Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brrrrrryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park is another one of those places I knew very little about before I set off to explore the south west. In fact, I think I had only heard of it once or twice, but what I had heard was that it was awesome, and that we should go.

I'm so, so happy we did. This place is amazing, and I think that among our big canyon stops (Zion, Bryce and Grand) Bryce may just have been the prettiest. The whole canyon is full of these strange looking, wonderfully colored spires of rock, which are called hoodoos. The brochures had a bunch of poetic hooplah about the hoodoos enchanting us with their magical spell. We found the description endlessly amusing, but in hindsight, perhaps I was bewitched by them. I took about 15 million hoodoo pictures, and somehow came up with the idea to spend a small fortune to ride a horse among them. (The picture taking is not nearly as out of character as the splurging, but even it was extreme.)

Even though it was technically well into spring, it wasn't so spring like at 8500 feet in elevation. I've mentioned before that my trusty old Volvo is not impressed with high elevations, and as we neared Bryce Canyon, she started up her shuttering routine. At this point, I was kind of used to it, and once we left Zion, there weren't a lot of death drop cliffs to worry about the car cutting out on, so I wasn't all that nervous about it.
We were very thankful not only to find a lovely campsite right in the park, but that we had such warm, fluffy REI sleeping bags because this place was really, really cold. In fact, I'd say it bordered on frigid. We tried going to the Junior Ranger star viewing program our first night there, but it was so cold, we feared freezing before it was our turn to look through the telescope. We just hurried back to our tent, and tried to make sure every inch of our skin was under the covers.

The next day, we heard it might even be colder, and that thunderstorms were a possibility. I asked a ranger his opinion on lightning and tents, and he gave me a stern warning that we should get into our car immediately if lightning is near. He said something like Bryce has the largest number of lightning strike injuries of any park, and "they take lightning VERY seriously there." Then he told me an assortment of painful things that happen if you don't die from a lightning strike. These super earnest park rangers usually make me smile, although the charm of how much they like their job does wear off if I am the recipient of a very strict lecture. Thankfully, it was a quick one.

We spent the day exploring the road through the park, checking out all the amazing scenic view points and taking some small hikes, all thunder and lightning free. When night rolled around, we decided we would just unfold the back seats of the wagon, and sleep there in case the thunderstorm did come. Well, thank goodness, because in the middle of the night, we woke up to the sound of it snowing. Our poor tent was a bit saggy by morning, but she didn't totally collapse. Although the tent was a sad sight, the rest of the world around us was amazingly beautiful.

We had to get going early because we were scheduled for the pricey morning horse ride, and we did not want to miss out. Getting out of a cozy bed is not my strong point any time, but when I can see my breath, and I have to go outside to prepare coffee and breakfast, and there is SNOW on the ground, well...it was a test of all of our strengths to say the least, but we did it.

My family actually rode mules, which our very cool cowboy guide informed us were far superior for mountain trail riding, and more sure footed than horses. Apparently, their eyes are located further to the side on their head so they have a better view of their foot placement. Or maybe he just said that since he didn't give us horses. In any case, we all were happy with our chosen animals.
They all looked well cared for, but I wondered if they were bored of their daily routine with the same trail, every day. Maybe that's why they seemed to like walking as close to the cliff edge as possible- to amuse themselves by freaking out the tourists.

Cowboy Dave had just the right amount of jokes, stories and history to share. We learned a little about the Mormons and the mountains, but the family in front of us also added to the entertainment. One girls' horse decided to walk through a bush and lean forward with her facing down a really steep hill. The girl handled it really well, and was fine, but her mother... well, we thought she was going to pass out. Then, the poor dad was taking pictures, and not paying the least bit of attention to the animal whose back he was on, when his horse walked right under some low tree branches giving the man a good scrape. The lesson we took from it was to pay attention when on horse back. We went to the canyon floor and back, and by the end, I knew I'd be walking funny for days. We had spent as much on the excursion as we would have in a couple weeks on food, but we were coming towards the end of our southwest adventure, and we all agreed this splurge was worth it.

I'd love to visit those magical hoodoos at Bryce again, but if I do, I will definitely either wait until it's really spring, or my splurging will be to stay at the lodge.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Lack of planning on road trips can lead to lots of spontaneous fun. It can also lead to unexpectedly landing in one of the nations busiest national parks during "Free National Parks Week." This coincided with spring break which I'm sure was nice for the bazillion other visitors who got a chance to explore a beautiful park for free while their kids were out of school. For us, there was no benefit to this timing. My kids are always out of school, and we could get in the park free any time this year with our America the Beautiful Pass. 

If you're into traveling and beautiful places, this pass is a great deal- $80 for a year gets you in to ALL the national parks and monuments for FREE. It could pay for itself in no time if you just hit a few of the bigger parks. We ended up hitting the big parks during their promotional free week, but we used the pass at a lot of other parks, and I know we'll continue to. I'm happy to support the parks anyway, even if they did threaten to shut down on us.

Despite the "free week" crowds, we found a campground in Springdale, Utah. This adorable, but rather pricey little tourist town along the Virgin River is right at the edge of the park. We didn't even try for camping in the park since we imagined they would be full, and besides- we really wanted showers and laundry facilities. The campground we got was full to the max and a completely overpriced place to pitch a tent, but there were several things I loved about the town. First, they have this wonderful shuttle system that runs everywhere for free. It even goes all the way to the parks gates, where you can walk in and catch another shuttle around the park.

Smooth running public transportation is really impressive to me, and not something you see very often in my home state of California. Imagine- clean buses with friendly drivers coming by every 15 minutes....did I mention it was FREE? After several thousand miles behind the wheel in the previous few weeks, I was very glad to leave the driving to someone else. This ingenious set up not only reduces traffic and parking problems, but allows tired drivers to toast their good fortune with a glass of wine while visiting all the cute shops.

Zion itself is spectacular in a natural wonders and amazing views kind of way, but the park itself REALLY has its act together. I had read someplace that Zion was like the Disney of the National Parks, and I agree. Everything about the place was friendly, efficient and clean. It made up for the lack of solitude by being well managed.

The shuttle system runs on propane so you don't have to smell diesel fumes. You can hop off, go for a hike, and almost all trails lead to another stop. No worrying about backtracking, missing the bus or it being too crowded- just catch the next one in 15 minutes.

The trails were all well maintained, but like the rest of the place, full of people. There was no litter though, and they had recycling facilities all over the place. Another impressive thing is that the park does not sell bottled water. Even with recycling, the number of plastic bottles that need to be dealt with in such a popular park is ridiculous, so they just said "no more." You can buy stainless steel water bottles and refill your own for free with spring water, but no single use disposables are sold anywhere in the park. Good for them for taking a stand.

Of all the national Parks I have visited, at Zion in particular, I noticed a really large number of people out on the trails who didn't look like typical hikers. We passed by tons of very elderly people and people of all ages and sizes who didn't appear to be outdoorsy types. It actually made my day to know these people were out there with their canes and inhalers and getting some exercise and a dose of nature though. It was a very encouraging thing to see indeed, although one gentleman had me a little concerned for the condition of his heart as he puffed and stopped, puffed and stopped. All I remember from the mandatory CPR class I took is that chest compressions alone are better than nothing, but no one needed emergency rescue services that day. Also, with the handy warning signs about falling to our deaths, my Boy Child decided to stay on the trail without any reminders.

We hiked until our legs hurt. A good chunk of time we were craning our necks looking up and ooohing and aaahing over the massive rock formations that left us feeling very small in the scheme of all this great big beauty in the world.

We also had to do some serious mud jumping, but luckily did not wipe out. Not all hikers were so lucky, and we saw both children and adults who had apparently taken accidental mud baths. None of them looked very happy, so I opted to not take their pictures.

At night, we ate like burly men, slept like logs, and were woken with a big, loud and unexpected thunderstorm. I have since learned that you should seek the shelter of your car if lightning is less than 7 miles away. At our last count, it was 3, but thankfully we all survived, and the dusty tent got a good rinse before we headed to on.

I had read terrifying accounts that the highway east out of Zion was a horribly scary mountain road with sheer cliffs and no guard rails. I pictured cars precariously dangling on the edge, speeding motor homes running people off the road and other frightening scenarios, but any other route would have taken us much too far out of the way. So, I practiced my deep breathing and went for it. It turns out the all the hoopla was unwarranted- the drive was scenic, and no problem at all. There were some really long and narrow tunnels that might have freaked us out if they hadn't conveniently put open windows every so often giving us the ability to breathe fresh air and see daylight. Even that was well planned for comfort.

As we drove away, we all agreed that southern Utah is simply beautiful- the whole bottom half of the state is pretty enough to be a national park. The parks themselves are gems- so diverse and amazing, they left me feeling rather poetic. I didn't take time for writing a haiku about how we humans are all different and lovely too, but I did ponder it. As free ranging homeschoolers, I think my kids have a good opportunity for clarity and openness to finding their own individual paths, without worrying if their life's landscape looks like anyone elses. For me, it reaffirmed that my own life deserves trust and freedom too, and with them, wonderful things will develop.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's the point of high school?

As my kids get older, when people learn that we are a homeschooling family, we are getting more and more of the "what about high school?" type of questions. The questioner often has raised eyebrows and the kind of look in their eye that clearly says they think I am a crazy woman, and that even though they just complimented me on how smart and well spoken my kids are, surely I am damaging them severely and ruining their future if I do not make them go to high school.

I know some people had a great high school experience, some so much that they are still hanging on to those glory days of theirs 20 years later. Some actually think I'm depriving my kids of something, but the thing is...at this point, my kids don't seem to have much of an interest. They have friends who go to school, and while they think a few of the classes sound fun, they don't want the all day, 5 days a week plus homework, no free time, and lots of busywork that goes with it. They like sleeping in, choosing their own classes and materials, and taking as long as they need to follow their passions. They like being free range learners, and it seems to be working. They still have the excitement and passion to learn new things, they know how to work, get along with people and solve problems. They get a little baffled at concepts like 12 year olds having babies or doing drugs or school shootings because that just isn't a part of what they consider the normal world, but I think that's OK. I don't consider those things normal either.

Personally, I didn't think that high school was all that great myself either, and I probably reflect that in my attitude about it. I kind of thought it was a huge waste of time, but at the time, I didn't know I could do anything else. I didn't even know that being productive or doing anything "real" was an option. Now that I know the beauty of life learning, I am happy my kids have this option.

When I came across this blog post from business and marketing guru Seth Godin, I thought he nicely sums up what a good education for young people should include.

In  What's High School For?, Godin suggests: "Perhaps we could endeavor to teach our future the following:
  • How to focus intently on a problem until it's solved.
  • The benefit of postponing short-term satisfaction in exchange for long-term success.
  • How to read critically.
  • The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority.
  • An understanding of the extraordinary power of the scientific method, in just about any situation or endeavor.
  • How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.
  • Project management. Self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people.
  • Personal finance. Understanding the truth about money and debt and leverage.
  • An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever.
  • Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving."

    I hate to say it, but I didn't get those things out of high school, and I suspect a fairly large number of other people aren't getting them either. Most of these are things that I learned about in real life, not in high school. I did learn a lot about how to jump hoops, manipulate people and situations, memorize trivia for tests, take shortcuts, as well as be mean and get away with it. Junior High was the training grounds and high school was four years of repetition.

    I don't recall learning much in the way of self management and sadly, the high school experience came closer to actually squelching my love of learning than fostering a life long love of it. It wasn't until college that I got excited about learning again, and in hind sight, I probably would have learned a lot more if I had just gone straight there and skipped the high school. So, I'm perfectly happy if my kids skip it and keep on with the actual business of living and learning. I think that a self directed education with plenty of resources, guidance and support is going to give a lot better opportunity for the things on this list than a typical high school could.

    Of course I don't think every homeschooled kid gets all those great opportunities and support, just like not every school kid has a negative experience. One size never really fits all, and just because homeschooling works for us, doesn't mean it works for everyone. But, no matter where your kids, or you, gets an education, Godin's list gives some food for thought as to what that education should include. Life, time and our minds are too precious to waste on nonsense.

    So, what do you think a quality education should include?

      Friday, May 20, 2011

      Feeling Pioneer-ish

      Lately, I have felt quite a lot like a pioneer. I'm not donning a bonnet or any calico, or even milking a goat- but I've been feeling pioneer-ish all the same. Kind of like I'm not sure where I'm going, but hoping the pastures will be green when I get there.

      While traveling with my kids and no real plan of where we going for five weeks, I could relate to those earlier adventurers- heading off in a direction that sounded good, and not quite sure what we would find. Unlike the pioneers before me, I could be fairly sure that I would eventually find a gas station, a grocery store, and a flushing toilet. Heck, most of the time we even managed showers and WIFI. We may have taken a couple of wrong turns, and ended up in places we hadn't expected, but I didn't really have to worry that we would be lost for weeks, alone, hungry and at the mercy of the elements.

      It was a learning adventure for sure. For example, when in Nevada, I learned that you should not assume that brightly lit buildings in the middle of nowhere will be all night gas stations or good places to stop and ask directions. Always check for words like "Brothel" on the neon signs, and you will know to keep on driving.

      As a mother, I can't imagine what some of the first pioneers and explorers experienced though. I at least always knew my children would have something to eat- we never even came close to completely running out of snacks, and even when I just needed something specific, say.... a dark chocolate fix, it was usually not too far away (although it was much harder to sneak to myself, as I had no bedroom to close the door to. I had to learn to cut back, and to share. Not easy lessons at any age.)

      I had a few stressful moments when  a campground was closed or full, and I needed to come up with a last minute late night sleeping arrangements, but I always knew there would be some thing, some place, even if it was an icky hotel or the folded down back seats of my wagon. I never felt really unsafe or afraid though. OK, I felt pretty frazzled when I missed the exit I wanted, and the next one was 10 miles away, or when large trucks with apparently caffeinated road raging drivers in cowboy hats whizzed past, or we somehow wound up on a street where barbed wired adorned every business front. So, occasionally I had hand cramps from white knuckling the steering wheel and I probably have a few more gray hairs, but overall I could be pretty sure we could eventually figure out our way to food, and lodging that did not involve barbed wire or angry cowboys. The gas light came on a time or two, but we never ran out, and we had AAA just in case.

      All of that exploration was quite a bit of work, but it did my heart and spirit good. I felt adventurous and free. We were three very happy explorers.

      Back at home, things are feeling a little pioneer-ish as well. Homeschooling has always kind of made us feel like we were charting unknown seas. It's not like we're the first or the only ones to skip school in favor of life learning- there are many families who came before us and paved the way, and I am so thankful for that. I'm also thankful to live in an area with a big and diverse homeschooling community, so we're not the only oddballs. But it is still far from the norm- some people think it sounds neat, but isn't for them, and many people simply think we're nuts.

      I however, like the adventure of taking the road without all the traffic. On coming home, I realized that I need to make some changes. My life was starting to detour and route me towards the highway of being too busy and too distracted to focus on what is important.

      My kids are getting bigger, as kids will do, and they have bigger dreams and goals, and things I want to be a part of helping them find. I have dreams too, and they have trouble flourishing if all my time is split elsewhere. So, I'm taking another step, kind of a leap, on a fairly unknown journey- cutting back hugely on my hours and responsibilities at my paid work to open up that time and energy to my family and other creative endeavors, like writing.

      Gaining time and energy is exciting, but it means losing money, and frankly, I don't have a real clear plan for that. A number of people have said they would love to also cut back work "if they could afford it." I heard the same line about extended traveling. The thing is, it's not like I have a trust fund, or even any idea how exactly I am going to work this all out. What I do have is faith..which goes along nicely with dreams. I also trust that I have some talents and skills, and contrary to some people's opinions, I have a sort of logic too. I don't know where this path will take me either, but in the pioneering spirit, I have faith that I will find a way, and I'm going to do my best to enjoy the journey.

      Tuesday, May 17, 2011

      Those Ruins Aren't Aztec

      I always think of the east coast of the United States as being the side of the country that hosts the most history, but driving through the American Southwest immersed us in times past. Much of it is more modern- the whole wild west expansion stuff, but there were people here long before the cowboys- and in the South West, you can still see tons of evidence of the lives of the ancestral Pueblo peoples. In different climates, like much of California, the homes of Native Americans were often mobile, and the remains have long since deteriorated over the course of wet seasons. You can see replicas, but the real things are gone. But in the desert, there are entire villages of ruins- amazing dwellings built with the material at hand- rock and adobe- which have been remarkably preserved for many hundreds of years. And it's not just a home or two here and there- there are huge, complex villages. The effort and engineering it took to build these is pretty amazing.

      We were lucky to visit so many of these awesome and ancient dwellings this spring. It was like an extended, multi-week field trip / living unit study learning about the original inhabitants of the land and the wisdom of their ways. Working with your environment was a big lesson- like using stone and building into the earth both in caves and underground- this could insulate and regulate extreme desert temperatures, and seemed a better idea than trying to build a wooden structure in the blazing sun when there was not a forest for miles.

      The lessons of what happened to much Indian culture and so many people is beyond sad, so it was great to see thriving and healthy Indian populations in many areas today. These aren't just the people who were once there- they are still there- alive and well. We did see some rural areas of poverty of course, and that typically isn't a pretty scene. But what really struck me were the large school groups in New Mexico museums- full of healthy and beautiful Native American kids and being led by mostly Native American teachers who (unlike many school teachers) were respectful with the kids, and actually seemed to be enjoying their time sharing the world with them. I love kids, but am not usually very excited to have our museum time interrupted by school groups. These were happy scenes though, and those are what stuck with me- resilient and strong people who valued their young ones.

      Another thing that both struck me and stuck with me was Aztec Ruins National Monument. When I came across the place on the map, I was a little confused and began to question my own knowledge base because I hadn't thought the Aztec people were anywhere close to that area. Gee- what kind of education did I have? Well, I was right with my instinct- they aren't even Aztec Ruins! Whew- I was worried for a bit!

      Anyway, I guess at one time, some folks who didn't know much about the native people called them Aztec, and gave the name to the nearest town. By the time they realized that these were not Aztec Ruins and that the people who had lived there were not Aztec either, I guess everyone was used to the name, so they just kept it. I found that a little odd and somewhat insulting to the ancestral people whose homes those actually were. As far as I know, the federal government is not very likely to change the name of the monument any time soon, and I didn't seen any obvious opposing protests about it either. I wonder though if other people are bothered by this as well?

      Despite the name, the monument was very cool. Stepping into these dwellings takes you back in time, and I always imagine the lives that were lead there. I felt a little creepy after going into one room and learning that it had been used as burial chambers- we paid our respects and moved on, not feeling quite right about having intruded. The Great Kiva, a spiritual room, was a replica, but it was magnificent as well as huge. Being in this replicated kiva did not have quite the same feeling of positive energy for me as being in original kivas where we knew people had said prayers for hundreds of years, but it was very neat to go inside and see what it might have looked like when it was new.

      My kids did the Junior Ranger program, so they spent a good amount of time hunting for clues, and reading, thinking and writing about the past. Bless the Ranger who gave them their badges- she was really, really into this program. I could tell she took the whole thing very seriously by her solemn manner when she swore them in. My kids were a little tripped out that she got teary eyed when they took the oath to protect and preserve the parks, but I told them it was great that she loved her job that much.

      We  came away feeling a number of things- like there is a lot to gain from learning about both the wisdom and the mistakes of the people who came before us, feeling grateful for people who are passionate about what they do, and feeling like it's really nice to call people by the correct name if at all possible.

      Friday, May 13, 2011

      Moab, Jeeps and Arches

      As soon as we pulled in to Moab, Utah, I noticed that it  is one of the sportiest little towns that we've seen. Boy Child immediately noticed that almost every vehicle was a four wheel drive, and by the mud all over many of them, they looked as if they had recently been four wheeling. He borrowed my camera and began snapping 12 million pictures of vehicles that his daddy would love.
      What I also noticed was that people were in shorts, and after a few very brisk days of Colorado spring (which was a lot like California winter) I was just glad to see that we were in for some warmer weather. I also noticed that the shops and restaurants all along the main street were bustling with people. We hadn't known it at the time, but apparently we managed to land in Moab during"Jeep Safari Week" which apparently is a pretty big deal. Of course, as usual on this trip, we knew where some campgrounds were, but had no reservations and no firm place to stay.
      It was late afternoon and a Friday, and by the busy look of things, I suspected that we might have some competition for camp sites.

      We stopped by the visitors center and borrowed their WIFI while we ate some sandwiches. Free visitor center WIFI was definitely one of the handiest things we encountered on this trip, but in this case, it just told me that the local campgrounds were first come, first served. There were a ton of people asking questions of the staff, so we just grabbed a few brochures and didn't bother getting in line to talk to anyone.

      We did learn that it was the start of "Free National Parks Week" which would undoubtedly add another element of challenge to our camp site quest.

      Before heading off in search of a temporary home, we wanted more food. After a few weeks on the road, I had lost many of my usual standards. We ate really well most of the time, as in food that was good both in quality and quantity, which is pretty normal for us. But sometimes, things were definitely NOT along our usual lines. I had fed my children pie for breakfast (it was real fruit at least) and had not only purchased and taken part in the consuming of a massive 44 ounce Dr Pepper, I actually shared it with my kids. None of these things are normal for us, but at this point, daily showers were not always happening either, so what's really the big deal with some corn syrup in the morning?

      In this case, we actually drove through an embarrassing fast food drive through- a franchise which I have not eaten at in many, many years and am too embarrassed to name, and we drove out eating greasy, meat and bacon-ish products. We then stopped and topped off this junk food fest with ice cream before tackling our camp site search. For a person who usually thinks about things like salt, sugar and fat, I didn't really have any regrets.

      There are a string of campgrounds along the Colorado River conveniently located between Arches National Park and Moab. We felt optimistic about finding some place to stay around there. Apparently, so did many of the Jeep enthusiasts because the first five of the campgrounds we saw had "FULL" signs across the entry. I whipped our wagon into the the first one without a sign- sixth or seventh we had driven by- and before I could even park, the host came walking up with the bad news. Luckily he made us an offer that we snapped up. The group site was open, and we could pitch our tent there if we didn't mind sharing the spot.

      This host took his duties very seriously and have everyone a talking to about 10 pm "quiet time" and no partying etc. That was fine with us, but I found it amusing that we got an extra little lecture about kids safety and respect and not playing ball next to campfires. Maybe the fast food aroma we were emitting gave me a "bad mom" impression? In any case, we loved the stone tables and having the river right by us. The lack of showers was a bummer, and the pit toilets was an even bigger bummer. But as a base to explore Arches, it was perfect.

      Arches ended up being one of my Boy Child's favorite National Parks, mainly because he could climb, scramble and clamber over all sorts of rocks. Girl Child wondered why the brochure she picked up encouraged us to stand below giant and precariously perched rock formations while we "gaze up and ponder the unlikely balance"- especially since in the same brochure it talked about the several hundred pound chunk of boulder that suddenly and unexpectedly fell off of one of the formations a few years ago. We decided to ponder other things besides falling rock while we gazed up from below. Mostly, we were just in awe of how wonderful and different each park is.

      We spent a couple of days doing a lot of hiking, exploring, and admiring the amazing variety of colors and shapes in the landscape. Nature is a magnificent thing.

      Tuesday, May 10, 2011

      Besides the tent

      Yes, we slept in a tent for 5 weeks. Thank goodness that living in a tent really isn't as bad or as difficult as many people imagine that it would be. As long as my mat held air, which it did every night except the first, when I didn't close the valve all the way, I slept very soundly in my awesome and toasty REI sleeping bag. Overall, our tent home was actually pretty cozy.

      What was hard was packing up and moving our little home every few days. I had meticulously packed the car on departure, and every centimeter of space was neatly filled with stuff. I never seemed to be able to replicate that neatness when re-packing though, and it became more and more difficult to stuff, cram and wedge all of our belongings into the car at all. At times, it felt like our belongings were growing and breeding, like even though we kept eating food, there was never any more room to put things.

      We learned to adapt to moving often though. In no time, we could have our little camp scene set up, and dinner cooking on the Coleman stove. Take down was another story. We did get faster, but it was never as simple as set up. The jam packed car sort of looked like vagabonds lived in it at times, but I have convinced myself that vagabonds and hobos are two entirely different things. We had a home besides our tent, we were just really far away from it, and so for a month or so, the tent and car were our home- that made us more along the lines of nomads than hobos.

      We had an interesting discussion on the difference while getting gas somewhere in New Mexico. Boy Child noticed a traveler who looked far more nomadic and road weary than we did. He may have crossed the hobo line, but that is not a judgment call in the least. In any case, Boy Child was rather upset when he noticed that this fellows rather dirty Therma Rest sleeping mat was in fact nicer than his own flimsy foam pad. Boy Child had his choice of several mats we had at home before we left, and he chose the thinnest one. I mentioned this to him at the time, but he assured me it was fine. Apparently, he was no longer so pleased with his choice, and shook his head muttering, "That hobo had a nicer mat than me." This went on for days. Perhaps Girl Child and I could have been sympathetic, but we found it hilarious.

      While we all generally liked the tent, thin mats aside, there were some occasions when setting it up or sleeping in it was just not happening. Snow, thunderstorms, 35 mile per hour winds and things like that tend to make the tent life a little less fun. On these occasions, we were happy to find some alternative "kamping" arrangements via KOA or other private campgrounds with cabins. We learned early on after a couple of unpleasant hotels, that these cabins tended to be a much better choice than a cheap motel. The cabins are pretty much identical wherever they are, but it was a very cute look that the kids loved. Besides the bunk beds and porch wings, they also had playgrounds, mini heaters, electricity and WIFI. One even had a TV, but we didn't use it.

      My favorite place we stayed, besides the tent, on this trip was definitely the Durango Hometown Hostel. I have stayed at a number of hostels in my life, and this was by far the cleanest hostel I have ever been in. This place was cleaner than my house! (Not that my house is going to win any Good Housekeeping awards, but the point is, I was really impressed with this place.)

      We arrived unexpectedly and with no reservations, just a few minutes before they closed the office for the night. We were slightly desperate because our planned campground was closed, it was cold and getting dark, and my car was acting up. Unfortunately, there were no private rooms available. There were co-ed dorms available, but I was not exactly comfortable with the idea of my kids and I in a room with men I didn't know. The two women who were staying in the ladies dorm had gone out for the evening, so they couldn't ask them if they would be OK with Boy Child staying in there with us. It looked like we were going back out on the streets to try our luck with a hotel, but thank heavens for smart and wonderful people.

      The friendly manager found a great solution by asking a man who was staying in a co-ed dorm by himself if he would mind moving to a male dorm for the night so that my family could have that room. I thought I would have to ask my kids to make sad, puppy dog eyes to guilt trip him into compliance, but he was a very nice man, and agreed, sight unseen. A few minutes later, we were set up with clean linens, and a private room for the night- all for the bargain price of $60. The internet worked, they had a real stove, there were no funky smells, the showers were clean, and they even fed us ice cream cake.

      So if you ever find yourself near Durango, Colorado and in need of a place to stay, I would highly recommend the Hometown Hostel. The town is adorable as well, with a free trolley bus system that you can ride all around downtown- a very handy thing while your car is being checked out by the mechanic.

      And if you ever find yourself with the chance to spend 5 weeks in a tent, I would say go for it. It's probably cozier than you would think, at least when the weather cooperates. My Boy Child would advise that you bring a good mat though.

      Friday, May 6, 2011

      Writing, writing, writing

      When I was dreaming about taking a 5 week vacation to explore National Parks in the west, I imagined a trip full of time for reading, contemplating big life issues, and writing- lots and lots of productive writing. I thought I would chronicle my journey, keeping my blog up to date with our latest adventures every couple of days.

      Well, it didn't exactly happen like that. I did not finish reading one of the 5 books I took with me on the trip, and I didn't do much in the way of contemplating either. I was too busy exploring. And while I was faithfully able to keep up with blog the first couple of weeks, as the journey went on, I got further and further behind.

      Electricity can be hard to come by when you are living in a tent, and WIFI is sometimes a few days away. Besides, I was enjoying all the new sights and places, and I didn't want to leave that in search of a place to plug in. Just the very act of trying to figure out where we going next took up quite a bit of time as well. The basics like food and shelter won out over the blog, but I do have an assortment of scribbled notes, along with a bazillion photos, stubs of paper, and miscellaneous memorabilia that is waiting to be sorted and organized. Eventually, I have faith that at least some of it will get fashioned into something that will get posted or used somehow .

      In the mean time, I am relishing one of the many life lessons that I took away from my time traveling- that is that there is a whole lot out in the world to enjoy. I cannot possibly see or do it all, but I want to see and do what I can at a pace that feeds my soul rather than sucking the life out of it. I really don't want to waste my time stressing out about trying to cram everything in, but spend it appreciating what I can.

      Along those lines, rather than stressing about being behind on my blog, I am appreciating the recent successes I've had with my writing. I was on the road when my latest articles went to print, but they made it nonetheless.

      As a writer for parenting magazines, I am blessed to get to research and learn about things that interest me, and get to interview a lot of inspirational people as well.

      Here's a link to an article on baby wearing which I recently had the pleasure of writing for NorthState Parent Magazine. I love all those adorable babies, and am inspired by the dedicated mamas who pack them about. I also was asked to write about a wonderful couple who works with special needs kids, linked here. It's a great thing to see how many good people there are in the world doing terrific things for our future.

      Finally, I have a  piece on CreekSchooling that is in the May / June issue of Home Education magazine. It's a piece I wrote quite a while back, but re-reading it reminds me of what a wonderful lifestyle we have found. Even better, it's in a magazine full of articles that support that lifestyle, by writers who can understand it.

      I think I'll get off the computer, and enjoy that lifestyle with my family right now.

      Sunday, May 1, 2011

      Check Engine

      There are some things in life that make you realize that you are very, very minuscule in the scheme of things.

      Standing under giant trees that are hundreds of years old is one of them. Looking up at humongous rocks that tower over you or canyons that seem to go on forever and have been being carved by rivers for millions of years are a couple more.

      Having the "check engine" light go on in your 17 year old car with over 160,000 miles on it, and your two children on board with you, while driving on an mountain road in the middle of nowhere in Colorado at 8500 feet, especially when that road that has no place to pull over, no guard rails and sheer cliff drop offs, where I doubt anything that remained of your remains would ever be found if you went off- that really tends to make you feel like any illusion of control that you have is really, really tiny.

      At least the car was running OK when the newest of the problem lights came on and I was on the above mentioned mountain highway. The car is a highway cruiser and thrives on the open (and flat) road, but has always been a bit sluggish on hills. It has also had a few other lights that have come on and off for a few months- an anti-lock brake warning and a transmission one, which are equally important and nerve wracking to have come on. But, I have been assured these things are fine. The "Check Engine" was new, and not very reassuring, especially when the car started a mild shuttering and sputtering when I pulled into the next town and stopped for a red light.

      I saw no place open to deal with my mysterious engine issue, but I did notice that every time that I drove, it was fine. It was only when I stopped that the engine started sounding like a smokers cough, and doing a little shake. Did I mention that it was getting dark?

      These are the kinds of moments when people start whipping out prayers, and I am no exception. Since the car drove just fine, I took it as a sign we should drive on. We drove to the campground that we had planned to stay at for the night where I planned to research my options. The good news was that it wasn't far, and there were relatively few stops on the way, so that was without incident. When we got there however, we found out the bad news. There was a big locked gate that prevented us from getting in. Due to a late winter, it was not yet open for the season.

      Boy Child again wanted to sleep right there in the car. I wanted to cry. Instead, we drove. We had no idea where we were going. There were no other campgrounds that were nearby and open for the season. There were no hostels in the vicinity listed in our guide book. After our last unpleasant hotel stay, we weren't liking that idea either, but it was getting darker and we were getting hungrier by the minute. Plus, every time I stopped, the car's shaky cough started again. I was feeling mildly desperate, but knowing full well that even in my annoying situation, my problems were fairly small on a global scale, and my preferences and requests were probably pretty low on the importance chart.

      But, blessed as we are, things got better. It was Girl Child who ended up saving the day when she spotted a sign for the Durango Hometown Hostel. We had refuge, not to mention showers and WIFI.

      I researched online that night, and suspected that the culprit was the elevation. The car was having trouble getting oxygen just like we did when hiking so high up. The next day we got a quick check on the car at a mechanic, and since there were no obvious problems, we went with my high elevation theory and headed to lower grounds. The warning light went off and the shuttering mellowed out, and my relief was so big that I even bought my kids a giant Dr. Pepper, which is something that I never, ever do.

      The light came back on and the shuttering commenced several more times during our travels, pretty much every time we were above 6500 feet in elevation. But at least the worry was smaller and we could feel a little more confident that we'd be fine if we kept going. We went on with our journey feeling happy and blessed indeed.