Monday, August 31, 2015

_The Hancock News_ Column-- August 26, 2015

Lists are an obsession for me. When I feel overwhelmed or uncertain what I should do next, I make a list. Like the proverbial bunnies, my lists multiply. I start with a simple to-do list which leads to a list of meals for the week which necessitates a grocery list with separate sub-lists for each store and/or aisle.

Then there is the list of all lists-- the Great Big Summer To-Do List. One blogger I follow creates a summer bucket list with fun things she wants to do with her children, plus a few projects. Unfortunately for my family, I’m not like her. My list is all work.

At least half of my list is comprised of tasks like putting away stacks of papers, books, or outgrown clothes that pile up during the school year. Then, of course, is planning for the upcoming school year. This summer, getting ready for baby filled a few slots, too. And there was the perennial chore of organizing totes of photographs.

Well, summer is almost over, and I don’t have even half of my list completed. The only one left that has me really anxious is the one I’ve been putting off for more than a year-- making curtains for my girls’ room. More than a year ago (maybe two years), my daughter picked out a couple of matching pink fabrics. Last year I washed the fabric. So far this summer, I’ve ironed some of it and sewn a couple of seams, but with each stitch, my fear grows.

I have no clue what I’m doing with my sewing machine. My inexperience makes me certain I’ll mess it all up. Plus I just know the thread is going to tangle or I’ll need to find the owner’s manual to figure out how to wind up the thingamabobbin.

I was feeling disappointed in myself and a little ashamed as I once more set aside the unfinished project last Thursday to prepare our home for weekend guests. Our friends from Kenya, Joseph and Ruth, were able to travel to the United States for the summer. The majority of the trip was church-business related as Joseph has many responsibilities in the church in Kenya, but I know they were also happy to see three of their grown children and grandchildren who live in Indiana.

I thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with them this weekend, but now that their visit is over, my attention is turned once again to my giant list and the curtains. As I begin worrying all over, I am a bit ashamed and disappointed in myself, but for a different reason.

You see, Joseph and Ruth have many obligations. Joseph is in charge of the seminary in Kenya and is also the bishop over hundreds of congregations. In his diocese there are so many poor and hungry, so many widows and orphans and others in need, and these folks look to Joseph and his wife for help.

In my comfortable home, I sit with a full belly fretting over what I’ve made into a mountain of wrinkled pink polka-dotted and gingham fabric. In her home, Ruth opens her door each morning to find at least four hungry people on her doorstep. She is concerned with being able to provide and prepare enough food for empty bellies.


I needed this wake-up call of a visit. Suddenly my Great Big Overwhelming Summer To-Do List shrank from its mountainous size to the molehill it actually is. My hope for each of you is that your own personal worrisome mountains may, with a bit of perspective, wither away to insignificance and leave you with some of the contentment that Ruth and Joseph have left for me.


Over the course of our weekend with Bishop and Mrs. Omolo, our family learned about the culture of Kenya. We asked about their favorite Kenyan food and learned it was called ugali, a simple dish of cooked unseasoned cornmeal served with meat and fish. I asked for the recipe for ugali so that I might share it with readers, but I found it was one of those dishes that is simply made-- no measurements involved.

Instead I’ll share one of my family’s favorites that our homesick guests enjoyed for breakfast-- cornmeal mush. I know it sounds like something out of our nation’s pioneer days, but Joseph and Ruth told me it was very much like porridge they might eat for breakfast in Kenya. Don’t let the word “mush” scare you away; it’s warm and filling and delicious, especially when served with a pat of butter, real maple syrup, and milk or cream drizzled over the top.

After we eat our mush in the bowl, any leftover is poured into a buttered pan, covered and stored in the refrigerator. For the next breakfast we turn the firm mush onto a cutting board, slice it into half-inch slices, fry it on a greased griddle, and serve it with maple syrup-- fried cornmeal mush.

Roast Cornmeal Mush

1 cup roasted cornmeal (plain cornmeal is fine, too)
4 cups water
1 1/2 tsp. salt

In a saucepan, bring 3 cups of water and the salt to a boil. Mix the cornmeal with 1 cup of cold water. Stir the cornmeal mixture into the boiling water and cook, stirring often over medium heat for 5 minutes or until thick. Serve in bowls with your favorite toppings and enjoy.

Friday, August 28, 2015

I Waited For It!

Remember how last year I just couldn't wait to try the first watermelon?

Last year's failure

Well, this year, I waited. Barely. Then tendril closest the stem was mostly brown.

This year's first watermelon

Was it the sweetest tasting thing ever? No. Did it satisfy my pregnant lady craving? Somewhat. But the kids loved it, and we ate it all. The ones we've eaten since then have been much sweeter, I'm guessing because they had a nice dose of hot weather. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What Happens When. . . ?

What happens when this garter snake. . .

 . . . meets this preying mantis?

Thanks to my son for capturing this encounter with our camera.  Okay. The praying mantis is up on the brick wall of the house.  Here comes the snake slithering through the mulch bed right up next to the house. . .

 Now this might be a bit difficult to see because the picture is blurry. . .

but. . . yes, the mantis does attack the snake! I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen this proof.

By the way, no mantises or snakes were harmed in the making of this blog post. This wasn't staged. It simply happened when my boys were trying to rescue the snake from our cats on the front porch. They didn't hurt the snake; they simply herded it to a safer location.

Monday, August 24, 2015

What Happens When. . . ?

What happens when this toddler hand. . .

meets up with a few hot peppers in a produce basket that was left on the table?

When said toddler approached me in distress, I wasn't sure what happened. He wasn't crying, but he was whimpering a bit and holding his mouth. My first thought was that he'd somehow managed to find something poisonous. I rushed around looking and found this:

The antidote given was food and drink (milk). He appreciated this help and moved on to more appropriate and safe play.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Almost Heavenly Vacation-- Cass Scenic Railroad

The Western Maryland Shay No. 6-- our steam-driven locomotive

We kept a big surprise from our children. My husband and I had decided our big splurge for our vacation was to be a ride on a real train. We would visit Cass Scenic Railroad in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The children knew we were going somewhere special, but they didn't guess until we were about 10 miles from our destination.

Now, I have to admit that our surprise may have backfired a bit because our one son who doesn't adapt well to change had more than a little anxiety about riding the classic train since he hadn't had time to adjust to the idea, BUT let me tell you, before the end of the ride, he was loving it!

We arrived at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park early enough for bathroom breaks, a snack, and a look around the gift shop. We did not have time to fully experience the museum and other educational opportunities available. That was okay because we were about to embark on our 4 1/2 hour adventure to Bald Knob-- the third highest point in West Virginia.

We boarded our open car and found our spot on bench seats that faced the river side of the train (a recommendation we were glad my husband found online ahead of time). We listened as the crackling loudspeaker gave us information before we started, but because of our proximity to the engine, we only heard about every 10th word. I'm not sure if the other cars further from the engine could hear any better, but we enjoyed being able to see the engine up close and personal.

What a beauty!

We journeyed the path of the old logging trains, chugging up the mountain with switchbacks, past a reconstructed logging camp and a stop to take on more water at a spring. Our train stopped to rendezvous with another train-- an old diesel-- bound for Elkins (I think). One couple left our train to board the other while our bagged lunches made their way from the other train to us. We ate our ample lunch of sandwiches and lots of sides while continuing to climb the mountain.

We had a long stop at the top to use the "facilities" (pit toilets my daughters were NOT fond of) and to enjoy the view from the overlook.

A farm in the distance and cloud shadows.
And, wow. What a view!

Looks like a view from an airplaine

That white thing in the middle of the picture above is one of the huge radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank. While we did not stop there for a visit, it is a cool educational place worthy of a day by itself.

We had so much fun on our train day, and since our return, we've found our almost 2-year-old is now obsessed with trains. He imitates our train's whistle and bell quite accurately and daily begs for the following choo-choo video my husband shot with his phone. (I hope I can get it to work on this blog. . . you know I'm techno-challenged).


 The one warning I must give about Cass Scenic Railroad is that you really need to buy your tickets online ahead of time. We had planned to go an earlier day. My husband kept checking online for availability because we didn't want to pay the extra fee for buying online tickets, BUT the train filled up fast. The night before our planned excursion, there were tons of tickets available. Early the next morning, it was all sold out and it wasn't even a weekend. So we bit the bullet and paid the extra fee just so we could make sure to have tickets when we arrived. It would be a bummer to drive all that way and not be able to ride the train.

And while we didn't see a bear at Dolly Sods, three of our family were quick enough to spot one cross in front of us on our way down the mountain. 

This concludes our mini-tour of the great Mountain State, my West Virginia. I hope, if you have never visited, that you someday have the opportunity, but don't limit yourself to the places we enjoyed on our vacation. There's so much more to see and experience. We were only in one section of the state, and we had to pass over several nice spots due to lack of time.

And if you just like the John Denver song, here's my review of one of my favorite children's books.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Almost Heavenly Vacation-- Dolly Sods

Hiking on a short loop trail

Our visit to Dolly Sods Wilderness Area was so amazingly beautiful, I just had to open this post with a picture (or maybe I'd started this post weeks ago by adding the pictures first and can't figure out how to space down to start with words).

Dolly Sods is in the same county where my parents live. I'd never visited until the summer after I graduated high school. Or the summer before. I just can't remember! But I can remember being surprised by how absolutely gorgeous it was. I knew it had stunted trees, blown by the wind so hard that one side's limbs are significantly shorter than the other. But that was about it.

Wild blueberries flanked our path-- more than we could pick!

I didn't know about the wild blueberries available for the picking in the summer. Our children picked and picked and picked (and ate), and we ended up with 2 cups worth to make some blueberry muffins for Grammy and Poppa to enjoy.  If you've ever read Blueberries for Sal (by Robert McCloskey), I felt like I had been transported to a deleted scene from that book.

A view of a boggy area

In addition to forests and blueberry heaths, sphagnum bogs can be found at Dolly Sods.

Not that you'd want to wade through the boggy muck. . .

Dolly Sods, because of the elevation and location, has a climate more like you would find much farther north in Canada. Because of that, you find species associated with those areas. Reindeer lichen are one example.

That gray stuff is reindeer lichen (sometimes called moss).

After our short hike (which took quite a long time considering the sometimes rocky terrain and the berry-picking long pauses), we drove to the area of Dolly Sods calls Bear Rocks. Basically, the beauty there is breath-taking. And there are rocks. And more blueberry bushes (or huckleberry. . . I don't know which since these had no berries on them at the time) with many paths to navigate. Again, especially with the little one toddling about at this less wet location, there were more missing pages from Blueberries for Sal. He would fall down, and all you could see anywhere close by was the top of his little curly head peaking above the bushes. That boy did not want to be carried.

Not in the carrier this time!

Did I mention the rocks? Or the views? It was amazing, and for some, a little frightening to be too far out on the rocks.

Some rocks and a view. . . our pictures just can't capture the expanse!

See the stunted trees in the distance?

If you are ever in this area of West Virginia, you can't miss this. Unless it's winter. Then it might be tricky to get there.

Oh, and about the "bear" part of Bear Rocks? Yes, there are bears at Dolly Sods (yet another reason I kept thinking of the classic children's book), but we did not see any the day we were there. On our train ride at Cass, it was a different story. . .

Friday, August 14, 2015

Almost Heavenly Vacation

It's taken long enough to get this post up, but I wanted to share about our wild, wonderful West Virginia vacation.

I grew up in West Virginia, and my family still lives there. It will always be home to me. This year, we ended up spending more than a week at my parents' house for our family vacation. We took advantage of the free housing (thanks, Mom and Dad!) to take a few day trips and spend a little more on activities than we normally do.

It's kind of funny that I lived where I did for so long and did not fully take advantage of the many opportunities available. I guess that happens to people in all places; it's hard to recognize most local treasures.

If you ever plan on visiting West Virginia, our trip was not an exhaustive tour of the entire state, but I'd love to give you a few recommendations based on what we did.

There will be two more posts on two specific spots (with lots of pictures and a video if I can figure that out).

One of the spots we visited was the West Virginia Wildlife Center outside of Buckhannon (in the northern central part of WV)  Basically it's a zoo of animals native (or once native) to West Virginia. Sure, we have most of these animals right in our backyard, but we don't often get to see them or see them up close. My favorite part of the center was the owls and watching the bear cubs wrestle and tumble about.

Another great thing about the center was the price. Many zoos are quite expensive for a family. This really wasn't at all. It was also small enough the little kids could take it all in without being to exhausted. Our three-year-old walked the entire way. She was a little droopy by the end, but she made it without a meltdown.

On another day we took a trip to Seneca Caverns. This time around we didn't actually visit the caverns (which are fine and dandy). Instead, because some of our children had been interested in panning for gold, we took them gemstone mining. They have a huge sluice, and our kids enjoyed splashing in the water while discovering all sorts of treasures. We bought a big bucket full of stones mixed in with rough dirt stuff, and each child (and their parents) brought home a bag of geological beauties. I can't believe that, as a homeschooling mom, I didn't see the educational value of this activity beforehand. They are so interested in learning about rocks now.

Seneca Caverns is located near Seneca Rocks (which we drove past several times on our ramblings). While we didn't stop this time, it's fairly close to my folks, and it's on the list for future visits. I have taken advantage of this spot many times, but I'm fairly certain I'll never climb the rocks. It's just not my thing, but if it is yours--enjoy! Luckily, there's a hiking trail to the top for folks like me--or maybe for folks like me 15 years ago :)

If you're in the area, another fun place to stop is Smoke Hole Caverns.  I worked there one summer giving tours, and the place is owned and operated by the family of a high school classmate of mine. It's grown and changed over the years. Due to arson, the gift shop where I worked is no longer there, but they've opened a new and huge gift shop on the site. I haven't been there yet, but they also now have gemstone mining. (We went to Seneca Caverns for gemstone mining because my husband and I went there on our honeymoon.) Anyway, at the Smoke Hole Resort there is plenty of lodging if you're in the area for a while, and they also have a trout pond for fishing which is especially convenient for out-of-staters  who don't want to buy an expensive fishing license.

And speaking of trout ponds, we went to another one on one of our jaunts. Mountain Meadow Farms was a great experience for us. If you've ever been fishing with a bunch of little and inexperienced kids, a place like this is the answer! The owner was so nice and helpful to us. He did his best to help out while I chased the little one around and my husband helped get worms on hooks and take fish off hooks. I'm not kidding when I say my husband was really juggling hooks, worms, kids, and fish. It was comical. Almost.

We allowed each child to catch two fish, and we even splurged and paid the owner's daughter to clean them up for us. They were delicious for supper. Yum! I can't say enough nice things about this family-owned business. Also, what a beautiful place to live and work. Oh, and one of my sons caught a big one--I think it was 3.5 pounds; the fishing pole was just like in cartoons, all doubled up. Fun day.

Next post-- Dolly Sods!