Death Valley and Lone Pine

The roads to Death Valley from Vegas were surface roads, no interstates.  We drove through what felt like an endless expanse of desert wasteland.  (Maybe wasteland isn't the right word, but that's what it feels like to an east-coast girl who is used to seeing green - pretty much everywhere.)  As we neared the entrance to the park, we watched the temperature rise on our dashboard thermometer.  95, 96, 97, 98.  That was the high on October 10th.  We continued through the park gates to our first destination, a drive through the one-way Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  It was other-worldy (a term I would come to use a lot on the trip) as we drove through mountains of parched rock that rippled like windblown sand dunes.

Ready to really feel the heat, we parked at Zabriskie Point and walked to the top of the panoramic apex overlooking the incredibly unique Amargosa Range.  The views and sights were unlike anything I'd ever seen before and unlike anything I imagined I'd see in Death Valley.  I honestly expected a big park full of sand.  I had no idea how much "beautiful" we would find there.

(Can I tell you that the reason I love this photo is that Ben lent Abby his sunglasses so her eyes wouldn't hurt from the glare?)

As it turns out, 98 does feel hot, but not Georgia 98 hot.  I did not even sweat on the 1/4 mile trek up the hill.  If I walk outside to get my mail on a Georgia 98 day, I sweat before I get halfway to the mailbox.  The good news about Death Valley is that the function of sweating actually works.  When you perspire, it evaporates and your body gets cooled off.  Unfortunately, it sucks the moisture right off and out of your body so there's the prone-to-dehydration thing.  Can't win them all.

I thought a lot about pioneers and explorers on this trip.  I was creeped out on some of those roads, driving with every provision I needed in my van, knowing exactly what was ahead of us.  I cannot even fathom the wild, adventurous spirit of a people so bold to explore uncharted territory like Death Valley, California.  Shoot, I get nervous to go to a new McDonald's because it might not be like the other ones I'm more familiar with.  I'm pretty sure I'd have been the first to die of typhoid or get bit by a rattlesnake on one of those excursions back then.
It was, indeed, a full day at Death Valley -

As the sun started to set, the temperature seemed to plummet.  The car thermometer still read 89 degrees.  We were shocked as it felt almost cool outside.  We found some actual sand dunes and played on them until the sun had long since set, and we headed on our trek towards Mammoth Lakes across yet another mountain range at the end of a long day.

I was unprepared for the treachery of the road that we would be traversing between Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes.  Thankfully, Sam was at the wheel, and he is completely unafraid of anything.  (Now I know where our fearless children get their courage.  Lord knows it's not me!)  The first sign of civilization and a place to stop for dinner was a little town called Lone Pine in the valley between two mountain ranges, just a few miles due east of Mt. Whitney, which we could see on the horizon as we drove north.  The choices were slim - and despite having eaten at a Burger King for lunch, we found ourselves at a Carl's Jr for dinner.

It was 9pm (12am EST) and the whole crew was tired and hungry.  Sam went ahead in to order, while I collected everyone's shoes out in the van, emptied them of sand, and put them back on.  They had sand everywhere on their bodies.  Leah went to use the restroom and actually left a pile of sand on the bathroom floor that she'd been carrying around in her undies.  Twenty minutes, a potty break for everyone, and a few laps around the restaurant later, we still hadn't ordered.  We just stood there, staring blankly at a fast food menu that looked all too much the same as what we'd just eaten earlier in the day.  The sweet manager offered up a few specials.  Those sounded perfect.  We finally put our order in, requested a few water cups, and had a seat.  Our food came up, and we watched as the manager filled up our giant fries container, eyed our family, and then poured another entire extra scoop full of fries on the tray before bringing it out to us.  It was a super sweet gesture.  About ten minutes later, a different employee brought out a bag full of six, giant, soft chocolate chip cookies.  She handed them to me and said, "These are on the house."  I didn't know what to say, but I am pretty sure I at least said, "Thank you."

We were blown away by their generosity.  Then it hit me.  I wonder if they thought we were poor.  It took us 20 minutes to make a menu choice, and we only ordered after she told us about the specials.  We all drank water.  I don't even want to know what my hair looked like (for the majority of the trip, actually).  We literally had dirt coming out of our underwear.  Sam surmised that they just liked our family.  That might be true.  We are pretty likeable.  But it might also be true that they thought we were poor.  Whatever the reason, we trucked some chocolate chip cookies.

Carl's Jr in Lone Pine is getting a thank you note.  The first of many memorable customer service encounters for the trip.

I said a few posts ago, you can find awesome all over the place.   We experienced that this trip, no doubt, both in Creation and in the Created.  North, south, east, and west.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight

On Day 9 of our epic westward adventure, we left Las Vegas, Nevada en route to Death Valley National Park.  This might be weird, but growing up on the east coast in the land of more than enough humidity (Maryland) and living now in the land of hot and definitely more than enough humidity (Georgia), I have always wondered what it really feels like when it's 120 degrees and dry.  Strange as it sounds, I was ready to leave Vegas and experience Death Valley.  (Also, news flash, I'm boring.)

The Southwest is an interesting place.  My world is small and having truly experienced living in only Maryland and Georgia, I don't have much to which I can compare.  That said, when I moved from Maryland to Georgia, I was awed by the amount of empty space in between cities and towns down here.  Miles and miles of pine trees and farmland fill in the expanse between "metro areas" (if you can call them that).

Then, I went west.

Doesn't even compare.

I have always complained about the boring drive between Macon and my in-law's exit on I-16 here in Georgia.  It's 77 interstate miles, along which we can stop about halfway for a bite if need be at Cracker Barrel, Longhorn Steakhouse, McDonald's, Zaxby's, Ruby Tuesday, Arby's, Wendy's, Burger King, Subway, and a number of other fine dining establishments.  We pass a rest stop and there is gas at just about every exit if we needed to stop for it.  We literally drove a stretch of legitimate interstate in Utah a few days prior, where for 110 miles there were two exits and not one single toilet or gas station.  You can forget grabbing a bite to eat.  Rocked my world.

So, as we headed out of Vegas, we considered somewhat correctly that the options for dining west of the city might not be plentiful.  We landed in the city of Pahrump, NV around lunchtime, and counted our blessings that we could at least grab some Burger King.  20 nuggets, a few burgers and fries, and thirty minutes on the playground later we loaded up the trusty van and noted that our windshield was totally caked with giant, desert bug guts. To my father's chagrin, I'm sure, we had neglected to top off that particular fluid before we left, and so our windshield washer fluid reservoir was empty.  No fear!  There was a brand new Dollar General on the way out of town.

I ran in and grabbed a gallon of fluid and a few other random roadtrip essentials, the collection of which was totally cart-worthy, but I didn't want to tempt myself into buying more items with cart space so I precariously toted my items in just my arms.  I walked up to the register and saw a line about five people deep.  The first customer was attempting some sort of extreme couponing feat, it appeared, and I imagined I'd be standing there for a while.  In true Jennie style, I started checking out the purchases of the guy in front of me - neon pink posterboard, can of spray paint, random snacks, garden hose nozzle.  I daydreamed that he was probably about to have a yard sale.  And Lord knows that garden hose nozzle was going to get a workout at his desert home where he was undoubtedly trying to grow flowers in a flower box.  I wondered if he noticed my random collection of Sunny D, granola bars, boxer briefs, and washer fluid and if he was imagining a scenario in which I might use all of those things.  (Does everyone make up stories about strangers?  Or just me?)  He was wearing shorts, a floral Hawaiian shirt, and one of those fishermans hats that ties under your chin.  His face was scruffy with salt and pepper whiskers and he had lots of wrinkles around his eyes, those lines I affectionately refer to as smile lines. 

As I was observing all of this, the song playing overhead ended and "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" came on.  It only took about 20 seconds for the guy to start all out getting down.  Eighteen inches in front of me, this dude was dancing like no one was watching right there in Dollar General.  I was rendered speechless.  It was awesome and awkward.  I was both inspired and embarrassed.  As I sat there not sure if it was rude to keep watching or more rude not to, it occurred to me that some day, some day, I want to be so carefree that if the mood strikes me to dance in the Dollar General checkout line, I want to be brave enough to do it. 

That courageous, carefree dude impacted me that day. I mean, really, what's stopping me?  What the people in line behind me that I'll likely never see again will think of me?  What if they walk away inspired to do the same?  What's the worst that could happen?  They laugh at me?  Big deal, right?  That man didn't care what I thought.  The only thing worrying about what other people think gets you is a big load of missed opportunities.  Not caring means you get more out of life.  He was living that moment to its fullest.

I left that place with a smile on my face.  This was just the beginning of one of my favorite days on the entire trip.  I like to think that smile-line streaked man who danced his tush off was a large part of that. 

If only I could find him and send him some brownies. 

More to come, like what Death Valley actually felt like - because when you get inspired, words flow.

Awesome All Over the Place

There's not enough time in the day or words in my vocabulary to adequately describe the adventure from which we just returned.  I could tell story after story about the places the went, the amazing sights we saw, and the silly things we talked about and experienced along the way.  I'd love to do that, in fact.  I hate to over-commit, but I'm considering jumping into November's NaBloPoMo (like it's 2010 all over again).  It might not be too difficult considering I'm a night owl even worse now than I was before we spent a week in the pacific time zone.  My body desperately wants to believe it's only 9:30pm right now.

What's interesting to me is that the most unexpected things from this trip were the positive encounters I had with people along the way.  I'm not really a people person.  At least, that's what my mom has always told me.  (She would know.  She's an extrovert to the max.)  But, I'm finding that people are pretty cool.  All over the place.  Not just in my circles.

I've always blamed my standoffish-ness on growing up in the not-overtly-friendly Mid-Atlantic.  I don't think this is necessarily true.  Sure, people are probably less gregarious there, but I think the "problem" lies squarely on my own shoulders.  I'm learning that a smile and a few spoken words are relatively painless to offer.  And the reward is usually far greater than any effort I put forth to engage another human.

We were in Albuquerque, New Mexico when Noah developed a pretty heinous diaper rash.  I offered to go to the store to pick up some diaper cream (and some, ahem, Wild Cherry Pepsi because caffeinated beverages were essential for our sanity).  Grocery stores are weird out there, and since they were all unfamiliar I just went to the closest, an Albertson's.  The prices were excellent, so I snagged a couple 12 packs of "pop" (because when in New Mexico, say as the New Mexicans say).  When I got to the register, I panicked a little.

"What if I need an Albertson's card to get the sale prices?  What if I have to sign up for a card and all of the people behind me get mad?"

I looked at the young couple behind me.  They were probably in high school, buying a cart full of candy.  Then I looked at the man in front of me.  He was a grumpy looking Native American man wearing a baseball hat and jeans.  He was buying three packs of cinnamon rolls with bright orange $1 stickers on them.  I did something out of character for me.  I engaged.

"Excuse me, sir.  Do you have to have a card to get the sale price?  I'm not from around here, and I don't really need an Albertson's card."

He turned and looked at me.  He smiled.  All at once that grumpy look on his face melted away.  He replied, "I don't think so, but I have one.  I'll slip it to you after I use it.  Then you can slip it back to me."

It was nice of him.  I giggled (I always do), and said, "Thanks.  I really appreciate it."

When it came time for him to check out, he handed his card over to the cashier who gave it back to him after he scanned it.  Then, my favorite part, the sweet Native American man took the card and passed it behind his back to me while maintaining eye contact with the cashier in a covert-ops kind of way.  I stifled a giggle so as not to give away his secret and grabbed it from him. 

I checked out in about 15 seconds because I only had a couple items, and walked to hand the sweet man his card back who was waiting a few paces from the exit door.  As I extended my hand to give it back, he shook his head and widened his eyes.  I looked around to see who was looking and said, "Oh, did you want me to slip it back covertly?"  He smiled again and nodded.  So I passed it behind my back to him.  We went our separate ways in the parking lot.  We'll never see each other again.

It's a silly story, really.  But it made my night.  I'd have missed that little encounter if I'd kept my head down.  You see, I'm learning that people are awesome.  If you give them the chance to be.

Be awesome today.  Just start with a smile.


Honestly, don't even bother reading this one.

Today, I'd had enough.  I was going to accomplish something besides the washing, drying, and piling laundry, doing dishes, teaching kids, and attempting to dig out from a house full of clutter that definitely finds its way to the wrong place a lot faster than the right one.  So I plunked Noah down in front of Sam and said, "I need to be away from him for like ten minutes."  I picked a simple task - thinning out the magazine stack.  I have only subscribed to one magazine in recent history (All You) because it has a ton of coupons and easy-to-read articles...which was really great...back when I had time to both coupon and, well, read magazine articles.  Each one contains a fun little puzzle page at the back with my favorite crossword puzzles.  I love these particular ones because they aren't too difficult that I can't finish them, but they aren't so simple that I don't have to think about them.  I made a stack of the oldest year of magazines and decided, by golly, I was doing those puzzles.  But not at the moment.  Talk about becoming derailed.  No, that's ridiculous.  What I was going to do made so much more sense. 

I thought to myself these would be great to take on our upcoming cross-country field trip.  Sam and I could work on them together as we traverse the country with the wind in our hair and five kids sitting silently and happily in the back seat. 

But, seven extra magazines might be a bit bulky.  Packing space is at a premium for this thing, so, I set out on my little project.  I pulled each puzzle page and solution, trimmed them with scissors, and taped the puzzles, two to a page, to computer paper.  Then I taped all of the solutions to another sheet and laminated it so it wouldn't get ruined.  While I was doing all of this, Sam walked in holding the Noah that I'd delivered to him for my ten minute break and just stared at me. 

"Soooo.......what's going on in here?"

I was sitting there on the living room floor amidst a pile of magazine scraps and re-taped crossword puzzles, and I suddenly realized how utterly stupid I must have looked.

And, yet, it had seemed like such a good idea when I set out.

Sam smiled and tried to humor me.  He did some nodding.  He asked if I was going to laminate the crosswords puzzles too so I could do them in dry-erase marker and reuse them when I was done.  Maybe even sell them.  Start a little cottage industry.  I could really recover my investment from that magazine subscription. Yeah, pretty sure he was scoffing.

I shook my head at myself, packed up the project, and we fixed dinner.  A couple of hours later, I looked at those crosswords puzzles taped to paper and I busted a gut.  What in the world what I thinking???  Hahahahaha.  That was so dumb.

Sam, always at the ready to joke around, joined in the fun.  "I didn't know what to think.  One minute you're crying because you don't have time to do anything...and then, the next, you're taping crossword puzzles to a piece of paper."

Then, in an instant, as fast as I started laughing, no kidding, I literally cried again.  Because the whole reason I wanted to do a project at all came flooding back to me.  Because I needed something, anything that was just for me.  And I'm tired and basically just a mess.  A mess who apparently felt owed five minutes of time to do something completely alone and without interruption even if it was stupid.  Like cutting and taping crossword puzzles. 

Now, I'm laughing again. 

It must be extremely difficult to be married to me.
Basically, this post is dedicated to the man I love, who loves me in spite of violent mood swings and strange quirks. 

We'll see, though, if I let him do those taped crossword puzzles with me on our out-west adventure.  That'll really show him.   

This post is also dedicated to all of the single-parents out there.  I spent 4.5 days this week alone while Sam was away on business and, apparently, 4.5 days is how long it takes for me to go completely insane.  Hats off, my friends.  You are the strongest, most amazing people I know.

Goodnight, everyone.

Tomorrow, maybe I'll start a rubber band ball. 


The Best Mess

I've been quiet around this blog for a multitude of reasons.  None of them are probably good reasons, but they are reasons nonetheless.  We went "back to school" (or back to the kitchen table, the living room floor, and even occasionally my big, comfy bed, as it were) in August, and being on the horizon of an epic fall adventure with the family, I determined in advance that we would hit it pretty intensely for the first two months.  So far, that's going well.

This is the first year I've been "schooling" three kids, which has presented its own challenges.  As has trying to school three children with a precocious two year old and a mobile nine month old running and crawling about.  Nevertheless, we press on.  Because that's just what we do.  Because quitting and giving up and "I can't" are forbidden in this house.  Even, and especially when it's hard.  I'm a bit of a taskmaster in that way.

Things I am not a taskmaster about:

1.  Keeping a clean house.
2.  Following curriculum instructions exactly.
3.  Drinking water instead of other tastier, bad-for-you beverages.

As I type, Sam is in St. Louis for five days, I am "down" with strep throat, and my house is a total disaster.  I seriously hope I don't get in a car accident or fall out with a kidney stone emergency because if someone came into the house right now, I would die.  Of embarrassment.  But my kids are awesome.  So I do have that going for me.  Aside from a few minor mishaps, mostly involving a particular two year old's solo bathroom misadventures that are best left untold, they have cared for themselves well the past two days while I was laid up in bed watching Parenthood and being a weenie over a fever.  (I don't handle fevers very well.)  While this was the perfect opportunity for me to become derailed, yet again, we press on.  At the risk of sounding too much like a Pixar character, we're just going to keep pressing on.  Just keep swimming.  Progress is progress.  Even if it's imperfect.

Most days I feel like a mess, but that's okay.  Because life is messy.  (Just take a look around my house.)  In my Ready, Set, School post in August, I mentioned grace being the theme of the year.  Oh my goodness, is it ever.  I'm loving grace.  It's all going to be okay.  In the middle of the mess, I'm digging in.  I'm experiencing this life.  Imperfect though it may be. 

Imperfectly sandy.  In every nook and cranny, even.

Sometimes the mess is in the form of a mysterious sticky substance in the two year old's hair.  "What is that, Leah?" - "I don't know. Oh. It's milk." - "Why did you rub milk in your hair?" - "I don't know."

Sometimes the mess isn't a mess anymore because the big sister steps in to comfort a suddenly-scared-of-the-dark little sister with a tight embrace until they fall asleep in each others arms.

Sometimes we're just a sweaty, geocaching mess.   

Sometimes Mommy and Daddy try to soak up a little too much life and Leah has to lay down in the middle of feeding turtles and take a little rest.  (She's not actually asleep here.  But we aren't exactly sure what she was doing.)

Sometimes, I'm so distracted by the rest of the mess that I forget to feed the baby and he has to eat drawer handles for lunch.  (Objection, relevance?  Sorry.  I just love this picture.)

Sometimes we forego elaborate birthday celebrations in favor of finding 11 geocaches on an 11th birthday. At night.  In the Target parking lot.  And behind small businesses.  In the trees.

Sometimes what was a big, huge mess last year turns out to be this year's greatest joy.  This kid, right here?  I could not be more proud of the young man he is becoming.  I look forward to each day I have with his goofy sense of humor and his dizzying intellect and his tender heart for his little sibs.  

Sometimes the mess I should have recycled months ago becomes the best toy on the premises.

Sometimes I rag on my precious middle child and her wild counterpart two year old sister, but the truth is, they're both pretty awesome.  Sarah has requested the job of putting Leah down for her afternoon nap.  She reads her a book (or four), then lays down with her for a few minutes until she goes to sleep.  Sometimes they both do.  You guys...I'm dying.  This is the child whose door I would have to stand guard at for literal hours to get her to take a ten minute nap.  Those messes you battles for hours at a time?  In three years, you'll likely reap some sort of reward.  The hard work is almost always worth it.

Sometimes it feels like I'm neglecting my littles for the sake of education or basic sanitation practices or those darn meals that need to be made.  THREE TIMES A DAY.  Then I look in the [disastrously messy] playroom and see this kid playing contentedly.  In her snowflake shirt.  In September.  And I smile.  Because, man, I love this mess.

You know why this mess is the best?  Because it's the mess God gave me.  This is my life, and I am forever grateful for every imperfect minute of it.
And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. ~Colossians 3:17
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