Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Checking In: Landon

I never seem to have time to write letters to the kids anymore. I have drafts, but they take me a long time and none of them are complete. I don't know when they will be, so rather than work under the pressures of a full-blown missive, I've decided to just stream-of-conscious style check in with each of my three. Who they are, what they're doing, what makes me think of them right at this very moment. Facebook just told me that 10 years ago today we found out we were having a baby boy, so we'll start with Landon.

Landon is nearly 10 and somehow also nearly 17. He's started styling his hair every morning, with results equally impressive and amusing (and alarming, given how old I feel like he suddenly looks). He is very much into his friends, his recess four-square games, and Ninjago Legos. He has explained the Ninjago universe to me for hours, offering pop quizzes along the way, and, adorably, interprets my wrong answers as a need for more lessons rather than my utter uninterest in the subject. Yesterday he presented me with a diagram of characters, hair styles, weapons, and elemental powers, along with an illustrated guide. My cooking at night is routinely interrupted by "MOM! This is really important. What is Cole's elemental power?" We also had a fierce debate on what constitutes an "element" after the told me "Wind" was an element, right alongside Helium, Hydrogen, Carbon, and Fire.

He is rather quietly brilliant. He loves school and has never hinted at boredom, but he finishes tests quickly and rarely gets less than 100. He reads as fast as I do, generally devouring a book each night. He has a big heart. He makes statements that show he takes a deeper look at things and the emotions of others. He recognizes the work behind others' actions, particularly James and mine, and he appreciates them. He loves to make surprises for us. He is suddenly very interested in money- the earning of it, the saving, the spending, and what everything in the world costs. In the last month he has referred to "the girls" in his friend group as a distinct entity. "Mom, the girls were invited to the party too and they chased us for an hour." He has size 7 feet and a "don't forget to put on deodorant" sticky note on his bathroom mirror. He drives us crazy telling stories full of undefined pronouns. "Mom! They went to the place to do the things but no one was there." Full story. He is delighted by matching pj sets. He still hates cheese.

We- James, me, and mostly Landon- have gotten his fits under control in the last 5 months. I think one of the biggest changes has been our reactions. I can write about mine. Our main difficulty with Landon's unpredictable tantrums was always that they seemed triggered by nothing- worse than nothing, he'd flip out on the best days- the days we did fun, expensive, totally Landon oriented things for hours and then suddenly one tiny thing would go wrong (he dropped a mint on the ground and I told him he couldn't eat it) and he would lose. his. shit. "I hate today. Today has been the worst day of my life. Everything is terrible," etc., etc. etc. after hours of fun. It made me crazy and he knew it. I've cobbled together this saying from a blog comment and an article I read and I repeat it when I know we're in a situation where he's purposefully trying to work me up (acting ungrateful is probably my biggest trigger; recognizing this, and recognizing that HE recognizes this has been my biggest breakthrough) -- his level of emotion is not my level of emotion. He can spiral up and down and hit every button I have. His level of emotion is not my level of emotion. Nothing makes a situation spiral out of control faster than when I forget this and nothing calms a situation down to a simmer like when I remember. "I'm sorry you're upset right now. I'm going to go in my room and [fold laundry, lay down, read a book, pretend to meditate], let me know when you want to talk about it." Zooming out, looking at the situation as if I were a third-party dispassionate adult. Basically the same thing I do in my marriage when I feel upset over something I'm pretty sure I shouldn't be. Zoom out. Also, recognizing when Landon gets upset, but stays in control. We failed to acknowledge that for a long time, thinking, yeah, of course you should be calm right now - literally nothing is happening to you. But now I recognize it as the victory it is. And later, when I'm quite sure we're not turning nothing into a thing, I'll comment on it. "I saw that you were getting upset earlier, but you took some deep breaths and stayed level. I'm really proud of you." Nothing is magic, but for us, those two things very nearly have been.

He's an amazing kid. Of our three I think he's the least like James or me and we spend a lot of time simply bemused and baffled by him. He's incredibly generous, has no sense of possession, and is genuinely unimpressed with his grades. He thinks they're nice and I'm sure he'd be upset if they went down, but they aren't part of his worth. He's competitive, but not aggressive. He's inquisitive, but isn't bothered if he doesn't know the answer. He is an increasingly grown-up and distinct entity within our family, yet he remains my little boy who sneaks handmade cards into my purse and onto nightstand. He is a more generous big brother than his sisters often deserve and he delights in the little joys in life. We still can't take him to Target without him acting like he's at Disney World and has never been out of the house before -- "Mom! Mom! Did you see this display? That's a big dog up there! MOM! They have princess shaped crackers! Cora would love that! Oh Mom!!" He doesn't ask for any of it, he's just delighted it's there.

He needs people and loves to be in a gaggle of friends. He is Wrangler of the Month for March at his school. He loves facts and is constantly sharing them with the rest of us (whether we want to know the name of the world's largest insect or not). He is self-directed; last night I found him in his room making flash cards to quiz himself for the championship Battle of the Books round in a few months. He wants a fish and a golden retriever puppy. His favorite colors are blue, green, red, and orange. He uses the word "epic" more than is justified.

His new career goals are to be a Ninjago Lego designer, an engineer, and/or a National Geographic Explorer. Luckily for us, while he may suddenly look like a teenager, he still has some time to decide.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spring Cleaning Sickness

So here we are, at the end of spring break.

I am STILL sick. I have not been to work in so long I'm not sure I remember how to log in to my computer. It seems a lifetime ago that we were sledding down sand in Monahans and walking down into Carlsbad Caverns. A lifetime ago that I first felt sick and now still feel JUST as sick. But before we get to that- I took four doses of antibiotics, thought I felt better, and got dressed up to go out to dinner yesterday!

We'd had the date set with friends of ours forever (the parents of one of Landon's new friends) and I had so been looking forward to it. I was feeling better after a day on antibiotics and the steroid shot, so I went to yoga - felt amazing!! even all the upside downs - went to Target to buy ALL the bins (nothing makes me need to clean everything than spending three days stuck in the house), and then got a haircut. I put on a youtube video for my makeup, donned a dress I'd bought on clearance at Express a month ago, and was ready to go!

And we had a fabulous time. We went to The Capital Grille, ate and drank all the things and talked for nearly 4 hours.

Like my 9 miles of hiking on Monday, this was potentially ill-advised. I woke up this morning feeling like hell all over again. My sinuses are so inflamed I can barely breathe through my nose and the pressure in my ears and jaw feels like it needs to be hit with a hammer again. I'm going back to the doctor in the morning.

To counteract my terrible feelings, I decided to clean and reorganize every single inch of my house. Literally all of the inches. And to terrorize my family to help and clean all their square inches too.

Everyone hated me, including myself, by mid-afternoon, but you guys- you guys! We went through every single closet and bin in the whole house- including some I packed before I moved away from Houston in 2005, including even James's preshus bins of UT swimming t-shirts, EVERYTHING. Everything is now in new, matching bins of the same size and color. They are properly stacked, properly labeled, and much downsized. All my holiday stuff is beautifully organized, separated, and labeled. Our hiking gear, ski gear, kids' clothes, kids' memory bins, James and my memory bins...

As I may have mentioned a time or twenty, we don't have an attic in this house at all, no attached garage, no under-stairs closet, really no closets of any kind except some shallow bedroom ones and the one we made in the TV room when we had the wet bar taken out. This is because our would-be closet space is taken up with two hot water heaters and two HVAC units because - that's right - no attic. But it's fine, everything fits, but now it fits BETTER! And cleaner! And our vacuum can go IN A CLOSET! And our suitcases! Retrieved from the detached garage I never want to walk out to when it's late at night and I'm packing!

If my sinuses didn't feel like they're going to explode, the whole world would be my oyster right now. I even cleaned out bins under beds, bins of wedding gifts and cards, ALL the bins in our house. James took a full truck load of stuff to donate and I still feel a little high. I can't even blame it on the nighttime cold medicine yet.

And to make up for my rage-cleaning, we opened up the pool for the afternoon and ordered our favorite pizza for dinner!

I was still in my pajamas, breathing fresh air for the first time all day, and glad the kids were still smiling at me.

Not that I needed to worry too much- as Landon told me later, "Mom, it's so nice to know there's a place for all of my things!" He loves a good label.

The pool is freezing- our backyard is very shaded and there's no pool heater, but they didn't care. Cora is a fish- I haven't seen her swim lessons in months and jumped out of my seat in a panic when her "boat" she was on with Claire flipped over in the middle of the pool, but she just popped up and swam over to the edge. Water safe children! Five years of pool ownership and and extra baby and we're finally there!

I'm looking forward to a fabulous summer full of friends and splashing and cocktails and snacks. And maybe a few tours of my closets, just so they can admire the bins.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Memory Lanes and Positive Strep Tests

So I last wrote on Wednesday, after our miserable drive home and when I thought I was maybe going to start getting better. Yesterday I even left the house for an hour to do a return and breathe fresh air. My throat no longer hurt and my sinuses didn't feel like they'd shatter on contact. I firmed up our plans for a double date with the parents of one of Landon's best friends for Saturday and was eagerly anticipating our 2:30 tickets to see Beauty and the Beast Friday afternoon.

James has been whisking the kids out of the house each morning at 8 a.m. and keeping them busy until I text him with my confused "where are you guys?" when I wake up around 11 a.m.

Here, they are at Freebirds. Before that, they were at the Y, the park, Academy, and Costco. James seriously genuinely LOVES running errands with the kids (all of them, always) and it is one his most endearing and mystifying qualities.

So I was pretty sure I was on the upswing. Last night I dared to open the three boxes of childhood memorabilia my parents had sent me home with back in January, after they moved to their new house, and which I immediately forgot about until we found them in the garage last weekend. Apparently I'd never entered them into my mental inventory.

I spent way too many hours going through everything, laughing, crying, cringing... and wondering what on earth you're supposed to do with this stuff? 3 middle school yearbooks? (Kept those; they're small and hilarity abounded.) 4 GIANT high school yearbooks? (Kept senior year; I went to a huge school and didn't even know all the members of my own class anyway, but keeping one seemed right?). I found a ton of swimming stuff, obviously. (Apologies in advance for all the pictures you're about to see; this blog is now the diary I apparently wrote in in 8th grade, though generally less mortifying to re-read.)

I found the only non-swimming trophy I ever won. A math facts contest of course. Division! Fourth grade. I love love loved math. Still do, actually. I buy math workbooks and do them on planes.

But, while you obviously keep the math trophy, what do you do with your high school letter jacket from back when you had XL sized swimmer shoulders?

20 lbs. of medals?

Two boxes of ribbons?

A box of plaques? (Why was anyone giving out plaques to high schoolers? What can you do with those? Hanging them up now feels bizarre and a little sad. I tossed them all except my high school swimming Team Captain award and a few others that had genuine sentimental value, but even still- it would be better if they were just a piece of paper I could put in a folder instead of a giant block of wood.)

It was SO fun to see, but I ended up tossing most of it. Then I got to the real treasures... like this picture of me at the same age as Cora. Maybe we look something alike after all?

I always think I look more like Claire, and this self-portrait backs me up. But Cora has my adult hair curl and color, so who knows where she'll go with that. I spent my first 15 years as a straight haired blonde:

I enjoy these answers. They're still pretty accurate. Breakfast tacos are the best.

I found dozens and dozens of books and poems I used to write, illustrate, and then bind. Just for fun. In my free time.

It's like I was always destined to have a blog.

I also wrote about happiness a lot, which seems right based on all I remember about my childhood.

I found my 8th grade diary. If you want a lesson in self-kindness, read your words at 14. Ohmygod. I cringed so hard I had to read through half-closed eyes. Most of it I'd never share, but this made me laugh out loud.

Leo and Kate forever you guys. There was totally room on that door for two.

I found a bag of band medals. Nothing says middle school popularity like band medals.

My dad used to take each of them out to the garage after a competition to hand engrave them for me. I found so many things that made my heart squeeze.

Like this poem. I wonder if our kids would write something like this about us? I can only hope.

I found a beautifully bound parcel of my favorite high school papers (bound and labeled by me; I was an archivist), my SAT scores back when they actually mailed them to you (1550!), my senior year economics college project (UT's tuition was $2,000!), and the article from when I signed with UT in high school.

I found my deck credentials from the 1999 Junior Nationals Meet in St. Louis. We realized later that James was also at that meet, swimming the same event, just a few heats behind me. He was a senior in high school, swimming for Curl Burke in Maryland and I was a sophomore swimming for Blue Tide in Kingwood. We were both at the US Open later that year as well. It's no wonder we met my first night at UT in 2001- we'd been on that path for years!

Apparently at age 7 I was very up on current events.

I used to write a lot of poetry. I didn't remember that. I also feel like this should have given me excellent insight into the books I would one day read.

Paranormal Urban Fantasy Romance Forever!

I found my President's Medal from PE in 5th grade. I'd tried to earn one for 3 years, but I always failed the flexibility. I had the girls school record for the flexed arm hang, I LOATHED the running but would just barely get enough laps, but then the damn touch your toes portion defeated me every time. I practiced touching my toes for weeks that final year and finally earned it. It's possible my PE teacher helped. Attached to the ribbon is my Safety Patrol badge, something I wore with GREAT PRIDE and GREAT RESPONSIBILITY. I'm pretty sure I just wore my vest around randomly so everyone would know I was entrusted with school children's safety. I told everyone to walk their bikes on the path and hung up the tetherball balls in the morning. I feel this prompted my current career in public service.

It was a special night. I filled up two plastic bins, got rid of a lot, enjoyed it all, and even decided to keep the letter jacket. I'm not sure why, but it felt funny to give it away. I'll revisit in another decade and laugh and cry some more. Maybe when I'm not also on a lot of cold medicine.

So after all that excitement and some weird cold-medicine-childhood-infused dreams, I woke up feeling terrible. Like driving home from New Mexico terrible. I dragged myself to urgent care and got an immediate diagnosis of strep. I've probably had it since I first suspected it Monday morning before heading out for 9 miles of hiking around 2 national parks. It's a good thing they were pretty!

I still kept our Beauty and the Beast Date. I sat on the end and coughed into a paper towel, but I figured I'd just be sitting anyway. And we loved it! Cora in particular. Obviously, she dressed for the occasion. Or, you know, just a regular Friday in her world. (Note the Princess Jasmine socks and Rapunzel shoes; we can't be contained to only one princess.)

She has the animated version memorized, so she followed along beautifully with the live action plot. There were some intense scenes, but because the plot mirrored the (unimprovable!) classic so closely, she would just grab my hand right before saying, "I going to be scared now!" and then she'd send my hand back to me when it was over. She sat in her chair the whole time (nearly 2.5 hours), ate her popcorn, and clapped immediately when the movie was over, declaring "I want to watch it AGAIN!" as we walked out.

Then, like an idiot, I spent 3 hours cleaning out Landon and the girls' entire closet, all their clothes, all their drawers, and all their storage bins. It's like a sickness. This was far less fun and sentimental, and more slogging and sad (*sob* Cora keeps growing). Now I'm dragging myself to bed because it is late and you shouldn't clean out closets when you have strep. On the upside, I don't feel worse, so maybe that means I really will feel good enough to go on my fancy dinner date tomorrow night just like the urgent care doctor promised! (The doctor who probably didn't think I'd spend 3 hours power-deep-cleaning a bunch of closets, but still - there's hope! and I am very determined. Steak and fancy cocktails are coming my way and my 6:30 p.m. tomorrow I'm going to WANT THEM.) But a pre-midnight bedtime seems like a good start.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

National Park Road Trip 2017, Day 2 (and Day 3; also sickness)

I'm writing to you from the couch, after a miserable 6.5 hour drive home in which my children still expected me to function and help them do things, and am currently surrounded by a new box of tissues, a tiny trash can, all the medicine a small town Walmart could give me, and a big glass of hot water with honey, lemon, and a splash of honey bourbon. Most importantly, I am ALONE and The Great British Baking Show is on and no one is making me speak so my throbbing headache is slowly slowly starting to abate. My nose, throat, sinuses, and ears are still a hot mess though. And I have a fever. I love them so much, but after a scientifically rigorous experiment of two trips, I've concluded that National Parks make me sick you guys. Devastating.

But they're worth it.

They're SO worth it. And I say this with sinuses I want to smash with a hammer. It'll make them feel better, I'm SURE of it.

I woke up on Monday at 6:30 with a throat of fire and a facebook message from a friend who just happened to also be in Carlsbad telling me they waited 1.5 hours to get into the Caverns the day before and we should get there when it opened. So when Cora was chirping cheerfully from her bed with Claire, we all just got up, rather than pacifying her with her road trip kindle. We drove the 25 minutes from Carlsbad to the Caverns and got there 5 minutes before the tours open up. There was still a line for tickets in the Visitor's Center (you have to buy a ticket even if you're walking in via the natural entrance and not taking any guided tours; it's just your entrance fee- $10/adult, kids are free. They check your tickets at the cavern entrance.), but we moved through it quickly and the kids were able to get their Junior Ranger Workbooks.

At 8:35 we were walking over to the Natural Entrance. It's a 1.25 mile walk down into the Caverns main room (the "Big Room") and I highly HIGHLY recommend it. Even if you don't end up doing the full walk around the Big Room inside (there's a short cut), don't miss the winding extraordinary experience of walking 71 stories into the earth through the mouth of the Cavern. I actually enjoyed it more than the Big Room itself (though I enjoyed the heck out of that too).

Every step was incredible. Thousands of bats flew overhead. The water drip drip dripped, slowly adding another millimeter to the stalagtites and stalagmites. The formations were incredible and blew us away with every step.

The total walk is supposed to take about an hour? I think we did it in 45 minutes, thankful again to have gotten there early when we could move at our own pace without any crowds at all. No strollers are allowed (the pathway is very narrow and frequently wet; it has guard rails on both sides the whole way), so we put Cora in the hiking backpack. She may be heavy and probably too big now, but I think James was more than a little thrilled to get to carry her one more time.

And all of us were definitely thrilled to have her contained because that child is CRAZY and it would have been a lot of yelling "Cora!" to keep her from touching all the untouchable formations. The Ranger at the entrance told us to whisper because sounds travel far in the caverns. That is not conducive to the nagging of toddlers.

Mostly though, we just walked, awed at the width and breadth of what we were seeing. I kept reminding the kids to "look up!" because it was so hard to remember that many of the most fantastical things were actually above us.

We got to the Big Room and did the full 1.25 loop around it. 1.25 miles! to walk around the inside of a Cavern! It's incredible.

I cannot recommend Carlsbad more highly. There are even restrooms down below and then you can take an elevator the 71 stories back up (or walk back out, if you want to wind your way up again; that would be... hard. It was a very steep walk down; my legs are still killing me.)

The kids finished their Ranger Guides in the Visitor's Center and got sworn in as Junior Rangers. I love that program. I stamped our passport books; the Caverns have a beautiful stamp!

We made lunches in the car, eating PBJs made from the ingredients we packed in our cooler from home. We'd planned to make a picnic of it, but it was too windy outside and we really didn't mind some quiet car time. Fueled up, we drove out of the park (it takes about 7 windy, beautiful miles to go between the cave and the park entrance) and then out of New Mexico as we headed to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, Texas. Between the time change on Sunday morning and the crossing between CST and MST every time we crossed the Texas/New Mexico border, we really never knew what time it was.

Guadalupe Mountains is a national park I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of until I was planning this trip. Previously, I'd thought Big Bend was the only one we had. But nope, this lovely place is just 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns. Despite my lack of awareness, apparently everyone else in the world knows about it because the main Pine Springs Visitor's Center parking lot was full and we had to turn around. Five national parks and this was our first full parking lot. Luckily, you can park at Butterfield Station just 400 or so yards back and hike in to the Visitor's Center. Or drive on 7 miles to McKittrick Canyon Visitor's Center and do the hikes there.

But I'd already fallen in love with this Devil's Hall hike a bunch of people on Tripadvisor told me to do, so I was determined to make the Pine Springs Visitor's Center happen. We loaded up with water, sunscreen, hats (even me!), and the hiking backpack yet again and headed out. Devil's Hall was supposed to be 4.2 miles and we were only adding about half a mile with our offsite parking, and though my throat was still full of fire and my sinuses were increasingly full of cement, I was pretty sure this would be fine.

I wear hats now

Except, turns out, the Visitor's Center is nearly 3/4 miles from the trail head. And we made a wrong turn or two on the hike... all together I think we hiked about 6 miles. Plus the 3 at Carlsbad. That was probably ill-advised.

But this little Bear never complained once! A first, as she usually prefers her daddy hold her for at least a mile or three on all hikes. She's growing up.

So is Landon, obviously. Every picture I see of him I'm shocked at how mature he looks. Who is this man child and where is my little Lanman?

After much trail walking, lots of rock climbing and hopping, and then even more rock hopping, we made it to the Hall!

It was super cool. Love the shale formations and striations and all the new opportunities for climbing.

Obviously, we did lots of that. And by "we," I mean James and the kids while I sat on the rocks and watched, wondering if I could make it home.

I did! And so did the kids and I'm really glad we stuck with the plan. It was great to hike with the kids again- I always get worried if we go too long between trips they'll forget how much they like it and how good they are at it. But confidence remained high. In the words of Landon, "I'm just a really good hiker mom." True.

And while I'd actually felt pretty good during the day, other than the fire throat, I felt thoroughly terrible by the time we started driving back to Carlsbad (past a time zone line AGAIN; my poor watch, but there are NO hotels near the Caverns or GMNP) and had to make James stop at the town's Walmart to buy all the medicines. We ate at a diner (the "No Whiner Diner" a name which thrilled me, even as I felt awful) and I counted down the minutes until everyone was done. Back at the hotel, I took a lot of medicine, hoping something would work, and tried to pass out. Nothing says "sickness recovery" like sharing a hotel room with four other people. I survived until morning and discovered the nearest Starbucks was 68 miles away and I was very sad. Also stuffy.

But even with my National-Park-induced illness, I deeply enjoyed the trip. It was the perfect length, we loved the Sand Hills (the kids each said tonight it was their favorite stop; though James and I both said the Caverns was ours and the kids agreed they were a CLOSE second, they just didn't have enough sliding), LOVED the Caverns, loved exploring a new mountain range. I just checked our credit card and for all meals, gas, entrance fees, gift shop purchases, and hotel suite fees, we spent precisely $527. Not bad for 3 days and a family of 5.

I've rounded up some facts I found helpful or wish I'd known about each park. Let me know if you have any other questions! I'm mildly high on cold medicine right now, but there's a chance I'll know the answer!

Carlsbad Caverns NP
Carlsbad, NM

- Located about 30 minutes from Carlsbad; the Visitor's Center is another 7 miles once you pass the park entrance sign and the drive is quite beautiful.
- You must enter the Visitor's Center to pay your entrance fee; there are a number of amazing ranger-led hikes, all of which have minimum age ranges, none of which Cora met. That said, "just" doing the Natural Entrance tour and the walk around the Big Room blew our minds and we didn't not feel like we missed out at all.
- CCNP is the rare park with a restaurant in the Visitor's Center, so for once, you don't have to pack like it's the apocalypse before entering the park.
- ONLY water is allowed in the Caverns, to protect the formations and the bats; they are very strict about this (as they should be), so save yourself a walk back to your car and clear all snacks from your backpacks or hiking bags.
- Wear shoes with good tread's, it's wet in there (though the gravely cement walkway keeps things from being too slippery).
- The caves are a constant 56 degrees year-round; I wore pants, a tank, and a thin GapFit long sleeve shirt. I also wore a jacket that I was thankful for for about 5 minutes and then took off and wished I'd left in the car. It's also really humid. 56 degrees and humid was a new combo for me. I'd straightened my hair before we left, but it was a mass of curls when we came back up.
- Bring flashlights for the kids. The Caverns are decently and artistically lit, but the kids loved having their flashlights to wave around and investigate formations further.
- There are tons of places you can stop and sit and rest along the way, all creatively built into the walkways. They've really done an incredible job with the whole set up.
- The Visitor's Center opens at 8 a.m.; the caverns open at 8:30. We arrived at 8:20 and it was perfect- we had our tickets in hand right when the Caverns opened.
- We found a morning to be sufficient, but if you had more time in your schedule, there are some above-ground hikes around the Visitor's Center and we could definitely have spent more time in the Visitor's Center itself. Someday I'd also love to do one of the Ranger-led tours of the other rooms, like King's Palace or Spider Cave, that we didn't get to see.
- Don't forget to get your Junior Ranger packet to participate in the awesome (and free!) junior ranger program!

Guadalupe Mountains NP
Salt Flat, TX

- Located above 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns NP, nearly an hour away from Carlsbad, NM. You cross back into Texas between the two and lose an hour. The Visitor's Center closes at 4:30 and the time-jumping can affect your kids' ability to turn in their Junior Ranger packets...
- Back to traditional park rules- there is no food. There IS a water fountain and pretty decent bathrooms. There are also bathrooms at the trail head for Devil's Hall and Guadalupe Peak. There are also parking spots and I wish to god we'd gotten one because it would have cut nearly 2 miles off our hike.'
- Butterfield Station is a few minutes before you get to the Visitor's Center and is a great alternative parking spot if the Center is full; there is a marked gravel path you can walk to get there.
- The mountains are really lovely. Not as imposing as the Rockies, but majestic in their own way and full of white limestone rocks the kids greatly enjoyed climbing.
- There is VERY little shade.
- Devil's Hall is the shortest hike off the Pine Springs Visitor's Center. It says it is 4.2 miles, and that is probably true from the trailhead, you have to walk about 3/4 mile from the Visitor's Center to get the to trailhead (follow the directions to the "camp ground," walk past all the campers, and then there's a new set of buildings with a bathroom and signs for the trails). There is NO sign at the Visitor's Center with directions to the trails. Just camping. We walked back and forth many times looking for it.
- If you do Devil's Hall wear the best hiking boots you have; you walk over about 3 miles of empty river bed, full of rocks of all sizes. The ground is very mobile and very uneven. Both big kids rolled their ankles multiple times. (They were fine, but it was the first time I wished I'd bought them real hiking boots instead of them just wearing their low-ankle running shoes.)

We stayed at the Comfort Suites in Carlsbad. They were about 3 miles further out than some of the other hotels, but the rooms are quiet large, with a sitting area sectional that can be converted to a bed, a mini fridge, microwave, and large bathroom. Even sick, it was genuinely comfortable for our family. Everything looked new, the bedding was really comfortable, and the freebies in the lobby were excellent- popcorn, tea, and coffee all day, cookies in the evening, and a solid buffet breakfast. We'd stay there again.

- Breakfasts: we ate the free buffet in the hotel each morning.
- Lunch: we made our lunches from the items we'd packed from home, though Carlsbad Caverns did actually have a cafe.
- Dinner: (1) Danny's Place- bbq, comfort food. Pretty good, very cheap, no alcohol. The bbq turkey was actually really good. (2) No Whiner Diner- American/comfort food. Solid, cheap, again, no alcohol.
James noted on night 2 that he wasn't sure he could stay more than 2 days because the food was all too similar. The kids were very pleased with getting to eat chicken nuggets and mini corndogs for two days, and I couldn't taste anything anyway. There is a taco truck that is supposed to be amazing, but by the time I was sick it didn't sound good and the first night we wanted a place we could sit inside, but you should all try it! We saw people at GMNP who had packed theirs to go to eat for lunch and that seemed like a brilliant idea.