Shenandoah 2021: Story of the Forest Trail

Another old favorite – we almost never miss the Story of the Forest trail, no matter how quick the visit to Shenandoah. This time, we stopped by the Big Meadows visitor center so the kiddos could take their Junior Ranger oath of office, then immediately struck off for one of our favorite easy, kid-friendly hikes in the park.

The trail dips downhill a ways, then meanders over gently rolling hills – nothing difficult about it at all – for a little under two miles. It’s a lovely hike for kids, since there are plenty of natural elements to keep them engaged (including a Poohsticks bridge) and you can make it as long or as short as you like.

It’s a classic wooded trail; I think quite a few park visitors skip Story of the Forest because it doesn’t boast sweeping vistas (like Hawksbill) or strenuous scrambles (like Old Rag) or roaring waterfalls (like Dark Hollow) – just a peaceful path through a verdant forest. But there’s plenty to see if you drop your eyes to the forest floor itself – like bright green eruptions of ferns, my favorite.

And forest friends, like a sweet doe and her speckled fawns. All together now: awwwwww.

I just love their quiet grace.

Spotted just off the trail: an air quality monitoring station. Unbeknownst to many park visitors, Shenandoah struggles with air quality problems thanks to surrounding industry. Air quality monitoring stations in the park perform important work to ensure that our wild space stays healthy for us all.

Just a beautiful, peaceful walk in the woods – can’t top that.

Next week: we climb to the highest point in the park.

Shenandoah 2021: Big Meadows

It would be hard for me to pick a favorite spot in Shenandoah National Park – I love every inch of the place. But if pressed, I might say that I love Big Meadows just a tiny bit more than the rest – maybe. (Then again, maybe not. It would be a wrench to have to choose; I’m glad I actually don’t.) I don’t think we ever come to Shenandoah without at least a quick pause at Big Meadows, and ideally, a nice leg-stretching hike.

Off we go!

I was thinking a lot of my grandmother, who had a great fondness for meadows. She would have so loved the expansive views and the lavish goldenrod flowers.

Bees buzzing everywhere! Go, little pollinators, go!

Don’t mind me, I’m just over here playing with my macro settings. #photographynerd

The sun was baking down and the meadow was blisteringly hot. (We were glad to have our hats and approximately a gallon each of sunscreen.)

Such a gorgeous afternoon hike – there’s no end to the little herd paths and spurs branching out every which way in Big Meadows, and there’s always more to see, whether you stretch up and gaze at the mountains off in the distance or crouch down to inspect a bee or a wildflower at close range. I just love it.

Next week: Another old favorite, and some new friends.

Shenandoah 2021: Bearfence Mountain

Apparently, spending Labor Day weekend in Shenandoah is our thing – at least, for the last two years it has been. In 2020, we drove out for the day, but in 2021 we decided to make a weekend of it; it was so much fun that I can absolutely see it becoming a tradition. We bunked up at Skylands, a park concessions facility right in the central district of the park, surrounded by some of the best hikes for miles – perfect location. After rolling in on Friday afternoon and spending the first night exploring our surroundings, we woke up on Saturday morning ready to go.

Our first hike – of about seven we planned – was Bearfence Mountain. Although we’ve been to Shenandoah quite a few times before, we’d never hit this one before. The trail included a segment of the famed Appalachian Trail! So cool.

In researching our hikes for the weekend, I planned a mix of repeats and new ground, and I also targeted hikes that – while they may include a more “advanced” route, had an alternate route that would be suitable for the kiddos. Steve downloaded the maps into his phone, and following his directions we quickly came up against – scrambles. They started out relatively easy, but they got intense quickly.

The kids did a fabulous job following directions and climbing safely, but I started to get more and more anxious as the scrambles got more intense.

Eventually, we came up against this monster – the route to the summit. You can’t see from this picture, but there’s a sheer dropoff of a few dozen feet, at least. Although the kids had been game, I just wasn’t comfortable with them scaling this beast. Down we went.

After a huddle, we realized what had gone wrong – the map downloaded was the “more advanced” route to the summit, and while the kids had done wonderfully well with it (and wanted to continue) it was never the route I’d intended them to take. We carefully picked our way down the scrambles to the spot where the trail had split off, then we started to climb again, this time up the more “family friendly” route.

Much better.

Eventually, our circuitous route finally deposited us at our goal – the summit! Views for miles.

These boots are made for walkin’.

It was a bit more roundabout of a hike than we’d intended – but that’s fine. More time in the woods is always good, right? It is in my book.

Next week: an old favorite hike, with summer colors.

One Second Everyday: Summer 2021

I always have big plans to capture an entire year in a One Second Everyday video – haven’t been able to make that enough a part of my routine yet to actually do an entire year’s worth of video, but maybe in 2022. In the meantime, I’ll settle for a video of my favorite season (well, favorite tied with fall).

Enjoy!

Gifts from Grandmother

A few weeks ago now, we decided on a whim to go for a short hike at one of our favorite local spots – Rust Nature Preserve in Leesburg, Virginia. We’ve hiked here in all seasons at this point; I love looking for feathered friends (it’s a bird sanctuary) and resting my eyes on the serene meadow. It’s always a special place, but our most recent hike was something more.

As we started out for our regular meadow loop, I spotted something I’d never seen before, at least, not at Rust – trail berries! Early-season black raspberries, specifically.

At first, I thought they were blackberries; I only later realized that they were black raspberries. Either way, though, edible. Blackberries have no poisonous lookalikes – they do have similar-looking cousins (like loganberries and marionberries – or Mayor Berries, as I like to call them, sorry fam I’ll see myself out) but all are fine to eat. So the rule in our house is, trail blackberries and the like are fair game. The kids chowed down accordingly.

As we meandered down the trail, stopping every five feet to pick and eat more black raspberries, I had the strong feeling that my grandmother put these raspberry bushes in this meadow for us.

She loved a good wildflower meadow, and berry-picking; we used to gather bowls of red raspberries from a thicket in the yard at my family’s Adirondack camp and then take them inside, still warm from the sun, douse them in heavy cream and feast.

She also loved Queen Anne’s lace – it might have been her favorite flower; certainly I always associate it with her – and the meadow was dotted with the delicate white blossoms, too. Coincidence? Hardly.

I made the kids thank Great-Grandmother for the gifts. (“Well, of course you did,” said my aunt when I told her this story, “you’ve always been polite.”)

A short 0.6 mile loop took over an hour, but it was worth it. We picked and ate berries (oh, this probably goes without saying, but guys, please don’t eat anything you find in nature unless you’re sure it’s safe, okay?) and walked along talking about how nice it was that Grandmother thought to put all these treasures in our path.

On The Road Again

For years, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with cycling. I love the sport – when you’re spinning along or sailing down a hill, there’s nothing like it. But sometimes it seems like a lot of added complexity (all that equipment – easier to just go for a run, when you really get down to it) or danger (car doors, angry motorists, bike path loiterers, the ever-present fear of a crash). I can go for long stretches in which it seems like just a little bit too much. But when cycling and I are on, we’re really on.

Like in May 2014, when I rode in the Five Boro Bike Tour (forty miles through all five boroughs of New York City) with my dad, brother, and sister-in-law (at the time, she was my brother’s girlfriend). Don’t mind my backwards helmet cover. Why didn’t someone tell me?

That was an epic day! Made even better by the cuteness of our cheering squad:

I can’t even remember Peanut being that small.

A year ago now – at the beginning of the pandemic – I started really encouraging the kids to ride their bikes. Both were on training wheels and we had some good rides on the bike path near our old house in Old Town Alexandria – although I foresaw difficulties ahead with their different natural speeds. Nugget would zoom on ahead while Peanut inched along, talking about cartoons and getting dramatic about every small incline or decline in the trail. There was no way she was moving fast enough to stay upright if she lost the training wheels – hmmmmm.

Nugget did not have the same issues.

Biking buddies!

After a year’s worth of pandemic biking, my parents decided it was time for both kids to drop their training wheels. They were right. I just didn’t have the time or energy to deal with those first two-wheeler lessons. Between working at my old job, interviewing for my new job, administering virtual school, and trying to keep the whole family upright and healthy – I was tapped out. Over Easter weekend, while my parents were visiting, my dad went into the garage and unscrewed the training wheels, then took both kids to a local school parking lot for their first lessons. As I predicted, one kid was a total drama llama, and the other took to it immediately. Three guesses who.

We even had to bring Nugget’s bike to Albany when we visited over the break between my jobs. He can’t be separated from it.

Needless to say, I’m excited to have a biking buddy – but it also occurred to me that I need to get back on the roads, for real, myself. Since we moved out to western Fairfax County, I’ve been paralyzed in the biking department. I was excited to ride out here – when we were looking at houses, I saw plenty of cyclists on the roads and figured that one day soon, that would be me! When it came down to it, though, the narrow lanes and blind curves scared me. I’ve seen how cars fly around corners here, even on my residential street (that’s another story…) and the long stretches of vehicle-free country roads turned out to be a figment of my imagination. The local bike trail wasn’t really convenient to get to, meanwhile, and my neighborhood is made up of a bunch of culs-de-sac (and a few thru roads, including mine, woof) – not great for biking.

People do make road biking happen out here, obviously – like those gaggles of cyclists I saw while house-hunting. But I learned that the bigger bike culture in my town revolves around mountain biking. It makes sense; we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails. Everything from straight, flat, easy trails to winding, hilly technical courses is within a few minutes drive. And I also thought that a heavier, slower mountain bike would be a better choice for biking with Nugget (at least for now; he wants a “kids’ road bike” so look out). The problem? I’d gotten rid of my outdated, beat-up twenty-five year old mountain bike – intending to buy an updated model. But with the pandemic, there wasn’t a mountain bike to be had for love or money… until Nugget and I happened to stumble across the very model I’d been researching online.

I think Nugget might have been even more excited than I was – heh. We’ve made good use of our new purchase, heading out for rides on all variety of terrain a few times a week. Together we’ve explored trails at the parks in our town, shred the little hiking trail in our neighborhood, ridden the culs-de-sac near the house, and taken our bikes down to the bike path after I found an access point that was basically a straight shot from our house (much easier!).

I love mountain biking – especially with the little shredder. We can happily explore trails together every weekend – and we are doing that. But somewhere in there, I started getting the itch to make road biking happen too. It may have been discovering that the bike path is more convenient than I originally thought. It might have been three weeks of watching the Tour de France. (Steve now says he wants a road bike, and to recommit to teaching Peanut to ride. YAY! Thanks Tadej Pogacar! Thanks Mark Cavendish! Thanks Team Jumbo-Visma!)

Somewhere in there, I discovered that the local bike club hosts multiple weekly rides – including a few that are women-only and very supportive. Figuring that my fear of riding on the roads out here might be mitigated if I was with a big group, I pulled out my road bike and signed up for one of the Monday evening rides – one that left from one of the (several!) local bike shops, and promised no drops and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It turned out to be just what I needed. Women of all ages gathered at the bike shop – I was probably the youngest, or no more than the second youngest, in the group; everyone brought their own excitement and their own hopes. The ride leader, Kelley, shouted safety tips and road-sharing instructions; sang aloud while riding; left no one behind; and called out encouragement to both the women in the group and the little girls we saw out on their bikes and scooters as we went screaming down the hills in the local neighborhoods. I rode next to another woman, Erin, who spent the whole time telling me that she hosts a women’s ride out of another bike shop on Saturdays and she could really use me “to help show the newbies how to shift gears.” Color me flattered!

Actually, color me beet-red (and disheveled) after fifteen hilly miles through the local streets, bike path sections, and a couple of major thoroughfares. I have Monday night commitments for the next few weeks, but I’ll definitely be back. With clipless pedals next time. I’m ready to ditch the fear.

Do you bike on the roads? Any tips for dealing with the (healthy) fear of cars and blind curves?

Pony-Watching on Assateague Island

Planning our weekend trip to Chincoteague, I spent an hour or so tooling around on TripAdvisor, looking for activities to do that would take us out of the campground. I knew that we would want to get in a good few hours at the Assateague Island National Seashore beach, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure but I was hoping to see the famous wild ponies. (Which are actually ponies – not horses.) So Saltwater Pony Tours, with it’s 750+ rave reviews on TripAdvisor, caught my attention right away.

Saltwater Pony Tours is just one of several pony-viewing boat tour companies operating out of Chincoteague, but was by far the highest rated. As a concession to COVID-19, they’ve implemented a new policy – at least temporarily – of one family/group (plus the guide) per boat, meaning you automatically get a private tour for your family. Between that policy, the reasonable price, and the piles of outstanding reviews, I was sold. Luckily, there were several available time slots, and I booked us in for a two hour tour starting at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime, grabbed some snacks at a waterfront restaurant, got the kids ice cream, and then headed to the marina. Our guide/captain, Casey, met us at the dock and escorted us onto the boat – a large, beautiful pontoon that we had all to ourselves. Steaming out of the harbor, Casey oriented us to the geography of the islands and pointed out wildlife, including pelicans diving for their happy hour.

Our attitude whenever we are out for a wildlife-viewing adventure is: nature gonna nature. We know wildlife is wild (that’s the appeal, right?) and that there’s no guarantee of any sightings. Worst case scenario, we spend two hours on a boat on a beautiful day. Can’t really beat that, even if we don’t see any animals.

As luck would have it, though, within a few minutes of pushing off the dock, Captain Casey got a radio call – ponies! One of his colleagues from the tour company was reporting that there was a group congregating in an area called Black Duck Gut, which is pretty much inaccessible (thanks to tides, wind, and shifting sands) unless you really know what you’re doing. Fortunately for us, we seemed to have the best and most skillful navigator in the islands driving our boat.

Casey expertly steered us through the channels and within minutes – there they were, the famous wild ponies of Chincoteague (actually Assateague)!

My small horse fangirl was entranced. She has read Misty of Chincoteague (I haven’t – must correct that) and she and Captain Casey spent the ride over discussing the book (he’s a teacher in his regular, non-summer life) – at least until we got to the ponies, and then she just stared starry-eyed.

In fairness, though, we were all doing that.

Thanks to Casey’s expert navigation, we were able to get up close to the ponies – within 50 yards! – and bob around watching them for over an hour from the boat. (He explained that they consider the boats as just “part of nature” but if they were ever approached on foot, it would be a different story.) Between the excellent viewing spot and my sick zoom lens, I was in wildlife photography heaven.

The highlight was seeing all the adorable foals – especially this wee one, who Casey told us was only four or five days old!

We actually got to see it nursing! Totally unforgettable.

After the baby had been nursing for awhile, Casey predicted: “He’s gonna lay down in a milk coma soon.” Sure enough…

Down he flopped.

Casey explained that ponies and horses only lay down when they are feeling really comfortable and safe. Our pontoon (and one other that made it into the channel) clearly was not bothering them at all.

The new baby was adorable, but he or she wasn’t the only foal in the group. This one was born in the spring sometime.

And still enough of a baby to need Mama’s milk.

We watched the ponies graze on the short salt grass for over an hour, completely transfixed, and then reluctantly turned away and headed back to civilization.

On the way back to the dock, Casey showed us the spot where the famous annual pony swim takes place, and regaled us with an insider’s view of the action. Then – because over an hour of close-up pony watching in Black Duck Gut wasn’t enough and we had more treats in store – we spotted another band of ponies on the other side of the island.

Casey explained that the ponies tend to congregate in bands of mostly females with one dominant male. The group we had been watching on the other side of the island was led by a male named Riptide, who had been king of the islands for years. This band was following a much younger – three years old – male named Norm. Riptide would never let Norm near his ladies, so Norm has to make his own destiny.

Seems like Norm is doing just fine.

It was an absolutely magical two hours, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience! Casey’s knowledge of the waters around the islands and the ponies themselves made for the perfect pony-viewing tour. We felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to see these beautiful creatures wild and free in their natural habitat.

After the pony tour, we were all walking on air – but Assateague wasn’t done with us yet! The next day, driving back to camp from the beach, we got lucky enough to see ponies for a third time – grazing on salt grass right by the side of the main road! Steve pulled over and I darted out with my big camera.

Hey, look, it’s our old buddy Riptide! (He’s the brown pony with the blond mane – an unusual combination, making him easy to spot.) Riptide and his ladies were accompanied by a gaggle of cattle egrets.

Totally amazing to see this majesty right off the side of the road!

Throughout the pony tour, I kept using the word “magical” – which is what this experience was. Seeing the famous ponies up close was definitely one of the wildlife-viewing highlights of my life. We were very conscious of how lucky we were to be sharing space with them. I hope we return to Chincoteague and Assateague and see the ponies again someday (soon), and I hope that this experience stays with Peanut and Nugget forever.

Have you ever been to Assateague?

Camping on Chincoteague

After more than a year of going basically nowhere, we were all stir-crazy and itching to get out of the house and do basically anything other than hike our local trails (as nice as they are). But I don’t really have the ability to take a weeklong vacation right now – having just started a new job – and there was almost nothing available in the way of beach houses anyway. After spending several hours scrolling Airbnb and VRBO unsuccessfully, I hit on the idea of a camping trip. Even the campgrounds were mostly booked, but I found a KOA with availability on Chincoteague Island, about three-and-a-half hours from D.C., and leapt on it. So in the late morning last Saturday, we shoved off for Chincoteague.

We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime and after a quick snack at a waterfront restaurant (crab legs for me – I had to share every other bite with Nugget) we hopped aboard a boat for a tour with Saltwater Pony Tours. It was a magical experience that deserves its own blog post (so that will be next Friday) but – spoiler alert above, we saw the famous ponies and spent more than an hour observing them up close. Totally incredible.

Still reeling from the incredible pony-watching experience, we made our way to the campground and staked out a spot for our tent. I’d booked us one of the “primitive” tent sites, which were already crowded by the time we got there – but we found a little nook near the marsh where no one else had set up. Steve suggested that people might have avoided it on the theory that it would be buggy but after a few layers of bug spray, the mosquitos weren’t too bothersome. And I pointed out that there was standing water all over the campground – there must have been a storm – so if they were avoiding this spot because of fear of bugs, the joke was on them because our site was the driest one I saw all weekend, and it had an amazing view.

The Assateague Island Light, right across the marshy creek!

Dinner the first night was shrimp boil foil packets, which Peanut helped me assemble – followed by s’mores, obviously. The Hershey bars I packed for the purpose had inexplicably melted and turned into liquid goo (how? nothing else melted?) but I rigged up a squirting system and it ended up being kind of amazing. Not that I will be melting all s’mores chocolate going forward.

Home sweet home – from left to right, Peanut’s sleeping bag, Steve’s, mine, Nugget’s. Notes on the sleeping arrangements: Nugget was obviously delighted to have Mommy next to him all night; Peanut brought five stuffed animals; Steve’s air mattress got punctured by a tack that stowed away in Peanut’s backpack (“YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE TACKS!” … “I DIDN’T KNOW, IT WAS STUCK TO MY BOXCAR CHILDREN BOOK!”).

On Sunday morning, after a mostly decent night’s sleep, considering the arrangements, we drank our coffee with a view of the Assateague Light – not too shabby. And then headed out for the one must-do activity of the day…

The beach! We were a ten minute drive from the Assateague Island National Seashore beach. (I had actually wanted to camp on Assateague, but turned my sights to Chincoteague when Assateague was – unsurprisingly – booked solid for the Fourth of July.) But it was a convenient drive and we sailed through the check-in thanks to our America the Beautiful pass (seriously, best purchase).

We were on the sand by 9:00 a.m., which was perfect timing. The beach wasn’t too crowded yet, we got a money parking spot, and it was fairly cool with a refreshing morning breeze. We didn’t plan to get there that early, but after drinking our coffee and having breakfast at the campsite, we figured we might as well go to the beach early since there was nothing else to do – it ended up being totally the right call. (By the time we left at around 1:30, the cars were parked along the road a mile back, and there was a massive line to get into the park.)

It was a gorgeous beach! I grew up going to Cape Hatteras every summer, so I have a deep affection for the National Seashore system as it is, and Assateague was every bit as beautiful as Hatteras.

Assateague National Seashore was a perfect place to spend the Fourth of July – I always want to be around water, but we usually do a lake day. The beach was a fun way to mix it up, and we all had a fabulous time. I showed the kids how to build drip castles (“That looks like poop!” ~Nugget), Steve took a nap in the beach chair, and we spent hours wading in the surf and jumping over the waves.

Perfect!

After we had thoroughly doused ourselves in ocean water, we meandered to a trail with a “pony overlook.” I did see the ponies again, but only through the viewfinder of my gigantic zoom lens, and I couldn’t get a good picture – plus there were armies of mosquitos that were intent on eating us alive, bug spray be damned. (They were near the road heading out of the park, so I got some good pictures on the way out – stay tuned next week.) So we didn’t stay long and headed for the opposite of the National Seashore…

Maui Jack’s Waterpark. Had to happen! It was right at the entrance to the KOA campground, so naturally the kids noticed it immediately. Nugget had a fabulous time – he was too short for the really big waterslides, but he bounced back from that disappointment and did the lazy river three times, got dumped on by the gigantic bucket in the little ones’ area, and hit the smaller waterslides dozens of times. Peanut spent the entire time pouting on a lounge chair; we couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Can’t win ’em all.

Fourth of July dinner at the campsite – campfire nachos for the whole family (delicious, but would have been better if a third of the jar of salsa hadn’t ended up in Nugget’s tummy before I got the chance to put it in the nachos) and hot dogs for the kids, cooked over the fire with their telescoping toasting forks that I bought because I’m a soft touch. And then we crashed pretty much as soon as the sun set, and continued our grand family tradition of somehow missing the fireworks.

On Monday morning, we planned to hike before heading out of town. The idea was to hit the Lighthouse Trail and then the Wildlife Loop on Assateague. Lighthouse Trail first – it was a short hop through the woods to the Assateague Island Light.

The woods were swarming with mosquitos – you could tell they were bad because they were even biting me (and my bitter blood is usually disgusting to insects, it’s a gift). So we didn’t stay long – just long enough for me to snap a couple of pictures, declare “Another lighthouse for Mommy’s collection!” and flee back to the car. No one wanted to do the Wildlife Loop after being eaten alive on the Lighthouse Trail, so we packed it in and headed to the Chincoteague Diner for breakfast, and then home to warm showers.

It was the best kind of weekend, though! Entirely outdoors, mostly unplugged, with some beach and some wildlife and some hiking, and we all ended up exhausted and filthy at the end. Can’t complain about any of that!

How was your Fourth of July?

Tales from the Exurbs, Vol. VIII: Lord Chuckingham

The other day, Steve rushed into the house and excitedly announced that we had a “new neighbor.” Since we’ve barely met any of our existing neighbors, I wasn’t sure why the fanfare – but then he pulled his phone out and showed me a video of a rather beefy fellow eyeing him suspiciously and then disappearing under our shed.

The kids were thrilled, obviously. Our very own neighbor groundhog! Can life get better? Seriously, can it? Over dinner, we had a ferocious family debate about what to name him. Peanut and I plumped for “Phil,” after his famous relation, but Steve said we were being “speciesist” and that not all groundhogs are named Phil. Eventually, after some truly skillful advocacy, Steve persuaded us all to agree to his choice of names.

Meet Lord Chuckingham. Because he’s dignified. See it?

After dinner, Steve suggested that we should all go look out the sunroom window, because Lord Chuckingham might be hanging out by his palace gates. Low and behold – he was, and I snapped a few pictures through the sunroom window (including that first one, above). Then Steve suggested I might be able to sneak outside and get some better snaps without scaring His Lordship, if I was super quiet. It was worth a try, so I rushed out the front door, crept around the side of the garage, laid down in the grass and army crawled into the middle of the yard for a clear shot.

Almost there. What I do to get good pictures for you guys, I mean, really.

Your Lordship! Welcome to the neighborhood!

He wasn’t sure what to think of me. (Worth noting; I was all the way across the yard – about 75 feet away, or more – when I took this picture. Kudos, again, to the P1000 and its sick zoom lens.)

He decided to crouch down and hide, but continued to keep an eye on me. I read this signal as “go away” so I carefully and quietly crept out of the yard and back in the house. A few minutes later, he disappeared under the shed and we haven’t seen him since; it’s been scorching hot outside so I assume he’s staying cool in his burrow (smart groundhog).

Welcome to the neighborhood, Lord Chuckingham!

Tales from the Exurbs, Vol. VII: One Year

I can’t believe this: it’s been a year since our moving truck rolled out of Old Town Alexandria and transported us one county – and what sometimes feels like half a world – away to the exurbs. In some ways, it feels like we have been living this exurb lifestyle forever; in other ways, I’m surprised to wake up and not find myself in my little rowhouse in Old Town.

On the day we moved in, driving to pick up my kids from their babysitter’s house, I saw a wild turkey loitering by the sign at the entrance to our neighborhood. If this is a sign of things to come, I thought, we’re in for a treat, living here. The past year has brought us so many cool wildlife sightings; from gorgeous orange foxes running through our front yard at dawn to the nesting pair of eagles – and their chicks! – at our favorite local park, just ten minutes away, I sometimes feel like I’m living in a NatGeo special.

We loved living in Old Town, and there were so many advantages to our walkable city lifestyle – but one huge drawback was the lack of good outdoor space for the kiddos. We made the best of our little patio, but I wanted them to have a cool yard. They’ve made the most of our green space this past year – from sledding with the neighbor kid to climbing on their red and blue dome (which they could never have done in Old Town – I think the box it came in, pre-assembly, was bigger than our old patio; kidding, kidding).

I’ve been wanting a fire pit for ages. We could have had one in Old Town, probably, sure, but hanging out by the fire toasting marshmallows outdoors was on my list for when we moved and had more space to kick around. When we buy the forever house (in the same zip code, if we have our way) I want to install something more permanent. For now, this works. I’m keeping s’mores ingredients in my pantry at all times.

Here’s something I haven’t done yet: I haven’t rehabilitated this wild jungle. Last year, we moved in June and it felt like it was really already too late. This year, things were just busy – with changing jobs, getting to the finish line of the weirdest school year ever, and the first season (the first of many, I hope) of Little League. I did uproot a bunch of dandelion plants, so that’s something. We’ll do another container garden, and planting a really elaborate garden might just be another thing that has to wait for the forever house. But it has been nice to sit outside this spring (when the pollen wasn’t too outrageous) and enjoy the surprise blooming. Best thing about the first year in a new house: all the flowers that you don’t know to expect.

What a year it’s been! We’ve leaned into finding our favorite local restaurants, embraced the Little League lifestyle, gone trail-running in our neighborhood park, and started meeting people here. This is a small town, and I am looking forward to post-pandemic coffee shop visits and really starting to feel like a local. I do miss being able to walk out my backdoor and stroll to the library, the neighborhood playgrounds and pool, the waterfront, and dozens of different restaurants – there were advantages to city living, no doubt. But I am glad we made this move, and I can’t wait to settle in and spend years here.