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I didn't know it would be so good.

This spring, the months leading up to this trip, my life in the city, with teenagers, and homeschool co-op and church, and marriage... had become... intense.

And sometimes there is nothing you can do about the intensity except to show-up and shoulder through. And so I did. And now I'm here on the other side of the continent remembering things I had forgotten: the sky, and the moon, and the mountains and sleeping in the tent.

What else have I forgotten?


We were crazy fortunate to have this come together. Our trip to Montana feels like once-in-a-lifetime, though we're scheming how to do it again.

In early April I wrote, "As winter comes to an end I am hungering for big beauty again in my life. We all are, so we are making plans for a summer of hiking, camping, backpacking, and traveling to places of natural grandeur."

Livingston, MT, Paradise Valley, Yellowstone filled my well with natural grandeur. But also filled my soul with friendship and connection with kindred spirits, and provided the opportunity to meet interesting people (you meet interesting people in Airbnbs), and learn about new places.

John Mayer has an album called Paradise Valley, named after the place we spent most of July.

A couple days after we arrived in Livingston, in early July, I looked on Spotify for some summer tunes to listen to while cooking supper. I did a search for Montana music, or maybe even Paradise Valley, I found this album.

driving south on 89, the Absaroka range

On that album is a song called Wildfire

River's strong you can't swim inside it
We could string some lights up the hill beside it
Tonight the moon's so bright
You could drive with your headlights out
'Cause a little bit of summer's what the whole year's all about

The music of that album became the soundtrack for our trip.

We left Paradise Valley on Sunday with tentative plans to return next summer. It was the only way to leave without feeling heartbroken, strategizing how we might make the magic happen again.

Our time in Montana filled me with summer. I am a summer person, it's my happy season of the year.

My body, spirit and mind thrive on long days with lots of sunshine and swimming. Those, in combination with being in a naturally spectacular place with good friends and my family, oh my, it's a bit of paradise. 'Cause a little bit of summer's what the whole year's all about.

This winter as Damien and I discussed the idea to travel west this summer we considered, briefly, several different options. We definitely wanted to visit Montana and maybe California. Yellowstone, Glacier, The Grand Tetons, all called to us.

But what felt best for me, an increasingly self-aware traveler and adventurer, was to have a place I could call home for three weeks. Instead of trying to cram the time with several destinations I wanted just one.

A few years ago we took another working vacation road trip with the kids. We stayed east that year. We went to a large Christian music festival in Pennsylvania, introduced the kids to New York city, backpacked with friends in Maine and visited other friends in New Hampshire. It was a good trip but there was a lot of driving, a lot of transitions. It was fun, but it was also stressful.

This time, we drove 35 hours in three days, and then we stayed put.

My happy place is to create home. To create order, routines and spaces that support my people. When too many unknown variables are introduced into this mix I lose my footing.

Even when I am away from home, having an adventure, I want to create home and routines around that space. I want to organize, keep tidy, and putter in a physical space.

So this winter we put the word out to our friends Martin and Katie that we were thinking of coming west and could we use part of their Airbnb space as our homebase? Could they host us?

They invited us with open arms and open hearts (and open minds) and so for the past three weeks we made their Airbnb property our homebase.

Martin and Katie own a airport in Paradise Valley, it's a small airport, used mostly by local ranchers and residents with little planes. (There is probably a technical term for this type of plane.) They have a sweet apartment in the hangar and on the property is the 3 bedroom house where the previous owner lived.

The house is recently renovated, has a complete kitchen, wifi, and all the basic amenities we needed. Our family used the "spare" bedroom in the house to store our stuff and the three kids slept there. Damien and I pitched a tent for sleeping, which we prefer to a bedroom in a beautiful natural place like this. The other two rooms were rented out most nights of our visit, as this is the high season for travel to this area.

I had my homebase. I was happy.

I could figure out the best places to shop and take my time doing stuff with the kids. And if we missed out on something one week I could catch it the next. I could get into a groove. (And I got to hold baby pigs!)

I had a place to create order and routines, a space to support not just my people, but the guests of the Airbnb. Every few days I was happy to clean bathrooms, vacuum floors, run the laundry, and make up beds with fresh linens and lay out the towels.

We visited with people from different parts of the world and the United States; we shared outdoor suppers, chores, and friendship-deepening talks with Martin & Katie.

And every night I walked out to the tent, usually under the stars (a couple times in the rain) a faint blue glow still showing on the western horizon. And I tucked into my home-away-from home sleeping bag. And I'd often wake early in the morning (to go pee) and with sleepy-eyed amazement watch the eastern sky smudge pink at 4:30am behind the Absaroka mountains. (And then I'd crawl back into my sleeping bag nature-contented and sleep for a couple more hours till sunlight flooded the tent.)

It was the best of both worlds for me. A functional kitchen, a tent under the stars. Making home while having an working vacation adventure. It was a perfect fit for our needs.

So too was Livingston a perfect fit. I can't say enough about Livingston, MT and the Paradise Valley. On our last trip to this area it was Bozeman we fell in love with. (I'm still in love with Bozeman.) Bozeman is a place I could live. It's cold in winter but there are mountains and ski hills and culture (a beautiful library and the Co-op) and everything you need.

But this trip was all about the Paradise Valley and making trips to Livingston every few days for groceries, to visit the farmers market, to go swimming in the Yellowstone, to go for coffee, to visit the outdoor store for topographical maps and bear spray.

Paradise Valley and Livingston, MT offered everything we needed, within a 20 mile stretch of highway. Some of the most beautiful highway I've had the privilege to drive.

From this homebase we drove a few miles west into the National Forest of the Absaroka mountains for our weekend hikes. I drove even less miles to the nearby hot springs and little lake to take the kids swimming. We drove south to Yellowstone National Park. We walked to the nearby ranch. And whenever our travels took us past the Emigrant General Store (often), we'd stop for $1 Wilcoxson's ice cream bars.

If you go:

Gil's Goods is the place to eat.

Historic Downtown Livingston has great coffee shops, bakeries, bookstores, galleries and other eclectic shops. My favorite is Sax & Fryer, Montana's oldest stationary shop, chock full of great books and art supplies.

The Farmers Market is the place to be every Wednesday afternoon and is more like a festival than a "farmer's" market. There were very little vegetables for example, but lots of jewelry & knitware, handmade goods, and food trucks. Ah.. the food trucks. As tasty as Montreal, but better priced.

I used to be a house vegan (eating vegan at home). That's changed and I'm not telling that story right now but since I cook meat now (a couple times a week) I was delighted to buy my grass-fed beef at half the price I pay in Montreal, directly from the cowgirls who raise it at the Livingston Farmers Market.

The Yellowstone River is one of the main attractions in the valley, for beauty, fishing, rafting and overall enjoyment.

You can access the river at many places, there are fishing access points all along 89 down through the Paradise Valley. The kids and I found it kind of tricky to swim in the river, a lot of floating was involved. But our favorite river activity was our rafting trip with our friends Mel & Henry. I've known Mel for probably eight years online and this was the first time we've met in person. She let Damien and I stay at her empty house when we came through five years ago.

TravelingMel is very familiar with this area and has a lot of videos on her YouTube channel that share many adventures from Montana and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we didn't make it over to Pine Creek Lodge, a mere 10 minutes from the Airbnb. But that is the place for live music in the valley. Next time.

Chico Hot Springs is worth the entry fee, especially if you stay and soak for a couple hours. Although I also really enjoyed the free "hot springs" experience at the Gardner/Boiling River in Yellowstone (it's free with your park entry fee).

If you're into camping there is inexpensive camping all down the valley, right along the Yellowstone, and numerous campgrounds in the Gallatin National Forest.

This area offers just so much. You can explore for days.

This was a great trip. All good things must come to an end, this part of our trip too must end.

But I learned something to take with me for next time. I love having adventures in beautiful places when I can create a sense of home.

I've struggled to define vacation my whole adult life.

When I was a kid, vacation was a very straightforward thing. Every late July, from the time I was about nine years old till I finished high school, my parents packed up the car and we went to British Columbia for a week; where we rented an old, one bedroom beachfront cabin in a campground on Kootenay Lake, just outside of Nelson.

Our Honda CRV packed for this trip

My parents took the bedroom with the sagging double bed and my brother and I shared the pull-out couch. The shower was metal, similar to those classic campy painted tin mugs. The space was small and sandy. The small kitchen did not stop my mom from cranking out gourmet meals, since that's just her thing.

It was heaven.

Before we found the cabin and established a holiday ritual of returning every year at the same time to that exact same cabin, we camped in a camper, the kind that sat on top of a pick-up truck. Both borrowed from my grandparents.

The early years in the camper were a mixed bag in terms of destinations, but we always went to British Columbia, usually near water. I remember outdoor pools, rivers and beautiful lakes (all a rarity in my prairie upbringing); campgrounds and hot springs; and the wild west feel of certain areas in the south eastern corner and south central regions of BC.

When I was kid it was very clear what vacation was, though we called it holiday.

Holiday is when we packed up the Ford Tempo and drove to BC to spend a week of bliss (before I knew that word) swimming to your heart's content, eating great food, making trips to Nelson for groceries, calamari and lattes (this was the 80's when an afternoon latte was a holiday drink.)

Holiday also meant going berry picking at least one afternoon, usually on our way to the cabin, when I was so desperate to reach the beach I would execute the equivalent of a teenaged temper tantrum, staging a sullen sit-in in the car rather than pick berries for one measly hour. Which explains some of the struggles I have with my own children at this age. I have it coming to me.

But as a kid holiday was a very clear time of rest and fun. We had to help sweep up and make our beds, but certainly there was very little work involved. And from a child's perspective I thought it was the same for my parents.

Being a responsible adult myself, I see how off-base I was on this account. Though I do feel that my parents choosing the cabin route over camping was to lighten the effort involved. Less packing, easier driving, both of which eased my Dad's job considerably.

I don't recall my mom ever complaining about cooking while we were on holiday, or really complaining at all. Like most people I have a very selective memory but my mom is not a complainer. She seemed to enjoy vacations, even though she cooked and did laundry at the camp laundromat, while the rest of us frolicked or slept on the beach.

I grew up taking regular holidays with my family, it was our tradition. And I internalized certain ideas about what constituted vacation: lots of swimming and lazing around on a beach, with tasty food appearing as needed.

And then I grew up. And I have been pining for this type of vacation ever since.

We were delighted when these baby robins hatched right after our arrival to Montana
we were saddened when a magpie raided the nest a couple days after this photo was taken

Damien and I started camping right off the bat when we got married. We camped as part of our two week honeymoon. I really liked it though I also appreciated that for the majority of our honeymoon we stayed in cabin rentals and bed & breakfasts.

After our honeymoon we didn't take a vacation, of more than one or two days, for many, many years. Fifteen in fact.

After we left Alberta and moved to the States we took trips back to Canada to visit family, where we would stay with my parents or Damien's family. But those weren't vacation, because vacation in my mind is when you mostly relax. And you don't share a bedroom with your kids and keep cooking meals. Those were great times with our family, but they weren't vacations.

Then we started hiking and camping with our own kids. But our camping was not what it was when I was a child. It seemed like a lot more work, in part, of course, because I was now the parent but also because we did a lot of hiking (hello, effort...).

Camping was an affordable way to travel and we often used camping as the means, not the end. Which is not the same as camping as a vacation.

taking the kids to Chico Hot Springs in the Paradise Valley

Damien's time off of work and our big trips were always reserved for going to visit family, usually my parents. And outside of that time we crammed in as much weekend camping and short backpacking trips as possible.

Camping, and then backpacking, became an area of personal growth and stretching. Like I wrote seven years ago:

I'm tired of character building on my "vacations" (I have ceased to call camping a vacation). I just want to be. To sit on a porch swing drinking iced tea or an Adirondack chair at a lakeside cabin, sipping coffee and watching the sunset over a lake. I don't want to be trekking through woods so wet my underwear is dripping.

I'd just find my comfort zone in the great outdoors and then we'd push it a little further.

None of this felt like vacation to me.

In my dream world, when you're on vacation you don't have to cook. You don't have to hike or carry weight on your back. You can sit and read for most of the day, if you want. Or you can swim. Or nap, or read, or go for coffee (or fried calamari), or read. You basically are free to do what you want. In my dream world, vacation is what I did as a child, which by the way did not include TV, never mind computers and internet-access.

By that definition I have never had a vacation in my whole adult life. I think the U2 song says it best (about most of adult life) I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

I've come to define our travels, adventures and family "downtime" by the following terms.

A trip is when you go somewhere. It could be overnight, or for many weeks or months. It could be for all kinds of purposes: work, visiting family, or maybe even to take a "vacation". We have taken many, many trips as a family. Camping trips, backpacking trips, trips to Nova Scotia, trips to Alberta. Trips that involved work and play. Our family downtime and recreation has been defined by this type of travel.

Holidays are the culturally traditional celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Christmas is our most important family holiday and we always take time off work between Christmas and New Years. Sometimes we'll go on a trip during this time or take a trip in October to visit family.

A vacation is hardest for me to define because I'm not sure I've had one as an adult. But its defining features are rest and relaxation.

A fellow parent at the homeschool co-op we belong to takes his family to Cuba every year, sometimes twice a year. He finds these incredible deals and they stay at an all inclusive resort for a week, where, in his words, the biggest decision of the day is "do we swim at the ocean or at the pool?" To me, that sounds like a vacation.

Part of the reason defining vacation is so hard and feeling like I haven't really had a vacation in my adult life is because Damien and I approach and define vacation from differing perspectives. We have different temperaments and enjoy diverse activities, but also the nature of our work is different, therefore relaxing from work is not the same.

Working at a sedentary job Damien appreciates physical challenges when he is not working, he needs that for his well-being. And he's super outdoorsy, so a relaxing time for him is to be physically active in the outdoors; hiking, backpacking, etc.

My work as a mother and homemaker doesn't conform to the typical work hours, obviously. Especially when the kids were little I didn't get to stop any of my usual jobs on trips. It wasn't a break. Everyone still needed to eat, it was just moving my work to a different location. And although Damien has always been responsible for all our camp cooking, giving me a break in that regard, the fact I had to hike all day to earn that "break" made the experience on the whole, less than relaxing.

For the past five years we've been self-employed and have location independent work. Damien's clients are all over the world, he doesn't need to be a in a certain place to work. This allows us to go places, on our own schedule, but it also means work comes with us.

We're not opposed to taking an honest-to-goodness break from income-earning work but the question we ask ourselves is what would we do that both Damien and I would find relaxing and refreshing? As it is, we don't have to answer that question because we don't have the funds to find out. And even if we did have the funds, we wouldn't spend it on a vacation, the kids need dental work.

Damien and I don't live in the world of employers, paid statutory holidays, paid vacation time (or dental benefits).

We chose this life, I'm not complaining, really. It's just our reality. And even after 20 years of marriage we're learning how to define things on our own terms.

I wasn't expecting this trip out west to be vacation. When our friends in Montreal found out we were traveling for 6 weeks I was clear that this wasn't a vacation, it was a trip.

But the delightful surprise and gift is that there have been days of vacation on this journey. And a vacation vibe to much of our time here. This is true for the kids and I, unfortunately less so for Damien, who is working a mostly full schedule.

I've been asking myself, what makes this feel like a vacation? Why do I feel so good here? I am refreshed and relaxed. I'm feeling like I've had a vacation. What can I learn from this experience?

The trip hasn't been without challenges or disappointments. Our original intention when we planned this trip was to go backpacking on the weekends. One of those excursions was to be down to the Grand Teton National Park. A place we both love and a mountain range Damien has experience backpacking.

But Damien injured his knee in June on a boys backpacking trip in the Presidentials (New Hampshire) and backpacking in the Rockies was not meant to be. This was terribly disappointing for him.

Instead we've hiked locally and they have been amazing hikes. You can read my hiking journals of the trip at my profile on Outsideways.

But we haven't just hiked, yesterday we went rafting with TravelingMel and her family. And because it followed a day of vigorous hiking we enjoyed it even that much more. The day felt completely like vacation to me. We sat in the sun. The kids swam. We floated down a river eating and drinking and getting to know interesting people. Afterwards, Mel & Henry fed us supper, and we sat outside drinking beer. Summer vacation.

The weather has been gorgeous. This is another thing I associate with vacation. Hot summer weather. We're warm here but it's dry and never unbearably hot. And when it gets too hot, there's the river to cool off in.

I'm cooking easy meals. Everyone fends for themselves throughout the day and I make an easy supper. That feels like vacation.

We're drinking sunshine iced tea and cold creamy coffee in the afternoon.

Damien and I are sleeping in the tent. I love sleeping in a tent. It was one of the first things I fell in love with when we started camping and backpacking. The tent is my safe, cozy place. It always has been.

In the tent we can experience the wind or the occasional storm and when I get up at night to go pee the sky is often bright, not with streetlights, but starlight.

I go to bed fairly late, the evening is light and long, and I've been reading good books till till past my usual bedtime. I get up fairly early the next morning because sunlight floods the tent. But if I'm tired in the day I take a nap.

Probably the most significant thing that helps this trip feel like a vacation is that the kids are older and don't need my care. They can feed themselves.

I have work to do here also. I'm helping clean the Airbnb (especially since we share the space), I do the grocery shopping and laundry for our family. I keep paying the bills and managing our rental in Maine. But there are no projects like at home. Nothing here is my ultimate responsibility, so once my defined tasks are done, I can just relax.

Our weekends are family time, Damien joining us for adventures, but the kids and I have been exploring the area on our own during the week. And what an area to explore! We've taken trips to Yellowstone National Park, gone swimming numerous times in the Yellowstone River, and eaten a lot of ice cream.

I have been enjoying my kids. We are living a summer pace. We have re-discovered those lazy days of summer that I thought we had lost in the rush and activity of city living.

There are no appointments or schedules to keep here. No social events I have to drive to.

The kids have it pretty easy but it's not complete vacation for them either. Brienne and Laurent have been helping at a nearby ranch, first with a kids' day-camp and then helping acclimatize piglets. The piglets are being sold and after weaning they needed to get used to human touch so the kids have been down to ranch twice a day (it's a 5 minute walk from the Airbnb) to bottle-feed them. Taking care of piglets was a daily highlight.

Laurent and Brienne are working on math because last winter's busy co-op schedule bumped math out of the homeschool mix so they have some catch up to do. (If they weren't already years behind in math it wouldn't matter but both of them are motivated to bring their math skills closer to grade level this summer, and I'm certainly not stopping them.)

All the kids are helping around Martin and Katie's property doing yardwork. We all pitch in for our accommodations.

Each child is finding their own expression of vacation. Brienne likes to keep busy. Laurent loves adventures and Celine loves to chill. They each have a computer or an ipad and their favorite Netflix shows and YouTube channels and, sharing one room for sleeping, they all excel at the teenager-ly art of "the deep sleep".

I do believe they are having a vacation.

I think I'm having a vacation. I wasn't expecting I would. I didn't want to have unrealistic expectations.

For the past year and a half Damien and I have been actively asking ourselves how do we rebuild common ground after feeling relationally broken and disillusioned after our thru-hike? What is the best of "us"? How do we be strong individuals, knowing ourselves and be a strong couple? What are the activities we both truly enjoy doing together? How do we balance his recreational needs with hers and vice versa? And the fact that we have three independent-minded teenagers in the mix doesn't make finding the answer any easier.

These questions have been hard to answer in Montreal, wrapped up as we are in a busy life that revolves mostly around our kids.

The questions seem easier to answer here, sometimes in talking but also just in the doing.

We both love to sleep in a tent in beautiful places. Damien completely appreciated a day of rest and relaxation, floating on a river, after a day of vigorous hiking. I love hiking, when it isn't a full-time job. (Damien would love to hike as a full-time job. We did that for six months, and I learned I prefer my regular job as homemaker.)

We love the mountains. We both love sharing meals with friends. We loved our impromptu sunset hike at the end of a long work day. We both love Montana.

For now we take a working vacation over no vacation because we so desperately want to go places. But these days won't last forever. Our parental obligation (and privilege) to provide for our children will end.

Finding ourselves in Big Sky Country, doing things we love, together, we are dreaming again. This time we're not dreaming of how to raise our kids or take them on a grand adventure. We're dreaming of what it will look like to travel, work, and build relationships when our children are grown and mostly independent. We're dreaming about the time it will be just us.

An "us" that we get to define.

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