No one would call a coastal California winter harsh.  Yet the weather does change come November, particularly up in Northern Cal, and even though some warm days sneak into the mix, chilly and rainy becomes the norm.  Not that there’s anything wrong with chilly and rainy per se – in fact just about any time we ask one of our underdressed-for-the-weather kids whether they’re not far too cold in that t-shirt, they like to remind us that they were born in Washington.  Fair enough.  But I’d like to point out that Tacco and I were still sleeping in Davista, and weren’t heating it at night (or at all).  It does have a heater that runs off the propane tank, but we’ve found it to be a very inefficient way to use our limited fuel.  Plus it only manages to take the edge off the chill rather than making it cozy.  We opted to bundle up in blankets instead.  Nighttime temps began to dip into the 40s and below pretty quickly, though.  That’s brisk.  Yet fun, in a back-handed way.

With the rains come a greening up of the generally brown golden California hills, which is something I remember distinctly from college – going home to LA for Winter Break and coming back to find everything green.  Though California has suffered through several years of drought, the rains seemed to start off strong this year.  Several days we spent holed up in my parents’ house after homeschooling was complete, rather than hiking the hills or biking the trails like I had hoped.  That’s not very Pacific Northwest of me, I know.  Up there we like to say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.  Evidently we’ve softened a bit.

One particularly large offshore storm brought a massive swell to the coast.  Having spent the late summer and early Fall on the beach, I still had waves on the brain, and my thoughts bee-lined to Mavericks, the infamous big-wave break just north of Half Moon Bay.  The family and I had just watched (and enjoyed) the movie Chasing Mavericks, and though I’d been in that area several times, I had never seen it actually breaking.  It takes a pretty sizable swell to break at all.  A quick search online informed me that not only would it be breaking during this storm, but the sets would be peaking at 40-50’, with a few 60-footers thrown in for good measure.  Yow!  This I wanted to see, and I enlisted my brother-in-law to make the drive to the coast with me. 

We weren’t the only ones to have this idea, it turned out, and both parking and finding a spot from which to observe was a bit nightmarish.  We also discovered that the break is even further out than I had imagined it was.  You can see it from the shore if you’re up on the cliffs above, but it’s impossible to get a good sense of the scale.  That said, it was still pretty spectacular.  Having been pummeled by my share of medium-at-very-best waves, it’s hard to even conceive of what getting sucked into and under one of those monsters would be like, to say nothing of actually harnessing one.

The rain continued, with only a few breaks, right up to Thanksgiving, which we were fortunate to get to spend with extended family at my sister’s in-laws’ (that’s awkward, but I can’t seem to describe the relationship better — how about my brother-in-law’s parents’) house up in Grass Valley.  Grass Valley sits on the Gold Country Highway in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and we had been able to make it up there to a proper Thanksgiving with extended family for the past two years. 

There’s shooting and hot-tubbing and rope-swinging and chasing wild turkeys involved, along with the normal feasting and football watching.  Perfect.

Along with the rain came snow in the Sierra Nevada, and our first opportunity to flex our new Epic Passes.  My hope upon purchasing them was to get on the slopes for the first time in mid-December or so, but Mother Nature appeared to be working with us this year – a few of the local resorts opened in late November, and Vail came out with an early season lodging special that we would’ve been crazy to pass up.  So we booked it.  The Vail trip would be during the first week in December, and we headed up to Kirkwood, just south of Lake Tahoe, at the end of November for a let’s-get-the-kids-back-on-skis day.

Kirkwood was ok.  Not the most auspicious start to the season.  The snow wasn’t bad, particularly for its being so early.  But we put all three kids into a lesson, and it didn’t quite take as well as we’d hoped, particularly in Keeper’s case.  He was DONE by the time we met the kids post-lesson, and proclaimed that his instructor had “squeezed every last bit of fun out of skiing.”  Ouch!  His lesson, though technically a group lesson, was essentially private as no one else was there, and I guess he wasn’t quite ready to have his technique so thoroughly combed through and picked apart.  Hm.  Not what we were hoping for rolling into this Vail trip.  But we remained hopeful that his reaction to skiing skill improvement was more anomalous blip than trend.

The snow really began to dump during the night after our ski day (we stayed at the Lodge there rather than making the drive back), and by the time we attempted to get on the road, it was essentially white-out conditions.  Complicating things, we discovered that our road down the mountain had just been closed, giving us only two options – wait it out for an indefinite period or turn around and head up the mountain toward Lake Tahoe instead, so that we could take a different (open) route down.  We opted for the latter, and I found myself in the toughest snow conditions I had ever driven in, by a good margin.  I’d forgotten how impressive Sierra snowstorms can be and how unsuited for driving in them many of the roads are.

Despite the mayhem, we rolled safely back into my parents’ driveway several hours later, ready to unpack and repack for Vail.  We were looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

What it’s about is a truly spectacular ski resort, we soon learned.  I’ve already written about Vail in the summer, and how the compact village is tucked away into a steep valley that hides its expansiveness.  What we found in the winter was a wonderland. 

Now, a few oh-by-the-ways and caveats.  Firstly, I have friends who Can. Not. Stand. Vail.  And I see where that springs from – it is a money place, plain and simple.  If there was once an undercurrent of granola, that’s long gone.  Everything is exorbitant, very little appears to be “old school,” and it is a place where they’ve gone to great lengths to take anything that could be inconvenient or uncomfortable about skiing and remove it from the picture.  If you’re a pure skier and even things like chairlifts smack of selling out, then Vail would be the prime example of everything that’s wrong.  As for me, I harbor no such sentiments and am happy to dish my skis off to a slopeside valet or stroll on a heated sidewalk prior to helping myself to the complimentary s’more accoutrements set up beside the lodge’s roasty outdoor fire ring.  Generally I can’t afford these things, and they are certainly not what I would expect, but I won’t turn them down either. 

Secondly, we got a great deal.  It was the very beginning of December, which is very early in the season and a time when there’s generally neither much skiing going on nor much snow to be had, so we were able to book two adjoining rooms in the lodge for next to nothing.  And then it started to snow.  And snow.  We arrived at a mountain 100% open, blanketed in fresh powder, and nearly empty of visitors.  Yikes.

And I mentioned the adjoining rooms I had booked.  Well, I learned upon check-in that The Lodge has no such animal (by which I mean “adjoining rooms”), and they weren’t sure how I had managed to book them.  After a quick behind-the-scenes huddle, the supervisor emerged and handed me a key with a wink and an “I’m sure you’ll be happy with this.”  I was.  We were. Oh man were we.  Rather than adjoining hotel rooms, they gave us one of their 2 bedroom plus loft condos whose balcony looked out onto the base of the gondola below. !!  So it was a great, great start.

It only got better from there.  The kids absolutely loved it.  LOVED it.  And by “kids” I mean Tacco and I.  Our children were even more thrilled, and tore all over the mountain in the soft, forgiving powder.  We found a “kids’ adventure zone” with twisty, narrow paths that wind through the forest and various obstacles to ski around, over, and under, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. 

We had to remind them repeatedly that this was not something that they should get used to with respect to skiing, but it was probably tough to take us too seriously through our giddiness. 

They skied well, too.  Woodsprite tackled some easy blues and Firebolt became completely confident on them, even going so far as to develop a habit of throwing down some in-motion disco moves during straight stretches in order to calm nerves that had been frayed by preceding steep sections.  Keeper progressed quickly into the blue zone and began to work on parallel turns rather than snowplows.  I took him, probably a little prematurely, down into the back bowls.  I couldn’t resist – they were wide open and reasonably untracked. 

He didn’t dig it much. 

But he did manage to make his way down, and it didn’t kill his mojo for the rest of the day/trip; he continued to improve.

Overall it was a raging success, though once again we had to make clear to the kids that this was not a standard we were setting, in fact we may never have a ski trip this cool again.  They took that in stride.

Quick “flashing check engine light” update. With all this time in my parents’ driveway we were able to get Davista back into the shop to see if they couldn’t beat it into submission once and for all. We chose a Ford dealership in somewhat-nearby Fairfield, and I liked the service coordinator there. He inspired confidence and listened intently, or at least appeared to do so, when I gave him my data dump on what I’d seen and the drama that had come before. After about a week, they came to the conclusion that it was a software issue in the onboard diagnostic computer, and that makes sense to me. They flashed the new software onto the computer, reset the light, and cut us loose. Though I’m far from an expert on engines, trucks, or the particulars of internal combustion, I can’t get my head around the idea that multiple cylinders, yet not all of them, would misfire randomly and intermittently. That I’m not feeling anything abnormal when it happens backs up my going theory. So a sensing problem rather than an actual misfiring problem seems right. So far the light is out and hasn’t come back. On the other hand, Davista is just sitting in the driveway, so who knows… Hard to misfire when your engine isn’t running.

We rounded out 2018 with a family Christmas celebration at my parents’ house, followed by my flying down to Orlando to accomplish my yearly required airline training. 

Generally that week would be considered holiday time that we would try to keep somewhat free from work commitments, but the truth is that it’s basically been a holiday year.  It’s difficult to even know where to file a year like 2018 for our family, with its beginnings back in Maryland, the slow march back across the country, the scads of national parks and months on the beach, and the final cutting of ties with our previous home.  This has become our new normal, and how extraordinary it has all been is difficult to evaluate from the inside. 

Yet there’s a distinct turning toward the next phase.  For New Year’s Eve Tacco set up a “wish board” where we all wrote on stickies what we hoped for in 2019, and then pasted them to a large surface.  The kids each mentioned a few things related at least tangentially to getting off the road and back into a house, school, and I guess “normalcy.”  For me, my focus is turning definitively toward making “a smooth landing.”  On multiple occasions I’ve talked about how getting back off the road seems in many ways as daunting as getting on it was, and I’ve realized that it would be a grave mistake not to commit the same mental and physical resources to doing so.  There are enormous decisions to be made, and we want to be deliberate and diligent.  To be sure, there’s more to see and certainly some more skiing to do.  But we’re winding down.  That feels different.

Here’s to 2019!

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