Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Writer's Wednesday - How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Remember those dreaded essays when you returned to school about what you did on your summer break? Barbara McMahon joins us this week with her version of vacation...and read on to find if it was all worth it...

How I spent my summer vacation--or Travel ain’t what it used to be

We just returned from a two week trip to the East Coast where we visited Washington, D.C. and then drove south to the Carolinas to visit family and friends. I grew up in the greater Washington area and spent many weekends with my parents and siblings visiting the Smithsonian museums, going up in the Washington Monument, or wandering through the National Gallery of Art. Since we have a kid who will be graduating from high school next June, we decided to visit our nation’s capital so she’d have a chance to see it before she got caught up in summer jobs and college.

My, how travel has changed. Since 9/11 everything is tighter security wise. We knew this because we’ve traveled by plane a couple of times since then. But the chaos at the airport is still amazing after all these years. I would have thought they could have found ways to streamline things.

First was the check in. The airlines we flew has “automatic” check in. A passenger goes to a touch screen monitor and pushes the bars on the screen to access travel reservations and print out a ticket. In theory, this is probably a good idea, but needs refinement. I don’t think whoever instigated it considered all the people who are not computer savvy. Or foreigners visiting who may speak English enough to travel, but are unfamiliar with reading the language or computers. And instead of a nice, orderly line moving forward one passenger at a time, it was a mass of humanity all pushing forward and not knowing where we were going. Once we mastered the check in process--we had to wait in the milling crowd for baggage tags. Men for the airlines would yell out a last name and that family would surge forward to get their baggage weighed and tagged. Of course with no lines, with different people going to different monitors and then the baggage tags being issued from another area of the long counter--well picture chaos.

I really dislike air travel. The security lines were long, the TSA people never smiled and yelled out orders like a Drill Sargent. At least there was a semblance of order in the lines we had to stand in. I wore loafers knowing I had to take off my shoes. Jessie wore flip-flops, but my husband had lace up shoes--and had to balance on one foot while trying to put them back on as there was no available seating in the area.

There are dire warnings about not leaving your bags unattended, and the worry about theft, despite that-- my purse went through one x-ray machine and I was directed to a scanner two lanes over, so lost sight of it for about 2 minutes--way long enough for a thief to have snatched it. Fortunately, it was fine. Whew.

Then the flight. Crammed into tight seating, every seat full, as soon as we were airborne, the very tall man in front of me reclined his seat into my lap. The back was so close I couldn’t hold a book in front of me because it was too close to read. So I spent most of the flight sitting sort of sideways holding the book almost in front of my husband so I could read.

Finally we arrived in Washington, D.C. It was hot, humid and crowded. Did I mention hot? When I lived there, we would spend a Saturday at one locale and return home, to visit the city again at a later time. I don’t remember crowds. It could be as a child I viewed things differently. Or it could be there were actually fewer people sightseeing.

There were lines everywhere. To get into museums, we had to pass through checkpoints like at the airport. Some places refused backpacks. Finding lockers was difficult. Yet who wants to pay rip-off prices for a bottle of water if we could carry in a back pack?

The capitol has so much security it’s amazing. No one can climb the stairs out front any more. Cops all over the place, with barriers cordoning everything off from the man in the street. No one can access the stairs to the Washington Monument. And to get free tickets to see the capitol or the Washington Monument, arrive early (8 ish) in the morning because once they’re gone they are gone for the day. We got there before 8 and were met with a huge line. At least at the Washington Monument we had a retaining wall to sit on. At the capitol, it was standing only until we finally got tickets an hour and twenty minutes later.

The tour at the Capitol was very organized, groups limited to about 40 people. But they were only slightly staggered, so there was a huge crowd at the Rotunda. The whispering effect was almost impossible to hear due to the noise of so many people. But still, it was awe-inspiring and amazing to see what we could of that beautiful building.

We visited monuments to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, veterans of World War II, Korea and Viet-Nam. We walked the entire Mall at least twice and still had lots we could have seen if we hadn’t run out of time and energy.

Since my current book, Parents in Training, is set in Washington, I was viewing everything with a critical eye, to make sure I hadn’t made any glaring gaffs. I visit every few years and used my memories of places when setting the story in DC.

The rest of our East Coast trip was lovely. We drove to Norfolk Virginia and stayed right at the beach for one night. Walking along the shore was delightful, wading and of course picking up sea shells to bring home.

A visit to relatives in the Carolinas, a few days in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and we returned home. Air travel had not improved in the two weeks since we started out. And to add to the problems, we had to change in Denver and our flight was moved from gate to gate four times. The last time from gate 29 to gate 94. At least we got our exercise.

So now we’re home. Our memories grow fonder as the problems of lines and air travel fade and the images we saw stay strong in our minds. We all decided we’d like to go again--but not in summer. This may be the last vacation we take together for a while as college and early careers take hold. But it will always be one of the best.

What is your best holiday memory? Don't you forget the not-so-great parts and enjoy the happy times?


  1. Hi Barbara, I know what you mean about the hassles of travel (which I preferred NOT to discuss in yesterday's post, though they have been fodder for books, believe me!). Still, the best advice I gave my kids -- and that I take myself -- when traveling is that it's a whole different kind of time, like Dreamtime or something else. Regular time stops when you commit to traveling (particularly travel by means you're not in control of, i.e. airplanes, trains, Eurostars, etc.) and does not resume until you are deposited at the other end, no matter how many stops you have to make in between. You can't control it, you just have to go with the flow. And while it isn't any less stressful, really, it does make me remember that at least it's something I'm not responsible for. Sometimes that's enough.

  2. Hi Barbara

    I am so with you on this post. I hate air travel and while I love going to America it is a bit of a nightmare getting into the US if you're coming from abroad. those immigration officials scare the life out of me.

    But on to sunnier topics. I flew to Washington several years ago, traveled down through the Chesapeake Bay area (yes, I had just read Nora's Chesapeake trilogy), stayed in a fabulous B&B in St Charles, spent a night in the Outer Banks and then shot over to the Blue Ridge Parkway before heading home. Absolutely fabulous and we went in February so it was completely deserted but still warm and sunny.

    Mind you they had a blizzard two days after we left. so I think we were very lucky.

  3. I think my best holiday memory occurred the summer I graduated from high school. My parents, my younger brother and I drove from Texas to California. We started at San Diego and drove up the coast to San Francisco. It was a wonderful trip and the last major trip I took with my parents.
    I have been to DC several times before 9/11 so never had to put up with the increased security. I frequently wondered how the trips would have been if we had gone after then because I went as a chaperone for three teenagers as part of a school trip.