Family Camping Review: Laurel Hill State Park

Last week I blogged that we had been waiting to go camping to keep Mark O out of the cold weather. Well, it turns out, we needn't have waited. Mark O is as hardy as the rest of us, and it was an enjoyable, if chilly, Memorial Day weekend at Laurel Hill State Park. And by chilly, I mean it was so cold we had to put Laurel in snow boots, and we burned 8 bundles of wood.

My mom and I headed out of town early so we could set up camp. We weren't sure when my dad and M would be off work and didn't want to risk getting up there too late. Setting up tents with a 4 month old and a 3 year old is not for the faint of heart, but we managed to keep them fed, warm and entertained while we did it. It was freezing cold and very windy, but sunny enough that we all ended up with rosy cheeks and noses.

The pros....
This park is an awesome place to take kids. Our site was near a bathhouse with hot showers and a faucet where you can fill up your drinking water containers. On our loop, a playground was tucked in the woods next to a shallow creek. Laurel Hill, like many DCNR parks, has a sandy beach with playground equipment on it, as well as a roped off swimming area. You can rent boats or kayaks or go fishing along the lake as well. It looked like they had done a lot of work to make it handicap accessible - a ramp goes into the swimming area, and they even had a beach wheel chair with big fat tires.

Laurel really loved going to the beaches in Florida so I was worried she wouldn't be impressed with a man-made lake and trucked-in sand. But, kind of like how kids like the box better than the toy itself, she was just as happy to build sandcastles and go wading with the minnows. Unfortunately, it was way too cold to go swimming.

The other nice thing about this park is that it has access to a lot of trails. Some of the trails are short loops (1-3 miles), while others are longer or connect into more extensive trails into the Forbes State Forest. M loves running through the woods, and was able to plot a pretty long run on the trails right from our campsite. It was nice that he didn't have to drive to a trail head.

It's also a really easy drive from Pittsburgh. Just 11 miles up route 31 from the Donegal exit, and the turns are well marked.

The cons...
They weren't diligent about enforcing quiet hours, which were supposed to start at 9pm. However, everything had quieted down by 10:30 or so and the noises were more from kids running around and playing rather than adults getting drunk.  Firewood was $5 a bundle. They have over 200 campsites, and some of the sites are not that secluded. Ours was quite muddy. My mom and dad went around and wrote down the site numbers of the best sites, so we'll know what to reserve the next time we go.

A bit about the weather....
A lot of people asked us how we did in the weather. It went down into the 30s at night, and was really windy so it felt much colder. We sleep in a 3 season backpacking tent that is not all that warm. We made a good investment for Laurel and bought her a kid-size 20 degree sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. She sleeps warm anyway and was totally fine. Mark O slept in his car seat in the tent and just wore a bunch of layers. He didn't wake up any more than he normally does and never seemed to get cold. I could have used an extra pair of socks and maybe a heavier coat. Every time I got up with one of the kids, it took me forever to warm up again in my sleeping bag.

On camping with kids....
Bring a big bin of toys and books. Laurel sometimes likes to sit in the tent and read books or play dolls. Bring lots of changes of clothes because if your kid is anything like ours they will fall in creeks, slip in mud, or accidentally pee on their pants when they are squatting in the bushes. Our tent is small, so we don't keep much in there, but I did learn to keep a diaper and wipes and extra pajamas for both kids so we didn't have to search for that stuff in the middle of the night. Even in the summer, you might want to pack hats, mittens and a coat for your kids, depending on their tolerance for chilly weather.

It was nice to be with my parents this weekend and have extra sets of hands. We'll see how we do on our next trip, which will be just the four of us.


Hot Here. And other updates.

I have two freshly bathed, but already kind of sweaty kids. It's hard to coax them into bed tonight. As the sun sets, we can hear the kids next door splashing in their pool and the birds quieting down in the trees in the neighbors yard. Our house stays pretty cool if you keep the windows on the sunny side closed, so in the morning I open up everything on the street side, and then close them as the sun inches its way over the house. But still, it's hot and I haven't pulled the window AC units up from the basement yet. May seems to early to turn them on anyway.

Mark O will be 4 months old tomorrow. He rolls over from back to front and then inches around on his belly. He doesn't have very good control of his body yet, so sometimes he gets tangled up in the blanket he's laying on. He likes to suck on his hands and to pop a pacifier in and out of his mouth. He's nursing a lot this last week or so, maybe because it's hot now, or maybe a growth spurt. He has settled into a routine of 3 naps a day, with a bedtime around 7pm. He wakes up once or twice at night to nurse. He's really a pretty chill baby, unless I ignore his cues to put him to sleep. When he was a newborn, he would just conk out wherever he was, but now he likes to be put down in a quiet place. If I don't get him there when he's ready, he bugs out a little bit. He also hates riding in the car, which does not bode well for our many camping trips planned for the summer.

Laurel is 3 and a half. I just gave her a new chore of setting the table for dinner. She loves My Little Ponies, camping, road trips and ice cream. She's very vain about her hair, which I have to admit, is pretty gorgeous. She's amazingly insightful, and is asking us really tough questions now. (What is death? When will my nipples go away?) We are trying to find the balance between giving her accurate information and giving her age appropriate information. We have a set of rules for the house. She totally calls us out when we break rules, which is sort of annoying, but also kind of cool to have a kid who will really hold you accountable. She cries about everything, which we tend to ignore, unless she wants to talk about it. She's getting better about bedtime. She still ends up in our room almost every night, but has been better about staying in her bed in the evening. 

He fears her enthusiasm, I think.



Camping Season!

Got kids? Bring lots of snacks. Lots.
We've been holding off a bit on account of the cold weather and not wanting to give little Mark O any hypothermia. Last year Laurel was 2 1/2 when we braved sub 30 temperatures to sleep outside. It was fun, but it was a little bit of work to keep her properly clothed, dry and fed.

Although we may do a few little backpacking trips on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, we are pretty much resigned to car camping these days. Not that there's anything wrong with car camping, it's just that we're used to getting by with what fits in our backpacks. Now there's all these kids, and all the crap we drag around with them. Last fall, while eating dinner under rainy skies at a state park in Florida, we realized that we might want to outfit ourselves a little better. My awesome parents bought us a dining canopy, and I'm working on organizing our camp kitchen.

The key to successful camping this summer will be to have everything packed up so that we can grab it and go for our weekend trips. (Have you ever tried getting ready for a trip while nursing a baby and entertaining a preschooler? Not enough hands.)

When I was a kid, my dad built a chux box, kind of like this. However, we drive a Honda Fit. The hatch is full even when I just go out for the day with the kids. With two car seats, there's no possibility of folding down the seats anymore. We're going to need to do an ultra light version of car camping, I think. When we backpack, we take a couple of sporks, a quart pot, and a stove made out of a beer can. For car camping, we like to carry a bit more - stove, frying pan, utensils, mugs, stuff to make coffee. On our last road trip, I put everything in a big plastic bin, but it soon became incredibly disorganized (especially since we were constantly throwing it all back in there when it started raining, which in Florida was every 12 minutes or so). I like the Grub Hub and this REI Pack-n-Prep, but I need to take some measurements to see what we have space for.

So, who camps with little kids? What are your must-haves for camping trips? Do you have any awesome camp meal ideas? What are your favorite campgrounds? What do you do with them when it rains?


Diving In To Motherhood

I read this essay and thought about how I sometimes feel reluctant to fully embrace this motherhood thing, because it's temporary gig. They are going to grow up and leave, right? And even though that's 20 years from now, there's still an end in sight. I don't want my mothering days to come to an end and have nothing left of myself.

I worry that I will lose myself in it, because raising young children is an all-encompassing task. Twenty-four hour on call duty. Relentless and repetitive in the nursing and rocking and wiping up after so many messes. Most of what I do in a day is quickly undone, and it's easy to leave very little time to think of anything else.

For me to be happy with this, the way it is now, I have to dive in. I have to let myself be changed by this circumstance, by these babies, by this work. Yes, it's temporary, but it's a long temporary.


Megabus (with kids): A Review

Megabus even has plugs
for your dvd player!
Every time I told someone I planned to travel from Pittsburgh to Washington DC on the Megabus with my two small children, their eyes widened a bit and they said something like, "you're crazy."

For the first hour of the trip, I felt confident that I would be loudly signing the praises of Megabus and was even mentally planning future trips. New York! Philadelphia! Toledo! I imagined trekking all over the country in a bohemian dress, with happy, well-behaved children in my arms, seeing the sights, while someone else drives.

It was very easy to find the stop and board the bus. We left Pittsburgh on time. I only paid eleven dollars for 3 one way tickets from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, hands down the cheapest way to travel that route. Amtrak was about $140 for a similar trip. The bus wasn't that crowded and the driver was helpful in loading my bag underneath the bus.

As we rolled down the highway towards Morgantown, I even fell asleep. Daytime naps for the win! Laurel was happily watching Finding Nemo on her portable DVD player and Mark O was conked out in my lap. When I woke up, we were going very slowly up a steep two lane road. It seemed odd that the route would take us on such a small road, but I didn't think too much of it, until a good 45 minutes went by and I pulled out my phone to see where we were on the map. This is when I discovered that we were circling Morgantown. Other people must have realized what was going on because soon another passenger began giving directions to the driver. We got to WVU about an hour late and found 50 or so people huddled and shivering in the rain. They are probably writing very bad reviews of Megabus right now.
How Mark O feels about
the Megabus trip.

We were soon cruising down the interstate again. It was about this time that Laurel slammed her dvd player shut and announced that she was tired of watching tv.

"Oh," I thought, "This could be a problem."

I only had one coloring book and three kids' magazines. I was really counting on her watching movies most of the way. Instead, she took great delight in going up and down the extremely steep stairs and visiting the bathroom many times. (You never know when a three year old is bluffing about needing to use the potty.) And how fun that was, with Mark O attached to my front in a carrier.

Eventually, she tired of the stairs, settled back in for Charlotte's Web, and was pretty good for the rest of the trip. I would have considered the bus trip a total success if it had lasted the 6 hours it was scheduled for. As it was, it took 7 1/2 hours, and Mark O was not loving the last 2 hours or so. Sorry, other Megabus passengers. Babies cry. Also, there was no space to change a diaper. (We did get one stop at a Pilot gas station that had a changing table.)

So, here's a few things I learned about traveling by bus.

1. Ditch the car seats. Unless you need them at the other end, the bus isn't really equipped to buckle them in correctly, and there's barely enough room on the seat. They recommend it, but don't require it.
2. Most of the Megabus seats are regular old small bus seats. There's no overhead storage bins on the second floor, so your bags have to sit under your feet. It definitely pays to get there early and get one of the seats that have a table.
3. The Megabus drivers get lost. A lot. I heard similar stories from several other people. You'll probably get where you are going, just not when they said you would. Bring your GPS because they might ask for directions.
4. The advertised Wifi is spotty. Nobody on my bus could get it to work.
5. Book early. That's when it's cheap. I felt like I got my money's worth for 11 bucks, but I'm not sure I would have felt the same way had I paid $50.
6. It was really awesome to be able to nap and look out the window (when my kids weren't freaking out).
7. People who have control issues would not do well with long distance bus travel. You really have to be able to roll with the punches. And pushing your kids beyond their comfort zones builds character, right?


This. Now.

I breathe the words in and out, rocking Mark O at 2 am. At 4:30. Picking up your baby calms him, scientists say. There is nothing difficult about most childcare tasks, but the sheer volume and on-demand nature of them occasionally swallows me up.

M and I did some yoga yesterday; we listened to a podcast while the children were napping. Well, Laurel was supposed to be napping, but instead she banged at the safety gate at the top of the stairs and shouted periodically, until savasana, when her calls reached a feverish pitch. The meditation of the practice was breathe in "This," breathe out "Now." It was almost comical because even as the teacher guided us through the poses, she was getting distracted and telling rambly anecdotes while we strained to hold warrior 2, and Laurel was shouting. But then she said that she had a sleeping baby too, and that we must commit fully to each pose because it could be the last one we could do, before we had to go and attend to someone. This. Now. I took the words to heart and found some new strength in not thinking about how long the practice would last and if I would get it all done.

I thought of the words again, later, when everyone else was asleep but me. Sleep when the baby sleeps, they tell you, which just seems like silly advice during the day when there is always a stack of dishes or a mountain of laundry. Or when you have a three year old that is only occasionally also asleep when the baby is. But at night, I feel guilty and anxious when I can't sleep. I should be sleeping. What is wrong with me? How will I feel tomorrow? I get caught up in the results of not sleeping, and I become more and more awake as I think about how I'll be tired tomorrow. Next week. Next month, until this phase is over.

I say the words. This. Now. And suddenly, I have permission to make a cup of tea, and write a bit. To listen to the quiet breathing of the rest of my family and the police siren off in the distance. Three am is very peaceful, and I am soon ready to crawl back into bed and enjoy every moment that is left of the night.


It Could Be the Weather...

I've got a serious case of bliss. It could be the weather...we've had a whole string of blue-sky days during the time of year when the trees are getting leaves and everything is blooming. This morning I packed up the stroller with snacks and diapers and we took off across the park, in search of a playground with kids at it. We found a bunch of kids at the playground next to the Children's Institute, which seemed to satisfy Laurel. On the way home, I took a short cut through the cemetery, which was really a long cut, because the paths are winding and deceptive and I kept coming up to a dead end against the iron fence. Of course the stroller is nice, but there is no way to squeeze through the fence posts, like we could if we were just on foot. Eventually, we found our way out and ran into some friends near the entrance. I had a brief time period where both kids were napping this afternoon and I took the opportunity to meditate. We had enough leftovers in the fridge for dinner (yum, shepherd's pie...why have I never made you before?), so the afternoon was really chill. We painted on the porch and visited with neighbors. We did a little grocery shopping for some food for the weekend and picked up M at work. While I put the baby to bed, M and Laurel went out to the park to run around for a while and now everybody is asleep in my dark, quiet house.

Just a regular old day, but really nice for its pace.