Posts Tagged ‘traveling with children’

We are wrapping up Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure, and we have spent around 120 nights in hotels over the past 12 months.  On Leg 1 of our trip we made reservations for each night of the trip before we left home. Now on Leg 5, we are true Road Warriors and usually we do not have reservations until the night before.  Sometimes we find ourselves not knowing which hotel or even which city we are spending the night.  This is the situation we found ourselves as we sat in the parking lot of the Miller Brewery at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.

We had just completed the Miller Brewery Tour and we were scheduled to be in Chicago the next day.  It was 97 degrees outside, so we cranked the a/c in the van and started researching hotels with our iPhones.  One thing we have learned in our travels is that there are a lot of hotels in the Midwest that have indoor water parks.  A quick Google Search of “hotels in Wisconsin or Illinois with water parks” brought us a number of choices.  There is a Great Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin Dells which was a little over two hours away.  A two hour drive is nothing to us these days, but we had been to the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, Texas, a few years ago and we were not overly impressed.  Another option that came up was Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Illinois, only 60 minutes away.  After reading some Trip Advisor reviews and making the call, we were set to go to Key Lime Cove.


As we approached the hotel from the freeway, we could see 4 giant colorful water slides on the outside of the building. (Cue kids’ excitement)  We checked in quickly, dumped our bags in the room, suited up, and then headed down to the water park.

Key Lime Cove has 3 tube slides, 2 body slides, a lazy river, a wave pool, and a huge kid’s play area that features more slides and splash zones.  Since it is completely indoors, no sunscreen was needed. (Cue kids’ excitement again)

The "Tornado Vortex"

The girls riding on the "Tornado Vortex" in a double tube

"Scuba School" was fun for adults & kids alike

Lazy River

Wave pool

The one thing that we could not find at Key Lime Cove was LINES.  On our aforementioned trip to the Great Wolf Lodge, we once stood in line for over an hour to do one tube ride.  At Key Lime Cove our longest wait for a ride was probably around 7 minutes, with the average wait around 2 minutes.

Father and son bonding on a tube slide

The staff at Key Lime Cove were great, especially the life guards.  Everyone seemed truly happy to be working there.  The room was very comfortable and had a laid-back Caribbean theme.  The resort also offered many other amenities (on site restaurants, spa, arcade, kid’s club activities), but we did not have time to take advantage of them.  One of the coolest features was that the hotel wristbands have an RFID chip, allowing it to be used as your room key and charge drinks, etc. to your room while in the waterpark.  No worrying about keeping up with cash or the room key!

Multipurpose wristband

We had so much fun at the waterpark that we chose to stay a second night and make the hour long drive to and from Chicago for our prescheduled boat tour.   Even Mom rode all of the rides, and then proclaimed that Walt Disney was a liar.  She thinks Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Illinois, is the “happiest place on earth”.  If only they had one in Texas!

We love this place!

Don’t miss any of the final moments of the YLA!  See real time updates by liking Year Long Adventure on Facebook.

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Leg 5 of our Year Long Adventure brought us to the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to tour the Miller Brewery.  Being big fans of both factory tours and Miller Lite, this is something we were looking forward to doing.

Welcome to Miller Valley

We started at the Miller Visitor Center and were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only was the tour free, but we were also going to receive free samples at the end of the tour. The tour starts with a short film that tells the story of how Frederik Miller emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1855 and started his brewery.  He bought the Plank Road Brewery and made his first batch of beer with special yeast that he had brought with him from Europe.

The tour is a guided walking tour that covers 4 blocks, taking visitors to various stops around the Miller Complex.  Our guide was energetic and fun, and we learned a lot.  Unlike many of the other factory tours we have taken, visitors are allowed to take photos and/or video at any stage of the tour.

The first stop was the Packaging Center where the beer is put into cans and bottles.  The machines can fill 1400 bottles or 2000 cans per minute.  Long glass windows allow you to look down at the machinery in motion – very cool.

Cans rushing by

We are always amazed at the engineering involved in the factory process, and the Miller brewery did not disappoint.  You can see a short video of the machinery in motion here.

The next stop is the Distribution Center that is the size of 5 football fields and holds nearly 500,000 cases of beer.  Here we learned a little about the merger of Miller and Coors, and also about all the different brands bottled by the two companies.

That is a LOT of beer

Next, the tour takes you across the street to the Brew House.  It is here where the beer is actually made.  It was around 110 degrees in the room.

The tour then heads to the historic caves where Frederik Miller would store his beer to keep it cool.  He would have ice brought in from frozen lakes in the winter to line the walls of the cave, making it the ideal natural refrigerator.

Historic caves

The final stop on the tour is the Beer Garden where each guest over the age of 21 is given the opportunity to sample 3 different beers from the Miller Family.  They also provide lemonade and cokes for kids or anyone who did not want beer.

Happy Anniversary!

It was our anniversary, so we toasted to 14 years of wedded bliss with the free beer and pretzels before we escaped to the air conditioned gift shop.

Our whole family really enjoyed the tour, and we would definitely recommend it if you find yourself in Milwaukee.

It is hard to believe, but our Year Long Adventure is quickly nearing the end.  For up-to-the minute updates, you can follow us on Facebook by liking Year Long Adventure.

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Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 5 – 6 weeks behind reality.

We left Bryce Canyon en route to Arches National Park, one of the “must-see” places on our list when we began planning the Year Long Adventure.  The drive between the two parks was spectacular and varied.  Holding our breath, we traveled on roads with names like “Devil’s Backbone” across high mountain passes, trying to ignore the steep drop offs on both sides.  Dad was able to commemorate his 40th birthday by standing in a field of snow on a mountaintop, a very unique opportunity for a Native Texan born in mid-May.

Celebrating 40 in Utah

The winding road took us through two more National Parks:  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park.  The rock formations were amazing, and the kids were inspired to name each feature they saw.   We arrived in Moab in the early evening, just in time for a quick stop at the Arches Visitor Center before it closed.

We're here!

We gathered Junior Ranger Books and park information so we could plan the best way to use our time the next day.  We did not have a hotel reservation at this point, so we rode down the main drag of Moab, reading hotel reviews on Trip Advisor on our iPhone.  Dad decided to approach the La Quinta Inn Moab with his freshly honed negotiating skills to seek a deal or upgrade, and ended up getting the two room suite for only slightly more than the price of the regular room.  Once you go “suite”, it is hard to go back.  Happy Birthday, Dad!!

We awoke Wednesday morning, hit the breakfast room, and stopped at a grocery store in Moab to get picnic supplies for lunch.  This is an important step when visiting Arches because there is no food sold within the park.  Our excitement started to wane as we approached the park entrance and raindrops began to fall on the windshield.  A quick check of the outside temperature on the dashboard display informed us that it was 48 degrees outside.  Things did not look good for a day at a park that involves a lot of hiking.

Rain, rain, go away!

We took the road into the park as heavier rain started to fall at a faster pace.  Most of the major geologic formations lie along the main park road, a loop with stops at the best viewpoints.  Because there were no Ranger tours available, Mom ran through the rain to purchase a driving tour guidebook.   As we drove, we learned about the geological processes which create these incredible fin, window, and arch formations (simple explanation here), making them even more amazing to behold.

By the time we reached the parking lot for the first big attractions, “Double Arch” and “Turret Arch”, the rain had almost vanished.   Decked out in our rain gear, we quickly hiked the short trail to “Double Arch”.  We were able to climb up directly under the arch and were amazed at the viewpoint.  The size of the immense arches is truly amazing when you are standing close to them.

"Double Arch" from a distance

Underneath the massive "Double Arch"

We then crossed the road for a quick climb to “Turret Arch” and another photo opportunity.  By the time we reached the car, the rain had started to pick up again.  Sadly, this would be the pattern for the rest of the day.

View from under "Turret Arch"

The next hour was spent driving through the rain, looking at the incredible landscapes, and stopping at viewpoints.

Sightseeing in the rain

Taking pictures proved difficult through droplet covered windows and/or driving rain.  It was only raining lightly when we reached the viewpoint for the signature arch of the park, “Delicate Arch”.

Delicate Arch looms in the distance. To hike or not to hike? That is the question.

The viewpoint is still a mile hike from the actual arch, but we decided not to make the trek for a closer look.  This was one of the best decisions we made on the trip as 10 minutes later, the torrential rains came.

Back in the car, we made our way to the end of the main road where the park campsites are located and found some truly hearty souls sitting under their tents in the heavy rain.  The storm broke long enough for Dad and the girls to go search for one last arch, and they were rewarded with a pretty cool site.

The hike to the secret arch

One last arch

On our way back out of the park, the rain stopped a final time, allowing for a quick walk around Balanced Rock.  This is an amazing site where a boulder the size of several school buses balances atop a rock spire.  It is also a great trick photo opportunity.

Balanced Rock

Don't knock it over!

Arches National Park is a beautiful park, but not the best place to visit in the rain.  Moab was a cool little town with a laid back feel to it.  Hopefully we will get the chance to return some day during the dry season to try our hand at more hiking and perhaps river rafting at one of the many nearby sites.

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Leg Three of our Year Long Adventure took us through the Southeast.  One of the unplanned perks of this trip was exploring the campuses of the last five College Football National Champions.  Thanks to the power of the Southeast Conference, they were all pretty close together.

The first stop on our “Tour of Champions” was Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.  Alabama won the 2009 National Championship.  (Editorial Note:  Certain bloggers believe that this only happened due to a game-ending injury to Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy.)  The stadium is right on the edge of the bustling campus.

In a Ring of Honor outside the stadium are statues of each of the head coaches who have won a National Championship at Alabama.  The tribute to Nick Saban is still under construction.

Our “Tour of Champions” continued a few days later in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida Gators.  Florida won National Championships in both 2006 & 2008 through the power of Gatorade and Tim Tebow.

Their stadium is nicknamed “The Swamp” and is also located right on campus.  Our kids liked the tall palm trees and the orange and blue Gator logo.

In Auburn, Alabama, we made our third stop at the home of the Auburn University Tigers.  Auburn is the reigning National Champion of college football having won the title in 2010 under Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.

On the March day that we toured the campus, we were surprised to find the stadium lights on and multiple television satellite trucks at the stadium. It turned out to be Auburn’s “Pro Day” when all of the NFL hopefuls from Auburn were working out for NFL scouts.  Dad missed his chance to show the scouts his blazing speed and ability to “throw a football over them mountains”.  Too bad.  We also visited the hallowed Toomer’s Corner while in town.  Toomer’s Corner is a street corner where students come after Auburn victories and throw toilet paper in two huge oak trees to celebrate the win.

A disturbed Alabama fan confessed to poisoning these trees after the annual Alabama- Auburn rivalry game in 2010. (See story here.) The trees do not look healthy, but there is hope that they can be saved.

Our “Tour of Champions ended in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home of the Louisiana State University Tigers.  LSU won the National Title in 2007 under Coach Les Miles.  This was the hardest of the four stadiums to get close to due to closed roads and construction.

All of these universities have a large student enrollment, huge stadiums, and vibrant campuses that are covered in majestic old trees.  Great coaches aside, the power of these winning teams just might be in these beautiful trees.  Luckily the University of Texas campus has its fair share of trees on the original Forty Acres, so there’s always next year!  Hook ‘em Horns!

You can read more about our adventures at Year Long Adventure on Facebook.

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We spent the last four days traveling up the beautiful Carolina coastlines and our only regret is that the temperature never got above 55.

Our first stop was in Charleston, South Carolina.  We drove through the historic section of the city, marveling at the gorgeous old homes and stopped in their French Quarter for dinner.  We ate seafood at A.W. Shucks, and our 11 year old Allison had her first experience with oysters.  She tried both broiled and fried, and declared that  “the broiled one tasted like a nickel”.  We really enjoyed driving over all of the grand bridges connecting the city and viewing the hundreds of boats docked in the water.  The next morning we continued to explore the area.  On James Island, we found the offices of  “Trademark Properties” owned by Richard Davis and featured on TLC’s “Flip This House”.

Our second stop was a couple hours north at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  We had no idea of what to expect of Myrtle Beach, and what we found was similar to Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard on steroids.

The main road along the beach featured miles of hotels, restaurants, t-shirt shops, and miniature golf courses as far as the eye could see.  Myrtle Beach must be home to the most miniature golf courses per capita in the entire world.  We ate lunch at the Pier 14 Restaurant over the beach.  The food was very good and the view was spectacular.

A walk down the beach after lunch yielded some of the best (and largest) shells we had ever seen.  Needless to say, the kids requested that we take some back to Texas with us.  The beaches were incredible, and we left wishing we could visit on a summer day rather than the 55 degree day with 25 mph winds. It was COLD!

We then headed back to the main drag to play golf at Mt. Atlanticus.

Mom, who is a connoisseur of miniature golf courses, proclaimed this “the greatest miniature golf course ever!”  Challenging multi-story holes (some as high as 75 feet off the ground!) and an over-the-top theme make this course unique.  We played both the “Minotaur” and “Conch” courses and had a fabulous time.

Dad conveniently forgot to total the scores at the end of the day (thus not having to admit defeat to the obviously superior Mom).  At first glance, we assumed that Myrtle Beach was just a “beach town”, but leaving town we drove through the newer part of the city filled with luxury homes, golf courses, and more restaurants than could be believed.

Wilmington, North Carolina, was supposed to be our next stop, but much like Mary & Joseph, we were told there was no room at the inn.  Our intended hotel was being remodeled, so we moved 10 miles north to Wrightsville Beach and  proved once again that everything on this trip happens for a reason.  We loved everything about the Holiday Inn Resort on Wrightsville Beach.

The only bad thing was that we were only passing through and did not get to experience a three or four day stay here.  The morning included another quick walk on the beach, cut short due to the extremely strong and very cold wind.

The Outer Banks, North Carolina, was our final stop on the coast.  We arrived in Kill Devil Hills and were greeted with temperatures in the low 40s and gale force winds. Luckily Mom insisted that we bring our winter coats on this leg of the trip, so we were ready.

The Outer Banks is a small strip of islands on the North Carolina Coast and is home to the towns of Cape Hatteras, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk.  The next morning, we visited The Wright Brothers National Memorial,  the site where Orville & Wilbur Wright completed the first successful power driven flight in December of 1903.

Replicas of both the glider and first airplane the Wrights designed, built, and flew are on display here.  The park ranger presentation was really informative, and the kids thought it was cool to get to run the exact path and distances of the first four flights.  Another Junior Ranger Patch was earned and another notch was added to our history belt.

Later that afternoon, we drove south along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and we were struck by the isolated, unspoiled beaches.  Thousands of homes line the beaches of the Outer Banks, but once inside the National Seashore, the only buildings around are a few lighthouses and visitor centers.  The only things you see are miles and miles of sand dunes, huge crashing waves, and all types of birds.  Most of the time was spent in the car, but we did brave the cold to take a few pictures.

We really enjoyed the beauty of our trip up the Carolina Coast, and would love to visit again in warmer weather.  By the amount of hotels and retail establishments we saw, it seems as though much of the eastern half of the United States would agree that this is the place to be during the summer.

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After our great stop in St. Augustine, Florida (read about it here), we continued up the Atlantic Coast toward our next destination, Savannah, Georgia.  We did not reach our hotel until well after dark, so not much was accomplished on night one in Savannah.  Our unscheduled trip to St.Augustine, FL,  had bumped our scheduled trip to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, so we left Saturday morning to backtrack down to Jekyll Island.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is an education center as well as a rehabilitation hospital for injured turtles.  The center has a lot of great information, and our kids learned a lot.  On site is a “turtle hospital” where you can see many different species of sea turtles that are being nursed back to health.

We all enjoyed the interactive exhibits, including one very reminiscent of Frogger, which requires you to get a sea turtle across a road and back again.   Another activity lets you randomly choose one of four options at critical stages in a sea turtle’s development and see how each affects its life.

We headed back to Savannah and continued our Bar-B-Q tour of the South with lunch at The Smoking Pig in Pooler, Georgia.  Final ratings will be announced at the end of the tour, but we all left with smiles on our faces and sauce on our lips.

We then drove to historic downtown Savannah.  Savannah was founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733.  Oglethorpe planned the city by setting aside many different squares for parks in the city.  Twenty-two of the original twenty-four squares remain, resulting in a beautiful city filled with lush green spaces every few blocks.

We ordered “Savannah Safari” booklets prior to our visit as a guide to visiting historic downtown.  The guide leads you on a trek around the city looking for different animal related items in the architectural elements.  The kids really enjoyed finding all of the items on the tour, and it led us on a very informative tour of the city.

Sunday morning we headed back downtown to attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah.  We have been very fortunate on this adventure to visit many amazing Cathedrals across the country, and this one was one of the best.

One of the highlights was when the priest announced at the end of the Mass that Jim Caviezel (the actor who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”) was there.  The Priest had Jim recess with him at the end of the mass and greet the parishioners as they left.  This all lead to the surreal moment of our 4-year old Andrew having his head rubbed by Jim Caviezel, and then announcing to the priest that “We were going back to the Holiday Inn Express”.

After Mass, we walked back through downtown to find a couple of items that we had missed on our tour and then to the birthplace of the Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low.

On a tour of the Low family home, we learned about the life of Juliette and also the history of the house.  It was a very interesting tour and left us in awe of the quality of home that could be built 200 years ago.

We were very impressed with the beauty of downtown Savannah, with its mature, moss-covered trees, grand fountains, and magnificent old homes.  It is easy to be transported into the past while walking down these streets, and we felt the history come alive.

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Our daughters are HUGE FANS of Harry Potter.  Allison has read each of the seven books in the series numerous times, and her younger sister Audrey just finished the fourth book in the series.  A trip to Universal Studios – Orlando and a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was their first request when we started planning the Year Long Adventure.  David’s parents are also big fans of Harry Potter (and even bigger fans of their grandkids), so they met us in Orlando and joined us on the adventure.

The rest of this post will probably not mean a lot to you if you have not read any of the Harry Potter series or seen any of the movies, but if you consider yourself a “muggle” or fear “he who must not be named” then you really should consider a visit.  In a later post we will cover things we learned and helpful hints if you are planning a visit to TWWoHP/Universal Studios.

This section of Universal Studios – Orlando opened last year.  It is a small area in the back corner of the Islands of Adventure park.  TWWoHP is a recreation of J.K. Rowling’s town of Hogsmeade with all of the favorite stops for the Wizarding World.  The main shops located here from the series are Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Dervish and Banges, Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop, and Zonko’s Joke Shop.

You can have lunch at the Three Broomsticks or get a Butterbeer from a number of outdoor vendors.  This section of the park only has three rides, but the main attraction is walking through the town.  You truly feel transported into an old English town as you walk through the gates.  The architecture and attention paid to the smallest details is amazing.

The ride that all Harry Potter fans should not miss is “The Forbidden Journey”.  The line was incredibly long (and probably always is), but the payoff was well worth it.  We got into a mass of people that seemed to be “in line” about 100 yards away from the official entrance to the ride.  The left side of this mass of people were upset with the people on the right side because of wait times and proper line etiquette, and there was a dispute as to where the line actually started.  Eventually we crossed under the entrance gate, the sign informed us that there was a 75 minute wait from this point forward.  Even the line for this ride is well designed.  Most of it is in the shade, and although it snaked for at least a mile, it moved continuously so it did not seem bad.  Single riders can bypass this portion of the line.

The line eventually goes into Hogwarts, the castle that houses the wizard school in the series.  Another amazing recreation takes place here, but we won’t ruin the surprise for you.

David’s mom offered to wait with Andrew since he was too short to do the ride, but went through the line with us to see Hogwarts.  Once we got to the front of the line, Andrew and Mimi peeled off through the convenient exit and the remaining five Clays did the ride.  David thinks few things in life are waiting in line for over an hour, but this was one of them.

Another ride is “The Flight of the Hippogriff”.  This is a minicoaster that is billed as family-friendly, but Andrew (almost five) found it “some scary and some fun”.  The line here was also really long and the ride itself was REALLY short.

We did not ride “The Dragon Challenge”, a high intensity double rollercoaster, but we did try the Butterbeer.  Yummy!  We decided that the frozen variety tastes like a cross between a cream soda and a vanilla Coke float.  It really hit the spot when the temperature hit 85 degrees.

After a quick trip to Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop and a wand vendor, we left to explore the other areas of Universal.

To control overcrowding, once you leave TWWoHP you need a return ticket to re-enter this section of the park.  This return ticket is free, and assigns you a return time window a few hours later.

We chose President’s Week to visit Orlando not realizing that much of the East Coast gets this week off from school as a Winter Break.  It was 85 degrees in Orlando during our visit, and 3 degrees in Syracuse, so it was not surprising that there were what felt like “ONE MILLION” people with us in the park.  Despite the crowds and the insane prices, all of us really enjoyed the experience and would recommend a visit to all Harry Potter  fans.  A big thanks to Mimi and Papa for joining our adventure and making it all happen.

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One of the stops we were most looking forward to on Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure was in Crystal River, Florida – the chance to canoe with manatees.  Crystal River is home to many manatees, especially in the months between November and March, due to the 72 degree temperature of the water. Manatees do not like the colder Gulf waters and move up into the river for the winter months.  There are many different tour operators in the area where you can either swim/snorkle with the manatees or canoe/kayak with the manatees.  As we discovered, “with the manatees” is a relative term.

We chose to go with the canoe instead of swimming since we felt it would be more difficult to swim for a long time in the river with our 4 year old.  We rented canoes from Crystal River Kayak Company in Crystal River.  It was very convenient because we launched in the canal that was right behind their shop.  We began with a 2 hour rental with the option to continue to the 4 hour mark depending on how things were going.  Mom and Allison manned the first canoe, and Dad was at the helm of the second canoe with his helpers Andrew and Audrey.

It took a few minutes to get the hang of maneuvering the boats, but we were soon on our way.

It was about a ten minute paddle to the Three Sisters Springs where we had our first manatee sighting.  The pools and springs where many of the manatees hang out are protected by buoys beyond which  swimmers and boaters are not allowed.  Since we were there on President’s Day Weekend (poor planning), we were on the river with HUNDREDS of other manatee fans snorkling or watching from large pontoon boats, speedboats, paddleboards, sailboats, canoes, and kayaks.  It was difficult to watch for underwater manatees while trying to avoid all the other things in the water.  Most of the manatees wisely remained in the protected area, so we had to admire them from a distance.

We paddled on to the next spring where we hoped to find a better human-to-manatee ratio.  There we had better luck, and even had a manatee swim directly under one of our canoes.  Unfortunately, those manatees are much faster than Mom and the camera, so you’ll have to take our word for it.

After more paddling up the river and out into the bay, we beached our canoes on a small island to stretch our legs.

In total, we spent about three hours on the water and between the two canoes, we had close encounters with about ten manatees.  It was a beautiful setting and we could not have asked for better weather.  It was 80 degrees in the third week in February!

If you are thinking of coming to meet the manatees, be sure to make a reservation.  Our suggestion would be to avoid weekends if possible.  There was a LOT of traffic on the water with all of the tour boats and private boats, and would have been a much better experience without all of the people.  A second bit of advice would be to hit the rowing machine at the local gym before taking the trip.  It wore us out to paddle for three hours.  Despite the people and the muscle fatigue, we all loved it and would do it again tomorrow….as long as we can find some substitute paddlers.

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The kids completed a Civil Rights unit with Mom before our trip to the Southeast, so we were looking forward to visiting some of the places that they had learned about.  We had our first opportunity when we visited Birmingham, Alabama.  After filling up on pizza at The Mellow Mushroom (yum!), we drove to the 4th Street Historic District to visit the Civil Rights Institute in Downtown Birmingham.

Our 8 year-old Audrey found the institute very interesting and was impressed at the amount of artifacts here that had been saved from the 1960s.  Focusing mainly on the local people and events, the Civil Rights Institute uses a mixture of actual news footage, life-size dioramas, and interesting displays (including an actual bombed bus from the Freedom Rides) to illustrate the history of Birmingham before and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.  The Institute also houses a research center which has preserved the personal narratives of people who experienced these events first-hand.

Despite the hardships and inequalities caused by the Jim Crow laws, the black citizens of Birmingham built a vibrant community in the 4th Street area with strong businesses, churches, and schools.  Unfortunately, this city became known as “Bombingham” in 1963 because of all the bombs regularly set off  in Civil Rights activists’ homes and churches.  The park across the street from the Institute was the site of the May 1963 protest during which the Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered his men to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the singing children who were peacefully marching.  It was these violent scenes televised across the country which helped turn the tide in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church where on September 15, 1963, a bomb was detonated in the basement that killed four young African-American girls.  The church is still an active congregation today.  It was really moving to stand in front of this church and to ponder all that happened on this block in 1963.

After Birmingham we traveled South to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.  Our focus here was learning about the famous 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.  The National Park Service has declared the road between Selma and Montgomery a National Historic Route.  The NPS Interpretative Center in Lowndes County is located on this road halfway between Selma and Montgomery.

We learned a lot at the center, and the kids added another Jr. Ranger badge to their collection.  The march took place two weeks after “Bloody Sunday” when the Alabama State Police used tear gas and batons to stop the first attempt.  Under Federal protection, four thousand people started walking in Selma and the group had swelled to 25,000 when they reached the state capitol in Montgomery five days later.  The four spots where the participants camped each night during the march are marked along the route.  The purpose of the march was to bring attention to the fact that despite laws to the contrary, African-Americans were not given the same voting rights as their white counterparts.  Even attempting to register to vote had dire consequences.  The actions here in Alabama lead to President Johnson presenting the 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress.

After our visit to the center, we headed to Selma and drove across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday”.  Allison, our 11 year-old, was impressed that the marchers were able to cover such a long distance in only 5 days.   The most surprising fact we learned was that despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of African-Americans in this county who registered to vote still lost their jobs as sharecroppers as a result.   With no place to live, they gathered to live in a large tent city for 18 months.  The Interpretive Center was built on the location of this tent city.

It is hard to believe that these events in the Civil Rights Movement happened only forty-five years ago.  Our children struggle to understand how these things could have happened, but they agree that it is important to remember and pay tribute to the bravery of those who stood up and demanded change.  Audrey put it quite well.  “If we don’t learn about history, it could happen again.”

To read about other Civil Rights Movement sites we visited on Leg 3, click here.

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Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure has us touring the Southeast U.S. in hopes of avoiding snow and ice.  As usual, we took MUCH longer than we intended to load the van on Tuesday morning, resulting in our estimated departure time of 10 A.M. looking a lot more like 3 P.M..  As we pulled out of the driveway, we felt like we must have forgotten something big because there was so much more room in the van than on the first two trips.  The truth is that we have become a mean, lean, packing-machine.  If only we were faster…

We drove from Richardson through Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (We are touring Louisiana on our way home).  Nothing like a seven hour drive to get the family back into the traveling groove.  We checked into our room at the La Quinta in Vicksburg, and we were quite pleased with the accommodations.

Early the next morning, the adventure began with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park.

We used our National Park Pass for free admission (a must if you plan on going to a lot of the National Parks), and headed into the Visitor Center to do some learning.  The adults of the group needed some of this education since neither one of us could answer with 100% conviction which side won the Battle at Vicksburg.  (Please don’t tell Mom’s AP History teacher!)

After viewing the standard NPS Visitor Center movie and obtaining our Jr. Ranger booklets, we headed out on the Audio Driving Tour of the park.  Each of the states that had troops fight in the battle have placed a monument in the park, and some of them are quite impressive.

This area of Mississippi is surprisingly hilly, making this site high above the Mississippi River very desirable to both sides.

The Union desperately wanted to capture Vicksburg to gain control of the river, but found it virtually impossible to invade.  In the end, it was keeping new supplies out of the city that won the battle.  After 47 days of brutal fighting and incredible numbers of casualties, the Siege of Vicksburg ended when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to Union General Grant on July 4th, 1863.  The 5,000 Confederate soldiers who died are buried in a city cemetery in the city of Vicksburg, while 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here in the park.  Graves of unidentified soldiers, 13,000 in all, are marked with smaller concrete posts instead of headstones.  It is quite sobering to see the cemetery stretching out in front of you.

One of the coolest things in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.  The Cairo was a Union ironclad gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River by the Confederacy.  One hundred years after the sinking, the ship was raised and restored.  The restored ship is in the park, and you can actually walk onto the deck.

The entire driving tour took about two hours including stops, and is totally worth it if you find yourself in the greater Vicksburg Area.  (You can read about another great Civil War site we visited here.)

Our next stop after lunch was to head to downtown for lunch and then head to the Biedenharn Candy Store which houses a Coca-Cola Museum.  It was at this location in 1894 where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time.  It was only sold in soda fountains before this.

The museum mainly shows Coca-Cola memorabilia from over the years, but it was pretty entertaining to show the kids some of the items that reminded us of our youth.  They were interested to hear about returning empty bottles to the store and getting the deposit money back.  We thought it was cool to get that quarter back in the late 1970’s for returning a 32 oz. bottle, but they had those same bottles on sale at the museum as collectibles for $20 each.  If only we had known at the time.

After leaving Vicksburg, we headed on eastward toward our destination of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of The University of Alabama – “Roll Tide”).  On our way in, we used the iPhone to search for good Bar-B-Q places.  We found that there were quite a few, and decided to visit Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q.

It was REALLY good.  Mom liked it so much that as we were driving to the hotel later she said, “Man, that was so good, I don’t even know what to do”.  Take that as a strong recommendation.

Feel free to check out our Facebook page for more timely reports on where we just ate or see pictures from State Welcome Centers…

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