Archive for August, 2010

The Best View - In the Rear View Mirror

Where do we start?

5. Crappy Internet – The intention was to post this blog entry from the hotel, but that is not possible with their internet connection.  Starting with a weak signal and then dropping your connection every time you almost get to where you want to be on the internet is not very helpful.

4. Disinterested Staff – Front Desk employees were extremely disinterested at check-in.  It is probably hard to blame them.  If this was my station in life I probably would have giving up caring long ago too.  Not sure if anyone else works in the hotel.  It seems like an old ghost town.  Would not be surprised to find the Brady kids locked up in the old town jail here.

3. Stained Towels – Really?  Do we care so little about the customer here that there are multiple towels and washcloths that have what seem to be rust stains on them in the bathroom.  Dear God, I hope those are rust stains and not blood from the last guest.  The unstained towels also feature a distinctive smell.  At least the towels matched the dirty bathroom and tub.

2. No Iron – Really??  We have stayed in 18 hotels in the last 27 days and this is the first one that does not have an iron.  Even crappy hotels have irons.  Maybe the iron for this room is in the police evidence room because it was used in an assault recently.  That would be an explanation for the towels.

And finally…

1. THE PUNGENT SMELL OUTSIDE – You have all heard the description of a bad smell punching you in the nose.  It literally happened when we arrived here.  There is some sort of plant that is across the street that was in operation when we arrived. Not sure what they are producing, but it must involve burning cow poop.  The only positive thing is somehow THAT smell did not make it into the hotel. The inside of the hotel had its own “unique” smell which Mom described as a mixture of smoke and death.  We are going to have to burn the clothes we wore into the hotel last night.

The Super 8 must not smell any better.


Read Full Post »

We decided to leave Yellowstone one night early for two reasons.  One, we had a huge drive to the next town looming before us and two, frankly because it was not fun waking up in a tent when it was 40 degrees.  Dad went to go take a 12 minute shower (the best $4 spent on the trip) and get a cup of coffee from the store.  Mom was up at camp when he got back, so we decided to sit in the car with the heater on to discuss our options.  Did we mention that it was COLD?  A quick call to Hotels.com got us a hotel reservation in Powell, Wyoming, or so we thought.  We chose Powell because at first glance, Cody, Wyoming looked too expensive.  We have learned on this trip that a lot of people stay in the towns closest to the entrances of Yellowstone National Park and travel in for the day.  Because of this, hotels in these towns typically charge much more for rooms of the same or lesser quality.

We spent our last day in Yellowstone driving through the park to experience some of the spots that we had not yet seen.  Yellowstone is very large, and each section of the park is radically different from the others (geysers, canyons, forests, lakes, valleys).  We really loved the Canyon area and its two amazing waterfalls.

We can only imagine what the first explorers who found this place thought when they came upon the 300+ foot waterfall at the Lower Falls.  One last drive through herds of bison in Hayden Valley and past gorgeous Yellowstone Lake, and we were on our way out of the park.  Every day is an Adventure.

Heading East through Wyoming towards Cody was an awesome drive with incredible scenery.

We hit Cody, and turned off for the 30-minute drive to Powell where we understood that we had a reservation at the one chain hotel in town.  Every day is an Adventure.

We pulled up to our hotel after 9:00 with a very tired family.  As Dad walked up to the hotel and saw the No Vacancy sign, he felt very glad that he made his reservation early that morning through Hotels.com.  Those warm, fuzzy feelings quickly disappeared when he found that the hotel had no reservation for our family.   A quick call to our friends at Hotels.com informed us that there was a “system error” processing our reservation, but thankfully “there would not be a charge to our credit card”.  Thanks Hotels.com – now we feel better.

We surveyed our other options in Powell (very scary), and came to the conclusion that our only hope was to head back to Cody.  We decided to call our friends at Hotels.com to see available options in Cody before we backtracked 30 minutes.  Each time that Dad tried to call with our failed reservation number, the call was mysteriously dropped after we explained the situation.  Thanks Hotels.com.  Every day is an adventure.

We found a place in Cody on our own, and everything was great.  Thanks AmericInn.  This hotel had the added bonus of having a lobby full of mounted animals, which the kids loved.  Did we mention we were in Wyoming?

The next morning, we did our usual check-out (15 minutes after check-out time), and hit the road again for a long drive across Wyoming to Devil’s Tower.

Devil’s Tower is famous because it is the unique rock formation that was used in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  We had reservations to stay at the KOA next to Devil’s Tower in their “Park Model” Cabin.  It is the Penthouse of the KOA lodging options:  a cabin with two rooms, A/C, and its own bathroom.  When planning the Year Long Adventure, we had grand hopes of utilizing KOA for about 30% of the stays on the first leg of this adventure to help with costs.  We had already canceled all but two of our KOA reservations, but had kept this one due to the fact that it was the top of the line (and it was too late to cancel).  How bad could it be? Every day is an adventure.

We checked into the KOA and drove across the property to the lone Park Model.  At first glance it was not too bad, but we did come up with a helpful (although obvious) hint for anyone providing lodging for travelers.  On 100 degree days, it might not be a bad idea to go out in the afternoon and turn on the air conditioner in the units reserved for that evening.  We turned on the A/C in the sweltering cabin (even while noting that due to a bad floor plan, cool air would never reach the master bedroom) and headed into the small town outside Devil’s Tower for dinner.  Mom and Dad decided while this lodging might not be our ideal choice, it was ours for the evening and it would be okay.  Every day is an Adventure.

We returned to the KOA, started three loads of laundry, and began the nightly chore of trying to get all three kids ready for bed.  The kids were finally in bed with the lights out when Dad left to move the laundry to the dryer.  Upon his return, he did not find the happy home that he had left.  Mom had fear in her eyes as she informed him that we had a “small” problem.  An inspection of the mattress in the master bedroom led to the discovery of BUGS in the bed.  Not sure what kind of bugs they were, but they were the kind that meant a drive to a hotel was in order.  Dad drove up to the office to inform them of the situation, got a refund, and headed back to the Park Model for the arduous trip of repacking everything in the van – in the dark – with three tired kids – and a Mom freaked out by bugs in her bed.  Every day is an adventure.

The one saving grace  was the goat Dad found sitting on the porch of the Park Model when he returned from the office.  Yes, a goat.  While Mom and Dad loaded the van, the kids had a ball playing outside with the goat.

We decided not to freak the kids out with the bugs, so we told them we were leaving because it was too hot to sleep in the cabin.  All they cared about was the goat.  We got the van loaded, said goodbye to the goat, retrieved our still slightly damp laundry, and headed to our next destination after 10:00 at night. The goat will probably be one of the lasting memories of the trip for the kids.  There was even a discussion in the car about having a pet goat at home.  Two nights in a row of driving to a different city where we have no hotel because our previous lodging did not work out as planned.  Every day is an adventure.

We pulled into Rapid City, South Dakota, where we had planned to be the following two nights.  We found the Best Western where our reservations were, and let them know that because we were so excited, we were a day early.  They had one room left due to a no-show, so thankfully, they let us have that room.  Everything worked out in the end, and we were all finally in bed by 12:30 A.M.  We are in the same hotel for the next three nights, and this hotel has two BIG waterslides.  Did we mention that every day is an adventure?

P.S.  Thanks Hotels.com for the $150 voucher and for FINALLY doing the right thing.

Read Full Post »

We have just completed Day 17 of the first leg of our Year Long Adventure and have driven over 4200 miles. We have driven past countless corn fields in the Plains and forests upon forests of trees in the Pacific Northwest.  We have traveled through the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and even waded in the Pacific Ocean.  We have taken the traditional family driving vacation and put it on steroids.  A family can learn a lot about themselves while they are out learning about their country.

We have done many things to keep the kids entertained during the long daily stretches on the road.  Mom spent many hours before the trip creating trip activity books to keep the kids entertained and to also educate them about the places we were going to visit.  Spanish lessons have been downloaded from iTunes that we have listened to as a family.  We were even able to wait until Day 9 before we broke out the portable DVD player.

As the days pass, we find we are comparing what we remember from road trips in our childhood to the things that we are doing on this trip.  Today on Day 17, we broke out the Road Trip Soundtrack of our youth.

Mom's family vacation circa 1986

Mom downloaded songs on her iPhone that her parents had played on their family trips.  The song of the day was “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. (Listen to a live version here.)

After the third time it was played, our eight year-old started to complain that we had been listening to too much parent music and it was time to do something for the kids.  She was quickly informed that “when we were kids” we did not have any say in the matter.  We taught the kids the chorus, and in no time we were a singing family of five as we drove through Montana.  Our eleven year-old is still not a huge fan, so we just sing louder.

Singing his heart out.

We have seen a lot of things and a lot of places in the first 17 days of this trip.  We have learned about pioneers, Lewis & Clark, the Oregon Trail, dinosaurs, lighthouses, volcanoes, and many other things.  We have also learned about the family road trip and ourselves.  We hope that we are building memories and traditions that are children will carry on with their future families.  Maybe one day, our grandchildren will be sitting in the back of a car singing along with Kenny & Dolly (with a little INXS and Erasure thrown in for good measure).

Andrew’s first request the next morning was to listen to “Islands in the Stream”.  Success!

Read Full Post »

We left Spokane, Washington in the morning and headed West excited knowing that we were going to reach the Pacific Coast.  The drive through Central Washington brought us through more, smaller mountains, but the amount of fir trees we passed was incredible.  The last part of the drive into Seattle is literally downhill, so the van was speeding up along with our anticipation.  Then it all came to a dramatic halt.  We hit Seattle rush hour traffic.

We are very fortunate that we do not deal with traffic on a regular basis.  Our normal daily commutes are short, and for the most part we do not usually deal with congested roads.  Adding this to the fact that we all were ready to get out of the car made the situation seem worse.  We decided to head down to the waterfront and have seafood.  We inched along through traffic, and our trusty Navigator guided us in the right direction.  We parked in a lot right off the waterfront and went in search of “Ivar’s House of Clams”.  It was the first thing that came up on a Google search for Family Dining in Seattle, so congratulations to them for successful Search Engine Optimization.  The pier area of Seattle has all of the trappings of a tourist hangout.  It had your restaurants and souvenier shops, but most of all it had panhandlers.  It was a little shocking to see the number of people sitting on the sidewalk with signs asking for money – something else that we are insulated from in our normal lives.  Ivar provided us with a great meal, and then we headed back out to fight the traffic to the hotel.

The next morning we headed down to Pike Street Market, and somehow avoided major traffic.  We had the idea in our tourist heads that the market was a fish market where they threw fish for the enjoyment of tourists, but it was so much more.  There were stalls selling fresh flowers, produce, pastas, arts and crafts, and anything else you could ever need.  There was truly a buzz in the air as we made our way through.  We were even able to take in a couple of street performers as well.  We found out that most panhandlers are not early risers, or that the market does not allow them in the area.

We stopped at Half Price Books on the way out of town, so the girls could reload their book boxes in the back of the van.  This might have been the highlight of Allison’s trip.  Dad and Andrew took a drive by the Space Needle while the girls were book shopping.  Bausch & Lomb was doing a promotion that day providing free entrance into the Space Needle, thus creating more traffic and congestion.  We settled on a Slurpee and a picture. 

We swung back by to pick up the girls and headed to the freeway,  passing what we thought would be the last of the panhandlers.  We found that many stoplights in cities in the Pacific Northwest had someone stationed there.  It must have something to do with the weather here and in Texas.  You could not survive standing or sitting on a street corner in Dallas for any length of time in the August heat.  We made our way South towards Portland only to find more mind numbing traffic.   Every suburb South of Seattle had its own little traffic jam on the interstate just waiting for us.  How thoughtful.

Read Full Post »

After spending the night in a cabin at a KOA in Great Falls, Montana, we were planning to drive up to Glacier National Park for a couple of nights of tent camping in the park.  We did lots of laundry at the KOA which required a complete unpacking, reorganizing and repacking of the van before we could get on the road.  We are learning that it is hard to get everyone organized and everything ready to go by our intended time in the morning, and are usually starting off much later than we plan each day.  We headed off to the grocery store to get our camping food, and between wandering around aimlessly and finding a place in the van for all of the food, we lost another hour.  Glacier NP is about a three hour drive from Great Falls, and it was only a little after noon.  It seemed as though we had plenty of time.

We were aware that Glacier NP did not take reservations for the majority of their campgrounds.  During the initial planning of the trip, we were not especially worried because there are so many tent sites in the park.  It turns out that Glacier NP is a pretty popular place in the month of August.  We were a little more than an hour away when Mom found enough phone service signal to pull up the park’s website.  The park updates which campgrounds are open and which are already full every two hours.  They also have the information for what time the individual campgrounds filled up on the previous day.  According to the site, most of the campgrounds were full the day before by the time that we left Great Falls.  Panic started to rear its ugly head as we begin to think about our options if there are no sites available.  Thankfully the drive into Glacier NP is very cool and on an extremely  winding road, so that was helpful in taking our mind off of the current dilemma.

We pulled up to the entrance on the East side of the park to find that all of the campgrounds on this side were listed as Full.  The Ranger at the gate informed us that the campground on the far West side of the Park is listed as still open, but she could not guarantee that there would be sites at the campground when we arrive.  She also informed us that the drive across the park on “The Going to the Sun Road” takes at least 2.5 hours.  Discouraged, we drove ten minutes to the first Visitor Center on the East side of the Park to have everyone use the restroom and collect our thoughts.  Mom was hitting full panic mode while Dad tried to reassure her (to no avail) that everything was going to be okay.  The kids were breaking down, and no one wanted to be in the car for one more minute, let alone 2.5 hours. Driving across the Park to find that the other campground has filled up was not a very attractive option, and Mom could not see what the next move should be.  Sensing his family in trouble, Super Dad made an appearance with a bold proclamation:  “We will drive to our desired campground, and there will be a spot available for us when we arrive!” Mom questioned how this can be, but Super Dad reassured her that it will be okay.

After the fifteen minute drive to the Rising Sun Campground, we found that there was not a Full sign at the entrance to the campground.  As we drove up to the check-in area, there was a truck pulling up to the exit. A woman got out of the truck, and Dad asked her if there were any sites available. She replied,”Site 51 is open.  We just left it.”

In the race to Site 51, we were stopped by the Campground Host.  She assured us that Site 51 was indeed available.  We ended up with a perfect spot that was close to the bathrooms, not too close to other sites, and had some of the most spectacular views ever witnessed.  Reflecting back on the day’s events the next morning, we realized how blessed we had been.  Every single second of that day happened so that we could arrive at the campground at the same exact second as the previous campers were pulling out.  It was truly miraculous.

View from Site 51

MUCH happier campers!

Neighbors at Site 51

Read Full Post »

We found the answer to be around 11.5 hours.  The day started in Bismarck, North Dakota.  The original plan was to drive around 2.5 hours to Glendive, Montana, for a couple of activities, and then another hour to Miles City, Montana, to spend the evening.  First rule of the Year Long Adventure – plans must remain flexible.

On our way through North Dakota, we made an unplanned stop near Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  This park is part of the North Dakota Badlands, a truly spectacular geologic formation that stretches as far as the eye can see.   We didn’t officially enter the park, but the scenic overlook off of the highway offered an amazing view.

In Glendive, we planned to check out a dinosaur museum and to tour Makoshika State Park.  We stopped for what we thought was going to be a quick lunch at Dairy Queen before heading to the museum.  There were only two lunch options in Glendive, and the Subway had a line out the door.  We headed into the Dairy Queen to find another long line, so Dad decided that the drive through would be faster.  We ordered very quickly, but the DQ was very understaffed, leading to a 20 minute wait at the window.  At least we were able to watch the 4 year old boy sitting on the floor behind the counter while his mother worked her shift.  Who knew that Dairy Queen offered on-site daycare for their employees?

After lunch, we headed to Makoshika Dinosaur Museum in downtown Glendive.  The idea of displaying dinosaur figures in realistic dioramas is great, but the quality and quantity of the exhibits was less than we expected.  The museum is constructed and staffed entirely by volunteers, and many areas were under construction.

Since the museum was a bit underwhelming, we cut our visit short and drove to Makoshika State Park.  The landscape here was incredible.  Pictures cannot really capture the depth and vastness of the area.  We meandered up and down a steep and winding cliff road – good preparation for mountain roads coming later in this journey.

A view like this was one of the main reasons for taking this trip out West.  The kids were in awe of their surroundings.  The visitor center is small but the exhibits explaining the formation of these “Badlands” are very interesting and informative.  This area of the U.S. was actually once under the ocean.

We left Glendive and drove toward our final destination.  When we arrived in Miles City, but it was still early in the evening.  A change in time zones had provided us with an extra hour of daylight.  Dad was loving The Big Sky of Montana and really not looking forward to the KOA in Miles City, so he suggested that we keep driving to the next major city, Billings.  The kids did not want to be in the car anymore, but Dad overruled them.  Driving the extra few hours at night rather than in the morning was going to make the next day much easier.  Dad decided we could make it even further, so we continued on to Bozeman.

We blasted through the next 300 miles of incredible Montana scenery in 4 hours thanks to the 75 MPH speed limits.  The only problem was that we did not have a reservation for the evening.  Dad assured everyone that there is never a town that has absolutely no rooms available.  He was right by exactly ONE room.  During the drive between Billings and Bozeman, we called about twelve hotels, and some of the hotel personnel actually laughed when they were asked if they had any rooms available.  It turns out that Bozeman, Montana, and its suburbs fill up with Yellowstone visitors every night, even though they are over 55 miles away from the entrance to the park.

As we finally pulled into town, the kids tearfully asked if we were going to have to sleep in the van.  They had reached their breaking point.  We drove by The Best Western Yellowstone Inn and decided to check availability even though we had already called twice about vacancies.  We are truly blessed because they had one room available that they were discounting 40% off because the A/C was not working.  Needless to say, we took it.  The joke was on them because when we got to the room, the A/C was working.  We found much needed sanctuary, and promised the kids that we would not keep them in the van that long at one time again.  We will just remind them if  it happens again that you just have to remain flexible on long road trips.

Read Full Post »

Handmade rope and corncob dolls

In August, we visited the Homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The kids had such a good time, we let them write the blog!

Allison’s viewpoint (age 11):

We went to visit the homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder in De Smet, South Dakota.   We saw the house her father built and added on to three times.  It was still very small, but nice.  Also there was a barn, covered wagon rides, a dugout (a house made of sod and “dug out” of a hill), a shanty, and a garage for the farm machinery. I liked this museum because it was hands-on and not “This is Laura’s stuff.  Don’t touch it.”  We twisted hay, held kittens, made corncob dolls, fed a colt, made rope, petted cows, and experienced an 1870 school session in a real schoolhouse.  We even got to drive the mules pulling the covered wagon, and it is harder than it looks. I was going down a hill and made extremely curvy tracks in the dust.  It was like making modern art!

Curving wagon tracks in the dust

That night we had our first family tent-experience.  There were SO MANY mosquitos!!!  Andrew, Audrey, and I chased prairie gophers and helped set up the tent.  We had s’mores and hot dogs for dinner.    Camping there was lots of fun!

Audrey’s view (age 8):

My favorite part was the trip to the schoolhouse on a covered wagon.  It was exciting.  The girls had to put on dresses and bonnets like Laura would have worn, and the boys wore straw hats.  I got to help the teacher read aloud to the class and with the math lesson.  We played a game called “wring the dishrag” where everyone holds hands and spins around with a partner.  We sang “Pop Goes the Weasel” and twisted around on the “Pop” part.  We learned about what kids used to bring for lunch.  They had strange things like lard sandwiches, and apples were a special treat because they were hard to get.  After school was over, we got back on the covered wagon and I got to drive it to the church.  The church was really pretty.

Driving the covered wagon is harder than it looks.

At Ma’s house we learned to do laundry.  They took soap and rubbed it across a washboard and then rubbed the clothes across it.  Then you rinse it in a bucket of water and put it through a wringer.  Last we hung it on the clothesline with two clothespins.  It was not easy.  We also learned to make a toy with a piece of thread and a button.

Doing laundry the hard way.

We camped on the prairie in the tent and made hot dogs and s’mores.

Andrew’s view (age 4):

I had fun making my rope.

The truly cool twist their own rope.

I loved roasting the marshmallows on the campfire and eating Cheetos.  I really liked making my corncob superhero.  In the barn was the first time I ever got to hold a kitten.  I saw a baby horse and I saw his mommy poop a whole bunch.

Mom adds:

This was a really neat place.  I highly recommend it, even if your kids are not big fans of the Little House books.  There are so many hands-on activities and experiences that everyone in the family will have a great time.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »