My twins had a birthday party last week, and five of their school friends came to our house for a sleep-over. For weeks before-hand the twins and I agonized over what to ‘do’ at their party besides serve cupcakes. They suggested Legoland, Build-a-Bear, Sea World, or Mani/Pedis at the Salon. I told them those options were all out of our budget. They cried inconsolably for days.  “All the other kids get to do that stuff!” they moaned.

Indeed, nowadays, that ‘other stuff’ is standard fare for birthday parties. Activities and adventures must take place. At the least there must be a bounce house. Or a DJ. Perhaps a snow cone machine? Endless hours are spent shopping and assembling and storing goody bags, which are then passed out to the guests as if they’ve just attended an awards show and everyone’s a millionaire, not at an eight-year-olds birthday party on a suburban street in Anywhere, USA.

We took the girls to the local rose garden here in Temecula. There are stone tables to eat Little Caesar’s $5 dollar pizzas on, and best of all, not only is it free, but kids can be free here – run up and down trails or hide behind bursting rose bushes without an adult constantly hovering over them.

There are also alpacas. Not in the rose garden itself, but across the street, as part of someone’s suburban alpaca farm. The girls lined up outside the homeowners’ fence, mesmerized by the wide-eyed, long-necked, fuzzy creatures. The owner magically appeared out of the barn, and with a smile invited our girls in to feed the alpacas their dinner. Whoo-Whee! Our pack of girls squealed with delight. As they approached the alpacas in a tight little cluster, the alpacas turned their heads and moved away from them in synch, like trained ballet dancers. The owner told the girls how alpacas stay bunched together all the time. “These are all girls, too, and they eat together, sleep together, even go to the bathroom in the same spot.” he told them with a laugh. “Just like all of you poking your heads up between my fence tonight, begging for attention, too!” 

As the girls roamed amongst the alpacas, I couldn’t help but notice how innately grouped our little humans and alpacas stayed.  It seems no matter how hard we try, that herd instinct is alive inside us all. If one mom passes out goody bags after a birthday party, why, we all better do it! If most suburban women sport fake nails and waxed eyebrows, then by golly, off to the salon we go.

When the girls were done meeting and greeting alpacas, they crossed the street back to the rose garden, content to blow bubbles long into the fading sunlight.  As I clicked away with my camera, I heard my daughter say to her friend, “I thought this party was going to be a bust, but it’s the best, isn’t it!”

Sometimes it pays to fight our animal instinct and buck the trend. Sometimes you can capture a moment of random kindness when a stranger opens their door and lets you in to feed some alpacas. And unlike any goody bag, sometimes the best things in life truly are free.