My Favorite Podcasts

Our summer day trips yield a ton of memories but also require a whole lot of time on the road. And Lin Manuel-Miranda help me, I think I've figured out exactly how many Hamilton/Moana sing-alongs I can take per week. The number is high, but it is finite.

To mix it up on family trips and on my work commute, I've developed a collection of listening material, and podcasts are a staple. They get me out of my own head in ways that music often doesn't, and they offer windows into perspectives I may never have considered. I learn something new with every episode.

These are some of my favorites. Note that not all episodes are appropriate for mixed-generation listening. I always pre-listen solo before sharing something with Matt that might contain more mature content. 

Give one a listen on your next trip, and share your own recommendations in the comments. 

Wow in the World

Wow in the World is the newest addition to our podcast lineup. Mindy and Guy Raz share science-y stuff in kid-friendly way. They do two shows a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, and with topics like brain freeze, cow farts, and the physics of shoelaces, my kid is riveted. Some of the first episodes were a little noisy, and I think they still have a way to go in terms of calibrating Mindy's character to make her a true partner with Guy Raz, but I am 100% on board for a show that helps Matt consider the everyday wonder around us.

WDW Prep to Go

Overwhelmed by the prospect of planning our first family Disney trip, I turned to Shannon Albert at WDW Prep School, and her guidance gave me a framework for planning the best possible trip for us. Each episode offers planning advice, practical tips, and a cure for my post-trip blues.

The DIS Unplugged

Another Disney podcast with a very different style. I wasn't prepared to listen to The DIS Unplugged when I first began my Disney planning, as it contained way to much information about things I didn't know yet. Now that I have more of a frame of reference, though, I love keeping up with what's Disney parks and company news. By and large, this one present information in an organized manner and avoids the everyone-is-talking-at-once issue that often plagues panel podcasts.

Radio Cherry Bombe

I once said that if I could no longer teach I'd want a career in food, and I still have culinary side-hustle pipe dreams from time to time. So I am inspired each week by the badass ladies interviewed on Radio Cherry Bombe. From Ellen Bennett and Jessamyn Rodriguez to Martha Stewart and Ruth Reichl, this podcast features women in the food world sharing their stories, both professional and personal. Listening each week leads me to new cookbooks, new products, and new thoughts on supporting the women around me. 

The West Wing Weekly

My dad introduced me to The West Wing as "another show by Aaron Sorkin" when I was in college. We'd previously shared Sports Night, also created by Sorkin, and he'd become a favorite writer.  Needless to say, I'm sentimentally attached and have watched the entire series multiple times, so I love revisiting each episode along with Sports Night and West Wing alum Joshua Malina and musician Hrishikesh Hirway.

Dear Hank and John

Billed as a "comedy podcast about death," this one finds Vlogbrothers Hank and John Green answering listener questions and sharing the latest news from Mars and AFC Wimbledon. Sometimes silly, sometimes thought-provoking, Dear Hank and John offers another glimpse into the brains of some of my favorite content creators. 


I've listened to the podcasts listed above for a year or more, so I feel confident in recommending them. The ones below are new favorites. I've listened to and enjoyed a few episodes of each and can't wait to dig into them further.

Tumble Science Podcast for Kids: science stories told with the help of scientists

Brains On!: a science podcast for curious kids and adults

Code Switch: journalists of color in conversations about race and identity

Special Sauce with Ed Levine: conversations about food and life by Serious Eats founder Ed Levine

Ear Hustle: a nuanced, first-hand perspective on life in the American prison system

Song Exploder: musicians take apart their songs and tell how they were made

LeVar Burton Reads: beloved Reading Rainbow host reads short fiction selections

Day Tripping

Day trips tend to be the bread and butter of our summer adventures. We love going farther afield when the opportunity presents itself, but out after breakfast and home in time for dinner works really well for our family right now.

A well-calibrated day requires a few key pieces: learn something new + eat something local + play hard to keep the wiggles at bay. Some spots combine all three in one, but with those interchangeable components in mind we have also built all manner of multi-stop adventures. Here’s a small sampling of our favorites from this summer:

The Shoals
Stop 1: Muscle Shoals Sound Studios
When I was a kid, I was certain the line from “Sweet Home Alabama” was “Now Muscle Shoals has got the swamp bus…” which sounded like an intriguing, if not potentially risky, means of locomotion. I didn’t know that the Swampers were in no small way responsible for a whole lot of the music I grew up listening to on my dad’s record player. The tour of this little recording powerhouse is just the right length for my six-year-old, and our guide was a thoughtful and knowledgeable storyteller. Matt was especially thrilled to get to play a bit of a recital piece on a piano used by famous musicians.

Stop 2: Lunch in downtown Florence
Leaving the recording studio, we crossed the river and entered Florence, which has an adorable downtown area. On our first trip, we aimed for Trowbridge’s, but they get very crowded midday, so you might consider eating your meal elsewhere and stopping in for a treat after the rush. Try the orange pineapple ice cream, and make sure you breathe in the delicious diner grill smell that permeates the place. Odette is a delicious, more upscale option. Rosie’s Mexican Cantina is a kid-friendly spot serving Tex-Mex standards.

Stop 3: River Heritage Park
Before heading back home, we spent some time at River Heritage Park, which includes views of the Tennessee River, picnic pavilions, and more. We were most interested in the playground and interactive fountain, which was filled with little ones keeping cool and grownups enjoying a stream of 80s pop music. Nearby restrooms allow for a quick change into water gear.

Stop 1: Mooresville, Alabama
Mooresville was essentially the first town in Alabama, incorporated in 1818. It’s worth a stroll through this little village’s shaded streets to stretch your legs, soak in the history, and grab a coffee at Java.Mooresville or some treats at Lyla’s Little House.

Stop 2: Lunch in downtown Huntsville
On our first trip to Huntsville that didn’t focus on the Space and Rocket Center, we didn’t necessarily have a defined itinerary, and I let Matt take the reins in deciding what to do. We pointed ourselves toward downtown in search of lunch, and he requested pizza, so we ended up at Pane e Vino. This kid-friendly spot connected to the Huntsville Museum of Art turned out to be perfectly situated for our next two stops.

Stop 3: Big Spring Park
Walk out the door of Pane e Vino, and you’re in Big Spring Park with its ducks, geese, and fish for feeding, and its canals for strolling. This is a great place for kiddos to run off some energy, and it hosts events throughout the year like Panoply Arts Festival, movie nights, and concerts.

Stop 4: Huntsville Museum of Art
Our final stop downtown was the Huntsville Museum of Art. We spent the majority of our visit in the Stender Interactive Gallery. The gallery includes Art Lab, a hands-on area for kids to explore color, line, shape, and texture, and A Walk Through Time, which leads visitors through a timeline of art history from cave paintings to Abstract Expressionism. Each time I visit an art museum with Matt, we keep it simple and use it as an opportunity to talk about art and to practice museum etiquette. In each gallery we visit, we make a lap around to see each piece, then I ask him to pick one that makes him think or feel something. We return to that piece and talk about it in more detail, then we move on to the next room.

Stop 5: Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment
This has become a favorite stop any time we’re in the Huntsville area. It’s a former textile mill that now houses a variety of artists’ studio spaces. We love to roam the halls and peek in on artists as they work, and we always pop in to Pizelle’s for some beautiful truffles to bring home and Piper & Leaf for some iced tea for the road. Don’t miss the indoor swings and the elevator - you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.

Stop 1: Alabama Theatre
Attending the Throwback Thursday kids’ movies hosted by the Alabama Theatre each July has become a summer tradition. The sing-along with the Mighty Wurlitzer organ prior to the start of the show is a special treat, and sharing classic movies in a proper theatre with my little guy is one of my favorite things.

Stop 2: Pizitz Food Hall
Right around the corner from the theatre are a plethora of food options at the Pizitz Food Hall. My favorites are Ghion Cultural Hall and Ono Poke, and Matt loves The Standard, Alabama Biscuit Company, and Waffle Works. Everybody wins at a food hall!

Stop 3: McWane Center or Birmingham Zoo
Fueled up, we head out again, either to the McWane Center conveniently right across the street or to the Birmingham Zoo (kids get free zoo admission with a paying adult if they’re wearing their Throwback Thursday sticker from the Alabama Theatre movie). I love a good roam-and-learn to use up afternoon energy.

Stop 4: Big Spoon Creamery
If we’re in need of a treat before we head home, we make a stop at Big Spoon. If you’re a fan of Salt & Straw, Lick Honest, or Jeni’s, you’ll find yourself in a happy place at this shop on 3rd Avenue South. They’re scooping up interesting flavors, and the air smells of the waffle cones they make in-house each day. The staff here have always been incredibly kind to Matt, too, which earns big points from me.

It continues to be such a blast to build these day trips. I geek out poring over Google Maps to calculate a reasonable travel radius and searching for new stops. Where to next?

Travel Plans: Get Outside

My fourth grade Alabama history class was all about coloring in state maps. One such map series required our stubby elementary fingers to color code the immense geological and biological diversity of our state. And while I was very excited to use most of my Crayola box to produce gorgeous rainbow maps, I know that my fourth grade self missed the point.

I didn't really understand or care about the diverse natural environments my state has to offer until I got out in the middle of things with my kid. Now, however, Matt wakes up on weekends and vacation days asking for an adventure, and we've made tons of memories by immersing ourselves in the forests, streams and mountains close to home. Here are a few of our favorite spots for outdoor adventuring.

I've written about Dismals Canyon before, but this one's worth at least one more mention. Located in Phil Campbell, Alabama, in the northwestern corner of our state, this natural conservatory is one of our top places to explore and splash around on a hot summer day (bonus points for the 10-degree temperature drop as you descend to the canyon floor!). It takes its name from the Dismalites - bioluminescent creatures that live on the canyon walls - and the canyon's waterfalls, boulders, bridges, and stream offer plenty to do in the short 1.5 mile trail on the canyon floor.

I recall visiting Tannehill for its monthly Trade Days as a kid, and Erik, Matt, and I have revisited to check out its trails. The park, about 30 minutes from downtown Birmingham, still bears signs of its history in the local iron industry. It's a fun place to explore, with lots picnic areas, old buildings, easy trails, and a bubbling spring to dip toes in.


Turkey Creek was a new find for us in 2016. Created through a partnership between Alabama's Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust, it's a beautiful place tucked away in Pinson, Alabama, that contains five hiking trails, as well as several species of endangered fish. But my favorite part is that spots like these pictured below are accessible just a few steps from a parking area.

Red Mountain Park
Early in our adventuring, Matt designated Red Mountain as the friendliest park, and I definitely agree with his assessment. Nearly everyone we encounter, from park staff to visitors, is smiling and up for a chat. Evidence of the care and attention this park receives abounds: the trails are well-marked and maintained, and we notice something new on nearly every visit. There's public art to check out, treehouses and overlooks to find, and a range of trails that accommodate both the casual walker and the more adventurous hiker. This was the first real hiking that Matt and I did together, so it's a special place for us.

Oak Mountain State Park
Oak Mountain boasts the largest number of amenities of all the parks we visit regularly. We've been many times, and it feels as though we've barely made a dent in the more than 25 miles of hiking trails. Plus we've logged hours at the playground, hung out at the lakeside beach, visited rehabilitated birds along the Treetop Nature Trail, and worn out our legs in a rented pedal boat. Incidentally, this park is where I drove a car for the first time. My mom and I rented a cabin one weekend when I was in elementary school, and she briefly let me behind the wheel of her Honda Prelude. Not a parenting move I intend to adopt, but definitely a fun memory!

I'll admit that, of all the places listed here, we have the least experience with Ruffner Mountain, but we're anxious to visit some more! The nature center is a super-cool LEED certified building with a treehouse vibe, and there are around 14 miles of trails to explore. We like any place with an overlook, so we did not leave disappointed.

Moss Rock is a great spot just out of sight in Hoover, Alabama. We love it for the boulders, and the local community has a cool festival in the fall.

This kinda counts as urban exploring, since Jemison Park is essentially greenspace in the city of Mountain Brook, Alabama. We particularly like this mill house, which reminds me a bit of the Sanderson Sisters' house from Hocus Pocus.

Cheaha State Park
We most recently visited Cheaha on an unseasonably cool summer day in June 2016. None of the trails here are very long, but there is great stuff to see! Our first stop was Bald Rock via a boardwalk trail through the forest: easy going with a big payoff. Next we visited the tower that marks the highest point in the state of Alabama. Finally, we headed to Pulpit Rock, which was a tricky climb in and out but also totally worth it for the view.

Little River Canyon National Preserve
During a Spring Break stay in Mentone, Alabama, in 2016, we visited Little River Canyon to do a bit of exploring. We fell in love with Little River Falls and the numerous overlooks. We'll definitely be back.

Desoto Falls was another stop during our stay in Mentone. It's impressive, but I will admit that heights are not my jam, and I got a little freaked out taking photos at the railing.

Rickwood Caverns State Park
This is another great choice for a sweltering summer day. The cave temperature hovers around 60 degrees, so a tour offers an hour-long break from the heat. It's also a crash course in the geological history of the area and an opportunity to see fossils embedded in the cave ceiling and walls. Pro tips: Watch your head, and be on the lookout for the tiny bats that make the cave their home - they're super cute!

What's next? We're on the lookout for more adventures close to home and hope to visit the places listed below in the near future.  Where else should we go?

Chief Ladiga Trail
Monte Sano State Park
Cathedral Caverns

Dismals Canyon

I crave green this time of year.  Leafy greens on the plate, verdant surroundings (or memories of  'em) - I can't get enough.  So I've been reminiscing hardcore about our time at Dismals Canyon last summer.

Dismals Canyon is a privately owned Natural Conservatory and National Natural Landmark in northwest Alabama.  The "Dismals" in Dismals Canyon stems from the presence of bioluminescent creatures known as Dismalites that make their home on the canyon walls.  

While outdoor activities in Alabama in June tends to be a sweaty mess, one of my favorite things about this location is that the temperature drops by ten degrees or more as you descend the steps into the canyon.  Couple that with the guarantee that you're going to dip your toes and wade through the stream that flows along the canyon floor, and it's actually a pretty comfy place to hang out in the hotter months.  

This probably goes without saying, but if you go, definitely wear clothes and shoes that can stand a little dirt and water because you're going to want to be able to do this:

Stop in at the soda fountain before you leave.  Canyon exploring is thirsty work, and they make a yummy limeade!  

Night tours are also available if you want to see the Dismalites in all their glowy glory, but we stuck to the daylight hours.  The photos you'll see below represent the two different day trips we took to the canyon in June 2015.

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Planning and Arrival Day

Ask me a few years ago if I would ever plan a family trip to Walt Disney World, and the response would have been a resounding NOPE, not gonna happen.

Although I grew up quoting Disney movies and wearing out the Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid soundtrack cassettes in my parents' car stereos, I had a vague yet overwhelmingly unattractive idea of what a Disney trip entailed: oppressive heat; seas of sweaty, stressed people; overpriced everything; and a pre-travel planning process that looked something akin to another full-time job.  Couple that with my husband's social anxiety, which can make sprawling, crowded, unfamiliar places the stuff of nightmares, and it was a clear no-go for us.

The more Matt began to connect to Disney, though, and the more we saw the stories Disney weaves from a little one's perspective again, the more that definite no began to shift until it became a full-fledged member of the maybe list.  And for me, even a maybe warrants extensive research, itinerary drafting, and general playing around to sort out whether it's doable.

Early on in that research process, I came across Shannon Albert's WDW Prep School, a website dedicated to helping people plan Disney World trips.  I pored over each post and listened to her podcast WDW Prep To Go every time I was in the car or flying solo in my kitchen.  Shannon's infectious enthusiasm for Disney and her six-step planning process led me, quite unexpectedly, to fall in love with Disney World and to feel confident in booking our family's trip for December of this year.

We decided on a December trip because we wanted to experience Christmas in the parks.  However, we selected dates that would get us there in between the heaviest crowds around Thanksgiving and the Christmas-to-New Year's surge.  Our final plan included five nights at the Wilderness Lodge with three park days, plus tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on our final night.

On Monday, December 7, after a year of planning, Erik, Matt, and I walked into the Wilderness Lodge for the first time.  From the very first cast member's "Welcome home," we truly felt it.  We'd found a second home.  It's not an exaggeration to say that this trip changed our lives.

Our arrival night was low-key.  We settled into our room and tried to assess how the hotel's DVC expansion might affect our trip (short answer - other than a not-great view and a sweet little treat from the hotel management, it didn't), then we headed to dinner.

We had a 6:40 dinner reservation at Chef Mickey's, so once we were all set in the room, we headed down to the boat dock for a ride over to the Contemporary.

On this first ride, we swung by Fort Wilderness first and got to watch the sun set over Bay Lake.  I hadn't anticipated using the boats as much as we did throughout the trip, but we did come to rely on them pretty heavily, and they were absolutely a highlight of our Disney routine.

Chef Mickey's was, for us, a great first meal.  Matt has an affinity for the main Disney gang and had received both a surprise invitation letter from Mickey the night before our trip and a welcome box of goodies in our room, so getting to begin with The Mouse himself, as well as Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, was perfect.  It didn't hurt that, the rowdy dining room filled with families helped to mask his post-car-ride squirreliness, too.

Well-fed and grinning from ear to ear, we headed back to the Wilderness Lodge for the night.

This is Part 1 of our trip report.  As I continue the write-up, I'll add links here to each day's post.  Next up: The Magic Kingdom.  Stay tuned!