Archive for September, 2010

We found ourselves one night in Kearney, Nebraska without a reservation for a hotel room.  This was supposed to be our first night of tent camping, but the 40% chance of rain and the appearance of our reserved campground led us into town in search of a hotel.  We used our iPhone to search for hotels through hotels.com to check to see what was available.

A couple of suitable locations were found as we headed down the main street of town.  A quick stop was made at location A as Dad went inside to get the lay of the land.  It was decided that we could do better, so we crossed the street to location B which happened to be the Holiday Inn.

The kids were excited as Dad went inside to check things out because there was a sign on the exterior of the hotel was advertising Indoor Water Slides.  Hotels.com had advertised rates for a room at $80 for the night.  This price was presented to the front desk, and they said they would be able to match that rate for us.  We were prepared to make the reservation on the lobby through hotels.com should they not choose to give us that rate.  We checked into the hotel and had a great stay.  The kids (and parents) had a great time at the Indoor Water Park, and we were able to get all of our laundry done in their clean laundry room.  They also had a very nice restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

Now This is Fun!

We were eating dinner at the restaurant when Dad had to step out into the lobby to take a phone call.  There was a Mom with three children at the front desk discussing the nightly rate for a room.  The clerk explained to them that the rate for the evening was $110, or $30 more than what we had negotiated with our hotels.com rate.  We saved 27% that night just by taking two minutes to look up rates on our phone before walking into the lobby.  That is a pretty good return on investment.

Feel free to follow daily updates of our adventure at our Facebook page.


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Making new friends at the The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.

The American pioneers were people who possessed incredible courage, determination, and hope.  With all of our modern conveniences today, it is hard to understand how people lived from day to day without what we consider essential.  Our children, who have never known life without air conditioning, microwaves, cell phones, and computers, have an especially difficult time imagining a world without electricity, cars, and satellite TV.  On the first leg of the Year Long Adventure, we discovered several places which helped us to step back in time and really experience the pioneer world.

The Ingalls Homestead, childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in De Smet, ND and the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska, are two wonderful places to help children visualize pioneer life.  Both offer very interactive programs which encourage participation by the whole family.  You can read about our visits here and here.

The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Nebraska, was very informative and entertaining.  The entire museum is housed in a massive archway spanning Highway 80.  The tour takes you through life-sized scenes depicting different eras.

Joining the pioneers on the Oregon Trail

The audio tour highlights the importance of this route in Westward Expansion, starting with pioneers on the Oregon Trail and ending with the building of Interstate Highway 80 after WWII.  As expected, we learned about hardships faced by the pioneers, but we also discovered that this area of the country was key in the development of the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad.   What Mom found most interesting was the development of the national tourism industry, fueled by the popularity of the Model T.  Coast to coast travel in those early days involved driving along dusty roads, most of which became impassable,  muddy messes in heavy rain.   Having driven along a few roads meeting that description on this trip, Mom has new appreciation for those early tourists.

The audio tour brings the Oregon Trail to life

Our kids enjoyed the audio component of the tour.  They were entranced by the sound effects that made the still displays seem to come to life.  Hearing the people of the era tell their story was a nice break from reading traditional museum displays.  If necessary, you could hear a section again by just walking back to the beginning of the exhibit.  This is a very nice feature when you have wandering four year-old in your party.

After the tour, head outside and try your luck in the wooden “Trailblaze Maze”.  This is similar to the human maze in the Fort Worth Stockyards that was featured on the Amazing Race.  It was a great way to burn off some energy before getting back in the car for another long drive.

Which way do I go?

We highly recommend these Living History museums if you are interested in experiencing the life of the pioneer.

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Another hidden gem in South Dakota is The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.

This is an active archeological dig at the site of a prehistoric sinkhole into which hundreds of Woolly Mammoths fell and ultimately died.  The very informative guided tour begins with a short film, then leads you through the dig site to see mammoth bones being excavated at various levels.  The neat thing about this tour is that these are the actual mammoth bones, not plaster casts or replicas.

Visitors listen to the guide at banks of phone receivers placed at various stops throughout the tour as she directs attention to certain things.  We learned a lot about the archaeological process and what they have learned about the behavior of mammoths through this research.

Miraculously, the site was accidentally discovered during a large scale residential construction project and saved from destruction.

There were no archaeologists working the day we visited, but many days you can see the scientists in action.  During the summer, the site offers a “Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program” where kids ages 4-13 can learn real excavation techniques.  Unfortunately, the program had just ended for the year, and our kids were really disappointed.

After the 30 minute tour, visitors are free to go back and more closely at any part of the dig site.  There is also a large room of exhibits to explore and an extensive gift shop.

Allison’s take (age 11):

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was really interesting.  About 11,000 years ago, there was a really big sinkhole which a lot of male mammoths fell into and died.  Now people are excavating the sinkhole and many skeletons have been found.  55 tusks have been found have been found making 26 and a half mammoths so far.  We went on a “telephone tour”, meaning the guide talked to us at certain points through a phone.

The fossil footprints look something like huge shoe soles, and each fossilized tooth was bigger than my hand.

plaster cast of a mammoth footprint

“Murray” Antoinette (there are no females in the pit), the second most complete skeleton, is missing its head, and “Napoleon Bone-Apart” is all twisted and scattered.

"Murray Antoinette"

He must have died a painful death!  We tried to see the lab, but it was closed.

I don't think you should touch that!

In the museum, we saw the skull of a prehistoric cave bear and lots of woolly mammoth models.  Cave people even used mammoth bones to make their houses!  There was also a prehistoric monkey skeleton.  This place was really cool.

House made from mammoth bones and pelts

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This area of the country is known for the vast amount of prehistoric fossils discovered here. The girls and I read a book from the Time Spies series called Bones In the Badlands.  This story is set during the great “Bone Wars” of the late 1800s, when paleontologists were vying to see who could unearth the most dinosaur skeletons in the fossil-rich areas of Montana and Wyoming.  We were excited to see the rocky landscape for ourselves.

We made our home base in Rapid City, South Dakota, at a Best Western Ramkota with (surprise, surprise) an indoor waterpark.  This was a welcome change from our horrible experience at the KOA outside Devil’s Tower (read about it here).

The first morning we drove to the nearby town of Lead (pronounced “Leed”), South Dakota, to visit the Black Hills Mining Museum.  Both of Mom’s great-grandfathers were miners in Oklahoma, and we were eager to learn all about the dangerous occupation of mining for gold.

Mom's great-grandfather Francis Kitto is the crew supervisor kneeling in the front.

The Black Hills Mining Museum is different from other mining museums because it is a recreation of a mine shaft built completely above ground.  Other museums involve a trip deep into retired mine shafts, and Mom and Dad were not remotely interested in going underground.

We arrived at 1:15 and were told that a tour had just started and we would need to wait another hour.  Mom was very surprised because the museum’s website said that tours started every half hour beginning at 9:30 AM with no tour from 12 to 1.  With a squirmy four year-old in tow, we had planned our arrival to avoid a long wait.  Unfortunately, the clerk did not understand the concept of good customer service and replied (in a very snarky tone), “Well, I don’t know where you read that.  That isn’t our website.  Go look in the exhibit hall until its time.” (You can check for yourself here.  Mom was right, not that she holds a grudge.)

Luckily, the tour guide heard us in the exhibit hall (four year-olds can’t always wait quietly) and offered to let us join the tour already in progress.   He quickly recapped what we had missed and we continued down the replica mine shaft.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and full of interesting local stories.  The replica mine shaft has life-sized equipment and mannequins in realistic situations illustrating every aspect of gold mining from the early days to modern times.  The attention to detail is amazing, and you really feel as if you are underground.  Unfortunately, taking pictures was not successful in the dim light.

This section of the tour lets out into the large exhibit room filled with historic photographs and mining implements.  For an additional fee, you can pan for gold in a replica sluice, and you are guaranteed to find some.  Our guide patiently helped each of our kids learn the proper way to swirl the pan to separate the gold from the sediment taken from the actual retired mine in Lead.

Panning for gold

Any tiny gold flakes discovered were placed in a water-filled glass vial to take home.  Our kids really enjoyed this part, and they were so proud of their finds.


Despite the rocky start, we recommend the Black Hills Mining Museum.  This very interactive tour was a fun way to learn about the process and history of mining for gold.

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We are currently between trips of our “Year Long Adventure” and spending our time at home in the Dallas area.  The Plano Balloon Festival was held this past weekend in Plano, Texas.  The festival is a three day event centered on Hot Air Balloons.  We have taken the kids on “Balloon Chases” in the past where we get up early and drive towards the festival site in search of balloons in the air.  We then try to drive to an area where we think the balloons are headed in hopes of watching them land.  Dad woke up the girls early Sunday morning to see if they were interested, and this weekend was the best balloon adventure to date.

We made a quick stop by 7-11 for coffee and pastries, and then headed North towards Plano.  Two balloons were quickly spotted, and we pulled into a parking lot to check them out.  These balloons were nothing spectacular, but they served their purpose by bringing us into the parking lot.  There was a balloon crew setting up for launch in the lot, so we walked over to get a close up view of the launch process.  It was really interesting to see how fast they can blow up a balloon and get it up in the air.  The girls were awed, and thought that they had seen the coolest thing that they would see all day.  They were wrong.


...up, and...


Once the balloon lifted off we headed back to the van with the goal of following the trek of the balloon until it landed.  We quickly became distracted when we hit Woodruff Park where there were many balloons in the process of landing.  We parked on the street, headed towards the landing field, and found that there were about 15 balloons in the park.  We were instantly drawn to the pond where 4 balloons had landed on the surface of the water and were floating across the pond.  We were not aware that the baskets would float across the top of the water, but were really impressed with the site.  The balloons made their way across the pond to where we were waiting for an up close and personal view.  We met Sheronda, one of the balloon pilots, and got to look inside the basket, and up into the center of the balloon.  The girls both agreed that this was the best “balloon chase”ever.

Please check out our Facebook page for more balloon pictures and updates of our Adventure.

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Mom had been eagerly anticipating our visit to the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm, Montana, 75 minutes from Helena.

Formerly known as Ulm Pishkun, the buffalo jump is an ancient site in Montana where Native American tribes would come yearly for the mass slaughter of buffalo.  Archeologists have found evidence of use by native peoples as long as 2500 years ago on this site, the largest known buffalo jump in North America.

The Visitor Center on site has both elaborate, interactive exhibits and a knowlegable native guide to explain the very fascinating history of the buffalo jump (see Allison’s explanation of the process below) and the importance of the buffalo to the Plains Indians.

Exploring the full size authenitic tipi

Hunting with a bow and arrow is harder than it looks

From the Visitor Center, you can drive or hike up to the top of the cliff.  It is worth taking the time to do this.  The 360 degree view is breathtaking, and looking down over the edge of the cliff gives you a unique perspective. Standing atop this sacred spot, we could picture the stampeding herd of buffalo running over the cliff to their death.

Dad, please don't get so close to the edge!

View from the top of the buffalo jump

Also at the top is a large Prairie Dog Town.  The kids enjoyed watching the prairie dogs pop up out of their holes and hearing them bark.  The only downside was the wind.  It is extremely windy at the top of the Buffalo Jump, almost alarmingly so.  Mom could picture one of the kids being blown over the side, so she was a little nervous.

Prairie dog town

A curious prairie dog

In the gift shop, Dad purchased a bar of pemmican, a traditional food made by the Plains Indians to sustain tribe members when the food supply ran low.  A mixture of buffalo jerky, fat, and cranberries, one handful of pemmican could sustain a grown man for a whole day.  Although highly nutritious, it smells and tastes quite unpleasant.

Allison’s take (age 11):

The First People’s Buffalo Jump is really cool!  Here the Lakota and Sioux tribes ran bison off a cliff. The “lead boy” would dress in the skin of a buffalo calf and bawl for its “mother”.  The head bison would follow the boy and lead the herd closer to the cliff, while the boy’s friends followed behind dressed like wolves to keep the herd moving.

Lead boy luring the mother bison

Audrey gives the lead boy role a try

This process might take as long as two weeks.  When the bison finally neared the edge, the lead boy would run and jump off the cliff onto a shallow rock shelf (and hopefully land safely – being lead boy was a dangerous job), while the near-sighted bison would stampede over the cliff and fall to their death.  If they survived the fall, they would usually be killed by the rest of the buffalo falling on top of them.  Then the women of the tribes would butcher the dead animals, using up every part with no waste.

The cliff itself is pretty small, but is an ideal buffalo-killing area.  On the way to the top, we saw loads of prairie dogs and grasshoppers.  It was incredibly windy at the top.  I walked almost to the edge, and it wasn’t very tall,  but very rocky.  Obviously, the buffalo died very quickly.  In the museum area, I dressed up in a very soft wolf skin and pretended to chase a stuffed buffalo.  The First People’s Buffalo Jump is a really interesting place with a cool history!

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Theme for YLA Leg 1 - Westward Exploration

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”     – Pat Conroy

The main purpose for the Year Long Adventure was to offer our children a unique educational opportunity.  We wanted them to see and experience US history, geography, and earth science first-hand.  As a veteran middle school teacher but new to homeschooling, I (mom) was torn as to the best way to approach each trip.  I narrowed it down to two possible choices, each having its pros and cons.

  • Strategy 1 – Before we leave, give the kids a basic overview of the history and geography of the people/places and review the scientific processes that formed the natural landmarks we would visit.
  • Strategy 2 – Experience the sites with no prior preparation and study these concepts more deeply when we return.

After much consideration, I decided to go with Strategy 2 for the first leg and see how it went.  We did read two historical fiction diaries from the  Dear America series prior to leaving:  Across The Wide And Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary Of Hattie Campbell by Kristiana Gregory and The Journal of Augustus Pelletier: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804 by Kathryn Lasky.  The kids enjoyed these stories told from the point of view of a twelve year-old child from the time period.

I am so glad that we chose to see the sites without extensive study beforehand.  Almost all of the places we went had excellent displays, presentations, or tours that were both interactive and informative.  The National Park Service in particular has done an excellent job creating programs that educate both children and adults in entertaining ways.  NPS Junior Ranger Programs allow kids to earn a badge or patch by completing a booklet of activities while experiencing the park, and most of them are free.

As we traveled along, I was pleased to see that the kids remembered specific names and places from the Dear America stories and would shout out when we saw a sign or landmark.  “That’s where Hattie crossed the river and the covered wagon capsized!” or “That’s Pompey’s Pillar that Captain Clark named after Sacajawea’s baby.  I didn’t know it was real!”  I highly recommend this series because the although the main child character may be fictitious, most of the events and people in the story are taken from actual diary entries of real people.  Upon arriving home, all three kids have shown amazing fact recall, and we are so happy that they are learning and retaining so much.

When I looked over the complete itinerary for Leg 1 before leaving, I was struck by a common theme:  Westward Exploration.  During the trip, we would drive along parts of the both the Oregon Trail and the route of Lewis and Clark.  As nomads for 31 days, we would be experiencing some of the emotions of these explorers as they headed into uncharted territory.  When things became difficult, thinking about covered wagon or canoe travel really put things in perspective!

Don’t forget – You can get daily updates in real time on our Facebook page: Year Long Adventure or on Twitter @yrlongadventure.

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