Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons CoverI don’t recall where I first read about the book Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. If I had to guess, I would say one of the homeschooling catalogs I receive. Regardless, ever since then, it had been in the back of my mind for quite some time, as we had been taking fewer road trips as a family, and therefore had less time for, and need of, a good audiobook. Further, much to my dismay (and actually with mixed emotion), I’m realizing my kids are growing up! My two older boys are now well into teen-hood and not as sanguine about the family road trip and mom-selected “in-flight entertainment,” as I like to call it. As luck would have it, I’m actually doing a fair amount of car travel with my two younger sons this summer, and resignation turned to elation when it dawned on me that I could start anew with them. So, that’s a long way around explaining how we recently got to Swallows and Amazons.

Set in 1929 in the English countryside, Swallows and Amazons chronicles the type of summer days and unbridled adventure that I dream of for my own children. Setting sail in what I imagine to be the Lakes District, the Walker children (with their parents’ blessing) strike out to camp by themselves on an island and encounter challenges, both physical world and human. The story reminds me of my own childhood, where long hours stretched out before me, and I actually had to figure out what to do to keep myself entertained. The warm breeze, riding my bike without anywhere to be, just a time to be home for dinner. Untethered, unencumbered, by technology or other constraints. My younger two are enjoying the story thus far, even with the characters’ use of now-antiquated language such as referring to “the natives” as part of their make-believe adventures.

All in all, I myself am glad to be back, listening to the wonderful world of literature as my kids and I continue to explore our own world this summer. “Swallows and Amazons for ever!”

Post Script: Yesterday, walking through my sister’s house, I stumbled upon the rest of the books in the Arthur Ransome series of Amazons and Swallows. Neither my sister nor I grew up knowing about these books, and a friend had recently given her six volumes, not realizing that I had just discovered the first book and was listening to it in the car. I will have to find these next volumes on audio. Serendipity!


My Fate(s) in the Car

by Cynthia West

The Parcae (Latin for the Fates) were three goddesses who “spun, measured and cut the thread of life.” Nona, Decima, and Morta ­­– artistically rendered as everything from cherubs to femme fatales – were charged with determining not only the birth and death of mortals, but the very quality of their lives.

Decima, the Fate who measured the thread of life with her rod, might find that mine is a half-completed tapestry, with much of the weaving going on in my car. While I wouldn’t swap the beauty of my rural surroundings, I often plan my entire day around a trip to the grocery store (30-40 minutes) or an appointment with my doctor (25 minutes). My car has become a habitat of sorts; a roving storehouse of provisions from deodorant to floss, Advil to first aid. I carry clothing for all weather (come on, it’s New England), and always have something on hand to read.

Nona, the Fate who determined lifespan on the day a child was named, must’ve been hovering closely as my mother won the battle over naming me Thomasina. Instead, I came into the world as Cynthia, named for a Greek moon goddess. Nona must have had quite a sense of humor, as I haven’t slept a night of my life on a full moon. I won’t even get in my car on a full moon.

Morta, who chose the time and type of death, got me good when she planted a dream deep in my subconscious that I’d be taken out by a big, blue semi. Every time I see one on the highway I find myself at military attention, hyper vigilant, willing away the transgressor.

But it’s Decima who interests me most. Decima is alive and well, riding with me as I scan the marsh for the V-shape parting of water that tells me a beaver is swimming to his lodge. Decima peers over my shoulder as I tilt my head to follow a hawk, or pull over to watch llamas drag hay from their feeder. Decima helps me make my turtle kit every spring – a cardboard box, big stick, and towel – so that these ancient wonders that Morta seems to have reprieved will live to breed again. And it’s Decima who blows gently in my ear as I slow to watch a procession of deer, marveling at the life I’ve been given.

5 Epic Spots to Visit in Michigan this Summer

As the last of the snow is melting (seriously, vestiges still on ground here outside of Boston), I am starting to dream about summer road trips. The call of the open road is beckoning to me. Another road trip? my kids will ask, some in delight, some in agony. We drove to Michigan (my home state) for Christmas and visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We were able to experience the raw beauty despite the chilly weather (although no snow) and now the kids want to go back to see it in the summertime. Which got me thinking.

If I could create my dream drive “Up North” (the northern part of the lower peninsula) and “the UP” (the upper peninsula, pronounced you-pee), I would start with these five spots:

1. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From nps.gov: Miles of sand beach, bluffs that tower 450’ above Lake Michigan, lush forests, clear inland lakes, unique flora and fauna make up the natural world of Sleeping Bear Dunes. High dunes afford spectacular views across the lake. An island lighthouse, US Life-Saving Service stations, coastal villages, and picturesque farmsteads reflect the park’s rich maritime, agricultural, and recreational history.

From there, take a scenic drive up US 31 to:

2. The Headlands Dark Sky Park, Mackinaw City. Who knew dark sky parks were a thing? Not me, until I recently read about them. I happen to think they’re a fabulous idea and wish more places would adopt a dark sky mentality. Getting my kids out to spend a night under the stars like they’ve never seen before, including a fantastic view of the Milky Way, would be something to remember. There are several dark sky parks out West, and more around the world, but all things considered they are pretty rare. Read more about dark sky parks here.

Next, hop the ferry to:

3. Mackinac Island. Known for its fudge and horse drawn carriages, Mackinac Island is a step back in time. You don’t have to worry about your kids being hit by cars, but you do have to dodge horse droppings. There’s lots to do there: ride bicycles or horses, hike in the state park, visit Fort Mackinac (which saw action during the War of 1812), or just walk around the shops by the harbor. The Grand Hotel is pricey but spectacular.

Get back on the ferry and drive over the impressive Mackinac Bridge, the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world, to the UP. Continue on to:

4. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising. From nps.gov: Sandstone cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls, lakes, forest, and shoreline beckon you to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Hiking, camping, sightseeing, and four season outdoor opportunities abound. The lakeshore hugs the Lake Superior shoreline for more than 40 miles. Lake Superior is the largest, deepest, coldest, and most pristine of all the Great Lakes.

Drive west and hop one of the four ferries or one seaplane servicing:

5. Isle Royale National Park, Houghton. From nps.gov: Explore a rugged, isolated island, far from the sights and sounds of civilization. Surrounded by Lake Superior, Isle Royale offers unparalleled solitude and adventures for backpackers, hikers, boaters, kayakers, canoeists and scuba divers. Here, amid stunning scenic beauty, you’ll find opportunities for reflection and discovery, and make memories that last a lifetime.

As you can probably tell, I love our National Park Service. (See my earlier post on the NPS’ recently announced program to get all 4th graders out to a National Park.) I also love my Michigan home. If you’ve stuck with me thus far, I beg another moment of you. Michigan’s state motto is “Siquaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice” – “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Go visit – the odds are in your favor – Michigan has two of them!

Wishing you a happy life in the car.


You can follow Caitlin on Twitter @reach4cargo; sign up on the right to follow this blog

Road Trip Redux

Well, folks, Randy Olson has done it again. Added something to my bucket list that I can’t not do. Randy is the doctoral candidate at MSU (that’s *Michigan* State University, for those of you not from The Mitten) who used an algorithm to determine the best-fit route to see the Lower 48 in a singular (epic) road trip. (See my earlier blog post on same.)

What Randy did for his road trip of US greatest hits (and covers all of the Lower 48 in one fell swoop) he has now done for Europe. From Randy’s website on his European Vacation:

Here’s the full list of stops in order:

  1. Innsbruck, Austria
  2. Munich, Germany
  3. Pag, Croatia
  4. Venice, Italy
  5. Tuscany, Italy
  6. Florence, Italy
  7. Rome, Italy
  8. Vatican City
  9. Amalfi, Italy
  10. Gozo, Malta
  11. Dubrovnik, Croatia
  12. Santorini, Thira, Greece
  13. Rila Monastery, Rilski manastir, Bulgaria
  14. Istanbul, Turkey
  15. Sighisoara, Mures County, Romania
  16. Budapest, Hungary
  17. Vienna, Austria
  18. Prague, Czech Republic
  19. Krakow, Poland
  20. Jägala Waterfall, 74205 Harjumaa, Estonia
  21. Lapland, Finland
  22. ICEBAR, Marknadsvägen, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
  23. Bergen, Norway
  24. Copenhagen, Denmark
  25. Berlin, Germany
  26. Amsterdam, Netherlands
  27. Keukenhof, Stationsweg, Lisse, Netherlands
  28. Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  29. Inverness, United Kingdom
  30. Ballybunion, Ireland
  31. Cliffs of Moher, Clare, Ireland
  32. Cornwall, England
  33. Stonehenge, Amesbury, United Kingdom
  34. London, United Kingdom
  35. Brussels, Belgium
  36. Paris, France
  37. Pamplona, Spain
  38. Lagos, Portugal
  39. Granada, Spain
  40. Ibiza, Spain
  41. Barcelona, Spain
  42. Luberone, Bonnieux, France
  43. Nice, France
  44. Monte Carlo, Monaco
  45. Interlaken, Switzerland

Check out Randy’s full account at http://www.randalolson.com/2015/03/10/computing-the-optimal-road-trip-across-europe/. I would love to take a summer and do this trip, after my US Lower 48 tour, of course.

Incredibly helpfully, Randy has also included the Python algorithm that he did his computations with, so you and I can plan and optimize our next road trips. In fact, I am dreaming about (and starting to plan) a road trip from Boston to the Calgary Stampede a couple summers from now. This will allow me to hit a few more sites, states and provinces, while minimizing gas and time on the road. Thanks, Randy!

Wishing you a happy Life in the Car!

An Audiophile Sounds Off

by Kara Kling

Every year our family migrates north for summer vacation. And we are not alone: whether it is for a week or two, or, if you are really lucky, a month or two, families flock to the beach and to meet up with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. We stuff what seems like all of our worldly belongings, including, one year, a small tuba, into and on top of the SUV and venture onto the main migration path for all similar vacationers, Interstate 95. For our family it is about ten hours, door to door.

There are lots of things one can do to make this a less tension-fraught and more harmonious experience, including supplying everyone in the car with their own set of headphones and an electronic device of one kind or another so that they can each enter their own private virtual worlds, but my preferred strategy is a simple and more communal one: the audio book.

The best thing about audio books is that they are a shared experience: the driver gets to participate just as much as the passengers. If it is a book that no one has read before, everyone shares in the suspense and the revelations. If it is a family favorite being listened to for the umpteenth time, everyone shares in the anticipation of familiar passages and favorite lines. Even afterwards, the books you listen to together become something that you can talk about, make allusions to, and make jokes about.

We’ve tried various methods for listening, including hooking up the iPod to mini-speakers or broadcasting through the radio (perhaps your car is Bluetooth enabled, but mine is not), but I still prefer actual CDs. I recommend purchasing a few “classics” (that will mean something different to every family depending on your children’s ages and preferences, but I am basically using the term “classic” to mean a book that your family will want to listen to repeatedly – books that will become your family’s road trip canon) and then using the public library or a subscription service, such as audible.com, to experiment and add variety.

The list of books we’ve loved listening to is too long to include here, but the books that we’ve literally gotten the most mileage from are The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, both by E. B. White, and The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, as well as The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer. A last minute trip to the bookstore, where they don’t always have the widest selection, but often have a few gems, will sometimes result in a great find. Recent successful acquisitions include The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, and Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman.

Since your family’s tastes may not be the same as mine, below are several links to lists full of great suggestions. Whether your “migration route” is an annual voyage to the beach or a daily trek to and from school, audio books are a terrific way to spend your time together in the car.






Kara Kling is a middle school English teacher. The mother of two boys, she is the driving force – behind both the packing and the wheel – for her family’s road trips.

The Mother Road(trip)

Something new for my bucket list. I read this week about what looks to be the mother of all roadtrips. Randy Olson, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, used genetic algorithms to create an optimal driving trip around the Lower 48. It hits every lower state and 50 major landmarks (see below). Click here for Randy’s excellent blog post. Drive time clocks in at 244 hours if you had no traffic, no kids and lots of Provigil, but Randy estimates a more enjoyable experience may take you two to three months.

From Randy’s post:

Here’s the full list of landmarks in order:

  1. Grand Canyon, AZ
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
  3. Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID
  4. Yellowstone National Park, WY
  5. Pikes Peak, CO
  6. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
  7. The Alamo, TX
  8. The Platt Historic District, OK
  9. Toltec Mounds, AR
  10. Elvis Presley’s Graceland, TN
  11. Vicksburg National Military Park, MS
  12. French Quarter, New Orleans, LA
  13. USS Alabama, AL
  14. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL
  15. Okefenokee Swamp Park, GA
  16. Fort Sumter National Monument, SC
  17. Lost World Caverns, WV
  18. Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center, NC
  19. Mount Vernon, VA
  20. White House, Washington, DC
  21. Colonial Annapolis Historic District, MD
  22. New Castle Historic District, Delaware
  23. Cape May Historic District, NJ
  24. Liberty Bell, PA
  25. Statue of Liberty, NY
  26. The Mark Twain House & Museum, CT
  27. The Breakers, RI
  28. USS Constitution, MA
  29. Acadia National Park, ME
  30. Mount Washington Hotel, NH
  31. Shelburne Farms, VT
  32. Fox Theater, Detroit, MI
  33. Spring Grove Cemetery, OH
  34. Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
  35. West Baden Springs Hotel, IN
  36. Abraham Lincoln’s Home, IL
  37. Gateway Arch, MO
  38. C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, KS
  39. Terrace Hill Governor’s Mansion, IA
  40. Taliesin, WI
  41. Fort Snelling, MN
  42. Ashfall Fossil Bed, NE
  43. Mount Rushmore, SD
  44. Fort Union Trading Post, ND
  45. Glacier National Park, MT
  46. Hanford Site, WA
  47. Columbia River Highway, OR
  48. San Francisco Cable Cars, CA
  49. San Andreas Fault, CA
  50. Hoover Dam, NV

See you out there! Wishing you a Happy Life in the Car.

Which National Park?

The National Parks Foundation recently announced a new initiative: Every Kid in a Park. As part of this effort, every 4th grader in the country will receive a family pass to our National Parks for the 2015-2016 school year. This is a fantastic program aimed in part, no doubt, at countering the condition known as Nature Deficit Disorder (see Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods). And what better way to do that than get families into the great outdoors to experience some of our national treasures. It’s not just National Parks that are included; the entire National Park system is at your disposal which additionally comprises (from nps.gov): “monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.” That’s a lot to choose from!

Our National Parks also happen to be some of my favorite destinations for road trips. I love everything about our National Parks: the scenery, the fresh air, the unplugged-ness of the experience … and the Visitor Centers. The latter may seem like an interesting mention but they are an indispensable first stop, featuring helpful Rangers who offer maps and recommend best ways for your particular group to enjoy the Park. Most Visitor Centers also provide an excellent overview of the Park through a video or multimedia presentation; some also offer film shorts throughout the day showcasing the ecology and history of the area (a welcome break if your kids need a reset between trails or activities or just if it’s hot out). But most of all, I love the Ranger Programs for kids of all ages; most are included with your Park admission or annual pass.

Your kids can become Junior Rangers by learning about the parks, attending Ranger Programs with knowledgeable guides, completing workbooks demonstrating their newfound understanding of the particular Park and its ecosystem, and promising to be good stewards of our Park system for the next generation. We’ve done some excellent programs, including Damsels and Dragonflies, Tidepool School, Salt Pond Paddle, Tidal Flats Foray and more – my kids have even dissected squid as part of a Ranger Program – no joke – Hands-On Squid at Provincelands, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Parents usually tag along with their children and I have found the quality of instruction unparalleled, allowing me the full opportunity to enjoy the experience with my kids.

Now, for my next trick, how to figure out where to go first. You could follow the herd. News outlets often publish lists like Top 10 National Parks by annual visitors – and I’ll do the same for perspective but I’ll go one better. These were the Top 15 National Parks in 2014:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains NP
  2. Grand Canyon NP
  3. Yosemite NP
  4. Yellowstone NP
  5. Rocky Mountain NP
  6. Olympic NP
  7. Zion NP
  8. Grand Teton NP
  9. Acadia NP
  10. Glacier NP
  11. Cuyahoga Valley NP
  12. Hawaii Volcanoes NP
  13. Joshua Tree NP
  14. Bryce Canyon NP
  15. Hot Springs NP

So, you can join the masses – hey, millions of people can’t be wrong, right? The most frequented parks are chart toppers for a reason: the combination of spectacular sights and accessibility. At some point, these national treasures are definitely worth a visit. But, if you’re feeling slightly agoraphobic in the meantime, you could take a different look at the offerings.

How about this? The Top 15 Least Visited National Parks:

  1. Gates of the Arctic NP & PRES
  2. Isle Royale NP
  3. Lake Clark NP & PRES
  4. North Cascades NP
  5. Katmai NP & PRES
  6. Dry Tortugas NP
  7. Wrangell-St. Elias NP & PRES
  8. Great Basin NP
  9. Congaree NP
  10. Guadalupe Mountains NP
  11. Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
  12. Pinnacles NP
  13. Voyageurs NP
  14. Kenai Fjords NP
  15. Big Bend NP

Heck, being one of the least visited National Parks may be its own best recommendation!

Or if you’re feel the need for a change in latitude after this winter, what about a Park with coastal appeal? Lots of exploration and relaxation to be had. I can almost hear the water lapping on the beaches and feel my toes in the sand right now. Here are the Top 15 National Seashores or Lakeshores:

  1. Gulf Islands NS
  2. Cape Cod NS
  3. Point Reyes NS
  4. Assateague Island NS
  5. Cape Hatteras NS
  6. Indiana Dunes NL
  7. Canaveral NS
  8. Sleeping Bear Dunes NL
  9. Pictured Rocks NL
  10. Padre Island NS
  11. Cape Lookout NS
  12. Virgin Islands NP
  13. Fire Island NS
  14. Apostle Islands NL
  15. Cumberland Island NS

OK, #12 is actually a National Park, but it doesn’t get more coastal than VINP, which features an underwater snorkeling trail. The combination of beaches and Ranger Programs (for adults and kids) at the National Seashores and Lakeshores provides enough to keep the kids engaged and happy so the parents can enjoy the visit, too!

There are lot of other “theme” trips you could do: tours of battlefields, Civil War sites, national monuments, a geographical selection. I’ll write about more of these in future blog posts. In the meantime, I think I’ll start close to home with a few local gems in the National Park system: Boston Harbor Islands, Saugus Iron Works, and Boott Cotton Mill.

Wishing you a happy Life in the Car!

What’s your favorite National Park?

* All data taken from irma.nps.gov as of 23 Feb 2015. Any errors or omissions are mine.

3 Reasons I Love My Life in the Car

My family and I spend lots of time in the car, as I’ve detailed in previous posts. The average American spends 540 hours a year in a vehicle – that’s almost a month. We’re probably right in there somewhere. Instead of railing against the injustice of it all, I’ve decided to embrace and celebrate Life in the Car. I changed my lens from Life-in-the-Car-as-mild-annoyance to Life-in-the-Car-as-opportunity. Having done so, I’ve realized there are plenty of reasons I actually love my Life in the Car. Here are three of them:

#1 – Big Ideas

Do you ever wonder why people often do some of their best or most creative thinking in the shower? It has something to do with the relaxation, the white noise, performing routine activities almost on auto-pilot. Driving has some of the same characteristics. It is also a right-brain activity, due to its spatial reasoning requirements. Add in a little monotony for those long hauls. Breakthrough ideation probably won’t happen if you’re fighting traffic or navigating tricky parking situations, but driving on the highway for a period of time seems to allow other parts of my brain to work on problems I’m wrestling with and then ideas just start bubbling up. In fact, while I usually do a lot of local driving, last week I had an hour drive on the highway to deliver samples of Cargo® Tissues to area preschools. Only a few minutes after getting on the interstate, I had three big ideas for my business – I usually aspire to three big ideas a week. I found myself thinking “I should plan more of these outings, for the idea generation alone!” When you find yourself having big ideas in the car, make sure to have a way to capture them – voice memos on your phone, for instance – before they slip through your fingers as you put the car in park.

#2 – Talk Time with My Kids

Usual questions on the rides to and from school include: How was your day? Who did you sit with at lunch? Who did you play with at recess? What do you have for homework? These basic and well circumscribed questions are an important part of my relationships with my children. They keep me on the pulse of their daily lives and help focus our next few hours. In addition, I may hear a report of a social conflict from that day: Johnny called me a name, or Suzy didn’t want so-and-so to play with us and I didn’t have the courage to speak up. I take advantage of the drive time to create a teachable moment, helping my kids develop the skills to respond differently next time.

Longer rides give me the opportunity to dig deeper, ask them bigger questions: How are you feeling about school? Are you feeling settled in to our new house and town? Experts say that not having to make eye contact with your parent (as in times when everyone is looking straight ahead) is one of the best ways for older children to open up to their parents. Especially as children reach adolescence, the chance to talk to a parent not under the direct gaze of said parent can help keep open the lines of communication, essential support for kids when they need reassurance in the face of social angst, clarifications on the birds and the bees, reaffirmation of parental and family love, and other delicate and important topics.

#3 In-flight Entertainment

For the longest of our drives, I actually plan what I call our in-flight entertainment. Listening to audiobooks with our children has been a great joy for me over the past fourteen years. We take lots of road trips over school vacations and that gives us plenty of time to tackle great books that my kids might otherwise not read. All of my boys are voracious readers, but realistically they were never going to pick up the Little House on the Prairie series, nine or ten books that loom large in my memories of childhood. So we listened to them during drive time and now my kids talk about Laura Ingalls, the sod house on Plum Creek, the locusts that walked over their house, and Long Winter and how Almanzo’s wheat saved them. We’ve enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, some older classics such as Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, and many more in the same way. I love the fact that our kids and I now have the shared history of these great stories which we weave into our daily lives.

What do you love about your Life in the Car?

Cabin Fever and the Call of the Open Road

The Northeast has been hit hard by snow this winter. We have mostly stayed close to home. Yesterday I had a great reason to get out of the house and town – delivering samples of Cargo Tissues to local preschools. As soon as I got on the highway, I felt a familiar tugging at my heart – the Call of the Open Road. The desire to get out there and see new places – something usually reserved for our summer vacations. I love a good road trip. And I wondered, why wait ’til summer?

Here’s a link to America’s Best Winter Drives by Travel + Leisure Magazine.

Wishing you a happy Life in the Car!

Welcome to Life in the Car

Hi, my name is Caitlin O’Connor. I am a mom of four boys. Like most Americans, my family spends lots of time in the car. We drive to school and activities, run errands and take longer road trips on vacation. The average American spends 540 hours a year in a vehicle – that’s almost a month! I can relate – some days it feels like we live in our minivan.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I left a career in brand management at a large consumer packaged goods company to stay home with our kids. But I never lost my passion for marketing and for a product that was a perfect fit for our lifestyle: a car sun visor-attached tissue holder for mobile mishaps. And we have a lot of those. So I created Cargo® Tissues + Dispenser for on-the-go messes. Spilled coffee? Runny noses? No problem with Cargo Tissues.

In the meantime, we continue to spend plenty of time in the car, which means a lot of life is lived there. Family togetherness (for better or worse), carpools, friends, the license plate and other games, audiobooks, conversations about the quotidian and more weighty issues. We might as well anticipate, enjoy and otherwise celebrate this thing known as Life in the Car!

Let’s start our celebration by looking at some of the early stirrings of America’s car culture. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History currently has an exhibition entitled “America on the Move,” an exploration of the role of transportation in our history.

Wishing you a happy Life in the Car!