Our original plan to go to New York City was scuttled at the last minute this year, so I presented the kids with a list of alternatives and the one they all found most exciting was the idea of a big road trip to Texas. Among the last of the Mold-A-Rama locations on our map was the San Antonio Zoo. That was the one place that seemed impossible because it's just not near anything we had any excuse to visit, so we decided to make it a destination unto itself.
We hit the road early on Monday the 26th (the day after one of my orchestra concerts, which prevented us from getting a start on the weekend). We drove straight to St Louis in a lot of rain. We passed through many a small town (including one in Illinois with a sign claiming it was a "good" place to live and made us wonder if they were expressing honest doubt by throwing quote marks around good). Before hitting the road we'd stopped by AAA for maps which kept Quinn entertained as he tracked our progress.
We arrived at a Drury Inn by the convention center in time to partake in the dinner buffet included in our stay. It was a nice hotel, but peculiar in that most of the building was a parking structure and the actual hotel was just on the 5th and 6th floors. There was a teeny tiny pool right behind the food service and the whole place was just packed with families. I'm not sure why, really. I felt like we were in St Louis at an odd time for tourists, but maybe not?
Anyway, we liked our room and having wifi and cable channels to flip through and our breakfast buffet in the morning. I like being in a hotel with my family. And thanks to a genius camping tip from one of our neighbors we thought to bring a pool floaty for Quinn to sleep on! In the past we've had to find him a cot or hope for a pull-out couch or assemble him a bed out of chairs or pillows, but the $4 floaty didn't leak like our expensive air mattresses always seem to do and he was perfectly happy on it everywhere we went.
On Tuesday morning we made a brief stop at the Gateway Arch (where I recounted having gone up to the top during a high school trip and described how you could feel it sway, and then the kids had no desire to go up themselves).
From there we went to the St Louis Zoo which we'd heard good things about so we figured it was worth a visit. It's a very nice zoo, and it's free! We didn't get to all of it because the rain started getting heavy, but the layout is nice and I bet it's really pleasant in the sunshine.
Some of the older buildings are really lovely, and we particularly enjoyed the reptile house which included giant tortoises. Our favorite thing there, though, was an oddly paired albino rattlesnake with a box turtle that was a completely inconsiderate roommate. It moved around the enclosure with no regard for the snake at all, stepping on it, sitting in its water dish... I wish they had a webcam on that exhibit so we could keep watching.
We happened to be in St Louis on my dad's birthday, so it was hard not for me to feel a bit melancholy. I miss my dad. I wondered if he'd ever happened to have been to that zoo, and I can't ask him now. I did pick up a little souvenir license plate with his name on it in the gift shop, just because we always check those things for Quinn and I figured "Arnold" was close enough to a win. (We've only found Quinn's name on souvenirs on our travels twice--a sheriff's badge in Yellowstone, and in this zoo they had a strange looking street sign--but we're mostly interested in how there often is nothing at all offered under the letter Q.)
Once the rain got hard enough to be distracting we hit the road again and didn't really stop until Little Rock for dinner. We found a great restaurant called Flying Fish (the walls were covered with mounted fish personalized in a variety of ways) where we had a great meal of catfish and chips and hush puppies and I ordered okra for the kids to try. The banana pudding was great.
Afterward we walked along the river, saw a clever free library made from an old phone booth, spotted lots of birds and marveled at things growing after so much winter at home, and then made our way to a boardwalk over a pond near the Clinton Presidential library. The pond was filled with turtles which kept swimming toward us, so I assume they are used to people feeding them? (What do people feed to turtles? When I was a kid I only ever fed my pet turtle worms, so I'm not sure.) I've never seen turtles swim toward people before, and there were dozens of them. Then it started getting buggy and dark so we walked back to our car and headed off again.
Little Rock is pleasant, but it felt small. I don't have much experience driving around the South, and I was surprised at how empty much of Arkansas seemed from the road. It reminded me of long stretches out West where if you have a chance to fill your gas tank you always take it.
My kids were interested to note that once you pass into Texas you know you are in Texas. They asked me why there were so many state flags everywhere. (I can think of two places off the top of my head where they fly a Wisconsin state flag in Milwaukee, so that's not really a thing here. People in Texas fly state flags the way people here fly football team flags. I'm not a fan of waving flags. I'd replace them all with those wavy tube guys if I could because those always make me smile.)
I was in Austin a couple of times many years ago to visit my brother while he was in school there. It reminds me a lot of Madison WI, with that same University combined with a state capital vibe.
This was the wrong time of year to show my kids the bats at the Congress Ave bridge, but they loved that the city is filled with noisy charismatic grackles, and they plucked a few epiphytes out of the trees. It was so wonderfully warm and dry in Austin! The thrill of walking around without jackets was not lost on us. We stopped to visit briefly with an old luthier friend who has a shop in a busy area of town, and he directed us to a burger place called Hopdaddy's for lunch. (I tried an Impossible burger, which is veggie burger that convincingly tastes and feels like meat--I honestly wouldn't have known it wasn't.) After that we stopped at a cupcake truck (because it was a cupcake truck).
Aden and Mona were actually in Austin for a couple of days when they were very small, and I have a picture of Aden holding out an epiphyte to me just like this, but the photo predates my ownership of a digital camera so you'll have to take my word for it.We drove on straight to San Antonio after that, where we checked into our Air B&B. It was our first time trying that service, and it's something we're thinking of running ourselves at home so it was interesting to experience and see what we liked and what we didn't. Overall our Air B&B was great! It looked impossibly small when we pulled up to it but turned out to have plenty of room inside. We spent two very pleasant nights there, where the only real issue was that during storms the skylight leaked, but we just moved our things out of the way and it didn't really affect anything.
The area we were in was convenient to everything we wanted to see, but was in what looked like a transitional neighborhood. It was obviously once grand, now run down, and slowly being consumed by large medical complexes. The kids and I walked around several blocks while Ian fielded a conference call for the army back in our space. On our walk we passed buildings with all different specialties (liver, ears-nose-and-throat, eyes, heart, ankles-and-feet, dental....) and felt like if we walked far enough we could assemble a complete body. The timing was great because I think within minutes of our coming back inside an impressive amount of rain began to fall. There's nothing quite so nice as feeling safe and dry in a clean bed during a thunderstorm.
On Thursday morning we got up early early enough to arrive at the San Antonio Zoo about when it opened. We had to talk them into letting us bring in our cooler which we wanted to keep our Mold-A-Ramas safe. I've already written about the Mold-a-Rama collecting part of the zoo trip, but here are some other things to know:
There were odd trees that seemed confused about what direction to grow, and our favorite example was by the zoo parking lot that someone had set a rock under to help support it so it looked like it was having a nice sit. There was lots of flooding just outside the park from all the storms which was kind of interesting to see.
There were a lot of well done exhibits at the zoo, including a good reptile house and an aquarium (with a lovely old entryway decorated with real shells).
But the best part of the San Antonio Zoo for us (aside from the Mold-A-Ramas) was all the birds. I don't have great pictures, but there were so many amazing species to admire, including a "peacock pheasant" which was stunning (the best parts of two amazing birds declared Mona), a large bird we refer to as the "screaming bird" because we'd watched a couple of the same bird make a big ruckus back in the St Louis Zoo, several different kinds of flamingos, a beautiful turkey, and on and on.
After our morning at the zoo we went back to our temporary home to relax for a bit, and then went to see the Alamo. It turns out one of Aden's teachers had been really into the Alamo and had spent days on it with her history class, so she knew more about it than we could have imagined. The odd thing about the Alamo is how right in the middle of everything it is. It always looks rather isolated in pictures, but it's right in tourist central and near such things as a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum and a ton of hotels.
After the Alamo we wandered the River Walk for a while in search of dinner. The River Walk is beautiful. I liked that it was situated down below the main streets so it's cooler than the areas above and set apart from traffic and the rest of the city.
San Antonio is lovely. It's also really far from Milwaukee so we started heading back early on Friday which was entirely a driving day. My kids remain amazing on car trips. They've always been good on car trips and don't understand why other kids might not be. (I remember a few years ago when Aden's class did almost five hours in a bus for a weekend trip and she could not believe there was a stop in the middle to break up the drive and how everyone kept complaining how far it was. After that 17 hour straight shot from Florida she's just unfazed by any drive that's less than a day. Quinn and I were discussing on the way home from piano recently about how annoying it is that we didn't know the Mold-A-Ramas were back in Oklahoma before we arranged our trip, and then he looked up Oklahoma City on the GPS and discovered it's "only" a 12 hour drive. He said, "Oh, that's not bad" and we decided we'll make a weekend of it sometime. The big road trip we want to do is to the West Coast but that will take a bit of real planning. Nice to know the kids are up for it whenever we finally figure it out.)
The only notable stop on Friday was at Whataburger for lunch because Ian said it wasn't really a trip to Texas without going to Whataburger.
The girls mostly drew, listened to music, looked out the windows, did stuff on Aden's laptop, or watched DVDs (I think they re-watched Mob Psycho again, not sure). Quinn sits in the middle part of the minivan and can decide which way to direct his attention, so when he wasn't interacting with his sisters he was either following the map, napping, or doing practice for the Geography Bee with me. At some point we also broke out our Latin homework and got that done. I had time to read and finally finished All the Light We Cannot See which was very good. Texas driving is monotonous, so I was glad Ian and I could keep taking turns.
We grabbed pizza for dinner just outside of Memphis and spent the night in a terrible hotel. The only reason we'd booked it was it claimed to have breakfast included, and it didn't! Dim, dingy, lots of noise by the airport, but all we really needed was a place to sleep and rinse off in the morning so it didn't matter much.
We stopped at Graceland in the morning on our way out of town. We almost missed it because the GPS took us to the industrial looking museum complex across the street, but then we noticed the wall covered with fan graffiti and finally saw the house on the hill. We were allowed to walk the grounds for free if we didn't stay too long, so we saw the grave site next to the pool and enjoyed stretching our legs on the long walkway up the front yard.
The drive to Nashville wasn't long, but seemed so on an empty stomach. A friend had recommended we visit the Loveless Cafe, so we did, but it was impossibly crowded. The wait to eat was over two hours, so we picked up a bag of biscuit mix to make at home (they are good!) and headed for the Parthenon in the park.
The weather in Nashville was glorious. The trees were in flower and the skies were clear and it was a great day for walking around a park. The city itself was vibrant and attractive (especially compared to Memphis which looks like it has seen better days) and I wish we could have spent more time there.
But we did get to walk around the Parthenon, which is a full scale replica of the original and I may never get to Greece. Why is there a Parthenon in Nashville? No good reason, really, there just is, which is why traveling around America is fun. Everyplace has something odd to offer and everyplace is proud of whatever that is.
We had a good lunch at a place called Dewk's near the park that offered slices of impressive seven-layer cakes that we shared.
But the real reason for the stop in Nashville was to retrieve a Jack White guitar Mold-A-Rama from Third Man Records. It's a cool place and I'm looking forward to comparing it to the one in Detroit. I just wish I'd been able to convince the kids to record me a 45 of them singing something in the little recording booth.
It was really nice to spend time with family on this trip. My mom was able to come down for Easter, we stayed with my aunt and uncle (and their super shy cats), and we had dinner and an egg hunt over at my cousin Tony's house. His wife went all out on the food and decorations, and cousin Kate was a good hostess to my kids sharing her markers and toys.
We got in some egg decorating, learned a new game (Otrio is really fun!), and did lots of "boring grown-up talking" as Quinn likes to describe it.
The original plan was to just hide them all, and I said that wasn't going to fly with my kids because they like fairness and order and it didn't seem right to pit a 7 year old against teenagers without leveling the playing field in some way. I told our hosts that my kids would probably want to count all the eggs and I guessed right. They happily sorted all the eggs, ruled out being able to portion them out by color evenly, and settled on having each person collect exactly 84 eggs. 84 times four kids is a lot of eggs! My cousin Tony and I got to distribute them all around the yard and by the end I was just flinging handfuls of them into the lawn. My best hiding spots were all inside my uncle's car. I was impressed the kids managed to find all the eggs.
We headed back to Milwaukee on Monday. Quinn wasn't happy about missing a day of school, but I told him it was too much to ask of the people driving not to get a good night's sleep before heading home. He was at least happy that we found more state magnets at a truck stop so he could add to his collection of places he's been.
We had an unusually smooth drive through Chicago with brief stops at MOSI and the Brookfield Zoo for the last Mold-A-Ramas of the trip.
It was a good Mold-A-Rama haul! Eleven more for the collection. They haven't made it to the official shelf yet, but that's due for a dusting and reorganizing anyway.