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.

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.

Shorties

Camp Pendleton was where Keeper turned into a water man. 

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 nearly a thousand feet up at times. 

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.

Das Re-boot

Aaaaand we’re off again. 

Though technically our journey has been continuous, there’s a real sense in which we’re now starting over, and we’re feeling that acutely.  First of all, it’s a new school year.  Keeper is starting 7th grade, and Firebolt and Woodsprite are starting 4th and 1st, respectively.  More significantly, though, Anacortes was where we initially intended to end our travels; we really didn’t have a master plan to go further.  What came after was and remains a big blank spot on our family calendar.  Lastly, we spent much of the past month and a half deeply engaged in closing, at long last, the previous chapter of our lives.

After toying with several potential versions of September’s travel plan (one of which involved going all the way back to New England – and I’m going to be honest, that one gave me an instant headache), we opted to take Highway 20 east over the Cascades and then head south from there.  Highway 20 is the most scenic of the roads that cross the Cascades, passing several deep, glacial lakes and serving as the gateway to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades has to be one of our most remote national parks.  As far as I know, no roads, or at least no paved ones, reach into it; it’s all jagged, glaciated peaks and wilderness.  Even the Visitors’ Center is outside of the park boundary.  I was surprised, when capturing the above map screenshot, that it wasn’t even marked.  I had to zoom in to even get Google Maps to acknowledge it.

We only did a short visit & hike there, probably more accurately a stroll, but with the fall colors just starting to kick in, it made for quite the scenic stop. 

Further in our drive, I was struck once again by stark difference between the eastern and western sides of the Cascades.  More than any mountain range I know of, it truly wrings out the vast majority of the eastbound Pacific storms’ moisture – the transition from lush green to high desert brown happens almost immediately at the line of peaks and passes.  The weather changed dramatically for us, too.  We had already transitioned mostly to long pants, fleece, and flannel back in Anacortes and La Conner, but as soon as we crossed the mountains the sun came back out and the temperature rose 10-20 degrees. 

Our first overnight was on the Methow River just south of the town of Twisp.  Our goal was the faux-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, where we’d loll about for a few days, but the drive was a bit longer than we wanted, so Twisp it was.  I’m always happy to camp riverfront.  It’s a tossup for me whether river or ocean sounds are more relaxing at night, but lately I’ve been leaning river. 

Eastern Washington is also apple country, and apple season was just on the verge of kicking in.  In general we’ve found that Fall is, straight-up, the best season to do this RV traveling thing.  One of our original guidelines was to “chase mild weather,” and what we discovered during the planning phase is that pretty much everywhere in the country, with the possible exception of Florida (still too hot) and the “green” parts of the Pacific Northwest (tending toward cold and wet already), are at their absolute peak in September and October.  In any case, deep relaxation was what we were after and that’s precisely what we found.

The next day we followed the Columbia River downstream to the South and made a turn to the West back into the Cascades, where Leavenworth sits at the bottom of a steep valley.  It’s extremely picturesque.  The Bavarian theme came about in the mid-’60s as a ploy to revitalize the town’s economy after a railroad was moved and logging wasn’t thriving. The idea to “theme” the town actually came from Danish-themed Solvang in California, where we put Woodsprite into a giant clog and managed to avoid eating æbleskivers last Fall. Though arguably cheesy, the plan unarguably worked, as Leavenworth has become quite the year-round tourist destination. Not our normal cup of tea, but frankly, a few days of large German beers, sausages, and oom-pah bands sounded therapeutic. Who doesn’t like Bavaria?

Uncharacteristically, we drove into town without a camping reservation, assuming that its being midweek and slightly off season, we’d find something walking distance from the dolled-up Main Street and would sleep to the sound of distant accordions. What we found instead was a riverfront wonderland just outside of town.

Leavenworth itself turned out to be somewhat of a bust.  We ventured in on the first evening to sample the atmosphere and wares, and found ourselves a little put off by the borderline tackiness of it all.  We did sit down at a communal bench in a biergarten for some wurst, but… I don’t know, it just wasn’t that good. The sausage wasn’t especially tasty, and the meal as a whole was far heavier than anything we’ve been eating. It didn’t strike me as particularly German either. Even the beer was so-so. And all over-priced.  Perhaps we just picked the wrong restaurant, but the Gemütlichkeit never quite caught on, and though Firebolt did make a point to inform us that she was very happy with her meal, we returned to our campsite that night pretty certain that we didn’t need to come back into town.

The campsite though, WOW.  Yet another riverfront site, but this time the river in question (Icicle Creek) was a stunner.  Crystal clear, shallow, rapid, and strewn with smooth boulders which begged to be hopped upon.

The advertised wi-fi was essentially useless (common occurrence a RV parks, incidentally) and furthermore we had only the grainiest of 4G cell phone signals, and that caused a bit of tension in the kids. This, too, however, turned into a positive. The kids know nothing of a world without a connection to the internet, and I’ve mentioned previously how I’m both disturbed by that fact and perplexed about how to ensure that this lack-of-connection anxiety doesn’t become normalized.  So after the initial grumbling about no signal, it was both a relief and a thrill to have the kids not only forget about the lack of phone coverage, but ask, on multiple occasions, if they could stop school for a bit and head out to play in the river.  Yes.  YES!  By all means, get out there.  I’ll join you shortly!

There was lots of river play.  Rock stacking, dam building, races involving rock-hopping in the middle of the current…

And then in the evening we decided to set up a mini-soccer field using some cones and play a family soccer game.  How have we not done this before now?  This was exactly the type of scene I envisioned when I imagined our journey at its most ideal – the whole family heading back sweaty and laughing to our RV by the rushing river in the mountains, having been forced to end our soccer game because it got too dark to see.

We really needed this.  Or at least I did.  Between the stress of finally closing on the Maryland house, the decision to double our on-the-road time, and the corresponding uncertainty about pretty much everything, I’ve been chronically anxious.  For quite some time.  If our time in La Connor allowed me to step back enough to articulate it, then this stretch of days allowed me to step even further back, or perhaps better said, to zoom out and view the whole thing from altitude.  I don’t have a clue whether we’re making the right call, but I’m easing back into the belief that such a thing doesn’t exist, and looking forward to what’s in store for us.

The plan that is gelling is this: Spend the rest of September and most of October on the California coast, then spend November + the Winter bouncing between my parents’ house in the SF Bay area and southern California, from which I can (for once!) drive to work, given my impending transfer back to the Long Beach / Los Angeles pilot base.  Take several family ski trips – as many as we can muster.  And then come Spring, return to Washington to put our Anacortes house on the market, buy a house in Bend, and settle next summer.  Maybe bag a few more National Parks in the meantime.  This is far from a bad plan.      

Islands, Volcanoes, and Crabs

Our immediate future figured out (ha!), we got back to playing.  Labor Day weekend was a wash due to my having to work, and that had always been a huge get-out-and-do-things time for us when we were Pacific Northwest residents, so we pushed it to Labor Day midweek instead.

First on tap was inflation of our kayak flotilla, which hadn’t seen nearly enough action over the past year. We boarded them to venture out to Hope Island. Like the vast majority of the San Juan islands, it is uninhabited and inaccessible by road or ferry, but this one also happens to be a Washington State Park.

This is the type of water exploring we missed in Maryland, even though Annapolis is by all accounts a boating mecca.  Secluded beaches on isolated islands, clear water, sea life… they’re everywhere in Washington’s waters.  In Annapolis we found it more to be about the boating itself than the destinations.  Sailing reigns, and we had a motorboat.  Our Maryland boating career had ended abruptly one warm afternoon well over a year after we had spent far (FAR!) more money than the boat had initially cost us getting it towed across the country, stored someplace suitable (much more difficult/expensive than it sounds, or ought to be in a self-proclaimed boating town), and in good enough working order to run for 15 minutes without overheating.  Within a few minutes of our victorious departure from the marina into Chesapeake Bay, standing tall at the helm and puffing out my chest, Keeper turned to me and asked “so…uhhh… what do we do?”  “Well…” I had to think about it for a moment. I wasn’t entirely sure. This part of the evolution had been theoretical up to now. “I guess we cruise around here, maybe look at some of these houses from the water, and then find someplace to dock for lunch?”  His deflated answer: “That’s it, huh?  No islands, no beaches? In that case, do you mind if Firebolt and I just go down below and take a nap?”  A split-second calculation involving future gas, maintenance, and storage money, compounded by time and stress involved in boat ownership, flitted across my transom before I turned the boat around and headed directly back to the marina, to no objections from the kids.  It was up for sale the next day. 

Back to Washington, though.  It’s a sea kayaker’s wonderland, and even has established “water trails” as well as the more well-known hiking trails.  Hope Island is a stop on one of the more popular ones. It was a short journey and easy paddle from our campground, but the currents in the San Juans can be brutal.  On the way back the tide was coming in, and we had to aim about 45 degrees to the left of the point to which we wanted to land.  That’s quite a crab.  (aviation-speak again).

The following day we opted for a hike up at Mt. Baker, or “Mountain Baker,” as Keeper used to call it.  Baker is the furthest north in the chain of volcanoes that dot the Cascades mountain range, and is just a few miles south of the Canadian border.  In the winter snowboarding is king there, and I believe it holds the record for the most single season snowfall at a ski area ever.  I remember that year – they actually had to dig out the lifts.  But in the summer, it’s all about hiking.  You can drive to Artist Point near the top of the ski area, which gives you access to some absolutely spectacular hiking trails.  Hiking in the Cascades is different than hiking in most US mountains in that they are so jagged, are glacier-topped year round, and rise up from near-sea-level river valleys.  Most hikes involve initial steep switchbacks to get up to near the tree line, but thereafter you’re rewarded with views of glaciers, ice-fed lakes, and knife-edge ridges.  Artist Point is one of the few Cascade trailheads which starts at a relatively high elevation (avoiding the switchbacks), and has several trail options.  We opted for the Chain Lakes loop, which we had done once pre-kids but with two puppies. 

Though there was still lingering smoke from the various Pacific Northwest forest fires, the views were still awe-inspiring.  We traversed a steep ridge to a saddle, where there was a snow field on which to run around and toss snowballs.  Not bad for September.  The kids got a kick out of the stories of our puppies running around on this same snowfield and ending up at the bottom after not being able to get any purchase. 

We then descended into a valley with several lakes & stopped for awhile. 

Our kids have never shied away from cold water, and ribbing from their siblings tends to push the “I dare you to…” game deep into polar bear zone. 

Tacco and I sat back and watched from the comfort of our sunny rock while the kids happily froze themselves in the clear water. 

I wish we could have stayed longer, but as often happens on these day trips, our leave-home time had been delayed by family inertia, and we found ourselves in a bit of a race against the lengthening shadows.  Wouldn’t want to get caught up here at night without the proper gear. 

Rather than complete the loop, which would’ve taken longer than we had daylight, we turned around and retraced our steps.  Impossibly, the ridge traverse appeared even more dramatic in the late afternoon / early evening, and we managed to catch sight of a white mountain goat clinging to the rocks well above us.

We rounded off the day with a few group pictures and then headed back to camp to prep for tomorrow’s departure. 

So here we are… a year in but about to do another year, a month of playing in the mountains and on the beach ahead of us, and hopefully a full ski season after that.  Shoot, maybe at some point we’ll even find a house to live in.  Though the overarching unease still lingers, it’s hard to summon up any angst when I look at the upcoming few months the way I just described them; we truly are fortunate to be doing this.  It’s a good thing to remind yourself.   

And Now?

When we bought Davista, one of the many shiny objects dangled in front of our overwhelmed faces was a free Thousand Trails membership for a year, to include 30 nights at any TT campground within a certain region that we would later get to select.  Unlike many of the other shiny objects (extended warranties, discounted accessories we would “absolutely need,” RV-safe toilet paper…), this one was free, so we signed right up.  Though we knew nothing about the company or the campgrounds, our membership did come in handy in the northwest, both in Bend (Sunriver actually) and here in La Conner, which sits right across the water from Fidalgo Island and Anacortes.

We opted to burn the rest of our free nights with a two week La Conner stay.  The Sunriver campground had earned mixed reviews from us.  It seemed well-appointed, but not especially well-maintained.  La Conner is similar.  The setting is gorgeous, as would be just about any Puget Sound waterfront campground.  But… something was off.  What was it?  The facilities maybe?  A little too mossy and neglected?  The clientele?  A little too permanent?  Difficult to say. 

We did enjoy it, as it was quiet, relaxing, and fit our mood, which could be described as coming down from gobsmacked.  With Annapolis and the house sale freshly behind us (save for a frustratingly lingering dispute over a refrigerator that we should’ve handled before closing) and the reality of Plan Moon’s new year of travel ahead of us, we felt a bit unmoored, or at least more so than usual.  Adding to that was the quiet of late summer/early Fall.  School was starting without our kids in it, the weather was cooling, leaves were changing colors… we had quite a bit of walking along the rocky beach time to talk things over and try to figure out what on Earth we were doing.

Bonus: if you read the post about Seattle and remember my extended digression on an unconventional work trip I flew, you’ll remember that I said it came into play later.  Well here’s how… essentially that all took place during the time I was bidding for my September schedule.  That’s all submitted and processed via computer, and evidently something about the way that trip was encoded interfered with its ability to award me a schedule for September.  I’ll spare you the intricacies of what happened between my bidding and the final result, but ultimately I lucked into a once-in-a-career-if-ever paid month off.  Yes.  September off, for pay, no vacation time deducted. 

So along with figuring out what exactly to do with this extra year of travel & homeschooling for the kids (and the attendant uncertainty that we’d made the right call), we had a month of no commitments whatsoever to play with.  That’s a lot of strategizing! 

I previously mentioned an impossibly cozy restaurant in La Conner at which Tacco and I had, on several occasions, dug in over cider and stouts to work out our lives.  We returned.  Unfortunately we discovered that they had moved to a waterfront location, selling their original building to another restaurateur.  Quick dilemma – is it the restaurant we need for the planning-our-lives vibe or the location?  We opted for the location.  Good call, we think.

I’m not going to say we figured it all out.  But we did put a sizable dent in it and managed to gain at least a bit of control of the rudder.  We started big with the free month thing, reasoning that this was an opportunity we’d likely never have again.  So… Thailand?  Munich for Oktoberfest?  Normandy?  Head back east to New England, which we’d missed before?  Or maybe better to just slowly make our way down south as planned, but take advantage of the fact that we wouldn’t need to be anywhere near an airport all month.  We figured we’d get some input from the kids as well since, you know, they’d be going with us. 

And as far as everything else – the staying on the road, homeschooling for an extra year, doubling our travel time.  I think more than anything else we, and by “we” I mean “mostly I” needed to just chill the heck out.  My overarching concern with this entire endeavor is that we give our kids a unique and valuable experience without ruining them.  Emphasis on the not ruining them part. And yes, that’s overstated, but missing 6th grade is one thing, missing most of middle school/junior high is another.  Also, roadschooling is different than homeschooling. Homeschoolers who are staying in one place tend to connect with a network of other homeschoolers and pool their resources. In our case, it’s just us. Our kids are troopers and quickly sought out the positives once we told them we would be staying on the road, but they made no secret of their preference to get back into school and start interacting with other kids their age again.  And frankly I don’t know how well we’re doing with their education.  They are ahead of the game in math and probably a few other subjects, definitely so with respect to life experience, but I don’t have a clue what I was learning (and they might be missing) in 7th/4th/1st grade.  I suspect that, just like life in general, there’s a lot of “playing well with others.”  They’re not getting much of that, other than with each other.  This is the call we made, though, and Tacco did a great job of teasing out all the ways that this will continue to be just as, if not more, valuable than our being settled somewhere.  I knew all this, but having her say it was helpful.  Tacco and I both experience and express our concerns in very different ways. She’s an ocean and I’m a river. There are things to be concerned about, sure, but there always are. In the grand scheme, we’re doing fine. We plan to spend quality time with my parents, we plan to use our Epic Passes to do a whole lot of skiing, and we plan to use our time to further refine our choice of where to settle.  It’s going to be a great year.

Back in La Conner at the campground we spent some more time lazily playing on the beach with the kids and reading them into our plans, as well as getting some more input.  Ultimately we decided to spend our September checking out parts of the Washington Cascades and then rolling back south via California’s highway 1, which had been closed last year due to a landslide.  The Coronado Beach Cottages had been a highlight last year, and I managed to get us another reservation there.  So rather than doing a crazy overseas thing, we’ll extend summer.  Nothing wrong with that.

Thousand Trails had a few more interesting experiences in store for us as well.  This one we’ll file under Interesting Neighbors.  The sites at this campground were pretty heavily wooded, just as the one in Sunriver had been, so we were mostly isolated from our neighbor to the north, but we couldn’t help but notice his multiple projects-in-progress as well as his seemingly cobbled-together rig.  It appeared he had been parked for a while.  At a certain point he strolled into our campsite and asked us if we smelled anything interesting.  Not a question we get a lot, but we answered honestly:

“Well…. yeah, I guess we have.  You mean the weed?”  

“Oh no, not that, that was me.  I mean something like rotten crabs.”

“Hm.  Well, no, but we’ll keep our.. uh.. noses open.”

“Yeah, please do, because I think the people who stayed there before you caught some crabs, cleaned them, and then just threw them into the woods, and it’s stinking up the place, and that’s pissing me off if so.”

Later:

“You know we did smell what you were talking about, but didn’t see any crab carcasses in the woods.  I think it might just be the smell of low tide coming off the water.” [spoiler: that’s exactly what it was]

“Oh no, that’s not it, it’s crabs.  You’re not pissed off about this!?! Cuz let me TELL you, I’m a TT platinum [or something] member, and if this doesn’t upset you then… *storm around storm around storm around*… I oughta get that guy kicked out of Thousand Trails!! *mumble mumble storm into RV and slam door twice*”

The next day, after more cannabis clouds wafted through our site:

“Good morning!  Hey, have you ever read this book?” [Shows me about a 1000 page tome on American History]

“Don’t believe I have, no.  Good morning!”

“Well man, you gotta read this, it’ll blow your mind, I’m telling ya!  Here!” [hands me his book]

“Ummm.. thanks, I mean we’re leaving in the morning so I don’t see how I’ll have time to –“

“No man, c’mon, take it!  Just check it out before you go, you can just leave it on my table when you’re done!”

“OK. Sure.  Thanks!”

So… though we appreciated the free camping this year, we decided not to renew our Thousand Trails membership. 

Closed

One aspect of pain that I find fascinating is that when you’re experiencing it, it dominates everything.  You can hardly think about anything else.  But when it’s gone, amazingly quickly you forget it was ever there.  Which isn’t to say you forget that you were ever in pain at all, though that can happen too, but remembering exactly what it felt like becomes difficult almost the instant you no longer feel it.

Multiple reasons for bringing this up – one is that my sciatica is gone, the other is that we closed on the Annapolis house and have finally cut our ties there.

The sciatica… what a relief.  It had been really starting to concern me, and was affecting decisions we were making.  Yet when it faded away, and that happened pretty quickly, I had this odd nonchalance about it.  Tacco would ask me how my leg was feeling, and I’d say “fine, why?”  Oh no reason, only that you’ve spent much of the past few months literally sweating from the pain…  I don’t know whether I can contribute its resolution to one particular treatment or  many, but I know that it began to turn the corner when Tacco did a lot of acupuncture work on me, her friend did the varsity huge-needle-plus-electricity treatment in Albuquerque, and the chiropractor in Salt Lake seemed to put the nail in its coffin.  Wish I knew exactly how to make it disappear if it comes back – I don’t — but I do hope that the knowledge that it originates in my glutes will help me keep it at bay.  Regardless, good riddance!

The house… ok, not good riddance exactly.  It served us well and we made great memories there.  But it had become such an albatross.  A growing albatross.  Its failure to sell was hanging over everything we did and turning what few hairs I still have gray at an alarming rate.  It was long past time to go, and… now it’s gone.  I’d love to say we don’t even remember what the stress of its drawn-out sale feels like anymore, but that’s not entirely true.  We’re still coming down from the experience, and there may be a lingering loose end or two.  But we did close.

The week back in Maryland was fruitful but very difficult.  We didn’t sleep.  We did far too much hauling things and cleaning things and painting things.  I came unhinged over a dumpster order gone awry, which isn’t my way.  I don’t yell at people over the phone well, nor do I enjoy it.

Ultimately though, we all got together on our last day in Maryland and signed the house over to a new and thoroughly pleasant family who we hope will make it their own even more than we did, and create even better memories there. 

We even got to use our newly lined pool.  It looks pretty good!

Before leaving we each signed one of the studs in the basement, something that’s become a tradition for us as we move out of family houses.

I’ll miss the basement we built.  It was only complete for our last year there, but we more than made up for it in how much time we spent down there.

Most of all though, I’ll miss our friends and cousins.  We stayed with them (our cousins) on our last night, and prior to that met in downtown Annapolis for a well-deserved outdoor happy hour.  At one point an ‘80s cover band was belting out Take On Me below us in the grassy area.  I sent a short video of it back to Keeper, hanging out with his cousins back at their house.   Which is perfect, as there’s an infamous video of our three kids heavy into a Just Dance for Wii session in our living room with that song as the soundtrack.  Keeper responded to my message with a spot-on text representation of their Norwegian singer’s falsetto.  He’s pretty funny.

A night with family was the perfect way to bookend our impossibly hectic week and our five years as official Marylanders.  And now we’re back to Washington, and breathing again. 

A-Town Funk

Anacortes, Washington is a magical place.  Reasonable people can and do quibble over its weather and its relative isolation, but no one in their right mind who has really seen it would say it isn’t beautiful.  Most would say it’s drop dead gorgeous.

Though the entirety of Fidalgo Island is considered Anacortes, the actual town occupies approximately the northern third of the island, which, though not technically one of the San Juans, shares their geology and geography.  It looks more like a peninsula from the air, but much of its eastern side is separated from the mainland by a canal, and it is accessible via three bridges, two over that canal and one from Whidbey Island spanning Deception Pass.  As Anacortes is most well known for being the location of the San Juan Islands’ ferry terminal, all most folks see of it are the refinery you pass just south of prior to entering town, and its only two busy streets, one of which runs most of the length of its small downtown (but skips the interesting part) and the other which heads along the northern side of the island to the ferry, in the process also stopping just short of some of the island’s most scenic shoreline.  Consequently many people from the general area (*cough* Seattle *cough*) aren’t aware of its charms.

Several lakes are scattered among its forests, all of which have excellent fishing and some of which are good for more active types of recreation (waterskiing/wakeboarding, cliff jumping…).  Most of the shoreline is rocky and dramatic, but there are multiple beaches as well.  Almost half of the town’s surface area is comprised of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL), which are lushly forested and riddled with trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.  Mt. Erie, in the island’s middle, reaches just over 1200’ high and sports multiple rock faces that attract climbers from far afield.  Two marinas make it a boating hub, with unparalleled access to the San Juans.  And along with the ACFL there are several other parks, including breathtaking Washington Park in the northwest corner and the northern portion of Deception Pass State Park along the southwest coastline.  Orca sightings are relatively common.  Everything smells fresh and green.

Here are a couple more of our pics from when we lived there. 

They’re ok, but there’s a local photographer who has managed to capture the island’s beauty.  Check out his work if you’re so inclined. Here as well. It’s jaw-dropping stuff, at least if you like nature photography. You see the pictures and you think “wait, people actually live here?”

We did live there for the ten years prior to our move to Annapolis, not counting the time we were stationed there for our Active Duty Navy stints.   Our house sat perched on the top of a steep, wooded bluff on the west side of the island, looking out through evergreens and madronas at the San Juans and the Olympic Peninsula.  Bald eagles soared overhead and perched on our trees regularly.  We gasped at and took photos of the sunsets every night until we realized that these sunsets were the norm, not the exception. These were all taken from our back deck.

There were down sides.  I mentioned the weather, and though it never bothered me while I lived there, it’s undeniably chilly and often damp in every month but July, August, and September, with stretches of grey that can extend from days to weeks.  It’s also quite small, with only a few restaurants and not much in the way of retail.  And our house sat on a reasonably busy street, with cars zipping by at 50 mph – having small kids on bikes was a non-starter.

My commute to work was also tricky, entailing an hour and a half drive to the airport followed by a flight to my domicile (initially New York, thereafter Long Beach/LA) prior to starting a work trip.

When we first departed on our adventure, an eventual return to Anacortes to settle was by far our top choice, and it held that position for quite some time, despite an event I’ll describe momentarily.  Each time I would get the opportunity to return for a short visit thanks to my airline schedule, I would steel myself for what I imagined was the inevitable feeling of “this place is nice, but I think we’ve moved past it.”  And each time I would surprise myself by experiencing the exact opposite. 

It wasn’t until we visited for the 4th of July week just prior to our departure on this journey (which, at that time, we were far from certain would even happen) that the first small cracks started to appear.  We were on the roof of the Majestic Hotel downtown, having just marveled at yet another magnificent sunset and just about to watch the fireworks, when Tacco and I looked at each other, shivering from the cold.  “You know what?” I offered gingerly, “… it’s a little chilly!”  What I didn’t add but was certainly thinking, as was Tacco I would soon learn, was “… and it’s July.  I mean, I love this place, but shouldn’t we be in shorts right now?”   I guess Maryland’s soupy summers, though not our preference, had nudged our tolerances ever so slightly toward warmer weather.  And it was hard not to notice how small the town is…

And then came Bend, and Park City, the rocketing West Coast housing market which priced us out of many of the houses we had been previously checking out, and my airline’s partial pull out of Seattle, which promised to complicate my commute even further should we return to Anacortes. 

So we drove across Deception Pass very eager to learn how Anacortes would sit with us and with the kids now that we had a year of travel under our belts.

Our plan was to camp first in Washington Park, and then move to the marina for the weekend, which is walking distance to everything downtown. 

Washington Park is arguably the most sublime place on an already enchanted island.  Tacco has on several occasions called it “sacred,” and I can get behind that — it definitely has that vibe. The campground sits in the interior of the park and therefore somewhat away from its jaw-dropping vistas and waterfronts, but we settled in and wasted no time getting to some hiking.

There are no uninteresting trails through Washington Park; most offer multiple view points, mossy trees and rocks, and calm water lapping against the rocky shore.  The only negative during this particular visit was the smoke.  2018’s summer was an especially brutal one for wildfires in the West, and a lingering high pressure system gave the smoke no escape route. 

Keeper had a bit of a damper thrown on his Anacortes visit as well.  We had been working hard over the previous few months to find a time and a way to fly his good friend out from Maryland to join us for a bit, and had determined our Anacortes stint to be the best shot.  It would require Keeper and I to fly on the redeye from Seattle to Boston and thereafter to DC in the early morning, meet his friend at the airport, and then do the whole thing in reverse to get him to Seattle, but we were all set to go and Keeper was thrilled to get the opportunity both to hang out with his buddy again and to show him his childhood hometown.  Summer is definitively not the best time to fly standby, and this we knew well, but I had checked the loads on all of the pertinent flights, and there appeared to be plenty of space, or at least enough. 

Right up until there wasn’t, that is…  With everything in place and Keeper and I having driven down to the Seattle airport, we arrived at the departure gate only to find that several last-minute tickets had been purchased, not only on our flight out to Boston, but on the subsequent flights as well.  Suddenly the entire plan looked dicey, and the house of cards crumbled.  I searched frantically for other options, but nothing materialized.  This is a semi-frequent occurrence, familiar to all non-revenue fliers (“non-revs”), but still it was difficult to make the late night call back to his friend’s mom in Annapolis to let her know that our plan had fallen apart and that there would be no visit. 

Keeper did take it in stride though, I have to hand him that.  We’ll try another time.

Mountain biking is a year-round activity on the ACFL trails, as well as the many other trail systems in the area, and I had cut my teeth on ACFL’s singletrack back in my Navy days.  We had a group of junior officers who would try to get together to ride every Saturday morning, and I could reach the trails from my house, so I would often go alone as well.  After our Slickrock adventure, I was eager to show Keeper where I’d learned to ride.

What I had forgotten and soon re-discovered, was how technical those trails can be.  They’re narrow, steep in places, and riddled with roots and rocks.  This makes for more exciting riding, and after watching Keeper struggle to navigate some of the trickier stretches, I suddenly remembered from back in the day several tree collisions and “taco-ed” front wheels, not to mention the occasional unintentional fall into one of the lakes.  His bike (my very old bike) wasn’t helping him much either – not only was the front suspension completely non-springy, but it’s a heavy bike, and the front brake is next to useless, having lost one of its calipers.  He’s going to need a new bike if we move to… well, pretty much anywhere. 

He was a good sport as always though, and we made it through a slightly shortened ride unscathed.  As a bonus I was able to show him the spot where I nearly spent a winter night in the woods 23 years ago after having my brand new bike light’s battery go dead on its maiden night ride.  But that’s another story.

After a few days in Washington Park we re-located to the marina area downtown, where I recently learned there are several RV sites available year round.  No electrical or water hookups, but the location couldn’t be more central.  On Saturdays from late Spring to early Fall there’s an outstanding Farmer’s Market that we would now be right across the street from. 

One of the kids’ memorable activities from our time living in Anacortes was picking blackberries on Farmer’s Market days, so they were excited to do it again.  Blackberry plants pretty much blanket the island, or would if the residents didn’t control them like weeds, and they are huge and tasty when ripe.  Some of the thicker patches sit right next to the square in which the Farmer’s Market is held, and there’s a more or less unlimited supply come August.  We ended up with berry-stained faces and enough fruit to make several jars of jam.  Which Tacco did. 

The week passed far more quickly than we had hoped it would, and we faced our return to Annapolis to close on our house for good this time (hopefully!).  We enjoyed ourselves in A-Town, no doubt.  I think everything I’ve described about our visit was positive.  Yet undeniably by the end of it both Tacco and I had at least a taste of the feeling I described earlier – the “I think we may have outgrown this place” feeling.  Perhaps having the unpleasant task of cleaning out and turning over our house hanging over our heads affected our receptiveness to its charms during this visit.  But I do believe it was more than that.  It felt small.  Small and a bit remote.  I’m not sure those are negatives, but they came across that way this time.  And the prices – if they haven’t quite outpaced our means, they’re certainly getting there rapidly.  Many of the places in which we had imagined ourselves raising our kids we can’t quite manage now.

The kids’ impressions seemed to track with our own.  They liked Anacortes. Quite a bit. But they didn’t seem to love Anacortes.

We will need some more processing time for this, but it’s an interesting development.  To be sure, we need to narrow down our options, not expand them, so ruling out a potential future home town helps us.  But it’s difficult not to wonder what happened, whether our needs and tastes have changed or we simply found places that seem to suit us better.  Or whether possibly this was a temporary impression, colored by our current mental state.  Impossible to know, and representative of this entire endeavor… while too much freedom is absolutely not a thing to bemoan, it can make the process of making big decisions dauntingly complex.  At some point you just have to trust your gut and make a call.  We’re not there yet. 

We’re returning to the area after we close on the Maryland house, but we plan to stay in nearby La Conner rather than Anacortes.  There’s an impossibly cozy restaurant there in which Tacco and I have nestled in a small booth on rainy nights over adult beverages and done some of our best collective thinking, hatching some of our greatest plans.  Sounds like we need another session.

Before that though, time to cut Annapolis loose at last.