The Longest Vacation And How To Do It.

Nine Days.

I have literally not been away from home that long since I was 16 years old. Well over half my life ago.

I accomplished this feat by Magical Vacation Stretching (MVS.)

How does MVS work? I shall teach you. Are you ready? This is some extra VIP information.

1. Prove to your husband and traveling friends that a week-long rental is a) easier to find and b) nearly the exact same price as your usual four night rental (this is true with regards to larger beach houses because they almost all rent by the week, so the competition and pricing is better than trying to get a sub-standard rental time period.)

2. Husband agrees to week-long rental with the caveat that he has to go back to work for three days in the middle of said vacation. The drive time is four hours, so this doesn’t seem unreasonable (especially since you’re not the one that has to drive an extra eight hours.) Plus, there will be two other parents and a traveling babysitter to help while he’s gone. What could go wrong?

3. Because all rentals are Saturday to Saturday and why not get a head start, snag a Friday night hotel room with credit card points halfway to the beach.

4. Because two cars are necessary for husband’s future commuting, why not go ahead and leave for said halfway point at lunch on Friday? Husband can come after work.

5. Halfway through beach trip, during the Tropical Storm that came while the husband was away, suggest to husband that since a) we had to spend a couple days indoors and b) checkout is at 9AM on Saturday and c) since he didn’t get as many nights away due to his commuting, that we should definitely get a hotel room for Saturday night and use our rewards late checkout privileges to stay until Sunday at 4pm, therefore basically adding two extra days to our vacation.

MVS has many steps, as you see. And each one is mightily worth it.

So let’s take a walk through this meandering trip.

Day One: Friday, Enterprise, Alabama.

I chose Enterprise for one reason: It was the only city on the way to our beach destination that had a Marriott-brand hotel, meaning that I could use points and stay for free. (I’m a credit card point researcher/winner. And lest you didn’t know, Marriott has THE BEST credit card rewards points system in existence. I’ve already gotten multiple free nights this year, plus we get guaranteed 4pm checkout. If you stay in hotels and aren’t using their system, you’re missing out. If you’d like an invite to get the best of these credit cards, let me know.)

But back to Enterprise.

I knew nothing about it except that I have two blog readers who live there and it’s the home to an Air Force base. Oh – and they have a statue of a Boll Weevil, which is pretty famous in Alabama Lore.

Turns out, Enterprise is one of the most adorable, bustling, fun small towns in Alabama that I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to a lot.

They have a freakishly gigantic park with a fantastic playground, a lake, and a walking track that is well over a mile.

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Also? The fountain in the lake glows like fire after dark.

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We had a delightful dinner with one blog reader (I always try to meet blog readers when I travel – if I know where you live, I look you up and force you to eat with me – don’t say I didn’t warn you), then went downtown after dark to visit the Boll Weevil Statue.

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In case you wondered what is so great about the Boll Weevil, a nasty beetle-like bug that eats crops, here’s the story:

In the early 1900’s, Enterprise was surrounded by cotton farmers, as were most Alabama towns. But the evil boll weevil arrived from Mexico and decimated their crops. One smart farmer decided that perhaps another crop would be a better idea, and began to plant peanuts. Through this, the farmers learned about crop diversification and made a significantly higher amount of profit from the peanuts. And Enterprise became the richest little town in Alabama. So they mightily thank their boll weevil – “In profound appreciation for what it has done as the Herald of Prosperity.”

Everything in Enterprise is named after the precious Boll Weevil – streets and businesses and bars and festivals and radio stations.

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(If only all of us were appreciative of the craptastic parts of life that ended up bringing us to better places.)

After a proper period of Boll Weevil Appreciation, we got ice cream at the most adorable – Milky Moo’s. Which was so tasty and so cheap that we ended up going back a second time the next day.

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Day Two: Saturday, Enterprise to Florida.

Somehow our first day in Enterprise was already utterly exhausting to our children – tears and whining and not even wanting ice cream the night before because they were so sleepy (smiles were forced in that picture.) It made me fear for their future of long days at the beach, so we gave them some relaxing hotel time Saturday morning.

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After meeting our other blog friends at the awesome Enterprise playground and following it up with more ice cream, we continued on our way to vacation. We got there in time to enjoy the beach for a minute – an absolute must on the day of arrival.

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Day Three: Sunday, Santa Rosa Beach.

This was our perfect beach day. Chris was still with us (he left to go home Sunday night), there was only a yellow flag (normal waters), and the kids fully engaged with the beach.

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Although Ali and AJ have outgrown their complete twin-ness of trips past, they still have their moments of wanting to match.

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We brought our precious babysitter Sarah to vacation however she wanted by day and keep the comatose kids at home by night, and the four parents went out to eat each night, enjoying food, silence, a lack of questions, and of course, sunset.

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Day Four: Monday.

We had known the week beforehand that a Tropical Storm (that didn’t even exist yet) was supposed to be headed our way, but the fact that it was projected so far out just made me and my mindset of invincibility assume that we wouldn’t get a single drop of storm. However, the waters started churning on the second day, and the clouds started forming.

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…Which created the perfect beach day. No sun, great waves, and fun for all.

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And I’m glad we did enjoy that day to its fullest, because just a few minutes after we left the beach, double red flags were raised, prohibiting anyone from entering the water.

Then came Tropical Storm Cindy.

…But more about her in the next post.

Moments of Vacation.

We’ve been on our annual double-family vacation, during which I took a writing hiatus. I’m still gathering and editing my photos from the trip, but here are a couple of stories from my favorite moments.

The Ghosterhood of the Traveling Skirt.

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All four kids shared a bunk room for the first time this year. It was the most generous bunkroom I’ve ever seen – two sets of double-bedded bunks. I was somewhat afraid that Noah would be a hindrance in this arrangement – either not letting the others go to sleep, or being in general boyish and naggy. But he was not. He fell asleep instantaneously every night and slept deeply, never waking up in the middle of the night.

Except for that one night.

Noah awoke to go to the bathroom at 4am. And some strange things occurred. Strange things for which he was very anxious to tell me about the next morning…

”I can’t go up the stairs to your bedroom anymore because when I woke up in the middle of the night, I saw a teal skirt floating at the bottom of the stairs! It was just hanging there – floating!!!!”

Ali: “Yeah! He said it was just like mine and AJ’s swim skirts!”

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Me: “Did he wake anyone else up?”

Tessa: “He woke me up because he was going through the suitcase and throwing clothes out and GASPING!”

Throwing clothes around and gasping, y’all. At 4am. Naturally, I found all of this extraordinarily amusing (only because all children went back to sleep after The Skirt Situation), but Noah was quite serious. There had FOR SURE been a floating teal skirt and it was certain that STRANGE THINGS were going down in this house. Apparently the suitcase rummaging had been his attempts to find Ali’s teal skirt – and gasping when he couldn’t find it.

(It was in my room hanging up to dry, but I suppose could’ve floated down the stairs…)

The mystery was thrown around all morning, us trying to convince Noah that he had probably just been half asleep or maybe even sleepwalking.

The older two girls asked gigglingly if they could prank Noah with other ghostly occurrences. We assured them that no good could come out of that plan, so no – no more ghosts were necessary.

Ashley (AJ and Tessa’s mom) mentioned that she’d heard someone get up to go to the bathroom, but missed the rest of the commotion.

Then I looked at Ashley’s shorts…and a theory began to form in my mind.

“Wait a minute. Did you sleep in those shorts?”

“Yup.”

“And…did you open your bedroom door and look out when you heard someone get up to go to the bathroom?”

“Yes, I did.”

SHE WAS WEARING TEAL SHORTS. That were very flowy – just like a skirt.

I informed Noah that he had seen Ashley’s bottom half in the dark (her room was at the foot of the stairs he was now terrified of), and had associated it with the swimsuits the older girls had worn the day before. And we all laughed that there had, actually, been a Teal Skirt(ish) Situation after all.

Noah was insistent that this is not what had happened. It was NOT shorts and it HAD been floating. But by the end of the day, Ashley somehow convinced him.

“Maybe strange things aren’t happening in this house after all…”, he surmised.

And I kinda felt like this whole ordeal was payback for him ghosting me with my keypad a couple weeks ago.

Karma’s a ghost, kid.

 

Frogs, Frogs Everywhere.

The frogs were deafening at night. There were multiple lakes and swamps and ponds and puddles near our rental house, and therefore were significantly more frogs per square mile than humans. Tree frogs and bullfrogs were most plentiful – I caught one of each to hold (and to allow them to pee on me.) (Frogs get such joy from peeing on me, and I consider it the price of the thrill of holding a frog.)

The day after the first wave of rain from the tropical storm (more about that later), the kids finally caught a break and were able to go swim in the pool. (Certainly not the ocean – double red flags were in abundance.)

The neighborhood pool was always in possession of some leftover toys or floats from the neighbors, so it makes perfect sense that, upon seeing a large frog-shaped shadow on the bottom of the deep end of the pool, the kids assumed it was a dive toy.

They quickly added doubts to the mix and decided that instead of diving down and picking it up, they’d dive down and investigate.

I was pretty sure it was not, in fact, a dive toy.

After a few unsuccessful kid missions, I got the giant pool net.

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They all crowded around as I went fishing for a giant dead bullfrog.

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I pulled him up, and everyone took a moment of silence for the sad frog (who was accidentally not included in the photo of his funeral. Or maybe not accidentally. Corpse selfies are, after all, bad form.)

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Then I carefully posed him on a beach chair for his last photo, memorializing him forever. As one does.

IMG_8678That feeling when you go to the beach on vacation and your arch-nemesis {Tropical Storm} Cindy follows you there.

But the most important educational moment of this trip is when I realized that bull frogs apparently have saggy man boobs.

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Frothed Frog Milk Espresso, anyone?

The next day, after Wave Number Two of Tropical Storm rains, there was another bullfrog – an even bigger bullfrog – swimming desperately in the out-of-order hot tub. I was able to rescue him as well – but this time, before death.

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As his facial expression implies, he was eternally grateful for my efforts.

Stepping Into The Light.

Trigger Warning: Dear Mom, don’t read this post.

(I made the mistake of telling my Mom the some of the details of this adventure on Sunday. She asked me to please never ever tell her if I did this or anything like it again.)

Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve (no relation to any Callahans or Stephens I know) has been on my mental bucket list for a few years, from the moment I first saw a photo of it. It is one of those surreal natural wonders that I a) couldn’t believe existed and b) certainly couldn’t believe existed only two hours from my front door. But it requires a permit, you must travel with at least one other person, and there was no way I could take my kids, so a full day where I could take on such an adventure requires a bit of planning to pull off. I tried last year while the kids were in camp, but Noah got strep. But this would be my year.

Oh and also – the whole thing is super dangerous. This is the “real” kind of cave – unlike the thoroughly safe DeSoto Caverns I visited earlier this year, this one is not lit or guard-railed to make it safe, does not have staff to show you what to do, and you have to sign all the waivers acknowledging that you may or may not survive. I very specifically did not Google how many people had died there until after the trip (the answer is three – that I found articles on, anyway.)

I recruited three people to join me – a photographer who interned with me last school year, Jake Marvin, his mom Kim, and his sister Anna. Kim came prepared. A backpack full of water and a bottle of liquid Benadryl – basically what every cave expedition needs (I mean, helmets and a flashlight would’ve been real nice, but Benadryl was just as well.) It was a mile hike to the cave, along which I got a text from my dear husband.

“I’ll always remember you.”

The cave is set up as such: there’s the “pit”, which is a 143 foot drop straight down with a waterfall running through it. The pit faces upward in such a direction that it catches light beams in a most magical way. To the left of the pit there’s a climb-down entrance. We arrived at the climb-down entrance first, and it was so steep looking that I said, “Okay – here’s the pit.”

…until we found the actual pit. At which point I realized that other hole had indeed been where we would have to climb down. This is the pit:

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After Jake and Anna completely freaked their mother out by getting way to close to the pit, we headed back to the climb-down entrance.

We began our descent, which wasn’t as steep once we got started. It was, however, quite slippery. There were streams and waterfalls in several places along the entryway, making rocks slippery and unstable. Just as I said “look at all these jagged rocks just waiting to break a tailbone!!”, I managed to slip and fall onto my tailbone. Thankfully I have enough cushioning back there to break the fall with no damage.

As we got lower into the cave, the dancing sunbeams took our collective breath away. As we rounded the corner where we could truly see the scene, we were all in awe.

This is what we saw.

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The sunbeams were alive, getting brighter and dimmer and sometimes completely disappearing, leaving the cave instantaneously dark. Sometimes they would fade just enough to allow the waterfall behind them to be seen.

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As water and waterfalls were coming from multiple directions (you can see another waterfall in the right of the above picture), it was impossible to keep our camera lenses dry, hence the droplets on many of the shots.

Since Kim was The Mom of our trip, I sent her to investigate the pedestal – the large round rock upon which the light beams were shining. It was perched on the edge of the pit, about 50 feet up from the bottom. Everything was wet and slippery, and we’d pre-agreed that no one would be going onto the pedestal unless we felt it was safe, even though that was the shot we had come for.

Kim and Anna inched their way around the top edge first, looking for a step down. There wasn’t a viable choice.

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Jake and I were busy setting up our cameras and getting our angles just right when they finally reported (or yelled, as all of the waterfalls made it extremely loud): the only way to the pedestal was from below. Which meant walking through a stream/waterfall, then climbing up the rocks leading to the pedestal.

Anna tried it first. I give Kim full credit for her allowing of this endeavor. But she made it look easy – somehow. And Anna was the first we got in The Shot.

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Starting in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, you can see the rushing water that she had to navigate down. That rushing water goes straight into the pit, so slipping is not advised.  She stayed up there for a few shots, then climbed down and back up to us.

Kim went next – she wore her Wonder Woman shirt for the occasion.

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She couldn’t hear our photographical instructions over the roar of the waterfall, which led to this gem of a picture.

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As Kim made her way back up, I got a bad video of her navigating the water:

It was my turn. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t try this, no matter how frightening it looked from my angle. I set my camera up on the tripod and left it in Jake’s trusty hands. I brought a dress tied to my backpack – I untied it and draped it like a scarf around my neck. And I slowly began my descent through the waterfall. I shimmied from side to side, trying to find the driest rocks and the safest hand-holds possible, but still fully immersing my feet in the rushing water several times. There were thankfully some really polite rocks that offered perfectly contoured handles on the way down. But still, I admit it: I was a bit terrified.

I made it to the bottom of the pedestal and began climbing up. The rocks were of a size that made it fairly easy at first, aside from the fact that they were all covered in mud that was most likely comprised of 24 different types of bat guano. When I got to the final rock of the pedestal, I realized that there was no way up without a full marriage between my legs, hands, and butt and the fairly thick pile of guano mud. So I went for it. I received a full-body mud treatment, but I made it to the top.

I unfurled my dress and threw it over my workout clothes that were now covered in a wet layer of slop. My long dress dusted through the mud. I took out my ponytail and shook my hair loose. I heard cheering from the other side of the ravine – I’m sure it was for my super-glamorous model preparation.

And then I posed. And Jake got The Shot for which I had waited so long.

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As I looked up to the sky, it was every bit as surreal as one would imagine. The sun twinkling above me, waterfalls dripping and rushing from multiple directions, and rainbows dancing in the beams and mist – all only viewable from my current location. I wanted so badly to have my camera there with me – but the wet and muddy journey combined with the extreme moisture of the air around me prevented that option entirely. However, experiencing the moment – staring into that rainbowey, waterfalley, sunburstey canvas – it was about as close to heaven as one can experience on this earth.

This absolutely should be one of the most notable wonders of our country.

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Getting down was actually more terrifying that getting up – the foothold I’d used to get onto the rock was not accessible from a front-facing position, and I was not willing to slide down on my stomach. After sitting there for a few minutes not knowing if I’d ever leave the pedestal, I gave myself a pep talk.

C’mon Rachel. You’ve been doing planks and push-ups all year. You’ve even been lifting weights, albeit the lightest ones. You need to put some belief in your arms and lower yourself down. It’s the only way.

I planted both my palms solidly through the mud and onto the platform, then slowly lowered my body down to the next rock I could find footing. For a tenth of a second I thought I would surely slip and slide off into the pit, but I didn’t. My level of adrenaline was off the charts.

I had done something. Something that felt entirely unsafe, at least in my narrow construct of life.

Jake went last. I felt bad because by the time his turn came, my camera was hopelessly moist (something that was giving me no small amount of anxiety, considering I’ve already lost one camera to moisture), and all of my pictures of him had a slight smudged quality.

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Once even my camera decided to turn him into a ghost…which, honestly, is a pretty awesome mistake.

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The sunbeams “went out” once when he was up there – you can see what it looks like here with just the waterfall:

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But the beams returned, we got a few more photos, and then he began his descent back down.

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When we finally all climbed our way back out of the cave, I immediately texted Chris and proclaimed our survival. He was overjoyed that he would have more than just a memory of his wife.

As we walked back on the trail, the full extent of my personal moisture began to take hold. I very much realized what it must feel like to be a toddler walking around with a dirty diaper. Had I thought to bring a change of clothes? Of course not. And so, I drove two hours back, waited around an hour, picked up my kids from camp, and headed home – and a full five hours after emerging from the cave, still a good bit damp, I finally was able to begin the process of de-guano-ing myself.

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I’m positive that the long-lasting effects on my skin will be amazing. And I can’t wait to do it all over again (but don’t tell my mom.)