Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Week in Palm Springs

The kids and I are having an amazing time in Palm Springs, California this week. Sunny days spent by the pool with nothing to do but swim and relax; yes, please!

Meanwhile, Andi is working at an event in nearby Death Valley, California. I feel a little guilty about having fun in the sun while he's working ... but then again, it was his idea for us to come. Andi's cousin owns a vacation home in Palm Springs about 90 minutes away from the event, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the kids and I to stay at the house while Andi worked, then have him join us afterward. I invited Andi's mom, Janie, to come along with us this week to keep us company.

Tory, Aden, Janie and I left Minneapolis on Monday, October 24. Our direct flight was an easy one; the plane was practically empty so Aden and Tory were able to move around to stretch their legs a bit during the three hour flight. Janie's been to Palm Springs (and to the vacation property we're staying at) several times before, so it helped having her along as she knew exactly where to go.

Our accommodations are awesome for the week! It's a three-bedroom, two-bathroom California ranch-style house with a big backyard and it's own private pool. Andi's cousin, Laura, has made this place so comfortable for guests. There's plenty of lounge chairs and towels for the pool, and comfortable seating indoors and outside. Aden likes this place so much, he refers to it as his "new house." (Poor kid is sill adjusting from our real move this past April).

We made it to the house on Monday afternoon in time to swim in the pool for a bit before dinner. Laura and her family had just been in Palm Springs, so there was enough leftover food in the refrigerator to piece together a meal. After we ate, the four of us took a little stroll around the neighborhood. It feels so wonderful to have another taste of summer weather, even if only for a week.

We were all exhausted after our walk, so we called it an early night. Fortunately, Janie doesn't mind sleeping with one of the kids, so she and Tory took the master bedroom and Aden and I shared a bed in one of the other rooms.

The next morning, Aden and I woke up early (4:30am // 6:30am Minnesota time). We laid around for  a bit until Grandma Janie and Tory woke up, then headed outside to swim. The weather is absolutely gorgeous here -- low 70's in the early morning, quickly warming to the high 80's by Noon. (Gorgeous for us, by the way; probably not so great for Andi who's camped out in the middle of the desert).

Pool time!

It's like our own private oasis in the backyard. The house is located in a gated country club community, but we've hardly seen any neighbors outside. And, the view is incredible! Palm trees and mountains as far as the eye can see. California livin,' for sure.

Eat. Sleep. Swim. Repeat.

That's essentially been our life in Palm Springs this week. On Tuesday, we stepped away from the pool briefly to hit the grocery store. The house we're staying in has a full kitchen, so it seems silly to haul the kids out to restaurants for meals. Instead, we stocked the fridge with our favorite foods and snacks, and planned to make meals at home this week. Janie likes to eat healthy, too, so mealtimes have been simple and easy.

I brought Tory's hammock from the cabin and fashioned it between two fruit trees. It's the perfect shady spot to relax in the cooler morning hours. By the way, how cool would it be to pick fresh lemons, limes and grapefruits from your own backyard? Palm Springs is coming out of their hottest months of the year, so a lot of the vegetation is beginning its re-growth and not ready for picking right now ... but soon!

More relaxing by the pool ... with Popsicle treats, of course.  

On Thursday morning, Janie and I decided to take the kids to the nearby Living Desert Zoo. Janie and I could've laid by the pool all day again, but we thought the kids might like a change of scenery. Volunteers who greeted us at the beginning of the park were all so friendly and couldn't seem to get enough of Aden's cuteness. One woman suggested we check out a nature show taking place in the amphitheatre, so we grabbed a seat underneath big, spanning sun shades and learned all about animals who make the desert home.

Tory was particularly fascinated by the presentation, as she loves all things nature right now. At one point the commentator asked the audience if anyone knew what a herbivore was, and Tory reached her arm up in the air and answered the question proudly.

The zoo had a huge model train display set up near the entrance of the amphitheatre, which was easily Aden's favorite part of the whole experience. He would've stood there for hours watching the Thomas the Train car roll along the tracks.

The rest of the zoo was fairly lack-luster, unfortunately. For one, it was HOT. I didn't bring a stroller on this trip, so Aden and Tory had to walk (or rather, Janie and I carry them along the paths from exhibit to exhibit). Fortunately, we bought shuttle passes so we were able to hop on and off various golf carts as they cruised along. There weren't many animals at the zoo either, or not the ones you'd expect to see at a zoo. I suppose that's because it's a "desert" zoo and featured those types of animals (birds, warthogs, wild dogs, cheetahs and giraffes). Janie bought us tickets to ride the carousel, which the kids loved, and then we politely suggested heading back to the house to swim for the rest of the afternoon.

Much better!

This year we'll be in Palm Springs for Halloween, so I brought along the kids' costumes and researched a few Halloween events in the area. I'd be fine skipping Halloween all-together as it's not my favorite holiday anyway, but Tory is old enough to realize it's coming up on the calendar. I'm not sure what trick-or-treating will be like in this neighborhood; it is a gated community, but there aren't many children around. I suggested we check out a Halloween event at the nearby community center on Saturday to cover our bases.

After much deliberation, Tory is dressing up as a witch this Halloween (very surprised she decided against being a Disney princess as Elsa, Cinderella and Jasmine were prime contendors) and Aden is going as a fisherman (he also debated being Sheriff Callie or a scary monster). I packed their costumes in my suitcase, so final decisions were locked in when we left Minnesota on Monday.

The Halloween event took place from 1pm - 6pm on Saturday, and I had no idea what to expect. Since we're not from the area, I didn't know if it'd be in an unsafe part of the community or a total bust from an event standpoint ... fortunately, it was just fine. There were bouncy houses for the kids to play in, trick-or-treat stations set up around a grassy area with games and prizes, and live music and entertainment. Tory was fascinated by the magic show and was even asked to help the magician on "stage." Aden said his favorite part was the candy (and it's true, he ate every piece by the time we left that afternoon).

One thing I didn't count on at the event was how HOT it would be. Oh my goodness, we were dripping with sweat by the end. I was worried Tory and Aden would overheat jumping around in all the bouncy houses, but they didn't seem to mind -- they had a blast! I couldn't believe some of the other people at the event wearing masks and heavy costumes. Some kids were wearing fuzzy zip-up costumes you'd wear on a cold Minnesota night out trick-or-treating! How they didn't fall over with heat exhaustion, I don't know. I suppose you'd be use to the heat if you lived here.

Back to the pool we went following the Halloween event - phew!

Two more days left in Palm Springs, and happily Andi will join us on the last day. I didn't realize it, but this trip has been exactly what I needed -- it's been quiet and relaxing and fun to spend a week with the kids and no plans. The only thing that'll make it better is having Andi here with us on Monday.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Camping Weekend

A couple weekends ago, Andi and I had a hairbrained idea to take the kids camping. For reference, we've done this only once before when Tory was about 18 months old (spoiler alert: we didn't love our experience) but the timing seemed right to give camping another chance.

Back in 2013, we rented a camper van which proved to be a huge hassle. Remember, we're camping novices so the whole sewage dumping + cleaning and check-out seemed more work than it was worth. Now, we own an ice house trailer that easily doubles for a camper. It has heating and air-conditioning, a small kitchenette and enough beds to accommodate our family of four.

Andi selected a campground in Wisconsin about 1 1/2 hours away from our lake cabin. The four of us left the Twin Cities on Friday around Noon and drove to the lake, loaded the ice house with food and cooking supplies, then headed North to Amnicon Falls State Park. We didn't make a reservation and wondered for a minute if we'd be out of luck considering it was peak leaf peeping weekend in northwestern Wisconsin, but fortunately there were only a few people checked into the state park for the evening. The friendly campground hosts recommended a spot perfect for kids and our trailer, so we heeded their advice and set up camp just before sunset.

Our camping spot led directly to a picturesque wooded trail, so the kids and I set off to collect sticks for the campfire while Andi prepared dinner. He had recently purchased a Can Cooker to take on a boys' hunting trip, so we tested it out for the first time with a recipe for beef stew. Easy enough!

It was one of the first cool fall nights of the year with air temperatures quickly falling into the 40's, so we decided to eat dinner inside the ice house and warm up before s'mores over the campfire.

Sometime during the commotion of cleaning up dinner and picking up our campsite for the evening, Aden mistakenly locked himself inside the ice house. Alone. I laughed at first and looked for Andi to open the door with the key, but unfortunately the key was locked inside the ice house with Aden. EEK! Andi (who usually remains calm in most situations) began to freak out and pound on the windows, shouting for Aden to press the door handle open. Apparently, a selling feature of this particular ice house is its inability to be broken into -- meaning our two-year-old was locked inside by himself in the middle of the woods! Eventually, Aden opened the door with a smirk and thought the whole episode was the funniest thing ever. Andi, Tory and I ... did not. From that moment on, we knew the whereabouts of the ice house key at all times that weekend.

Once we were all settled into the ice house for the night, Andi turned on a movie and we all snuggled into our respective sleeping bags. It was cozy as cozy could be in our little shack in the woods.

That night wasn't the best sleep for any of us, but really -- had Andi and I expected anything else? Nope.

There are four beds in our ice ice house -- a double that folds out over the dining table, two twin top bunk beds and one lower bunk bed. In an ideal world, the kids would have each slept in twin-size beds and Andi and I would have shared the double fold-out ... but in reality, Tory was too scared to sleep on the top bunk and we were worried Aden would roll out of a twin-sized bed all together. So, Aden and I slept in the double bed together and Tory slept in the lower twin. That left Andi to sleep in one of the top bunks. Way to take one for the team, Dad!

The four of us might've slept alright had it not been for Tory rolling out of bed repeatedly. More than once, I heard a PLOP on the floor and a sleepy Tory whisper, "Mom, can you help me?" as she stumbled to untangle herself from her sleeping bag.

The next morning, the four of us were up before the sun. Andi made us a delicious breakfast of coffee, eggs, sauteed kale and maple sausage links before we set out to hike around Amnicon Falls State Park. Tory was disappointed in our lack of breakfast condiments, but hey - that's the camping life, we told her.

By 8:00am, we were fed, dressed and ready to explore. Andi, Tory and Aden plotted our course for hiking on the trail map and together we set out into the park. Brrr, was it ever chilly that morning! Luckily, I'd thrown in gloves and hats for the kids but I hadn't yet unpacked the rest of our winter gear. I tried to be brave and force away the shivers in the name of family fun, but man - I hate being cold!

Good thing our surroundings were a beautiful distraction!

It's hard to believe this magical place is only an hour or so away from our lake cabin. Wow!

Then again - it's not so hard to believe because our lake cabin is pretty magical, too.

I could've stayed all day and hiked around the state park, but the kids were growing tired. I developed a love for hiking during our recent trip to Alaska and someday, I hope we'll be able to do more of it as a family. Until then, I'll take it in bits and pieces as we can.

When the kids started to cry and complain their legs were growing tired, Andi and I decided to conclude our adventure, pack up camp and head back to the lake cabin. What a fun camping adventure we'd had! Now seeing the possibilities, I know we'll have many more "camping" weekends on the ice this winter as we take the ice house to various frozen lakes in the area.

As we left Amnicon Falls State Park, Andi and I realized we were only about 15 miles from Duluth, Minnesota. We decided to make a detour through there on our way back to the cabin; it'd been forever since we'd been there.

Pulling our large ice house through downtown Duluth was not easy feat, but Andi safely found a parking spot for our rig, and the four of us walked along the edge of Lake Superior.

Eventually, we made our way back to the car and on our way to the cabin. Our 24-hour adventure was the perfect thrill, concluded at our favorite home-away-from-home.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Just The Three of Us

Andi went away for a boys' hunting trip in Canada this past weekend, so I decided to embrace the calm and stay put for a change vs. driving to our lake cabin. I bet I could count on one hand the number of times we've spend a Saturday or Sunday in the Twin Cities ... which is crazy since we live here!

I typically dread the weekends Andi's traveling because it seems like everyone in the world has their own family's plans. Saturday and Sunday drag on forever; it's different from the weekdays when the kids and I have our regularly-scheduled activities to keep us busy. This weekend though, I welcomed the chance to chance to take things at our own pace. Now that Tory's in school half-days, we've got somewhere to be every morning by 8:25am. I made a list of things to do this weekend, but loved the idea of picking and choosing where we wanted to be.

Friday afternoon, I took the kids to Westwood Hills Nature Center for an outdoor scavenger hunt. Going for a nature hike has become one of my favorite pasttimes, though admitedly, not much ground is covered with four little legs along. Before we left home, I printed a nature scavenger hunt in hopes it'd spur Tory and Aden to walk with a purpose. It definitely worked for Tory! We had the entire grounds to ourselves and enjoyed an absolutely perfect fall evening outdoors.

These two make my heart burst with happiness! I hope they'll always be the friends they are today.

We made homemade pizza for dinner, ate popcorn, and watched Curious George Halloween Boo-Fest that evening. I don't personally love how dark it gets at night now (the sun sets at 6:30pm!), but I do love how easy it is to pull the wool over the kids' eyes and make them believe they stayed up super late when it's really their regular bedtime. Movie night at 6:30pm, bedtime at 7:30pm and Mama's time by 8:00pm = winning for everyone!

Saturday, the kids decided they wanted to see the Thomas the Train exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum. We haven't been to the museum in ages (like, three years at least!) so I thought it sounds like the perfect plan. Plus, Aden loves trains these days so I knew he'd enjoy it.

The Children's Museum is currently under construction so it was a little underwhelming compared to the past, but Tory and Aden didn't expect anything less. They had a great time!

Later that day, the three of us walked to a nearby park and played for several hours. We had a great time.

One thing I love about the lake cabin is the way it feels like a mini-getaway every single weekend. We always have something fun planned, but fun takes planning and preparation. This weekend, it was nice to stay home for change and enjoy some local fun and relaxation.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homemade Pumpkin Spice Granola

My mother-in-law offered to take the kiddos for a few hours this morning and Andi's away on a boys' hunting trip, so I had the ENTIRE HOUSE to myself. It was heavenly! I wasn't sure to do with myself first.

After pacing around aimlessly for a few minutes, I got crackin' on my looong to-do list. First up, meal prep for this coming week. I'm on a huge pumpkin spice kick this fall, if it isn't obvious already, so I whipped together two recipes I've been dying to try: Pumpkin Spice Granola and Pumpkin Pie Energy Bites. Now my kitchen smells like fall EXPLODED, and I can't say I mind it. Here's one of the recipes I made today:

Homemade Pumpkin Spice Granola

Step 1 - Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees

Step 2 - Mix together:
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup raw pecans, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup chia seeds
1 1/4 Tbsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. kosher salt

Step 3 - Mix together:
1/2 cup 100% pure pumpkin puree
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
2 Tbsp. unsweetened apple sauce
2 Tbsp. raw honey

Step 4 - Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and mix well. Pour over a large baking sheet and bake for 50 minutes, stirring ingredients every 12 minutes.

Step 5 - Let cool. Store in an air-tight container.

Add 2 Tbsp. of pumpkin spice granola to 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt, and enjoy!

Recipe slightly adapted from one of my favorite 21 Day Fix inspirations: Spoon Me

One serving of granola = one 21 Day Fix yellow "treat" swap

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Vacation in Alaska - Days 5 & 6

Plugging right along to conclude the recap of Andi and I's Alaskan adventure this past August...

Day 5 of our trip began beneath a bright, open sky in Hope, Alaska. The previous night, Andi and I slept in a tent near (but not with - ha!) our friends Kristina and Alex who graciously outfitted our camping adventure. The four of us enjoyed a simple breakfast of eggs, oatmeal and apples with almond butter seated around the outdoor picnic table, then packed up camp and drove to Girdwood, Alaska for a late-morning hike.

Girdwood holds a special place in Alex and Kristina's hearts as they were married there just one year prior. The four of us planned to go for a morning hike on the popular Winner's Creek Trail, then have lunch in Girdwood. But first, Andi needed to charge his camera battery (can't possibly vacation without a camera!), so we made a pit-stop at a quirky, local coffee shop in Girdwood to "borrow" some electricity and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Once our electronics were up and running, we ventured over to Winner's Creek. Many Girdwood visitors hike this trail as it begins (or ends?) at the biggest resort in the area, Alyeska. Kristina and Alex started us on the opposite end, which worked perfectly because we encountered less people that way. The constant jingle of bells attached to Kristina's backpack were a familiar sound as we hiked along with our friends. We never encountered bears or moose during our adventures, but Kristina noted their presence in the surrounding wooded area.

About a mile and a half into our hike, the four of us came to a hand tram used to slowly pull people over the thrashing Glacier Creek below. The metal cage and pulley system is completely safe, but definitely gave our hearts a workout! First, Alex worked to manually pull Andi and I across the flowing river below; then, we returned the favor and pulled Alex, Kristina and their dog Sam to the other side.

We continued to hike the trail until we reached the end, and then turned around and hiked back from where we came. The entire trek took about 4 hours and we were all famished by the end. Kristina and Alex led our car caravan into the town of Girdwood, and Andi choose a restaurant called the Girdwood Picnic Club for lunch. This place was unassuming from the outside, but surprisingly bright and beautiful indoors. The food was delicious, too, or maybe that was just our hungry bellies talking?

After lunch, Andi and I said good-bye to our friends. How lucky were we to have such amazing tour guides to show us all the best spots around the Kenai Peninsula? I loved our time together with Kristina and Alex ... and I definitely caught a hiking bug from them. It was so fun!

Andi and I stayed at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood that evening for our final night of vacation. The resort was big and beautiful ... and so NOT our style. Alyeska was crawling with tourists and full of gift shops, coffee cafes and restaurants. A haven for some I'm sure, but Andi and I prefer quieter, more local spots. I will say the hotel rooms were nice and clean, and a hot shower felt awesome after 24-hours of camping and hiking. Andi and I cleaned up and chilled in the hotel room for a while, then decided to head off to see what else Girdwood had to offer.

First, Andi and I took the resort gondula up to the top of North Face Mountain. We walked around for a bit at the top, then decided to ditch the hotel scene for dinner at a local spot in Girdwood. We wanted to eat Jack Sprat's but didn't have a reservation, so we opted for outdoor seating on the restaurant's patio. It was perfect for the two of us as we like to keep things casual anyway. Neither Andi or I were very hungry since we'd had a late lunch, so we opted to split a steak dinner. Our food was delicious, and the ambiance was the perfect chill vibe to round out our evening.

After dinner, we called it a night and retired to our comfy, cozy bed at Alyeska. We both slept like babies after all the adventuring we'd be up to that day.


Day 6

Andi and I decided to spend our final day of vacation sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. I'd never kayaked before and I'd been years since Andi had, so we thought this seemed like the perfect way to end our Alaskan adventure.

We checked out of our hotel early that morning and grabbed breakfast at a small grab + go cafe in Girdwood called Spoonline. This place was fantastic, though it's quite possibly my excitement for their coffee talking! This was the first time I'd tasted coffee blended with MCT oil and ohmygoodness, it was amazing. (As as aside- Andi and I have been on a mission since our trip to recreate this coffee goodness at home but like everything, it's doesn't taste quite as wonderful as it did on vacation).

With a hearty Paleo breakfast burrito and deliciously warm coffee in our bellies, we ventured back to the town of Whittier where our trip began a week prior. In Whittier, we met up with the crew from Alaskan Sea Kayakers. After fitting us with gear and a brief instruction, our group set out for a day on the sea.

This excursion was like nothing I'd ever seen or done before. We likely saw 10 bald eagles in the first 15 minutes of our trip. We were up close and personal with beautiful glaciers under a dense blanket of clouds. The view was incredible!

Half-way through our journey, two guides with us from Alaska Sea Kayakers led us to a sandy beach for a picnic lunch. They put together an impressive spread of hot soup, meats, cheese, crackers, raw veggies, cold salads and warm drinks to refuel our group for the day ahead. We perched ourselves on logs and rocks, and enjoyed our beautiful surroundings.

After lunch, the group of eight hopped back in our respective kayaks and ventured onward. We toured a small cave and waterfall, then continued onward. Half-way, our guides asks the group who wanted to take the short way back and who was interested in more exploring. Andi and I opted to end our kayaking trip early in an effort to catch the 4:00pm opening of the Whittier tunnel passage. (For reference, we had about 30 minutes to make it.) Our guide laughed and said we had tunnel fever. "We've all had it from time to time," she said. Our goal was to squeeze in a quick hike on another trail before heading to the airport in Anchorage later that evening, but to do so we needed to hit the road shortly. Andi and I paddled with all our might those last 30-minutes of kayaking. My arms were burning, but I couldn't stop now. We had a deadline to meet!

Finally, we made it back to shore and returned our items to the kayak shop. We thanked the owner and hurried on our way to the tunnel passage.

Wahoo! We made it just in time. Andi and I drove through the Whittier tunnel and emerged on the other side of the mountain range. Surprisingly, it was sunny and beautiful on this side. We parked our car at the trailhead of Byron Glacier Trail, and ventured onward. This hike was especially neat because it led you up to the actual glacier. As Andi and I walked along, we reflected on the amazing trip we'd just experienced. Alaska will forever hold a special place in our hearts.

Alaska's sheer beauty is indescribable, yet I find myself trying to sum it up with words. It's quite possibly one of my favorite places I've traveled because it's the total package. Adventure, fun, hospitality, ease of transportation; Alaska has it all. I can't wait to go back again someday.