Family camping

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

Cumberland Island

As we drove south out of the mountains we entered into a VERY different climate.  Asheville being at 2,500’ elevation in the southern Appalachian Mountains was starting to receive cooler weather by late November and there were no longer any leaves on the trees.  By the time we reached the coast of southern Georgia the air was warm and balmy which made it feel like we rewound the seasons back to late summer.  The following morning we woke up in the sub-tropics and we would remain in this climate for quite some time.  Our job for the day was to organize our camping gear in order to catch the pedestrian-only ferry that would take us to Cumberland Island, the southernmost island off the coast of Georgia.

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Cumberland Island was something I knew nothing about.  Michelle set it up, she made reservations for the ferry ride and the few nights of camping on the island.  I didn’t really anticipate or think much at all about it.  I did know there were wild horses, I knew that there were no cars permitted on the island, and I knew there were miles upon miles of wilderness beach line.  But that’s all.  Stepping onto the island was like entering a different world.  The forest had a deep dark green and quiet feel too it.  All of the trees were Sand Live Oak trees, an evergreen species of oak, and the undergrowth was Saw Palmetto, a species of palm which is only waist high.  The oaks were draped with long hangings of Spanish moss while the ground was soft, packed sand that was comfortable with bare feet.   Their was a common feeling among all of us as we landed:  This was going to be fun!

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We hauled our stuff a quarter mile down the foot path to the other side of the island to the campground on these funny garden type carts and on our backs.  The camp ground was nestled in the dark forest adjacent to the beach.  As soon as we set up we started exploring.  On the way there I had over heard a ranger talking about the most likely place to see the wild horses.   From camp we set off on a network of wide dirt roads/trails south to the ruins of a large mansion at the edge of the island’s southern marshlands.

Although the known human history of the island began 4,000 years ago with various native tribes followed by Spanish settlements in 16th and 17th, and then the English in the early 18th century, what remains on the island are a  series of very large estates in various stages of ruin sprinkled around the otherwise wilderness landscape.  These remaining ruins were built by the Carnegie Family.  The oldest and largest was a huge plantation that burned to the ground before the Carnegies rebuilt it even larger than before.  After the Great Depression it was burned to the ground once again.  As we walked onto the estate a heard of deer tending to the well trimmed grass stampeded off followed by a bunch of wild turkeys.  Soon after that the famous wild horses of Cumberland island started showing up.  One by one they would walk in from the forest or the marsh.  Ila was very pleased.  Even with Michelle and the boys beginning their stroll back towards camp, Ila would not leave.  The two of us stayed and watched the horses for quite some time. We were used to the well kept, well groomed horses living on the horse farm at uncle Frederic’s house. This was an entirely different animal. These horses were wild, a bit shaggy and breathtakingly free…sort of how we were feeling at this point in the trip.

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Through much time spent at the incredibly wild beach as well as exploring the island, we soaked in the pleasures of Cumberland Island, but not without incident.  Jacob acquainted himself rather intimately with the most poisonous caterpillar in North America.  As we were walking in to the forest to our campsite from spending time on the beach I saw Jacob up ahead standing there grimacing and holding his arm in pain.  As I walked up to him he was moaning and he pointed down to the bizarre thing he claimed had just stung him.  It was one of the weirdest little things I had ever seen.  About an inch and a half long this well brushed wisp of fur could only be identified as some sort of alien caterpillar.

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At the Ranger station on the other side of the island Jacob’s pain seemed to subside a little as we spoke to the ranger on duty.  He had no idea.  He called the head ranger who had the day off.  The head ranger said two years ago someone had gotten stung by the same thing.  Nothing terrible happened, just very painful up his arm and down his side.  We didn’t evacuate and his pain subsided.  It turns out this caterpillar is called a Puss Caterpiller, as in Pussy Cat, in reference to the cat like look to it’s hairy coat.  It’s found in the southern US with most activity in Texas.  It’s sting is known to be very painful and goes from a localized reaction to systemic through the lymphatic system.

That evening, as we shooed away some of the most aggressive raccoons I ever encountered Michelle jumped onto the picnic table and the boys started swinging what ever was around and yelled. Ila watched in amazement as the raccoons ate up her “doodles” (noodles). Every now and then she will tell us this again…”raccoons eat doodles”! The racoons were followed  by a few opossums and armadillos.

On the ferry ride back to the mainland the five of us were all gathered on the bow of the boat.  Soaking in a beautiful ride Elias yelled “Hey, look down”.  We looked down at the water 8 feet below us and 3 dolphins were right there riding in the wake so close to us and the boat we could almost touch them.  It was so cool.  Up and down and occasional jumping out of the water they entertained us for quite some time before they veered off.

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Now onward to south Florida.

Categories: Accupuncture, Cumberland Island, Family camping, Puss Caterpillar, wild horses | 7 Comments

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