Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Pantsing" the Family Vacation

One of the questions I see fairly often on blogs about writing is "Are you a plotter or a pantser?" By that, the questioner is asking whether the writer plans every detail of what will happen in his/her story or if he/she goes "by the seat of the pants" and lets the story go where it will. The same question could be asked of traveling style. Normally, my husband and I are "plotters" when it comes to planning the family vacation, but this year we decided to try "pantsing" it.

We knew we wanted to go to the East Coast since we had a window of only two weeks. We had settled on going to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and our son had requested going back to Washington, DC. We planned to leave immediately after our daughter's concert for band camp (the flute came on the trip with us!) on June 18 and we had to be home by July 1 so our son could get his driver's license. We planned to stay in hotels for most of the trip, but we also wanted to do a couple of nights of tent camping. With those parameters in mind, we stuffed the back of our vehicle with tents, sleeping bags, two suitcases, and numerous duffel bags and headed east.

The first opportunity for spontaneity came when we hit Memphis at suppertime.
We headed to Beale Street to BB King's Blues Club, where we had horrendously fattening and wonderfully delicious Southern fare and were treated to live music by a blues band whose guitarist most certainly wasn't born yet when Elvis died (but who could play the guitar, for sure). The spirit of the spontaneous slid into my husband and me, who mortified our daughter by pretending to dance at the table. Pantsing is fun!

We saw the downside of pantsing a couple of hours later, when we stopped in Jackson, TN, for the night. No rooms were available in our first choice of hotels - seems the Miss Tennessee pageant and a Little League baseball tournament were both in town. We did find a room, however, without too much trouble.

Our next stop was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We've been there several times, and we've passed by the sign for Laurel Falls several times but never stopped. This time we decided to stop and do the hike. What we didn't know is that it was a 1.3-mile uphill hike! When we were nearly to the falls, someone coming back down told us there was a bear and cub on the trail. By the time we got to the spot, there was no cub, but there was the adult bear, sitting in the path. This was really cool to us since we've been to the Smokies several times and to Yellowstone and never saw a bear in the wild. Pantsing has pleasant surprises!

One of the things we did this time that we hadn't done before was go to some places just because we saw them on the map and thought they sounded interesting. The first of those was the Mountain Farm Museum at the North Carolina entrance to GSM park.
It ended up being one of my favorite stops on the trip, partly because there were so many things that reminded me of my great-grandparents' farm (like the corn-sheller) and partly because it was THE setting for my novel. Several times I had little moments of daydreaming in which I could almost see my characters leaning against the rail fence or carrying wood from the pile under the woodshed. This visit also pointed out to me, though, how far removed my kids are from the way I grew up - my daughter helped feed the two young pigs with one hand pinching her nose shut because of the smell!

Another jewel that we visited just because we found it on the map was Chippokes Plantation State Park in Virginia. We got a private tour of a plantation home circa 1854 (well, ok, no one was there besides our family) and to visit a museum of farm equipment and implements. We also stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia because we would be passing it on the way home, and that was neat. The Seneca Rocks themselves are a huge, impressive outcropping of rocks, but again, the cool part to me was a homestead site that had the home and some gardens with vegetables and herbs people of the 19th century would have grown. Both of those sites are things we would have missed if we had chosen to take the interstates rather than pantsing our way on side roads.

There were some interesting stops that crossed our path quite by accident. While in Asheville, North Carolina, we ate at the most impressive McDonald's restaurant I've ever seen.
Since that is the location of the Biltmore estate (which we didn't visit because it was too expensive for our budget), the McDonald's had a "Biltmore" theme, complete with a tapestry over a faux fireplace, a waterfall wall sculpture, and a player baby grand piano.

Another time, we were driving toward Washington, DC, and we saw a big spire sticking up above the trees.
"What's that?" Jeff asked, and we exited to find out. It was the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which was a great museum with LOTS of history (although it was, of course, oriented toward military history and specifically the Marines' role in that history). When we got to Washington, we visited Arlington National Cemetery - just in time to see a wreath-laying ceremony with the Prince of Belgium. Wow. What dumb luck! Finally, we got to see first-hand what Jeff called an example of political "pork." We drove for several miles on a beautiful 4-lane interstate in West Virginia that began outside a very small town and suddenly dumped us off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (miles from the next town of any size). That was a weird experience that took us pretty far off the path we had planned, led nowhere, and forced us to find an alternative route back to where we wanted to be. I guess that happens sometimes with pantsing.

As it turns out, we didn't take quite the route we had thought we might take - no swinging up into Delaware and Baltimore. But we got to do all the things we really wanted to do on the trip - play in the ocean and go on a fishing boat (Jeff and the kids did that - I discovered I'm really not a fan of deep water, boats, and long, long bridges, ha ha!), visit Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, see all the relatives in that part of the country, and camp a couple of times. There were some stressful moments, but seems like maybe there weren't as many as when we've had to push to get to a certain location by a certain time (or at least a different kind of stress). After the first night, we had no trouble finding a place to stay. Taking the vehicle off the interstates and on the backroads let us see something of the countryside and the way people live, which I think is just as valuable as any museum. The verdict? I like pantsing some of a vacation and hope we'll do it again sometime. Just as with a story idea, we can take the basic framework, get started, and see where it takes us!

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