This is literally not the birth story at all. I just wanted a place to unpack some thoughts about the pregnancy, so I did. If you’re only interested in the nitty gritty birth details, go ahead and skip this part and head over to Part 2. Also, yeah, this is sort of a travel blog, but it’s also not, and I don’t feel terribly inclined to compartmentalize my life so you’re getting this story here because I don’t want to put it on my old blog with my other birth stories, which I will link at the end of part 2.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. It seems awkward to mention, yet somehow relevant, that this pregnancy (our 5th!) wasn’t “planned.” I mean, it was, in the sense that we wanted more kids eventually and in the sense that we know how babies are made and we didn’t do that by accident. But we didn’t plan for a pregnancy and a newborn in 2020 because at the time Lucy was conceived, our life wasn’t exactly stable. My husband Daniel was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a year and I was traveling full time with our four little girls, plus the cat and dog. We managed to get pregnant when he was home for a very short visit for his best friend’s wedding before returning to finish out his last couple of months overseas. During that last stretch of his deployment, the responsibility of finding and purchasing a new house to live in, as well as the cross-country move, fell entirely to me. Doing this all alone with four kids and two pets was a tall enough order, throw in first trimester puking and exhaustion and you can see why we were planning to wait a year or so. I’ll also say that in the past we’ve kind of been wizards at natural family planning and charting and spacing our kids quite intentionally, so I had all the confidence in the world that we were in the “safe zone” of not risking conception during his visit. But it was meant to be, because the world needed this soul, in this time, and so she came.
I had an unusually high amount of stress from the very beginning of this pregnancy. I was so anxious about my stress levels. Stress is bad for the baby. I felt like I wasn’t taking care of myself as well as I am usually able to. I felt a lot of guilt, like I was failing the baby. Daniel was gone for the first few months and then, as much as it’s wonderful when your soldier comes home, any army wife knows that homecoming poses its own challenges and adjustments, especially when the whole family is adjusting to a new town and Daniel’s new grad school schedule. I also felt so guilty about not being excited to be pregnant and my lack of emotional connection to the pregnancy. I had recurring nightmares about being in the ocean and being pulled under, or being swept away by a river current. The dreams always ended with me giving birth in a hospital (not the plan!) to a very undersized baby (not the norm for me!) I also had a sense of dread about the birth that I don’t normally have. A sense that I just didn’t have it in me this time. That the pain would be too much. Daniel assured me that I most certainly DID have it in me, and I COULD do this, but that if I didn’t want to, we’d go to the hospital and get an epidural. Or hell, a c-section. Whatever *I* needed to do to feel comfortable giving birth, we’d make it happen and he’d be right beside me. Usually, what I need to feel safe is a homebirth. This time, I was open to other ideas because I felt so defeated before it even started. I put it on the backburner though, because fear isn’t usually a helpful guide in making huge decisions and I was resolved to find a way to be clear headed about it all.
Early on I found an amazing group of midwives. An hour drive from home, but totally worth it. They were always very in tune to my emotional health as well as my physical health and one point they even asked me if I was having bad dreams. I told them I was and confided in them about all of my concerns about how stress might affect baby. I also mentioned that they should take the dream thing with a grain of salt, since I also have a recurring dream about riding in a car with Betty White and Snoop Dogg. First, they tried to help ease my concerns about hurting the baby with stress, but they also reminded me that “mother’s intuition” is a perfectly legitimate medical reason to order an extra ultrasound, and while usually they (and I) prefer fewer ultrasounds overall for normal low risk pregnancies such as mine, they’d be happy to put in the order at any time. However, despite the nightmares, I opted to wait til the half way point (20 weeks) anatomy scan to have my first ultrasound at a freestanding radiology center that is not affiliated with my midwives (this is what I always do, and it is the norm for most home birthers.) At the scan, Lucia was measuring right on schedule and showed every sign of being a perfectly normal, healthy pregnancy. It was also at this appointment that the tech accidentally blurted out that we were in fact having our 5th girl, despite our request to be surprised. Ah, well. Knowing is fun, too. It was about to get very Pride and Prejudice up in here!
Fast forward to about 33 weeks. I felt like my bump visibly shrank. I was already feeling like my belly was small because usually I get HUGE when I’m pregnant and I didn’t this time. I was also just on edge from the unrelenting vivid dreams. Over and over. Crashing waves, unstoppable current, cold hospital, tiny, fragile baby. At every prenatal appointment the care provider uses a tape measure to measure the uterus from the pubic bone to the fundus, or top of the uterus, and while it’s not an extremely accurate science, it gives a good idea of whether or not the baby has grown one week to the next and about how far along a woman is in her pregnancy. Up to this point I had consistently grown the right amount every visit to indicate I was progressing normally. If my belly had shrank, well, my uterus had not. The baby had not. It had grown. But again, my midwives reminded me that if I felt something was off, they’d be happy to explore further to either put my mind at ease, or discover whatever problem my subconscious was trying to alert me to. But I was satisfied with the increase in fundal height, keeping in mind that I had lost a few pounds and that was likely the reason my belly seemed a little small. I am an anxious person by nature, but I also consider myself fairly intuitive. It’s tricky when you’re in a place of wanting to trust your gut, but also knowing that anxiety tells you lies. I try to err on the side of being somewhat sensible, and at this point “I’m having bad dreams” feels like a crazy pants reason to insist there’s a problem when there are literally zero signs of a problem.
Around 36 weeks I started having really, really strong painful contractions periodically throughout the day. They felt like late labor contractions, not practice contractions. This is called prodromal labor and it’s not uncommon. Real contractions that start up, particularly at night, but fizzle out. It can last for weeks and it’s exhausting, but not a cause for alarm if baby is handling it well.
At my 37 week appointment the midwife measured my uterus as usual and said, ( and I’m paraphrasing) “hm. Interesting. No change from your 36 week appointment. Normally at this point we don’t do anything about a one week anomaly because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but I know you’ve been having concerns about her being born small. A lack of a centimeter could just mean baby dropped and it measures like a decrease in fundal height. Or it could just be because you were measured by the other midwife last week. Or, it could be that she’s actually not growing for some reason. If by next week there was still no growth we’d absolutely insist on a biophysical profile (an in-depth ultrasound) to make sure the placenta is still functioning, but not for one week of no change. However…we never want to treat it like it’s nothing when mama has a gut feeling about something. To us that in itself is a possible symptom of a problem. Would you like to give it a week and see if there’s growth, or schedule it now? We’re comfortable either way.” Again, being that there was no actual tangible reason for alarm, I opted to wait. Seven days didn’t seem like many, especially considering it was perfectly safe for baby to be born immediately should we discover a problem at my 38 week appointment.
I didn’t make it to my 38 week appointment. I woke up one night with a bad headache and extreme, intense anxiety, on top of increasingly uncomfortable contractions which never got close enough together to bother calling labor, but still kept me up all night. I called my midwife the next morning (Friday, January 24) and she told me to come in immediately. Daniel drove me. It had been almost a week since my last appointment and there was still no growth, though baby and I both seemed healthy otherwise. My midwife put in an urgent order for a biophysical profile and Daniel drove me straight to the same radiology center that did my 20 week anatomy scan. The results of the scan were that Baby seemed on the small side for 38 weeks, maybe even just under 6lb, but there were no signs of fetal distress and the placenta looked great. They also said that it appeared I had no signs of being effaced or dilated which made me think, damn…all these contractions for nothing?
So we regrouped with the midwives and they laid out all the information. On one hand, baby is happy, the placenta is healthy, and she appears to only be slightly scrawny for a 38 weeker. It’s probably safe to let her cook a few more days especially since I’d been in labor for literal weeks and the real thing was surely very near. On the other hand, she isn’t growing, and that’s not nothing. They told me they were comfortable giving her a couple more days but if she hadn’t come by Monday we’d discuss a transfer of care to the hospital, where we’d likely decide to go with an induction. This felt like a good compromise. It seemed like baby would decide where I gave birth. Ultimately, deep down, I knew I didn’t want a hospital birth if baby could be born safely at home. But if she couldn’t be, I would be thrilled for the gift of modern medicine and be totally at peace with that as well.
You can read part 2 if you’d like to find out what happened next…
If you didn’t read Part 1, I don’t blame you. TL;DR: baby had stopped growing by 38 weeks, but since I was already seemingly in early labor that Friday and the ultrasound showed all was well and that she wasn’t *that* small, we decided I could try for a homebirth as long as she arrived by Monday.
Friday night I paced the house from 2am to 6am having difficult contractions. I was just waiting for them to get closer together to call the midwives, but at the same time I was hoping I wasn’t in labor because I was so exhausted. At 6am, they stopped, and I slept for a few hours. I had sort of expected this as it had been going on for days.
Saturday I continued to have some contractions. Daniel and I went ahead and set up the birth pool and set out the supplies. Got the house clean, spent time with the kids and each other. I had a good feeling that when night came I’d have a repeat of the night before, but that the contractions wouldn’t fizzle out this time. We went to confession at 4pm and the priest nearly fell out of his chair when I told him I was already actively in labor, but then he comforted me and told me he’d stay up and pray for me and told me to call him at home any time. From there we stopped at the grocery store for some last minute items and I bought a bouquet of baby pink roses so Lu would have some birthday flowers. I assumed I’d get a few hours sleep before the annoying contractions started up, since they’d been starting around 2am.
Daniel made delicious burgers but I was too nauseous to eat. I sent the girls to bed around 9:30 and promised I’d wake them if things got serious. I took a shower and drank some chamomile tea hoping to relax. I kept telling Daniel to get off his game and come to bed so we could get a few hours sleep just in case. He said he’d get in bed when I did. But I just kept fidgeting with things and making sure everything was just right. At about 10:30 I laid down and had a contraction. They always hurt worse when I was sitting or lying down. I needed to be walking through them then they weren’t so bad. When the contraction ended I got back in bed but minutes later there was another. After a little while I stopped bothering to get back in bed. I kept telling myself “if it was the real thing they’d be regular and I wouldn’t be able to walk during them.” This kept me from calling the midwives. I finally tried to lie down again and I dozed for a moment only to jump out of bed with the most horrendous contraction yet, closely followed by a similar one. I called Shawna and told her I was pretty sure it was go time. She said they’d be here an hour. This was around midnight.
I was glad I had a whole hour before they arrived. I like to be alone in labor so every moment of solitude was good. I told Daniel to keep playing his game til they showed up. I set out 100 varieties of tea next to the electric kettle, and some mugs. I got the sparkling water from the fridge and laid out dried fruits, pretzel thins and goat cheese, and salami and crackers hoping snacks would distract Daniel and the midwives and keep them from hovering.
Nanette arrived first at 1am and I told her I was afraid I’d called too soon or that it was a false alarm because as uncomfortable as I was, I was talking and walking through the contractions AND now they seemed to have slowed down. She said that part of the job was showing up for the false alarms and that it was never an inconvenience to come and check on a mama, but she was pretty sure I was in labor. Shawna arrived shortly after and they checked on me and the baby. I kept fretting about not being in labor so Nanette asked if I wanted to find out if I was dilated. I was just so convinced I wasn’t in labor that it felt like a definitive way to know if I was wasting everyone’s time. So I consented and was floored to hear I was at 7cm.
At first I was content to do my power-walking-through-contractions thing while Daniel and the midwives chatted and gobbled up all the snacks I’d set out for them. I was secretly super amused that my plan had worked while I zipped around every room of downstairs praying the rosary and mumbling birth affirmations and trying to focus specifically on praying for other people to distract from my own discomfort.
Upon realizing that I wasn’t going to be proactive about getting things to intensify, the midwives started offering some suggestions about ways to move baby into a better position and speed things along. The problem was that I didn’t want to get to the hard part. They were content to let me wear myself out if I insisted, but they also let me know that’s exactly what I was doing and at some point I was going to have to look this thing in the face and get it over with, and then I could meet my sweet baby.
Reluctantly I periodically tried some of their suggestions, and they’d work, meaning contractions would get worse, so I’d go back to my insane pacing. Then everyone would patiently mind their own business for a long time before quietly mentioning “maybe try sitting through one.” Or “You could lie on your side with the peanut ball through one, if you like.” Or “You know the birth pool is full and warm any time you’re ready. No pressure.” I’d always instantly balk at anything anyone said to me but then come around to it and give it a try. I had one objective: avoid pain, and not one other person was catering to my delusion that that was what we were here to do. Everyone else was just awkwardly waiting for me to decide to lean into pain, embrace the suck, and accept that I’m not one of those women that has serene, easy births so that we could get to the other side. This is always my dilemma during labor. I want to accept the suffering with grace and composure but I’m always like a wild eyed wounded animal in labor. I don’t know why that bothers me so much. I think it’s because I, like many people, cling to the illusion of control in many aspects of my life and I wish I was better at surrendering control in situations where it’s appropriate to do so. I wish I was better at accepting. I wish I had more faith. I wish I bore all of life’s suffering better than I do.
Shawna could tell I was irritated by everyone so she suggested I go out and look at the moon. It was probably about 30 degrees outside but I went out and paced around barefoot and half naked in the moonlight in my front yard all by myself like an absolute crazy person for a while. I think the word “Lunatic” is quite fitting here.
This sounds like a lot but only an hour and a half or so passed during all this time since the midwives arrived.
I got in the tub for a couple of contractions and the warm water made me relax immediately (between contractions) which felt so wonderful. I’d been in real labor for three days, hadn’t slept in so long, and had been power walking for hours on an empty stomach. The tub also spaced the contractions out a little bit, which was welcome. But it didn’t make them hurt less. Power walking was still the only way to make them bearable. So I got out, which was probably really frustrating for everyone who was hoping I’d finally grown a pair and decided to have this dang baby, especially since they were all sort of dozing while I sat in the tub.
While I did more pacing, Shawna and Nanette encouraged Daniel to try to take a nap, so he went to the bedroom to lie down.
I don’t remember much about this time. I know I wasn’t out of the pool very long. I couldn’t really walk through them anymore and I was starting to panic. It was coming for me whether I was going to be stoic about it or not. After throwing up for 5 solid minutes, I finally rallied because it seemed best to at least act like this was happening on my own terms instead of admitting I was just along for the ride, and I got back in the tub knowing being on my knees was going to bring those earth shattering, bone crushing, ripping, tearing contractions that bring baby. I was so broken with exhaustion that I could only hope it went mercifully fast. It was probably 3:30 in the morning at this point.
I really hadn’t been in serious, hard labor very long. It really hadn’t been unbearable up to this point. Most of the misery was me wearing myself out and psyching myself out. But getting in the tub and sitting on my knees ramped everything up to 11. And, you know, it was as bad as I was anticipating.
I had a hard contraction but I felt like I could manage them at that level. The next one was way, way worse and I was all “nope. Done. Can’t do this.”
Before I could get my bearings the next one was on me and it was worse, and longer and I felt like I was maybe starting to push involuntarily. Pushing hurt but I couldn’t stop. Nanette asked me if I wanted Daniel and I just stared at her. I didn’t know how to answer it. I hate for Daniel to see me lose it, until I get to the point I’m really losing it, then I need him to hold my hand and help me keep it together. I just didn’t answer her because I was having some weird out of body experience. He’d come when he was needed in accordance with the mystical force that decides such things. I wasn’t making decisions anymore. We’re surrendering to the process here, Nanette. Why don’t you ask the universe if it’s time to get Daniel? This is magical birth space where time stands still and nothing makes sense. Get out of here with your sensible questions. Next contraction was maybe the worst I’ve had in all 5 kids and my water broke. Somehow I managed to groan that it had broken and Shawna yelled, “yay!” Then she went to wake Daniel. I was annoyed at the yay, but glad to hear that the birth fairies had elected to summon the baby’s father all in good time 😂😂😂
I looked at Nanette and demanded to know how long I was going to have to do this. She said she doesn’t get paid enough to predict the future. I told her I’d pay her literally anything if she’d just tell me. She laughed, and Daniel and Shawna returned. I briefly wondered if we should wake the girls but I was afraid I had hours of this and I couldn’t deal with them watching me in agony for more than a few minutes (even though they’re pros at this by now)
Another contraction started and I instinctively put my hand between my legs and Lucia’s head was born so fast into my hands. Just….pop! I didnt tell anyone the head was out. Nanette realized it a moment later and announced it. I asked if I could just push the rest of her out and get it over with but they advised against it. “Let her ease out on her own it’s ok if it takes a while” but before they could finish talking the rest of her rocketed out of me and I started to try to pull her to my chest. “Leave her under the water,” Nanette instructed. “The cord is short, let’s unwrap her from it.” It felt like slow motion. Nanette was calm and cheery as she described to Shawna how the cord was wrapped around Lucy’s arm once and twice around her neck, but assured the room that it wasn’t tight and there was no problem. Apparently I screamed during the last two contractions and it woke the girls and they were now in the room, all cute, wild haired and bleary eyed in their nightgowns, big smiles on their faces. It was around 4am.
I lifted my tiny, slippery baby to my chest, and we all gasped at how unbelievably tiny she was. No way was this baby “just under 6lb.” I was shocked. And afraid. I just sort of looked at her, stunned. She was nice and pink but she didn’t cry, which I didnt realize til Nanette gently told me she was going to give her a little rub. She patted her and rubbed her and I think I was saying panicky things but I don’t remember. After only a moment the quiet was pierced by what sounded like an angry, mouse-sized pterodactyl. I felt some relief but I was still in shock about her size. They kept reminding me to hold her close and cuddle her and look at her but I was just dazed. I felt the urge to push the placenta out but it didn’t come away as easily as all my others had, it didn’t feel right. The pool filled with blood and Shawna said we should go ahead and cut the cord since it was short. She clamped the cord and gave the scissors to my second born (Sophia, age 8) who leaned into the literal blood bath and hacked away at the cord with the most joyful expression. It took her several tries to sever the rubbery cord. The whole scene just seemed so silly to me and I laughed.
I was helped out of the tub, into bed and dried off. Shawna checked over baby while Nanette looked after me. We were careful to keep baby warm. I continued to hemorrhage so I was given a shot of pitocin in my thigh which I loudly complained was as bad as childbirth. Shawna confirmed that I am definitely a drama queen. The girls all gave Lucy a quick snuggle and we sent them back to bed.
Once the bleeding was under control and I was tucked warm in bed, the midwives weighed Lucy. 4lbs 12oz, 17.5 inches long. Definitely much smaller than the biophysical profile suggested. They also looked over the placenta and told me it was in pretty bad shape, much smaller and much, much more degraded than it ought to have been at 38 weeks, contrary to the results of the BPP. To be clear I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s not like ultrasounds are incredibly clear and straightforward. I imagine they also did the best they could with the information they had. After we weighed her Shawna said, “Dude. Heather. How about those recurring dreams about a scrawny baby…”
I was a little crushed, feeling like my body had failed my baby. Like maybe I’d done something wrong. Like I could have eaten more perfectly or taken more supplements or practiced better self care. And maybe I still feel that way.
I also have some mixed feelings about the birth (as do the midwives!) because on one hand, had we known she was under 5lbs it would have been an automatic hospital transfer. That’s sort of their cut off and they are absolutely not reckless with their mamas or their babies. We were given comforting information via the proper medical channels and we proceeded accordingly. On the other hand, none of us regret that it happened this way because other than being scrawny she has all the signs of being a robust, healthy baby. She’s been able to hold her temperature from the beginning, had perfect blood oxygen levels and muscle tone, and is already gaining after a very minimal dip in weight. I don’t believe the outcome would have been better at a hospital in our case. I’d just be more stressed. So I’m glad she was born at home, though of course had I known she was doing as poorly as she was I would have gotten her out of there earlier (and it would have happened at the hospital.) I wish I knew why my placenta stopped functioning, but I’m grateful to my body at the same time. It’s almost as if, not only did it subconsciously give me a heads up to be prepared for a tiny baby (literally almost from day one), but it did sustain her as well as it could and then got her out of there the minute it became necessary.
The midwives put us to bed and then Shawna crawled into the guest bed and Nanette collapsed into the egg chair and they slept over til about 10am to keep an eye on me for bleeding and to keep an eye on Lucia’s temperature. They stressed to me the importance of absolute rest for myself and that my only job would be to keep Lucy’s temperature perfect and fatten her up as quickly as possible. Fortunately, in their experience, babies who are born very small but are full term tend to thrive better than even larger babies that are preterm. She isn’t premature, she’s just tiny, and appears totally developed in every way. We are of course exercising an abundance of caution and they come by every day for a weight check.
It’s always weird emotionally processing a birth. Birth is a spiritual thing and each one changes you. You don’t participate in the act of bringing a human soul into the world and remain unchanged. I read somewhere that there is an opening between the physical and spiritual realms during a birth, and I think there’s something to that. The house feels different after a birth. Home births are also hard to process because there’s always a little bit of fear of judgement.
I think, just like that desire for control, there’s a desire to hear definitively “you did the right thing.” But that’s not a real thing. Especially with parenting. We make the choices we make and we’re not entitled to validation for it. When you’re doing a thing that’s somewhat outside the social norm, you have to be especially willing to own your choices. My desire to be understood, and to explain myself, and to make sure everyone knows the midwives went above and beyond is really just pride and so I’m just going to say this: I’m happy with the way things went. And I’m not just “not sorry” because nothing bad happened, I in fact actually believe in all the counter culture parenting things we do. Not just so long as we continue to get lucky, but even when they don’t go as planned. We don’t take these things lightly, but make decisions on purpose that seem best for our family . We parent intentionally. We live intentionally. I think sometimes the status quo offers a false sense of security, and often it’s not lower in actual risk, it’s just that the risk is lower that we will feel at fault if things (that really are out of our control) don’t go as planned. It was a beautiful birth and God was with us, and overall I feel nothing but gratitude. We are proud to introduce to the world Lucia (meaning Light) Louise (meaning warrior.)
Lucia, I hope someday you read this and know that I was pregnant with you during the hardest time of my life. I beat myself up for not feeling connected to you before you were born, for not feeling ready for another baby, but the second I saw your face I knew you, and I thought “It was you that was with me that whole time. I didn’t know it was you, but you were with me when I was struggling.” You were a light in a dark place and you are aptly named, my darling girl. Your mother loves you more than you will ever know.
Oregon and Washington are two of the most beautiful states, and we definitely wanted to hit a couple of highlights, but by the time we’d reached Oregon we started feeling pretty ambitious. A week prior I didn’t think we’d make it to the California border, and now we’d done the entire coast and were feeling pretty good. If you haven’t been reading this series from the beginning, my ultimate goal was to make it to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks after seeing the Pacific Ocean. It’s a pretty roundabout, crazy-pants route. It was starting to look like we were actually going to make it. We’d skipped a few stops, like San Diego, and we were unable to visit Lake Tahoe or Yosemite because of wildfire. Everything from this point on, between where we were in that moment and making it to Glacier, was just icing on the cake. So now we had to decide how many more stops we wanted to make. Did we want to take our time in Oregon and Washington before travelling due east toward Glacier, or did we want to go big? We’d been toying with the idea of dipping our toes into Canada. Specifically, Banff National Park. (I know. So basic. Sue me.) Naturally, we’d brought our passports and notarized letters from our husbands stating their permission to take the girls out of the country, just in case of the unlikely event that the road trip was a wild success.
The southwestern tip of Oregon is not exactly close to Banff. But close is such a relative term. Compared to Oklahoma, I was so super close! Distance wasn’t the only obstacle to our route planning. In August 2018, it seemed like the entire west was on fire. Banff, Glacier, and Yellowstone were all on fire, but at that moment, the parks remained open. We faced the very real possibility that we would waste too much time getting to Glacier and Yellowstone, only to find them closed by the time we made it. Worse, we worried that we might be risking our actual safety, but I was vigilantly watching the fire updates and keeping tabs on road closures and safety conditions in my travel and camping groups on Facebook.
In the end, I remembered that I wasn’t going to waste time on worrying about things I couldn’t control. We were in Oregon, and we had to at least check a few items off. 1. I wanted to camp on the coast. 2. We wanted to visit Multnomah Falls 3. We wanted to spend a few hours in Portland. And so, we did.
We were already riding along the coast, so as soon as we crossed into Oregon I was ready to find any campsite. We were sick of the car and I knew from our surroundings that any site was bound to be stunning. I think we just routed to the first campsite that came up on Google. When we pulled up, I couldn’t believe our luck. This had to be the prettiest place in all of Oregon. It cost something like $9 a night and honestly, if I didn’t love Daniel so much, I’d literally still be there. The sites were dispersed amongst the redwoods and the berry patches, directly across from a perfect Oregon beach, complete with gray driftwood and rocky formations. There were water spigots and a few bathroom/shower facilities between the tent sites. We were warned by the ranger upon entry that we needed to be vigilant here in bear territory and, you know, it made us a little nervous but I was so amped up I was like “I will punch a bear with my bare hands, I ain’t scared.” I’d probably been drinking too much coffee. I was literally giddy. I couldn’t stop laughing. There is nowhere I’d rather be than standing barefoot between ancient redwoods while listening to the waves of the Pacific crash against the beach, breathing in that salty sea air.
Our first night in Oregon, we were bundled up all cozy in our sleeping bags with our sweaters and wool socks, drifting off to sleep, when Brooke and I were startled by the sound of heavy footfalls. We lay there frozen, listening to the steps going in a slow circle around the camper, accompanied by what sounded like the opposite of a snort. It sounded like a large animal exhaling forcefully and I later learned it’s called “chuffing” and it’s what bears do when they’re nervous. After a minute or so, Tigo (my standard poodle) was alerted and barked his heart-stopping bark, and the bear immediately ran away. We were finally able to fall asleep again, only to be jarred out of our sleep once more by a small animal with little ears scratching frantically at the camper door, almost pulling it open. I could only see its silhouette through the door. At first I thought it was a baby bear, but it was probably a racoon. I was just so stunned that I very loudly asked it “what in the hell was going on here?” and that was enough to send it scampering back into the woods. Somehow, we managed to sleep soundly the rest of the night.
We didn’t go anywhere else in Brookings. We cooked our meals on the camp stove, took long walks, let the girls and the pets go off on walks. We played cards and hiked down to the beach. I never wanted to leave. But we were on a mission, and somehow Brooke snapped me out of my enchanted state long enough to pack up and get on the road.
For some reason, I can’t remember why, we only ended up driving a few hours before we were really exhausted again. Really tired of the car again. So we ended up at this amazing wooded Thousand Trails RV park near Florence, Oregon which was stupid expensive but the sites were so beautiful. Shady and cool, plus it didn’t hurt that there was a playground, pool, hot tub, game room, and laundry facilities. We needed to do laundry and the kids needed more time to play in the woods. In the grand scheme of our “itinerary” the two nights we spent there were “wasted days” but all of us remember them as two of our most fun, relaxing days. There were plenty of families around and we felt safe letting the kids and dogs wander a little (and the cat wandered a lot, as always) and we swam, cooked some more, popped popcorn, and played endless games of cards. I remember sleeping so deeply in the woods and just feeling….good. We also ventured into the town of Florence to eat some super fresh sea food and walk around the pier. We also bought peaches at the farmers market and grabbed some coffee at a little hole in the wall place that had water dishes for our pets. We stopped in a little local shop to buy flavored oils, jams, and spicy green olives (and some other garlicky, spicy pickled things.)
While we were packing up the camper to head out, I started texting my mom’s cousin in Spokane, Washington. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, and I didn’t know if he’d want to see us, but it felt weird to know I was going pass through Spokane so close to family in a few days and not at least tell him we were in town. To my surprise he responded immediately and told me he’d love to see us, and that we were welcome to stop by his house if I’d just give him a few hours heads up..
We got on the road again and booked it toward Portland and Multnomah Falls. We passed through Portland, planning to circle back after we’d seen the falls, but as we were nearing the falls the brakes started whining. They’d been a little shaky now and then since Northern California and I figured we’d have them checked once we got to a decent sized town. Knowing the falls weren’t going anywhere and that there’s no time like the present, we turned around right then. First, I had to find a doggy daycare for the animals. I have an app for that, of course, and I found this sweet lady and talked her into keeping both dogs AND the cat, even though she doesn’t keep cats, as a rule. Once they were at daycare and having a blast with several doggy friends, it was time to deal with the brakes. I called around to a few places until a Meineke told me they had room for my camper in the parking lot. We unhitched and sat in the waiting room for a while. He came and broke the news that the brakes needed to be replaced and two of the tires. It was a big expense, all at once, but one I had certainly planned for. I was honestly pleased they’d made it this far. It was obvious the owner felt really bad for us though, and he kept apologizing. He seemed to think we might think he was ripping us off, and tried to find a way to, without offending, offer to FaceTime our husbands, but having put the van what we put it through, I was fully expecting a change of brakes at the very least. He gave me a free oil change. We asked him directions to the nearest bus stop so we could explore Portland for a couple of hours and he was like “this is not a good part of town and I can’t let you walk to the bus stop.” Fortunately, he told us, he has a million kids so his car was big enough to accommodate all of us. He drove us to the metro station and said he’d call us when it was time to make our way back. We only had a couple of hours so we ate, got some coffee, and just walked around. I don’t really feel like we saw Portland, except that I eavesdropped on hilarious hipster conversations while sipping Portland coffee and got hit on by a 17 year old girl with rainbow hair on the metro, and we were given organic, fair-trade chocolate and fresh from the farmer’s market fruit by the super cool, eclectic old lady who babysits dogs in sweaters in a super wealthy Portland neighborhood. I’m just not a good city tourist. Brooke is, fortunately, or else I never would have been able to even navigate the public transportation. I pretty much hung on her shirt tail the whole time we were there. I left the dogsitter and the Meineke rave reviews on google and yelp, of course.
After we picked up the pets we booked it for Multnomah falls. Due to rockslides from a recent fire, you can’t hike up the entire thing anymore, but we hiked up as far as we were allowed to and took pictures. It’s really beautiful and I’m sorry I’m not a better photographer, but as usually maybe you’ll just be inspired to go see it for yourself.
We left Oregon, with new brakes and tires, and headed for Washington where we saw all the most important things. My amazing friend Holly and her fam, my mom’s cousin Craig, and of course Mount Rainier National Park. But that’s a story for next time
Prior to the road trip, I’d never been to California. I had a lot of ideas about California. Stereotypes mostly, some true, some not. But one thing I knew for certain is that driving up the California coastline is a quintessential part of the Great American Road Trip. Burned into my imagination from a very young age owed in large part to TV shows and movies featuring cool people in convertibles driving along Highway 1, it was never the convertible nor the desire to be cool that landed the Pacific Coast Highway on my earliest bucket list, but the scenery. I know that you were probably under the impression that I am very cool in my bitchin mini van, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. I am not. As versatile as the Honda Odyssey is, they do not yet make them in convertible styles. But no matter, because as I said, I just wanted to coast along that incredible view.
A big part of me never really thought we’d make it to California. So far we’d done Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Two women, 5 little girls, 2 dogs, and very funny little cat in a a 1987 pop up camper. It was a lot. We were really far from home now. Up til this point it felt almost like we were dipping our toes in the water. Playing road trip. But now we were about to cross the California state line, and now it felt like we were real live grown up road trippers. We’d made it to the original destination of the trip that never came to be when I was a senior in high school. It was a big moment, and for the first time, we pulled over to take a picture with the sign.
My first incorrect assumption about California was that it was going to just suddenly be very different from all the Nevada we’d just driven through. Not being a total idiot, I knew that was silly on some level, but you know how it is. It’s California! California is iconic in everyone’s mind. It’s universal. The other day we were at a restaurant here in Saudi Arabia. The waiter asked us where in the United States we were from. We told him “Oklahoma” and he said “oh, yes! Oakland!” and we could not convince this man we were not from California because to most people, the United States is made up of sunny California, New York City, (where the Sex and the City girls live) and Texas, home of cowboys and outlaws.
So we crossed the state line and the dirt there was an extension of the Nevada dirt, and the desert you cross between the two states is absolutely brutal with heat. I almost felt a little down but when I posted on Instagram that we were in California, my friend Kim, who is from the area, immediately responded that we should stop at Eddie’s. At that exact moment we saw the exit for Eddie’s and pulled over. Eddie’s is a giant…gas station? In the same way Buccee’s is a gas station, but it was a little less redneck than Buccee’s. (If you know me, you know I consider redneck a compliment. But Buccee’s is a little obnoxious, ok? Don’t come after me I’m entitled to my opinion!) At Kim’s recommendation we got ice cream and sushi there (and gas, duh) and it was amazing and I was immensely cheered up. I think I also bought my kids each a stuffed animal there, because I am a sucker, and they’re just so cute. Have you seen my kids? They’re really, really cute. Brooke got Ridlee something too, because Ridlee is also super cute and Brooke is also a sucker.
We decided very, very last minute to skip San Diego because it was so far south, and we knew we wouldn’t stay long enough to do it any justice, so I set my GPS for Pismo Beach, for no other reason than that a friend from high school had lived there for a while and posted some pretty pictures of it. (hi Shirah!)
We drove through lots and lots of tiny towns, and lots and lots of farmland. Some vineyards, but mostly just rows of produce. We played a guessing game called “what the heck is that?” as we drove past vegetables we don’t grow in Oklahoma. Brooke managed to correctly identify artichokes which look super crazy coming out of the ground. I knew a lot of our food comes from California but it was really cool seeing it all close up and it was a good learning opportunity for the kids.
Finally we came up over a hill and we were coming into Pismo Beach and I got my first heart stopping glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, and I think I had a perma-smile from that moment on. It was such a cute, foggy town. It was getting late in the afternoon so we had to find a campsite. We drove into an RV park with no attendant. It was basically an honor system thing so we left some money in an envelope and found a nice grassy spot.
The girls and pets ran around and stretched their legs and played while Brooke and I popped up the camper. I saw Brooke’s face fall as a dreaded realization hit her. When we’d popped the camper up at the junkyard in Arizona for the tire guy to take a look at the broken arms, we’d left all four of the support poles for the slide outs lying on the ground, where they blended it with all the other rusty scrap metal lying around. We’d stayed in hotels since then, so we were very far away from them now. The camper is utterly useless without them. You can not sleep in the slide outs with no steel supports. And for the first time, maybe ever, Brooke was rattled. And it’s so funny because I am the spaz. I am the anxious one. She’s the sensible, calm one. But when someone needs me to be the calm, level headed one, you better believe I’m there for it. “Heather. What the heck are we going to do?” but I still had my perma smile one. “Girl I’m not even worried about it. We passed an RV parts store not even a mile back. It’ll be open in the morning. Nobody carries Pop Up parts but they’ll have some ideas I bet. Let’s pull these picnic tables over to the slide outs and rest the slide outs on them for support. Problem solved. We have the tent if all else fails.”
We drove back into town for some burgers because we were too tired to cook, then we went back and slept like babies in the camper.
The next morning I made a big breakfast and I was confronted by my second incorrect assumption about California: It is not always sunny in California. It is not warm on the California coast in the summer time. In fact it’s actually pretty cold and so very foggy. Do you think that stopped us from swimming in the ocean? No. No it did not.
After we went swimming we stopped at the RV parts store and they literally had zero things that could help us. I thought surely the supports for real RV slide outs could be made to work, but no…. I was out of luck. And when I say nobody carries pop up parts, I mean nobody. We went back to the camper for the kids to run around and play and Brooke started some stew on the camp stove. She was pretty deep into the boxed wine at this point, if I remember correctly (boxed wine was our constant companion on non-drive days.) I stared at the bottom of the slide outs for a while. I measured the distance between the slots for the poles using a piece of floss. I told Brooke I’d be back in a little while and headed to the nearest hardware store. I found an associate and said “I need four steel pipes, as long as this piece of floss, and exactly as big around as this coke bottle cap.” He looked at me like I was nuts, but he found the proper width and cut four poles for me. I took them back to the campsite and using the hammer that Brooke very wisely brought, hammered the ish out of those bad boys until one end of each was narrow enough to fit in the top slots. That they managed to be the exact right angle was solely due to the Good Lord smiling down on us. The new support poles are exactly like the old ones, except they aren’t rusted. It felt good to save the day because I’m usually the one going “cool, what’s the plan? Tell me what to do and I’ll make it happen.” And its nice to be reminded that when necessity demands it, I can be a useful human being. We celebrated with a trip to the park, the amazingly delicious stew, several rounds of card games with the kids, and roasted marshmallows. On our way out of town the next day we stopped at a really cute coffee shop and bought some cool geodes. At some point we ate at a diner in an old train car, but I can’t for the life of me remember when we did this.
We set our sights on Monterey. Somewhere around halfway there we needed gas, and I needed a new phone charger cable so we pulled over in a very busy, very cute touristy town called Cambria. As I was paying way too much for my new charger I asked the teenaged cashier if there was a good, scenic place to have a picnic and he gave me the name of a park, Moonstone Beach Park. We routed to it and were not disappointed. We had the entire beach to ourselves so we sat and watched the waves while we ate our leftover stew (kept warm by the Wonder Bag, which I mentioned in this post)
The drive between Pismo and Monterrey was really beautiful. I sort of thought the PCH would be like, I don’t know, short stretches of scenic coastline interrupted by long stretches of times where the view of the ocean would be obstructed by this or that, but no… you can pretty much see the incredible views of the pacific for miles and miles and miles. Brooke was driving for most of this, and we soon crossed into Big Sur. The kids and I were just soaking in the views. At one point I was staring into the water and I saw something that made my heart stop. “Brooke. BROOKE! Pull over. Something HUGE…something MASSIVE just came out of the water.” Fortunately, there was a scenic turnout right there, and she quickly pulled over. Brooke and the big kids ran to the edge of the cliff while I unbuckled Margaret and they saw the back of the blue whale and a stream of water shoot out from it’s blowhole. By the time baby and I got there, we did not see it again, but we saw a school of orcas jumping out of the water. We watched in stunned disbelief, having not expected at all to see whales. I started to doubt my eyes about what I had seen. Are there even blue whales here? This time of year? Why is it here with the orcas? Brooke said, “It almost seems like the orcas were hunting the big one.” So I hopped on the Google real fast and it turns out, yes, orcas hunt blue whales on the coast of Big Sur in late summer.
We just stared for a while, totally stunned at this surreal, unexpected experience. Just then, something equally bizarre came out of the water below, which crashed violently against the jagged rocks, and climbed up the steep rocky cliff. A man in diving gear. We stared some more as the skinny figure approached. I noticed for the first time an old truck parked nearby. The man removed his goggles and headpiece, shaking his long, white-blonde hair and revealing a deeply tanned, age-worn face. What in the James Bond hell is this? Can you be any more mysterious? Emerging from rocky, rough, killer whale infested waters, far from civilization, and climbing a cliff men half his age would have struggled to scale. Dude was easily 70 years old. Assuming we’re about to meet The Most Interesting Man in the World in the flesh, we naturally had to say hello. “Hallo there!” he said, in a thick German accent. We couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity and asked if he knew there were orcas in the water. “Is there?” he looked out to the horizon and nodded. “They come here sometimes,” he noted casually. While we talked he began to strip off his neoprene suit until he was standing there in nothing but the tiniest Speedo. It was like we were seeing the oldest living California surfer dude in his natural habitat. I don’t know why I was equal parts wildly amused and absolutely fascinated by this person, but I was. I still wish I knew this guy’s story.. We asked if it was allowed to dive there and he quipped something about asking forgiveness instead of permission. In my experience, Germans appreciate rules, so this amused me even more. I asked what part of Germany he was from and he raised his eyebrows. “How did you know?” Um, well, the accent, bruh. “really? I’ve lived in the States for a long time.” This guy really doesn’t know he has a super thick German accent? Ok then. I told him my 3rd child was born not far from his hometown and he was pleased at this information for some reason, and acknowledged her. Then as suddenly as he appeared, he bid us auf wiedersehen and drove away. We walked around some more, where Brooke and Bella nearly stepped on a snake, and having enough surprises for one day, we got back in the van and kept driving.
As we pulled into Monterey we started to panic a little because I could not find us a camp site. All the camping spots were filled up. We drove to one after another. We started calling RV parks which aren’t our first choice, as they’re expensive and often not as scenic. They were all either full, way too expensive, didn’t allow pets, didn’t allow kids, didn’t allow pop up campers, or weren’t answering the phone. Then I remembered! Wait a minute! I’m an army wife! Most military bases have campsites! I called the Naval base and I was given the “Of COURSE we have room for you! Your pets are absolutely welcome! Thank you so much for your service! Godspeed to your husband, you poor sweet dear” treatment and paid a very reasonable price (discount for deployed husbands, score!) for a gorgeous little campsite in a wooded area just off the golf course.
The first day we mostly hung around the campsite so the kids and pets could run and play, but the next morning we explored gorgeous downtown Monterey, got donuts, had lunch at a cute café. We found a dog friendly beach and spent hours letting the kids and dogs splash around in the chilly water. We didn’t spend much time at the pier but Brooke did go to the market and get a very freshly caught Ling Cod, and then we went to Whole Foods to stock up on groceries. Did you know you can buy raw cream in California? You can. It is a magical, magical place. Our coffee game was strong in California.
When we got back to camp, I made guacamole and baja rice while Brooke cooked the cod with this crazy delicious herb parmesan crust. I complained loudly that it was too bad we didn’t bring a pitcher with us, and the nice army wife in the RV next to us said “I think I have a pitcher for you!” Brooke said “she’s making white wine sangria” and it was quickly decided that she definitely had a pitcher for us. I still think about that meal. It was hands down one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and we had enough to share with the neighbors, who turned out to be a really nice family. (Hi ) The kids had a lot of fun running around and our time in Monterey was super relaxing. The next morning the girls and I went to mass at a 200 year old church, and then we got back to camp to pack up so we could get on move on to see the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco was originally one of the few cities I planned to spend some time in, but after Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Monterey I was ready to be in the wilderness again. The Pacific Northwest was calling my name. We were content to just pass through. As long as I got a glimpse of the Painted Ladies, the harbor, and of course the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, I’d be happy to see the city in my rearview mirror. And we saw the harbor. And the famous Victorian architecture. But the bridge? Well. We didn’t see it at all. Brooke drove us across it…but we didn’t see it. How is this, you might be wondering? Fog. Did I mention the fog on the California coast? It’s foggy. So foggy that you can not even see the massive golden bridge even when you are literally on it. So we passed through and set our sights on Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California, driving along even more of the stunning Pacific Coast Highway
Just before the sun went down we drove through Anderson Valley wine country, where vineyards are sprawled out on the mountain sides and quaint farms are nestled in the valleys. It was such a pleasant surprise We watched the sun go down behind the mountains and I decided that as soon as the kids are grown, Daniel and I are taking a romantic vacation to Anderson Valley to stay in a bed and breakfast and tour the wineries. Brooke was trooper driving during these constant hairpin switchbacks and we all got a little carsick. As it got dark we started to enter the beginning of the Redwood forests, and for some reason the thick, dark forests looming directly along the narrow roads shrouded in mist seemed really creepy and we started to freak ourselves out with, “what if we break down here?” scenarios. We both had zero cell service. Brooke, for all her bravery, does not like ghost stories, so she cussed at me when I noted out loud that it had to be the woods from the Blair Witch Project. Finally we made it to Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg is cold and foggy too. It’s another adorable little touristy town on the coast. We got there too late to set up camp so we found a hotel downtown and went straight to bed. Well, the kids and I did. Brooke stayed up checking under her bed for the Blair Witch. The next morning we walked from our hotel to the most highly recommended breakfast spot in town, a little Wizard of Oz themed diner with all kinds of hilarious little details. After breakfast we were all cold, so we went to a t-shirt shop to get the girls some sweaters and I bought myself a shirt.
A short walk from the restaurant is Glass Beach. A long time ago, the beach was a dump for glass, and over the years the waves have smoothed down the shattered glass into smooth, colored glass “sand.” It’s really beautiful. Walking back to the car we picked wild blackberries to eat and saw some wild deer.
It was still early in the day but we decided to get back on the road so we could see more of our scenic drive in the light of day. As you near the Oregon border, the Pacific Coast highway gets more beautiful, but the road becomes more narrow and winding and also increases drastically in altitude as you head into the Cascades. The views are indescribably beautiful, but you feel very much like you are on a cliff that plunges into the rocky waters below. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been a nervous driver but my confidence grew so much during the trip that I was intent on driving, and pulling our camper, on this famously harrowing stretch of road. If you want to feel alive, I can’t recommend driving the northern part of the pch highly enough. It’s scary, but the views of the cliffs and the ocean are worth it. The pacific northwest is hands down the most beautiful part of the lower 48 (well, I’ve only been to 44 of them, but I have a good feeling about it.) To me, this was the ultimate test of “am I an ok driver?” and Brooke might disagree, but I think I passed with flying colors.
This is also the part of California where you start to really come into the Redwood forest. I know everybody likes trees, but when I say I love trees, I mean it in a super weird way, ok? Like, I get emotional anytime I’m in the forest. It’s weird. So more than all the mountain ranges and all the oceans and the canyons and everything we saw on the trip, the redwoods were my favorite. Redwoods are huge. The first time you see them you can’t believe the enormity of them. In fact, the entire time we were in NorCal and Oregon, I’m pretty sure Brooke got really tired of hearing me say “oh my gosh. Look at that tree. LOOK AT IT! They are so big! How are they this big?” I pretty much just freaked out about them nonstop. We weren’t looking for it, but when we saw a sign for the famous drive-through redwood, we took a quick detour to see it. We weren’t able to drive through it because of our car top cargo bag, but we stood inside it. We pulled over more than once just to admire the trees and stand in awe and take pictures.
That afternoon, we crossed into Oregon, where we stayed at my favorite coastal campgrounds. But that’s a story for next time.
*taking a break from your regularly scheduled programming of west coast trip blogs to post about the incredible weekend I spent in Cairo, because I just can’t help myself*
A few months before I came to Saudi Arabia, Daniel had an idea. He thought my visit here would be a perfect opportunity for me to cross “solo travel” off my bucket list. He said he’d take a day or two off work to be with the kids and send me somewhere for a couple of nights so I could rest and relax and explore a new city all on my own terms. No husband, no kids. He wanted me to book a nice hotel and sit on a beach where I could drink fruity alcoholic beverages and blog or rest or stroll around the shops. I laughed at this idea because A. it’s ridiculous. I enjoy traveling as a family and it wouldn’t be worth the price tag for just me B. I’d be too chicken to have my children separated from me…them in Saudi Arabia and me somewhere else. What if I couldn’t get back in? (he assured me this was a ridiculous fear.) C. The beach is nice but if we’re dropping that kind of cash I’m going to Petra or something. I need to see the wonders of the world and explore an ancient market, you know? No way was this happening. By the time I got here he’d mostly dropped it. It cost so much for us to get over here and I think he was ok with me being ok with not spending another penny. But two months in, we filed our taxes and started discussing where we’d go for dinner on my birthday and he said “Babe. Why don’t you take a trip? Go sit by a pool. Get a massage. Sleep. Look up at the sights instead of down at the kids.” And before I had time to talk myself out of it, before guilt or fear settled in, I said, “you know what? I think I will.”
Where to Go
Daniel had this vision of me lying in a lounge chair in a big floppy hat sipping drinks by the sea, luxury hotels and modern skyscrapers directly behind me. I was thinking something more like a scene out of Indiana Jones. Dirt, brutal sun, loud markets, the smell of sweat, spices, and camel poop. It needed to be close enough to Saudi Arabia that I didn’t spend the entire weekend on the plane. (Israel was completely out of the question because you can’t travel between KSA and Israel. Imma have to throw this whole passport out now that it’s got this stamp lol ) The thing about Gulf/Middle eastern countries is that in some of them you can drink. In some of them you can wear a bathing suit in public. In some of them you can do both. In some of them you can do neither. In the end we found a fantastic compromise. I’d go to Cairo and fulfill my ancient adventure fantasies, and I’d stay in a luxury hotel that caters specifically to European and American tourists. He found a reasonably priced roundtrip ticket, and I found a stunning pyramid view luxury hotel for an absolute steal thanks to an unfortunately struggling economy and a recent downturn in tourism in the area. Booked, booked, done. I was going to Egypt. In like 5 days. By. My. Freaking. Self. Cue major panic.
Calming My Nerves
I’ve traveled quite a bit, and often it has been just me and the kids, but driving across the US border into Canada for a few days, or driving 30 minutes from our old house in Germany to a grocery store in France is one thing. Travelling to a place that is so culturally different from your own is another thing. French and German can be figured out by an anglophone. Arabic, if you didn’t know, looks like noodles. Beautiful noodles of course, because they’re very into calligraphy. But exactly as intelligible to my uncultured self as a bowl of spaghetti. So as much as I wanted to believe in myself that I’m a grown woman entirely capable of exploring a city on my own, I was a little nervous.
Fortunately, I know people. I know all the best people. I don’t know why. I just do. So I know this fearless, fascinating woman named Stacey and this is the second time I’ve mentioned her on the blog because she’s always going in front of me and doing all the cool things first then I get to stand on her shoulders and reap the benefits of her experience and avoid some of the hardship, thanks to her willingness to share her wisdom. Things like camper renovation, camping in the wilderness, solo travel, beekeeping, being an admirer of llamas, relentlessly pursuing her dreams. That sort of thing. She’s also a veteran who served with my husband and is in fact actually his friend but I stole her because she likes me better. Just kidding. Anyway, it turns out Stacey very recently went to Cairo by herself also. Her first words of wisdom to me were “My advice is…don’t go solo. But if your choices are solo or not at all, definitely go.” She affirmed some things I’d read on travel blogs (like how traffic is insanity, and how tourists are very aggressively harassed to buy things, and a tip is expected for *everything* and Uber is safer than Taxis) she also noted that it’s very hard to find WiFi in Cairo and even if your international data plan covers Egypt…it doesn’t really cover Egypt. She gave me a little confidence boost and I made a plan to shuttle to the hotel, Uber to a few sites, and spend a lot of time at the hotel. I wanted to be realistic, and give myself lots of time, and not bite off more than I could chew on my first solo trip.
I had another person I wanted to contact. A friend from college named Islam who grew up in Egypt. He still lives in the US and we’ve kept in touch with each other a little on Facebook. I reached out to him and asked for any advice or must-see hidden gems. Not only did he give me advice, but he called his sister living in Cairo, right then and there, and arranged for us to get together, despite the fact that she works, goes to university, has a life, and is planning a wedding. What a relief it was to have the name and phone number of someone, especially a woman, who I could meet and reach out to. I was not so dedicated to “doing this on my own” that I would not take advantage of what turned out to be the first of many displays of Egyptians’ famed hospitality.
A couple of days before the trip, Daniel came home from work and said “so you know how Muhammed is from Egypt?” Muhammed is his friend and translator from work. “oh, right. He’s from Egypt, does he have any advice for me?” “No, no advice but um…his parents live in Cairo and they insist on picking you up from the airport and showing you around a little.” I thought, well, that’s very generous but surely they don’t want to hang out at all these places they’ve been a million times. So we told them I planned to spend a lot of time at the hotel, that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much of Cairo, and I was just taking a relaxing vacation. I did not want them to feel like they had to do anything, but I also did not want to turn down their kindness because knowing the Egyptians that I do know, they are very genuine. They don’t say things they don’t mean. They are just extremely generous people. Also, as much as I wanted to prove to myself I could travel alone….I knew I’d see so much more of Cairo with natives of the city by my side and I owed it to the great city of Cairo and the wonderful people of Egypt to do as much justice as I could while I had the opportunity. So I removed my pride from the equation and threw myself at the mercy of whatever M’s parents wanted to do for the two days I was there, because I know a once in a lifetime opportunity when it hits me in the face. M’s dad is a history professor. A tour of the pyramids and museum from a history professor, a native of Cairo? Luck is not the right word here. (To be clear, we like and trust this person very much. I had no qualms about getting in a car with these complete strangers if M said it was ok. He sent me a picture of his parents so I knew who to look for)
My flight left Riyadh at 6am. I like the Riyadh airport. Friendly, helpful, straightforward and easy to navigate. Oh, and efficient. Got to my gate in no time. Saudia Air is a pretty decent airline too, besides their lack of booze, and I slept much of the 3 hours to Cairo. Only one other time in my life have I flown without a baby in my lap, and it was when I was 17. The day before my 31st birthday I finally got to experience what it feels like to close your eyes on an airplane. Also, I had a window seat so I was able to look out as we flew over Mount Sinai and oh my goodness, the Red Sea is beautiful and blue from above. Because of the time difference I arrived in Cairo at 8am, and the Cairo airport is NOT like the Riyadh airport. Confusing, nobody to help you, inefficient. I purchased my Visa and went through customs and found M’s dad, who we will call Dr. B, holding a sign with my name in large capital letters. After a warm greeting he did what all non-native English speakers do: apologized for his poor English in dang-near-perfect English. He explained that his wife would not be joining us today because she was helping their daughter with a school project, but that I would meet her tomorrow. I got in his car with no idea where we were going. I told him I had not used the airport ATM to get Egyptian pounds, because I had read not to do it there, so I’d need to get some cash. He said “There’s nothing you’ll need to pay for today. But if you find something you want to buy we can figure it out.” I told him I had hoped to buy meals for my gracious hosts and he laughed at me and no more was said.
I thought Saudi traffic was bad, but Egyptian traffic is worse. There are no rules. Literally none. But Dr. B expertly dodged and swerved and explained to me points of interest along our route. Cairo has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument with ever-present guards, just like we do. A museum here, a palace there. I had no idea where we were going and for some reason felt awkward asking. Finally we parked at an apartment building and he said, “This is the home of my sister Hannan. We will stay only five minutes, don’t worry. Two days is not enough time to see Cairo. You need a month. We have no time. We must hurry”
The building seemed very old, and the first floor was dark and apparently abandoned. We rode a tiny rickety elevator to the second floor, and it stopped, lurched, and the lights went out. He assured me it always does this. We stepped out into the hall and knocked on the first door. A glamorous woman answered the door, dressed head to toe like … an American. She introduced herself as Dr. B’s sister and her son Kareem came to the door and introduced himself. I was a little taken aback by their American accents. Hannan led me into her sitting room, decorated in a stylish blend of modern and antique. To say the inside of the house did not match the outside of the apartment building is an understatement. I don’t know how else to say it….her whole house was really fancy.
The reason I mention this is because Hannan’s house is sort of representative of all of Cairo. It is a very, very old city, but at the same time a modern city. It is at the same time a developing country, and a developed one. The old and the new are often right next to each other. The rich and the poor are right next to each other. And sometimes, right when you think everything around you is very Egyptian, you’ll be surprised by something American. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or at Hannan’s house, her son. Born and raised in the States. Just like there seemed to be no building manager keeping up the first level of the building or paying the electric bill, yet Hannan’s house was full of the most high tech appliances and every luxury available to modern man, the government is obviously trying to build Egypt’s infrastructure up in some areas, renovating and conserving where they can, but doesn’t have the resources for all the city and state programs westerners are used to. Nobody is cleaning the dead animals off the road or rounding up the strays. Nobody really seems to be protecting the pyramids. Traffic violations are the absolute last thing on the minds of the police. But still, the conveniences of the modern first world are near at hand. A barefoot man may be herding his underfed sheep past a brand new high rise of loft apartments in the middle of the city as both nice cars and donkeys pulling carts zoom by on the same street. Cairo is home to some of the most impressive museums, prestigious universities, and awe-inspiring works of architecture and feats of human genius and innovation in the entire world, but at the same time you find yourself going “hm, odd place for a trash pile and a goat herd, but ok.”
Understand, none of this is a criticism. These observations are a result of complex things I don’t understand. I’m not an economist or a historian, and I’m not an Egyptian. Just a grateful observer sharing what I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that sometimes these things are jarring to American tourists because we don’t have any truly old cities. We haven’t been around long enough to have as many overlapping layers of economic highs and low, peace and unrest. We’re very specific about zoning laws. Business here, residents there. We tend to have a wealthy side of town and a poor side of town. Cairo is so big and so old and has such a long history that I’ve barely scratched the surface, especially of their recent political history. I just wanted to paint this picture because photos on Instagram don’t always show the construction mess or the McDonald’s or the poverty or general lack of infrastructure in a place and then people (especially Americans) visit these places and are surprised by what they find in the vicinity of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, both in and out of western countries.
Anyway, that was a long rabbit trail, but back to Hannan’s beautiful living room. She immediately offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted, and then added “If that’s alright with Dr. B. I think we’re on a tight schedule.” He said there’s always time for coffee, so we went to her table where I had a great view of the city. I’d read three stereotypes about Egyptians. 1. They are hospitable 2. They love sweets 3. They will force feed you until you are sick. I can confirm that sometimes stereotypes are rooted in truth. Hannan told me she’d hosted a big party the night before for all her girlfriends and had some sweets leftover. She made me a plate of pastries to go with my coffee and kept adding more as I finished what I ate. It was all so, so good. I was so glad I’d decided to forgo the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Riyadh airport that morning. I had not even seen any of Cairo, but the fact that I was invited into an Egyptian home and served beautiful Egyptian pastries and coffee had me already overwhelmed with feeling so grateful for the experience. After I was allowed to be done eating (ha!), Dr. B, Kareem and I headed to the car. Kareem was asked to come along as a translator. Once again I had no idea where we were going.
Our next stop, just a short distance from Hannnan’s home, was the Baron Empain Palace. Baron Empain was a rich Belgian industrialist and Egyptologist who came to Cairo in 1904 and built up the part of the city known as the Heliopolis. He built roads, parks, housing, hotels and brought in electricity, sewer and running water. A lot of streets and businesses in the area are still named for the Baron. His house, the palace, stands out as an incredibly unique piece of architecture because it was mostly inspired by Angkor Wat and Indian temples but also has some Arab and European influence. It’s beautiful and was a tourist attraction for many years, but unfortunately was abandoned and completely vandalized. At the moment it’s covered in scaffolding and closed to the public. I was confused as to why we were here in this construction zone but we got out of the car and two men came to greet us, shaking my hand warmly and embracing the men with hugs and cheek kissing (seriously people, Americans are the only people in the world who don’t kiss each other.) One of the men was Dr. B’s friend Yasser, and I feel like a jerk because I don’t remember the other gentleman’s name, but he led us to a temporary mobile office with a large conference table and offered me more tea or coffee, and seemed unsure what to do when I declined. I’d read that public restrooms are not as easy to come by in Egypt, and listen…I’ve birthed four kids. I can only drink so much tea, ok? Anyway he explains to me what they’re doing at the palace and how he works for the University of Cairo in the restoration and conservation department. (All of this was in Arabic, with Kareem translating expertly for us) then he asked what my field…what my specialty was and I was horrified. This guy…a brilliant PhD is here assuming I’m some kind of academic because I was there with Dr. B and Yasser. I laughed awkwardly and told him I’m just a housewife. Just a tourist. He said “ok!” and led us toward the palace. Probably wondering why the heck he was wasting his time on this random college dropout, but as he gave us the tour he was so accommodating and informative and so very clearly passionate about his projects. If I was an inconvenience, or if he thought I was an idiot, he certainly made me feel very welcome. I was forced to drink some sort of delicious fruity malt beverage, and a bottle of water, and to put more water bottles in my purse (on top of the ones I bought at the airport and that Ms. Hannan had given me) I was so very adequately hydrated in Egypt. After the tour of the palace Dr. B, Kareem, Yasser and I got in the car and headed to the Museum of Egypt.
Kareem was great and really made the first day very comfortable. He’s a dual citizen, raised in the States but his mother keeps her house in Cairo to live in part of the year. He’s also about my age, maybe a little younger. So not only was he there breaking the language barrier, he was also bridging cultural and generational gaps between me and my host. It was nice to be able to lean over and whisper “what’s the polite thing to do in this situation?” and him immediately understand. Also, I was able to talk and joke about things that a fellow Millennial would understand. Because that is the thing that defines us as a generation: we’ve all been connected to each other for as long as we can remember, thanks to the internet. He sort of instinctively knew which things to explain to me, and how to make them relatable.
The Museum of Egypt
It seemed that Dr. B was flashing his University ID card a lot, and I think he was getting us into a lot of things for free, but honestly, I think he was also just paying for things behind my back. If this was happening, it was very discreet so that I was unable to protest. This is why, when we were approached by another man at the museum entrance who embraced and kissed everyone else, I assumed we were being met by another of Dr. B’s friends. Later I realized that no, this was just a paid tour guide, but Egyptians treat everyone like family the instant they meet them, so I misunderstood and assumed they were friends. This tour guide though, was certainly the best of the best. This guy LOVES ancient Egypt and has incredible energy. The museum is huge. It takes days to see the whole thing, sort of like the Louvre. We only had a few hours, so he was talking fast and moving faster, but he showed me all the highlights of the museum. The tombs, the contents of the tombs, the statues, the art, jewelry, furniture, the mummified animals. And of course the Pharaohs. You can’t photograph Ramses II, Amenhotep, King Tutankhamen, etc, but we got to see them and it was incredible. Between the tour guide and Dr. B, they made everything come alive, so to speak (fortunately the mummies themselves did not wake up) and I could not have planned a more perfect tour of the museum. It is absolutely a must see if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Cairo.
I had told Dr. B I wanted to see some of Coptic Cairo, specifically the shrine of St. George, so that was our next stop. On the way we drove along a scenic stretch of road with a great view of the Nile, passed some very old family cemeteries, and from a distance we saw the Fortress of Saladin.
Coptic Cairo is part of Old Cairo, and according to Christian tradition this is the area the Holy Family fled to during their flight to Egypt from Herod, and it became a Christian stronghold in Egypt. Today there are quite a few (super old!) Christian churches and museums in Coptic Cairo. Many of them were built as early as the 6th and 7th century, including the original monastery over the shrine. It’s a little confusing because there are multiple St. George’s churches, but the shrine was built over the prison where the martyr St. George was imprisoned and tortured, and the torture devices used on him are on display for all to see, along with many beautiful paintings and icons of St. George. You can go down into the prison cells, too, where people have left handwritten messages folded up and crammed into the cracks of the walls. Some of the letters are framed and on display, and since they are all in Arabic, Dr. B read some of them to me. Many of them are from not only Christians, but Muslims also who have come into the shrine and asked St. George to pray for them and then they leave notes telling how God delivered them from both physical ailments and demonic ones. After we toured the church, my new friends and I lit candles and asked St. George to pray for us.
Amr ibn al-As Mosque
Just down the street from St. George shrine is Amr ibn al-As mosque. Amr ibn al-As was a contemporary and companion of Islam’s prophet Muhammed, and the site of the mosque sits on the site of his tent while he was a commander of the Muslim army. Nothing of the original mosque remains, it has been rebuilt since its destruction, but when it stood originally it was the first mosque in the whole of Africa. It was prayer time when we arrived, so as a non-muslim I was asked to wait outside. Kareem stayed with me so I would not be alone while Dr. B and Yasser went in to pray. After the short prayer time, tourists were welcomed back into the mosque. We removed our shoes at the entrance and I was given a grand tour of the beautiful building, along with history and religion lessons from my hosts. As we were preparing to leave, a large group of people came running into the building carrying a lightweight casket. Dr. B explained that in Egypt, they prefer to bury bodies very quickly after death, so a funeral consisted mostly of carrying the body to the mosque where it was oriented towards Mecca while friends and family gathered around to pray. Dr. B, Yasser, and Kareem went to pray with and offer condolences to the family (who they did not know) and I was invited to sit nearby and pray for the soul of the departed and for the comfort of his family in my own way.
Once we left the mosque it was pretty late in the afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten anything since Ms. Hannan fed us enormous amounts of pastries, so we made the long drive back to her house to drop Kareem off, where once again we were going to go in “only for a few minutes.” This time it was my turn to assure Yasser that the elevator always lurches and goes dark, and it was funny to watch him make the same horrified face I’d made that morning. As soon as we sat down on the couch Hannan told me she had tons of leftover food from the party she hosted the evening before and asked if she could make me a small plate of samples of everything. Obviously, I accepted. Unsurprisingly, it was not a small plate. It was a huge plate of chicken, veal, spinach, mushrooms, dolmas, zucchini, and a bowl of Greek salad, and a separate plate of eggplant, plus some sort of tahini sauce. Hannan’s sister-in-law and a couple grown nephews were there too, along with Kareem, Dr. B and Yasser, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a big Egyptian family dinner, listening to the talk and laughter that I mostly did not understand but still felt incredibly honored to be a part of. Hannan kept adding food to my plate until I begged for mercy at which point she made me a large plate of pastries and a big cup of coffee with cream, sugar, and cinnamon. Not to be rude, and because that cake with fresh crème was too good to pass up, I ate most of that, too. Dr. B kept hinting that we could not stay long, but it was hard to leave.
At this point I was texting with Isam’s sister Asmaa, and we planned to meet up that evening. It was decided that she would meet me and Dr. B at the nightly light-and-sound show at the pyramids across from my hotel, near where she lives. However, due to my inability to eat so much food very quickly and terrible Cairo traffic, she told me that nobody is allowed to enter the show once it had begun, and we were very clearly not going to make it in time. Dr. B laughed and said “oh I will get us in. Her too, tell her not to worry.” I passed along the message but understandably skeptical she said she’d just see me afterward. Sure enough, we were late, but Dr. B asked for someone at the gate (in Arabic of course) and then we were escorted by a man in a suit, without paying, to the VIP section, front and center. (who IS this guy? Is he a Cairo celebrity? I don’t even know.) I didn’t expect to be impressed by the lights show. But I was. After dark, they project lights and pictures onto the sphynx and pyramids and tell the entertaining history over booming loudspeakers. It was beautiful and I hadn’t realized we’d be so close to them. I was so eager to see it all in the light of day.
By the time I’d checked into my hotel and found my room (with a great view!) around 8:30, my phone was almost dead and my charger wasn’t working very well. I was reluctant to Uber to Asmaa’s house with a dead phone so I told her I’d need to wait around til I had some charge. She understood that I’d been up since 4am and had not expected to have such a full day, and though I felt like a jerk we agreed that it would be difficult for us to get together that evening. But next time. I was certainly bummed not to get to meet her, but I was also very suddenly incredibly tired and relieved that I’d be able to tell Daniel that I DID relax at the hotel a little. I let my phone charge a bit and rested, and then I went downstairs to try one of the 5 star restaurants in my incredible hotel. Some people feel awkward eating at a restaurant alone, but let me tell you. For a mother of four small children, it is a dream. I had chicken piccata, risotto, and a glass of white wine. In the entry of the hotel in front of the grand staircase, an Egyptian wedding reception was now in full swing. Live music and elegant clothing and tireless dancing. The wedding party shook hands and hugged strangers and people joined in the dancing. I was struck with the realization that somehow today, I’d happened upon both an Egyptian funeral and an Egyptian wedding, not to mention the family dinner, and I felt like the most fortunate person to have been able to sit back and observe so many pieces of Egyptian life. I went to one of the hotel bars and listened to the live music and enjoyed a couple of drinks before I went back upstairs to take advantage of my huge rainfall shower and that big empty bed.
I thought I’d sleep in, but I was up, bouncing out of bed at 6am, having slept like the dead for the first time in ten years. I ordered room service for breakfast, a huge spread of Egyptian food, bread, and fresh fruit including fresh dates and fresh squeezed juice (plus coffee of course.) I ate slowly and watched the people down by the gorgeous pool. It was a killer way to begin my 31st year of life. I relaxed by the pool until about 10, then spent an hour searching in vain for my lost debit card.
When I went to check out at 11, Yasser was there waiting for me. We walked across the street to the pyramids. Never cross a Cairo street without an Egyptian on your arm. It’s a deadly game of chicken that only they know how to play. We were met there by Dr. B and his lovely wife Ms. Elham. Having heard that it was my birthday, she presented me with a gift, a statue of the goddess Bastet, and Dr. B gave me a gift and note for Daniel saying he hoped to meet him soon.
Once again, Dr. B went behind my back and hired a tour guide. He showed us around the pyramids and the sphynx, snapped lots of pictures of me, and even took us down into a tomb of priests which was that day closed to tourists. I had the whole tomb to myself (ha! How many times does one say that phrase in their life?) It was a dream come true. You’d think I’d have more to say about crossing that major item off my bucket list, but there is no more to say. The pyramids are incredible. They are huge. I was in awe to be standing there. It was surreal. Yasser bought a little box of pyramid sculptures for me from a vendor. Dr. B shook his head again that we had no time, because two days is not enough, and we hurried to our next spot. Mrs. Elham does not speak very much English, but she is a constant source of cheerfulness and laughter. I was able to communicate to her our very high esteem of her son Muhammed, and that was definitely the nicest thing someone could say to her. As the day went on she became more confident in her English, and it was a joy to spend the day with her.
Old Cairo Bazaar District
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Old Cairo is the bazaar district and it was high on my list of things to see. A huge neighborhood of streets enclosed in an ancient stone wall with eight distinct, elaborate, enormous gates, it is a pedestrian-only sect of markets (souks) and mosques frozen in time. It is not only popular tourist destination, but a big hang out for the locals, and we saw large groups of Cairo teenagers on “recess” from school playing soccer in mosque gardens, singing Arabic rap songs while standing on benches trying to impress the teenage girls, and just walking down the street arm in arm with each other. This is the place to buy souvenirs. This place is so distinctly old Egypt and was honestly one of my favorite things about Cairo. I asked if people lived in the district and Dr. B told me that few people have apartments here, as there are not many livable houses in these incredibly old buildings anymore. It would be expensive to live here. Mostly diplomats and the like. Plus, once the gates close in the evening, they are closed for good until morning. Having been force fed lots of water and juice, I found myself worried that I was not going to find a public bathroom in this place. “We’re going to a bathroom,” I was told. Ok then. We walked along the shops and I had this truly unique experience of being a western female tourist without being harassed by the shopkeepers, as I was surrounded on all sides by locals. I was able to browse and observe at my leisure. This is not the experience of most tourists. Vendors are pretty aggressive here, as I learned when I fell behind my group for a moment once.
Suddenly we were going in the narrow door of an incredibly old building and up an even narrower set of steep stone steps. We came to a door and Yasser invited us into his home, where I was happy to be allowed to use the coolest bathroom I’ve ever seen. Yasser’s house is like a museum. Being an artist and someone who loves Egyptian history, Yasser bought the house in bad shape and restored it to its former glory through the years. The house is a beautiful, perfectly curated example of what an Egyptian house would have looked like in this district over 100 years ago. The furniture, the décor, the fixtures, every little detail. Anything that was original that could be salvaged, he did. He even hangs a tapestry over his flat screen tv so that it doesn’t take away from the effect when you walk in. He laughed at me for taking photos of his bathroom, but Mrs. Elham did the same, so it wasn’t just me being an awkward American. She was wildly impressed too. We stayed there to rest and hydrate, and everyone else charged their phones (unfortunately nobody told me I’d have access to an outlet, so I left my cable in the car and being the odd man out without an Apple phone….I just went without a phone the rest of the day once my phone died in his fancy bathroom. They took pictures for me, though.)
Afterward we explored more of the bazaar and we went to several old mosques and admired the beautiful marble, woodwork, stained glass, and architecture. I couldn’t remember the names of them all, nor even try to pronounce them. I was surprised to see so few tourists at them, and I think part of it is that some people think non-muslims are not allowed to go in them. Some of them are not used as mosques anymore and are just historical buildings, but all were as visually stunning as many of the beautiful cathedrals we visited in Europe.
Finally we went back to Yasser’s house where he served us kebab, spicy fermented vegetables, bread, and coffee. We rested and talked and Yasser showed us his collection of old photographs of Egypt 100 years ago, and Dr. B, also an artist, showed me pictures of the many sculptures he’s made that are all over Egypt (including in museums!) Finally it was time to head back to the airport, and I was sad to say goodbye to my new friends. All of Cairo, really. Everyone I met was so kind and welcoming. Everyone I met thanked me for visiting Egypt, said they were glad I was there. These people are proud of their country and they feel they’ve been unfairly represented in the media as a dangerous place. They take a lot of pride in the fact that they live side by side peacefully with their neighbors who go to the synogogue and the cathedral. They hope that someday they will see their tourism industry thriving again.
Cairo Airport was once again a nightmare. This is the one thing Saudi Arabia does better than Egypt. You go through security more than once and they seem to be annoyed by Americans. The very young, very arrogant guy at the check in desk DID try to tell me I could not get back into Saudi Arabia, and as prone as I am to panicking, I did not worry too much because I knew he was just misinformed and/or being belligerent for the sake of belligerence, but he wasted a LOT of my time and I found that being polite was not helping anymore. “Listen. You and I both know that what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense or they wouldn’t have let me in the first time. I have a five year visa. I promise you the Saudis are ok with me being there. My children are there, as you can see from the email I showed you, so an inconvenient delay at check in is not going to dissuade me from getting on this plane. I am going to get on THIS flight.” He printed my ticket without another word, because obstinate little boys do not wish to tangle with mama bears. I bought a slice of cake at the airport Starbucks, because hey, it was my birthday and took my iced coffee on the plane with me where I did something I’ve never done in my life. I watched a movie on an airplane. I am sure listening to me giggle at Crazy Rich Asians was annoying the old man next to me trying to read his Koran, but like I said. It was my birthday. I came home (to a spotless house and all laundry put away!) where my love and our babies had a strawberry tart birthday cake waiting for me. We all had a piece and collapsed into bed and it was the perfect end to a perfect weekend.
Before I left, I thought I’d come back with all this useful advice for female travelers or solo travelers, or just anyone wanting to visit Cairo. I figured I’d have some crazy stories of overcoming obstacles and inconveniences, talk about how empowering solo travel is, and end on a note about girl power and how happy I was to have this learning experience and opportunity to challenge myself. But that’s not how it went down. Everything was handed to me and I did nothing to deserve it. I have a great imagination but I could not have conceived of an easier, more amazing time in Cairo. And that’s not necessarily how most people are going to experience a trip to a foreign country. Travel is exhausting, and frustrating, and confusing. It always takes more time to get from point A to point B than you think it will. Something will always be closed even if the website said it was open. You will lose your debit card (I did!) Your phone charger will stop working (mine did!) and, you know, in my opinion it’s usually worth it to travel anyway. But this just isn’t one of those stories. If I’ve learned anything useful about traveling on this trip, it’s just a confirmation of what I’ve always believed: that it’s best to have a plan, but an extremely flexible one. Don’t be so hung up on trying a certain restaurant that you pass up an opportunity to eat something even better. The best food always presents itself to you. Be safe, be smart, but accept kindness. Don’t be afraid to throw the itinerary and all of your expectations out the window and let a good trip happen to you. You may not find yourself having all the luck I had this weekend, but it is my experience that fortune favors the bold.
We left the Grand Canyon just after dark and planned to drive through the night to somewhere in California. In our planning stage we’d gone back and forth about whether or not we wanted to stop in Vegas. I was leaning toward no, and I think Brooke was leaning toward yes. We were inevitably going to be passing through some major cities, and I planned to hit some highlights in a few, but cities were definitely not the focus of the road trip. Having just spent a night in a hotel in a random town I was eager to get back to camping.
Cities are overwhelming for me. I hate crowds, I hate public transport, it’s disorienting sensory overload when I’m trying to keep up with the kids. I do love to visit cities with my husband, though. He’s very at home in big cities despite growing up in a town with one stoplight. He’s an expert navigator and a literal history genius so it’s fun seeing cities through the eyes of my own personal tour guide. Also, most importantly, the man can not be rattled. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word anxious. He is always fine (in more ways than one, wink wink) and he’s never stressed. When he’s with me, he can be my quiet place and keep me calm. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the best cities in North America and Europe with him. But I wasn’t looking to explore a big city without him. Except… you may have noticed in other posts that I continue to point out that Brooke and Daniel have a lot in common. And if you can’t have a Daniel with you in the city, you want a Brooke with you. (or vice versa) so that’s why, in the wee hours of the morning as we passed through Las Vegas and tried in vain to wake the children to see the lights of the Las Vegas strip, I was willing to pull over in Sin City and make a day of it.
I had been to Las Vegas before, with another of my closest friends. My friend Amanda invited me to go to the National Finals Rodeo with her and her family and another friend of ours when we were 17. Her ridiculously generous parents paid my way and I had an absolute blast. But even though I had nothing but fond memories of Las Vegas, I knew I hated Las Vegas. I knew that the reason I had such a great time when I was 17 was because of the rodeo, and because of the people I was with. It’s not hard to have fun with fun people, when you have zero responsibilities, and when you’re a couple of super cute 17 year olds and every beautiful 20 year old cowboy on planet earth is tipping his hat at you as he walks by. Also, even though Amanda was a barrel racer, I had not yet been to a rodeo, so it was cool that my first rodeo was the biggest and the best. (And ever since I’ve had a habit of saying “this ain’t my first rodeo.”) We stayed at the New York New York and we had our own room. Her parents somehow managed to strike a balance of guiding us around the family friendly parts of Vegas while still being super chill and letting us have a great time. But even with the rosy glasses it’s hard not to see the strip for what it is. I know I’m the only person on earth that freakin hates Vegas, but there you have it. I’m a judgy prude, what can I say? The strip is a pit of filth. YEAH I SAID IT.
By the time we got to the hotel it was probably 3 or 4 in the morning. I was given a room that already had a squatter in it so security was called and I was a little freaked out, but was quickly given a different room with a strong odor of urine. Awesome. Brooke offered to switch with me, because as you may remember from my previous post, I hadn’t slept at all in my non-air-conditioned room in Arizona, but I just wanted to sleep. So we slept til late morning.
Sherbet in a Cone
Brooke had recently been to Las Vegas and had in mind a few things she wanted to show her daughter Ridlee, and a few things she thought would be fun for the whole group, so we went our separate ways for the early part of the day and planned to meet up later. I took the van and Brooke and Ridlee took advantage of public transportation. I had two objectives in Vegas. 1. Find a Best Buy so I could mail something to Daniel. 2. Get my four year old some sherbet in a cone. Sweet, sassy little Beatrice had been asking specifically for sherbet in a cone for the last five states. She patiently reminded us periodically that this was what she’d like to do. Being only four, the significance of the places we were visiting were often lost on her, so it was really important to me to make things magical and exciting for her too, so that she didn’t just feel like she was along for the ride, seeing things everyone else wanted to see. We wouldn’t be us without her, and her interests are important too. Sometimes that meant stopping at a McDonalds playground or a crappy little park or a Baskin Robbins. Problem was, I could not find any sherbet in Utah or Arizona, so I made it priority number one to get Beatrice her ice cream, just the way she wanted it. We agreed to eat at whatever local restaurant was closest to the ice cream shop, and as luck would have it, right beside it was a tiny hole in the wall ramen restaurant. It was incredible, and Beatrice still remembers this day as one of the more exciting parts of the trip, even though it was a pretty dull afternoon for everyone else.
After Best Buy, lunch, and ice cream we went back to the hotel to walk the pets (we’d left them lounging on the hotel beds with all their toys and each other to play with. Don’t tell anyone.) Afterward we took a nap. As dinner time approached Brooke guided us to the city bus and instructed us all when to get off in order to scout out a very well hidden pizza place she’d eaten at last time she was in Vegas. It took us a while to find it, but it was so worth it for the giant, gooey pizza slices and huge cups full of wine. We wandered down the strip, popping into the hotels to show the girls all the glitz and glamour. We shopped at the M&M Factory and the Hershey store and ended the night watching the water show at the Bellagio before we took the bus back to the hotel, and the girls were able to see the lights of the strip up close. I remembered how, when I was in Vegas at 17 years old, I loved seeing the mini statue of liberty, mini Eiffel tower, the “streets of New York” and “canals of Venice” and Cesar’s Palace. They seemed to bring those places to life for me but I thought that, now, having visited the real New York, the real Paris, the real Venice, and the real Rome that it would seem very cheap and cheesy for me and the girls. But you know, it was still actually pretty cool and only brought back lovely memories of our travels. Maybe Vegas wasn’t so bad. Except then it got dark an the energy changed from family friendly to not-so-much in the blink of an eye, and it was nice to be headed back to the hotel. Brooke was an excellent tour guide, and I’m glad we stopped in Vegas, and with any luck, I’ll never set foot in that fascinating town ever again.
The trip got off to a pretty rough start between crushing my phone, not leaving on time, a migraine, and a storm in west Texas, but things were looking way up after magical Santa Fe, visiting friends in Colorado and having the time of our lives in Utah. Then there was Arizona. And thus the trend of Ups and Downs continued.
There’s a lot of beauty in Arizona if you know where to look, but if you want to see the best of it, you’re going to be hiking pretty intense hikes to these remote spots. It’s too much in the August heat with such young ones, so all we planned to see in Arizona was the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t even want to spend the night there since we’d been spending extra nights here and there. I wanted to see the north rim and then drive through the night to California.
Probably the most stressful aspect of the trip was the mental burden of being constantly aware of the physical and emotional wellbeing of so many pets and children. We wanted to go as far and see as much as we could in order to make all the time, effort, and money worthwhile. I also wanted to push them to certain limits of discomfort, boredom, and exhaustion because there is no other way to instill fortitude in a person than to expose them to difficult conditions and support them in powering through. This is one reason we didn’t bring any tablets on the trip. On the other hand, children are not made to sit still for six hours a day. They do need restorative sleep. And they were already under a fair amount of emotional stress with their dad being deployed. The trip was more for me than them, but I had no doubt that they would benefit from it. There’s a lot of re evaluation and self doubt as a parent when you’re asking yourself “am I presenting them with age appropriate challenges, or am I pushing them too far because I want to do this?”
So the kids and pets were still doing great this far, a week into our adventure. But the further we got from home I began to anticipate that we’d hit a wall and burn out sooner rather than later, and my concern was the misery that would be getting home from so far away, through a route we’d already taken, let down and disappointed. This is where I found the balance between “wow this is such a great place, lets stay here another day or two” and “I’m antsy, lets get back on the road.” I think for the most part it helped us spend the appropriate amount of time in each place, but in Arizona, I was particularly antsy to get a move on.
But Arizona didn’t let go so easily.
One minute, we were driving through a vast, remote, completely uninhabited part of the painted desert, full of hope and excitement for the Grand Canyon, and the next minute Brooke is saying the trailer is pulling funny. We started to look for a shoulder to pull off the road, but before we found one Brooke’s kid was yelling from the back “there goes a wheel!” and sure enough, one of the trailer wheels was bouncing across the highway, over a barbed wire fence, and presumably squarely into a rattlesnake nest. I felt a little panicky but Brooke is a rancher with lots of experience changing tires on various farm equipment. To make me feel useful she had me help her change the tire, but we were unable to get it on correctly. It was bent and wouldn’t tighten all the way. I’m not sure what the technical terms are but our ish was ALL jacked up. We had no cell service and had no choice but to limp to a tire shop two hours away.
We finally made it to the nearest town, then it was another 15 minutes beyond the town to a lone tire shop in the desert which could only be distinguished from a junkyard because there as a large tire attached to the sign. Nobody had answered the phone so we just drove in hoping for the best and were greeted by a junkyard dog. We both got out of the car and I calmed the dog down while Brooke looked around for a some help. (Brooke isn’t big on scary dogs, so being a dog whisperer was my one great contribution to the trip) Finally a young man came out and we told him our dilemma. He told us to back it up and he’d take a look. He told us it was his father-in-law’s place, and he couldn’t give us a quote til he spoke with him, but since we were stuck there waiting he asked us to pop up the camper because he felt like he could fix where one of the arms was loose. So we popped it up, and really had no choice but to just leave it there. He assured us he’d call us when he knew something.
Pretty defeated, we went back to the little town of Kayenta to get a hotel. There’s nothing in Kayenta. Walmart, McDonald’s, a park, two gas stations, and three hotels. That’s the whole town. It’s hours away from the Grand Canyon and not even all that close to Monument Valley. There’s just no reason anyone on earth would be in this dusty little town on purpose so we did not anticipate struggling to find a hotel room. But struggle we did. We went to the first crappy looking hotel and it was $200 a night, per room, and we’d need two rooms. Yeah, that wasn’t happening. We went to the second crappy hotel. No vacancy. Third crappy hotel, also no vacancy. Turns out, option number one was happening.
I found out that the reason the hotel prices were jacked up so high was because in August, every European in Europe takes a holiday, and the Great American West is a very popular tourist destination. In my experience, europeans have a fascination with the cowboys and Indians/Old West stereotypes and they wind up in random places in Arizona where they rent RVs they have NO business driving. Despite my teasing I do love europeans, even the French. Perhaps especially the French. And I’d live in Europe again in a heartbeat. Anyway.
We tried to make the best of our time there. Brooke and the kids swam (where, as Brooke says, they encountered ALL THE EUROPEANS in their speedos) and we did laundry, played cards, and watched movies. Unfortunately the air conditioner in my room didn’t work, and we’d taken the last two rooms. The front desk sent maintenance to help me out, but he just knocked on the door and said I was out of luck. I mentioned it at checkout, because honestly $200 is a lot of money in a place that gets up to 115 degrees, and we slept miserably. I was given the “uh huh. Likely story. Funny you didn’t mention it yesterday if there was a problem” treatment, to which I responded that I did in fact mention it. She made three phone calls to verify my story, absolutelly certain I was lying. Then with a heavy, annoyed sigh, she knocked $150 off the bill.
The next morning we were contacted by the tire shop. They needed some items from the auto parts store in town, so Brooke dropped me off at the park with the kids and pets and took the parts out to the shop. She came back to get us and we ate lunch at the McDonalds where, as Brooke put it, we encountered any Europeans we may have missed at the pool, and then we went to sit in the heat at the junkyard/tire shop hoping that our anxious stares would hurry them along. The man who was doing most of the work was the son-in-law of the shop owner. The owner was a stern, elderly man who only spoke Navajo and it was quite evident his son-in-law was terrified of him. He seemed to be struggling to learn the family business, which we later found out was because he’s a freaking graphic designer. In the end, it was all taking so long that Brooke said “ok, listen, just give me the tools I’ll put the tire back on myself we don’t have time for this.” and thats exactly what she did. He wasn’t able to completely repair the loose arms on the camper, but he did give us some bailing wire which helped us keep things secure and he did tighten up some things for us. We were probably overcharged, but we didn’t have any options, and we were just glad to be out of there. All in all, between hotels, food, parts, gas and service we probably spent $500 and an entire 24 hours in a town we had zero desire to be in. Sort of took the wind out of my sails.
Finally, FINALLY we were on the road to the Grand Canyon. We were still a few hours out and we were really going to be racing daylight. If we didn’t make it in time, we’d have to spend another night in Arizona, and I was just really done with the state. So even though we usually took our time, we were booking it. We passed some really beautiful scenery, starting in the flat desert, gradually large rock formations and canyons, and then a startling shift into a forest of tall trees.
As we neared the Grand Canyon, it was almost sunset. We checked to find out what time the sun would set and we basically had 45 minutes of daylight left once we were 30 minutes away. We had to stop for gas at the entrance of the road that leads to the north rim. As soon as we were back on the road I realized I had dropped my credit card somewhere in the gas station parking lot. I chose not to turn around for it.
Margaret, the one year old, became very fussy at this point. Normally, she could be entertained by whichever child was sitting next to her. They’d sing her songs and feed her freeze dried strawberries. Then she’d nap for an hour, then we’d get out and take a break before starting all over. I was never willing to leave her strapped in once she became very agitated. It’s a lot of driving for a baby. But just this once…we were so close. And none of us wanted to stay the night there. We wanted to use that night for driving. So she cried. Hard. For about thirty minutes. Inconsolable. I’m very much an attentive, attachment parent type so not stopping to comfort her was against all of my instincts and the entire ordeal was probably way more scarring for me than for her. When we were almost there I spotted a wild bison which was actually really magical despite the heartwrenching situation. I’ve seen bison farms a hundred times but there’s something about seeing one of your favorite animals in the wild.
We got to the rim and parked. I got poor, distraught Margaret out of the car and found that her diaper had leaked, and she’d been sitting in it, so uncomfortable and I lost it. I just started crying. In hindsight, it seems crazy to react that way. Baby is sad for thirty minutes, goes a few minutes without a fresh diaper. Worse thing have happened. I know. But I was exhausted, and stressed, and we weren’t having fun in our dash to have fun. I started asking myself “why the hell did I drag my kids out here? What am I doing? Is this worth it? Is Maggie paying the price? Is it too much? Am I being a selfish crazy person?” Brooke knows me well so she decided to give me a minute to get my ish together. She took her daughter, and my other three, carrying my four year old on her shoulders to go enjoy the scenery while I pulled myself together. And I did. And then we got to watch the sun set on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We were in awe and without words. It was so beautiful and Maggie was happy as a lark in her fresh clothes, toddling around the path. After it got dark we stayed quite a while because the opposite rim of the canyon was all engulfed in a wildfire and it was sort of a surreal thing to watch. We wanted to walk to dogs and cat for a long time, and make sure they were fed and watered and happy. I nursed Margaret for a long time, we all had a snack, and then we were ready to go. And we got back in the car and she slept peacefully as we headed west. In the dark, we pulled back into the now-closed gas station and, for the second time in Arizona, I had to distract and calm an enormous snarling dog. This one was cornering a group of terrified europeans as they tried to walk to their hotel from their car. While I was rescuing the Germans, Brooke found my credit card on the ground. Every now and then, I catch a break.
I decided that I still felt like we were doing the right thing, but resolved to be more intentional about taking it literally one day at a time, and not worry about burn out til it happened. I resolved to never ignore my maternal instincts for the duration of the trip, because nothing was worth the stress on me, or the baby. But the kids were renewed, and high on the beauty of the Grand Canyon, and there was no question that we were all ready for the next adventure: California.