Colmar and farewell Ueli

It’s Monday July 10 and we have one more day in Ueli before we return him to Simone and Volker back in Erinkirchen, near Freiburg.  It’s a 2 hour drive, but with a 30 minute detour we can day-trip Colmar, France – a cherished memory from my first overseas adventure, a solo backpacking trip I took half a lifetime ago.  Colmar and the Alsace-Lorraine is an easy sell to Sue so off we go.  IMG_8469

IMG_7190Max navigates us to street parking on the edge of town, then we walk through the drab and drizzle into the charming old town center – colorful even under lead skies.  It’s crowded with quaint shops and chatty American vacationers.   We buy pretzels and eavesdrop our way through the streets.  Our meander brings us to the town center and a 45 minute faux-train tour.  The tram’s clear roof provides a sprinkle of the town’s main sites: oriel windows, stork nests, medieval tanneries, “Little Venice”… it’s a lovely town and a pleasant afternoon.  

Soon enough we’ve had our fill and dead-reckon our way back to Ueli – all this travel has honed the boys’ urban navigation instincts.  Always seeking the road less traveled we find avoid the highway and find country lanes which weave us across the Rhine border to Baden-Württemberg.  Then with German efficiency find a car wash and clean Ueli’s exterior before returning to Ehrenkirchen.   There we unpack and scrub the interior, turn some laundry and enjoy another earthy supper courtesy of our generous hosts Simone and Volker.  For our last night in Ueli we park and sleep on the street – not glamorous, but convenient.  Ueli’s been a fine companion, we’ll miss him.

Our trusty steed for the last 2 weeks – “Uelie” the Adria Axess Matrix 

At dawn I slip out for an exploration of crisp little Ehrenkirchen – in the waking town children bike to school, shops open, all is neat and clean.  No tourists here so I’m a bit of a curiosity as I buy a coffee and pastries, then return to finish up the laundry and enjoy yet another morning feast at Simone and Volker’s.  With a warm goodbye to Volker and the kids we cram our bags and ourselves into their little electric car and Simone drops us at the Freiburg train station for our day-long rail ride to Amsterdam.  We’ll see them again in two weeks, when they fly to the US and drive our RV through the Sierras.

The German Inter-City Express train is of course clean, efficient and on-time, and it’s a pleasant slip north through western Germany and across the Netherlands to that bastion of liberal urbanity Amsterdam.  We love the Dutch and look forward to immersing the boys in their hospitality and history.  

Le Tour – Stage 9

Flash back to France now… recall that we left you parked at the Barrage de Genissiat, having just spent the night waiting for Stage 9 of the Tour de France.  

IMG_8329 - CopyRace day breaks steamy and hot.  I’m up first so move my bivouac tarp to reserve a prime viewing spot at the base of a long downhill just before the wicked hairpin that precedes the dam.  Returning to the RV we make coffee and watch the Tour setup unfold:chartreuse-clad Gendarme patrols begin to set up barriers, and various officials post signs – yellow promotional signs for the local department of Ain, and black-on-neon yellow arrows to guide the IMG_8374 - Copyriders through turns.  By 9AM the last of the race fans drive or ride the road, and then official Skoda cars and crews start cruising the route.  At 11AM the publicity caravan passes – a rolling circus of promotion and swag pushing products and places to race fans.  Their floats are fast and creative, and we wave and dance unashamedly for the bootie they toss – bike caps, arm bands, snacks, frisbees, keychains, coupons, pens… it’s great fun for the boys, “way better than the 4th of July parade” says Max.

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Le Tour posts a detailed schedule so we know the lead riders will race through around 12:28PM,  In the hours a street sweeper runs the course, and then the security rolls through to ensure a clear path for the riders.  We’re in place before they come but the first break-away pack passes so quickly I can’t get my video running in time.  I’m ready for the second pack of perhaps 100 riders, a force so fast that they create their own wind, which blows over our spot on the outside of the turn.  There are 2 or 3 straggling backs – probably survivors of the day’s earlier crashes, one of which took out the #2 rider on a stretcher.  

And just like that, it’s over.  I can see the last of the riders climbing slowly up the the Barrage across the canyon, and I make a mental note… next time I’ll catch the swag low but move uphill for a longer view of better riding competition… near the top of a steep climb is the place to be.

After the race passes we enjoy an unhurried picnic lunch under the awning and decide IMG_7154our next stop will be in the medieval village of Saint Ursanne in Switzerland’s Canton of Jura.  The drive takes us past Geneva and Lausanne, but heavy rains made it a better day for covering ground than touring, so we stay dry in Ueli and wade through the wet for 3 hours.  I make a few wrong turns and wind up on some roads far too steep and narrow, but Ueli downclimbs well and we eventually find our way down the gorge to riverside St. Ursanne, where we find a motley crowd of homeless wandering the streets.  

IMG_7153IMG_7151No wait – they look more like friars and peasants.  Then we see cars filling a large parking lot at the edge of town – we park Ueli and since it’s still raining I don my shell and water shoes and slog 200 meters into town before I realize that everyone is in medieval garb… we’ve stumbled onto the end of what must have been a weekend long medieval fare.  I run back to Ueli and egg Sue and the boys out to share the fun.

We missed some magic as there are now transport trucks in the village and folks are focused on breaking down booths, but it’s still a fun, funky scene with robed revelers slogging grog and playing with horses, cows, goats, and sheep free-ranging the cobblestone streets.  Sue and the boys seem uncomfortable with the rustic costumed scene, but I find it fun so take an extra lap while they return to Ueli.  The grassy parking lot is pleasant enough so I park on a quiet edge and we eat in then settle down for a Sue feast and a good sleep, with the white noise of rain on the roof lulling sweet dreams our way.  IMG_7175

Flashforward – Capitol Reef

Thanks dear readers for your patience… busy days at home  make it hard to catch up on writing.  Fortunately I have informal journal notes to refresh my fading memory, and with the boys out of school this week I’m free from home distractions.    

Dawn at our Escalante campsite

I write you from spectacular Escalante, where we are in the middle of an RV trip through southern Utah’s surreal landscapes.  With the family dozing and the pitter patter of light rain on the roof, it’s a magic morning so I’ll divert from our Gap Year adventures to reassure you that we haven’t submitted to the rat race.

On Friday September 29th I pulled Ben from school at lunch and we pointed the RV – (which I have renamed “Tahoooo!” for marketing purposes) – east.  Driving across the Great Basin is a boring affair, so a good opportunity for one-on-one son time.  Our plan was to fly Sue and Max to Salt Lake to spare them the drone of the drive, while Ben and I cranked up the music and made the best of the slog.   Fueled with 50 gallons, In-&-Out burgers and sunflower seeds, we pushed 325 miles east to Elko, caught the evening showing of “It”, then pulled off on a desolate dirt road to sleep for the night.  Ben’s hard to frighten.

Tree of lifeI rose Saturday at 4:30, stepped out into the dark desert, inhaled heady sage-scents and secured Ben’s bunk back door before easing back onto I-80 for the last push to SLC.  Ben snoozed as Tahooo! Rolled east past the Wendovers, descending across the Utah border onto the salt flats, past Bonneville raceway, the Tree of Life, and the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi River – the Garfield Smelter Stack.  There we picked up Sue and Max, skirted downtown Salt Lake and turned south.  Because I love driving a rattly, 11,000 pound boat so much I opted for a longer, more scenic  route over Spanish Fork mountain.  We climbed out of the drab grey suburban sprawl of Salt-Lake-Provo-Orem and into pristine valleys exploding with auburns – flaming aspens and maples popping among evergreens, enough to make Vermont jealous.

Home to Capitol Reef
800 miles in 24 hrs – phew!

4 hours and 250 miles later, we rolled into Capitol Reef, a bit gassed from the pinball ride.  Capitol Reef is the most majestic national park you’ve never heard of – named for aIMG_9754 massive navajo sandstone dome and an impassable fold in the earth’s crust, this part of Utah is a geologist’s heaven.  Here the Colorado Plateau retains 200 million years of sediment-ality – a rock layer cake of of ancient swamps, rivers, deserts and inland seas.  Wind and water have worn slot and grand canyons through, opening dramatic vistas, scrambling passages and natural bridges.  The experience here is tactile – one must hike, bike, crawl and climb. So we did.  

Road-weary, we eased in on Saturday with an obligatory stop at the Visitor’s center and a park preview at sightseeing pullouts.  Campgrounds were full but we found a fantastic spot on BLM land outside the park… free of fees, crowds and rules.  The boys tossed balls and frisbees while Sue and I settled in.  I work the outside – mats, tables, chairs, fire… Sue sets up inside, prepping a fantastic mexican mix which we devoured al fresco over the sandstone sunset.  I keep reminding the boys how lucky they are to have Sue as a feeder…

Sunday morning I pulled my swank new Ibis Ripley LS 29er from the North Shore rack and headed for the rock rim north of us.  The soil was steep, soft and sandy… I had to carry my bike more than ride it.  And I picked up a flat (plenty of thorns here)… but made a good memory.  Back in camp the family was rising so we had a simple breakfast, checked the weather, packed up and rolled out for the day’s adventures.  We hiked from the Fremont River through a wash to spectacular Hickman Bridge, took the scenic drive along Waterpocket Fold and hopped on bikes at the end of the road to explore the canyons.  Back in the old pioneer settlement of Fruita the fresh strawberry rhubarb pie was sold out, so we settled for ice cream and apple picking among the deer… looks like they feast on the fruit – they’re healthy.  

With weather threatening tomorrow we opt to exit a day early and overnight in lower elevation Escalante.  The 90 minute drive over Boulder Mountain on scenic byway 12 is spectacular – Capitol reef to our back and the many canyons and crags of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument at our feet.  We’ve risen above rocks to a forest of aspen, pine, spruce, and fir. Wildlife is abundant, and the trout fishing is reportedly spectacular… brookies should be spawning now.  I need more time here.  We pull off the road just east of the town of Escalante and find a fine boondocking site off of Hole-in-the-Ground road, atop a knoll with a fire ring and views over the Grand Staircase… and settle in for a mild evening, enchanted.


Gloom and Bloom

At 7AM this morning I got the call from the Fremont Police Department. Its 10PM on the West Coast… can’t be good news.  And it isn’t – we’ve lost my mom.  This print just isn’t the right place to spill my maelstrom of emotions, so I’ll just say that our world will be dimmer without her, may she rest in peace.  

Then our London host emailed that she’s double-booked her place for our arrival… “I’m so sorry.  Can you change your flight?”  Really?  And just like that it falls on us to find lodging for a family of 4 in London on a near Saturday night.  In a mournful mood my reply was too combative, so we got off to a bad start, which put the whole London stay in a bit of a funk.  

LeTour Stage 9 Profile
9’s brutal climbs

Enough gloom, we have Le Tour to look forward to.  Tomorrow’s Stage 9 is the toughest of the 2017 Tour, with 3 stiff climbs averaging 9% (some as steep as 22% in sections) and hair-raising hairpin descents.  Ultimately I decide to seek a spot in the middle of the leg which I judge will be less pressured and easier for us to access and park.

LeTour Stage 9 route
180km of pain

The drive west from Chamonix takes us through a lovely canyon near Albertville; we skirt Geneva and Annecy and hit Le Tour’s route at the little town of Franclens.  We tour Le Tour’s Stage 9 route and stop in for guidance and goodies at the local tourist office and market, then do one last drive-by to pick out spot.

IMG_7098The fans are now rolling the course in their own motorhomes and my preferred spot above the steep ascent from the Rhone is now taken.  To keep the family comfortable and happy I opt for a compromise spot at a lovely Rhone-side park adjacent to the hydroelectric dam Barrage de Genissiat.  It’s at the bottom of a long downhill and the riders will pass quickly, but the boys can enjoy the park space, and they’re likely to bag a lot of pre-race swag.

Barrage de Gennisiat
We camped below the hairpin.

By 4PM we’ve got a prime park spot, the awning out and outdoor dining set up.  The day is very hot, but it doesn’t keep Max and Ben from setting up the mini-hoop on the side of the Ueli the RV, and putting together a “Smashball” court on the next parking spot.  Sue pulls together a tasty picnic dinner, and we play some iPhone Charades and a hilariously irreverent game of Exploding Kittens before retiring.

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To escape the heat and find some sad time I elect to sleep under the stars on a big tarp, which I wrap around me when the 2AM rain falls.  It’s a perfect bivouac, and gives me the space to mourn Mom’s passing, but celebrate with pride the promise of her grandchildren.  Thanks Mom.

Blanc Stairs

IMG_8059This Friday July 7 we’re up early to beat the crowds and catch the first cable car up Mt Blanc.  We arrive at 6:45AM to find electrical problems have shut the lift down for a bit… and with some research we stake our claim to the 12th car up, then plop my pack and grab le petit dejeuner across the plaza.  Soon enough the lift gets going and by 8:20 we’re whisked up nose of the massif’s north face to the Aiguille du Midi – Mont Blanc’s midpoint and literally its “needle of noon”.

The contrast between Alp and Sierra skiing is striking.  Our resorts sit high on the mountain; the Alpine resorts we’ve seen nest comfortably in low valleys around 3-4000’ then rely on cables and cogwheels to whisk you up to the slopes.  I expect you might find more ski-in ski-out options in the Sierras, but the European resorts are more accessible and provide a better base for summer visits. Chamonix looks fun, but I think my first Alpine foray would more likely be to the Zermatt or Jungfrau regions, which appear to offer a broader array of connected slopes and better potential for crowd dispersion.  Either way I’d better go soon… judging by the receding glaciers, the heydays Alpine skiing are past.

At the top of our ride we disembark at ~12,600’ into the Aiguille du Midi’s habitrail shelter.  All rust-colored steel blocks and tubes, it’s a haphazard iron lung of engineering marvel, precariously peak-perched to earn awes.  This spire’s views inspire – we’re lucky to catch another clear day, so have clear sites southeast to Mt Blanc, northwest across Chamonix to the Grand Balcon Sud, northeast to the Aiguille Verte which births the Mer de Glace, and to the east in the distance we can spot The Matterhorn.  Many of our early-rising compatriots are crampon-clad climbers, who gear-up and drudge with ice axes off towards the peaks; we’re content to wander about the Aiguille du Midi, exploring the various structures, decks, vistas and exhibits.

After an hour or so we begin our day hike, sensibly descending first to the Refuge du plan de l’aiguille below the mid-mountain Plan de l’Aiguille cable car station, then traversing northeast along the Grand Balcon Nord across Mt Blanc’s northwest face.  It’s a lovely alpine walk among wildflower festooned slopes.  Along the way we pass families and small tour groups, and one big goat herd before wrapping up our hike at Montenvers above the Mer de Glace.  

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There we take another hour to admire Aiguille_Verte and mourn the melting Mer de Glace before boarding a very expensive cogwheel for the descent into town.

Tonight we need to check into a proper campsite to wash ourselves and our clothes, and we’ve found a good one at Camping de la Mer de Glace.  It’s a quiet, family-focused place with an uncharacteristically friendly French vibe, and very well set up for laundry and dishes, so we get our travel chores done before enjoying Sue’s cooking and a balmy night under the awning.  

Our RV itinerary is fluid and I need to plan the next few days on the fly.  Sunday’s Tour de France Stage 9 – the most grueling mountain segment – is one of the anchors of our Alps adventure, and I’m having a hard time working out the logistics of where to approach, park and watch.  I hear the start and end of the stage will be crowded, so elect to roll into middle of the route and hope for parking spot within walking distance of race.  The heat wave continues and remains a concern as Cleveland-born Sue and the Mountain-born boys wilt above 75 degrees… I’d like to find a cool mountaintop spot but fear the drive and competition for pitches.  We’ll do our best tomorrow.

The Big Dogs

(Editor’s note:  Here’s are the boys’ journal entries for this edition…)

IMG_6935Wednesday July 5 – Today we slept in while Dad went on a bike ride down the mountain.  We had breakfast and secured the RV before driving.  We powered through steep roads and curly switchbacks.  We drove on the roads for 2-3 hours until we stopped at Great St. Bernard Pass.  The pass has Switzerland on one side and Italy on the other.  We walked the small slopes for an hour before hiking along a nice lake that reflected the surrounding mountains.  Then we returned to the RV and worked on math and journaling for 2 hours.  Then we went to dinner at a small bar.    -Ben Rock  

IMG_8003Thursday July 6 – Today we drove to  Chamonix.  We stopped in Courmayeur, on the Italian side.  WE got some groceries and ate lunch before going on a alk through town.  We then hit the road again and drove in an 11.6 kilometer tunnel that goes under Mont Blanc.  We arrived in Chamonix and found a spot to park for thenight.  Mom made us dinner and we played Charades for a while until Mom and Dad went on a walk.  When they came back we set the beds up and went to bed.   – Max Rock

IMG_6889We have plans to push on to Chamonix today, but it’s so glorious and inviting here I’m looking for a way to extend the stay.  I like bikes best, so decide to rise early, bike back up to Zermatt, and catch the first cable IMG_6919car up to Schwarzsee.  With Volker’s trusty Trek in tow, I’m the first up and down the mountain, stretching my ride along more gradual slopes as I lack a helmet and rear suspension.  Even so it’s good fun, with fine flow trails connecting mountain views and rural charms.  

Back in camp the family helps me pack up, dump tanks and roll back down to Visp on the banks of the Rhone valley.  I’m not really eager to return to snobby France and we have a flex day in our budget before Sunday’s Tour de France highlight, so I opt to turn south at Martigny and head towards Great Saint Bernard Pass, where I expect we can camp for free, see the south face of the real “Big Dog” – the Mont Blanc massif – and dip into friendly Italy for a night.  

The plan is better than my navigation, and I get us trapped in a narrow mountain town that was not meant for RVs… but with some persistence and patient guidance from friendly locals we extract ourselves and eventually climb through the hairpins to the summit.

The Pass is charming and full of history – Hannibal invaded the Roman Empire from here.  More recently the local Monks bred Saint Bernards, which are well represented among the tourist trinkets… but we find none of these big dogs.  We get permission to park the Ueli next to the lovely fish-filled alpine lake – guarded by geese – and take the evening to hike and explore.  The local Bar Ristorante Du Lac has excellent gnocchi, cheap prices and insufferable flies.  We must be in Italy.  

IMG_6947Thursday July 6th breaks crisp and crystalline here at 8,000’ feet… the higher European latitude makes it feel equivalent to 10,000’ in the Sierras.  Sue and I take our coffee mugs for a stroll before pointing Ueli downhill.  The hairpins hear are smooth sailing all the way down to IMG_6942Aosta, and soon enough we’re at Mt Blanc’s feet in the quaint Italian ski town of Courmayeur.  I find a parking spot and we hop out for a quick hourlong tour of town, taking in the pedestrian old town, Mt. Blanc views, some pizza, and a Maserati SUV along the way… the boys are lobbying for me to trade in my Audi.

From Courmayeur we roll through under the massif through the expensive 12km  Mont Blanc Tunnel tunnel and pop out in Chamonix.  Bucking the family’s objections I take an hour to scout camping options, and at one prospective spot Sue gets bitten by an untagged puppy.  Rabies?  Maybes… we’ve got to find out.  Returning to the scene of the canine crime we find its master, who’s apparently just landed from a paragliding jump.  He’s an amiable, apologetic Scot, and assures us his puppy ‘…has had its first shots.”   It’s not much to go on but the prospect of getting a bunch of big needles in your gut doesn’t sound like fun either, so Sue accepts his representation and we keep an eye on her behavior.  If she starts foaming at the mouth you’ll read about it here first.

IMG_6954For now Ueli’s parking spot next to the paragliding landing field is convenient so we stroll through the 90 degree heat into town to explore.  It’s official – schools are out in America, and the Yanks have come here.  We’re used to mountain cool and off-season calm – the heat and crowds are a bit too much, so after some cold drinks we retreat from town to Ueli and find a shady, breezy picnic table next to the paragliding fields and bocce ball courts.  It’s easier to scout overnight parking pitches by bike so I break out Volker’s Trek and ride by a few options.  The best is the Grepon parking lot, which hosts dozens of RVs and is located conveniently near tomorrow’s departure point – the Aiguille du Midi cable car station.  Asphalt camping – easier but as romantic as the days of old.  IMG_6998


(Editor’s note: today’s Guest Author Ben Rock offers an excerpt from his journal…)

IMG_7808Tuesday July 4 – Today we woke up early to go to the Gornergrat.  We walked to the train station and took an 11 minute shuttle into Zermatt which is a very high-end IMG_7950town (population 6,000) that allows no cars.  We quickly hopped on another train that took us a half hour up to the top of the Gornergrat we had scenic views of the Matterhorn and other peaks.  When we arrived at the top we got a shot with stunning views of the Alps covered in creamy white snow, and also a magnificently beautiful view of the Matterhorn.  After 30 minutes we started to hike down.  We climbed a gradual descent down to a lake that reflected the IMG_7909Matterhorn, but a cloud stayed on the peak so there was no reflection. We had a picnic and continued down.  We kept walking and took several stops.  We took a train down when we got to the third station.  We wandered around Zermatt when we got down, then took a shuttle back to Tasch for dinner.

Well said Ben.  


This fourth of July we’re celebrating clear weather and great views of a grand mountain. Among the stunning Alps the Matterhorn really does stand out – towering askew like IMG_7760Dumbledore’s crooked hat.  We’re delighted to finally have crystalline weather.  The Gornergrat cogwheel ride up is good scenic fun, and the panoramic views of the Monte Rosa massif, its glacier and of course the Matterhorn.  Our long hike down features varying vistas, Toblerone comparisons, a fine tarnside picnic and some entertainment as helicopters ply about the range transporting chairlift towers and equipment.  


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I like pedestrian towns, and Zermatt is plenty pleasant, attracting tourists from across the globe enjoying the day.  Outdoor destinations seem to attract the nicest folks… or maybe it just brings out the best in us.  Either way it’s a pleasant day rubbing elbows with the workers and the well-heeled.  Splashes of old Switzerland seem to magically appear from amongst the bling – a horsedrawn carriage, an alpenhorn, a yodeler, an old cemetery, rough-hewn homes, goat herders.  Sure it’s a bit sanitized show, but good fun nonetheless, and a short stroll out of town takes you to the real deal.


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Back in camp we get the boys a dose of wifi and turn some laundry.  I have some time and am itchy for exercise (walking downhill past the Matterhorn doesn’t count), so break out Volker’s bike and pump back up along switchbacks and train tracks to Zermatt.  Turns earned, at the town’s edge I wheel it around and carve the curves back down to camp where the boys are playing their version of Calvinball among the RVs.  Precious day.



Left to their own devices…

(Editor’s note:  Dear readers – I’ve forsaken my responsibilities for a year and you for a month… forgive me.  We crossed the pond July 20 and I’ve taken time to dig into my deep inbox, which includes inevitable death and taxes.   Drudgery competes with fun for our attentions – the boys have enjoyed reconnecting with friends in a classic Tahoe summer; I’ve bought not one but two new mountain bikes to test my trails, and Sue is busy paddling and hiking most mornings.  

In the coming weeks I vow to catch up on our travels through the Alps, the Canton of Jura, Amsterdam and London, and to mix in some travel and parenting observations along the way.  I’ll start with the greatest parenting challenge of our generation… smartphones.)

It’s begun already… the Phone Wars.   Today’s youth need never be bored, there’s always a smartphone and net connectivity at hand, with massive media & consumer technology industries lurking behind the screen to consume malleable mindshare.  They mostly peddle mental candy – addictive dollops of irreverence, titillation and violence.  I recall a parent coach advising us “The media is not your friend” – but increasingly big consumer tech is complicit.  The $3 trillion dollar  “Frightful Five” enable this surreptitiously slow cultural ambush: Apple’s iPhone OS deliberately denudes parental controls – it would be so easy for them to provide robust usage and content filters.  Alphabet (Google) narrow-casts to our tastes, and thus narrows our perspective.  Facebook/Instagram facilitate inane photo/video sharing.  Microsoft force-feeds tabloid trash through Bing and its XBox glorifies violence thru Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty.  And Amazon?  …Well I love Amazon.

IMG_6143So today with the new school year looming, we took a moment to update our Device Contracts to reflect the new realities of teendom.  We involved Max and Ben in the negotiation to ensure their buy-in, and try to strike a balance that facilitates responsible social connectivity and independence, and retards mindless content consumption.   Originally adapted (well, mostly plagiarized) from Janelle Burley Hoffman’s thoughtful and now famous IPhone contract, we’ve adapted it over the years, including a”heads-up” theme for our gap year travels:



EDUCATION – Emphasis is now on education and experience, so adjust your mindset:

  • We want to be good ambassadors and to make local friends, so for each country we’ll learn a little language: please, thank you, you’re welcome, where is the toilet, count 1-10.
  • Every morning expect about 1 hour of educational activity (math, reading, trip planning).
  • Daytime: Heads Up! Enjoy the adventures. You’ll be out of your comfort zone most of the time – that’s the idea –
  • Every evening we review the day, write in our journals, and plan the next day’s theme and adventure.

STAY HEALTHY – It’s easy to get sick when traveling, so hygiene is key.  Wash, and Purell often.  Carry tissues & wipes.  Keep your hands off your face.  Avoid meat, cheese and uncooked food. 

STAY FOUND – Heads Up!  Buddy rule applies: don’t fly solo.  If you do get lost, stay close to where you are; use the walkie talkie or wifi calling every 15 minutes on the mark.  Ask an authority you trust for help. If they don’t seem trustworthy, avoid them.

CRIME – Heads Up!  Petty theft is common.  Carry important docs, big bills and emergency contact/ID in your money belt.  Carry the day’s cash in your wallet.  Keep your phone in your front pocket.  Don’t leave your backpack or valuables out of sight. Beware if someone bumps into you… pickpocket alert!

IN TRANSIT – Heads Up!  You are most likely to get lost or be robbed in transit: be mindful and alert.  No headphones, devices belong in your pocket.  If you need to check your phone for something, don’t do it in the middle of a hall or street – step to a safe spot and team up with the family so at least one person is always heads-up.

DEVICES – We want heads up… not heads down.  Adjust your expectations now for much less device time: Except for long trips and occasional downtime, devices are for pictures, communications, travel planning/study and reading, Period.

  • Mom/Dad will have the devices most of the time. They are our devices and we will always know the passwords.
  • If family calls or texts, answer or respond. Same team.
  • No devices at meals. No non-essential device use during or within 30 minutes of transition.
  • Standard rules still apply:
    • On planes or long drives the rule is ⅓ device time; ⅔ for reading / social time.
    • When you do have device downtime, never more than 60 screen minutes consecutively.
    • You own repairs/replacement.
    • Censor yourself. Don’t lie or deceive, do expect all device communications are public (just ask Hillary), no porn, no sexting. Put it away in public-restaurants, or while speaking with another human.


Today we reviewed, renegotiated and revised the Device Contract with the upcoming school year in mind:



  1. It is Mom / Dad’s device.
  2. We will always know the device passwords. We will occasionally go through messaging and content together.  Keep it clean.
  3. If it rings, answer it. Do not ever ignore a phone call or text if the screen reads “Mom” or “Dad.” Not ever.
  4. Homework, sports/exercise, sleep, meals and domestic duties trump device time. 60 minutes of non-educational device time per weekday, (90 on weekends/holidays) is plenty; to earn more read real books or write in equal proportion.
  5. We’re a family, so let’s be together.  Hand the device to one of your parents at meal time, and every time we get in the car.   
  6. Hand over devices school nights @ 9:00PM. We’ll return devices in the AM If you have a pleasant attitude & after your bed’s made, room clean, teeth brushed, laundry away, breakfast eaten, dishes done, garbage out, and other Mom/Dad asks are met.
  7. School mornings you may use the device from 7-7:15AM only for planning and communication, and after morning duties are complete.
  8. We’ll give you >= 5 minutes of firm cutoff / turn in time: you may choose to honor it on-time or lose the device for the day.
  9. During travel the rule is ⅓ device time; ⅔ for reading / social time; no devices within :30 minutes of transition.
  10. It does not go to school with you. Have a conversation with the people you text in person. It’s a life skill.
  11. You are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. It will happen, you should be prepared.


  1. Do not use this technology to lie, fool, or deceive someone. Do not involve yourself in conversations that are hurtful to others.
  2. Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.
  3. Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room. Censor yourself.
  4. No porn. Search the web for information you would openly share with me. If you have a question about anything, ask Mom or Dad.
  5. Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else’s private parts. Protect your reputation, especially in cyberspace.
  6. Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human.
  7. No daily streaks – don’t be a phone slave. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity.
  8. Leave your device home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO.
  9. Download music that is new or classic or different. Take advantage of that gift. Expand your horizons.
  10. Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.
  11. Heads up. See around you. Stare out a window. Talk to a stranger. Be bored… and let that make you creative.  Wonder without googling.

You will mess up. We will take away your device. We will sit down and talk about it. We are on your team, and we love you more than your devices do.

Signed with love – Dad  _____________________  Mom  ______________________
Max  _________________________   Ben  _______________________


The contract approach might seem a bit formal, but it facilitates buy-in and reduces the more stressful seat-of-the-pants “negotiations” (really arguments) that inevitably result from Phone Wars.  And in many instances, the boys have pointed to the contract to push back and justify more device access… fair ’nuff, a deal’s a deal.


Rhine to Rhone

(Editor’s note: let’s start the day with an extract from Max’s journal…)

July 3: “Today we drove to Zermatt.  Our biggest stop along the way was the Aletsch Glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe.  We had lunch up top before taking the cable cars IMG_7703down.  We drove the rest of our way to Zermatt.  We have to camp outside the town because no cars are allowed inside the town.  We set up, and Ben and I played with the racquetball before we had dinner.  Afterwards we played charades, cards, and exploding kittens before we went to bed.”

Thanks Max…a concise summary of the day!  Time for Dad’s color commentary…

Lauterbrennan to TaschWe took a chance yesterday, barrelling along Brienzersee, past Reichenbach Falls – the scene of the cataclysmic final battle between Holmes and Moriarty, and up into the rain.  Our plan was to camp atop 7,000’  Grimsel Pass.  Ascending the north slope, dutiful rain splashes off our windshield, rolls into the Rhine, spins turbines and generates the power that drives Germany’s robust export economy before flowing – spent – into into the frigid North Sea.  A few inches across Europe’s continental divide, the clouds are fewer and lazy mist dew-drips down into the Rhone, where it waters wines before bathing in the Med.  It’s the story of Europe…

IMG_6759We summit that divide at dusk and can’t see much through the howling mist.  I manage to find a sheltered, level paved parking spot, so we back in and batten down the hatches.  It’s pleasantly cool as rain showers tickle Ueli – I love the sound of rain on the roof.  

IMG_6756After a solid sleep we wake Monday to some sun, and grand, crisp panoramas.  I’d chosen a good nest, sheltered leeward of the carved summit rocks. I quietly make some coffee, slip out and stroll the summit, then lure Sue out for an expanded tour of the craggy trails and glacial tarns.  Soon the sport cars and bikes arrive – this is grand touring country, with sleek hairpin twists tempting and alpine views rewarding early rising leadfoots.  I’m one of them, but must temper my need for speed as Ueli bears precious cargo.  One can dream…

Down the mountain we zig zag to the foot of the Glacier du Rhone, then follow the milky water southwest for an hour to Fiesch, where we park Ueli and hop on the Fiescheralp-Eggishorn cable cars.  At the Eggishorn peak it’s a broody mix of clouds and sun bouncing off the craggy summit, and we’re lucky to finally get the clear views of Aletsch glacier that we were denied in Jungfraujoch.  To the south we can even see our next highlight – the Matterhorn.

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A half hour down the Rhone and through Switzerland’s Valais wine region we turn south at Visp and work our way up the skinny  Mattertal valley.   Our base for exploring the IMG_6841Matterhorn and Zermatt is the pretty streamside Alphubel Campground in the town of Tasch, conveniently located a short walk from the last train station before car-less Zermatt.  We love the quiet Swiss campgrounds – no generators or boom boxes here, just quiet campers on grassy pitches.  After picking a spot with good views, space and wifi, we set about dawning the awning, table and chairs, dump blackwater and shower.  Sue and I let the boys reconnect with friends and games while we stroll into Tasch to buy tomorrow’s Gornergrat train tickets and groceries.  Along the way I find a baseball hat that matches my greying hair… with it’s diminutive Swiss logo it’s got a nice balance of color and character… I expect you’ll see it often in future pictures.  


Eiger Dreams

IMG_7535This last June morning we took our time to pack, dump and roll south towards the famous peaks, falls and canyons of the Bernese Oberland.  It’s a delicious drive – burrowing through emmental mountains, along bubblegum blue glacial lakes and chocolate layer cake mountains dusted with powdered sugar.  The weather holds long enough for us to enjoy an hour in Interlaken, where the skies IMG_7539rain only paragliders.  But we want to be farther from crowds and closer to nature, so push on to Grindelwald, at the foot of the man-eating ogre, Eiger.  IMG_7554A road closure made finding our Gletscherdorf campground challenging, but a little persistence and an unintentional town tour later we parked in a lovely pitch below the stony beast.  We have to settle for Eiger dreams as clouds and rain obscure the ogre’s infamous north face.

IMG_7670There’s no point in ascending into the cold wet mountains and we lack layers so lay low and ply downtown to hunt down down jackets (phew).  Ben rests while we hike and bike up to town… then we split the shopping and scouting duties.  With our cogwheel train departure point and parking identified and the rain picking up, I wheel back to camp, set up the awning and plan around the weather.  Soon Sue’s comfort food coats our bellies, and a fun Irish family has pulled in next door, so we chat and mix a bit before setting up for dinner.  

IMG_7658July breaks like November.  Undaunted by the soggy grey, we batten down the hatches and roll the RV down to the Grindelwald Grund bahnhof for the cogwheel train ride to the “Top of Europe” – Jungfraujoch.  I’m disappointed to be missing the famous Jungfrau region views and hikes, but the trip up to Europe’s highest station is still fun, and at the summit there are plenty of diversions including Ice Palace, Aletsch Glacier views, Kitschy “Small World” style Alpine Sensation room, the Sphinx observatory and viewing platforms.  

IMG_6680By mid-day we’re back down in camp.  Weather will deny our Jungfrau hikes, but we have Wifi so catch-up on homework & travel-planning.  Late in day the Martins roll back in from their hike – Irish are better accustomed to the wet – and it dries enough for Jim to teach us a little about their national sport Hurling.  I’m IMG_6710embarrassed to admit I know nothing of it.  Like a true Cork hurler, young Jim’s quick with his stick.  Eventually Max and Ben emerge from their digital dungeon and join in the fun, which evolves into a 4-man football game until the dewy dark of the midsummer’s night.

IMG_6721Soggy Sunday we rise, bid adieu to the Martins, then roll west to the next canyon in waterfall-laced Lauterbrunnen.  There we reunion with Maria, a young Spanish adventurer whom we met while trekking in Nepal at the beginning of our gap year travels.  Maria’s a good example for the boys – she’s parlayed an EE degree IMG_6746into a PhD and a globetrotting career providing engineering and business development services in medical devices… and still finds time to hike, climb and explore the world.  Based in Baden, it was good of her to shake off Saturday night revelry and drag herself out to hang with us Sunday.  

IMG_7696IMG_6728Lauterbrunnen is beautiful!  Like Yosemite the glacial valley sits between sheer cliffs.  Water and BASE-jumpers spill over the vertical canyon walls into the lush meadows below.  We stop briefly to admire Staubbach Falls then find a lovely parking spot and share a picnic and IMG_6743lunch with Maria below Trümmelbachfälle.  The gardens below the falls are a lovely mix of flowers, trees gravel and grass.  Through the entry gate I’m expecting IMG_7679another tall fall but instead Trümmelbachfälle is like a vertical slot canyon, with the water cascading and carving tortuously down a mountainside crack.  The Swiss applied their ample tunnelling experience and cut a stairway in, through and around the mountain so visitors can view the falls from various angles and elevations… it’s a wonderfall riot of water on rock.  Afterwards I’d hoped to hike but settle on strolling near the top of the canyon…  guess I’m still the stamina master ’round here.

Next summer he’ll be my co-pilot.

With the day done we return Maria to the train station, encourage her to visit us in Tahoe, then point the RV east towards Grimsel Pass.  It’s a wet, windy drive but this nimble Fiat chassis makes the drive a pleasure… in fact it’s such a fast climber – so nimble, svelte and efficient – that I’m going to nickname it “Ueli” in tribute to Switzerland’s legendary speed climber Ueli Steck.IMG_7691