Sarah Goes on Vacation

"Hit The Road!"

   --Actual quote, Sarah Grace Dunn, May 25, 2002

"There Yet?"

--More Alarming Actual Quote, May 25, 2002


Michael Writing:

I started writing this account of Sarah's first vacation with us  (longer than an overnight, and not counting the two weeks in China and the return trip) on the first day of the trip, but as fate would have it, am only continuing it on our last day out. I may have forgotten some of the good stuff, but here goes. Tam will add and intersperse as well. [Much of the later parts of this were also written after the return home.]

For many of the best reasons, Tam and I have had to spend many of our vacations in recent years doing family things: things we enjoyed and loved to do, but not just going away and doing nothing but fun stuff for a week. In 2001, of course, we spent two weeks in China getting the most precious thing in our lives arranged, but that also meant filling out lots of paperwork and traveling in a country where you neither speak nor read the language at a time you're also dealing with the emotions of meeting your daughter and the motions of changing diapers.

The year before we had two pleasant duties: in April/May Michael's cousin Linda got married and asked him to give her away; in September Tam's parents had their 50th wedding anniversary, and we (along with Tam's sister Kate) arranged parties in both Omaha and Lincoln for them, which was not quite as complex as D-Day, but close enough, when you're organizing them from the East Coast. So while these were all pleasant and important family duties, the last time we'd really just gone off and done whatever came to us for a vacation was 1999.

This year, after major deadlines in our various jobs, we resolved on a just-for-us vacation, except, of course, just us is larger than we used to be. Only a week long, unfortunately, but that's because we need to take Sarah to the Midwest to see our families later in the year, and could only spare a week at the moment.

Sarah, of course, spent her first two weeks with us traveling from one hotel to another in China and then flew halfway around the world with us. But she wasn't walking or talking then, and while she could make noise when she wanted, she couldn't express her complaints (or praise) the way she can now. So we were a little apprehensive about how she'd take to travel. A couple of weeks before our vacation we had taken her on an overnight to the Shenandoah Valley, and that worked fine: she kept saying "hotel" all day and obviously was looking forward to staying there; she loved walking up and down the long hallway, riding on the luggage carrier, etc.  So we were ready to try for a week.

We had decided we needed mountains, and had chosen the area of extreme southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, an area we've driven through on our way to other places but never really explored. It's full of history -- the Holston and Watauga country was the first overmountain settlement, and from there the frontier moved west through the Cumberland Gap -- so there's plenty of historical stuff for the grownups as well as nice mountains and countryside, not to mention such things as the roots of bluegrass and country music up around Bristol, and a big city nearby in Knoxville if we needed it (in the end, we didn't go to Knoxville, a town we like, and will go to on another trip someday). This page provides a little chronicle of what amounts to Sarah's first week-long vacation with her parents.

The trip began on Sunday, May 19. As expected, the logistics of getting a two-year-old ready were considerable, and we didn't hit the road until 11:15 or so. We drove to the northern Shenandoah Valley and had lunch in Strasburg. The Hi Neighbor Restaurant is a downhome little place and we discovered that the vegetable sides so common in southern family restaurants provided an ideal way to feed Sarah. She had already had two containers of applesauce in the car (applesauce being a favorite staple at the moment) and then ate green beens, zucchini casserole and a bite or two of sweet potatoes, which she used to love but seems to be tiring of.

She's a good traveler. There was a brief tantrum on day one when it developed that we had forgotten to bring any cookies in the car. (Her standard "cookies" are Arrowroot crackers or fig newtons, the latter also known as "kind", since the days when we would hold up both and ask if she wanted "this kind".) We subsequently stopped at a grocery and bought cookies. (Whether this means she is spoiled or that we are well-trained depends on your perspective.)

Day one was a drive day, without any real stops for anything, and we had hoped that she would spend part of the time taking her nap. She did. When we got to the hotel in Roanoke she was pleased to be at "hotel" and got to ride on the luggage cart (already discovered to be fun in the overnight trip two weeks earlier), and insisted on being able to "Help daddy" bring up the luggage.

When we got to the hotel she looked around the unfamiliar surroundings, but Tam pulled out her stuffed animals (in this case a Teddy and a frog) and her sleeping companions (a Pooh, a lamb, and a blanket) and she clutched them, smiled and giggled and said "thank you, thank you" (For Sarah, it comes out as "Tank oo, Tank oo"). Those are the moments when it's forcefully driven home what a great age this is. She can express herself just well enough to really let you know how much she appreciates that you carefully planned moving a stuffed frog along for her. In fact, several times during the trip when she was really having fun she would say "Thank you, thank you, thank you", and smile broadly.

Dinner with a two year old has its limitations of course, especially now that she is really resisting high chairs in restaurants as too babyish, and often rejects booster seats as well. We've found that when she's in that mood, the best thing to do is get a booth where she can sit inboard of one of us and thus can't readily escape, then she often stands on the seat and eats. Needless to say, elegant restaurants with china and cloth tablecloths don't work too well. So on day one we decided to just eat at a pizza joint near the motel. Fortunately it was nearly empty, allowing Sarah to run around a bit without disturbing others, and the pizza was quite good. Even better, the high chairs were on wheels and were not the standard wooden chair found in most restaurants, so we convinced her that this was a really neat moving chair that she could sit in now that she was such a big girl. It did not work for the entire meal, but for part of it, which is all one really asks for.

She was also fond of looking at the indoor swimming pool at this hotel (more on the return trip later), and kept saying "pool?", "kids?", and "Caillou?", because her role model, the PBS cartoon 4-year-old Caillou, learns to swim in one of her most-watched episodes. There was no kiddie pool, though, so she had to learn to just watch.

By the next morning our little traveler was ready to go. As we were getting ready to load up in the morning (we travel heavy, now that we have to carry Legos and stuffed animals as well as still camera, video, laptop -- to write this stuff -- and so on), she headed for the hotel door and said "Go now!".

The next day we drove to Johnson City, Tennessee, making a few stops along the way. Lunch was in Chilhowee, Virginia; she likes to wander around and look at the restaurant, but other than her high mobility she's pretty good, most of the time, in public places.

We stopped in Saltville, Virginia, an interesting mountain town with Civil War links as well as Virginia's only salt-mining center (it was crucial as a salt supply to the Confederacy so fought over by both sides frequently), but also known for its fossil deposits (the town mascot is a wooly mammoth), apparently because the same geology that formed the salt is great for fossils. At the museum, Sarah enjoyed a display which allowed you to use brushes to brush rice away from fossil bones, to give an idea of brushing away dirt to find fossils. She loved it, though now she presumably thinks fossils are found in rice.

In the gift shop Daddy bought a bunch of Civil War books and booklets and also bought a stuffed Baltimore oriole, a glow-in-the-dark, cockroach, and a two dollar shining silver baton with glitter. These were not for Daddy. The baton was, for a day or two, the most popular thing in the car, used as both a baton and a club, and seemingly more popular than the $90 red wagon I recently bought her. The baton has, however, remained on the floor of the car for several days now.

We then stopped briefly in Bristol, the town on the Virginia/Tennessee border (the main street is half in one and half in the other), and visited the alleged Birth of Country Music Museum,  which is in the shopping mall. There we learned that the real country historical sites around Bristol aren't very accessible: the Carter Family Fold, where the Carter family lived and where their grandchildren still perform, is only open for concerts on Saturday nights. Later we learned that Tennessee Ernie Ford's birthplace, also in town, is only open by appointment. And the museum was mostly a souvenir shop and music store. Ah well. (By the way, if Tennessee Ernie Ford had been born about three  or four blocks farther north, he'd have been named Virginia Ernie Ford. A boy named Virginia...)


We got to Johnson City, from which we planned to base for trips in all directions. It seemed easier, with a  (just turned) two-year-old in tow, and all the stuff we had to carry with us, to base in one place from which we could get to mountains, lakes, historical sites, etc. I think she got a little bored with the same hotel for five days, but it had a microwave and a refrigerator (cost more, but worth it), as well as a Jacuzzi (which she called "beach"). We hadn't really wanted the Jacuzzi but we were grateful for the microwave and the refrigerator, since it let us feed her some meals there.

She is very fond of exploring hotels, and particularly going up and down the hallway.  (Until we took her on the overnight to Staunton a couple of weeks earlier, the words "hotel" and "hallway" were not in her vocabulary. Now "hallway" is a demand, not a request.)

We have conversations. "Whazzat?" (Actually sounds like Shazzat?) "Those are people in the other rooms talking." "People?" "Yes, people in rooms just like ours." "Persons?" We have clearly crossed over into conversations, if not yet Socratic dialogues.

In the Roanoke hotel -- from which I am writing on our return visit -- she was fascinated by the indoor swimming pool (no kiddie pool, so she just got to watch); the Johnson City hotel had an outdoor pool which wasn't open yet, so she didn't have as much to look at.

However, she seemed to enjoy the stay until the last night, about which more later. And she clearly enjoyed the various stimuli of traveling around each day.

One of the big hits was the fact that we were near a big hospital center. On the first day we saw the medevac helicopter coming in and landing. She sees helicopters all the time at home, since we're on a main flight path for Pentagon as well as traffic helicopters, and she has learned to say "chopper", but she had never seen one up close. As she saw it land she said, "BIG chopper!" and everytime we drove by the hospital -- which was on the road to lots of places -- she would look at it on the pad and say "big chopper". Since returning she still says "big chopper?" as if she wants to see it again.

She has already learned a phrase from some of our day trips, when she asks for "fun" -- which means a playground -- she sometimes says, "Books first?" This is actually based on only a single trip to Winchester a few weeks back when we explained that Daddy had to stop at a bookstore first, then we would have fun and see baby ducks. "Books first" came to mean, fun isn't quite imminent, huh? even when books aren't involved.

One, Two, Eight, Cinco ...

Sarah's speech is, as you can see, coming along quite well. She has started counting, and can get one, two, and sometimes even three, but it often becomes "one, two, four, eight, seven" as she lays down whatever it is she's counting. She also watches the numbers go up or down in an elevator and counts. But the funniest thing on this trip was at one point when she was counting something (sugar packets in a restaurant or something similar) and said, "one, two, eight, cinco ..." Her daycare provider is Peruvian, hence, we presume, the bilingual counting.

Another favorite word for the last several days of the trip was "hiding". If the "big chopper" was not immediately visible, she said, "hiding?" She would say the same for almost anything she couldn't see, like a train she could hear the whistle of but not see. Exactly why things suddenly were "hiding", I'm not sure, but when she was disappointed at not finding chickens at the historic farm, she said, "Hiding?" and, well, yes, the idea that the chickens were hiding helped explain why they weren't around.

Another big word that has been added to the vocabulary on this trip is "Look!", usually accompanied by pointing, and sometimes pulling you toward the object. "Watch!" is another favorite in recent days.

We started the third day with a visit to Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. This is the site of several key moments in frontier history, but it's also the location of a restored fort and hiking trails, so we thought it would work for both grownups and Sarah. It was both the site of a major treaty with the Indians (it was a key treaty ground for years) and also the point where the Overmountain Men mustered to march over the mountains and whip the Brits at King's Mountain in South Carolina, which we had visited in pre-Sarah days.

We tried sitting through the orientation video, telling her it was just like her videos, but she is a little trouper and there was a stage and no other people watching, so she had to get up on stage and prance about. We finally decided that videos will have to wait a bit, and I knew the history well enough anyway.

The restored fort, oddly enough, didn't seem to do much for her. We thought she'd want to climb on things. Instead she said, "Chickens?" -- the most popular thing when we visit farms are chickens, which are small enough for her to feel superior, I think -- and we had to disappoint her that no, there were no chickens here. (More about the search for chickens below.) The hike to Sycamore Shoals was better, but with one problem -- though she often asks for a hike or "Hiking", she has also taken to going some distance and then insisting on being carried. She will not ride in a stroller these days (too babyish I guess) and prefers to insist on "no, walking!", but then soon asks to be carried. We have insisted that a "hike" is not a "carry". At home, her new red wagon has helped solve this --being pulled in it is not the same as being pushed in a stroller -- but on the road, this isn't an option. So anyway, we took a hike/carry/chase down to Sycamore Shoals, where she seemed fascinated by the shoals (rapids), which we said were sort of like a waterfall but different. Always adventurous, she kept trying to get to the water, which was of course running fast. Eventually we moved on, Daddy bought some books (books not "first" this day) and we moved on to lunch.

The Ridgewood Barbecue

We had determined to try the Ridgewood Restaurant, which is widely reputed to be the best barbecue joint in East Tennessee. We had had barbecue the night before at a place called the Firehouse, in an old firehouse near East Tennessee State University, but that was an up-market, urban barbecue joint, and Ridgewood was the real thing. But it was -- appropriate to being the real thing -- devilishly hard to find. We will review it on our barbecue pages soon. Anyway, our various descriptions said it was "on" Route 19E between Bluff City and Elizabethton. After two runs along that road and getting lost on a totally different road and halfway to North Carolina,we pulled out a cell phone and called. Appropriate to a good barbecue joint, it was on a winding back road, maybe a quarter mile or more off of 19E, with no sign on the main road (if you're known as the best in eastern Tennessee, why have signs?)

It was fairly classic. An old place, there since the 1940s I think the menu said (the owner is now in a nursing home), on a mountain road, kitchen open and right off the dining room. But also crowded, and for some reason a group of Asian males waiting to pay as we came in (are the Japanese doing tours of barbecue now?).

Meanwhile, till we get our review up, a quick precis for those who know barbecue: East Tennessee barbecue, at least upper East Tennessee barbecue, is miles away from classic eastern (or even western) North Carolina style, but our barbecue pages have explained our philsophy of  barbecue du pays, in which you eat it where they make it as they make it. Most of the barbecue joints in east Tennessee offer "North Carolina style", by which they mean eastern NC vinegar-and-pepper, not western North Carolina, but then we don't order deli in Tennessee either. The local style as sampled on a couple of occasions, and certainly as practiced by the Ridgewood, is sliced -- not pulled, not minced, sliced -- and smothered in a rich, sweetish, tomato-based but spicy sauce. It's good, but it tastes fattening, which of course it is. In fact it's quite interesting, in a baroque sort of way. Eastern North Carolina and even Lexington fans will probably find it too rich for their blood, and the slicing makes it chewier than minced or pulled pig. But it is indeed interesting, and Ridgewood was the best we had.

Anyway, the Ridgewood deserves a visit from any barbecue aficionado who is not totally committed to one regional style. Sarah got antsy after eating some baked beans and stuff, and we didn't finish our sandwiches -- took the rest back to the motel but never ate them.

Baby Sheep?

Anyway, we went back and tried to get her to take her nap, and she wouldn't. Around five in the afternoon, despairing but knowing that sometimes she falls asleep when you drive her around, we set out for a mountain drive. We looked at Jonesborough -- which bills itself as Tennessee's oldest town, and is terminally cute, but fortunately the boutiques had already closed -- and on to Erwin, which I had wanted to see because it is famous for having hanged an elephant. I will find an online link for hanging the elephant and put it here, because it is too complex a story to tell, but so quirky, southern, and grotesque (the sort of thing that is weirder than Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner could have come up with when on a binge together, but also with a P.T. Barnum sort of flavor to it) that I had to see the town. Just a pleasant little  mountain town other than the elephant thing. Anyway, Sarah did fall asleep, and we did take her back for a very late nap, and then a late evening dinner at a hamburger joint because it was so late.

Getting her to sleep at night was aided, a bit, by the fact that a swinging mirrored door to the closet could cut off a large hallway from the main body of the room, so that we could sit on the floor in the hallway and read while she had enough darkness to go to sleep. This sort of worked sometimes.  Less well others.

Day Four was spent in the country. We started out by visiting Rocky Mount, the first "capital" of Tennessee -- Governor Blount, it seems, dropped in for 18 months on some folks who lived on a farm in the area, and just stayed, making it the oldest surviving "territorial capital" in the country, until he built Knoxville. Sarah wanted chickens, but when we arrived, we learned that there were no chickens, but two baby lambs -- "baby sheep" as we put it to her. That was enough to galvanize her. Then we set out to tour the farm site. It's a living history (reenactment) site, so people kept addressing us in 1791 terms, and fortunately, several of them had interesting things to show: 1790s toys which Sarah watched avidly, 1790s kitchen, looms, spinning wheels, etc., which interested her. But each time a reenactor said "do you have any questions or anything else you'd like to see?", Sarah, who understands so much these days, answered "baby sheep?". Finally, after much patience and about 38 requests for the "baby sheep?", we went and found the baby sheep. The lambs were pretty big, not newborns, but Sarah seemed happy. However, there was a huge crowd of 3rd graders from Bristol also doing a day trip to the site, and as usual, she got very interested in the older kids. Older kids are not just role models for her, they're inspiration. She watches them and seems to be taking mental notes.

From Rocky Mount, we headed towards the mountains, but not having planned a real lunch stop, we had the inspiration to do a picnic. Passing through Elizabethton, we stopped and bought bread, cold cuts, etc. etc. for a picnic. It was, we think, Sarah's first real picnic, and she kept saying "picnic, picnic" as we headed up into the mountains. We went up to one end of Lake Watauga -- one of the TVA lakes in the mountains -- and found a picnic ground with a little beach. Sarah knows the word "beach" -- she used it for the Jacuzzi -- from her TV watching, but hadn't been to a "real" beach (except on the Potomac when she was much younger).  It was a lovely scene: rugged green mountains, pristine blue lake, all that. She loved it, but the lake distracted her from the picnic; she ate a bit, but mostly spent her time throwing stones into the lake, digging in the sand and, of course, the mud by the shore. Covering herself with mud, but also being willing to wash herself off in the lake, despite the coldness of the water. See picture.

From the lake, we headed up into high country, to Roan Mountain, which is over 6200 feet and the highest in the Unaka Range, and only 600 or 800 feet below the highest mountain in the Smokies and thus on the East Coast, I think (folks from Maine might correct me).  Nothing by Rocky Mountain standards of course, but pretty high for the east. She liked the scenery, but on the way down the mountain we stopped at a playground, and she liked that even more. Swings, slides, basketball court, etc.-- and of course watching and wanting to emulate older kids who were playing there. She did say "wow" at the mountain views, but the playground was more fun.

Dinner that night was, as on day one, at a pizza joint, this one near East Tennessee State University, and because she had taken a late nap after the trip, woken up late, and needed to eat quickly at a place open late. We several times had her up till 10 or later, but it was, after all, a vacation.

Thursday -- Day Five of the trip -- was a bit farther afield. We had already decided to scrap our plans to go as far as Knoxville (100 miles away) because of the time and driving with her, but we did go down towards Greeneville. First we stopped at Davy Crockett's birthplace. We had already bought her a little coonskin cap at Rocky Mount, and at Davy's birthplace we bought her a little "Davy Bear" -- a teddy in a buckskin jacket and coonskin cap. She had already been saying "Crockett" after hearing both the Fess Parker and Tennesee Ernie Ford versions of the Disney "Davy Crockett" song (we intend to expose her to culture extensively), and though Davy was not, in fact, "born on a mountaintop in Tennessee" -- it's a river valley, but mountains are near -- we did get some photos of her which will, I hope, be on this page by the time you see it.

We went on to Greeneville, which was the home of Andrew Johnson, almost no one's favorite President (and his one claim to fame -- only President to be impeached -- has now been equaled by Bill Clinton). We saw his tailor shop and home, and also for Michael's Civil War buffdom, the home from which John Hunt Morgan was escaping when he was 1) shot while trying to escape fully armed [Union Version] or 2) treacherously killed after surrendering and giving up his arms [Confederate version].  We ate a late lunch at a barbecue joint on the edge of Greeneville.

I think it was Thursday night that we decided, after Sarah's nap, to have dinner at a local brew pub. She slept quite late so we ate late. It was decent enough, in an old warehouse in Johnson City: burgers sort of place.  [Tam writing]: Sarah entertained herself by climbing around on yet another stage, but overall she was pretty well-behaved. At the end of the delicious meal of hamburgers and salad, she reached over to me and kissed me on top of my head three times!!! So sweet and spontaneous. I love this kid!  She is so dear!

Michael writing: As we left, though, it was 10 pm (she would normally be in bed by 8:30, but her and our schedules were shifted several hours later by vacation), and this little, confident, cocky Chinese two-year-old leaves after dinner by strutting through the bar, mostly populated by young couples, singles looking for pickups, and barflies, who all looked down as if they did not normally see little two-year-old Chinese girls storming through the bar as if they owned it at 10 pm. Sarah took no notice of the stares. "Come on!" is her usual command at times like this.

First Anniversary of Our Match Day

Friday was less successful, but in other ways was a very important day. May 24 of 2001 was the day we first got the call that our adoption match had been made, and that evening we received, by E-mail, the first photo of Sarah: the first time ever we saw her face. So we were prepared to make it a festive day, though it didn't go entirely as planned. We started in Bristol, looking for Tennessee Ernie Ford's birthplace. (Hard to explain why: but I liked Tennessee Ernie as a kid.) After searching and getting lost three or four times in seedy downtown Bristol -- on, as I've noted above, the Virginia/Tennessee border, thus meaning Tennessee Ernie just missed being named Virginia -- I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce and learned that the birthplace was now only open by appointment. So we headed on over to Kingsport, the historic site of the "Long Island of the Holston". We got lost umpteen times but finally found the sites we were looking for. Sarah walked along the Holston where the first boats for Western Waters set sail, and looked at baby geese.

Then, this being a festive day, our first anniversary of our match, we stopped at a Dairy Queen. Sarah hasn't had much ice cream -- at birthday parties at day care, at her own birthday, and maybe one or two other occasions. So she was delighted. She kept saying "ice cream, ice cream" and, to our eternal joy, "thank you, thank you, thank you". Two shots of her ice cream experience capture her pleasure. 

She eventually did nap and we then went to dinner at a Lone Star steak house. She was pretty well behaved, and since her kiddie meal came with ice cream and it was a special day anway, she had her second ice cream of the day.

"Go Home Now? Walking?"

This may have been a mistake. The sugar in the ice cream (she'd also had more chocolate, including caffeine therefore, than usual on this celebratory day) seemed to be making her hyper. She had trouble getting to sleep, having had the ice cream quite late; though she seemed to fall  somewhat asleep sometime after 11, around 1 am she woke us up crying, though I'm not sure she was ever fully asleep in that intervening period. We'd compounded the problem by talking about going home, so she was saying things like "Go Home. Now." and, adding to the urgency, "Walking?" We explained that we would start for home in the morning, that it would take two days, and that we would not be walking. It took quite a while to get her asleep.

Next morning, though, she seemed ready for more adventures. We loaded up and left the hotel we'd stayed at for five days, and explained quite clearly that we were going to stay at one more hotel, Saturday night in Roanoke, and then head for home.

Not surprisingly, we got a late start. We stopped for lunch at a country restaurant, where Sarah paid a great deal of attention to a housefly. Then we visited The Settlers' Museum of Southwest Virginia, an old farm and one-room schoolhouse set up to memorialize the early settlement of the region. A retired fellow from Fairfax, Virginia was rocking on the front porch and we sat a spell and talked before seeing the museum. Sarah, who had been asking for "chickens" earlier and been disappointed, this time got to see chickens. Four of them. "Chase?" she asked. No, we explained, we don't chase the chickens, we just look at them. Her fondness for chickens is, as I said earlier, I think because they're smaller than she is. We still haven't told her where the "nuggets" she likes come from.

That was our main stop of the day, but it gave her a chance to look around an old 1890s era farmhouse, see a little one-room schoolhouse (her great-grandmother Dunn taught in one at the turn of the last century), and get quite a bit of outdoors exercise.

We stayed at the same hotel in Roanoke we'd used on the southward trip. This time there was a large group of kids staying there, soccer teams I think, and they were playing actively in the pool. Since there was not kiddie pool, Sarah had to content herself with watching, but she really enjoyed doing that. She is fascinated with older kids, as we've said before. "Pool" was added to "Hallway" as a demand when the hotel room got boring.

And so on home on Sunday. We hit a violent hailstorm between Strasburg and Front Royal, Virginia, and Sarah was clearly nervous and asking "thunder?" and "Storm?"; she also learned the word "hail" this time. [Tam writing]: She also used the word, "happen" as in "storm happen???" We stopped at a gas station to let the storm pass, and then headed on in. She had not taken a nap, and then fell asleep just a few blocks from home. When she woke up, she was home!