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Road Trip

Trading in mai tais for Miller Lite, and other modest sacrifices

Flat Stanley on the road to Death Valley

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For spring break this year, we had intended to join friends at our favorite Hawaiian resort on the Big Island. But our budget had other plans. We had bled our savings (and line of credit) on a remodel and my husband, Pete is, ahem, “between jobs,” so we balked at spending money we didn’t have.

Enter Plan B.

Pete, possibly inspired by the grainy super-8 home movies of his childhood or a desire to reprise Chevy Chase’s character in Vacation, suggested an old-fashioned road trip. We decided to do California, traversing the state from the Golden Gate to the high desert. To soften the blow about Hawaii, we pitched the new adventure to the kids as a series of “ests,” as in: “We’re going to go see the largest tree in the world, the lowest point in the United States, the second-hottest place on the planet.” The response was less than ecstatic.

“Are the Bacinos going too?” my five-year-old asked.

“No, but we’re going to see some amazing things, and we’ll spend almost two weeks together and,” I paused for effect, “we’ll go

On the map, the road from Marin to our first stop, Sequoia National Park, looked exciting, less traveled, even exotic. And by exotic I don’t mean tropical. I mean (with many thanks to Webster’s) strikingly, excitingly or mysteriously different or unusual. “We’ll head to Fresno and turn left,” said Pete. Simple enough.

To ensure a harmonious journey, I went online to learn how to keep the peace between our girls, Natalie, 5, and Grace, 8. “Don’t allow videos,” one website warned. “They can isolate the children. Instead, do activities like the license plate or alphabet game.” But another site cautioned me not to plan too many things in a day. “Spend time at the hotel pool,” it suggested. We have plenty of pool time here in Marin, I thought to myself.

On getaway day, Natalie could barely contain herself when we picked up the girls from school. “We’re going to Death Valley, Ms. Marks,” she said, skipping down the hall.

“Don’t brag,” her older sister scolded in a whisper.

A few minutes later, nibbling Itty Bitty Beanies from High Tech Burrito and looking out the car window, both girls were smiling as we left Marin over the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge.

“First stop, General Sherman!” I announced. We had already prepped them with particulars. This giant sequoia is 275 feet tall, its trunk weighs 1,385 tons (more than two 747s) and is 103 feet in circumference, making it the largest tree in the world.

It takes a while—about four hours—for Highway 99 to lose its banality, for the repetitive sight of teens gathered at mini-marts to give way to something resembling picturesque, like a run-down barn with “Art Gallery” painted on the door in blue. Eventually, hypnotic groves of orange trees appear, stretching across the Visalia horizon. Interesting, but not big tree country. “Did we miss a turn?” I asked. Pete shook his head, as he continued talking into the earpiece connected to his Blackberry. The girls didn’t seem to mind the long drive. They were giggling, glossy- eyed after watching Air Buddies for the second time. I grabbed Pete’s free hand in mine and returned my stare to the window.

We arrived at Sequoia National Park about six o’clock, paid our $20 entrance fee and followed a narrow, steep, two-lane road up Ash Mountain to Wuksachi Lodge. This eight-year-old Craftsman-style lodge, perched at 7,200 feet in the heart of the park, has a decent restaurant, meeting spaces, a gift shop and Wi-Fi. The accommodations themselves are a short walk or drive from the lodge and are set back from the parking lot (no bellhop to help you to the rooms). Our room was perfectly comfortable for the night—especially since we’d brought our own pillows.

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