Not ANOTHER Outdoorsy Post.

 

So I took 2,457 pictures this past weekend while we were at Oak Mountain, and edited and kept 265. It took me approximately 16 hours to go through them all and save and edit, so I decided that I would subject you to more of them. Because I deserve your attention, guys. And also because they sucked away all my time and I haven’t had time to write anything else.

Sometimes you jump over the creek,

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and sometimes the creek jumps on you.

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Tiny flowers make me happy.

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Running to the top of a hill to check out some ruins. Turns out, it was a fireplace. I’m sure it was left behind by the vikings or something.

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It took a day to get him in the water. But this was a starting point.

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The hike down to Peavine is terribly steep with lots of boulders and climbing involved. Hence why I packed her several pairs of workout clothes. But no. She wore a maxi dress. Makes for better pictures, anyway.

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And also, she totally didn’t care.

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One of the things the State Parks asked me for were pictures of people using the Equestrian Trails. Luckily for me, a trail went right past our cabin. I spotted a group of riders, ran ahead on another trail to intersect their trail, accosted them, asked if I could take their pictures, ran ahead of them on the Equestrian Trail careful not to step in any giant piles of crap, and then took each rider’s picture as they came by.

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All the horses seemed to love the attention, but this horse was quite convinced that my camera was certainly a lump of sugar waiting just for him to attempt to eat.

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I found this thistle on a walk. It made me happy.

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This was the point that I realized I could walk for months and never run out of different and fascinating trails.

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When I got up at 4:45am to hike up to King’s Chair in the dark, I was supposed to meet friends and hike with them. But it was dark and I couldn’t recognize anyone and I panicked that I was going to be left all alone in the dark so I started hiking by myself. When I came up the last hill to King’s Chair, it was such a spectacular sight to see so many people lining the cliffs.

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I was able to find my friends for the hike back down. You know when it was light and I had no trouble at all seeing my feet.

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But before we hiked back down, I was sure to elbow my way to the front of the 80+ people watching the sunrise to snag a few pictures. I know. RUDE.

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I seriously had no idea that the Oak Mountain demonstration farm existed. That they had an Pony and Peacocks and a Donkey made it all the more fascinating – this was not your usual petting zoo fare.

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I also adored that the Peacock kept showing off its wonder and the goats were like “We’ve ALL SEEN YOUR AMAZING FEATHERS. Just staaaaaahp.” Actually they didn’t even care that much. They just ate their grass and ignored him.

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The Donkey was the Peacock’s antithesis. Poor guy had a perfect Eeyore expression.

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We became besties.

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Until Noah bought a bag of food. Then he abandoned our BFF relationship and took up with Noah.

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But the Peacock, who was as vain as the cliche suggests, was happy to pose for an Emo photo shoot.

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He even picked out the perfect rustic brick wall for a backdrop to make his features shine.

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At least two of the goats were noticeably pregnant – both in their belly size and the fact that they’d shank a baby goat to get to the food. And they did knock several with their horns – they’re clearly going to make great moms. BUT. They were also SO pregnant that you could feel the baby goats squirming around inside – and see their bellies being kicked and jostled. So I guess they deserved their edgy attitude.

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Ali adored canoeing as much as I do. I’m trying to convince her to go on a canoe trip on the Cahaba, but she’s quite convinced that she’s a lake canoer, not a rocky riverbed canoer.

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I have no idea why Noah struck this pose. But I hear he’ll be starring in Zoolander 12.

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And finally, here are some of the random strangers that let me take their pictures for the State Park’s Photo Collection. Because Random Strangers are the best.

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Aaaaand….now I’m ready to go back. Who’s with me?

On Running Away While Staying in Town.

Starting Friday afternoon, I took an unexpected four day/three night vacation.

…Something about that sounds like I went to prison, but no.

We, as a family, discovered the pure joy in taking a completely unplanned weekend getaway.

It all started at noon on Friday. Chris had told me he was going to be trail running the next morning at Oak Mountain State Park, and he’d love for us to join him out there for a day of family fun after his run. I also help out the state park system every now and then to provide them with pictures for marketing to help keep the state parks open (because we’ve had our share of State Park…and all other sorts of governmental drama in Alabama lately), and they had requested some specific pictures not long ago. It hit me that this might be a perfect weekend to stay in one of the cabins there, take pictures, play as a family, and get away. I checked with Chris, and he told me that in fact there was also a Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS, my favorite group acronym ever) trail run up to King’s Chair for sunrise on Sunday, and that I should go to that.

Well that sealed the deal. There’s no way I’d do a pre-dawn trail run if I weren’t staying 2 minutes from the starting point. This was a fantastic chance to see something I’d probably only see once in my life, and I was for sure now. This needed to happen.

But the chances that the ten cabins in the biggest state park in Alabama were not all booked seemed farfetched – especially since it was 3pm on Friday before I was able to check. But I contacted them anyway. And to further the trend of everything coming together for us, a wedding had just been cancelled and eight of the cabins were now available.

I mean sure. I was sad for the people who cancelled their wedding one day beforehand, but, better to realize mistakes before rather than after the nuptials. My condolences / congratulations, former couple.

And I was appreciative of the sudden availability of cabins.

It was 3:13pm when I got confirmation that we had a cabin for two nights and began packing. Check-in was at 4pm. I pulled out of my driveway at 3:59pm, everything packed except for Chris’ clothes, which he would get on his way after work.

I was pretty proud of my mad packing skills.

I have so many pictures to go through and thoughts to sort out and I’m sure I’ll come back and share more about our trip, but until then, here are the nine reasons why this spontaneous jaunt half an hour away might have been the best family vacation we have ever taken.

  1. We didn’t overplan or overpack – we had (nearly) everything we needed with only 45 minutes per adult of prep and packing. The things we forgot (mental notes for next time): folding chairs, paper plates and cups (there were real plates and cups in the cabin but who wants to do dishes), and a net to catch bugs, frogs, and turtles (just kidding, turtles. Kinda.)
  2. There was no internet and spotty cell service (“Tranquility Lake” might be code for “You might as well throw your devices out the window”.) We perfected the cell spots around the outside of the cabin for checking in and not being totally unplugged, but the forced unpluggedness was really quite lovely. Chris and I sat on the porch every night, listened to the extraordinarily loud (and, we suspected, amorous) frogs,  and felt no guilt about the fact that I just couldn’t blog and Chris just couldn’t read Twitter. I mean sure I could’ve written and published later, but I didn’t. I only opened my computer for photo editing.
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  3. The cabins are at an ideal location within Oak Mountain. There are 10,000 acres out there, so you can drive 6 miles between various activities. But at the cabins, there’s an unofficial trailhead as many trails cross paths there, there are canoes and boats, there’s a few tiny beaches and a lovely dock, and a gorgeous waterfall I didn’t even know existed less than half a mile away. So there was plenty to do, and also plenty to keep the kids entertained while we were at the cabin.160417_MG_0522

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  4. We decided on Sunday that we wanted to stay an extra night, and so Chris was able to just commute to work the next morning. I remember doing this as a kid from Tannehill State Park – we would “vacation” during the week, and my Dad would just drive in to work every day. I’ve always wanted to recreate this experience, but Tannehill is way too far from Chris’ office. Oak Mountain isn’t super close, but it’s not undoable. We are definitely looking at doing this more often, and would LOVE for friends to rent other cabins at the same time, and just have complete and absolute kid heaven.
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  5. The lake is small enough that Ali and I or Ali and Chris could canoe (she adored it) while Noah played at the dock (he allowed me to take him on a couple canoe trips but wasn’t a voluntary fan) and whichever responsible adult was in the canoe could keep an eye on him. Noah also could yell to said canoe, but somehow couldn’t hear me yelling back “BE QUIET!!” The kid doesn’t understand the meaning of “Tranquility Lake.”
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  6. There are SO MANY DISCOVERIES to be made at Oak Mountain. We still can’t even comprehend it all. Besides there being a ridiculous number of miles of trails (over 60) and many of those trails being vastly different in terrain and foliage, there were all sorts of things we didn’t even know existed. Like the demonstration farm with peacocks and donkeys and goats? No idea that was there. And Flip Side, the zip line ski park? I knew it was there, but just barely, and we haven’t done it yet but OH MY GOSH it looks fun. And then there are paddle boats and kayaking and paddle boarding and the BMX track and even golf. For so long we stayed at many other state parks but never Oak Mountain because “it was so close to home it didn’t feel like vacation.” We were wrong. SO WRONG.
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  7.  Our kids are at the perfect age for outdoor vacations. They hiked without complaining (mostly), endlessly played together perfectly, thanked us many times for taking them on a last minute trip (they found out about it 15 minutes before we walked out the door and didn’t know where we were going until we arrived), and enjoyed the lake without us worrying about them. I mean, I want to take the kids to Disney, but based on our track record, I think that perhaps we may be more cabin-in-the-woods kind of family than a theme park kind of family.
  8. Something about the unplannedness made it feel that much more relaxing. It was such a surprise to our systems that we all four appreciated it so much deeper than usual. It’s probably a feeling that is entirely unrecreatable, but it was just magical.
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  9. King’s Chair is an awesome hike and view, but one I’ve never done with kids (too steep) or for sunrise (too dark.) Staying out there for so long made both challenges much more attainable, and I did both. In the same day. My feet nearly fell off.

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So, friends and family. We will be planning more cabins-at-Oak-Mountain trips soon. And you really should consider joining us. Because I think we might have discovered Heaven In Birmingham.

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More pictures and less words to come…

Exploring Secrets in Birmingham.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared 30 really cool places that the kids and I like to visit on hikes. But, regardless of the destination’s level of “knownness”, pretty much all of them are on the grid. They can be found on hiking maps, they’re not hidden, and they’re available for public use.

But since I published that post, various people have been whispering in my ear. “But did you know about this place? It’s kind of a secret though so you can’t publish the location online…”

And so the kids and I have been tracking down and finding some of the “secret” destinations in Alabama.

Why are they secret?

Well, there are some places in nature preserves that they don’t want the public accessing – whether it be for safety or preservation or liability or whatnot. And then, there are some places that special interest groups don’t want overrun by people, because, well, humans can be jerks.

(Not you. Obviously not you. You’re not a jerk at all. But we’ve all encountered jerks. Or the evidence of jerks past.)

One thing I’ve been wanting to do with the kids for quite some time is a fossil hunt. I remember my Dad taking my siblings and I on a fossil hunt when I was a kid, and it is such a fond memory. We sifted through a giant quarry of slate, broke open rocks, and found plant and animal imprints. Alabama is one of the richest places to find fossils in the United States, but you have to know where to look – and therein lies the problem.

Fossil groups are famously secretive about their spots, and all of my internet searching proved useless when trying to find a spot to hunt. I even asked my parents where it was my Dad had taken us, but it was in a construction site that was long ago developed.

However, someone shared a spot with me recently. And ironically, it was five minutes from our house.

We went the very next day, and some of their leftovers were still there, giving us a great head start on our hunt.

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I was pretty excited. As were the kids – I mean their excitement lasted for like a whole three minutes and a half.

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The spot was on a river, so I sent them out into the water to find more slate.

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They were way more interested in bridge ruins, but did some rock-picking-up as well.

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…Until Ali screamed and dropped something back in the water.

“AUGHHHH! I just picked up a giant jawbone with teeth still on it!!”

“WHERE?! Get it again!!”

“I don’t want to touch it!!!!”

“But how cool?? A JAWBONE!! Find it!”

“Hold on let me get a sock to put over my hand.”

By the time she got back to searching, the jawbone could not be found. I even braved the cold water to see if I could find it, but apparently it floated down the river to greener pastures.

Every time Ali has told the story of picking up the monstrous jawbone, it’s gotten bigger. It is currently the size of a small elephant. Perhaps a Wooly Mammoth. But whatever it was, it would have been a museum piece. She’s sure of it.

We cracked a bunch of rocks and found dozens of fossils. Fossils are oddly hard to photograph, so you may just have to trust me. All were plants except for one small shell imprint – the circle on the middle rock. I swear – up close, they’re so intricate. I guess I’m just not a qualified fossil photographer.

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Another day, we set out to find a hidden quarry, only accessible by a cave, that a friend told me about. She gave me detailed instructions on how to get there, but since it was off the map, I was left to my own listening skills.

One particular sentence she said was important.

“When I’m looking for it, I always say, ‘is this the trail? No…is this? No…”

That’s vital information.

Because I took the second trail I found, and it was definitely the wrong one.

The trail went up a steep mountainside, as did the right one, but the wrong one was very nearly unclimbable. Especially for little legs.

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There was crying. There was slipping down the mountainside. There was a VERY muddy backside.

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(Later, he insisted he didn’t need a bath – just a change of pants. I did not agree.)

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But we finally made it up the hill and discovered the wrong quarry.

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There was no promised cave, there was no 360 degree rock surround, but hey – we’d made a discovery.

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Which was cool and wonderful – until it was time to go back down The Impossible Trail.

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Noah decided to take the whole thing on his butt, because why not when your butt is already black with forest.

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It took some convincing and begging and bribery, but I managed to somehow manipulate my darling children into taking the next unmarked straight-up-the-mountain trail, which oh-so-thankfully was the right trail and not nearly as harrowing as the wrong one had been.

At the top, there was the promised cave…

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That was perfect for walking through…

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Which led to a magnificently surrounded ecosystem.

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Was the pain and anguish of the wrong trail worth the end result?

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Absolutely. But I was begged, bribed, and forced to promise to never take them on the wrong trail ever again.

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I’m not gonna lie. Pulling my five-year-old up a mountainside created some serious soreness in my body. But that soreness was overlooked when the very next morning, my Dad texted me and requested that I entertain him and the three cousins. They were staying overnight with my parents, and my Mom needed to paint the house, and Dad needed to remove the children from the area so that she could accomplish her goals.

I eagerly told Dad, “There’s a secret quarry! And a cave! Y’all will love it!”

My kids groaned.

“YOU PROMISED YOU’D NEVER TAKE US ON THAT TRAIL AGAIN!!”

“I won’t take you on the wrong trail. I promise.”

And I didn’t.

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I led our little hiking troupe back to the right trail, up the mountain, and to the cave and secret quarry.

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The five kids ran into the quarry and immediately began climbing the walls like cracked-out hamsters escaping an open cage. Dad and I immediately began wildly looking in every direction, counting to five over and over again.

And it wasn’t an easy count to five, either. Can you find all five?

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They’re there. Some higher than others.

One repeatedly got even higher (look to the left of the tree…children should never just be dots in the horizon.)

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Obvs, he got put in time out. Twice. By his grandfather.

The youngest started climbing a wall, too, then looked down and panicked.

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While she screamed and cried and flailed herself until she nearly slipped, thereby making her scream and cry more violently, I hurriedly climbed the wall to save her, all while nearly slipping myself.

Right as she and I returned to earth, my Dad pointed up the giant patch of poison ivy we had just traversed through.

Not surprisingly, I am still poisoned. And she is perfectly fine.

My Dad got tired of counting to five and putting one particular child in time out, so he decided to start a story circle. It was a killer Granddad move. He began a story, then each kid got a turn adding to it.

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There were pirates and bears and adventure abounding. It kept the boys still for two whole minutes, and the girls entertained for at least ten. At any rate, it was long enough for me to go set my camera up and take a cave selfie using my phone to shoot through my camera like the geek that I am.

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I even took an eternal photo – with glee and geekery!

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I know. I’m stupid. But Noah was impressed, anyway.

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Chris met us there and we began to hike out, but not before all children but Ali cried from skinning a knee or getting stuck on a cave wall or whipping themselves in the eye with a large branch while trying to catapult their backpack from said branch.

(In true Granddad fashion, my dad mumbled under his breath, “If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough.”)

Dad grumbled several times about being too old for this, but considering that he’d made it this far, I figured he was doing pretty well for an old guy who left his blood sugar snack in the car.

…But because of that snack being left behind, when Chris asked if we wanted to hike up to the overlook before we finished our hike, I was able to say the phrase in full literalness,

“We can’t hike any further because Dad left his nuts in the car.”

And at that point, my life was complete.

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Editor’s Note: After our hike we ate lunch at Chick-Fil-A, where Ali managed to run into the playplace door and bang up her leg, causing the fifth of five cousins to shed tears. After feeding all five of them and rounding up all five of them from the playplace, I agreed with Dad – I’m too old for this stuff. And whether or not he ever asks me to entertain him again is quite questionable.