Travels with Harvey: In search of the perfect (or at least passable) family vacation

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The sympathy I felt for this much-loved piglet was nothing compared to the relief I felt when the boys admitted to having a good time despite our many setbacks.

The sympathy I felt for this much-loved piglet was nothing compared to the relief I felt when the boys admitted to having a good time despite our many setbacks.

By STEPHANIE IAQUINTO

As anyone who’s planned a family vacation knows, there’s a fair amount of pressure in being responsible for everyone’s fun.  So when I nabbed a campsite at Chippokes Plantation State Park for its Pork, Peanut, and Pine festival last July, I was awfully pleased with myself. There were many reasons to think it would be the perfect trip in Harvey the RV.  One, it’s in Surry County, far enough to feel like an escape; close enough so we wouldn’t spend half our weekend on the road. Two, Virginia’s state parks are both beautiful and cheap, some of the best vacation bargains around.

Most importantly, there’d be no complaints of boredom.  The festival promised music and barbecue, and the park features trails, an Olympic-sized pool, and a beach where visitors could search for fossils.  Fossils!  What more could the kids want?

I was a vacation genius.  So confident was I in my plans that I invited my parents to meet us on Saturday and spend the night. Seven people in a 30-foot RV?  Not a problem. We’d spend most of our evening around the campfire anyway.

Just like a Greek tragedy, though, my hubris was destined to become humility.

Though I’m no newcomer to Hampton Roads, I made a beginner’s mistake right off the bat.  We left on Friday afternoon.  In the summer.  In a rainstorm. Our route appeared on the GPS as an ominous red line.

“That’s okay,” I said.  “Grab a snack and a game and let’s make the most of it.”

One of the oldest working farms in America, Chippokes Plantation has a rich history and a natural beauty that make it a popular attraction, especially during its annual festival celebrating Surry County's natural

One of the oldest working farms in America, Chippokes Plantation has a rich history and a natural beauty that make it a popular attraction, especially during its annual festival celebrating Surry County’s natural

The kids and I had played cards for 45 minutes when I noticed that we were inching south along the interstate and not, as expected, heading west.

We’d missed the exit. No big deal.  But an unidentifiable knocking sound necessitated a roadside engine check, setting us back another 20 minutes. Starting to be a deal.  Finally, we arrived.  Our Google directions said so.  But instead of the state park, we were surrounded by a trailer park, our destination visible across the river.  Since Harvey wasn’t going to float across, we had to backtrack and find another route.  By the time we parked, we were two hours late on what should have been an hour-and-a-half trip.  Almost immediately, the skies opened up and forced us inside to make cold sandwiches instead of grilling burgers and making s’mores.

If parenting three boys has taught me anything, though, it’s resilience. The next morning, I awoke eager to redeem the weekend. I coaxed our early-riser, Alex, into a bike ride.

“It’ll be an adventure,” I promised.

An hour later, as we were cleaning bits of gravel from his wounds, contemplating the necessity of stitches, and texting our pediatrician about a mysterious rash on his neck, I reminded myself that it was only 10 am on Saturday.  There was still time to turn this thing around.

My parents brought bandages and ointment, and with Alex patched up, we headed to the festival grounds. Beyond the antique cars, tractors, and Bluegrass bands, there was food.  The best kind of food — fair food — which I never feel guilty about eating, because healthier alternatives aren’t available.  You either eat the kettle corn or starve.  Unfortunately, it looked like we might starve, because no one had thought to bring cash.

With three discouraged and hungry boys – one probably needing medical attention – I wandered in search of a vacation miracle.  Something that would erase the disappointments of the last 24 hours.

A tent full of baby animals, including a pink, three-week-old pig, fit the bill nicely. Relieved, I plopped onto a hay bale and watched the boys cuddle that pig for more than an hour.  Heck, they could’ve cuddled that pig all day if they’d wanted. I shot daggers at the worried-looking supervisor who winced as it squirmed and squealed in their eager hands.

When their dad returned with his wallet, their hunger pulled them away from the pig and toward the barbecue tents (and no, I did not point out the connection).  As we crossed the field, though, the clouds unloaded again.  Rain blew sideways.  Lightening cracked.  As we huddled on a crowded porch and watched vendors tear down their tents, I no longer felt like a vacation genius.  Nothing else could be salvaged from this weekend.  There’d be no more festival, no pool, no campfire.  When the deluge turned to drips, we trudged back to the car.

Now here’s what happens to a dirt field under the weight of several hundred vehicles after two days of torrential rain.  It gets soft.  Not soft, like mud gets on your shoes.  Soft, like the mud sucks your shoe off with a shlurp and buries it in an abyss.

So soft that the more my husband revved the tires, the more hopelessly stuck we became.

Packed in the tiny backseat with all three boys, I braced myself for a meltdown.  But as the men tried in vain to push the car out, and mud splattered against the windows, they howled with delight. Then, a park ranger on a tractor came to our rescue.  With two strapping friends, he chained up the car, hauled us out, and sent us on our way.  The boys cheered as we found solid ground.  Each time they retold the story, our predicament became more dire, our rescue all the more heroic.

That night, with everyone scrubbed and in their pjs, we sat in Harvey’s cab and watched lightning illuminate the sky.  It hadn’t been the most successful trip, not even close.  But thanks to a pig, a park ranger, and the perspective of three mud-loving boys, it hadn’t been the worst, either.  I just made our first reservation of this season for – you guessed it – Chippokes Plantation.  And, if history is any indication, there’s every reason to think that this will be the perfect weekend.

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