Thursday, January 13, 2005

Best. Thanksgiving. Evah. (a *LONG* post)

Ok, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. I'm sure that various people throughout history have had better Thanksgivings than we did. However, this one was the most enjoyable of my independent, adult life. This is not meant to suggest that I haven't enjoyed Thanksgivings past with either side of the family. This was just a new and very enjoyable experience. It's one we plan to make a tradition...

Not even a nasty head cold could prevent me from enjoying our Thanksgiving. Not even a group deciding that family skit night was a good time for proselytizing dampened my mood. For those who don't know, we went on a YMCA family camp out for Thanksgiving. We stayed at Camp Marston in Julian, California. Arrival time was slated for between 5 and 7 pm on Wednesday. Activities ended at 11 am on Friday. After we cleared out of our cabin, we'd have the rest of the day in Julian to hang around.

We arrived at camp shortly after 7 with only minor difficulties. The road out was unfamiliar. It was very dark. As we were heading to the mountains, the road twisted and wound a lot. I just made it a point to take it slow so we would get there safely, if a bit late. This really didn't present any problems for us. We were fed and in good spirits. The long line of cars behind me may have felt differently. The truck immediately to my rear expressed his displeasure by tailgating and then flashing his high beams. A sign we passed explained the etiquette in this situation. "Slower cars use turnouts". That seemed fair and reasonable.Only one problem. I couldn't see the turnouts until I was right on top of them. So, I endured the frustrated mob and shed my unwilling convoy at my first opportunity. We made the rest of the drive in relative peace. We pulled in to camp and I went in to the office to check in. This was the other difficulty. It wasn't actually the office. It was the lodging of on of the camp staff. We apologized profusely and he insisted it happened a lot, so we needn't worry. He directed us to the actual office. It was a larger building with the word OFFICE on it in large letters.

We checked in and got our cabin assignment. We were in the section of camp called "Old South Village". The woman at the counter told us that it really wasn't as far as it looked. We drove down to the cabin to see where it was. Then we drove back up for the 7:30 sing-along in the lodge over the dining hall. We sang some fun songs that the kids are still singing. And I was the co-champion of Simon says. Both winners refused to stop playing until 'Simon' said "Simon says the game is over". We were stuck in the last command, "Simon says touch your toes", for about five minutes. Finally, the staff took pity on us. The sing-along wasn't too long because they also had a night hike around the lake planned.

The night hike was pretty fun, too. Within the first five minutes of the hike, Maya met another seven year old girl named Maya. Five minutes after that, they were holding hands. The goal of the hike was to demonstrate a few things about night vision. We had to guess the color of a marker they wrote on us with. Then we learned about why pirates REALLY wore eye patches. Turns out it was to heighten their night vision in their dominant eye. Try this at home. Go outside at night, preferably somewhere with minimal light pollution. Cover over one eye with a cupped hand for a minute. Stare into a lit candle with the uncovered eye for a few seconds until you are adjusted to the light. Then blow out the candle. Now close the open eye and uncover the other. Close that eye after a few seconds and open the other. You should have noticeably better vision with the covered eye. It didn't work as well for the kids because they couldn't grasp the concept of "leave your eye covered" and kept peeking out as though they expected to miss something. We wrapped up the first hike with the old wintergreen lifesavers trick. The counselors told the kids that they were moon rocks that had been soaked in mint mouthwash. Josh refused to eat the rocks. Maya told him that they weren't REALLY rocks. They were mints. He still was having none of it.

The hike continued for those who were interested. Maya and Maya were, and we were all having fun, so we pressed on. This part of the hike was less gimmicky and more nature oriented. We saw a lean-to that had been constructed by some previous campers. We learned a bit about pine bark beetles and how destructive they can be. We ended the hike with Old Dead Fred. Some of the kids were leery about this part of the hike. They were thinking we were going to encounter a dead body or something similar. They needn't have feared. Old Dead Fred is a tree. He died some time back but hadn't fallen. Then, last summer, they had wildfires in the same forest in which we were camping. Fred got scorched from trunk to top, but didn't fall over. He is now an incredibly tall charred hunk of wood.

From there we retired to our cabin for the night. Our cabin was definitely one of the older style in the camp. I'm told we were the last reservation. It was a one story A-frame with bunks at two levels on either side. The bunks had those thin, foam-filled, green, vinyl covered camp mattresses. There was a gas heater in the middle of the room and a single light bulb on the ceiling. The heater was flanked by two benches on one side and a table on the other. Our bathroom had plumbing, but we had to walk outside and down a hill to get there. So, we weren't completely roughing it, but we were a bit. Before we could settle in for the night, Josh insisted I check outside for "lion mountains". Seeing none, I let him know it was safe to sleep.

Breakfast was scheduled from 8 to 8:30 with the morning activities starting at 9:00, so we couldn't sleep in. Breakfast was buffet style, but was pretty good. There were several varieties of egg casserole, four types of coffee cake, fresh fruit, yogurt, and an assortment of cereals. Beverages included multiple juices, coffee, water, and warm chocolate. It might have been hot chocolate, but so many people wanted the hot water that it never really heated up all the way. At breakfast, we hooked up with other Maya and her friends, the triplets, Bryce, Tegan, and Skylar. After breakfast, we had an hour to kill before the organized activities started, so we went out to the soccer field and kicked the ball around. Three of the girls, Maya, Maya, and Tegan, decided they would all be goalie. In the same net. This made Joshua unhappy. He didn't want anyone to block his shot. So, whenever he dribbled in, everyone had to get out of the way. I also had a brief stint as goalie. This ended when I swung out my foot to block a shot and the ball ricocheted dead center into my Maya's face. Tears and apologies ensued. I promised not to be goalie again and, after a few minutes, she felt better.

Activity time finally arrived. We had quite an array to choose from and knew we couldn't get them all in. We started at the climbing wall as the kids were most interested in that. Our new friends conveniently headed that way, too. We all cheered each other on as the kids tackled the wall. Bryce climbed like a spider monkey. Skylar and Tegan made it to the top at a steadier pace. Both Mayas turned in good efforts, but decided that they didn't need to reach the top. Did I mention that the top was 45 feet up? Joshua never quite grasped the concept of using his feet and hands to climb the wall. He thought it was more like a ride. He went as far as I could push him while he was being hoisted. Then he decided it was time to come down. The line was so long tha. My wife and I decided we would climb later.

We were going to go to archery next, but Maya's friends wanted to go to the air rifle range. So, we went there instead. After an extensive safety lecture, we were allowed to hang targets and commence firing. Look! My 3 year old has a gun. See, I could be a red-stater. ;-) I helped Maya and my wife helped Josh. Maya's left-right sighting was pretty good, but her elevation needed some help. She hit a few cans and hit her target twice. She got an 8 and a 9! A bulls eye is worth 10. Josh managed to hit the target once. I got to fire solo in the next round. Everyone else headed off to archery. I hate to admit it, but I had a pretty good time firing the BB guns. I hit my target pretty well and managed to hit the farthest can every time I tried for it. Then I tried to get fancy. I shot at the clothespins holding the cans. Went 0-for-5.

My wife left Maya at the archery and took Josh back to the climbing wall. It was pretty clear that he wasn't going to be able to do archery, even with help. The two Mayas were assisted by their Dads and did pretty well. The bows and arrows were of pretty low quality. We had to exchange one of Maya's arrows because it only had two of the three fletching arrows on it. She hit the target once, on her last shot, but showed steady improvement throughout. Then the Dads were given a turn. My first shot was only about six feet OVER the target. I recalibrated and hit the target with increasing accuracy over the next five. There were 10 rings. I got a 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8. So, between my rifle skills and my archery, perhaps I could survive in the wild. While we did this, my wife made her attempt at the wall. She got part way up, but her back has been bothering her and she couldn't get all the way. Joshua had another hoisting and found that he kind of liked it.

After that, we hooked back up with our friends to wait for lunch. Lunch was in two shifts. One at noon and one at 1:30. So, we played on the ball fields for a bit and threw the football around some as well. My wife has been hiding her quarterbacking skills. She threw several perfect spirals with a slightly undersized ball. It was easier to grip than the full size. After that, we retired to the common room of the lodge Maya and the triplets were staying in so we could see how the other half lives. This was one of the newer lodges. It had a common room with couches, chairs, a ceiling fan, and a wood stove. Each family had their own bunk room. There was a men's bathroom and a women's bathroom off the hall. They even had HOT water. We decided we would like to reserve one of these for next year. The kids played Jenga, Spoons, and the Shrek version of Operation while the grownups talked a bit.

Lunch was wonderful. It was a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The mashed potatoes were fresh and homemade. The bird was plentiful and juicy. There was ham for those interested. And there was also the usual stuffing, salads, yams, breads, and cranberry sauces. For dessert, there was an assortment of homemade pies and handmade ice creams! I had a sliver of apple pie, a bite of my wife's cheesecake, and a scoop of homemade vanilla. Joshua opted for two scoops of vanilla, a scoop of chocolate, and my pie. Maya ate about a third of a cheesecake. And her friend Maya, after throwing up, declared that she was going to have a scoop of each of the eight flavors! In spite of the plentiful delicious food, this is the least stuffed I felt at a Thanksgiving in years. I did not gorge myself. I ate until sated and was content to go back out and play.

Afternoon activities were from 3:30 until 5. We panned for 'gold' and then went canoeing. They would only allow a maximum of two kids and one adult per canoe. So, I took Maya and Skylar and my wife took Josh. The rest of the friends split up with various grownups and we took to the high seas. Ok, it was really a little lake that was pretty much deep enough and wide enough for canoeing, but little else. Maya, Skylar, and I chose to have a pirate boat. We searched the lake for treasure and fired broadsides at passersby. Eventually we got tired of this and decided to make one more stab at the climbing wall before dinner. Maya climbed a bit higher and Josh was hoisted as high as my wife would allow. He wanted to go higher, but no dice. My wife didn't want to go again, so I got one of the last turns before dark. It was tough, but I made it up all 45 feet! Roar!

We went on a little hike before dinner and then reported to the dining hall for leftovers. Josh fell asleep on top of my head just before we finished hiking. I wasn't all that hungry, so I sat and watched the sleeping Josh while my wife and Maya joined the chow line. At dinner we made some new and interesting friends including a guy with a very cool name, Wolfgang Sebastian Wagner. The only way it could have been any cooler was if he was a musician. He's not. He's a noncom in the Navy. He and his wife have an 8 year old named Justice. Our kids clicked and so did we. We decided to hang together through dinner and then go to skit night. During dinner, the staff told people to they could sign up for skit night if it so moved them. My wife talked me into telling a story, even though I hadn't practiced any in a while. Maya wanted to be in skit night as well, but she couldn't think of anything to do. So, the staff said she could be in one of their skits! The talent level was pretty good all around. The skits and songs the staff put up were excellent. Maya got to be in one about a patient in a waiting room who took on the illness of each other patient to pass through. She played "sneezing girl". Other highlights included a guy playing a Cuban percussion instrument that looked like a box but produced all manner of percussion sounds. There was also a cute little girl doing a song about a variety of sea creatures. At the end of each verse, the creature she sang about got eaten by a larger creature. Then she sang about that one. No punch line. She just said "Mommy, I'm all done." at one point. I told a story called Tortoise's Dream, complete with animal miming. It was very well received and I got compliments from the staff and several parents. An evangelical group did a skit about peer pressure in which the way to stop people from offering you drugs was to whip out your bible and quote the bit about Jesus dying for your sins. All the druggies then got down on their knees and prayed. Then they danced to some Christian rap music.

After the show, we went back to the nice lodge and played some cribbage with Laura and Wolf while the kids played with Justice and her Incredibles toys. I should note that Maya and Josh have not yet seen the movie. They are going to, but so far, they have only seen the previews. In spite of that, they were very keen on the toys. My wife learned cribbage, and a good time was had by all. Whoever got to breakfast first the next morning was going to save seats for the others.

Friday morning dawned similar to Thursday, except that we overslept a bit and had to rush around to get to breakfast while there still was some. Laura and Wolf had a table already and hot tea waiting for Maya. We let the kids sit off by themselves and had grown-up conversation over breakfast. We decided that since activities ended at 11, we'd all go into Julian together.

For the morning activities, we had time for the climbing wall yet again and some more canoeing. My wife and Maya went on the inspirational hike, first. An inspirational hike is apparently the nature oriented, non-denominational version of church. They hiked and someone told inspiring stories. I missed it, but it sounded good. I took the opportunity to see how high up the climbing wall we could hoist Josh. He was pretty keen on the idea. He stopped about half way up and I though he must be done. He was stopped, holding on loosely, and looking down. "What is it Josh?" I asked. "Daddy! Take my picture." Ok. Maybe he wasn't scared. He made it to about two-thirds when a voice rang out from outside the enclosure. "What are you doing?!? Get him down at once!!!" Uh-oh. My wife was back from the hike. "Ignore her," I said, "I don't even know her." Josh was helpful. "Mommy! I'm up high." The staff convinced her it was safe and he went to the top.

Canoeing was pretty fun the second time around as well, although I would have preferred the rifle range. Josh wanted the boats and we thought it best to pick something they would both like. Justice and Skylar came along for the ride. With four kids, Mommy had to row again. This time, I got Josh and Justice. We went with a pirate boat again. Maya and Skylar went with Mommy and they opted to be Native Americans from the 1600s. They spent their time practicing their rowing in unison. We searched for buried treasure and fired cannons at people. I should have realized what they were up to when they challenged us to a race. We lost. Badly. By half the length of the lake. We retailiated by blowing up their boat with our cannons. And honestly, which battle would you rather win?

After we got our cabin cleaned and packed, we met the Wagners in Julian where we put our name in at the restaraunt for a nice two hour wait! Apparently, the day after Thanksgiving is big in the small town of Julian. It was impossible to find parking, and the line of cars extended for a mile outside the town center. We visited a craft show and looked around a bit, but still had time to kill. We decided to let the kids play in the park while we played some cribbage to kill the time.

Lunch at the Rong Branch was great, but we were too stuffed for dessert. Julian is famous for it's Apple and Apple variant pies. They have an Apple-Peach that is heavenly! We decided to wander some more until we were hungry enough for dessert. Then we'd snack and call it a day. There wasn't much else to do, so we went back to the park where the kids played games and we played more cribbage. Eventually, Josh had to be redirected as he was playing a liitle rough with the girls. So, I let him take the digital camera. We now have some great pictures of the camera strap, my hand, his shoe, and a really nice grouping of rocks. The Julian Pie Company was, sadly, closed. So, we went back to Rong Branch for dessert. The wait was only 10 minutes this time and it turned out they had Julian Pie Company pies. Score! They even heat the pie for you and serve it a la mode. Even though it was only three o'clock, we called that dinner. We also called it a day. We exchanged numbers and made tentative plans with the Wagner Three before hitting the road. We managed to keep everyone awake for the drive home and got unpacked. Teh we all collapsed, exhausted but very happy.