Monday, June 24, 2013

Our summer vacation could have started with disaster if not for the forgotten carrots.

See what I did there? You're hooked now!

Well, we were leaving on a Saturday morning about  9 a.m. with about 5 hours of driving in the first leg of the trip. I'd packed a picnic lunch in the cooler with plans to stop when we got hungry, not exactly sure when or where. After John pulled the loaded car out of the garage, I pulled the second car in for safe-keeping while we were gone. I hopped back in the wagon, hit the garage door remote and we were off. About a mile later, and before we hit the Interstate, I remembered I'd forgotten to put the carrot sticks in the picnic cooler. Since we were still so close, we decided to go back rather than let them rot in the fridge while we were gone. 

At home we discovered our garage door standing wide open.  Now, truth be told, we have inadvertently left it open overnight before and nothing has happened. And several of our neighbors knew we were going to be gone and probably would have closed it for us. But still...potentially leaving your garage open to your unattended house for a week? Relieved we didn't. The carrots were also a delicious addition to our picnic.

Turned out we got hungry around Fort Dodge, so we thought, "Hey, the kids would get a kick out of seeing the old fort and we can have our picnic there." Unfortunately, we happened to arrive smack in the middle of Frontier Days, the only time all year you have to pay to enter the grounds. We weren't planning to stay long so we opted out of the $5 per person festival fee and used GPS to navigate to a playground. The kids dashed off to play while I laid out the picnic. Then the raindrops began. At first it seemed like a sprinkle light enough to ignore. But as the intensity increased, we threw everything back into the cooler and ran for the car. It didn't last long though and the kids ate enough in the car to ignore the rest and head back to play as soon as the sun came out.

Lake Okoboji view

After about an hour we packed up again and continued on to Iowa Lakeside Lab, our first stop. This is a field station operated by Iowa's three public universities, and the current leadership is interested in developing a broader scope of programming than the traditional nature/ecology classes and research. We had met the director (a U of Iowa biology professor) at a party this winter and he and John had corresponded about John coming up to see the place and consider partnering on writing workshops. Since it was not at all out of the way to head to South Dakota via Okoboji, we made plans to stay there for our first night. They put us up in a very nice two bedroom house (donated to the lab by a family with lakeside property when they decided to upgrade to a fancier house) and even invited us to share in their weekly cook-out for students and faculty.

In the photo at the top of the post, the boys are following a "treasure hunt" tour of the grounds with instructions to help find a series of animal print stamps to collect on your map. They LOVED this, although they were a bit disappointed not to find actual treasure at the end. (State budgets, boys.)

The next day we barreled all the way across South Dakota to arrive at Custer State Park the first of our three-night reservation in Blue Bell Lodge cabin.

On the way we stopped at 1880 Town, where the boys proved they would have fit right in to pioneer life--as the outlaws! Just kidding!

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street,
Oh please let it be for me!

Wetting our whistles with a little Sarsaparilla
Dueling pianos

Glad our school has more than one room!
 With our final destination entered into the GPS, we continued on to Rapid City and then South toward Rushmore and Custer State Park. I was surprised at the route the GPS selected as I would have done it differently based on the paper map, but who am I to question the omniscience of Google, Siri and whoever else was steering us?

Well, I am a woman who reads maps, and we should have gone my way. When the GPS announced, "Your destination is on the right" and we looked up to see an empty lot, we were disappointed to say the least. At this point we'd been on the road eight hours and were more than ready to stop. The boys were entertained alternately by their DVDs, DS & LeapPad as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on CD.

It ended up taking another whole hour to get to the Lodge and then the friendly staff nodded knowingly when we'd told them of our GPS problems. "Yeah, we've heard that from others." OK, well, here's an idea then, PUT A WARNING ON YOUR WEBSITE!

But we got over it, and were able to enjoy a buffalo burger dinner on the patio while the boys ran around to burn off that all-day-in-the-car energy, stopping back from time to time for bites of dinner.

The cabin itself was very nice--spacious and comfortable with central heating (which would unexpectedly turn out to be very handy) a fireplace, kitchenette, and full bath with tub.

So about that heat--you may notice that we are all basically wearing the same clothes in all of these pictures. As it turned out, the weather forecast was adjusted downward by about 10 degrees between the time we packed (Friday night) and the time we arrived (Sunday.) We only brought one sweatshirt each, and ended up wearing them pretty much every day. Not that I'm complaining--the weather was truly lovely no warmer than mid-60, and we were warm at night (mid-30s!) in our cozy cabin. We just weren't quite prepared.

We headed out to Mt. Rushmore right away the next morning and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the road we took offered spectacular views along the way. There were three places where they'd blasted tunnels to put the road through, and as you entered, you could see the faces of Rushmore perfectly framed through the tunnel. Stunning!
First view from entrance to the Hall of Flags

Did you know that the sculpture originally
was supposed to be more than just the faces?
Friendly fellow tourist took a family shot,
but didn't get the mountain.
John got us all.
 The boys were a good age for this experience--old enough to hike around the full path and even have some interest in the museum display in the artist's studio, and young enough not to dismiss it all in pre-teen angst. We'd read several books about Mount Rushmore in the weeks leading up to the trip, so they were excited to see the real thing.

From there it was down to the city of Keystone for lunch and a few other tourist stops including the Big Thunder Gold Mine and the Alpine Slide. Our mine tour group was small enough that the guide (a college student studying to be a history teacher who reminded me a lot of my cousin Mike) let the boys climb into the cart for a picture.

 He also knew just what details to emphasize--ask them about the "honey cart." Then there was panning for gold afterward and we did manage to come away with a few flakes as souvenirs.

Kind of regretting not buying these

After mining, we headed up the street a bit to the Rushmore Alpine slide. You ride a chair lift up and then careen down on a flimsy scooter--whee! Edward was old enough to ride solo, but we did not inform him of this. He and John rode first and then captured a picture of Daniel's and my descent. Good fun for all!

Then it was back to the cabin to wait for our Chuckwagon dinner departure. Daniel fell asleep on the way, which was good, but then we saw our first buffalo in the park and our excitement woke him up, which was not. I tried to tell him that the buffalo woke him, but he said, "No, Mom. YOU woke me up." I consoled myself with how much worse it would have been if he found out he'd missed seeing them. If we'd known how many more we would see (he "counted" 183 over the three days) we would have tried to keep a little quieter about it.
Different buffalo sighting--stopped to wait for them to cross the road.
The Chuckwagon Dinner involved a hayride to an open valley (billed as "closed to the public; open only to dinner guests) where a steak or burger dinner was served at picnic tables while two singer/guitarists entertained us with country/Americana music. The musicians also entertained during the hayride, which lasted an hour. John was aghast to discover the next day that the wagon ride was an hour by design, not necessity as we happened to drive past the access road to the private valley mere minutes from our lodge departure point.
All guests were issued hats and bandannas, which were more popular with some members of our group than others. Daniel very kindly gave his bandanna to the son of the singer when they were all playing cowboys after dinner. But we're pretty sure that three bandannas and four hats will carry us through.

After that busy day, we were very glad for our cozy cabin and slept well.
Ahead of the trip, John and I talked about the "divide and conquer" method of preserving family harmony. On our last trip, this meant splitting two-and-two, but this time we were able to give John a few hours of actual vacation respite (quiet reading time) when the boys and I took a horseback trail ride. By sheer luck, we were the only guests on our ride and had two guides assigned to us--one to lead and the other at the side, which was very helpful when Edward dropped his reins when his horse (Wild Bill) suddenly lowered his head for a tasty grass snack.
I was never so proud as when the guide observed, "Wow, I've never seen kids who talk as much about pee and poop as your boys!" Well, I mean, those horses weren't very modest after all.

Daniel insisted that this was NOT his first time riding a horse, because he once rode in a pony ring at a church carnival in Skokie, IL. I did not try to argue the point. First time or not, they were both thrilled with the experience. They did not seem to feel the same posterior effects as I did, this being my first horseback since my scouting days 30 years ago (oy!) I also found the stirrup forced my knee to an uncomfortable angle. But all in all, a great experience.

Luckily, our afternoon plans called for a trip to Hot Springs to visit Evan's Plunge, a spring-fed indoor pool/water park. Good fun, warm water, strange time-capsule-ish place. (No pictures)

On the way back we thought about visiting Crazy Horse, but decided to make a u-turn and leave rather than paying the $27 entrance fee. We knew we didn't have the time or energy to make it worthwhile, though we acknowledge that our fee would have supported ongoing efforts to complete the monument.

We stopped in the town of Custer for groceries before heading back into the park for our cookout dinner. It was still quite chilly, but took the opportunity of this long stretch back at the cabin to make use of the guest laundry and wash the jeans and sweatshirts we'd been wearing for three straight days. The fire kept us warm.

The next day it was time to pack up and start the trek back toward home. We ate a big breakfast at the lodge and then headed out via the "wildlife loop" in Custer State Park, which turned out to be more "loop" than "wildlife." We saw a few more animals, but ultimately, probably would have preferred a more direct route. Full of pancakes and french toast, the boys did not appreciate the winding road.

We headed back up to Rapid City, where a few more tourist stops awaited including, Bear Country U.S.A., which is essentially a drive-thru zoo. This is where you can be quite glad that we've moved beyond the days of slide projectors and endless vacation reels. These three photos are a mere fraction of those we took, all of us fascinated by the opportunity to be so near to these huge animals. Edward and Daniel took turns taking pictures out their windows, passing Edward's Nintendo DS back and forth depending on which side had a better view. Edward will be happy to show these to any interested viewers.

From there, it was on to Storybook Island, a very nice park built and supported by the Rapid City Rotary. Even though it was lunch time, the boys were more interested in playing than eating the picnic we packed so they tumbled through the park discovering all the nursery rhyme and fairy tale themed playthings.
Daniel tumbling with Jack & Jill

Boys climbing on Pete's Dragon

Daniel assaulting Mary, whose lamb seems unconcerned

Crooked boys in the crooked house

Self-portrait by Daniel
By mid-afternoon we were ready for our final destination--our overnight hotel with its attached water park. This was where John took his turn solo with the boys while I enjoyed the quiet room (and opportunity search for and reserve the next night's hotel in Omaha, which I'd neglected to do before departure. Details, details.)

The water park was a HUGE hit, even after having been to one the day before. Edward was happiest pulling himself along on this rope climber with floating pads, though he took a fair number of turns down the slides.

Daniel was ALL about sliding, racing up the three story stair tower each time he extricated himself from the splash pool. He had no use for the "kids slide" area, though before I got there, they did take a few turns down those smaller slides, including one that slid through the adjoining restaurant (very good planning to limit that exposure to kids only; you know the adult views would surely put people off their appetites!)
Water park aftermath

It was quite an effort to get up and out as early as we needed to the next morning to have time for a stop in the Badlands before heading all the way across South Dakota for our planned dinner with John's cousins in Omaha. Have I mentioned how WIDE South Dakota is? O.M.G. Thank goodness for the 75 mph speed limit (which may or may not have been strictly observed.)

The Badlands were quite stunning and the boys really enjoyed climbing on the rock formations. We definitely would have spent more time if we'd stopped on the first day instead of the last. We did beg the forgiveness of our generous cousins who held off on their own dinner while waiting for us to get there about an hour after our original plan. (We'd called from the road with updates.)

Over the course of the trip, we kept an eye out for license plates. Daniel has a particular interest and often points out non-Iowa plates at home. Aunt Nora got him this game for Christmas last year (at my suggestion) and he was quite pleased with how many we found. (Full disclosure, by the end of the trip, I was the only one still playing.)
All but Hawaii, Alabama, Vermont, Maine,
Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington, D.C.
All said, it was a great vacation, with lots of memories we hope will last. Many friends recalled their own childhood trips fondly when we told them where we'd been and said they'd like to go again with their kids. Here's hoping Daniel and Edward feel the same in 30 years.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Daniel's tee-ball coach had to chuckle as they came off the field the other night. He came over and said to us, "Did you hear what he just said?"

Apparently the coach had asked Daniel why he wasn't looking when a teammate threw the ball to him at first base. His deadpan response: "I am absent-minded."

In the same inning, a player on the other team became upset when he was tagged out. Daniel's description was more precise: "He is enraged!"
(In this program, all the members of each team get a turn to bat each inning, but they still try to practice force outs or tags. This is rare, however, so it's not surprising that the kid thought it was unfair.)

In a follow up conversation, Daniel explained how he knew the word "enraged."
"From Moby Dick--he is enraged and furious!" (We recently had a children's picture book re-telling of Moby Dick--linked above--from the library.)