Open Road

Open Road

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Please remember OR Don't forget

So, I am writing this on our last night of the trip. It feels so weird. Is this what an expatriate feels when they come home to the mother country? We drove past a Meijers tonight, and it just felt strange to see it. This has been the trip of a lifetime and one that won’t be repeated, so perhaps just knowing that this is the end is a bit overwhelming. Hard to explain. 

Harvey officially went on sale today via RV Trader. He has served us very well these past eleven weeks. He has been our home. We’ve called him “our home”, out loud! I almost feel like I don’t want to sell him to just anybody. They need to still call him “Harvey”. They need to take him on family trips and see amazing things. They need to pull a “Toad”. They need to be terrified before they leave and sad when they come home. Should have put all this in the listing. I’m guessing though that I’ll get over it.

We’re still undecided on what to do with Toad. The original plan was to sell him at the end of the summer, but we’re kind of attached to him. Yes, he’s been a royal pain, is very noisy and the backseat barely fits the kids, but when you take the windows and top off, he’s very awesome. Still, not the most practical car for Team Woods, considering we already own two vehicles.  So, we’ll see. Perhaps Jason can be convinced to sell it if the right price comes along.  Any takers?

I think I left off in Dallas, so our next stop was Houston. Just a day stop this time, as we wanted to visit the Johnson Space Center. I’ll admit we’ve become tour/museum snobs - it takes a lot to impress us now - but the Space Center wasn’t our favorite. Jason and Katie had attended Space Camp together last summer in Huntsville, so there wasn’t much there that they didn’t already know. More than a few of the exhibits were either broken or simply not there. We were excited to see the Mission Control Room that was used during the Apollo program - but the guide just said “This is the Mission Control Room.  Any questions?” Seriously, that was about it. Thankfully, we were able to see one of the Saturn rockets - enormous! 

We’ve been missing the water a lot, so we decided to drive the extra hour and stay on Galveston Island. Our campsite overlooked a bayou and we enjoyed watching these little fish jump high up in the air. Hilarious! The next morning, we toured a retired oil rig that was turned into a museum. A little technical for my taste, but interesting to learn about the drilling process in general. Perhaps a Ph.D. in Chemistry might have helped me understand things more. That afternoon, we headed to Stewart Beach to swim in our second ocean of the trip. How many people can say they visited TWO oceans in one vacation? No lie, the water temperature was 86 degrees. In Michigan, we celebrate when the water hits 70! That area has been having issues with an overabundance of seaweed coming on shore, and we definitely experienced that. We all headed for the showers when we got home and our swimsuits may never come clean.

Next up was New Orleans, the city that I was the most excited about visiting. Our list of things to see was long and the restaurants we wanted to eat at was even longer. The weather was pretty much what we expected - hot and humid. Our first morning was pretty rainy, but it was nice to cool off a bit. We toured the St. Louis Cemetery #1. So interesting! We saw the future “home” of Nicholas Cage and also the grave of Mr. Plessy, as in “Plessy v. Ferguson”, the case which supported the “Separate But Equal” philosophy. This case was later overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. Thankfully. All of the grave sites are above ground, and as family members pass, they are “bagged up”, the tomb is opened, and the body is pushed in along with the previously deceased family members. Hmmm, interesting. And we thought ten weeks in a tin can was a lot of family togetherness! 

The World War II museum was next on the agenda and we spent quite a bit of time there. So well done! They enormity and horror of the war, specifically D-Day, were overwhelming to contemplate and there wasn’t a lot left to the imagination. Our conversation that night was about freedom, being grateful and thankful, and the importance of working towards peace. An eye-opener for the kiddos even though they had already visited Pearl Harbor. We spent a bit of time wandering around the French Quarter admiring the gorgeous architecture and shops. We made the mistake of deciding to show the kids just one block of Bourbon Street. Turned out that that particular block was full of strip clubs and had quite a distinct smell - something between vomit and stale beer. Yet ANOTHER conversation to have with the kids. Parents of the Year, right here! We sampled all the good local food that NOLA has to offer, and even had beignets two mornings in a row! Good thing we walked off all those calories! We also decided that we didn’t give New Orleans enough time, so someday, Jason and I will head back for a long weekend, minus the kids.

With school starting soon, we’ve been on the kids to do some lessons in their summer workbooks. I brought several with us on the trip, but they mysteriously weren’t getting done. Jason decided that since we had a long drive to Memphis, they each had to complete 20 pages. You would have thought we’d have chopped off their arms! Someday they’ll thank us, right?

Surprise, surprise! We had a full day planned for Memphis, too. First, Graceland. I can’t say that any of us were ever big Elvis fans, but we all enjoyed seeing the mansion and the grounds. Made us wonder what his life would have been like had he lived another 42 years. What would he say about hip-hop music? Or pop music in general? Since we were there just a few days after the anniversary of his death, there were still dozens of floral arrangements and displays out. It seemed like every Elvis Fan Club out there had sent something there to commemorate the day. It really felt like a living memorial.

Next stop on the agenda was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. Since we had to cut out the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama, I really wanted the kids to take their time in this museum. And we did. This museum should be required for every American to visit. Perhaps if I do get around to writing a book about this trip, I should include a chapter called “Places you must go to retain your American citizenship”. Powerful. Emotional. I was choked up and had chills. They don’t just share information about Martin Luther King’s assassination. They start at slavery. They go into detail about the struggles and it’s no holds barred. I found myself getting angry almost when I read about the challenges African-Americans faced when trying to vote. How hard they had to work to get recognition and the right to vote and still, how some states made it virtually impossible for them to exercise that right. And then it hit me - this struggle is not over. There are states RIGHT NOW that are making it harder for minorities to vote and the Supreme Court in 2013 made it legal for states to change their voter registration laws without federal oversight. Jason and I have been saying this quote for the entire trip, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Yes, I’m a little fired up about this one.  Ok. I’m off my soapbox. Fortunately, some pretty awesome fried chicken from Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken restaurant allowed us some time to process what we had just seen and allow the kids to ask questions. 

During this planning process for this trip, we mounted a huge map of the U.S. onto some foam board and put sticky notes and arrows all over it. We brought this map along with us, sticky notes and all. When we had talked about St. Louis, I always felt like “Ah, we’ll never make it that far. No way. How on earth are we honestly going to last eleven weeks?” St. Louis was the last sticky arrow on our map and suddenly, there we were. 

St. Louis was our last national park stop. Our last boat ride. Our last night of sampling local cuisine. Our last museum. I honestly floated through our day there in a bit of a fog. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity? The surreal feeling that our trip was almost over? Or was I just trying to take it all in and was feeling overwhelmed. Either way, we did enjoy our day there. We took the tram up to the top of the Gateway Arch and saw for miles in both directions. Our riverboat tour on the Mississippi was enjoyable, mostly because we brought snacks with us - it was ungodly hot! The Old Courthouse brought our civil rights conversations full circle as it was the site of the Dred Scott case, a major factor in the events leading up to the civil war. 

We were feeling like we had laid some pretty heavy stuff on the kids, so our last stop of the day was the City Museum. What a misnomer! This place was nuts!! A sculptor had taken everyday found objects and created new, crazy, bizarre and HUGE pieces of sculpture designed for kids (and adults) to climb on, crawl over and just have a ball! There are enchanted caves inside the building. Ponds. Loud fun music. Wire tunnels that you crawl through. Indoor slides. Mosaics everywhere. Oh, and on the roof of the building? A ferris wheel. A huge slide that you have to walk up first. A school bus that hangs halfway off the roof. And another slide that takes you down ten floors back to the entrance. Ball pits. Rope swings. A bug collection. And finally, a full service cocktail bar. Yup. Not joking. We had a blast and walked out of there dripping wet with sweat and big smiles on our faces. We were done and the trek home was the next thing on our to do list.

Which, leads me to today. We drove halfway home and my sister, brother-in-law and two nieces came and visited us for the evening. We were beyond excited to see them and when they drove up, all four us ran out of Harvey and just hugged and hugged and hugged. They welcomed us “Almost Home” and despite the rain, we had a super fun night together. Our niece Lily found our aliens Fart and Paul and played with them for a good long time. I hope she doesn’t learn the word “Fart” from us. 

Tomorrow, we will drive the last three hours of our trip and arrive home to be greeted by friends and family. We’re already trying to come up with answers to the questions we’re sure to get, like “What was your favorite place? What park did you like the most? What was the best thing you did?” I’m sure I’ll come up with answers by then, but my favorite part of the trip was the journey itself. The time with my family. The time seeing our country. The time we spent laughing. The time we spent frustrated. The time we didn’t want to be around the rest of us. The time we spent learning about each other. The time we spent learning about ourselves. 

I’m sure we’ll do another post or two next week. I have a funny one planned in my head already. Plus, we’d like to share a bit about how our transition back to reality went. I just hope that you’ve enjoyed our journey too. We thank you for your love and support during this trip and we hope that we’ve inspired you. You only get one life, folks. So, go out there and live it already. Sit down with your family and plan a trip. Or better yet, email me and I’ll help you. Don’t let your life stand in the way of LIVING your life. You live in a beautiful and amazing country. Take advantage of it. 

- April

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Don't Mess with Texas OR How much brisket can one family eat?

Hi friends and family! Haven't had the greatest wifi recently, so my apologies for no recent posts. Of course, we haven't been sitting around drinking sweet tea - we're actually eating our way through Texas. After eating so well and healthy this trip, all this beef is making us sluggish and tired. But that might be the humidity too. A combo for sure. Either way, Mommy is going to need to do a cleanse when she gets home.

I left off in Santa Fe as we were headed to Carlsbad Caverns, but before I forget, we did tour the Georgia O'Keeffe museum. Fascinating! Very well done. Even the kids enjoyed it. They may not appreciate her work now, but someday, they will have a context when asked to study her pieces. Her flowers are magnificent!

Ok, so on to Carlsbad Caverns, located in New Mexico near the Texas border. But first, what God-loving tourist isn't going to stop in Roswell, NM? We had to! But, so dumb. The UFO Museum is an old, smelly movie theater converted into just a big room full of newspaper articles written in size 6 font. A few pictures. A super tacky display of aliens and a horribly painted UFO that lights up every 30 minutes. Ridiculous. It would take you two weeks to read everything they have posted. Not well done, but at least we can say we went there. Didn't change our minds either. The only redeeming part of that trip was buying two HUGE inflatable aliens and putting them in Toad when it's attached to Harvey. More than a few people have pointed and laughed. But, every time we have to unhook Toad and drive him somewhere, we have to drag the aliens out and throw them in Harvey. And yes, they have names. Fart and Paul. You can guess who named them. So proud.

The day definitely improved once we hit Carlsbad Caverns. Since there isn't a lot around there, I have a tough time telling you that the Caverns are a must see, but I'll do it anyway.  YOU HAVE TO SEE THE CARLSBAD CAVERNS! It was my 2nd favorite national park, after Zion. These caverns/caves are enormous, full of stalactites and stalagmites, and stunningly beautiful. They were "discovered" by a 16-year-old kid named Jim White, back in the early 1900's. He explored by himself and didn't tell anyone what he was doing. Crazy! We explored three trails - King's Palace which was a ranger-led tour, the Natural Entrance and the Big Room.  Probably five miles of trail to see just a fraction of what is there. There were so many switchbacks entering the National Entrance that I lost count after 20-something. Seriously, it's worth the trip!

The best part though was at night. There are over 300,000 bats that live in the caves and at 7:45 pm, it's dinner time. They all come swirling out of the natural entrance over the course of 30 minutes and it almost looks like smoke coming out. So many bats! They eat over 2-1/2 tons of insects, etc. EACH NIGHT! We weren't allowed to take pictures. In fact, all electronics had to be shut off and everyone in the amphitheater had to be totally quiet. Gotta love echolocation! A super fun day! Oh, and we had a huge meal of barbecue. The first of many.

The next day, we had a long driving day as we headed to San Antonio for a three day stop. Most of our stops have only been two nights, so three nights is a luxury! On our first day, we enjoyed brunch at a beautiful restaurant on the Riverwalk, did a little window shopping and took a boat ride down the San Antonio river. That night, we had a ball! Went to Tejas Steakhouse and had the best steak ever! Since it was a Saturday night, it was RODEO NIGHT! Yee Haw! For real! We were quite underdressed - no cowboy hats, no cowboy boots and no big belt buckles - but what a cool experience. Probably the first time on our trip that I felt like I was in a different country. A completely different culture. Frankly, a little uncomfortable - but served for great discussions afterwards. Once the rodeo was complete, they had a live band there and everyone headed to the big pavilion for dancing. Kids were horrified that Jason and I worked on our two-step, but it was awesome! It felt like we were going back 100 years watching the boys work up the nerve to ask the girls to dance. Only difference was the girls had to put their iPhones away before hitting the dance floor. Watchful parents stood off to the sides.

The next day was Mission day. First we visited the San Jose Mission on a ranger-led tour. Talk about eye-opening! Hoping that I wasn't the only one who didn't know this, but the priests that set up the missions were actually doing so on orders from the Spanish Crown, not strictly for religious reasons of conversion. In the San Antonio area, the native americans were in the midst of a drought, the Apaches were headed their way with less than good intentions and suddenly, the priests arrived, offering the native americans safe haven, food, protection, etc. All they had to do was follow a few simple rules - completely change their way of life, culture, religious affiliation, and swear allegiance to Spain and to the Catholic church. Yup. No sweat. They had to build the mission, stone by stone. They had to dig miles and miles of irrigation canals. They were "taught" skills, like blacksmithing, farming, etc. Once they were deemed worthy, they were made Spanish citizens, given a small plot of land in the middle of nowhere, told to do the job they were "trained" to do, and then pay taxes to Spain. This was their way of nation building. My gosh! Why didn't I know this? The good, the bad and the ugly, for sure. We stayed for part of the mass that was offered at the Mission church. Lucky for us, it was the mariachi band service. Amazing music in such an historic place.

After, we headed over to the Alamo. While it was interesting to see and hear about, I guess I didn't feel that sort of emotional connection that many Texans feel. The Alamo is the symbol of Texan liberty. I've heard other people say that going to the Alamo is more about being able to say you've been there than anything else. So, box checked! At this point, we were wicked hot and tired, and perhaps a little soft in the head because the kids talked us into going to the Wax Museum and a Ripley's 4D Wild Ride. Sorry to say that we won't get that $86.00 back. Ah well. They enjoyed it and it was air conditioned!

Then we were off to Austin, Texas, a short drive away. With dark clouds overhead, we decided to do some laundry and hang out in Harvey, trying to stay cool. Pretty quickly, the storm came in, with 50 mph gusts. I was alone in the laundry room, figuring that Harvey was probably ok, but not so sure about Toad. Pretty quickly, I saw a steady stream of people dodging the lightning, running into the campground office. Turns out, about half of the campground lost power. So, here I am, with 8 loads in the washing machines, panicking that if the laundry room loses power, I am in big trouble! Jason texted that all was good, the A/C was still running and Toad was still in one piece. And, the laundry room never lost power. Whew! That night, we had dinner with Jason's colleague, Probal and his beautiful family over at Salt Lick. A wonderful night of laughs, catching up on the work front, and just enjoying the evening with them along with some very delicious brisket. The sauce was my favorite! They were so helpful - showing us where the good grocery store was, highlighting some of the great things Austin had to offer, etc. Just a great evening!

Our full day in Austin just flew. We enjoyed a "sleeping in" morning followed by a huge tickle war. Love those kind of mornings! The University of Texas was our stop and we checked out the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. Again, I learned a lot! What a character! I think it was pretty enlightening for the kids to realize that so many things in our daily life that we take for granted were signed into law during the Johnson Administration. Major civil rights legislation, Medicare/Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, significant increases to education funding, Child safety, Space funding, creation of the department of transportation, Fair Housing and immigration law. Also, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - I'm an NPR nut! We were doing things kind of backwards, since we were headed to Dallas the following day, but the kids asked tons of questions and again, great conversations. And of course, more brisket for dinner. Rudy's this time - the place is inside a gas station! Gotta love Texas!

I had promised Jason that I would drive more once we were out of the mountains, so I was at the wheel for our drive from Austin to Dallas. The weather was much less humid, still hot, but more tolerable, so we headed to the Texas Rangers baseball game that evening. A beautiful night. We're starting to think that we're bad luck, because they lost. Badly. Just like the San Francisco Giants did when we went to that game. We also realized that Toad's back tire was making an awful noise - something was clearly wrong. Great. The following morning, Jason and Jack found this place called Baertrax, a shop specializing in Jeeps. Josh, the owner, was most accommodating and quickly ascertained that the brakes were all fouled up. He went out of his way to get everything fixed quickly and they were on their way. Josh rocks! The boys also love the Baertrax hats he gave them! Now, we just need to figure out how to keep Toad's exhaust system bolted where it's supposed to be so that it's not so noisy. But alas, we had Dallas to see!

Actually, Dallas was a last minute add-on to the trip. Since we had cut a few other places, we had time to trek up there and we're so glad we did. We spent all afternoon at Dealey Plaza and the 6th Floor Museum. Jack has read and studied up on JFK the most out of all the presidents and was pretty excited to visit there. The exhibits and displays were so well done. Easy for anyone to understand and appreciate the confusion, emotion and heartbreak of those days in November. In my family, November 22nd has been a day of note for as long as I can remember because my parents went on their first date that very day of Kennedy's assassination. A difficult decision not to cancel their plans, but I'm awfully glad they didn't. We took lots of pictures outside as cameras were not allowed in the museum. There's actually a big white "X" in the middle of the road where authorities believe Kennedy was when the second bullet hit him. Very eerie being there. I was surprised to see a little plaque at the place Abraham Zapruder stood filming on that fateful day.

Moving on, we had to hit Wild Bill's Western shop and Jason is now the proud owner of a handsome cowboy hat. Oh, and we had brisket for dinner. My body can't take much more of this, but when in Rome...

Until next time, y'all!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August - Wetyerpants fun OR Why didn't I learn that before?

Oh August, how did you arrive so quickly? Perhaps because we literally haven't slowed down a bit since my last post, and with just two weeks left, we are cramming so much into these days! The kids are begging to sleep in but there's no way! For a couple of reasons.  But I digress...

After leaving Rocky Mountain National Park, we celebrated Katie's birthday in Golden, Colorado. Since downtown Denver doesn't exactly offer RV campgrounds, staying in Golden ended up being a great option. Her plans for her birthday were simple - Lunch at Panera. Going to a movie. Shopping. And DONE! But first, her parents gave her a big surprise that left her overjoyed and speechless.  We are so good!!! Back in May, I asked her extended family, school friends and dance friends to write her a birthday wish and give it to me before we left. And everyone seriously came through! We hid all the  gifts and cards in the bottom of Jason's closet in Harvey and she never found them! So, on her birthday morning, we woke her up by spilling a giant envelope onto her bed. The smile on her face was one I will never forget. One of my favorite moments of the trip.

We quickly discovered that our campground was mere miles from... wait for it... A MALL! With TARGET as an anchor store. I was giddy, let's be honest. It even had a movie theater in the area. Happy accident! So, lunch at Panera followed by Maleficent at the theater, then shopping at the mall and Target. Pretty hilarious when this makes everyone jump for joy! My how our lives have changed.

The rest of our trip to Denver was kinda rained out but we made the best of it. Eight loads of laundry, shopping at the 16th Street Mall and dinner at the famous Buckhorn Exchange and I call it a good day. The Buckhorn Exchange is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in the country. The walls are COVERED with animal heads (and full bodies), many of them shot by Teddy Roosevelt. While waiting for our table, we hung out in the upstairs saloon listening to a cowboy sing traditional songs. It reminded us of the Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut - one of our favorite places when we lived in New England. If someone could shoot it and fry it up, it was on their menu. Our rattlesnake appetizer was surprisingly good and gave us some pretty cool bragging rights! We weren't quite brave enough to try their specialty, Rocky Mountain Oysters. Here's a hint - there are no real oysters in them.

Since we had once again reconfigured the trip, having to cut out Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson (bummer), we had a couple of extra days.  Saved that much just in driving time. We decided to hit Colorado Springs. Great decision. First stop was the U.S. Air Force Academy. Blown away by the dedication these cadets have to each other and their country. A proud and humbling experience to visit the campus and tour their chapel. After going through the Christian, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist areas, I asked why didn't they have a small Muslim mosque or prayer room. I was pleased to hear that there was a prayer room located in the basement, and it was located there simply because they needed a water supply. They didn't advertise it because it hadn't yet met the requirements for accessibility. I was satisfied.

We hustled our way next to the Olympic Training Center which is located like right in the middle of a neighborhood. Harvey didn't like it. And we, showing up in plenty of time for the 4:30 tour (last of the day), didn't like it that they had to stop tours early at 4:00 due to having so many visitors. Ummm, really??? We should have made a fuss, but didn't, and followed the signs for RV parking, figuring there would be a better exit. Yeah, well, signs lie. No such parking area. No such exit. Yet another time we had to unhook Toad, back up Harvey, hook Toad back up and get out of there. Jason loves doing this, especially when it's raining, sunny, windy or hot.

Our campground that night was near Garden of the Gods so we figured we better check it out. It was just "meh". It's getting harder to impress us. A quick drive through the loop and we were headed back to the Olympic Training Center. We finally got in. And, WOW. There are 12 residential sports there and we toured the workout facilities and gyms. Got to watch the female wrestlers do their stuff, a fencer work out in the new conditioning gym and saw many athletes going from place to place. Since residents must be invited to train there and they must be at least 16 years old, we didn't see any female gymnasts, but it was inspiring to be there. Between the Air Force Academy and seeing these athletes, it kinda makes you want to do more, be more. Don't waste time being less than you are capable of being.

No rest for us yet - we were headed to Pikes Peak in the afternoon. Bought tickets to ride to the top on the famous Cog Railway and we weren't disappointed. After leaving the bottom on a relatively warm day, we encountered a snow storm at the peak. Our planning is getting better, but not perfect, so we ran around on the top wearing shorts and sweatshirts. Not the smartest thing. Ate some of their world famous doughnuts (which weren't that great, but were hot) and it was time to jump back on the train. Only then did the clouds break and we were able to appreciate the view. Awesome! 14,000 feet of awesome!

The next day pushed me out of my comfort zone again. It was Whitewater Rafting day. The upside to doing this was that I had to shop at Target for water shoes, and clothing to wear that wasn't cotton. I think I dragged out that trip for a solid hour before we really had to check out. It's the little things! Anyway, after listening to the 15 minutes of nail-biting safety stuff, we were geared up and ready to go. Our guide, Spencer, was the quintessential "I studied Geology at UW, and now I teach ski lessons in the winter and guide whitewater rafting trips in the summer. Soooooo cool. My parents are wicked proud!!!" With Katie and Jason at the front of the boat, the first big splash caused Katie to squeal so high that only neighboring dogs could hear her. The Arkansas River is COLD!! Our first big rapids caused Katie and I to fall into the boat and when we gathered ourselves together again, we heard Jason yell "WE LOST SPENCER!" Are you kidding me? We turned around and there's Spencer, working like crazy to get back in the boat. Just my luck - we practically lost our guide 15 minutes into the trip. He tried to explain that he "meant" to do that, but the other guides on the river were giving him a pretty hard time, so I wasn't buying it. But, we had a ball. Jack laughed the whole way. At the tail end of the trip on the last set of rapids, Jason sat on the front of the boat like he was riding a bull. Hilarious!! Needless to say, we loved the experience and may be game for tougher rapids next time, but were thankful to get out of our wet and muddy clothes!

As we continued our way towards Mesa Verde that night, I received a wonderful text message from my dear friend, Stephanie Woods. Our families have been friends and vacationed together since she and I were very little girls. They have been on an amazing journey themselves this summer - almost a month of seeing the country with 4 adults and 5 kids in one motor home. God bless them! Anyway, turns out they were in Mesa Verde! We made plans to have drinks and dinner the following night and I started counting the minutes. But first, we had to see all that the park had to offer.  Once again, we crammed a lot into that day. The three cliff dwellings we saw were Balcony House , Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree. The ranger guides gave us tons of information and the kids really enjoyed it. We managed to pack in some decent exercise, too, because the tours start on top of the cliff, then you have to take stairs, ramps or ladders to get to and from the sites. I think it gave the kids another opportunity to be grateful for what they have. The amount of work these people had to do just in order to survive was overwhelming to contemplate. Puts a dead iPod into perspective for sure.

Our evening with the Woods/Klein/VandenBout clan was a much needed respite. We had not seen anyone we knew since we left my parents in San Francisco on July 5th. The kids got to play with their friends, we got to reconnect and share stories and all of us spent a good chunk of time just saying "WE ARE SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!" Friends are blessings and we were truly blessed to see them.

The next day was pretty much a driving day as we headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the third largest art community in the country (after NYC and LA). I had promised to do more driving once we got through the mountains, so it was most definitely my turn. During my three hours in the driver's seat (singing along to my iPod as loudly as I could to annoy my children), Jason figured out our gas mileage. Our original route would have come close to 11,000 miles so we were surprised to see that we had only driven 7800. We were also (unpleasantly) surprised at our horrible gas mileage. In the mountains, Harvey (pulling Toad) averaged a measly 2 mpg.  TWO! Awful! On the regular, plain old flat highways, we were closer to 8, so our average was somewhere around 6 mpg. We are still under budget for fuel overall, but it's clearly NOT due to Harvey's sparkling performance.

But again, I digress. Santa Fe was the start of our hot weather. Yes, I know we've had very hot weather on this trip (well, and snow) but this heat had a humidity kicker thrown in. We've known all along that this was coming, but I take back my complaints about "dry heat". I'll take dry heat any day of the week! Fortunately, Santa Fe had LOTS of beautiful stores to shop at and lovely restaurants to enjoy margaritas in. I didn't buy anything!!!!! We visited the oldest church in the country (San Miguel's - built in the early 1600's), the oldest house (directly across the street) and the oldest government building (Palace of the Governor). Having lived in New England, we were pretty surprised that all this "oldest" stuff was in the southwest, but there it was. The Spanish were nation building, the missions were being developed and of course the native americans were beyond established - they were struggling to maintain their culture, their identity and their way of life. I'll talk more about that when I blog about our visit to the Missions in San Antonio and the Alamo. Very disheartening and enlightening. After those visits, I am happier than ever that we are exposing our children to the history of our country - the good, the bad and the ugly. And, I struggle with "Why didn't I know this before?" Well, I am newly committed to making sure Katie and Jack understand not just WHAT happened, but WHY also. It's the WHY that's important in my book.

So, it looks like this post has gone on long enough and you need a refresh on your coffee. The cities I am most excited about visiting are coming up quickly so until next time...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where do I begin OR are we that close to the end?

As I write this, we're on Day 53 and I simply cannot believe it.

The time is flying by so fast it makes my head spin. It literally seems like yesterday that I was loading Harvey up with gobs of stuff (that I now know we didn't need) and stressing about the trip. Now, we're over 2/3rds of the way through, and we've done so much, seen so much, experienced so much... I don't know where to start.

By way of updating, I think Jason's last post ended at Zion National Park, which was by far the favorite Park of the entire family. After staying at a dust bowl which you could barely call a campground, we headed to Bryce Canyon. Think Grand Canyon, but smaller and more colorful. This campground was beautiful! No electric, no water, but tons of personality and a sky so full of stars, it lit up the place. I saw my first two shooting stars! It was here, too, that we discovered that singing and dancing made the kids totally embarrassed and in fact, they threatened to climb up on the roof of Harvey. That's all it took.  Jason and I broke out into song (loudly, too, I might add) and up they went. What a quiet five minutes that was. No doubt our neighbors appreciated it too!

The kids had been wanting to go horseback riding, and Bryce Canyon proved to be the perfect place. I took advantage of four hours of alone time (not so good with heights) and the three of them took a three hour trip to the bottom of the canyon. They loved it! They also came back covered in pinkish red dust, which did not come out in our most recent trip to the laundromat. The next morning was hilarious because they discovered soreness where they didn't know they could be sore! But we still managed another night of hanging out at the campfire, talking about our best moments and Jason even gave a rather poetic lecture on share price dilution. The kids actually listened!

Then, we were off to Arches National Park. My earlier concerns about looking at rocks was starting to come true. A beautifully scenic place, with amazing arched rock formations, captured our attention until we hit the heat of the day. We were officially "rocked" out. Jack and I gave up on the last bit of the hike, and drank the water that we were supposed to use to keep our lunch cold. It was hot! Fortunately, relief was in sight! Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area!!!

We rented a rather scary looking pontoon boat and spent the entire day on the water. Swimming, splashing, admiring the beautiful scenery. A truly wonderful day. We have missed being on the water since of course our boat had to stay in storage. What a great break it was! It truly is the only way to see Flaming Gorge! Plus, no one got sunburned.

With no time to waste, we made the trek to Rocky Mountain National Park. After hearing at the front gate that only one campground still had vacancies, we were a little worried. See, we've been making reservations only a day or two ahead of time. Just trying to keep our schedule flexible. It hasn't burned us yet, but we were pretty close this time. We rushed to the open campground and easily found a great spot. Whew! After making a de-lish dinner a la Jason, we were joined by not one, not two, but 14 huge elk. Literally in the campsite next to us. They walked casually around, ignoring all the gathering people, and ate the old ash out of empty campsite fire pits. Baffled by this, we asked the volunteer ranger about it and he said the elk eat the ashes to get minerals, such as salt, then spit out the rest. Interesting. We could have sat there for hours watching them. Beautiful, graceful creatures. The ranger also said that during the fall rut, the big boys come down from the ridge opposite us and the "mating" happens right there in the park. Hmmmm.

We so enjoyed the Rockies. We hiked on the alpine tundra, about froze to death up there because it was so warm in the valley and we were ill-prepared. The first night, we arrived at 12,000 feet to be met with fog and clouds, so we couldn't see much. Next day was better! As we did another hike to Alberta Falls, I was inspired to sing my favorite songs from the Sound of Music. The kids were mortified which made me only sing louder. I mean, REALLY! Jason got a lot of it on video, so that we can continue to embarrass them for years to come. How do you NOT sing "Climb Every Mountain" when you're hiking in those hills? Our fellow hikers surely thought I had lost my mind.

It was here in the Rockies that I experienced an emotion I hadn't expected. I started grieving the end of the trip. We only had four more weeks to go, and then life would be different again. I was happy here. I had my family within arms length 24/7. We did everything together. We laughed. We cried (yup, a few times). We talked. We debated. We played hours of UNO. We made plans. We were together. Team Woods. What would be different when we got back? Would we still eat as healthy as we had been? Would we continue to hike as much as we had been? Would I still be okay not showering for three days? Would we still be full of wonder about the amazing things around us? Would the kids immediately go running back to their friends and leave Mom and Dad wondering where the time went? Since we will only be home one week before school starts and Jason goes back to work, we don't exactly have a lot of time to ease back into our life, routine and schedule. So, yes. I'm already sad about the trip coming to an end. Never expected to feel this way in a million years. Strange, huh?

The reality of it is that this trip was always going to have an ending. We are going to drive up our street, park Harvey, Toad and all the bikes, greet our family and friends, and hug our silly dog, MuddPie. I know the memories of this trip will last a lifetime and then some. Our kids will never forget it, both for good reasons and bad.  I understand and appreciate that. Jason and I have been blessed with this opportunity and pinch ourselves daily. He just said yesterday, "Are we really doing this?" Still feels that way.

I've started getting prepared for that big transition in September. The school supplies have been purchased and stashed next to our bed. Golf lessons have been scheduled. The competition dance season schedule comes out next week. Haircuts are on the books. (Note to Kathy, Amanda, DiDi and Jill - I'm sorry, but you have your work cut out for you!) Orthodontist and dentist appointments are on the calendar. PTO meetings, Book Club get-togethers - it's all on my schedule. I just need to remember to stay in the moment and enjoy this time - not get bogged down with all the other preparations. We still have a lot coming up. White water rafting is the next biggie. Oh, and we all ate rattlesnake last night. The fun times just keep coming.

And yes, it tasted like chicken.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Is my life defined by the number of switchbacks I can do, OR Let's water those seeds, shall we?

April told me after my last post that I do a good job of coming full circle with my stories, so here’s one that I didn’t even have to work at - it just happened that way.

In the past week, I have had the opportunity to do an incredible hike with each of the kids independently.  Jack and I hiked half way down the South Kaibab Trail, down to Cedar Ridge, in the Grand Canyon.  While Katie and I hiked to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park.  Both had their own challenges and rewards, and provided me an opportunity to spend some great one-on-one time with each child.

Our first day at the Grand Canyon we hiked the South Rim Trail, and were in awe of the expanse that the Grand Canyon covers.  The earthy reds and soft beiges that make up the cliffs paint a picture that is so softly beautiful that it looks like God has simply hung a giant canvas in front of you.  I honestly felt the whole scene had to be a Hollywood staged illusion and couldn’t possibly be real.

While walking the Rim Trail, I could see trails leading down into the canyon and started wondering how the vista would change from the bottom, rather than the top.  I talked to a ranger who told me: 1.) We should not hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon unless we were planning on spending the night, as it is too far to make it there and back in a single day with the heat we were experiencing; 2.) Even for a partial hike, he recommended leaving first thing in the morning so that we could be back by late-morning; 3.) For the best views, he recommended the South Kaibab Trail, but given the first two points above, he told me we should not hike beyond Cedar Ridge.  Jack decided he wanted to see the bottom of the canyon and would accompany me.

After driving into the park, then catching the shuttle bus to the trailhead, Jack and I started down the trail right at 7:00.  By 7:15 Jack had decided he was going to count the number of switchbacks that we were crossing to make our descent.  Throughout the course of the morning the number grew to ten, then the teens, then the twenties.  Despite the ever changing view, and the ability to see Cedar Ridge from a few of the turns, Jack started to question his ability to go on.  He even “called it” at one point and said he was ready to go back, but I promised him that we were no more than one or two turns from the bottom and that I had packed snacks for when we got there.  Anyone who knows Jack, knows that with this new information (i.e., snacks had been packed) we soldiered on.

We no sooner reached Cedar Ridge and found a nice place in the shade to enjoy a granola bar and some pretzels, when I saw a small crowd gathering at the end of the ridge around a large black object.  I got out the binoculars and saw that it was a California Condor and it was perched on the ground at the end of the ridge.  We made our way out there and ended up getting within about 50 feet before we decided to stop.  There was nothing between us and the bird and we spent a good amount of time taking pictures and video of the perched bird and four others that were circling around overhead.  

California Condors had been near extinction in the 1980’s and had been down to only 22 birds remaining.  Through a program that started by hatching birds in captivity, and then relentlessly tracking and keeping released birds safe from harm, there are now over 400 birds.  More importantly, they are starting to nest again, and produce offspring in the wild.  The California Condor has the largest wingspan of any flighted bird, averaging around nine and a half feet.  Though their bald heads are not the prettiest to look at, they are truly magnificent in flight.  Each Condor will fly an average of 200 to 400 miles per day while looking for food.  Because of their size, they are incredibly efficient fliers.  They seldom flap their wings, and instead use the thermals created by the heat rising from the desert to soar from place to place.  It was the soaring that gave us a magnificent experience on the way back up the canyon.

We lost count of how many switchbacks there were on the way down.  It was easily in the high twenties, perhaps more.  All I know is that they are a lot easier going down, than going back up.  We made frequent stops on the way up, and found ourselves working in parallel with two other families.  Jack and I would charge ahead for a bit until we tired and found a good resting spot, and the other two families would catch up.  Someone else would catch their breath first and start out again to find the next resting spot.  And so it went, switchback after switch back, mile after mile.

We were resting with one of the other families when it happened.  Jack and one of the other boys were sitting on a rock catching their breath, as were the rest of us that were standing.  The corner that we stopped at just happened to look straight  down a decline in the trail that looked right towards Cedar Ridge.  I happened to look up to see one of the soaring condors way off in the distance, but heading straight towards us.  I quick snapped open the video camera that was in my hand, while joking with Jack that he was attracting condors.  As I sat there and filmed this condor, to my amazement, it did not turn away.  It flew straight at us, and ended up soaring straight over our heads.  We keep saying that it passed within three feet of our heads, but in all honesty it was probably five feet.  It was so close that if I had a half way intimidating vertical leap, I could have jumped up and touched it.  In any case, I had no time to think about that, as I was too in awe of watching this rare, and magnificent bird course right over our heads.

Having the close encounter with the condor, made the trip for Jack.  He could’t wait to tell Mom and Katie when we got back to Harvey.  For me, it was seeing how well he did on the trek.  Jack normally doesn’t embrace big physical activities, and when he does he does it with the normal goofing around of a ten year old.  He and I had a serious talk before heading out, that some of these cliffs were going to be high, and that he couldn’t screw around on this hike.  He handled it with great maturity, and during one of our talks along the way, he said he thought he wanted to come back to Grand Canyon someday to do a river rafting and camping excursion.  I might make an outdoorsman out of him yet!

When I had done my cross-country road trip while coming home from my internship, a number of people told me not to go see Zion unless I had at least two days to dedicate to the park.  It did not disappoint!  When April and I re-worked the itinerary a couple of weeks ago, we gave the park two and a half days.  We had a good drive from the South Rim of Grand Canyon, so we used the afternoon after our arrival to drive around the park, find the visitor center and talk to a ranger.  April and I had both done our research on different hikes, but we wanted to get a professional’s opinion.  We talked to a great ranger, who helped us map out a full two days that would see a majority of the park.  The weather was forecasted to be nice, so we took the top off of Toad and set out on our adventures.

One of the hikes the ranger highlighted was one that I had heard about back in 2005 - the hike up to the top of Angels Landing.  A 1,488 foot monolith that juts out from the canyon wall and sits across the valley from a peak named the Great White Throne.  Both were named by a Methodist minister in 1916, Frederick Fisher.  When Fisher saw Angels Landing, he proclaimed, “only an angel could land on it.”  In the mid-1920’s they engineered a trail up the back side of the mountain that leads to the top.  In order to get all the way to the top, you have to scale the spine of a large fin that connects Angels Landing to the rest of the valley wall.  The top of the fin is only 8-10 feet wide in some places, with the trail only occupying about two feet of that space.  If you look off the sides of the fin, it is ~1,500 feet straight down on one side, and ~800 feet straight down on the other.  There are chains in place to help you navigate the climb, but you are not secured to anything and must navigate it yourself.  To add to the fun, there are constantly people going up and coming down at the same time, and both must share the same chains and the narrow trail.

As the ranger was describing the hike, both Katie’s and my eyes lit up.  This is exactly the type of challenge that gets us going.  We picked out a morning to do the hike, that would allow us to connect with April and Jack later in the day to explore more of the park and started our prep.  We filled our camel backs with water, made wraps for lunch, grabbed apples, a combination of pretzels and chips, and the video camera.

For the second time in three days I was facing an uphill climb through more switchbacks than I can count.  The trail first leads you from the valley floor, up a series of switchbacks to a narrow canyon that leads you to the back of the mountain.  Once on the back, you have a  series of twenty-one short, but very steep switchbacks known as ‘Walter’s Wiggles.’  At the end of the wiggles you are on a small plateau called Scout’s Landing that gives you a good view of the valley to the north, including Big Bend and the Temple of Sinawava, but not the whole valley.  That is only available from the top of Angels Landing, and Scout’s Landing is where you jump onto the spine of the mountain that will lead you to the top.

Early in our day, shortly after we had started our hike, we were passed by a ranger who was heading up to Scout’s Landing.  He said he was going to be there throughout the day providing a talk on one of the rarest birds around - the California Condor.  I told him that I had a close encounter two days before with one and we agreed to discuss it more fully when we reached the top.  Since he was in much better shape than Katie or I, he bounded off and left us to slowly huff and puff our way up the trail.  When we reached Scout’s Landing, the ranger had about thirty people gathered around him and he was deep in discussion about condors, so Katie and I decided to continue on to the top and would catch up with the ranger on our way back down.  

The start of the chains is most harrowing part.  I had been carrying my video camera in my hand throughout the hike to that point, and as soon as I saw what we were facing, I put it back in my backpack.  The first couple of hundred feet are going up a fairly steep incline, where the slope is running parallel with the canyon wall.  So, if you slip off you will be sliding straight down to an 800 foot drop.  To further complicate this part, the sandstone is flaking off through this section, and looks like the scales of a fish, and each scale was large enough to put one foot on.  
On the chains to
Angels Landing

As we traversed this section, I felt like I was constantly yelling at Katie, “ALWAYS keep one hand on the chain!”  She would call back to me, “I’m fine, Dad.  I’ve got good footing, and I’m O.K.”  To the amusement of the people around us, I would reply back, “Katie, I don’t need you to hold the chain for you.  I need you to hold the chain for me!”  I loved seeing her step out there on her own, but man the thought of something happening to her was nerve wracking.  More so, I was afraid of what April would do to me if something happened to her.  In the end, I kept one hand on the chain, and my second hand on the handle of her backpack.  I tried to assess a couple of times if that would actually provide me any hold if she slipped and somehow I convinced myself that it would.

Once we made it through the first section, the rest was just climbing over rocks, and figuring out how to navigate the narrow trail with the other hikers that were on it.  Similar to the hike with Jack, we found ourselves in a group of hikers and we would shout moral support to one another as we were making our way up the mountain.  When we finally reached the top of Angels Landing, there is about a 100 yard stretch of rock that is like the peak of a roof - coming to a point in the middle and sloping off to either side.  Fortunately, it is a shallow peak and we could almost run down it to reach the end point at Angels Landing.  From there, we were rewarded with incredible views all the way up and down the valley.  Simply stunning!  The folks that told me to give Zion its due weren’t kidding.  It is a sanctuary.

After relaxing with a couple of apples and a couple of pretzels - we were too pumped up to eat anything else - we started back down.  The hike down wasn’t nearly as bad, and I even got out the video camera a couple of times to record the trek. We quickly made it back to Scout’s Landing and the ranger was just mingling with a couple of other hikers.

Katie and I approached him and I started relaying the events of the hike Jack and I took two days before.  I even stopped and showed him the video I had of the birds and he started telling me just how lucky we were.  He had a condor feather, which was about two feet long, and told us to flap it.  It was amazing how much air you could feel it push as you moved it up and down.  The ranger also told us all about the program that had been set up to repopulate the species, and how they were now getting live hatches happening in the wild.  In fact, the first nest / hatch had just happened this past spring in Zion.  Previous to that, they had all been in the Grand Canyon.

As we were talking to him, another woman approached and told the ranger that she had just had an encounter with a group of condors, and as we talked we realized that she had been on Cedar Ridge shortly after Jack and I had been.  The condors are all tagged, and so Jack and I know that the condor that was on the end of the ridge was ’60’ and the one that flew over us was ’31’.  When the ranger asked her which birds she had seen, she said they were only able to get one number and it was ’09’.  Hearing this the ranger exclaimed, “Well, what was she doing all the way down there?”  Turns out that #9 is the female of the pair that nested, and was raising a baby, in Zion.  Looks like what we were told is true - condors will fly 200 to 400 miles for food.  

So, two incredible hikes - tied together by one of the rarest of bonds.  A bird from one park, showing up at another and making our day at both places.  As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but think of the distance the mama condor will go to take care of her baby.  Likewise, I can’t believe the distance we have come to provide our children these opportunities to reach and grow.  I hope in both cases, the new generation flourishes!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Jack's Cool Update OR So many places - So little time

Hi! I’m back!!! Jack here. For this post I’m gonna give you a list of some of the places I’ve been and tell you my favorite thing about that place.

  • I’ll start this off in Yosemite, I would have to say the amazing views from Glacier Point viewing Half Dome, El Capitan, Vernal Falls, (which I also hiked to the top of) as well as many others.
  • Next stop, San Francisco. Definitely Pier 39!!! I could spend HOURS there. But, it’s only a CLOSE second to Alcatraz Island where I met Deirdre Capone, the grand niece to celebrity gangster Al Capone. I was also able to get a signed copy of her book : Uncle Al Capone. It was probably one of the best books I’ve read all trip.
  • After that, we drove down the P.C.H. (Pacific Coast Highway) and spent 3 nights in Morro Bay. Then, we kept driving down to Ventura and stayed at the Ventura Ranch KOA. Very good first impression from KOA! It had a rock wall, pedal carts, and my FAVORITE, a zip line!!!
  • Then, VEGAS!! Surprisingly, Las Vegas, NV has a lot more than gigantic casinos, hotels, and resorts. See the Mob Museum (Just a note, we thought it would take 1- 1 1/2 hours. Set aside 3 Hours!) Or go see the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop home to the hit T.V. show  Pawn Stars. You can also go see a show. We saw Mystere, then ate in a casino buffet. Oh yes, and my friends reading this, I bet you're all wondering: “How’d you get into a casino??”  The  answer is that Federal Law prohibits a minors from gambling, but says nothing about going into a casino. Just stay on the path, and you can’t stop and have your parents tell you how a slot machine works. And bring a watch too because there are no clocks, or windows. Oh, and one last thing about Vegas if you’ve never been, If you do go, you will feel extra energized, and pumped up. That is because I heard that casinos pump extra oxygen into the building. For example, The show ended at 8:30 PM pacific time. It felt like it was 6:30 PM pacific. Once I stepped outside, I almost collapsed I was so tired.
  • Next was the Grand Canyon. It really is GRAND! Of course I hiked! I hiked the Rim Trail with my whole family then a trail that leads into the bottom of the canyon with just my Dad. We even saw a California Condor 3 feet above our heads! Cool, huh?
  • Finally, Shout-out time! Today I’d like to shout out all my grandparents. Grandma, Grandpa thanks for coming to San Francisco with us. Nana, I’d love to send my June letter, just I haven’t seen a mail box since Yellowstone. Papa, I hope you’re feeling better! I also want to shout-out my 4th Grade teacher, Mrs. Bedi! Ya know what? Let’s just shout-out ALL of Thornapple Elementary! Also I’d like to shout-out Mrs. Barker. Thank you for all the books!
Thanks for reading!

Hugs, Jack

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Katie's Update OR Why is everyone hogging the Mac?

This has been a CRAZY first five weeks. It is crazy that we have been gone this long. Yet somehow this is my first post! Sorry, Katie here and can I just say, WOW! This is probably the best experience I have ever had in my life. I know that some people have been waiting for me to post. Sorry about that. Everybody is hogging the computer! The last time I was on the computer was in San Francisco! Lots has happened since then, of course, and that is why I am here.

Since then I have been amazed at what we have seen. The ocean, in my opinion, was one of the best. We went to see the tide pools at Leo Carillo State Park which were really cool. We saw a baby starfish and about a billion hermit crabs. If you ever go, be sure to wear shoes. Rocks hurt! We saw a sea urchin and an unfortunate starfish (stupid seagulls!). 

Monterey Bay Aquarium was another thing on my must see list. We learned a lot about sea otters, which are super cute, squid, octopuses, sharks, kelp, urchins, etc. One of my favorite exhibits was the open sea exhibit. There were about a million sardines going around in a circle. There was a hammerhead shark in the same tank. I was amazed to see the other fish alive! There was a gigantic sunfish that was about as tall as I am! So cool! 

Then of course was Las Vegas. SO AMAZING!!!!!!!! It was so much fun to have a lunch other than ham and cheese wraps. The first full day we were there we had lunch with an old friend of Dad’s from business school. After lunch, Mom and I went shopping. SHOPPING SHOPPING SHOPPING!!!!! Caesers Palace has like 500 stores. I wish we could go beyond the 3 floors that we went to but we had a show to catch! First we bought me a new mascara (my first one for real and not for competition dance), got gelato, realized what time it was and ran to catch a cab. We finished our gelato before we got back - thankfully the boys did not notice! 

Next we went to Mystere, a Cirque de Soleil show. It is hard to explain what it was like. There are just no words. My top three favorite things in the show were the trapeze, the big baby, and the acrobats and dancers. It was impossible to see everything going on at once. If you ever go to one, don’t try to look at everything. You’ll get dizzy. 

The next day, we went... INDOOR SKYDIVING!!!! It was so awesome! We wore big, lightweight suits that caught the air coming from a spinning turbine underneath you. I had to have goggles that took up half my face because of my glasses. Besides that I had a blast! I can say officially that I have flown with no airplane or wings. 

Giving a shout out to my friends Courtney, Isabella, Tara, Sarah, Dana, Allison, Annie and Mary G., and all my competition dance peeps at the Moving Company. I miss you all so much and can’t wait to share with you all the adventures I’ve been having. I have been dancing everywhere we go - in fact, my Mom told me to stop dancing tonight because I was pretty close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. Makes her nervous!!

Well I hope you enjoyed my post and thanks again for reading about our crazy life!!!

Hugs, Katie