Life is Difficult, Mommy

I often hear myself telling the children “You need to learn to focus on the positive things so you can learn to be happy.” The exact phrasing varies but the gist is always the same: there’s always something bad to focus on and there’s always something good to focus on; learning to choose the good things will help you be happier.

A few months ago I got frustrated and mumbled something about the task I was doing being  difficult. Darwin overheard me and said “Life is difficult, Mommy.” That was one of my proudest parenting moments. Contentment can come our way quite passively, but achieving happiness requires skill, and skill takes practice. 

“Yes, life is difficult,” I responded. “But it’s also awesome. It’s both.” And then I probably launched into the same old spiel about the importance of focus. 

For example, our life is horrible. Our kitchen has been under construction for more than six months and last week we had no water for two days. We have no furnace because we believed the person who told us we were booked in for the first week of November, but he has not come through. It is cold. We have exchange heaters but a couple weeks ago the electrical panel that supplies them started smoking, so we had to cut off all power to the house until we could cap all eight wires that serve that particular circuit. This only happened because Dad and I removed the earthen ceiling from the lean-to this summer; if we’d just left that room alone, we might be warm right now.

And for example, our life is awesome. Our kitchen is almost finished and when we’re in there, we feel the love of all the friends and family who helped us demo and build this summer. We plumbed it ourselves, which was ridiculously empowering. We ran into some problems but we worked together and our time dry-camping in the national parks made it pretty easy to get by. It is cold. Like, our children are getting hardier by the day, cold. Our British neighbors, who don’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, invited us to their house for dinner so we can celebrate the holiday in the warmth of their home. The heating technician who isn’t responding to us? I don’t know what’s up with him; I hope he’s okay because this isn’t like him. On the bright side though, he isn’t RGE-certified; we recently learned that by hiring an RGE-certified professional, we can save 30% on the cost of our new equipment. 

The electrician is coming tomorrow, on the exact day she said she would. She plans to fix the circuit board, which I surprised myself by successfully capping, and Wendy’s and my solution to avoid further water damage (caulking a garbage bag flap above it) actually worked. We have two quotes from roofers to add flashing to the lean-to to permanently fix a problem we never would’ve known about if Dad and I hadn’t removed the earthen ceiling.

The positive and negative perspectives are both based entirely on facts. I of course flip-flop between the two on any given day, sometimes several times a day. But if I manage to focus primarily on the positive, I am happy. If I can teach my kids to do the same, I’ll be even happier.


We’ve been in France for two weeks now and are settling into the old farmhouse we’re renting from a lovely British couple who live in a nearby town. I’ve been really impressed by Wendy’s ability to communicate. She introduced herself to the postman, spoke with vendors at the weekly market, figured out how to sign up for a loyalty card at Carrefour (which is like Target), and even helped a lost motorist who pulled up to our house on his ATV. 

My language skills are also impressive, albeit in a different way. “I don’t speak French” and “We’re new here” are the only coherent sentiments I’ve managed to communicate. Aside from those, I’ve awkwardly uttered things like “I can’t listen, bye!” when trying to answer a phone call because Wendy was driving and “She is without a toilet” while trying to convince a cashier that I wasn’t stealing the things in my cart—I just needed to take my daughter to the bathroom.

We’re on a five-acre property right next to a busy road with a small garden attached and forest in the back. The yard is fenced so we don’t have to worry about the kids or dogs getting hit by a car, but we do have to be careful about ticks. I’m doing my best to keep the grass short, but the only tool available is a small corded string-trimmer that can’t quite reach one corner, and is currently out of string. 

While I find it difficult to mow the lawn with a weed whacker, it is kind of fun to use garden tools again. Among all this uncertainty and situational incompetence, yard work is something I know how to do. I can’t drive us anywhere because the car is a stick shift, I don’t know how to build a fire, and I’m unable to carry on a productive conversation. But I can plug in a little Black & Decker whose handle barely reaches my waist, hold down the trigger, and sweep two inches of string across the grass for three hours in an effort to protect my family from tiny blood-sucking buggers. 

Our time here has been an interesting mix so far of administrative tasks like mowing, cleaning, and setting up the house; and tourist activities like visiting the park, exploring nearby towns, and eating lots of baguettes. We also contacted realtors and have begun visiting farm properties. They’re just as I’d imagined.

The first farm we visited had about 20 acres of pasture, five acres of forest, the coolest stone barn I’d ever seen, and a stone-walled courtyard with a piggery that had a huge stone cauldron for feeding hogs. Spring has sprung so the fields were lush and green and filled with dandelions… and a random donkey.

We visited another property with an old bread oven and walked through the tall grass of another whose owner periodically stopped to lift a finger, as if to pause the world for just a moment, to identify the song of a nightingale or blackbird. Every place we’ve seen thus far has had its merits, but none so much as a former nobleman’s property that has been in the family for 12 generations.

noblemans-house.JPGIt was like something out of Downton Abby, with a narrow service kitchen leading to a dining room with a long wooden table and huge stone fireplace, and a small door with shelves that (surprise!) opened to reveal a root cellar with a bare earth floor. Out the window, across a moss-covered stone terrace, was a pool in the shape of an Omega symbol; the water was green and filled with tadpoles but its potential was crystal clear. 

Old castle-like doors led to rooms you’d expect and rooms you wouldn’t, along with things you’d expect to see and things you wouldn’t. For example, we didn’t expect to find 10 single beds in the attic, complete with blankets, a few stuffed animals, and lumps under the covers as if children were still sleeping there. We didn’t open the small door adorned with a sign that read “Barn Owl: Do Not Disturb,” and when I opened another small door and found two piles of what looked like poop from a small dog, I quickly closed it again, though not before noticing the room contained two more tiny beds with blankets. 

Despite the creepiness factor, that house is our top contender so far. It was just so cool! But I don’t think you’ll be hearing about it again because we’d have to offer less than half the asking price due to the amount of work it needs. It’s beautifully old, but old none the less and needs major work. We’ve just begun our search though, so while we can envision ourselves bringing life to that property again (aside from what’s already living in the attic!), I expect we’ll encounter other farms we’ll feel good about calling home. 

The search continues tomorrow.

Trip Report: Texas to Maryland

November 22 –  December ?

Well, this is it. We leave Pigeon Forge tomorrow en route to Staunton, Virginia—our last stop before rolling up to my parents’ house. We’ve spent more than seven months on the road and in many ways we’re ready for it to be over. We’re ready to sleep in a comfortable bed; to shower without either wearing flip flops or turning the water off to lather, on to rinse; to cook in a real kitchen; and to move without coordinating each step. (It’s literally three steps from one end of our trailer to the other, with a width of about two-and-a-half feet.) We’re also ready to visit with family and give the kids a chance to enjoy Christmas with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But we’ll miss this once-in-a-lifetime version of our lives: the adventure, the beauty, the rare opportunity to focus wholly on each other.

For the past several years we’d spent Thanksgiving with friends in Los Angeles and we missed that tradition this year. Yes, it was unique and entertaining to experience a just-add-water, ready-in-30-minutes meal of thick-sliced turkey lunchmeat, Oceanspray cranberry sauce, instant mashed potatoes, Stovetop stuffing, and a store-bought lemon merengue pie while residing at a state park in Lake Colorado City, Texas. But at the same time, we missed the tradition of cooking all day on Wednesday in preparation (including the Myers Family must-have of pumpkin pecan pie) then celebrating on Thursday with friends. I certainly wouldn’t erase the memory of dining in a burr-ridden campsite adjacent to a toxic lake surrounded by cacti. I’m glad we did that, and I’m glad we won’t be doing it next year.

Since we didn’t care for our Texas State Parks campground, we decided to cancel our remaining reservations at two additional parks. We had planned to spend six more days crossing Texas but instead opted to do it in one 12-hour day, leaving early in the morning and arriving after dark at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Reservations aren’t permitted at the park’s only campground, so we were pleasantly surprised to find an empty slot that revealed itself the next morning as one of the best sites!

Gulpha Gorge Campground, as its called, was beautiful. We realized spending a month in the desert was bringing us down, and we were really happy to be back in the beauty of the forest in fall, next to a river. The park itself was kind of weird—more town than nature—but we had a good time exploring it anyway.

It was here, reinvigorated by camping on a carpet of fallen leaves, that we decided to up the ante for our adventure by driving through the night. So we left Gulpha Gorge at 1:30pm en route to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We estimated it would take us about 12 hours to get there, but we couldn’t check in until 8am. So we decided a leisurely drive was in order.

That’s how we found ourselves walking around the huge, pyramid-shaped Bass Pro Shop in Memphis. “I wonder what it’s like in there,” I said to Wendy as we passed the neon-lit pyramid on the highway. She asked me if I wanted to stop and I said no. But then she Googled it and relayed the fact that it had a huge fish tank and alligators. This newfound knowledge necessitated navigating rush-hour traffic in the dark to re-route ourselves back to the shop, where we spent about half an hour taking the kids from one exhibit to the next.

Yes, there were alligators and a river of sorts running through the store with catfish and some monstrosity bigger than the kids. But the highlight was the aquarium, which elicited jumps and squeals of “So much fun! So much fun!” from Darwin.

We fed the kids PBJ pitas in the Bass Pro parking lot then continued on our way. At 4:30am we rolled up to our campground for the night: a Walmart parking lot. This is also something we’d wanted to try but were hesitant due to safety concerns. But Wendy had researched this one on the RV Parky app, where it had gotten great reviews. And it went great! We fell asleep around 5am, rolled out again at 9am, and pulled into the Pigeon Forge KOA at 10am.

We’ve had a really good time here. We drove through Great Smoky Mountains National Park yesterday, stopping to walk some of the Appalachian trail and to visit various log cabins. We also took the kids to Dollywood. This was their first time riding any sort of ride and they had a blast! I rode the first couple with them—squished into the back seat of a pig and bee respectively—but they conquered a duck on their own. We also rode the ferris wheel as a family and the kids are still talking about it. Our big kid—Wendy— got to ride a bunch of roller coasters and the theme park had a kennel so we didn’t have to worry about CeCe.

I can’t ride most rides and don’t like to anyway, so for me the highlight was the racetrack—a ride I used to love as a kid where you get to “drive” a car along a single track, so your steering matters. Each of the kids had a chance to drive and did so quite differently. Emerson jerked the steering wheel from side to side, laughing all the way. Darwin steered a little, honked the horn, and batted at the dice on the dash, also laughing heartily. It was awesome.

Although the kids have proven themselves to be quite capable motorists, tomorrow I’ll drive us about 300 miles, mostly highway, to camp near Polyface—the iconic farm of Joel Salatin, who’s considered an expert in sustainable agriculture. Then we’ll drive a few hours to my parents’ house in Maryland, where our trip will end but our adventure will continue.

Trip Report: New Mexico

November 17 – 22, 2017

“One, two, six, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, nineteen. Eme, wake up! I have something for you.” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

Yep, it’s nap time here at the Happy Homestead. Emerson is sound asleep on the dinette-turned-couch and Darwin is in the crib, verbalizing each thought that comes to mind.

The wind is blowing at 20mph but since we hitched the trailer to the car this afternoon, we’re quite stable. We’re heading out in the morning, leaving New Mexico and heading for Texas. We’ve had a good time here.

Our first campground in New Mexico was Valley of the Fires Recreation Area. It only cost $18/night for water and electric hookups, and we were perched on a ridge above a lava field. Our campsite was also large and the sunsets were beautiful.

Then we traveled to Brantley Lake State Park. The campground itself is decent, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I booked it in an attempt to find something close to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There’s no camping in the park and the closest place to stay is Whites City, which has horrible online reviews. The best I could find, while sitting on the couch in Los Angeles, was this state park 40 miles away. Seemed like a good idea though, for a mere $14/night.

Along with that price comes an odor reminiscent of methane and sewage, an opportunity to use a stainless steel prison toilet with no seat, and the pleasure of a free push-button shower where the water magically aerosolizes before reaching your lower body. If these things appeal to your sense of adventure, I highly recommend booking this park.

In all seriousness, I actually am glad we stayed here. We drove past the Whites City RV Park yesterday and it looks horrible. The sites are really close together, with shared picnic tables pushed against one another, and some of the sites were literally at the side of the road, almost as though they’re part of a turnout. We don’t like it here at Brantley Lake State Park, but it seems a lot better than the alternative.

Whatever knucklehead planned this trip had us traveling to Texas on Thanksgiving, so we decided to leave Brantley a day early. So we’ll head out in the morning. Besides, we’re all finished here. We visited Carlsbad Caverns yesterday and were wowed by the enormity. Strollers aren’t permitted, and we didn’t think backpacks were either, so we let the kids walk the mile-and-a-half trail that runs through the caverns.

The first 20 minutes were amazing! The kids were fully engaged, with Emerson enjoying the walk and Darwin finding dinosaurs and dragons in the structures. Then they got bored and we were in a pickle. One of the rules of the caverns is to whisper because the echo of voices ruins others’ experiences. So we figured a toddler tantrum (or two) probably wouldn’t go over well.

So when Emerson began emphatically stating that he wanted to “leave the cave,” Wendy and I couldn’t just tell him to suck it up while we finished the tour. Instead, she picked him up and finished the trail as fast as she could, practically jogging some of it because her arms were getting tired.

Darwin and I continued moving forward, albeit slowly, for a while before she, too, decided she’d had enough. “Dar tired,” she told me.

“You can sit on my shoulders if you want,” I told her. She weighs more than 40 pounds and it’s the only way I can carry her for a prolonged period. She didn’t want to do that though, so continued walking—even more slowly—for a little while longer. Eventually she agreed to sit on my shoulders, at which point I picked up the pace to catch up with Wendy and Emerson. Then she wanted to get down, then back up. And she wanted to hold onto my thumbs while sitting on my shoulders, but the thumbs had to be up near her face.

I would generally decline such demands, countering with a distasteful alternative, like “we can do it mommy’s way or you can ride over my shoulder [like a sack of potatoes]—your choice.” Sometimes she decides my way is best; other times she chooses to travel like a sack of potatoes, which she immediately regrets, resulting in a few minutes of crying until she calms down and decides mommy’s way isn’t so bad after all.

But in that cavern, where remaining quiet was the primary concern, I raised my thumbs in the air  and carried my triumphant toddler on my shoulders for what felt like six miles before finally meeting up with Wendy and shedding my sweat-soaked flannel shirt. Then we took the 9.5-mile “scenic drive” along a gravel road, where we saw a huge water tank, cell phone tower, and five very yellow butterflies.

After picnicking above the caverns, we said goodbye to the park and ran errands at UPS, Walmart, Tractor Supply, and Albertsons. Then we went home and devoured Philly cheesesteak Hot Pockets while watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Texas.

Trip Report: Arizona

November 10 – 17, 2017

“Where is this place?” I asked Wendy.

“I don’t know,” she answered, “but supposedly it’s three miles away.”

In theory, we were approaching Lyman Lake State Park for a two-night stopover before heading into New Mexico. But the terrain gave no indication that any kind of civilization was nearby, much less a lake. Within a few minutes though, a road sign directed us to the left. We drove along a winding lane, past an entrance booth with a bug-smattered 8×10 sheet of paper taped to the window, informing us to check in at the General Store.

“This place looks deserted,” Wendy said. “Think anyone’s actually in the General Store?”

Turns out yes—one person in ranger garb. When I told him I was there to check in, he didn’t ask to see ID. He didn’t even ask my name. “You’re the only check-in we’ve had today,” he said. “Hope you weren’t looking for a crowd.”

“I’m never looking for a crowd,” I told him.

“Good, he responded. ‘Cause it’s just you and the camp host. Everybody else left today.” Having just spent five nights at the Grand Canyon’s Trailer Village Campground, the notion of being away from everyone else made my heart smile. That smile grew when the ranger added that he’d be around for a few hours tomorrow if we needed anything, and that Carl would be on the tractor and we could always flag him down.

Polar opposite of our Grand Canyon experience.

The canyon itself? Spectacular. We’ve seen so many great canyons on this trip I was afraid of being underwhelmed by the one I’d wanted to visit for the past 20 years. It didn’t disappoint and I have no regrets about going.

But the park? The first descriptors that come to mind are unhappy, rude, and ugly college campus. It started when we checked into the campground and were “greeted” by employees discussing how much longer they had to stay at work. Then we pulled into our parking-lot site, with a sliver of gravel separating us from our neighbors and a black trash bag duct taped to a tree limb, presumably to discourage whatever left that platter-sized poo smatter from perching near our picnic table.

Our campground was also adjacent to housing for park employees who disregarded the speed limit and one-way signs. Rather than have the dogs pee in others’ campsites, we walked them along the campground perimeter: beneath power lines, next to enormous industrial tanks secured behind a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire, and past a utility building straight out of Lost with a red light next to a sign that read CHLORINE GAS ALARM.

On the flip side, we had full hookups, Food Network, a decent grocery store, and really nice neighbors with three adopted kids—one of whom played with Darwin and Emerson for hours.

So I’m glad we visited the Grand Canyon, but I was ready to leave when we headed out yesterday morning. We routed ourselves through Petrified Forest National Park, where we took a couple of scenic drives, swung by a few overlooks, and stopped at the Crystal Forest to eat lunch and walk the 3/4-mile loop that winds along fallen trees that are more than 200 million years old, the wood replaced by colorful silica crystals.

Anyone who’s ever seen us eating lunch at a turnout or in a parking lot knows we’re kind of a hot mess. We let the dogs out to drink and pee. We give the kids a chance to run around while periodically taking a bite of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was no different yesterday, as the trunk was open so CeCe could hang out while clipped to the van, Wendy was holding Odie and Clark, and I was sitting on the curb reminding Darwin and Emerson to take bites of their sandwich as they focused on picking up rocks and shouting “deer poo!”

It was at this very moment that a woman rounded the corner of our van asking if we had jumper cables. She barely heard me answer yes amid the fits of furious barking that ensued, and I could tell she hadn’t realized what she was getting into by asking this ragtag band of travelers for assistance. But what was done was done, so I dug the cables out of our roadside emergency bag. Twenty minutes later, after which any casual bystander would swear that jumping a vehicle is a particularly difficult task, the formerly disabled car was able to carry its passengers to the next viewpoint.

Then the seven of us set off to explore the Crystal Forest. Wendy walked with CeCe while I led Odie and Clark along the path. Emerson ran ahead while Darwin lagged behind, stopping frequently to inspect the ground and ensure she was still holding the best pebble before moving forward. While I like exploring national parks with my family, moments like this are stressful and I have to remind myself that these are good times. Like any good wife, Wendy assisted with this task by snapping a photo of me holding Darwin as she cried, Odie peed, and Clark took a shit. It’s a hilarious picture and reinforces that while certain moments are difficult, this life we’re living is filled with joy.

And of course that joy is easier to feel now that we’ve spent the day lounging at Lyman Lake. Darwin is napping, Wendy is knitting, and Emerson is removing toys from a Ziploc bag and putting them back in again, whispering “helicopter… car….”

Tomorrow we’re heading to Valley of the Fires State Park in New Mexico, where we’ll stay for a couple of nights before visiting Carlsbad Caverns.

Trip Report: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks

October 30 – November 10, 2017

Sometimes people ask what possessed us to set off on this journey. Most love the idea of seeing the country and many have daydreamed about spending some time going park-to-park in an RV. But as the details of our trip are revealed, the “I want to do what you’re doing” sentiment evolves into “no way in hell.” Seven months? Sounds great. Eighteen-foot trailer? Small, but it’d be alright. Three dogs? Mmmm, I dunno. Two toddlers? You’re crazy.

Maybe we are, in some ways—particularly the one where insane people often think their behavior is perfectly rational. We discussed what we’d consider an ideal life, worked out how to try to make it happen, and we’re going for it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll know we tried, and that’s preferable to taking the more traditional, secure route, with its omnipresent undercurrent of what if.

Our undertaking can basically be divided into three parts: The cross-country trip, spending time with our parents (first in Maryland, then in Spain), then buying a property in France. We have about five weeks left on the first leg of our journey and are starting to experience the emotions that accompany transitions.

We’ve been “seven souls in a closet” for six months, working through the challenges of mobile tiny-home living while embracing the adventure of exploring North America’s national parks. It’s awesome, and it’s difficult, and we love it. I’ll be ready for it to end, but I’ll also miss it. I can feel the relief mixed with a little sadness already, creeping in bit by bit as we work our way down the last page of our itinerary.

We spent Halloween in Bryce Canyon National Park—carved a pumpkin and went trick-or-treating at the Visitors’ Center. Well, Wendy gave candy to the ranger and asked her to give it to the kids when they said “trick or treat.” Not exactly traditional, but our little Christmas tree and elf had a good time and elicited a lot of smiles.

We also went on a striking hike along the Navajo Loop Trail. Even though it was kind of a hard, I didn’t mind because the beauty distracted from its difficulty: Amazing views while walking down into the canyon, then through a surprising stretch of forest, and along “Wall Street,” a small hiker blob at the base of towering walls, traversing switchback after switchback before crouching through an arch and emerging into the sunlight above the top of hoodoos that had loomed above half an hour earlier.

Then we traveled to Zion, where we are now. My parents flew out to visit for a couple of days and left this morning. I think their presence and departure contributed to the overall sense of love and loss that we’re both feeling. We had an amazing time with them—the kids played, we all laughed, and after months of being the primary caretakers for five other beings, Wendy and I were cared for the way only parents can do, with their comforting, supportive, loving presence. A hotel room with a real shower, glass mugs filled with freshly-brewed coffee, and comfortable furniture didn’t hurt either.

We miss them already, and knowing we’ll see them in a few weeks makes us feel better. But it also punctuates the fact that our trip—our amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip—is almost over.

Not yet though: first we need to see the Grand Canyon.

Trip Report: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks

October 14 – 30, 2017

We’ve been losing things. First it was Emerson’s sweatshirt. Then a utility knife and the pair of pliers I use to force open the lid to the Superglue. Then… the laptop charger. This last one hurt because it’s expensive to replace and mind-blowing that we could somehow lose such a bulky, indoor-only item in the 150-square feet of space we call home.

“Where the hell could it have gone?” Wendy asked. All the scenarios we came up with were simply implausible.

“Maybe we knocked it out of its pocket (hanging by the door) and it fell on the floor,” I said.

“Then what,” Wendy responded. “We didn’t see it? We kicked it outside without noticing and then we still didn’t see it? Maybe we somehow scooped it up with the trash.”

“But how?” I asked. “Why would it have been near the trash in the first place and how would we not have noticed?”

Wendy rifled through every bin, drawer, and storage nook in the van and trailer, all to no avail.

While it was inconvenient to drive 30 miles outside of Canyonlands so we could park on the side of the road to get an internet signal to buy a new laptop charger and find a post office to mail it to, we were most disturbed by the fact that we lost it and couldn’t even pinpoint which park we’d been in at the time.

In good news, the new charger is now in our possession and the laptop is fully charged. In bad news, how and where we lost it remain a mystery. We make ourselves feel better by chalking it up to the fact that we’re both getting dumber on this trip. We expect it will be reversible, but one thing we’re losing and know exactly where and why—is sleep. This trip is awesome but we haven’t had a decent night’s rest in 5 1/2 months, and the effects are apparent.

We’re a bit irritable, and a bit stupid. But we’re okay with that because we know a comfortable bed is awaiting us at the end of this journey and in the meantime, the tradeoff is totally worth it.

Mesa Verde National Park
Morefield Campground, Site #49

Mesa Verde was different from any other park we’ve visited so far, and surprisingly popular. I’d never heard of it until planning this trip and from what I’d read, it didn’t seem like many people would want to go—much less stay—there. But our campground was full and the park’s attractions were quite busy. Another thing that surprised me is the park fee doesn’t let visitors see everything. Ancient cliff dwellings are the focus of this park and some are only available via a tour at the cost of $5/person—regardless of age.

Wendy decided to take one for the team, so stayed in the car with the kids while I toured Balcony House—a cliff dwelling built about 1,000 years ago. I got to climb a couple of ladders at a cliff’s edge, shimmy through narrow passages, tour an ancient house, and crawl through an 18-inch tunnel. I had a blast!

Afterward, we drove to Step House—the only fee-free dwelling available—so Wendy and the kids could check it out, but we arrived too late. The park brochure said it closed at 4pm; we arrived at 3:32 and learned the rangers cut off access at 3:30 to ensure everyone is out by 4. We had driven 12 miles along a winding road to get there; as we returned to camp, we tried to focus on the beauty of the drive rather than our annoyance at the poor communication. The drive was like no other we’d experienced: in some places, the road was perched atop a ridge with drop-offs on both sides.

Canyonlands National Park
Squaw Flat Campground, Site #3

Talk about a cool campground. We stayed in the Needles District, which is far from most of the park’s attractions but provides a beautiful view of needle-like spires. The campsites are also huge and spaced far apart. Our site was a mixture of trees, sand, and rock, while others were mostly rock—including site #5, where a massive overhang provided its campers with a cave-like structure.

It was here in the Needles District that we found our favorite toddler hike of the trip: the Cave Spring Trail. In less than a mile, the kids got to climb two ladders, scramble over rocks, and walk under a bunch of overhangs that made them feel like they were in a tunnel. They loved it!

We also explored Island in the Sky. To get there, we had to leave the park, drive past Arches, then re-enter the park—a journey that took about three hours. We loaded all of the dogs in the van and decided not to worry about what time we got home (which ended up being 9:30).

The views were amazing and made me wonder if my reaction to the Grand Canyon will be “eh.” First of all: Mesa Arch. A half-mile there-and-back trail leads to a natural stone arch with jaw-dropping views of the La Sal Mountains and Buck Canyon. It’s also a fun trail with some rock scrambling and a little elevation gain.

Another really cool overlook is Grand View, where you can stand between two massive canyons—one carved by the Green River and the other by the Colorado River. There’s a mile-long trail along the side of the canyon that we would’ve loved to have taken, but logistically we couldn’t swing it. So we settled for the spectacular view, which isn’t really settling at all.

Arches National Park
Moab Valley RV Resort, Site #5

Arches didn’t start off all that well. There was no camping available in the park, so we reserved a site at a nearby RV park that turned out to really pack ‘em in. The gravel pad for our trailer was literally three feet away from the gravel site for the adjacent RV with shared water, electric, and sewer pipes. The grassy spot on the other side of our trailer was also a shared space, with two picnic tables in parallel. We always try to make sure our kids adhere to their boundaries but here it was hard to delineate—if they stayed on our half of the patch, they could only access one half of each picnic table. If we let them play with an entire picnic table, they could only play on half the yard, which would put them right next to the adjacent trailer. There were also a bunch of campers with ATVs, which made the sites seem even more crowded, and the company aerated and spread fertilizer on each grassy patch while we were there.

Fortunately, our positive experience with Arches eclipses the negative. We got off to a slow start, trying to identify the rock sculptures mentioned in the brochure. “Do you see a sheep anywhere?” Wendy asked. “Sheep Rock is supposed to be around here somewhere.” We kept looking but neither of us could find it. “How about the Tower of Babel? Could be any of these—I don’t even know what that’s supposed to look like,” Wendy said as we drove.

For the first few miles, lots of rocks had names. But either the park lost its proactive intern or the rangers’ creativity waned because eventually they just went with the “Great Wall” (a long stretch of rock) and then had quite practical names for the arches, like Delicate, North Window, South Window, and Double.

Our first stop was Delicate Arch, which I expected to really be something because it was on a patch in the Visitor’s Center. But it was so far away from the viewpoint that I didn’t even take a picture of it. Next, we drove to Sand Dune Arch, aptly named because we trekked through sand to reach it. This is what I’m talking about, I thought to myself. The trail was short but pretty—canyon walls rose high above a sandy bottom, through a narrow passage, before revealing a large arch nestled in an alcove.

The last arches we saw also hit the mark. By walking a couple of miles, we were able to see the Windows arches and Double Arch. We went fairly early in the morning—around 9:30—and missed the crowds. The kids even got to play beneath the Double Arch for a while, laughing as their voices echoed against the rock.

Capitol Reef National Park
Fruita Campground, Site #30

We left the RV park around 6:30am in an effort to secure a spot at Fruita—the most sought-after (and un-reservable) campground at Capitol Reef. Aunt Mildred spoke of the orchards here, where she had the best peach of her life straight off the tree. A fellow camper raved about the pies sold at the general store, steps away from their campsite.

We arrived at 10:30am and lucked into an awesome site right at the corner of the orchard, where yellow-leaved trees provide shade for wild turkeys and mule deer. It’s our fourth and last night here at Fruita, and it’s one of our favorite campgrounds.

I can’t recommend the pies, though. The absence of fruit on the trees made us wonder how the shop is still selling pies. Turns out they’re from a nearby town called Torrey, which uses local fruit unless it runs out, in which case it uses frozen fruit. But never do the pies contain fruit from the orchards at Fruita. Perhaps they are great pies, even though they’re very small and cost $6, but we didn’t buy one. It felt like a scam to sell pies in an orchard that don’t contain fruit from the orchard—like selling store-bought ice cream by the scoop at a dairy.

On our first day here, we walked the two-mile Capitol Gorge trail with the kids, which was very pretty. It’s along a dry riverbed at the base of towering canyon walls, and has a 0.2-mile rocky climb at the end to reach naturally-occurring water tanks that collect and hold rainwater. Wendy went first while I stayed at the bottom with the kids. When she returned, she said “0.2 miles my arse,” and we decided it wasn’t worth my making the trip because I’d probably get lost. There are cairns (little piles of rock) that mark the trail, but rocks are strewn about the whole canyon and I’m horrible at navigating. So instead we returned home.

Yesterday, we drove 80 miles to explore Goblin Valley State Park. Wendy didn’t really want to do it, but I did, so she acquiesced. I hoped that when we got there we’d all have such a great time she’d be glad we went.

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the Goblin Valley Ultra—a race that included loudspeakers, a pavilion, hectic parking, and lots of people. There also weren’t any defined trails—just a three-mile-square area of short, goblinesque hoodoos.

“Okay, I’m sorry this sucks,” I told Wendy as we stood among the runners, overlooking Goblin Valley. “I thought it’d be better.”

“It doesn’t suck,” she said, rallying and trying to make me feel better. “You would’ve always wondered what it was like if we hadn’t come here.” By now it was 11:30 and we’d brought a packed lunch. We decided to walk aimlessly among the hoodoos and try to enjoy ourselves.

And we did. The kids had a blast. CeCe enjoyed exploring. I thought it was cool to be among the “goblins” and Wendy had a good time watching the kids have a good time. Darwin climbed more than I’d ever seen—up and down the “mountains” leading to the hoodoos, and Emerson joined her. Then we ate lunch in the shade of a goblin castle, on a really uncomfortable but private slope. “I can’t cut tomato like this,” Wendy said, holding CeCe’s leash in one hand and lunch items in the other. So we dined on dry crackers, Pepper Jack cheese, wasabi almonds, and prunes. Then we climbed out of the valley and made the 90-minute journey home.

We’ll hitch up tonight and head out early tomorrow morning for Bryce Canyon.

Trip Report: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

October 9 – 14, 2017
South Rim Campground, Site #B5

Odie has a breathy, staccato, high-pitched, ear-piercing bark that sounds even more urgent at 3:30 in the morning. “Quiet, Odie!” Wendy reprimanded in a whisper, trying not to wake up the kids. But Odie persisted. “Maybe he just needs a drink,” Wendy said, trying to convince us both.

Barking for a drink may not make sense to most dog owners, but Odie’s no ordinary dog. He sleeps on the bottom bunk in the trailer and is afraid of our shoes. So we try to make sure there’s a clear path from his bed to the water bowl. But unfortunately, he’s also afraid of drinking inside. Yes, he’s literally scared to drink from the bowl when it’s inside the trailer. So sometimes when he barks, we accompany him down the stairs, set his bowl on the ground… and he drinks half of it in one long draw as though we’d withheld it from him for days.

While neither of us wants to get fully dressed and step out into the dark at 3:30 just so our dog can drink—when the bowl is one foot away from him inside—it’s better than the alternative: that he’s barking because he has the shits again.

So Wendy got up and tried to encourage Odie to drink, but he wasn’t having it. Our alarm was set for 6:00am and we knew we wouldn’t go back to sleep again after taking him out, so we decided to consider Odie our alarm and get an early start on our trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Wendy’s usually the one who deals with pre-dawn dog crises, but I’m usually the one who walks the dogs during morning departures. So I donned my hooded sweatshirt, shoved a few poo bags in my pocket, strapped on the headlamp, and stepped outside. I expected to maneuver in pitch black, but the full moon hanging above the Great Sand Dunes shone so brightly I didn’t even need the headlamp. I felt privileged to witness this beauty and smiled as I scraped Odie’s loose stool from the gravel.

We rolled out at 5:30am, before the wind gusts and snowfall were scheduled to arrive. I felt good about leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park due to the impending weather, but wasn’t certain what we’d find at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Light snow was forecasted for our travel day, but we weren’t too concerned since it was supposed to be warm and sunny afterward. Of greater concern was whether there’d be a spot available at the campground and if the water would be shut off yet.

I try to keep the combined weight of our van and trailer as low as possible, especially while traversing mountainous terrain. But I figured being without water was a greater risk to our family, so I put about 10 gallons in our fresh water tank before we left and also filled all three portable water containers for an additional 16 gallons. I made myself feel better about the extra 200 lbs of weight by acknowledging we could dump it out if it gave us any trouble along the way.

But everything felt fine and I was actually thankful for the extra weight whenever the wind picked up. It was a beautiful drive. We traveled through the tiny town of Saquache then took the 14, which presented amazing views while winding through canyon country. It was also cattle country and the kids squealed and commentated as we spent about 10 minutes in the midst of a cattle drive. “Cows! Cows!” they shouted. “Cows on the road!” These exclamations were punctuated by booming laughter and followed by an unexpected line of culinary commentary that started with “Bison burger!” and ended with “pie!”

When the snow flurries came, we took them in stride. They were expected. Our comfort waned as visibility decreased and the real snow came. We still had two hours left in our journey; I was concerned that we may have to find somewhere closer to camp if the snow began sticking to the road. With about 90 minutes left, it began sticking to the road. To the chagrin of the cars behind me, I slowed to 35 as we trekked through the nascent slush, eyes peeled for black ice.

And we periodically pulled over so Odie could take a shit. Fortunately, he whines and then barks so we know he needs to go. Unfortunately, he’s desperate by the time he tells us, so we have to act quickly. The roads we’re traveling—especially the mountain ones—don’t always have a good place to pull over. So usually when Odie whines, Wendy and I both think Aw, crap and picture explosive diarrhea covering the back of the van. I start looking for a place to pull over and Wendy tries to calm Odie and convince his poo to wait.

After Odie’s two poos—one of which was very well-timed to coincide with a huge turnout at a scenic viewpoint—the snow slowed and we were able to relax a bit. It was still cold though, so I continued driving slowly in case we were to encounter icy patches on the wet road. It was stressful as we ascended some fairly-steep hills en route to the park. I kept myself calm and my mind occupied by mentally practicing how to react if we began sliding backward down the winding hill.

But alas, we arrived safely at South Rim Campground, past the unmanned entrance booth to the park, and had our choice of sites. The water is turned off here and only vault toilets are available, but there’s electricity and we arrived with 26 gallons of our own water. This was the first time we’d set up in the snow, our scissor jacks lightly frozen, icicles hanging from the front of the R-Pod.

We only expected to stay two nights before heading to a state park, but we really like it here! Turns out we’ve learned a lot on this trip and are getting along just fine with the water we brought. Electricity helps a lot and even though it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, there are a lot of radio stations and we even get several TV channels… all for $14/night.

This place is a bargain—a beautiful, peaceful bargain with really nice fellow campers. We hiked with the kids along the Rim Rock Nature Trail, which has steep drop-offs and views of the canyon. I’m sure it’s pretty any time of year, but the yellow, orange, and red leaves of fall enhanced the beauty and there was a light blanket of snow on the ground the morning we went. We also drove East Portal Road to the bottom of the canyon, a stunning drive with a 16% grade that’s totally worth the effort. And our campsite is tucked into the woods, with a lot of room for the kids to play.

We feel pretty alone here, but clearly we aren’t. Wendy came back from walking the dogs one evening holding a note in her hand. “This was on the car,” she told me. “I thought maybe someone was going to complain about the dogs.” But no. Instead, the handwritten note said the following:

Having been the mother of 2 toddlers (0 dogs) a long time ago, I can only say—I have nothing but awe for your spirit and optimism. Good luck in all your travels.

“People don’t just carry paper like that with them,” Wendy said. “Someone had to go back to their trailer or tent, write that note and get tape, then come back here.” We were in awe that someone was kind and motivated enough to leave such a nice note.

And yesterday, while taking a family walk with both kids and all three dogs, we encountered Sylvia—a woman with zero pretense who was tent-camping by herself and is considering creating a self-sustaining community on her family’s ranch. As we chatted, she casually mentioned that she was keeping her distance because she’d been wearing the same clothes for a while. “I’ve been wearing this shirt for six days,” I told her, “so same deal here.” No water means no laundry. I wouldn’t want to do this all the time; I’m a one-shirt-a-day woman. But beauty takes sacrifice—just not the kind our culture is most accustomed to.

Besides, we have the luxury of knowing our squalor is temporary. We’ll have access to laundry and showers tomorrow, when we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park.

Trip Report: Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes National Parks

October 4 – 9, 2017
Elk Creek Campground, Site #50
Great Sand Dunes Oasis, Site #17

Well, this portion of the trip hasn’t exactly worked out as planned. When we left Badlands National Park, we made a quick overnight stop in Nebraska then headed to Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning. The wind was the worst we’ve ever experienced and we came within two gallons of running out of gas. After nine hours of driving, we finally arrived at Timber Creek Campground about 30 minutes before sunset.

Timber Creek doesn’t accept reservations, so we were just happy there was a spot when we arrived. But our relief was short-lived. There was no water available; it had been turned off two days prior due to a snowstorm and was now gone for the season. So as darkness encroached, we drove back the way we had come, looking for a campground. Relief returned when we found Elk Creek—a nearby campground with full hookups.

Since the office was closed, we couldn’t speak to anyone about staying the night. So we drove around, pulled into a site that looked good, and hoped no one had reserved it. As we began setting up, our relief washed away again when I turned the water spigot and nothing came out.

“Wendy, there’s no water,” I said, as though she’d know why or what to do. Fortunately a friendly neighbor had begun chatting with her, so she was able to easily punt the question. He let us know that water was still available at the office and even offered to let us borrow his water hose. We have one though, so we thanked him then undid what we’d started and towed the trailer back down to the office. Then realized our water hose was too short to reach the spigot.

So Wendy dragged out our six-gallon water container, filled it, hefted the 48-pound jug up to the side of the trailer, and poured the water in. Then she did it again. And again. Then two more times. As darkness fell, we backed into our chosen site again and set up camp for the night. We were tired, but at least we had water.

The rest of our Rocky Mountain experience continued in a similar vein. The main road through the park wasn’t open, but at least we could drive 16 miles of it. We couldn’t reach any of the hikes we wanted to do, but at least we could walk a mile-or-so with the kids to Adams Falls. The nearest town (Grand Lake) was overpriced and underpopulated, but the next town over (Granby) was cool and super-friendly. We didn’t get to do what we wanted, but it was still a beautiful place to live for two days.

In a bout of comedic timing, we hitched up during a snowstorm that lasted about 10 minutes. It was still cold afterward, but the sky was clear and by the time we left in the morning only a hint of snowfall remained.

We left for Great Sand Dunes National Park at 9:30am and arrived around 4pm. Pinon Flats is the only campground at the park. We didn’t have reservations but figured there’d be space since it’s October.


For the first time during our trip, the CAMPGROUND FULL sign applied to us. As we rolled up to the entrance booth, we asked the attendant if she had any ideas for other places to stay. She was very helpful and directed us a few miles back the way we’d come, out of the park at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis.

And that’s where we are now, with full hookups and a great view of the dunes. We had a unique morning—one I doubt I’ll ever repeat. We waded through a shallow river with the kids and CeCe, schlepped a quarter mile through the sand, climbed a dune, then went sand sledding for the next two hours. It was awesome!

Now we’re back in the trailer. The kids are napping, Wendy’s watching a movie on the iPad, it’s a very pleasant 69 F, and the wind is gusting at 20 mph. In the morning, we’ll roll out to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We don’t have a reservation, the water may be turned off, and there’s currently a 70% chance of snow.

We’re filling up all of our water jugs this time.

Trip Report: Badlands National Park

September 28 – October 3, 2017
Cedar Pass Campground, Site #70

What do you get when more than 20 years of friendship descend on a national park? A trip to Wall Drug to mount a Jackalope, ride a bronco, and sit on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Forty-five minutes of sheer glee feeding unsalted peanuts to prairie dogs. Dressing our kids in overalls and a frock, and donning similar gear for ourselves while touring an old homestead. Several hikes—two of which Wendy and I couldn’t have done otherwise. Chicken gizzards. And a toddler seated in a South Dakota bar, so tired from the morning’s activities that he kept trying to dip a french fry in a french fry.

We started the first day at Wall Drug, which survived the Great Depression due to its great marketing and free ice water, and is now a tourist attraction with juuuuust enough kitsch to keep it entertaining. In addition to souvenir shops, there’s a giant Jackalope and bucking bronco with stairs on the side so they’re easy to sit on, a little covered wagon you can climb in, and a mechanical T-Rex that threatens to eat people every 12 minutes. We stood near it for a while so the kids could get the full effect; bad idea. They both cried, and even more so as our friend Deanne got really close to it in an effort to relay it was just a big toy.

On the way back from Wall Drug, we visited an old missile silo, then stopped at the “Ranch Store,” where pudgy little prairie dogs roam and are so accustomed to people they’ll take food right from your hand. I think Deanne may want to move there when she retires; she enjoyed it at least as much as the kids did, and they loved it. Deanne bought them peanuts and they each managed to settle themselves enough to crouch and hold the nut at arm’s length, where they were rewarded by a prairie dog gently taking it from their hand. But it was fun for them even when the prairie dogs ran away and hid in their little tunnels. Even though a couple of days have passed, Darwin’s obviously still thinking about it. She occasionally exclaims, out of the blue, “Back in hole!”

Less than half a mile down the road from the Ranch Store is a place called the Sod House. For me, it was the House of Pure Joy. So many things I like in one place: an old homestead, chickens, goats, and pioneer clothing. After paying for the self-guided tour, it was a pioneer-clothing-optional affair. But for us there was no question: it was on.

Wendy, Deanne, and our friend Michelle all adorned skirts and frocks. I chose a pair of overalls for myself and Emerson, and Darwin wore a dress that was way too long for her. Then we headed out to the homestead, periodically doubling over with laughter at the sight of ourselves. Darwin had to hold her dress up when she walked and Wendy’s get-up made her want to dance to the narration piping through the dirt-floored house we temporarily took on as our own. The place was a ghost town so we were able to take our time and a lot of pictures. My favorite is a shot of all six of us with our “it’s been a hard winter” expressions. That was the intent, anyway. As Michelle aptly pointed out, we look like serial killers.

That night at the cabin, we took hot showers, sat on comfy beds, and laughed as we played with the kids and talked about the day.

Our last couple of days with Michelle and Deanne were focused on exploring the park. We checked out several short boardwalk views and did what I would consider three hikes: the Notch, Door, and Saddle Pass trails.

We tackled the Notch and Door trails on our second day. The Notch Trail was by far my favorite, in part because we had to climb a steep ladder comprising braided cable and wooden rungs. The hike itself is only a little more than a mile long, and the terrain is unlike anything we’d seen. Walking amid the Badlands, knowing it used to be covered by water, is something I’ll never forget. After carrying the kids in our backpacks on the Notch Trail, we let them walk the mile-long Door Trail themselves. With Deanne and Michelle’s help, it was pretty easy to do. The kids stayed motivated and Emerson loved scrambling up and down the rocks.

Tired and hungry, we drove a couple of miles to the town of Interior, South Dakota and ate lunch at the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill. This is where I couldn’t resist ordering “the local favorite.” The wiser people in our party chose more predictable cuisine and weren’t disappointed. While I tried to power through the chewy, gristled deep-fried chicken gizzards, Emerson sat across the table, his eyes drifting closed as he dipped a fry in ketchup and placed it in his mouth, then repeated the process, speechless, expressionless, like a pint-sized stoner. Like any good parents, we took a video as he continued eating in this fashion, eventually choosing to dip each french fry in a fry that had fallen on the table.

Darwin has a different reaction to being tired—being wired. She interacted with everyone as she sat at the table and didn’t miss a beat. When Deanne conspicuously announced her intention to eat the last cheese ball, Darwin quickly plucked it from the greasy red-and-white paper tray with her thumb and forefinger, tilted her head back while looking Deanne in the eye, placed it in her mouth, and began chewing, slowly, eyeballing Deanne the whole time.

The next day we went on our last big hike—Saddle Pass Trail. We started off with the kids walking but soon learned that wouldn’t work. Since CeCe was in the car and the day was warming up, Wendy went ahead of us to finish the trail faster so she could get back to the car. As I was ushering Darwin up the steep trail, telling her she wasn’t tired (as if that would make it true); and Michelle and Deanne were each holding one of Emerson’s hands, hoisting him up the loose gravel since he couldn’t get his footing; Wendy returned and said she thought maybe this wasn’t actually a trail. There were no markers and she’d reached a place that was too treacherous for the kids to traverse, even if this was a trail.

After doing some research and scouting, we decided I’d take the kids back down to the car, and Wendy, Deanne, and Michelle would complete the hike. After scooting the kids back down the way we’d come, I let them play outside for a while. But the strong wind kept sweeping dust and rock bits in their faces, so we ended up hanging out in the back of the van with the hatch open. They actually had a really good time playing back there though and the time passed quickly. When everyone returned, Wendy told me how cool the hike had been and Michelle offered to do it again with me. So I had a chance to scramble up into the Badlands, slipping on the path, grabbing rocks to steady myself and climb. It was so – much – fun.

That’s really the best word to describe what Deanne and Michelle brought to this leg of our journey: Fun. Sure, there was comfort—the warmth close friends bring when they visit. There was support—figuratively and literally; Wendy and I wouldn’t have climbed the ladder at the Notch Trail if Michelle and Deanne hadn’t been there to spot us, and we probably would’ve turned back shortly after starting the Saddle Pass Trail because it would’ve been too much with the kids. There was love—I love those two women like family. There was hilarity—side-splitting laughter from unpredictable things, like a huge bee’s pursuit of Michelle along the Notch Trail, and suddenly finding ourselves exploring a homestead in frocks and overalls.

Taking this journey with my family is already better than I’d imagined. Wendy and I have grown even closer and I feel really fortunate to spend so much concentrated time with our kids. Each park has its own highlight. I’ll likely forget the details over time, but I expect I’ll always remember what a good time we had here in the Badlands.