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Some people prefer large soirees with friends and food and gifts to celebrate monumental birthdays, and we have hosted a couple of those fun events over the years. Yet as Mark’s fortieth birthday loomed, I wanted something quieter and more restful, something that wouldn’t require us crafting a menu or rushing through home projects to enjoy. Neither of us has the energy for that sort of work in late May and early June when the school year has just ended; instead we tend more toward collapsing, preferably somewhere cool and within a day’s driving distance.

During a conversation last spring with my friend Ruth, she side-mentioned her family’s rental property in Colorado, and after hearing a few details, I was instantly smitten with the idea of Vista La Plata, their charming home on 70 acres just outside of Durango, Colorado. I booked a week for our family over Mark’s birthday weekend and began planning the trip in secret, telling Mark only the dates to block from his calendar. Tim and Kristen joined us since the house was large enough to accommodate our combined seven children. It was the perfect surprise gift, one that didn’t require an ounce of work from him until we loaded the car.


Vista La Plata is filled with light and flowing curtains, perfect for rising with the sunlight and coffee, and also for living with the windows open. Mark brought his hammock, which nestled perfectly on the front porch next to the rockers, and we all took turns during the week finding a little refuge there. After a long drive the first day, we were happy to plant ourselves on the property for the first day or so. The kids also enjoyed the freedom of exploring the property on their own, discovering different plants and trees and even a fort.  A few times, we drove down the road to Mormon Reservoir, a quiet and hidden reserve to kayak, fish, or skip rocks after dinner. We often passed small herds of deer nibbling the grasses, unbothered by our passing.

The lowest level of the home belonged to the kids for the week, where they played board games and enjoyed rest and art time. My older boys enjoyed their cave-like sleeping quarters (their favorite sleeping arrangement) and having a cool place to tuck away when the day felt hot and tired. Although there are so many family activities in Durango area, we took the week slow, keeping with the spirit of rest. We inadvertently spent two afternoons at the Durango Mountain Resort, where we let each of the kids pick one ticket activity. The boys opted to zip-line, while the girls bungee-jumped (feet down on a trampoline), and afterward Mark and I hiked alone with our boys, while Kristen and Tim took the other kids home for rest. On this afternoon, we discovered half of a snow patrol sled and carried it to a large patch of snow for play.

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On another other day, we all took the chairlift to the top of the mountain and ate lunch together, and afterward Mark and I took all of the older children hiking. Olive and Shepherd found flags along the way and carried them with us, and later when we crossed paths with another family, they asked if we were a mountain-guided school. We laughed, and then I thought how lovely that would be if this were our daily school.

We spent Saturday in downtown Durango at the farmers market, admiring handmade goods and tasting yummy foods. The kids walked away with balloon animals, and Olive’s popped on the long straw-like grasses within two minutes. There was a car show that day as well, which we wandered through and then waded in the icy cold Animas river. For lunch, we ate on the patio at Carver Brewing Co. and then meandered through Old Colorado Vintage and of course into Cream Bean Berry for gelato and affogatos (espresso poured over vanilla gelato).

A perk of having two sets of adults on a family vacation is swapping date nights, which we did. Mark and I strolled the downtown area for a bit and then went to dinner at the Cypress Cafe, which was a treat, especially sitting on the patio at dusk. I ordered salmon wrapped in grape leaves and Letters to Elliot to drink and have been attempting to re-create it ever since.

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Mark and I recently found a postcard from the 1950s in an antique store, where someone wrote to a friend, “we made the trip and only had to change our tires once!” Sometimes I forget how far travel has come in such a short period of time, that families regularly travel internationally, let alone a few states away in a car. I’m grateful for the ways travel broadens our scope of life and experience, how it teaches us patience and the power of improvisation. On the day of our arrival, just an hour from the house, Mark discovered a nail in two of our tires. Tim shuttled Kristen and myself to the house, helped unload, and then returned to pick up Mark and my boys. It was the longest day, but still worth it for the week that came after it. Happy birthday, my dearest.

For more images of our travels: HERE

For more ideas and activities around Vista La Plata: HERE


Deciding what is essential to pack for each family trip can feel like simplifying a complex math equation, one that includes a limited travel budget, growing children, and shifting weather. Roughly nine years ago, when I had three babies under four and all the baby things to transport [and all of the eye rolls from Mark while packing them], I began honing my packing lists––really considering what we need to travel as a family. About five years ago, I began keeping an online file of my packing lists, titled with the date and location of our travels. I’m realizing, as I type these words, this might be a little neurotic, but having a record has helped me pack well for new trips and even share the lists with others at times. They also function as a journal of sorts, revealing odd family quirks and things like diapers and blankies as they disappear from the list altogether.  

Although having a list doesn’t mean everything occurs as planned or that I never forget something, it does save money in our budget and space in the car. Travel is a beautiful gift and an additional expense to our typical budget, so when it comes to preparing for it, I want to purchase only what is necessary and use the rest of our budget on good food and special experiences together. Below are some tips for how I efficiently shop and plan vacation essentials for our longer family trips away from home.

make a list two weeks before travel /  When it’s time to plan for packing––typically a week or two before travel–– I open a new document on my computer, titled with the location and date, for example, “Colorado, June 2016.” To save time and thinking power, I often copy/paste from a previous travel list and then revise the details using these minimal packing tips. I categorize each list so it’s easy to see what the kids or I might be missing. On a side note, printing a list for everyone in the family to hold, make notes on, and cross off might be very helpful. Consider dictating a list (or printing one) for older children to pack themselves, too. My children enjoy the independence of having their own part to manage.

borrow or shop secondhand  / With growing children, it seems there are always holes in the wardrobe to fill: outgrown, stained, or seasonal clothing and shoes. I note the things we need on the same packing list in a category “THINGS TO PURCHASE OR BORROW.” This list helps me stick to what we need and not be distracted by everything else. When possible, I borrow items from friends that my kids might not use again after our trip, especially seasonal items that might not be sold right now. I also often shop secondhand to stretch our budget, although in the last year or two I’ve had less time to run out and browse our local shops for what my kids need and more often shop online, looking for the best sales. I recently learned about thredUP, an online store that sells like-new items secondhand, and was able to find almost everything we needed there for our trip and summer closet. High. Five. I found a like-new REI fleece and pair of shorts for the boys, a couple of Crewcuts sundresses for the girls (one even still had the tags on it), and a light-weight denim J.Crew top for myself. The best part? I paid a fraction of the original cost, saving $362 which was enough to purchase groceries for the week, plus send the boys down the zipline and the girls bungee jumping at the Durango Mountain Resort. My children each had a missing piece or two of their wardrobe filled, and Mark and I still had enough money set aside for the experiences we really care about.

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set a bag limit for each family member / When anyone travels by plane, the airline sets a bag limit (and size) both for fuel efficiency and the capacity of the plane. Somehow that doesn’t always transfer to car travel, and early on in our family years, I lived by the unspoken mantra, “when in doubt, throw it in the car.” But this is cumbersome and exhausting for everyone involved. It impeded travel space and sometimes also safety, when it blocked our mirrors. Our family now has an inferred bag limit for travel. Each member gets one duffel or backpack for clothing/toiletries and one small book bag to keep at their seat. This naturally forces us to pack efficiently and positively turns our attention to the experience itself, instead of feeling as though we’re preparing for a family move. Here’s some quick ways we keep packing light:

pack clothing within a similar palette / In general, I prefer to purchase clothing in similar palettes for myself and my children. That way, we can more easily mix and match pieces again and again to recreate what we wear. I stand by the same philosophy when packing for a trip. And I loved that thredUP not only allowed me to limit searches by size but also by color. I quickly browsed sundresses in the blues and purples and found one for each of my girls that worked, and also a black fleece for Burke (the color he requested).

choose clothing for more than one purpose / Packing minimally requires each piece to work harder. My rule is every piece must be able to work for more than one purpose. Pack a sundress that is loose enough for playing and hiking, but nice enough to wear to a museum or to dinner. Pack shoes or sandals you can wear anywhere, and also get wet in a river or by a pool (Saltwater sandals and Keens are family favorites, and here’s a pair on thredUP!)

be realistic about the activity bag / I notoriously overpack on books, often because I’m wanting to make too much of the time. I’m learning to really consider how I’ll spend the time away, and now encourage my children to do the same. This trip, they each packed a couple of books, a sketch pad, colored pencils, pencil, and headphones for audiobooks and music.

This post is sponsored by thredUP. Cloistered Away readers can save 40%OFF on your first order by using the code CLO40 before July 31. Thank you for supporting businesses that keep this space alive.

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“I love cooking in nature,” Liam tells me. He tosses the scrambled eggs around the pan gently with a fork. He’s carefully improvising the spatula I have forgotten. Nearby, two trees cradle Olive and her blankie. She has climbed into the high hammock by herself and smiles at us as if to say, Look at me! Look what I can do. And the trees echo her as they release a torrent of color into the air, swirling deliberately, gathering at our feet. The fire pops another acorn where Burke and Blythe sit flipping cards and planning our day: a long hike? explore a cave? play in the river? S’mores? Yes. All of it. Knowingly, Mark hands me a cup of hot coffee as he does most mornings, only today he doesn’t need to rush off to work. This morning he stands with me between the fire and the fog lying over the hills.


We camped on the Frio River last weekend–a little belated celebration for my birthday. There were no candles or wrapping paper. Still, it was the best of gifts.


identifying fungi













As I mentioned last week, lately we’ve been indoors more than usual, and while I value indoor activities in their own manner, there’s nothing quite like exploring the outdoors, especially with children. We spent all day Saturday inside cleaning in spite of the beautiful weather (ugh), so when Sunday arrived with glorious sun expected to warm us to almost 70 degrees, Mark and I agreed that a daytrip and hike in the nearby pines would be the best way to enjoy some quality family time and the weather. So we all filled our water bottles, threw some PB&J sandwiches and fruit into a backpack, piled into our old ‘Burban, and headed to Huntsville State Park. We upturned rocks, climbed through thickets, studied the layers of tree bark, and watched for various wildlife and young trees sprouting the park floors. With the sun trickling down through the tree-line, we noticed the various fungi growing along some of the trees — “Oh! That’s one of the kingdoms of living things!” Blythe exclaimed. (Thank you, Classical Conversations.) As the kids continued to touch and observe and breathe in just a few of the things they’ve learned through memory work or books,  I was reminded of this quote by Charlotte Mason, a 19th century educator:

The question is not — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?  

One of the greatest gifts to me through my children and home-education is re-discovering wonderment. Wonder is easy for children. Everything is new, and if isn’t new, they will find something new to do with it or learn about it. But what about we adults? Often confined by our responsibility and practicality, we forget. Isn’t that what Barrie was addressing in Peter Pan? As grown-ups we forget to dream? To play? To discover? We even use the adjective childish in a condescending manner, as though immaturity and wonder and carefree-ness all equate. I get it. I know as adults we cannot literally live as children (nor would we really want to), but as I do live and learn alongside my children, I am understanding that I cannot live fully as an adult without wonder either. Exactly how full are our lives and how large the room where we tread? I’m still finding out.

Blythe, this last year as I watched you shoot out of your lingering baby chubs and try to bite apples with missing front teeth, I realized too soon you’ll be learning to drive and talking about boys and venturing out into the world toting your imagination and love of color alongside. And part of me wants to bottle up that toothless smile dressed in mismatched bright colors, but I know I can’t. And so I write and take pictures, relishing each day. Well, I try.

I love you, Blythe. I love the way you naturally watch over your sister and even your older brothers (although this can be source of grief and tension at times). I love the way you dance when you think no one is watching, and put everything (and I do mean everything) into a song — you’re living in a musical, I suppose.  Regardless, young heroine, you approach the world fearlessly and with sensitivity. I love this dichotomy in you. But more, I just love you.

You really wanted to ride a ferris wheel this year, so Dad and I surprised you (and the rest of the kiddos) with just that. Dad took a day off of work and we all drove down to the Kemah Boardwalk on the Texas coast. We rode the ferris wheel, along with other things that drop you, twist you, and spin you. You ate cotton candy, ordered soda with your dinner, and squealed in delight most of the day (minus your tears over not being tall enough to ride a handful of bigger, scarier rides with the brothers).  As I tucked you in that night, you looked at me and whispered, “That was the best birthday present ever.” My heart is still smiling. Happy 6th year, dear one. We loved every minute celebrating you today.