Daycation: Daytrips in northeastern US

There’s “YAYcation” where you say to heck with the economy and go on the trip anyway. On the opposite end, there’s a “staycation” where you pretend your yard is somewhere interesting. Then there’s Scott’s devious suggestion, “liecation.

Here’s an option that can be inexpensive but gives the sense of travel. Go on a daycation. In other words–a day trip. This is where you find out what’s within an hour or two from your house and you head there with a sense of exploration and fun leading the way. Look on a map to get ideas.

If you’re living in the northeastern part of the U.S., this article on daycations lists several stellar options for places to go on a day trip. Click on each of the options, and you’ll find a longer article about that specific suggestion.

Here are options I’ve done and also recommend:

On Father’s Day we took a daycation to Zanesville, Ohio to eat ice-cream and ride on a historic sternwheeler. This was actually a half-daycation because it only took half the day.

Connecticut Journal: Inside Yale’s secret societies

New Haven, Connecticut has a bad rep. To most, it’s at best a town you travel through on your way between Boston and New York. But as I’ve written recently in my travel series on New Haven, the town has experienced a tremendous renaissance in the last decade. And there’s one phenomenon here that you won’t find anywhere else. Read on:

There’s a dirty little secret tucked into a corner of my basement, one that I share with the few dozen students who live in the Elizabethan manor of Rosenfeld Hall. It’s the residential annex of Timothy Dwight, one of twelve residential colleges here at Yale. Though most of them go about their day, reading in the mahogany piano room to the right of the foyer or perhaps chuckling in “CSTD 340: Writing Comedy for Film and TV,” which meets Thursdays in a small auditorium to the left, clueless that a secret society rests right beneath their feet.

There’s Ryan, who politely listened as I gestured wildly (and at one point baited her with a mention of dead bodies and a sacrificial goat here and there), but after a minute promptly went back to her art history textbook. There’s Caio, a roommate who was more interested in the etymology of Saint Elmo, the society behind the crypt, than fancying the possibility that pagan rituals and plots to rig the 2008 presidential election may be unfolding as we spoke. And then there’s Karen, the Timothy Dwight master’s assistant, who was a bit confused by the whole thing. “Really, we have a basement in RH? No kidding?”

A generic placard, the kind found on most doorways at Yale, guards the entrance: “Stair to Sub-Basement,” newspeak undoubtedly for the lair of fantastic riches stowed away by wealthy alums of Saint Elmo, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. I’m thankful he’s not around at the moment, as I’m on all fours jimmying a hook fashioned from a wire clothes hanger through the bottom crack of the door, in an awkward dance to pull the handle down on the other side. To the left is a card scanner, which seems out of place for the tomb of the undead. Then, a click as the hook catches, and I’m in.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the place flooded in the monochromatic light of body-length florescent lamps, then annoyed these tomb-dwellers were not doing their share in meeting the building’s 20% energy reduction quota. Metal steps circled down and around to a hallway somewhat narrower than a sidewalk (same concrete floors) but a much higher ceiling than what you would expect to get for a “sub-basement.” The extra breathing room was being put to good use, with a stack of headboards jumbled on top of each other, climbing to the ceiling in a deadly game of Jenga.

In another precarious pile, boxes of adjustable window shutters. Beyond were the round coffee tables, chipped with the wood starting to warp. The air ducts, water pipes, and sewage conduits had to fight for space next to the tall armoires and spare pieces of moldy wall paneling. Surely the society was just wrapping up its fall cleaning, as I approached the open door at the end of the hall beckoning me forth.

Inside was the sacred heart of Yale’s underground culture I couldn’t wait to peek (or break) into. A large vaulted dome loomed victoriously over the crypt, with a smaller dome on each side, and occasionally interrupted by the ever-present fluorescent lamps. The walls were constructed from giant slabs of solemn stone and the floor from smooth marble. One end of the crypt was raised, with a threatening stone sarcophagus in the middle of the platform – the sacrificial goats must be right around the corner. Statues of skulls on angel wings completed the gothic décor. Yes, this is exactly how I would deck out my own society crib.

Then I began to notice the minor details. Like the puke green mattresses with unspeakable stains leaning against the back wall. More scattered boxes of castaway junk – broken sandblasters, twisted coils of wiring, cracked dining hall plates, administrative manuals. Even boxes of folded up boxes. A section of the wall was also peeling off; a rather deft trick for what I swore was Medieval granite, until I saw the exposed red bricks beneath a thick layer of stucco insulation painted gray. Several of the skull figureheads had broken wings or a chipped chin, looking like the sore losers of a fight outside Toad’s.

Frankly, the place now place smelled and looked like the stale offspring of Pottery Barn and Home Depot, not exactly the gold-encrusted chamber of privilege I had in mind. That hasn’t stopped students from using the place. Someone had stashed away a microwave in a corner. Another left a box of chemistry and physics textbooks. There were recently lit lavender candles, the kind that comes in packets of 50 at Walmart, on the sarcophagus and a now shriveled tulip. Not exactly my destination for a study break.

It turns out, from time to time, the crypt has been used as an “auxiliary storage space” for items like spare furniture pieces (or defiled mattresses). University records indicate the building was built in 1912, and known as Saint Elmo’s Hall. In its heyday, the society boasted members like J.P. Morgan and James Roosevelt, but fortune turned, and they were forced to sell the property to Yale in 1962. While other societies have climbed in the unspoken rankings – Scroll & Key has $7 million in assets, more than Skulls & Bones – Saint Elmo has fallen off the map, with less name recognition than DSG (Drunk Senior Girls) or Fork & Knife. With no tomb, the best the society could do was a virtual home. Their website,, has 82 registered members, albeit zero postings on the forum.

More info

It’s the real life version of the Priory of Sion, the secret organization in Dan Brown’s bestseller Da Vinci Code. Skulls & Bones, Yale’s oldest and most prestigious secret society-reserved only for a select fifteen lucky members of the senior class-boasts such alums like both Bush presidents, William Buckley Jr., and John Kerry.

They are also the only society with their own private island (on the St. Lawrence River between New York and Ontario). Many believe that the society is a “feeder organization” for America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In fact, the term “spook,” nomenclature for a spy, originated on Yale’s campus as a nickname for the secret society taps.


Each of Yale’s dozen or so societies has a tomb where the twice-weekly gatherings-and decadent parties-take place. These tombs are easy to miss, even though they are quite a sight. Most are several stories high, supported by Greek columns, and have absolutely no windows. The gardens and interior are obviously off-limits to visitors, but you’re free to walk around outside their gates. Skulls is at 64 High St. Scroll and Key (444 College St), Berzelius (78 Trumbull St), and Wolf’s Head (214 York St) are also worth a visit.

Connecticut Journal: Rowing for Yale (part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of this story first.

A couple weeks later, with a little more confidence under our belt and a little more knowledge in our heads, we come back to the boathouse to race against some of the other freshmen. After a short motivational group meeting, the coach hands us over to the coxswain, who leads us to the “garage” where the racing shells are housed. Like a general surveying his regatta of warships, I try to absorb the sight of racks after racks of gleaming, slick long shells made of ultra-light, high-tech carbon polyurethane.

“Hands on,” Alfred commands us to grab onto the shell.

“Ready to lift … Ready! … Lift! Shoulders and walk it out.” Working in unison, the eight of us manage to move the unwieldy, shell down to the water. Without the cooperation of the entire team, this “ultra-light” shell would easily crush a single rower.

“Weigh-enough … Up and over heads … Ready! Lift! Roll to waists … Ready! Roll! And out and in together!”
The shell effortlessly slides into the river without even a splash and we nimbly strap in.

“All eight sit ready! … Ready! Row!”

I forget about the problem sets due tomorrow or the Yale Daily News article I have to write this weekend. The serene, gliding river becomes my world, stretching on forever. The sun casts a warm glow over the water.

Then boom! Our shell charges off the starting line as Alfred explodes in our ears.

“Give me three short strokes … half … full! Good, keep it there. Lengthen and stretch.”

1500 meters left. No time for stray thoughts. Instead, all I can concentrate on is the rough feeling of the oar rubbing against my calloused hands and the water splashing on me from the rower ahead. My legs already burn as I gasp for air between each measured stroke. The sweat pours from my face, blurring my sight as Alfred continues yelling. 1000 meters.

“Harder! We’re five strokes to six. And push with those legs … and push.” The eight oars slice the water at exactly the same instant. I begin to feel the rhythm, the splashing and roughness of the oar no longer on my mind.

Yes, this is what rowing was all about. We finally see the payoff to our grueling workouts on the tanks in the dungeons of the Payne Whitney Gym. Like one eight-legged beast, we ram through the water, each one of us rowing as part of the unit. Our bodies slide in synchrony, and all I hear above the din of the cries to push harder, row faster, is the grinding of eight oarlocks, which gives off an almost musical and most definitely even beat. Eight have become one.

500 meters. The final stretch, the sprint that would make or break us. At this point, our slow-twitch muscle fibers have been flooded with lactic acid buildup for several minutes. The same muscles that power some people through 26.4 miles now struggle to keep our blades driving through the molasses; the lactic acid has quickly depleted our blood sugar supply so our lung cells desperately crave oxygen.

With all the fancy hi-tech improvements like the aerodynamic racing shell and sliding seats, the race still remains about man versus man, pitting the collective strength and mental endurance of our boat against the others. We are indeed contemporary Vikings, waging a continuous battle against the limits of our own body and lactic acid build-up!

We have no strength left. Yet somehow from mysterious reserves, we force ourselves to push harder, row faster. My heart beats as fast as a hummingbird’s while my head pounds with blood. Just when I feel like collapsing from sheer exhaustion, we glide through the finish line, two boat lengths behind.

After docking, we jump out of the boat, elated at completing our first race. We gave it our all, and so we congratulated each other. The other freshmen came over, brimming with excitement at our performance and gushing about the successful season we will have. Like Yale in 1852, we lost by two boat lengths, but like the Vikings, the war was meant to be won another day.

Over the past century and even millennia, rowing surprisingly hasn’t changed; the races still came down to slow-twitch fibers and Viking aggression, and of course, we still despised Harvard Crew. I turn around to admire the sparkling sunset one last time and walk off to the locker room.

Connecticut Journal: Rowing for Yale (part 1 of 2)

Against the backdrop of a crispy clear afternoon in early September, I eagerly wait to see the historic Yale boathouse at the head of the Housatonic River in Derby, Connecticut, the training grounds for over 150 years of athletes, scholars, and gentlemen. As I ride the big yellow school bus to Gilder Boathouse in Derby with the other rowers, the pure energy and anticipation of catching a glimpse of this mystic place reached a crescendo.

Taking a deep breath and snapping out of a daydream of gliding across the finish line two lengths ahead of Harvard, I take my first step off the bus and raise my head. In front of me looms a sprawling wooden complex that resembles a canoe tipped over. I immediately likened the awe-inspiring boathouse to a huge Viking ceremonial hall. I easily imagine the walls carved from the undisturbed beauty of Scandinavian forests, the hanging tapestry exotic treasures from raids across the sea. We were contemporary Vikings marching towards the battle against the unforgiving currents of the Housatonic. Along the way, I hear a few grunts and wild yells, perhaps paralleling the Viking stereotype too well.
We step through a wide open entryway as a group, bordered on each side by a row of metal oars that were melded together into a majestic gate. The entrance cuts through the body of the boathouse and takes us onto an endless deck out back with a panoramic view of the river. The river morphs into a silver expanse that continuously laps at the boat deck below and pours off into the horizon. The still green hills behind the river bring out the light reflecting off the rippling water and gentle waves. A few jet skis flutter around, creating miniature whirlpools and a whirling buzz that disturbs the otherwise tranquil scene.

I cross the deck and peer into a vast common room with vaulted ceilings and a towering fireplace. Long wooden tables line the room, again conjuring up images of Viking gatherings, and I’m sure if they were still around, they would have used the audiovisual equipment there to recount their various heroic conquests. The Vikings were rough, but disciplined and determined people who had the ingenuity to build grand halls. The architect had aspired to recreate the grandeur of Viking design and function, to shock and awe while providing a close-knit community meeting place. Even with all the hi-tech shells, oars, and ergometers (rowing machines) around, nothing much has really changed in rowing since then.

One side of the room caught my eye. Lined from wall to wall and floor to ceiling are a century of glittering trophies, the contemporary rower’s way of recounting various heroic conquests; and there is only room for the most memorable races.

“Final Round, Head of the Charles – 2004”
“2005 Lightweight Crew National Champions”
“EARC Sprints Winner, Freshmen Team”

“Harvard Wins Inaugural Regatta against Yale,” read the 1852 headline from a local newspaper clipping immortalized on the wall. The Crimson Cantabs got lucky that day, or at least that’s the story passed down the countless generations of Yale crew teams. Just nine years earlier, a few Yale rowing fanatics had formed the first college athletic team in the country, with the Whitewall, a rickety, scrawny boat that occasionally kept the river water out; it had no sliding seats and came with oars cut from the rough oaks of Connecticut hills.

On that historic Saturday morning, the Yale crew team had no idea they were about to row their way into a sport now steeped in tradition, and of course, herald in the most storied intercollegiate rivalry. But the battle was lost that day for the Bulldogs as Harvard sped away at the finish of the two-mile course on Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire, winning by more than two boat lengths. Of course, Yale stormed back in the next few years with spectacular performances a fan described as, “the best memory of my college experience.”

The overwhelming achievements of past rowers who have already set the bar as high as the vaulted ceiling rattled my nerves and undermined my hopes in finding a home here. We enter the sprawling locker room to change into spandex shorts and a crew t-shirt. I sure didn’t feel like a heroic Viking at this moment, but rather a dazed freshman feeling very exposed in stretchy spandex, stumbling down to the deck by way of the sweeping stairs that spills to the river. We spent that afternoon on the training barge practicing fundamentals like turning, rowing straight, and stroking.

Stay tune for part 2 of this story tomorrow.

Yale to Hand Back 4000 Artifacts to Machu Picchu

After years of battling over the thousands of pieces of pottery, jewelry and bones, taken from Machu Picchu 90 years ago, Peru is winning the war. The artifacts were lent to Yale University for 18 months but the university has apparently kept them ever since one of its alumni, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham, rediscovered Machu Picchu in the Andes in 1911.

Like museums in Greece or Egypt trying to get the United Kingdom and other countries to return their ancient treasures, Peru has been fighting to get back theirs from the US. Since we officially frown on imperialism, why do we drag our feet returning that stuff?