Book Recommendations For Your Winter.

Whether you need last-minute Christmas gifts or some fantastic books to curl up with on rainy (or snowy, depending on where you are – you lucky, lucky person) winter days, here are my latest favorite books. To check out my past recommendations, click here.

Current Favorite Author: Kate Milford.

She has written 8 (or 9, if you count the one you can only get in .pdf format) books for middle grade, but in my opinion, her books should be adult books – mostly because of their complexity. Her novels aren’t all meant to read in a specific order, and happen in different places, times, and with differing levels of supernatural – but they all tie together in stunningly brilliant ways. I’ve read them through four times, have read them in a different order every time, and have been wowed in a different way each time by catching new methods with which she ties her stories together. And they’re fun reads – her characters, her world-building, and her narrative style is exquisite. She does have an intimidating habit of introducing a whole slew of characters at once, and she sometimes just tosses you into a situation with terms that she does not explain – but if you can keep up and give her a chance, she’s one of the best writers out there. Her biggest stroke of brilliance is that her books get even better with every reread. Start with Greenglass House – it’s the perfect cozy winter book. Her most brilliant book is The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, but you need to at least read the two Greenglass books first, (and while you’re at it, Bluecrowne and The Left-Handed Fate, oh and maybe also The Thief Knot) to fully appreciate its beauty.

Favorite Newly Discovered Author: Georgette Heyer.

She’s SO MUCH FUN! She lived in the 1940’s and wrote about the Regency period (and sometimes earlier.) Her books are witty, engaging, and fun, light, guaranteed-happy reads. My favorites so far are The Grand Sophy, Cotillion, These Old Shades, Sylvester or The Wicked Uncle, and Frederica.

p.s. – Since she’s been around a while (plus or minus 80 years), Georgette Heyer books are fantastic books to find on Thriftbooks – I do almost all of my book shopping there, because it’s a cheap used bookstore with cheap or free shipping, and they have a fantastic rewards program, so I’m getting free book credits continuously just from buying books from them. If you haven’t checked out Thriftbooks (and signed up for their rewards program), I highly recommend it!

Favorite Shared books with Chris:

Chris doesn’t get nearly the amount of reading time that I do, so when he wants a book, I’m ready with a choice of my top five out of the last 100 books I’ve read, so he only has to read the cream of the cream.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty – I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but it deserves a second mention in the context of sharing it as a married couple. This is an incredible novel that has deep meaning behind it, and is especially meaningful to read if you’ve been married for ten or more years. It asks the question “what would your ten-years-ago-self think about the person you are now?” It’s a lovely book to connect over and discuss how your life / yourselves have changed. I read it years ago, then Chris and I listened to it together over our anniversary trip in 2020, then we both reread it in 2021 after going through some deaths in our family, both desperately not wanting to be changed for the worse by our circumstances. It helps give perspective and thankfulness, but not in a trite way – it sneaks into your soul as you’re enjoying an incredibly well-written novel.

How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich – This book is another magnificent book for marriages. For me, it was as groundbreaking as when I read The Five Love Languages 20+ years ago. It gives framework, science, and logic to why we have the same communication cycles with our spouse (and others) over and over, and how to break those cycles. It applies attachment science adults and to marriage, and it helped me clearly understand myself, Chris, my kids, my friends. (Yes, I am so diagnosing everybody I know.) It also has a wonderful section on how to feel and deal with your emotions through comfort, which has been helpful for Chris and I, as well as for Ali and Noah.

Other books that Chris has enjoyed:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a sweeping read when you’re in the mood for an epic story about an entire lifetime. It’s especially poignant now, with all that is going on between Russia and Ukraine.


Things My Son Needs to Know About the World by Fredrik Backman – Don’t buy this one for your husband if you don’t want him interrupting you every 30 seconds with his laughter and absolutely NEED to read you a passage. It’s a delightful book that shows off Fredrik Backman’s ability to write nonfiction as well as fiction. (Anxious People, A Man Called Ove, and My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s Sorry are his best novels, in my opinion.) To be honest, I even swoon a bit at Backman’s instagram captions. The man can write. Anywhere, anyway, about anything. And this book is a jewel that’s easy to pick up and read a page or two, laugh out loud, then put down for three months before picking it up again and laughing just as hard.

Favorite Kid’s Books – Noah’s Sixth Grade Favorites:

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling – Noah and I adored these books. Highly recommend for your middle schooler or high schooler who is going through stuff and needs a character that can understand them.


Nevermoor Series by Jessica Townsend – I know I talked about the first of these books when it came out, but we still think it’s the best children’s series in progress out there. It has incredible world-building and characters, and the scenes she paints are fantastic.



Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper – Noah loved this book so much. It’s a fabulous book to help foster compassion and understanding for other kids (and adults) with special needs.



Favorite Teenage Books – Ali’s Tenth Grade Favorites:

Ali also enjoys Georgette Heyer – she absolutely loved The Grand Sophy.

This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith – it’s hard to find sweet, innocent YA lit – especially romances – but this is a book that Ali and I both enjoyed immensely. It’s a sweet story with a fun premise.


Books that Speak to my Enneagram Two Soul:

I’ve wanted to do a blog post about books that speak to the soul of each enneagram type, but I can only do Enneagram Two since I’m only familiar with what speaks to my soul. If you can report in with books that specifically speak to your enneagram number, please do.

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Aliferenko – what a heartwarming, beautiful story. It’s how the world should work.



My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman – this was a story of unfolding stories that open up a complicated character and make you fall in love with her.



(Apparently Enneagram Twos require long book titles.)

Books I otherwise Highly Enjoyed:

 All Creatures Great and Small and all following books by James Herriott – my dad read me James Herriott short stories when I was a kid, but it took the show coming out (PBS Masterpiece – the series is truly a masterpiece if you haven’t watched it) for me to realize that Herriott actually wrote novel-length books that told his story in a biographical order. The show is the most heartwarming, redeeming show on television right now, and the books are even more so. They will make you giggle and cry and gag, and you will be truly sad when you finish all of them. Then you’ll want to start them over.

The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell – but before you reread James Herriott, Gerald Durrell is a wonderful stand-in. (Also a PBS Masterpiece show, by the way.) Gerald tells the story about his childhood on the island of Corfu before the Second World War. He has a kooky, bizarre family that he interweaves with his tales of running wild on the island and becoming a boy naturalist. He will definitely keep you laughing – most of the time at his sibling’s expense.


Haven Point by Virginia Hume – I read this one in preparation to go back to Maine, and it was an enjoyable read. Although I enjoyed the entire book, what really shocked me was the similarities to Millie, Chris’ Grandmother’s story with one of the storylines in the book. Millie and one of the characters in the book were both from a farm in Minnesota, moved to Washington DC on their own, attended nursing school during the war, and visited many of the same places in DC. After finishing the book, I reached out to the author and shared the similarities, and she also enjoyed finding out about Millie’s parallels with her book.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – This book is an odd one, as are all of Neil Gaiman’s books, but what I found beautiful about it was the saving of the stories of those departed. One of the more tragic things I had to come to grips about after my Dad’s death were all of the stories that were lost. He had so many experiences that would now be gone from the world. This book treated the stories of the dead with such reverence and beauty.


Attached to God by Krispin Mayfield – This was a refreshing, encouraging read that is also based on attachment science with regards to our relationship with God. I don’t agree with 100% of the content of the book, but overall I found it helpful and interesting.


Deep and Enjoyable:

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri – I have tremendously enjoyed getting to know the lyrical and beautiful poetic nature of Persian Literature in the past couple of years, and also have read many refugee stories. This book weaves both into one of the most gorgeous books I have ever read. It is heart-wrenching and heartwarming, crushing and redeeming, and will leave you understanding much more about what it really means to be a refugee. This book also has an extra dimension that can be added to it – the author’s sister, Dina Nayeri, also wrote two books about the same childhood. I am fascinated by how two siblings can come out of the same family with completely differing views on said family and experiences, and this brother/sister pair’s views are quite different. I prefer Dina’s semi-fiction book, Refuge, which borrows from her life but weaves it into a fictional story. She also wrote a nonfiction book about her story as well, and includes many other refugee’s stories as well – it is called The Ungrateful Refugee.

The Bird King – This is a lyrical fantasy novel that has many deep and thought-provoking passages in it.


Honorable Mentions: 

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell – This is a novel about a girl shut up in a British sanitorium without cause for decades, and what happens when a niece (that had no idea she had an Aunt) is asked to take custody of her as the sanatorium is shuttered. The idea of this book is fascinating (since this absolutely did happen to women in the early 1900’s), and the author does a beautiful job telling the story with many unexpected twists. Except for the ending. If you don’t mind an unsatisfying ending, this is a mesmerizing book. Or at least I found it unsatisfying – if you love it, do let me know.

West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge – This was a fun fictional story about a true event in the Great Depression, when two giraffes were shipped over the Atlantic, survived a hurricane, then were taken by truck across the United States to become the San Diego Zoo’s first giraffes. The book’s affirmation that everyone has a story worth saving and sharing resonated with me.


What books have you loved lately?

The Slippery Slope of SCOBIES.

I never envisioned my life to include caring deeply about a giant slab of living snot.

But here we are.

Not only do I have one pet giant slab of living snot, but I actually have five adorable pets. And I do care for them very deeply.

A SCOBY is the stuff of my children’s nightmares. Literally. When I first mentioned that I was going to attempt to make kombucha at home, one of them gasped and the other squealed.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to have a SCOBY – IN OUR HOUSE – does it?!?”

It does indeed.

SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. And it’s just as nasty looking as the name implies.

My kids learned about SCOBIES  before I did by a weird and somewhat questionable episode of the Disney show Jessy. After I decided to acquire my own SCOBY, they made me sit down and watch the episode with them to ensure that I really knew what I was getting into. It did not change my mind, nor did it infect my dreams like it had done theirs.

So why, I am sure you are wondering, am I caring for slabs of cultured snot?

For many years, I’ve enjoyed a bottle of Kombucha now and again. But it’s an expensive treat, weighing in at $3-4 a bottle. Sure, it says it has health benefits – but does it really? And if so, are they worth the price? Or is it just an expensive and a little weird drink?

This year became the year to find out.

I ordered my first Kombucha Kit off of Amazon, as one does. It included the gallon jar, a starter amount of tea and even sugar, a few other miscellaneous tools, and a live and thriving SCOBY.

I was beyond excited as that first batch spent seven days in the first fermentation, then two more days in the second. And the seven bottles of kombucha it created were quite incredibly delicious – I had discovered a new and exciting world of cheap (10% of the grocery store cost), delicious, homemade kombucha that felt like a fun craft project, except that I could drink it.

Then, while making my second-ever batch of kombucha, I managed to kill my SCOBY.

It had grown mold on top of it, which means that the SCOBY and all kombucha must be tossed immediately. It hurt me deeply as I dumped the entire jar into my garden. I shed a tear. I said a few words. Then I went to the internet to figure out how I’d become a murderer.

“They’re nearly impossible to kill”, says the internet, “except don’t do this and this and these other 100 things and make sure you do all these things correctly and do not look your SCOBY in the eye and make sure you play its favorite music and no we can’t tell you what that is you have to figure it out yourself.”

In the postmortem, I was able to deduce that I managed to kill my SCOBY by making the tea with the wrong kind of sugar. Who knew that turbinado sugar was not the same thing as cane sugar? I didn’t. Turbinado contains molasses, and SCOBIES do not prefer molasses. They would rather die.

I was legit sad that night, as if I’d killed the family pet. (The family pet that everyone in the family was disgusted by but me, but still.)

But the next day, I doubled down.

I researched and ordered what claimed to be the strongest, sturdiest SCOBY on the internet. Actually, I ordered five of them. And four more gallon jars. I was confident in my success and ready to exponentially increase my production. At least if I killed a SCOBY, I’d now have backups. I just needed to manage not to kill five SCOBIES at once. I brewed their first batches, blessed them, and let them get to work.

Kombucha processing is a multi-step process, and it’s not exactly a process that’s easy to do without making a mess.

There’s also a good bit of multitasking that becomes necessary to efficiently process five gallons at once.

…and (more than) a few containers needed.

There’s also experimentation. Which fruit juices taste best? Are juices better, or fruit puree? Should you add herbs such as mint, lemongrass, or rosemary?

(Pro tip: never use cantaloupe puree. Kombucha enjoys it so much that when you open the bottle it will fizz out perpetually until the bottle is empty. Or maybe it hates it and its trying to escape the cantaloupe. At any rate, don’t do it.)

But the challenge, the crafty perfection, gave me joy and passion.

Even when one of my SCOBIES decided to give off a decidedly rotten-egg-poot smell, my passion was not diminished.

Okay maybe that smell didn’t bring me joy, but the chemistry challenge of it did.

To track down the eggy-flatulence SCOBY, I decided that my SCOBIES were going to have to be named. This way, I could label the finished product according to their SCOBY-Daddies, then track back the foul-smelling drink to uncover the naughty SCOBY.

By this point I was already supplying four other friends with Kombucha (because I overshot my production, or I had wrongly counted on my family to decide to like my kombucha), so I picked out a few names myself and crowdsourced the naming of the last couple SCOBIES.

We ended up with Toby, Moby, Scoby Doby Doo, Linda, and Rufus.

I just thought my SCOBIES were pets before. As I sat and made each of their unique nametags, I felt kinship and maternal feelings for them that had yet been undreamed of.

The eggy crime was able to be traced, and the culprit was Toby. But with a careful splitting of his SCOBY and a  move to a high-risk-high-reward Earl Gray Tea feeder, Toby reformed his ways, quit giving off eggyfart vibes, and is now unanimously the most beloved SCOBY of the family.

It’s really a heartwarming enough story to qualify for his own Hallmark movie.

As I got more confident in my kombucha making, my labelmaking went on an evolutionary journey, becoming more and more fancy – to the point where I might enjoy the labeling more than that kombuchaing.

And my recordkeeping, supposedly for the purpose of identifying the best flavors / time elapses / SCOBY split intervals, well, y’all know me well enough to know that over-the-top recordkeeping is how I roll.

I’m four months about 125 gallons of production into my kombucha journey, and am still enjoying it immensely. Other than the occasional disaster, such as my first exploding quart (Scoby Doby Doo was feeling really frisky that week),

it is now streamlined to where it takes about two hours a week to produce five gallons of kombucha. And each bottle of kombucha costs around 35 cents to make – which is quite the savings over the grocery store prices.

And if I may say so, the output of Toby, Moby, Scoby Doby Doo, Linda and Rufus tastes LEAGUES better than commercial kombucha.

I am by no means an expert, and am probably doing any number of things wrong, but I have kept five SCOBIES alive and thriving for quite some time now, so here are my steps, in case you’d like to make your own:

  1. Make Tea: boil 2 cups of filtered water with 1 cup of cane sugar or white sugar. Add a gallon’s worth of tea bags and steep.
  2. Put the tea in a gallon jar, add water until it’s about 3/4 full. Add your SCOBY and starter liquid.
  3. Leave the SCOBY and its tea alone for 5-7 days, relatively warm, still, and out of direct sunlight. (My super-powerful SCOBIES only take five days, but others can take as long as 3 weeks.)
  4. Wash your hands well. Remove the SCOBY from the jar and put him in a bowl, along with 2 cups of the kombucha – this is the starter liquid for the next batch.
  5. Add 1/3 cup of 100% fruit juice – this is where the creativity comes in – to an airtight pint bottle (or 2/3 cup of fruit juice to a Mason Jar – I’ve found that they are easier to work with), then fill almost full with kombucha. (I also like adding mint from time to time, and sometimes I’ll add in an extra tea bag for a double steep.)
  6. (At this point you start over at step one to make your next batch of Kombucha)
  7. Put the fruited jars in the pantry to sit for another 2 days – but open and reclose (“burp”) them after 24 hours to prevent an extreme carbonation buildup.
  8. On the second day, remove the new baby SCOBIES that have formed on the top of the bottle, then put in the refrigerator. Drink at will and enjoy!

(And don’t forget to make pretty labels and keep a good journal (or baby book?) for your SCOBIES. Because what’s the fun of crafting kombucha without good recordkeeping?)

Edited to add: What are the benefits of Kombucha?

The internet will tell you all sorts of things, and some may or may not be true, so do your own research. Primarily, it is fantastic for gut health. It contains probiotics and antioxidants that help replenish the gut environment. I believe it is also helpful to the immune system and reduces inflammation. The internet, however, will also tell you it prevents cancer and heart disease and diabetes and everything else possible – I don’t know about all that. But I’ll take it if it does!

What the Pinhoti.

Guest Post by Chris the Husband.

There we were, the five of us, unlikely comrades in an unlikely place – a dry-heaving, lost, and injured party – with one unlikely hero to save us all.


12 Hours Earlier:

I stood at the start line in the early dark. It wasn’t very cold – 60 degrees – but the wet blanket of humidity made steam out my breath anyway. I had trained for 9 months on hard terrain with a comprehensive strategy of speed, weight loss, elevation, heat, distance, equipment, nutrition, hydration, and preparation. I’d woken up almost yesterday, ridden a school bus 90 minutes from the finish line, and walked down a long dirt road to the start line. There were 200+ runners standing there with headlamps glowing, as the countdown reached 3, 2, 1.

This was the Pinhoti 100. A race not for the faint of heart. A one-way, 100.4 mile race through the rolling mountains of Alabama.

I took off quickly as planned, and slowed after the first two miles, so I didn’t get stuck in the narrow Conga line of crowded runners on the single-track trail.

The first morning light slowly brightened the cloudy sky in a way that dawn and sunrise were a murky mystery, but in any case, eventually the headlamps were no longer needed and got stuffed in pockets and packs.

The Talladega National Forest is a week or so past peak fall by this time, so many of the trails were covered in colorful leaves, completely obscuring the trail surface below. The line of runners churned the leaves in a dull roar like a nearby waterfall.

I arrived at Aid Station #1 (mile 7) feeling great, and off I jogged, eating and drinking and thinking about now. Run the mile you are in, as they say. Don’t get overwhelmed by the totality of the distance.

Since I had jumped out quickly, I often stepped to the side to let faster runners pass by, and then jumped back in behind them. The trails were narrow, often with a steep side falling away, so trail etiquette dictates that you allow others to pass.

When I got to Aid Station #2 (mile 13.8), I checked my times, and I was 15 minutes ahead of my schedule. I texted my upcoming overnight pacing crew to let them know it was going well.

Photo by Gordon Harvey

Then, less than a mile later, the unthinkable. I stepped a little too close to the edge of the leaf covered trail, my left foot slid down the hill and l landed on my butt with my right leg underneath me. On the short journey to the ground, between the rushing sound of moving leaves, I heard an undeniable cracking pop. I immediately hoped beyond hope that the noise had been a stick in all those leaves.

It had not.

I jumped up and started moving, with the white-hot burn of a freshly turned ankle. I turn my ankles sometimes. They burn for a few minutes, but you run it off. It’s fine. So I ran it off. But it didn’t go away. So I walked it off. But it didn’t walk away.

Five miles later, at mile 18.8, I came into AS#3 with bad news for my crew. I was now barely on schedule, moving slower than I planned, working through this slow-to-ease ankle problem.

I bummed Advil from a crew husband nursing his wife’s split bloody knee and kept going. It got worse. I was using my leg muscles differently to compensate for the ankle, and along with the humidity, I got leg cramps in places I’d never had them before. The cutoff time cushion continued to shrink.

At AS#4 (mile 23.2), I updated my crew again. I was only 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff, as it was relentlessly gaining on me like the Nothing in The Neverending Story. I asked a friend if they had any medical tape, but they did not. I moved ahead.

When I reached AS#5 (mile 28.2), I had gotten to my first drop bag, where I had been able to stash my own supplies. I opened the bag and nearly cried. There were two kinds of medical tape and an ankle brace in my bag that were not mine. HOW? Somebody had found out, communicated to somebody else, and then delivered this stuff to me in time. (I have since discovered my trail angels and thanked them profusely.)

I was only 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so I had to decide quickly what to do. I taped my ankle furiously and it did NOT appreciate it. It was no longer a coming and going pain, but a constant one as I squeezed and immobilized it. A volunteer retied my shoe, I refilled my fluids, and away I went, only 5 minutes before I would have been cut from the race for time.

I hobbled while I ate and drank and took a look at my time chart. The next aid station was 8 miles away, up and along Blue Mountain. I’d have to get a lot faster to make that cutoff. But I couldn’t get faster. I experimented with running gaits, but the ankle was being an uncooperative jerk and the overcompensating leg muscles would always seize up. I did the best I could with fast hobbled walking and took very careful slow steps in and out of creeks and over obstacles. It was the only gear I had left.

The miles and the minutes ticked by. But I knew. My crew knew. This was it. The last section. I wouldn’t make it past AS6 (mile 36.2). Toward the end of that section, I was getting in and out of creek crossings on my hands and knees, wrecked from the waist down, and as I would come to find out later, with a torn ligament that will take a few weeks to heal, not a few more miles.

And that’s where the adventure started.


The Blue Mountain section was the prettiest I had seen yet. The past-peak fall was slower to arrive here, so there was more color on the trees and less on the trail. I soaked it up – the moment, the experience.

It was beautiful, even with the disappointment and the pain and the frustration. I wasn’t leaving here with any regrets. It was a freak accident. It happens.

As I pondered all these things in my sad little heart, moving slower and slower through the woods, I thought I heard voices. I stopped and listened. Hmmm.

A bit later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw two people coming around a bend way behind me. Either they left the last aid station right after me, or they were random hikers. Either way, they were about to pass me. But they did not.

I would stop to get in and out of a creek, and they would stop.

I would stop to rationalize my life choices, and they would stop.


I called out to them.

“Are y’all the sweepers?”


“We all know I’m not going to make it in time, so if you want to go ahead…”

“Oh, we have to stay behind you. We have to make sure you finish the section.”

“Right. I’m so sorry!”

I felt slightly guilty holding up these volunteers who were there to pick up course marking flags and making sure no one got left in the woods, until we caught up with RPG.

I walked up on another runner lying on the trail, wearing a rain poncho (it wasn’t raining), vomiting into the hillside. Well, not exactly vomiting. Dry heaving.

“Hey buddy. You okay?” As if.

“Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

“You need anything?”


“Well, just so you know, the sweepers are right behind me. We’re about to time out.”

“Oh, hell.”

Poor guy, henceforth referred to as Retching Poncho Guy. RPG.


We were a fine pair, me and RPG. He did get up and keep moving. He would catch up to me when I was crawling through creeks and over big-stepped obstacles, and I would lose him again going uphill when he’d have to stop and attempt to further empty his long-since empty stomach with an agonizing heave. The sweepers kept a short distance and all together we made a lovely parade.

Unbeknownst to me, once my crew had unanimously concluded that their evening plans were freed up by my tragedy, Rachel headed east to see about extricating me from the middle of nowhere – as this is a one-way race, I would be finishing my 36.8 out of the total of 100.4 miles over an hour’s drive from the finish line where my car was waiting. She texted and searched and found the remote six-mile dirt road she needed to drive up to come get me at AS#6, which is not crew or even car accessible. She hiked to the aid station, then hiked a mile and a half down the trail towards me, passing a sad line of timed-out racers limping toward the early end point of their journey. Finally, at the back of that Corridor of Grief, she found not only me, but RPG.

*RPG not pictured due to a dry-heaving break.

Our now-party-of-five (Rachel, me, RPG, and the two sweepers, keeping a polite distance) trudged in the quickly waning daylight.

RPG, between his heaves, realized that I had something he did not: a ride.

“Can y’all take me with you?”

“Umm, sure. What’s your name?”

Rachel helped me, her hobbled and filthy husband, onto a seat cover in the front seat. Into the seat behind her went RPG, with the seat leaned back, the A/C on full blast, a makeshift blanket over his shaking body, and a request for him to tell us to stop if he needed to lean out of the car, particularly on this overgrown, rutted, rocky dirt road that would jiggle us all for many slow miles.

To get out of her makeshift parking space, Rachel had to make a 20-point turn, all with the reeds so high that they were continuously setting off her overly-paranoid car’s motion-detection sensors. RPG groaned through each one. I attempted to mansplain how she should get out of her extraordinarily tight and dirty parking spot. She did not appreciate it.

“Just close your eyes. I’ve got this.”

“Close my eyes. That’s something I can do.”

We started down the long, bumpy, dirt road, now in the dark.


Half a mile down the road, enter stage left, Nicole and Sage. Amateur hikers, to say the least. They turned hopefully as they heard us coming.

Nicole and Sage were having The Epitome of A Date Gone Wrong.

Rachel had met them earlier, along the Corridor of Grief as she had hiked toward us. They had stopped her and asked for help, explaining that they were from Georgia, had started hiking about ten miles ago, turned around not long ago after realizing they “didn’t know where this trail ended up”, and in the meantime, Nicole had suffered an asthma attack, but seemed to be rallying. Sage was, it turns out, a bit of a misnomer.

Nicole and Sage were dressed for Logan’s Roadhouse, not the Pinhoti Trail. She had a purse (with no food and apparently one long-ago drank water bottle), and neither of them were wearing or in possession of any hiking gear. Their phones were dead, they had no flashlight, it was now past sunset, and they were miles from their car – a car whose location they were not exactly certain of.

Rachel had told them earlier to go back to the aid station and see if anyone there could give them a ride. If they were still there when she got back, she’d see if they could help.

The fact that when they didn’t find a ride, they simply started hiking down the six-mile dirt road that led away from where their car might be, and into miles and miles of nothing, all but guaranteed them a full night in the wilderness of the Talladega National Forest. If Rachel didn’t pick them up, that is, in direct contradiction to all of her mother’s lifelong warnings about picking up (hitch)hikers. But …


Rachel said “Oh my GOSH NO. It’s the Hapless Hikers. I’m sorry guys. I have to pick them up.”

RPG groaned and heaved in response.

She rolled the window down. A short and irrelevant conversation later, Rachel was out of the car, folding down third row seats, moving stuff around, giving them phone chargers, putting Nicole in charge of the food and snacks if me or RPG asked for anything (not that RPG needed anything on his stomach) and then our new Party of Five proceeded wobbling down the dirt road – Rachel, hobbled hubby, RPG, and a pair on the Worst Date Ever.

Rachel tried to get more information on where Nicole and Sage’s car was. They couldn’t exactly say. Based on the general area where they thought it was, it would be at least an extra 40 minutes up the dark and winding mountain, in addition to our one-hour journey back to the finish line – and that’s assuming she didn’t have to drive around for another half an hour while they tried to remember where in the Middle of Nowhere they parked.

RPG heaved again. “We’re over AN HOUR from our cars?? Oh, hell.”

Rachel, the only fully operational adult in the car, made the call. “I’m sorry. I can’t take you back to your cars. I’ve got two other worse off people in the car. But I will take you to civilization. Do you have Uber? Does Uber work out here?”

Nicole said in a doubtful voice, “I don’t have Uber…”

These kids are in their early 20s and they don’t have Uber. They also seemed completely unaware of the peril they’d put themselves in – OVER AND OVER – on this date.

Rachel was biting her tongue – I could feel a Mom Talk rising in her.

RPG was moaning and shaking. And I was shivering and in pain. Rachel kept her foot down – she was not going in search of their car.

So my job became looking on Google Maps and finding a place to drop Nicole and Sage where they could be safely picked up.

Nicole’s job became finding that special person to come rescue them further.

RPG’s job was just to hang on and not barf in the car.

Rachel’s job was to drive through the high brush on the barely-road in the dark through the Talladega National Forest.

And Sage’s job was to take a keen interest in the Pinhoti 100 and all things ultrarunning and pepper us with questions as we went.

We ended up dropping our Hapless Hikers off at the Dollar General in Talladega – the first civilization we found, half an hour from where they started walking down the dirt road. Supposedly a friend named Jenny was up for an adventure to come further their rescue. Three cheers for Jenny.

Thirty more minutes and we were to the finish line.

RPG, now desperately craving whole milk (a craving that started too late for Rachel to run into the Dollar General for him), made it to his minivan to collapse and sleep off his major malfunction.

Rachel got me back to my hotel room, then drove another hour back home, nine hours after she started this journey to save me.

And we all lived to tell the tale. We think.

And the next day, after gathering all my race supplies and making it home myself, I hobbled into the driveway and thoroughly washed the quite visible adventure from Rachel’s pretty car.

Just Another Late Night in Bama.

“That’s a strange sound. What is it?”

It was 10pm at night. I got up and walked behind Chris, out the screen door of our back porch, and onto the unscreened part. I wondered briefly why I was the one investigating the metallic knocking noise, but I am the nosier one of the two of us, so it made sense. And also, I’d heard the noise earlier in the night – but when  I was inside with Ali. So clearly whatever this knocking was needed to be investigated.

I stopped. I listened. There it was again. I craned my ear toward it. The knocking got louder.

“Um…there’s actually something in your grill.”

It’s his grill.

Therefore he should be the one to uncover the grill and figure out what had inhabited it.

“What? In the grill??”

“Yes. It’s definitely inside the grill.”

Chris skeptically walked out the screen door, seemingly unbelieving in my ability to ascertain the truth of the matter. But the insistent and loud knocking proved my point quickly. And my assumptions about who should uncover the grill seemed to be unanimous.

After all, it is his grill.

Chris circled the grill nervously, wondering at which end to start the unveiling process. We both expected the squirrel from Christmas Vacation, ready to flail itself at our faces.

He reached as far as he could, picking up the grill cover with two fingers.

He slowly opened the lid of the grill, and there was nothing. Then he lifted the lid so we could see the underside – maybe it was a bat?

Still nothing.

We both looked with trepidation at the storage cabinet below the grill.

It was all that was left.

Whatever was knocking had to be in there. And we couldn’t put off discovering what it was any longer.

He opened one cabinet door.


Then he opened the remaining door.

I involuntarily cussed.

…Loudly and with a remarkably more southern accent than I would if, say, I hadn’t been suddenly staring at a possum.

“There’s a POSSUM in your grill!!”

And all of a sudden we were living The Most Alabama Moment Ever.

He leapt out of the way.

The leaping, however, was unnecessary, seeing as how the possum was not going anywhere. He seemed to be under the impression that we’d opened the wrong apartment door and we’d soon realize, with shame and embarrassment, that it was his place and not ours.

Chris grabbed his grill brush and began banging on the metallic backing of the cabinet, sure that the strong hint of unwelcomeness would make our guest leave.

It did not. He did not even blink, if possums blink.

Chris didn’t want to get possum hair on his grill, so he wouldn’t touch the possum with the grill brush.

(“I don’t want to get possum hair on the grill…” I only thought it was The Most Alabama Moment Ever three minutes prior to This Most Alabama Moment Ever.)

So Chris went inside and retrieved a broom, then began poking the intruder with the broom handle.

Other than opening his mouth in a toothy rebuttal and gnawing on the broom handle as if it were a welcome-to-the-neighbhorhood Tasty Treat offered by his new neighbors, nothing happened.

Okay fine, he doesn’t respond to aggression, but surely wild animals, once discovered, don’t just sit there. It was time to give the possum the opportunity to take our hint and leave on his own good possummy humor while Chris asked the internet how one convinces an overstaying guest of the possum ilk to leave.

So we spread the cabinet doors wide open and retreated to the screened-in porch, certain that he’d take the opportunity to show himself out.

(Spoiler: He did not.)

Google Help Us.

“Opossums have a strong sense of smell that they use to locate food. You can use this to your advantage by deterring them with scents they dislike around areas they frequent, such as camphor, garlic, onion, hot peppers, molasses, wolf’s urine, ammonia, and pet fur.”


I’m sorry, but who stores their Wolf’s Urine right between the molasses and ammonia? Maybe we’re not as Alabama as we feared.

But just in case, we checked the spice cabinet: we had a decided lack of Wolf’s Urine.

Instead, Chris got out his bulk-sized hot sauce and was ready to advance to Round Three.

He showed the hot sauce to the possum. Maybe he can’t take a hint but he can take a threat?


He de-lidded the hot sauce. Then he splashed the hot sauce in the general direction of the possum with cries of “Ye-ahhh!!”

The possum thanked him for the condiment and implied that it was a fantastic housewarming gift to his apartment.

So now we had a grill that contained

a) a squatting opossum,

b) splashes of hot sauce, and

c) wait a minute…is that grill drip tray empty??

Chris had a large aluminum grill drip pan on that shelf with the possum. Last time he grilled, it was 3/4 full of Conecuh sausage bits, grease drippings, and general grilling castoffs.

Tonight, it was empty. Licked completely clean. Our new friend had to have ingested at least 5,000 greasy calories.

So we actually had a possum sitting on an about-to-blow emergency belly situation in our grill cabinet, surrounded by splashes of hot sauce.

We sat and strategized again. The night was getting later – it was now 11pm – and Chris did not want to go to bed with a possum in his grill.

(Who does?)

So he went inside and found a squirt bottle. He filled it with water – not hot sauce, nor, regrettably, wolf’s urine. He came out with a slightly-terrifying determined look in his eye. This possum had kept us from bed for too long.

A combination of broom handle thwunks, water-sprayed in eyes, and war cries convinced the possum to remove himself from his apartment.

But not….the grill. He was now hanging on the outside of the grill, under the cover where we couldn’t see him, determined not to relinquish his squatter’s rights.

Then when the thwunking and spraying abated, he crawled right back in like the rather inconveniencing fire drill was over.

The thwunking and spraying picked back up. He vacated again. And finally, slowly, annoyed and with the general air of a possum who thinks his neighbors are excessively inhospitable, he ambled down our back stairs, and slowly pulled his full belly into the wild area in our backyard.

And that was that.

Except that it was now 11:15 at night and Chris had to clean up hot sauce, an empty grill drippings pan, and a rather watery possum poop, left presumably as a parting shot.

Just another late night in Bama. Walker Hayes, you go ahead and feel free to turn this into a Viral TikTok Country song.

The Summer Fun Machine.

For every summer since first grade (except for 2020 … which as an aside, the phrase “except for 2020” should be a given addendum to nearly any sentence about anything), Noah has attended two weeks of day camp at our church, Camp Adventure.

It is the most exciting, fun, delightful 70 hours of Noah’s entire year.

Camp Adventure regularly wins “Best Summer Camp” ratings in Birmingham because of the incredible amount of work and creativity put into it to make it the dreamy camp that it is. Every week has a different theme such as Spy Camp, Creative Camp, Build Camp and more, each having its own unique set of applicable contests, celebrations, and activities.

This year, Noah got to attend three weeks. One Hundred and Five Hours of Bliss, which included moments like these,

Photo by Camp Adventure

Photo by Camp Adventure

and a brief moment of Noah-Celebrity (and, incidentally, me-celebrity-by-proxy), when he got to take part in Bread Day:

(Bread Day apparently has a long and winding inside joke of a story that is now camp legend. I was happy to contribute when Noah begged me to let him take a bag of rolls to camp. I was not expecting those rolls to turn my son into a rock star.)

So. Camp is fantastic. Camp is wonderful.

Camp even inspires such purchases as Fish Flops in order to increase ones Camp Clout.

(Okay we could have done without that.)

But the real problem is that camp does not last forever.

And since Ali was volunteering at camp for the second year, she was camp-busy for more of the summer than Noah.

And so, after the extra five minutes it took to sleep off the camp exhaustion,

Noah was sad-bored and dreaming of happier camp days.

Because real life cannot possibly compete with camp.

And one can only stack chair on top of unstable chair to amuse oneself for so long.

And furthermore, mothers seem to have zero compassion and understanding of this concept of Camp Hangover.

So Noah channeled his Father’s engineer-problem-solving mindset and set to work on solving his camp hangover boredom. He asked me if he could have a couple of boxes and disappeared into his room for many hours.

That afternoon, he invited me up to check on his progress.

It was, he explained, The Summer Fun Machine.

In retrospect, I have to admire his vision and his belief in the continuing design.

Because although I was impressed with his construction, all that I saw in Version 1.0 of The Summer Fun Machine was a hilarious irony that he took a Nintendo Switch, a video game system that prides itself in its portability and removal from the need for a stationary television, and made it stationary and unportable.

But….it has pockets!

The storage compartments held the switch components and various games, along with his iPad, to play music while he gamed.

But he knew he could do better.

The next day, the first step of SFM Version 1.1 was to work on aesthetics. So he covered the box logos with paper, with his own hand-drawn logos, and with screenshots of the games that one could play on the SFM.

He also added a top hatch at this point for the iPad to make it more accessible, and put a bluetooth speaker in the hidden compartment to project the tunes. Also, if The Summer Fun Machine was going to reach its full potential, it was officially time to pull out the All-Purpose Tool Box.

Version 2.0 began branching out in its consideration of consumer needs. For instance, one cannot truly enjoy Summer Fun without refreshment, so a candy dispenser was added to the back

(Old hotel keys are perfect flaps to allow only small amounts of candy out at a time.)

And one cannot enjoy candy responsibly unless one has a) a trash can, and b) hand sanitizer, to remove the sticky from one’s hands before touching the video game components. (I’m not sure that is an actual task that hand sanitizer is meant to accomplish, but a mother should not question the schematics of an SFM.)

He took a moment away from the project to regroup and plan, setting some goals and drawing some schematics, this time with the help of his father (lest you think Noah’s handwriting is as passable as the handwriting on the left side of the page.)

They managed to scrounge some unused LED lights to add a serious pizazz to Version 3.0.

Now the SFM now had STYLE.


The final step, which took quite a bit of work and a couple of failed attempts, was to add a fan. Because a SFM User should not get overheated.

And the addition of a velcro dock for the lighting remote control.

Because did I mention that the lighting is music-syncopated?

Yup. It’s time to see The SFM in Action.

So, you ask, were his weeks at home as much fun as his weeks at camp?

Heck no are you crazy?

Finding Millie: The Diary Project.

Chris’ Grandmother, Millie, was a tiny precious woman that I met when she was already quite advanced in age. She was always kind to me, and I liked her very much. I think she liked me, too, as I provided her, at 90 years old, with her first great-grandchild. She met Ali just a couple of times before she passed away 15 years ago. One of my favorite pictures is from her 90th birthday, the first time she got to meet Ali.

I heard a couple of stories here and there about Millie’s early years, and particularly the incredibly romantic and farfetched way she’d met her husband Roy, Chris’ granddad, but my true knowledge of who Millie was – before she was the old lady I knew – was fairly limited.

Until three summers ago, when Chris’ Aunt Kitty gave me Millie’s diaries.

Kitty and I had just spent three days and nights giving end-of-life care to Uncle Leo. We were looking for anything to distract us from our thoughts, our sadness, our trauma, and our lack of sleep.

She handed me the diaries, two five-year journals spanning the years 1937-1946, and said that her mother had given them to her before she had died, and upon giving them to her, Millie had said “I hope you don’t hate me when you read these.”

Kitty was confused by the sentiment and did read them, but didn’t understand why her mother would say that. Sure, her mom had a LOT of boyfriends, but she figured that would be true. But when Kitty read them, she read the diaries down the page – January 1, 1937, January 1, 1938, January 1, 1939, January 1, 1940, January 1, 1941, then on to January 2. So instead of reading them in a narrative, following all of the various storylines, Kitty read them more as standalone diary entries.

As I began reading them in chronological order, I realized that I was the first person in history to read this document, aside from the woman who wrote it. I quickly realized how incredible it was. It was an epic journey through a decade in the life of an independent woman well ahead of her time. There were so many stories hidden inside, so many questions that would stay unanswered, and SO MANY delightful mysteries and people for me to stalk down and learn about.

The diaries begin in 1937 when Millie is 20 years old and living in a boarding house in Minnesota – she had left home at 15, escaping a tiny farm in far north Minnesota where her parents never quite got along.

The narrative follows her as she moves to Washington DC to be near a boy that she knew from Minnesota, sings in the choir of President Roosevelt’s Church, and in general lives a life in DC that could never happen in present day.

The original boyfriend, Bill Souder, photographed by Millie in 1938. He was nearly two years younger than her, so he was still a teenager when she moved from Minnesota to DC to be able to date him.

“Lovely day. President Roosevelt was at church. First time I have seen him. Went to Y.W. Fellowship meeting.”

“Still cold. Gordon called. Later a bunch of 13 of us from the house went to the President’s Birthday Ball at the Mayflower. Saw 14 movie stars. All very interesting, but what a mob of people! Kay Kayser played. Strange – but I was lonely even among all these people.”

She has a few more boyfriends (several overlapping) and records the drama along with it, all while including sidebar comments about her worries about the war in Europe.

“Germany has invaded Poland!! This awful business of war seems to be here. Called up Stenotype school about fall classes. Washed my summer dresses.”

(…because one must still wash their summer dresses, even if war has arrived.)

One of the more dramatic boyfriends, Ruh. Are those sandals that all our Grandmothers wore when we were kids? Did they get them from their old boyfriends? Were those sandals the hoodies of the thirties?

In 1941, Millie moved across the country from DC to Portland, Oregon to escape the above boyfriend (for different reasons than she had told all of us – a fascinating drama that I had to read between the lines and research to understand – and that may be one of the reasons she feared Kitty’s judgement.) The war came to her, as she records amidst her daily doings Japan declaring war on the US, the bombing of the west coast, and the requirements of blackouts in Portland and the fear of more bombings to come. More boyfriends and an engagement (which was quickly broken off) follow. She finds out about The Bolton Act in July of 1943, which offers to pay for nursing school for women agreeing to join the war, and in two months, she moves from Portland back to Minnesota to begin school.

On the train between Portland and Minneapolis, she meets a soldier named Roy Callahan from Birmingham, Alabama who was traveling between army bases.

“Rode all through Montana all day. Had a most enjoyable time on the train. Met Roy Callahan from Camp Adair. His home is Birmingham, Ala. but he was going to Columbus, Ga.”

Roy and Millie have two days on the train together, then she goes on to the University of Minneapolis, and he goes to Columbus Georgia, and then eventually to the European Front.

Within ten days of exchanging letters, they are declaring their intense love for each other. For the next one and a half years, they correspond, seeing each other briefly at various intervals, having many declarations of love, “graphic letters”, and nasty fights in the interim.

Roy came back from the war in 1945, and she assumed that meant they were getting married right away. But when she visited him and his family in Birmingham, Alabama, having already bought and brought her “wedding things”, she found him in a state of extreme “nervousness” from the war – he was not ready to be a husband. Nearly another year passes of ups and downs, fights and pleadings and so very much drama before they finally marry – but after the honeymoon, he makes her go back to Minneapolis and finish her nursing degree before she can finally move to Birmingham with him. The diaries end two months after she begins her life as a married newly-southerner.

The absolute improbability of her meeting and marrying that man, who she would have never met if she hadn’t been on the right train at the right time, astounds me. It seems to me that many of us had multiple opportunities to meet our spouses – we grew up in the same city, went to the same church or school, or ran in the same circles. But Millie and Roy had that one train ride – sitting in the same train car – hundreds or thousands of miles from where either of them originated. Other than that, they would have never crossed paths. The fact that my husband and my children exist rest entirely on Millie making that specific travel decision and being in that specific train car, besides the need for her not to marry one of the many men before him (including not one, but TWO other Roys – she had so many boyfriends that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep up with them.) The entire time I read the diaries, I sensed my husband, and therefore my children, fading like a photograph in Back to the Future.

Besides the diaries themselves, she left photographs, many of which she faithfully documented on the back the dates and people’s names and circumstances surrounding them. She also left documents that corroborate different parts of her story and give a fantastic flair of the 30s and 40s to the story, such as her including her height and weight on her resume.

I read the diaries for the first time three years ago and was immediately drawn into the arc of the story, as well as the mundane parts of her life. I was left to ponder things such as the poor quality of shoes in the 1940s, causing young women to have to get corns “excavated” from their feet with regularity; and the difference between hosiery that one had to mend constantly and the new and exciting nylons that were expensive and easy to melt on the stove.

I was also intrigued by the overarching view of her life – taking in a year of her life in an hour of reading, I was able to see how she changed her personality over time and with various boyfriends. There was the opera and theatre boyfriend, the hiking boyfriend (whom I believe is responsible for her lifelong love of nature and being a founding member of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve here in Birmingham), and the worst most horrible boyfriend who used her for compassion and mercy (and paying his car payment) while he was cheating on her. When reading about him, I found myself screaming at the diary how much I hated him, wondering why I could see so clearly (from her own words!) what she could not see for many more months of mistreatment at his hand. I feel like I know all of these men intimately, have totally stalked them on Ancestry and found a few of their living relatives, and have also found documents, articles, and histories about them as well.

Last year, I typed the diaries in their entirety (with some assistance from Ali) for the family and a few friends to read. While doing so, I also inserted the photographs and documents into the story, as well as adding newspaper articles, historical images from Library of Congress and other sources, and Ancestry research on her many boyfriends. It was an overwhelming project, but it was an intensely beautiful way to dive deeper into her story and get to know her and all of the various characters better. Figuring out exactly where one of her photographs fit into the diary gave me that exultant feeling of fitting a hard-searched-for puzzle piece in its exact place. It’s an extremely large project – just over 100,000 words – but the short snippet of each diary entry makes it easy to read “just one more month” without getting overwhelmed.

When Chris read it, it was like discovering an entirely different person. He knew his grandmother as an old, sweet, grandmotherly woman who took him to Toys R’ Us and served him cantaloupe that he never ate.

We have talked about the potential for publishing Millie’s diaries, and are open to the idea. They would most likely have to be somewhat abridged, although I have had trouble doing so myself because so many of the entries have place, movie, book, or other historical references in them that I personally find interesting.

“Talked to Betty for a brief minute. Finished “Gone With the Wind”. It’s odd how I love all the others and pity Ashley. And I do hope Scarlett and Rhett find happiness. How hard it is to love and not be loved in turn. Melanie was truly “A very Great Woman” as Rhett said.”

The document needs to be both shortened and lengthened, taking the repetitive entries out, and fleshing out parts of the story that we know, but perhaps she didn’t at the time of writing. I’ve taken a year break from the project because of various life distractions and due to the fact that I’m not sure where to go from here – found the story fascinating, as did some of my friends, but would strangers find it so interesting? I also realize it needs an editor, and an outside opinion. I’ve considered sharing it (or parts of it) on the blog, but I love it as a standalone epic so much that I don’t want to break it up.

While we ponder the future of Millie’s story, what do you think?
Do you have any detailed descriptions of your ancestors lives?
Would you want to read ten years of short diary entries from an independent woman in the 1930’s and 1940’s?
Do you happen to know an editor/publisher of this kind of literature?

The Great Husband Match.

The thing is, I’ve always been mostly against matching.

I have written about it here. Multiple times. Sure, Ali and her best friend had matching pjs when they were toddlers – but match my husband and my son? Never would I ever. My family knows this. My family has watched me agonize over wardrobes for family photos – my circular thoughts spinning out on “how can we NOT clash, coordinate-but-not-cheesily, but DEFINITELY NOT MATCH?”

I have lived my life by these principles.

So they should have suspected something when I got Chris and Noah matching shirts for Easter.

They should have known.

But apparently I’m just so endearing, so trustworthy, so innocent, that they never suspected a thing.

I thought they’d KNOW ME WELL ENOUGH to be suspicious, so I tiptoed nervously through the process. With Noah, I just told him – “Here’s your shirt to wear for Easter Sunday. You can’t wear joggers with it. Try on your blue jeans or dress pants.”

(Yes, it’s been so long since the kid wore a real waistband that a trying on was necessary.)

But with Chris…I didn’t know how to broach the subject. I was sure he’d sniff me out.

So I hung his shirt in my closet door to wait until I figured out how to innocently tell him.

It had been there for a couple of weeks. Finally, he was really relaxed and cozy one night so I said “By the way…I got you an Easter shirt.”

He mumbled, “The one hanging in your closet?”


“Okay. Did I see you got Noah one too?”


“Okay. Thanks.”

And that was that.

No follow up questions.

No “But you’ve never bought me an Easter shirt before…”

No nothing.

He just….ACCEPTED this as a normal thing that his wife might do.

So when we arrived at Church on Easter morning, he was innocently tickled to see that he matched the guy walking into church in front of us. His first assumption was that I had seen a good deal on a dress shirt, and apparently so had that guy’s wife. They even posed for a picture, it was so funny.

It took the process of walking downstairs, into the fellowship hall for breakfast, and seeing literally dozens of grown men matching him to realized that he’d been had.

It was perfection.

Noah, however, was just so confused by it all.

He wandered off with his friends, still more confused than I realized.

It took an hour and a half for him to realize that maybe this was planned. After breakfast, when we were getting our family photo, he asked me suspiciously, “Wait. Did you KNOW this was going to happen??”

“Seriously, kid? How did you think that more than 50 men were wearing the same shirt, if the wives didn’t plan it??”

“I don’t know – I guess I thought it was a big coincidence or something.”

Clearly I’ve let him read too many books that overuse coincidence to progress the plot.

The effect of seeing 50+ grown men wearing the same shirt was incredible.

We ladies giggled all day at the obvious dominion over all things.

It was a plan masterminded by our pastor’s daughter, Sarah, who ended up on the local news about it all:

She suggested it in our all-women’s Facebook group a few weeks ago, showing a video of another church that had done it on a smaller scale and picking out a shirt for us all to order. I immediately loved the idea but watched to see if it would catch on. Within a few hours, women were commenting. “I’ve ordered one!” “Me too!” – so I quickly ordered Chris and Noah one. I hoped at least 20 men matched them. The precious matching men exceeded my wildest dreams.

I counted 54 men – but I’m sure I missed some. Those men included the Pastor, the Worship Minister, and the Children’s Pastor. And none of them had any idea until they got to church that they’d find it necessary to take an adorable matching photo with half the church.

Are the men plotting their revenge?

Of course they are, bless their hearts.

Will they succeed?

Highly doubtful.

Because girls rule the world. And we have proven it.

An Unexpected Detour To The Grand Canyon.

My plan was always to save the Grand Canyon for an epic trip – when I had time to plan it, time to fully process and prepare to hike down in it, or take a helicopter ride above it, or all of the above.

But once we realized that it was more or less in the direction in which we would have to travel to make our way through our unexpected road trip, the die was cast. How could we not go?

In fairness, I clearly hadn’t fully done my research before the trip – if I had realized how perfectly situated Flagstaff was between The Grand Canyon and The Petrified Forest, I would have always planned that city to have been our launching point for this trip. But in my mind, made up of memories left over from childhood road trips, nothing is near The Grand Canyon. In a memory that is most likely horrifically unfair to my parents, I remember driving 4 hours to see the Grand Canyon, looking over the edge for half a minute, eating a meal, and then driving 4 hours back.

(In reality, we apparently went to The Grand Canyon twice, but I definitely only remember one visit. The North Rim is in the middle of nowhere, but the South Rim is not. I think their visit to The South Rim must have been with their secret other children – there is no other explanation.)

So after driving north through Arizona after our trip to Saguaro, we decamped in Flagstaff for two nights – we’d spend a day at The Grand Canyon, then another night in Flagstaff, then head east to The Petrified Forest.

The drive to The Grand Canyon from Flagstaff is only 1 1/2 hours, so we arrived when the chill had not yet left the day. After all, it was the tail end of a freak winter event, and if there were ever a ledge for wind to travel up, it’s The Grand Canyon.

But that did not detract from our awe and joy at seeing it.

We slowly walked two miles around the rim, and were astounded at the lack of guardrails or signage telling people not to be stupid.

We also were amazed at the people we saw being stupid. Especially considering the slippery ground, thanks to icy snow.Pictured: Bird not being stupid. If only humans had wings like birds, they could also not be stupid around The Grand Canyon. 

Although I adore heights, watching other people (especially children) near the edge of cliffs usually makes me nervous. But Chris was the surprising parent on this trip: he became Safety Dad, reminding the kids not to get too close, asking everyone to back up a bit, testing the integrity of the barriers, and having that constant slightly queasy feeling in his stomach from the sheer depth of the canyon…and meanwhile I was pretty okay. With our own people being careful, that is. With regards to other stupid people – I just had to not watch.

The rim walk is just incredible, watching the scenery change as you walk around bends and next to new parts of the canyon. Also cool was watching the canyon change throughout the day as the sun was overhead and there were no shadows, to deepening shadows, giving the canyon more depth, back to no shadows as the sun set.

We ate a lovely lunch at the restaurant facing the canyon, having the place nearly to ourselves, which is how the entire day had been. February at The Grand Canyon is an introvert’s miracle – there were long stretches of our walk where we saw zero other people. I’m pretty sure that if we tried to go back at a more accommodating time weather-wise, we’d be immediately claustrophobic from the crowds – we definitely prefer to have our canyons to ourselves.

Other than the rim trail, we did not actually hike – although we did go to the entrance of The Bright Angel Trail and stare at the icy, slippery, barrier-less cliffside trail in shock and horror, very happy with our decision to leave no time for hiking. But we got our picture in front of that treacherous trail, at least.

We did enjoy watching other people walk back up the trail, though, and I was especially fascinated by this natural archway they got to travel through.
I bought a book at the gift shop, Ranger Confidential, which I just finished reading recently. The book is basically a former park ranger processing her grief at all of the deaths, dismemberments, and criminals she dealt with while working at The Grand Canyon. Now that I understand exactly how easy (and common) it is to die at The Grand Canyon, I can definitively say that I have no regrets at not hiking down that trail in the ice.

Maybe one day, in better weather, but maybe not. I’m cool seeing it all from the top as well.

Our day spent alone with the canyon was incredible, and it singlehandedly made that chaotic day spent rearranging our trip in the Houston airport totally worthwhile.

Saguaro National Park.

Saguaro National Park.

It’s a tiny little spit of land – or actually two spits – one hugging each side of Tucson like strangers in the airport that insist on sitting right next to you, despite the luggage barrier you tried to create.

We’d not planned on going to it, as aforementioned, but when one finds themselves unexpectedly in a city squeezed betwixt two halves of a National Park, and one is on a mission to go to as many national parks as possible, one absolutely goes to Saguaro National Park.

We chose the western Saguaro, in the Rincon Mountains, which was fun for me because I run in Hoka Rincon shoes, and Hoka picks the most random things to name their shoes after – to the point you don’t even realize they’re named after anything – and did I know my shoes were named after a mountain range in far south Arizona? I did not. But now I do.

There is an eight mile one-way loop road that traverses through the ups and downs of the mountains (which are really more like hills, or what we call mountains in Alabama, compared to the mountains in northern Arizona, but if we can call them mountains, Rincon can call them mountains), with multiple pull-offs and hiking trails going through the desert.

This was our first stop, enjoying the long view of the more mountainous mountains in the background and the saguaros in the foreground.

Before we get too far into this post, I am certain that my very exacting 11 year old son would like for me to point out that Saguaro is pronounced sah-WAHR-o. The g is very, very silent – and if Noah hears even a hint of a g, he WILL correct you with a huff.

Poor Chris.

Or maybe Chris just likes getting indignant sighs from his son.

One or the other.

Saguaros are incredible.

They can live for 200 years and grow up to 80 feet tall. They deserve the right to create amusing shapes to entertain themselves and their fellow Saguarans as they lope through the centuries.

Wait. He deserves a closer look.

I would very much like to know if they can be classified as a vegetable because if so, that guy totally deserves his own VeggieTales movie. Maybe a story about appreciating personal space and being a bit prickly to those who do not?

We drove incredibly slowly through the park, enjoying each pull-off with its varying views, and taking a couple of breaks for hiking. We continued to marvel at how much nicer this weather was than the zero degree weather we could have been enjoying in New Mexico.

One of the creepier sights we saw along our walks were Saguaro Skeletons.

If they can live to 200, how old is that corpse?

The last pull-off we found had some fantastic rock formations with even more fantastic views.

The kids are always up for a climb, so though they look like tiny specks in the distance, they enjoyed figuring out how to scale the massive rocks and peek in their caves. Sadly, being February and all, no creatures were found.

We spent several hours in Saguaro, just doing the 8 mile drive and a couple of trails and climbs, but all of us adored it. The Saguaros are so unique and fascinating, and we all enjoyed finding the next weird one. Besides the Saguaros, there were dozens of other bizarre cacti just waiting to attack our pants legs or our shoes – at one point I had to turn my leggings inside out to remove a rogue spine that somehow traveled through the fabric and up my leg.

When we left Saguaro, we drove 4 hours north (passing by miles of the Airplane Boneyard as we headed out of Tucson) to our next newly-scheduled stop: Flagstaff, Arizona. Not that we ever explored any of Flagstaff itself (aside from some seriously good Fish and Chips when we arrived). Flagstaff was just the next home base for our next day’s adventure: The Grand Canyon.

To Be Continued… 

Making Travel Lemonade on the Fly.

We’ve had a solid run of unsurprising air travel. On time flights. Made connections. Baggage arriving with us. Nobody in the family has used an air sickness bag. Yet.

But we pushed our luck a little too far scheduling a trip to the high desert in peak winter.

In our defense, we thought it was a solid plan. We had a few days in February that we had set aside for travel. A few months ago we asked ourselves “where can we go in February that will not be cold?”

“The desert!” – it seemed like a logical conclusion.

I’d been wanting particularly to take the kids to see the Painted Desert, one of my favorite memories from childhood travel, so I checked the average temps of that area, and it seemed like a solid choice. We planned our trip, flying into Albuquerque, and staying in Gallup, NM. Our chief aim would be spending one or two days in the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, and then we had a list of other less well-known options nearby to fill our remaining couple of days.

We did not, however, have any way of knowing that there would be a freak winter storm with blizzard levels of snow and wind headed straight for New Mexico, and beginning just before we were to land, thereby giving us the opportunity of driving through the desert blizzard, and of experiencing below zero temperatures for the first time in our lives.

As the trip got closer and the forecast grew whiter, we were not amused. This is not the desert we had envisioned.

But we had the tickets and we were going to try and make this work. We got up in the 3am hour and headed to the Birmingham airport to forge ahead.

Perhaps the Flight Attendant’s little friend should have been our first clue that the day wasn’t going to go exactly as planned.

He kept showing up during our first flight in weird places, like chilling outside the bathroom door,

or strapped into an empty seat, or standing on top of the last seat on the plane when it was time to land.

Did I think Chuckie was going to somersault into me as we hit the ground? Yes. Did this make me giggle? Also yes.

He was a special friend. And, when inquired as to their relationship, the flight attendant explained that Chuckie was his “Emotional Support Doll.”

I felt supported.

But it was that flight with Chuckie that was ultimately our downfall – it was delayed an hour from taking off due to fog in Houston.

Not snow,

not a blizzard,

not ice –

stinking fog changed the trajectory of our week.

Because that delay led to us having to move our next flight from Houston to Albuquerque back one flight. And although the original flight to Albuquerque made it to the destination just before the snow started, the second flight was not so lucky…

When our Chuckified Flight landed in Houston, we began checking the weather. It was definitely now snowing in Albuquerque, but airlines knew how to handle this sort of contingency, right? Our next flight still showed “on time”, so we got our lunch and BELIEVED as hard as we could that we would be in New Mexico in just a couple of hours.

(Chris might or might not have been also envisioning getting stuck on the highway in one of those 24 hour blockades of cars stuck in snow and ice, but he chose not to share those worst case scenarios with the family.)

The Houston airport was chaos. People sprinting here and there as gates got shuffled, people wailing in terror as flights got cancelled – both due to the weather blanketing the midwestern quarter of the country and due to staffing shortages.

But our flight still held.

Until it didn’t.

Ten minutes – TEN MINUTES before boarding, the sign above the gate changed from “On Time” to “Canceled.” Just like that. No delayed. No yellow light in between the green and red. Just…canceled.

The snow had gotten too bad, the visibility was gone, and Albuquerque was not going to happen.

So now it was game time.

We had never experienced this particular travel situation before. How would Callahans react? Would they give up and find a flight home? Would they stay in Houston and make the best of it? Or would they try to find some way out of this airport and fly to somewhere halfway interesting?

(Sorry, Houston. But I have issues with Texas. Too many day-long drives through the emptylands of your state to ever want to visit again.)

I began looking around the terminal in which we were now stranded, checking to see what other destinations were available.

Phoenix – but that flight wasn’t leaving for several hours, and the employee I roped into helping me also added that it was full.

Tucson. Could Tucson work? It was much further south than we planned on going, but the upside of that would be a definite lack of snow and below zero temperatures. And also, it got us out of the Houston airport, which was growing more hysterical by the moment.

There were two flights headed to Tucson, both currently delayed due to staffing shortages. They could transfer us to one of those flights, but it took over an hour and five customer service phone calls to make the transfer without any charge. Meanwhile, we canceled our hotel and rental car in Albuquerque, rebooked a hotel in Tucson for one night (until we figured out what we were doing) and booked a one-way rental car from Tucson to the currently-supposed eventual destination of our return flight from Albuquerque.

A couple of hours later and about five more reasons given for delays, we were headed to Tucson, Arizona – home of Saguaro National Park and 55 degree weather. And approximately six hours later than we’d intended to arrive at a hotel, we checked into Tucson, having driven on no snowy roads nor gotten stuck in any icy embankments. As opposed to the current state of the state of New Mexico.

The uncertainty and the airport and the waking up well before sunrise had definitely left us all exhausted, so we ordered room service, laid out a map of Arizona, did some travel time figuring, and had a family strategy meeting, then a vote.

This was my original plan’s notes, the entire right page now being moot.

And these were my new groggy attempts at re-planning, trying to figure out what the priorities were, how far it would take to get places, and what we were going to do with ourselves for the next four days.

Should we stay in Tucson and enjoy where we serendipitously ended up?

Or should we turn this into a road trip – something I’d always avoided because it felt exhausting – and, due to the direction we’d have to travel to eventually end up in Albuquerque, see three national parks instead of the intended number of one?

We gave everyone a secret ballot to rate their priorities and desires, and there were understandably mixed feelings due to exhaustion and uncertainty, so we left the final vote until morning after a good night’s sleep for everyone.

The next morning, after we ate a fancy breakfast looking out on half a dozen heated pools and lovely mountains,

then went out back and touched our first cactus – because that’s what you do in Tucson.

Then we decided: though we would earmark Tucson for a return visit (because this hotel would be awesome in slightly warmer weather), we would do it: we would road trip.

We would see Saguaro National Park, we would eventually see Petrified Forest National Park, and in between the two, we would go to the Ultimate: The Grand Canyon.

So from our completely upended travel day, we learned important lessons.

…Change is inevitable. Often unavoidable. Frequently disconcerting.

…Fog can be a dark horse gamechanger.

…If you ever get on a flight with Chuckie, know it’s going to be an interesting day.

…If the desert is too blizzardy, go to a more deserty desert.

And we now have a new family saying:

If Albuquerque cancels, let’s try for Tucson.

To Be Continued…