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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

St. Augustine Thanksgiving

After months of crossing our fingers hoping for COVID-19 to subside, we were able to slip through the peak "waves" of the virus long enough to meet as a family in St. Augustine, FL. The destination was chosen as compromise between a beach vacation, a venture to see new parts of America, with this, we got both! Accessible to everyone either by many hours of driving or the 45 minute away airport, our growing family of 14 all made it in one piece ready to hit the town as the tourists that we are. 

St. Augustine is in the northern part of the east coast of Florida, about an hour south of Jacksonville. It is touted as the "oldest city in the US", which is to say that it is the oldest, continuously inhabited European settlement in the lower 48. 
 
Each family arrived separately, so the Saturday before Thanksgiving was spent trying to figure out how to find each other while we waited for our condos to open. We drove directly to historic downtown from the airport to find my parents and brother. The center of downtown St. Augustine is an adorable pedestrian street surrounded by restaurants and shops and a full on, centuries old castle! Complete with cannons and lookouts, the Castillo de San Marcos was a delightful surprise of a place. The coquina walls are almost completely made of shells and remains of sea creatures. This protects it from the harshest of oceanfront elements and absorbs rather than repels cannonball fire. The Castillo was involved in a number of conflicts involving multiple world powers, but in 1933 it transferred ownership to the National Parks Department and serves as a tourist destination today. 

We had lots of fun stretching out our legs after a morning of travel, and took in some history along the way. They ask that you not climb on the cannons, we didn't see the sign until after Alex climbed on top for the photo. 

Enjoying the castle with family

We took a guided boat tour through St. Augustine Eco Tours where we had a 2-hour private tour that was suitable both for the youngest and most seasick prone of us all. We saw dolphins, birds, sailboats washed up from previous storms, and enjoyed seeing some of the city monuments without shoving through a crowd. 

These pelicans were everywhere! With the bonus of an oystercatcher on the right.

We were true tourists on this trip and went to the highly publicized St. Augustine Alligator Farm. There were so. very. many. ALLIGATORS! Different species, different sizes, enclosures with whole congregations of alligators! (That's the actual term for a group of alligators, who knew??). They had all kinds of birds and other animals too, it was a fun way to spend the afternoon! 


I don't remember this bird's name. But he was beautiful!

When we had seen all the dinosaur ancestors that we could handle, we met up for a beachfront lunch at The Beachcomber St. Augustine. This little spot was literally on the beach. We had to ask for a table on the patio so that we wouldn't end up with sand in our food. Graham did his best to bring the sand to us, and the sand kept him busy for a majority of our meal. Great food, great beer, fun spot that would have been a return trip if it had been just a little warmer the week we were there. 

We took the longest tour ever, 22 stops on a packed full trolley to all of the greatest (aka: oldest) sites in America. It was a "hop on, hop off" tour, but the cars were so full that we were too afraid to hop off for fear of not having space to hop back on before sundown. We were also fantastically underdressed for the weather. It was cold and windy and the sun kept us sane for the first half of the tour, but about halfway in the shadows took over and we were all shivering.  
We did take a tour through the oldest jail in the country with our outlaw guide, Bubbaloo. He was informative and ridiculous, perfect for tourists and children. The jail was the highlight of the tour, thanks to Uncle Chris who suggested that we go, and then paid our entrance fee. As you might expect in a tourist town, very little was free, so we didn't see the Fountain of Youth or tour the oldest schoolhouse, or experience the Colonial Experience. We were tapped out. And we were freezing. 

We did walk through the beautifully decorated town square, though we couldn't quite make it to sunset for the lights. 

The second gen adults snuck out for the most extravagant escape room out there. And we failed it by a thread.  

The best part of the trip was our stay at the Colony Reed Condos. Each family had their own 3-bedroom condo, but we could jump back and forth from room to room as if we were neighbors. They had a playground that was visible from all of our rooms and a boardwalk directly to the beach! These babies had so much fun!




The first day we made the incorrect assumption that the water was too cold for swimsuits. Oops.



We made the choice to forgo attempting to cook the biggest meal of the year in a rental kitchen and we ordered family style traditional turkey dinner from Ned's Southside Kitchen. As an added bonus, pickup was made via drive-through and couldn't have been easier. 

Our trip ended on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We stopped into town on our way to the airport and ate at Burger Buckets. It was good, though many of the menu items that caught our eyes were sold out. It was a very busy week for small businesses and some places just couldn't keep up. 
We had a great time, with great company. This year more than most, we are so thankful for the time we can spend with long distanced family. Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Salt Lake City 2021

After a positive COVID-19 test canceled our plans to meet in Savannah, Julie, Sarah and I quick pivoted and booked flights to Salt Lake City. We have a running list of cities that we would someday like to visit, and while Salt Lake City was nowhere near the top of that list, it shot to the top when we had to quickly change our plans. 

This city overdelivered! It is beautiful and unique, we were able to hike and explore and see a totally different area of the country. Just by happenstance, we were there for the height of the fall color season!

After parking at a closed nail salon, crossing our fingers that we wouldn't be towed, we checked in to our possibly-haunted AirBnB. Everything creaked, everywhere was dark, and there was a perfectly round pencil-width hole in the kitchen floor that looked into the story below. We covered the hole. 

The weekend centered around catching up on each others' lives and reminiscing the same stories that best friends tell over and over again. This was the first in person telling since we all had reached the next birthday milestone - our 40s!!

Our creepy little house had some perks. It was quiet (when we weren't creaking across the floors) and comfortable. Our morning run took us by many of the historic buildings in downtown Salt Lake City including an impressive public library (SLC doesn't mess around with their libraries),  The Leonardo museum and approximately 400 different places to eat. 

Sarah thought well enough ahead to rent a great, albeit, gigantic truck and chauffeured us all weekend. We were able to visit Park City, which is known for its incredible skiing but also has one of the cutest pedestrian streets I've ever seen. We visited on a cloudy, drizzly day, but when we could see the fall color and enjoy the view of being surrounded by mountains, it was really lovely. 

We also took this day to explore the Homestead Crater, a natural hot spring about halfway between SLC and Park City in a town appropriately named Midway. The Homestead Crater is on one side of the Homestead Resort. The Resort has built a convenient pathway to the crater, which I prefer to traversing down the center as was done in the past. The water is always over 90 degrees and even on a cold, drizzly day a human icicle like me enjoyed floating in the hot spring. 

The only thing lacking was a respectable changing area. We made due, and continued on our day. 



Julie suggested that we try an escape room in Park City, but the reservations were 100% full. Back in SLC however, we were able to get the last reservation of the night to the most bizarre and broken escape room I've ever tried. The host was 45 minutes late starting our reservation. A key part of the room had been accidentally taken home by the previous group. It was a hysterical disaster. 

The walk to the escape room from parking had these super cool stairs! Rainbow swirls! These are the faces of my best friends when they are forced to stop and take a picture.



Obviously, we had to take a closer look at the Great Salt Lake, so we self-explored Antelope Island. There are no antelope. It is not even an island. But all these little black dots far off on the dry grassland are wild buffalo, which are very cool to see, but as there are warning signs every quarter mile or so, definitely do not attempt to feed or pet them.  

According to the public radio broadcast tour, there used to be antelope on the island, but they left. The island is a peninsula until the rain/snow melt season happens and the shallowest strip of land is flooded over. 





We were more impressed by the way the lake changed it's look depending on the light, angle and location we were at. This is us with the lake in the background. Can you see it? It's that thin little strip of light above the yellow grass and below the blue mountains. It looks like you could walk right over it. The salt plays tricks on your eyes. There are also very few living things in the lake, again, too much salt. There are brine shrimp, which attract the birds - and there were lots of birds. 




Before our flights on the last day, we walked all around the capitol building and it's grounds. 

We found a fun mildly challenging 1.5 hour hike up the Living Room Trail. Parking was easy and it felt good to walk around land that was not Texas-flat. The trails were pretty wide and well marked, and I am pretty sure we made it to the top where some rocks have fallen in the shape of chairs, so it appears as though there is a natural "living room" lookout point at the end. This is the only time during the trip that I really felt the elevation. Coming from my sea level city to the ~4,200 ft elevation of SLC was fine, until I wanted to hike. I was properly winded a few times on the trail, though just enough to make me notice.  

This was an incredible, adventurous trip for this trio. In truth, everywhere is fun when you're with good friends. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

I Need Some Flowers For My Hair

My mom and my sister-in-law have bonded over all kinds of mutual interests, ziplining, skin care, and being willing to travel for the ones they love being just a few examples. So after 5 harrowing years of battling aggressive lymphoma, my mom and I talked about taking a trip together (the last time of which had occurred in the early 1990s) and specifically, going to San Francisco (which she hadn't done since the 1970s), and with the added bonus of Kyra and Ted living there it only made sense! A trip was born! 

Since that plan was hatched, we endured a global pandemic like no generation has ever seen before. My fingers were constantly crossed, hoping that the clouds would part and we would be able to take this long-planned and well-deserved trip. While the pandemic rages on, we were somehow able to slip through a window of time where no one had doctors appointments or scans or a positive COVID test to stop us. In October, we flew across the country to enjoy a weekend of sightseeing and great company.  
Ted and Kyra live in a great part of downtown San Francisco. There is food, shopping and beautiful skyline to be had at almost every turn - often within walking distance. It's this kind of downtown experience that Jon and I miss about living in Buenos Aires. This incredible view is from my morning run (to be honest, more like a walk/jog, San Fran is full of steep hills that just do not exist where I live in Texas). 

Kyra is a 5-star hostess! She made arrangements for fantastic dinners and short term rental cars when they were needed, and she knows the city like the back of her hand. Day 1: Muir Woods

Muir Woods is an old-growth forest of redwood trees about 40 minutes north of the city. There are paved paths for easy hiking through unbelievably gigantic trees. This national park is like something from another time. The trees are impossibly tall, incredibly wide, some have grown on slopes that have lead to felling the trees so that the complex root structures that they have. If a tree falls in this forest, even if no one is around to hear it, it most definitely makes a sound. 

We purposefully planned our trip to Muir Woods on a weekday, where we were more likely to get a parking pass (don't forget to book ahead!) and we did not have to battle any kind of tourist crowd. 



Me and mom, connecting with nature!

After getting in touch with the active side of nature, it's time to relax. Day 2: Napa Valley. 

Kyra was a master planner for Napa, booking a COVID-safe driver to stick with us all day and setting up wine tastings for us at beautiful, tasty vineyards.

We had a lovely tasting and heavy snacks at Flowers Vineyards and Winery. The view was gorgeous and the gardens were filled with flowers and hummingbirds, my favorite! The wines were very good, and the picnic style lunch was colorful and fun and served in a reusable wine crate!


Then we enjoyed a tasting at the family favorite Williams Selyem winery. That Russian River Valley Pinot is nothing to sneeze at!

Day 3: Tour Downtown!

We got on Segways!! Possibly the most fun form of transportation in a touring sense, all three of us mastered the Segway, even with the extreme hills of downtown San Francisco. And the San Francisco Electric Tour Company is the MOST colorful, fun little alley possible. Between the rainbow umbrellas, the giant butterfly mural and the balloon ceiling, this place had photo-ops written all over it. For safety purposes, our guide did all of the photo taking while we were on wheels. We were good, but no one wants to accidentally Segway into the bay for a great pic. 


PROFESSIONALS!

We ate outstanding food, drank incredible wine, and experienced the caution of California in the middle of a global pandemic. Unlike Texas, there is no dining indoors without a vaccine card and proof of ID in this state. We took a thorough tour of the biggest Sephora I've ever seen and were guided by the MascaraJunkie herself! I can finally replace all that makeup I bought when I was working in DC... before we got married... 14 years ago...

We had a perfect trip. The best company and lots of memorable, laughable moments. I certainly met some gentle people there. 

Monday, August 2, 2021

Ranch Life: Bandera, TX and Overnight Camp

Gretchen has attended overnight camp for a few years now, skipping 2020 when camp was canceled due to a global pandemic, but this was the first time that she attended a brand NEW camp located over 4.5 hours away from home. She gladly took the charter bus on the way there, but come time for camp pickup, we wanted to go and get her in person. 

So we turned it into a Texas state adventure with our friends the Northcuts, and we got more than we expected out of a VRBO rental house. 

We stayed at the Uno Mas Ranch in Bandera, TX in a great cabin large enough for 9 people to stay comfortably. There was a pool table, an outdoor kitchen and a whole lot of taxidermy hanging on the walls (and standing on the furniture, and serving as decoration). There was also several varieties of big game animals on the property. That little detail was not included in the VRBO description. 




I assumed that the curly-horned deer-goats that we passed on our way in were just a bizarre breed from the part of Texas that I have never visited. It turned out that they were ibex, which are native to any continent that doesn't contain the word "America". 

Then there were these larger-than-normal deer that came to the watering hole in front of our cabin each night around dinnertime. We observed, watched their herd behavior, but didn't think a whole lot of them, except that they were fun to watch. 

And then we were visited by a herd of wildebeests. They are definitely not usually found in Texas. Now this stay had more of the feel of an African safari. We were brought back to Texas by this truly awesome longhorn. This fella was the alpha for sure. Nobody messes with the longhorn. Not the wildebeests, not the humans. This was the lesson in animal behavior that none of us expected.




Then came time to pickup our first born! Camp OTX was incredible! Brand new, clean and spacious bunks, water slides and archery and gymnastics and crafts! It was so great to see this long-legged beauty come sprinting toward us after a week away!



She had a blast. Gretchen made new friends, tried new activities and has already decided that she wants to return for a 2-week stay next summer. Now we get to enjoy another night of ranch life with our family and friends watching the animals and swimming in the largest pool in Bandera County. Daddy perfected the oven-made s'mores (due to a burn notice, we were not able to have an outdoor campfire) and we enjoyed a beautiful evening with our little stair-step kids surrounded by wild animal noises.


As it turns out, this is a very common type of ranch in Texas. They bring in wild game to tourists that want to hunt and during hunting season these cabins are used for resting between hunts. We did not know this going in, and were excited and surprised by the animals, however the idea of killing them for fun makes me sad.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Last Day of School 2021

School is out for summer!! And while last year was a slow peter to the end, this year we were able to enjoy the full excitement of a whole school year complete and relish in the change of pace that comes when summer begins. 

Both Alex and Gretchen had great years academically. Both kids are avid readers and their ability and comprehension are exceptional for their ages. We saw nothing but "3"s and "A"s on their report cards are are so proud of their work in school.

While this school year was closer to normal than last year, parents were not permitted in the school and there were no in-person gatherings all year long. The Book Fairs, holiday parties, concerts, exhibitions and large school events of previous years didn't exist due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, so we were thankful to have Ms. Shockley as a first grade teacher for Alex - as we know her from teaching Gretchen in first grade. Most notably because not once during the entire year did Jon or I meet any of the kid's teachers in person.

Alex and his beloved 1st grade teacher

The last day of school brings with it the last day of school bus ambush. 


Firefighter Graham to the rescue!



We were so happy to see some friendly faces for the first time in a long time!

Water balloons on Daddy!!


Our big FIFTH grader now!


Graham's preschool had a make up day tacked on to the end of the year, so the first day of summer for big kids was the last day of school for little man. This unique combination of me and the two big kids being home lead us to try a not-so-little-kid-friendly activity. Indoor Rock Climbing.

It took a minute to get our bearings...
Just a few minutes in, and they were climbing high!


To new adventures, fun activities and tired kids. Let summer 2021 begin!!