The Nation’s Capital

On the road again to our last destination: northern Virginia and Washington DC. I have a cousin* in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC that I hadn’t seen for years, so it was time for a visit. We arrived at their house on a Friday evening and spent the evening catching up. We met her husband for the first time, and helped him explore his Swedish heritage. He learned to say “Ge hit en öl till annars bränner jag ner er by,” which means “Give me another beer or I’ll burn down your village.” Like a viking, I suppose. He tried calling a bar in Stockholm so he could say that and see what they’d say, but international calling was disabled on his phone. Probably for the best. His pronunciation was pretty good though.

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With my cousin Carolyn outside her lovely home in Virginia

Saturday we explored our nation’s capital. We walked up to Capitol Hill and around the Washington Monument before deciding to skip the attractions that we adults had already seen before and the kids were too young to understand or appreciate. We set our sights on the Smithsonian museums – they’re free, they’re fun and they’re educational. It was a good choice. We had a great day at the Museum of Natural History.

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Peter and the Capitol Building

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Getting directions to a visitor’s center so we could stamp the
National Park passports one last time

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Pappa’s shoulders are much warmer to sit on than that stone!

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The Smithsonian Museums are truly a national treasure!

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So curious, and so much to learn!

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The dinosaur exhibit showed differences between dinosaur feet and human feet, particularly number of toes. Emelie wasn’t satisfied to count the toes in the picture, or even on Pappa’s already bare feet (flip flops as usual!). She sat right down and insisted on removing her shoes and socks to count HER toes. Ok, 10. They were right.

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The last exhibit we had time for that day involved petting and holding exotic insects.       My girl is fascinated and unafraid. 

Sunday we went to church with my cousin before packing up our things, hooking up the trailer and hitting the road one last time. After 91 days covering over 12,000 miles of road, it was time to head back to Pennsylvania.

*Other side of the family this time… so cousin actually means cousin. As in, the daughter of my father’s brother.

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Daytona Beach

Jess and I met in college. We had the same major, the same minor, shared faith and a lot of common interests. We were fast friends. After graduation, she headed off to teach as a missionary in Ecuador, and except for an occasional email, we lost touch for a while. A few years later, she was married to an Ecuadorian man and we reconnected over the headaches involved with sponsoring our foreign husbands through the American immigration system. One more thing we had in common. Oceans and time zones have made it difficult to stay in touch regularly but we have always been able to pick up where we left off whenever we do reconnect.

We hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, since we were wearing caps and gowns. I had never met her husband. We’d never seen each other’s children. The most exciting part about re-routing our trip through Florida was the chance to pass through Daytona Beach. We happily made plans to get together.

We made it to Daytona Beach on a Saturday afternoon, checked in to the Daytona Beach KOA, and set camp. Jess, David and little Matthias joined us soon and we headed out to get pizza and catch up. We could probably have sat at that table and talked until they closed, if not for the three very tired little people we had with us.

Sunday morning we went to church with them, grabbed a quick lunch and then headed to the beach. There was something satisfying about a dip in the Atlantic, making it official that we had literally been coast to coast on our trip. Perhaps even more satisfying was sitting on a sunny beach in November, well after the first snows had fallen at home in Sweden.

IMG_3185The kids preferred the sand, while watching Pappa run off into the surf.

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If you live this close to the beach, you have plenty of sand toys to share with friends

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We ended the day back at the KOA, cooking dinner and roasting marshmallows over a campfire. In other words, perfectly. The sun went down, the bugs came out, but still we sat “just a little longer.”

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Look! We’re riding a horse together!

IMG_3090This is all very exciting!

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Eventually, the needs of our little people forced us to reluctantly end the evening. It was more than sadness at saying goodbye to friends we rarely get to see. We both sensed a deeper loss, as though something was ending…

Gulf Coast part 2: the Florida Panhandle

Continuing east into Florida, we stopped and spent a night at the Tallahassee East KOA campground. We had plans to meet up with friends in Daytona Beach for the weekend, so we did not take time to see or do anything in the area.
Here’s our review:

Price: $33/night after KOA member rebate
Location: Convenient to I-10 in the Tallahassee area.
Facilities: Great shower and bathroom facilities. The common room was comfortable, with armchairs and sofas like a family living room, and I sat there to work on updating our blog. I would have preferred to be able to sit in the camper, but the internet access didn’t extend out to the campsites, so that was a drawback. The playground was a little old and rundown, but since the ground was like one big sandbox, our kids were content to play around the campsite.
Site-description: Sand with some grass (the way it often is in areas where there is more sand that dirt on the ground); well-shaded with plenty of trees.
Neighborhood: A nice mixture of families and retired couples. No problems with noise or partying from other campers.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/tallahassee/
Comments: This campground offered baked goods at check in, and free continental breakfast including freshly made waffles on the weekends. But since this is no longer mentioned on their website, though, they may have stopped offering it. We would also recommend camping further away from the road. For us, the road noise was a drawback of this campground.

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Gulf Coast, part 1: Mississippi & Alabama

Leaving New Orleans, our next destination was Daytona Beach, FL. But since that trip was over 9 hours of driving time, we broke it up and made a couple of overnight stops along the Gulf Coast.

We didn’t spend much time in Mississippi, essentially just driving across the southern tip of it. But the Mississippi highlight was this exit marker off of I-10.

When I was a kid, my dad traveled often for work. I always asked where he was going when he left for trips, and often the answers were strange words like “Chattanooga” and “Pascagoula”. I naturally assumed he was teasing me and making up silly words. These couldn’t be real places. Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found them on a map. Those are real places?! As a teenager I had the chance to visit Chattanooga, fully verifying its existence. And on November 8, 2012, though we didn’t take the time to visit, this road sign fully verified Pascagoula. Silly, maybe, but worth a photo.

IMG_3178 croppedIt’s blurry, but it counts!
Also, Cracker Barrel. Ubiquitous.

We stopped for our first overnight at Hilltop RV Park in Robertsdale AL. While we respectfully thank the hosts for the unique experiences we had staying there, we would not choose to return. Here’s a campground review:

Hilltop RV Park
Price: $25/night, after some discussion at check-in about whether we had to pay for the kids or not.
Location: Not so close to anything, as far as we could tell. It’s not far from the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida border, in the southern tip of Alabama.
Facilities: Adequate bathroom/shower building. There was also a common room/kitchen area, but we never used it.
Site-description: Grass sites with small trees and new-looking picnic tables
Neighborhood: Snowbirds. Somewhat exclusively, already in early November. The RV park markets itself to retired couples who want to spend the winter in a more moderate climate but who perhaps can’t afford to winter in Florida. Hence the pricing confusion over the kids. They don’t have a policy forbidding children, but they were obviously not used to having them.
Website: http://www.hilltoprvpark.com/
Comments: Of all the nights we spent in different campgrounds around the whole country, this one is the only one that refused to check us in under my name, because I’m a woman. Since Staffan was usually driving, it was usually easiest for me to register us when we first arrived. Apparently the registration needed to be in my husband’s name, and I needed to show his driver’s license as well as my own, to verify that we are married.
There were a few other things that made this RV park a bit quirky. They may be very well-suited to their niche, but family travelers may want to find another option. It was an okay place to spend the night, but we were happy to get back on the road in the morning.

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Son of a gun, gonna have big fun (on the bayou)

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Full confession: the title of this post comes from a line of a song in the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen it, but I think they dance to it in the wedding reception scene. For some reason, this song I barely know pops into my head every time I hear the word bayou. So now you know.

It seems that every time we spend time checking out a new city, however much we enjoy it and find lots of interesting things to see and do, we find ourselves itching to get back out to nature. Our visit to New Orleans was no exception. After spending a day touring the city, although there were many sights still left to see, we decided to take our second day in New Orleans to go to the other national park in NOLA, a bit outside the center city. So we made our way to Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and chose to hike the Bayou Coquille trail.

It’s striking how many different types of environments we had already explored in different parts of the United States, and yet the bayou area added yet another. We hoped to be able to see an alligator in the wild (at a safe distance of course), but November isn’t really the ideal month for alligators and we didn’t get to see any.

We had a great day exploring beautiful nature, and a picnic lunch in the sunshine. Because of the nature of the bayou, a bayou trail is mostly boardwalk. So it was a relatively easy walk. Most of it would have been accessible with the stroller, but carrying Peter in the backpack made it easier to go over bridges and up and down stairs.

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Trailhead, Bayou Coquille trail

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Plant life so dense you can’t even tell that’s water and not land

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Trying out the macro setting… I was pretty pleased with this one

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My favorite people in a beautiful place!

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We would recommend a visit to Jean Lafitte National Park to anyone visiting New Orleans. No visit to NOLA would be complete without experiencing this unique landscape that forms the foundation for much of New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s culture.

Info: http://www.nps.gov/jela/index.htm 

N’awlins

New Orleans is a city unlike any other we’ve been to, with a culture all its own. Since you could argue that this culture is built around alcohol and music, then for our purposes the music was in focus.

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We took a walking tour of the French Quarter and enjoyed beautiful architecture and waterfront views. We walked through an outdoor market and went to the Jazz National Historic Park (and stamped our national park passports, of course!)

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Beautiful characteristic wrought iron features and lots of flowering plants on porches and balconies.

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Because it’s famous, not because it was really our scene.
It was mostly deserted during the day anyway.

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Miraculously she did not fall in the fountain.
But the temptation to touch the water was just irresistible.

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Still plenty of riverboats to be seen. Makes me think of Mark Twain.

But New Orleans is above all a musical city. We went to a free concert that was indoors, complete with a stage and seats for the audience.

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Don’t ask me who this was… I’m not sure we even knew at the time.
He told stories and sang original songs.

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Attentive audience

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Captive audience (literally)

And we found less formal performances, like this one on a street corner where we found some curb seating.

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The band name: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers, written on a piece of cardboard.
It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than that!

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Not just any curb seating… under construction curb seating.
After all the walking it was just nice to sit down! And yes, my daughter is barefoot. In the middle of a city. What’s your point?

And a slightly different style down by the waterfront where we stood up to enjoy the performance (well most of us, anyway).

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During our visit to New Orleans we stayed 2 nights at the West New Orleans KOA campground.

Campground Review: West New Orleans KOA
Price: $78 for 2 nights
Location: Convenient to the most popular New Orleans tourist areas, but far enough away to be dark and quiet at night.
Facilities: perfectly adequate but nothing special
Site-description: grass/gravel, well shaded with plenty of trees. Sites are a little close together.
Neighborhood: A good variety of guests, from families to retired couples, camping with tents, pop-ups and larger RVs.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/new-orleans/
Comments: Shuttles are offered to and from the French Quarter, and public transportation is also an option. We chose to drive ourselves, mostly because of complications with car seats and for the sake of flexibility, so we can’t comment on this service. But as in most cities, parking downtown can be expensive and hard to find, so it might be a great option.

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First Birthday on the Road!

Peter had his first birthday during our stay in Houston. Despite the amazing experiences we were having as a family, I’d be lying if I said my mom guilt didn’t kick in over not being able to give him a first birthday party surrounded by grandparents and other family. Mom guilt is a tricky, dangerous thing.

Our friends really stepped up and helped us make it a fun birthday. We had cupcakes and ice cream, and of course there were presents. He seemed to have a good time, though naturally he didn’t really understand what was going on. New toys, cake and ice cream, and a bit of extra attention… it’s a winning combination. He’ll never remember it, but someday he can look back at pictures and know he was loved and celebrated. And that’s what really matters.

Enjoy some pictures of the festivities!

Bday-Peter & Big Monkey

The guest of honor, not willing to be separated from Diana’s giant sock monkey

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Here come the cupcakes!

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Mesmerized by the flame, clearly with no idea why his food was on fire.

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Emelie got to blow out the rest of the candles.

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A careful little taste at first…

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Then a handful of icing…

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Not loving the feeling of icing between his fingers, he tried a hands-free approach…

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And seemed to decide that this was the best way to eat a cupcake.

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Big sister likes cupcakes too!

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Time for presents!

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Yay! A ball!

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And a fire truck!

IMG_2979And our friends got him his own little sock monkey friend to take with him!

Thanks Diana, Micke, and Nancy for helping us give our little guy a special day! Once again you were a second family for us. Thanks for loving our kids so well!

Remember the Alamo!

The problem is I didn’t. Remember the Alamo, that is. I remembered that we’re supposed to remember the Alamo, but I couldn’t remember why. As we crossed Texas, we spent a night at the San Antonio KOA and decided to spend part of the day checking out the Alamo before heading on to Houston.

In between the time of our visit and when I’m actually writing this, I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten most of it again. I’ve had to “ask Mr. Google” for help with some of the details in order to be able to write a good post. Maybe the reason they have to tell everyone to “Remember the Alamo” is because otherwise it seems to be somewhat forgettable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve heard that one shouldn’t mess with Texas, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

There is certainly an appeal in the “heroic struggle against impossible odds” (as the official website thealamo.org puts it) and I can appreciate the sacrifice of people laying down their lives for something they believe in. I suppose as a non-Texan, it’s hard for me to understand the importance of a “Shrine of Texas Liberty” when Texas was independent for a relatively short time (9 years) before joining the United States, where it’s been a part of the Union for about 170 years now (thanks Mr. Google). My impressions from watching the video in the visitor center and touring the area is that it was a tragic loss of life by some passionate and potentially influential young men (including the legendary David Crockett), cause by some poor decisions, bad strategy and with perhaps just a bit of arrogance and pride added to the mix. I confess myself unimpressed by the Alamo, and I don’t know that I would recommend anyone to go out of their way to visit.

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The old Spanish mission buildings have pretty architecture

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Inside the “Shrine” area

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This tree may be the coolest part of the whole place!

It’s free to visit, though parking in the area is neither free nor readily available. The environment is an interesting contrast, as on the one hand there are strict rules for treating the area and its facilities as a Shrine. On the other hand, there is quite a commercial and over-developed gift shop, and the line to get in is slowed down by requiring everyone to pose for photos on the way in so that they can offer you a wide range of personalized souvenir options on the way out. Out of respect for the fallen heroes? Although the profits from the gift shop sales help keep it free to visit so it’s not all bad. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but our visit to the Alamo didn’t exactly move and inspire us.

Our stay at the San Antonio KOA, however, was much less disappointing. Here’s a review:

Campground Review: San Antonio KOA
Price: $30/night
Location: located only about 5 miles from the Alamo and other downtown attractions, and convenient to I-35, this campground has a great location
Facilities: lots of facilities for the money, although we didn’t stay long enough to take advantage of most of them. One particularly nice feature is that the campground is adjacent to a paved walking/biking trail the follows a creek. I took a very nice little twilight jog after the kids were asleep. Bathroom facilities were modern and well-maintained.
Site-description: Grassy sites, well-shaded.
Neighborhood: Lots of kids, including school groups and scout troops at the time we were there. It’s definitely a family-friendly campground.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/san-antonio/
Comments: We were pleasantly surprised by the natural surroundings considering how centrally located it is in a city. Just be aware that all those beautiful trees, grass, and creek areas are also home to quite a number of 6-legged friends, so plan accordingly.

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Problems in Fort Stockton

Texas is big. That may seem obvious, and we knew that but it wasn’t until we decided to cross it that we understood it from experience. To go from visiting our friends in El Paso to visiting our friends in Houston, given our self-imposed 4 hour per day driving limit, was going to take several days.

So why did we stay in Fort Stockton? Well, we looked at our route from El Paso to Houston, then looked at what was about 4 hours away from El Paso along that route. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So we thought about stretching the day a little longer but there was continued nothingness. Fort Stockton is right along I-10 and is the only dot on Google maps between El Paso and San Antonio. Decision made.

Our stop in Fort Stockton would have been just a campground review (we’ll get to that) if not for a little extra excitement that came as we set up Home Sweet Pop-up for the night. A cable in the mechanism that allows us to raise the roof (and holds it up once we’ve raised it) snapped. One of the corners couldn’t be raised with the hand crank and couldn’t support it’s own weight. Poor Staffan spent the whole evening working on trying to fix it but lacked the proper tools and equipment to do so. Eventually we solved it by Staffan lifting the disabled corner while I cranked up the other 3. When they were at full height, we supported the corner with a 2×2 that Staffan had cut to just the right height. It would get us through a night or two until we could get to Houston, where we could sleep in our friend’s guest room and try to get the pop-up repaired.

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Trusting that 2×2 to keep the roof from crashing down on our heads

In the meantime, as Staffan was working hard to make sure we had someplace to sleep, the kids and I ate dinner at the on-site “restaurant”. The food was okay, but the whole place had more of a church fellowship hall kind of ambiance and didn’t feel much like a restaurant. We were thankful for it, though, because we couldn’t cook in the camper while it was being worked on.

Our visit to Fort Stockton was thus mostly stressful, but we got to see more of the town than we would have otherwise as we drove around looking for what we needed to fix the camper.

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Princess Emelie reads a book for her little brother in the Fort Stockton sunshine

While in Fort Stockton, we stayed at the Fort Stockton RV Park. Here’s our review:
Price: $24/night
Location: convenient to I-10, and if you’re heading east, pretty much your last option for many, many miles
Facilities: adequate, but most things could use a little freshening up and modernizing
Site-description: gravel/dirt/grass with small trees that provide a little bit of shade
Neighborhood: We didn’t see any other families. It doesn’t seem designed for long-term stays, but for most it’s probably a place to stop and sleep on the way to somewhere else.
Website: http://www.ftstocktonrv.com/
Comments: The office is connected to the restaurant and has strange open times. This was inconvenient for us because we needed local help finding stores to get what we needed, and also because Peter left his favorite car in the restaurant when we ate dinner. He had just gotten it as a present in El Paso but he loved it. When we missed it, they were already closed for the night, and weren’t open in the morning until almost lunch time. We had lots of desert to cross so waiting wasn’t an option and we were forced to leave it behind. I hope another child got to enjoy it while waiting for his or her dinner!

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Campsite photo

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I would not plan to use the picnic tables unless they’ve replaced them. They seem to be made from unfinished plywood, weathered so that the plies are separating, held together but a rusty metal frame. Splinters with a side of tetanus? No thanks.

Trick-or-Treat!

The first real American Halloween for our kids! It was such perfect timing that we were staying with our friends, so we were in a family-friendly neighborhood and had another family to go trick-or-treating with! What a fun night!

The hardest part for our little princess was deciding which princess costume to choose. No surprise, Cinderella won in the end. Since we correctly assumed that Peter would fall asleep after only a short time, he got to wear adorable pumpkin pajamas for his costume.

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So we gathered all 6 kids, took some pictures and then we were off.

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Our rookie trick-or-treaters got a few lessons and tips from the veterans and soon got the hang of ringing the doorbell, saying trick-or-treat, receiving their candy, and (usually) remembering to say thank you.

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A few houses were a little too well decorated, though, and when there were flashing lights, spooky sounds, or any kind of smoke machine, the candy just didn’t seem worth the risk. “It’s okay, mamma, I already have some candy in my bucket.” On those occasions, the pappas went along for a little extra security.

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Peter didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about and dozed peacefully in the stroller for much of the evening. When it started to get a little too late, and a little too dark, we went back to the house and helped hand out candy to the older kids who were still out and about. Eventually, Cinderella’s magical night had to end (though thankfully earlier than midnight) and it was off to bed imagining what costume she would choose next Halloween. Who knows when the opportunity to go trick-or-treating will come again, but when it does, she’ll be ready.

IMG_2925Sampling the fruits of her labors with a mouth about as blue as her dress