As we made our way through Texas, near the end of our 3 month trek across the Southwest, it worked out to hang with my long time friend Kelly and her beautiful family.
Kelly and I met in 10th grade (25 years ago) when her family moved next door to mine in Blytheville, Arkansas. She only lived there for about a year and a half before her dad's work took the family to Kentucky. But looking back, that brief time together had a profound impact on my life. We spent so much time together that our classmates nicknamed us the Twin Towers since we were both tall and lanky and often walked the halls in unison between classes. We spent weekends at each other's house, learned to drive together, and had first boyfriends at the same time. So I was devastated when she moved. We stayed in close contact for several years, but time and distance played their part in muting the friendship. Thanks to Facebook, we kept in touch the last few years which led to our visit on the way through Texas.
We ate pizza and then sat in the front lawn chatting, laughing at the kids' antics, and drinking a glass of Barefoot Red Moscato (hint hint to those of you looking for future birthday and Christmas ideas for me.). It's hard to put into words, but do you know that feeling when you see your children playing happily with the children of someone you love? Is it joy that our friendship lives on in the next generation? Contentment in the longevity of relationships? A chance to reminisce of happy times? I'm not sure what it is, but I feel the same way when my kids play with my sister's kids. Having cousins is a magical relationship born of history between siblings over time. The same is true of good friendships. Watching my kids enjoy the company of Kelly's kids brought me a deep satisfaction. I know we aren't related in blood and that we don't see each other often, but it still feels like a sister/cousin kind of connection. In these types of relationships we can find, and offer, grace, forgiveness, support, encouragement, and so much more to generations beyond our own.
P.S. Did I mention how HUGE their house felt to us after living in our Airstream for 3 months?!!
This state park in Texas was quiet, comfortable, and the kids REALLY enjoyed it. I'm not sure if it was because of the excitement of dinosaur footprints or the chance to play in a shallow river, but they repeatedly said how much fun they were having. Here is a conversation that happened repeatedly in this river. Me: "Let's head back and eat some lunch." Kids: "Not yet. Pleeeease! We are having so much fun. This is the best ever."
Even the earlier trauma of getting a piece of bark in his eye while climbing a tree was forgotten at the river. Morgan was too little to walk on the mossy rocks alone, so Daddy came to her rescue walking her back and forth across the river while she explored every footprint.
When the water level is low in the summer, they say you can see the footprints better. Even though the water was up during our visit, we saw several sauropod footprints (big and round) mixed with some meat eater footprints (smaller with 3 distinct toes).
We only stayed here one night before moving on to the North Texas Airstream Community. The NTAC is both a neighborhood and a campground for Airstream owners. When we joined the Wally Byam Caravan Club (WBCCI), we got 2 free nights at this community. They have houses and villas with attached RV bays for those that want a home-base for their travels. We are too young to buy property here because you have to be at least 45. That's not too many years away, but the other stipulation is that you can't have any minor children living with you. That's quite a few years off for us. It was a great location to work for a couple days and meet other Airstream owners.
We didn't really anticipate staying anywhere uber interesting in West Texas. But, sometimes the greatest joys are when you aren't expecting it. Like a movie that you heard was good rarely lives up to the expectation, the opposite is true, too. Having no expectation or even a bad expectation is fertile ground to be pleasantly surprised. So was the case at Monahan's Sandhills State Park.
We arrived early since the night before consisted of camping in a Cracker Barrel/Walmart parking lot. This really gave us two days to work, relax, and explore since checkout wasn't until 2pm the following day. The sandhills are very similar in appearance to the White Sands of New Mexico, but instead of being white, they are tan. The campsites are actually among the dunes which provided hours of fun for the kids.
They tried to sled with a table top we had, but it didn't work very well, and they played scenes from "The Croods" over and over. This video shows the depth of the sand. Very fun to go down the hill...challenging to go up the hill.
While I was inside working, Troy was reading outside and watching the kids play. He ran inside to tell me that a man in a bear costume came by to ask him to take his picture on top of the dunes. I thought it was a joke at first and waited for the punch line, but Troy was serious. Really? A man in a bear costume came by? We were one of only half a dozen campers in the whole park. What were the odds of a man in a bear costume coming by?
We grilled salmon and asparagus on the baby Weber. Then Troy and I strapped the Jungle Gym to the shelter and got a few reps in at sunset. I love these suspension straps because they are basically a gym in a bag. They are so versatile yet so compact. Perfect for being on the road.
The rest of the stay was uneventful, but we have a new appreciation for Texas and our new fondness of state parks grew again. Through the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, it became a goal to only stay in state parks. They were proving to be hidden gems among the ordinary.
These "Giants" at Carlsbad Caverns National Park were made from tiny, continuous drops of mineral water. Over time the deposits at the bottom (stalagmites) and deposits at the top (stalagtites) met in the middle to form these impressive columns. Notice how one is smooth and seems to flow downward while the other one standing right next to it appears to be blooming and reaching upward. How unique they are even in the same environment.
As I sit here and stare at this picture knowing how they formed, I am reminded that our lives are very similar to these columns. We don't grow into who we are overnight. Instead experiences, people, events, relationships, and feelings continually shape us slowly into the person that we become. For most of us, it's hard to identify a moment that made us what we are today. Instead, like these cave deposits, every little moment builds to create the totality of us - masterpieces that could never be duplicated.
Learning to ride an old beat up yellow bicycle when I was 6, making my first best friend, roller skate dancing to "Hey Mickey" in the basement with my sister, feeling hurt when I caught a friend lie to me at the bus stop in 4th grade, getting pooped on by a bird at the same bus stop, a skinned knee in 5th grade, sitting in someone's loogie at the swimming pool in college, locking my keys in my car over and over again - these millions of tiny moments made me, me. The same is true for my kids. They probably won't even remember this 3 month trip we took the winter of 2014 or the fact that we went 75 stories down into the earth to explore Carlsbad Caverns. But the culmination of how they felt on the trip and the images burned into their little minds will still affect their future. Maybe going into Carlsbad Caverns taught them to manage fear or embrace exploration. The conversation with the park ranger giving out badges might have made an impression that smiling people are nice to be around. Mommy's fearful reaction to the drop off on the side of the road could have showed them how to offer support. It's hard to say what is "sticking" on my children, and for that matter myself and my husband, during this trip. But I think that it has created some beautiful colors, ripples, and patterns in all of our lives, not dissimilar to the giant columns above.
In an effort to bring my focus back to our day at Carlsbad Caverns, let me start by saying that this cave is known for many things, but two that were particularly interesting to us - the bat colony that flies out every night at sunset and the natural entrance into the cave. Unfortunately, we didn't get to experience either. We arrived too late to go in through the natural entrance. They close that entrance at 2pm each day. But, we were thrilled to make it with about 30 seconds to spare for the last elevator ride down to the bottom at 3:30pm. Normally the lines for the elevators are an hour or more long, but we got right on and had the cave to ourselves.
The reason we didn't get to see the bat colony at sunset is because they migrate south in the winter and don't come back until late April or May, so we were too early in the season to see them. It's hard to imagine that 400,000 bats fly out together. The person who discovered the cave noticed the "black smoke" coming out of the ground. Turns out that the "smoke" was actually bats. The ranger said that they will typically have 1000 or more people watching the bats exit the cave each evening. I bet it is a madhouse at Carlsbad in the summertime.
Despite missing those two items, we still had a great time exploring the cave and were glad we made the effort to get there. Our National Park Pass saved us the $20 entrance fee, which made the visit free which was even better.
As I reflect on how visiting Carlsbad Caverns grew me personally, I can probably identify a few things like now I know that bats migrate. I had never considered that before. But the experience more than likely contained a thousand drips of impact on me that I will never be conscious of until later, if even then, but they will still contribute to shaping me and my family into our own unique columns.
After the state park fiasco the previous night, we made a beeline for American RV Park in Albuquerque. We knew it from a previous stay. It had a playground, laundry facilities, and full hook ups. So we worked the rest of the week there before heading south through New Mexico in search of warmer weather.
VERY LARGE ARRAY
Our first stop was the VLA or Very Large Array. We first read about it on our friend's blog Man in the Maze. The name was of interest to me. Rather than National Radio Astronomy Observatory, it was named Very Large Array. Kind of nondescript, don't you agree? After having been there, though, it is a perfectly fitting name. Set in the backdrop of the high desert of New Mexico are these very large, white dish receivers that listen to outer space. There are 27 of them lined up in a huge "Y" pattern, and they are all connected to a super computer that processes and stores all the data they receive. It can do 3 billion processes per second! This pattern and collective of data from different angles creates the essence of one enormous radio antenna that can be seen from space. From the radio waves emitted by objects in space, they can create images of stars, black holes, and other galaxies.
We had the place to ourselves on a sunny, but extremely windy, day. First we watched the 20 minute documentary about the observatory - how they collect the data, move the receivers on a specialized rail system, interpret the data in conjunction with other observatories such as the Hubble telescope to "see" deep into outer space. The best part for me was getting to actually go out and see the real deal after watching the movie. It was like science class from school, but in 3D. A trail led us to one of the 27 radio antennas, and we were dwarfed by their size. We all ooohhh'd and aaaahhh'd while Morgan danced in the wind. Several movies were shot on location like one of the Terminators and Contact with Jodie Foster. We added those to our mental Netflix queue and grabbed some lunch in the Airstream.
WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
After we left the VLA, we headed southeast to White Sands National Monument. We got there just in time to pick up the Junior Ranger books for the kids before the visitor center closed. White Sands was beautiful, serene, and expansive. It also played tricks on our minds because it looked like a massive snow storm had hit the area. White sand was piled high on the sides of the road just like our roads back home after the snow plow had come by. No hats needed. No gloves. Bare feet in the soft sand were perfectly comfortable. Rolling drifts of stark white sand in the setting sun....absolutely breathtaking.
OLIVER LEE STATE PARK
We made it to Oliver Lee State Park (which is about 20 minutes from White Sands) right at dark. There was one electric site left and it happened to be a pull through, so no backing in the dark. Perfect. After getting the kids in bed, Troy and I sat outside in our lawn chairs and gazed at the stars. There was no light from a town nearby so we could see the night sky spilling over with stars of every size and brightness.
We woke to discover a mountain and canyon behind us that the Apache Indians lived in and defended aggressively. It was an ideal place to live in an area with so little rainfall each year because a stream flowed through the canyon providing both water and protection. We would have liked to have spent more time exploring; however, we wanted to get to Carlsbad Caverns before they closed at 3pm, so we decided to forgo a hike through the canyon. Even with this decision, we still got a later start than we wanted because Morgan fell down on the road and scraped the scabs from a previous fall off her knees. It was tragic. Many tears and hugs and bandages later, we were finally on our way.
The beauty of the morning and the pain of the scraped knees brought to mind a line in a song from my high school days. "Joy and pain. Sunshine and rain." These are our days. A little good mixed with a little bad adds up for some great memories, bonding, and stories.
Our time for roaming was (mostly) over. Time to turn the Gray Whale East and head toward home in Missouri. We left Escondido and opted for the northern route East on I-40. This was mainly because I had a meeting with a fitness center in Albuquerque in a couple of days, but we hadn't been on this end of I-40 before, so it seemed like an adventure. We drove further than we anticipated and got to Needles, CA which is right on the border of CA and AZ. It was a horrible stay at an older KOA. Nothing really wrong with the KOA, but the wind that night was intense. It kept us up most of the night because the Airstream felt like it would take off in flight any minute. We were reluctant to get on the road the next day, but the wind was supposed to die down, so we headed out after work. So began our not-so-happy quest for our next overnight...
Try 1: I write this with regret, as it was not our greatest hour in our camping career. It began with a late start on the road. We wanted to drive 250 miles to Meteor Crater Campground on the other side of Flagstaff, AZ. We called ahead and it seemed like a great spot for us. However, on the way, we changed our minds and decided to try to stay in a Camping World parking lot. But there was no room and we got ourselves in a tight spot. With Troy's creative backing skills, we got the Whale out in one piece.
Try 2: Next we decided to stay in a Flagstaff Walmart parking lot. It would be free and we needed groceries anyway. Turns out that Flagstaff had a city ordinance against overnight parking, so we moved back to our original plan - Meteor Crater Campground.
Try 3. We found the campground, but it was significantly later than we originally planned and the campground was locked. Big gates were at both entrances. Snap! Now what? We tried to turn around in a wide spot in the road. No luck. At 30 feet, we were too long to be agile. Surprisingly, there were no outbursts of frustration even though it was late and we were stuck in a difficult position for the second time within an hour. We finally got the Airstream pointed in the original direction down the long road toward the crater. After driving 4 miles down this dark, lonely road, straining our eyes to find a spot wide enough to turn around in, yet level enough to not scrape our dump valve, we finally found the perfect spot. Back to the highway.
Try 4. We had no choice but to drive on 20 more miles with a congested Troy and kids who were sick of the truck by now. The GPS tried to get us to Homolovi State Park via a "no access" restricted roadway. This was getting ridiculous by now, so we decided to give the Pilot gas station parking lot a try since it was so late. But it was packed. There were no big rig parking spots left. So, Troy ran in to get a drink and see if anyone knew where this state park might be. Turns out it was only one more exit down, so we hopped back in the truck and eventually found it in the dark. For $20 we got electricity and a secluded campsite near the Hopi people's tribal ruins dating back to 620 AD. Great spot, it was just soured from our difficult time getting there...the downside to waiting too late and planning too little.
We settled at Escondido RV Resort while I attended my second conference of the trip. IHRSA, the biggest fitness conference of the year, was in San Diego this year. So I spent 2 days talking fitness with the best in the industry while Troy and the kids enjoyed some of the sites in the area.
After dropping me off, they headed to La Jolla and watched the seals and their babies swimming in the low tide.
After IHRSA, I hopped on an Amtrak train and headed up the coast to Anaheim to attend my third conference of the trip. This stretch of track was thoroughly enjoyable. My first train ride was when my college roommate and I backpacked through Europe almost 20 years ago. A few years later I went back to Europe with a group of 6 friends and family and rode the train between France and Italy, but I don't remember any of those trains being this clean, spacious, and comfortable. The beauty of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean was breathtaking. It's one of the best $28 I've spent.
Troy and the kids continued their 4 day Daddy-bonding event by hanging out in Escondido for a couple days while I was at this final conference. Smart Success was a personal development event put on by Chalene Johnson. It was fun to catch up with a few friends and hear from amazing speakers like Bo Eason, pro football player and author of Runt of the Litter. His lecture alone was worth the whole trip. Basically, your story is the most powerful tool you have. What may seem ordinary and boring to you is extraordinary and incredible to others. Use your story to motivate, lead, and teach others. Being open and vulnerable is being brave. Feel, love, and take risks.
Chalene offered practical takeaways to improve focus, time management, delegation, and reverse engineering based on goals and priorities. This final event helped me gain a deeper understanding of why we are on this 3 month trip. We value time together as a family. We value new experiences because they change the way we think about ourselves and our surroundings. We are guilty of thinking inside a box, and putting others into boxes, unconsciously. When in reality, there are no limits or boundaries to what we or others can accomplish and no one's story is finished until that final breath. This trip has been a step out of our rut. And how refreshing it has been.
One of the more important things Troy and I can do for our children is to help them identify their own passions and values and pursue those. We tend to think that homeschooling is our way of customizing their educational experience to their interests and that exposing them to many people and places will help them think outside of the norm. There is wisdom and wealth to be found in simply knowing yourself. For some, this is a spiritual journey. For others it is a journey of freedom. May you always seek a deeper understanding of yourself and your world.
Silver Strands is a California State Beach. $65 for front row sites and $50 for everything else. Really it is just a parking lot at the beach with electric and water hookups. This section of beach was different than Doheny because the waves broke further out and it was a longer, slower grade into the water. At Doheny it was somewhat steep and the waves broke right at the water line which makes more drastic changes in water depth right at the edge. With a 3 year old, I prefer the longer, shallower beach.
The one thing about camping at Silver Strands that didn't sit well with us was the curfew. They lock the gate to the park at 8pm and reopen it at 8am. If you miss the curfew, you have to park your car outside the gate and walk a mile in to the campground. Not ideal for exploring or even going out to dinner.
Silas was quite the scavenger at this beach. First he found an old harness that had washed up. It had been out in the ocean long enough to have barnacles growing on all the buckles, so we had fun imagining who wore it, how it got lost at sea. We finally decided that it was from a shipwreck and someone probably died wearing it.
The next thing Silas found was a rock with seaweed growing on it. It was anchored so tight that this rock could be lifted and used as a catapult by holding onto the seaweed. We were all impressed with the strength of the plant.
Overall, we are glad we stayed at Silver Strands, but I'm not sure we would go back.
Never say never. We passed on this campground earlier in the week because is was $35 for no hook ups which seemed like a ripoff. But now we really wanted to be by the beach, so we gave it a try on our way out of Anaheim. Doheny is at Dana Point which is known for whale watching. We didn't see any, but we did enjoy the beach, playground with an ocean view, and the harbor.
I worked at a local Starbucks that was across the street from the San Juan Capistrano Mission. It was established in the late 1700's, but is known for the swallows that migrate from Argentina and arrive on the same day each year.
The sunsets at Doheny were the best. We stayed 2 nights until our battery power was getting low, so we headed south toward San Diego...for the third time this trip.
Goosebumps. That is the feeling I had walking onto the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim. We had re-arranged our trip so I could help my co-worker work our Natural Fitness yoga products booth for this expo. Troy and the kids dropped me off at the Anaheim Convention Center and headed to the beach for the day. The first thing I saw as I walked toward the vendor hall was an Airstream. Huh? No way! It was a classic model all shined up and sporting the Chia Co logo. As I walked by they offered me a Chia Pod. It was heated up berries, oats, and chia seeds. Yumm!
The second thing I saw was another Airstream! Huh? No way! This one was promoting another company but was a new model Airstream that they had rented for the event. The renter even put their graphics on it just for this event. All I could see were dollar signs. They didn't give me any free food, but I still posed for a picture in front of it.
Once I got inside, I realized that this was at least 4 times bigger than any fitness conference I've ever attended. The line to get my badge was seriously about a 1/4 mile long. Thankfully I had the free Chia Pod to occupy me in line.
Since I was in our Natural Fitness booth most of the time, I probably only got to see about 4 rows of vendors, but I could have spent all day just on 1 floor and there were 3 floors! Everything you can imagine from natural supplements, clothing, energy bars/drinks, candles, toothpaste, baby food, and much more. For lunch, I simply walked down a few aisles and collected free food. Chobani plain greek yogurt with granola and honey on top was my favorite. The Bare coconut chips were a close second. But the kale dips with different flavorings on them were a dud. (I like mine better.) And winner of the best name was the flax seed cracker...Flackers.
We left San Diego in the rain and headed north along the coast toward LA. Although Silas said that he recognized the area, this was new territory for all of us. It was a short day of driving, but a rest area along the way still provided a pleasant view, a snail to build a home for, and a race track for Morgan and Daddy.
Our first attempt at camping was in Doheny State Beach, Dana Point. However, we left after we found out that sites are $35 for no hookups. No thank you. Our next stop was Orangeland in Anaheim. They had the worst customer service at the front desk and their pool was out of service for the week. No thank you, again. We finally settled on Anaheim RV Park. Great customer service, great site, close to my conference later in the week, and their pool worked. The best part was that in the midst of all the uncertainty and changed plans, Troy and I were calm, cool, and collected. We actually went with the flow today without any ruffled feathers. Maybe we are starting to get the hang of this.
After settling in, we used our new baby Weber grill for the first time. It worked like a dream and kept the heat and mess out of the trailer. Troy fired it up, threw on the chicken, and voila!, done by the time my biscuits were ready. Later in the evening, we watched the Oscars. This is something we've done before, but this year it was different. I don't know why it mattered, but knowing that the Oscars were actually happening, live, not far from where we were camping made the actors seem more like real people. The night ended with fireworks from Disneyland. Our campground is so close that we felt like we had a private viewing, so we got the kids out of their bunks to watch the fireworks outside. On that note, we are not going to Disneyland while we are here. As much as we wish we were on a perpetual vacation, we aren't. Most days are simply work, homeschooling, laundry, and legos. We did make it to Downtown Disney, though, for a visit to Jamba Juice and the Lego Store.
My name is Stevyn. I am a wife, mother, and exercise physiologist with one foot in the world of travel and one foot in the world of fitness. Learn more about me here.
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