Back-to-School: Thoughtful Excursions

(Caption: Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee.)

My friend Julia and I were casually chatting on our way to a meeting when she shared with me the details of a trip she had taken with J.P., her son. I was taken aback by how beautiful her trip was in its thoughtfulness and its execution. Julia always does such thoughtful things with J.P. and I asked her if she would allow me to record her experience through an interview for my blog. She graciously agreed and we recorded our exchange through a series of emails.

Though summer vacation time has ended for those of us in the South, there is still time for others to use Julia’s excursion as a model for planning a trip before the school year begins. As for me, I plan to consider contemplating her trip in light of my desire to be deliberate in choosing to live creatively. Julia’s trip broadens the possibilities for extending our highest ideals to every aspect of our lives. I will also think about her time with her son as an example of the kind of contemplative experience that I find worth pursuing. As you will read, Julia sought out spaces for she and J.P. to reflect and to be quiet, to think about history and their relationship to it, to eat good, fresh food, to play and to rest.

What motivated your trip?

A number of things. As you know, I have been feeling somewhat antsy about this next transition in J.P.’s  life and I wanted to make a memory with him before he moved on to middle school. This type of memory making before a transition is somewhat of a tradition in my larger family, so, with my husband out of town, I thought it the perfect opportunity to make a memory with J.P. by going up to Chattanooga. It is, as you put it “austerity time” and going off to somewhere local would not have been good enough. So, we went to Chattanooga where it was cheap and close. We went to see some of the things that he loves–animals and trains with a history and book excursion thrown in for me–even though it didn’t work out as well as I had hoped (Note: Here, Julia is referring to her disappointment in not being able to ride the Incline Railway and see the Civil War museum at the top of the mountain, which she discusses some later), but that is the nature of these things sometimes.

How did you think about fun?

I knew that Chattanooga Zoo was not large, but that they had some animals that he had never seen before–he was especially fascinated by the chimpanzees. He is a big fan of Jane Goodall’s work (Note: J.P. is a fan of Through a Window as well as the film Chimpanzee) and so this was a good opportunity for him to see some of the things that she has discussed in some of the books that he likes to read. The train trip was a plus for both of us. He loves trains and the history that was narrated during the trip was great for both of us. This part of the trip, though, was a big reminder about how much the South is marketing its Confederate history as a tourist draw. Curiously, I did not find it bothersome, but just something to note. As this history was being discussed, remember, we are riding on the Jim Crow cars. All of this, for me, was a nudge from the universe that J.P. is going to have to confront his racial history in a much more direct way very shortly. I have always tried to impart to him that learning is fun, but the impact of the racial history will come down in a much more direct way, which may not be fun. I want to make sure that I am there to discuss it with him in a way that allows him to come away feeling pride and not victimization. He comes from survivors and he needs to know that story.

How did we decide on the location?

Chattanooga is close and cheap in these austere times! I would have tried to do it in one day, but it would not have had that vacation feel. Given that I knew I would get that $50 gas card back, the cost of staying at the Comfort Inn, which is my favorite hotel chain, made an overnight stay workable.

What did we listen to or watch during the voyage?

There has to be compromise at these times. He is into anime and he likes Bakugan (you may not know about this yet, but you will). It is noisy and does not make for good driving. I had checked out an audiobook from the library on my iPad–Three Cups of Tea. You probably remember all of the upheaval a few years ago about [Greg Mortenson having] fabricated his trips to Pakistan, but I was not familar with the text as I should have been (it was required reading at Kennesaw State University for the first-year students and he came to speak at the campus before the controversy), so I thought this was a good time to examine the controversy by listening to the book first. They made a version for younger readers and this was the audio version. Guess who did the voiceover of her own intro? Jane Goodall! Well of course he had to stop his anime and listen to what Jane had to say. We listened to the book for about an hour together and then I let him watch his anime. It gave us a good way to discuss giving and philanthropy, but for myself, I am still trying to put together how I feel about what this guy did. Do the ends justify the means?

Did I require any prepartory work for J.P.? How much of that work did I do for myself?

I had lots to think about in the run up to this in how to go somewhere as cheaply as possible, so yes, I have lots of run up work. I did not share this planning with him, because he gets too excited and he would harange me endlessly about the particulars. He may get to being able to share in this planning work someday, but not yet. I only required him to map the way and to see how closely the GPS got us there (J.P. completed this task on an iPad). This was the occasion that I found out about the battery power running down the phone and I had the GPS on all the way (I didn’t need it on at all on I75!) and my phone conked out as I was trying to find the hotel, so no GPS help. I had to do some aimless driving, including asking for directions from other Comfort Inns, to find the hotel!

Where did we go? What did we do?

We went to Chattanooga Zoo, left there and went to the Tennessee Valley Railroad for the train trip. That was enough to do in the first day. However, as I could see on the maps, the Comfort Inn that I chose was right down the street from McKay‘s books. I had no idea what that was. It is only the greatest chain of used bookstores in Tennessee! After we checked into the hotel, he got a swim and I got a rest, we went to McKay’s before we went to get dinner and had a ball there–so the unplanned stuff works out too! The next day we went to the Incline Railway, which was shut down due to the bad storms, and the Chattanooga Choo Choo to see the large model railroad display. We would have gone to the aquarium, but it is austerity times and my GA aquarium membership does not help there. I told him we would come back sometime, and we will. Our Fall breaks overlap this year–we may go to the Aquarium and the Incline Railway then (and go back to McKay’s!).

What did you eat?

It was about lunchtime when we got to the Railroad, and they had a little shop to eat in there. I thought we would eat snacks, but he wanted something more substantial. They had sandwich platters and we ate that, and it wasn’t to bad. For dinner, after McKay’s, we went to Fresh Market. I had noticed it in my aimless driving to find the hotel. We had a good time going in and picking out chicken, pasta salad and grilled veggies from the deli, good peaches (which have seemed so rare this summer) and a couple of raspberry pocket cookies from the bakery. We picked up some flavored waters and that was dinner! The cool thing about Comfort Inns is that they always have a fridge and a microwave in the room, so we could save things that we didn’t eat for the next day. Breakfast comes with the room and J.P. made sure to make his strawberry waffle in the iron–which is always fun. I stuck to Raisin Bran and fruit. We stopped at a Zaxby’s for lunch on the way home in Marietta. I was all for eating lunch at home, but you know how kids can be. (Julie’s reflections on dinner and my image of them eating in the hotel reminded me of a blog post I read some time ago where a woman and her daughter are on vacation in Paris and dine “picnic style” in their hotel room.)

Did you make a special effort to record the trip?

I went to use my brand new phone to take pictures of the trip, but I don’t know how to use it. None of the pictures are on my camera roll! Even the Jim Crow ones! Arrrgh! I need to get a camera…Of course, this e-mail to you, as well as J.P.’s using writing to create a record of the trip [are records] so that is good! I hope that he remembers it, even just a part of it.

Can you say more about J.P.’s writing record? 

He wrote about his experiences on the laptop to practice his keyboarding skills. He writes in response to what he liked the best and why. He just keeps it in a folder on the laptop.

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