I hope this finds you and yours enjoying the fresh start of a new year. As I browse the photos on my phone to jog my memory, it always surprises me how much I have already forgotten from the previous year. It makes me wish I had started these years earlier – capturing the context of the memories before they were just photos in the digital abyss of my phone.
I ended last year’s letter by commenting that we were looking forward to being home more and enjoying our mountain life. Yeah, that didn’t happen. There were celebrations (from births to marriages) and plenty of unexpected happenings. Spoiler alert: Shawn and I have been on a mini-retirement since early September, and we’ve crammed a lot since leaving our jobs. Buckle up, buttercup; there’s a lot to share in this year’s novel. Or don’t. The virtual version of this letter has more than links – skip all the reading and peruse the pictures throughout the post.
The year started off on track to soak up home life as I looked to fill the weeks before I started my job at Hipcamp. It was mostly non-exciting things like long-overdue home tasks. Still, I also explored different resorts around us and worked on improving my skiing skills. I worked up to attempting my first blue run. “Attempting” is the operative word here – I bailed as soon as the option for an alternative green path arose. 😆
The “oops” (re: heavily discounted) paint shelf at Home Depot provided colors to paint the kitchen and Shawn’s office. Tired of the horror of the hall bathroom we use during work days, we relented and paid the full price for our chosen color. The house is still plenty ugly (yep, still carpet on the walls), but less so than a year ago, so we’re trending in the right direction.
We made a few trips to the Bay Area for events: a Donny Benét concert and, I can’t believe I’m writing this, a Star Wars burlesque parody: The Empire Strips Back. Both were wild and silly in very different ways that I won’t attempt to put in writing. They were worth the trips on their own, but we made use of the visits to see pals and explore new hikes.
For the first (and probably last) time in my life, I went all out on my birthday celebration: mani-pedi, hair stylist, makeup, new dress, DJ, and an open bar. You didn’t miss an invite. I had the honor of spending my birthday as a bridesmaid for my friend, Kelly. It was a weekend full of fun as we celebrated her and her lovely groom, Nic, on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
From there, Shawn and I headed south to see parts of the state we’d never seen, starting with Everglades National Park – exploring on foot, bike, and even by airboat. The geography allowed us to go from biking on the northern side of the Everglades to kayaking in Biscayne Bay National Park to camp on the southern side of the Everglades on the same day.
We took the highway south again until the road ended at Key West – a town with all the culture and fun of New Orleans, enhanced with a tropical overlay. It is also a ferry ride away from Dry Tortugas National Park. Despite the distance (2.5 hours each way) and the island’s small size, it packs a lot in – from the engaging historical walk to incredible snorkeling. For our next visit, I hope we’re lucky enough to be one of only six groups to camp overnight.
In May, the Hipcamp Engineering team got together for a fun week at a Hipcamp a few hours north of us in Tahoe. It was great to get the chance to meet some of my co-workers in person as we hiked and bottle-fed goats. We even worked remotely, thanks to the owner’s Starlink connection. It is a game changer for rural folks, but the lag as it switches satellites is painful if you’re doing a lot of video calls.
Shawn spent Memorial Day Weekend with his friends at Star Wars Celebration (think Comic-Con for Star Wars nerds). I kept busy as my college buddy, Conrad, came out for a visit, and we enjoyed the start of summer with some hiking and beach lounging.
We enjoyed catching up with many friends as they came into town on their vacations. A few weeks later, we saw my co-worker, Tom (with his partner, Steph, and their sweet pup, Amos), as part of a stop on their cross-country road trip. In June, it was Rishi and Jeremy while they were up for a short backpacking excursion. We watched the Fourth of July fireworks with one of our Disney friends, Adam, and his wife, Lauren. A few weeks later, one of my old Enjoy co-workers, Yang, invited us for a campfire dinner with his family and friends.
In late June, we hosted Shawn’s mom, Carol, and his 15-year-old nephew, Graham. The trip started in the Bay Area, where we caught Woodies on the Wharf in Santa Cruz and the infamous pride parade in San Francisco. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a 68-year-old from the midwest to her first pride parade. There were also some classic Silicon Valley stops, like the new Apple headquarters and the Computer History Museum.
From there, it was a change of pace as we headed to the Sierras, starting with Yosemite National Park. We kept with the tradition of making grandma “camp” for at least two nights by staying at the tent cabins of Curry Village. She blew past our optional turnaround points and crushed a full tour (6.5 miles!) of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. I upped the hiking ante with a 3-day backpacking trip along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. This is a point-to-point trip in Yosemite’s high country, so we gave Carol a break at a nearby resort in exchange for her chauffeur services.
We wrapped the trip back home in Tahoe. Graham wasn’t tired of hiking, so we ventured onto some of our favorite trails. We also took some time out for a tour of Vikingsholm (a Scandinavian mansion on Tahoe’s west shore) and the traditional round of mini golf.
In July, our friends, Jess and Gary, made the mistake of telling us they were going to Las Vegas. We took advantage of the proximity and completely crashed their vacation. It had been two years since we had seen them in person, and we had a lovely time exploring downtown Vegas for the first time. Their chosen hotel (Circa) was stunning, from the classy rooftop bar to the staggering swimming pools. Still, our favorite thing may have been the Neon Museum and its light show just a few blocks over.
On July 30, my brother, Kreston, and his lovely girlfriend, Liz, welcomed the first of the next generation into the family: Kreston Charles Sites III. A month later, we met my dad in Maine to visit with everyone for the week. The days were spent exploring Maine to give Liz and the baby time to rest while my brother worked. This left the evenings for spending time together and pushing dad’s culinary comfort zones a bit.
As the week wrapped up, Shawn and I dropped Dad at the airport and headed north to Acadia National Park for a few days. We didn’t luck out for a car permit, so we started hiking before dawn to reach Cadillac Mountain’s peak to verify its “first place to receive sunlight in the US” claim. It checks out. We also rented electric bikes to explore the carriage roads, pausing for the occasional view and a near-mandatory stop for delicious popovers. Bar Harbor was such a close “national park gateway town” that even though we camped, we opted to eat several of our meals there at one of many great spots in town. Camp was packed up well before dawn so we could catch the roar of Thunder Hole at its peak (1-2 hours before high tide).
By early September, Shawn and I had left our jobs, deciding to step away from the workforce for a bit. This has given us much-needed time to catch up on life chores and, frankly, take a break.
We hosted Carol for a birthday visit in September, starting with the Great Reno Balloon Race. Even with smoke from the Mosquito Fire, it was a fantastic morning watching all hot air balloons of every variety take to the skies. The following week, we spent part of her birthday visiting our local tattoo parlor for her first tattoo before going down to Santa Barbara. We did plenty of things we’ve never done: touring the Mission, their beautiful courthouse, and taking a meditation hour in a salt cave. In keeping with what seems to be tradition, we ate way too much of Shawn’s favorite ice cream shop, McConnell’s. On our way back, we made a detour to see Hearst Castle. Much to Shawn’s dismay, I have many ideas for the house renovation now!
We had flights to attend a Hoffman wedding in Wisconsin in November, but we got an offer we couldn’t refuse. Shawn’s brother and sister-in-law, Jeff and Kate, offered us their awesome camping utility trailer. They are in Indiana, and since we were “funemployed,” why not just drive out to the wedding and pick up the trailer? So began an unexpected three-week road trip.
We stopped in Vegas for a concert (Panic! At The Disco) before heading to Bryce Canyon National Park. Our camping plans were dashed when we unzipped our tent to find a hefty blanket of snow. Without the gear to snow camp, we transferred to the park’s lodge for the rest of the visit. It was walking distance from the trails we wanted to hike anyway, and what a sight to see all the “hoodoos” (rock spires) with a fresh coat of snow. This would be the first of many times we wished we already had the trailer.
With more weather coming into other areas we had planned on seeing out West, we started east early. We stopped for dinner at the best BBQ I’ve had outside of Memphis (Q39 in Kansas City) before settling into camp on some fish and wildlife land (free camping!). We arrived after dark and, again, wished we already had the trailer. More specifically, we started to wish we had ordered a rooftop tent to be there waiting so we could have it for the drive back. Next stop: St. Louis. Sure, we toured the giant arch, but the true highlight was meeting up with one of Shawn’s Star Wars buddies, Eric. We indulged in all things Taylor Swift and the crazy world of audio setups.
Now that we were out of the drought-stricken, wildfire-prone West, I was looking forward to having the first fire at a campsite in years in Mammoth Caves National Park. Turns out Kentucky was also experiencing a mild drought and had banned campfires. 🙁 Even without a campfire, we had a fantastic time as the cave tours exceeded expectations.
As we headed up to Carol’s house, we were looking forward to the sweet relief of no driving for a few days. We were there for Halloween, getting the chance to be a part of the fun in person instead of just getting photos of the kids’ costumes the next day.
The trek to Wisconsin started early, so we could make a few stops along the way. First up, Fort Wayne. We wanted to finally meet Miles, the new (well, almost a year old) bundle of joy of our Disney friend, Julie, and her husband, Eddie. Of course, a trip to Fort Wayne wouldn’t be complete for Shawn without visiting the musical mecca that is SweetWater. We continued to Chicago the next day, stopping at the Albanese candy factory and absorbing the most potent scent of gummy bears I’ve ever experienced.
The night in Chicago was a planning remnant from when we were still employed – we had nabbed a reservation for two at Alinea. It was pre-paid and non-refundable anyway, so we “forced ourselves” to have the meal of a lifetime before heading to Wisconsin the next day.
We had a fantastic time celebrating Zane and Sarah’s marriage in Wisconsin Dells. I commend them for having their wedding block at a waterpark hotel, given how many kiddos we have in the family. This was our first experience at one, and wow, what a world.
For our return trip, we were already cutting it close to arriving amidst winter weather in Tahoe, so we focused on making miles after picking up the trailer in Indy. We couldn’t pass up a kitschy stop like the “World’s Largest Mailbox” and lunch at roll-throwing Lambert’s, but otherwise, it was straight on to Memphis.
Anything that didn’t fit in my little HHR back when I moved to California in 2012 was left. From there, I continued to move to California with every trip home, thanks to Southwest Airlines’ “two free checked bags” policy. I ran out of things that could go into a checked bag years ago, so when my dad sold the family house this year, the clock was ticking to “come get [my] sh*t” out of his shop. It was lovely to have the chance to visit and stay with Jess and Gary before heading over to the shop to start filling the trailer. After lunch with Dad and my little brother, Joe, we were on the road again until we arrived in Birmingham for dinner with another Star Wars buddy, Hawes. He is from Mississippi, so we had quite a time sharing all the quirks of Southern life with Shawn.
Snow storms were starting to descend upon Tahoe, but we would have a window of respite if we hurried along. We made it to a KOA in West Texas after dark – again, wishing we had that rooftop tent for quick setup. It was here that we discovered, to our delight, that standard KOA campsites also have plugs. Our nightly rate inadvertently included a full charge for our car! We have a plug-in hybrid, so it wasn’t much, but a “free” 40 miles is more than a gallon of gas saved!
The next day’s drive started early enough to warrant a lunch stop exploring the quirky town of Roswell, NM, and its UFO museum. Shawn got to try Whataburger for the first time and ranked it higher than In-N-Out. I do not share this opinion.
We continued onto western New Mexico, passing multiple campgrounds closed for the winter until we found ourselves at another KOA (yay, charge!). It was a 15-minute drive from White Sands National Park, and they even lent out free sleds to enjoy on the dunes, so, naturally, our next morning was decided. As the park shares a border with a missile test range, it can be closed to the public for multiple days during testing. Fortunately, we timed it well, but it was one of the most peculiar experiences in a National Park we’ve ever had. Sure, we’ve never gone sledding on sand dunes, nor have we gone for a hike that was marked in the only way a landscape that won’t “maintain” a footpath: large orange stakes. The most peculiar bit was a sign at the midpoint of the loop indicating “unexploded munitions” beyond the point it marked.
We continued to more strange federal government boundaries, entering Navajo Nation and arriving late into the night at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Despite our exhaustion, we set an early alarm to watch the sunrise from the balcony of our hotel room. The moon was bright enough to glimpse what we had in store, but it was nothing compared to that sunrise. After breakfast, we ventured out for the scenic drive amongst the monuments, feeling as if we were living in an old Western film – and for a good reason, “Stagecoach” was filmed here. Before returning to the road, we opted to stretch our legs on the only hike that gets close to them. The scenery was gorgeous, but it was second to the near-constant generosity and warmth of the people who care for this land.
We drove over the Glen Canyon Dam on the way to our next campground in St. George, Utah. We had seen the pictures on the news but were astounded to see what little water remained in Lake Powell in person. Living in California, Shawn and I are all too familiar with droughts, but seeing this in person was heartbreaking on a different level.
As we drove over the Glen Canyon Dam, I realized that the pain of climate change would hit the gracious people of the Navajo Nation first. It already had. Now I understood why we were denied the ability to fill our bottles with water in gas stations throughout the reservation. As we discussed it, we realized it had even begun to affect those outside the reservations. Since crossing into New Mexico, we had been inundated with “no ice” signs at restaurants and gas stations. It has become far too precious of a resource to give away for free.
At the end of the day, they are acutely aware that they are on their own if their water runs out. In contrast, the rest of us run our taps and buy up single-use bottled waters without any reason to believe there will be any price to pay.
You’re still here? Well, thank you for indulging me. I am grateful that we are fortunate enough to be able to step away from the workforce for a spell and throw in an unexpected road trip like this. One of the great benefits of travel is that it expands the bubble of our viewpoints and lived experiences. Hopefully, it makes you a more empathetic (global or even local) citizen. There’s no doubt that walking in someone else’s shoes (or life circumstances) is part of the excitement of seeing new places. It would have felt like a crime against the universe not to share a sliver of that twenty-four hours that forever changed us.
Speaking of the universe, the UFO museum in Roswell had lots to say about it. A fascinating tidbit was the “The Extraterrestrial Highway” in Nevada. For those of you following along on a map at home, Route 375 was a viable option to get us home. It wasn’t the quickest, so we set early alarms again as I reminded Shawn that we could have slept in if he had let me order that rooftop tent! We were aiming to get home for dinner and hopefully avoid abusing the generosity of our neighbors to care for the cats in our absence – thanks, John & Linda! We packed up camp for the last time as we watched yet another gorgeous sunrise reveal what we couldn’t see in the dark of the night of our late arrival.
After a few hours, we turned onto the quirky highway, passing kitschy shops and the vast open space surrounding the infamous “Area 51” with its black mailbox. It was full of tributes to higher powers and clearly not actually accessed by the postal service. We had nothing to offer, so we may have kicked off a bad luck streak. The Little A’Le’Inn was our last stop and perfectly timed for lunch in their cafe. Their shop offered plenty of curiosities for sale, including handmade booklets with details about the area and its oddities. After the experiences with reality in Monument Valley, we were happy to indulge in a bit of otherworldly curiosity and picked up a few. I have yet to open them, so you’ll have to get the book report from Shawn.
We weren’t going to be in Indiana for Christmas this year, so we had made plans to be there for Thanksgiving. These plans were also made before the “we don’t have jobs, so let’s just go get that trailer” road trip. The timing left us just four days to unpack, remind the cats who we were, and repack to fly out to Indianapolis. Despite just being there for the wedding, enjoying the calmest of the winter holidays with everyone was lovely.
Carol, Shawn, and I flew out early on Black Friday for the last trip of the year: Walt Disney World. When we packed for the trip, the Florida temperatures were hitting highs in the low sixties. By the time we landed a week later, they were hitting the mid-eighties. As fate would have it, Shawn packed in the (literal, 104 degrees) fever of his post-COVID booster, leaving him to don shorts for Thanksgiving. He won as I was forced to do laundry in Florida so I could reuse my limited stock of short-sleeved shirts, ha!
Since Shawn and I met there, we always enjoy being back, especially when we get the chance to relive a bit while catching up with some of our friends there, like Bert and Heather. We also aimed to branch out for this visit. There were the little things we had never tried: snacks, dining at lounges (Nomad Lounge was the favorite), resort hopping to view Christmas decorations, a painting class, tours (Behind the Seeds and one at our hotel), and the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse (okay, that one was just new to me). We also planned some bucket list items: staying at Wilderness Lodge, dinner at Takumi-Tei in the Japan pavilion of EPCOT, and the dining experience of a lifetime with our friends Eric and Allyson at Chef’s Table at Victoria & Albert’s.
As incredible as the trip was, we were looking forward to spending the last few weeks of the year quietly at home. Even still, we’ve been busy with all the trappings of holiday tasks and chipping away at the ever-growing to-do list of tasks. For a “mini retirement,” it has been much busier than we were expecting. Maybe, just maybe, things will settle for long enough to relax and enjoy it some more before we return to employed life. I’m grateful for all the unexpected fun life has thrown at us, but I wouldn’t be mad if next year’s New Year’s letter was shorter, ha!
Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy 2023.