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Monday, June 30, 2014

Little Things

Today has brought many things.

It's good to see my older three children happily scheming together for Joseph's upcoming birthday. They spent all afternoon transforming a giant box (leftover from our DI days) into a clever castle as a birthday gift. What a creative idea! Matthew fashioned a working drawbridge while Sarah sawed a barred window into one side and Daniel crafted cardboard daggers and swords from the leftover pieces. They crafted clever torches and mounted a banner on the top. They also gathered a large stuffed dragon to guard the gate, and a stick pony for a trusty steed. Fun times.

It was good to take my kids to the library for a show with a zoologist. They loved learning about and interacting with a kangaroo, a ring-tailed lemur, a bearded dragon, a cotton-topped monkey, and something else I can't remember the name of. (Drat!)

It's good to look out my kitchen window and see all my children helping each other climb the oak trees next to the house. It was good to catch a glimpse of a good deed when Sarah lifted Joseph down from the tall branch, and Joseph gave her the biggest smile and just wrapped his arms around her neck in pure adoration.

It was good to see Matthew and Daniel work together this afternoon to make waffles from scratch. They did such a great job making a delicious treat for lunch and we all enjoyed the fruits of their labors, topped with apple butter and freshly whipped cream (actually, Daniel over-whipped the cream a bit so it was on the verge of turning into butter, but it worked just as well). It was good to see Sarah notice the lack of maple syrup and take matters into her own hands. She made imitation maple syrup herself after looking up a recipe online.

It was good to see Joseph run inside with fistfuls of rocks and jubilantly exclaim, "I found new pet rocks! I'm going to color them myself!"

It's good to have a healthy body so I can work in the goat pasture patching fences (again) and it's good to be able to clean out some of the chicken coop to make it more comfortable for our birds.

It's good to be home from our trip, where I have my own washer and dryer. I'm so thankful I can do laundry in my own space on my own time frame. It was good to fold laundry and have organized places to put everything away, instead of stacking them in a back pack or duffle bag.

It's good to have a temporary AC unit in one corner of the dining room while our central AC is broken and waiting to be replaced. It's so good to stand in front of the little AC fan when the rest of the house gets too hot. It was great to have rain today, which watered our land and cooled the air.

It's good to breath fresh air, to enjoy being alive. It's good to have a heart full of peace and joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's good to be filled with love for the people around me. God is good, and today I feel so blessed. Life is beautiful.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Reflections of our Journey

I wanted to reflect on our journey. I have several thoughts.

1- This trip was SO incredible, and I'm so grateful we were able to do this trip together. The children had so many life-enriching experiences and we created so many memories that will bind us closer together. This is already a cherished memory. It was so fun to sit around the dinner table and hear the kids tell Dad their favorite parts of the trip.

2- One of the reasons I planned this trip was so I could do something difficult and prove to myself that I can  do hard things on my own. At home I often relied on my sweet husband to take care of life's 'hard things'....but I wanted to feel more independent, more powerful, and more competent. We did many hard things, and I felt stronger. The hard things weren't all physical (like hiking and kayaking)....much of the 'marathon' required spiritual strength (can you guess how many times I had to be exceedingly patient with children who were tired/sore/hungry/hot/cold/bored/insert whatever you want?). I was pleased with my personal growth.

3- It was hard sometimes. It was a lot of work. At first the kids were very disobedient, chaotic, and contentious.  The first week I asked myself, "What have I gotten myself into?!" But we were already committed to the whole trip, so there was no going back. After I introduced our rule about food and behavior (posted earlier this month), the kids' choices drastically improved. Would I do it again? Absolutely!

4- It was very good to be 'away from it all': the housework, the farm work, teaching art classes, DI coaching, performing magic shows, and the endless emails/paperwork for clients. We were able to connect as a family in wonderful ways that we've never done before since they had my exclusive attention.

5- My kids were so creative in making their own entertainment. I loved seeing their imaginative games and home-made toys crafted from the forest. Every kid should have a chance to spend an unstructured week living in the forest- one night isn't nearly long enough. The longer we spent camping, the quicker they created their own entertainment.

6- I felt so in awe of God's creations, and my own soul was filled. Driving through breathtakingly beautiful scenery just does a number on my heart. I feel the Spirit when I enjoy nature....I felt so humbled by God's generosity in creating such lovely landscapes for His children to enjoy. The Earth is such a grand place full of stunning variety. I'm so thankful for a healthy body that allowed me to hike/swim/kayak and get up close and personal with different environments and different animals. So many neat adventures.

We played in snow at the top of the a mountain in the Bitterroot Mountain Range in Montana. Until we saw a wolf less than a hundred yards away. Then we ran back to the van as fast as we could!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A week in Utah with cousins and a beautiful wedding

We stayed with our cousins the Skarstedts for a week. Can I just say how wonderful it felt to take that first shower? Oh man! Our last campground didn't have shower facilities, so I was VERY grateful to scrub away the dirt of several adventures in the desert.

The day we arrived, Matthew and Daniel were invited to attend the Bachelor Party for Jeff. All the men and nephews went rock climbing at Utah's largest indoor rock climbing gym. They had SUCH a great time with all their cousins!

We also joined several relatives at a local parade. You have never enjoyed a parade until you attend a parade with Uncle Bliss. This guy is hilarious and makes it all a grand party. He gets all the performance groups to stop and do a show right in front of us, convinces beauty queens to blow kisses at the boys, encourages military units to fire their guns, and everyone else he coaxes to give a little dance or do a trick. So much fun! The little kids all adored his antics. 

He'd run up to take pictures with every mascot in the parade, and the kids would all swarm up there with him for a quick photograph. They had such fun. 

We enjoyed exploring the museum at Thanksgiving Point for free (thanks to our museum membership in our hometown). We loved all the hands-on experiments, and particularly loved watching paleontologists clean real fossils. 

We had such fun learning more about dinosaurs, but the highlight of the day was definitely the Erosion Table. I think we spent about an hour here.

It was such a treat to stay with family for so long, and we loved it very much. Cousin Kristi was busy making a colossal wedding cake, and recruited my help for the project.

I had never decorated a wedding cake before, but was happy to help. We worked almost every day for several hours. We made almost 100 candy roses by melting down Jolly Rancher candies, this took 3 days. They were mixed with fresh roses on the cake.

We also made white fondant elements to imitate jasper ware- this was tricky. We initially made a model of what we wanted out of modeling clay. Then we poured plaster of Paris over it to create a mold. Then we carefully filled the molds with fondant, laboriously trimmed the edges, and extracted the finished product. We worked on these for several days as well. The leaves on the olive branches were about the size of a grain of rice, and tricky to manipulate into place. I also made a miniature version of the Draper temple, where the wedding was scheduled to occur. Very fun. Look at the stunning result:

After the cake was served, the candy roses were given to all the children to enjoy. So yummy and fun to eat!

Sarah was able to spend a day helping prepare the reception food with other cousins. They dipped strawberries in chocolate all afternoon to prepare for the feasting and festivities. What great helpers they were! She was so happy to be helpful with such a fun project. 

The wedding ceremony itself was the most beautiful and most spiritual wedding I have ever witnessed. Such a priceless joy it was to be there and see these two souls united in marriage. Everyone was so happy for Jeff and Tamee. They have both waited for SO long to find the right person, and my heart was overflowing with happiness for them both. Such a memorable day to spend in the temple!

The reception was hosted at the This Is The Place Park in Salt Lake City, and there was a train hired for the day to give guests train tours of the historic village. The kids LOVED this activity!

The reception was SUCH a blast, filled with fantastic music and hours of dancing. The reception hall was packed with relatives all laughing and talking and dancing and being silly. What a happy celebration it was! All the kids and parents danced their hearts out the entire evening. 

I had such a great time dancing with my boys and laughing. (Although the candy roses sometimes were dropped on the wood floor, where they shattered.....yeah....candy glass is just as sharp as real glass, so my bare feet took quite a lacerating that night!)

The upcoming weekend was Father's Day, so we left Utah bright and early the morning after the reception. We drove straight to Albuquerque that day (stopping only once in Moab for a picnic lunch and a bit of play). We decided the Albuquerque KOA is our favorite so far. We loved staying here for the night! We were lucky and scored a cabin right next to the playground, so the kids were able to play right next to me while I prepared dinner on our picnic table. The cabins here were also WAY nicer than any others- they were finished on the inside to look like real little homes, complete with nice furniture and finished walls. We loved this little place. 

The next morning we left bright and early and drove all day and into the night until we arrived home in Central Texas late that night. Whew! We made it! We arrived home around midnight, the night before Father's Day. We were happy to be home so we could celebrate this special day with Nathan. 

What a memorable adventure the past two months have been!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Today we enjoyed (or more accurately: sweltered) a long hike on McConkie Ranch, home to some world-famous petroglyphs sprawling along miles of cliffs. It's private property, but the owners allow hikers to come visit the petroglyphs. What a hidden gem in this area!

The start of the hike had a teensy host cabin stocked with plenty of walking sticks to borrow and hundreds of little notes from visitors over the years. It was such fun to read the notes and see where people came from. Here is a view of the interior of the host cabin.

The hike was longer than most of our hikes (or maybe it only seemed that way since we did this one during the late afternoon when it was hot and dry- there were no shady spots on this hike!). We brought plenty of water and would occasionally pour it down our backs to wet our shirts and help cool us off. 

The boys LOVED using the walking sticks, and paused every few minutes to re-enact Gandolf's famous scene facing the Balrog. They'd lift the walking stick high in the air and shout dramatically, "You shall not pass!", then they'd plunge the walking stick into the middle of the trail and watch the dust scatter around them. They never grew tired of doing this.

The petroglyphs were so interesting and so close-up and personal. We had such fun imagining the lives of the original artists, and speculating what the symbols meant. 

It was very hot and we were all very sweaty by the time we made it to the end of the trail. Joseph was getting deflated more and more by the minute when we started heading back to the van, so Daniel once again was an awesome big brother and helped carry Joseph home. The trail was so long that we all took turns carrying Joseph. He was so grateful....and we were all grateful to arrive in the parking lot where we had cold water waiting for us!

We spent the rest of the hot day chilling out (literally!) in the city library reading books and sending a super-quick email to Nathan so he knew we were alive and safe. 

The campground here is heavily populated with wild rabbits. The kids have SUCH fun trying to catch them each night. There is a big wide river right next to us, so it's a little bit cooler than in the open desert. We cut some willows from the riverbanks and used them as roasting sticks for dinner. Tonight we celebrated the end of our camping excursions by deviating from our usual diet of dehydrated soups....we stopped in town and picked up hotdogs. We enjoyed them greatly with Grandma Muir's homemade relish (thanks again Mom for the relish! We LOVED it!!)

We've become great friends with the retired couple who run this campground as the campground hosts. Each day we had talked for hours about the local attractions, the local history, and our mutual interests. It was sad to say goodbye and leave, but we are eager to visit cousins for a week and re-enter the civilized world by living in a house again. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dinosaur National Monument, petroglyphs and more

Yesterday we explored Dinosaur National Park and crossed another item off my bucket list: Seeing dinosaur fossils in their natural environment. There is a huge fossil deposit here of Jurassic Era animals, notably the stegosaurus, allosaurus, and Camarasaurus. There is a cliff face where fossils have been exposed and left in place for the public to view.

It was so fascinating to explore the jumbled remains of these huge creatures. The femur bones were taller than Joseph!

The kids enjoyed the open-air shuttle ride to and from the fossil quarry.

There was a fierce storm last night that rattled our tent severely. We were afraid it would rip into shreds with the buffeting it was being given. It was difficult to sleep with all the noise, but luckily the storm ended in the wee hours of this morning and the tent only suffered minor damage.

Today we enjoyed several fascinating hikes. The first one was a close up view of ancient petroglyphs along high cliffs. We loved admiring the handiwork of bygone artists and puzzled over their meaning. Matthew copied some of the petroglyphs into his field journal.

Daniel was so kind and helped carry Joseph over troublesome rocks when the hike became difficult.

Near this site was a really neat historic homestead created by a local legend, Josie Bassett Morris. She settled this spot in the desert by herself and built everything alone. The original cabin, out buildings, and fences are still intact and open to the public.

The shade trees she planted and carefully nursed are towering pillars. It's remarkable to walk through someone else's home and imagine life here. There is a small spring near the house, and it trickles into a hand-dug pond. The cattle corrals were made in box canyons. They were so gorgeous!

As we hiked a mile into one box canyon, we made an unexpected discovery. There is a very pleasant micro-climate here where the air is at least 10-15 degrees cooler. Trees, shrubs, and grasses thrive, and there was a large variety of life. This was a huge change compared to the open desert that we were accustomed to seeing.

We loved hiking inside this canyon during the afternoon (which would normally be spent sweltering...this desert is quite hot and shade offered no noticeable relief in our campsite). We had several school lessons in the cool shade of the canyon walls, next to a little rushing brook of clear cold water.

Their favorite activity on this hike was climbing that sandstone cliff faces. They also loved playing with a traditional First Nation puzzle created of native grasses. They loved making and solving several puzzles, and Joseph picked a huge bouquet of this particular grass because he wanted to bring home puzzles for Dad. Here the kids are all busily reassembling the puzzles. So fun!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fossil Butte and gorgeous drives

So while we didn't have any electricity for several days, I kept my journal in a bare sketchbook like this:

We enjoyed a beautiful drive through Wyoming and northern Utah. The bluffs and mountains were so gorgeous.

On this trip we have been collecting interesting rock and soil samples along out way. Today was the best day yet for soil samples. The kids would watch out the window for unique colors passing by, then they'd point and shout in delight when they saw a good collection site on a mountain slope. We'd quickly pull over one of us would jump out (armed with a plastic Ziploc bag) and dash along the roadside to collect a couple handfuls of dirt. It's been such fun for all of us, like a treasure hunt. Today we collected a rainbow of soils- bright yellow, dark red, dark purple, and light green.

We made a detour to visit Fossil Bluff, a hidden gem in Wyoming's bare countryside.. We really enjoyed learning about marine fossils here as the kids earned their Jr' Ranger badge and Jr. Paleontologist badge. I loved learning how fossils are discovered and prepared for display, it was so interesting!

We drove for 7 hours today, and enjoyed listening to audio books all day- thank goodness for great audio books! Today we listened to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, followed by The Frog Princess. We also enjoyed teaching Joseph road trips songs and we all sang together while the miles passed by.

Tonight we arrived at Dinosaur National Monument, where we will stay for the next three days. We arrived only 15 minutes before sunset, so we had the tent up and beds ready is quick fashion. The kids are really quick now at setting up our campsites; we all work together like a machine.

We are looking forward to the warmer nights and drier conditions here after the freezing temperatures and nearly constant rain in Yellowstone!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Little Things

I had forgotten to record some neat moments of our journey.

Matthew had brought all his allowance along so he could buy a pocket knife. Unfortunately in Washington he lost our hygiene bag with everyone's toiletries, so he had to use his allowance to replace the bag and contents. When we arrived here, he saw a nice pocket knife for sale in the office and he set his heart on earning it. Each day he would eagerly find extra chores he could do to earn a bit of money here and a bit of money there. Since we aren't at home, there were not many extra chores I could come up with. After days of effort, he was almost ready to purchase the knife.

One night he counted his money and planned out his extra chores for the morning so he could earn the last two dollars necessary for the purchase. While Matthew read bedtime stories to the little boys, Sarah took her own allowance to the camp office and quietly bought the prized knife. She wrapped it in brown paper with a lovely anonymous tag, then hid it where Matthew would find it when he did his nightly chores. Boy was he excited! He ran into the tent and tackled Sarah in glee, laughing and hugging her until she squealed. What an awesome sister, I was so proud of her selfless gift.

Matthew was eager to use his new knife and help with meal prep. We had chili on the menu, so he obligingly cut up cheese to add as a topping. He was so excited to put this knife to use!

The children have been eagerly collecting patches from all the Junior Ranger programs, and here in Yellowstone there are three patches that can be earned. I told the children I would only pay for two patches per child, so they could pick their two favorites. Sarah and Matthew were a bit disappointed that they couldn't collect the full set, so Daniel generously gave them his patches after working for hours to earn them. What a neat brother!

This trip has really helped the children come together and be less contentious. This was one of my primary goals with this trip, because last month there had been such contention and competition among them.

I told them on Day One that our activities and daily menu would be directly tied to their behavior. If they were fighting, we'd have boring plain food for each meal and we wouldn't go on adventures. If they were being kind and serving each other, we'd have more field trips and yummier meals. After the first couple of days, they realized I was totally serious and since then they have put in a lot of effort to get along.

It's transformed our family relationships in such a positive way! It's been such a joy to watch them playing together so nicely like best friends each day. My heart is happy and our tent is so often filled with laughter and games now. In this regard, the trip is a huge success.

Today they made a little fort by draping a sleeping bag over our picnic table. They used towels for a carpet and played card games in their fort for hours this morning.

Bedtime is fun, since there are no distractions for me, I sing them bedtime hymns for ages. They request their favorite hymns and I sing. I used to sing quietly so as not to bother the campers around us, but one night I heard people lingering outside out tent enjoying the music. So last night I sang without worry of restraint, which was a delight. Perhaps they enjoy the calming strains as much as we do.

During this trip I have been reading a marvelous book called The Last Child In The Woods, a nonfiction work encouraging families to spend more time connecting with nature. It's been delightful, especially since we are able to put into practice what I'm reading about. Today is a totally unstructured day so the kids can just play in the woods and creek near our camp ground. They feel so adventurous exploring in such a wild area, and I am content to let them fill their little hearts with these memories.

This evening we celebrated the end of our Yellowstone adventure by making s'mores together. The sun is setting behind the tall pines and birds are singing around us. The camp ground is quiet and peaceful. It's a lovely way to end this chapter of our journey.

Tomorrow we pack up camp very early and head to a couple of fossil monuments and Dinosaur National Park. There is no electricity or water at that location, so we'll be digitally dark for four nights. Well be hiking all over the park seeing fossils exposed in rock faces. What an adventure lays before us!