Summer Road Trip and Fall Beginnings

A few years ago, when both of our kids had reached the golden age of Elementary School (i.e., they could read and wait long periods between bathroom breaks), we started talking about taking a road trip together. Skills required for being in school and pleasantly riding in a car for long, sustained periods have remarkable correlations, in my experience.


Summers came and went quickly, all filled with wonderful things, but no road trips. Then, this year.

2016 brought some changes for us. In March, we decided to start the licensing process for becoming foster parents. That same month, John got a new job as an instructor at a community college, which included a three-and-a-half month summer break. Ellie, a 4th grader, got a parting gift from the Obama administration: a free pass to all National Parks and Monuments for her entire family. These things and the opportunities and future constraints they would bring finally forced our hand. It was the perfect summer for a road trip.

John, lover of maps and geological wonders, master of efficiency, and careful analyst of worst case scenarios, took the lead for almost every aspect of our trip. I downloaded audiobooks to my library apps and packed food, clothing, and toiletries. He did EVERYTHING else.

From Washougal, our route took us through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, back to Utah, Nevada, California, up 101 along the Oregon Coast, over the bridge into Washington, and back to Washougal.

We only made two reservations, both in the first week. We camped in our new-to-us tent trailer about two-thirds of the nights. We had a long list of places to see, but wanted to be flexible with timing. Google and Priceline were our dearest companions.


Here is a photo summary of the highlights:

Dinosaur National Monument, UT

I didn’t know this place existed until my uncle and aunt suggested it was a not-to-miss sight along our route. I’m so glad they persuaded us! Who knew there is a wall of actual dinosaur bones preserved in place for anyone in America to gawk at!


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO

John loved the geology of this beautiful park.


100s in the Hills, Silverton, CO

John’s dad, brother, and nephew joined us for the three days of the annual 100s in the Hills Landcruiser gathering in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The scenery here is breathtaking. The event was interesting. I loved every part of it except for the Landcruiser bits.



Two best-bud brothers who share nearly identical professions, trucks, and tent trailers.


Four Corners – NM, AZ, CO, UT


Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Another park I didn’t know about but absolutely loved. Cliff homes of the ancestral Puebloans 800 years ago.


Santa Fe, NM

We spent a few days with John’s aunt and uncle in Santa Fe. We soaked in the gorgeous surroundings, Aunt Beverly’s gracious, top-notch hospitality, laundry facilities, and lots of puppy dog snuggles.


Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

This was a relatively small national park, but so incredibly cool for our tree and rock-loving family we could hardly stand it.



Painted Desert




Yes, John’s shirt says “Geology Rocks”


Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

We made a short drive-through visit to the Grand Canyon, arriving close to sunset.


Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT

We camped here for five days at a lovely, cool altitude of 10,000 feet. From here, we explored other national parks in Utah.



Junior Ranger Hike

Zion National Park, UT

Hiking through the Virgin River in a slot canyon at Zion was a highlight of our trip.


Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Hiking the Hoodoos at Bryce was another unforgettable adventure.


Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA

We started longing for cooler climates and greener vistas, so instead of hitting the other red-tinged national parks in Utah, we adjusted our itinerary and headed west to California. We spent part of a day in Lassen Volcanic National Park, chiefly to hike the “Bumpass Hell” trail, named after a man named Bumpass who fell into a steaming mudpot here.


Redwoods State and National Parks, CA

Wow. Just, wow.


Animal Sightings


Once I was in the northwest corner of California, despite loving the Redwoods and enjoying our few days there, the urge to go home pulled strong. We talked about spending a couple days exploring some beaches along 101 and the Oregon Coast, but my heart said, “Been there, done that. HOME. NOW.” My brain said, “Your house is not ready for Foster Care Home Inspection. You start work next week. Get your people out of this foreign land and return to the familiar passages of Highway 14 and I-205.”

Being a sensible wife and a sacrificial mother, I did not nag my family (too much) into alignment with my personal inclinations, but let them come to their own conclusions as we ventured out of the truck in our California shorts at a beach near Coos Bay to 57 degree afternoon fog and wind.

“Let’s stop for some Salt Water Taffy then drive the rest of the way home,” John said.

Victory! Promises of sugar had worked like a charm throughout our adventures (Gatorade, Slurpees, Oreos, Jolly Ranchers, and ice cream made frequent appearances) and didn’t fail us at the end either.

Taffy was procured at Ainslees in Depoe Bay and we pulled in to our driveway at 11:00pm that night, three days ahead of schedule.

The two weeks that followed were a blur of relentless cleaning, organizing, and safety-checking, squeezing in another quick trip to Mason Lake (annual summer requirement), back to work (crying most of the way there), foster care interviews, and home inspection.

It was a rough re-entry to a good life. Our home is more organized and decluttered than it has ever been and ready for a new little person and the chaos, complications and joy that will bring. Returning to work at York Elementary always fills me with pride and contentment with my capable, caring colleagues, supportive principal, and their single-minded purpose to help all children who walk through those doors to flourish. I reconnected with our tribe of friends and family – a beautiful collection of souls I do not deserve but eagerly grasp for dear life.

Maybe I’m being “optoomuchistic” (a word I immediately entered into my vocabulary upon reading The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place), but I think everything is going to be ok.

This year and this summer put us on a path we had never been, filled us with beauty, and strengthened us for what is ahead. Life will soon become challenging, and oh, so busy, and probably very sad. But see how He loves us. He will be faithful. He will provide. I will accept from His hand the memories of this summer, the good people hemming me in on every side, and the skills and experience He has been sowing into our lives all along.

Alright, Fall. Alright, foster care. Ready, set, go.



Thankful Thoughts 2015

You know it’s getting close to Thanksgiving break when you start talking smack to a 5th grader about how your stuffing tastes better than his mom’s stuffing, instead of giving constructive feedback about his production of /s/ in the word “stuffing”.


It’s Wednesday morning, and the kids and I are lounging around in our PJs. Ellie is snuggled up on the couch with Calvin and Hobbes, Jack is listening to a Christmas station on Pandora and playing with Snap Circuits. John’s working a half-day from home. I am sipping some eggnog coffee and having some Thankful Thoughts before the potato peeling begins.

Here is what comes to mind:

  • 15 years of marriage to a guy who gets better every year, who says and does hard things because they are right and good, and who adores me with a steadfast love that is more than I deserve. He is strong, smart, funny, thoughtful, trustworthy, and kind. Love him.

John and kids

  • Thousands of hugs and conversations and poignant and mundane moments with Ellie and Jack. These two color my days, shape me, delight me, and send me running to my compassionate Father.

kellars and mud

  • Our four parents who have learned the art of parenting adult children well. They give generously, encourage without criticism, love unconditionally, and are transitioning to a new stage of life with humility and grace.


  • Our neighborhood elementary school. Five mornings a week I drop off my kids at its front door knowing that they are being received by a caring and competent staff. I am thankful that they welcome me in, too. Spending a few hours cutting and copying paper, stapling and removing staples, helping 2nd graders read and practice math facts, and sitting on uncomfortable cafeteria benches unexpectedly delights me every week. Ellie and Jack get their brains and their hearts filled up in this building – what more could I ask for?


  • Andy, Heidi, Elias, and Johnny, who moved to Washougal! We love having our family close enough to pop back and forth for bonfires, Saturday breakfast, tool swapping, kid swapping, and Angry Orchard brother counseling sessions.


  • A new baby in the family! I’m so excited about the new niece or nephew growing in my sister.
  • My friend Tanya, who nagged me every Tuesday at work for four months before I finally agreed to exercise and hold her accountable to exercise three times a week. I hadn’t exercised regularly in almost 20 years, and while I was perfectly satisfied with the size of my jeans, the flesh underneath was rather wimpy and squishy. We started last April, and thanks to Jillian Michaels being “totally committed to making me stronger” and imploring me to “show up for my own life”, I have miraculously kept up with at least a twice weekly 20-minute exercise routine (stunning, I know). I still hate it Every Single Time, but I like that my abs and thighs can theoretically pass the “quarter test”. Thank you, Tanya, and thank you, Jillian.

ripped in 30

  • Speaking of friends, this hard core introvert is bowed-down thankful for the many relationships that enrich my life – too many to describe here. I think of my friend who lives five minutes away and, according to the children at our kids’ school, is my twin. Sometimes my house is a wreck, my face is without makeup, and my attitude is stinky, but I am just glad she’s coming over. She gives me “parenting fail” high-fives, and we laugh and intellectualize and agonize over the same things. Our husbands and kids are kindreds too, and every last conversation we have inevitably turns toward Jesus.
Heidi and Jenae

After nagging me for three years, John and the Kellars finally got me backpacking. Thankful for friends who wear you down for your own good.

  • These two families who fill up their vans and drive over to our house two Sundays a month. The six of us adults and our 10 kids eat dinner together, clean up together, pray together, disciple each other, drink tea together, and laugh together.

life group

  • I have brothers and sisters scattered across the globe who have richly colored my heart. Pablo, Sarah, Johny, Rosadite, Liz, Mercy, Lorna, Janet, Bassam – you are my heroes and sometimes I can’t even believe the grace that has allowed me to share a bit of my life with yours. jenae and mercy

A friend said something like this to me this week: “wouldn’t it be nice if we could just know that everything will turn out ok?” I have been painfully reminded this year, this week even, that the future we imagine for ourselves is uncertain, and each day is a gift. I am thankful for the hope I have in Christ, and that God has given me eyes to see his good gifts and people to share them with. I am thankful for the heroes out there who live life well, no matter how many days or dollars or healthy cells they have.

Finally, I’m thankful for Ree. Because of her, my stuffing is going to be awesome tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Where’s the Beef?

I love where we live. In our backyard is the Washougal River. Follow those waters downstream a couple miles and you reach the mighty Columbia River (Roll on, Columbia roll on…). We’ll pause here for a moment because from this vantage, one can drive for less than two hours almost any direction and reach something breathtakingly beautiful.  Drive due west and you reach the Pacific Ocean and the sandy beaches of the Oregon or Washington coast. Drive northeast or southeast and you could wind up the slopes of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, or Mount Rainier. Drive due east, and you pass through the majestic Columbia River Gorge, and end up in a completely different world from the evergreen-laden, hilly, wet, cloudy land of southwest Washington where you started.


This is the route we took a few days ago to visit Emerson Dell Farm, just outside of The Dalles, Oregon. At first I was disappointed that we were having one of our first rainy weekends of October on the day we were to visit the farm, but I should have known that once we passed through the Cascade range, we’d get nothing but blue skies for the rest of our visit.


David and Margaret Brewer are the hardworking couple that run this farm, and I met Margaret about five years ago when I was looking for a source for grass-fed beef. David’s family has been farming this land for five generations; Margaret was a city girl who fell in love with the farmer and has embraced the farming lifestyle.

We purchase a whole animal from the Brewers once every year or two and divide it among friends. Usually Margaret delivers the beef to us in Vancouver, but this year we decided the see the farm for ourselves and pick it up there.

The Brewers’ cattle are 100% grass-fed, grass-finished. They are kept on the Brewer’s land their entire lives and are rotated through a sequence of planted forage crops.

photo from Margaret Brewer

photo from Margaret Brewer

They sell their beef to individuals and New Seasons Market. Once we purchased our first quarter, we couldn’t go back. Besides the psychological sense of wellbeing about this food, the taste is noticeably superior, and Margaret Brewer is just so likable and easy to work with.

The Brewers also grow wheat, canola, barley, and mustard, rotating according to holistic land management. David Brewer manages his land and crops with a scientist’s precision toward soil health and sustainability. On the Saturday we visited, he was out on one of his fields seeding wheat.

seeding wheat

Margaret took us on a quick tour of their acres, and one of the most delightful spots was this one-room schoolhouse, built in the early 1900’s, purchased by David’s family years ago.


Since we had been listening to “On the Banks of Plum Creek” in the car on the way to the farm, we were thrilled to see this Ingalls-ish building before us.

We spotted elk, pheasant, and wild turkeys in our meanderings, but the kids fell in love with the family cats, of course.


I’m so thankful for the Brewers who faithfully care for their land and animals, not to mention a couple of growing teenagers. It feels good to put money directly into the hands of these hardworking farmers to buy wholesome, clean food which will sustain us for a year or more.

After a couple hours, we drove back into the clouds and rain to meet up with our beefy friends in Vancouver. The cherry on top was getting to see the whole Ross family (should’ve taken a picture of this special occasion)!

So, if you’re ever over at our house for dinner and are eating beef of some variety, now you know where it came from. And if you’re interested in joining us next time we buy beef from the Brewers, let me know, or I can connect you with them yourself if you don’t want to wait for our next purchase.


A Favorite Beefy Recipe:

Crockpot Beef with Broccoli

  • 3 lb boneless chuck roast, sliced into strips
  • 1 1/2 cups beef broth
  • 3/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbl sesame oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 Tbl cornstarch
  • 3-4 heads broccoli, cut into small florets
  1. Whisk together beef broth, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil and garlic and pour into crockpot.
  2. Place slices of beef into the liquid and stir to coat.
  3. Cook for 5-6 hours on Low
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid to create a slurry, and pour into the crockpot and cook for an additional 30 minutes to thicken the sauce.
  5. Steam broccoli and stir into the beef at the end, or place fresh florets in the crockpot in the last 30 minutes.
  6. Serve over rice.

Water, Earth, Fire, and Books

Despite being an educator and loving pumpkin spice coffee, I just can’t get into fall. I have friends who get positively giddy over freshly sharpened Ticonderogas, a new box of crayons, chai tea concentrate, and scarves, sweaters, and boots. (You know I love you guys and I forgive you for blasting my social media feeds with these unpleasant images when I’m just trying to savor August.) Don’t they know what those items mean?! The end of summer!

I think I’m missing the organizational/schedule-loving/fall-fashion gene that these friends have. My personal preference is the summer routine of: optional breakfast, eat lunch whenever, warm skin=happy heart, library=good-enough-education.

ellie raft

But back-to-school activities commenced, I willingly participated in 18 hours of teacher inservices, and so many cute first-day-of-school pictures popped up on Facebook, so I succumbed.

first day of school

I will step into fall (even though it’s not fall for 21 more days) and look for the good and lovely. But not before I give thanks for summer.


This summer was just the best. I already told you about Kenya. The best. 

This summer had so many books. The four of us together read 90 books. So many adventures, new places, belly laughs, and interesting ideas.

Here were our favorites:

Jack: Capital Mysteries: Trapped on the DC Train by Ron Roy; Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar; The Golden Statue Plot by Geronimo Stilton; Marvin Redpost: A Magic Crystal? by Louis Sachar

Wayside School is Falling Down

Ellie: Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren; Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; Mattimeo by Brian Jacques

Ronia the Robber's Daughter

Jenae: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; For the Love by Jen Hatmaker; Clay, Water, Brick by Jessica Jackley; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (ESV)

For the Love

John: Selections from the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian; Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Master and Commander

Favorite Read Aloud: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks

This summer was hot for the Pacific Northwest, and we enjoyed so much cool, lovely water.

We visited Mason Lake, where my grandparents live. We swam, paddled, dipped toes, and let the sun warm and tan our skin. We ate big dinners with my family, and tried to distract the kids from my grandpa’s Fox News reports about ISIS and Hillary’s emails. My mom’s cousins took us out on their boat and John got to wakeboard for the first time in 15 years, and Ellie got a personalized lesson from an expert.

Ellie wakeboard john wakeboarding

We read books.

Clay Water Brick

We hiked down the trail to the Washougal River countless times, with friends, family, and by ourselves. We searched for agates, petrified wood, crawdads, and minnows. The kids swam a lot, I swam a little. I mostly read books.


Chike and the River

We took a day trip to the beach on a deliciously warm day with little wind. We picnicked, dug in sand, and John and the kids splashed and jumped over waves. I read a book.


Conscience and Courage

We hiked longer distances and more treacherous trails than we ever have before as a family of four (and unabashedly bribed the children with Skittles).

hiking 2During some bits, I made John walk between Jack and me so I wouldn’t have to watch my seven-year-old blithely stumble along narrow, rocky paths hugging cliff-like drop-offs (John is used to me transferring all anxiety producing encounters onto his plate of responsibility). We listened to a book on the long drive home.

The Surgeon's Mate

All that dry, hot weather had consequences, unfortunately. August ended, as all of us in Washington and Oregon know, with record-breakingly huge wildfires. John works for the Forest Service and is trained to set-up and maintain radio and communications equipment for fire teams, so he was out on an Oregon fire for the last half of August. We missed him, but felt so proud of our man who worked 17-hour days, slept in tents, and ate…(I’m not sure what he ate, other than it was in large quantities), working hard to protect homes, buildings, and wild land.

fire campradiowarm springs

John became known as The Guy With Books In His Truck, and gladly loaned out his Patrick O’Brians and Wendell Berrys.

Our Only World

We are now obliged to bid farewell to summer routines, but water, earth, fire, and books (air for the soul, if I may) will linger into fall. Wildfires are still raging, not really caring that school has started and fire-fighting dads need to be around for after-school pickup two days a week. We’ll sneak in a back-packing trip with some friends over Labor Day weekend, hammering pegs into the earth and snaking along trails. September always gives us a few sunny, warm days sure to find us at the river. And teachers tend to be fans of books, so fall bodes well in the reading department.

Tiger Boy

I’ll buck up and start making lunches, writing IEPs, and monitoring homework again. I won’t mourn my fading tan. Just please don’t tell me you want to be cold and wet so you can use your wood stove and wear boots and sweaters again. You’ll have October, November, December, January, February, March, and April for all of that nonsense. Let me ease into fall in my September flip-flops and fair fahrenheits. Then, I’ll be ready to join you in celebrating pumpkin spice coffee, a cozy fire, and of course, a good book.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Ghoul’s Potion: A Recipe for Halloween

Every year during the week of Halloween, I venture out into the deep, dark forest and collect ingredients for Ghoul’s Potion. I bring them to the school where I work, and our Social Communication Groups gather round a table and work together to create the spooky brew. It’s green and lumpy and fizzy, and it provides a fun context to observe how our students (many of whom are on the autism spectrum) are doing with pretend play, turn taking, flexible thinking, and problem solving.

A couple years ago, I started bringing the ingredients to a friend’s house where we usually gather on Halloween night before trick-or-treating in her neighborhood. Our kids were the perfect age to mix up some Ghoul’s Potion.

ghouls potion 6

I start by introducing the creepy ingredients: Witches Brew, Bubbly Ghost Juice, Dragon Scales, Frozen Witch Hearts, and Jack-o-Lantern Mush. I spin a spooky tale of how I gathered each item in the deep, dark woods – from an owl’s nest in a gnarled old tree, to a brambly thicket, to a forlorn dragon cave, to Frankenstein’s cabin, to a haunted pumpkin patch guarded by scarecrows.

ghouls potion 1

The children take turns adding ingredients to the “cauldron”.

ghouls potion 3

After the jack-o-lantern mush is scooped in, each child says some magic words (conjured on the spot), and we hand cups of the slimy liquid into waiting hands. Some of them actually try it. Their skin may or may not turn green.

ghouls potion 4

Someone’s magic words caused my nose to suddenly grow especially pointy. Thanks a lot, kiddos.

ghouls potion 7

Is there anything cuter than small children on Halloween night?

And now, the never-before-released secret recipe for Ghoul’s Potion:


  • Witches Brew (lime jello packet dissolved into 2 cups boiling water, mixed into 2 cups cold orange juice, cooled to room temperature)
  • Bubbly Ghost Juice (club soda or seltzer)
  • Frozen Witch Hearts (ice cubes)
  • Dragon Scales (orange and lime slices)
  • Jack-o-Lantern Mush (orange sherbet or sorbet)


  1. Pour 4 cups of Witches Brew into the “cauldron”
  2. Pour in 4 cups of the Bubbly Ghost Juice
  3. Scoop 12 Frozen Witch Hearts into the mixture
  4. Add 12 Dragon Scales
  5. Add 8 scoops of Jack-o-Lantern mush to the pitcher
  6. Stir well. Be sure to say some magic words. 
  7. Pour into cups and drink slowly.
  8. Watch for unusual changes in appearance or behavior.