Long lost cousins

This is us

This is us

I’ve mentioned that L and I traveled to Portland last weekend. What I neglected to mention—at least in detail—is why: We went to attend the bar mitzvah of one of my cousin’s kids.

The cousin in question is a relative I haven’t seen in 12 years. That means he’d never met L. It also means L had never met him, or any of his kids. Which means my biggest daughter was meeting some of her cousins for the very first time.

Any other kid might have been daunted by all this unknown, by the possibility of going to a party with 40 other kids and NOT KNOWING A SOUL.

My kid, on the other hand, relished the opportunity. So much that she told me to get lost.

To be honest, I couldn’t really believe my ears. It happened during the cocktail hour of the party—adults were asked to go upstairs to a rooftop deck, while kids were invited to party on the dance floor below. I wasn’t sure how L would fare, so I gave her the option of having me hang around. That’s when she dropped the bomb. Get lost, Dad. I’m fine down here. I’ll make friends.

It was a bittersweet moment for sure. On one hand, I was delighted she felt comfortable being so independent. On the other hand, I was heartbroken that she didn’t need me, especially since she previously has wanted me around for similar situations.

Still, I obliged. I got lost. Despite how difficult that was.

In the end, the kid had a blast. She made friends with her long lost cousins and some of the other kids in attendance. She hung with them at various parts of the rest of the night. She also spent time just chilling by herself, dancing and singing and watching others have a ball. She even participated in some of the games; when she was one of the three finalists for Musical Chairs, she pocketed $20 for her efforts (trust me, bar mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be).

On our way back to the hotel, around 11 p.m., L turned to me and declared it had been “one of the best nights” of her life. I couldn’t help but smile.

I’d like to think travel has played a huge part in getting my oldest daughter comfortable enough to have the kind of night she had last weekend. It’s taught her adaptability and confidence. It’s taught her how to step back and observe. Most of all, traveling has helped my kid get to know herself, an important part of any human’s personal development. It’s a fundamental part of who and what she is.

Some might say we traveled to this bar mitzvah last weekend. I like to look at it a little differently: We attended a bar mitzvah for which travel prepared us all along.

The distinction here is subtle but important nevertheless; if we are, in fact, the sum of all of our experiences, the more experiences we have, the richer our lives become. It’s true for grown-ups and kids alike. No matter how many new cousins you might meet in a weekend, it only gets better over time.

Exploring the proverbial backyard

grsb

L and R, looking for shells at Goat Rock Beach.

During an average year, we Villanos are away from home as a unit anywhere from 60-80 days overall. Last year we logged nearly 160 days away from home (including a 122-day stint in England). The year before, we spent 31 consecutive days in Hawaii.

Naturally, then, the four of us jump at the chance to explore uncharted territory closer to home.

Because we live in Northern California, this means pretty much everything from portions of the Peninsula to the Central Valley and places in between. It also means the North Coast.

One of our favorite recent finds: Goat Rock Beach, part of the Sonoma Coast State Park that extends 17 miles from Bodega Head to Vista Trail, north of Jenner. This area is literally less than one hour from our home. It also has everything my kids love: Crashing surf to watch, shells to collect, marine mammals to ogle (or ignore), and a river in which to splash.

I took the girls on a Friday earlier this spring. Our goal: To hike to the southern edge of the mouth of the Russian River and watch members of the resident harbor seal colony raising pups and otherwise doing their things (really, I should write, “thangs”) on the other side.

The plan began flawlessly. We left the house after breakfast and arrived at the beach parking lot by 10 a.m., well before the typical crowds. After snack in the trunk (I drive an XTerra, and L and R like hanging out back there with the gate open), we grabbed our shell collecting bags and bee-lined for the beach, about 500 feet away.

This is where things slowed down considerably.

First was L, who decided the best way to collect the shells was to find a spot of beach, sit down, and parse through EVERY SINGLE SHELL within reaching distance. Then was R, who wandered for a bit, then whined, staggered over to me, and threw her body between my legs until I simply had to pick her up.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of these shenanigans, I convinced the girls to race me to the end of the beach.

When we arrived, two researchers were watching the seals through binoculars. The humans were eager to share their opera glasses and excited to pass along knowledge of the seals to my kids. I was jonesing for the girls to learn about seals, too; I had studied this species during a college job at the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago, and the kids had never seen these critters in the wild.

Unfortunately, the girls had other plans. To put it mildly, they are more interested in toe fungus than they were in those seals on that day.

So we improvised. We skipped stones into the oncoming surf. We imitated seagulls as they took flight. Then we wandered around the back side of the beach—the river side—and I let the kids splash around in the shallow and (relatively) slow-moving water.

They were so happy in that water, they didn’t realize how long it took us to walk back to the car, how many pictures I snapped, how much time passed, or how wet they got. In that moment, all my daughters cared about was splishing and splashing and imitating fish and quacking like ducks. The whole way home, the river experience was all they talked about—the shells were cool, but the river-splashing was AWESOME. L insisted on knowing: How come had not taken them there before?

The lesson in all of this is an epiphany I’ve had in these (virtual) pages previously: Sometimes the greatest family travel adventures aren’t as far afield as we think.

To find them, research your area, put in the effort and—on the ground—let your kids lead the way.  No, you might not get to teach them about seals (or whatever seals represent to you), but you might find yourself face-to-face with something even more earth-shattering for them. That’s all that really matters anyway.

What sorts of family travel adventures do you seek close to home?

%d bloggers like this: