Connecticut

One of the delights of this summer-long road-trip has been ticking states off our lists! There are many that we have simply driven through – 2 hours in New Mexico, one hour in Mississippi. We realise that we haven’t SEEN those states but there’s still excitement every time we cross a state line and see a new sign. So the long drive from Washington DC (well, Arlington) to New Haven, Connecticut was fab because we went through SEVEN ‘states’! Virginia – DC (not a state but you know…) – Maryland – Delaware – New Jersey – New York – Connecticut! I had the dubious pleasure of driving the NY stage of the trip – it was a little stressful and my palms were sweaty but we survived and it was kind of thrilling. The boys caught sight of the NY skyline and even a tiny State of Liberty. NYC, we’ll be back for you soon.

The next stage of our trip is around New England. Our plans are much looser now – we had a rough plan up until DC but now we have three weeks before we’re due anywhere and we were free to explore. This is rather lovely but also a little anticlimactic so I’ve drawn up a rough plan for the next three weeks and we’re getting excited about it.

We had two nights in Connecticut. We based ourselves just outside New Haven primarily because we could afford a hotel – New England is proving incredibly expensive in the summer. We’re not after fancy hotels but the cheaper hotels have dreadful reviews so we’re trying to find the balance between ‘good value’ and ‘not awful’, especially with kids.

Connecticut revealed itself quickly to be beautiful, expensive and fancy. It’s lushly wooded with gorgeous clapperboard houses. There are no ugly gas stations/restaurants along its motorways – signs indicate that there’s a gas station off at the next exit but when you exit, it turns out to be a good few miles along a pretty lane to a pretty town with a pretty (expensive) gas station. But the views were lovely and we were in no rush.

We had one full day to explore Connecticut. We wanted to hike….and we (the Husband and I) wanted to find a couple of little towns remeniscent of Gilmore Girls, one of our favourite TV shows and which was set here. Gilmore Girls is an unlikely choice of TV show for the Husband, I know, but we watched it after the last series of Game of Thrones and its gentle drama was such a relief…we knew that no Gilmore would have their head crushed by a giant or would be slaughtered by Wights!

The hike took place at Salmon River Forest. The car park (near the Day Pond) was free but had no maps on leaflets that we could carry so we had to take photos of the noticeboard and hope we couldn’t get lost.

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In fact the trail was beautifully marked with blue blazes on the trees, it was easy to follow. The trail wound deep into the forest…I belatedly wondered about bears, mountain lions, snakes etc but the worst danger was the midges that got in our eyes and ears. The woods were beautiful but incredibly hot and humid, we sweated like crazy. Eventually we emerged at the goal of the race – the lovely Comstock covered bridge where we chilled for a while, soaking our feet in the cold river and skiming stones before the sweaty hike back to the car. 5 miles in total and really beautiful.

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Gilmore hunting proved harder. We drove a long way across Connecticut to Washington Depot, which most Google searches indicated was like Stars Hollow. It was pretty but definitely NOT Stars Hollow. It did have a great bookshop. Then we drove to nearby New Milford which had a gazebo and was very pretty…but it also wasn’t Stars Hollow. Gilmore fail.

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The next morning, before we headed off, I snuck out for an early morning run. It was definitely cooler than DC but not by much. I ran through pretty residential neighbourhoods, choosing which house I’d live in if I lived here.

Before leaving Connecticut, we stopped at Yale University. It was beautiful, reminded us enormously of Oxford! Made me wish I’d been clever enough to come here!

Our next stop was Massachusetts to the east. We stopped at Mystic near the Rhode Island border and ate decent but expensive pizza at Mystic Pizza and then we were off, into Rhode Island and onto Massachusetts. The Atlantic Ocean was waiting for us.

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Washington, DC

I was curious about Washington DC. I’d been before a few times – most recently was a trip five years ago when I’d JUST started blogging. I went with two friends and had an absolutely wonderful time. We did museums, galleries, shops, bars and I absolutely loved the city. However part of it was the thrill of being in the Washington of President Obama, wondering if we might see him or his wife. Putting it simply, I wondered if DC may have lost its glitter in my eyes, due to its latest inhabitant.

It turned out to be both yes and no. Yes because seeing the White House felt quite ‘meh’ and I no longer looked up eagerly at every helicopter or black-window car wondering who was inside. But no, because DC is bigger than one man and its splendors outshine the person who’s living in the White House. Every time we drove over the river into DC (we stayed in Arlington) and I saw the Washington Monument in the distance, I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy novel!

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We had five nights and five days in DC. This was a delight because we have been traveling round non-stop since Hawaii and we all relished the chance to actually unpack our bags and hang things in the wardrobes, to form some kind of routine and to actually be in one place for a more extended amount of time. Clearly I’m not complaining about this trip of a lifetime but moving around constantly is draining as well as thrilling and we loved being in DC for a little longer.

The first port of call is always the National Mall, which is always amazing. We rented bikes and set out to explore. This proved really hard actually because it was incredibly hot – it was easily 38C/100F but felt much hotter and although we only cycled 8 miles in total, it completely wiped us out. I have never felt so hot in my entire life and my boys felt the same way. It drained our energy and made us incredibly grumpy! There was a lot of snapping at each other…until we returned to the splendor of our air-conditioned hotel room and miraculously we were all effortlessly friends again.

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The faces of endurance (and map-reading)

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These two celebrate one MILLION steps on this trip and were justly rewarded.

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Everyone loves Abe

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Feeling patriotic

The next day, we went to run parkrun at Roosevelt Island. This is a lovely little place, new to me…a small island in the middle of the Potomac River with a memorial to every outdoorsy person’s favourite president. I ran to the race, getting in a few extra miles and then ran a bit further, volunteering to put a sign at a junction for the organizer. I’d done 2.6 miles before the race and was literally dripping with sweat. There were about 80 people doing the run. It was a beautiful course on packed-dirt trails through the trees (lots of shade). We did the alternative route as the boardwalk was closed and it looped and looped and looped until I wondered if I’d got lost…but apparently no. It was incredibly hard work for all of us – my time was 30 minutes which is dreadful for me but we all ran MUCH slower than we’d expected or hoped, leading me to think that the heat, humidity and the battering we’d taken on the bikes the next day had defeated us. Oh well. The park run was great though, hugely recommended if you’re in the area.

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What else?

I took the boys to the Cat Cafe in Georgetown. I miss Charlie so much, it was wonderful to snuggle with cats for an hour or so.

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We visited some museums in the Smithsonian…the Museum of American History, the National Gallery of Art and the Sculpture Garden…

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So this is an….Apple mac?

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Me and Michelle’s dress. Photo (if you can’t tell) by the Dude

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Salisbury girl, Salisbury cathedral

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The highlight of the day – the illuminated walkway between museums

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I hunted down the one Chagall in Washington.

My cousin Tina came to see us one afternoon at the Air and Space Museum. This was both a success and a failure. I haven’t seen Tina for 20 years but we basically hit it off like besties immediately and had a blast. It was also great to meet her husband and her FOUR sons at last. However the Air and Space Museum was rammed beyond belief, far too busy for anyone to actually explore the place, particularly when you’re trying to keep an eye on six boys, and it was a bit of a disaster. We had more fun when we went outside, found some shade and just had snacks together. But so good to see Tina.

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Two girl cousins and SO MANY BOYS

We went to watch my other cousin’s daughter playing in her Little League Championships. My boys hadn’t seen much baseball so this was good fun.

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On the Monday it was the Husband’s birthday. We went to the absolutely excellent Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. It’s located near Dulles airport and is ENORMOUS. It houses a space shuttle, the Discovery, along with hundreds of other remarkable planes. I don’t even like Air and Space Museums and I thought it was fantastic. The highlight was the beautiful Blackbird (the fastest plane on earth) which was physically gorgeous and the Top Gun style simulators. I flew as Goose to the Husband’s Maverick. The simulators were incredible, we were upside down half the time, and I managed to shoot down nine enemy planes which had us as ‘Aces’. This peace-loving girl turned out to be surprisingly thrilled at smashing the enemy!

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Blackbird

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Cheesy Shuttle Photo

The other cool thing we did was an Escape Room for the Husband’s birthday. Escape Rooms are when you’re locked in a room with series of puzzles linked to a storyline. You solve the puzzles and the room unlocks. I wasn’t sure what it would be like and if I’d be okay being locked in a room but it was absolutely brilliant and we had a blast. We solved the puzzle and got out alive!

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On our final morning, I was up with the birds and set off for a long run into DC (we stayed over the river in Arlington). It was a fantastic run. I got to the Mall at 6.30 where it was just the runners and Abraham Lincoln. The light was beautiful, the air was relatively cool and we had the Mall to ourselves. I just ran and ran and it was gorgeous. 9.5 miles before breakfast and I was so happy.

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I had Jefferson literally all to myself

And that was it. We packed up our car and headed north out of DC and past NYC. New England was calling.

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Virginia

Virginia is beautiful! As we drove over the border from North Carolina, the countryside just got prettier and prettier. The houses – gracious, white clapperboard, green shutters – were wonderful. The hills were green, densely wooded and lush. It was gorgeous.

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Our first stop was Blacksburg, a small university town in the far west of the state, near the border with West Virginia. We were there because my fellow Crazy Cat Lady, Jess, had moved there a few weeks ago and we were staying with her, her husband and her two lovely cats for a few nights. It was so flipping great to see Jess again, I haven’t seen her since October. We hung out on their lovely porch for the afternoon and then drove over to a brewery just outside the town. It was in an old farm – the sun was setting over the hills, kids were playing, the place was full of flowers and we sat in the warm evening sunshine and drank beer and kombucha. And as it got dark, the skies  lit up with the flicker of fireflies.They were both the Dude’s and Big Brother’s first experience of fireflies and they honestly thought it was magical.

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Thrilled at his first firefly

The next day, we did a fantastic hike along a section of the Appalachian Trail. We hiked four miles uphill to the well known rock formation McAfee’s Knob…cue plenty of knob jokes. Big Brother strode ahead, he’s a hiking machine these days. We arrived sweaty and hungry at the top and it was totally worthwhile. The views were amazing. Not only the iconic rock view, which was insane, but actually the more gentle view of the green wooded hills rolling away into the blue distance. It was so beautiful. 8 miles in total and a really great morning hiking!

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The next day, before leaving, I ran with Jess. She’s been injured for a long time so is wisely getting back into running carefully so we walk/ran according to her plan. It’s always a joy, running with friends, so it was a perfect way to say goodbye.

One of the delights of Blacksburg was that the temperature was perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. We relished the freshness of the air.

Our next stop was a bit special…we visited Mountain Lake Lodge. Assuming you’re a lady of around my age, you’ll probably know it better as Kellermans’. Yep…we visited the place we filmed Dirty Dancing and it was every bit as awesome as I hoped!

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We did the lifts….kind of!

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This was a little easier for the Husband

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Baby’s cottage

We followed that up with a fantastic short hike at Peaks of Otter, a part of the Blue Mountains State Park. We hiked 1.5 miles up a short but steep (and humid) trail to Sharp Top Mountain. At the top, the midges were out to get us so we didn’t linger, but the views were amazing.

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The next day, we visited Shenandoah National Park. I planned this hike a little too casually and the maps and signage provided by the NP weren’t great. We had a very exciting moment when a black bear sauntered across the road as we drove along. It was less exciting when we heard crashing in the woods next to our trail as we hiked. Cue lots of shouting of ‘Hey bear’, lots of clapping and lots of shouting…and my tall husband watched as another black bear strolled away. Shook us up a little. We preferred the beautiful stag!

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Our next Virginia destination was the small town of Tappahannock, about 2 hours south of Washington DC. We were there visiting my family – my mum’s cousins and their families. I haven’t been there for twenty years so this was pretty special. We got together a few times – dinner at one cousin’s house where I got to introduce my boys and to meet the wives, children and girlfriends of my generation of cousins.

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‘Merica!

The next night, we met up for ice-cream and then my hairdresser cousin did an incredible job on the Dude’s hair, giving him the haircut of his dreams.

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Ice-cream

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The coolest kid in town

The final cool thing we did in Virginia was a day-trip to Colonial Williamsburg, about an hour south of Tappahannock. It was a scorchingly hot day but we had a fantastic day out. Williamsburg is a ‘living museum’ – a town where people live but where a few streets are set apart and colonial life is recreated by people in costumes. It is a fantastic day – we learned so much about Colonial life and why the Americans didn’t fancy staying British (a tax on tea is unforgivable). One (very handsome) guy was portraying Thomas Jefferson. He was incredible – he knew Jefferson inside and out and he really brought Jefferson to life.

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Big Brother tests out leg-irons

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My little colonial

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Incredible silversmithing skills….and awesome beard

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Jefferson.

It was really wonderful to see this part of my family after so long. It made me grateful for the way Facebook helps us keep in touch,  and grateful for the chance to see them.But on Thursday, we packed up the car and headed north. Virginia had been fantastic but Washington DC was calling!

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Georgia

We rolled into Atlanta in a rainstorm that drenched the roads and cut the power temporarily from thousands of houses. It was July 4th and we had a hot date at an Independence Day party with one of my oldest friends, Christina, who I met as a 20-year-old when we both studied in Florence. I haven’t seen her for five years so it was fantastic to see her again, and to see the wonderful house she’d designed and had built (yeah, she’s a high achiever). It was fantastic to meet her 4 year old daughter at last, to see our boys playing together and also to see other Atlanta friends we hadn’t seen for too long! We ate good food, had a watermelon eating contest, had a water balloon fight (no drought here) and then watched the fireworks as the US celebrated not being British!!

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I really love this photo

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We had a fantastic time in Georgia. It’s a beautiful state – lush and green, densely wooded. The houses are beautiful and there’s so much history there! We like the East Coast very much.

We did a couple of hikes, one in a little park near Roswell where Christina lives…

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New hiking buddies

…and one at Red Top Mountain State Park to the north. The trails we hiked were all through woodland, covered with trees to protect from the heat but still humid!

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We went into downtown Atlanta to the Martin Luther King Center. There’s an excellent museum, which was frankly very sobering, and we also got tickets to see his birth-house where he lived until he was 12. The one historical snippet that the boys took out of the whole thing was that young ML and his brother stole their sister’s doll to use her head as a baseball in baseball practise!!

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MLK’s birth-house

We visited the wonderful Ponce City Market – an old warehouse which has been transformed into a cool shopping mall/food hall, similar in many ways to the SF Ferry Building.

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We walked a little down the Beltline – an old railway track which circles the whole city of Atlanta. It had been abandoned but has recently started to be turned into a hiking/biking trail that will, one day, have a tram service and go the whole way round. As the trail gets re-established, whole swathes of the city are being regenerated and given a new lease of life. We visited Fourth Ward Park, which until recently was a wasteland and drug den but is now a beautiful park with a splash-pad that was an enormous success with our kids.

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We visited the Tellus Museum, a science museum to the north which all the kids loved.

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And then we finished off with the most incredible meal at a little place called Greenwood’s in Roswell, just north of Georgia. I’ve been vegetarian/occasional pescatarian for three or four years now but when I’m staying with friends, I eat whatever they give me, and I ended up eating quite a bit of meat in Georgia. For this particular meal, we ate southern fried chicken, meatloaf, creamed corn, collard greens, cheesy grits and fried green tomatoes, followed by chocolate pie, apple pie and custard cream pie. (We shared all of this between 8, to be clear). The food was utterly delicious and I walked away looking four months pregnant and slightly comatose with food. I’m glad I tried these different dishes but it didn’t make me want to go back to eating meat regularly again.

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Chocolate cream pie

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Celebrating the imminent birth of food-baby Georgia

In the mornings, I’d headed out early both mornings to run and beat the heat. Christina came with me to walk – we’d walk/run one loop at the nearby park and then I’d run a second loop alone. Near her house, the park has an amazing trail which is lit in the darkness – her neighbourhood is super safe too. On the second morning, before we left, both Big Brother and Christina’s son came to join us. That was pretty special. And we wrapped the whole thing up with breakfast biscuits from the delightfully named Fickle Pickle cafe!

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I’d run here every day if I lived here!

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Fried Green Tomatoes are GOOD!

And so, carrying my food baby, Georgia, in my belly, we piled back in the car and headed north. We drove straight through South Carolina and into North Carolina where we stayed overnight with dear friends who had moved from the Bay Area years ago.  We spent the evening hanging out at their pool and then in the morning, J and I headed out for a run. J was one of my first running buddies in the Bay Area and she’s a speedy lady but luckily she’s pregnant so I was finally able to keep up!

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Only the love of a small boy will get me on a water slide. Horrible. 

Hugs all round and we were back in the car, heading further north again. Georgia and the Carolinas, y’all were wonderful. But Virginia was calling!

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Alabama

I was VERY excited to go to Alabama for one main reason…

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Yes, there was a lot of singing.

We’ve noticed that since Louisiana, the states seem to look fairly similar. Very lush and green. Lots of trees and vegetation. Long motorways lined with greenery on either side. It’s really very pretty. We drove through the tiniest snippet of Mississippi and it looked a lot like Louisiana with the swamps.

So far we’ve been driving basically Eastwards since California. At Mobile, AL, we made a left turn and started our long trip north. Big moment.

Our first stop in Alabama was the tiny rural town of Andalusia. Not many tourists go to Andalusia but the Husband has a cousin who’s lived there for years so we were off to see him. The road to Andalusia was pretty farmland, studded with the odd Confederate flag. Definitely not in the Bay Area any more.

It was great to see the Husband’s cousin. They haven’t seen each other for more than   twenty years so I’d never met him. He had the same Ramsden genes and the most incredible accent in the world – half broad Yorkshire, half southern American. He sounded like a cross between Sean Bean and Matthew McConnaughey. I kept asking him questions so I could listen to that accent. It was a fun evening.

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The next morning, I got in a good 7 mile run around Andalusia so I got to explore a little more. There was a mix of run-down houses and beautiful mansions in fancy neighbourhoods. It was a snippet of Southern small-town America that I’ve never seen before and it was fascinating to me.

I would have liked to have spent longer in Alabama – there’s so much history here.  We passed by Montgomery, home to Harper Lee, Truman Capote and Rosa Parks. But we had a hot date in Georgia for July 4th to get to so we kept driving. Our next stop, as we headed further north, was Birmingham, to stay with the lovely Lisa. Lisa used to have the best running blog on the internet (which she needs to revive). We’d got to know each other through our blogs, we’d met up IRL earlier this year and she gamely offered to host us for the night. I was signed up to run the Peavine Falls 8 miler on July 4th – as we drove north, the boys all decided they wanted to do it too. This was  a massive step up for the Dude and Big Brother, who have only done 5ks in the past, but the Husband said he’d run/walk it with them. So our first stop in Birmingham was at the Trak Shak, the local running store, to sign up and get numbers.

We then visited the Vulcan statue which was a little bit of a disappointment. We hadn’t known that Vulcan was the Roman god of Metalwork and the Forge, so frankly we expected a quirky giant state of Spock. No Spock. Disappointed Husband.

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Due to the holiday weekend, Martin Luther King’s 16th St Baptist Church was also closed so we just got to see it from the outside but I’m glad we did. There’s so much recent history in this state, so much important stuff happened. Visiting here has really brought the 1960s Civil Rights struggle to life for us.

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And then, after haircuts and a trip to see Cars 3, we spent the evening with Lisa and her family. We didn’t get any photos but we had a fab evening!!

The next morning was July 4th. It started horribly early and by 6.30am we were at Oak Mountain State Park for the Peavine Falls run. We had been totally ignorant of the details when we signed up but it turned out that the race was on road through the park. 4 miles up, 4 miles down. Last mile would be on trail. It was a very low-key race (and very well-priced) so there was no timing chip or starting mat. There was the National Anthem, and then we were off.

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Me and Lisa

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I’ve run a lot lately but nothing more than 6 or 7 miles and no speedwork, so my goal was to pace this run well, rather than race it! I knew that with four miles uphill, I needed to be careful so I put my head down and ran it as wisely as I could. I was delighted to get to the top without stopping to walk, and more delighted to turn back. Running downhill was awesome. I saw the boys and then I flew down. I felt fantastic until the final mile through the trails where my legs were tired and I just wanted to be done, but I ran the whole distance pretty steadily and finished with a time of 1.22 which was unremarkable in truth but was a solid, steady run for me and I was content with it.

(Finish line photos courtesy of the race photographer. Thanks for the free photos, guys).

 

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Hanging round with Lisa and her friends afterwards, we cheered the runners coming in…and one of the group said ‘Wow, look at that kid’. We looked up and it was the Dude hurtling down the finish straight! ‘That’s my kid’, I said and dashed off to get him. Once I’d fed him oranges and water, he told me that he’d left his Dad and Big Brother at about mile 3 and run the vast majority of the race alone! My mind was blown and I’m incredibly grateful to the other runners who he said cheered him on throughout the race, but the thought of my little boy running the trails alone (albeit surrounded by runners who were probably keeping an eye on him) kind of did my head in! The Dude had a fantastic day…he was determined to run it well and seriously crushed it, coming in at 1.49.

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The Husband and Big Brother rocked up shortly after, just after the 2 hour sign. Given that Big Brother only started running in May and has done nothing more than a 5k, this was a massive achievement for him as well. We were bursting with pride for these boys!

 

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There were showers at the lake beach, elsewhere in the park. Cold water! Brrr. But we showered off, got changed and hopped in the car to drive to Atlanta. It was Independence Day, we had dear friends to see and we needed to get on the road.

Alabama, you were seriously great! Georgia…we were coming for you!

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Louisiana

Louisiana felt different from the moment we crossed the state line. It sounded so exotic to our British ears. Its name echoed of Southern Gothic, evoking thoughts of  Truman Capote, Spanish moss, antebellum plantation homes, a dark history of slavery and racial turmoil, voodoo, graveyards, alligators, swamps, hurricanes, levees. It sounded so mysterious and exotic…but it also looked so familiar. The green, lush vegetation along the roads made us all think of the UK, if we hadn’t built on every square inch of the UK, so we also kind of felt at home here. We didn’t SOUND at home…so many people commented on our accents, but we wholeheartedly complimented them back on their own wonderful southern accents.

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We chose not to stay in New Orleans, the goal of our time in Louisiana, but rather to stay about 45 minutes north in the small town of Covington. I have mixed feelings about this, but it was the right decision. We were there at the weekend, and July 4th weekend too. Hotel prices in the French Quarter were astronomical – we saved a lot of money by staying further out. But part of me ached a little to be at the heart of what we’d come to see.

We arrived in Covington late on Friday night, after a very long drive that took longer than we’d expected. We’d crossed the mighty Mississippi river, which was much less thrilling than I’d hoped – wide, grey, murky and busy. But Covington was a lovely little town, lush and green.

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We somehow got out of our hotel by 8.30am on Saturday morning (a miracle!) and drove over the 22-mile causeway across Lake Pontrarchain. As we got closer, the gleaming towers of modern New Orleans appeared out of the haze. I hadn’t realised how isolated New Orleans is, floating on lowlands at the very bottom of the country. We also hadn’t quite grasped how modern and impressive the new city is – it was very different to our expectations.

We arrived in the French Quarter at about 9.15 and parked up (super-expensive!) for the day. We had a few things we wanted to do but our overall plan was to wander. So we wandered, and the wandering was some of the best wandering I’ve ever done in my  life.The buildings are wonderful. Wrought-iron balconies, lush vegetation, cobbled streets. I took too many pictures.

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We did as we had to and queued for café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde. The queue moved quickly and we were grateful to sit in the shade for half and hour. The coffee was excellent and the beignets were delicious.

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We explored the lovely shops. There was excellent shopping! We did tacky gift shops, classy gift shops, ridiculously expensive antique shops and astronomically expensive jewellery shops. I tried on a $15,000 diamond ring. It looked awesome on me. We had lunch at Cafe Soule, which was deliciously gothic and had good food! Most food in Louisiana seems to be deep-fried. Then we went to see the Mississippi River.

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We went to the excellent Louisiana State Museum for some history of the state. It was very good and surprisingly fun.

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Apparently I participated in the Battle of New Orleans against the British…

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There were some things we avoided – the voodoo/creepy stuff which is NOT my thing at all, plus the raucous party streets. We made it one block on Bourbon Street before gracefully recognising that we are no longer party people and sloping off down a side street. Royal Street, with its cafes and shops (and where Truman Capote used to live, squeal) was pretty much perfect for us!

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By 4pm, the heat and humidity had beaten us – it must be called the Big Easy because it’s too hot and humid to rush around! New Orleans was wonderful – I loved it so much and the boys all liked it too. I’ve wanted to go there for so long that I wondered if it would be a disappointment but no, it was gorgeous. I loved it.

The next day, before we drove out of Louisiana we went on a swamp tour! The swamps have been incredible to see as we drive past – vast swathes of swamp-land stretching out across the country. We really enjoyed our boat ride. We saw loads of alligators and something I didn’t even know existed – swamp pigs! We saw houses on stilts, some of which are permanently inhabited, some of which are weekend retreats for fishermen, some of which had friendly diamondback river snakes on the doorstep!

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And then we were back in the car, heading across the border into Mississippi, the state with the most Fun-To-Spell name. I regret not being able to spend more time exploring Louisiana, but we had a great few days there!

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Louisiana, thank you! Alabama, here we come!

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Texas (and a snippet of New Mexico)

I was very curious about what Texas would be like. I have to admit, its image is pretty much everything I dislike about the US and the very opposite of everything I love about the Bay Area.  So I was intrigued to see what the Lone Star State was like in reality. It was also notable because this was the first state we were driving through that we hadn’t visited before – it felt like we were branching out into new territory!

On the drive from Colorado, we drove a few hours through a corner of New Mexico, another new state for us. We saw only the briefest glimpse of the Land of Enchantment, but New Mexico was much greener than I’d expected, an enormous endless plain stretching out into the distance. It was empty!

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New Mexico! I didn’t expect the greenery!

Texas was also pretty empty for two solid days of driving. We stayed overnight in a sad hotel in Amarillo (we drove into town singing the Tony Christie song at the top of our lungs) and then drove on to Dallas. The land was flat and green. Roads stretched for literally hundreds of miles, dotted occasionally with tiny towns devoid of people. Where WAS everybody? Each town had an enormous grain silo and one of those iconic water towers. We saw nodding donkeys in fields, town names like ‘Boys Ranch’ and trucks aplenty.

Then we got to Dallas. The husband had found us a bargainous hotel – the Cooper Hotel which was ridiculously swanky and ridiculously great value. It had an incredible gym, a mile-long running track around the hotel grounds and our room was amazing. The boys wanted to stay for a week! The running track got put to good use. That night, the Husband and Big Brother ran 5k and Big Brother went sub-40 for the first time (his first ever 5k in May was 46 minutes). He was rightfully proud. I ran 5 miles on the path both mornings. It was hot and humid even at 6am but so nice to run safely in the grounds of the hotel.

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A gym with a 3-lane running track round the inside!

We had a really good day in Dallas. We started off visiting Southfork Ranch, home to the Ewings and the location of one of my favourite childhood TV programmes. I was very very excited to visit and Skyped my Mum from the front lawn. She was also excited!

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Bobby Ewing and his midget British third wife, Cathryn!

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We then headed into downtown Dallas to visit the 6th Floor museum where Lee Harvey Oswald hid to shoot JFK. The museum was excellent, one of the best we’ve ever seen – if a seven-year old is enthralled about the assassination of someone he’d never heard of before he walked in, you know it’s good. It was also very sad. Made you wonder what could have been.

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To cheer ourselves up we walked the half mile through some dodgy streets to see the fantastic cow stampede sculpture at Pioneer Plaza. We loved this!

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thoughtful thinking

The next day, we very sadly left our wonderful hotel and drove to Austin. Everyone in the Bay Area had told us we’d love Austin and we really did. Big Brother didn’t feel very well the day we arrived, so the Dude and I left him and the Husband in our hotel room and headed to the gorgeous Zilker Park for TexMex and then kayaking!

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My chilled-out kayaking buddy

That night, with Big Brother fully recovered, we drove back into Austin to see the bats. There’s a bridge across the river which hosts about 1.5 million bats and as dusk comes, they all fly off. We joined the sizeable crowd waiting for sunset and sure enough, once it grew dark, an endless stream of bats flew away from the bridge. They were tiny and fast, darting through the night sky. Impossible to photograph but really quite magical.

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Just a few of the crowds that came bat-watching

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Just a few of the bats that came people-watching

The next day, we headed back into town and rented bikes. Big Brother learned to ride a bike only a few weeks ago in Hawaii, this was his first actual bike ride, but he was a champ. We cycled about 10 miles on the fantastic hiking/biking trail along the river. It was generally cool and shady, there was a fabulous stretch on a long fixed path on the river itself. All the bridges across the river had bike lanes. Austin is a fantastic place to cycle and we had a great time.

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So happy to be back on a bike again

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Ai Weiwei’s wonderful bike sculpture, featuring 1,300 bikes!

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Big Brother delighted to have done 10 miles on his first bike ride.

That afternoon, we got back on the river. The boys rented single kayaks – the Dude did a decent job by himself despite my worrying – and I rented a paddleboard. I’ve done SUP once before so I was excited to do it again. It was a lot of fun (and I managed to stand up for a good amount of time) but I decided I prefer kayaking!

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Thought you might enjoy this photo of me struggling to stand up!

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One day, I will be one of those effortless girls in bikinis on a SUP. Today was not that day.

We really liked the vibe in Austin – it felt like a really livable place. I wish we’d seen more of it but one of the challenges of travelling with kids is that you really can’t do the hipster coffee shops/cool bars/quirky shops for very long before they get bored so we didn’t explore that downtown area at all. But we loved the open spaces!

On that note, there were some cracking places to run in Austin in case you ever go. The trail along the river makes for splendid running – shaded by trees and scenic. Also near our hotel was the Pease District Park which we drove past, and that looked great too. I opted not to tackle the terrifying Austin traffic in the early morning dark in order to drive to these places and instead I chose to run in a slightly dodgy area near our hotel (before reverting to the safety of the treadmill when too many dogs barked at me) but those trails looked awesome! Also, Austin runners look amazing! Fit, fast, toned and totally unsweaty despite the fierce heat and murderous humidity. Swines.

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The running/biking trail we explored

The next day, we made the long drive to Nassau Bay, just south of Houston in time to visit the NASA Space Centre. I’m not a massive space fan but the boys all are, so they had a fantastic time. It’s a great museum – we stayed until they literally shooed us out the building at 7pm.

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Small boy, massive rocket. Saturn V

I ran the next morning in the streets around our hotel. At 6.30am it was 27C/81F and 90% humidity. The whole thing was a sweaty slog but I got it done.

I was delighted to finish June with 100 miles in the legs. That had been my goal initially but by the 20th, I’d only done 57 miles and 100 was looking unlikely. But I’d promised myself that I’d run every day if necessary to make that goal and today, I made it and I was pretty proud of myself. It’s hard to prioritise running and exercise when you’re travelling with other people, especially with kids, so there have been a lot of early mornings to get those miles in. I definitely feel better for it.

As we drove out of Texas, I reflected on what I’d found. Six nights in a state is definitely not enough to form solid ideas but it was a good start. There were some things we loved about Texas – people are really friendly! They like chatting as much as I do. They have awesome southern accents. They have great value hotels with excellent free breakfasts, which we, on a budget, appreciate enormously. Petrol/gas is amazingly cheap.

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On the flipside, Texas isn’t  a particularly beautiful state. The countryside we saw was almost entirely flat, it was a far cry from the splendours of Colorado. The cities seemed enormous, the empty spaces vast. I didn’t see guns everywhere as I’d imagined beforehand – although one hotel receptionist assured me, when I asked if it was safe to run in the neighbourhood, that I didn’t need to worry as ‘everyone in Texas has a gun, you’re totally safe’. Hmmm…that’s not a British perspective on safety. But I’m not in Britain and it was interesting to hear that point of view.

I’m really glad we explored Texas, even in the little we saw of that enormous state. We move on to Louisiana and the deep south today, and I’m really excited to see what THAT’S like!

Texas, thank you! Louisiana…here we come.

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Colorado

The last time I fell head-over-heels in love this fast and this hard, it was with my cat  son. (It took me three months to fall in love with the Husband in case you’re concerned, I do love him very much). But that was how I felt about Crested Butte the moment we arrived.

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Hostel with a view

Our drive from Utah to Colorado was a beautiful one, marked by increasing amounts of green, lush forests and cooling temperatures, which, after days of boiling alive in Moab, was incredibly welcoming. On the way to Crested Butte, we passed a National Park we’d not heard of before – the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park. We popped in, using our annual pass, for our picnic lunch and were completely blown away by the place. What a great surprise.

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The minute we arrived in Crested Butte, however, I adored it. Snow-capped mountains, green meadows and cute cabins, that’s the kind of place I love best. Combine that with wonderful temperatures, bright sunshine and an adorable downtown full of little shops and cafes…I was smitten instantly.

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Pertinent sign for this chicken

I explored it on my own at first – all three boys were tired and napping after t he car journey. As an only child, I really need time on my own now and again, so I relished mooching around downtown in the sunshine by myself.

I got back to the hostel where we were staying and all the boys were still asleep, so I put on my running gear, chatted to the trail-runner girl on the front desk and headed out towards Lower Loop to stretch my legs. The lack of oxygen at 8,800 ft didn’t seem to dampen my enthusiasm as the views stretched on for days. I even risked a bit of solo trail running (which is VERY gutsy for me) and it was kind of heaven.

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Lower Loop trail

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SUPER happy!

The Husband took one look at my shining face when I got back to the hostel and suggested that one night here may not be enough and maybe we should stay for two. Yeah, I really loved him at that moment. So I took him out for a quick drink that evening.

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Staying longer  was a great decision. The next day, we took the chair lift from Mt Crested Butte right up to the top of the mountain at about 12,000 feet, with the goal of running down. Big Brother was both excited and nervous about his first mountain run but as soon as we got running he was away! The Dude was less thrilled by the whole thing but he was game. We managed to run about 3 miles down (stopping regularly to gasp at the views, take photos and drink water) before my small person resolutely started hiking. Fair enough!

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Big Brother excited and nervous before running down his first mountain. He was a flipping rockstar!

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It was further down than we’d anticipated but it was honestly magical. I often ran ahead and then stopped to wait for the boys because I honestly couldn’t handle NOT running the trails, they were so flipping beautiful. We ‘triked’ (trail-ran/hiked, new phrase, people) through gorgeous Aspen groves and down single-track laden with wonderful wildflowers. It was so magical. I was delirious with happiness the whole time, and it wasn’t the altitude.

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When we got back though, we were RAVENOUS. All thoughts of healthy lunches went out the windows and it was BURGER TIME! And Margarita time for me! Tiredness, sunshine, belly full of food and a margarita? Zzzzzzzz.

The next day, before we left, I snuck out early for a final run. I ran up the paved Rec Trail from Crested Butte to Mt Crested Butte. It was almost cold (delicious) and the views were wonderful. Made up for the lack of oxygen. Actually, on the whole I was surprised at how well I felt at that altitude, especially running. I was slow, to be sure, but very happy. My legs tended to feel it more than my lungs!

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This view!

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Flowers and mountains

As we drove out of Crested Butte, we promised the Dude to play mini golf on the way…but alas it would have cost us $60 (!) so we found mini-golf instead at that night’s destination, Colorado Springs.

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It was so nice to wear sweaters again!

We were in Colorado Springs for one very special reason – the lovely Bean. Bean was my original Internet Stranger turned House Guest and Runner Friend. I hadn’t seen her since last Western States, an exact year ago, so it was wonderful to see her, her husband and to meet her gorgeous dog, Max, at long last. Lots to catch up on, lots of trips to Europe to be planned.

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Dreadful photo, gorgeous friend. (Yes, I ironed that top next)

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Someone LOVED Max

Our final morning in Colorado started with a quick run down Bean’s local trail for me (she’s injured, boo) and then we were off, heading out of Colorado to New Mexico and Texas.

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Colorado has a LOT of awesome running paths

I honestly can’t tell you how much we loved Colorado – all of us. The scenery is spectacular, the temperatures were perfect, the people were lovely…it’s definitely one of my Happy Places. I wish we could have spent longer there, but I’m really grateful for the time we did get to spend in that thin air. I ran every day in Colorado and I loved it – I spent a lot of time trying to work out which state I love the most – California, Oregon and Colorado. Could not decide!

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The lovely little town of Salida, where we had a riverside picnic

Colorado, you have been AMAZING. New Mexico and Texas…here we come!

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Utah

Oh wow, Utah!!

Utah greeted us with nothing less than Monument Valley. We could see the incredible rock formations as we drove down the long desert road towards it, but  we crossed the border from Arizona just as we got to the park, so it just squeaked into Utah. We were in the middle of a long drive between Page, AZ and Moab, UT so we opted not to do the additional 13-mile drive around the rock formations but rather see them from the road and it turned out to be a good decision – we saw everything we’d hoped for.

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The drive from Monument Valley to Moab was long, incredibly hot and quite startlingly beautiful. Red sandstone gave way to giant slanting slabs of rock. Dramatic snow-topped mountains could be seen in the distance. It was stunning. And we rolled into Moab in time for the sunset.

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We stayed at the ACT campground, where we rented a cabin-room. The campsite was great and comes hugely recommended. Moab itself is super-cool – it’s outdoorsy and laid-back, full of cafes and restaurants. It’s a real hub for mountain-biking and is nestled between two National Parks, so I was looking forward to our time here.

It was flipping scorching whilst we were in Moab. I know there was a heatwave all over the western US and even in the UK, but we melted here. We had to get up and out super-early to beat the heat, then we’d go back to our cabin for the afternoon before venturing out again in the evening.

We spent one day in Aches National Park. It was, of course, beautiful. We got there early (along with lots of other people) as it’s open 24-hours at the weekend and did the 3.5 mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch. The Arch was beautiful, even if my husband doesn’t believe in zooming when taking a requested photo.

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See me and the Dude in the middle?

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We loved Sand Dune Arch, which is accessed through some rocks, hidden from sight, and provided cool respite from the heat.

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And we loved Skyline Arch and Double Arch, before admitting defeat and going home to cool off.

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We spent another day at Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is somewhat harder to get your head around. It’s the second biggest park in the US, it’s seriously enormous so they’ve split it into three distinct sections. We explored the most accessible section, Islands in the Sky. We started at a nearby state park called Dead Horse Point, which is where Thelma and Louise drove their car off the mountain at the end of the movie. We did a 5 mile hike round the loop trail and even though we began at 7.30 am it was very hot by the time we got back to our car. It was beautiful though.

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The blue is a salt reservoir

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I wondered how the park got its name – I imagined a romantic story of how a horse sacrificed its life for its rider. However the reality is pretty grim. A long time ago, cowboys drove wild horses to the edge of the cliff and corralled them in there. They chose the horses they wanted to keep and then rode off with those horses, leaving the other horses corralled at the edge of the world. Starved of food and of water, the horses all died. I know. Spoiled it for me too.

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Islands in the Sky is a easily accessible park – one main road, lots of stop-off points to see the beauty. On a cooler day, there were many hikes we would have done but we’d done our baking-hot desert hike for the day so we drove through and stopped to see the key sights. The one thing I wanted to see was Mesa Arch. Pictures I’d seen beforehand made this place look amazing. Reality was still beautiful but somewhat smaller, less fragile and less spectacular than I’d been lead to believe. I was a little disappointed.

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In between Arches and Canyonlands, we had a lazy day, trying to avoid National Park burn-out. We mooched round Moab and explored the shops and then chilled outside our cabin reading and playing on the iPad. I’ve taken up cross-stitch, that most uncool of hobbies, lately and I have to admit that sitting there in the shade was rather relaxing.

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In terms of running, I have to admit that I chickened out a lot. As we  had to get up early in order to explore, I wasn’t up for getting up EVEN earlier to run. So I tended to run in the evening although it was close to 100F even at 7pm. I ran along the pretty Mill Creek Path which was a pleasure although I had a nasty surprise when I was charged by a barking Pitbull as I ran back to the campsite. There was a moment of complete terror when I realised I had nothing to defend myself with and I screamed so very loudly that the dog actually stopped his charge and slunk away! I was a little shaken up after that. The next day I ran on a treadmill because it was 110F/43C and it would have been stupid to run outside.

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Disclosure: This is a totally staged photo I made the husband take ‘for the blog’

I have mixed feelings about our time in Moab. I really wish we’d come at a cooler time of year because it’s a great little town and I would have loved to make more of the opportunities here. Also, there is LOADS of outdoors stuff to do (hiking, mountain biking, rafting, jeep expeditions etc) but those things all cost money and we’re on a budget. I also longed to run some of the trails here (check out this article about Moab being a trailrunner’s paradise) but I didn’t want to run them alone or in the heat. So I feel like we could have ‘done’ Moab better! But still…who’s complaining? I’m not.

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One of the dangers of this trip is that we get Beauty Burn-Out. I know it happens all the time and not just to us. People become immune to the things they see all the time. We got immune to the herds of bison when we were at Yellowstone a few years ago. We got immune to ocean views in Hawaii. Now we’re finding we’re getting nonchalant about the astonishing views we’re seeing here. All over this part of Utah are incredible, massive boulders of red rock. Cliffs of the stuff. Massive walls of the stuff. And we’re barely looking at them any more!

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This is a standard road in Utah!

Which means that it’s time to move on.

In the distance, during our time here, we’ve seen the beautiful grey La Sal mountains over near the border with Colorado. Festering in the shimmering heat here, I’ve found myself looking at them longingly, thinking of how cool the air must be there. I’ve LOVED our time in the red deserts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah but the mountains of Colorado are calling and, as John Muir said, we must go.

Utah, you’ve been spectacular. Colorado, here we come.

 

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Arizona

My word, Arizona. You really are spectacular!

We spent just two nights and two days in the Grand Canyon State but it really blew us away. The drive from Las Vegas was somewhat dull – the landscape was vast and empty, enormous plains that stretched away to desert mountains in the distance. One thing that has struck me again and again on this road-trip is just how big America is. It’s SO big! But eventually we rolled up at the tiny town of Valle, about 20 miles south of the Grand Canyon and stayed in a cute Bed and Breakfast overnight.

The following day we went to the Grand Canyon. I’ve been twice before – once on our honeymoon and once when the Dude was just one. However it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been – every time you first see that canyon it’s just jaw-dropping. It was brand new for the boys and they were incredulous as well.

We’d been given a secret heads-up to check out Shoshone Point, an unsigned viewpoint known only to locals. So we parked up and headed up the trail for a mile. It was 10am and already hot. But once we got there….just wow.

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We stayed there about half an hour, sat on the bluff, just marveling at the place. We had it more or less to ourself, just a few others were there. It was amazing.

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Photos of the Grand Canyon never do the place justice. The light was too hazy, the colours aren’t true to life…but still we try to capture its beauty.

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We didn’t even scratch the surface of the Grand Canyon!  The Husband and I would love to hike down into the canyon and camp overnight, but with a small kid (and a big kid) and when the temperatures were dangerously high, we knew this wasn’t the time.

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What’s more, our time at Shoshone Point was pretty much perfect so we were content with what we’d seen. So we drove on to Page, further north, site of something I was really excited to see – Horseshoe Bend.

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By the time we arrived there it was 4pm and it was over 35 degrees C/104 degrees F. The entire South West (and further afield, I believe) is going through a heatwave at the moment and temperatures are crazy! We knew that coming to the desert in the summer would be ‘hot’ but we’d underestimated HOW hot it would be, and how the heat would drain us!! At Horseshoe Bend, there was no shade, the heat was merciless. We slogged the half mile to the viewing point. It was so hot I secretly wondered if it was worth it…but then we saw it and it was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

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We spent the night in Page, a small town with blessed air-conditioning and in the morning we set out for another thing we’d been dying to see – Antelope Canyon. We were VERY lucky to get in – we hadn’t realised that most people book onto a tour and there’s limited availability, so if you go without reservations my advice would be:

  • Get there as they open. We were there 10 minutes before they opened and were 5th in the queue.
  • Take cash, there are no cards accepted. It’s about $50/adult and $30/child.
  • You can only take in water and a camera. NOTHING else.

It was, however, jaw-droppingly incredible. No words to describe its beauty.

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We loved every expensive second of our Antelope Canyon tour! It was wonderful!

And then we drove a long way through a very, very hot Arizona desert to the Utah border where more astounding scenery awaited us. But that’s another story!

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