Grand Canyon, chasm of death, the road trip: ‘No, I’m not in the Muslim Brotherhood,’ and an apocalypse in Texas panhandle

I started planning our trip to the Grand Canyon with the following Google search:

“How to die at the Grand Canyon.”

Oh. Dear. Me.

There are so many ways to die at the Grand Canyon!

I did not want to die, nor my did I want my family members to die. Thus, I was merely cheating death by finding out how we could all die!

Seven hundred seventy people have died at the Grand Canyon since 1869!

There’s even an incredible interactive map about ways to die at the Grand Canyon. Like you can wear 3D glasses and look at it. And it’s based on a book! Tourists fall off the rim! People are murdered! And a mule even fell on one unlucky soul!

Should I read the book? No I should not.

Thirty six hours and 17 minutes and 3 seconds later I emerged from the interactive map.

Somehow I still wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. With a toddler. Who had a darting problem.

We’ll just have to put Eli on a leash, I thought.

Word spread among the family about where we were headed.

It was February 2016.

We received a letter in the mail from our nephew, Alex.

Alex lives in Milwaukee and along with most of my niece and nephews and family sprinkled all over the Midwest, we don’t get to visit Alex more than once a year, which I feel like shit about, all year long!

Mark opened this delightful little envelope to a hand-written note explaining a real big  problem.

Alex had been flattened by a bulletin board. He’d slipped himself into a paper envelope and hoped to go with us on our upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. Ya know, like the story, Flat Stanley, which his class happened to be reading.



I may not be the greatest auntie, one to remember birthdays and attend ball games —  but this, this I could help do.

Look at that dear heartfelt sweet adorable wonderful handwritten note. Alex you are about to get a mothafuggin A+. It. Is. Written.

When I get an idea in my head, such as, but not limited to, “Our family should see the Grand Canyon,” and “Alex is getting a mothafuggin A+,” soon after arrives a glint in my eye. We were going to go see the damn Grand Canyon and Flat Alex was going to rise to the top of his class. So help me God, Flat Alex, you shall beat all the other flat children!

Travel is so first world it’s not even funny. It’s sick, really. Even “budget” travel. Ha. Hahaha. The  ambitious trips we go on come in around $2K. To some, pocket change, but a lot for us. That’s a lot for most Americans. Too much.

I hereby rename travel ‘adventure.’ Because you, poor and/or middle-class person (ie us) can have an adventure at the park rather than going ‘traveling’ and saying irritating things like ‘travel feeds my soul…”   on  Instagram whilst refusing to acknowledge class privilege. You know what feeds my soul? The 40 percent off coupons at Michael’s.

WTF ever tangent, how were we going to pay for this? I’m not going to sit here and pretend that piece was easy to figure out.

There’s an underlying reason I try so hard to get a good adventure in wherever we can stick one. Eli has cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening wild card of a disease. I wanted us to go to the the ocean. Check, by 1.5 he’d been there.

In January 2016 he’d been hospitalized for the third time in three years.

But that was behind us. He was well now. It was time for the Grand Canyon.

Easy peasy not easy I needed to sell something.

My soul? Hmmm…

My body? Nah….

How about some words? Settled.

When Al Jazeera America existed, it paid well for me to go do off-the-radar stories.

I arrived in Duncan, Okla.

“Al Jazeera…America?” a local mulled it over. He asked if I was in the Muslim Brotherhood.

“No, I’m not in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

With that established, the source I met in a neighborhood where the private wells were contaminated by Halliburton, one of the most powerful entities in the state and fuggetabout this little town, drove me around and told me everything I needed to know.

At one point we pulled up to a home that Halliburton bought because it contaminated the groundwater. A security guy rolled up and parked, and this gent I was with floored it in his Jeep. Rapid shifted us on outta there.

“See, see what I mean?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, thinking the security guard was actually probably just on his phone.

The guy with the Jeep never made the story. But he made the story.

I got out alive in the town that Halliburton owned.


I wrote.

In came the check and off we went.

We packed a bunch of stuff into the car, including Flat Alex. He played with Laila and Eli for a while before I slipped him into a side pocket of my messenger bag. No problem, buddy. So far Alex proved himself a quiet and agreeable little chap. Laila and Eli –  needed to take note.


We loaded up the family truckster and hopped on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City, heading West. Our destination for the first leg of this Grand Canyon-bound sojourn: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

En route, Mark got a grand idea. Thirty years ago, at age 5, he’d been on a road trip with his parents and three sisters. Outside of Amarillo, Texas, at a Route 66 roadside attraction, the family stopped at so-called Cadillac Ranch, a line of half-buried Caddies in the Texas dirt. We decided to do the same thing.


Roughly 32 mood swings (none from Alex) , four hours and 260 miles later, we arrived in Amarillo. West of town, there they were, in a pasture, beyond a barbed wire fence, those half-buried Cadillacs jutting up from the earth that Mark remembered. Lots of people had the same idea we did, to get out of the car on this bright and sunny day and check out this tourist trap/art installation.

As we approached, Mark noticed things had changed in 30 years.

He did remember, at 5, seeing the cars. He didn’t remember so many people. Fifty or 75 milled around. There wasn’t spray paint back then either. A lot of people bought spray paint from a little girl and her dad out of the back of a pickup at the entrance. Word on the street was she was saving for a trip to Six Flags.

Man, was it dusty out in that field. The combination of wind, dust and aersosol paint did not make for a pleasant experience.

I immediately freaked out about Eli’s lungs.

We shouldn’t be here, in the dust and the fumes. This was ludicrous.

Who were these yahoos who thought it was an awesome idea to spray aerosol paint in the wind? These idiots next threw their empty spray cans on the ground. WTF?!?!

And guess what Eli wanted to do – Pick up every half empty paint can he could find and see how it worked, of course! When I 86’d that little initiative, he dissed the spray cans for the colored lids, which made convenient shovels with which to mess around with the sticky, red, dusty dirt.


It was then I discovered Alex had a social conscience:

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We snapped a few photos, including one in which I pretended this place was awesome.

Total lie.

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I worried not only about Eli’s lungs but that dear Alex would fall victim to a Texas panhandle wind gust.

Every time we took Flat Alex out, we so worried for his safety. There were toddler hands. There was wind.

We exited and piled back into the car post haste, vowing never to return.

Hey, Laila – did you like it the Cadillac Ranch?

“No, I didn’t like it.”

Eli-how about you?



Next stop: Santa Fe.

In attempt at vacation cost control, we booked a campsite in the middle of Santa Fe at Los Suenos RV Park & Campground. We don’t have an RV – we have a tent. The Trip Advisor reviews seemed solid and staff were super friendly on the phone.

Texas hills had opened up into scrubby plains-mesa, where we saw antelope crossing signs, but no antelopes, jack rabbits and wild turkeys. We drove through a small dust storm. As we rolled along I-40 and into New Mexico, our elevation hit more than 7000 feet compared to just 1200 feet in Oklahoma, which was once the bottom of an ocean. Rolling

Then a snow storm hit.

Wait, what? Cuz we were camping and I didn’t pack for snow and cold temps?

Like we really didn’t have enough blankets for a snowstorm. What is this the Oregon Trail?

Oh dear God, night was falling.

What were we going to do?

And would we even survive?






Frugal Florida: 10 days, 2 tots, 54 hours in a car, 3,037 miles and $2,153

We took a Griswold-style road trip in the family truckster to Florida for Spring Break.

“Frugal” is a relative term. Taking a vacation, traveling, etc. –  not frugal moves in my book. I consider travel a luxury.  One I shall claim is mine to be had! MWAHAHAAA!

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Taking trips together to make good memories as often as we can is a maje. priority. That’s why I’m opening the books on our travels with this post. If a buncha knuckleheads like us can spring it, maybe all the knuckleheads out there can take a decent trip, too. I periodically try and write of our effort to be less financially f*cked as middle class people. As of late, that effort doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing – I scrambled in February to balance my full-time job and mom duties with a few side gigs so we could take a vacation. That followed Mark’s stint over the holidays with a second job in retail. We’re trying to stockpile some cash, not take on debt and generally, be better, more responsible grown-up humans, in light of my son’s cystic fibrosis diagnosis. That’s not a bad thing.

But srsly, ppl, you can only have so many priorities. Mark and I have been busy doin’ that shuffle called life.  Enough blathering, here we go:

Spring break is upon us again. Before we take off (next week!!!) to explore the great beyond, whatever that means, I shall write a round-up of last year’s trip to Florida. It only took an entire year for me to get this done. #slow #tired #ohwhocares

FLORIDA, March 13-22, 2015

The plan: Arrive in Sarasota with unexploded heads. Return from Sarasota to OKC with unexploded heads.

Before we left, we realized we had no reliable vehicle to get to Florida, and being frugal-walleted, we weren’t going to fly.

We rented a little Kia Sorento. Kinda small, but new. The rental fee was $477. We agreed to leave at 4 a.m., which, obviously, meant we slept in until 9 a.m. I prefer sleep to an early start. Mark arrived to pick up our rental only to find some mix-up had delayed our launch. No surprise there! I messaged a friend I’d planned to stay with in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d given her the wrong date.  No surprise there! And we were off! 

I estimated our gas costs with the AAA cost calculator. If my record-keeping serves me, the estimate was $306 and we ended up spending $316 on gas in 3,037 miles total, there and back.

Note: Driving with toddlers is complete insanity.

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In L&E’s defense, they were each so good until somewhere between the hour of 8 and 10 on each of the four days we drove. Like clockwork, boredom kicked in, as did whining, and crying and backseat boundary wars. At the time we left for Florida, Laila was 4 and Eli, 2. For the best, it’s all a blur now. There was that stop at the Dollar Store for any crummy toy that stood to wow our little people, if only for a few minutes. At one point L&E ran circles in the parking lot of an Arkansas funeral home. Mark has this habit of topping off the tank 24/7. It totally jives with my small bladder, so it’s cool. TMI. He stopped for gas 11 times by my tally. It helped the kids get the grumps out to stretch out in the car.


We got motels to break up two-day journey to and from Florida. No bed bugs and a free breakfast. Under $80 a night a pop. I’ll take it.

For our stay, we settled on an RV park! I’ve never done an RV park. As it turns out, my aunt and uncle, who I almost never see, were in Florida and staying at the Sun N Fun RV Park. They are hardcore RVers, and somehow, had a spare and extremely nice RV for us to borrow. This baby was like the Cadillac of RVs. We serendipitously took advantage of the free RV and their vast knowledge of RV livin’.

The Sun N Fun RV Park

Indeed, Sun N Fun lived up to its name. There was sun. There was fun.

Below, Eli gives cheek at a low country boil hosted by friends of my aunt and uncle.

What is a low country boil?

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I, cheeky fellow, am thinking of the next time I will splash in big blue ie the ocean.

You throw Southern food items into a giant pot – corn on the cob, potatoes, shrimp, etc. etc. You boil it outside. You throw it all on a table. And then you dig in.

Other great thing about Sun N Fun – you can drink margaritas at the toddler pool. We drank a lot of margaritas. They had goofy theme nights, too. We did the karaoke on our last night. The RV set is full of ‘glamping’ families and retirees, so if that’s not your scene, you might consider staying elsewhere. It had good amenities for kids like a playground, giant bouncy air bubble thing, etc. We spotted no gators in a pond.

OH – you should note it is not on a beach. That was the downfall of the Sun N Fun, unless you are the type who doesn’t like the beach. I do like the beach.

Do you like dogs? There are a lot of dogs at Sun N Fun. One woman walking a little dog yelled in a thick New Jersey accent at another RVer whose big dog wasn’t on a leash, per the park rules. So it is that kind of place, which you should know before you book, in case you find dogs and/or angry New Jersey residents less than palatable.

We had an overall fun experience and got to visit not only with aunt and uncle, but other relatives who happened to be in town, like my sis & hubs and new nephew Ben and Mark’s parents. Thus, we got the best of both worlds, with a healthy rotation of extended-family face time and inner-circle family face time.

It cost $475 for seven nights.

Food and sundries

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To keep costs down, I shopped in the off-off season on for things like a new (vintage-yet-extremely-high-coverage thank God) bathing suit for me and beach gear for the littles. We used Kohls gift cards for things like towels and flip flops. BTW: Best thing I spent my cash on before we left? About five new $5 DVDs from Target and an adapter for my laptop so the kids could watch in the car. Worth it.

In Florida, we stocked up on lunch and breakfast foods. Even if you eat out at cheap places – Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, etc. –  it adds up! We went out to eat a few times. I don’t like eating seafood in landlocked states (ie Oklahoma). I try to eat a lot of seafood while on the coast. Not a fan of cooking seafood. More of a fan of having someone else cook it for me.

I have little in the way of restaurant reviews to share. In Sarasota, we at at a place called the Blue Dolphin Diner that appeared to be the only breakfast place in town, so long was the line and unremarkable the food. A little road-side restaurant/bar stop on a mini-trip to Sanibel Island called Dock of the Bay Diner had a tasty fish n chip.

OH – I threw a party at our RV site after having  three too many margs at the toddler pool. The spread was pretty thin and if I remember correctly included an aging pasta salad that had made the trip from Oklahoma to Florida in a cooler. I banned the children from having barbecue. PBJ for you! No meat for the kids! It had to be the worst party ever! Luckily, everyone there was related to me, so they had no choice but to forgive and forget. HA.

This is what we spent on food and supplies in ten days of travel: $390

Other ways we saved money:

Speaking of booze, spending days in the sun sipping margs robbed me of my night-time power vacation drinking energy. I discovered I’m not 2o anymore, which was how old I was the last time I visited Florida. Thus, I retired early. I mean, like, even ONE toddler poolside marg had me in bed by 8 p.m. Point being, since I was too tired to hit the bottle full-tilt vacation style, we saved beer money.

A lot of saving money entails refusing to spend it. We skipped Disney. Two-and-a-half is a nightmare age for Disney. Sorry, Eli. Later! I suppressed the urge to buy lattes and pedicures and massages every six hours.We spent nothing on souveneirs for ourselves, though we bought a few gifts for others.

Enjoying free things, and each other! 

We spent a lot of time on Sarasota beaches, which are free to enjoy. My kids loved the ocean. We used massive energy stores saving Eli from himself. Toddlers, man. They fling themselves toward danger and death at every turn. For peace of mind, I strapped the kids into Puddle Jumper life vests.

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We also took a day-trip to Sanibel Island, where we picknicked, made sandcastles and hung out with snow birds grandma & grandpa. That vacay-within-vacay was a huge highlight. Grandma Chris and I dove for shells to take home. I screamed and flailed as unfamiliar sea vermin poked heads out of the damn things. Per online research, Sanibel beach was covered in seashells which I assumed contained no living matter. Not so. We had to swim a ways out into the ocean to find shells. I felt hardier after surviving the seashell mission.

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The total cost of the trip: $2,153

Totally worth it.

Now for the vacation post-mort:

The question: Should we have flown? 

I have a limited amount of vacation time, roughly a dozen days per year. To spend four of those in a car is a lot of vacation time spent in a car. Time is a priceless commodity, but saving it often costs. I’m willing to plan, save and pay more next time to save time. A budget airline has added routes from OKC to Florida, so there’s that!

With more research and planning, airline tickets could be in order next time we take a trip.

Cheers. We head to the Grand Canyon next week. I’m going to try and make dispatches from the road. Wish us all luck. xo




When being bad is good: the tax refund trip that rescued us

It’s August 5, 2011.

I’m sitting in a cafe off of the highway south of San Francisco sipping coffee. The front page I hold — a free copy of the San Mateo County Examiner — carries news of yet another market crash.

My husband sits across from me and snaps a picture of me holding the newspaper so we remember the date. He is under-employed as he has been for last two years, try as he has to find a teaching job in Michigan, poster state for economic collapse, its rusting shells of manufacturing giants physical reminders of economic turmoil and despair and hardship.

Why were we there, in Michigan, and then, the California cafe?

There are three reasons.

First of all, my mom had become sick. Her diagnosis with terminal cancer prompted Mark to turn down a good job offer at a university in Chicago. Instead, I found lower-paying work in the southeast corner of the state where I grew up, Michigan. We moved so I could be with my mom.

Weeks after moving, we found out I was pregnant with our daughter. I treaded water, tired and trying not to drown, occasionally projectile vomiting on the way to an assignment. It was hard to make a living for two adults and one forthcoming person in small-town digital (read: no money in it) media. My daughter’s pending arrival became the best kind of diversion, a light in dark times. My mom came up with her name — Laila June. While pregnant, I waddled with my mom to chemo sessions and walked with her and her dimwitted-yet-loyal Chihuahua Isabelle in the park down the street. Later, after Laila was born, I consulted the wacky weed doc when my mom’s pain intensified to the point she could no longer move. Gayle passed on grass. The grass wasn’t going to do the trick. One of her last procedures killed the nerve endings around her spine so she could no longer feel the pain caused by the tumors that would not stop.

Here’s the second reason we sat at that cafe: In the spring of 2011, probably because of the austere existence brought on by the chain of events that led us to Michigan, we got a big tax refund.

We blew it all on a last-minute trip to see friends marry under the Redwoods in northern California’s Big Sur region.

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That August, as I sat in the California cafe, my mom had been gone just 10 months.

As for the third reason we found ourselves sitting in a cafe off of the highway — I don’t think I understood it fully at the time. We needed to invest in each other. We needed to escape the drudgery and to reassure ourselves that we could be happy again, individually and together. As life-affirming as those last months with my mom were, the eventual gut-wrenching loss turned my world upside down.  My mom died when my daughter hit six months, and my own long and torturous grieving process began. And in my experience, no matter how lovely a little bundle of joy may be, an infant’s first year of life throws a relationship totally out of whack. That was true for Laila — a healthy little buddy and the queen of the the chill baby set — and it was true years later for Eli — a little guy who came with two emergency surgeries, a deadly diagnosis and an ironclad will to live. Add to the already toxic mix for a married couple Mark’s under-employment — he raised our daughter, worked as a substitute teacher and at a deli. He enrolled in a community college to re-train in a health field, acing his science courses, only to learn the wait list for his preferred new line of work stretched on for years.

I’m sure it raised eyebrows in our inner circle that a young family standing on such tenuous financial ground would stash a 1.5-year-old with relatives, blow a comforting tax refund and make it for the West Coast. If it was a bum move, we didn’t care. Even with life’s bright spots in Michigan — good times with pals and my daughter’s first everything — we were living with a type of misery that wasn’t worth explaining to anyone and that only we could understand.

If California was a mistake, it was the best we ever made. Even today, with a good four years of perspective under my belt, with my own ongoing July spending freeze and minimalist dreams and focus on frugal habits and my contemplation of the fact that stress is a trigger that tempts me to swipe plastic, even with all of that, — I’m so glad we did blow that cash.

We booked it. We stashed Laila. We left.

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We pulled off the highway in San Mateo County and got breakfast on our first day in California.

Later, I jumped off a boulder into a cold and clear mountain pool and it washed away my misery. We drank good beer under the Redwoods and it strained the stress from our souls. The winds off of the coast whipped my hair and stripped away my grief and sorrow.

We discovered we were not only still in love, but that we liked each other. We could laugh. Life could be good again. Our friends are the best, that never changed. The world is big, and interesting, and wonderful, and experiencing it together and especially with our friends remained then and remains now one of our greatest joys.

Was it financially smart to move from Chicago to Michigan, my new husband passing up a solid job offer in favor of a my meager salary and proximity to my dying mother?


Then after she died, should we have rejuvenated our busted souls by taking walks in the park down the street rather than the Redwood forests?

Most likely.

Cash in the bank shouldn’t steer every decision. I don’t regret moves like these that salved hurting hearts- my mom’s, my own and Mark’s.

We were bad, and it was good. Was the trip a magic pill that solved all of our problems? No. But it sure helped.

Below, we drive down Lombard Street.

Have you ever taken a trip considered “a bad idea” given your financial circumstance at the time? What made you decide to go for it? Was it a mistake? Or, do you have no regrets? Why or why not? xo send me a note using the contact form at the bottom of this post or leave a comment below. xoxoxoxoxox

I like to write about cash money. I like to write at the intersection of money and emotion. Follow me top right via e-mail, on Twitter and Facebook as I figure it all out. In a world of Facebook braggarts and Insta perfection, I write about messing up.