Friday, August 3, 2012

Discovering a Presidential Retreat

Before getting married Alison and I were able to get away on adventures on a pretty regular basis. Since the wedding, being married itself has been quite the adventure and circumstances have made it challenging for us to stray very far from home for more than a quick jaunt. This has been especially true this summer. Although we do not have my class schedule to contend with, I have had to be at special commemorative events (like Richmond and Manassas) a lot more on weekends.  Knowing that would be the case, at the end of May we sat down and looked at the calendar to try and figure out when we could potentially get away for a little adventure off the beaten path. We identified a grand total of three such opportunities. The first was our backpacking trip in Shenandoah over July 4. A second will come in the middle of this month, and the third was this past weekend.

As we worked to plan what we were going to do for our adventure we once again found ourselves needing to deal with car issues. My truck had been acting a bit strange for a few weeks then suddenly got worse. It was rapidly losing power and had a lot of difficultly accelerating. It was behaving differently than anything I had encountered before. So I gave in and took it in to a local mechanic, expecting that I was going to have to pay exorbitant fees for them to discern what was wrong and solve the issue.  Instead I encountered an incredibly helpful mechanic who came out and looked under the hood and then drove the truck around for a couple of minutes. After doing so he told me that the problem was due to misfiring amongst the spark plugs, which manifested itself differently than it normally might due to the manual transmission in my truck.

He then proceeded to tell me that they could definitely fix it, but that if I wanted to take on the project of replacing all of the spark plugs and wires it should solve the issue. He went on to show me some of the unusual things that would entail with an old Ford Ranger, and explained that it would not be a simple job. This was primarily because there are eight spark plugs in my truck, most of which are quite challenging to get to. Even so he encouraged me to do it on my own. So I decided to do exactly that.

After acquiring all the appropriate parts and tools at the local automotive store we tackled the project. It took a lot of sweat and time, got both of us (especially me) quite dirty, and took several internet searches, but in the end we succeeded. I learned  a great deal more about the details of how the spark plugs and wires are accessed and designed on a ’93 Ford Ranger, got several fun new tools, and successfully solved the problem thanks to the help of our friendly neighborhood mechanic. Guess who just earned out loyalty for future car problems?!

So back to the adventure….

We decided that, rather than driving down into southern Virginia we would instead drive north to explore Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. This had the triple advantage of not being too far from home, being a new National Park site, and being the location of Camp David.

Since my truck has been problematic we decided to take the bug to go camping.  Shortly after we arrived, however, we discovered that the extreme heat of late had had a notably detrimental effect on the right rear tire and the drive up to Catoctin had pushed it over the edge so that it was starting to split. Picture a tire a few short breaths from shredding as you drive down the highway, and that is pretty much what we were dealing with.

Our tire looked similar to this picture but worse, and more flat

So a piece of our adventure consisted of figuring out how to change the tire on a VW Bug (something I had never tried to do before) and then having to stay beneath 50mph on the drive back to McLean. This was a bit challenging since a good chunk of the drive is posted at 65mph, which made it feel like we were hardly moving.  It certainly brought to light quite clearly the tendency of people in this region to drive faster than they should. Even in the areas that were posted as 50mph we were by far the slowest people on the road since we were actually locked in at the speed limit. We did make it back safely and found a new pair of tires (we decided we should replace the other rear tire as well as we had replaced the front two shortly after getting married) fairly easily as well. Yesterday we got them installed at….. you guessed it!... the same shop that had helped me with the spark plugs.

The remainder of our camping trip was fraught with significantly less peril. We discovered a lovely campsite in a fairly deserted campgrounds which even had a creek running nearby.

We enjoyed hiking around the park, finding a waterfall and a small lake, reading at the campsite, campfires and smores, playing cards games, and generally enjoying being in the mountains.

We also had a few interesting animal encounters. We saw park ranger capture a rattlesnake the size of a python which was making an attempt to storm the visitor center as well as a second rattlesnake curled up near one of the trails we hiked on. While in camp Friday night we were visited by a raccoon who was determined to get hold of our spicy doritos. We had left the open bag over in our chairs by the fire while we were sitting at the table about five feet away. Suddenly I caught sight of movement and saw a raccoon up on his hind legs with his hand in the chip bag. After that initial success he returned several more times, but was never able to secure any additional chips.

No raccoons in this picture, but you get a sense of where we were at the table and where the chips were by the fire

We also saw the site of an old saw mill

and walked an interpretive trail which demonstrated  how a collier used to make charcoal.

                    Me coming out of the collier hut in the same fashion as the one in the photograph

Perhaps our greatest discovery of the trip, though, was locating the site of Camp David. We couldn’t really see it (they make a point of keeping you from doing so), but one particular overlook faced directly toward it and had a line of trees been missing we would have looked right down onto it.

Imagine the line of trees in the middle of the picture not being there--Camp David lies just beyond them

We also clearly saw a fence with signs every 10 yards which made it very clear that you were not to cross it and even a couple of guard towers. It was fun to think that we were vacationing in the same place that presidents have been going since FDR first went there in the 1930s.

So now we have another fun place to visit in our backyard. And by backyard I mean a different state. It still amazes me sometimes how normal it is to switch states out here!

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