Monthly Archives: July 2012

Day 7 – Another brick in Wall, SD

DeSmet, SD to Custer State Park, SD

Prairie dawn
Man, it takes a while to get across South Dakota.  And what a variety of landscapes in a single state – prairie, barren rock desert, forested hills.  After having breakfast on the prairie, we continued west.  Our final destination was many hours away, but we planned several stops along the way to break up the drive. 
All those pictures are made of corn!  All corn, I tell you!
These certainly ran the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.  On the ridiculous side, we had (1) the Corn Palace, a huge building paneled, inside and out, with giant murals made entirely of ears of corn (whose idea was this?), and (2) Wall Drug, of the many highway signs.  The first provided us with popcorn to sustain us on our journey, and the second provided ice cream – that’s about all I can say for them. 
Leaping small canyons in a single bound!
In between these two tourist traps, we hit our first national park – Badlands.  This did not disappoint.  It was absolutely beautiful, with otherworldly rock formations stretching out as far as the eye could see in every direction.  From the kids’ perspective the greatest thing about it was that you could climb around on everything – there was no concept of “staying on the trail” — there really was no trail because everything was rock.  We went on a hike, and the “trail” consisted of numbered markers stuck into the ground at seemingly random intervals, and you just made your way from one marker to the next as you pleased.  (For the kids, this meant climbing down into every canyon and then attempting to clamber back up on the other side.  Then halfway through the hike telling me how tired they are.)  It was really hot amongst all the rock – easily over 100 degrees – but much easier to cope with given the lack of humidity.  Aside from the mild stress of ensuring Lanie didn’t fall off a cliff while following her sisters into some ill-advised ascent, it was a great afternoon.  More Junior Ranger badges were obtained as well – this has become something of an obsession with the girls and I have to keep telling them to look around at the scenery and stop doing word searches and such.
You can see that Zoe is sitting here working on her Junior Ranger badge.

We’ve had mostly beautiful (though often hot) weather so far, but today we experienced our first western thunderstorm.  We were on the road and could see it approaching – the sky is so big and open that we could see a spectacular lightning show well before the storm hit us.  When it eventually did, the van was suddenly lurching from the buffeting winds, and the rain was probably the hardest I’ve ever experienced.  For a few minutes it was hard to see much of anything.  Then it was over, just like that, and it was amazing how quickly everything dried up. 
Dark was falling rapidly by the time we arrived at Custer State Park. By this time we’d crossed over from the Badlands terrain into the black hills – a landscape of one hill after another covered in pine trees – and into Mountain Time. It’s a huge place – it took us close to half an hour on winding, hilly roads to get from the entrance to our campground (which is one of several in the park).  From what we could see in the semi-darkness, everything was beautiful.  Most things were closed up, and the one staff person we could find did not know which campsite we had reserved for the next three nights.  Eventually, he just told us that there was only one tent site left, so that must be the one we had reserved.  (Spoiler alert for tomorrow’s entry: the campsite was not, in fact, the one we had reserved.)
This was the first time we’d used our tent, and we got things set up pretty quickly considering.  (All those times I made the girls put the tent up and take it down this summer really paid off.  At one point, when the setup was not quite complete, we’d let the kids go off to the 9pm campfire program just down the hill.  Bob and I were scratching our heads trying to figure out how to get the rain flap on, and he actually said, “The kids know how to do this.”  Never fear, we figured it out without having to ask our 8-year-old!)  We had another big rainstorm overnight, but our tent proved up to the challenge.
This is some car fun for my friends at work:
From Bob:
It’s probably been said before, perhaps by Louis and Clark themselves, that one finds two polar extremes when traveling across South Dakota.  There’s the unforgettable brilliance of the Badlands landscape on one hand, and the hyper tackiness of Wall Drug on the next.  Badlands is brilliant, with unimaginable rock formations and striations of color.  They let you walk all over the place like ants on meringue.  There are fossils everywhere; you trip on the things.
                Wall Drug is a hole.
                Now someone told me it was a cool place, which raised my expectations.  The 30,000 Wall Drug billboards contributed to the thought that there was something special here.  And what do we find, a bunch of junk administered, strangely, by a hive of Eastern Europeans.  To be fair, the Eastern Europeans who work in Wall Drug proper are more than competent, but the ones they farm out to the other Wall, SD, establishments are definitely second-string.   We ate at a faux Mexican place across the street from the big WD, and it was pretty sketchy (though no intestinal problems so far, and, trust me, that thought weighs heavily when your kids are eating from a fried chicken and pizza buffet and you have three more hours to drive after dinner). Every wait person was Russian. Except the hostesses, who were from China, I think.   Not what I expected from the middle of South Dakota.
                I should say that the diversity of nationalities was welcome. As a matter of fact we have seen people from many different countries on this trip, in just about all the places we’ve visited.  We are tourists just like the Israeli people we walked through the badlands with and the British people we we saw stumbling through the Corn Palace.
 Oh, and I should also say that the kids enthusiastically loved the whole Wall experience.
(Note from Jen: Bob claims to have disliked Wall Drug, but I will let the photo below tell the real story.)

Day 6 – Little Minivan on the Prairie

Jackson, MN to DeSmet, SD

 We managed to get on the road by 8:15 today, no thanks to malingering children who’d stayed up too late telling stories the night before.  (Zoe has a whole series going starring the stuffed animals that each of them brought, visiting each place we’ve visited and having misadventures.)  After depressing ourselves along the three-hour drive with The Long Winter, we reached the Ingalls homestead, where this book and a couple of others were actually set. 
On top of a dugout, just like Laura used to live in!

This was a pretty cool place.  There was a replica of the Ingalls’ homestead shanty in the exact location where it really existed, which was exciting if you happen to be someone who’s read the books about three times in the recent past.  There were wagon rides, a lesson in a schoolhouse, crafts and activities, the farmland and prairie, and various buildings from the books, including an original claim shanty.  

The girls made corncob dolls and button strings, braided ropes, did laundry (I was hoping our accommodations came with their own washtub since they really seemed to enjoy this), ground wheat into flour, and learned to twist hay into burnable logs.  (Believe me, this is an important skill to have if you have a very severe winter and the trains can’t run and you run out of coal.)  If you ask the children, however, they will remember none of this.  What they will remember is (1) getting to go on a pony/miniature horse ride, and (2) playing with the little kittens that we found in the barn.  This was pretty much where they wanted to spend all their time.


Can you believe the size of this horse?  You had to be under
5 to be allowed to ride it.
The girls did this multiple times.  Have I mentioned that
Nadia is obsessed with horses?

The evening was lovely here.  We rented a covered wagon for the night, and it was an unusual camping experience – instead of being nestled in trees, with short-range views on every side, there were just a few covered wagons scattered over the hillside in the midst of the prairie.  We were very lucky in that today was a cooler day – no A/C in the covered wagon, alas, and it would have been an oven on a hot day.  In fact, as the sun went down it actually grew chilly, and we had to get our fleece jackets from the car – definitely a change from our previous evenings!  We can tell we’re in the west now, with no humidity, because of the beautiful cool that descends as soon as the sun disappears. 

Our accommodations
Snug inside the wagon

Spaghetti, just like Ma used to make
Despite substantial wind (Laura wasn’t kidding about that prairie wind), we managed to cook and eat dinner outside, looking out over miles of prairie.  This is a really laid-back place, and while we were cooking the girls ran back to visit various locations they’d enjoyed earlier in the day (e.g. the kitten barn and the pony barn).  We’d planned an early bedtime since the previous night had been so late, but it proved to be a challenge.  Out on the exposed prairie, it was still light out at 9:30 at night, and no one felt sleepy.  (I’m sure that Ma would have been able to handle this situation with a single word, but no such luck for us.)
The best part — making the kids wash the dishes!
Just like Laura used to do.
From Bob:
Why I think that future generations will love to read our blog and road journal is because standing in the claim shanty they built on the Ingalls homestead, looking on the wall at the proof-of-claim papers Pa filed on this property 100+ years ago, I was mesmerized.  A photocopy posted in a facsimile hut, and I could’ve looked at it for hours.
 I might have just; I can’t account for my whole day here.  A long time ago I heard about this phenomenon of tourists in Israel losing their marbles and assuming the identity of biblical characters.  They just walk around thinking they were King David.  I may have had a similar experience today except with Little House characters.  There was the time I can’t account for, except for a vague memory of reaching for suspenders that weren’t there.  I think I was Mr. Edwards.
Tonight we get to sleep in one of several covered wagons they have scattered on the lawn here, but the best part is that we haven’t had to go anywhere since before noon today. First off, as Mr. Edwards I would have had a devil of a time figuring out the horseless carriage.  But also, we got to enjoy a sweet and slow prairie sunset.  It’s not as quiet here as it was in 1880, but it is wonderfully peaceful.
Another thing you should know is that we’ve gone through two whole days and a half since eating in a restaurant.  This evening we dined on camp-cooked pasta with home-canned meat sauce and it was great – definitely a cut above yesterday’s lunch, which was Cheezits and Fruit Leather.  We’re not peanut-buttered out yet, and we’re keeping some jerky in storage for when we really get out west.
Except that we are out west now.  We’ve crossed over the spiral divider in our road atlas spread of the US.  Also, the terrain definitely changed when we crossed from Minnesota to South Dakota.  There was definition to the landscape, gullies and grottos and washes and gulches and other things that we read about in westerns.  This is, I think, some foreshadowing for the Badlands, which we’ll be seeing tomorrow afternoon. 
Prairie sunset over a replica of the Ingalls’ claim shanty

Day 5: Enough with the corn, already

Here is what things have been looking like out the car windows:

Our air-conditioned cabin
We woke up to another beautiful day.  The kids were up fairly early and rather dismayed at the slothful ways of the Wisconsinites at our campground – the pool doesn’t open until 10??  Mini-golf doesn’t open until 9??  Bob and I forgave them everything because our cabin had air conditioning.  It is still very, very hot here but we slept wonderfully (except that we were in one of those bunk beds with a double on the bottom, and I was on the protruding side, and Zoe dropped a stuffed animal on my face in the middle of the night).
Eventually we were able to avail ourselves of the mini-golf, though we soon started skipping holes.  Turns out it’s rather time-consuming to mini-golf with three kids who’ve never really done it before and have no idea how to hold a golf club.  So we only played the holes that had fun moving hazards, like the windmill and the clock pendulum, before hitting the pool.  Bob managed a hole in one! We’re so proud.
Later it was on to nearby Effigy Mounds in Iowa.  This is a pretty cool national monument containing a lot of pristine land right on the Mississippi, as well as many ceremonial earth mounds built by Native Americans long ago.   The kids were less thrilled by the mounds than they were by the Junior Ranger program, where they could do various activities to earn a plastic badge.  We went on a beautiful hike and I had to force them to put away their booklets and actually look around. 
The ranger had sized up our crew and recommended a short hike on a wooden boardwalk, but we are more intrepid!  (Plus the girls wanted to see the Little Bear mound so they could check it off on their bingo activity page.)  So we did the 2-mile loop trail past several mounds and leading to an amazing view of the Mississippi.  Of course, the reason the view was so amazing was that it was so high, which meant that the first half of the trail was straight uphill.  Also, did I mention it was over 100 degrees?  Some of the children handled this challenge better than others.  (Hint: Lanie, the four-year-old, was the most energetic and actually ran most of the way back down.)  Nothing ever felt better than going into the cool visitor center and resting their while the girls completed their badge work.

A great deal of effort went into these junior ranger

Next, on to Minnesota!  Fortunately our campground, while not especially nice, was right off the highway, so we didn’t have a repeat of the previous night’s debacle.  Also, we arrived before the pool closed – bonus!  And more air conditioners!  Life is good.

The states just keep ticking away, brand new states that I’ve never visited before.  Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, and now Minnesota.  Just so posterity will always know the exact time I entered Minnesota, and all of these other backwater nowhere places, we’re keeping a detailed trip journal with such entries as “[5:45 – Entered Minnesota]”.  Posterity will eat this up.  We’re also tracking time on the road, miles logged and gas consumed.  For those who are interested, the cheapest gas I’ve seen advertised was $3.33 in Pennsylvania, but the cheapest I’ve purchased was $3.43, in New York. 
We’re supposed to be writing some color into the journal as well, but so far it’s mostly just nuts-and-bolts stuff.  We’re trying to keep track of what we’re listening to, as well.   Today we started our third Little House series book of the trip, The Long Winter.  I wanted to skip this one, as it is tremendously depressing and everyone almost starves to death; however, it takes place in DeSmet, which is where we’ll be sleeping – in a covered wagon! – tomorrow night.  Happily, it’s been anything but wintry, so we’re not likely to have in Ingalls flashbacks during our visit; or, if we do, they won’t involve the hard questions of whether we should cannibalize Baby Grace or throw her onto the fire.

Some other people might not be interested in this but some might want to know what I’m reading.  Actually, I haven’t been reading much because it’s been a busy time, but I have had a chance or two to look at Keith Richards’ autobiography on the Kindle.   It’s quite entertaining, particularly because the opening vignette has Keith and Ronny Wood driving cross-country from Memphis to Houston.  How’s that for a parallel to my life right now.  One major difference is that Keith’s car is filled with drugs and alcohol and ours is filled with stuffed animals and snack food.  And snack food wrappers.  And camping gear.  And kids’ clothes.  Keith hasn’t mentioned having any of these things yet.

Day 4: Country Mouse in the Big City

Great day in Chicago.  We managed to incorporate bunny-feeding (Colleen will probably be finding bits of parsley hidden around her apartment for months to come), an architectural boat tour around the city and Lake Michigan, the zoo (including a carousel, always a favorite), and best of all, designer cupcakes!  There was also riding the bus, which to my children is quite a thrill.  I’m sure the other people on the bus were wondering where the Clampitts came from, listening to them squeal in delight.
Eclair, Boston Cream Pie, Peach
Cobbler, Chocolate peanut butter
The cheerful “endangered species” carousel
Colleen is the best friend ever.  She shared her bunny-studded Chicago lifestyle with us, gave up her bed – actually her whole bedroom – to put us up for the night, and showed us a lot of cool Chicago stuff in just over 24 hours.  My favorite was the Gran Luxe Café, the restaurant just off Michigan Avenue where we ate lunch.  It had vivid, golden-highlighted paintings and elaborate lighting fixtures.  There were Greek-inspired mosaics and Byzantine-like murals.  There was a line of 20 or so people waiting to get in when the doors opened at 11 am.  Also, the food was really good.  I ordered a chipotle-avocado burger, but I got around to trying just about everyone’s stuff, except for Zoe’s pulled pork sliders, which disappeared quickly.
                There were many chances to view the skyline from lots of different angles, including from a boat tour that gave many historical tidbits.  We got to ride the bus like locals.  And Colleen found a fine playground near her place.  The kids could have easily spent hours there, but for the stifling heat.  The next day, rain spoiled our plans to go swimming at one of those beaches on  Lake Michigan that surprised me so much on my way in.  The rain also tamed the heat a little, so our boat ride turned out to be very comfortable.  Second-to-last stop was the Lincoln Park Zoo, another place where we could have spent a lot more time, but Colleen had one more trick up her sleeve for the walk home: cupcakes at a special cupcake shop in her neighborhood. 
                We would do well to have a friend like Colleen in every place we stop, but this was particularly true for the next place we visited, Ed Begley Jr., Wisconsin.   Not even a friend as great as Colleen.  Just  a friend to tell us how to get to our campground.  Some sort of neutral third party.  Unfortunately, the streets of Ed Begley Jr. are rather empty after 9 pm on a Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday).  Also, although we were all excited about adding Wisconsin to our list of states visited, this place has the strange habit of naming perfectly fine road with single letters.   Unfortunately, our campground was on County Road X, a name that will live in infamy in our family for years to come.  Surely it must stand for County Road the Tenth?  No wonder our GPS was so spastic. 
                Truthfully, if the lady in the Ranger Station of the Ed Begley Jr.’s Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park had just said it’s about a mile past the Wysamooganie State Park and Boat Launch, just a few feet from the (busy) train corridor, we would have been in better shape.  Sadly we were left to look for the road just between County Roads IX and XI. 
                Please, tell us Colleen is waiting for us in Iowa.

Day 3 – Leaving Eastern Standard Time behind

Day 3 – Leaving Eastern Standard Time behind

Maumee Bay State Park, OH to Chicago

We survived the night without any more visits from our little black and white friend.  In the morning we set out to explore the park, riding along some of the many beautiful paved bike paths.  (Side note: No one in Ohio, young or old, believes in bike helmets.)  Lanie valiantly attempted to keep up with her sisters, but training wheels weren’t really meant for speed or distance.  
After a mile or so the older girls and I arrived at a pristine, empty beach on Lake Erie.  Nothing could keep them out of the water at that point, even though it was overcast and a little drizzly and there were some intimidating warnings about toxic algae.  Lanie soon arrived to swim as well, which meant I had to get into the water, but fortunately it remained very shallow for a long way out.
Beware the toxic algae!   I love the “Have
fun on the water!” that they tacked on at the bottom.
Eventually we dragged the kids from the beach and went back to the yurt for lunch and to pack up.  We somewhat underestimated the time this would take, especially since a gale force wind had just blown up that proved to be a complicating factor.  It all ended in me frantically riding my bike to the camp office and turning our key in at the stroke of noon (checkout time), while Bob attempted to fit everything back in the car.
It was a long drive to Chicago, but this made it all worthwhile:
Yes, it’s the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile!
We loved Chicago right from the get-go.  It was a beautiful drive into the city, past skyscrapers looming over sandy beaches on the very blue waters of Lake Michigan.  We were staying with our old friend Colleen, who has a beautiful apartment in the middle of the city.  Colleen also has a pet bunny who hops around her apartment.  This will quite possibly be the highlight of the trip for the girls.
It was extremely hot in Chicago (“real feel” of 101 degrees at 10 o’clock at night!).  We walked to the lakefront and a nearby playground, had a delicious dinner with Colleen and her boyfriend Sean and then capped off the night with ice cream.
Jen deserves much praise for taking the Chicago leg of the driving  — I was not looking forward to that.  We were aided by a time-zone shift that meant we were entering the city at 3:30 on a Monday instead of 4:30.  Also, I’d like to think I performed admirably as navigator, balancing the GPS directions vs. the Google printed directions and even a construction detour.
                The best part, though, was that I got to focus on Chicago and not the people shifting into our lane without signaling.  I otherwise might not have noticed how beautiful a city it is.   Nothing had ever given me the impression that this was a beach community, yet as we sped in on Lakeshore Drive I could see Mediterranean blue Lake Michigan water – with people actually swimming in it, and boats, and a long strip of beach with lots of sun bathers, and cabana-bars with umbrella tables.   This was not at all what I expected.
                It did not hurt that this region is in the middle of a record heat wave, so that might have sent more people than usual to the shoreline.  Also, Chicago does not get a lot of competition from the metropoles of Gary, IN, and Toledo, both of which we drove through to get here.  But from first impressions right down to the details of Colleen’s cool neighborhood, Chicago is enchanting.

Day 2: O Canada!

Day 2: O Canada!

Niagara Falls to Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio

When I think back to first thing this morning, it seem like a lot longer than 15 hours ago.  It’s been a very full day.  We parked the car at Niagara Falls this morning and set off to explore the area.  Bob and I stared in awe at the falls, while the kids stared with much the same excitement at the Ferris wheel visible across the gorge.
After taking in the view, we headed to the observation tower and then down to the Maid of the Mist.  It’s fortunate it was a hot, sunny day, since “mist” was a major understatement for the type of precipitation we experienced on the boat.  Of all the people on the boat, three of them elected to take off their rain ponchos while the falls rained down on our heads.  Any guesses as to who those three were?

Afterward we walked up to an observation deck right next to the falls, where once again everyone other than our children was covered head-to-toe in a glorified plastic bag.  On the deck it basically felt like you were under the falls, with water pouring down in buckets so that I couldn’t even see where I was going.  (Luckily, Lanie was ahead of me shouting, “I LOVE this!” so I just followed her gleeful laughter.)  Looking downward you could see the rocks and gorge below, spanned by a bright double rainbow – quite an impressive sight and maybe even better than the Maid of the Mist itself.

That’s us huddling in the lower left-hand corner.
It was then time for the big moment, crossing the Rainbow Bridge into Canada.  Beforehand our friend Jamie had warned us that Canada actually charges pedestrians 50 cents to leave Canada.  (Jamie is known for being rather, shall we say, frugal, and was quite indignant about this.)  Our friend Charles, a proud Canadian, felt compelled to defend the honor of his country and gave me $3 on the spot to finance our journey.  So, this portion of today’s blog is sponsored by Charles Reid.  Charles, this one is for you:
Crystal Cave Mirror Maze, the pride of Canada
We were rather amazed to find that the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is much tackier than the American side.  Hard to believe, right?  Our girls now envision Canada as a neon-lit jumble of carnival rides, haunted houses, amazing attractions, and fast food restaurants.  We let them choose one tacky tourist attraction to visit, and they went with the Crystal Cave Mirror Maze.  I have to admit that it was actually pretty cool – but also very stressful for me.  You had to put on plastic gloves and go into this room that was a maze of mirrors in every direction, lit by disco lights.  The gloves were because the only way to find your way around was to feel for it, since otherwise you’d walk smack into a mirror (which happened to Lanie more than once).  The girls kept taking off in different directions, and I would frantically call them back since I could see like 8 of them all around me and did not know how to distinguish the real one.  At one point, having lost all sense of direction well before, it crossed my mind to wonder how long they would let you wander around in there before someone came to help you out.  But at last we all found our way to the exit, having experienced an authentic bit of Canadian culture.
We also couldn’t get away from all the gift shops.  Of all the junk that they contained, here is what Nadia elected to spend her money on:
Yes, that would be Niagara Falls nail clippers (with a bonus bottle opener to boot).  I can just see the pathetic target customer for this item, sitting around on a Saturday night drinking a 12-pack of beer and clipping his toenails.  I think Nadia picked this because I kept telling her how impractical all the stuff was.  Well, she had me there.
After returning to the US, we hopped back in the car and set off for Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio, about 5 ½ hours away.  I picked this place because it was a convenient stopping point between Niagara Falls and Chicago, and we could swim in Lake Erie (which may or may not be a selling point; the jury is still out until tomorrow).  The car ride got pretty long and by the end the kids were bouncing off the walls, but we made it in one piece.  This part of Ohio is mostly just huge fields of corn and (we assume) soybeans, very flat with an occasional water view.
I rented a yurt at the campground since I knew we’d be arriving on the later side and didn’t want to have to bother with the tent for just one night.  It’s not exactly roughing it since we have beds, a fridge and microwave.  The kids set off to ride around a bit on their bikes while we unloaded the car and started a campfire.  I had been going to say many good things about this place; about the beautiful sunset, the quiet, the beach on Lake Erie, and the total lack of mosquitoes – until we started getting menaced by a skunk who is clearly not the slightest bit afraid of people, fires, noise, or light.  We had spied him multiple times but thought he’d gone away, so imagine my surprise when Bob and I were sitting by the fire and I heard little footsteps crunching behind me.  He drove us away from the fire and to the safety of the yurt for quite some time, and now, as I sit here writing this on the picnic table in the dark, I’m feeling rather jumpy.  So, off to bed.  Tomorrow, we’ll explore the park and then drive to Chicago.
When we were thinking about this trip and those who would be accompanying us, there was some speculation that Lanie might not be old enough to handle it.   Two days into it and we see that not only is she old enough, the other two are too old.   Just about everything we’ve been to so far has been FREE for people Lanie’s age  (and not free for the others).  Howe Caverns.  Maid of the Mist.  Gratis.
                Why, if one were to bring a busload of four-year olds across the country stopping at attractions along the way…well, it almost certainly would end quickly and horribly, but it would be the most economical way to make such a trip, per capita. Lanie didn’t even complain when Canadian Wendy messed up her kid’s meal and gave her yogurt instead of poutin.
                Today we start to see how well this trip was planned.  Jen has picked out a really nice place for us to spend the evening.  It’s scenic and quiet, and there’s wildlife.  In Ohio.  An early blueprint for this trip was to have us visiting every roadside dive we could find and take pictures of each other holding cans of cheap beer in one hand and pointing menacingly at the camera with our other.   But, as we all know, Brian Mooney made that trip not five years ago and the Mid-Atlantic states are still on alert for copycats.  So this is also a good way to travel.
                The kids have been good.  Even when we disconnected the aqua-lung (turned off the Little Town on the Prairie cds) with about 45 minutes left in the trip, they held it together pretty well.  Oh, they splashed around a little bit in the middle row, but nobody was the worse for it.
                And, to their great credit, they did not run out of the yurt when we told them that Rollo the Skunk was prowling our campsite.  That could have been disasterous, but it wasn’t
                Hopefully, can can say as much tomorrow night about driving and parking the van in Chicago.

Day 1: Escape from New England

Hey, we fit it all in the car!  Barely.  I mean, the girls did have to crouch in the cargo area.

This is even before we added the four bikes to the back!

Day 1: Escape from New England

Chicopee, MA to Buffalo, NY

Well, naysayers, we had a rousing success on Day 1, despite 7+ hours in the car.  (I think this is a combination of the novelty not yet wearing off and the candy bags not yet running empty.)

After a restful night at Grandma’s, and well fortified with pancakes delivered to us by Aunt Rosemarie, we hit the road around 9:30, with the back end of the van not quite dragging on the ground.  (The everything bagels from Grandma almost put us over the edge.)  It was a pleasant 2 1/2 hour drive to our first stop, Howe Caverns.  Zoe, who unlike the rest of us does not become extremely nauseated if she tries to read in the car, was kind enough to read to us from The Wizard of Oz, which we’d downloaded onto her Kindle.  (The Kindle is entirely populated with books from about 100 years ago, because they are free!)

The area around Howe Caverns was surprisingly lovely, with rolling hills of farmland and quaint little towns that looked like something out of an old movie.  We sat outside and ate our lunch (peanut butter for the first of what I’m sure will be many, many times) while waiting for our tour.  The caves were pretty neat, although I kept finding myself thinking it was something similar to Disney World and waiting for the animatronic pirates to jump out.  It was so civilized, and so crowded, that it didn’t quite feel like something from nature.

Afterward we sat out on the big hill in front, and forced the children to run way down to the gate at the far side and back up, to burn off some energy.  Nadia took a picture of us from near the bottom:

If you really squint, you may be able to see Bob and I, lounging about and waving from above the “W”.  The tiny pink dot on the bottom of the “E” is Lanie panting her way back up the hill.

After a few more hours in the car (helped along by the On the Banks of Plum Creek audiobook), we stopped in Rochester for dinner.  Bob had fond memories of Dinosaur Barbecue from his Syracuse days, so we headed for there.  Of course, arriving at 6:30pm on a Saturday night wasn’t the best planning, so we ended up having to wait an hour to eat.  (We strolled around a bit and would have gone somewhere else instead, except that downtown Rochester seems to be unaccountably bereft of any kind of restaurant.)  Rochester seemed a lot nicer than I expected, and the meal was worth the wait.  The girls insisted they were STARVING and would need the entire rack of ribs to split, and while we’re at it, why not the special platter that comes with 4 side dishes?  Naturally, they failed miserably to eat all this food.

So we’re now ensconced at a Red Roof Inn in Buffalo.  We went for a pretty cheap hotel since we’re not spending much time here, but it’s not too bad other than a very faint odor that I can’t quite place and figure it’s best not to dwell on.   Ready to head to Niagara Falls in the morning…


Many people will be happy to learn that we did not lose a single child in the subterrainian twists of Howe Caverns.  Safe cave dwelling, long an important skill of us people, is especially important on this trip because we will have the opportunity to spend so much time underground.  Featured among these opportunities are Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Spook Cave, Tom Sawyer Cave, and Mammoth Cave, none of which are made up.   We’ve already passed on one, Secret Caverns.  This seems to be a slightly daffy neighbor to Howe Caverns.  You can’t go in every cave you see, that’s what I say.

What is our personal trick for staying together while spelunking?  It was pretty easy, actually.  Nadia was a little freaked out by the whole thing and held my hand very tightly.  The only effect the surroundings seemed to have on Lanie was to echo her many pronouncements, so there was little hope of losing track of her.  And Zoe had the camera, so we just had to follow the flash pops to find her.

The Final Countdown

The Final Countdown

(Yes, you’ll have that Europe song in your head for the rest of the day now.  Just like me.  Sorry.)

Today, our departure day, is at last here. Bags and bins are almost packed. (Is it possible that they’ll all fit in the car? Or might we have to bump one of the children?) With any luck, we’ll all be recovered from the various minor health crises which have reared their ugly heads in the last week just to give me heartburn (though I’m still living under the shadow of the fever/sore throat bug which has serially hit everyone in the family except me).

We’ve been planning this trip for a long time. The five of us, our trusty minivan, and five weeks to see a good chunk of the country. We’re hoping that we’ve scheduled our adventure in a sweet spot between the hassles of diapers and toddlers (Lanie will be 5 in September) and the teenage years where spending five weeks in a car with your family is its own special circle of hell (Zoe will be 11 in November). And evidently there are some new laws in place that you can’t undertake a voyage like this without having a blog about it, so I’m trying. Though it’s possible that once the trip actually starts I’ll revert to laziness and procrastination and you’ll never hear from me again.

So far, we have been told we’re crazy for the following reasons:

– We are not bringing a DVD player with us. The kids will need to resort to looking out the window, like Laura and Mary did from their covered wagon (but with air conditioning!) My friend Charles is skeptical of this strategy and wants to set up a webcam in our car so he and my other co-workers can observe firsthand how things go TV-free. He is envisioning a sort of reality-TV show, perhaps a cross between The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, and Supernanny.

– We have folded down the back row of seats for much-needed storage space, so all three kids will be sitting in a line behind us. Nadia has cleverly nominated Zoe to sit in the middle, pointing out that she and Lanie don’t get along very well. (My dear friend Wendy, who was one of the first to tell me that the seating arrangement is unwise, is herself going to be spending the next year BIKING through Europe with her FIVE children. So we need to take her advice with a grain of salt.)

– At the places where we’re camping, we are sleeping in an actual tent, rather than an RV/pop-up camper/etc. (Luckily we’ll have all the privacy we could want since we have a “two room” tent — meaning there is a layer of sheer fabric that hangs down in the middle.)

I do have some anxiety about all the car time, and have overcompensated by (a) loading approximately 18,000 hours of family-friendly audiobooks onto the iPod, and (b) buying and making a gazillion books/games/art supplies/etc. for use in the car. They are individually wrapped and will be handed out as bribes for good behavior. The girls will also start each day with a couple of dollars in their “accounts”, and will be docked cash for various behavioral infractions. Sometimes you need both a carrot and a stick, I say. (Those who know the children at all well can probably make accurate bets on who will end up flush with cash and who will immediately go bankrupt.)

The first leg of the trip will be a short one, just down to my mom’s in western MA on Friday night. This will give us a 2 1/2-hour head start in getting to our first real destination — scenic Buffalo, NY! (OK, we do not expect to spend any actual time in Buffalo, other than sleeping at the economical Red Roof Inn before heading on to Niagara Falls the next morning.) We’ll be stopping here and there along the way — Howe Caverns, and maybe the Dinosaur Barbeque in Bob’s old Syracuse stomping grounds. Anyone have any other suggestions for upstate NY? (Before you say it, I have already looked into the Jello Museum and I don’t think we’ll make it there during there opening hours.)

Postscript from Bob:
Meanwhile, as the feet on the street of this operation, I am managing to pick up some integral items for our trip across the prairie. How many travel soap dishes did the Ingalls have in their wagon in 1877? The written accounts are surprisingly vague on this. We now have two: A green one from WalMart (the last in the bin) that I picked up a few days back with some help from Heather Anderson, and a white one I just bought at our local Rite Aid with absolutely no help from my daughters. Negative help, to be honest. Zoe wanted the purple one. She’s still miffed. It’s the store’s fault, really, for having two different colors.