A Vacation in the Redwoods

Aug 19, 2017

As we made plans at the beginning of the summer, one of the things that was high on my priority list was a family vacation. A few months before, Mike's sister had tossed around the idea of a possible road trip to California, but when it didn't work out for them, we decided to go anyway and invite my brother and his family along instead.

Mike made at least three different plans/routes for the trip, but he always kept the redwoods in northern California as our central focus. Mike and I had driven through them when we were first married, and we knew we wanted to show them to our kids.

We knew from the get go that this trip would require a LOT of driving. It was a road trip, so almost every day would be spent traveling to somewhere new. Much of the driving would be through really beautiful country, but we dreaded the long stretches through Nevada. So because of that, a few weeks before the trip, Mike installed a DVD player into our van. I have always prided myself somewhat on not being dependent on a DVD player (and the last few shorter trips we'd been on, we hadn't even brought the little portable player because it caused more fights and frustration than it was worth). But somehow, I had a sense that on this trip, being able to turn on a show would be our salvation, and it was.

Mike wrangled with the logistics of the itinerary, trying out both northern and southern routes, before finally settling on something that looked like this:

Day 1: Drive to Lake Tahoe
Day 2: Drive to Livermore, California
Day 3: Drive through San Francisco, end up in Fort Bragg, California
Day 4: Drive to Eureka, California
Day 5: Stay in Eureka
Day 6: Stay in Eureka
Day 7: Drive to Winnemucca, Nevada
Day 8: Drive home

Overall, our kids did amazingly well in the car. Of course we had moments where the baby was crying inconsolably or the older ones couldn't keep their hands away from each other, but on the whole, it was far better than I expected. My kids literally had to be dragged away from everything we did because they were having so much fun (except for the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, which they were only too happy to leave).

Here are a few of the highlights from the trip:

Cousin (and sibling) time
This deserves mention first because it really colored the whole trip and made it so much better. My brother (Gordy), his wife (Brooke), and their three kids (Charlie (almost 5), Rose (3), and Lyda (1)) came with us, and we had the best time with them. (If you follow me on Instagram, you might recognize Rosie as Flit of #flitandbarrel fame.) It's always nice to have other adults to talk to, other kids to play with, and other people to share the memories with. They were always up for an adventure and stayed positive even when things were not what we expected (the motel in Fort Bragg was something special. . .). My brother always makes a music video when his family goes on a vacation, so we were excited to get to be in this one and have it to remember the trip by.

Beach time
All told, we went to five different beaches (Lake Tahoe, Crissy Fields, Bodega Bay, Glass Beach, and Trinidad Bay). Each one was unique, from the water to the sand to the coastline to the view to the temperature, but we enjoyed all of them (and my kids always needed a thorough washing afterwards, which is a sign of a good time). Our time at Lake Tahoe was much too short, and we vowed to return next summer and spend our whole vacation there rather than just have it be a stop along the way.

Glass Beach
This one deserves its own mention because, when the whole trip was said and done, this was my kids' very favorite thing we did. It's called Glass Beach because, rather than traditional sand, its beach is made up of little bits of smooth glass (washed up from a bottle dump site from many years ago). I thought it was cool to look for unique shapes of colored glass, but my kids loved it for the tide pools, where they found crabs and minnows and anemones. We went in the evening at sunset, but then the next morning, they begged and pleaded to go again before hitting the road. I think they would have stayed all day if we'd let them. When we were there in the morning, there were two couples who were diving for abalone. We waited around until they came back in, and they showed them to the boys and let them hold them.

Visiting my grandparents
My mom's dad and stepmom live in Livermore, California. When I was growing up, we only visited them twice, but they came to see us almost every summer in their motor home. In recent years though, they haven't been able to make the trip, so it had been probably twelve years since I'd seen my grandpa, and six years since I'd seen my grandma (she came to Salt Lake for a convention when Max was a baby). As such, my grandpa had never met any of my kids or Gordy's kids, and so we knew we wanted to stop in to see them. Luckily, they weren't busy the evening we were available, and we had a lovely time eating dinner, chatting, and just generally catching up on life. (My Uncle Doug, and his daughter, Halia (whom I had never met) were also there.) Although, I will say, descending on anyone with eight children generally makes me a bit of a stress case, and that I was.

San Francisco
San Francisco was less of a destination and more of just a stop along the way, but it was still fun to catch a glimpse of the city. It was really the only thing we did on the trip that was not entirely kid-friendly. We went to Chinatown one afternoon (where we ate at the aforementioned Chinese restaurant) and then drove to, and then across, the Golden Gate bridge the next morning. Mainly what San Francisco did was make me want to go back someday with Mike . . . without kids.

Big trees
We planned the whole trip around the redwoods, and they did not disappoint. It's hard to really fathom how big they truly are until you're right up next to them, and then they're pretty jaw dropping. We drove through the Avenue of the Giants, making stops along the way, and everywhere we went, our kids found trees to climb on and through and in. We drove through Chandelier Tree (one of the few drive through trees left), and even though it was totally a tourist trap, it was so much fun to drive through a tree. (Later in the trip, we happened to drive through another one, not because we wanted to (it was more expensive and less cool) but because our kids needed to use the bathroom in the gift shop, and so we felt a little obligated). But really, these trees were the stars of the show, and we didn't get tired of them.

Sequoia Park
This was my favorite spot on the trip, partly because it was drop dead gorgeous, but also because it was so unexpected. We stayed for three nights in Eureka, California--not because Eureka itself is any great city, but after packing and unpacking and packing for several days in a row, we were ready to stop in one spot for more than one night. Plus, it was relatively close to some of the other things we wanted to see so it made sense to just stay there. One of Gordy's good friends grew up in Eureka, and so he asked him what we should do while we were there. He told us not to miss Sequoia Park. And he was right. It's something we never would have known about otherwise, but it was so amazing. We started out at the playground, which was pretty cool in and of itself because the play equipment is built right into the giant trees, but then we went into the forest part of the park, and it seemed like we'd been transported to another world. The one mile loop showcased ferns and flowers, a small waterfall, a little pond, and, of course, trees. It was quiet and uncrowded, and more than any other place on the trip, I felt like I was in an outdoor cathedral.

Finding creatures
No matter where we went, beach or forest, my kids were on the lookout for bugs or reptiles or animals. They were both patient and thorough, and their efforts were often, but not always, rewarded. (Max was quite disappointed when we were in Fern Canyon (a beautiful hike through little streams with ferns covering the canyon walls) because he'd heard mention that there might be red tree frogs, and he was determined not to leave until he found one--but he never did.) This trip seemed to be designed for boys just like mine because there was never any shortage of things to explore.

Eureka boat tour
We went on a 75-minute tour on a hundred year old boat around the harbor. It was fairly cold and windy, and it wasn't all that beautiful (but it did help explain some of the things we'd been noticing about the city of Eureka, which has a distinctly hippie/redneck vibe to it), but it was very different from anything else we did on the trip, and for that reason alone, it was a highlight (and we also really enjoyed the all-female crew).


A night out
While we were in Eureka, Gordy/Brooke and Mike/I swapped babysitting so each couple could go on a date. Gordy and Brooke went out the first night, and when they got home, Gordy asked, "How much could we pay you to let us go out again tomorrow night?" But no amount of money would have been enough because there's just something about being on vacation with your kids but going out and doing something without them. It's absolutely rejuvenating. When it was our turn, we did a bit of restaurant hopping, ending with ice cream and hot chocolate, which would have made our kids insanely jealous.

 Horseback riding
Before we even left on our trip, we knew that Day 7 was going to be the worst. It was tied with another day for the longest driving time (10+ hours), but it was at the end of the trip when we were all getting a little tired of the car. Luckily though, it had a bright spot at the end of it. Mike's cousin, Katie, lives on a ranch outside of Winnemucca, Nevada with her husband and four sons, and throughout the whole miserable day of driving, we kept saying, "But you'll get to run around and play and ride horses at the end of it!" And it was truly a sweet reward. Katie has always been one of my favorite people because she is so kind and makes you feel like you're her favorite person. We loved spending a couple of hours with them and my boys were a little in awe of her boys who are true cowboys (but not so in awe that they didn't get in some good running and wrestling).

Before we left on this trip, I wondered if it would be worth it (and indeed, the day before we left, I threatened to call the whole thing off because I was getting a lot more complaining from my kids than helping). But it totally was. And out of all the places we could have gone, I somehow think this was the most perfect place we could have gone for the stage of life we're in right now. 

Review x 3: The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, Jack, and Meet the Austins

Aug 5, 2017

Earlier this week, I wrote a few brief thoughts about each of the books I've read so far this year. It irritated me to not be able to link to some of the reviews (because they hadn't been written yet), so I'm remedying that this week.

1. The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt
First up, the silliest book out of the three. In my one-sentence summary, I described Nanny Piggins as "the most unorthodox of nannies," and she is that. For one, she's a pig babysitting human children, so there's the mayhem you might expect from crossing over cultures and, um, species. She enjoys eating (especially chocolate), getting dirty, and skipping school to go on adventures. She has absolutely zero regard for money, and, oh, did I mention she used to be part of a circus?

As you might expect, the children (Derrick, Samantha, and Michael Green) think she is the best nanny ever; their father (if you can even call him that--he never demonstrates even a smidge of parental affection) can't stand her, but she's cheap, the cheapest nanny he's ever had, so he keeps her.

The story is wildly funny and entertaining. I bookmarked a few of my favorite lines so I could give you a little taste of the humor:
After being disqualified from a self-portrait competition: "'But that's pigism,' bellowed Nanny Piggins. She was really cross now. 'How dare you stand up there and be piggist? In front of children too. You should be ashamed of yourself.'"

After getting stranded in a boat in the middle of a downpour: "'Ahnyong,' Nanny Piggins called up to the two men. (This is how you say 'hello' in Korean.) Nanny Piggins may never have been to the seaside but she had spent many long nights playing backgammon with two Korean trapeze artists. And they had taught her enough Korean to buy a chicken, rent a motorbike, tell someone to be quiet in the cinema, and all the other things essential for day-to-day life."

While trying to come up with a plan so Nanny Piggins won't have to return to the circus: "'I once had myself fired through an open window at the cinema just so I wouldn't have to pay for the ticket,' confessed Nanny Piggins.
'Oh gosh!' said Samantha.
'I know. I'm not proud of it,' admitted Nanny Piggins. 'Although I am proud of my landing. I did a perfect somersault into an empty seat in the middle of the back row. I didn't disturb anyone, unlike those people who actually walk in front of people to get to their seats.'
'What are we going to do about the Ringmaster?' asked Derrick.
'Don't worry,' said Nanny Piggins. 'I have a plan.'
'Already?' exclaimed Michael, deeply impressed.
'Oh yes,' said Nanny Piggins. 'I can regale people with anecdotes from my sordid past and think at the same time.'"
The author also occasionally breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, which I am always a fan of and which instantly increases the humor for me. The only negative thing about the book is that Nanny Piggins is downright naughty at times, and, well, if you don't appreciate the "responsible" adult being the naughtiest one in the book, this story might not be for you. For all others, it's quite the ride.

2. Jack: the True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk by Liesl Shurtliff
A few years ago, Aaron and I met Liesl Shurtliff when she was in Salt Lake City for a book signing (for this book). At the time, we were in the middle of her first book, Rump, and so we bought Jack so we could read it when we were done. And we just now finally got to it.

Jack is not an easy child to parent. He's not bad per se, but he still gets into a fair amount of trouble and likes to mercilessly tease his little sister. His mother doesn't know what to do with him. Then one day, his entire village, including his father, is swept up into the sky. Jack witnesses the whole thing: great booms coming from the sky, dirt falling from the clouds, and giants dropping down to earth. But his mother doesn't see it and thinks it is just another one of his far-fetched stories, which she doesn't appreciate at a tragic time like this. But Jack knows better, and he is desperate to get up to the land of the giants and save his father.

My kids absolutely loved this book. Jack is adventurous and brave and loyal, and, as I said with Rump, it was nice to read a fairy tale retelling with a boy protagonist.

For my part, for whatever reason, the book felt long. I'm not sure what it was exactly because I thought the characters were great and the retelling was clever, but it felt tedious to read out loud. Instead of being anxious to return to it each day and willingly agreeing to read "just one more chapter," I found myself looking for excuses to cut our reading time a little short.

I think what it comes down to is that my kids love a good story, and I love good writing. I love to read aloud books where it is a pleasure to say the sentences out loud because they're so well-crafted. That makes it sound like this one isn't well written, which isn't true. The writing is perfectly fine; it doesn't draw attention to itself in a bad way; it just doesn't sparkle. And I think I noticed it more in this book because it was a little bit longer than some of the books we've read recently, and I was ready to move on before it was over.

But enough of that. My kids had no such reservations about it. They loved it from beginning to end, and after it was over, Max asked me to get the third one for him (the true story of Little Red Riding Hood) as a summer reading program prize. Which I happily did. 

3. Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle
It's dangerous for me to listen to the What Should I Read Next podcast because even when I'm not  asking that question, I almost always come away with books I feel compelled to read right that second. A few months ago, one of her guests, Carolyn McCready, listed A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle as one of the books she loves. She and Anne talked about how much they love Madeleine L'Engle and about how she was such a prolific writer but readers don't always go beyond the Wrinkle in Time series. I certainly never did (in fact, I think I never read more than the first one in that series because, you know, sci-fi). But A Ring of Endless Light sounded different--like it was about a typical girl in a typical family, which was exactly the kind of series I would have loved as a teenager. I really wanted to read A Ring of Endless Light, but it's the fourth in the series, and I thought I better start with the first one.

It's narrated by 12-year-old Vicky Austin. First-person novels can be a bit hit and miss for me because sometimes the narrator is just a touch too witty or clever, and I just can't buy it that anyone would talk or think like that in real life (unless they're British--I'll believe anything if they're British). But in this case, Vicky's voice was natural and authentic (read: not always eloquent but charming in its own right . . . and very convincing).

Her family lives in a small town where her father is the community doctor and her mother is a homemaker. She has one older brother and also a younger sister and brother. Early on in the story, her parents take in 10-year-old Maggie after her father is tragically killed in a plane crash. Maggie has been spoiled all her life, a trait which, compounded with grief, makes her extremely difficult to live with. At first everyone in the family grits their teeth while silently hoping Maggie's grandfather will take her away soon, but after awhile other events, both happy and sad, bring them all together and make Maggie feel like a real part of the family.

It had a very similar feel to some of my other favorite books when I was a teenager: the Melendy quartet by Elizabeth Enright, the Beany Malone series by Lenora Mattingly Weber, and the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Just a sweet, functional family with normal ups and downs, a few sibling squabbles, and a general feeling of contentment. Now my only problem is going to be finding time for the second and third in this series so I can actually read the book I set out to in the first place.
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