Roadtripping and Camping in Southern Ireland: Part I

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Last year we increased the number of kids in our family by 25%. Our oldest will soon be nine and the rest are spaced about two years apart, so seven, five, three, and one. It’s a lot of kids. Actually, the term a lot doesn’t do them justice. When they’re all together in one place you naturally refer to them with collective nouns that usually apply to animals. They travel as a herd. They eat as a swarm. They talk as a gaggle. If they all swam in the same direction together, they’d be a pod. Otherwise they’re just a horde.

Side note: According to Wikipedia, lots of alligators and magpies are both called congregations; however, a lot of magpies is also called a murder. That’s interesting. I wonder how magpies, and not alligators, earned such an endearing term.

I just realized that there aren’t any words specifically for collections of children. The first one that comes to mind is cacophony. This highlights the most striking characteristic of a lot of kids: consistent, mind-wrenching noise.

Five is a cacophony of kids.
Me, and anyone with a lot of kids

Anyway, five kids take about ten years to create if you have them one at a time, which we did. This means that my wife, Jill, sacrificed most of her twenties to the sorrow of conception. For 520 weeks she was perpetually multiplying and replenishing, growing, birthing, and then nursing babies.

It occurred to me last year that she deserved some kind of recognition or award for her prolific baby-making, something more than the crayon scribbles on construction paper that we call a mother’s day card, something like a trip to the UK, no kids attached, to see her best friend. I promised to make it happen the following summer, after baby five was weaned.

I thought about the logistics of such a trip about as much as I had thought about the logistics of having a horde of kids. So, not very much. But, I figured that minor details like cost, and timing, and who would watch the gaggle, besides me, would work themselves out. When something seems right, I say, go for it. Make it happen. Life is short. And ten years of parenting is cause for celebration.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
W. B. Yeats

In the end, everything came together like it was meant to be. As this summer approached I was surprised to learn that the next meeting for a project I’m working on would be in Ireland in July. Thus, I excused myself from the sorrows of herding all the cats alone. My parents agreed to step in as zookeepers, bless their hearts. And so, after driving the crew back to California this summer, Jill and I packed our bags for our second vacation without children in ten years of marriage.

This is the first installment of what I can still remember from our camping road trip through the quiet, childless countryside of southern Ireland.

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County Clare

Before the road trip campout with Jill began, I spent a week in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. Jill stayed four days in Scotland, with her friend, and then we met up in Dublin for our grand giro.

For most of my first week I was in meetings. But during any free time I quickly went into tourist mode. I walked the streets, saying halloo! and howya? to everyone and taking pictures of things that are totally normal for Irish people but fascinating for a curious American, like plants growing out of chimneys.

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My first observation of County Clare was that plants grow everywhere. This proved to be true for all the other counties too. Plants seem to thrive on any surface, including vertical and overhanging ones. Even rolling stones gather moss. In contrast, Nebraska plants grow wherever you put them, but you have to put them there first, and they at least need some damp soil and a little sunlight, the standard plant diet.

But Irish plants just propagate. They multiply and replenish, even in dense shade, or shallow soil, or chimney soot. I actually saw two shrubs growing from different chimneys in County Clare. It was fascinating. Did someone plant them there? A disgruntled woodland fairy, maybe? I don’t have an answer.

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My second observation as I toured the streets and countryside of County Clare was that everything is made of stone. Houses, paths, walls, and bridges are all stone, and in some shade of grey. It’s like there’s a surplus of stone, and they don’t know what to do with it, so they keep making paths and buildings, and then stacking stone walls around them. Like the plants, this also continued for the rest of our trip. In Glendalough, southeastern Ireland, we stopped at an old village where all the buildings have vaulted, gabled stone roofs. No joists or beams, no flying buttresses. Just stone. And some pixie dust, of course.

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Killaloe

I stayed at the Lakeside Inn in Killaloe, a village about 20 kilometers north of Limerick on the River Shannon. In Ireland, the names of places always come after the thing that they’re naming. So, it’s the River Shannon in County Clare, instead of the Shannon River in Clare County. I’m not sure why they flip it around. It does sound more Irish this way.

I was reading recently about how some people are genuinely obsessed with the earth and all things outdoors. It’s called biophilia. Two episodes from my week in and around Killaloe confirm that I’m a complete biophile.

First, I had an incessant urge to swim in the river. This happens anytime I’m near open water. I’m drawn to it like a baby to a flame or to something fragile. Until I get my fix, I have a hard time focusing on anything else.

One night, we had dinner on a patio overlooking the river. Everything was fine until a group of local lads started jumping in from the stone bridge. It looked really fun. The bridge was about 20 feet high, perfect for diving and flipping. If only I had an excuse to join them. Unfortunately, no one needed rescuing, and no one dared me to go, so I just had to suffer, clothed and dry, while my land-loving colleagues finished their meals.

I swam the River Shannon the next day, in the 15 minutes after our meetings ended and before we met again for dinner. It was awesome. The water was cold and dark, with a reddish tint that reminded me of the River St. Croix, in State Minnesota, which is silted with iron and tastes a little like blood. Besides the color, everything else was new, from the smell of the river air to the consistency of the water itself. Long slimy leaves from unfamiliar river plants slithered past me like eels on their way to the Atlantic. Tall stone retaining walls on either side made the river feel like an ancient castle moat. And the tint of the water made it look more like ale. Overall, swimming in the Shannon felt very Irish.

Swimming is such an immersive experience. It connects you in an instant with the essence of a place. In a hot tub or jacuzzi, for example, you’re immersed in a bubbly soup of human microbes containing the essence of all the other people who join you, and those who dunked themselves before you. It’s sort of gross if you think about it. In a river, you’re immersed in a vast, complex flow of animal, plant, and mineral life. It’s not just a few other people staying in the same hotel as you. It’s everything that the rain touches. Limestone particles from a mountain stream mix with the starchy runoff from a potato farm and the organic runoff from pastureland and open countryside. These combine with the runoff from city streets, over rooftops, through gutters, and down storm drains, to form the one thing that contains a piece of every place. As a result, when you jump into a river, you jump into the essence of everything.

What I love most about rivers is, you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.
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I also had an incessant urge to explore the nearby mountains. A lad named Fergal who worked at the hotel recommended Ballycuggaran, about a mile north of the village. To save some time, I took a taxi to the trailhead right after my meetings ended.

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From the trailhead, I followed a dirt and gravel path west, climbing slowly to the top of Feenlea Mountain, and then crossed east along the ridge of Feenlea in an attempt to shortcut my way back to the “You Are Here.” After sliding about fifty feet down a slope of thick ferns, I ended up having to crush my way through endless head-high overgrowth. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, I’d slip down ten feet through something thorny that would thrash my shins and arms. In the end, I was dripping with blood, both mine and the plants’. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

Before I became a blood-brother with the Ballycuggaran flora, I also bonded with some of the local fauna. First, I stumbled upon a herd of sheep, lazing and grazing on the slopes of Feenlea. Then, a few minutes later I found myself directly above a family of foxes. Very awesome. And very Irish.

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Swimming and hiking were the highlights of my week in Killaloe. I did get some work done too, and I had some great food, and met some “really coo” people (that’s how they pronounce “cool”). On Saturday morning, having bid my colleagues farewell, I rented a tiny, stick-shift Opel and started an entirely different experience – nine days of driving on the wrong side of the road. More to come.

My First Gear Review: Anonymous Rockport Hiking Shoes

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I started this blog about five years ago, with the goal of encouraging people to make babies and take them camping. My family and the earth are two of my favorite things, along with raindrops on roses and cream colored ponies. I also love good gear. However, I enjoy spending money on gear, or on anything, about as much as I enjoy a bee sting or a dog bite. My frugality has led to a blog about family matters and the outdoors that is devoid of gear reviews.

People who buy things are suckers.
Ron Swanson, after forging a wedding band from a sconce

I’ve always been uncomfortable spending money, even in insignificant amounts. I especially dislike spending money on complex, state-of-the-art technology that’s intended to help me connect with a simple, natural world. Good gear is basic and essential. It’s a means to an end. It’s not flashy or distracting, or the reason you go outside. In the end, good gear isn’t purchased often.

Thoreau warned in Walden, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Along these lines, I would add, beware of all gear that you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

That said, an enterprise can’t happen without reliable footwear. When a person isn’t wearing shoes, you know they aren’t going on any serious outdoor adventure.

Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.
Lieutenant Dan, shirtless but not shoeless, to Forrest and Bubba

About ten years ago, while browsing the clearance section at a store called Ross in northern California, I found some hiking shoes that would become my feet’s most loyal friend: the Anonymous Rockports. They’re anonymous because I’ve never known their given name, and I’ve never been able to find another pair like them. All I know is that they’re Rockports, with Vibram soles, and the tag claimed that they were waterproof.

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Since that fateful day ten years ago, these shoes have taken a beating across all types of terrain, in sunny and severe, dry, wet, and freezing conditions, without complaint. For most of their life, they were fully weatherproof, four-season hiking shoes. They were also light, flexible, and surprisingly breathable given their thick skin. Overall, my feet have been happy.

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Now, my feet are sad, as winter is here and my Rockports have finally succumbed. The toe has torn open, rendering them useless for anything involving even a small amount of moisture. RIP, Anonymous Rockports.

Platte River State Park, Nebraska

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This spring we spent two nights at the luxurious Platte River State Park, which sits about 15 minutes off highway 80, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. The trip was definitely a new experience for me. Although I grew up camping in an RV, and had a great time, for the past ten years our campouts have been as primitive as possible. Sometimes there’s running water and some form of outhouse. But, ideally, it’s just us and the woods. Some people call this “primitive” or “backcountry” camping. I just call it camping. Anything else is glamping.

Platte River State Park is glamping. It has the unassuming woods, plus everything else you might have left at home because you aren’t supposed to have it while camping. We rented what they call “modern” cabins. In addition to four walls, a roof, and a floor, which is already excessive, the modern cabins are furnished with real beds, carpeting, and soft things to sit on, like couches and chairs. You can store your mess kit in the kitchen cupboards, next to the actual cookware. And you can put your baggie of toilet paper rolled up in a rubber band on the shelf in the actual bathroom, next to the porcelain toilet.

The flat-screen TV took the experience from slightly awkward to offensive, from weird to wrong, from questionable to blatantly unethical. Adding a TV to camping is like “enhancing” your water with artificial sweeteners and flavoring. I like a little sugar in my water. But you can’t enhance water, just like you can’t enhance mother nature. They’re already perfect. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re still drinking water.

That said, we did have a great time. We shared two adjoining cabins (called Chokecherry) with two other families. This put us slightly way over the recommended occupancy, with six adults and thirteen kids. But that was part of the fun. Also, the cabins were right on a pond, and our canoe was the only craft to tread the water. And we found some decent hiking nearby, with noteworthy changes in elevation. We spent an afternoon walking down to the humble Platte River, which is more of a really wide creek, and were surprised to find a waterfall along the way. Nothing grandiose, but still an nice getaway with family and friends.

Next time we might try the modest “camper cabins,” which only have a fridge and beds, in addition to the walls and roof. It’s still glamping, but slightly less glamorous.

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Letting Kids Do Things

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I wrote here about one solution to the problems caused by overprotective parenting, a hazardous junkyard playground referred to as “the land” where kids can do things without their parent’s protection. It’s a no-fly-zone for kids with helicopter parents. I’m critical of the adventure playground because it sort of treats a symptom of overprotective parenting, scaredy-pants kids, rather than the cause, scaredy-pants parents. But I really do like the idea of leaving my kids outdoors with minimal supervision. It’s one of my favorite things to do with my kids.

Supervision is overrated

I grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, California. For a few years we lived near what we called “the creek.” For us, this was “the land:” no parents, lots of space to build things, wreck things, and light things on fire. The creek consisted of a creek, plus some fields and trees growing so close to the creek that a bulldozer couldn’t get to them. This was California, so there may have been a law protecting the fragile crawfish ecosystems of the creek. But that law didn’t extend to the mischief of the neighborhood kids.

We constructed and destroyed many things by the creek. We also ignited many things. I learned that some things look really cool when they explode. I also gained a healthy respect for fire, and how difficult it is to extinguish, after we burned down a field. I thought this example would support my argument that kids need more freedom and less supervision, but it sounds like it does the opposite. Oh well.

Under-expectations

The problem with overprotecting our kids is they are going to live down to our expectations. When we don’t let them do something, we convey the message that they can’t do something. They’re too small, too young, too immature. Of course, this may be true. But the parenting experts lately are saying what rednecks and some outdoorsy people have believed all along: we need to let kids do things. They’ll be fine.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for absentee parenting with no oversight, rules, or boundaries. Progress in safety standards have been helpful in some ways, for example, bike helmets and seat belts. My oldest daughter crashed hard on her bike recently and got a concussion when her head hit the road. And she was wearing a helmet. But the oversight, rules, and boundaries are getting excessive. Parenting trends have lead many of us to underestimate what a kid can do and handle.

Cutting Strawberries

Lately, I’m trying to say yes when one of my kids asks if they can help with something. Before considering if the request is reasonable, I say yes. Then, with some luck, I think of a way to make it age-appropriate. This morning, my daughter asked if she could have strawberries on her cereal. Yes. Can I cut them into pieces? Yes. Wait, she’s only six. Is that too young to use a knife? I have no idea. Who is in charge of deciding that? There has to be a website I can go to.

No time for websites. I stood back and she did fine. She got the strawberries out, “washed” them, cut the tops off, diced them, and shared her spoils with her siblings. She was proud of herself.

Breakfast really is a battle and a time sucker when there are five kids to feed and clean up after. Our kids often fix their own breakfast. Then, ideally, or never, they don’t leave the kitchen until their mess is cleaned up. Wipe the table, sweep up the crumbs, rinse the dishes. Kids under eight can do all these things. Kids under six can do all these things. They can also pour cereal and milk. They will spill every time. But, after two years, you won’t have to do any of it, and your kids will be much more capable and independent.

One big obstacle in letting our kids do things is our own lack of time and energy. We don’t want to clean up their mess. There’s no time to mop a batch of pancake batter off the floor. Parenting is tiring enough when the kids leave us alone. This is true and serious. I don’t have anything funny to say about it. But, a kid has to learn to make pancakes sooner or later. Why not now?

Breaking Lawn Mowers

A few weeks ago, our oldest son asked if he could mow the lawn. Last year he asked the same question, I said yes, and he mowed over some rocks. That was bad, since our lawn mower is the kind designed for grass. It’s not a rock mower. So I took the reigns for a year, and now he’s interested again. I said yes, and he did surprisingly well the first time. The second time, yesterday, he mowed the top off of a sprinkler head. Springs and shards of plastic flew across the yard. He was really scared that I would be angry, which made me sad. I was a loser and got mad last time. This time, I laughed, gave him a hug, and told him sprinklers are only like eight bucks. He said he would help pay for it. What a rad kid.

Maybe instead of asking how old a kid needs to be to mow the lawn, we should ask how many mower blades and sprinkler heads we’re willing to replace in exchange for teaching them an important skill and showing them how awesome they are? Maybe it’s less about their limitations, and more about ours. Like a kid with a lawn mower, we have no idea what we’re doing. But I think it’s going to be OK.

A Critique of “The Overprotected Kid” From Someone Who Underprotects His Kids

I’ve been reading lately about the potentially negative effects of overprotecting our children. According to Hanna Rosin, author of The Overprotected Kid, when they don’t take risks and experience “dangerous play,” our kids miss out on opportunities to overcome their fears, gain confidence, and become independent. She says:

A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery – without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.

This “new kind of playground” essentially combines an understaffed daycare center with a junk yard. See for yourself. It’s hard to believe.

A clip from The Land, a documentary on urban adventure playgrounds.

Apparently, this small wasteland exists within a suburban neighborhood in Wales. Wales is sort of part of England, in case you didn’t know. I haven’t seen the full documentary, and I haven’t been to Wales, but I’m guessing that it’s a pretty civilized place. This contrast is what makes the imagery so powerful – you see clothes lines, and well-kept brick houses, and then piles of garbage, much of it scorched or abandoned in the mud. It reminds me of Sid’s backyard in Toy Story.

Taking Risks

I imagine there’s some small print scratched on the sheet-metal door as you crawl in: “enter at your own risk.” And that’s the point – this is a place where parents can send their kids to take risks. The article emphasizes the fact that parents almost never enter, except to “donate” tools or pallets or trash. The only supervision is provided by “playworkers” who mostly just observe, but who would intervene, I assume, if a bonfire got out of control or if someone cut a finger off. So, kids’ risk taking all happens in a confined space, down the street, while parents are at work or at home, tidying up.

At first, I thought the adventure playground was a brilliant idea. I immediately started planning the Lincoln, Nebraska version, with some major improvements, like a zipline and dirtbikes. The US invented the X-games, right? Our kids need more access to dangerous, X-treme activities at a younger age. Otherwise, we may lose our edge to countries that invented cricket and badminton.

Now, I’m not so sure. Although I highly endorse risky play, and I would be happy to see adventure playgrounds proliferate the earth, I also think that parents are primarily responsible for teaching their kids to use matches and saws, and to take risks, responsibly.

Parents Are the Problem

Much of Rosin’s article describes how parents nowadays are too protective and too sheltering. We’re over-overbearing. In the olden days, kids had much less oversight; now, we’re more present than ever in their growing-up years. And in removing the risks from childhood, we perpetuate childhood and prevent growing up. So the adventure playground is intended to be a remedy for the feeble helplessness and immaturity modern-day parents have effected in their kids. Rosin quotes a psychologist who researches these things:

Our fear of children being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

This all makes sense to me. But I’m not certain a centralized location where kids can get harmed is the answer. Although it does free kids from their parents’ safety net, adventure playgrounds aren’t addressing the real problem – the parents.

Kids need a gradual introduction to making their own choices. This should probably start early on, like in toddlerhood, and continue until sometime between 16 and 18, when kids are essentially old enough to do whatever they want anyway. The goal here is to teach them along the way, while allowing them to take risks that are appropriate to their age level.

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Our oldest showing off a garter snake. He did ask me first if it was OK to catch. I said yes.

Who is in the best position to teach our kids? How would supervisors in the adventure playground deal with a five-year old lighting fires or catching snakes? Is that too risky? With kids of all ages running around, where do you draw the line? I think parents, not childless teenagers, should be the ones defining the realm of decisions and challenges their kids explore. And if parents can’t figure out how to set reasonable expectations, maybe they need their own risk-taking intervention.

What Can We Do About It?

For the most part, I think Rosin is spot-on. Kids need more access to unstructured and unsupervised free time. Parenting and public safety norms can place unnecessary restrictions on kids, and their growth is stunted as a result. Open public spaces, where kids can roam without rules and regulations, are dwindling. So is our connection to nature. Richard Louv writes about this in his book Last Child in the Woods. He asks,

What happens to the nation’s intrinsic creativity, and therefore the health of our economy, when future generations are so restricted they no longer have room to stretch?

We can’t yet answer that question. I hope we don’t have to. Instead, I hope we can be more thoughtful parents, more critical of how we let society, culture, and technology structure our kids’ time. The adventure playground is a step in the right direction. It provides access to the freedom that kids need to stretch and grow; it provides a place where kids can define their own society and culture, where they can develop their own technology. However, the bigger point is that parents, and not a park or school system, are ultimately responsible for their kids’ growth.