We charged into 2009 with a trip that will hopefully become our annual tradition… the Escape to Flagstaff! The idea was to get out of town for a couple days and head up north to play in the snow. It was a spontaneous desire that struck us after we heard what a great time some friends of ours had the week before. I had some points earned for a free hotel stay, so we thought it would be a great idea to just grab the kids, load the sleds in the Pilot, and head up to the mountains for one last break before I headed back to work and the kids headed back to school. We made our plans on Thursday: on Saturday morning we would get up early, leave the 70 + degree weather in the Valley, make the 2.5 hr drive to the snow, get in a few hours of play, retire to the hotel, and then do it all over again before coming back home. We took inventory of our winter gear and found that we were missing a few key items for the younger boys. We were able to put together some options for Ethan, but the twins had outgrown their Kansas gear, and we had given other items away. Kendra went out Thursday and Friday in search of snow boots and gloves for Jaden and Dillon: no such luck. All she could find were a slew of cotton gloves that we could use in a pinch to keep their hands warm… at least until they got wet. “No problem”, we said. “We will get up early on Saturday as planned and just stop off at a sporting goods store along the way.” At worst, we figured, we would pick something up when we got to Flagstaff… surely there would be winter gear there.
Saturday morning. We backed out of the driveway at the crack of ten o’clock. Confident that we would find our remaining snow accessories quickly at the sporting goods store down the road and still be on the mountain after lunch. Four hours and 5 sporting goods stores later, we found ourselves making the final ascent into the rugged mountain city of Flagstaff…without the winter gear. As I internally rationalized the fact that a Phoenix-area sporting store would not have winter outfitting in December, I became distracted by the silence that suddenly overtook the car. I looked back and saw the boys staring out the windows at the wispy white clouds that had come circling in to meet us. They made a cotton-candy layer that hovered just above the cars and twirled slowly around as if to gaze curiously back at the children in the cars staring wondrously at them. Through the veil of clouds rose the ponderosa pine trees dusted with snow. I rolled down my window to take in the clean mountain air and add to the effect of the children’s fascination. The 36 degree (and dropping) temperature reminded me quickly that we were no longer in the Valley and we had, indeed, found winter… but stopping at the stores in town, we found that we still could not locate boots or gloves for our children… seriously. Under outfitted but undaunted, the children begged us to press on.
The excitement in the backseats grew as we bounded further up into the mountain highway toward our sledding destination. The curious clouds outside of town gave way to a stouter set of grey white clouds that appeared to be held aloft by the spiny ponderosas. The clouds initially sprinkled frozen rain on us, which gave way to balls of hail, and eventually, flakes of snow. As we climbed higher in elevation, the pine trees became more dense, and stretched higher into the clouds. The branches of the trees were now heavily laden with snow. Every so often there was evidence of a branch or a sapling that succumbed to the weight of the snowy load, but the sturdy ponderosas largely held their posts and bore their loads handsomely. We drove past snowed in ranch houses set in yawning mountain valleys, and homes with icicles so large they seemed to be posing as stalactites. At every clearing the boys insisted we should stop and break out the sleds. They had all handled themselves quite well during the many detours and fruitless searches, but the anticipation was about to overtake them. Just ahead, the sign for the turnoff into the Wing Mountain snow play area came into view.
We made our way down the bumpy road toward the parking area. After about 200 yards, we came to a halt. There was a line of cars ahead of us and no one seemed to be moving. The time was nearing 2:30 by now, and the park closed at 4. We decided to get everyone as prepared as we could while we sat in the line waiting. As Kendra was getting the final few items for everyone out of the back of the Pilot, she overheard a conversation between the truck behind us and an exiting vehicle. Apparently, from where we sat in line, there was at least another 40 minute wait to get into the parking lot because the place was at capacity and several cars had to leave prior to others being let in. Kendra recalled an area we passed on the way up to the mountain near our hotel that had a hill with kids sledding. The boys were quickly sold on the idea of going somewhere else to sled immediately rather than sitting in line to only have a few minutes to play in the snow. We turned ourselves around and bumped our way back to the highway heading into town. The trip had been peaceful to that point, exceptionally so, but I knew I had to be on borrowed time.
We made it down the highway without incident, and as we stopped at the traffic light that would lead us toward downtown – a moment happened. The snow that had been falling broke momentarily then gave way to giant flakes of downy snow that floated toward us as if they had been unzipped from the clouds. Jaden rolled his window down and stretched his arms out as far as he could reach; his palms extended flat to provide safe landing for the pokey snowflakes. Dillon quickly followed suit and the snowflakes readily accepted the invitation into the car. Ethan was wide-eyed, mouth agape, and head drifting left and right…completely awestruck by the invading snow. Elation slowly gave way to frustration as Ethan futilely stretched his arms out to embrace the snowflakes. He pressed his little body against the shoulder restraints and tried in vain to snatch the little curiosities as they floated through the window toward him only to land on a lap or in the hair of an older brother, stay briefly, then melt away. I turned to look at him, and he was trying his baby best to hold it together but his lip began to quiver and curl as the disappointment of being left out of the fun was becoming too great to bear. I had to do something. It struck me. I reached over and started the moon roof open…an initial puff of snow from the roof dropped in, and then the billowy flakes from the sky poured down as they had through the windows. The opening made a path that led right to Ethan, who shrieked in delight as the first snowflake alit on his fingertips and danced around as is slowly melted. The children’s voices created a chorus of elation as their shrieks and giggles poured out from their seats. Each had an portal to the snow and offered every available limb to the flakes as a landing strip. I was completely taken by the scene of these four boys with mile-wide grins and snow coming in through the top and sides of our vehicle. There was no concern with the cold. There was no concern with the moisture on the interior. There was only our sons and their ability to find such joy in this simple snowfall and in each other’s appreciation for the fun they each were having. One would look to the next and laugh in reaction to the fun he would see his brother having. The few minutes at that intersection seemed to stretch into hours, and even that did not begin to feel like long enough to enjoy it all. Had nothing else gone right that weekend, the experience at that stop light would have been worth any inconvenience that followed.
We eventually shut out the snow and drove on to the hotel. We were informed by the hotel staff of a practice field at the local university that doubled as a sledding hill in the winter. It turned out to be a more than suitable substitute for Wing Mountain as we were able to break in the sleds and play in the snow without the hassle of the larger crowds or the worry of having to experience everything before the park closed. We spent a couple hours at the hill and had a great time. The next morning we headed up to Wing Mountain and conquered all the hills before retiring from all the fun we’d had and finally returning to the warmth of the Valley of the Sun. 2009 was off to a wonderful start…and while we know it won’t be a perfect year, if we continue to find opportunities to laugh and enjoy the little things, we will always have plenty to look back on fondly.
Thanks for coming along for the ride…