The Great Alabama Outdoors.

So, camping.

The weather could not have been more perfect when we arrived to the annual family camping trip. They were the ideal conditions for asking your son to pose for a picture,IMG_1088

When in reality you’re trying to covertly snap a photo of your camping neighbors taking their dog for a walk…in a pink stroller.

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That pup was the most pampered being in that campground, always parked in front of the fan, “walked” to her heart’s content…

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But this camping trip wasn’t about dogs. It was about children, and the wonderland that is having a playground within eyesight and the freedom of coming and going by oneself,

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About being made to carry firewood,

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No matter what your age.

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About playing on the giant rocks in a creek bed that’s never been anything but dry,

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About heading to the playground before breakfast and before being de-pajamaed,

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And before anyone can force you to put your Crocs on the right feet.

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About playing happily with your cousins so that your parents can take a romantic and quiet walk around the campground without any little shadows getting in the way,

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About pulling your grandmother in every direction possible because we all know she’s the most fun person on a camping trip,

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And about sitting around the campfire with your Granddad while making up ghost stories.

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And, since Ali was there and Ali is never unprepared, it was about having a craft table set up and organizing all of your cousins as if you were the activities coordinator on a cruise ship.

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This might mean that you have your first Rainbow Loom disaster and major rubberband de-sorting, but it’s worth it anyway.

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This is our annual family camping trip. Always at the idyllic location of Buck’s Pocket State Park, low in the valley below Sand Mountain in North Alabama.

It’s a place where you take your dogs along to do the dishes,

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(Yes I gagged a little when I saw that,)

Where you force your children to go on long nature hikes,

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(Yes these “paths” were most definitely where we managed to pick up Poison Sumac,)

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Where you teach them how to climb trails that go straight up mountainsides,

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Where you have to come up with a satisfying explanation for the rock-writing along the trail – because after all, some kids can read,

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Where, on some parts of the trail, you wish you were as short as they were,

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And where the view at the top makes it all worth it.

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Well, at least for grownups.

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(But the cousin-to-cousin bonding of such shared trauma cannot be denied.)

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But this is also the place where my Mother has been hosting The World’s Best Treasure Hunt for over two decades and two generations, so all hiking can be forgiven.

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Because the ecstasy of getting your water balloon into a bucket a foot in front of you erases all negative memories.

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(As does finding a new best friend.)

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At night, there are glow sticks to be had, and light shows to be offered.

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But after the children are tucked snugly in their sleeping bags is when the real fun can be had – because the good chocolate comes out for the S’mores, there are glow sticks to burn,

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And fiery air-writing to attempt.

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And then, after all can be had of the State Park, there are new adventures to discover.

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Adventures that require walking up to a ledge and looking over –

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To discover what is sure to be one of Alabama’s most fantastic sights, High Falls Park.

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If ever there were a Troll Bridge, that has to be it.

And of course, there are sunsets.

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Wide, sweeping gigantic sunsets,

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Unbelievable overlooks in the middle of nowhere,

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And awe-inspiring paintings in the sky.

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Sunsets that leave the cows unimpressed,

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Because they see them every night.

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This is Alabama. Come visit us soon.

(And I might even take your dog’s picture while I’m pretending to take my son’s.)

Just Escape.

Every year about this time, there is a clear and defined day where it actually starts to feel like Fall in Alabama.

And every year on that day, I go crazy.

I become an obsessed antsy fool who can think of nothing but going North. Sometimes I fantasize about North Alabama, sometimes the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, sometimes New England, sometimes Canada, and sometimes Alaska.

(Although I hear Canada’s Autumn has already come and gone. So scratch that fantasy.)

It completely consumes me and I begin nagging my husband to please take me away, and I can even become so psychotic that I consider traveling alone…with children.

And two weeks ago, I actually followed through.

It mattered not that we had a camping trip planned for that very weekend in North Alabama, where my heart so desired to go. I was so consumed with the need to go north immediately that I packed myself and the children up and left a day early, loosely planning to drive about in North Alabama and stay overnight on hotel rewards points. My dear husband didn’t argue and even agreed to do all of the camping grocery shopping in my stead. Because he knows you can’t stand in the way of someone in their Crazy Season.

Our first stop was Weathington Park, one of my favorite overlooks in North Alabama, right above Scottsboro. The crisp fall air and barely-budding fall colors warmed my heart deeply, confirming that this was indeed what it sought.

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The kids had never been there and were quite impressed with the view, though perhaps not as big of fans of the wind.

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I snapped a dozen pictures of them before they ran away, and they all came out like a mountaintop silly pose photo booth.

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I especially liked Noah getting slapped around by his sister’s hair.

They ran around at the park while I breathed in the mountainous air. And we were all well satisfied.

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They had also never been to Unclaimed Baggage, just down the hill. This cost me many questions on the way there about how luggage gets lost, why luggage gets lost, what happens when luggage gets lost, and why people can’t just go to the store and find their luggage again.

And when we arrived, the questions began again: how could such an enormous surfboard possibly get lost?

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Who knows, Ali. Who. Knows.

All troubling thoughts were forgotten, though, when Ali spotted her hero at the store.

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I bribed them to hang out with me in the denim section by promising a visit to the kid’s building afterward. Although I did find and buy myself a pair of Armani (Armani!!) jeans for $30, I kinda more so fell in love with these beauties:

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Long Live the Queen. And may she one day be photographed wearing something similar.

Speaking of England, I also ran across this book. The British have such a more respectable way of saying “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”:

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Eventually we made it to the kid’s building, and my anti-violence ultra-cautious daughter picked out a pair of these for her one purchase:

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Noah stayed true to his stereotype and decided on a motorized train set that was shockingly cheap and even more shockingly functional. We hooked it up for him the next day on our camping trip,

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where he let many hours fall through the cracks.

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After Unclaimed Baggage, we toured the historic Scottsboro square, where everything felt as if nothing had changed in 50 years.

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There was a Soda Fountain,

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A courthouse where Noah decisively did not want to pose for a photo,

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And a bakery, where the children received their other bribe for playing nice at Unclaimed Baggage:

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Doughnuts.

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Then we continued our adventure driving through The Great Autumn Outdoors.

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We drove to Huntsville next, because a) I just needed to drive north, and b) I had Marriott points, and Marriott has yet to grace the great town of Scottsboro.

Plus, I haven’t been to Huntsville since I was a tween. It was time.

As tradition states in our family, we had to try the local Greek restaurant. We found Big Papa Gyro hanging out with the Classy ladies. Because he’s Greek. And Greeks have good taste.

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I mean, who but Greeks would know how very stylish it is to have a faux rock fountain – on a pedestal – with a hanging garden protruding from its abdomen?

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And of course nothing accents such a magnificent piece like a wall-length mirror on one side,

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And a Greek mural lined with fake hanging grapes on the other side.

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All of this confirmed the most important of facts: This was a TRUE Greek-owned restaurant. And it was going to be delicious.

I had a hard time picking from the above-counter food photos,

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But I finally did, and let me tell you – they slaughtered half a dozen potatoes on behalf of my side of fries.

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It was all I dreamed it to be.

It was the night of the solar eclipse, so the plan was to go to Monte Sano State Park, 15 minutes above Huntsville, to watch the event. Unfortunately, the clouds did not agree to our plan.

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We did, however, see something more rare than an eclipse – this dude was in the park office when we walked in…

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Which is when he looked at us, smiled, then licked a twenty-dollar bill.

While holding eye contact.

Then…licked it again.

I have no idea what that meant but it might stop me from travelling alone again for at least six months.

The sky stayed completely dull until we pulled back in at our hotel, because of course it would show off when I no longer had a great view.

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But there was no way I was hanging out on a mountaintop with a dollar-licker after dark.

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The next morning while we were eating breakfast at the hotel, Chris checked in on us via text. I sent him back a photo that encapsulated that family demeanor for our trip thus far.

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He tried to help lighten the mood.

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But that just made Ali want to play along, and her grumpy face might be the most frightening thing I’ve seen this whole Halloween season.

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I apologize if you have nightmares.

We drove back to Scottsboro and ran at Goose Pond Colony, soaking in yet more North Alabama Beauty before meeting the rest of the family on our camping trip.

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And it was exactly what I needed to ease my Crazy Season.

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And the kids didn’t seem to mind being dragged along.

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…And then we headed to meet the rest of the family for our camping trip, blissfully unaware that it would create a week of misery and the need for four doctor’s visits.

But at least my Autumn need to escape was satiated.

Off to the Races.

“Hey Eli, would you like for me to tell you where to stick it?”

These are the jewels that you hear when you travel with a three-year-old and a six-year-old boy.

(No, Noah had no idea what he was saying. Yes, he said it in the kindest, sweetest little boy voice ever. Yes, I laughed heartily.)

So. Boys.

If you take them to a Mexican restaurant, there will likely be double dipping.

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If you let them loose in a double hotel room with a balloon, it will assuredly feel like you’re trapped in a two-foot box with 563 espresso-hyped hamsters.

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But then, if their granddad shows up, they will miraculously become still, tiny little angels.

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My sister-in-law Lindsay and I ditched our three daughters and took our two sons to the races in Atlanta. My Dad is a Tech Inspector (i.e. he takes the cars apart before and after the race to check for cheaters) for a series of races formerly known as American Le Mans but recently purchased by NASCAR and given the unfortunate name of Tudor. Unfortunate when two small boys are involved, anyway.

“HA! TOOOOOTER!!”

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But regardless of unfortunate naming choices, our sons experienced ecstasy that day.

They got to walk through Pit Row with my Dad,

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Where racing teams told them secrets,

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Taught them how to cut zip ties,

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And in general enthusiastically entertained our children.

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There were cars to BEND OVER and look into (you really don’t realize how small race cars are until you see them next to a three and six year old),

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Lifts to ride up and down,

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Selfies to photo-bomb,

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Other people’s selfies to watch happen,

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And drivers to avoid.

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Dad yanked this driver(?) out and said “stand here with my grandsons.”

Driver(?): “But I’m not important!”

Dad: “I know that, but they don’t know that!”

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Poor driver(?). I think he’s important, too.

Noah remembered from last year where our team allegiances lie, though. He even remembered how to copy my sing-song fan-girl voice really well, going super high at the end of, “We’re going to go see Patrick Dempseeeeey!!!”

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But, alas. Another year, another lack of Dempsey in our lives. He was there somewhere, though. Just not there with us.

Meanwhile, back at home, Chris was convincing Ali to go running with him on the coldest day of the year so far,

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And my brother JC was attempting to figure out how to manage curly hair.

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We had the better end of the deal.

We found a place by the fence to sit for a while,

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Which really ended up in us doing everything we could to contain our sons.

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And get their eyes to rest on the racetrack for at least two seconds together.

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Thankfully, there was a bounce-house at which we ended our day.

Which, by the way, my experience at the bounce-house was a highly improved activity with earplugs.

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Correction: ALL of life with boys is highly improved with earplugs.