Monday, August 22, 2016

Farewell to the Lands of Lakes and Cheeses (and much more)

I started this yesterday last Friday morning and have since abandoned it twice more. Real life is not nearly as fun as vacation, which is why I have about four vacations a year planned for us through at least 2020 and a whole lot more ideas to last us well beyond that. We are out best selves when away from home.

swimming with a galleon ship; I miss you Duluth

~ ~ from Friday ~ ~

We're home! We all slept in until 9:30 and now I'm deeply disoriented. No hotel breakfast? No views of Lake Superior? I'm making a grocery lists and reading work emails and supervising the kids' writing of thank you notes to the people who made their last two weeks so awesome, while keeping them from flipping out over their lack of structure and non-sibling playmates for those same awesome two weeks. A refreshing dip in Lake Superior sounds lovely right now and the teeth chattering would prevent anyone from complaining about anything which would make the hypothermia totally worth it. Thank god school starts on Monday.

But let's get back to the upper Midwest! I miss its lakes and cheeses and cool evening temperatures very, very much. Let's relive our last day.

We ate breakfast looking out on the lake. Cora charmed all the neighboring tables with her perfect table manners and insistence on wearing her sunglasses upside down. She was perfect on the whole vacation- you'd think the toddler might be the problem, but no, she didn't throw one single fit, have a single tantrum, or act like anything other than a sweet, excited, totally thrilled to be everywhere little traveler. Every "hey, Cora, let's go to the boats" was met with an enthusiastic, "YES! WE WALK TO DA BOATS!" and a furious forward march, tutu on, upside-down sunglasses perched precariously across her nose. She was like that for everything and I pretty much just want to be with her all the time. Landon and Claire are optional/possibly encouraged to secure separate lodging.

~ ~ jumping back (forward?) to the present ~ ~

Ohmygod it's Monday now! I cannot write this post. I was in denial about our return, then I was busy running one million errands, then I was too annoyed at my children to write anything positive (they NEVER normally fight with one another, but after a week together at my parents and then a week together in Minnesota and Wisconsin zomg they needed fresh blood to play with). On Saturday I taught barre (OWWW; it was a great class- full of people and energy and my heartrate monitor registered a 717 calorie burn and I only almost passed out like twice; you really lose the ability to yell while exercising quickly) and I farmed out both big kids to friends' houses for several hours. Everything was rosier. I drank champagne because I was feeling festive and semi-watched The Last Kingdom with James.

On Sunday I baked 6 loaves of my mom's amazing poppyseed bread as first day of school treats for the teachers, made her amazing spaghetti sauce for our night before school meal, and invited a bunch of friends over to swim. They brought beer and snacks and children and the weather was a ridiculously lovely high-80's with a bright shining sun and it was wonderful and the kids got tired and went to bed right at 8 just like we wanted them to. Unfortunately I'd also gotten one million mosquito bites and had to take benadryl for the swelling and fell asleep on the couch at 9:00, totally freaking out James and myself until I remembered the benadryl. I lost a night of my life, but my bug bites look great!

Also over the weekend we decided to start potty training Cora because you know, wtf not? Claire trained herself (truly; on her own, in a day, zero accidents ever at 2 years and 4 months), but Cora has not elected to go that route. I have no memory of how we trained Landon and I tried to find our Elmo Uses the Potty book but couldn't so really none of us know what we're doing here. Cora is intrigued, but not convinced, and continues to feel strongly about wearing her skirts AND the shorts that go underneath or at the VERY least tucking her t-shirt into her panties because she is a LADY and not an animal who runs around naked as we keep suggesting. She is horrified by our lack of decency.

And then school started today!! My favorite thing!! I still feel like an excited kid when that alarm goes off on the first Monday morning. School is the best, and luckily, my kids think so too.


Claire has Landon's beloved former first grade teacher, so she was thrilled to pieces about that. She didn't even need us to walk her in, but I insisted. As I insisted on this hug.

one of us is more into this than the other

Landon is upstairs this year because he is an old and giant third grader and that's messing with my mind a little. He also did not need us to walk him in, but again, insistence. He did allow a semi-anonymous hug with his dad near the door frame. Caught it!

Mom this is so embarrassing

It was ALSO Cora's first day of school.

"Let's DO this!" her spirit sang as we marched up the ramp to the front door, ready to rock our first day.

Of all our kids she's the most intrepid, so it was a little surprising when she was the one with tears. Apparently our week away led her to forget she was changing classrooms (they'd carefully "transitioned" her the week before, but then we left town for 6 days and erased all their work) and she cried when she realized Ms. Gloria wasn't coming with her. Ms. Gloria looked a little teary herself. (It reminded me of the post I wrote about daycare kids; it's a special kind of love between those wonderful providers and their kids.)

Once she was shown the vastly superior selection of puzzles in the new, older classroom she quickly rallied.

Then I had to go to work because that's what you have to do so you can take more vacations in the future. James picked up the kids and took them to the pool and then I picked them up at the pool and Claire was so exhausted from loving first grade that she wouldn't tell me anything about it and instead cried on and off for the next 90 minutes. Landon on the other hand ALL the words about how much he loved third grade and threw them all at me in hyperspeed while literally running in circles in the living room. He continued to talk through 2 time outs and Cora hitting him on the head with a sword. I drank the rest of my champagne from Saturday and wondered how much online shopping I could do to distract myself before James got home. As it turns out, only three dresses and three pairs of shoes worth, because his last lesson got rained out, thank you jebus.

BUT I never actually got to fulfill the title of the post that I am now quite attached to and leaving in place as the header even though I have neither talked about lakes nor cheeses. And I'm doing Orangetheory in the morning (that is going to huuuurt; I'm still full of cheese from Wisconsin and now also champagne) so there is no time to do the lakes and cheeses justice by keeping this post going.

In short, on our last day we all swam in Lake Superior one more time before we left. This time I wore a proper swim suit (assuming hot pink bikinis are appropriate for Lake Superior rather than say, a dry suit) and Cora refused to be left out so we let her in the freezing, dark, endless waters and James ferried her across to the ruins on his stomach like a turtle, to the probable horror of those watching from the shore. She hung out in the window frame with whichever of us wasn't climbing walls and swimming through underwater tunnels with the big kids. Totally normal summer vacation stuff.

It was super, super fun. Cora didn't even seem to mind the cold which makes me wonder what crazy things she'll be doing when she's old enough to do whatever she wants. We do impose some limits...

The flight home went great. It was delayed nearly 2 hours, but once you're in the airport and past security the stress of travel goes down significantly. Our plane was very new and had TVs at every seat with a full complement of kids movies, TV shows, and games. The big kids were devastated when we landed. Cora earned her gold star traveler award by falling asleep perfectly vertically and without any of us realizing it until it was time to land. May all our future travels go so well.

Hope everyone's first days of school were wonderful and first evenings home from school were better than mine!

End of the first day of school picture!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The North Shore and More

We're in Duluth! We're supposed to be Ely, Minnesota and when we left off we were in Siren, Wisconsin, so let's go back.

Family vacation smiles!

We closed out our last full day at Silver Lake in full Siren-style. Shopping at Peggy's Fashion Rack, which is between Hardware Hanks, the post office, and the Main Street Cafe, and so adorably small town you'd think you were on a movie set. Lunch at the Cheese Factory - a whole huge factory FULL OF CHEESE, and also some meats and other delicacies, but mostly wonderful wonderful cheese. I enjoy a store that celebrates one of the great loves of my life. And then, later that afternoon, after we watched James swim around the lake for the third time, I decided I should swim across it, for old time's sake and also because sometimes mom can do hard, athletic-y things. I wore my bikini and borrowed James's cap and goggles and then I deeply regretted my announcement as soon as my pontoon boat escort pushed off from the dock and it was time for me to jump in.

Zomg so cold. But then it felt amazing. Like coming home.

A Swim Across Again from Lag Liv on Vimeo.

I've attempted to swim in pools a few times since quitting my competitive career 15 years ago and it usually feels pretty disappointing. I think I can't help but compare my distances and splits against what I used to be able to do and how I used to feel, but in the lake- in open water- something I never trained, I can just swim. And swimming always feel like home. I got to the other side and decided to swim back. That lap felt amazing too. Soon I'd swim about mile, out of nowhere, and it felt better than I feel after two margaritas. Silver Lake is made of magic.

And, even better, about partway through my first lap I heard Claire exclaim to James, in a voice full of surprised awe, "Daddy! Mommy is a good swimmer too!". Damn right. And then I played with the kids in the water, because sometimes mommies can do that too.

Even later that day, during a dinner of "chicken on the boat" in which we eat a bucket of chicken and throw the bones overboard- yet another sacred Silver Lake tradition, I got a call from the second cousins we were supposed to be traveling to see the next morning. Mr. Cousin had become very sick on their boundary waters canoe expedition and they were now at the ER instead of home and getting ready to have guests. Obviously we felt terrible for him- turns out he has a staph infection in his bionic knee (knee replacement a few years ago; this is infection #2 and that is a scary and dangerous thing), and now we needed a Plan B for part 2 of our Little House in the Big Woods Vacation of 2016. We turned to a map (like an actual paper map my grandpa pulled out) and decided we should go to Duluth and the North Shore. We hadn't done that, so why not? A very brief google search was full of pretty pictures, my grandparents highly recommended it and many nearby state parks, and I found a hotel on the water with a room for us - done!

Stop 1; waterfalls are here

We left yesterday, stopping first at Pattison State Park for some hiking and waterfalls. My grandpa said that's where they all went to party in college, so we said hello to it for him, with more kids and less partying.

I LOVE a good wooden state park sign

Next up was a really great local park in Superior so the kids could run and James could sit in the car and make a bunch of swim-school related calls. Out of office messages don't exist when you own your own business, at least not if you're as dedicated and conscientious about it as James is.

We drove through the University of Wisconsin- Superior campus, so I could see where my grandparents met and started dating. Without that little school, and both grandparents' determination to get a college degree after growing up in tiny towns in Wisconsin and Michigan, I wouldn't exist. I paid homage as we passed by.


After crossing a giant bridge, we were in Minnesota! Duluth is a very historic-feeling, very charming city on the shores of Lake Superior with fabulous views, parks, and some of the best meals we've had on a vacation. We're staying at the Inn on Lake Superior and I highly recommend it for a family. It's not brand new, but the rooms are very large, the breakfast is excellent, and there's free s'mores every night, plus a pool, waterfront access, and bikes and games you can check out. The back of the hotel is right on the lakefront, so obviously we immediately found some rocks to climb on and got this leg of the vacation party started.

After we got that out of our system, we walked along Canal Park Road to the Maritime Visitor Center and Museum. With free admission and great exhibits (and views!), I again highly recommend. You can walk out to the lighthouse, watch giant barges come into the harbor, and see the aerial bridge go up and down while you walk. We enjoyed the whole peninsula very much.

And you can climb on old priceless salvaged things!

Dinner was Vitta Pizzeria which was CRAZY good (the Yelp app's "nearby" button is my best friend on vacations; I can't go anywhere without reading reviews and it's never steered me wrong) and then we watched the sunset behind the hotel on our walk back.

Cora is super into holding hands right now

This morning we got ready for a day of North Shore adventuring. I didn't have any real plans except to head north up the shore and find things to explore along the way. 40 miles up MN-61 we found ourselves at Gooseberry Falls State Park and it was AWESOME. Short hikes to three different sets of falls, it's the Niagra of the Midwest and it was right up our alley.

Soon we realized we could climb underneath the waterfalls, so shoes and socks were quickly removed and we climbed up/on everything.

Everyone here is barefoot and a little damp

I quickly regretted not packing extra clothes for everyone. Cora's tutu was soaked, but she took its removal in good cheer- as long as she can climb and hike BY HERSELF, she can handle all other disappointments life sends her way. Like cold water temperatures and gravity.

We climbed around a LOT and deeply enjoyed this beautiful and FREE state park. Minnesotans, you are very lucky.

After Gooseberry we needed food, so yelp led us to an Inn with restaurant on the lake with solid food, less than mediocre service, and spectacular views. Then we pressed on northward and turned off for the next State Park with those alluring wood carved signs -- Split Rock Lighthouse! And wowza, it was awesome.

The park itself is free, but you can't do or see a whole lot without paying the admission fee for the lighthouse visitor center and tour. The center is very well done and the 20-minute tour was wonderful. The lightouse was built in 1909, opened in 1910 and decommissioned in 1969. We learned how it was built (all supplies, people, etc. had to come in by boat because there were no roads), how it worked (lighthouse signatures, how the lens was built, how everything ran before electricity- amazing technology for the time), and how day to day life worked for the keepers and staff. Really, really neat. And then you got to go in the lighthouse, pump room, and one of the keeper's residences!

I am not a huge history buff- I prefer the now and the fake paranormal and/or dystopian romantic future, but it was really wonderful and moving to see all the original aspects of the lighthouse and residences. The kids also loved it and I can't recommend it more highly for anyone of any age who finds themselves anywhere near Two Harbors, Minnesota.

After your tour you can also walk down 177ish steps to get to the Lake Superior beachfront for an amazing lighthouse view. And of course, more crawling on rocks and putting your feet in freezing water. Cora did all the steps down and all the steps back up and though it took a while, she also slept for the whole ride back to Duluth.

Once there the kids announced that they wanted to swim in Lake Superior. I was pretty sure they wouldn't actually do it, so I just wore my hiking clothes out behind the hotel, while everyone else optimistically changed into swim suits. We didn't bring towels or cover ups or anything really anything except a camera and an extra diaper; we generally prefer to pack light and be underprepared. Also behind our hotel is a ruined, half-sunken building from the 1919. Originally a sand and gravel hopper, it was abandoned when the Duluth building boom ended in the early 20's and the storms and extremes of Lake Superior rendered it structurally unsound. Dubbed "The Cribs," per google, we'd seen people swimming out to and jumping off it the day before and the Lag Liv family felt it needed to be part of that.

And so we were. James and the kids went first- I couldn't believe when Landon just walked out into the water and then Claire followed. They were determined to have this adventure and who were we to stop them? James soon followed and I remained on shore with Cora, suddenly, shockingly wishing I'd put on my suit too.

They swam out to the building and then disappeared for a good 15 minutes inside it. Just as I was getting genuinely concerned and wondering what I could do with Cora if I had to swim out there to find them, James popped up on the top and Claire's face appeared in a window. Landon jumped first, Claire second, and then James off the top.

Through rapid hand signals I insisted they swim back to me where I shocked everyone, including myself, by whipping off my shirt and jumping in the water with my running shorts and sports bra. Fuck it, I was doing it too and holy SHIT it was cold. During the Cora hand off James explained that it's actually pretty complicated to get inside and up to the top, something about follow the second rope, not the first, swim underwater through a window and don't hit your head? Whatever, the water was freezing and I needed to start swimming. The big kids decided to go with me and off we went.

Once you stopped feeling anything in your body, the water felt pretty good.

Upon arrival at the ruin I could see why it took James and the kids 15 minutes to emerge. The building is listing heavily to one side and the only way to get to the middle where you can climb up is to swim underwater through a submerged hole that leads to interior gravel chute. Unfortunately, you can't see through cement, and the first time I tried to get through, I overestimated the size of the exit space and swam too far, so when I tried to come up for air, I hit my head on solid cement instead. I went back down, under, and through to get back where I started for a breath and did it again, this time popping up in the right spot and discovered the hole was only about as wide as my shoulders- I have no idea how James made it through or how he got the kids to do it, but I was glad I'd already told them to stay on the edge and not jump this time.

Now on the inside, I climbed through several interior windows to get to a chute that had a rope someone had rigged up to the wall and then rappelled up the slanted side. Once at the top, I walked along the tops of the walls back to the front of the building to jump off. It was awesome and a total highlight of my day.

creative swimsuiting

I swam around, collected the kids, and we swam back. Cora INSISTED on swimming, so we let her splash around, no longer surprised at her general toughness (seriously that water was so damn cold), and then we headed into the hotel pool because we were wet and towel-less and a hot tub sounded really important. Dinner was Fitger's Brewhouse with an Apricot Wheat beer I CANNOT recommend more highly, whether you've been swimming in Lake Superior or not. The food was also amazing.

Tomorrow we head to the airport after lunch. The kids want to swim in the lake again and James wants to drag me back into another antique store. I'd rather jump in a frigid lake, so we'll just see where the day takes us. But, in short, you should all go to Duluth. It's a really fun town and we're really glad to be here, even if not at all glad about the reason why.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On the Shores of Silver Lake

We're here!! Siren, Wisconsin. Birthplace of my grandfather. Home of the fudge shop, cheese shop, 65-degree August daytime temperatures, and beautiful memory-soaked Silver Lake.

My grandpa grew up on the farm behind it and we drove our Ford van with trailer up to my grandparents' lake lot every other summer for my whole childhood. It's a 3-day drive from Houston and it was always worth every mile. A sandy, gently-sloping beach into crystal clear always-chilly water. I have SO many childhood memories here that I am constantly awash in nostalgia and it all make me very happy. Performing American girl doll plays with dime store props (Kirsten from Sweden's story, obviously), learning card games and playing into the night, fishing for days and frying them up at the end, swimming swimming swimming, and way too much antique shopping. It's a special place.

And we're here!

We had to leave the house at 5:45 a.m., about 12 hours after the big kids got back from Camp PapaGigi. As always, Cora rocked it.

waiting for the offsite parking bus; nailing the early morning travel look

She was a pro in the airport, in security, and on the plane. I watched a movie the whole flight and James wasn't even in our row. Traveling with big kids is awesome.

After landing in Minneapolis, shaving 18 hours off our would-be drive time (James would SO MUCH have rather driven because he is a crazy person), we piled into our newly upgraded "luxury" rental car and headed up and over to NW Wisconsin. Within minutes- maybe less than 10- everyone but me was in a swimsuit and in the lake.

James swam around it. 1.5 miles. Just for a little get-this-vacation-going-fun. We traveled along beside him in the pontoon boat.

slayer of lily pads

After that, the big kids decided to swim across it. Claire, at just barely 6, almost certainly now holds the record for youngest one across. They were quite pleased with themselves.

And then, not to be outdone, Cora took off and jumped off the dock straight into the FREEZING water. None of us were in with her- it never occurred to me she'd just jump in and she didn't have a life vest on or anything, but just as I thought I'd need to jump in after her, she popped up, turned over, and swam to the dock herself. Water safety stress test complete!

Cora Fish from Lag Liv on Vimeo.

And then she did it again and again a million times.

My grandparents were thrilled to pieces to have us here and I just loved so much that I was here- a place that played such a huge role in my childhood- with my own three kids.

The pontoon boat- named Queen Mary after my grandma, Queen Mary, has been in near constant use. We even hooked up an old float to the back, giving the kids a caboose to ride around in behind us while we followed James on yet another swim.

Cora prepped for her own open-water race, but was easily distracted by cheese.

We've headed into town each day, 2 miles up County Road B, including a stop at the Main Street Cafe for breakfast yesterday morning. Landon ate one of their giant pancakes and Cora dug into her baby cake own with gusto. Both ate every bite.

Yesterday afternoon I even got in, halfway anyway, and only because Cora insisted on it. That water is really cold you guys.

And last night, during our dinner of pasties and fresh sweet corn, Claire lost her first tooth! Good thing the tooth fairy has wings and can travel.

Today my grandma and I are going shopping- Peggy's Country Store and maybe the fudge shop (now going out of business; a tiny piece of my childhood gone forever). We leave tomorrow to visit my mom's cousins (my second cousins?) in Ely, Minnesota for a few days. They have a beautiful cabin on a lake up there and who knows when we'll get this far north again.

It was 107 in Fort Worth the day we left. It hasn't left the 70's here. I love this place.