Our special girl Lauren is 16 years old! When she was diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome 12 years ago, we didn’t know what her future would be. Statistics said her life expectancy was around 14 years. But with modern medical technology and lots of divine intervention, she received an umbilical cord stem cell transplant at age four. Her doctor says it has stopped the progression of her disease and has contributed to extending her life. So this milestone was a celebration, as well as an opportunity to lavish our love on this young lady.

Family members came from all over the country to help us celebrate. Many of them were directly involved with raising funds for Lauren’s transplant, and have also contributed to the work of Lauren’s Institute For Education, so it was an honor to have them here to see the far-reaching results of that support and generosity. Robin and Steven came from Boise (Megan was deep into Nutcracker rehearsals and Ken had to work, so were unable to make the trip).  Richard & Dianna and Daryl & Gisele were there. Carrie’s mother was well enough to come to the party. Many close friends attended, and all of Lauren’s therapists and providers were there. But the one person who beamed the most was our darling, Lauren. She had such a good day, and seemed to enjoy every moment, smiling at everyone, giggling at the music, and even dancing with her daddy.

Here are a few photos to remember the occasion.

Our beautiful girl

Brian, Lauren and Carrie

Me with my grandkids

Me with Robin and Steven

Lauren loves her daddy

The Lafferty family

Not a dry eye in the room during this dance.

A couple weeks later, the staff and parents of Lauren’s Institute held a “Thank You” event to honor Brian, Carrie and Lauren for all the wonderful ways they have blessed the special needs community by opening the center ten years ago. It was an emotional and beautiful get together with hundreds of special needs families whose lives have been changed because of Lauren.

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When my saguaro cactus was destroyed last year, I didn’t get enough compensation from my insurance company to replace it, and neither did I want to. I decided to go with a less expensive option, and added a few small cactus plants myself, as a temporary upgrade. But this year, I heard from the City of Mesa court that the guy who ran into my yard was being prosecuted and I could file for victim restitution through the city prosecution office. The case hasn’t come to trial yet, and I may not see my money, but I decided to proceed with more landscaping upgrades anyway.

I hired a professional crew to do the work and made sure that they included excavation of my driveway so I can (FINALLY!) get my RV out of the back yard. They added some additional cactus plants and refilled the gravel. Here is the finished look:

I had more extensive work done in the back yard. The existing grass had gone to weeds and the Sissoo tree had grown so tall, it was partially blocking my solar panels. Besides that, the roots were very shallow, the tree was leaning and was at risk of falling.

So I had it chopped down.

Boy, did it look bare out there, then! I had to negotiate with the landscaper about adding a few small plants along the west wall until I can plant another tree later this fall. (The tree guy said I should wait until cooler weather.)

I had them remove about half the grass area, add a second brick border and fill it in with matching rock, and then sod the remaining grass patch. (Hanna needs a place to poop!) Here’s the finished yard.

West side

Southeast view *

*The second picture was taken a couple days after the first one and the grass is working to take hold and green up, but the landscapers will babysit it and guarantee it for the first month, so I assume it will be lush and pretty by August.

Incidentally, Daryl helped install a security camera system a couple weeks ago, and yesterday morning I spied a stray cat leaving a calling card on my brand new grass!

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It’s finally here! I am officially retired! Today was my final “work day”, although just between you and me, I didn’t do ANY work today. Instead, I spent the morning packing final things from my office and sending farewell greetings and thank you notes to my co-workers for all the cards, gifts and good wishes they had poured on me. Then at 11:15, I had a phone exit interview with HR in Santa Clara, CA and went over my termination paper work. Everything took about 10 minutes and I was done. I walked around to say good-bye to my team, handed my laptop and badge to my manager and he walked me out the door. Home by 12:30.

On my way home, a car was driving below the speed limit in front of me. I started to pull around it, but then caught myself and said, “What’s the hurry?” I want that to be my mantra for the next ~30 years. I was slightly annoyed to drive through so many school zones! I never go out after I have arrived at the office at 7:00 until I head home at 4:00, so I have not had to deal with those much. I guess I’ll be looking for routes that are not near schools on weekdays from now on, in case I forget my new mantra.

I’ve outlined my very loose and flexible plans on my RV blog, so take a look over there if you’re wondering when my first trip will be.

And now, I think I’ll go take a nap!

I went to Orlando last week with Carrie and the two boys. We stayed in a condo just a couple of miles from Universal Studios on Brian and Carrie’s time share, and Brian used his frequent flyer miles to buy all four of our tickets. I paid for the rental car and parking at Universal and Walt Disney World all week; it was the least I could do for an otherwise free trip to Florida!

I had heard about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando, and being a Harry Potter fan, I was very excited about visiting. Universal is split into two parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Really, it’s just a way to get more of your money, as you have to pay for admission into each park, or upgrade your daily ticket to a “park hopper”. There is a HP World in both parks and the Hogwarts Express runs between them. London and Diagon Alley resides in Universal Studios, and Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure. Of course, you have to buy a park hopper ticket to ride the train.  We splurged for the park hoppers, and got the whole experience.

The London area is very obvious and easy to get to in the park, but the entry into Diagon Alley is well hidden, and the staff is no help in getting you there. They play the part of muggles, and claim to know nothing about Diagon Alley or Platform 9 3/4. But if you follow the crowd, you’ll find it easy enough. The moment you walk through the brick maze entrance, you are suddenly in the midst of the magical land. It’s amazingly well done, with many details from the books and movies incorporated into the village.

The boys visited Olivander’s Wand shop and got an magical wand. It  has a chip inside and interacts with dozens of spots throughout both villages, as you cast spells, charms and hexes on unsuspecting animatronics.

We visited Knockturn Alley and Gringotts Bank, where there is a dragon perched atop the building that blows fire from time to time. You never know when it’s going to happen, because she is alive after all and does it whenever she wants to, according to a cast member outside a store.

We ate one dinner in the Leaky Cauldron and had a mug of butter beer (non-alcoholic). We also bought candy at Honeydukes to bring home.

Our favorite rides were Escape from Gringotts, the Forbidden Journey at Hogwarts, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and the Hogwarts Express. Nathan loved the Dragon Challenge, a wild roller coaster with 3 or 4 upside down loops. Universal has done an amazing job on their 4D rides. It’s hard to explain, but it’s sort of like riding a coaster cart through several 3D theater scenes. We agreed Disney needs to step up their technology, and we won’t be surprised if the new rides at Star Wars Land will incorporate this 4D style.

Harry Potter is not the only featured attraction at Universal. There are many other land themes throughout the 2 parks, including Jurassic Park, Marvel Spiderman and Transformers, Poseidon, Dr Suess, Cartoons, Simpsons, Minions, and more, and we took them all in, some of them twice.

The boys on the Pteranodon Flyers.

There is a very cute Toonland, featuring old comic strip favorites.

My last trip to Walt Disney World was in 2011, so it was a lot of fun to get reacquainted with the parks and ride Snow White’s Mine Train, a new attraction since my last visit. We spent three days at Universal, and four days at Walt Disney World, We had already purchased 3-day WDW park hoppers, but traded them in for 4-day one park tickets, and agreed it was actually a better way to see the “World”. Hopping from park to park takes a lot of time and energy out of your day.

In Animal Kingdom

On my favorite ride, the People Mover.

Good night, Cinderella!

It was a really fun trip. I am a big fan of Disney and theme parks and this was a great diversion from my short-timer’s disease at work. Once I came back, I started my 4 week countdown to retirement!

I left off in the last post when our cruise ship arrived in the port of Seward Alaska, and we disembarked. There were three nice buses waiting for our group (who had been joined by several stragglers to fill in the extra seats) and we headed north across the Kenai peninsula, around Turnagain Arm and into Anchorage just in time for lunch.

I had made arrangements to meet Ken’s sister Tami downtown near our bus stop, and she picked up Alice and me from the rainy sidewalk and drove to a little diner. We had a lovely lunch together, catching up on family news and us giving her a recap of our trip so far. It was too short a time, but our bus was leaving just an hour and a half later for Denali, so we had to say goodbye.

The bus drove north on Route 3 through Wasilla, the fastest growing city in Alaska, toward Denali National Park and arrived at the Denali Wilderness Lodge just about dinner time. We were on our own for all our meals once we left the ship, so Alice and I took a shuttle to a small town a few miles away and ate at Prospectors Pizzaria and Alehouse, home of 49 beers for the 49th state. Neither Alice nor I are beer drinkers much, but we wanted to try one. We asked the waitress for a recommendation and she brought us three samples. Of the three, we both loved the Raspberry Framboise, and got a pint of that. It even came in these lovely glasses!

Back in our room, we had to get maintenance to come close a jammed window because it was … yep, you guessed it … COLD and RAINY out! We settled in for the night with dreams of visiting one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness parks on earth. The next morning we boarded a shuttle bus for the three hour tour into Denali National Park.

We had high hopes of seeing some wildlife and kept our eyes peeled. Alas, it was not to be. We did see a beaver dam, but it was on the wrong side of the bus, so I didn’t get a photo.  We also had hopes of seeing the High One (or Great One), but the clouds and rain obscured any views of the manificent mountain. Luckily, this wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, and I have seen the beautiful peaks before, but I was disappointed that many in our tour group likely missed their only chance.

However, the bus driver did double duty as tour narrator and had many interesting things to say and point out to us.

  • While Mt. McKinley is not the highest mountain, it is the tallest one in the world when measured from base to peak.
  • Only 55 wolves live in the park.
  • President McKinley never visited Alaska!
  • And this guide wasn’t the first to point out that Alaska has three seasons: Winter, Still Winter, and Road Construction.

The best part of the tour was shortly before our turn-around point where he stopped in a pull-out and an Athabascan woman boarded the bus to give a short talk about the history of her people. She was fascinating, funny and poignant as she related how her great grandfather was responsible for negotiating the Alaska Native Corporation with the federal government. Athabascans are Navajos and live in the interior of Alaska, around Denali. She proudly announced she is a grandmother to “10 little Indians”. :)

That afternoon, we rode the Wilderness Express glass dome train from Denali to Fairbanks.

Brian Matlock photobombed us!

Yes, it rained most of the way.

Going over a beautiful bridge

We arrived at Fairbanks to find our bus waiting to escort us to the Pikes Waterfront Lodge, where we would spend our final two nights of the excursion.

(Pictures taken with different cameras.)

We awoke on day 10 to find (what else?) … rain! But we trudged on anyway. First stop, Gold Dredge 8. First, we viewed an exhibit of the Alyeska Pipeline, and heard about it’s construction and safety features.

Then we took a little shuttle tour of the old dredge, learning about the Alaska gold rush, and how a dredge differs from a gold mine. We explored the old dredge camp and saw the equipment, and then panned for gold! I got the most of anyone in the group, finding $24 worth in my bag of dirt. It was cheesy, but fun, and I highly suspect they do very well on selling a bunch of jewelry to show off your “nuggets”.

After lunch on our own, we boarded the Riverboat Discovery III for a cruise down the Chena River. We watched a float plane take off and land on the river and learned that one out of every 60 Alaskans is a pilot. We floated past a house Ronald and Nancy Reagan stayed at while Air Force One was being refueled.

If you’d like to read about the fascinating life of the first woman to win the Iditorad multiple consecutive times, check out Susan Butcher’s story. She died in 2006 from cancer, but her legacy lives on at her home and kennel where her husband and two daughters carry on a tradition of raising and racing sled dogs. The riverboat stopped in front of her home and her husband did a demo of some of his top dogs pulling a small tractor around a track.

You can see the tractor in the background and the team of dogs getting harnessed up.

Dog houses lined up along the river front.

Susan’s famous lead dog, Granite

As we continued on down the river, we saw where the Chena meets the Tenana, and the difference in the waters. The Tenana is filled with glacier silt and you can see how muddy it appears beside the clearer Chena water.

It wasn’t long before someone yelled out “Moose!” They were wrong; it was caribou, but we all moved to the right side of the boat to get a look. It turned out to be captured caribou, and they were let loose to run down to the riverbank just as we floated past. But just look at the rack on that big fellow! Amazing, especially when you realize they shed their antlers every year and regrow new ones. That means this guy has sprouted these beauties in the past 12 months.

Before our return to the dock, we disembarked for a tour of a primitive Athabascan village demonstration. The tour guide was a high school girl and she did an excellent job of showing off her heritage and modeling this beautiful fur parka. It is made of muskrat, wolf and wolverine pelts, took six months to make and is worth $20,000.

A beautiful wolf pelt

The natives were basket weavers

I bet it’s warm!

That evening, Alice and I had our last dinner together, as she left early the next morning. My flight didn’t leave until 8:00 p.m., so I had one final day in Fairbanks on my own. Guess what? It wasn’t raining! I rode a shuttle into downtown and meandered through the Morris Thompson Visitor’s Center, ate at the Fudge Pot (a popular bistro that also sells dozens of flavors of fudge), and walked a couple of miles to Pioneer Park and back before heading to the airport.

The sun tried to peak through. See that tiny bit of blue sky?

The Antler Arch
Made of 100 various antlers

A public railing proudly displays a favorite Alaskan pastime

As my flight took off over Fairbanks, I finally got my look at Denali, proudly “peaking” above the clouds.

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