Car camping

The Coast of California

Aaaaah, Blue! Beaming from the horizon is blue. We are high on the last of the beautiful California hills. Grass and forest pastures mingle and role several thousand feet down towards the coast. This is the first time we see the Pacific all year. So exciting, so beautiful, I work the breaks so as to not lose control of our trusted minivan, as an impatient car screams around us and downward toward the coast.

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Cambria. We sleep without the tent fly able to gaze at the stars on the pleasant night. Michelle wakes me up in the middle of the quiet night… “I think there is something getting into the cooler – must be a raccoon.” She peaks up out of her sleeping bag and is face to face with a skunk! “Ahhhh” I hear. “Duck she wispers hoarsly!” She tucks back into her sleeping bag protecting Ila. What is ducking going to do I wonder? A bit later we look again, the skunk backed away and for some reason it is my job to quietly sneak out of the tent without stirring the skunk and put our cooler in the minivan. It is a standoff skunk vs. man. With a raccoon I would make a bunch of noise to scare the critter but the skunk is a much more delicate situation. In the morning we learn about the destruction…the dexterious skunk somehow, opened the cooler and made off with Michelle, Elias and Ila the eggs, the turkey jerkey and a really good bar of chocolate. Jacob celebrated the miracle that the bacon was still there.

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We pack up and drive north on Route 1 with its mysterious curves and spectacular views. We see an unexpected sign for “Elephant Seal Viewing”. Our curiosity is peaked and we pull over park and head to a boardwalk overlooking a beach completely covered with huge Elephant Seals. Loud thunderous growls, they are hilarious from our comfortable distance. We watch and we learn little Ms. I giggling imitating the seals. What’s next? Wildlife viewing was not on my radar. We head north.

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The hills that our coastal highway is following steepen, as the clouds thicken ahead. “Is there really a road that continues along that coast?” The ocean gives birth to increasingly steeper and more other worldly hills as we enter the fog and I begin to yawn. Yes it has been very busy and very active as of late and I am beginning to feel tired. It’s no longer sunny out as we wind in and out of mountain ravines and ridge lines, why am I so tired? “Whale!” Jacob yells out, we pull over with more excitement of viewing exotic wild life. Three maybe four-hundred feet below there are whales out at sea. We witness one blowing water into the air, haha so cool. Finally we file back into the car and the dizzying ride continues.
Lime Kiln state park is on a creek in a deep ravine with Redwoods that opens up to a cove on the Pacific. We play by a stream from the forest making its way to the ocean, Michelle’s favorite type of confluence, freshwater meeting the sea. Waves splash and happy kids disperse. Camp is set but it’s still early, why are we so tired? Michelle yawns. “Let’s go to the beach, it’s only yards away”. I lie down and drift away to the sound of waves, sea gulls and Jacob and Elias wrestling, running, building with rocks and sand. Now I’m driving in the desert again, driving towards Los Angeles, but now it’s on fire, why am I driving there if it’s on fire? I notice that my wheels aren’t touching the ground but I’m speeding way above the desert and there are piles of animals, they have teeth, they’re like huge crocodiles covering the entire horizon and the snapping noises they make are frightening.

“Daddy, check it out there are Sea Otters out there.”

“What?” I pop up. “Sea Otters?”, “Weird dream” I brush it off when I understand what Elias is yelling and eagerly look through the binocs. Sure enough there are a few Sea Otters floating around on their backs in the waves. “Wow, they’re big.” I concede to make it clear that I’m excited. After awhile I stop watching, I notice Michelle is at camp cooking dinner. “It’s cloudy here.” I think to myself and lie back down. Drifting waves, drifting sounds I am now on the top of a huge cliff. I’m above the clouds. “So this is what it looks like above the clouds”. I think about jumping but then the back of some really big animal surfaces. “I can’t float like that” I think, “I’ll just sink to the bottom.”

“Dinner!” Michelle yells. I realize I was snoring and again work to shake off the sleep.

We stayed at Lime Kiln another full day and night enjoying the otters and the occasional Harbor Seal that popped it’s head out of the water as curious about us as we about it. The spell of the Big Sur coast was impossible to escape as we drifted in and out of different stages of our dreams. Even when I was awake I had to pinch myself, was I really awake? It was probably somewhere between dreaming and awake now that I reflect back on it. On day three the clouds still thick as if they are always there, the noise of sea birds, waves and the rushing creek mingle with the sleepiness. We pack up and drive onward, winding north on Route 1. Slowly, the clouds intermittently give way to the sun. The spell is broken like Rip Van Winkle waking from his sleep we start remembering where we’re heading and began thinking about our itinerary again. That’s right, my cousins in Menlo Park, Michelle’s brother Simon is meeting us in San Francisco after that, our trip is only weeks from over. But it is certainly not over. Today we’re headed to The Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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The aquarium is an absolute treat for all of us. The mysteries of both the deep ocean and coastal life are beautifully explained throughout with jelly fish of all sorts, big, amazing and bizarre fish and answers to our questions about the cool local wildlife we had been seeing.
The Elephant Seal is not only humorous and entertaining to watch but they are incredible. Sometimes weighing as much as 6,000 pounds they can spend more time without air than any other non Cetacean mammal (whales and Dolpins). They have been recorded ad depths at over 7,000 feet deep in the Ocean.

It turns out the whales we saw were most likely the Blue Whales. They are the largest living thing to have ever existed weighing up towards 170 tons. What we probably saw was a mom and her calves, being only a month and a half from peak viewing season it was not an uncommon viewing.

The animal that had our attention the longest was the incredible Sea Otter. The Sea Otter has the thickest fur of any animal in the world. They live in the kelp forests and are sustained by the life within the forest. It is also no surprise that we watched them floating around on their backs because they spend a majority of their lives doing exactly that, floating on their backs. They are one of the only animals in the animal kingdom to use tools, such as their use of rocks to pry open shell fish. They are also a keystone species keeping populations of Sea Urchins in check so they do not destroy the kelp forest. What I think is amazing is how big they are, the males can way close to 100 Ibs. That means that they were surely further than we thought while we watched them at the beach. That’s the same as the Blue Whales. Had they been a different species of whale we probably would never had seen them.

Here at the Monterey Aquarium there was one fish that caught our interest. We never saw the Great White Shark in the wild but we did watch a presentation that was fascinating. First of all they are not a coastal species like previously thought; they only come to the coasts to feed. From there they go out into the open ocean and do things that nobody quite understands as of yet. What we do know is almost all of them travel out to an area between Hawaii and Baja California referred to as the Great White Café. On their way out there they will dive as deep as 3,500 feet below sea level. Once they get there they never dive below 300 feet. It could be that they are mating, or perhaps that they are fishing but the fact remains that nobody knows.

Now back in the car we continue on to see family again and experience a bit of city life.

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Categories: Blue Whales, California, Camping, Car camping, Coast of California, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Elephant seals, family, Family camping, Great White Shark, Monterey Aquarium, Sea Otters, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Incidents and Accidents: Traveling with a toddler Part 1

As I write this we are perched atop a mountain in a friends beautiful straw bale home outside of Dolores, CO very close to where Jacob was born over 12 years ago.  Here I find myself flooded with reflections and perspective.  The life stages of our children are so different right now.  One teetering on the brink of adolescents; one finding himself in the land of imagination and discovery; and the third, a wild toddling ball of wonder and spontaneity. Just today as she nearly pushed her 8 year old brother out of the shopping cart that they were sharing and howling at the top of her lungs because she wanted “privacy” a passerby said “oh, she must be two.” He was on the money!

Of all of the kids, she was the biggest unknown when considering such a big adventure.  Traveling for a year with a two year old is not your average undertaking after all.  Now, 7 months into our trip she is by far in the lead for giving us many, many moments of both comic relief and tears of near disaster. Here is a glimpse into life on the road with a toddler…

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Tools for the task:

Headlamp, tweezers, a multi-tool and of course duck tape. 

This is what’s needed to fix the tape deck (yes, you heard that correctly -we play tapes) when blueberries, barrettes and batteries are jammed into it.  It is true that the car is an extension of our home and is sometimes the best place for the Little Miss to hang out when we are breaking down or setting up camp. This said, if she is in there quietly focused on something there will surely be a price to pay.   Unfortunately now that many, many CD’s have been jammed into our CD player the tape deck must be defended at all costs!

Hand sanitizer, warm soap and water, Scissors.

Quiet and tranquil family moments are only possible when Little I is occupied.  This was true when she was quietly playing next to a tree in 2 Medicine Campgrounds of Glacier National Park.  I’m not sure why we didn’t answer to the big red flag of Ila shooing everyone away when they wondered what she was up.  Lesson learned and managed –  as long as you have all of these four tools you will be able to, with great effort, extract VERY thick tree sap out of toddler eyebrows, eyelashes and hair.  It’s actually only a 4 part process;

Step one:  Apply hand sani. very carefully trying desperately not to get in eyes

Step two:  Warm soap and water on the area helps a tiny bit

Step three: There is always the first hair cut…

Step four:  Encouraging crying rather than discouraging it over the ensuing days helps dislodge the eyelash sap…

Socks (preferably clean and not from dad); reusable swim diapers and duck tape.

That is what’s needed when backpacking in the Tetons or elsewhere for 4 days and run out of diapers on day 3 because you are traveling “light”.  Note to the wise disposable swim diapers DO NOT hold in pee.

Some other Tips and Insights:

Never shop when hungry:

When looking for the toddler at a small food coop in Montana make sure to scan the lower cereal isles for she may be snug in between the granola and the O’s ripping open a box for a snack only bare feet sticking out to give you a hint as shoes and socks where carelessly thrown off on the way….which leads us to our next subject.

Clothing Optional:

On this subject keeping clothes on the toddler at any point during the trip regardless if the weather is below freezing and everyone else in the family is wearing their down jacket and a hat is futile.  Ila is a nudist.  Regardless of her age and the temperature it is near impossible to keep her clothes on.

Narcissistic Parents at the beach:

When passerby’s look with smiles and giggles at your toddler in the stroller as you are walking down the boardwalk, do not for one moment think they are amused at her cuteness rather question to yourself what could be happening inside the stroller at that very moment…the toddler may be smearing and eating the sun block. (Side note…if you ever see a toddler in a stroller being pushed by her parents; tell the parents that she is indeed EATING the sun block please!)

Managing the inevitable:

Laundry:

When doing laundry at a laundromat in North Dakota or anywhere for that matter always keep an eye on the toddler because if you turn around for a second it is possible that when you turn back you may only see the feet of the kid sticking out of the triple dryer!

Night at the Museum:

Museum exhibits are often fascinating giving one an understanding about the area. This is especially true when reading an exhibit to the boys about the first arrowheads found in the eastern part of AZ near Apache Junction. Not all of us get a sense of place from the written word…sometimes individuals especially the 2 yr. old type develop this understanding by climbing under the fence and into the animal exhibit so that she can snuggle up nice and close to the javelina trying to avoid the prickly pair and the  lurking mountain lion.

Pet Names:

Although she grew out of her cute pet names for the boys – “Bebop” for Jacob and “Yiyis” for Elias, she grew into pet names for me…You know that you have been spending 24/7 with your daughter and the family when she starts calling you your husband’s pet names. Ila has been calling me “Honey” and “Chell” and sometimes the funny combo of “Honey Mama” for the last month!

Odds and ends:

Wipe on wipe off markers are good for car windows bad for tent flaps.

 Jumping Cholla cactuses are true to their name and are especially attracted to cute 2 year old girls.

 When staying with cousins, make sure to remove all infant suppositories from the area as they apparently taste good. (Side note have the Poison Control phone number on your cell phone and feel relieved when infant suppositories when eaten will only cause diarrhea).

Under NO circumstances let said toddler play in a pool of water in Yellowstone Park even if she is giggling…there just may be LEECHES! Ahhhhh

String wax that older children may enjoy playing with does not taste good.

And finally just like in the Movie Elf, ABC gum especially in shades of blue, found on the ground in the dessert apparently does taste good.

More to come:

Although you may be wondering at this point if Miss Toddler is intact and well,  the answer is a resounding yes! She is currently running circles around the boys, stealing their dinner, pens, pencil sharpeners and hats and squealing with delight.  She is growing quickly and hilariously. With that said, I imagine that this is only part one of her adventures!

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Side note: All photos on this page were taken by big brother Mr. E during a “photo shoot” at our campsite in southern AZ.

Categories: Adventure, adventure travel, Camping, Car camping, Family camping, Toddler development, toddlers | 9 Comments

Cochise Stronghold

It could be that there is a spirit world, a world that exists on a different frequency than we are use to acknowledging in our day to day lives.  In this place if you lie, steel, or are untrue and you don’t stick up for what you believe in or if you don’t stick to your word, than your spirit person becomes less and suffers.  This is what the Apache believe, they believe that if you are always true and unflinching and if you make the hard but right choices, than you die free and you will be soaked into the universe allowing your spirit to live forever, giving power to all.  We are told that this happened to the great Apache Chief Cochise.  During a time in American history known as the Apache Wars, Cochise was a hero for keeping his faith to his people, a champion and devotee to the truth and to his word, and in so doing honored his spirit body.  Cochise defended his lands from the bloody Mexicans to the South and the lying Americans to the North.  His physical body was and is still buried deep within his spiritual home in the Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona.  Cochise’s spirit was never captured and is alive and well at Cochise Stronghold.

As our loaded down minivan raced the sun’s setting light to the Stronghold, we bounced down the road quiet and calm with the jagged spine of rock mountains before us.  Would we have enough time to use the last sun rays to find the perfect camp for the next 8 days?  Yes.  We pulled into camp at the base of a protective rock barrier with a big expansive view of the setting sun.  Stepping out of the van we could feel that this place was not preserved by strict laws, or museum like encasement.  Any stories or thoughts that were previously racing through our minds of things that may or may not be happening somewhere else dissipated.  We were quietly and peacefully engulfed into the present as we set up camp that first night.  We felt safe, welcome and invited to stay there.

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 It is said that the great Apache war shaman Geronimo passed freely between the physical and the spirit world.  That is how Geronimo could run 100 miles carrying only a spoonful of water in his mouth for nourishment.  That’s how he was able to help the passing of the Apache people from the physical world to the Spirit world.  Squeezed between pain and suffering Geronimo was known to be captured on purpose in order to achieve other means.  It was common knowledge that if in battle you were charging Geronimo or had him surrounded, it was so because that was what he wanted, all of your actions were a consequence of his larger plan, which was to free the spirit of the Apache.  The Dragoon Mountain Range, our home for the week, is considered a direct portal between the two worlds. It is where Geronimo brought 150 Apaches from the San Carlos starvation camp.  He led them into this maze of jagged granite towers and canyons, possibly passing though our camp, where they eluded the United States Army and made a pact with the spirit world.

When we awoke that following morning we turned our attention to the 100 foot tall cliff that was part of our camp.  Jacob and Elias put up a target on a nearby mesquite tree and began working on bow and arrow shooting.  I stacked a rope at the base of one of the routes and Michelle belayed me up as Ila played in the dirt.  We climbed 1, 2 3 climbs and moved on to breakfast.  Michelle began homeschooling with Elias.  Jacob and I climbed more.  The climbing was physical, thoughtful and low on stress.  This was just one rock in an immense rocky landscape but we had no desire or need to move on.  This spot was so intriguing and engaging that we made this our rhythm for several days.  Views to the west brought the Serengeti to mind and the rest of the landscape, a fortress of rocks.  Our imaginations and actions remained in the present yet life felt timeless.

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At the time of the Apache Wars the policies of the US government towards the Apache were set forth by such sentiments as this by the bureau of Indian Affairs:

“This race is destined to a speedy and final extinction, all that can be expected from an enlightened and Christian government, such as ours, is to graduate and smooth the passway of their final exit from the state of human existence.”

During the late 19th century this region saw the highest concentration of forts and military presence in Western US history in order to fight the Apache.  It was also at this time that the small mining towns of the region boomed.  The precious metals being excavated from the hill sides were in high demand as were whiskey and whores.  The most infamous of these towns was Tombstone, Arizona.  During its peak Tombstone not only saw a military and mining presence but there was the smuggling of cattle across the US/ Mexico boarder.  This brought to the region the “cowboy”, originally not to be confused with a cattleman or rancher but a slang term to describe “the worst kind of outlaw that there is”.  Gunfights were common in Tombstone, Arizona with the most famous of all to take place at The OK Corral, between  “law men” Doc Holiday, Wyatt Erp and his brothers versus “The Cowboys”, the McLaury brothers and Bill Clanton.  Tombstone and it’s legacy was so rowdy and so intense this is where the term Wild West was coined.  That Wild West is now gone.

On the forth day at our camp we needed two things, water and clean laundry.  Excited to see some of these infamous local sights  we drove the 10 miles of dirt road to Tombstone and found Tombstone in what is considered by the US Park Service to be in a preserved state.  It is true that you can legally carry a gun down the street in the state of Arizona but in Tombstone you won’t need one.  It most certainly is dwelling on the past with reenactments of the shootout at the OK Corral and plenty of Old West tourist activities.  But the streets are clean, calm and preserved.  The Wild West is definitely gone.

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We continued on to Bisbee, Arizona and found a strange big hole in the ground of a town that once boomed during the industrial revolution and many booms and busts thereafter.   Copper is no longer being mined there but the town is still going strong on it’s own right.  Artists, musicians and bohemian types have taken over the very quaint little town with tight hilly streets, restaurants, galleries, hotels and pedestrian life.

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For the remainder of the week we settled back into our own little stronghold allowing our souls and spirits to flourish.  We took hikes deeper in the mountains, we pushed ourselves rock climbing and everyday we felt increasingly better.  The good work is to push yourself without distractions.  We spent time with our neighbors Jodi and Mike.  Both of them perhaps 25 years older than us and kick ass climbers. They showed us first hand that taking care of your spirit year after year keeps you strong….and happy.  Thank you Mike and Jodi for your hospitality, for letting me try the belay glasses, for the blue lollipops, the wine, the yummy truffles and the camp fire.

It was a bit sad packing up our tents at the end of our time. We discussed coming back sans kids in a bunch of years to climb some more, enjoy the magnificent sunsets and sit under the huge starry sky together. For now, we are bound to move on.

Thank you Cochise Stronghold!

Cochise Camp Elias and Ilaserengeti 1 Stronghold

Categories: Adventure, Apache, Bisbee, Camping, Car camping, Chihuahua Desert, Cochise, Cochise Stronghold, Family camping, Family Climbing, Geronimo, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Tombstone | 1 Comment

The Warm Desert

Our first Arizona morning as we hopped out of our tents, the Catalina Mountains loomed 7,000 feet above.  The North West side of the range that we were nestled up to is heavily decorated with big granite walls and long meandering ridge lines that spread out like an octopus guarding deep mysterious ravines.  The morning was very cold, unlike the mid 40s that Tucson was promised, we were 400 feet higher in elevation and it was more like low 20s.  The camp ground we were in was in the middle of a cold air sink that drained all night from the high mountains.  Hands were cold as I prepared coffee for Michelle which we enjoyed in the tent as we did in the Chihuahua.  But we were no longer in the windy desert and we knew that once the sun popped up above the mountain it would be warm.  We were now in the Sonoran Desert, the warm desert.

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If anyone has spent quality time in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert they know that it’s not just the warm winters, or the endless panorama of mountain landscapes or the stellar sunsets that make it so alluring, granted, those are big selling points, but one of the most interesting details lie with the crazy flora and fauna.  The biggest and coolest is the Saguaro.  You’ve seen Saguaros in cartoons or in pop culture featured typically in Monument Valley landscapes (which is in the Great Basin Desert and not where they actually exist).  Usually they are portrayed with only a few Saguaros standing around with a couple of arms sticking up.  They’re not like that though, they are much crazier and a lot of the time bigger with anywhere from no arms to lots of arms sticking out in every which way.  Unlike a tree they seem to have drastically different characters from one another.  Actually all cactus are a bit like that.  The Sonoran Desert has a literal forest of different types of cactus.  Prickly Pear are everywhere of course but then there are Barrel Cactus, Hedge Hog Cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus and then Cholla.

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Cholla (pronounced choy-a) and what Ila calls “Cholla O-boya” after a few unfortunate run-ins, are constructed with a main trunk that comes up out of the ground and then branches out; each individual subspecies takes on a different way of branching out to survive in the extreme heat and lack of water.  There are the Chollas that look like a tinker toy project gone crazy, such as the Staghorn and the Buckhorn Cholla,  there are the Cholla that resemble the structure of trees a little bit more such as Chain Fruit Cholla, then there’s the skinny links and sparse needles of the Pencil Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla with so many needles it looks soft and fuzzy.  But the craziest Cholla of all is the Jumping Cholla.  Jacob, Elias and Ila decided to test the rumor that the links actually jump off of the main body.  At one point in camp I heard Jacob yell, “Dad help.”  And there they were, all three of them looking dumbfounded with Cholla links stuck all over them after an unfortunate soccer ball rescue.  It was almost funny but pulling it out of Ila’s foot was nasty as they are definitely barbed.  They seemed to have learned their lesson as I have not seen anyone get stuck by a cactus again.

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The desert is not just choked full of cool variations in Cactus, the plants that have adapted here to cope with the extremes are fascinating.  Agaves, Yuccas and Ocotillos are like nothing you see anywhere else.  The Yuccas and Agaves are both in the Agave family with the Yuccas usually possessing softer flexible leaves, although they still cut your skin if you don’t watch yourself.  Most Yuccas are on the ground but there’s the Soap Tree Yucca which grows tall with it’s sprout of spiky Yucca leaves at the top and a strange single branch coming out of the top.  It would look like a palm tree except for the fact it looks nothing like a palm tree.  More like a Truffula tree from the Lorax.

The Agave, with its sphere of spikes that protrude from the ground provide the desert visitor with one of the most lethal pointy sharp things out there.  Actually, not much isn’t spiked here in the warm desert including many of the trees, and there are quite a few trees.  They average 10 to 15 feet tall and they’re spread out usually just enough to remind the visitor that, yes they are in the desert.  There is the Cat Claw Acacia with its nasty spikes and the Arizona Mesquite, which makes for some great carving wood and fire wood for that matter.  Then there’s Iron Wood,  which is illegal to harvest on any scale because it is so coveted for it’s “iron” like wood.  You actually need diamond tipped blades to carve it and is suppose to last forever.  All of these trees have sharp spikes but my favorite tree of all does not.

The Palo Verde is a beautiful tree.  It grows tiny leaves so that it does not have to use water for the costly leaf building process.  Instead the branches all the way down through the trunk are a beautiful shiny green.  This green is due to a layer of chlorophyll throughout the entire tree.  This allows it to photosynthesis without traditional leaves.  On these very green trees there are curious bushes of another plant that you see occasionally growing out from its branches called Mistletoe.  I don’t know the story of how mistletoe become the fabled kissing plant but I do know that it is planted by a bird’s behind.  The Phainopepla, a smallish black perching bird with a crest above it’s head, eats the plant’s fruit.  When the bird has to poop the digested seeds cause the birds butt to itch so it lands on the branches of the Palo Verde for a much needed scratch and presto, it plants and fertilizes the seed.

Elias is the ultimate dude for noticing all of the little things the desert is up to.  In a home schooling assignment where we asked him to write about and research what he saw  in the desert near our camp site, he writes  “The Saguaro cactus had holes made by Gila Woodpeckers. Then Elf Owls and Cactus Wrens live in the holes.”  His skill has already helped keep him out of trouble in this land of prickly things.  One night as he was going to bed he called out to me nonchalantly and said “um dad, there’s a scorpion on my shoe and it’s now crawling up the side of the tent.  What should I do?”  Sure enough there was a scorpion right on the zipper.  He was the best of our 3 kids to have spotted it…he did not grab it or freak out (Ila may have grabbed it, Jacob may have freaked out). He and I shooed it away and he was off to sleep. He drew this picture and wrote a story about it to mail to his class in Bellingham.

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After a few days of hiking and rock climbing in the Catalinas and at Mt Lemmon as well as taking advantage of the close proximity to Tucson for laundry and the things that are boring to talk about but feel so good when you finally get them done, we picked up camp and moved to another campground next to the Sonoran Desert Museum.  Here we could finally sooth our overwhelming curiosities over our new environment.  We were met with one of the most fun and enriching learning environments I’ve experienced from any museum.  We held pieces of rock from asteroids, watched Harris Hawks duke it out together and hunt for food and learned about the desert around us on a deeper level than we expected.  Jacob and Elias learned to identify the difference in skull structure between the Javalina, Coyote and Cougar and what identifies one as a carnivore or omnivore and not as an herbivore.  We learned how the world’s lushest desert, with only 10 inches of rain a year has developed so many fascinating plants that are able to make the most out of every drop of water that falls which in turn allows for life to flourish beyond what most deserts would allow.

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Here in the Sonoran Desert the wildlife is abundant and especially well, wild.  The animals are rambunctious.  I know coyotes live everywhere but did you know that they will not attack people?   We need to remind ourselves of this when we hear them going crazy every night, all night, crazier than you think they can get.  A few nights ago a bunch of them traveled right through our camp.  You could hear them on either side of our tent. There are more than just coyotes roaming around. Big cats are at their best in the USA down here in this cactus jungle.  Bobcats for sure and Mountain Lions….the lion just may eat you by the way.  But the beautiful and shy Occilot lives here as well and the biggest secret of all is the Jaguar who lives in southern Arizona…..they’ll eat you for sure.

Every dusk the desert landscape hands the show over to a heaven full of stars.  Brilliant skies.  When we “learn” we think of storing information between our ears, here all the input easily and quickly travels down our spines and into our solar plexus allowing the world to be relevant on a more personal level.  The mixing of the desert and the stars, learning and living has made every day a constant flow of contextual and experiential learning. What we learn next just may blow our mind all over again.  Our neighbor and campground host invited us one night to watch the Universe through one of his powerful telescopes.  We saw Orion’s Nebula, the most heavily studied and scrutinized nebula in the sky which is an intense sea of celestial matter making up Orion’s Scabbard just below Orion’s Belt.  We saw Jupiter and it’s four moons:  Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto.  We looked at the moon and all of it’s craters for a long time. Even Ila got a peak. We walked back to our tent, all of us quiet and in wonder…

The following day in Saguaro National Park Jacob wrote a Saguaro inspired Haiku as part of his main lesson work:

In Blistering Heat

The Sonoran Sentinel

Desert Mastery

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cactus, Camping, Car camping, Catalina Mountains, Family camping, Family Climbing, Harris Halk, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert, Tucson | 11 Comments

Chihuahua

Beaumont, a city in East Texas, close to the boarder of Louisiana is among the wetter cities in our country.  With an average annual precip of close to 70 inches a year and surrounded by lake and bayou country, it is amazing that it shares a state with El Paso.  El Paso, one of the driest cities in the country receives on average 9 inches of rain a year.  What happens in the 830 miles between these two cities is the product of this fairly abrupt transition in climates:  Severe thunderstorms with dangerously big hail and a high frequency of tornadoes.  In fact the highest number of tornadoes of any region in the country is found in Texas.  So it really should come as no surprise that when a mountain range is pushed up in the western part of this meteorological shear zone there is a high likelihood of wind, especially on the leeward side of a range where the dry winter air mass sinks and descends rapidly back down the mountain range to the other side, pulled eastward towards the humid Gulf air.  It was such a mountain that we were headed to.

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On January 2nd we drove southwest across the border into Texas and about 45 minutes away to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  The mountains that make up this park were visible the whole time we were at the Whites campground.  It looked like an abrupt mountain range flanked by what seemed to be almost thousand foot tall lime stone cliffs.  We set up our camp nestled at about 5,500 feet elevation at a very cool campground at the mouth of one of the ranges intriguing valleys.  Once camp was set we were off to hike up and into the mountains.

Everyone was quite pleased to be walking.  Having spent a bit of time in the flattest landscapes of our country the towering walls that guarded the valley while we were hiking up was like medicine.  Jacob remarked that he enjoyed the hiking because it gave him time to think. Funny because we were in the car for days but it is the movement of our bodies, coupled with the openness that seems to let the thinking happen.

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There are the flat dreadfully barren expanses of landscape that appear in perhaps everyone’s subconscious when the word desert is used and then there is what happens to the desert when the landscape is not flat.  This desert mountain range acts like an expert water catcher and the strange and interesting plants that are able to make the most efficient use of this water are the norm here.  The mountain range acts like a sponge mostly because any moisture that does sneak into this area is pushed upwards by the landscape into to higher and thinner air until the air can’t hold that water anymore and it condenses.  Even though the Guadalupe’s are essentially in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert the highest elevations are completely forested.  Much of the high country is sloped northward which keeps the sun from beating down on it just that much more.  We didn’t make it that high on our hike though.  We made it up into the upper Chihuahuan life zones where plants were abundant and especially those designed to catch any water that fell.  Yuccas and cactus were all over. As we hiked higher we began reaching Junipers and Madrones which were cool to see because they are all over the place on the coast of Western Washington.  But there the Madrones are always on some south facing hill right on the coast poised to get the sunniest driest places in Western Washington.  Here they’re seeking out shade, small drainage bottoms, sort of showing a sign that more moisture is present here and not less.

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The following day we were reminded that we had gotten lucky, our hike had been warm and there was no wind at all.  That morning was very windy and cold. I made coffee and oatmeal on the little whisper light stove on the ground near some rocks instead of using our double burner Coleman stove on the comfortably arranged table. The kids and Michelle snuggled in the tent as long as they could before they needed to emerge into the wind blasts. We had to hold onto Ila! As we were packing up the wind grabbed the top of the roof rack out of my hand and flung it back aggressively.  Crack! The roof rack split and I yelled some colorful language.  That was when everyone knew I was not happy because we are one of those old school families that don’t cuss.  Somehow I put it back together and we got out of there.  Well, that was the expected norm there… wind.

We didn’t end up stopping at Hueco Tanks State Park like we had planned.  I have heard about this famous bouldering area for years and we made reservations to camp there.  When I got there I felt like it was just all wrong.  It was like if you were really craving vanilla ice cream, perhaps this has never happened to you, but you just want vanilla ice cream.  When it comes out it wasn’t ice cream at all it was like one of those weird Indian deserts…..sweet meats.  Ever try sweet meats?  Terrible.  If they bring out chocolate ice cream than it’s like, OK, that sucks, but I’ll eat it any way.  But no chocolate, it was like Indian sweet meats.  I hate that stuff.  I wanted my vanilla ice cream! Well, not only were you suppose to have reservations for camping, we were suppose to have reservations for bouldering and we were suppose to have a guide….for bouldering!  Just like I have never understood why I would ever want to eat sweet meats we weren’t even close to understanding why we would want to stay and deal with how convoluted and not relaxing the whole thing felt….so we left.

We drove on, almost directly North to a spectacular state Park called Oliver Lee State Park, which was nestled at the base of the San Andreas Mountains across the valley from the famous White Sand Dunes in New Mexico.  Here we had arrived exactly where we wanted to be and we never knew we wanted to be there.  We loved Oliver Lee State Park, we stayed there the next day and night and hiked up the fossil filled limestone canyon.  It was just us, it was great, it was better than ice cream.

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On January 5th we got up on another chilly morning and went to the largest expanse of white sand dunes on earth.  Two hundred and seventy some odd expansive square miles of desert are all made of grains of white gypsum that comes from several thousand feet higher in the mountain range directly west of the dunes.  It’s a case of the right geology and the right dry and windy climate that come together to create this very cool place.  Fortunately much of it is protected within a national monument because an enormous amount of the land between these two desert mountain ranges belongs to the US Airforce, warnings of missile testing north and south of the Monument is everywhere.

The Dunes were a sublime experience and Elias wrote about them in his Main Lesson book:

“White Sands was huge.  We went to White Sands, N.M.  It was totally not what I expected.  I thought there would be little mounds of sand, but there were huge sand dunes.  The dunes were very soft, cold, and about 60 to 100 feet tall.  When we left New Mexico we went to Arizona but that’s just another story.”

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After the sand dunes and many days of literally freezing mornings, I promised everyone we were headed to warmer places.  We kept lucking out with a warm day here and there in this windy desert but the weather was about to get quite a bit colder.  The last mission in Chihuahuan Desert was to go find an authentic Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces.  On the drive in we settled on a brew pub that looked like it would take care of business.  When we shuffled in to find our seats all of the locals were starring hard especially as Michelle attempted to nurse Ila.  Most of them looked like they had never smiled in their lives.  No way.  I got everyone up and even though everyone was getting hungry and cranky we piled back in the car and resorted back to plan A:  authentic Mexican.  Since it was Sunday in Las Cruces it took awhile but we found it and it was sooooo good – the real deal.   Back in the car and off seeking the sun.

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Camping, Car camping, Chihuahua Desert, Family camping, Family Climbing, Guadalupe Mountain National Park, Hiking, Homeschooling, Hueco Tanks State Park, Oliver Lee State Park, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, San Andreas Mountains, White Sands New Mexico | Leave a comment

Caves

We promised Elias that we would take him to visit a cave for his birthday.  When we made that promise we had no idea how easy it would be to keep and that we would be able to visit two cave systems instead of just one.  The morning of the 28th of December we drove into swampy east Texas and onward, through humid Houston, the 4th largest city in the country and onward into rolling Texas ranch country watching the deciduous forests slowly widen and prickly pear start appearing.  We drove into San Antonio where we stopped for groceries; here the forests were made up of 15 – 20 foot tall Pinion Pine, Gambles Oak, Juniper, and some sort of short Cedar.

During the drive Michelle found a wonderful camp ground only 40 minutes beyond San Antonio called Cascade Caverns Campground.  When we arrived we stepped out of the car, set up our tents and quickly signed up for 2 nights instead of one. The kids tramped out of the car after 2 days of driving and quick as a wink geared up with bow and arrows, backpacks, pocket knives and trowel heading like the lost boys (and lost girl) of Neverland into the woods for adventure.

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 It turns out that just beyond San Antonio there lies the remains of ancient reef systems.  The sea receded leaving the limestone remains of what’s called the Texas Hill Country.  These hills harbor a very high concentration of caverns.  One such cavern was located right under our tent at the campground that we decided to call home for the next several nights.  We signed up for a tour the next morning which Jacob has taken the time to explain here:

Elias, Dad and I walked to the meeting place.  There were about 10 people.  The guide came and we all started to walk.  The guide started to tell us about the caves and this is what he told us:  “The caves were created by water 140 million years ago.  All of the land was under water and the silt and dead life was made into limestone.  Limestone has a slow dissolving point in water.  When the water receded and the land was uplifted, all of the rain water went to the lowest point.  So when that water sat on the stone it started to dissolve creating the caves.” 

An interesting thing is that in most cave systems the stalactites and the stalagmites grow and inch every 80 years or so, but in these caves the stalactites grow an inch every year.  But here, every few years the caves would flood and knock down the cave formations. 

Also because of the very wet nature of this cave there are two animals that live here, Bats and the Cascade Caverns Salamander which is endemic to this particular cave system.

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On December 30th we loaded up the car and once again headed west.  This time we drove 6 and half hours through landscapes becoming consistently less vegetated.  Slowly the trees where outnumbered by prickly pear.  Cat Claw Acacia, Creosote, and a few other very shrubby plants took over and finally a complete lack of moisture gave way to barren expanses of rock, dirt, sand and oil rigs.  The lofty rigs and big aggressive oil trucks were the only things we saw through the flat landscape until we crossed the border into New Mexico.  With  only 30 minutes of our drive remaining the view became hillier with soap tree yucca and prickly pear, while desert grasses became numerous and a grand desert mountain range loomed ahead with Carlsbad Caverns tucked somewhere in the landscape.  We drifted into White’s City Campground at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains.  We were the only tent campers there with the entire desert to ourselves.  This may be due to freezing evening and early morning temperatures in the 20’s…

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On December 31st we hopped in to the car and drove the several miles up the hill to the entrance of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  Carlsbad was huge.  The immensity of the Cavern chambers was not what any of us expected.  Our birthday boy, Elias explains the caverns as “fun….very fun”.  Elias goes on to explain.

“The Stalactites and the stalagmites going together were awesome, I loved them.  It was VERY big.  It felt like a different planet.  I’m still not believing it was real. I really liked the underground ponds and the curtains.  Like when you put your flashlight up to them it shined through them and you can see red.” 

We all learned the quick way to remember the difference between the cave formations from our guide, she said the stalactites hold “tight” to the ceiling and you need to be careful of the stalagmites as you “might” trip over them as you walk.

The enthusiasm Elias was showing made it all worthwhile for me.  I am not a cave person; my favorite parts of the caves are the entrances where all of the living things are found.  In Carlsbad Caverns for example the entrance is huge and hosts one of the coolest natural shows on earth.  Every sunset for half the year thousands of bats pour out of the entrance to this cave creating what looks like a sunset plume of smoke for miles in every direction.  Unfortunately we were not there for the show, but we were there for Elias’s birthday and he was very happy about that.  The actual birthday was on the first of the year and our plan for that day was to take it easy around camp, open presents and enjoy the day slowly.  The big party, the big birthday bash that Elias would remember forever was going to all of those cool caves.

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To end the day Elias and I hiked a trail from the visitor center about three miles all the way to our camp.  A great walk marked by a desert landscape he was just being introduced to.  We celebrated the New Year of 2014 around 8:30 pm which was about an hour past our family bedtime. We usually go into our tents when it gets dark and rise after dawn. This night we sat around a fire, watched the stars, reminisced about our crazy year to date, shared gratitude for our life, our family and friends and thought about the year to come.

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Camping, Car camping, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Cascade Caverns, Family camping, Homeschooling | 4 Comments

New Orleans

As we packed our car that warm balmy morning we were very excited about the westward adventure that lay ahead.  Things had gotten slow and easy down there in south Florida.  The weather always warm and humid makes you slow down a bit.

We bumped off from Grammy’s house and sped NW up the peninsula making one important road side stop for a huge bushel of Florida oranges and grapefruits.  Onward we pressed through Orlando where the temperature was still as much as 80 degrees.  About an hour North of Orlando I stopped for gas and received a chill.  Now down in the 50s we had driven into the more temperate winter air mass that had sunken as far South as North Florida.

That night we found a convenient camp ground right off of the highway only a few miles before the border of the central time zone.  The panhandle of Florida was forested, not what I expected – pine forests with not much undergrowth.  I had always pictured rolling farm country here but it looked more like the forests around Flagstaff, Arizona.

Our plan from here was fairly loose.  We wanted to get to Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico by Elias’s birthday on the 1st of January.  We very much wanted to spend time in New Orleans on the way out but we didn’t have an exact schedule for that.   We woke up that morning in the Panhandle.  I rushed everyone out of bed packed up and we were on our way by 7:30.  That was a record for the trip so far.  Towards the beginning, back in Montana it would take us hours to break down camp.  11am at first.  Slowly we pushed it down to 10am.  If the boys were motivated we’d bring it down to 9:30.  By the way, this is with me getting up before dawn and getting coffee going for Michelle and I, before taking on breakfast duties and so on and so forth.  But today we had to leave early and everyone was on task.

The following day, the 28th of December was calling for up to 2 inches of rain in New Orleans.   New Orleans was about 5 and half hours from where we camped.  The job at hand was to make the most of the great weather.  We didn’t want to have anything to do with that much rain.  So that’s what we had to work with:  Make the most of the iconic city for an afternoon and an evening and then move on.

Driving into the city you can’t help to have a reaction to the state of things.  So many neighborhoods with people clearly still living  in disarray.  Roofs ripped off with weeds comfortably growing out of them unchecked.  Unkempt neighborhoods, buildings run down to the ground, people living in desperate shambles.  This was everywhere.  The interstate ran above and you could look down in to these people’s lives like it was on display.  Were these places forgotten?  When did hurricane Katrina happen?  2005?  Up in Long Beach, New York we took morning strolls on this brand new and beautiful boardwalk.  Neighborhoods were in good standing there with only sandy roads a mile inland to remind everyone that the sea did try to claim that land just last year.  Why is New Orleans being forgotten?

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Once we parked we quickly found the perfect restaurant right on Bourbon Street.  A nice place with authentic Cajun dinning but also comfortable enough for the kids to squirm a bit.  Po Boys, Gumbo, Alligator Sausage, and all kinds of proper, authentic New Orleans food and adult drinks, we were having so much fun.  From there we picked up and walked the town.  If you are going to walk any neighborhood just for fun, than this is the one.  Your eyes are constantly being entertained and taunted.  The smells make you think of older places than the USA.  Voodoo is everywhere.  On the surface it’s for the tourists, but also around corners and in people’s  eye’s.

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My favorite part was the music.  The Jazz was not coming from restaurants, bars and clubs like I had thought it would.  It was all over the streets.  The Jazz bands were made up of all of the brass wind instruments you can think of…they were just jamming kids and adults alike.  High energy fun music that made everyone wanna move, and accompanied by drums so that you had to move.  Everyone danced whether they were walking by on their way to something else or you were like us, just there to soak it up.  The beats made everyone happy.

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As the sun began to set we made our way back to the car, but not directly.  We meandered because the little neighborhoods fill you with wonder and pull you in.  Weaving back to the car was fun, until it was too dark…then we hurried.

As we pulled onto the interstate and began driving west again we were filled up and agreed to come back and live it up more  probably with the kids once they were quite a bit older.  They loved the energy but it’s not really the place for kids.  For now we head west beyond the reach of the storm rolling in.  That night we made it to the border of Louisiana and Texas.  The following morning we only received a trickle of rain while New Orleans got well over an inch of rain.

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Categories: Adventure, cajun food, Car camping, family, Family camping, Florida Panhandle, jazz, New Orleans | Leave a comment

Florida

Recently while sitting at a Starbucks in Tucson, AZ I overheard two women about my mother’s age having a conversation.  I couldn’t help but to overhear them because they talked so loudly – ok maybe I eavesdropped a bit.  Most of it was about online dating younger men, something about their ex-husbands and they kept on referring to each other as cougars.  One said while referring to a mutual friend, “yes can you believe it, she gets so excited when her grandchildren come to town, she drops everything…you would think that is all she cares about…” The other woman clicked her tongue and they went on to discuss some of their other friends. Well they could have been talking about my mom (and if they are reading this blog, I want them to know that my mom is the kind of grandma that I want to emulate!)  My mom came to be with us after each child was born and most recently after Ila was born and stayed with us for a month!  She was instrumental in helping us prepare and sell our house and helping us to manifest this year.  She somehow makes each of her 9 grand kids think they are the apple of her eye and time spent with her feels priceless.  These are the reasons why we planned to spend the month from late November through late December in Florida with my mom and her partner Michael.

As we drove from Cumberland Island to Coconut Creek, Florida, the boys read off their food requests on the phone to my mom, watermelon, lox, cream cheese, bagels, mangos, hamburgers, ice cream. We arrived tired, filthy and so happy. Our time in Florida spanned Thanksgiving, Chanukah, my birthday and Christmas.  After months of traveling mom and I kicked off our time with a (much needed) massage and facial, so funny going from wilderness camping to spa and such a delight.  We visited the Keys right after Thanksgiving and upon our return we headed to Orlando.

 Now, we visit Florida a few times a year and rarely go to Orlando.  Elias and I just finished reading Harry Potter: The Sorcerer’s Stone and our family was set on visiting Universal Studio’s brand new Harry Potter World. This too is pretty funny after spending the last few months in the wilds of America but it was a blast! If you ever visit one of those big Disney like parks you may have had the experience of having to wait on line forever. We timed our visit just right – off season and before the December holidays as the lines were only 5 minutes or less.  This may not be worth mentioning except for the fact that Joseph and Jacob must have ridden the roller coasters 20 times literally doing laps!  Hogwarts was awesome and I felt like I was a riding a broomstick which was totally cool (although the 3D action slowed my mom and Michal down for a bit.) Ila rode on her first carousel in Dr. Seuss Land and was over the moon riding it 3 more times with her brothers and daddy.  Day two we visited the part of Universal with the movie rides. I think the highlight for Elias and Joseph was the live animal show where the animal “actors” do a bunch of tricks.

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As if roller coasters and Harry Potter weren’t enough excitement, we met Jeremy, Joseph’s friend who is now a helicopter pilot in Orlando. In all of my 39 years visiting Florida, I rarely see manatee. I have one memory from when I was a kid seeing the manatee amongst cruise ships in Fort Lauderdale but not a close and clear viewing of these gentle huge animals. Jeremy took us to a spring where the water stays a constant 70 degrees. The manatees float in and hang out as the river water gets cooler, leave to eat in the nearby river and then return to the spring. The clear blue spring was beautiful and stocked with fish and manatee.

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On our way back to Orlando Jeremy surprised us and offered to take the kids and I on a quick helicopter ride!  Jacob and Jeremy in the front, Elias and I in the back with Ila on my lap. Totally felt like Top Gun…I know they didn’t ride helicopters in Top Gun but I couldn’t get the image out of my mind.  It was a great end to the mini north Florida adventure.

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Between Orlando and the rest of our visit we focused on school, writing, sea turtles, beaches, family and exploring all sorts of cool animal sanctuaries. We spent many days with Mimi my almost 93yr. old grandmother and the boys went on countless dates with Aunt Libby my dad’s sister, always coming home with trinkets and smiles.  As my 39th birthday approached I really had everything I wanted and needed shy of my brothers.  My birthday wish came true as they came to visit and celebrate –  Simon and Susan and the kids from Asheville and Jack fleeing cold Long Island, New York sadly without his kids.  My heart was full!

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Florida was an important anchor for each of us. After months on the road even with family and friends we were a bit tired and the boys needed a sense of predictability and structure. Grammy (my mom) represents this as well as unconditional love and support. We have spent important time with her over years especially since my dad passed away 4 years ago. Somehow she makes sure that she is present in our life and in my brother’s lives at all of the most important times. The long visit also gave us a chance to improve our Rumikub game and hang out with and get to know Michael.

Right before we left Florida we celebrated Christmas.  Growing up Jewish my first experience with Christmas was with Joseph’s family when we were dating.  I love celebrating with him and with his family in Charlottesville.  The years of celebrating Christmas in Bellingham and having our own tree still feels weird to me and against the grain. The kids are growing up with a sense of Jewish identity and we celebrate Christmas as well.  For us these celebrations are more about family and coming together than it is about religion.  We see Christmas as more of a welcoming of a winter celebration. So here we are in Florida where my mom has NEVER had a Christmas tree but as she said “there is always the first”. We enjoyed a “Jewish inspired” Christmas, stockings and gifts in the morning, movies in the afternoon followed by a great Chinese dinner…take out!

 Gifts packed up, hugs and kisses all around, Dec. 26th we packed up the car, said our goodbyes to the warm humid air, pulled up the anchor and hit the road…destination New Orleans!

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Categories: Car camping, Family camping, Florida Keys, Homeschooling, Play | 1 Comment

The Keys

As we drove south of Miami we passed the last turn offs to Everglades National Park and continued south.  Eventually the road kept going but the land did not.  The Over Seas Highway continues traveling 127 miles jumping from island to island or key to key via a series of very long bridges all the way to Key West.  Instead of a landscape panorama we’d been watching through the windshield up to this point now it was all Ocean Blue.  “Where are we?” “I want to live here!” Elias hollered out as we cruised along like a ship at sea.

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The lower Keys are technically part of the Caribbean in several respects.  The climate is considered tropical and is the only tropical climate in the contiguous United States.  The history is well tied into that of the infamous pirates of the Caribbean which included Key West’s strategic location as an ideal staging ground for the US military to fight and eventually defeat piracy in the region.  Then there are the people and pace of life which is totally Caribbean, meaning laid back and friendly.

We had reserved our camp 6 months ago which was for the next 7 days.   It was located around mile marker 95 which is below the 25th Parralel on Bahai Honda key, a quiet and undeveloped State Park reached soon after the Seven Mile Bridge.

When we pulled into Bahia Honda State Park the gals working behind the check in desk were stoked to hear about our trip, very friendly.  Our camping spot was just perfect on a very quiet lagoon with the back side of our camping spot tucked aside mangroves.  The Mangrove forests that make up the bulk of the trees in The Keys actually extend throughout much of southern Florida’s coast and estuaries’ making up the most extensive Mangrove forest in the western hemisphere.  During high tide at night, the sea came in just shy of camp surrounding the site by water on either side.  There was definitely an organic sea grass odor that wafted in and out of the tent and our dreams.  Even with the highs every day in the low 80s there were no mosquitoes.

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We began each day sipping coffee and watching the many different types of shore birds on the Lagoon and in the Gulf but then spent most of the time on the beaches on the other side of the island in the Atlantic Ocean.  We would home school, cook and eat dinner right there next to the beach as well.  Lovely.

Through the entire week we made one trip to Key West  for an evening of wacky sunset fun with Grammy and Michael (our Key guests for a few days) and a one day trip to Big Pine Key to see the tiny Key Deer species endemic to the area.  Other than that we stayed very busy with an intentional meditation of soaking up the tropical sun during the last few nights of Hannukah… We called it “B’Chai Chanukah” on Bahia Key.  Bathing suits were just about all we wore for the week…snorkling, throwing frisbee, swimming, home schooling , learning about the place and so on.

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To the north the entire country was cold.  We heard about snow in Asheville, we heard that it was even in the teens in Bellingham, which is rare.  We heard that temperatures were getting well below zero  in parts of the Rocky Mountains.  Places through Montana and Wyoming where we began our trip were under a blanket of frigid air.  The important thing is that we weren’t there.  We were here where cold only existed in form of an evening beer and an afternoon ice cream.  Not that I don’t like cold.  I’ve made a career of being in the cold.  But I seemed to have hit a threshold, perhaps it was last winter and I haven’t been able to warm up.  It was not sudden though.  It was year after year –  there I am in the snow, in the winter, year round.  Granted, there’s always the reward of cold smoke spraying my face, there’s the crystal sublime landscape that’s all mine, but there have been one too many arctic chills setting in further than my down clothing could protect.  Too many hours, days trudging in white out, snow, rain, wind….lots and lots of wind.  Not normal wind, wind that bites and doesn’t care. Then there’s the cold rain.  The rain soaks in beyond my gortex jacket and this is my second jacket….the rain should only last for two more days; day after day of cold rain; drizzle; snow ; blizzard; My fingers are still numb, numb from cleaning out gear with cold, numb fingers that make me want to scream….and barf; But I can warm up.  I am slowly warming.  Here in the Keys the water and the air temperature are both in the 80s.  The wind is warm and tropical and I am starting to thaw.

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At the end of the week as we drove back towards Grammy’s house we were gritty from sand and browned from sun.  The mood in the car was quiet and happy.  It was a satisfied quiet that comes from days spent slowing down time.  The evening sunsets with pelicans drifting by and the boys wrestling on the beach while we make dinner are forever imprinted on my mind.

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Categories: Bahia Handa State Park, Camping, Car camping, Ecosystems, family, Family camping, Florida Keys, Homeschooling, Snorkling | 1 Comment

The Black Hills

The Black Hills are a cluster of forested mountains that sit like an oasis smack in the middle of the North American steppe or “Great Plains” and are a patch work of National Forest, National Park, State Park and private land that straddles the boarder of Wyoming and South Dakota.  In 2012 the United Nations general assembly recommended that the Black Hills be returned to the previous stewards of the land, the Lakota Native American Tribe.  What is to become of these recommendations is to be determined.

For us the attraction was nothing knew – some of the best summer rock climbing in the country.  A large portion of the climbing takes place in the Needles district of Custer State Park.  Let me tell you, if there is a better place for a couple young bucks like Jacob and Elias to get psyched on climbing I’m all ears.

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The very hilly landscape is blanketed by a pin cushioned like forest of granite spires with 300 foot tall monoliths and 50 foot turrets which are easily accessible via trails amongst grassy Ponderosa forests.  If you wanted to climb them all good luck, you could probably do it in three life times, maybe.  The climbing is a play ground of cool fins, arrets and bubbly faces most of which almost always top out on some sort of peak or summit.  It’s a great place to climb if you don’t own much climbing gear because you won’t need it.  Cracks and places for natural pro are rare and the route setters were cheap, meaning bolts are few and far between.

I hope that when and if the Lakota get their land back the door stays open to climbing.  And I do hope they get it back. A large portion of the Southern Black Hills, nearby hilly forests and rolling grasslands make up Custer State Park, named after General Custer and famous for fantastic animal viewing.

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I haven’t had the opportunity to read in great depth about why the UN Assembly on Indigenous Peoples recommended returning the park to the Lakota however I will say, you don’t need to read much to get a gist that things have not yet been set right.  The area encompassing Custer State Park is very important to the Lakota.  In 1868 a treaty was signed by the United States Government stating that this land would belong to the Lakota people forever.  In 1874 General Custer, who was given the task of rounding up Native tribes on the plains and placing them on their assigned reservations, marched into French Creek in the present day town of Custer and found gold.  He then opened up the Black Hills to a massive gold rush scrapping the US-Lakota treaty.  Eventually the Lakota would be pushed onto the current Pine Ridge Reservation.  However they weren’t pushed there by Custer himself.  The Lakota, the Cheyenne and the Arapahoe native tribes settled their age old differences (which included the Lakota taking the Black Hills from the Cheyenne in 1776) and ended Custer’s murderous rampage along with the whole of the 7th US Calvary at the Battle of Little Big Horn in South East Montana where Custer met his “Last Stand”.

It could be said that although Native rights have not been respected in this area, the rights of non-humans are currently well valued.  The park systems in this region remains one of the last North American sanctuaries for the American Bison, as well as home to large numbers of Elk herds, Mule Deer and White Tailed Deer, Cougar, Pronghorn Antelope, Prairie Dog and many other animals including wild donkeys that are very eager to meet you.

At the southern tip of 111 square miles of Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park.  We visited the Wind Cave on our second day in the region.  Wind Cave is one of the longest explored caves in the world with 140 miles of cave now mapped (residing under one mile of surface area)  which leaves an estimated 90% of the whole cave yet to be mapped.  The discovery of this cave is due to the “wind” that  flows out of the cave during low pressure.  The breeze streams out of the cave’s only known natural opening which is the size of a volley ball.  The first explorers of the cave not only squeezed themselves through this absurdly small opening but they squirmed for hours on end by candle light.  A large opening was eventually built in the name of prospecting, where nothing of value was found, which made it possible for a young man named Alvin McDonald to lead tourists through the cave as early as 1892…all by candle light dragging sting behind him to find his way out.  Today being guided through this cave is easy, fun and fascinating.  One of the real gems of the Park is the fact that there are 44 more square miles of prairie protected above ground allowing one of the 4 largest and genetically pure herds of wild buffalo to roam free along with all of the other wild animals found in the region.

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The majority of our time in this area was spent in the Needles District of Custer State Park.  Here we stayed in a secluded hilltop campsite next to Sylvan Lake.  Along with hiking and climbing we also found a quiet routine at camp which included schooling, playing in the forest, building forts and time around the camp fire with other travelers, including a British math teacher who gave Jacob math lessons in exchange for climbing lessons.

On September 11th we packed up camp and began our eastward migration but not without stopping first at Mount Rushmore.

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Categories: Adventure, Bison, Camping, Car camping, Custer State Park, Ecosystems, Elk, family, Family Climbing, Great Plains, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids | Leave a comment

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