Water therapy
I have fond memories of boating from my childhood. As a grade schooler I spent several summer vacations down in the hills of southern Kentucky’s Laurel Lake camping and boating with my cousins on their family boat. Dad bought a used boat for our family when I was in middle school – the Galaxy. It was generally just my dad and us two girls out on the water, and neither she nor I could drive a truck or a boat. So, Dad taught us how to be real good at holding on very tightly to the dock from aboard our vessel! We made it work as a family-of-three, and it was something we all three looked forward to on the weekends. Our trips along the Ohio River or on local lakes were good family time, despite the distress our household would be under. A few hours on the water took us away from reality for a bit. I discovered at a young age that “out there,” we could all just breathe.
When I was married just a few years and living down in Florida with my husband, Dad bought his first brand new boat. He purchased an 18 foot outboard Crownline bow-rider after the annual Cincinnati Travel Sport & Boat Show. It came complete with a matching trailer – forest green and cream, with gold Crownline trim. Dad enjoyed a few summers out on her. He took my nephew Gabe and my sister down to Dale Hallow, TN a time or two. Not long after that, he moved into a house with a massive in-ground pool. Couple that pool in the backyard with his aching back, and The Crownline got next to no good use after the first few. So, in 2013 when he decided he would sell it, we were first in line.
In our land-locked Ohio, if you don’t have a boat, you’re only enjoying water a time or two a year during family vacations. Our young boys were both now functional humans, and very competent swimmers (thanks to both sets of grandparents and their “Keeta” having swimming pools). In fact, at now four and seven years old, they were at the perfect age to enjoy this new “toy” with their mommy and daddy. But, more than anything, our household needed that fresh breath of air I knew owning a boat would bring us. We were in the midst of emerging from the depths of a nearly drowning marriage, Chris was in the midst of a career crisis, and I was feeling the demons of my past eating away at my heart and soul with each passing day. Our family needed this boat…for all the right reasons. And, lucky for us, “Papa” agreed to cut us a great deal. The Crownline would soon find its new home in July of 2013. And, later that year, she was appropriately named the Good Time’ing, after thoughtful consideration regarding the impact our “vessel” had on the whole household those first few months we owned her.
The Murray family in 2013 (our first summer with the Good Time'ing).

It’s always been quite clear to me the peace I feel “out there”, but it’s not ever been obvious as to exactly why until our last “sailing” of 2015. One of the most somber days of the year for Chris and I is the last voyage on the Good Time’ing before winterizing her for the long cold months ahead. That sunny Sunday in mid-October, just the two of us set out for Eastfork State Park’s William H. Harsha Lake, which is only about 20 minutes from our house. As we drove our truck over the dam with the boat in tow, Chris smashed on the brakes and pointed over towards the spillway, and we both just sat there stunned at the beauty of the water flowing out of the towering hill below us, with the fall leaves in the distance set under the crisp blue sky. After taking it all in, we headed along to the dock to dip his princess into the water for the last time before Old Man Winter would show his decrepitness, deeming our standing date with the water null for the rest of the year until Springtime of the next.
The Eastfork State Park spillway in October 2015.

Thanks to a very hectic September and early October, we hadn’t been on the Good Time’ing in nearly six weeks until that day. Due to yet another frenzied weekend of errands and places to be with the boys, our plan after mass that day was to just be out there for a brief hour or so, run some stabilizer through her engine, and head on in, as the boys needed to be picked up from their Gram’s for evening plans up at school. But, once out on the water, time got away from us (we seem to have this chronic issue – poor time management aboard the Good Time’ing).  He cranked up a little James Taylor (Greatest Hits vol. 1, of course), pulled us each out an ice cold Not Your Father’s Rootbeer (a pleasant surprise), and off we sailed.
It’s at this point, with nearly no one else on that body of water but us on such a beautiful fall day, that I truly considered exactly what was so appealing about being “out there. That’s when it hit me – boating calms us in a way nothing else in this world seems to do (well, other than being seaside, but when you live in the Midwest, this is the next-best-thing). Boating engages us with the natural beauty our God put in this world for us to enjoy in a far different way than by land. It lets our busy family-of-four “escape” together for just a bit on a regular basis from April – October. It sets our minds free. The Good Time’ing truly engages all our senses simultaneously to create a euphoric experience that only being on the water can deliver.
Aboard the Good Time’ing, we have a completely different perspective on the world around us. We seem just a tad bit smaller when we’re “out there” on the majestic waterways of our big world. And, no matter how old you are, it’s fantastic to feel “small” sometimes. Feeling small humbles us. It demonstrates humility and appreciation to us, which is impactful no matter your age. Being “small” teaches us to look at the world like a child does…like God wants us to view this beautiful Earth HE gave us. Case in point, when we’re floating down the Ohio River into downtown Cincinnati, there’s something very powerful yet humbling about sailing under the bridges that my Toyota Highlander has traveled time and time again heading into or out of The Queen City for work-related functions or to the other side of town. By water, we see our hometown from a whole new perspective…our city looks so pristine and vibrant, and so out-of-reach, which is very surreal. It’s a much different perspective than the average pedestrian experiences traveling 65 mph over the Big Mac Bridge on I-471 North into downtown, or up Interstate 75 North out of Northern Kentucky along the infamous Cut-in-the-Hill into our great city (albeit, the view of downtown Cincinnati along that stretch of I-75 North out of Northern Kentucky is pretty spectacular to those who don’t get to experience it on a regular basis).
Approaching the bridges of downtown Cincinnati on the Ohio River.
We slowly boat between the bridges, seeing all the passersby on the water’s edge taking in the city’s riverside parks, and the people passing above us by-foot over the Purple People Bridge, and although these are likely pleasurable experiences for those individuals, we can’t help but feel sorry for them compared to the sights we are taking in from the water. And, not in a bad way – we know how fortunate we are to have our Good Time’ing. She’s not a brand-spanking new vessel with all the bells and whistles, but she’s pretty darn beautiful – complete with a freshly-groomed paint job of forest green trim, a pretty impressive sound system that Chris installed with the help of his BFF / fellow “captain” this past winter (with a sub that is comparable to a large mailbox!), and a fantastic 18” swim platform we had installed two seasons ago that I greatly enjoy (as do our little deckhands and all their little water-loving buddies).
There’s no downtown hustle and bustle aboard the Good Time’ing – just the sights of our great city we have the blessing to experience from a place that feels so near to its center, yet so far away from all of it at the very same time. We feel so removed from the city aboard our boat, yet able to reach out and touch Great American Ballpark or Paul Brown Stadium if we so desired, and it feels so peaceful.
Downtown Cincinnati on a beautiful early September day in 2015 from  my seat on the Good Time'ing.
Tantalizing my senses aboard the Good Time’ing
Indelible footprints have been stamped on my mind from the comfort of my seat aboard the Good Time’ing. “Out there”, we’re up close and personal to nature the very way God intended. To be able to observe the beauty of fall that takes hold of the Midwest with captivating color from the belly of the Ohio River Valley is remarkable. Then, there was that baby deer we witnessed cross one of the widest sections of Eastfork Lake before our very eyes last summer. In fact, we followed the struggling creature in the event we would have to pull him aboard should he start to sink. “How are you going to pull him into the boat?” Connor asked. “Won’t he be scared, Mommy?!” pleaded Owen. Chris and I were confident his mommy had crossed this same path moments earlier, or he wouldn’t be doing the same. That little baby made it all the way across the lake, with the Good Time’ing only feet behind him, and surely his motivation to “just keep swimming, swimming, swimming”…just like Nemo.
On this same lake every fall, we get to observe the resurrection of the duck huts along the shoreline – tucked up in between the trees in a way that eludes the hunted, and captivates humans.  I have lived in Clermont County most of my life, and visited this lake numerous times, but not until our frequent fall visits aboard the Good Time’ing was I ever aware of this seasonal calling for avid duck hunters of our county. I learned that for smaller bodies of water, such as Eastfork, a mixed spread hut that looks natural is a great way to lure in both ducks and geese. They are erected every fall for just a few weeks, and I find it rather amusing every season to look for them along the water’s edge, and wonder what kind of secrets they hold within.
Thanks to our adventures aboard the Good Time’ing, we witness one another swinging like Tarzan from the man-made rope hung from a multi-story tree during our frequent visits up river to The Manchester Islands every summer. The walk along the riverbank just beyond where we anchor up, conjures up memories of Coastal Georgia, with its drooping deciduous trees into the water below, and lush roots grabbing my toes as I walk along its banks. The brown sand my boys and all their little buddies frolic in mimics that of the Atlantic coastline, albeit the occasional pile of geese poo and prickly Midwest weeds quickly bring my thoughts back to reality! The Islands are the closest we get to “paradise” in Southwestern Ohio, but at least we have the opportunity to experience that little taste a few times each summer aboard the Good Time’ing.


The Manchester Islands in Southeast OH remind us of Coastal Georgia.

Being the “spotter” on our boat as my boys bounce from wave-to-wave like ragdolls from our tube is a sight to behold! “Go past the wake, Daddy! Go past the wake,” they always scream from the large blue and yellow donut, because they like that feeling of freely gliding at lightning speed over the smooth glass-like water that the lake beyond the wake holds for them.  It’s been fun to teach them how to “master” the tube. Quite the tuber myself back in my grade-school days, I felt it appropriate I be the one to school my children (and all the other little “deckhands”) how to ride the waves. I would take each of them one-at-a-time out for rides. We would hop up on the tube and I’d pull them close, with my left arm tightly around their back so I could grab the opposing side handle while tightly gripping the handle closest to me with my right arm. I taught them how to lean out of it as the boat begins to pull the tube up and out of the water. Once we’re coasting above the waves, it’s important to stay a bit behind the center of the tube to give it a good balance. We bit the dust a time or two, which was a good lesson on what “not to do.” I showed all of them my “mommy moves” that summer on the tube…and quite possibly lengthened each arm a good inch or two! But, now both my boys, and all our fellow boaters’ children (who range in age from fourth grade down to kindergarten) have all been schooled by Mrs. Murray on how to ride the waves. And, now that’s all they want to so when we’re “out there!”
"Look mom, no hands!"

I’d be remised to leave out those captivating sunsets we witness on a regular basis “out there.” They seem to set the water on fire from our vantage point – be it on the lake or the Great Ohio. There’s no better way to end a long day in the sun than to observe its rendezvous with the horizon, until the earth wins and the sun bows to its power with a beautiful wave of color. The reflection on the water can take your breath away. The view from the Good Time’ing never grows old. It’s like “eye candy” that feeds the soul.
A beautiful Eastfork Lake sunset in May of 2015. 
We find solace “out there”
Surrounded by a plethora of festive fall colors that October day out on Eastfork Lake, I realized that being able to remove myself from reality for just a bit of time on a regular basis allows my mind’s eye to view my vast world from a different perspective than most get the opportunity to partake. What my eyes take in brings a subtle peace-of-mind that being on land just can’t provide me. It’s my perspective, and it’s beautiful.
Our routine to get “out there” goes a little something like this – Chris backs us into the water with mommy at the helm of his princess. Once fully engulfed by the water, I start her up, drop the trim to about half, and put the Good Time’ing in reverse. I tool around the no wake zone waiting for him to go park the truck. I can literally feel my blood pressure drop the moment the boat hits the water. It’s the sights. It’s the sounds. Being submerged right into the center of nature is very humbling and liberating all at the same time.
Sometimes the boys are with me for this process, but more recently, they’ve taken a liking to helping their daddy get the boat into the water from land. I drop her into reverse, leaving them on the boat ramp. And, away I sail. It’s during those quiet first few minutes “out there” that I tend to take it all in. These few short moments by myself on my boat strike me as soulful. I cruise at no more than a few miles per hour (sometimes I even just drop it into neutral and sit there quiet in the moment) waiting for my captain and our deckhands to make their way towards the dock where I can go retrieve them. On my way in, I’ll pop in one of our favorite tracks – generally either something from James Taylor, Bob Marley or Kenny Chesney …a soothing mix of southern soul. They all hope on board, and we re-jokey ourselves around – usually the boys are up front in the bow and me in my “first mate seat.” We make our way through the no wake and out into the open water, and The Captain kicks it into high gear.  We’re cruisin’ now.
The Good Time’ing generally always has good tunes cranking, because my three guys love their music. But, sometimes, we just turn it off, and that’s when the symphony of natural noises greet our surroundings for an outstanding peace only being “out there” can provide. I could fall fast asleep to the hum of our motor gliding over the water – especially when we are out on the Great Ohio when it’s a bit choppy. From the bow, waves splash up against the boat in a rhythm that mimics my breath. I close my eyes and take it all in…and it feels just as fantastic as sitting in a short beach chair along the Florida or Carolina coast. I take in the sights and the sounds with much gratitude, because I know I’m pretty darn lucky to be able to experience this on a regular basis with my family. And, for a brief few minutes, everyone on the boat is quiet. I close my eyes and enjoy how the sun on my skin warms me to the core. I open my eyes to notice the shoreline around me and I feel so small, yet on top of the world all at the same time.
The peace-of-mind found on the Good Time’ing keeps our family in-tune with one another on a very different level than we experience on land. From April through October each year, we have the opportunity to escape to our “happy place” sometimes once or twice a week. We make it a priority, because we know the peace it brings us. The quality time together “out there” is something we crave in the off season.  All is well with our world when we’re “out there.” The worries and the troubles of our lives seem to be cast away, even if it’s just for a few hours.
The Murray Family might not have regular “family game nights”, or frequent dinners together at the family table, but during boating season, we get plenty of family time together on the water that keeps us bonded as a family. Sure, we bicker within the tight quarters of that 18 foot space at times…we are a family, and that’s what families do! But, I can say with absolute confidence, there’s no other boat our boys would rather be aboard each summer than the Good Time’ing.  They have taught us that they truly enjoy the company of their very own parents (and even one another) more than even the company of our friends with new boats, or their buddies who show up on their parents’ boats. Those boys of ours feel most comfortable and secure onboard the boat that’s raised them these last few years, and that makes me smile, albeit it gets a little stifling at times! Our time spent on the water is often ridden with sibling rivalry over whose turn it is to sit at the very tip of the bow is. Incessant pleading for food, food and more food by our little deckhands keeps this first mate on her toes, and on edge! And, regular squabbles over who knocked who off the tube and into the water occur quite frequently, often evoking a response from the captain that mimics the frustrated Sid Hansen of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch directing a crew of immature greenhorns on Alaska’s Behring Sea. But, the quiet calm in between the storms is more prevalent than the latter, and it’s the reason all four of us seek the refuge of the Good Time’ing.
Captain Chris and his little deckhands at Lake Cumberland, KY in 2014.
 “Out there” we have found an unspoken comfort that only Mother Nature can provide. The peace is one that “surpasses all understanding.” It’s real, and it’s comforting, and it’s what brings us back time and time again…season after season. And, this solace we find “out there” is something that keeps our family close and connected. The moments shared aboard the Good Time’ing bring the greatest peace to this family-of-four…far greater than any peace we find when our land legs have grown back under us. That is, until one of the little deckhands realizes that there’s no music playing on our vessel's radio. Darn it...there goes mommy’s quiet time!
The Mountains: God's Natural Amusement Park
I love adventure. But, I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of amusement parks. Even for those with a season pass, they drain your wallet dry, completely exhaust you, and inevitably leave this mother-of-two with a lingering headache that never fades until I lay my head down on my soft pillow that night.

Cincinnati is home to one of the Midwest's most popular amusement parks - Paramount's Kings Island. The park is home to The Beast - the longest wooden coaster in the world, and the longest roller coaster in the continental United States. There have been plenty of new coasters and other rides for adventure-seekers in recent years; however, my boys don't have any lasting memories from this local landmark yet, because I can think of far more lasting ways to spend a buck! I could pack them up in the car and drive down to Tennessee for a day or two and be in the heart of The Great Smoky Mountains for less money than it costs for a family-of-four to visit Kings Island for the day.

Granted, the amusement park was a fantastic place to spend the day as a kid. I recall many summers spent there in my "tween" years, gallivanting around the park with my seventh and eighth grade friends all day long. We would ride coaster-after-coaster, and then venture over to the water park side to beat the heat during the afternoons. But, now that I'm nearing 40, I would much rather spend my off days and weekends during the summer on the bow of my boat floating on the water somewhere in the sun than standing in a two our line in the blazing heat. I promised my boys I'd take them to Kings Island next summer. Sufficed to say, Daddy's gonna need to take that day off - mama doesn't do rides that spin!

Now, Disney has the amusement park gig down to a science, or more like an art. And, no matter your age, one can appreciate the "magic" a vacation to meet Mickey brings the entire family. We took the boys there on a seven-night family vacation with their Keeta and Gram in tow in 2013. We did it all - Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, MGM Studios...and each night all four adults lathered our aching joints with Bengay! Disney was beautifully-exhausting. And, I'd be a liar if I said I'm glad we don't have to go back and get sprinkled with magic pixie dust anytime soon, for as impressive as this iconic place truly is, Chris and I would rather be beyond the noise and chaos these parks bring. And at the end of the day, we are raising two boys that would rather be partaking in God's great natural wonders as well.

Our boys with their daddy in Disney's Epcot Center in 2013.
This became evident to me on a getaway down to Gatlinburg, Tennessee back in February of 2014. Gatlinburg is known as a gateway to the roughly 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prime attractions of this town are the 407-ft. Space Needle observation tower and the Sky Lift, a 2.1-mile aerial cable car that journeys from Downtown to the popular amusement park and ski resort Ober Gatlinburg. We had planned to take the boys to experience all of these sights that winter with my sister and her clan. Although this would be one of several getaways down to The Smokies that Chris and I had experienced in recent years, our boys would be first-timers. A part of me was anxious to see what they preferred - The Strip or the wonders of this natural playground.
We rented a cabin right outside of Gatlinburg in the town called Pigeon Forge, complete with a third floor gaming room and a theatre room in the basement. The six kids had eyes the size of quarters when we first arrived at our mountain retreat - complete with pop-a-shot, a pool table, several full-size arcade games, a hot tub and bunk beds made out of solid wood to match the interior design of the multi-story cabin. Those kids would have been content just staying there at the cabin for the four-day getaway! However, once they took in that crisp mountain air during our first hike along a mountain stream, they got a sense of what it's like to be in God's Country.
We spent one afternoon meandering along The Strip in downtown Gatlinburg, and settled into lunch at the infamous Dick's Last Resort. Those were the first and only few hours we visited The Strip that entire getaway. The weather was mild and allowed us several days of outdoor activities that cost us next to nothing - just pure, natural fun. The streams were full with the winter's melted snow, and the kids enjoyed the natural bridges they could cross over these, and rock-after-rock they could cast as far as the eye could see. During the winter, the absence of leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. The kids learned so much just by exploring.
On our last full day, we had planned to drive up to Clingman's Dome - a popular Smoky Mountain destination that intersects with The Appalachian Trail. At 6,643 feet, Clingman's Dome is the highest point in Tennessee's Great Smoky National Park, and the second highest point east of the Mississippi. It's located along the stateline ridge of Tennessee and North Carolina. The peak is accessible after driving Clingman's Dome Rode from Newfound Gap, and then walking a relatively steep half-mile trail. We thought it would be neat for the kids to at least experience a mountain peak, since half of them were still too young to actually hike a multi-mile trek up a mountain. 
We were prepared for the short hike we would take from the car to the peak with the children. We packed their snowsuits, boots and gloves. However, after getting about halfway up the mountain by-car, we were stopped dead in our tracks by the winter's snowfall, only halfway to our destination. So, we stopped the cars in the middle of the two-way road, unloaded the kids, bundled them up in their cold weather gear, and set them free to enjoy the snow of the mountain. We spent more than two hours soaking in the natural sites and sounds of a snow-covered Smoky Mountain National Park. We scaled a few small peaks that overlooked stunning vistas below. We had a few fun snowball fights, and built a large snowman. Most of all, we gave our children memories to last a lifetime with their cousins that February deep in the mountains of east Tennessee.
What made me most excited about this experience was that our boys had the chance to get just a small taste of what they knew mommy and daddy did whenever we went down to The Smokies. They've heard of us hiking Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in The Smoky Mountains. Measured from its immediate base to its highest point, Mt.LeConte can be considered the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, rising 5,301 feet from its base near Gatlinburg. At its highest elevation at Cliff Tops, Mt. LeConte is 6,593 feet in elevation. Now, they had their own stories of just how much fun you can have in the great outdoors.

Chris high atop Mt. LeConte's "Cliff Tops" in Tennessee

Although the coast will always be our first choice when we leave the confines of land-locked Ohio, the mountains bring us a sense of tranquility that is hard to beat anywhere else on the face of the earth; and, hiking them, a sense of unadulterated accomplishment. Author Cheryl Strayed depicted this most profoundly in her recent best seller-turned motion picture Wild. Strayed chronicled her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as her "journey to self-discovery." And no matter if it's a day-long hike up to the Cliff Tops of Mt. LeConte in Tennessee, a several-mile hike around Grand Lake in Colorado, or a journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, the healing sense of adventure that hiking brings can not be given its rightful explanation with words or pictures. It's a soul-cleanser and a natural healer. It puts things into perspective with a quickness. The troubles of our heart and soul tend to be left behind with each passing step, and we become grateful for this beautiful earth we've been given to enjoy.

Hiking around Grand Lake, CO in 2012.
Mountain hiking is a lot like a roller coaster, albeit much more invigorating, far more cathartic, and a lot less expensive! Upon embarking from a trailhead, a hiker heads slowly up the hill...sometimes stopping to take in what's around him. Little-by-little, sea level gets further and further from our grasp. We begin to get anxious, because the view from up here is quite beautiful, yet what awaits us at the peak and upon the other side as we descend is something we have yet to experience, and it's mysterious, scary and fun all in the same breath. As we reach our plateau, we are able to stop and take it all in, and it's here that the pinnacle of the adventure is actually felt. There's beauty in where we've been - in what we've ascended up and out of, and all becomes still. It's almost as if life actually stops for a brief while. Then, we hang on tight for our descent, which is generally harder on our bodies, but not so much on our souls, as we let ourselves go. We know where we've been and where we'll eventually end up.
It never ceases to amaze me how one's mindset changes just as the great earth around us takes a different shape as we hike - it's literally transforming. We start along the mountain's small rivers and streams, but soon hike up and away from them - the sound of their gushing water disappearing further and further into the distance like the sun as it sets. The hiker begins to forget what's going on in his life as the mystic of the mountain pulls him in. He ascends further up the crackly path, and the fog pulls him in and out of its grasp, almost as if the earth has swallowed him for just a brief moment. All life's worries fade away with that fog as the hiker continues a little higher and back up and out of the cloudy haze a few more times.
Then, the vegetation begins to take on a new shape as well. The plants and trees become more sparse and thinner, the berries look different, and the greenery becomes less abundant...that is until you may happen to come upon an evergreen forest like the one along the Alum Cave Trail about a mile from the summit of Mt. LeConte. The beauty of the scent stops you in your tracks - unlike anything Yankee could ever capture in a glass jar. If I could bottle the scent of that part of the trail, I could make millions!
The breathtaking beauty of mountain hiking brings a cleansing of the body, mind and soul. There's nothing more amazing than standing at the peak of a mountain after hours of ascending it as a large cumulous cloud comes towards you. As it gets closer, your heart begins to pound, and you get a bit anxious. Yet as it overtakes you, it's very surreal. And for a moment, you are literally engulfed by a moist, hazy blanket. It's misty, and clean, and more refreshing than you could ever imagine...exactly what you need after a long, strenuous hike up several thousand feet of mountain terrain. It passes through you and you feel energized in a way you never knew existed. It's invigorating.
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
In 2012 we had the chance to visit Rocky Mountain National Park to partake in some hiking and sightseeing for a few days after one of my business trips. We were already down in Colorado Springs for work, so our first stop would be Pike's Peak. We would then venture to the Garden of the Gods, Winter Park, Grand Lake and partake in the stunning Rocky Mountain National Park Scenic Highway.
When we arrived at the station of the Broadmor Pikes Peak Cog Railway in Manitou Springs, CO we weren't sure what to expect. We couldn't see the top of the mountain from the ground level, as it was engulfed by black clouds. The ticket taker at the station said there was a pretty good storm up there and the temperature was dropping drastically. We could literally see the lightening up on the mountain, and were a bit leery of boarding the mountain train that would take us to the peak. The cog rail train would scour the side of this 14,100-foot tall mountain with us onboard, and I would by lying if I said I wasn't a tad bit apprehensive. What the heck was a "cog rail", anyway? We soon learned conventional railroads use the friction of wheels upon the rails, called "adhesion," to provide locomotive power. A cog, or rack, railroad uses a gear, or cog wheel, to mesh into a special center rack rail to climb much steeper grades than those possible with a standard adhesion railroad.
The opposing cog train would carry passengers past us and back down the track.

The trip up the mountain spans nearly nine miles of track, carrying its passengers through a vast transition of vegetation, landscape and wildlife. The last 3 miles of the trip are all above the timberline. To the east are the Great Plains out beyond the border of Colorado and Kansas. To the south, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Range stretches south to New Mexico. On the western horizon, just slightly to the southwest, lies the Collegiate Range. To the southwest, at the base of Pikes Peak, sit the old mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Once upon the summit, if the weather is clear (and there is not much Denver smog), you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Denver. The clouds were pretty thick the day of our trip, so we missed the skyline view, but it was still stunning - almost as if we had arrived on another planet when we reached the top. We were only allowed about 40 minutes on the top of Pikes Peak, as most people begin to feel the effects of high altitude (slight nausea, headache) after about 30 minutes. The air was certainly far thinner and the temperature was amazingly cold up there at more than 14,000 feet above sea level - talk about a breath of fresh air!
It's hard to believe it was 80 degrees when we left from Manitou Springs on this warm day in early-August.

It's said The Garden of the Gods' formations were created during a geological upheaval along a natural fault line millions of years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that prehistoric people visited Garden of the Gods about 1330 BC. At about 250 BC, Native American people camped in the park, and it's believed they were attracted to wildlife and plant life in the area and used the park's many overhangs created by the rocks for shelter. The park's many trails welcome tourists, rock climbers and hikers alike. We had the pleasure of visiting this breathtaking attraction in between our days of mountain hiking. It was pretty amazing, and somewhat surreal being in a place like this...almost as if those Native American souls were still lingering among the rock formations, tantalizing visitors with an inner sense of peace.
Taking a break from the mountains at the Garden of the Gods.

The mountain town of Winter Park would be our home base for the rest of our trip through Rocky Mountain National Park. The resort is home to more than 3,000 acres of ski trails and is a bustling tourist attraction during the fall and winter months. The summer is far more quiet and serene. Winter Park is approximately 9,100-12,060 feet above sea level, and is considered sub-alpine country. It is completely snow-covered for about six months a year. We would spend three days hiking some of the country's most beautiful landscapes, using this winter ski resort town as our "ground zero."

Winter Park is bustling with skiers in the fall and winter months, yet is very serene in the summer.

Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles encompass and protect stunning mountain environments. It was hard to believe that most trailheads in this park begin at an altitude of 7,800 feet (which was higher than the highest mountain peak we were used to climbing in The Smokies!). Trail Ridge Road, also know as Highway 34, is 48 miles long, and connects Grand Lake on the western slope to Estes Park on the east side. It's the highest continuous paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of 12,183. As we meandered along this stretch of two-lane road, that's said to follow the path that the Ute and other Native American peoples used for thousands of years, and up through the mountain ridge that included many expansive overlooks, my otherwise fearless chauffeur was transformed into a white-knuckled nervous wreck as tour busses came past us at the road's highest peaks! 

Trail Ridge Road travels through forests, above the tree line, over the alpine tundra, and crosses the Continental Divide before winding its way down to the town of Grand Lake. There are numerous trails, short hikes and scenic pull-off spots. The entire trip crosses about 50 miles of Rocky Mountain scenery and can take anywhere from 2 hours of non-stop driving to an all day trip. Just west of the high point is Fall River Pass, at an elevation of 11,796 feet, and the Alpine Visitor Center. It's here that we saw many elk, deer and bighorn sheep down along the high country ridge from the deck of the Visitor Center.
Chris standing atop a ridge along one of the trails leading out of Grand Lake.
Our hikes over the course of those few days included several miles in and around Grand Lake where we experienced some of the most tranquil, fresh water mountain streams and waterfalls ever felt on our skin. They seemed to exude a eucalyptus-like freshness on our faces and tired feet. On these trails we came across a red fox that we feared may actually chase us up a tree! There was the peacefulness of watching the horns of a huge elk bob up and down through the trees in a field not far from our trail as he grazed on an afternoon snack. And, although Ohio is home to more deer than we like to admit, it's more gratifying seeing these graceful creatures along the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park than it is to encounter them alongside the road bounding towards your car in Midwest suburbia! We hiked along the Continental Divide at Milner Pass at an elevation of 10,120 feet where the little marmots peered out of the rocks they called home upon hearing our footsteps on their turf. There's a sanctifying feeling that embraces your whole being when you are camouflaged into the habitat of wild animals in their natural-born setting.
After a few days up in Rocky Mountain National Park, I felt lighter. Perhaps it was the Rocky Mountain air, but that's doubtful. There's something to be said about letting ourselves be one with the world around us. It humbles us as humans, and it brings us down a few notches. It's here that we realize we really are just a finite piece of God's beautiful creation. When we can let the cool mountain air fill our lungs for a few days and just exhale, it's in this place that we can let go.
I am blessed to be able to head out to Colorado for work once or twice a year, and I can't help but get a little giddy, because I know what awaits me. Whether it's just a couple of hours spent at Red Rocks, or a few days hiking the mountain trails, it doesn't take me long to remember this land truly is God's Country. Yet, I know Chris and I are only a few hour's drive from Smoky Mountain National Park where vistas that are equally as beautiful are at our fingertips. I hope to someday introduce our boys to the freeing of mind, body and soul that a long hike through the mountains can bring. And, I'm confident when they experience it for the first time the reward of what's at the top will lure them back time and time again - the crisp air in their lungs, the stunning landscapes all around them, the fatigue of their muscles that hurts so good. That invigorating sense of peace that exudes from the mountains brings a contentment that reaches far beyond the plateaus of their favorite roller coasters. They got a small taste of that beauty during their Smoky Mountain adventure with their cousins in 2013. And, once you get a taste of that natural high that can only be found in God's great creations, it's hard to let it go, for that peace can transform us from the inside out...if we let it.

Gone to Carolina in My Mind
Hundreds of miles of white sandy beaches – some home to wild roaming corolla horses, others to quaint beachside rental homes connected to one another by boardwalk trails through protected sea oats and sand dunes.  Historic lighthouses with stories just as mysterious as the occupants that once called them home. Piers that have been battered with torrential east coast hurricanes yet captivate visitors with some of the most memorable views of their entire vacation. A state park right across the street from the Atlantic Ocean accommodating enormous white dunes stretching as far as the eye can see some so large visitors can hang glide off their peaks.  Each summer, families flock from all over the country to experience North Carolina’s Outer Banks, better known to regulars as OBX. And the most prized souvenir each carry back home with them is not the t-shirt from Super WINGS® or the 16 ounce pint glass from Barefoot Bernie’s Tropical Bar & Grill, but rather the unique memories this breathtaking Carolina coastline offers .

The ferry ride from Cape Hatteras through Pamlico Sound to Ocrakoke Island left the most indelible print of OBX in the mind of my five-year-old.  During peak season, four car ferries run the half-hour-long jaunt between the two docks.  Although the wait to drive your car up onto the vessel can be up to two hours long in the busy summer season, the Village of Cape Hatteras is steps away offering a small pier and shopping to keep the kids entertained until it’s your car’s turn.  And the wait is well worth it. The ocean waters are sparkling through The Sound, especially on a sunny day, making the free ride over to the Outer Banks’ southernmost tip an unforgettable experience for adults and kids alike.

Once on Ocrakoke Island, visitors are captivated by its flat and expansive, white beaches that never get very hot. The kids can play for hours-on-end in waves that aren’t quite as rough as those on the northern islands of the Outer Banks. And when the family is ready for a break from the sand and sun, Howard’s Pub offers large servings of food for hungry adults (with souvenir beer cups for Dad) and kids meals that are served on Frisbee keepsakes. You can’t miss the place, as there’s only one road that stretches the length of the entire island. Look for Howard’s on the right before getting into the heart of town.  Just be sure to get to Ocrakoke’s dock to catch the last ferry off the island by 7 in the evening. The ride back to Hatteras in the evening is a delight with people fishing off the sand bars and other boats at sea. Just keep your fingers crossed that the leisure boats stay out of your ferry’s water lane, or prepare the kiddos for a real loud ferry horn!

My three-year-old found contentment in some of life's simpler pleasures in the Outer Banks, like blowing bubbles on Ocrakoke Beach and off the deck of our condo.  He also took delight in the “crazy crab” we found on Nags Head Beach, who hitchhiked his way back to our condo deck on one of our Tonka dump trucks. He also enjoyed hunting for shells with his daddy and big brother once the tide receded in the evenings – and we had a grocery bag full of them to prove it.

It’s my husband and I; however, that love OBX for the simplest of reasons. It’s the meandering boarded walkways through sand dunes and protected marshlands.  It’s the laid back way of life that locals and visitors alike seem to possess, from the Carolina fisherman on Nags Head Pier to the mom walking hand-in-hand with her kids on the beach.  It’s that quintessential coastal attitude James Taylor sung about that we completely comprehend, as we often find ourselves throughout the year going to Carolina in our mind. It’s that place where reality meets a particular type of paradise, for it has a little bit of both, but not too much of either. No gated resort communities. No Robert Trent golf courses. No swim-up bars. Just hundreds of miles of raw, quiet, coastal splendor.

From Corolla and the Southern Shores all the way down to Cape Hatteras and Ocrakoke Island, the Outer Banks offer its visitors something uniquely memorable, no matter how many times they may visit. With so much natural beauty wrapped around just a tiny hint of tacky tourism (for those that must have the OBX bumper stickers and the family-friendly put-put courses), this unspoiled American coastline leaves little left to be desired for every member of the family.
 My husband and son enjoying Ocracoke Island's natural beauty.

"The Best things in Life are the People we Love, the Places we've been, and the Memories we've made along the way."
It may have taken us a little while to get back on our feet after our little Jacksonville hiatus, but now life was taking shape just as I had always hoped. I had the husband. I had the career. I had the house. I had the extensive list of fantastic destinations Chris and I had experienced in the recent five years. But, nothing would have been able to prepare me for what God had in store.

I’m a planner, and 2005 would be no exception. After settling into the new home we built in 2004, we would start working on that family my mother so longed for me to commence, and we would celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary. I began planning our celebratory getaway in the fall of 2004 shortly after we not only purchased our timeshare, but moved into our new home. We were set to make our way to the beautiful Dreams Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico - our first all-inclusive vacation.

Just as one life passes form this earth, another comes to be. And, so it was in our family that year with the passing of my mother, and the conception of my son just a few weeks later in Las Vegas, Nevada. Being pregnant while morning the loss of a parent is nothing short of an emotional train wreck. During the first few months of my pregnancy, we kept the news to ourselves, but it was tough to do. My emotions were all over the board. I was ecstatic one moment, and sobbing profusely the next. Every time thoughts of my mother entered my mind I would do my best to shelve them, as I knew being an emotional hot mess during pregnancy would not be healthy for the baby.

All the penned up emotion and memories manifested themselves in my dreams. I would wake up on a drenched pillow of tears. Mom was so real in my dreams that I could smell her – the scent of her White Diamonds perfume, mixed with the scents of the deli she ran at our local Bigg’s grocer. In one dream, she lie on the ground in the middle of Bigg’s dying. I couldn’t help her…just like I couldn’t in the hospital those four agonizing days. And, all I could hear was Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” blaring loudly from the grocery store's loud speaker. 

During this first trimester of pregnancy, I would initially wake up from dreams that into a semi-conscious haze where I would sware she was with me. But, upon awaking into reality, I would be so unbearably grief-stricken and lonely that I could barely get out of bed and go to work some mornings. I lived such a dichotomous whirlwind during those few months - my heart felt so full of life for the child who was developing inside my womb, yet so empty all at the same time for the life that had just left me - the very life whose womb I once existed.

By the time the spring came that year, my heart and soul longed for the warmth of the sun. Cabo was only a few months away, and I thought about it often. I couldn't wait to get away from the new world I lived in  - the world without a mom. I was pregnant, and about to become a mom, and yet I had no mom to share these experiences with. She would have received a little baby bonnet that Easter Sunday of 2005 like the rest of the new "grandparents" did when we announced my pregnancy to the family. I would called her when my morning sickness was in full swing to pick her brain about how the first few months of her pregnancies were, because that's something a daughter never really thinks to ask her mother until she's going through it herself. And, I would have asked her "was that my baby finally moving inside me" that early summer night when I was nearly five months pregnant and was lying on my couch watching TV when Connor inflicted his first recognizeable kick inside my womb. 

We stayed along the “The Resort Corridor” - the 20-mile stretch that connects Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. It would be our first all-inclusive getaway, complete with a swim-up bar, fully-stocked villa that overlooked the ocean, and plenty of exploration. But, there would be no Banana Monkeys at the swim-up bar for me…only lots of bottled water!  I'm very proud to say I snorkeled several sites off the coast of Cabo with a child nearly six months in utero! We visited the arch of Cabo San Lucas, also known to locals as El Arco - a distinctive rock formation at the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas, which is itself the extreme southern end of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula. It is here that the Pacific Ocean becomes the Gulf of California.
Six months pregnant on the beach of El Arco.

We ventured to downtown Cabo several times to visit the authentic Mexican village, its markets and The Marina, which is actually more the heart of it all than the town square. The Marina at Puerto Los Cabos is known as "the getaway to the Sea of Cortez" and the world's finest sportfishing grounds. I tried to talk Chris into booking himself a day trip out to the deep blue sea to wet some lines, but he opted instead for a half-day quad trip out into the dessert, while I enjoyed some quiet time at our beautiful resort.

The next few months came and went, and I grew a whopping 50 pounds heavier during my pregnancy. I was put on bedrest a few weeks before Connor’s birth, because I began to exhibit signs of pre-eclampsia. Despite being very active during my pregnancy, I was still my mother’s daughter, and I carried my firstborn in the same manner she carried me - retaining water and enduring an elevated blood pressure, both of which I believe led to a more difficult labor.

Connor entered the world on November 13, 2005 after 23 hours of labor that ended in a c-section, and a very scary delivery. I was finally able to hold my new, strong-willed baby about 12 hours after his birth.  And, he was beautiful. But, I would be lying if I said the next few months were a joyous first encounter with motherhood. In fact, the often seemed to be everything but that...for our entire household. My new baby's tummy was very sensitive from the meconium he ingested during labor, leading to colic. He didn’t sleep, nor did I.  And, he wasn’t happy, nor was I.  Before long, exhaustion led to depression. Couple these two with the grief that I warded off during pregnancy, and you have a recipe for disaster. My spirit quickly faded, as did my peace of mind. 

But, it wasn’t supposed to be like this I used to repeat to myself as I would tirelessly bounce with him on my exercise ball in the middle of the night for hours-on-end. I was supposed to be full of joy and in endless love with my baby. Instead, I was anxiety-ridden, and full of tears on any given day. Don’t get me wrong, I savored my time with Connor. He was healthy, and smart, and strong, and was nearly the only thing that made me smile and laugh during that time in my life, but it was a far cry from what I had longed for as a new mom. My joy was all but stolen during a time I had looked forward to experiencing for many, many years.  I was a new mom…who was grieving the loss of her own mother… …and, it was a struggle…each and every day was a struggle.

The devil had managed to steal my happiness and replace my heart with lies telling me I had been denied so much – from my mother dying, to my baby’s scary delivery, to the struggles my marriage was enduring. Instead of being thankful for what I DID have, my heart and soul were fueled with lies. My prayers became fewer, my Bible reading obsolete, and we spent very little time in church as a family…everything seemed like a hassle in life. I didn’t recognize the devil’s hold for what is was…for I couldn’t get out of my own way long enough to realize he had me just where he wanted me.  I felt sad and alone and stopped calling out to the Lord for help. But…he was always right there. Psalm 139:7-10 “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or, where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven you are there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

Slowly, but surely life got a little easier as Connor grew past that first year mark. I began re-connecting with my husband little-by-little, and slowly got a little bit of me back each day.  I began to truly have that special time with my son that I longed so much to experience. During this time, I became a stay-at-home mom. For how long we could sustain on one income, we weren’t sure…finances would only tell. All I knew was that I didn’t want anyone else raising my baby. I didn’t want to miss any more than I’d already missed out on.  Then, about six months later I was pregnant again.

This time would be different, I promised myself. I knew what to expect, the c-section would be scheduled and my husband and I would get to have “that moment” with our new baby this time.  Not to add, I had done a lot of soul searching, reconciling with the past, and some heavy grieving. I was getting right with myself for the first time in a long time, and was finally enjoying being a mom. 
And then…it hit me again. And this time, it was a truck that literally blindsided me and ran me over.

My precious Owen Christopher, born June 15, 2008, although not colicky, had bad acid reflux that eventually had to be medically treated, and was another inconsistent sleeper. The juggling act of two young boys, coupled with very little sleep, several back-to-back infections, and a husband that seemed to “need” more from me than he’d ever needed before, threw me right back into a post-partum tailspin I wasn’t prepared to experience. I missed my mom desperately.

The devil had moved back in and planted himself right in my living room, where he would make himself quite at home for several years. During those years I did my best to fight the monotony that every day seemed to bring. I missed adult interaction. I missed my husband and our little getaways together. But more than anything, I missed my mom. I missed what we never had. I missed what we could have been. I called out for her through my tears day-after-day just wishing she’d walk through my front door, give me a huge hug, and take these two boys off my hands so I could sleep!

After quite some time of post-partum struggle, I began recognizing that although this balancing act of caring for two young boys was tougher than I imagined it could be, the Lord’s strength was is even stronger. I began to nurture my heart and soul by way of scripture and prayer more than I had in quite some time. I began to outwardly denounce the devil in my life, and for the first time, recognize how strong his power can truly be. I prayed for forgiveness on a daily basis, and it was freeing. Eventually, I slowly began to feel the dark clouds permanently lift for the first time in the years after mom’s passing. I was finally getting it together. It may have taken several years, but I was getting there.

Our first vacation as a family of four was to Hilton Head, SC in July of 2009. Chris and I had taken Connor to the Outer Banks in 2007, and fell in love with the tranquil coastline The Carolinas are known. I'm not sure what we were expecting Hilton Head to be, but we both were pleasantly surprised by the non-commercialized state of the island. Our boys had expansive beaches to run and play. There was no commercialized "strip" or rows of restaurants and souvenir shops. It was a quiet beach community...it was just what we needed after the last eighteen months of family-of-four living. 

Our close neighbor friends happened to have their annual trip to HHI scheduled for the same week as us in 2009, so we were able to get to know the island even better, thanks to their guidance. "The Head" is a second home for The Kash Family, who visits sometimes two or three times a year. It was comforting having one of my best "mom" friends there during our vacation. We visited one another's condos, hung out at the beach together, and they even volunteered to watch the boys the night of our nine-year anniversary so we could venture out to the South Beach area of the island alone for a waterside dinner and a stop at The Salty Dog.

It was fantastic to be back on the coast, and this time not just with my husband, but our two boys. In between the births of Connor and Owen, we had ventured to St. Martin and the Outer Banks with just Connor in tow. It initially took us some adjusting to get used to traveling with just one extra body. In fact, our journey to St. Martin ended after just a few days, because mommy wasn’t happy with the construction-worn accommodations. And, when mama-bear feels in the least bit threatened, she will do all she can to get her baby home safe and sound! And, that’s just what we did. In retrospect, we probably could have stayed and been perfectly fine, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how vulnerable I felt to be in another country where not many people spoke my language and a baby who was only six months old. St. Martin was when I first realized my sense of security had changed drastically with the birth of my first.

Traveling was certainly a little more strenuous with the addition of a second. There was the strollers, and the Pack ‘n Play, and the bins of toys we hauled to occupy them in the condo during the day and evenings when we would be in for some rest. But, I wouldn’t trade those vacations with my young boys for anything in this world, albeit I missed my vacations with just my sweetie.
I will never forget the first time Connor sat on the beach. His Daddy’s arm was wrapped tightly around him on the St. Martin shoreline. He ate sand just like his mama did at that same age in Jacksonville. And, although we left the island after only three days, I look back now and am so very thankful for the adventure. Or, in 2009 when Owen experienced sheer bliss rolling around in the tidal pools of Hilton Head with his pacifier tightly lodge in his mouth. On that same vacation to Hilton Head, Connor pulled the fire alarm in our condo complex. I must admit, we felt a tiny bit bad that we “fled the scene” and were nonchalantly pulling out the resort entrance as the fire trucks were pulling in. But, we laughed all the way to the restaurant! And, that’s the stuff that will fill our boys’ hearts with pleasure one day, just as mine feels every time I think back on our family vacations growing up that often always had some sort of dramatic event associated with them. Like the time mom locked our keys in the car at the top of Lookout Mountain, TN. Or, the wretched Motel 6 with the green pool somewhere between Tennessee and Florida that we stayed at to save a buck! Or, the time when Dad attempted a pop-a-wheelie in a bike park we visited in Holland and not only busted his rump and tore his jeans, but bent up the rented bike (Uncle Klaas was NOT happy with him!). In the words of St. Augustine “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Chris and Connor in St. Martin on the beach for the first time together in 2006.

Traveling as a family was our new “norm,” and we were blessed, but it was our family vacation to Hilton Head in 2009 that inspired my heart to seek out something special for Chris and I for the following year. Since our seven-night, all-inclusive Cabo getaway nearly five years prior, we had become a family, complete with two beautiful boys that were the center of our lives, perhaps to a fault at times. We had certainly lost touch with one another during that period of time that also included the intense grief the loss of a parent brings to an entire household. We needed some time away, and a re-birth of our relationship. 
Puerto Vallarta is a Mexican beach resort city situated on the Pacific Ocean's Bahía de Banderas, about half-way down the country's west coast. Its proximity to the Bay of Banderas, the agricultural valley of the Ameca River, and the important mining centers in the Sierra Mountains, have given the town a more interesting past than most Mexican tourist destinations (Puerto Vallarta was a thriving Mexican village long before it became an international tourist destination). This would be our first weeklong hiatus without any little ones in tow since Cabo, and we were more-than-excited to take on this adventure. Sure, we had made our way down to Tennessee and hiked Mt. LeConte a year or two earlier by ourselves, but that was just a few days away, and only a couple hundred miles from home. This, on the other hand, would be a real journey. We were leaving the country, and our little ones behind.
Puerto Vallarta accomplished for us what travel has always done – it gave us a much-needed sense of peace. We hadn’t slowed down for a breath of fresh air in over five years, and it felt good to just breathe. Not to mention, we got to be who we were as a couple – that couple that enjoyed a little fun and adventure together. We took some ATVs up into the Sierra Madre Mountains for a half-day trail ride and zip-lined our way back down like a bunch of young twenty-something’s.
Touring through the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains in 2010.
We basked in the sun for days on end, and played beach volleyball like we were a bunch of competitive teenagers. We enjoyed quiet, stress-free meals together. We took long walks on the beach. We even escaped to the rooftop of our resort one evening to partake in an amazing Banderas Bay sunset (and when I say rooftop, I mean the very top of a multi-story resort where the heating and cooling units are housed…like the one the guys found their long-lost buddy blazing in the Vegas sun on in The Hangover).
Puerto Vallarta was an anniversary trip of a lifetime, yet there was something lingering in the forefront of my conscience that had been bothering me more than I wanted to acknowledge to Chris, although I couldn't quite put my finger on it right away. A few days into the trip, I began to wonder if so much had changed between us that even our love for travel couldn’t make it all quite right any longer (and travel was always our cure-all in the past). Then, on our last day in paradise, moments before our vow renewal, Chris mentioned that "something didn't feel quite right all week." He voiced his sadness over having left the kids behind. And that’s when it hit me. That’s exactly what left us both unsettled to the core that entire week, despite the unadulterated fun we had experienced together. For as much as we needed “our time” to heal and re-connect, our boys were now half of what makes up “us".  Of course traveling as a couple wasn’t what it used to be – half of “us” was missing.
 Our Little Vegas Souvenir
“You can’t plan for everything, Melanie!” she barked at me a year and a half earlier. During those four days between her initial brain hemorrhage, and the day we let her go, those words kept echoing over and over in my mind. I had been so angry with her for saying that to me. Who did she think she was? The one person in my life who barely planned for anything…who just floated through life with a blasé perspective…with no particular place to go…with no big plans. Who did she think she was telling me I can’t plan for everything? That’s how Chris and I achieved so much in our twenties – by good planning! Yet, there I was, on the carpeted kitchen floor of my dead grandparents’ home, in tears over the fact that Chris and I were already back home from our hiatus in Florida long before we had planned.

We had high aspirations for Jacksonville. And, we had finally made it in 2003 after selling our home and leaving good jobs, all in the name of being free. The previous few years had brought much angst and drama in our lives – his father’s death and the aftermath it left in his life, my father’s revelation, my sister’s destructive path with an individual who was clearly not in his right mind, and her consequential pregnancy at 19. There was drama all around us, and we just wanted to be free of all the negativity. 

Jacksonville Beach in 2003 when we lived there.
The coast always brought peace-of-mind. We wanted a new start – a start that included sun and sand year round, no more nasty Midwest winters, and palm trees out our kitchen window. We had planned this move, and it was a new start for us…and not even six months later there I sat, a 26-year-old in tears on the kitchen floor, being scolded like a little brat by my mother. She knew God had a plan for bringing us back so soon, but I was angry.

The words of my eternal-optimist-of-a-mother kept echoing in my mind as I watched her fade further and further from us over those four days. I knew she had become frustrated with my rigid style of living – that everything in my life had a plan. She had been begging us for a grandchild for nearly four years. But, I wasn’t ready. The mistakes her and my father made had left an indelible print on my mind of the life I would NOT live. Chris and I would get married and establish our lives first. We would travel to some of God’s great landscapes, and grow in our faith together, as we prepared a “perfect” life for our someday child.  And, then she was gone. My 48-year-old mother, who was a bill of health on the outside, left this great earth to be with Jesus.  She would never get to meet my babies. She would never get to see me be a mom. We would never be moms together.

But, what about Vegas? I kept asking myself amongst all the pain and grief. I think I was using it as a way to take my mind off how bad my heart ached – if even for just a short while. The surprise trip was something Chris didn’t know about – a little getaway I had planned with some friends of ours to celebrate his 30th birthday in a big way. Mom knew about the trip, as did all our family. We were set to leave not even 10 days after her passing, and I was so frustrated with how life had taken this pain-staking twist.

Our family and friends were right – she would have wanted us to go. And, travel after all, was our great escape from the troubles of our lives. Although, Vegas seemed to be the last place one would go to find a peace-of-mind, there was the spa at Mandalay Bay, and Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead where I’d find a little slice of fresh air beyond the intensity of The Strip. I was thankful we followed the advice of our family and friends, and inevitably the wishes of my mother – not to worry, but to just go.

On the flight home I remember thinking about what a sense of humor our God has, and that HE is inevitably the only one in control. This was supposed to be a fun little getaway to celebrate my husband’s unofficial passing into “adulthood.” It would be much different than most our quiet seaside vacations or mountain getaways. We were, after all, headed to Sin City. I didn’t know what to expect, and that brought me a bit of anxiety, but the trip had ended up being exactly what we needed…exhausting, but exactly what we needed – a few days away from reality.

Chris and I marveled over the Hoover Dam, and the roller coaster at the top of The Stratosphere! The sights and sounds of The Vegas Strip are certainly a sight to behold, and something everyone should experience in their lifetime, even if you aren’t a “gambler.” We would take a few hundred bucks to gamble away on Black Jack and the slots, and made a pact that once the gambling money was gone, it was gone! We were content just people watching up and down The Strip...there was so much to see. From the beautiful fountains of The Bellagio to the adventure of New York, New York, and Paris. Every corner brought something new and spectacular to take in. It was exciting, and intense, and exhausting all at the same time!

The Murray's on The Strip.

We hit some shows, including our first Cirque de Soleil performance, and we ate A LOT! While the guys headed out to the dessert for a daylong quad trip, my friend and I would hit the spa at Mandalay Bay one day during our getaway - my body, heart and soul were completely depleted and this would be just what the doctor ordered. The eucalyptus of the sauna brought me the first breath of fresh air in weeks.  

The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead were beautiful sites we visited not far from the Vegas Strip.

Those four days went by quickly. And, although I was ready to go home after those four lengthy days, I was dreadful of the reality that would meet us back home – my new life without mom. Little did I realize mom got up to heaven and got busy making her own plans for me. She had a plan in mind for me in Vegas that would help take my mind off of my grief of losing her upon my return. Her plan was exactly what she had wanted for me, and now she had the chance to do something about it! Just three weeks after our return (and six weeks after her passing), I discovered I was pregnant with our first child. Connor would be our permanent Vegas souvenir, and a lasting gift from my mother, for I am confident their souls passed in heaven. He will always know his “MeeMa” had a plan for him, just as his God does.  Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”




Beyond the Cancun Strip:
Home to One of the Seven Wonders of the World
When one thinks of taking a trip to Cancun, thoughts of college Spring Break and bar hopping come to mind. It’s a shame that the beauty of the region isn’t glamorized as much as The Strip itself, because the Yucatan is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, ranking with neighboring Peru’s Machu Picchu, Brazil’s Christ Redeemer, China’s Great Wall, Rome’s Collesseum, Indian’s Taj Mahal, and Petra in Jordan.
Only one month after September 11, 2001, we hopped on a plane to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  A little shaken traveling so soon after the tragedy, our minds were at ease as we were greeted in Cancun by a half dozen Mexican boys playing soccer on the tarmac. We quickly knew our trip would be one full of pleasant surprises.
We stayed in the heart of the Cancun Strip with our good friends, who invited us to visit their timeshare with them at The Royal Sands Resort. Don’t get me wrong, the accommodations were spectacular, and included all-inclusive amenities, a swim-up bar, theme-nights, and much more.
Upon our arrival, we soon made the decision to spend our seven-day vacation alternating days between the spectacular resort and its breathtaking beaches, and the sites to behold of the Yucatan region. During the resort’s Sunday morning Meet & Greet, we booked our activities for the week, which would include a visit to the ecological park, XCaret, and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
Just an hour south of Cancun is the Riviera Maya, which was just beginning to blossom as a tourist destination when we visited the area. Better known to many back then as the place cruise ships stopped in the Yucatan, Playa-del-Carmen, the region sits across the Caribbean Sea from Cozumel. And right in the heart of the Riviera Maya and Playa-del-Carmen is X-Caret, a destination known for its underground rivers, stunning beaches and lagoons, tropical jungle trails, wildlife and much more.
We ate lunch under a large tiki hut overlooking the ocean. In the distance we could vaguely make out the shadows from the island of Cozumel. After snorkeling in a scenic lagoon a large manatee called home, we headed to the Cenote, also known as the sacred waters of the Riviera Maya, for a cold snorkeling adventure in a river that snaked underneath's the earth's surface. We meandered through dark tunnels of water, through an ancient Mayan amphitheatre, and ended our underground water tour above ground being welcomed by a flock of flamingos. Cave diving is a chilling experience, but an amazing one nonetheless.
Two days later was our trip to Chichen Itza, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site built by the Maya civilization located in the northern center of the Yucatan Peninsula. The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings are connected by a dense network of formerly paved roads. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, the Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court.
Dominating the center of Chichén is the Temple of Kukulkan, often referred to as "El Castillo" (the castle). This step pyramid has a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent – Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl – along the west side of the north staircase. On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun's movement to the serpent's head at the base. We were simply amazed by this structure. Something like this would be considered a work of great art, if constructed today, let alone two thousand years prior. When standing at its base, the shear planning involved in such a structure, is absolutley mind-boggling.
The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. Additionally, archaeologists have identified several courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichén, but the Great Ball Court about 150 meters (490 ft) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest ball court in ancient Meso-America.
We not only had the opportunity to climb to the top of "El Castillo," but were able to step foot into both The Temple of Warriors and The Great Ball Court during our visit to Chichen Itza – one of the most amazing destinations either of us have ever visited. It wasn’t surprising to us when the site of Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, six year later.
Chichen Itza, also known as “at the mouth of the Itza well”, is a Mayan City that was established before the period of Christopher Colombus, and probably served as the religion center of Yucatan for a while. Today, it is the second most visited site of Mexico, and the single most dominant reason to visit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
At the base of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Kukulkan Pyramid.


A Shark in The Keys
We ventured to the Florida Keys in July of 2001 to celebrate our first year of wedded bliss. We sought sun, sand and surf, not expecting to come home with stories of snorkeling with a shark!

Key Largo, FL is a quiet little island, located about 90 minutes from Miami. It’s the first of many Keys off the southern coast of The Sunshine State. There’s not much to do there, aside for relax and partake in numerous water activities. And that was exactly what we intended to do for the first three days of our vacation, before heading down to legendary Key West to celebrate the sunset and do “The Duval Crawl” for the rest of the week.

After getting checked in to the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort, we concocted a plan for our three-night stay that included parasailing, jet skiing and a snorkeling trip out to America’s only living coral reef, the John Pennekamp State Park. We read about the park before we left Cincinnati. Encompassing 70 square miles of coral reef formations, just off the coast of Key Largo, its visitors travel through tall sea grass beds and mangrove swamps by small boat, to reach this beautiful underwater world.

Among Pennekamp’s highlights is the nine-foot bronze statue of Jesus Christ that rests gracefully in 20 feet of water at the Key Largo Dry Rocks site. The statue is a replica of the “Christ of the Abyss” statue in the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounding the “Christ of the Deep” statue are large brain, staghorn and elkhorn coral formations and a photographer-friendly four-foot barracuda. We were anxious to experience these underwater sites, but more so to discover the sea life of the reef. It was home to countless species of fish and varieties of coral providing shelter for crabs, sea urchins, snails, lobsters, shrimp, moray eels, starfish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, barnacles, sponges and others.

2001 was the summer of the shark in Florida. We watched countless news stories from land-locked Cincinnati for two months before leaving on vacation Aerial footage showed them swimming right off the coast in various tourist towns across the state. I vaguely remember the images shot just weeks before we left off the Gulf Coast of Florida that showed what appeared to be hundreds of hammerhead shark swimming eerily close to shore. But we weren’t about to let it deter us from hopping in the ocean trip to the Florida Keys. Surely the licensed divers and tour guides would not dump us off in shark-infested waters.

Three days into our vacation was our reef expedition. We scheduled an afternoon dive that would take us to two different ship wrecks that were located several miles out to sea. We ate a big breakfast, spent the morning at the pool of our resort, packed our bags and were at the dock awaiting our water taxi at 1:00 p.m.

The trip out to the first shipwreck was breathtaking. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day, making for beautiful turquoise waters that just shimmered, and roasted us like lobsters in the process. We meandered through the sea grass and mangroves and into the open sea. And slowly the land disappeared behind us. Then the boat, carrying approximately a dozen divers and snorkelers, stopped in the middle of the wide open sea. We were directed to put on all our equipment and have at it. We needed to be back at the boat in an hour. Bear in mind, this was our very first time snorkeling. Shouldn’t we receive some sort of direction, other than “have at it?”

We slowly swam through the calm open waters of The Atlantic, holding hands at first, because I must admit, I was a bit scared. What we saw below us was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was captivated by the beautiful coral and colorful fish. And I knew my other half was basking in this experience. Before too long, he had left me and was off doing his own thing, at times, utilizing only his mask as he dove deep into the waters to get a closer look at the coral and its inhabitants. I opted to remain atop the water’s surface.

About a half hour into the dive I brought my head up out of the water to give my poor roasted neck and shoulders a break from the beating rays of the sun. Just then I hear Chris yelling from about 15 or 20 feet away, “Look down! Look down! There’s a shark down there heading your way!” My first inclination was to run, but where in the world was I going to go?! I surely couldn’t walk on the water back to the boat that was now a good ways off in the distance. So I stuck my face back down under the water just in time to see what appeared to be about a 10-foot-long shark swimming on the ocean floor beneath me. I froze…as if that was going to prevent him from seeing me! And off he swam into the distance. Never to be seen by us again.

Chris was in seventh-heaven, having just experienced something on our first snorkeling adventure that most never get to witness that have been doing this for many years. I, on the other hand, was in shock. And looking back, maybe the shock was the real reason for the seasickness that overcame me on the ride back in (granted, it may have been the four hours in the beating hot summer sun of Florida with nothing in my gut but swallowed sea water). But the glory my husband basked in for the rest of our vacation made my miserable evening well worth it!

Back at the boat, one of the instructors (who was also one of just a few in the group that saw the shark swim beneath us) informed us that what we saw was a nurse shark – an otherwise timid sea creature that is very predominant in this particular reef. He explained that they were harmless to humans and spent most days in hiding, as they were nocternal, and their nights hovering close to the ocean floor hunting for prey like sea snakes and smaller fish. However, I still wasn’t convinced it couldn’t have mauled my leg off if it wanted to. It was a shark, for crying out loud!

We left for Key West the next day. I was glad to be feeling better from the nausea that overtook me the rest of the evening after our adventure out to sea the day before. To say the least, my land legs were ready to rent some bikes and enjoy the rest of our trip in Key West above the water. I was perfectly content peddling a bike on land around the colorful island known for its eclectic people, colorful art and vibrant bars, even if I did have to listen to my husband’s personal rendition of the native Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” for the rest of our vacation.
Snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in The Florida Keys.
Standing alongside the most famous landmark in Key West.
The Honeymoon Fog
Ten years after embarking upon an eight-day journey down the central coast of California’s scenic Highway 1, the one indelible imprint on my mind of our West Coast honeymoon adventure was all the fog.

I researched this vacation for nearly six months. We would fly in and out of San Francisco, seeing everything from the Golden Gate to the cliffs of Big Sur. For the first few days in Santa Cruz, we would sun bathe poolside by day and partake in the seaside amusement park and entertainment in the evenings. Then, we’d venture down to the quaint city of Carmel, which was marketed as one of the country’s sunniest towns, for some shopping and site seeing on Ocean Avenue. We would spend a day or two in Monterey visiting the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row, and another day or so winding through the Big Sur Mountains, before enjoying our last day back in San Fran touring the city by foot.

I guess it should have occurred to me that the climate may be a bit nippy when every hotel and bed & breakfast I booked along our tour route housed a gas fireplace in the suite. Then again, I was a young, naïve 23-year-old traveler and just mistook it for a romantic addition to our stay. Little did I realize we would utilize our fireplaces on more than one occasion on our West Coast vacation. Who would have thought? It’s early August in sun-kissed California, for crying out loud!

In gorgeous Santa Cruz, known for its infamous boardwalk, we spent a lot of time dodging the fog. It moved out by about noon and back in by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so we at least enjoyed a few hours of warm sunlight poolside. In Carmel, we never once saw blue skies for the two days we visited, and to say the least, our fireplace was switched on both nights because the fog kept the air temp hovering in the upper 50’s during the day – yikes!. Monterey was much like Santa Cruz – the fog pulled out to sea around noon, only to return by late afternoon. And when it left the mainland, it literally hung like a grey wall within eye’s view, allowing us the opportunity to witness its gloomy return to the coastline in slow motion. Much to our dismay, San Francisco was blanketed by the summer fog as well. Although, once we crossed the Golden Gate and ascended up the hill to overlook The Bay Area, blue skies peaked their way out of the fog just long enough for us to get some great pictures.
Me in Sausalito, Calif. overlooking The Bay & Golden Gate Bridge.
The pinnacle of our foggy honeymoon adventure was Big Sur. Upon entering the mountains, we stumbled upon a private beach just at its base, right at the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. We pulled the rental car off the side of Highway 1 to take some pictures of the stunning coastline and discovered a trail that appeared to lead down the side of the hill to the ocean. Being the adventure-seekers that we are, we decided to follow the path. It took us through some vegetation and trees and opened up to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever stepped foot on (so, I’m hesitant to disclose its exact location, for fear that it might get overtaken by sun-seeking tourists from the Midwest, like ourselves). “Murray State Beach” (as we coined our favorite honeymoon site) is located right where Bixby Creek Gorge dumps into the mighty Pacific, offering breathtaking views of the coastline, the ocean, the mountains and the concrete arches of the bridge.

We unintentionally spent two days basking in the approximate three hours of sun this gorgeous beach received each day before getting swallowed by Father Fog. Apparently even the sea life liked that beach, because one of the days we were there, a seal beached itself for an hour or so of sun and sand. It appeared he needed some Vitamin D just as much as we did!
Discovering the path that led to our private beach off California's Highway 1.
Bixby Creek Bridge over the The Gorge, emptying into the Pacific at the base of the Big Sur Mountains.

The hubby atop one of the tall rocks on "Murray State Beach".
The seal in need of some Vitamin D.
Cruising the Bahamas in the early 2000's.
Our Royal Caribbean ship pulled in The Port of Nassau in the Bahamas.
Chris loves our days at sea during a cruise.
Snorkeling in The Bahamas.
Blue Lagoon Island in The Bahamas - the island where Gilligan's Island was filmed

Florida & Coastal Georgia: 2003-2004
Kayaking in The Atlantic off the coast of Jacksonville.

 Coastal Georgia is home to peaceful waterways between the Intracoastal and The Atlantic Ocean.

St. Augustine's famous fort, Castillo de San Marcos, sits right on the bay.

Standing outside the oldest Catholic church in America located in St. Augustine.
Ichetucknee Springs in Northern Florida is a rafter's paradise!

Clearwater is home to some great piers.

The coastline in Ponte Vedra is covered with beautiful vegetation and boardwalks.

Miami truly is the riviera of America with its spectacukar beaches.

Looking like a tacky tourist on Jacksonville Beach (although, we actually lived there at the time!).
Biking in Daytona Beach.