Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Happy Birthday, America. The Home Stretch.

Posted on | July 24, 2016 | 1 Comment

We had only 4 days left and, for the first time, the kids started asking when we were getting home.  Oh, it wasn’t all love and endearments until that time.  Some of them desperately needed some alone time.  And took drastic measures to get it.

But we still had some remnants of the wild west life to visit.  We stopped in Wichita, Kansas to visit the Old Cowtown Museum.  Wichita was an influential town that started out as a trading post between settlers and Plains Indians and by the 1800’s connected all the ranches and their cattle with the railroads that carried that beef north and east.  It was the birthplace of Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp spent a year as a deputy city marshall there.  The Old Cowtown Museum is filled with historic buildings including a general store, print shop, marshall’s office, meat market, saddle shop, and of course, a hall and saloon.  There are people dressed in period costume and horse drawn carriages.  There are also a variety of homes and cabins and an 1880 farm.

Luckily for us it was also hosting some kind of political event that involved free watermelon, kettle corn, and other treats.  We might have forgotten to mention that we weren’t registered to vote in Kansas.  I also got a really great free T-shirt from the Pure & Simple table.  I thought they were promoting organic cotton products.  Cool.  Only much later did I look closely at the logo on the shirt and realize they were promoting abstinence.  Since I had 4 kids with me I’m surprised the woman didn’t point out that it was too late for me.  Way too late.

Just down the street is the Keeper of the Plains.  I love public art but some of it is much more well-done than others.  The Keeper of the Plains was excellent!  It is a sculpture by Blackbear Bosin and sits in the middle of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers.  The sculpture is surrounded with displays of culture and artifacts from the Plains Indians and there is tribal music playing continuously.  There are rocks that allow you to climb down to the waters edge and at night there are 5 fire pits that are lit.  The sculpture is surrounded by a river walk and a park with picnic tables and other facilities.  It’s definitely worth the stop if you’re in the area.

The scary thing about the plains of Kansas is that you can see terrific storms approaching from miles away.  As we continued down I-35 we watched thunderheads fill the sky and huge streaks of lightning approaching us.  I was sure that at any minute a tornado would drop from the sky.  Since there were no bridges, buildings, or ditches to hide in I was beginning to think that death was going to be our free souvenir from Kansas.  Then there was this:

In what appeared to be a renovated (kind of) gas station in Tonkawa, Kansas we took shelter and played Blink while waiting for the worst of the storm to pass.  And we sampled a variety fried pies, of course.  Pecan, apple, and chocolate.  Best.  Storm.  Shelter.  Ever.

Right before the next round of thunderstorms we hit Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.  The museum was closed for the day but the memorial is open to the public 24 hours a day and there are plaques throughout that explain the events.  Due to the darkened sky the lights of the memorial were beginning to come on, illuminating the Gates of Time and the Field of Empty Chairs.

As we walked around I was surprised that the kids knew anything about it, but they all had vague recollections from school about the Ryder truck filled with explosives and used to blow up a building.  They couldn’t remember why the bomber did it, and I didn’t really have an answer when they asked me.  Why?  Why? There may be reasons but there isn’t really an answer to that question.

The entire monument is moving, especially in the gloom of an approaching storm.

But it was the inclusion of the Survivor Tree that seemed so profound to me.

And Little was shocked by the Children’s Area.  Because he didn’t know that children were killed in the bombing.  And he didn’t understand why, in the face of those awful deaths, there was now a play space with chalk for the sidewalk and brightly painted handprints on the wall.  Reclaiming a space from tragedy isn’t something that 11 year olds contemplate in their spare time.  They shouldn’t have to.

The sad truth is that kids don’t get a free pass on adult conflict.  As the kids discovered the following day when we visited Little Rock High School National Historic Site. in Arkansas.  Little Rock High is still a functioning high school but the National Park Service offers guided tours for visitors and runs a visitor center across the street that talks about the Little Rock Nine.  We watched a couple documentaries before traveling about the Little Rock Nine including Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later which speaks to the gap that still remains between black and white access and achievement in education.  But the visitor center and tour focused on the events that occurred in 1957 during the forced integration of the school.

It was with great pride we discovered that the 101st Airborne, once my father’s regiment, was used to protect the students as they entered the school.   But the violence and the ignorance displayed so poignantly in black and white photographs and videos from those times was so shameful.  To see adults arrayed so ferociously against school children—-children!—was shocking.  One of the video monitors in the visitor center played interviews with media that were present at the time of the integration.  News reporters spoke about their own surprise at the vehemence of the mob surrounding the school and Mike Wallace remembered his experience at Little Rock sadly, shaking his head and saying, “Hate is easier to organize than understanding.”

I guess that’s a lesson we’re still learning today.

When we left the school we strolled across the Big Dam Bridge, which I added to our travel plans because it had picnic tables for lunch and  a place to stretch our legs before our next drive.  It’s the longest pedestrian bridge in North America, overlooking the Murray Lock and Dam and the Arkansas River.  Also, because of the name.  I couldn’t resist the name.  It sure is a Big Dam Bridge.

We arrived in Memphis, Tennessee that night and Pretty and I made plans for the next day while washing laundry at the laundromat.  After all, we needed an early start.  I wanted the kids to see Graceland since Elvis was one of the few icons of popular culture on this trip that they recognized.  However, since they weren’t die hard fans I didn’t want to pay $60 per person for an extended tour of the property.  So we settled for free admission between 7:30-8:30 am which allowed us to enter the famous main gates….

pass the main house….

and enter the meditation garden to see Elvis’ grave as well as those of his family members.

That’s how you do Graceland for free.  And the next best free attraction in Memphis has to be the ducks at the Peabody Hotel.  We made it to see the 10am march of the ducks out of the elevator, across the red carpet, and into the lobby fountain.  You can call it tacky if you want, but that was crazy cute and fun.

Since “free” was working out extremely well, we headed next for Hebe Fountain where Jimmy Ogle, a local historian, was hosting his free Tuesday Walking Tour.  He does these tours throughout Memphis in different areas of the city and we were treated to more info about the history, buildings, and residents of Court Square than it seemed possible for one person to know.  He conducted the entire tour without any notes, with lots of interesting anecdotes, and even introduced us to prominent Memphis residents as they passed through the square for work or pleasure.  Do not miss his walking tour if you are in Memphis!  It took us about an hour to circle historic Court Square but we started and stopped at the famous fountain from 1876.

From there we made it to Beale St….

and Memphis style BBQ at the Rum Boogie Cafe.  I’ve eaten vinegar-based Carolina BBQ for years but the time I spent living in Texas always left me with a taste for sweet smoky red sauce.  Rum Boogie provided that in style and it took a whole of napkins to clean our faces and hands after our pork plates.

Of course, in between bites we had to explain the names on the autographed guitars hanging from the ceiling.  The kids had never heard of Alice Cooper, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Greg Allman….sad really.  Really really sad.  They did know ZZ Top was the band with the beards.  And that was about it.  It’s so hard to parent.  You think you’re covering the important stuff—potty training, no biting,  please and thank you, STOP HITTING, daily teeth brushing—just to discover you forgot to teach them about rock’n roll.

Once we were fortified with BBQ we hit A. Schwab, the mercantile started  in 1876 and the only original remaining business on Beale St.

And stopped by the Center for Southern Folklore to brush up on the development of the blues on Beale St.  (Another Memphis experience with free admission.)

Before we crashed for the night we couldn’t resist the Pyramid.  A Bass Pro Shop which was quite a unique building on the outside….

with the usual entertainment on the inside.

The next day we went to the National Civil Rights Museum which follows the fight for civil rights from the beginnings of slavery in America all the way to human rights movements occurring throughout the world.  The museum is constructed around the Lorraine Motel….

and visitors can still walk through its halls, look out over the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, and the room where he died.

Another exhibit across the street allows visitors to stand where James Earl Ray was standing when he took that fatal shot.

These are the exhibits that make it real.  Make it human.  Make history a part of our lives, not just a story from the past.

Before we left Memphis we stopped at the Burkle Estate or Slave Haven, where Jacob Burkle operated a stop on the Underground Railroad and we stood huddled in the basement listening to the tales of the slaves’ travels north to freedom.

When we finally left Memphis behind, the kids agreed it was one of the best cities on the trip, coming close to bumping Chicago from the top spot.  I was surprised myself since I mainly added Memphis to the trip because it had the Civil Rights Museum and it was conveniently on I-40, the highway taking us home.  That’s what I love about travel.  The way a place reaches up and grabs your attention, steals your affection when you weren’t expecting anything except a pit stop.  How could we have known if we hadn’t shown up, wandered the streets, picked up the tourist guides, tried the tacky?  How much more is waiting for us in how many more places?

In Nashville we drove along Music Row (boring) and stopped at the full size replica of the Partheon, made for the 1897 Centennial Explosion.

I’d  like to claim my kids wanted to go there because they were interested in ancient Greece or classical architecture or even art.  But the Nashville Parthenon was used in a battle scene in the movie Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief—a book and movie series that all my kids have read.  That’s why they wanted to see it.  Although we were all a bit appalled at the huge statue of Athena.  She was not so much goddess as just, well, gaudy.

With that, we finally crossed over into our home state and the mountains that we call our own–the Appalachians.  In Asheville, I made the kids tour the Basilica of St Lawrence with me.  The Other Half and the kids were born and raised as Baptists so they are baffled by the ornateness of Catholic churches.  And the concept of Holy Water.

But the Basilica is famous for its beautiful architecture and stained glass and the Catholic church always reminds me of attending early morning mass with my grandmother during summer vacations.  When the kneelers and the candles were the best part of church.  Since the rest of it was in Latin anyway.  In any case, there is a pamphlet for a self-guided tour if you decided to visit.

We walked the streets of Asheville, checking out the cafes and art stores, and stopped at Lexington Glassworks to watch them blowing glass for the fantastic variety of bowels, vases, and light fixtures sold in the store.  Their business has large doors open to the street so passerbys can wander in and the workers keep up a running dialogue with observers, explaining the process as they go along.  I really wanted to purchase a lovely (expensive) dappled vase for the downstairs windowsill.  But I still have 4 kids and 2 dogs at home so I decided to save myself the time and heartache spent sweeping up the broken pieces of the vase to put in the recycling bin and passed on buying it.

Then I sat and sipped coffee and read my book while everyone else gorged themselves on games at the Pinball Museum.  $10 per person gets you unlimited access to all the pinball games in the place for as long as you want to play.  No tokens or coins needed.   They even have rooms full of old school arcade video games like Centipede and Pac-Man and Galaga.  For the record, there were more adults than kids there and they had a full service bar.  Everyone loved it and I had to drag them out of there.

Because that was it, except for the last 200 miles to our driveway.   It was over.  3 full weeks of vacation.  5 National Parks and more historic sites than I can count.  Almost 6,000 miles.  Stopped in 20 states and drove through a few more.


Or part of it.

Because, believe it or not, we didn’t have the time to cover California or the Southwest or the Gulf states.

Guess that’s for next year’s vacation.

When we got home the month of June was over and it was only a couple days until the 4th of July.

Happy Birthday, America.

See you next summer. :)

Happy Birthday, America. The Wild West

Posted on | July 21, 2016 | 1 Comment

We drove through Grand Teton National Park as we headed through Wyoming.  We didn’t stop as I figured I couldn’t summon any more enthusiasm from the kids for hikes and waterfalls and mountains for a few more days.  It was odd how quickly we developed nature fatigue—-one week we were ooohing and ahhhing over the buffalo and the next week they were just getting in the way;  one day we wanted to get as close to the falls as possible to feel the spray and climb on the rocks and the next day were were happy to just pull in at an overlook.  Breaking up the trip with cities was definitely a smart part of my plan and this time we were on our way to Jackson.  But driving through the Tetons and the Jackson Hole valley along the Snake River still provided a whole lot of scenic appeal.

Unfortunately, Jackson, Wyoming was not quite the city that I expected.  I knew it was a tourist town and I didn’t really think I’d run into Harrison Ford or Sandra Bullock (Well, maybe I considered it for a minute.  Just a second.).  It was mostly just a couple blocks of expensive stores and high-end realty offices.  Although the antler arch was cool.

We settled for some window shopping and ate at the Saddlerock Saloon at the Jackson Hole Playhouse. Where the cowboys sing to you over your bison burger.  Because tacky is underrated and if we’re going to support anyone in Jackson, it should be the starving theatre performers.

We did get a chance to talk to our waiter about real life in Wyoming. He told us what a lot of locals told us about living out west.  That the summers were crazy with tourists and the winters were long and isolated.  Locals on either side of Glacier and Yellowstone told us that once the park roads closed with snow in the winter there was no way through to the other side except all the way around—-more than a day trip on snowy roads.  Our waiter told us that stores in Jackson were only open sporadically in winter because the skiers tended to stay at the resorts for whatever they needed and the homeowners flew into Jackson airport and took a private car straight to their vacation home.  Oh, Harrison.  How rude!

So Jackson wasn’t that exciting.  And we didn’t see any famous people.  And we didn’t even see any moose, despite all the moose warning signs along the road and the moose parephernalia in the stores.  So I settled for a delicious slice of Very Berry pie from the The Bunnery and this picture.  Because it includes a moose and it screams, “Family Vacation: Aaaaagggh!”

From there the country opened up and all along I-80 we watched the terrain roll into the horizon, interrupted by scrubby hills and the buttes of the west.

Sections of I-80 were an old stagecoach route and we got out at Point of Rocks, a desolate and deserted town that consisted of a few trailers and a weary gas station, to read about the Almond Stage Station built in 1862.

Easy to see how the stagecoach feared bandits and Indians alike in this wild territory.

Not far ahead was a town that Middle and I had been eagerly anticipating.  Middle has a given name (of course) and although I stole it from a book character (of course) in All the Pretty Horses, there is also a town in Wyoming that knows the correct spelling.  Unlike everyone that Middle has encountered in his life that wants to spell it like a sports manufacturer (um, never!) or punk rockstar (maybe, but so many tattoos!).  I think all this spelling confusion is a sign that Americans don’t read enough.   Anyway, in celebration I drove Middle around town taking his picture with all the correctly spelled name signs.

I really wanted to get one of the street signs hanging around town for him, but there didn’t seem to be a way except vandalism.

Since the local cops were probably already alarmed by an out of state vehicle driving around taking pictures of their town center, banks, and public safety organizations, it didn’t seem worth it.  I wanted to explore the wild west without actually taking part in a shoot out.  But even if the town name is meaningless to you, they do have a great Frontier Prison that operated from 1901 until 1981.

The prison and the grounds are pretty run down, giving you a pretty authentic idea of what it was like to serve time there.  We had an excellent tour guide who walked us through the prison, detailing stories of the inmates, escapes and shootouts, and the history of the structure.  They did carry out executions at the prison and both the gallows and the electric chair are still in evidence.  There was also a small museum with lots of old photos, homemade shanks, and other prison paraphernalia.

The whole family absolutely loved it.  Which says something about our family.  I don’t know what, but….something.

We blew through Vedauwoo, settling for the view from the highway instead of getting in to rock climb.  Vedauwoo was different from most of the other jagged rock we’d seen during our travels.  Most of the edges there were rounded, making the features appear soft and gentle.  It was an easy stop off the highway and I plan to keep it on the list as a stop during next year’s return drive through the state on the way to Oregon and California.

And we only stopped in Laramie for a quick look at their Wyoming Territorial Prison, famous for briefly housing Butch Cassidy.  The prison itself was much less interesting than the detailed exhibits on Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.  There was a lot of info on the gang, how they got started, and their activities throughout the west.  Plus, this opportunity:

Once we hit Colorado I dragged the family through the Denver Botanical Gardens….

and in return the boys took me on a walkabout of Mile High Stadium. Or whatever it’s called by whatever large corporation owns it currently.

With that we left the Rocky Mountains in our rearview mirror and returned to the plains as we entered Kansas.  And the windmills as far as the eye can see. What would Dorothy think?

Happy Birthday, America. Bear Territory.

Posted on | July 18, 2016 | No Comments

We stopped at Mount St Helens visitor center on Spirit Lake Highway on our way out of Washington state.

The video and the interactive displays had lots of information on the eruption. The pictures of the volcano before and after its eruption in 1980 were startling but the damage was easy enough to see with the naked eye.  Just outside the center was a view of the volcano with its top almost completely blown away.

Surrounding the center was nature trail where we could see how the land renewed itself.

We spent the night in Portland and then made a big push on to Yellowstone.  For 12 hours, the longest straight drive we made during the trip, we wound our way through Oregon before breaking away for Idaho.  We traveled through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area which, of course, followed the Lewis and Clark Highway.  This then was the Pacific Northwest I had always imagined—lush forest, wide rivers, towering rock outcroppings, small towns nestled in valleys.

But I had not pictured the massive dams along the Columbia River.  I never knew about these gigantic fixtures but the The Dalles and the John Day Dam could not be missed.

On through Boise and Idaho Falls until we finally reached West Yellowstone.  We allotted 2 days for Yellowstone, which anyone can tell you is not enough to see everything the park has to offer.  Yellowstone was far more crowded than any of the other parks we visited and had an entirely different vibe.  The first thing we noticed was all the bear warnings.  There were signs posted everywhere warning us to be “Bear Aware!”  The rangers distributed bear pamphlets, bear spray was being sold and rented at the visitor centers, all the campgrounds had bear warnings, and last bear sightings were posted at trail heads.  I wasn’t really worried about bears until we got to Yellowstone.  Then every time I caught a glimpse of buffalo fur over a hill or on the horizon I was sure I was about to be mauled by a grizzly.

But it wasn’t bears that met us at the entrance.  Instead, we had our first sighting of elk.  We heard an elk bellowing in the woods back at Custer State Park in South Dakota but we hadn’t seen a single one in any of the parks or even along the roads.  At Yellowstone they are all over the area.

We headed north through the park stopping along the way at Gibbons Falls….

Norris Geyser Basin….

Roaring Mountain….

Obsidian Cliff….

and Mammouth Hot Springs.

We exited into Gardiner for the night and discovered that even the tourist towns close by 10pm.  Which left us eating our canned food at the Yellowstone River Motel.  But the next morning I discovered Gardiner did have a laundromat, a coffee shop with a bookstore (!!!), and a passable diner for breakfast.  We entered Yellowstone under the Roosevelt arch….

and proceeded to wait in line to enter the park.  Like I said, Yellowstone was crowded.  The overlooks were so full we often had to wait to take a picture and parking was scarce.  If there are going to be capacity limits set at any park, it should definitely be Yellowstone.  Still the elk greeted us upon arrival….

and we made it to Undine Falls….

and hiked to Wraith Falls….

and visited the Petrified Tree….

before hitting the slew of photographers at Slough Creek watching the wolf den.  We could see the wolf den without binoculars—-it’s the little sandy depression to the left of the stand of dead trees.  But there wasn’t any wolf activity while we there.  One of the photographers did get some video of the pups the day we were there, though.

I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the wolf pack out and about but it was still cool to see their habitat up close and personal.  So we made our way along Slough Creek looking for a better viewpoint of the den.

Only to have a freaking bear get between us and our car!

Oh, no, wait….it’s a buffalo.

We stopped at a beautiful meadow and hiked up the steep grade to the top.  Nothing but the wind in the grass and birds twittering.

The trail grew very steep and the top was deceptively far away.  3 of the kids bailed and headed back down to the car, which I figured was safe enough since we could see them from our vantage point.  Me, Little, and The Other Half continued up, panting ans gasping for air.  Well, 2 of us were panting and gasping for air.   One of us had no problem at all.

At the top we looked back at our tiny kids by our tiny car and saw a tiny bear making his way in their direction!  Good thing the car (their only hope for safety) was locked and I had the keys!

I waved frantically to the kids, trying to indicate the bear, but they just waved back with their tiny, helpless arms.   I started rushing down the trail.  Luckily, before I had a heart attack, I got close enough to see it was just another buffalo.

Stupid bear warnings.

As we made our way through the park, the Yellowstone River that looked like this outside our motel in Gardiner….

morphed into this….

before tumbling over Tower Falls.

And then into this, called Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon….

before falling over the upper and lower falls.

The scenery from Tower-Roosevelt to Hayden Valley didn’t seem real.  The sight from every overlook was a postcard.  Yet despite the crowds, very few people ventured onto the trails between vistas.  Which meant if you were willing to forego the wooden walkways and stairs for, you know, death from a sudden slip and fall into the canyon….

then you had the trail all to yourself.

It was after Lookout Point that we saw our first actual bear.  An irritated park ranger stood in the road directing traffic and pushing people back out of the brush.  I asked him what was going on and he huffed angrily, “There’a bear sleeping in the grass.  Not moving.  You can’t even see it.  Nothing to see at all.”  Then he rushed off to haul back another tourist who had bypassed the “Keep Back ” signs he had spread along the road.

We had noticed that the Yellowstone rangers were always irritated.  Earlier we saw a ranger holding up traffic as elk crossed the road.  He had lights flashing on his vehicle, more of those plastic “Keep Back” signs and another irritated ranger with him.  Later we found a ranger in the road angrily blowing his whistle at the traffic, urging cars along with hostile hand gestures.  When I asked a photographer setting up a camera tripod nearby what was going on, he told me there was black bear walking along the road.  I’ll admit those grumpy rangers were just too much resist.  Because after we finished our trail, we headed back to where a group of 50-75 people were jostling the ranger in the weeds.

Sure enough there was black bear, resting under a tree.  Except she wasn’t sleeping as much as she was lazing around, her ears swiveling to the sounds of the crowd, her big head coming up on occasion to scope us out.

And what the ranger forgot to mention when he was telling us there was nothing to see was that up in the branches of the tree were her 2 cubs.  Maybe stashed for safekeeping.  Maybe just too boisterous to sit still while momma took a break.

When we had our fill of gaping at the critters we headed back to our car, wondering why the rangers were so irritated.  Didn’t they want to share the wildlife of Yellowstone with the tourists?  Didn’t they relish showing such wonders to the people?  Didn’t they want to have to throw themselves into the oncoming path of a pissed off momma bear in order to save a bunch of tourists that got so close and so loud that the bear finally rose up to chase them off?  Jeez.  Rangers.

After the bears and all the majestic terrain in Canyon Valley, the Mud Volcano area with mud caldron, sour lake, and sulfur caldron was a bit um,…underwhelming.  In addition to smelly and eye-burning.

Dragons Mouth Spring did make me wonder, though.  The cave belched smoke and emitted rumbles and growls from the pressure of the hot springs deep inside and water splashing in the cave.  I wondered what Native people and early explorers made of these formations.  Did they understand the heat of the earth’s core and the causes of these remarkable features?  Surely they were shrouded in mystery and magic.

As a matter of fact, even as I stood beside signs explaining the geysers, the springs, the chemicals, and the steam, the thermal features seemed mysterious and surreal.

To look into the center of the earth.

Feel the heat of the inner core carried in the breeze.

We had a quick dinner at the terminus of the Yellowstone River, where its magnificent run ends in Yellowstone Lake.  The chilly wind off the lake certainly cleared our heads of the sulfur and ammonia from the geyser basin, but we missed the blasts of undergound heat as we huddled at our picnic table.

Then we hit the our last Yellowstone waterfall, the Kepler Cascades….

and stayed until dusk to see the eruption of Old Faithful.

I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but both the Castle Geyser and the Beehive Geyser had better, longer lasting eruptions while were there.  I’m just sayin’.

As we headed for our hotel, we left the geyser basin slowly smoking in our wake.  And I wondered again what early people thought about the steaming pools, the crusted, cracked surface.  I marveled at this evidence of the earth at work beneath our feet, eternally awake even as we slept. All of Yellowstone sprinkled with these features so rare everywhere else in the world.

We had a late night back in West Yellowstone that involved a lost dog, a lost cop, and 2 meal vouchers for 6 people.  It was exhausting to live though and way too exhausting to retell.  But the next morning we were up and at it again, stopping by the geothermals we had missed, including the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring and the hot springs surrounding it.

There were a million more trails we could have hiked and more vistas to see, but there were still a thousand more miles between us and home and a whole lot more country to see.  So we headed south, crossing over the Continental Divide again, and following the Lewis River out of Yellowstone.

And the elk gave us a last fabulous farewell.

Thank you, elk.  Thank you, Yellowstone.

Happy Birthday, America. The Other Side.

Posted on | July 17, 2016 | 2 Comments

We spent the night in Cut Bank, Montana, in the Glacier Gateway Inn and we felt the chill of changing elevation.  Oh, sure, we shivered a bit in the Windy City—the sidewalks of Michigan Ave can be heavily shaded by the towering buildings and serve as a perfect wind tunnel for lake breezes.  But this was the crisp cold and cutting wind that dropped temperatures in the 40’s at night.  In mid-June.  Brrrr.

Despite the chill, Cut Bank seemed familiar to us.  Like many of the small towns we had already passed through, it was just a few square blocks of businesses and homes, taking up only about a square mile.  Cut Bank had more people than we saw in some small towns, and a national chain grocery store, probably because it was the county seat.  At home, our downtown area consists of the post office, the feed mill, the Ruritan Club, and a neighborhood grocery that still uses price stickers.  Price stickers, people, not UPCs.  But on either side of our small town is a small town that is just a bit bigger.  And 15-20 miles on either side of those towns are big towns that have every national chain store imaginable.

In Cut Bank, Montana the closest small town isn’t any bigger and a big town is way more than 15-20 miles away.  Same with Arena, Wisconsin and Ansley, Nebraska and Buffalo, South Dakota and Bowman, North Dakota.  We actually missed the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site because after passing through Rochester and Springdale, Iowa, (which I only knew were towns because the speed limit dropped to 35 MPH) the GPS directed me to a dusty two lane road though a cornfield.  I stopped the car at the edge of the cornfield and said, “Nope.  That isn’t right.”  I stayed on the “highway”  (such as it was) and missed the town of West Branch and Herbert Hoover’s homeplace.  The kids lost a lot of sleep over that mistake, I can tell you.

If we arrived in a small town early enough, Pretty and I left the boys at the hotel while we headed out to search for a store with fresh fruit and salad greens for the cooler.  Many mornings I cruised the town at 6 am in search of laundromat or a cup of coffee while everyone still slept.  And the small towns were so much like ours.  Left behind by an industry—mining or textiles, dairy or farming— and barely hanging on with tourism or niche products or just sheer perseverance.  Some of them had redeveloped downtowns with cute storefronts or were surrounded by a sprinkling of expensive vacation homes; many had a railroad that rumbled behind smaller cottages and backstreets with dilapidated trailers.  The town slogans varied but Cut Bank’s tag line “Where the Rockies Meet the Plains” was right on the money:

Because one minute we were driving into the cool mist and admiring the green fields and wide open sky….

and then the fog cleared and there were the mountains.

On through the Blackfeet Nation, Browning, and Starr School the mountains rose to meet us….

until we finally got out at Glacier National Park, St Mary’s entrance and the visitor center.

As soon as we got out of the van we started piling on the layers I had so carefully packed for Glacier National Park.  All spring we had been monitoring the plowing progress of Going-to-the-Sun Rd and it only opened completely 3 days before we arrived.  To get an idea of the conditions before that, the NPS posted their epic plowing pictures of 2016.  I hadn’t planned on the wind being strong enough to almost blow Little away and no one except Big had packed a hat or gloves (I knew I should have done that myself!) but I still felt good when we strolled up to the ranger’s desk with my printout of the trails at Glacier.  I asked him if the visitor center had a bigger trail map and if he had any hike recommendations for a one day trip along Going-to-the-Sun Rd.  He smiled politely, pulled out a free trail guide, and started highlighting some sections.

“Well, I wouldn’t call these hikes as much as places you can get out and look around, but I think they would work for you.”

“Oh,” I said.  ”We’re going to hit the trail at Logan Pass and hike to Hidden Lake for lunch.  I just wondered about any other ideas.”

At this point the ranger looked up from the map.  He took in my family with sweatshirts pulled on over our t-shirts.  And workout pants on over our shorts.  And 1 hat.  He smiled gently.

“Where are you from?” he asked.


“Um,…North Carolina.”

He nodded like that was exactly what he was thinking.

“There’s snow at Logan Pass,”  he said.  Not really suitable for….” he leaned over the desk and peered at our feet.  ”….sneakers.”

I smiled back politely, thanked him for the map and we went on our way.  Because obviously he didn’t realize we weren’t those kind of North Carolinians.  We were prepared.  We had layers.  We were going hiking.  And we did just fine our first hike at Sunrift Gorge.

The trail goes along a beautiful stone path and tunnel….

and leads into the woods, following the river as it rushes through the gorge.

The water at Glacier was so clear that even in the rapids you could see the brightly colored stones underneath.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

As we progressed into the forest we reached a section of burned trees that still smelled of smoke and left black smudges on your hands if you brushed against the tree trunks.

But wildflowers reveled in the sunlight….

and a woodpecker drilled for what I can only guess were grilled insects.

There is something magical about wandering among wildflowers and birds so different than the ones at home.  As we traveled I saw mountain bluebirds, black-billed magpies, red winged blackbirds, and western meadowlarks in every other tree and bush but I couldn’t name a single one until I got back to the hotel and Google.  At Glacier, in the place of a nuthatch or downy woodpecker, there was a Three-toed Woodpecker, going about his business calmly despite our pointing and exclamations.  It’s a simple joy to see something so common to others yet so completely new to yourself.  To see Queen Anne’s lace and phlox replaced with fireweed and bear grass.  To step into an entirely new world that has always been there, just waiting for you to arrive.

On the other side of a log bridge….

we found Baring Falls….

and began the hike back to the car, the kids peeling off layers and complaining about how hot they were as we went along.  I shook my head as I thought about the ranger at the visitors center.  Can’t hike in sneakers.  From North Carolina.  Please.  We were just fine.  Exactly as I planned.

Until we reached Logan Pass.

The Continental Divide.

Elevation 6646 ft.

Oh, and about 6′ of snow on the ground.

On June 20th.

This was the trailhead to Hidden Lake.  Where other people were putting on skis and where we settled for snowball fight instead of a hike through 6′ of snow.  In sneakers.

We also admired the ground squirrels foraging on the defrosted ground around the visitors center.  Imagine squirrels that stay on the ground and not on your birdfeeder.  Nicely done, Glacier, nicely done.

We ate lunch at a pull out along the road and admired the view.

Of course I had to admire the view while sitting still.  Because once I was driving on the narrow curving road with only a 2′ high decorative barrier to prevent me from driving off a cliff, I had to concentrate.

There were lots of helpful waterfalls splashing all over the road to make it slippery and even more scary.

And we saw what was left of Jackson Glacier.  Although, the remaining snowcap made it hard to differentiate from its surroundings.

We made our way down the mountains to the Trail of the Cedars but the traffic was so heavy we weren’t able to park.  That turned out to be an excellent break for us.  Further down the road we turned off onto MacDonald Rd, right before the campgrounds, and discovered another trailhead leading to MacDonald Falls.  There we found our own amazing section of cedars and a trail carpeted with moss and pine boughs.

And we had it all to ourselves.

The trail led right along the ice blue river….

to the top of the falls.

With lots of easy access to slip and slide to your death over the falls if you, or your young children, chose to do so.

I’m surprised that Glacier National Park isn’t as much of a household name as Yellowstone or Yosemite.  The park is breathtaking and there are a million opportunities to get off the Going-to-the-Sun Rd and into the interior of the park.  I mean, as long as you have skis.  Or come in July.  End of July.

Either way, we had now crossed over both the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.  We were truly on the other side of our country.  And we celebrated by leaving the wilderness and heading for town.  We made a brief pit stop in Spokane to eat at Frank’s Diner.

And an even briefer stop at a gas station to fill up.  Because while The Other Half was pumping gas, a car pulled up beside us and a gentleman got out, pulled the tourniquet off his arm, yanked the needle out of his vein, and politely tossed all his “medical” debris into the trash receptacle before heading inside the store.  Yikes.  Welcome to the city.  But just a few hours further down the road was a place we’d all been talking about since we started planning our trip.

Hello, Seattle!

We hit the Space Needle first, of course, for views of the city and Mount Rainier….

and the Cascades off in the haze.

We wore our feet out hitting all the tourist spots.  We did a walking tour  of Pioneer Square.

Strolled through Post Alley.

We bypassed the line at the original Starbucks….

and headed for Pike Place Market.

The Other Half and I had our heart set on fresh fried fish for lunch from one of the many vendors.

But 2 of the kids swore they did not want fish and so we settled for a sit down restaurant that overlooked Victor Steinbrueck Park and had a variety of choices.  All of the children ordered salmon burgers.  You know, because they didn’t want fish for lunch.  This is why people travel without their children.

We made it through ChinaTown, past Union Station, and along the waterfront until we finally came to the Seattle Seahawks Stadium.  Which was Middle’s main reason for wanting to get to the west coast.  Mission accomplished.

By the time I finished walking us all over Seattle, everyone was wiped out.  But I had saved a special surprise for my tired tourists.  I had been saving for a ride on the Seattle Duck Boats–a gimmicky yet classic tour through town and into Lake Union.  At $35 each it was an extravagance but I thought they had earned the rest.  When we lined up for tickets, though, we discovered the boats went over exactly the same territory that we had just walked.  And when one of the tour boats went by with a tour guide enthusiastically blowing on a duck decoy into a microphone, the kids politely declined.  So we settled for some high priced coffee instead and left most of the family at the hotel before me, Pretty, and Little struck out for Redondo Beach.

It’s surprisingly far from Seattle to the Pacific Ocean.  There’s a lot of little bays and inlets in the way.  Redondo Beach sits on one of these inland waterways and is a cute little town with a pier….

a boardwalk and a beach.  An itty bitty beach, but a beach.  Kind of.

Regardless, it was a nice place to relax after a long day and admire all the waterfront homes built into the hillsides.  But the next day we were up for the real thing.  The place I had come 3,000 miles to see.

It took us 2 hours to reach the Westport Maritime Museum and the very busy fishing fleet at Westport Marina.  Unfortunately, there were no seals or sea lions sunbathing on the docks and the museum was closed, leaving us with only the outside exhibits to explore.

But that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for anyway.  A few miles away at Twin Harbors State Park was exactly what I was looking for:

The Pacific Ocean.

I never thought I’d see the Pacific Ocean.  I didn’t stay awake at night worrying about it, but standing with my toes in the west coast sand still seemed like something worthwhile.  After all, the Atlantic Ocean and I are pretty good friends, why not the Pacific?  And getting from one side of America all the way to the other is one hell of an accomplishment.  Especially when it’s with 6 people trapped in 1 vehicle.  Trust me, there were 6 of us.  One of us is just behind the camera.  And one of us was forced to be in the picture.  Guess which one.

On that particular day in June the Pacific Ocean was offering up its own free souvenirs.  Turns out we must have just missed a bad storm because the beach was littered with sand dollars.  Hundreds of them were washed ashore.

Along with scores of the by-the-wind sailors.  The little blue jellyfish stranded above the high tide line.

I’ve mentioned before that free souvenirs are a mixed bag.  It looked like an entire colony of sand dollars was lost, but that left us with an entire beach full of perfect sand dollars, their cilia dried and washed away, their endoskeletons bleached in the sun.

Pretty and I made our way to a large structure down the beach, gathering sand dollars and interesting pieces of driftwood as we went along.

Turned out to be a shelter built of driftwood, circling a fire pit with lots of interesting chairs and couches cobbled together.

I’m not gonna lie.  It felt good to sit in the sun with an ocean breeze in my hair, sand in my toes, and a sweatshirt full of sand dollars.  I knew me and the Pacific would make great friends.  And if this is how the other side lives then the livin’ is good, people.  The livin’ is good.

Happy Birthday, America. Following the Buffalo.

Posted on | July 14, 2016 | No Comments

The next morning I left my family sleeping and ate breakfast at the State Game Lodge, where President Calvin Coolidge and his family spent their summer in 1927.

I warned the waitress that 4 kids would be stumbling in eventually and then started on my first cup of coffee as I tried to get a handle on our first week on the road.  It wasn’t just that I had failed to pack enough water for a 2 hour hike.  I also couldn’t decide what to put in my travel journal—did I want to include the temper tantrums and petty moments?  When I looked back would I want honesty or just smiles and sweetness?  I had brought a series of audiobooks on Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln and the Mississippi River to listen to in the car but right now we were working our way through a fiction book on zombie apocalypse and a nonfiction on the secrets of Area 51.  What kind of a parent does that?

I felt bad I had not forced everyone to go on last night’s wildlife loop because now some of us didn’t get to see the buffalo.  But at the same time I knew we needed some space and time away from each other at the end of the day.  Having to do everyone’s laundry every 3 days while on “vacation” was bugging me and our visits to the national parks had an alarming factor that I hadn’t prepared for at all.  While I read up about bears and bugs and hot springs, no one mentioned all the cliff edges and precipices.  Almost all of the impressive views we’d seen and trails and roads we traveled just dropped off into nowhere without any warning.  No fences, no guard rails—just fall or drive off the mountain whenever you feel like it.  It was stressful keeping en eye on 3 kids bouncing around and ahead and behind while also keeping track of Pretty, the family photographer, and her attempt to get as close to death as possible.

Since it is important to take good care of the person taking care of everyone else, I decided it was time for some self-love.  I ordered the cheese and veggie omelet with extra homefries and the sourdough toast.  Because wheat toast is not self-love at all.  And I told the waitress to keep the cream coming because black coffee is for haters.  Eventually Pretty rolled in with her own journal and we sat quietly in the historic lodge as other tourists arrived and the room slowly filled up.  The boys staggered in and we sampled the blueberry pancakes and biscuits and more homefries.  By my fifth cup of creamy, sugary coffee (in my defense they were small, fancy, dainty cups), everyone was up and ready to go and I felt better about things.  After all, we were on a 3 week vacation across the country.  It wasn’t easy being Captainess of my crew but we were on a 3 week vacation.  Enough said.

Everyone knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day so I’m giving the breakfast at the State Game Lodge credit for what we saw as we packed up and left the lodge, headed for Iron Mountain Road.  There they were, an entire herd of buffalo slowly making their way across the road as they munched their own breakfast.

The herd was filled with young calves.

Some of them so close that we could have reached out the window and touched them.

I mean, we could have touched them if we wanted trouble with these guys.  Which we didn’t.  We did not want trouble.  Just looking, sirs, no touching.

The buffalo escorted us out of the park.

Mostly because we could not get around them even if we wanted to.  No passing, people.  No passing.

Once out of the park we made a stop at the Museum @ Black Hills Institute.  Before our trip we watched the documentary Dinosaur 13.  Back in Chicago we saw Sue, the T-Rex, at the Field Museum, but now in South Dakota we were going to see where the controversy started.  The museum is small but is packed full of fossils.

And although the museum lost Sue, they now have Stan, the largest and most complete T Rex.

The staff was helpful, jumping in to answer questions and point out exhibits.  The museum is well worth the stop and is nestled in the little town of Hill City which had other tourist stores and restaurant and activities, too.  From there we headed to Medora, North Dakota.  It was beautiful country….

but flat was back….

Except for, um…. that…thing.

In Medora we entered Theodore Roosevelt National Park and took the Scenic Loop Drive.  We hiked down into the Painted Canyon which was similar to what we had seen in the South Dakota Badlands.

Except there was a lot more brush and greenery among the rock formations.

The usual suspects were there.  Prairie dog towns that stretched to the horizon.

Mule deer.


But we did see wild horses for the first time.  I think they were wild horse.  If not, someone’s fence is down.

Then we pushed on for Montana and Great Falls where we visited the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail and Interpretive Center.  Just like we spent a lot of time crossing the trails of the wagon trains headed out west, we also crossed many parts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition pathway.  The Center details the expedition’s difficult portage of the 5 waterfalls of the Missouri River as well as the rest of the their 8,000 mile journey.

Before the trip I expected a lot of National Parks propaganda about the early explorers and the white settlers.  But like the other museums we visited, the Center spent a lot of time explaining the Indian cultures that were present before the explorers arrived and how instrumental the Indians were in their successful passage.  Is it enough?  Probably not.  Is it a fair and complete story?  I doubt it.  But the story of the Native Americans, the explorers, the settlers, and, eventually, the National Parks is long and complicated, full of controversy and conflicting interests.  The extensive exhibits on Native American life and culture are, at least, a beginning.

From the Center we took the riverside trail to Giant Springs which was used by the Blackfeet as a source of fresh water during the winter months and documented by Lewis and Clark in 1805.  The water can be seen bubbling up from the rocks underneath its crystal clear waters.

From there it overflows into the Roe River and eventually the Missouri River.

We just beat the rain back to our car but before we arrived at our hotel we were treated to this:

I took it as a good sign for what was ahead.  And I vowed every morning should start with extra cream and sugar coffee.   Why mess with a good thing once it’s going, people?  Why?

Happy Birthday, America. This Is What We Came For.

Posted on | July 13, 2016 | 1 Comment

If there’s one piece of advice that I can give you about visiting the National Parks, it is this:

Do NOT start with the Badlands.

Maybe it’s because we had been driving for so long and come so far, surviving stinky feet, bad gas (not the kind that you get at a gas station) and eating Goober Grape sandwiches in the backseat.  It could be because the Badlands are so open and accessible and the kids can disappear up the trails as soon as their feet hit the ground.

But probably it is because the Badlands are exactly what we came for—-so different, so foreign, so “other.”  We have forests and water falls and mountains and beaches in our state.  But this….

no, we do not have this.

We drove the Badlands Loop Rd, stopping for hikes and overlooks.

The Saddle Pass Trail is a hike straight up into the steep crags that was originally used as a shortcut for settlers to reach the town of Interior.  We were hiking it backwards, starting at the Interior side and headed for the lands where the settler built their homes.

It says something about the life of early settlers that climbing through this terrain was considered a “shortcut.”  You know, an easier, quicker way.

Only when we reached the other side did we realize the Badlands was such a study in contrasts.  For up there, the burning heat and the stark crumbly rock walls gave way to cool breezes and a green ocean, dotted with pronghorn, rolled away into the horizon.

Turns out coming down is much quicker as the loose scree on the trail allows you to jog down quickly, relying on dumb luck and youthful balance and energy to keep from slipping and falling.

Unless you opt for the more careful, safe, and ever graceful crab walk.  For those of us who are old, without youthful balance and energy, and want to have all our limbs intact for hiking Yellowstone.

On the Fossil Exhibit trail we found an abundance of bunnies nibbling on the tufts of grass.

We also met the first of many tourists that did not follow the National Park rules.  Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the tourists were given a copy of the rules as they entered the park.  Or if the rules are posted at the entrance to the trail.  Or if the rules are listed on the many signposts along the trail.  We even tried making loud, disgusted comments about tourists that don’t follow the rules in their non-compliant presence.  And directly telling other tourists that they were violating park rules.  All to no avail.   These particular tourists brought their dogs onto the Fossil Exhibit Trail where they promptly chased off all the adorable bunnies.  Despite the signs explicitly stating “No Dogs on Trail”.  The National Park service is seriously considering limiting or placing visitor caps on the National Parks and I know exactly which tourists need to get bounced first.

We made our way through Burns Basin, and the Ancient Hunters Overlook, and the Yellow Mounds.  The majority of the Badlands had interesting red and grey striations in the the rock formations….

but the Yellow Mounds had their own distinct color.

We made the Pinnacles just as the light started to fade.

But we weren’t the only ones headed there….

The bighorn sheep were on their way to their sleeping spots for the night.  Some of them had closer, and less precarious, sleeping spots….

than others.

We stayed at the Pinnacles for along time.  Until the sun was gone….

and the sheep were just silhouettes with the mountaintops all to themselves.

So you’re probably wondering why, after such an amazing day, I don’t suggest making the Badlands the first National Park stop on a family trip out west.  After all, the Badlands remained everyone’s favorite park, despite everything we saw after it.  For the rest of the trip, we hiked to rock formations, sat beside waterfalls, and wandered among pronghorn and said,  ”Cool.  I mean, it’s not the Badlands, but….cool.”  So maybe save the Badlands for last.  Just to make the trip to Mount Rushmore a little more worth it.  Because we spent the night in Wall, South Dakota and filled up on homemade doughnuts before heading for Keystone.

And when we got to Keystone we stood at the base of Mount Rushmore and thought that it was a lot smaller than we expected.  And we said, “Well, it sure isn’t the Badlands, but, you know, it’s cool.”

We got well acquainted with Mount Rushmore as we stayed in the adjoining Custer State Park, where Mount Rushmore could be seen from a million angles.

Along the road….

through tunnels….

through trees….

from far away….

and, sometimes, right, overhead.

At Custer we had our first hiking fail.  We set off on the trail to Little Devil’s Tower with 6 bottles of water and a backpack full of snacks.  Since it was late afternoon I figured whining for food would ensue as soon as we were at the top.   I was right about the whining.  But after a torturous ascent, everyone was complaining about the lack of extra water.  Turns out when it’s 90 degrees and all uphill, no one wants peanut butter crackers or almond granola bars.  But a few (like 10) more bottles of water would be appreciated.  There was also complaining about the view.  Because we had  no idea which rock was Little Devil’s Tower.  We saw this:

and this:

And everyone panted, thirstily and said, “Well, it sure isn’t the Badlands, is it?”

We hiked down into the shelter of the pines and to the base of the Cathedral Spires to the accompaniment of a bull elk bellowing through the woods.

I assured everyone we could refill our bottles at the Spires trailhead bathrooms.  Too bad the bathrooms consisted of a hut over a hole in the ground without any running water.  Which made us finally abandon the woods and set out on foot down the Needles Highway.  There might be little bit of shame in leaving the rugged trail for the smooth easy path of the pavement.  But it did give us an excellent close-up view of the Eye of the Needle.

And we got to stop traffic, making the cars wait, in order to pass through the tunnel.  With so many vehicles present, we thought about trading the passengers our peanut butter crackers for water, but that seemed even more shameful than walking on the road.

Thank goodness when we arrived at Sylvan Lake we found the hotel ice in our car cooler had melted into chunks just the right size for making bottle after bottle of ice water.  The crowds of swimmers and boaters had dissipated during our hike and we had the still, cold, blue water almost to ourselves for soaking our hot, tired feet.

The whiniest were left at Custer State Park Game Lodge to veg out in front of electronics while the rest of us took advantage of the approaching dusk to drive the Wildlife Loop.  We were rewarded with birds….

prairie dog towns,…

mule deer….




and, then, in a moment that finally struck the Badlands from our thoughts, we came across a hillside of bison.  Bison in the wild.  Enough bison that if we sat in the approaching darkness and listened to the wind make its way through the grass, we could almost imagine what it used to be like.  And that is what we came for.

We slept well that night.  And Custer State Park started to give the Badlands a run for the money.

Happy Birthday, America. In The Middle.

Posted on | July 11, 2016 | 2 Comments

We woke up in Dubuque, Iowa and hit the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium for the day.

The museum was good for a brief explanation of Indian tribes that lived in the area, the first explorers and settlers that arrived, and the Mississippi River’s animal life and ecosystem.  There’s a steamboat to tour and an outdoor nature walk.  But for us, the best part was the animals.  The eagles and hawk were being fed when we arrived and they put on quite a show with lots of excited activity and raucous calls.  We’ve seen raptors plenty of times but never heard the range of vocalizations that we heard that day as their handler prepared their food.

The otters were swimming, diving, and kanoodling.

There was an octopus that likes to rise to top of the tank and splash visitors.

And one of the guides was insistent we stay to see the paddlefish feeding.   Which was odd because the paddlefish didn’t look like much….

until the food arrived and their mouths fell open.  Wide, freaky, open.

After the museum we had our first long drive in the car.  It was 5 hours to our next stop in Omaha, Nebraska which would put us almost in the middle of the country.  It was a long 5 hours and there was nothing to see until the first of the windmills appeared on the horizon.

We would become accustomed to these monstrosities as we headed west but the first few were shocking to see. Their size is tremendous.  After the trip I checked out a documentary called Windfall and learned that the windmills are 40 stories high with 130′ blades that weigh 7 tons and spin at 130 miles per hour.  They are so sleek and so jarring in the landscape that they seem like alien lifeforms and they increased in number and frequency as we headed west.

We made a stop in Boys Town , which no one in my family except me had ever heard of.

I checked out the movie with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney before the trip but we never got a chance to watch it.  So the kids were mystified as to why I wanted to stop at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere.  But since we were driving through town we stopped, checked out the small visitors center, and did the audio tour in our car.   The grounds, buildings, and neighborhood homes were lovely.  The story of Father Flanagan was inspirational and even the work done by the institution with children and families today is impressive.  But it was also very, very quiet.  With lots of cops.  Police car after police car cruised through the empty streets (The town has its own police, fire, and post office).  We didn’t see a single child until we were leaving and then it was 2 boys who skateboarded by slowly on the sidewalk, staring at us.  We were mystified.  It was early evening on a summer day.  School must be out, dinner over, where were the kids?  The families?  Instructors?  Anyone??  The kids thought it was creepy and I agreed that it all seemed a little Stepford-ish.  But no one in my family had never heard of The Stepford Wives. Apparently in addition to more traveling, my family needs a little more popular culture.

The best part of Omaha, though, was Jack & Mary’s Restaurant.  We kept to our vow of not eating fast food and for the entire trip we either ate sandwiches out of the cooler in the car or heated up prepacked microwave meals in the hotel room when we were on the road.  That way, we had money to eat at local restaurants or try regional foods when we were in town.  So we settled in at Jack &  Mary’s to try the “best onion rings in Omaha.”  And they were great onion rings!  But we really enjoyed the operating hours sign on the door.  Living in a small town, we were very familiar with finding our local stores and restaurants closed during what seemed like normal business hours.  We’ve seen storefronts locked even when the sign says they are supposed to be open and we’ve seen plenty of stores with a note stuck to the door saying the owner will be right back.  Jack & Mary’s made no bones about the often random hours of local businesses in small towns.  Right on the front door it stated that they were open “Monday -Thursday 11am- close.”  Because they close when they’re closed. And that’s all you need to know.

We slept in Kearney, Nebraska and went to the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument first thing in the morning.

This area of Nebraska is known as the stopping point for Sandhill Cranes during their spring migration in March and April.  We were there, though, to visit the Archway museum which commemorates the convergence of the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail near Fort Kearny.  The museum is great for families—when you enter you’re given a set of headphones to wear and pointed up the escalator to the beginning of the trail.

Once inside, the headphones pick up the dialogue for the room and change as visitors move along markers on the path.  It follows the push of settlers (for land, gold, or religion) out west and explains the journey in their own words—collected from journals and diaries.  Everyone could move along at their own pace, taking in as much as the exhibit as they wanted before moving on or doubling back and the headphones would adjust automatically (magic!).  The exhibits were life-size with great sound effects and background screen that could reflect sunrise or a starry night or the lightning flashes of storms.  It was a great introduction to the westward migration and throughout our trip we would cross a lot of the areas we learned about at the Archway.

Even better, it discussed the transition of the trail as the stagecoaches, then the Pony Express, then the telegraph, then the railroad changed the way America connected to the west coast.  It even covered how the trail became the Lincoln Highway, linking Americans to the newly created national parks….

and eventually becoming Interstate 80 which was what we traveled through most of the state.  The Archway actually runs over the highway and has a viewpoint where you can see Americans traveling the same path that was traveled for a hundred years before them, just a whole lot faster!

After we left the museum, we hit Broken Bow, Nebraska and got on the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (via Rte 2).  There’s a free tiny visitor center which had some maps as well as a history of cattle ranching and wildlife in the area.  Out back was a windmill that drew up fresh drinking water which we were invited to use.  The landscape was dotted with these small windmills providing water for livestock so for inquiring minds (like Big) it was great to see up close and examine the working parts and their functions.   For others (like me) it was cool, fresh water that came up from the ground without having to use a hand pump.

The Sandhills are the largest grass covered sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere and cover the nation’s largest underground water supply.  When we got out at the visitor center all we could hear was the swishing of the grass in the wind and the profuse twitter of birdsong throughout the brush.  For the 68 miles of the byway that we traveled, this is what we saw:

And, for the first time, I understood, I mean, really understood the size of America.  Where fields and hills can roll along with nothing but grass and birds all the way to the horizon.  The middle is a big, big place.

The last stop in Nebraska was Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t get to see any of the bison or elk herds but we did discover our first prairie dog town.

There was a great easy 30 minute hike down to Fort Falls and returning along the river banks, although we did pick up our first out-of-state ticks as free souvenirs.  Which reminded why I hated free souvenirs.

We gave the resident horses some nose scratches….

and headed for South Dakota.  We knew we were close because the landscape was changing.  The plains were giving way and something big and bad was just up ahead….. (to be continued)

Happy Birthday, America. Going Back.

Posted on | July 10, 2016 | No Comments

I went to college in northern Indiana and Chicago, Illinois so I knew when the land started getting flat that we were getting close.

We stopped in Springfield to see The Simpsons the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. We’ve already seen the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and this site seemed like a nice addition.  The tour is free, led by a National Park ranger, and includes the house that Abraham and Mary Lincoln lived in for 25 years with their children.

In addition to the home being the original structure, a large number of items in the home are the actual pieces used by the Lincoln family, not reproductions.  It’s an odd feeling to see the rooms and the furniture where Lincoln and his family lived their daily lives—-such an intimate view that reminds all of us that extraordinary people are sometimes people just like us.

Several blocks surrounding the Lincoln home include the restored  homes of the the Lincolns’ neighbors and the entire area is a lovely and peaceful respite from the busyness of downtown.  Which was good because once we soaked up the tranquility, we headed for Chi-Town.  The kids have never been to such a big city and never seen any of the Great Lakes and Chicago did not disappoint them.  The Blues Festival was going on in Grant Park and Americas’ Cup was finishing up at Navy Pier.  We took in all the tourist sights like the Bean (Cloud Gate)….

and Buckingham fountain.

We played in Millennium and Maggie Daley park….

and strolled along Lake Michigan to visit T-Rex Sue at The Field Museum (because she figures later in our trip).

We stuffed ourselves on deep dish pizza at Navy Pier and enjoyed the Crystal Gardens….

walked the Miracle Mile and had drinks at the Signature Lounge in the John Hancock Tower….

and got a great pic of the boys at the MCA plaza in a sculpture by Alexandre da Cunha.  Don’t worry.  You’re allowed to climb on it.  Probably.  Maybe.  Eh?

It was a busy day with lots to see, lots to do, and lots and lots of walking.  Which, really, is exactly the way it is to live in Chicago.  Chicago remained the kids’ favorite city, even after the others we would see on our trip.  Chicago is tricky like that.  She woos you with the sound of jazz as you saunter on LakeFront Trail.  Impresses you with bright lights and magnificent buildings.  Promises you ice cream on the riverwalk after a day of culture.  Then come the lakefront effect snowstorms in October and the honeymoon is over.  Yeah, I remember you well, Chicago.

After all that big city excitement it was wonderful to head into the rolling green hills of Wisconsin.  We crashed in Madison and in the morning while the males were all still sleeping, Pretty and I slipped out with cups of coffee to view the Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

If you’re ever in the Madison area, the Olbrich Gardens have some beautiful outdoor gardens that are free to the public.  We had the place mostly to ourselves except for a plethora of adorable chipmunks scampering around the trails.  The plantings….

and ponds….

and fountains were amazing.

Plus, an incredible cottonwood tree that dwarfed Pretty and left its telltale fluff all throughout the gardens.

Once the rest of the crew was up and ready we headed to House on the Rock.

We went for the Highlight Experience which allowed us to view 2 sections of the sprawling home.  It started out with Japanese gardens and water features leading into cozy rooms hidden in nooks and crannies.

There were a huge number of automatic music machines that played by themselves.  Their tinkling could be heard all throughout the home and went from small ones tucked into alcoves….

or picture frames….

to entire rooms.

The self-guided tour booklet explained that the house was kept dark in many rooms to show off the large collection of stained glass features.

So it was relief to step into the light of the Infinity Room.  If you consider it a relief to be in a narrow glass room that stands 156 feet over the forest floor.  That sways when you walk on it and made a surprising cracking sound when Little jumped onto the ledge for a photo, causing me to run back to the house while everyone laughed at me.

Oh, doesn’t look scary?  Well, to give you a better idea, when we left the house we stopped at an overlook off the grounds to eat lunch.  From there, you can see the Infinity Room jutting off the house.  It’s the kind of thing you only want to see after you’ve walked in it.  Not before.

After the Infinity Room it was back inside to the dark Streets of Yesterday, filled with very old, very creepy automatic moving toys filled with skeletons and devils.  Although my fortune from Ms.  Esmerelda was spot on.  Because as she said “You are straight forward, just, inquisitive, and shrewd.  Very much attached to your own opinions and determined to have your own way at any cost.”  It’s like she knows me!  Or like The Other Half slipped her a fiver while complaining that I am a bossy, road trip Nazi.

The Heritage of the Sea room had a whale and octopus sculpture that was 4 stories tall, intricately detailed, and really just astounding.  A ramp wove its way around the piece, with seafaring artifacts lining the walls, so that you could see everything up close including the rowboat captured in the whale’s mouth, the seagulls hanging from the ceiling, the giant eye of the octopus, the frothy 2 story waves, and the barnacles encrusting the whale’s sides.

There’s much, much more in the House on the Rock.  The 2 sections that we walked through took us over 2 hours.  All the tours, though, end with the famous carousel.  Where all of the darkness and creepiness and fantastical-ness of the House on the Rock merge into the largest indoor carousel, with over 20,000 lights, whirling amidst a ceiling of mannequin angels, and tinkling music.

And not a single creature on the carousel is actually a horse.

Because carousels with horses are for boring houses.   And after the House on the Rock, I was afraid a boring house was what the kids would think of the next house.  Just a few miles down the street is Taliesin.  I wanted to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece but since the shortest tour was 2 hours, was almost $60 per person, and not recommended for kids under 12, I was a bit hesitant.  I settled for the Hillside Studio and Theatre tour which was cheaper and shorter and prepared myself for whiny kids tagging along behind me.  But the tour guide was excellent and the main building, originally being a school house run by Frank Lloyd Wright’s aunts, was actually relevant for the kids.  The space was open and welcoming and the tour guide spent a lot of time explaining the various insignia and mottos throughout the buildings

The dining room was fabulous, we saw architecture students at work in the studio, and even sat in the theatre with its famous curtain.

Not only did the kids tolerate the tour well, they all said they really enjoyed it.  Well done, Frank Lloyd Wright.

We made a quick a stop at Tower Hill State Park (which was just down the street) to see a shot tower from the 1800’s, used to manufacture lead shot.  The steps up the hill were tortuous but Big found it quite interesting, Little tried to throw something down the chute even though there was a sign explicitly forbidding it, and we all felt bad for 22 year old Thomas Shaunce who dug the 120′ shaft by hand.  With that, we left Wisconsin and headed further into the midwest than I ‘d ever been before.  There was no going back now, just going forward into the unknown.  Which didn’t bother these 2 at all.  Mostly because they knew that had a bossy, road trip Nazi in charge to make sure everything ran smoothly.  Just like Ms. Esmerelda said.

Happy Birthday, America. Revelation.

Posted on | July 7, 2016 | 2 Comments

Our first stop in Louisville was Churchill Downs.  Now we are not actually fancy enough people to be fans of horse racing.  As a matter of fact, before the trip I tried to get the kids interested in the Kentucky Derby to no avail.  I talked about elaborate hats and famous horses and Middle just kept asking, “When will we get to the Seattle Seahawks stadium?”   That’s what I’m working with, people.

So back in May I picked up a movie to make the trip to Churchill Downs more meaningful to them.  I tried to get the documentary Thoroughbred: Born to Run , but it wasn’t available at the local library.  Then I hoped to borrow Seabiscuit or Secretariat but the only DVD on famous horses I managed to track down was the Disney flick 50 to 1.  50 to 1 is not Disney’s best work but it is about a redneck who kind of lucks into training a horse that lucks into a Derby run.  Since we can certainly relate to rednecks and occasional dumb luck, it was a good enough choice and it gave the kids some idea about horse racing as well as Churchill Downs and its storied place in the sport.  It was also based on a true story so it counts as a documentary minus the boring parts.

But after driving alongside lush green Kentucky pastures, miles of beautiful white fencing, and expensive horses frolicking in fields, it was a bit surprising to find Churchill Downs in the center of the city surrounded by low end neighborhoods and gravel overflow parking lots.  However, the museum and the tour more than made up for what the location was lacking.

The Kentucky Derby Museum is located on the grounds of Churchill Downs and is as slick and shiny as a jockey’s silks.  The exhibits are very interactive and family-friendly while still passing along a wealth of inside information about the thoroughbreds, horse racing, and the history of Churchill Downs itself.  There’s an excellent 360 degree film which involves a screen surrounding the viewers and seats that swivel to follow the action.  Of course, the interactive video game that allowed visitors to be the jockey in a 3 horse race and compete against other museum attendees was a big favorite.

As an added bonus there were monitors that allowed you to view any of  the previous Kentucky Derby races on a big screen.  So we watched the 2009 race where Mine That Bird, the horse from the movie 50 to 1, ran for the roses and won it all.  Which made all that movie-chasing before the trip worthwhile.  And the displays on Secretariat and Seabiscuit got the kids just interested enough that they may sit though those movies, too, after the trip.

During the Historic Walking Tour we passed through the paddocks and into the grandstands while the tour guide explained about the buildings and box seats, the races, the betting, the Triple Crown, and walked us through the places of the owners, jockeys, and horses on the big day.  We didn’t stay for an afternoon race but during the tour several horses were working out on the track right in front of us so we felt like we still got the experience.

Of course, throughout the tour, in the cafe, and in the gift shop there was a lot of talk about mint juleps.  The Other Half looked confused and asked me, “What is a mint julep?”  I laughed at him for being so uncultured and told him it is a famous Southern drink and is the unofficial drink of the Kentucky Derby.  He asked what was in it and I told him but said I wasn’t sure if it was made with bourbon or whisky.  Then he looked at me funny and told me bourbon and whiskey are the same thing.  Wait, WHAT?  If we were smartphone people I would have asked Siri about that craziness right then.  But it was weeks later when I finally looked it up and discovered that, yes, they kind of are the same thing except bourbon is made in America in a different type of barrel and with a certain percentage of corn.  I had no idea.  I told you horse racing was too fancy for rednecks like us.  Way out of our league, people.  Out of our league.

Speaking of leagues, when we left Churchill Downs we went a couple miles away to see the Louisville Slugger Museum.

I’m not actually a huge baseball fan.  I loved baseball when I was younger—-enjoying college games at my university, going to see the Cubs and the White Sox when I lived in Chicago, even taking in Durham Bulls games when they were an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.  Having a few beers, a couple hot dogs, and chatting in the stands in the summer sunshine deserves to be America’s pastime.  As an added bonus, baseball games are so long and the action so short-lived that I could easily catch up on my friends’ latest news, adventures, and gossip without ever really missing anything on the field.

Based on those fond memories, I thought it was a great idea when The Other Half signed the boys up for baseball.  Too bad that baseball with children is nothing like baseball as a young adult. In the good ol’ days, before heading out to the ball field I had to pick out a cute outfit and do my hair.  Now I had to track down 100 pieces of equipment and 3 baseball uniforms, in various stages of clean, dirty, or still in the washer/dryer, while also trying to pull together a dinner of which only 2 mouthfuls would be consumed before we went out the door, leaving all of the dirty dishes for when we returned, hot, sweaty, and 3 hours late for bedtime.  Once at the ball field I was stranded on the sidelines with whatever child was bored and waiting to play or, even worse, shifting back and forth between fields to watch simultaneous games in progress.  The huge number of players meant my children only got up to bat once or twice and would be weeping if one or both of those at-bats resulted in a strike out.  Never mind the hours they spent in the outfield without ever seeing the ball at all.  Oh, sure, there was plenty of time for chatting in the stands—-if you’re up for endless discussions of team politics and the poor sportsmanship of other parents while a whiny child (your own or one of the other many siblings suffering as a trapped spectator) circles your space, stomping up and down the bleachers, throwing rocks at people, or begging for treats from the concession stand.

They do still have hot dogs but once you’re a parent of 4 children, there are no more discretionary funds for $5 hot dogs.  They don’t, of course, sell beer or liquor, which would go a long way toward making the entire fiasco more bearable.  And the sunshine was nothing more than than another reason to feel guilty for not putting sunscreen on my children and hoping their Hispanic heritage keeps away the skin cancer.  During my third season of baseball, I was huddled in the stands at 9:45pm on a school night and wondering when baseball became such a miserable sport when I had a revelation.

I was not actually a baseball fan!  I just liked getting drunk with my friends!  Aha!  Like Aristotle said, Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.  Which is why I started pushing for soccer at the end of that season.  And I live quite happily now with spring soccer—-a team shirt, 1 pair of shin guards, 4 ten minute quarters, and we’re out of there.  The kids can be home, showered, and in bed by 8 pm and I can be out the door to Moms Night Out soon after that.  A win-win for everybody!

Of course, I realize that this is only my personal experience with baseball.  Plenty of families do just fine with multiple kids on several different baseball teams (gluttons for punishment), my boys probably have their own fond memories of baseball season (crying on the bench sure looked fun!), and baseball has an important place in American history (racism, gambling, steroid use, no wait…).  Besides, since the Louisville Slugger Museum was an actual factory where the kids could learn the process of making a bat and see it being done, the trip counted as more than just a museum for baseball fans.  It was a look at the actual process of making bats for professional athletes.  Not the stadium for the Seattle Seahawks, but still…

It was quickly obvious that I was one of the few Americans parents who had a problem with baseball.  The place was absolutely packed with families!  My kids weren’t too interested in holding bats previously used by famous players or the signature wall.  I made them sit through the 13 minute video about baseball which, in my opinion, was about 11 minutes longer than it needed to be (because they were not serving beer).  The factory tour itself was great—we were just a few feet away from the workers and machines making the bats.  We got to see the templates that are used to make bats to each player’s individual requirements, the burning brand, and the specialty coatings applied by hand.  The guides provided a lot of information about bat construction and, although I winced when we were told that it took 40,000 trees to make one season of bats, the guide insisted that Louisville Slugger owned their own forests that were so well-managed they were never depleted.  I’m sure that’s true.  That’s really true.  That’s true, right?

At first I thought the best part was that each kid got to take a home a mini-Louisville Slugger as part of the tour.  That meant a souvenir that didn’t cost me an extra cent!  Here’s the problem:  if you are only about 500 miles into a 6,000 mile road trip with 4 kids trapped together in a minivan you do not want to arm them with small wooden truncheons.  Just trust me on this.

Our next stop was the Mississippi Overlook and Gateway Geyser in Missouri.  I knew we wouldn’t hit St. Louis until after The Gateway Arch and Visitor Center were closed so we wouldn’t be able to go up the Arch or tour the museum.  But, thanks to the internet, I found out there was a great park directly across the Mississippi river that gave a wonderful view of the Arch and bypassed driving through city traffic.  The park was an absolute gem with a clean bathrooms (you really begin to appreciate this on a long trip), a large grassy field where the kids got out to stretch their legs, and a huge zigzagging ramp (yeah, no stairs!) that led up 43′ to a great view of the Arch.

The viewing platform also has a camera which streams live to their webpage.  So we were able to call my parents, have them log on to the webpage, and see us waving at them in real time with the St Louis arch behind us, while we chatted on the phone.  You can even see what’s going on there right now, any day or time of the week. So you don’t have to settle for our vacation pictures—-you can see the Arch for yourself.

As an added bonus there was a geyser over a little pond on the second half of the park that was due to go off in about 30 minutes.  It didn’t look like much but the sign promised it erupted to 630 ft.

So the kids played some soccer in the park while we waited and it was well worth the wait!

From there we headed for Illinois and as soon as the kids were tucked into their hotel beds (well, 2 in beds, 2 on the floor—redneck style) I went back out to the car.  I found all those mini-Louisville Sluggers, wiped off the bloodstains, hid them in the trunk, and vowed that from that point on we were sticking to postcards as souvenirs!

Happy Birthday, America. In The Beginning.

Posted on | July 4, 2016 | 5 Comments

Yeah, I know.  I was here and then I wasn’t and you probably thought I gave up the garden and the barn and bought a townhome with a pool and an HOA that handles the lawncare.  Don’t think I didn’t consider it after the fiasco that was this year’s sheep shearing.  Otherwise known as Fleece-Mutilation-and-Samantha’s-Big-Escape.  Not to mention the arrival of squash bugs in the garden in by the first week of May.  Which makes me think they were flourishing on the feast of 1,000 baby preying mantises that I released in April.  But the real reason for my radio silence was that I was preparing for our 3 week trip across the country in June.  That included putting the final touches on my travel itinerary, stocking up on food for hotel room meals and hiking snacks, multiple visits to AAA, as well as preparing the barn for our absence.  If you haven’t  prepared a barn and all of its inhabitants for 3 weeks without the farmer, then you’re smarter than me consider yourself lucky.  Very, very lucky.

I started by cancelling kidding season and selling all of my diary does over the winter.  Because it is impossible to prepare a barnful of pregnant and lactating does for a 3 week absence of the farmer.  Impossible.  Leaving them alone for 3 weeks is just begging for deformed kids, exploding udders, and traumatized barn sitters.  It wouldn’t surprise me to come back to my dairy goats after 3 weeks and find the barn sitter curled in a corner, shaking uncontrollably, and muttering about how the goats turned into zombies and ate each other’s brains.  That’s the kind of sh*t that can happen when the farmer leaves a barnful of dairy goats alone for 3 weeks.  For real, people.  For.  Real.  So I sold off the does and just kept a few bucks for breeding purposes.

My next step was the spring shearing of the sheep. So I sheared, skirted and washed the fleece, carded it, and left it in rolags ready to spin when I got home.


Just kidding!  I sheared the sheep and carried those fleeces right down to the rose and azalea beds as mulch.  Because I knew there was no way in h*ll that I had time for anything else.  Plus, I already have a shelf full of fleece that hasn’t been washed or carded yet.  Plus, I had to spend hours chasing down Samantha after she escaped.  Plus, I had to spray the sheep down with Blu-Kote everyday to clean the bloody wounds I left behind after I rushed through shearing with dull shears.  There’s an entire post waiting to be written about this year’s sheep shearing.  When I can bear to think about it again.

With the sheep tortured into submission taken care of, I hauled Bruno and Bella, the livestock guardians, off to the vet for their annual check up and summer flea and tick medications.  Of course, Bruno showed signs of arthritis and needed to start on glucosamine chondroitin pills.  Because it’s easy enough to convince a barn sitter that the 115 lb Great Pyr won’t attack her when she comes in to feed the livestock every day as long as she stays calm and confident.  It’s even easier to convince her to go ahead and just pry open his jaws and drop in a pill every morning.  It was a decent attempt by Bruno to foil my travel plans, but since the barn sitters were already going to have to turn the shock collar for his invisible fence every day to keep the prongs from digging in, I figured they could handle the pill-popping at the same time.  And then they could lock all the fence chains and variety of barriers that we use to keep Bruno contained in the pastures, off the road, and out of the nest boxes in the chicken coop.  Nothing makes your farm operation look more professional than explaining the series of booby traps used to keep the livestock guardian from going on walkabout.

Once the dogs were as prepared as possible, I moved onto the goat bucks.  All of them got a hoof trim and a sprinkle of DE for mites and fleas.  I freshened their minerals and baking soda to prevent any bloating because they were sure to get into something inedible and eat it while we were gone.  Then I set up a large hay rack out of a cattle panel and Pretty helped me haul several tarp loads of hay, filling it to the brim.  Usually I just carry a pitchfork of hay from the big barn to the bucks each morning.  That keeps the hay fresh and stops the chickens from nesting in it, but I wanted to simplify the chores for the barn sitter.   And I figured any nesting hens would produce chicks to replace the ones I was about to release from the back room of the barn.  The Silkie hen and her chicks had been coddled for a few weeks with crumbles and their own chick waterer and protection from the rest of the flock.  But I shooed them out and sighed as one of the chicks promptly stranded itself in the crack of an old pallet.  The odds were against those biddies being alive when I got back.  So a broody hen in the buck hay wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I needed that back room with its feeder and waterer for the turkey.  The turkey is unpredictable with me and aggressive with strangers.  First, I tried to sell him so I wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore, but there were no takers.  My second plan was to catch him, wring his neck, and throw him into the woods for the local coyote population.  Taking the time to butcher him and put up the meat before we left ranked right up there with washing and carding fleece.  I settled for middle ground and tossed him into confinement in the back room of the barn.  With a full bucket of feed and water, someone just needed to check on him every few days.  He would have sunshine, shade, a roost, and plenty of time to think about the transgressions that got him into that room.  And the barn sitters would get to keep their eyes.

There was still more to do—extra cans of feed carried out and filled up with extra bags of grain, leaks in hoses fixed, hay rolls bought and rolled in, water buckets scrubbed free of algae, coop cleaned, etc, etc, etc.  That’s not including the garden which got staked and pruned and and weeded and mulched and a slew of soaker bottles.  2 days before we left I put the mower on its lowest setting and trimmed every blade of grass I could find.  In the process I kicked up a rock into my left eyeball and had to fit in an emergency trip to the eye doctor.  She removed a shard of rock and gave me pain drops and an antibiotic for the abrasions to my cornea.  As well as a lecture on putting the mower on the lowest setting and not wearing eye protection.  The night before we left, Luna came in from the backyard, limping on her left front leg.  I checked for snake bites and, not finding any, gave her an aspirin and informed her firmly that we were going on vacation for 3 weeks.  And none of this nonsense was going to stop us.  She folded and her limp was gone by the time we were up and pulling out of the driveway at 6:30 am the next morning.

So I didn’t have time to write any blog posts in May or June.

I promise to write some flashback posts to the oh-so-enjoyable period of time before we left.  And I already have stories to tell you about what has happened in the barn and garden in the 3 days since we got home.  But, believe it or not, this post is not about the farm and the garden.  It’s about America.  And the trip we took to see it.

With the older kids just a few blinks away from leaving home and the younger kids old enough to travel without strollers and sippy cups, I wanted all of us to see America together.  I mapped out a trip that took us north and west to Washington state and then back through the middle of the country, stopping at national parks and cities along the way.  We’ll do it again next year, getting to California and hitting the southern states on the way home.  In honor of America’s birthday I’m going to make the next few posts about our travel and what we found on our stops.  Because I know nothing is as exciting as someone else’s vacation photos.  But if you care to follow along, you’ll get the benefit of my travel tips without enduring the smell of the minivan, crammed full of the 6 of us.  I did try to anticipate the odor problem by sticking some Febreeze vent clips in strategic locations.  We weren’t even a mile down the road when Little discovered one in the vent by his feet and pulled it out, sniffed it, and asked, “Is this a mint?”

Any parent will tell you that kids start asking for the snacks when they are only 1.3 minutes into a road trip.  Which is odd.  Because how does a child get so hungry after simply climbing into the car, sitting in the seat, and staring out the window for 1.3 minutes?  However, I have never had a child get so hungry in the first few minutes that he wanted to eat the air freshener.  It was our first laugh on the road and an epic beginning to an epic road trip.  So we can thank Little for getting us off to a good start and we managed to keep him from eating anything until we were having Goober Grape sandwiches at our first stop—-Beckley, West Virginia.

Of course,we had no idea that these communities in West Virginia would be so drastically affected by flooding just a week after our visit.  We stopped at the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley to tour the Phillips-Sprague coal mine and see the craggy hills and mountains where the miners scratched out a living. We had watched The Mine Wars and The 33 before our trip.  But nothing prepared us for a ride through the dark, wet tunnels where men spent 10-12 hours a day.  And some still do.

We walked through the reconstructed mining town where the buildings were set into the hillside and the only thing that kept miners and their families out of the mud was the endless zigzagging boardwalk.  When we heard about the flooding, it was suddenly easy to imagine the torrents of water washing through those cuts in the mountains and carrying the towns with it.  And frightening to realize that people were still as susceptible to those dangers now as they were back then.  That, then, is one of the benefits of travel—-it changes a person’s perspective.  What seems foreign and distant one minute becomes familiar and relatable the next.

But that wasn’t the only thing we learned in West Virginia.  For the first time the kids experienced a tour guide whose accent was so unlike their own that they only understood the gist of his presentation.  Sometimes it was hard to know if the mining terms he was using were just unknown to us or if he wasn’t speaking English.  I didn’t mind, though.  I like to think it was revenge for the first few years that I lived in the Carolinas and thought people were asking me for a “pin” when what they really wanted was a “pen.”

We also discovered a discouraging truth that would plague us the rest of the trip.  People have absolutely no smartphone etiquette.  I mean, really, smartphone users are almost unbearable in public.  In an attempt to show us how dark the mines were without the artificial lighting used during the tours, the guide turned off the electricity and lit a carbide lamp that the miners used while working underground.  It took ages to get the full experience because every moron with a cell phone kept lighting up the space with their screens or text alerts or power buttons.  For years I have insisted that technology has made people stupid and dependent.  I would now like to add that technology makes people obnoxious tourists.

Before we left West Virginia we drove to Charleston to see the capitol building.  It was the first of many capitol domes we would see, sometimes up close and sometimes in passing on the road.  Almost every city’s capitol district sported a domed building, although Charleston had some impressive gold leaf.

It also had an impressive river walk along the Kanawha River.  Lovely sidewalks, pretty landscaping, and a view of mansions on the other side of the river.  Too bad it was deserted.  Like a lot of downtown areas, Charleston seemed to have trouble retaining citizens after the fancy government buildings closed and the workers went home at night.  We had vowed not to buy food from a single fast food chain during our trip so we wandered the mix of local diners and renovated apartments stuck between dilapidated buildings and check cashing services around the capitol.  We settled for Starlings Coffee and Provisions which sold me a delightful latte that carried me just fine on through to Kentucky.

We made the Carter Caves in Kentucky just in time for the last tour of the day in the X-cave.  The caves were not a planned stop but one of the many “in case of” venues that I stuck in my itinerary.  These were places we could easily bypass if we were pushed for time but made good fillers if we were ahead of schedule.  It won’t surprise you to learn that these “fillers” ended up being some of the best stops on the trip.  Life is like that.  The universe loves spontaneity and these places were as close to spontaneity as it gets when you are traveling with a Type A control freak.

A brief hike through the woods while waiting for our tour reveled that the area was filled with natural caves and rock formations, ripe for exploring and letting kids scramble around after hours in the car.

There were deer and birds and crayfish in the creek.  Wooden bridges, babbling streams, and shady forest paths.

Inside the cave there were impressive cave formations and we learned tips for distinguishing stalagmites from stalactites and how long it takes for them to form as well as traversing the wet side and then the dry side of the cave where the wind and water flowed in opposite directions.  We also experienced the absolute darkness inside a cave.  (You know, absolute darkness except for the light from the idiots with smartphones.)  And we had our second really hard laugh of the trip from the tour guide.  Once all lights were finally extinguished and we settled into the darkness, she asked how many of us thought we saw shapes or shadows.  Then she explained that we weren’t really “seeing” anything but that in the total absence of light our brain tries to fill in the vision gap by summoning memory of what we saw last.  Those memories are extremely fallible and can result in wandering around in the cave aimlessly despite thinking you know where you’re going.  Then she told us to take one hand with our thumb on our nose and wiggle our other fingers wildly and see if we saw any difference in the darkness.  Of course, she flipped the light switch back on and caught most of us with a hand on our face, fingers wiggling like crazy as if that would someone make us see better in the dark.  Score one for the tour guides!

We made our way to Louisville and crashed for the night.  And I didn’t even bother to call and see if the barn animals were doing OK.  Because, honestly, I plan to pawn off that goat zombie apocalypse as starting on someone else’s farm.

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