A Childhood as Sweet and Slow as American Honey

Where…

“Strong love grows
She grew up good
She grew up slow
Like American honey.

Steady as a preacher
Free as a weed
Couldn’t wait to get going
But wasn’t quite ready to leave
So innocent, pure and sweet
American honey.”

I’ve had too much on my mind lately. I needed an out. We were all a bit burned out and over the cold, the masked-craziness still occurring in NOVA, a solid year of school work, our health issues, and all the updates we are making to the house. 

I needed a change of scenery and a reminder that breathing is a necessity.

As we spent over 16 hours in the car driving down the east coast to escape our reality that is still happening in Northern Virginia, the kids listened to music, audiobooks, and watched movies thanks to the unlimited wifi we opted for to use in just such road trip occasions. I realized just how ‘privileged’ this is – and I wondered if I was doing the kids wrong by granting this luxury.

Then I laughed and laughed and laughed as I knew my own sanity needs to be valued, too.

Balance, it’s important.

We arrived at our first Florida location and unpacked our suitcases and backpacks of ‘school items.’ (We homeschool year-round with long breaks in the summer and 2-3 breaks throughout the year for road trips, but we still bring books, some math, and anything needed for any online classes that are being completed during that time.) Scarlett completed her 6th grade history project, the boys finished their books, and everyone picked out a few new games. We enjoyed family time, more board games, and running around outside in that beautiful warmth known as the Florida Sunshine. 

One afternoon on our trip, while sitting outside reading a book, American Honey started playing. I looked up to see my kids, especially the oldest jumping in and out of the pool – sun-kissed and laughing so hard she had tears pouring out of her eyes. My tears came, but not from laughter. I was brought back to my own childhood and saw just how special my own children’s lives are during this small chapter of their own lives. They are growing up slow. While mature beyond most of their peers, they are innocent and naïve, even. It’s absolutely the reason we chose to homeschool – and it’s paying off. 

Beyond homeschooling though, there’s so much more. Our children do not know social media; Daddy says HELL NO to makeup, wedges, and crop tops; they will not have cell phones for years to come. Our children will be behind their peers in so many ways – but FREE in so many others. They know how to explore. They will continue to explore well passed the tween years. They would rather swim, run, roller blade, and create than sit – and sit – and sit. 

Why am I sharing this? Because your kids deserve an American Honey childhood, too. It’s never too late to find a better balance. Kick them outside. Make them make friends. Host sleepovers. LET THEM BE BORED.

No kid is in a race to having their first kiss or shaving their legs – no tween needs a social media presence. There are such bigger things in life worth striving for — like a long, slow childhood.

Grant your children this. 

The Quaintest (Romantic) Getaway in Virginia

We have spent more time together than ever, and while we have loved it, there still was very little time for John and I to just be.

Ready to pack your bags?

In need of time away to reconnect?

We were. So we did – and you should too! Your relationship will thank you.

Recently, John and I decided after 13 years of marriage that we deserved an actual retreat together. It was the first time we have left the kids this long (FOUR NIGHTS!) and could not have done so without the help of my mom. 

Isn’t it funny how life turns into the same thing day in and day out – even during a pandemic? We have spent more time together than ever, and while we have loved it, there still was very little time for John and I to just be. Sure, we binged some Netflix, read some books, played games, and finished puzzles. Hell, we even took the kids on some great road trips. But we needed some solo time.

Insert all of the crazy here because we could not figure out what to do or where to go. We knew it needed to be driving distance from home to get back (just in case), and we wanted mountains. In truth, we wanted to snowboard, but we knew that it would be cutting it close to opening days due to the warm winter start in Virginia, so that option became 2nd priority. Our biggest hurtle was figuring out where to stay after pinning down a central location: Charlottesville, VA.

Due to the pandemic, John and I have not done anything other than rent through VRBO. We literally order our groceries, workout at home, and have friends over to our place (especially since soccer is on winter break). The mask situation completely creeps us out, and we’d rather not partake in it all if given the option. This left us asking if a resort was really where we wanted to stay, as all VRBO mountain rentals were booked or outrageously overpriced. And then I stumbled on the answer: A bed and breakfast outside Charlottesville.

The Fenton Inn came across my Duck Duck Go search a few pages into researching. Located at the bottom of Wintergreen Resort, it was the perfect location if the mountain opened to snowboard! After stalking their social media pages for a week, I booked the Swallow’s Nest room (OMG-THAT VIEW!).

Our anticipation grew as the trip grew closer, and in mid-December, we packed our bags and headed on the road together.

What you should bring on your B&B getaway:

ANYTHING YOU WANT because you are not packing for the kids.

Fun lingerie or whatever will help reconnect the two of you.

Snacks (you know you are used to snacking throughout the day!)

Appropriate clothing for adventures together.

The Fenton Inn did not disappoint! Please make room in your life to visit this gorgeous little German-inspired slice of heaven. It’s quaint charm and seclusion will have you wanting to snuggle up with hot tea and watch the fog roll in from the mountains. The owners are beyond kind, there are hiking trails you can jump on from the property, and the breakfast is brought wherever you’d like to enjoy it. Make sure you add a couple’s massage to your stay, and follow it with some hot tub time overlooking the views. 

Of course, you’ll want to leave the bed and breakfast at some point, right? Well, you’ll have to if you’d like something other than breakfast, ha! Because the mountain delayed its opening date, we only had one resort restaurant nearby, and we did enjoy some beers and food to-go from it, however, the best decision we made was to save our big meals to be eaten in Charlottesville! The drive was winding, pretty, and not the shortest, but well worth it. We splurged on one really nice dinner our first night, and the rest of the days were spent sampling wines, beers, appetizers, and foods nearby. There are vineyards and breweries as far as the eyes can see, so don’t worry about stopping at the store to pick anything up for the room. Seriously, grab a flight to sample and then purchase your favorite bottles to bring home.

The pictures do not do our trip justice. We went without seeing another guest all but once in our 4 nights there. (Although, I long for the days of normalcy and to see this B&B packed!) If you are longing for some time together away from the world, pack your bags and head out to reconnect. I promise it’s worth it.

The Perfect Lake Escape.

There are great lake house rentals and then there is The Dragonfly

We have had a hell of a 2020 – along with everyone else at this point. But in all seriousness, we were separated while John was relocated to start a project. We sold our house and moved across the country and were in a mold-filled corporate rental until we could find and purchase our house out here. During this time, the lockdown happened. We had zero toilet paper and enough food for 3-4 days… for a family of SEVEN. The shelves were empty and we had nowhere to put anything. We lived off the same seven days worth of clothes, had no tv or internet, and were banned from parks and playgrounds. We were a day away from losing our minds. 

We found an amazing house, moved in, and dealt with neighbors who were too scared to bring groceries inside, let alone be our friends. All the while, John was working 16 hour days, 11-12+ days in a row, and having 2(ish) days off… (the -ish is because he was still working 24/7 even on those days ‘off’). It was a 100 day project and we knew it would be intense. The kids and I pushed through and finally made friends in the neighborhood. We schooled throughout the summer to kill time, and we took several little vacations. But it was a LONG 100 days. 

Here we are, on the other side of the project. We were both burnt out. We were in need of a retreat. We booked an amazing week-long stay at Hawk’s Cay Resort in the Keys, but as it approached, we learned the kids’ club, spa, arcade, and kids’ pool were all closed. We also learned that we could reserve a 2-hour spot at the pool each day, masks were required on all over the age OF TWO?!!! (WTAF) – and on top of it all, the prices were the EXACT SAME AS EVERY OTHER YEAR. My mind was blown and we got our money back. 

Everything was booked. We wanted to cry.

Along came THE DRAGONFLY.

Lake Gaston has clearly become a favorite vaca-spot for me, but John had not experienced it yet. A neighbor messaged me about her rental property and offered it to us, leaving a week early from their own planned vacation. I was ready to cry… but I had no idea what this rental had in store for us.

It was gorgeous. Beautifully decorated for fall, full of every kitchen item you could possibly need (a wok?? Who had a wok to make fried rice? I was in heaven!) There was a hot tub, paddle boards, kayaks, a lake trampoline and slide, and a boat ON PROPERTY. The rain may have kept us inside the first day, but the Wii and TV’s all over the house were enough to entertain the kids. We brought games and puzzles that helped too! Once the rain cleared, it was GAME ON.

Since we had an entire week there, we broke it up with great friends joining us for a night. We had 8 kids and 4 adults – and every single person was in love with this house. We made s’mores over the fire pit and listened to music on the speakers (that were located EVERYWHERE.)

Our food was delicious. The boating was peaceful and just what we needed. The entire trip was one for the books. I cannot wait to return.

What made the trip even better? We were able to spend 4 days in North Carolina beforehand! I had an amazing opportunity fr work, and we jumped on it to add on to the trip. We stayed with family and had the best time. 

As I sit at home – a clean home (because you ALWAYS have a cleaner come while you are on vacation) – with a pizza being delivered, I am so grateful for the last 10 days.  

Although, I’m a bit jealous… John headed to the Florida beaches for the next 5 days with 2 of the kids!  However, our soccer kid decided he NEEDED to return home before missing any more practices or games. Insert Mom of the Year award here for giving up a beach trip for travel soccer.

Grab Your Kids and Meet a Friend for a Week.

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My skin is a few shades darker, and my babies are all blonder. I’m flipping through over 900 pictures, and daydreaming of buying a lake house (and a boat). 

If you have never loaded your car full of kids, duffle bags, scooters, and snacks to hit the road to meet with a like-minded mama-friend and her kids, you need to, ASAP.

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When you escape solo, it is a much needed getaway, but when you take the kids on a grand adventure solo, you are allowing yourself to grow and blossom into the confident and capable mother you truly are. Knowing your kids and their needs will grant you the ability to plan an amazing vacation that everyone will remember.

In times of COVID, one of my besties needed to hit the road cross-country to get some QT with her oldest boy who lives in the northeast. We jumped on the opportunity to meet up for an entire week! Instead of our normal resort stays, we opted for a killer lakefront VRBO. I highly recommend skipping the hotel scene right now and finding a rental where you can cook and live as easy and normal as possible. 

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If you have never explored Lake Gaston in NC/VA, start planning. Depending on where you stay, you may be quite isolated as far as food and shopping options are concerned. We had a gas station and a food lion 30+ minutes away – but we made the most of it with one big online order and curbside pickup. 

No matter where you vacation, meal planning is key. It is the best way to make sure you are consuming nutritious foods and staying on budget. There is no way I can feed 5 kids from restaurants for 6+ days – nor would I want to. Instead, I emptied my pantry and brought all of gluten/dairy-free items to bake, and any food I could utilize throughout the week. With limited kitchen items, a wine bottle came in handy as a rolling pin, a neighbor’s pan worked perfect for gf/df brownies, and the blender made great popsicle fillings! We filled the table with buffet-style meals and snacks all day, every day. Waffles, bacon, sausage, every fruit possible, hummus and veggies, etc. But dinners? We knocked those out if the park!  John sent us on vacation with smoked pork butt, and we used it on tacos, burrito bowls, and homemade pizza! We butterflied and roasted a chicken with potatoes and cauliflower, too. Definitely have fun cooking with your bestie – turn on the music and dance in the kitchen!

The kids needed nothing more than rafts, sunscreen, fishing poles, and kayaks for the week. We had an amazing dock to cannonball off of, too! Sunset kayak trips, nighttime fishing, and late night wine drinking were all the rage! I was able to keep my running streak alive and get in great workouts lakeside each day while everyone slept in and relaxed. 

One more giant recommendation: Throw A Party Together.

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Streamers, glow sticks, games, and music. We celebrated 1/2 of 2020 being over (hallelujah) – but you can come up with any reason to party – Taco Tuesday? Wild Wednesday? Sunday Funday? You name it, it’s party time!

But in true Our Lucky Seven fashion, I had to pull off a surprise. After calling every marina within 45 minutes from our VRBO, I found the last ski boat rental available for the week. I woke Emmett up early on Thursday morning and we headed out. His face was something I’ll remember forever when he realized his mama could hop into a ski boat and take off. Pulling into the dock at our rental, we were greeted with squealing kids! We borrowed a few killer rafts and spent the entire day exploring the 21-miles of lake we could access. I threw kids off tubes, jammed out with dance parties, and taught a few of the kids how to drive the boat. Talk about memories.

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We wrapped up the stay on Friday, and I took the opportunity to take the boat back solo… where my soul connected to the calmness of this grand lake just after sunrise. I swore I would not take anything for granted. I am so blessed to have such an amazing friendship and a family that will pack up in a moment’s notice to take on every adventure with me.

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We are living in odd times right now. There is great diversity happening in so many ways, and it’s happening everywhere. However, if everyone could take a breath, step back – perhaps even take a vacation – maybe we would all realize that our passions and beliefs throughout everything are all rooted in goodness. Instead of burning things and yelling, let’s stop the panicking and start the supporting. Take your health into your hands. Take the education into your hands. Smile to everyone and find a way to spend time with someone who will help you remember these things. Let’s grow together through these slower days. Let’s appreciate more, together.

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A Week in Denver: Our Daily Itinerary

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I can’t tell you enough about our latest adventure. We had the greatest week, and I truly owe it to creating an itinerary for us to follow. There were no moments of arguing or trying to figure out where to eat. Everything was already decided. The beauty of this itinerary is that you can play so much by ear! Switch restaurants or add in an additional hike, whatever makes you happy!

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We decided to cut the drive in half on the way out there, but we would not do it again. Just suffer through and get to Denver – at least if you are driving from Omaha. The hotel was awful, the town was obsolete, and the food was appalling. (The lake was gorgeous, and the jet skiing was a blast, though! But something you can do on another lake in a better area.)

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Day 1

  • Bring snacks/lunch
  • Check in to hotel in Ogallala, NE – Lake McConaughy
  • Travelodge by Wyndham Ogallala (Think motel not hotel, here folks. We would skip this stop next time and head straight to Denver!)
  • Jet ski rental $85 for an hour/ $135 for 2 hours — reservation is 3:30-5:30 (308.355.5555 Big Mac Marina in Arthur’s bay)
  • Play at the beach all afternoon
  • Eat dinner @ Urban Farmer

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Day 2

  • Up, eat, and go. (3+ hours drive)
  • Check into hotel in Greenwood Village (Sheraton Denver Tech Center)
  • Lunch at Mediterranean Place across from hotel— Quick and easy!
  • Drive 35 minutes to Roxborough State Park – Hike – This was GORGEOUS!
  • Stop at any local lake you find to skip rocks and play.
  • Dinner @ Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton (10 minutes from hotel) Reservation was at 6pm – What an amazingly fun brewery!! They have live music, food trucks for those eating outside, and SO MANY BEERS. We played until 10:00pm because it was so much fun.

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Day 3 

  • (pack lunch/snacks/waters)
  • Hiking at Red Rock Ampitheater and Morrison Castle Trail (Castle Trail, Morrison, CO 80465) or Maxwell Falls Lower Trail (easy trail to a waterfall) – Note: Red Rock takes at least 2 hours! Make sure you run the stairs at Red Rock (if you are a running geek like me – it was a bucket list item!)
  • Hike Dinosaur Ridgway!
  • Bear Creek Lake – Kayaking and Beach Play – $10 entrance fee for the park — paddle boarding at Rocky Mountain Paddleboard. This lake is small with little beach area, but it was a great way to spend an afternoon.
  • Horseback riding at Bear Creek Stables 1 hour $40/each person. We sent our 5, 7, and 9 year olds solo with the guide. She assured us they would be safe. They had an adventure that they will remember forever!
  • Dinner @ Sazza Pizza (Get there for happy hour!)

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Day 4

  • Waterworld ALL DAY LONG. Pre-purchase tickets to save money.
  • Dinner @ Homegrown Tap & Dough – Washington Park location. Note: This is a MUST to entertain the kids. They have a FREE arcade and patio full of games! (Not to mention, they have great beer and food.)

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Day 5 

  • National Ballpark Museum
  • Rockies Baseball Game
  • Eat Dinner Downtown by Union Station Splash Fountain! The kids get to play and get wet while you enjoy happy hour and appetizers/dinner.

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Day 6 

  • Switch Hotels and head downtown! (Hyatt Place Denver Downtown!)
  • Children’s museum and explore downtown – The museum is fun, but it was so packed that my anxiety was on high. The ropes course was a blast, but again, they need to cap the amount of people allowed in each day.
  • Walk the outdoor mall and pick up some Denver shirts!
  • We were exhausted and the rain chased us all the way back to the hotel, so we opted to order dinner in and go to bed early. (We had planned to eat by Union Station at another restaurant, though.)

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Day 7 

  • Walk around downtown
  • Enjoy chocolate and cupcakes (of course)
  • Pack up the car and jump back on the road for the drive home

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I could have filled several weeks worth of Denver-Fun for our family, and I cannot wait to head back sometime to continue exploring!

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Packing Tips for a Family Road Trip

We have seven humans in a car that has seven seats. 

Our road trips can be a long weekend, an 8 hour drive and a week long stay, or a two month adventure with multiple hotels, cities, and states. Packing can present a few challenges, depending on the purpose of each trip, and we have tried -and changed- many packing methods. We have a hitch that can hold a luggage trailer and a rack on top of the van. However, I’m not a fan of using these if John is not with us on a road trip. I need to get over it and put on my big girl panties her here, but until then, I’m bound and determined to get everything inside the van.

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A few things I have learned over the years traveling the highways with the kids:

Consider utilizing storage bins instead of luggage. They are easy to stack inside the car or on a trailer, and can be consolidated into categories: everyones’ hotel items, the clothing for a specific city/stop, things to bring to an area with water, etc. 

When changing hotels or packing to return home, consolidate luggage and turn one bag into the family laundry bag. It stays in the car and you will bring less into your next hotel – and when you get home, the clean vs dirty items are already separated. 

Snacks are key, but portioning them before hand is even better. Use ziplock baggies (forgive me, I’m a total natural minded mom, but sometimes, you have to do what’s easy) to portion healthy(ier) snacks like fresh popcorn, trail mix, nuts, energy bites, dried fruits, organic jerky, and anything else your kids will eat. You can toss a bag back and pray it doesn’t end up all over the floor.

Hang trash bags. I hang them from every arm rest in the van. It helps to make pit stops faster – I just dump them and scoop up anything big enough from the floor while kids are stretching their legs.

Kids have to pee – a lot. You can train your boys to pee in a bottle if you are brave, or you can just invest in a travel potty and pull over the nearest exit and let everyone pee into the wind (or squat on the potty). 

When packing clothes, sort them into matching outfits and roll them together. Everyone gets their own duffle bag or ziplock baggies inside of the containers. You want the ease of grabbing and being done without a second thought.

Pack minimal shoes for everyone. A pair of flip flops, sneakers, and possible a sandal/boot/dressier shoe should be enough for even the longest of trips. You can find a Target if a shoe emergency arises.

Don’t use the seats for storage. It’s tempting to use every free space inside the car, but the more you put near the kids, the crazier the car situation will get. Dvd’s, pads, pillows, blankets, snacks, and books are enough – don’t force the kids into any uncomfortable positions with 5 coolers, backpacks, and luggage under their feet. 

Invest in books on CD, audiobooks, and podcasts – for the kids and yourself. You can mandate headphones for some of the drive, so don’t forget to find something you will want to listen to.

Always have baby wipes, burp cloths, napkins, and plastic bags on hand. These things have nothing to do with babies – and everything to do with humans in a car.

Car Sickness Help. We give our sick-prone kids Dramamine before jumping in the car, but sometimes a drop of peppermint oil is enough to keep their stomachs calm. 

A Mother’s To Do List Before Vacation

T-minus 3 days until we leave for our week in Colorado. It’s about an 8 hour drive each way, and we will break it into two days on the way there. You know this isn’t our first rodeo, and I have packing down to a science. However, this is the first long trip with 5 kids. They all can touch in the van, and there is minimal space for much else. I’m trying to get ahead with my work so I can enjoy this trip, but it makes for a stressful week! Here’s a glimpse into what I’m handling — maybe (just maybe – wink wink) you can relate?

A Mother’s To Do List

Make a massive check list.

Continue to add to the check list, even after crossing items off. 

Take the car in for a check-up (and have the fuse replaced so DVD players might actually work on this trip. FYI – plugging in 4 at a time will blow the fuse.)

Spend 2 days searching for the damn DVD players and cords to make them work (have to purchase new cords because the cords are MIA)

Reschedule all of the things that were supposed to take place during the vacation (speech therapies, cleaners, play dates, appointments).

Organize work and schedule out anything that needs completed. 

Clean out car from the gold fish explosion last week, stickers, sand, dirt, shoes, clothes, toys, and everything else that you don’t want to know about beyond the first row. 

Fill the car with gas – but the night before the trip, no earlier.

Confirm the house sitter.

Get food for the house sitter.

Get food and treats for the dog (and CBD oil/rescue remedy/anything that will help her not freak out while we are gone).

Create a list for the house sitter — including dog items, garden instructions, house plants, remote control issues – you know, all.the.things. 

Call neighbors to inform them of our plans and have them check up on the garden and make sure teenage house sitter does not throw a massive party. (Only kidding, our sitter is AMAZING.) 

Confirm all reservations to make sure nothing was overlooked for the trip.

Create a grocery list for road trip: snackage, lunches, food to keep in the hotel. Don’t forget to bring wine instead of paying $10 a glass while on vacation. 

Run to Target for travel sizes items. (and 26 other items you didn’t intend to buy – new water bottles are always great.)

Have a house key made for the sitter.

Organize dog items (leash, poop bags, food, treats, etc)

Make packing list: include clothing, entertainment for the drive, plenty of changes of undies for the potty-learning toddler, a travel potty, favorite games/toys, DVDs, batteries for DVD players, iPads/chargers, rafts for the lake, an air pump to blow up said rafts, toiletries, hiking gear, toddler hiking backpack/carrier, ergo carrier, stroller, laptop to make sure work is up-to-date, camera, wine, and the kitchen sink.

Return library books (that are due back during the trip).

Portion snacks into ziplock bags for the car ride. 

Clean out the refrigerator of anything that the house sitter won’t want. 

Water house plants.

Empty all trash bins in the house – before the designated trash day so house sitter won’t have to. 

Actually pack. But wait, not for yourself. You must first pack each of your five children – but into as small of bags as possible. Consider all activities and washing possibilities. (Oh, there are none? Ok, time to over-pack. yes, your spouse will then question your packing abilities, but at this point you can just pour a glass of wine and laugh.)

Continue to do the daily laundry, dishes, food prep, kitchen clean-up, bed making, house organizing, errands, kissing of boo-boos, nursing babies, actual work, and extra curricular activities.

The night before you leave, you may actually have time to pack for yourself. Pack way too much. There may be poop or puke on your clothing at some point, be prepared.

Listen to spouse complain about all the things he has to fit into the car.

Pour more wine because all he did was pack his own damn bag.  

 

(Yes the damn picture is sideways! I’ll fix it in my free time this week.)

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5 Things To Do When Planning a Trip For a Child’s ‘Experience’ Birthday

Countdown to Departure: 9 days.

The excitement is growing, and my to-do list is not – thanks to all of my preplanning! I am  just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s over here! I’m making eating reservations and paying off water park tickets… But I felt like it was the perfect time to share with you how to pull off a family trip instead of a birthday party for your child this year.

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5 Things To Do When Planning a Trip For a Child’s ‘Experience’ Birthday

#1 Plan Everything Ahead – including reservations to restaurants and ice-cream stops.

A daily itinerary may seem like an impossible task ahead of time, but it will make the entire trip more fun. You may think that your kids can go with the flow, but kids do much better when they know what is coming next. The less waiting time, the less meltdowns. You will also enjoy everything more if you put in the time prior to your departure. The last thing you want to do is spend a few hours each day researching where to eat or where to go. Print out your itinerary with reservation times (and phone numbers) highlighted. Keep your schedule on track, but don’t stress out if it all gets shifted around. You’ll have the ability to call and make changes, fit other things in, or skip over things that aren’t worth the time.

This is the most stressful part of planning an experience birthday trip. It can take weeks or months of late night googling to make sure that you find everything your family will want to do. Start with a master list of activities:
Sporting Events
Horseback Riding
Hiking
Swimming
Beach Play
Theme Park
Festival
Concert
Local-Can’t-Miss-Activities
Breweries/Wineries
Restaurants/Cafes/Ice-Cream Stops
Landmarks/Photo Opportunities

#2 Research, Budget, and Pay Before Your Leave

Shop around for the best hotel deal, make phone calls requesting discounts, and join social media groups for advice on ‘not to miss’ activities. While you’d love to include everything on your master list, it isn’t worth going into debt over. The earlier you begin your planning, the more you can fit in because you will have time to pay for it all. Depending on your family size, you may need two hotel rooms – that doubles the expenses right out of the gate. Consider planning separate activities for different ages – Let your oldest kids do a major waterpark, but save money by keeping the younger kids at the hotel pool (or spend a day exploring with them).

The key is to have everything paid off – or close to it before you pack your bags. The only money you want to spend is on gas and food, and you can even purchase VISA gift cards to make sure you don’t go over budget. You will feel more relaxed and be able to remain present throughout the trip if you are not frantically checking your bank account.

#3 Prepare Your Child

If your child is used to having a birthday party and receiving a large amount of (useless) gifts, you will want to help transition the expectations. Create a countdown for the trip that you can get excited together about. Consider keeping some aspects of the trip a surprise. You can give clues or leave pictures laying around to build the suspense! If your child isn’t big on surprises, you can let them help you plan the entire thing.

#4 Remember Why You Are Traveling

Yes, you are traveling to see and experience new things, but the trip should have multiple activities that celebrate the birthday child. While lounging poolside may seem like heaven for you, your child may love parasailing, horseback riding, or seeing the local zoo. You can mix activities so that everyone is happy, but don’t skimp on the birthday fun – I promise that you will have fun, too. Also – make sure you stop at a local bakery for a birthday cupcake.

#5 You Still Need a Gift

Yes, the trip is your child’s true gift, but there is something to be said about unwrapping something. It goes hand in hand with blowing out candles, right? Choose one item for your child. It can be something small to remember the trip by. It can be a snow globe or sweatshirt, even. Of course, it can be a piece of jewelry or a nicer item for an older child, too. A gift card is the easiest and sometimes most fun present! However, it is important that the gift does not overshadow the trip – and that it is simply a (one) gift.

The Undiscovered Calamus Reservoir of Nebraska

If you live within driving distance to the tiny town of Burwell, NE, consider adding the Calamus Reservoir to your bucket list of places to see. 

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As our time in Nebraska is now far passed the halfway mark, we are starting to consciously accomplish our midwest bucket list vacations. Being a big family, these adventures can take a toll on our bank account, so we have to be creative when we can. John likes to keep a running list of off-the-beaten-path locations we can drive to whenever an opportunity presents itself. And after a chat with a friend, he had an itch to make something happen ASAP. 

It was the Fourth of July, and a long weekend for John. We decided against throwing our traditional (LARGE) BBQ this year to save a bit of money, but we were not ready to sit around twiddling our thumbs. We spent the holiday at the pool with friends but came home with adventure on our minds. With every hotel in the midwest booked for the holiday weekend, we felt like our options were limited. That’s when John suggested tent camping.

I almost laughed. FIVE KIDS. FIVE. We haven’t been tent camping since before Ollie Jack was born (when we had 1, 3, and 5 year olds only). Could we even do this? Could we even fit all the shit needed to camp in my van with these five small humans? Who would watch our dog because there wouldn’t be room for her in the van? I had so many questions. 

John then pulled up pictures from the Calamus Reservoir. He basically lured me in – and I took the bait. I couldn’t believe that this place existed within a few hours of us. It was a clean lake – meaning no farms surround it, no pesticide runoff, no homes built on it – NOTHING. Just spectacular views and campsites. I decided to start packing. 

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We called in our babysitter to come pet-sit for the weekend. (Thank you Madison!)

After loading up more stuff than we could have possibly needed (including the entire pantry, all rafts, and any flashlight we could find), we jumped in the van and headed out. The 3 hours passed slowly (we need a bigger vehicle) with the kids, but they did great.

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They helped unload and set up tents, each kid having a specific job. We built two tents (one family-sized, the other a double person tent). They played games and got filthy while we decided to head into the tiny town for dinner. 

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The small town of Burwell is maybe a stop sign wide by a cattle farm long. There is one grocery store and a handful of really tiny restaurants. That’s about it! We enjoyed a meal that we didn’t cook – at the sweetest diner-style restaurant. It included a scrapbook of the original layout and the renovations completed years ago. If ever in Burwell, stop in the Sandstone Grill. Make sure, though, to grab anything you may need from their grocery store before 6pm because they close early every day! 

The kids managed to stay awake until midnight, even though we tried our damnedest to get them down by 10pm. The night was long and full of wind and rain. It’s the one downfall of camping – the weather. We stayed dry, thanks to our amazing tents and rain tarps. Our chairs and coolers managed well, too. I’m super grateful John sprung for the deluxe air mattresses, though. The one I shared with the littlest kids was just as comfortable as my bed at home! 

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Morning came fast and the sounds of camping woke Emmett up with the sun. Breakfast was prepared while I ran a few miles that took my breathe away.

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We threw on our swimsuits and headed to Calamus Outfitters for our first tanking experience.  My Florida friends – think: tubing the rivers but instead of a tube, you sit in a giant plastic baby pool (cattle feed). There are seats built in, but it’s not luxurious! However, it is something so simple that will create a mark in your memory bank forever. The kids thought we had taken them to the greatest place on earth. We floated and swam and played for hours as we flowed with the river current with not another soul. Seriously, not one other human was on the river with us. The clouds looked painted against at least three different blues in the sky. The sun kissed us and we smiled bigger than we have in awhile. 

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Back at the campsite, we munched on food before blowing rafts up and walking a few campsites down to the ‘beach.’ I will never get used to calling a lakeside a beach, but the sand was perfect and the water – breathtaking. We planned on renting a boat the following morning, but after checking the weather, we realized that an incoming storm was going to send us packing before we had expected to leave. We spent the afternoon and evening playing in the lake before starting a campfire and cooking dinner. 

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It was at this time that our tick paranoia really kicked in, and (combined with the incoming weather)we decided to start packing up. After last summer’s lyme craziness, we do not mess around with our chances. It’s ok though. We soaked in the glory that God had created out here and will forever remember the trip.

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We arrived home in the early hours of the morning and left the unpacking for true daylight. I had my van deep cleaned to ensure no ticks made the journey home with us – and I completed 4 loads of laundry. The trip was worth every load. 

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As our time in the midwest is now on the decline, it’s time we truly seek out these truly amazing trips. We have trips planned to different parts of Colorado, Arizona, Mt. Rushmore, the Black Hills, and possibly the Grand Canyon before we move again, but are looking for more ‘weekend escapes’ like this one that we can do on a budget – on any given long weekend. 

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How to Pull Off a Last Minute (Under Budget) Family Vacation

If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

If you have been following my Facebook page, you knew this post was coming! We decided on July 4th to pack up the kids and throw everything in the car to take a long weekend trip together – the next day.  The problem( other than the crazy last minute rush)? We already have a large week-long trip planned at the end of the month – followed by 3 August birthdays, and several other trips on the calendar. The money wasn’t going to fall from the sky, that’s for sure! But, we still wanted to do something we’d remember forever. AND WE DID.

Everything was booked full. There wasn’t a hotel to be found throughout the midwest. Camping was the only option – with 5 young kids. 

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If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

Necessities:  We used REI’s camping list, but here are the most important items we used…

  • Reservation (Preferably in a spectacularly unknown location)
  • Tent (or camper)
  • Air Mattresses
  • Air Pump (battery operated)
  • Pillows
  • Sleeping Bags (or sheets)
  • Chairs
  • Water Jugs (and reusable cups)
  • Food (just empty out your pantry and prep cut the dinners you were planning to make that weekend)
  • Coolers (large and backpack style)
  • Cast Iron Skillet (and plates/utensils)
  • Towels
  • Toilet Paper
  • Lighter
  • Lanterns/Flashlights
  • Travel Potty (tiny toddlers or not)
  • Toilet Paper (and baby wipes)
  • Camping Stove (and propane)
  • Bug Spray and First Aid Kit
  • Tweezers and a Plastic Bag (just in case a tick shows itself – send that sucker in for Lyme testing – you’ll read more about that later.)
  • Clothes
  • Plenty of trash bags (for trash, wet/dirty clothes, anything)
  • Outdoor Toys/Games

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I hesitated when John suggested this trip. A 3 hour drive and two nights in a tent? Sounded less than fun, but I am so glad that I caved and agreed. 

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We had to call the morning of our trip to see if walk-up tenet camping reservations were available. So, the night of the Fourth, we started packing in hopes we’d be traveling. I literally emptied the pantry into baggies and packed it all in a huge tub. I prep’d the weekend dinner (potatoes, sausage, veggies) and had it ready to dump over the fire. One duffle bag held five kids’ worth of clothes. Each child grabbed a backpack full of ‘fun items’ they wanted to bring. 

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I reserved a house/pet sitter (our amazing babysitter) to come to the house while we were gone.

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John loaded the van up – and we started googling everything to do if we made it to our destination. Keeping our (small) budget in mind, we decided on ‘tanking’ down the river, spending a day at the ‘beach,’ and renting a boat.   

Calamus Reservoir had 10 walk-up spaces available. The trip was a GO. 

Our one major fail? We didn’t look closely at the weather. 

As we were driving, we realized there may be bad weather heading for us, but we ventured on. It was only a 40% chance, so we crossed our fingers. The skies were blue and the air became more breathable the farther from the farms that we made it. As we arrived, my heart sang out loud. The lake was beyond anything I had imagined. We scored a great camping spot and started setting up. 

A note: Make sure you give your kids jobs to do while setting up. This is to prevent the pestering and questioning that will cause frustration and anxiety. We handed kids hammers and stakes and taught them how to stake the tents. They set up the sleeping bags on the air mattresses and found twigs for the fire. 

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Don’t plan on cooking within a few hours of arriving. You will be done with ‘doing all the things’ and want to relax. Hop in and explore the closest tiny town. Eat somewhere local. Grab a beer and take the experience in. (Make sure you grab a few scratch off tickets while you are out. It seems that there are always winners sitting in these tiny towns.)

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Break out the glow sticks and flashlights. Play a few games and read some books together before calling it a night. Plan to be up with sun because kids will be out of their element sleeping in nature. Spend the next 24-36 hours soaking in everything beautiful around you. Unplug from the normalcy of life and just exist together.

If the weather turns (like it did for us in the middle of the night), make sure you have your rain tarp up. It was a windy and rainy few hours that made sleep a challenge, but having a great tent proved invaluable! 

You can do this. You can do this on a minimal budget. You can do this with young kids. You can do this as a couple. The key is to find someplace worth seeing and then just do it.

Where have you explored that you think others should know about? Let’s share our hidden vacation spots and start exploring more.

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