Yosemite through the words of my 7-year-old

The journal.

The journal.

Visiting Yosemite National Park has become an annual ritual in this family. We go (usually in spring), we hike, we commune with nature, we take a continuing education class or two, then we come home.

We’ve done this sort of thing just about every year for the last six. For almost all of those years, I was the one who did most of the writing—not only in my journal, but also for my clients, on my computer, both there in the park and here back at home. (I’ve updated a few guidebooks about the park.)

Last year, however, L got in on the action, too. As part of a broader effort to get her to journal, I challenged her to write about our multigenerational experience inside the park when we visited back in April 2016. She took the task very seriously, scribbling copious notes throughout our visit. Before we began, she agreed that at some point I could use her work in an article. That article published yesterday on the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia.

The piece, titled, “Yosemite, daughter-style,” comprises whole snippets from her journal—entire passages that describe slices of Yosemite in her words. I edited the copy only for style and grammar.

In the story I quote her on a wide range of subjects, from the road trip there to shufflepuck, our room at Evergreen Lodge to my father’s wacky way of ordering salad. I also tried to preserve her cadence—this totally unique voice that falls somewhere between innocent and totally irritated; a perfect mix for 7-going-on-17.

The process of flipping through her journal to find these passages gave me a newfound appreciation for everything we experience when we visit Yosemite. I hope her words have the same effect on you.

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.

5 things I’ve learned in 48 hours of multigenerational travel

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Considering how much we Villanos travel, it’s hard to believe this weekend’s trip to Yosemite National Park marks the first time my big girls ever have traveled with one of their grandparents. Perhaps that explains why they’re LOVING having Grandpa Power along for the ride. Perhaps it also explains why I’m getting such a kick out of watching my dad interact with the kids in our typical travel vibe.

Don’t get me wrong—assimilation hasn’t been painless. It takes my father FOREVER to get ready to go anywhere, and I already struggle getting my 6- and 4-year-old prepped for the day on time. Still, for the most part, the experience has been a delight. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

  1. Co-parenting is non-transferable.

When Powerwoman and I are together with the kids, we are equal parents with equal responsibilities for discipline. When one of us is missing, it’s really impossible to have someone else just slide into that role. I learned this the hard way today—I needed my father to talk to L about using hands on her sister, and he did…just not the way I would have liked. I quickly realized I couldn’t blame him. He might be my dad, but he’s no substitute for the girls’ mother.

  1. I am a second-string storyteller to the all-star starter known as Grandpa.

I’ve spent the last six years thinking my stories were the best stories these kids ever have heard. They have demanded the stories everywhere when we travel: in the car on road-trips, in foreign bathrooms, even on hikes. Until this weekend. Over the last two days, whenever the girls have wanted stories, they’ve asked for grandpa. In the car. On trips to the bathroom. And on our hikes. It’s like I’ve been replaced by my mentor. And it hurts! (OK, maybe not really. But still.)

  1. It’s OK to bend rules on vacation.

Generally speaking, I can be a bit of a hard-ass about rules and routines. My dad, on the other hand, is about as loosey-goosey as they come; he never met a rule he didn’t try to bend. Though my instinct on this trip has been to enforce typical edicts such as one sweet a day and pre-bed at 6:45 p.m., I’ve relaxed the rules a bit and can sense the positive repercussions. The kids are happier. They’re listening better. And they’re actually appreciative. WTF?!?

  1. Grandparents make great babysitters on the road, too.

We live close enough to the girls’ grandparents that the kids get to see the old folks on a regular basis. Grampy and Grammy (my parents) and Pop-Pop and Tiki also are fantastic babysitters when Powerwoman and I need to go away or get a date night here and there. So far my dad has been an amazing child-minder at Yosemite, too. He’s overly cautious because of the new surroundings. He communicates well (via text). He even picks up the tab on snacks, just because.

  1. It’s natural to worry about those you love.

I’m used to being concerned about L and R when we’re having adventures all over the world. Here in Yosemite, I’ve got a new family member to be worried about: Dad. Will he twist an ankle on those rocks? Why is it taking him so long to use the bathroom? Can he drink coffee after 4 p.m.? Bandwidth isn’t a problem; I’ve got plenty of agita to go around. Still, it’s been an adjustment to spread the worrying around.

I’m sure I’ll learn another five things in the next 48 hours on this multigenerational trip. IMHO, that’s the beauty of family travel: You always learn something new.

The most family-friendly place near Yosemite

L, exploring a rope bridge.

L, exploring a rope bridge.

If you’re planning to visit Yosemite National Park with kids, you NEED to stay where we’re staying for the weekend: Evergreen Lodge outside of Groveland.

It’s not typical for me to make such bold statements here on this blog, but in the case of this lodge, there’s simply no other way to put it. With multiple play areas, an indoor rec room, two-bedroom cabins, a down-to-earth on-site restaurant, and activities for people of all ages, this place seems like it practically was designed for families.

Perhaps the only downside to this lodge is that it’s not *inside* the park; today it took us about an hour to drive from our cabin to Yosemite Village. Still, considering the beautiful scenery, even that wasn’t too much of a hassle.

The rooms

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I made the reservation. A photographer friend of mine recommended it. I trust this guy implicitly. So I booked without thinking (on Expedia, of course).

I signed up for a “Family cabin,” essentially a two-bedroom suite. The bedrooms sit on either side of a common room. The configuration is perfect for families like ours because it affords us the opportunity to close the barn doors to the kids’ room when us grown-ups are still awake (and reading and/or writing blog posts in the common room).

Décor in the rooms is country and clean. Both bedrooms have fans and wall-heaters, and the common room has ample seating (probably even enough for a family of six or eight).

Oh, and unlike other cabin-oriented lodges, this place has housekeeping service every day.

The eats

There’s only one restaurant on-site at Evergreen, and because the lodge is about 45 minutes from the next closest restaurant, there’s a chance you’ll eat here more than once if you’re a guest. The good news: The place is pretty good, so long as you don’t mind higher-than-usual prices.

The restaurant itself is broken into three different sections. The biggest of the bunch looks and feels like a formal eatery, complete with white walls and hushed voices. You also can get food in the tavern, which has a much more casual, first-come-first-served type of vibe. Finally, the restaurant recently added a back patio. In the summer it’s open air; in the winter or spring, it is enclosed with heat lamps. This is a great place to eat if you plan to let your kids run around the adjacent play area (more on that in a moment).

Food is above average—maybe even a bit healthier and more eclectic than you’ll find elsewhere in Yosemite. Grown-up dishes include a selection of small plates featuring a kale and farro salad, as well as entrees such as lobster risotto and elk burger. The restaurant also offers a pretty extensive kids’ menu, and all portions (including kids) are large, which helps you stomach the jacked-up price points (hey, they have a monopoly out here).

A tip: Skip dessert with/for the kids and take advantage of the nightly s’mores hour, held by the outdoor fireplace from 7-8 p.m.

The activities

One of Evergreen’s strong suits is the activities program, which includes a host of guided trips and excursions into Yosemite National Park and some of the surrounding communities. We won’t be participating in any of these activities this trip because most of the offerings are full-day jaunts and my kids aren’t ready for that kind of commitment yet. Still, I can’t wait to come back when they’re older and give the activities desk a try.

Some of the options that appealed to me:

  • A five-hour drive and hike excursion to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Wapama Falls.
  • An eight-mile round-tripper through Granite Gorge and along the Tuolumne River to Preston Falls.
  • Rafting day trips on either the Tuolumne or Merced rivers.

I also like that the lodge rents bicycles and jogging strollers by the hour, half-day, or day, providing a great resource for families to get out and explore the Evergreen Road back toward 120 or TK road out to Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

(By the way, there are a bunch of free activities, too, such as movie nights, bingo, yoga, and a session during which kids can dissect owl pellets to see what the bird had been eating.)

The family focus

Without question, my favorite thing about this lodge is the way it gets real in its offerings for kids. Whoever designed the place clearly understood that when kids are on vacation, they like to bum around on playgrounds. Proof: There are at least four incredible outdoor play structures, and one unbelievably awesome rec/game room.

My girls are OBSESSED with the outdoor play structures. The one closest to our cabin has a 12-foot-tall rope ladder and an oversized chess board. One down by the registration desk has a rope bridge, a suspension bridge, another rope ladder, and a zipline. A third play structure has a fort and another zipline.

There’s even one for little kids, composed of a sandbox, teepees, and more.

Inside, the rec room is every kid’s dream come true, complete with shufflepuck, giant Connect Four, foosball, and pool. Near the book nook, there also are giant pillows and a Steph Curry-sized stuffed bear.

(We didn’t go in the pool, but the pool area is modern and inviting. There’s even a bar and a cafe there, to keep the grown-ups happy.)

I honestly think that if I didn’t drive my kids into the national park for adventures there, they’d be perfectly happy spending every moment of every waking moment here at the lodge. As a family travel writer, I safely can say there’s no bigger compliment than that. Which is precisely why we’ll be back.

Which are your favorite places to stay in Yosemite National Park and why?

They hate bugs

All week, people have asked me why we’re not camping during our upcoming trip to Yosemite National Park (or at least staying at the klatch of tent cabins formerly known as Curry Village). The answer is simple: My girls hate bugs.

I mean, they REALLY hate bugs. And their antipathy takes very different forms.

For R, it’s all terror, all the time. We’ve had a spate of mosquitoes here in Northern California, and whenever she sees one she runs in the other direction shrieking like a banshee. L, on the other hand, is curious and disgusted at the same time. She’ll touch caterpillars and moths and spiders, but as soon as the critters take an interest in HER, she freaks, too, usually throwing or striking the bug before running away.

Over the course of day-to-day life here in a house, these behaviors range from mildly irritating to oddly humorous. Can you imagine how crazy the entomophobia would be in a tent?

I can close my eyes and picture it. DADDY A GNAT! Dad! There is a bee flying around. Kill it! Kill it or I’m sleeping in the car. OHMYGOD DAD THAT MOSQUITO IS GOING TO KILL ME AND GIVE ME HEART CANCER.

(Yes, R is obsessed with/worried about “heart cancer.”)

Needless to say, I’d be crazy to force myself to deal with this paranoia in a confined space. I’d also have to be pretty inconsiderate; my campground or tent village neighbors would hate us in minutes.

For these reasons, we’ve reserved a two-bedroom family cabin at Evergreen Lodge outside the park in Groveland. We booked it on Expedia, of course. And we’re excited for four days and three nights of bug-free living so we can get good sleep and embrace all the park has to offer. (We can do the tent-and-bugs thing in the backyard or local park when we get home.)

Different take on a family trip to Yosemite

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

T-minus four days until I take L, R, and Grandpa Power on a multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park, and everyone over here is getting pretty excited for the excursion. L is excited to have a reason to miss school. R keeps talking about hiking to waterfalls. The two of them also have been totally geeking out about the plein air painting class we’re signed up to take.

My father – a.k.a. Grandpa Power – is pretty stoked, too. This trip will mark the first time my girls have been on vacation with any of their grandparents.

I guarantee nobody is as excited about the trip as I am. As part of my assignment for the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, I’m going to give all three of my traveling companions Moleskine journals and encourage them record their own impressions of the trip. They can write or draw, whichever they prefer. And when the trip is done, I’ll go through their journals and pick the best passages for inclusion in a separate post.

Something about this different take on family travel has me nearly BURSTING AT THE SEAMS. I’m trying desperately to keep this plan a secret from the girls but couldn’t help myself from telling my father in an email tonight. Hopefully the three of them will appreciate and enjoy it as much as I know I will.

I’ve spent years chronicling family travel from my own POV. It’ll be a treat to get different perspectives.

Planning adventures for Yosemite 2016

We'll be learning from the man who painted this

A Steve Curl original (from his site)

The family trip to Yosemite National Park has become a bit of an annual tradition around these parts, and I’m in the process of lining up specifics for this year’s adventure. This year, however, there’ll be some major changes:

  1. Powerwoman and Baby G are heading to Denver, so instead L, R, and I are taking my dad (who we’ll refer to as GRANDPA POWER), making this year’s trip a multigenerational one.
  2. Because of the ridiculous name changes inside the park (for more on that, click here), we decided to stay outside the park this time, in a two-bedroom family cabin at the Evergreen Lodge in Groveland.

The four of us also have signed up for a half-day art class—a workshop in watercolors. I was hesitant to sign up L and R for a five-hour class, but considering how much both of them love art, I figured I’d give it a try. The instructor, Steve Curl, seems pretty laid back, and we can pull the plug whenever the kids are ready. (I’m guessing that will be around noon, since that’s usually when they get hungry).

In addition to the art class, we plan to do some waterfall-spotting, lots of rock-tossing into the Merced, and lots of hiking. The girls also have been fantasizing about a return to the pizza deck at (the spot formerly known as) Curry Village.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write about the adventure for Expedia. My coverage will comprise part of the company’s #ExpediaLovesParks campaign to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. It also will be featured on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, a site for which I serve as senior editor.

You’ll hear more about our trip between now and when we go in April. Of course I’ll blog daily when we’re there, too. In the meantime, what family-friendly activities have you enjoyed in national parks?

The ultimate vehicle for family road trips

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

My name is Matt Villano, and I drive a minivan. A Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And I’m proud of it.

I know what you’re thinking: WHAT A TOTAL LOSER. And you’re entitled to your opinion. The truth, however, is that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. What’s more, I actually kinda sorta love my new wheels. So there.

No, dear readers, minivans aren’t pretty. They’re not cool. Even after Toyota tried to brand its version as the “Swagger Wagon,” they’re not even remotely stylish. But I never was a form-over-function kind of guy. Minivans actually are the ultimate in function-over-form. And when you’ve got a wife and three kids and you take a lot of road trips, all you ever really care about is function, anyway.

Let me repeat that for you, just to make sure there’s no miscommunication here: MY NEW MINIVAN IS AWESOME FOR FAMILY TRAVEL.

Allow me to count the ways:

  1. It came with seats for eight human beings. EIGHT HUMAN BEINGS. That means our family of five has room to spread out. Hell, I took out the center seat in the second row to let L access the back of the van more easily and there’s still room for seven. (ICYW, no, we are not having more kids.)
  2. It has SEVEN cup holders (nine if you include the two that were part of the seat I removed). This means there are plenty of places for Powerwoman and me to put our coffees/water bottles, and plenty of places for L and R to store their plastic gems and other treasures they collect along the way.
  3. It has three-zone climate control. This rules because I doze off behind the wheel if I’m too cold. With this feature, the girls can be all warm and toasty (at different temperatures, mind you), and I can be chilling (literally) behind the wheel.
  4. Even with the third row of seats, there is ample trunk space. This is good news for our family, since the girls like to take a bunch of crap stuff when we road-trip.
  5. It has cool back-up and side-view cameras. I don’t really use these things, but they are great tools to call into action when L and R are melting down or fighting (or both). You can almost picture how this goes. HEY KIDS, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER AND CHECK OUT HOW COOL THE SHOULDER LOOKS THROUGH THE SIDE-VIEW CAMERA! It actually works!

These five faves barely scratch the surface. Another reason I love the new van is because it reminds me of the first car I ever had—oddly that also was a minivan, though I removed all but the third row of seats so I could make out with girls in high school and college. (Definitely another story for a different blog.)

Admittedly, our new van isn’t for everyone. Most people likely would have sprung for the model with the built-in TV screens in the back; we, because of our stance on screen time, did not. Most people in the Bay Area probably would have opted to spend a little extra money for an oversized SUV (such as the Chevy Tahoe or Suburban) with four-wheel drive; we, because we only go to the mountains once a winter, did not.

(Also, if you care about things such as gas mileage, the van’s is pretty terrible.)

Still, this vehicle is PERFECT for family road trips, and we intend to take it on a bunch. Already, in the van’s short life with us (we’ve had it for fewer than 1,000 miles to this point), we’ve taken it to the beach (60 minutes away), the city (75 minutes away), and the remote country (90 minutes away). Next spring, we’ll take it to Yosemite. Next summer, it might even make the drive to Disneyland.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds called their lovable station wagon the Family Truckster. I think we’ll start calling ours the Family Vanster, or F.V., for short. Make fun of us all you want. We’ll be laughing from our comfortable ride all the way home.

What are some of your favorite vehicles for family travel?

Growing green kids

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Petting a mossy rock in Yosemite.

My wife and I like to think we’re growing green kids in this family. That doesn’t mean we’re raising aliens. It also doesn’t mean we’re trying to keep them as innocent as possible. It means we’re bringing up our girls to appreciate every aspect of the environment in which they live.

Most of the time, this is a quiet quest. We have them pick up trash. We encourage them to conserve water. We go for hikes and teach them how to distinguish between a black oak and a live oak.

Sometimes, however, we make our commitment public.

That was the thinking behind my latest piece for Alaska Beyond, the (recently) rebranded in-flight magazine from Alaska Airlines. The story is a personal essay about our drive to raise our kids to be mindful of the environment. In the piece, I recount some experiences we had during our April 2014 trip to Yosemite National Park. The headline says it all: “Growing Green Kids.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember posts from (or about) that trip. This essay starts with an anecdote I haven’t told anywhere—a recollection of the night L and I almost bumped into a bobcat on the prowl for dinner.

From there, the piece waxes philosophical, but not overwhelmingly so. I won’t spoil the message here, but instead invite you read the piece. If it resonates with you, please share it with others.

The only way we’re going to preserve our environment is to get our kids excited about doing so. That challenge starts with us.

Preparing for an ‘Expert Roundtable’

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve spoken in front of standing-room only crowds of journalists, packed lecture halls of marine biologists, and giant auditoriums of car salesmen (really; don’t ask). None of these gigs has given me as much pride as the engagement I’ve got lined up for Wednesday morning: I’m the featured speaker for the “Expert Roundtable” in L’s kindergarten class.

The gig is part of a monthly series during which parents come into the classroom and chat with students about what they do and the tools they use to do their jobs right.

The last speaker was a veterinarian. I’m chatting about being a journalist.

Because I can’t bring kittens (let’s face it: A vet is a tough act to follow), I’ll be bringing newspapers, magazines, keyboards and steno pads for the kids to touch and feel and share and (in the case of the pads) keep.

Beyond that, my plan is simple: I’ll chat a bit about what kinds of stories I tell, explain how I collect information for my stories, have the kids interview each other (for a sense of what that’s all about), then I’ll share the process through which I put the stories together. (HINT: The process involves bowls of pretzels and M&Ms.)

I’ll conclude with some examples—a retrospective of some of the most fun stuff I’ve done over the years. Naturally, because I specialize in family travel (and because family travel comprises the bulk of what I’ve written since L was born), I’ll share a bunch of anecdotes about that.

Like that piece about the time L and I traveled to Beverly Hills so she could sketch haute couture. And the piece about the time we crossed the Thames River, in London, in an underwater tunnel. I’ll share a story from our family trip to Yosemite this past spring, and the piece from last month, about R’s birthday walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll also share my favorite anecdotes from the month we spent living in Hawaii—the ones about the goats that jumped on the picnic table, and about the time when Blue the horse stuck her white fuzzy nose in through the car window and nuzzled my kids.

I might even show them some of the stuff I reported on our August trip to Walt Disney World Resort.

No, I’m not expecting more than half of the kids to pay attention. And I’ll be happy if one or two (beside L and her BFFs) even remember my name. But maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will hear my stories about my life telling stories and be inspired to become a journalist herself (or, I guess, himself). The mere chance of that is reason enough to do it. Which is precisely why I’m so stoked.

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