Open Road

Open Road

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where do I begin OR are we that close to the end?

As I write this, we're on Day 53 and I simply cannot believe it.

The time is flying by so fast it makes my head spin. It literally seems like yesterday that I was loading Harvey up with gobs of stuff (that I now know we didn't need) and stressing about the trip. Now, we're over 2/3rds of the way through, and we've done so much, seen so much, experienced so much... I don't know where to start.

By way of updating, I think Jason's last post ended at Zion National Park, which was by far the favorite Park of the entire family. After staying at a dust bowl which you could barely call a campground, we headed to Bryce Canyon. Think Grand Canyon, but smaller and more colorful. This campground was beautiful! No electric, no water, but tons of personality and a sky so full of stars, it lit up the place. I saw my first two shooting stars! It was here, too, that we discovered that singing and dancing made the kids totally embarrassed and in fact, they threatened to climb up on the roof of Harvey. That's all it took.  Jason and I broke out into song (loudly, too, I might add) and up they went. What a quiet five minutes that was. No doubt our neighbors appreciated it too!

The kids had been wanting to go horseback riding, and Bryce Canyon proved to be the perfect place. I took advantage of four hours of alone time (not so good with heights) and the three of them took a three hour trip to the bottom of the canyon. They loved it! They also came back covered in pinkish red dust, which did not come out in our most recent trip to the laundromat. The next morning was hilarious because they discovered soreness where they didn't know they could be sore! But we still managed another night of hanging out at the campfire, talking about our best moments and Jason even gave a rather poetic lecture on share price dilution. The kids actually listened!

Then, we were off to Arches National Park. My earlier concerns about looking at rocks was starting to come true. A beautifully scenic place, with amazing arched rock formations, captured our attention until we hit the heat of the day. We were officially "rocked" out. Jack and I gave up on the last bit of the hike, and drank the water that we were supposed to use to keep our lunch cold. It was hot! Fortunately, relief was in sight! Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area!!!

We rented a rather scary looking pontoon boat and spent the entire day on the water. Swimming, splashing, admiring the beautiful scenery. A truly wonderful day. We have missed being on the water since of course our boat had to stay in storage. What a great break it was! It truly is the only way to see Flaming Gorge! Plus, no one got sunburned.

With no time to waste, we made the trek to Rocky Mountain National Park. After hearing at the front gate that only one campground still had vacancies, we were a little worried. See, we've been making reservations only a day or two ahead of time. Just trying to keep our schedule flexible. It hasn't burned us yet, but we were pretty close this time. We rushed to the open campground and easily found a great spot. Whew! After making a de-lish dinner a la Jason, we were joined by not one, not two, but 14 huge elk. Literally in the campsite next to us. They walked casually around, ignoring all the gathering people, and ate the old ash out of empty campsite fire pits. Baffled by this, we asked the volunteer ranger about it and he said the elk eat the ashes to get minerals, such as salt, then spit out the rest. Interesting. We could have sat there for hours watching them. Beautiful, graceful creatures. The ranger also said that during the fall rut, the big boys come down from the ridge opposite us and the "mating" happens right there in the park. Hmmmm.

We so enjoyed the Rockies. We hiked on the alpine tundra, about froze to death up there because it was so warm in the valley and we were ill-prepared. The first night, we arrived at 12,000 feet to be met with fog and clouds, so we couldn't see much. Next day was better! As we did another hike to Alberta Falls, I was inspired to sing my favorite songs from the Sound of Music. The kids were mortified which made me only sing louder. I mean, REALLY! Jason got a lot of it on video, so that we can continue to embarrass them for years to come. How do you NOT sing "Climb Every Mountain" when you're hiking in those hills? Our fellow hikers surely thought I had lost my mind.

It was here in the Rockies that I experienced an emotion I hadn't expected. I started grieving the end of the trip. We only had four more weeks to go, and then life would be different again. I was happy here. I had my family within arms length 24/7. We did everything together. We laughed. We cried (yup, a few times). We talked. We debated. We played hours of UNO. We made plans. We were together. Team Woods. What would be different when we got back? Would we still eat as healthy as we had been? Would we continue to hike as much as we had been? Would I still be okay not showering for three days? Would we still be full of wonder about the amazing things around us? Would the kids immediately go running back to their friends and leave Mom and Dad wondering where the time went? Since we will only be home one week before school starts and Jason goes back to work, we don't exactly have a lot of time to ease back into our life, routine and schedule. So, yes. I'm already sad about the trip coming to an end. Never expected to feel this way in a million years. Strange, huh?

The reality of it is that this trip was always going to have an ending. We are going to drive up our street, park Harvey, Toad and all the bikes, greet our family and friends, and hug our silly dog, MuddPie. I know the memories of this trip will last a lifetime and then some. Our kids will never forget it, both for good reasons and bad.  I understand and appreciate that. Jason and I have been blessed with this opportunity and pinch ourselves daily. He just said yesterday, "Are we really doing this?" Still feels that way.

I've started getting prepared for that big transition in September. The school supplies have been purchased and stashed next to our bed. Golf lessons have been scheduled. The competition dance season schedule comes out next week. Haircuts are on the books. (Note to Kathy, Amanda, DiDi and Jill - I'm sorry, but you have your work cut out for you!) Orthodontist and dentist appointments are on the calendar. PTO meetings, Book Club get-togethers - it's all on my schedule. I just need to remember to stay in the moment and enjoy this time - not get bogged down with all the other preparations. We still have a lot coming up. White water rafting is the next biggie. Oh, and we all ate rattlesnake last night. The fun times just keep coming.

And yes, it tasted like chicken.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Is my life defined by the number of switchbacks I can do, OR Let's water those seeds, shall we?

April told me after my last post that I do a good job of coming full circle with my stories, so here’s one that I didn’t even have to work at - it just happened that way.

In the past week, I have had the opportunity to do an incredible hike with each of the kids independently.  Jack and I hiked half way down the South Kaibab Trail, down to Cedar Ridge, in the Grand Canyon.  While Katie and I hiked to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park.  Both had their own challenges and rewards, and provided me an opportunity to spend some great one-on-one time with each child.

Our first day at the Grand Canyon we hiked the South Rim Trail, and were in awe of the expanse that the Grand Canyon covers.  The earthy reds and soft beiges that make up the cliffs paint a picture that is so softly beautiful that it looks like God has simply hung a giant canvas in front of you.  I honestly felt the whole scene had to be a Hollywood staged illusion and couldn’t possibly be real.

While walking the Rim Trail, I could see trails leading down into the canyon and started wondering how the vista would change from the bottom, rather than the top.  I talked to a ranger who told me: 1.) We should not hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon unless we were planning on spending the night, as it is too far to make it there and back in a single day with the heat we were experiencing; 2.) Even for a partial hike, he recommended leaving first thing in the morning so that we could be back by late-morning; 3.) For the best views, he recommended the South Kaibab Trail, but given the first two points above, he told me we should not hike beyond Cedar Ridge.  Jack decided he wanted to see the bottom of the canyon and would accompany me.

After driving into the park, then catching the shuttle bus to the trailhead, Jack and I started down the trail right at 7:00.  By 7:15 Jack had decided he was going to count the number of switchbacks that we were crossing to make our descent.  Throughout the course of the morning the number grew to ten, then the teens, then the twenties.  Despite the ever changing view, and the ability to see Cedar Ridge from a few of the turns, Jack started to question his ability to go on.  He even “called it” at one point and said he was ready to go back, but I promised him that we were no more than one or two turns from the bottom and that I had packed snacks for when we got there.  Anyone who knows Jack, knows that with this new information (i.e., snacks had been packed) we soldiered on.

We no sooner reached Cedar Ridge and found a nice place in the shade to enjoy a granola bar and some pretzels, when I saw a small crowd gathering at the end of the ridge around a large black object.  I got out the binoculars and saw that it was a California Condor and it was perched on the ground at the end of the ridge.  We made our way out there and ended up getting within about 50 feet before we decided to stop.  There was nothing between us and the bird and we spent a good amount of time taking pictures and video of the perched bird and four others that were circling around overhead.  

California Condors had been near extinction in the 1980’s and had been down to only 22 birds remaining.  Through a program that started by hatching birds in captivity, and then relentlessly tracking and keeping released birds safe from harm, there are now over 400 birds.  More importantly, they are starting to nest again, and produce offspring in the wild.  The California Condor has the largest wingspan of any flighted bird, averaging around nine and a half feet.  Though their bald heads are not the prettiest to look at, they are truly magnificent in flight.  Each Condor will fly an average of 200 to 400 miles per day while looking for food.  Because of their size, they are incredibly efficient fliers.  They seldom flap their wings, and instead use the thermals created by the heat rising from the desert to soar from place to place.  It was the soaring that gave us a magnificent experience on the way back up the canyon.

We lost count of how many switchbacks there were on the way down.  It was easily in the high twenties, perhaps more.  All I know is that they are a lot easier going down, than going back up.  We made frequent stops on the way up, and found ourselves working in parallel with two other families.  Jack and I would charge ahead for a bit until we tired and found a good resting spot, and the other two families would catch up.  Someone else would catch their breath first and start out again to find the next resting spot.  And so it went, switchback after switch back, mile after mile.

We were resting with one of the other families when it happened.  Jack and one of the other boys were sitting on a rock catching their breath, as were the rest of us that were standing.  The corner that we stopped at just happened to look straight  down a decline in the trail that looked right towards Cedar Ridge.  I happened to look up to see one of the soaring condors way off in the distance, but heading straight towards us.  I quick snapped open the video camera that was in my hand, while joking with Jack that he was attracting condors.  As I sat there and filmed this condor, to my amazement, it did not turn away.  It flew straight at us, and ended up soaring straight over our heads.  We keep saying that it passed within three feet of our heads, but in all honesty it was probably five feet.  It was so close that if I had a half way intimidating vertical leap, I could have jumped up and touched it.  In any case, I had no time to think about that, as I was too in awe of watching this rare, and magnificent bird course right over our heads.

Having the close encounter with the condor, made the trip for Jack.  He could’t wait to tell Mom and Katie when we got back to Harvey.  For me, it was seeing how well he did on the trek.  Jack normally doesn’t embrace big physical activities, and when he does he does it with the normal goofing around of a ten year old.  He and I had a serious talk before heading out, that some of these cliffs were going to be high, and that he couldn’t screw around on this hike.  He handled it with great maturity, and during one of our talks along the way, he said he thought he wanted to come back to Grand Canyon someday to do a river rafting and camping excursion.  I might make an outdoorsman out of him yet!

When I had done my cross-country road trip while coming home from my internship, a number of people told me not to go see Zion unless I had at least two days to dedicate to the park.  It did not disappoint!  When April and I re-worked the itinerary a couple of weeks ago, we gave the park two and a half days.  We had a good drive from the South Rim of Grand Canyon, so we used the afternoon after our arrival to drive around the park, find the visitor center and talk to a ranger.  April and I had both done our research on different hikes, but we wanted to get a professional’s opinion.  We talked to a great ranger, who helped us map out a full two days that would see a majority of the park.  The weather was forecasted to be nice, so we took the top off of Toad and set out on our adventures.

One of the hikes the ranger highlighted was one that I had heard about back in 2005 - the hike up to the top of Angels Landing.  A 1,488 foot monolith that juts out from the canyon wall and sits across the valley from a peak named the Great White Throne.  Both were named by a Methodist minister in 1916, Frederick Fisher.  When Fisher saw Angels Landing, he proclaimed, “only an angel could land on it.”  In the mid-1920’s they engineered a trail up the back side of the mountain that leads to the top.  In order to get all the way to the top, you have to scale the spine of a large fin that connects Angels Landing to the rest of the valley wall.  The top of the fin is only 8-10 feet wide in some places, with the trail only occupying about two feet of that space.  If you look off the sides of the fin, it is ~1,500 feet straight down on one side, and ~800 feet straight down on the other.  There are chains in place to help you navigate the climb, but you are not secured to anything and must navigate it yourself.  To add to the fun, there are constantly people going up and coming down at the same time, and both must share the same chains and the narrow trail.

As the ranger was describing the hike, both Katie’s and my eyes lit up.  This is exactly the type of challenge that gets us going.  We picked out a morning to do the hike, that would allow us to connect with April and Jack later in the day to explore more of the park and started our prep.  We filled our camel backs with water, made wraps for lunch, grabbed apples, a combination of pretzels and chips, and the video camera.

For the second time in three days I was facing an uphill climb through more switchbacks than I can count.  The trail first leads you from the valley floor, up a series of switchbacks to a narrow canyon that leads you to the back of the mountain.  Once on the back, you have a  series of twenty-one short, but very steep switchbacks known as ‘Walter’s Wiggles.’  At the end of the wiggles you are on a small plateau called Scout’s Landing that gives you a good view of the valley to the north, including Big Bend and the Temple of Sinawava, but not the whole valley.  That is only available from the top of Angels Landing, and Scout’s Landing is where you jump onto the spine of the mountain that will lead you to the top.

Early in our day, shortly after we had started our hike, we were passed by a ranger who was heading up to Scout’s Landing.  He said he was going to be there throughout the day providing a talk on one of the rarest birds around - the California Condor.  I told him that I had a close encounter two days before with one and we agreed to discuss it more fully when we reached the top.  Since he was in much better shape than Katie or I, he bounded off and left us to slowly huff and puff our way up the trail.  When we reached Scout’s Landing, the ranger had about thirty people gathered around him and he was deep in discussion about condors, so Katie and I decided to continue on to the top and would catch up with the ranger on our way back down.  

The start of the chains is most harrowing part.  I had been carrying my video camera in my hand throughout the hike to that point, and as soon as I saw what we were facing, I put it back in my backpack.  The first couple of hundred feet are going up a fairly steep incline, where the slope is running parallel with the canyon wall.  So, if you slip off you will be sliding straight down to an 800 foot drop.  To further complicate this part, the sandstone is flaking off through this section, and looks like the scales of a fish, and each scale was large enough to put one foot on.  
On the chains to
Angels Landing

As we traversed this section, I felt like I was constantly yelling at Katie, “ALWAYS keep one hand on the chain!”  She would call back to me, “I’m fine, Dad.  I’ve got good footing, and I’m O.K.”  To the amusement of the people around us, I would reply back, “Katie, I don’t need you to hold the chain for you.  I need you to hold the chain for me!”  I loved seeing her step out there on her own, but man the thought of something happening to her was nerve wracking.  More so, I was afraid of what April would do to me if something happened to her.  In the end, I kept one hand on the chain, and my second hand on the handle of her backpack.  I tried to assess a couple of times if that would actually provide me any hold if she slipped and somehow I convinced myself that it would.

Once we made it through the first section, the rest was just climbing over rocks, and figuring out how to navigate the narrow trail with the other hikers that were on it.  Similar to the hike with Jack, we found ourselves in a group of hikers and we would shout moral support to one another as we were making our way up the mountain.  When we finally reached the top of Angels Landing, there is about a 100 yard stretch of rock that is like the peak of a roof - coming to a point in the middle and sloping off to either side.  Fortunately, it is a shallow peak and we could almost run down it to reach the end point at Angels Landing.  From there, we were rewarded with incredible views all the way up and down the valley.  Simply stunning!  The folks that told me to give Zion its due weren’t kidding.  It is a sanctuary.

After relaxing with a couple of apples and a couple of pretzels - we were too pumped up to eat anything else - we started back down.  The hike down wasn’t nearly as bad, and I even got out the video camera a couple of times to record the trek. We quickly made it back to Scout’s Landing and the ranger was just mingling with a couple of other hikers.

Katie and I approached him and I started relaying the events of the hike Jack and I took two days before.  I even stopped and showed him the video I had of the birds and he started telling me just how lucky we were.  He had a condor feather, which was about two feet long, and told us to flap it.  It was amazing how much air you could feel it push as you moved it up and down.  The ranger also told us all about the program that had been set up to repopulate the species, and how they were now getting live hatches happening in the wild.  In fact, the first nest / hatch had just happened this past spring in Zion.  Previous to that, they had all been in the Grand Canyon.

As we were talking to him, another woman approached and told the ranger that she had just had an encounter with a group of condors, and as we talked we realized that she had been on Cedar Ridge shortly after Jack and I had been.  The condors are all tagged, and so Jack and I know that the condor that was on the end of the ridge was ’60’ and the one that flew over us was ’31’.  When the ranger asked her which birds she had seen, she said they were only able to get one number and it was ’09’.  Hearing this the ranger exclaimed, “Well, what was she doing all the way down there?”  Turns out that #9 is the female of the pair that nested, and was raising a baby, in Zion.  Looks like what we were told is true - condors will fly 200 to 400 miles for food.  

So, two incredible hikes - tied together by one of the rarest of bonds.  A bird from one park, showing up at another and making our day at both places.  As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but think of the distance the mama condor will go to take care of her baby.  Likewise, I can’t believe the distance we have come to provide our children these opportunities to reach and grow.  I hope in both cases, the new generation flourishes!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Jack's Cool Update OR So many places - So little time

Hi! I’m back!!! Jack here. For this post I’m gonna give you a list of some of the places I’ve been and tell you my favorite thing about that place.

  • I’ll start this off in Yosemite, I would have to say the amazing views from Glacier Point viewing Half Dome, El Capitan, Vernal Falls, (which I also hiked to the top of) as well as many others.
  • Next stop, San Francisco. Definitely Pier 39!!! I could spend HOURS there. But, it’s only a CLOSE second to Alcatraz Island where I met Deirdre Capone, the grand niece to celebrity gangster Al Capone. I was also able to get a signed copy of her book : Uncle Al Capone. It was probably one of the best books I’ve read all trip.
  • After that, we drove down the P.C.H. (Pacific Coast Highway) and spent 3 nights in Morro Bay. Then, we kept driving down to Ventura and stayed at the Ventura Ranch KOA. Very good first impression from KOA! It had a rock wall, pedal carts, and my FAVORITE, a zip line!!!
  • Then, VEGAS!! Surprisingly, Las Vegas, NV has a lot more than gigantic casinos, hotels, and resorts. See the Mob Museum (Just a note, we thought it would take 1- 1 1/2 hours. Set aside 3 Hours!) Or go see the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop home to the hit T.V. show  Pawn Stars. You can also go see a show. We saw Mystere, then ate in a casino buffet. Oh yes, and my friends reading this, I bet you're all wondering: “How’d you get into a casino??”  The  answer is that Federal Law prohibits a minors from gambling, but says nothing about going into a casino. Just stay on the path, and you can’t stop and have your parents tell you how a slot machine works. And bring a watch too because there are no clocks, or windows. Oh, and one last thing about Vegas if you’ve never been, If you do go, you will feel extra energized, and pumped up. That is because I heard that casinos pump extra oxygen into the building. For example, The show ended at 8:30 PM pacific time. It felt like it was 6:30 PM pacific. Once I stepped outside, I almost collapsed I was so tired.
  • Next was the Grand Canyon. It really is GRAND! Of course I hiked! I hiked the Rim Trail with my whole family then a trail that leads into the bottom of the canyon with just my Dad. We even saw a California Condor 3 feet above our heads! Cool, huh?
  • Finally, Shout-out time! Today I’d like to shout out all my grandparents. Grandma, Grandpa thanks for coming to San Francisco with us. Nana, I’d love to send my June letter, just I haven’t seen a mail box since Yellowstone. Papa, I hope you’re feeling better! I also want to shout-out my 4th Grade teacher, Mrs. Bedi! Ya know what? Let’s just shout-out ALL of Thornapple Elementary! Also I’d like to shout-out Mrs. Barker. Thank you for all the books!
Thanks for reading!

Hugs, Jack

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Katie's Update OR Why is everyone hogging the Mac?

This has been a CRAZY first five weeks. It is crazy that we have been gone this long. Yet somehow this is my first post! Sorry, Katie here and can I just say, WOW! This is probably the best experience I have ever had in my life. I know that some people have been waiting for me to post. Sorry about that. Everybody is hogging the computer! The last time I was on the computer was in San Francisco! Lots has happened since then, of course, and that is why I am here.

Since then I have been amazed at what we have seen. The ocean, in my opinion, was one of the best. We went to see the tide pools at Leo Carillo State Park which were really cool. We saw a baby starfish and about a billion hermit crabs. If you ever go, be sure to wear shoes. Rocks hurt! We saw a sea urchin and an unfortunate starfish (stupid seagulls!). 

Monterey Bay Aquarium was another thing on my must see list. We learned a lot about sea otters, which are super cute, squid, octopuses, sharks, kelp, urchins, etc. One of my favorite exhibits was the open sea exhibit. There were about a million sardines going around in a circle. There was a hammerhead shark in the same tank. I was amazed to see the other fish alive! There was a gigantic sunfish that was about as tall as I am! So cool! 

Then of course was Las Vegas. SO AMAZING!!!!!!!! It was so much fun to have a lunch other than ham and cheese wraps. The first full day we were there we had lunch with an old friend of Dad’s from business school. After lunch, Mom and I went shopping. SHOPPING SHOPPING SHOPPING!!!!! Caesers Palace has like 500 stores. I wish we could go beyond the 3 floors that we went to but we had a show to catch! First we bought me a new mascara (my first one for real and not for competition dance), got gelato, realized what time it was and ran to catch a cab. We finished our gelato before we got back - thankfully the boys did not notice! 

Next we went to Mystere, a Cirque de Soleil show. It is hard to explain what it was like. There are just no words. My top three favorite things in the show were the trapeze, the big baby, and the acrobats and dancers. It was impossible to see everything going on at once. If you ever go to one, don’t try to look at everything. You’ll get dizzy. 

The next day, we went... INDOOR SKYDIVING!!!! It was so awesome! We wore big, lightweight suits that caught the air coming from a spinning turbine underneath you. I had to have goggles that took up half my face because of my glasses. Besides that I had a blast! I can say officially that I have flown with no airplane or wings. 

Giving a shout out to my friends Courtney, Isabella, Tara, Sarah, Dana, Allison, Annie and Mary G., and all my competition dance peeps at the Moving Company. I miss you all so much and can’t wait to share with you all the adventures I’ve been having. I have been dancing everywhere we go - in fact, my Mom told me to stop dancing tonight because I was pretty close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. Makes her nervous!!

Well I hope you enjoyed my post and thanks again for reading about our crazy life!!!

Hugs, Katie 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I’ll have the ‘Sampler Platter,’ OR Variety is the spice of life!

Two weeks in California, and we still didn’t see it all!  One of the things that we have struggled with on this trip is deciding what to see, and what to cut out.  Even with 77 days (yes, the actual trip is eleven weeks long, but the alliteration sounds better with ‘Ten Weeks in a Tin Can’)…anyway, even with 77 days, there are still more things to see in this great country than we could possibly fit in.  This certainly was the case with California.  Like seriously, we didn’t even go into L.A. or San Diego.  We also skipped Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and multiple state parks and a few other national parks.

Even while in San Francisco, we skipped taking the kids to China Town, biking over the Golden Gate, going down Lombard Street, Twin Peaks, Golden Gate Park, or venturing into parts of town that might spur discussions that will be easier to handle when they are a little older (e.g, the Castro, Haight-Ashbury, etc.).

But enough about what we didn’t see, what we did see was a great sampling of an amazing state that has so much to offer.  I can easily understand why property prices are so high there and why people continue to move into the area.  I hope what we did see provided the kids with a good understanding of the variety of opportunities this world provides them with and maybe a few things that they can come back and explore more completely when they are older.

Big Sur
After leaving San Francisco, we headed over the mountains and started heading south on California Hwy 1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway.  

Our first stop was the Monterey Bay Aquarium - which was easily the coolest aquarium I’ve seen (sorry, CT friends!).  We started our day by seeing a great program about how they help raise baby otters that have been separated from their mothers.  They raise them using surrogate mothers from the Aquarium’s captive otter population.  This allows the Aquarium to raise the babies in a way that they can be reintroduced to the wild.  Great program - and, even cooler to see the otters back out in the wild, but more about that in a minute.  

In addition to multiple touch pools that allow you to interact with local sea creatures, a great jellyfish display, and the requisite tanks of fish, the Aquarium also has a great display of the local flora and fauna.  Monterey, and much of the CA coast has kelp forests, and the aquarium has an incredible multi-story tank that allows you to see the inner workings of this complex ecosystem.  

Finally, the Aquarium is built right over the bay, so after you’ve walked through all the exhibits, you can walk out on their deck and see the sea lions, otters, and birds playing in the water, diving for food, or lounging on the rocks.  After exploring Monterey for a bit, we headed over to Carmel and walked the shops on the main street.  Carmel is a cute little seaside town with your average seaside t-shirt shops.  Oh, and Tiffany’s and Sotheby’s Real Estate, and multiple other designer stores.  Carmel is definitely a playground for the rich and famous, and poor Toad looked quite out of place parked along the street.

Our next stop was a great state park half way down the coast called Morro Bay.  Morro Bay is named for Morro Rock, which is an ancient and dormant volcano that sits at the opening to the bay.  We rode our bikes into town, and up to Morro Rock, where we found a raft of otters (we learned at the aquarium that a group of otters are a ‘raft’!).  We enjoyed sitting and watching the otters frolic in the water for some time.  We also did a couple of smaller hikes to see the area.  At the back of the bay is an estuary, that between that and Morro Rock provides plenty of opportunity to see all kinds of sea birds, which are fun to watch but I won’t pretend to know what they are, outside of the occasional passing pelican.

Elephant Seals along the PCH
In order to get to Morro Bay, we had to drive down through Big Sur.  This took the better part of a day, because we kept stopping to admire the views.  It is a breathtaking drive with ever changing vistas of the rock bound coast.  We had alternating periods of bright sunlight and total fog.  The sunlight turned the water bright blue/green offshore and a frothy foamy white as it broke on the shore.  While the fog was so dense that we couldn’t see the ocean below us.  The fun part was that there were times when we were driving above the clouds - bright blue sky above us, and below us clouds so dense they look like you could walk on them.  We made a quick stop in San Simeon to tour the Hearst Castle.  Wow!  How awesome would it have been to live there?  Or even to have been a guest during the heyday of William Randolph Hearst and the dinner parties he would throw?

Our last stop in California was Ventura where I kept singing, “Ventura Highway in the moon light.”  The kids have no idea why.  

We stayed at a campground up in the hills, but the highlight was going to Leo Carrillo State Park during low tide.  There are great tide pools there and we spent hours playing with the thousands of hermit crabs that are everywhere, and we were lucky enough to find a couple of regular crabs, a sea urchin, lots of anemones, and a baby starfish whose legs were as thin as a piece of yarn, but was still large enough to crawl all over our hands.

California wasn’t all golden sunlight and gentle temperatures - we experienced our fair share of challenges while there, too!  In Morro Bay, we tried to do an easy hike with minimal change in elevation, but what looked like a couple hundred feet change over a good distance on the pseudo-topographical map provided by the state park turned out to have fairly steep inclines and declines.  That, coupled with the couple mile bike ride earlier in the day, I think brought April to realize that this is a “full contact” trip and there will be physical demands just about everywhere we go.  Though we will try to minimize the demands on her poor knees, in many cases we won’t know what we are getting into until we are there.  It’s all part of the demands (and joys) of discovery while exploring.
Lounging at Hearst Castle

In Ventura, I had my own personal breakdown brought on by my own bad decisions.  First, in my excitement and haste to get to the beach, I pulled Harvey (with Toad in tow) up alongside the guardrail to park along the PCH.  When we decided to try parking inside the state park instead, I pulled away too quickly, turning the back corner of Harvey into the guardrail, clipping the corner and smashing a running light.  To add insult to injury, while at the beach I was enjoying the beautiful Pacific ocean and wadded too far out.  I got caught in a very large wave that picked me up, and as I put my foot down to catch the bottom, I instead caught one of the massive submerged rocks along the coast.  I had two toes that were so black and blue I was sure that I broke them both, as well as multiple abrasions and a ripped off nail.  I spent the rest of the afternoon hobbling around the beach on a bloody stump.  So gnarly, dude.

Well, as I mentioned, we spent a full two weeks in California, but didn’t get to see it all.  In fact, at our last stop, April and I spent one night planning the rest of our trip.  As we expected before we left, there is no way we can see all we had mapped out.  So, we figured out the important stuff - along with a pace that is more comfortable.

Next, we are off to Vegas.  Where, once again, I’m sure we will not be able to do a fraction of what we would want to do.  But, we will do enough to provide a sample of what Vegas has to offer…well, offer a ten year old, anyway.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Pictures, I hope

 So, here's a few pictures from the last couple of weeks. We won't make you look at all 500 of them!

The kids and I in front of "Big Tree" at Redwoods National Park. Creative name, huh?

Half Dome at Yosemite. Seriously, one of the most magnificent things we've seen. Pictures don't do it justice.

Yours truly and the hubs on the top of Sentinel Dome after the "it's totally flat" hike. Worth the view!

A view of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. Again, pictures don't do it justice!
A wonderful day to go to the ballpark. Kids were in heaven!

Isn't it cute how they leave a cable car at the turnaround just for picture taking? Katie wanted to hang off the sides when we went for the ride. So fun!
Cell blocks at Alcatraz. A freaky experience being there. So much history and violence. So many lives impacted.
Where we spent Independence Day. Kids learned so much and are reading books about Alcatraz.

Oh UBER, why weren't you in Yosemite OR Gotta love brightly colored fog

As I was saying, San Francisco was our destination for relaxation. Ironically, after the Harvey parking escapade, I had a hard time settling in. That first night in the hotel that I had been dreaming about for three weeks ended up being not such a great night of sleep. Could it be that I had become so accustomed to the bed in Harvey that I was missing it? Crazy thought.

Since the laundry was still in Toad, Grandma and I headed to the laundromat. We received a few funny looks as we carted in big duffle bags and laundry baskets. A very nice man carrying a brown grocery bag full of orange juice and vodka told us all about how global warming was a real threat and that he learned a lot studying environmental science at Berkley. Then, he took off his socks and threw them in the washer. We helped a German family figure out how to decipher the dryer instructions. I love San Francisco for so many reasons - the interesting people certainly being one.

When we began our trip planning, we had hoped to attend a few MLB games. The Twins? Away game. The Brewers? Away game. The Giants? HOME! Off we went for a wonderful afternoon game. They lost but who cares. Grandpa spent most of the game waiting in lines to buy the kids goodies. Peanuts, lemonade, hot dogs, garlic fries, Dibs, the list goes on and on. Met some great people at the game - lifelong Giants fans that despised their manager. Totally hilarious to listen to them rant on.

Jack was in heaven and not because he's a baseball fan. Jack discovered UBER. In case you didn't know, UBER is a cool app that allows you to request limos and SUVs and it's super easy to use. Also, more expensive than taxis. Jack wasn't paying so he didn't care. He must have asked twenty times "Can we UBER? I know it's only two blocks to walk, but can we get a limo?" The boy was still so tired from Yosemite, but come on already!

That night, Jason and I had a night on the town all to ourselves. Kids hung out with the grandparents on Fisherman's Wharf and Jason and I celebrated our 19th anniversary one week late. Am happy to report that we laughed and talked and thoroughly enjoyed being together. Pretty lucky. I even wore makeup. What a big night!

The next day, we were back to complete chaos. Our concierge (remember him???) had told us that even though Alcatraz tickets were sold out online, you could get same day tickets if you showed up when their ticket office opened at 7 am. All good and fine except for the fact that if you weren't in line by 6 am, you had no hope of getting a ticket. Jason left at 5:45 am only to find out that he wasn't allowed in line unless everyone in your party was there. So, I'm flying around trying to get everyone ready to go as Jason's calling us in a panic. Katie's refusing to get out of bed and Jack is yelling "WE GOTTA UBER!!!!"

We make it down there by 6:30 but then have to wait. That was the theme for the day - Hurry up and wait. Got the tickets for the 10:00 boat and tour and we're off to find this fab breakfast place that's apparently famous. Only there, it opens at 8:00 am, but if you're not in line by 7:30, forget it. They routinely have two hour long wait times. We get there by 7:30 and there's only 60 people in front of us. No sweat. We'll make it back to the Alcatraz boat by 10:00. Then, we look inside. This restaurant has like 5 tables and can seat maybe 20 people. We ended up standing in line until 9:30 and then getting our breakfast to go. Again, Jack's yelling "UBER!!!!!" We were the last ones on the boat and inhaled our breakfast during the 12 minute ride to the island.

But what a great time we had at Alcatraz. The kids have been reading books about Al Capone and studying the island's history so it was amazing to see them so excited about the visit. Was also a great teachable moment for us - "Hey guys. If you think these cells are bad, you should know that the prisons that exist today are no better. In fact, they're 100 times worse. So, don't screw up your life." Hope they believed us. If you've never been, it's an eery place. Your mind easily imagines what life must have been like there, both for the inmates and the guards and their families that lived on the island. We also learned a lot about the Native American takeover of the island from 1969-1971. Kids were fascinated by that, too. After the tour which ends in the gift shop, go figure, we met Deirdre Capone. She's the great niece of Al Capone and was there for a book signing, so of course we had to buy her book and chat with her. Jack is nearly finished with it and Katie's anxiously waiting to read it.

It was actually Independence Day when we were at Alcatraz, so of course the irony was not lost on me. Spending Independence Day in a prison. Only us, right? After some much needed naps, we grabbed a quick dinner and headed down to Ghiradelli Square to watch the fireworks. Our friends who have lived in San Francisco all told us we were crazy to try to watch them because the famous San Fran fog would block most of it. Well, they were pretty close to being right, but it was a beautiful night, we were in an amazing city and we were together.

As we finish up our 4th week of the trip, we're blown away by how fast it is going. We're still having a blast. We're still laughing every day. The kids continue to amaze us by how much they are learning and showing interest in what we're doing. Jason and I have spent more time talking in the past four weeks than we probably have in the last 6 months, considering his travel schedule. Overall, it has reminded me that we made a good decision when we decided to make this trip. It hasn't been easy and we have SO MUCH MORE to see and do. But, I'm feeling confident that we can do it and come out just fine on the other side.

Before I sign off, a big shout out to our newest readers, thanks to the ABC talk show THE CHEW. They recorded a segment about our family and the trip the day after we left and it was televised on July 1st, while we were still in Yosemite, with no electricity to watch it. We've had 1000 new hits to our blog since then and still can't believe that anyone cares about our crazy life and crazier trip. Well, welcome to 10 weeks in a tin can! We would love to hear from you and am happy to answer any questions you might have. If you haven't seen the clip, go to THE CHEW's website and watch the episode from July 1st. Our segment is near the beginning, I think.

Am still working on downloading pictures. This wifi isn't the strongest but that might also be because the kids are streaming YouTube videos like crazy! Til next time!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Never trust a ranger with a bad haircut OR a concierge at a second rate, tourist trap hotel

So much to catch up on! We're back on wifi so let's get y'all up to date!

After all the rotten weather we had, we were excited to head into Yosemite National Park knowing that warm weather was awaiting us. The drive to Yosemite took forever it seemed. As you may remember from Jason's first post, taking his family here has been his dream for the last 10 years. Expectations were VERY HIGH! This entire trip was built around Yosemite and we had LOTS to cover.  Also, Grandma and Grandpa were meeting us there and we were all looking forward to having company! Plus, nobody spoils the kiddos like the grandparents, so the kids were especially thrilled to have them join us. Mom and Dad's rules go out the window.

We pulled into our campsite at 11:00 pm and it couldn't have been darker. Fortunately, Jason's getting really good at setting things up so, no worries.  Grandpa and Grandma joined us early the next morning to visit and bring us some things we needed from home. Daylight brought us what we had been waiting so long for - utterly breathtaking views. Seriously. There is nothing like Yosemite. Hands down, the most beautiful place we've seen. Jason was like a kid in a candy store, spending as much time looking at the kids' faces as he was at the scenery. A memorable moment for sure.

Glacier Point was our first stop. I have tons of pictures to share, but have a pretty slow connection tonight, so I may just do another post tomorrow with just those. Grandma and Grandpa decided to head down to the valley and see all there was to see there. We, however, needed to do some hiking. Please say you remember what our last big hike was like. Yeah, fun. I wasn't going to fall into the same trap, so when Jason suggested the hike to Sentinel Dome saying it was only 3 miles round trip, I didn't take his word for it.

Off I went to find the ranger and get the REAL scoop. Enter Bad Haircut Ranger. When I asked her what the increase in elevation was, she quickly replied "it's totally flat". Wow. How could this be? So, I put on my happy face and we headed across the street to the trailhead. And, that's when I looked up. As in STRAIGHT UP! Lies. That's what the bad haircut ranger told me. Total lies! It ended up being 1-1/2 miles to the dome with a change in elevation just under 1000 feet. You do the math. The angle we were hiking was not made for humans. I had made the decision not to complain about hiking anymore, but this was just too much. Bad haircut ranger (aka Sadist, Jr.) apparently felt that a 1000 foot change in elevation was "pretty flat" when compared to what? The hike to Everest base camp? Jason hauled out the videocamera more than once to record my extreme distaste for her. Kids learned new words. Oh, and did I mention the temperature? It was 102 degrees, no wind, and the trail was 75% in the sun.

Finally, we reached the summit and my endorphins that had abandoned me two hours earlier finally showed up. We had made it. And, I'm sorry to say, the view was totally worth the grueling hike. Wow. That was hard to type. You could see everything. The whole valley. You were nearly eye level with Half Dome and El Capitan was gorgeous in the distance. Wind blowing like crazy, we took tons of pictures and ate yogurt pretzels to celebrate our accomplishment. And please know, the reason I complain about the elevation is because thanks to two major knee injuries in high school, the arthritis I have to deal with makes hills and steps challenging. The hike back down took almost as long as going up, but we had cooler temperatures coming and a shower to look forward to.

Yosemite Day 2 was a sleeping in day, with the remainder spent exploring the valley.  It was only 111 degrees that day, so we took the top off Toad and enjoyed the breeze. Since our campsite was on the banks of an adorable creek, the kids enjoyed playing on the rocks and cooling off before convincing Grandma and Grandpa to give them more s'mores than their parents would. A quieter day spent just taking in all the beauty that is Yosemite.

However. Day 3 we were back on the trail after an early wake-up. Beating the heat is beyond important. If you haven't started your hike by 8, forget it. No Camelbak in the world is going to give you enough water to keep you hydrated enough. Vernal Falls was our destination and 3/4's of us made it there. I stopped at the bridge to avoid the strenuous steps to get to the top of the falls. Kids were doing just great until they reached the top. Jack started cramping and Katie developed blisters. Sounded like a not so fun walk back down. It was time to say our goodbyes to Yosemite and move on.

Which meant SAN FRANCISCO. Staying in a hotel. Eating at fabulous restaurants. Relaxing. Enjoying the diversity of the city. Celebrating Independence Day. But there was none of that until we found a place to park Harvey.

I had planned ahead. The concierge at our hotel assured me that Harvey could be parked in the parking ramp across the street. I even double checked - "Harvey is 12 feet tall." "No problem, Mrs. Woods. It can accommodate 13 feet." Sweet! In addition, we had over a week's worth of laundry to get done that night, so the shuttling of dirty clothes between Harvey and Toad began. In the midst of all this, we took another look at the parking garage where signs that said "Height Limit 9 feet" were posted EVERYWHERE! Umm, how did the concierge miss that? We tried to get Harvey in there, but banged the sign. Not cool. Back onto the street we went, which in downtown San Francisco is a nightmare. Thankfully, my parents had taken the kids to the pool, so Jason and I could figure this all out. The closest campground was 25 minutes away and no one was answering the phone. Other suggested parking lots weren't even remotely big enough to accommodate Harvey. We were panicking by this point. The hotel valet wouldn't let us park in the entrance (where other large vehicles had been allowed to park) and the concierge just kept on apologizing. On our last nerve (and three hours into this mess), we finally went to the hotel manager asking for help. She was able to get someone on the phone at that campsite and offered to comp us the cost of keeping Toad in the hotel garage. We were making a little progress. The campground cost per night was $89.00. Insanity but we had no choice.

We headed back down to the parking garage to get Toad and I was introduced to the shortest parking garage I've ever seen.  Height limit - 6 feet. Toad = 5 feet, 11-1/2 inches. I even managed to bang on my head on a metal pole coming down from the ceiling. We scraped our way out of there, hooked up to Harvey (AGAIN) and headed out. The nighttime security guard at the campground took at least 5 minutes to write down our credit card number and we were convinced our identity would be stolen in less time than that. By the time we returned to the hotel, we had been dealing with this problem for over 6 hours, were starving and slap happy. All we wanted was a bed.

A good night's sleep was had by all, and we were ready for our San Francisco adventure. And, knowing us, that could only mean that were going to take the city by storm. Stay tuned. We'll post about that experience soon! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Will it stop raining? Or, do we have to play Uno again??

Our former Pastor, Bob, has lovingly and (kind of) jokingly claimed that certain members of our family will come apart thread by thread on this trip.. Well, we’ve had a week that has tested some of those threads.  So far they are still holding strong, just a little stretched.

We had two challenges that we had to deal with this past week.  First, we had to cut out our trips to Glacier, Seattle and Portland due to spending a little extra time at Yellowstone, and needing to fix our bike rack issue.  It is still early in the year for Glacier, and when we checked only 15% of the “Road to the Sun” was open, so that was relatively easy to pass by.  But, I know April and the kids were looking forward to having some civilization and were disappointed by missing out shopping, hot showers, and wifi.

The second (bigger) challenge we’ve had is that the only sunshine we have seen for the past two weeks has been while we are driving.  Everywhere we have stopped we have been hit with terrible weather.  Given the initial experience we had at Yellowstone with limited warm clothes, snow, and no heat…rainy and cold is getting on everyone’s nerves.

What is even more disappointing is that we have missed out on seeing some of the main attractions that we focused on hitting.  We spent two days at Crater Lake based on a recommendation from a friend.  When we first drove up to the rim, we could see the lake and it took our breath away.  It is amazingly beautiful!  Then the clouds closed in, the rain began and the fog set in.  We never saw the lake again.  We have good friends from Michigan that were doing a ski clinic at Mt. Hood, and took the time to drive down.  They texted pictures of a cloudless sky and bright blue lake.  They were only three days behind us!  Insult to injury, Mother Nature!
Panorama of our initial view of Crater Lake
Snow banks at the end of June
With the exception of Katie, nobody else had much of an interest in hiking Crater in the rain.  So, while April and Jack sat in Harvey playing endless games of Uno, Katie and I went out and explored a couple of the hikes around Crater.  The most notable things we got to see were lots of deer, including two that were sleeping along the rim of the crater that we almost stepped on before one of them stood up in front of us.  I’m not sure which of the two of us was more surprised.

Crater Lake gets forty-four feet of snow every year, on average.  Even at the end of June there are still snow banks that are 6+ feet tall, and we took the time to climb on one of them and kick snow at each other.

Lava vents below Crater Lake
The last hike we went on took us down one of the canyons and along a beautiful mountain stream.  We ran across a couple more deer, wild flowers and beautiful terrain.  The other thing we came across were a couple of stone spires that we learned are former lava vents from when Mt. Mazama was still erupting.  Over time, the earth around the vents has eroded and left the cooled magma that was pushing up through the vents.

Following Crater Lake, we took a one day trip to Coos Bay on the Oregon coast where we stayed overnight.  Oregon has a beautiful rock bound coast that reminded me of Maine, including the lighthouse.  The state park that we stayed in boasted the best viewing of seals and sea lions.  They were inhabiting an island off the coast, and were loud.  Arguably, louder than Jack.

From the coast, we headed south to Redwoods National Forest.  We did not spend too much time in Redwoods, but enough time to see “Big Tree” and some pretty impressive elk that were hanging out beside the picnic area.

A couple of things to reflect on this past week.  First, I missed my latest high school reunion (we’ll skip what number it was..).  Second, April and I celebrated our 19th anniversary.  I can’t say I was disappointed to miss my reunion.  High school was not “my time” as I was an incredibly shy and quiet teenager (I’m sure those of you that I went to high school with can attest).  A big part of what helped me to become the person I’ve since become - able to take risks and stretch myself - is because of the love and support I’ve received from the wonderful person I married.  I’ve been to a couple of past reunions, and, frankly, I haven’t enjoyed them.  I went to school with wonderful people, who have built beautiful families, have become pillars in their communities, and chalked up their own accomplishments.  But, I find at our reunions I revert back to who I was back then, when that is a person I would rather leave in the past.  I hope everyone had a great time!  I did - I spent it with the ones that I love, taking more risks and stretching myself yet again.

Now, what shall April and I start planning for our 20th anniversary…