Before I moved to Germany with my husband, my niece was basically my child. I took her everywhere and everyone assumed she was mine, and now since moving back home I've pretty much taken on that shared role. She's seven and has been through more than any kid should ever have to and it's taken a village to help raise her thus far, especially after her dad passed away Thanksgiving Day 2019. After moving back to the States, I introduced Skylar to traveling during our impromptu trip to Atlanta. So now she says we're "travel buddies" like duh. Her and my daughter, who's one and a half, are like the best of friends. It's honestly the cutest relationship I've ever seen in my life. Lately though, she's been getting really jealous. Sydney is getting older and looks up to her like a big sister. She copies every little move she makes. I've been told it's "typical older sibling jealousy" and hopefully it's a phase that doesn't last all that long. During our latest trip to Colorado and Wyoming, she got really frustrated with my daughter and practically begged to go on a trip with just me and her (yes, I've created a travel-obsessed monster). I told her I'd eventually take her somewhere for a special niece-aunt road trip, so I planned one but had she had no idea when or where.
I went with going to Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. It was only a six hour drive and seemed like there were a ton of cool, family friendly things to do there. I had never been to Arkansas (heck, I'd never even been to western Tennessee) and it seemed like the perfect place for a quick road trip and somewhere that we could do fun stuff for cheap or free. My sister, Jennifer, ended up tagging along and she's as scatterbrained as they come but she's really crafty and smart, so we teamed up for the coolest surprise ever, that we thought would make Skylar feel extra special and extra cared for. After browsing Pinterest for what seemed like forever, I finally thought of a few cool things to put together.
Initially I wanted to pick her up from school on a Friday with a Starbucks and her bag packed waiting for her, and then tell her we were going on a trip. She actually ruined that plan after throwing a fit that morning about wanting to go on a trip (like I said, she's a travel monster), so we told her she was going to bootcamp instead. We're terrible aunts, but it's fine, she's fine. Anyway, we picked her up from school and told her about bootcamp. As you can probably imagine, she was devastated. We stopped at a Starbucks "for one last hoorah" because it's her favorite and after getting our order, we had a serious talk about how attitudes from hell won't get you anywhere in life. After she was sorry we then told her we were leaving to go on a trip right then and there, and gave her her first adventure box clue. It warmed my heart to see her face light up.
We put together six boxes all filled with fidgets and candy, and that had clues about the city and state we were going to. She was only allowed to open them one at a time, whenever we reached the place that was written on the box, typically an hour or so away from each other. It was hilarious watching her try to guess where we were going. She even guessed Mexico at one point, and then I had to teach her how to read her map. Along with her adventure boxes, we used printables of games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Battleship, and travel journal entries to put in a folder for her to fill out. It kept her occupied the six hours there and the six hours back, between taking pictures of the beautiful Arkansas sunsets and jam sessions to none other than The Dixie Chicks.
She found out we'd be staying in Arkansas *finally* after we crossed the state border. We arrived at our hotel close to midnight when she opened her last box and I told her we were in Hot Springs National Park, but I think she was too tired to even care. Ha! The next day, we woke up refreshed and ready. We walked the infamous Bathhouse Row and grabbed some brunch at a cute little diner called Granny's Kitchen. After hours of walking and buying souvenirs, we filled our jugs up with the Hot Springs thermal water (and yes, it's the best water you'll ever drink), and hit the road to get home.
Even the quickest of turn-and-burns can be done, and they can completely refresh your spirit. It was my first night ever away from Sydney and I was used to living the Army wife life with my husband gone all the time. At first I felt all the mom guilt, and having a hard time trusting my husband to hold down the fort while I was gone. Thank you Jesus for FaceTime. I came home feeling like a brand spanking new mother and wife after just a day spent away. Skylar was reassured that she was equally loved and cared about, and that she wasn't any less important just because there was a new baby in the family. Most of our memories weren't even made in our destination, they were made during our time together. Spending even the smallest amount of carefree time with people that you love and deeply care for can completely rejuvenate your soul. It hit me on the way home, after driving for what felt like 24 straight hours, that it's not always about where you are or what you're doing, but about who you're with.