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March 9, 2020

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

We flew into Puerto Rico on Thursday and spent the day Friday in El Yunque, both hiking and then finishing out the afternoon with an engagement session. Saturday was our only day that was completely free of other obligations so we started the morning by finding a parking spot in Old San Juan (bless, we nabbed street parking and thank God for our tiny little car!) and walked to Castillo San Cristóbal, one of the Spanish fortresses on the island. (This was also the place my sister and brother-in-law got married 10 years ago!)

Construction on San Cristóbal began in 1634 (it wasn’t completed until 1790!) and, for that reason alone, it was extra fun to walk around and feel the history. I am always fascinated by standing in a historical spot like that and imagining what was happening around me in that exact location 200 years ago, 100 years old, etc. Like, if I could just ghost myself right into the past, what would be happening around me? That was slightly more “fun” to imagine in the main corridors than in the dungeon with its chicken-scratch drawings on the wall from prisoners awaiting execution. As we walked around and enjoyed seeing the sights, I told Kevin just how sad and burdened it feels to know that so much of our nation’s history (basically, all of our historical buildings, honestly) were built by slaves. So there’s always this hand-in-hand juxtaposition of being awestruck by the history of a place and also deeply saddened by it, knowing the terrible injustices that formed it.

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San Cristóbal was built over a 150 year span to protect El Morro (which is about a mile walk up the road) and the city from land attack. (It is the biggest European fortication in the Americas!) We had been able to visit this fort last time we were in Puerto Rico (the wedding was there, after all!), but we hadn’t had time to see El Morro so, when we were done at San Cristóbal, we walked the mile-ish distance to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, most commonly known as “El Morro.” The difference between the two, visually, was fascinating! Most notably, El Morro has a lot more green space, but it also has a lot more color: yellow and blue painted walls instead of the natural stucco of San Cristóbal. Both, of course, have lots of brick and stone, but they definitely did not look like sister forts. (Possibly cousins…) And while San Cristobal can boast to being the biggest, El Morro is considered the most iconic, especially given its location at the entrance to the Bay of San Juan. It has 6 levels (doubling the 3 that San Cristóbal has) that face the Atlantic Ocean, all of which were designed to create “a devastating artillery fire over enemy ships.” By the time of its completion around 1790 (it was started in 1539!), it had the reputation of being unconquerable and was the most feared of all the Spanish colonial fortifications.

On the way out of El Morro, we ended up taking the scenic route along the water on the outside of the city walls all the way over to the original “La Puerta de San Juan”, the bright red San Juan Gate, which was built in 1635. In colonial times, passenger ships would anchor away from the pier with smaller boats bringing the passengers to shore. All visitors would have to enter through the gate and they would go straight up the street into the San Juan Cathedral “to thank God for a safe voyage.” Because of our route, we were able to walk through the gate (I don’t think we would’ve noticed it otherwise from inside the city) and then continue walking around Old San Juan. We saw cruise ships coming in and grabbed lunch and I took so many pictures of the bright walls and beautiful doors. By the time we were done, it was early afternoon and we headed back to our apartment and then hit the beach.

The beach that afternoon was one of my favorite trip memories and not because of the physical beach itself, but because we played in the water, getting hit by waves, and laughing for 3 hours and it was probably the closest I’ve felt to being a newlywed since, well, being a newlywed. (Any parent knows how mind-consuming it is taking care of kids so you can understand that feeling of “being young again” when you spend years being wrapped in parent-mode and, suddenly, on a random Saturday afternoon at a beach in Puerto Rico, you don’t have to think about naps or kid-friendly dinner foods or appropriate meal times or bed times or kid safety, etc.) The beach access was a quick walk from our apartment and it was the perfect afternoon for being in the water. (We didn’t even know it at the time–that it was such a perfect beach day–but when we went to the beach again on Monday and the undertow was so dangerously bad that we couldn’t stay in the water, we realized how lucky we were to have been able to enjoy Saturday’s perfection.)

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February 17, 2020

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

The last time we were in Puerto Rico was 10 years ago and, though we did get to see some parts of the island (one of the most magical including the bioluminescent bay “Mosquito Bay” in Vieques! There are only 5 in the world, 3 of those are in Puerto Rico; Vieques is the most protected–and therefore, brightest–one in the world. Hurricane Maria caused a lot of destruction on the island as we know and it disrupted the delicate balance of the bay and the beloved Mosquito Bay went dark. But, to everyone’s surprise, the bio bay not only recovered, but they say it is brighter than it ever was in the past.) thanks to my sister and brother-in-law and their rental car, we spent most of the time at our resort. This time around, we had our own rental car and a few things we wanted to do in our free time that we hadn’t seen or done last time. We flew in on Thursday, arriving in the late afternoon. With an engagement session Friday afternoon, the wedding on Sunday, and a day after session on Monday afternoon, we planned out our pockets of free time to include what we missed before, starting with El Yunque bright and early on Friday.

El Yunque is the national rain forest that takes up a large chunk of land on the eastern side of Puerto Rico and it was probably a 45 minute drive from where we were staying in Ocean Park. This day of hiking and random rainstorms served a dual purpose since we were doing part of the engagement session that afternoon in the rain forest and I wanted to make sure I had specific spots scouted out beforehand. There were a few ideas I had in mind for photos based on internet research beforehand, but some areas, we found out, were still not accessible due to closed trails still under maintenance from Hurricane Maria. (Thankfully, the USDA government website was helpful with updated maps showing closed trails.) Unfortunately, one of the places I had really been looking forward to–La Mina Falls–was closed, but we found so many other really gorgeous spots that I wasn’t even sad about it.

Since we spent about six hours there prior to the session starting, we got to see so much of El Yunque! We started at Yokahu Tower and then went to Mt. Britton Trail, heading all the way up to Mt. Britton Tower. It was during this time that we got hit with our first torrential rainstorm. For a while, we tried to find shelter under some trees. With the rain blowing almost horizontally, it worked for a bit until the weather amped up and we decided to run back to a little camping shelter we had spotted earlier. We ended up staying there, waiting it out and within 15 minutes, the rain stopped, the sun came back out, and the humidity was back to 98%.

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We stayed in an AirBNB in Ocean Park with an easy little walk to the beach. We were also walking distance to some delicious restaurants, notably La B de Burro (we ate there on Thursday night after getting settled in and it was hands-down the most delicious Mexican food I’ve ever eaten), Kasalta (famous for serving Barack Obama  in 2011 and also, dishing up amazing quesitos, which are a Puerto Rican pastry stuffed with a cream-cheese or chocolate mixture–both equally amazing– coated in a sugary caramelized syrup and baked), and Pirilo Pizza Rustica (where we ordered a carry out pizza one evening and devoured the entire thing back at our house). Since we had a kitchen, we also loaded up on some basics at a nearby grocery store to make breakfasts and backpack lunches.
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January 2, 2020

FILED IN: Personal

Happy birthday, my darling girl. 

How quickly you are changing from a toddler to a little girl. I have loved this past year with you. One year olds are so much fun. You have grown so much, but you are still “baby” enough to easily sit on my hip or climb into my lap and, while you talk in sentences all the time and use correct pronouns, you still mess up the “me” when you say, “Mama hold you.” I’ve never corrected you because it’s so cute and makes you still seem little.

With your birthday and Christmas being so close, you have been heaped upon with gifts and, while you do enjoy the presents, you will happily rip off the paper only to continue…playing with the paper. You like to rip each little piece into smaller pieces until there’s just a pile of tiny little wrapping paper pieces all over the floor. You are still obsessed with coloring (“do some art,” you’ll say) and some of your favorite gifts have been markers, coloring books, and Play-Doh. (I also recently let you play with kinetic sand because I had the time to sit down with you and make sure it didn’t get all over the floor and we played with that sand for 45 minutes straight!)

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You also got a scooter for Christmas and, thankfully, we had some really beautiful days where you could already put it to use. You have learned the basics quickly on it, but steering is your biggest challenge. You continuously say, “I need help!” but then yell “I do it myself!” when we try to help you. 

You love your brother and it has been a joy to watch you two together. Especially and mostly when you’re not fighting. Just last week, you guys made up a game that Henry named “slam dunk” where you would throw his puppy back and forth to each other and laugh and laugh. It made no sense to me, but I also joined in laughing because you guys were so being so cute together. You want to do everything Henry does, including go to school. Some days you even insist on taking your little backpack along to preschool drop off just because you’ll look just like the big kids. You’ve pitched more than one fit about not being able to stay with him at school and you get really excited when it’s time to go pick him up again. Next fall when he starts kindergarten, you’re going to have a tough adjustment having him gone all day every day. 

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November 21, 2019

FILED IN: Personal

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My sweet boy,

You’re an entire hand-years-old now. I remember being five. I remember being able to use my whole hand to indicate my age. And now I have a child who can also do that. The old saying “time flies” could never be more true than when you apply it to your children. In a blink, you went from a wrinkle, red-faced infant to a toddling little baby to a full-on little boy. You’re curious, smart, inquisitive, and funny. (You also throw tantrums and have a hard time sharing with your sister, but I think that is true of most kids. It’s a constant work in progress over here.)

You love all things farming. Last year around Christmas, you got a toy farm catalog and it became your favorite book. You took it in the car, you read it in bed, you carried it with you everywhere. Being that it was just supposed to be a Christmas catalog, it quickly started falling apart from constant reading. But you still carried around all the pages and you knew exactly where various brands of tractors and combines and grain carts and wagons were within the torn book.  You have a plethora of farm toys already in the house, from 1/64 size to 1/32 size to LEGO versions of farm machinery, but you are constantly wishing for more.

Last week, while we were in Puerto Rico, you got to stay at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. Because of the timing of planting in the spring, harvesting fell right over the time we were gone, which meant you got to be out in the fields long after the sun had set (even eating dinner in the combine which you thought was especially fun). When asked what you want to be when you grow up, you immediately respond, “A farmer!” You know more about farming than I do (which probably isn’t that incredible, I guess, but I do have my own share of knowledge having grown up on a farm), in part because you love to watch farming shows on YouTube. Who knew there was a whole following for YouTube-famous farmers with GoPros?

And though farm machinery is for sure your bread and butter, you also have vast knowledge of trains and construction trucks and, as a result, I can easily tell the difference between a back hoe and an excavator, a front end loader and a bulldozer. When we drove out to Ohio this past summer to visit cousins, your grandma laughed when I’d be driving along and randomly say something like, “Henry, look over there! There’s a skid steer loader and a John Deere tractor!” My brain has long been trained by now to notice anything with wheels and tracks.

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You love to read and have surprised us all with your ability to read. I don’t know how it happened—we never taught you so we claim no credit—except that we’ve been reading books since you were a baby. But somewhere along the way, you learned how to sound out words and we have long graduated from early-readers to chapter books. We are currently on our third Laura Ingalls Wilder book (we still read that to you; it’s wordy with no pictures) and you often read to yourself or us from Frances books, Curious George, Frog & Toad, your Bible, and any picture book in your collection (or from the library). I remember a time last winter when I thought you had just memorized the books you were so easily reading so I went to the library, got a bunch of books we had never seen before, and gave them to you as a sort of test. As it turned out, you just started reading them out loud, thus disproving my theory entirely.

You are in your second year of preschool; next fall you’ll start Kindergarten. You love your teachers and it is a joy to see you loving to learn. You are introverted by nature; you refuel by being in your comfort-spaces either by yourself or with just our family. But we are working on getting you more comfortable making friends and staying engaged, even if they aren’t interested in the same things you are. This fall has been a tough one though with your best friend since birth (technically, I think you were four months old when you met) moving across the country in the late summer. We both lost our best friends on the same day and I don’t think I’ll ever forget how your body shook against me and our tears mixed on our cheeks as we left the park after saying our final goodbye. It was sad and we all felt a little lost for a long time. I wanted to shield you from that feeling of loss, but…how? In the end, better to feel it and mourn it than to stuff it away without ever processing. You are the kind of kid who would rather have one close friend than fifteen semi-close friends. Having school start back up shortly after they moved was a godsend because it, by nature, surrounded you with lots of other kids your age to play with and gave you plenty of things to think about and learn and do, filling the obvious void of summertime play dates with your best friend. The absence of him in your daily life has forced you to form new friendships though and, as a parent, while it’s hard to watch your pain, it also fills me with pride to see you working to form other friendships.

Your built-in friend is also your constant antagonizer: your little sister. We never know if you guys are going to burst into fits of giggles over an inside joke you have or if you’re going to be fighting because you both want the same color of cup. I know sibling relationships can be hard and Lord knows they are filled with lots of ups and downs, especially in childhood, but the moments of peace and laughter and caring are such a joy to witness. I pray that you two will always be close; that, even as adults, you’ll treasure the shared sibling secrets you have, the built-in friendship that you gain simply by being in the same family.

I hope you have the best birthday, my little Henry Pie. Not a day goes by, even in the fiercest of parenting storms, that I am not incredibly grateful for you. You made me a mama and you flipped our world upside down with a love we didn’t even know existed. It continues to be an honor and joy to watch you grow, even while you’re going about it too quickly. The world is a lucky place to have you in it.

I love you with all my heart.

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July 2, 2019

Hi Peanut,

You’re officially a year and a half now. I don’t know how that happened. In my mind, you’re still a baby, but then I see you running around, trying to catch your brother, and pulling out the coloring books and Crayons because your favorite thing to do is “coyor” and following multiple-step directions and…you’re just so big.

But you still fit on my hip, tucking your legs around my waist, wrapping your arm around my shoulder. It’s one thing I distantly remember savoring with Henry, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before I wouldn’t be carrying him around anymore. And now I find myself treasuring the same way you fit on me, knowing just as before that it doesn’t last long.

Your hair is growing in (yay!) and the curls in the back of your head are bopping everywhere in the heat and humidity. Just last week I was able to make a teeny, spiky little pony tail on top of your head—that’s the hair that’s been the slowest to come in—and it made me smile all over again that my lifelong wish of having a daughter came true. One of the things I have looked forward to most about having a daughter is doing your hair—braids, curls, twists, pig tails, the whole bit—and though it’ll be a while yet before anything more intricate than a single, pointy ponytail can be done, knowing that we can spend time together doing your hair someday makes me so excited.

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You continue to be a daddy’s girl and you shriek with joy when he comes in the door. You can hear the garage door from anywhere in the house and immediately go on alert, “Daddy? Daddy?!”

While you still love to read books and will gladly bring an endless string of them to us to read to you, you have also picked up a love for coloring. The shelf with the colors and books is easily accessible to you and barely an hour goes by that you’re not dragging everything out. Your fine motor skills blow me away because you hold the colors, skinny or chunky Crayons, in your right hand exactly as I hold a pen to write. I don’t know how you learned that, but when I first saw you do it, I actually took a picture to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.

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May 13, 2019

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

After spending time in Santa Cruz, we headed away from the ocean and in toward the mountains. The drive from Santa Cruz to our Airbnb in Oakhurst, just outside of Yosemite, was about 3 hours, but we had some time to spare so we stopped for lunch and then later stopped in another town to grab groceries for our kitchen. (We made breakfasts at home every morning and then packed lunches as well.)

One of the things we didn’t fully understand going into this trip was that, even though we were staying just 13 miles outside of Yosemite, it took about 30 minutes to get to the entrance of the park and then it takes a full 30+ minutes more to get from the entrance down to the valley. We got used to that hour+ drive pretty quickly as we did the roundtrip 3 times! Thankfully, Kevin did the driving because those tight, hairpin turns were so tricky, especially in the dark, fog, and rain!

We arrived at our house in the afternoon and unpacked, then Kevin happened to look up the drive time to get to The Majestic Yosemite for our anniversary dinner reservations that night and we realized we needed to leave much sooner than we had thought since the 46 miles to get there would take an hour and a half to drive (it’s way down in the valley)!

On our drive in to dinner, we were greeted with our first breathtaking sight of Tunnel View:

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Dinner that night was so delicious! (I had the rotisserie chicken, which had to be some of the most amazing chicken I’ve ever eaten. I imagine that’s what Queen Elizabeth II also ate when she was there.) When we were done eating, we wandered around the hotel for a while too (it’s so beautiful) and it was completely pitch black when we left, meaning our first drive out of there was dark and foggy.

The next day was our first full day in Yosemite and I had done some research beforehand for trails to hike. One of the ones that was listed as “strenuous”, but also an iconic Yosemite trail not to be missed was Four Mile Trail, which is estimated to be a 6-8 hour hike roundtrip. In my research, it is closed over the winter, but is usually open in April. Obviously that was the hope, but when we pulled over by the trailhead to park, we saw that it was closed.

Yosemite had had a really bad winter, including a storm in February that brought over 2 feet of snow in just 2 days, causing trees to topple, power outages, road closures, damage to the park campgrounds, and evacuation of many of the residents (one of whom was our server at the restaurant that previous night). That, combined with the 34-day government shutdown in December-January that had put the national parks department behind in winter maintenance, meant that in April, when trails normally start to open, many were still closed because of snow and trees covering the trails. And when I say “trees”, I don’t mean branches. I mean, we literally had to assess our every step and shimmy, climbing over enormous trees that were uprooted or simply snapped at their bases like toothpicks. Then we had to try to find the trail again, which was never clearly marked, in part because of the debris of fallen trees everywhere.

So, after coming back to the trailhead of Four Mile Trail (we ventured in just to see how far we could go, but it wasn’t very far at all; it was gated off), we went with plan B and decided to hike the Valley Floor Loop, which was supposed to be an “easy hike.” Unfortunately, again because of the rough winter storms and government shutdown, the trail was really hard to follow and was covered with fallen trees. We did manage to hike several miles before coming to a dead end in the form of a river. We couldn’t figure out any way to get around it or across it and, because the trail wasn’t well-marked, we couldn’t find a continuation of the trail anywhere around. We had left the physical map in the car and phone service in Yosemite is nearly nonexistent, so what little bits we could pull up of the map on our phone wasn’t helpful enough to get us anywhere as it indicated you cross the river, but there was no bridge and I wasn’t about to dive in and swim across that current.

It was afternoon by this point–we had already eaten lunch earlier as we stopped along the loop to see Bridalveil Fall–and I was tired, but maybe mostly disappointed that two of the trails I had really wanted to hike had proven to be impossible. To save us some hike time and difficulty, we walked back to our car following the road rather than take the slow, tedious trail over and around fallen trees. It still took a while–we did have several miles to walk after all–but we eventually made it back to the beloved sight of our rental car and that night we grabbed take out pizza in Oakhurst, which was either exceptionally good take out or we were just really that hungry.

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Despite the disappointing hikes that day, the views of Yosemite were, as expected, exceptional. April was a great time to visit as the falls were in full swing, melting loudly over the rocks. The weather was cool and sometimes rainy when we were there and we were glad to have brought layers as well as winter hats. We were also both glad to have it be slightly chilly and not humid and hot like it is during the summer (and also, not crowded!).

There were many things we loved about Yosemite, but I’d be especially remiss to skim over the stunning granite of El Capitan. We had just watched “Free Solo” as well as “The Dawn Wall” a few weeks before traveling to Yosemite so the sheer massiveness of seeing El Cap in person was a little bit mind-blowing. The last day we were in Yosemite, we finished it out by parking our car by the road and making our own path, hiking up to the base of El Cap and touching the granite ourselves, which can strangely be described best as a bit silky. Standing at the base, I tilted my head up and all I could see were low-hanging clouds of dense fog covering the top, which just made the massive rock seem even more breathtaking.
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