Thursday, August 23, 2018

Wild West

We spent the last two weeks of July doing a whirlwind tour of the West.  We visited nine states and drove over 4000 miles.  (We saw a lot and this post will be long, but there are lots of pretty pictures like this one from Utah.)

It wasn't the most convenient time for this trip for several reasons, but we kind of felt we needed to do it.

First of all, Ian's side of the family is all out that way, and there were several relatives of his we hadn't seen in a long time or had never even met, and we felt a need to address that.  It's hard for us to travel anyplace we can't reach by car, so usually seeing family means seeing my family, but we wanted our kids to get to know the other side of their family, too.

And second, our oldest is halfway through high school and we won't have that many opportunities to travel together as a family in a few years and there is a lot we want our kids to see.  We've barely scratched the surface, really, of what we want to show them in the world, but at least when they go off on their own they will have a decent idea of the scope and variety of what's in our own country, and that's a start.

My kids are good at road trips, but we didn't want to spend time driving across parts of the country we've already seen, so we flew to Salt Lake City and rented a car to drive from there.  The plan was to pick up camping gear in the first few days of the trip to use later, but the one snag in the plan was the equipment we scoped out at our local Walmart that we figured we could find during our travels was not available in the quantities we needed at any single store.  We had to stop at several of them to get five cots (after our air mattress disasters we decided cots were the new way to go), but toward the end of our trip my kids said they preferred to go hungry rather than stop at another Walmart for snacks and supplies.

Our flight left Milwaukee very early on the morning of the 17th, and an incredibly kind neighbor (thankyouthanyouthankyouAubrie) drove us to the airport at 3:30a.m.  We flew first to Phoenix, then on to Salt Lake.  One of the advantages of finally traveling with older kids (they are now 16, 14, and 11) is that we could take Southwest and not have to worry about all of us sitting together.  (I remember flying to New York when Ian was deployed and trying to manage five-month-old Quinn in my lap while tending to the girls across the aisle.  Very different times.)

We picked up our rental car at the airport from Enterprise, which was the only rental car place in the city that my husband said didn't have a one-star Yelp review.  That never even occurred to me to check because how bad could a rental car place be?  Apparently pretty bad because the lines and complaints at every other place were impressive.  We piled into our new minivan and drove north through Boise to Nampa, Idaho.

It's so interesting to drive through landscapes that look nothing like home.

It's also interesting to see regular things that are different, like gas stations and coffee places.  This one made us laugh:
Mostly we were struck by how dry everything is.  That was a theme all over the West, where everything looked parched and some people used water as a way to show off.  Fountains just looked wasteful to us.  And golf courses in the desert looked criminal.  We live right next to Lake Michigan, so what we're used to in summer is downright tropical by comparison, but watching the different kinds of groups out West vying for limited water made us appreciate it differently.

So what was in Nampa?  A lot of family most of us had never met.  There's a step-grandma who last saw us when Aden wasn't quite two and I was pregnant with Mona, and she lives with her son who is our age but technically Ian's uncle.  We got to meet his wife and her mother and the three little kids I've only ever seen pictures of.  My kids settled right in to play with their little cousins, we had a delicious meal and caught up on what my kids just call grown-up talk, and enjoyed a comfortable night's sleep in their pretty home.  The next morning they treated us to breakfast at IHOP and we headed toward Oregon.
We drove along the Columbia River, ducked over to the Washington side for a little while, and observed the first of many fires.  We never got close enough to any fires to see flames or anything that dramatic, but the amount of smoke during parts of our travels was unnerving.
We stopped at Bonneville Dam to look at the fish ladder.  The salmon working their way upstream were fun to see, but nothing compared to the lampreys.  We could have spent a whole day observing the lampreys sucking on the glass and each other and flapping about like thin aquatic flags from a nightmare.

After the dam we stopped at Multnomah Falls, which we haven't been to in ten years.  Aden just barely remembered it from her last visit.  (Aden with her umbrella in 2008, and without her umbrella in 2018.)

We also took in the view at Vista House before finally arriving at Ian's mom's home in Portland in time for a little dinner.

It was nice to be able to have Ian walk his kids around his old neighborhood.  My kids have seen where my old schools are and the parks I played in, but where their dad grew up was new to them.

His old neighborhood park has gotten kind of hip because everything in Portland has gotten kind of hip.  There is a dog park there now, and more activity than he remembers from when he was growing up.

In many ways Portland is nothing like the place where he was raised, but certain simple things always seem to stay the same.  Like Mount Tabor!  A city park that is an  extinct volcano.  My kids loved walking around there the next day, and we also drove past all of Ian's old schools and described his experiences getting around by bus and bike.
view from Mt Tabor
We toured Portland with Ian's mom and uncle and then we were joined by a cousin he'd never met at the Pittock Mansion which has lovely gardens and beautiful views of the city, and an odd little Turkish Smoking Room.  The funny thing is the mansion is about the same age as our violin store building, so there were a lot of features that were really familiar, like the fancy push button light switches.

There was a bit of confusion when we had to split into two cars at one point on our Portland tour, and I ended up with just Ian's uncle and cousin which actually worked out fine.  Ian and the kids ended back up as his mom's house where they needed a rest, and I got to try a fancy doughnut shop and look around a hardware store (which always makes me happy) and check out some unusual and fun shops before we finally walked over to the Italian  restaurant where we were all meeting for dinner.  It was a really enjoyable day.  (The evening was spent with the kids introducing their grandma to "One Punch Man" which I have no idea if she liked or not.)
I wish it weren't so hard to get out to Portland, but it's a big trip to make with five people.  Ian and I are trying to figure out ways maybe he can find cheap flights and duck out there by himself once in a while, and maybe bring one kid along at a time.  All I know is that in our area we get to experience gradual changes because we see things with more regularity, and when you go away for long stretches things happen like an annoying weed can take over and turn into a towering tree that rises up from the back of the house.

On the morning of the 20th we had breakfast out on the back patio before we got all packed up in our minivan again and headed south.  We stopped at four different Walmarts as we went in order to exchange our tent and pick up enough cots, passed four different fires, and eventually we got to Crater Lake, which was a bit smokey, but still one of the most incredible sights I know.

Aden picked up a cute hat which proved useful the rest of the trip, and we enjoyed a nice little walk along part of the rim of the caldera.

From there we made our way by dark to the Oregon Caves campground.  This was our first, and one really bad, night of camping.  Mona fell asleep in the car and we had to leave her there, which at first seemed sad, but then she turned out to be the lucky one who stayed warm.  Ian had given us sensible warnings about what the temperatures would be like in the different places we would be, but we didn't have a realistic sense of what that would mean in a tent.  It was COLD.  And I had to keep getting up to use the creepy pit toilet and the night lasted FOREVER.  (Aden and I both had the experience of dreaming it was over and being relieved and then opening our eyes and seeing the stars and thinking Noooooooo!)  Eventually I retreated into the front seat of the car and tried to warm up and rest there but it was just a really long uncomfortable night.  (We bought more blankets at the next Walmart stop.)

(Strange aside:  On our way to the campground we passed through lots of smoke, and then spotted signs for the House of Mystery.  Being fans of Gravity Falls we decided to check it out but alas, it was closed.  The only mystery we spotted near there was this couch.)

The next day was Saturday the 21st and we got up early to make it in time for our reservations for the cave tour at 9:30.  The Oregon Caves are one of the rare marble caves (rather than limestone) you can visit, and it was amazing.  Also a lovely temperature for Wisconsinites who were starting to wilt in the general heat.  We had a great tour guide (we have yet to meet a ranger we didn't like), and it was a nice subterranean hike.

After the caves we drove to California where we walked among redwood trees in the national and state parks.  That was high on Mona's list of things to see and it didn't disappoint.

See my family at the base of the tree?

After the redwoods, we hit the coast to explore some tide pools.  The kids spent a long time looking under rocks and finding a variety of interesting creatures, including many tiny crabs.



I think my favorite thing on the beach was a beautifully weathered redwood log.  (I would have taken it home with me if I could.)
We stopped at a great little burger stand for dinner before making it to Oakland just before midnight.
view from our bedroom window
Oakland is where we got to visit with more relatives.  Ian's half-sisters on his dad's side live there, and we had the pleasure of showing them around Milwaukee last summer.  It worked out really well that they were able to put us up for a few days on this trip.  We felt instantly at home which is a rare and wonderful thing.  Plus they have one of the sweetest dogs in the whole world.

We spent all of that Sunday looking around San Francisco.  We went over the Bay Bridge, drove down the Embarcadero, walked onto the Golden Gate Bridge, had lunch in Little Italy (North Beach), ate gelato as we walked through Chinatown (where I treated myself to a cool watch made out of wood), and drove back in time for a dinner of grilled deliciousness at the house.

The two funniest things to us in San Francisco were the pigeon in the park in Chinatown that seemed unfazed by the anti-pigeon spikes there, and a store advertising its "Wisconsin Ginseng."  (Apparently we have the gold standard of ginseng in our home state but we had to go all the way to the West Coast to find that out.)

On Monday we went out to visit Ian's cousin's farm.  She and her husband have a gorgeous organic farm that they tend together while also caring for their really cute baby.  We got to eat some of the best cherry tomatoes I've ever had, plus we tried lemon cucumbers (which I'd never heard of before, but they are essentially round yellow cucumbers you can eat like an apple) and dragon tongue beans which were delicious.  They are also branching out into growing flowers and Aden got to help pick some for a bouquet to bring back to the house.

We had a late lunch in nearby Pleasanton, and then later at the house we had Indian takeout and got to meet one more cousin.  I love how much of Ian's family we got to spend time with on this trip!  It's so nice for my kids to know they are related to so many lovely, generous people.

Early the next morning we packed up and headed out early where we stopped at Walmart number five for blankets and to exchange one faulty cot.  We tried to visit Elkhorn Slough on the recommendation of our hosts in Oakland, but the visitor center was closed which changed our plans.  It turned out it shouldn't have, since the visitor center was not connected to the activities we had wanted to do, but it all worked out for the best.  We spent a bit of time on the beach watching the snowy plovers and being amazed by the ocean, and then we decided to go to the nearby Monterrey Bay Aquarium, which had not been on our list of things to do but turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

From the aquarium you could look out into the ocean and see birds, seals, and we even spotted a jellyfish.

Inside the aquarium they had one of the best bird displays I've ever seen, where there was nothing between you and the birds and they kept themselves just out of arm's reach.

At first the aquarium seemed nice, but not extraordinary.  The farther in we went the better it got.  They had the largest most incredible display of jellyfish I've ever seen, a kelp bed tank that was amazing (complete with a diver who was miked so he could talk to people outside) and a deep sea tank so large we spotted the hammerhead sharks long before we realized there was a huge school of sardines shifting around like one giant cloud.  It was stunning.



There was even some unexpected art, including an incredible (but sad) piece made of tiny shark teeth to represent the number of sharks killed by people a day.


My favorite thing was probably the school of sardines in the entrance to the Open Sea area before you get to the jellyfish.  They are in a ring shaped tank above your head, and when we first stepped into the entryway under it my kids assumed the tanks were screens.  The seams in the glass divided up the look of the tank and the idea of fish simply circling around endlessly in a loop didn't seem real so we at first thought it wasn't.  But it was!  And it was mesmerizing.  At first they just were busy going around and around, but when I stopped in to see them again before we left, they were waiting in a group just eerily floating in place.  I could have stayed in that one spot all day.

It's an excellent aquarium and worth the hefty price of admission.  I'm really glad we went.

For dinner that night we tried In-N-Out burger for the first time.  Unfortunately I think we should have researched it better to get the full experience, because the menu is sparse, but the secret menu additions are more interesting if you know what to ask for.  The basic burgers were good, though, and it was fun watching them cut fries from potatoes with the hand cranked slicer.

We reached our campground at the San Luis Reservoir right at sunset.  I'm trying to remember if we ever set our tent up before dark anywhere.  I don't think so, but it was a great tent with no extra pieces to keep track of and it was incredibly easy to assemble and we got really efficient at it.  (Along with setting up the cots which had their pluses and minuses, but overall were a huge improvement over failing air mattresses.)  It was a pretty place to wake up.


On Wednesday the 25th we went back to Elkhorn Slough where we walked on the beach again (and I found fifty cents).
Then we rented kayaks and paddled around among otters and seals.  I'm so glad in our confusion the day before that we hadn't tried to do that in the heat of the afternoon because it was much more pleasant and less crowded first thing in the morning.  Quinn was too young to have his own kayak so we share a double, and I really had fun.  The only downside was that Quinn an Aden and I got separated from Ian and Mona, and after the fog burned off and we were in full sun I realized Ian had the sunscreen.  A few of us got pretty sun burned which was uncomfortable for a few days, but not the end of the world.


That area with the slough is right by Castroville which bills itself as the artichoke center of the world.  (Quinn and I could not believe they didn't go with "the heart of artichoke country" as a slogan.)  So of course we stopped for a filling lunch of fried artichoke hearts and seafood.

artichoke field!

After we ate we did a long drive back into the central valley to camp at a place called Success Lake.  It was a pleasant place to camp with a strangely loud bathroom (some kind of automatic fan kicks on when you open the door and it sounded like a plane landing), and we actually ended up driving into town to wander around Target just for the relief from the insane heat.  (The weird part about being in Target is it feels like home, so Aden said it was hard to shake the sensation that when she stepped outside she could just walk the two blocks to our house again.)

The next day we drove through the central valley to just north of LA in order to do our scheduled tour of CalArts which is a place that Aden is intrigued by since so many of her animator heroes went there.

This was our first college tour.  Aden is a junior this year and it's time to start looking ahead at what comes next.  I don't know if this is a school we could even remotely afford, but Aden said she was content simply to see a place she'd read so much about and that she knew was important to so many talented animators.  We even stopped at the famous room A113, which is a number they sneak into every Pixar film in homage to the school.

Our tour guide was delightful, and even took the time to show us around a few more places after the formal tour so Mona could look at the costume facilities, and we could see things like the famed door with the 30 foot drop to the ground outside.

It's an impressive school, with odd perks like being pet friendly and exclusive pre-screenings of certain big animated movies.  Their acceptance rate is extremely low, so I don't know what Aden's chances are, but we're encouraging her to create a portfolio to submit anyway.  She has so many charming ideas that would be wonderful to see nurtured by the right people.  We'll see.

After CalArts we stopped for calzones, looked around a fun 99 cent store, and then we gassed up in Barstow where the handy thermometer on our dashboard informed us it was 121 degrees.  It was so hot on our drive past Death Valley that the car windows were too hot to touch.

That night we checked into the Luxor!  Las Vegas is not really our thing for a lot of reasons, but indoor plumbing is, and we figured it was the kind of place the kids should see for themselves at least once.  The Luxor is the hotel that looks like a giant black pyramid with a beam of light bursting straight out of the top of it.  Vegas at its best is fun and silly and outrageous, and at its worse is crass and depressing.  We walked around, got a bite at a food court, and turned in early.  I think the strangest thing I saw was that they now have blackjack with a digital dealer.  I suppose it's cheaper than hiring a real person, but I will never understand why anyone thinks they have a chance to come out ahead against a game that doesn't even use physical cards.

In the morning we went to breakfast at Mr Mamas, which was a great place in a part of Las Vegas that seemed like it was where locals ate.  The walls were covered with pictures from the Midwest (particularly Michigan) and when the owner stopped by our table it turned out that's where he was from.  That guy and his restaurant are officially my favorite thing in Vegas.

We then drove out to show the kids Hoover Dam, but since we were last there they have redone the roads so that you can't see anything unless you want to pay!  It was ridiculous!  We decided no dam(n) tour for us and drove through the Lake Meade Recreation Area (where we saw some horses on the road that we were concerned for in the head but didn't know what to do about), stopped at yet another Walmart for food and supplies, and then went to Zion.

View from the window with the kids' deli platter label in it.

I love Zion, and it was fascinating to see how much has changed there.  The town around it is much more built up than when we last visited back in the mid-90s, but the biggest change is they've switched to a bus system inside the park.  You used to be able to drive to the start of all the hiking spots in the canyon, but now everyone parks at the main visitor center and they have buses with big windows constantly circulating in a loop.  It's great.  No more horrible traffic back ups, many fewer vehicles in the park which cuts down on pollution and potential danger to the wildlife and other people, the parking lots take up much less space at each location, the buses are convenient, and you can look at the sights instead of the road.  It was a different sort of experience, but I think an improved one.


We decided to go to the end of the loop and hike the Narrows at least as far as where the trail turns to water.  The astonishing thing about that trail is to be in the desert, but surrounded by lush vegetation made possible by a few natural springs and ancient water streaming down the walls of the canyon where rain filtered through the upper sandstone layers hits the denser siltstone and simply weeps out of the rocks.  There will be a cactus on one side of the path and a fern on the other.  There were deer, tons of overly tame squirrels, and Quinn even spotted a salamander.  We got to watch the sun begin to set over the rocks.



After dark we pitched our tent under a bright full moon in Jacob Lake, Arizona.  (That campground was well cared for and had the cleanest pit toilets I've ever seen.)  Ian picked it based on distance from Zion and the Grand Canyon and a cooler temperature at night and it worked out well.

Saturday the 28th we made our way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  We saw a herd of bison almost immediately upon entering the park.

The Grand Canyon is, of course, beautiful.  And I'd never been to the north rim, so it was interesting to experience the difference compared to the tourist crowded south rim.  But this was the point in the trip where Ian and I realized we'd probably overreached and worried we'd broken the kids.  They are good travelers, but it was so hot, and we'd seen so much, and the Grand Canyon was simply overwhelming.  Aden, looking limp and sad, told me she felt terrible that she wasn't able to appreciate it better, but it was so big and hard to comprehend that she didn't feel capable of enjoying it the way she knew she should.  We did a short, slow hike.  We spotted a lizard which cheered them all up.  Then we had ice cream.

After the Grand Canyon the kids all fell into a sleep stupor as we drove through some beautiful countryside and over a bridge spanning the Colorado River in Navaho country.  Ian and I got out to admire the view, and I bought a necklace from a nice jewelry maker with a stand near the bridge.



We made our way to Page, Arizona, in order to gas up and get supplies, and that was the point where the kids declared they would rather go hungry than step foot in another Walmart, so we wound up eating a late lunch in a Denny's there just to make sure everyone was fed before the drive to Four Corners.

Here's the thing about all the driving:  I'm sure for people who hate to drive this trip sounds awful.  But Ian and I took turns, and we even had Aden drive for a stretch or two.  It was nice and cool inside the roomy car as we observed all the changing scenery, and I read several books out loud (for this trip it was both volumes of The Holy Man by Susan Trott, and the first Harry Potter book).  Plus you start to appreciate and understand all that distance when you are on the ground passing through it and it just keeps going.

But for me, one of the best parts of the whole trip was driving fast through the empty desert while playing whatever pop music we could find on the radio.  That's just fun.  There were a lot of 80s tunes, and for some reason one song over and over by Ed Sheeran that my kids only know from a parody they love, so we sang it loudly as "I like shapes!" which never stopped being funny.  When the kids were worn out, climbing back into the car was a comfort and where we had some of our best moments.  So for us the drive was fine.

We passed along the south side of Monument Valley and eventually arrived at Four Corners (which made Quinn the geography boy very happy).

We were there at the very end of the day so most stuff was closed down, but even so we could tell that there are a lot of missed opportunities at Four Corners.  It should be a place where each of those four states should be vying for tourist attention, showing off the best of what each of those places have to offer and luring people to visit attractions that they may not have known about or considered before.  Chances for interesting foods and activities to try, a friendly competition of tourism boards.  But we were in Navaho country, so all the booths set up for sales were all similar jewelry and shirts and trinkets, and they only food seemed to be fry bread in a boarded up food truck.

We drove through Colorado briefly to get back into Utah.

We looked over a couple of campsites that we were hoping to stay in, but for various reasons at that point we needed a real bathroom with running water and we ended up trading our last night of camping for a place in the town of Bluff called the Kokopelli Inn which we really liked.  We got to shower, watch cartoons, and sleep in air conditioning, which all felt very restorative.  The Inn even included a nice breakfast in a room with a fireplace made of a variety of cool stones like petrified wood and agate.

Bluff was an odd and interesting place.  Everyone I asked who lived there said they liked it because it was quiet.  It has a strange mix of Native American and Mormon history, and in one of the flyers at the Inn they described a series of catastrophic floods which "finally destroyed all the pretty stone homes and farms of the Mormon settlers."  The welcome sign as you enter says "Founded in 650 AD."

That Sunday we drove back through more of Monument Valley, and then did a 17 mile loop through a place called Valley of the Gods.  That was beautiful, and seemed far more accessible and private than much of what we'd recently seen.  The kids really loved it, because unlike the Grand Canyon that you look across, this you could stand in and look up.

Mexican Hat Rock!
The sense of scale is insane in a place where the only thing to compare anything to is more rocks, because rocks can be any size.

Check out these pictures where there is a jumble of rocks, then I walked out there to stand by one, and then see if you can actually see me in the next photo standing by that rock.  That rock is WAY bigger than you would have guessed from the first photo.



I love that so much.  If the kids hadn't been ready to keel over by then I would have made more of a point to use them for scale in more rock photos.

We went back to Bluff for gas and snacks, then drove up to Moab (another place where construction has boomed since we were last there) and on to Arches.  We did a couple of short hikes and saw some beautiful things, including petrified sand dunes, Delicate Arch, and the Balancing Rock.

We stopped for dinner at a truck stop in Green River where we found all the rest of all the new state magnets Quinn needed for his growing collection of states he's visited, and then we went on a gorgeous drive to the Pando forest that Ian had read about and wanted to see.  It's a forest that is really one single organism and it's just bizarre and out of place, but very beautiful at sunset.

I think this was also the highest elevation we reached on our trip--over 9000 feet above sea level, which compared to the 700 or so feet we are used to at home was really wild to contemplate.

The drive after the sun went down was a bit harrowing because it was dangerously dark and there were a lot of deer and elk everywhere.  We had laughed a bit in the daylight about the signs warning us of "frequent deer" since we'd only spotted one, but after dark was a different story.  Ian got us safely to our hotel in Provo where we then had to figure out how to pack all the stuff going back with us on the plane that we hadn't come out with.

Ian got up very early on the morning of Monday the 30th in order to get one more bag, the girls helped him go clean out the rental car while I packed, then after breakfast we drove to Salt Lake city where we checked a million cots, flew to Colorado, and finally home where we were able to make it just in time to pick up Chipper from the "Stay and Play."  (The kids were happy to see him, but I'm quite sure he was more happy to see us since he probably assumed we were dead.)

Overall a very successful trip!  As worn out as the kids were, they said there wasn't anything they would have cut out.  They liked having seen so many places.  Originally we had hoped to visit Yosemite and the Sequoia national parks, but even though the fires scuttled those plans I'm really glad we got to do the other things we did in their place.  I think we struck a good balance of visiting family and time on our own, cities and camping, practical and silly.  I completely wore through my shoes and wound up ordering a new pair while we had Wifi at CalArts that were waiting for me when we got home.

It's been interesting to listen to my kids discuss what they thought of all of it.  The things they'd heard of were not like what they were expecting, which was really the whole purpose of the trip.  There is no picture of the Grand Canyon that is anything like the experience of the Grand Canyon, and there are elements of it that no one thinks to talk about that you only realize as you are trying to reach it, such as the fact that it is very high up.  You think about the Grand Canyon as a place to look down, but you have to go up a long time before you can do that.

Wild quail!
They've all seen enough of Las Vegas in that one evening stroll to probably last them a lifetime, but I'm glad they've seen it.  I like that we had to stop and turn around on a road in a small town because we spotted a family of quails and the kids wanted to just follow them, and Aden laughed and pointed out that Las Vegas was fine, but there was not one thing in it that they had asked to see more of like they wanted to see the quails.

There really is nothing quite so gratifying as a parent than to get to share things with your kids and watch them light up.  You get to be reminded to look at the world as the wondrous place it is, rather than be preoccupied with irritating minutia that can too often cloud our view.

I've made up my mind not to overload our kids with the next road trip so they can enjoy it better.  I don't know what that next trip is yet, but I'm already looking forward to it.


  1. Love it! Looks like we overlapped locations this summer plus you added our other big trips! Your kids are good travelers like ours and we too sometimes hit stimulation overload. The Narrows and Zion are my favorites and wasn't Valley of the Gods so cool? We did push the limits of our minivan rental on that one and Monument Valley. Looks and sounds like an amazing trip with lots of good memories :)

  2. Love it! Looks like we overlapped locations this summer plus you added our other big trips! Your kids are good travelers like ours and we too sometimes hit stimulation overload. The Narrows and Zion are my favorites and wasn't Valley of the Gods so cool? We did push the limits of our minivan rental on that one and Monument Valley. Looks and sounds like an amazing trip with lots of good memories :)