Weekend in Asheville: redefining vacation, appreciating the little things

Memorial Day weekend always marks the unofficial start of summer. This year, for us, it marked even more.

The Wednesday before Memorial Day was Noah’s last day of preschool. That Friday was Pat’s last day at his job. He had been there over eight years, since well before we had kids.

I can barely remember what those days were like. We had just moved into the first house we owned. We spent our weekends sleeping in, going out and traveling if we felt like it. Weekends at the beach and in the mountains. To Milwaukee for a basketball game and Austin for a music festival. To Richmond just because we’d never been there.

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Who are these extremely well-rested people enjoying the 2006 Austin City Limits music festival?

We were traveling for Memorial Day weekend this year, too, driving to Asheville to visit my dad and stepmom for the first time since Rory was born. They’d made treks to Durham in the previous two years; we had just been avoiding the logistics of driving and lodging with the two little guys.  But their health had prevented them from visiting recently, so we knew it was time for us to buck up.

But first, I wanted to celebrate Pat’s last day of work and the new job he’d be starting after a week’s break.

“What do you want to do?” I asked him. “Should we get a babysitter?”

No. With the long final week of work behind him and a 4-hour drive to Asheville ahead the next day, Pat wasn’t interested in a late night out.

“I want to get out of work at a good time on Friday and go to Pelican’s SnoBalls,” he said.

For those of you not familiar with it, Pelican’s SnoBalls is a New Orlean’s style shaved-ice stand that is open only in spring and summer. It’s in the north part of Durham, just a far enough of a drive from our house to make it a treat. And it’s delicious. It’s everything you love about a Sno-cone, but with smoother, less crunchy ice, well-distributed syrup and a million flavors to chose from. Eating one on a sticky picnic table on a warm summer day just can’t be beat.

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Rory, ready for his first SnoBall last summer.

Unfortunately, Friday did not go as planned. Pat was late wrapping things up at the office, and we were already at the pool for swim team practice when he got home. Rory was melting down and we had still not packed anything for our trip the next day. We had to forfeit the SnoBalls.

“Sorry for such a lame last day,” I told Pat.

“It’s okay, we’ll make up for it this weekend,” he said.

On Saturday morning, I made eggs and french toast with strawberries for breakfast in an attempt to clear out the fridge before our trip. We packed the car with every conceivable snack and distracting toy, book and electronic device and were on the road at 11:00. I had the newspaper with me, and was hoping to read at least one section before the kids started demanding my attention.

We were less than ten minutes into our trip, just merging onto I-40, when it hit me.

“Whoa, I feel kind of nauseous,” I said to Pat.

I put down the paper, thinking maybe my reading in the car days were over. Rory was already requesting that I read him a story and throwing his lovie Ellie onto the floor, requiring me to turn and stretch one arm back to dig under the seat for it. But after one Ellie rescue and a couple pages of a book, I couldn’t do it any more.

“Oh man, I really feel sick,” I told Pat again.

I held on until Mebane (the town that is pronounced “meh-bin,” but we totally called  it “mee-bain” when we first moved to North Carolina), about 30 minutes into our drive.

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Mebane

“We need to pull over,” I told him. We found a Subway in a strip mall not far off the exit.

“You might as well go ahead and give the kids lunch,” I said, holding my breath to avoid the smell of baking foot-long bread as I made a beeline for the bathroom.

I puked in the Subway bathroom. It was a one-seater, so I had to keep taking breaks to let other people in to use the bathroom before returning to continue my business. Yes, it was probably as disgusting for those other patrons as it was for me.

Almost.

Finally, the kids had finished eating, and we had to make a choice. Were we going to go on? I was on the fence, but leaning toward “hell no.” Pat was more pragmatic.

“You can be sick there or at home,” he said. “But it’s going to be a while until we make this trip again.”

I didn’t care. We headed back to Durham. But after two minutes on the highway, I changed my mind.

“Okay, let’s do it.” I closed my eyes. On to Asheville we went.

The next few hours were agony. My steely resolution to not vomit again was broken only once, in the mulch outside of a McDonald’s in plain sight of everyone in the drive-thru line. And my kids.

“My mom throwed up in the parking lot at McDonalds,” Noah told everyone he encountered for the next three days.

“Too bad I missed that for Instagram,” Pat added.

But while the parking lot experience was more embarrassing than the restaurant bathroom, the outdoor version was infinitely more bearable, as I learned back in March (the first episode which Pat is now referring to as my “streak” of puking on vacation).

We made it to Asheville. And we were glad to be there. But it was a stark reminder of how much things have changed from our pre-kid weekends away.

house

We rented a small house on a pretty plot of land where I spent most of the first morning in bed, like I may have on those long-ago weekends. But this time I was alone, alternately sleeping and semi-delirious, while Pat took the kids to a nearby playground.

On the second day, the kids enjoyed seeing bears and otters at the WNC Nature Center until Noah got defiant and we had to cut the trip short, with Noah screaming and sobbing and vowing “I’ll listen now!” the entire way to the car.

nature center

Despite the cold water, they had fun swimming in my dad’s community pool until Rory face-planted on the pool deck, skinning his face.

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Pre-face skinning.

It was good to visit with my dad and stepmom, to watch them feed the birds and blow bubbles with the boys, but they weren’t feeling up to much activity.  And really, neither was I.

dad and boys

There was no hiking. We did not go downtown. I did not drink one beer.

Still, I had that familiar sad feeling, those “vacation’s over” blues, as we drove back to Durham on Tuesday. Even in the most challenging or disappointing circumstances, I love being on the road. Seeing new places. Having all four of us together for many consecutive hours in a way that never seems to happen at home. In less than a week, Pat would be starting his new job, and it would be back to business as usual.

We had less than an hour left in our drive when I saw a billboard for a donut shop.

“Let’s stop for something yummy,” I told Pat. “One last vacation hurrah.”

I looked up the donut place on Yelp. By now, it was two exits back. Too late. I did another search for that other road trip standby: ice cream.

I couldn’t believe what I saw.

“Pat! Did you know there’s a Pelican’s SnoBalls in Mebane? Off the next exit!”

“You sure you want to risk going back to Mebane?” he asked. But he was only joking. Mostly.

snoballs

This outpost of Pelican’s SnoBalls was located near Mebane’s small downtown, but with all the features of the Durham location, and more. In addition to the obligatory mile-long list of flavors and sticky picnic tables, they had corn hole, tetherball and a stack of hula hoops in the grassy space next door.

tetherball

We ordered our SnoBalls: two day-glo Sponge Bobs for the boys, a pink grapefruit for me and  orange-pineapple with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle for Pat. We sat under an umbrella at a sticky table staining our tongues yellow, pink and orange. We took turns bumping our styrofoam cups together, toasting to summer, to vacations redeemed, to new adventures.

To a redefined version of “vacation,” and the little things that still make it good.

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