I knew I needed to get my kids out of town. My four babies, ages 9 and under, needed some normalcy. We desperately wanted to focus on fun, wholeness, and life. The last year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic has been rough on every family. In addition to the loss of life, it has upended routines, cut access to schools and services, and caused spikes in anxiety and worry for kids across the globe. All of this rings especially true for my kids.
When we contracted the virus in November, 2020, they thankfully had very mild cases. I, however, spent a week in the hospital critically ill, and the entire spring fighting to recover. The fear of potentially losing their mom was traumatizing to the kids, so once we realized a more “typical” summer loomed on the horizon for 2021, we planned an epic road trip across our state of Pennsylvania. My husband couldn’t come, as pandemic job loss has him in a new position where he is still working to accrue vacation time. So I would be solo as we traversed from one end of the commonwealth to the other.
Dive bombed by cicadas
Our Toyota Sienna minivan was stuffed to the seams. I usually use a cartop carrier, but without another adult to help out with it, it didn’t seem practical. Instead, we jammed everything into every cubby and squeezed ourselves in among our stuff. As we pulled out of Pittsburgh in the predawn on a Monday morning, the skyline was shrouded in fog. Only the vague outline of skyscrapers was visible as we fled what felt like a ghost town.
After almost 4 hours on the Pennsylvania turnpike (and too many bathroom breaks) we arrived at our first stop: my alma mater in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Messiah University campus was fairly empty in the summer, but what I really wanted my kids to see was the infamous swinging bridge over Yellow Breeches Creek. It was a great stop to stretch our legs on the 6-hour trip to the Poconos, our final destination.
As we parked along the creek and slid open the van doors, I scrambled to pick up the detritus of fast food wrappers and headphones that tumbled to the ground. No matter how organized our trips start out, they seem to quickly devolve into chaos. We rushed to the edge of the creek. The first thing we noticed was the deafening hum all around us. The next thing we noticed was the cicadas. Tiny holes covered the ground where they had emerged after 17 years, and their shed skins clung to every tree branch we could see. We had heard about the Brood X cicadas in the central part of our state, but nothing prepared us for how impressive it was to see (and hear) them in person. My 7-year-old daughter begged to take some of their skins home to show her dad. I’ve unpacked, but I still haven’t found that particular bag.
Zip lines and bears
Sufficiently refreshed, we hit the road to our first night’s lodging at Blue Mountain Resort in Palmerton. We had decided to try out the deluxe glamping sites along the summit of the popular ski mountain. Upon arrival, a staff member loaded us and all of our gear into a UTV and took off down the bumpy mountain trail to our campsite. The view from the porch of the canvas tent stunned my kids into silence—a miracle considering how chatty they had been for the last 8 hours. We didn’t have time to absorb it, though, as we had a reservation to try the zip line. The staff told me not to leave food in the tent in case of bears, so I set our tote bags and cooler of goodies on the picnic table as we hopped back in the UTV for a harrowing ride to the ropes course.
My big kids were so excited for the zip line. They couldn’t wait to tell their friends about their adventures. The twins quickly leaped off the tower without a second thought, giggling the whole way as I watched with the toddler from below. When my oldest got up there, though, he froze. I recognized the fear in his eyes as I remembered the 2 hours I had stood at the top of a zip line in Colorado as a teen, trying to gather my nerve. Once I finally worked up the courage to jump, I did it over and over and over again. I knew he would love the thrill. I asked a staff member to stand with the toddler and ran up the tower with a harness. As my son and I prepared to jump together, he was frozen. As I leapt from the tower, I quickly shouted, “I will put $20 in your Roblox account if you do it!” and I heard him whizzing along behind me. And just like me, once he conquered his fear he jumped several more times. My toddler, however, told me I was never, ever, ever again allowed to jump off anything.
We grabbed some appetizers at Slopeside Pub and Grill before getting a ride back to our campsite. The resort offers the option of delivering your meals to the glamping site, but I knew we had bags of snacks, hot dogs, and s’mores waiting for us.
When we got back to the campsite, our food was strewn everywhere. Apparently even in broad daylight, bears like hot dog buns and graham crackers. The stuff in our Yeti Hopper was the only food left. It was then that I noticed the bear hook the resort had provided for us. Lesson learned. My kids were actually thrilled and delighted that a bear had visited us, because kids are much cooler than adults. We had a dinner of hot dogs without buns, with chocolate bars and marshmallows for dessert. The firepit on the edge of a precipice as we watched the sun set made everything taste gourmet.
Despite the fact that it was June, the evening was unseasonably cold. We were told to bring linens for the queen bunk bed inside the tent, so I had some fitted sheets and my kids each brought their comforters from their twin beds. When the sun dropped, so did the temperature—to 42 degrees Fahrenheit. We huddled in a pile on one air mattress, which somehow became deflated through the night. I had one child draped across each of my extremities. I’ve never welcomed a sunrise more. The song and dance for morning bathroom needs was hilarious given the bucket toilet in the corner of the tent, but I hope my kids will remember fondly pooping in a bag on a mountainside for the rest of their lives.
A different kind of resort
Once we packed up our gear and texted for the UTV, we were on our way to our next destination. Located in the Pocono Mountains, the Camelback Resort in Tannersville was the opposite of Blue Mountain in nearly every way. When my minivan rolled up to the portico, a valet asked for my keys. I shoved aside some Wawa wrappers to make room for her as a bellhop took our luggage. When my kids busted into our queen suite, which the hotel staff had filled with goodies for them, they squealed. My oldest flopped on the fluffy white bed and sighed, “This is quite different than last night.”
Of course, they couldn’t stay in the lovely room for long when an indoor water park, Aquatopia, beckoned to them. Our private poolside cabana was larger than the tent we had slept in the night before. The kids ordered endless baskets of fries and watched cartoons in between testing every water feature. They coaxed me on one slide—called the Venus Slydetrap—and I am still recovering from my terror. The family indoor-outdoor hot tub was where I spent most of my time with my toddler while the “big three” raced around. I conversed with so many other families—many based in New York City—who had experienced similar critical illness and loss in the last year. It felt like we were emerging out of the darkness collectively.
For three days, we enjoyed the water park, on-site restaurants, and arcade. We checked out the ropes course, too. The leaders were so patient with my nervous kids and I saw them gain so much confidence as they tackled new obstacles. They fell into bed each night and didn’t move until late morning. I enjoyed the evenings on the balcony, looking at the mountainside. The view wasn’t as stunning as Blue Mountain, but lovely nonetheless.
Our last evening at the resort, we had dinner on site at Trail’s End Pub and Grille. While we waited for our food, I enjoyed a glass of wine around a fire pit with another mother of four. Our families had all batted COVID-19, and we felt comfortable letting our crews mingle and play in the waning sunlight. They chased a fawn up the mountainside under the shadow of a ski lift and their laughter echoed back down to us. I felt tears spill over as I watched the scene in front of me. I knew as we packed up that evening to head home, we had all begun healing from the previous terrible year.
We drove home with few stops, choosing to stick to Interstate 80 across the top of the state this time. My kids were tired and largely silent. When we talked, it was about the very different experiences on the trip—from a rustic unheated tent to a luxury suite. Neither was their favorite; the value was in experiencing both. They recalled the bear with giggles and reenacted their faces as they zoomed down the largest slides. The view from Blue Mountain at sunset is seared into their memory.
Travel is diverse, flexible, and valuable in all of its forms. After finding both Nemo and Dory, plus a stop at the Golden Arches, they dozed off. When our Pittsburgh city skyline came back into view, it was a clear evening with each building sharply outlined by the waning sunshine. Juxtaposed against the foggy scene we had left 4 days earlier, I couldn’t help but think of how the two views of the skyline mirrored my heart before and after this redemptive trip.