Browsed by
Author: Tiffany Stopper

Day 17 – Pacific Grove Up the Coast to San Francisco

Day 17 – Pacific Grove Up the Coast to San Francisco

We got up this morning to a calm morning – the water was like glass, the wind was calm, and fog was settling in over the Pacific – much different than the cold wind of the night before.

Lover’s Point Inn had a small continental breakfast.  The kids were especially mesmerized by the automatic pancake maker – you just put your batter in and in a few seconds, it shoots out pancakes on the side.  We ate on small bistro tables on the patio outside the hotel.  It felt like a California version of Paris – except for the super-sized seagulls that were looking to eat breakfast as well.

When Luke got up from the table for a drink refill, a seagull turned over his bowl of fruit loops and they scattered all over the sidewalk.

 

Side note: Why do all hotels have fruit loops as a breakfast option?  Are they an American specialty?

After breakfast, we let the boys play football for about an hour in Lover’s Point Park.  They needed to run around and get some energy out before we got back on the road.  We found out later that Nate left his only sweatshirt at the park – a necessity for the windy, chilly Pacific coast.

As we left Pacific Grove, we drove through the town of Monterey.  I was yearning to stop at several of the consignment/thrift shops along the way but there was no time for that.

 

Eventually, we hit flatter farm land where we saw workers running up and down the aisles picking strawberries.  I guess you get paid by how quickly you can pick.

 

We stopped in Moss Landing at a produce stand where we bought fresh strawberries and cherries.

 

From there, we got on 1 North to Santa Cruz.  While driving, I saw a sign for CHP (California Highway Patrol) and immediately the TV show CHiPS came to mind.  Are you old enough to remember that show about the two highway patrolman?  I mentioned it to Jimmy and asked him what the name was of dark hair police man.

He said, “Fonz – Fonzi.”

Me – “No, that’s Happy Days.”

It came to me later in the day – Ponch – Poncherello – played by Erik Estrada.  I loved that show as a kid.

A question from the backseat startled me out of my walk down memory lane:

“Oooh there’s a pond there – can we fish at it, Dad?”

That question has been a constant refrain the whole trip, mainly from Nate.

At one point in California, he asked the question again as we passed some visible water.

I said, “No, you can’t fish there.  It’s a wastewater treatment plant.”

Nate – “Why can’t I fish there?”

“You just can’t.  Sorry.”

 

Our first stop of the day would be Santa Cruz.  As we got drove into town, we saw another Costco.  Could we possibly eat another foot long hot dog?  Thankfully, some of the kids had gradated to the chicken bake – with cheese and chicken inside.  Did I mention that this isn’t a diet trip?

 

We were able to secure a “diva” parking spot (as my aunt calls it) right next to the Santa Cruz pier.  We spent the next 45 minutes walking on the pier taking pictures, watching the seals up close, and the letting the boys talk to the local fisherman.  I could watch the lazy seals lay around all day – just waiting for a move, scratch, or yelp.  What a life!

 

 

 

 

 

One seal we saw slithered back into the water and started barking continuously.

 

Jimmy said, “He’s asking us for fish.”

Whatever he was communicating, he was loud.

On our way back on the pier, we saw a seal with a fish in his mouth.  The seagulls and other birds were swarming him trying to get a piece of the action (literally).

 

We continued heading up the coast and found a beautiful spot where we were able to climb out on a rock to see the view.

 

 

 

 

The wind was howling – it was very cold.  We had to walk across a huge path of spent clam shells as we navigated the tide to get to the top of the rock.  Once we got to the top, the wind was overwhelming.

The boys especially love the adventure of climbing.  This was a highlight of the day for them.

 

From there, we headed to Ano Nuevo State Park where we hoped to get more views of the seals.  We arrived at 4:15 p.m.

Sadly, the guard gate attendant told us that they stopped giving permits out at 3:30 for the day because it’s a 2 ½ hour roundtrip walk to the seal habitat.

Bummer, I guess it’s onto San Francisco.

 

One other fun thing (not so fun according to Emma Grace) is that we have a continual gas letter-outer.  These emissions smell bad too.

I’m trying to figure out how much to disclose on this subject.  It might not be a popular topic of discussion.  It’s certainly not popular for our daughter.  This is life with three brothers, I guess.

 

 

We’ve had way too much conversation on this topic on the road but I guess this is what happens when you’re together in such close quarters for a month.

I have a simple solution – I just quietly put my window down and send the air to the back seat

 

Lord, thank you for my wonderful family – even if they can be smelly sometimes.

Day 16 – Up the Coast from L.A. to Monterey

Day 16 – Up the Coast from L.A. to Monterey

Today seemed like a very long day.  It started in L.A. with heavy Sunday morning traffic on I-5 North.  Ugh!  Our family is always running late for church.  How would we ever get there if we had to fight traffic on Sunday mornings?

So long L.A. – we’re not a fan of your traffic.

Quickly, L.A. traffic turned into desolate mountains with trees dotting the landscape.  It was 73 degrees in L.A. but the temperature was dropping as we drove north.  We drove by Hungry Valley State Park and the winds really picked up.  We saw signs warning of gusty winds.  By the time we hit the Tejon Pass rest area, it was 63 degrees with a chilly wind.

Originally, we wanted to travel Highway 1 up the coast but my Roadtrippers App kept redirecting me inland as I tried to plan our trip.  I finally googled it only to find out that many parts of Highway 1 have been washed out.  Needless to say, the highway is closed at many points.  I decided to route us inland until we reached Monterey.

 

For the next few hours, we passed farm after farm.

 

 

We saw corn fields, grapevines, and thousands of trees.

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, we hit our exit in Lost Hills, CA for a lunch stop.  Oh my!  It was bad.  Everyone and their mother was at this stop – I think because there isn’t much around it.  We reluctantly decided to order our food at Taco Bell – very, very bad idea.  They told us that our food would take 10-15 minutes.  Ok, that’s fine.  When our $3.50 burritos came out, the filling was so wimpy.  I counted five shreds of cheese.  So long to you too, Taco Bell.

You see all kinds of interesting things at lunch stops.  One family bought a huge bottle of Smirnoff Ice and was swigging it at a table next to us.  Oh my!  Another member of the “Smirnoff family”, let out a huge gas noise.  What do I call it?  Fart, fluffy, letting fluffy off the leash (Dude Perfect)…

What am I doing here?!?   Whose idea was this trip anyway?

Jimmy saved the day by buying some chicken tenders from Chester’s Chicken next door.  Since the Taco Bell burritos were so skimpy, we all were still hungry.  Chester’s Chicken tenders were not wimpy – they were full of chicken.  We got gas and got out of there.

From there, we traveled on SR-46N.  We passed oil fields, solar panels fields, and massive fields of neatly planted trees.  I decided to google the type of tree we were seeing.  They were almond trees.  We guessed that there were 100,000 or more almond trees.  Apparently, this almond farm called Pacific Almond that we passed is owned by billionaires.  No wonder – I’ve never seen so many trees in such perfect rows.  We could see trees for miles and miles.

One common thing we saw at all the farms we passed – large cut-outs of farm owners or farm workers.  I guess it made them come alive.

Farmer cutouts – look in e-mail

At one point, we passed a small, makeshift memorial.  A sign said, “James Dean Memorial Highway.”  Apparently, the memorial marked the spot where James Dean was killed in his Porsche in 1955.

As we drove into Monterey (finally), we drove through winding roads and lush greenery.  The temperature was also dropping so we had to be getting closer to water.  No stunning views yet.  Just when I started to get a little disappointed, we rounded the bend and saw the Pacific Ocean in all it’s splendor – bright blue water along the rocky coast.

 

Our first stop was Point Lobos State Reserve – a state park along the coast.  We paid $10 to park.  The park ranger at the guard shack told us to drive as far back into the park as possible to China Grove to get a good view of the seals.  First, we saw sea otters playing in the wild waves.

 

 

 

 

 

Then the beautifully landscaped path led us to the money spot – a wonderful view of 22 (Seth my number guy counted them) seals along the beach.  With my high zoom lens and our binoculars, we got a great view of the funny creatures.

 

 

They looked like they were enjoying their afternoon siesta.

They didn’t move much – only if they needed to scratch an itch or scoot a little farther out of the waves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scenery reminded me of the Caribbean – crystal blue/green water among rocky crags – spectacular.

From there, we hit the 17 Mile Drive guard shack.  It costs $10.25 to get on 17 Mile drive.  The attendant told us that if we ate at a restaurant along the drive, they would deduct the entrance fee off of our bill if we spent $35 or more.  The restaurants along the way were very pricey.  We’d have to eat dinner later.

 

 

In Pebble Beach, we got out to take pictures at an overlook.  The wind had to be around 40 miles an hour.

Pebble Beach tree From our spot, we could see a golf goal with the pin flag straight out.  How would you play golf here – at least how would you play golf well?  I took a picture of one of the trees along the drive.  They are all leaning east – in the direction that the wind relentlessly pounds them day after day.

Honestly, the 17 Mile Drive wasn’t worth the entry fee.  Trees obscure the view of the Pacific for about one third of the drive and the rest isn’t anything you won’t see as you drive farther up the coast.

 

We continued up the coast to our hotel in Pacific Grove.  We stayed at Lover’s Point Inn.  I knew when I booked this hotel several months ago that the name of the hotel would stir up a lot of conversation with my kids.  The hotel is named after the small park across the street (Lover’s Point Park).  It is located at the top of the Monterey Peninsula – offering beautiful views of the Pacific.

 

After checking in, it was about 8 p.m. and we were all starving.  We tried the Beachhouse Restaurant next to the park but at $32 a plate, it wasn’t in our budget.  So we walked the windy, cold few blocks to a Mexican restaurant called Mexicali.   Luke declared it the best taco ever because of the thick homemade taco shell.  Jimmy had a huge plate with several options including a beef tostado that was out of this world.  Seth even lost a tooth.

 

 

 

 

We were glad that we had to walk a few blocks to our hotel – we needed to walk off all the food we ate before we fell into bed.

Thank you, Lord, for another wonderful and safe day!

Day 15 – Los Angeles

Day 15 – Los Angeles

We woke up today in someone’s home.  What a privilege!  With the use of their kitchen, Jimmy was able to run to Trader Joe’s around the corner and get some milk and bananas to eat with the cereal I brought.  Of course, he also came back with donuts – Yum-Yum donuts.  We noticed a lot of different donut joints all over L.A.  Los Angeles’ers (is that what you call them?) must like donuts.

We have a few destinations in mind for the day – the iconic Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica pier, and an LA Galaxy soccer game.

We hit the Hollywood sign first.  Thankfully, I watched a few YouTube videos about how to get the best photo spot of the sign.  Apparently, the residents who live in the neighborhood near the sign have erected their own warnings and obstacles to keep people out.  You can actually hike all the way up to the area behind the sign but we were just looking for a spot to take good pictures from below.

We drove to Lake Hollywood Park (3160 N. Canyon Drive) and started trekking up the hill.  It’s pretty steep at the beginning but the views are excellent.

In the picture to the left, you can see the steep hill we parked on and the grassy area of the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the park, we meandered through the neighborhood looking for Mulholland.  When we found Mulholland Hwy, we followed it until the paved road became a dirt road.

At the end of the dirt road, we found the Deronda gate.  The gate looks ominous but you can simply walk around it to the left.  There we saw a police officer ticketing a car.

We heard that this was common so don’t try to drive your car up to the sign.

 

 

We had a good time getting pictures – some serious ones and some silly ones.

It probably only took about 30-45 minutes to hike round trip so in my opinion, it was worth it.  We also got to see some pretty houses and landscaping along the way.

 

Next, we headed back to the apartment to make lunch and prepare for the remainder of the day.  We’d see pretty quickly that we’d need that rest to fight against L.A.

Around 3 p.m., we headed out for the Santa Monica pier.  Some friends in NC who are native Californians told me that the traffic is bad in L.A. – “leave extra time to get where you want to go.”  They weren’t kidding!  Our GPS said that Santa Monica is 32 miles from the apartment but an hour drive.  Once we got close to Santa Monica, we hit very heavy traffic and very crazy drivers.  Jimmy navigated the roads very well.  Of course, parking in a “touristy” city is hard to find.  At one point, we found a parking garage and headed up to find a spot.  We didn’t get very far.

On the first level, our car top carrier hit the top of the parking garage.  Thankfully, Jimmy only hit the front when he realized we couldn’t go any further.  We were stuck in a very busy parking garage trying to back up and get out without damaging the car top carrier.  I had to direct traffic and Jimmy was able to turn around.  No more parking garages for us.

I had read online about the Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.  The kids started complaining when I told them about it but once we got to it, they loved it.  Venice beach, the more well-known muscle beach, is just south of Santa Monica but apparently this muscle beach is the “Original.” They had all kinds of gymnastics equipment and balance ropes on the beach.  The kids had fun taking their turn at the ropes and the rings.  There are experts that spend all day at the equipment either showing off or helping beginners “learn the ropes.”  (Bada bing!).”

 

 

Look at that form!  (Don’t tell anyone – but do you notice the guy sitting on the rope?  That stabilizes it and makes it a lot of easier to balance yourself.)

We had to quickly get back to our van (the meter was going to run out) so we could only get a quick shot of the Santa Monica Pier in the background.

 

 

 

Our third stop of the day was the LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake men’s professional soccer game at 7:30 p.m.  I found the tickets on StubHub at a reasonable price.  We planned to make a quick detour to In-N-Out Burger for dinner before the game.  We’d seen In-N-Outs since Texas but we only wanted to go to our first one in California.

Let’s just say that my son, Nate, nicknamed it “In-N-Never Out” Burger because it took so long for the food to come.  When you have all these people with special orders, it’s a recipe for disaster.  After waiting for a while, I had to go to the car and wait.  The restaurant was such a buzz of energy that it was stressing me out.  Chick-fil-A is just as busy but at In-N-Out, the food line is visible to customers making it seem more chaotic.  I knew that with the traffic and the slow service at In-N-Out, we were going to be late for the game.  Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.

Once we parked at the Stubhub Center for the game, we ran (me in my cute shoes) to the entrance.  Our seats were fabulous.  Originally, all we could afford was the top row of the stadium. We debated whether it was worth it to see the game from the top row.  I kept checking back with Stubhub to see if better seats came up.  They sure did – exactly six seats in the first row of the mezzanine.  The mezzanine level hung over the lower level and in the first row, you had a great view of the whole field.  For soccer lovers like us, you could really see the tactical play of the game from a great angle.  Thank you, Lord!

 

The L.A. Galaxy won 3-0.  Two of their goals were scored by their star forward, Zlatan Ibrahimavic, a 6’5” controversial player from Sweden.  Here’s some of his outrageous quotes:

“I can’t help but laugh at how perfect I am.”  Can you spot him in the middle of the photo?

“Swedish style? No. Yugoslavian style? Of course not. It has to be Zlatan-style.”  Here’s his header goal – Zlatan style:

 

For each goal he scored, the announcer would yell, “Goal scored by ZLAAAAATAAAAN….”

The crowd would respond with,” IBRAAAHIIIIIMOOOVIIIIICH!”

The announcer, “Thank you.”

The crowd, “You’re welcome.”

It was a fun back and forth after each goal – so much so that the kids keep repeating it.

We got out of the game around 9:45 p.m. and believe it or not, we hit traffic heading north back to Burbank.  Ohhhhhh!  L.A. traffic!  My friends were right!

Thank you, Lord, for another great day!

Day 14 – Las Vegas to L.A.

Day 14 – Las Vegas to L.A.

We all got up slowly this morning.  On the elevator ride down to breakfast, Nate said, “Mom, everything hurts.”

My sentiments exactly.  Our hike yesterday in the Narrows of Zion National Park was a highlight of our trip but also one of the most exhausting activities we’ve done thus far.  If my 12 year-old son was hurting all over, how do you think this 40-something woman’s legs were feeling?

At breakfast, we had a Sasquatch sighting…an NC State one…

 

He looks how I felt.  I just brushed my hair.

Our next destination – the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.  We would drive through Las Vegas (quickly) to get there and then head on to Los Angeles.  That was the plan at least.

On the two hour drive from Hurricane, Utah to Las Vegas, the clock changed again – we gained an hour.  So in reality, it was only a one hour trip.  We discussed as a family what it would be like if you lived on the border of a time zone.  What time would you have to leave for work or school?  All of our bodies and brains were too tired from the day before to explore that thought too long.

My husband was brainstorming other things to do with the kids.  He wasn’t sure the kids would enjoy the Hoover Dam and we didn’t want to pay the money for an official tour.  As I drove, he looked on his phone for Ninja Warrior gyms in and around Las Vegas.  We love to watch NBC’s American Ninja Warrior as a family.  It just came back on TV at the end of May and we’ve been missing it on our trip.

As Jimmy searched, one gym kept coming up – Camp Rhino.  He called and tried to talk quietly so it’d be a surprise for the kids if it worked out.  The lady that answered the phone said that the gym is only for adults but she might be able to work something out with a trainer.  About 15 minutes later, she called us back to confirm the details.  For $200, we’d get a one hour private session with a Camp Rhino trainer.  The normal price is $100 per person.  Wowzer!  The kids are going to love this!

We had about two hours to kill before our Ninja Warrior session so we went on the lookout for a Costco for a cheap lunch.  It turned out that the Costco we found had no food court and it happened to be right next to the strip.  Whoops!

The other interesting thing we saw as we neared the Costco was a homeless village.  There was tent after tent erected under the freeway.  Each resident pushed or sat next to their shopping cart full of all of their earthly belongings.  It was sobering.

Instead of Costco, we went to a nearby Chick-fil-A.  It was nice to eat at a familiar place.  The only different thing – motion-sensored trash cans.  I couldn’t figure out how to throw away my trash.  Finally, I put my hand in front of the trash can and the door opened.

When we got to Camp Rhino, we met our trainer – David Funk.  He was a lean man of about 5’11” – the perfect size for an American Ninja Warrior.  He said that he’d tried out for the show three times but never got picked.  He said that his story wasn’t tragic enough and that he had all of his limbs.  The show is looking for a compelling story.  Interesting.

 

 

 

Jimmy and the kids warmed up for the Ninja training with a fun obstacle tic-toe game.

Notice I didn’t say I warmed up.  I was going to sit this out and be the official historian.  My lower body was so sore from our hike the day before – and I never fashioned myself as a Ninja Warrior.

I only admire them – I don’t try to be one.

The rest of the family (mainly the male people) entertains dreams of being the next American Ninja Warrior.

 

 

First, David had them try an obstacle course that mimicked some of the Ninja Warrior obstacles.  They all said that it was harder than they thought it would be – especially keeping your balance.  Each one was able to better their time after a few tries.  The old man (dad) actually had the fastest time.

Next, they tried the Lache – swinging from one bar to another.  David had a lot of helpful techniques for this – act like you’re throwing the first bar behind your head as you swing and grab the next bar with your arms in an “L” shape.  He explained that success on many of the obstacles in Ninja Warrior is about technique – not strength.

 

Jimmy had great technique – even if he had a wardrobe malfunction.

 

Although our trainer, David, never made it on the show, he told us that he is a tester on the obstacles.  They call him in to try out the obstacles to see if they are too easy or too hard.  Sounds like a fun job!

 

 

 

Next, they tried the hanging balls that appear in the show’s Canonball Alley as well as the pipe slider.  They kept saying how much easier these obstacles look on the show.

      

 

 

The final obstacle to test – the warped wall.  Camp Rhino had four warped walls.  The one they practiced on was 12 feet tall.  Starting with Season 8 of American Ninja Warrior, the warped wall was raised to 14 1/2 feet tall.

Everyone spent a lot of time on the warped wall.  Everyone wanted to get to the top.  Again, it’s a lot harder than you think.

Each one tried their best to get to the top – some succeeded and some barely missed.

 

 

 

Nate would not give up.  His brothers had gotten to the top and he wanted to get there too.  He must have tried 20-25 times before he finally got up.  He was absolutely exhausted but he did it.

 

 

 

 

At the end of our hour training session, we were free to try out the obstacles as long as we wanted. Everyone scattered to try out different things.  While they played, I just took more pictures.  Surprise, surprise!

At one point, Jimmy called me over to introduce me to a real American Ninja Warrior.  His name is Chris Workman.  He was on season 8 of ANW.

Chris made it all the way to the Vegas Finals.  Chris showed us (on his phone) the footage from his episode.  At the finals, he fell off the Propeller Bar into the water to end his chance at being the next American Ninja Warrior.

He had a lot of interesting insider information to share with us.  In his City Finals run as a rookie, Chris got up the warped wall first, before the usual veterans.  The show’s producers had him dry off so he could pretend that he hadn’t run the course yet and interview as if he had yet to conquer the warped wall.  They didn’t like that a rookie made it up before the other stars.

Chris also said that several of his qualifying runs were performed in the middle of the night – 3 and 4 a.m.  He said that the crew just keeps the cameras rolling until all the contestants are done.  For his run at the Vegas Finals, it was around 3:30 a.m.  His family that came to support him was asleep on the sidelines.

He reminded us that American Ninja Warrior is a show.  It’s all about the entertainment.  In Chris’ opinion, our trainer, David Funk, could win the whole competition if he was able to get on the show.  We love you David!

Overall, the family had blast at Camp Rhino.  We never made it to the Hoover Dam.

It was time to get on the road to L.A. We had about a 4 ½ hour drive from Las Vegas to L.A.  We traveled through the Mojave Desert – seeing 106 degrees on a roadside thermometer.  As we got nearer to L.A., we were able to find Game 4 of the NBA championship on the radio.  We listened to the Warriors sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers as we drove by a huge yellow and purple billboard that read:  #LABron.  😊

The temperature cooled down as we got closer to Burbank, our final destination just north of Los Angelos.  A friend of mine from college was allowing our family to stay in their apartment while they were away on vacation.  What a sweet gift to us!  How many of us would be willing to make such a sacrifice?  It reminds me of the gospel.  Thank you Lord for another amazing day and the gift of godly friends.

Day 13 – Zion National Park

Day 13 – Zion National Park

Ranger Dan told us that Zion National Park was going to be as crowded or more crowded than The Grand Canyon.  Since The Grand Canyon didn’t seem very crowded, how bad could Zion be?

Dan was right!  Zion felt like Walt Disney World.

Let’s rewind the day…

I got up at 5:30 a.m. (everyone else got up at 6) so we could be out of the hotel with lunches, snacks, Gatorades, and waters packed by 7:30 a.m.  We got to the park a little later than I wanted – 8:45 a.m.   This is where it felt like Disney – cars lined up waiting to get in.

As we waited in line, I looked to my right and saw Zion Outfitters. I had a memory flash in my mind of the research I did on Zion.

In order to hike the famous Narrows trail at Zion National Park, you need to rent the proper equipment.  Zion Outfitters is the place to go.

“Jimmy, we have to turn around.”

“What?!?  Get out of line?”

“Yes, sorry.”

Turning around was messy but Jimmy made it happen.

 

Our goal for Zion (and one of my goals for the whole trip) was to hike the Narrows – a trail through the Virgin River up into the narrow canyons.  It’s a trail that’s a bucket list item for many avid hikers.  The problem is that the Narrows hike is only possible in dry weather.  Rain could cause flash floods.  We’re not being washed out of the canyon today.

 

 

 

We went directly to the Zion Outfitters rental desk to the right of the store.  A very nice lady answered all of our park and trail questions and told us to get on the Narrows trail as soon as possible.  That was her favorite.  She recommended their “Warm Weather Package” ($24 per person) which includes canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and a hiking stick.  I was already prepared for this splurge so the cost wasn’t too much of a shock.  Also, Paul – a kind employee at the visitor stand- gave us a 10% discount coupon when he saw us fitting all the kids for boots.  We were told that the water would come up to mid-thigh at most.  I can’t imagine hiking the Narrows without this equipment. You’ll see why soon.

Then came the next Disney World similarity – waiting in a long line for the shuttle.  We waited about 10 minutes before we saw a sign that gave us the average wait time from that point – 30 minutes.  We already knew that that the shuttle bus ride would take 40 minutes to the final stop – Temple of Sinawava, where we’d find the Narrows Trail.  I love that many of the mountain formations in Zion are called temples.  Very fitting – since each structure is a temple of the glory of God.

There’s even the Court of the Patriarchs – three peaks names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

 

 

 

Oh no, they’re here too!?

 

 

 

 

 

At that point, what else could we do but make the best of waiting in line?

We began playing another game with our hiking sticks – we had to draw on the ground and see if everyone else could guess what we were drawing.  I’m always amazed at how competitive my kids can get at every game we come up with.  I shouldn’t be.

The first part of the Narrows trail is the Riverside trail.  The Riverside trail is a very easy, paved trail that follows the Virgin River.  About ¾ of a mile in, there is a stone wall that ends the Riverside trail and the only way up the trail is through the river.

 

This is where the Narrows trail begins.  Our goal was to make it to mile marker 3 – Wall Street.  We were told that the canyon narrows dramatically at Wall Street and the views are remarkable.

We started the trail at 10:30 a.m.  Once we hit the Narrows trail, the boys wanted to walk through the water, especially the deepest parts, the whole time.  I was trying to conserve my energy by walking on some of the rocky paths that would follow the river.  My husband reminded me to let the boys enjoy it.  Little did he know how long the day would be.

Pretty early on, some thighs came out that hadn’t seen the light of day in a long time.  Oh boy!

 

We were told that the ripples meant shallow water and the flat water meant deep water.  The boys wanted the deep water.  I wanted the shallow water.  No surprise there.

The trail was pretty crowded for the first mile after the Riverside Walk but by the last mile before Wall Street, many people had turned back.  Hiking through rushing water upstream is no easy task.  The boots, socks, and hiking stick were God-sends.  The boots had great traction on the slippery rocks.  The socks acted like a wet suit on my feet.  Even though I could feel the water sloshing in my boots, the 55 degree water never made my feet cold.  And the hiking stick – there is no way I would have hit my mini goal without it.

As an athlete, you should always have mini goals. For example in basketball, 10 points and 5 rebounds for a game.  If you don’t have mini goals, how will you track your progress?

My mini goal for the day – don’t get my underwear wet.  Good goal, huh?  Who likes wet underwear?

I kept my mini goal in the forefront of my mind for the entire hike.  I made decisions based on my goal.  I chose paths based on my goal.  I chose rocks to step on in the river based on my goal.  That’s what athletes do!

 

As we made our way farther up the river, the rapids became more intense because the river bed became more rocky.  The water is clean but the depth of it makes the rocks hard to see, especially the closer you get to Wall Street.  We saw no mile markers along the way so we kept asking people how far Wall Street was.  Everyone had a different answer.

One young guide leading her pack told us 30 minutes.

A dad we asked right after her told us 10 minutes.  I liked that answer better.

 

 

It seemed like it took forever.  But it was well worth the wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember, this is a strenuous hike.  As you propel your legs through the calf to knee high water (that’s the average), your quadriceps and hip flexor muscles are working overtime.  I’m sure that as I hiked, I tensed many other muscles in an attempt to keep my balance.   The Narrows hike is a good workout.  The good news is that it was cool in the Narrows – about 75 degrees – making the workout bearable.

 

Seth perfected the double handed walking stick hold  to maintain maximum balance.

 

 

With this picture, I inadvertently photographed a fall by another member of the family.  See the red boots at the top of the picture?

 

 

 

 

It took us 3 hours and 45 minutes to hike to Wall Street.  By that point, we had already taken one break for snacks and water and one lunch break.  Somehow sandwiches seem like a delicacy on a hiking trip – I think because fatigue makes you delirious.

By 2:45 p.m., we headed back down the river.  Other hikers told us that the walk back down the river would go much faster.

It would have gone faster if the kids and my husband had not found a lot of opportunities to swim in deep water.

 

They also found some rocks that they would aid in cannonball jumping.  Even big sis got involved.  Their underwear was wet.

 

What about my mini goal?  I had a few mis-steps on slippery rocks but my trusty walking stick saved the day.  My family offered me large sums of money to jump into a deep section.  I; however, remained focused on my goal for the day.  That focus brought me victory. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

We made it back to the shuttles by 4:45 p.m.  It only took us two hours to get back.  At that point, we all were exhausted.  Our legs (and our water-logged boots) felt like we were dragging concrete.  My two younger boys were asleep on the shuttle almost as soon as it left.

At the beginning of the day, my daughter had her heart set on hiking to the Emerald Pools after our Narrows hike.  On the shuttle, she conceded that she was too tired to do another hike.  Thank you Lord!

We ordered Domino’s Pizza on the way back to our hotel and ate in exhausted silence on a picnic table.

Hiking the Narrows was one of my main desires for our trip.  We accomplished it.  But boy were we going to be sore tomorrow!

Day 12 – Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona

Day 12 – Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona

This morning, I was sad to leave the beauty of The Grand Canyon behind.  But before we left the park, I wanted to see the Kolb Studio.  It is a small store and museum dedicated to the Kolb brothers – the first photographers and videographers in the canyon (starting in 1901).  In the museum, some of the raw footage that Emery and Ellsworth Kolb had taken on their treacherous two month rafting tour of the Colorado River in the winter of 1911 is rolling on the screen.  The brothers’ goal was to use the footage of their trip to promote their photography business at The Grand Canyon.  After their trip, they traveled across the country showing their movie.  I only spent about 15 minutes in the studio but it led me to a gem right next to it – Lookout Studio.

Here’s the scripture (Yes, Scripture!) and small prayer on the wall outside the Lookout Studio.

 O Lord, how manifold are they works!

In wisdom hast thou made them all;

The earth is full of thy riches.  Psalm 104:24

 

Father Almighty, wonderful Lord,

Wondrous Creator, be ever adored;

Wonders of nature sing praises to you,

Wonder of wonders –

I may praise too!

 

The beauty and majesty of The Grand Canyon shouts the glory of God.

From the Lookout Studio, you can look to the left and see hikers on the Bright Angel Trail.  This trail is supposedly the easiest trail to the bottom of the Canyon.  However, as I came out of Lookout Studio, Jimmy was trying to help a mother and daughter whose rental car was having brake trouble.   I started talking to the mother’s college-age daughter.

She said, “Well, I guess our bad day is getting worse.”

I asked her what she meant.  She told me that she, her mom, her friend, and her friend’s mom had hiked 11 miles down to the bottom of the canyon and 5 miles back up yesterday.  Then this morning, they had 6 miles to go.  At mile 2, her friend couldn’t make it anymore.  She was dehydrated and out of energy.  So the young lady I was talking to and her mom hiked out and found some rangers on the way to ask for help.  The young girl that was in distress on the trail was either going to be airlifted out or carried the remaining four miles by rangers.  Can you imagine carrying a grown woman four miles up a steep canyon trail?

From there, we headed east on 64 to the eastern exit of the park.  Before we officially left, we stopped at Navajo Point for a few more pictures.  Did I mention that I took over 400 pictures at The Grand Canyon? But honestly, not one of my pictures could truly capture the magnificence of it.  From Navajo Point, we saw an interesting castle-looking tower to our right on the edge of the canyon.  We asked around and people told us that it was the Desert View Watchtower and we could walk up to the top.

The Desert View Watchtower was quite a structure.  It was built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1932 as a way to bring tourists to The Grand Canyon.

 

Inside, we were able to walk up four stories into the stone tower.  Each floor had multiple windows from which you could gaze on the beauty around you.  At the top, we met Ranger Dan who was a wealth of knowledge about the canyon.

At one point, the boys saw a bird that they thought was a Black and White Warbler – Luke’s 3rd grade school bird report subject.  After many different attempts to lure a Black and White Warbler to our house six years ago, we gave up.  Luke, especially, thought he’d finally seen one.  Ranger Dan was impressed with the boys’ knowledge of the bird but sadly, he told us that this striking black and white bird we saw is a Clark’s Nutcracker.  He said that it’s rare to see them near the Watchtower, they are normally at higher altitudes.  I guess we’ll continue our search for the Black and White Warbler.

 

Oh shoot, I saw something on the front grill of a car as we left the Desertview Watchtower that triggered a thought.  I totally forgot to put my gargoyle on our van before we left North Carolina!

 

 

Goodbye Grand Canyon – hope to see you again sometime!

 

 

Our next destination was Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona – about 2 ½ hours away.  As we continued on 64 East, Native American stands selling Navajo jewelry and other wares dotted the otherwise barren landscape.  This is Navajo Indian Tribal Land.  At one point, to the kids’ chagrin, we stopped at the Little Colorado River Gorge park to take a couple pictures.

 

 

 

By this point, the kids were “starving.”  Coming out of The Grand Canyon, there is nothing to eat except sandwiches at the Desert View Watchtower.  We’d had enough sandwiches.  Finally, we hit Cameron, Arizona (the beginning of The Painted Desert) where we found a Burger King.  I can count on one hand how many times I’ve eaten at a Burger King in the last 20 years but it hit the spot today.

Here’s dad after lunch trying to get a catnap.  We could only find some loose noise-cancelling boxers (clean ones) in the car to put over his ears.

After lunch, we finally made it to Horseshoe Bend on US-89 near Lake Powell.  Be careful, it would be easy to miss the turn into the parking lot.  The entrance is quite unremarkable.  It’s about a .6 mile hike up a sandy hill and back down to the view of Horseshoe Bend.  At the start of the trail, they have warning signs about staying hydrated.  We brought three water bottles to share.  It was only 93 degrees – that seemed cool compared to the 110 we experienced in Phoenix.

Travel tip:  the Ozark Trail (Wal-Mart brand) 24 oz Water Bottle have worked really well on our trip.  They keep water cold and ice from melting in very hot temperatures.  We fill them up every morning with ice and water. The best part is that the water bottles only cost $7.74 each.

The first point where you can take pictures of Horseshoe Bend can get crowded.  I just waited in a makeshift line until other groups were done taking their pictures before I approached the edge.  It’s quite a drop to the bottom with no railings so we were careful about getting too close to the edge.

The view of the Colorado river up close was well worth the wait – breathtaking.

 

To the right of the main view of the river, there are large sandstone rock formations that have higher views of Horseshoe Bend if you’re willing to climb up the rocks.  The kids, especially the boys, really enjoyed climbing to the top.

But on the way back, we were all very hot and thirsty.  Seth dropped one water bottle and it all emptied on the ground.  So between the six of us, we had two water bottles that were gone very quickly.  The walk back to the parking lot was hot.  By the time we got back to our car, I was overheated.  My face was bright red like I’d just played a soccer game.  I think that the combination of the heat, the hot rocks, and the lack of water got to me.  But it’s nothing that a McDonald’s milkshake couldn’t solve very quickly.

We had planned to tour Lake Powell a little bit, but we all agreed that we’d rather just get on the road to our hotel.  We still had another 2 ½ hours to drive to our next stop in Utah.

 

The layers of sandstone do make for a great view as you drive.

We stopped at a Mexican food truck in Colorado City, Arizona.  It was decent – nothing like our food truck experience in New Mexico.  We crisscrossed the border of Arizona and Utah several times before landing in Hurricane, Utah at the Clarion Inn and Suites.  We made it just in time to see the end of game 3 of the NBA Championship.  I definitely picked a winner on this hotel.  Thank you, God!

Day 11 – The Grand Canyon

Day 11 – The Grand Canyon

The best laid plans of men – is that the saying?

The plan was to be up by 5 a.m., have breakfast at 6 a.m. at the hotel, and be on the road by 6:30 a.m. to head to the Grand Canyon.  As usual, we got on the road by about 7:30 – only an hour later.  We got some gas at Costco (already getting use out of my new Costco membership), and hit the Phoenix freeways.  Thankfully we could drive in the HOV-2 lane and bypass the heavy rush hour traffic in Phoenix.

As we headed out of Phoenix, the cactus turned into burning bushes as the mountains grew larger.  Here’s the view from the rest area:

 

We don’t have rest stops like those back east.  The bestcase scenario is a clean bathroom and good vending machines.

Leaving the rest area, I just felt like pinching myself.  Could we really be headed to the Grand Canyon today as a family?  I’ve dreamed about making it to the Grand Canyon and today would be my first visit.  I silently thanked the Lord for His goodness to our family.

Once we got on the road, we started playing a medley of Aaron Cole music.  My favorite song of his (that actually played over and over again because we lost cell signal for Spotify) is One More Day.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dkdj83C1z0Y

In it, Aaron is thanking God for the day and for His love.  My sentiments exactly.

As we got close to Flagstaff, we saw signs for a very familiar road – I-40.  We could travel that road all the way back home to North Carolina – but not today.

As we traveled north, the burning bushes had now turned into large evergreen trees and the 83 degrees that would later heat up to 110 in Phoenix had dropped to a pleasant 72.

On our drive, my husband and I listened to a podcast from a Grand Canyon ranger about the 10 Hiking Essentials in the Grand Canyon.    https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/photosmultimedia/hike_smart-02.htm

There were of course the obvious essentials – water, an electrolyte fluid, a source of light – but here’s the one that surprised me – junk food.  Yes!  The ranger said to bring in chips and cookies.  And my husband had to tell our boys after they woke up!?  Ugh!  They don’t need another reason to eat junk food.

At the Flagstaff Safeway, we bought sandwich supplies, a large Gatorade for each person, chips, Ritz crackers, more ice, and two gallon containers of water.  Oh, we also got a bag of M&Ms to refill our trail mix.  Do people in your family fish out the M&Ms too?

A very nice lady checked us out at Safeway and told us that she had moved with her family as a child, along with four other young siblings, to Arizona in 1968.  She had never been to the Grand Canyon!  She said that she loved Flagstaff – “it was poverty with a view.”  Hmmm…?

That comment was especially interesting since we had already (while we shopped) sent Emma Grace and Nate to give a blessing bag to a homeless lady at the edge of the Safeway parking lot.  Jimmy’s instructions were for them to introduce themselves, give her the blessing bag, ask how they could pray for her, and finish with prayer.

Apparently, the homeless woman wanted money to “get out of the country.”  That was her prayer.  She didn’t really seem interested in prayer but they prayed for her anyway.  The kids said she didn’t make much sense.  Sad.  But at least they (more Emma Grace) stepped out of her comfort zone to minister to someone.  This is where our kids’ experience on our three different missions trips has born much fruit.  Shout out to Big Creek Missions in Bear Branch, Kentucky –  https://www.bigcreekmissions.com/

 

As we got on 64 North heading to The Grand Canyon, the troops were getting restless.  Dad to the rescue!

He wanted them to look out the window for wildlife.  He was willing to give $5 for moose, mooses, moosuses (what is the plural?), $1 for elk, and $1 for any other live and wild animal – except everyday birds.  We had to clarify the “live” part – roadkill didn’t count.

As soon as the game started, so did the yelling!

Every kid was claiming that they saw something worthy of a monetary prize.

Luke was convinced that he saw a hawk on a roadside fence.

As we got closer, we confirmed that it was a…black trash bag.

Everyone had to plead their case.  Emma Grace said, “Do you realize you guys have the advantage up there (in the front seat)?”

Hello…we’re not playing.  We’re giving the money out.

Nate was the first to cash in – he got a dollar for a hawk he saw.

Emma Grace saw a mailbox in the shape of deer head.  She got a nickel for that.

Nate cashed in again -$3 for white-tailed deer.

Isn’t this much better than looking at an IPad?

Nate – “I thought a deer was $4.”

Dad – “The stock market changes all the time.”

He added to the rules – he’d give $100 for a giraffe – 25 cents for an artificial giraffe.

“What if I see a hobbit?”, we heard from the backseat.

Dad  – “We’d get his autograph.”

These are the types of conversations you have on the open road.

We finally pulled into The Grand Canyon around 2 p.m. We showed them our V.I.P pass (our 4th grade pass) and got in without paying the $35 per car rate.

As soon as we entered the park, we saw it:

Road construction!

Oh no!

It really slowed down the travel in and out of the park.  Plus, we had to drive our new-to-us van over the loose, newly laid asphalt.  I guess road construction is never convenient.

We continued on 64 East to the 1st point where we could get a view of the Canyon – Pipe Creek Vista.

 

The first time you look over the edge into The Grand Canyon, it takes your breath away.  How could something this magnificent and this expansive exist – especially in the United States?

For the reminder of our time in The Grand Canyon, I couldn’t stop taking pictures.  By the end of our Grand Canyon visit, I had taken over 400 pictures in less than 24 hours.  But of course, pictures don’t do it justice.  It’s something that you have to see in person to get a feel for the true grandeur of the canyon.

As we left our first stop, we traveled farther east looking for Yaki Point – another recommended picture spot.  Let’s just say I’m not a fan of the map that they give you when you get to the Park.  I consider myself a pretty good map reader (thanks Dad!) but this one just totally threw me off.  All that to say, we missed the turn for Yaki point and kept driving.  When we realized that we’d gone too far, we turned around.  But even our little detour brought with it a special gift, our first sighting of an elk.

 

We saw two female elk (called cows) who were very close to the road.  We turned off to get a better view and we would learn quickly that elk (at least Grand Canyon elk) are not alarmed by humans.  We even got a video of the elk where the smaller one seems to give the “What’s Up” nod at Luke at the end of our video.

Our next stop would be hiking the Grand Canyon.  After consulting my handy National Parks book (Your Guide to the National Parks 2nd edition by Michael Joseph Oswald), we decided to hike down the South Kaibab trail.  The book said that it was a little more challenging that the Bright Angel trail.  We planned to hike to the two mile turn around point and then head back up the canyon.  How hard could it be?

For some reason, I had this Polyanna idea that hiking down into the Canyon would be like walking “over the river and through the woods” while stopping occasionally to capture a scenic view.  Boy, was I wrong!

I already noticed that each time I got close to the edge and got a glimpse of the Canyon, my heartrate would increase.  I also got that little butterfly feeling in my stomach – especially as I thought about my family being so close to the edge.  So when I saw the beginning of the South Kaibab trail, my vital signs had to be spiking.  Were we really going to hike down this trail?

Let’s just say that the original plan changed quickly – especially when my son, Nate, was holding onto every rock as he descended.

Jimmy stayed back with Nate because they both shared a fear of heights.  They could encourage each other.  My job was to keep Seth, our 10 year old, next to me.  That was harder than I thought.  He kept wandering ahead and I had to keep pulling him back.  At one point, I had to grab his hand to keep him with me.  Emma Grace and Luke just trudged on down the trail.

We passed some people on the way down but it certainly wasn’t crowded.  What was most abundant was mule doo-doo and “attack” squirrels.  The mule doo-doo wasn’t that difficult to navigate around but the squirrels were a different story.  On the bus ride to our trail, we overhead another visitor say that the second most common injury at the canyon is squirrel bites.  We just laughed it off.  Little did we know how true it would be.

As we descended on the trail, we saw a cute chipmunk and then a few squirrels.  They didn’t bother us at all – until we got out some food.

As soon as we sat down to take a break, eat and drink, the squirrels began to circle us.  They got closer and closer until one actually lunged towards Nate and let out a loud shriek.  Nate shrieked too.

We knew we were bigger than the squirrels but they were a little unsettling.  We put our food away and continued hiking the trail.

But guess what, the squirrels followed.  They seemed to come out of the woodwork everywhere we went.

They were stalking us.

 

We quickly decided that our goal was to make it to Ooh-Aah point – a spot on the South Kaibab trail where you could see around the canyon and get a very wide view from east to west.  We (me, Emma Grace, Luke, and Seth) made it there – but not without sweating profusely, keeping our eye on every squirrel in sight, and maintaining a safe distance from the edge.  Jimmy and Nate decided to stop halfway to Ooh-Aah point and wait for us to hike back up to them.

Doesn’t this guy look so sweet?

 

 

Don’t believe it!

We did survive the squirrels and the steep ascent to make it back to the top.

Leaving the trail, Nate said, “I hope that the squirrels are nicer at the next park.”

Me too!

 

 

We had dinner at the Market plaza where the kids ordered a $4.50 Buffalo Chicken flatbread.  It was full of chicken but also full of very spicy buffalo sauce.  We got chocolate ice cream cones to cool their mouths down.

Then it was on to find a spot to take pictures of the canyon at sunset.  We were running late of course.  Another visitor had recommended Hermit’s Rest for sunset.  We had to get on two different park shuttles to get to this spot.  The driver told us that it would be close.  We broke into our best late-to-a-flight run trying to get to each bus stop as quickly as possible.  On the 2nd bus, the driver told us that we wouldn’t make it in time to see sunset at Hermit’s Rest but we’d go as far as Hopi Point.  We got some great pictures of The Grand Canyon with the Colorado River running through it.

 

We even got some fun silhouettes of the kids as they jumped off the (small) wall in front of the canyon.

The shuttle drivers were very friendly and helpful.  Thankfully, the driver that dropped us off for sunset pictures told us she wouldn’t leave us there.  She’d be back to take us to our hotel.

This was one of our splurge nights – staying at the Yavapai Lodge in the park.  It was not any nicer than the other hotels we’d stayed in but the fact that we didn’t have to drive a long way after a tiring day was well worth it.

The only problem was the name – my husband is notorious for making up names that seem close to the real thing – Yauponi, Yavaponi, Mabopane.  Whatever it was called, it was perfect for our stay in The Grand Canyon.

The view of the Canyon reminded me how amazing God is – His works are beyond imagination and beyond description.  Thank you Lord for bringing us to The Grand Canyon today to experience your beautiful creation and to glorify your Name.

Days 9 & 10 – Phoenix

Days 9 & 10 – Phoenix

On our drive into Phoenix, we were able to make a last-minute stop to see my cousin and aunt for dinner in Tucson.  It was nice to catch up with them and also get some good recommendations for our upcoming destinations.

We crossed into another time zone as we neared Tucson.  It’s a sweet gift on the long travel days when you gain an hour; however, by night time you start to feel the effects of the 25th hour.

Phoenix was going to be a two day stop.  We had several goals in Phoenix:

Goal #1  Spend time with family

We spent Sunday and Monday with family – my aunts, my grandmother, and my cousins.  We played in my aunt’s pool in 110 degree heat, took silly selfies with my grandmother, played Uno with my cousin’s young kids, and overall enjoyed seeing family that we don’t get to see very often.

 

I also took a picture of my 15 year old Luke’s continued “Sleep Across America” tour.  He has been growing exponentially over the last year – it seems like an inch a month.

Every time I look at him, his eyes are higher.  He must be sleeping so much because he’s growing.  That’s at least what we are telling ourselves.

 

 

 

We always have to take a picture before we leave family.  Did I mention that I love photographs?  They become reminders of special memories later in life.  We’re getting good at the 10 second timer function on my phone that allows us to take group pictures.

Whoops!

See the orange tree in the background?

Goal #2 Go to church

We’re trying to find a church service to go to on the Sundays we’re on the road.  We want to worship God with God’s people all around the country.  It’s neat to see the differences in churches in different states and it’s special to meet God’s people – knowing that one day we’ll all worship together in heaven.  We went to Sun Valley Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona.  Gilbert is a suburb of Phoenix, and where most of my extended family lives.

During worship at the beginning of the service, a young man raised his hands to Jesus and we all got a glimpse of the tattoo he had along the side of his forearm:

No Greater Love

The t in greater was a bolded cross.

It’s encouraging for me to see a young man seeking after the Lord.  As a mom, I loved having my boys notice that this cool looking guy they were sitting behind is passionate about the Lord – what a great example for them.  Thank you Lord!

On the way out, the brand new youth pastor (just got there a week ago) introduced himself as we exited the service.  I think he saw our kids and realized we’d be a good family to pull in.  We had to tell him we were just passing through.  Jason (if you’re reading this), I pray that the Lord blesses you and your family in your new work at the church.

Goal #3  Get an oil change/tire rotation

Yesterday as I was driving near Tuscon, the “Maintenance Required” notification came on and stayed on.  There is also an orange circle that flashes on the dash when maintenance is required.  I have a sinful tendency to worry.  Once the light came on, my mind started down the path of worry.  What if something is wrong with the car?  What if we need a timing belt?  What if we can’t make it out of Arizona?

God in his grace, quickly brought to mind the sermon I had just finished listening to on the Psalms.  On long drives, I like to listen to sermons by pastors all over the country that I like and trust with the Word of God.  One such pastor is Brad Bigney, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, Kentucky near Cincinnatti.  Jimmy and I heard Pastor Bigney speak at our first biblical counseling conference 11 years ago.  He’s a very dynamic speaker, a wonderful teacher of God’s Word, and a very practical biblical counseling speaker.  Just recently, I started getting on his church website and listening to his sermons as I prepared for my own counseling cases.  He has two great series on “Idols of the Heart” and a very interesting series called Holy Sex that I listened to before helping my husband with his recent sermon.

Anyway, I had just listened to a sermon on Psalm 61 by the associate pastor.  It was all about what you do when you’re overwhelmed by life.  One of the main points of the sermon was to remember the Lord’s faithfulness to you when life begins to get overwhelming.  I had to practice that right then in the car.  I started praying – crying out to the Lord.  I started telling myself how faithful God had been to us in the past.  I reminded myself that God was in control, that God has his hand on our finances, that God has always provided for us, that God would take care of us.  I asked the Lord to help me believe these things and trust God.

Jimmy took the van to AutoZone and they confirmed what I thought (before the worry set in) – we only needed an oil change.  We’d driven 2600 miles at that point.  We took the van to a local Firestone and got an oil change, a tire rotation, and a tire fill-up.  We’re ready for our next 2500 miles.

Goal #4  Do laundry

I was able to do three loads of laundry at my aunt’s house.  Instead of putting some of our in a dryer, I hang them up to dry.  I realized that our car was a great spot to hang up wet clothes.  In the Phoenix heat, our van became a natural dryer.  I just reminded Jimmy to hide the undergarments when he took the van to Firestone.  That would be awkward.

A couple other fun things in Phoenix:  we ordered Chinese food and ate it in the room while we watched Game 2 of the NBA Championship.  The game started at 5 p.m.  All the games at home start around 8 or 9 p.m. so it was so nice to get a game in early.

Also, I’d let my Costco membership lapse because I wasn’t super impressed with their prices.  But while in Phoenix, I got an e-mail about a Living Social deal for a Costco Gold membership.  The deal came with a $20 cash card and a $20 set of AA batteries.  So for about $20, I was getting a year membership at Costco.  We could now hit up Costcos all over the country for some cheap fast food.  For dinner on Monday night, we went to Costco, got our new membership cards, and each of us had a foot long hot dog, a drink, and a churro for dinner.  Perfect!

Our Phoenix stop was a good respite on this long journey.  We’re ready now to see the Grand Canyon and so much more.

Day 8 – White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

Day 8 – White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

I must admit, it was nice to wake up so close to the White Sands National Monument.  We knew that we could sleep in (a bit at least) and still get to the Sands before the heat of the day.  Our audacious goal was to have eaten breakfast and be checked out of the hotel by 8 a.m.  We left by 8:30 a.m.

The weatherman said that the high temperature for the day would be 101 degrees in Alamogordo.  Wheewww – you don’t want be in the middle of the Sands at that temperature.  Surprisingly, when we got into our car, the temperature gauge said 75 degrees.  Nice.

It was about 15 miles to White Sands National Monument from our hotel.  When we arrived, we drove right by the Visitor’s Center to the guard gate.  We handed the attendant our 4th grade pass, she looked into the van to see Seth (our 4th grader) and waved the entrance fees.  Yay!

I brought 2 plastic sleds with us that I got for $1 each at a yard sale.  We decided we wanted two more sleds so each of the kids could have one.

The attendant told us that the sled discs work best and we could buy new discs at the Visitor’s Center for $18.99 each, buy a used disc for $10, or go back to Wal-mart in town and buy some for $2-6 each.

Oh geeeeezzz.

I should have thought of it earlier.  We didn’t want to drive 30 minutes back into town so we reluctantly went to the Visitor’s Center.  They had no used discs left so we bought two new discs.  The clerk told us that we could get $5 back for each disc if we brought them back after our visit.

We also bought 2 squares of wax to slick up the discs – $2 each.  You can also bring the wax squares back and get 50 cents back after sledding.  Hey – every little bit helps.

 

We started driving into the Sands and the boys were not impressed.

They saw small dunes with a lot of plants and bushes on them and wondered how they could sled down those small, bushed dunes.  My daughter was confident that the dunes would get better.  We’d all have to wait and see.

 

The guard gate attendant had told us to drive to the furthest part of the Sands to find the biggest dunes.  At one point, we left the paved road and were just driving on sand.  As we neared the back of the park, the dunes got bigger and the vegetation more sparse.  By the time we reached the spot we chose to park, the temperature gauge said 66 degrees.  Perfect weather for sand dune sledding!

Just like Carlsbad Caverns, words cannot express how incredible the dunes are in person.  There is white gypsum sand as far as your eye can see.  The sand is pure white – undefiled.  My husband described it as a pure white freshly laundered bed sheet wrapping the hills.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Isaiah 1:18

Thank you Jesus!

The contrast of the white sand dunes against the dark mountains in the background is fantastic.

I was concerned that the sand would be very hot on our feet but we were told that this type of sand reflects the heat and doesn’t absorb it.  It’s way different than the scorching sand I’m used to from the Maryland/Delaware and the North Carolina/South Carolina beaches. The sand was actually cool and soft on my feet.

We got our GoPros, phones, and cameras ready and headed up the dunes.  At first, we just tried to sled on the dune next to the parking lot.  The sand is so deep that the kids weren’t going down the dune very well.  After making a little path in the sand, the sledding got a little better.

  

Then we decided to trek farther from the parking lot to see if we could find taller dunes.  As we walked over the dunes and away from other visitors, the dunes got more and more spectacular to the eye.  All of us took turns sledding down the hill – both sitting down and standing.  The discs do work better than the sleds.  The sleds pick up sand all the way down the dune until it looks like you’ve pitchpoled a kayak.

 

Sadly, the one disc that we bought at the Visitor’s Center cracked in half after 3 rides (and the woman didn’t give me our money back for it – hmmmpph!).

I love photography even though I’d consider myself a very beginner amateur.  My favorite part of the trip was taking pictures and video of our family and of the scenery.  Eventually, I told my husband that I wanted to take a walk to get to the edge of the dunes.  He chuckled and told me that the dunes go on for miles and miles.  After walking alone toward the mountains for about 15 minutes, I realized that he was right.  Just when I got over the next big dune, there were more and more dunes in front of me.  I also realized that you could easily get lost in a place like this.  I looked all around and knew the general direction that I had come from so I just started walking that way.  Thankfully, I eventually found my footprints and was able to follow them back to the family.

To my surprise, I also found some beautiful flowers in the sands.

When I got back to my family, there were in the middle of a “king of the hill” game.  They picked the tallest dune, put two sleds at the bottom corners to mark the “field” boundaries, and put one sled at the top of the dune to mark the finish line.  Whoever got to the top of the dune and touched the sled first won the race.  The first person to win 3 races won the King of the Hill championship and a milkshake.  The only rule was that you couldn’t throw sand in a competitor’s face (they’d already done enough of that).  You could push, pull, and claw your way to the top and to the win – the boys loved that.  It was a joy to watch them have so much fun pushy and grabbing on to whoever was in the front, laughing all the way.

 

At one point, my daughter joined the fun.  She tried to stay out of the fray and sneak around the boys for the win.  The boys loved the pile-up and we even got a few looks at boxers – thankfully nothing more.

This game reminded me again how thankful I am for my husband.  As a former youth pastor, my husband always has games up his sleeve at the perfect time.  Not only did they get some good exercise, they had an absolute ball doing it.  This game was definitely the hightlight of the White Sands National Monument visit – even if they had sand in every place possible.

 

After about two hours of fun on the dunes, we headed back to the van.  Everyone was tired and thirsty.  On the way out, we found a man to take our picture.  He had a Canon camera with a huge lens so why not ask him?  It turned out that we traveled there from China and didn’t speak much English.  That didn’t stop my husband from trying to have a long conversation with him.  Oh boy!

Emma Grace knows how to count 1-10 in Mandarin (one of China’s most used languages) and when she did that, our Chinese photographer’s eyes lit up.  He took our family picture and then he wanted to take a selfie with us.

I headed down the dune to the van to get water for Seth.  I unlocked the van from the top of the dune and by the time, I got to the bottom, Seth was throwing up in the sand.  Yikes!

We quickly realized that he was just dehydrated and thankfully we had water and Gatorade in the van.  After just a few minutes of drinking water and sipping on the Gatorade, he felt much better.

From there, we began our 6 hour trip to Phoenix, Arizona.  Around lunchtime, we didn’t see many options for food so we decided to pull off at a McDonald’s – not our favorite place but all we could find.  As we pulled off the exit, my husband spotted a food truck on the other side of the highway.  We decided to take a chance on it.

As we pulled up, we noticed that the food truck was positioned at the front of a small flea market.  They also had a warehouse with a store that sold trinkets, toys, signs, souvenirs, and according to the sign, slime for the kids.

Here’s a sign in the store that made me laugh…

After browsing in the store and convincing my son, Nate, that he shouldn’t buy an airsoft gun there, we headed to the food truck.  What drew me was the sign for flautas – I love flautas.  I usually order them when I got to a Mexican restaurant because it’s something I won’t make at home.  They are fried rolled-up tortillas with filling.  The sign also said that they sell gorditas.

My husband went to the counter and asked about prices – each gordita and flauta cost $1.25!  We ordered a beef gordita and chicken flauta to see which one the kids liked.  They both were amazing.  The gordita was stacked to the top with beef, cheese, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, and pico.

 

The flauta’s shell was light and flaky – melt-in-your-mouth good.  Each dish came with homemade salsa that was amazing – just the right amount of heat.  As we were eating the appetizer course, the owner sent out four beef gorditas on the house.  Wow!

Sadly, the chicken flautas were all out.  We ordered about 12 more beef gorditas and three beef and potato flautas.  I reminded my husband that we were about to eat at McDonalds.  Insane!

We had a nice conversation with another customer – Carlos – who grew up in the area (near Las Cruces, New Mexico) and had camped all over with his family.  His kids were grown up and he expressed how much he missed the days we were in.  “Enjoy it,” he said.  We are!

When my husband went to pay, the owner charged him $10.  Jimmy wouldn’t have it.  He finally convinced the owner of the food truck to take $15 by telling him to spend the $5 on his wife.

These are the types of experiences you miss if you fly over these parts of the country.  You don’t get to meet Carlos, you don’t get to eat fresh gorditas on the side of the road with your family, and you don’t get to be blessed by a fellow American and food truck owner.

 

 

We’re overflowing with gratitude to the Lord for this wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Day 7 – Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Day 7 – Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

We’re officially one week into our once-in-a-lifetime cross country trip.

After driving some treacherous roads last night, we arrived safely at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico.  The town of Whites City is closer to Carlsbad Caverns than the town of Carlsbad.  Go figure.  Even though we paid a lot (to me) for the hotel, I was nervous about how clean it would be as it was only a 2 star hotel.

 

Our room was spotless!  We had plenty of space to put out an air mattress for 2 of our kids.  We got into the room just in time to watch the press conference from Game 1 of the NBA championship and hear all the controversy over the Cleveland Cavalier’s JR Smith not knowing that they were tied with Golden State.  The Cavs then lost in OT.  We’re a sports family so it was nice to stay updated.

In the morning, the Rodeway Inn of Whites City had a really nice breakfast with homemade waffles and other continental breakfast items.  Our goal was to pack up and leave the hotel by 8 so we could be some of the first visitors to the Park.  While I dried my hair, my husband looked through my National Parks book (Your Guide to all the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald – 2nd edition) and asked me if I reserved a guided tour of the Caverns.  I had not.  I quickly got on the National Parks website (recreation.gov) and looked for tours.  Of course, they were all booked.  I was so bummed.  There were self-guided tours but everyone said it’s better to go on a guided tour.  No one else in my family seemed to be upset about it but I was.  I felt like I dropped the ball.  I was disappointed.  I’m always the hardest on myself.  I didn’t want to travel all the way to Carlsbad Caverns and not get the most out of our visit.

 

We got to the Caverns around 8:20 a.m.  My husband went in to ge tickets while I collected our gear in the car.

He said, “I’m going to try to get us on a guided tour.”

I said, “Ok, I guess it’s worth a try.”  I had no hope that it would happen.

Jimmy used Seth’s 4th grade pass to get all of us into the Park for free – money saved!

When I came into the Visitor’s Center, the kids were sitting on a bench just inside the door.

One said, “Mom, Dad got us on the 9 a.m. King’s Palace tour.”

“No way!”

“Yes way!”

When my husband came around the corner, I asked him and sure enough, all six of us got on the ranger-guided tour that was supposedly full until the following Tuesday.  I asked my husband how he worked that out.

He simply said, “I told him that the Stoppers are here.”  (cue eye roll by me)

Thank you God!  Just another example of His small kindnesses to us.  If I had to do it all again, I’d try to reserve a spot beforehand.  This incident quickly brought to memory the time when we took the kids on a last-minute trip to Disney.  We got this crazy two-night deal at a timeshare off of Craigslist.  The kids were ages 7 down to 1 at the time.  We were there at the Magic Kingdom on the busiest day of the year – New Years’ Eve.  Around dinnertime, we strolled up to a restaurant with character dinners (having no clue that these reservations are made way in advance) and asked for a table of six.  The hostess chuckled (probably thinking “who are these crazy people?”)  She then looked down at her reservation list and with a look of bewilderment on her face said, “We just had a cancellation for a table of six so I can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes, we have a table for you.”

Thank you God – you’ve done it again!

To start the tour, the rangers gave us a few ground rules.

#1 No eating.  You can only drink water.  Okay, we can do that.

#2 No touching the formations.  Oh boy!

#3 Only whispering.  Are you kidding me?  How can I get my boys to whisper for four hours?  They told us that a normal speaking voice can travel up to a quarter mile in the caverns. The caverns didn’t know what they were in for when they allowed the Stopper boys in.  They don’t have the gift of whispering.

 

I don’t even know how to put into words the magnificence of Carlsbad Caverns.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen.  First, we traveled 750 feet down into the caves via a very fast elevator.  At the bottom, we met our tour group the for the King’s Palace tour.  The ranger explained to us all about the types of formations made of calcite – stalactites (that hang “tight” to the ceiling), stalagmites (that “might” just reach the ceiling), draperies (they look like hanging curtains), soda straws (thin pencil-like formations), and so much more.  The caverns are just barely lit up with LED lights so you can see the formations.

Also, the caverns are cool (in temperature) – around the upper 50s even in the summer.  I wore shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and put on a light jacket when we got into the caverns.  It was just right.

Our guide explained that Jim White was the first person to explore the Caverns in the late 1800s.  He was 16 when he first started exploring them with only a candle or homemade lantern.  The ranger asked us, “What would it be like if Jim’s light went out?”

At that point, the guide turned off the lights and shut off his lantern.  It was complete darkness – so much so that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  He asked us to imagine how Jim would have felt if his light went out and how nervous he would have been trying to relight his candle.

If his light source failed, how would he ever get back out of the cave?

Scary!

Our guide also told us that when you get dripped on in the caverns, they call it a “Cave Kiss.”  I officially got 3 cave kisses and a few stolen ones from my hubby.

Here’s a picture of the most famous formation in the King’s Palace – the royal family.  Above the royal family, you can see a drapery formation that they call the guillotine.

After the guided tour, we had lunch on a picnic table outside the Visitor’s Center.  This is what happened when I went to the bathroom and the kids got my camera.  Dangerous…

 

After lunch, we took a self-guided tour called The Natural Entrance Tour.  First, we got two audio tour guide devices ($5 each) so we (I mean, I) could listen.  Being a card-carrying member of the Hereford Middle School original Nerd Herd (shout out to the other founding members – Jess, Holly, and Joanna), I always want to hear more information on anything I’m visiting.  For me, audio tours make your visit so much richer.  For The Natural Entrance tour, there are 50 stations along the tour.  At each station, you can put the number into your device and hear a brief explanation by holding the device up to your ear.  By the end of the tour, we were all sharing the audio devices.

The natural entrance to the caverns is spectacular.

 

 

 

You walk down the hill from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance.  Upon entering, you wind your way 800 feet down the switchback trails.  Thankfully, they put in hand rails during the 1990s.  My 12 year-old son is extremely afraid of heights.  At many points, he was inching his way down the trail with a death grip on the hand rails.  But he made it.

Here’s a picture looking at the cave entrance once we entered.

The word spectacular doesn’t even describe it.  It seemed like you’re walking into a black pit.  As slowly moved down into the cavern, cave swallow birds were flying in, out, and around.  The famous bats of Carlsbad Caverns (mainly Brazilian Freetail Bats) live in the caverns but don’t make their ceremonial exit until dusk.  We wanted to stay for their exit (around 7:30 p.m.) but we had to get onto our next destination.

As we finished our tour through The Big Room, The Rock of Ages formation was one of my favorites.

The audio tour station explained that during the very first tours of the caverns, they would blow out their candles and then sing the hymn “Rock of Ages” together.  The words to the hymn are a beautiful poem of praise to the Lord.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All could never sin erase,
Thou must save, and save by grace.

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

 

How incredible would that be to hear the echo of voices raised to the Lord in complete darkness?

If you can make it out west some time – Carlsbad Caverns is a must-see!  I won’t soon forget this breathtaking expression of God’s creativity.

After Carlsbad Caverns, we traveled through the town of Carlsbad.  It was officially 104 degrees.  HOT!  Our original plan was to stay at the Carlsbad KOA but Jimmy and I decided that we wanted to get to our next destination – White Sands National Monument – early in the morning to beat the New Mexico heat.  In the Carlsbad McDonald’s line waiting for ice cream cones, I booked a room in Alamogordo, New Mexico for the night through Hotwire (my new favorite site).  Honestly, I was disappointed to lose the money we spent for the KOA ($50) but my husband gently convinced me that it would be for the best.

As we drove through New Mexico on Highway 82, the flat desert slowly turned into small hills.  At this point, my daughter was driving for the first time on our trip.  We watched the cattle all along the route.  At one point, a calf was right in the middle of the road.

Then, we entered the Lincoln National Forest and the roads got more winding and the hills turned into mountains.  My husband decided to take over driving.  As we made it up the mountains, the temperature plummeted.  We even passed a ski resort.  Who knew there were beautiful forests in New Mexico?  At the top the mountains near the small town of Cloudcroft (population 674), the temperature had dropped to 75 degrees – a 30 degree drop from Carlsbad.  We stopped along the side of the road to take some pictures of the view and of an old train bridge – the Mexican Canyon Trestle.  Another spectacular view!

  Yes – New Mexico!  

 

Coming down the mountain, the views were just as amazing.  By the time, we reached Alamogordo around 7:30 p.m., it was back up to 90 degrees.  We quickly checked into the Quality Suites and hit the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In for a Tiger Burger.  We always ask the locals for recommendations.  The lady at the hotel said that the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In was “good and cheap” – just what we like.

My husband is still talking about their Tiger burger – two ½ lb. burger patties on a bun.  It was $8 with fries and a drink.

 

He was hoping we could go back the next morning to get one for breakfast.

 

 

After a filling dinner, we got back to the hotel for a much needed clean-out of the car so we could find the floor again – and of course, a photo opportunity at sunset.

We thanked the Lord for another special day on the road.  He is so good to us!