Monday, August 24, 2009

Road Trip, The Rest of the Story

We just got back from a family road trip to Ohio. We spent a week touring some of the natural features and state parks, putting on about 1000 miles in a big loop through the state. Some of the more memorable times of the trip were:

1. Spending the first night in a private campground just southwest of Cleveland. This wasn't one of our destinations but was located near Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This campground had a distinctly redneck feel to it. Half of the campers were installed rather permanently, as evidenced by the tall grass, foundation plantings (if I can call the wheels the 'foundation'), and even large decks built off the side of the camper. Our campsite was located just a few feet from what appeared to be a beer tent, complete with large Budweiser and Dale Ernhardt banners, skull and crossbones flags, and guys with no shirts on swizzling from tall aluminum cans. During temporary lulls in the noise, we could hear other parties raging in the distance. The only redeeming factor, according to Josh, was the open wireless network.

2. The heat. It was HOT. The farther south we traveled, the hotter it got. And it wasn't a dry heat, either. We told Abigail when we first got her that it was hot in July, when her birthday was. It was cool most of July and didn't get hot until we were away from home in Mid August. She probably thinks we're a bunch of liars.

3. Stow, Ohio. We stayed two nights in a city campground in Stow, Ohio. Although the campground itself was "rustic" (i.e. no flush toilets), the rest of the park was pretty upscale, including a large lake that was for dogs only--no humans allowed. The entire city seemed to be more on the upscale side with beautiful large homes and immaculately manicured lawns. Even the McDonalds restaurant we stopped at for ice cream was done upscale, with walnut crown moulding and lots of wood trim.

4. Hills. I've always thought of Ohio as flat, kind of like Indiana flat. But we were on some hilly roads that would challenge any mountain road for hills and curves. David, our performace car buff, was lamenting that we were doing these roads in an overloaded minivan towing a heavy trailer instead of a sports car. His idea of a great road trip is doing these kinds of roads in a mid-engine two-seater, at the highest speeds possible.

5. Ice Cave. A natural cave in some small rocky cliffs in Cuyahoga National Park. Aptly named because of its chilly interior. It was a welcome relief from the heat. We could have stayed in there all day.

6. Kidron, Ohio. The location of Lehmans, a company that sells a lot of stuff that could be considered "back to the land", and supplies to the Amish community. Massive store, lots of cool stuff, way overpriced. We left, having only sampled the fudge.

7. P. Graham Dunn. Located not far from Lehmans, but over more of those surprisingly steep and twisting roads, this business makes inspirational plaques from wood and other materials. Deb browsed their store while the kids and I took their factory tour. Laser engraving and cutting. Computer controlled wood engraving. Pretty cool stuff.

8. Hocking Hills State Park. A small canyon in the middle of this hilly country (yes, there is a canyon in Ohio!). Some cool hiking trails along the rim and along the creek at the bottom.

9. Tar Hollow State Park. We called this the Tar Pitts. It took us over 2 hours to drive the 21 miles to get there, and we were led astray by the locals twice ("It's jest up that thar road, ya can't miss it"). Turns out the GPS led us to a remote section of the park, and the 'fastest route' was over many miles of one-lane dirt road. We finally ended up at a fire lookout tower in the middle of the forest where we managed a weak cell phone signal and called the park office. The park was rather unspectacular. Perhaps one of the nicest features was the elusive entrance sign that we were told we couldn't miss. It was big and it was nice and we couldn't miss it--if we were on the right road.

10. Tecumseh. This was the biggest reason we stayed at the Tar Pitts, because it was located near the Tecumseh outdoor dramatic play. Tecumseh was about the life of Chief Tecumseh and the battles at Tippecanoe. The stage included some of the forest and a small lake and the play included gunfire and cannonfire, so it was very noisy at times but very well done. We had to keep reminding Abigail that the people weren't really dead.

11. Ceasar Creek State Park. 10,000 acres of park and recreation area circled around a lake which formed when Ceasar Creek was dammed up. Lots of trails, including mountain biking trails. I discovered that it's really tough to do a mountain biking trail with a tag-a-long attached to my bicycle. Abigail thought it was a hoot, but it wore me out.

12. Campground firewood. There's a reason I try to bring my own firewood. A small bundle of wood bought at the camp office was so wet that it took an hour to get it to a point where we could roast a marshmallow. We used gobs of paper, whatever burnables we could find in the trash bag, and the fan to keep the fire going. Other people seemed to have an easier time, but the distinct odor of charcoal lighter fluid gave them away.

13. Flying bicycle wheels. When driving to a biking trail, I glanced in the rear view mirror just in time to see a single bicycle wheel bouncing behind the car. We searched for an hour but could not find where David's front wheel ended up. Perhaps in the corn on one side of the road or in the soybeans on the other side of the road, but David now has a one-wheeled bike.

Abigail loves camping. She has told people that she went camping twice this summer, and gets to go again in September.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Road Trip, Day 1

Willow Lake Park, a private campground and "resort" near Brunswick, Ohio. This is one of those resorts that is half filled with full time campers and then other more transient campers like ourselves. It also seems to be the local party spot. We rolled in here last night about 10:30, and the campsite we were assigned was about 3 feet away from an informal beer tent, and a party was in full swing. When I asked to be reassigned, they gave us the next site, which was 10 feet away.

I think we'll move on...

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Fort

There is a large number of wooden trays stored here in the barn. These trays were used extensively until the flower operation was shut down over a decade ago. Since then they have been stored in a back section of the barn.

One year, the kids moved several stacks of these trays around to create a secret room, a fort which made for endless hours of play. Each time some of the cousins would come from out of town, the fort would get re-arranged, or added on to. Accessories were added. A ceiling was added. Old desk lamps were used for lighting. The final rendition consisted of a large main room and two side rooms, the main room having a door, a bed, an old radio, an numerous other items. They even have carpet. Some of the kids have slept there overnight.

Looking toward the entrance

The main room

Looking into a side room

The most recent addition was a wall of fame, the names of each of the cousins burned into the wood of the trays in a section of the main room. This year, one more name was added. Abigail got to burn her name into the fort, thus becoming one of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Friend Fort.

Previous names

Abigail adding her own name

The newest name.

Nine Months

Nine months ago today, we picked up a scared little girl on a street corner in Xi'An, China. I've written about this a couple times before, but what I have not written about so far was what happened immediately after we received Abigail at the Civil Affairs Office in Xi'An. It was nothing big or momentous, but it was an indication of how this whole adoption process goes.

In a nutshell, the way ahead is dark, and you never know what is going to happen next.

After we left the Civil Affairs Office, we needed to have a picture taken for the adoption certificate. Our guide, Jane, finally coaxed a very reluctant Abigail to hold my hand, so with Abigail walking very stiffly and sullenly beside me, we set off towards our hotel.

It was past dusk by this time, and the place where the picture was to be taken was on the way back to the hotel, according to Jane. I have no idea if this was actually true, because of all the twists and turns we took during the journey.

Jane led us down a few very dark and very narrow streets. Many times we had to walk on the street itself because the sidewalk was still crowded with vendors packing up their wares, parked cars, and other things we couldn't identify. When the occasional car went by, we almost had to flatten ourselves against a building to make room.

The gloom, the dark buildings towering over the narrow streets, the occasional brackish water standing in the low spots, and our unknown destination all combined to give me the feeling that I was playing a part in some B-rate gumshoe detective movie, only I had no idea of the plot or the outcome.

That feeling was reinforced by our destination, a nondescript door in a building that opened to a dimly lit stairway. The stairs were only wide enough for two abreast, and Abigail balked that Jane was not able to walk beside her up the stairs. We finally convinced her to hold my hand up the stairs, and we arrived in a tiny room that really didn't look like a photography studio.

The only thing missing from my detective picture was the skinny guy with his feet up on the big wooden desk smoking a cigar, and the ceiling fan spinning slowly overhead. Instead, there was an older Chinese man, who ushered us through the cluttered room into the next room, equally tiny and cluttered. This room had a camera, a few chairs, and a big white box, and we were arranged on the box and our picture was taken.

It was a bit of a test of wills to get everyone arranged to actually take the picture. Abigail, who was quite scared and very tired, just wanted to cling to Jane, but Jane was not supposed to be in the picture. Abigail did manage some semblance of a smile and we even managed some semblance of a smile despite the stress of the day, and we were heading back down the stairs in about ten minutes. Back in our hotel, the next test of wills was getting Abigail to brush her teeth.

The whole thing seems a bit surreal now, like some half-remembered dream.

In the nine months since then we've been asked many times how it's going. The easy answer is "fine". Abigail is a generally happy ten-year-old, usually eager to help out. She loves her friends, loves her family, and is particularly interested in how the family all fits together. We've had several family get-togethers since she has been home and she wants to know just how each person is related. She will ask about each person multiple times, which can get a little tiring when the get-together consists of over 60 people. Family is important to her, so it was fitting that she was able to be in the extended family picture from our family reunion in May.

She sleeps well, eats well; her English is coming amazingly well, and she likes to learn. Most of the time, she will have a smile on her face, and she loves to tease.

The undercurrents are a little harder to describe. I don't wish to publish lots of detail on the Internet, but suffice it to say that family relationships have been and continue to be buffeted strongly by these undercurrents. In engineering terms, if a disturbance is introduced into a stable system, the system will oscillate for a while before becoming stable again. We're very much in the oscillation stage. We're working towards stability again, but we're not there yet. We can only take things one day at a time, and plant our feet firmly on the Solid Rock, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

By casting our cares on his mercy each day, we will soldier on, knowing that He will carry us through. We look forward to what He will do in the next three months and beyond...

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Silver Lining

Purchasing airline tickets is a task that gets more onerous all the time. This latest batch was definitely no exception. We seem to be paying more and more for increasingly lousy service, bad connections, and long layovers. Our tickets for our trip to Washington had connections in Chicago, Las Vegas, and finally Seattle. The return flight was a red-eye, arriving in Chicago at 5:30 a.m. All this for $378, not including all the taxes and fees. Any better connections or times put the cost somewhere north of five hundred bucks. With four of us flying, that added up in a real hurry.

When we arrived at the airport on Monday, we could tell immediately that something was wrong. The lines at the ticket counter weren't particularly long, but the ticket agents looked harried and there were lines outside the usual cattle stalls. The 6:00 flight to Chicago had been cancelled and they were trying to re-route a planeload of passengers on other flights. I overheard an agent telling a passenger that she could not get her on a flight until two days from now. We managed to check in for our 6:45 flight and then waited in the gate area.

The plane eventually filled up and left, right on time. Only we were not on it. The flight was way overbooked and we were the unlucky ones to not have seats. We waited by the desk while the agent tapped madly on the computer. There were perhaps a dozen other passengers in the same predicament. The next available flight, she finally told us, was at 2:15 and consisted of three flight segments on three different airlines. On the last segment, she could not get seating assignments, we had to check in again.

As if to head off any questions about being bumped from a confirmed flight, she handed me a brochure on passenger rights and said we had a choice of free tickets to anywhere in the USA or cash compensation. I told her we would take the cash.

So, back to the United ticket counter to submit our claim, then to another line at the American counter to check in for the first leg of our new flight.

Rather than waiting five hours at the airport, we went home for a while.

Abigail was becoming quite confused by the whole thing. In China, we went to the airport, got on an airplane, and flew to our destination. Here we went to the airport, waited in several lines for a few hours, then went back home. A few hours later, we went back to the airport and finally got on a plane.

So we flew to Chicago on American, to Minneapolis on United (Abigail calls it Many Apples), and to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Our luggage took the earlier flights to Chicago and Las Vegas.

When we arrived in Seattle, we went to the United baggage claim desk as we were told way back in Grand Rapids. The lady there gave us the run-around for a while and then sent us to Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines clicked and tapped on her computer for an interminable amount of time, never locating the town of Zillah to send the bags to. She finally got her manager who took one look at the computer and told us, "This code means that the bags are sitting at this airport." She printed out proof of this and sent us back to United. United took a look at the printout, then our baggage claim ticket and told us we had to go to US Airways. US Airways was located by Carousel 9 (we were near 18) which was a fair distance to walk, particularly in a crowded airport.

When I arrived at US Airways, the line was long and they only had one agent working. I spotted the bags in a corner of the room. I then estimated the amount of time required to properly check with the agent to clear the bags. It was distressingly long. I waited until the agent was concentrating on her computer, grabbed the bags, and ran from the room. It felt a little funny, stealing my own luggage, but the luggage ordeal was already at an hour and a half and Dad was waiting outside in the van, with the back door open and all the carry-on bags half loaded to make it look to the parking police that he was actually loading bags in the loading zone. An hour in a five-minute loading zone was pushing it a little bit.

We made it home a little after 1:00 am (4:00 am Michigan time). 24 hours to travel across the country. It took us only 26 hours to travel to Beijing, China.

But the silver lining of the whole thing was: United refunded us $300 per ticket.

Mount Rainier

A couple pictures of us at Mount Rainier National Park...

Silver Falls

Mount Rainier before it clouded over

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Abigail's First Wedding

Abigail got to participate in her first wedding, passing out directions to the reception after the ceremony. She loved it and even had two friends to share the job with...

Cook's Privilege

The cook gets to lick out the bowl...

Saturday, August 1, 2009


We've hit a milestone in our family. Abigail can now ride a bike. We've been working on this for a few months now, first with a scooter in the basement while the snow was still on the ground, then with her on the tagalong behind my bike and then practicing, practicing, practicing on her own bike, with one of us running along beside holding her up. Usually it was at some crazy angle where letting go would have resulted in instant ground-contact, but gradually she could go ten to twenty feet on her own on a straight, flat surface.

Yesterday things sort-of clicked. Deb had her in the church parking lot near our home and she took off and went round and round and round, with a huge smile on her face. She even figured out how to start on her own and come to a controlled stop. I took her out again later in the evening and she did several more laps.

She was thrilled. And so were we.