Disney World, Part 2

A few months ago I wrote a whiny post about my kids choosing a trip to Disney World instead of a two-week camping trip. I didn’t want to go to Disney World but foolishly let The Boy and The Girl decide where we’d vacation. I don’t do crowds well under the best of circumstances and throw in tired, travel-weary children and I was pretty sure I’d wind up in Disney jail for assaulting someone.

We are now home from our visit and I can say I managed to avoid a criminal record and actually enjoyed our time in the Happiest Place on Earth. Yes, there were lots of people and, yes, it was overwhelming at times but the kids had a fabulous time and it was worth it. I made sure we had down time for the kids (and me) to decompress and get away from the masses, which is what made the whole trip bearable.

We stayed at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort, which was well-maintained and our room was nice but tight with four people. One of the buildings in the resort was being refurbished but we never heard construction noise or were bothered by the work. I was amazed by how clean the resort was with all the people there.

Our first real Disney experience involved princess and knight make-overs at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. We went to the Disney Springs location because I didn’t make reservations soon enough to get into the salon at Cinderella’s Castle. I’d originally booked the lowest tier of make-overs for The Girl and The Boy but I’m a sucker and upgraded when we got there. As we were waiting for our turn all these little girls were coming out wearing princess gowns (which wasn’t included in what I’d first chosen) and I didn’t want to explain to my princess that Mommy was too cheap to pay for a gown. And since The Girl got an upgraded package The Boy did too.

The Castle package for The Girl involved glittery makeup, a princess-like hair style and she was able to choose which princess gown she wanted. (Elsa was the winner.) The Boy was transformed into a knight with an armor-printed t-shirt (complete with attached cape), a gelled hair style (complete with dragon scales sprinkled in) and a foam sword and shield. He was sworn to protect the royals and was knighted with his own sword. The Fairy Godmothers In Training were fantastic with the kids, and talked with them about what it was like to attend Fairy Godmother school. Did you know they are in school for 1,000 years before being sent out on their own? It was definitely worth the cost and I’d highly recommend it if you have little ones who would enjoy becoming a knight or a princess.

After the kids’ transformations we headed to Epcot for rides and dinner. Frozen Ever After was a fun and slightly thrilling ride, which was perfect for our anxious Boy who didn’t like any of the faster rides. Turtle Talk with Crush kept the kids and adults entertained. We had dinner at The Garden Grill, a farm-to-fork type restaurant that slowly turns through various landscape scenes. We met Mickey and Pluto there and the kids were able to get their autographs. Our picky eater, The Girl, was not enjoying the family-style meal but lucked out when the entire building was evacuated for undisclosed reasons. We still don’t know what happened but had already been served most of the meal when we were told the building was being emptied. We were not charged for the meal.

A day at Magic Kingdom was next and the relative emptiness of Epcot did not prepare me for the mass of people there. The Girl loved the fast rides; The Boy not so much. The Pilot and I split up and he took The Boy on the slower rides and to see the Hall of Presidents while The Girl and I hit a couple of roller coasters. We left just as the fireworks were starting because it’d been a full day and we were all pooped.

Animal Kingdom was the destination for the next day and we took a river journey in Pandora, went on a safari and had lunch with Mickey, Donald, Daisy and Goofy. The safari was nothing short of amazing — and I don’t use that word lightly. The animals are up close and personal and free to roam. One of the trucks in front of us had to stop while an animal (we never found out which one) blocked the road. Don’t miss this attraction even if you don’t have a Fast Pass for it. I liked walking around the Tree of Life and finding all the animals carved into it. We cut the day short to head back to the resort to swim and relax but I could have spent the entire day there.

On our last full day, we decided to head back to Magic Kingdom to spend more time in Adventureland, which we had missed the first time we were there. The one thing we didn’t do that I wish we had was to take a raft to Tom Sawyer’s Island but we just ran out of time. The Swiss Family Robinson Tree House was interesting and the kids enjoyed climbing to the top and back down. You get a nice view of the park from the upper platforms and we did it twice. The Boy really liked that one.

The Pilot and I dropped the kiddos off at The Sandcastle Club at the Beach Club resort for that evening. They were able to eat there and spend the evening doing kid-friendly activities (dress up, making a volcano, eating snacks and playing video games). They even got to meet Captain Hook and Mr. Smee that evening. The Pilot and I headed back to Epcot for dinner at the Coral Reef, where you can eat in front of giant aquarium. We got to see SCUBA divers working in the tank and one of them got the entire restaurant to do The Wave. It was a nice adult evening and more relaxing because we knew the kids were having a good time too.

After all my complaining about going on this trip, I did end up having a good time and could see us returning in a few years. I’d do things a little differently next time, though. I don’t think we’d sign up for a dining plan again as we struggled to use all the entitlements. That’s partly because we didn’t get charged for one dinner and we were able to stock up on snacks and sandwiches for the trip home but it was a lot of food. When you’re trying to make better food choices an included dessert is not always beneficial. It would be nice if you could make substitutions, say a salad instead of dessert. Some restaurants allowed you to do that but not all. I’d probably skip Magic Kingdom in the future and spend more time at Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Epcot has more educational activities and The Boy (a scientist at heart) really liked those exhibits. The Girl said her favorite park was Magic Kingdom but I don’t think she’d complain about spending more time with the animals, especially if we also do some of the fast rides there.

The one thing I would do the same, however, is go off season. I can’t imagine the parks being even more crowded than they were. The crush of people was enough to severely test my patience. If there were even more humans, I’d definitely need to budget bail money into our trip planning.

Suburban Survival

Continuing the story of Sam and her family’s fight to survive in the suburban zombie apocalypse. If you haven’t read the first two chapters, you can find them by going back to my previous posts.

As always, please let me know what you think of this story.

Chapter 3 — Reality bites

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t been bringing much to our community dinners,” Brent said to me on our fifth night at the compound.

“You’re right,” I said. “An awful lot of food goes to waste during these events and I’m concerned about how quickly the food will be gone.” I managed to catch Josh’s eye as he was talking with Beth and some others. He excused himself from the group and wandered toward Brent and me. I was glad to have his support if this conversation turned ugly.

“We’re all in this together, Samantha,” Brent said. “We need everyone to do their part.” His words trailed off, leaving me with the impression that if I didn’t start upping my contribution, there would be repercussions for my family.

“I’m happy to do my part, Brent.” I don’t take well to threats, even when they’re veiled behind smooth words and a genial tone of voice. Maybe especially when they’re hidden behind falseness. “I’d be happy to take a look-out shift on the roof. I’m pretty good with a rifle.”

Brent looked at the ground, unhappy with being challenged. I’d met his kind before: the office bully, the women-should-be-in-the-kitchen sort of guy. I don’t like that attitude and it just made me more unwilling to submit to his will. I knew that it probably wasn’t the best idea, considering we were safe for the time being and he had the power to get us ostracized but I willing to take that chance because he pissed me off.

“We have enough people on the roof,” he said. “What we really need you to do is give your fair share.”

“I do provide our fair share but I’m simply not going to waste what we have so everyone can pretend we’re at a backyard barbecue.” My voice was rising and those nearby were glancing in our direction. I took a deep breath to bring myself back under control. “The real issue here is that we need to conserve our supplies. You are in charge here and it’s up to you to bring that to everyone’s attention. This is not a party and we’re all fighting for survival here. There are going to be very real, very serious problems here soon if it isn’t addressed.”

“Why don’t you let me worry about that.” Brent might as well have patted me on the ass and told me not to worry my pretty little head. I turned my back on him and muttered “asshole” louder than I had intended. Another deep breath and I marched back to our camper. Josh knew me well enough to let me go alone and tried to smooth things over with the people who had heard my tiff with Brent.

I stewed in my anger as I tried to make some semblance of order in the trailer. While we could theoretically sleep 10 people, it was tight and the possessions of the eight of us staying there overflowed the minimal storage we had. I gathered the empty bottles we’d been saving and filled them with the water I’d collected during the one small rain we’d had. Those I tucked into the space under the master bed. The unopened cans of food on the dinette joined the water. There was enough room left for most of the dirty clothes piled in the useless shower. We’re going to have to do laundry soon, I thought. I’m pretty sure the kids are out of clean underwear.

A soft knock sounded on the screen door as I was putting the bed back in order. I could tell it was a man standing on the steps but the sun was behind him and kept me from seeing his face. I didn’t like the way he was blocking my only way out and I was immediately on guard.

“What?” I was still mad from earlier and my voice reflected it. I didn’t want company and this man was looming over me.

He took a step back, putting some space between us, and brought his hands up in front of him in a gesture of peace.  When he moved, I could finally see his face and he looked vaguely familiar. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “I’m Tom Brown and I used to live on Meadowlark Lane.” All the streets in our neighborhood had nature-inspired names, an attempt to mask the lack of nature in the addition, I guessed. “I overheard you and Brent talking a little bit ago.”

“OK,” I said, wondering where this was going and not yet ready to give up my snit.

“I agree with you,” said Tom. “And I’d like to find a way to get the others to realize the dangers too. Maybe we can work together on this.”

My shoulders relaxed a fraction and I stepped out of the trailer, breathing a little easier at no longer being trapped. “I’m Samantha. Sam, for short. My husband is Josh and our friend Beth is staying here too.” I tried to be a little friendlier to Tom, hoping he was sincere in his offer of help. The strangeness of the situation in the storage facility, though, kept me from fully trusting him. And I still didn’t like how he’d shown up when I was alone in the trailer.

“Tell you what, Tom. Why don’t you come back later this evening when Josh and Beth are here and we’ll all talk about what to do.” Tom said he’d come back after dark.  Time on a clock didn’t mean much these days; most of our days were measured by daylight and what I used to call hiker midnight, when the sun went down and everyone tucked into their beds for the night. I couldn’t even say for sure what day it was.

I went back to my cleaning and thought about my conversations with Brent and Tom. The facility would make a good base if we could make some changes. Brent was pretty well entrenched as the de facto leader but he was ignoring some pretty important stuff. Food and water were the primary issues but already one section of fence was leaning inward as the dead outside pushed against it. I’d ceased to hear the awful sounds coming from the other side of the walls, much as I’d stopped hearing the whistles of the trains that used to run on the tracks near our house. That didn’t mean the threat wasn’t still out there.

It was easy to forget the dangers when we had solid structures between us and the monsters. Only when the wind brought the smell of decay into our protected enclave did people seem to remember this wasn’t just for fun. Somehow we’d have to remind them that this was now our way of life; no one was coming to save us.

Josh and Beth returned with the kids as the sun was setting and I filled them in on my visit from Tom.

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” Beth said. “He seems like a nice-enough guy but, if it’s who I think it is, I’ve seen him talking a lot with Brent.” Josh said he was pretty sure he knew Tom, too, but hadn’t had any conversations with him or noticed him talking with Brent. We decided we’d keep an open mind but not reveal too much about ourselves or our thoughts.

Tom showed up just after it had gotten fully dark and introduced himself to the other adults. Beth caught my eye and gave me a slight nod, letting me know she’s been right about Tom’s identity. Josh stood at my side, not moving more than a few feet away from me. I think the  unexpected visit earlier had freaked him out a little. This new world was full of more dangers than just the hungry dead.

Tom settled back in his seat as the small talk died down. “I think we’re all aware how desperate our situation is about to become.” The three of us acknowledged this but didn’t agree or disagree with him. “So I’m curious what you all think we should do about it.”

“I’m not sure there is anything we can do about it,” I said. “Any changes need to come from the leader of this group. If he’s not on board, then the others won’t be either.”

Tom nodded his head as I spoke. I wasn’t willing to tell him what I really thought considering Beth’s report that Tom was frequently talking to Brent. “What do you think we should do?” I turned the question back to him.

Before Tom could answer me, screams sounded at the front of the storage complex. Panicked voices called out but the words were garbled and we didn’t know what was happening. Leaving Beth to tend the children and defend our home, Josh and I grabbed our weapons and rushed out the trailer. Tom was at our heals, suddenly wielding a hunting knife. I don’t know where he was hiding it but it worried me that I hadn’t seen it on him when he was in our home.

We were nearly overrun by people stampeding away from the main section of yard. Terrified parents herded small children in front of them, urging them to move faster, faster, faster. Only one thing could scare this group this badly. The dead had invaded our safe haven. Sure enough, when we reached communal area, zombies were climbing over the broken section of fence and shuffling after the living who were too frightened to move. Bloody bodies littered the blacktop and the dead hunched over them, feeding on the still warm flesh.

Tom ran into the chaos, swinging his knife in front of him. Three of the monsters fell at his feet from the blows he’d delivered to their brains, dead for real this time. Josh and I waded in, too, drawing the attention of the biters from those who were unarmed, giving them a chance to escape. A few others joined the fight too. Together we stabbed and hacked our way to the downed barrier. Tom and Josh kept the zombies off us as we worked to raise the fence. The dead pushed against the downed section, grayish hands grasping around the edge, trying to get at the living. Decaying fingernails raked the skin of one of the fighters, drawing fresh blood and creating a frenzy among the things we were trying to keep out. Pushing with everything we had, the fence finally slipped back into place.

We braced it as best we could and left two people to make sure it didn’t come down again. I rushed to Josh’s side and we set off in search of the few remaining zombies. The wails from the living had drawn the biters toward the temporary shelters of the compound. Ten or so remained to be taken care of and we were able to dispatch them before they devoured anyone else.

“Now maybe Brent will listen to us,” Tom said at my side. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, leaving a streak of blood across his face. His clothes were smeared with gore and I could only assume all of us fighters looked the same. “It’s ok to come out,” he called. “They’re all gone.”

The stench of the slaughter hung in the air as I made my way back to the compromised wall. We were going to have to find a more permanent solution for that. Flies buzzed around me, already descending on the feast of dead bodies. I pulled my shirt over my nose to keep from vomiting. We’re going to have do something with these too, I thought. But the fence was more important at the moment.

Josh had already made his way to the wall. I’d stopped to let Beth and the kids know what had happened and that we had survived the fight. I asked Beth to keep the young ones inside. I didn’t want them to see the carnage. Although, in hindsight, it may have been better for them to see what we were dealing with. By the time I made it to front, Josh had gotten a repair crew organized and they were busy ripping the metal doors from the storage lockers to reinforce the fence. Heavy furniture was dragged out of the open units and pushed up against the vinyl posts. The salvaged aluminum went behind the dressers and tables to block the remaining gaps.

Josh and his crew had the repairs under control so I turned my attention to cleaning up the mutilated and festering remains on the ground. More survivors wandered to the front to help with the aftermath. A massive old truck with a cargo bed and flat tires served as the dumping ground for the zombies. Only four of our group were killed in the invasion. Amazing, really, considering how ill-prepared we were. We laid the four in an out-of-the way nook and covered them with tarps. Loved ones would be missing them by now and would come searching soon. They deserved better than to be dumped in with the creatures that had taken their lives.

Three of our dead I only knew from the community dinners. I’m sure I’d spoken with them at one time or another but I didn’t know their names. The fourth one we’d lost, though, shook me. The fourth one was Brent. I hadn’t liked the guy. I didn’t think he was doing any of us any favors by pretending our nightmare world wasn’t real. But he didn’t deserve to die that way. None of us did. I placed the gray tarp over his body and told Josh what I’d found. Tom was part of the fence crew so I motioned him over and broke the news to him as well. We all stared at our feet for a moment before Tom broke the silence. “Let’s call everyone together and talk about this,” he said.

The fence was as solid as it was going to get for the night so I headed to the tents and trailers at the rear of the complex. I knocked on doors and announced myself at the nylon structures. Everyone was jumpy and I didn’t want to be mistaken for a biter and get shot. I explained that the coast was clear, the zombies were all back outside where they belonged, but that we needed to have a quick meeting with the adults of the community.

Thirty minutes later most of the group was gathered in the main area. The truck full of zombies was parked nearby but we’d used more tarps to cover the gore. A painter must have rented one of the storage units because there was a treasure trove of canvas and plastic coverings.   Tom addressed the crowd. “We lost four people when the zombies came in. One of those people was Brent. Brent kept us going during the early days of this nightmare. He is going to be missed but we’re going to have to decide what to do next.

“The fence that broke is repaired as best as it can be for now. It is too dark for us to continue to work on it but it is secure for now and we will keep a watch until it is fully fixed. If anyone wants to volunteer for a shift, we’d appreciate it. See me, Sam or Josh if you want to help.

“Tomorrow is soon enough for deciding our next steps. Get some sleep tonight and know we are safe.”

I thought he’d made a good speech. He let the people know our leader had been lost but that we were all still safe. We had things under control. My opinion of Tom rose a little with his words. A few came forward to volunteer for the night watch and Josh and I wandered back to our trailer with the rest of community. Josh pulled me close to him and left his arm draped over my shoulder. I sagged against him as the adrenaline from the fight drained out of me.

Suburban Survival

It’s been very cold here the last few weeks and my creative thoughts have been mostly absorbed by crafting instead of writing. But I finally put the finishing touches on Chapter 2 of my zombie book and have changed the working title to Suburban Survival. I’m sure the title will change at least four more times before the book is finished. If you haven’t read Chapter 1 yet, make sure you go back a post and catch up before reading this one. I hope you enjoy the further adventures of our heroine and her family. Leave me a comment and let me know what you like about it (or hate about it. I have a thick skin. I can take it.)

Chapter 2: Surreal Block Party

Josh and I stood there stupidly with our hands in the air while the kids crowded us from behind. Kate was sniffling and I could feel Andrew trembling at my side. We waited for the shots to come and I couldn’t help thinking we’d have been better off just staying home.

“We just want to get to our camper,” Josh said. His soft words echoed off the metal doors of the storage units. “That’s all. We’ll hook it up and be on our way.” I wasn’t entirely sure where we would go but I thought Josh was smart to say it.

More people appeared from behind buildings and the vehicles parked in the storage spaces. I don’t know how we hadn’t heard them when we pulled up but we were pretty focused on surviving the biters outside. I recognized some of the adults and was glad to see some kids there as well. Maybe humanity will survive this after all, I thought.

The man pointing the rifle at us didn’t look familiar but he lowered the weapon and nodded to the others to do the same. Andrew and Kate came out from behind their dad and waved at some classmates in the crowd. Breathing a little easier, I thought maybe we would survive this too.

“I’m Brent Wilkins,” the man said after climbing down from the roof. “I lived on Rushing Rain Court.”

“Josh Bennett,” my husband said, “my wife, Samantha, and our kids, Kate and Andrew. Until a few minutes ago, we lived on Whispering Brook Lane.”

“Sorry for the unwelcome welcome but we had to make sure you weren’t here to hurt us or steal our supplies,” Brent said.

“It’s understandable,” I said. “We didn’t think anyone would be here but I’m glad to see so many others have made it this far.” I looked around the crowd. There were maybe 20 adults and half as many kids standing around, staring at us. Most of the grownups looked rough but the kids, being resilient little buggers, appeared to be faring much better with the bizarre turn our lives had taken. I was sure many of the families eying us had lost loved ones in the last few weeks — wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, all gone in a matter of days in a way no one ever really expected. Josh and I had joked about a zombie invasion over the years but never believed it would actually happen.

There had never been an official explanation for where these monsters had come from. We didn’t know what had caused the dead to reanimate or where the outbreak had first started. Rumors were abundant in the early days. The outbreak was attributed to everything from aliens to a bioterrorism attack by our own or another country’s military. The only thing we knew for sure was that we had to survive and we had to protect Kate and Andrew from the nightmare. Our kids had grown up in the comfortable confines of the suburbs. They had never had to go without necessities and hadn’t had to worry about their safety before this insanity was thrust upon those of us still living. I was proud of the way they were handling themselves and realized they would probably adjust better to this new world than Josh or I would.

“You’re welcome to stay here. Go get settled into your camper and then we can talk some more later,” Brent said.

Our assigned parking place was toward the back of the lot and as we drove that way I saw that some of the other trailers had been occupied. I hoped we would find ours empty because I didn’t want to have to confront a squatter after just fighting zombies. I was tired and just wanted to sit on the couch for a few minutes. I murmured as much to Josh who nodded his agreement. As we approached our Fun Finder — I hated the name as much as I loved the trailer — I saw the living area slide was already out. I nudged Josh and he placed one of his zombie killer knives in his lap. Telling the kids to stay in the car, we made our way to the door of the camper. The inside door was open but the screen door was closed. I heard singing from inside and thought I recognized the voice. I eased open the screen and tried to step lightly up the stairs. The whole trailer swayed under my weight and the person sitting at the dinette looked up.

I dropped my pistol to my side and rushed forward. “Beth!” I said. “I’m so glad to see you,” and wrapped her in a hug. I’m not normally a huggy person but I was so relieved to see my best friend from the neighborhood that I couldn’t help myself. I had been trying to reach her since this all began but the phones had been one of the first utilities to go. Even though she only lived a block away, the monsters had made it too dangerous to venture down the street to her house.

“Where are the kids? Where’s David? How did you get here” I asked her.

“The kids are here,” Beth said, “but I don’t know where David is. He was at the hospital when it got really bad and I haven’t seen him since.”

I hugged her again. “I’m sure he’s okay. He just hasn’t been able to get here yet,” I said. She nodded but the tears in her eyes said she wasn’t convinced. She shook her head and wiped away the moisture. Our new reality didn’t leave room for self-pity or indulging in doubts. Only the strong would survive in this world.

“I hope you don’t mind that we took over your camper,” Beth said. “We got here not long after this started and I saw that the others were breaking into the trailers. I didn’t want yours to get hijacked so I took it instead, knowing you’d make it here eventually.”

I rolled my eyes in answer because, of course, I didn’t care. “So what’s with this Brent guy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” Beth said. “He was already here when we got here. He seems alright but there’s something about him I don’t like. I can’t even tell you what it is but there’s something off.”

I knew exactly what she was talking about. Not about Brent specifically because I’d only had one short conversation with him but there were a lot of people in our area that I felt that way about. They were nice enough on the surface but you got the feeling there wasn’t a whole lot under the surface. I had never really fit in with the other women in the neighborhood. I didn’t have much in common with them. I didn’t care about the same things they did. While they were busy shopping and hanging out at the country club, I was tramping about in the wilderness with all my gear strapped to my back. They didn’t understand me and the feeling was mutual. Beth and I became fast friends in our mutual dislike of the superficiality of our suburban stomping grounds. Our children quickly banded together, too.

“Anyway, you’ll see,” Beth said. “Nearly everyone here gathers together for meals so you can judge for yourself.”

We sent the kids out to play in the relative safety of the storage yard while Josh and I brought in the supplies from the Jeep. Beth told us that she and her kids, Olivia, Eliza and Wade, drove here before the power went out. She knew the code to open our garage door because  Olivia had taken care of our diabetic cat when we were out of town. Hoping we used the same code for access to the camper, Beth risked all their lives to get somewhere safer. The large windows of the houses in our subdivision had been big selling points before the zombies but were now liabilities when trying to defend against the monsters.

Josh, Beth and I unloaded the supplies from the car and tried to find places for all the goods in the tiny storage areas in the camper. Beth filled us in on the workings of the storage-yard society.

“Meals here are a potluck,” she said, “everyone brings a dish to share. You take your own plates and utensils and such because there aren’t any extras. It’s bizarre because it feels like a block party but you can still hear the moans of the biters outside the fence.”

The three of us sat relaxing under the awning of the camper, shaded from the bright sun, and watched the kids play games on the pavement. Seeing the kids make up games with what toys they had reminded me of my own childhood before electronics were as all-consuming as they had been just a few weeks ago. I smiled to myself as I was again reminded that the younger ones would adjust much easier than the adults. It was a pleasant afternoon despite the creepy sounds coming from the other side of the fence.

For our first meal in the community, I cooked up three cans of baked beans to share with the others. I debated with myself about how much to share because, although we were well-stocked at the moment, it wouldn’t last forever. I didn’t want to seem like I was holding out but I also didn’t want to use up our entire food supply in three days.

Folding tables had been set up in the open area by the main gate. Casseroles made from canned meat and vegetables were in abundance on the first table. Only a few weeks into this nightmare and I already missed fresh meat and vegetables. If this went on much longer, I’d have to learn to hunt and garden. Side dishes filled the second table and desserts were crowded onto the third. Beth was right; it was a block party, complete with people laughing and drinking and kids playing. The only thing missing was the smell of grilling burgers and hot dogs. My stomach growled at that memory and I hoped we’d get to eat soon.

Brent gave the signal and we all lined up to fill our plates. Folding camp chairs and blankets served as dining areas. I looked around at the members of our new community, noting the ones I recognized and wondering about those I didn’t. I listened to the conversations drifting around me and was surprised no one was discussing the situation outside the walls. It seems like my new neighbors were determined to pretend this really was nothing more than a block party. One gathering was talking politics as if a government still existed and another was talking about their favorite TV show as if the cable was coming back on any second.

“Does anyone here talk about it?” I asked Beth.

“Not really,” she answered. “They all just act like everything is normal.”

“But our supplies won’t hold out forever,” I said. “Has anyone discussed what to do when that happens?”

She shook her head and turned away, ending our conversation. Beth never shied away from a discussion so I was a little confused that she did now. I’ll ask her later when we’re back at the camper, I thought, and decided to join the group in temporarily ignoring the problems outside.

I was dismayed to find more than a can of beans left in the pan I’d brought to the dinner as the meal ended. I looked at the rest of the containers on the table and found almost all of them still held food. Without electricity there was no way to keep the leftovers. All of this is going to go to waste, I realized. We cannot keep doing this. I picked up my beans and decided to force feed the rest to my family and friends. No way was I going to let them go bad. I hated baked beans but I’d eat some, too, just on principle.

That night we cleaned up the kids as best we could with baby wipes and dry shampoo. I’d give nearly anything for an actual hot shower. A week ago, I’d finally broken down and used some of our precious bottled water to wash everyone’s hair but we were all looking pretty greasy again.

“Let’s take a walk,” Beth said, as we closed the door to the kids’ bunk room. “We can do a few laps around the yard.” The kids were asleep and safe enough so the three of us set out.

We strolled past the tents and campers into an area of the compound that didn’t yet have any residents. Beth glanced around. “I’m sorry I cut you off earlier. Like I said when you first came in, there’s something strange happening here. I don’t know what it is but if you try to talk with people about saving food or water, they look at you like they have no idea what you’re talking about.

“I’ve tried to discuss this with Brent but he shuts the conversation down even faster than the others. It just seems off and I don’t understand it. I get the feeling that if you question things too much they’ll send you outside. I didn’t want to keep talking during dinner and all of us have a problem later if things get even weirder.”

Beth’s uneasiness with the situation at the storage facility mirrored my own. That was one of the reasons I liked her so much; we were often on the same wavelength even if neither of us could put words to it. “That is odd,” Josh said. “There are no measures in place to monitor or ration supplies and I saw that no one has opened any of the lockers to see what might be inside.”

Beth bent down to tie her shoe. “The guards on the roofs keep looking this way and I don’t trust them,” she said in a low voice. “Let’s keep moving. We can discuss this later.”

The trailer was stifling as I tried to sleep that night but it wasn’t the temperature keeping me awake. I was trying to figure out why on earth Brent and the other inhabitants would choose to ignore the reality outside our fences. Nothing I came up made sense. I decided to start rationing our own things and setting out containers to collect rain water. We could use the rain water to bathe and I could always filter it if we ran out of bottled water. I finally fell asleep, comforted by knowing we would survive a little longer.

Zombies in Suburbia

 

Since I started writing again, The Pilot has been bugging me to write a story about zombies. We’re big fans of The Walking Dead and often discuss what it would be like to live in such a world and how we’d survive it. We frequently frighten friends and family with phrases like “when the zombies come” and “that’ll get you killed in the zombie apocalypse”. We’re not really serious (at least I’m not) but it’s fun to mess with people.

Now that The Lost Fortune of the Smoky Mountains has been sent out to various agents and publishers (and been rejected by most of them), I’ve started on the zombie story for The Pilot. It began as a short story idea but I’ve since decided to expand it to a full novel, tentatively titled Preparation Z. It’s been fun imaging what would happen if zombies invaded suburbia. Who is going to survive? And who is going to thrive in this new world?

I hope you enjoy Chapter 1. Please let me know what you think.

***

Chapter 1: Sweet Revenge

“Now aren’t you glad I bought all these things, Samantha?” Josh asked me as we were loading the back of the Jeep. Josh had been prepping for this event for years – ever since we started watching that show about zombies. Every time a new “Zombie Killer” weapon showed up at the house, I teased him mercilessly. I rolled my eyes at him and slid in another box of the canned food Josh had accused me of hoarding.

“Aren’t you glad I had all of this food on hand?” I asked. While Josh had been foolishly wasting money on knives and guns, I had been wisely preparing our family for a natural disaster, one that would make a quick trip to the grocery store impossible. Turns out we were both being smart.

The kids were already sitting in the car and had strict instructions to stay there no matter what. Banging on the garage door reminded me that we weren’t packing for a weekend camping trip and this wasn’t the time to bicker over which of us had been better prepared.

“Let’s go over the plan one more time,” I said, closing the hatch on the Jeep. I didn’t want the kids to overhear us and become more scared than they already were. “I’m going to slide up the garage door and you’ll back out as soon as it’s up.” Josh nodded his agreement. I wanted to just smash through the door but Josh was right. We couldn’t risk damaging our getaway vehicle, especially with the kids inside. “Then I’ll run to the car, jump inside and we’ll take off?”

“That’s the plan,” Josh said.

“Then let’s do this.” I took my place behind the carefully crafted pile of toys and hoped it would keep the monsters off me long enough to execute this half-assed plan. I bounced the machete in my hand, trying to find the right balance. Josh started the Jeep and rolled down the passenger window, giving him a clear shot to help me if I got in trouble. On the count of three, I threw up the garage door, ready to face the rotting but ambulatory corpses that were once our neighbors.

I recognized some of the things as they surged toward me. My kids used to play at that one’s house with her son. Where is her son? I wondered as I stabbed her in the eye. I really hoped the kids had covered their eyes like I had told them. They didn’t need to see their friend’s mom like this. Josh took out a few I didn’t know as he backed out of the garage, giving me a clear path to the Jeep that was now idling in the driveway. This was the first time any of us had been out of the house in the weeks since the world had gone to shit. As if to mock the horror our neighborhood had become, the day was perfect; the kind of day that once would have brought all the kids out to play together in the cul de sac.

I ran for the car as more of the undead shambled up the driveway.  The kids cheered from the back when I made it safely inside and hit the button to close the window. Josh ran over more as we backed into the street. I couldn’t help looking back at the house we’d built, the only house our kids had ever lived in. As much as I loved that house we couldn’t stay there. It just wasn’t defensible enough. There were too many windows to keep the zombies and the looters out.

“Josh, stop the car,” I said.

“Are you crazy?” he asked, pointing at the creatures in the street.

“Probably,” I said, “but I can’t pass up the opportunity to kill that one. Pull up beside it and I’ll roll down the window just far enough to take her out.” It has once been the woman I hated most in the neighborhood, the one who was mean to my kids and talked shit about everyone.

Shaking his head, Josh did as I asked. I cracked the window and slid the machete through the small space. The thing opened her mouth and reached toward the opening, trying hard to get a bite of me. “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person,” I whispered as I watched her patchy red hair fly off with the rest of her head.

“So?” Josh asked.

“Oddly satisfying,” I said, wondering what kind of monster I was becoming.

We’d made it through the first part of the plan without getting eaten, and it was time to move to the next step. We didn’t have far to go. Our camper, the one I’d begged for a few years ago, was at a nearby storage yard. The facility was surrounded by a 10-foot-tall fence between the solid brick buildings. There probably weren’t too many people inside. The plan was to move into the trailer and use the fence to keep out the monsters, both the dead and living kinds. We’d be able to move the trailer if we were getting overrun and still have shelter wherever we ended up.  The problem was that the gates didn’t work without electricity and the power had gone out just a few days after all hell broke loose. I didn’t know how we were going to get the Jeep inside the fence. Nor did we know what was between us and there.

Josh did his best to avoid running over any more creatures on the short trip to the storage facility. Like deer, though, some jumped in front of the Jeep at the last minute and got taken out. Every time we hit one, I cringed and wondered what kind of damage was being done to our vehicle. Without that hunk of metal and rubber, we’d be up close and personal with the zombies. I didn’t want to risk that with the kids if we could help it.

We lived in a large, suburban neighborhood with close to a thousand homes. All those families turned into the undead, wandering their overgrown lawns. Weeks later, it was still surreal. Ours was no longer the only one on the block with weeds growing in the landscaping but I’d take that embarrassment over this living nightmare. If there were any other families still alive in the addition, they were still hunkered down inside their homes. Maybe they would see us drive by and feel brave enough to leave too.

The horde thinned once we left the neighborhood. One of the advantages of living in suburbia were larger lots and fewer people than in the city center. The storage unit was close by and had been a major topic of discussion when it was built. Few of the homeowners wanted a storage unit within sight of their beautiful homes. I have to say I was with the majority on that subject. Now, though, I was mighty glad to have it so close. We were almost there.

“Katie and Drew, you two stay in the car unless your dad or I tell you to get out. If we tell you to get out, do it immediately without arguing. This is very important,” I said. Katie and Drew were good kids and usually listened but not always. Katie was 10 and Drew was 8. Both still young enough to be terrified into inaction and I needed them to do exactly what we asked. I coached the kids on the next part of the plan. “Dad and I are going to try to force the gate open. Drew, you watch your dad and yell if any monsters are coming toward him. Katie, your job is to make sure none are coming toward me. Got it?”

Josh tucked the Jeep against the brick wall of the storage unit building, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze out but not enough for a zombie to fit through. That was the hope, anyway. The back of the Jeep was lined up with the edge of the gate so we wouldn’t have to wait for it to fully open before reversing inside the fenced area. On the other hand, if we weren’t able to get the gate open, we could quickly toss our supplies through the gate before climbing over the fence.

A few zombies shuffled along the short access road but no more than I thought we could handle. We’d spent the last couple of weeks practicing our zombie-killing skills on the undead that got stuck against our backyard fence and I was pretty confident we could hold them off. I snaked my way around the car and shot the closest one in the head so Josh could get out too. He stepped up to the gate mechanism and I positioned myself to defend him.

“Hurry, Josh,” I said, eying the approaching group. There were more than I’d initially thought and the throaty boom of my 12 gauge had lured them closer. I should probably use the knife, I thought, but didn’t want them to get that close while Josh was distracted by the gate.

“I don’t think I can get this open, Sam,” Josh said amid curses at the device. “I think we’re going to have to climb over.”

The horde neared the front of the car that held our children and all of our survival gear. I could hear Katie and Drew screaming inside the car. We were going to have to fight hard to get to them. I stepped from behind the car and took aim at what used to be a man. He was wearing a polo shirt with the logo of the gas station where I always stopped. He didn’t look familiar but I probably had interacted with him before. I put some buckshot in his head anyway.

“What the hell? How?” Josh said just as I realized the gate to the storage unit was rising.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I shouted for Josh to get inside and I’d bring the car in. I was closer to the driver’s side and there was only one monster in my way. Katie’s door flew open and I started to yell at her for getting out of the car when I saw that she’d smashed the door into the zombie blocking my way.

“Way to go, Katie!” I said and hopped into the Jeep, throwing it in reverse. I squealed the tires backing up, something Josh would have been mad at me before but I was pretty sure he would be okay with it this time.

“How’d you get the gate open?” I asked Josh when I got out of the car. Zombies shoved their arms through the openings still trying to get at us, mindlessly opening and closing their mouth. The relentless groans grated on my nerves but I turned my back on them and let the kids out of the car.

“Josh?”

Josh wasn’t paying attention to me. He was looking up at the top of the nearest building, staring at the weapons pointing down at us. I pushed Katie and Drew behind me and raised my arms slowly.

“Who are you?” a voice called from above. “What do you want?”

Adventures in the Grand Canyon (Or How I Almost Died in Arizona)

About a week before Halloween I took off for a bucket-list adventure with my sister and niece. Somehow we managed to book an overnight mule ride to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and secured elusive permits for the campground at Havasu Falls in the Havasupai Indian Reservation. The mule ride must be scheduled at least a year in advance and the window for Havasu Falls opens on Feb. 1 each year. Only 300 people per day are allowed on the reservation so permits are hard to come by. We were very lucky to be able to do both in the same week.

The Sister and The Niece had never been to Las Vegas so we started our trip with a few days hanging out there. I had been to Vegas but with an 8-month-old baby in tow so I didn’t really get the full experience. An early flight and the three-hour time difference had us in bed by 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in Las Vegas. These party animals were up bright and early the next day and set off to explore the big city. We walked from our hotel (Treasure Island) on one end of the strip to Mandalay Bay on the other end to see the aquariums at Mandalay. The sea life exhibit is definitely something to see and worth the admission price but the included polar exhibit was underwhelming. Shopping and sightseeing done and $35 poured into the slot machines, we were in bed early again to head to the Grand Canyon the next morning.

We drove right by Hoover Dam on our way so we made a short stop to marvel at the gigantic structure. It’s worth the stop and it’s amazing to realize that it was built before many of the technologies we take for granted. My favorite part was rubbing the feet of the Winged Figures of the Republic for luck. I love Art Deco styling and I enjoyed all of the architectural details on the dam. But our main objective was to get to the big hole in the ground before sunset. A few hours later, we checked into our lodge at the Grand Canyon and for our mule ride. We made it in time to watch the sun go down over the natural wonder and head to bed for our early morning mule ride appointment.

The mules were brought into a stone corral and each rider was assigned a mule. The Sister and I were nervously saying how one of us was going to be assigned to the biggest mule in the bunch. The Sister’s mule was led over and she was a dainty little thing named Delilah. The Niece was put on a slightly larger animal named Sansa. (No one was sure whether the mule was named after the Game of Throne character but I have to assume so.) And then it was my turn. I was assigned to Lucy. Lucy towered over all the other mules in the group. I’ve ridden bigger animals but arena riding on a huge horse is much different than trail riding on a giant mule that hangs her head over 1,000-foot drops beside the path. For the first hour of the trip, I was sure I was going to plunge right over the edge with this animal. Despite the assurances of the wranglers that no one has died in the 100-plus years of mule rides because of the mule, I knew I was going to be the first.

Eventually the ground leveled out a little and there were fewer sheer drops to make me want to pee myself and the ride became more enjoyable. I was able to focus more on the scenery around me and less on the fact that I was about to die. The geology of the canyon is incredible and spans billions and billions of years from the top to the bottom. The vastness is incomprehensible even when you’re down inside it.

Ten miles from the start at the top we rode into Phantom Ranch in the bottom without having plummeted off a cliff. Saddle sore and tired, The Sister, The Niece and I decided to hike to the Colorado River that we’d crossed on the way in. The hike was relatively short but did wonders for working out aching muscles. Signs warned of the dangerous currents of the Colorado River so we just put our feet in the cold water for a few minutes and relaxed on the sandy beach before heading back for a steak dinner and another early bedtime. At dinner, I realized that you could mail postcards from the store and they’d be marked as having been mailed by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wanted to send those postcards to the kiddos at home but the store closed for dinner and didn’t reopen until 8 p.m. It was a struggle to stay awake long enough to mail those postcards but I did it! My companions, however, were sound asleep by then, snug and warm in our cozy cabin that had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly a century ago.

I was dreading the ride back to the top because it was so frightening on the way down. I can say unequivocally, though, that the trip up was much less frightening than the trip down. I don’t know if I was used to Lucy by then or just too overwhelmed to care as much but it was more enjoyable. The worst part was resting the mules. They’re working hard to haul us up the inclines and deserve to take breaks frequently. I just wish we hadn’t had to turn the mules to face into the canyon, looking over those dramatic cliffs. The wranglers want the mules to see where they don’t want to go. That makes perfect sense but Lucy was being a bit of a pain that day and fighting with the mules next to her, kicking and biting at them. I was imagining a kick from her neighbor that would send us both flying into thin air.

Safely back at the top, we dismounted and said goodbye to our rides and fellow adventurers, including the 80-year-old woman who was checking off her own bucket-list item. We’re now officially “mule wranglers” and have the certificates to prove it. A few stops for souvenirs and we set off for the next leg of the trip, heading to the Havasupai Indian Reservation for an early trek into the canyon to see the waterfalls.

The trail head was about an hour away from the only hotel in the area and we hit the trail about 9:30 a.m., later than originally planned but typical for us. The hike started with about a mile or so of switchbacks leading into the canyon, easy enough when going down. The rest of the eight-mile hike into the village of Supai was relatively flat and led through red-rock canyons and along dry creek beds. I love the Southwest and find the starkness beautiful. The temperature was warm but not too warm and made for an enjoyable hike. By the time we reached Supai, though, I was tired and hungry and we still had two miles to the campground. The village is only accessible by foot, hoof or helicopter and we watched a chopper bring in load after load of supplies. You can take the helicopter out of the canyon for under $100 but residents and cargo go first so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a ride out.

We stopped at the village café to get some dinner and rest before continuing on to the campground. If you read reviews about Supai, you’ll find that some people think the residents are rude and unfriendly. We didn’t really find that to be true except when my order at the café (which was placed first) hadn’t even been started by the time my partners had finished eating their meals. It was getting late, the sun was going down and we still had to get to the campground where we had to find a site and set up tents. I’m hangry by this point so I get my cheeseburger to go and we get back on the trail. Our first glimpse of the beautiful turquoise water came at Little Navaho Falls before we entered the campground. We snapped a few pictures but wanted to have camp set up before dark so we didn’t linger. The majestic Havasu Falls marked the entrance to the campground and again we took a few photos but hurried on. The Niece and I picked the first suitable campsite next to the rushing creek. I’m sure there were better sites further along but I was ready to drop my pack and get my tent up.

We had one full day at Havasu Falls and we started by heading back to the village to arrange for mules to carry our packs out the next day. (The cost is $121/mule which can carry up to four packs. It’s completely worth the money.) Then we hiked to Mooney Falls on the far end of the campground. It was a short walk but a dangerous climb down to the bottom of the falls. We had to travel through tunnels in the side of the cliff and the last bit required going down steps hacked into the rock while holding onto a chain railing. I noped out of that one but The Niece was game to descend. She got part of the way down when she met a large group coming back up so none of us made it to the bottom of Mooney Falls. We headed back to Little Navaho Falls and spent some time admiring it. It is not as high as Mooney or Havasu falls but it was my favorite because it’s wider and the water is split by multiple big boulders. It reminded me of the waterfalls you see in the Smoky Mountains.

Back at camp we changed into swimming gear and sandals and headed back to Havasu Falls. It was about 72 degrees that day and the water was brisk. The Sister and The Niece were determined to swim but I again chickened out and decided just to get my feet wet. I don’t enjoy swimming all that much and I definitely don’t enjoy swimming in very cold water. We had a quick lunch next to the falls and The Sister and The Niece headed into the water. I took some pictures of the two of them in the water before posing for pictures myself in front of the waterfall.  Wanting to get back to camp so the two of them could dry before the sun set, we were back in time to see a group of about 25 Boy Scouts set up in the large site next to ours. Despite our fears, they group was polite and mostly quiet. Many of the boys were in their tents long before the adults heading off to bed.

We had to get up early the next morning to have our packs ready for the mules by 7 a.m. We made it with plenty of time to spare and shoved a few snacks into our pockets for the hike out. At Supai we stopped for a breakfast pastry and hit the trail to hike out. It was clear very early on that this was going to be a difficult hike for me. I did not realize how much the trail had descended on our way in and it seemed to be a constant, slight uphill trek on the way out. The Sister and The Niece are faster hikers than me and, not wanting to hold them up, I told them to hike ahead and I would see them at the top.

The further I hiked, the harder it got. There were times I would walk about 100 feet and then have to stop for a minute to rest. A 10-mile hike takes a long time under the best of circumstances but this struggle was going to make it even longer. I gave myself pep talks along the way, telling myself there was only one way out of the canyon and that was on my own two feet, that I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. On the way down, I had barely drunk any water so as we headed out I thought my Nalgene bottle full of water was going to be enough. Boy, was I wrong.

About 7 miles into the hike, long after my companions had reached the trail head, I was taking one of my frequent breaks in the shade. The sun had become intense and reflected off the rocks, driving the temperature even higher. I had a tiny amount of water left in my bottle and was starting to worry a bit about running out. As I was sitting there, a group came along and asked if I was The Sister. He handed me a half full bottle of water that my sister had sent down for me. I could have cried. OK, I did cry a little but not until that group had walked away.

I managed to make it a couple more miles and was out of the canyon itself. Now I was facing a trail that traveled sharply uphill from this point on. And I had to go to the bathroom. Anyone who has spent any time in the wilderness knows there’s only one place to go. And I was in a wide open section of trail with only knee-high scrub brush to hide behind. With no choice, I took care of business and sat down on a rock for another necessary rest break.

Throughout the canyon I’d had intermittent cell service and I had fully realized by then that I needed some help to get the rest of the way out. Water critically low and nothing but some Oreos in the way of food, I was beginning to get scared. As I turned on my phone to send a text requesting help to The Sister, I was almost in tears again to see I had no service on that section of trail. Then I see a woman running towards me. She stopped and asked my name, then told me The Sister had sent me and asked how I was doing. You know how when someone asks that you just automatically say “Fine” or “Good”? I first said “I’m good” and then realized I wasn’t good. I needed help.

Jessica, my trail angel, gave me a 5 Hour Energy and had three bottles of water with her. I chugged the first bottle and she gave me a pep talk about how we were going to get to the top. She was patient with me each time I needed to rest and told me about her life, effectively taking my mind off my immediate struggles. We only had about a mile of trail left but it was all up. We stopped many times and talked about the wild horses we saw below us. She told me about her kids and I talked about mine.  She encouraged me every step of the way, even when I was feeling ridiculous for having gotten into such a bad place.

In the end, we made it to the top. I know I would have made out of that freaking canyon eventually but it would have taken me much longer than if Jessica had not been with me for the last mile or so. I’d love to blame my struggle with the hike on jet lag or elevation or anything else but the truth is that it was simply my fault for not being prepared for that difficult of a hike. Poor lifestyle choices (being overweight, not exercising enough and smoking again after five years of being off cigarettes) on top of not carrying enough food and water for the trek are the real culprits. I wasn’t really going to die in that canyon but that ill-fated hike was enough to make me think about some changes I need to make.

What it didn’t do, though, was take away my adventurous spirit. The Sister and I are already making plans to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. But first I have to quit smoking.

 

Under Attack

KA-THUNK! That was our first clue that the campsite we’d chosen at Mounds State Park in Anderson, IN, wasn’t the best choice. Although large and shady, we quickly realized the shade was provided by walnut trees; walnut trees that were rapidly dropping their fruit to the ground. A brisk wind helped bring the nuts down even faster.

After a relatively restless night with the adults kept awake by loud thumps on the roof of the camper – I still don’t know how the kids slept through it – we decided our best bet would be to see if a different campsite was available. Lucky for us, there was one left. This one had no trees at all to provide shade but the temperature was comfortable enough without it. Unfortunately we didn’t move quite fast enough as we discovered two large dents in our Durango; dents that hadn’t been there the day before. We should have had the kids wearing their bicycle helmets, too, because as we were hooking up the Fun Finder to relocate it, a perfectly timed falling nut bonked The Boy on the head.

Walnuts, 3; campers, 0.

Move complete and head injury soothed, we decided to explore the park. Mounds State Park is one of only a few places in the country that has preserved Native American earthworks. The titular moIMG_3783unds at the state park are believed to have been built by the Adena-Hopewell peoples around 160 B.C. There are several examples of the earthworks in the park, including the Great Mound and the Fiddleback Mound. We hiked around these two formations and interpretive signs were helpful for understanding why these prehistoric people built them. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources website, archeological surveys indicate the mounds were used for religious gatherings and for viewing astronomical alignments on the summer and winter solstices (http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2977.htm). Archeologists have uncovered later burials within the mounds but that was not their original purpose, contrary to what I had always thought.

The park trails wind through hills, ravines and hardwood forest. It was quiet and cool in the woods even though it was an unseasonably warm fall weekend. The White River borders the state park and a trail leads hikers to an ideal fishing spot on the river. We hadn’t brought our poles so the kids contented themselves with putting a hand in a small spring trickling into the bigger river. Mosquitoes drove us out of the woods fairly quickly, which is unusual in early October.

Mounds State Park is a small park that is located only a few miles from Interstate 69 so it was an easy drive for us from northern Indiana. With only about 60 campsites, the campground is also smaller than most we’ve visited. There’s a nice mix of shade and open sites so you have a pretty good choice. I would just recommend avoiding the sites covered with walnut trees in the fall.

The kids enjoyed the playground area, which is set off from the campsites a little bit. The campground was small enough that I felt comfortable letting the kids go play by themselves. Aside from the walnut bombs, there were two other things I didn’t like about the campground. First, a railroad track runs close to the park and it’s very busy. Second, a small airport borders one side of the campground, also very busy with small planes flying in and out regularly. I enjoy camping to get away from the sounds of the city and these two things were a small annoyance. I’m not complaining, really, just be aware if you’re looking for a more peaceful experience.

All in all, Mounds is a nice park and gives local kids a chance to learn about the ancient peoples who once inhabited our state. The nature center is top-notch, with aquariums full of native species and a gorgeous wildlife viewing area. They have lots of hands-on displays for the younger kids and plenty of interactive stations for the older ones.

I’m sad that it’s time to put the Fun Finder away for the winter. We have had some great trips during our first season as camper owners and learned from multiple mistakes. We stuck pretty close to home this summer as we were getting used to towing the beast and learning all the ins and outs of travel trailer living. I’m already dreaming of next summer’s adventures and planning to get farther away from home on our travels to Find Fun.

Sticker shock

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In a moment of insanity, The Pilot and I let the kids choose our next vacation. We’re not completely crazy, of course, so we gave them only two choices. Option A was to take the Fun Finder on a two-week camping trip through Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Option B was to spend a few days at Walt Disney World. I’ll let you decide which I was rooting for. And I’ll let you decide which the kids chose.

Yep. We’re going to Disney World in a few months. I am not excited by this idea. Not one little bit. I tried my hardest to make a long camping trip sound exciting and adventurous, while maximizing the tedious lines and heat of inland Florida. But that stupid mouse won in the end. Going to the Happiest Place on Earth is a good idea in theory but I am not a people person. While I do enjoy the occasional social outing with a select few friends, even grocery shopping in the middle of a weekday can make me irate. Add in hot, whiny, bored kids and I’m already annoyed.

Two of my trusted friends have assured me that I’ll have a good time despite my crappy attitude and told me I should fully embrace the experience. I let myself sulk for a few days that I wasn’t getting the trip *I* wanted then decided to take their advice. My initial plan was to spend no more than two days in the parks then drive to the Everglades. I’ve seen the Everglades in passing but haven’t spent any time there so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity. The kids would get to see their damn mouse and I’d get some nature therapy.

As I started planning our trip, however, I realized that it was nearly as expensive for just two or three days as it would be for a full week. Carpe Disney, I thought, and planned for a whole week. We have to make sacrifices for our kids, right? Isn’t that what being a parent is all about? A week at a crowded park with little chance of recharging my batteries with solitude is really stretching my willingness to sacrifice, though.

I quickly realized that putting together a trip to Walt Disney World is more complicated than planning a wedding. Which section of the park do you want to stay in? Do you want a value-, moderate- or deluxe-priced resort? Which hotel within that price range do you want? What type of room in the hotel do you want? Do you want to be able to visit multiple parks on the same day? Which dining plan do you want? What flights? What type of ground transportation do you need? And we haven’t even gotten to choosing specific restaurants yet. I was ready to throw in the towel before the price was even calculated.

And then the cost was revealed. I came very close to ruining my computer because I choked on my wine. Trust me, you will need some type of alcoholic beverage to navigate the planning process and stomach the cost. I could have a really nice solo Australian getaway for the cost of this week in Florida — even at off-season prices. But we’ve promised the kids and it’s a one-time only trip so we sucked it up and booked the trip.

In the end, I most likely will enjoy the trip and the kids will definitely have a good time. We are going off-season because I draw the line at visiting during the busiest times and the grayness of winter in northern Indiana will be wearing on me by then. Besides, I’ve been told you can drink around the world in Epcot and the margaritas are to die for. That’s where you can find me when it gets too people-y for my sanity.

Thanks for letting me use your photo, Elizabeth, and avoid being sued for copyright infringement.

Sand, sand and more sand

Little SableLast weekend we took the Fun Finder to the west coast of Michigan for a quick getaway. Silver Lake is in sand dune country on the shores of Lake Michigan. Silver Lake is a smaller lake between the dunes and the campground of the state park. We got there late Friday night, well after dark even though we took the kids out of school early so that wouldn’t happen. Somehow we end up behind schedule no matter how much we plan ahead. I don’t get it because the only things we need to pack and haul to the camper are our clothes and food. Everything else we need for a camping weekend is already in the trailer.

We weren’t even 15 minutes into the trip when The Girl tells us she has to go potty. Of course, she does. Since she’s only 6, we take these pronouncements very seriously lest we end up with a puddle in the back seat. Then we had to stop for dinner because we would be getting to the campground too late to fix dinner there.  Then we had to stop for gas because the fuel mileage in our Durango is atrocious when we’re towing the camper. Then we had another potty break before finally arriving at the park. What should have been a four-hour trip became a more-than-five-hour one.

Now it’s time to fill the freshwater tank. We can never remember which side the fresh water is on and which side the black and gray water pipes are on. I think I’m going to make a sign that says “fresh on the right, gross on the left” to keep in the car so we don’t have this debate every time we take the camper out. Every campground we’ve been to with the Fun Finder has all the water spigots on the left. Silver Lake was no exception. Great. A little maneuvering and all is good. We have water and get the camper parked on our site.

Did I mention that Silver Lake is made of sand dunes? This became important as we tried to level the camper around the drainage ditch that ran through the middle of our site. We have those snap together blocks to drive the camper onto to level it. After multiple attempts and using pieces of wood to keep the blocks from sinking into the sand, we gave up and said “good enough”.  It was actually fairly level but I think that may because the whole trailer sank into the sand.  The kids fell asleep pretty quickly that night so Daddy and I enjoyed a couple of adult beverages with some of the people we were camping with before calling it a night too.

Some of the reviews we read about Silver Lake before we left said the DNR staff was very strict about noise levels. I believe one review related the staff to the Gestapo and stated that people were forced to gather in the restrooms to hold normal conversations. It was a pretty quiet campground but the only issue we had was when a ranger asked us to turn off the outside speakers because it was officially quiet time. It was well after 10 p.m. when the ranger came by so I don’t think Gestapo is really a fair description. “Rules enforcer” would be more accurate.

Despite our late night, the kids were up bright and early the next morning. The Boy, using his 8-year-old logic, decided he’d let Mom and Dad sleep a little more and get his own breakfast. That would have been fantastic if he hadn’t taken a box of Rice Krispies into his bunk and spilled them everywhere. His bed, the floor, the bunkhouse dinette seats were all covered in little crunchy bits of cereal that were crushed underfoot as he tried to clean them. A little help from Mom and all the Rice Krispies dust was swept up.

The Girl has a love of the beach and begs to go every time we’re near one. We relaxed at camp until after lunch when we decided to give in to The Girl’s pleas and head to Lake Michigan. We followed the signs for the lighthouse and found ourselves on a beach. Little Sable light house offers tours and you can go all the way to the top for a 360-degree view of the area. We did not take the tour because neither of the children wanted to and I didn’t feel like listening to them whine all the way up. I’ve been to the top of a Great Lakes lighthouse (Au Sable in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore) and The Pilot is afraid of heights, which is a pretty odd phobia for someone who flies airplanes for a living. I think it was $5 per adult and maybe $3 per child for the tour but I’d check that if you want to go. There was a small gift shop on site too.

There’s a roomy beach at Little Sable and it wasn’t very crowded. I’m assuming it would be much busier before Labor Day but the weather in mid-September was perfect, mid-80s and sunny. The water on Lake Michigan was a little rough. A few people were trying to surf but they weren’t having much luck. The kids played in the cold waves for a little bit before we decided to head back to Silver Lake for calmer, warmer water.

Silver Lake has a nice beach too and there weren’t many people there. Again, I’m sure it’s a different story during the peak summer season. Silver Lake is a large lake that can handle speed boats and Jet Skis. The beach is really shallow for a long way out, making it perfect for my less-than-perfect swimmers. I didn’t have to worry they would accidentally step into deep water. I was even able to lounge in the sun on the beach while the kids were playing in the water. We spent several hours at Silver Lake and there’s a playground available for the kids to enjoy while drying off. The park has a picnic area with charcoal grills and clean bathroom/changing facilities.

We had a potluck dinner that night with the rest of our group and called it a night pretty early. The sun takes it out of you, ya know? Part of our group had spent the day SCUBA diving a shipwreck in Lake Michigan and the others went to a nearby winery, the Fox Barn. Yes, I had them bring back wine for me, including a delicious blueberry one. The divers said the shipwreck was neat so if you’re into that sort of thing you could check that out too. Silver Lake has a designated off road vehicle area so people are able to play on the dunes with their ORVs. One member of our group took her four-door Jeep Wrangler out.

Sunday morning was spent relaxing over breakfast and packing up to head home. Check out time for Silver Lake is 1 p.m., which we missed by a few minutes. The campground was pretty empty so I don’t think the rangers would have enforced it even if we’d left a little later. All in all, I’d recommend Silver Lake as a fun getaway, though definitely be prepared to have sand everywhere. It was in my teeth, my hair, the camper and we’re still finding pockets of sand at home. I would recommend an off-season visit as it would be pretty crowded with summer travelers.

For more information, you can visit this website: http://www.michigan.org/property/silver-lake-state-park.

 

Suffering

It was a lazy holiday weekend and I haven’t done much work on my latest short story so I’m sharing a piece I wrote for a creative writing class I took a few years ago while (finally) finishing my bachelor’s degree. This assignment was to write a nonfiction piece in second person. I had a hard time writing in second person but I think it works well for this story. It wasn’t just the point of view that made this assignment so difficult for me. This work details the helplessness and fear that I felt while my then-2-year-old son was fighting leukemia but before we had a diagnosis. That 2-year-old is now a healthy 8-year-old and cancer-free. Re-reading this work brought me to tears. It is impossible to tell anyone what the time Before Diagnosis was like but this comes close.

Suffering

Three in the morning. Even the insects are asleep at this hour. But not you. Not you and not your little boy. Neither of you has been to sleep yet. Neither of you has slept more than an hour or two for days. The grit of sleeplessness is embedded in your eyes and you think you could sleep for days. But there is a whimpering two-year-old on the couch and there will be little sleep again this night.

Night turns the windows into mirrors, and a hollow-eyed specter stares back at you from the darkness. You shift your focus to the blackness beyond the windows so you don’t have to confront the worry so evident on that face. Stars dot the sky and a sliver of moon is just visible above the pine boughs dancing in the wind. On the bushes just outside the glass, tight flower buds that are hot pink in the daylight appear gray right now, the color washed away by night.

The playroom has become a makeshift sick bay. The boy whimpers and cries when you try to pick him up so the sofa has become his bed and a nest of blankets marks the place where you pretend to rest on the floor next to him. Your attempts to give soothing cuddles simply cause more pain-induced wails so you can only hold his hand to comfort him. How much easier it would be if he could tell you where it hurts, you think.

“It’s going to be OK, Pumpkin Pie. You’re going to be OK,” you whisper as you smooth the blond curls from his blazing forehead. “Let’s take your temperature again.” He doesn’t resist the cold thermometer under his arm and that passivity tells you that his temperature is going to be in the stratosphere again. Wide blue eyes, their usual smiling brightness muted by fever, search your face and you can’t help but think they look at you accusingly. “Why don’t you make me feel better, Mommy?” they scream at you. “I hurt so much. Help me.”

Holding the boy’s arm tight against the thermometer, your thoughts drift back to just a few weeks ago when he was a happy and healthy child, running through the grass with shrieks of delight. So perfect at bedtime and so sick the next morning. The fevers that come and go and the permeating pain he feels seem to have no cause, at least no obvious cause. This boy has had more medical tests in two months than you’ve had your entire life. Blood chemistries and spinal taps are inconclusive. Ultrasounds and MRIs and X-rays show no abnormalities. You’ve scared yourself silly looking it up online: his vague symptoms fit everything from meningitis to juvenile arthritis to leukemia and lymphoma. You send up a silent prayer to a God you don’t believe in. “Just let us find the cause. I just want to know. I need to know.”

The chime of the thermometer is as familiar to you as your ringing telephone. You dutifully record the temp, 103.7, in the chart you’ve been keeping. You’ll read off the numbers to the pediatrician’s office in morning and hope they will finally refer you to whatever specialist the boy needs. You think you will start swearing at the doctor the next time he says the word “virus.” It’s far more than a virus, and your intuition knows it. Cliché or not, mothers do know when something isn’t right.

The carpet is rough under your bare knees and the air conditioning puts a chill in the air. You can’t take away his pain and you can’t hold him but you can’t leave him either, not even for the few minutes it would take to change to warmer clothes and adjust the thermostat. Resting your forehead on the nubby fabric of the sofa so he can’t see your tears, you hold tightly to the soft pudgy hand and hope that your love and presence are enough comfort for this frightened and hurting little boy.

First drafts

“The first draft of anything is shit,” said the great Ernest Hemingway. Those words hold a special meaning for me these days as I work to polish my first manuscript. I’ve dreamed of writing a book for as long as I can remember and I have at long last achieved that dream. Now the real work begins: editing, rewriting, creating a synopsis and a query letter, editing and rewriting again and again and again. My beta readers have the second draft in their hands and I’m anxiously awaiting their reviews and suggestions. When I need a break from editing, I research the path to publication. One suggestion that keeps popping up is that agents and publishers like authors who already have an online presence. And so Camping and Other Ways to Stay Sane was born.

As the title of this blog suggests, there’s more to me than writing. I find myself inspired by nature and my writing reflects my love of the wilderness.  I find that I am happiest when I am outside or when I am creating something. This blog will likely be a reflection of the usually scattered aspects of my life. Here’s a short of list of topics I may write about:

Camping: Our family bought a camper this year. I enjoy getting away from the suburbs and spending time around the campfire. I may detail camping trips we’ve taken and review the campgrounds we’ve visited. I may even include the littles’ reviews of the camping trip.

Writing: I’ve been writing (or trying to) for most of my life. I remember getting a manual typewriter for a birthday, the kind with the plastic cover to keep dust out of the keys when it wasn’t being used. I spent hours pounding out Detective Becky stories because I was a huge Nancy Drew fan and wanted so much to be like her. When I need a break from editing my manuscript, I’ve been working on a short story that I may post here when it’s finished.

Crafting: I am a creator and sometimes the words just aren’t flowing. When that block happens, I work on making crafts to break through. I find that turning my mind to something else lets the story percolate in the back of my brain and I’ve come up with some of the best aspects of my works that way.  I make wreaths, signs, t-shirts and work with vinyl decals frequently. You may see some of my projects here.

Family: I’m the wife of a commercial pilot so I spend a lot of time solo parenting my littles. Some days are great. Other days, not so much. You may get to hear about the great days and the bad ones. Probably the bad ones.

Adventure: Since I spend so much time solo parenting and my kids are still too young to be home alone, sometimes I escape to an adventure. I’m usually backpacking when on an adventure but not always. I have had adventures on horseback and on the water too. My adventures always include the outdoors, though. I can’t imagine any blog of mine without adventure posts.

These are the some of the ways I stay sane while trapped in suburbia. I look forward to sharing these with you and hearing about your methods of sanity.

Cheers!