Dear Dawn · Family travel

What lies beneath?

Dear Dawn

“Thanks for sharing so many of the photos you took while you and your family toured the world . . . . “

Any blogger will tell you, we love getting ‘love-letters of encouragement’ from those who take time to read what we have written.  But let me make one thing perfectly clear:  Ron, the boys and I never considered ourselves tourists.  Tourists are generally people who go to the best of the best places (aptly called tourist attractions), stay in the finest most affordable hotels, eat at restaurants recommended by other tourists, and run on a strict schedule.   Sure, we came to many of the same places for the view,  but we were more interested in the people, their lives and the story of what lies beneath.

From our pre-planning studies of Venice,  Italy came a gondola full of questions: When and how the heck did they build this city?

venice bridge

In around 500 AD, these 118 islands making up today’s Venice, were hiding places for runaways who were trying to get away from Attila the Hun-type bad guys who had taken over their cities.   When it came time to build a city, they wondered:  ‘How do you build cities of marble on marshy lagoons?’  “Wood piling,” someone called out.  Someone brighter than he asked: “Dove e il legno?” which is short for “Are you crazy? There are no woods in Venice.  Where are we getting this wood?  And how do we keep it from rotting in salt water?”  The answer came from western Slovenia’s water-resistant Adler tree trunks, used to make  the 12, 000 posts which were sunk deep into the Venetian lagoon mud and are still responsible for supporting more than 10,000 tons of marble buildings and bridges.

venice canal 2

Before you hop on that world-tour bus, sit down as a family and discover the back-stories of the places you are going.  A little research will take you a long way.

Any world trip offers enough surprises as it is!  And you never want to be one of those tourists who gets back home and says:  “I wish I had know that when I went!”   

Dawn Venice

Actually there is a good lesson in this for you and your kids:   Whenever you are faced with something you don’t understand,  always ask: “What lies beneath?”


Dear Dawn · Encouragement · Faith

Pity Party

Dear Dawn,

Your Blog Tuesday, helped me realize I wasn’t the only one who had suffered poor health my whole life.  I’ve never lost a child, had cancer or heart issues, but my asthma, skin issues, headaches and  stomach problems often leave me discouraged and in a pity party.    How did you maintain such a good attitude with all you suffered, especially the loss of your son?  (And please don’t tell me you were born that way.  That doesn’t help me one bit!  LOL)   download

Dear PP,  Thanks for your note.  Anyone who says they are UP all the time just because that  is the way they were born, is lying. lyingEvery day of life requires some sort of adjustment.  Each day is a challenge — I get it.  I too, have health issues, the greatest challenge is the never ending discomfort of skin grafts from the burns on my arms, legs and backside. irrateMy skin draws up constantly, the discomfort requires thick coats of cream for softening.  Not a pretty picture, but I’m getting through each setback — from asthma to food allergies to skin problems.

I will never get fully adjusted to the loss of my seven-year-old.

But I am encouraged by the words of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother,  who was a nineteenth-century minister.  Having lost four of his young children so he was no stranger to the Pity Party, I am sure.

One day,  sitting on a hillside in his hometown, he noticed a terrific storm coming across the valley.  He wrote:

“The heavens were filled with blackness, and the earth was shaken by the voice of thunder. It seemed as though that fair landscape was utterly changed, and its beauty gone never to return.

But the storm swept on, and passed out of the valley; and if I had sat in the same place on the following day, and said, “Where is that terrible storm, with all its terrible blackness?” the grass would have said, “Part of it is in me,” and the daisy would have said, “Part of it is in me,” and the fruits and flowers and everything that grows out of the ground would have said, “Part of the storm is incandescent in me.”


Each part of the rain in my life is part of me, and always will be.

happy hirn-GERMS

Hang in there, kiddo.  The sun still shines brightly above the storm!



Dear Dawn · Travel


Dear Dawn, My family thinks I’m a ‘fraidy cat,’ because I really am anxious about traveling. There is so much in the news!  Were you ever afraid when you traveled?  Any close calls?

Dear ‘Fraidy,’

When I was a child I don’t remember anyone calling me a ‘fraidy cat’; but I used it on others.   Constantly!   Pride goeth before the fall!

Am I proud of traveling over thirty-five countries a la carte?  You know it!  I rarely remember being afraid.  Maybe it was my youth,  maybe my naivety,  but it worked. Groomed in the deep south, I was used to doors being opened for me,  and “Yes-sir” and “Yes-maam” were part of my Southern Belle vernacular.

The  Hirn men all wanted to go to India to see the Taj Mahal.  Me too, but I had read just enough news clippings and seen videos of graphic gang rapes of women in the streets of India to make me nervous.    In America, we call rape and attacks ‘crimes’; the Indian Government at that time, didn’t.

It was my turn to be called ‘fraidy cat.’   But I went anyway.TajHow did I conquer my fear?  Who said I conquered it? I insisted one of the boys hold my hand the entire time, giving me the feeling of a unified front.  I put on my “Dawn-the-disintegrater-face” — you know, ‘if looks could kill,’ and headed into the subway with my family.  That worked well until the day I stopped for a quick photo of the last subway car marked “Women Only.”  When I turned around the doors of the subway closed with my family inside the train, and me alone on the platform.

There will come a time in each woman’s life when she needs to use the  “don’t-touch-me-I’m-a-bitch-who-will-claw-your-eyes-out”-look.  I used mine.

Poster school hallways

The Indian women appear so demure and kind. They tuck that look safely away.

The situation in India is improving, thanks to those who have raised world-wide attention by standing strong against violence, in their speech and their writing: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” ― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living

Ron and I have tried to lead our sons by example and pray they will continue to respect all their brothers and sisters in the world.colt hug Dawn



Dear Dawn · Encouragement · Grief · Travel

The bright side

Dear Dawn,

 I applaud you for always looking on the bright side of life.  After what you have been through, I’m sure it might have been easier to let your grief rule the day.  But you and Ron chose to lead your other sons in joy.   Wondered how you handled the reminders of the Nazi horrors against the Jews in WWII.  Did you avoid the German Holocaust memorials and museums on your trip, or did you go through them?   Did your kids understand?  How did they handle it?

Dear Bright Side, Can you ever measure grief?  I always thought the word “Holocaust” meant mass extermination.  But the Greek Word holokaustos, actually means ‘burnt whole.” The knowledge that millions of lives were purposely ended is shattering.  Ron and I will never be able to run away from the visions of our own personal holocaust when fire took our seven-year old Ryan from us.

Auschwitz bunkers
Auschwitz bunkers

We cannot change the past anymore than Germany can change the horrors that happened in the streets and concentration camps throughout Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s.   But there are choices that have to be made:  When the past seems to hold a curse, look to the future. Ron and I intentionally chose to introduce our boys to the world and her history, not trying to water it down for our sons’ ears.   But we tried to look beyond the horrors in the remnants of Hiroshima Japan, Auschwitz Poland and other Nazi Concentration camps, and in huge numbers who were killed in the name of communism.

Auschwitz urinals

The truth lies in the overwhelming courage it took for the survivors to continue forward in life and beauty.

Auschwitz furnaces

We walked through the ghostly concentration camps and war memorials as a family – but each of us were silently processing our thoughts.  With the museums, after consulting with the guides, we chose to censure the most graphic museum images for our 8 and 10 year old by scanning ahead and steering them away from the more gruesome images. But we felt Tyler, at 14, was old enough to handle the complete truth and he viewed freely. Those who remain alive today to tell the story were children then! At the end of the day we were each left with the same theme: Hope and courage.



The Germans have found a way to honor those taken, and find beauty and resolve shining through future generations.    Ron and I share our enthusiasm for life with our boys while still honoring the short but vibrant life of our firstborn, Ryan.

Holo.shot BPOur cameraman takes a shot most memorable to our family at the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’

I guess you never appreciate the light until you’ve seen how absolutely dark darkness can be.

Have a wonderful weekend!


Dear Dawn · Encouragement · Family

Body language

Dear Dawn,

I’ve heard you say your legs were badly burned in the horrible automobile fire, and even after skin grafting you are terribly scarred.  That had to be a blow to someone who was a model.  Any tips for someone who is going through a difficult transition – from model to real life?

Dear Real Life, (Real life: nothing is better; nothing is worse.)  My legs do look rather, shall we say, “quilted” and because they no longer sweat(no oil glands),  it’s difficult for one who loves playing sports as much as I.  But I never try to cover up my scars. When I look at my legs now, I am reminded of my sweet Ryan who lost his life the day I got these scars. And then they take on a different significance.

When it comes to despair, I work backward from death.

American’s are obsessed by perfect body images because we compare ourselves to the airbrushed magazine cover images of women. Have we bought the Stepford lie?

I gained a bit more perspective from meeting the people in the world, who are far more fixated on their happiness than how they are being viewed.  We met the Fues family  in Germany, and in a very short time,  this family, who loves God, country and family just as we do, adopted us!  The admiration was mutual.

Fues familyCarl and Bruni Fues instilled the importance of hard work, integrity and strong moral values in their children.  They invited us to stay with them, fed us and treated us like old friends.  Like many Europeans, they had a sauna which they used daily regardless of the weather.  This dignified family that wouldn’t have dared call someone they had just met by their first name, invited Dr. and Mrs. Hirn into the sauna.  Ron and I entered the sauna to find this entire family in the buff.  Bare. Naked!  Ron and I, in our swimsuits, cover-ups and towels were ‘overdressed’ to say the least.

So many wonderful experience were crammed into those travel days.  When it comes to choosing perfection over the imperfection of real life – authentic life experiences win every time!


PS – Oh, did I mention when the Fues family left the sauna they jumped into the cold pool and then into the snow to make snow angels?   Ron and I DID NOT join them in that adventure!

tin man

And remember, when the Tin Man went to see the Wizard he asked for the thing that really mattered most to him:   not new legs,  a heart!

Dear Dawn · Grief

Casting . . . .

Dear Dawn,

Three years ago, my husband and I also lost a child.  Those who try to comfort us always say “Time heals all wounds.”  But we are far from healed.  How long did it take you and Ron to get past the pain?    Still Waiting.

Dear Waiting,   I wish I could give you the magic hour that things will get better; but, there is no such thing as permanent healing from a loss of this dimension.

Once I had gotten past my anger with God for having taken my son away, I began gravitating toward Bible verses to lift me up.  But each reference was a temporary fix.  Then somebody mentioned the verse in 1 Peter 5: “Cast all your cares upon Him for He cares for you.”  I looked it up in the King James, and here is what it really says:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time.  Casting all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.”  1 Peter 5:6-7 

Wow. Casting is ongoing!   It was my job to continuously drop my load on God.  I could see from that verse my anguish would last a long time.  But more than that, I realized that my role in the whole thing was to never quit casting my cares upon God. 

So many people have said encouraging things to us, and Ron and I have each read so many books.  I just finished one of the best: A Grief Unveiled, by Gregory Floyd.  I urge you to order this book which has touched me so deeply.  From this I have learned:

-We will not diminish our son, Ryan,  by living our lives.  Neither will you.  We will honor our children,  our angels, by going on with as much joy as they gave us.

-Nobody can remove you from the pain of devastation,  but you.  It’s an ongoing process. You will have good days, bad days and great days. Keep casting.

-It is also our job to honor our children by remembering them to their brothers or sisters, and to each one who loved our child.  Encourage them to fill their life with joy and hope, using the gifts God has given them.

Kremlin/St. Basil’s Moscow, Russia

Keep living, keep loving, keep the memories of your child’s precious life alive.

And never quit casting!


Dear Dawn · Encouragement · Grief

What now?

Dear Dawn,

The unthinkable has happened in our family and I am questioning everything I am doing.  I find myself waking to another dreaded day thinking “What now?” How did you do it?  Just a note and a prayer, please.

Dear What now, There is nothing I can say to you that will fix things.  Just knowing there are people who love and support you is not ever enough. But don’t overlook the importance of their prayers and concern.

Ron and I still struggle with the loss of our seven-year-old son. Calendar days are often geared to him. . . today if he had lived, he would have been so old, he would have gone to his first prom, gotten that college acceptance letter, found his true love, etc.  That unavoidable agony is a process.

school ryan

Our life after Ryan was to hunker down in an environment that protected us and our surviving kids, one we controlled (during a loss, you feel utterly out-of-control) and manipulated ourselves with routine and predictability.

Life – such a precious gift — was slipping by so quickly.  Ron and I agreed to something drastic.  We hit the ‘reset button’ in the life of our family, and chose to radically embrace life by hitting the road to see the world.

It is an extreme choice, but it took us completely out of the rut of every day routine. When foreign traveling, you have to stop and think about every part of your daily life — where you eat, sleep, how you communicate, how to live within your budget, etc. By evaluating every part of your day, you reset your patterns.  Keeping Ryan close to our hearts by carrying his backpack, we began building new memories.

4 boys in shadow

My prayer for you is that you will be able to pull yourself up a day at a time.  When it comes time, hit the reset button.  Do it together!  Imperative!!

And let me know how you are doing.  Thanks for your letter.


Dear Dawn · Travel

Look ahead

Dear Dawn,  When it came time for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, what did you do to celebrate?

We ‘looked ahead!’   Easter would be in Montenegro. We shopped ahead in Germany and Austria, knowing it would be hard to find ingredients for baskets for the boys.  And we wanted to bring our traditions with us wherever we went.  At that point we had rented a camper, so we were able to hide our stash.

There are traditions we hold dear.  But we were also excited to learn how others around the world celebrated – so many on Easter Monday.

In Poland, the Easter Tradition is just as whacky as our Bunny-egg-thing: Easter Monday boys carry around buckets of water and squirt guns to soak each other in a tradition called Smingus-Dyngus that goes back to Polish Prince Miesko 966 AD. Had something to do with Baptism, so the prince is probably flipping in his grave!

Easter Monday, the town of Haux, France serves a giant omelet to the town’s people.  We’re talking 4500 eggs — giant!    They say Napoleon once visited the town, liked their omelet offering so much, he ordered up a giant omelet for his army.   How they cooked the thing is another question for Google.

In a beach-side park near the place we were camping in Montenegro, we hid eggs, and on Easter morning Ron gathered the family to once again tell the story of Easter, from Jesus’ last supper, to the trial, death and resurrection.  The true meaning of Easter for us  – from the cross to the grave to the resurrection.

It is always important to look ahead!

Ron look ahead

Happy Easter


Dear Dawn · Travel

Safari? Are you kidding?

Dear Dawn, I don’t want to offend you, but how could you have allowed your young kids to go on a Safari in Africa?  Just the thought of it freaks me out!  Was it some sort of kid-safe safari or did you do the camp-on-the-savanna thing?

Dear Freaked-out, thank you for your candor. Ron and I did a lot of research before we chose the right family safari.  We wanted the genuine experience but Colton, our eight-year-old, had a tendency to wander off so child-safety was a huge factor. We didn’t want to dummy the wild experience down to an amusement park where large men dress up in Wildebeest costumes either.

Cheetah and boyswarthogWith every adventure comes risk.   Often, I wrestle trying to be the best mom I can be while making sure other parents think I am.   And that just doesn’t work.  You have to be true to who you are while giving your child life’s best experiences.  Ron and I had always loved traveling and wanted our sons to find the joy we had found meeting people from other countries, living life as they did, and surrounding ourselves by strange and new experiences.

You cannot imagine the thrill of seeing a herd of gazelles charging across a field, spotting a rare black rhino in a group of white rhinos, the overwhelming feeling of knowing there is a majestic lioness prancing around your car, or feeling the ground shake beneath you at the approach of wild elephants.

elephants 1

We found the perfect family-friendly safari in a private reserve.  Thousands of acres of natural land filled with thousands of wild things, including the Big Five.  Those who own these huge reserves are diligent to make certain these animals are cared for and well fed.   We stayed within the compound, cooked our own food, and twice each day they drove us out to see what the savanna had to offer.

No matter how hard we try to protect our children, they still can and do get hurt.  But don’t miss the experience of a lifetime because you are afraid to take steps out of the darkness into the light of God’s world.  You will return with enough great memories to see you through life – and your family’s stories grow better with each telling!


Dear Dawn · Encouragement · Travel

Russian Red Tape

Dear Dawn, we’ve always wanted to go to Russia, but were told there were a lot of hoops to jump through.  Did Ron find this to be true when he booked you on the world trip?

Dear Hoops, Yes.  And we should all be thankful our countries care about our safety!   Most governments have tightened up independent foreign travel requirements.  Your best friend is the  US State Department and your US Passport – but you cannot get in or out of Russia without a visa as well.

Tourist visas are valid up to 30 days, so you should keep on schedule.  (You can enter and exit anytime during those dates).  Again this is an issue of doing your homework before you go.  Ron was our travel-booking Guru, but he let each of us be a part of the road we chose.  Is it worth the trouble?  DA!!

Tyler,  Alexander Garden, St. Petersburg

gang russia.JPG

Beautiful Moscow.  And how do you get there?   Follow the yellow brick road..jpgGet your Passport, schedule your trip with your family, apply for your Visas and then just follow the Yellow Brick Road!

BP Red Square.jpg

Love to you and Russia,

Dawn, the family and Our BackPack!