Our camping trip to Acadia in 2016 was so successful and so much fun that the kids begged to go back again this year. We’ve fallen into a pattern of alternating between a house on a lake in Acton, Maine, and camping in Acadia National Park, although I don’t know if it we’ll keep doing that, just to try something new next year.
We headed out Monday morning, but not too early. I wanted to keep a somewhat relaxed pace so as not to be too stressed, yet get there in plenty of time to set up the camp site while it was still light. So starting at 9am gave us plenty of time for a couple of stops, including a lunch picnic at the Newcastle rest area between Wiscasset and Damariscotta, Maine. It was a beautiful place overlooking a saltwater estuary that also had a bunch of milkweed and thus Monarch butterflies and caterpillars.
Along the way, we listened to the audiobook of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, a children’s book set in 1930s England about two brothers and two sisters who spend a summer vacation, camping on an island in a lake with their sailboat, the Swallow. My kids have been raving about it and were so excited to share it with me. I have to admit I very much enjoyed it and it made the trip really fly by.
We got to the site at Smuggler’s Den Campground in Southwest Harbor in plenty of time and started setting but ran into some snags. First, my new camping cot would not fit in the tent, not if I wanted anyone else to fit in the tent with me.1 Then the air mattress that Melanie and I usually sleep on deflated with some kind of pinprick hole. So I set up my cot again outside the tent and I was going to sleep there for the night. Meanwhile, everything was blanketed in fog and mist and it dripped on me all night from the trees. Read More and Comment
Camping has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From before I can remember, my parents took us RV camping: in a VW microbus and then later in a borrowed Winnebago. Eventually we got a trailer camper. As I got older, I became a Boy Scout and camped with them and into my adulthood, camped with friends and family and now have introduced camping to my own family.
So, when I heard the interview with Terence Young, author of “Heading Out: A History of American Camping,” on the Art of Manliness podcast, I was intrigued to find out more about this activity that seems such a part of my life and of the American landscape. Young begins by noting that recreational camping, as such, is a somewhat uniquely American activity that has it origins in the post-Civil War 19th century due to several streams that coincided then.
First, there was the Romantic movement that in America idealized nature and natural landscapes, creating a spiritual connection to the land that was unlike what existed before. Thoreau and Emerson are prime examples of this in writing, along with Thomas Cole and the Hudson River school in painting. You also had the rapid urbanization of America, as what had once been a predominantly rural and agricultural society began streaming into the mechanized and industrialized cities where there was more wealth and opportunity, but also less privacy, beauty, and nature. There was the closing of the American frontier along with the Centennial of American Independence that recalled the once rugged character of the pioneers and frontiersmen that many people thought was being lost in modern urban hustle and bustle. Finally, there was a critical mass of Civil War veterans who all experience with roughing it in the outdoors who could act as guides and who enjoyed the outdoors themselves.
There was also a religious element to the rise of camping as well. For centuries, Catholics in Europe had headed out in spiritual pilgrimages, especially the Camino Santiago de Compestela, in which they walked hundreds of miles in a journey to bring them closer to God. Protestants, meanwhile, did not engage in such a Catholic activity, laced as it was with popish “saint-worship”. But there was still a felt need to make a spiritual connection by getting away from every day life. This coincided with Romanticism to create a new kind of spiritual pilgrimage, a communing with God with took place in nature, away from cities.
Into this mix walked a Boston Protestant minister by the name of William Henry Harrison Murray, who published a book in 1869, Adventures in the Wilderness, that described camping in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state in such colorful and accessible terms that it was a huge hit. If it were today, it would by a NY Times bestseller and an Oprah book pick. And because it also described the hows and whys—where to go, what to bring, who to hire as a guide—it ignited a massive rush of people into the woods that continued for years.
As National Parks were set aside those also became destinations, as people traveled West by train from the Atlantic states to spend weeks in Yosemite and other places they read about in magazines and newspapers and books.
That was followed some decades later by the next big leap in camping provided by the automobile. Once the car could transport people to all manner of destinations, auto camping became a big push. You could load a full set of gear onto the car or even attach a trailer and set off in relative comfort. No riding a train and then a horse-drawn wagon provided by a guide. Instead, you traveled on your own, by your own itinerary. By the late 1930s, camping had become a huge national pastime, all impelled by the desire to get out of the urban rat race and into the tranquility and authenticity of nature for a spiritual reconnection with the true American spirit, at least that which people thought was true. Read More and Comment
This is a bit of media criticism and a bit of political criticism. First the politics. The Boston City Council and the mayor have decreed that the default speed limit in the city will decrease from 30mph to 25 mph starting January 9. Their stated purpose is to reach their goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2030.
Whatever the practicality of that goal (I think it’s a bit naïve to think you can eliminate traffic fatalities in a city this size), the fact that they believe lowering the speed limit will accomplish their goal is astounding. No obeys the speed limit now, so why do they think lowering it 5 miles per hour will make anyone obey it more than they do today?
Then there’s the reality that traffic in Boston rarely moves at the speed limit anyway because it’s always so congested.1 Even the photo the Globe uses to illustrate its story (click the link), shows standstill traffic on a 30mph road. Yet, this is the basis of their claim.
At least 17 people have died in car accidents this year on Boston’s streets — 12 of whom were pedestrians. In a statement, Walsh’s office expressed hope that the stricter rules would lead to fewer deaths, because crashes become more deadly at higher speeds.
However, as I think of all the auto vs. pedestrian fatalities I recall from reporting, most have been due not to speeding vehicles, but from large vehicles trying to maneuver through congested intersections, like the truck that took out a bicyclist in Allston or the Duck Boat that took down the scooter on Beacon Hill.
In fact, it would be helpful to know just how many traffic fatalities in Boston were due to speed as opposed to other causes. It might even be something an enterprising reporter could find out. Unfortunately, and this is my second complaint, the reporter didn’t bother. All too often, journalists fail to ask the basic questions of fact that help us understand a story and put it into context. We’re often left with more questions than we began with. So the journalists fail their basic task.
Eliminating traffic fatalities is a laudable goal, but Pollyanna-ish, ineffectual gestures are’t going to get us there. Would that journalists would help hold politicians accountable for making them.
Roads where traffic travels faster at times aren’t city roads, but state or federal highways, like Storrow Drive or the Central Artery. ↩
This summer for our vacation we decided to try camping again. The last time was three years ago, when Lucia was still a relatively newborn baby. That time we went with my mom and while we slept in a tent, we had her camper to move us about and act as a backup in case of inclement weather. We also stayed in Camden, Maine for a couple of nights.
This time we have our new van and we went further north to Acadia National Park. I’ve been to Acadia several times, but not in the last 15 years or so. Melanie had never been, although she and I stayed in Bar Harbor for one night on our honeymoon before catching the ferry to Nova Scotia.
Still Acadia has always stood out for me as the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited and I wanted to share that with Melanie and the kids.
Travel for pleasure and discovery can be meaningful and fulfilling if done in the right mindset. But if one travels to change oneself, to find oneself, thinking that visiting exotic locales will bring about fundamental realignment, he will find none of that.
But travel is the zeitgeist of our time, say Brett and Kate McKay of The Art of Manliness, and people delay marriage and children in order to go on grand adventures, put off college and jobs for it. And they make “The Hobbit” into one of the sacred texts of Travel. But the McKays point out that Tolkien himself didn’t make an idol of travel and in fact rarely traveled himself. That’s because the journey he advocated was an interior one:
In other words, books like The Hobbit are not necessarily supposed to inspire trips to far-flung lands, but rather to restore the freshness of familiar surroundings right in front of our faces. Once you discover this doorway to realms beyond, you’re able to see the world through a mythological lens, and find that there are hidden dimensions even within the walls of one’s hobbit hole. Once you’ve been there and back again, your perspective is forever changed; you begin to see things as they really are. Everything from the view outside your apartment to your commute to work can become more meaningful, even magical.
I enjoy seeing new places, but as I get older and have traveled more places I realize that it’s hard for any place to live up to the hype, the carefully composed Instagram photos and the breathless travel articles. This is why pilgrimage isn’t merely travel or vacation. It has a purpose and a meaning rooted in the relationship between me and God. The travel to other places is about helping me grow in ways unrelated to the physical location. I go on pilgrimage not to find myself, but to encounter God in a new way that is only possible if I enter the journey cognizant of this necessity.
There is a uniquely American virtue of travel. Our mythical heroes were inveterate wanderers: Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, Johnny Appleseed. Even today, if you go to a social event, people will often discuss their latest travel adventure and the subtext is that those who don’t travel are boring and conventional.
But travel for its own sake is ultimately empty unless it is tied to a deeper purpose, a pursuit of enduring virtues, a desire to love others and to love God above all.
“The departure came a little more than a month after federal officials seized the ferry and ordered it to pay back about $800,000 in unpaid bills.”
First, the way this was written annoys me. A ferry doesn’t pay bills; a ferry operator does. Likewise, a ferry cannot be arrested; it can be seized. It is property, not a person. Sometimes you can take cutesy too far.
Second, why is it so hard to establish a regular ferry route between New England and Nova Scotia? Melanie and I took a high-speed catamaran ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine to Yarmouthport, NS on our honeymoon and it was great. Instead of a whole day of driving, we were there in 45 minutes. It’s a little longer out of Portland, but it’s still better than driving. Maybe people just perceive it as too expensive.
In any case, this was the third attempt to run a regular ferry route from Mane to Nova Scotia in the past ten years. I hope somebody figures it out because I hope to go back to the Maritimes on vacation again and would much prefer time on a ferry, even overnight, to driving the whole way.
“Renowned for his precise composition, attention to detail, and painterly use of light and color, Gervais-Courtellemont became a photographer for National Geographic. He continued to travel and give lectures on photography.
In January 1923, he photographed landmarks and scenes throughout Paris, a city experiencing a period of economic growth and optimism following the end of World War I.”
These are some beautiful photos of an era we usually only see in black and white. It’s easy to forget that our grandparents lived in beautiful color too.
One of the benefits of homeschooling is the ability to be flexible, not just in how you spend your time at home, but in being able to go beyond the classroom to experience what you’re learning about up close, especially when you live in a cultural, historical, and scientific mecca like Boston.
While schools acknowledge this reality with the rare end-of-year field trips in which too few chaperones take too many hyper children to a museum or aquarium or zoo where they spend more time running ragged and crazy than looking at exhibits or animals, they just don’t measure up when your family can make the outings a regular part of their lives.
Of course much of this isn’t free. In fact, we’ve found that, like all other things for families of more than two kids, too much of what’s available is geared toward upper middle class families with two kids. Yes, we’ve often been told about these magical, mythical “library passes” available at your local public library, but what we’ve found too often is that these passes are usually only good for a couple of people and take just a couple of dollars off the admission price.
So what Melanie and I have found to be most effective is that if we just pony up a few extra dollars upfront and buy a family membership at a couple of attractions per year, we can actually save money. Not only that, but removing the barrier of coming up with ticket money at each visit makes us more likely to take advantage and go to whatever the attraction is even at the last minute. We can even just go for a morning or a couple of hours without feeling like we’ve wasted the ticket prices. We’ve decided that we can afford two memberships per year, one to a museum and one to a zoo or the aquarium. Last year, it was the Museum of Science and the Franklin Park Zoo. This year, it is the Museum of Fine Arts and the New England Aquarium.
What we’ve found in a couple of years of doing this is that some places are much more suitable for larger families than others and that as our children grow older the calculus of what is affordable will shift dramatically too. This isn’t a small point, by the way. You can see our society’s subtle shifts in attitude about what constitutes appropriate family size in what accommodations are made for families. Clearly the expectation in Boston is that a family is parents and two kids. Some places don’t penalize you for more, but others do, even on the so-called family memberships. Frankly I don’t understand why a family membership can’t be parents and all their kids. What do they have to lose?
Here’s a chart of some of the top attractions in the greater Boston area, either that we’ve had memberships with or that we’ve visited (usually before kids). It’s somewhat arbitrary, but I think it’s representative. For the purposes of calculating prices, our family as of the date of this post consisted of two adults, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 19-month-old. Please pay attention especially to the linked notes for valuable information.
Given all that data, how do we know if we’re better off buying tickets once or getting a membership. Here’s how the savings broke down for each institution given our current family situation and assuming that without a membership we visit once and with a membership we visit twice per year. (Usually, if we have a membership we make an effort to go at least three or four times to get our money’s worth.)
It becomes apparent right away that those with the most expensive ticket prices upfront offer the greatest savings. I was a little surprised at the Museum of Fine Arts, but again since kids go free (in general) anyway, the cost is low to begin with. On the other hand, that’s one of the places where we plan to go most often over the course of a year and so we’re really saving several times that amount.
A few notes on the individual attractions:
Harvard Museums of Science and Culture
We’ve gone to the Harvard Museum of Natural History only once so far and thus have not purchased a membership. It’s about what you’d expect with lots of stuffed animals and skeletons and rooms full of rocks and crystals, but it also has some unique exhibits like its collection of scientific glass specimens from a time when scientists made exact replicas of plants in glass to keep and study, long before less fragile methods of preservation were available. It’s located in Cambridge on the sprawling campus of Harvard, tucked away in a nondescript building. The membership might be worth it for just this one museum alone, but for all four it’s a good deal.
Museum of Science
One of the busiest of all the museums we’ve been to, the Museum of Science has a mix of brand-new, flashy and old and tired. Some of the exhibits looked old and tired when I was kid going to the museum. In addition to the IMAX theater, they’ve also got the Theater of Electricity in which a massive Van de Graff generator throws off brilliant and loud bolts of electricity. I don’t think the kids are ready for that. They also have a planetarium, which Isabella and Sophia might sit through, but not the younger kids. Last year, they had a very good exhibit on the Dead Sea scrolls and we recently went back as our yearlong membership is ending at the end of the summer. I think we made it at least three times, perhaps even four. And I think Melanie went with the kids without me at least once. We got our money’s worth.
Zoo New England
While the membership includes both Franklin Park Zoo in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, we never made it to the latter. It’s just a bit far when the Franklin Park Zoo is so close. In fact, it’s so close that it makes a fun half-day jaunt to have a picnic lunch and then play in the massive play structure playground there, which is what I did one day with the big kids. I was a little worried when we got the membership that since it’s mainly outdoors we wouldn’t get all the value out of it because of the winter, but we did manage at least one day at the zoo in winter by sticking primarily to the indoor Tropical Forest exhibits. This was another one well worth the annual membership.
Museum of Fine Arts
I would say that if I had to pick just one museum or zoo that we could get a membership at, it would be the MFA. For the price, it’s an unbeatable treasury of great art spanning all centuries and all cultures. From Egyptian to Greek to Roman to African to Islamic to Japanese and Chinese, it’s all there. Not to mention the amazing American and European galleries, both classic and contemporary. And then there are the specialty exhibits of jewelry and musical instruments and the top-notch special exhibitions, like the Samurai exhibit, the Audubon paintings, and yes, even the quilts that we spent two hours looking at. Of course, we did get to see the special Magna Carta exhibition that included original copies of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And I did get to once again marvel at one of my favorite areas: the scale-model sailing ships. I’m happy we have selected the MFA for this year’s membership.
New England Aquarium
The other membership for this year is for the New England Aquarium. I debated this one in my mind. We went here most recently a couple of years ago, before the big renovation of the central giant fish tank. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the aquarium, but it’s one of the most expensive on this list. But the kids love all the animals, all the fish and the sea lions and penguins and all the rest. They love racing up and down the ramp around the central tank. And the renovations are stunning. The views into the tank are better than ever and they now have new iPad-based kiosks everywhere for you to look up dynamic information on what you’re seeing. I miss the dolphin shows of my youth, but they do still have sea lion shows and a new touch tank for sharks and rays which is pretty cool too. One element that made a membership more palatable was the idea of taking the commuter ferry from Hingham instead of driving into the city or taking the MBTA and walking from South Station. We did the South Station walk before and while that was fine, it’s just even more tiring for the kids. Plus the ferry takes as long as the walk just from South Station so time saved there. Commuter boat roundtrip fare for the adults was $8.50 each, kids under 11 are free, and parking was $4 for the day.
Roger Williams Park Zoo
I might argue that Roger Williams is a better zoo than Franklin Park. Roger Williams has elephants, but not the lion that Franklin Park has. But Roger Williams recently added some very nice exhibits including one based on animals kids would find in their own backyard and another one, a wetlands trail. The day we went was boiling hot and Sophia nearly melted, but I think we’re better prepared for those sorts of outings these days. Comparing the zoos, I think RWP is better looking, but FPZ is just so close.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Just around the corner from the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner is quirky. Because the museum was Isabella’s mansion and all the art is placed where she placed it and her will mandates it all must stay where it is, sometimes the museum isn’t the most conducive to small kids and strollers. Certainly there were spots where a stroller was a tight squeeze and rooms where I spent more time keeping small hands off delicate treasures than I did admiring those treasures. But it is a beautiful museum with some unique pieces from some of the greatest masters. And, of course, it’s my Isabella’s namesake. This will remain an occasional treat, though, I think.
Located in Fall River, we haven’t yet been to Battleship Cove as a family. I was there about a decade ago as chaperone for my nephew Peter and his Cub Scout troop for an overnight on the WWII-era battleship USS Massachusetts. That was quite an experience. I enjoy it a lot, but it might be something for when the youngest is older than stroller age. For one thing, you can’t maneuver a stroller through a battleship really even if they have cut out all the knee-knockers on the tour. I don’t think we’d visit more than once per year, though, and so a membership wouldn’t make sense for us.
Boston Children’s Museum
Another one we haven’t been to as a family. I think I remember going here once as a kid. This is the tough one. You’d think that this would be natural for a family membership, but keep in mind that the whole thing is aimed at families and so they don’t gain by giving deals to us. Thus the Children’s Museum becomes among the most expensive of all the options, and like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, you don’t begin to benefit from a membership until the third visit. Given how crazy and chaotic children’s museums can be, I wonder if Melanie and I would be willing to make three trips per year to the BCM.
The Trustees of the Reservations
A unique organization whose mission is to preserve places throughout Massachusetts with historic, scenic, or ecological value, the Trustees of the Reservations encompass more than 100 places throughout the state, from wilderness areas to stately mansions to working farms. A couple of our favorite places in the network are Weir River Farm (see Melanie’s posts here and here) and World’s End, both in Hingham. World’s End is a couple of islands, connected to the mainland by small bits of land, that were once planned to be the sites of giant mansions in the baronial pre-income tax days and thus were laid out with grand avenues and massive trees. That fell through and in the intervening decades among the proposals for the site was a location for the United Nations (before New York was selected) and a nuclear power plant. Thank God neither happened because this pristine spot is beautiful, overlooking the seaside village of Hull, the Atlantic Ocean, Boston harbor, and Boston itself. A magnificent place for hiking and picniking.
It only costs $6 for adults to go to World’s End and a couple of dollars for Weir River so if we only ever go those two places, a membership doesn’t necessarily make economic sense. But it might make another kind of sense because as I mentioned earlier, when you have a membership the mental barriers to just getting up and going are much lower. You can go on a whim. And this is easily among the least expensive of the memberships with the most things you could possibly see.
Finally, the USS Constitution. As I said in it’s footnote, I put this here because it’s free and represents all the free options available in the region, including many historic sites throughout Boston. In fact the Charlestown Navy Yard is part of the US Park Service and the Constitution is a commissioned US Navy warship, so of course there’s no fee. However, the nearby USS Constitution Museum is a private entity and suggests donations for admission, including $5-$10 for adults, $3-$5 for kids, and $15-$20 for families. For $50 you can get a membership. I love this ship and would love to visit her any chance I could so I hope that this gets on our list of places to go very soon.
Of course, in the end, membership isn’t just about admission and tickets. It’s also about supporting these great institutions that preserve and present great culture, great history, and great flora and fauna, and ideally I would love to patronize them all. But the reality is that we have a limited budget of both time and money and we have to be selective. I think our plan to ration yearly is a good one and I hope that as our family grows older (and bigger?) we can still maintain our ability to expand our children’s horizons by exposing them to all the great cultural, historical, and natural institutions Boston has to offer.
Most membership benefits include discounted guest passes, discounted parking, and discounts in the gift shop and restaurant, if there is one. Most institutions also offer varying membership levels and I have picked those that we would choose for our family. Depending on the size of your family and the ages of your children, you might choose a different membership level. ↩
Membership includes all Harvard Museums including the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and the Harvard Semitic Museum. We prefer the Natural History museum. ↩
Membership includes a number of free IMAX tickets, free guest passes, and reciprocal admission to hundreds of museums and zoos, either free or discounted. ↩
Zoo New England consists of both the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Mass., and the membership gives access to both. Child rate applies to under 12. ↩
Children 7 to 17 are only free on weekdays after 3pm, on weekends, and during Boston public school holidays. Otherwise, they pay $10. ↩
Membership includes passes to the IMAX theatre. Child rate applies to under 12. ↩
Roger Williams Park Zoo is outside Providence, Rhode Island, but is only a short trip from Boston and areas south of the city. Additional membership benefit includes express entry during peak hours. Child rate applies to under 12. ↩
Anyone named “Isabella” gets in free. Admission is also free on your birthday. ↩
Family memberships at the Children’s Museum offer entry for either 4 or 6, but you can add additional family members at $25 each. So the basic family membership is $150 and because we have 7 family members, we add $75 (3 * $25). Additional benefits at different levels include childcare, express entry, an exclusive members hour on Saturday and Sunday morning, among others. ↩
Because Battleship Cove membership only includes two children, we’d be okay this year, but in the future we’d pay for the “extra” kids at full child price each time we went. Child rate applies to under 12. ↩
I’ve included the USS Constitution because it’s one of my favorite attractions and as an example of the many free resources available in the area as well. (Not including parking and other incidental costs.) I should add that the USS Constitution Museum, which is nearby, is separate and has a suggested admission fee of $5-$10 for adults, $3-$5 for children, and $15-$20 for families. They offer a family membership for $50. ↩
Admission prices at the dozens of Trustees of the Reservations locations around the state vary from free to comparable to some of those above. In general, children usually get free entry. The two sites we visited most were either a couple dollars or $6 for non-members. ↩
Negative numbers indicate we don’t get any savings after two visits, but only after three or more. Since the USS Constitution is Free and the Trustees’s admission varies so much, those were left off this chart. ↩
I made the assumption that we’d be going during normal school hours and thus Isabella would end up with the normal $10 ticket price for her age bracket. See the note on the MFA in the previous table. ↩
Following up on my last post on our desire to create great memories connected to camping vacations for our kids, we went camping in Maine last week during our vacation. It was a bit of a roundabout journey, going up through the White Mountains of New Hampshire then across to Windham, Maine, in one day.
The kids wanted to see mountains for the first time and my mom lives in Windham. Staying in Windham one night, my mom came with us as we then traveled up to midcoast Maine, specifically to Camden and Rockport, two places that are indelibly part of who I am.
We stayed there for two nights, which were a bit tough for Ben and Anthony in particular. Anthony had the hardest time sleeping, in part I think because he was treated mercilessly by the mosquitos. Nevertheless everyone had a blast, even though we had to break camp in the rain as we woke up on our last morning and it was pouring. But by the time we got back to my mom’s house later that day, the sun was out again. We stayed there one more night and because it was Melanie’s birthday we went out to dinner. We came home the next day, on Saturday.
All in all, it was pretty successful. Here’s a video I made of our trip:
We stopped at the iconic Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, Maine, on our rainy morning
Melanie’s birthday dinner at Macaroni Grill in Portland