10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.

We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.

Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily  vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.

About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.

The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin,  flexible, or designed for comfort.

Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose. 

We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room. 

We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background. 

After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside. 

Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese. 

Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.

Heading for the Hills – Brian

Nature is an anchor for our family. Lena and I share parallel childhood memories of camping and trips to national parks. Lena was a Girl Scout, and I was an Eagle Scout. I spent a university summer at Rocky Mountain National Park as an Environmental Educator, and my first job after graduating was for the US Forest Service. Our honeymoon was camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and we first tested the waters of family camping in Sai Kung, Hong Kong when the kids were 1 and 2 years old. Our favorite social distancing activity in Mexico was trekking through the jungle surrounding Sayulita to spend long days lounging under makeshift shelters on empty beaches. Socially distanced urban hikes around San Francisco injected the monotony of shelter-at-home with fresh air and endless views.

By the time we found ourselves in Marin, we were surrounded by incredible outdoor opportunities living at the base of Mount Tamalpais and down the road from Samuel P. Taylor State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. When word got out that Lassen Volcanic National Park had re-opened, we were ready to hit the road. However, we struggled to find clear information about which campgrounds were open. The ones that took reservations were all booked. Clearly we were not the only family itching to get away. Despite not having a secured spot for our tent, we tossed our gear in the trunk of Mimi’s car and headed to the mountains. In addition to sleeping in a tent and roasting marshmallows, Bug and Noodle were extremely excited to see volcanoes. Of course they were expecting active eruptions, and we let them relish in that excitement before crushing their dreams.

Luckily, we were able to claim a first-come-first-serve spot at the Southwest Walk-In Campground, which is located near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest corner of the park. This was an ideal location because the Visitor Center has a shop selling hot coffee and cold beer, and its on the main park road. Regarding the campsite, we had read about black bear danger so we were prepared with our bear canister, but each campsite comes with a large bear-proof storage cabinet. It also offers a sturdy picnic table and metal-ringed fire pit. Our site had minimal shade, so we were glad to have an extra tarp over our table. Although technically a hike-in campground, the parking lot is a two minute walk from the site. The restrooms were open and offered flush toilets, sinks and soap for handwashing, a utility sink to wash dishes, and secure bins for refuse and recycling. In addition to the snack shop, the Visitors Center also has a ranger station, gift shop, very clean restrooms, amphitheater, and a (closed) exhibition area. Although the Ranger-led programs were canceled due to COVID restrictions, we had informative and friendly conversations with the appropriately-masked rangers as they passed through the campground and greeted us at the Visitors Center.

There are many great trails in the park. We started our exploration of the park by hiking the 3.6 mile round trip to Mill Creek Falls since the trailhead was steps from our campsite. This is a moderate trail that rises and falls gently as it winds through huge red fir trees. Sadly, the white bark pines along the trail and throughout the park are being decimated by blister rust and mountain pine beetles, and many have taken on the orange tinge of dying trees. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle loved the creek crossings, insect sightings and opportunities to climb on fallen logs. They also got to test out their new hiking poles, which were a short-lived novelty that ended up clipped to our backpacks. By the end of the hike, Noodle was whining on my shoulders and Lena was a fountain of positive talk about perseverance as she dragged Bug up the final ascent. We are still working on pacing ourselves. Due to its elevation and thus late season snow, the most popular Bumpass Hell Trail and Hydrothermal Area were still closed in early July.

Surrounded by nature, we encouraged the kids to notice details and voice their curiosities. These are skills that we believe are important for lifelong learners and should be honed consciously. Without toys or gadgets, the boys noticed everything from beetles to clouds, asked a million questions, and played creatively with the tree stumps, sticks and rocks around us. We also just spent time watching birds and staring at the campfire. Embracing nature has many health benefits, such as increasing attention span, decreasing stress (and thus lowering cortisol levels), and improving the immune system. Quite the antidote for being stuck indoors during a pandemic. 

We were particularly excited that the Junior Ranger Program by the National Park Service was still available during our stay. In its modified form, the kids were able to complete a highly differentiated interactive booklet that included various activities to document observations about geology, ecology, and human impact on the environment. In non-COVID times, they would have participated in Ranger-led hikes, attended presentations in the amphitheater, and viewed exhibits in the Visitors Center. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle were excited to find and classify rocks, identify features of different trees, match animals with their tracks, and consider how our choices affect nature. Their work was rewarded with an official swearing-in ceremony led by a real Park Ranger. After raising their right hand and promising to protect the park and all natural spaces, each child received a special badge. Of course we bought the adorable Junior Ranger vests.

Naturally, we were all excited to see volcanoes. Lassen is unique because it contains all four types of volcanoes in the world. The biggest is Lassen Peak (10,457ft/3,187m), which is an active plug dome that last erupted between 1914-1917. The park also contains clear examples of cinder cone (aptly named Cinder Cone, at 6,896ft/2,102m, final eruption in 1666), shield (Prospect Peak, at 8,342ft/2,542m) and composite (Brokeoff Mountain – also called Mount Tehama by local tribes – at 9,235ft/2,815m, which became extinct 387,000 years ago). However, these dormant or extinct specimens just looked like plain old mountains to the kids, and Noodle was disappointed he didn’t get to see “Mountain Lassen ‘derupt.’”

The main and only road through the park is the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which begins at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and winds up and down throughout the park to the Northwest corner around the Manzanita Lake Area. This 30-mile drive hits many of the highlights in the park from hydrothermal areas to dramatic views to frigid alpine lakes. 

Our first stop was the Sulfur Works Hydrothermal which we smelled long before arriving. Even wearing masks, the odor was nose-melting. Both Bug and Noodle were amazed by the boiling mud pot, which was located right next to the highway. They couldn’t get enough of the idea that liquid hot magma was making the mud boil. 

After getting back into fresh air, their next excitement was experiencing snow for the first time in their lives. It was just some dirty drifts on the side of the road, but they were ecstatic – until they felt it. They instinctively made snowballs, but Noodle cried when his ungloved hands turned red. His verdict was, “Too cold.” Melting snow means freezing mountain lakes, and I couldn’t resist an invigorating plunge into Lake Helen.

The road’s varied altitudes pass through multiple plant life zones. It begins in the red fir forest, which also includes lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and western white pine. Then the sparse subalpine zone, which is the upper limit of tree growth, offers gnarled white bark pine and mountain hemlock growing as “flag trees” (branches growing on only one side) that hint to the challenges of long winters. Finally, it descends through verdant meadows, winding creeks, and red fir covered in lichen. 

The breathtaking drive ended at Manzanita Lake, which is also the location of the park’s largest campground. The lake added another breathtaking component to our endless views of snowcapped mountains and towering trees for the past couple of days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim due to warnings about river otter attacks. However, Bug recently learned about fishing and this was his first real attempt. For several weeks, the kids had been practicing their casts with toddler-friendly training poles in our backyard. Alas, no luck catching a fish in Manzanita Lake (though tons were jumping), but they happily reeled in many sticks and aquatic plants.

Since everything was going so well, we decided to tack on a few extra days in a slightly different location. After stopping at Lake Almanor to check out the real estate, we headed east to the shores of Lake Davis in Plumas County. We settled on a US Forest Service campground called Grasshopper Flat and pitched our tent in a huge site with direct access to the water. With no real plan at Lake Davis, we ate slow breakfasts on our private peninsula, swung in the hammock, checked out the quaint town of Graeagle, and took another attempt at fishing. Noodle was over fishing by this point and contently played with “boats” (sticks and leaves) in the calm shores. On the other hand, Bug was determined to catch a fish – a large bass to be specific. I ended up accidentally catching a small sunfish on a test cast after a rod repair, and I went from father of the year to heartbreaker after Bug failed to catch anything and was devastated. He did not like the life lesson that fishing is about patience. After three days of relaxing lakeside, we were ready to head home. The shower blocks were closed and we were caked in six days of dust. Even the kids were begging for a bath. Had we been able to wash, we probably would have stayed longer. 

The week was perfect. We played in the dirt. We breathed fresh air. We went on long walks. We laughed. And we said thank you for all the gifts we share together. It’s been a few weeks since the trip, and we’ve sent off all our camping equipment in our shipment to Uzbekistan (only to learn that we will actually be in California for quite a bit longer), so naturally Bug and Noodle have begun requesting another camping trip.