Green dragon sculpture with long whiskers

The Beast Part II

There must have been a spotlight that reveled the location of my beastly nemesis.

A special light only beast tamers who prowl the streets of the Old Quarter in Hoi An, Vietnam can see.

Mackenzie and I had just exited a cultural show.  We stood on the curb laughing and discussing what we had just seen.

Suddenly, like magic a short woman appeared before me, thread in hand.

“Only 20,000 Dong very, very cheap. I make you look 10 years younger”

Shocked at the sudden invasion of my personal space, I stepped back only to be met with a wall of  tourists spilling out behind me in what seemed like the hundreds.  Most of them stopping to see what this lady was saying and trying to do. I became the encore show.

She was quick with that thread, there it was traveling along my chin with such deft, such incredible speed.

“Oh! So many long hair! I do this one for free” she shrieked.

Confused, I thought, “what is she doing?”

Then I felt the beast rip from my skin. How did it come back so fast? How many ARE there??

Now swarmed with onlookers, I felt heat flood to my face; sure I was turning as red as the string of cloth lanterns that hung above my head.

I tried to get away, I tried to run but she was quick on her feet. She had caught me in her threading web.

There was nothing to do but succumb.

So long, and thanks for all the laughs

I received a text from one of my sisters the other day that my grandmother was in the hospital and the prognosis didn’t look good. We were all laying on a bed in the highlands of Peru, exhausted from a long day of hiking when it came. I read the text to Amy and the kids and watched as my own feelings were reflected back to me: worry in Amy’s eyes, sadness in Quinn’s and confusion in Mackenzie’s.  Amy and I shared how the myeloma she had been diagnosed with had taken a turn for the worse and she was refusing life support.  Mackenzie immediately asked, “why would Yaya refuse a ventilator?”

We explained that sometimes people reach a point where they are at peace with shirley-weddingtheir life and the challenge and pain of treatment may not be the option they feel best for themselves.  We reminded Mackenzie that Mutti and Padaddy (great grandparents from Amy’s side) had made similar decisions at a comparable point of their lives. It was a reassurance to them both that Yaya’s choice to let come what may is a powerful one that brings her peace.  Ultimately, we all found solace in the thought that when she passes, she will always be with us, in our hearts and in our memories, helping us when we need her special brand of wisdom or guidance.

Later, after the children went to bed, Amy and I had a long discussion about what this meant for us and what we might do. This is one of the hardest parts of our decision to travel, knowing that moments like this might happen. Ultimately we decided that should this be the end, we wouldn’t return for a service. To me, a service is an opportunity to fortify those spaces in our hearts and minds that hold a piece of her. I lament that I won’t be able to share that with my family and friends directly. Instead, Amy and I chose to have a remembrance ceremony at Machu Picchu with the girls. It was a difficult decision, but one we felt Shirley would support. Throughout the lead up to and after our departure she has been one of our biggest cheerleaders, applauding us for having courage to face this journey with all its joys and even its sorrows.

My grandmother was a wonderful woman in many ways, but she was never a typical grandmother. Perhaps that is what made her so special to me and many others. Certainly she was loving and caring, those are great hallmarks of her life.  However, I can’t say that growing up I was ever especially close to her. She wasn’t the type of grandma that I went to for solace or attention in the way that grandchildren might do. But I imagine for even my sister, who was much closer to her, the relationship wasn’t typical. How could it be when you call your grandmother by her first name?

She was always Shirley to me. Never Grandma, Gammy, Yaya or any other name with which you might identify a grandmother. In part this symbolized much of our interaction when I was young.  She didn’t treat me as a child, rather a person who just happened to be her grandchild.  At first glance you might think that would be a terrible thing, but it wasn’t. We had discussions about life, spirituality, society, the future and more that never would have fit in the typical grandmother/grandchild box.  She was never afraid to broach any topic with me and always valued my opinion even if I lacked the equal experience or perspective she had. This is how she treated everyone, no matter the person or their history.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson said: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ May I try each day to always look within to the love, the non judgement, the compassion to finding peace. The world has many differing opinions on all things… me to see everyone as my brothers.” – Shirley B. Martin

The thing I will remember most about her is her humor. Many would say her humor was not always appropriate, but it never failed to hit the mark. A shining example of her humor was when one Thanksgiving, while I was in college, I had brought some friends to my house shirleyfor dinner. After politely asking one of my friends to pass the potatoes, she asked everyone to share how old they were at “their first sexual encounter!” Needless to say, the subtle nervous tension a stranger feels in an unfamiliar situation was stripped away in that one move.  Many around the table laughed, some feigned mock surprise that she would say such a thing and others immediately supplied the requested info.  In one stroke she changed the entire dynamic of the night.

“I find that humor is a wonderful tool for reaching people…true, loving humor. Sometimes I smile when alone at some funny, ridiculous thing about myself. And truth be known, I can find many funny, ridiculous things about me!” – Shirley B. Martin

Shirley cared deeply for her family and the people around her.  She understood that life is a beautiful fragile thing that must be tended.  While exploring Machu Picchu I was reminded that nothing lasts forever.  A small geranium was growing through a 600 year old wall. One day a flower just like that may cause the wall to crumble. At that moment I chose to make that day a celebration of her life rather than a day of sorrow. A day to marvel at the at the sacred place with a mind and heart she helped to shape.Shirley-flower

Thank you Shirley for all you ever were and all you ever weren’t.

hot peppers

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 2

As one of our servers described, as a Costa Rican, he prefers milder food and isn’t very adventurous when he eats out in his home country or when traveling.  I am not sure if this is the reason that the food tends to feature few spices other than a bit of salt and the occasional pepper, but in general eating in Costa Rica was at times very disappointing and often a tad bland.  Our best bets were the restaurants that featured foreign cuisine or interestingly vegan/vegetarian cuisine. See below for more details about our dining adventures.


It was also very expensive on the whole.  We often kept costs of eating out low at most one drink each and we typically had the girls share a small side dish (papas fritas or patacones) along with one main dish.

Homemade patacones!

Kid’s menus are not typical in these areas and the amount of food was generally more than enough for our girls. Even with these tactics we averaged $43.34/meal when eating out.  If you ignore some of the anomalies, like the time we only had fries and four cokes, the total pushes nearly $50/meal to dine at a restaurant.

Recapping these numbers makes me miss our tiny kitchen in our cabina in Punta Uva.  A couple of days before we departed, they replaced our little burners with a small gas range.  With an oven, we could have been a tad more creative in our own home cooking and would have saved homemade casadoeven more.  As it was, we really did fantastic eating at home. Shopping nearly daily for just what we needed and using almost every bit of it went a long way to keeping our costs down.  On average, we spent $8.89/meal.  This included the cost of buying our water every day, a variety of snacks, a small cache of salt and spices and a few storage helpers to allow us to save leftovers in the fridge more easily.

I will post final budget numbers for Costa Rica after our last day there (we return for a day before flying to Perú), but here are some other numbers that might interest you:

  • Snacks/Fruit when out and about: $24.76 for the month (this is by no means all snacks…with two kids that snack constantly this just represents the times we bought things other than at the market)
  • Ice Cream on hot days: $35.45 for the month, about $9-10 for the four of us to indulge a bit.
  • Pipas frias (cold coconuts): $1.50-$2.50 each depending on vendor.
  • Total daily spent on food: $38.18
  • About $13/meal for a family of four. If your kids are older it will likely be higher.
Place Notes Total
Selvin’s Terrible food…the place itself was amazing. Cool lights, beautiful wood tables and chairs and tucked into the jungle just off the main road. Sadly the service was severely lacking. We have come to expect a slower pace than typical in the USA, but this stretched our patience. Then our food finally came…my steak was gristly and cooked poorly, chicken was dry and over-cooked, and the sauce was a salt bomb. The kids had the Sea Bass and this actually was very nicely cooked, but Mackenzie complained it was too lemony. I would say if you do find yourself here, stick with the seafood and avoid the Caribbean sauce. $60.57
Alice Ice Cream Bar Ice cream was very nice and the family running it is very friendly. An expat couple from New York provided great information about the Puerto Viejo area and a few words of advice about our next foray to Panama. As an added bonus, their 8 year old son asked Mack to play soccer with him. Amazing what 30 minutes kicking a ball (especially being allowed to do it in an unused corner of the restaurant) does for connecting two kids 🙂 $11.73
Bri Bri As Amy previously mentioned, we took a trip into an indigenous reserve to visit the Bri Bri people. As part of this a family shared a traditional homemade meal with us consisting of stewed fruits, vegetables and poultry of some sort. This concoction was served in a banana leaf bowl (a tad challenging to manage for the uninitiated) and a coconut cup with a lemony water. After we finished our meal, we sampled fresh handmade chocolates. This included a sample of the raw cacao fruit, a cluster of nuts covered in a slimy white flesh that tasted like jolly ranchers, and eating a fresh roasted cacao nut. Later we were also treated to a traditional hot cacao drink.  Delicious! N/A (Part of larger package)
Maxi’s This Caribbean style soda just off the beach in Manzanillo was a gem.  The food isn’t necessarily all that special, but coupled with the view and friendly staff it was very nice. It was recommended by many of our friends and family that had visited the area in years past. Reggae is thumping and the restaurant upstairs features great views of the water. The chicken was well cooked, with savory seasoning and a tasty side of rice and beans, plantains and cabbage salad. The fish version was ok, the fish was nicely cooked, but wasn’t a great fit with the rice and beans. The girls however loved their arroz con pollo! $56.30
Como en mi Casa A fantastic accident! I was first made aware of this locale by our Spanish teacher Matías and it caused me a bit of confusion. I had asked him if we could maybe have a lesson somewhere besides my kitchen and he suggested that we could go someplace…como en mi casa! I mistook that to mean “like my house” instead of the name of a restaurant. The menu is simple and features vegan, gluten free and vegetarian cuisine. The baked goods were fantastic, the organic local produce was amazing and the preparation was perfect. My Gallo Pinto featured perfectly fried eggs, flavorful rice and beans, fresh fruit and a delightful semi-hard cheese. Amy chose the Mediterranean sandwich and enjoyed every bite. The girls split the hummus snack and goat cheese platter (both of which I sampled). The staff is friendly and the owner brought the girls two organic gluten free chocolate cookies. When asked if the owner was nice, Mack replied, “Yes, cause she didn’t ask you first if we could have a cookie!” $34.29
Wandha We were stuck…last night in town, no food in our fridge and only a credit card to pay for dinner. After multiple strikeouts (no reservation, no we don’t take credit cards, no we are closed) we wound up at Wandha, a restaurant attached to Hotel Shawandha in the area of Punta Uva. This was a budget buster! they featured a kids platter of spaghetti bolognese that included a drink for $10 a plate. My corsair shrimp dish was tasty with a nicely spiced coconut curry and Amy’s steamed white fish was tasty and well prepared. Amy had a nice glass of wine and we shared a fantastic desert of chocolate mousse with ginger sorbet. The service was fantastic and the atmosphere was nice. A great place, but very expensive for anyone on a budget. $95.24

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 1

Eating in Costa Rica has been an adventure all its own.  Our cabina is equipped with a small outdoor kitchen.  We have a nice size fridge/freezer, small microwave, toaster, coffee pot and a two-burner stove. No oven, no dishwasher and generally poor lighting conditions at night.  Despite these challenges we have really done very well at preparing our own food.  We tend to buy enough food for a couple of days, keeping our fruits and veggies fresh and processed foods to a minimum.

Food prices in Costa Rica are generally comparable to those you would find in the US.  A loaf of non-white bread is about $2.50, eggs are about $3.50 for a carton of 15 free range eggs, $1 for a dozen tortillas and $1.50 for a 2 lbs bag of black beans.  Perhaps unexpectedly, local fruits are fairly inexpensive: about $1.50-$2 for the best pineapple ever, 60 cents for an avocado, and less than $1 for a large bunch of bananas.  Other items are extremely costly: Beer is $8-9 per six-pack (local beer only)*, cheese is $8-10/lb, and $6 for a small jar of peanut butter.  Additionally, we happen to be staying in the one region of Costa Rica where the tap water is not safe to drink.  We mitigate this cost by buying a large 19 L jug of water every 2 days for about $6 (smaller 6 L jugs are about $4-5 each).  We have found juice and yogurt to be VERY sugary (although the box says 100% juice, I’m not sure I believe it)

Eating out is even more expensive.  This is no different than at home…we often struggled with the work/life balance in this area.  Too exhausted after work, school and activities, we often ate out.  My middle certainly suffered the ill effects and so did our savings.  Here in Costa Rica, we haven’t indulged too much.  The costs are similar to what we payed in Colorado for a dinner for four (so far an average of about $35 per meal).  The difference is that now we are on an extremely tight budget: if we want to eat out, an excursion or event is likely out of the question or must be scaled back. Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “why did they have to go to Costa Rica to discover that?  I live it every day!” We were certainly blessed to not have this be an overwhelming concern in the States, but looking back we can see how this impacted us even beyond the obvious costs.

Here in Costa Rica we have found a much better paradigm.  Amy and I now cook together…what used to be a debate is now a partnership.  We clean up after each meal together too, otherwise we pay the price of a million fruit flies, ants and wasps in the morning.  We often cook simple food for dinner such as our version of Casado (rice and beans with some form of protein) or pasta, fresh fruits and veggies.  Lunches are generally sandwiches with more fruit and breakfast is cereal and/or eggs.  One of my favorites is taking the leftover rice and beans from the night before and frying an egg to break over the top of it.  Our kids have taken to this new mode too.  They are constantly “starving” (snack foods are crazy expensive) so they have been willing to try many new things.  Fresh made guacamole, various rice and bean concoctions and squash casserole are just of few of the former “gross” foods they now trying and generally loving.


Place Notes Total
Pita Bonita This place was worth every penny. It is a hundred meters down the road from us in Punta Uva. Amazing fresh hummus, great falafel and spectacular kabob accompanied by super fresh pita bread that I couldn’t stop eating. The owner, Elan, is an Israeli expat who moved to the area for a new way of life. He was very helpful and friendly. $50.00
Jungle Love The ambiance was fantastic (except for Mack throwing a pouting fest that resulted in her spilling her very full banana batido, a fresh fruit “shake”, all over the table). We were tired and all a little out of sorts. We had been in Punta Uva about a week by this time and needed a bit of comfort food so we decided that it was a great pizza night. The pizza was fair, but having had many amazing pies and slices over the years I may be a bit slanted. For me, the sauce was a tad sweet and the crust was a little too biscuit-like. The toppings were fantastic: fresh garlic, sautéed spinach, delicious mushrooms and a slightly spicy sausage were a winning combination. We ordered a large and a medium pizza and had enough leftovers for a nice lunch (although reheating pizza without oven is a challenge). $42.74
Pan Pay This bakery and restaurant was recommended by our Spanish teacher. It is located near the beach in Puerto Viejo on the north end of town. The place was small and the server was impatient with our lack of Spanish. It might have just been the woman helping us as others appeared very friendly. The girls loved the Batidos here and my Pinto Gallo with Tocineta (rice and beans mixed with bacon and eggs) was awesome. The girls had Bocadillos with Queso and Tocineta. Not bad, but not amazing. $19.81
Soda Chino A Chinese influenced soda in Limón. This place served chop suey alongside the traditional casados popular in sodas across Costa Rica. We only had fries and four cokes…don’t think the food would have been great based on what we saw. $10.67
Wok and Roll We took a drive to Turrialba, a mountain valley dominated by an active volcano. It was cloudy, so the only eruptions we saw came from the backseat as Quinn was carsick multiple times on the winding mountain roads (she started the day in a dress, upon arrival in Turrialba she changed into pants and a t-shirt purchased in town, ended the day naked, poor girl). We chose an eatery featuring Chinese food because Mackenzie likes it so much. It was a pretty good option, with nice kid friendly dishes and an amazingly friendly staff. Amy and I shared the Singapore Noodles (one of my favorites) and it was very well prepared. This was a pretty expensive place, but it is close to the main square. $40.00
Punta Mona Center
for Regenerative Design
& Botanical Studies
“An 85 acre off the grid, beach front, family owned,
environmental education center,
botanical collection, permaculture farm
and eco-lodge, dedicated to regenerative ways of living.” The vegan fair was amazing, a squash dish with hearts of palm, garlic, coconut milk and coconut oil; Kale and lentils with savory mushrooms; fried plantains with guacamole. Amy and I enjoyed it immensely and it was about $10 per person. I am not sure if you can arrange to simply eat there on your own, but our tour guide Omar arranged the lunch for us after a kayaking tour.

*A former colleague of mine was certain I was crazy for going on a trip where alcohol may be out of the question because it is such a budget buster.  She suggested that I mitigate the cost by forming a GoFundMe. Well Mindie, here it is: Buy me a Beer

Letting it go…

One of the questions that many people ask us is, “what about your stuff?”  It is a curiosity for some and a critical question for others.  When we tell them that we are letting it go, we often get a look of uncertainty. I imagine that their uncertainty comes mainly from two perspectives: 1) they are uncertain that we made a wise choice, and 2) they are uncertain of what that really means.  When we say we are letting it go, we mean that we either sold, gave away, donated or sadly trashed the large majority of the things that we owned.

For those of you thinking we are crazy 🙂 I will assure you that we kept a few things.

  • Our Subaru – originally I had planned to sell that car in Houston or Austin, but Amy convinced me to keep it.  Amy’s parents generously offered to keep it and manage it for us while we are gone.
  • Photos, valuable books, our camping gear, small family heirlooms and any clothes that weren’t at the end of their useful life already – these items went mainly into Amy’s sister’s basement in a stack about 6’x6’x6′.
  •  A few kitchen necessities – things like a few knives, a pot and pan, and a couple other small implements. These also went into the same stack in our sister’s basement.
  • The kids furniture – my mother just bought a new house and has put this into a kids room there. Assuming we don’t end up living in a yurt when we come back we will likely retrieve them.

This is also probably the part that is the hardest for many to come to terms with. Often the next question is, “Won’t you need all that other stuff when you get back?”  This is a tough one for sure…the simple answer is maybe.  Do I really need a garlic press, three types of blenders, two types of mixers or a myriad of ultra specialized things? Perhaps we will come back and repurchase all that and more, but I think the reality might be somewhere in between.  Our life was a constant press to acquire more and more things that took up more and more space. And the more space we had, the more time it was taking to not only manage the space (mow, trim, garden, paint, repair, remodel, clean, etc.), but also to pay for it all (more time at work). It is somewhat ironic that we then buy more stuff in an effort to make the added tasks easier and less time consuming. In fact, Amy and I were considering buying a bigger house this spring when we realized we were simply perpetuating a vicious cycle.  Worse, we felt like we may have been inadvertently teaching our kids to place too much value on the material things in our lives.

Now I am not saying that getting rid of everything is the only solution to this problem, nor does one need to travel the world for a year. For us however, it felt like a way to break the cycle and truly take a new approach in our lives. As Amy likes to put it, “we are hitting the reset button.”  Step one, remove the material constraints that were inhibiting us from taking this leap. Step two, take advantage of the time and the newly freed resources to explore more of what is out there.  At minimum we have a fairly unique experience to look back on and hopefully find new opportunities with our changed perspective.  As an added bonus (except when the four of us are all piled into one bed) we get to spend some serious quality time together.

As we travelled from the Front Range, we slowly discarded a few more items. Some old clothes we had brought for camping, a box of toys and kids books given to a nephew, an old tent on its last leg, and some car ride friendly kids activities.  Our original plan had us getting down to two large backpacks for Amy and I, two small packs for the kids and two small carry-on packs for Amy and I.  For the kids education and support we chose to add a bag late in the game and are now carrying a small duffel (carry-on size) filled with school workbooks and some school supplies.  I am still hopeful we can shed a few more items in the future to lighten our load, for as of now we are packed to the brim.  Sherry asked us if we would like her selfie stick to take with us as we left Tucson…I told her no, “it would mean getting rid of underwear at this point.”

When we were in Phoenix I made one more leap in letting it go: I buzzed my hair for the first time.  I had been thinning for years and much like the other things in my life I couldn’t let it go.  But I felt like it was time, this shaving would be a symbol for me of the transformation we were about to undergo.  It is taking some getting used to, but I think it was the right decision. See for yourself:

Photo of Carlsbad Cavern Big Room

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad was a juxtaposition in many ways.  Peaceful moments and natural beauty one minute, sulfur fumes, gas rigs and roaring trucks the next.  Despite the incongruity of the place, it provided one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  At first, I would have said the Carlsbad Caverns would be the highlight of this trip, but instead it was one of the residents of the cave that proved to be the top experience.

Amy’s lingering injury kept her out of commission again…wePhoto of prayer flags on Amy's scenic drive love to hike and explore and planned many of the activities on this road trip around outdoor excursions.  She spent the afternoon driving through the highland desert.  It was a wet and cloudy day, but given that she wouldn’t be hiking, the drive was probably an ideal way to have some fun while the girls and I went into the cavern.

I was both sad and excited for the day.  On one hand, Amy couldn’t join us for the trek down into and through the Big Room in the cavern.  I know how frustrating this experience has been for her and that she was feeling down about what this would mean for the trip.  On the other, I would get to see a truly amazing place and learn about the caverns with Mack and Quinn.  I have spent a lot of time over the last several years working full time and finishing my master’s degrees.  Consequently I haven’t had much time where just the girls and I do something together, so a moment like this was priceless.

The girls and I spent a little time exploring the museum in the visitors center.  It was a great way to learn about Photo of Carlsbad Cavern Big Roomhow the caverns were formed and how to identify specific features we would see below.  The cavern is a very reasonable $10 for adults and is free for children under 16.   If you get there early enough you can enter
through the natural entrance.  This winding path descends 750 feet below the surface and is likely considered a fairly strenuous effort for the average person.  For the less adventurous (or late arrivers like ourselves) there is an elevator that descends the distance in a matter of minutes.

Entering the cave is truly a one of a kind experience.  There is an earthy smell, the temperatures are a balmy 55° F, the lighting (by design and by nature) is dim and there is a strange silence.  It is like Big Room cavern in Carlsbadyou are stepping out of time into a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Perhaps even more awe-inspiring was that it had the
same effect on the kids.  They were sticklers for the rules, keeping their hands far from the formations, their voices down to a whisper and stuck close to me through nearly the entire cavern.

We wound our way through massive stalagmites and ducked under dangerous looking stalactites.  Marveled at the “cave popcorn” thatPhoto of Carlsbad Cavern Big Room covered many of the walls and formations.   The girls were so enthralled by what we were seeing, that they even requested to listen to the audio tour I purchased (a mere $5).  In an effort to help them remember some of what they learned, I asked them to identify two interesting facts about the caverns to share with Amy.

Photographing in the caverns was a real challenge.  The lighting in was designed by a professional set lighting specialist to

Big Room cavern in Carlsbad
A hidden pool

increase the dramatic effect of the formations.  It allows you to appreciate the beauty of the room while maintaining some perspective of what it would be like for a caver who was exploring with little more than a headlamp or lantern and some rope.  However, the dim light and wide open expanses creates a nearly impossible situation for photography.  Photos are either blurry or the exposure is totally out of whack.  If you have a tripod, you would likely be able to take much better pictures than I was.

The most amazing event of all was actually one we couldn’t even photograph.  The cave is home to some 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats.  A small amphitheater sits at the top of the natural entrance to the cavern and allows you to sit to watch the bats exit for the night.  The park service hosts a ranger lead Q&A session to answer any questions you have about the bats, their habitat and their history with respect to the caverns.  In fact, it was actually the bats that lead Jim White to the discovery of the caverns.

For those with kids, this can prove to be a challenging operation.  You cannot use any electronic devices, cannot stand and generally must be as quiet as possible.  The wait for the bats to start exiting the cave can be anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.  There are even some horror stories about the bats not exiting the cave at all.  They are poor fliers and won’t exit if the conditions aren’t relatively calm or if you arrive toward the end of the season (sometime in October), you may be the lucky group that is waiting the day after the bats have begun migrating south for the winter.

After an hour of Q&A, our kids were starting to get more than a little restless and more than a little hungry.  I watched in fear as the clouds started gathering again and wondered if this would be one of those nights.  Amy and I kept exchanging glances, knowing that the clock was ticking.  As we were just about to reach the end of our rope and slink out of the amphitheater, the rustling wind started to emirate from the mouth of the cavern.  Seconds later the bats were flooding out and swirling up into the sky.  A smoky line began to extend far off into the darkening horizon as we watched in stunned silence.  I am not sure I can even do this event justice.  The sheer number of bats is overwhelming and it can take 2-3 hours for all the bats to exit for the night.  As the fog rolled over the highlands, we slowly gathered up our things and watched the bats trail past us on our walk back to the car.

Despite all the setbacks, the poor sleeping conditions and the horrendous weather, Carlsbad Caverns was a great destination for us.  I wouldn’t recommend spending much more than a day or two in the area, but even if you only saw the bat flight it would be an event you may never witness again.

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Arizona – Some like it hot

I am way overdue on this post…I have been struggling writing this post for weeks.  Not because we didn’t enjoy our time there, quite the contrary really, but more that there are a million ways I could have/should have gone with it.  IMG_1352Arizona has always been a special place for Amy and I.  It is not so much the place, but the people.  Let’s be honest, 9 months of the year it is hot as hell in Southern Arizona.  Driving in I was sure the soles of my shoes would melt to the pavement.

The drive south from Flagstaff is a slow descend into the Salt River Valley.   The landscape inevitably changes from pine forests, to high desert piñon forests, to the harsher lowland desert valley that dominates the area.  In addition to the change in scenery, you notice that every 1000 feet in elevation change is marked by not only a sign, but also a significant jump in the temperatures. At 7000 ft. the temp was about 82°F/28°C, 6000 ft. – 87°F/31°C, 5000 ft. – 90°F/32°C, 4000 ft. – 93°F/34°C, 3000 ft. – 97°F/36°C, 2000 ft. – 102°F/39°C…Phoenix is sometimes referred to as the Valley of the Sun and I began to wonder if people called it this because it is similar to standing on the surface of the sun.  At a little over 1000 ft, the temp hit 108°F/42°C (remember, this was early October).  

My Uncle Todd moved to Arizona many years ago to connect with the love of his life Sherry. In many ways I view Todd more as my brother than my uncle, but even that doesn’t properly describe our relationship.  Todd was my best man, he is one of my closest friends and he is family.  This closeness began long ago and was strengthened after I dropped out of high school.  I went to live with Todd in San Diego.  Todd was a bar manager at a downtown hotspot and got me a job as a busboy.  It was a transformative time in my life and it helped forge a bond with Todd that goes beyond uncle/nephew.

Once Todd moved to Tucson, I started visiting frequently.  One summer, after Amy and I started getting serious, I went to stay with them for a while.  My job was to paint their house (I probably didn’t do that great of a job) and then later Todd, Sherry and I would head to San Francisco together for the 4th of July.  It was a great trip and some of my favorite stories stretch back to that summer.  During that time Todd and Sherry got to know Amy (Amy here: I received a very funny phone call from Sherry while they were all together and immediately knew they would be people I would like) and they immediately approved.  Much like them, I am grateful for their support and excitement as we embark on this next year.

Arizona is also the location of the first major family event Amy attended with me.  There she met my Great Grandpa Brown, my Grandfather and it was also the first time she met Todd and Sherry in person.  We often travelled back to Tucson to visit and later Todd, Sherry, Amy and I took several trips together.  They were some of the most enjoyable travel experiences we had ever had.  Needless to say, Amy and I were very excited to head down to see not only them, but my wonderful cousin Colette and her growing family.  We arrived in Phoenix on Colette’s birthday and just barely missed seeing Todd and Sherry.  Thinking back, we didn’t do much on Colette’s birthday…I think the only gift we got her was watching Connor  so she could shower and nap (for all you non parents this ends up being all you really want when you have a baby). (Amy again: we gave her a bottle of wine from the Palisade Winefest)

Colette’s house was a godsend for us (except when the shower door exploded in my face).IMG_1192 Colette has learned well from her parents, she was a fantastic hostess and made us feel right at home.  We ate well, swam in her awesome pool, and played with the newest Martin/ Greenwalt: Connor.  This little guy was quite a treat and brought back many memories of time with our kids.  While we were there, he started the first stages of crawling, gave us a ton of great smiles and entertained the girls.

We did venture out of the house a few times, a visit to one of the many splash parks IMG_1345(great way to beat the heat), the art museum (good spot to teach the girls about Art History), spending some time at the local children’s museum, seeing the theatrical performance “Annie” (girls are still singing the songs weeks later) and visiting the Tucson Tamale Company (you have probably never had tamales like these, my favorite is the either the Tucson or the Green Corn).

Todd and I spent hours talking about opportunities and the possibilities that might be realized through this adventure Amy and I are making.  I love his eyes-open perspective; he is always looking for the positive side of a situation or adding humor to a moment that might be too serious otherwise.  Todd was also the barber who shaved my head and immediately after completing it he started talking about doing it too.  When Sherry asked him if he was serious, he said, “It’s either this or a tattoo!”  Two days later, I shaved his head for the first time in his adult life.  Now that is solidarity!test

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The bridge as we approach

Natural Bridges

This stop was really nice.  Mack and Quinn started to get into stride with school and I got a chance to bond with them outside of Amy.  The scenery was breathtaking and the weather was perfect. For me, this is excursion was an example of what I hope this year will bring for us.

We debated for hours where our next destination was going to be. In the end we chose Natural Bridges National Monument over Goblin State Park.  Goblin State Park was highly recommended and looks amazing, but given the drive to Phoenix afterwards and the state of Amy’s knees, we chose to head a bit further south to Natural Bridges.

We took a slight detour on the way into Moab (thanks Gwen!) that was spectacular!  It featured amazing valleys, bold red monuments

Fisher Tower Monument
Fisher Tower Monument

and incredible canyons along the Colorado River.  For lunch we stopped at Fisher Towers, these huge red stone structure rising from the desert floor were truly impressive. The girls thought they looked like giant castles or fortresses. The scene was straight out of a western and the beauty of Utah would only continue to amaze us from there.

Natural Bridges Features tons of camping for free in the BLM land near Bear Ears and Mule Valley just outside the National Park.  Given our lack of sleeping pads, sleeping bags and other key camping gear we chose to camp inside the park for a mere $10/night. The sites were a tad close together, but had some privacy provided by the junipers and pinyon pines.  Each site featured a nice sandy tent pad, fire grate and picnic table.  With a nearby vault toilet and water provided by the ranger station we pitched our tent and made a nest out of old blankets and a down comforter. Mack and I went back to the BLM land to gather firewood for the night.

Our first night was relatively warm and Amy and I enjoyed watching the stars for hours. The moon was nearly full, the shadows and silhouettes of the twisty trees made the area seem quite surreal. After enjoying a nice cold beer, Amy and I crammed into the tent with the girls. I had the brilliant idea that using our old oversize two-

our small tent
Here is where we slept…tiny, right?

man tent would be ideal, because we could simply donate it after our last night camping. Sadly I underestimated how big our girls had grown.  Not only was the space a two small, even sleeping head to toe, but the girls decided for the first time ever to ‘cuddle’ with me.  Quinn spent the night trying to crawl over my head to curl up like a giant kitten in the corner of the tent. Mack must have dreamt she was a judo champion, throwing elbows, knees and kicks into all night.  The result: Amy had half the tent to herself while I was trying to push myself through the tent wall.

It was all worth it in the end.  We woke early and worked on math and reading before heading into the park for lunch.  We ate at an overlook to the first of the three bridges in the park.   The girls crawled over all the rocks, learning about the ‘crusty dirt‘, lichen and about how the bridges were formed.

Amy joined the girls and I for a brief hike to an overlook into the canyon. Those short, fairly flat trail gave a view to an ancient Anasazi cliff dwelling. Although not as spectacular or as well preserved as Mesa Verde, it provided a great topic that was interesting to the girls: how did the people get up there and build that?

The hike, as short and flat as it was, proved too much for Amy’s knees. As we drove to the second bridge, Amy made the decision that anymore hiking was out of the question for her.  Her choice was only confirmed by the signage describing the one way trip:

Kachina Bridge Trail

length: 1.4 mi/2.3 km

elevation: 400 ft/122 m elev

time: 1 hour

The youngest of the parks bridges also features the steepest and deepest of all the trails.  So of course I selected this one for myself and the girls to descend!

Mack traversing the slope
Mack traversing the slope

The kids had a great time on the hike and I couldn’t be more proud. We saw a few adults who chose to turn back before reaching the bottom. At one corner  a man resting in some shade said, “are you

Quinn under the Arch
Quinn under the Arch

going all the way to the bottom? It is really scary!” At first I was irked that he would freak the girls out so close to the end, but later realized it was a good thing. The girls are seasoned Colorado hikers and the trail wasn’t really that extreme.once we safely reached the bottom the girls kept talking about why someone would be scared of this hike. They admitted it was tough, but that they were tougher 🙂

After 2 1/2 hours of hiking, exploring and snacking we finally crawled back out to the top of the canyon. We were all hit and dusty and were greeted  by an incredible sight as we turned the last corner: Amy holding a bag of sliced watermelon!

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Moving out and traveling on

Moving out is not as easy as I thought it would be.   My shoulder has been killing me and my stress level is at an all time high.  We are down to the final few days before we close on the house and I am seriously regretting not requesting a later closing/possession date.

This has been a tough three days and to complicate matters further, Amy’s knees are in bad shape.  They have swollen to nearly double their normal size and she can hardly move. On Friday, the reality of how much we had left to do started to sink in.  This isn’t going to be like when we moved to a new house.  This time we won’t have another house so all the loose ends must be tied up, they can’t just be thrown on the back of a moving truck to deal with later.  I knew we would figure this out, but it wasn’t going to be easy at all.

On Saturday, two close friends came by to pick up the couches they purchased.  Chris took one look around and said, “I hope you don’t have to be out today, cause you would be screwed!”  Thankfully we still had four more days at that point, but we weren’t far removed from being screwed.  My mom and Ben would be by soon to start helping move out the bedroom furniture that they purchased from us and the girls furniture that Ben made for them.  That would be a major piece for sure, but it wasn’t nearly enough.  After nearly seven hours of loading and unloading we still had more to do…they would have to return the next day to help get it done.

Needless to say, I slept poorly on Saturday night.  Despite my physical exhaustion I couldn’t help run through the list of all the unfinished items.  I kept wondering, how is this going to happen when Amy can hardly walk…Not to mention that if she is more seriously injured than tendonitis or bursitis it may have big impacts on our other plans.  As the morning dawned, Amy’s sister and nephew came over to help and so did my mother and Ben.  It turned into another long, exhausting day, but we made massive progress.  Progress to the point where my stress started to wane and I could actually sit down, enjoy a cheeseburger (albeit with no furniture other than lawn chairs) and watch the Bronco game.

This was an emotional weekend, often feeling physically beat down and mentally overwhelmed.  But it was a reminder of how important our friends and families are to us.  Without them, we would be nowhere near a point where we can finally say goodbye to our house and take this trip.  It is also a reminder that we will face some challenges during this adventure and that we won’t always have their immediate physical support to rely on in a pinch.  It is exciting and a little frightening at the same time to think about how we might overcome such times.