Out West with Mia
Every now and then I like to do something special with the kids, one-on-one. It started by taking them each to Chicago when they were younger. It was fascinating to see how each of them took in the city in their own way. Last summer, I took Ethan to Washington D.C. for the first time. This summer it was Mia's turn for a vacation, and I took her out West to introduce her to the mountains and the desert.
The drive through Kansas was, as always, long. We spent the night at a KOA in Limon, Colorado. The next morning we set out for Pikes Peak.
I've grown up believing that I was related to Zebulon Pike, whom the peak is named after (my mom's side of the family are Pikes). I asked around, trying to get some details to share with Mia, but nobody really knows how we're related to ol' Zeb. Still, it's a special place that I was happy to share with Mia. And the drive was a ton of fun, especially in the WRX (I hit 100,000 miles just under the summit).
The air is thin at the summit, and you get winded easily just walking around. Mia and I had some donuts in the gift shop, snapped some photos, found the plaque dedicated to Zebulon Pike and headed down the mountain. It was a really good start to a great adventure.
The next stop was Breckenridge, Colorado, for shopping and lunch. Then we headed to Frisco for an afternoon mountain hike. Mia had a great time on the trails. She was on her hands more than her feet it seemed, and she climbed every rock and fallen tree in sight.
We spent the night in Grand Junction, CO — our only hotel stop on the trip. They had a pool, which we both enjoyed. We also enjoyed their waffles in the morning for breakfast. Then it was off to Utah.
I have a special place in my heart for Utah. If you've been to the Moab area, you get it. Otherwise maybe you just think the whole state is some weird religious cult.
I drove through Utah several times going to and from California in my early twenties, but I never really noticed it somehow. In 2012, for my birthday, I decided to have a little photo adventure and travel west by myself. It was on that trip that I discovered Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. I was hooked immediately and have gone back many times since.
I was sure Mia would love Utah, if for nothing else, because you can climb everything. And she did.
Our first stop was Arches National Park. There is major road construction happening all year, and their website said that the parking lot and trails at Devils Garden would be closed and off limits. I was happy to find that the trails were open, just for the day we arrived. We headed straight to the parking log and set off on a mid-day hike in the desert heat.
The trail to Landscape Arch is mostly flat and well-traveled. But past the arch, the trail goes up some rocks and gets a whole lot more fun. You can get on top of these formations called fins, which are great if you're not scared of heights, because the drop-offs on each side are significant, and sometimes there's not much room for error.
We were on top of one fin, walking up towards the highest point, when Mia's shoe slipped towards the edge.
It was precisely this part of the trip that I had been dreading for weeks. Since she was little, Mia has had a knack of doing things that freak me out. Climbing to the top of a playground toy and dangling off the side. Flipping off playground bars. Climbing trees. Whatever. Wherever we go, it's like she can instantly find the thing that will freak me out the most, and she does it immediately. And repeatedly. And, to her credit, she always walks away unscathed.
So I was imagining this part of the hike, picturing her climbing up past me, walking on the edge of dangerous cliffs with no fear. I did everything I could to try and keep her safe. We had good talk about safety, about climbing dos and don'ts. I bought her some new shoes with good grip for the sandy rocks.
Anyway, there we were, on top of a tall fin with dangerous drop-offs on either side. And as her shoe slipped towards the edge, and my heart stopped, she just picked herself up and continued on, like nothing happened. And it's not like she was unaware of the drop. She just doesn't have fear.
As I learned in the days that followed, she has great instincts. She's a good climber, and she knows her limits. And she has to experience these things for herself. I can't simply tell her it's harder to climb down than it is to climb up. You have to learn that kind of lesson.
Anyway, we hiked for a long time, and it was fantastic. We found a campsite in the hills above Moab and set up the tent. We had a nice dinner in town, grabbed a shower at the public pool and headed back to the camp to explore the rocks behind our campsite at dusk. We found a great spot with a view of snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was the end to our first day together in Utah. Two more days to go before heading back.
Our second day in Utah started with a hike to my favorite place in the world: Delicate Arch. We got to Arches early and made good time on the trail. It was really cool to walk up that last bit of the trail and around the last corner, where you can see the arch for the first time.
We took a drink break and climbed around the area. Lots of people were starting to pour in, and after we got a photo of Mia in the arch, we headed back down the trail. I wanted to show Mia another cool place to view the arch from, so we went off the main trail and worked our way back to the arch from another angle. Soon enough, we were back at the arch, looking at the other side. This is my favorite spot to view the arch, mostly because it's a lot quieter. But it's also a great view of the cliff that the arch sits atop.
We had a nice hike back to the car. The parking lot was overflowing, and dozens and dozens of people were pouring onto the trail. With Devils Garden now being closed, the accessible parts of the park were getting crowded fast.
We stopped on the way back to say hi to a friendly lizard, then we headed to the Windows area of the park. We did the short hike to Double Arch, climbed around a little and headed out.
After grabbing some lunch at Milt's in Moab, we decided to get out of the heat for a bit. So we took a drive towards the mountains to see what we could see.
Unfortunately, the mountain loop road was under construction and closed before the summit. So we explored some fun unpaved side roads, enjoyed the cool fresh air and stopped for a few photos.
Back in Moab, we spent the evening at the public pool, swimming, diving and relaxing. It was a great end to another fun day in Utah.
Our third day started with a drive to Canyonlands National Park. We were both pretty exhausted, but we pushed on. First, we did the mini hike to Mesa Arch, which was beautiful as always. I could only imagine how many photographers were camped out there before sunrise, as I did years ago.
After Mesa Arch, we drove towards Grand View Point and parked. I don't know why, but I think Mia and I were both kind of in a bad mood at this point. We were tired, probably hungry, who knows. But it was the only part of the entire trip where it felt like things were kind of dragging.
I hadn't been to Grand View Point before, so I didn't know what we were in store for. But we started hiking down the trail, mostly in silence. It wasn't too long until we started climbing on things and chatting a little. Our moods were picking up a little.
The trail follows a steep cliff on the left with amazing views. Then at some point, there's also a steep cliff on the right. Then you realize why this area is called Island in the Sky - because that's exactly what it feels like you're walking on. It's amazing.
Not far from the viewpoint, we saw a huge boulder on the right side of the trail, sitting precariously on an outcropping. Of course, we had to climb on top of it.
I went first, then helped Mia. And then that thing happens where I kind of have a camera in my mind and think, hey, this would be a great photo from back on the trail, where we first saw the rock. But that meant that I had to leave Mia alone on top of this thing while I climbed off and went back on the trail. Good times.
Spoiler alert: she didn't fall.
We continued down the trail until it stopped at the Grand View Point Overlook. It was amazing. Canyons in every direction for as far as you could see. And a cute chipmunk too.
At the overlook, we climbed to the highest rock and just sat there for a long time. Our spirits were great now. Whatever funk we started the day in was gone, and we were having a really good time.
We ran most of the way back on the trail, climbing rocks and jumping over scurrying lizards. Back at the car, we were exhausted and hungry. I made some peanut butter and honey sandwiches for our drive back to the campsite.
It was hot in the afternoon, so we took another drive on a dusty mountain road. Then we went back to the tent and played cards in the shade. She won most of the games. I strongly suspect that her friend, Beary, was peeking at my cards.
Our last day in Utah was coming to a close. After playing on the playground outside the public pool, we went on another little adventure on the rocks behind our campsite. A storm was rolling by, providing some dramatic clouds. Mia did a million handstands.
We woke up early the next morning and headed out of Moab, following the path of the Colorado River up Highway 128.
After hours of driving, some of which were on unpaved mountain roads that Google apparently thought would make a good shortcut (they totally did, and we saw a bear), we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park. This was a new one for me and the 12th National Park I've been to (it's my dream to get to them all eventually).
Driving through the park, we stopped to watch some elk, a mother moose and her calf amble across the valley. It was such a different environment from the desert we had just come from. The air was cool, and it started to rain.
As we climbed in elevation, the rain turned to snow. They had just opened Trail Ridge Road for the season. Finally we arrived at the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor center in the National Park System.
After some photos and a pit stop, we headed on. The snow turned back into rain, and the clouds eventually cleared. We came across a nice valley somewhere off Bear Lake Road and snapped a photo from the car with Mia's trusty companion, Beary.
I wish we could have spent more time in the park, but we had to press on. The drive was long, but eventually we were out of the mountains and passing Denver. We arrived at the KOA in Limon, CO, where we spent our first night of the trip. Their pool had just opened for the season, and despite the chill and cutting wind, Mia went for a swim.
The next day was the long drive across Kansas and Missouri. We passed time by playing the alphabet game with highway signs and billboards. Soon enough we were back in Springfield.
The vacation with Mia had come to an end. It was everything I was hoping it would be, and everyone returned home safe and sound.
I can only imagine what impact this trip will have on her life. As I experienced with Ethan on our trip last summer, traveling with your child one-on-one is such a great bonding experience. Nobody is fighting for attention. It's just fun, pure and simple. And though I was worried about leaving each of them behind on their sibling's trip, it was ok. They got it.
I'm going to cherish the memories from this trip for the rest of my life. I will never forget 10 year-old Mia's eyes when seeing Pikes Peak for the first time, or seeing a lizard in the wild, or seeing Delicate Arch. Or watching a bear scramble up the mountain in the middle of nowhere, Colorado. Or how many times we listened to Despesito in the car. Or how she fearlessly jumped off the high diving board at the pool in front of a group of teens too scared to jump. Or her huge smile and beautiful heart.