The Tale of My African Safari…in Ohio…with Llamas? (With VIDEO!)

My wife and I had not taken a vacation together on our own terms without other people involved in TEN YEARS. Our last vacation together was on our honeymoon. This is not so much a complaint as it is a realization. She and I just celebrated our tenth year of marriage, and we had not taken a vacation alone since the inception of our marriage. It was time to take a vacation together…alone.

The only problem with that plan was…we have kids now. And they’re only three and one, so they tend to get into trouble if you leave them home alone. So…we took our first vacation alone in ten years…as a family.

It’s a different experience taking tiny children on “vacation” with you. It’s not quite what vacation used to be. As parents of young children, “vacation” is defined as “still parenting as per usual, but doing so completely out of your element, with your supplies and routine scattered in all directions.”

In other words, it’s not really relaxing…not the way a vacation should be, at least.

But I’d not trade it for the world. I’m made to be a dad. My wife is a born mother. We are many other things as well, but, quite frankly, we kick ass as parents.

And if you are scoffing at me for saying such a thing, stop and think about what it means to not declare yourself a “kickass parent.” That means you lack confidence in raising a human being. If you do not feel you kickass as a parent (aside from all of the typical exhaustion, doubt, and fear that comes with every parenting package deal), then you need to adjust your perspective. If you are a parent, and your kid is not an asshole, then you are a kickass parent. Say so, and say it proud.

But if you are raising an asshole, then you are explicitly not a kickass parent. In fact, my wife is teaching my three year-old daughter to straight up linebacker tackle your little asshole child because she is a kickass parent. Just a heads up…

Anyhow, now that I’ve stirred the sensitive parent pot, on to VACATION!!!

We live in Cleveland, Ohio. We decided to drive four hours to Michigan and rent a house on Lake Huron. It was a beautiful place, and not that expensive. It was also our first time using AirBnB, and I’m quite happy with it. It wasn’t an expensive place, and that probably had something to do with the glass shower door nearly crashing down on me as soon as I opened it, all of the exposed electrical work, the long strings of flypaper dangling from the basement ceiling (with fly carcasses attached), and/or the strange assortment of food in various stages of decay in the refrigerator. But, despite its drawbacks, the place was, in fact, perfect for our little family. It was right on the lake, with a sunrise view. It was a private area and quite quiet, which is perfect for little ones trying to sleep in an unfamiliar place. And, most importantly, because I’ve since read horror stories about how present those who rent out through AirBnB can be, the owner of the property just gave us unlimited use of the house without being present…at all. We were alone, on the lake, as a family.

It was great.

Among the highlights:

  • We went on a sightseeing boat ride, and my daughter harvested a booger and promptly flicked it off the side into the water, which seems like something that requires coordination beyond three years of age. That’s not the best part. As soon as she flicked it off the side and watched it disappear into one of the world’s “great lakes,” she improvised a nice little song that she repeated over and over with the lyrics: “where is my booger at last?” After a few rounds, she decided that “the mermaids ate my booger.”
  • Watching my 1 year-old son adjust to the fact that his crib was replaced by a stiff-bottomed pack n play, and there was no air conditioning for his red-headed easily-sweating little baby self by passing out every night only in a diaper.
  • Collecting various assortments of pebbles and stones from the beach and admiring their shape and color…after retrieving them from my son’s mouth.
  • Reassuring my 3 year-old daughter that the woman who actually owned the house would not actually be returning randomly.
  • Seeing the sights and visiting little hole-in-the-wall seaside restaurants while trying to keep drunk people from touching my kids after commenting on how beautiful they are. (Seriously. This happens at home, too. And not only with drunk people. For whatever reason, random strangers, typically elderly people, will think it’s okay to try and rub their hands on my children in return for paying them a compliment. No. Not okay. I will pull them away from you, and you can look offended. That’s fine. Go enjoy the rest of your day.)
  • Finding out that all my children need to have fun in a strange place is a dog crate. They spent probably a total of three hours playing in and out of the dog crate while we were there. Yes, it was clean. I think…
  • Admiring how all of the countless hours of Tetris my wife and I have played has paid off in our ability to pack the trunk of a car.
  • Watching our children take sips of our iced coffees occasionally, as drinks with straws in them are usually theirs. (They were okay.)
  • Learning about my own body, as my wife insisted on swimming in the lake everyday, although the lake was approximately -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Many biological lessons to be learned. I’m glad that some body parts only freeze off on a figurative level in a cold lake.

I could go on and on, but I will spare the stories for other times. The main thing is that we had fun as a family. It was really great. We had an excellent time, and our kids are exceptional when it comes to adjusting to hours in a car and a completely different environment. We took hundreds of pictures, and we will certainly go on more vacations…perhaps once every five years.

The vacation went so well, in fact, that we decided to take a detour on the way home. Instead of taking the boring turnpike, we decided to drive along the lakefront highway, which is much more scenic, passing farms and waterways for miles on end. As lakefront towns are occasionally touristy, we naturally had to pass by some strange attractions. One of them we had heard was rather cool, and despite our normal aversion toward all things drive-through (except for a Starbucks), we made the decision to go on an African safari…in Port Clinton, Ohio.

Yeah, we were perhaps a little punch-drunk from vacation.

The first surprise about the place was how many people came to see it. There was a line of cars ready to pay, and within a flash we were trapped in line, unable to back out at all. A girl was walking up from car to car “taking orders.” She was taking an inventory of who was in the car to calculate the price, and it turned out that my two children were free. It was the adults who didn’t really want to go that were so expensive. Another thing the girl offered was different price levels of “food combos” you could bring in the car (AKA: how much do you want your car to smell like oats? One, two, or three cups worth?) I opted for two cups of oats and a pound of carrots, because, vacation!

Holding oats
“I’ll take two cups of stinky tourism in dad cargo shorts, please!”

After we paid for our tickets, we drove across the parking lot to get in line for our food. This was the next indication that going on a drive-through safari in Ohio is a mistake. We waited in our car, idling, for probably twenty minutes to just get the $1 worth of food we paid $8 for. When we had our two overloaded cups of oats and bag of carrots, though, it was worth the wait because then we got to…

…wait in our idling car for another twenty minutes or so. We had technically made it into the “safari grounds” beyond the gate, but all that we could see was two lines of about fifty to sixty cars. We made very little progress over that twenty minutes, all the while “rangers” (AKA: teenagers in golf carts) drove back and forth between us with the promise that they were doing something that had to do with animals we could not see.

While we waited, my toddler daughter and I decided to start offering carrots to the rangers and people in other cars, wagging the carrots at them and saying “c’mere! I got a carrot for ya!” As we were almost always around the same cars and rangers, the same people were offered the same carrots multiple times, but no one would take one. Disappointing. A few of the kids chuckled, and my daughter really got into it. She was particularly fond of offering one ranger a carrot every time she got close. The ranger kept smiling and apologizing to my daughter while my daughter just stuck to her guns and kept offering.

Ranger: “I’m sorry honey, there are some llamas up ahead who will like them.”

Penny: “Hey lady! Come here! Wanna carrot?”

Ranger: “No thanks. I just ate.”

Penny: “Ok! Wanna come here and eat this carrot, lady?”

Over and over.

The wait in the car, despite the entertainment, left a weird feeling in my stomach. My wife and I worried that we were about to encounter the most depressing animal exhibit in existence, and all at a 1mph pace. We thought that the entire experience would take maybe 20-30 minutes, and that time had already expired with the only loose animal seen refusing to take a carrot from an adorable 3 year-old.

Then, at last, it happened. Out of nowhere, llamas (or maybe alpacas? They had both and I’ll admit ignorance toward the difference between the two) wandered in between the cars, ducking their heads in, knowing damn well we had carrots. My daughter started shoving them at the llamas, unafraid. I had to stop her before we were completely out of carrots on the first two animals we encountered.

Sniffing carrot
“Of course you’ll give me a carrot. I’m an alpaca, by the way.”
pissed alpaca
“You’d better give me that carrot, you little shit.”
invasive llama
“I’m just going to go ahead and judge you until you turn that oat cup my way, okay?”

After the looooong crawl through the idling car line, the flood gates opened, partly because we finally passed through a set of gates retaining most of the animals inside the park, and partly because of a “ranger” riding around in a golf cart chasing the llamas/alpacas/whatever out from in front of the cars at the top of the line. This is when we finally got our first view of the park, and thankfully, it was more animals than idling cars.

The entire place opened up into a fenced-in field, and tons of llamapacas (a species I made up because I’m not willing to Google the difference between alpacas and llamas right now), short deer of various sorts, and a few bison wandered freely among the cars, being hand-fed by the occupants of each. Some of the animals were much more eager to stick their heads into the cars, licking until the owner surrendered their oats/carrots, while others just stayed away, relaxed.

IMG_1134
While some simply conspired, eyeing all of us with disdain from afar.

I’ll admit, it got to be fun. The animals did not appear to be as sad as we were worried they’d be when we first started the 40-minute process of burning gas and going nowhere. While I’m unsure of how “African” this particular assortment of animals was, they were certainly friendly. At one point, a few deer approached in a line and pushed their noses up to my car window, and as I was out of food, I blessed them each with a light “BOOP” on the nose. They seemed to like it, although they immediately ran off toward the hill of llamapacas pictured above, no doubt plotting how to kill us.

It was the bison (buffalo? Once again, this park was filled with animals I couldn’t accurately distinguish from other similar breeds) who were the most impressive. One of them was as large as an SUV, and thankfully not angry.

IMG_1154
If you look closely, you can see the driver peeing a little.

My favorite bison new the game and played it well, full-on assaulting me in my car.

At last, we were overly overtired, and it was time to go. Naturally, the giraffes, the stars of the show, were the last stop. I was wise enough to save some carrots for them. And I offered it in the same tone of voice my daughter used to offer carrots to the “ranger” at the beginning.

And after that, it was time to take the final leg of our trek home. Vacation was over, and it was time to clean up, make the kids go to bed, and pass out for as long as humanly possible.

While going on vacation with children is still work, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Because this was our first vacation as a family, despite swimming in lake water cold enough to make my genitals nonexistent, booger tossing, drunks touching my children, my son taking a header on the deck that left a scab on his forehead that remains there still, a week later, shower door attacks, and a punch-drunk detour to Africa, I would still call this the best vacation I’ve been on in a long time.

Life, for me, is so much better as a dad. I’m looking forward to the next family vacation/misadventure. I’m just going to be damned sure the next one happens in less than ten years.

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