Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Parks have personalities -- Part Two

In the National Parks-are-a-family metaphor I'm cheerfully beating to death, Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is the happy, lovable, affable youngest child. (I am in no way influenced by the fact I'm a youngest child when deciding which traits youngest children embody.)

Actually, maybe Capitol Reef is more like your favorite cheerful stoner uncle, the one who dropped out of college to travel the world, surf, play in a band, and now lives in a self-built tiny home in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Everyone in the family chuckles with deep affection when Capitol Reef arrives wearing flip flops in winter, guitar slung over his back, and announces he's late because he was handing out free hugs in front of the 7-Eleven down the street.

Capitol Reef (as a park, I'm now ditching the uncle bit) is laid back, casual, not crowded at all.  It's not just about gorgeous scenery and interesting geology, it's all about the people, man.  Native Americans hammered petroglyphs high into the red cliffs and then, much much later, the first permanent settlers wandered into the area and decided to set up camp.

They were certain they'd found a slice of heaven. I agree with them on that, so much so I've developed a new life aspiration -- I want to be a settler.

I manhandled the Winnie B all over the Western United States
so I could certainly drive that

There were only about ten families who lived in the area at any given time, though granted they were Mormon so those were probably really big families. I wonder if living in such a small community made dating easier?  Since there were only about a dozen or so young people from whom to choose a partner, it seems it would take a lot of bellyaching out of the thing.  It would be less, "I don't feel he truly understands my inner being" and more, "Well, I guess I'll take Ephraim over there, he doesn't look too bad and he plays a nice fiddle."

Some of the pioneer homes still exist, the one-room school house still stands and a charming old barn still houses horses -- the two there now are named Mud and Egg and they help the rangers with backcountry rescue, which we thankfully did not need.  The many orchards the settlers planted are still bearing fruit over one hundred years later. You can pick all you want for a buck per pound.

the schoolhouse

The orchard next to the campsite was heavy with apricots.  Fallen apricots littered the ground so your feet made a squish squish sound as you walked through.  Red-orange juice squirted all over your ankles and up your legs.  By the time you finished, it looked like you had trampled many small animals to death.  Small, round, delicious, fruity animals.

Just beyond the orchard was Gifford House, one of the settler homes that has been turned into a shop that sells bread, pies, and cinnamon rolls the way the pioneers used to make them.  I may have sent the kids over there with a fistful of dollars a few times so hello, extra body weight, welcome to me.

It's OK, I'll need the extra weight to weather the harsh winters as a future settler, and will no doubt work it off come harvest time.  Until then, I await Ephraim's return from the North.  Dude's been gone for two months, he better return with chocolate.

Hearts were heavy as we left Capitol Reef.  It was a slice of heaven indeed.  Hey, we were wondering, can you live in a national park?  We may try.  We'll be the ones rustling in the bushes next to the cinnamon roll place.

Coco now smells like apricots all the time. It was an unexpected souvenir. She is a living breathing Strawberry Shortcake doll thanks to the apricot guts permanently encrusted between the textured ridges of her sandal soles.

The next park was Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado.  Black Canyon needs to chill the hell out.  Black Canyon is that person at the party in the corner wearing all black, talking about meaningless life and occasionally whispering Marilyn Manson lyrics to themselves while staring at a spot somewhere just over your head.

This thing exists only to scare people.  Black Canyon is a slit in the earth, a hole so deep with sheer charcoal gray cliff walls, you cannot see the bottom at many of the viewpoints. The silence is eerie though every once in awhile you catch the sound of the river rushing through the bottom of it, the river that continues to shape it today.  We do not need a deeper scarier Black Canyon so knock it off, river.

I went to Black Canyon as a younger person with my family and don't remember feeling afraid.  I thought it was cool.  But this time, my heart stopped a half dozen times, usually when I saw Coco climb on the first rung of the bolted steel railing around the viewpoint to "get a better look."  I may have yelled at her a bit too harshly because Alex claims my eyes bugged out of my head.

Alex wasn't much help, either.  The darkness and sheerness of the canyon rattled him as much as it mesmerized him.  He's not a phobia kind of guy but as we perched on one seemingly fragile overlook, Alex began half-yelling, "OH my God, is this thing shaking?  Is it shaking?  I think I feel it shaking" so we grabbed the kids by the backs of their shirts and hauled them back to safety as they said, "Guys? What are you doing?"

What are we doing?  We're saving your lives, suckers!

We used to be fearless.  Now we're parents.  

I guess we were all a little on edge at Black Canyon.  When we first entered the park, the ranger gave us a flyer warning of aggressive deer near our campsite.  Many baby deer had recently been born so the mamas were, much like us, startling easy and not keeping their cool.  We hear you, deer mamas, Black Canyon is a tough place to have kids.

Lucien took the deer warning to heart.  Probably too much.  We explained to him it just meant not to approach deer, to give them a ton of space because they were feeling a little defensive.  But each time Lucien glimpsed one (and there were many in the area) he yelled, "You guys, run, RUN, get inside, it's a deer, it's a deer!" in such a panic you'd think he'd spotted a hungry grizzly bear barreling towards the Winnie B.  

We did see some bighorn sheep on the side of the canyon walls, which was pretty cool, but overall Black Canyon is not a park I care to revisit anytime soon.  Black Canyon is intense. That park has got to chill.  Someone spark that park a doobie or slip it a Valium.  It's too dark, brooding, silent and it has killer deer.

The drive from Black Canyon to our next destination -- my mom and dad's house, I'm comin' home, mama -- was through many hills.  Hills are hard on an RV.  Hills are also hard on any cars stuck behind an RV.

I grit my teeth as cars pile up behind me. This is why RV owners wave at each other on the road.  We are each others people, must stick together and support each other as we piss off cars by going 30mph on a 55mph road.  We'd go faster if we could, I swear.

Alex and I have taken to quacking at RVs coming the opposite direction because RVs often resemble a mama duck with a string of impatient ducklings trailing along behind her.

I've got a third and final installation of the neverending road trip tale. I hope I write it someday because it involves my extended family throwing water balloons at each other.  But for now, we're off on another vacation, this one to a country where I don't speak the language and will be often alone with our kids because Alex is going for work and we're tagging along.  I'm sure everything will be fine and if it's not "fine," I hope it's at least funny.

We're going to end this with Coco being awesome
in a place I'm hellbent on settling even though it's already settled.
Don't ever give up on your dreams.

Quack quack,

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The parks have personalities -- Part One

We're back from Road Trip 2016 and much to Alex's relief, I did not bring home another dog this year.

This is where I go when I've done something bad
 They can't see me here ha ha ha.

Life post-road trip is a bit dull.  I've returned to sweeping up dog hair twice a day, to paying bills, to getting the kids where they need to be, to fearing the garbage disposal. That last one has been my truth for years. I wince every time I hit the switch for the disposal, brace myself for the sound of crusher blades on silver heirloom spoon or whatever else has had the misfortune of falling down there.

Sometimes I stick my hand down in before turning it on to make sure nothing lies in its bowels. Those are tense moments. I cringe, convinced the blades are about to spring to life by themselves and pulverize my hand.  Alex has observed my disposal song and dance many times and often comments on my contorted facial expressions; he has rightfully observed the appliance appears to cause me great anguish.

Here's Lucien as Donald Trump.
Can't unsee that.

We left on our road trip the morning after Lucien's guitar camp performance. Lucien brought down the house with a Justin Bieber parody he wrote about Justin Bieber being in love with a potato.

There was a five-year-old boy named Ziggy also enrolled in summer guitar camp.  Ziggy enjoyed doing his own thing; he liked to wander off stage suddenly or stop playing his guitar in the middle of a song to have a good look at the ceiling for a few minutes.

Ziggy did a solo.  He stood center stage, stared at the floor and played the same chord softly and repeatedly for twenty seconds or so.  He stopped mid strum and walked off to do whatever. The camp director jumped onstage and said, "And that was Ziggy performing a tribute to the great state of Ohio!"

My sister, Auntie Raba, attended the recital, too.  Upon the conclusion of Ziggy's tribute to the great state of Ohio, Raba and I were hopelessly overcome by the giggles. We laughed as silently as we could, tried so hard to stop but could not get our shit together.  The giggles got worse every time Ziggy moseyed up the aisle past our seats, hands in his pockets, as camp counselors fruitlessly called for him up on stage. I couldn't look at Raba for the rest of the recital for fear of snorting aloud.

We kissed our menagerie of animals goodbye early the next morning and hopped into the Winnebago. The road trip plan was ambitious this year: nine states, eight national parks and over 4000 miles to travel in 16 days.  It didn't start out so jam packed.  The problem with planning these trips is there is too much to do in the areas we're visiting.  I think, "Well, if we're already there, we should go see THAT and then if we're near there we should see THAT and do THAT and then of course THAT THAT THAT THAT."

Our itinerary grows more and more dense and soon allows only a handful of minutes at each place. Then Alex is over my shoulder giving me the stinkeye and telling me my plans are "not very relaxing."  

I never know where to stop, likely because I long to never stop at all.

We did not tire of national parks even after eight of them back-to-back.  It was the opposite. They were fascinating and only grew more so.  Each one had its own flavor, its own personality.  The vibes were different, the visitors different, the landscapes and light and colors different.  Most of them were so wild and surreal, it didn't feel like visiting eight different national parks; it was more like visiting eight different planets.

We take national parks very seriously

Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California was our first stop.  Lassen is beautiful but not in a jaw-dropping kind of way.  It has interesting geology (four different types of volcanoes in one place, sweet) but doesn't blow your mind. It's a lesser Yellowstone with some active geothermal features on a much smaller scale. It has an edge but stops short of being scary.

Me and Ms. Cokes hanging in front of a bubbling mudpot.

If all the national parks were a family, Lassen is the stereotypical eldest child.  It's responsible, solid, dependable, does what it's supposed to do without being flashy. It's a straight-A student, a class president, is likable but doesn't push boundaries. You'll walk away wishing Lassen would let loose just a tad, show you some crazy, dance on a table sometime.

We were at Lassen over the Fourth of July holiday weekend so were far from alone.  It was crowded with people darting everywhere and parking spots parked several cars deep. We couldn't pull over at most of the popular viewpoints so had to settle for the B-and-C list viewpoints.  Instead of an impressive cascading waterfall, we pondered a large rock.

Driving a motorhome is a bit like being a turtle.  Your house is on your back.  It's convenient to have your dental floss at the ready when you need it (and you never forget your sunscreen or bug spray) but it's also cumbersome to carry everything you have around with you.  You're big, bulky, not very agile.  If there's no room for you at the park viewpoints, well, there's no room.  You're a house and can't exactly squeeze in.

We did nudge a few people aside to visit this slushy lake

Lucien bullshitted his way to junior ranger status at Lassen.  The junior ranger programs at the national parks are on point; kids collect a booklet at the visitor center and complete the park-related activities inside.  They learn about conservation and recycling and how to act responsibly around wildlife. They then turn the booklet back in, answer a few questions posed by a ranger and raise their right hands to pledge to take care of the national parks and remain curious about the natural world. They receive a plastic badge and a handshake for their efforts.

Lucien, however, found a way around the system, as I fear Lucien will always do.  He half-assed his Lassen badge.  When the ranger asked, "What are two things you learned at our roadside exhibits?" Lucien responded, "I saw two deer."  Alex and I glanced at each other -- not only was seeing two deer not in any way related to Lassen's roadside exhibits, but as far as we knew he hadn't even seen two deer at all.

I'm watching you, kid.
Don't lie to the national parks.
We take the national parks very seriously.

After Lassen, we drove straight into the middle of Nevada.  Our route took us across the state on Highway 50, which is known as "the loneliest road in America."  It's an appropriate label.  We didn't see anyone in either direction for well over 200 miles.

For me, it was heaven, a road to myself and scenery on all sides. For Al, it was nerve wracking and he got antsy.  That's the difference between an introvert and an extrovert on a roadtrip; when it gets remote, the introvert goes warm and cozy but the extrovert worries there's no one to talk to.

She shares my intense love of being in the middle of Nevada while wearing hilarious glasses.

I mentioned in my last post my apprehension about having Alex along this year. The kids and I have a well established routine on these trips and I was concerned Al was going to unknowingly cramp my style.  My worrying was for naught.  My Al was a perfect traveling companion, a co-pilot to my pilot, a cheerful lunch-maker and podcast-finder as I stepped on the gas and covered major ground.

The only annoying part was he kept saying somberly, "MJ, I feel we're at a crossroads...." every single time our rural highway intersected another rural highway.  It was funny the first time but got old fast.

The second park was Great Basin National Park in middle-of-nowhere Nevada.  If we're still sticking with the family metaphor, Great Basin is the middle child with a hefty case of middle child syndrome. Every ranger with whom we chatted mentioned (with a sniff) that Great Basin is the least visited park in the U.S. national park system.  Great Basin is trying to get noticed but its placement in the world is making it hard.

Our park campsite was dotted with prickly plants and strange bugs.  Lucien shoved Coco ahead of him as they set about exploring the tall brush around the campground.  I hollered, "Lucien, stop making your little sister go ahead of you all the time!" and he responded, "Well, in my defense, if someone's gonna fall on a cactus, it's gonna be her."

Al wanted to eat dinner in the tiny town at the park's entrance that night.  He was insanely curious about it. Who lived in a town three blocks long, with no other towns around for a hundred miles?

We first stopped at the "grocery store" to stock up.  There were only three aisles in the grocery store so it was a quick trip, made even quicker by Alex continually whispering in my ear, "She scares me" about the woman standing behind the checkout counter. The woman never said a word to us but watched us the entire time with charcoal-rimmed eyes.

The restaurant across the street was called The Electrolux and featured several vintage Electrolux vacuum cleaners hanging from the ceiling.  It was a cute place, quirky but warm and brightly colored. A gruff older man welcomed us, seated us, handed us menus.  He took our drink order.  I wanted a beer so he handed me a bottle opener and directed me to a fridge in the back to choose and open my own.  I really liked that, made me feel at home.

Alex ordered a cocktail so the man walked behind the bar and made him a drink.  I jokingly said to Al, "Is this guy gonna make our food, too?" just before he took our order, walked into the kitchen and began cracking open cans.  Yes, he made our food, too.  And it was awful.

Bad food aside, we liked him so much.  His no nonsense, no apologies, no frills self was refreshing in its honesty.  The guy is just doing his thing all alone in the middle of nowhere in his vacuum cleaner restaurant.

Great Basin National Park is certified by the Dark Sky Association.  There's no light from civilization to interfere so the stars are brilliant come nighttime. It's mind blowing how many there are up there, who knew?

We attended the Great Basin astronomy program after dinner where we viewed powerful things through telescopes the size of Lucien's body.  The astronomers showed us Jupiter and its four moons, Saturn and its rings, the M13 star cluster, and the something-something nebula (it was very very late by then so the details got fuzzy) imploding on itself or whatever.

When we returned to camp after astronomy, we laid on the picnic table at our campsite and stared up into the sky.  We saw a handful of shooting stars. which made Coco squeeze me and say, "I saw my first shooting star here, Mom!  I'm never, ever gonna forget that!!"

I smiled and thought, "Girl, you're six years old.  It's very likely you're going to forget it, and soon, but I love your optimism."

The Lehman Cave tour is the star attraction of Great Basin and worth every minute and every dollar, even if you're a semi-basketcase claustrophobe like me.  Trust it, you'll be so entranced by the caves you'll forget you're stuck under the ground in a suffocating hellhole with no obvious escape route.

You're a weirdo, Great Basin, but we like you.

Our third park was Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.  If Lassen is the oldest child being solid and dependable and Great Basin is the middle child with an inferiority complex, Bryce Canyon is their snobby popular neighbor -- male or female, it doesn't matter, it just knows it's better than you.

Bryce Canyon is more stunning than you can imagine but it knows it's more stunning than you can imagine.  Its admirers are numerous; there are people hanging all over it despite its $30 entrance fee, one of the highest in the national park system.  Posted warnings about full parking and overflow lots and crowded trails are in your face before you've even passed the entrance.

Bryce Canyon doesn't have to work hard for its visitors. Its importance is unquestioned, its beauty unparalleled.  It's impeccably maintained.  Everyone wants to be enveloped by its particular brand of special and hugged by its hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon, you preening snobby gorgeous bitch.

The hike we did was nearly four miles.  It's the longest hike Coco and The Loosh have ever done yet there was no complaining.  That's the magic of Bryce.  When even a six-year-old says, "Daaaamn, this place is amazeballs," you know you've found a natural winner.

Even if you are far from the only one who knows it.

I've got three parks down out of eight.  Well shit.  I thought this would be one post but I can't do that to anyone tenacious enough to still be reading.  I had no idea I had this much to say.  But I guess I can be quite wordy.

Oldest sibling and middle sibling and snobby neighbor down.
Other characters to follow.

Friday, July 1, 2016

It's the most wonderful time of the year

We're off.  We are leaving our menagerie to our good friends and trusty pet/housesitters (good luck with Natani, guys, and sorry) and hitting the road.

she is up to no good
and has recently decided carpet is the same thing as grass
so an appropriate place to pee.
We have agreed to disagree on that one.

Alex is coming along on the Mother/Children Road Trip this year. I think he feels the need to keep an eye on me, make sure I don't bring home another dog.  I wonder if he's going to cramp my style.  He better not demand I find a Starbucks in the middle of the Tetons like he did a few years ago.  If he pulls that crap, I am making that man walk home. I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR.

The trip is long and winding through the Western U.S. as always, only this time I will have a co-pilot who is going to make progress challenging with his requests to stop every twenty minutes to "just have a look around." He is the king of turning a 12-hour drive into a 24-hour drive.

Forgive my Alex anxiety.  Alex is my life partner, my companion on the journey, and I love him.  But since I've usually done this trip with just the kids, and we have a well established system and agreed upon ways of doing things (such as taking puppies out of deserts) I'm a bit wary.  I keep saying things like, "You understand we wake up every morning before sunrise because our favorite rides happen at sunrise, yeah?" and he responds, "OK, just as long as we can sleep in!" I don't think he's hearing me.

The road trip is my baby and, sadly, Alex is not its daddy.

In other news, the school year finally ended.  Welcome to the End of School Year Paper Explosion --

I don't like the day the teachers tell the kids to clean out their desks and take it all home to mom. Trust it, mom doesn't want it.  That recycle bin is looking awfully lonely in that classroom corner, though.

There's a giant Dora doll in the picture.  Lucien's class had pajama day during the last week of school and were told they could bring in their favorite stuffie to complete the look.  Lucien doesn't have a favorite stuffie anymore so instead dug through Coco's toys to find "something funny."  He chose giant Dora and carried her under his arm all day at school.  He got the laughs he was looking for.

In scary news, Dora had an accident later that day when she apparently fell down the stairs while home alone.  I found her like this.  She's going to be OK, thankfully I got there in the nick of time.

So we'll be gone for awhile.  Maybe I'll update this blog along the way.  I hope so.  Road Trips are always such interesting things -- and now I'll have the added excitement of fighting with Alex over the radio knobs.

Apologies for this brief post.  I wish I had more time to spend on it but that RV isn't going to clean and pack itself.  I would have paid a bazillion more dollars for one that did.

Good luck with all our crazy animals, friends.