After our 3 days in Disney parks and L.A., we took our Kia Sedona for a 1000-mile road trip to explore some of the natural beauty of southern California, starting with Channel Islands National Park.  Have you ever been to Channel Islands National Park?  No?  You should fix that.

We got up early Friday morning and boarded the ferry for Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island for a guided 3-mile (or so) hike across America’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands (i.e., they were never connected to the mainland and have animals and plants not seen anywhere else in the world!).  The children especially loved spotting the numerous island foxes.

And the harbor seal.

And the sweeping views of the ocean from atop the cliffs, whilst I tried to push back fears of their bodies plummeting hundreds of feet onto those rocks by the water you see in the picture below:

It’s among the least-visited and most remote of the national parks (and perhaps the newest, as it was established in 1980), and it was a great way to spend an entire day of peace, quiet, and no cellphone signal.  The children completed the park’s junior ranger program and got their badges just before our ranger guide boarded the 4pm ferry off the island. We had seafood for dinner in the Ventura harbor after taking the 4:30pm ferry back to the mainland.

The next morning (Saturday), we headed east into the California wilderness; our first stop was Manzanar National Historic site, because not every national park or historic site celebrates our country’s achievements; this one, of course, reminds us of our mistakes. Before visiting Manzanar, I knew very little about how we treated Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing; I certainly didn’t realize we sent over 100,000 of them to these “camps” to live and prohibited their returning to California for several years after they were “released.”  The displays at this site (models of the homes they lived in, recorded interviews with some of the occupants, and written accounts from children) were heartbreaking and moving.  The stop was well worth the time and the few miles out of the way to Death Valley.  The children learned a great deal during their junior ranger programs, and we enjoyed the windy landscape at the base of the Sierra Nevadas as we explored the grounds.

We re-boarded our Kia minivan and headed southeast to Death Valley National Park, the hottest, lowest, and driest spot in the U.S., arriving just in time to get the kids’ junior ranger books before the visitor center closed at 5pm.  Dinner was at the Toll Road Restaurant next to our hotel at the historic Stovepipe Wells Inn.  There was an outdoor pool the kids badly wanted to enjoy, but the strong, sandy winds would have made that an unpleasant experience, I’m sure, as I envisioned that time I visited the hangar where my dad worked once in high school and saw the machine they used to clean aviation engine parts with sand particles, and I had no desire to be shiny and metallic that evening.

We hiked a salty creek and saw endangered pupfish, which are like tadpoles, but bigger, and in saltwater, and more endangered.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Death Valley on Sunday morning, but what we saw was much, much more.  We hiked sand dunes where the Tatooine scenes from “Star Wars” and “Return of the Jedi” were shot.

We saw the “Devil’s Golf Course,” where chucks of crystallized salt formations create razor-sharp terrain that seems to go for miles along the desert floor.

We saw what appeared to be a giant lake nearly 300′ below sea level that was actually a salt flat we could hike out to and stand where the hottest air temperature on Earth was recorded.

We drove on a trail cut between rocks seemingly painted by an artist, as yellows, reds, blacks, browns, and greens reflected on either side of us.

We re-boarded our minivan and headed south toward the Mohave Desert, determined to let the kids get another junior ranger badge and hike atop the Kelso sand dunes there.

Sadly, we ran out of time (in my bride’s estimation–she didn’t want to be stuck atop a 600′ sand dune at nightfall with 3 children and a 3-mile hike back to the car; I wanted to go for it) and did not make it to the top of the Kelso dunes, but we came close. 

It was after 6pm, and we had an hour or so to our hotel at 29 Palms Inn just outside Joshua Tree national park, so we headed south again, arriving about 7:30pm to dinner and live music by the 9,000-year-old Oasis of Mara.

Monday morning, we arose for breakfast at the inn before heading into our last national park, Joshua Tree, where I made immediate notice of the streets’ having no names.

We drove through acres and acres of the funny-looking yet beautiful joshua trees towering above the otherwise scraggly desert vegetation.  We stopped at Skull Rock and climbed the course sandstone boulders while chasing lizards and one large gila monster.

We had the picnic lunch our inn packed us atop an overlook above the San Andreas fault.  Luckily, nothing shook.

After lunch, we went back by the visitor center to let the children turn in their junior ranger workbooks and earn yet another badge + patch before returning to our Kia Sedona to head to I-1o and the airport, which was about 2 hours away. Our flight left just before 5pm (we made it by a few minutes) and landed after midnight Atlanta time. It was 2am by the time we were all home and in bed, so we let the children go to school a couple hours late, because we’re complacent like that.

This was an amazing trip.  We covered over 1,000 miles.  We drove past 8-figure houses in Beverly Hills and dilapidated ghost towns along abandoned highways.  We drove next to the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevadas; we went through multiple mountain ranges and crossed numerous deserts, all in just a few days.  I’m grateful to Kia for letting us use the Sedona, which was perfect for our family of 5 to explore everything from the urban streets of Los Angeles to the dirt roads of Death Valley.  Our family will never forget our California adventures, and we can’t wait until time to embark on the next one!

For spring break this year, we decided to take a week-long trip, something we’d never done before on spring break, despite the fact that pretty much all of Atlanta does this.  L.A. seemed like a good use of a couple companion passes that were about to expire, so westward we flew on Monday afternoon before checking into Disney’s Grand Californian hotel. The next morning, we had breakfast with chipmunks (and a few of their friends) before walking a few blocks down the sidewalk into Disneyland.

We rode rides I loved as a kid, like Space Mountain, Star Tours, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and we enjoyed newer ones like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and the Indiana Jones Adventure.  Sometimes we stopped for pictures with characters, too.

The next morning (Wednesday), we got up early and walked over to Disney California Adventure, a park none of us had visited before, as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t around in the ’80s.  Thanks to some good intel from my friend Whit, we knew to go right to Toy Story Midway Mania whilst my bride got fast passes for the Radiator Springs Racers during the initial “magic hour” before the park opened to non-resort-property-hotel-patrons.  We even had time for California Screamin’, my 8yo boy’s first upside-down roller coaster, and his favorite ride in both parks, during that magic hour with no lines.  Then we enjoyed Soarin,’ which featured a giant screen and hang-gliding all over the world, including several places we’ve visited (or will visit this year) together as a family (like Monument Valley)!  We enjoyed lunch with a mermaid and a live Frozen show that afternoon before seeing the “world of color” light show that evening.  It was a long, but awesome, day for everyone.

The following morning (Thursday), we used the “magic hour” to return to Disneyland before we had to check out at 11am (which we made by 2 minutes).  We enjoyed a new version of Star Tours and hit favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and Big Thunder Mountain once again, and we added It’s a Small World.

After we checked out, we headed into Los Angeles to check out the La Brea Tar Pits and the LA County Museum of Art; the kids loved both (especially my aspiring paleontologist son).  Here they are with the largest section of the Berlin Wall this side of Germany:

And here we all are in front of a gooey, oily crypt full of once powerful mammals:

We enjoyed some bronze nudity from Rodin in the outdoor sculpture garden and then headed up toward Ventura by way of Rodeo Drive, Mulholland, and the 101 during rush hour to meet Whit and his sons at The Stonehaus in Westlake Village for some Mediterranean food by a fire pit.

We got to the Ventura Beach Marriott about 10pm Thursday night, ready to start the second phase of our trip–national parks!

To be continued…

My 21st trip to New Orleans (and 9th Mardi Gras) began early Thursday morning when I helped 3 children get ready for school and dropped them off when the school doors opened at 7:10am (their mother was in Savannah); then I was off to the airport. We landed, and I caught my colleague’s panel on strategic use of media for high profile personal injury cases.  An hour later, we were at Company Burger, site of the infamous “shooting egg” incident last year that ruined my favorite corduroy sportcoat, but sometimes, one has to take calculated risks in life, and these burgers are quite awesome.

After lunch, the weather was so nice that several of us decided to enjoy the outdoor pool for a while, something I’ve never done in February in New Orleans.  I had a Cuban cigar my friend Angela procured for Mike and me recently, and I figured this was a great time to enjoy it.  Dinner was at Shaya, the 2016 James Beard Awards’ “best new restaurant in America,” and boy howdy, it did NOT disappoint.  We loved it.  We’d set this reservation in September when my friend from the Air Force, Lauren, was in Atlanta for a conference; she and her husband came with us, along with two Atlanta lawyer friends who’d been at our conference.

That night we explored the Quarter and some of our usual haunts on Bourbon Street; I sang at Cat’s Meow, because I can’t come to New Orleans and NOT sing on stage at Cat’s Meow.

Friday, we ate at Cochon Butcher, where the pork flows like wine, and the decor is all Star Wars. We then explored more of the Quarter with Lauren and her krewe before meeting up with Amy, who came in for the weekend like last year.

That night, the conference had an event upstairs at Galatoire’s that included a balcony party and throws, followed by an excellent dinner downstairs.  Then we went back out, but this time ventured to the end of Bourbon to Frenchmen Street and the Spotted Cat for live music.

We visited a new place (for us) – the Gold Mine – toward the end of the night for some dance music a block or so off Bourbon.

Saturday morning, I woke up and declared, “This is one of my favorite days of the year:  the Saturday before Mardi Gras.”  I dressed for the warm weather and the occasion.

We walked to the Garden District, stopped at HiVolt Coffee, and then had lunch at the famous Commander’s Palace, which was every bit as amazing as they say it is.

Full as ticks, we walked to St Charles to watch the Krewe of Tucks parade before sitting in Igor’s a while and then working our way back to Cochon Butcher for a light dinner before returning to the room to don our “last evening before Mardi Gras” garb (read:  sparkles on pants; sparkles on coats) before catching Endymion on Canal.

Most places in the Quarter were crowded, but we found some empty bar stools at the Chart Room and made friends with a couple from San Diego and a guy dressed like Harry from “Dumb and Dumber,” because dressing well is part of what makes Mardi Gras grand.

We returned to the Gold Mine, sampled the flaming Dr Pepper shots, had pizza at Dante’s, and hit the Cat’s Meow again before turning in late.

The next morning, I flew home to 3 excited children who filled our “Mardi Gras tree” with a full bag of throws.

Sometimes folks ask me, “Don’t you get tired of going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras?  Think you should take a year or two off perhaps?”  And I say, “Do you get tired of happiness?  Don’t you think you should take a year or two off from friendship”?  And then they shut up and walk away slowly.

No, I will never get tired of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.