Climbing Up the Walls

Spring Break in the Southwest!

As this part of the country has been gushed over by thousands more eloquent than I, I’ll defer here to pictures, with a just a smattering of commentary. 

I will say that this was our first somewhat extended experience with convoying, which is a bit surprising.  We loved it.  Primarily due to the company of course (Tacco’s sister’s family), but much like eating a great meal or seeing an amazing concert is better when you have people to share the experience with, coordinated RV travel compounds the fun while only marginally increasing the complexity.  I wish we had known this sooner – we may have made a more concerted effort to reach out a bit more.

We departed Southern California over Cajon Pass and through the desert to Valley of Fire state park, just past Las Vegas.  We’d spent an afternoon hiking there the year prior, but this time we were able to snag a double large campsite and spend the night.

First though, a hike (of course).  The cousins were thrilled to see each other again, and immediately charged up a rock, like you do.

This was my attempt to set up an “our album’s about to drop” pic, but couldn’t manage to pull it off.  I like the first one, but far too smily for an album cover, and the second found Firebolt taking things a few steps over the line and into Spinal Tap territory.

We headed up to Zion next, and found to our surprise that Zion in the Spring bears only a passing resemblance to Zion in the mid-late Fall.  Now, Zion is Zion, and will always been breathtaking.  But we learned how good we had it when we essentially had the park to ourselves, with a clear Virgin River, Fall colors, and no traffic on Angel’s Landing. 

Again though, Zion is a gem – easily one of our best National Parks by any standard, no matter when you’re there.  Other than playing around in the campground (which we had to book outside the park, as the ones inside were full), hiking was again the activity of choice.

We heard about some damage on the Emerald Pools trail which would prevent us from getting to the upper Emerald Pool, but took the hike anyway, figuring we might be able to scramble up over the “damage.” 

Nope, this was MAJOR damage.  Like you’re going to have to build a completely new trail around that rockfall damage.  So we stayed at the lower Pool and enjoyed the views from behind the waterfall.

Angels Landing take 2 was sporty, and not at all a given that we would attempt it.  If you remember from last year’s visit, we hiked up to the spot where the knife edge ridge begins, with the bolted-in chains, and stopped there.  That’s a spectacular hike in itself, and try as I might, I couldn’t talk my way into ignoring all the warnings about this not being a suitable kids’ hike and taking one or several of my own higher up the trail.

We discussed the merits of going up again with the entire group, and decided it wasn’t something we could miss.  The question of course was what we would do once he hit the plateau where we had stopped last year. 

The sisters chatted along the way up and stopped to look gorgeous framed against the scenery.

Firebolt stopped to bemoan her fate at the base of “Walter’s Wiggles,” an infamous set of steep switchbacks which leads to the plateau. 

And then we made the plateau.

To my surprise, both Firebolt and ex-acrophobic Keeper expressed a desire to keep climbing, as did their oldest cousin.  A group re-jiggering ensued, we left Woodsprite with her younger cousin and aunt to amuse themselves at the plateau, and we hit the chains.

I tried to capture the absolute craziness of this hike in pictures, and found it utterly impossible.  Thousand foot drops on either side, and this tiny, steep scramble up the sandstone, aided by the chain that they’d bolted into the rock, but thwarted by the mass of people you’re hiking with, going both directions on a very much one way road.  Quite a bit of waiting on people to traverse especially dicey sections, peppered by nervous chatter and too-loud laughs of false confidence. 

Keeper proclaimed a relapse of his acrophobia about a third of the way up, and opted to hang out there with Tacco while the other four of us pressed on.

We finally made it to the top, and I can’t tell you how proud of Firebolt I am.  Not once did she freak out or even doubt herself, at least not openly.  And if there’s one thing you can count on with Firebolt, it’s that she’s telling you exactly what she thinks.  Never have I met someone more of an open book, more endearingly sincere than Firebolt.  And now evidently she’s a badass too.

Our next stop was in Page, Arizona.  I had heard about Antelope Canyon, which is a small slot canyon which branches off of Lake Powell near its southwest end, and is viewable via guided tour.  What I hadn’t known was that EVERYONE has now heard about Antelope Canyon.  This is apparently a recent thing.  For good reason though, it’s otherworldly.

As it sits on reservation land, access to it is highly regulated – guided tours only.  We made our reservations and showed up at the canyon with about a thousand of our closest friends and several large buses.  Tour groups organize and make the walk to the canyon entrance every 10 or 15 minutes; there are an awful lot of people in that canyon at any given time.  This sounds highly unpleasant, and when we started the tour, filed onto the stairway with the others, and entered the first tiny segment of canyon with about 50 other people holding their phones in the air to take pictures, it appeared to be trending that way.

Thankfully, however, everything changed as we began our stroll up the canyon floor and the group thinned itself out.  It’s only wide enough to fit two or three people in most places, if that.  Consequently it became easy to feel like you had the canyon to yourself.  And the photo opportunities were legion. 

Every twist revealed another impossibly carved formation.

The guides are experts in phone photography as well.  Not only did they tell us precisely which photo settings to use, they pointed out exactly where to aim and meter each shot and even borrowed our phones to snap a few themselves. 

An image from a story I read about an American landmark famous for being the “most photographed xxx in the country” stuck in my head.  What exactly the landmark was escapes me, but in the story, two of the characters are watching people photograph the landmark and one remarks to the other than no one actually sees the landmark.

I wanted to make sure I saw the canyon.  So I got plenty of photos, but then I stopped snapping.

At the end of the canyon we emerged into the daylight again.  Here’s how it looks from the surface.  Seeing that, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what’s below.

Antelope Canyon went from a off-the-cuff target of opportunity to a potentially disagreeable tour experience, to a highlight of our trip, at least as far as natural beauty.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

I’ve since learned that there are dozens, if not hundreds of similar slot canyons in that area.  Access would be far more difficult, as you’d have to first find one, and then get into it without the help of stairways and ladders.  Then once in, you wouldn’t know what lies ahead, nor would you necessarily know whether there happened to be a thunderstorm far upstream that could flood it at any moment.  But finding one on your own and exploring it now strikes me as a worthwhile adventure goal.

We departed Page in the early afternoon, following our tour, and headed south toward the Grand Canyon.  It’s yet another stunner of a drive across northern Arizona’s high plateau.  I found the knowledge that this almost unfathomably massive canyon which I couldn’t yet see sat just north of me to provide an interesting form of anticipatory excitement.  You enter the park having only seen trees and terrain, and suddenly a few miles in you look through that section of trees to your right and BOOM, they just stop and you get glimpses of a view that just doesn’t seem right in its enormity.  You stop at the first overlook, and just try to process it.  It takes time, and you look around and see others staring, quietly slack-jawed like you are.

The campground is well appointed, with various trails leading to the viewpoints and points of interest.  What I hadn’t quite anticipated was how chilly it would be.  It sits at about 7000’ elevation, and dropped below freezing each night we were there.  There were still patches of snow in spots. 

Keeper and I took a ride on our bikes to the edge.  I could’ve spent a day doing only that.

We returned though, and gathered up the others for a group visit to the edge at sunset.

The following day we opted for another hike, the first one we’ve done (with the exception of Carlsbad Cavern) that started steeply downhill to our destination before climbing back up, rather than the other way around.

Signs warning of the hazards of attempting a hike to the bottom of the canyon unprepared abound.  It makes sense, too – the temperature can increase by 30 or more degrees as you descend, and gravity’s assistance could easily lull you into a false sense of being prepared for the several thousand foot climb back up.  There’s no drinking water around either, and the sun is merciless.  The signs pull no punches, showing crude drawings of people throwing up and passing out on the trail.

We went about a third of the way down, which was more than enough.  After stopping for lunch, we scrambled around on the rocks a bit, and made the climb back to the rim.

Back at the campground we grilled burgers and toasted a wildly successful joint family trip, and said our goodbyes in the morning.  The cousins/aunt/uncle/brother/sister made their way back to Vegas to catch their flight to Chicago and we set off back to southern California’s beaches, with an overnight in lovely Daggett after an aborted attempt to boondock in the middle of the desert.  It’s harder to find a place to pull 50’ of motorhome and car off of the road to sleep than you might think.  It’s harder than I thought it would be at least.  And ok, I admit it, we wanted to have a cellphone signal too, so that limited how far from the highway we could venture in our search.  So Daggett it was.  And yes, I was being a little sarcastic about the “lovely” part, but in truth the RV park in which we stayed was entirely decent. 

And now we return to Camp Pendleton to round out our Southern California time and hopefully decide on a place to live once and for all.  Park City and Bend are close to neck and neck, but Park City has taken the edge due to practicality.  Though Bend holds the top spot when it comes to lifestyle and vibe, professionally both Tacco and I will have a much easier time with work in Park City. And that’s important.  Plus those Epic Passes!…  The problem is, we need to find a house.  Those are in short supply and very expensive in Park City.  Pressing on!

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.

Freshies

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…

Overwintering

The latest incarnation of our plan, as you may recall, had us staying in my parents’ driveway in Alamo until just after New Year’s Day, and thereafter heading down to Southern California for a month or two.  At the time, I had perceived two future months as a very long time to stay in one place, let alone someone else’s home.  It wasn’t though. 

The holidays came and went, I worked too much, we had seen hardly anything in the area it seemed, and we were very much enjoying getting the quality extended family time.  We really didn’t want to go. So in a late-night discussion, Tacco and I strategized on how to broach the subject of our maybe sticking around… like possibly all the way through February??

Of course the strategizing was superfluous, but my parents humored us when we sat them down for “a serious talk” about what we were considering. “Hmmm…” they offered thoughtfully, before answering that yes, they would love to have us continue to darken their driveway.  Excellent!  We revisited the house rules and attempted anew to preempt potential avenues into and beyond the imposition zone — so far so good.  And then we settled happily back into our routine. 

Alcatraz was the next National Park Service site that got a visit from our squad.

I can’t say that it was our favorite, but it’s never a bad idea to take a boat ride in the Bay, particularly one that spans the sunset.

One memorable evening started with the family picking me up from Oakland airport after a trip.  My parents had highly recommended a relatively new Mexican restaurant in town, so we figured we would use my needing a ride as an excuse to get the family out to dinner.

They were correct about the restaurant; it was excellent.  The area in which it sits, less so.  Here was what we emerged from the restaurant to find.

Unfortunately the reason for the glass-shattering was to extract my fully packed luggage, which included not only a full load of clothes and a uniform, but my company ID, my passport, my computer and company iPad, etc.  Well, shoot.  That is not at all good.  When we walked back into the restaurant to let them know what had happened and give the kids a place to sit down while we started the process of reporting it to the police, (and to be fair, the restaurant folks were very helpful and accommodating), the first question we were asked was “did you cover up your luggage?”  Huh.  Evidently, not only is this a common crime in the area, but we brought it on ourselves.  That’s disheartening.

The story took a turn toward the bizarre when I got a phone call after midnight that night from a man claiming to have “my stuff.”  He was difficult to understand and his explanation was twisty and almost certainly alcohol-soaked, but seemed involve my bag (or bags?) being thrown out of a moving car near the BART station and someone he knew (daughter? girlfriend?) grabbing it and realizing that there were important items in it, apparently including my phone number.  All I had to do was come to his house in Oakland the next day if I wanted to pick it up… and oh, I don’t know, maybe there might be a reward involved?

What could go wrong there? 

Plenty, if you ask the police, which I did the next day. In retrospect that was just a complicating and stress-inducing factor in the whole scenario, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  They stopped just short of asking whether I was making my best attempt to get robbed and/or shot, and weren’t particularly helpful.  I explained that this person potentially already had my stuff, what could possibly be the point of luring me out to Oakland to shoot me? But I get it – they see a lot of Bad, day in day out, and my little suitcase was exceedingly small potatoes for them. It wasn’t so much that they were giving bad advice as it was that they really didn’t have the time or inclination to give advice at all.  Just stay in your lane and no one gets hurt. OK. The thing is, I really, really wanted my passport and ID back.  Those are very hard to replace, and I need them for work.  It was quite a dilemma, and pitted my Assume The Best From People nature against whatever meager street smarts I’ve picked up over the years.  Skipping to the end of a very long and far more than a little bit crazy story, my dad and I spent an afternoon in what we were later told is the “roughest” part of Oakland, culminating with a convergence-via-cellphone to a “neutral” street corner, getting out of the car, rapidly exchanging a handful of twenties for a medium sized black bag, throwing it into the trunk, and tearing off.  I’m sure it wasn’t suspicious and attracted no attention. 

Got my stuff though (the passport and ID at least – all the valuable items were naturally gone).  

Winter wore on, and stayed wet and chilly.  Very much so, in fact.  So much so that California pulled out of the exceptional drought it had suffered under for the past several years, and then some.  Growing up in California, one of the many things you get used to – actually two things, are 1) Drought, 2) The inevitable barrage of stern newspeople explaining, after every big rainstorm, that though this rain was welcome and may have seemed significant, it didn’t even put a dent in the current drought.

Except in 2019, that wasn’t the case.  It rained and rained and snowed and snowed in the mountains.  Great for our ski season and even better for the state, but not so good for getting us outside.

Woodsprite took to making “markets” in front of her grandparents’ various fireplaces, selling mostly drawings she had made in order to raise money for “LOL Dolls,” a recently adopted enthusiasm of hers and her sister’s that I don’t entirely understand.

And in the breaks between storms, Tacco set up art class outside on the deck. 

We also took a trip out to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, where explorer Sir Francis Drake had made landfall in 1579, after missing San Francisco Bay just a dozen or two miles to the south, due to the Oakland hills blending in with the coastline. Or so the legend goes.

It’s wild, empty seashore, and quite beautiful – even more so when you have it to yourself on a Winter weekday. 

Near the end of our time in Alamo, we finally managed a trip up nearby Mt. Diablo, home of the tarantulas Tacco mentioned last year.  February is not tarantula season, however, so we were able to enjoy a short, spider-free hike, some rock scrambling, and killer views. 

Both Tacco and Keeper found places for some tranquil me-time as well.

Overall it turned into an outstanding Winter, with multiple ski trips (to be covered in a separate post), an anniversary trip to St. Maarten for Tacco and me made possible by the kids staying with my parents, and lots of truly invaluable family time.  It had never been the plan to travel significantly in the RV during Winter, but as it turned out we didn’t really move the RV in the winter at all, leaving it stored in Southern California the first year and parked in Northern California the second year.  In doing so we managed to avoid the mass winter RV migration to Florida and Arizona’s campgrounds, which I’m told tend to be filled to bursting.  I’m ok with that.

Though I’ve mentioned my distress at the kids’ ratio of stare at screens time to play outside time, one undeniably positive by-product of this trip has been how close they’ve grown.  The sisters especially, as they’ve been each other’s sole playmate for the vast majority of the past year and a half.  They’re more or less inseparable, and their modes of play are both sophisticated and fascinating at times, involving intricate roleplays and improv.  They’ve decided that they would like to be “You-Tubers” as soon as possible, and have worked up what I’m assured (by them) is compelling content.  I pretty much don’t know what any of that means.  But they’re of like mind and make a great team, so who knows? 

And I don’t want to leave out Keeper – he is an exemplary big brother to his sisters.  Of course he gets annoyed by them at times and they pick at each other, as is required by law, but in general he’s both tender and protective of his sisters, far more than I was at his age or even much older.  Good man. 

Next we head back down to Southern California’s beaches for a stretch, starting with another stint at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego county.  It’s probably a bit early in the year to do much swimming / wave play, but we do have the wetsuits, so who knows?  I do know that going to sleep to the sound of crashing waves will be welcome.  Very, very welcome.

Inflections

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!

It’s My Birthday Too, Yeah

October is birthday month in our family (Hm, what does that make January?  Never mind).  All of us but Keeper and Firebolt click off another year in October, and in fact Woodsprite’s birthday missed sitting on top of mine by just a few hours of labor.  Tacco’s comes first, and for hers this year we spent the day in Monterey. 

Monterey is the site of another Navy RV park due to its proximity to the Naval Postgraduate School.  We discovered quickly, however, that the RV park is not quite the measure of its Whidbey Island, Pt. Mugu, Coronado, or even Seal Beach cousins, as it sits significantly inland and is quite, shall we say… compressed.  Monterey’s many sights are all easily accessible from there, however, so I can’t complain.

We began with birthday breakfast and presents.

A drive into town for a bit of exploring and tidepooling followed.  If Monterey has downsides, they would be its relative isolation and its tendency to sit under coastal fog and low clouds.  I truly can’t come up with anything else, because its coastline and town are absolutely picture perfect.  Our short drive down to the seaside began under the aforementioned clouds, but they parted as we reached the water, giving us brilliant sunshine under which to explore the rocky shoreline. 

We’ve had the opportunity to explore a relatively large variety of tidepool beaches on this journey, and it never gets old.  These were some of the best, though, with multi-colored sea stars, anemones galore, and acres of prime sea life real estate to investigate.

Monterey Bay’s famous aquarium at the end of Cannery Row was our next stop, and well worth the price of entry.  It’s the most extensive and well-presented I’ve ever seen; not surprising given its setting. 

We followed that up by a stroll along the waterfront, which led us to discover that the small beaches below sported some seaglass.  We’re always up for collecting seaglass.

Birthday dinner on the waterfront reminded me of the importance of site research and planning, as the array of seafood restaurants, seemingly indistinguishable from each other, quickly overwhelmed us.  One gift Tacco and I tend to give each other on our birthdays is the freedom of making no decisions, and so rather than doing the “what would you like?” “I don’t know, anything’s ok, what would you like?” dance, I quickly chose a restaurant that looked promising, only to find out after we were seated that it was the only one in the area that makes a point to discourage kids from dining there.  Odd marketing choice, I thought, but ok.  Our kids aren’t what come to mind when one thinks of “kids in restaurants” so they did just fine there, but it was a little stodgy and without the food quality to match the attitude.  At least that was my opinion.  But it was enjoyable regardless, and we were able to engage in our tradition of going around the table and saying something that we love/appreciate about the birthday girl or boy. 

The next birthday was mine, and held somewhat of a milestone status or so I’m told, as it marked my first half-century.  Tacco had been reminding me of this fact for at least the previous six months, along with requests to know how I would like to celebrate and implied exhortations to make it big.  I’ve gotten to the point where my ideal birthday celebration is one that I waive entirely, but I was informed that this would not be an option for my 50th and that I should exercise some creativity.  So I did.

First of all, though, we showed up on my parents’ driveway.  It wasn’t the first time we had camped out there, but this was to be a somewhat different animal as our intention was to stay there through the holidays, i.e. a shade over two months.  As much as we love hanging out with my parents, two months is a long time to host houseguests, and we were a touch concerned about how to navigate this intrusion on their lives.  Sharing meal planning duties and mutual agreements to exercise brutal honesty were a necessary starting point, but still, we were bringing five extra people into their two-person household – lots of ways this could turn out less than optimally. 

On the other hand, what an amazing opportunity.  Our kids had not had the experience of growing up near grandparents, on either side.  There had been plenty of visits, but visits just don’t compare to, well… life.  This would be an integration of families.  It wasn’t just about the kids, though.  How often, after childhood, do you get to spend months with your parents?  Not unlike recognizing and taking advantage of a window to ditch it all and travel the country, I was seeing this as a chance to get the type of quality time with my parents that it’s almost impossible to carve out normally.  I really hoped it would work out, and was both excited and optimistic as we scraped our way up their slightly steep driveway and parked Davista under their lanky heritage oak.

Back to birthdays.  Here’s what I decided:  I emphatically did not want a party.  What ultimately sounded the most celebratory to me was a series of smaller events – a family BBQ at my sister and brother-in-law’s house that I would share with Woodsprite (on her actual birthday the day after mine, and on the sly… technically this would be her birthday celebration); a resurrection of a used-to-be-yearly ski trip I do with several close friends of mine; and a variation on a Dutch birthday. 

This leads me to another, hopefully brief, digression.  I lived in The Netherlands for my last three years on Navy active duty, as part of an exchange program with the Dutch Navy.  It was the best job I ever had, but I don’t want to start a descent into that story-telling rabbit hole, rather I want to share what I learned about birthday celebrations.  Not everybody does them like we do.  In Holland, when it’s someone’s birthday, it’s tradition not to say happy birthday to them, but to congratulate them.  And you get lots of congratulations.  It was never completely clear to me what the birthday boy/girl had accomplished exactly — presumably it was for making it around the sun again.  Like a survival thing. “Well done, you made it.”  But the real birthday obligations go in the other direction; you’re expected to bring pie to work.  For everyone else.  This is serious stuff, as I discovered when I attempted to fly my first Dutch birthday under the radar, reasoning that I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do anything special for me.  It didn’t come across that way at all.  How it came across is that I was rudely shirking my birthday responsibilities and pegging myself as anti-social and not “gezellig” (Look that one up – way too involved to describe here).  I thought they hadn’t even known it was my birthday.  Nope, they definitely knew.  Fortunately I had a friend there pull me aside soon after and explain my faux pas in time for me to apologize to the group and offer a belated birthday pie. 

So back to my 50th.  What I decided I really wanted to do was dine at Single Thread in Healdsburg again, but with others this time.  Not only did I want to re-experience a meal like that, but I wanted to see the looks on my family’s faces as they experienced it.  So instead of offering a pie, I offered a Single Thread.  So good.  So, so good.

Soon after our visit they earned their third Michelin star.  I heartily agree with the assessment.

As we rolled into November and the temperatures began to drop, operation Invade The Parents’ Driveway was going swimmingly.  The kids had taken up residence in my parents’ spare bedroom downstairs, leaving Davista to Tacco and me.  Meal planning was easier than I had imagined, despite limited fridge space, and meals themselves were joyful, as were the mornings spent around the table talking, reading the newspaper, and tackling sudoku.  The kids, like they do, managed to rapidly expand their circle of clutter to a fit their new surroundings, but we did our best to beat it back and keep it contained downstairs.  They also found that they had two new homeschool tutors in their Grammy and Papa, which had to be refreshing after a year and change of just Tacco and me.

We did find it challenging to get them out and about as much as we would have liked, leading to far too much time with them on beds with their faces glued to screens.  Though this is likely more a late 2010s kid / adolescent problem than it is an our-family-in-my-parents’-driveway problem, it’s no less problematic.  Like many parents, I suspect, we struggle with ways to break the screen spell, and have tried various family screen-time rules over the last few years, with various levels of success.  Rules like that are difficult to enforce while on the road, however, and we’ve been striving to involve the kids in the process of metering and limiting their screen time so that we don’t have to do it for them.  We had a “recalibration” talk with them and it seemed to help, at least initially, but this is an ongoing process.

Another benefit of an extended time at Grammy / Papas is, of course, the Bay Area.  What a fantastic place to explore.  Tacco did her research on the National Park sites in the vicinity, of which there are surprisingly many, particularly compared to that city in the southern part of the state. 

We figured Golden Gate NRA was a great place to start, and did some exploring on a beautiful day, which ended in a sunset viewing from Land’s End, just west of the Golden Gate.  In all my time spent in the Bay Area, I’d never been out there, which was my loss.  It’s, among other things, the site of what used to be a massive seaside public bathing area, the type you really don’t see anymore. 

Even more interestingly, we saw something at sunset that for twenty-some years I had been watching out for – a green flash.  Frankly, having seen far more than my share of sunsets over water given my maritime aviation past, I had begun to suspect that green flashes belonged in the Let’s Mess With The New Guy category.  There are scads of these in the Navy – ways in which you take advantage of someone’s naivete to get a laugh.  “Snipe hunting” would be an example from the civilian world I suppose.  This one snuck up on us though, and was very much a real phenomenon.  I had always assumed that if I saw one it would be on a completely clear day, but this one was at least partly cloudy.  We watched the sun go down, and a line of green appeared for about a second, or likely less, right on the horizon above where the sun had just set.  We both stared with a shocked and befuddled look for a few seconds thereafter; we hadn’t expected that at all.  “Did you see that green flash??” offered Tacco somewhat incredulously.  I was glad she did, because I was having the same reaction, wondering if I’d just seen what I thought I had.  “YES!” 

At any rate, I have no photographic proof, but I want to assure you that they’re real.  If you’ve been looking for them, keep looking.  It only took me a few decades.

Our Biggest Mistake

I’m lookin’ at you, Toad!

While it’s almost certainly a luxury to be able to point to our choice of towed vehicle as the singular thing we messed up most on this trip, it’s hard when saying that not to imagine a future scenario wherein we look back at this post and laugh/cry at our naïveté.  “Remember when we thought the CAR was our biggest blunder??”

Lacking that scenario, however, I’ll push forward with this, as it’s has instructive value for me and anyone who may be looking to do this sort of trip in the future.

To be clear, the issue, to my knowledge, is not with the make and model of car.  I have nothing against Subaru Outbacks.  It’s ours in particular.

Backing up slightly — if you’re going to tow a car behind a motorhome, there are several ways to do it.  You can put it on a trailer, thereby towing any car you’d like and needing no special equipment to be installed on the car itself.  But then you have a large and heavy trailer that you need to store somewhere every time you park.  And they’re not cheap.  You can tow a car “four down,” i.e. with all four wheels touching the road and spinning.  No additional major gear required, but only very few cars are able to be towed four down without ruining their differential due to lack of lubrication.  And you need to install lights that illuminate along with the motorhome’s turn signals and brake lights, as well as a supplemental braking system and hardware that allows the tow bars to attach to the car.  Plus you need the tow bars.  That’s about $3000 worth of equipment.  You can also sort of split the difference and buy a dolly, which is more or less a half trailer – one set of wheels are put up on the dolly and the other set spins on the road.  You still have a dolly to store though.

The vast majority of the motorhome-towing-vehicle setups that I’ve seen since we started have been of the “four down” variety, so I’m confident that the decision we ultimately made was a good one. 

Here’s what we didn’t think about though, and this is extremely important: once you commit to a Toad, you’re all in.  And by that I mean that when you make $3000 and many many hours of modifications to a car, you are committed to keeping that car running for as long as you’re towing a car.  So it’s important to get a good one.

We got an old one.  Of all the cars that could be towed four down, we decided that an Outback suited us best, but rather than spending the money on a somewhat used / few years old model, we “saved money” by getting one at a good price.  I reasoned that the 150,000 miles on it didn’t really matter since we’d be towing it most of the time anyway, and Subarus seem to be pretty easy to keep up and running. 

We also got it from a disreputable dealer, as I would find out later.  I’ll spare you that story, as it’s more than a little unpleasant and doesn’t provide any constructive information.  Suffice it to say that I was shocked to learn how blatantly unprofessional, and actually flat out mean, a salesman could be, even in the age of online reviews.

The first thing we discovered after driving our new car the hour and a half back to Maryland from its Virginia dealership (and leaving my trusty Audi A4 behind as a trade-in) was that the front differential had a slight leak, or at least it was “slight” when the differential had almost no oil in it.  Once I serviced it with oil, it dumped all of it back out onto my driveway overnight.  We needed two new axles.  And a new driveway surface… differential oil is thick, stinky, and not what you want on your driveway when you’re trying to sell your house.

A few months after we replaced the two front axles, we were told later that we needed another front axle replacement, which we did, and then a few months later, two more, which we didn’t. 

The clutch, as we would discover a week into our trip, was about to go, too.  We had that replaced in Michigan, and ever since we did, the new one (which I have to assume was a bottom-of-the-barrel clutch) stinks any time it’s put under a load.  Backing up a hill positively reeks. 

Upon taking it for (mostly) routine service in California (it needed a new rack and pinion, no small repair, but we asked them to give the whole thing a once-over too), a year into the trip, they came back with a truly alarming laundry list of “required” repair items, to the tune of several thousand dollars.

Now, of course, with just about any older car that isn’t a collector’s item, you reach a point where it makes zero sense to put more money into it.  Not so with Toad.  We really have no choice but to keep this car going. 

So we’ve limped it along.  I’m pretty certain we’ve spent a good deal more money on it than we would’ve spent initially on a newer car with 1/3 the miles.  And at the end of the day we have a car that creaks and makes odd ratcheting noises, leaks various fluids, has a hard time getting up hills, and often stinks of burning oil and/or burning clutch.  It seems like at any point she could roll out her tongue and die for good. All that said, she’s still getting us from point A to point B, and we don’t need her to do so for much longer.  So I shouldn’t be too harsh.  But… lesson learned: pay the money for a decent car up front.

Shorties

Camp Pendleton was where Keeper became a water man.

Or at least he took the first step in that direction. 

I cut the description short in my previous post, but this really was a nearly ideal beach campground.  Not only are the sites on the sand itself with full hookups (very difficult to find), but you have one of Southern California’s better surf beaches mostly to yourself due to its being on a military base. 

Keeper, if you remember, was reluctant to do much in the water during last year’s trip down the coast.  He got there eventually, but it was slow going, with a good bit of trepidation and some back slides along the way.  We did end last summer with some unforgettable boogie boarding sessions in Coronado, but there was still a tentativeness in the waves that he was working through.

On day one in Pendleton I made a visit to the Marine Corps Exchange and discovered that they had spring suits (short sleeve/legged wetsuits, aka “shortys”) for sale at a very reasonable price.  Thinking this would allow Keeper and I to spend even more time in the water, I bought us both one.  At California’s latitudes, the Pacific never really warms up.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen water temps out of the 60s, nor have I seen a surfer in the water without a wetsuit, generally a full one.  I figured this was a great investment for us, and returned to Davista excited. 

Keeper was less so, at least initially.  This being his first experience with a wetsuit, or more to the point with anything designed to fit skin-tight, he was decidedly not a fan upon first trying it on.  My putting mine on to demonstrate to him that yes, this is exactly how it is supposed to fit and my reassurances that it would be much more comfortable in the water did little to quash his skepticism.   “Thanks but no thanks” was basically his position on the matter.  Disappointed, I agreed to return his, but fortunately something softened in him before I did, and he decided to give his one try in the water. 

That’s all it took. 

He’s a convert now.  Not only for its ability to fend off the chill, but for its unexpected non-skid qualities.  Apparently one of his biggest frustrations with boogie boarding had been difficulty in staying on the board without slipping.  Suddenly that was easy, and he was off to the races.  We did two sessions a day at minimum, with him turning the tables on me and asking me on multiple occasions if I’d be amenable to stopping what I was doing and heading out with him.

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  It’s a small thing, but going out with him and catching waves together makes me giddy.  And he’s gotten much better at it; his confidence in larger surf bears no resemblance to last year’s tentativeness, and he has a good sense of his limits.

The girls are making a good start as well.  On Woodsprite’s first wave last year (a tiny bit of near-shore white water), she managed to slide off of her board face first into the few inches of water and proceed to have the leash wrap itself around her neck.  That put her off waves for a while, but this year she managed to put that behind her, and gamely heads into the white water with Firebolt for some shallow rides onto the sand.  And Firebolt has begun to push her boundaries as well – still on whitewater only and no more than waist deep, but she catches some decent little rides and makes them fun for everybody by hootin’ and hollerin’ all the way in.  She’s never been one to hide her enthusiasm.

On one of our last days in Pendleton, Woodsprite, Keeper, and I went out for a pre-sunset session.  Actually it was just the kids – I followed with my phone/camera as I had a sense that the sunset was going to be a stunner, and I wanted to get some pics. 

I was right.  So happy I bought those wetsuits.  I’m going to look for some for the girls next.

I Saw A Shimmering Light

Though my earliest memories spring from Southern California of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, i.e. the Center of the Universe, I was never able to square my impressions of the place I grew up with its popular image.  Other than a handful of reasonably well-known musicians, Downey claims almost zero celebrities as home-towners.  The entertainment industry’s center of gravity hovers further north and west, and the surfer beach culture tends to cling pretty tightly to the coast.  So that sort of laid back, warm-night-with-wind-in-the-hair-surrounded-by-the-beautiful-people decadence was always more something I heard about in songs or saw on screens than something I experienced.  Evidently Don Henley found ‘70s Southern California to be a fitting metaphor for a one-way descent out of innocence.  As I mostly retained mine while growing up there, I often wondered at the time where (and if) all that was taking place. 

That vision of where I was raised has always intrigued me — more so with distance, even as I grew to understand how it came to be and in what enclaves it flourished.   It was never my scene, yet in some odd way I identified with it, or at least appreciated the idea of its being a part of home.  Spending another late summer / early fall flitting among various beachside campgrounds (starting in Malibu) brought some of that back to the fore. 

More than that, though, it was just really, really nice to live barefoot on the beach for a while again.

Malibu manages to feel both remote and small-townish while bordering LA’s sprawl and housing many of its most famous residents.  Our stay there this time was short, only a few days, but particularly pleasant, giving us the opportunity to get back in the ocean and re-introducing us to the summer that we had just about closed the book on back in Washington. 

After Malibu we headed to Carlsbad in northern San Diego county, and thereafter onward to Coronado, where we decamped from Davista once again and moved into one of NAS North Island’s beachfront cottages.  Though the temperatures only just nudged into the 80s this time and the waves weren’t as sporty as during the previous year’s late October heatwave, we spent a good bit of time in the water. 

I also got rid of the “time off” beard. Like I said, a bit leprechaun-ish.

Down in San Diego, we returned Davista to the repair shop, as, surprise surprise, the intermittent flashing Check Engine light had come back in full effect, taunting us with its yellow randomness.  I guess the issue wasn’t a loose belt after all.  This shop’s personnel seemed a bit more receptive to our input than the last one’s did, but they weren’t especially optimistic about rooting out the cause, particularly when I told them that we needed to depart in four days. 

Their pessimism turned out to be well-founded, as when we returned to pick up our home and drive it back north, they had discovered nothing.  Shoot. 

In the interim we did manage to bag another set of Junior Ranger badges for the girls at Cabrillo National Monument at the end of Pt. Loma.  One of the more interesting aspects of that visit was learning about the Navy personnel stationed there during WW2.  Apparently their job consisted almost entirely of looking out for Japanese submarines trying to sneak in and blow up San Diego.  They didn’t see any, and by all accounts it was pretty good duty – who wouldn’t want to hang out in San Diego rather than one of the active war zones?

Post Coronado we headed back north to Camp Pendleton, where there’s another beachfront military campground (actually there are two).  Having not heard as much about it as about Coronado, my expectations weren’t high.  I couldn’t have been more incorrect.  This is ideal beach camping – sites on the sand itself, with full hookups, and an impressive surf break to boot, without the crowds that such a break would normally draw.  We only had a few days there before heading to Seal Beach, but I was in waterfront heaven. 

There’s a friendly rivalry between the Marines and the Navy wherein we tend to make fun of each other, us for being stereotypically a bit soft around the middle and far from the pointy end of the warrior spear, and them for being, well, Marines.  The high and tight haircuts, the braided belts with shirts tucked into their shorts, the “OOH-rah” cadence punctuating what should be normal conversation with random syllable emphases.  We got a kick out of the name of the little surf shop at the campground… instead of just calling it a surf shop, it’s called “BEACH Services” (exaggerated cadence and excessive volume mine).  I don’t know, it just seemed funny.  It still does.  But you probably had to be there.

After Seal Beach (not actually in sight of the beach, but a nice campground nevertheless, and on a Navy base to boot), we headed back south to Newport Dunes in Newport Beach, which is arguably the nerve center of what’s now known as The OC.  Well earned, too, as Newport Beach is a beautiful place with a lot going for it – beach, harbor, islands, waterfront property, ridiculous amounts of wealth…  Newport Dunes on the other hand — well, it’s ok I suppose.  It sits on the bay just inland from Newport Harbor and is somewhat shoehorned between the water and some bluffs, upon which a few of Newport’s busier boulevards run.  And it’s quite expensive.  Had we hit it before the off-season we’d have had a good bit of company, but midweek in October it was a bit tumbleweedy.

That said, it’s fairly central and hotspots like Balboa Island and the Newport peninsula’s beaches are easily reached via bicycle.  Keeper and I took a ride or two to explore.

Tacco had another Navy commitment back in DC during this time frame, and as my work schedule overlapped hers somewhat, we opted to drop the kids off at my parents’ house for a few days while she was gone, leaving me solo in Newport. 

At this point I should explain the big change in my work situation.  Throughout our travels, I remained domiciled in Boston for my airline.  In other words, any trip I flew originated and ended in Boston.  There are multiple reasons I remained Boston-based while we were traversing the country, but they’re fairly uninteresting to non-airline folk.   Trust me, though, it made sense.  Once we opted to stay in the West, however, changing my domicile back to Long Beach / Los Angeles made for a much more convenient work situation.  October was the first month in the new base, and I had decided to “bid Reserve” for the month, which essentially means that instead of flying scheduled trips, I had about 18 days in the month on which I was in a standby status for a part of the day, ready to fly if I was needed due to sick calls or unexpected schedule changes.  Being on Reserve can be a mixed bag, as it’s generally nice to know exactly when and where you’re going to fly, and often the trips that get dropped to Reserve pilots are the ones nobody wants.  On the other hand, there’s a chance you’ll hardly get called at all, which is what I was strategizing for.

Well, it didn’t quite work out as planned.  First of all, I got called to fly quite a bit, at least in the beginning of the month, and Tacco expressed frustration in my having to be “at the ready” so much of the time.  It was as if I was there participating with the family but at the same time not available, and difficult to plan around.  Then, later in the month, when we sent the kids away so that Tacco could go to DC, I didn’t get called at all, and consequently spent an inordinate amount of time alone, trying to entertain myself at semi-deserted Newport Dunes.  That’s far from the worst fate, but I don’t think I’ll be bidding Reserve anymore.

We did get to check out a few more beaches though.  Corona del Mar sits just south of the entrance to Newport harbor, and sports a combination of flat sand and tidepools, with some fun waves in which to play.

On one of my “solo” days I took a bike ride to The Wedge, out at the end of Newport peninsula.  I had heard that there was a sizable swell coming in, and The Wedge is a famous surf / bodysurf spot, at which the combination of the jetty leading to the harbor and the shape of the beach makes for resonances that kick up the waves to just about double the height of their brothers just a few hundred yards down the beach. 

Though I’ve been in the water there before, I’ve never done so with a big swell coming in.  In those conditions it’s absolutely expert only, and even among the experts there’s a good bit of carnage.  Evidently EMTs just hang out nearby on big surf days.  It makes for exciting spectating.  When I arrived, the shoreline was almost shoulder to shoulder with gawkers (whom I joined), and there seemed to be nearly as many photographers braving the pounding shore break with their GoPros as there were surfers and body boarders.  I saw quite a few spectacular rides and even more spectacular wipeouts, to include one guy whose board snapped in half right in front of me.  Fortunately his board appeared to have taken all the impact, as he walked off the beach.

After Newport it was back up to Malibu, where we intended to soak up a little more good life prior to hitting Pt. Mugu, at the far western end of the Malibu shoreline and just into Ventura county. 

Our plans were unfortunately thwarted by connectivity, or lack thereof.  As rarefied as Malibu is, its geography subjects it to spotty cellphone coverage, and the Malibu Beach RV Park’s wi-fi signal is on par with most RV parks’ wi-fi, i.e. sketchy at best.  Normally I wouldn’t care, particularly with an endless view of the Pacific, but Tacco is taking online classes for her Doctorate, and one of our first Malibu days was not only a class day for her, but one in which she was scheduled to give a presentation to the class.  Having been lulled into a false sense of semi-cautious security by the previous day’s coverage, she started the class, only to have her audio cut out, followed by losing connection altogether right at the beginning of her presentation.  She pinged directly to full crisis mode and frantically sought me out to have me drive her down to the Malibu Colony Starbucks where she could finish her class with a reliable signal.  Well, as it turned out, I had picked that exact moment to leave Davista and go looking for her in order to see how her class was progressing, internet-strength-wise.  Not finding her, we began one of those Keystone Cops circular searches in which both people keep passing the same spots at exactly the wrong time and end up effectively chasing each other.  It helped even less that that same lack of signal caused her texts screaming “WHERE ARE YOU!?!?” not to be sent/received, and it’s safe to say she was a bit heated by the time we converged and executed Plan B (Operation School at Starbucks With the Stars). 

Everything worked out eventually and her blood pressure returned to normal as she completed the class, but it was enough to seal Malibu’s inclusion on Tacco’s “Places I Do Not Like” list.  As she had another class the following day, we decamped prematurely and made the drive through LA back to Seal Beach. 

I should mention that driving Davista / Toad through LA is far from enjoyable.  Unless you’re driving between about 1AM and 5AM, there will be traffic.  And even if there happens to be none, frequent lane changes are unavoidable due to the tangle of freeways that going pretty much anywhere in LA will require navigating.  Here’s what you absolutely should not do though, and I had already learned this lesson, or so I thought, over a year ago: DO NOT FOLLOW WAZE/GOOGLE MAP DIRECTIONS THROUGH SIDE STREETS IN ORDER TO SAVE FIVE MINUTES.  Or even twenty.  Not liking the red line that my phone was depicting as the Santa Monica Freeway, I followed its recommendation and headed south into Venice instead.  I knew immediately both that I had made a mistake and that I was fully committed anyway – there was no easy way back to the freeway.  The streets got narrower and narrower.  Frankly, I’m lucky we didn’t get completely stuck and have to stop in the middle of a residential street (blocking traffic, of which there was plenty), disconnect Toad, and then squeak our way out of the situation separately.  It was extremely tight, with some Google recommended turns that we had to ignore entirely as we simply didn’t have the space.  Lots of “Rerouting…”  Don’t be me; stay on the freeway.

Let me return to Malibu, though, as it really wasn’t a bad experience at all, the previous anecdote notwithstanding.  We got more beach time in, we soaked up even more classic SoCal, and we even got to have dinner with Tacco’s cousin and her family on the Malibu pier, sitting outside with the waves crashing beneath us.  We actually did that from Pt. Mugu, another lovely beachfront spot, once we returned there after our unplanned Seal Beach diversion (and another drive through LA). 

All told, what I’ve discovered is that I’ve got quite a bit more Southern California in me than I knew.  Once again I’m swimming in the ocean daily and once again I feel absolutely fantastic.  It may be all the Vitamin D I’m soaking up, it may be the ocean, it may be that my subconscious registers this as home, I don’t know.  But just like last year, I’m in my element.  Even if I don’t want to live here (and I don’t – camping on the beach for a month and a half at the end of the summer is a far different thing than living in an expensive suburb inland, and they’re pretty much all expensive), I’ve come full circle on my Southern California roots and realize that on some level I love the place.  I’ll never partake in the laid back decadence, but somewhere inside me is that tanned, aging beach bum who wears loose clothes, surfs every morning, eats breakfast burritos with avocado, and never gets worked up – you see several of him in every SoCal beach town.

Alas, this is not a trait I share with my family, I’ve discovered.  Though they all like the beach to varying extents, they don’t love the beach.  Keeper has become a boogie boarder in earnest (more on that in another post), and I’m certain that our times out in the water together will age into some of the peak experiences from our travel time.  The girls enjoy playing in the waves as well.  But we may have reached peak beach for real this time.  Tacco is definitely ready to move on, and the kids have indicated the same.  Fortunately that coincides nicely with the time of year, as October is getting long in the tooth and the temperatures are dropping.  It’s time to head back north and start thinking about Winter.

Growing Up, Calming Down, Covering Ground

Going large, or at least larger than we had already been going, had certainly been on the table for our work-free September.  It seemed wasteful not to use the free month to take the kind of massive trip you always dream of taking but can never make work logistically.  But ultimately… that’s kinda what we’re already doing. 

It took us a while to realize this as we meandered through discussions of two weeks in Thailand or Bali or Tahiti or a slow drive through southern Germany and the Swiss Alps.  Those had been enticing possibilities, entertaining to imagine in the abstract, but a few iterations of doing even the most basic logistical calculations – Flights? Accommodations?  Rental cars? Oh, and where do we park Davista while we’re gone? – made us realize that interrupting our once-in-a-lifetime-trip to do a once-in-a-lifetime trip was redundant, and an expensive redundancy at that.

So I grew a beard instead.  Sort of, at least.  Had to do something with my time off.  I decided a little too late in the month to really give it a chance to fill in, and never quite got past the itchy stage.  Frankly I’m not sure how anyone gets past the itchy stage; it drove me freakin’ nuts.  But clearly they do – in 2018 every self-respecting hipster, about half of our pro athletes, and a significant chunk of the remainder of American males sport ZZ Top facial hair or something aspiring to be, so probably it’s just me.  I also discovered that mine is both grayer and more leprechaun-ish than I’d prefer.  So likely a good thing that I have the excuse that my profession doesn’t allow them to fall back on.

At any rate, we settled comfortably into the idea of just extending our summer and cruising the California coast once we realized that we were under no obligation to push the envelope on our wanderlust.  And the month wasn’t entirely work-free, either.  As it turned out, Tacco had a Navy commitment mid-month in Chicago, which would have been inconvenient to reach from Thailand.  As an actively drilling Navy Reservist, she is expected to fulfill the normal one weekend/month & two weeks/year commitment at a minimum, but her Unit allows for flexible drilling, which has allowed her to do most of her drilling from the road.  Most but not all; certain commitments require her to be physically present, and this Chicago stint was one of those commitments.

Consequently, after Leavenworth we traversed the Cascades once again, this time on highway 2 over Stevens Pass, which I believe to be the second prettiest Cascades crossing after highway 20 to the north, and headed south to Issaquah, about as near to SeaTac airport as we could camp.  It wasn’t the nicest campground, but RV parks in the middle of cities often aren’t, and at least we had a pear tree drooping with ripe fruit in our site.

Here was our route south. It’s long — tough to see any detail here.

We dropped Tacco off at the airport in the morning and headed south, on a beeline back to my parents’ house in Alamo, CA.  The drive was pretty, if nondescript.  Lots of trees.  We followed the Columbia River for a bit before hitting Portland, drove the length of Oregon’s Willamette Valley to Eugene, then entered the forest in earnest until we petered out in Grant’s Pass for the night, setting up camp beside the Rogue River.  I said lots of trees, but one thing that did stand out about southern Oregon is the extensive logging.  I’m certainly a fan of wood, particularly in a house, but sometimes it’s a little too easy to imagine it comes from Home Depot rather than a forest.  I don’t want to overstate this – Oregon is still gorgeous, and is in no danger of going the way of the Amazon rainforest, but it’s interesting to see the checkerboard pattern our appetite for lumber leaves on the landscape.

Off again in the morning, we crossed into California near Mt. Shasta, which never ceases to be impressive, as any 14,000’+ mountain that stands all by itself would be.  Descending into California’s Central Valley, we realized that our interesting scenery was now behind us, and ground out the rest of the drive to my parents’ driveway.

After a few days’ rest, some solid family visitation time punctuated with good food and wine, and a Tacco retrieval from the airport, we headed south again, this time to Big Sur, and the segment of California’s Highway 1 that we had previously missed due to last year’s landslide.  The road had recently re-opened, with a new path that took it around the new bulge in the shoreline, and we were excited to check out that stretch of coast.

Before that, though, check out how cute Woodsprite is doing her math schoolwork with her little Turkish towel drying her hair.

We were right to be excited, it turns out.  That drive is iconic for a reason, and should be seen by everyone on a sunny day at least once, as far as I’m concerned.  Absolutely breathtaking, with curve after curve revealing vistas that keep you gawking, face pressed to the window, for hours.  Or it would if you weren’t driving, which I found inconvenient.  It was actually difficult to concentrate, which is not an option while steering Davista + Toad around the hairpin corners. 

I mentioned long ago that we’ve given up on trying too hard to get the kids to appreciate scenery, as their attention spans combined with the allure of their various screens tend to make our attempts to get them to actually, you know, see our country an exercise in frustration.  So we point things out when we can, they look up and say “cool!” and that’s the end of it.  We’ve become ok with this.  But this drive was different.  Firebolt in particular was transfixed by the cliffs plunging into the sea and the huge waves below breaking on the offshore rocks.  This made me happy.

After a few stops for photos, we pulled up to a campground along the Big Sur River about a third of the way down that stretch of coast.  After setting up camp and doing some more river wading, a recurring theme during this stage of our trip, we drove down to Pfeiffer Beach to do a bit of exploring.  Again, stunning.

One of the features on this particular beach was the purple sand, which reminded me of what we saw on the shore of Lake Superior way back in our first month of our travels.

But it wasn’t just the sand, it was the cliffs, the caves, the waves, the wind, everything. 

The kids are doing incredibly well right now.  It’s difficult to ascertain what exactly brings on these moments, but as any parent can tell you, it is deeply, profoundly satisfying to see your kids exuberant.  It’s been simmering for the past day or two as they’ve relaxed into the reality of our continued travels, but for some reason in Big Sur and especially at this beach it seemed to boil over in all three of them at once.  We ran around on the sand and then just stopped to watch them when we couldn’t keep up.  Keeper climbed a huge sand slope that was pushed up against the cliff, then did it again, then invited me to come up with him and take some selfies, which of course I did.  Full smiles aren’t something we see much from him these days due to self-consciousness about his teeth, one of which simply isn’t there, causing several of the others to come in crookedly due to its absence.  He will definitely require significant orthodontia, and has requested it come as soon as possible.  And it will.  But here on the beach he was as un-self-conscious as could be – just happy.

It continued back at the campsite. After making little rafts out of sticks and racing them in the current, the kids found a rope swing hanging over the water and decided to make good use of it, despite the brisk temps. 

At one point Keeper turned to me and talked about how excited he was for everything that was in store for him/us over the next several months.  I think his actual words were “There’s so much to look forward to!”  He has not said that before. Again, almost impossible to overstate how satisfying it was to hear such a sentiment from my twelve-year-old eldest son, particularly with my persistent concerns about possible negative effects on the kids stemming from our doubling our travel time.  Perhaps he sensed that.

What I really think is happening, though, is that he’s growing up.  I looked at pictures of him at the beginning of our trip and had the predictable reaction.  He was a kid, and now he is not.  He’s taller than we are, has a deepening voice and facial hair, and, well… here we go!  I’m far from the first parent to ask for the brakes to be slammed on this whole process, in fact I think we all do it at some point.  But that doesn’t make the feeling any less acute.  I love who he’s becoming, and I love even more that I have the opportunity to spend this much time with him while it happens.  But can’t it slow down just a little?

Unfortunately we had budgeted only one day of our time in Big Sur, and set off to see the rest of the coast in the morning, on our way to Morro Bay.  I would have liked to stay.  While there have been portions of our trip with greater flexibility to tweak itineraries, this was not one of them, as we had a string of reservations at completely full campgrounds on the coast, culminating in our return to Coronado and its Navy beach cottages.  Even one extra night somewhere would break the entire chain and leave us looking for the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot.  So onward we pressed.

The views remained spectacular, but began to mellow out a bit the further south we traveled.  One thing I had forgotten about that stretch of road is how high above the water it climbs in places.  I didn’t check our elevation, but just from professional experience, having spent many, many hours at various relatively low altitudes above the ocean, I estimated that we were at least a thousand feet up at times. Impressive when you’re looking down mostly sheer cliffs into the ocean.

Near San Simeon we stopped to check out an elephant seal rookery, which, to save you from having to look that word up like I had to, is a place where they hang out in a big group and breed.  Elephant seals are interesting creatures, and surprisingly fun to watch.  The males, with their long, dangling snouts (hence the name I suppose), do a good bit of sparring, though most of them just hang out, make grunty noises, and use their flippers to toss sand over themselves.  Evidently it cools them off.  If it were me I think I’d opt for a dip in the chilly water instead, but what do I know…

I also spied what I could have sworn were a few zebras grazing alongside the road.  Wait, zebras??  Yes, that’s what I said, as did my family, who initially didn’t believe me, but this being 2018, in which wondering about things is obsolete, we went straight to Google and discovered that yes, William Randolph Hearst did indeed bring zebras, as well as other wild animals, to his San Simeon castle and ranch, where they still roam to this day.  So I saw zebras.

We pulled into Morro Bay late in the afternoon, and topped off the day with Firebolt taking a respectable spill off of her bike and skinning both knees as well as a bit of her palms.  Not how we wanted to end things, but she’s a trooper and joined us for a hike along the bay at sunset after a bit of initial TLC. 

That’s a lot of ground covered, both in the past few days and in this post.  Fortunately I think, our drives will get shorter and less frequent during this next phase, as we stay West and choose our excursions carefully.  We do have much to look forward to – another month and a half of summery lolling on the beach, time with my parents, skiing…. Keeper was absolutely correct.