The Varied Impressions of California, as seen by Alabamians.

A couple of weeks ago, Chris and I went on our seventeenth anniversary trip to Newport Beach, California.

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It was a completely random destination, chosen not by desire but by necessity, as we had reservations in St. Thomas, then St. Thomas went and got hit by two hurricanes. They cancelled our reservation and gave us a limited array of choices in which we could rebook. Which was fine, because we love choosing odd places to travel.

We chose Newport Beach because we went to San Diego a few years back and loved it (aside from me breaking my nose while sleepwalking, as one does, but that wasn’t exactly San Diego’s fault), and I’m always up for an excuse to visit California. Plus, there seemed to be some state parks nearby, and we are a bit on the active side these days when we vacate together.

We had no idea, however, that Newport Beach was the epicenter of south-of-LA wealth and snobbery.

I kept the Realtor app open as we drove around, just to gawk at the house prices, that ranged, on the beach, between 10 and 51 million.

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And the cars. The clunkers in Newport Beach are Range Rovers. The okay cars are Teslas. But really, life is only good if you’re driving a Lamborghini or Ferrari. My favorite was to take pictures of the orange “you’re going to get towed” warning stickers on the sides of these cars. Did they care? Nah. They probably had 10 others at home.

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I learned the ridiculous array of performance SUVs that are now available – besides Porsche, you can get your SUV in Maserati or Alfa Romeo. Because there’s no better way to waste performance engines than having extra cargo space and a bunch of kids spilling their sticky fruit snacks in the backseat.

While the cars were fascinating, the people were perplexing. I caught multiple people staring – staring at me. In a judgmental glare. And when I caught them, they didn’t blink. They just kept stare-glaring. I spent the week trying to figure out what exactly it was about me that singled me out as DEFINITELY not fitting in.

Was it my purple hair? In Cali, I’m pretty sure purple hair is so 2004. In fact, did anyone in the entire town have hair a shade darker than white-blond?

Or was it my clothes? Could they tell that I definitely had never stepped foot into their minimum-$1,000-for-a-camisole boutiques?

Or is this what people mean when they gush about how southerners are just so nice to strangers? We don’t stare-glare?

I finally landed on hips. They had clearly eradicated hips in California many years ago (we realized there’s a such thing as skinny, and then there’s California skinny), and they were so shocked that I would still have such ancient things on my body that I might as well have been infected with a mix of Polio, Bubonic Plague, and Leprosy. And they were desperately hoping my hips weren’t contagious.

But let’s back up to our flight.

I love flying. It’s fun, adventurous, you get to see things from a new angle, and it’s a perfectly fine excuse to sit and read with zero guilt.

When the plane we’d be leaving Birmingham in landed from its previous flight, a Stewardess hurried off the plane first. As she walked out of the tunnel, she exhaled and said to the employee at the desk, “Praise the LORD we’re on the ground!!!”

This *seemed* like a bad sign to me. Was our plane a bit of a junker? Did they have an engine blow? What exactly made that flight worse than her other many every day flights?

When we got on the plane, it became apparent when I walked by row 16.

The smell of vomit was nearly visible.

Thank goodness the overwhelming aroma faded before row 18 where we were slotted to sit. But ohmygoodness – it was a full plane, and somebody had to sit on The Dread Row 16. They deserved a full refund and a year of free flight vouchers. I sat there, wondering what exactly had prompted what must have been a raging waterfall of puke two rows ahead of me. Was there turbulence, or did someone have Ebola? What was floating around at the microscopic level in the recycled air I was ushering into my body?

Our second flight, though less vomity in smell, definitely ramped up my paranoia. My stomach began aching. Hurting all over. Badly enough that by the time we landed, I felt like the only way to feel better was the hold my stomach together with my arms. It was not a familiar ache, and not one I could readily tell how to eradicate. Chris and I stopped at the grocery store and I began scanning the small medicinal aisle, looking for anything that might help a mysterious plane-plague stomach ache. I landed on Gas-X. Maybe I had expanded like a potato chip bag.

Sure enough, five minutes after inhaling those chewable tablets, I felt human again and my fears of Death-By-Plane began to abate. I googled this to see if it was normal, and I learned my second valuable medical fact of the week (the first had been the phenomenon of Asparagus Pee – did you know about Asparagus Pee? The science of who can and cannot smell and/or produce asparagus pee is well worth the NPR story.)

(I learned about this fact in my first ever highly specific and exactly correct answer to googling a medical problem. “Why does my pee smell absolutely horrible?” and Google suggested I might have eaten asparagus. And behold, I had just eaten asparagus for the first time in years!)

(Google is smarter than she used to be. Pretty sure five years ago she would have just told me I was dying of Malaria and left it at that.)

Back to plane gas, which was the second medical fact I learned – the gas in human’s stomachs does indeed expand like potato chip bags when in the air. It’s quite a normal problem and I was just the lucky one who had this problem but wasn’t forced by my body to embarrassingly relieve the pressure while on the plane (which is also, apparently, common.) Blinding stomach pain is preferred any day.

After I recovered from The Grand Expansion of Gases, the trip was just lovely (aside from all the stare-glares that seared their way into my fragile self-consciousness. But you Californians can’t help your rude ways. You just need to move to Alabama and learn some manners.)

Chris and I walked for five hours the first day, biked 20 miles the second day, ran and hiked the third day, and ran and hiked the fourth day. And oh yeah – got one more run in the fifth day before our plane left.

We tend to really relax on vacation these days.

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(We would have done more relaxing if it hadn’t been so dang cold, but you gotta keep moving over there. Unless you’re in a hot tub.)

(Which we did get in once. And we sat at the pool gazebos and watched the native bunnies eat the grass. And I read two books.)

The vistas of California were so breathtaking and vast that it was almost too much to take in.

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It was as if we were inside a postcard and couldn’t quite comprehend the depth and largeness of the canyons below us, the mountains above us, and the gorgeous sea.

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The mountains directly above the coastline were so steep that we’d count the number of times our ears popped while driving up them (seven times was the record.)

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The sea life in the tide pools along the coast had gorgeous, colorful anemones and very busy crabs.

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Every square inch of not-building-space had flowers. Beautiful, unique, overflowing flowers that smelled divine. Wild flowers, cultivated flowers, every kind of flowers.

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And then, Chris found me a Pirate’s Tower at which to take sunset pictures. Because he’s the best and that’s why I’ve been married to him for seventeen years.

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We had to park at the top of a hill, walk down a steep road, a few hundred steps, skirt across some giant rocks while the waves crashed into us, and withstand the tide coming in with giant waves up to our knees while taking the pictures.

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I had 20 pounds of sand in my shoes and have had to wash them twice to eradicate the smell of putrid fermented Pacific Ocean, but it was totally worth it.

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There were also ocean-flowing caves,

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Arches,

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And creepy rabbit holes on offshoots of offshoots of offshoots of trails.

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(Which turned out to contain a real live human “den” made out of sticks and twigs and graffiti and crepe paper, which can only lead us to believe it was a opium den, since opium is the only drug that requires a den.)

(Crack requires a house. Meth requires a lab. Pot doesn’t require anything. But opium needs a creepy-rabbit-hole-in-the-middle-of-California-wilderness DEN.)

Speaking of California Oddities, we found this upper-crust society (to which we’re considering shipping Thomas The Cat),

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This ice cream shop that my kids would never be allowed to eat at,

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A Dad I never want to meet,

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And “steaks” that would never be allowed to go by that name in Alabama.

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California was a lovely dream.

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A dream I wasn’t at all ready to leave behind.

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But at least I didn’t have Plane Gas on the way home.

The Long Haul. With Kids.

This past weekend, while on a hike, Ali and I were talking about our Hiking Club Summer Bucket List. I told her I’d asked the other moms what they’d wanted to do this summer, and asked her what she wanted to do.

She lit up.

“I want to hike farther than I’ve ever hiked. I want to hike ten miles.”

“Okay! We can do that sometime this summer.”

“Actually I want to do it as soon as possible.”

It was supposed to be a pretty week and I’m a total enabler when it comes to a gorgeous hike, so I checked with our hiking club, warned that this was going to be the most we’d ever done and please only consider your oldest children for the hike, and began gathering supplies.

(A ten mile hike is no joke – especially when you’re going somewhat slow. You’re talking hours on the trail, and it requires water and snacks and provisions and probably a few band-aids.)

But somehow we got it all together AND convinced a few friends that this was a good idea in less than 48 hours, and on Monday morning, we met at Oak Mountain ready for the hike.

Five Moms. Four walking kids. Two riding babies.

We can do this.

I mean, maybe. Who knows.

No, we can do this.

We started out from the top of the ridge so that we didn’t have to climb any serious mountains, and gazed down from the cliffs at Peavine Falls, the bottom of which would be our glorious ending point.

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The first few miles were lovely and uneventful – the white trail at Oak Mountain is one of my favorites, as it is full of wildflowers and also runs by a stream. The peacefulness is on point.

When we got to our first trail crossing at 3ish miles, we decided it was time for snack. And also there was a good rock and fence post for a group photo – I could put my camera on the post, control it with my phone, and actually be in a photo. I didn’t know Noah dabbed right out the top of the photo, and I also wasn’t doing a good job hiding my phone. But it’s as good as a trail group photo gets.

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We took five photos.

This is the last photo.

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Notice Noah’s dab has morphed into a point-and-scream. But the rest of us haven’t changed a bit. Because his screams of “SNAKE!!!!” and pointing at our feet hasn’t made it to any of our brains yet.

(I don’t know how dabbing helped Noah see this unbelievably camouflage snake, but I will never complain about dabbing my pictures up ever again.)

A baby timber rattlesnake was somewhat perturbed at our rowdying up its rock, and had crawled out in a huff, then a minute later curled up in a ball and had his head up showing his decisively bad mood.

(I took pictures, of course, but as many people do not appreciate my snake photography, if you specifically want to see our one-rattle baby friend, you can click here.)

(You’re welcome, rest of y’all.)

We moved on quickly. We weren’t sure where his family lived, and since he was already so extremely irritable at such a young age, we could only imagine how special his mother’s moods must be.

Our next finds were much more amenable to our attention and presence. Or at least they didn’t have man-killing venom waiting to share, so we enjoyed their company a little bit more.

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In total, we found six toads (and only two peed on us), and this lovely dragon-esque Fence Lizard – note how his belly glows blue.

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He definitely had some leftover prehistoric fire and scales.

We kept moving, through the reeds, enjoying all of the vastly differing views of Oak Mountain. We took a couple wrong turns – one that was clearly the map’s fault, and the rest were most likely my fault.

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…And I did a hiking club first and fed a baby a bottle while walking through the woods.

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(For the record I was never a chill enough baby mama to hike with a baby. I am constantly amazed that Sarah is totally that person.)

We finally got back around to the Peavine Falls area. The original plan was to hike an extra half mile to come into the gorge from the side we were familiar with, and that was slightly less steep. But everyone was tired, we were already at 10 miles, and a shortcut is a shortcut is a shortcut even if it leads out with a sign like this.

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We followed the path down, but it looked just a bit off from what I thought should be there. We reached what should have been Peavine Falls, but instead it was a chute – a gorgeous, flowery, chute of water that was dying to be intertubed down, if we were slightly more daring than we actually are, and also had an intertube.

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I made the executive decision that the kids should play in the water while I tried to figure out where the crap we were. I didn’t know if we were upstream, downstream, around a bend, or exactly what from Peavine Falls, and I needed a minute.

The kids were happy to oblige.

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With some frantic texts to Chris and the studying of my exercise map on MapMyRun, I finally reached the conclusion that we were just *barely* downstream of Peavine Falls, and clearly I’d singlehandedly discovered Peavine Chute, which wasn’t so bad.

We slowly made our way up the trail to the falls, at which point all of us mothers were thrown back at once by a smell.

An overpowering, thick, we’re-about-to-step-in-something smell.

“Is that a skunk??”

“That sure smells like a skunk!!”

I looked around frantically. And then I saw it.

A group of hammocks, some wandering-slowly people…a zombie-ish look to the place.

“That’s not skunk. That’s weed.”

I scouted ahead to check it out.

It was, it seemed, a portable artist enclave. There were painters. There were aerial ropes with people hanging upside down. There were emotionless men with Hawaiian shirts hanging open. And there was a LOT of smoke.

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We wandered carefully into the falls area, completely killing their buzz, while they did likewise for us.

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That Peavine Chute had been a gift of quiet serenity just for us. But we managed to get in the falls and stake our claim, having a little fun before we hiked up and out.

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Our last find of the day happened nearly at the parking lot, and Noah was the spotter once more.

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A massively huge Luna Moth, who was more than happy to let us observe her from all of her magnificent angles.

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Our final mileage was 11.2 miles. It took 6 hours. And these four kids never once whined. They even THANKED me for the hike.

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It was all a true hiking miracle.

Ali logged our hike as she went along in her Trail Notes book, and this was her summary page of the day. IMG_1481

Yup, I think she covered everything.

Orr Park Scavenger Hunt.

You may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of an outdoors binge for a half a decade or so.

(Which, by the way, is the most insulting word in the English language. “Outdoors.” AS IF doors had been there first, then nature cropped up all around them and so we had to call it OUTdoors. No. Doors don’t deserve a tenth of that honor.)

Anyway. I like running and hiking, and my kids do too, but they tire quicker than I do, or sometimes even think they’d rather do something else. But if I can turn it into a social occasion, they are ALL IN.

So to get what I wanted, I created The Last Minute Network O’ Adventure*, which is a pair of constantly-growing text groups where I send out our hiking plans to other homeschool moms, etc. who are available to hike on weekdays, and whoever can join us joins us.

(The other reason we have this group is simple: I need something to say when people find out I homeschool, then gasp in a horrified fashion, and say, “But HOW will the children be socialized?!” …I answer “Well, we hiked 18 times last month with 65 different friends, therefore spending approximately 30 hours engaged in quality time and conversation…so there’s that.”)

Every now and then I’ll create other outings for this group as well, as was the case with this Scavenger Hunt at Orr Park in Montevallo. There are over 40 intricate tree carvings within a large area of the park, and it was just begging to have a scavenger hunt made of it. The kids and I had only been there once, and it’d been over a year, but we remembered it fondly.

So I decided that two Scavenger Hunts were needed: a photo scavenger hunt for smaller kids, and a clue scavenger hunt for big kids. The photo one was easy. I had pictures from our last visit of almost all of the carvings, so I selected a group of very distinct characters, slapped them onto a page together, gave them checkboxes, and declared it done.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.21.32 PMClick here to download the Photo Scavenger Hunt sheet for yourself.

But when I went to make the advanced scavenger hunt, I learned quickly that I’m not very good at clues. I toiled through the sludge of my brain, trying to come up with witty ideas, with no luck. So I recruited Chris, whose skill with the quill is undeniable, and he had me a perfect, mostly rhyming clue sheet in less than an hour.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.22.03 PMClick here to download this sheet.

The kids and I arrived early to make sure none of the carvings had changed or been damaged, and thankfully all were still in tact – and with a number of new carvings as well. Of all the parks in Alabama, this one is one of the most fascinating.

Our attendees arrived, and we explained our instructions and set them off to hunt.

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We had a total of 32 kids join our hunt – a few of which were strangers who just happened to be at the park on the extremely lovely day, saw me handing out clue sheets, and asked if they could play along. My kids, having helped with the clue checking, decided to be floating scavenging aids to kids who got stuck.

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The part of the park with the carvings is a well-contained area, but it is very long. There was much running back and forth and back and forth again. Much exercise was achieved without any of them ever realizing it.

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When they finished, they had to find me and turn in their clue sheets.

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Then they received their prize, modeling clay to make their own sculpture – so that the day could totally count as an art appreciation field trip.

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The kids took the assignment much more seriously than I assumed they would, all modeling one of the carvings that they had seen in the park.

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The Scavenger Hunt was a success, and I hope to do it again for anyone who missed the inaugural session. But you don’t need me to make it happen – just download and print out the photo and clue sheets and give it a try.**

* If you’re not in my Network O’ Last Minute Adventure and want more information, comment on this post and I’ll email you.

** Scavenger Hunts are not just for kids – they’re totally for adults. Chris and I spent many dates doing the Itty Bitty Magic City Scavenger Hunts that used to be printed in the newspaper. Scavenging is a proven bonding strategy.

Note – If you want another Scavenger Hunt, we made this micro photo scavenger hunt years ago for Avondale Park. Not all the items will still be findable, but most should be.