Sweet Home Chicago (September 10)

On September 10th we bid adieu to Baraboo and hit the road for Chicago. My mother-in-law left Baraboo at the age of 18 to head for the big city, so that is where my husband and his sisters call home. We started out as a two vehicle caravan, but split up after about 45 minutes because we needed to make a gas and bathroom stop. When we reached Chicago a few hours later, we found that the street the GPS wanted us to take to the hotel was closed.

Fortunately, my husband learned to drive on the streets of Chicago, so he wound us around a different route until we reached our destination – a lovely block of apartments that had been reinvented as a hotel. It was too early to check-in, but they gave us the opener to our designated garage so we could at least park the car. It was mid-afternoon at this point, so we drove around to find a restaurant. Ironically, we ended up at one that was easy walking distance.

I had texted and attempted calling Tim’s sister several times after we parted during the drive to see where they were. No response. So when we sat down to lunch, I asked my husband to check his phone. Turns out, she had repeatedly texted his phone, while not answering mine. My husband takes driving seriously, as everyone should, so he doesn’t look at his phone when he is behind the wheel. We had just placed our order when he received a text stating that they had arrived and “the guys” wanted to return the rental car to the airport. My husband had intended to go with them since neither of “the guys” were familiar with Chicago.

Since they weren’t willing to wait until afternoon traffic cleared out, my husband responded that they should allow 3 hours to get to the airport and return by train. Which turned out to be spot-on. Meanwhile, we had a leisurely lunch, followed by a walk around the neighborhood and iced coffee, while we waited for our room to be ready. I think we made the wiser choice.

5DM36137Here’s another cute photo of our niece from yesterday. The camera stayed packed today.

Happy Anniversary (September 9)

Today was our last full day in Baraboo. It also happened to be our 15th wedding anniversary. What better way to spend it than scattering my in-law’s ashes? Yes, everyone dragged their feet and today is our last day to take care of this. I google “scattering ashes in Wisconsin” to make sure we aren’t going to end up getting arrested. That would really put a damper on the day. Fortunately, Wisconsin is pretty lax about it. They have sort of a “be discreet about it” policy.

So we head back to Devil’s Lake and start hiking up the bluff. My mom wisely decides to stay behind and work on her Sudoku puzzles. We find a nice spot marked by a large group of boulders that overlooks the lake. Nola has been fussing the entire walk, so we decide this is far enough up. My husband does the honors. Of course the wind decides to kick up right at that point, so most of us end up getting hit with a little ash.

After we conclude with the scattering, my husband and I decide to head back down while the rest of the group goes for a longer hike. We take Nola with us, since she doesn’t really want to go back in the carrier. She is an absolute angel all the way down the trail.

5DM361495DM36119We spend our time playing in the grass, waiting for the rest of the group to return. We don’t have any toys, but Nola is content to play with an empty orange juice bottle and the lens cap from my camera. Grown-up stuff is always so much more interesting than baby stuff, anyway. She’s happy as long as she’s not confined.

It felt good to have our big task behind us and to just enjoy the beautiful weather.

[09302014]5DM36141

Choo-Choo Baraboo (September 8)

Today we took advantage of Nola and my mom’s afternoon nap time to visit a local train museum. When we arrived, we discovered that it was only open on the weekends. Fortunately, you can’t really lock up a bunch of trains, so we could still wander around and take photos.

[09292014]5DM36024bwThis photo started out in color, but I think it has more impact in black and white.

[09292014]5DM36029I tried this image in black and white as well, but it was a little lackluster. I really like the green.

[09292014]5DM36057This is another image that worked better in color. The yellow makes a big impact. I was using my 50mm f/1.2 lens and I was trying to take most of the photos wide open. I have a tendency to travel with zoom lenses to cover all focal lengths, so it’s nice to go on a trip where photography isn’t the primary goal and I can just bring a few prime lenses.

Family Reunion – Baraboo (September 7)

The catalyst for this eight day reunion of my husband’s family was the need to dispose of his parent’s ashes. My mother-in-law died about 12 years ago and her remains were kept by my father-in-law, who died just over 2 years ago. My husband’s sister in Memphis was left as the keeper of two small boxes holding their ashes. My father-in-law’s wish was that their remains be scattered at Devil’s Lake, where his wife’s family held their annual reunions.

Okay, kind of a bummer reason for a vacation, but it served to get everyone together and with the presence of our adorable niece, would hopefully be more of a happy than sad occasion.

5DM358285DM35821There, I feel better already. Who wouldn’t after looking at this beautiful little face? Since no one was in a particular hurry about doing the whole ash scattering thing, we started the day slowly, with a big family breakfast at the large log home being shared by Tim’s sisters. Eventually, we made our way to the lake.

My mom and I sat by the lake enjoying the view and some really awesome ice cream, while everyone else went for a hike along the bluffs. I think we made the better choice of activity. Eventually, the group came back and there was more ice cream. Including vanilla for Nola.

[09282014]5DM35912That was pretty much the highlight of our day. We headed back to the log house so Nola could have her afternoon nap. The logistics of eating out with 7 adults and a baby in a small town with limited restaurant options is challenging, so dinner was a mix of salad, sandwiches and pizza at the house. I would have been happy with a second round of ice cream.

Off to Baraboo (September 6)

After safely delivering Nola and her parents to the airport in Phoenix for their flight to Memphis, we had just over 24 hours to put our house back together before heading to Minneapolis. After spending one full day there, we were back on the road. This time to Baraboo with my mother in tow. I have a mid-size SUV, but with three people and eight days worth of luggage, we added a topper to handle the overflow. Yes, I have a lot of baggage, thankyouverymuch.

We arrived in Baraboo a little early to check-in to our VRBO house, so we decided to make a short stop at the Crane Foundation. I brought my new 400mm lens along for a test run.

5DM356075DM35707It was almost too much lens. The foundation is sort of like a crane zoo, so most of the birds are in fairly small enclosures. When we approached the fence, they would often come walking towards us, leaving me without enough room to focus. But I shot a few good ones.

My 400mm does not have image stabilization and the maximum aperture is f/5.6, which makes it both relatively affordable, and, more importantly, a reasonable weight to shoot hand-held.

5DM35618It takes pretty nice photos, to boot. This is a tight shot of some marshy grass that was in a shady area of one of the enclosures. This is my favorite photo from the day. I have a preference for subject matter that doesn’t try to stalk me. I make an exception for our niece.

It took us about 45 minutes to completely exhaust the Crane Foundation before heading to our accommodations for the next four days. The house was built in the 1930’s and it’s conveniently located a block away from the Baraboo town square. The key was waiting for us in the mailbox. Did I mention that Baraboo is a pretty small, safe town? We dumped our massive baggage and headed out to the grocery store. Where we promptly ran into the rest of the family. In addition to Nola and her parents, my husband’s other sister and her husband had all flown up from Memphis. Time to get the family reunion started.

Back to Phoenix (September 2)

Here’s one last look at the Grand Canyon before we return to Phoenix.

[09262014]5DM35312We tried to time our departure around Nola’s nap time, but weren’t quite successful. So she spent the first 45 minutes screaming. My husband pulled over for a gas stop just to give his eardrums a rest. She finally settled down and we were able to make our way back to Phoenix without further incident. Before returning home, we made a stop for lunch and then paid a visit to the MIM so we could show her parents the Australia exhibit, which we dedicated to Nola.

Nola loved the museum. She especially loved crawling up on the display platforms. To prevent total chaos, I took her down to the Experience Gallery while her parents took a brief tour. I have a lot of bad cell phone photos and videos of the entire event. The length of our stay was dictated by the attention span of a one year old, so needless to say, it was brief.

Back home, it was time for another session in the pool. This time I did play paparazzi. Unfortunately, Nola’s dad nicked her skin in the zipper of her swimsuit when he dressed her, so she was not too happy about letting him hold her in the pool.

[09262014]5DM35383[09262014]5DM35405At left was her initial reaction to being in the pool with her dad holding her. She clearly wasn’t ready to forgive him for the owie. So she got handed off to mom, at right. Mom hadn’t put on a swimsuit and she ended up getting pretty soaked with all of the splashing. Eventually, Nola forgave her dad and allowed him to hold her.

It was nice to see someone actually enjoying the pool. We don’t really use it, although we enjoy the way it looks out the window. It’s saltwater, so it’s much less irritating than a chlorine pool.

[09262014]5DM35452It looks like our pool has been officially approved by Nola. Hopefully she’ll make a return visit.

Grand Canyon (September 1)

This is my sixth trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but the first in almost 20 years. The last four were less than five years apart. Funny, when you visit Arizona with people, they all want to see the Grand Canyon. I brought what I thought was a reasonably compact kit of camera equipment (for me, anyway) but I should have realized I was fooling myself to think that any serious photography would fit with the baby’s schedule.

We took the slightly longer route from Sedona and entered via the Park’s East entrance, which is far less popular than the main South entrance. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it all the way to the village before Nola had a meltdown and we needed to pull over and let her get out of the car. After a little fresh air and a fresh diaper, she was sufficiently mollified to continue.

We got lucky at check-in and were able to get our rooms immediately, despite being nearly two hours early. The Kachina Lodge was remodeled about seven years ago, so the rooms were far more pleasant than the one I stayed in with my mom and grandmother back in 1995. I was expecting bad Howard Johnson’s from the 60’s, so it was a pleasant surprise.

We had a nice lunch and then Nola needed a nap, so her mom stayed in the room while the rest of ventured out to take the shuttle bus along the rim. The only time private cars are allowed on the West side of the rim is Dec-Feb, otherwise you need to hop on and off the shuttle bus. Fortunately, the bulk of the summer traffic had cleared out yesterday so there was no waiting.

5DM35256We hopped on and off the shuttle, eventually making it all the way to Hermit’s Rest before coming back. When we tried to get back into our room, I discovered that neither of our key cards would work. So I went back to the front desk while Nola’s dad went to track down Nola and mom, who were out for a walk. He had neglected to bring a room key with him, so was effectively locked out for the time being.

You’d think that would be enough key card drama for one day, but no. As we were all leaving for dinner, they discovered that neither one of them had grabbed a key card, so I made another trip to the front desk to get a new one. (I had reserved both rooms in my name) Doesn’t seem like a big deal except the front desk is in a different hotel about a block away. Key card issue resolved, we had a nice family dinner with a minimal amount of food throwing on Nola’s part. Another pretty awesome day, despite the dearth of photography.

Sedona at a Snail’s Pace (August 31)

Time to start the (not so) way back machine. Getting out of the house and on the road with a baby is never a speedy process. To add to the logistical complexity, we needed to return the rental car our family had driven from LAX. I went with Nola’s dad in the rental and my husband followed in his car to ferry us back. The PHX rental car facility is off airport grounds and it’s laid out to only make sense if you are taking a shuttle to or from the airport. The return would have gone smoothly, except I made the mistake of asking for directions to get back outside to the parking area. We then proceeded to wind our way through the maze of a building, taking several wrong turns before finally making our way outside.

Turns out the parking area is right outside the ramp where we returned the car. My husband saw us drive in and then disappear for a good 10 minutes. So he’s texting and calling me and, of course, I don’t think to check my phone until we are almost there. Not a smooth start to the day. We finally hit the road a little after 11:00. Because we are traveling with 4 adults, a baby and the commensurate amount of luggage, we take two cars. My husband drives his Xterra with mom and baby and I drive my sweet little FRS with dad. Everything is great until we get off the interstate and start traveling on the highway that takes you into Sedona.

I’ve probably been to Sedona close to a dozen times, but rarely on a weekend and never on a holiday weekend. Now I know why. About 10 miles away from the town center, the traffic grinds to a halt. It takes us over 45 minutes from that point to reach our hotel. By the time we get there, everyone is starving. So we dump our stuff in the rooms and head out to a local Mexican restaurant that’s within walking distance. Keep in mind that it’s over 90 degrees under a relentless sun, so walking distance is about two blocks.

After lunch, Nola’s mom and dad want to go for a short hike and see some of the famous red rocks. I find a hike rated easy with a nearby trailhead and we head out. I managed to miss a turn and we ended up taking the wrong path, but everyone was satisfied with the view.

5DM35201After the hike we head to Tlaquepaque, which is a little faux Mexican village just outside of Sedona. We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around, visiting some shops and listening to a couple of Spanish guitar players. We head back to town for dinner at a local cowboy steakhouse and by 9:00 everyone’s exhausted and ready for bed. Not a bad day.

Get Out the Checkbook

It has been a wild and crazy month. I plan on going back and posting about our extended family vacation, which took us from Phoenix to Baraboo to Chicago. We finally landed back home last week after a nearly month long absence. And of course I have photos, lots of photos.

But something really tremendous happened over the last few days and I have to write about it first. Yesterday we committed to the single biggest purchase of our lives – a one acre lot in a nearby neighborhood. This is the fourth piece of undeveloped property we’ve purchased, but it will be the first we actually build on. What drove this purchase? It’s a long story.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version – just over year ago I found out our next door neighbor was planning to sell her house. This led us to a conversation about where we really wanted our “dream house” to be located and our hands down decision was Minnesota. Having a double lot would allow us to do (almost) everything we were planning for our empty lot in Phoenix. Unfortunately, our neighbor is a total flake with zero common sense and her plan to be out by last winter quickly faded. After more than a year of conversation with her, I hit my breaking point last week when she sent me an email stating that she wouldn’t be ready until November at best.

My response was a big F-U. (In my own head, of course) Fortunately, I had been looking at listings for potential teardowns on large lots since we got back to Minnesota in May. I spent the whole summer vacillating over whether it would be better to combine the two lots or start somewhere fresh. So I kept researching and we would occasionally go out and do drive-bys on places that looked promising. None of them panned out in real life.

The day I before received the final straw email, I had identified some potential properties and we toured them that afternoon. None were perfect, but a couple had promise. Then I checked a new real estate website and found one that looked even better. We toured it on Friday afternoon. By Saturday I was sure it was the one. By Sunday my husband was feeling the same way. We visited it again on Monday afternoon and immediately called the listing agent to make an offer. A few hours later we found out our offer had been accepted.

So after talking about and agonizing about this decision for over a year, we managed to find and buy a property in three days. Everything just came together and it felt right, so we went with it. Of course I’m sure I’ll be feeling some buyer’s remorse when it comes to writing that huge check. But until then, I’m on Cloud 9.

Million Dollar Smile

We flew to Phoenix on August 20th and proceeded to spend the next ten days busting our butts with house projects. I reached a level 3 cleaning status on the house by Friday morning. Which means I pretty much did everything except vacuum the drapes and clean the oven. Why all the effort? For the baby, of course. And her parents.

Yes, the Australian contingent of my husband’s family is here for a visit. We couldn’t be more excited. They landed in Los Angeles on Friday morning and drove to Palm Springs to spend a night recovering from the 14 hour flight. We didn’t know exactly what time they would arrive on Saturday, as traveling with a baby doesn’t lend itself to precise scheduling. I spent the better part of an hour jumping up and looking out the window at every little sound.

When they finally arrived, Nola was awake and cheerful after having napped most of the drive. She slept a record 12 hours on Friday night to make up for not getting much rest during the flight. She took the long plane trip like a champ, despite the lack of sleep. After we showed her parents around the house and got all of the luggage out of the car, everyone went for a swim. Except my husband, who acted as paparazzi by the pool. I am proud to say that I resisted the urge to get out my camera and immediately start photographing Nola.

Today we head up to Sedona for a night, followed by the Grand Canyon. This will be my 6th trip to the South Rim, but the first one in 19 years. I expect to take a few photos. As stunning as the Canyon is, nothing compares to the toothy little grin of a beautiful baby girl.