Meredith and I went to Ireland for a week in September, the first time we’d been away from our kids for more than a night in 12 years. She planned almost all of it while I was still absorbed in camp, but one night she told me about a natural oceanside swimming pool on an Irish island and showed me a photo. I hadn’t had much preference about anything to that point other than that we stay at least a night at the Lake Hotel in Killarney where I had once taken a group of students, but I perked at the thought of seeing this pool. “Let’s do that.” It’s called the Wormhole, and it’s situated on the western edge of Ireland on an island called Inish Mor. It’s not easy to find, but you can locate it on google, and its rectangular shape is easy to make out on the map. Its shape is strangely perfect, and though I can’t find any information suggesting anything other than that it is a natural pool, it’s just too perfectly squared off to be naturally formed. I had thought I would want to jump in when we got there, and I might have if it had been calm that day. But it is clearly affected by the tide and wave action, and it was rising and falling too quickly when we there to take that risk. I wait for a week for the Blue Ridge Pool to fill up, but this one was rising 10 feet in ten seconds. Just let me know if you get to see it, and if you jump in, or think better of it.
This past summer was just blissful. After two years of instituting draconian Covid rules, it was such a relief to spend so little time worrying about a virus this summer. In the first summer of Covid, our camp opened on the first day we were allowed by the state government, with a strict set of rules. We carried them out religiously all summer, keeping out masks on and maintaining 6-foot distances between ourselves. Our camp was the first place that many of us experimented with the new rules, and we came to understand that we were taking it all more seriously than other area organizations. However, we had no idea how necessary it was, but, like everyone else, we knew that it was a deadly disease and we were doing our part not to spread it while trying to give our campers a normal summer. As best we can tell, no one had Covid in our camp during 2020. In the second summer of Covid, we moderated all the rules significantly, but still kept masks on and at a distance. We had two cases that we knew of in camp, but it didn’t seem to spread. In the third summer, we let down our guard completely as all our population had been given the opportunity to vaccinate (and most of them had). Most of the rest of the population had also stopped trying, and as a result, Covid was abundant. We had perhaps 25 cases in camp, and another 25 who didn’t come due to a case. With so many cases walking into camp, I would have thought that perhaps it would spread in camp. But our best guess is that 2 or 3 cases may have come from camp contact, although even those campers could well have caught it elsewhere. So after 3 summers, we finally had enough test cases walking among us to know that, indeed, virus spread in an all-outdoors setting is pretty rare. I don’t regret having been so careful for the first two summers, but in the end, I am not sure that it made any difference whatsoever in our outdoors circumstances.
The best day of camp this summer was a rainy Thursday night. There had been some small chance of rain in the forecast, but we had a steady downpour in the early evening and overnight that did not much let up. On the radar screen, about the only rain anywhere around was right over us. Some of the campers don’t like the rain and it will lead to complaining and misery. It also gets us out of our well-worn routine, and can add all sorts of challenges to the evening. We had started playing Capture-the Flag before it started to rain, and though it began to pour, there was no lightning and the game went on unabated. There was too much rain for a campfire, so we handed out the s’mores ingredients at the Pavilion and the kids were perfectly happy to eat “raw” marshmallows and chocolate. We were far enough into camp at that point that many had song the camp songs a few times, so we did our music routine as usual under the Pavilion’s steel roof. It seemed to only rain harder while we we there, and it was so noisy that we had to raise all our voices in song. After a while, it felt like we were practically yelling out all the songs, and I had never heard it so loud at camp.
Over Spring Break 2022, I took an older camp group including younger counselors to Florida. We had been getting together throughout the year to go on adventures, and we had anticipated spending a week in Costa Rica. Covid changed our plans, however, and we decided to change our destination to the Sunshine State. The 16 of us drove down to the Fernandina Beach area, just across the state line from Georgia, and spent the first half of the trip in the beautiful Fort Clinch State Park.
The designers of America’s state parks generally make a wonderful effort on behalf of the RV crowd (of which I am one). The same cannot be said for group campgrounds meant for young people. They are typically set many miles away from the older RV crowd campgrounds, and the kids are forbidden from using the better camp facilities usually found near the big hulking vehicles. Instead, the kids usually get a pit toilet and maybe, just maybe, some running water.
Fort Clinch State Park, however, provided a well equipped group campground with a real bathhouse. Yes, the group campground was situated a couple of miles down a sand road that veered off the main paved roads, but that didn’t matter to us. We were in heaven, off by ourselves, and felt like we had the place to ourselves. Okay, it would have been better to be out by the beach like the RVs were, but I digress.
Just after arrival, we went straight to the beach. There was a restaurant nearby with lots of TVs showing the March Madness basketball games, and it didn’t look like they would be too picky about a crowd of kids who were maybe just in the ocean coming in. So we had pizzas and watched the first semifinal game, and though we were exhausted, it was all really fun. We had been up since the wee hours of the morning, perhaps 20 hours at that point. Everyone went to sleep quickly back at camp and slept in. I slept till 815, a record for me probably for the last 20 years. We had eggs and bacon and fruit for breakfast, then went to Target to get some things, and spent the afternoon on the beach. The kids divided up into two teams and played Survivor games on the beach, and a few of us even got in a game of croquet. For dinner we had spaghetti, sausage, and salad.
The best day of the whole trip might have been the second one. We had pancakes for breakfast, and then after another run to the shop for assorted snacks and sundries, we went to the fort at the state park. It is a beautiful site with nice views of the ocean and river. We then spent some more time at the beach, and one of the games yesterday inspired an afternoon filled with shell hunting. We rented beach cruisers for everyone and rode around the park in the late afternoon—biking in parks where the cars go so slow and where every road was covered with a tree canopy was pretty heavenly. We had hot dogs and pasta and brussel sprouts for dinner, and most spent the evening watching UNC beating Kansas on a setup we put together here in our humble camp.
Road Trip Journal, Back in Charlottesville, 11-11-21
We arrived back from our two-month journey earlier this week. After all that time inhabiting 300 s.f., our house seems immense. Instead of turning and taking one step to get to the fridge, I walk across the room. Our bedrooms seem cavernous. We have so much stuff. The children are off playing now and we can’t even hear them. Our life was so dramatically different during this past season, and though it was probably not sustainable just the way we did it over the long term, I enjoyed it immensely. As I look back on it and make the transition back to my normal life, I mostly remember the virtues of the experience. First, we saw so much of the country–people, landscapes, wildlife, parks, and cities. We saw bald eagles, bowling alleys, zoos, streams, mesas and buttes, lizards, strip malls, beach rocks, schoolies, the New Mexico statehouse, adobe houses, and so on. It was quite an education for all of us and an extraordinary life experience. Second, we were closer as a family. This might have been a struggle if we didn’t get along, and the tensions in the family were certainly exacerbated by the close proximity. But on the whole, it forced us all to spend more time together, and we all know one another better than we ever have. Third, it represented something that our family has not really had in the past: a shared bonding experience. There were moments of adversity on the trip, when our tire blew out and when a dead battery forced us to change plans for a day. We two parents had full-time chances to be parents and to educate and guide our children through the days, weeks, and months. It gave us all the opportunity to persevere, and we did so, and can be proud of what we all accomplished and eager to take on new challenges in the future. We all breathed a sigh of relief once we’d returned to our familiar home, with its relatively lavish bathrooms and nearby friends, but I think we will long to be back together in tighter quarters soon enough, with a new destination in mind for the coming week, and adventures on the road ahead.
Road Trip Journal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10-13-21
Our trip continues to move along happily according to plan. We are now in Santa Fe, having crossed mountains just east of us over the past week. From Scottsbluff, we moved to Denver and spent several days there with friends Ivy Geilker and Aidan Folger. Then we drove south to Monument for one night and then to Angel Fire, New Mexico, in the mountains west of Taos. We chose the campsite in Angel Fire from the map without fully appreciating its elevation at 8,430 feet. The high mountain valley was beautiful, and the campground was the newest and most comfy we have yet visited. But it was also very cold at night, with our second night getting down to the mid-20’s. We had planned the trip with the idea that we would not experience freezing temperatures, so this was a surprise. However, we made it through a cold night. We looked at the temperature for Angel Fire last night and it was in the 20’s again with snow showers all night, so we are certainly glad to have gotten out of the mountains when we did.
Our drives have had a couple of challenges in the past week. When we left Monument for Angel Fire, we experienced high winds on I-25. They were mostly coming from the west as we went due south, and I was surprised by how much a side wind was dragging down our progress. It was alarming to see other large vehicles on the side of the road, sometimes addressing problems on their roofs or maybe just waiting. We have a sway bar on our rig so we did not have a swaying problem, but it was still a challenge. Then, when leaving Angel Fire and going through the windy roads out of the mountain, we were nearly hit by an oncoming tractor trailer on the opposite side of the road. It passed us in a curve on the outside lane, and I drove into the ditch to avoid it. I looked into my side mirror as it passed, and it wasn’t perilously close, but it was the biggest scare we’ve had in driving, as it initially appeared that the truck would surely hit our trailer.
Our campground in Santa Fe here is high on a hill above the city, and we lucked out in getting a site with an unobstructed view of the town and the mountains to the west. However, the hillside gravelly roads at the campsite have discouraged bike riding here, and as it has been cold and windy, our kids have spent more time indoors than at any stop on our trip so far. When we refurbished this rv, we imagined spending more time inside it than we have. It is nice inside, fortunately, and well set up for extended time indoors. However, I will am ready to move on to a place that has better outside space for the kids.
Scottsbluff, Nebraska, 10-4-21
I am sitting in a auto repair shop here in the Nebraska panhandle. A week or so ago, we started to notice the brakes on the truck were squeaking. I scheduled an appointment to have it addressed in Spearfish, South Dakota, but on the way there in the rain, the squeak was gone, and I decided that it was probably something on the trailer. But then it started again when it had dried up, and it sounds like the truck again, not the trailer. It would have been easier to accomplish in Spearfish as the campground was close enough to the repair shop to easily ride my bike there so I wish I’d gotten it done then. Our campground here in Nebraska is 15 or 20 miles away from the shop.
We have been staying primarily near charming little towns or in remote but appealing camping spots, but the Nebraska panhandle has much less appeal. The town we are in is somewhat big with a Target and Safeway and a broad grid of streets, but many of the downtown stores are boarded up. Just outside town, a whole row of businesses along the road looked like they’d been abandoned a decade ago. The town looks as though it was never that prosperous, with small houses of less than a thousand square feet dominating the city’s streets. There are some nearby fields planted in corn or other crops, but just as much seems to be open grassland. The lake by our campground is very low, and though I thought this might be out of the ordinary at first, it turns out that every fall here is dry, and the current situation not unusual.
So we are trying to get some things done today—car repair and laundry. We will spend a quiet day at the campsite before heading to Denver tomorrow for a 3-day stay. We are looking forward to being there as we will be able to catch up with a couple of old and dear friends.
Spearfish, South Dakota, 9-29-21
We are spending several nights now in a wonderful little city campground here by Spearfish Creek. We are discovering there are campground gems out there, and this is one of them. It was cold today, only 51 degrees, and it was so dramatically strange as the high yesterday was 91. So we have experienced a bit of dry summer here and now a day of near winter, while we expect it to feel more like fall tomorrow with a high in the upper 60’s. We are going to Devil’s Tower nearby in Wyoming to see that geological oddity. We are thoroughly enjoying ourselves, and contemplating doing this more in the future. While surrounded by other RVs in these parks, some smaller and some larger, we have wondered what the others look like. So this afternoon, we made a brief stop at an RV lot nearby to take another look. Fortunately, we saw nothing we liked more than our own. I would like to be carrying a little less hours behind us, and while Meredith would perhaps like to have a few more amenities (think washer and dryer) or some other floorpan, we aren’t far off the idea with what we have. Most of the RVs seem to look about the same inside—like chain hotel rooms with lots of brown and beige. We like our white walls and natural wood surfaces, our faux oriental rugs and puffy throw pillows and comforters. We think we’re going to sell our whole rig when we’re done, but we also anticipate working on another way to do the same thing a year or two from now, in either this trailer or some other nearly the same.
Lake Shetek State Park, Southwestern Minnesota, 9-24-21
I have enjoyed having the chance to work with my kids during this trip. It has been the most sustained period of time that I have been able to do reading, math, science, and history with them. My older girls read well, and can often work on that on their own, but I am doing math with them regularly. With my younger two, I am very deliberately working through sounds, words, and sentences. It has been gratifying to do so. They make progress, and though it’s hard to measure, I can see them getting a little better week by week at whatever we are doing. It’s also pretty ideal to work with two kids at a time, even if they are doing different things. I have also been reading history to them. We started with the Indians and their lives before Europeans, and are now doing westward expansion by the US in the late 19th Century. As we go South, we will probably change over to studying elements of that history. We just happened to read about Calamity Jane just before arriving in Deadwood, South Dakota where she is famously buried.
In Minnesota, I bought a simple telescope and got it out when we were in Grand Rapids for a few nights with clear and brilliant skies. I trained it on Jupiter and its moons first and showed all the kids the sight one by one. The following day, we read about Copernicus. The following night, we got a good look at the craters on the half moon through the lens. We are watching bits and pieces of Harry Potter and Little House on the Prairie in the evenings, though it wouldn’t be bad to do The Right Stuff or something because the astronomy has been intriguing to them as well.
Minneapolis, 9- 20-21
After leaving Lake Superior, we had planned to stay one night at a private campground in Chippewa Falls, but we blew out a tire on the trailer just outside of Wausau, Wisconsin, and had to change our plan. The blow-out came just shy of a highway exit, so I pulled off and found a big parking lot at an unmanned storage facility. I tried to jack up the trailer on site and make the change myself, but the tire iron that came with the trailer was a joke which kept bending whenever I tried to loosen the lug nuts. Meanwhile, Meredith tried to get a tow truck to come to help us, but the only one we could reach wanted $1500 to come and change the tire to our spare. Saturday afternoon is apparently not a good time to call for a tow truck in Wausau. Meredith also called AAA, whose voice-automated answer told her someone would respond within 180 minutes. We decided to get a hotel room in Wausau and have Meredith stay there with the kids while I bought a better tire iron and returned to change to the spare. It was all a rush, and both jacking up the trailer and getting the tire off was quite the workout, but I managed to finish just before sunset and get the trailer back to town. On Sunday morning, I couldn’t find anyone who could change the tire but I did find four of the same tire on the rim at a Fleet Farm store, a sort of mega-Tractor Supply, and decided to change them all in the parking lot myself (and hopefully insure against another blow-out). Fleet Farm had an auto repair shop, but they had too much to do and couldn’t fit me in. However, at one point, I could not get my tire iron on to one of the lug nuts on the trailer tire. The nuts were covered with chrome, but debris had gotten between the chrome and the iron on all of them, and on this one, it had expanded so much that the tire iron would not fit over it. One of the mechanics gave me a nut that was just slightly larger and I was able to get it off as well. After a couple of hours of Sunday morning work in the parking lot of the Fleet Farm, the trailer was moving again.
We are always looking ahead for good places to stop on travel days, ones that are big enough to accommodate our rig and where the kids can stretch their legs. We had picked out a very elaborate playground in Wausau on the previous day, and so we made that up to the kids and went to the playground first yesterday before starting out drive to Minneapolis. It felt long, and I was exhausted, but we made it into Minneapolis to the Lebanon Hills campground run by Dakota County in the suburbs. It is simply a beautiful place where we feel lucky to be able to spend a few days. On the first night here, we rode our bikes around some of the park lakes. The trailer parking spaces have nice grassy picnic areas, and wildflowers grow in abundance along the edges of the park spaces and trails. We sent the kids to get ice cream treats at the camp office, and they came back with popsicles and Klondike bars that had cost them fifty cents apiece. The Minnesota Zoo is across the street, and we went this morning and practically had the place to ourselves—one of the benefits of visiting during the pandemic when school groups are probably not boarding buses for field trips.
Since the trip began, we have been wearing our masks and keeping our distance as our kids are not yet vaccinated and it seems like the right thing to do still. For most of the trip, we have been the unusual ones in this. While we have seen people wearing masks, it has been pretty rare. So it has been a relief in this campground to see more serious attention being taken to the virus. You are required to wear masks indoors here. At the zoo this morning, we saw the same signs and everyone was following the rules. Minneapolis has been the first urban/suburban area we have visited on the trip, and while we expect that this experience will not be common, we have found it more comfortable to be among others respecting virus protocols.
St. Ignace, Michigan, 9-15-21
After 10 days on the road, we are pretty well adjusted to our life on the road and in the camper. It took some time to get it right. We probably tried to go too far for the first few legs of our trip, but we wanted to get a bit away from home, and so we pushed our way from Virginia to Michigan relatively quickly. Since then, the driving times have been shorter and we’ve spent more time at each campsite. Moreover, we have gotten a little better every time we’ve broken down and set up our camp, and so that is all getting to be more efficient. We have had to work through a number of little struggles. Our kitchen sink was leaking early on and we had a bad trailer taillight wire, and I made 4 or 5 trips to hardware stores in various towns before I could fix them both. Our kids have been a little anxious, under stably so as we have taken them away from the conveniences and stability of their home and schools. They too are adjusting to this new routine and schedule, but it’s nothing we haven’t been able to work through. We have 3 good bike riders among our four, but our youngest, Louise, can’t yet ride. She is, however, adept (if slow) on a scooter, and has been doing her best to keep up. We have also been mindful of Covid-19 on our travels, wearing masks whenever we are inside or in crowds, but generally trying not to be in compromised situations. When a ferry ride to Mackinaw looked tight with many unmasked riders, we stood at the rear of the boat. The number of cases in Michigan is relatively low, so the risk has been low so far, but the pandemic hasn’t much affected us yet.
We are regularly staying at campgrounds where we are surrounded by other RV travelers. Among all the people we have seen, there have been only a handful who are younger than us and who have young kids. There is an array of RV sizes and styles, with some larger and some smaller. I’d have thought we would have been on the bigger side, but I’d guess we’re right in the middle. I would like to have a smaller rig, which would feel like less of a burden, would be less costly to operate, and would allow us to be more nimble in choosing what paths to take and where we might go. But seeing often older couples with much bigger rigs roll into campgrounds regularly, negotiate tight turns, and do all the setup and breakdown jobs has been reassuring. We had been thinking that tomorrow night would be a boondocking night (not in a campground but in a parking lot somewhere), but we ended up getting a last-minute Saturday night campsite in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. We will do some boondocking probably before this is over, but we felt like we would be better off in an established place tomorrow night. We will leave the remote camping till later, when we at least know where we’re going to be doing so.
Today, we took a couple of short hikes in the Painted Rocks National Lakeshore area along Lake Superior. This lake is easily the largest of the Great Lakes and holds a tenth of the world’s fresh water. Only Lake Baikal in Russia is bigger (it is immense, with half the world’s fresh water). Looking at the lake, one senses its immensity, and I wondered if early explorers thought it was another ocean, the fabled Northwest Passage. They must have even if they were disabused of the idea soon enough.
Leelanau County, Michigan, 9-12-21
Just after the the shutdown phase of the pandemic began in March 2020, my family started watching earthcamtv.com regularly. It’s a series of webcams around the world that show landscapes and street scenes, and it maybe helped to keep us connected to seeing people and sort of thinking we were going somewhere. After a while of watching regularly, we got used to seeing the same scenes over and over, and when we counted one day how many we knew, there were probably 100 scenes that we had seen enough to know them over the course of a year. One of these that always intrigued us was Grand Haven, Michigan. At some point, we started looking them all up, and found that Grand Haven was on Lake Michigan, not too far from Chicago, but not further up the lake where so many people we know go to vacation in the summer. The cam showed a bit of the beach, with surprisingly big waves for a lake, and a pier out to a lighthouse. Looking closely, there always seemed to be a bunch of people making the walk to the end of the pier and back.
When we were planning the stops on the trip, we decided to make a two-night stay in Grand Haven, and much to our surprise, realized that there is a state park campground right there by the pier. If the cam moved just a bit to the right, it would show a parking lot full of RVs. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it focuses out on the water, because who wants to look at a parking lot full of RVs? But for our purposes, it was just the best to learn this because we got to camp within view of this cam site, and maybe we could figure out why all the people were walking out the pier. It turns out that it’s a beautiful little town, like so many others on the coast of Lake Michigan, and it has a long and storied history with the Coast Guard. A station sits there along the river, and the pier we see is actually one edge of the Grand River embankment stretching out into the lake. We watched the boats making their way up and down the very, very wavy river as we walked along the riverside, with everyone else. The Coast Guard stays busy patrolling the lake, and as it’s a rougher ride than I’d have expected, shipwrecks and lifesaving duties have been a regular feature of the Lake’s hundreds of years of maritime history. On the town end of the walk are shops and restaurants, and on the other end is the pier, the beach, and the state park where we happily stayed for two nights. I doubt we will come across many better campsites on this trip.
So far, much of our time has been absorbed with continuing to figure out what we’re doing. We’re doing our best to continue to educate the kids, some of it from the reading and math mostly from workbooks provided by their teachers before we left. We are also listening to Harry Potter on the truck rides and reading to them in the evening. We are trying to do all we can to involve them in the evolving plan of the trip and learning all we can along the way. We think it is all probably making an impression in a variety of ways, and is tremendously worthwhile educationally. I have certainly enjoyed having all this time to teach and spend time with my own kids after 30+ years of teaching others’ children.
We have also had a fair amount of learning just how to operate the RV, how to best get from place to place, and how to schedule our days. I plan to write further about each of these for my own sake and for anyone who might be interested. On to St. Ignace and the Upper Peninsula!
Road Trip Journal Grand Haven, Michigan, 9-8-21
About a year ago, Meredith and I took the kids to visit an RV lot in Staunton. Meredith has long talked about taking the kids on a cross-country RV trip, and with a lot of free time suddenly on our hands during the pandemic, we decided to find an older RV or school bus to refurbish in the back of our house. After looking and studying for several months, we found about what we were looking for, something older but in generally good mechanical shape. We wanted a used RV because we intended to gut it and redo the whole thing, because it made no sense to destroy a newer camper. So we plodded away at the project through the winter and slowly put it all back together. In the spring, we bought a 6-seat truck to pull it, and talked about the project with the kids, outlining a general plan. Then, as the camp season loomed with the added challenge of dealing with Covid, the project went onto the back burner until August. When I finally stepped foot back in it at summer’s end, I thought, “hey, this is pretty nice!”
In the two weeks after Field Camp concluded this year, we spent some time finishing things up at camp and getting ready for the trip in earnest. With the kids starting school and getting in 8 days before our planned departure on Labor Day, we were able to get the RV and truck ready. There was so much to do. Though we’ve done a fair amount of camping and engineering adventures over the years, neither Meredith nor I had any RV experience, so there was also a lot to learn.
Since we were planning to leave after Labor Day, we thought we’d be able to have our choice of campsites, but in talking with friends Lee and Suzette Weaver, we decided to go ahead and pre-plan the trip. They are currently in their third year of full-time RV living, and when they told us they were always planned six months ahead, we worried we would struggle to find spots. So we hastily made a plan based on their advice. Suzette said there was a rule of “2-3-4”: two hundred miles driving, 3 nights in a spot, and…, well, she forgot the 4 part but promised to get back to me on it. They try to leave at a campsite and drive for a couple of hours, have lunch, then do two more hours in the afternoon, and never get in after dark. So we charted out the legs of the drive, and decided to do, more or less, 29 spots over the course of 63 days. We are staying from one day to four in various places, with mostly 2-night stays. Three nights would have been better, but we wouldn’t have gotten very far that way. Our kids have been great about the driving so far, but we didn’t want to push it and make it a miserable slog for them. We would head out from Charlottesville towards the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then drive across the Upper Midwest all the way to South Dakota, then south through Denver and to New Mexico, before heading back east through Texas and to Florida, and then back home with a final few days in Savannah.
We are now on our fourth day of the trip, and so far, it has been mostly driving. We stayed for one night in place the first two nights as we wanted to get a ways down the road right off. We also underestimated the places we would visit. Our first stop was in Ohiopyle State Park along the Youghigheny River in western Pennsylvania. It’s a beautiful canyonesque river valley well known for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwaters home nearby. We stopped in the tiny tourist town of Ohiopyle to see the gorgeous roaring falls of the river, and made it a point to come back some long weekend to see more. We spent the second night along Lake Erie in western Ohio in a wonderful campground with ideal biking paths and big green spaces along the lake and its inlets. We can see why state parks are such an ideal destination for RV trips, and as we are staying mostly in state parks throughout our trip, this bodes well for the rest of the journey.
I have driven as many miles in a school bus over the last twenty years as in a car, and so I was not too worried about pulling our 31-foot RV, but I still can’t quite get over how much of a little house I have behind us. We made the mistake of following GPS directions on the first day, and got off the highway too much through Maryland and West Virginia. You don’t want any surprises when you’re pulling a little house, so you learn the value of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, with its long stretches of straight roads and the ample space at its rest stops and regularly spaced gas stations. Thank you, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and all the rest of the road imaginers and builders who paved the way for us. We are in your debt!
This morning is our first somewhat relaxed one, but after breakfast and cleanup, we will have our first day of school, and then I have to fix a few things—left trailer taillight, two blinds, and the kitchen sink drain. Stay tuned to more adventures along the coast of Lake Michigan.
How Cold is Too Cold?, 1-30-21
We had some cold days this past week. If the past is any guide, we may have endured the lowest temperatures of the year already. We had a night in the teens this past week, and we were in class in the 20’s for the first time. We have predetermined that we will not go inside unless it’s under 25 degrees, so we haven’t had to go in yet.
Our school has been emphasizing eating outside lately. Of those cases of Covid transmission that have happened at schools, many are associated with indoor dining halls, and that lesson has made an impression here. We had had a rule that we would not go outside to eat when the temps were below 40 degrees, but it seems like we will now go outside to eat as long as the weather is not genuinely threatening.
The positive part of this is that so many are learning that you can eat and learn outside, no matter the temperature. I bet you’ve heard the phrase a thousand times during the pandemic winter—“there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
Over the past month and a half, my school has held in-person classes for only five days. Our break started just before the winter holidays, and then we planned to have one week off for professional development in early January before returning to school. During that week, I taught an online course to about half our school o vaccinations (history, science, mRNA versions, and ethics) as we gave our community another week of a quarantining sort of break after the holidays. Then we returned, but we didn’t even have a full week of school before we learned that a faculty member had gotten sick. So we went to online schooling, and when it turned out that the teacher indeed had Covid-19, we turned the online break into a two-week stint. Now, we’re finally back.
Teaching online for middle school boys is mostly not a healthy substitute, neither academically nor in many other ways. Having gone online with our whole school for two months last year with students I knew well, I understand its strengths and weaknesses. For our purposes, its strengths were twofold: it eliminates the risk of infectious disease in a class setting, and it works just as well as school for very motivated students. However, most middle school boys are not well motivated. Plus, they are easily distracted, and when they have a computer screen in front of them, most of them cannot avoid the distractions. I think it’s probably about 75% effective academically. In other respects, of course, it is sorely lacking. It provides little opportunity for natural childhood social interactions. It gives teachers little opportunity to understand student’s emotional well-being. At our school, we get regular exercise in the afternoons, and that has surely declined in our community. We tolerated being online under the circumstances, but it is a weak substitute for an in-person education at our grade levels.
So now we’re back to school in late January. Thus far this year, the temperatures have not dropped so low that we have been forced inside the building, and as the coldest days of the year, on average, are behind us, I am optimistic that I will be able to hold class exclusively outside. In my 6 weeks at home in a cozy office with big windows looking out on my neighborhood, I was personally very happy. But I know it was taking its toll on me. I get more exercise when I am at work, and less at home where I also tend to eat more. I get more sunshine here as well. Also, my house is drier than the outdoors even with humidifiers running around the clock, and I have noticed my skin drying out especially in the past few weeks. As I have a big family, I have not been starved for face-to-face interactions, but I would be struggling with the distance from other people if I were single and living alone. So despite the cold, I am glad to be back to school and outside, and I am happy knowing that I am doing my best work as a teacher.
It’s not quite winter yet, but it’s starting to feel like it in mid-December. It has been relatively mild so far here in central Virginia, with a only handful of nights below freezing so far. I haven’t spent enough time outside in the winter to know just what it would feel like at particular temperatures. I do know summer temps, and though the heat can be stifling here, it doesn’t much change my routine much at all. I have been telling myself that I would adjust to the cold temperatures too, and I continue to be confident in this.
I recently decided that I will take my classes would go inside whenever the temperatures were freezing, and that I wouldn’t hold back-to-back classes outside for students under such conditions. We have not had such a class yet, and the forecast over the next few weeks suggests that we won’t have to retreat indoors until at least after the holidays. It is indeed getting cold, but I have been keeping myself warm with appropriate clothing. The boys have been increasingly prepared for the weather. Many middle school boys are loath to dress warmly in the winter, preferring to tough it out rather than lug around added layers. But they seemed to have learned some lessons about being cold on earlier, moderately cool days. Now, they have the layers.
The worst part of it is the wind. Our school is near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the winds here can be brutal. When everything is blowing around–papers, book pages, leaves, my unsturdy whiteboard contraption–it is both a distraction to class and just plain shivering. Sometimes we can hear the wind coming, and we all brace ourselves. Middle school boys erupt easily enough, and the wind seems to bring the biggest challenges to remaining a stable learning environment.
It could be that we could make the tents better learning spaces. For example, we tried to put canvas tarps on two sides of the tent to create a windscreen, but we had no way of securing them at the bottom on the blacktop, and they only flapped in the wind. The best placement for the tent might well be in a sunny spot near a windbreak set of trees or tall wall. A tent with translucent “sunlights” would also help to keep its interior warmer in the winter.
If we thought we would need to be outdoors for more than just the next few months at school, we might well put more effort into building permanent outdoor learning spaces. In general, I have thoroughly enjoyed the outside part of school this year, and I think that it’s been healthy for the mental well being of our students. So maybe all that I am learning could be part of a long-run outdoor learning space that makes for a better school experience, especially for middle school boys.
Power Tools, 11-15-20
The most challenging element of teaching outside, particularly in the fall, might well be neighbors’ power tools–mowers, chainsaws, and leaf blowers. Our school is in a suburban area and has many neighbors, and I have to contend with these sounds most days. I have a microphone with which I speak, and so I can raise my volume without straining, and that works okay. But it sure is so much nicer when it is quiet outside, and the only sounds I have to contend with are the natural ones.
The natural sounds are so pleasant, on the other hand, and they probably have a soothing and settling effect on my classes. At the moment, I can hear crickets, and tree frogs, as well as the caws of the crows. “Caw, caw, caw!” I continue to hear the songs of passing cars, but that is modest, and we mostly hear only the sound of the tires on the road–it’s not bad.
The Challenges, 11-1-20
Teaching outside has had its challenges, though on balance, I am enjoying the experience and I am becoming enamored with it (of course, it’s 64 degrees out right now and we’ll see if my attitude changes through the winter). But the Covid challenges this year are demanding and are making the job much more of a slog than has always been the case. I have given up administrative duties at my school that used to be a drag on the quality of my work life, but the Covid rules have been similarly burdensome.
Part of the challenge has been the increased expectations around enforcing the new rules. Our school is doing screening, cohorts, masking, distancing, and hygiene, and the last three are primarily the responsibilities of the teachers. It is relatively easy to make up the rules, but the institution’s success will depend on their consistent enforcement. So teachers are expected to monitor mask wearing, distancing, and hygiene.
Of the three, the part that is most important to moderating the spread of infection is masking. Fortunately, my students have done well with that part. They are given the opportunity to remove their masks when they are drinking or eating, and that rule creates a gray area for them that some are exploiting. Some are taking hundreds of sips from their water bottles per day just so that they can remove their mask for a few seconds. But they got used to this whole regimen pretty quickly and I would guess that they have them on and in place 99% of the time. Of course, not a day passes that I don’t have to enforce the rule a dozen times, and I have to watch for it nearly all the time. That has been a drain, as it tends to crowd out so much of the rest of my teaching effort.
The harder task is to keep them apart. I am outside all the time, so this rule is not as important as it would be if we were in a confined space with less air movement, so we are not as concerned about it. Also, we are asking them to stay 6 feet apart, and though the average distance is probably more like 4 feet most of the time, even that distance is effective in moderating spread potential.
The last rule around hygiene is probably the least important of our control methods. There is scant evidence that the spread of the virus is occurring through surfaces, although public health officials still want to take the opportunity to enforce this practice. Our students are washing their hands far more than in the past, and that will be a healthy long-run benefit of this ordeal. But it hasn’t been an area that we have been as consistent about. To do so would require far more time than it would be worth, and I sense that we have developed a collective attitude, especially outside, that this should only minimally detract from our efforts otherwise.
They all add up to a day that feels much more about managing the students than had ever before been the case in school. Fortunately, the students are at an age where the risk to them personally is not as high, so we are not so worried about their health in particular but about the adults around them. It is hard for them and they don’t have much personal incentive to try to do all this well. Of course, it’s also a challenge to make them care about things that do personally affect them like the quality of their schoolwork, so this is no surprise. Also, I know that many of them are not held to the same standards outside of our school, by their parents or their coaches and others. As a result, it all makes for a management challenge that has never been the case in my teaching before.
It is also taking much of the fun of school away. Because we are trying to limit crowds here and the sort of complications that might come with being elsewhere, we have cut back on the engaging things like field trips, speakers, and team sports. Worst of all, it’s just harder for me to interact naturally every day with the students, my fellow teachers, or parents. Though I teach outside, the days seem more limited and restricted, and it just hasn’t been the fun place it has typically been in the past.
This Is No Fun (the Covid part, not the outside part), 9-15-20
We are now four weeks into class, and the outlines of the job are emerging fully. Many are curious about just what this is like, I know, because the public schools have not generally returned in our area, and it’s still unclear whether they are going to do so. The public school teachers worry about being exposed, and the worry is understandable. For younger teachers, the risk from the disease is more remote, but older teachers and those who either have a compromised health condition or who live with a vulnerable person have no choice but to be very cautious and wary about returning to the classroom.
I have been especially cautious in my life. I am determined not to be exposed to the virus in the next year due to a family member at increased risk, and it’s probably safe to say that I have been the most careful person on our faculty. And in my tent outside, I don’t feel much at risk. Of course, I don’t really know nor can I quantify the risk to which I am exposing myself, but it feels pretty low. I am masked except when eating or drinking, and I am at least ten feet from others when either they are or I am briefly unmasked. Otherwise, I am staying 6 feet away from others except for occasionally passing by someone, and I am outside most of the time. The only exceptions are occasional trips into the building to pick up printouts or during 45-minute faculty meetings that happen twice per week. During the meetings, I sit by an open window and at a distance of 6 feet from others. I feel like it is inevitable that someone in our community will become infected at some point, and my goal is to know that I have been careful and not unknowingly passed on an infection while limiting my risk when that time comes.
My school has made these accommodations possible, and I have appreciated the serious way in which the school has responded to this crisis. I work with middle school boys, and I can’t say the young clients have been accommodating, but they are working on it. The behaviors required of them (masking and distancing) are not natural, and in fact, they are at odds with normal and healthy adolescent behavior. As a result, I am spending much of my time during the school managing and moderating their behavior. That has been difficult. We are all doing our best to keep distance from one another, and modeling that behavior among the faculty. As a result, I am not much chatting with my colleagues, and that is making the job feel more isolated and less community oriented. It has been a drain on the soul of the school.
It feels like a much tougher job this year. It feels much more like a full day of managing the students.
What’s it like when it rains – September, 2020
The following was written during a rainstorm, and is thus in present tense. I guessed mid-storm that the rainfall total during the day was more than an inch, but it turned out to be about 3.7 inches during the daytime–an immense rain.
Morning – It’s our 2nd full day of classes, and I am teaching outside. I am in a 30’ x 30’ tent with classes of 12 students throughout the day. It’s an unusually heavy day of rain, probably an inch and maybe more. I pulled my car up close to my tent this morning, and brought in my backpack and a variety of school-supplied items that I store in my car including a bucket of hand wipes, and a pump hand sanitizer. I began by repositioning the chairs from Friday (I had gathered them together in the center of the tent in anticipation of rain). Then I had to dry off a few that had still gotten wet. I have to pull out an extension cord for class in order to have power, but I had to wait until morning dropoff had ended to do that because the cords runs across a parking lot and we are trying to minimize cars running over the cords. I thought this morning to wear a rain jacket, but I really wish I was wearing a sweatshirt too as it’s a little cold (probably high 60’s but wet). The rain on the tent is loud, so I put on my portable headset (Zoweetek) and microphone that clips to my belt, and that worked well today. The kids were hard to hear, talking through masks. The road noise is a little worse today because of the rain (my tent is about 25 yards from a moderately travelled suburban road with 2-3 cars and trucks per minute averaging about 40 mph). Another problem is that the ground is all wet. It’s not terrible, but there’s not a dry spot in the entire tent and it puddles a bit here and there. What an adventure this will surely be!
Afternoon – Over the course of the day, the whole blacktop on which the tent rests has become saturated, and at some point of confusion when students were moving into the space, I dropped my textbook at my feet and it instantly became saturated too. I know there may well be worse days here with high winds or low temperatures, but I hope this is just about as bad as it gets. Despite the challenges, it was a productive day in class, and the boys didn’t much seem to care about the weather. I had to upbraid some near the end of the day because they just kept managing to “accidentally” get wet.
I would imagine this is the part of the teaching outside job that would be most intimidating. But I have a feeling that it will end up as a minor inconvenience. I spend the summers exclusively outdoors at a camp, and when parents come to pick up their kids at day’s end, they often marvel that I can be outside in the heat all the time. But it’s not really a strain. My body gets used to the weather and adapts appropriately. I imagine it will be the same in the winter.
Teaching Outside, August 2020
I have been teaching since 1987, and for the first time, I am teaching outside for this school year. Of course, this is a function of the Pandemic.
I first became aware of the potential for a pandemic that would affect the boys middle school I founded, Field School of Charlottesville, in 2011 with the H1N1 scare. Though it didn’t end up affecting our operation in any way that year, I do vividly recall a nurse friend who told me that we were due for “the big one.” I misunderstood and wildly underestimated the complexity of pandemics at that point, but still, I believed the part about being “due.” So when the news of an outbreak in China began to make its way into the pages of the Washington Post in late 2019, I began to sense that our school was in for a historic disruption. When it came in the form of a state order to close all schools on March 13th, 2020, I was already immersing myself in all I could read on the virus and how we could continue to work with young people over the course of the coming weeks. I was naive as we all were, of course, as the pandemic has now stretched into months and it may well be counted in years before it is over.
Our school went online for the last quarter of the year and we did the best we could under the straitened circumstances. But I was intent on running Blue Ridge Field Camp, my outdoors summer day camp, and I started the research in order to understand how we could continue to operate in the summer while minimizing the risk to anyone in our community. On June 5th, we had our first day of camp and were in session for 13 weeks in the summer.
How to do that? We moderated the risk in 5 ways: (1) Screening, (2) Masking, (3) Distancing, (4) Hygiene, and (5) Cohorts. We asked all our parents questions about potential Covid contacts and experiences at their kids’ drop-off in the morning and took the campers’ temperature. We required the kids to all wear masks throughout the day, except when they were eating, drinking, swimming, or when we were all seated in circles 10 feet apart. There were many who were skeptical that kids would or could wear masks throughout the day, but that wasn’t a problem. The younger kids in camp generally followed the rules and wore the masks, while some of the older kids in camp were defiant and neglectful about it until warned that they would be dismissed if they could not keep their masks on. Then they kept them on. They all kept them on even when it was above 95 degrees outside. We did our best to keep them distanced, and it helped to have a higher than usual ratio of counselors to campers to make sure they were indeed doing their best. We also did our best to get them to wash and sanitize their hands. Last, we kept the kids in groups of no more than 22 as we were following a health department rule that would simplify contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. We did not, however, have any known cases in camp all summer. Had we had a case come into camp, we would have been confident in telling the health department officials that we had effective measures in place and that they were genuinely being enforced.
Over the course of the pandemic, we have all moderated our behaviors. This may be due to fatigue in some cases, but it also reflects greater understanding of how the virus typically spreads. As time has passed and more studies have emerged, it has been increasingly clear that the chances of getting the virus from surfaces, for example, is minor while the chance of contracting it from sharing space with someone unmasked and indoors is considerably higher. We seem to be most likely to minimize the risk by simply staying outside.
So, I am teaching outside this year. And, I am looking forward to it.
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