Why, you ask? Because today, is this special ladies' 92nd birthday!
If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting Noni then you might not realize just how special she is. On the other had, if you have had just two minutes in her company, you most certainly do. Noni is probably the most unique person I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. She's just as normal as the rest of us in so many ways, but at the same time has these special qualities that make her so extraordinary.
The most obvious is her bubbly, outgoing, happy demeanor. Probably her greatest God given gift is just how darn happy she is. It just comes natural for her. Although I only met Noni thirteen years ago, I can just look at the pictures from her as a young girl and see that bubbly personality shining right through. A light that hasn't burned out a single bit after all of these years. The best part of being around her is how infectious her happiness is. I know that is exactly why she has so many friends with many of them being life long friends. If you meet Noni, you will leave your encounter just a tiny bit happier than you were before. She gives everyone just a little sliver of it to take away with them.
But maybe even more amazing than her demeanor, is how easily she loves everyone. It doesn't matter who you are, if you walk into Noni's house she will make you feel welcomed. She will make you feel included. She will make you feel special. She can put a smile on the face of anyone of any color, shape, or size. I've seen her delight children, teenagers and adults from every walk of life. Whenever anyone comes into her home they will never feel left out or uncomfortable. Over the years, I've watched her and have noticed how she has a way to hone in on the one person who is quiet or reserved and make them feel more comfortable, or bring them into the conversation, or make them the center of attention. It never fails and it doesn't take long before that person has opened up and is smiling and having a good time. Noni makes everyone feel special.
There is no doubt that Noni is a giver. She has given her whole life to her family, friends, and to charities. She helps others even still today. She told me once during WWII that she wrote "a number of boys." I can only imagine how special each one of those boys felt during those dark days of war. I know one boy in particular she made feel special for 65 years. I'm not sure who was more devoted to who, but there was no denying what a special marriage they had. I feel like at least half of the reason that Adam and I have such a wonderful marriage, was seeing and experiencing theirs first hand. They gave us a beautiful goal and a strong example of what a marriage should be. Our wedding photographer took the picture below at our wedding. He framed it and hung it in his gallery telling us when we were there "I've framed a picture from your wedding, but it probably isn't one you would think" We knew immediately which picture it was and couldn't have agreed more that it was the best picture from our wedding day. If every day for the next 65 years, we have the opportunity to remember their love, what they've taught us, and showed us. Then, I have no doubt, our marriage can be just as special.
Although today is Noni's birthday, I know it not going to be her best birthday. She has a dear friend who is very ill and at Noni's age, when so many people have passed, it can be a struggle. I wish more than anything that I wasn't 3,000 miles away. That Adam could take her out to Ruth Chris for her birthday and we could all have cake together celebrating her and Landon's birthday's together. That we could all just give her a big squeeze. More than all that though, I wish I could make her 1/1,000th as special as she's always made me feel. As she's made anyone she's ever met feel. It's impossible to show on paper, through words or even in pictures. Her friend, Helen was a happier person just for having Noni in her life. She was a blessing to her for many years, not just with all she helped her with, but also as she shared her time, her happy personality, and took the time to make her feel special too. We all are. We all feel a little more happy, a little more loved, a little more special in her presence. Each trait, be it happiness, feeling loved, or giving to others is special, but there is only thing more special that all those traits combined. That is my dear, sweet, adorable Noni who gives them all to everyone, everyday, every single time. Happy Birthday Noni!!! I love to pieces. Everyone does!!!
With no family nearby, no reason to cook a huge meal for three people, and an entire four days off work, we decided to take a road trip down to Death Valley National Park for the Thanksgiving holiday. Death Valley is no small jaunt from our house. At 550 miles away, we don't get a chance to explore the area often, so we made the most of the time we had and tried to pack in a few extra places we'd been wanting to visit in the nearby areas. These included Manzanar and Mt. Whitney on the way to the park and the Rhyolite Ghost Town just outside the park boundaries during our stay. While Death Valley was a really interesting place to visit, including these additional stops really rounded out the trip.
After driving halfway the night before, we woke up early on Thanksgiving morning and headed out towards Lone Pine, a city about an hour west of Death Valley. Just beyond this little city, lies Manzanar, a WWII Japanese interment camp. It was a place we've been wanting to go and, being so close to it, we had to stop by. We both really enjoy WWII history and have been to a number of museums and places of historical interest around the world, including Hiroshima in Japan. With few WWII sites in the US, this was our first one. I have to admit, I was pretty surprised when we drove up and not much was there. The largest building on the property houses the museum which is also one of the only places to go to get out of the wind.
Despite the initial disappointment of the camp, the museum was very well done. There were a lot of items left over from the people that were there, a ton of information, and a great movie about the place and the people who lived at the camp. Landon completed a junior ranger program there and learned all about the people who lived there and what their lives were like while they were there.
It is a sobering piece of American history to read about how we treated the Japanese during WWII. While they were not tortured or beaten, they were forced to stay within the confines of this camp during most of the war. Many of them were only Japanese by heritage, having been born in the US and declared US citizens from birth. They were given only a few days to uproot their lives, allowed only a suitcase for their belongs, and forced to leave everything else they knew behind. They lost their homes, their businesses, and their livelihoods.
We explored every bit of the museum then headed out for the driving tour of the camp. As I said, there is very little left so most of the driving tour takes a lot of imagination. As you drive around, areas are marked with signs as to what they what were, but the pictures and words inside the museum do a better job of painting the picture.
With the exception of the memorial at the cemetery, the only thing worthy of the drive is the scenery. Set in between two mountain ranges, it really is a peaceful place. On the other hand, it is also dusty, extremely windy, and barren place. The memorial at the cemetery is a beautiful tribute to the people who died and are buried here. The lone monument with the mountains in the backdrop properly conveys the sense of desolation the people here must have felt.
When we were done exploring Manzanar, we headed back the way we came to explore a bit of the beautiful mountains and one in particular, Mt. Whitney. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous US. As we turned out of Lone Pine, down the one-lane road to the mountain, the beautiful mountain lay before us, way up ahead in the distance.
Adam pulled over to take some pictures, so I made some lunch. It was the perfect time to visit as we hardly even saw another car all day. It seemed as if it was just us and the mountains all alone.
We were not sure if the road up to the mountain would be open this time of year, but it was so inviting we couldn't help ourselves and had to see how far up we could get. It wasn't long before the flat valley floor road was winding its way up the mountains. I'm not one to normally get nervous in a car, but this road was testing my nerves a bit. It's hard to make out in the picture, but it was amazing how quickly the road climbed.
As we got closer to the top, we were suddenly surrounded by snow (something that excited Landon beyond words). He hadn't seen snow all year and was busting at the seams to get out and touch it. Adam got out with him and they played for a few minutes while I enjoyed the large pines and quiet mountain setting.
The campgrounds are closed in early November, but we saw some people set up there anyway. We seriously considered just staying there for the night among the trees and peaks. Had we just a little more time, we probably would have. There's no place we enjoy more than the mountains and it was such a beautiful spot.
In the end we decided to stick to our original plan and make our way to Death Valley for the night. I know we will be back again though, because this is where the Whitney Trail begins. Which also is either the beginning or end of the John Muir Trail depending on which direction you take it. It was on Adam's to-do-list for the year, but has been pushed back by other trips. Maybe, in a few years if I can find the vacation time and Landon has the endurance, we can do the three week trip together as a family. I don't know if we can do it but I do know it is an amazing hike.
We headed back down Whitney Portal and started our way to Death Valley. As we got towards the end of Whitney Portal, we suddenly realized we had passed some crazy rocks on the way in. Coming down Whitney Portal we were so transfixed on the mountains we hadn't really noticed, but now with the mountains in our rear-view mirror our gaze was fixed on the rocks at road level.
I knew this area was called the Alabama Hills, but didn't know much about it. A quick google search later and it turns out this is a major area for over 300 movies going back as early as the 1920's. More recently, this area has been the set for Star Trek, Tremors and Gladiator. With a guided driving tour and many hikes just off the main road, we now had just one more reason to come back and explore this unique area.
As the sun began to set, we loaded back into the car and made our way to our campsite for the night in Death Valley. It was such an interesting day and so vastly different from the rest of the weekend in the desert. One thing I love about California is how quickly the landscape can change and we were really about to see that first hand.
2015 was undoubtedly our best year in so many different ways. We learned, we grew, we worked hard, and we had a BLAST. Every. Single. Minute. If nothing else, 2015 was the year we really learned how to enjoy life. We stopped planning for big moments and made every moment big. It led us to such a healthy and happy place that I couldn't be more proud of the amazing year we had. And that momentum that we built last year isn't stopping now that it is 2016. We have BIG plans for this year and look forward to more laughs, more accomplishments, more adventures, more work, more time together, and more experiences.
What better way to start off a new year than with a little weekend getaway? Since we didn't stay up late watching the ball drop, we managed to get up early January 1st and headed down a now-familiar road to Yosemite National Park for a winter getaway. The drive to Yosemite is pretty boring, but not long after entering the park, as we made our way down into the valley, a winter wonderland appeared before us.
Yosemite is an amazing place anytime you go, but now that I've been in all the seasons (a few times), I can tell you that winter is by far the most spectacular. The two most magical visits we've had to Yosemite both occurred in the winter snow. The only downfall of the winter is the shorter daylight hours you have to work with. We arrived at the park just after noon and made our way to the trailhead to hike to Nevada Falls. Landon was so excited to see all the snow and have an entire weekend to play in it. He was equally as excited to get out of the car and take a hike using his new hiking sticks that he received for Christmas. We made our way up the path and as we got to the last half mile, the trail suddenly became covered in ice. We made it up two steep sections before a man helping some people down warned us that it was even worse and dangerous ahead. We decided to turn back and enjoyed a nice walk back to the car taking in all the beautiful scenery around us.
We drove around the valley admiring El Capitan and Half Dome covered in snow. Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls were going strong, as was Bridalveil Falls. We pulled over at one of the quintessential stops, Valley View, for a few pictures. Here, we witnessed a rare phenomenon, hoarfrost. Which was occurring all along the Merced River.
I had recently seen a picture of it and was super excited to see it in person. Every branch of the trees surrounding the river were covered in what appeared to be super delicate ice crystals. Upon touching it though, I realized it is more like snow crystals as it would fall away at the slightest disturbance. It occurs when water vapor from the air come into contacts with a freezing surface, such as a tree branch, and immediately turns into a solid state. The result is breathtaking.
We must have driven past this spot 3-4 more times after and each time the trees were bare. All the hoarfrost was gone. It was perfect timing our first day to be able to stop when we did and witness it.
Afterwards, we headed over to Tunnel View, another quintessential stop to get a good view of the entire valley.
By then we were losing our light so we made the long trek across the park as the sun set and towards our hotel in Oakhurst for the night. On the way, we stopped at the Timberloft Pizzeria and had some pretty amazing pepperoni pizza. Stuffed, we checked into our hotel and settled in for the night. Our nights at the hotel may have been one of Landon's favorite parts of our weekend. He got to sit in his bed and watch cable! For him, this means all kinds of shows that he never normally gets to watch at home (we only have Netflix). He was on cloud nine which turned to actual squeals of excitement when we turned off all the lights and he got to watch it in the dark...in bed. He was enjoying it so much we let him stay up extra late and watch a number of shows back to back before finally forcing him to call it a night.
Saturday morning, we planned to go skiing at Badger Pass and we tried to get an early start. However, we were all dragging a bit and misjudged our time somewhat. Instead of getting to the ski park at 9am, it was closer to 10am and jam-packed with people by the time we arrived. We had wanted to sign Landon up into an all day kids camp, but it was too late. We were hoping the large crowds would be headed home on Sunday so we went ahead and made a reservation for him for Sunday and booked a beginners cross country ski lesson for us. Then we headed back down to the valley for the day instead. It wasn't a complete bust though because the road up and back down Badger Pass was beautiful.
Landon was a bit disappointed, especially when we saw the ski park and the kids skiing, so when he got back into the car with his entire ski suit on, he was determined that we should build a snowman instead. We reached the valley with no real plans and Landon just wouldn't give the snowman a rest. As we came across a large meadow, Adam quickly pulled over and declared "You want to play in the snow, let's play in the snow!" Of course, what that really meant was Landon and I played in the snow while Adam took pictures.
Landon and I jumped out with all snow gear on and ran through the snow. We tried, unsuccessfully to build a snowman before giving up and opting instead to throw snowballs at one another, make snow angels, and jump into the biggest piles of undisturbed snow we could find.
All you could hear all along the valley was the laughter and screams of delight from all the kids and adults playing in the snow. It was then that I realized, it was the first time I've heard a vocalization of people enjoying themselves at a National Park. At times, it sounded more like an amusement park than a National Park. Much of that laughter and screams were our own as we chased each other around and acted completely silly. We kept going until we were exhausted and eventually went back to the car all hot, sweaty and fully satisfied with ourselves. We took off all our layers then followed Adam around a few more stops as he took some more photos.
We thought we would try hiking to Bridalveil Falls, but we entered the parking lot and couldn't find a single place to park. We opted instead to go back to where we had been playing earlier and take a short, two mile hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. As we walked across a large meadow close to the falls trailhead the sky suddenly opened up and the sun started peaking through the clouds. At that point, we lost Adam who couldn't help himself, but to stop and set up for a few minutes to snap a few more pictures. Landon and I continued on without him and soon came up to the falls. All the waterfalls are more beautiful with the snow and ice. All the rocks at the base of the falls were covered with snow and as we walked around large chunks of ice were breaking off and falling down in a huge thunder.
We made our way back on the trail and found Adam exactly where we had left him a little bit earlier still engrossed in the perfect light. It really was stunning, I have to admit.
Landon messed around for a bit until we finally decided to ditch Adam and go back towards the car. He wanted to stay and see if sunset was going to produce anything good from his vantage point. Landon wanted to start really playing around in the snow again which meant we needed some of his snow stuff from the car. We got back to the car, put on his snow gloves and he was back out playing in the field. He even managed to make a friend, another little boy about his age, and they played together for a little bit while we waited on Adam. It wasn't long before Adam showed up, the sunset didn't manifest into anything and once again we headed up through the valley to our hotel. Oakhurst was a great place to stay, but it wasn't a short drive. From the valley floor, it took about 90 minutes which was made even slower by the sometimes poor conditions (and even poorer drivers!) on the road. Once we got to Oakhurst, we scoped out a local brewery for some delicious pub food (too bad we don't drink beer) and then went back to our hotel for Landon to enjoy his tv in bed once again. All that snow play was too much for me and by 9pm, I was out.
We woke up extra early Sunday morning, sure to not make the same mistake twice. We arrived at Badger Pass just before they opened at 8:30am. Badger Pass is the oldest ski resort in California and the only resort located within Yosemite. It's known to be a beginner/family friendly place, is quite a bit cheaper than many of the resorts around Tahoe, and offers so much more than traditional skiing. We enjoy skiing, but having lived most our lives in the South we haven't had very many chances to become good skiers. Landon has been asking us to go skiing for about a year now. We had originally wanted to take him last year, but there was never any snow. With this year being an El Nino year the mountains are covered in fresh powder and we had been trying to find the best place to go when we learned about Badger Pass. When we found out that they also offered Cross Country skiing, something Adam's been wanting to try, we knew we had found the perfect place for us.
When they opened, we went inside, checked Landon in, and got him fitted for his helmet, boots and skis. By 9:15am we dropped Landon off in the Badger Pups program, an all day ski camp for young kids. It was the perfect solution to taking a young kid to a ski resort, because he received tons of one-on-one ski instruction, breaks with play time, lunch, snack, and the best part was that it allowed us to go do grown up stuff all day without worrying about his abilities. In the middle of the resort, was a sectioned off area for the Badger Pups so when the kids were outside skiing parents could watch even from the comfort of the patio and not interfere. By 10 am they were already outside for their first lesson, getting used to the snow and playing around.
We signed up for a two hour beginner lesson on cross country skiing at 10:15 am and spent the next two hours with Pinky and two other couples learning the basics of cross country. In many aspects, it is similar to downhill skiing, but feels completely different. Instead of stiff boots that you lean forward into, the cross country shoes are actually really soft and comfortable. Only your toe is actually buckled into the ski leaving your heel free and affecting the way you glide in the ski. Pinky was a great instructor and it wasn't long before she set us free to explore the trails on our own. Yosemite grooms the road to Glacier Point for cross country skiing by making tracks that you can ski within. The road up to Glacier Point is 11 miles and we hope to make the trip someday, but once on the trail we just enjoyed the scenery, practiced technique, and had a little fun.
Actually, it wasn't a little fun. It was a TON of fun!!! I think the last time I fell so head over heels for something was the first time we went scuba diving. I may enjoy this even more, because all I could think about was moving up North right away and experiencing this as often as humanly possible. The scenery was breathtaking! The skiing was a constant workout, but also amazingly peaceful. We stopped off on a bench along the way and looked over a huge meadow as snow fell off the limbs on the trees all around us. Back on the trail, we took our instructors advice and went "off trail" into completely untouched, deep powder. It was so much fun and yet hard all at the same time. We fell, got back up and fell some more. Back on the tracks, we found ourselves gaining lots of speed going down a long, long hill. At the bottom, we knew it would be a journey back and so we decided to turn around wanting to be sure to have plenty of time to watch Landon as well.
It was a workout getting back, but we figured we covered about 6 miles in total and it only took about two hours which included our stops, fooling around and stopping to be gobsmacked at the beauty all around us. It was impressive how quickly we moved and completely addicting. If I could, I would go back tomorrow just to do it all again. The best part, it just so happened to be 13 years from the first time we met. To still be having so much fun and experiencing new things with the same person for the last 13 years is the absolute greatest gift on the planet. I can only hope, we are so fortunate to be doing it again come 14 years.
By the time we got back to the resort, we were starved and we scarfed down some food before going to see how Landon was doing. When I got outside, I didn't see him in the Badger Pups area and was worried he was inside taking a break. I asked one of the instructions and they pointed me in the direction of the "turtle", the beginner slope that Landon and his instructor Dawn were practicing on. He was moving up the belt to the top of the hill when I walked over and I watched Dawn pull him over to a clear spot before letting him go and watching him ski his own way down the hill. Not only was he going down the hill on his own without poles, but Dawn was constantly instructing him to stop and he would either "pizza" or side stop all along the way. I didn't think anything could top our amazing cross country experience, but watching Landon out on his own skiing was pretty darn close. After watching them a few times, I went over to him to tell him what an awesome job he was doing. He response to my praise? "Mom, can you go somewhere." Slightly appalled, but even more proud, I quickly did so and we let him continue on watching from a distance.
The camp ended at 4pm and we found him right before 4pm going down the slopes, not near ready to give up. Since we had decided to go home that night, we knew we had a long drive ahead of us and I really thought he might have a fit over having to leave. Luckily for us though, we stopped him when we came down and he obliged to go home with us. Telling his Daddy that "Next time, you and Mommy can go cross country skiing and just leave me to ski on my own." I really wish we lived closer and could come back soon. I was so impressed at how quickly he picked it up. A few more times out on the skis and then I'd like to let him have a similar camp to try out snowboarding. At this rate, he will passing us on the slopes pretty quickly. Here is a little video Adam shot of him in action.
We pulled off all our gear and headed back to the car ready for the long drive home. We hadn't been in the car for more than a few minutes and Landon was passed out in the back. About an hour into the ride home and only about 15 miles from the park exit, we hit a chunk of ice or a rock covered in ice and right away heard our tire pop. Adam knew a gas station was close so we limped along the road about a mile up to Crane Flat. At 5:30pm on a Sunday, the gas station was already closed and our phones barely had any reception. The worst part, is that our Touareg doesn't have a spare tire as it is all wheel drive and spares just cannot be put onto a vehicle like that. Luckily for us, the gas station had a pay phone and we managed to make a few phone calls. With the help of his Mom and my Mom's AAA membership (THANKS MOMS!!!) we were able to get a call in to the Yosemite tow service to come get us. However, the Yosemite tow service doesn't leave the park and they were unable to find another towing company willing to meet us at the park exit that night. Instead, we spent three and half hours in the car waiting for the tow truck who finally arrived only to take us back down to the valley for the night. They hoped to help us get out the next day.
We managed to get a room at the Yosemite lodge for the night. We got in just before 11pm and were up early the next morning trying to get moving and get home. We made our way over to the tow office who informed us it would be noon before they could get a relay with another tow company outside the park. In the meantime, we were able to find a tire store back in Oakhurst who would be able to "run down the hill" to Fresno that same day and pick up 4 tires in our size. Did I mention you also cannot just replace one tire of an all wheel drive vehicle when they blow? No, unless the tires are new and not very worn, you have to replace ALL the tires to ensure they are the same size and will spin at the same speed. We made the best of our additional time in the valley though by going to the visitors center and finally doing the junior ranger program so Landon could add a Yosemite badge to his growing collection. We toured the visitors center and the Indian Village outside, before making our way back to our car.
It wasn't long before they let us know that the other tow truck company was ready and were loaded onto the tow truck again and headed back out of the valley. When we reached the relay point, the driver off loaded us and called the relay driver. It was then that he learned that there had been some miscommunication and the second driver was actually not on his way at all. By now, we were getting worried we wouldn't even make it to the tire shop before they closed at 5:30pm. We tried to pass the time and not look at the clock constantly and it must have worked because just before 3:30, right as Adam started to take a nap, the second driver pulled up.
We were all so happy and knew we'd be able to get to the tire shop, get the new tires put on, and make it home that night. One night in a hotel, three tow trucks, four new tires, and 24 hours later at 5:30pm on Monday, we were back on the road home. It was not the end of our trip that we had planned, but it is so very applicable to life. Here we were, all weekend, having the times of our lives, laughing and everything going great, then something unexpected happened when we were least expecting it. Did it suck? Of course. We missed work on Monday, spent lots of time sitting around in tow trucks, and spent way more money than we had intended. Could it have ruined our entire trip? If we had let it. But we didn't. We stuck together, we worked together and we made the best of it. Landon even actually enjoyed himself in the tow trucks and by the time the third tow trucker made an appearance, we all enjoyed the ride and the conversation. To pass the time while the last driver loaded the car, Landon and I took selfies inside the cab. As we took our last one, Landon told me he had one more picture idea and as I put the camera back up he started kissing me on the cheek. I almost started crying. It just solidified to me that no matter what the situation, as long as we had each other, nothing else would matter.
I have a feeling that this weekend was a preview of the year ahead. Great plans, wonderful times, a few unplanned bumps and hiccups along the way, but always coming out better and stronger and more bonded than ever. Yosemite in the winter is another world, a true winter wonderland and was a great way to kick off the new year!