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.
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?
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.
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 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.
I had become convinced that the Callahans had superpower genes.
None of us, and only a mere single one of our extended relations on either side of our family, had contracted Covid. This felt very promising that we were part of The Chosen Remnant of people that simply seemed not able to catch this world-rocking disease.
This belief did not keep us from getting vaccinated, wearing masks when appropriate, and doing all the things we were supposed to with the vigor of the people-pleasing-rule-followers that we all are. We just felt like, underneath it all, that we were Special. With a Capital S.
Until The Dawn of Omicron.
Omicron does not care if you are Special with a Capital S.
Omicron does not care if you are masked.
Omicron does not care if you live in a cave, isolated from other human beings by a considerable amount of mileage and wilderness.
Omicron will find you. Omicron will infect you. Omicron will be there to infuse itself into your being.
It was I who fell to Omicron. On the last day of 2021, I began to feel sick. I went on a run, hoping to flush whatever was bugging me out of my system, but felt even sicker after my run. I took a test – negative.
Well, I thought, I may have a cold, but at least my superhuman power of avoiding Covid is sticking. I still chose to avoid people for the rest of my sickness, and spent the first weekend of the New Year at home.
As the weekend progressed and my burning skin, low-grade fever, and my aches and snottiness and coughing continued, I began to get suspicious. When I began getting weird and specific head pressure and headaches every time I moved my head, I became downright convinced. How could this not be Covid? I have never had movement-sensitive headaches in my life. This was weird. I felt invaded. And I didn’t like it.
On Tuesday, after feeling especially worse, I took another test. It was immediately, darkly, mercilessly positive.
So. Very. Positive.
Immediately I felt distraught and emotional. I knew logically that, being vaccinated, and being that Omicron was supposed to be the lighter version of this virus, I would be fine. But the impact of my body being invaded by something that has been pervasive in all thoughts and life and actions and avoidance for nearly two years was gross and icky and disturbing.
Within two hours of my positive test, I had gifts of sorbet, chocolate cookies, and quiche on my doorstep from two different friends and my mother. This care helped my levels of frustration greatly – especially the chocolate. Chocolate helps everything.
But, for fear of becoming quite dull and a bit melancholy in writing a narrative of my full two weeks of Covidial experience, I thought instead I’d write a couple of lists.
Weirdest Covid Symptoms:
I did, and continue to, sleep more than I’ve slept in my adult life. I went from averaging 6 1/2 hours of sleep at night to averaging nearly 8 hours of sleep a night – and over the weekend after I was mostly over Covid, was sleepy enough two days in a row to NAP. I DO NOT NAP. I have mixed feelings about this sleep development – but mostly good ones.
Although I had nearly no hunger during the most concentrated days of Covid and only ate one meal a day, I had very specific cravings throughout and that continue afterward.
Hungarian Chicken Paprikash – I wanted it the entire time I was sick. The day I finally felt better, I went grocery shopping and I made it. It was so good.
Sunkist Fruit Gems. I haven’t had these in literally years and they don’t exactly sell them in stores around here. I wanted them so badly that I looked them up on Amazon, but wasn’t willing to buy 1 to 5 pounds of them, which seemed excessive, especially since I remember them as being way too sweet of a candy to actually want. I substituted a bag of Spice Drops from the grocery store – much less sweet, but same consistency. It worked. Kinda. But I still want a Fruit Gem.
Dream Cake. This one doesn’t even exist, but I had a vivid dream several days after recovering fully from COVID wherein I added sour cream to the cake and icing recipe of our family’s much beloved multi-generational chocolate cake recipe. I woke up thinking about it, couldn’t quit thinking about it, and totally made the cake, substituting the milk in the recipe for sour cream. It was incredible. Though perhaps less noticeable a difference than I expected.
Best Recommendations for Covid:
Get a steroid early and often. I got one, on symptom day 13, and went from being totally panicked that I was still very sick on day 12 to running 8.3 miles and cooking Hungarian Chicken Paprikash on day 14. I’m now somewhere in the day late-20s, still not 100% right, and I still kinda want a daily steroid shot.
Don’t feel guilty about laying around, binging shows, and reading all the books, but also have some point in every day where you get active. I needed a quarantine – a quiet time for laziness. But my lungs needed me to keep moving. So I did both.
Make iPhone Stickers of one of your children. I worked on this project for 3 days straight and cannot be happier with my 65 sticker collection of Noah:
And, for the record, Noah does use his own stickers. With liberality. Because they’re amazing.
In conclusion, no Callahans are Special. The other three got it as well, though thankfully much, much milder versions than I received. So now we’re in our reboot mode – we are all safe from the ravages of Covid until whenever Omicron antibodies wear off.
Or until an even more menacing Greek Letter shows up that doesn’t care that I just had Omicron.
How about you? Are there any of you left that are Special with a capital S?
When I turned 15, I went to the DMV on my birthday, my anticipation too high to wait another day for the pleasure of being a licensed (learning) driver.
But I failed the written test on my first try.
I was mortified. Embarrassed. Humiliated. I made my mom swear not to tell my older brother, whom I was sure had passed his test with no problem.
(Although who knows – perhaps he’d likewise made my mom swear not to tell me that he failed it four times in a row. One can never tell.)
I was by far the more studious of the two of us, but I had assumed (poorly) that the test would be common sense, so didn’t exactly study the boring, small-print manual.
It was not common sense.
I will never forget this one question in particular that enflamed my fifteen-year-old sense of justice…
“When should you switch on your turn signal?
a. 50 feet before the turn
b. 100 feet before the turn
c. 150 feet before the turn
d. 200 feet before the turn.”
First of all I couldn’t figure for the life of me how I, a 15 year old, should be able to gauge with my eyeballs the difference between those distances.
I actually still don’t, as a 40 year old.
Second of all, I assumed the longer the distance the better, so I chose the longest.
The correct answer was not, after all, the longest.
I was so very indignant over that dumb dumb dumb question.
They let me repeat the test the same day, and I passed – just barely. But it was good enough for me.
So as Ali approached the age of 15, I was not going to let my daughter repeat my embarrassments. I got her a driver’s manual months ago, downloaded the test practice app for her, and stressed to her my lingering abject humiliation at my own failures.
And to supplement the book learning, we’d been going to the parking lot of our local mega-church to practice driving with regularity, thereby making my daughter immediately look half a decade older.
I already felt badly that her birthday fell on a Saturday, and thus she could not get her permit on her birthday (and I felt doubly bad that this means that her 16th will fall on a Sunday so she’ll have to go an entire 24 hours at the age of 16 without being able to drive independently.)
So I scheduled her an appointment for the next week.
But alas. My curse followed her.
I was not aware of the difficulty, the challenge, the absolute QUEST that it is to obtain a learner’s permit in the state of Alabama. And my brain had been rather scrambled for the two weeks prior, thanks to my finally falling to Covid.
…The state does not put the document requirements on the same website as the test appointments.
…The state does not provide a handy list of documents required in the appointment confirmation email.
…The state says, in fact, zero about anything with regards to documents needed in the second email, the appointment reminder email.
This is, in fact, a disaster waiting to happen to those recently scrambled by Covid.
So I, in my leftover fog, foolishly thought I simply should be prepared to prove her age, and so I was rather proud of myself for my forethought, taking her birth certificate with us to our appointment.
Although I’d been “cleared” from quarantine for several days, this was my first actual outing after being ailing and indoors for two weeks.
I do not recommend the Department of Transportation as your first outing after an especially ferocious bout with Covid.
We arrived, and there was a rather formidable Department of Transportation Enforcer of Documentation at the door, checking documents before allowing people into the building.
The gentleman in front of us had an entire portfolio that he had to go through with her, piece by piece, as we fidgeted and froze behind him. I began to get worried, but not entirely, because he was not a citizen, so she was checking all sorts of immigration and visa and N-394y7t50 forms and so on.
Surely she’s just going to wave us in after seeing we have a birth certificate…..right?
No. She actually spent about five seconds determining that we were entirely unfit for entrance, and rattled off the list of things we needed in order to come back if we wished to be found not lacking in her presence.
A birth certificate,
A social security card,
A particular form signed by a school official proving enrollment
And, she didn’t even tell us there was another requirement that we found once we dug around and found the requirements – two proofs of residence.
We left panicked and filled with a familiar humiliation (or at least I did.)
I had passed down my curse to my daughter.
Ali, however, was very upbeat and understanding, and even tried to take the blame upon herself, as she was sure those requirements were listed at the beginning of her driver’s manual – a list she assumed applied to an actual license, not a learner’s permit.
I spent the afternoon gathering documents, gaining advice from friends, and researching the best place to go to attempt our license attainment without an appointment, as at this point there were no appointments available for weeks. We would have to attempt The Dreaded Walk-In.
The next morning, we set off to a different office in a different county that was considered superior based on the survey of friends who had already suffered The Humiliations of the DOT.
We arrived 8 minutes before they opened, and joined the line of those waiting for bureaucratic slaughter. We gauged our chances of success. There were approximately 15 people in line in front of us, and two appeared to be 15 years old. We felt our chances of success were good – surely we would not be turned away to come back another day and/or commanded to procure an appointment.
When we were allowed inside, they immediately separated us, told me to give Ali all of her documents, and led her back to the a holding pen. I was left to wait and pray that I’d achieved optimal documentation.
Our friends were right – this was the correct location to visit. Other than two nervous escapes from her confinement to seek me out for money – $5 to take the test and $36.25 to pay for her license after she passed it (with a much higher grade than her mother) – everything went smoothly and we left the building, license in hand, 50 minutes after we had arrived.
At Chris’ suggestion, I drove us to Oak Mountain State Park for her to take her first legal-on-real-roads drive. It’s the perfect road for it – low speed limit, 9ish miles long, little traffic, few intersections. We pulled into the petting farm parking lot shortly after the entrance and swapped seats.
She adjusted her chair, fastened her seatbelt, took a deep sigh.
And she started her driving career with the word “crap.”
(Which feels like it should be the first sentence of a book.)
The gravity of the moment and her age and the fact that she was about to be driving on a real road with other real cars was an overwhelming moment.
She drove around the parking lot a few times, then pulled up to to the actual road, ready to turn left.
And said “Crappity crap.”
I couldn’t help understand her sentiments 100% and agree in my own feelings a tiny bit.
But she went forth. And she drove. And the Curse of the Learner’s Permit was broken.
I used all of my strategies in making it the least expensive trip possible.
It was just myself and the kids – no husband or friend to be the backup adult-in-charge or to give me an adult to talk to.
Regarding cost, the children and I flew to Denver (a nonstop, 2.5 hour flight), rented an SUV, and stayed in a hotel – in two adjoining rooms – for a grand total travel cost of $647.
Let me clarify that we still spent money on food and activities while we were there, and that is not included in the $647. That figure is for our three flights, our rental car, and our two hotel rooms for four nights.
Here’s how I did it:
We went to Colorado because there was a great flight deal, and because Rocky Mountain National Park was on my list of field trips that we want to accomplish in the next four years. I knew about the great flight deal because I subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, which sends me email alerts about great deals from my airport. The Denver flights, at $150 each, were labeled an “epic deal” and the lowest price they’d been in 3 years.
When I booked my flight, straight through the airline’s website, they offered me a $300 statement credit if I opened a credit card. An important feature of using an airline’s credit card to book flights: not only did opening a credit card save me $300 on our flights (bringing our grand total for three flights down to $170), but it also gave us free checked bags for two people*, therefore saving us $120 ($30 each, each way.)* Our Colorado flights were through American Air; United Airline’s credit card gets you free checked bags for more than two people – I don’t know exactly how many, but I did this same credit card deal with United when we went to Montana, and got four people’s checked bags for free, saving $240 on baggage fees.
Another note – these immediate cash off offers seem to only come up when you’re in the process of booking a flight – not by searching for them beforehand.
For all of our normal purchases, both business and home, we use a credit card** that earns Marriott points. I discovered a decade ago that Marriott has the best perks for credit card points of any hotel line, and immediately dove into the deep end of maximizing them. Because of simply using credit cards well (i.e. I never allow a balance to carry forward and therefore never pay interest for the “privilege” of using the credit card), I am Titanium Elite status with Marriott, get guaranteed 4pm checkout, have more free nights than I can use, always get free breakfast, and many other perks each year. So our two adjoining hotel rooms for four nights were on points and completely free.
This year in total, I have redeemed 17 nights of free stays (many at seriously nice hotels and resorts), and have already booked 17 more nights so far for next year, and still have six free unused nights in my account plus a good number of points.
**The best Marriott point earning system is on the Amex Business Card (this referral link gets you the best welcome bonus I can find). We also use the Amex personal card (there’s not a good intro bonus on the one with a low annual fee right now) and the Chase personal card.
I don’t have any great money-saving strategies for rental cars (or at least not yet – feel free to pass any on), so our car was our highest travel expense, coming in at $477.
I know that some people don’t feel comfortable opening multiple credit cards and I totally get that. However, I have found that with careful organization and planning, it can be very beneficial for zero or minimal cost. If a credit card has an annual fee and I don’t plan on using it again, I close it. If it doesn’t have an annual fee, I usually leave it open, because somehow, it actually increases my credit score to have multiple open accounts. I have found that when I close a credit card account, my credit score goes down. (Along the same nonsensical line, when I paid off Chris’ car loan early, his credit score went down by 30 points.) So don’t use the credit card strategy if it isn’t safe for you. But if you can do it without ever paying interest, the credit card points game is an incredible way to get free travel, perks, and other benefits.
As for the other experiment, traveling on a vacation with one adult and two kids, it was a winning (and for a minute, losing,) experiment.
When the kids were little, it would not have been fun for me, at all in any way, to travel alone with them without another adult to adult with. However, they’re 10 and 14 now, and it’s like traveling with two near-adults that I enjoy.
(It might not have been quite as relaxing if I hadn’t had my own hotel room to introvert in at the end of the day, but it was great.)
(That’s when I was like “Okay maybe another adult along would have been a good idea.”)
(Ali felt the same.)
But it prompted a great conversation on “what to do if you find yourself in an emergency situation with an incapacitated grownup and how it will all be okay and you will never be an orphan forever in Colorado.”
But other than that, it was great. Highly recommended. Just, you know. Have meds on hand.
The third day of our Colorado trip was the day Noah had been waiting for: Rocky Mountain National Park.
The kid is in the middle of a serious love affair with National Parks, so it didn’t matter how cool horseback riding was (or whether he’d admit it or not) – what he wanted was national parks and national parks only.
We started our day before the sun came up with Chick-Fil-a for breakfast – always good to have a familiar comfort food before driving potentially hazardous mountain roads for which a southerner has no training.
The worker said “Oh, you must be on your way to school!”
We looked at each other and nodded.
If only all of our school days looked like this.
Although it was still mild and definitely autumn in the plains of our home base Loveland, we’d be traveling 5,000 feet in elevation along winding roads straight into an early winter – it would be snowing in the park.
I wasn’t sure how I would do with the elevation change – my dysautonomia didn’t really prefer the heights of Montana, and this would be higher. When we rolled into Estes Park, the tiny town right outside the national park (Elevation 7,522′), it hit me hard. I thought I was going to have to pull over and pass out or throw up or both, and after the previous trip to the ER, Ali was on edge in general about my health. The feeling passed, but I went ahead and warned the kids for good measure: “If I get sick, it’s the elevation, not an allergic reaction. Please do not freak out.”
We continued to the park entrance, where the snow overtook us almost immediately. We kept climbing upward on several miles of curvy park roads, passed a massive herd of elk, not soon after which I was forced to carefully try out my uneducated Alabama snow-driving skills.
We made it to our trailhead at Bear Lake (Elevation 9,449′), and as soon as the kids stepped out of the car, they were freezing.
This was not a good sign.
Thankfully, it was just the first shock and the windy parking lot.
As soon as we got on the gloriously magical first trail around Bear Lake, we were all in awe.
Oh my goodness the majesty. It was nearly too much.
After slowly circling the lake with awe and glee (and me slipping and falling on my butt for the first time), we continued onto our next trail to Nymph Lake. It was more of an uphill hike, and by now the trails were quite slippery and it became difficult to stay upright. There were a few falls, a good number of slips, and a deep knowledge that we would be sore in new places the next day.
But it was totally worth it. And the views on the way there were incredible – ready for their epic journey movie debut.
Nymph Lake was completely covered in snow, implying that it had some level of frozenness to it.
Being that it was still early October, though, one would assume there wasn’t much of an ice layer. Noah, however, was convinced that he needed to see if it would hold him. Clearly his National Park Mania was in full effect, because it took me way too long to convince my normally rule-following overly-cautious kid that NO HE COULD NOT TEST THE ICE OF NYMPH LAKE WITH HIS BODY. Poor Mistreated Kid.
We continued upward, heading for the next lake, but the trail continued increasing its incline and slipperiness, so we found a trail pull-out with a lovely view and had a bit of a snowball fight and snow angel making and general playing in the snow instead.
We hiked back down, or rather slip-slid back down to the parking lot, and drove carefully to our next trailhead. Thankfully, other parts of the country are delightfully prepared for such weather anomalies as snow, and the snow-ploughs had made the roads completely drivable, despite the ever-increasing snowfall. By now, Alabama would be completely shut down for a week.
Our next stop was the Alberta Falls trail.
The snow was deeper, and coming down harder, and my poor deprived Alabama children really just wanted to have a snow day, so we’d hike about 100 feet, then stop and build snowmen, or have snowball fights, or build igloos made of snowballs, or whatever their bursting hearts desired.
I was happy to stand around and watch and let snow build up on my hat.
Alberta Falls was cool, but hard to photograph. The deep snow hike was really the feature for the kids.
We’d hiked around 5 miles in the snow at that point, which takes a lot longer than a dry hike, so we began our descent out of the park. The snow made the drive just incredible.
Back down in Estes Park, you’d have never known it had snowed on us the entire time we were in the park. It was gorgeous and sunny, and the Aspen trees were glowing in the light.
As we drove back down the mountain and into Loveland, we were greeted by something that belonged on our side of the country – Blue Angels flying directly over our heads.
After a bit of googling, we realized that they had flown in from Pensacola for an airshow in two days, but that they were practicing their maneuvers that day.
We found a place to pull off and watch a bit, and realized that it’s way more fun to watch practice than to wait around at an airfield all day to see these guys. It was a perfect surprise ending to our adventurous day.
Our fourth and final day in Colorado was to be a moving road trip: a stop in Boulder for souvenirs, then on to Golden Gate State Park for a hike, then our final stop, the Georgetown Loop Railroad – something I was personally really looking forward to.
Our hike at the State Park started at an incredible overlook – one that we spent half a second looking at because the wind was SO COLD WE COULD NOT HANDLE IT.
Despite our multiple layers and hats and gloves and the fact that we’d snow hiked in the National Park the day before without issues, my fingers were so numb when we started hiking that they ached an unending ache. Could I get frostbite in Colorado in October? I was finding out.
The hike was downhill into a ravine, where I found one of the only stands of aspen trees that had not shed quite all of their leaves, trees that lovingly provided a skirt of fallen multicolored leaves for me to collect, hike back up the hill holding onto, put into my travel leaf press, and turn into art later.
Thank you, bottom-of-the-hill trees.
We went from achingly cold to sweating and stripping layers way too quickly.
It was as if the state park was in a weather warp instead of a time warp. On our way back up the hill, we were carrying fallen leaves and ten items of shed clothing each. And also sweating.
We made it back up the hill, and the breeze had miraculously disappeared. NOW we could appreciate the view.
From there, we drove through the most incredible mountains, adorable mountain towns, and in general were overwhelmed by the never-ending beauty and our inability to capture it all.
Our next stop: The Georgetown Loop Railroad. By far the most “tourist” thing we did all week, but an antique narrow gauge train! Through mountain passes! Who could resist??
Not me, that’s who. Even when we almost boarded, heard a loud clank and the engineer yell “Oh NO that’s not GOOD at ALL!!”, then they asked us to wait around for 30 minutes because our engine was broken and they’d have to bring over the spare from the other station, and we might as well go shopping, but we chose not to, which was a good idea since the other train arrived in 7 minutes and they had us board again. Not sure what happened to all those shoppers, but we had a nice roomy train car for ourselves. And we definitely weren’t smug about our decision.
The train was a magical and unique experience.
The scenery was gorgeous, and the photograph lighting was just about perfect.
I mean, it had its loud moments – especially on the way back when the engine was pulling us, and we went from being at the back of the train to the front of the train with the whistle facing us. But worth it? Absolutely.
So what did I learn about our little experiment in one-responsible-adult traveling?
Always carry an epi-pen, even if no one has known active allergies.
If your kids are in double digits, it’s totally doable – even if they change your gate 30 minutes before boarding your return flight and you have to hike/run over a mile in the country’s biggest airport with overstuffed carry-ons to make your flight. We hiked right past screaming toddlers being slowly dragged down long corridors and I thanked the Lord above for older children.
Let the kids research and plan at least some of the trip. It’s an awesome time saver and good Google training.
It’s a totally achievable and worthwhile adventure.
In Mid-October, The week after I turned forty, the children and I flew to Colorado.
It was rather a last minute trip, taken because I was desperate to get out of town, there was a great deal on flights and that I was able to combine with several other tricks to make the trip incredibly cheap (I’ll explain how I got four airline tickets, 4 nights of hotel, and 5 days of a rental car for $600 in another post), I turned forty, it fit into our new Natural Wonders Field Trip Plan, I now have to be forty, and Chris, who had to work and couldn’t join us, told me “fly, be free! Enjoy!”, because he’s kinda the best. And trips are the best way to comfort your wife who is now forty.
We flew into Denver, a bizarrely short direct flight from Birmingham in which I was reminded again that flying alone with double-digit-aged-kids is SO DANG EASY, then we drove an hour to Loveland, Colorado, a small town at the base of the Rockies.
We dropped off our bags at the hotel and went directly to lunch – to a Greek Restaurant Ali had found in her research, as she was thoughtfully trying to carry out mine and Chris’ travel tradition of always eating Greek wherever we go. It was delicious and the kids got to experience cheese being set on fire tableside (Saganaki) and all the other Greek cuisine wonderment.
Which was all fine and great until we were driving back to the hotel, less than two hours after having landed in Colorado with only one responsible adult, and I began having an anaphylactic reaction to *something* from lunch.
It began with a feeling like I had a shirt that was too tight against my neck, and I started frantically pulling at my shirt while driving.
It was at this point that Ali began questioning the wisdom of traveling with only one adult, and perhaps wishing she’d had more than two driving lessons.
By the time we got back to the hotel, my throat felt like it had swollen a good deal, so I took a Benadryl and sat down and tried to stay calm.
Staying calm about throat swelling is not easy when one has two children who are not staying calm about one’s throat swelling.
It was the most upsetting for Ali, who was old enough to envision things like becoming an orphan in Loveland Colorado. After the Benadryl didn’t help and I got to the point where I was having trouble swallowing spit, I decided the safest course was to be in the ER, where at least no one had to worry about getting me medical attention if I couldn’t drive. Or breathe.
Breathing as zen and calmly as I could, I drove one tenth of a mile to the ER that I could literally see out of the hotel room window. They immediately started me on medication to counteract the allergic reaction to who-knows-what (have I all of a sudden developed an allergy to enflamed cheese?), and in the most efficient ER visit in the history of the world, they fixed me, they discharged me, and they filled a prescription to counteract future problems in a grand total of 80 minutes.
It was incredible.
And from there, we drove straight to Devil’s Backbone for a hike. I didn’t have scissors to cut off my sturdy hospital bracelet, so I just let it add flair to the day.
Because we weren’t missing any more of this trip to misguided culinary choices, and what better to recover from a partial anaphylactic reaction than a gorgeous hike in a higher-than-acclimated elevation?
So we started our *real*Colorado trip amongst the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in awe of the incredible aspens, multiple warnings of mountain lions (much more interesting than the venomous snake signs back home), and incredible views of the Rocky Mountains.
Forgive me for a whole-buncha-photos in a row.
Any question as to why we chose Loveland as our home base should be answered with this hike.
We did not see any mountain lions, and I felt back to normal, and was so glad that we capitalized on our first day in Colorado AND got to show anaphylaxis who’s boss.
But we did swap around two days of our schedule, as I needed one more day between me and the ER before I was willing to drive 6,000 feet higher in elevation on curvy mountain roads in the snow to Rocky Mountain National Park.
So for our next day, we chose to stay in Loveland and do a bit of everything – which ended up being an incredible choice.
We visited the Love sculptures all over town,
Found other fun murals in the historic downtown,
Hiked up a butte that had 360 degree views, and was the highest point within the city of Loveland,
But the Butte’s trail dangers weren’t nearly as fun as Devil’s Backbone,
And clearly Ali had zero fear of Golf Course Dangers,
So we went back to Devil’s Backbone and Mountain Lion territory for a bit because it was so incredible the day before.But our most exciting moment of this day was our horseback ride.
That morning I happened to get a Facebook Ad for Sylvan Dale Horse Ranch, and called on the off-chance that they had availability within the next few hours – and they did.
Ali and I were thrilled. Noah did NOT want to horseback ride AT ALL, as you can tell in this picture right after he got on his horse, Hollywood.
Our guide Lori was SO perfect for him. If he acted scared or complained, she’d be like “Here, hold my Diet Coke for a minute. I need to make an adjustment.”
I mean, what can you do with THAT? You can hold the Diet Coke and shut up, that’s what you can do.
The ride was so incredibly dreamy,
So breathtakingly gorgeous.
Climbing up and down mountains on horses was a fascinating sensation – lucky for Noah, Hollywood was the most cautious mountain horse of all time, so he had nothing to pretend to complain about.
By midway through our ride, Noah was actually admitting to the fact that he wasn’t hating his life.
And by the end, he actually said that he liked it. Which is the equivalent of saying “THIS IS THE BEST THING I’VE EVER DONE THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR NOT LISTENING TO MY SILLY PROTESTATIONS DEAREST MOTHER BECAUSE YOU ARE SO WISE AND I AM SO NOT!”
Ali and I agreed that it was the best horseback ride anyone could ever dream of, and we’d totally go back to Colorado just to relive the magic.
I mean, even the barn was magical!
Although our next day’s adventures were also incredibly hard-to-take-in dreamy, horseback riding was ultimately my favorite two hours of the trip. And maybe even Noah’s too, but it will be about 20 years before he’d consider admitting it.
In the midst of crazy times, sometimes the little moments stand out as rays of sunshine.
The week after we got back from an epic family trip to Montana, Chris’ Dad passed away. He had been diagnosed with cancer several years ago, but this was much more sudden than we had expected.
So there was sadness and grief, and family and planning, and three days completely full of the details one must attend to for a funeral.
The kids were great sports and great help, and bore up well under the unplanned sadness and stress.
In the midst of all that, one of the more fun conversations I’ve had with my kids in a while sticks out in my mind.
The kids and I decided it to watch “Making It”, the innocent happy crafting competition show with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. But episode one led to post-show explanations of the concept of sperm banks, thanks to one of the contestants giving an abundance of information about her family background.
After all the explanations were given and questions were answered, I went ahead and recommended to Noah to save his money now and choose not to donate sperm when he’s a poor college kid so that he won’t find himself 75 years old with 37 children, and having to explain that to his wife.
(As an aside: a book recommendation for you – Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. It’s an engaging read and an incredible nonfiction tale of sperm bank mystery and intrigue.)
But back to the kids. (And by kids, I mean my fully developed ones, not any sperm in question.) We also discussed all the ins and outs, such as how you can unknowingly be related to half the town and/or your spouse if sperm banks aren’t ethical with how much they let the same guy’s sperm be used. Having never even conceptualized that such a thing existed, both of the kids found the idea of sperm banks to be completely creepy and bizarre, so I tried to create a theoretical story to show them that it doesn’t have to be weird.
“Let’s take Gloria. Gloria and Pete fell in love and got married, and they both knew that all Gloria ever wanted was to be pregnant and have a baby. BUT – alas. Before that could happen, poor unfortunate Pete got hit HARD in the nuts with a baseball, and he couldn’t make sperm anymore! They both wanted the dream to come true, so was it wrong for them to use a sperm bank if they both agreed to it? It allows them to have their dream of pregnancy and parenthood despite Pete’s unfortunate baseball situation.”
..But Ali was still skeptical. She felt like Pete would always resent the decision, and it would eventually drive a wedge in their marriage.
So there’s that.
(Y’all send thoughts and prayers Pete’s way – he’s still trying to decide whether he should deny his wife’s dreams or risk resenting her in their golden years.)
A few nights later, Noah was standing in the kitchen cutting a watermelon. Chris’ Mom was over, and she asked Noah if the watermelon was seedless.
Noah said “no…there’s seeds. But…. [he crinkled his brow in deep thought.] How do they DO that anyway?! Make seedless watermelons? That’s so weird.”
I quickly replied under my breath, “I guess those watermelons just have to go to the sperm bank.”
Noah snorted, then started hysterically laughing.
And I enjoyed my moment of incredible arrival in parenting – I can now make sperm bank jokes with my kids – and they totally get them.
“I read about it in a novel and it sounded amazing.”
“That is the EXACT reason I went to Maine last year!”
I was thrilled that Ali and I are equally inspired by literature in our desire to see the world.
Fernweh, Chris calls it. The German word (pronounced “feeyen-veh”) that means “far-sickness”, or a desperate desire to go places one has never gone before. I have it. Badly. I can yearn to be in a place I’ve never been significantly more than I yearn to go back to a place I know and love. The Faroe Islands, for instance. Look it up. If those images can’t give you Fernweh, then you definitely don’t have the same disease as me.
Ali…might have it. But she likes being home as well. But when I asked the kids a few months ago “Where in the United States would you like to fly to?”, she immediately yelled out “Montana!!”
(The same instance as Noah yelled out “Hot Tub!!”, which made things very easy to decide.)
The reason for that question was because we had a trip booked and planned for March of 2020 to Washington DC. It was literally the week of the world shutting down and everybody going on lockdown everywhere. We got flight credits for the cancelled trip, and those flight credits had to be used by December of this year. I couldn’t let those expire, so I narrowed down the times we could travel, decided August was our best month, and asked the kids where to go.
Luckily for Ali, Montana has always sounded great to me as well. I mean, if she had said Iowa (no offense, corn,) I might not have so readily made her dreams come true. But I, too, have been interested in experiencing the Big Skies of Montana for a long time.
Our friend Kelly had also had a flight credit because she was going to be traveling to DC with us last year, so we invited her along for the rain check trip. And so it was planned: the kids, Kelly and I would go Monday to Monday,
and Chris would join us on Thursday and stay until we all left on Monday.
I was not in the mood for a road trip, even though that’s basically what you’re supposed to do when you go out west, but I’m always willing to buck tradition, so we decided to go to Big Sky, Montana – a ski resort town – and limit our travel to only Yellowstone, which was an hour south. Other than that, we would explore the area in which we stayed.
I found us an affordable VRBO rental (that ended up being the best, most thoughtfully-stocked VRBO rental ever) a mile from a gorgeous waterfall trail (Ousel Falls) in a neighborhood that supposedly had its own neighborhood moose. I mean, what could be more perfect – I went to Maine and searched high and low for a moose but failed – if I could just spot the neighborhood moose in Montana, my life would be complete.
The kids hadn’t flown since Noah was 2 and Ali was 6. Now they are 10 and 14, and I was instantly amazed at how very much easier double digits makes things. They loved flying, they were amazed at every detail, they could carry their own luggage, and they could sit with my bag while I got an airport Chick-fil-a biscuit at 5am.…but dang, Noah was cute last time he flew.We flew into Bozeman, an hour north of our destination of Big Sky. I had tried to find us a place to eat lunch, but oddly almost everything was closed. We ended up at a gas-station-attached diner in a state where gas stations sell cow hides in their front yard.
The diner was delicious, and we got our second taste of Montana culture when we noticed a motorcycle gang pulling out of the parking lot – with horns on their head.
We headed south to Big Sky, which was an incredible winding road through the mountains that gave us our first taste of the glorious gorgeousness of Montana. And as soon as we got to our rental, Noah made his trip dreams come true.
We spent the afternoon realizing that we had somehow managed to land in the most scenic, beautiful place on earth – all within walking distance of our rental house.
It didn’t take us long to realize that Montana was a WAY better use of airline tickets than Washington DC – sorry, politicians.
The neighborhood we stayed in was the Meadows of Big Sky. At 6,000 feet altitude, it was a lovely winding 15 minute drive up to Big Sky Resort, where the real mountains were.
Big Sky Resort is a world class ski resort that has inexpensive (relative to skiing) summer entertainment, such as zip lining, zip swings,
and riding the ski lift up the mountain and hiking back down, which afforded incredibly bizarre weather changes – from 60 degrees and sunny to hailing and sleeting on us (still sunny) to sleeting and raining on us in howling wind (lost the sun for a minute there) back to 60 and sunny. I now understand how people can find themselves in truly perilous situations on mountain hikes.
But hiking with this sort of backdrop is totally worth the risk, even with our somewhat breathless state from the altitude.
One of Ali’s favorite moments of the entire trip was climbing the walls of Ousel Falls. She loves being as close to becoming one with nature as possible. Her climbing also helped illustrate the size of the falls.
But we all loved that hike – even though Noah is making some mysterious gang symbol in this photo.
Although there were so many to choose from, and we took full advantage of all of our neighborhood’s plentiful trails, we only tried out one other official hike nearby – Lava Lake, a 2.5 mile out and back trail up a mountain to a mountaintop lake – a hike that ran by a loudly gurgling, gorgeously clear mountain stream for most of the journey up.
The climb was gradual enough that it was enjoyable for (almost) all of us.
But regardless of out-of-breath ten-year-olds, even they can appreciate the grandeur of a lake at the top of a mountain, with other mountains reflecting into it.
Ali, continuing in her efforts to be as one with nature as possible, kept trying to find all the highest spots to climb and perch upon.
And anytime we found ourselves at our rental house in Big Sky, she was somewhere up the dirt road in her well-hidden reading spot, lying in the tall reeds, being visited by a family of 4 deer, and alarming other passerby who were not expecting a mostly-hidden girl lying in the grass with a book.
Photo of teenager in reeds unavailable due to her never revealing the exact location of her secret reading spot.
So that was our foray into the Big Sky area. Other than that, we spent two entire days in Yellowstone National Park, which was just incredible. It was a one hour drive from our house, but the drive was so gorgeous that it felt like part of the tour.
Nearly as soon as we entered Yellowstone on the first day, we came upon stopped traffic – which is always good news in Yellowstone. I didn’t have my camera handy or anything, and yet there was a bison, hurtling toward us, running angrily along the side of the road.
That’s when I realized that park is my dream. And I need to be better prepared for dreams.
I grabbed Ali’s camera and tried to take a picture, but to no avail. Before I realized the lens cap was still on, the angry bison was upon us.
Thankfully, Noah was better prepared, and from the back seat, he shot an iPad video of our first bison as he ran by our car.
Serves me right for all those years I made fun of iPad photography.
Toward the end of the day, though, God had mercy on me and sent another bison slowly ambling right by our car, happy to have his picture taken. Or maybe it was the same bison and he had finally run out of angry energy after a day of entertaining tourists.
Between our two days, we ended up seeing over a dozen lonely bison,
and this herd on a hillside.
We kept a list of all of our animal sightings – a fox, a couple of bald eagles, deer, and several elk (including this incredible scene).
We did not, however, see any moose in Yellowstone, nor did we spot any bears, though at one point traffic was stopped for 20 minutes and when we finally got up to the spot, I hopped out to see what it was, but only saw a tree being violently eaten from below. It felt like a scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we can only hope that it was an invisible moose or bear.
But although the scenery was absolutely stunning, and often more than I could take in,
The thermal features were so much more intense and plentiful than I had ever imagined. In my mind, Yellowstone was a lovely park with animals and mountains and Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Springs. I did not realize that the whole park was a supervolcano working out its anger issues through bubbles and burbles and steams and spews and terrible smells so that it didn’t erupt and destroy half our country.
Noah knew that, though. Because that kid loves his natural wonders. And he was kind enough to get me up to speed as I gasped and ogled at the incredibly alien landscape of the park.
We somehow had miraculously perfect geyser timing (there’s no cell service in the park, so good luck trying to plan your timing after entering), and showed up at Old Faithful three minutes before eruption,
And then happened to be facing the Beehive Geyser for its once-a-dayish eruption, which is taller and more angry than Old Faithful. We were really impressed with our perfect lack of planning.
Grand Prismatic Springs was by far my favorite thermal feature, and we visited it from above our first day,
and from below the second day. Above is definitely the way to see it, though we still enjoyed the boardwalk that walked right by it.
Noah became the most diva of all divas at the Mud Volcanos, which was a rather impressive array of various boiling, steaming, and burbling pits of mud, water, and nothingness that smelled like the worst most potent eggish toots ever created.
He could talk of nothing else for hours – how very much Mud Volcano was his least favorite portion of the park. But in his defense, there was vomit on the sidewalk, so someone in Yellowstone that day was a bigger diva than him.
The West Thumb Geyser basin was one of our favorites. It had a collection of dozens of bright blue, bright green, white, and orange thermal pools, all right up against Yellowstone Lake.
The differing colors are caused by the varying temperatures of the pool, thereby allowing different microorganisms to live in each pool (or in the same pool but in layers, like above), and each microorganism colored the water differently.
Some were boiling or steaming right next to the cool lake. Such incredible physics going on here.
My favorite overheard quote of the entire trip happened at this pool, after having walked the boardwalks and seen all of the above and many, many gorgeous thermal activities… Two men were standing behind me, and one spoke to the other in an incredibly superior and professorial, yet monotone voice… “As a microbiologist, I find it hard to get excited about any of this.”
Dude. If you can’t get excited about the coolest example on the continent of your field of study, then you’ve studied too much.
We all agreed that Yellowstone was dreamy.
I would have been happy to stay a week and just stalk and photograph animals. And Noah would have liked to have read every sign and visited every thermal pool (with the exception of mud volcano).
The rays as we were leaving the park were just an added bonus.
During our very last night in Big Sky, we were driving through our neighborhood when Noah yelled “WHOA!! What is THAT!?”
The Neighborhood Moose. AND HER BABY.
She was being a total cliche neighborhood moose and eating one of the neighbor’s trees in front of their kid’s bikes and Chevy Suburban.
At that moment, My Montana Experience was complete.
I’d found my Moose. I’d seen her incredibly massive nostrils. And I could go back to Birmingham in complete happiness.
This trip was so enjoyable – watching Noah geek out about natural wonders and Ali work to become one with nature, and listening to the two of them giggle hysterically at inside jokes and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. We have four years left of having two kids at home, and we are strategically looking to maximize that time. We’ve come up with a bit of a four-year master plan to see more of the natural wonders of America together, and do it guilt-free by making it a part of our homeschool curriculum.