Southbound and Down

What’s the old saying about guests and fish?  That they start to stink after three months, right?  Something like that.  I may be mixing up time units – not sure.  Regardless, we cleaned up our mess and departed my parents’ driveway for points south on the last day of February.  As much as we enjoyed our quality time with them, it was time to set out on our own once again.

“Dawn Patrol” has become a kid favorite mode of departure.  I’m a fan, too, frankly. We get everything ready to go, including disconnecting from any hookups and pulling in Davista’s large slideout, at bedtime.  Keeper sleeps on the couch since his bed drops down over the driver’s seat.  And I set an alarm for oh dark thirty. Upon awakening to the first few lines of Everything in its Right Place (my current alarm tone of choice, which, I literally just now realized, may not be setting the proper tone for my days), I hook up the Toad if necessary, make a quick cup of coffee, and off we go, ideally with everyone else still asleep.  The kids like it because it effectively shortens the travel time – nothing like waking up to find yourself halfway to your destination already.  And I like it because of the quiet, inside and outside.  Though guiding the Davista-Toad complex safely down the road takes nothing near the intense concentration it did when we first started, it’s still taxing, with the attention required and fatigue induced almost directly proportional to the traffic on the road.  So an empty freeway is nice.

Like the kids, I also enjoy having made a large dent in our travel day by the time the sun rises, and this particular leg was a long one.  Not wanting to navigate LA’s spaghetti bowl of freeways again during high traffic time (i.e. anytime other than midnight to 4 AM), I had worked with Tacco to devise a route that bypassed it entirely and netted us another National Historical Site along the way.  This one was dedicated to Cesar Chavez, and sits in the Tehachapi hills at the south end of California’s Central Valley, on the way to the desert that surrounds LA.  It was a relaxing and educational stop; I lived a large part of my life in California and never knew it was there.

I also learned that the LA basin’s traffic is a vastly more formidable force than I had given it credit for.  Though we may have avoided about an hour of start/stop and multiple forced lane changes on “the 5,” we traded it for about two extra hours of driving due to the circuitous route, and a good forty-five minutes of start/stop on a few other numbered SoCal freeways preceded by the definite article, which I’d previously considered remote enough to be non-busy.  I’d tell you my whole route, but I don’t want to sound too much like The Californians on Saturday Night Live.

Oh, and the flashing check engine light?  Not fixed.  Again.  Yeah, that didn’t take long to discover once we actually started moving in earnest.  I’m now learning far more than I ever wanted to know about misfires, what can cause them, how they’re sensed, what damage having them can do to your engine components, and on and on and on.  I still don’t know if we’re actually misfiring or just incorrectly sensing that we are.  Evidently no one does. All I know is that something is wrong and I’m drifting toward investigation into what recourse we have if our under-warranty power train simply can’t be fixed.  That’s a path I hope to avoid.

We arrived back at Camp Pendleton’s beach in the afternoon and set up on the sand once again.  This time we actually managed to snag a front row site, with nothing between us and the waves but an expanse of sand.  Such a setup is very hard to beat.

One gene I don’t have is the one that tells me it’s imperative, wherever I go, to ensure everyone in my vicinity knows my interests and loyalties before we meet.  Our neighbor apparently does.  He didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea I guess.  Unfortunately we never actually did meet, but I’d like to believe we would’ve gotten along just fine regardless of our differences, genetic or otherwise.

We settled back into pure RV life (from the hybrid that our stay at my parents’ house had been) quickly, and the beach was relaxed and pleasant.  It’s not particularly warm in Southern California in the Winter / early Spring, but neither is it particularly chilly.  Beach play in fleece and hoodies was just about as much fun as is summer beach play, and the water temperature was entirely tolerable in our wetsuits. 

I am sensing a distinct difference in general family vibe, though.  The push for a smooth landing and the proximity of our travels’ end has worn down some of the edges.  Where the kids harbored a good bit of excitement for what was to come at the end of last year, they seem now to be thinking much more about settling.  There’s more of a focus on routine and speculation about what life will be like in a few short months when we stop moving.  Keeper has gotten his Invisaligns and is wearing them diligently in an attempt to have his teeth fixed prior to starting school in the Fall.  Firebolt is digging deep into an online class about World War 2 historical fiction (and loving it).  And Woodsprite talks often and longingly about the day we have a house of our own.  Actually all three do that. 

The frenetic activity and motion have all but ceased, and Tacco and I spend much of our conversational time combing through the intricacies of how and where we intend to drop our anchor.  It’s a transition phase – we’re still traveling, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like it.

Our planning calendar is something we adopted a few months into our travels when we did an evaluation and realized that we had been doing a poor job keeping the kids abreast of where we were and what was upcoming.  We update it every three weeks or so, as well as a list in the side column of things to look forward to.  There’s much less on it now that our pace has slowed.

We do have another large trip, or more accurately trip-within-a-trip, planned for Spring Break.  Tacco’s sister’s family is flying out from the Chicago area to Las Vegas, where they’ll rent an RV and we’ll join them.  The plan we crafted has us doing a semi-whirlwind tour of the Southwest, hitting Zion, Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell, and Grand Canyon before returning to Vegas.  The go-go-go thing we’re looking forward to, if a bit more warily this time, and the time with cousins / aunts / uncles even more so.  And surprisingly this will be the first time we’ve made it to the Grand Canyon.

More than anything, though, it’s become about striving for balance between savoring our last few months living this extraordinary experience, and diligently working out and executing a plan to return to “normalcy.”  It’s a challenge to keep the potential (and actual) stress of the latter from bleeding into the former.  We don’t want to miss anything.


Despite our decision to move to and raise our kids in a ski town, our being a ski family was never a sure thing. The causal arrows flow the opposite way than you might think, which is to say that we didn’t start with the pre-condition that we would settle in a ski town and then work back from there, rather we found that the vast majority of the places we really liked happened to be ski towns as well.  And that’s not 100% true, either… I was heavily biased toward ski towns from the start.  It’s just that I was the only one of the five of us who put “proximity to slopes” up there at the peak of my priority list. 

Regardless of how that calculus worked, however, we did decide that discovering whether skiing was or could one day be a “thing” for us would be important, and before we started our RV adventure, Keeper had skied exactly twice, separated by three years, and the girls had skied two fewer times than that.

Our Winter ’18 visit to Bend gave us the first opportunity to get the kids on skis, and that ugly, misty day on Mt. Bachelor became a narrowly averted disaster which threatened to end our kids’ (and quite possibly, by extension, our…) skiing careers within a few hours.  Miraculously, they loved their experience in spite of everything working against them, and then, of course, we got the opportunity to spend this Winter attempting to lock in their enthusiasm. 

Quick recap on the military Epic pass:  Special deal for this year only extended to military members, dependents, and reservists — $99 gets you a season long unlimited lift pass at most Vail-owned ski resorts.  Even before we knew we would have another traveling / road-schooling Winter, we would’ve been insane to pass that up. [Update, they’re doing it for 2019-2020 too, but raised the price. To $129 (!)]

Our season had started well with the Vail trip in which everything fell our way.  It turned into something truly glorious as our free time managed to coincide with some of the best snowfall the West has seen in years, if not decades. 

During Keeper’s semi-private Kirkwood ski lesson a few days prior (which he wasn’t a fan of), he had a lift-ride conversation with the instructor, likely sensing his frustration, that went something like this:

“So, will you and your family be doing any more skiing this Winter, do you think?”

“Oh yes, definitely.  We already have a couple trips planned.”

“Yeah?  Great.  Where to.  Here in Tahoe?”

“No, we’re going to Vail next week.”

“AHHH OK, well I think you’re going to like Vail a lot.  There’s quite a bit more to it than there is here.  Very nice.”

“And then for my birthday we’re going to Whistler for a week…”

“OK WOW, you’re REALLY going to like Whistler.  I envy you!”

Not only did that succeed in taking the edge off of Keeper’s exasperation at the time, but he was absolutely correct.

First though, Tahoe. Tahoe being relatively close to my parents’ house / our temporary home, we figured that we would aim to squeeze in a few trips up there as targets of opportunity, and the first one of the new year was to Northstar.  What Northstar lacks in impressive terrain (even the summit is treed, which is an anomaly in the Sierras and Rockies), it makes up for in creature comforts.  It’s not quite Vail-level upscale, but it trends that way, and is a fun place to ski, particularly if glades are your thing.

We rented a condo slopeside, above the village, which gave us the opportunity to ski-in-ski-out – always a bonus. 

Upon arrival, Keeper stepped out of the car, which happened to be my parents’, and asked what that hissing noise was.  Uh oh. 

Can’t say I’ve ever seen a puncture quite like this.  Best I could tell, it was a link of chain that had broken and opened itself up, and we managed to ride directly over the pointy part of it.  I yanked and yanked to try to remove it, but thought better of it when I realized there was still air in the tire that could push it out forcefully once any restrictions were freed, not to mention another set of sharp edges.  So we turned it into a lesson on tire changing and dealt with it back at home after driving back on the spare.

The winter’s heavy snowfall really hadn’t kicked in in earnest yet, but the conditions weren’t bad.  Woodsprite had the most challenging time.  She learned how to snowplow pretty quickly (“pizza”).  She does it well.  What she does less well is let her snowplow relax (“Come out of pizza!  More French fries!”).  While I’d far prefer her to ski in control than allow herself to tear wildly down the mountain, it tires her out very quickly.  And I’m not surprised – I can’t imagine fully engaging my quads continuously for more than a few seconds, let alone minutes.  I did develop a way (as have countless parents and ski instructors I’m certain) to get myself into a reverse snowplow, put my poles horizontally in front of me to give her something to grab onto, and then ski down backwards with her inside of my snowplow in order to get her down some of the steeper sections.  It’s not ideal, but it keeps her in the game.

Whistler came next, and as requested, fell over Keeper’s birthday in February.  Tacco and I were thrilled that he had requested to turn 13 in Whistler, both for his ambition (he hadn’t yet skied much when he requested it) and for the fact that we have many great memories from there. 

Whistler / Blackcomb is Canada’s premier ski resort, and is not only massive, but sports the most vertical feet in North America.  It spans two large mountains, which relatively recently were connected by a mid-mountain gondola.  It sits about an hour and a half north of Vancouver, and is reached by a spectacular drive up a fjord, of all things.  There’s pretty much every type of terrain to be found there, with much of it above the treeline.  And last but not least, it’s anchored by what has to be one of the best ski villages in the world at its base. 

As Whistler is the closest major ski resort to our old home in Anacortes, we spent several long winter weekends up there, particularly during our squadron days.  Consequently it inhabits a somewhat exalted perch in our memories.

If Whistler has a down side, it’s likely weather.  Despite the 5000’+ of vertical, its base sits at a relatively low elevation.  Combine that with its Pacific Northwest location, and rain at the base isn’t uncommon, nor are clouds.  I distinctly remember several days above the treeline there in which visibility was only a hair’s width better than zero, and the only way to stay on the trails was to pick out the fluorescent circular signs that marked their edges from out of the pea-soup mist. 

As has been the case for just about everything else this season, the weather wasn’t typical.  Rather than mild and cloudy, we arrived to find bright sun and bitter cold, which lasted our entire stay. 

Not especially problematic, as it’s generally not difficult to bundle up against pretty much any chill, given the right clothing and gear.  But this was cold enough for the hearty Canadians to issue warnings on the radio – “Be careful, it is COLD up there eh?”

They were correct, too.  On several occasions during our ski days they shut down the top of the mountain due to dangerous winds / wind-chill.  Keeper and I headed up to the summit at one point just prior to one of the closures, and YOW!  I’ve never felt anything like that.  It turned immediately into “let’s get somewhere lower on the mountain and sheltered from this wind RIGHT NOW!” – more an escape than skiing a few runs. I looked up the wind chill up there later in the day and I want to say it was roundabout -50. Legit.

Whistler didn’t disappoint though.  There’s just so much terrain there.  I took Keeper and Firebolt across the gondola and up to the top of Blackcomb on one day, as Firebolt had been skiing especially well and wanted a bit more challenge. 

The views across British Columbia were breathtaking.  Those mountains are largely untracked / unpopulated, glaciated, and extend for hundreds and hundreds of miles.  No wonder heli-skiing is so popular up there.

One of Keeper’s goals/wishes had been to ski a black diamond run on his 13th birthday.  He had been gravitating throughout the season toward steep groomers rather than mogul runs, so the two of us found a good line to take on the big day and went for it.  He killed it – skied it fast and in control all the way down, and wanted more.  I’m proud of him and can’t wait for the day when his skills exceed mine. 

Woodsprite is still having a difficult time releasing from her snowplow, but she’ll get there.

Our last family ski trip of the season was in Park City, our old home and possible future one. 

We haven’t updated our progress on the home search front in a while, but essentially we’re down to wavering between Park City and Bend, and are hawking the housing markets in both.  I get an email notification any time a house fitting our criteria comes onto the market in either place, and we maintain a list of potential future residences.  Our plan for this visit was to spend a week, get four or five days of skiing in, soak up the vibe with the family to see how it suited us, and tour a few houses as well. 

The home search didn’t net much, unfortunately, as the housing market there has gone a little nuts, particularly in the last year or two.  Tacco lived there from 2000 to 2003, when she was instructing (via the Navy) and getting her Masters (plus a second Bachelors) at the University of Utah.  She tends to stay busy, if that hasn’t become obvious… I joined her after I returned from The Netherlands at the end of my Active Duty time, and had one glorious winter of ski-bumming.

One of the things that had always surprised us about Park City was that it wasn’t priced like a ski town.  Even after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, the expected housing market bump never materialized, in fact we were surprised to see her condo depreciate in value.  Convinced there was opportunity there, I jabbered in the cockpit to anyone who would listen about how it would be a great place to buy a house or land, as it seemingly hadn’t been fully discovered yet. 

Why I didn’t take my own advice, I have no idea.  That’s another story, and possibly a recurring theme.  But fast forward to 2019, and it has undoubtedly been fully discovered.  We sold our condo several years ago for a very modest gain after using it, somewhat frustratingly, as a short term rental property.  Since then, VRBO and AirBnB came into their own (which would’ve made renting both easy and lucrative), Park City was purchased by Vail resorts and merged with The Canyons, making it the largest ski area in the US, and the market went berserk.  Even our realtor hadn’t noticed how nutty prices had become until we pointed out to him that houses we were looking at just a short year ago were now going for $100-$200K more.  “That can’t be right” turned to “wow, I hadn’t realized just how steeply things are appreciating” the next day after he had done a little research.

Great for them, not so good for us – the mental image I couldn’t shake was of giddy sellers laughing uncontrollably as they tossed out increasingly ludicrous asking prices, just to see what might stick.

Anyway, we skied and we looked at houses, and the former went significantly better than the latter.

The kids have come into their own as skiers, with the possible exception of Woodsprite, who informs us with great sincerity that “skiing isn’t really my thing, you know…”  I’ve suggested to her each time that it’s possible that, at age 7, she doesn’t have a complete grasp of what “her thing” is just yet and that she should be patient and open-minded.  We’ll see how that develops once we live in a ski town. And honestly, she’s doing fine skill-wise. All she needs is a friend to ski with instead of her always-ahead-of-her siblings and parents, and it’ll click.

Regardless, she had a great time, as did all of us.  As a bonus, our cousins from Texas were doing some Park City skiing that week, too, and we were able to meet up with them and grab several runs.  Their son is just about Keeper’s age, and tears down pretty much any slope he wants, pole-less and at breakneck speed.  It was good for Keeper to get pushed a little bit.

Firebolt had a bit of a situation on one of the days in which she had come up higher on the mountain with Keeper and me.  It’s always a bit tricky to keep track of more than one kid on the slopes, particularly when they ski at different speeds and levels.  I was doing that dance just after getting off one of the lifts and watching Keeper bolt down the cat track toward an intersection which could take him to several possible chairs.  After quickly telling Firebolt to just stay on this cat track and that we’d meet at the bottom of it, I attempted to beeline toward Keeper.  I couldn’t catch him, but did find him stopped near the bottom of the cat track prior to the intersections, so I stopped next to him to look up the mountain and wait for Firebolt to round the curve just above us, past which we couldn’t see.  And we waited.  And waited.  Shoot.  It became abundantly clear that even at the slowest possible skiing speed she’d have reached us well before now.  So I took off my skis and started trudging up the hill.  Still unable to see her, I asked a few passers-by if they’d seen a young girl in pink ski pants… “yes!  She’s walking up the hill carrying her skis.”  CRAP.  Ok.  Dilemma.  I couldn’t just leave Keeper there (and he couldn’t see me anymore), so opted to ski down the hill and go back up the lift to find her at the top rather than continuing my hike up.  I was sweating profusely by this time, as well, which aided in that decision.  While attempting to run through all the potentialities in this scenario, I spied a ski patroller and let her in on our plight.  “No problem!  I’ll just call up to my colleague on the radio.”  Fortunately he (the colleague) found her almost immediately – she was making her way back to the top of the chair, which was a VERY long slog incidentally, and had just started to quietly weep.  She’s a tough one.  I can imagine that at age ten I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to do much other than sit down in the snow and wait for someone to come help me.  Instead the ski-patroller said hello, let her know that her dad and brother were just down the hill waiting for her, and skied with her back to us, by which time she was completely recovered.  Like I said, she’s a tough one, and I swelled with pride a bit.  Evidently while skiing she had looked up to find us out of sight, and had become convinced that she had taken a wrong turn.  Had she skied another 100 yards down the hill she’d have seen us waiting around the bend, but trooper that she is, she decided hiking up the mountain was the only sensible way out of her predicament.  The tears, she informed us, were more from frustration than anything, and she kept them to herself.  “I was fine, Dad, just tired and a little concerned.”  Awesome.   But I’ll keep her closer to me when skiing next time.

On the last day, Keeper and I went up just the two of us, and had the best day yet.  The Epic app tracks you on the hill and gives you a running total of your vertical feet skied, and we blew away all our records.  Not only that, but it snowed most of the day.  The good kind of snowing, where you can’t really call it stormy, but the powder gets continually refreshed throughout the day, and everything’s light and forgiving. 

It’s easy to forget that there are a very countable number of these incredible one-on-one days with my kids in the future.  This was unquestionably one of them and I fervently hope not only for many more, but for the wisdom to recognize and savor them when they do come.

That ended the ski season for the family – already one for the record books and wildly successful on any axis, but I was able to extend mine out for one more trip, as I’d planned a long weekend in Vail with old friends for the end of my 50th birthday celebration.  It’s something we’ve done on and off for about 15 years now (though always in Park City previously), with groups of various sizes, most from Navy flight school days.  As several of us were hitting the half-century mark and we hadn’t gotten together in a few years, we brought it back to life.

And it was spectacular.  Truly.  Biggest turnout we’ve ever had, great cabin, even better company, and two bluebird days in Beaver Creek and Vail.  To top it all off, I had a watershed skiing moment brought on by a tip from a friend – just a small thing he noticed about how I was making my turns in moguls, but it changed just about everything.  I had come into this season with the idea that my skiing / snowboarding career had peaked quite some time ago, and that I was perfectly content spending the rest of my ski days on relaxed groomers.  No longer.  I’m skiing better than I ever have and can’t wait to get back on the slopes next year.  And the year after that.  And…