Summer solstice. End of the school year. A time of transition. Today is the longest day of the year and marks the start of a change from the daily pattern that we follow during the school year to the less structured schedule of summer. It also marks an important change for my gaming habits and probably for many of you as well. My three sons all leave for sleepaway camp for a month.
The next month is full of outdoor activity, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and trying new things. They swim in the pool and the lake, work in the wood shop (their favorite) and play various sports. The do not play any video games at all. A complete break. Not even games in their iPods.
Their departure means significant changes for our household as well. It’s quiet. Things stay clean and organized. It’s weird. Most parents look forward to having a break from their kids. You are not responsible for anyone but yourself. You can do what you like with your time. Yes, it’s great – for a very short time. You may think it strange, but I miss them almost immediately. I don’t miss the arguing and fighting or the significant mess they leave everywhere, that is for sure, but a large part of my enjoyment of gaming comes with sharing it with my kids. Seeing the experiences through their eyes adds dimension and increases the fun. Sure, there are games that are meant for adults and I play those by myself or with adults, but the majority of games are intended for wide audiences and the overall experience is enhanced by the variety of reactions from the players of different ages.
The photo at the top of this post was taken a year or two ago from the hammock in my back yard. It is of a great sycamore tree that my boys referred to as the “Y Tree” due to its overall shape. This tree was very large. It had a trunk about five feet wide and rose to about seventy feet. It was the largest tree on my property and dwarfed all others around it. It is gone now. The strong winds of Superstorm Sandy caused a crack where the trunk divided and the tree experts said it was not wise to try to save it. As they took it down, the foreman showed me the crack and revealed that water had been seeping into the division for a long time and had rotted out the center of the tree. The storm had just sped up the process and really did us a favor by revealing the weakness.
Needless to say, the removal of the tree has completely changed the back yard. Where once there was mostly shade, now there is bright sun. The trees that surround the hole left by the missing branches will eventually start to extend and fill in the gap, but for now the most prominent element is what is missing.
For the next month while my kids are extending their branches I will be playing with my adult friends. Lately a few of us have formed a regular team and been playing coop games including Fuse and Borderlands 1 and 2. It is infinitely a more enjoyable experience to play in party of regulars than to jump into a public match. My sister and her daughter are part of this team. They have their own transition occurring now as her daughter graduates high school this weekend and looks forward to college life. And I thought a month without my boys was a change.
The trip to Bryce was long and when we finally got there and settled in we learned that much of the park that we came to see was closed due to damage from high winds the day before. Trees were down and crews were working. Luckily, the main attraction, Bryce Canyon itself, was accessible and as spectacular as expected. We were hoping to hike down some of the trails but arrived too late to start the first day and decided to wait until the next. We were told that the thing you simply must do is be at one of the highest lookouts at sunrise so that you can see the lighting effects on the hoodoos, the distinctive rock formations found there. So despite not being early risers, except for my wife, we stumbled out of bed and arrived on time at the lookout before sunrise. One other photographer was already set up and awaiting the sun. Did I mention that it was 16 degrees? And windy? The boys tried to hold out as best as they could but eventually gave up just as the sun rose over the horizon. I had brought my GoPro camera and had decided that a time-lapse sequence was a must to capture the experience. I have been cold before, but standing there on the cliff edge, essentially not moving, was overrated at best. By the time I got back to the car, my hands were in pain despite my ski gloves. Soon the sun had warmed the area bit and we had a chance to walk around quickly before heading back for breakfast.
The cold weather had turned us off of any trail hikes in the canyon and we decided to get an early start on our trip to Moab. The trip was to be another several hundred miles through some amazing terrain unlike anything that we are used to in the east – sometimes snow covered and sometimes resembling where you might expect to find Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, the environment is stunning. At times, the road follows a flat landscape edged on both sides by enormous mountain ridges. Along the way we notice a small sign indicating a rest area with a view, so we stopped. This was Devil’s Canyon and in my opinion its signage does not do it justice. It is well worth a more than a quick look.
As we neared Moab, the landscape changed once again. The rock formations were now distinctly reddish, steep and impressive. Our lodging for the next few days was the amazing Red Cliff Lodge, which is found on a narrow, winding road that straddles the Colorado River and is flanked on both sides by scenic buttes. My 9 year old son drew a representation of our arrival route later that day. The lodge itself is beautiful and somehow both modern and rustic at the same time and features a horse corral, Western film museum and the Castle Creek Winery. Once the boys saw the horses in the center of the lodges landscape and the bungalows radiating around it, they wanted me to take detailed photos so that they could reconstruct it in Minecraft. I told them that this would be very difficult as Minecraft is not so good with curves and circles. We’ll see what they come up with.
The boys were as impressed as my wife and I with the landscape and repeatedly equated it to exotic landscapes in games that we have played. The connection to Red Dead Redemption with its Tex/Mex environs, for example, is not surprising. Borderlands and Forza Horizon also were mentioned. That day and the next were spent exploring Arches National Park and the town of Moab. Arches is a stunning and enormous place full of impressive geological formations of various types. I can only offer a few of the hundred or so photos that we took there to attempt to illustrate its grandeur.
The town of Moab reminded me of New Hope, Pennsylvania with sand. Artsy and new age, but replace the Harley Davidsons with ATVs and inject more outdoor sports. The boys, always on the lookout for souvenirs scoured the local stores and found some tiny rubber animals that they had to have. These became fixtures in some photos that we took in much the same way that a cardboard circle with a face drawn on it was in last year’s trip to San Francisco. This circle was known as “Epic Face” and was a central figure in many photos from that trip.
The next morning at breakfast we overheard one of the waitresses speaking to another customer and recommending a drive not far from the lodge that promised impressive views of the terrain outside of the park. We headed out in the Yukon to find the road. I am not sure that the one that we ultimately took was the one that was recommended to the older couple sitting at the next table, at least I hope that it wasn’t. I doubt that they would have made it back alive. The path that we took was called La Sal Mountain Loop Road and on its own, this is a steep and winding road with no guardrails, despite drop-offs that would mean certain death. (In fact, I found this to be the norm in Utah. In New Jersey, we put up Jersey barriers at the edge of a three foot drop, but in Utah they must laugh at our overly safety conscious ways.) La Sal Mountain Loop Road is a challenge in the enormous Yukon any day, but the morning that we went the clouds descended on the mountain and just when the road got the narrowest, visibility dropped to about twenty feet. Did mention no guardrails? Usually I am a very confident driver, but I must admit that I slowed to a crawl and took it very easy. Adding to the whole experience was the music that my wife had selected from my iPod, from Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Ambient 4: On Land. It added the perfect otherworldly audio expression to the visuals that we were experiencing.
Eventually, we found our way back down the mountain and into the center of town. We had a delicious lunch at the Ekleticafe, which we heartily recommend and then headed back to Arches to hike some of the areas that we had missed the first day.
It is hard to do justice to the distinct natural beauty of Arches National Park with words. The scale of stone formations is enormous and the seeming playfulness of some of the configurations is fantastic. It is no less impressive when you understand the science behind how these forms came to be. There are so many different examples, each more impressive than the next. I found it hard to limit the number of photos from the park. The whole trip just reinforced my impression how beautiful and varied the landscape of the United States is and how important it is to put the controller or mouse down every once in a while and get out and experience it in person. There simply is no substitute.