Cedar Ridge and Thanks-Giving Square

We recently discovered one of the nicest parks in DFW for a longish, moderately challenging hike.

Cedar Ridge Preserve in southwest Dallas offers woodsy paths and a sweeping view from the crest of the Cattail Pond Trail.

The elevation only goes up to 750 feet (this is DFW after all) but the cedar thickets and general ambiance are reminiscent of more mountainy states.

I enjoyed it a lot. Luke thought the day was too hot for hiking. He’s more into urban exploration these days, so after a pause for lunch at a local Cheddars, our next stop was Thanks-Giving Square in downtown Dallas.

We parked next to this building, which was being cleaned by window-washers. I’d never really thought about it before, but now I can’t decide if that would be a terrible job or an awesome job to have.

The same boy who was too exhausted to take another step on the trails of Cedar Ridge was miraculously restored to full energy levels once he was back on pavement.

We had come to Thanks-Giving Square to see the chapel, specifically its ceiling. But the Square itself was a pleasant surprise.

When you stand in the gold ring and speak, it amplifies your voice. Pretty cool.

The chapel is small and unassuming…

…but its stained-glass-spiral ceiling is magical.

Just inside the door is a braille description of the ceiling and a raised image of it, so that blind people can “see” what it looks like. I love that.

Thanks-Giving Square is also the entry point to the Dallas Pedestrian Network, a system of tunnel and bridges connecting 36 blocks of downtown. It’s still in use, but it’s kind of a failed experiment. We walked a little of it and saw mostly empty corridors and abandoned shopfronts.

We left the tunnels by a different exit and explored the downtown area a bit. Just to look at and walk around in, Dallas is actually one of our favorite cities. Aesthetically speaking, we like it better than downtown Austin or downtown Fort Worth. I’d never want to live in Dallas though, it’s the most unabashedly materialistic, classist and soulless culture I’ve ever experienced.

It’s hard to capture the visual appeal of Dallas in photographs. You can’t really do it from the middle distance.

You have to reveal it one close-up at a time, little snapshots of urban beauty.

Note to self: remind Elizabeth to take off the supply pack once we’re off the trails.

Ever get the feeling you was bein’ watched?

I really wanted to get a good shot of this building, which is clearly either haunted or infested by vampires, but the street was too narrow.

Best I could do:

Luke wanted to hang around and see the city at night. Since it was still fairly early in the day, and the Dallas Botanical Garden has $1 admittance in August, we decided to kill a few hours there.

As soon as Luke’s feet were back on grass, he remembered that he was too hot and tired to walk around. I was able to keep him moving for a while…

…but pretty soon he found a shady bench to nap on and said to come find him when we were ready to go.

Elizabeth and I wandered for a bit…

…and then she gave out on me too. Kids these days, no stamina just because it’s like 150 degrees out. I explored on my own for a little longer, and found some areas I’d missed on our last visit.

Always nice to find unexpected Johnny in the wild.

When I’d seen everything I wanted to see I found the kids again, but we were still a few hours away from sunset. We decided to kill time in a nice air-conditioned movie theater. Luke hadn’t seen “Baby Driver” yet since he was in Anza when Elizabeth and I went to see it, so we found a local showing. Luke loved it as much as we did.

It was still not dark yet, so when we pulled around the shopping center that the theater was in and saw an electronics store, Luke said he wanted to go in and look for something.

It was one of the oddest stores I have ever been in.

It did not have the parts Luke was looking for, but by the time he was done looking the sun was setting, so we headed back toward downtown. I don’t have many good pics from after dark, because I didn’t bring a tripod, but it was a pretty walk.

Thus ended our day in the city. As I write this, five weeks later, the heatwave has ended and the weather is turning to fall. Harvey had just submerged huge swaths of south Texas and Irma is currently plowing through Puerto Rico on her way to Florida. Most of the northwest is on fire. Interesting times.

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Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Family, kids, Life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Travelling to the South, Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

When you love to see new places but work in retail, you get pretty good at traveling on a shoestring budget. Most of what we eat and drink on our road trips is brought with us in a big cooler. But if someone recommends a particular shop or restaurant, we’ll usually include it as part of the general experience. A friend recommended a place in Austin called “Juan in a Million” for breakfast tacos.

Tangent: on last year’s road trip we fell head over heels in love with San Antonio. It’s still at the top of our list of potential places to move to after Luke turns 18. Shortly after we returned home from that trip, I went to r/SanAntonio and asked the locals what they loved or hated about living there. The responses immediately degenerated into a heated argument about where to get the best breakfast tacos. I’ve since learned that there’s a semi-friendly rivalry between Austin and San Antonio regarding which city has the best breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are apparently Serious Business in south Texas.

Driving from our hotel to Juan in a Million brought us through parts of the city that took some of the shine off of Luke’s wide-eyed wonder. They looked fine to me, but I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years in downtown Riverside CA in the 1980s, which people tell me was a rough and dangerous time and place to be. To Luke’s eyes, the urban outskirts of downtown Austin looked slummy and unattractive. When we reached the charming Hispanic neighborhood where Juan in a Million is located and Luke said it looked “low-income and run-down,” I realized that my next duty as a parent is to broaden my kids’ horizons in a new direction. I’ve been so focused on trying to show them the shining best of what humanity can accomplish, I’ve neglected to teach them about the pleasures and realities of average inner-city life.

Juan in a Million is great. We were seated in a breezy screened patio that had been built onto the surrounding structures in a way that retained the outdoor vibe. Food and service were wonderful.

After breakfast we drove back to Zilker Park to pick up the trail loop where we had left off on Monday night. The drive took us through more areas of the city that Luke found lacking. I guess the “weird” aspects of Austin aren’t for everyone.

We parked near Barton Springs and walked downstream to connect with the hike-and-bike trail loop where Barton Creek flows into Lady Bird Lake.

Before long we came to Lou Neff Point with its pretty stone overlook.

We continued up the hike-and-bike trail, which gets less parky and more woodsy as you go.

You know those old prison movies where the rebellious hero inevitably ends up roasting in a metal box out in the hot sun? That’s what these metal restrooms reminded me of:

The trail crosses the river/lake at MoPac Expwy and circles back along the other bank.

We had planned to follow the trail at least back to Congress Ave before looping back to the car, but we got as far as the pedestrian bridge next to Lamar and kind of all decided at once that we had walked enough. It was getting hot again.

On the city side, the pedestrian bridge offers stairs for pedestrians and a spiral ramp for bicyclers. Of course we walked up the spiral.

The “power plant” fascinated Luke. He could tell at a glance that it didn’t seem to be in operation, and he wondered what sort of power it was generating and how.

As I write this blog post, I have googled info on the building and found that it is in fact no longer in operation as a power plant, that it is now a historical site and a multi-use structure. There you go, Luke.

The pedestrian bridge is lovely. The view from the top:

We crossed back over and returned to the car.

At that point we had to make a decision about whether to start the journey home ahead of commuter traffic, or commit to remaining in Austin until after the rush. We decided to stay.

Luke “collects” libraries, and the biggest one in Austin is at the University of Texas, so that was our next stop. Views of the University from the top of the parking garage…

…and the infamous clock tower viewed from near the library.

We were stopped at the entrance of the LBJ Presidential Library and told that it is only accessible by appointment and costs $10 per adult. Wtf? We asked if there were other, more visitor-friendly locations on campus and were directed to a small Texas history museum next door. If I had done more research before the trip, I would have learned that there are like a hundred libraries on that campus and almost all are free and open to the public. Thanks, unhelpful door guy! I’m going to be honest here, the few people we interacted with in Austin did not make a good first impression. The exception to that was some workers at Zilker Park who cheerfully called out to us as we were about to put money in the parking meters and told us that parking there is free on weekdays. I paid the good deed forward by stopping three other people from putting money in the park meters over the course of our three-day stay. In general, though, Austin seemed to be seriously lacking in the Texas friendliness that I’ve always liked so much.

Anyway, we wandered through the tiny museum and then gave up on the University and headed over to the flagship Whole Foods on Lamar. This is the original Whole Foods location, with corporate headquarters occupying the upper floors, a full-service restaurant inside the store and lots of special extras. I liked the living tapestry:

We wanted to explore the rooftop patio area, but the day was getting oppressively hot. It seemed like a good time to try that mochi stuff we’ve been seeing around lately. If you haven’t seen it, mochi is a Japanese dessert, basically balls of ice cream wrapped in a sweet rice dough. We picked out a bunch of different flavors and took them up to the roof.

My verdict: the ice cream is delicious, but I’m not a fan of the rice dough. It tastes raw and gluey to me. Loved the patio, though.

We still wanted to add an Austin library to Luke’s collection, so we googled “best library in Austin” and drove to the branch that was highest on most of the lists without being prohibitively far away.

All I can say is that this branch either paid to top those lists, or it offers services that go far beyond what is visible to the eye, or the reviewers are trolling en masse. It is a tiny, dreary, uninspiring library. Elizabeth found a place to sit with her laptop in the children’s section while Luke explored what little there was to see. She was immediately asked to leave the children’t section for being “too old to be in there.” Seriously, wtf?

No longer trusting reviews, we decided that the main central branch might be a safer bet. By then the commuter traffic was starting to get problematic, so we got to the central library as quickly as we could and settled in for the duration.

The central branch was…better, but that’s a low bar. Luke liked it because it’s four stories high and the third story is full of the informative non-fiction that he’s into. I found the decor (or lack thereof) to be depressingly drab and industrial. We all agreed that for whatever reason, Austinites do not love their public libraries and put no effort into making them cheerful or inviting.

We started the trek home when the library closed at 8pm. Getting home took over an hour longer than the drive down, because all of the traffic horror stories we had heard were rolled into one long stop-and-slow clusterfuck on I35 N.

We loved our visit to Austin, but ultimately decided that San Antonio is probably a better fit for us. Deciding factors include cost of living, traffic issues, a rather unfriendly social vibe and a straight up depressing library system.

Awesome breakfast tacos, though.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, food, frugality, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Traveling to the South, Part II

The first destination on Tuesday’s itinerary was Mt. Bonnell. We weren’t sure what to expect from “the highest point in Austin,” we really just wanted something to climb and a nice view from the top.

We got up early and drove to Covert Park in the relative cool-ish of the morning.We found a strip of parking spots and a stone staircase leading up a hillside.

There are about 100 steps, and when you’ve reached the top of the stairs, you’ve reached the top of Mt Bonnell.

There are shaded seating areas at the peak. This is a very domesticated “mountain.”

It wasn’t quite the climb we were expecting, but the views are great.

Luke said, “I think I can see Toad Hall from here.”

We found a trail at the top that runs along the crest and down the sides, curving around at both ends to emerge on either side of the parking lot. Once we had walked the full length of that, we felt like we had seen everything that Mt. Bonnel had to offer. We decided to just drive around for a while and see what there was to find.

We hadn’t driven far when we saw the entrance to Mayfield Park. A friend had mentioned that there are peacocks wandering around that park, so we pulled in. Can confirm: there are peacocks, and they wail in the trees like cats in heat.

We walked a nice little loop trail through the park and then continued our exploration.

Next we found the Contemporary Austin Sculpture Park. That was interesting.

After that we came to the Zilker Park Botanical Gardens.

I was honestly surprised by how little effort seemed to be put into this.

It’s like they had a few spare acres they didn’t know what to do with, so they decided to put in some stone terracing and a few pools and some koi and call it the Botanical Gardens.

The Botanical Gardens in Fort Worth and Dallas and hell, even Grapevine are nicer than the ones in Zilker Park, which was a genuine surprise to me. I don’t mean to sound complainy, it was still pretty and we enjoyed it. It just didn’t seem that different from any other park in Austin.

I have no idea why we’re standing so awkwardly far apart in this pic. I think it’s because I set the camera timer and ran over to join the kids and they just stayed where they were instead of scooching in.

I did like the dinosaur.

And there was a fun temporary exhibit of fairy houses made by local families and organizations. That was probably my favorite part.

It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the Botanical Gardens to Zilker Metropolitan Park, so that was our next stop. We wanted to see Barton Springs Pool and decide whether we wanted to go swimming there. On our way to the pool, we found a little miniature railroad that gives 25-minute rides around the park. We bought tickets. While we waited for the train, we checked out the pool and the adjacent creek swimming area and then had some snacks from a food truck. We were hungry enough for a full meal, but we had a 1pm lunch date with an old friend and didn’t want to spoil our appetites.

The train ride was fun and pretty.

We passed a kayak rental place and decided to come back and rent some kayaks after lunch. We passed Lou Neff Point and recognized the stone overlook as the place where we had decided to turn back on our hike the night before. In the distance we saw a big random heap of rocks in the middle of a field of grass, and of course we knew immediately that they must be climbed.

When the train ride ended, we made a beeline for the rocks. I have no idea why we love climbing stuff so much, but it’s a call that must be answered.

At 12:30 we headed off in search of a Whataburger. Now, I realize that visiting Austin and eating at Whataburger is like visiting NYC and eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square. But here’s the story for those who don’t know it: years ago, when play-by-email rpgs were my drug of choice, I played in a game called Austin After Dark. A key scene in that game was set in a Whataburger off of S Lamar. When I was planning the Austin trip, I messaged a fellow AAD player who lives in the area, told her that I would be in the city and asked her if she’d like to meet up at a certain Whataburger off of S Lamar to raise an iced-tea toast to our old characters and their adventures. She said that she would love to meet up, but that that particular Whataburger had closed down. However, there is another Whataburger off of S Lamar that would do just as well. So we met up there and had a really nice visit. I had only met her in person once before, on the 2007 road trip that launched this blog, but we have a gaming history that dates back to a Star Trek pbem I joined in 2002. (As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Luke commented, “I have no memory of that person, but that was a nice conversation.”)

After lunch, we headed back to Zilker park and rented three kayaks.

 

Elizabeth wanted to paddle all the way to the Congress Ave Bridge to see the bats underneath. I told her that the kayaks were rented out by the hour and that there was no way we could get to Congress Ave and back in an hour. She was very determined to try. So I told her we could make the attempt, as long as she agreed to pay for the second hour. She agreed to that, and we headed down the river.

Turns out you can’t actually see the bats in the daytime. You can hear them squeaking, but I guess parts of the bridge are hollow and they live inside. We chilled for a while and listened to their shrill little bat-voices.

Elizabeth got this shot with her phone camera. Swans!

My life’s philosophy in a nutshell:

Our expedition to the bridge and back took about an hour and twenty minutes. But the rental place only charged us for an hour, so Elizabeth was off the hook for her share.

Barton Springs Pool is fenced in and it costs money to swim there.

We decided that it would be more fun to swim in the adjacent creek area.

That would have been a good call if we had thought to bring pool shoes. The bottom of the creek is very rocky and slippery. And the spring-fed creek is COLD! We swam for less than an hour. Brr!

Our original plan had been to spend two days in Austin, but halfway through Day 2 we knew we wanted to stay for a third day. We didn’t want to stay at the same motel, though. We had only picked it because it was cheap and all we wanted was a place to sleep. But when we checked in they had added a bunch of bullshit extra fees (per-person charges in addition to the cost of the room? Really? AND you’re charging me per device for wifi?) that made it not-so-cheap. For the second night we stayed at a hotel next to the motel where we’d spent the first night. It was nicer and didn’t cost any more than the “cheap” motel had, since wifi was free and no weird fees were tacked onto the room cost.

Luke wanted to wait until dark and then walk around downtown to see the city lights close-up. I did not have the energy for another hike. We compromised: I napped at the hotel until dark and then we drove around downtown. That was pretty magical, and everything Luke hoped it would be.

Then we returned to the hotel and I slept like the dead for so long that we barely made it out of the room by the 11am checkout time.

Next: Day 3!

Read Part I here

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Austin After Dark, environment, Family, food, Friends, Gaming, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Role-Playing Games, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Travelling to the South, Part I

In March a fortune cookie told me it was time for another road trip:

So this week I cashed in some vacation time and we headed down to Austin. The trip was part recreation, part research. Once Luke turns 18 we’ll be free to relocate to wherever we please, so we’re checking out our options. There’s a lot to like about DFW, but we had never planned to grow old and die here.

We headed out bright and early on a Monday morning…and a warning light appeared on my dash display as soon as we pulled out of our parking lot.

My gallant Saturn, may she rest in peace, died a sudden and unjust death last fall when another car ran her out of her freeway lane and into the concrete divider. My new car has more bells and whistles than I’m used to, so I didn’t recognize the ominous-looking caliper-and-exclamation-point icon. Not going to lie, I was imagining the worst. But I stopped to get ice for the cooler as planned while Elizabeth googled warning light symbols for my car. Turned out it was just a low-tire-pressure warning. Whew!

The next stop was our favorite local donut shop, The Donut Wheel in Hurst. We have become indoctrinated in the Texas way of the kolache and needed a dozen sausage for the road. I recently read that the sausage ones aren’t really kolaches at all, they are klobasniki, but I’ve never actually heard anyone call them that.

Once properly provisioned, we headed to a nearby Firestone to put air in the tires. The warning light went out, and as an added bonus I’ve noticed a big improvement in gas mileage.

Of course we stopped in West, the kolache capital of Texas, to resupply. We went to a different bakery this time, because I’d heard good things about their cinnamon rolls.

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Check out the nice scuff on my shiny new bumper. Just a few months after I replaced the Saturn, I got rear-ended by an uninsured driver. Their front end was all crumpled in, though, so I guess my little scuff could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, the cinnamon rolls turned out to be intimidatingly enormous, so we got a dozen fruit and cheese kolaches instead. They were yummy.

I was expecting traffic to start being awful somewhere around Temple and stay awful the whole time we were in Austin. Surprisingly, traffic wasn’t an issue at all, even within Austin proper, until our return drive.

When I first started planning the trip, it was all about the outdoor activities. But then the forecast showed temps above 100º both days, so we started thinking of ways to stay cool and still have fun. I asked Luke if he’d like to tour the State Capitol Building, and he gave me an enthusiastic yes. That was our first stop as soon as we rolled into the city.

It is gorgeous, every inch of it.

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I found a self-tour booklet for Luke and let him lead the way, since he’s the political/history wonk in the family.

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I loved all the little architectural details.

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Even the door hinges are lovely!

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In the early 1990s, an expansion was added beneath (or sunk into, I guess) the north plaza of the original building.

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I wanted to explore the whole grounds, but once we were outside the heat made Luke cranky. I took a quick tour while he waited on a shady bench. I mostly saw tributes to Confederate soldiers and Texas’ role in the Civil War…

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…but my favorite sculpture was a large scene honoring the pioneers that settled Texas.

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It really was too sweltering to spend much time outside. We found a nearby motel and the kids napped through the hottest hours of the afternoon. I woke them up when it was almost time for the bats to emerge from the Congress Ave Bridge.

We wanted to explore the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake, so I parked down by the softball park near Longhorn Dam and we walked up the boardwalk side of the bank toward Congress Ave as dusk gathered.

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The unbearable crowds we’d been warned about never really materialized either. We saw people out and about, jogging or walking their dogs or just enjoying the parks and trails along the river, but we never felt crowded at all.

Luke and Elizabeth were mildly taken aback by Austin’s very casual dress code. In the Metroplex, at least in the areas we frequent, you would never see guys walking around in nothing but shorts and sneakers, or women wearing just sports bras and spandex shorts, the way you do in Austin. As Elizabeth put it, “DFW is King’s Landing and Austin is Highgarden.”

Another thing we noticed was an inexplicable absence of mosquitoes. Walking along a woodsy river at twilight in July, we should have been eaten alive. I don’t think I got a single mosquito bite the entire time we were in Austin.

I was expecting big crowds around the bat-bridge at least, but there was plenty of room for everyone. We decided to watch the show from up on the bridge itself. We got to the top just as the bats began to emerge.

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I had imagined a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event that lasts less than a minute, but it’s nothing like that. The bats just keep on coming. Suddenly the lack of mosquitoes made sense.

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When the bat-exodus finally ended, we continued up the trail with the intention of hiking the entire loop around the lake.

We saw Stevie Ray Vaughn…

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And got some sweet views of the Austin skyline lighting up.

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Eventually we realized that we would not have time to complete the loop before the trail closed at 10pm. Since a series of bridges crosses the river/lake, we decided to cross the next bridge we came to and head back toward the car.

But somehow, even after we had crossed the next bridge and headed “back,” the city lights were still getting farther and farther away.

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Finally we decided to just stop, turn around and backtrack to the car.

If it had been daytime, we would have easily seen the problem. But it was completely dark out by then and we were unfamiliar with the area. We were about halfway back to the car before I realized that the bridge we had crossed must have been the one spanning the Barton Creek tributary rather than the river itself. That’s not a mistake we could have made in the daylight.

We didn’t make it back to the car until around 10:30, but no one bothered us. The illuminated buildings provided some nice scenery along the way.

The most noticeable change after the 10pm curfew was that the joggers and dog-walkers were replaced by homeless people settling into the corners for the night.

I had been in so much of a hurry to see the bats that I completely missed the belts the first time across the boardwalk, but I looked for them on the way back. They are all along the railings: little sculpted metal belts with bits of song lyrics engraved onto them. You can barely see the letters in the glare of my camera flash, but this one says, “In dreams I walk with you.”

Our car was right where we left it, and we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

Thus ended our first day in Austin. Much more to follow!

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, environment, Family, food, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Sunday in the City

Luke spent his six weeks of summer in Anza. While he was gone, Elizabeth and I checked out a miniature railroad in Forth Worth that offers rides along the Trinity River from Forest Park to Trinity Park and back. The trains weren’t running the day we went, so we walked the track on foot. I included a few pics from that walk in my last post.

Luke’s return flight was delayed two hours by Texas thunderstorms. Elizabeth and I passed part of the time by walking to the top of the airport terminal parking garage, where I climbed a wall and got a nice shot of several layers of airport roadways/tramways/parking.

Luke returned on a Saturday night, and by remarkable good luck I had Sunday and Monday off. For Sunday we planned an excursion to Fort Worth. Our first stop was the miniature railroad.

The views are nice along the route and there was a cool breeze blowing off the Trinity.

We had planned to have lunch at Carshon’s Deli (best pastrami on rye in the Metroplex, hands down), but it turns out that they’re closed on Sundays. (!) Our next stop took us back past the Botanic Gardens, so we decided to have lunch at The Gardens. That’s the actual name of a little restaurant there that has its own little kitchen garden out back and specializes in fresh ingredients. Apparently it also has an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet on Sundays, so that was a pleasant surprise.

After we ate, I saw this majestic little fellow harvesting acorns in a low branch just above my head.

We hadn’t been to any of the art museums in Fort Worth yet, so we decided that Sunday was the day for the Kimball, which I enjoyed…

and the Modern, which mostly made me feel like I don’t understand modern art.

It’s good to have Luke home. Real talk though, I was amazed at how much less we spent on food while he was away. That boy can eat.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, Artwork, environment, Family, food, kids, Life, Wildlife | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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