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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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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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May 9, 2019

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

Last month was our 10-year wedding anniversary so Kevin and I had planned a trip out to California. While we spent most of the time in Yosemite, if we were going to be that close to the ocean anyway, I wanted to sidetrack to it. It’s bizarre; having grown up in the Midwest, there’s no real reason that the ocean calls me so, but for some reason, things seem so much better, everything makes more sense, the world is calmer, by the waves. Does anyone else feel that way?

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November 15, 2016

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

A week ago, Kevin and I headed out to Colorado for an engagement session (it was so gorgeous; see it here!). This was the first time that we have both left Henry overnight since he was born, save that one time last New Year’s when we got the flu and my mom took Henry to their house to keep him away from us since we were both unable to even stand up. I won’t lie; leading up to the trip, I was sick with anxiety. I knew he’d be fine at my parent’s house, but leaving him was nevertheless incredibly difficult.

Thankfully, once we hit the ground in Denver, we kept our schedule really, really busy so I was able to stay distracted. We flew into Denver Thursday night, grabbed our rental car, and headed to our hotel for some sleep. Friday morning, we got up early and grabbed some breakfast on our way out of town as we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park. The weather in Denver was unseasonably warm (low 70s during the day!), but thankfully we had thrown in some hats and gloves because the temperatures out on the trails and up in the mountains were much lower. We started our hike at the Bear Lake trailhead, where the early morning temperature was about 19 degrees. It stayed pretty brisk with the combination of the day warming up and us climbing higher, but back down at base, it felt great in the mid-40s!

We hiked all morning and ate lunch on the trail before heading back. In the early afternoon when we got back to our car, we drove to another trailhead, Fern Lake, to hike some more. By the time we reached The Pool, we knew we were losing sunlight and that it would get cold really quickly. We had gotten that far though, so we decided to hike another 1.8 miles to the falls. Little did we know that it was a really difficult hike with a steep incline and very rocky path. When we finally made it to the falls, we were able to rest for only a couple of minutes before quickly heading back down. We joked that we felt like the people who climb Mount Everest; after all that, they can only stay there for about 5 minutes before going back down. I also thought that maybe we should’ve planted a flag up there.

We got back to the car just as the sun was starting to dip. We were sore everywhere. My kneecaps were burning. I’ve never experienced that before. My shoulders and neck were sharp with pain (we had to constantly be looking down at our feet to watch our next steps). We ended up hiking almost 16 miles through the mountains that day with over 33,000 steps (my total for the day was 34,114 steps). As with any extensive hiking, even with our bodies being done, the views we had seen during the day were absolutely spectacular. And the snow that I ate to refresh myself on the trail was delicious, even if a bear may have peed on it.

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July 21, 2016

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

After getting settled in, water sliding, eating really gross smoothies, and zip lining (all in part one here), we were ready to go hiking on Saturday! Carla volunteered to stay at the house with the toddlers (Henry & Winston) while they napped so the remaining crew headed over to Old Man’s Cave. It was absolutely beautiful there with little creeks, a waterfall, and lots of foliage and rock formations.

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Back at the house, Winston napped like a champion and my typically great napper Henry woke up about 10 minutes after we left to go hiking. (Sorry Carla!) There was a stroller-friendly hike at Ash Cave so we went back to get Henry, Carla, and Winston and head back out for a quick, easy hike before dinner. Sadly, I left my camera at the house for that one, but really could’ve used it because there was a small wedding going on in the cave and there was no photographer. Had I had my camera, I would’ve taken some photos for them!
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After dinner Saturday, we headed outside for some much-needed updated family photos. Megan took the reins on it since she’s much more skilled with family photos, but I kept my camera handy so we could swap off. You know what’s really awesome about our family gatherings? Having two professional photographers on hand. I’m embarrassed to say our standard for vacation snapshots has gone way up.
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That evening, we started a campfire and pulled out the necessary ingredients for s’mores. I should mention that we had the most wonderfully perfect weather while we were there. It was warm (but not as hot as expected), but the nights were cool and I was glad to have thrown in a long-sleeved shirt.

As I mentioned before, the next-door property was a wild life hunting preserve. There were plenty of natural wildlife roaming around our house (non-threatening animals like deer, frogs, lizards, etc.), but beyond the fence were wild boars among other scarier animals.

So as the evening turned to night and the conversations turned to scarier stories (why do we tell scary stories at night outside??), we started getting really jumpy. At one point a mouse ran across the brick and we all screeched. But it was nothing compared to when a cat jumped out of the bushes nearby (with those beady eyes!) and sent us scattering. It was midnight by then so bedtime was looming anyway, but that cat did it for sure. (My younger brothers had also gone to bed by that point and we were leery they had ulterior motives to sneak back out to scare us.)
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Vacation ended Sunday afternoon. We spent the morning slowly packing up, having a short devotional, and then playing games in the rec room. Henry went down for a nap and we waited to leave until afterwards. He had done really well in the car on the way out (albeit with an iPad in hand and Super Simple Songs on repeat) so we were hopeful for a successful trip back home as well.

We stopped for dinner about 2 hours into the trip, then he fell asleep around 8:30 that evening. Our plan was that if he fell asleep, we’d try driving the whole way back home (instead of grabbing a hotel room). Kevin blazed the trail (bless him and his driving skills) and we made it home around 11:45 Sunday night. I carried Henry in and laid him in his crib and the kid sprawled out with all the love of finally being in his own bed again.

The vacation I had anticipated for so long is over, but I’m truly so grateful for the wonderful memories with my family. I just wish we didn’t live so far apart.