THE LONGEST FLIGHT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, me and our two young children, around ages four and nine, were scheduled to fly to Santa Fé, New Mexico for a vacation. We had a connecting flight from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri.

We got to the airport in the early evening and something was wrong with the incoming plane. So our flight to St. Louis had to be canceled. We were put on the next available flight with a connection possible to St. Louis. It was the following morning at an ungodly hour. We decided to take the kids home to get some sleep before schlepping back to the airport before dawn the next day. We were already off to a rocky start.

We got to the airport on time, but our flight was delayed – just enough to make us miss our connection through St. Louis. We got to St. Louis and tried to find another flight to Santa Fé. Apparently this weekend’s Hot Air Balloon Festival was the biggest event of the year in Santa Fé. Every flight was booked. We finally found a flight on another airline — NINE HOURS LATER — around 6:00 PM.

That left us with had nine hours to kill plus two small children and all of our carry-on bags, which when traveling with kids, was a lot.

We decided to do some sightseeing. We took the kids to the famous arch. Walked around. Shopped. We still ended up spending too many long, boring hours in the airport.

Our flight finally boarded and naturally, it was overbooked. The flight attendant offered a free ticket to anyone who volunteered to take the next flight in two and a half hours. My crazy husband raised his hand and volunteered the whole family! He figured that we’d waited this long, we should at least get something out of the lost day!

This part actually worked out well. We had time for a leisurely dinner before we boarded the next flight. The rest of the trip was fun and included a hot air balloon ride.

However, getting there was not half the fun!

WACKY WEATHER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My ex-husband, Larry, and I had a knack for traveling to places where the weather was uncharacteristic and extreme.

Our first big trip together was our honeymoon, which took place three months BEFORE the wedding (don’t ask!). We spent three weeks in England and France at the end of June. Summer. I packed one long-sleeved shirt, one sweater and one light coat, just in case. Most of the photos of me are in these three pieces of clothing. I wore them almost every day. It was like a blustery, chilly fall day for the entire three weeks.

Me freezing in France on my pre-wedding Honeymoon in late June

My first trip to Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, was in March. Not summer but still warm in Florida. Except when we were there. It was so cold, my only souvenir from the trip was a pair of gloves – which I wore every day!

Me in my turtle neck sweater and gloves in Disney World, Fla. (pregnant)

We’ve been in Florida when the orange tree growers were frantically putting blankets on their fruit trees to try to protect them from the deadly frost. We’ve been in Los Angeles, California when the swimming pools were freezing over. Record cold weather was reported in both places.

We went to Yosemite National Park in Northern California in the fall, expecting nippy weather. It was a record-breaking 95 degrees the whole time. We had to buy shorts and tank tops to survive. We also had to cancel many of the hikes and climbs we had planned because I don’t do well in hot weather.

Me in Yosemite Nat’l Park in the heat

The funniest weather story took place in Florida during one of those record-breaking cold streaks. I flew to Larry’s mom’s condo in Pompano Beach, Florida. Larry met me there from a business trip in Colorado, where he had done some skiing. We were enjoying another uncharacteristically cold snap. Larry called the office in New York City to check in. The lawyer back home asked him about the weather. Larry replied that it was 19 degrees out! The New York lawyer said, “Great! You’ll get in some good skiing!” Frustrated, Larry answered, “Schmuck! I’m in Florida now!”

This wacky weather curse must be attached to me, because it carried over to my second husband, Tom.

We took a canal boat trip around the countryside of England in April. It was over 90 degrees for several days in a row. That would have been an anomaly in England in August, let alone April. One day Tom actually got sun stroke and came home with a wicked sunburn. People asked us how our trip went and we told them about the sunstroke. Invariably we would get a confused response like, “Oh, you were in Florida?” or “I thought you were in England!”

Tom and me on our canal boat in the heat

One of our vacations was actually ruined because of crazy weather. We flew all the way to Hawaii, expecting the beautiful scenery and the consistently idyllic weather we’d been told about by our friends. We went there primarily to go on dive trips in the pristine waters. Unfortunately, there had been a hurricane just before we arrived. The water had been churned up so badly that the ocean stayed muddy the entire week we were there. There was no visibility underwater so all of our dive trips were canceled.

To add insult to injury, it rained every single day and was overcast the whole time. The sun came out for the first time to taunt us as we drove to the airport to go home!

Kauai, Hawaii in the rain

We also lost a day on a cruise because of bad weather. We were scheduled to leave on a cruise to Bermuda from a pier in New York City right near Tom’s office. He had always dreamed of walking to the pier and getting on a cruise ship. We were finally doing it!

Instead, a tropical storm delayed the incoming ship and rerouted it to Boston. We not only lost one day of our trip, but we had to drive all the way to Boston to get the ship. So much for Tom’s dream cruise from New York City.

Weather has not always been my friend in my travels, though overall, I’ve lucked out more often than not. However, the crazy weather stories are much more fun to write about. So, let’s hear it for funky weather on vacations!

THE BIZARRE TRIP TO EUROPE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

When I was in high school, my parents didn’t travel. A good friend, nick named ‘Cookie’, was going to Europe for three weeks over the summer with her family. She invited me to join them. I was 15 and thrilled.

The first week we were going to stay on our own in Surrey, England, outside of London, with friends of Cookie’s family. Then we would travel with parents to London, Paris, Geneva, Zurich and Vienna.

Me and the family in Surrey, England

As soon as we arrived in Surrey, Cookie pulled the rug out from under me. She told me she was jealous of me and hated me. She said she planned to make the trip as miserable for me as possible. This was like a kick in the gut to me. Where did this come from? And what was I supposed to do now, alone in a foreign country with a declared ‘enemy’?

Cookie tried to ingratiate herself with the family and exclude me. It didn’t work. The two kids, a son around 18 and a daughter around 21, liked me better and complained to me about Cookie. But I still felt the hostility and the tension. It was very uncomfortable and scary.

When we were traveling alone with her parents, Cookie tried to turn them against me. She tried to sabotage me at every turn. Again, it didn’t work. Her parents just got annoyed with her. She kept on trying though.

Me on the trip in Paris

I couldn’t even write home about my situation because I always shared a room with Cookie and she hovered over me. My letters home are all chatty and upbeat except for a few hurriedly sneaked sentences at the end of each letter. The postscripts were short cries of anguish and pleas for help.

I had never been exposed to this degree of negativity, competitiveness, and outright hostility. It was an unpleasant and weird and particularly difficult for a 15-year old. I must have been more mature than I realized to have survived but even enjoyed some of the trip. We saw beautiful places and did  cool things. I just tried to ignore Cookie as much as possible.

To add insult to injury, we came home on the ocean liner, Queen Mary. There were no activities for kids and it was mind-numbingly boring. On top of that, and having to deal with Cookie 24/7, the food was became inedible. They ruined eggs for breakfast! We lived off candy from the vending machines.

Photo I took in Geneva, Switzerland

I’m grateful this trip didn’t turn me against traveling. In fact, it whetted my appetite. If I enjoyed traveling under these circumstances, imagine what it would be like with a friend as my traveling companion!

MY FAVORITE FAMILY ADVENTURE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Whenever the topic of traveling comes up, I will invariably go on and on about my all time favorite type of vacation – a drive through the canals of England. Not many people know that there is an extensive canal system that winds through the English countryside. The boats used on them are called Narrow Boats. They are large, steel houseboats, about seven feet wide (which is very narrow) and from 45-65 feet long. You drive the boats yourself and they can only go up to five miles per hour. It is a leisurely and relaxing vacation – or it can be.

In 1987, my family of four took a week-long canal trip with our close friends, the Millers, an English family of four. The kids were ages two (my daughter), six (their daughter), seven (my son) and eight (their son).

Our summary page for the trip

Our boat was 65 feet long, slept eight easily and had two dedicated bedrooms, a living area, eating area, kitchen and bathroom. It was surprisingly comfortable, even for eight people. The boat was driven, with a single tiller, from a small outside deck at the back of the very long-boat.

Our trip started inauspiciously. Our seven-year old son fell into the water just trying to get on the boat for the first time! Things improved for a while and we all enjoyed the beautiful scenery for the rest of the first day.

On the third day, our two-year old daughter ran in to where the rest of us were having breakfast and asked, “Why is it raining in the bedroom?” That set off alarms! Sure enough, water was pouring into the back bedroom, right where both families had stored their fabric suitcases. We had to make room wherever we could to dry out all the clothes that were soaked by this major leak.

We called the boat rental company and reported the problem. We had to pull over, in the middle of a field of cows, and wait for the repairman to come, by car, and fix the boat.

It was actually a lovely morning in a picturesque setting. Some of us took the bikes we had brought and rode along the path beside the canal. We also got up close and personal with some of the local cows. The kids were thrilled. The boys also played soccer in the cow’s field.

When we got underway again, we were heading to Birmingham, a city on our route. We were warned that the canal part of the city was not a safe or savory place to spend the night. We had to get through the large city and out the other side before dark.

We realized that we had reached the city when we started to see garbage and dead animals, including cats, floating in the water. It was getting dark. We began freaking out. We had to push on and hope to reach the city limits before we had to pull over (no lights, no night driving). We made it, with maybe a few minutes to spare. We were incredibly lucky and equally relieved.

Our next incident occurred when we stopped at a charming canal side pub for lunch. My ex husband, Larry, a lawyer, decided to call his office in New York City to check in. Big mistake. There had been a major crisis at work and Larry had to return to New York ASAP. We had to figure out how to get Larry from the middle of nowhere, back to London and onto a plane. That turned out to involve a taxi ride to a train, the train to a subway and the subway to Heathrow airport.

The rest of us had a wonderful afternoon exploring the ruins of an ancient Abbey in a beautiful woods.

Soccer in the ruins of the old abbey

One other aspect of this trip deserves mention. The locks. English locks have to be operated manually and take lots of time and effort. Everybody pitched in to master the 119 locks that we had to pass through over the course of the week. We had the kids ‘help’ and made it into a fun exercise. But 119 is a shitload of locks! We also had two ‘flights of locks’, which are numerous locks one right after the other with no space in between. We did as many as 43 locks in one day!

Near the end of the week the remaining Dad took the two boys on another bike ride. The four girls were left on the boat, tied, as usual, to a stake at the edge of the canal. I was washing dishes and looked out the window. I saw that the shore was farther away than it should have been. The rope tying us down had come loose and we were drifting into the canal.

The other mom waded into the water, got to shore and grabbed the rope. She tried to pull us back to shore. Instead, the boat pulled her into the water. The two little girls thought this was hysterical. We all ended up laughing as I also had to wade into the water to help my friend tie the boat down again.

Beautiful canal views

Most canal trips are far less eventful. I’ve spent three weeks on the canals since then, and had next to no problems. But despite our challenges, we all loved the 1987 vacation. We still remember it fondly and talk about it often, thirty years later. It was even brought up in a toast at the Miller daughter’s wedding! It is definitely a fun trip – also interesting, different, exciting, sometimes relaxing and, above all else, memorable!

NOT FOR US THE GYPSY LIFE

Once upon a time, there was romance to the Gypsy life. Your wagon, your people, on the road forever. A culture shared. A world with music, dancing, and the horizon as your world. These days, when people talk about “hitting the open road,” they are discussing a truck. A big truck, from approximately 20 feet (a very small one) to maybe 40 (more?) feet … which is about the size of big trucks you see hastening from city to city on the roads.

gypsy wagon with hohrse

©Gipsy-Caravan

I might have gotten my head wrapped around the horse and wagon, but I’m sure the truck wouldn’t do it for me. I know it has become quite trendy to sell everything and pack it all in a recreational vehicle, otherwise known as an “RV.” I’ve also noticed that the romance with the road tends to last a few months at most and the rest of the time is spent looking for somewhere to settle down.

America’s roads are, for the most part, not romantic and you can’t just park your RV anywhere you like. It isn’t self-sufficient. It needs pumping. Gasoline. Electricity. Water. There are places you can stay. They aren’t beautiful and they aren’t free.

When I think about giving up my roots and hitting the open road … selling it all and taking that big old gypsy wagon, er, RV … down the endless highway, my whole life stuffed in it … rolling place to place, sleeping wherever we find ourselves and waking to watch the sun rise somewhere, I start making charts, budgets, schedules. I calculate the price of gasoline. Do you know how much it costs to run an RV? It’s not how many miles to the gallon. More like how many gallons to the mile. Seriously — that’s a lot of money.

Much as I love them, I don’t see us hitching up the horses, either. As a start, I would have no idea how to hitch up the horses. I have a feeling it isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies. Actually, come to think about it, how often have you seen the star or starlet of a movie actually hitching the horses to a wagon?

Driving them? Maybe, but getting those big, heavy harnesses on? That’s what the crew does, I’m sure. Giddyup!

We have dogs. There we are, rolling down the long road, singing while watching the gas gauge drop, We realize one of more of the dogs is restless. Is he or she serious? Or just messing with our heads? Do we want to take a chance on guessing wrong? Our dogs are smart enough to think it’s a hoot to get us to stop the wagons so they can get outside and run around, day or night. Their cheerful barks will surely be the hit of the RV park.

roma-gypsy-wagon-caravan

With no doggy door, no fenced yard, it’s us, the dogs, the leashes, and the weather.

“Please, go, it’s late, I’m tired, I want to go to bed,” while Bonnie snickers at me as only a Scottie can. And then there is the matter of bathrooms. My husband has a thing about the bathroom. He loves them. Big, comfortable ones with a spacious shower and unlimited hot water. Room to spread out. That leaves me searching for a private spot in the bushes.

One more minor issue: someone — I’m guessing me — has got to pump out the head, fill the water tanks. Hook up to the electricity. Buy groceries. Dog food. Cook meals in a tiny kitchen galley. I don’t much want to cook even with in a fully equipped kitchen. Will I rediscover the joy of cooking in the galley of an RV? I doubt it. I don’t think Garry would last a week. I might wear out even sooner.

So let’s say we bought a small truck, in this case, a 26-footer. This is what our new home would look like — or at least, sort of.

The gypsy life is a great idea. You should definitely try it.

Please send me postcards!

THE IDYLLIC ISLAND FROM MY CHILDHOOD – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had a chance recently to go back to a place I had loved in my childhood, more than 55 years ago.

Wendy was my best friend from fifth grade through seventh grade. Best friends at that age understand the true meaning and importance of a best friend. I always remembered that intense friendship as a high point in my long life of friendships. Wendy and I spent a lot of time at each other’s homes with each other’s parents (we were both only children). Also, both of our fathers were psychologists and knew each other.

Wendy and me on the motorboat at the island in 1959

Wendy’s family had a summer-house on a three acre island on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. We spent glorious days there playing in the woods and on the water. I rode in her motorboat and her motorized rowboat, both of which we named. The motorboat was Wendy Bird and the rowboat was Tinkerbell, from Peter Pan. I learned to water ski behind the Wendy Bird.

Wendy and me in the rowboat at the island with the house in background

We cleared a path into the woods, complete with signs. The path led to a wonderful tree, right next to the water. That tree was easy to climb and wonderful to sit in and we often played Mad Libs sitting on its branches.

I renewed my friendship with Wendy, through Facebook, this past year. We now speak on the phone almost every week and have become close once again. I always believed we had a strong connection. I guess it must have been to have survived for 55 years!

So Tom and I drove the six hours from Connecticut to the northern end of Lake Winnipesaukee. I was excited to revisit a childhood happy place. Wendy picked us up on the mainland with her brand new motorboat. I saw the island and had an immediate sense of familiarity. When the house came into view, it was just as I had remembered it – except that it seemed much smaller. I’m not that much bigger now than I was at the age of twelve. But I think my memories had enlarged both the dimensions and the magic of this idyllic spot.

My memories of the living room, the master bedroom and the room that Wendy and I had slept in, were totally accurate. In fact, I noticed that the beds in both bedrooms had been moved. Wendy was amazed that I remembered exactly where they had been in 1960!

I ran around looking at all the old photos of Wendy and her parents that decorated the house. My memories were again confirmed as accurate. After dropping my bags, the first thing I wanted to see was what little was left of our path into the woods.

The main remnant of that labor of love was, coincidentally, named “Curley.” “Curley” was a tree at the beginning of the path, where the beach meets the woods. The tree has a huge branch, shaped like a giant ‘j’, which we ‘rode’ like a horse. We had taken strings and created a set of ‘stirrups’ we could slip our feet into to mimic riding a real horse. The stirrups were still there! Wendy’s children growing up, and her grandchildren now, all rode “Curley” using our old stirrups. What a wonderful surprise!

This is our tree horse, “Curley”. If you look closely, you can see the stirrups on the right, below the branch

We talked the whole time we were together. We reminisced and shared stories about ourselves and our families through the years. I brought Wendy some old photos of us that she had never seen. I also brought my old diary from when I was ten to twelve years old, the Wendy era. I read Wendy what I had written about her and our mutual friends and teachers from school. LOL!

View from the porch, where we spent most of our time

Wendy shared a memory with me that I had forgotten. She said that at around age eleven, I had admonished her that she should stand up for herself and not let people walk all over her. “Don’t let yourself be a dishrag” I had told her. The funny thing is that while I don’t remember saying any of that to Wendy, I do remember my mother saying those exact words to me! I was apparently passing on to Wendy, my mother’s good advice to me. Neither of us took the advice for much of our younger lives. But I think we’re getting there now.

We also spent time riding on the lake in both boats. Everything was as beautiful as my glorified memories. Tom was impressed. We sat on the porch, looking out at the lake, talking about the games we used to play on the table there so long ago. Games like Scrabble, Sorry, Risk and Mad Libs (a favorite). Wendy showed me the online Scrabble game she plays now. I showed her Shanghai, my favorite computer game. We bonded all over again, on the site of our shared past.

I’ve talked about Wendy’s island paradise for years to my kids and to Tom. It was great to go back again, this time-sharing it with Tom. Also through photos, I got to share it with my children.

I wonder what my kids will want to revisit when they’re in their sixties.

CLOSE TO HOME

Day Trip, by Rich Paschall


While most people would like to go away for vacation, it is not always possible to pack up and catch a flight to England or Ireland, Germany or France, Mexico or Colombia.  In fact, it may not even be possible to take a trip for a few days to another domestic locale by train, bus or automobile.  If your time off of work is mostly given up to obligations around town, you may wish to consider a day trip.  This could be one overnight, or just somewhere close enough to visit during the day and return home by nightfall.

A lot of stairs to the top

When my “old friend” and occasional travel companion came to visit for a week, we each had a list of things to do together, and some with others.  He had dates and I had social and medical obligations to attend.  When he arrived we went for deep dish pizza, of course.  We found a few hours here and there for socializing together.  We went to a baseball game, his first trip to the south side park.  And we went off on a “day trip.”

About two hours southwest of Chicago, along the Illinois River, is Starved Rock State Park.  The canyons and sandstone bluffs mark an area that is not typical of the state. Outside the Chicago area, Illinois is known more for corn and soybean fields than anything else.  When I took a trip through Illinois to St. Louis with another friend, he remarked that there was nothing remarkable about Illinois.  In fact, it was the flattest land he had ever seen.  Obviously, we had not gone to Starved Rock.

Interstate highways will take you most of the way, before narrow scenic roads take you the rest of your journey.  After stopping at the visitor’s center for refreshment, we headed out to find the trail map to decide on our route.  Since one of the sites my companion wished to see was a long walk and we were right at the Starved Rock, we decided to go for the long climb to the top.

Prior to human habitation, the floods of melting glaciers had carved out these canyons and created the beauty that stands today.  By the late 1600’s the French had established a fort atop the large sandstone “Rock” that overlooks the river.  Eventually they left.

Legend has it that in 1769 the Illiniwek Indians or Illini, pursued by two other ethnic groups, took refuge atop this same sandstone butte.  They were under siege by the tribes below and eventually starved to death, hence the name Starved Rock.  The University of Illinois teams are known as the Fighting Illini, although it seems the actual Illini chose not to fight.  The school mascot is Chief Illiniwek, but that is clearly another story for another time.

Path to the top

As we made our long climb to the top of the rock, we found an elderly couple seated on a bench a short way up the path.  They doubted they would make it all the way.  Much of the area was built over with a steep wooden stairway.  This is not sort of climb I would normally do either, but my friend was content to move at my pace, so I persisted.

The view at the top was worth the climb.  High above the Illinois river, you can see up and down the waterway, a major tributary of the Mississippi.  You can also see that there is no retreat.  If the rock is surrounded, there is nowhere to go.  You are too far from the river and too high up to even consider jumping.

Illinois River lock and dam

The Illinois River lock and Dam at Starved Rock is one on eight along the massive Illinois river and is located 231 miles from the Mississippi River.  The Illinois River provides a path from the Great Lakes at Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  For city kids from the nation’s third largest city, it is an amazing view.  It is also a historically important site to the State of Illinois where archaeological digs have taught us much about local history.  The view, the canyons, the waterfalls, the hiking trails, the campgrounds, the large state park for picnics and fun have made Starved Rock one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

Plum Island

From the top of the rock, you can find a view of Plum Island.  It is reported that in 1997 the bald eagle, symbol of America, began to return to this area after near extinction in this region.  The increase in the eagle population is believed to be a direct result of the banning of DDT, an argument for the EPA (yet another story for another time).  In the years that followed there was a battle over development of the land, but the Illinois Audubon Society purchased it in 2004. Today it is a sanctuary that is closed to the public but in full view of the Rock.  Plum Island is a winter home for the majestic eagle who come to fish the river.  This makes the top of Starved Rock a year round attraction.  It may be a difficult or impossible climb in foul (or fowl) weather, however.

Top of the rock

At just two hours away, and with two drivers in the car, we were able to head out in daylight and return in daylight with no problem (late June).  The small and somewhat historic towns that are near to the Park (Utica, Oglesby. Ottawa) show off quaint, small town America.  In addition, the large Matthiessen State Park is just down the road and was our second stop on this trip.  There we were able to go down into the canyons to view a waterfall, a chief interest of my travel buddy.  If you have to stay home on vacation, you do not have to stay home.

What are you looking at?

Resources: Illinois Waterway, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illinois_Waterway
Starved Rock State Park, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starved_Rock_State_Park
Illinois Starved Rock State Park, http://www.starvedrockstatepark.org/