On Tuesday evening we got back from an eleven-day road trip to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. It’s been so long since we took a trip longer than a week that it felt luxurious to be away from home that long.
The main event was a family reunion in Wheeling. For five days we stayed in a cabin in Oglebay Resort with around twenty relatives, mostly descendants of Beth’s aunt Carole, plus other local relatives who dropped by the cabin daily. If twenty people sounds like a lot to fit in a cabin, don’t worry. It was two stories, with eight bedrooms, each equipped with two double beds. It was like a small hotel.
Because Carole and her late husband Gerry moved to Ireland while they were raising their family, her kids, most of her six grandkids, and her infant great granddaughter still live there, though Carole now lives in Wheeling, where she and Beth’s mom and their two sisters were raised.
1) Morgantown, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon
On our way to Wheeling, we stopped in Morgantown. Beth’s parents met at West Virginia University and as we were also going to stop in Oberlin, our own alma mater, later in the trip, I observed we were visiting the college towns to which Beth, Noah, and June owed their very existence.
The reason for our stop in Morgantown was to visit a friend from our own college days. Stephanie was Beth’s first-year roommate in Noah Hall, where Beth and I met the following year and after which we named Noah. That’s why when she was letting us in her front door she said, “Hi, Noah. I lived in your hall.”
A brief story about Stephanie: For much of my first year of college I hung around the edges of a social group that centered around Beth and several of her friends. Stephanie was away my first semester and sometime during the spring semester, shortly after we’d met, she said to me out of the blue, “Do you write poetry or prose?” I was startled and alarmed and felt as if she had seen right into me because I did write fiction. It was years before I realized she was just playing the odds. We were at a liberal arts college and I was an intensely shy kid who observed more than she spoke. Of course I was a writer.
Stephanie and Cris just moved to Morgantown, where they’ve both taken jobs at the West Virginia University, and she was eager to show us the new house, which is lovely. They told us we were their first guests and put out a big spread for us—fruit salad, apple fritters, olives (much to June’s delight), homemade bread, and cheese. We ate and chatted for about an hour and a half about all manner of things—their move, things to do in West Virginia, and how June came to own a small colony of snails. We were sorry to leave after such a brief visit, but the reunion beckoned.
2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Evening to Friday Morning
We arrived at the cabin on Saturday evening. The rental was Friday to Friday, but another big group had arrived just before us, so there was a festive let’s-get-this-party-started atmosphere as we ate a dinner of cheesy rice bake and spaghetti and meatballs made by Beth’s cousin Sean.
We ate well all week. Beth’s mom and Carole made four lasagnas, and Beth made a big batch of her signature gazpacho with salt-crusted potatoes. Beth’s aunt Jenny made a peach cobbler and Sean’s daughter Rebecca made multiple pans of brownies.
People were arriving and leaving all week, not to mention the in-town relatives dropping by, so it was never exactly the same group, but by the end I knew who nearly everyone was. There was a lot Olympics watching and game playing and keyboard playing over the course of the week. Eanna, Sean’s youngest son, learned the music for two songs from Matilda so June could perform them for an assembled crowd of relatives two nights in a row. (He did the same thing with songs from Annie four years ago when he and June were seventeen and six. He’s a very sweet young man and he and June make a great duo.)
Over the course of the week, the group completed a thousand-piece puzzle of the Wizard of Oz. My contribution was eight to ten pieces in a poppy section. Many people helped finish the puzzle but Noah probably worked on it more than anyone. The puzzle seemed to help him interact with people, which isn’t always easy for him. It made Beth so happy that she went out and bought another puzzle of a wizard in his workshop looking through a telescope when it looked like the first one was almost done. That one got finished, too.
We celebrated two birthdays with cake. Carole’s seventy-ninth birthday party was Sunday night and this was the big event of the reunion. There was a cookout and Sean made two Indian curries (his specialty) and he gave a nice speech about how Carole has always made the places she’s lived—in several countries and several states—feel like home. There was an enormous cake decorated to look like Oglebay, with little trees and a lake and rocks made of licorice. There were probably at least forty people at the party, ranging from Carole’s ninety-something-year-old aunt to her eight-week-old great granddaughter. As it was the only night all of them were present, we took a picture of the six Junes—Andrea June (Beth’s mom), Elizabeth June (Beth), Beth’s cousins Meghan June and Laura June, our June, and the youngest, eight-month-old Delaney June, the daughter of another cousin. They are all named after Beth’s grandmother, Ida June, who went by June.
The Irish contingent was very sporty and they were always going off to mountain bike, play tennis, run, or swim. We went to the pool in different configurations almost every day. I usually went and June always did.
Some people went on day trips—there was one to Falling Water, and after we checked out of the cabin, most of the Irish went on an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., which was experiencing the hottest day of the summer with a heat index of over 110 degrees. We stayed behind.
We did go on the outing to Coopers Rock State Forest. The more ambitious people in the party left early and took a long hike while the rest of us joined them for an “epic picnic” (in Beth’s cousin Holly’s words) and then we all took a short hike to an overlook and admired the gorge. Next some of us took another hike to the bottom of the rock and back up again. A few of us squeezed into a narrow, damp crevice in the rock where the temperature fell about fifteen degrees in a few steps. The kids and I scrambled under an overhang lined with a thick layer of dead leaves and Noah saw a salamander and all of us saw a toad. There were huge millipedes all along the trail. It was a rough, rocky climb back up, especially for Jenny and Holly, who were in flip-flops.
On the last day at the cabin we took it easy. Beth and Noah spent most of the morning and good bit of the afternoon finishing the second puzzle. June got passed from one group of pool-goers to another and then after lunch, I took her again. Afterward, as we walked along the wooded trail back to the cabin, she was softly singing songs from Matilda. During the summer I often fret about the ratio of structured activities to down time, because she basically wants to do everything. But at that moment, I thought we might have gotten it about right.
3) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Friday Afternoon to Saturday Morning
Have you seen the article going around Facebook about the difference between a vacation and a trip? The gist is that if you take your kids or visit extended family, it’s not a vacation, it’s a trip. I think it’s a little hard on trips, because I wouldn’t want to spend most of my time away from home without my kids and I enjoy time with my and Beth’s family as well. But it’s true there’s a difference between getting away with just your spouse and being in a larger group. And by this measure, Beth and I hadn’t had a vacation in four and a half years, and then only if you count weekend getaways. Well, Beth’s mom helped us rectify that by taking the kids for about twenty-four hours so we could go to Pittsburgh alone.
After we checked out of the cabin Friday morning, we hung out at Beth’s mom’s house for a while and then Beth and I drove to Pittsburgh, stopping at a nice little Mexican restaurant in Washington, Pennsylvania. We stayed at a fancy hotel called The Mansions on Fifth. It consisted of two early twentieth-century mansions—one gray stone in an Elizabethan revival style and one Tudor and red brick. Inside the bigger building, where we checked in there was stained glass and carved wood paneling everywhere. We were staying in the smaller building, which was a little less grand, but still lovely.
Once we got settled, we went out to matinee of Florence Foster Jenkins. We watched Citizen Kane with Noah last fall and I was curious if the talentless singers were based on the same historical figure. I’m thinking yes. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really more sad than funny. It’s very well acted, though, and we both enjoyed it.
We weren’t hungry for dinner yet so we went back to the hotel and relaxed a while. Eventually, we had dinner at a barbeque joint, where you pick what kind of meat or tofu you want and then three sauces from a wide array. You get to taste as many sauces as you like before you chose and that was fun. We got classic tomato, a vinegar-based one, and a honey-based one. There were also a lot of sides and we got cornbread, stewed tomatoes and okra, and purple coleslaw. There was a television on and while we ate we watched part of the U.S./Serbia men’s basketball game.
Next we went out for gelato at a place with more flavors than I’ve ever seen. We got five between us. I liked the peach best. Back at the hotel we watched more Olympics until bedtime, or past it, actually. In the morning we had breakfast at a diner and then brought coffee back to the room where we read quietly until checkout time. I know. We’re maniacs.
(Back to #2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon to Sunday Morning
We drove back to Wheeling, reunited with the kids, and spent the afternoon at Beth’s mom’s condo, Carole’s condo and Carole’s condo’s pool. Noah made a raft out of pool noodles and floated on it, which is his favorite thing to do a pool. I did fifty laps, which sounds impressive, except it’s a tiny pool. Everyone else splashed and soaked in the pool.
Back at Beth’s mom’s house I took a short nap and we had Chinese takeout for dinner with Carole and Meg.
4) Sandusky, Ohio: Sunday Afternoon to Tuesday Morning
We drove to Cedar Point, the amusement park of Beth’s childhood. It’s also kind of a romantic place for us, as Beth and I went twice when we were in college, once alone and once with a group of friends the week between finals and my graduation. The kids have been there three times now, once when June was a baby and Noah was five, which neither of them remembers, three years ago, which they do, and this time.
Noah knew which rides he liked last time and June knew which ones she wanted to ride but couldn’t before because she was too short—and this year she could ride almost anything in the park because she’s 52 inches tall with crocs on—so we headed in the direction of Iron Dragon, a hanging coaster that’s just about right for all of us.
The Iron Dragon is officially a “High Thrill” ride (a 4 on a scale of 5), but this points to a problem with the ride ratings at Cedar Point. I would call most of the 4s “Moderate Thrill” rides, a designation they actually apply to the sky tram and the like. Meanwhile, the 5s (“Aggressive Thrill Rides”) encompasses such an enormous range that Noah joked they should have another category called, “6, Aggressive Thrill Rides…No We Really Mean It This Time” because there are some crazy-scary rides at Cedar Point, enormous coasters that go straight down or have part of the car hanging off the side of the track or one that just shoots the car up and down a U-shaped track that looks like two twisted devil horns over and over.
We don’t go on any rides like that. Beth’s never been much for big coasters. When I was twenty-two I rode the Magnum, which at the time was the tallest coaster at Cedar Point and in the world, but those days are beyond me. Noah’s currently the bravest in absolute terms. He was the only one to ride a level-5 coaster, the Corkscrew, which is a fairly low to the ground looping coaster. June and I almost did it with him, but we bailed out of the line. June might be the bravest relative to age, but she’s had more amusement park experience than Noah did when he was ten, so it’s hard to say.
A lot of our conversation at Cedar Point consisted of what coasters we would ride, what we wouldn’t ride, what we rode in our youth but wouldn’t now, what we might ride when older, and what we might ride if offered a million dollars to do so. At one point we had the following conversation:
June: Would you go on that for a million dollars?
Me: I’m tired of deciding what I’d ride for a million dollars.
Noah: Would you decide what you’d ride for a million dollars for a million dollars?
Anyway, once we got to the Iron Dragon we learned they were running beta testing for a virtual reality version of it so you couldn’t ride the regular version until the next day. You had to be thirteen to do the virtual reality ride and that kind of thing sometimes makes me sick, so Noah was the only one to do it. There was a three-page parental permission form I had to sign in about as many places as the forms when we refinanced our house last month.
In the virtual reality version, you are riding on a dragon and you can’t see the track so you don’t know what’s coming next. Noah said he liked it but he prefers the unenhanced ride. June was disappointed not to be able to ride it right away, but we promised to come back the next day. So we did the Mine Ride and The Woodstock Express, which was the first coaster June ever rode. “It’s emotionally important to me,” she said. We visited a petting zoo, which had an eclectic collection of farm animals, rabbits, llamas, alpaca, kangaroos, and tortoises. When it got dark we rode the Ferris Wheel, where Beth took pictures of the park rides all lit up in different colors.
The last thing we did the first day was watch a show which featured singing, dancing, acrobatics, fireworks and just plain fire. It was kind of like one long music video with a medley of pop songs, a startling number of them from the 80s. “We’re the target demographic,” Beth said to me, with surprise.
The next day we finally rode the Iron Dragon. One thing I like about it is how it swoops between tree branches and over a misty lagoon. It almost is like riding a dragon. It’s gentle enough for Beth and June loved it.
My top priority that day was the Blue Streak, the smallest of three wooden coasters in the park. I love wooden coasters but they are scarier than metal coaster of the same size and as I get older I scare more easily, so I needed to do it early in the day before I lost my nerve. Noah agreed to go with me, even though it scared the pants off him the last time he rode it, when he was twelve. As we were getting strapped in, I told him, “I am having some second thoughts about this,” but then we were off and it was so much fun, just exactly how much thrill I want out of a coaster, and I was glad I did it. And Noah liked it this time, too. June watched and decided to wait until she was a bit older, which was a relief to me.
Later the kids rode the Wind Seeker, a swing ride that slowly rises three hundred feet into the sky, spins you around for panoramic view of the park and lowers you. I have no desire to be that high in the air, so Beth and I sat that one out and watched the kids’ bare legs, a big pair and a little pair ascended up to skyscraper heights.
In the afternoon, Beth, June and I went to Soak City, the water park within Cedar Point. Noah wanted some down time and stayed at the hotel. We all did the lazy river and June and I did some water slides and Beth and June went into the wave pool. I left Soak City before Beth and June, but independently of each other, we all stopped to wade in Lake Erie on the way back to the hotel.
Back at the park in the evening, the kids and I rode the Iron Dragon a second time and the kids rode the Wind Seeker, also for the second time. June played a bunch of carnival games, which are harder than the ones at Funland, so she didn’t win anything, which was a disappointment, but by then she was out of money and we were out of time, because our moderately thrilling road trip was almost over.
5) Oberlin, Ohio: Tuesday Morning
We had breakfast outside the hotel, gazing for the last time at Lake Erie before we hit the road. About an hour into the drive home, we stopped in Oberlin. As we did the last time we were there, three years ago, we walked and drove around the campus, showing the kids places we’d lived and posing Noah in front of his hall. The kids listened politely as I said things like “And that’s where I lived the first semester of my senior year…” We got whole-wheat doughnuts at Gibson’s bakery because that’s what you do when you visit Oberlin, and we ate them at a table facing Tappan Square.
Noah said, “The next time I come here I could be touring it.” We’ve often joked that he has to apply to Oberlin, if only to say he was named after the dorm in his essay, but it was the first time he’s indicated he might just do it.
That evening, we pulled into a parking garage in Silver Spring, one town over from home, for a dinner stop. “Our House” was had come up on a playlist we were listening to and I sang along: “Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard.” It would have been better, I guess, if it had happened as we pulled into our driveway, right before reuniting with our two cats, but it was a good enough ending for a nice, relaxing trip, with just the right amount of thrills.