School Supplies for Haiti – OC, NJ

I try to research #RememberingMalcolm things to do ahead of time.  Maybe I need to refine my searching skills, but for our trip to Ocean City, NJ I had difficulty finding something that felt like the right fit.  It is hard to identify a real area of need in this beach-resort town.


Our stay in Ocean City was just over a week, so it was long enough that we wanted to do something a bit different.  Then, on our second day there, my mom found a local church (St. Augustine’s) doing a school supply collection for the children of La Montagne Jacmel, Haiti.  We loved this idea, doing anything for children is the best.

Cute picture of Hero Bear and my nephew <3

We searched around OC’s boutique-y shops for items requested on the list.  Shoes were crazy expensive, and school supplies were hard to come by.  We finally found marble notebooks in a small book store on Asbury Ave….great!  Flip them over the the price tag was……$7.99?!  Well, off to Wal-Mart.  I just purchased my own two children’s supplies and I knew I could pick up 16 notebooks for the children in Haiti for that same amount of money.  We did pick up a few compasses and protractors at a reasonable price from the shop next door.  That night we found backpacks being sold on the boardwalk for $50.  Definitely going to Wal-Mart.  I know we were visiting a beach town, so that is to be expected, but we are looking to get the most bang for our buck for these donations!

When my brother’s family arrived Friday, we took the kids, our SIL, and Hero Bear and made the trek to Wal-Mart (~20 minutes, not bad) to get some food and stock up on a bunch of the school  supplies for La Montagne Jacmel.   We were able to get so many pens, notebooks and crayons as well as backpacks and shoes.

The supply request emphasized the importance of shoes for these Haitian kids to get to class…in their education even being an option.  Another moment to reflect on how fortunate we truly are, and impress that fact on my children.

Over-all, thanks to the generosity of my family, we were able to contribute substantially to this #RememberingMalcolm cause.

Drop-off at St. Augustines

As always, please contact us with any #RememberingMalcolm good you have done on your vacations and we will write it up on our site. 

Ocean City, NJ

Classic.  Ocean City, NJ is stuffed with summer childhood memories.  One of my first vacation memories is staying in a dingy motel just off the boardwalk (vibrating bed and all!  I thought it was the most fun thing ever.) and my parents letting us stay up very late to actually finish a game of Monopoly. It is a great memory, full of laughter and that special feeling of getting to stay up late as a little kid.  Since then we have had big family reunions, vacations with friends as well as other trips with just our family (the accomodations gradually improving from that first memory…haha.).


When I met Chris in the early 2000s, his aunt and uncle had just purchased a house in Sea Isle, about halfway between OC and Cape May.  It made sense for Chris and I to start staying and visiting with them on our shore trips, instead of heading into Ocean City. We would occasionally come back for family reunions or day trips, but our connection was now being built to Sea Isle (which is also fantastic, but not what this blog is about).

This year, my parents wanted to gather all of their children under one roof in Ocean City once again and reserved a house for us all to stay at.  My kids and I stayed for over a week. As soon as we crossed the bridge into town and started driving the streets, the memories came flooding back.  The house was just a block and a half from the beach and boardwalk – so the stage was set.

The day we arrived the weather was beautiful.  We settled into the house and then headed straight for the beach.  Crossing the boardwalk made me stop in my tracks….Jilly’s arcade, the Surf Mall, Kohr Brothers all right where I left them.  The Surf Mall takes me back to Senior Week, which is a right of passage for High School graduates in the Philadelphia area. Graduate HS and head to the beach for the week to blow off steam with your now former classmates. During SW I hit up the Surf Mall, which is a collection of vendors and an oxygen bar, to purchase some washout hair dye, a fake nose ring and fake tramp stamp to give my mom a shock when I got home (I was raised in a conservative Catholic home, so this was shocking).

Jilly’s is 24 hours and still has skee-ball games for 10 cents….11 games for a dollar…..classic!

We crossed the boards to the beach.  For the first time my 7-year-old was eager to play in the rough surf, and quickly became an expert boogie boarder. Watching her laugh, even when she got knocked down hard made me smile and think about how much I loved learning to ride the waves in when I was a kid.  During a family reunion in the early ’90s I finely tuned my body surfing skills and would stay in the water for hours with my mom, aunts, uncles and cousins.  And just like my daughter did, we would all emerge water-logged, pruney, happy and exhausted.

That night, after my husband left to go back to Baltimore to work for a few days, I took the kids to the boardwalk for their first time ever.  I mean, is there anything cooler than that to a kid? The ocean and all the lights and arcade noises and rides and mini-golf and and…and!  I walked them along to show them our options for the upcoming week. We laughed at the animated gorillas jamming out in their helicopter in front of Congo Falls mini-golf.  My son jumped and ran to the other side of the boardwalk as a realistic robot alligator on tracks charged forward with its jaws open at the entrance to Pirates of the Golden Galleon mini-golf.  We stopped for ice cream and talked about what we wanted to do during the week. We watched seagulls launch coordinated attacks on unsuspecting tourists to separate them from their crab fries.

The next day my mom brought home an excellent Remembering Malcolm candidate from church.  School supplies for children La Montagne Jacmel, Haiti…sounded perfect (I had trouble identifying a good volunteer opportunity ahead of time).  See separate post on this activity.

During the week we had so much fun at the house doing our puzzle (for my family this is essential beach downtime activity), chatting and being silly.  Beach in the afternoon, boardwalk at night, repeat.

HB hitches a ride
Sand pit and being buried….classic!
Getting your picture taken with Mummers while on a pirate ship? Just another night on the boardwalk.
Pizza is one of my faaaavorite boardwalk activities

Chris joined us again Wednesday night, and by Friday morning my brother, my SIL and nephew arrived.  On Friday it was colder and overcast, so we went to the boardwalk earlier on and did some rides, and by that night my other, youngest brother and other SIL were in town….whole family together!  

On the caboose at Castaway Cove
My daughter eventually had fun, but the first time around wasn’t so sure…haha.  The pirate fun house in the background ended up being the kids favorite thing…

The next day was surrey rides and beach again, fueled by a healthy cheeseball pizza lunch.  Determined not to repeat the mistakes of our Cherry Springs trip, where we ran out of cheeseballs way to quickly, each family brought a barrel…..challenge accepted.

Chris also made a cheeseball breaded chicken parm the next day, which was actually quite tasty. Cheeseball pizza isss…….crunchy.


That night my brothers, SILS, Chris and I got to go on a date while my parents watched the kids! It was so much fun. My daughter was super upset and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t come.  I remember feeling that way! During a family reunion my older cousins got to go with the adults to Atlantic City to see David Copperfield and I SO wanted to go with them. Yes, I was 11, but I was an old soul….bring me bring me briiiiinnnng mmmeeee!

Sib date night!

We ate some great BBQ at Back Bay BBQ, a BYOB over the bridge. (Ocean City, NJ is a dry, family-friendly town.  You can bring booze in, but in town there are no bars and no liquor stores) Followed up by walking the boards and the beach and beating one of the boardwalk escape rooms extremely easily.  I’ve never done an escape room before, but I don’t think they are supposed to be that easy (we did the ‘hardest one’ and beat it with 10 minutes to spare of our half-hour time limit). I get it, though, good for a quick turn around on the boardwalk.  It makes them more family friendly, also. Moral of the story, if you are looking for a very challenging escape room, go somewhere else.

The next morning my parents took everyone out to a family breakfast and then we hit the beach and arcade once more.  

My breakfast date <3

Finally, it came time to say goodbye to my sibs. As we were wrapping up the evening I got really sad. This tends to happen on vacations now, and the longer the vacation the worse it seems to be.  I get sad to go back to our house and routine because it doesn’t include Malcolm. He should be here. Every time I start to think about this gaping hole in our everyday lives I can’t shake it and I have a breakdown.  This vacation was no exception. This night it was compounded because we were celebrating my sweet nephew’s one-year birthday. I love him so much, but all I could think about is how Malcolm never got this day. I eventually scraped myself off the bed, with the support of my amazing and loving husband, to hug my sibs and nephew goodbye.

One of our only photos of Malcolm at the ocean. We do feel fortunate that we were able to take him so many places <3<3<3

My family stayed one more day with my parents and aunt and took it at a relaxing pace.  So many new memories to add to the old ones:

Candy anyone?

Cherry Springs State Park, PA

The reason people flock to Cherry Springs State Park,  and the reason we and my brothers’ families agreed to drive 4.5 hours for a few nights together, is to see the stars…all of the stars…to infinity and beyond.  To Malcolm.

My brother and sister in law, some of our closest friends and Malcolm’s godparents, bought Malcolm a star so we can look for him in the heavens.  This was our Cherry Springs Quest.
Fortunately, prior to coming on the trip, a very thoughtful astronomer friend of ours sent us some photos of Malcolm’s star from different telescopes around the world, and gave us information about his star (distance, brightness), so this really took a LOT of pressure off of the trip.  And since we didn’t get to see it with our eyes, I’m even more grateful to have the pics.  Malcolm’s star is the bright star in the center of this photo.  We will track it down another time!

Cherry Spring State Park is one of the best places on the eastern seaboard to see the Milky Way.  It carries an International Dark Skies rating (who knew?).  There is a campground for regular people (vault toilets only) with a telescope (that’s us) and a campground for astronomers (flush toilets, la-ti-dah!).  The ladies walked to the astronomers side during the day to take their fancy flush toilets for a test drive.  The gates close there at dark so dust won’t be kicked up by cars to block the view.  Also, all lights had to be red, no flashlights allowed anywhere.  Even the lighting in the bathroom was red.

Weeding out the people that think ‘the sky is pretty’ –>

So with all this in mind, we were ready to see some stars.  Even though we were lumped in with The Norms, there was an enormous field behind us (the top of the mountain -2500 ft up- had been cleared in the 1930s when it was used as an airport) and we were prepared with my brother’s big ol’ telescope.

And then clouds.  Clouds, clouds and more clouds.  The first night it rained, ah well.  The second night looked promising until around midnight.   We went to a Ranger talk on what to look for in the night sky.  Unfortunately, we were there during a waxing, 1/2 moon phase (Note: try to go during the new moon phase) and the moon didn’t set until 1am, so while we saw some nice, non-Baltimorian sky, it wasn’t what we came for.  We did get to see four planets arcing across the sky: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  I didn’t even know you could see four planets, with the naked eye, at one time.  We also got to peek at the moon through the park’s powerful telescopes, which was interesting.  We saw many of the moon’s features: craters, channels, mountains.  It was so cool that it looked unreal.  But, as the clouds moved in, you could feel the optimism being sucked out of everyone around the campfire.  We decided to go to bed and set alarms for 3am to see if conditions had improved.  They hadn’t.

Although the stargazing was a disappointment, we had fun family time during the day.  On day 1, after a pretty drive through PA, we all arrived within an hour or so of one another and set up camp.

On of my legit favorite road trip things is stopping in a diner (Twilight Diner) in The Middle of Nowhere.  The far sign over the door says ‘save your spoon, the best is yet to come’.
Tent Pic!

Then there was the ceremonial consumption of the cheeseballs.  We almost brought a second barrel, but then reasoned we were only there 2 nights…surely that was excessive.  They were gone in hours.

Beginning-mid cheeseball crush
Et tu, cutie pie?

We explored nearby, admired some nature, and ate spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.  We each brought a different meal or two, and honestly, each meal outdid the last.  Creativity in packing meals can keep camping fun….and it doesn’t have to be complicated at all.

My brother’s Coleman stove is sweet!  Wish I got a better pic.  Note to self: may have to upgrade.

This is the first of 5 catepillar pets this weekend.  This one’s name is Dave because he was originally hosted in my youngest brother’s cup, labeled ‘Dave’

I hung out with my bros and our spouses that night and on the way back to our trailer came within a few feet of a skunk.  I jumped and retraced my steps and waited for said skunk to scoot off….but this would not be our last encounter….

Day 2: Slow morning with breakfast of coffee, chocolate chip pancakes, sausage and some laughs.

Walking around camp in the morning….has she found a bear track??
She loves seeing her uncles for many reasons, and shoulder rides is definitely high on the list.

Then the Chris and I and the kids and my youngest brother and his wife went into town to explore and get some coffee and ice cream.  Coudersport, PA is an adorable mountain town on the Allegheny River with antiques, book stores, taverns and an adorable ice cream parlor….and McDonalds and IHOP.

HB vision: Coudersport, PA
Super cute coffee and ice cream parlour: Cream n’ Sugar in Coudersport

My son was asking where all the alligators were in the river.  What?  The alligators.  ummmm… (I start feeling nervous….what is he saying?  He has a quick fuse when you as ‘what’ too many times, and I don’t know what he is talking about)…there aren’t alligators here.  ‘Isn’t this the Alligator River?’  We all got a chuckle.  Allegheny.  Ah, 5-year-old cuteness.

Drive back to camp
She loves critters

When we got back we ate a PBJ lunch and then went over to explore the astronomers campground.  As mentioned earlier, there are some pretty serious restrictions once the sun sets to guarantee optimal viewing.

It was here that we saw the opportunity to donate to Cherry Springs Dark Sky Fund, and my sister in law suggested that as Hero Bear’s #RememberinMalcolm contribution to Cherry Springs….and that’s what we did!


We also wandered down a different path near our campsite.  I didn’t bring a camera, but it was a beautiful hike with great views from the top of the mountain and wild turkey’s gobbling across our path.

Tonight’s dinner was cheesesteaks cooked on the grill over the fire and they were DELICIOUS.  Yumyumyum.

Cousins pic. I love seeing them together but we can never help thinking about who is missing. 
Love this pic….

After dinner we did get to see a beautiful sunset through a brief moment of clear sky.

Pretty sunset. On the bottom right is an outdoor classroom set up to give visitors an introduction to the night sky. Several park rangers used laser pointers to give us a tour and point out interesting features. This is also when they told us that moonset was around 1 in the morning, which is when we would get to see many more stars. However, the weather didn’t cooperate that long.

We had s’mores and waited for the arrival of moon set.  But around midnight, when the clouds rolled in with no end in sight, we decided to catch a few hours sleep and set alarms for 3.

SILs <3

At 3am, I snuck out of the trailer, careful not to wake husband, kids, or SIL and baby who were bunking with us.  I crept towards the bath house.  When I got far enough away from the trailer I flicked on my flashlight.  And there, strolling around the corner of the vault toilets, was my skunk buddy.  Same one (his back was mostly white, which really made him stand out, fortunately).  We locked eyes.  I said ‘FINE’ aloud, and stalked away to pee behind a tree.

For our last morning at camp my brother again used his great stove to cook us up some omelettes and sausage, with toast prepped over the fire.

He could throw sticks into a fire all day….


This is what we would have looked like if we had seen stars
Not that kind of party

In the end, Chris and I were quite disappointed we didn’t see Malcolm’s star.  But we did get to spend time with family that also happens to be our good friends, and that is such a gift.

The photo credit for this and several other pics go to my brother…..the one really close to the camera…

Natural Bridge, VA

There were some fun things that lured us to Natural Bridge, VA.  One was a classic American roadside attraction….FOAMHENGE!!! Chris and I had been here before, but absolutely wanted to share it and take photo ops with the kids.  A few days before we left I was doing some quick recon on details and saw that…..what?… Foamhenge had moved?!?! Guh. I guess we’ll just have to track it down in Centerville, VA another time.

Foamhenge circa October 2014
Foamhenge circa October 2014
As we were leaving a couple was arriving to get their engagement photos taken. What a fantastic idea.

Another attraction that I had my eye on for awhile was Virginia Safari Park.  I thought it sounded like fun for the kids, and safe to say, it was their highlight.  The price for the 4 of us plus 4 buckets of food for the animals ran just shy of 100 bucks, but it was money well spent.  

No wonder we ran out of food…
HB being shown the ropes

If you arrive early enough, you can book a spot on one of their wagons that will drive you through the park while you feed the animals.  I highly suggest this option.  It costs $6 a person, but includes a bucket of feed ($4) and not having to worry about damage to your car is more than worth it.  Having a buffalo stroll right by your car windows makes you flinch! We were not early enough to get seats on the last wagon of the day, and while our car wasn’t damaged, I did have an emu poke his head in and nip at my seat (silly emu).  Also, as the driver, I was worried about turning animals into roadkill (though most of them scooted out of the way, a few lingered in front for awhile) and didn’t fully enjoy the experience. Another plug for the wagons: there were off-the-beaten-path roads marked ‘wagons only’ that meandered by watering holes and around the far side of hills, so they get better access than cars do.  Still, it was a cool experience seeing some very large creatures up close. One other tip, try and ration the food! Or buy more buckets (I wish we had done this) We were out towards the end of the safari, when we saw a magnificent elk buck that we would have loved to have fed (he saw we were out of food and wouldn’t give us the time of day).

After the driving part of the safari, there is a walkthrough portion that also exceeded our expectations.  You can look at reptiles and monkeys (several with babies on their backs!) and feed goats. There were also several more unique experiences.  You can stroll through a kangaroo enclosure and walk through a parakeet aviary where you can have several birds land on you at once while you offer them seed from sticks.  This was my daughters absolute favorite.

Monkey baby!
Kangaroo Walkabout
Chris keet-less

There is also the opportunity to feed giraffes.  The ‘giraffe food’ is romaine lettuce and sold for 5 dollars a cup.  A little over-excited, I bought us each a cup. The giraffes (perhaps over-fed…it was the very end of the day), completely ignored us and we gave all our lettuce to some chill tortoises that were hanging out waiting for giraffe leftovers.   Other animals included a white tiger and two pacing cheetahs.

The ONLY negative we had was the snack bar staff would not refill our water bottle with tap water, stating it was the park’s policy to not refill, but we could, of course, purchase.  There also weren’t any water fountains, that I saw.  I can’t recall being refused water at any family friendly location before, and it did not sit well with me. We ended up buying, which, aside from costing money, defeats the purpose of us carrying around a reusable bottle.

After the Safari Park we went back to finish setting up camp.  Camping is work, but also such a great experience. After we were set up and cooked dinner on the fire, I swayed in the hammock with my son, talking about our day and watching the light fade through the trees and enjoyed one of those perfect moments.  I didn’t have a camera to capture it, but it will be in my memory forever.

Photo taken during a much crazier time the following morning.  This hammock was one of the best 20 bucks I ever spent.
5 year old laughing and saying his cheese looks like VA.  The geography nerd in me is super proud.

The next day we set out to send out some positivity in Malcolm’s memory at Natural Bridge State Park.  The kids love nature and learning about nature (they hold snakes without batting an eye), so volunteering at the park seemed like an good way to start our Remembering Malcolm experiences.  I wanted to make sure it was something that would keep the kids engaged, and tried to have them understand why we are doing what we are doing.

Gently handling Thom Hiss Jefferson and looking through some of Liz’s wildlife photos

In all honestly, my son was bored (and said so many times).  I wanted to tell him to suck it up and do it for Malcolm, but quickly reasoned that would push him away from our ultimate goal of doing something like this on every trip. There was plenty of space for him to occupy himself (which almost always consists of him pretending to tackle/be tackled/dodge a tackle), and Liz (our extremely helpful and kind park ranger) supplied him with a coloring book about caves. He ended up talking to Liz for quite some time about cave life (impressive, since he is my shy guy). He was fascinated that some animals have adapted to cave life by not having any eyes at all! We were visiting the Caverns at Natural Bridge the next day, so he could get the cave experience.  Natural Bridge State Park is beautiful, educational and FULL of wildlife, especially snakes.  We ran into several rather large water snakes and queen snakes along the rock wall at the river path.

After the park we headed back to camp for a hike with the dog and went swimming at the lake.  Cave Mountain Lake campground is SO GOOD. Away from the summer craziness of the Shenandoah, it has nice facilities and lake access for just $15 a night. A quiet place to camp in during prime summer days.

Beautiful Cave Mountain Lake
Everyone helps around camp
Doggies love camping
Kid was born to camp
Picked up for dinner at the local general store.  This photo is such a classic camping pic with checkered table cloth, Coleman thermos and trailer and some yellow mustard 🙂

It was supposed to rain on our last full day, so we had planned the caverns for that day.  However, when we poked our heads back out from the underground, it was sunny, so we hopped back over to Natural Bridge State Park for a more relaxed stroll through the park.  A different experience from the day before.

Testing out the games kids on the Monacan Tribe used to play
I mean, finding snake skin makes her a happy camper.
2 big snappers sneaking up on a frog
#watchyourhands #thisisafamilyshow

We enjoyed our last night of camp and then packed up (in the rain, as seems to be our tradition) and drove the 4 hours home through occasional squalls.  This trip was so much fun and we are already planning on making it part of a larger camping trip next year.

see how much fun we are having?

Video version of fun below

Healing Through Travel

It has been a long road we have walked since Malcolm died, and it continues to stretch out in front of us in daunting valleys and peaks.  Though I often still feel hazy and lost, I have also made an effort to focus on how to find myself/ourselves. One thing I have always craved is travel, and I fully believe it is good for the soul.  As I planned a flurry of trips this year, I still simply cannot work up the excitement I once had for wandering the world. Something was missing. We can’t just run away from Malcolm, we had to bring him, somehow, leave a mark, no matter how small, on where we have been.  It is our family’s personal #RememberingMalcolm campaign, and we have already had family and friends who have supported us and seized on the idea and are helping us spread love through the world in Malcolm’s memory. It really, truly means the world to us that people think of him and sprinkle a little love and positivity wherever they go.

Back when we realized Malcolm wasn’t going to pull through, we had to make the difficult decision to take him off life support.  One of the more harrowing aspects of the situation was being asked if we’d consider making Malcolm an organ  donor.  How could we not?  The possibility to offer hope to another family in pain was one we could not let pass by.

The Living Legacy people walked my husband through the process.  They gave us a teddy bear with the word ‘HERO’ on it.  This bear is the representation of our lost son we take to bed with us each night and carry  with us when we travel.  A squeeze on Hero Bear (HB) or Malcolm Bear can calm frantic nerves or just is there when we need to cry.  It was in his hospital bed the night before his organ donation, his skin felt the bear, it touched his lips, Hero Bear has some special attachment to him.

Though I don’t feel we ever undervalued time together before losing Malcolm, we definitely bask in every moment that we all get to spend together more than ever.  We love being outside, exploring nature and bonding through experiences. This past weekend we went to Natural Bridge, VA, on our first, official, #RememberingMalcolm trip.

On the Road
Crazy morning hair….wanted to document hitting the road with HB!

One of the tourist stops in Natural Bridge is the beautiful State Park.  I had envisioned our volunteer experience to be something along the lines of trash cleanup or similar, but once I explored the Virginia State Park volunteering process we found out our options were limited to assisting with one of the day’s programs.  One-time volunteers do not need the background check that routine volunteers require, which is great (I hadn’t allowed enough time for a background check!), but it also limits what you can do that day to being supervised assisting the Park Rangers with their work.   Volunteer Coordinator Megan Meadows made sure that we had our opportunity that Saturday!

Megan provided a list of the day’s programs.  Several nature-related and another called ‘Legends of Natural Bridge’, which educates visitors on the history and geology of the area.  Finally, that evening, they had ‘Rockin’ the Creek’, which is a family-friendly concert with food trucks and local wines in a beautiful location on a summer evening.  Volunteers there would help hand out cups and bracelets and enjoy the festivities, themselves. I read the volunteer options to my daughter, since I want the kids to be involved, and she (not surprisingly) went with the nature route.  

We arrived hour prior to our scheduled time and checked in and said hi.  Then we had about an hour to explore the park before we started volunteering.  A perk to volunteering is that you get into the park for free! This was not something I was aware of when I pursued the volunteer opportunity, but it was nice.  When I saw that the main trail (the Cedar Creek Trail) was paved and only 0.8 miles long each way, I thought we could easily make it. I was wrong! Between pausing to take photos at the bridge and exploring little stops along the way, we ended up rushing back to the visitors center and skipping the Monacan Village completely!  We ended up coming back the next day.

Natural Bridge

After our slightly rushed park visit, we assisted in 2 hour education session on ‘Skulls, Skins and More’.  Our super engaging and very smart Park Ranger, Liz, gave us a quick education on the animal pelts laid out, as well as the skulls, snake skins, minerals and other display items.  It was then up to us to share this information with visitors that stopped by, and engage them in further discussion. Liz was there when the questions got too detailed, and by the end of the session we all felt like mini-experts.  ‘Yes, mink are native to Virginia, two were spotted in the park, yesterday!’, ‘that sounds like a queen snake that you saw. Let’s look at our snake book so we can make the identification.’, ‘that is an adolescent bear skull. It isn’t intact because it was found by a ranger, and had already had several animals gnawing on it.  See these teeth marks? See how they are similar to the teeth in this squirrel skull? Some rodents had been nibbling on it.’  Watching my daughter answer questions and offer information made me super proud.

Animal pelt education with M1 and HB. When we returned the next day she surprised a different ranger by reciting them all 🙂
Checking out the minerals! Liz has her masters in geology.

We also got to meet, handle and show off Thom Hiss Jefferson, the little, sweet tempered corn snake, which thrilled my daughter to no end.

Gently handling Thom Hiss Jefferson and looking through some of Liz’s wildlife photos

Liz showed us how to use the clicker to count up visitors with whom we had engaged in nature-specific discussions.  These counts are used to maintain/adjust funding for the parks for the next year. My daughter was very diligent at making sure we were counting everyone.  

We will continue to travel, live life for our departed Malcolm, and look for meaning when we do.  It is an exciting and rewarding process that we can’t wait to get to know. 

Healing.  Having family time is healing.  Relaxing is healing. Being in the moment is healing.  Giving back and giving love is healing. Travel is healing.

This is one of the biggest/fanciest nature centers I have ever seen. This pic was downstairs, upstairs they have a large gift shop and cafe. Back in the day (50s) they even had a swimming pool inside! It is in discussion to try and make the pool functional again.

Park Questing

Once we had two children we had to be  creative in finding cheap fun. We enjoy hiking and being outdoors, and while looking into Maryland State Parks I stumbled across Park Quest.  Park Quest is a cost effective and creative way to explore Maryland State Parks. I’ve looked at surrounding states, but have not found anything quite like it.  Many other states offer passports, which is a one-price-all-access offer and a great opportunity, but the Park Quest passport offers family challenges and educational opportunities at 20+ MDSPs, including popular Assateague Island and Deep Creek Lake.  

Registration for Park Quest is early May and is limited to 1,000 participants, first come first serve.  Participation in the program is only 10 dollars for the entire family. This gets you the passport, which you get stamped at the completion of each task (completion of 10 quests gives the participant priority enrollment the following year).  The kids love collecting the stamps! The passport gives your family free entry to any MDSP that is participating in Park Quest, and more than pays for itself in one park visit. You do have to be a family, in that there must be at least one adult and one child under 16.

Did I ask them to pose for a picture, or did I threaten them with torture….I can’t remember because the expressions are always the same.

The quests vary in scope and include anything from hiking several miles and then hopping in a canoe, to a short, paved half mile loop learning about pollinating insects (usually includes solving a puzzle or making drawings about what you learned).  The passport rates the difficulties of each park’s quest (a ‘3 hat’ rating system), and there are usually a wide variety of options for simpler quests. Some parks will include 2 quests, a basic quest to be completed and then a ‘bonus quest’ for families looking for more of a challenge.  When we started participating our children were 4 and 2, so we targeted the simplest quests and were able to complete 10 without encountering anything too stressful or traveling too far outside of central MD. We have been misled by the hat system once, where we thought it was going to be simpler than it was (ended up on a long hike at Patapsco Valley State Park with a bit of simple rock scrambling with a 3 and 5 YO and me pregnant), so now we make sure to not just look at the hats, but carefully read the quest.  The quests are outlined in the passport, and more thorough details and printouts can be found online.

This was the park quest that caught us off guard with its length. We found nice spots like this to take breaks, but after many miles it became hard to motivate the kiddos.
Completing the ‘human pyramid’ part of our quest at Susquehanna State Park. Note: saw many families throwing tubes into the river at this park and drifting down the Susquehanna for several miles. My kids were a bit too young, but I am keeping this in mind for next time.
This was a crafty quest, where you design with, study the beauty of, and sketch nature (the older you are, the fancier you can get).
Get close to nature (I could have put in a zillion different pictures). Frogs, deer, butterflies, groundhogs, fish, etc.  This was at Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.

Though MD is a smaller state, it is long, reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains.  And so the quests are spread out, accordingly. As I mentioned, we live in central MD and were able to access many of the parks in an hour or so drive (many less than that).  In our second year, we started centering some camping trips around Park Quest. We took two camping trips that year, one to Assateague Island and the other to Swallow Falls State Park in Western MD.  Each time we were able to complete a handful of quests and explore a little more of our state.

View of the Bay Bridge spanning the Chesapeake from Sandy Point State Park
Rain couldn’t keep us from exploring the beach when we arrived in Assateague.
Swallow Falls State Park in Western MD. We have been here twice and it is a favorite.

Besides the quests, many of the parks have nature centers and educational programs, not to mention playgrounds, picnic areas, beaches, trails, and creeks to explore.  We usually brought a picnic and would spend more time eating and playing after our quest was complete. 

One of her many faces
Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary
Patapsco Valley State Park, tire park Hilton Area
Many MD parks have bird sanctuaries, where they nurse owls, eagles and hawks back to health. If the animals are injured too badly, they remain in captivity and brought out for special nature talks. This was at Soldiers Delight.
Nature Center at Soldiers Delight

It is great family bonding time. I was too late on registering us this year (losing Malcolm has been so hard) and didn’t get a spot, but fully intend to participate in the future.  We are still camping this year….nature and time together is so important and so healing.

Our Family Trip

First Blog – Herrington Manor State Park, Maryland

Flash back a year, mid- July 2017. My first post has to be about the only trip we took as a family of five people and one lovable puppy dog. This was not the only place that we went with Malcolm, but the only place that we went by ourselves. Where we didn’t meet up with family or friends. And so I will always think of it as ours.

Each year our family participates in Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (MDNR) Park Quest. A fun and frugal way to tour Maryland State Parks and perfect for an outdoorsy family. In this trip, Park Quest led us to Western Maryland, with popular Deep Creek Lake and several other great parks. I mean, great, too. That isn’t a throw away, ‘great’. Each of these parks has something to offer in serenity, adventure, or plain old breathtaking beauty.

We enjoy camping, but with a baby who was just sitting and popping everything he could into his mouth, we opted for a fairly rustic cabin rental at Herrington Manor State Park about 12 miles from Deep Creek Lake. Indoor plumbing, a stove and a fridge, yes please. The rental was 100/nt, which is very reasonable for the area in high season, but with recent renovations that may go up.

View of the neighbors

On our drive west we stopped at Fort Frederick and Rocky Gap State Park to complete Park Quests and got to Herrington Manor in time to wash up, change into our jammies and attend the s’mores smorgasbord at the community fire ring. This event forever changed how I look at s’mores. They are not just Hershey’s*, graham, and ‘shmallo any more! Graham alternatives were all types of cookies, fudge stripes appealed the most. Then for chocolates, use any chocolate…Reeses cups, peppermint patties…name your favorite! They even had Marshmello options of various shapes and flavors. My daughter was in sweets heaven. My older son, as usual, just snacked on some of the candy. Malcolm sat on his Daddy’s knee by the fire, still unfamiliar with any flavors beyond breast milk and baby cereals.

* will consider altering statement for lifetime supply of Hersheys.

So many choices!

Smore Happiness

The next morning we woke up to rain. A hard, driving, ruin-any-outdoor-plans sort of rain. We had 3 Park Quests planned for the area, but they weren’t happening today. The husband and I high-fived what felt like brilliant forethought in renting a cabin instead of being confined to our pop-up trailer with 3 small children and a dog. With two floors inside and an adorable covered porch with swing outside, we had plenty of space for the day. I confess, I had even downloaded a few episodes of Wild Kratts for my 6 and 4 year old for just such an occasion (The cabins do not have TV or WiFi or much beyond the basics). We scouted out wildlife and critters near our cabin, made some meals, and had fun/minimal squabbling.

Please ignore the towel in the photo …I didnt know I would be posting to a blog.

By mid-afternoon, however, we were all getting restless. It was still raining, but it was a warm summer rain, so we decided to explore Herrington Manor State Park, a bit. We knew there was a lake with a beach and a large, airy rec center that had games and food. We drove to the rec center (hiking is an option, on a nice day) and ordered many fried things and played some games inside while the rain continued outside.

All the fried things! Again, I didnt know I would be posting this, so it aint pretty 🙂

At last the rain lightened. It was no longer a soak-to-the-skin rain, and we had brought swimsuits. We explored the dam a bit then hung out at the beach, which was completely deserted thanks to the now intermittent rain. However, this beach rarely has more than a few families, as there are only 20 cabins to the whole park, and people who aren’t staying there flock to the more popular beaches at Deep Creek Lake. We stayed and splashed for a few hours, just the blowing off steam that we needed before winding down for the day. It was this day that I took some of my all-time favorite photos of Malcolm. We were so thoroughly happy.

So smitten with his Daddy

The following day the rain continued, but it was our last full day in the area and we wouldn’t be deterred. Fortunately, we ended up dodging most of the showers this day. First stop was our Park Quest mission and general trail hike/waterfall swim at Swallow Falls State Park. we had camped at Swallow Falls the year before and it is one of my favorite places to explore the outdoors. The trails were deserted when we got there, but visitors were flowing in by the time we left. After that we headed to another Park Quest at Friend’s Delight Farm and Store.

Our best family photo from this trip
Swallow Falls Trail to ourselves on a Summer weekend?? This needed documentation.

The adorable general store and Friends Delight, part of Sang Run State Park


We closed the day with pizza, arcade games, and a traditional mini-golf. For our first date, my husband and I went mini-golfing (it was right down the street from the Toys R Us where we worked), and so every year on our dating anniversary we mini-golf. It has been happy to share this tradition with our kids.

Dating anniversary # 17

My children learn that I dont play arcade games often, but when I do, I play Time Crisis.

The day we left we hit up one more Park Quest, this one at Deep Creek State Park. The nature center there is fantastic (I have visited a LOT of nature centers) and the beach a short walk away is very good, too. Again, we favor less crowds, but we had checked out of the cabin and did a quick stint at this beach since we were there for our Park Quest anyway. This was complicated because we had the dog with us, but we just set up shop back towards the grassy area.

Deep Creek Discovery Center

Next we packed up and went home. We were tired and we had had fun. Now, this is a trip I will always treasure with all my heart as our one true family trip. Just over 3 months later, Malcolm would be taken from us. I love and miss Malcolm so much, and will carry him with me always.