May 24, 2015

The Dargatz Family Heads South. . .High Times

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the little moments are often forgotten or avoided entirely. On this trip, relaxation was key so taking the time to eat together at the table, although relatively minuscule when compared to the mountain views, was a welcome sight and something much larger than any mountain we scaled the entire trip. It's all about the little things.

After our breakfast, we headed to the highest point in the Smokies: Clingman's Dome. Apparently, many others had the same idea as parking and space was at a premium. We did find a spot pretty close to the actual lot as we began the ascent. As we rose, the temperature dropped. . .and dropped. Luckily, the hoards of other visitors sheltered us from much of the winds that would us chilled us even more. 

After reaching the top, we enjoyed a much less strenuous descent as we retreated tot he car and headed to Newfound Gap for lunch. This scenic overlook included a variety of interesting sights. From grand landscapes to the North Carolina-Tennessee border, there was much to explore. We were especially intrigued by a segment of the famed Appalachian Trail that ran right through this place. However, all these sights had to wait as we instead paid attention to our parking lot neighbors. This six pack of young men in search of adventure certainly found it, but not in the way they expected. We ended up parking next to a large truck in need if a new water pump. As we enjoyed bag lunches, we eavesdropped on their predicament. A tow truck was needed to take them to the nearest city offering truck repairs. Of course, however, the tow truck would not be able to transport all of the gentlemen involved so these men, in their adventurous (and potentially impatient) spirit, came up with an alternative plan to avoid wasting any of their exploration time. While the owner of the truck and another waited for the tow and accompanied it back to town, the others collected water, supplies, and a basic map, and decided to hoof it back to town. I certainly hope they made it unscathed.

We finished up lunches just as the tow arrived. Knowing the excitement of our neighbors had passed, we decided to start our own adventure. With both Jillian and I thoroughly enjoying hiking and with Embry also budding into an outdoorswoman, we knew it was time to tackle the Appalachian Trail, or at least a small, small portion of it. The trail included a quick and rough incline, very tough to maneuver rocky sections, and some less than desirable foliage clearing, but we made it successfully. Embry, in her own stubborn and determined way, resisted almost all of our assistance and handled herself excellently in the treacherous terrain. Many passing hikers commented on her determination and persistence. 

When we wrapped up that section, we were just warmed up. We knew Embry would appreciate another "freefall" so we headed out to Laurel Falls and once again, endured a long and winding climb. Along the way, we ran into many camera shy salamanders, colorful wildflowers, and once again, many other visitors before finally reaching an absolutely spectacular waterfall.

While there was still some daylight left, we knew we had scaled many a mountain that day, so if we wanted any energy the next day, it was time to re-fuel.  So we headed back to Bryson City, North Carolina on the outskirts of the park and visited a few places we had noticed on our previous trip on the Great Smoky National Railroad. A pizza joint and a brewpub. In fact, if you ever head through Bryson City, I highly recommend Nantahala Brewing Company. While the beer selection was divine, I especially enjoyed. . . .

TRIP TAKEAWAY #7 - Bars in Bryson City are animal friendly.  People brought dogs into the bar. A pop and a pooch. Not a bad combination.

It was quite a high day. High elevation. High adventure. High crowds. Maybe tomorrow, would lead us to some "down" time. Only one way to find out.

May 20, 2015

The Dargatz Family Heads South. . . . .Hurry Horsies

Well, the meteorologists were right. The next day of our trip was gloomy. But our positive attitudes and flexibility turned that disappointment into opportunity.  The beginning portion of the day wasn't ideal for hiking, but it was just fine for a trip in the train on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

Just like her daddy, Embry is a "chugga chugga choo choo" enthusiast. We love seeing trains, riding on trains, and even playing with trains. So it was no surprise that Embry lit up and squealed when the train was in sight. Her love of trains was crucial as this ride literally was a three hour tour.

We enjoyed some spectacular sights and learned some impressive historical facts. I could list a bunch of them off right here, but rather than do that, you can borrow the books and DVD set I purchased in the ride whenever you'd like. Just ask. :)

The sights and sounds of a real live steam engine weren't the only sensory wonders we experienced while riding the rails. With Embry's birthday being so near, the bluegrass duo that sung and strummed up through each coach sang a birthday song in her honor.

Now the three hour ride did have a break for lunch. Embry of course was distracted by the nearby waterfall, or freefall. While we ate, the train's engine maneuvered some switches and side tracks and ended up switching around to what used to be the back to send us back into town.

When we arrived, we left the train and headed to the gift shop and railroad museum where we were blown away by an amazing set of model railroad cars. Quite possibly, it was the most impressive model railroad display I've ever witnessed, and I am a self-proclaimed train geek.

By then, we were railroaded out, but the weather had turned for the better and there was plenty of daylight left to explore. We decided on hitting up an area on the south end of Great Smoky National park that a trio of waterfalls tucked fairly close together.

Words can only so so much, so hopefully this brief display of pictures will showcase just a portion of our fun on the trail.

One memory I will cherish is that while hiking, we ran into a group of horses and their riders. Embry was a bit tired at that point but seeing those equines charged her battery and we spent the rest of the hike trying to catch the horses with Embry directing traffic the whole time. "Hurry horsies" was probably repeated a hundred times. While we never did officially catch up, we did see them one last time from a distance, as depicted below.

After a day on the choo choo and the trails, it was time for some relaxation AKA alcohol. This leads me to

TRIP TAKEAWAY #6 - In the South, liquor store means liquor. No beer. 

Our plan wasn't thwarted as we did find a local grocery store with a limited but delicious selection. 

Back to the cabin it was, with some more birthday gifts to unwrap, some lounging in the hot tub, and some imbibing. Before we could get going, Embry spent time with a game provided by the cabin. Apparently, she is a lover of words and letters, following in her father's footsteps. 

Embry enjoyed her new toys and bubbles and mom and dad enjoyed some beverages.

All in a good day's work.

What would the next day bring? Here's a sneak peek.

High elevation. Appalachian Trail. Animal friendly bar.

May 19, 2015

A Readers Review

It has been a bit trickier to get consistent reading time lately, as I am spending as much time as I can getting end of the school year plans in order and playing with my daughter. Luckily, she loves to be outside, so I have taken advantage and tried to to read as much as I can while enjoying the outdoors though most of my reading still comes after she is passed out for the evening.

Either way, book 10 is now complete and as is the case lately, this  book helped me solidify and improve my understanding and enjoyment of early childhood education. This book focused on play, something I am seeing is getting harder and harder to implement in my classroom. Whether it is because of assessments or curricular demands, plain old playing is hard to fit in and almost makes me feel "guilty" as it may appear as lazy or easy for passersby. That guilt went away as soon as I read this book. In fact, my last few books have really helped me strengthen my love of play and the need it has in the classroom.

The author emphasized a balance of work, love, and play and offered suggestions to incorporate this trinity into parenting and teaching.  I look forward to doing both.

May 13, 2015

The Dargatz Family Heads South. . .Trail of Tears

With North Carolina and the stinky circumstances of the previous night behind us, it was time to head to the mountains. As was the case so far during this entire trip, that simple goal wasn't reached that easily. After taking a few wrong turns and a few choice words, we made it to our humble cabin abode in the mountains.

quick unpack and look at yet another map took us back into the car and headed straight for the Oconaluftee Visitors Center on the southern edge of Great Smoky National Park. Once again, navigational issues and a misleading and occasionally missing in action road signs extended the trip a little more than anticipated, meandering through a village of Cherokee, which of course required that I belt out a terrible yet eerily memorable hit from the 80's band Europe entitled Cherokee. This amazingly awful ballad described the tribe's trip on the Trail of Tears and in a much less serious way, this driving nightmare was making me want to cry as well. But eventually we did arrive safely and hit up the first of many trails on this adventure: The Oconaluftee River Trail. 

As we prepared for the hike, rangers "warned" of the elk that frequent the area. This didn't scare us away, but instead encouraged a return visit later in the week. That return visit was required because this initial trip featured no elk sighting. However, we didn't go away empty-handed. nature. From groundhog holes all over the place to a recently well-fed snake nearly discovered by my wife's hiking boot, nature was upon us in full force. 

Embry enjoyed the hike immensely. She enjoyed observing the "surprise" snake and listening to the birds and frogs. We of course also took part of another stick race, a classic and continual event in our outdoor adventures.

Embry's favorite part of the hike was actually when we left the woods and toured the historic site right next to the river. Much like Old World Wisconsin, it featured rustic farmhouses and equipment, some gardens, and some animals. Chickens were the common creature of the history museum, though they didn't like staying ion the farm area and were always venturing closer to the actual visitors center. Embry was given permission to send them back to the farm ans she took the responsibility seriously. With momma's help, she chased the chickens away from the visitor center and toward the farm by clapping  and repeatedly reminding the fowl to "come on chicken."

From there, it was time to drive once again to a less than easily marked area of the park: Mingus Falls, the first of many waterfalls. This drive and the 159-quad burning steps we had to scale to get to the falls led me to . . . .

TRIP TAKEAWAY #5 - Wisconsinites love the Great Smokies.

At the visitors center we saw a variety of Wisconsin-clad individuals including running into a family from my school. Once at the waterfall, as fate would have it, we ran into the same family again. Once exchanging pleasantries and continuing our trip up the many, many steps to the top, we enjoyed the view and had our picture immortalized by asking a family to take our picture. Where do you suppose the only other people at that time were from?  Yep. America's Dairyland. So, in our 10 or so minutes at Mingus Falls, we ran into about 10 other people excluding ourselves and every single one was a Badger. 

The long day was coming to an end, and despite the ups and downs (both literally and figuratively), it was a wonderful first day in the mountains. Yet, we had one more reason to celebrate. Today was Embry's 2nd birthday. We had a low key gift opening and cupcake at the cabin before calling it a night.

The forecast for the next day called for clouds and rain followed by clouds and rain. Would that stop the Dargatz Family from continuing their adventure the best way we know how? Not a chance.

May 3, 2015

The Dargatz Family Heads South. . .The Long and Winding Road

It was time to put Atlanta in our rear view mirror and head to the second portion of our trip: the Great Smoky Mountains. Once departing Georgia, we went north through tarheel country. Before stopping for the night in Murphy, North Carolina, we made the decision to stop at a southern BBQ joint right off the main drag. The food was delicious. The aftermath. . .not so much. (Don't worry, I'm not much of a fan of bathroom humor so I am not headed in that direction. . . .well, sort of.)

After hitting the road again, we wanted a preview of the days to come so we drove through the long, narrow, winding, and mainly unpaved roads of the Chattahoochee National Forest. After failing to find a visitor center or parking lot, we fou d a campong site where we took a breather, stretched our legs, and filled up with fresh forest air. It worked out well since a scenic and shallow stream ran right through the site, so Embry had a few opportunities to have "stick races" with her parents. Even though Embry was a gem during the long car ride, I am sure she appreciated the time away from the car.

Well, that shining gem of a child didn't last for much longer. As we headed back on the road, Embry began to voice her displeasure. We are pretty familiar with toddler whining and have been able to deal with it in may ways (ignoring, whining back, turning up the music), but this session was persistent. We had escaped the bumpy forest roads and gotten into a bit more civilized area when we figured out the reason for our daughter's displeasure.  And, the rental car's backseat found out as well.

TRIP TAKEAWAY #3 - Toddlers, winding roads, and barbecue are not a match made in heaven.

Fortunately for us, the toddler's timing was pretty good as we were just a block away from the only gas station we had seen in quite some time. We pulled in, gassed up, bought paper towels and were allowed to use cleaning wipes from the station restroom in an attempt to clean up the car. (While cleanup did continue regularly through the rest of the trip, the fact that we were able to start the process so quickly really paid off.)

After Embry's vomit party, she was in higher spirits and ready to go. My wife and I made the best of it and looked forward to getting into town for somr restand relaxation next to the hotel pool. Unfortunately. . .

TRIP TAKEAWAY #4 - There is no swimming in the South until May. Well, at least it seemed that way. In both Atlanta and Murphy, the pools were closed until winter hours ended May 1st.

When our swimming was thwarted, we ended up searching town for laundromats, only to find them closed. We stayed low key in the hotel and watched TV while Embry practiced taking selfies.

I ended up getting up earlier than expected the next day to enjoy Murphy's finest laundromat. I shared this experience with machines that had to be at least 30 years old and a fellow  patron who was mumbling as if she had marbles in her mouth. She did say a few things to me. I nodded, not really knowing what she had said. 

At last, the clothes were clean and dry and I was ready to get out of town, get to the cabin, and get out  of the barbecue vomit car.  If only it were that easy. . .

May 2, 2015

A Readers Review

2015's 9th book hit home. As Wisconsin's weather takes a turn for the better, I am getting outside much more often. Outside with my daughter. Outside with my wife. Outside with my students. This book wasn't on my constantly growing list of books to read until recently, but based on my mindset lately, I couldn't push it back any further and needed to read it right away.

This book described how children are deprived of personal interactions through a variety of societal reasons. From the "bogeyman syndrome" to the increased litigious nature of the world to technological advances, many reasons are the cause (and blame) for what the author terms nature-deficit disorder. 

With lots of stories from everyday people and opinions from experts, there were multiple accounts of how people interact with nature. These stories flooded my mind  with childhood memories that I know students I work with just don't have the luxury of having through no real fault of their own. I hope my daughter will be able to have the personal interactions with nature that I feel are such an important and influential part of growing up.

May 1, 2015

The Dargatz Family Heads South . . .Atlanta's Last Stand

Being on "teacher time" means vacation or getaways during the school year often include larger groups of people to deal with wherever you go. This couldn't be more true then at our next stop on the family vacation, the Georgia Aquarium. We came to see whale sharks and sea turtles and we saw. . . . whale sharks and a stroller parade. We were bombarded with children. Seeing as I am bombarded with children regularly, I felt right at home, but there were more than a few times when my wife asks me how I can spend day after day with groups of children.

I understand her feelings. It was loud. They were running. Running around us. Running into us. Practically running through us. 

But we got a bit loud too (mainly my better half) when we caught our first glimpse of whale sharks.

"Whale sharks! AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" will forever be imprinted into memory as my wife got giddy with glee when catching a glimpse of the wonderful and docile creature. We were also enamored with the filter-feeding manta rays. However, though I searched and searched, no sea turtle was found. . .at least not by me. (Once I returned to school, a student who had also traveled to the aquarium mentioned he saw the turtle quite a bit.)

Weaving our way through family after family, we did enjoy every exhibit (some multiple times) before heading back out on the town and stopping at our new favorite Atlanta hot spot, Centennial Park. Since we had already walked all through the different corners of the park in previous visits, we let Embry make the decisions this time around. 

As you may have already figured out, this meant time at each of the little playgrounds the park had to offer. While that was fun, the main event was stripping down to diaper and t-shirt and enjoying the "Baby Bellagio" fountain display.

After getting a bit wet and feeling the temperatures start to dip, the desire to avoid vacation hypothermia sent us to dinner. That was followed by dessert and drinks at Hard Rock, a tourist trap I had been able to avoid until now. A dead-tired and dazed daughter devoured a delicious chocolate treat before calling it a night.

 Our final day in Atlanta was a conglomeration of craziness. From packing up our gear to meandering through the streets to find the car rental place, we were ready to leave the big city and head to the mountains.

Of course, before we departed, the mandatory trip to the local zoo was in the cards. Taking pictures wasn't however. We did snap a few pictures of a carefully cultivated turtle pond, but overall, the zoo was standard, not special. Finding a parking spot in the neighborhood adjacent to the park and dodging massive (but friendly) carpenter bees throughout the grounds was about as exciting as it got.

Once we had our fill of animals, we headed north. Out of Georgia and into North Carolina. That's when our adventure really took off.