The beauty in unplanning

When we started planning the Glacier National Park portion of our vacation, I was a little bit at a loss. It had been more than 30 years since I’d been there, and I didn’t have any good ideas about where the best places to stay would be, or what the must-see sights were. From what I could tell, the things to do were 1) hike, 2) drive Going-To-The-Sun road, and 3) admire lovely scenery.

Based on this information, I made a plan. We’d arrive Monday afternoon, early enough to do a short hike. Tuesday would be more hiking, Wednesday would be driving the pass, and Thursday we’d make our departure for Bozeman.

That plan didn’t even make it through Monday. First of all, I underestimated the time it would take us to get out of our hotel that morning. I’d also forgotten about the time change between Idaho (where we stayed the first night) and Montana, so what was a three-hour drive turned into four hours on the clock. We had to make a couple unscheduled stops – first, to top off the oil in the car, and second, to load up on fresh cherries. By the time we arrived at our hotel and home for the next couple nights, it was already around 5 p.m.

Tuesday did start out according to plan. Armed with a list of day hikes that we’d gotten at the hotel, we set off for the park. We found a trail that led to a waterfall, and we also walked the Avenue of the Cedars, a short enough and flat enough trail that we let Kiddo run instead of loading him into our carrier.

In fact, we had such a good time that as we came to the end of the walk, I said, “I wish we were doing more hiking tomorrow instead of driving over the pass.”

“We could do that,” my husband said. And there went my plan for Wednesday. Rather than driving over the pass, we’d do some more day hikes, and then on Thursday we’d start our drive to Bozeman via Going-to-the-Sun road, exit the park on the east side, and proceed from there.

Wednesday morning we picked out a couple more day hikes around the lake, and drove to the park. And were thwarted by Kiddo before we even got to the first one, because he fell asleep just as we entered the park. To preserve the boy’s naptime, my husband suggested we continue up the road for a bit, then come back.

By the time we found a scenic pullout, we were well on the way up Going-to-the-Sun road. And that was when we made what turned out to be the pivotal decision for the day. Why not continue on to the visitor center at the top of Logan Pass, and hike around there? Well heck, why not?

And as we continued, I found out what it is about Glacier National Park that brings people back year after year. The scenery was breathtaking. I was snapping pictures out the window every mile. My husband, on the other hand, had to pay more attention to the winding road hanging off the side of the mountain. “Tomorrow I’m driving this, so you can gawk,” I said.


But the day was just getting started. At the visitor center, a ranger showed us two hikes we could do: one to Hidden Lake overlook, and another that made its way along the mountain wall we’d just climbed. We opted for the lake, since it had a definite endpoint.

That hike is one I’m going to remember for a long, long time. Glacier had had more snow than usual this past winter. Even though it was summer down in the valleys, snow fields remained up top. The hike to the lake is a boardwalk path, but even so, a good part of our 1.5-mile trek out there was covered in snow. Like most of the other hikers, the three of us we were wearing shorts and t-shirts (and sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.) But that wasn’t a problem – it was 68 degrees outside, and all that high-altitude climbing kept us warm.

We let Kiddo walk for a while, even through the snow. Then we loaded him onto my back and kept walking.


We crossed the Continental Divide shortly before the overlook. We also met up with half a dozen mountains goats along the way.

It was a gorgeous day, sun shining, snow glistening, mountains towering above us. And we wouldn’t have experienced it if we hadn’t spontaneously added an extra day of hiking; if Kiddo hadn’t been napping at an inconvenient time; if we hadn’t missed our intended turnaround spot and ended up halfway up the mountain.

Organizing is one of my personal strengths. I thrive on plans on checklists. But this trip reminded me that sometimes the best plan is the one where you throw the schedule out the window.


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Road trip or bust!

Who on earth would be crazy enough to plan a two-week road trip–14 consecutive days–with a just-turned-2 toddler?

Oh, right. That would be me.

In my defense, parts of the trip had been in the works well before there was a Kiddo to complicate the plans. But after years of postponing and rescheduling, I finally said, Enough. It’s happening. We’re going to make it work. And amazingly, it not only worked, but turned out to be one of the best vacations we’ve taken as a family.

Our itinerary took us first to Glacier National Park, in the northwest corner of Montana. We then headed south to my hometown, Bozeman, and while there, split our time between the annual Sweet Pea Festival and my 20-year high school reunion.  The following week, my parents, sisters, and I (plus husbands and kids, of course) visited Yellowstone National Park, a couple hours south of Bozeman.

So what inspired this grand tour? Nostalgia, initially. When I was a kid, there were two things my family did on a regular basis: visit Yellowstone at least once a year, and spend Sweet Pea weekend hanging out at the park where the festival was always held. In fall 2008, I was driving on a road that reminded me of Yellowstone, and got the idea that we should take another family trip to the park and revisit some of our favorite sights. And why not schedule it adjoining Sweet Pea, and check off two things at once?

The family was on board; we set our sights on summer 2009 so that we’d have time to schedule time off from work. And then my sister and I both got pregnant about three months apart. Making that trip with months-old babies wouldn’t work out well, we all agreed. In spring 2009, we postponed the trip to the following year.

But a few months later, before I’d gotten around to booking lodging in the park, my husband’s family stepped in with their own plans for an big family August 2010 trip. They’d already picked dates and made hotel reservations when I learned about it. Our little family could have made both trips happen, but it would have meant taking more than three weeks off work, and taking a cross-country flight right after completing a two-day drive back from Montana–and all that with a one-year-old. I was informed that our Yellowstone trip would have to be postponed yet another year.

I’ll confess that I didn’t concede this as gracefully as I could have. I’d been making these plans for a year and had postponed it once already. Now I had to wait not one but two more years? Even now I can still feel some of the ire that was bubbling back then. I reluctantly agreed, but defiantly hammered my stake into the ground: August 2011 was MINE.

Whatever, people said. After all, that was almost two years away. Who knows (and who cares) what we’d be doing then?

I knew. I cared. I started making plans. At first, it was just going to be Sweet Pea and Yellowstone, in some order. Then I remembered that my husband and I had talked about visiting Glacier Park, and that it could be doable even with a young kid. I decided we could fit a Glacier visit into whichever week we weren’t going to Yellowstone. Finally, after that was settled, my high school classmates decided to follow local tradition and schedule our reunion to coincide with Sweet Pea weekend.

It was a lot to cram into two weeks. It was especially a lot considering that by the time the vacation happened, we’d have a two-year-old who needed regular snacks and naps and attention. We were worried he’d protest being cooped up in the car for hours of driving, and that he wouldn’t sleep well in unfamiliar hotel rooms. We knew his little legs didn’t have the stamina to keep up with us on hikes and geyser tours, so we’d need to make accommodations.

However, I’m an organizer at heart, and I was already in the mindset that we were going to make this trip happen, come hell or high snowpack. We found some great tools and techniques that helped make things go more smoothly (more to come on these), we built in downtime for naps, and we kept an open mind toward adjusting the schedule on the fly if needed.

And in the end, it was all worth it. We saw amazing sights that we’d never seen before, revisited others that I’d grown up with, brushed elbows with mountain goats, and spent rare time with family and friends. Would I change anything? Oh sure, looking back there were a few tweaks that could have been made, but nothing major. Would I do it again? Unquestionably.

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Less planning, more playing

If you were compiling a list of Useful Traits for Parents, you might include “makes detailed plans for the long term” as a desirable characteristic.  After all, there’s tuition to pay for, and vacations to juggle, and who wants to eat the same dinner three times in a week?  But as a long-term planner myself, I’ve discovered that trying to plan the finer details of the future often backfires in the parenting department.

It starts innocently enough.  I’ll imagine some scenario that seems reasonably likely to happen, and then try to plan how I’ll handle it when it arises.  Sometimes this works out well.  More often, I get stressed out as I realize that I have no idea how to handle the situation, and from there it’s a downward slide into whimpering and pounding my head against the table.  The epitomic episode of this happened one morning while I was still pregnant, pondering how I’d talk to my still-unborn son about drug use.  In my imagination, the situation I had to talk him through got more and more convoluted with all kinds of soap-operatic details, until I found myself thinking OH CRAP I SUCK AS A PARENT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO HANDLE THIS!!  Of course I didn’t consider that I didn’t actually need an answer right at that moment; we’d have a dozen years or so (we hope) to figure that one out.

Usually, my future-worries center around more immediate milestones, and several of them have already come to pass.  Yet most of my “I don’t know how I’ll handle it when…” scenarios have turned out to be less of a Big Deal than I anticipated.  For example:

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts eating table food.  The mess!  The stubbornness!  And how on earth am I going to teach him not to be picky about certain foods like I am?
Reality: We’ve been fortunate that Kiddo is an eager eater who loves to try anything off Mom and Dad’s plates.  The baby food was messy at first, but not what I’d dreaded, and he’s doing a great job now with regular food.  He loves things I never tried until I was an adult, like hummus on pita bread.  Now that we’ve taught him some simple sign language, he can tell us when he’s hungry, thirsty or all done eating, which eliminates a lot of potential frustration on both sides.

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts crawling and walking.  Our house isn’t kid-safe yet, and we don’t do a great job of keeping it picked up.  We don’t have the time to do all the babyproofing we need to do.  He’ll get into everything!
Reality: We intentionally chose not to bubblewrap the world.  Instead, we did just a little bit of advance childproofing (baby gate on the stairs, some padding on the fireplace) and then waited to see what mischief Kiddo chose to get into.  A lot of it has been handled with a simple “No” and redirection.  In some cases we did need to do a little additional work (outlet covers, magnetic cabinet locks).  A few things required mental adjustment on our part (gating off the seldom-used wood stove was impractical, and letting him pound on it really isn’t that bad).  So far we’ve had only one major mishap, and to be honest, it was probably time to upgrade that lamp anyway.

I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he throws a tantrum in public, and everyone is staring at us!
Reality: I confess, I cheated did research for this one, with more on the schedule.  I’ve gleaned some good suggestions so far and have been able to head off a couple tantrums before they got out of control.  Experience has found that I get better results if I start by empathizing with my toddler-raging Kiddo and acknowledging what he’s upset about, before trying to calm him down.  And if anyone has given us the stink-eye during a meltdown, I haven’t noticed it.  I’ve been too busy focusing on my child to look around at how the bystanders are taking it.

Still brewing in the queue are situations that we haven’t gotten to yet, including:
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he tries to run off on his own in public.  How will I control him and keep him safe?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he’s ready for potty training.  Does he really need to learn how to pee standing up?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when we have another child, and I have to divide my attention between the two of them.  Will Kiddo #1 feel like we don’t love him as much?  Will I be able to give Kiddo #2 all the attention he or she needs?  When will I sleep?

Reality: Just as my husband and I have learned to trust our parenting instincts in the present, I need to trust that those instincts will continue to develop in lockstep with Kiddo.  I don’t know right now how to calm a tantrumming three-year-old or talk to a teenager about drug use because I don’t have a three-year-old or a teenager.  But one day I will, and I’ll known him as well as I know the toddler I’ve got now.  I’ll be able to draw on that knowledge to figure out how to handle the situation in a way best suited for him as an individual.  That instinct has been there for me so far; it’ll be there for me in the future.  It had better be, because I’m planning on it.