Tourists For A Day

Tourists For A Day

We begin our Pittsburgh tourist day just off Butler Street in Lawrenceville, driving into a lush, 300-acre green space tucked smack in the middle of urban sprawl.

We enter near this castle-like structure. As I frame the photo through majestic oaks, I think surely I must be in Europe {not post-industrial Southwestern Pennsylvania}.

alleg cem castle

We’ve brought a picnic lunch, and I see from the picnic tables and benches near the fountain, we’re not alone. In fact, a hip-looking young couple finishes up as we settle in.

fountain flowers fountain

Before exploring our tranquil setting — complete with winding roads, stately trees, art, and monuments both elaborate and simple — we decide to visit family. We can’t quite remember where Grandpap Bob and Grandma Dolores are, and nearly give up. Finally I find them.

Here, here! I say, and the kids come running. I head to the van for one of the purple coneflowers I snipped from my garden this morning. We place it reverently.

We spend some time exploring, looking for the oldest monuments, the most interesting engravings, calling out when we find an old, old date on a tombstone. I see 1865!

lady cross

grave detail

As we drive up the hill to find my husband’s uncle and other grandpa, we startle her. She peeks around the urn, her impossibly large, tawny ears cupped toward us, eyes dewy.

deer peeking

On the open hillside, we place more flowers. I look across the green to Children’s — brick and bright intermingled. It’s the opposite of my usual view, and so I snap it. It’s nice to be on this side, no monitor beeps, wires, IVs … just a hot, free summer day with nothing to do but play.

family grave

children's view

When we see the ice cream cone in bronze, we know what’s next. We’ll head to Klavon’s ice cream parlor in the Strip District. It only seems right. I think Raymond would have wanted it.

A chalkboard sign there informs us that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backward, so we plan on plenty of ice cream to relieve our worries — and our sundaes succeed deliciously, with whipped cream that even comes flavored {marshmallow, please!}.

We’ve planned to take our transportation-loving little man on the Duquesne Incline next, telling him how the painted red car is pulled slowly up the mountain on steel cables. We can’t believe we have never taken the girls (9 and 11) on this ride. Our window frames the perfect view of the Point, huge fountain spurting up to 150 feet high, three rivers converging to make what we ‘Burgers know as the Golden Triangle.

city view

On top of Mt. Washington, we walk to the wedding photo spot. It’s just us and a few other tourists here, so I torture my family into a few smiles. You’ll be glad later! I tell them.


And we are glad later.

Well, maybe not about the photo op, but about something else: We’re glad we took time to be tourists in our own city.

fam mt wash

Sure, we head to the occasional show, Pirates game, or a special date night at one of our city’s excellent restaurants, but we rarely wander around like tourists. We don’t often take time to look, really look, around us. And I’m not sure why.

Being a tourist in your own city has lots going for it:
It’s inexpensive {no flights or hotels}.
It’s easy {you already know where everything is}.
It’s fun.

What’s more:
It helps you appreciate what you have.
It helps you see old things with new eyes.
It makes your heart swell with pride for your town, because, hey, you just remembered how awesome it is.

Our Pittsburgh tourist day makes me want to stop blindly passing by the things I should notice, and keep seeking ways to live … more.

adam hillside

  • It makes me want to drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel and be awed by the city opening up like a concrete blossom, all bridge and skyscrapers, fountain, river, and sky at once.
  • It makes me want to kayak in the river and bike past the stadiums and eat salads with french fries on them.
  • It makes me want to laugh out loud with glee when I hear the swoop of rickety old wood and know our Red Racer just beat the blue at Kennywood.
  • It makes me want to take a trip around the world within a Gothic architectural masterpiece – the second tallest academic building in the world — sitting at the desks where an 18th-century Swedish student might have figured sums, reading dead-sea scroll replicas, and visiting a haunted attic in the Early American Room.
  • It makes me want to ice skate next to a plate-glass castle, ogle the model trains and gingerbread-house works of art inside, and walk over, all bundled, to the glowing lights of the Benedum, and the brash splash of New Year’s fireworks ‘cross the downtown sky.
  • It makes me want to pound 13.1 hard, hilly miles through six city neighborhoods just to see the little funky bands, the choir on the North Side, the spectators with witty signs and random llamas {don’t ask!}, and the cheering crowds that make me feel like a rockstar because today, I am.

It makes me want to be live like a tourist every day.

On Triathlons & Life Lessons, Part Two

On Triathlons & Life Lessons, Part Two

Check out yesterday’s post for the beginning of the story.

I blow through the bike-to-run transition, only pausing to trade my helmet for a running hat and racking my bike. I don’t even take off my bike gloves; I just go.

Though I am tired and most likely dehydrated from barely taking time to drink, I know I will power through; if there is one part of this tri-sport race I have experience in, it’s running.

I begin passing people, but I feel slow. I’m hot; my breathing is labored; I imagine my face is frozen into a grimace {determination mixed with exhaustion}. I pass my neighbor Dan, as he’s headed back toward the finish line. Longest three miles of my life, he pants. I can’t say that I disagree.

I cross the finish line in an hour and 45 minutes {plus some spare change}, grinning big at my family — all three kids and my hubby — waiting for me as I dig deep and stride out long for the finish.


When I think of what I learned from this race, I come up with a few trite-but-true sound bites. It makes me think of one of my family’s favorite funny quotes from The Lego Movie. It’s the part where wise Vitruvius gives struggling hero Emmet advice, while apologizing: “It sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

The Adventure Race taught me several Cat-Poster Truths:

  • The race isn’t won or lost at the first encounter. I had written myself off after my dismal start, but learned that even if you start poorly, you can make up ground later. In life, this means I can fall down, fail, and generally screw up, but still rock the race if I keep going and finish strong.
    • It’s about the journey, not the destination. Preparing for this race was an adventure in itself:
      Gathering equipment. I am grateful to both my neighbor for letting me borrow her road bike and my church friend for lending me her kayak. I learned how to get more comfortable toting around and training on both a kayak and bike, which is pretty far outside my comfort zone; I typically just lace up shoes and run.
      Gleaning advice. My neighbors Dan and Candy, triathlon/adventure race veterans, listened to my never-ending questions, offered advice, drug me around some killer hills on a bike {Candy}, and escorted me downtown in the dark at 5:00 a.m. Saturday and hung out with me {Dan}.
      Logging training hours. Getting outside, pushing myself to learn new things, spending time in solitude and sweat — yes, my training time was perhaps the best gift the race gave me. I usually spend the summer is a structure-less blur, promising that I’m going to work out tomorrow.
  • Equipment matters. Ever realized you just aren’t equipped for a challenge? Maybe you’re lacking something mentally, physically, or spiritually, and you find yourself totally tapped out. Or, maybe you literally have the wrong piece of equipment, like a fat, whitewater kayak, while everyone else flies by you in aerodynamic, long, skinny ones? Or, maybe you {ahem} might have had your paddle backwards …

After the race, I’m supposed to meet my neighbor Dan at the results tent and compare notes. I say a brief goodbye to the kids and grab my water bottle. I join the group huddling around the bright yellow tent looking up at the monitor. I quickly see I’m 51st overall {of the 119 total adventure racers}. Not too shabby.

I walk away and then come right back. Maybe I could see how many women racers in my division came in ahead of me? I find Elizabeth May again. There’s a box to the right.

It says: Age group: 1.

race podium

On Triathlons & Life Lessons, Part One

On Triathlons & Life Lessons, Part One

At 7:10 a.m. Saturday, I find myself in a place I never thought I’d be: Bobbing on the Allegheny River anxiously awaiting a race equivalent to a sprint triathlon.

The slight current makes for a nervous game of bumper-kayak, and we keep apologizing to each other, awkwardly tangling paddles as we attempt to break apart. At 7:20, off we go.

It takes all of one minute to realize that, despite my best efforts, everyone is pulling ahead and I am falling back. I stroke so vigorously, my legs start to shake, my tongue is dry, and my arms ache.

This is not good, I think.

While I’ve been training for this, kayaking back and forth in a local lake for two miles, I swear this is the longest mile of my life, and I haven’t even hit the halfway turnaround.

Even more women pass me on the way back down-current and I concede: I guess I am just not going to be that good at this.

As I jog up the path to the transition area, slipping in my wet sandals, I tell myself: Breathe, enjoy this.


I have been training the past eight weeks for the Pittsburgh Adventure Race. I have logged many sweet-scented, green miles biking and running and kayaking on our local trails and in the nearby lake.

I have learned the beauty of sunset over evergreen hills while an egret sails above and I pull my paddle through glass-like water, cool drops hitting my legs.
I have risen early to ride a dozen or more hard, fast miles, learning the gears and feel of a new bike.
I have learned the joy of running through the woods, sidestepping roots and rocks, dodging puddles, ducking underneath low-slung branches.

I have felt strong, competent, agile.

This morning, I dry my feet, put on socks, running shoes, bike gloves, helmet, and sunglasses; take a too-brief sip of sports drink; grab my bike.

downtown race

I have tossed and turned over this, the 12.5-mile leg of the race, in the high-occupancy vehicle lane of a busy urban highway, with cars going 70 miles an hour on either side of the lane barriers.

I have fretted over the 6-mile steady uphill climb, knowing I have not done enough hill training. And, my natural cautiousness has caused me equal worry over flying back downhill at speeds that could easily rise up to 30 mph {or even more for fearless racers}.

But, as soon I mount and begin pedaling, I begin passing racers. I find –shockingly — I am good at this part. If there’s a racer ahead, I am either thinking of passing him or passing him.

 Join me tomorrow for the rest of the story?



Letting Children Play with Fire… and Knives Too

Letting Children Play with Fire… and Knives Too

In an amazingly wild patch of more than 2,000 wooded acres smack in the middle of a city suburb, the girls gather. Clad in bermuda-length shorts, baggy tees, knee socks, and bandanas, they’ve been sunscreened and bug-sprayed at home and are ready for six hours in the woods. Each girl lugs along her own Sit-A-Can, a five-gallon plastic bucket with a lid that contains a mess kit, water bottle, rain poncho, and an extra pair of shoes and socks.

My girls, 9 and 11, joined about 60 others earlier this month for Girl Scout day camp.

To be honest, this camp wasn’t even on our radar, but a friend of a friend told us, and the theme clinched it– “Muggle Mania.” (For the uninitiated, “muggle” is Harry Potter-speak for non-magical folk.) HP is just about my girls’ favorite thing in the world right now, having both finished the entire 7-book series recently.

So, we sign up, and I try not to worry too much over the heat and exertion for my 9-year-old, whose autoimmune disease worsens in the sun. I write lots of cautionary and explanatory notes on the registration form, and I drop them off, bright and early Monday morning, hoping for the best.

My girls come home with rave reviews, but it’s not until I volunteer for a full day on Wednesday that I really get it: They let children work with fire, and knives too.

They make “camps” in the woods that act as each of the four groups’ home bases (making the very reasonable assumption that poison ivy and ticks, while unpleasant, are a part of life and we need to deal).

They allow the girls to plan their own lunch menus and give them a full two hours to start the fire, prep the food, eat, and clean up. (And, yes, for the older groups, this involves using real knives to chop veggies.)

They do low-tech things like a basic scavenger hunt that allows the girls plenty of free time to really explore the wooded beauty of the large grove.

Sure, it’s done with plenty of adult supervision, lots of teen aides, and the ever-present team of leaders and moms nearby. But, they don’t hover. They don’t micro-manage. They don’t let their fear of what could happen make them so hyper-vigilant that they drain out every bit of fun.

I find that what this camp does so well is provide three simple things in abundance:

  • Green space
  • Free time
  • Independence

I smile at the old-fashioned simplicity of it all. This is what our children need. This is what they crave.

But, this is also what we schedule out of their lives. This is what we eliminate out of fear. This is what we do for them {instead of letting them learn it themselves, doing it slowly or poorly until we allow them the time to practice and get better}.

Fun things, real things, things that stretch us, things that teach us — they involve a willingness to let go of our clinging fear of the worst-case scenario.

I’m working on re-learning this truth in my life and hoping to teach my kids it too.

Where are you finding old-fashioned simplicity this summer? In what ways do you incorporate green space, free time, and independence into your kids’ lives?