Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge

Yesterday afternoon we ventured onto Fort Belvoir to check out the trails associated with the Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge. Maintained by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge is home to deciduous forests, meadows, and freshwater tidal marshes. There is a trail head located outside of Tulley Gate with a handful of parking spots but we chose to go onto post and drive down to the  MWR Outdoor Recreation area off of Warren Rd. and pick up the trail down by Accotink Bay.

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The Potomac River is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic Coast. Accotink Bay is considered an arm of the Potomac River. Accotink Creek empties into Accotink Bay to the west of Fort Belvoir. Over 1200 acres comprise the Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge, along with about eight miles of hiking trails.

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The temperature was in the mid-50s and the sun was shining bright. After the winter we’ve had (dreary with little snow) and spring’s reluctance to come to the national capital region, the brilliant blue sky was a welcome sight.

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The trails are not difficult hikes. They’re perfect for a young family wanting to explore and encounter the occasional obstacle. On our hike yesterday, we had to cross some shallow water on a fallen log and navigate around some mud using strategically placed rocks. There are no steep inclines but the trail does go up and down, which we always appreciate.

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Be sure to veer too far from the trails!

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Now that our kids are getting older, we’re really taking advantage of them being able to keep up with us – at least for a couple of miles. It feels incredibly freeing not to have to worry about a stroller or a backpack-carrier on our hikes.

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John Muir famously said that “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” While it can be difficult to make time for such adventures in the midst of regular-life obligations, we take his words to heart and do what we can with what we have. It was a perfect Sunday afternoon spent as a family. And in times like these, you have to cling to those types of moments. If anything, to remind ourselves that everything will be okay.

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Stone Soup – The Weekend Edition

To celebrate the value of sharing, I’ve compiled a hodge lodge of tidbits and links that struck my fancy to form the weekend edition of stone soup. Like Loverboy, we’re all working for the weekend. Clay is home this weekend (woot woot) so I don’t have to be in two different places at once, which is makes me happier than Jill Zarin if she were to be asked back to the Real Housewives of New York. Having the husband home is always a welcome reminder of how much easier it is to parent when he is around. He also makes me laugh so I rather enjoy having him around. He’s pretty cute too.

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This week was a good one despite the allergy index being annoyingly high in northern Virginia. The weather has finally turned and it appears that the cold days are on hiatus until fall. To celebrate the warmer temperatures, the kids and I are finalizing our summer to-do list because it will likely be our only summer in the national capital region this assignment.

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Are you familiar with CommuniKait? If not, you need to be. She is a travel writer and blogger and I love following her adventures. I wrote an Ultimate Weekend Guide to San Antonio for her blog as as she eats, drinks, and explores her way through Italy. Like I wrote in the post – if I had to sum up the year that my family spent in San Antonio, Texas in one sentence, it’d be: We didn’t love living there but if you haven’t been there, you should totally go visit!

A friend on Facebook recently shared this restored film that shows what life was like in New York City in 1911. I am obsessed. I love how the opening shot on the ferry has the same gates that can be seen on the Staten Island ferry today.

Chocolate by The 1975 has been playing on repeat in my head throughout the week. It’s impossible not to sing along with an accent.

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I throughly enjoyed this New Yorker piece by Molly Ringwald about her mixed-feelings toward John Hughes during the #MeToo era. The Breakfast Club was arguably my coming-of-age movie. I was blown away when I first rented it between the summer of 8th and 9th grade and I loved how it felt like a play within a movie. And of course, Bender. But watching it now as an adult leaves me with an odd feeling – there are a lot of things in the movie that are not okay. Why didn’t they bother me as a young teenager? Have times changed? Or was I just that naive and ignorant?

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And finally, I ordered Weston a pair of Crocs and they arrived yesterday. This is a momentous occasion because this marks the first time such footwear has crossed the threshold into our home. However, they are not the traditional style crocs (does that make it any better?) and I am so obsessed with his that I may end up ordering a pair for myself. What am I becoming? Who am I? Is this a crisis?

What Living in 10 Homes Has Taught Us About How We Want to Live

Talk about a mouthful of a title, right? Since making it legal in 2004, Clay and I have shared ten addresses together. Over the years, we’ve lived in apartments, townhomes, and single family homes. We’ve lived in homes with just one bathroom and we’ve lived in homes with up to four bathrooms. We’ve lived in historical homes, we’ve lived in brand new homes, and we’ve lived in everything in between. We’ve had gas heat, we’ve had electric heat, and we’ve had no air conditioning. We’ve been under BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), we’ve been at BAH, and we’ve been over BAH. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the life we wish to build together. And the ten homes we’ve lived in thus far has taught us a thing or two about how we want to live.

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In my post about how we became accidental landlords, I talked about the two homes we bought and currently use as investment properties.  We don’t consider either one of these houses our ‘forever home’ and will likely never live in either one of them again. Ahhh – the concept of a forever home. It’s not unusual for military families to talk about their forever homes. When you’re forced to live in places and homes you wouldn’t otherwise choose to live, the idea of being able to have 100% control over those aspects of your life becomes such a romantic notion that it rivals Rachel McAdams in a blue dress jumping onto Ryan Gosling in the rain and kissing him hard as with her legs firmly wrapped around his waist.

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I have yet to fully realize my Ryan Gosling house. I touched on it a bit in my previous post – Clay and I really don’t have any longterm goals in regards to where we want to live other than making sure that we absolutely love living there. Life is too short to choose a location based solely on job opportunities, family, taxes, cost of living, etc… We don’t have a forever home in mind like a lot of our military friends. Our forever home may be a two-room bungalow on the beach, a high-rise apartment in a metropolitan city, or a log cabin nestled in the mountains. Truth be told – I’m a little envious of my friends who already have a plot of land, who have Pinterest boards full of house ideas, and who have some idea of how they want to live post-military. We’re not there yet. And the jury is still out whether we ever will be.

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Outside of our first place together in Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor, New York. {2004}

So what has the past 13+ years and living in 10 homes thus far taught us? First is that our priorities and outlook on life have changed since we were newlyweds in our young twenties watching HGTV and dreaming of a grown-up house. We wanted the stainless steel appliances, the granite counters, the dual bathroom vanities, and the hardwood floors. Living in a tiny apartment can certainly foster these dreams.

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The first home we bought. {2008}

But you know what? After living with all of these features in various homes, we’ve learned that at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. We crave simplicity, we appreciate historic details, and we understand that stone countertops have absolutely no impact on our day-to-day happiness. Are new appliances, non-laminate countertops, and gleaming wood floors nice things to have in a home? Of course. We appreciate them when we happen to live in such a home. We’re certainly not ripping up hardwoods to put down wall-to-wall carpet. But we also know that we are no happier than when we happen to live in a home that doesn’t have such features. For that reason alone, I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity to move around as much as we do. I’m not sure if I’d have the same understanding about what truly makes me happy if we didn’t live in so many different homes.

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Infantry Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. {2015}

When we’re asked about our favorite home, there is little hesitation on our part. The apartment we lived in at Fort Leavenworth during Clay’s year at Command General and Staff College wins by a landslide. Yes, the front door would stick sometimes so I’d have to throw my body weight against it in order to let myself inside. The master bathroom was tiny (tiny!) and the laundry room was just a hall closet. There weren’t that many outlets. The kitchen had mismatched appliances and the top of the cupboards had a coat of curry that proved impossible to clean. The fire escape collected pine needless and we never could figure out how to open the kitchen window. The air conditioning and heat were old and tempermental. But the wood floors were pre-War and told the stories of families who called the place home before us. And our kitchen door was always open for the neighbors to come in as they like.

Of all the places we’ve lived, our 1903-built apartment has been our favorite thus far because of the memories made during those 11 months. Perhaps I am romanticizing the place too much and building it up to be my Ryan Gosling, but I don’t care. Our experience at Fort Leavenworth taught us that it doesn’t really matter how updated our home may be – it’s the people who surround our home and become our community that matter more. Living there made us realize that we want the place we call home to part of something greater than ourselves.

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But don’t get me wrong, we have also developed opinions on specific home designs due to our experience of living in ten different houses. For example, we don’t mind bathrooms with just one vanity – when we have two, we just end up using the same sink anyway. Toilet rooms creep me out – such a small enclosed space without a window…::shudder:: I don’t really care for open concept living, I much prefer cozy rooms. I believe that kitchens can be too big (our house in Texas taught me that) and I don’t miss a formal dining room when we live in a home without one – I’d rather have just one designated eating space and perhaps an informal counter in the kitchen with some barstools. I don’t like having more than 2.5 bathrooms because then they become a chore to clean. And anything more than four bedrooms is just too much for our little family. I also love a porch that is perfect for conversation and cocktails well into the night (who doesn’t?).

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Only time will tell where our 11th home together will be and what it will look like. However, I take comfort in the fact that as long as it provides shelter and gives us a place to love and to be loved, it will a good home for us. No matter what type of countertops happen to be in the kitchen.

The Need to Escape – Anchored in Possibility

My previous stream of consciousness post was a very cathartic experience and the responses I received left me reassured that my thoughts are not the equivalent of survivors shipwrecked on a remote island. Instead they’re like bubbles – floating through the air until they’re popped by a finger or they naturally cease to exist by their own accord. So why not do it again? I’m not sure where this post will end up so we’re going on this journey together. There will be no beverage service, unless you count the latte I’m currently sipping while typing away in a bustling coffee shop.

This past Saturday afternoon, after a full morning of baseball, I loaded the kids and Lucy into the car and escaped north to the Philly suburbs to spend the night with my sister and her family. Earlier that morning, I just felt the need to escape. Clay was away, we had no obligations after 12pm, and I really wanted a cheesesteak that night for dinner. As I battled traffic on 1-95N and left one major city for another, a low-key sense of calm took over my body – so much so that I didn’t even mind paying $2.00 for a regular-size bag of Peanut M&Ms at the Maryland House travel plaza. I truly felt like I was escaping for the night.

But escaping from what?

By all accounts, my life is good – happy and healthy marriage and kids and we’re stationed at a place we thoroughly enjoy living. I knew I wasn’t escaping from anything tangible but I couldn’t shake the feeling of freedom as I drove along the backroads of Maryland and Pennsylvania farmland toward the city. Was it because these were the roads I learned to drive on? Likely not. While I do feel a sense of homecoming whenever I visit my sister – the only one left of our family in the area, isn’t an overwhelming feeling of comfort – the kind you get when you spend your childhood and adolescence in one area. In some ways, I feel like an imposter when back in the Philly ‘burbs because I’ve been away for so long and my memories there don’t start until I was a teenager. If anything, I’m a fair-weather Philly gal with just as much allegiance to Arizona and Michigan.

Which makes me wonder – maybe I am just bred to want to escape. As a kid, I was always focused on the road ahead. When I was in 4th grade, I couldn’t wait until middle school. When I was in 7th grade, I couldn’t wait until high school. And by the time 10th grade rolled around, I was chomping at the bit to go away to college. Choosing a university near home wasn’t even on my radar – I was determined to go as far away as my parents would let me. And to be honest – there wasn’t really a reason why. High school was fine for me. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. My childhood was safe and happy. But I didn’t want to stay. I needed to escape.

Falling in love so young wasn’t part of my plan. Neither was getting married in my very early 20s. But love has a funny way of creeping up on you when you least expect it. And to be honest, the fact that Clay is the Army has been extremely seredipitous in regards to my apparent desire to escape because we literally pack up our lives and move every 1-3 years. Is it taking the easy way out by choosing a lifestyle that ensures I always have an escape plan? Luckily Clay has the same attitude about moving and settling as I do.

Over the years, I’ve met people who feel stuck for one reason or another – they can’t move because of extended family obligations, they can’t search for a new job because instability is scary, or they resign themselves down a certain path because of societal expectations. I’ll say that it’s incredible not ever feeling stuck because no matter how much we may not like living somewhere, we have reassurance that it is only temporary. We always have an escape plan.

My roots are intertwined with my husband’s and my kids’ but not anchored to anything but possibility. I love that description – anchored only in possibility.

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We’re often asked where we want to settle when Clay retires from the Army and we always respond, “Hell if we know!” Maybe Colorado? Or Maine? Hawaii? Another country? We do love northern Arizona. The California coast is amazing. Montana would be cool too. Or northern Michigan. Perhaps Key West?

Aren’t longterm plans for the birds, anyway?

I’m sure wherever we end up by choice won’t be the last place we live. We will have an escape plan. It’s in our blood.

Okay then – I didn’t envision this post about going to Philly for the night turning into a manifesto about how we have no idea where we want to settle. Or if we want to settle at all. That’s the beauty of these stream of consciousness posts, I suppose.

Las Vegas (With Kids…)

I had been to Las Vegas a handful of times throughout my childhood and despite it’s reputation as a city of sin, I have many fond memories of our trips there. Back in the 1990s, there had been a push to make the city more family-friendly and apparently my family took full advantage but many are saying that some 25+ years later, Family Vegas has died. And after our overnight stay there, I agree. While there are remnants of the family-friendly Vegas I remember, it’s definitely not the same..probably because what happens there, now stay’s there.

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We stopped for one night in Las Vegas last year during our epic road trip over spring break. The Grand Canyon and Disneyland weren’t enough – we just had to show our children Sin City. Grand Canyon National Park is only about a four-hour drive to Las Vegas, the majority of it through northern Arizona.

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The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010) spans the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada and replaced the original Route 93 that literally ran along the Hoover Dam. It is the second-highest bridge in the United States after the Royal Gorge Bridge and is quite impressive. As it should be because it’s the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. Our kids knew that Disneyland was on our itinerary, so let me tell you…they were excited to stop and see the Hoover Dam. It’s every child’s dream.

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An engineering marvel, the Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border has damed the Colorado River into Lake Mead since 1935, irrigating two million acres and generating enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. It’s also a popular tourist destination – most likely because it offers an interesting stop for people traveling from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – like us! We skipped the tour and chose to look at it from afar before continuing onward, much to the relief of the kids.

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Weston is obsessed with architecture, particularly towers and skyscrapers. Being able to see the tallest observation tower in the United States, the Stratosphere, was a highlight for him. We chose to stay on the strip because we wanted to do Vegas right and settled on the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. I had stayed there as a kid and loved it. Unfortunately, it is not the same Excalibur that I knew and loved.

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And let’s just say that the kids were not impressed with what they saw while Clay was checking us in. I’m chalking it up to us just doing our due diligence of exposing our children to as much as the United States as we can – even the seedy underbelly. #parentsoftheyear

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You haven’t lived until you pushed a stroller on a casino floor trying to find the elevator to our room with two children in tow. Do we know how to do Vegas or what?

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VEGAS BABY!

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We ate dinner at a counter-service place in New York, New York because they had about 100 beers on tap. Priorities.

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After dinner, we walked down to Bellagio to watch the fountains.

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I think I was making this face the majority of the time while out on the Strip with our children that night. We stay out until about 9pm soaking up all the sights before heading back to the hotel to play arcade games in the child gambling hall in the basement of the Excalibur. It was like old Vegas minus Bugsy Siegel.

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Our kids were enamored with the non-licensed costumed characters. But not as much as the guys pictured was enamored with the showgirls. $100 that this scene is his Facebook profile picture.

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My biggest complaint about the Excalibur is that the hotel got rid of the majority of the medieval interior decorations that were prevalent when I would stay there in the 1990s as a kid. There would be knights walking around, it felt like you were literally in a castle, and it really did feel magical. And now, other than the exterior, it is just another non-descript hotel. Womp womp.

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Soak it up, kids.

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The next morning, we walked around the Strip some more and took advantage of the emptier streets. Apparently if you don’t stay out too late and don’t have your kids with you, one gets to sleep in while in Vegas.

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The kids liked the interior of the Luxor. No need to go to Egypt kids – this will suffice.

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After a couple of hours, we were ready to hit to road for California. If you have made the drive from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area, then you are aware of how painful this drive is through the desert. There is literally nothing aside from Fort Irwin and Barstow, California between the two major metropolitan areas.

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But we were able to eat In & Out so it wasn’t too bad. It was the perfect fuel for the next leg of our trip – Disneyland!

The Ultimate Family Road Trip Playlist

Clay and I have been taking long road trips since our dating years in college. We were both out-of-state students at Clemson University and had a 650+ mile drive home – me to Pennsylvania and him to Ohio. During breaks we occasionally accompanied each other on these long drives home, unaware that they were just the beginning of what would be a lifetime of road trips together. Living far away from family and moving across the country on the whims of Uncle Sam have resulted in hundreds of thousands of miles logged together. Malcom Gladwell famously reasoned that 10,000 hours of practice can turn anyone into an expert – by that logic, Clay and I are fast approaching road trip expert status. Because of this, we have extensive knowledge in creating the ultimate family road trip playlist.

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Music is life. And thanks to streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music, we’re able to curate playlists that lend themselves to life on the road. We personally use Amazon Music – we find it the most user-friendly across a variety of platforms. We’ve used Price Music for years but recently we completed a free trial of Amazon Music Unlimited and loved it so much that we will continue to pay $7.99/month for the service.

Before I get into some specific song choices, I’d like to share the one rule regarding music on road trips to which we adhere – the driver veto. Whoever is driving on the road trip (which let’s be honest, is Clay 75% of the time), get’s the right to veto any song he or she wishes. It is just one of the many privileges that accompanies driving. Other than that, everything is fair game. So how do you make a spectacular road trip playlist that transcends the vast and various landscapes of our magnificent country? Easy – choose music you like, music that won’t make you fall asleep (e.g. we rarely listen to Bon Iver in the car), and music that is easy to sing along too.

If you’re like us and have little ones in the car, then you probably try to limit the explicit lyrics. But we certainly do not send ourselves to a Raffi and Laurie Berkner purgatory. Quite the opposite – we have no problem exposing our kids to great music. We also have no issue introducing them to the magic of guilty pleasure songs and the joy of singing along with one-hit-wonders. Below is just a sampling of songs we’ve included on our Ultimate Family Road Trip Playlist – I’ve broken them down by decade but there is no sense of order beyond that. We always utilize the shuffle function so everything gets discombobulated anyway – which is the way it should be when listening to music in the car.

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1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

2010s

What are some of your family’s favorite songs to listen to in the car? Do you create playlists or listen to full albums? Is there any song in particular that reminds you of a road trip?

Career Chronicles: What I’ve Done

Thank you for all of the great responses on the blog and on Facebook in regards to my first Career Chronicles installment. This post will explore previous positions I’ve held and what they’ve taught me about my professional goals. You know, it’s really quite astonishing that high school seniors are expecting to declare a major when applying to college. Is that how it still works? While I still feel young, I’m old enough to be completely blown away by how the college application process has changed. The common application? Genius. The SAT score increased to 2400 only to go back down to 1600? Confusing. Applying to 10-15 colleges? Craziness!

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I entered my freshman year at Clemson University as a Political Science major. I chose this major for a few reasons – I had interest in politics, US Government was my favorite class in high school, and I wanted to go to law school. While I may be currently living within very close proximity to Washington DC, I’ve never worked in politics. And despite my 18-year-old aspirations of sitting for the bar, I never even took the LSAT. I don’t regret abandoning my law school dreams. I actually did so by the end of my freshman year – I quickly learned that I had no desire to practice law. I like to thank Law & Order: SVU for helping me reach that life-changing conclusion. In my heart I knew that I could never be Alexandra Cabot or Casey Novak.

A few years later, Clay and I got married and I graduated college with a Political Science and Economics degree and a teaching certificate granting me permission to teach social studies to America’s youth. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that the area surrounding Fort Drum, New York had no desire to hire a first-year teacher with no graduate degree and a resume that was indicated I was only in the area because of the Army. I substitute taught in a few districts and began the process of submitting resumes and interviewing for jobs outside of my field of study.

It was a humbling experience. For an example, I was the second choice for an administrative assistant position at a local news agency – I was told that their first choice had more ‘longevity potential’, which was code for the fact that he/she was not a military spouse. A group home informed me during an interview that if a patient were to attack me, I was not to hit or kick as a defensive response. They also informed me that I had the possibility (only a possibility) of earning 10¢ more an hour because I had a BA. However, the absolute worst interview was when I was ghosted by a hiring manager for a position at a technology firm that I verbally accepted but had yet to formally sign the employment agreement. I literally sat in an unused office waiting for her return, only to be told by one of her coworkers that she left and she would call me the following day. She never called nor never returned my phone calls or emails. It’s been 13 years and I still don’t know if she is okay or not. Or if I got the job.

I eventually landed a job that ended up being the most perfect job for me during that period of my life. I interviewed for the non-profit position a few days before Clay left for what eventually became a 16-month deployment and was offered it the day after we said see you later. As a Program Associate for a conflict resolution firm, I became a certified mediator, I facilitated team meetings for troubled youth with community stakeholders, and I learned all about restorative justice and the New York State Judicial System. During this time, I also started graduated school, studying instructional design with a focus on distance education based on my enjoyment of writing content and facilitating meetings.

I left my dispute resolution position two-and-half years later when we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. My employment search after that move was thankfully a lot less perilous and I was quickly hired as a Content Editor for a social science research firm. I continued to chug along at my graduated school program and thoroughly enjoyed my first real experience with grant-funded research. And then Clay and I decided to add to our family.

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Throughout my pregnancy, I was unsure what I wanted to do when it came to my job that I loved. I ultimately chose to stay home (stay tuned for a Career Chronicles post about how I reached that difficult decision), reassuring myself that I would not regret it and I could jump back into the pond when it felt right. After our son was born, I negotiated with my organization to work part-time from home and come into the office for a few hours one day a week. Clay left for his second deployment shortly after our son was born so while I wasn’t willing to leave my position completely, I knew that working full-time, continuing with graduate school, and raising a baby on my own for the first time wouldn’t be the best fit for me. My mother-in-law came and stayed the night on Sundays (they lived about 2 hours away) and I would go into the office on Monday mornings. I worked part-time from home for about 6 months while our son was an infant. But then it came time to write my thesis, our son became a crawling machine, and we learned that we’d be moving shortly after Clay’s return from Afghanistan. So I made the decision to formally leave my position and focus my efforts on completing graduate school and enjoying my son.

A couple of months after our little guy turned one, I finished graduate school and welcomed home Clay. A few months after we moved to Lawton, Oklahoma, I accepted a part-time instructor position and taught Academic Research to soldiers at Fort Sill through a local community college. I enjoyed designing the course and teaching adults and I loved how I was able to incorporate it into our family’s schedule without causing much disruption. Unfortunately – the childcare situation for Weston wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t 100% comfortable leaving him with the at-home daycare provider we determined to the best that we could find in the area. I learned during this time that in order for me to be comfortable working outside of the home, I must be completely at-ease with our chosen childcare provider – otherwise any position, no matter how professionally satisfying, just isn’t worth the added stress and worry.

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After 18 months in Oklahoma, we moved to the Washington DC area and we decided to add another child to our family. We found a wonderful preschool for our son and I settled into the role of a stay-at-home-mom-of-two-children-with-a-husband-who-travels-a lot. I picked up a few freelance writing gigs here and there but overall, I just focused my efforts on being a mom. I look back on this time in my life with a warm heart and have no regrets not putting more effort into my career. After three years in the Washington DC area, we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a year. Because we knew we would be there such a short time, I did not search for a job and continued to stay home and not pursue work. Clay’s scheduled was insanely awesome and we spent so much time together as a family. Again – absolutely no regrets not working and I felt like we truly maximized our time together as a family.

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After our year in Kansas, we moved to San Antonio, Texas. Weston was in first grade and Violet attended preschool a few days a week so I started to put feelers out and refreshed my resume. I accepted a few freelance gigs and then entered the world of independent contracting. I worked from home creating content for online courses and learned a ton about time management and balancing deadlines with family responsibilities. Clay was a Battalion XO during that time so while he worked long hours, he rarely traveled and we had a routine that worked well. I also began substituting at Violet’s school and was offered a teaching position there for the following school year. Unfortunately, I was unable to accept because Clay competed for an amazing position and we received last-minute orders back to Washington DC. While I was bummed to leave behind an offer for a salaried position, I was looking forward to leaving Texas because for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I bloomed in the Lonestar State. For the record, I do miss In-and-Out.

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When we arrived back in our nation’s capital, I accepted a few short freelance gigs but eventually, those contracts exceeded my area of expertise. I gave myself grace as we eased back into a routine that involved Clay gone a lot after having him mostly home for almost two years. But now I am itching to do something outside of the home. But I am also not wanting to sacrifice the stability that being home when they’re not in school provides our kids. When they wake up, they often do not know if their Dad will be home that night or where he is in the world. The military ensures that we answer “I don’t know” to a lot of questions asked our children. I may not be able to do much with what the military throws our way but I would like to offer them the reassurance that I will always be there waiting when the bell rings. And it may seem like a tall order, but I’d like find a job that works within those parameters. And if I can’t – well, then I’ll just have to get creative. I’ve done it before and I can do it again.

How We Chose Our Summer Vacation

A friend recently asked how we go about deciding where to travel and how we plan our trips so I decided to document the process of how we actually ended up choosing our summer vacation this year. Back in January, I daydreamed on National Plan for Vacation Day and brainstormed possible locations for our summer vacation. Due to Clay’s current position, he can only take leave during a specific week in July so we didn’t have the luxury of hunting for deals   and choosing a date and location in our usual manner. When we received the dates for Clay’s leave back in February, we sat next to each other on the couch with our laptops and started pricing out some options.

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Deerfield Beach, Florida

We first checked vacation airline packages. In the past, we’ve had great success with bundling flights and hotels directly on airline websites. We used Delta Vacations for our trip to Scotland, American Vacations for our trip to the USVI, and Southwest Vacations last summer for an extremely last minute trip to south Florida (I’m currently working on that post – we literally booked the trip the day before we left because we had to wait for our HHG to arrive).

When looking at vacation packages, we focused our search on the Caribbean. We looked at resorts on a variety of islands but the more we researched, the more we realized that we just weren’t feeling the beach for our big summer trip this year. We also looked at some cruises but none of the dates worked and to be honest, a cruise vacation just doesn’t appeal to us right now. We decided that we wanted to go somewhere we’ve never been before and spend the bulk of our vacation exploring. We kept referring to one of our favorite family summer trips – our New England road trip with stops in Newport, Cape Cod, and Ogunquit. We explored, we relaxed, and we ate delicious food. That is pretty much our trifecta for a perfect vacation.

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Marginal Way, Ogunquit, Maine

Okay – so we knew that we didn’t want to go to the Caribbean, we didn’t want to go on a cruise, and we wanted to go somewhere we’ve never been before. We briefly looked into going to Alaska again because we only scraped the surface when we went seven years ago but we only have a week. When we go next, we’d really like to spend at least two weeks exploring America’s last frontier. We also looked at Wyoming, Montana, and British Columbia but nothing struck our chord for this summer. We also thought about going to Maine again and combining it with a trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island but we just weren’t getting really excited – which is surprising because we do really want to go to all these places!

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Ben Lomond, Scottish Highlands

Just Do It.

Frustrated that our search wasn’t turning up anything that we were super crazy excited about, I remember turning to Clay and saying, “You know what? I just would really love to take the kids to England this summer.” And he immediately responded, “Me too. Let’s do it!” Back when we were brainstorming, we initially ruled out Europe because we’re hoping to get stationed there and reasoned that it makes better financial sense to wait and travel throughout Europe if (if!) that happens. However, planning our lives around the if’s isn’t really how we want to live.

We immediately began researching flights and hotels and realized that a week in England would cost us less than a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean or a 4-day Disney Cruise with a balcony room. It was decided – for our trip this summer, we would be going to England! We spent the next few weeks researching flights and found that our cheapest option was to fly into Manchester Airport in Manchester, England and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris, France. And that is the story of how we incorporated Paris into our trip. We bought our airline tickets and then began researching various lodging options.

Rough Itinerary 

We didn’t finalize our lodging until last week. Up until then, we didn’t really know how we’d be spending our time after landing in Manchester and leaving from Paris. First – we made a list of our must-sees/dos. We determined that our non-negotiables are London, Bath, Stonehenge, and Paris. We are not approaching this trip as a once-in-a-lifetime trip – we know we will be back so we’re not going to put pressure on ourselves to see everything – especially with two young kids in tow. It will be their first international trip so we’re giving ourselves grace when it comes to seeing all the things!

Once we had our must-dos, we read hotel reviews, figured out how much we are willing to spend, and found some options that worked for us. Hotel rooms that sleep four are few and far between in Europe so a lot of people find Home Away and AirBnB more economical for families. We looked into that option but ended up choosing three different hotels for our trip. In order to save money, we pre-purchased all three reservations (i.e. no refunds). We saved about $500 by not choosing the higher-rates that allowed for a refund should we cancel our reservation. We’re comfortable doing this because we figure that if something happened that would force us to cancel our trip, it would be so catastrophic that eating the cost of our lodging would be the furthest thing from our mind.

So what’s our plan? We will fly into Manchester, England, rent a car, and drive down to Cotswolds, and stay in a little country estate hotel for three nights. During our time in the Cotswolds, we will explore the English Countryside and go to Bath, Stonehenge, and anywhere else our hearts desire. We will then drive to London, return our rental car, and spend two nights at a hotel near Paddington Station. After our time in London, we will take the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) to Paris, stay at a hotel near the Eiffel Tower for two nights, and fly out of Charles De Gaulle the following morning. While we’re not huge planners when it comes to vacations (we prefer to see where each day takes us), we will be pre-purchasing tickets to Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, and the Chunnel because we are traveling during peak season and we’re not masochists.

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Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado

I’ve learned something over the years that I tend to repeat to myself as a mantra in many facets of life – if it were easy, everyone would do it. Yes, traveling on a budget requires time, effort, and a certain amount of sacrifice. Over the years, we have never regretted spending money on travel. At all. That being said, we do not have an unlimited vacation budget and have to get creative in order to make our trips happen. We’ve flown economy in middle seats, we’ve taken 3000 mile+ road trips, we’ve stayed in the smallest room a nice hotel has to offer, we’ve only eaten two meals per day, and we’ve chosen many free activities (hiking, swimming, exploring cities) in foreign lands over ones that require admission. There is nothing I love to do more in this world than exploring a place I’ve never been before. I absolutely cannot wait to experience England and France this summer with the people I love most in this world. To me – that is what life is about. To love and to explore.

Are you going anywhere this summer? How do you go about planning trips? Do you enjoy planning travel?