Table for One: my solo adventure to the North Shore.

“There’s nothing like returning to a place that’s unchanged to find ways in which you yourself have changed.”  

                                                Nelson Mandela

 

Friday: the day before

Just finished packing the car with everything I’ll need for my drive to Minnesota.  Besides clothes and toiletries, I’ve packed work essentials, my sewing machine,  coffee grinder, Bonavita coffee maker, and some grocery goods to get me started on my solo adventure to the North Shore.  Since I’m pretty particular about eggs and coffee creamer, I bought a Yeti cooler in the hopes of being able to refrigerate these items during transport.  Crossing my fingers this cooler is as good as they say it is!

My phone has three audiobooks downloaded, and I’m packing my lunch so I don’t have to drive thru for fast food.  (It’s official.  I’ve turned into my parents!)

The drive to Two Harbors, Minnesota is about 16 hours.  I’ll be heading out around eight o’clock tomorrow morning, and driving all the way to Des Moines, Iowa– roughly eleven hours, not counting stops.  On Sunday I’ll only have about five hours left, and I know I’ll be glad that I got as far as I did, rather than dividing the drive time evenly between two days.

Screen Shot 2020-06-05 at 4.49.12 PM

I’m off to finish up some last minute chores before I focus on spending time with my family.  I won’t see the kiddos for about three weeks, so I’m going to soak up every moment I can tonight…assuming they are in the mood for it because #teenagers.  Haha!

 

Saturday and Sunday: travel days

The drive from the Dallas area to Two Harbors, Minnesota is a little over 16 hours.  I borrowed four audiobooks to make the trip a little less mundane, and this is my strongest recommendation for solo road trips!  Audiobooks make the time fly by.

I backed out of my driveway at 7:30 AM on Saturday, drove through Starbucks and hit I35 going North before the roads got busy.  My only stops along the way were for food and gas, and I pulled into Johnson, Iowa right at 7:00 PM.  I had booked a room at Stoney Creek Hotel for a very reasonable price, and was really pleased with my accommodations.  The room had a small fridge with a freezer, microwave, K-cup coffee maker and was really spacious and clean.  Hotel staff were helpful, and suggested B-Bop’s as a tasty option for some fast food.  I absolutely recommend the Sloppy Joe sliders!  So.  Delicious.

Early Sunday, I got up, packed my things and loaded up the car.  Before I left the hotel, I checked the Yeti, so see if I needed to refresh the ice, and I did not.  Really only about a fourth of the ice had melted, so I was feeling pretty good about my Yeti purchase.

If Iowa is where the beauty kicks in on the drive, Minnesota seals the deal.  Beautiful woods and lakes line the highway, and about every third car has kayaks or a canoe strapped to its top.

49C06B5D-BCDF-437D-9A02-29EF18EDB30A_1_201_a

So I have to tell you that Duluth blew my mind.  I came over the hill, and couldn’t figure out what I was looking at, with the city stretched out in front of me.  Large areas of brown, flecked with white, oozed out into the city, and it all looked like it was moving.  Turns out, it was Lake Superior, with white capped waves, undulating along the city’s edge.  I didn’t remember the lake being so reddish brown, and I’m curious enough to want to find out why that part of the lake is a different color from the rest of it.

Getting settled in my AirBnB took a while, since I brought so much with me.  When I finally unpacked the Yeti, only about about a third of the ice had melted!  Color me impressed.  Very impressed.

When I was just about finished getting set up, I called in an order to Betty’s Pies for dinner, and drove the eight minutes to pick it up.   I hadn’t eaten a lot the last two days, so the hearty meat and potato pasty with gravy and coleslaw really hit the spot.  Of course I ordered a slice of pie, and in honor of my arrival to Minnesota, I choose blueberry.

img_20200607_175216860

 

Monday and Tuesday:

I spent most of the day on Monday looking at houses, and getting to know the town of Two Harbors.  Our realtor set up appointments to see all of the houses that fit our parameters, and two are possible retirement homes.

Afterward, I drove down to the lake and took a walk out to the lighthouse.  The sun was out but the wind was chilly- glad I had a sweatshirt.  The shore along the bay is rocky, and I picked my way out to a washed-up log to sit and watch the water.

 

There is only one grocery store in Two Harbors, and it carries just about everything our grocery store at home does.  I ran through and grabbed some necessities, and ended up staying in for dinner.

Tuesday morning I had a bit of work to do before lunch, but as soon as I was done,   I headed over to Vanilla Bean.  Since restaurants are still closed to dine in, I scored a table on the patio, and ordered a mimosa straight away.  Their menu is amazing, and it was hard to choose, but I settled on a cup of chicken and wild rice soup, and the haddock cakes.  Everything was absolutely delicious.

img_20200609_130940618_hdr

Feeling fortified, I went back to the house and packed a small backpack for a hike at Gooseberry Falls.  About an hour later, I drove North out of town on Highway 61 to Gooseberry Falls State Park.

 

img_20200609_143454356img_20200609_144211246

 

Wednesday:

I’ve settled into a routine; working in the morning, going out to grab a bite for lunch, and exploring this wonderful town in the afternoon.   It was cloudy this morning, but lucky for me, the sun broke through around 2, and the day warmed up.

Two Harbors has huge ore docks where enormous barges are loaded up with iron ore to carry across the lake.  The docks are really interesting to look at, and it’s neat to see the barges maneuver into the bay and up to the docks to be loaded.  Here’s a video showing that process.

One of the things I really like about this town is that thee are quite a few places to walk around along the water.  I parked by the ore docks and walked toward the lighthouse. Along the way, I saw several families of Canada geese swimming around with their goslings.  So cute.

img_20200610_164926828

Getting outside for a walk and some fresh air is a great way to spend a couple of hours.  As I was walking back to my car, it began to rain big, fat raindrops so I drove home to curl up with a cup of coffee and a good book.

Thursday:

I worked most of the morning, and by 11:30 I was hungry for lunch.  Blackwoods is right along the main drag of Two Harbors, so I thought I would give it a try.  Since it was mostly sunny, I decided to ask for a table on the patio, even though it was a tad windy.  I ordered the chicken pot pie, which they make from scratch, and it was dee-li-cious!

img_20200611_114849906_hdr

 When we were in Two Harbors five years ago, we took a day trip to Ely, Minnesota.  Along the way we saw a beautiful little lake, and I set out today to find it again.  I drove along, following the same drive we made before, looking for the turn out to the lake we saw.  About six minutes after entering an old growth forest, I saw a dirt road that ended in a flash of water.  After making a U-turn, I drove down the dirt road to the edge of a good size Minnesota lake.

The lake was desolate, and the only sounds were the lapping of the waves, the creak of the dock, and an occasional bird.  I stayed for quite a while, reading in the warm sun.  With all that has gone on the last three months, it’s been a gift to be able to pause and follow the gentle meander of hours and thoughts I have when I’m not going at  break-neck speed.   (I think it’s Greenwood Lake, but can’t be sure.)

I took a walk through the woods around the lake to stretch my legs before packing up my  cooler and backpack and heading back to Two Harbors.

Friday:

Today is my last day alone in Two Harbors, so I decided to do minimal work and spend most of the day outside.  I started my day driving North on 61 to Beaver Bay.  For lunch I had fish and chips at Camp 61, and prowled around a few of the shops nearby.  After a bit, I jumped back in the car and headed south to West Split Rock River, where I climbed down the hill to walk along the rocky beach.  It’s a really beautiful area, and while I was there, I saw a bald eagle soar across the valley and into the trees.

All of the sun and fresh air made me hungry, so I stopped by Do North Pizza for dinner.  They were not serving dine-in, so I got my everything pizza (minus the cheese because I’m just that odd) to go.  The crust was thin and crispy, and with all of the delicious toppings, I was in pizza heaven!

It was a glorious day, and I enjoyed every moment by the water.  If I had doubts about buying a home here for retirement, they are evaporated.  The people of Minnesota are warm and friendly, with a direct and no-nonsense manner that I find so endearing.  I would be so lucky to call this place my home.

Redwood National Park

I’m going to reign it in and try not to sound too “gushy,” but y’all.  Redwood National Park is DREAMY.  And if you think it’s just more big trees, and not worth the epic effort it takes to drive all. the. way. up to far Northern California (almost Oregon) I have to tell you that it’s 100% worth it!

One of the really different things about this national park is that it sits along the interstate highway, and therefore really easy to pop in and out of for a hike.  But also different, and not in a good way, is that there are exactly zero places to eat in the park.  This means you have to plan ahead and bring food with you, or plan to take about a 30-45 minute drive for lunch.

While visiting Redwood National Park, we stayed in an AirBnB near McKinleyville.   It was a comfortable place to call home, and convenient for getting on and off the highway.

Screen Shot 2019-08-07 at 10.42.59 AM

Just north of McKinleyville is Trinidad, a charming little village by the sea.  We found wonderful places to eat there, and enjoyed prowling around and peeking in shops.  (Seascape Restaurant had delicious fish and chips, and Beachcomber Cafe was a great place to buy sandwiches for lunch in the park.)

The first hike we did in Redwood National Forest was an easy 1.5 mile walk to Lady Bird Johnson Grove.  The road up to the trailhead is quite bumpy and narrow, but there was plenty of parking and the trail wasn’t overly crowded.  I easily did the hike in my Chaco’s; the trail is wide and smooth, with the odd root here and there.  There are inclines, which make the trail inaccessible to wheelchairs, but I didn’t find them too strenuous.

Our hike through Lady Bird Johnson Grove took us under an hour, but it was the perfect introduction to Redwood National Park.

Early the next morning, we drove up into the park, in hopes of seeing wildlife along the way.  We were not disappointed.

We arrived at the Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center early and found a shaded spot to park.  (Since we visited in summer, we preferred returning to a car that was moderately warm instead of blazing hot after a day of hiking.)  We popped into the visitors center and had a long talk with a ranger about our plan for the day.  I really recommend ALL hikers stick around for that conversation, since trails can be tricky to navigate.  (See one of my other posts: Hike Like a Lady for additional tips.)

Our hike took us from Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center through some of the most beautiful forest we had ever seen.  It looked almost prehistoric and untouched, even though we were walking on a man-made trail.

img_20190618_102515072

Shafts of light streak through the canopy, and the cool air seems to blanket the forest in complete silence.  The only sounds we heard were birds fluttering in the undergrowth.  Many times we stopped along the way just to take in the awesome beauty of that place.

img_20190618_101323676

The beginning of the trail includes a bridge with lookouts, but truly it got even better once we passed all of the obvious visitor spots.

I think most people must take a short walk into the forest, turn around and go back to the visitor’s center, but we continued on into the quiet and solitude.

 

The path throughout was fairly level and wide.  There were some narrow places, but all in all I would say the trail to the Corkscrew Tree is an easy one to hike.  Filling a backpack with water and snacks allowed us the opportunity to go slowly and relish each moment as we were not in a hurry to finish before lunch.

img_20190618_101208424

 

The Corkscrew Tree is exactly what you think it is…but it was impressive none the less.

We continued on, crossing the main road to the other side where we saw Big Tree.

This hike took us all morning and into the early afternoon.  After the coolness of the morning burned off, we were glad we made an early start, because it did get rather warm.  As we stepped off the trail by Prairie Creek Visitor’s Center, we were surprised by how full and busy the place was.  Cars, vans and buses were moving through the parking lot, and crowds of people with cameras to their eye were milling about.  We gave up our shaded parking spot to a happy family and drove south to our AirBnB for a nap.

One could spend weeks in Redwood National Park, exploring all the trails.  We absolutely plan on returning, but this trip only gave us two and a half days to get to know this jewel of a National Park.  It’s out of the way, and seemingly benign as it sits along the highway, but step onto a trail, and you’ll be drawn into it’s wild beauty!

 

 

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

My husband absolutely loves the national parks!  As a child, his family drove all over this beautiful country in a retrofitted school bus, and visited as many national parks as time and budget would allow.  When Mark was a young man, he dreamed of becoming a park ranger, and we were so excited to find out that it’s still a possibility once we are both retired!  Now, we have hopes to visit all but the most remote national parks over the next ten years.

If you are looking for a clever way to keep track of the national parks you’ve visited, let me direct you to WayPoint Wanders.  I purchased this amazing scratch-off National Parks Bucketlist poster for Mark, and it was his favorite Father’s Day gift!  It’s not only a beautiful piece of art for our wall, but a wonderful way to showcase our goal to visit all 58 national parks.

img_20190701_094313487-2

(I took the poster to Hobby Lobby, and asked them to mount it on foam board– which they did while I waited.  Then, I purchased an “off the rack” black frame, and voila!  We were ready to start scratching!!)

One of the lesser-known national parks is Lassen Volcanic National Park.  It’s located in northeast California, about an hour and a half east of Redding.  Lassen Peak Volcano is the show-stopper, and it was still mostly snow-covered when we were there in mid-June.

DSC_0088 

 

The last eruption of Lassen Peak was in 1917, although the largest eruption was in May, 2015.  During this eruption event, ash was spread almost 300 miles away, and chunks of glowing lava could be seen tumbling down the side of the volcano in towns 20 miles away.

One important thing to note about Lassen Volcanic National Park is that the road connecting the north and south entrance is closed most of the year due to snow.  Even in mid June, the road was closed from Hot Rock to Lake Helen.  I recommend checking the park website for road closure information several days before you are set to arrive as this will greatly impact your ability to travel in and around the park.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Lassen is VERY remote, and there is only one place to stay inside the park.  We ended up booking an AirBnB in Cottonwood, CA which is about an hour to an hour and a half from both entrances.

 

We can’t say enough how much we appreciated our host’s attention to detail– it was the most well-stocked and thoughtful AirBnB rental we’ve experienced to date.  Not only were the accommodations clean and comfortable, but our sweet host left us drinks, snacks and a wealth of information about local restaurants/attractions.

The South Entrance:

Before we drove into the park, we stopped for dinner at Highlands Ranch Resort.  We ordered off the bar menu as it was still too early for dinner (dinner service begins at 5:00 PM), and our burger and fish tacos were delicious.  The restaurant has a lodge feel, and a huge deck and lawn with outdoor seating.

The restaurant was just a short drive past the south entrance, so after dinner we doubled back and drove in to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

DSC_0015

 

Right away we could see why the roads ahead were closed, because there was so much snow everywhere.

We stopped at the Sulphur Works to see the boiling mud and hydrothermal area.

While on a much smaller scale, these reminded us of Yellowstone.  Lassen has quite a few areas like this (and a geyser), but we were not able to access them due to the snow cover.  Up the road from the Sulphur Works is Emerald Lake and Lake Helen.  While almost completely frozen over, they were so, so beautiful.

 

We drove past Lake Helen, to where the road was closed.  It’s really amazing to see this much snow, in such deep drifts in the middle of June.

 

The North Entrance:

img_20190616_132603_820

Just past the entrance to the park, the Loomis Museum and Visitor Center is an easy stop for information and national park collectibles.  We left our car parked there, and headed off to explore the trail around Manzanita Lake.  It’s an easy mile and a half hike with jaw-dropping views.

 

After hiking around Manzanita Lake, we drove to the Camp Store for some lunch.  It’s a well-stocked store, with park memorabilia, snacks, drinks and soft serve ice cream.  We ordered the pull-pork and turkey sandwiches with potato salad.  There were surprisingly yummy, and hit the spot after a morning outdoors.

Even though the road was closed, and we weren’t able to drive as far as we wanted to, we did see beautiful scenery along the portion that was open.

DSC_0144

DSC_0148.JPG

If we ever make the trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park again, we will plan to arrive in August.  By then, the roads are normally open all the way through the park and we will be able to make the hike to Echo Lake and explore Bumpass Hell.  This area is so beautiful, and we relished the opportunity to see an area so remote and untraveled!

As always, we rented a car for our travels, and this time made sure to get a small SUV.  Some of the roads around Lassen were quite bumpy and it was smart to have the extra clearance.  Sometimes, a car just isn’t high enough to take on the “road less traveled.”

Hike Like a Lady

“To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles.”  

                                                                                                  Mary Davis

There are people who like to hike, and there are actual hikers.  You can tell the difference by looking at their gear.  Actual hikers carry bigger packs, and they eschew the type of personal grooming often highlighted in Instagram tutorial videos.  (Think: “Contouring with Drugstore Make-up”, and “The Perfect Eyebrow”).  Actual hikers ooze confidence and the kind of beauty that radiates from a deep and abiding love affair with nature.  In another life I’d be an actual hiker.

Over the course of our marriage, my husband and I have relished the opportunity to get out and experience the best that Mother Nature has to offer.  We’ve hiked all over the United States, and can’t get enough of our National Park System.  Most of our experiences have been really positive, and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

img_20190617_134644563

Our typical hiking adventures go from one to five miles, although we have done one or two longer treks.  From my perspective as a woman, here are some thoughts and ideas I’d like to pass along:

  1. Show up Early:  I know how painful it is to get up early while you are traveling, but getting to the visitor’s center and trailhead early yields a BUNCH of great rewards:
    1. You are more likely to see wildlife in the early morning and at dusk. img_20190618_093205632_hdr
    2. Crowds and tour buses normally begin arriving around 10:00AM, so the early hiker gets the solitude and quiet of an empty trail.
    3. Speaking of crowds and tour buses:  arriving early ensures that you won’t have to HIKE to your car after completing your HIKE.  Parking is limited in most state and national parks, so the early-bird gets a closer/and possibly shaded spot.
    4. Rangers have a bit more time to spend with each hiker, before being inundated with questions and requests.
    5. It’s generally cooler and more pleasant to hike in the early morning hours.
  2. Know the Plan:  I love to people-watch, and I’ve noticed that the men seem to be the ones to get recommendations and information about hikes, while women look around and shop.  Here’s the deal.  Four ears hearing the same information is better than two. So, if you are planning to hike, definitely be a part of the discussion and planning.  I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I, after having heard the SAME INFORMATION ABOUT A HIKE, have had to stop and remind the other person where the ranger told us to go.
  3. Carry a Map:  This one seems so obvious, but there is a temptation that a map is simply not necessary for the shorter, easier hikes.  We typically hand the ranger a map, and have him or her write on it so that those notes can help us navigate once we’ve forgotten the details of where to turn, etc.  In our experience, service is sketchy at best inside the national parks, and while you may be using one of the great trail/hiking apps, a map is a good back-up in case things go south.img_20190624_173650827.jpg
  4. Carry Little Else:  I’ve found that really limiting myself to just the absolute necessities makes the whole experience better. What seems “light enough to carry” might feel like a ton of bricks after 5 miles.  (This list is by no means a recommendation of what to take.  Just avoid taking extras that you won’t need.  i.e. make-up bag, coin purse, charger cords, etc.).  I use either a small Camelback backpack or fanny pack, depending on the trail.  For me, I include the following for every hike:
    1. map
    2. phone/camera
    3. hair band
    4. two bandaids
    5. Kleenex
    6. two sandwich zip lock bags
    7. waterDSC_0068.JPG
  5. Be Memorable:  Even if you get an early start, you will surely meet other hikers on the trail.  I always try to make eye contact and speak to them, because if the worst should happen, they might remember seeing me, and be able to direct emergency responders to our whereabouts more quickly.  Wearing an interesting hat or t-shirt, or a brightly colored pack is also a good way to be remembered.  Generally hikers are a friendly, helpful bunch, so look for opportunities to engage in conversation.
  6. Potty like a Princess:  It’s SUCH a drag to have to potty on the trail.  But it’s not ok to leave tissue behind when your are done with your business.  I always include a pack of Kleenex and small ziplock bags for just such an occasion.  Yes: I mean that you should put the Kleenex inside the ziplock, and stow it in your pack, once you’ve used it to tidy up after a potty break.  It’s the right thing to do.DSC_0088.JPG

We just got home from California, where we hiked in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National Park, Mendocino and Marin county.  Our hearts are full of beauty and our feet are ready for more!  Soon we will be heading East to the Great Smokey Mountains, and look forward to exploring new and different landscapes!

May Book List

May has been a fruitful month in terms of reading.  I found a new author to love, and added two non-fiction books toward my goal of reading eight this year!  (I know.  Eight books isn’t that many, but I rarely read non-fiction, so it’s a good goal for me.)  Three of the books I read in May were audiobooks, which I listened to while picking up the kids after school, shopping for groceries, folding laundry and laying in my hammock.  I love the company of an audiobook, and I always feel like the reader and I are good friends by the time the book comes to it’s end.

Here is my May book list:

fiction first…

The Night Bird by Brian Freeman (Frost Easton series book 1):  This series is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, so right off the bat I was hooked.  Frost Easton is a detective trying to solve a series of murders committed by the Night Bird.  I found this novel in the three-book series to be the most frightening, but very compelling as well.

Voice Inside by Brian Freeman (Frost Easton series book 2): In this second Frost Easton installment, a decision for good ends up having devastating consequences.  What I loved about this book is that we are able to fill in the gaps regarding the murder of Frost’s sister.  The author doesn’t pull any punches along the way, and good people die.  Maybe my favorite of the series.

The Crooked Street by Brian Freeman (Frost Easton series book 3):  I’m hoping there will be more books added to the series, because the author really leaves us hanging at the end.  Frost is drawn into an investigation that uncovers corruption at the highest level, and it’s impossible to know who to trust.  Really a good read.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 10.19.09 AM

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: I read this book based on a recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint.  True, it wasn’t dark or twisty or murder-y, but I got attached to the characters and intrigued by the mystery of what happened to Gabe.  It’s worth a read.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 10.16.54 AM

Fifty Fifty by James Patterson and Candice Fox (Harriet Blue series book 2): This first book in this series, (Never Never) I read about a year ago.  Harriet is a scrappy, hot-headed detective in Australia, who solves murders in remote areas of the outback.  There’s a third book called Liar Liar that I have on queue for June, and I’m looking forward to more of Harriet’s antics and brilliance.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 10.14.41 AM

After Her by Joyce Maynard: Rachel and Patty are sisters, and daughters of a police detective during a rash of murders on the mountain behind their house.  The novel is set in a town north of San Francisco (my fave) and follows the girls through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.  This book isn’t just a murder mystery.  It’s a coming of age story with lots of beautiful musings about sisterhood and coming to terms with the imperfection of our parents.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 9.42.49 AM

now for the non-fiction:

12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson: I wanted to like this book.  Everyone else loves it.  I like rules to live by.  I am interested in human behavior.  But, yawn.  I just wasn’t captivated by this book like it seems the rest of the world has been.  Not only are the rules pretty obvious, and mostly things I already do, but I was kind of bogged down by science lessons and anecdotes which I found uninspiring and hard to connect.  I think it’s worthwhile to read books that everyone is buzzing about, so I’m glad I spent the time, but overall, not a book I would recommend.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 10.14.04 AM

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin:  This is one of the books I listened to as an audiobook, and I found it interesting and enjoyable.  Again, a lot of what Gretchen  suggests I already do (go to bed early, be tidy, etc) but I found a lot of her ideas inspiring.  The biggest take-away for me was to “Be Debbie.”  I like what I like, and I should spend time doing those things.  This idea is one I have been exploring as a stay at home mom, and I’ve been working hard to not “should” on myself by trying to be something I’m not.  Several other very poignant ideas struck me from The Happiness Project, and I came away from the book with topics I want to investigate and learn about.

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 10.13.30 AM

 

If you are looking for other book recommendations, here are several other books I’ve read this year that you may want to investigate:

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris:  Loved this book.  Twisty and riveting.  Read it!

The Perfect Girl by Gilly MacMillan:  Twisty and a little dark.  A good read.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah:  One million thumbs up for this novel!  Read.  It.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides:  This book is like a big meal.  It stayed with me.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly:  Terrific.  Loved it!  A great one for audiobook.

 

I hope you find these ideas and recommendations helpful!  Readers often rely on literary recommendations and sharing titles, because it points us toward new authors and books we might otherwise never discover.  Happy reading!

 

 

Summer Reading for “Tweens”

May is almost over, and school is winding down.  Pretty soon the craziness of a busy school year will abruptly end, and life will settle to a slow crawl through summer.   We’ll all have a bit more time for the good things in life; sleeping in, leftover pie for breakfast, popsicles on the porch, and endless hours of reading.

fullsizeoutput_336

Several summers ago, my kids hit a wall in the “books that interest me” department.  They were 10 and 11 years old at the time, and they began to want more mature subjects in their reading material.   (“Fare thee well, Diary of a Wimpy Kid!  It was a good run.)  We have always closely guarded what the kids take in from TV, movies and books, so I began to research junior fiction books that did not have strong language, sexual content or gruesome, frightening scenes.

(My thoughts on content:  There’s a difference, I think, between epic battle scenes (i.e. Lord of the Rings) and gratuitous violence (i.e. The Purge).  Topics like murder can be presented in vastly different ways as well; think Father Brown vs. Blacklist.  Each family will have their own tolerance level for these issues, and should make decisions accordingly.  For many, I am too permissive.  And for others, too protective.  My very best advice is to pre-read a book before allowing your child to read it.  Not only will you be made aware of the book’s content, but sharing books with your child will give you lots to talk about.)

Here are some of the books that Colin and Cara have enjoyed/loved/been-obsessive-about for the last four years:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling:  (7 books in series)  Most of us have seen the movies, but this 7 book series is a family favorite.  It goes without saying that the books present a fuller picture than the movies.  Readers who love magic and the epic struggle between good and evil will find Harry’s evolution from boy to young man compelling.  This series is Cara’s all-time favorite!

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 10.22.19 AM

 

Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan: (13 books in series)  This series follows the story of Will, an apprentice Ranger who trains to be an archer, warrior and protector.  I can’t overstate how much my kids love this series.  Even now, as a 14 year old, Colin will reach for his tattered copy of Book 1 when he doesn’t have anything else to read.  The characters have become beloved friends, and a part of our family conversations.  (John Flanagan also wrote The Brotherband Chronicles and The Royal Ranger series.)

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 10.21.09 AM

 

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull: (5 books in series) I purchased the first two books in this series to take with us on a summer trip.  By the time we returned home, the last three books were waiting for us in an Amazon box on our porch.  The story of Kendra and Seth, who become embroiled in a world of fantastical creatures and a race to save the world, becomes more complex and urgent as the series progresses.  Well written, with enough tension to keep a young reader engaged, we give this series two thumbs up.

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 10.23.24 AM

 

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: (11 books in series…and growing)  Ok.  Let me explain something.  There are 10 books in this series, but #6 is followed by #6.5, so there are actually 11 books total.  See what I mean?  This series is amazing.  My daughter Cara has read every single book and is crazy about Flavia de Luce, an 11 year old amateur sleuth with a bicycle named Gladys.  These are adult books that are appropriate for a tween…probably.  It just depends on the child.  (There are some frightening scenes that have shaken Cara a bit, because the books are murder mysteries, after all.)  Alan Bradley is still writing, and we can’t wait for the next installment!

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 10.22.50 AM

 

Eragon by Christopher Paolini: (4 books in series…with more to come?) This is one of Colin’s favorite series.  He’s re-read it several times, and really loves the characters and epic scope of the story.  Colin is pretty picky about the logic and reason of a novel, and the interactions between characters, and this series plays very well in those terms.

Screen Shot 2019-05-23 at 10.20.40 AM

 

Mistborn, The Rithmatist, Steelheart and Legion by Brandon Sanderson: We were introduced to Brandon Sanderson through a recommendation by a teacher.  He is a prolific writer, with several series as well as stand alone novels.  Colin’s favorites are the Mistborn series, and The Rithmatist, but both kids have read all of the books and found them enjoyable.  I would say that Brandon Sanderson’s books are on the more mature side of the spectrum, but again, each parent has their own standard for what’s appropriate.

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 8.11.51 AM

 

As an educator, I’m passionate about literature and language.   As a mother, I’ve learned that fostering a love of reading in my kids takes effort on my part.  I certainly don’t read every book my kids read, but being involved in the selection and conversation about what they are reading, gives me insight into their interests and preferences.

Here are five things I do to promote a reading culture at home:

  1.  Model.  My kids see me reading books, ebooks, magazines, news articles and internet blogs.  They also catch me listening to an audiobook in the after school pick up line.  I often share thoughts about what I am reading, whether it be an interesting plot twist, meaningful event or compelling fact.  Over the years, Colin and Cara have begun to initiate conversations like this about what THEY are reading.
  2. Leave books laying around.  I often go to the library and check out books for the kids without them asking me to.  When I drop the books off in their rooms, I say something like, “These might be interesting reads, or they might not be.  If they don’t appeal to you, just put them in the laundry room, and I’ll take them back to the library.”
  3. Grab reading time when you can.  Rather than adhering to the “Reading Log Prescribed 20 Minutes a Day” philosophy, I encourage the kids to bring their books along when we go out to eat, have a doctor’s appointment or make a visit to family.  Yes, the books have to compete with their phones, but many times they end up reading.  Let’s face it, reading a book is better than being bored out of your mind.
  4. Pay attention to words.  Kids pick up new words from reading.  One time, Cara was talking about how she would escape from a kidnapper, and she said, “I would use broken glass or a nail to cut my bonds.”  I asked her where she had picked up the word bonds and she answered, “Hardy Boys books.”  When we catch our children using new vocabulary, and acknowledge it positively, we elevate language and learning.
  5. Take a chill pill.  Ya’ll, standardized testing has very little to do with actual reading.  Things like interest level, stress level and competency in test taking affect their score.  So.  What can we do as parents to positively impact OUR ACTUAL CHILDREN?  Foster the enjoyment and pleasure of reading.  Do our children enjoy reading?   Do they have access to books that interest them?  Do we have a culture of reading in our home?  Do I value all kinds of reading?  Do we read throughout the day, or are we stuck in a “reading log funk”?  If we can settle down and focus our attention on creating interest and opportunity for reading at home, our children will benefit well beyond the next state assessment.  (Pardon me while I dismount from my soap box.)

Reading is woven into the day-to-day fabric of our home.  While there are stretches of time when we are too frantic with the busy pace of life to settle down and read, we collectively exhale a sigh of relief when summer comes along.  Often I will see the kids, reading lamps lit well into the wee hours of night, engrossed in a book.  The next morning, they stumble bleary-eyed from their bedrooms to tell me all about the story that kept them up.  And my reader’s heart is full.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“19 for 2019”: a list of goals, resolutions and intentions

My sister, Rachelle, is one of the most interesting people I know.  She is extremely well-read and listens to a wide variety of podcasts, which gives her an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge on a number of topics.  One day, about a year ago, I was complaining that I couldn’t find an interesting audiobook to listen to, and she suggested I try listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast.

Well, one thing let to another, and pretty soon, I had read two of Gretchen Rubin’s books, browsed through her blog and taken the four tendencies quiz…turns out I’m an obliger.  With a side of rebel.

One of the ideas I gleaned from Gretchen (and my sister Rachelle), is a 19 for 2019 list.  Basically, it’s a “to do” list for the upcoming year, and I LOVE a “to do” list!  The items can be basic, wide-reaching, practical, abstract, and some can be just for fun!

Before creating my own list, I scoured the internet for ideas and examples.  I found wonderful artistic representations with sketches and doodles, simple numbered lists, and even some that were divided into categories or timetables.  With all that inspiration, I was ready to write my own “19 for 2019” list!

Brainstorming for a few days helped me get all of my ideas down on paper, and I was surprised by how varied they were!  Since it was almost March by the time I finished compiling my “19 for 2019” list,  I knew that I would need to balance the “learn to…” items, which frankly take a lot of time, with goals that could be accomplished with just a little intentionality (like reading 8 non-fiction books).  After all the listing, evaluating, choosing and deciding, my list was complete!

Debbie's 19 for 2019

What I love about a “19 for 2019” list is that is so personalized and speaks to all kinds of “doers.”  While I normally set over-arching resolutions for the New Year (Faith and Feminism: Part 2), I relish lists of specific goals and intentions to keep me focused on what I’d like to realize during a certain time period, and I get a rush of joy every time I get to cross an item off of my list.  (You guys, I often ADD a task to my daily “To Do” list just so I can cross it off!)

For me, it felt luxurious to add “frivolous” items that I’ve wanted to accomplish;  growing my hair and using an eyebrow pencil, for example.  Other items were added to keep me accountable for tasks I loathe; like going to the dentist and painting baseboards.   My “19 for 2019” list is just for me, and if I don’t quite hit a goal, I can try again next year or just give it up as a “not gonna happen.”

Although I may have a few items unchecked by the end of the year, the list has given me joy and anticipation for 2019, and the oh so satisfying opportunity cross items off as I accomplish them!

What kinds of things would YOU add to your “19 for 2019” list?  Leave your thoughts and ideas in a comment below!

 

Maine and the Bay of Fundy

I married a man who can plan an amazing family trip, and for the first few years we were married, Mark handled ALL of the planning and preparations when we traveled.  My job was to simply pack myself and the kids, and be ready to go when it was time!  Easy-peasy!

One of the first trips we took as a family was to Maine and Canada during the summer.  We flew into Boston, loaded into our rental car and spent a few hours exploring Salem.

After lunch, we drove north to Bar Harbor, Maine.  We learned that driving on the two-lane state roads is SLOW GOING, but we finally made it to our VBRO rental by early evening.

We carved out lots of time to explore Acadia National Park, which was literally right up the road from where we were staying.  It’s a beautiful park with so many places to pull over and explore on foot.  The kids, who were much younger at the time, relished the chance to run ahead and “lead” the way.  We explored huge outcroppings of granite, and trails through the woodsy areas.  The landscape is pristine, and the park is so large that we never felt it was too crowded.

Tucked away in Acadia National Park, is Sand Beach where the kids were able to swim and frolic in the waves.  It was quite crowded compared to the rest of Acadia, but still a lovely way to spend most of the day.

 

After three days in Bar Harbor, we took a two day excursion to Alma, in New Brunswick, Canada.   Alma is located along the Bay of Fundy, home of the highest tides in the world.  We are enchanted by the strange and wonderful ways Mother Nature shows off, and the Bay of Fundy did not disappoint.

When we arrived, it was low tide.  The fishing boats were resting on the ocean floor, and we could walk out almost a mile to the water.

044

It was hard to explain to the kids that these were actually working fishing boats, and that the water would eventually rise enough to make them float.

Cara and I walked straight out as far as we could on the “beach.”

Mark and Colin explored the shoreline, where they found driftwood, tide pools and lots of slimy algae.

By the time we were done exploring the bay, we were famished.   But what you need to know about Alma, is that there are few dining options- especially, if you don’t care for fish!

046

The next morning, the pier looked like this!  We were amazed!

107

After breakfast, and hearing the sad news that we had missed a moose meandering down the road outside our hotel room, we set off to explore Fundy National Park.  Alma is nestled just inside the park, so our drive was minimal.  Our first stop was Point Wolfe Beach, where Mark taught the kids how to skip rocks.

You can’t imagine how serene and beautiful it is there!  We stayed longer that I thought we would, splashing in the water and exploring the shoreline.

Nearby there was a trail up to a waterfall, where I captured one of my favorite pictures of Mark and the kids.

091

Later that day, after we had our fill of hiking, exploring and seeing the sights of Fundy National Park, we headed “home” to Bar Harbor. This was my first foray into Canada, and I fell in love.

037

The day before we flew home to Texas,  we stopped at Wild Acadia Fun Park for a day of family fun.   Our kids have never forgotten this day, and it was the PERFECT stop after almost a week of nature activities.  Cara and I enjoyed the go-carts, while Mark and Colin did the high ropes maze and zip lines.  After the boys finished, we enjoyed a family race in the go-carts, and I don’t like to brag, but Cara and I smoked them!

We definitely want to return to Maine and the Bay of Fundy in the future.  What a beautiful part of the world, and there is so much more to see!

“There’s a quality of life in Maine which is this singular and unique.  It’s absolutely a world unto itself.”  Jamie Wyeth

 

Northern Ireland

I have an obsession with the ocean, and I’m not picky about how land meets the sea.  Cliffs, sandy shores, jagged rocks or beaches made of shells-  every one of them is my favorite.  I’m not even particular about the weather when I’m standing on terra firma, gazing at the mighty ocean; I am just as happy with rain, mist, cold and wind as I am with sun, warmth and gentle ocean breezes.  It’s the ocean, man.  I love her.

It’s my duty as a blogger and all-around decent human being to share some of my favorite shoreline locations, and the northern coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland will not disappoint you, dear reader.

 

20170616_154128

Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland:  The drive from Trim, Ireland to Derry took about three and a half hours, and although it was raining, the drive was still quite lovely. Northern Ireland, as you know, is a separate country, with it’s own currency, road signs and history.  Speed limits are posted in miles, rather than kilometers, but you’ll still drive to the left.  It’s a good idea to gas up before driving in to Northern Ireland, as gas is somewhat more expensive there, and if you are traveling between Ireland and Northern Ireland, you’ll want to remember to stop at an ATM to withdraw some Pounds so you have cash on hand.  Derry is a good sized city, and if we ever go back, we will definitely spend some time exploring it.  It’s the only city in Ireland that is completely walled, and our host at the BnB encouraged us to take the roughly mile-long walk along the top of the wall.  The town of Derry was also embroiled in the fighting between the IRA (who wanted to unite Ireland) and the Unionists (who want to keep Northern Ireland within the UK), and there are still skirmishes and bar brawls in certain areas of the city related to the IRA.  It’s really a fascinating city with lots of stories to tell!

 

We booked a family room at Merchant’s House to overnight in Derry.  For dinner, we can highly recommend Brown’s In Town, a quiet restaurant with delicious food.  Our FAVORITE part of our experience in Derry was sharing breakfast with all of the guests from Merchant’s and Saddler’s House.  We were served a delicious, traditional, family-style Irish breakfast with travelers from all over Europe, and it was the perfect start to a busy day.  Everyone was so warm and friendly, and by the end of breakfast we felt like old friends.

Carrick-a-Rede: Our first stop along the Northern Ireland coast was Carrick-a-Rede, which is a rope bridge over the cliffs along the shore.  The hike down to the bridge is easy, and the scenery is breathtaking.  Even though I don’t like heights, I wasn’t bothered too much by the rope bridge itself, and I thought the stop was really worthwhile.   Once you get over the rope bridge, there is space to wander around, take pictures and bask in the beauty of Northern Ireland’s coast.

Giant’s Causeway: We headed west after the rope bridge, and because we had read a lot about Giant’s Causeway, and we very excited to see it.  However, it’s a VERY busy sight, with tour bus after tour bus unloading large groups of people.  The rock formations were interesting, but there were so many tourists, we didn’t stay long.  Inside the visitor’s center there is a small cafe, and we can recommend the Irish stew as an inexpensive but tasty lunch.  It’s not a sight I would go out of my way to see again, and pictures (without people crawling all over the rocks) do the area more justice, in my opinion.

 

Dunluce Castle:  Run, don’t walk to Dunluce Castle!  (pronounced: dun-loose). You guys.  There are ruins all over Ireland, so you might think, what’s the big deal with Dunluce Castle?  Well, first of all, it is perched on the edgy-edge of a cliff, and some of it has already fallen into the ocean, so you have the feeling that the last of it might slip off the cliff at any moment!  (Apparently the kitchen fell into the ocean during a party, and that was the “last straw” before the lady of the house decided to move out.  I should think so!). There are towers and rooms and great halls and hidden nooks to explore, and you really get s feel of how it might have been to live in such a place.  I have to say that medieval people were certainly tougher than me when it comes to walking surfaces;  an hour on those cobbled floors and I was more than ready to walk on paved surfaces again.

 

After a couple of hours exploring Dunluce Castle, we drove west, out of Northern Ireland, toward County Donegal, Ireland.  For dinner, we stopped in Donegal Town and enjoyed a nice meal at The Blueberry Cafe.  I remember asking our server about the scones, “Why are they SO good?”  She was lovely, and we talked at length about ingredients and the differences between Irish cream and butter, and what we use here in the States.  Apparently it makes a big difference.

Slieve League:  Everyone who knows anything about Ireland talks about The Cliffs of Moher and their magnificence.  I would say that the Cliffs of Moher are second to Slieve League.  A distant second.  We have visited both sites, and hands down found Slieve League Cliffs to be the more impressive!  For one thing, the cliffs are 2,000 feet at their highest point (The Cliffs of Moher are around 500 feet high) and since Slieve League is so remote, you’ll find fewer people and more wildlife.  We initially attempted the hike from the backside (established by monks ages ago), but were concerned that the mist and fog would obscure the cliffs and drop-offs to such a degree as to make it unsafe for the kids who like to run ahead.

 

 

After a bit of a romp among the sheep, and about a mile of hiking  into the fog, we decided to turn around and drive to Slieve League the “normal way.”  You’ll notice a parking lot with restrooms just before the gate, but we saw several cars continue through the gate and up the road to the cliffs.  It would seem that you can drive most of the way to the top.

DSC_0289

Hiking around the cliffs is thrilling.  We kept our distance from the edge because the wind gusts were quite strong, and we didn’t wish to be blown off by accident.  What a tragic end that would be!  Also, I imagine if you are falling 2,000 feet, you have quite a bit of time to think about how dumb you were to get so close to the edge, and I’d rather spend my last seconds thinking something other than, “Well, that was dumb.”

 

There are ruins to see and paths to walk, so we spent about three hours exploring around the cliffs.  The kids even found a pond, and some rocks to throw into it.

 

I love that Ireland is so wild and untamed, and that they don’t put fences up everywhere to keep visitors safe.  The beauty here is raw and unyielding but also soulful and familiar.

DSC_0293

We will certainly return to Ireland at some point.  And when we do, we would love to spend several days in the northern parts of the island, revisiting the sites we loved, and exploring new ones!

Road Trip to Everywhere

I don’t want to brag, but we road-trip like a boss.  Our practice has been made perfect over the last ten years, and we can literally decide to GO and have the car packed and ready in less than an hour.  How do I know this?  Done it.  (mic drop)

In 2014 we planned a two-week road trip with four major stops, and it was really the first time I relaxed and just enjoyed spending time with Mark and the kids without all of the “shoulds.”  Total game-changer.

Day 1:  We left Dallas and drove the roughly four hours to Stillwater, Oklahoma.  My uncle lives there, and we spent the day with family.

 

Day 2:  The next morning we grabbed breakfast and hit the road.  It’s about a nine hour drive from Stillwater to Colorado Springs, and we stopped along the way to examine cotton fields and admire the high desert scenery.

Day 3:  After spending the night in Colorado Springs, we drove out to Canon City, where we had booked a half day river-rafting adventure with Raft Masters.  It was my third or fourth time to use Raft Masters, and they didn’t disappoint.  The kids had such fun, and the experience was thrilling and memorable!  Poor Mark had to drive us to Estes Park after the rafting trip while the rest of us conked out in the car.  Fun can be exhausting.

 

2120352-1

Day 4,5 and 6:  I can’t adequately describe our love for Colorado.  There just aren’t words.  Our hearts are restored by beauty, and Colorado has beauty in spades.  We spent three days hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovered a great (family friendly) hike to Emerald Lake.

 

Estes Park is a great place to prowl around, and there are numerous places to take a quick walk/hike just outside of town.  Also, we happened to arrive just in time for the annual 4th of July parade which was a total bonus!

 

Day 7:  By far one of the less interesting days on our trip was driving from Colorado Springs to Cody, Wyoming.  There wasn’t a lot to see along the way, but we did stop in Chugwater, Wyoming for lunch, and we’ve never forgotten it!  In fact, we now use it as a reference when describing small towns,  “Is it Chugwater small?”

 

 

 

Day 8:  Arriving in Cody was like stepping back in time.  The town has a deeply western feel, without coming off as artificial.  We stayed in the Moose Creek Lodge, and to my delight, there was a wonderful coffee shop right next door.  One of my favorite memories of the trip was made in that hotel.  Each night, tired from our adventures of the day, we’d all tuck into bed and watch The Andy Griffith Show.

20140706_200036

Day 9, 10, 11:  Cody is about an hour away from the Yellowstone gates, so we woke up early each morning, grabbed breakfast and COFFEE, and hit the road.  I mean, the scenery is gorgeous, so it’s a great way to start the day!

DSC_0326

So the thing about Yellowstone is that it is a HUGE National Park.  Honestly, you could spend a full week there, but we only had three days, so we hit the “major” sights like any self-respecting tourist family should.  Do I wish we had hiked out at dawn to see the Yellowstone wolves?  Yes.  Yes I do.  But the kids were little, and I could still run faster than them, so of course I was worried I’d outrun them if the wolves attacked.  I have a strong will to live, dear reader.

One afternoon Cara and I mounted up and rode the hills around Yellowstone.  We thoroughly enjoyed the breathtaking vistas and even got to see a big pile of grizzly bear scat…freshly laid and still steaming.  Our guide was so gracious and friendly, and watching my little slip of a daughter ride like a champ filled me with joy and just a wee bit of pride.   Ok, a LOT of pride.

We noticed a funny phenomenon during our visit to Yellowstone:  the first bison/elk/bear you see is completely thrilling.  You pull the car over, pile out and start snapping pictures like a National Geographic photog.  But by the third day, it’s “meh, another bison. (yawn)”.  It’s totally crazy, because IT’S A BISON, ya’ll!!

We saw elk, deer, bison, chipmunks, marmots and a great big grizzly bear foraging for food on the other side of the river.  What we found rather incredible is that these animals were near and around the geysers as well as their more “traditional” habitats.  I cornered a park ranger (as I am wont to do…) and asked one million questions about the marmots scurrying around Grand Geyser.  Apparently they can sense when the geyser is about to erupt, and they hightail it outta there to safety.

Day 12:  We left early from Cody, and drove about six hours to Mount Rushmore.  With stops along the way, we arrived mid afternoon.  I was both impressed and underwhelmed by Mount Rushmore, so if I don’t get back to see it again, I’m good.  The town around Mount Rushmore reminds me of Las Vegas, except western.  And small.

DSC_0417

 

Day 13:  So here’s the real gem of our road trip!  We hadn’t planned on staying in South Dakota for an extra day, but when Mark learned that Wind Cave National Park was in the area, we extended our stay an extra day.  First of all, to get to Wind Cave, you have to drive through Custer State Park-  what a beautiful place!  Aaaaand, there are numerous prairie dogs to see along the way, so that was fun for the kids.

Wind Cave is more incredible that I can describe.  The caverns are small, and the tunnels go every which way.  Our park ranger made such an impression in telling about the history, discovery and exploration of Wind Cave.  She was also patient and comforting to those of us (read: just me) who struggle with claustrophobia.  If you visit Mount Rushmore or South Dakota, you will not regret a stop at Wind Cave National Park.  By far one of the most wonderful national parks we’ve visited.

wind cave

We left Wind Cave mid afternoon, and started driving home.  Originally, we planned on stopping in Nebraska or Kansas for an overnight, but Mark decided to drive all the way.  Fifteen hours later, we pulling into our driveway, exhausted but content after our family road trip.

Day 14:  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Fourteen days, three national parks, one national memorial and about a million miles.  It’s a lot to fit in, but we came home with so many great memories.  The kids expanded their worldview as they gained new understandings about ecosystems, geography,  indigenous peoples, map reading and surviving forced family fun.  Ha!

Next time?  We make the trek out to see the wolves at dawn, since I’m the slowest…just call me #wolfbait.