Headed On Down To New Orleans With A Bike, Inflatable Kayak And Fun On The Mind.

Whenever I go on long trips I have so much time to THINK while driving. It’s amazing how words wind themselves around my mind and I think and think and think about what to write, how to make my adventures interesting, worth reading, engaging for others. I love that feeling of thinking about what I want to say before I say it, and the act of creation, when I write or draw it is the closest thing to sheer bliss I think I will find on this crazy planet.

mtn

The overwhelming feeling I had on this latest 2 week-long road trip adventure with Orion was one of Joy. I spent a lot of time remembering when I was young, going to school, keeping my head down, burying myself into books. Most of the time I spent intimidated, afraid, mostly of my peers, my teachers, my principle or my parents. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine that I would grow up and would be able to find and hold onto happiness. Through a brutal exercise regime and by avoiding sugars, meat, drugs and alcohol I have been able to find a lot of joy in this life. When I am on these trips with Orion we both spend most of the trip totally giddy. Orion is the best travel partner I have ever found. Although at night in bed he is all-elbows and knees every other aspect of my traveling experiences with him is just amazing.

Early on in the trip I parked in what seemed to be a very safe parking lot. I woke up in the middle of the night to 4 cops who were pretty annoyed that I was parking and sleeping in their personal parking lot. I didn’t see any signs and there was  no cop cars around. I was using the standard tactics of being apologetic and saying ‘sir’ a lot, but it just wasn’t working. They didn’t get it at all, they kept asking me if I needed a hotel. At one point I almost asked them to write me a ticket or just let me go. Eventually they let me leave without any tickets.

When we first arrived at Great Smoky National Park they had an old style 1800’s village that Orion and I checked out. There were a bunch of college students making dinner bells in the blacksmith shop. Orion really wanted to participate but was nervous to ask. I reassured him and he asked, but we were told it was a special group of college students that were studying to be social studies teachers. I told him to watch patiently and not say anything. We stood by and watched until they were all done, then they let Orion make a dinner bell while they were waiting for the next group. We did the same thing at the cookie making kitchen and Orion was very excited to spend 45 minutes making corn bread cookies using nothing but coals from a fireplace. Although there was lots of other tourists there that did not get to participate, Orion was able too because he asked for what he wanted and didn’t get discouraged when he didn’t get it, he just stood by and waiting patiently with those cute little puppy dog eyes of his.

I have never been as scared in my life as I was when I thought I had lost Orion on the trail. We were doing a long hike at Great Smokey and Orion wanted to run on ahead and try to pass the people ahead of us. Unknown to me the little rascal had found a giant tree root ball to hide in and was going to jump out and scare me as he often did. Unknowingly I snuck by with my bright orange super stealthy crocs on, and after a while he thought “gee it sure is taking my dad a LONG time to get down the hill”. He started walking back up the trail while I continued to the car. Once I got to the car I dropped the pack and ran full speed back up the trail calling his name as loud as I could. I found him a mile or so up the trail, balling his eyes out. He was even more freaked out that I was so I tried not to make him feel bad. Orion really wanted to sleep in the van but I insisted that we continue with our backcountry camping plans. We started out after the sun had already set with only one flashlight between the two of us. We hiked several miles into the campsite and by the time we arrived it was pitch black. Camping in the woods we met a wonderful mild-mannered dentist from Tennessee named Howie Peebles the Fifth. Howie became the stuff of legends for Orion and I, we spent the next week making new songs about Howie Peebles and all the adventures he had. Howie also became the stuff of nightmares too, if Orion didn’t brush he teeth then I warned him that Howie Peebles would get him. If he didn’t downshift the bike before a hill then Howie Peebles was coming for payback. Although mildly insane, it was also insanely fun.

The most telling thing as a parent was the last night Orion and I slept in the van on this trip he spent a long time laughing and giggling in his dreams. There is no better sign for a parent than experiencing your child having that kind of joy and comfort in his sleep just from being in your presence. He read me several books when I was driving on his own volition because he wanted to share with me the books he was reading. We got lots of chances to talk about the Diary of Anne Frank which he also read for home schooling throughout the trip. I felt weird about taking him to the Holocaust Museum and having him read that book, but what job could possibly be more important than educating your child to learn how to recognize genocide and unfairness and to learn to fight against it through nonviolent non-cooperation.

The event that stands out in my mind the most was at the end of the trip we got stuck in the thunderstorm on the beach after playing in the waves and the sand together for 4 hours. We biked then drove to the showers and got out of our wetsuits and into a swimsuit, showered outside with the lightning, then ran to the car in the pouring rain in our shorts. We both stripped naked and drove for about an hour completely naked in the van before we got dressed. I can’t even imagine what would have transpired if we had gotten pulled over by a cop. This was to be the beginning of our 3 day trek all the way home.

The Beach!
The Beach!

There is a very sad part to this story too. We were in New Orleans right when the offshore oil rig exploded and started spilling massive amounts of oil into the gulf. Taking time and going to all the National Preserves and the beaches in the gulf area made me really appreciate the natural beauty and fragility of the ecosystem there. Now the US faces what is possibly the biggest environmental disaster of my lifetime. It will probably take a decade or more for the ecosystem to recover from this tragedy. Sometimes I wonder how bad things will have to get before people realize that we have to find clean alternatives to Fossil Fuels. The US could become entirely energy independent just by growing sugar beets and using ethanol in the cars. No major changes in infrastructure and we can do it right now. But what is the Obama administration talking about … more offshore drilling? It’s enough to make me ashamed to be an American. How bad does it have to get before this country is ready for some real Change?

A day by day breakdown of our adventures:

4/13/10 – Biked 14 miles at Blackwell in Grand canyon of PA.
Then Reptileland where we got to pet a baby alligator and a large Python. The Giant Malaysian Fruitbat was also way cool.
Then off to Gettysburg where we watched a bunch of crazy movies and learned about that epic battle. They threw us out while I was trying to read Orion the Gettsyburg address.
Checked out a really cool restored furnace on Rt 50 called the Caincatin Furnace. Right near a spot Gregg and I sleep a lot when coming back from Hatterass.

4/14/10 – Parked near Glen Echo Park in DC, we woke up and wandered around this crazy amusement park run by non other than the National Park Service.
We checked out the war memorials and the Washington Monument and Lincoln in that crazy oversized chair. I think Orion disconnected from too much intensity in the Holocaust museum so I had him start reading The Diary of Anne Frank instead. Easier to digest, easier for him to relate to, I’ll save Elie Weisel for when he is a little older.
Ate fantastic Thai food at this place Gregg recommended and then biked for 6 miles at Prince Edwards Park instead of sitting in rush hour traffic. To top it off we had a really good dinner at the DC Ikea store.

4/15/10 – Biked around Hatteras, not very windy. Got the inflatable boat out and tooled around the bay. Watched a crab fisherman load cages for a while and talked to him a bit. Ate at the café 12 diner, had delicious Flat Tops and then Orion started a very nice fire for us back at camp and we hung out with a bunch of really nice French Canadians, including our good friend Alain while watching the sunset in the Pamlico sound.

4/16/10 – Woke up, very windy. I kited for 4.5 hrs in the sound while Orion did homeschooling in the van. He really wanted me to ride, I launched from the campground, but it was hard to concentrate on kiting when I really wanted to be spending time with him. In the afternoon we headed to the beach and I was very present and played with him in the waves for about 4 hours until we were both totally exhausted. I felt 25 years younger and although the waves were only 3 feet tall I still got knocked over a few times. During those hours I felt incredibly connected to Orion in a way I seldom do. We started driving West and stopped at Subway and ordered a veggie delight. I smuggled in some Textured Vegetable Protein and we added it to the sub to make it taste better. We were harassed by cops in the middle of the night.

4/17/10 – Drove to Great Smokey and hiked Chimney Tops, Orion keeps egging me on for longer harder climbs. He seems to enjoy the technical aspect of climbing, not the endurance part that I enjoy. Orion participated in blacksmithing and cookie making by being patient and asking permission. Nightime hiking and camping with Howie Peebles V.

4/18/10 – Hiked back from the campsite then did another 10.5 mile hike to the peak of Mt Le Conte 2700 vertical feet to the top. Orion was so tired when we got back that we decided to sleep in the van in the parking lot. We hid under his sleeping bag with a flashlight and read the Animorphs books together. It was very memorable.

4/19/10 – Headed to the Nantahala to ducky the class 2/3 section with out inflatable kayak. Orion refused to paddle and the water was quite cold, so he got a little chilly by the end. The raft flipped in a big hole near the takeout. Orion was wild-eyed in fear, but was a good boy and climbed up on the upside down boat like I told him to. I grabbed one paddle, but another paddle got away from us. Not a big deal since Orion never seems to paddle anyways and I have a bunch of extra paddles at home. Orion really did not like getting flipped in the hole, I didn’t mind it so much, but I didn’t like the cold water too much. We headed to Jackrabbit Mtn about an hour away and pedaled his first single track. We did about 14 miles of beautiful scenic mostly level mountain biking with hardly and obstacles. Most impressively it was Orion’s first real single track experience that he has enjoyed.

biking

Orion on Jackrabbit Mtn

4/20/10 – Went to Mobile and checked out the science museum which was incredible and had several exhibits that consumed the better part of the day. We also checked out an old fort across the street.

4/21/10 – Finally made it to New Orleans, hit the Aquarium and the Insectorium and finally the Zoo. Watched a great Imax film about attempts to conserve the Louisiana wetlands which are disappearing very, very fast. After all that Orion and I rode our bikes on the levees for 14 miles then ate a fantastic Thai dinner.

4/22/10 – Went to the Jean Petit National Park, Orion did the Jr Ranger program, we hiked 4 miles then paddled 4 miles looking at all the Alligators in the wetlands, wondering how our inflatable kayak would fare against a hungry gator. Orion really like the tiny baby turtles, there was plenty of baby alligators too. At the end of the day we went to the beach at Dauphin Island. Being in the warm gulf waters really warmed my soul. Flying kites on the beach and swimming in the warm waters, looking for sand crabs were really special times that I will always carry with me. We spent hours fascinated by the clams that were easily dug up and could quickly bury themselves again in the wet sand by digging with their tongues. I couldn’t help but wonder how this perfect organism had filled its ecological niche for millions of years without profoundly disrupting its environment or even evolving. As a filter feeder the clam essential leaves the world in a better state than he found it. Human beings on the other hand, a very young species is on this incredible path of self-destruction and we haven’t even been here for 200,000 years yet. In the last 2000 years we’ve jump started a mass extinction as well as global warming and created one ecological disaster after another. For what? Is all the technology worth the cost? We struggle to stay present in our own lives. Where is the balance?

4/23/10 – Navy Aerospace museum got to marvel at the destructive powers of human ingenuity. Watched an Imax movie about Hubble, one of the most amazing inventions humankind has come up with. If we took all that money we spend to kill people in their own countries and put it toward the sciences think of what we could create and discover about our universe and ourselves. I admire men of peace like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, not men of war like several of our more recent and current leaders. I cried several times watching the Hubble movie, especially when they showed pictures of the edge of the universe from light that was emitted tens of billions of years before the earth ever existed. We hit the beach and rode our bikes for about a mile to get away from the crowds. Those last 4 hours on the beach were really the most memorable making tunnels in the sands and playing in the warm waves. Finally we were forced to leave by the lightning storms.

Leaving I wondered how many people would not be coming to the beaches because of the oil spill fouling up these perfect places. The sadness was overwhelming, as was the guilt for consuming so many fossil fuels getting to these perfect places with my son. There has to be a balance, we have to find a balance before these perfect places have disappeared from our carelessness. The thought of Orion’s unborn children having no undamaged natural places to visit with their children is a thought that is too much to bear.

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