Giving Thanks in Grass Valley

Before we even got underway, our flight was very aware that we have so much for which to be thankful.  With our time on the road, our blessings have become even more apparent and we’ve been living in a season of thanksgiving, making this short stretch with extended family that much more poignant.  We were thrilled to be invited back to Grass Valley to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.  Neema and Teepa are the parents of Flight’s sister’s husband or, as I like to refer to them, they are our in-laws totally removed.  They have adopted our whole flight as an extension of their own family and our kids thoroughly enjoy their bonus set of grandparents.

Perhaps a little peek into my relationship with turkey day would help set the stage for our time in Grass Valley…  Most Americans can’t think of this holiday without evoking delicious eats centered on a roasted turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes, and enough pumpkin pie to choke a horse.  However, Thanksgiving was never really a huge celebratory event while I was growing up.  My father emigrated from The Netherlands when he was 15 and, although he wholeheartedly embraced his new nation’s citizenship, there were many aspects of quintessential Americana that he never really took to.  For example, I didn’t learn how to catch a ball with a mitt until I was a freshman in high school when a good friend (and phenomenal softball player who is now coaching at the college level) showed me how it was done and convinced me to try out for the softball team.  That was a terrible idea for everyone involved as my ball throwing skills weren’t particularly well developed either.  An aside, VW actually made an ad highlighting one of my own personal nightmares centered on the translation of this glaring omission in my physical development to our offspring.  Fortunately, Flight’s hand-eye coordination is exceptional and appears to be a dominant trait eclipsing my less than satisfactory skillset.  But I digress…

Back to our festive fare… There was never a turkey involved in celebrating Thanksgiving at our house growing up.  Rock Cornish Game Hens anyone? Yep, kinda like turkeys but smaller.  We had those a few times, which was far from the norm across the nation, but that particular culinary choice came with the added bonus that everyone got a wish bone… How about pizza? I think we managed that once or twice when my father was on a mission overseas over Thanksgiving.  Because our nearest relatives were my mother’s family who lived at least a 12-hour drive away from our house in Evanston, Illinois, we rarely gathered with extended family and never around the holidays.  Aside from the extra two days off from school, I don’t remember celebrating that day as a major holiday event.

Having already spent last year’s delightful gathering hosted by our in-laws totally removed, I was pretty excited about enjoying a repeat performance.  Last year we had stayed in Neema and Teepa’s 5th wheel and this year we pulled our own rig onto their 5 acres and plugged right in next to their house.  Our kids were inside and playing games with their cousins as soon as Davista was parked and likely before the engine shut down.

Food preparation had started before we even pulled up.  There was so much food on hand, which is important when you’re feeding 6 kids (two of whom are elite waterpolo players and can easily pack away twice their body weight in mashed potatoes), and everyone pitched in to prepare an incredible spread.

We finally sat down and each shared something for which we are thankful…


After dinner, a round of various games started before the annual poker game got underway.


Since I am well known for having the worst poker face ever, I tend not to play and instead just heckle.

With football games offering an exciting soundtrack to just being together, we reveled in sharing this time (and eating leftovers), which was capped by taking several family photos.  Of the dozens we captured, here are few of my favorites…


Although I thoroughly enjoy visiting with our family, especially in the beautiful Grass Valley setting, my melancholy was deepening as our upcoming departure from our new way of life was growing near.  I couldn’t want to go back to Maryland and was acutely aware of my inner 5-year old stamping her foot and wanting to rebel at the fiscally responsible path we’d chosen, namely storing Davista in Southern California and overwintering in Maryland.  We absolutely need to get back to our house, fire our realtor team, hire a new crew, and do some house projects before we put the house back on the market.  My inner 5-year old couldn’t be bothered with that reasoning, so instead I just pacified her outrage with copious amounts of pumpkin cheesecake.  She quieted almost immediately, but I’m sure I’ll hear from her again once the sugar buzz wears off, hopefully after we reach Maryland.

Down by the River…

Took a little walk.  Met a little Trevian.  Had a little talk…  These were the opening lines of one of our high school swimming and diving team’s motivational chants.  I went to Evanston Township High School and our rivals were the New Trier Trevians.  Whenever I hear “Down by the River…” the rest of the words come tumbling free from the deeply buried annals capturing my youth.  When I dug a little deeper into the history of that chant, I learned it’s actually borrowed from one of the Army’s cadence calls and, as with most such morsels of military culture, goes on to suggest best ways of killing the enemy. Whoa! Our family outing today had nothing to do with Trevians, or intentional drownings for that matter, but we did find ourselves down by the Kaweah River.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…  Let me back up…IMG_8472

Our morning started at our spectacular campsite snuggled in beside a stream leading to the Kaweah River.  A capstone of today’s roadschooling adventure was Firebolt finishing her first knitting project, a sweater for her American Girl doll, Samantha.  Samantha is wearing a Shalom Cardigan-style sweater perfect for brisk mornings in the National Parks of Sequoia and King’s Canyon.


Brilliantly constructed by Firebolt, the colors were chosen to highlight Samantha’s coloring.  Okay, so maybe that last bit’s a stretch as that was the only yarn we had on hand.  However, the pattern was adapted from a cardigan I made for Firebolt when she was two and she knit Samantha’s new garment all by herself…

Firebolt at 2 sporting her Shalom Cardigan

The next academic highlight was returning to the Visitor Center so the girls could be sworn in as Junior Rangers for these two parks.  This was by far the most in depth review of any of their Junior Ranger work.  The girls were asked plenty of questions about what they learned about the Sequoia and the surrounding ecosystems and they both rose to the occasion.  Me, I just stamped my passport and observed the age appropriate inquisition.


With the badges rightfully earned, we made our way to Slick Rock Recreation Area to recreate late in the afternoon.  We parked and sauntered down to the water, WoodSprite “Hey Momma”-ing me on the way…


Similar to the geological wonder we summitted yesterday (Moro Rock), the smooth granite boulders strewn about in the Kaweah River were unlike anything I’d ever seen.


Perhaps more aware of the fact that it was late November, our girls were less inclined to swim in the frigid water, but Keeper rallied.  He first waded out to his own island…


And then, not only invited his sisters to join him, but transported them one at a time across the Kaweah where together they owned their new land.


What an awesome big brother!

Firebolt grew brave enough to forge through the water on the return trip, but WoodSprite gave that idea a hearty NOPE and again relied on her brother’s ferry services, which he was gracious enough to offer.


The kids explored a little more and spent time solving the world’s problems.


Then Keeper volunteered to submerge himself in the water, but wanted evidence to document his bravado.  Flight videoed his crazy stunt, but I think this picture captures well the temperature of his surrounding environs.


Um, no.  No, thank you.


Was it cold?  I’ll let you be the judge…

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Keeper, however, was warmed by the thrill of his daring adventure, so he did it again.


And again.


Again, um, no, thank you.

While Keeper was braving the water, Firebolt struck up a conversation with a kid whose family we learned was actually staying at this beautiful location as the site’s hosts.  Flight already captured that boondoggle opportunity in his post and I’ll just add that I continue to be amazed by all the unexpected ways that I learn other families make this unconventional lifestyle work.

Sweet sibling time aside, my absolute favorite picture of the day was Flight’s silhouette in the waning daylight.


The late afternoon lighting also provided some lovely portrait shots of our girls.

We trundled back to our car, which was parked near our new friends’ house, and headed back to our own residence.  We paused briefly outside the Kaweah Post Office, long enough really just to take a picture of the tiny building that dates back to another age.


According to the Lonely Planet website’s summary, it was “Founded by the utopian Kaweah Co-operative Colony,” and “is one of the USA’s smallest and oldest still-operating post offices, now staffed by volunteers,” because the U.S. Postal Service rescinded its contract in 2010.  Yikes.  Now I can’t speak to the politics of our nation’s mail service, but I can certainly get behind choosing this location to create a utopian colony.  Although I didn’t meet a single Trevian down by the river, I’d like to think we’d have equitably shared this piece of paradise as graciously modeled by our kids.

There is Unrest in the Forest


Actually there isn’t.  There is no trouble with the trees.  Sequoia National Park suffers from zero maple v. oak issues — the sequoias dominate, unopposed.  The unrest is probably limited to Canadian forests.

While you recover from that severely nerdy / cringey reference, let me describe the drive to Three Rivers, just outside of the park, where we spent the next few days.  As it happens, I was correct to be concerned about the grade in our escape from Death Valley.  Here’s the picture of our route.

DV to Seq

It turns out Death Valley really is a valley; quite a deep one in fact.  The section in purple is a long, steep upslope.  It takes you from -200’ to just about 5000’ in about 20 miles.  That was tough, but manageable at 20-30 mph or so and in low gear.  The section in yellow is a very steep downslope.  In about 12 miles you lose a good bit of that elevation again, at a 9% grade.  For some perspective, 6% is the highest grade allowed on interstate highways.  So if you think about infamous stretches of highway with runaway truck ramps and the smell of angry brakes, you’re likely thinking of 6%.  There are small sections of steeper grades on tiny roads in hilly urban or mountainous areas, but this was my first brush with 12 miles straight of 9%.  It was not enjoyable.  Not at all.  You want to stay in the lowest gear you can manage in order to let your engine tackle as much of the slowing down as possible, but with this kind of slope I had no choice but to get on the brakes repeatedly.  Once brakes heat up enough they start to “fade,” i.e. lose effectiveness, until they have no ability to do their job at all.  I don’t know at what temperature this happens, but I was in no mood to perform experiments.  I did learn that Davista will in fact upshift automatically when the RPMs get so high that engine/transmission damage becomes a possibility.  This happens at about 5500 RPM (= a screaming engine), and causes a very abrupt and uncomfortable speed increase.  Sweating profusely about halfway down the hill, the brakes smell hit us strongly.  A few seconds of wondering what it would feel like to push the pedal and NOT SLOW DOWN convinced me to urgently seek and subsequently spot a turnoff on the opposite side of the road, into which I guided us to let the brakes cool.  In an A320 we have brake fans and a brake temperature gauge to help with such things – not so in Davista.  We sat there on the side of the desert road, me with my fancy IR thermometer taking shockingly high temperature readings I wasn’t sure I understood, for a good half hour before I was satisfied that they had cooled enough to take us the last 5 miles or so.  Luckily by that point it was more or less a straight shot – if nothing else I could scream into the valley at 100 mph and let the next uphill section dissipate our energy.  (Not really… I think Davista would shake and shudder herself into oblivion at about 85)

Disaster averted and lesson learned, we pressed on through the desert past some really rough little near-ghost-towns and then over the Tehachapi Pass into California’s fertile Central Valley again.  Though we stopped in Bakersfield for the night, it was a short and non-noteworthy, so I’m considering this just a two day drive to Sequoia.

Sequoia is the southernmost of California’s three national parks in the Sierras, and shares a border (and a Junior Ranger badge) with Kings Canyon national park.  It is, of course, most famous for its trees, but it also contains some of California’s most remote wilderness and extreme terrain, to include Mt. Whitney, the continental US’s highest point.  We stayed at a relatively low elevation just outside the park, along a stream feeding the Kaweah River.  Great call, as not only was it one of the best private campgrounds we’ve visited, but here’s the road up into Sequoia.

Sequoia rd

Davista would not have liked that at all.  Even our Subaru didn’t like it.  Our campsite, however, was right on the stream and hammock friendly, as well as spacious and populated with enough kids to allow our own to throw together a nerf gun battle or two.


Our original plan was to drive up to Sequoia and do a bit of hiking the first day and then do a second drive on day two past the sequoia groves and into Kings Canyon.  Nixing that plan became very easy after that first day of driving.  Though technically not very far, driving through Sequoia into Kings Canyon would have entailed a solid 4 hours on the road, through torturous (because they’re so tortuous!) (yes, I just learned the difference) switchbacks.  Nah.  Fortunately the girls were able to bag their Junior Ranger badge for both parks while only visiting one.

The hike through the sequoias was predictably spectacular.  Though not quite as tall as the giant redwoods, sequoias are more girthy and therefore massive.



We’ve found that as a family we have some of our best conversations while hiking; this time some of our more interesting conversational meanderings took us to the things that were happening in the world when these trees were young.  One feature I found especially interesting about sequoias is the degree to which they’re scarred.  Every one of the older trees sports heavily blackened areas, from forest fires and/or lightning strikes.  Evidently they are able to survive forest fires quite well, and when you’re around a few thousand years, you’re going to see a few of those.



That idea of extreme longevity spurred me to take Keeper with me on a conversational tangent about this interesting podcast I heard in which they were discussing how, if all diseases were curable and aging effects were stoppable, we would essentially all die of accidents, and what the graph of age vs number of people alive would look like.  He may have found it less interesting than I.  He stuck with me though.

The reverent vibe that we had previously sensed in among the redwoods was definitely present here among the sequoias as well, though there are significant differences between the biomes – redwoods are low in elevation, sequoias are high, and redwood forests felt more lush and dense, whereas the sequoias seem to be more or less the only vegetation within their groves.


IMG_0165It proved an ideal place to sit and answer Junior Ranger questions.


We rounded the General Sherman tree at the last bit of our hike; it’s the largest (by volume) living single stem tree on Earth, and looks it.

Tree hike complete, we braved the curvy road again, but opted to stop at Moro Rock just before sunset.  Moro Rock sits like a sentinel at the top of the Kaweah River canyon and commands stunning 360 degree views.  Great place for a sunset.  Unfortunately that translates to crowds, which don’t mix well with precarious trails that cling to steep rocks.  On top of that, these crowds were speaking very little English and seemed to have different ideas than we did about what constitutes personal space, making the whole endeavor a little dicey.


Keeper was not amused – first Angel’s Landing and then this?  “You do know I’m not kidding about the acrophobia thing right??” Sorry man…



The views though!





Having decided not to make the drive up the mountain again the following day, we spent it relaxing in the campground, followed by a short drive down to Slick Rock Recreation Area, at the eastern/upstream side of Lake Kaweah, where the river empties into the reservoir over a series of smooth rocks.  With the lake level quite low, there were quite a few rocks on which to play, though visiting just before Thanksgiving was a mixed blessing – no crowds, but no crowds because the air and that water is cold!  Fortunately our kids, especially Keeper, don’t mind cold water.  Check him out being the great big brother and carrying his sisters out to the middle of the river…


IMG_0204Later he opted for some full immersion swimming on the condition that I videoed him doing so.  “Pics or it didn’t happen” indeed.


One of the more interesting occurrences on that day was meeting, for the first time this trip, another family doing more or less the same thing as we were.  (!!)  Leave it to Firebolt to make the introduction.  She still sees herself as “shy,” but will find and introduce herself to just about any kid her age and will be playing as if they’ve been friends for years within 15 minutes.  I don’t think she realizes what “shy” means.

The family hailed from North Carolina, and had settled for the winter right there at Slick Rock Recreation Area as “camp hosts.”  This is an amazingly good deal which I wish we had previously researched and considered.  Essentially you stay for free at the nicest spot in the camp (and may even get a small stipend?) in exchange for minimal duties.  For them it was collecting the fee envelopes from the box each day and ensuring things were reasonably clean and that people weren’t doing prohibited things.  Not taxing during the very slow winter season.  What was interesting about this particular gig was that Slick Rock wasn’t even a campground… in fact theirs was the only site, and was well-appointed.  So essentially they had the entire park to themselves, and they told us about how they had dialed themselves in with the Three Rivers community, and had been brought into the town’s fold immediately.

While this was no longer any sort of option for us, I did note it for future reference, and scold myself slightly for not researching such options prior to our trip.  They seemed to be a fun family; I wish we could’ve hung around a bit more, but alas, the sun was setting and we were leaving the following morning, so we said our goodbyes.  The following day would bring a drive up to Grass Valley in the northern Sierra foothills to park in my sister’s in-laws’ driveway in preparation for a full on extended family Thanksgiving, which was something we had been able to do last year (minus the motorhome) and were greatly looking forward to.

We set our park-Davista-and-return-to-Maryland day as December 7th (a day that will live in infamy).  We’ve got strongly mixed feelings about bringing this period of travel to a close.  The sense of not wanting to stop is deepening.  We still don’t have a destination, but the itinerant lifestyle, or at least this version of it, has become very easy and almost natural.  Breaking that rhythm doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, yet we haven’t come up with a viable alternative.

In the meantime some Big Family time will do us good.

Healing an Ache and Aching to Heal

I now celebrate every opportunity to head into the forest and get my tree Zen on, yet this was not always so.  Spending most of my childhood years in the Chicago area, I only had true tastes of nature’s glory while attending Camp Windego, a Girls Scout Camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, which I attended for at least a month most summers. As I got older, I traded in these blissful summer weeks learning to horseback ride, canoe, swim, and sail for a solid training regimen in the pool and in the dance studio growing as a diver and a Highland dancer.  During my training at the United States Naval Academy I was reintroduced to sailing and even taught this basic seamanship skill after I graduated while waiting to go to flight school.  Yet in early adulthood, aside from this limited time on the water and a brief foray into the holly-laden bramble of Quantico, Virginia, when I learned decidedly that the Marine Corps was not my best career path, I hadn’t spent much time in nature.

When Uncle Sam moved me to Whidbey Island in Washington State in my early 20s, I surprised myself by discovering that I was far more a country mouse than a city one.  While surrounded by so much natural glory, it is nearly impossible to be otherwise.  Sure, there were plenty of Navy folks who bemoaned the distance to the nearest shopping complex and yearned for easy access to strip malls, but I delighted in having just what was needed and nothing extraneous.  In fact, that suited me just fine.

It was during my JO (junior officer) tour with Patrol Squadron Forty (VP-40) that I was introduced to Washington Park.  Even if it hadn’t been Flight who introduced us, I would have immediately fallen in love with this sacred space.  Stretching out into the Puget Sound on the farthest northwest reaching corner of Fidalgo Island, this spectacular 220 acres is riddled with incredible hiking/mountain biking trails boasting insane views of the Olympic mountains, the San Juan Islands, and the Cascade Mountains around every corner.

For the less adventurous, there is a loop trail open to cars that will take you to some beautiful sites with perhaps the most photographed tree in the San Juan Islands (see the pic I snapped of Firebolt in our mother-daughter trip back to Anacortes last June), but so much is lost by not journeying on foot (or bike).

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Perhaps my favorite piece of town history is that a fair chunk of Washington Park was paid for by the women of this community who raised money by selling $1000 worth of lemon pies in 1922.  As all Anacortes women were called upon to bake pies, all Anacortes men were encouraged to purchase a pie at $1, $2, or $3 each, depending on what one could afford with all proceeds going towards this $1000 goal.  This article from the local paper shares the big push for pie sales as well as providing two recipes for lemon pie.

When Washington Park and I were first getting to know each other, I began to understand that there is something magical about a gathering of trees, and, the taller the trees, the more seemingly majestic their congregation.  Commanding all and yet expecting nothing, such collections of trees have inspired me to wonder what they must have seen in their lifetimes beyond lemon pie sales.  Fast forward to our visit with the Redwoods earlier this fall where I was blown away by their awe-inspiring height and calming energy of these soaring cathedral-like beings.

Meeting the Redwoods reminded me of something out of Inner Bridges written by Dr. Fritz Smith.  A little background… Fritz is an osteopath who is also licensed as an MD and studied with both Ida Rolf (founder of Rolfing Structural Integration) and J.R. Worsley who brought 5-Element Acupuncture to the West.  A profound healer who immersed himself in studying many avenues to tap into the body’s resources to self-heal, his book focuses on the integration of these traditions and the extrapolation of which evolved into Zero Balancing, his own style of bodywork that systemically reorganizes. I had the good fortune to attend initial Zero Balancing training with Fritz in 2015, who, then at the at of 86, easily lectured all four days and performed manipulations and treatments.  Just being in his Zen presence was incredibly calming, not unlike the energetically soothing effects of trees that he describes in Inner Bridges.

Trees, because of their tall vertical structure, serve to streamline and regulate energetic fields.  So, when maybe you feel like this… (I refer to this as the swirling vortex of ick and found the below image online to illustrate it…)

Swirling Vortex of ICK

… it’s incredibly helpful to bask in the mollifying majesty of these giants.  I wholeheartedly felt such reverence and calming amidst the Redwoods, yet was less so pacified by the Sequoias.  Perhaps I am in a more melancholy space recognizing that we were nearing an undefined pause in our journey with plans to return to Maryland to overwinter, yet I was less inspired by these behemoths than their cousins to the north.  The Sequoias were impressive, don’t get me wrong – how could they not be as the girthiest of the bunch, the General Sherman Tree, wears the crown for the largest living being on our planet (that we know of, I’m sure there are some larger ocean-dwellers that I’m fairly certain I don’t want to meet…) – yet, I just wasn’t as moved.  Regardless of my psycho-emotional response, this particular panorama captures the enormity of these beings…


It also happens to be where our children may or may not have been frolicking off the path and chasing each other clumsily weaving in between the sleeping giants along the Congress Trail.  Always a speedster, Keeper was tearing after his sisters when he caught a root and brutally rolled his ankle.  So brutally, in fact, that he had dirt on the top of his foot where the cuboid and lateral cuniform bones meet.  If you haven’t studied foot anatomy, basically the top of his foot was kissing the ground.  He stood up to assess the battle damage and discovered he wasn’t able to put weight on that foot.  After momentarily considering (and dismissing) aborting our hike, I encouraged Keeper to sit down and, with his permission, went to work on his ankle.  Fortunately, I had heard my angel whisper that today’s “go bag” should include some of my sprain and bruise liniment, which works wonders in healing soft tissue damage.  Between the application of the liniment and doing some sinew channel acupressure work, Keeper was able to walk, gingerly at first and then painlessly, and even climb about on some downed soldiers.

Meanwhile, his sisters worked to find the most interesting (sometimes precarious) places to work on their Junior Ranger badges.

While watching Keeper cautiously take his ankle for a test drive, I surprised myself by tearing up, overwhelmed by the simple joy of catalyzing healing in another.  I turned to Flight and choked out, “I really miss being a healer…”

Making a note to dig into missing that aspect of my essence when I might carve out appropriate time to do so, I took a deep breath and redirected my thoughts to savoring the park’s highlights.  My favorite collection of sequoia was the Senate Cluster where I could only imagine the debates that have spanned millennia.


The runner up was the grove I captured in Flight’s sunglasses…


As we made our way back to the car, we saw several downed trees that looked as though their skirts had been unceremoniously flipped over their heads as they tumbled and their altogether was on display.


Our crew managed one last proper photo before we made for Moro Rock.


Encouraged by Keeper’s ease with regaining his stride, we opted to explore another of the park’s famous treks, overlooking his (and my) dislike of heights.  Although it is only a ¼ mile amble from the parking lot to summit this granite dome, much of the path is flanked by steep drop offs, reminiscent of our incomplete visit to Angels Landing.  Here’s a picture I found on the National Park Service site to illustrate the summit.

Moro Rock from nps site

What is not pictured here, and also why I didn’t try to capture this perspective, were the eleventy billion foreign tourists who had no qualms about pushing by others and crowding into personal space.  Keeper and I both need to work to battle our respective bouts of acrophobia in such places and the pressing throng of enthusiastic sight-seekers made that more challenging.  I became distracted mesmerized by the landscape’s shifting colors as the sun set, yet Keeper remained thoroughly nonplussed.





After getting some great shots of the family at the summit, I remained at the top snapping pictures as the sun dropped lower.   Looking West it just got more beautiful by the moment…





And the view to the East wasn’t so bad either…


Flight, ever clued into our flight’s (dis)comfort level, ushered Keeper and his sisters back down to the car while I remained transfixed by the sunset.  After one last shot, I too descended, my thoughts again relishing today’s opportunity to flex my healing skills and giving thanks for the resiliency of Keeper’s youthful joints…

A Motivational 94 in Late November

I guess seeing Death Valley immediately after Zion was hardly setting the stage favorably for this, our 6th, National Park experience.  On the plus side, it was unexpectedly toasty when we rolled into Death Valley.  Yes, I recognize that this place is touted as being the hottest on the planet and temperatures will routinely soar into the high 110os Fahrenheit in July and August, but I wasn’t expecting that just before Thanksgiving. Summer, yes, but almost winter? In fact, there is a reason the campground and Visitor’s Center is called Furnace Creek as records hold it reached 134oF there in July 2013.  I can’t even imagine how that searing air might have felt on inspiration.  Fortunately, on our short visit in late November, the temperature peaked at reasonable 94oF.  I tried to catch that in pixels, but just as I shot, the temperature dropped to a tepid 94-1oF. Dang it.


Our visit was short and sweet (sort of), aside from the clown show put on by our fellow campers. As Flight alluded to in his post, we slept often throughout the night with periods of slumber punctuated by obnoxious neighbors, a roaring desert wind easily batting our house about, and a nearby yip yip dog protecting I’m not sure what exactly.  I was most disappointed by our lack of seeing a starry night as we were driven in by the aforementioned cacophony before the clouds dissipated.  Sigh…

Our afternoon arrival allowed for the Junior Rangers in our clan to pursue yet another badge, which they successfully accomplished at the nearby Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.

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Flight and I evaluated all that we could see within Death Valley based on our very limited timeline.  I had heard about the rocks that move on their own, leaving a carved groove in their wake to indicate their unexplained travels.

Picture is from ABC News

While some scientists have proposed and demonstrated a plausible mechanism for their unique existence, I prefer to embrace the mystery.  Although I was keen on seeing the Sliding Rocks, when I learned they were located a scant 3.5-hour drive from our campsite, one that should require a sat-phone and a high-clearance 4×4, I became far less interested and was happy to rely on images I found online.  Maybe next time…

Instead, we chose to see the Devil’s Golf Course, which was covered with jumbled, low-lying salt formations almost as far as the eye could see.


We saw only one other car on our way out to the fairway and its occupants scuttled away shortly after we arrived to leave us truly alone on the expansive salt flat. Very eerie and certainly not where I’d want to skin a knee.  Here’s a close up view of all that dirty salt:


Although I lined it off the list for possible summer cottage locations, I’m glad we saw it.


We drove back to the campsite, all a little subdued, maybe a little perplexed by what we had seen.  We broke camp and bid Furnace Creek adieu. On our way out of the Park, we drove through Artists Drive and stopped to take in Artist’s Palette where the hills are alive with the patina of aged minerals.

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I know, that doesn’t have the same lyrical ring to it, but the mounds of muted colors were indeed awe-inspiring.  Although they didn’t exude same siren’s call for me as my red rocks, I was glad we made the opportunity to see them as well.

While seeing the lowest point in the US was one to check off the bucket list, the highlight of the trip was our brush with a runaway vehicle.


In all my years of commuting up and down Parley’s Canyon to take me from Park City to teach at the U and back home again, I had always wondered about the highway’s offshoots labeled, “Runaway Truck Ramp,” as I had never seen one in use. Apparently they’re pretty handy when a massive hunk of metal achieves an inertial state that can no longer be overcome by its braking system.   Especially on steep grades (9% in this particular case, although I’ve heard it may be more), the scale often tips to inertia because the frictional load on the brakes heats them past their functioning temperature window.  In Utah, these well-placed ramps allow gravity to take over and bring a barreling mass back under control.  Despite looking in earnest, especially once our brakes started smelling hot, I didn’t locate any on the steep slope.  Hmm…


So here we sat for a stretch to allow our hot brakes to cool enough to gently nudge them back into the safe range of temperature operation.  As Flight likes to say, it wasn’t yet an emergent situation but we could easily see disaster from our parking spot at the side of the road, IR thermometer in hand.

I have since done some more research on that stretch of road and learned that RV brake failure and/or brake fires are not uncommon, so much so that State Troopers refer to late spring and summer as “Towing Season.”  !!!  The RV-capable towing companies based near Death Valley must be nearly as lucrative as those in Pismo Beach, and I, for one, am most thankful that we didn’t provide an additional data point to stretch the season into November.  Onto the cooler climes and greener (and maybe less steep?) slopes awaiting us in Sequoia National Park…

The Valley of the Shadow…

This makes no sense, but turning around and backtracking to the west along the same road we had traveled a few days prior rubbed me wrong.  It felt vaguely counter-productive, as if we’d already gained that ground and were giving it back up, even though we were headed to new destinations.  Like I said, no sense.

Possibly though, it’s related to this tiny, deep-seated sense of relief I experience each time we complete a leg of our journey, with nothing having broken down or disabling us in some way.  I used to get the same feeling back when we had a boat in the San Juan Islands – I loved going out, but every time we pulled back into the dock having cheated maritime disaster once again (never a given; we got into some pretty sketchy situations in that boat), I would feel this tension release.

So here we were driving back through the Virgin River Gorge and around Vegas toward California, not sure of what to expect in Death Valley.


As we turned northwest out of Las Vegas and left civilization behind, I was struck once again how massive and remote Nevada is.  We only saw a small corner of it, but the entire state is mini mountain range after mini mountain range, wide valley after wide valley, rocky, dry, and empty, forever.  And by “mini” I don’t mean that they are small mountains.  They’re huge.  But the ranges themselves only stretch for 50-100 miles, and there are so many of them that you wouldn’t even know their names unless you lived in Nevada.  Maybe even then you wouldn’t.

There’s truly a “you could find anything out here” feel to the area, which helps to explain Burning Man, Area 51, legalized gambling and prostitution, and the little town we drove into just prior to turning west back into California.  There were only a few scattered semi-decrepit buildings, but evidently one of them was a brothel run by Mr. Dennis Hof, of HBO/Cathouse infamy. How did we know?  Well, the town, if you could even call it that, is full of billboards with his enormous face on them.  I’m not a fan of the man and can’t fathom how he managed to build his fortune on brothels situated literally in the middle of nowhere, but he’s nothing if not an expert self-promoter.  I wish I had a picture to share.

The weather, as it has for most of our journey, cooperated.  Winter is of course high season in Death Valley, and the forecast called for low 80s and sunny, but with a good bit of wind.

I’ve previously mentioned Davista’s, and therefore my, severe sensitivity to grades.  Highway grades I mean.  Slope.  I nixed an entire leg of the journey due to not wanting to crest a few 8000’ passes (ok, and also because of the snow), and here we were about to descend steeply into a valley, the bottom of which sits at -282’.  It’s also bordered by a range of snow-capped mountains to the west, which would be the direction of our egress in a day or two.  Point being, as the engine shifted into low gear and began to whine once again as it tried to prevent us from reaching warp speed, I gritted my teeth a bit and hoped she was up to the task.

Semi-interesting side note here:  Many people know that Death Valley has the lowest elevation in the US.  What fewer people seem to know is that Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation in the Continental US (get outta here Alaska!), is only 85 miles away as the crow flies.  In fact, the two points are in the same county.  What’s more, there’s an endurance footrace called the Badwater Ultramarathon that starts at the bottom of Death Valley and ends at the Mt. Whitney trailhead.  California’s got a lot going on.


The scenery was interesting in an extreme desert sort of way.  Though Tacco and I were fascinated, we’ve long since given up on demanding that the kids put down their screens / books and look out the window though, at least for any extended period of time, by which I mean more than it takes for Firebolt to say “cooooooolllll.”  We figure that if Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the rugged Pacific coast failed to provide enough visual stimulation to hold their attention, then nothing will.  At least they’re not fighting with each other.

We arrived at our campground without incident, but discovered fairly quickly that “play it by ear” wasn’t going to be a viable tactic here.  The official National Park campground was ok, if a bit shrubby and windswept, but the other options (if you recall, we were only able to get reservations here for one night but planned to stay two) were full-on Lunar Base Delta.  Zero vegetation, zero hookups, not even close to level, and, well… ugly.  There’s a time to be hard core; this was not it.

So The Plan morphed, as it’s wont to do.  One night in Death Valley.  We’d check out the Ranger Center in the evening, drive around to see a few sights in the morning, and then continue west.


The wind really kicked up as we walked over to the Ranger Center to see whether it would be feasible for the girls to bag another Junior Ranger badge (it was).  One of the surprising things we learned about Death Valley from the exhibits was the fact that there’s a Native American tribe that has made their home at the bottom of the valley for, well pretty much forever.  So many questions about that…


I also discovered to my consternation that the path out of the valley to the west wasn’t nearly as forgiving as it had looked on the map.  Though it avoided the 7000’+ pass through the highest mountain range, it didn’t avoid passes altogether, and in fact would take us up about 5000’ and down pretty quickly.  I filed that away for later.

It wasn’t our best night.  We slept ok all things considered, but on top of the incessant wind making noise and shaking our home, there was not only a loudly partying group nearby (who I noticed were being evicted by the NP staff the following morning) and a dog next door that decided it was important everyone knew he existed most of the night.  It’s safe to say that none of us was complaining about breaking camp and moving out in the morning.

We did decide to go check out Devil’s Golf Course, which sums up Death Valley nicely.  It’s otherworldly and worth checking out, but after a few pictures and comments about how alone we were out there, it was time to move on.



We took one more side jaunt through an area called Artist’s Palette, and then departed.


It wouldn’t be fair to call our Death Valley detour a swing and a miss, as it’s undoubtedly extraordinary, and something to check off The List.  But one night was plenty.  Back to the mountains!

Another Hallelujah Morning


How is it that my image of Zion before we went was so far from reality?  I really have no excuse – I’ve been there.  It was long ago, and I don’t think I even spent the night, but still… my general thoughts about it went something like this:

  • It’s one of the many National Parks in that area of the country and similar to them
  • There’s a canyon, but it’s not as striking as Bryce Canyon or as massive as the Grand Canyon
  • It’s isolated, so sparsely visited and primitive
  • It’s worth a day’s visit, maybe an overnight, but that’s about it

Though the broad lines of those statements have a kernel of truth in them, not a single one of them is correct.

Zion is mind-blowing; I could spend months there.  Though it is indeed somewhat isolated in an area of Utah known more for renegade polygamists than any of the actual nearby towns, it’s actually the fifth most visited National Park, ahead of even Yellowstone [late edit:  The 2017 numbers are in, and it was actually third, ahead of both Yosemite and Rocky Mountain].  And the town of Springdale, which abuts the southern (and main) park entrance, is nicer than any “gateway to xx park!” town I’ve seen, with good eats, cool shops, almost zero touristy chintz, and stunning 360 degree view houses perched on various rock outcroppings.  I know when I glance to my right while driving and see Tacco browsing the local Zillow listings that we’re equally impressed with the real estate.

To say “there’s a canyon” is akin to visiting the Norwegian fjords and saying “there are cliffs.”  Technically true, but wholly inadequate.  It’s also technically true that it’s much smaller than the Grand Canyon, but in seeing it you realize how beside the point a size comparison is.  I spent three days overwhelmed.

And no, it’s not really similar to any of the other National Parks in that area.  It’s more like a “greatest hits” compilation of all of them.  It’s now unfathomable that I was waffling on whether to bring the family to Zion.


Our drive took us northeast out of Las Vegas, through mostly uninspiring desert scenery until we reached the Virgin River Gorge in the far northwest corner of Arizona.  Crossing into Utah on the upper end of the Gorge, the rocks became redder and the plateaus and peaks more dramatic.  Turning off the interstate near St. George, we rejoined the Virgin River (the north fork of which is responsible for carving Zion Canyon) and followed it through the eye-popping vistas into the park.

Fall is a slow time in Zion, but it really shouldn’t be.  The weather was mild, it was uncrowded, and though the Fall colors had long since peaked, plenty of color remained.


A few deer greeted us as we pulled into our campsite, and Keeper was thrilled to find that we had not only full hookups, but as solid a cellphone / internet signal as we had seen anywhere thus far.  As it was a bit too late for any serious hiking, we did some low grade exploring of the area, had some dinner, and turned in fairly early after planning our upcoming few days.


Much like Yosemite, the main attraction in Zion is the canyon through the center of the park, but the expansive backcountry is riddled with rewards for the more adventurous.  Unfortunately we were limited on several axes in our ability to be adventurous this visit (time, kids’ abilities, accommodations, conveyance, etc.).  But also like Yosemite, the hikes within the valley/canyon are famous for good reason.  The two most well-known in Zion are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.  The former is a switchback intensive climb 1500′ up the canyon wall through widely varying mini-biomes, culminating in a knife edge clifftop walk to what seems like an unreachable point of rock when you see it from a distance.  The last bit of trail drops off very steeply on both sides and is only as wide as two people or so in places. There are metal posts driven into the rock with chains hung between them that give you something to hold onto.  Everywhere we read about it advised “CHILDREN NOT RECOMMENDED.”  As it turns out we have three of those.  That could be problematic.

The Narrows is sort of the opposite of Angel’s Landing, and is essentially a mostly flat hike up the river.  The catch, though, is that the canyon becomes narrower and narrower, until the only way to keep hiking is IN the river.  It continues this way (and becomes even narrower!  Wait, I think I just realized how they came up with the name…) for more than 10 miles, and the standard way to do it is with semi-dry suits that look something like fishing waders and a long wooden walking pole for balance in the water.  Needless to say, this is not something you would attempt with rain either in the sky or in the forecast, nor is it something you should put your six-year-old through.  Which isn’t to say we didn’t make our best effort to do so; unfortunately you could fit two Woodsprites simultaneously into the smallest sized dry suits they had available for rent.

Nevertheless undaunted, and invigorated by the scenery, we decided we would try semi-abbreviated versions of both hikes, reasoning that we could get up to the point on Angel’s Landing at which the chains/knife edge started and stop there if it didn’t look reasonable, and that we could hike the Narrows just up to the point where you had to get your feet wet, and then maybe wade a bit further if we were feeling it.  We also decided to do another hike on a side canyon which was short but led to more stunning views.  It was a good compromise, we thought.  Have I mentioned Keeper is acrophobic though?  Yes, spiders and heights, and in the last week we had climbed more steep rocks and seen more tarantulas than in his previous 11 years combined.  Nothing wrong with terrifying your kids, right?

The girls were excited to tear through their Junior Ranger challenges once we woke up the following morning, and we took a walk up the river to the Ranger Station to get that process rolling.  More deer, more scenery, more fresh air.


As our visit fell on all weekdays, we did have homeschooling tasks to accomplish prior to “playing.”  That’s tough.  Especially in a place like this.  While I know that we are not on vacation and that we can’t just run around on a rock or in a river and call it “school,” sometimes I really, really want to.  Fortunately Tacco keeps me honest.

Angel’s Landing was, in a word, amazing.  Yet again, I’ll defer to the pictures.



Version 2Even the lower part of the hike was better than most any hike I’ve taken, anywhere.  But the top was simply beyond description.  There was enough flat area for everybody to safely loll around and take in the view, but Keeper opted to lay down to get his fear of heights in check.  A sign warning of the entirely obvious danger informed us that six hikers had lost their lives due to falls over the last few years, and though this was clearly meant to alarm us, all Tacco and I could think was “that’s all?!?”  I was speculating that more than that had died from bee sting allergies or having a tree branch fall on their head – this place looked like people would be sliding off of it daily at a minimum.



I so wanted to keep going.  Tacco, rightly concerned about her issues with vertigo, did not, but I sat and contorted my brain into about a dozen different rationalizations for taking one or more kids up to the top with me, all of which failed even the most basic risk vs. reward analyses.  So in the end I took Firebolt and Woodsprite, separately, up to the part where the chains begin.  It was cool.  We got some pics.  Next time we’ll conquer it.

And I have to give a special shout-out to Firebolt here, because she continues to surprise us.  As a self-proclaimed non-risk-taker, she was the first to join me at the chains, and would’ve definitely gone to the top with me had I not reluctantly eliminated that option.  She even laid down on the rock and put her head over the edge of the 1300’ cliff, and then asked me to take a video of her looking down, then looking at me with an “are you kidding me right now?” face.  It seems like everything she tells us she can’t do, she then tries, and excels at it.


Later in the day we did the short Canyon Overlook Hike, which turned out to be almost as vertigo-inducing as Angel’s Landing.  Keeper was not amused, particularly at this section of rickety wooden pathway bolted into the rock.  He might think we’re trying to kill him.


Again though, views forever.


IMG_0037-hIMG_0052Our last day started with somewhat more threatening weather, which did not bode well for a hike up The Narrows.  Fortunately though, the ominous clouds below dissipated before homeschooling was complete for the day, and we were able to enjoy a pre-hike riverside picnic lunch in sunshine, if not exactly warm temperatures (it was November after all).



The trail up the river to The Narrows’ beginning delivered yet another palette of Utah river/rock/trees for us to gawk at, as well as several rocks to scramble upon.  This has become a favorite activity of the kids’ since Joshua Tree.




IMG_9993Though we easily reached the point at which wet feet (or a dry suit) became mandatory for those continuing, we opted to stop there rather than risk ruining the rest of the day by having one of the kids misstep and convert wet feet into wet everything.  Did I mention it was a little chilly?  Both the water and the air.



IMG_0010-hAs it turned out, however, Keeper managed to check that particular block anyway on the way back.  Shortly after turning around to hike back downstream, he ventured off-trail to scramble on some rocks down by the river.  What 11-year-old wouldn’t, right?  I know I would’ve.  I could see that he was getting himself into increasingly tricky situations with smaller margins for error.  Mentally noting that the current wasn’t particularly strong and there were several potential egress points, however, I didn’t bother to keep too close an eye on him.  I did manage to snag a suitable “before” pic though.


Within a few minutes, I noticed several other hikers staring and pointing toward his vicinity.  Quickly climbing up to get a better vantage point, I caught the tail end of his jump-gone-wrong, which was him completely submerged in the cold river and swimming toward a calm spot from which he could climb out.  When a quick “are you ok?” netted a thumbs up, I smiled and watched for a few seconds before scrambling down to take pictures help my son.

Evidently what happened, a common river-rock-jumping failure mode, is that he jumped from a higher rock to a lower rock without fully strategizing how to get back to the higher rock.  His attempted jump back up plastered him on the rock’s steep side without enough purchase, and he had a solid few seconds of slow backwards sliding to think about the water temperature and the fact that he’d found his not-previously-considered path of least resistance back to dry ground.

Not that he was especially hurt other than a few rock scrapes, but Keeper’s a tough kid, which is one of the many, many things I love about him.  He doesn’t make a big deal out of things that aren’t.  And if you see him wincing in pain or God-forbid, crying, you know he has some serious hurt going on and isn’t just embarrassed or wanting some attention.  He took the whole thing in stride, even laughing about it and posing for some “after” pics.


The hike back in his soaked clothing got a little bracing when the wind kicked up or we got in the shadows, but he never complained.  Good man.


So what are we taking away from Zion?  Primarily a desire to come back.  There’s so much to see there, particularly in the back country.  More confirmation that that high desert/mountain climate very much suits us.  And a deepening sense of not wanting this phase of travel to end I think.

One thing I touched on tangentially with my comment about needing to push myself (or be pushed) to get the kids to actually sit down and do their school tasks — the larger point there is this sense we’re discovering that every day is a Big Day.  There are no throwaway days, they’re all huge ones, ones that we want to wring every last moment out of.  And while that sounds in many ways ideal and exhilarating, which it absolutely is, we’re finding it to be a double-edged sword in that it’s a difficult pace to maintain.  We find ourselves far more physically and mentally exhausted than we feel like we ought to be at times, with decreased desire to take care of the mundane life tasks (education being only one of them) that need to get accomplished, and this seems to be one of the root causes.  It’s tempting to blow off math and writing and reading entirely, because holy cow, kids, look around!  Zion!  But when you’re doing that every day, hmm…  While we know our kids are logging countless amazing experiences as we wander, we don’t want to do them a disservice by neglecting the things their peers are learning.  And they need us to maintain high energy as well.

I suspect it’s something we could and likely will adapt to with more time, but in the meantime it’s a bit of a surprise.  And I do wonder how the process will work in reverse when we settle back down.

Zion, though… incredible.  Definitely in at least the top five of my favorite national parks, probably more like top three.  Even without the benefit of distance, the kids are all saying the same.



IMG_0005-hIMG_9983We now turn back west and head toward Death Valley, which I’m not so sure about (then again, I wasn’t so sure about Zion either).  Like Zion, I’ve been there before and my recollections tell me that it’s unique and worth seeing, but maybe not mind-blowing.  We also couldn’t get a reservation at the National Park’s RV campground there for both nights we’re staying, so we’re playing it a bit by ear.  Maybe not the best thing to be doing in, you know, Death Valley.

But nah, we’ve got this.  Where have I heard that before?

Not Going the Extra Mile

So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that before we made it to Zion National Park I wasn’t exactly aware of the daring adventure that takes one to Angels Landing.  I was unaware it was a thing and only after seeing it showcased at the Visitor’s Center did I realize what a monumental hike it is.  Many argue it’s the most popular hike in Utah, which shows how much I know, and, now far better educated, I would venture it’s certainly the most harrowing.

Although it is only 5.2 miles long out-and-back, the hike to Angel’s Landing has an elevation gain of 1500’, which became very evident along our trek.  Once you ascend to 1300’, this trail follows a ridgeline only a few feet wide in places rising above thousands of feet of nothingness to either side.  Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?  How about with three kids?!

When visiting in the warmer months, I certainly understand the draw to starting such an undertaking in the wee hours of the day.  Since it was November and we had schooling to complete first, we tackled our adventure in the later part of the day, despite the threat of limited daylight.  Anticipating an early departure the following morning, at least before the Visitor’s Center and other stores would be open, we were eager to add to our wardrobes and our Junior Rangers needed to be sworn at their 6th National Park.

Following WoodSprite’s direction, we made our way into town and loaded up on some new Zion NP gear.

Then our girls raised their right hands…

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Mission accomplished, we enjoyed some lunch before beginning our journey.  Just as the previous day’s hike began, it all seemed rather innocuous at the start.

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We had plenty of water and plenty of snacks, making sure to stop every so often to keep the youngest members of our Flight fueled and mobile (read: not complaining).  Our first such rest stop provided a glorious view of the river valley.

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While we enjoyed our snack safely tucked away from the trickle of other visitors, Flight and I speculated how much more foot traffic there must be during the summer months and gave thanks again for visiting this natural wonder in November.

And the next stop…


Shortly after this rest, we made our way through “Refrigerator Canyon,” where the temperature noticeably dipped.

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Appreciatively cooled, we made our way towards the bottom of Walter’s Wiggles.  This particular stretch of trail is worthy of its mention.

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While my picture might capture only a little of the effort required to negotiate these 21 varsity switchbacks (and this was taken on the way down as I didn’t think to document what lay ahead while trying to climb…), I found this picture online that better communicates the topographical challenges.

Image taken from Ritebook

There was considerable huffing and puffing as we continued to put one foot in front of the other, but we finally arrived at the point where the views are spectacular and only the truly daring (one, two, three – NOT IT!) go any farther.

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Keeper, WoodSprite, and I sat down to enjoy another snack and Firebolt and Flight went just a little further to explore the remaining 0.5 miles to the summit.  They returned from their preliminary scouting trip and Flight reported that we should wait until our team is a little older.  Okay by me.  Firebolt was maybe less inspired…


As is so often the case, pictures fail to capture the incredible landscape.  Let’s just say it was breathtaking – and not just from climbing Walter’s Wiggles.

True to out-and-back hikes, we were favored with all new views on our return, which were enhanced by the waning daylight.

I think my favorite views of the day were on our way down…

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Fortunately, I did some research AFTER our outing and learned that this particular hike necessitated two helicopter medivacs in one day last year.  This vertigo-sufferer felt no shame in not going the extra mile…

A Narrow Escape

If the Valley of Fire gently self-identified as MY rocks, Zion National Park threw me a welcome home party.  Of all the incredible places we’ve seen on this journey, Zion stands out as my all-time favorite, something that became evident as some of the topographic landmarks grew on the horizon.  Looking through a bug splattered window did nothing to dull my giddiness and I couldn’t help but take pictures of our progress toward our 6th National Park.

Even after taking a day to regroup following our evening on the Strip, we chose to depart our swanky Vegas campsite at a “gentlemanly hour” (Flight’s phrase) to arrive in the late afternoon.  We efficiently sped through our Setting Up Camp Checklist in this middle of all this glory.

Once set up we went for a little stroll to stretch our legs and become acquainted with our new neighbors.

The next morning we headed to the Visitor’s Center and planned out (read “crammed”) our short visit with plenty of hikes.  Although, mostly owing to safety, we refrained from fully experiencing two of the most well-known Zion hikes: Angels Landing and The Narrows.  Flight and I did a quick Operational Risk Management assessment and decided that because we had three kids ages 6-11, we didn’t think zone defense was the best approach to tackling this:

Angels Landing
Image taken from

Or this:

Photo by Karan Chawla on

What could go wrong?

Owing to my struggle with intermitted bouts of vertigo and a healthy respect for my fear of heights, missing out on Angels Landing didn’t trouble me much.  Flight however was a little bummed to have made it so far and not check those boxes off.  Ah well, next time…

I, however, only felt the tantalizing siren’s draw to don neoprene and wade my way through the famous slot canyon.  I nearly exhausted my brain trying to find ways to complete that 16-mile (one-way) hike as a family.  When I entertained “What if we alternate carrying WoodSprite…” who could fit into a single pant leg of the smallest dry suit available, I knew it was time to cry Uncle.  Instead we brought a picnic lunch to eat near the Virgin River before we began our modest trek beside the waterway to the start of the Narrows.


Appropriately sated, we began our Riverside Walk ambling beside the river, occasionally pausing to throw rocks.  I was really surprised (and thankful!) to notice how few people were visiting Zion in November.  It felt as though we had the park to ourselves…

Other surprises included seeing how beautifully green and clear the river was.

The girls were eager to find the perfect spot for a rest…

We took our time making our way because there were so many boulders to climb and so many nooks and crannies to explore.

And then there are the moments that are pure ham…

Our family made it all the way to the start of the Narrows hike where the journey in water begins in earnest and I heard the siren again.  Completing that hike has taken up residence near the top of my bucket list…

To commemorate our family’s trek to the start of the 16-mile hike, we had hoped to get a great family picture and asked one of the few other park patrons to capture our image.  Once again, we were disappointed to learn that not everyone has an eye for photography.


Although the perfectly centered picture has our family in it and all looking at the camera, which is truly half the battle, despite our being far, far away, there is no indication of the surrounding majesty.  Sigh…  I guess we can take solace in knowing that WE know what the backdrop truly was?

Keeper got a nice one of me and Flight…


As we made our way slowly back along the river, Keeper got more than he bargained for – !!!  As he was bounding from rock to rock along the river’s edge, he lost his balance and went for a brief swim.  Flight was nearest our son and only realized he had fully submerged when others were gawking and pointing in the direction he’d disappeared.  Fortunately, Keeper had picked the best place for his unplanned “swim” as it was deep enough to submerge, which he managed without smacking his head, and a ready-made easy river egress route was readily apparent.  Once we determined Keeper was no worse for the wear, we started snapping pictures to document this unexpected experience.  As Flight will often say, it wasn’t a disaster, but we could certainly see it from here…

His brief dunk could have gone horribly wrong, but he managed to keep his sense of humor and even offered the opportunity to complete an after (right) selfie:

Perhaps his surge of adrenalin was initially keeping him warm, despite being sopping wet on a brisk November day, but it was not until about fifteen minutes later when he was unable to control the chattering of his teeth did Keeper accept the offer of my dry middle layer.  Interestingly, he didn’t even know how cold he was until put on my shirt and then, as profusely as an 11-year old can manage, offered his thanks.

The pictures taken on the return hike were far fewer owing to Keeper’s being soaked through, but here are a few of my favorites…

We returned to our campsite to allow Keeper a quick change into dry clothes (and maybe manage a snack) before we headed back out for our second hike of the day.  The Canyon Overlook Hike is touted as a “short-and-fun out and back” hike.  That sounded like the perfect way to wind down our rather eventful day.

It started off fairly innocuously…


However, Keeper and I especially noticed that the hair-raising plank walks over said canyon was a glaring omission in the standard description.  We were more than a little disconcerted by the seemingly support-lacking boards over which were supposed to tread.  Clearly Flight and Firebolt had no such concerns…


After a few deep breaths, tread we did and, despite our consternation, we powered through and were rewarded with this incredible view.


The girls were entirely unflappable and found the best seats for their respective bums to finish their Junior Ranger Badge requirements.

Judging the speed at which the sun was make its way for the horizon, we chose not to linger too long and steadily retraced our path back to the car.  I surprised myself by luxuriating in a deep sense of peace during our short drive back to the campsite, likely inspired by the surrounding landscape.


Following an easy dinner in the Instant Pot, I wrapped my contentment around me as I burrowed into the warmth of our duvet, giving thanks that Keeper escaped his swim unscathed and eager for our (modified) Angels Landing hike in the morning.


The Meadows

Driving your family from a blissed-out zen retreat to arguably the most in-your-face city in the world entails some adjustment.  Though we’ve been attempting to inject variety into our destinations and campsite types, this was an especially drastic jump.

I was somewhat surprised to discover how limited the Las Vegas RV accommodation choices were, given how tourist oriented it is.  It wasn’t lack of space as much as it was lack of varying types of spots to park.  At the low end of the scale (disregarding the Breaking Bad tumbleweed-strewn RV parks out on the fringes of town) was the Circus Circus parking lot, where they gleefully advertise RV camping Right On the Strip!  My skepticism of that setup was confirmed by a quick skim of its online reviews.  It does sound like a great place to inadvertently donate anything you leave outside to whomever may wander by (there’s no security whatsoever evidently).  And sure, who doesn’t want to brush elbows with the local color three steps and a thin door from where you and your kids are sleeping?  But not a good fit for us.

The best option would likely have been the RV park at nearby Nellis Air Force Base, but that opinion seems to have been popular as I found it booked essentially solid for several months.  That left the string of KOA and KOA-esque campgrounds on the east side of town and one of two “upscale” options just south of the Strip that promote themselves with glossy brochures and websites to match.  Still skittish from our Mission Bay “splurge” but not especially comfortable with either the location or the look of the KOAs, I opted for the Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort.  New Class A motorhomes only, palm trees, sparkling pools, and “Celebrating the Las Vegas Lifestyle” as their tagline.  I had to think about that last bit.  Still do.  But neither my questions about what’s being celebrated nor the price tag dissuaded me, and it turned out to be a decent call.

First though, the drive up.  It was surprisingly enjoyable.  I hesitated slightly when looking at the two lane roads through the desert, but I needn’t have.  They were better maintained than most of what we’d heretofore dealt with, and offered gorgeous scenery and unlimited visibility.  What I realized as we turned off of the interstate was that while I’d criss-crossed the California desert multiple times in my childhood, it was almost always both as a means to an end with no stops en route and on the main roads only.  There was much I hadn’t seen!  We made a stop in the small town of Kelso, where there is a mini ghost town and a restored railroad depot.  We then drove up the grade (more Joshua Trees!) through the Mojave National Preserve, where the scenery is almost as otherworldly as what we had just left behind in Joshua Tree.  Lots of little campgrounds and dirt roads to explore too.  Who knew?

Drive to Vegas

Our arrival at the LVMR was met with much fanfare.  Seriously, it was.  Heavy black and gold iron gates, an involved check-in process, and a 10-minute-or-so wait for an escort to show us to our site.  Show us to our site??  Huh, OK.  Seemed excessive, but if the “Las Vegas Lifestyle” is about anything, it’s about excess I suppose.

What we discovered is that this is not so much a campground as it’s overwintering grounds for motorhome-owning folks who reside in colder climes.  Lots of Alberta license plates.  Evidently the sites are privately owned and then, as a service to the owners when they’re not present, rented out to transient folks like us.  Some of the sites, actually most of them, were elaborately built out with outdoor kitchens, bars, cabanas, and festive rope lighting.  It took me a day to warm to the idea, but after I did, it struck me as a ridiculously pleasant way to spend your winters if your lifestyle lends itself to such a thing.  We’re not remotely there yet, but I filed it away for reference – call it a data point.


Despite our presence bringing the average age of the park’s residents down by several years, we enjoyed it, as did the kiddos.  Keeper gave the showers multiple thumbs up, and we had a hot tub and pool about a hundred yards away.

I’ve finally learned that west of the Rockies (with the exception of WA/OR west of the Cascades), if you see healthy, green grass in your RV site, you should not leave anything on that grass overnight that you don’t want to find soaked in the morning.  Sprinklers.

I had to chuckle on day two when I answered a call from a Las Vegas number I didn’t recognize and was solemnly advised that it was Las Vegas Motorhome Management and they had been informed that we had a [dramatic pause…] TENT on our site.  We had set up the Clam, as we normally do, and nowhere in the rules/guidelines were tents mentioned, so I guess this was one of those rules that Just Goes Without Saying.  I mean, what were we thinking?!?  Las Vegas Lifestyle, People!


Ok, kidding mostly… they were very courteous and I quickly and happily broke down the Clam and managed not to run afoul of the LVMR authorities for the rest of our stay.

We had plenty of activities to choose from in Vegas, but opted to focus primarily on the outdoorsy options after a drive on night one down The Strip failed to generate the fascination and enthusiasm in the kids that we were expecting.  Keeper, looking up from his phone, somewhere near the Stratosphere: “How long are we going to keep doing this?”  This is actually a good thing, as I’m of the opinion that Vegas’ outdoor recreation activities are sorely underrated.  There’s Lake Mead to the east, Red Rock Canyon to the west, snow skiing within an hour to the northwest, and a whole slew of State and National Parks within striking distance.

Having heard good things about Valley of Fire State Park, we headed up there for an afternoon of hiking immediately after swooping me from the airport at the end of my trip.  Great call.  We only had time for a fairly short hike, but it was another stunner.


The kids will now climb pretty much any rock you put in front of them, and they know their barrel cacti from their jumping cholla.

Once again, I’ll let pictures tell the story here.





While we were happy not to spend most of our time on The Strip, we did want to at least do an evening there, as it’s a unique part of the landscape and worth seeing.  We were curious what our kids’ take on it would be upon seeing the insides of the casinos and the sidewalk craziness.

Las Vegas’ ability to re-invent itself every decade or so has always fascinated me.  The Vegas of my childhood was a dismal place indeed – other than the whole mob thing, of which I had no awareness at all, the two overarching images I have from that time, whether fair or not:

  • Casinos foggy with cigarette smoke, and old… very old actually… folks sitting immobile in front of ding-ding-dinging slot machines, puffing away and pulling the handles, glassy-eyed.
  • Preposterously cheap food that was worth exactly what you paid for it. Though I wasn’t concerned about such things at the time, you couldn’t get a decent meal there.  They just didn’t exist.  I remember seemingly endless buffet tables (“$3.95 — all you can eat!”) with rows of red heat lamps, under which were plates of desiccated morsels which had probably been semi-edible at some point that week but were now only marginally distinguishable from each other.

After that came the Treasure Island / Mirage / Excalibur phase, in which there seemed to be a dedicated push to make it fun for the whole family rather than the busloads of aforementioned folks from LA.  Pirates!  Volcanoes!  Cirque du Soleil!

Then the “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” phase – the genius who came up with that marketing campaign has hopefully never needed to work again (but is anyway).  I guess Vegas is still in that phase, technically, but my impression whenever I’m in town now is that it’s more about “high end” than anything.  Before, it was gaudy and over the top, but in a tongue-in-cheek way because ultimately it knew it was cheesy.  Now, it’s still over the top, but legitimately so.  Finding cheap eats is just as difficult as finding good eats used to be.  I like it actually, though only in somewhat small doses.  But it seems that gambling, which used to be pretty much everything in Vegas, has now taken a back seat to the insane variety of other things you can see and do there, and there truly is something for everyone.

At any rate, the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon happened to be taking place during our stay, so we opted to take advantage of The Strip being closed to vehicular traffic (and full of running folks, laser shows, and live bands) to introduce our kids to a stroll through Vegas’ beating heart.  Parking was brutal, but the atmosphere was even more lively than usual.



We did a loop that took us through the Bellagio, Caesar’s, Treasure Island, and The Venetian, then had dinner at a decent-bordering-on-outstanding pizza place, where we sat outside and enjoyed the mild weather and views of the new-ish giant ferris wheel.

Predictably, our kids reacted differently to the Strip’s excesses.  Woodsprite was wide-eyed and bouncy as usual.  Firebolt was enthralled, and couldn’t wait to return.

IMG_9943Keeper was unimpressed and at least mildly annoyed, and spent much of his walking time with his shirt pulled up over his nose in a futile attempt to block out some of the cigarette smoke, of which there really wasn’t much compared to back in the day… I think he’s glad he saw it, but doesn’t need to go back.


Our desire to take the kids to a show was dampened by our inability to do it inexpensively (without sitting through a timeshare presentation the following morning that is) and the kids’ relative lack of enthusiasm for it.  The girls just didn’t want to sit still I think, and Keeper’s fun-meter had peaked much earlier in the evening and was headed steadily southward.  So… back to our cushy RV resort, and on we go.


The next phase of the trip was something about which we had deliberated quite a bit.  Our initial plan had been to be en route to Florida and the Southeast, but once we resigned ourselves to returning to Maryland, several options presented themselves.  I covered most of our thought process in my Coronado post, and despite looking at some other options since then which could’ve allowed us to travel a bit longer and/or store Davista somewhere other than Southern Cal, we ultimately checked the weather forecast and decided that Seal Beach would be Davista’s overwintering site after all, and Zion, Death Valley, and Sequoia / Kings Canyon would get our patronage prior to the drive up to Grass Valley to meet the extended family for Thanksgiving.  All three of those National Parks I’ve seen before, but briefly and long ago, which makes me eager to return.  There will be no more Las Vegas Motorcoach Resorts for awhile, but that’s fine – who needs a faux-gold-plated shower anyway?