Saturday, August 1, 2020

1 - California

Death Valley National Park
November 2010

With less than 12 hours before our flight, we were anxiously awaiting a phone call to see if a judge would grant us permission to leave Duval County for 10 days with Egypt.

It was difficult to keep my eyes on the open road in front of me as I drove across Death Valley in September 2009. I couldn’t help but stare at the many earth tone colors rising from a barren desert to high peaks breaking into the deep blue sky only broken by fluffy white clouds. The views were long. I felt small in my rental car as I stopped at a visitor center to learn more about this alien landscape.

I was met with temperatures I never felt before. The large thermometer outside the visitor center was registering an outrageous 124F. I could feel the heat rising from the asphalt through my shoes making it impossible to stand in one place for more than a few seconds.

I explored the visitor center where rangers were spending their time warning people about the dangers of Death Valley. I asked about short trails and was strongly advised against venturing out, even for a short hike. My eyes were drawn to Darwin Falls on a map of the national park. There was no way a flowing waterfall could exist in this desolate land free of any sign of water, but I was told water flowing underground worked its way out of a rock wall year round forming Darwin Falls.

I loaded up my small backpack with 8 bottles of water and drove to the trailhead. Not surprising, I was the only car in the lot. Not wanting to waste time, I was on the trail moving at a serious clip. I held a bottle in each hand to force myself to take a sip every minute or so. I only paused to take a few pictures of a large lizard who appeared to be sunning on top of a large rock.

The trail moved deeper into a canyon. My eyes were constantly focused on the ground in front and to the sides of my path looking for rattlesnakes and any other creatures able to survive such harsh conditions. The first sign of a waterfall was the darker color of the soil from being damp. The deeper I pushed, the wetter the ground until there was flowing water and dense foliage spanning the entire narrow width of the canyon.

The waterfall was still out of sight, but I could faintly hear the water falling. My body was so hot, it was impossible to know if this was real or just a mirage. To proceed, I had to force my way through the jungle-like greenery while climbing around and over large boulders. After a few minutes of bushwhacking, I was standing before Darwin Falls. If I didn’t see the falls with my own eyes, I doubt I would believe such a place exists in the middle of Death Valley. I snapped a few pictures and decided it was best to turn around towards the safety of my rental car.

Still worried about rattlesnakes and other creepy crawlies, I was startled to see two people approaching as I made my way out of the lush forest. From the expressions on their faces, I could tell they were just as surprised to see me emerge less than 20 feet in front of where they stood. We passed each other and only exchanged smiles. They were on a mission to reach the falls and I was anxious to get back to my car to finish the long drive back to Las Vegas to catch my flight home to Jacksonville, FL.

The rest of my day was filled with the idea that I had to return to this magical place with Kellisa and Lisa. I wasn’t home more than few minutes before I started researching flights and lodging options to return a couple of months later during the week of Thanksgiving when I hoped the temperatures would drop to less dangerous highs. Even though it was a holiday week, I was able to book three airline tickets with frequent flyer points and reserve a small motel room situated in the middle of Death Valley.

A couple weeks went by without any really planning for our upcoming trip when our phone rang unexpectedly. Less than 48 hours after that fateful call, Egypt was a member of our family. She was 16 months old and needed a forever family. We needed an addition to complete our family and the social workers in charge of Egypt thought our family would be a perfect match.

To say all our lives were turned upside down, in a good way, would be an understatement. We had qualified to be foster parents with the idea we would adopt a child for years and despite trying multiple times for kids, we were never matched. By October 2010, I had given up hope we would ever receive “the call”.

Even though Egypt was placed in our home, I cautioned Lisa not to get attached because there was no guarantee that we would adopt her. Not that we would pass on her, but you never know what the “system” will do in the best interest of the foster child. As hard as I tried to follow my own advice, it took Egypt less than 24 hours to break into my heart. I knew she was my daughter from the beginning.

Egypt and Kellisa had to figure out their places. Kellisa had been an only child for more than 10 years and was used to all her parent’s attentions. Even though she wanted a baby in the house, there was an adjustment period.  Egypt’s past was mostly an unknown to us, but I doubt she lived with a kid in a wheelchair. She quickly learned to keep her toes out of the path of Kellisa’s wheels. Despite not being able to see around or over Kellisa chair, Egypt would try to help push Kellisa.

A few weeks turned into a month and it looked like we would legally adopt Egypt sometime in January. Our trip to Death Valley had been in the background, but as Thanksgiving approached, we needed a plan. Since Egypt was under 2 years old, we didn’t need another ticket since she could be a lap baby.

We asked Egypt’s social worker who was like a guardian while we were her foster parents about taking her on a trip. She told us we would need permission from a judge to travel out of our county with Egypt. We would need to provide all supporting documents of our trip including where we were staying, everything we planned on doing, and return tickets. We didn’t have a problem with any of the requirements, but the contact told us it was rare for such permission to be granted with such a newly placed child, especially one so young.

The social worker told us to take the trip without Egypt and they would find a temporary foster home for her. We did not consider this option, not even for a second. Egypt was an important member of our family and we considered her an equal even though we didn’t yet have the legal paperwork. We submitted everything for the judge to consider and if permission were denied, we would cancel the trip.

We were scheduled to leave on a non-stop flight from Jacksonville, FL to Las Vegas early on the Friday morning before Thanksgiving. I was getting close to giving up hope the judge would allow us to travel and it was taking everything not to bug Egypt’s social worker. I showed restraint because I trusted she would call as soon as she had an answer.

Our living room was packed with luggage, Kellisa’s travel wheelchair, off-road stroller, and a pack in play sleeper. At this late hour, we had to plan like we were going so we wouldn’t be up all-night packing if we received the green light.

Finally, just before 5pm on Thursday night, the phone rang. I think I picked it up before the first ring even finished. It was the call I was desperately waiting for and I could tell right away the news was positive. The judge granted permission. In making our case, the social worker told the judge we would not go without Egypt and this convinced him she would be perfectly safe with her family.

Egypt stayed with Lisa as we passed through security and I told them we would meet at the gate since it takes a little extra time to get Kellisa through screening. At the time, I would carry Kellisa through the metal detector and wait for her travel wheelchair to clear. This seemed to be easier and faster, but not on this day. For some reason, it was taking extra long to get her chair. Our bags were ready, and I need to place all the medicine and electronics back in their places. I was also getting tired from holding Kellisa’s 78 pounds over my shoulder.

I decided to sit Kellisa down on a bench for a minute. She has the ability to sit on her own but can’t be totally trusted. A laugh, a cough, or simple gravity has been known to knock her over or worse, fall forward and land on her face. Since she never developed to ability to crawl, walk, and run, she never fell face forward which is how and when kids learn the saving ability of bracing with your hands. So, when Kellisa falls headfirst, she lands on her face.

I stood there looking at Kellisa and she was upright and serious. I made the judgement call that I could leave her for a second while I grabbed our stuff and brought it over for repacking since I still couldn’t see her chair. I wanted to be ready when the chair finally arrived because we still had to check in at the gate and it’s important that Kellisa is the first passenger on the plane.

I took a few steps towards our gear and despite all the noise in the airport, my stomach turned when I heard a thump. I knew what it was before I even turned around to see Kellisa crumpled on the floor face down.

I ran back, picked her up and sat down with her on my lap so I could assess her injuries. When Kellisa is scared and/or hurt, she does this phony smile while trying to laugh to sooth herself and this is exactly what she was doing. 

Kellisa had blood coming down from her nose and a little was coming out of her mouth. We had a crowd of people gathered around us including several TSA agents who were offering their help. They already called for medical assistance.

Once we could all tell Kellisa was free from serious injury, one of the agents offered to help by bringing our stuff. While I sat there, I was fearful we would miss our flight due to my dumb mistake. I also felt like the worst father in existence as my body filled with a paralyzing guilt.

It took paramedics less than 60 seconds to respond. I only know from the paperwork because it felt a lot longer. They checked Kellisa out and determined her nose took the brunt of the fall and luckily it wasn’t broken. She loved the attention and was flirting with a couple of the male responders. They also checked out her mouth and she still had all her teeth. Thankfully, none were chipped or loose.

They offered to take her back somewhere for further observation or even transport her to a hospital. It was our call. I could tell by the flirting, giggles, and all the kisses being blown by Kellisa that she was perfectly fine. I declined further assistance and placed Kellisa safely in her travel wheelchair.

Lisa had heard some of our commotion and just knew it was us. Since she trusted us and had her hands full with Egypt, she wasn’t worried until she saw some of the now dried blood on Kellisa’s face. Lisa smiled and asked Kellisa if she was ready to go on a plane? Kellisa responded with a huge smile and shouted, “Yes” in sign language. Lisa knew Kellisa was good to go.

As far as we knew, this would be Egypt’s first ever flight and she flew like an expert. I had a stack of free drink coupons which we gave out to the surrounding rows just in case Egypt struggled, but she never once cried or made any noise. She was a little restless and had to move around a little, but overall was an angel. Egypt already fit right in with our family and little did she know this would be the first of hundreds of flights. We were able to get a “First Flight” certificate from the captain and wings from the flight attendants to make the flight a little extra special.

Since we were staying in the middle of Death Valley, I planned to cook most of our meals. I packed our camp stove and utensils. We stopped at a grocery store to buy a weeks’ worth of groceries and then we were on our way to our desert destination.

Unlike my visit just two months earlier in September, we found the desert freezing. In fact, there was an extremely rare and cold system parked over Death Valley that also extended to Las Vegas. We would return to Las Vegas for our Thanksgiving dinner and it snowed. I cooked gnocchi and sauce outside our cramped room while everyone else huddled inside while getting us situated.

Because we booked our reservation for a holiday week so late, we had to settle on a room with one full bed. It would be tight, but Lisa and I shared the bed with Kellisa. We barely had room to set the pack and play up for Egypt’s sleeping accommodations. Because we were staying at a rustic facility, the room did not have a TV, but we did have a private bath with a shower. I was hoping we would be so tired from our days of adventuring that we would return to our room each night tired and quickly pass out for the night.

We started our first day in the park with a trip to the visitor center so we could collect a passport stamp, buy a few souvenirs, grab a map, and see the numerous displays. Death Valley is home to Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America and our second stop of the day.

With Kellisa loaded up in her jog stroller, I placed Egypt in a backpack carrier, and we proceeded to walk the short distance to the sign marking the lowest spot for the obligatory pictures documenting our visit. Beyond the sign, you can hike for miles across the salt crusted desert. Not counting short walks around our neighborhood a few times with Egypt on my back for practice, this was our first real hiking experience together and she loved it.

Most parks say the majority of visitors never travel more than a mile from a paved road and this was definitely the case during our visit to Badwater Basin. Kellisa enjoyed the crunching sound her wheels and my feet made as we ventured about a mile from the rest of the tourists. It felt like we had the valley to ourselves. I could hear Egypt giggling and my guess is she enjoyed the gentle wind in her face just like her sister did at a similar age when we would visit the beach near our home in Florida.

The rest of the day was spent touring the park and enjoying a couple other short trails including the Devil’s Golf Course and the beautiful Artist’s Palette trail which featured our first taste of elevation gain. I had climbed 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado and pushed Kellisa up and down steep trails from Maryland to Oregon, but I never pushed Kellisa up and down a steep trail with Egypt on my back. The trail only gained just over 100ft. in a short distance, but that’s the equivalent of a 11-story building. It was a workout and both girls were having a great time which kept me motivated to continue. Lisa captured several cool pictures of us out on the trail and like usual, we were the only ones doing what we do on the moderately traveled trail.

On our way back to our motel room, we stopped to explore the ½ mile Salt Creek interpretive boardwalk. It was fascinating to be in the middle of a wet area in the middle of such a dry environment. I carried Egypt on my back because she was tired from our long day, but I could tell she was constantly leaning over for a better view of the water below us. I was wondering if she was straining to see fish.We ended an adventurous day with hot dogs and beans outside our motel room. I didn’t have any doubts that Egypt would enjoy and love the outdoors, but if I did, they would have evaporated in the dry desert air.

Something extraordinary happened the following day at breakfast. I took the girls to the restaurant at Stovepipe Wells allowing Lisa a little extra time to rest and enjoy some peace. Kellisa can use her fingers in a pincher grasp to lift small objects including food, but rarely does she bring food to her mouth independently. Kellisa is more than happy to allow others to help her.

The breakfast offerings were simple. I grabbed a box of Cheerios for Egypt and a box of Froot Loops for Kellisa and spread them in front of the girls on a table. Kellisa was in her travel wheelchair and Egypt was next to her in a highchair. I was about to start feeding Kellisa one Froot Loop at a time when she reached beyond her cereal and grabbed a Cheerio. This was surprising, but I thought maybe Kellisa wanted Cheerios instead of Froot Loops. What she did next blew me away.

Kellisa raised her hand and brought it to Egypt’s mouth. Egypt at 17-months old was more than capable of finger feeding herself, but she sat there while Kellisa shoved a Cheerio into her mouth. I say shoved because everything is a struggle for Kellisa, and no one would describe her as graceful. Egypt was more than happy to just sit back and let Kellisa feed her. I could tell Kellisa was proud of herself and it wasn’t long before she was looking for praise and clapping. She had no interest in her own cereal, she was all consumed with helping her baby sister. To our knowledge, this was the first time ever that Kellisa helped someone else. I also lost interest in my breakfast temporarily as I sat back and watched this amazing sister experience.

As I was doing limited research for this trip, I knew driving the Titus Canyon Road was a must do adventure. The road is 27 miles of mostly one-way travel through a mountain range, past a ghost town, near petroglyphs, and passes through a narrow canyon which at points is barely wide enough for a large SUV to pass. The park recommends 2-3 hours for this drive, but we planned on spending most of the day to allow for photography and a picturesque lunch at the ghost town.

The rough road was filled with rocks and washboard making it a bumpy experience. We knew from past excursions that Kellisa loved this kind of road and the giggles coming from Egypt told us she was enjoying all the bouncing around in her car seat. I had to take the road slow to avoid the biggest boulders and deepest holes, so I took advantage of all the pullouts to stop for pictures. Sometimes we just sat there speechless in awe of all the colorful patterns running along the mountain range and hills far below spreading out towards the desert floor.

I stopped for lunch at the parking area for the ghost town. I think Lisa appreciated the break from the rough road and after a light breakfast, we were all ready for some lunch. I squeezed in between the girls in the backseat so I could help them with the bite size cheese and lunch meat I had prepared back at the motel. We enjoyed a few cookies as a treat before we finished our tour of Titus Canyon.

It didn’t take long before I was driving through Titus Canyon and past petroglyphs, but the best was the final mile or two where the canyon walls close in on visitors. At it’s narrowest, the walls are only 20 feet apart. After taking some pictures, we continued along the road until it spit us back out into Death Valley.

On our way back to our room, we stopped at the Mesquite Flats Dune Trail for a little sand dune exploration. It was difficult to push Kellisa through the deep sand, so we didn’t venture too deep. I was appreciative that Egypt wanted to walk around and explore on her own a little. Lisa kept her eyes on Egypt while I struggled to get Kellisa to the top of a dune for an impromptu photo session taking advantage of the soft twilight glow of Death Valley.

Our last day in the park was spent exploring Scotty’s Castle. We didn’t take a guided tour but enjoyed walking (and pushing) around the grounds of the 1920’s winter vacation villa of Chicagoans Albert and Bessie Johnson.

While making macaroni and cheese for lunch at the adjacent picnic area, we were surprised to watch Egypt go off exploring on her own. Up until this point, she stayed pretty close to mom or dad. I guess she was building up her nerve during all the new experiences of being outdoors on this trip. She was playing with a large stick maybe 25 feet away from where I was cooking when a coyote ran in between us. I thought Egypt would be scared by the encounter, but she ran off chasing the coyote.

After lunch, we talked to a ranger about visiting the Racetrack and were strongly advised not to go. The ranger guaranteed we would get at least two flat tires and it would cost us at least $1,500 to receive help on the remote gravel road that leads to the Racetrack. I knew from my own reading that flat tires were a risk, but I had the feeling the ranger was being over the top to discourage us because we had a baby and a kid in a wheelchair. I understood his reasoning, but it had the opposite effect. His words made me want to visit the Racetrack even more.

We had a large rental SUV with one spare tire and a full tank of gas. I also made sure we had food, water, and medicine to last a day or two if we became stuck on the remote road far from help and cell coverage.

The 28-mile gravel road was rough, but far from extreme. As a 4-door sedan was approaching us, I lowered my window to flag the car to stop, which it did. I asked the older gentlemen for a road report since we were just starting out and he assured us that we could easily make it to the Racetrack since they were returning from there and found the road quite accessible. I thanked him and gave a thumbs up before continuing. I’m not sure if the reports are exaggerated or if we were just fortunate enough to visit when the road was in the best possible condition.

Despite my confidence, I still drove slowly and paid close attention to the road. I was prepared to turn around if I felt the risk was too much. It took almost 2 hours to reach the parking area for the Grandstand. The Racetrack is a large valley and the Grandstand is a large island of rock sticking up in the middle. It was cold and windy, but I loaded Kellisa in her jog stroller and hoisted Egypt on my back for a little exploration. We hiked around the entire Grandstand. The ground was so hard and flat making it an ideal surface for pushing Kellisa.

We returned to our SUV and drove another two miles to reach the Moving Rocks. Again, we all got out and hiked around the large rocks on the playa that leave long tracks from their mysterious movements. We observed the rocks and wondered what combination of forces could come together to move these rocks great distances. There were a few other people doing the same as us and we asked a man to take a family picture of us. Looking at our faces and how we’re dressed, you’d never believe we were at the hottest place on earth.

Egypt was also suffering from severe allergies. We hoped the dryness of the desert would help, but it didn’t. I still tease Egypt that she enjoyed using my shirts and even my hair as tissue while she was riding on my back all week. The desert and mountains glowed a magnificent array of coloring as we enjoyed our long drive back to our room.

Our trip to Death Valley ended the following day with a little sightseeing on our way back to Las Vegas where we would spend Thanksgiving in the middle of a rare snowstorm. Kellisa loves trains and we rode the monorail from end to end several times. We learned Egypt shared Kellisa’s love for riding the monorail endlessly. We hoped off the monorail at the MGM for our Thanksgiving buffet dinner. They wanted to charge us $65 for each child, so after a very brief conversation, we settled on a less expensive and faster meal at the food court. We didn't need fancy since we were so full of thankfulness after spending an entire week in remarkably close quarters for the first time since Egypt joined our family. We returned home a closer family. It would be another two months before Egypt was legally a Kain, but she was an important member of our family long before it became official.

Note: We returned to California for a vacation in the summer of 2014 where we visited Lassen and Redwoods National Parks. We pushiked many trails during our two-week visit. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would relocate to Northern California in early 2016. Since our move, we’ve pushiked many trails throughout our beautiful new home state.

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