We woke up early (and cold) in our tent on Friday, April 6.  It was my 9th soloversary (I like to remember the anniversary of quitting my job and starting my own law firm; it’s also my late maternal grandfather’s birthday), and we had a very difficult-to-book ranger-led canoe trip scheduled for 10am.  But first, we ran to the restroom and to check the inside of my parked car, our youngest following behind nervously.

The reason we were interested in the inside of my car at sunrise at a national park campsite in South Carolina is that my youngest won a Betta fish she named “Blueberry” at church several years ago, and it goes with us on trips that don’t involve airports, so we’d wrapped its bowl in scarves and left it in the car, hoping it didn’t freeze to death in the 40-something overnight temps. Oh, and the fish barely had any water, because its bowl got kicked over on the drive down from Jamestown while riding in the back seat floorboard.

We slowly opened the car door, fearing the worst.  My bride and my 7-year-old kept concerned expressions fixed on the little plastic bowl sitting behind the gearshift as I unwrapped the makeshift insulation.  We looked at Blueberry, who was sitting motionless at the bottom. I raised its tank to my face to get a better look. It wiggled.  Blueberry was alive!  My 7yo daughter beamed.  I started the car and cranked the heat so the fish could warm up and my phone could charge.

We struck camp and reloaded the car, ate Jody-provided eggs and bacon, and headed to the visitor center to get junior ranger workbooks and learn about Atlanta’s closest national park before meeting our guide down by the water.  One of the first things we learned after dragging our canoes into the woods to the edge of the river was that we’d just begun snake mating season, so we should expect to see lots and lots of snakes.  Snakes in trees above us that might drop into our canoes.  Snakes on logs that we’d float by.  Snakes swimming through the swamp in the waters we were about to navigate.  Lots and lots of snakes (including the venomous cottonmouth spotted earlier that week).

Our guide was right.  We hadn’t paddled long before we saw our first snake, a non-venomous water moccasin lying on a tree branch that would be about 6” above our heads as we approached it to float underneath.  Luckily, it stayed put.

We learned about the various vegetation, birds, reptiles, and fish in the national park as we paddled with the slow current.  The temperature approached 80, but the huge cypress trees’ canopy kept us cool.  It was beautiful, serene, and quiet–a peaceful conclusion to our last day of spring break 2018.

Eventually we came to a large fallen tree blocking our path, so we turned around and headed back, passing all the snakes we’d seen before, including a couple who were actively mating during mating season.  Out of respect for their privacy, I did not take a picture of them, but I did snap one of this lazy guy, who was still mateless in mating season.

See him?  He’s lying along the top of the lower log in the shadow of the upper log.  He’s not small.

Eventually, the tour ended, and we went back to the visitor center for the children to get sworn in as junior rangers at yet another national park (and for me to get another passport cancellation!).

Then, it was time to hit the interstate and head back to civilization in Atlanta.  We’d traveled over 1000 miles, saw 6 national park properties in 3 different states, and learned about nature, the Civil War, and our nation’s colonial times before it was an independent country while keeping a small fish alive and maintaining familial affections while in close quarters every day and night.

This was a great week.

We arrived at historic Jamestown as soon as it opened on Thursday morning, exploring the glasshouse and fort buildings before going to the archaearium and visitor center (taking in a 360-degree film there–best NPS movie theater I’ve seen!), where I added a cancellation to my NPS passport book.

The guide walked us through the area where the first church stood–its floor has recently been removed to allow for archeologists to dig below it and discover even more history.  We stood there several minutes, listening to the guide and watching the working archeologists.

We then drove to the Jamestown Settlement area, a “living history” exhibit that included replicas of the Jamestown fort, a Powhatan village, and the ships:  Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes action shot of how the above picture was made:

I found the NPS property (the actual location of the settlement) more interesting, but the replicas/living history Settlement area next door was more fun.  The children loved scooping out the charred inside surfaces of dugout canoes with shells, like the Powhatan did hundreds of years ago.  They got to wear armor, tour houses, and play games as youngsters their age may have done 400 years ago.

That afternoon, we had plans to meet my friend since 3rd grade, Jody, and his 2 daughters at a campground in South Carolina, but first, my son insisted we stop at South of the Border, an area just off the interstate after we crossed the state line; he’d read about it in a quirky “roadside attractions” book he likes to consult any time we travel by car (it’s how we found “Goats on the Roof” on our way to see the solar eclipse a few months ago).

We were in a hurry to beat sunset, as we’ve never pitched our tent in the dark before, but we let the children get pictures with a T-Rex.

Two hours later, we pulled into Congaree National Park, joined Jody and family, and threw up our tent just before dark.  We built a fire with the wood I’d bought at a highway bait and tackle store and had dinner right there in the woods like wild animals.

Since all we’d brought was a tent, sleeping bags, and a 6-pack of Colonial Williamsburg beer, we relied heavily on Jody’s Eagle Scout training and pre-camping grocery shopping to survive our overnight stay in a national park where the overnight low would be mid-40s.

We survived the night.  But would we survive a Friday morning canoe tour during snake mating season?  Find out next time I post!


Wednesday morning of spring break 2018, we parked at the visitor center and walked across a long bridge that’s supposed to take you back in time a few hundred years, into colonial Williamsburg.  I needed coffee, so our first stop was the Liberty Lounge, which offered free coffee and snacks to veterans (or current members of the armed forces).  One of the volunteers inside was a retired F-4 pilot, so the two of us (plus my son) enjoyed discussing the evolution of military aircraft in the 20th century, which is not how I expected to spend my time in colonial Williamsburg, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

We then wandered into the courthouse, where my youngest played “clerk of court” and made the guide/lawyer laugh a bunch.

We saw a mock trial involving a defendant accused of gambling too much, but he was acquitted, thank goodness.

My son enjoyed discussing various weapons used in colonial times with a Native American.

We explored other buildings, like the Magazine & Guardhouse, the Governor’s Palace, the Mckenzie Apothecary, the theatre, the George Wythe House, Bruton Parish church (including Jefferson’s pew!), the Capitol building, and some stores and taverns.

We loved talking to the knowledgeable costumed guides in each building, learning about life in Virginia when it was a still a colony, and experiencing history lessons instead of reading them.

A friend saw my checkins on Swarm and suggested we eat lunch at the The Cheese Shop and dinner at Blue Talon Bistro, and these were great suggestions indeed!

Then we browsed some of the stores in Merchants Square, pausing for a few minutes with Thomas Jefferson on a bench.

While not a national park, colonial Williamsburg was a great addition to our educational family roadtrip–lots to see and do, and well worth a full day (or more…there was lots we didn’t have time to experience)!

My advice to anyone planning such a trip is to book the extra activities in advance (ox cart rides, ax throwing, ghost tours, etc.) online.  Since we could not get a military discount online for some reason, we bought our tickets in person the morning of our visit, and by then, all the “extras” were fully booked (as Fulton County, Georgia was not the only school district having spring break at that time).  I hope we can go back sometime when we can see and do even more!