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Category Archives: Parks

Lake McDonald - Glacier National Park, Montana

What Dreams Are Made Of

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When we announced that we would be hitting the USA during winter, we were recompensed with more than just a few frowns. Most of our friends laughed.
“Do you realise how cold it gets in North America?” we heard from at least a handful of individuals. Well, yes, in theory we did. Practice however, is something entirely different!

We were rewarded for our winter travels with a -36 degree temperature as we arrived in Montana. This is without a doubt the very coldest we have ever been!  8 hours inland from Seattle and what a vastly different climate awaits you.
What an underrated, beautiful State! I can’t say enough good things about Montana. The people are wonderful, the towns are beautiful and the mountains outstanding, not to mention the incredible skiing and Glacier National Park. There is such a community atmosphere about the small towns, and tourists are welcomed and treated like gold. Chocolate tasting evenings, winter parades and freshly baked cookies are just a small idea of what to expect from these old gems.

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Freezing!

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Watching the winter parade.

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The Whitefish winter parade.

Our intention in this winter wonderland of a State was to go and see Glacier National Park. Unfortunately for us, most of the roads are closed in winter due to avalanches, extreme snowfall and ice. We did manage to see a small section of the Park and it was truly magnificent. The day we ventured out was freezing, and even that sounds warm in its description. The temperature reached a high of -21 degrees. It is a strange thing to be standing in the full sun, but so bitterly cold on any area of your body exposed to the elements, that you get freezer burn simply standing outside. There was a moment I thought my cornea were freezing over and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a complete pansy about it! It’s hard to comprehend what you need to wear to remain outdoors for any length of time at that temperature, suffice it to say we had about 4 pairs of pants on (each!), 4 thermal tops plus jersey plus ski jacket, beanie, balaclava, at least 2 socks, winter boots and gloves. After about 5 minutes Lincoln required being wrapped in a blanket. After about 7 minutes I required being wrapped in a blanket. Lola was too busy eating snow to notice the cold and Shaun was testing the ice on the river to see if a ‘crossing’ was in order. It was decided that we ought to remain safely on land, which we did, although I managed to land on my backside twice in as many minutes just walking down the road.

 

On our second day in Kalispell, Montana… it snowed! Our very first, ever, really real snow. And it snowed, and it snowed, and it snowed. And we went skiing. I must be honest here and say it was not my idea. I would have been happy to sit inside watching the beautiful snowflakes fall, sipping hot chocolate and roasting my feet by the fire. But I married Shaun. It seems my spawn are a little more like their father than I expected in this regard, and I was outvoted 3 to 1. So out we went. Despite the immense cold, there is something incredible about being able to head up the slopes as a family. The kids are so adept now we are able to head straight to the chair lift and cruise up the mountain. I really can’t explain how special, and fun, this is. This is not to say we journey down without incident, there are many cold and cuddly moments with the snow, and yes, tears when it goes in their gloves and on their faces (the kids not Shauns), but it is so much fun and so much more than I expected they would want to do. Given the cold though, we only managed to ski a couple of runs before the kids and I had to head into the lodge to defrost our toes and find some high density calories to warm us up. Shaun, the ski junky, managed another 2 hours before returning all smiles, and giddy with joy.

Me and Linky on the chair lift heading up for our first ski of the day... and then my phone battery died!

Me and Linky on the chair lift heading up for our first ski of the day… and then my phone battery died!

We stayed 3 days more than we had planned in Kalispell, before packing a large portion of snow, along with our suitcases, into our SUV and heading South to Yellowstone National Park. Driving through a winter wonderland is less fun than one would imagine. Beautiful snowy roads become slippery, visibility becomes something of an intermittent treat, and stopping is something the car would prefer not to do if at all possible, not the best way to cover 600 km’s. But we did it, with much concentration, prayer, and thankfully well-behaved children in the back.

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Yellowstone National Park is in much the same condition as Glacier National Park – far too snowy to drive in. So we opted for something better… snowmobiles! Just when we thought we had done almost all there is to do, what an absolutely awesome way to experience a national park!  We signed up for a tour which had everyone on their own snowmobile, replete with 70 layers of clothing and a toasty warm helmet. Shaun and I had one child each, in front of us (buffering us from the wind of course), and off we set to the geysers of Yellowstone. It Was Such Awesome Fun!! We stopped to check out bison, elk and coyote, and had fantastic views of the exploding sulphur pits and geysers. In a land covered entirely by snow, it is incredible to watch steam billowing up from the ground, and pools boiling away with crystal clear water.

 

Being on the bikes was exhilarating and freeing, I caught myself laughing as we threw ourselves over bumps and chased down our fearless liege who thought fit to drive her snowmobile at around 60 miles per hour! Passing through open planes left us with ice-cream headaches as the cold wind that pummels you is enough to cut through balaclavas, beanies and helmets. The seats have warmers and so do the handle bars, but nothing is enough to defrost fingers in those temperatures, and all the seat warmers do is give you swamp butt when you get off them, leaving you with a soggy ass and moist pants. After driving the bikes for most of the day, I decided the handlebars were really more for cosmetic reasons, and to give you the illusion of being in control. A snowmobile is going to go where a snowmobile is going to go and you don’t have a whole lot of say in the matter! What complicates things is when your children fall asleep on the bike and you are left trying to hold their heads up whilst steering a machine that is intent on showing you who is boss. Lola and Lincoln (rather dangerously I might add) passed out from sheer exhaustion to the point where we couldn’t actually wake Lincoln up. There was prodding, calling, wobbling, but all to no avail. Eventually we had people taking pictures of me trying to wake the poor guy up, it proved comic relief for many. What was most amusing was when he fell asleep and flopped his heavy helmeted head over the handlebars, pushing the emergency button to stop the thing, causing the 2 of us to come to a very sudden halt in the middle of the road. It was awfully perplexing until I realised what he was lying on!
Needless to say, there were times we had to drive more carefully given our slumbering cargo, but other than that we had an absolute ball playing in the snow, chasing each other on bikes and generally behaving like children. I can’t rate that kind of silly, frivolous activity highly enough! It is what has kept us sane on our adventure and something we fully intend to carry on doing until we are too old to move… even when the time comes when our children hide from sheer embarrassment! Long may the fun last 🙂 Xxx

Be Still My Beating Heart

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I was in two minds as to whether I wanted to write this post. Sometimes things can resonate on such an intimate level, that you want to keep them secret, hidden away from the rest of the world. That’s how I felt when I arrived at Redwood National Park. I didn’t even have to set a foot on the lush, earthy mulch to know that that was a place I would happily get lost in. A place my soul at once wanted to stake a flag in and reserve as a serene retreat for me, and me alone. Ok, I would take people there, sometimes, but only if their hearts wanted to burst from their chests and break into song, knowing there is possibly no more beautiful place on this earth! I know I have often on our travels, gushed over how beautiful a place is, how incredible the National Parks are, and how they make you feel closer to the ethereal, while at the same time making you feel so tiny and insignificant. While I stand by all I have previously written, no place captured my soul more than this magnificent forest. Firstly, it was green. Not just any old green, but the bright ‘heavens pouring golden light between the thunderclouds after a storm’ kind of green. The foliage looks iridescent and you can smell the earth and the dew and the trees. It was lush and moss covered, and had the most beautiful delicate ferns covering the forest floor. Although forests can often make you feel closed in, the epic height of the trees raised the canopy to an extent that, although surrounded entirely by glorious vegetation, you don’t have that feeling of restriction and limited view. I have always loved Knysna forest for similar reasons… this forest is Knysna on steroids! If I could bring anything back from the States with me, it would be a little corner of the Redwood National Park. It was without a doubt, one of my favourite places of this trip, in fact, any trip.

 

Thinking with hindsight why this National Park was so much more enjoyable than all the others, I would say a large part is due to it being significantly less touristy. It is common knowledge that the tallest tree in the world is in the park, but it is not listed – about the smartest thing the Americans could have done. There is no ‘have to see’ spot. No tarred paths through the trees. No throngs of tourists. There is just incredible forest… and quiet. Plenty of it – when the children weren’t squealing with delight while throwing themselves and their bikes down the nearest forest path that is!

In the time between San Francisco and the Redwoods, we spent 2 days enduring Napa Valley. It is torment sitting in a place almost like the wine lands of home, but not quite as beautiful, and yet about 4 times as expensive! I’m not sure what we were expecting, but this didn’t blow our socks off. It could have been the budget wine tasting, or the winter fields, but I think it had more to do with our being spoilt in Cape Town – with what we have right on our door step. We Capetonians live with our bums in the butter (and our noses in the vineyard). Napa has world-class restaurants and boutique shops but unless you go there with a rather large and lavish cheque book, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

We did a whole lot of bad planning on our way up to the Redwoods, and for the first time on our trip… we ran out of petrol. (Truthfully, it was very nearly our second. In Mexico we almost ran out in the middle of nowhere, so we were thankful it was the US and not there!) We were saved by lovely country folk more than happy to cart us around to the nearest gas station, and what could have been a disaster turned out to be a lovely morning in the country, shooting the breeze with locals and hearing their stories.

 

I have often wondered how boundaries between States were decided on, but after now driving through 23 of them, you can often notice a sudden change in scenery or vegetation. Frequently an accent change goes hand in hand with it. There is no doubt that people are different too. Although we enjoyed California, we found ourselves relieved to be through it. The American belief that they have everything bigger and better, has its headquarters in California. We found people to be a whole lot less friendly, with their heads wedged more firmly up their own backsides. No disrespect (we have some very good friends who are from California). It is a beautiful State, no doubt, but there definitely seems to be a vibe that they are somehow better than everyone else. Of course this could just be their dislike of us Africans sauntering about insulting their drought, while simultaneously lapping up their good weather. While I would dare say that the mid-upper West Coast has been my favourite area in the States thus far, not having at least one hefty hound, and being a straight married couple with 2 children, did not count in our favour.

Obviously, California was not all bad (I hope that’s not the impression I’ve given). We spent just over a month in the State and it certainly has a bit of everything going for it. Redwood National Park, you most certainly stole my heart though. After a hike (bike in the kids case) through the forest, I wished we had hurried through the first part and spent a bit more time here. The kids l.o.v.e.d it! The paths through the forest are perfect for mountainbiking, and Shaun and I found ourselves wishing yet again, that we had bikes with us. Had we known this winter would be so mild and devoid of snow, we would have without a doubt made a plan to cart our bikes around with us too – we have missed them! We can’t believe it’s the end of Jan and we have yet to see snow falling. We have stood in it, played in it, lay in it, skied in it, but still never seen it fall, not more than a few flakes anyway.

A very busy month it has been, and it is clearly taking its toll, a very dear friend said to me the other day that she has never seen me looking so tired. That is saying a lot when I have had 2 children a year apart! So next on the travel agenda is ‘Get more sleep’! So with that, I bid you all farewell, so I can try and sneak in a few hours before tomorrow’s adventure. XOXO

Standing in front of a Giant Redwood in Sequoia National Park

General Sherman… Sir!

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I’ve always found the thought of saluting someone rather peculiar. It is not something I have ever done, nor something I intended doing. As both my father and Shaun can attest, men pulling rank just doesn’t sit well with me (although to be fair I don’t think Shaun would try). Then I stood before the General. So majestic, so stately, that I almost couldn’t help myself! My meager 31 years did nothing against his near 3 000, I practically felt a curtsy coming on.
Standing in a forest full of trees this size can really put your life in perspective. There is no doubt you see things differently, maybe not forever, but certainly while you are standing there. The world seems different, enchanted and full of magic. I almost expected to see fairies nestling amongst the fallen branches and frogs singing “We All Stand Together” in chorus. It’s like stepping into a different world, one in which we are so tiny and insignificant, nature shows you how resplendent and grandiose it can be when it feels like it.
The whole of Sequoia National Park, from the incredible Giant Forest and Moro Rock, to the heartbreakingly large tree stumps that could make you cry just imagining someone benumbed enough to cut them down, scream with magnificence.

 

Yosemite National Park is no exception. Although lacking the girth and height of Sequoia’s trees, it most certainly leaves you floored with its astonishing natural display. We were lucky enough to hike on both days we were there, we seem to be dragging warm African temperatures around with us, and this meant that the normally snow covered National Parks were little more than mildly icy with sporadic patches of dirty white snow. Screaming in unison with the National Parks, were Lincoln and Lola, although less with magnificence and more with delight. So happy were they to be allowed back on their bikes after 3 weeks in the snow, that anyone within a 2 km radius would have known the kids were on their bikes, and thrilled about it! We naughtily disobeyed ranger rules in favour of our sanity and let the children maraud down the almost empty tar track to one of the waterfalls, where we then took them bouldering up the riverbed to the waterfalls. Shaun loves to climb; I prefer to hop around anything I have to climb. Shaun loves to teach the children to climb; I prefer to rock myself quietly in a corner while he does it. My feet sweat, my heart thumps, and every time one of them stands up straight I yell at them to sit down. It is just better if I follow at a distance, and yes, let Shaun be a Dad. I feel like mothers are not welcome when their paranoia and needless hovering is more likely to get their children hurt than simply not being there. So this allowed me the opportunity to hang back and take some pics, the far less painful option.

The following day’s hike was up a somewhat steeper mountain. Great day, great mountain, not so great Lincoln. He decided this was the day to be grumpy and refuse to walk (ok, he’s only 3 I know, but really, of all days?!) so into the backpack he went. Roughly 6km’s, largely made up of tar path and stairs, alerts you to how America does things differently. If that trail were in South Africa, it would undoubtedly be dirt trail with markers pointing the way. Being in such incredible natural surroundings, yet having to walk on such a man made trail really detracts from the hike. It feels like it would be more authentic if you had to rough if up a little, rather than be constantly reminded of how many people had been there before you. It did lead up to an astonishingly high waterfall and no help would have made this one tough baby to climb, but a bit of natural trail wouldn’t have hurt either. There was Lincoln’s blood (he’s always falling) our sweat and Lola’s tears (she tried to climb the railing and someone other than us grabbed her – she doesn’t take kindly to strangers touching her). It was a great hike but man were we exhausted parents when we got to the bottom.

It was sad we didn’t have time to hike through the Giant Forest too and spend days lost in it’s size and fairy-tale ecosphere, but with time marching swiftly along we had to drag ourselves down possibly the twistiest road known to man, and into the dustbowl know as California.

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The California dustbowl Jan 2014

 

Saying California is in the middle of a drought would be the understatement of the year. We were gob smacked! I had it in my head that it would be green, lush, full of farms and chirping birds, land of milk and honey if you will. Granted it is the middle of winter, but ‘milk and honey’ notions aside, nothing could have prepared us for the barren land that awaited us. There were warnings on TV about the unhealthy air conditions, and as we descended into middle California we understood why.

Hundreds of kilometers of dry, desolate farms, windswept land you can see hadn’t been farmed or used for anything other than walking cattle across in years. Cattle ranches disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a vegetarian – almost, and then plane old nothing – just hills of dust. It was more than a relief to crest the rise that eventually gave way to dry vineyards, and finally the Californian coastline. Shaun and I had bets on as to who would see the sea first, it felt like we had been away from it for months, not weeks, and as we climbed out the car Lola smiled and said; “It smells like home”. It sure did. Man did that bring a tear to my eye. 12 500 km’s later and we were being rewarded with a beautiful reminder of home. It really was special – thank you California. xxx

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Our trip to date. October 2013 – January 2014

 

Standing underneath Corona Arch - Arches National Park, Utah

Our Frozen Potatoes

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It is hard to describe the magnificence of a national park – photos don’t come close. There is a reason a piece of earth has been cordoned off and declared exceptional. Imagine a blazing red sand dusted with the whitest snow, valleys where mountains of rock stretch straight up towards the sky, and waterfalls frozen in time with only cracking icicles hinting at their movement, and you will have an idea of the incredible views we had driving through Arches, Canyon Lands and Zion national parks – sites that easily feature on our list of most phenomenal places to see.

As Shaun so succinctly put, Arches National Park looks as though God has been practicing building castles. There are towers of rock scattered randomly across the plains, and towering arches of rock that defy gravity. By my understanding they should by lying in a neat pile of rubble on the floor.
We hiked with the kids to one of the biggest arches, and it was extraordinary. Through snow for most of the hike, we were then rewarded with a bright red arch of rock that spanned 140 feet.Several arches required walking to from the parking areas, a hike in the children’s case, and this necessitated getting out of a 22 degree car and into -9 degree fresh mountain air. Awesome you might say, well the children thought not! By the end of the day they were fed up, tired, and totally disinterested in our starry-eyed gazing at the rock formations. We ended up running back to the car as the sun was setting and it was nearing -15, carrying the kids on our backs wrapped in our coats so they wouldn’t be mentally scarred from the cold. The last thing we needed was to have them blatantly refuse to go outside the next day!

 

With a warmer high of -9 the following day, we managed to coax them down to the car with promises of hot chocolate and blankets, promising them they didn’t have to hike that day. On opening the car door, our potatoes that we had in our ‘grocery cupboard’ fell out the car with a very loud crack. We Africans still have to get used to the idea that anything left outside, even in the car, freezes over night! 1 bag of potatoes down, we are now learning. With the kids being thankful that they weren’t left in the car over night, they climbed in hastily and began nestling in for warmth. Being the trustworthy parents that we are, we left the kids to fall asleep in the car (on the way) to Canyon Lands, and let them lie in blissful slumber while we climbed out to take photos and gape at the absolutely astonishing vistas. These views could make you believe you are on another planet – they are eerie, and breathtaking.

 

Obviously giving the kids a day off worked in our favour. Arriving at Zion National Park the following day, we managed to have the kids sufficiently psyched to attempt another snow hike, this time with more thermals! All was going swimmingly, until we reached this sign…

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The picture says it all doesn’t it?! So we followed our eyelash-batting- clan-leader over the no entry sign! This of course was after I had told Lola how naughty the other men were for crossing over it just as we got there – so she blatantly refused, saying we were not allowed. In the mean time Shaun headed off with Lincoln in tow, slipping and sliding with glee, and I carried rule-abiding Lola while almost landing on my rump as we negotiated our way over the treacherous ice, keeping a beady eye upwards to make sure a somewhat large and pointy icicle didn’t come crashing down on top of us!  The boys of course didn’t even consider this as an option and had a ball laughing their way underneath the frozen waterfall. Dramatics aside, it was incredible once we were able to continue our hike up the gorge. There was plenty of snow and we were yet again amazed at the hiking ability of our 3 and 4 year old when given half a chance. We have had it proven to us time and again that if you give the rope some slack and put a little faith in them (obviously within reason) they blow you away with their capabilities. Our hike in Zion was no exception.

 

Back at the ranch (I believe the town we stayed in was called Springdale) we enjoyed a bubbly hot tub experience, while the town folk were getting ready for the evenings Christmas parade. It was shiny in a way that only an American Christmas can be. So with stars in our eyes, and Christmas jingles in our heads, we hit the hay for a much needed nights rest.

Venturing into the South

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Coincidently, and very luckily for us, our trip landed us in the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains in what is arguably the most beautiful time of year there, autumn. Wowzers, we couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque welcome to the South!

After leaving DC we headed into the Shenandoah valley and stayed in a small town called Crozet where we were treated to real Southern hospitality. We spent 4 days exploring the gentle mountains which were speckled with the most amazing variety of colours, a sight we can’t replicate no matter how beautiful our country. We climbed peaks and sat gazing over the rolling hills (we are comparing this mountain range to the Drakensburg and we win hands down in size and magnitude – but to be fair, to less fortunate folk who haven’t had the luxury of experiencing the Drakensburg, these are still mountains) and tried to breath the city out of our lungs.

Crozet bbq!

Crozet bbq!

The weather began to turn when we were there and a cold front moved in dropping the night temperature down to about 4 degrees, but we were staying in a wonderful little home with inside heating, a luxury us South Africans are not used to. This came back to bite us in the proverbial rump when we waltzed out our door one morning heading out for our first big hike in the mountains, not realising how cold it really was because we’d been sitting inside a heated house. Driving high into the hills to venture down a particularly beautiful waterfall gorge, we arrived at our location, climbed out the car and greeted our first sprinkling of snow! Lola looked up very confused and said “the rain is white”! In all my wisdom, I had packed one jersey for each of us, aside from the one we had on. As you can imagine, this was simply not enough! We managed to source 2 towels from the car, and used them to tie the kids to our backs, we were embracing our African roots, and keeping both ourselves and the kids warm in the process. Very freaking cold about describes it. Needless to say I learned my lesson, and from then on Shaun packed the warm clothes. I know where my strengths lie… I pack the food.

 

So time in the Shenandoah passed all too quickly, and we found ourselves winding our way down through the mountains along the most unbelievably scenic drive, stopping only a handful of times for my extremely car sick husband to feel solid earth beneath his feet. As we left one national park behind us, we entered another, The Great Smoky Mountains. They have this name because the trees emit so much moisture there is a haze lying over the forest in the morning and evening, even for much of the day. Until we found this out, I thought we were unlucky in always waking up to a hazy view (so uneducated)!

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains

These two mountain ranges run north-south through the eastern interior of the States, joining with others to form the Appalachian mountain trail, a trail that runs 3500km and passes through 14 States. I mention this because this is Shaun’s new goal. We are going to walk this trail in entirety, in one go… Sigh. I’m just trying to convince him to wait until the children can at least carry their own back packs! 😉
We drove through Cherokee, and Indian reservation which was eye-opening and sad in it’s dilapidation, and headed into the Smoky Mountain Nature Reserve to walk part of the Appalachian Trail (in training already ;). It was a magnificent hike! It is quite high, and the hike takes you even further up, giving you an indication of how autumn passes through the mountains. It starts at the top (where it is coldest) and works it’s way down through the trees, so by the time we reached the top of our hike there were absolutely no trees with leaves at all, simply fir trees, leading the kids to believe that it was Christmas at the top of the mountain!

 

The kids walked all the way up solo (really great that we have 2 such adventurous little souls who spur each other on) until we reached an area of the path where we kept hearing thumping. Now Shaun and I know a fair amount about nature, we know when to panic and when to retreat quietly. We both froze. The thumping happened periodically, and loudly, both intriguing us and preparing us to run. The kids were scared silent (this never happens)! Shaun decided he would go and investigate it alone, returning with the embarrassing knowledge that what had us on high alert was a male bird performing his mating ritual! He was perched atop a log and periodically displayed his sizeable tail feathers and flapped them so hard that they thumped the air (sounding very much like a scary daddy bear walloping a tree)! We were safe, a little embarrassed, but chuffed to catch the hopeful daddy bird in action.

Highlands Town

Highlands Town

Aside from hiking, we also explored a few little towns and had a waterfall viewing day. One town in particular, looking very European, had the best ice cream we’ve ever eaten! This was on a day when we woke up with our first frost outside, we were dressed in our new thermal winter gear, and walked around town with an ice cream cone… tourists!

The waterfalls were beautiful and the area is a wonderful little place to visit. It happened to be on a weekend when we were all feeling a little homesick and moods were low, being in such a peaceful place when feeling so somber doesn’t really help. There was little but beauty to distract us from missing our family and friends back home, and as silly as it may sound, the beauty makes you miss them more because we just wanted to share it with everyone. Having absolutely no reception on our phones didn’t help either. We have been surprised at how patchy the cell reception is in the States. What we have realized is how advanced our country really is in many regards, in various ways we wouldn’t have thought of before.

Highlands Lake

Highlands Lake

We had mistakenly thought Shaun could work while I drove, but there is little to no mobile data connection along the major highways, something we have always taken for granted in SA. This has meant work has to wait until evening time on days when we spend a long time in the car. As you can imagine, this is not ideal working conditions, but not vastly different from what we expected. I’m really lucky Shaun can work as easily and quickly as he does, regardless of where he is and what his surroundings are. Give him his headphones and the rest of the world doesn’t exist, it’s like plugging him into the matrix. Now I’m laughing at how nerdy I sound. This is what being married to an engineer does to you! Sorry honey 🙂

Anyway, I’m waffling. I feel like I have adequately, although briefly, filled you in on our trip up until we left for Mexico. Sorry the updates have come so tardily! I will be on my best behaviour for the next while and write about Mexico with haste!

Sending so much love to all of you!!!
S & M & L & L

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