Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

Spring is widely regarded as the most spectacular season of the year in D.C.  I haven’t been able to really enjoy it in the past, because I always got hideous allergies – it’s no fun to spend a month with runny eyes, itchy throat, and a completely blocked nose.  For whatever reason – knock wood, and I’m almost afraid to write this for fear I might jinx it – allergies seem to have passed me by this year.  I think it may be because I spent three years out of the area, and it takes awhile for pollen to become familiar enough to my immune system to make it freak out.  I’ve also had another baby, and pregnancy does all kinds of weird things; I’ve got to say, if one of the side effects of Nugget was that he cured me of my allergies, even for a little while, well, I already love the little guy but – that’s awesome.

All that’s to say, since I haven’t been spending my days sneezing and popping Claritin – yet – I’ve finally gotten to go out and do All The Spring Things, and D.C. has totally earned its reputation for being a spring wonderland.  The weekend before last, we took advantage of a crisp but cloudless morning to drive down to Mount Vernon and check out all the glories of spring on the estate.

Rows and rows of tulips, daffodils, and more flowers in the upper garden – flowering trees all over the grounds – and baby animals in almost every enclosure!  Does it get better than that?

We started out with a walk around the upper garden and then down past the Mansion to go check out the animals – always the kids’ favorite part.  We actually went into the Mansion this time, because we found a slot between tour groups and it wasn’t too crowded.  Peanut loved it, as expected, and Nugget was a menace, also as expected.  I think in the future we’ll just send Peanut inside with one parent, and keep Nugget out with the other.  Fortunately, no property damage was done, and he didn’t even get yelled at for banging on doors like he did at the Lee-Fendall House.  So… a win?

Headed down to the animals and right away spotted lambs!  WAY too cute.  I apologize in advance for my terrible photos.  The sun was just too blinding.  I assure you, they were much cuter in person.

My lambkins were enthralled by the sweet little woolly babies

Next we continued down the hill toward the Heritage Farm, and on our way, we discovered – piglets!

Again, pictures do no justice to the cuteness of the real thing.  These little ones were only five days old!  And already scampering and playing in their little lean-to.  Poor Mom looked exhausted.

Made it down to the river!

It was such a gorgeous day.  I could have stayed outside all day long.  Sunshine, birdsong, flowers, and baby animals – what’s not to love?

A little too sunny for some people.  Look at these spoiled kids, being towed backwards so the sun doesn’t get in their faces.  It’s the life, right?

Eventually we had our fill of the (grown-up) sheep down at the Heritage Farm and headed back up the hill, stopping about halfway up to let the kids out of the stroller – they’d had enough riding.

Yes, they’re almost the same height.  And Nugget weighs as much as Peanut does now.  It’s frightening.

Found a little grove of Virginia dogwoods!  (It’s a tree and a flower. #andrewshepardismypresident.)  I pointed them out to Steve, who had been wondering about how to identify them just the week before.

Mount Vernon is really the perfect family outing for us.  There are flowers for Peanut (and me!), animals and plenty of lawn for both kids, and a delightful walk for all.  I’m so glad we’re living close to the estate again (although I miss being just a ten-minute bike ride away!).

Where do you like to go to soak up spring?

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Confession: I’m a total sucker for Facebook clickbait about fun things to do in northern Virginia.  I follow a bunch of NoVA tourism accounts and I can reliably be counted on to click every link that begins with a sentence like “7 THINGS EVERY VIRGINIAN MUST DO AT LEAST ONCE” or “TOP 10 BEST VIRGINIA TOWNS FOR SUMMER ADVENTURE.”  You get the picture.  Well, I guess it’s not clickbait if it actually leads to an amazing hike, right?  Because when the headline “VIRGINIA’S SECRET GARDEN TRAIL” popped up at me over the winter, obviously I clicked on it – and discovered a hidden gem.

Tucked away in Centreville, Virginia is Bull Run Regional Park.  And tucked away in Bull Run Regional Park is the Bluebell Loop Trail, which most of the year is just a nice pleasant meander through the woods, but which becomes a riot of color and glory for a couple of weeks in early to mid-April, when the bluebells are blooming.  Which they are.  Right now.  So – here’s your PSA: if you are local to D.C., drop everything and go do this hike right now.  I’ll wait.

I did extensive research to determine which weekend would be the best for viewing the bluebells at their most glorious, and determined that last weekend seemed like the choice.  A quick call over to the park confirmed the decision – a ranger informed me that the bluebells were blooming by Wednesday and would be at peak over the weekend.  Thanks – we’ll see you then!

Peanut wanted to walk, and she actually did most of the trail on foot – good girl!  And even better, she was very well-behaved and did not pick a single flower, which I know was just killing her.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The trail picks up with a little jaunt over a boardwalk – no bluebells in sight just yet.  We were pretty sure that we were going the right way, though, thanks to the excellent signage.  We enjoyed listening to frogsong in the wetlands, and Nugget pointed out several logs that he was convinced were alligators.

And then – all of a sudden, out of nowhere – bluebells!

They were literally everywhere you looked.  The entire forest floor was carpeted in bluebells, bluebells as far as the eye could see.  We all stopped in our tracks and just gaped.

I assure you, these pictures do absolutely no justice to the pure, unadulterated glory of this trail.  I’ve never seen anything like it – even the hill by my parents’ camp, which is carpeted in periwinkles in the summer, couldn’t compete.  I’m convinced there is a corner of Heaven that looks just. like. this.

Peanut was in her element.  She absolutely loves flowers.  She pranced down the trail shouting “FLOWER PETALS, this is beautiful!” while Nugget repeated “FLOWER PETALS!” from the backpack like a little echo.

I was very proud that she didn’t pick a single one, though.  We practice “leave no trace” on our hikes – leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but photographs – and I knew that was going to be a challenge this time.  Peanut has a case of sticky fingers when it comes to flowers.  It’s sweet, because she wants to pick them for me, but we can’t encourage it.  After she came home with a big bouquet of stolen daffodils from the school garden (but really, who let her in there unsupervised?) we had to talk to her about making sure she asks permission before picking a bouquet for Mommy, as much as Mommy loves flowers too.

But she was a good girl, and she had an absolute ball.

So did someone else.  Little dude was pretty good about not clamoring to be let out of the backpack – I think it helped that we kept up a pretty good clip, and that there was so much to see – lots of birds, dogs, and of course all the flowers.

I couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  I knew that my photos were a very poor shadow of what was actually all around me, but I couldn’t help myself.

Seriously – what a gorgeous hike.  As we walked along, eyes popping out of our heads at the beauty all around us, I told Steve that I thought this was the best hike we’ve done all year.  He replied, “It’s one of the best hikes we’ve done ever.”  I agreed – some hikes, you just know when your boots hit the trail, are hikes for the ages. Hall Ranch  in Lyons; Bear Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park; the Adirondack high peaks; pretty much every Great Falls hike ever – and the Bluebell Trail.

We made it back to the car drunk on spring beauty.  Some of us were so overcome that we had to eat our zippers.  (Not naming names, but…)

Bull Run, thank you for a perfect morning.  We’ll be back before long, because this is certainly a park to experience in all seasons.  But next spring – and every spring, as long as we live here – will find us on the Bluebell Loop Trail, because glory like this must be savored and savored again.

What’s your quintessential spring hike?

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A March hike that is really more of a walk is apparently a tradition with this project.  When we did it last in 2015, Nugget had just joined us on the outside and our “hike” was pushing a stroller around paved roads.  This time, we just struck out on finding anything more challenging than mulch – but we had fun and we moved our legs in nature, so I’m saying it counts!

Our main purpose in picking the National Arboretum was to hit up Saturday’s native plants sale.  I had the idea that I might be able to pick something up for my garden.  What I learned was – and all you master gardeners, don’t laugh at me – native plants does not mean edible plants.  Other than a blueberry bush (that I wanted, but Steve reasonably pointed out would probably outgrow our patio space) there was nothing.  Oh, well.

They were still pretty!

After the plant sale, we hit the National Herb Garden for some inspiration, and then made our way around the rose garden as well.  Nothing in bloom, really, other than a few early season flowers (the blizzard two weeks ago really messed up our spring).

Peanut insisted on being let down to smell everything in the perfume garden.  This point is pretty much when Nugget started clamoring to be released from the backpack, too.

After a slight detour to check out the daffodils and a flowering tree, we headed for the original Capitol columns.  Hands down the coolest sight in the Arboretum.

Bad back-lighting alert!

All the world’s a stage for Peanut, but certain places and spaces give more scope for her full range of dramatic expression.  Dramatic dancing and belting out pop songs commenced.

I attempted some artistic photography and failed miserably.

And all the while, the little dude was whining and complaining in my ear, kicking me and pulling my hair.  He thought it a spectacular injustice that his sister was running around treating the columns as her own personal Broadway stage, while he was still trapped in a backpack.

So this had to happen.  I didn’t mind, really – he weighs almost as much as Peanut, so I was starting to think it a bit unfair that Steve was getting in a nice easy walk with an empty backpack while I was hauling about thirty pounds.

Plus – they were ADORABLE.  I did have to pick Nugget up when a Meetup group for greyhounds and their parents came down the path.  Peanut had a ball greeting all the dogs (some of whom were taller than she is!) and charming the folks while Nugget was whimpering in my arms.  (He loves the idea of dogs but takes awhile to warm up to the reality, especially when it’s greyhound-sized.)

All in all – a lovely walk in the sunshine!  Not exactly the most challenging hike we’ve ever done, but there’s something to be said for a nice easy day on a paved trail, enjoying blossoming trees and blue skies.

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With the gorgeous blue skies and warm weather last weekend, and our packed schedule the rest of the month, there was no question that we would be getting out on the hiking trails at least once.  Since the entire weekend looked to be equally beautiful, we targeted Sunday for our hike.  I initially floated Fraser Preserve as a possible destination, but Sunday morning found us moving very slowly, so we scrapped that idea in favor of Lake Accotink, a new-to-us park in Springfield, Virginia.


Strapped into the hiking backpack and ready to go!  Dad and I were in short sleeves, but we zipped the kiddos into their fleeces – although Peanut insisted on wearing a sundress with shoes and socks – no tights – which we let her get away with, since it was really quite warm already.


First order of business was a snack.  Both kids gobbled up cheese sticks and pouches while enjoying the view of the lake.  I’d love to see the place in summer, when the park is bustling with people!  As it was, there were quite a few hikers, runners, mountain bikers and strollers out enjoying the lovely lake breeze and blue skies.


Canoes!  I can’t wait until the kids are old enough – read: obedient enough – to get out on the water as a family.  Paddling is something I love; it’s been a passion of mine since I got my first kayak at age 15, and I wish I got to do more of it.


Suited up and ready to hit the trails!


Not far into our hike, what little cloud cover there had been burnt off and the glorious blue sky came out!  Not pictured: the little Pisces who was hovering around my right ear, keeping up a constant refrain of “Wanna go by water!  Wanna go by water!”


^ The goal.  Always the goal.


Attempted some selfies, but they turned out very squinty.  Note to self: do not forget sunglasses, even if the sky is a little overcast.


When we had only a little hiking left to do, we let Peanut out of the backpack to run along the trail next to us.  She’d been sulking and complaining the entire time (four going on fourteen?) but perked up considerably once she got to walk.  We discussed the possibility that she is growing out of the backpack – up until recently, she never wanted to walk if there was a possibility of being carried or pushed.  I’d love to see her in little hiking boots, scampering along with her own mini backpack, so I’m encouraging her.


Stopped to examine some quartz in the trail!  If it’s pink or sparkly, Peanut is here for it.


Well, Accotink, thanks for a delightful, sunny, breezy hike!  This park was truly a gem, only twenty minutes from us, and we had no idea it was out there. I can already see that renewing the hiking project is a good idea – it’ll get us out of the habit of going to Great Falls every weekend, and force us to try out some new hiking spots.

Did you hit the trails this month?

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I can’t tell you how excited I am to bring back the twelve months’ hiking project!  Longtime readers may recall that Steve and I set a goal of getting out onto a different hiking trail at least once every month in 2015, and at the end of the year we had a collection of fantastic hikes to show for it.  I wanted to keep the project going into 2016, but we quickly realized that we had pretty much exhausted the family friendly hiking trails in Western New York.  But the dawn of this new year sees us back home in Northern Virginia, with a wealth of hiking trails to choose from and some travel plans that will take us to even more spectacular hiking locations – with all that to look forward to, how could I not bring back the hiking project?


Our first hike of 2017 had to involve Great Falls somehow – it just wouldn’t have felt right otherwise.  Great Falls might be my favorite place in the world.  It’s a tough call, because I love so many places.  But this rollicking gorge holds a special place in my heart.  I think I’ve hiked here more than anywhere else – in all seasons and all weather – and I know every inch of the trail.  (At least, on the Virginia side.  The Maryland side boasts the Billy Goat Trail, which is one of the most popular hikes in the D.C. area, and we still haven’t tried it.  I hope to have corrected that omission by the end of 2017!)


Our first stop, as always, was the overlook, so we could wave hello to the waterfalls.  The water was really rolling last weekend – you could see the mist coming off the falls section quite a ways up the trail.  I brought my Adirondack flag to show my love for my favorite state park while I hiked my favorite federal park.


Whenever we head for Great Falls, we always get into a debate – should we head downriver, into the NPS area of the park, or should we walk up the trail to Riverbend Park (part of the Fairfax County park system) and leave the NPS section?  I like to walk downriver and stay in the federal area, but Steve prefers to walk upriver into the Fairfax County park section.  He likes the more consistent river views upriver, while I don’t mind meandering into the woods a bit and then coming out onto more sporadic, but more spectacular, views downriver.


Since the last time we hiked Great Falls, we went downriver, it was only fair to hike upriver this time.  So we set out for the North River Trail, which takes hikers out of Great Falls and into Riverbend Park.


First bird sightings – a few Canadian geese waiting out the winter (or stopping by on their way further south).  There was also a gaggle of ducks.


The North River Trail has a bit of very mild technical hiking, which adds to the fun.  Starting small with some stone steps…


Into a tight scramble area.  I wished I had brought my hiking poles, but I did fine grabbing onto the rocks and tree trunks along the side of the trail.


We have arrived!  Riverbend Park is such a versatile area.  It’s great for birding all year round, and the trail is loved by both hikers and trail runners.  It’s interesting enough to keep you engaged, but not so technical that you couldn’t run it if you were of the mind to do so.


This guy was giving me lots of kisses.  Everyone should try hiking with an affectionate toddler on their backs.


At one point we all shared a water bottle.  I was a little worried about all this water going down the back of my neck, but fortunately, my fears turned out to be misplaced.  What a relief!


We ended the hike with a special treat – a Great Blue Heron!  Mom’s favorite bird – what a delight to see that guy.  (Can you spot him in the picture above?  Note to self: bring the dSLR next time.  iPhone pictures just don’t cut it for birding.)

A little scrambling, a gorgeous waterfall, and some great birding action – not a bad start to a new twelve months’ hiking project!

Have you been hitting the trails recently?

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And now it’s 2017!  I think we were pretty much all ready to see the back of 2016.  Has there ever been a year in which more things went wrong, from a state-of-the-world perspective?  Globally speaking, I found 2016 as ridiculously absurd as most people, so good riddance.  But from a personal and family perspective, we actually had a pretty good year – filled with lots of laughter and fun, with big and small adventures all folded around a major, and very welcomed, life change.  Here’s a look.


The biggest event in January was concluding the sale of our house in Elma, and moving into temporary housing in Williamsville, New York.  The move was phase one of our plan to leave the Buffalo area – a goal we were already working on at the end of 2015, although we just murmured vague things like “we’re looking for a better fit” when asked about our home sale.  We weren’t ready to share our ultimate plan at that point.  Most of the month was consumed with packing and moving, so we didn’t do much adventuring.  But I did finish recapping 2015 fun and posted Part I of my 2015 reading year in review.


In February, we settled into our new temporary living situation. and I made two stealthy trips to D.C. to interview for a job.  That job didn’t work out, but getting interviews so quickly did boost my confidence and convince me that we had a chance of making our dream of moving home come true.  Those trips – planning and preparing for them, making them, and keeping them quiet – consumed my entire month and between that and work drama back in Buffalo, I had very little energy for anything else.  So we didn’t get out much in February, although I did post Part II of my 2015 reading year in review, and my 2015 Book Superlatives.


March was all about celebrating Nugget as he turned one year old!  We threw him a storytelling birthday party with a nature theme at a local children’s bookstore, and it was so much fun.  I think he felt very celebrated and very loved.  Around the main event of the month, we squeezed in a few hikes – since the weather was unseasonably warm – making it to Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve and to Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area.  We also visited a working sugar shack as part of New York’s Maple Days.


In April, I made another stealthy trip to D.C. to do my first interview for the job I would end up taking.  Around that, I fit in fun both bookish and outdoorsy.  We took a family hike to Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and spotted dozens of red-winged blackbirds.  We also went back to Times Beach Nature Preserve and Canalside for family playtime.  And I – as always – celebrated National Poetry Month, this time with a fun twist!  I posted two big roundups of my favorite poetry books for kids, one post for the classics, and one for newer favorites.


In May, I continued to be all over the place.  I made another secretive interview trip to D.C. – the most stressful one yet, involving bumping into a colleague on the way there, and a nearly-missed connection in Detroit (sprinting in heels to catch the last plane of the night) on the way back.  I liked my end of month travel better – a trip across New York State to visit my parents and spend some time at the lake for Memorial Day!  We also hit up the summit of Mount Greylock and had lunch in Williamstown, Massachusetts – such a fun trip.  Closer to home, we had some fun adventures – a Mother’s Day weekend that included hikes at Tifft Nature Preserve and a 5K race in Ellicottville, New York; a family walk through Reinstein Woods; and a hike at Akron Falls, a park we’d not yet explored.


In early June, I got the exciting news that I had a job offer in D.C., and our move was officially underway!  We still kept it under wraps, in case things fell through.  Two days after getting the exciting call from my new firm, I packed up and drove across the state to Lake George for an education law conference.  In between conference sessions and workshops, I managed to spend almost a full day with my college friend Seth – hiking, kayaking, eating delicious crab legs and drinking wine.  Back in Buffalo, we celebrated Father’s Day with another 5K (for me!) and a family hike.


July was a blast, as we squeezed as much Buffalo fun in as we could before moving at the end of the month.  Starting with a fun Fourth of July weekend that included playground time, Canalside, berry picking and a family retirement party.  The next weekend, we were out and about again with a special treat for Nugget – Touch A Truck!  I mused on my favorite books of the first half of the year and on my personal tendency to cram as much fun into summer as possible.  Meanwhile, I dedicated the rest of the month to wrapping up work projects and lining up childcare (a school for Peanut; a nanny for Nugget) in northern Virginia.  We closed out the month by throwing an early fourth birthday party for Peanut, so that she could celebrate with her friends, after which I promptly threw my back out putting Nugget in the crib, and then our moving truck rolled out two days later and we officially said goodbye to New York State.


August was about resting and reflecting on this big life change that we had brought about.  It was a long journey – eighteen months from the time we first started talking about moving, before Nugget was even born, to turning the key at our new place in Virginia.  And even though we had a house crammed full of boxes and a lot of unpacking and organizing to do, we decided to spend our final week of freedom before I started my new job visiting my friend Rebecca in Virginia Beach.  We spent pretty much the entire week barefoot and covered in sand and it was exactly what we needed.  When we got home, D.C. life started in earnest.  I started work at my new firm.  My cousin Jocelyn came down to watch the kids for two weeks as part of our cobbled-together bridge childcare plan (before the school year started and the nanny was available) and we did our best to induce her to move south – with hikes at Great Falls, visits to the D.C. monuments, and a morning at the Udvar-Hazy Center, not to mention two cute kids.  We also celebrated Peanut’s fourth birthday – can’t believe what a big kid she is!


In September, we continued to enjoy being back in northern Virginia and able to visit all of our favorite spots again – including Lake Burke (pictured above), which was one of our regular haunts when we lived here before.  Most of the rest of the month was quiet – filled with settling in.  Nugget got his first haircut and I was a soggy mess.  I reflected on the summer that just ended.  And – the best part of September – my dear Buffalo friend Zan came for a visit.  All in all, September was busy – filled with back to school events and birthday parties – but also quiet, if that makes sense.  It was a lot of the business of living, which was exactly what I wanted after three years of homesickness.


If September seemed quiet, October was packed with local fun.  We celebrated Columbus Day weekend with a trip to Little Washington for a few days, where we tasted wine, explored the adorable town, and hiked in Shenandoah National Park.  Back in the D.C. suburbs, we drove out to Loudoun County two weekends in a row for apple picking and then pumpkin picking; had a playdate with a new school friend at a children’s Halloween party hosted by a local historic mansion; and finally went Trick-or-Treating (with our mermaid and fire truck) in Old Town – a month-long funfest that I recapped in one big monster of a post.


November was… it happened.  The month started well, with a visit to the Will & Jane exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Then the election happened, and I – like pretty much everyone else I know – was absolutely stunned.  I said everything I needed to say in this post, so no more.  We finished the month with a trip up to my parents’ house for a family funeral and Thanksgiving.  (For the first time since switching from food blogging, I didn’t recap a holiday.  I just didn’t feel like it.  It was good to see family, and the kids had a great time.  That was enough.)


After the dumpster fire that was November, we made December all about family fun.  Another visit to Little Washington (for their Christmas parade!), walks to the waterfront to see the holiday boat parade of lights and the waterskiing Santa, and last but not least, Christmas itself.  It was wonderful to celebrate as Virginians again, and looking back on the year I was so grateful that the move home happened as I’d hoped it would.

And now, onward!  Next week, I’ll be reviewing how I did on my 2016 goals and plans (spoiler alert: pretty bad) and setting some new intentions and a word for 2017 – which I can’t tease, because I still don’t know what it will be.  It feels particularly good, this year, to have a fresh start.  Can’t wait to see what 2017 brings to our family (even if I’m a little scared for the world).

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Somehow, we managed to live as avid hikers in the DC area for ten years without ever making it to Shenandoah National Park.  My college alumni club went to the park to hike Old Rag, its most popular peak, twice a year, but I never was able to join the group (it seemed I was always out of town, or running a race, or pregnant, when they would go).  Nor did we ever get there on our own.  Since we love the outdoors and love national parks, this was a huge omission that I was determined to correct as soon as possible when we moved back.  And a few weeks ago, that’s what we did!


The most important agenda item for our weekend in Little Washington was a hike in Shenandoah.  Steve and I both researched trails and decided on the trail to Mary’s Rock.  Boots on the ground, and let’s go!


We hiked through beautiful wooded trails and I checked out the ferns on the forest floor, thinking of the words from the Shenandoah National Park foliage report the weekend prior to our visit:

Ferns are turning gold –their kelly green fronds brushed lightly now with gold dust, but transforming frond tip by frond tip into the cinnamon and milk chocolate tones they’ll wear in winter.

(Whoever the park has writing the fall foliage reports needs an immediate raise.  I felt like I was reading Henry Beston.)


We passed by the foundation of an old cabin, chimney still intact.  I love stumbling upon visual treats like these, and speculating on who lived here and what their lives were like.


Finally, we made it to the first overlook.  We spent a few minutes just drinking in the views of the gently rolling slopes and valleys laid out below.


From there we hiked on up to the ridge leading to Mary’s Rock, but after about half a mile, Steve and I looked at each other and conceded that we had to turn back without summitting.  A cold wind was whipping all around us, and while we were fine, the kids were both crying in the backpacks.  (Being smaller, and not working up a sweat the way we were, they were feeling the wind.)  It just wasn’t our day.  As soon as we got down off the ridge and back into the more sheltered forest, both kiddos perked up.  And before too long, one of them sacked out.  Too cute.


On our way back down the mountain, we stopped to drink in more gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Marveling at this view ^ Steve remarked, “Now I see why they call it the Blue Ridge.”  Indeed!


Longtime readers may recall that Steve and I both grew up in or near the Adirondack region in New York State.  I lived in Albany, slightly south of the mountains, and spent countless days at my family’s cabin on the Great Sacandaga Lake.  Meanwhile, Steve was in Glens Falls, in the Adirondack region itself.  We both consider the Adirondacks an important part of our personal stories.  On this trip, we talked about how much we want our kids to grow up with the Blue Ridge Mountains meaning to them what the Adirondacks meant to us.


I guess that means we’re just going to have to go back soon and often.  That shouldn’t be a problem!


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