Thursday, April 30, 2015

February Outdoors

*all pics in this blog were taken by Steph, Jon, or members of the Alston family. 2015 photos were all from our Year of Outdoors trip to California*

This post is way overdue, and I've kind of been putting off writing it.

Let me back up to Jon's childhood . . .


The Alston family has been visiting Little Bear Tree Farm in Alta, California for decades.

 It is a huge tradition to visit Little Bear the first Saturday following Thanksgiving and cut down the family Christmas tree. They would always bring homemade chili and Mother's animal cookies for lunch :)

Jon and I have gone with his family almost every year since we've been married,


and Kate has been twice.



The only two years we have missed were the ones where we lived in Utah or Idaho during November.

So this last November, like all Novembers before it, Jon's parents went to Little Bear Tree Farm and saw it was up for sale! We were so sad and I knew Jon would be crushed if it closed forever :(

About a month later I was finishing up my semester at school and Jon suggested to me the idea of running a GoFundMe for FROM SAC (the lit journal he runs out of Sacramento, CA) to buy the property and turn it into an artist retreat for the summer--while still running the Christmas tree farm. I thought it sounded really cool! What an awesome project. I was totally in support of him pursuing this. We looked into that idea for a bit and then realized the zoning regulations might make it a difficult process. :(

Little Bear Tree Farm - 2011

We realized that what we really cared about was preserving the tree farm. We could always incorporate the Summer artist retreats later, but what we needed to know is if we could actually buy the farm and run it. From what we'd been hearing there had been little to no interest in the farm at all.

Pics of trees at Little Bear - 2013
With the help of Jon's parents we contacted the realtor, and set up a tour of the property. We had tons of questions and just wanted to get a feel for if this idea was even worth pursuing.

It was exciting to have positive feedback and know that the tree farm was well loved. Jon's parents came back with great information, and Jon and I talked it over.

{{Meanwhile we were dealing with a lot of life stuff and that put things behind a few weeks.}}

Finally Jon and I decided that if we were serious about buying this tree farm we needed to invest in a trip out to California ourselves and tour the property as potential buyers. We had been there so many times, but never thinking we might own it.

Awesome view of the trees at Little Bear - 2013
Let me put it this way--it was never an original dream of ours to run a Christmas tree farm, but we always try to be open to new adventures and opportunities. When this whole thing came up, it just seemed like another exciting dream . . . "Wouldn't it be cool if . . .?"

Knowing that this was such a big part of Jon's childhood (and even adult years) and that we wanted to take our kids back to California someday, this just seemed like a really fun way to do it!

Every step of the way just fell together. Everyone that we talked to was in support of this idea. As we asked questions and learned more it opened up this huge world of Christmas tree farming.

View of the creek at Little Bear that Jon took on our tour - Feb 2015
The only problem was MONEY.

The tree farm had a fantastic three bedroom cabin near the creek in which we would be able to live. The farm also came with a gift shop, that had a renovated apartment above it. There was also a granny flat across from the main house. 4 old Willies Jeeps would be included, as well as some other equipment. The farm was on 50 acres with a meadow where we could have horses. (AHH!!) We absolutely loved it all.

In the past 10 years the tree farm had changed hands a couple times (to the detriment of the tree population) and we knew that restoring the farm to its prime would take years. We were prepared to move our family in and make this a lifetime project. Because of the asking price for the farm we knew that we would not be able to move, buy the farm, and then put the money into it that it needed to make enough revenue every year to also afford a mortgage payment. But no one else had seemed interested in the farm, and the sellers would start opening up the property to big businesses in Southern California, or potentially allow it to be sold for lumber production. We love this place and wanted to see it remain an awesome historical part of Northern California for years to come!

close up we took of the trees in 2011

 With the idea of running a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to raise the money to buy the farm (and therefore be able to make it as awesome as it really deserves to be), we toured the place at the end of February. We were only in town for a couple days, so we met with the realtor the next morning. It was a little rushed, but we decided to tell him about our idea to run the campaign. If we got an ok, then we could really move forward.

blossoms in the Alston backyard - 2015

The realtor was positive and said our idea sounded ok. There was no risk to the owner to let us do it, and it would all be our own time and effort.

We started telling some close friends and family about our plans so that we could see if we'd be able to get the support we needed from them. Doing this all remotely was scary because we had very little control over making sure things happened.

We had a social media manager on board, an accountant, a graphic designer, and other wonderful artists. We headed back to Idaho and waited for the ok from the owner.

details in the Alston garden - 2015

Meanwhile we designed a whole new website and flyers, put together a marketing strategy, researched crowdfunding, and started really going over all the pros and cons. Our idea was to launch our fundraiser on March 31st (Edwin's first birthday) and let it run for 45 days. I would start Spring semester at school, and while all of this was going on, we would find out if we had enough money to buy the farm in order to move back to CA when our lease ended in ID mid-August, and prep for the Christmas tree selling season.

It was a whirlwind of activity, and I kept going back and forth about the whole thing. There was nothing that felt WRONG about it, so we kept going. As long as we had positive reactions we figured we had nothing to lose. Sure, we had come out to Idaho for me to go to school, but we had agreed when we moved that we would give it a year, and see if any other life directions came up. There was no harm and asking, and you never know if you don't try.

That last week of February heading into March felt like it lasted a month. The most disappointing parts were that it was a crunched timeline and everyone else already had their own lives going on. We couldn't really expect everyone to drop what they were doing for us, an because it was happening so fast I felt like the communication was really choppy. We had two people back out on doing logo designs for us, and we only had half commitments from people to distribute flyers around the area and help us get the word out to local businesses in California. I started to worry that this whole thing would flop.

I guess I'm just not as much of a risk taker as I used to be. When Jon and I got married I was not nervous at all about moving to a new state, finding work, and spending the rest of eternity with him.

Jon & Steph 2004
Now in my late twenties I have a hard time committing to weekend plans, let alone huge multi-thousand dollar fundraisers.

On Friday, the realtor sent us a text--it sounded like the owner was OK with our fundraiser! We had his blessing to use the Little Bear Tree Farm name and work with their website to be the official fundraiser for taking over the farm. (WHAT??)

The next day he called and we talked it over more specifically. We agreed that we wanted to go live with everything in a week. We needed to have the domain name transferred to our new beta site, and start publicizing. Our goal was also to have stories run in local newspapers and get as much attention as we could before the launch of the fundraiser. Jon and I took the kids out that weekend and shot footage for a fundraising video which would run on the campaign page and our new website. That is where we took this new family picture:

In my weekly TA meetings up on campus at BYUI I would tell my professor about our tree farm ideas. I realized while talking to him that I even thought it sounded far-fetched and crazy. On the one hand I wanted us to be those adventurous people who would do something big and follow our dreams! But on the other hand, was running a Christmas tree farm my dream? My professor (being really into economics and the American dream) thought that our venture was a fascinating case study. He was excited about it because it took moxie, and he was (self-admitted) more comfortable signing his yearly teaching contract and having a little house in Rexburg.

new leaves in the Alston backyard - 2015

That day I took a long look down the Religion department hallway there in the Taylor building. Professors were chatting in the hallway, and artwork of past presidents of the church hung on the walls. The school felt peaceful.

The Spirit of Ricks is totally a real thing. I know that some people say they don't really feel it, and it's true that I don't step onto campus and feel overcome with rushes of angels singing praises to God; but in small quiet moments of considering the work being done here and the awesome opportunities for eternal learning and growth, the spirit has been unmatched. For me it has been a place of great inspiration.

I went straight home and told Jon that I didn't think we should pursue the Christmas tree farm any longer. -- but what?? We had purchased a domain name, started a blog, had paper ready for flyers to be printed, bought rolls of tape and were scheduling flyer parties. We had also planned a phone meeting for that evening with our realtor to go over all the marketing details. I told Jon that if there was any time to back out cleanly it would be now, and I felt like we needed to stay here in Idaho, and I wanted to keep going to school at BYUI. Jon and I shared a long BIG hug, and he said, "I don't want to be a farmer."

So I emailed everyone we needed to notify and let them know about our decision.

Life slowed down. I prepped for Edwin's birthday, and registered for Spring classes. Things felt good :)

The funny thing is that I think we could have done it. I think the whole project would have worked. I think we could have raised the money and moved to California and become Christmas tree farmers, and lived in the forest in our awesome cabin and loved it.

 At least if nothing else, we had an awesome couple of days in California visiting family and having a mini road trip :) Edwin made ridiculous faces:

pic credit to Jon's dad

 We got to see Nonna's chickens:

Kate had delicious pizza from Pizza Factory (Jon's fav)

I made the most perfect french toast ever...

and we got to see my dad (and sister, who is not pictured)

It is now April 30th, so in another timeline of earthly dimension we would have known by now if the fundraiser succeeded. But there are always unknowns. What if we raised the money, but then the owners decided not to accept our offer? What if we got REALLY close, but not all the way and then had put a lot of our own time, money, and stress into this for nothing? What if we moved to the tree farm and then there was a forest fire that wiped out the hillside? California is also in a massive drought, and although the tree farm had water rights to the creek, there is just not enough natural rainfall happening right now for us to feel secure in running a tree farm for decades to come.

In the end the whole thing really rattled me. Mostly in wondering if the directions we're going are the right ones? How do we make decisions for our family that encompass what we WANT to do, what makes us HAPPY, and also SUPPORTS us all? What kind of lifestyle do we want, and how do we want to spend our time? We decided that slightly smaller dreams that we had a bit more control over were more comfortable for us.

The answers we have received as we prayerfully attend the temple have been very basic: live simply, spend time with our family, and in whatever we do we will be blessed as we keep an eternal perspective above all else. It doesn't really matter WHAT we do or WHERE we go as long as we are focusing on raising our children, giving them the most time, and cultivating an eternal family with faith in God above all else. Jon and I feel good about that :)

Kate & Steph at Little Bear - 2012

So now we are here. My post about a "course correction" was really a follow up to this Tree Farm adventure. The Year of Outdoors is taking us in bigger directions than we ever imagined! But we're learning a lot. Mostly about ourselves. And I think that's the best kind of adventure to have.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Jon Turns 30

Holy cow, the last two weeks have been celebration central in the Alston household!

On Saturday April 11th Jon turned the big 30! An event this epic required lots of build up. So on March 12th we began THE 30 DAYS OF JON.

When he came home from work on DAY 1 I was holding a candy poster for him that explained the 30 days of presents. Then each day for the following month he was showered with goodies! Some small (like a garlic pin for his shirt, or a Legend of Zelda Hyrulian shield key chain), and some bigger (like a new seat for his bike, or a wax seal stamp with the letter A beautifully inscribed). It was a fun mix of some of Jon's favorite things, some items he has been wanting (like a Liberator CD that I could only find in England) and some awesome stuff that he probably never would have thought of, but still made his birthday unique!

Some were goofy (like this "Made in 1985" t-shirt)

And others were thoughtful (like this heavy duty awl for book binding)

Not all of the days are pictured, but you get the idea :)

This picture from our wedding became a puzzle where I wrote a cheesy rhyming poem that he had to put together in order to read.

The kids loved helping me wrap presents every day.

Bacon bowls! (novelty joke, but really kind of clever)

Rhubarb pie:

Jon's grandmother made this clown cross stitch for him when he was little. Recently Kate colored all over it with pink highlighter. (The frame on the left never had glass in it) I dismantled the whole thing and washed the artwork in gentle antique quilt soap. Jon re-stretched the clown with a new double mat and mounted it in the original frame with some museum glass at work.

Hot fudge sundaes - Jon's FAVORITE way to eat ice cream:


Another personal joke:

The kids really loved the cuddly handmade things:

Everything lead up to this:

The morning of Jon's birthday he got 30 donuts, 30 balloons...

the kids and I wore "I (heart) JON" and "I (heart) Daddy!!" shirts ALL day,

we had also been collecting root beers all month...

so that we could have a root beer tasting party!

Jon rushed home on his lunch break and we had pizza for lunch waiting for him :)

The Garrity's and Sanford's came over to help us judge the 10 mystery root beer varieties

Apparently birthday celebrations make it hard to take normal pictures ;) 

Everything was prepped with mini plastic shot glasses and score cards for all!

I stood behind the big green sign and discretely poured each sample for the group to blind taste test along with reading some fun facts about each brand's history.
Once all the root beers were tasted we had a big reveal!

The winner: HENRY WEINHARD'S hands down receiving high praise such as "smooth, frothy, and delicious"
The loser: NATURAL BREW with comments like "I don't think this is root beer"
Close runner up to the loser with descriptions like "dirt" and "empty": SHASTA

In order of sample presentation:
1, A&W (which came in second!)
2, Sioux City
3, Frostie
4, Henry Weinhard
5, Shasta
6, Jackson Hole BUCKIN' Root Beer
7, Sprecher (it was so good that Jon took the rest with him to work)
8, Natural Brew
9, IBC
10, MUG (which also had notable mention with descriptions like "spacious")

We sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY quickly and brought out the "Holy Crap You're Old" cake

then Jon headed back to work while the kids and I stayed home to clean up, eat cake, and play with balloons.

The cake was made from scratch: one-bowl chocolate cake from Martha Stewart, cream cheese frosting and a fresh strawberry filling, with chocolate ganache on top. The turd was a blended mix of Twix bar, dark chocolate Hershey's kisses, and Cashew Cookie Larabar. Then I molded it by hand haha!

Edwin crashed hard from all the fun.

The final gift was this:

A binder holding 30 letters written by 30 friends for Jon's 30th birthday:

It was by far my most favorite part of his birthday. Letters came from people all over the world that he had known anywhere from 6 months to 25+ years. They all had so much individual personality and captured a different side of Jon. It was cool seeing what his friendship meant to so many people at different stages of life. I am so grateful to everyone who participated and made this happen!

In Jon's own words from Facebook:
"An immense thank you to those who accepted Steph's request to participate in her gift for my birthday. I have never received something so truly amazing, and I know that I will never be given such a magnanimous gift ever again. You know who you are, I won't point you out and make all your friends jealous of how great you are (because then they'll want something so grand, but they won't get it). Thank you. I would have cried, but I'm a man"

That night I took Jon out to dinner at Outback because we had never been there and he always talked about wanting to try it. Their mixed berry lemonade is without a doubt the best lemonade I have ever had. Jon was spoiled and we had a fantastic date talking about his list of 30 things to do in the next 30 years.

Date night selfie!

The party continued for days afterward as we shared leftover pizza, donuts, and wore party hats:

My parents sent cards for Jon, his sister Beth presented him with a Li'l Sebastian shirt (especially fitting because we just finished the Parks and Rec series last night)

Jon's parents also spoiled him with a bike trailer!

We were really excited because now we can all go on bike rides as a family :) It's been snowing on and off this week (alternating with 65 degree days) so it's been really unpredictable and not jiving with Jon's work schedule very well. We took the kids out for a 5 min loop around the neighborhood yesterday and plan to go out again this weekend while it's sunny!


I'm so glad that you've made it this far and that we can share all these milestones together :)
Thank you to everyone who helped make 30 the most awesome birthday of Jon yet!