Four Thousand Mile Roadtrip: Colorado

It started as a simple impulsive and spontaneous thought, like most other ideas that come straight out of my head and onto my tongue (I tend to talk and think at the same time...a personal flaw...).  I think it was the loss of my sister that spurred the idea.  For over a year, I just wished I could close my eyes and join her.  I was  I was tired and sad...sad like "I can't breathe" sad.  Sad like someone came in and sucked out all of the oxygen sad.  It was a deep, depressed grief, at one moment intensely sharp and painful, and the next so dull and dreary.  At times, I felt as if all the color of the world had faded out, leaving everything a Wizard of Oz, Kansas gray.  Either pain was tough to bear.

On the Road to Colorado
I was desperate to feel joy again.   I knew I could.  I have recovered from grief before.  It is a nasty part of life, really.  Of course, I'd never had to recover from this grief, and there were times I wasn't sure I ever could.

One phrase rang through my mind.  When she knew she was dying (and I was still refusing to believe it) she told me, "If I am going to die, I want to live.  I want to go and see the world."  Well...that didn't happen.  She didn't get to see the world.  She didn't get to see much more than her home and a few hospital beds, and there was nothing I could do to change that.  Something I could do, though, was honor her by taking up that cause on her behalf.  I vowed to let go of fear, and open my life to adventure.  And my first step was to see something...something BIG.  I wanted to take my family, too.  We would honor her by having an adventure.

I knew an adventure was not the answer to my grief, but an adventure sure couldn't hurt.  We all know we are running out of time with this family unit in tact.  (Xander has less than 2 years left of high school, now.  That is so unreal!)  I, myself, am keenly aware of how precious is this moment...the now.  Why not take a road trip adventure together while we can?!

So...I dropped the idea, like most of my other ideas, as discretely as possible in the context of a calm, casual moment (and his apparently good mood  #strategy), "We should go see Yellowstone sometime!"

But unlike 90% of my other impulsive ideas, to this one, he actually agreed.  I hid my shock, so he wouldn't be tempted to recant.  Of course...this was a perfectly reasonable suggestion, I nodded.  "So...when do you want to go?"  (I'm not well known for beating around the bush. 😉 )

Mary's Lake Lodge, Estes Park Colorado

That little bit of encouragement was all I needed to start planning.  I knew enough about this crew to take important things into account.  I knew, for instance, that we HAD to drive, because one of us refuses to fly and the other...well, she is just too cheap to pay an airline to transport a family of 6.

I spent a significant amount of time debating the form of our vehicular transport and we rent an RV? we camp?  How the heck are we going to fit all the stuff we will need for 2 weeks in the Explorer and still manage to take the kids?!  FYI...We made it work... 😉

Packed Explorer

Now...if we were going to drive to Yellowstone, we would right well HAVE to plan to stop at least halfway between here and there.  As it turns out, halfway would place us in Colorado (a fact I knew would entice my husband even more toward the trip).

So, we started out with a 2 week agenda, a packed Explorer, and a handful of obliviously willing kids.  I surprised them for our first stop with a sweet, 2-level cabin (and a lovely view!) in Estes Park, Colorado.

Mary's Lake Lodge, Estes Park, Colorado

Over the years, I have made it my primary vacation goal to keep "vacation" vacation.  There are a few things the O'Haras require for this.  First, we are not (on the whole) a morning people. Second, we are not EVER quick to get around.  I knew that this would mean missing out on some of the things we might have a better opportunity of seeing early in the morning, but not setting early morning goals meant we could have a more stress-free vacation.  So, we did not set morning goals.  We let everyone "wake up slow" (well...come on...we weren't going to let Xander sleep 'til noon!), and we enjoyed what we did get to see and do more thoroughly.

Also...I committed to NOT fretting over the small things.  We made some stupid mistakes along the way: not paying for the National Parks pass (which would have been cheaper than paying each park individually), not using the hotel laundry room (How was I to know?!  BUT...we had fun at the creepy, grimy laundry you will see!), and packing the Explorer so full I cracked the tailgate (I have since noticed that many other Explorer owner's have discovered this undesirable, we can kind of say it's not my fault...right?!).

Somewhere along the way (child 3 or 4?...or was it the transition from homeschool to full-time job), I decided to admit I have very little to no control about a great majority of what occurs in my life.  So, I make the best plans I can, and then I...say it with me...ADAPT.  We went into this vacation with expectations that everything would NOT be perfect, and we would accept the small things as they came...making lemonade out of lemons.  That's kind of how I have started doing life, and believe AIN'T (I know...I hate that word, too) always pretty.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

But this...was beautiful.  First stop, Rocky Mountain National Park: Sprague Lake.  (Oh my goodness, you guys.  I took this picture.  Me?!!  I am not a budding photographer...this place is just GORGEOUS!)

Rocky Mountain National Park, ColoradoOne of our favorite things to do with the kids has ALWAYS been to hike.  We love nature.  I used to call Xander "Nature Girl," in my blog - back when I thought I might try to display some semblance of privacy.  (Ha!  Who did I think I was kidding?!)  I remember taking walks with her at about 18 months old.  We could not get as far as 2 steps before she was stopping to look at some bug or flower or...whatever.   Another 2 steps, and she was investigating again.  (And I thought those days were difficult.  Ha!  Which is harder, being a teenager or raising one?!  I'm sure it is worth a healthy chicken vs. the egg kind of debate).

Xander set the tone for the rest of the crew.  She was always happy in nature, so we spent a lot of time in nature.

I mean...this is the same kid who (literally) caught a wild bird in Disney World.  I know they are not the wildest it gets with the crowds and feedings and all, but...WHO DOES THAT?!  Who catches a wild bird?!  She is MY child.  She LOVES wild.  (She saved my chickens from an opossum...YOU should have seen those wounds she doctored! - this is the hardiest little flock I've ever had...but that is a story for another day.)  Look at her!  Always barefoot.  MY girl.

Sprague Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

And these smiles!  If you were with me through some of my darkest days, you fully understand the miracle that is each of these little lives.  The struggle, the loss, the grieving, the heartache...isn't it tragic what we go through in our short lives?!  Four miscarriages, people.  Four!

There was a time I would have given so much just to know that my arms would one day be so full of these blessings.  I vividly remember my arms ached from the emptiness of miscarriage.  Yet, here we full, so complete...and in SUCH a privileged place.   #GRATITUDE  We enjoyed every view.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Of course, there were times when things got chaotic and parking at Rocky Mountain National Park!  Please, just believe the sign when it tells you the lots are all full and use the tram.  You will save yourself some grief.  Life is rarely just peaceful and enjoyable, we try to avoid as much of the chaos and heartache as we can and appreciate every good in every moment we have.  It is all so fleeting, after all!

Rocky Mountain National Park, ColoradoOnce we did manage to  find parking at RMNP, our hike around Sprague Lake was ideal.  It is an easy little hike (under a mile and stroller/wheelchair accessible) around the lake, where we got to watch fly fishermen fishing for trout.

The weather was great, though a little cool in the higher elevation.  No matter the season, I recommend layers in the mountains.  Matt had to wrap Evan in his sweatshirt later in the day.

We planned on being out all day and carried snacks in a backpack.  I had made a little trip to the local store (I google mapped nearby stores at each of our locations when planning for the trip).  I got some easy lunch items (pb, chips, grapes, water, etc), and, of course, I made sure I had plenty of Coke. (If I have Coke, I am a more pleasant Mom...another O'Hara vacation rule - "If Mama's Happy...").  The kids can have the food!  I just require caffeinated sugar water, and I warn them that I am their non-example for pretty much everything in life.  I show them the wrong way, so they will know how to do things right.  😉😂

So, when people started getting cranky, we would stop and find a shady spot to rest and re-energize.    One thing I know about me is that I like to have fun and be active, but I require a healthy balance of solitude.  If I get overstimulated, I become exhausted.  When I am exhausted, I am cranky.  No one likes cranky Mom.  So, I planned slow, easy starts, action packed mornings and afternoons, and relaxing evenings (for the most part).  I checked in advance for internet/cell service potential at the locations.  (Thank God, Matt was smart enough to print maps, just in case...and we needed them!!  There are stretches in Wyoming and Montana that...whew...let's just say I have quit worrying about the over-development of our country.  And that was, honestly, a huge burden on my mind for a good part of my life!)  The kids are pretty good to zone out on media when we've had an active day, so I made sure there was something fun to do indoors, whether it was games, apps or shows.  

We tried to arrange each of our living spaces so the kids had a room and Matt and I had a private spot to relax.  I would spend the evenings researching out the next day and making flexible plans (I tried to complete my Master's work in the car on our drives).   Once I had a general list of top spots to see, I would knit myself into a state of stupor and crash.  For Rocky Mountain National Park, Sprague Lake was one of the top spots.  Bear lake was next on our list.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

But here's the thing...I was NOT kidding about parking.  I really wanted to avoid the trams, but it is really impossible.  So we had a lot of waiting.  I am not a big fan of waiting.  Neither are most kids, in case you weren't aware.  So, once we got to Bear Lake and weaved through all the people, I was not really feeling a small hike similar to the one we had just done at Sprague.  I needed more of a challenge and a bigger prize.  (Doesn't everyone like a good reward?)  We took a minute to admire the beauty of Bear Lake, and I asked around for some tips on what we REALLY needed to see in our one and only day at the park.

We found out we could skip a tram and hike from Bear Lake area to Alberta Falls, which was supposed to be definitely worth seeing.  I LOVED the idea of hiking toward a destination (and avoiding a tram wait and crowd).  So, we didn't tell the kids it would be a 2 mile hike.  We just encouraged them and tried to find little entertainments along the way.  Like...feeding the chipmunks.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Listen...people are strange!  And they can get really serious about certain things.  I heard one lady literally chew out a total stranger for flicking his cigarette butt into the river.  And I get it.  I mean, we are called to be good stewards of the earth that God has given us.  And I get uptight about small things, sometimes, too.  (After all, the butt is probably pretty biodegradeable.)   But I really just tend to value people and relationships above all else.  So, for the most part, I try to keep certain judgments to myself.  Not so with some people!  So...Anyway...just...if you decide to go to Rocky Mountain National Park...don't feed the chipmunks...
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Seriously, Xander even pet one!...I think that is what finally threw that lady off her rocker, because she just could not hold in her disdain for the parents who would allow their kids to touch the "disease-ridden, bug-infested" wildlife.  We were probably starting our own personal mutiny, here.  Ok...thanks for the, which was is she heading?  Let's bolt the other direction!  Of course, being the civil human I am, I didn't speak my judgments out loud...this time.  I just kept those critical judgments to myself.  Oh, yes!  This time,  victory is MINE!

But I was left a little cranky.  It's interesting how people can so easily influence the direction of your day with simple wounding words and attitudes (or the opposite with kind words and empathy!).  The kids, probably feeding off my crank-rear mood, started to whine and complain.  I got more irritated.  I probably snapped at Matt and brought him down (because God knows the one thing he cannot stand on this earth is for me to be in ANY way displeased...💖).  So, now we were all a little irritated, and walking and wondering if this trail was ever going to end and...wait...Alberta Falls? this IT?!!  Is THIS what we hiked out here to see?!

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
I mean, this is pretty and all, but I could have seen a creek and a dribble in Missouri!  DANG!

But then, to my great fortune, some kind and noble person came bounding down the trail ahead and looked at us encouragingly, "You're almost there!"

And I was like, "Wait.  What?!  There is more?"

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
And angelic stranger was like, "Oh yes!  You have to keep going.  You will KNOW the falls when you see them."  So, we pressed on with a greater amount of motivation.  Thank you, dear Angel of the Lord!

Of course, my pictures do not justify, because I am not a photographer, and a camera just cannot capture the real thing, but man the sight!...and oh the sound of the falls!  Evan fell asleep, and I held him in a comfy, shady spot, while Matt took the others to explore.  I got to rest and recoup in some peaceful quiet.  They had even more adventure.  Everyone was happy again, and we all just took in the moment.

You know that saying, "The best things in life are free?"  I mean...I get the point.  Money and materialism just really don't matter.  However, I think the older I get, the more I realize that the best things in life do cost something.  It might not be monetary, but it isn't really free.

The reward of Alberta Falls cost us a lot of frustrating waiting, dealing with crowds and irritating people, sore legs and sweat, grumbles, arguments and panic over the unknown - when will we get there?!  But once we got there...that moment...because of all we had to endure to get there...I think that makes it even sweeter.  So, I think, the best things in life are those we receive through hardship and struggle.  (Like love! And children!)  Yes, they are monetarily free...but they are still very costly.

After our huge hike, we were considering calling it a day.  We had been out for quite a bit, and it was getting to be evening.  I knew we would need to have dinner soon.  But someone on the trail said, "You HAVE to see Trail Ridge Road."  And I don't really like missing things I HAVE to, we debated, and we decided...and we edited in one last little hike.

We drove up this crazy road, and we saw steep drop offs on every side.  We really had no idea where we were going, and all I could pray is that it wouldn't get dark before we got off this road.  Because I wasn't having ANY of driving this crazy (bad word) road in the dark.  Of course, fortunately for me, I wasn't driving at all.  Matt would NEVER allow that.  (He blames it on his strong desire to drive, but after 20 years, I really have to begin to wonder if he just doesn't trust one of us behind the wheel.  I think it has something to do with the early days of flipping through cd's while I drove.  Surely it's not the way I keep "gently tapping" Xander's car when I am backing out. 😉)

And we saw beautiful views and elk along the way, and we got to this little parking lot with a gift shop we thought was closed, and we faced this crazy, ridiculous staircase, that just about wiped me about...but, then, we were rewarded with such lovely, sweeping views.  And we were so glad we had come.  And we found out the gift shop was, indeed, open.  So, the girls and I sneaked in and got prizes...and one of them was a little stuffed chipmunk for Evan, because, of course, he and his sweet little heart just fell in LOVE with the chipmunks.  💕

So, naturally, we ended the evening at Rocky Mountain National Park, just seriously grateful we had come, and delightfully happy for all we had experienced.

We finished off the evening in the sweet little town of Estes Park, where Laura's Fine Candies has been "spoiling dinner since 1970."  Super sweet, super fun.  And that is how we put to rest the Colorado portion of our trip, and went to sleep to face the next leg of our journey...

Good night, Estes, Yellowstone here we come!

Click here to see the Next Part of our Adventure!