On Hopes and Dreams.

A few months ago, I asked the kids a question.

“Would y’all like to be on a billboard?”

Ali’s eyes lit up. “YES! That would be AWESOME!!”

Noah’s brow creased. “NO. They’re way too high. I might fall.”

Fair enough.

I had been working here and there with a local company, Alabama Outdoors, with regards to my sunset photography and whatnot, and we had discussed a photo shoot with the kids, hence my question – because one should never agree for their kids to do something without first making sure said kids weren’t violently opposed to the concept. But the details didn’t work out, and so I didn’t bring it up again.

But Ali didn’t forget. She doesn’t forget much. And she continued questioning me about why I had asked that question and when she might get to be on a billboard. A yearning had been opened up within her – a seed turning into a blossom that, before that random question, she wasn’t even aware existed.

She NEEDED to be on a billboard. It became a driving force in her life – a dream that had to come true for her to be able to continue living a fulfilled existence.

(Because being on a blog is not nearly as exciting as seeing yourself fourteen feet tall and hovering over a freeway.)

I finally explained to her about Alabama Outdoors, and that perhaps one day I could make her dream come true. And also, she might have more of a chance of attaining said dream if she were wearing an Alabama Outdoors shirt.

All of a sudden, she wanted to wear her shirt on all of our hikes and sunset walks,


And was quite amenable to sitting still and letting me take as many pictures of her as I desired.



She even started suggesting poses – sometimes rather wild ones.


She became a walking billboard for Alabama Outdoors in her attempt to get on an Alabama Outdoors billboard. The girl doesn’t shy away from her goals.

150502 Holding onto The Day

After a month or two of Ali wearing her shirt everywhere, my friend Tyler, the Alabama Outdoors creative genius who I’d been working with, asked me to see if I could get him a Father’s Day shot on one of our family hikes. He gave me a basic idea of what he was looking for, and I decided the ideal place for our shoot was Ruffner Mountain.

He wanted one of the kids wearing their Alabama Outdoors shirt, and in an ironic twist of fate, I chose Noah. (His wasn’t quite as well-worn, after all.)


I let Chris and the kids hike ahead of me, and I shot them continuously throughout the walk.


At one point I was sure Noah was giving himself Poison Ivy to spite me.


We took the ENO hammock (that we had rightfully bought at Alabama Outdoors) to the top and set it up, in the attempt to capture a loving Daddy/kid moment.


Ali was especially agreeable and Noah was…meh.


Some of the photos did show my lack of proper staging – Noah’s socks were wonky and crooked, Ali’s socks were inside out, and she was wearing a red shirt with pink socks – but a mom can only fix so much when she’s also the photographer and hike director.


Fortunately, their cuteness made up for all the sock mishaps (if I may say so myself.)


As the sun set, the scenery got a bit eerie for a minute,


and I got more manic in my photography demands, trying to get the One Perfect Shot.


As my family faced away from me, pretending to admire the sunset but actually closing their eyes to protect them from the glare while chatting amongst themselves, Noah finally got fed up and said, “WHY are we having to stand here for SO long?”

Chris answered, “Because your mother likes to take a thousand pictures, son.”

I defended myself. “Hey! I am doing this photo shoot for Ali. I want to make her dream come true.”

Chris said, “Yeah…right. Blame the kid.”

Ali piped up calmly, “Actually, Dad, she’s right. Being on a billboard would make all of my hopes and dreams come true.”


After the hike, she told me, “Be sure and let me know when I’ll be on a billboard and where the billboard will be. I need to let my friends know so they can go see me.”

I didn’t mention the photoshoot to the kids again, but quietly edited the photos and provided creative input into the design process when requested.

Three weeks later, after my surgery, the flooding, and on the last day of our hotel stay, I drove downtown and parked on an overpass, facing a rotating digital billboard.

The kids, who had grown used to our frenetic schedule over the past two weeks, asked lazily once or twice what we were doing there, but let it drop when I replied that they’d figure it out soon.

AO Billboard RME

Finally, after the third loop around, Ali yelled.

“Hey! That’s US!!”

“It sure is. On a BILLBOARD.”


“Did all your hopes and dreams just come true?”


“You said they would if you were on a billboard.”

“Oh. Yeah…but I didn’t actually mean all of them. I mean, I have other dreams, you know.”


….But I knew on the inside she was screaming with joy to see her ambition finally pay off. And that her trifecta of the perfect month – ten days of playdates, five days in a hotel, and seeing herself on a billboard – had just occurred.

Noah, on the other hand, told me the next day, “I HATE being on a billboard.”

I asked, “Why?”


“That’s a terrible reason. Actually, it’s not a reason at all.”

Ali said calmly, “Actually Mom, he’s just copying you. You give us that reason when we ask you why all the time.”

As usual, she is correct.

So. If you happen to live in town,

And you happen to be driving on the Red Mountain Expressway toward Homewood in the next couple of weeks,

And you happen to pass the digital billboard at just the right time in the loop to see this,

Alabama Outdoors Billboard

Please let Ali know that you saw her. And then you, too, can be a part of making all her hopes and dreams come true.

(Figuratively, of course. She has other dreams, you know.)

Moms Need Retreats.

A couple of months ago, my husband gave me an assignment. He demanded that I plan a trip for the moms in our small group. He also made the suggestion that changed everything.

“Pick a date. You’re going no matter what. And whoever can join you, great.”

…Because we’ve tried this before, and it’s never worked. At least once a year, all of us mothers start talking about how very much we need to get away, and dream about a beach trip. Or a mountain trip. Or whatever, as long as no one is asking us to wipe their butt or pour their juice or fix their Lego creation for the fifth time in five minutes.

(Because we love our children. Very much. And to be able to love one’s children very much, one must escape from said children. Regularly.)

But anyway. Every other time we start planning, we start by suggesting weekends until we run out of weekends, and never is there ever a weekend that we’re all available. So Chris’ suggestion of “If this is just you, great. If it’s everyone, great. Just plan it and see who can come” was brilliant.

And it totally worked. Because six out of nine of the moms were able to make it work.

IMG_3350l-r: Kristin, me, Nikki, Kelly, Anne, and Ashley.

See these happy shiny faces? These Mommies are all loving their kids better this week – because they left for the weekend.

(We were super sad that the other three moms couldn’t go, but as soon as I got back, Chris told me he’d “obligated” me that morning at church to plan a make-up trip for the others, and for any other moms who wanted/needed a repeat.)

I headed north early on Friday so that I could get us set up in our rental house and get a run in before our weekend of laziness kicked in. But it rained on me all the way, so I felt magnetically drawn to stop at Noccalula Falls in Gadsden on the way up – to see what it looked like at overflow levels.


For comparison, this was the same waterfall last August:


It was totally worth getting my feet sloshy-wet to see.

It was still raining when I arrived at our destination, Gorham’s Bluff, and the moisture made the view of Lake Guntersville eerily steamy.


I ran while I waited on the other moms to arrive, and managed to scare a herd of deer and a rabbit with my apparently intimidating presence (either that or they don’t approve of leggings as pants, either.)

I highly enjoyed the beautiful views,


which was good, because as soon as it quit raining, everything became completely enshrouded in fog. The valley was white nothingness, and the lodge immediately looked like the setting for a murder mystery, just like the first time Chris and I visited.


When the other moms arrived, they didn’t even believe me that there was a valley beneath the clouds. We spent the evening chatting and doing nothing, just as all moms dream of doing every evening.

The next morning, the fog was still there, and they still doubted my stories of views and valleys. We biked and walked around the property, disappearing and reappearing in the fog, all feeling very much like we had just entered into a Hollywood thriller, and we were going to start being picked off one by one any minute.

Foggy Bicycle Riding

It was deliciously exciting.

Bicycling into the fog


Then, right as we were about to leave for a small road trip (literally – I was driving away), the fog lifted. Everyone jumped out of my car and eagerly ran to the edge of the ridge to see what was below.


And they believed me at last. Redemption felt fantastic.


Then we continued on. They had all read my stories of Unclaimed Baggage, and wanted to experience it for themselves. And let me tell you – six moms loose in that store with no kids nagging to leave is a mighty force.

Besides almost all of us finding things we actually bought and loved, we also discovered some very special garments.


The review happening here was, “Eight dollars for the best night of my life? Yes ma’am!”


We texted pictures to our husbands, knowing full well we were making their weirdest dreams come true.


And then we found the shoes.

Oh, the shoes that people pack to fly on a plane. WHERE are these people going? HOW do they have such good balance? And WHAT do they do to make it through security without their footwear being declared a weapon?


It took Ashley a full five minutes to get into these shoes, and she could not let go of the rack, but the effect was totally worth it.


Nikki’s were an iridescent purple/green magical color-changing shoe – totally meant to be worn in a production of Wicked.


And when Kristin, the tallest member of our group, put on her selected pair,


We knew it was time for a photo op with Ashley, the shortest member of the group.


Because it was the Mommy version of Shaq and Kevin Hart.


We went back to Gorham’s Bluff and soaked in the majesty of our surroundings.


We found their waterfall,


The Old Lady Arm Tree,


And the best place to hang off the mountain and watch the storms in the distance.


…which is when Kelly and Kristin spotted it.


A blue van in the bottom of the ravine.


We all clamored to the edge to get a better view, all while postulating wildly about how it arrived at its destination.


Was it a high school kid’s prank?

Someone who got lost in the fog?

A victim of the North Alabama Mafia?


I of all people cannot let a mystery lie, so I asked the innkeeper later, after one of our beautiful meals.

She said, “A blue van? We don’t know about a blue van. There’s a really old car somewhere else down there…but it’s not a blue van. I guess I’ll be needing to call the Sheriff’s department…”

My eyes widened. I schemed as to how I could stay indefinitely at the fog-covered inn to write my first True Crime novel. Or if I could rappel off the mountain and discover the secrets for myself.

The other moms peacefully wiled away the afternoon reading, gazing, and talking, while my brain paced back and forth in my head, trying to solve The Mystery of The Blue Van.


Which I didn’t do. Yet. But you better believe I returned to the scene of the crime at sunset – just to make sure nothing had changed.


On Sunday before I left, I took a final bike ride, and I made a last round of photography before I left,


and then I drove back home, back to real life – and, back to a tornado.

And that’s why Moms need retreats. Because our lives are often a tornado – sometimes literally, but most of the time figuratively.

Discovering The Soul of Trains.

Last Sunday was our annual trek out to Calera to visit Thomas the Train. But this year, we managed to get there earlier than usual, and it was much less crowded than it has been in the past. These two factors gave us ample opportunity to explore everything else at the location – something we’d never really done before.


The destination in question is the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum. I will readily admit that I have a subconscious avoidance-reaction to any location with the word “Museum” in the title. This can be traced back to my childhood where I, a very efficient and quite impatient child, had to wait on my mother, a person with zero concept of the passage of time (literally – it was a big eureka moment for my parent’s marriage when they figured this out) who greatly enjoyed reading every placard, and observing every angle of the most obscure artifact. Combine this with the fact that I was homeschooled and therefore visited all the museums with my mother and…I have an aversion to the word Museum.

(I’m sorry I was such a naggy kid, Mom. I fully appreciate all your efforts now. But I’d rather appreciate them NOT at a museum, if you don’t mind.)

So that also may be why I’ve never explored the location of our Thomas trips before.

But I can now say definitively that, Thomas weekend or not, every little (and big) train lover needs to visit this museum. Admission is free, and they have some fantastic artifacts of train culture gone by, almost all being open to being climbed upon and explored up close.


(And very few placards to be read.)


They have rows of old rail cars, engines, and cabooses to check out,


and train tracks to (safely) play on – because what kid doesn’t want to play on train tracks?


(Notice Thomas chugging into the station in the top left corner in the above picture. He’s pretty cool, too.)

They have old railway crossing signs that still function, manual track-changing cranks that really do shift the tracks,


and really, really fantastic trains. It’s basically the best playground ever for the train-obsessed.


And all those families who want to get their family photos made on train tracks? This would be the place to do it. (I emailed the museum to see if they allow that, but I haven’t gotten an answer yet. I’ll update if I do.)


Seeing Thomas, of course, was fantastic as well,


Along with meeting Sir Topham Hatt,


getting to buy Thomas umbrellas,


And some Masters-Level golfing.


As usual, Thomas got a Hero’s welcome from Noah…and Ali. Because you don’t get too old for your first hero.


And this year our ride took place on the Double Decker train car, which was pretty much thrilling.


(And it had a nice view.)


The train cars used for Thomas’ rides belong to the Museum, and so there are other opportunities to ride on them, as well.

Since Sunday, Noah has asked me daily if we can go back and visit the trains. He knows he only gets to visit Thomas once a year, but now that he’s discovered everything else out there, he’d very much like to take a daily trek to the train yard, peeking into windows and imagining all sorts of adventures.


And I have to admit…I kinda want to go back, too.IMG_5512

(Especially if I could figure out how to photograph a sunset behind those trains.)

Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored or requested by anyone. I’m just so thrilled that I discovered that I, too, can enjoy museums that I wanted to share it with you. Plus it’s a really fun place to take pictures.