The little things win again

Slinky!

Slinky!

Most people come to Yosemite National Park for the waterfalls, the iconic rock formations, the historic structures. On some level, we came for those things, too.

In the end, however, what my kids will take away most vividly from this year’s adventure were experiences that revolved around some of the tiniest creatures they saw all weekend: Caterpillars. Fuzzy little caterpillars.

The love affair began yesterday morning on the way to breakfast. It was early. We were tired. We rounded a bend on the walking trail from our cabin to the lodge restaurant and found ourselves face to face with a granite boulder covered with caterpillars.

L and R missed them at first, but my father and I simultaneously exclaimed, “Look, girls! Caterpillars!” I wasn’t sure how the kids would react, especially given their recent fear of bugs. Still, 20 minutes after we pointed out the creepy-crawlies, the kids were still playing with the slinky little bugs.

After breakfast, we drove into Yosemite Valley for that watercolor painting class. We had lunch. We marveled at Half Dome in the distance. We waved to The (hotel formerly known as the) Ahwahnee. We hiked to see Yosemite Falls. We played pooh sticks in the Merced (for the second consecutive visit). We squinted to spot climbers on El Capitan. Still, all the kids could talk about were the damn caterpillars.

Caterpillars, caterpillars, caterpillars. It was becoming an episode of that A&E show, “Obsessed.”

Yesterday morning, it was more of the same. I allowed L to “collect” one of the creatures on the way to breakfast; she kept it in a clear plastic cup with a lid. After we ate, we piled in the car to see another of the park’s one-of-a-kind features: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

To make a long story short (I’ll probably blog about that next week), our outing ended sooner than expected. When we got back to the cabin, the girls went caterpillar-hunting again.

This time their interest reached a fever pitch. The two of them foraged for sticks and leaves to build a “caterpillar hotel” in which to house any creatures that happened to wander by. When they returned with supplies, R got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the surface of the cabin patio “so it would be clean for the caterpillars.”

Finally, this morning, on our way back from our final breakfast here at the Evergreen Lodge, I granted their wish, and allowed each of them to harvest a total of six caterpillars as pets. Each girl put the bugs in a large plastic cup with a lid. Each girl foraged for sticks and moss and leaves and other “natural stuff” from the forest to include in their cups. And each girl has been gazing into her cup ever since.

Here in the rec room, where I’m writing and filing this post, I asked them to list their top three favorite things about our trip. No. 1 for both of them: The caterpillars, of course.

While my kids certainly appreciated all the big stuff they saw on our Yosemite trip this year, they LOVED these little things, and saw the bugs as a way to connect with Yosemite on their own terms, their own level.

I’ll be honest: Going into this multigenerational adventure, the caterpillars aren’t exactly what I hoped my kids would take from this trip. But now, after 48 hours of Caterpillalooza, I think I’m OK with the girls’ newfound obsession; the fact that they’ve taken interest in any part of the trip whatsoever is a win—for all of us.

If nothing else, this experience is a reminder that sometimes, the littlest things on a family trip can make the biggest impressions and differences in our kids’ lives.

We’ve all heard that age-old saying that implores us not to lose the forest through the trees. In this case—not losing the caterpillars through the trees, forest, rock formations and waterfalls—the lesson is even simpler and more poignant. I plan to savor it while I can.

Knowing when to fold ’em on family trips

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Poker players and country music fans alike are familiar with the famous 1978 Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler.”

On the surface, the ditty is a song about poker. (You know the tune: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/Know when to run.”) It’s also a metaphor for life. And, as it so happens, for family travel.

I was reminded of this fact today while trying to balance a jam-packed itinerary of activities on a daytrip around our home county.

The short story: We got through about half our list. Then we aborted the mission. And it all worked out.

Our day began early, as the days usually do with L (for whom 6:30 a.m. is “sleeping in”) and R. After breakfast and an early-morning shopping run, we headed out for a hike and some (seemingly) low-key playing by the river, then headed to the indoor trampoline arena for a little jumping. The problem: It was nearly 100 degrees before noon, which made the kids incredibly cranky.

The afternoon portion of our agenda for the day included swinging by a party/fundraiser hosted by some of our friends. As that part of the plan got closer, however—and at the very moment the two of them decided they hated their lunch—the girls endured a major and catastrophic meltdown.

They were hot. They were tired. They were hungry. And they lost all capacity to act like normal humans.

I could have forced the issue, could have soldiered on in the name of keeping plans. Instead, I did what, IMHO, is perfectly acceptable on a day of family travel of any kind: I capitulated.

I’m not saying I gave up in the traditional sense of the phrase. No, I’m saying I rationally and clearly looked at all of my options, recognized that the kids were done, and changed the plan on the fly. In short, I knew when to lay down my hand and call it quits for the day.

Powerwoman and I have learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years. Time and time again, on those days when the kids are just a little off, it almost always has made more sense to acquiesce when push comes to shove. Sometimes this has meant spending an afternoon in the hotel playing Crazy 8’s. On other occasions it’s meant extended downtime, just to keep everyone happy. Today, it meant bailing on a party. Next time, it might mean bailing on a surf lesson, or mini golf.

The bottom line, folks, is that Kenny was right—you need to know when to hold the plans and when to fold ‘em.

There’s no shame in bagging an agenda if you think your kids—and, through the transitive property, you—will be better off in the long run. Family travel isn’t about WHAT you do so much as it’s about HOW you do it. Remember: Short of big-picture calendar items such as airplane flights or train times, no travel plans ever are set in stone.

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