Road Trip USA – Day Twelve & Thirteen “Carlsbad Caverns”


Chili vs. Chile

I ate Hatch green chile for the first time on July 13, 1998. I had moved to Albuquerque, NM in 1997, reluctant to try ‘chile.’  Being raised in the Ohio, “chili’ was something we ate on Sunday afternoons, in a pot, with beans, ground meat and crackers while watching the groundhog day Cleveland Browns almost take us to the Superbowl with my family.

As a staff nurse,  I was given (not offered as declining wasn’t an option) a green chile breakfast burrito from the Frontier Restaurant from a hospital administrators on a jet plane ride to select new hospital beds for our unit.  Feeling cornered, I politely unwrapped the shiny foil wrap and took a small bite.

It was the best thing I had ever eaten in my life – scrambled eggs, cheese, and green chile…so spicy, so good.  I could not stop thinking about that burrito. From that day forward (for almost 12 years), Quinn and I ate a breakfast burrito from the Frontier every single Sunday.  Like the many that have gone before me, and they many that will come after, an addiction was born.

The Frontier Restaurant, located on old Route 66, across from the University of New Mexico campus is a place you must visit if you go West – it is quite the operation to witness. In operation since 1971 it is open seven days a week from 5am-1am! Frontier Restaurant  Opening the doors, you may see a line a mile long that wraps and twists through the various rooms of the restaurant and will be in awe of the lightening speed service that moves everyone to green chile comas.  Not only is the chile amazing, but they sell a cinnamon bun (a.k.a. the cardiac bun or sinamon bun) that was never meant to be eaten by just one person (but trust me, you can!) and they have this mesmerizing fresh squeeze OJ machine that produces the best Orange Juice Ever.

It’s were the locals go.

There are two types chile, green or red, and it is THE condiment (some would argue a food group) in New Mexico.  Many love one or the other, and even more order ‘christmas‘ which would be both red and green chile on everything from their eggs to pizza! Each Fall, New Mexicans enjoy the constant aroma of roasting chiles outside, 24/7.

Today we began another day of driving to Albuquerque.  Logistically, we had to once again change out our rental vehicle to save money.  We returned our rental and picked up a new one.  When you pick up and return your rental vehicle at the same location it is always less expensive.  We changed vehicles a total of three times on this road trip.

Immediately after the rental car exchange we headed to the Frontier! After our fix, we began our drive to Southern New Mexico to take the kids to Carlsbad Caverns.  This drive was a long one – New Mexico does not offer the same land features as other drives we experienced – it was flat, open and much of the same – with not much to do between destinations.

Carlsbad Caverns is a magical place in Southern New Mexico that has over 100 caves for exploration.  In addition, each evening there is an evening bat flight program. Carlsbad Caverns We planned our trip to arrive in Carlsbad to catch the nightly bat program and then return the following day to explore the caves.

The bat flight program is a free event that takes place from May-October each year.  A park ranger conducts a talk on bats and describes what to expect at the sun set – hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from their slumber to a night of feasting. While it is difficult to provide an exact number, estimates have ranged from 300,000-400,00 bats. The mass exit takes between 45-60 minutes.  The caves are migratory homes to the Mexican free-tail bats.

We sat in an outdoor amphitheater right outside the cave entrance and waited with hundreds of other vistors hoping the evening would provide the conditions that would entice the bats from the darkness. After an educational session, questions and strict viewing instructions we waited…and, then a few dark flutters emerged! We sat in awe of what felt like an unending cloud of bats that flew right over our heads and out into the night sky.  Magical experience.

The next day, we woke up and returned to the Caverns and participate in a self-guided tour. Quinn and I had been there before and remembered it being an amazing experience, but crowded.  Today, we hit the jackpot!  As we began our descent into the cave, we discovered we were almost ALONE.  Aside from maybe two other families, we had this amazing cavern to ourselves!  It was eery, quiet, mystical…perfect.

We had planned on staying 1-2 hours and ended up leaving over 4 hours later.  We just took indulgent time and the kids loved it.  My oldest ran out of camera space!  Talk about a field trip!  Here they were seeing firsthand stalactites, stalagmites and columns.

At the conclusion of the tour, we took the elevator back to the surface and visited the gift shop for souvenir shopping. Once again, entrance to this park was free with our 4th grader National Park Pass. 4th Grader Park Pass

We headed back to our hotel and went to sleep for the final night of our vacation.  Tomorrow we would head back to Albuquerque to stay with our old neighbors, Sherry and Tom.  We planned to visit friends and places with the kids and enjoy a day of reconnecting and reminiscing.  So hard to believe our two weeks was coming to an end…








The Gifts of Grief.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” – C.S. Lewis

Unfortunately, grief cannot be scheduled from 2-4pm on a Sunday afternoon.  No. Grief is the visitor that will arrive and paralyze your breath while folding laundry.  It will sucker-punch your heart when you hear a song.  It will bath your day in melancholy on Christmas.  Grief shows up and she doesn’t consider timing.

In the first few months after my mother’s death I hated everything.  I couldn’t believe I could go the grocery store and people were smiling and buying groceries!  I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know? My mom died!”

I wanted every 1st holiday following her death cancelled. Christmas was horrible.  We sat under our tree and did nothing but cry the entire time.  It was terrible.  There was no joy.  The holiday glue was painfully absent.

Slowly, over time, a new normal began to emerge and while I still could not find comfort or peace in my home, I began to grow as a human being and develop the skills I would need to enter adulthood.

Losing my mother as a young girl has been the biggest loss of my life.  When she died I felt alone.  None of my friends had experienced what I went through.  Some of my friends had experienced the concept of loss through divorce.  But, no one close to me had had their mother die. I felt alone and very misunderstood.  Lost. Scared. Abandoned.  And, Life kept going.

We buried my mom on a Saturday and I was in school Monday.  As I walked through the halls and attended classes no one said a word.  How strange. I understand many didn’t know what to say and I am not criticizing, just sharing that when someone has experienced the death of a loved one your acknowledgment will not make anything worse.  They already feel their worse.  They want to know they are seen, not alone.

I am beginning to see some of my friends lose their mothers or fathers, and for many, entering the all-consuming process of grief.  Grief has no end point.  You will feel joy again and you will be happy, but there will forever be this small raw sad pulsating spot in your heart.  It will beat softly, always,  and at times resonate like a kettle drum.

“She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts” – George Eliot

When a loved one dies, there are logistics that need to be handle and there is the business of final arrangements .  I think this is good.  You need something to remind you to breath.  To get up, brush your teeth, get dressed. Rinse and Repeat. However, Monday will come.  Your friends go back to work and you sit with this grief, alone.  It is a personal relationship like no other.

Life is relentless and will not stop for your loss. Grief is no different.  It is relentless and will never end.  Allow it.  Receive her when she knocks.  Cry.  Be angry.  Smile.  Acknowledge it – Grief isn’t always sad.

Grief, to me, is like any other emotion with one painful caveat – you will only understand this emotion when you experience the loss of someone you loved dearly.  It is a bittersweet gift.

Not one of us will escape grief.  It is inevitable.  Someday you will hear or witness your biggest loss.  Grief will knock and you will open the door to a place you could never prepare to greet.

Many times, I feel so fortunate I was able to experience this type of loss at the tender, naïve age of 14.  Young enough that I truly had no big picture understanding of the what I was losing (yet).  I find now, years later, as a mother, I grieve her in new and different ways.

Grief will also brings you gifts.  When you lose someone you love, not much will really ever rock your world again.  Once you survive your worst fear or pain, you may learn first-hand that aside from your health and relationships, nothing else really is a big deal –

I have found grief offers us three beautiful packages for living a more meaningful, joyful and empowering life if we are able to receive.

Perspective. Gratitude. Resilience.

Gift One: Perspective. This is a precious gift I can thank my mother for daily. Truly, there is not much that rocks my world. I can fathom a few, but for the most part, I don’t complain. I can see a silver lining in just about any situation. Life is a gift.  Time is relentless. Time is a constant reminder that life is finite. Time does not lie.  Time does not play.

Don’t waste your life wishing it away or failing to recognize the beauty of another day.  Even the messy part.  The messy part is where the growth and deepening of the soul has greatest potential. My mother would have done anything for another day with us – you do have today – live well!

Perspective is like the best human super-power, ever.

Gift Two: Gratitude.  When I wake up in the morning, before I even put your feet on the floor, I try to remember to take a deep breath and say “thank you.”  To be given the gift of another day…say thank you.  I take a daily morning walk to connect with nature – It is the time were I commune with nature and feel my version of God.

Sometimes it so easy to find yourself caught up in the aggravations, irritations and demands of your day, but if you practice the gift of gratitude you will quickly realize there is always something to be grateful for.  I am sure my mother would be grateful for a day of aggravation, irritation and demands if it meant to also experience more time with the people she loved and to witness the beauty of another sunset.

Gift Three: Resilience. The third gift you may receive is the nurturing of resilience. Nothing tests your inner strength more brutally than grief.  Grief is like the moonIt waxes and wanes but even during the month when it becomes invisible to the eye, it is still there.  Grief will always remain, but you will find in each day you continue to face your pain your confidence in facing any challenge in life will increase and be ready for whatever hand life deals next.  Resilience can be your greatest strength.

I would not be who I am or be living the life I am without my mother’s death and allowing grief to enter my heart.  My mom left to allow space for me to grow. Such a blessing.

my mom and grandpa spencer

My Mom & her Dad.  My mother lost her mom before she was 10.  A legacy of loss I have broken.

To all of you grieving or facing the loss of someone you love, know you are not alone. Be gentle with yourself today and always. Grief may come when you least expect it, or have poor timing, but at those moments open the door…

Grief is like the ocean;

it comes on waves ebbing and flowing.

Sometimes the water is calm,

And sometimes it is overwhelming.

All we can do is learn to swim.

        – Vicki Harrison






Road Trip USA – Day Eleven “Monument Valley & Grand Canyon (and some sketchy dinosaur tracks)”

Our Day Eleven trip was ambitious! We had a six hour drive south to Monument Valley, Arizona and planned to arrive at the Grand Canyon early evening to watch the sunset over the rim.

Day 11

I think I have mentioned this in every post, but remembering that the drive IS part of the vacation/adventure is important when traveling with kids –  that especially echoed true today.  Our kids continued to impress us and traveled like rockstars.  Not too long after we left Moab, we saw a questionable sign for “Dinosaur Footprints.”

20160830_162326Dinosaur Footprints, ya’ll!  65-200 million years ago dinosaur footprints.  We knew that Utah was full of dinosaur fossil findings and footprints, but this advertisement was intriguing.  Homemade spray painted signs made out of wood and siding promoted this stop on Navajo Nation land. These tracks are right outside Tuba City, Arizona and I am so glad we did a quick turn at the spray painted red arrow on the dirt road to stop and see.   As you arrive, you will see about 10-15 shack lean-tos selling Navajo items with members of the community awaiting your arrival to serve as your tour guide.  Our guide was an elderly Native American woman.  It appeared that the guides await a vehicle and take turns  inviting you to take a walking tour of the grounds.  Armed with nothing but a plastic water bottle to squirt on the footprints to highlight the dinosaur impressions, we were on our way!  While we found some of the information shared by our guide questionable, there was no doubt the tracks were there! I was awestruck by the irony of the unbelievable gold mind of fossils and footprints and tangible poverty of the tribe.

My mind was blown. There were so many tracks. Thousands. Just right there. You were walking all over them. As soon as water was poured on them, they almost ‘came alive.’  Our guide claimed that at one time in history (millions of years ago!) this was a watering hole.  This explained the number and varied species of dinosaur footprints we were seeing.  It was so surreal that we started to feel like we were being taken for fools! We continued to the ‘tour’ and took a million pictures.  The tour is free of charge, but at the end a donation is requested. We gave our guide $40 and she encouraged us to consider more as she was struggling and recovering from being an alcoholic. When we declined, she was nothing but grateful.  The kind woman thanked us many, many times. I walked away amazed that this tribe has to be sitting on most likely one of the largest set of dinosaur tracks in our country and are flat out broke.  There was a double-edge beauty to the entire experience.

As soon as we got in the car we googled the heck out of the stop and we found several paleontologists whom confirmed the authenticity of many of the tracks. Dinosaur Footprints Tuba, Arizona Mind blown.

The stop at the dinosaur tracks took about 45 minutes total and then we were on our way to Monument Valley in Navajo County, Arizona. I was grateful we had a full tank of gas before we left as there was nothing…nothing…but wide open spaces for hours.  When we started to get hungry for lunch we finally came through a town that had a community picnic shelter at a run down playground. As we stopped and pulled out our picnic tubs we were  instantly greeted by “Brownie.” Brownie was a sweet dog that appeared to be fed off the kindness of strangers and the community. He was dirty, missing fur and appeared to have a broken leg. He followed us to our picnic table and just laid next to us during our meal.

At one point, Kira stopped eating and was crying. When we asked her what was wrong, she just said she felt bad eating when he was so hungry. She took her entire plate over to him and just left it for him to eat. After he finished her lunch, we took some of our paper bowls and left him some bowls of water to drink as well. He finished them off before we even left. Sweet little Brownie.

As we were leaving the shelter a Native American man rode over to us on his bike and told us some of his story. He made several mentions of being free of the evil – which for him was alcohol.  Although I doubt he was free of his vice, he was kind and hungry. We offered him bottles of water and food and he accepted. However, he requested that we not directly hand any of it to him. He provided an explanation we did not understand but were able to figure out that we were to place the items on the ground between us.  Once we did so, he said a few things and then picked up everything. It was an odd experience and at the same time, a sacred encounter.

We continued our drive into the historic and stunning Monument Valley! The contrast of flat open desert and buttes and rock formations required a constant reorientation that we were still in the United States! It is so unlike any other place we have visited before. If  you have never visited the West, you will walk away with a completely new appreciation of the significance and wonders contained in the United States.  Our piece of North America as it relates to the story of our planet, not just the metamorphosis of civilization, but the evolution of the planet is truly exceptional.


Finally, we continued our journey south to the Grand Canyon. We arrived with just enough time to explore the park and find a location on the rim to have a picnic dinner and toast the sun-set. We reserved one evening for this visit so we did not set up any excursions into the canyon, but the abyss will forever hold a special place in our family’s heart as a moment of taking in something larger than you can imagine, together.  Watching the shadow of darkness slowly rise up the canyon until it became pitch black – amazing.

Despite a huge day of travel and experiences, everyone was in great spirits and we checked into our hotel at the Grand Canyon. It was a quaint hotel with a southwest vibe we all enjoyed.  Kamiko’s American Girl doll, McKenna, even found this to be one of her favorite lodges. Tonight, we go to bed slightly melancholy that tomorrow we will make the long drive to Albuquerque, New Mexico (where we lived for a number of years and all three girls were born!) because it means we are days away from this epic adventure ending.  We have plans to pick up our new rental, eat at the BEST breakfast restaurant EVER and drive further south to Carlsbad, New Mexico to explore the caves with the girls! Sweet dreams.