The Friday before our big summer college road trip Beth left work early and met me in Silver Spring where we caught a matinee of Desert Hearts at the American Film Institute. The timing seemed serendipitous because we first saw this movie as college students at Oberlin and Oberlin was on the itinerary of our upcoming trip. How did we get from students to a prospective student’s parents? Tempus fugit.
Sunday: Takoma Park, MD to Camp Highlight (Central PA) to Wheeling, WV
We left Sunday morning and drove to central Pennsylvania. Our first stop was Camp Highlight, where we were reunited (briefly) with our younger child who was going to spend a week with Beth’s mom while we were on the road. North was happy to see us but sad to leave all their new camp friends. When I asked if they were ready to go, they said, “I have to hug all my friends,” so that took a while.
As we waited, one of the counselors told me “You’re doing it right with this one,” after relaying the story of a kindness North did another camper who was feeling left out on Twin Day. (North managed to get their scant hair into pigtails, which is how the girl wore her hair, so they could be twins.)
We had lunch in nearby diner, then settled in for the long drive to Wheeling. During the ride we listened to North talk about camp, and sing camp songs, and tell the camp ghost story until they wound down, leaned against the car door looking worn out and disappeared into their headphones. Then we played a Pride playlist Beth found and the Desert Hearts soundtrack.
It was almost nine o’clock when we got to Beth’s mom’s house where her aunt Carole and cousin Sean were waiting for us. Beth’s mom had made a blueberry-raspberry pie, but I wasn’t feeling well so I went to bed around ten while everyone else stayed up to talk and eat.
Monday: Wheeling, WV to Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) to Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH)
I had a slice of the pie—it was delicious—for breakfast in the morning, along with a couple veggie sausages. After saying goodbye to North a mere twenty-one hours after camp pickup, Beth, Noah and I hit the road mid-morning and drove to Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon was our first college stop. There were no organized tours available that day because it was orientation for first-year students, but we walked around a little, took in the campus, picked up some materials from the computer science department, and had lunch in a noodle bar in the computer science building. Unlike Emerson, which kind of melts into a block of office buildings near Boston Commons, Carnegie Mellon has a more traditional campus feel, with pretty red brick buildings from the early twentieth century and a quad. Without someone selling the school to us, I didn’t feel I got a good sense of it, but as I ate, I tried to imagine Noah eating noodles in the sunny atrium after his morning algorithms class.
One thing we all noticed is that the campus had a slightly unfriendly vibe. The two different servers we encountered in the noodle bar were gruff and unhelpful. Then we sat in the admissions office a long time, going over our materials and maps and trying to decide what parts of campus to visit, not really needing any help, but given how long we lingered I thought it was odd the woman behind the desk never asked if we needed help. I’d expect admission staff to be the most friendly people on campus. But it’s possible we were all reading too much into small interactions because there was no presentation or tour to focus our attention on the school’s good points.
From Pittsburgh we drove to Oberlin, stopping for Dairy Queen along the way and listening to a playlist of Billboard hits from 1984. This was the year Beth started college and the year I was Noah’s age, so it seemed a fitting soundtrack for our journey to our alma mater. We checked into our AirBnB, an apartment in the back of a blue-gray Victorian house with dark blue and cream trim and an interesting history. It was built as an investment for a college President (Fairchild for you Obies) and one of the early owners was Conservatory director (Rice). It was also a dorm in the 1960s and then faculty apartments.
After we settled in, we took Noah on our own version of the walking tour, not a complete one because he’s been to Oberlin a few times already and there would be the official one the next day. But we took his picture outside of his namesake dorm, as we always do, and I directed his attention to points of interest (dorms where I’d lived, class buildings where I’d taken classes). “How do you remember all this?” he wanted to know, but the classes I took all those decades ago seem like not that long ago sometimes, and never more than when I’m at Oberlin.
We had dinner at a fusion restaurant that’s now on the old site of Campus Restaurant, where I’d worked as a busser and a waitress. I had goat cheese and chive ravioli in a sweet and sour sauce. It was very good and very different from anything you could get at Campus, whose idea of vegetarian fare was lettuce and tomato on a hamburger bun. (Remember the Meatless Fred, anyone?) Next we got dessert and ate it on a bench in Tappan Square, listening to the cicadas and watching dark fall slowly among the stately tall trees.
Tuesday: Oberlin, OH to Niagara Falls, NY
Noah slept in a bit the next day so I sat on the back porch and wrote. It was cool and raining on and off and pleasant to be enclosed there. We had a late breakfast at another restaurant that wasn’t there when we were in college, but it was the kind of place where you can get smoked tempeh instead of bacon with your pancakes, so we felt right at home. Our table was right by the rain-streaked window, so I explained the term “lake effect” to Noah.
Next we showed Noah the house where I was living the summer Beth and I started dating and where we had our first kiss and the movie theater down the street where we saw Raising Arizona on our second date, the very next night. Noah was polite enough to pretend to be interested. We headed to the library, where we stopped by the computing center where Beth worked—both as a student and full-time for a year while she waited for me to graduate—and to the scholar studies students doing honors projects are assigned, though I couldn’t remember which one was mine.
Our library tour complete, we settled into the womb chairs to read or use electronic devices until it was time for the presentation.
The presentation highlighted some of what makes Oberlin special—the Conservatory, its active arts scene, student-run housing and dining co-ops, ExCo (the Experimental College, which consists of student-taught classes). I could walk around Oberlin’s lovely and architecturally eclectic campus all day, the tour was fun for me. Beth was hoping we’d get to see Noah Hall (where we met) and she even asked the tour guide if he could get us in there when it seemed we might be the only family in his group, though eventually three other families joined us. But his keycard was only programmed for one dorm (right next door to Noah Hall!).
We’d had breakfast late and no lunch so we had either a very late lunch or a very early dinner at Lorenzo’s, a pizza place that was open during our college days, and which I remembered with some fondness. It was fun to eat there again.
It was later than we intended when we hit the road and almost ten by the time we checked into our hotel room near Niagara Falls. We could see the end of the nightly firework show from our window.
Wednesday: Niagara Falls, NY to Rochester Institute of Technology to Trumansburg, NY
We wanted to see Niagara Falls before we needed to leave for RIT and it was a struggle getting out of the hotel on time, so much so that as we were pulling out of the hotel lot and I realized I’d left a really nice insulated water bottle in the room, I decided not to say anything about it and just keep going. (I found a replacement at the Niagara Falls gift shop and considered it $18 well spent.)
I’ve never been to Niagara Falls before and it’s quite impressive, though it didn’t look like my mental picture of it. We wandered around and viewed the various rapids and falls and walked out on the observation deck, but we didn’t have time for the boat ride or to take the elevator down to the series of decks near the bottom of the falls.
It was close to our information session time when we got to RIT and the campus is big and kind of confusing, so we only had time for quick snacks from a convenience store in lieu of lunch and we just made it to the session in time.
At the information session, we heard the things you usually hear at these events. One interesting thing about RIT is that most majors require several co-ops (full-time paid employment the school helps you find) interspersed throughout your education. It makes most undergraduate degrees take five years rather than four to complete, but you don’t pay tuition when you’re not on campus, and you graduate with almost a year of work experience.
The school is strong in both computer science and film, which appeals to Noah. He usually plays his cards close to his chest for a while after these visits, but while we were still there he said cheerfully, “All the schools seem good. I want to go to them all,” which was not a comment directly about RIT, but presumably something about the school inspired him to say it. I told him that was good because he’d be happy with his choices once he knew where he’d been admitted. Beth and I both noticed he seemed to be in a good mood there and he asked to have his picture taken with the statue of the mascot (a tiger).
The tour itself was long (an hour and a half) and tiring after having hiked around the Niagara in the morning. It looks a lot like UMBC, a lot of rectangular red brick buildings. They were both built in the 1960s, though RIT is older, having relocated from another campus in downtown Rochester. There’s not much green space, though there’s some in the residential areas. There are some decorative touches—most notably sculpture. There’s also a series of underground tunnels connecting buildings, but we didn’t get to go into them. It was orientation week so there were first-year students all over in matching t-shirts. Apparently, some schools can handle prospective tours and orientation at the same time.
We were pretty hungry after the tour and the main dining hall opened for dinner at four, so we headed over there and ate. The dining hall was not as pretty at the one at St. Mary’s, but it did have a whole wall of windows that looked out on some woods. Beth said it would be pretty in the fall.
Next we drove to our AirBnB near Ithaca. We got there about 7:45 and it was nice to have an evening to relax, do laundry, and write. Beth ran out for a few groceries so we could have breakfast at the house.
Thursday: Trumansburg, NY to Ithaca College and Back
The next morning we drove to Ithaca College, where we had not only the usual information session and tour, but another tour of the School of Communications, where we saw a bunch of film and television studios. Noah said later he was glad we went on the add-on tour because he wasn’t that interested before seeing the studios and hearing about the major in Emerging Media, which would combine his interests in film and computers. By the end of the second tour, he was quite interested. Like RIT, Ithaca is an older school that relocated in the 1960s, but it has more green space and architectural variety. Like Oberlin, it’s a selective liberal arts college with a strong music program. It started out as a conservatory and the School of Music is the biggest school within the college, with the School of Communications second.
After being on our feet for the better part of the three-and-a-half hour program, we were hungry and tired and we considered getting some food on campus, but decided to head into town because Ithaca is known for its restaurants. We had lunch at a ramen/dumpling place. Thus fortified, we took a hike to Taughannock Falls, “the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains,” according to a brochure at the AirBnB. It’s taller than Niagara, but much narrower. Beth, who is fond of waterfalls, called it “a little piece of paradise” and it was very pretty.
Back at the house we relaxed and read until dinnertime when we ate at Moosewood Restaurant. I’ve been cooking from several different Moosewood cookbooks for thirty-plus years and I even recognized the striped awning from one of the covers. It was a beautiful, mild evening so we ate outside under said awning. We started with a plate of local cheeses and salads. My entrée was a ragout of summer vegetables on saffron whole-wheat cous cous with grated Gruyere on top. Beth and I both had the iconic fudge brownie (served every day since 1973 according to the menu) a la mode.
Friday: Trumansburg, NY to Altoona, PA
We stayed in Ithaca part of the next day, leaving the house late in the morning and picking up provisions for a picnic lunch at the local food co-op. Do you love going to co-ops and natural food stores in new towns? I do. It feels so much more like an adventure than going to the co-op at home, which basically feels like grocery shopping. Anyway, we got cheese and crackers, and curried tempeh salad, and tortilla chips to go with a yellow watermelon, which our host left for us at the Airbnb. Beth and I got chocolate cookies with chocolate and vanilla frosting in the yin-yang pattern, sort of a hippie black-and-white cookie and Noah got a brownie.
Before we ate, we went to the swimming hole at Robert Treman State Park. It’s right under a waterfall and there’s a diving board and a lifeguard. I would have jumped off the diving board but the water was very cold, between sixty and sixty-five degrees according to three different chalkboards we saw in the area; I couldn’t bring myself to wade in past the bottom of my ribcage. Beth wishes it to be known she went in the deepest and stayed in the longest. After our swim, we ate our picnic lunch and hit the road.
We drove to Altoona, where we stayed the night. I told Noah to find us the best pizza in Altoona and he might have just googled that phrase because we ended up getting takeout from a place called Bestway Pizza. After dinner I swam for almost an hour in the hotel pool. I’d had a dizzy spell earlier in the evening and during the swim I started to feel sick to my stomach, so after a quick shower, I went straight to bed.
Saturday: Altoona, PA to Wheeling, WV
In the morning, I felt better. We had breakfast in the hotel and drove to Wheeling. On the way we finished Making Obama, a six-part podcast about Obama’s early political career we’d been listening to on and off throughout the week. I thought hearing his voice so often would make me cry, but it didn’t, so I guess I’m tougher than I thought. I do recommend it, if you think you can stand thinking about the sheer sadness of how things turned out after Obama. (We listened to a lot of podcasts on this trip, mostly Making Obama and The Truth, a podcast of radio play-style fiction with a Twilight Zone feel, which was one of Noah’s contributions. We also listened to a couple episodes each of podcasts of people playing text adventures and The Moth, plus single episodes of a few more. Everyone was generally pleased with each other’s choices except I had the bad luck to offer the group the only gory episode of Spooked that I’ve ever heard—I swear it’s usually very gently spooky—and Beth didn’t care for that.)
When we got to Beth’s mom’s house YaYa and North and Beth’s aunt Carole were out to lunch so we had our picnic and pizza leftovers and read until they returned. When they got back Carole shared the news that she’s going to be a great grandmother again and we saw videos of North on the rock climbing wall at the pool. When you get to the top, you just drop off into the water. It looks fun. We also saw all the clothes and school supplies YaYa bought for North. I’d already bought North some clothes, so it’s possible they may be all set for school. Thanks, YaYa!
We spent the rest of the day socializing. A couple of YaYa’s friends came by in the afternoon. They were in town for a seventy-fifth birthday party their high school class was holding (because they all turn seventy-five this year). So in the evening, YaYa went to that and Beth’s high school friend Michelle, who’s recently relocated to the area from New York, came by and we got Chinese takeout and got caught up on each other’s lives. Michelle’s come home to be closer to her mother and she’s going to be in a show in Pittsburgh this fall.
Sunday: Wheeling, WV to Takoma Park, MD
We left Wheeling mid-morning and made the long, last drive home. The kids couldn’t watch Dr. Who together as planned because the iPad was out of battery and no one had a charger for it. And Beth and I had run out of podcasts, so it was a quiet drive.
We’ve been home four days now. The kids had a pediatrician appointment; North invited Xavier for dinner one night and met Zoë at the playground another day; I took North to Chuck E Cheese for lunch one day; and North had two audition coaching sessions at Highwood plus a rehearsal for a performance Highwood students are having at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. It’s a preview of songs from the upcoming season’s shows. Noah had a drum lesson and he’s been finishing up his summer homework—reading Johnny Got His Gun, writing about it, and making a podcast of interviews with families of kids who went to the kids’ co-operative preschool back in the day.
School starts Tuesday. It will be a slightly bittersweet back to school, I think, because it will be Noah’s last one while still living at home. But I am happy to have had this trip with him, both for the time alone with my first-born, and because it really did help him narrow down and rank his list. Ithaca and R.I.T. are his current favorites, but he’s still considering Champlain and Oberlin, and he thinks he needs more information on Carnegie Mellon and UMBC because he didn’t get a full tour at either of those schools. Because UMBC is only forty-five minutes away, we’re headed back there in a week and a half. Emerson and St. Mary’s are off the list.
Someone I know who just sent her son to college advised me to cherish every minute of Noah’s senior year. I’m sure I won’t manage that. It’s a tall order for any year and there will be stress and frustration, but I am going to try to enjoy this last year with my boy at home, because I know it won’t come around again.