Friday, July 31, 2015

On Making the Journey Easier--Drops of Traveling Wisdom

I did a few things differently on this trip and I learned a lot in the process. Thought I'd share a little of my newly acquired traveling wisdom with you.

This may be the single-most life-changing thing I did on our trip.

No matter how big your car or how small your family, there is always a TON of stuff that you need access to while driving. I bought this drawer tower at Target (cost less than $12), and I used it of the trip.
Some days it lived in the front seat next to me, and on other days, it lived in the middle space of the middle bench seat. As you can see, it held emergency snacks for kiddos, but it did so much more! It corralled the earbuds and charging cords and portable DVD players. It held my iPad and my legal pad and extra pens and pencils. At the last minute, I threw in a couple of dishrags, and I can't believe how handy they were (twice for throw up, and a more than a few liquid spills). I also kept the kids' ball caps in here so that we knew exactly where they were when we got out. It belted into the car and stayed put. The drawers never flew open when I stopped (I wondered if they would), and it eliminated the annoyance of digging through a bag or lidded tote to find what you need--which is inevitably on the very bottom. With the cooler on the floor in front and my purse and camera tucked between the drawers and the armrest, it was the best command center ever. I would recommend this to everyone I know who is traveling alone with kids. It was THE BEST!

This may not look like we had simplified our packing practices, but we did, and it made life so much easier. We spent no more than two nights at any one place, but we were gone for 21 nights. That's a lot of clean/dirty/clean/dirty laundry. This is what worked best for me.
I only used five suitcases for the entire trip--plus one laundry bag. 

First, one suitcase was reserved for Sunday clothes, shoes, socks, and accessories. I only took it out of the car on Saturday nights, and everything got put straight back in as soon as the kids changed their clothes. That way, I always knew where their ties and belts were, and their Sunday clothes weren't taking up valuable space in their weekly suitcases. Three different Sundays. Three different states. Not a single lost sock, tie, shoe or shirt. That was a miracle.

Second, I only used two suitcases of clothes for all four of us. The kids all shared one, and I had one that also held the dirty laundry bag. I also had a small bag with a jillion pockets for all of our toiletries. Every time we went somewhere, there were only three suitcases to maneuver, and that made it easy for the littler ones to help me. It also took up much less space in small hotel rooms where space is tight already. As the laundry bag would get fuller and the suitcases emptier, I would rotate clean clothes from the fourth (giant) suitcase that always stayed in the trunk. When the huge suitcase was filled with dirty clothes, then it was time for me to wash and reorganize. This system worked well for three weeks of travel. Only thing I would change? I'd bring some Tide pods and dryer sheets with me. That stuff's expensive at the hotel! And a few rolls of quarters for the machines.

The only other bag that came into every room with us was the size of a camp chair. And it was this:
A camp cot. This thing was awesome. Every hotel room I got had two queen beds, but it was nice to have a bed to myself every night. The kids rotated who slept on the cot and who slept together in the other bed.
I also used crazy pillowcases so that it was easy to see if we were leaving pillows in the hotel room as we packed.

I bought a few new movies for the kids to watch while we drove, but I think that they watched less than five over the course of 22 days. Why? Because Harry Potter on audio was much more entertaining and made the time pass much faster than movies did. Eve wasn't too excited to listen to the books, but she used her headphones to watch Barbie movies over and over or entertained herself combing her ponies' tails. Micah and Hyrum would beg to listen no matter how short our drive was going to be. Headed to a restaurant? Can we listen to Harry Potter? Time for bed. Can we listen to Harry Potter? We got halfway through the fifth book--over 85 hours of listening--and I was as enamored as they were.You can purchase the audio files here.

The most valuable drop of wisdom from this trip was this: Be flexible. They're kids. They don't want to see the same stuff as adults or do some of the same things as adults.
No one else was around at Mount Rushmore, and all three of them wanted to slide this banister like Riley from Inside Out.  So . . . I let them.
Over and over over and over.

I thought we would eat at McDonald's until we had every Minion collectible in triplicate. But one day, they all three agreed that no more McD's would be the best. I was never happier, and they were the ones that made the decision.

I also bought them each a refillable water bottle before the trip and didn't allow any other drinks in the car. Didn't lose a single bottle, and it saved me the argument at every stop to buy them a drink.

And finally--we found a park in almost every city we visited. They would play for over an hour every night, and it was good for them to get out of the confining hotel rooms and for me to get a breather as well.

The best park we found was in Rapid City--so cool.

Next time we travel, I will be sure to incorporate these ideas. They were all winners. Anything that didn't work? I wouldn't allow them to bring their full-size pillows again. Their small blankets were fine, but their pillows were really a pain. By the end, the boys weren't even bringing them into the hotel, and they ended up on the ground almost every time the doors opened. Maybe a small decorative pillow, or a neck travel pillow next time would be better.

But I'm still bringing mine. There are some luxuries afforded to the mom. Just sayin.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Journey of 2,919 Miles, Give or Take, Leg 4--South Dakota

So much driving.
It's weird how the countryside morphs as the miles slip away. We crossed the Rocky Mountains and landed in the rolling hills of South Dakota.
I had never been here before, and I think it's a beautiful place.

Destination was our goal for the whole trip--Mount Rushmore.

We had learned when traveling with Heidi's family that it's best to arrive at cool places first thing in the morning. Good parking, no crowds, room for kids to roam and not disturb others.

We were among the first through the gates to see the presidents that day. One of the first things out of the kids' mouths was, "Wow. It's so small." When you round the corner in your car, it does seem small, but the closer you get to the monument, the more amazing this giant sculpture becomes.
Both boys had studied the mountain, and Hyrum hauled his scale drawing across six states in order to compare it to the original.

More viewing scopes. Sixty-second view for 25 cents.
After portraying Gutzon Borglum for the school's wax museum, Micah requested that we see the real thing this summer. The smile says it all.
I don't know how many people actually notice this view of the mountain, but since we were relatively alone that day, I captured the kids in the ampitheater with the mountain reflected in the window.
Can you title this photo? It's called,"Micah with Mica." Get it?
It was so nice to let the kids run and explore and not intrude on other vistors' experience while they did it.
Next stop--the Crazy Horse Monument. It's still under construction, and it seems like not much has been done.
That is, until you watch the movie about it. I can't believe how much of the mountain has been removed. This privately funded project may never be finished in my lifetime, but when it's done, it will be unbelievable.

Did you notice Hyrum and Micah in this picture?

We spent the afternoon at the hotel's water park, and the kids had a blast. I didn't think they'd be too impressed with an indoor water park (because we live in ARIZONA, duh!), but we had a great time. Even I got on my suit and did a few of the slides between my people watching stints.

The kids at a park in Rapid City--I love them.
We set out early again the next day, and true to our previous experiences, we were the first to arrive at the Black Hills Maze, and we didn't have anyone else in the maze with us. It was awesome.

The kids were stoked to try this.
Their personalities and individual problem-solving skills were evident as I watched them try to reach the four flags by themselves. Micah was convinced that he was going to be the first one to solve the maze, but he ran haphazardly inside, caught in a loop that prevented him from finishing. Evie and I partnered up, but her little legs tired out before we found the third flag.

The sleeper was Rum. He had listened closely to the manager's suggestion that the best way to find your way through the maze was to use the raised walkways to evaluate where to go next.
He had all four flags before Micah had two. Instead of making his way out of the maze alone, Hyrum helped Micah find the rest of his stamps and they made their way out together.
When we started, the manager prepared us for 45 minutes to an hour that it normally takes to navigate the maze. Micah and Hyrum ran through the gate in 26 minutes. Hyrum had it solved in less than 15. Not as historically significant as Rushmore, but that maze is something they will remember.

The maze didn't take us nearly as long as we had thought, but next stop on our itinerary was
The biggest and best advertised tourist trap in South Dakota--Wall Drug.
It was fun, and I'm glad we spent half a day here.

Micah had some poses he needed to use up--can anyone explain sixth grade boys to me?

Well. We had seen Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We had finished the maze in near-record time, and we had perused every shop in Wall, SD.

And it was 2 pm. Now what?

Proving that advertising really works, we drove back toward Mount Rushmore and did a little spelunking in Rushmore Cave.
This was the perfect experience for my kiddos. About an hour tour, not too difficult but still not easy. I don't know if they have been in big caves before. It was fantastic.
Can you guess the name of this rock formation?

And as a special bonus, we played this game/watched this movie/shot bank robbers. You strapped yourself in like a roller coaster, wore 3D glasses and grabbed a gun. When the movie started, the seats lurched back and forth, and speakers by your head surrounded you in the experience. Water would splash as you went over rapids, and the goal was to shoot as many robbers as possible. It only lasted about five minutes, but even this video-game-hating mom enjoyed it.
Two days in western South Dakota. Fantastic memories.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Traveling with Little Kids

Dawn in Jackson Hole
 With a sunrise like that, I knew it was going to be a great day.

As we drove north, I had to stop to snap a picture
The Grand Tetons at dawn. It was going to be a fantastic day. We were meeting Heidi, Sam, and their kids in Yellowstone National Park for two days of touring, then headed east to Cody, WY, to see the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West.

This is what I had pictured in my mind:
All of us admiring nature's beauty, stopping to see wildlife and snap pictures, hiking around mud pots and geysers, filling out the Junior Ranger booklets to earn patches.


It didn't work out that way.

Our first stop was Old Faithful, and we arrived just as its pressure was ready to blow.
Kids got seated and ready
And she blew spectacularly.
And Hyrum turned to me and said, "Is that it? Isn't that like the fountain in Fountain Hills?" We walked a little farther down the boardwalk, but it was easy to see that they weren't terribly interested in more geysers.

That was my first clue that this adventure would not be close to what I had envisioned.

The kids had no interest in filling out the Junior Ranger packet. Their interest in museum displays was directly correlated to how many buttons there were to push, how many lights lit up, or how long the video was. There was very little interest in how the park was created or why the elk in the park live shorter lives than those outside it. They ran from display to display, punching buttons and running to the next before the soundtrack finished. Micah did care more than the other kids, I must admit, but even his interest waned more quickly than I had hoped.

Initially, this made me sad. We were seeing one of the greatest wonders of the world, for crying out loud.  Mud pots are COOL! Geysers are AWESOME!

But we're hungry! But I'm tired! But I need to go to the bathroom!
It was right about the time I captured these girls helping each other in the bathroom that my whole perspective on this trip changed.

This trip was not about what I wanted or what I envisioned. I had planned this trip for them--to create their memories and spend time with them. My ideas really were irrelevant, and as long as I kept that perspective--trying to make it the best trip possible for THEM--we had a great time.
My view changed--from nature's wonders to the amazing way my kids love and take care of Heidi's kids. Nathan wants to do everything "Hammer" (Hyrum) does, and Hyrum loves to be his big buddy.

When Nathan saw Hyrum on top of this pole, of course he wanted to do it, too. Hyrum just wasn't quite tall enough to help him.

Micah would swoop in to carry this chubby guy around, push the stroller, or help get kids in and out of the car.
Instead of parading the kids past endless mud pots, we elected to spend our time in West Yellowstone. We caught an IMAX movie (listening to Ellie's endless questions about why the baby mammoth died and would she miss her mama? were more entertaining to me than the movie), did a little wandering around a gift shop, and spent most of our day tooling around the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
Hardly anyone was there, and the kids loved it. This telescope was broken in the on position, and they all wanted to look through it at the giant bears.
Watching Sam and Heidi parent their little ones brings me great joy. They are extremely patient and take the time to teach their kids why they should obey.

Micah begged to use my camera, and he got the best wildlife shots of the day.
All of the animals in this facility have been rescued in some way. The eagles had been maimed and could no longer fly, and the bears had all been slated to be euthanized because they had become such dangers to people. It's unbelievable how big they are.
Yes, Micah took this picture.
And this one. Proof that I really was on this trip.

This is how I want to remember the trip--little ones surrounding me, begging to hold my hand, and happy to be together. It didn't matter that we missed seeing bison in Yellowstone or that we only stopped for one geyser (it WAS Old Faithful) or that we didn't complete Junior Ranger activities.

What matters is that we were together.

Those grizzly bears reminded me of my boys in so many ways.

Wrestling and hugging and throwing each other around in the pool, just like at home.
These little brothers are headed down that same path.
See how Jonah watches everything Nathan does and wants to copy him?

For a small fee (like $2/person), kids are allowed into the bear enclosure. When the bears are removed, duh!
They are taught a little about grizzlies and then they are each given a cup of food that they can hide for the bears to find.
Micah and Hyrum took their responsibility seriously.

This was one of the coolest things we did on our entire trip. The boys got into the whole hiding thing.
Hyrum even asked one of the volunteers to help him stack heavy rocks to deter the bears.

After spending the night in tight sleeping quarters that weren't exactly what I had expected, we all headed back into the park. We still didn't see many bison (many five), and after stopping to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Sam guided us to a place where a mama bear and her two cubs had been sighted multiple times over the last few days--feasting on an elk carcass.

Somehow, it was a little anticlimactic after seeing the bears at the rescue center the day before.
Something about that drive made Hyrum car sick for the first time in his life. In my desperation to find a place for him to puke, I dumped a box of granola out before I even thought about how bad it was to leave food for the animals in the park. Don't know which was worse--puke all over the road or granola. We left both, I'm afraid.

Our destination for the day was Cody, Wyoming, and the Buffalo Bill museum.
It started out with the kids excited to see what was inside.
What made Hyrum think to put his head in that hat? Love it.
This part of our trip was nothing like I had imagined. The kids cared very little about the museum. They kept touching untouchables and running through quiet exhibits. All three of us adults were tired of it pretty quickly.

I was mostly concerned as we made our way through the western art wing--until we reached the end. At the end of the long gallery is a makeshift studio, and the kids each found their own chair, some paper, and colored pencils.
Each child drew what they wanted, and they sat quietly coloring for over half an hour.

That thirty minutes was heaven--for adults, because we weren't constantly worrying and chasing and reprimanding and running; and for kids, because they were being kids.

We left without seeing one entire wing of the museum. And guess what? It was okay.

We found a park for lunch, and those kiddos climbed and ran and played and ate and got to be kids. And then what did we do? We found a movie theater that was playing "Inside Out." Ate popcorn and candy and ran around on the back row of the theater where we weren't disturbing anyone else.
After Heidi's kids were asleep for the night, we left my cell phone with Micah and the three adults had a peaceful dinner out. I was happy to spend most of those few days focused on the kids, but it was nice to have time to talk with my adult kids. I love having adult kids--love hearing their perspectives and opinions on adult stuff. They're pretty cool, and if they weren't my kids, I'd pick them to be my friends.
And grandmas get to buy stuff they wouldn't buy as moms--like cookies as big as your head. Don't you just want to pinch those cheeks? Then kiss his face off?
The two days didn't end up like I thought when I watched the sun rise over Jackson Hole, but those two days are some of my favorites of the entire trip--and hardly anything followed the plan.

It was so much better than the plan could have been.