Open Road

Open Road

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Divine intervention or plain dumb luck?

Sometimes, when you least expect it, pretty awesome things happen. That's what happened to us in northern Idaho. Go figure.

As we continued our journey in the northern part of the country, Jason discovered this beautiful lake and since it was close to dinner time decided to exit to check it out. He had been admiring the gorgeous views and was the only one doing so since the three of us were napping. We woke up pretty fast when he started calling around to see if there were any campgrounds near the lake and sure enough, he found one. What he "discovered" was actually C'oeur d'Alene, Idaho.  A popular resort town on a huge and beautiful mountain lake that is loved and admired by many, including Barbara Walters! The downtown area? Adorable. The homes? Amazing! The campground? Clean, quiet, right on the lake and they had wifi and showers!!!

After finishing a lovely bottle of Chardonnay with our turkey burgers, we ventured out into town to find huckleberry ice cream - a local favorite.  And, sure enough, across the street from the ice cream shop was a Hitches Unlimited store. Now, you may recall our frustrating bike rack situation.  The bikes are on Toad, attached with dust, gum and using ratchet straps to stabilize and support the rack. At every stop since Minneapolis, we've tried calling the next town we expect to stop at asking if they can put a front hitch on Harvey so we can attach a special bike rack to that. The story is always "We can fit you in in about 2 weeks".  Yeah, that's not going to work.

Anywho, we called the hitch place first thing the next morning, pleaded our case, and our new friend Kevin said he would take a look at Harvey and see what he could do. Sure enough, he said he could design a special hitch, attach it at an angle so we couldn't bottom out on it and he would do it THAT DAY. Seriously, we about cried for joy! That meant that we would be without Harvey for the day, but what a place to be stuck! Boutiques! Lake! Boats! Amusement Park! 80 degrees with no humidity! The travel gods were on our side!

Off to breakfast we went, beaming! We were excited to try the sweet potato hash, since we were in Idaho, for heaven's sake.  When it arrived, I mentioned to our waitress that even though the potatoes were white, they still have a nice sweetness to them. That's when I got schooled.  "REAL sweet potatoes are WHITE.  Yams are orange." Uh, yeah.  We're in Idaho - of course they knew their potatoes.  Felt like an idiot.

Here are pics of the finished product.  Works great! We just need to get used to have more of a nose than a caboose! Kevin - you are our hero!!!

Stay tuned! And again, thanks for reading. Thanks for supporting us even if you think we're nuts. We love your comments both here and on Facebook. Brightens our days! If you have equally nutty friends, feel free to share our blog with them.  The more, the merrier.  Perhaps we can inspire other families to take the plunge!

By the way, we found more snow.  We'll take pictures of it today, but the funniest part of our drive was seeing the 15 foot high snow plow sticks (you know, the little sticks you put on the sides of your driveway to show the snow plow guy where to plow?) Yeah, here, they tower above you.  44 feet of snowfall on average.  Wondering where we are?  Check on us again in a couple of days!!!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jack's updates, OR, Wifi's a luxury now.

Hi! I'm Jack and this is my first time blogging. So, I haven't exactly reviewed the posts to see what my Mom and Dad have already told you, but, speaking with my Dad, he's saying the next few days are driving days, including 6 of 7 hours today. (But, they just say straight there, so I put on an extra hour, making it 7 to 8 hours of driving) Anyway,  I'll start in Milwaukee, Wisconsin I HAD SOME OF THE BEST RIBS IN THE WORLD!!!!        

After that, we drove up to  Minneapolis, to visit some
friends of my parents, they live on a lake, so we HAD to go kayaking!

So far, my favorite place we visited was Yellowstone, because we saw a bunch of wildlife, like bears, elk, and more bison than I could even TRY to count. It's not the sort of thing you see in Grand Rapids!

And, about my sister.  Two weeks in and I'm already thinking she's evil, but then again, I thought that before I left. We do have a lot of fun playing UNO.  We had a killer match.  Sometimes we ganged up on Dad, but then we had to stop playing because it was almost midnight. A three hour game.

When we're driving, I like to annoy my sister by making funny comments.  My parents don't appreciate that very much.

What I miss the most is my basement. (It has a 109" screen, and enough popcorn for 5 to 6 months, and a candy machine plus like 20 boxes of candy. At least when I left... The house sitter loves it as well. Both Grandpa and Papa are missing our basement too!

What I love the most is when I get time away from everybody. I go in the back of Harvey and read or play games. I got a sweet one-person hammock for my birthday, but it hasn't been warm enough to use it yet. I can't wait to try it out!

Having our whole family together makes me feel happy. I say that now...

I am most looking forward to San Francisco. I get to stay in a hotel. I won't have to make my own bed, both set it up and take it apart. Even though we have TVs, we don't have cable service, but hotels sure do!

We've had a lot of laughs on this trip.  The time I laughed the hardest was when I had 20 cards in UNO, and not a single yellow.

I've learned so much!  Some cool things I've learned about are that not ALL black bears are black. Most are actually cinnamon color.

A quick shout-out to some of my friends, Nate, Danny, Cameron, Bryce and my OM team. I hope you're all reading this. I also hope you're all having a great summer. I'll see you guys at school next year.

               - Jack


Friday, June 20, 2014

"It's only a SMALL rise" or 100 ways to make Mommy lose it

Mach 3 with your hair on fire!  That's how fast this trip is moving!  We manage to cram so much into our day that we can barely recall what we had for breakfast.  Along the way, we're learning a lot - about each other, ourselves, Harvey and of course, our great country.

After logging more than 2000 miles, we decided to institute a "One Complaint a Day Rule".  The kids use up their rule before they even get out of bed.  Generally, their one complaint is that this is a stupid rule.  Jason hasn't complained a bit.  I, however, abide by no such rule and shall not for the remainder of the trip.  I'm the Mommy!

On to our travels!  Yellowstone is now behind us and what a crazy 3 days THAT was!  We drove through more than one snowstorm and woke up our first morning with more than an inch of the white stuff on the ground.  I gave Jason a hard time for packing 5 sweaters/sweatshirts, but we all ended up wearing them. I don't think it ever got above 40 degrees until the day we left.  We were so anxious to de-layer but after not showering for 3 days, it wasn't exactly a sweet smelling activity.

And, speaking of being cold, we weren't really worried about it since Harvey has a generator and a cabin battery to run the furnace.  That's all good and fine as long as your battery is actually CHARGING.  The heat would kick in for all of 30 minutes before conking out for the night.  So, the clothing layers stayed on, the snuggling was extra good and we somehow survived. I, however, started losing it that first night, waking up freezing, with a dandy headache, and the knowledge we were going to be here for a couple of days.

The next morning, I figured I better suck it up.  After discovering that a bison had done a "#2" three feet from our door, we added another layer, tied on our hiking boots and headed out to find a fun little hike.  The park ranger (who I will forever call "The Sadist") convinced us that a hike along Yellowstone Canyon would be great.  Two hours tops, 5-1/2 miles and "it's only a small rise" in elevation.  YEAH, RIGHT!! We were sucking wind 30 minutes into it and all we could see were stairs. I was losing it.  We just kept going higher and higher.  Don't get me wrong, the views were spectacular, but there were zero guard rails and the trail was literally 12 inches from the edge of the canyon.  I spent most of my time yelling "BACK UP! YOU'RE TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE", which resulted in a lot of "Oh Mom!" and Jason rolling his eyes.  Am reasonably confident that the other hikers high-tailed it away from us.  I wasn't pleasant.

3-1/2 hours later, we were high-fiving and celebrated our victory by actually going out for lunch.  A real treat.  I apologized for being obnoxious and a chicken, and we all went back to Harvey for naps (again, with 4 layers on).  That night, however, was the highlight of the Yellowstone experience for me.  A kinder, gentler Park Ranger gave us some hints on when and where to find the most wildlife.  On our jaunt, we saw a moose, four bears (one grizzly and 3 cinnamon black bears), over a dozen elk, and more bison than I could count.  The bison are really hilarious.  It never failed - when a whole herd would get ready to cross the road (like 5 feet in front of us), the biggest ones would turn, look at us, pose, make a little noise, pose again, and then slowly, VERY SLOWLY, finish crossing. Jason took some great video which we hope to post when we figure out how to.  Another job for Jack.

We hit all of the major sights in Yellowstone too.  Old Faithful was right on time, but when we went back to watch it again, it never erupted.  Turned out, Old Faithful is now taking 94 minutes between eruptions instead of 80-90 minutes.  A lovely Park Ranger told us about this, and we were excited because we were actually there to experience it.  Mammoth Springs was wicked cool because you can almost watch the rock being formed - the landscape changes so fast.  We don't have to discuss the 436 stairs you have to climb to get to the highest terrace. I didn't lose it this time. Yeah me.

A few random things we've learned this week:

Jack is not allergic to Katie despite his frequent assertions to the contrary.
Jason has the patience of a saint.
8 days without Wi-Fi makes for cranky kids, resulting in a crankier mother.
We're still doing ok having ham and turkey wraps for lunch almost everyday, but man, nachos today never tasted so good.
A 3-hour UNO game is not out of the realm of possibility.
Despite being cautioned not to use the oven, we tried it anyway and it worked!  Burned the garlic bread, but it worked!
Katie's chief goal is to find campgrounds with swimming pools.  Nothing else matters.
Jack has accused Katie of cheating at the license plate game enough times that I'm about ready to keep the shades down and their eyes blindfolded.
I forgot to pack the ketchup.

A quick shout-out to our great waitress in Cody, Wyoming.  We purposely went to that restaurant to have Buffalo burgers but didn't see them on the menu.  She made sure we all had fabulous buffalo burgers anyway.  YELP and I were both going to be in trouble and she saved us.

Thanks for following us.  The best is yet to come! Kids hope to blog tomorrow.  I may or may not edit!!!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We've been busy! OR Internet! Oh, Internet..where have you gone to?

Wow!!  What a first week!!  We’ve heard from a few of you that you would like us to blog more frequently…well, we’ll try.  We have run into two challenges to frequent blogging: 1.) In order to make our reservations in Yosemite we are moving at lightning speed right now; and, 2.) We have been challenged to find internet connections strong enough to support blogging.  I tried to post while in South Dakota, but despite the campground advertising free wifi - nothing would load.  The campground that we stayed at in at Yellowstone gets their internet via satellite and when we went to post, they had used their allotted data for the day.  And, in focusing on issue #1 above - we didn’t take time to solve the lack of connectivity.  So, we’ll post when we can…

The first week has been absolutely amazing.  If I could, I would post each day, because we have seen so many amazing things on each and every day.  Let me give you a brief synopsis of what we have done since we left our good friends behind in Minneapolis.  

Our first stop was the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  A proverbial “drive-by” attraction - made more so by the fact that they are still building the murals for 2014.  It was so early in the season that not even the neighboring junk shops were open.  At least they had good popcorn!

The next stop was the Badlands.  We were all amazed at the beauty and size of the rock formations.  The kids loved climbing on the rocks and Jack learned a valuable lesson about how tennis shoes do not provide enough traction for rock climbing.  He was lucky that his slips all happened on the way down and only resulted in a bruised rear end, and nothing more.  We have now buried his tennis shoes in the back of the shoe locker and told him he can only wear his hiking shoes.

After leaving the Badlands, we made a quick stop by Minuteman Missile National Park, where we got to see a retired missile silo - with a missile still in it, although, I would guess that there is no ‘boom’ materials still attached.

The next couple of days were spent in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  On the first day we traveled the Needles Highway, where again we had the ability to climb on big rocks - I’m starting to sense a theme for this trip - if there are rocks, we must climb them!  The Needles Highway was spectacularly beautiful and amazing.  We later learned that the stone spires that rise hundreds of feet in the air were the original idea that eventually turned into Mount Rushmore.  A local leader had wanted to create a monument to the west, and signed up a sculptor to turn a few of the ‘needles’ into figures of the old west.  The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had another idea - a tribute to America and on a single mountain.  I think Mr. Borglum was correct, the needles are impressive in their own right.

The Needles Highway led us deeper into Custer State Park, where we saw a heard of buffalo sunning themselves on a distant hill.  It was easy to imagine the beauty the Native Americans saw in this wide open and bountiful land.  We then ran into a wild heard of burrows and we joined the crowds in feeding and petting them.  As we drove away, we came around a hill to find ourselves in the middle of a buffalo herd that was on the move.  There had to have been hundreds of buffalo walking past us, some of them passing within 5-6 feet of the car.  Since it was a beautiful day, we had the sides off of Toad, so it was just us and the buffalo - awesome!

Our last stop before leaving the Black Hills was Wind Cave.  A really beautiful cave that is unique in the world for its series of ‘box work.’  Wind Cave does not have stalactites nor stalagmites.  Instead it has a series of complex matrices that are not found anywhere else in the world.  Really cool.

From Wind Cave, we started our journey towards Yellowstone, with our interim stop at Devil’s Tower.  We saw that there is a first come, first served campground run by the Park Service at the base of the tower.  We rolled in at 7:30 pm to find the campground only half full and ended up with a beautiful camp site next to a meadow with a river running through it, and Devil’s Tower towering behind us - beautiful!  As we were setting up camp, a ranger came around and told us he was providing a program on the tower.  

Turns out the ranger is Lakota and after a brief explanation of the geology of the tower, he went on to tell us the traditional Native American stories related to the origin of tower and its significance as a spiritual grounds for the Lakota and other tribes in the area.  He also told us the story of the birth of the Lakota tribe.  The Lakota were given birth by the Earth and lived for centuries in Wind Cave, until a coyote, who was a little bit of trickster, told the Lakota people that if they came out of Wind Cave he would watch over them on the plains.  When the people ventured out of the cave, the coyote reduced the size of the opening of Wind Cave to what it is today (about the diameter of a cowboy hat), and the people were trapped on the plain.  The coyote watched them from a distance, laughing at them.  And, today, the Lakota still believe that coyotes have ‘laughing eyes’ and continue to find enjoyment at the trick they played.  For us, it was a great way to connect the two sites that we had seen that day.

The next day was a grueling 10 hour drive to Yellowstone.  The distance wasn’t that great, but the drive was through the mountains and speeds were usually limited to 20-30 mph.  We just got to Yellowstone, so not much to report yet - other than we have been caught in the middle of a snow storm, twice.  I tried to pack a few warm clothes before we left, but was told that we would have no use for those in Texas in the end of July.  I got a brief admission that we probably should have packed some warmer clothes as we were freezing off our (insert your favorite body part).  I would call that a victory if I wasn’t so cold!

Well, we are off to see the geysers, wildlife and all else that Yellowstone has to offer.  Our nights are filled with campfires, card games and lots of laughing.  With the exception of a few bickering duels by the younger members of our clan (to be expected), we are having a great time!  Hope to chat with you all again, sooner than this last time! 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Seriously? We're actually going on this trip? OR Cue Willie Nelson

# of times being asked "Are we there yet" = 7
# of times Katie lost her Kindle = 4

After a year of planning, worrying and preparing, we are officially underway!

The last minute preparations are done.  Harvey is packed to the gills.  Toad is still in one piece.  Duct tape is packed just in case. Thankful for all of that! Of course we had high expectations for an early departure, as in 7 am, Monday morning, but alas, that was not to be.  For those of you that know us well, you're totally not surprised by this.  We were blessed with so many friends and family stopping by to wish us well.  Seriously overwhelmed by all the love and support.

So, finally, we hit the road at 10:30 and realized we hadn't stopped at the ATM.  Picture our excited little family, in Harvey, pulling Toad which is piled high with bikes rather precariously, pulling into the bank.  A little jingle in our pocket and we're off.

Everybody's happy.  Kids are reading.  Jason's driving.  I'm napping in the front seat.  Life is good.

No trip would be complete without a stop for lunch at Redamak's in New Buffalo, MI.  Known for their burgers, Jack still insisted on reviewing the menu.  Seriously, Jack?  Always the funny one, he also decided to crawl inside a little firetruck designed to hold a 3-year-old.  Got stuck.  Will post the hilarious pictures once I find them!

A quick surprise stop in Chicago to visit my baby sister and her family.  We called her from the road asking if she was home - then told her we were five minutes away.  Surprise!  Can't imagine what her neighbors thought when we pulled in!

Our first night was just outside of Milwaukee, and a beautiful State Forest campground.  It used to be the largest prairie east of the Mississippi River until development began.  Private, beautiful, quiet.  Just what we like.  Of course then we started playing Apples to Apples and were laughing so hard we probably scared everyone away!  We're loud people.  Can't help it.

Before setting out on Tuesday morning, Katie and Jason went for a quick jog and watched a bee collect pollen on a flower.  Now, that was something that would NEVER have happened at home.  Later, Katie told Jack that the two of them should "unplug" for a while.  Mom and Dad SCORE!

And since this is a family trip, we had to make our first real trip stop at a brewery.  Nice, huh?  Jack kept complaining that this was NOT appropriate, but hey, we learned a few things and had some samples at the end.  All good!

Minneapolis was our destination last night and were so happy to see our dear friends, the Britts.  Their cul-de-sac is serving as our campground!  You know those friends that you don't see for a few years but still pick up right where you left off when you reconnect?  Yes, those are the Britts.  So blessed to spend time with them.

The big job for today is buying a new bike rack.  The one currently on Toad just isn't going to survive 12,000 miles.  Jason and our friend David are off looking for one that bolts to the bumper of the motorhome.  I see an afternoon of laughs in our future watching these two put it on.  Someone is going to lose a finger.

Finally, a big welcome to those of you new to our blog.  You're in for a wild ride.  There is nothing boring about our family, our trip, or our adventures.  Would love your feedback on places to go, things to do and advice on how to survive 10 weeks in a tin can.  A big shout out to the Grand Rapids Press for the amazing article Justin Hicks wrote about our family.  And, another shout out to the ABC show The Chew.  They taped a segment yesterday about all this craziness and it is scheduled to air on July 1st.  We had no idea that this adventure would get this kind of attention.  I guess we better make this trip memorable and inspirational for all of you out there.  Expectations are high! Also, a big hello to Mrs. Fleckenstein's class.  We hope you have fun learning about all the wonderful places our country has to offer.  Please comment any time.  We'd love to hear from you.

The kids are begging to use the MacBook now that we have Wi-Fi, so I'll sign off.  They may start posting here also.  Sure to be hilarious.  Hope they aren't keeping track of how many times I complain.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

We really were overconfident or Toad, why do you spite me?

We did our second 'trial run' last week, and I can't say it went as swimmingly as our Memorial Day weekend outing.  But, we did learn a lot - which is why we are doing trial runs...

Tuesday after Memorial Day, we turned right around and headed out again for Ames, Iowa.  Our son, Jack, was a member of an Odyssey of the Mind team that made it to the World Finals, which were held at Iowa State University.  Iowa State was founded in 1858, only three years after our beloved Michigan State University, a fellow land-grant university.  The campus was just as beautiful as East Lansing, and multiple times when walking across campus I expected to cross the Red Cedar.

Jack's team had the best performance of their year and had their highest scores across all of their previous performances.  For their long-term problem, the main problem they had to solve, they had the highest score of any team, in any division, across any problem.  They rocked!  And, ended up taking 3rd place for their division and problem.  We are very proud of them and they had a great week.

Our drive to Iowa was completely uneventful, but once we got to Iowa the fun started.  We were in a campground that only had electric hookup, so we needed to be self-sufficient when it came to water and waste.  In every previous campground we had a city water hookup - this was the first time we were running off of the fresh water system.  And the fresh water system would not all.

We eventually found a valve under the bed that closed off the fresh water tank, and had not been opened.  It took calls to both the dealership and the manufacturer to find this valve.  Both of them had pointed us to multiple other spots on "the coach" (industry lingo for Harvey), including going through every compartment, nook & cranny, and even taking off a panel to access the hot water heater.  Turns out that just about every coach is different, and this is why nobody, not even the manufacturer could tell us exactly what was wrong.  One would think that standardizing systems, such as those needed for fresh water, would make sense.  Anyway, we now have running water, whether we are hooked up to city water, or not.

In an effort to regain our ability to flush the toilet during our water crisis, April posted our problem to an RV enthusiasts website in hopes of drawing from the collective wisdom of the world wide web.  The lack of standards in this area, along with the multitude of other potential causes to our problems created a rather entertaining online argument between a couple of more seasoned campers.  I'm thinking that posting random questions may be a good source of entertainment throughout the summer.  The discussion got pretty heated, and was a welcome diversion from the frustration of not being able to flush the toilet.

The next challenge came when unhooking from electrical.  There is a switch you have to flip in Harvey when you move from being plugged in to, running off the batteries.  Apparently, when you first make that switch, the refrigerator stops working while it switches over to propane.  Apparently, the panel that shows all of the tank levels also takes a minute to switch over.  I happened to notice during this time that the refrigerator was not running, and when I went over to the panel I saw that the propane tank showed as empty.  Since we had food in the fridge, this launched us on a quest to refill the propane tank the morning we were leaving Iowa.  Once we found a place that does refills, the attendant immediately saw that our tank was full and when I rechecked the fridge, I saw that it was running just fine.  Lesson learned - make sure to be patient when switching everything over.  We finally made it home late Sunday night, and everyone promptly collapsed from a great week.

On Monday, one week from our official launch, I started installing steps on Toad to make it easier for April and the kids to get in and out.  With the extended lift that is on Toad, the door frame is probably about 30 inches off the ground and requires a fair amount of acrobatics on their part to mount and dismount Toad.  The steps I bought online are meant to use the bolts that attach the body to the frame and require removing those bolts, inserting a bracket, and then re-using those bolts.  Apparently, after 20 years of use, those bolts are pretty much rusted on.  Forever.

I know those bolts are rusted on forever because I sheered (yes, broke) two of them off while trying to remove them.  May I remind you that these are the bolts that hold the body of the jeep to the frame.    I found a shop here that specializes in Jeeps and brought it over to explore my options.  In the immortal words of the proprietor, I'm 'screwed.'

He gave me a whole bunch of bad news, which summarized to - the only way to remove the broken bolts will be to take off all the other bolts (which will very likely meet the same fate), then lift the body off the frame to expose the unbroken portions, remove them, replace the body on the frame and get new bolts.  No time for that.  So, then it was time for some (relatively) good news.  I only broke off two bolts, there are still four others still holding the body to the frame.  The ones that I broke off, broke at the head and the rest of the bolt still goes through the frame and into the body - in other words, they are 'good enough.'  Lastly, he had a set of steps that bolt directly to the frame, and do not require removing any additional bolts.  Toad is now in his loving care getting a new set of steps installed.

Sorry for the long post... It's been a busy week!  And, going to get busier as we get down to the final days before departure.