West Coast, Part 3

Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico

**I’m aware this series contains a lot of frivolous information and photos. It’s a personal blog. It’s all frivolous. But also, my main purpose in writing this down journal-style is so that when the kids are grown and have forgotten most or all of this trip, they can go back and read and maybe be inspired to do it all again. Next time, they can drive and I’ll sit in the back and eat snacks.**

Getting on the Road
Oh, hi. I decided to save the rest of my preachy, long-winded trip prep posts til the end (Part 1 and Part 2 already happened, but they are very boring) and go ahead and get into the good stuff. The road trip started with the idea that I was going to leave Colorado with my pets and kids to do a loop of cool sites in the western United States before I went to Texas to wait out the rest of my husband’s deployment, but a few months before Go Time, I acquired a popup camper and two extra road trip buddies. All of which were in Oklahoma at the time waiting for me to collect them. So, man, this is turning out to be a very, very roundabout way to get to Texas from Colorado via Yellowstone National Park. Daniel actually had not left for the middle east yet at this point so we drove our four kids, dog, and cat down to Oklahoma where our families live to wait out the last ten days together. We pulled all of our belongings in a small Uhaul to put in storage.

Once he left, I spent about two days sulking then I had to do a proxy house sale which probably took five years off my life, and then I was free to spend the days renovating my camper in the sweltering heat of an Oklahoma July. The plan was to be done before the first day of August. If you want to read how the first day of camper renovation went, check out this post. (trust me, it’s more entertaining than the other posts.) Eventually I hope to dedicate a whole post to camper renovation but that’s for another day. Let’s just say that Brooke, my Uncle Don, and my Aunt Pam were a dream team. They have very specific sets of skills, and a shocking willingness to work in the heat. Did I mention THE HEAT? It’s so dang hot in Southern Oklahoma in July. Also, the camper, which we named Bill, was (and is) in pretty bad shape. It’s older than I am and needed more structural repair than we were really able to give him. We more or less held it together with sheer force of will and some paint. A gorgeous deep blue paint that the associate at Sherwin Williams helped me pick out. I said, “bruh. I want this bad boy to be exactly the color of your shirt.” he was all “say no more fam.” and bam. Bill. Rickety and sketchy but oh so pretty and homey and cozy. Yes, I did put a family altar and a super pathetic shrine to my super sexy husband in my camper.

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I wasn’t ready to go by our launch date, for a million little reasons. I wanted to have the van detailed. I was waiting on a “non-essential” part for the camper (which came in the day after we left, because of course it did.) but really I was just procrastinating because “holy crap are we taking five kids and three pets camping for a whole month in a rust bucket? Do I even know where the spare tire is in my van? Are we still going to be friends when this is over? Is this too much for the kids? Do bears kill you before they start eating you?” Brooke reminded me that we were on our own schedule and could wait til everything was done but I knew that I was going to keep putting it off so, even though I didn’t get any sleep the night before, we left on our target day, July 31.

We woke up to buckets of rain and some hail that morning, which caused Brooke to have to pop the camper down by herself which is really difficult on a camper that has busted cables in the popup arms. This means the popup doesn’t pop. Zero springyness. You just have to use brute force to deal with the full weight of it. I had to load heavy items in my car top cargo carrier by myself in the hail. Good times. I got to her house late and we proceeded to have all sorts of problems with hanging the door on the camper and another issue with the trailer hitch. I’m pretty sure Brooke figured it all out on her own because I really only remember running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I also made her put on the “not all those who wander are lost” decal because I was in panic meltdown mode. She’s a dang saint for it, too, because with all the intricate lettering it was probably the most tedious task that any human has ever done. Finally we were all hooked up, loaded up, and ready to go. I was going to take the first shift driving. I hopped up in the front seat and my cell phone fell out of my lap just as I was slamming my door shut, crushing it. The phone that I purchased to take great pictures and navigate and communicate with my deployed husband…..crushed.

We were off to a great start.

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Leaving Brooke’s driveway. “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

Oklahoma
We were in Southeastern Oklahoma for two or three weeks fixing up the camper. I grew up there, I don’t have much to say about the Great State of Oklahoma at this time, even though it is of course God’s Country, and a wonderful state…it’s just not very relevant to the west coast road trip because, being right on the border of Texas, we were only actually IN Oklahoma for approximately one hot minute once the trip started.

Texas
We also didn’t plan to spend any time in Texas because, again, we grew up on the Oklahoma Texas border and having driven through West Texas many, many times I knew that there was mostly a bunch of dirt and cotton and nothingnesss (other than my amazing relatives. Hey guys! Love you!) but we ended up staying one night there because we were so behind schedule. As we were approaching nightfall, clouds started rolling in and it became evident that our first night in the camper would be a stormy one. I called the nearest RV park which turned out to just be some lady’s yard, but she had a swing set and only charged us $20. After dealing with the heat in Oklahoma, we were surprised when the temps dipped into the 50s that night. It ended up being one of the warmest nights of our entire trip. (Newsflash, its cold on the California coast. Who knew?)

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On the road: Margaret and Albus, aka Maggie Mayhem and Adventure Cat, often kept each other warm due to excessive air conditioning.
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Storms rolling in as we prepared to set up camp for the first time.
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I was a little embarassed fumbling to pop up the camper up next to the extremely fancy RV and its super experienced owners, but they were very nice and encouraging. Notice our camp toilet next to the red basket.

It stormed hard on us that night but the rain mostly stayed outside the camper, and we woke up feeling a little proud of ourselves for figuring things out and going with the flow. We decided to stop and explore Palo Duro Canyon before we headed to New Mexico, and it was lovely. I didn’t have my phone so I took no pictures but my girls had their Polaroid and managed to take a couple.

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Palo Duro Canyon

I found a wizard in Amarillo that was able to use voodoo witch magic to repair my incredibly busted phone for a super reasonable price and yes I left them great reviews on Yelp, so we left Texas for New Mexico on an extremely cheerful note.

SANTA FE, New Mexico
Finally! The good stuff. Listen, I love Santa Fe. I love the churches and the art and the food and the people and I am a sucker for the turquoise jewelry in the town square. I hate to use words like vibe and energy, maybe it’s a little cliche, but there’s just something about this place. Part of it is nostaliga. If you’ve been with me since Part 1 you may remember that I mentioned how I wanted to do a road trip after I graduated high school and it fell apart, but I didn’t mention that my dad couldn’t bear my disappointment and one morning he was all, “get in the car! I can’t take you alll the way to Cali, but we’re going to the Grand Canyon!” so literally hours later we were on the road. Mom, Dad, my brother, and me. It was an amazing trip. At a rest stop in New Mexico I picked up a brochure for Santa Fe and I was captivated by the pictures of the Loretto Chapel staircase. It was not on the way, and nobody else really wanted to go much, but Dad said, “sure! Why not? Detour!” (if you know my dad….that is very unlike him. He’s a schedule man.) We ended up having the best time there just walking through town, chatting up locals, visiting the old churches and shopping. We had New Mexican food for the first time which is not like Tex Mex. When we got to the San Miguel chapel and I saw that it’s the oldest church in the Unites States. I went into the gift shop where I bought a rosary for a friend. We’d had many late night conversations about how he was considering converting to Catholicism, and while I thought he was a nut for it, I wanted to buy him a gift. One of the first signs I was in major denial about us being “just friends.” A few months later he was passing through Santa Fe on a road trip with his friends and he went into the same gift shop where he purchased a postcard with the prayer of St. Francis on it. He wrote me a beautiful note right then and there and sent it, presumably while all his macho buddies made fun of him for it. (spoiler alert: we got married, converted to Catholicism in college, and haven’t stopped having babies since.)

Daniel and I have sadly never been to Santa Fe together (yet!) but I was eager to take our girls. Funny thing, the geography of the United States hasn’t changed a whole lot in the 11 years since I was last in Santa Fe so you might have noticed that it’s still not directly on the route between my hometown and the Grand Canyon. I wanted to take a pretty significant detour north through Colorado and into Utah before we made it to Arizona, because have you seen Colorado and Utah? Anyway, I had plenty of reason to be there. I think we were there three days? Maybe? Ask Brooke.

I’ll try to let the pictures do most of the talking, though I am a terrible photographer, but some highlights of Santa Fe were 1. The campsite! It was beautiful and it felt woodsy and secluded even though it really wasn’t. They also had a playground and a pool which the kids loved. Brooke helped the kids build a fire so we could make hotdogs and s’mores. We played cards and relaxed at camp quite a bit. The animals were happy there. The van needed a jump so we borrowed cables from the camp host and Brooke stopped him from blowing us all up not once, but three times. She eventually just gently removed the cables from his hands. It was hilarious. When it was time to go explore the city, we dropped the pets off at doggie (and kitty) daycare. This brought us to highlight 2. the food. Oh my goodness. Tacos and green chile stew and posole and prickly pear margaritas. Yas. Later we had spicy mocha lattes and gelato at a cute little cafe 3. We went into a couple of museums but I apparently only photographed the Native American Modern Art Museum. Brooke, being native herself and a bit of a history expert on Native Americans was geeking out pretty hard there. 4. The shops and market. The girls loved looking at all the handmade items. Clothes, purses, decor, jewelry. I bought our first souvenirs from a lovely Navajo woman named Bernice. Months in advance I planned to buy matching necklaces for me and my girls, and we found the perfect ones. I was all prepared to haggle, but she gave me a steep discount for buying five before I said a word. Deal! I’m pretty sure Brooke’s daughter was able to hone her haggling skills, at least. 5. The churches. There are no words for the beauty and history of the cathedral, the Loretto Chapel, San Miguel. It was fun going back now that I am actually Catholic. I actually had to (politely) correct the guide at the cathedral on some history and some saint names he got all wrong. He then made a super awkward joke about his vasectomy and the sacred silence in the church became just uncomfortable silence. Anyway. Santa Fe was, as always, enchanting.

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I bought this polaroid camera for the girls and it ended up being a great investment. Isabella loves the photo she took of Margaret here.

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This is how I washed my kids, and often myself….and also our laundry and dishes (separate conainter for the dishes) We had shower facilities sometimes, but when we didn’t this worked just fine.
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Brooke…has made fire.

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My oldest 3 and the dog slept on the dinette-turned bed, while the baby, cat, and I slept on the slide out. Brooke, Ridlee, and their yorkie slept on the opposite side slide out.
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Using glue sticks to make photo journals in their notebooks. Notice the hairbrush on the table, which they evidentily never used.

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He has a harness, but he never wandered far so eventually I just let him do his thing. If you’re looking for a super clingy, loyal, silly, adventurous cat, I highly recommend the Devon Rex.
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Tigo is a standard poodle but we disguised him as a labradoodle (eye roll) because for some reason people aren’t intimidated by a poodle with poodle haircut. Which is weird becaues they’re actually really badass dogs. Not this one, he’s an idiot, but Standard Poodles in general. He is a great travel companion though. Happy to just be near the family but has a heart-stopping bark that turned away more than one black bear.
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Me and Maggie Mayhem, touristing pretty hard out there.

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crayon art at the museum
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The miraculous staircase

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One of the only images I’ve ever been tempted to tattoo on myself.
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San Miguel. A weird little piece of our love story and our faith journey.

West Coast, Part 2

 

In Part 1 of my West Coast road trip series I covered the circumstances that left me with the sudden freedom to be a nomad for a while and how it led to me deciding to take a month long camping roadtrip with my four little girls, our dog, our cat, my bestie, her little girl, and their dog. Whew.  I can’t talk myself out of writing about trip prep so that I can get into the fun stuff like… the actual trip. It might be that I am procrastinating because I worry that I won’t be able to do it justice when it comes time to summarize one of the craziest, best experiences of my life so I’m getting hung up on irrelevant details BUT in my defense I do get a lot of questions and comments about the stuff I’m about to talk about.

For me, the four things I needed to plan for when becoming a nomad for an indefinite amount of time were 1. Where I’d go 2. Stuff I’d need 3. How to help kids not be miserable jerkfaces 4. What to do with the things I’d leave behind.

Turns out this is going to take two separate blog posts because I. can. not. shut. up. so here’s topics 1 and 2. I also added some junk about food and money. Whatever this is my blog I don’t have to stick to the script.

1. The Route
Like I said in part 1, the route came mostly from deciding I’d try to see the north rim of The Grand Canyon and the Pacific Ocean, and if things went well I’d just keep heading to the next cool destination. From the beginning, my “ideal but almost certainly unrealistic ultimate scenario” looked pretty close to this route pictured here. Spoiler alert: this is the exact route we took in the end. The gaping hole where we obviously missed Lake Tahoe and Yosemite was engulfed in flames at the time. Most stops were within a maximum 6 hours of each other, and on long travel days we tried to make sure we stayed somewhere for at least two days. There were a few 10+ hour days.

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We almost never knew where we’d be more than two nights in the future. We usually booked camp sites or hotels when we were a few hours away. I always had a next location in mind but I always wanted to keep open the option of staying an extra night if we really loved a place. We often would sit and research routes to our next chosen location and sometimes picked a longer route because it was more scenic or was more likely to have ice cream. Sometimes we stumbled across cool things we didn’t know about, and took chances on exiting towards something that sounded interesting. This method of planning worked out really, really well for us. I never had to worry about losing a reservation, and yes sometimes it was hard to find a campsite on short notice, but it always worked out. It often felt like amazing places, experiences, people, and restaurants were presenting themselves to us because we were open to them. We were truly meandering and it was only stressful sometimes because I did worry that if we took too much time, we’d hit a wall and burn out or blow all our money before we got anywhere super cool. As time went on though, I began to feel like “this has been amazing and if it’s over today, it will have all been worth it.” In hindsight it’s easy to romanticize the whole thing. I hope going forward I’m able to bring to mind the really hard times and everything that sucked about it so I can present a balanced memoir of the trip. A common theme of conversation between Brooke and myself was “highs and lows” because they seemed to come consistently and in quick succession. So many times we looked at each other and said “Hey. We’re doing this. We are making it happen!”

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early morning route planning sesh with Brooke on the Oregon coast

2. The Stuff
I also covered gear a little in part 1. I did spend a lot of time researching camping gear but only because that’s fun for me. I could spend 4 hours in REI no problem. In the end my approach to gear was the same as my approach to the route. “Figure it out as we go.” I knew that if we needed to stop at the Walmarts on the way, it was always an option. Since we camped a few nights with the gear I bought, I felt pretty confident that we had most of what we needed. I bought a tent, camp stove, ice chest, 40 degree sleeping bags (pro tip: the temp rating on sleeping bags is the temperature at which you can survive in that bag, not the temperature at which you will be comfortable. Another pro tip: it’s hella cold in Canada) plus self inflating sleep mats, lanterns, water jugs, a camp potty, storage bins etc.
After I purchased all of this, my brother offered me his popup camper. I knew it was in bad shape so after I made the decision to fix it up and bring it, I bought a car top cargo bag to keep all of my tent camping supplies in case “Bill” the camper bit the dust halfway through the trip (spoiler alert: he did.) I didn’t want to bother with electric and water hookups because I’d hoped to do a lot of “boondocking,” so the camper functioned as glorified tent. We were still doing very primitive “dry camping,” with the pop-up being used only for sleeping, hanging out, and storing clothes.  You can read all about day one of camper renovation HERE and I may make another post about the rest of it in the future, or perhaps I can beg Brooke to be a guest blogger and do it for me.

A note about safety. My dad and particularly my brothers insisted repeatedly that I take one (or more) of their guns but much to their dismay, I declined. You can’t take guns into National Parks. You also can’t take guns into Canada. And while I never in a million years actually thought we’d make it to Canada, I decided it wasn’t worth it for a lot of reasons (one being that I’m not skilled enough for it to be of enough value to outweigh the risks of having it around.) I did however have a large dog, two cans of bear spray, a big knife, and a large bright beam tactical flashlight (knife and flashlight courtesy of my oldest brother.) I tried to avoid saying whether or not we were packing heat while the trip was going on because A. If I said yes I’d be admitting to breaking the law and B. If I said no I’d be showing all my cards. As women traveling with little girls and without a man, I know that it’s best to be mysterious and keep creeps assuming that you’re capable of slashing their throats AND blowing their brains out. Also, handguns don’t work on grizzly bears, so they really offer a false sense of security anyway. Also, I ain’t scared, yo.

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Glamping Gear. All of this fit in the cargo carrier on the top of my van, sans the tote, but including the contents of the tote. And the ice chest stayed in the back of the van which functioned as our kitchen. Also baby Margaret rode in a rear facing carseat in the van, as is proper.

 

Food.
In the early stages of planning I was obsessed with the idea of being able to bring a lot of fresh food with me so I could cook most of our meals. I love to cook, I’m good at it, and my kids prefer my cooking to eating out. Also, Brooke is the absolute BEST cook I know, and also loves to cook, and her kid also prefers her food. So, between us, we were going to want to cook a lot. However, being lovers of local food, we also knew we’d eat out a lot in order to get a more full experience of certain places (green chili posole in Santa Fe anyone?) Also, being realistic human beings with 5 kids and a lot of stress, we knew that convenience foods and Taco Bell would win out sometimes. I think letting go of control helped make us really succesful with this.
We aimed to cook a meal, with enough for at least one meal’s worth of leftovers (keep in mind there were 7 of us,) then to eat out for one meal, and then eat a meal that was basically just snack food. Often, that was packets of lemon pepper tuna fish with club crackers and a handful of freeze dried strawberries. We ended up cooking some BOMB meals on that little single burner camp stove and honestly, the mid size Yeti knockoff cooler was the perfect size. We went to the grocery store every five days or so, and we always had eggs, coffee, cream, butter, bacon, and fresh berries and we would buy about 3 meals worth of meat and fresh produce for whatever meals we had planned, which was about as long as the cooler full of ice could keep frozen meat at safe temps. Or maybe it wasn’t safe and we’re lucky to be alive. Whatever. I took a food safety course mind your business. I never felt like a slave to buying ice though, which I was worried about it in the beginning.


One of my absolute favorite things I bought for this trip was the Wonder Bag. This insulated bag kept our cast iron dutch oven at a safe simmer for something like 15 hours. We were able to make stews and chilis as if we had a crock pot, but using no energy/heat source besides the initial heating. Heat it to a simmer, put it in the bag, pull the strings, and go about your day. Also, when you purchase one the company sends one to a woman in need so that she can spend less time hunched over a fire, and less time sending her vulnerable children out to collect firewood. Often we would heat our leftovers up in the morning, put them in the bag, drive ten hours, and have a hot, ready meal as soon as we set up camp.

Money
You may remember from my last post that my husband predicted I would spend way more on this trip than I planned. Which, I DID plan for, so I’m not sure you can say that’s entirely true, but yeah, it was expensive. Keep in mind, we sold our house so we were suddenly without our sizeable mortgage, and we made money on the house so we paid off our debt, plus Army pays us more when Daniel is deployed. I used these as excuses to pretend we had “extra money” and that I was just living on money we’d be living on anyway. Which is kind of true. I could either spend a lot of money a month on a house payment and bills…or I could spend a lot of money seeing the United States, “roadschooling” the children. In our case, travel ended up being more the more expensive option but Daniel and I are both in agreement that it was 100% worth it for us. I understand that’s not many people’s experience and I’m grateful I had this opportunity.
I’ve always had a guilt relationship with spending money. Daniel has always had a pretty healthy relationship with money. Part of my guilt stems from being a stay at home mom.  Daniel brings home all of the money and I don’t like to spend it on myself. He, being a damn good human being, spent the first 9 years of our marriage trying to help me change that mindset. He’d say that I earn every penny of what he makes by running our household, educating the kids, finding ways to be frugal, etc. It took me a long time to believe he meant it and believe it for myself. We were legit super poor the first few years so there was no money to spend but even as he made more money I would not buy things or enjoy things for myself. So this was sort of an “ok. cool. I’m going to spend a lot of money. I’m going to spend a month’s mortgage worth on supplies and fixing up the camper.” Which I did. And it was a good investment. I’m never going to stop camping, and a lot of things I bought are ultra lite so I can use them for backpacking.
I also decided we weren’t going to change our generous grocery or eating out budget for the month, even though we were down one adult person with him overeas. And that I’d spend what I’d spend on rent or mortgage camping and staying in hotels. I will admit that I pretty seriously underestimated how much those things would cost. We did not stay on free government land quite as often as we wanted, and we ran into very expensive repairs. I’m not big on souvenirs, but there were times we wanted an item or a treat and quite often, I splurged where I normally would not. We camped on free land when it was convenient and safe, and saved money on cheap meals where we could, but at the end of the day it was a pretty wild splurge for one month. In the final part of the West Coast series I’ll talk about why I think it was all worth it.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about well-traveled kids and getting rid of all our belongings. Then…maybe…I’ll talk about the dang road trip.

West Coast, Part 1

The Birth of a Road Trip

One of the more crazy-pants things I’ve done recently is camping all over the American west in a really, really crappy pop up camper with my best friend, our collective five daughters, and collective 3 pets. I intended to blog the entire time, and there were a lot of times I sat down and tried, but we never really sat still long enough and I was certainly never relaxed or bored enough to bother.

After it was over, I figured I needed some time and distance to process the trip before I wrote anything about it, but before I knew it, the kids and I were on an east coast road trip. Another of the more crazy pants things I’ve done. Again, I didn’t prioritize blogging any of it and once I was back in Dallas taking time to “process” THAT trip, well, I found myself doing perhaps the single most crazy pants thing I’ve ever done, dragging my kids to Saudi Arabia. I have a lot of time here in the “Magic Kingdom” and I want to start documenting some things before we forget even more of the little details that made our trips so incredible.

Although it will probably be really boring, I feel the need to write down how and why we came to be in the unique situation that allowed this trip to happen because I do get some questions about that. I guess I’ll start way before the beginning. My senior year of high school I started planning a road trip. I mostly wanted to see whatever I could see between Oklahoma and the California coast and I assumed I’d save money by camping. I had some girlfriends who were on board but it fell apart before we got into the intense planning phase and I wasn’t brave enough to go alone. Looking back, having actually done it now, I am so relieved we didn’t go. I did not have the funds or the good sense to plan a fun, safe trip when I was 18. I also didn’t have a smart phone, which is not a necessity, but there are so many apps that make travel safer and more convenient. What a time to be alive, amirite?

Fast forward something like 11 years, married, bunch of kids, living in Colorado where my husband Daniel was stationed. He found out in our last year of living in Colorado that once our time there was up, he’d be spending a year stationed in Saudi Arabia and we would not be allowed to move with him. (visiting is ok, obviously, because here I am) At the time, because I was insane, I didn’t want to stay in Colorado for the year he was gone, since he had no reason to come back there afterward. I began to plan selling the house so I could move to Texas to be closer to family.

While I didn’t want to stay in Colorado, I did regret that we had wasted the opportunity to take advantage of the beauty of Colorado and the surrounding states the couple of years we were there. Between a pregnancy and Daniel being so busy in command, we didn’t make it a priority to explore our home like we did when we were stationed in Germany.  I was struck with this realization that I was going to have a lot of freedom once Daniel headed overseas. I’m a stay at home mom, the kids are homeschooled, we’d suddenly have no mortgage payment, and we’d have a little chunk of cash from the house sale. I’d be effectively single for a year in that I’d have nobody at home to miss me or need me, so  I decided I was going to take advantage of our location and take the kids somewhere “cool” before we moved to Texas.

On one hand, we were closer to Yellowstone National Park than I’d ever been (though still not close at all) which has always been a pretty big bucket list item for me, but on the other hand, the girls had their hearts set on seeing the Grand Canyon. If you’re at all aware of US geography, you know those two spots lie in opposite directions, and Yellowstone in particular is not exactly on the way to Texas. Neither is the Grand Canyon though, for the record. I started thinking I could take a very roundabout way home, and do a very ambitious loop that included both.

So during this last year in Colorado I was daydreaming out loud about this trip pretty much all the time.  We ended up watching a National Parks documentary and I became obsessed with making it to Glacier National Park. I would go down to our homeschool room in the basement and trace different routes on the map. These hypothetical scenarios got more and more ambitious and lengthy,  eventually including finally making it to the Pacific, but a big part of me never really thought we were going to go anywhere, except maybe the Grand Canyon if I got really brave. I mean, at the time the girls were 1, 4, 6, and 8. The great outdoors and travel in general can be daunting with four small children, even when their other parent is present. Obviously we’d be taking the cat and the dog because it’s hard enough being away from Daniel, we didn’t want to break the family up further (more on that in part 2) I’m indecisive, have never been very brave or sure of myself and I have always been a very anxious driver. Also, I’d never camped without other adults around.

Daniel really only had three things to say about all of this. 1. Go for it babe, you got this, I believe in you 2. Just don’t set yourself up for getting overwhelmed 3. You’re totally going to spend way, way more money than you think you’re going to.
All of these were wise words.

Plan A was to do a camping trip to the Grand Canyon and if it didn’t totally suck and we were still having fun, we’d go to the ocean. If that went well, we’d go up the coast until we got bored or started spending too much money or just burned out. If we magically made it to a few more cool places, icing on the cake. I spent countless hours researching camping gear and slowly curated a collection of items that I decided we couldn’t live without. In the beginning I was looking into buying a cheap teardrop trailer or something (lol, there’s no such thing as a cheap one) and I was convinced I *needed* a way to refrigerate food so that I could continue to feed us awesome food. I love to cook and I wanted to cook local food along our route. I went down the whole “solar panels and backup batteries” rabbit hole for a while before I came to my senses and decided to scale it back to a tent, ice chest, and camp stove. I ended up getting a big glamping set up though, so we’d have room to stretch.

I can’t remember exactly when, but during one long conversation with my best friend Brooke, probably while I was telling her how I would lie awake at night not sure if I’ll be too chicken to go for it and camp in bear country, she said, “Listen, this is going to be awesome. And if you can wait til August, we’ll go with you.” and just like that, she and her daughter were coming (and their little dog, too!) Not long after, my brother Nathan called me and said he had a broken down pop up camper and that it was all mine, for free, if I wanted it. Knowing it would be a lot of work, I said “UM THANK YOU!” but also, “but we’ll see.”

In the spring, Daniel had to go away for a month to complete some Army course in Ohio. Halfway through the month, the girls, pets, and I decided to visit him. On the 19 hour drive there, we booked it straight to him, I drove through the night, but on the way home we took a deep detour into Kentucky to meet my friend Stacey and camp with her and her pup Margo at Mammoth Caves National Park. We took our time over the week exploring Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas. We whet our appetites for National Parks, got to try out all of our camping gear in multiple states, got together with old friends along the way (lookin at you, Abi) and learned that we all have the resilience for super long car trips. When we were done, I knew we had it in us to do a serious month long road trip, and that’s when the serious planning started.

In my next post I’ll cover some boring things about how I prepared us mentally, physically, and financially for the trip, the logistics of packing for five people and two pets for a month on the road, how we planned our route, etc.

 

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Our Glamping setup in the backyard before our Ohio trip
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Poodle, cat, kid in a tent at Mammoth Caves

Bill

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Last time Daniel deployed, I rearranged our furniture roughly 482 times. I also disassembled our heavy dining room table and chairs, took the pieces into the yard, sanded the whole thing down with a sander that was way too wimpy for the job, stained it a very slightly different color, and eventually reassembled it. It was poorly done but not terrible, and by the time Daniel came home, most of the furniture had made its way back to it’s pre-deployment position. I had literally nothing to show for all the effort I exerted while he was gone.  I’d like to say that after nine months of spinning my wheels that I did some introspection and learned something about myself, like “could I maybe find less costly, less exhausting, or more productive coping mechanisms?” or at least I wish I could say I learned how to properly sand and stain furniture, but alas, I didn’t really learn a darn thing, except that I’m no good at holding down the fort and sticking to our routine and otherwise adulting as usual when he’s gone for more than a month or so (If you hate millennial words and phrases like “adulting” and “sorry not sorry” then you might want to jump ship now. Hashtag sorrynotsorry.) I have to stay busy during these long separations, and distract myself and the kids. I wish I was better at being still, being content, and embracing the hard things in life with more grace, but it’s easier to work on projects than it is to work on my personality or my to-do list, so here we are.

Which brings us to Bill. Bill is my newest deployment project. A 1987 Palomino Pony popup camper (exhibit A) gifted to me by my brother and sister-in-law. Unlike me, my brother knows when it’s time to abandon a project, and lucky for me, his new bride was graciously willing to part with the “lovely lawn ornament”  as she phrased it. Bill is named for Samwise Gamgee’s pony in Lord of the Rings, an idea my bestie Brooke came up with and I LOVED, because duh. Get it? It’s a Pony? Named after a pony? And we’re going on an adventure? And Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest stories of all time? Ok you get it.

I didn’t initially plan to blog about “fixing up” the camper because really, I’m just sprucing it up a little and there are a BILLION amazing camper remodel blogs on the interwebs and I figured there’s no way any of what I’m doing could be helpful or remotely interesting. But oh, I am older and wiser than I was 12 hours ago.

Day 1 of Operation Camper Cleanup was not as uneventful as I’d hoped. And you know, maybe someone can learn from my mistakes.

Nathan, my brother, had mentioned previously that I’d need to deal with some red wasps before I started working, so yesterday I went to his house with a can of raid. Ha. A can. One can of raid. Oh, it seems so naïve now. The camper was all closed up, and there were indeed several wasps crawling around the door area. I sprayed them, I sprayed up under the crevice where the canopy meets the roof (where I assumed they had, oh I dunno, say, a little golf ball sized nest) and feeling quite pleased with myself, I left. I came back that evening and there were a few stragglers, so I dealt with them too. Understand: I’m one of those annoying “bugs hate peppermint oil!” girls, so I already felt like I was bringing out the big guns using a toxic name brand wasp spray.IMG_20180712_122026.jpg

That was last night. This morning, Brooke and her daughter met us (me and my four daughters) at the camper to help with the cleanup. Again there were some wasp stragglers, which Brooke vanquished wielding only a flip flop. It was glorious. She has incredible aim. After a only a few setbacks we figured out how to pop the roof up. We got one side popped up and that’s when we encountered The Swarm. Now, we’re not complete idiots so it had occurred to us that there might be more wasps inside that would be agitated by opening the thing. But by “more” I figured, like, I don’t know.  A normal amount of wasps, whatever that is. I just didn’t expect to be all “The red coats are coming!” I thought we were evicting a couple squatters, not waging an all-out war against an army of rage bees.

Here’s where it gets fun though. We had set both of Brooke’s flip flops on top of the roof of the camper while we were figuring out how to pop it up. But then, once it was half-popped and thus the shoes were suddenly high up out of our reach, the enemy strategically chose this moment to advance. That can of raid was long since emptied at this point. Disarmed, and with no other option than to retreat and regroup, Brooke went to the Walmarts to acquire some more advanced weaponry than flip flops. Upon her return, we took a moment to admire the great deal she got on the generic brand wasp spray. Three cans for the price of one can of Raid! Yas! But no. This stuff did not spray right. It shot out a thick stream of foam instead of a wide mist. In other words, the cans run out quickly, you can only kill one at a time, and if you don’t hit your dive-bombing target square in its creepy little face, you’re just pissing it off more instead of killing it. And red wasps are already pissed off. They are born pissed off. Nevertheless, we eventually found ourselves in a battlefield littered with dead wasps and empty cans, sweaty and exhausted. Brooke did most of the killing. I mostly ran around yelling, and I fell flat on my face at one point. I fell hard. The good news is I’m pretty sure Nathan’s security camera caught it all on tape.

Fun fact about red wasps, there are infinity of them. They are the most abundant creature on the planet. They are also stupid, and relentless. As we were slaughtering them by the hundreds they continued to bring bits of material into the camper to start rebuilding the five ENORMOUS nests we had knocked down. Side note: Wasp larvae is icky.IMG_20180713_103128.jpg

Either high on cheap Raid fumes or just delirious with the stifling Oklahoma heat, we once again prematurely declared ourselves victorious. We were eager not to waste time, because we’d been there nearly two hours and had done no real cleaning, so we just started scrubbing and sweeping and clearing out the camper all whilst dodging the remnant of the wasp army. So it’s surprising that our team only took two stings. Unfortunately both hits were taken by my four year old. Who was supposed to be far away on the porch. But she wasn’t. And who was also supposed to be wearing shoes, because every rattlesnake in the state of Oklahoma undoubtedly lives on her Uncle Nathan’s property, but again, she wasn’t. We wrapped up early because I was like “oh. I’m a terrible mother.” I bought her a snow cone, because sugar helps relieve mom guilt and if you buy a four year old a snow cone, you will be her best friend. Unless you’re a stranger, then that’s weird, don’t be a creep.

Anyway. Where were we? Oh yeah. I’m staying with my parents while we find a place to live. Over dinner, I just kept thinking about how the camper is finally wasp-free (ish) and there were at least two hours of daylight left, and I was wasting them. So I got the baby to sleep, dumped my offspring on my poor mother, and I went back to Nathan’s house alone. Hoping to avoid a second fume-fueled migraine of the day, I wore a face mask and some sexy rubber gloves. I looked pretty fabulous in all my sweaty glory.IMG_20180713_191913.jpg

There were only 3 wasps hovering around the camper. To put that into perspective, its like having only 3 sharks in your pool. Three is a big number when you’re trapped in a metal box the size of a guest bathroom with them. The door is very small. These last three wasps, man. Let me tell you about these wasps. You know the rogue characters in movies that have nothing left to lose so they’re just reckless and crazy-eyed? Like The Punisher, or Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon? That was these guys. If it’s survival of the fittest, these three were apparently the fittest. They were ultra aggressive super robo wasps. I’m pretty sure they were the inspiration for the Tracker Jackers in The Hunger Games. Direct hit, close range aerosol poison right in the face but they just kept coming. If a red wasp is not in the dictionary next to the word “aggressive” it should be.

I was determined to make some headway cleaning. I’d wait til a wasp flew out of the camper, then I would run in and clean the fabric interior for about thirty seconds. Inevitably one of them would fly back in and I’d practically duck and roll back out. Purple gloves, face mask, a can of knock off Raid in one hand and a can of cleaner in the other. In the camper. Back out. Flailing. Screaming. I am not a graceful woman. I’m obviously going to have to destroy Nathan’s security tapes.
I became so jumpy that the faint hiss made by the foam cleanser as it bubbled down sounded like buzzing and sent me flying out of the camper more than once. On the drive home I karate chopped my change scoop because the change made a buzz-like sounds as it rattled together on the bumpy gravel road.  I keep smacking my own face because my hair brushing against it feels like a wasp.

So here’s some obvious advice:  if you have wasps, don’t get the cheap stuff. Sure as heck don’t use no dang peppermint oil. If you’re unwilling to just set the thing on fire and cut your losses, your best bet is to work out some sort of contract with the military to provide a nuclear weapon. Short of that, you may have some success with wasp fogger, or better yet, a professional. This piece of how-to advice concludes my very short stint as a DIY camper renovation blogger.

As far as I know, Brooke’s shoes are still up there.

So that’s how the camper thing is going. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

 

A Letter to My Dad

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If you’re reading this, you probably know my dad. I hope you do. And if you know my dad, you’re likely aware that he’s been fighting cancer for a few years now. A year ago, he was wasting away, all but bedridden, his personality  rendered nearly unrecognizable by the kind of pain meds it takes to survive that particular brand of agony.

Yesterday, he text me that he played 8 holes of disc golf with his friend. Without his cane, thankyouverymuch.The miraculous story between last year and this one is a long one, not without its ups and downs, but I’ll let him tell it to you.  Today’s story is about the lowest point of that journey. It was late last summer. He called me to say goodbye. He wasn’t doing well.

I don’t really remember very much of the conversation. I do remember that I was angry. “Why? Why you? You are nice to everyone. You take care of everyone. You eat spinach every day and ride your bike to work. You don’t smoke, drink, or cheat on mom. It’s not fair. I need more time. You’re too young. I’m not ready.” But he patiently reminded me that this was his death, not mine. And he didn’t feel like it was unfair. And he said he was ready. He said he’d checked everything off his bucket list and had lived the most amazing life. What more could he ask for? “Heather. I don’t feel cheated. I hope you will to try not to feel cheated.” After we got off the phone I started to make plans to drive to Oklahoma as soon as possible.

That evening dad had a heart attack. My cousin Melissa, who is an angel from heaven, bought me and my four kids plane tickets for 5am the following morning. Instead of sleeping or packing, I sat down and wrote my dad a letter. I never thought I’d see him alive again, so I poured out everything I had to say into this letter to ease the pain of never having said it to him.

We were told not to expect him to ever leave the ICU, so I read the letter to him in the hospital, which of course he does not remember. But Praise be to God, he did wake up, he did leave the ICU, has managed to fight the cancer, and now he has a copy of the letter. I am eternally grateful that I got to say what I wanted to say. I thought for Father’s Day, if I wanted to say the most heartfelt thing I could about my dad, I’d just share the letter I wrote in the wee hours of the morning the day I thought I’d lost my father.

Like everything I write, it’s obnoxiously long.

 

Dad,

Yesterday, when I said that this isn’t fair, you told me that you don’t feel cheated. You told me to try not to feel cheated, either. So last night I stayed up all night thinking about that.

Do you remember when I was little you’d carry me around and you’d point to all the trees and say, “this is an oak, and that one’s a maple.” You’d point to all the birds and say “that’s mockingbird” or “that’s a scissortail.” Do you remember showing me how to paint with paint rocks? Do you remember the pond by our house where you taught me to skip rocks?

I remember that.

Do you remember how you’d take Nathan and me to the park all the time? You’d play tennis with him for a while then you and I took off our shoes and played in the creek. You let us take so many tadpoles and minnows home in that gross fish tank that we kept on the back porch. If it wasn’t the park, it was the lake, or the city pool, or maybe just McDonalds.

I remember that you were busy. You were so busy but you carved time out of thin air for us.

Remember when I wanted to learn to read, so every single night you got out all the Hooked on Phonics tapes and books and you practiced with me until I was good at it? Do you remember how, before I could type, I wanted to write stories, so you would sit and listen to me dictate ridiculous stories to you and you would transcribe every word for me? What kind of person has the sort of otherworldly patience it takes to listen to a 6 year old tell long winded stories, and type them up for her? I remember they were always about dogs and wolves because I was going through my Jack London phase.

I guess that’s why, shortly after, you made me take typing lessons on that ancient computer program. Every day, til I could type twice as fast as you.

Do you think I would have loved to read if you hadn’t taught me? Do you think I would have loved to write if you hadn’t encouraged me the way that you did?

I remember that you would take us to visit your grandmother and your aunt. I was so little but I remember that you made time for two lonely old ladies. And you gave me the gift of knowing them for a short time, and the gift of knowing that our elders deserve our love and respect.

Do you remember when we went to Turner Falls and you showed me how your mother used to lie under the little waterfalls and let the water run over her face? You told me I reminded you of her and it was the best compliment you could have given me.

Do you remember when you took us kayaking on the Mountain Fork river, and it was awful and I never wanted to do it again? I do want to do it again.
 Do you remember that time you woke us up at some ungodly hour to go fishing? What were you thinking? I don’t think we caught anything. But I remember that you took us.
Do you remember all the times we went camping at Beaver’s Bend? We went horseback riding and swam in the ice cold river. You always cooked real food for us on Papaw’s old camping stove.

How did you find the time? How did you have the patience to teach us to swim and ski? Remember how you practically carried me down the mountain the first time we went snow skiing? That must have been frustrating for you. But you never said so.

I also remember how almost every single night you and I would take long walks after dinner and just talk. I wish we could have a thousand more of those talks. And I remember that every Wednesday you signed me out of school to take me to lunch, and you’d just listen to me talk. You always saw us. You always heard us.

I remember that you taught me how to read my Bible. And how to pray. And how to love, and listen, and be a friend.

Do you remember all those music festivals you took us to? How you, more than once, drove us all the way to Illinois and slept in a tent with us for a week, while rock music blared 24/7 and the dirty hippies in the next tent over were on their honeymoon? You liked them. They liked you too. So it is with everyone you meet.

Remember when I graduated high school, and I wanted to go on a road trip with some of my girlfriends? Everyone backed out at the last minute, and I was so disappointed. So the next day you packed up our Dodge Durango and took me, mom, and Nathan to the Grand Canyon? And you love your schedules, but every time I had a whim to pull over you stopped. I found a brochure for Santa Fe at a rest stop and even though it was so far out of the way, we went, and it was so wonderful. We finally made it to the Grand Canyon and it was one of the best days of my life. I’ll never forget that trip.

Remember how you taught me my worth, and set the bar so high, so that I ended up married to a man that measures up to you?

Remember the day you walked into the bridal shop downtown while I was trying on a wedding dress, and when you saw me you burst into tears and said, “That’s the one.” I told you it was stupid expensive and I’d find something else, but you handed the lady your credit card. Remember how Papaw gave us dance lessons so we wouldn’t look ridiculous dancing at my wedding? I’m not sure he was very successful but it was fun, wasn’t it? I think of it every time I hear My Girl.

Remember when I lived in Germany, and you guys came to visit me twice? Do you remember how we got to travel Europe together? I remember giggling at the topless sunbathers in the royal gardens in Copenhagen. Sitting on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower eating Cheezits. Sweating to death in Rome. Freezing to death in Helsinki

 

Remember how you not only invested in the lives of your children, but also the lives of our friends?

Remember how you loved everybody, and you never forgot to give other people credit for all of your virtues? You never left anyone out of your testimony, and you never forgot the people who invested in your life.

I remember how, when I was engaged, I worried about you. I was worried that because you have so much love to give that you would not do well as an empty nester when I got married and moved away. And I remember how I asked you to come to the BCM with me, and hear Brandon speak, and hear Colby speak, and meet my new college friends. And you did, and it became your community, and over the course of the next ten years, you changed the lives of dozens of people on that college campus. And you were never short on people to teach, to love, to pray with, to have fun with, and invest in. And you’d always pretend it was for your benefit. You’d say “I had lunch with so and so today, he sure is a blessing.” but we all know that people needed you, and you were there for them.

One time, I wanted a recent photo of you so I searched Facebook for tagged pictures of you. And all these pictures came up of you with people I don’t even know. How many weddings were you a groomsman in over the last ten years? Who are all these people? Pictures of you at events and bachelor parties and weddings. Pictures of you holding people’s babies. And even though you didn’t get to hold my babies as much as I would have liked, I never felt anything but grateful for those people. And grateful for you. You made this world better than the way you found it. You left everyone you met better than you found them. I am so grateful for their part in the full life you’ve had, so that you don’t have to feel cheated. You won’t go before God empty handed, but with all the good that you have done and all the people you have helped. And all these people I don’t even know are going to pass on pieces of you to all the people that they love. Your wisdom and your love and your humor and your devotion to God and your fellow man. That will go on forever. Thank you for loving them. And for loving me. And so, for you,  I will try not to feel cheated, because if the game is having the best dad anyone could have ever asked for, I already won.

 
Heather
(Shared with Dad’s permission)

 

Trying This Again.

If you know me (hi mom) you may remember that I tried to keep a travel blog when we lived in Europe. It was boring and it became more of a mommy blah-g and it was all over the place. This one probably will be too. Only this time, I’m ok with that. I’ll probably use this space to document some upcoming travels but I’ve decided that this isn’t an essay, I’m not in high school, and I am under no obligation to stick to the chosen topic. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I’m a terrible photographer and I don’t know the first thing about making a website look appealing (but if we’re lucky, I can con my brother into helping me out with that at some point.) Now that I’ve accepted these things I can move on. Look at me go. Self development.

Anyway. First things first. The other thing that was holding me back from blogging was being paralyzed by my inability to choose a blog name. I put out a feeler on social media and had some great and HILARIOUS suggestions but the one that jumped out to me the most was this one, Darts on a Map, suggested by my friend Mandi who blogs beautifully and deliciously over at I Speak Food.
We aren’t exactly throwing darts at a map to choose our travel destinations. That would be weird and reckless. Some rando at the Army is throwing the darts.
I have some loose plans for the summer, but while my Type A husband is abroad, the kids and I just might throw some darts on our map and see what happens. So join me if you’d like to cringe at my overly optimistic, wide-eyed, romantic ideas about taking small kids on a long road trip. It might be entertaining, or it might be exactly as boring as my last blog. You’ll just have to see. I’m mysterious like that.

Oh, and if you don’t know me. Hey there. Welcome. I’m Heather. Catholic, Army wife, homeschool mom of four, just like every other mom blogger. I shop at Costco, drive a b*tchin’ mini van, and wear Birkenstocks. Just like every other mom blogger.
Sometimes I tell stories on my Facebook page and my mom’s very charitable friends will say things like, “you should write a blog!” So, you know. Here we are. Even though I already used all my material on my Facebook. Don’t be shy, say hello.