Out into the bush

Camping feels like one of those activities that is simply a good idea. City life is varied and interesting, but we only see a very small part of the world every day, and it’s rewarding to do something that takes us elsewhere, both in mind and body.

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Well, after a few years’ gap, we got out into the bush again. We extracted our camping gear from the back corner of the shed and the spare room cupboard, and went shopping to fill in the gaps. Instant-up tents, now they’re an amazing development, and it’s not a lie: ’tis a very quick job. Finding the Bald Hill campsite in Avon Valley National Park was a pain due to some road layout changes and a rail maintenance area and mine site blocking the way, but after giving up and starting to head home, we found it. Very Zen.

P1040560I was very pleased to see the girls settle into the camping scene very easily. It was simple but well supported car camping, with a drop toilet, a few people nearby, our own stove, and less than 24hrs to make our 20 litres of water last. That said, I have no need to prove a point or beat the elements – just some experience outside of the usual city life, taking the girls along for the ride. They got involved in assembling a stretcher bed, putting a bit of wood on the fire, exploring the area and checking out the view, and even experiencing little differences like limited table space, sitting on logs, keeping dusty feet out of the tent, and enjoying eating and playing with a smaller range of food and toys. We were surprised at how well Hannah enjoyed the entirely different surrounds.

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Eleanor took this one

After an early night, Eleanor and I were up a little before the rest of the campsite, and it was even quieter than before. We caught sight of a few small birds and a couple of lizards, and did some more exploring together. It was wonderful to drink in the view and listen to the sounds of the bush while wandering about together.

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Massachusetts Whirlwind

Returning the car, catching an early morning flight to Boston, helping the taxi driver find our destination, and settling in to share Sally and Isaac’s apartment all combined to make the day feel a little over packed. It’s not particularly small for an inner suburban apartment and I reckon houses three quite nicely, but with seven it all felt a bit cramped to start with. Not to worry, we had a plan. But I shan’t proceed without a baby photo.

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Lucy is only a few months old and still a bit unpredictable with her sleep, so Sally and Isaac were very hospitable (bonkers?) to put us up for a week. I don’t remember much of those first couple of days, but it felt like a whirlwind. I was pleased to crash into a comfortable bed each night, and to chat with old friends in the morning – without leaving the house. We explored the lake across the road, swishing through leaves, collecting acorns and admiring geese, ducks and swans.

We started to get used to the T transit system, and got brave enough for Elise to go home one afternon with Isaac and the kids, while I went the other direction to pick up the hire car for our planned trip North. Yep, more driving, and through likely icy conditions so I ensured we got a fuel guzzling SUV. Isaac was a bit worried about their two wheel drive, though being a hybrid its consumption was down the other end of the scale. In the end through either Isaac’s driving or good enough road condition (let’s say both), they had no trouble.

As for the T, Isaac pointed out that it’s the oldest (running?) transit system in the USA, but sadly it’s not funded well enough to take advantage of that auspicious heritage. The whole system worked well for us with only a single breakdown in a week of travel, but some carriages did feel old and raggedy, and drivers sometimes complained about things being broken. That said, drivers were helpful, trains ran on time, safety was never a concern, and I reckon Boston would be a lot poorer without it. Quirky factoid: They have blacksmiths on staff to craft the replacement parts they need, because noone makes them any more.

Oh Canada

It is over ten years since we have visited the fine country of Canada, and I was glad to be back. The schedule only allowed us a few days, but I reckon it was worth a long day of driving each way for even a taste.

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We visited St Jacobs to see how much had changed, and recapture some memories. While it all felt pretty similar, I don’t remember the bakery being so amazing: This was the best doughnut I’ve had, and I have sampled a few.

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Ryan walked with us to the school bus stop one afternoon to collect Navilyn and Kayleigh, bringing the sleds too. The run and sled home was great fun, as was the rest of our stay – the girls ran amuck throughout the house the whole time (with the occasional exhausted meltdown), and Eleanor particularly enjoyed the company.

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Alex and family came over to see us, and the house was filled with hubbub. Stories, memories, games and good food.

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Once again farewells came too soon, but it felt more like “see you next time” than the “goodbye, I wonder if we will see each other when we’re proper grown ups” from 2004. Alex came to see us in 2008, so I wonder who will be next.

Back on the road again, and all of the parent-survival tricks came out: Toys, packed snacks, eye spy, kids music (*only* for long drives), leg stretching stops, vague time estimates to help the journey seem like it will eventually end, and generally trying not to get snappy with each other. We were grateful that the border crossing – both ways – was completely painless. A few questions, briefly rolling down the windows to show we had actual children in the back seats, and away we went.

The Birds of TC

A surprising highlight of our wintry visit to Michigan was the birds of Traverse City. I say wintry rather than winter, since in North America winter isn’t allowed to begin until the solstice, snow be damned. The birds appear to follow the same rules, or have some crazy survival techniques, because there were more than just a few around!

The cardinal first caught my eye, its bright red standing out against the white backdrop.

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I wasn’t quick enough to get a decent photo of the bluejay, but I did get a fuzzy one. I’m actually not much of a photographer, tending to drink in the view and then rush off for a camera after it is too late. I spent a bit of time looking out of those windows at the apparently quite happy little birds. Every time I wondered (often aloud) how they could possibly stay alive in such conditions.

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There were also goldfinches, sisskins, chickadees, a brief glimpse of a brilliant woodpecker with red highlights, and even a squirrel which was not popular with the locals. I guess kookaburras and rainbow lorikeets are cool birds to hear and see respectively – except they’re not very welcome in Western Australia. Maybe the squirrels are invaders from elsewhere.

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Long Lunch

Sorry for taking such a long lunch, but the snow has been so very much fun. We stayed with Andy and Kathryn, Adelaide and Willow in Traverse City MI, and a week flew by. They’ve recently had a ‘mud room’ built onto their house, and it proved particularly helpful with all of the boots, jackets and snow gear we piled up between us all. Eleanor and I were out in it the most, as she surprised me with her stamina, walking about the neighbourhood, following the natural creek which was half buried in snow, flinging the wonderful white snow about the place, and collecting icicles for good measure. Addy Mae is a little younger and didn’t last quite as long, but she and Eleanor spent a bit of time sledding and making snowmen, plus she and I played a little baseball and she has a pretty good swing. The others joined in for bouts of snow play, but Andy had to work a few days, and the others preferred to prepare the hot chocolates for us to sip once we retreated from the cold. Hannah loved the sled, but ran out of oomph pretty quickly.

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Traverse City has a strong boutique industry, ranging from cherries to cider to clothes to woodwork and other gifts. I suspect there’s a lot of local fruit and veg in the right season, but with winter coming it was being delivered from the South. For some reason we had no concerns buying Mexican produce even though I like to buy Australian when I’m in Australia. Am I simply Unamerican? Perhaps it’s the lack of ocean between the two countries. In any case we had a great time sampling all of the above, as well as the distillery which Andy dutifully pointed out. It turns out I not only like Scotch, but a range of whiskey options – just not when they’re mixed with maraschino cherries: yuck.

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Andy and Kathryn managed to play tour guide remarkably well, given their work and parenting schedules, and we managed to weave together an effective sort of cohabiting for a week. The girls shared baths, toys, meal and play times, and went separate ways at various nap and quiet times. Young Willow is a lovely kid, finding her feet and her confidence around strangers invading her house, and Addy Mae was right at home with us, showing us stories, toys, and even her dance class where Eleanor was able to join in.

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It all came to a close too quickly, and we were on the road again, a few hours of driving one night to Bay City MI, then a few more the next morning, over the border to Ontario. That night driving is best described in hindsight, since we arrived safely: The wind was blowing and the snow was falling heavily in parts, so we were driving quite slowly and copying the other drivers who had their hazard lights flashing to increase the chances of being seen! I was glad to have been upgraded to a SUV for free (after refusing to pay for it).

Goodbyes, Transit Days, Settling in to Michigan

After a great weekend together, the family trickled back to jobs and daily lives, so the group changed a little each day. Young Brylen showed his colours with Hannah one afternoon, following her around and helping with all manner of things, playing one-year-old games and generally being a lovely young man. Eleanor and Ty spent an entire afternoon doing craft – CRAFT, Daddy! – and chattering away the whole time.

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Of course, there were grown ups, but they don’t matter, right? Seriously though, it was great to spend time chatting with everyone, since they all found a way to at least drop by. Kaleb started work at some ridiculous hour the next morning, so we had an early dinner with everyone one night: 18 in all, by my count.

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It was then time to say goodbye, and spend a full day travelling. Three hours (plus stops, lunch, nappy changes, etc) South back to Dallas, a flight to Detroit and then on to Kalamazoo (because it was cheaper than flying just to Detroit, and less driving afterward), a night’s sleep, and another three hour drive, this time North to Traverse City. The girls coped pretty well, but were a bit cranky by the end of the big day. The Kalamazoo hotel had a much appreciated heated pool, and warmth has suddenly become rather attractive, because …

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Yes, that is snow! One more gratuitous photo of that gloriously cold, white, wonderful stuff, since it got properly white overnight:

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It is lunch time, so that will do for now.

Dallas and Oklahoma

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We’ve arrived in the mighty US of A, on our grand tour. Due to some delays, we arrived closer to evening than early afternoon, so dinner was a fast food Mexican affair, satisfying but not the most exciting introduction to US cuisine. The hotel folks looked after us, and arranged to take me to my Thursday morning appointment. That left Elise with the car so she and the girls could find a park – although the hotel swimming pool was pretty popular. Thursday night we visited the Perot Musem, which had the perfect children’s section for our tired girls to have a play but not be overwhelmed. Free entry with our Scitech membership! Eleanor really liked the lit frogs in the front entry area. Once again the people were keen to be helpful, and helped us out with a few details, including a nearby pizza place for dinner. As for musems, we headed for the Heard Museum for another free entry and a place for the girls to stretch their legs during a short Northbound road trip the next day, which again was perfect. The full size replica dinosaurs were a particular highlight, and well placed amongst the trees and bushes. Sleep has been a bit of a challenge, with Hannah struggling to change over to the new timezone, or sleeping in strange places, or coughing and going through the tissues, or something. We’re doing well enough, especially since I’ve done my bit of work and noone now has to ‘go to work in the morning’, so we can tag team who gets up with Hannah, and occasionally Eleanor. We’ve now driven up to visit family in Oklahoma, and that has been wonderful. Last (and first) time we visited was Christmas 2003, on a road trip from Ontario. I’m a fan of The Waifs, and particularly like the song Bridal Train and the personal reference: My wife’s mother’s father’s sister was on that Bridal Train, and we’re staying with her daughter and all the family have arrived – I suspect in our honour, but for whatever reason it’s great to see them all. Four nights in the same place has been wonderful, for the girls to settle in, both to the USA in general, and for all of us to spend time with the cousins. Carter is 5 and while she has different interests to Eleanor, they’re finding common ground and having a good time together. Brylen, Lane and Ty are 11, 8 and 6 and are all great kids, adding more family atmosphere. Next stop, Traverse City!