My oldest turned 12 this week. We went camping. He wanted to explore a new place, so we went down to Whitewater State Park. We got, set up camp, and explored. We did some hiking up the bluffs, got really hot and went for a swim.

We had some rain after supper (thankfully the storms held off). We almost always have rain when we camp. My youngest dislikes camping because of the rain we always get. But this time it was a nice light rain. We played bocce in it. And they slept though the night well.

The next day we drove down to another state park. We checked out Mystery Cave and historic Forestville. It was fun to see the boys ask questions of the naturalist in the cave and to interact with the historic actors who took the boys back to 1899. I enjoyed watching them ask questions, answer questions and pretend they lived back in that time.

After playing some molkky (a Finnish lawn game) after supper, we all sat around the campfire and drew pictures of our campsite (unarranged--we just all ended up drawing the tent at different points). While the oldest read in the tent, the youngest and I took a walk and looked at the stars and fireflies.

On our last day we took another hike. It was supposed to be a short hike before lunch. It took us over two hours. We took a hike up to inspiration point for the view. Then we continued back on the trail we were on because there were lots of wild raspberry bushes (and a few gooseberries). The boys really enjoyed fresh fruit and ate their fill.

They were happy to get home after a couple nights away (we had only been home two nights before that after a 4th of July trip to be with family in Iowa). I wasn't as excited to be back. It was nice to be in the wilderness, seeing the stars at night, away from traffic. It was nice to have the time with the boys, making memories (I'm about to go into a long stretch without them around). Life is good when camping.


A Wetland Walk in April

I abandon the city in search
Of a hillside forested in birch;
But find myself in a marshy wetland,
Ground seldom dirt, mostly sand
And where the land changes
So does the scenery and vegetation:
Fewer willows and more evergreen,
Basswood, larch, birch to be seen
When the path goes from sand to soil.
The tiniest of purple flowers
Polka-dot the land in places.
Reeds and sedges fill the open spaces.
Canada geese take wing;
The redwing blackbirds sing.
I happen upon a pool with
Several fallen logs upon which
Upwards of two score turtles bask
Until I walk close by
Then they all dive
Into the safety of murky waters.
Spring peepers sing their chorus;
Bullfrogs croak along the shoreline.
Cranes circle overhead, trumpeting their cry.
Shot gun shell casings litter the ground;
Red, yellow, teal, even purple, abound.
I want for shade, as the day is hot,
But leaves are just budding, so shade is not
To be found upon the dusty, dry land,
And when I try to sit or even stand
For a short moment, ticks emerge
And crawl from my socks to exposed skin
Upon my legs seeking a place to dig in
And feast upon a meal of life-giving blood.
Dragonflies zoom around, also looking to feed
But not on me--I am not what they need.
But though it is early spring, insects are about.
Even the butterflies flutter
And a bumblebee buzzes.
This place did not have the hills I desired,
Yet still my walk has made me tired
And yet renewed and refreshed
And feeling wonderfully blessed
To be able to experience solitude
And yet I was not alone at all
But surrounded by life and the presence
Of the One who created it all.


Spring Break: End of the Road Trip

We made it safely home. The boys are with their mom now. I miss them already--it's a big adjustment after being in close quarters with them for a week.

The drive was uneventful in a good way. There was really light snow off and on at times through South Dakota. It had been almost 70 when we went out--and it's supposed to be in the 70s again this weekend--but most of our time was cold--at least at night. We played a few rounds of finding the alphabet in order on road signs. We ended up with 41 state license plates, 4 provinces, 1 Native American tribe (Cherokee from Oklahoma) and some US Government plates. We thought that all but 9 states was pretty good in a trip just across one state. We even saw at least 4 Alaska plates (but no Hawaii). I had the boys work on their math as we went by figuring out what percentage of the states we had found (ended up with 82% as they can tell you). We also ended up seeing a total of 162 different Wall Drug signs (99 on the way out along Interstate 90 from Worthington, Minnesota, to Wall, South Dakota, and 63 heading back east from Summerset to Wall).

All in all, despite colder weather that only allowed us one night in our tent, we had a great trip. I hope to return to do some more intense hiking some day. The landscape is beautiful, from rugged mountains to forests to grasslands. Saw a lot of wildlife we don't see here (bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs, mule deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep--we saw all the large mammals except mountain lions and elk). And most importantly we had fun together as a family.


Spring Break Day 5

It was a crazy windy day. It was almost impossible to open the car door at times. And at times there were ice pellets in the air which became miniature ballistic missiles in the wind.

We made our way from the Black Hills and had our obligatory stop in Wall Drug. 99 signs on our way out. 63 different ones today. Half the place was closed. The problem with touring this time of year is that most places aren't open. The good thing is we don't care for the most part---we've enjoyed the wilderness--and there aren't crowds of people anywhere. Before leaving Wall we stopped at the National Grasslands visitor center.

Then we headed into the Badlands. Right away we saw a group of bighorn sheep. I was excited as we hadn't seen any yet. We saw most of the large mammals found out here except for elk and mountain lions. Because of the wind (which did make it colder), the boys didn't want to get out of the car much. But eventually they did and we had a few fun hikes.

Another night spent in a motel. I knew we'd end up in them some, but I was hoping the weather would cooperate for more nights of camping. Tonight the tent would have blown away. And waking up cold isn't fun with kids. If I was alone I would have tented a little more, but it's been more comfortable this way. Still, I haven't slept in this many motels over several years' time. We ended the day with a game of cribbage to make up for the lack of math practice (though I did have them work out what percentage of the states we had found license plates of on the road each time we found new ones).


Spring Break Journey Day 4

We never saw the snow or heard the wind that kept us in a motel in Hot Springs last night. I didn't catch any news to hear what the winter storm did in the area. But we awoke to rain, and it's not fun to wake up in a tent in rainy near-freezing temperatures and have to make breakfast and pack up camp, so I'm thankful we holed up in a motel for the night. The boys are already a little weary of camping from some of the weather experiences we've had in the past.

Hot Springs is a quaint old town built on the healing power of the natural mineral springs that dot the area. Many buildings in the downtown are built of local sandstone circa 1888-1930s. There is an active paleontology dig in the city of mostly mammoth remains. The boys, however,  were more interested in checking out the swimming pool built on a hot spring. Naturally we get out of the rain to get wet.

From there we headed back north, driving through Wind Cave National Park. I had planned to visit Jewel Cave. We didn't end up staying near there. And the boys weren't really interested in going in another cave (we had visited the Mark Twain Cave in Missouri a few summers ago which apparently was enough for them), but we stopped and explored the visitors center and Nils got another Jr. Ranger badge. We continued driving back through Custer State Park. We saw the burros this time, though not very close.

And now for a good night's sleep to rest up as we slowly start our way back east tomorrow.


Spring Break Wandering Day 3

We survived a chilly night, but it wasn't that bad when we awoke. Still, the park ranger seemed skeptical that the boys would do well sleeping in a tent tonight with a winter storm coming through and I decided she was right, so we packed up camp this morning. We drove north through Custer toward Mt. Rushmore. Three tunnels along the road perfectly framed the four presidents in each. There were also three pigtail turns on the road.

We arrived at Rushmore and added a few more states to our list of license plates we've seen along the trip. Mountain goats awaited us within the park.

As we left we weren't sure where we'd spend the night do we just drove and made stops to climb rock formations and watch wildlife (I saw a marmot but was too slow for a photo).

We ended up in the town of Hot Springs for the night. After some bison burgers we walked along the historic downtown, sampling mineral water from springs.


Spring Break Adventure Day 2

We left our cheap but cozy (and with a hot homemade breakfast) motel and traveled on to Custer State Park. On the way we saw 68 more signs for Wall Drug for a total of 99 along I-90. We added a couple more states to our list of license plates we've seen as well as another province.

We had a lovely day. The weather nearest 70 degrees and we planned to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. We drove the Wildlife Loop, taking in pronghorns, mule deer, bison and prairie dogs. We did some hiking through trails a foot deep in snow. We climbed rock formations.

We got a nice campsite along a babbling creek. Its sounds are lulling us to sleep. Unfortunately a winter storm is supposed to move into the area tomorrow night so we may be looking for affordable lodging tomorrow night.


Spring Break Travels Day 1

He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Our day started at church remembering the resurrection of our Lord. We went a little earlier than usual and did the traditional service rather than the contemporary as we normally do. An organ and brass instruments seem fitting for Easter morning.

After lunch we finished packing the car and got on the road to enjoy our spring break week. Destination: the Black Hills. The boys have never been.

Our first (and only) stop of today was at the (in)famous Corn Palace in Mitchell. Being a late afternoon on Easter Sunday everything was closed of course, but we enjoyed seeing the murals made from grains. It was nearly 60 degrees ans the sun was out (it had been in the 30s when we left Minnesota a little after noon) so we stretched our legs a little. And we enjoyed a pb&j sandwich before getting back on the road.

We crossed the Missouri River and found an affordable hotel for the night. We hopefully have a short drive to the Black Hills tomorrow where we plan to camp the next couple of nights.


Good-bye Harper Lee

Ever since I read To Kill A Mockingbird sometime in junior high (I think), it became one of my favorite books. I had always wished that Harper Lee had written more. Though I admit I haven't read her recently released book, Go Tell a Watchman. I will some day, but part of me doesn't want to for fear of becoming disillusioned with her if I don't like it. I want the story to be as god as the first one, but I've heard mixed reviews.

Nonetheless, Harper Lee holds a place in my heart--at least her first book does. Harper Lee was famously a recluse for most of her life. When doing research in college I wrote about my other favorite southern writer--Flannery O'Conner--because there wasn't as much out there on Harper Lee. Still, To Kill A Mockingbird will remain one of my favorite stories for many lessons.

Growing up in an all-white town (most of the time--there were occasional families who would move through town that brought some color and non-northern-European culture to our community), To Kill a Mockingbird taught me the value of humanizing the marginalized.

Justice, compassion, and mercy were big themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Through the careful guidance of Atticus Finch, his children Jem and Scout learned to empathize with those who were seen as outsiders in their community--whether an elderly lady, a shy recluse, or a person of color. While others spread rumors and fear, Jem and Scout learn that those people are people.

Intimately tied in to justice, compassion, and mercy is the lesson to do the right thing, even when it is unpopular. Atticus Finch wins our respect in the story as he takes on the legal case for a wrongfully accused black man who doesn't stand a chance of a fair trial. Putting his life in danger at times, Atticus goes against the popular consensus to do what is right.

And now, at my stage in life, I can appreciate how Atticus, as a single parent, raises his two children. He manages career and family. He treats them with respect, allowing them to be children, but encouraging them to be responsible and respectful. He expects the best from them and for them. He doesn't avoid difficult issues with them. He goes the extra mile.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare books that I keep coming back to, reading it again and again. Harper Lee teaches without teaching, preaches with out preaching, and opens ones eyes to life as it should be. For that I am eternally grateful for her quiet, but poignant life.


Stubborn Love

Several years ago at my ex-niece's (I find there are no proper names for family members who were a part of my life for almost two decades, but are not any more) wedding I was introduced to the music group The Lumineers when they played their song Ho Hey ("I belong with you, you belong with me, you're my sweetheart") in a sideshow about the groom's mom who had passed away when he was young. I've since found the raw vocals and haunting lyrics of The Lumineers poignant at many times in my life. Though I'm older than their target audience sometimes the songs feel like a soundtrack to dating as a middle-aged man.

I've made many mistakes in relationships in the past. I fully own that. Some were because of my own issues which got in the way of a health relationship, some were from poor decisions, and some were just because of blindness. But I've hurt others, and gotten hurt in the process. My sister pointed out to me recently that I'm a lover--that loving others is part of my DNA, and I desire the romantic relationship. I'm not always good with my feelings, but I'm usually pretty good at knowing love. Of course, love is less of a feeling, and more of a decision. Still, my heart is involved. And though I try and be discerning in love and who I give my heart to, I still end up with heartbreak from time to time.

Many times as a 40-year old bachelor I have wanted to give up on love. I don't want to go through more pain and hurt again. I want to avoid the tears. But eventually I come around and remember how good it feels to love another person and let them into my life.

The Lumineers' song Stubborn Love reminds me that it is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all:

She'll tear a hole in you, the one you can't repair
But I still love her, I don't really care
When we were young, oh, oh, we did enough
When it got cold, ooh, ooh, we bundled up
I can't be told, ah, ah, it can't be done
It's better to feel pain, than nothing at all   
The opposite of love's indifference

It's easy to become indifferent. To become apathetic. To become walled-up to avoid hurt and pain. 1 John 4:8 tells us, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear." Fear. Indifference. Apathy. Whatever you want to call the opposite of love (I don't think it's hate--hate may be a byproduct of fear, but fear is a much fuller dark side to love).

Tennsyon penned, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." I agree. But it's also better to have loved and kept that love. But let not the pain of love lost or the fears of loves to come keep one from loving at all. Yes, there will be heartache anytime one loves another. But what is gained in loving another makes life so much richer.