After All It's Just a Name - The Sequel

I am an unapologetic Aldi shopper.  If you don't have these stores in your area, let me explain.  It's a no-frills grocery store.  The food is stacked along the aisles in the same boxes in which it was shipped.  There is little to no variety.  Want salt?  You get the Aldi brand.  Want barbeque sauce?  You get the Aldi brand.  (Although, lately they do also carry Sweet Baby Rays.)  The prices are ridiculously cheap because you aren't paying for names.  The quality is excellent on most things, and even if it's not, you're only out a fraction of what you would have paid to try it at a "real" grocery store.  You also aren't paying for a bagger to bag up your groceries and help you out to the car, because they don't have them.  Or bags for that matter.  If you want those, you pay 5-10 cents each.  You also pay a quarter desposit on your cart that you only get back if you return it to the corral on the side of the store.  It might sound like this isn't a great place to shop, but I love it.  I can cover the entire store in under 30 minutes, with all the kids in tow.  I don't have to make decisions (like, "Ugh!  Which barbeque sauce is the best deal?").  I don't have to coupon because they don't take them and you don't need them anyway.  But best of all, I don't have to hand over my firstborn child as payment after I purchase a full cartload of groceries.  I went to the grand opening when our local store opened because I was so excited it had made it down here.  I grew up with my mom shopping at Aldi, so I was familiar and so grateful when I became a mom to five little mouths that I have this store nearby. 

You might need to know this about me - I am not a name dropper.  I'm an unapologetic bargain hunter, a trait I learned from my mother.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that I get a little pit in my stomach when I think about the amount of money people waste on names.  It's all perspective, I know.  People probably think the same thing about our travels.  At least, when we travel, we see things and experience things that broaden our world.  I might contend that placing a huge significance on branding ourselves with designer labels does the opposite.  (How to say that without sounding like a jerk, I'm not sure.)  I get wanting good quality, but good quality at a good value is very important to me.

Anyway, as a mother of five children, I am no stranger to the fact that kids these days place the utmost importance on brand names.  This is not a new phenomenon.  I've written about my seventh grade branding experience before.  It's a good one (in my not-so-humble opinion).  Maybe it's because it's Christmas, and I'm being inundated with advertisements for insanely expensive crap toys, clothes, and video games.  Maybe I'm just a grumpy person.  Maybe it's because I'm tired of my son getting grief because of where his mother grocery shops.  Or maybe because my perspective is slowly shifting to things eternal, but I'm just weary of the name dropping. 

Seriously.  Who cares?

Let me tell you about the people who shop at Aldi.  I have met and spoken with each of these people at the store.

The Mennonite families who drive an hour each way to do their shopping because the savings in groceries far outweighs the money spent on gas.

The immigrant who speaks broken English who paid in change and had to put back items because she went over what she had in her wallet.

The elderly couple who spends a fortune on prescription medications each month but was thrilled to find a way to save on groceries.

The man who paid for the groceries of the stressed out mom in front of him.  Because he could.

The Vietnam War Vet who gives his cart away to the next customer, every time, with a wink and a smile and insists that they don't give him a quarter in return.

Large families.

Small families.

Rich families.

Poor families.


They shop there because it's smart to shop there.  And if some smart-mouthed tweenaged boy has a comment about my grocery shopping choices, he ought to come say it to my face.  Because apparently, that chaps my hiney.  My pragmatic eleven year old has no trouble listing out the benefits of practical spending choices, but geez.  Is this really what eleven year olds talk about these days?

Please, please, please, let's teach our kids about the things that matter.  And the things that don't.  I mean, really don't. 

Because we ALL have so much more than we deserve.
P.S. - I received no compensation from Aldi for this blog post.  I really, truly am grateful for this store.  That's it.

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.
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