Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mountain Driving

Mountain Driving

We had a quick breakfast at the Country Kitchen Truck Stop Restaurant in Sheridan, WY on our way to Yellowstone. As we were leaving the restaurant, I made a quick call to my friend Bobbye. I ended the call by telling Bobbye how beautiful the area was and that I could see the most gorgeous, snow capped mountains in the distance! At that time, I had no idea that I would be driving UP AND OVER those mountains!!! Where were the tunnels? the valleys??? And where were the other campers? Why was I the only person "towing" something thru these mountains?

I have driven over some hills on this trip, but towing a camper over the Rocky Mountains was just insane!! I have never been as scared as I was driving over those mountains! The kids knew I hated it and Nicholas sat in the back saying things like “You don’t want to look mom, you really don’t want to look!” Garrett was in the front and tried to be helpful by pointing out what the upcoming curves looked like on the GPS. Some of which looked like some sort of freaky knot illustration from a boy scout handbook! I yelled at Garrett to just turn it off! I was beginning to hate Martha.

I tried to remember Lloyd’s advice about driving in third gear and not riding the breaks. But how do you take hairpin curves, down straight cliffs, towing a camper full of stuff including a recently acquired rock collection, at 15 mph, without riding the breaks?!?! Yea, I was swearing. Of course the main thought running through my head was how in the hell was I going to get out of Yellowstone? If the way out was anything like the way in, I was simply staying in the park. Forever.

Minuteman Missile Site

Minuteman Missile Site

After leaving The Badlands, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile Site. This is the area where the government stored hundreds of missiles during the cold war. The launch center is now open for tours and is part of the National Park Service. I had called months ago about getting a tour, but they were booked. I decided to stop by anyway since I thought the kids might find it interesting, and surely they knew something about missiles from all of the video games they play! Well, it was just our luck that we showed up as an official tour was leaving and they had a cancellation. Not only did we get in, but our tour guide was a retired Air Force Officer and he was one of the original launch controllers. He is the only living person to have ever launched one of those missiles!

We toured launch control and learned about all the equipment. The amount of technology in that room could now fit in a cell phone! We also learned about launch procedures and security, and then drove out to see one of the missiles. It was very interesting and a very good history lessons for all of us. Our tour guide even told us that you can find historic footage of practice launches on the internet, and he is the person in the video!


Custer Park is full of them! They hang out on the side of the road, Disney style. They wander through fields, and walk in single file lines to the nearest watering hole; they walk up and down the roads with no interest whatsoever in the cars behind them; and just like people, the babies hang out with the mommas while the bulls just do their own thing. They’re big and strong and have the gentlest faces! Of course, there are signs everywhere “Don’t feed the Buffalo” and little notices in the visitors center about people being gorged to death by them.

One passed in front of our truck while we sat in a parking lot trying to get “Martha” to find a place for us. It’s gotten to the point where the kids say “not another picture of buffalo”… yep, I think I’ve filled a card.

On a side note, I think hawks use to be my favorite animal. We have one in our backyard at home and he is just the most beautiful thing. On our jeep tour, we saw one swoop down and grab a prairie dog. Nicholas had just talked about how “cute” the prairie dogs are, and how he would love to have one as a pet. I think he was a little disgusted by the hawk encounter. Circle of life.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day 10-12/ Custer State Resort Park, SD

Custer State Resort Park, SD

This is such a beautiful place, it’s hard to decide what to talk about first! Custer State Park is in the middle of the Black Hills of SD. It borders Wind Cave National Park, and is surrounded by other state and national nature areas. It’s miles and miles of black hills, mountains, prairies and meadows, rock formations, lakes and streams, and on a clear day, from the top of one of the many peaks, you can see the badlands which are about 200 miles away. The park is full of wildlife such as buffalo, bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, and even mountain lions.

We hiked a few small trails and then did a strenuous 3. 5 mile trail that took us to the peak of Lover’s Leap mountain and then back down to the valley where we crossed streams 11 times (according to the kids who count stuff like that), and by the end of our hike, we were worn out! Especially since we did not bring a trail map with us and made a wrong turn which added another ½ mile to our hike. So it was really a 4 miler on our first day. But it was fun and beautiful and good exercise and that’s what this trip is about!

During our visit to Custer, we went swimming, visited Mt. Rushmore, took a jeep ride through areas of the park not normally assessable by car, panned for gold in the park steams, toured the Mammoth Site, and hung out at the camp site. The campsite was nice, but rustic. We had electricity, but no water. Getting into the site was a bit tricky since the area is heavily wooded. But I am getting much better at backing up. Somewhere along the way I took all the internet advice, the "back up” tips, the recommendations from Lloyd, and the mirror methods, and I tossed all that out the window. I now rely on sticking my head out the window and yelling at Garrett and that seems to work best!

The Badlands at Night

Badlands at Night

The Ranger Program on astronomy was fascinating! The ranger started the program by telling us more about the park and that we were visiting at a really good time; the area is usually very dry and to see so many wild flowers is a real treat! He then said that while they have trails, this is the kind of place where you don’t have to stay on the trail! Some of the best fossils are found while climbing around on the rocks. Exploring is strongly encouraged!

Once it got really dark (after 10), we started looking at the many, many constellations and galaxies. I have never seen so many stars in my life!! It was like you could reach up and touch them!

Later that night we experienced a very intense thunder and lightning storm. The lightning felt as close as those stars had seemed early in the evening! It was scary and I didn’t sleep until it was over. Garrett and Nicholas didn’t even know it stormed until I told them about it the next day!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 9 / The Badlands, SD

The Badlands

The mythology of the Badlands tells the story of how the Lakota Indians lived in the area when the plains were lush and green, and the mountains were colorful. Any tribe passing through, no matter how unfriendly, would band together with the Lakotas and dance and sing and trade in peace. But then, from the western mountains, came people who wanted the land for their own. A battle began and the Great Spirit covered the area in a dark cloud. Storms came and destroyed the green, lush prairies. The area became a barren waste.

This is kind of what we expected… dry, barren rocks, and some interesting mountains. What we actually saw was truly breathtaking. The mountains were stunning with layers of colors and textures; the prairies and grassy area between the rocks were green and lush, and with wildflowers in full bloom, the place even smelled wonderful!

We spent most of our time just climbing on the rocks. We hiked a couple of short trails and then hiked the Notch Trail, a 1.5 mile moderate to strenuous hike through the canyon and up to some of the mountain peaks. Along the way we saw the most interesting bird nests made out of mud along the side of the rocks. We learned a little about these birds during the Badlands movie at the Visitors Center, so it was really neat to see them in the wild!

Garrett and Nicholas did not want to leave the trail, but it was almost 9:00 and it was getting dark. I did not want to be out on those mountains once it got dark since we didn’t have flashlights with us. Plus, there was a Ranger Program on astronomy at 9 and I thought it would be fun to go to that.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Journal Notes from Nicholas

Day 1

We finally got on the road at about 8:00 P.M. It has been kinda boring just sitting here reading. I already finished my book so now I’m reading garrets book. We have been to 2 rest stops so far. We decided to call the new GPS “Martha.” It’s 1:30 am and I have been sleeping since 11:30 PM. Martha says that we will get to the campsite in Kentucky soon. Once we got to our campsite we set up, me and garrett went over to play miniature golf. Garrett paid and we started to play. Garrett started cheating so I quit. Garret got mad and said I wasted his money. Mom came and told us that we were going to the caves so now we are in the car going to the bat caves. The caves are so cool! The father down you go the more cold it gets. When we got back we had dinner and then me and garrett went to get some ice cream. After that me and garrett went to play miniature golf. When we got back we set up beds and took showers. Then we got ready for bed and went to sleep.

Note from mom: Nicholas spends time every day writing in his journal. I asked him if we could put some of his stuff on the blog, and he said sure! It's fun to see what he really thinks about our trip. Overall, I think both he and Garrett are having a really great time! ***Nicholas has" pm" and "am" mixed up.

Nick Says...

We have been to a lot of cool places and seen a lot of cool things but I can`t wait `til California. Some of the things I liked were swimming in the lakes, getting ice cream, seeing the caves, and taking hikes, and going to the arch.

Day 6 and 7 Lewis & Clark State Park, IO

Day 5 & 6 Lewis and Clark, the original backpackers

We had a nice relaxing weekend at the Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa. Our campsite was near the water and had plenty of shade trees. While the daytime temperatures were in the 80’s, the nights were in the cool 60’s. Great camping weather!

We walked around the Lewis and Clark exhibits and played on models of the keelboats Lewis and Clark used to cross the Missouri River. It’s been a long time since I have read anything about Lewis and Clark and the kids and I really enjoyed learning about their adventures. Both Garrett and Nicholas thought Lewis and Clark were brothers. I did not tell them that if Lewis and Clark really were brothers, they never would have made it across the US! We also learned that they started their adventure on July 5, 1803? Coincidence???

In addition to learning about L&C, we also spent time swimming and Nicholas “caught” a giant clam thing and then he caught a fish with his bare hands “mullet fingers” style. Of course Garrett would tell you that the fish was already dead and had part of it’s jaw ripper off.

We also took a quick drive to Nebraska, just because we could. It cost $.75 to drive over the bridge into a very small town with a very small Main Street. We stopped at a grocery store with the worst looking produce I have ever seen in my life. This struck me as funny because we are surrounded by beautiful green fields of corn. But I guess corn isn’t really considered a vegetable anymore? Maybe just a fuel, or animal feed, or a bad carb?? Anyway, we’re craving broccoli. At least I’m craving broccoli and I am craving my kids to eat broccoli… Other than missing some serious green vegetables, we are eating well. Bag salad and baby carrots seem to be everywhere. Good ‘ol fashion camp food!

Day 4 Smithville Lake

Day 4 / Smithville Lake, MO

On Day 4 we went to Smithville Lake. We set up camp, used the awning for the first time, had a quick lunch and went swimming. Smithville Lake is beautiful! Lots of boats and sailboats, plus a nice sectioned off swimming area. The campsites are really pretty too! It was HOT when we got there (around 90) but the weather at night was perfect! Very breezy and cool… great sleeping weather!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Day 3: St. Louis

On the morning of Day 3 we spent the day downtown. The Arch was really neat! We took a tram to the top and were able to see the whole city from 650 feet above it! The tram was really like a little amusement park ride; a little cable car with 5 seats and no windows. Fortunately the ride up was only 4 minutes long. We also watched a movie about the building of the arch, visited a couple of museums, and had lunch downtown. It was a really fun Big City kind of day!

The hardest part of the day was when we first got to St. Louis. Lloyd told me there was “RV parking” near the arch, and I should just look for the signs. Well, driving a big trailer downtown is kind of a pain! It reminded me of driving my old mini van in downtown Pittsburgh -- switching lanes, and lots of bridges and one-way streets -- all of that with a huge trailer behind me! I had no choice but to take the attitude of “hey buddy, I can barely see you but I know you can see me, so get out of my way…” and it worked. I found “RV” Parking, of course it was in the ghetto.

Fortunately the truck and camper were fine when we got back to “RV” parking around 5:30. That meant trying to get out of the city at 5:30 on the night of a big baseball game, but we did

it! And a couple of hours later we ended up at Graham Caves State Park, MO. Just in time for lightening and thunder, rain and tornado warnings, and an annoying camper who commented on my parking skills. It was a quick visit to this park. We spent the night, got up and did laundry, and headed out.

Still on the road...

Day 2/ Lincoln State Park

We left Carter Caves in Kentucky and headed to Lincoln State Park in Indiana. Also a beautiful park! I had a very nice fellow camper back the trailer up for me on our first day. On the second day, I did it all by myself!

The first thing you are suppose to do after backing in a camper, is to put the chocks out, the little yellow things that keep the camper from rolling away. Well, we looked everywhere, and no chocks. We must have left them at the last camp. I guess I forgot to pick them up and drove over them? Lloyd said this isn’t possible, but I think it is.

The next thing do (after finding some make-shift chocks) is to do the hitch thing. But where were Lloyd’s instruction? I had to think about it for a few minutes, but then I remembered setting them on the back bumper of the truck when we pulled out… No chocks and no instructions. Oh, and the driver-side “back up” mirror blew off as I was driving down the highway. Our second day on the trip, and we already needed a Walmart run.

It started to rain just after we got camp set up so we headed to the Lincoln National Park which is just across the street from Lincoln State Park and had an indoor museum. Who knew Lincoln spent his childhood in the woods of Indiana?! Well, he lived there from the time he was 7 until he was 19. We learned all about his childhood and his family, watched a movie about his life, toured the museum, and walked the hiking trails around the national park. Which were beautiful hiking trails, by the way. It rained a bit while we were touring the national park, so we jumped in the car, asked Martha (Nicholas named the GPS “Martha”) how to get to Walmart, and sure enough, she got us there!

After the Walmart run to Boonville Indiana, we went back to the Lincoln State park and enjoyed a beautiful evening! We cooked dinner and then went for a hike. We found a great swimming spot on the lake so we went back to camp for bathing suits and swam and played until it was almost dark!

Fortunately, I had gotten to the part in Lloyd’s instruction manual about the water pump. I knew we had water in the fresh water tank, I just couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t coming out of the sink! Then I remembered the “water pump switch." I’m not sure what else is in that manual that I need to know. Like I said, I only read half of it. But handling a camper is a lot of work. Especially for someone who has never paid much attention to things like water pumps, batteries, tire pressure, fuses, power amps, and leveling. And “leveling” can be a real pain! That night of the tornado, we were so “unleveled” that I had to pull the slide in because I was sure we would tip! But I have learned! The first thing I ask when we pull into a camp is for the most level site (and one that is easy to back up into) and so far, the little gatekeeper guy has set me up well!

Overall, our first two days on the road were really super! The kids loved the parks and we all would have loved more time in them. By the end of the second day, Garrett and I were hitching and unhitching like pros, and we set up and break down camp very efficiently! I even had a nice man and his grandson comment on what a fantastic job we do getting it all done! I didn’t mention that it’s easy to do it quickly when you leave half your stuff behind! ;-)

On the Road


We are at a DQ in Nebraska! No, we're in Iowa, just down the street from Nebraska! I haven't had a chance to get on the computer until today. None of the state parks we have visited have Wi Fi, and we haven't brought the computer with us on any of our outings. The kids are eating blizzards and I am going to check email as soon as I get some travel info and pictures uploaded on this blog!

Day 1 / Carter Caves

Our first day on the road went really well! The drive was pretty easy and the weather was good. We got to Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky in the early afternoon, got set up, and still had plenty of time to enjoy some of the park activities. Carter Caves is a “resort” state park and aside from being absolutely beautiful, there were lost of fun things to do! They had ranger programs, a swimming pool, putt putt golf, laundry facilities (which I didn’t use, but should have), and of course, lots of caves! We played in a few streams, which were very cold, and collected a couple of really cool rocks. The cave tour we took was really neat. We didn’t see any bats though. Seems the caves with bats are closed to tours due to a fungus that is brought in by people and harms the Indiana bats which are on the endangered species list. After a full day of fun we had a delicious dinner of pasta alfredo and salad. Then the kids went to play another round of putt putt, and I sat down at the picnic table to read over the packet of camper instructions Lloyd wrote for me. It was a beautiful evening. I got through ½ of the instructions (some of the information about un-hitching would have been helpful to read before I, you know, un-hitched). So overall, our first day out was fun and relaxing!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Superpowers, activate!

I am strong.
I can drive this truck. 
I can back it up. 

I am strong. 
I can drive this truck. 
I can back it up.

I am strong...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Plan


Tomorrow is our big day! We'll head out around 7, and hopefully be at Carter Caves State Park in KY by 1:00. Here is the  rest of our plan.... 

Day 1: Carter Caves State Park, KY
Day 2: Lincoln State Park, IN
Day 3: St. Louis Arch and a state park in MO. 
Day 4: Smithville Lake, MO
Day 5 and 6: Lewis and Clark State Park, Iowa
Day 7: Chamberlain SD and the Badlands! 
Day 8: Custer State Park SD Mt. Rushmore, Minuteman Missile Tour, Mammoth Site   
Day 12: Sheridan WY This is an old fashion cowboy town and we'll be visiting at the peak of wildflower season! We'll do a side trip to Devils Tower National Monument. You probably know this mountain best from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Maybe we'll hike to the other side... 

Next Stop: Yellowstone, WY! We'll spend a few days here! The park looks huge and there is a lot to do! We are planning to do a few hikes, see the highlights, and even do a cowboy supper where we ride horses out to a campfire dinner! 

From Yellowstone we head to Missoula MT, and then to Spokane WA. We'll meet Lloyd in Spokane and the we'll all head to Seattle. After a few days in Seattle, we'll head to OR. We are planning to hit the OR coast and camp in a neat little town called Cannon Beach. We'll also spend a few days in Portland and visit Crater Lake. After that we head to CA! 

We'll zig zag through CA with visits to the Redwood Forest, San Francisco, Sacramento, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest. Eventually we find our way to Hwy. 40 and start the trek back. Our only "must do" place to visit so far is the Grand Canyon. I know it will be hot, but I think we have a couple of campsites in mind with full hook up so we'll be able to run the a/c! There was also a place on the way to the Grand Canyon that Lloyd and I stopped to have lunch when we traveled with my old Highlights group. The pie was really good! I hope to find that place again! 

Thursday, June 11, 2009



I think we are almost finished shopping for the trip! I have all the basic food items... Cheerios and oatmeal, trail mix, and beans & rice. I also have the starter ingredients for things like orange beef stir fry (mine will be made with tofu) and salmon & corn chowder. With the camper, we'll have the option of cooking outside on an open fire, or cooking inside with the stove, oven or microwave. We plan to do most of the cooking outside. Food always tastes best that way, but it sure is nice to have an option for rainy days! 

I have also spent some time this week looking at new phones. I originally wanted something basic like I already have, just a phone that makes calls.  My phone is cracked in two places and doesn't hold a charge for more than a few hours, so I think getting something new for the trip is a good idea. But it seems that even the "basic" phones now have email, and internet, and of course cameras. I could not think of a single reason that I would need internet access at a campground, but then Lloyd pointed out that it would be a good way to check the weather and to check my email. 

After looking at phones, we went GPS shopping. The GPS things are really neat! I played with one by putting my home address in it, and sure enough, a little voice came on and told me street by street, how to get to my house! I'm sure this will be a useful tool for our trek across the country! The funny thing is, my plan for mapping this trip involved a Trip Tik from AAA and a $6.95 USA Atlas from Walmart. But a GPS will be handy. Especially since I made at least one mistake on my Trip Tik plan. I had us going to a Lewis & Clark State Park in Missouri and we are suppose to go to a Lewis & Clark State Park in Iowa. There are a lot of Lewis & Clark State Parks! 

With the gourmet food, the fancy GPS and internet technology, this trip certainly will be different from my past camping trips. It even occurred to me while hanging up rain jackets in the camper closet that I have room to hang a dress. A dress! While camping!! 

I do love "real" camping... a tent, an open fire, and a rainy night once in a while. But if I'm going to be traveling for the whole summer, glamour camping does sound appealing! Of course, I will still have to learn how to use all this new technology. Good thing I will have a 12-year old with me! 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Notes from Nick

camping ROCKS!!!!

We'll be on the road in just one week! Our plan is to leave next Monday morning and head to Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky. It will be our longest day of driving, probably about 6 hours. Carter Caves looks like a really neat park. There are lots of hiking trails and several caves to tour. Some of the caves are closed due to hibernating bats, but I hope we get to see some bats anyway! 

We spent a lot of time this weekend preparing for the trip. I think I know how to use most of the stuff in the camper. I still haven't figured out the hot water heater or the oven yet, but I know how to plug us in, hook up the water, empty the water tanks, and use the heated mattresses if it gets cold! 

I also worked on backing up the trailer. I need more practice, but I am getting better! We drove up to the school parking lot and practiced with me behind the wheel and Lloyd on the outside with a walkie talkie.  The walkie talkies worked out ok, but there were still times when Lloyd was yelling "left, Left, LEFT!! Oh, sorry, I meant the other way..." So if I am having difficulty with Lloyd, imagine what it will be like when Garrett is my "helper."

I know Lloyd was only joking when he said I needed to get a "student driver" tag on the trailer, but it's really not a bad idea. 

Plans are coming along and we are getting excited! Hopefully I'll have pictures of the rig up soon! 

Thursday, June 4, 2009



Plans are coming together for our big USA trip! We leave in 10 days and I think we are ready. We have lots of books, a few movies, snacks, some light-weight exercise equipment, a few campsite reservations, a new camper, a new truck, and a plan! All we need now is a map and a GPS and we will be ready to hit the road!