time I spent in Central America — I’ve returned with the sort of existential questions that only an extended period away from the familiar and mundane can bring.

I spent the first week at the retreat center, in the jungle above the Caribbean. Samasati is both rustic and refined; although my bungalow was elegant and beautiful, there were still geckos running along the ceiling and the occasional prehistoric-looking insect crawling on the wall. Where there wasn’t wood paneling was open air, except for screens instead of glass. So basically the whole little hut was a giant screen from waist level on up.

It took me longer than I would have liked to fall asleep that first night. I was super-conscious of the sounds of the jungle, and laying there in the darkness, I couldn’t get comfortable. The loud buzzing of insects and spooky calls of night birds was louder than pleasant white noise.

Every once in a while a faint breeze would just barely cool what little exposed skin I allowed out from under the white sheets of the bed, and a thin film of perspiration made the pillow stick to my face. A couple times in the night, I’d wake up with a start and pull the flashlight from under my pillow, flipping it on and shining it around the cabin. But waking up early that first morning, to the lion’s roar of howler monkeys in the trees above me and the smell of rain and leaves and earth washing through the screens, I was filled with a sense of contentment.

Of course I made friends the very first day — it felt almost like I was at my own grownup summer camp. I shared meals with a fun, diverse crew of travelers, went to sunset yoga every night, and did some decent surfing. I didn’t go on most of the excursions with the group of guests that fell in together (except for one night of carousing in the little beach town), and though I felt like I was a bit of an outsider for that, I also knew I’d made the conscious choice to do my own thing. Some mornings, I’d write my next novel for hours at a time, watching the rain fall in sheets all the way down to the ocean.

On one of my surfing days, I met a French woman and a Spanish guy, and ended up drinking beers over a delicious fish taco lunch with them. The Spanish dude and I even spent a day hanging out; the morning chilling in the courtyard of his hotel in town and then riding bikes down the coast to spent the afternoon on a pristine white sand beach, splashing around in the waves.

When my time at Samasati was over, I took a shuttle back to San Jose, then navigated the gritty Coca Cola bus station to purchase a bus ticket to the Pacific Coast. I’d expected a painful, sweaty 4.5-hour ride to the beach city of Quepos, and when my assigned seat turned out to be next to a mother with her wiggly toddler on her lap, I sighed, took out my book, and hoped for the best. But the trip was easy, and a mere three hours, and of course the little boy and I got along great. By the time I hit Quepos, I was feeling pretty happy with my decision.

Because that was a big takeaway for me — traveling alone can be a blessing and a curse, when it comes to making decisions.  Sure, you get all of the autonomy you want; which means the freedom to just do the things that appeal to you. You don’t have to answer to anyone else’s needs or travel quirks, which can be extensive sometimes.

But you also don’t have anyone helping you decide what you want to do. And, as a classic Libra, I can be pretty indecisive, over-thinking my options, and second-guessing my final decision. When a group of my new friends at Samasati invited me to join them on a horseback riding excursion, it just sounded sweaty and buggy, and I declined. But they came back that evening with hilarious stories and a sense of camaraderie that I missed out on. I don’t regret taking that day to write another chapter of my next novel (, but I do wonder what I missed.

The other thing about having a travel companion is that you’re less likely to make stupid or unsafe decisions, like wandering through a large city late at night trying to hunt down some dinner. Or leaving your raincoat on the bed of the hotel before heading into a national park and getting drenched through, underwear and all, when the torrential downpour comes out of nowhere.

Overall, the trip was good for me, mostly because of the things I was missing — someone to enjoy and share the trip with, hugs and the human touch, meat, vodka, a steady flow of data and communication via phone and computer. I came home wondering how I could take some of the healthy living that I’d been forced into and build it into my daily life.

I’m struggling, because it was too easy to fall back into pre-vacation patterns. But I’m awake and aware, and though the changes may not come all at once, I can still strive to regain elements of that zen contentment and lifestyle, and to integrate them into our lives.

Simone starts middle school in a week. We’ll both need all the help we can get.

Eric Elkins’ company ( specializes in using social media and ePR strategies to develop constellations of brand experiences, delivering focused messages to targeted segments. He’s also the author of the young adult novel, Ray,Reflected. Read more of his Dating Dad chronicles at , or tell him why he’s all wrong by emailing

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