The Secret Life of a Happy Hiking Heart.

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My children, particularly the youngest, have a propensity to whine when I tell them we’re going on a hike, which is a once or twice a week occurrence, especially in the fall. But forced hiking is the mother of invention, and my children are never as brilliant as they are when the mood hits them to turn a hike into a video game.

They created their favorite game a while back, titled “Super Bonus Power-Up”, but last week they advanced and perfected it so drastically that it deserves recording. So that all children in all the world can learn to enjoy forced hikes.

In the past, this game has consisted on them running up to trees, slapping them, and saying “Super Bonus Power-Up!” to get extra energy for the hike. Using a rather rudimentary version of Parkour, they would bounce off the trees, therefore giving them the magical feeling of being more energetic.

But the Super Super Bonus Power-Up game really amps up the imagination volume.

Here’s how to play.

First, determine what recurring trail markers and features are available.

On this particular hike (our first time to hike the beautiful trails at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve), the children noticed that there were blazes, or trail markers,

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Trail posts,

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And an extra special and unique trail find, diamond signs that seemed to not have much use except to greatly add to our game.

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The blazes replaced trees for energy boosts – no longer could any old tree give you a power-up – you had to slap a blaze.

The signposts were extra super power-ups – because obviously.

And the diamond signs became Mystery Boxes.

(It was so Mario up in there.)

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Mystery boxes were extra valuable – too valuable even to fully comprehend.

Me: “What’d you get in your mystery box?”

Noah: “I don’t know – it’s a mystery.”

Noah realized he couldn’t reach all the Mystery Boxes, so he began collecting large acorns, or, as he told me, Bombs. Throwing bombs at a mystery box multiplied the amount of mystery treasures you could receive. This created the need to stop every now and then as he counted slowly to ten while throwing acorns at the poor sign, but totally worth it.

(He did try once to throw a bomb at his sister to slow her down, but she quickly clarified that bomb-to-other-player combat was DEFINITIVELY against the rules.)

So then he tried The Force.

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But she seemed immune, I’m sure due to her superior gaming morals.

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For this particular hike, I further forced them to carry the backpack of snacks and water (as I was carrying my camera backpack.) They swapped it every half a mile. To incorporate it into the game, Noah named it the “Ten Pound Slowdown.” It’s a rough penalty, but you just have to roll with it.

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We made it to the top of the hill, where we found a lovely pollinator garden in which to have our snacks and water.

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(And for me to stop and take a few pictures – my own personal favorite hiking game.)

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After our snack and drinking of most of the water, Noah jubilantly exclaimed “The Ten Pound Slowdown just got reduced to the Two Pound Slowdown!!”

Talk about raising your experience points – everyone loves it when they earn lighter armor.

Their game became so fantastic that they both thanked me multiple times for me bringing them on the hike, and were shocked at how fast it had gone by.

But pictures don’t do their enthusiasm justice. Here’s a bit of terrible video I made for my Instagram Story that day, including a slo-mo stomping of a particularly power-draining puffball mushroom.

So. If your kids need help turning their video games into actual reality (or if you do – because who among us didn’t dream of entering into our Nintendo games??), my children are available as trainers and counselors. But if you ask them to take you on a hike, expect at least a little whining on the front end.

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When a Tropical Storm Comes Knocking.

Continued from here

So the Tropical Storm.

Let’s first be clear: the Actual Tropical Storm Cindy made landfall on Thursday in Louisiana. She may have been weak, but the woman could cover some land mass. As such, her torrential rains started Monday night in Florida. That was when I discovered the downside of an extremely tall beach house: the wind whistling through the rooftop. It was so loud and so whistly and so constant and so fantastically annoying that I could still hear it through my super-tropical-blocky foam earplugs, and it was not at all pleasant. I cursed Cindy and her noises.

Day Five: Tuesday.

After a terrible night’s sleep, I woke up super early and checked the radar. There appeared to be a break in the rain, and if I didn’t get up and ride a bike or run before it was raining for multiple days, my body would not be happy. And since I despise running in the rain, I decided the best choice would be to see if I hated biking in the rain just as much.

The break in the rain didn’t *actually* exist. But I can now decisively say that I do not hate biking in the rain. It was nearly…exhilarating.

…Other than the sandy mud that flew all the way up to my hair.

IMG_8633That’s my back. It looked like I’d rolled around in a newborn baby diaper.

The day definitely acted as a rain delay to our vacation. But the best benefit to a longer vacation is that when a tropical storm comes through and halts the outdoor fun for a couple days, it’s not at all stressful because everyone needed a break from the sun by then, we knew we’d have more sun on the other side, and I’d made the kids a gorgeous schedule to delete all arguments about what they watched and who picked while they binged endlessly.

IMG_8836This was the ending tally. It’s slightly embarrassing how many tv hours they logged in a week. But also impressive.

Chris was intelligent enough to send an extra Roku, which we hooked up in their bedroom so that us adults could busy ourselves guiltlessly binging The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt downstairs, a luxury that never seems to occur in real life.

Day Six: Wednesday.

The Tropical Storm continued its beat-down of us. We played games with the kids and continued our separate Netflix binging for the first half of the day. The rain eventually abated for a minute and the children happily sprinted to the pool, where our rental neighbors were also headed with a giant blow-up Pegasus. Thank goodness they were happy sharers. One cannot ignore a giant Pegasus in the pool.IMG_8682

There was quite a debate about whether this was a Unicorn or a Pegasus, but anyone who has ever watched My Little Pony knows that if you don’t have a horn but do have wings, you’re definitely a Pegasus. (And Ali was quick to tell us that if she’d had a horn and wings, she would have been an Alacorn. These are important life facts.)

Chris returned that afternoon, and us adults went out for a double date. The radar didn’t look good for our meal, yet the harried hostess indicated we’d be sitting on the porch.

Chris, ever the planner: “Umm, what if a storm comes in? It looks pretty bad…”
Hostess: ”Oh it won’t – it’s looked like that all week.”
Chris, trying to show her his phone: ”But my radar…”
Hostess, not even looking up: ”It’s fine.”
Chris: ”But what if it does?”
Hostess: ”Then we should be able to accommodate you.”

Her “should” didn’t sound promising.

We had no cell service on the back porch, which was good because it kept us from refreshing our radar all evening. But we didn’t need an app to know what was headed straight for us.

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It was fun to watch until it wasn’t. At which time we grabbed our plates and sprinted inside, blocking the hallway as our waiter ran our credit cards and we tried to figure out how to box our food with far too few hands.

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But beach storms are the best. So the soggy fish was a totally reasonable price to pay to watch this come ashore.

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Day Seven: Thursday.

Despite the fact that this was actual landfall day for the Tropical Storm, our weather mostly cleared up. However, there were still double red flags, prohibiting water entry. I assumed that dipping ones toes in was still okay, as I’d seen some kids do directly in front of life guards. So we headed down to the beach, setting up next to a tidal stream to add extra water opportunities for the kids.

But our beach patrolman was having a Paul Blart Mall Cop kind of day and made sure that we all knew that the water was not allowed to touch any part of us – including those runaway waves that came up much farther than expected. If you wanted to walk along the beach, your toes better not be touching water.

And so the kids busied themselves as kids do: Digging Holes deep enough to find their own water sources.

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That night, Chris and I took an “alone date”, enjoying the sunset from a pier right as a loud and kitschy pirate dinner cruise went by. It was infinitely more romantic in photograph than it would have been to be on that boat.

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We also found this fantastic roosting spot right before the sun went down, which happened to be near a stand of trees with at least five giant Heron nests and giant Heron babies screaming for food. Mom life is tough – especially for Herons.

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Day Eight: Friday.

As checkout was at 9am the next morning this was our last double-family day of vacation, we attempted to live it up in all the ways, but the children, they were exhausted. They had no energy left for beaching or pooling or really much of anything. Which was good confirmation that a week is absolutely a perfect amount of time to vacation.

I did manage to eke out a few photos – that was all we got.

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It’s been a long time since we took their first group beach picture nine years ago. And it’s way more fun now than it was then.

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Since our kids had had enough of the beach, Ashley and I went on a walk without them. It was the most fascinating beach walk ever – so many creatures had washed up from the tropical storm, including quite a few of these gorgeous Blue Button Jellyfish,

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And thousands of the most disturbing sea creature I’ve ever seen in person, the Sea Cucumber. They moved in slow and oozy ways that made your skin crawl, and one of them actually spit at me. Ashley thought the first one we saw was a shell, washing along in the water, so I reached down to pick it up. So yes, I’ve touched a Sea Cucumber.

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…Yet I still highly recommend post-Tropical-Storm beach walks to everyone.

Day Nine: Saturday.

We did not tell our children that we were adding a day and a half onto our vacation until we’d finished packing up and were ready to load the car. We knew that they were exhausted and that nothing is as much fun without friends, so we were not surprised, nor were we disappointed, when this was their reaction:

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EVEN THOUGH we were staying at a brand new hotel with a lazy river.

So we were oh-so-strategic about our arrival. We took our bags up to our room and plopped the kids in front of cartoons. Chris and I read books quietly on the balcony until each child had come, individually, to tell us that they’d really like to check out the lazy river.

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Two hours and hundreds of laps later, they were screaming that it was the best day ever.

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We had moved east by an hour an a half, to Navarre Beach, to a brand new SpringHill Suites hotel. It had been open five days, and was quite gorgeous.

While I sat in the shade and watched my family circle the pool, I had the pleasure of being next to an older couple who had taken it upon themselves to judge every last millimeter of the hotel. Because it was such a delight to eavesdrop, I pulled out my phone and logged their comments in my notes app to share with you.

SpringHill Suites Navarre Beach, a Review by Cranky Old People.

Cranky Old Woman (C.O.W.): “WHY don’t they have umbrellas by the pool? It’s just insane!!
Cranky Old Man (C.O.M): “I know. There is far too little shade.”
C.O.W.: “What IS this thing?? It looks like a bomb!!”
C.O.M.: “Maybe it’s an ash tray?”
C.O.W.: “No – you can’t smoke out here so that’d be ridiculous.”
C.O.M.: “I don’t know what it is.”
C.O.W., turning to me: “What IS this thing?”
Me: “It’s a light.”
C.O.W.: “Oh I think you’re right but doesn’t it look like a B-52 bomb from World War II?”
Me (mumbling to myself): “I wasn’t around back then…”
C.O.W., to my child: “Oh MY! Be careful getting out of that pool! It’s so slippery out here. Isn’t it ridiculous?”
C.O.M.: “Let’s go get some food from the restaurant.”
C.O.W.: “Okay. Let’s do that. How do we get in there? Do we have to go IN the hotel and then OUT again and then IN the restaurant? Surely not. Oh my goodness I think we do. That’s just ridiculous.”

Poor couple. It’s so awful to be subjected to a hell hole like this.

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Once they went inside and my secondary entertainment was gone, I headed out to the beach for a walk, and to see if any interesting Tropical Storm treats had washed ashore at this beach.

Shockingly, it was brimming over with giant hunks of sand dollars and gorgeous shells. I ran back and convinced my family to join me on the beach for a treasure hunt (it’s not easy to pull kids out of a lazy river), and as suspected, they loved it.

The new hotel had a giant sandbox play area from which we borrowed a bucket and a wagon. Noah focused more on sand dollar pieces,

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and Ali watched the surf for the most colorful and whole shells.

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The entire beach wasn’t like that – just pockets, and it was exciting to try and catch the prettiest shells. In the end, we had a sizeable collection that totally looked like we’d just ripped off a gift shop.

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Despite their earlier inability to have ANY MORE FUN, the kids gleefully lazy-rivered late into the night. Never trust children when they say they’re tired. They have at least 12 more hours of fun in them.

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Day Ten: Sunday.

We did the beach and shell collecting and lazy river all over again until it was time for our late checkout, and then we finally cleaned up, packed up, and came home.

And, even though the Tropical Storm never gave me a single spectacular sunset while we were at the beach, she did give me one on the way home, at the perfect timing for me to pull off and photograph it with Clanton’s butt peach water tower.

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Thanks to that sunset, I was able to finish our vacation in the most Alabama-way-home-from-the-beach Cliché way possible – Ali holding up the peach.

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Best Day Ever.

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.