The More the Merrier

The More the Merrier

For residents, traveling with a large group of families or friends is the only way to go.

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WJHS Class of ’64: Reinventing Beach Week

Potomac’s Carol Carragher Madigan says her friends’ personalities show in their beach sandals. When she and 10 other women who graduated from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 1964 began taking beach trips together more than 40 years later, Madigan could still tell which shoes—granola, preppy, glitzy—belonged to which friend.

Madigan and her travel companions first reunited in September of 2006 at the Ocean City condo of Bethesda native Leslie Fairbanks. When Fairbanks, who now lives in Howard County, decided she needed a special celebration for her 60th birthday, she called an old high school friend, who, in turn, called another friend. A dozen phone calls later, and the friends were on their way to a one-week Ocean City party. Intended as a one-time event, the celebration has become an annual trip—an updated version of Beach Week more than four decades ago. When they met in Ocean City, instead of focusing on itineraries and landmarks, this group of travelers focused on each other. Although more than four decades had passed, Fairbanks says their personalities and values remained the same. “I saw their wrinkles, gray hair and extra pounds initially, just as they saw mine,” she says, “but very shortly, they became 16 again.”

The women became friends at Walter Johnson in the early ’60s and formed a high school “potluck club” that held weekend suppers and get-togethers. During their Ocean City trip, the women were content with long walks on the beach and catching up with each other’s lives. They reminisced endlessly about their high school days—driving on the Beltway before it opened in 1964, cruising to Hot Shoppes on Friday afternoons in Janette Schindell Shaw’s Rambler American and the time they stole the restaurant’s aluminum trays and went surfing in the fountain at Chevy Chase Circle.

Strewn about the country in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky and South Carolina, the women converged for their second vacation in 2007 at the Virginia Beach home of Ingrid Hook Davis, dubbed the group’s “Martha Stewart.” Davis, daughter of renowned 1950s and ’60s D.C. television personality Inga Rundvold, recently renovated her five-bedroom house by the beach to comfortably accommodate her three grown children and grandchildren. In homage to Davis’s “decorator showplace home,” says Kensington resident Shaw, she and three others who met at Baltimore/ Washington International Airport stopped at every antiques shop from BWI to Virginia Beach until Madigan found a “tacky pink flamingo”—eventually named “Kensington”—for Davis’s yard.

At Davis’s insistence, the women returned to Virginia Beach in 2008, and they shared responsibilities for meal planning and cooking. “We realized it’s easy to burn out entertaining such a large group in your home,” says Shaw, noting Davis’s propensity to cook gourmet meals and set the table with fine china to match the menu’s theme. To make things run smoothly, Shaw says, the women drew upon their individual strengths: the chefs cooked, and those who are good “cleaner uppers” did the dishes.

During their beach vacations, the group has learned to be comfortable with just staying put. Shaw, who grew up in a house on the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Oakmont Avenue in Bethesda that originally belonged to baseball star Walter Johnson, says that plans to go out somehow don’t happen. “It’s just easier to stay and keep visiting and partying,” she says. “We keep saying we’ll go to a restaurant,” says Chris Collins Mason, now of Vienna, Va., “but we invariably decide we’d rather stay ‘home’ together.” Just like in high school, they do spend time sitting on the beach. One difference, Madigan says, is that in high school, the girls wore bikinis, covered themselves in baby oil and iodine and laid on aluminum foil for a tan. “Now,” she says, “it is all about big-brimmed hats.”

The women say they won’t allow the mood to get tense. They don’t discuss politics or religion, they keep everything casual, and sleeping arrangements, Madigan says, are decided by who falls asleep first. “Even when something comes up of a serious nature,” Shaw says, “believe me, with this group we always end up laughing.”

Before parting each year, the women discuss their next trip. Although they occasionally consider traveling to different destinations, everyone is drawn to the beach because it reminds them of high school vacations and summer trips. “We’re fortunate to have access to some great places,” Shaw says. “Having a place we don’t have to rent or spend money on is helpful.” In 2009, a friend of Shaw’s will lend the group his house in Bethany Beach, Del.

As unstructured as the planning process and travel arrangements may seem, the women do not see a need for improvement. “Being as rowdy or relaxed as we want with a wine glass in one hand and a bunch of grandkid photos in the other— that’s what these trips are all about,” Shaw says.

NIH Ski Club: 25 Years and Going Strong

Bethesda’s Bob Bingaman has eaten guinea pig in Peru and emu in Australia. He has traveled to Russia, China, Morocco, the South Pacific and throughout Europe. Next year, the 65-year-old will visit Garmisch, Germany, and ski the Zugspitze, cruise the Greek Islands and spend five days in Istanbul, Turkey. As usual, he’ll do it all with 50-plus members of the National Institutes of Health Ski Club—and their ski gear—in tow.

Retired from his job as foreman of the NIH’s pipefitter shop in 1999, Bingaman has served as the club’s president for 25 years, transforming it from a young singles party club into a family-oriented organization. The club has about 90 NIH members and almost all live in the Bethesda area. Children, teens, college kids, young adults, career adults and retirees travel with the club, although not everyone participates in every trip.

The club travels twice a year; skiers head to the Canaan Valley in West Virginia each January, and in March the club takes a two- or three-week trip, usually visiting one location for skiing and another for sightseeing. The group has skied out West and in New England, but most of its trips are international.

Club members say they value the intensive planning that goes into their adventures. Bingaman often scouts locations several years in advance. After doing it for so many years, he knows what the group wants—mainly to keep the price down. Indeed, many club members view the $2,800 to $3,500 per-person price tag of the trips as the biggest advantage of traveling with the large group.

Potomac resident Linda Carter and her husband Joseph have traveled internationally nine or 10 times with the club.

Carter, who researched neuromuscular diseases before she retired from the NIH, likes having all of the arrangements taken care of, and she loves the unique skiing and sightseeing combination of the NIH trips. The club’s 1995 trip—skiing in Chamonix, France, followed by sightseeing in Paris—remains one of the most memorable for her. Led by a “taskmaster guide” named Jean, Carter had an electrifying 20-mile run down Mont Blanc that the group completed in six hours. A snowstorm had dumped a massive amount of powder on the mountain, making it difficult to get up after falling. “I held tight tomy ski poles,” Carter says. When she dropped one, it fell through the loose, dry snow “like a torpedo,” she says. “Finding it was a challenge.”

Janie Robak, 54, who works for NIH’s Network Operations and Security Center, has been on 24 club trips since 1986. Robak, who lives in Rockville, doesn’t see a downside to traveling with a large group. “Bob [Bingaman] does all the work for us,” she says. Like some other group members, Robak no longer skis during the trips. “Too many other things take up my time,” she says. Robak’s most exhilarating memories include paragliding off of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland.

The club’s newest members, Rockville residents Nanette Morgenstern and her husband, Wes, had traveled extensively by themselves and were leery of group travel. “We didn’t want anyone telling us, ‘Tomorrow you have to get up at 7 and have your luggage downstairs by 7:30,’” Morgenstern says. They participated in a 2008 excursion—a week in Bled, Slovenia, followed by an Adriatic cruise and a stay in Venice, Italy—and were impressed by the club’s flexibility. “We stayed with the group at times,” she says, “but mostly we did our own thing.”

Club members say they’re not aware of the occasional behind-the-scenes problems that crop up, like temporarily misplaced luggage or the need for additional dinner reservations. Bingaman solves the problems. But bad winter weather can waylay even the best-laid plans. On a cold March night in 1992, a blizzard stranded the club at the Denver airport. The airport ran out of food, and airport employees boarded darkened airplanes to search for blankets.

Even after 25 years of travel, NIH Ski Club members have plenty of places left to see. Bingaman is currently planning the group’s trip to Egypt in 2010, and it’s considering a visit to Peru in 2011.

Wyngate Families Hit the Slopes

In 2004, three families from Bethesda’s Wyngate neighborhood ran into each other at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia and came up with an idea. The next year, they would ski together. “We figured the kids would have company,” says Katey Lazarchik, mother of Emma, 13, and Andrew, 17. Three additional families were invited, and Lazarchik booked all six families at Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md. Since then, the so-called “Wyngate Ski Club” has traveled together five times. In 2009, nine families—55 people—will gather on the slopes of Snowshoe.

Envisioning a family skiing experience on that first trip to Wisp, parents soon learned otherwise. “On the first run, we lost track of our large gaggle of 8-year-old girls,” Lazarchik says. To this day, the kids take off in a different direction when they spot their parents.

Karen Kirwan says the trips provide a great social experience for her children, Daniel, 16, Charlotte, 14, and Lewis, 10.

“Some of the kids are not in the same groups at school. On the ski trips, they have the opportunity to interact.” Daniel agrees. “There is always someone who wants to do the same thing you do,” he says. “You can always ski, because someone is at your ski level. If not, we ski together anyway.” The children have much more freedom during these trips than they do at home. They ski by themselves, choose their own activities and their own meals. “Remember the year they went out to dinner in the hotel and learned to tip?” Carla Larrick, mother of Kristen, 12, and Steven, 15, asks Kirwan and Lazarchik.

Visits to Snowshoe Mountain, Wisp and Seven Springs, Pa., have enabled the group to learn what works best for everyone. “We don’t rent big houses,” Lazarchik says. “We need to be on the property so the kids can ski when they want to. The dads can ski when they want to. No one needs a ride anywhere.” The women, it seems, are always the last to hit the slopes.

“That’s because we’re so busy dressing everyone,” Larrick says with a laugh. The group also rents a conference room for a place to socialize without disturbing other guests. At Snowshoe in 2008, to celebrate Don Lazarchik’s 50th birthday, it became a disco with black lights, disco balls, strobe lights and all-night disco music.

The group’s size negates sit-down dinners. “When 18 adults go to a restaurant, you sit at a long table and your conversation is limited to those on either side of you,” Lazarchik says. Instead, the group holds progressive dinners, going from condo to condo for happy hour, dinner and dessert. Last year, the Larricks overestimated the amount of ice cream 45 people could eat. After two nights of dessert and one ice cream breakfast for the kids, they handed out ice cream to other guests. “We were so sick of ice cream,” Carla Larrick says. “We didn’t have any in our own refrigerator for months.”

The group has experienced three injuries to date. One of them made everyone grateful that Uta Lichter-Konecki, a physician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., skis with them. At Seven Springs in 2007, a snowboarder flew down the mountain and plowed into Lichter-Konecki’s husband, David Konecki. He was fine, “but the snowboarder lay on the ice turning blue and Uta saved him,” Larrick says. The experience actually inspired the snowboarder; he recently contacted Lichter-Konecki for a medical school recommendation.

To keep the trips running smoothly, the moms hold a “post-mortem meeting” to discuss changes in meal preparation, accommodations and activities for the following year. For 2009, they will switch to a community of Snowshoe condos with a heated pool. Last year, the kids walked across a parking lot from the pool to the condos. “They came back with their hair frozen,” Larrick says. According to 13-year-old Megan Spurrell, this was one of the “coolest” things about the trip. Frozen hair, it seems, is one more thing memories are made of.

Gabriele McCormick is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.

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