Touchdown

A mercifully uneventful last leg and another week in a Bend RV park led us to August 14, 2019, where we pulled into our new driveway and officially ended our journey, 2 years, 15 days, and 25,007 miles after it began. 

That’s just over 100 miles more than the circumference of the Earth.

Here’s our triumphant arrival, followed by multiple pauses in running-around-the-house to gawk at the view. We’re very happy.

I think… I think we pulled it off!

Penultimate

At 14,411’, Mt. Rainier is the second highest mountain in the Continental US.  Mt. Whitney in California is the highest, but it sits along the spine of the southern Sierra Nevada, and as such doesn’t really stand out among its peers.  I can remember driving up highway 395 just to its east several times as a kid, looking up, and trying to pick it out.  “Is that one it?  Maybe that one?” 

There is absolutely, positively no mistaking Mt. Rainier.  It rises all the way from sea level just south of Seattle, is permanently glaciated, and stands more or less alone.  There’s no doubt as to its volcanic status either – the only way it could look more volcano-like would be if it had a smoking crater on top and lava running down the sides.  It’s gorgeous.

Tacco and I had done some snowshoeing there many years ago, but other than that we didn’t spend nearly the time there that we should’ve when we were Washington residents.  With only time in our schedule for one more National Park on the way from Anacortes to Bend, we had needed to choose between Rainier and Olympic, and opted for the former.  

Using lessons learned from two years of RV-in-National-Park experience, we decided to stay at nearby Crystal Mountain Resort rather than fight the crowds, tight roads, and lack of cell signal / electricity in the official NP campground.  Great call, too; we basically had the place to ourselves. 

Only down side was that we couldn’t see The Mountain from where we were, but a quick and scenic chairlift ride took care of that for us.

We only ended up with one full day in which to hike the park and bag the last set of Junior Ranger badges for the girls (they’re up to well over 50!), but it was a glorious one.  The lake which we hiked up to wasn’t the sub-alpine jewel we were hoping for, in fact it was fenced off as it’s used as a water source for the ranger station below, but the trail itself more than made up for it. 

Wildflowers everywhere, jaw-dropping mountain views, and we even caught sight of a black bear playing in a nearby (but not too nearby) stream.  Take that Great Smoky Mountains!

The theme of the day was mixed emotions I suppose.  Bright sun, crisp air, and some of the best views we’ve seen, yet overlaid with a touch of melancholy knowing that this was our last real stop on our journey.  On top of that, however, was the excitement, palpable in the kids, of knowing that we were a short week or two from moving into our new house.

In that mood, we made our second-to-last drive in Davista, from Mt. Rainier to Hood River, OR, where we’d opted to spend the night prior to pushing through to Bend.  Here’s the route, which was the one presented to me when I typed the origin and destination into Google Maps on my phone.

Looks pretty straightforward, right?  Yeah, that was my thought too, which in itself implies that I spent time thinking about it.  Which I didn’t, really.  I noted that it was through the Cascades, but pictured a mostly empty, scenic two-lane road winding its way down to the Columbia River.

A quick internet search on the definition of “complacency” just now netted me “a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements.”  Ok, I’ll buy that.  It’s a dragon I thought we had slain back in Carpinteria when I crunched a hole in Davista’s roof with an unfriendly tree branch.  And if not then, then certainly back in the Carolinas, when we drove several hours towing a car with an engaged parking brake, narrowly avoiding fiery disaster.  Or any number of the times when I took an app-encouraged “shortcut” and found myself dragging the family into peril on residential roads not remotely designed for an RV, let alone one towing a car. 

But no, there we were pulling out of Rainier on our second-to-last leg, check engine light flashing away, not even self-aware enough to smugly think “I’ve got this.”  More like not thinking at all.  Here’s one more look, close up.

I missed a turn (more like took the wrong branch of a ‘Y’) within the first ten minutes, and found myself guiding our rig toward Yakima instead of Hood River.  Perfectly good road, but in the mountains, with no way to turn around.  Having lived this story before and therefore knowing how long it can take to find a place to reverse course, we opted to cut our losses, pull over into a turnout, disconnect the Toad, make a semi-hazardous multi-point turn in Davista to reverse direction, re-connect the Toad, and move on.  Pain in the butt, but ultimately only about 20 minutes lost.

I should’ve paid attention.  Maybe there was a reason I felt compelled to veer off toward Yakima.  Hmm….

The road got narrower and more sparsely traveled the further south we pushed, and we lost cellular signal (and consequently Google Maps signal) pretty quickly.  This made things somewhat alarming when we reached a completely unmarked fork in the road we weren’t expecting.  Both roads looked equally plausible (and remote), and I uncomfortably stopped our beast in the middle of the road just before the ‘Y’ to evaluate. 

Fortunately we had purchased a US Atlas way back at the beginning, specifically for this type of situation.  UNfortunately, it didn’t show the fork. 

Uh-oh.  Come to think of it, it didn’t really show the road we had been on either.  I mean, it sort of did, along with lots of very, very minor roads in this area, but nothing that looked like anything approaching a main thoroughfare.  After several uncomfortable minutes sitting and thinking, a Jeep fortuitously ambled down the road in the other direction, its inhabitants regarding us quizzically as they passed.  I waved my hands out the window as I watched them continue, and was relieved to see their brake lights and white back-up lights illuminate.  We asked which way to Hood River and they told us which fork to take, but something in their tone and the way they paused and looked at each other when I asked didn’t give me a warm fuzzy.  I thanked them, we pressed on, and I imagined the conversation they were having right about now.

Within a couple miles we were treated to the disturbing sight of a “one lane road ahead” sign.  You’ve got to be kidding. 

It wasn’t kidding. 

Further we pressed, past another unmarked fork, which, without much choice, I navigated via a mental coin flip.  And then the pavement ended.  Yes, dirt road.  Single lane dirt road.  Could this possibly be right?  At this point we were so deep in (and really couldn’t turn around anyway) that I reasoned we had no choice but to see this through.  At least we were in a motorhome with water, food, a generator, etc.  It could be worse. 

It was – another fork.  Resigned, I chose again.  Tacco offered up that at least this dirt road wasn’t washboarded like the one in Montana that rattled the fillings out of our teeth.  “No!  Why did you say that – we’re hosed now.”  I discovered I was correct as I began to see, more to the point feel, the washboard bumps in the road. 

Soon we were on a one-lane, unmarked, washboarded, dirt road in the mountains, unable to go more than about 5 mph, with peekaboo views of an active volcano to our left.  And a flashing check engine light.  And Sasquatch – wasn’t this Bigfoot country?

Other than the incessant pounding and rattling, it got very quiet in Davista as we gutted onward, and in between frantic gaming out of how to handle the possibility of getting stuck or breaking down here in the middle of nowhere, so close to our destination, and avoiding the bigger holes in the road without pitching us over the edge, I considered how morbidly perfect it was to make it all this way before having our Big Crisis.

Well, mercifully, after about an hour or two we hit some pavement.  Then more dirt, then pavement again, and thank the Lord, a road sign.  We were going the right way!

At long last we cruised into White Salmon, WA, and across the narrow bridge over the Columbia to Hood River.  Relief.  And a well-deserved beer at the pFriem brewery in town after showers for everyone and a general calming of the nerves.  It turns out complacency serves you no better on day seven-hundred-something than it does on day one or two or twenty. I fell asleep that night somewhat fitfully due to a combination of the parade of trains honking their way down the riverside tracks right behind our campsite and the understanding of the bullet we’d dodged today.  One leg to go now, though, the ultimate.

Ease it Down Now

 It’s fitting that we opted to return to Anacortes for the last month of our travels.  This is where it all began, after all.  Our last visit in the Spring had been more focused on getting our house ready for sale, and somewhat rushed.  Also, Spring is notoriously fickle in that area – you get teases of gorgeous weather and the long, lazy days that summer will bring, but then a grey blanket of temperatures in the 50s and sideways rain will descend for a few days to remind you that you’re in the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest, not Southern California.  The standard jokes are that June there is actually called “Junuary” and that summer doesn’t really begin until July 5th.  It’s funny cuz it’s true…

So we made the drive back up to Anacortes from Bend in time to catch the 4th of July celebrations.  Anacortes does it right, with a morning town photo followed by a picture perfect small town parade with candy and beads tossed from the participants’ floats and the like, a lazy day of barbecues, concerts on the waterfront, and an entirely decent fireworks show over the marina after dark (which doesn’t come until about 10PM that close to the solstice). 

Despite the July 5th joke, I’ve never known the weather on parade day to be inclement.  This time it was a bit, and instead of watching the fly-by over Commercial Ave’s parade route by NAS Whidbey Island’s F-18s, P-3s, and now P-8s, we heard them pass overhead a few times, evidently searching for and not finding holes in the overcast that they could punch through. 

The kids cleaned up on the candy front though.

And after doing the concert thing, socializing with some old friends, and getting a few faces painted, we settled in from our waterfront motorhome site to watch the firework show. 

The Saturday Farmers’ Market is another must-hit, and the marina where we were camped happens to sit right across the street from it.  It’s also peak berry season, so we behaved accordingly.

Slightly disappointingly, our renters had removed most of the raspberry plants I had planted at our house.  Keeper had remembered from living there that each day in late June and early July would net us a very large bowl of ripe raspberries in multiple varieties (not to mention some gooseberries and currants) and had gotten his sisters excited about that prospect, but alas, only a few plants remained.  The Asian pear trees, on the other hand, had flourished – whoever buys our house is going to get a treat this Fall.

There was a good bit of interest in our house once it went on the market a few weeks back.  The first offer came in within 24 hours, but turned out not to be a serious one as the buyers turned tail at our first counter-offer, claiming that the timing wasn’t right. (Timing. Soooo, why did you put in the offer? Never mind.)  Still, we’re optimistic.  Taking advantage of it still being ours for what we hope is just a few more weeks, we made several visits back to the deck and hot tub for some chillout time, and before departing, took a couple last pictures and updated our signatures on one of the semi-hidden studs (this has become a tradition of ours).

We also prioritized the three houses we had narrowed down to in Bend, and put an offer on the first.  It was accepted, but as there was already a contingent offer in place that we were attempting to bump, we didn’t get our hopes too high.  For good reason it turns out, as the original buyers were able to remove the contingency at no-kidding the last minute.  No problem, they were there first. So we proceeded onto the second one, which is a stunner, perched over the north side of the town, with 200 degrees of city, river, and mountain views, multiple floors, a pool table, a theater room, and a fire pole (!).  It was the kids’ favorite and would’ve been ours if it were a bit more practical – it’s quirky, which will affect its eventual resale we think, and being on a hill makes it less bikeable and there seem to be fewer kids in the neighborhood.  It’s awesome though, and fits our collective personality, and our offer was eventually accepted.  Looks like we’re doing this!

The last couple weeks in the area we spent bouncing between our beloved Cliffside RV park, back at Whidbey Island, and the marina, getting last visits in with friends in the area and doing some summer playing.

Tacco and I had enjoyed kayaking together when we lived there, and though we never got as seriously into it as we would’ve had we stayed, we wanted to make sure we gave the kiddos a taste of it, and so rented a couple kayaks to supplement the inflatable one we had kept with us & explored the island a bit.

Below you see the free and natural version of a hot stone massage, in which Woodsprite partook prior to paddling.

One interesting side-note: it was difficult not to notice that this summer wasn’t as summery as we were expecting.  In fact, we almost felt cheated out of it — it’s one of the few things about which I’m completely fine with having a sense of entitlement.  By July, every Anacortes resident is owed a summer. Both of us remember, correctly I think, that once summer does kick in, it’s pretty much guaranteed beautiful weather every single day.  With the exception of fires that occasionally darken the skies with smoke (like they had done in 2018), it’s clear and in the mid to high 70s as a rule, with occasional forays into the lower and upper 80s.  This summer, not so much.  The overcast that had somewhat dampened our 4th of July celebration kept poking its unwelcome head into the July and early August mix.  Not every day, but enough that we commented about how it was pushing us toward confirmation of our decision. Not that we needed it.

For our final hurrah in the area, we managed to put together a repeat of the previous year’s visit to our close friends who live on Lake Washington near Seattle for SeaFair and the Blue Angels airshow.  The timing was both tricky and perfect, as he had very recently been informed of an opportunity to transfer to Tokyo for work, and they were the chaotic process of getting affairs in order so that they could depart in a week or so.

Once again we shoehorned ourselves into their driveway and spent a few days cooking, eating, drinking, boating, tubing, and watching the Blues do their thing.

That never gets old, nor does time with them; I was thrilled that we were able to make it work and that the kids were given an opportunity to reconnect, however briefly. We even bought their car from them, with an arrangement for them to leave it in Seattle when they flew to Japan and for me to pick it up at the airport after a work trip and drive it to Bend — win/win!

One bittersweet moment took place out on the boat after a solid tubing session.  Their kids were going through an even more concentrated period of upheaval than ours with the impending move, and an air of poignancy hung over all of their interactions.  At one point their younger son, who is extremely wise for his age and was wringing every last moment out of a visit with one of his local friends while we were there, observed to Keeper “So wait… basically your only ‘friends’ for the last two years have been just the kids of your parents’ friends?” 

Oof.  I let that one hit me in the gut from my perch at the back of the boat.  Keeper answered in a tentative affirmative; he has done an outstanding job of keeping close online touch with his Maryland friends over the past two years and will continue to do so.  But… that’s not the same.  As much as we imagined that our kids would be close with their kids if we were to live nearby in Seattle (and they likely would), I was faced with the realization that a couple quick visits, even when they get along well, does not necessarily equal the seeds of a lifelong friendship.   Also, that when Keeper and the girls have lamented at times that they’re not getting time to spend with kids their age, that’s not an idle observation.  We’ve kept them somewhat isolated, and it really will be important to do all we can to get them dialed into our new community.  And in a larger sense, though this has been an incalculably rich experience for all of us and overwhelmingly positive in the aggregate, there have been trade-offs. 

Our journey’s last leg will take us to Mt. Rainier National Park, and then two driving legs to Bend (we’re breaking it up by stopping in Hood River, OR for a day).  And then we stop!  We’ll camp in Bend until we’re able to close on the house, which will hopefully be no more than a week.  AND THEN WE STOP.  I had to write that again because I’m not quite processing it.

Glideslope Captured

OK, remember what I said in the last post about deciding on Park City?  More practical professionally, easier to get to, etc?  Yeah, disregard that, we’re going to Bend.

We’re moving to Bend!  Final answer.

What happened is this; we just could not find a Park City house.  And we found quite a few in Bend.  As our self-imposed deadline to make forward progress rapidly approached, Tacco and I both flew solo out to Utah to look at every house we could.  Near the end we found one that we thought was going to be “it.”  It looked gorgeous from the pictures, it has a large yard bordering on open space, and as a bonus sits right across the street from the elementary school.  It was pricey, very much so, but we figured there was some wiggle room there, and managed to justify to ourselves how we could make the finances work.  I was first to fly out, and it was the last house I saw that day.  What’s more, the sellers coincidentally put in a significant price reduction that morning.  It was a sign – it had to be. 

And then I checked it out…

I REALLY wanted to love it.  I did.  But that entryway and living room – why so oddly laid out?  And the kitchen – completely jammed in between the stairway and back wall, with no way to expand it.  That’ll bug me.  Dining room in what looks more like a hallway. And the back yard – whew, not nearly in the state of repair that the photos showed, and what on Earth is that big trellis thing doing on what appeared to have been a basketball court?  And all those dark downstairs rooms – no light down there at all… will they work as bedrooms?  Plus it’s big. Possibly too big. The garage isn’t though. Shoot.  Can we do this?? 

I’m going into too much detail, but with some hindsight it struck me that the story of this house was a microcosm of our Park City house hunting story in general, and it sealed our fate. 

I tried not to poison the pot too much with Tacco because she still had to fly out and take a look herself.  I wanted her unvarnished opinion.  In addition to the one I referenced above, she looked at 8-10 houses on her visit, and came back with a similar impression to mine: “We cannot buy that house for anything even near that price.”  There you go.

And so we did what we often do when we’ve agonized over the facts, data, and details of a decision for long enough; we went out to dinner, popped some wine, and talked about what our guts were telling us.  Our guts said Bend.  We had known this on some level for quite a while, but finally gave ourselves permission to overlook the impracticalities and go for it.  The relief was almost overwhelming.

Here then, is the final phase of Plan Moon: Drive Davista back up to the Bay Area to stay one more quick stretch with my parents and give the mechanics another shot at the flashing Check Engine Light of Death.  OK, maybe not that, maybe just the flashing Check Engine Light of Severe Annoyance.  Continue north into Oregon, and camp out in Bend for a month or so while we finalize our home search and put in an offer.  Head into Washington thereafter, and spend prime summer time up in Anacortes, dealing with any last details on our home there, which would hopefully be under contract by then.  And finally, turn back south and ride triumphantly into our new home and lives.

We’ve done the first three, up to and including Bend.  The Ford service coordinator in the Bay Area that we had liked so much before turned out not to be quite as accommodating as we had originally thought.  He made it pretty clear that he wasn’t especially happy to see us again, and after sending us off with replaced coils and an assurance that this was what it needed all along, he opted not to take our calls when the problem, predictably, came back once we got on the road again.  Ah well. 

Tacco also managed to pick up her Doctorate somewhere in there.  I had mentioned her online studies previously, well, she kept at them diligently and despite often difficult circumstances, and was able to walk for her degree on May 10th in San Diego, with her proud family beaming at her from the audience.  Dr. Tacco!!  She rocks.

We also squeezed in a stop in Eugene, where we have a family of cousins we hadn’t seen for several years.  They’ve got quite the setup there, to include several acres and lots of toys.  We hiked, we biked along the Willamette, and we slaughtered and ate their rooster – a first for all of us involving YouTube and no small amount of dark hilarity in the “ok, so how exactly do we do this?” vein. 

It is very much uncool to talk this way about an animal you slaughter and eat, but just to give an example of how it went: Often chickens headed for the dinner table are put headfirst into a cone, which holds them still and upside down while their carotid is sliced and they quickly bleed out, with minimal suffering.  Thinking that was a solid approach, we grabbed one of my orange road cones from Davista’s bowels and I set to work at cutting the end hole to size with my utility knife.  After far too much time spent and several bright orange rings of plastic littering the area, I thought we had what we needed and put the rooster carefully inside.  Instead of a docile, restrained rooster hanging there with his head outside of the cone and a neatly exposed neck, we ended up with an inverted cone with two chicken feet sticking out the top, the head nowhere to be found on the other end.  His body was far too wide for the cone’s shape to allow his upper reaches to emerge.  When I looked through the other end I was treated to the sight of his rooster face about 2 inches from the end, his eyes regarding me quizzically, judgmentally. “Dude.  What are you doing.” Eventually though, we succeeded!  I thank him sincerely for his sacrifice.  But I can’t say he was tasty.

Over the Cascade range we drove the following morning, and made our jubilant entry into Bend.  It became obvious pretty quickly that this was our place, if it hadn’t been obvious already.  Check it out.

We hiked a lot.

We biked a lot.

Twenty minutes of driving and you’re deep in the mountains.

We ate really well, often outside in the sun.  Sparrow Bakery and their luscious Ocean Rolls.  The food carts everywhere.  And the beer – hoo boy the beer.  I knew it was good, but what I hadn’t yet grasped was not only how insanely good, but how pervasive it is.  I went to get my hair cut – “want a beer?  Keg’s over there.  Boneyard IPA.”  Have you tried this stuff? Anything else by Boneyard? Probably not, because they don’t bottle it; you can only get it locally. And it’s spectacular, like all the local beers. I went to the bike shop, and of course there’s a small bar with a half dozen local taps right there in the middle of the bikes and equipment.  Free, as far as I could tell.  I went to the gas station.  THE GAS STATION.  And while they happily pumped my gas for me (because you’re not allowed to do it yourself in Oregon), I wandered into the Circle K to grab some tissues for Keeper, who had a stuffy nose.  Went to check out, looked up, and saw about two dozen taps on the wall – growler fill station, of course.  “You’ll have to go over to that register to buy the Kleenex.  In the meantime, do you want to sample a few beers?”  Well… sure I do, but I’m not going to, as it’s 11AM and the family is out in the car at the pump and we’re going about our day…. Whew, what a town!

We’ve found our place.  No looking back, either.  I wondered whether either of us would second guess our decision once we had made it, and we’re not, not even a little bit.  I received further confirmation when Keeper came up to me and asked “Dad, do you mind if I ride my bike down to the river and explore a little bit?”  “NO!!”  I could hardly contain myself. “No! No, I don’t mind at all – go, GO!  Have fun.”  It may be the first time the mode of entertainment that first leapt to his mind didn’t involve a screen.  He went, and then he went again the next day, and then he asked if he could take his sister along with him and went again.  YES!

It’s the right place, and we’ve narrowed down our search to three houses.  Any of them we’d be thrilled to live in.  I think we’re going to make this work.

Driftdown – A Coast (or two) through Spring

It definitely feels different now.

The transition from the traveling lifestyle to an “almost there” feeling in which we’re technically still rootless but in reality almost entirely focused on the next phase was at first quite subtle.  The subtlety is gone. 

We need to make a decision about both a place to settle and a house in which to do so; putting it off in hopes of further inspiration or “ah ha” moments is no longer feasible.  The list of travel destinations we still intend to visit has dwindled to a scant few to our north and west.  We need to get our newly vacated house in Anacortes on the market.  And the kids, it’s safe to say, are “done” with motorhome living.  They’re not complaining, in fact they’re doing perfectly fine, but it’s crystal clear where their hearts and minds are.

We’ve hit the whole family version of the “where do we settle?” discussion from several different angles, and every time have come up with a similar answer from the kids, which is that they understand the up and down sides of all of our options, they really do, but are ultimately happy with anything we decide.  They just want to settle.  Really guys, can we settle please?  Please?

So it’s up to Tacco and me, and the stark reality that we Just Need To Make A Call. 

She and I weave around each other in our meandering and interminable “what if” discussions, alternately preferring one destination over the other. Through all the reversals, though, what it has come down to is that we could very easily make either Park City or Bend home.  And while Bend seems to be the unicorn of the two, it comes at the price of significant professional difficulty for both of us – the long, difficult commute to work for me and the relative isolation and lack of acupuncture opportunities for her.  That is an oversimplification, but captures the gist.  So we’ve opted for practicality and decided on Park City.  Park City!

BUT!  (there’s always a but)

We can’t find a house.  That’s a bit of a complication.  I’ve already touched on this, but Park City’s housing market has recently become, if not exactly on fire turnover-wise, a beast that would require scraping at the extreme reaches of our home buying budget to settle there.  In fact it would likely require exceeding it and hoping for the best.  We have a fantastic realtor there and he has patiently taken us through dozens of houses on multiple occasions – in fact we get an alert any time ANYTHING happens in the market within our range, and we’ve looked at every single house that we think could possibly work.  And we can’t quite get there. Not yet at least.  They’re nice houses (well, most of them are.  Some seem to think they’re in Palo Alto and can get away with location-based extortion.  And maybe they can, but not with us), they’re just not nice enough for us to stretch that much financially.  We know we’re not going to find the perfect house; this is wise counsel we’ve received time and time again and fully agree with, yet it goes beyond that.  We just can’t spend that much on a place that we find “just ok.”  So we continue to search and hope.  Our realtor informed us, quite reasonably, that he’s certain the right house for us will pop there, and we had to reply that while he’s undoubtedly correct, if it doesn’t pop very soon that fact doesn’t really help us. 

Back to California (and then back to Washington).  We had a few days back on Camp Pendleton’s beachfront before flying up to Anacortes to do the throw-money-at-the-house dance to get it prepared for the market.  A Costco run upon our arrival in the Pacific Northwest netted us a couple nice air mattresses and some cozy blankets – camping in the house is both cheaper and more fun than staying in a hotel or AirBnB.  Plus we got to use the hot tub. 

Watching the kids react to our old house was fascinating.  They were all born there, but only the older two remember it, Firebolt faintly so.  It stirred up quite a few memories in Keeper, both melancholy and joyful, and it wasn’t long before he offered up a “so why can’t we just live here?”  The girls enthusiastically followed suit.  They loved the raspberry plants and fruit trees, the hot tub, the view of the islands and sunsets, and opined that our assurances that it was too small rang hollow.  Fair enough, living in 300-odd square feet for two years will make anything seem spacious.  We chalked it up to a combination of the beautiful scenery and a temporary relief from cabin fever. But there are other reasons for Tacco and my reluctance to consider it further – some are pragmatic in nature, but more than anything it comes down to the fact that as much as we love Anacortes, we emphatically no longer feel its pull as a place to raise our kids.  That’s a tricky one to explain, so we had to default to variations on “trust us” when the myriad versions of Keeper’s question kept coming back to us.   

Interspersed among the house work and organization of the larger items of house work, we took a few more hikes and soaked up the scenery. 

I also was fortunate to be able to attend the retirement ceremony and party of three of my dearest friends from my old Navy Reserve squadron back at Whidbey Island.  One had shared a brain with me for a while as we co-led a Combat Aircrew for some three years while squadronmates.  She’s one of the best people I know, and being present for her transition to 100% civilian life was an incredibly poignant reminder of the camaraderie and deep friendships squadron life brings.  Adding to the poignancy was the stark realization that the squadron is no longer mine, and in fact I’ve been away from it for far longer than it seems.  I only recognized about half the faces, and I felt a distinct sense of being separate from it all. 

The required work completed and/or scheduled, we headed back to SeaTac airport for the flight back to Southern California.  But as April is tulip time in the Skagit Valley just east of Anacortes, we stopped for some flower gazing and photos.

Skagit Valley’s tulip festival is second in size only to Holland’s near Keukenhof (which I was also fortunate to live near and see when I was a semi-Dutchman), and we’ve made a point to visit on a non-crazy weekday morning every year we could.  It was a fitting end to this visit, though we intend to return to the area once more this summer, no matter where we opt to settle. 

We relocated to a smaller campground at the northern end of Camp Pendleton upon our return.  It abuts San Onofre State Beach, and sits near an old nuclear power plant which is in the process of being decommissioned. 

Where the other Pendleton campground (and its BEACH Services!) was vast and well-appointed, this one is quaint, narrow, and solidly surfing oriented.  In fact one of Southern California’s most famous breaks, Trestles, sits within walking distance to the northwest.  Two slightly less famous breaks, Churches and Old Man’s, bracket the campground and could be seen from out our windshield.  Evidently there’s an agreement between the base and the local surfers which allows them to access the breaks despite their being on military property, as long as they walk along the beach from one to the other and don’t attempt to stray into base territory.  As the distances to anything important on base are long and a barefoot guy in a wetsuit walking past Marine Corps barracks would likely raise suspicion, the setup seems to work well.

There was a steady stream of surfers parading past us each morning, and we were treated to the view of dozens of them, if not hundreds, riding the perfectly peeling breaks. 

I loved it.  The family… well… they liked it. Honestly, I think that not only are they about done with the motorhome thing, but they’re beached out.  I could sit with my toes in the sand pretty much all day any day, and in fact it’s where I chose to drink my morning coffee, as well as tool around on my computer when I needed to.  But I was generally alone in doing so,

Keeper and I did head out for a few boogie boarding sessions, and I cherished them as I was acutely aware of their being the last in what could become a very, very long time.  Ultimately this was a beach far more suited to surfing though, and I never managed to arouse the interest in him that I’d hoped I could.  And to be fair, I didn’t get out there on a surfboard either, and really have no good excuse for that.  The office just up the bluff from us had both rental surfboards and wetsuits (though my shorty would’ve sufficed just fine).  So why didn’t I?  Learning to surf had been one of my goals since our departure, and we had had a successful lesson back in San Elijo last year… now here we were with these amazing breaks in our front yard, and I kept finding reasons not to get out there and have a glorious time making a fool of myself.

I think it circles back to everything feeling different.  We’re near the end and oriented almost entirely toward the next few months’ challenges rather than the here and now.  Fulfilling travel goals is no longer a priority. That’s a weak excuse and bit of a bummer, but I’m oddly ok with it.  I’m realizing I don’t want a fanfare and abruptness at the end of our journey – it strikes me as too much.  Too much emotion, too much upheaval, too much disorientation. Easing gradually out of this lifestyle and into the next seems a better way for us. I don’t know, that’s probably a massive stretch to peg my failure to get out and surf on the desire to land smoothly; the truth is probably closer to the fact that I succumbed to inertia. But as I said… I’m all right with less ambition presently.  I think we all are actually.

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.

Below 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.

This time 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 lane road.  Quite a bit of waiting on people to traverse especially dicey sections, peppered by nervous chatter and too-loud laughs of false confidence.  At one point we even watched a woman faint and collapse. The people next to her on the trail immediately grabbed her as she fell, preventing her from slumping over the edge and down the cliff, but she did hit her head in the process and begin to bleed. Fortunately there was a nurse on the trail just up from us. I presume she made it down ok.

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 to involve my bag (or bags?) being thrown out of a moving car near the Oakland 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 apartment 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 attempting to involve the police 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.