States visited: 49!


visited 49 states (98%)
Create your own visited map of The United States
Miles driven so far -
LOOP 1 (Aug 2009 - Aug 2010): 29,000
LOOP 2 (May - August 2012): 10,800

Highest altitude with camper: 11,158ft (I-70, CO)

Friday, May 28, 2010

From Portland to Diamond Lake: Thursday, May 27th

We had another early start as we drove south, first along the I-5 and then back into the windy, but pretty, National Forest roads. We saw a great many travel trailers on our journey today, including quite a few Outbacks. For the first time, we actually got acknowledgment from another OB, Dave always flashes his lights when we see one but rarely get a response.

Oregon is a beautiful state, very green, plenty of ski areas and campgrounds. We are enjoying our time here and wish we could have spent longer in this state; less than a week is not long enough.

We made it to Diamond Lake RV Park mid-afternoon. The drive took us past incredible views of snow covered mountains; so, so beautiful. The campground had only just opened the previous day and there was still plenty of snow on the ground. I knew that as soon as the little ones saw the snow, they would be out of the car like a shot – I wasn’t wrong!

Once again, I had to quickly persuade them to put on socks, boots, gloves, before I even had the words out of my mouth though, Nate was in the snow in his crocs and complaining about cold, wet feet, oh boy! They played and played, came in absolutely sodden and all exposed skin was bright red, however they were beaming and super happy. We were all pretty surprised that at the end of May, there was still plenty of snow around to play in, what will June bring?!

Before dinner, we walked the short pathway down to Diamond Lake. Even though it was only Thursday, there were already quite a few fishermen on boats out in the middle of the lake. Looking out over the water is beautiful enough, but then the amazing Diamond Peak rises up on the other side, covered in snow with interesting clouds above it; these views make sitting and reflecting for a few minutes, very easy.

Multnomah Falls: Wednesday, May 26th

We did manage to do some school work today and yesterday, I also spent some time planning lessons for the next couple of weeks, to leave for Dave and also what I needed to bring for Caitlin. I am also trying desperately to finish up putting together the portfolios we need to submit to PA as proof of learning for the older two. They have all worked incredibly hard this year and made great progress, we just need to prove it!

After lunch, we went to another section of Lewis and Clark’s trail, along the Columbia. A couple of locals had told us a visit to Multnomah Falls while in the area was worth it, so we headed over there and were so surprised to discover the large parking lot was almost filled to capacity – at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon – who are all these people?! We later read on one of their informational plagues that the falls are the most visited tourist site in Oregon.

These falls are the second highest year-round falls in the US but, as with others, the spring is the best time to see them as the volume of water greatly increases. They were beautiful, with a bridge crossing over between the upper and lower pools. As we had learned at other parks, when water gets into cracks, freezes and creates larger crevices, eventually these can cause sections of rock to come away from the rock face. This happened quite dramatically in September 1995. An enormous chunk of the rock came away and fell into the Upper Pool, the equivalent weight of a school bus filled with cement. This created a 70 foot wave, which washed over the bridge, where unfortunately a wedding party was standing for photographs. Thankfully no-one was killed, but there were some injuries.

After admiring the falls from the bridge, we spent some time in the Visitor Center looking at the exhibits and seeing more pictures of people making their way along the Oregon Trail, by covered wagon and in some cases, on crudely constructed rafts, complete with their wagons. It is fascinating to us how these people rode into unchartered territory in search of a better life. Caitlin has been reading the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series for the last couple of months, so these types of journeys and pictures are of particular interest to her.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: Tuesday, May 25th

Fort Vancouver, located just over the expansive Lower Columbia River in Washington (state number 37), was the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s operations in the Pacific Northwest, it was the main supply depot and administrative center for dozens of posts from 1829 until 1849. Many American emigrants were supplied here until the Company left in 1860. Under the direction of Chief Factor John McLoughlin, Fort Vancouver played a critical role in the development of the Northwest.

We watched a movie in the Visitor Center that detailed life at the Fort in the mid 1800’s and also that this area was part of Lewis and Clark’s trail across the USA. There is a great Junior Ranger program online (www.nps.gov) that can be completed without going to a Visitor Center but involves reading up about some of Lewis and Clark’s historical journey. We’ll be completing it at some point but I wanted us to actually go on part of the trail and have an awareness of how challenging their travels were.

There was a great little museum in the Visitor Center that gave some initial answers to their Junior Ranger programs. The younger ones were also excited to discover a coloring table, which it was tough to pull them away from to actually go and look around the Fort!

A brief synopsis of the Fort: As the 19th century dawned, the United States and Great Britain were locked in a struggle for control of North America’s northern Pacific coast, a region rich in furs. By 1818 the two nations had agreed to share access to the Oregon Country, as they had come to call the region, until they could decide upon a boundary. Seven years later, in a bold move designed to anchor Britain’s claim to all of Oregon, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the giant fur trading organization, moved its Columbia Department headquarters from Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia to the newly established Fort Vancouver, 100 miles upstream. For the next two decades Fort Vancouver was directed by strong-willed, capable men who made it into the fur trade capital of the Pacific coast.

The entire Fort area was burned to the ground in the late 1800’s and is slowly being rebuilt by the NPS. They have done an amazing job; we were able to look in the Counting House, where employees would have worked 14 hour days, writing and reading by candlelight, passing the farming area on the way in. We looked around the Carpenter Shop and then onwards into the Bastion, which was Nathan’s favorite - he loves the cannons.

The Palisade surrounding the fort was expanded at least five times, by 1845 it enclosed an area 734 feet by 318 feet. Douglas fir posts about 15 feet high afforded privacy as well as protection from theft and attack. The British had great relations with the Indians in the area; they would frequently come to trade their furs, particularly for the ‘Fort Vancouver blanket’, apparently a much-coveted item. However, they were more fearful of an attack by the supposedly unruly and chaotic Americans in the area, particularly towards the end of their time at this location.

The kids really enjoyed the Trading Store and asked a lot of questions of the volunteer there. They were able to touch a number of different skins; the usefulness of the Fort became short-lived due to the waning interest in using beaver belts for hats back in GB. There were so many different trading items that the kids were able to handle: twisted tobacco, blocks of soap, beads, necklaces, thimbles (that the Indian women would put a hole through and add to their dresses – the more trinkets/beads you had, the higher up in the tribe you were), an interesting fire-starter kit with flint, strike and magnifying glass – Jake thought that one was cool.

We’d hoped to see the blacksmith in action, unfortunately he wasn’t around today. We did see some of the Rangers working on an archeological, blocked-off, area. Apparently it was previously dug about 40 years ago but methods have since been refined so they are re-looking at certain areas; such meticulous work and even when the rain began pouring down, they continued with what they were doing.

Another exciting area of interest for the kids was the privy. They couldn’t wait to run over to it and look inside. We were laughing that a number of people could sit on different ‘holes’ at the same time – social gathering place perhaps?! Nate, of course, sat himself on one of the ‘potties’ and requested a photo. I would hasten to add that these were not in use and only for show; we typically don’t make a habit of photographing our kids as they’re sitting on the loo! Dave was surprised how close they were to the other buildings; no doubt the stench was somewhat unpleasant.

We enjoyed this Park, the JR program was interesting and we gained a lot of new information.

On the way home, we stopped off at Urgent Care, this time I was the one who needed doctor advice. Unfortunately he diagnosed a sinus infection, on the plus side, negative strep test and antibiotics, so hopefully by the time I fly, I’ll be well on the way to feeling better.

From Tionesta, CA to Portland, OR

Prior to the news we received on Thursday, our intention had been to stay in this area for a week before going to Crater Lake, the Oregon coast, Portland, Hells Canyon and the Oregon Trail and then moving into Idaho. However, plans changed in light of the fact that I would be flying to the UK for Mum’s funeral. Caitlin chose to join me on the trip and we booked flights for May 30th. This meant changing campground reservations and cutting a few of our intended stopping points either short or out altogether.

Knowing that we needed to be back in Reno for flights, we altered our route and decided to head directly north to Portland, OR for a few days. We knew it would be a long-drive day and got an early start. We paused briefly at the World War 2 National Memorial in Tulelake, north of the National Monument. This was the sight of one of ten Concentration Camps in the USA, which housed 100,000 US residents of Japanese origin, many of whom were US citizens. Jake had read about these camps last year so we were able to discuss racism and paranoia, which can really rear its ugly head during times of political unrest. It’s impossible not to learn new things as we drive along the roads in this country, informational stops like these abound along the way.

Much of our initial drive took us along the Volcanic Byway, Oregon’s Scenic Driveway. Oregon is state number 36 of our travel year, our time is flying by. We passed a Gun and Rifle Club en route that made us giggle, their sign stated: ‘Shoot 24 hours a day, only $50 annual family membership’ – quite the different area from what we’re used to! Jake was excited, “Does this mean I could go in and shoot?”

We stopped for lunch in Canyonville by the Seven Feathers Casino Resort, lunch was uninteresting but we had to stop to take a photo of the incredible eagle statue outside the casino. At the gas station, the girl pumping our gas took time to look all around our rig and especially at the front and rear hitches, as well as the sway bars. We were laughing, a real country gal, I live in it and have never shown that much interest!

We arrived at the Portland Fairview RV Resort in good time, quite a big park and pretty busy. The kids were excited to see the heated pool but while we stayed, there was a lot of rain so we never made it into the pool, Nate was especially disappointed. The previous schedule would have had us staying here for 5 days a couple of weeks later so it would have been slightly different.

Over the couple of days we were there, the owners gave the kids some duck food to feed the ducks living on the pond and Jake spent some time shooting hoops. We chose it for its proximity to the city as we had wanted to go to the Rose Festival; unfortunately we never even made it into the city of Portland at all. We did gaze over at it as we left, across the river, as the carnival rides and tents were being set up.

Lava Beds National Monument: Sunday, May 23rd

Our intention this week had been to spend time at Lassen Volcanic National Park, unfortunately, due to the extremely harsh winter temperatures this year, the Park is still under about 8 feet of snow. We decided it wouldn’t be worth staying there if we couldn’t get in to see the beauty of the place so, instead came over to the Lava Beds. This park is one of the less-visited in the NPS, likely due to its proximity to nothing!

We would definitely recommend it though; Jake quickly decided it jumped into one of his top five favorite parks. We started out in the Visitor Center, collecting JR books and watching the short movie about the park. It has two main, very different, highlights. The first are the incredible lava tube caves. Lava is hot when it pours from a volcano – about 1,800°F, the outer edges and surface of the flow cool rapidly and begin to harden. This outside shell acts as insulating material while the rest of the flow beneath it remains hot and fast-moving. The flow continues on and when the eruption stops and the river of lava drains, a tunnel or tube – the outer shell – is left. Lava tubes can lie atop one another, the result of subsequent flows. Many of the tubes here were formed about 30,000 years ago after an eruption at Mammoth Crater on the southern boundary.

Having seen the caves on the video, the kids were eager to don their helmets and carry their flashlights down underground. We started out in a cave considered to be moderately challenging: Golden Dome. We were told to beware the ‘headache rock’ when entering and exiting the cave via the ladder. The downstream portion of this cave required some stooping. The back section where the ‘Golden Dome’ is located was a figure-8 so we had to be careful to note our location. Thank goodness Dave was with us; for sure I would have got us lost within minutes!

The golden ceiling in this and many other Lava Beds caves is the result of light reflecting off water droplets that bead up on a coating of hydrophobic bacteria. The bacteria are not harmful to humans but are protected so we were warned not to touch them. The color was fascinating. The kids thought it was cool, crawling over the volcanic lava rocks and under the low ceilings. A number of times, they asked to turn off their lights and ‘see’ how dark it was – let’s just say, within a couple of minutes of getting in, we were in utter pitch blackness; it would have been impossible to explore these caves without the aid of a flashlight.

Of all the caves we explored, this Golden Dome, was our most favorite of the day. Our next stop was Valentine Cave (how could we not visit this one?!). This cave was discovered on Valentine’s Day in 1933, and has large main passages with very smooth floors and walls. It had a different lava source than the caves on Cave Loop, which were where the other caves we went into, were located.

We stopped briefly in Indian Well Cave (not nearly as impressive as the others), before going to get Junior Ranger badges. The older two had an interesting page about bats – many of the caves are home to bats, some of them were actually closed to protect maternal bat colonies where mothers raise thousands of tiny, vulnerable bat pups on the ceiling. One of the suggestions they read about, to protect the bats, was to adopt a bat and of course, they wanted to do that. We now have instructions on how to build various bat boxes, which will definitely happen once we get back to Blue Bell. Our garden is a haven for mosquitoes and anything we can do to reduce their number is wonderful.

Before making our way to the huge areas of lava rock, we stopped in to see Skull Cave. This one is named for the bones of antelope and mountain goats, bighorn sheep skulls, and two human skeletons discovered inside. It is a remnant of two very large lava tubes, one on top of the other. This allows cold winter air to be trapped inside and create a year-round ice floor on the lower level. Unfortunately after years of visitors bringing in dirt, the ice is now very dirty and the park has stopped allowing people to walk on it, as they hope to restore it somehow to the clear and pristine state it was once in.

The second important reason for the National Monument is the stronghold of the Modoc Indians, led by Captain Jack. For centuries this area was home to the Modoc Indians, who hunted in the valleys and mountains, fished in the rivers and lakes, and used the tules (reeds) that grew around the lake to make their homes, boats, and other items. Their way of life was changed forever by the arrival of settlers in the 1850s. After repeated confrontations and much bloodshed, the Bureau of Indian Affairs negotiated with all the Klamath bands in October 1864.

The settlers were relieved, but the negotiations were disastrous for the Modocs. They were asked to give up their homeland and live on a reservation with bands who were their traditional enemies. Finally, the Modocs agreed to try living on the reservation, but within a few months they began to leave. They returned to their old homes saying that they wanted a reservation for themselves on their ancestral land. Even more Modocs left the reservation in 1867.

By late 1872, the US Army was ordered to return the Modocs, by force if necessary, to the reservation. On the morning of November 29th, 1872, an Army patrol went out to bring in the Indians, but fighting broke out. Initially victorious, The Modocs, under the leadership of Captain Jack, drove off the troops and sought safety in the lava beds, where for almost five months, 52 warriors held off a growing army, eventually 20 times larger.

An effort to end the war by negotiation ended in even more bloodshed. Captain Jack killed General Canby, who was the only General killed by an Indian during the years of the American/Indian wars. He was pressured into doing so by his band, who believed that if the figurehead was killed, the soldiers would retreat. In reality, the opposite was true. When people heard what had happened, their sympathies lay with the Americans.

By late May almost all the Modocs had been captured, and on June 1, 1873, Captain Jack surrendered. On October 3, 1873, he and three other Modoc leaders were hanged. The remaining members of Jack’s band were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma.

We saw the cross commemorating General Canby’s place of death and walked the loop trail, highlighting the defensive stands of the Modocs, including cave ‘homes’ of the main leaders. Given how chilly and windy it was mid-May, the thought of being there during the winter months was wholly unappealing. It certainly gave us perspective of how determined these families were to try and keep their reservation and homeland in tact.

Veterans of World Wars 1 and 2 were offered lots in this area for homesteads, their numbers were placed in a pickle jar and if they were lucky enough to be ‘picked’, they were given a lot on the land. To create these homesteads, Tule Lake was completely drained, so we had to kind of imagine what the area was like during the time of the Modocs and how the lake would have impacted their life and defensive standpoints. Jake is always so interested in these battles, I purchased the booklet and know he will read it more than once!

We learned a lot today and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this park.

From Reno, NV to Tionesta, CA: Saturday, May 22nd

Becca had been up a lot the night before and awoke crying with ear pain. Why is it impossible for only one person to get sick?! We coordinated our morning to stop by Urgent Care while I could buy groceries, with the camper in tow. So, our second child of the week was diagnosed with a double ear infection and more antibiotics entered the fridge. Neither Caitlin nor I felt particularly wonderful either but our throats were suffering more than our ears, hopefully we’ll continue to be able to beat it with OTC drugs and avoid the docs.

We drove the single lane roads towards Tionesta, along what would prove to be our most beautiful 4-hour Saturday drive to date. We saw very few cars and were surrounded by trees of Modoc National Forest for much of the way. Driving past those firs still covered with snow created awesome picture-postcard views; it was wonderful.

We did comment a few times on how glad we were that we had stocked up on food – and gas! We passed through the odd tiny town here and there but other than houses, there didn’t seem to be much else around.

When we arrived at Eagles Nest RV Park, we were greeted by the owner who told us that they drive about an hour each way to get groceries! I suppose that is the price you pay for living in the middle of nowhere. The kids were excited to see a playset in the campground and very few campers. There was however, another travel trailer, much like ours, housing a Dad, Brian, and his two daughters, similar ages to ours. They gave us some great info on things to see at the National Monument and which roads to avoid as we headed into Oregon.

He also told us about ‘Corn Snow’, which we had never heard of before. The drive over had brought us through bouts of snow (yes, it’s mid-May, hard to believe!), one was particularly bad as it settled on the cold road, thankfully, as quickly as the snow appeared, it disappeared. Corn snow is kind of a cross between hailstones and snowflakes and by dinner time, it was really coming down; we had to take refuge inside.

There was a beautiful sunset later in the evening (oh dear, more pictures) but it was cold being outside. This was another night of needing to disconnect the water as it dropped a little below freezing.

Lake Tahoe: Thursday, May 20th

I received a shocking phone call from my Dad before breakfast, letting us know that my Mum had passed away a couple of hours earlier. Despite her illness, the horribly debilitating PLS (Primary Lateral Sclerosis), she was not considered to be near death. We were, in fact, quite optimistic that her strength would improve once she received the peg system to aid with feeding and nutrition. However, it obviously wasn’t meant to be and a day after leaving hospital, God called her home. We know she is in a better place, her faith was strong but it is hard for us, left here without her, we will miss her desperately.

Late in the afternoon, we drove up to beautiful Lake Tahoe, it straddles both NV and CA, and we crossed back over the border and spent some time at King Beach. It was a quiet place to reflect on Mum’s life and felt peaceful, gazing out over such an incredibly blue body of water. Dave and I had visited here a couple of times in the past and it never ceases to leave you with a feeling of awe.

As we were driving up, we saw a small number of people out on their skis and boards. All the lifts are closed (sometimes Squaw opens up briefly again over 4th of July weekend) but they were managing somehow. We were quite jealous! It’s funny to have snow covered mountains and sandy beaches within a few miles of each other – another place we wouldn’t mind living in, you know, if we had a spare $2 million lying around somewhere!

Grand Sierra Resort, Reno

This was a great location, a good base from which to explore the area. The campground is large and we were situated a good distance from the road, backing up to the walking path. It is very close to the airport though so we did have to get used to the noise of planes overhead, we did enjoy watching them fly so low above us though.

The Resort has a large, heated pool, called the BEACH. The area surrounding the pool is sandy, there’s a tiki bar area and lots of loungers. I’m sure that during the summer, it gets incredibly busy but given the temperatures of our week, it was unsurprisingly, empty. Dave did take the kids over on Thursday after lunch and they were, predictably, thrilled and took a lot of persuasion to get out. I guess we used to be this way when we were their age, it’s just hard to fathom now!

Also in the main hotel is a mall, including, unfortunately, a toy shop, filled to overflowing with Webkinz. Apparently the temptation was too great and three of them succumbed to new ‘pets’, in addition to everything else in the camper, we now have a bat, a clown fish and a ginger cat – Dave was highly unimpressed. Soft, cuddly toys are totally taking over their beds, his initial limit of four per person has long-since been surpassed!

On Friday, Danielle and Pete came over with their kids to join ours in oodles of fun inside the play area of the FunZone. After pizza dinner (oh, so conveniently located right next door, they totally have you over a barrel and you pay for it!), the older five, along with Dave, played a game of lazer tag. Apparently he was quite the target but still came out victorious; he’s such a big kid at heart.

Circus, Circus: Wednesday, May 19th

When we were in Vegas, time didn’t allow us to enjoy a buffet dinner: Jake’s most favorite meal ever! We had promised him that when we got to Reno, we’d make sure to go to a buffet, so we went into the downtown area – sadly a little run-down now, Danielle was telling us that there isn’t a lot of funding for the downtown area as everything is thriving in the suburbs. We took the obligatory picture of the arched sign: ‘Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World’, before heading into Circus, Circus. Their buffet was closed but the casino is linked to two others by internal walkways, so we wandered through the Silver Legacy Casino and on into the Eldorado.

Now, their buffet set-up was impressive, Jake was in heaven, lots of variety and an amazing dessert selection. The kids had their required one plateful of ‘healthy’ food before heading towards the ice creams, chocolate cake, cheesecakes and other options. They had the most delicious bread-and-butter pudding with custard, I didn’t bother with anything else, it was SO good!

After dinner, we walked back across to Circus, Circus for one of their comedy-acrobatic performances, the duo was very good. These performances only last 5-10 minutes so never seem long enough but are fun to watch regardless. The stage is situated in the middle of the games area so the kids were eager to try their hand at some of them; they have yet to learn what a money-pit these are! We came home with a small stuffed shark/fish – yet another stuffed toy, not exactly what we needed!

Sinking Springs Library: Tuesday, May 18th

I checked nearby libraries and discovered one in Sinking Springs, Sparks, that was going to be showing the movie ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ – that was a big draw. The girls enjoyed watching it but Jake was far more interested in the books. I was able to get some more research done on homeschooling for next year. The older two have committed to staying home again next year and we will be joining a Classical Conversations group, so our curriculum will be changing from our fairly flexible approach this year to one that is a bit more structured next year; we’ll see where life takes us after that.

Nate had been up late the night before, complaining of ear pain, we’d tried all our usual tricks to help him, including a new one on us: warmed olive oil dropped in the ear. He eventually went to sleep for a few hours but still wasn’t feeling great. While we were at the library, he started crying in pain, holding the other ear. He is usually so easy-going, we knew he wasn’t well. Thankfully, we’d spotted an urgent care facility on the way in, so, while I took the others for dinner at The Spicy Pickle, Dave was with Nate as he was diagnosed with a double ear infection, bless him. Just a couple of days of antibiotics later, he was much more his normal self.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Virginia City: Sunday, May 16th

Dave was looking forward to a morning of watching the Monaco Grand Prix before we met up with the family to head to Virginia City, unfortunately, during travel, one of the vital connectors (I don’t even pretend to understand this stuff) had come loose, so there was no recording. He spent the morning, instead, figuring out how to download it off the internet - clearly, missing it altogether was not an option!

We wound our way over the mountain to Virginia City in a 3-car line. This is a historic city, once, most famously, a home for miners during the gold rush and quite the bed of iniquity back then. It is now a pretty, little, tourist town with a lot of its old-world charm still intact. Fully costumed couples wander along the streets, posing for tips, mixed in with the myriad of families and bikers – quite an eclectic mix!

We had a look at the old fire engine museum before getting tickets for the mine tour, now in the back of the Ponderosa Saloon. This mine was established in the middle of two existing mines which were both doing incredibly well, the assumption being that this central one would exceed both of the others – not so, it hardly netted anything of worth and instead of making millionaires of the owners, left them bankrupt. Regardless, it took a long while before they gave up.

The average height of a man back then was 5’4”, so we were all ducking as we walked through the tunnel. We learned that one man would go down into the mine and fill the bucket to be pulled up by his partner, who would than fill the barrow. This kind of work was extremely strenuous and tough…and ill paid. As we walked further through, we heard how, in the early days, they would break through the walls without any powered machinery at all, having great faith in their partner to hammer the metal rod they were holding and not accidently split their head open! Even when better machinery came along to help get through the cave walls, life really didn’t improve too much in the mines.

When we were as far back as we could go, our guide, without warning, turned off the light. WOW, not even possible to make out a finger in front of our eyes, it was truly pitch-black. He lit a candle to demonstrate how much the miners would have been able to see back then. It really must have been an awful life. At one point, he explained that there was an influx of European miners who were considered to be the best in the business. They were lured over to Virginia City with the promise of much higher wages. Of course, they came, intending to send back much of their wage to family, little did they realize that in this mining town, there were a great many options for spending those well-earned dollars in other ways….

Roberta treated us to enormous ice creams from Red’s, before we continued along, ‘playing’ with the many props along the street: shutting the kids in the privy, keeping their hands away from rattle snakes, posing with the flower-wearing donkey.

At the entrance to Virginia City is the graveyard, made famous in a number of cowboy movies, Clint Eastwood was here a couple of times. It is now, sadly, looking rather neglected. Unfortunately, it has been vandalized a number of times with headstones being broken and grave sites trampled. At one time, it housed cheap, wooden headstones, along the lines of: Here lies ….. lost at Poker, shot in a fight, killed in a brawl, fought over a woman, but they have long gone, stolen, such a shame.

We spent the evening at Betsy and Harry’s house with a delicious spread for dinner. They still have an enormous amount of toys, left over from the years they took care of their older granddaughters, so the kids had a great time with their cousins, we barely saw them. Ron (Danielle’s brother) came over with his wife, Susan, and 8 month old Mason – yay, we got to hold a baby again; he is adorable, so content and easy-going. It was fun to be in a house again, so much space!

From Pacifica, CA to Reno, NV: Saturday, May 15th

We couldn’t get it together enough to leave early today, too much of a late night the night before and not too long of a journey ahead made us a little more relaxed, and it was a good feeling! Dave had located a Camping World a couple of hours away, about midway on the trip, to look at a little ‘O’ gas grill. We use our grill a LOT and the one we brought with us had served us well for the last few years but was definitely showing signs of wear and tear, as we use it for half of our meals, a functioning version was much needed. Success! We are now the owners (well, Dave really, we don’t touch it!) of a cute little orange grill with its own drip tray, no more scrubbing the table of grease after it’s housed the old grill.

We came into Reno via Donner Pass – such an incredible story of survival there, one that we chose not to share with the kids at this point but I know Jake would be so interested. You’ll have to google it, not for the faint of heart.

We pulled into another car park style campground in the grounds of the Grand Sierra Resort. This used to be a KOA campground many years ago and the map still showed a playground which apparently was taken down about 5 years ago, evidently a new map is needed! We did a very quick set-up, rushed everyone through the shower – thankfully the bathrooms were clean, close to us, had plenty of hot water and great water pressure – ahhhh!

Danielle had called on the way over to let us know they’d booked a table for dinner. Dave has extended family in Reno, so we were very excited to see them again. Betsy, Danielle’s Mum, is Marie’s daughter. Marie was Dave’s Nana’s niece, his Mum’s cousin. When his Nana was young, in about 1910, her parents and siblings emigrated to the USA but she was too weak to travel, so had to stay behind with other family. The intention was that she would join them when she was better, however World War 1 began in 1914 and lasted until 1918, by which point, she was almost an adult and had a well-established life in England. She saw her siblings a few times during her lifetime and Anne, Dave’s Mum, was wonderful about keeping in touch too, so we are trying to be as diligent and not lose the ties to the ‘American family’.

We had a wonderful meal at a Mexican restaurant nearby, you would never have guessed that our kids had never even heard of, let alone met, Danielle and Pete’s kids – they all got along brilliantly. Brett and Hunter are 8 year old twins and Ashlynn is almost 5. Roberta, Marie’s other daughter, was also there, visiting from Sacramento. They are all so sweet, kind, generous, we felt so blessed. At the end of the evening (smart people that they are, they had reserved a table in its own room so the kids could play around after dinner without disturbing anyone), ours were begging to have their new found cousins over to play!

Pier 39: Friday, May 14th

No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the famous Pier 39. During the week, we’d met an English family living at the campground and naturally chatted quite extensively with them. They have their three youngest children travelling with them, who are in their late teens and early 20’s and are street performers, also attending circus school at the moment in the city. Their Dad said they’d be performing on Friday night around Pier 41, so we made an effort to get there in time to see them. They were awesome, kind of a mixture of comedy, acrobatics and Englishness (how the kids have managed to maintain their English accents despite living here for the last 7 years I’m not sure, I’m quite envious). They are known as The Sardine Family, apparently some of their act is on youtube but I haven’t looked yet.

After watching them, we wandered along Pier 39 and watched the famous seals at the end, flopped out on their wooden platforms; Caitlin and I were less than enamored by their smell! We all thought that seeing the seals earlier in the week by the edge of the Ocean was much more special.

The younger kids enjoyed a ride on the carousel before we all enjoyed savory crepes, followed by Ben & Jerrys’ ice cream, which we ate while shivering! This was certainly not one of our warmer stops on the trip.

Alcatraz: Wednesday, May 12th

We had been anticipating this portion of the trip for a long time. The last time Dave and I visited San Francisco, we were not able to reserve a trip out to Alcatraz Island, so this time, we had reserved tickets in advance. Our ‘cruise’ (too funny, hardly a cruise but yes, it was constantly described thus!) was scheduled to leave at 10am. We left the campground a little after 8am, presuming that google map’s ’40 minutes’ would be way off, given that it was rush-hour. Amazingly, it was spot-on and we arrived a couple of minutes before 9 – we spotted a parking lot that had an all day, early-bird special of $10 if you paid before 9am: bargain!

Given our earlier arrival, we were also able to exchange our tickets for the 9:30am cruise out to the island. Alcatraz Island is another of the many Golden Gate National Park sites. It has been carved by natural and human forces, served the army as fortress and military prison, and the Department of Justice as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. It was also taken over by American Indians, claiming it as their own, in the 1970’s, for 18 months. Today, this once –desolate island in the center of San Francisco Bay is a national parkland with historic gardens, tide pools, bird colonies, and bay views beyond compare.

Once on the island, we listened to the introductory speech by the Ranger, collected Junior Ranger books and watched the short movie by the Discovery Channel, detailing and highlighting the life of the island. We slowly made our way towards the main prison building, passing the guard tower, unusual trees, the lighthouse, the ruins of the prison warden’s house and the apartment blocks once occupied by guards and their families. This was of particular interest to Jake as he had recently read: ‘Al Capone Does My Shirts’, by Gennifer Choldenko, which is a fictional story, written from the perspective of a son of one of the Alcatraz prison guards in the late 1930’s, there is a follow up book: ‘Al Capone Shines My Shoes’ which we have yet to get a copy of. Anyway, the apartment blocks are mentioned in the book, as is the Parade Ground – currently home to hundreds of birds, at one time the army parade ground but during the time of the prison, it was the children’s playground. Other than Kindergartners, all the school-age children would take a boat to and from the island each day, to school. All the families who lived here said they felt very safe and that it was much cheaper than actually living on the mainland in San Francisco.

Once in the cell house, we received headsets for the self-guided, 45-minute, audio tour, narrated to take us around the building with input from former Alcatraz inmates, correctional officers, and residents as they reminisced about life on Alcatraz. While waiting, we were taken past the showers – a long room with about 40 showers in two rows, totally open and controlled. The water for the showers was always hot so as not to allow inmates to get used to cold water, should they try to escape by jumping into the Bay. The tour was extremely well done, took us around the buildings and gave great explanations about life inside the prison, which was much more interesting to those on the outside apparently than the reality on the inside!

Alcatraz was never filled to capacity. The average number of inmates was approximately 260, the lowest was 222, and the highest, was 320. There were four cellblocks in the prison. A Block was not used to house inmates during the federal penitentiary years. Cells in B and C Blocks (336 cells) were considered ‘general population’. Unruly inmates were segregated in D Block (42 cells), also known as Isolation. These cells were horrible, had the potential for absolute pitch darkness and would require inmates to remain inside for the entire day. They were slightly bigger than cells in B and C but I’m sure that didn’t make up for the isolation. They also looked out towards the mainland and the prisoners used to be able to hear the sound of parties and smell the chocolate being produced at the Ghirardelli factory – can you imagine the torture?!

Prisoners were moved from cell to cell throughout their time on the Rock. Al ‘Scarface’ Capone was no exception, and during his time at Alcatraz (1934-1938), he spent time in various cells including a short stretch on D Block following a fistfight with another inmate. He was eventually transferred to a medical prison facility. Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud spent no time in a general population cell. After arriving on the island in 1942, he was placed to D block and in 1948 to the hospital wing. He remained there until 1959, when he was transferred to a medical facility for federal prisoners.

In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 36 prisoners tried to escape the Rock; all but five were recaptured or otherwise accounted for. Three who were unaccounted for participated in the same breakout, the June 1962 escape. This was known as the ‘dummy head’ escape, as the prisoners created fake heads out of soap and paints and left them in their beds. They dug through their cell walls with metal spoons stolen from the dining room and escaped through the ventilation system. Their ‘raft’ was thought to have been extremely ill-conceived and it is assumed that they quickly drowned in the Bay’s rough waters.

Not long after this, the prison closed due to deteriorating buildings and high operating costs. The last inmates left the island on March 21, 1963 and the prison officially closed its doors a few months later. The whole day was fascinating to us. For the rest of the day, the kids were asking lots of questions, Jake was especially interested in the escape attempts – there were quite a few that we learned about. It was a tough few hours for Nate, his interest waned quite quickly and the headset didn’t rest well on his little head. They all completed their Junior Ranger books though and, as always, that helped us learn more and solidify what we’d heard earlier. I can’t ‘Ra-Ra’ enough about the National Parks!

Coming back into dock at Pier 33, we had a great view of Coit Tower. We are all big ‘The Amazing Race’ fans and had just watched the season finale which brought the final teams into San Francisco. They climbed up the outside of Coit Tower so it was cool to see this towering building up on the hill.

We drove out to Lombard Street and worked our way up the steep hill to the top of the zig-zag portion of the street. There was a little line of cars slowly working their way down, back and forth, across and down this crazy section of road. It makes no sense, from a ‘useful’ point of view to have the road like this but it is certainly a fun tourist attraction – I guess the people living in the houses here are more than used to constant cars, people and cameras in their neighborhood!

Another fun place ‘TAR’ featured was the Yoda statue in the Presidio district of the city. It really is not a commonly visited place, we had certainly not come across it in any of our ‘ what to do in the city’ searches, so it is definitely not well-marked. Regardless, the amazing ‘Dave, give me a challenge and I will rise to it’, managed to locate its whereabouts and got us there pretty quickly. The kids were super excited when they spotted it and we all (sadly) posed in front of Yoda with our imaginary light sabers!

From there, we went to Fort Point (another GGNPS) and admired the Golden Gate Bridge from underneath, while watching a few surfers follow the waves in towards the rocks. The kids admired for about 5 minutes and then spotted a dog and proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes playing ‘fetch’, clearly much more interesting than a big bridge and some surfers….. We did make a brief stop at Cassidy Fields but time was pressing and we needed to get home, which took a little longer than we'd hoped, given that our route took us past the SF Giants baseball field and a game was obviously just about to start, crowds everywhere!

So, another great day, lots seen and learned. This is really a wonderful city with so much diversity and many, many things to do; we barely scratched the surface – another place we’ll be coming back to for sure.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fitzgerald Marine Preserve: Tuesday, May 11th

The family we met on our last night camping near Yosemite had mentioned some fabulous rock pools about 10 miles down the coast, at Fitzgerald Marine Preserve. Obviously the best time to explore the pools is at very low tide, unfortunately that happened during our week there, at around 4am each day! Instead, we opted for low tide, which was mid-afternoon. We were able to see plenty of creatures in the rock pools anyway, we would have been overwhelmed to have had even more to look at, although we could see how far out the tide would have gone, the beach/rocky area would have been huge.

There were plenty of hermit crabs and snails. Initially, we assumed they were all snails until we noticed some of them moving on legs, on closer inspection we realized just how many there were. Quite a few times, they were fighting each other, battling presumably for a new shell home, until the smaller one eventually gave up and crawled off! We saw some tiny fish, plenty of sea anemones and a really neat looking kelp crab. We also were interested in the chitons – these look kind of like fossils or overlapping shells but we read up about them on the information boards and discovered that they have, in fact, remained unchanged since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

There was a neat quote in the informational brochure from Jacques Yves Cousteau: ‘The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.’ That is so true for us; we could gaze out at the water for ages.

However, the biggest draw for us was the great number of harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks and sandy beach. Pups are born March to May so there were a few small seals among the group. They are as little as 20lbs when born (didn’t sound so little to us!) but gain a pound a day after birth, so grow very quickly. The area they were resting in was roped off, so although we could see them, we were careful to not get too close. There was a better vantage point for viewing them up on the cliff, so we took the short hike up to get a closer look and were able to see one of the babies nursing; it was very cool.

On the way home, we stopped in at an English Fish and Chip Shop which also doubled as a pub: awesome! We had some great food, along with a pint of Boddys , followed by a Cadbury’s flake – wonderful meal (now if we had daily access to this, it would soon lose its appeal but these times are few and far between, so we’ll enjoy them while we have them)!

We were leafing through the ‘CoastViews’ magazine while we were waiting and came across a funny article by Janet Periat: A Glossary for Modern Times. Some of them made us giggle, I couldn’t begin to type them all in but here are a few, please don’t take them too seriously, if you don’t giggle, just move along:

Fast Food: 1. A food-shaped substance that imitates real food and has no nutritional value. 2. A delicious combination of salt, sugar, fat and preservatives that shortens the human life span.

Television: 1. A box that displays a lifestyle you will never be able to afford. 2. A mind-control device that makes the user feel fat, smelly, stupid and lazy. 3. A machine that eats time. 4. A device that facilitates and promotes depression.

Computer: 1. A data-processing device that rarely does what you want it to and randomly destroys data. 2. A box that sucks in money and spits out porn.

Internet: 1. A place where bad news gets endlessly recycled far past its relevance. 2. A place to connect with freaks like you. 3. A place to farm virtual land and grow virtual crops and have virtual wars without really accomplishing anything at all. (see Television and Computer.)

Public Education System: 1. A day prison for children, designed to destroy their natural curiosity and prepare them for a life of sitting at desks and following orders. 2. An underfunded institution that promotes a lifelong aversion to learning. 3. A brainwashing facility that strips participants of their innate talents, limits their choices and ensures their dependence on the system. 4. A Walmart training facility.

San Francisco RV Resort, Pacifica

There was a pool. It was not that big but it was heated, so despite cool winds blowing in from the Ocean, all four kids willingly went in while I shivered and watched them from the edge, bundled in a sweatshirt! They were also allowed, supervised, in the hot tub, so they kept flitting between the two. The younger kids spent some time on the playground during the week too, it wasn’t terribly big or exciting but filled 10 minutes here and there and got them fresh air and a break.

We ventured down to the beach on Thursday, getting there was an adventure in itself, slipping down sand-covered rocks to reach the beach area. We initially thought it was a path, and perhaps it once was, those days were gone though and now it was a tad precarious taking that route! We made it down, the sand wasn’t so nice and the waves were crashing against the shoreline with the tide slowly advancing towards us. We had hoped to wander along to the café further down but after trekking across the sand, we were met only with a wall and the water stopped us going any further past that point. It was a somewhat disappointing excursion. The kids tried to build sandcastles but the sand was far from ideal, the water was frigid and we were a little scared that our rocky route back up would be cut off by the tide, so cut our visit short. I don’t think any of them really minded, I certainly didn’t!

Dave headed back into the city in the evening to meet up with friends for a drink and to watch and discuss some of the Grand Prix - it was very important that his tv coverage of the Grand Prix season was uninterrupted on this trip, Jake is equally addicted! All in all, a very good evening was had, always fun to catch up with rarely-seen friends.

Muir Woods: Sunday, May 9th

We drove into San Francisco towards the Golden Gate Bridge, while Becca chatted on the phone with Aunty Debbie and then Grandpa. I tried to persuade her to give up the phone at one point and she let me know that, no, she was still talking – she always has something to say! They may have regretted calling to wish her a simple Happy Birthday but I don’t think so, I guess it is great to be able to have a proper 2-way conversation without rote yes/no answers; she was sharing all about her world – good for Becca!

We joined the throngs of other people having their pictures taken at the Golden Gate Bridge overlook, for obligatory photos. The main refrain from the back of the truck when they first spotted the bridge was: “…but it’s not gold, it’s red, it looks good but why isn’t it gold?” It never even occurred to me that they would think it should be gold, makes a lot of sense though, clearly I need to start showing them pictures of places before we get there!

From the bridge, we continued a little way towards Muir Woods, a National Park Service site. The roads were tight, narrow and twisty and it was already quite busy; we eventually managed to find a parking spot in the second overflow – when we came out later, cars were parked along the road, over a mile away from the entrance – I’m not sure the kids would have been overly impressed by that!

This is a smaller park and although all four completed the Junior Ranger program, I had to send off their answers and request a certificate online. I’m not sure why they couldn’t look through the books there, we often have volunteers look over the books and swear them in; there were also at least a couple of Rangers around that we saw, I guess it just gets too busy.

The main draw of this Park is the redwood trees, which are incredibly tall and beautiful. They grow either from seeds or a burl – this is part of a root ball that spurns new trees, it’s quite a sight to see. As a consequence of a tree dying, the roots then bring about new growth, so very often, there are circles of trees surrounding a dead trunk in the middle. We were all fascinated by this: nature, you’ve got to be impressed!

We hiked the 2 mile loop which started out paved and flat and then took a steep incline, bringing us back and around, overlooking the area we had walked out on. The second part was much prettier and more wooded, although perhaps because they had all finished their Junior Ranger work, it seemed more enjoyable – although the programs are good, it does depend on their mood as to whether they choose to enjoy completing them or not….! One of the things in their books was neat: they had to create their own trunk timeline – for example: 2001, I was born, 2002, I learned to walk etc. An example had been given of one of the redwoods – born in the late 1800s, 1920, damaged by fire etc; it was neat to see how each ring told its own story.

We listened to a Ranger speaking by the tallest Redwood in the Park. The actual wood of the tree is very lightweight (we bought a small wall carving of a redwood, out of redwood, which is now gracing the wall of the camper thanks to the wonders of Velcro!). Redwoods contains a chemical called tannin, which gives them their red color and also assists in protecting them against fire, fungi and bugs.

We saw a large number of banana slugs in the park, apparently they find them as big as 10 inches long, we only saw some as big as 6” – big enough! While the atmosphere of the area is conducive to an environment for redwood growth (lots of low lying cloud cover means plenty of fog and moisture), it does make everything wet and damp. We enjoyed our hike though and loved the trees; it’s a beautiful park.

We drove down to Muir Beach from the Woods. Despite how cold and windy it was, there were still a number of people relaxing, playing in the sand and even a couple of kids in the Ocean – craziness, even our intrepid water-lovers stuck their toes in and immediately ran out, screaming! Dave and I were admiring the houses on the mountain side surrounding the beach area, although having seen how much erosion there is at the campground, we weren’t so sure we would have spent the money on these for fear they could disappear into the Ocean one day!

We didn’t linger long, the kiddums were eager to return to the camper for cake!

Becca’s SEVEN: Sunday, May 9th

Finally, the countdown can end! Becca’s is the last birthday of the four kids, between Jake’s birthday, at the beginning, to hers, there are 51 days and she counts down every single one of them! Yesterday she started the day by dancing around, singing ‘one more day, only one more day’; she truly loves her birthday, more so than any of the others.

Her present highlights: stuffed pink snake (she got this idea in her head months ago, no idea why and was desperate to get a pink snake), fish webkinz, American Girl doll PJs and fancy dress, Ariel Polly Pocket, DS game and wiggly tube craft activity (a huge hit, had I known everyone would fight over it, I would certainly have bought more!). She was a happy girl, thrilled to be seven, it was her day and she loved it.

Oh yes, it was also Mother’s Day but that wanes in importance when competing with Becca’s day! All the kids made me beautiful cards though and Dave grilled portabella mushrooms with fresh mozzarella, served with crusty bread for dinner, absolutely delicious, no complaints from me.

I had made Becca’s cake the night before and one of the privileges of being the birthday person is that you ice your own cake. She was so happy, covered in chocolate icing herself and then covering the top in the entire variety of sprinkles I offered her; it was pretty when she was done and tasted SO good!

From Groveland to Pacifica, CA: Saturday, May 8th

‘Phineas the Camper’ needed some work, it’s very tough to schedule this as, obviously, it’s our house and we need it! Dave managed to find a place in Manteca, CA which is about half way between Groveland and Pacifica. They had said on the phone that the work would likely take about 4 hours so I googled and found a few things that we could do in the area.

I was happy to finally be able to make it to a Target. My friend, Melissa, is a super-blogger about many things, from religion to children, food to fashion and many things in between, you can check out her blog at: www.girlymama.com. She had mentioned on her blog weeks earlier about the ‘maxi dress’, I loved the look of it and Target had it for a bargain price. I could’ve tried to order one online but that’s so tough, knowing exactly when it’ll be delivered and where we’ll be, so figured I’d take my chances and wait until I could look at one ‘live’: score! I had wanted black but they only had gray, I still love it, it’s long enough for my 5’8” height and reaches all the way to my toes, yay! Dave saw it and informed me that I’d be way smarter than anything he could ever hustle up from the contents of his camper closet, that’s OK too, I’m happy to have it even if I don’t have a good occasion to wear it just yet!

After a quick bite to eat, we made our way to the movie theater. The kids were so excited, we haven’t been to the movies since seeing Ice Age 3 last July before we began the trip (well, we haven’t, Aunty Helen and Rae took the kids to see Toy Story in the UK while we were there). They’ve seen trailers for ‘How to Train your Dragon’ on the TV a number of times and a few friends had recommended it – they were hooked. Going in that early in the day was also a little cheaper: bonus! We all enjoyed it, it’s a great storyline, days later, they were still discussing it.

Next door to the theater was a Bass Pro Shop, we had never been in one, heard so much about them so felt we should at least enter its hallowed doors! The place is enormous, such a toy shop for big boys! There were games areas, sections for various hobbies, clothes, food, pretty much anything you could think of for the outdoor enthusiast, cool place.

We collected Phineas mid-afternoon and were back on the road again, ready to hit the 4-lane highways and increased traffic, heading into San Francisco. If this trip has shown us at least one thing, it’s that we’re not big city fans! Staying in beautiful, quiet, tree-filled campgrounds really emphasizes the noise and chaos of cities. Regardless, we made it to San Francisco RV Resort in Pacifica before 6pm, so plenty of time for the kids to explore, quickly find the playground and leave us to sort and clean!

The campground is right by the ocean, unfortunately there was no easy access point. A relatively new walking path had been put in that ran between the campground the cliff edge, sadly, the cliff continues to erode and it was very clear that an enormous chunk of the cliff had dropped onto the sand below quite recently. Thus, the path has now been closed - we had heard from Mona that part of the cliff actually fell while they were staying here, for this reason, we chose not to request an ocean-side campsite!

There were a couple of spaces still open by the cliff edge though, so we were able to get easy access to the Ocean. We spent quite some time there before bed, watching a para-glider swooping by on the wind currents, he had some control but at times, he sped by and we were worried he would crash. The little ones thought he was so cool, he waved to them a couple of times as he passed and even landed quite close to us for a few seconds, before taking off again, flying in the air. It looked absolutely incredible but I'm sure I'd be fearful that I'd drop at any point! You know, one of those: great to watch, sports.

Yosemite National Park: Wednesday, May 5th

The campground is one of the closest to the Park; however, it is still a good hour from the entrance station. We were excited to be going into the valley area of the National Park. Dave and I visited here 12 years ago when we toured the west coast (3,000 miles in 10 days – do-able without kids, not an experience I’d repeat willingly though!) but I could remember very little.

We began the day parking up and catching the bus to the Visitor Center. We vividly remember there being so much traffic and it was gratifying to realize they have revamped their public transport within the park to eliminate many of the jams. We bought Junior Ranger books (thank goodness most Parks offer free books) and were in perfect time to watch the film: Spirit of Yosemite, much of it centered on the importance of John Muir’s efforts to preserve the area.

Of course, Yosemite’s history dates back a far greater number of years and there is an area dedicated to some of the Park’s first human inhabitants: the Ahwahnee, complete with reconstructed houses and storage areas. It’s so much easier for us all to imagine their lives when we can see and touch items depicting how they would have survived. There is also a museum in Yosemite Village which interprets the cultural history of Yosemite’s Miwok and Paiute people from 1850 to the present. We watched an elderly lady working on a basket using plant fibers, decked out in a wonderful outfit.

From the museum, we got back on the bus and excited by the Lower Yosemite Falls. After lunch, overlooking the falls, a short hike took us closer to these beautiful falls where we got sprayed by the mist. There were some rocks nearby and the kids were far more interested playing in and around them than they were having their photos taken, they found a neat ‘cave’, which was more exciting than the water apparently. It was funny to read: ‘this waterfall may be dry in late summer and early fall’, extremely difficult to imagine, looking at the incredible amounts of water plummeting down.

From here, we rode the bus out to the closest stop to Mist Trail. This took us out to the end of the loop, past the multitude of lodging options. There are a few campgrounds in the valley, which book up months ahead, on the off-chance of availability, I did check for any spaces this week back around Christmastime: absolutely nothing! There are also fixed tents, yurts, and a lodge, among other accommodation options, for rent.

The Mist Trail is listed under ‘Strenuous Hikes’ for good reason, it’s not especially long, a couple of miles, but is extremely steep. The trail is closed in winter due to ice causing it to become very slippery. It was tough enough to negotiate; we were slow-going on the way up. It is paved all the way up to the footbridge which crosses over the Vernal Falls, Dave does not particularly enjoy paved paths, however I think in this case, it was necessary due to possible erosion if it were not. The amount of water coming down from the snow melt, made the view special but I’m not sure it was that worth it! Dave continued the extra half mile to get a better view of the top part of the falls, I stayed with the kids, who had, guess what, found more rocks to climb!

We made our way down carefully, not necessarily that much easier going down but certainly a lot less strenuous. At the bottom, we detoured to the Nature Center at Happy Isles. This has many awesome exhibits, showing the progression of time and its effects on various aspects of nature throughout the park. Interestingly, the Nature Center itself became part of its own exhibit when a rock slide brought down trees which ‘dominoed’ down the mountainside and crashed through the roof a few years ago!

We rode the bus back to the Visitor Center to look at their large 3D map, check out the exhibits and get sworn in as Junior Rangers. After that, we were in need of sustenance once more and bought dinner at the Village Grill; this is such a large park, always busy throughout the year, not many parks have so many (if any!) places to eat. We had treated everyone to a snickers bar earlier in the afternoon, the kids all had to ‘try’ a bite before ordering one, we so rarely buy them chocolate bars! As a treat, I sometimes get a twix or kit-kat that is then shared between them, to have an entire snickers to themselves was a real treat, they savored it – hope I haven’t started something bad!

We got back to the car and took a drive through some of the areas the bus didn’t take us to, getting photos and views of the beautiful valley as the sun began to go slowly down. We also pointed out the various rock formations to the kids, particularly Half Dome and El Capitan.

As a last, short hike, we went out to Bridalveil Fall, where the paved trail took us close to the Fall that flows year round. The brochure stated ‘expect lots of spray in spring and early summer’, no kidding! We got soaked but it was more than worth it, as we walked up, an incredibly beautiful, perfectly arched rainbow appeared; it was amazing, we were all in awe.

We stopped on the way home to take some sunset pictures from the ridge. It was a wonderful, although long, day. This Park is definitely worth a visit as long as you’re willing to share the pathways!

Yosemite Pines RV Resort

This is a large campground on a couple of different levels, very nicely spaced out. Some of the sites are quite close together but the campground seems to do a reasonably good job of not giving you immediate ‘neighbors’ – we did have someone next to us a couple of nights but they were only in a pop-up (and were very nice about the fact that the satellite was partially over the ‘line’ into their site!).

There’s a petting zoo at the entrance area with Jacob sheep, goats, alpacas, donkeys, chickens and one duck. The animals are fed every morning at 8am and the kids were invited to help feed and pet them. We went down on Tuesday morning, before our breakfast and chatted with the owner. He was explaining to the kids that the chickens and hen are allowed to run in and out of the enclosure. Previously, they had been contained in their large cage area, complete with roof, unfortunately a fox got in one night and they had no means of escape so they lost some. Now, the duck sleeps between the goats at night for protection and the chickens sleep in the tree! We went back home and googled Jacob sheep – a hardy brand by all accounts. Jake thought it was cool that there is a type of sheep named the same as him…..and so plenty of learning encountered before we’d even had breakfast!

Around the outer rim of the campground is a nature trail, I thought we’d have a quick walk around it on Thursday afternoon: mistake! It was an awesome trail but, by no means, quick. It took us quite a while to make our way past overgrown tree branches, up and down some steep inclines. At various points there was exercise equipment, which we tried our abilities on. Needless to say, it was a cruel reminder of my useless upper body strength; apparently lifting the little kids up to the high monkey bars didn’t count towards anything (thanks Jake for not giving me any kudos!)! Becca is such a wow at the monkey bars, she just flows along them, gets to one end and turns around, nothing to support her, and repeats the process until I stop her, fearful that her arms are going to come out of their sockets!

About a 10 minute drive away is the town/village of Groveland. I found a pretty decent market there, which had everything we needed – and didn’t find in the Mexican supermarket! There is also a library across the road, so Jake was happy, while I shopped, the kids spent a lot of time reading with Dave, before he headed to the playground with the little ones. We tried to return to the library at the end of the week, unfortunately closing time on a Friday is 2pm – Jake was highly unimpressed at having to come shopping, rather than being able to sit and read Calvin and Hobbes books – sorry Dude!

Yosemite National Park: Sunday, May 2nd

We made our way over to Yosemite Lakes to meet up with the Harper’s. Once the kids had figured out exactly where they wanted to sit and in whose car they were going to travel in, we were able to leave. The older boys and Caitlin were in with us and played various games on the handholds, while Mona had the younger three – so cute, three high-back booster seats all in a row; Becca and Nate love to travel in other people’s cars for some reason!

Our destination today was Hetch Hetchy within Yosemite National Park. This section of the park is north of the main valley area and only 1 in every 20 visitors ever makes it to this part. We had hoped that we would find fewer people here; Mona had taken her kids into the valley on Friday and queued for 15 minutes to just make it through the entrance station! We were indeed blessed, there are only a certain number of cars permitted through the entrance at Hetch Hetchy, and we were given a parking pass as they monitor how many vehicles are in this section.

We parked close to the O’Shaughnessy Dam, by the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and began our hike. A little history: As early as 1882, Hetch Hetchy Valley had been looked at as a potential site for a new reservoir. Preservationists, led by John Muir, wanted the valley to remain untouched. They maintained that a dam could be secured outside ‘our wild mountain parks.’ Muir and his followers launched a campaign to praise the virtues of Hetch Hetchy. For the first time in the American experience, a national audience considered the competing claims of wilderness versus development. Until the early 1900s, Americans viewed wilderness as something to conquer and natural resources as infinite. The priority was civilization in the name of prosperity.

Dam supporters were convinced that a reservoir could offer tremendous social and economic benefits. Due to its increasing population, San Francisco was facing a chronic water and power shortage. In 1906, an earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, adding urgency and public sympathy to the search for an adequate water supply. Congress passed The Raker Act in 1913 authorizing the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley as well as another dam at Lake Eleanor. Today the 117 billion-gallon reservoir supplies pristine drinking water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents and industrial users. It also supplies hydro-electric power generated by two plants downstream. The reservoir is eight miles long and is the largest single body of water within the national park.

I have to say that the little kids were amazing during the entire hike today, Julia is the youngest, not 5 until September. Many times, she was holding hands with either Becca or Nathan and chatting away, so cute to watch them interacting. We walked almost 6 miles and it certainly was not all flat terrain. Beyond the dam, there were no paved sections, lots of rocks to negotiate on the path, water to cross using stepping stones and plenty of ‘up and down’ areas along the way. The older kids created a ‘game’ on the return hike and barely looked up as they talked all the way back to the dam, Joshua and Jonathan are a year older than and a year younger than Jake. It’s been so wonderful to find friends like these along the journey this year.

We enjoyed the spray from the first waterfall: Tueeulala Falls, however it was nothing compared to the second one: Wapama Falls, there was potential to get quite wet! As the day was fairly warm and sunny, the spray from the falls was most welcome. The bridges provided wonderful views of the waterfall, naturally Dave had to locate other vantage points for photographs by climbing down towards the reservoir and having us position midway. At the end of the hike, he realized that the button on the camera had fallen off, it was still usable but he let me know that its days are numbered and he’s out-growing the camera, the bank account may be slightly less healthy in the next couple of weeks!

Jake went back with Mona to her campground to hang out with the boys and the dogs for an hour. We got pizzas, salad and made apple yummies and enjoyed another meal altogether back at our campground. It took them a little longer to get to our campground than it should have as, according to Jake, “all the roads around here are windy and look the same!” True words, indeed!

The kids played and played, loving the nerf guns and creating all sorts of battle scenarios. It was tough for Jake especially to say goodbye to them all, their family is now headed north into Oregon and then onwards towards Alaska. We’re so excited to hear their Alaskan experiences, definitely on our radar for a future trip. We’re hoping that they’ll be able to stop by PA on their way back to VA in the fall.

From Sequoia to Yosemite: Saturday, May 1st

May, already?! Agh, our time on this journey is going too quickly, we’re savoring every minute.

We left Three Rivers and began our drive to Groveland. Google maps and the GPS had the journey at just under 4 hours, we left at 9am and didn’t arrive until almost 4pm – a tad longer of a drive than we had anticipated! The last section of the road, climbing the mountain up towards the village was painfully slow and incredibly windy – all the kids were instructed to stop reading, writing or playing DS, we had no desire to have a repeat of Becca’s performance! At one point, they were doing roadworks and had to ‘escort’ us up that particular stretch, we’re still not exactly sure why, possibly because there was a lot of gravel on the road, protecting the new tar, so it was a bit slippery and they were limiting our speed – that certainly wasn’t necessary, our speed was very limited regardless!

We had made a quick stop for groceries about an hour earlier, as we’d heard that there was nothing close by for groceries or cheap gas. Really, after passing through Fresno, all the towns were pretty small so we took our chance and stopped at the local store about 70 miles from Yosemite. There wasn’t a whole lot in there that we recognized as everything was in Spanish, the kids were thrilled to find all sorts of new things that looked good and wondered if we’d entered an area of the US that didn’t speak English….maybe!

It is pretty funny that we now have Spanish cereals, cookies and juice in the camper, among other things. It also had a great meat selection and Dave was excited to get good deals on chicken and steak – now to find room in the freezer! We bought some delicious bread and an enormous cookie for lunch. Becca loved the bread but didn’t eat the cookie – she has very specific tastes in sweet things and if she’s not keen, she won’t eat it. She’s the hardest to please in breakfast cereal bars; we try a new one every week, sometimes she just ends up with a baggie of Cheerios!

We did eventually arrive at Yosemite Pines RV Resort and set everything up as quickly as we could. Our plan had been to meet up with Mona and her children at 4, so that schedule was put back an hour. They were staying nearby for a long weekend and this would probably be the last time our paths would cross. The kids were eager to get over to their campground and play, which we eventually did. We had dinner with them and made plans to get together the next day for some hiking in the National Park. Some of ours had a tough time being persuaded to leave.

Kings Canyon National Park: Friday, April 30th

Kings Canyon and Sequoia are jointly administered, are 66 miles long and 36 miles at their widest point! The drive to Kings Canyon from where we were staying was 2 hours along either the twisting road through Sequoia NP or via farmland roads along the side of the National Parks. We decided that it would be too much to do with the whole crew in one day but very do-able for Dave on his own – he loves to drive those kinds of roads, without having to worry about potential throw-ups in the back!

He left around 3pm and spent a wonderful few hours, taking the farming road route out to Kings Canyon and coming back through Sequoia. He checked out the Big Stump, unfortunately it was still too well covered in snow to make out very well, he only knew it was there somewhere because of the sign! He continued on to General Grant Grove to take the short walk to see General Grant Tree – the third largest tree in the world. Also there, is a neat hollowed out Sequoia on its side which he was able to walk through from roots to tip, which has been used as many things in the past few years: a little café, shelter etc.

He took the road to Junction View, which enabled him to get a fantastic view into Kings Canyon. He then drove part of the side road out to Hume Lake; many of these roads are still closed at least for another month due to snow coverage. He had to check in the Visitor Center before he drove the road back through Sequoia, as California law requires all cars to have chains if they’re headed over the mountains. They said he’d be OK as the truck is 4-wheel drive and the roads weren’t too bad; he loved the drive back home but was a little disappointed that a few clouds had come in and he didn’t manage to get as good photos as he was hoping for.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Library: Thursday, April 29th

Three Rivers is a tiny, little town but there is a school, village store, gas station, post office and even a library. Naturally there was much excitement at the potential for new books, so Dave took the four of them after work, to spend a couple of hours there. Jake returned on quite a high because they had Tintin books – many places we’ve been haven’t even heard of Tintin. The younger two were talking about the playground when they came back, to which Caitlin said, “You went to the playground?” This is so funny, when their heads go in a book, they totally lose awareness for what’s going on around them! Dave assured me that he did tell the older two he was leaving to take the younger ones to the playground!

Sequoia National Park: Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday

Although we’re staying in the closest town to the entrance of Sequoia, it’s still quite a windy trek to get up there. Thankfully the Visitor Center is close to the entrance so we spent some time in there, exploring the displays and chatting with the Rangers about road closures and incoming weather.

It’s incredible to think that we’ve spent a lot of the last month at elevations of 7,000ft and seen some snow but not too much, here, at those elevations, they still have at least 6ft of snow in some areas and plenty more coming in. As with everywhere else this year, they were commenting that this has been a particularly bad winter. They had checked last year’s temperatures and they were up to 90° this week, not so this year! A storm was fast approaching for Tuesday evening, so we decided to come back in the following day to ensure we saw the important sights, before snow potentially closed the roads.

The drive from the Visitor Center is insanely windy and zig-zags up the mountain, taking you from 3,000 to 7,000ft in about 20, slow, miles! It really wasn’t practical to drive any faster than the posted 25mph speeds; the road was SO bendy and narrow. We made a couple of stops on the way up to our destination of the General Sherman tree, to look at Tunnel Rock (crazy huge rock just hanging between two areas) and Hospital Rock (so named because one of the first explorers was wounded and then cared for here).

Driving through the sequoia trees on the way up was quite an experience, they are enormous! These trees are some of the biggest on earth, by sheer volume. The General Sherman is the biggest in the world, some are taller, some are wider but by wood amount, this takes top honors. It is estimated to be 2,200 years old. Bizarrely, it is actually dead on top (still 275 feet tall though!) but still happily continues to grow outwards each year (sadly, Dave and I can sympathize – growing out, rather than up….!). Every year it grows enough new wood to make a 60 foot tall tree of usual proportions. Its circumference is nearly 103 feet, even if all six of us joined hands and stretched around it, we wouldn’t come close to meeting up – amazing.

To walk out to it, you have to go ‘through’ a fallen sequoia. A section has been tunneled through sideways; I didn’t even have to duck to go through it. There was so much snow still on the pathway and by taking the path to the far overlook – definitely one that not many people had taken – we really were walking on a good couple of feet of packed snow. At the overlook sign, we could barely see the sign as it was on the same level as our feet, the snow was so high!

On that trail, there was also a slab of cut-through tree trunk on display which we could touch and get close to. We could clearly see the rings and fire scarring the tree had experienced throughout its, obviously, very long life. The kids had learned that the tree grows better in a wetter season than a drier one and that the rings are therefore thicker on wetter-growth years – how cool for us to actually be able to see that. Also the sequoias need fires to get rid of the ‘fluff’ and assist in germinating their seeds. All the trees we saw had some kind of fire scarring, even within the slab, it was easy to see.

We passed through two towering sequoias on the path and were able to touch their bark and feel how soft their ‘fluff’ is, it’s almost like fur. The bark is also very springy and spongy which was a definite surprise, not at all what you would expect from such a solid looking tree!

We had been told by the Ranger, the day before, that there was still good sledding opportunities out on the hills a little further up from the General Sherman in the Wolverton area. There was absolutely no way the kids were passing up an opportunity to get out in the snow on their sleds, so we were fully kitted out in as much suitable clothing as we could find (there are no snowpants or ski wear with us on this trip!). Those sleds we got for the sand have been well worth the effort of schlepping them across the country, talk about getting your money’s worth!

As we got out of the car, a light ice-rain began to fall, they were undeterred. We found a great little hill, still very well covered with reasonably tightly packed snow, although we did lose our feet a few times to our knees – Nate was fine, clearly we are not as light-weight as he is. Dave and I located a huge pine tree at the bottom, from where we could observe the kids and still gain a little shelter from the ice, now coming down quite quickly.

The kids had a BLAST! They trudged up the hill and whizzed down, flipped off, wiggled, it was hysterical watching them. Within minutes, they were absolutely drenched and as the sled path led them to the tree, under which there was no snow, only mud and they were rocketed out, they were also covered in mud. All I could think as I watched them was, thank goodness there’s a washing machine in the camper! I never worry about them getting dirty, of course, I wouldn’t want to be getting that muddy, but if it’s fun for them, then go ahead, don’t let me stop you, I’ll deal with the aftermath later!

We eventually had to beg them to stop, after many, ‘just one mores’; we were cold just looking at them! As part of their Junior Ranger program, they were required to collect a bag of trash. There was, sadly, so much around that we loaded three of the sleds with litter and took photos. The program had requested that the litter be brought in but we figured the Rangers really wouldn’t appreciate receiving all that we’d collected and a photo would suffice, plus we had no plans to hold that much trash for another day! It is such a shame that anyone thinks it’s OK to leave things for others to pick up – good lesson for us all.

So, back down the twisty roads we went, past the Four Guardsmen (a quartet of sequoias), with the kids stripped down to T-shirts and covered in dry sweatshirts and blankets, I’m not quite sure why we didn’t think to bring a change of clothing, most unlike us! We laughed as we stopped at the Eleven Peak Overlook – it was raining so hard and we were in the clouds that we could just about make out the closest peak, we would’ve had no idea there were eleven out there unless we’d read it!

As we rounded one of the hundreds of corners, Dave said, “Is that a deer?”, as we got a little closer, we both said, “Nope, that’s a BEAR!” He slowed right down (an added bonus of being in the park at 8pm in the rain, not so very busy!) to a stop and we were able to sit and watch the black bear (they come in all colors, this one was a cinnamon color but they’re still referred to as black bears) munch on grass by the side of the road, unconcerned by our presence – we stayed in the car of course. After a few minutes, it ambled across the road and meandered along the grass verge past the car, wow, wow, wow, so cool to see an animal like this up close in the wild; we were all gazing out the windows in silence.

When we showed pictures to the Rangers the next day, they said we were pretty lucky, not many people get to see one in the Park, despite how many live there. Much of Sequoia is designated Wilderness Area, probably about 90%, so the bear population tend to stay in the Wilderness areas and rarely venture where there are people and vehicles – apparently there are about 500 bears here, so not an insignificant number wandering around out there!

We returned on Wednesday, in slightly drier conditions, to get the Junior Ranger badges. This program had a few tougher requirements than others we’ve done, one being that the older two had to write a story about the Park. I was glad to have them do this as part of their Language Arts earlier in the day and plan to submit it in their portfolio. They wrote it up really neatly and the Ranger read them both out loud, which was great – some are good about really checking what’s been completed, others just glance through – this one was thorough and I’m happy to report they did a wonderful job and were complimented on their efforts, he was especially pleased to praise them on how much litter they collected too, so a good day. While we chatted with the Rangers, the kids, once again, found a spot on the floor and read!

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Readers Three….

It’s incredible; Becca has suddenly discovered the power of reading! Obviously when she finished Kindergarten, she had the basic grasp of easy words and could read the simple books. Throughout this school year, she’s made amazing progress and about 3 weeks ago, I gave her a Butterfly Meadow chapter book to see how she’d do – in five days, she read the five books we have in that series and started on the next lot of chapter books! Periodically, she’ll look up and say, “Listen to this…” but mostly she’s curled up somewhere – usually next to one of the others who are also curled up with a book. I love it, love to see it, love them.

Sometimes she’ll find a book to read to Nathan and this week Caitlin created ‘Caitlin Academy’ which takes place in the afternoons (we use ‘Valentine Academy’ as the name for our ‘school’!). Apparently Caitlin’s school is more fun than mine, she does art and story lessons and at one point, even organized gym class, the younger two are very much on board, Jake…..not so much!

He found a great book series at the National Park store: adventures which take place in the National Parks, produced by National Geographic. He bought the Everglades one and has already read it twice – I’m thinking we’ll probably have a few more by the end of the trip. It’s neat to read stories based on somewhere we’ve visited.

From NV to CA: Sunday, April 25th

An early start to the morning, a long journey was ahead of us. We left the city, passing Rio and the Palms on the way out to yet more roads through the desert. At one point, Dave pointed out a neat mirage to us all. The haze over the sands really made it look as though there was a lake right there, in fact, we paused at the top of the hill to look back and prove that there wasn’t any water there!

We stopped for lunch in Tehachapi – had to put that in, cool name for a town!

As we continued our journey towards Three Rivers, the barren rock landscape gradually changed into fields of green, quite the change indeed from what we’ve been used to over the last few weeks.

We are staying at Sequoia RV Ranch, a very quiet little campground near Sequoia National Park. The views from our campsite are truly beautiful, mountains covered in trees and spring flowers. The River runs right next to the campground and although a swimming hole was advertised, the river is running so swiftly right now that the swimming hole is tough to see! Of course, I’m not sure the water temperature would be terribly inviting at the moment anyway – a tad on the chilly side!

During the week, there were only 2 or 3 other campers here, so very quiet, the bonus: great wi-fi reception! Unfortunately there is no playground but given how active and niggly the kids have been this week, I’ve had to chuck them outside a couple of times and they’ve managed to come up with enough to occupy themselves. It’s amazing what 4 Nerf guns and teams, with Jake on one side and the other three on the other, can lead to. They’ve had a great time running around in all the space, not being bothered by any traffic or people – perfect!

Vegas: Saturday, April 24h

The day started well – we weren’t woken up until 8:45 by the little man diving on top of the bed and burrowing under the duvet; clearly, they were tired, they never stay in bed that late, usually everyone’s up and about well before 8!

Dave left about 9:30. He was being collected in front of Circus, Circus to be taken to his dune buggy experience. We knew he would have a blast and by all accounts, he certainly did! Some of the buggies were equipped for two riders but he got a single-seated one and kept his foot to the floor for the entire ride (big surprise there then!). They (there were 7 buggies in his group) had to follow the guide around the dunes – this ensures that no-one accidentally takes one of the 90° drop-offs and also adds to the experience by allowing speed, knowing that you don’t have worry about ‘what’s on the other side’!

Dave said he was grateful for the guide’s experience around the dunes – he’d been driving these dunes since he was a kid apparently and really knew the area well. He was excited to be able to floor it at the bottom and take off over the top of the hill knowing that he would be able to safely land on the other side. There was supposedly no overtaking but Dave quickly figured out how to get past those in front of him to be able to follow the guide exactly and felt he really had the best ride of the group.

He came back a little tired, unbelievably sandy and a tad sore – even though he was well strapped in, he said that sometimes it was impossible to keep his hands on the wheel and his foot to the floor as he was thrown around so much. I guess I should be thankful that we don’t live nearby; he said it was seriously addicting and he’d be very tempted to look into buying one if we lived closer. It was a great 40th gift from his family in the UK.

While Dave was off exerting energy on the sand, we stayed behind and the kids exerted their energy in the water at the pool. It was a wonderful temperature, so as always, it was quite the effort to persuade them out of the water. While I was watching them, I chatted to two sisters from England who’d come over to celebrate a birthday. Their flight was scheduled to have left the previous Sunday but due to the volcanic dust floating over Europe from the Icelandic volcano, they were still here and likely to be staying until at least Wednesday, making their 10 day vacation into 21 days – while it sounds wonderful, I can imagine it was getting ‘old’ – having to continue eating out every day, finding somewhere to do laundry, organizing additional hotel rooms etc. They told us about a couple who’d come out to celebrate their anniversary for a long w/e, leaving their kids with friends. That would be my worst nightmare, an additional couple of weeks of child-care for the neighbors, while stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic!

Once Dave had showered all the sand out of his hair, we walked over to the front of Circus, Circus. A bus system runs up and down The Strip all day: the Deuce, which you can ride for $7 all day. Given how busy it was today, I cannot imagine how busy it must be during the height of summer tourist season but it did eliminate the need to find parking. We hopped off at the Bellagio and watched the fountain show, more than 1,000 fountains dance, enhanced by music – we’d seen them lit up in passing the night before. We saw a couple of different wedding parties having their photos taken with the fountains as their backdrop.

We went into the hotel, what a beautiful entry-way, stained glass flowers decorate the ceiling, it was gorgeous. We walked back in to admire the flowers and spring vegetation in the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens; Vegas is full of free enticements to get you into their casinos. There were so many places we could have visited if time (and energy) allowed. When we came out, the fountains were about to start again so we took the system of moving walkways and escalators and watched them from a different, higher, vantage point, before crossing over and navigating through the many vendors handing out their cards: “No thank you, I would not like to visit your club, meet your girls or take advantage of your bargain drink deals!” As we were crossing the road, we encountered a Star Wars Clone, which our Clone Wars loving kids thought was awesome! We also saw various other street performers waiting to be tipped for pictures: Captain Jack Sparrow, Cat Woman, and the Joker.

We were making our way to M&M’s world to check out the Nascar Racecar and admire the wall of M&Ms; we weren’t disappointed – at least not by the M&M wall. I have to admit that I really wanted to fill a bag of my favorite colors but was deterred a little by the price. Our intention had been to come and watch the free 3D movie, unfortunately they were refurbishing the movie theatre and weren’t planning to re-open until June – another thing to come back for (well, not really but it was frustrating none-the-less!). We bought yummy M&Ms ice creams and ate them while watching people get hydro massages – quite bizarre. Dave said it looked as though they were encased in a giant condom! Just as we were about to leave, the yellow M&M came out for photos; Nate wheedled his way forward to the front (not in small part due to a big push from his Dad) so we managed to get a great photo of it/her/him with all the kids, right before the Deuce bus appeared – perfect timing.

It took forever to complete the seemingly short drive from the MGM to Circus, Circus. I managed to have a long conversation with Sam while also trying to divert the children’s interest in the rather drunk (er, hello, it’s only 5pm!) party whose language was less than stellar, standing in the isle next to us (did I mention the crowds?!). They were quite funny really, extremely loud and chatty, I think they knew everyone on the bus by the time we got off! Clearly Jake and Caitlin were in their own world’s of oblivion, they had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the bus volume levels after we got off – sometimes it’s good not to have an awareness of what’s going on around you I guess!

We made it to the Circus, Circus Stage at Carnival Midway just in time to catch an acrobatic performance by a pair of strong girls from Argentina: the Golden Duo. I was terrified for them, no safety net, they were high up and hanging off each other – I always fear the worst but the kids were fascinated. As soon as it ended, Caitlin started flitting about, hanging off the stage, stretching out with her arms! We enjoyed a quick dinner, promising Jake that we would do a buffet at one of the Reno casinos, and headed back to the camper.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

From Virgin, UT to Las Vegas, NV: Friday, April 23th

Talk about a change of scenery! We left the campground near Zion, in the tiny town of Virgin and drove through many more small towns; down through mountain passes until way in the distance we began to see the skyscrapers of Vegas. After the one lane roads we’ve experienced for the last few weeks, this was kind of a shock to the system. We were greeted by four fighter jets flying overhead, opening the window to take a photo brought in the roar of their engines.

We are camping at the KOA campground of Vegas – this is situated in an enormous parking lot type of location in the grounds of Circus, Circus, next to the tall Stratosphere. At night, we could just about see the three highest thrill rides in the world: Big Shot, Insanity and X Scream at the very top of the Stratosphere tower. We’re still surrounded by mountains but it’s not quite the same!

After a quick lunch and the realization that we’d crossed the border into Nevada (state number 35!) and gained an hour – we always forget the time thing – we headed out of the city to take in the wonder of the Hoover Dam and the new bridge they’re building.

The kids were extremely active, having been cooped up in the car for a few hours so we decided to forego the tour and take our own, less formal, tour! The views over the dam are incredible – so much water and the structure is enormous and of course, extremely thick. It’s hard to believe its able to hold back this much water, at its highest level, it can hold up to two years back up of Colorado River flow – crazy!

We checked out the bronze winged angels, each weighing 40 tonnes and towering to a height of 40ft. We crossed over from Nevada and walked into Arizona, our 3rd state in one day, pretty funny.

On the way out, we stopped at the Lake Mead overlook and learned quite a bit by reading their signs. After the Hoover Dam was completed, the lake was formed, which actually encompasses all the water areas coming up to the dam, about 200 miles. The lake filled the empty beds left by the Colorado and Virgin Rivers – love that we’re following up on geography already learned about in previous places.

Lake Mead is a National Recreation Area and now comes under the National Park Service umbrella. I stopped in at the Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger books (and more patches), which we could do during the weekend and mail in for a certificate and badge. I’m glad that some of the NPS sites offer that option, particularly for families who are not in the area long enough. I guess working through these books, completing the puzzles and learning through the fun activities, would be considered ‘unschooling’ – seems such an incorrect term, given how much learning actually goes on during our outings.

After a quick pit stop for groceries (umble, grumble, gurgle, roar – no-one (in our family at least) ever wants to shop – trust me, my kiddums!), we attempted to beat rush-hour traffic back into Vegas – baby – had to add it, at least once right?!

After dinner, we took a drive down Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly known as, ‘The Strip’. It was insanely busy but, on the plus side, lots of cars meant lots of opportunities to stop and gaze out the window, snapping pictures wildly as the lights flashed around us and the noise roared. From the back, the kids kept saying, “Look at that, look out my side, wow, did you see that screen, look at the size of that building, there’s the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, did you see that M&M, the big lion, the rollercoaster coming out of the roof, the pyramid, the castle….”, you get the idea – we were ‘wow’ed’!

A little history: Las Vegas, which means “the meadows” in Spanish, gained its name in the 1800s when this green valley and desert spring waters offered respite for weary travelers traversing the Old Spanish Trail on their way to California.

The city’s official history began on May 15, 1905, when 110 acres of land adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks was auctioned in what would become the downtown area. Las Vegas became incorporated as a city in 1911, with a population of 3,000.

A pivotal year for Las Vegas was 1931, when Nevada legalized casino gambling, liberized the state divorce law by reducing residency requirements to six weeks, and construction started on the Boulder Canyon Project, now known as the Hoover Dam.

These changes greatly impacted downtown’s Fremont Street, where it evolved from a dusty whistle stop into a haven for fun seekers.

It was also during the middle of the 20th century that Las Vegas continued its triumphant march toward becoming the gambling, or ‘gaming’ capital of the world. During this time, the use of neon emerged, transforming Fremont Street into ‘Glitter Gulch’.

1n 1959, the famous ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign was created by resident Betty Willis. It was also during this era where Las Vegas became known for its ‘colorful’ characters like Bugsy Siegel and Howard Hughes. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the face of the Las Vegas gambling industry was forever changed by one man, Steve Wynn, who ushered in the era of the mega resort.

Some of the hotel casinos we saw: Stratosphere; Circus, Circus; Sahara; Riviera; Encore; Wynn; Palazzo; Treasure Island; Venetian; Casino Royale; The Mirage; Harrah’s; Imperial Palace; Flamingo; Caesar’s Palace; Bellagio; Bally’s; Paris; New York, New York; MGM Grand; Excalibur; Luxor; Mandalay Bay; Tropicana.

The Vegas airport is practically on The Strip so driving out beyond the famous ‘Welcome’ sign (Becca was excited to spot a wedding party having their pictures taken there), the planes flew right above our heads and we were able to watch a couple land.

Our intention had been to park up and wander around a bit, see the fountains at the Bellagio, catch the show outside Treasure Island, feel the energy but it was all rather overwhelming and the long day was catching up with us. We went past The Orleans (packed parking lot, hard to believe how many people are here in the city) for a quick stop for parts at the Home Depot. We drove back to Circus, Circus around 9:30pm with a plan to return to The Strip tomorrow afternoon in the daylight, when, perhaps, the crowds would be a little thinned out.

Dave spent the rest of the evening fixing the heating element in the hot water heater, which I, inadvertently (do you ever do these things ‘advertently’?!) fried earlier in the day. He had indicated that the electrics were plugged in so I recycled the fridge to electric and flicked the water heater switch – mistake! He hadn’t hooked up the water yet so it heated nothing but itself, oops!