Our decisions over the last few years, including the commitment to building and living in our tiny house has resulted in many benefits, the most important to date has been the ability to enjoy extended ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ leave; an opportunity we wouldn’t let go to waste. The following is a long winded first hand account of how we took the long way to introduce our seven week old daughter to her family on the East Coast.
‘Where are you traveling to next?’ The hotel concierge asked as we departed Flagstaff, AZ.
‘Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s about five and a half hours away, but I bet it’ll take nine with an infant’ I half jokingly replied.
Twelve hours later we are watching the sunset from a dirt pull-out, trying to comfort Aubrin as tumble weeds blow by; and we still have thirty miles until Santa Fe.
At that moment, we were only one quarter of the way through an overly ambitious cross county trip and wondered if we had made a grave mistake. Now in hindsight, with the uncomfortable and frustrating moments already fading out of existence I can confirm that this trip has made us better parents who are more in-sync with our daughter and more confident than ever but that wasn’t always the sentiment while immersed in the experience. And hey, its not an adventure until you begin to second guess your involvement, right?
In some weird way I enjoy the logistics of trip planning. The act of scouring physical and digital maps, plotting points and paths and discovering unexpected oddities and way points along the way is fascinating. In fact it has become an integral part of our lives over the last decade; always looking forward to the next adventure and harnessing the anticipation as a positive aspect of planning. This trip was unique however; a longer and more complex excursion, compounded by the addition of our seven week old daughter. We would be simultaneously learning how to be parents AND learning how to travel with an infant.
It can be hard enough being first time parents in a static, familiar and predictable environment (home) and we were going to try to roll that progress into the chaotic, unpredictable and over-ambitious three week cross country trip with 2,650 miles of car travel and over 5,000 miles of air travel. Once (if?) finished, our ten week old daughter would have spent nearly one third of her life on the road.
As we prepared for Aubrin to be born we pretended to have it all figured out. We should only plan half of what we used to and expect to only accomplish half of that. That plan only lasted as long as it took the water to heat up for that mornings planning session coffee. Over the coming weeks we plotted a 1,700 mile meandering loop through Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico as well as a 700 mile loop connecting family members throughout New York and Pennsylvania.
Of the two modes of transportation we would encounter on this trip, flying was semi terrifying. Being trapped in a small space with an unpredictable infant while surrounded by predominantly irritated and potentially sick individuals seemed like the opposite of the scenic freedom offered by a personal automobile. In an effort to ease into airline travel we choose to fly out of Pasco, WA because the direct ninety minute flight to SLC would be a perfect primer before continuing onto Buffalo and eventually crossing the entire country on the way back to WA at the end of the trip.
We began packing a few days prior, methodically listing and organizing until we discovered that we had amassed close to 150 lbs of gear. A minimalist family prepared to maximize every opportunity on a road trip does not look like a minimalist family at first glance and the new addition of a portable crib and car seat added much bulk and weight to a long list of items.
We walked through the sliding glass doors of Pasco airport at 4 am trying our best to not look buried and over burdened by the amount of stuff we were not used to lugging around, plus one small tiny human. By the time we made it to the security check, Aubrin was sleeping and we walked on eggshells trying to keep it that way. Fifteen minutes before boarding Samantha fed Aubrin in nervous preparation for our ensuing experience stuffed inside a metal cylinder with a hundred+ other people while hurtling through the air at an inhuman rate of speed.
After some indecision we decided to capitalize on the early boarding option for those with infants and settled into a calm quite plane, void of the selfish rush to grab overhead space while the slow moving line down the aisle behind you hold steady sneers. This ended up being a really helpful option that we now use every time. Plus, who wants to be that family slowly walking down the aisle with a crying baby, knowing that everyone on that plane with an empty seat next to them is praying it’s not yours…fortunatly, Aubrin completed the ninety minute flight flawlessly and we were standing in Salt Lake City, Utah with high hopes of continued success on the verge of a 1,700 mile, ten night road trip through the southwest.
We saddled up the rental car and drove south to our first destination in central Utah while almost immediately learning of Aubrin’s new found car seat aversion as we pulled over for the first of a few stops on that simple three hour drive. It is worth noting that we prepared and conditioned for this trip with a particular focus on car seat travel. What I mean by that is we did test runs to Mt Rainier National Park (3 hours round trip, one day) and Portland, OR (7 Hours round trip, 2 days) in the weeks leading up to this trip. Hell, we would put her in the car seat and drive around just to GET her to sleep. Yet here we were, already committed but lacking confidence with the second longest road trip of our lives in front of us, and something had changed…I would be lying if I said this wasn’t the first of a few times that I silently thought “What the f#*k have we got ourselves into.”
We arrived at our first destination during peak heat, stepping out into 96 degree temperatures and confronted with a locked door to the main office. “Out doing chores, call the number below for assistance” a hand written note read. My repetitive calls met the same answering machine message over and over and a sinking feeling started to set into my chest around the same time the sweat began to roll of my forehead. I could tell Samantha felt it too.
The appearance and condition of this place did not surprise me in the least. I had done my research, and if I am being honest, this kind of place was right up my alley. But traveling with an infant comes with new parameters, logistics and concerns; that latter of the three was that pit in my stomach caused by the lack of air conditioning. It was not a surprise to us, more of an oversight compounded by an unseasonably warm heat wave during out visit.
A dusty collection of eclectic accommodations were scattered throughout the property, seemingly under perpetual construction and alteration. The website listed an impressive collection of nightly rentals, both in quality and diversity, confirmed in the flesh as we meandered through the property looking for the host, “mystic Mike.’ Tent Campsites, RV Hookups, single wide trailers, gypsy wagons, wooden cabins, and a multitude of buses, holding onto the glory days of the 1960’s and 70’s. I s#!t you not, there is a full sized bus with a Volkswagen mini bus installed on its roof as a sort of cupola/skylight.
We circled back to the office without any sighting of mystic Mike, and I struck up a conversation with a middle aged gent who identified himself as ‘Mike’s Carpenter.’ He was toiling away on an impressive update to the properties stage that was to host their annual music festival the following weekend. He was eager to chat and spoke enthusiastically about his current assignment and the quality of sound they could achieve. Using a flat head screw driver, he popped off the plywood panels on the front of the stage to reveal a slew of brand new, large speakers and sub woofers while grinning and grunting proudly; a gesture that I repeated in agreement before heading off to continue the search for the mystical gentleman.
As someone who appreciates unique lodging, this place was amazing but the temperature and inability to find Mike had increased our anxiety (and my body temperature) so we decided to take a drive in the air conditioned vehicle and revisit our evening plans after cooling off. We ended up pacing the isles of a Walmart fifteen minutes away, pretending to shop near the frozen food and produce isles in order to spend over an hour in their air conditioning. Another hour was spent in the parking lot eating some pre-made food acquired from Whole Foods on our way out of SLC and changing diapers/feeding Aubrin wile contemplating an air conditioned hotel for the night.
It was now 7:30 pm. We had been awake since 3:45 that morning, completed an airline flight for the first time and spent over four hours in a car. We had yet to spend a single night of a twenty night trip and for the second time in the first twelve hours I found myself wondering if we had made a mistake. Why hadn’t we just flown straight to Buffalo to visit family like a normal person instead of adding on a ten night, 1700 mile layover in the mountain/South West; just for fun.
The sun began to set, and we had finally connected with Mike via phone. “We will be back in five minutes or so’ he said, insinuating he had not been on the property, “but feel free to make yourself at home in ‘my Cabin,” as our accommodations were called.
We returned and poked our head through the unlocked (and un-lockable) door to the old 12’x12’ pioneer cabin. It was homey. A bed, a chair, a coffee table, a fireplace and a ladder to a loft much more cramped than ours back at home. I heard a car pull up and we went out to greet ‘Mystic Mike’ who had proven true to his name over the last several hours. I extended my arm to shake his hand and in that split moment received a glance of pure perplexion that bordered on disappointment. He followed up with an invitation to fist bump. I quickly obliged and returned harmony to our meeting before moved forward with our conversation.
Mike assured us the temperature would drop significantly after the sunset, an occurrence already under way, and then gave us a detailed description of the properties amazing geothermal feature which was the main reason we were there. “Take that trail right there up the hill” Mike explained as he gestured to a dirt path that flanked the office. The office was more of a retrofit old motel, complete with an almost empty swimming pool, save a few feet of green water that a couple of ducks were enjoying.
His description came to life as we explored the property which became more vibrant with each passing moment of fleeting sunlight. We passed two large soaking pools where water fell from the top of a brilliant orange mineral mound. Further up the path we discovered seven different personal soaking tubs installed into the landscape. Each was fed by its own trough from the main channel and held a different temperature based on its distance from the source seep.
We were completely alone and Samantha choose one particularly secluded tub to enjoy the waning minutes of sunset from its surreal placement; slowly being reclaimed by the layers of mineral deposits building up over time. We returned to our little cabin and fell asleep under the direct air flow of the standing fan. To our good fortune the tubs were once again all vacant during a late night return to enjoy one last geothermal therapy session under the stars before heading off to our next destination before the sun rose.
Our intentions to visit Zion National Park were thwarted by the Brian’s Head wildfire, who’s increasing size combined with the [im]perfect wind direction to deposit its smoke directly into Zion canyon, filling it to the brim and significantly reducing air quality and visibility. We held onto hopes of a salvaged visit all the way to the park entrance where we waited in line for only a minute before pulling a u-turn and putting the brown haze in the rear-view mirror.
This is the lesser seen side of traveling as we were confronted with the first wrench in our plans. We had set the alarm to wake up at 3:00 am to be on the road by 4:00 am and parked in Zion National park by 7:00 am to give ourselves time to jump on the shuttle to make our way up the canyon (which is closed to private vehicles) and be on trail to ‘angels landing’ by 8 am so that we could be back in the air conditioned vehicle and on the road by the time it would be too hot to hike with Aubrin. All of that foresight and effort became useless and now we were napping in Kanab, Utah, passing time and recharging before continuing on to Lake Powell where it was way too early to check into our room and way too hot to be outside with Aubrin. We were 1/20th the way through a twenty night trip and it felt like we had been traveling for weeks!
The next couple days we would be exploring the area around Page, AZ which happens to exist in a kind of time warp thanks to its location at the intersection of the Navajo reservation (which reaches into Arizona but DOES practice daylight Savings time) Arizona (which does NOT practice daylight savings time) and Utah (which DOES practice daylight savings time). It happens to be a complex enough condition where even modern cell phones with automated clocks based on GPS can be incorrect. You can imagine how this could wreak havoc on hotel and restaurant reservations and even more so on time sensitive one hour tour times for local attractions.
After dinner we made a last minute decision to visit one particularly popular vantage just outside of town. It was 107 degrees so Samantha breastfed Aubrin in the (air conditioned) car and I headed off to scout the vista. I briskly walked the ten minute sandy trail to the cliff edge while passing throngs of (rightfully) lethargic visitors from all over the world who came to see this iconic American west landscape in the flesh.
I often question why we still visit places like this one; the ones that are so over photographed and shared that it seems like all of the surprise and experience has been removed. But the cliche answer remains true; it’s as much about the journey to get there. A comical journey that had already included air and car travel and over 150 lbs of gear and at times a seemingly one mile per diaper travel rate. Otherwise we could all live vicariously through Google Earth, right?
I scanned the Colorado river below in amazement as it veered towards me only to bend back away more than 180 degrees before continuing on its South-Westerly course. It really was incredible. The difference between standing there and seeing it in a photo was palpable. In a few thousand + years this vantage point will be of an oxbow lake rather than an impressive bend in the river; proving the persistent power of water. It truely was a spectacular sight but at that moment two things were clear:
- It was going to be way to hot to bring Aubrin here during the day.
- I had to find a way for my family to experience this incredible vista
The resulting solution woke me at 1:30 am by way of cell phone alarm. Followed by a pitch black hike back out to the cliff edge illuminated by headlamps and in the presence of cooler temperatures. The lack of moon made for a faint view of the river below but allowed the milky way to shine over Samantha and Aubrin. Camouflaged by darkness, Samantha probably never did see the delight in my eyes but this was a really memorable and pivotal experience that proved we could and would improvise and make the best of whatever situation we were given, as a complete family.
We stole a couple hours of shut eye back at the hotel before heading back out into the Arizona desert early the next morning to explore one of the local slot canyons. It’s unassuming nature on the surface gives little indication of the incredibly elegant natural landscape waiting to immerse those who venture the 60+ feet below the surface; an incredible play of light and shadow, rivaling the most intricate human made temples and churches on earth.
It is hard to believe that we also had a five hour round trip drive to visit Monument valley planned for this very same day. We quickly came to our senses, unanimously voted that idea down and relaxed around Lake Powell until it was time to continue our course South.
On our way to Flagstaff, AZ we made a detour to revisit the Grand Canyon because it was one of those ‘drive up to’ destinations providing a great view with little time spent in the 100+ heat. It would be the second time we drove the south rim and the second time I will (sheepishly) admit feeling underwhelmed. Perhaps it is an internal conflict that makes me believe that something that takes so little effort in turn has its value diminished. Or perhaps I am conflicted by the inability to comprehend a natural feature of such magnitude. A place offering so much variability of light and shadow throughout the day, month and year; something a future rim to rim hike or canyon rafting trip may help remedy.
We completed the obligatory South Rim stop with a little walk and photo op before continuing on to Flagstaff, AZ which had now become little more than a place to lay our head for a night now that we had canceled our intentions to hike in Sedona, 45 minutes further south (again, due to the temperature). This evening and the following day summed up the tougher days of life on the road. Too exhausted to be bothered with a dinner out on the town, I instead caught a brief glimpse of what appeared to be a cute and bustling downtown Flagstaff while grabbing take out and returning to the hotel.
The following day was dedicated almost purely to travel but I had researched a few stops along the way that I had hoped to fit in. It was our single longest planned travel day, reading five and a half hours on google maps. A year ago, Samantha and I wouldn’t have thought twice about that. In fact, when we were drawing that little red line on the map a few weeks before the trip we didn’t think twice. Now in hindsight, five and half hours in a car with Aubrin makes me shutter, and has been shot down multiple times since returning to the PNW while planning future excursions.
‘Where are you traveling to next?’ The hotel concierge asked as we departed Flagstaff, AZ.
‘Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s about five and a half hours away, but I bet it’ll take nine with an infant’ I half jokingly replied.
The drive started off better than usual with Aubrin fast asleep thanks to our stealth ninja antics leaving the hotel with her already sleeping in the car seat. In fact she was sleeping so well that we didn’t dare wake her when we reluctantly passed the first and perhaps most interesting landmark I had hoped to visit; The gigantic Berringer meteor crater, potentially the best defined and persevered meteor impact site on earth.
As Aubrin became less content, our stops were dictated by her schedule which seemed to be in direct conflict with every little stop I had in mind. We leapfrogged the Meteor crater, the Winslow, Arizona corner, Petrified Forest National Park and a few other oddities, not daring to stop while she was quietly content which usually ended shortly after passing a particular interest but just far enough along to refuse turning around. We did however find a way to locate and visit Walter Whites home (any Breaking Bad fans?) in a brief dinner stop in Albuquerque, NM before trying to race the setting sun to Santa Fe.
Twelve hours after leaving Flagstaff, AZ we were watching the sunset from a dirt pull-out, trying to comfort Aubrin as tumble weeds blow by; and we still had thirty miles until Santa Fe.
Santa Fe, NM offered welcome respite at a much needed time. I had not been in charge of booking the accommodations for this portion of the trip so I had zero expectations. We arrived after dark and the mood was set during our stroll down a pedestrian cobble stone lane, flanked by humble adobe structures, gardens and trees. We shortly reached the stairs, front stoop and door to our own personal one bedroom abode, complete with kitchen, dining nook, bathroom, living room and private deck.
On our way out the door to explore Canyon Road the following morning we stopped in the main central building for the best breakfast I have ever had at a ‘hotel.’ In fact, calling it a continental breakfast is a grave disservice thanks to the expectation of stale cereal, bagels and over ripe bananas that most of us have been conditioned to. The breakfast at Las Polamos is made to order waffles, omelets and espresso beverages combined with the most extensive spread of fresh fruits and cereals and granolas and juices and even quesadillas with ample seating for all of the guests, including the secret garden room where we relaxed each morning.
After a morning stroll along the famous Canyon Road we made our way to Meow Wolf. It’s nondescript name and the idea of traveling this far to spend time inside a building left me indifferent but Samantha was adamant about visiting and considering it was air conditioned I agreed.
Meow Wolf is a Santa Fe based multidisciplinary artist collective seeking to create fully immersive art experiences and their first permanent experiential ‘installation’ is located in an equally nondescript converted bowling alley in Santa Fe.
We entered the unassuming ‘House of No Return’ and found ourselves enveloped in a 20,000 square foot interactive exploration and discovery experience. No description of the “House of no Return’ will do it justice and these photos barely scratch the surface but you can try to imagine a more PG rendition of burning man combined with an elaborate full scale game of ‘clue’ stuffed inside a multi-level disorienting maze full of secret portals into new and unimaginable realms. A maximalist art experience that has the ability to leave you with more questions than answers, and sometimes that’s a good thing.
From Santa Fe we cut a line north, clipping the corner of Colorado and made our way up into Mesa Verde National Park where we would stay at the Far View Lodge whose location was perfect but barely made up for its mediocre at best, design, construction and staff service. From this one night base camp inside the national park we were able to explore the upper reaches of the mesa before the rest of the tourists infiltrated the next morning and we enjoyed a sunny morning exploring cliff dwellings and pueblos without the crowds.
We drove down off the mesa and re-entered the state where the trip had started with our hearts set on Moab. Nine years prior, well into a month long road trip from Buffalo, NY we had pitched a tent in a small KOA outside of town and I remember having a memorable night with Samantha, who was my girlfriend at that time, drinking craft beer [before that term and concept had exploded] at the local brewery as a couple of 21 year olds exploring the country with a tent and a tiny Honda civic.
This time we arrived as ‘young’ parents and we took a trip down memory lane. We stayed at that same KOA (albeit in one of their tiny ‘kabins’) and visited that same brewery. We shared those same tiny shower stalls in the communal bathhouse, this time deathly afraid of dropping our soapy infant as we washed the previous day or two of the south-west off of her and us. Small lizards and rabbits inhabited the spaces in-between camper accommodations just how I had remembered back in 2008.
We drove the ten minutes up the road and entered Arches national under twilight with intentions of exploring a new part of the park in the few hours of tolerable temperature during sunrise.
We were greeted by a perfectly aligned sunrise that shined right through ‘north window’ onto Turret arch. It was one of our last days in the South West and we soaked in this spectacular sunrise while Samantha breast fed Aubrin under the massive sandstone anomaly in the desert. In that moment a metaphor emerged, nine days in the making.
Having a child does not put an end to your life as you knew it. Aubrin turned two months old somewhere on the road in New Mexico around the same time I truly began to let go of the worry that having kids would put an end to an active life of travel and adventure.
Having a child encourages you to see things in a new perspective. The things that you cannot do as easily provide more time to consider the other options you have overlooked for so long. If we were not worried about the negative effects that triple digit heat could have on our infant daughter we would probably have spent the day, packed nose to butt with other tourists in a dusty 104 degree march on the way to the ever popular ‘delicate arch,’ where every photo would have 17 strangers photo bombing it as they climbed all over the natural feature (we visited it under those conditions in 2008 🙂 ). Instead, we find ourselves here, letting the sun do the movement as we quietly enjoy its interaction with the landscape. To our adventures, Aubrin is an enhancement rather than an obstacle who directly and indirectly helps us see every outing with new found appreciation and perspective.
We returned to Salt Lake City exhausted and educated, more confident than ever, yet the trip was only ½ over. We boarded the plane heading East and landed in Buffalo on the third of July. The following ten nights would be spent in New York and Pennsylvania on another 700 mile road trip loop to see as many family members as possible. During this whirlwind celebration we were overwhelmed by our families outpouring of love and generosity and are thankful to have been able to see so much of our families, many of which we only see every couple of years or longer.
It is hard to understand how much another person (other than Samantha and I) could love Aubrin until you see a great grandfather meet his first great grandchild. A brief moment that fully encapsulates our motivations and hopes for this cross country voyage.
Aubrin truly is loved from coast to coast. She returned back to Washington three weeks older, with six new states under her diaper and sporting new ‘wings’ gifted by the return flight stewardess. I am not sure she recognizes the difference between life on the road and life at home (and to be fair, both are on wheels 🙂 ), but for us as first time parents returning to the familiar, calm and static environment of our tiny home is the light at the end of a very long, exciting, stressful, beautiful tunnel.