May 19, 2016

Anniversary of a California Roadtrip

As I've previously mentioned, we didn't take a lot of vacations when I was a kid - a trip to grandma's, a weekend campout at Albert Pike, or a day at Magic Springs was about as big as it got. Which I didn't mind too much as a kid - but ever since I got my first taste of adventure with trips in high school, I knew I wanted to travel as much as I could afford to do. Which is clearly why I chose a career in social work.

Having said that, the first big roadtrip I went on (aside from one I can't remember at age 2) was the summer after freshman year in high school. My mom, grandma, and I rented a car with better gas mileage and went west to visit family in Anaheim. We also picked up my grandma's sister in California before driving NE to Evansville, Indiana to see their sister and brother before returning to south Arkansas. Our backseat looked like something straight out of a Maxine Hallmark card with those little ladies and their big sunglasses talking about being stopped up.

Part of the point of the trip, other than having fun on vacation and visiting relatives, was to visit the area my brother died as my mom had never made the trip since. We were there on a weekend when the people who could help us weren't around, and assumed we found the right spot. Upon our return to Arkansas and showing the photographs to my cousin (who was present at the time of the accident), we learned we hadn't been in the right spot.

Last summer we made another trip to California so my nephews could experience a real vacation. These two trips were a year shy of being a decade apart!

From Texarkana, we took my nephew, who we'll call C, with us to pick up the older nephew, who we'll call S, from his mother's in the Dallas-Fort Worth region on a Sunday night. We didn't get terribly far that night, pulling over in a dry Texas town to rest up at a quaint hotel before our first big day. The next morning we were ready to go - and get past that flat, dry Texas we're already so familiar with. We did see tons of Windfarms, though!

Our first pit-stop to stretch our legs was in Roswell, NM to look for aliens.

The boys were a little nervous at first, but after watching their KK goof off with the extra-terrestrials, they really got into it.

We drove another three hours before another pit-stop where we sled down the beautiful White Sands Monument. My recommendation? Get the sled wax. Also if you must go in the summer, as we did, try to make it as early or late in the day as you can - we just happened to be on something of a schedule and arrived during the hottest part of the day. We didn't stay long.

That night we arrived at my cousin's in Tucson about 5 hours later. She's always a gracious host living in exciting places since her husband's a high-ranking gentleman in the military. She's one of my mom's favorite nieces and they had a lot of catching up to do. I also caught up with Belle, her white boxer, who was just a pup the last time I had seen her in France about three years before. My favorite part of this stay was Mt. Lemmon practically in her backyard; I only wished we had time to go for a hike! (Unfortunately, while we were able to see a ton of places on the trip, our time to hike was limited.)

After a delicious lunch of New Mexican cuisine we were off past the Great Divide, Imperial Sand Dunes, Texas Canyon, Devils Canyon, and the Sonoran Desert to San Diego. This time we were a little more prepared to visit Mission Trails Regional Park - but still struggled to find rangers who could help us. The accident was too far back to be in their archives, and I couldn't reach the Search & Rescue people, but I did eventually reach my cousin to help guide us to the appropriate spot, though he admitted it had been a very, very long time - 20 years - and he couldn't give a 100% certainty he was sending us to the right area. Regardless, we came to find it, so we were off.

The hike was difficult and my mom was making me nervous - I probably kept behind her with my hands out half the time. It was really sweet to watch the boys see this and help too, S even guiding her by the hand at times. She admitted if she had waited any longer to do this hike she wouldn't have been able to (and we were just following the actual trail, not climbing up the off-trail rocks as my brother had). We did go off the trail a little ways to get to the right spot. She made the boys wait behind the fence as we had a few minutes of silence, leaving a memorial rock behind for him. It was very peaceful to watch the birds fly overhead.

Climbing Kwaay Paay made all of us sweaty and dirty, so what better way to rejuvenate the spirits than by pizza and the Pacific? We split a couple of delicious pizzas from ZIGZAG before running straight into the ocean. The boys would have been content spending the remainder of the trip at Oceanside.

Lucky enough for them, after spending the evening with family in Anaheim, the next day we would be back at the ocean - but first, Downtown Disney. It's funny how much can change in nine years, I barely even recognized it even though I'm sure much of it was the same. Their favorite parts, I'm sure, were the Lego shop, Build-A-Bear (which they'd never done), and eating at the Rainforest Cafe (which, I don't care how old I am, I still think it's wicked cool because there aren't any in Arkansas).

After Downtown Disney we ate at Ruby's Diner on the Huntington Beach Pier before diving back into the ocean for what felt like hours again. The adults finished the evening by grilling out and lapping up some lemon sorbet (that I haven't found anywhere since) at my cousin's house nearby while the upstairs was full of giddy children playing everything they could think of.

The next day we went to Disneyland, which was huge for C because he'd never been anywhere like it and he went on all the scary rides, making KK proud (and glad she didn't have to ride them alone).

C screamed during the Matterhorn ride but immediately asked to go again!
It was off towards Yosemite the next morning, but not before a quick stop to check out another cousin's home and let the boys play for a few minutes. Trying to find an affordable place nearby (since we would be arriving fairly late) was difficult - and I accidentally booked us a place on the East side of the park in Mammoth Lakes, distracted by a great deal, making the drive in so much longer. Still, someone told us we were able to see an incredibly beautiful route this way that many people don't experience.

Yosemite was easily my favorite part of the trip. Even with the summer heat drying up the falls, Tunnel View probably tops Glacier Point (at a close second) for me, though the pictures don't do it justice. Again, my one complaint is that we didn't have time to really hike anything - plus, my mom and nephews aren't physically capable of doing the same kind of hikes I am. We took a tour, which my mom was overall pleased with (driving those mountain roads made her nervous), but I wouldn't do the same if I went back. My recommendation to others is to see this kingdom at your own pace, and you can drive anywhere that enormous tour bus can drive if driving's your thing.

S was camera shy off and on throughout the trip but sometimes I took him by surprise.

Ma caught me selfie-in'.
I was extremely happy that we made it just in time to see Mariposa Grove before it was closed for two years for restoration. I was so glad the boys didn't miss out on these giant sequoias! (The California Tunnel Tree, the Bachelor and the Three Graces, and the Grizzly Giant.)

We strolled down the Las Vegas strip on our way to the Grand Canyon, also passing the Hoover Dam. It was already dark when we arrived and we wanted them to be amazed when they first saw it. I walked down in the moonlight alone to see it at night since I wasn't able to do so a decade ago - it was more of a pit-stop to say I'd seen it. I didn't snap any good pictures, but it was peaceful being there without other tourists and the moon was full. I also woke myself before sunrise in time to catch it. Again, pictures were difficult due to the fog but I managed a few a little while into it.

I was so excited to bring the boys down the next morning after breakfast. We had more time to spend than my first visit to the canyon so we hopped on and off the buses to get a good look from different viewpoints. Again, do a hike. There's nothing more I would've liked than to have a few spare days and ride a mule around and hike down to Havasu Falls or raft the Colorado River.

I'd rather share a family picture but one of the kiddos is wearing his school shirt.

Our next memorable stop was Tlaquepaque (artsy shop village) and beautiful rock formations in Sedona, AZ. I personally found Slide Rock State Park more beautiful than the Grand Canyon (so long as you've seen the latter). And surprisingly enough, my mom enjoyed Sedona far more than the creative arts hotbed of Sante Fe (wish we had time for Taos!), though I made a happy plate at Tia Sophia's and really dug all this southwestern food.

Sante Fe was our final main stop on the way back before a long drive the last day. It was truly a joy to be able to spend 9 days with my family during paid vacation time and explore the Southwest. I couldn't be more grateful and I surely hope it's not the last time we do something like this together.

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